Off the Library Shelf

Although I tried linking to another writer’s “Library Lust” list, I was not successful, but here are a few books from my library I read in a sitting, so I could get back to the library for more books waiting for me:  The books all seem to come at once sometimes.  Have you ready any of them?

Never Have I Ever by Joshlyn Jackson

A complicated murder mystery drama, reminding me of Finn’s The Woman in the Window, with unreliable characters and a twisting plot.  A page turner full of betrayal, romance, and deception.  Amy Whey has started a new life but is soon battling to keep her past a secret when the devilish Angelica Roux shows up at book club. The two match wits as the drama continues into a surprising ending.

 

The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess

When Eve leaves her job with a publishing company to become an assistant to a prominent and prolific New Yorker writer, summering in Cape Cod, secrets, sex, and the New England literary vibe emerge to create a quickly readable and entertaining story.  Aside from her coming of age journey and her romps in bed, Eve meets a number of literary stars.  She also references a number of books; I had to stop to jot a few down I plan to find: George Eliot’s Middlemarch (with the suggestion to read beyond the first 150 pages to be hooked), Zaleika Dobson by Max Beerbaum, and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

 

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

After a slow start, Davis transitions the story of two young women who met on a USO tour during World War II into a dramatic exploration of the McCarthy hearings targeting stage actors, directors, and producers in the nineteen fifties in the United States.  The Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan is the fulcrum of the story, where the women lodge with an assortment of artistic hopefuls.

The story follows Maxine Mead, the beautiful diva, and Hazel Ripley, the talented writer, as their lives change from their wartime friendship into a competitive challenge of spies and deceit.  In the end, both get their due, but along the way Davis offers a look into how McCarthyism overpowered democracy and ruined lives.

 

Reading Now:  The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I may take a little longer to read this story of the artist Harriet Burden.  Hustvedt had me believing it was based on a true person in her clever “Editor’s Introduction,” and I stopped to find reviews about this 2014 work of fiction, doubting  the library’s FIC designation.

Using journals and interviews, the author presents the life of Burden, a talented artist ignored in her time, who decides to conduct an experiment she calls “Maskings” in which she presents her own art behind the names of three prominent male artists, masking her female identity.  Of course, the three shows are successful, but when Burden reveals herself to be the artist, critics doubt her.  The novel promises to not only be ambitious in its revelation of prejudice against women in art, but also a clever exploration of a complicated character, who seems real to me.  I plan to savor it.

 

Books Waiting for Me at the Library:

  • Chances Are by Richard Russo
  • The Darwin Affair by Timothy Mason
  • The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
  • Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe
  • The Reckless Oath We Made by Bryn Greenwood
  • This Tender Land by William Kent
  • Why You Like It by Nolan Gasser

 

 

Revisiting The Postmistress

Since it has been over three years that I read and reviewed Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress, I only remember vague remnants of the World War II story – something about undelivered mail and Edward R. Murrow?  When a group of friends recently discovered the book and  decided to discuss it, I sought out my old review – which I am reposting below.  In the same genre as that one-hit wonder The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Postmistress offers a solid tale with that underlying tug of how easy it is to be in denial.

The “LitLovers” site offers a summary and a list of discussion questions; my favorite –  “When Frankie returns to America, she… finds it impossible to grasp that people are calmly going about their lives while war rages in Europe. What part does complacency play in The Postmistress?”

My review of The Postmistress from March 21, 2010

Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress provocatively draws you into the questions: How much truth can you take? And what lies do you need to get through the day?

Blake lived in Washington, D.C. on 9/11 when the Pentagon was hit and all over town workers fled buildings – hearing that another plane was on its way. Phones and computers failed, and people struggled to make sense of their fear. For weeks after, the District had guardsmen on corners with guns and tanks in the streets. Everytime someone rode the Metro to work, it was with a sense of relief to have made it without blowing up. Blake notes that 9/11 inspired her writing.

But this is not a book about 9/11. This is a story about war, fear, and lies – and how people survive.

