Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History

Title:  Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History
Author:  Rhonda K. Garelick
Publication Information:  Random House. 2014. 608 pages.
ISBN:  1400069521 / 978-1400069521

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "Coco saw the body as a moving, breathing, sexually alive entity, which needed to be dressed as such. Chanel was doing more than inventing a new way of dressing; she was inventing a new way of being."

Coco Chanel spent her childhood in an orphanage, and apparently, spent the rest of her life trying to reinvent herself beyond that beginning. She was ashamed and sought to hide it by constantly creating a new story for herself and to seek relationships that would provide her a route to a society that seemed beyond her reach.

Much of the book is organized around relationships Coco Chanel had with different men in her life:
  • Etiennne Balsan, the scion of a wealthy industrialist family
  • Arthur "Boy" Capel, an English polo player
  • Grand Duke Dimitri, one of the Romanovs to escape Russia
  • Pierre Reverdy, a French poet
  • Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster

Some of these affairs lasted for years. Several of the men supported her business ventures and applauded her successes. Yet, none married her, and none gave her entree into the high society, which appeared closed to her because of her background. "Essentially, Chanel would marry her only faithful partner:  work."

This is the first book I have read about Coco Chanel or the history of the Chanel brand. I read it expecting to learn about how Coco Chanel and the brand she created became what it is - a symbol of "class" and luxury. I expected to learn about the development of the fashion industry and of the brand in particular.

Unfortunately, this book does not really serve that function. It is a biography of Coco Chanel - but the person and the time she lived in not the businesswoman who created a world-renowned luxury brand. To some extent, the book could have been titled Coco Chanel and Her Men or Coco Chanel, version 1, version 2, version 3, and so on.

The book goes through multiple iterations of the fact that Coco continually attempted to reinvent her past and the story she presented to the world:
  • "Coco confused herself with the female character she had imposed upon all of Paris."
  • "Her life was another commodity, a movie for the world to see, with costumes available for sale." 
  • "Coco preferred to see herself as she had convinced the world to see her:  an icon of belonging and connection on the grandest but least personal scale imaginable."

After the first couple of times, this gets repetitive. It's background information for what she overcame, but to me, it's not the story itself. The relationships in her life had a significant influence on the development of Coco's career; yet, I would think there would be more beyond that - her work, her creativity, her fortitude. That aspect becomes subsumed under the relationships described in the book.

The book also seems to have a somewhat negative tone throughout:
  • "When in a fever of creation, Coco often confused animate and inanimate objects. Her models complained that she routinely stuck her dressmaker pins right through their flesh during fittings, laughing when they yelped."
  • "Chanel's response to the strike revealed her increasing bitterness - how quick she was to anger and how little empathy she permitted herself to feel."
  • "Coco could seem disdainful and snobbish."
  • "She already had a long history of feathering her own nest with whatever opportunity fate offered."
  • "Coco seemed reluctant to acknowledge the effort and gifts of her many employees."

The facts may very well be accurate, but the tone makes me feel like I want to check the facts against a differently written biography. This one feels like it gives more of an opinion on the life of Coco Chanel rather than just the facts of her life. I prefer to be given the facts and allowed to form my own opinion.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Madame Picasso

Title:  Madame Picasso
Author:  Anne Girard
Publication Information:  Harlequin MIRA. 2014. 432 pages.
ISBN:  0778316351 / 978-0778316350

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "Who truly knew the private world of any two people and what their limits were with one another?"

Several books I have read over the past couple of years present a fictionalized account of a relationship of a famous person of history:

  • Mrs. Hemingway is the story of the four wives of Ernest Hemingway.
  • Under the Wide and Starry Sky is the story of Fanny Osbourne and Robert Loius Stevenson.
  • I Always Loved You is about the relationship between Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt.
  • Mrs. Poe tells the story of Edgar Allen Poe, his wife Virginia, and Frances "Fanny" Osgood.
  • The Paris Wife is another story about Ernest Hemingway and his marriage to Elizabeth Hadley Richardson.
Each book shares the idea of depicting both a relationship and a time in history. They all do so with a varying degree of success and a shifting balance between the history and the individual story.

