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Book Review: The Signature of All Things

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked out this novel by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love.  I was looking for an audiobook that was available without waiting from the library website.  All I knew is that it was a historical novel, telling the story of the fictional Alma Whitaker.

The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

Alma was “born with the century,” in 1800, the daughter of Henry Whitaker, a man who was born poor but made a fortune in the business of plants.  Alma is bright and hard working, but not at all pretty.  She takes after her father and begins to study botany, at a time where women are generally only taught the finer arts of music and sewing.

Alma makes her way in a man’s world, never catching the attention of a man in a romantic way, but achieving successes with her research in botany.  But she’s lonely, she wants companionship, and perhaps most of all, she wants intimacy.

The novel follows Alma throughout her entire life, weaving an intricate story of characters, showing the joy and tragedy of a life whose outcome you don’t always get to choose.  Is it enough to find a career when most women simply find themselves to be the mother of children and in charge of a household?  Do we ever really know if others around us are happy or truly satisfied with their lot in life?  Is it possible to accept the pain of losing our loved ones?  Do we ever stop yearning for that which we do not have?

Alma’s life takes her from her father’s home all the way to Tahiti, as she seeks new plants, but also the answers to the questions she has about the human condition.  Along the way, she encounters so many others, who are flawed, imperfect and richly complex, all just trying to do what Alma is doing – find happiness.

Gilbert’s writing is excellent.  Amazing.  Despite what might seem at first a dry topic, this is a must read.  Although it is long, I was entranced until the very last page.

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Spring 2017 Book Blog

I’ve been listening up a storm – lots of time as I walk with an audio-book on my iPod.  Here’s a couple of books that have made their way into my brain.

The Danish Girl, by David Ebershoff – 5 stars

This is a novel that is based on the true story of Lili Elbe, a woman who began life as a man.  Then known as Einar Wegener, he grew up and married, having a successful career as an artist, before deciding to undergo one of the first sexual reassignment surgeries in the world.  The novel is largely told from the perspective of his wife, Gerda Gottlieb, who supported Lili’s transition to a woman.  The novel explores the emotions of both women, as well as the social stigmas and struggles of the era, although I do believe it glossed over that a bit.  Although the novel masterfully explored the story, there are many gaps in the story, due to the fact that Elbe’s medical records were destroyed by bombing during World War II.   The Danish Girl was made into a movie in 2016 – I want to check it out!

At the Water’s Edge, by Sara Gruen – 3 stars

Part ghost story, part search for the Loch Ness Monster, At the Water’s Edge is an interesting novel about a couple whose marriage is tested when Madeleine and her husband Ellis have a falling out with Ellis’ rich father.  In order to restore the family honor, the two, with a friend, embark on a trip across the Atlantic in a Navy warship in order to find hard evidence of the Loch Ness Monster…  Are you still with me!?  At any rate, Ellis is a drinker, and well, he does what drinkers do – he destroys the relationship with his wife.  I wanted to like this book more since it is by the author of Water for Elephants, but it just fell a bit flat for me.  There is a lot of suspension of disbelief required, and it just doesn’t get there for me.

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee – 4 stars

I thought a long time about whether or not I wanted to read this book.  Like so many, I grew up with the magic of Atticus Finch and his children, Scout and Jem.  I grew up knowing that there were people in the South who did the right thing, when racism was rampant and segregation the law.  I heard the rumors about the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, where Atticus is revealed to be racist as well.  Could it be true?  Dare I find out?  Well, the answer is not so simple.  It is wrapped up in time, and place, and the law, the constitution and whatever else goes into these things.  People today would say that he was.  But I learned it is also a story of coming of age, and learning that our parents are not so perfect as we want them to be.  They have opinions that are flavored by the world they grew up in, right or wrong, and flaws and shortcomings, just like everyone else.  And this is as much a story about learning to break away and truly see our parents as it is about race.

Book Review: 1944, by Jay Winik

1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History, by Jay Winik

This is a very well researched and well-written book. His writing style is easy to read, and not dry like some non-fiction. Really, my only complaint would be the title. This book is not about 1944. Or perhaps I should say, this book is not ONLY about 1944.

 

1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History, by Jay Winik

 

Winik goes into some detail about FDR’s upbringing, early life, marriage, early political career, and even touches on his long relationship with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. The bulk of the book focuses on the years of World War II, although it doesn’t stick to 1944. Winik describes the advance of the Germans through various countries, the persecution and murder of the Jews, and FDR’s several summits with Churchill and sometimes Stalin, negotiating the terms of the peace at the end of the war.

He tells the story of a few men who managed to escape from the concentrations camps and bring the story of what was happening there out to the world. They risked their lives, and did their best to try to save others. Reports were circulating throughout Europe with information on what was happening at the camps, and aerial surveillance footage was filmed that showed Auschwitz, with its crematoria and its starving inmates walking around within the enclosure. Sadly, those who were trying to get someone to do something just didn’t seem to have enough influence. The murders continued.

Winik speaks frankly about FDR’s shortcomings; his refusal to forcefully intervene to stop the extermination of the Jews, despite having knowledge before 1944 of their plight. Several men requested intervention, and although he was eventually willing to issue a statement, Roosevelt was never willing to order airstrikes or other military measures be used on the camps to shut them down. There was always another excuse. That said, Winik also spends quite some time discussing FDR’s strengths – his talent as an orator, and his ability to find common ground with anyone in order to negotiate an acceptable solution.

