Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Four Winds

  The Four Winds
Author:  Kristin Hannah
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2021. 464 pages.
ISBN:  1250178606 / 978-1250178602

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love."

Favorite Quote:  "My grandfather was a Texas Ranger. He used to tell me that courage was a lie. It was just fear that you ignored."

The Four Winds is a story of the Depression. It is a story of the dust bowl. It is a story of being an immigrant in one's own homeland. It is a story of being made to feel the other. It is a story of poverty. It is a story of unionization. It is a story of prejudice. It is a story of the elusive American Dream. "The four winds have blown us here, people from all across the country, to the very edge of this great land, and now, at last, we make our stand, fight for what we know to be right. We fight for our American dream, that it will be possible again."

Through it all, this book is the story of one girl - Elsa Wolcott - who is forced to grow up way too soon and whose struggles reach far beyond what she could ever have imagined. An unplanned pregnancy leads to a quick, too-young wedding. A marriage leads to the love of a family but also to responsibilities born alone. Poverty and desperation and the love of children leads to an unimaginable journey in search of a better life. The better life proves elusive, and the struggle continues. That is the plot of Elsa Wolcott's story.

The real story is the woman Elsa becomes, facing challenge after challenge:
  • "She'd learned how to disappear in place long ago. She was like one of those animals whose defense mechanism, was to blend into the landscape and become invisible. It was her way of dealing with rejection: Say nothing and disappear. Never fight back."
  • " turned out that a parent's disapproval was a powerful, lingering voice that shaped and defined one's self-image."
  • "Poverty was a soul-crushing thing. A cave that tightened around your, its pinprick of light closing a little more at the end of each desperate, unchanged day."
  • "Survival took grit and courage and effort. It was too easy to give in. No matter how afraid she was, she had to teach her children every day  how to survive."
Beyond the personal story, the bigger story is the history of this nation - the depths of the Depression and the Dust Bowl and, even more so, the depth of prejudice and hate that turns American against American. Oddly (because I do not know if it is historically accurate), the book takes a turn beyond unionization and towards communisms as a solution which is jarring and, to me, unneeded. Elsa's story is enough without that political addition. That being said, the conversations about poverty, inequity, and discrimination are timely. Although written about the 1930s, some of these conversations continue today even amidst the current prosperity of this nation.

The emotions and images of this book are powerful ones. The ending, when it comes, is shocking yet not surprising. It leaves a strong exclamation point on the story with lessons if we choose to remember. Elsa Wolcott is a memorable character, and the book is one that will stay with me for a long while.

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

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

In Memory of Memory

  In Memory of Memory
Author:  Maria Stepanova (author). Sasha Dugdale (translator).
Publication Information:  New Directions. 2021. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0811228835 / 978-0811228831

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Aunt Galya, my father's sister, died."

Favorite Quote:  "Memory is handed down, history is written down; memory is concerned with justice, history with preciseness; memory moralizes, history tallies up and corrects; memory is personal, history dreams of objectivity; memory is based not on knowledge, but on experience:  compassion with, sympathy for a desperate pain demanding immediate involvement. At the same time the landscape of memory is strewn with projections, fantasies and misrepresentations - the ghosts of today, with their faces turned to the past."

This fictional story sounds more like a memoir. More than a narrative anchored to time and place, it is a philosophical exploration of memory and what it means. The first person narration certainly lends to that image. "I always knew I would someday write a book about my family, and there were even periods when this seemed to be my life purpose (summarizing lives, collecting them into one narrative) because it was simply the case that I was the first and only person in the family who had a reason to speak facing outwards, person out from intimate family conversation as if from under a fur cap, and addressing the railway station concourse of collective experience."