Madame Picasso, as the title implies, is a story about Pablo Picasso. Over the course of his life, Picasso had relationships with many women. Seven of the relationships are considered serious - lasting a length of time and having an impact on his art. The women in his life often became the muse for the artist. That intense impact is wonderfully captured in this book.

This book tells the story of a four year period in Picasso's life when he meets and becomes involved with Eva Gouel, or Marcell Humbert as she is called in Paris.  Eva was a young Polish woman, who runs away from home as her parents tried to push her into the expected life of marriage and housekeeping.

She comes to Paris to make her way and finds a job as a seamstress at the Moulin Rouge. It is in the glitter and glamour of Paris that she meets Picasso. At the time, Picasso is in a long standing relationship with an artist's model named Fernande Olivier. The two are an accepted couple in their social circle to the point that Fernande often refers to herself as Madame Picasso.

The relationship between Picasso and Eva grows. What happens in this love triangle and how is the crux of this book. Warning:  If you don't already know the story of Picasso and Eva, please do not research it before reading this book. Knowing how it ends will definitely impact your reaction to the story. The events are strong enough that the author has included an explanation in an interview included with the book. "We can't judge decision too harshly unless we have been not only in that place, but in their mind and heart." Reading this book will not be the same experience if you know how it ends.

The core of this book is very much a relationship between two individuals. In that way, this book is a romance novel. As a romance, the book's descriptions are too explicit and too frequent for my taste. I don't have a need to know that Picasso would paint in the nude, having just gotten out from his bed where Eva still lounged. Physical appearance is an important trait to both, and changes in physical appearance become a key element in the book, but the book does not need as many descriptions of physical acts as were present.

Other than that, the book is fascinating for its historical context. It brings to life the passion and intensity of Picasso. Surrounding him are other individuals from that time period. People like Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, poet Guillaume Apollinaire, painter Louis Marcoussis, and cubist painter Georges Braque. This historical framework, for me, is one of the most interesting aspects of the book.

Eva's character is also beautifully drawn through the book. Her strength and independence shine through as do her caring and vulnerability. According to the Author's Note, the inspiration for the details of the character comes primarily from studying Picasso's works that depict Eva and from Eva's correspondence with Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. As such, it appears that great care has been given to provide historical accuracy to the love story.

"Relationships are a journey." This book takes us on an emotional journey through this very intense relationship.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Never Eat Alone, Expanded and Updated: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time

Title:  Never Eat Alone, Expanded and Updated: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time
Author:  Keith Ferrazzi, Tahl Raz
Publication Information:  Crown Business. 2014 (expanded edition). 400 pages.
ISBN:  0385346654 / 978-0385346658

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through Edelweiss free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Blogging for Books!

Favorite Quote:  "How much you give to the people you come into contact with determines how much you'll receive in return. In other words, if you want to make friends and get things done, you have to put yourself out to do things for other people - things that require time, energy, and consideration."

In its narrowest interpretation, Never Eat Alone is a book about networking. In the broadest interpretation, it is a philosophy of life.

With an undergraduate education at Yale and a business degree from Harvard Business School, Keith Ferrazzi began his career by becoming the youngest partner ever at Deloitte and Touche. He has gone on to be named one of the "most connected" people in the world by Forbes and one of the top "40 under 40" leaders by Craig's business. The author's credentials are presented in the first chapter of the book, and he uses examples from his own life throughout.

Never Eat Alone was first published in 1995; this new edition includes updates for the age of social media and enormous amounts of digital information. The book is organized into five sections:
  • Mindset - the focus on creating value and relationships that are mutually beneficial.
  • Skill Set - specific steps to building and expanding your network, ranging from research and cold calls to conference techniques and super connectors.
  • Turning connections into compatriots - discussion of human psychological needs and the role they play in building relationships.
  • Connecting in the digital age - strategies for effective networking in the digital age and for the effective use of social media.
  • Trading up and giving back - the idea of continuing to grow and expand your network with recognition that everyone will do this on a different level based on what each individual's goal is.
Short insets throughout the book present profiles of individuals in the author's "Connectors' Hall of Fame" - individuals who can be used as case studies in effective network building. The examples range from the Dalai Lama to Dale Carnegie.