FDR’s medical history is also discussed in detail in the book, including the attempts by his doctors and closest aides to conceal the severity of his condition from the public, and even from Roosevelt himself, in the last years of his life. The truth is that Roosevelt was a chain smoker throughout his life, and congestive heart failure and other medical issues had surfaced by 1940. Many of his aides documented in their writings how poorly Roosevelt looked in the last months of his life, and his doctors urged him to take time away from the stress of the Presidency. Of course, we know how the story ends, in April 1945.

The book is long (I listened to the audiobook version), but kept me interested until the end. It is well worth the read.

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr knocks it out of the park with this novel, set during World War II.  It is a NY Times bestseller, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (photo from Amazon.com)

Marie-Laure, is a blind girl living with her father in Paris; he works for the Museum of Natural History as its master locksmith.  He also has a talent for woodworking, and makes her a scale model of her neighborhood in Paris to assist her in learning how to navigate the streets without sight.  Soon enough however, the two must evacuate to Saint-Malo, a seaside walled city, to live with her eccentric great-uncle Etienne, his long-time housekeeper, and her father.

Meanwhile, Werner is an orphan growing up in Germany with a talent for building and repairing radios.  His skill is noticed by the Nazis, and he is sent to an elite school to hone his craft for the war effort.  This means he must leave his younger sister, Jutta, who has her own talent – she sees even at her very young age the evil that resides within the Nazi party.

Throughout the novel, the stories are intricately woven together, culminating with Marie-Laure and Werner meeting during the German occupation of France.  He lays bare all the cruelty and tragedy of the war, as well as the bravery that was exhibited by so many during the period.

Doerr’s character development is superb, and you can’t help but love some of them and hate others.  Despite your feelings for them, you see that they are all flawed beings, with their strengths and weaknesses.  I was entranced from beginning to end.

Book Review: Lost at Sea

The bad thing about insomnia that goes on and on and on, is that obviously, you can’t sleep and get (and stay) exhausted…  But in trying to find the silver lining, you sure can plow through a lot of books when you are consistently awake at 3 in the morning!

Lost at Sea, by Patrick Dillon

Lost at Sea, by Patrick Dillon, is the true story of an American tragedy.  On Valentine’s Day 1983, two crab boats from the same company in Anacortes, Washington, were lost in the Bering Sea. The hull of one of the boats was discovered completely overturned, floating in the ocean, before soon sinking below the water forever. No trace of the other was ever found.  There were scant clues available about why both boats could possibly have been lost on the same day, in seas that had not yet turned stormy.

Lost at Sea explores the sinking of both boats, and the subsequent investigation to determine the truth behind the mystery. You might expect it to be a rather dry read, as it goes quite into depth on the subsequent investigation and Coast Guard hearing to determine the cause of the sinkings.  Dillon also details the Congressional process, negotiations and hearings that occurred over the course of the next several years to enact more stringent safety regulations into the commercial fishing industry.  However, he manages to tell the interweave the stark facts and statistics with the stories of the men who died aboard these boats, as well as the stories of the families they left behind.  The result is a powerful read.

If you have ever been to the Anacortes waterfront, you have seen the Fisherman’s Memorial with these 14 mens’ names inscribed on it.  After reading this book, I felt that I knew more of their story.

Book Review: The Swan Thieves

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

A man walks into The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and tries to attack a painting with a knife. Fortunately, Robert Oliver is restrained before doing any damage to the painting, and ends up being involuntarily committed for mental illness.

His psychiatrist, Dr. Andrew Marlow, begins to treat Oliver and in doing so, embarks on a journey to solve the mystery of the beautiful old-fashioned woman whom Oliver is obsessed with painting. His journey takes him to Oliver’s former wife and former lover, as well as halfway around the world. What he uncovers is a tragic love story; while along the way he finds a love of his own.

The Swan Thieves was written by the same woman that wrote The Historian (I recommend it highly), and Kostova weaves an intricate tale of love and relationships, and the nuances of the human mind. Her character development is superb, with each character possessing their own strengths and flaws; their own triumphs and tragedies.

I was captivated from beginning to end, trying to anticipate what was around the next corner, hating to put the book down to go back to the real world. The conclusion leaves questions, and just like life, things don’t always get wrapped up neatly. As is always the case with true love, the story will stay with you long after the end.

Note: I listened to the audiobook version, which was wonderfully narrated by different voices.

Book Review: The Wild Vine

Have you ever heard of the Norton grape? I had, but I knew nothing of its history. I only knew that there are a few Michigan wineries that grow it and produce wine made from Norton grapes. But I was about to become a lot more read on the history of the Norton.

The Wild Vine, by Todd Kliman

The Wild Vine, by Todd Kliman

Kliman tells the story of the discovery of the Norton grape, a hybrid created in the 1820s by Dr. Daniel Norton. It is special because it can withstand the humidity and punishing storms of Virginia and Missouri, not succumbing to the rot that so many European wine grapes do. It allows Americans, for the first time, to believe that the United States can produce wine to rival Europe.

The Norton grape almost disappeared entirely during Prohibition, when wine growers were forced in large numbers to pull up their vineyards or face the wrath of government agents. When Prohibition ended, winemakers in the East were not quick to rush back to their former occupations, and by the time new wineries were created in Virginia, the Norton was seemingly nowhere to be found. In the 1970s, against all odds, Dennis Horton discovers that some bootleggers have a small patch of Norton growing, now almost wild in Missouri. He brings it home to Virginia.

Now, thanks for a few dedicated winegrowers, Norton has made a small comeback and is being produced again. Kliman’s book documents the history of the grape, its near extinction, and its remarkable comeback. This book marries two of my favorite subjects – History and Wine. His writing style will have you rooting for the underdog, the little grape that could… You’ll have to be on the lookout for this book, and a Norton wine!