The premise of the book is that upon the death of her aunt, the narrator becomes custodian of all the minutiae and memorabilia of Aunt Galya's life. Considering Galya was a hoarder, this amounts to a lot of stuff - some garbage, some precious treasures, and everything in between. The narrative proceeds not in a chronological order, but rather an exploration of memories triggered by a letter, a photograph, or another such object. For the narrator, however, many of the memories triggered are not her own memories of the events but rather stories told others about the events. In other words, it is a memory of a memory. "In place of a memory I did not have, of an event I did not witness, my memory worked over someone else's story, it rehydrated the driest little note and made of it a pop-up cherry orchard."

Many times during the book, I find myself lost as to time, place, and even people. The connecting theme of the book is not a linear plot or perhaps really even a plot at all. The history of the Russian Jewish ancestry of the narrator is reflected in the memories depicted, but the focal point is not that history but the memory itself. The connecting theme is the concept of how an individual's thoughts and memories go from topic to topic and idea to idea. To the individual, the flow and connection is there. To anyone else, that connection may not exist at all. After a while, I stop trying to make the connections and just go with the flow of the writing and reflect on the conceptual treatise about memory.

At the end of it all, this books feels like watching a kaleidoscope of images, which sometimes come together to form a larger image and sometimes remain scattered. The colors and patterns are lovely but ever-changing. In many ways, I suppose that is the intent. As a reader, the individual images are beautiful, but I am left wanting a context and an understanding to put those images into context.

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

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Lady Sunshine

  Lady Sunshine
Author:  Amy Mason Doan
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2021. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1525811541 / 978-1525811548

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and the HTP Beach Reads, Summer 2021 Blog Tours free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I rattle the padlock on the gate, strum my fingers along the cold chain-link fence."

Favorite Quote:  "... the intensity of my love for it lies outside of reason ..."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Jackie Pierce is Lady Sunshine, a nickname given to her during the one summer she spent on an estate in Humboldt County on the coast of California north of San Francisco. She goes there one summer as a teenager when her father and stepmother went on vacation. She experienced a freedom, a sense of belonging, and a sense of family that she had not had for a long time. She goes back years later with the surprise news that she has inherited the property.

The summer of 1979 is a summer of music, discovery, friendship and darker forces that lies underneath the idyllic coastal California setting. This part of the book is a coming of age story as Jackie deals with the grief, finds friendship and family in her cousin Willa, and learns that not everything is as idyllic as it may seem.

The summer of 1999 may be a summer of music and new friendships as Jackie returns for what she believes is a short time to rid herself of this estate and all the memories that lie there. This part of the book is part mystery as to what happened in 1979, part romance as new relationships flourish, and part a different coming of age as the past is reckoned with.

The book winds back and forth between the two times winding together until past and present meet. As a reader, I know there is a tragedy coming - a tragedy in 1979 that has repercussions 20 years later in 1999.  

However, the jumping timelines techniques works less successfully in this book than in others. The main character is a young woman who has never recovered from the fact that her mother during her birth. She is now an adult who, seemingly, has also never recovered from the summer of 1979. Many questions remain and anchor her to this coastal estate. A clearing of the estate becomes a literal clearing of memories to determine what really happened.

Given the setup, the lack of emotional connection I feel to the book surprises me. It almost feels at times like the storytelling gets in the way of the story itself. I guess the eventual outcome before it comes, but until I do, I invest more in guessing at what happens rather than the characters or where the story is at that time.

When the tie-in and mystery is revealed, it is not a surprise or a shock. At the same time the conclusion of the book comes too quickly and seems far-fetched based on the fact that the entire conclusion is based on the bonds of one teenage summer.

That being said, I enjoyed the prevalence of music in this story, particularly how music can put into words our stories and emotions. That is my favorite part of this book.