What I really appreciate about this book is the fact that its focus is on building relationships that are mutually beneficial. "Connecting is a philosophy of life, a worldview. Its guiding principle is that people, all people, every person you meet, is an opportunity to help and be helped."  In that sense, this is part business book and part a self-help book. The tools and strategies presented can and should be used in the business, but they truly can be used in different aspects of our lives. No matter what we do, relationships are often at the heart of it. "In the end, we all live one life. And that life is all about the people we live it with."

The book tackles head on the bad reputation that "networking" has gotten. With chapters like "The Networking Jerk" and "Warming the Cold Call", the book presents the route to networking that you don't want to take. It draws the distinction between "networking" and "connecting - sharing my knowledge and resources, time and energy, friends and associates, and empathy and compassion in a continual effort to provide value to other, while coincidentally increasing my own." The descriptions of the "networking jerk" are amusing to read, while you nod your head in agreement.

The book is very easily and quickly read; the skills usable. It recognizes that not everyone will take network building to the expansive level that Keith Ferrazzi has, but it presents the strategies that can be used no matter what your goal. The author's website has Free Resources to accompany this book.

The bottom line reason that the book resonates with me is that I have always been a believer in that the good you put out into the world comes back to you and that everyone you meet in life has the potential to teach you something. The philosophy behind this book relies on those two principles. Thus, it works with my world view.

At the end of the day, you can read all the books you want. You can do all the theoretically learning possible. You can follow all the experts. The question still remains ...

"Can you walk the talk? It's easy for someone to say, 'I care about people I believe in helping and being helped. I believe that helping people become healthy or make money or raise successful children is paramount in life.' Many people say those things - but then you see their actions, you hear about them from their own networks, and you discover they really don't believe any of it. You can be sure your network will broadcast your true colors very quickly and with lasting effects to all its members."

The choice is yours. Always has been. Always will be. If you make the choice, this book has the framework to implement it.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Bone Clocks

Title:  The Bone Clocks
Author:  David Mitchell
Publication Information:  Random House. 2014. 640 pages.
ISBN:  1400065674 / 978-1400065677

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "Power is the ability to make someone do what they otherwise wouldn't, or deter them from doing what they otherwise would ... By coercion and reward. Carrots and sticks, though in bad light one looks much like the other. Coercion is predicated upon the fear of violence or suffering. 'Obey, or you'll regret it.' ... Reward works by promising 'Obey and feel the benefit.' ... Power is lost or won, never created or destroyed. Power is a visitor to, not a possession of, those it empowers. The mad tend to crave it, many of the sane crave it, but the wise worry about its long term side effects. Power is crack cocaine for your ego and battery acid for your soul. Power's comings and goings ... are the plot of history. The empowered may serve justice, remodel the Earth, transform lush nations into smoking battlefields and bring down skyscrapers, but power itself is amoral."

I was introduced to David Mitchell's work through Cloud Atlas. I then went on to read The Reason I Jump, which David Mitchell did not write but did translate from the Japanese original.

Then came this book. As with Cloud Atlas, I finished reading this several days ago and have been thinking about how to describe it and what to say.

Like Cloud Atlas, this book is organized into six sections. However, this book is chronological, starting in 1984 (a nod to George Orwell, perhaps?) and progressing all the way to a post-apocalyptic world in 2043. At the heart of this book is Holly Sykes. We first meet her as a rebellious teenager who runs away from home after a fight with her mother. We meet her through all six sections in the book - at different points of her life all the way to her old age. In some sense, the reader grows up with Holly.

Along with Holly, we meet other main characters whose lives intersect with hers. Holly's brother Jacko whose disappearance alters the family forever. A young man who is a scholarship student looking to find his way to fame and fortune. A father whose career calls him repeatedly away from his family. An author whose is struggling in his career. The horologist. Some sections are primarily about these individual characters. Yet, Holly's appearance in all their lives unifies the six sections into one story.