Iris James, the postmistress of Franklin, a little town on the ocean near Cape Cod, is the stalwart protector of order and function who gives everyone in this small town the sense that “all is right.” Frankie Bard is the purveyor of facts – the young newscaster, working with Edward R. Murrow, broadcasting live from London during the Blitz – a young idealist who becomes entrenched in the stories of individuals. Her mantra – “…Seek truth. Report it. Minimize harm…” dissolves with bombed buildings and missing children.

Both Iris and Frankie struggle with the weight of truth and responsibility. But it is Emma, the young doctor’s wife, faithfully waiting for her husband to return from war, who brings the story and the characters together – provoking their protection and courage.

Blake sprinkles in other characters oblivious to the war, as they live through love, marriage, death, and small town gossip – far from the action. Even as they listen to Frankie’s radio broadcasts, the town forces the reader to consider how atrocities can be easily ignored when the action is not in your own backyard.

You may read the book literally for its descriptions of the personal losses of war, or for the touching period love stories, but what will haunt you is the search for how people carry on when a world is full of terror and bigotry.

Summer of the Gypsy Moths

GetAttachment-4.aspxHow long can two little girls hide a dead old aunt, as they manage the Linger Longer Cottage Colony in Cape Cod in Sara Pennypacker’s tween novel Summer of the Gypsy Moths? With humor, compassion, and a dog named Treb, Pennypacker’s heroine combines the heart of a child with the maturity of an adult.

When Stella’s spirited mother runs off to find happiness, she leaves Stella with her great-aunt Louise, caretaker for a string of summer cottages on the Cape. Louise decides to foster a Portuguese girl, Angel, as a companion and friend for the little girl. No one expects Louise to die, and when she does, the young girls decide that life alone would be better than the unknown possibilities of an orphan home – and they know how to keep a secret.

Once you get past the macabre scenes of a dead body and the unlikely burial, the tale of friendship and responsibility is endearing, and you will be cheering for the girls to succeed. Stella’s penchant for Heloise’s Helpful Hints substitutes for motherly advice as the two girls clean the cottages between guests; at times, those helpful hints offer funny possibilities – who knew Febreze laundry odor eliminator would help with the smell of a dead body. The girls set up a baby-sitting service, dig for clams on the beach, and try to stop an infestation of caterpillars in blueberry bushes planted years ago by Stella’s mom. The ending has everyone living happily ever after, with the two wily girls demonstrating their resourcefulness.

Pennypacker has been compared to Beverly Cleary with growing-up stories that have a message – for both adults and children. With moments that will have you aching for their loneliness and laughing at their gumption, Summer of the Gypsy Moths is worth the read.

Pictures of You

When someone comes into your life at its lowest point to help you survive – maybe that’s an angel. In Caroline Leavitt’s Pictures of You, a car accident leaves nine-year-old Sam confused but hopeful, not realizing his angel is the woman who drove the other car.

Leavitt weaves the story around two unhappy women in their thirties who have decided to run away. Isabelle is leaving her unfaithful husband Luke, when she discovers he has been carrying on an affair with another woman who is now pregnant. April seems happily married to Charlie, with a devoted relationship to her asthmatic son, Sam; her reason for escape is a mystery that continues through much of the action.

The families, both living in Cape Cod, are brought together by the two cars colliding on a deserted foggy road. Young Sam, thinking Isabelle is an angel come to help him reconnect with his dead mother, finds comfort in her gentle overtures and a reprieve from his grief when she teaches him how to use a camera. Sam’s affinity for photography, and Isabelle’s yearning to leave the small-town photo shop to become a professional photographer in New York motivate a connection that eventually leads to Charlie.

Although the premise sounds trite, Leavitt does not let the relationships fall into the expected formula. The characters’ vulnerabilities in a time of crisis ring true as do the reactions of those around them – “you find out who your real friends are.” The drama focuses on how lives change irrevocably, not only because of the accident and how the survivors try to cope, but also how judgmental opinions shade decisions.