About the Book


For Jackie Pierce, everything changed the summer of 1979, when she spent three months of infinite freedom at her bohemian uncle’s sprawling estate on the California coast. As musicians, artists, and free spirits gathered at The Sandcastle for the season in pursuit of inspiration and communal living, Jackie and her cousin Willa fell into a fast friendship, testing their limits along the rocky beach and in the wild woods... until the summer abruptly ended in tragedy, and Willa silently slipped away into the night.
Twenty years later, Jackie unexpectedly inherits The Sandcastle and returns to the iconic estate for a short visit to ready it for sale. But she reluctantly extends her stay when she learns that, before her death, her estranged aunt had promised an up-and-coming producer he could record a tribute album to her late uncle at the property’s studio. As her musical guests bring the place to life again with their sun-drenched beach days and late-night bonfires, Jackie begins to notice startling parallels to that summer long ago. And when a piece of the past resurfaces and sparks new questions about Willa’s disappearance, Jackie must discover if the dark secret she’s kept ever since is even the truth at all.

About the Author

AMY MASON DOAN is the author of The Summer List and Summer Hours. She earned a BA in English from UC Berkeley and an MA in journalism from Stanford University, and has written for The Oregonian, San Francisco Chronicle, and Forbes, among other publications. She grew up in Danville, California, and now lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughter.


Excerpted from Lady Sunshine @ 2021 by Amy Mason Doan, used with permission by Graydon House.


A Girl, Her Cousin, and a Waterfall


I rattle the padlock on the gate, strum my fingers along the cold chain-link fence.

I own this place.

Maybe if I repeat it often enough I’ll believe it.

All along the base of the fence are tributes: shells, notes, sketches, bunches of flowers. Some still fresh, some so old the petals are crisp as parchment. I follow the fence uphill, along the coast side, and stop at a wooden, waist-high sign marking the path up to the waterfall. It wasn’t here the summer I visited.

The sign is covered in words and drawings, so tattooed-over by fan messages that you can barely read the official one. I run my fingertips over the engravings: initials, peace symbols, Thank you’s, I Love You’s. Fragments of favorite lyrics. After coming so far to visit the legendary estate, people need to do something, leave their mark, if only with a rock on fog-softened wood.

Song titles from my uncle’s final album, Three, are carved everywhere. “Heart, Home, Hope.”

“Leaf, Shell, Raindrop.”

“Angel, Lion, Willow.” Someone has etched that last one in symbols instead of words. The angel refers to Angela, my aunt. The lion is my uncle Graham.

And the willow tree. Willa, my cousin.

I have a pointy metal travel nail file in my suitcase; I could add my message to the rest, my own tribute to this place, to the Kingstons. To try to explain what happened the summer I spent here. I could tell it like one of the campfire tales I used to spin for Willa.

This is the story of a girl, her cousin, and a waterfall…

But there’s no time for that, not with only seven days to clear the house for sale. Back at the gate, where Toby’s asleep in his cat carrier in the shade, I dig in my overnight bag for the keys. They came in a FedEx with a fat stack of documents I must’ve read on the plane from Boston a dozen times—thousands of words, all dressed up in legal jargon. When it’s so simple, really. Everything inside that fence is mine now, whether I want it or not.

I unlock the gate, lift the metal shackle, and walk uphill to the highest point, where the gravel widens into a parking lot, then fades away into grass. The field opens out below me just like I remember. We called it “the bowl,” because of the way the edges curve up all around it. A golden bowl scooped into the hills, rimmed on three sides by dark green woods. The house, a quarter mile ahead of me at the top of the far slope, is a pale smudge in the fir trees.

I stop to take it in, this piece of land I now own. The Sandcastle, everyone called it.

Without the neighbors’ goats and Graham’s guests to keep the grass down, the field has grown wild, many of the yellow weeds high as my belly button.

Willa stood here with me once and showed me how from this angle the estate resembled a sun. The kind a child would draw, with a happy face inside. Once I saw it, it was impossible to un-see:

The round, straw-colored field, trails squiggling off to the woods in every direction, like rays. The left eye—the campfire circle. The right eye—the blue aboveground pool. The nose was the vertical line of picnic benches in the middle of the circle that served as our communal outdoor dining table. The smile was the curving line of parked cars and motorcycles and campers.