Each section presents a philosophy of life according to the inclinations of the main character:

Holly - "What if ... what if Heaven is real, but only in moments? Like a glass of water on a hot day when you're dying of thirst, or when someone's nice to you for no reason or .... S'pose Heaven's not like a painting that's just hanging there forever, but more like ... like the best song every anyone ever wrote, but a song you only catch in snatches, while you're alive, from passing cars, or ... upstairs windows when you're lost..."

Hugo Lamb:  "Human beings ... are walking bundles of craving. Cravings for food, water, shelter, warmth; sex and companionship; status, a tribe to belong to; kicks, control, purpose; and so on, all the way down to chocolate-brown bathroom suites. Love is one way to satisfy some of those cravings. But love's not just the drug; it's also the dealer. Love wants love in return ... Like drugs, the highs look divine, and I envy the users. But when the side-effects kick in - jealously, the rages, grief, I think, Count me out."

Ed - "The world's default mode is basic indifference. It'd like to care, but it's just got too much on at the moment ... If a mass shooting, a bomb, a whatever, is written about, then at least it's made a tiny dent in the world's memory Someone, somewhere, some time, has a chance of learning what happened. And, just maybe, acting on it. Or not. But at least it's there."

Crispin Hershey - "A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synaesthesia and embraces compulsive-obsessive disorder. You feed your art your soul, and yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels wroth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships and distend your life. You have been warned."

Marinus - "Magic's just normal you're not used to."

Holly (again) - "For a voyage to begin, another one must end, sort of."

The central conflict of this book almost occurs at the periphery of the world. It is a centuries old war. Battles have been won and lost, but the war continues. It involves old beliefs, magic, and powers - the world of fantasy mixing with the very real and gritty life of Holly Sykes. We catch glimpses throughout, and only towards the latter part of the book does this conflict truly reveal itself.

As with Cloud Atlas, each of the individual sections has its own tone and story within the context of the larger plot. Many of the characters differ; the locations differ; and the main story focus differs. For this reason, some sections appeal to me more than others; some drag on.

Because this book does have the context of Holly's story, some sections seem to veer too far off that central plot. The side plots are sometimes extraneous to that main story line. That is particularly true of the section about the author Crispin Hershey. He becomes and stays a part of Holly's life, but he has only a tangential role in the major conflict of the story. His musings about the life of an author are interesting to read and his friendship with Holly touching, but out of all the sections, that seems to be the section that does not belong with the rest of the story.

Overall, I am not sure I liked the entire book, but at the same time, I could not put the book down. That is a testament to David Mitchell's writing and his ability to weave a tale and incorporate a world of philosophy into that story. I am a fan!

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, September 15, 2014

William Shakespeare's The Jedi Doth Return

Title:  William Shakespeare's The Jedi Doth Return (William Shakespeare's Star Wars Trilogy)
Author:  Ian Doescher
Publication Information:  Quirk Books. 2014. 168 pages.
ISBN:  159474713X / 978-1594747137

Book Source:  I read this book based on how much I enjoyed William Shakespeare's Star Wars and William Shakespeare's The Empire Striketh Back, the first two books in this series.

Favorite Quote:

"Shall my relations govern all my days,
Or may I yet escape mine origins? 
Shall all the father's sins be visited
Upon the child, or shall I triumph yet?
Be with me, All ye Jedi past and gone."

This book is the third in the series to rewrite the story of the Star Wars original trilogy in Shakespearean English. The first, William Shakespeare's Star Wars, was a delightful book. The second, William Shakespeare's The Empire Striketh Back, was almost as good. This one meets the same expectations.

If Star Wars is not for you or you are not familiar with it, then this is not the book for you. If, however, you are a Star Wars fan, then this is a fun addition to the collection. The book stays true to the story, which I really appreciate as a Star Wars fan.

This book, like the other two, is one I can happily share with my children - even the somewhat grown up ones. Having all seen the movies several times and studied Shakespeare, we each find things to enjoy about the book and to have a lively discussion. In fact, Quirk Books provides a study guide to accompany the book which explains iambic pentameter and the use of Shakespeare's plays in creating this story.

The end of the book has a note by the author on some of his challenges in converting the story and dialogue into Shakespearean English. For example, how should the Ewoks speak? The author also presents the creative solutions he came up. Having learned from the first two books, I read the note first. It helped me to appreciate the book even more so. I would recommend reading that first even though it is at the end.

Finally, this book being the third in a series does not have the novelty value that the first one did. It did not surprise me in the way the first one did, but it is still a fun book to read and to share with kids. I now wonder if Ian Doescher will tackle the other trilogy.

"Luke, thou shalt find that many of your truths
Depend entirely on your point of view.
It well may be that thou dost like it not,
But does not follow that it is not so."

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Book of Unknown Americans

Title:  The Book of Unknown Americans
Author:  Cristina HenrĂ­quez
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2014. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0385350848 / 978-0385350846

Book Source:  I read this book based on its description.

Favorite Quote:  "We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?"

This is one of several books I have read recently that addresses the topic of immigration into the United States. GI Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love looks at the immigrant experience of British women in the 1940s. Americanah is about an immigrant from Nigeria. A component of Island of a Thousand Mirrors encompasses immigrants who came to the United States to escape war. The Invention of Exile looks at an immigrant who unsuccessfully tries to find his way back into the country after deportation. All the books look at different time periods and different nationalities, but all have the common themes of opportunity and prejudice. This book is by far the strongest and most heartbreaking look at the immigrant experience.

This book is about the experience of Latin American immigrants. The Rivera family lived happily in Mexico, doing well financially and surrounded by family and loved ones. Their only daughter Mirabel suffers a traumatic brain injury in an accident. So, the Rivera family leaves all they know and hold dear and come to the United States to seek help and opportunity for Mirabel. Arturo and Alma are trying to do the best they can for their daughter, just like any parent any place in the world.

Interspersed with the story of the Rivera family are short narratives from some of the people who surround them. Immigrants like them from all over Latin America. They come different national backgrounds, different economic backgrounds, and they come for different reasons. All come with one goal - to build a better life. In this new homeland, all find themselves grouped together under one label. All find themselves forced between worlds.

"The truth was that I didn’t know which I was. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim.” These words come from a young man who feels that America is his home and that he is American. However, his family obligations reinforce a tie to the land he left behind, and prejudice in his adopted homeland forever reinforces that he is different and that he does not belong. "These people are listening to the media, and the media, let me tell you, has some ***-up ideas about us. About all brown-skinned people..."

The Riveras settle into an apartment complex in Delaware, near the mushroom farm where Arturo has a job and near a school that can meet Mirabel's special needs. They find a community of other immigrants. They encounter difficulties of language barriers, economic hardships, and prejudice. They also find some friendship and support, within the immigrant community and outside of it. Yet, just trying to survive economically and emotionally becomes a daily struggle.

"When I walk down the street, I don't want people to look at me and see a criminal or someone that they can spit on or beat up. I want them to see a guy who has just as much right to be here as they do, or a guy who works hard, or a guy who loves his family, or a guy who's just trying to do the right things. I wish just one of those people, just one would actually talk to me."

No spoilers in this review, but I will say I did not see the ending coming! It hit me hard for being unexpected and powerful. After reading the event, it makes sense in light of the news stories these days. It strongly reinforces the force of the prejudice and hardship immigrants often experience.

This book is a powerful statement in its ending and its characters - people who are just like you and me but who cannot escape prejudice against the way they look, the way they sound, and the place they come from. Strange and heartbreaking in a country that is full of immigrants and that prided itself on being a melting pot and a land of opportunity for all.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Neverhome: A Novel

Title:  Neverhome: A Novel
Author:  Laird Hunt
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2014. 256 pages.
ISBN:  0316370134 / 978-0316370134

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "You think you are never going to get back and then you are there and you wonder if you were ever gone."

According to the Smithsonian Institute, about 400 women dressed themselves as men and fought in the Civil War. Neither the Union nor the Confederate army allowed women to enlist, following the prevalent view of the times that women belonged in the home. The enlistment age for men was eighteen; however, many younger boys lied about their age and enlisted. Because the young men were not as developed physically, the women blended in more easily. The lack of facial hair and the slighter builds were simply taken as a sign of younger age and not of gender differences.