All that’s gone now, save for the pool, which is squinting, collapsed, moldy green instead of its old bright blue.

I should go back for my bag and Toby but I can’t resist—I move on, down to the center of the field. Far to my right in the woods, the brown roofline of the biggest A-frame cabin, Kingfisher, pokes through the firs. But no other cabins are visible, the foliage is so thick now. Good. Each alteration from the place of my memories gives me confidence. I can handle this for a week. One peaceful, private week to box things up and send them away.

“Sure you don’t want me to come help?” Paul had asked when he dropped me at the airport this morning. “We could squeeze in a romantic weekend somewhere. I’ve always wanted to go to San Francisco.”

“You have summer school classes, remember? Anyway, it’ll be totally boring, believe me.”

I’d told him—earnest, sweet Paul, who all the sixth-graders at the elementary school where we work hope they get as their teacher and who wants to marry me—that the trip was no big deal. That I’d be away for a week because my aunt in California passed away. That I barely knew her and just had to help pack up her old place to get it ready for sale.

He believed me.

I didn’t tell him that the “old place” is a stunning, sprawling property perched over the Pacific, studded with cabins and outbuildings and a legendary basement recording studio. That the land bubbles with natural hot springs and creeks and waterfalls.

Or that I’ve inherited it. All of it. The fields, the woods, the house, the studio. And my uncle’s music catalog.

I didn’t tell him that I visited here once as a teenager, or that for a little while, a long time ago, I was sure I’d stay forever.

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Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Paris Library

Title:  The Paris Library
Author:  Janet Skeslien Charles
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2020. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1982134194 / 978-1982134198

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Numbers floated around my head like stars."

Favorite Quote:  "Accept people for who they are, not for who you want them to be." 

The Paris library is actually the American Library in Paris. This book is based on the history of this library and its librarians during World War II. The story is told in two timelines - one in 1939 Paris, the other in 1980s Montana. At the heart of each is Odile Souchet.

In 1939, Odile is young, idealist, and determined. Through sheer persistence, she gets a job at the library. "The Library is my haven. I can always find a corner of the stacks to call my own, to read and dream. I want to make sure everyone has that chance, most especially the people who feel different and need a place to call home." Her father, a police officer, does not approve or understand. He wishes to see her married and settled; he keeps bringing home potential candidates. Her mother is in the shadow of her forceful husband. Odile's brother fights his own demons of expectations versus dreams. The war changes the directions of all their lives.

In 1983, Odile is a reclusive, odd widow living in a small-town in Montana. She is different and has never quite fit in. Her young teenage neighbor Lily is lost in her own way through her mother's illness and death and her father's remarriage. They connect because of a school project, and both find in the other a friend.

The plot of the book follows two lines. The main one is how young, idealist Odile in Paris survives the war and ends up a world away in small-town Montana. The side story is that of Lily and her growing up and dealing with the changes in her family.

As with most books that involve two time periods, one is usually more compelling than the other. In this case, it is, as the name of the book suggests, the story in 1939. That is a story steeped in history. The American Library in Paris was established in 1920 after World War I to bring servicemen and a devastated nation the light of books. The work was threatened by the German occupation during World War II. The librarians began an underground project of bringing books and other materials to Jewish patrons banned from the libraries. Some librarians returned to their American homes for the sake of safety. "But seriously, why books. Because no other things possesses that mystical faculty to make people see with other people's eyes. The Library is a bridge of books between cultures." Through the dedication of the librarians, volunteers, and supporters, the library survived the war and has gone on to flourish. It celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2020!

Within the context of this history is placed Odile as a librarian. Her story is one of war and loss. It is also of friendship, love, and betrayal. It is the betrayal that takes center stage and forever alters the direction of Odile's life. That is the compelling story of this book.

The story of 1983 Montana seems a frame around Odile's story of the war. It provides context in terms of memories and regrets. Ultimately, it also provides closure. 

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