Neverhome tells the story of one such woman. Constance "Ash" Thompson leaves her farm and her husband and enlists in the Union Army. She is a skill hunter, forager, and shooter. The book begins with the start of her harrowing journey with her regiment and continues through the war to her eventual return home. Through her eyes, the book depicts battles, killing, betrayals, sympathizers, prisons, and the daily struggle of surviving a war, particularly as a woman in disguise.

Much as I looked forward to the premise of the book, this was not the book for me both because of gaps in the content and the writing style.

I love the premise of the book. A young woman taking on the garb of a man and going off to fight in the war. The story follows Ash's journey through the war and back home again. Unfortunately, the book never really fills in the back story. Why is Ash the one to go to war? Why does her husband stay home? Why does Ash talk to her dead mother? What in her life caused her to acquire the skills that make her a successful soldier? Without any of these answers, it is difficult to understand Ash, and since the book is entirely about her, it is difficult to get absorbed into the book.

The book is written as a first person narrative in Ash's voice. The character is depicted as a woman of her times, with little formal education but a lot of life skills. The narrative voice captures that lack of education, and there is no break from that voice. The narrative takes on a choppy quality and makes the book challenging to read in its entirety.

The first person narrative also makes the book take on a journal like quality. As a result, the book is very descriptive in nature. Ash tells the story, rather than the book showing the story and putting the reader into the middle of it. Again, this makes it challenging to truly delve into the book.

Also as a journal can sometimes be, the book tends to drift from topic to topic through the meanderings of her thoughts. Again, her thoughts touch upon so much in her background - her mother's death, her marriage, her husband, lost children - but these topics are never explored. Ash seems to have many secrets, but they seem to simmer beneath the surface and never emerge to the reader. It gets frustrating to get these glimmers of things that have led Ash to this point and then not get the answer. In fact, the question of "why" looms so large that it overshadows the ability to focus on her descriptions of her harrowing experiences of war and what comes after.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

All The Light We Cannot See

Title:  All The Light We Cannot See
Author:  Anthony Doerr
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2014. 544 pages.
ISBN:  1476746583 / 978-1476746586

Book Source:  I read this book based on its description and a friend's recommendation.

Favorite Quote:  "Don't you want to be alive before you die?"

A blind French girl and a young German soldier are the main characters in All the Light We Cannot See. The book is a World War II story, but it is not about the politics, battles, winners, or losers of the war. It is about two young individuals - one on either side of the conflict - who are both victims of the war.

Both, through varied circumstances, find themselves in the town of Saint-Malo, a small, walled city on the northwest coast of France on the English Channel. "This last citadel at the edge of the continent, this final German strong point on the Breton coast ... Water surrounds the city on four sides. Its link to the rest of France is tenuous: a causeway, a bridge, a spit of sand ... Four years of occupation, and the roar of oncoming bombers is the roar of what? Deliverance? Extirpation?"

Marie-Laure LeBlanc is alone in the house in Saint-Malo. She waits for her uncle to return. Marie-Laure's story, however, begins in Paris a decade earlier. Her father is the master of locks at the Paris Museum of Natural History. The museum is Marie-Laure's playground, even as her eye sight deteriorates steadily, leaving her blind. As war threatens them in Paris, she and her father escape Paris, eventually coming to her uncle's home in Saint-Malo. War, however, finds them there as well.

Werner Pfennig is hiding in a cellar, unsure of his survival and unsure of what is next as an attack against the Germans in Saint-Malo comes nearer. The start of Werner's story brings us to an orphanage outside of Essen, Germany, where he and his sister Jutta live. His self-taught knowledge of electronics, particularly radios, brings him to the attention of the German army. He sees an education and a way out of a life in the coal mines; he takes it. Behind the army rhetoric, however, he finds a world that leads him to terror and war.

As the individual stories progress, they begin to overlap. Although Werner and Marie-Laure do not actually meet until close to the end of the book, their lives have intersected before. As a reader, it adds so much to the book to see these overlaps when the characters themselves are not aware of them.

Underlying the characters is a sub-plot about a priceless diamond - the Sea of Flames, the legends surrounding it, and those who would do anything to acquire it. It incorporates into the book World War II  history about the theft of museum treasures and those who sought to save them. At times, it seems that the legend of the stone also provides an anchor and hope for Marie-Laure when it appears that there may be none.

The book is written in short chapters in somewhat of a circular fashion - circling between Marie-Laure in Saint-Malo as the attack comes, Marie-Laure's background from Paris onwards to the time of the attack, Werner in Saint-Malo, and his background from the orphanage to this point. Each short chapter moves an aspect of the story forward. It tells the story from the beginning and from the middle at the same time. An odd and intricate construct, but it works in this book.

The structure of the book as an interlocking puzzle mirrors the the motif of puzzles and locks  that recurs repeatedly in the book, particularly in Marie-Laure's story. Her father is a master of locks. The Museum of Natural History is a labyrinth of rooms and hallways. Delicate, maze-like patterns cover the shells Marie-Laure examines at the museum. Marie-Laure's father's gifts to her always involve a puzzle. The storage of the Sea of Flames involves a set of thirteen nested locks. The model of the city that Marie-Laure's father builds to help her navigate without sight appears to her at first as a maze. The grotto by the sea lies behind a locked door and an alleyway that is hidden until you are upon it. Finally, the observation"What mazes there are in this world. The branches of tress, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father re-created in his models. Mazes in the nodules on murex shells and in the textures of sycamore bark and inside the hollow bones of eagles. None more complicated than the human brain ... what may be the most complex object in existence; one wet kilogram within which spin universes."

The motif is an accurate description for the book itself - it creates its own beautifully constructed, interconnected universe with Marie-Laure and Werner spinning at its center.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


Title:  Nest
Author:  Esther Ehrlich
Publication Information:  Wendy Lamb Books. 2014. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0385386079 / 978-0385386074

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "One thing I know is that you can keep someone company without ruining their privacy."

This story is told through the voice of Naomi "Chirp" Orenstein. Chirp is eleven years old and is growing up in a small town on Cape Cod in 1972. Her nickname comes from her fascination with bird and bird watching. Life has been good. She lives in a beautiful place and is surrounded by a loving family - her dad, her mother Hannah, and her sister Rachel.

Yet, all is not well now. Hannah is experiencing strange symptoms that are changing her from the vibrant, happy, loving mother Chirp has always known into a sad, distant person. The diagnosis of these symptoms and the ensuing events change this family's life forever.

Chirp finds solace in the birds and in trying to get things to be the way they were.  Her childlike belief that everything can be fixed is beautifully depicted. Her efforts and the efforts of her sister to make their mother happy are heartbreaking to read. They try music, dance, gardening and cooking - all the things their mother loves. They try being really quiet and not bothering their mother so she can rest. Nothing seems to work.

Chirp also finds a friend in Joey, the boy next door. Joey's character is an interesting one, viewed through eleven year old Chirp's eyes. For her, he is the boy with the tough older brothers, the boy who can be nice or not, and the boy who proves himself her friend. As an adult reader, the issues Joey faces become clear, and he elicits compassion. The fact that despite his own troubles, he reaches out to help Chirp make him an endearing character. Joey would an interesting point of discussion between an adult and a younger reader. What would a younger reader see in the glimpses we get of Joey's life?

Two characters whose role I don't understand in the book are Dawn and the lady in the woods. Dawn is a young girl in Chirp's grade. She faces many learning challenges and is often the target of ridicule. Chirp and Dawn are not friends, but Chirp is a friend to Dawn, sitting with her on the bus and helping her in school. The only role I see for Dawn in the book is to draw a picture of Chirp's character as compassionate and kind. Yet, for that, she is a big part of the book without really being a part of the story.

The lady in the woods is someone Chirp has never met and someone she never really meets in the book either. We never learn who she is. When Chirp takes to the woods to watch birds, the lady is "in her spot." Chirp offers help, but is rebuffed without any words or conversation. Perhaps, she appears again and perhaps not. Again, it's unclear what purpose the character serves in the book.

The religious references in the book also stand out because they center around the fact that the Orensteins are the only family of their faith in this small town. The references do not imply the comfort that religious beliefs can bring in a crisis. The references do no introduce teachings of faith and its implications in a crisis. The references only come up as the fact that their religion sets them apart. While many children can relate to that feeling of being different, this story already has enough setting Chirp apart to make anything additional unnecessary.

The target audience for this book is grades 5 and up, in other words, ages 10 and up. It takes on topics that many middle schoolers will relate to - school, siblings, friendships, and family. The main plot of book is a dark and sad story, taking on some very serious issues that I hope no child ever has to face. It's hard to say more without revealing the plot line. As an adult, I was moved emotionally at points. I am not sure a middle school audience is ready for the seriousness of this book unless they are unfortunately in that same situation, and I don't know that a young adult audience would relate to an eleven year old narrator. It's unclear where the exact audience for the book will lie and what their reaction will be.

Chirp and Joey are delightful, charming characters, but the darkness of the plot and the unclear components make the story less charming than the characters.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

GI Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love

Title:  GI Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love
Author:  Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi
Publication Information:  William Morrow Paperbacks. 2014. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0062328050 / 978-0062328052

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "Just remember, you don't marry a man, you marry a whole family, and you've got to bend over backwards to make it work."

World War II Britain was ravaged. The young women living there faced a world of the blitz, of shortages of everything, and of all their "boys" gone to fight. When the American soldiers arrived, they brought with them some of the simple luxuries of life lacking in Britain at the time and something of the Hollywood glamour. They also brought hope and a way to a new, more prosperous life.

According to the New York Times archives, approximately 70,000 British war brides came to the United States between 1945 to 1950. This book captures the stories of four of these brides - Sylvia, Gwendolyn, Rae, and Margaret.

Sylvia met her soldier husband while volunteering for the Red Cross. Gwendolyn or Lyn met her soldier in her home town of Southhampton, when the Americans took control of the port to bring in the cargo and supplies for the Americans in Britain. Rae joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women's branch of the British Army at that time; she married her soldier husband despite a conflicting desire to pursue her military career. Margaret found herself working for the US Army in London, with the opportunity to meet many soldiers. All four women fell in love. All four left their jobs, families, and home to follow their husbands to the United States.

At a aggregate level, the book does a vivid and dynamic job of depicting the conditions in wartime England. It also brings to light the harrowing journeys these women took to their new adopted homeland - the heartache of leaving home and family, the questioning, the physical searches, the conditions on the Army ships on which they travelled, the culture shock, and the social struggles they faced in the United States.

The copy of the book I received includes no images. That would be a wonderful enhancement to the book. The acknowledgements at the end of book reference the website with pictures and audio clips of some of the interviews that form the basis of this book.

When looking at the stories on a more individual level, I have two concerns about the book - one about the organization and one about the content.

The book is told in alternating chapters from the lives of the four women - Sylvia, Gwendolyn, Rae, and Margaret. It allows their stories to develop in parallel from war ravaged Britain, through their courtship, their journey to America, and their married life in America. As each has their own unique experience, the organization allows the different perspectives to be compared. However, at the same time, the organization of the book makes it difficult to follow the continuity of one woman's story. I often found myself referring back to the previous chapters related to each one to pick up the thread of her individual story.

The description of the book states, "Some struggled with the isolation of life in rural American, or found their soldier less than heroic in civilian life. But most persevered, determined to turn their warm romance into a life long love affair, and prove to those back home that a Hollywood ending of their own was possible."

The book encompasses a lot more of the struggle than of the life long love. These women married men they did not know and came to a place they did not know to begin their life anew. The expected clash of cultures and of family is clear throughout the book. In addition, the book depicts economic hardship, loss, illness, addiction, betrayal, and even abuse through these relationships. I would hope that some GI Brides found happiness, but the love and the happy ending are far less developed in the book than the heartache.

Overall, the book portrays an engrossing picture of a time of history and an amazing group of women.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.