Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Monday, February 22, 2016

Secrets  of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner

This is the first book I have read by Susan Meissner. It will not be my last.

Susan writes historical novels that typically alternate a present-day story with one from a specific historical period or event.   As Secrets of a Charmed Life opens we meet Kendra Van Zant, a young American student at Oxford, England, who is on an assignment to interview an elderly renowned artist, Isabel McFarland. Isabel has refused interview requests for 70 years, but as her family gathers on the lawn to celebrate her 93rd birthday, she agrees to share with Kendra her first-hand experiences of the German bombings in London in 1940.   I will not reveal the magnet that draws you into the story early on, but trust me, when you read the last two lines of Chapter One, you will be compelled to continue.

The second reason to keep reading is a riveting plot.  In 1940 a half million (some sources say one million) children were evacuated from London to the surrounding countryside for “safe-keeping”. Many of you reading this are parents or grandparents. Imagine for one minute putting your young child on a bus or train that will take them to a remote location hours from the city.  Not knowing where or who they will come to live with or how long they will be gone.  The evacuations were not mandatory but highly encouraged by the government.  Parents were torn with protecting their child under their London roof, which most in most likelihood would be destroyed, or sending them off alone with hopes of surviving the travesty of the war and being re-united someday.

The third reason to keep reading are characters we come to love and sympathize with as they deal with these horrors and make choices that will have consequences for the rest of their lives.

In chapter two we meet 15-year old Emmy Downtree, an idealistic teen-ager, who makes a bad choice although her intentions were good.  Emmy and her 7 -year -old half sister, Julia, have been evacuated to the countryside. Emmy protests. She does not want to leave the city but she obeys her mother’s request to go for Julia’s sake –to make sure Julia is in good hands and also because  Julia adores Emmy.  In fact, Emmy has been the parent figure because their  single mother, is gone so much.  The fathers of both girls are absent in their lives.

Although Emmy and Julia are taken in by a wonderful nurturing lady, Charlotte, in an idyllic setting of a beautiful country home with climbing roses, clucking chickens, a shining pond and gabled windows, Emmy can’t let go of her dreams back in London where she had a job as a wedding dressmaker’s assistant.  Emmy’s greatest dream is to design, make and sell her own wedding gowns. She has a treasured box of sketches she drew that she values more than anything.

When the once- in- a -lifetime opportunity to meet with a famous designer in London to begin a mentorship presents itself, Emmy plans secretly to return to London, knowing Julia will remain safe with Charlotte.   However, her plan goes terribly wrong when Julia awakes and insists on going with her. Headstrong and ambitious, Emmy does not want to scrap her plan that holds a promising future. She allows Julia to go with her.  Their timing could not have been worse.  The date is September 7, 1940, the first night of the “blitzkrieg” (lightning war) when 300 German bombers raided London, in the first of 57 consecutive nights of bombing.

The sisters become separated and Emmy’s story is one of searching-- searching for Julia, searching for forgiveness, and searching for a way to live with regret.  “…when you make a choice, even if it is a bad one, you’ve played your hand. You cannot live your life as though you still held all your cards.” 

Several times throughout the story and at the end, we return to the present day interview with Kendra and Isabel. Emmy’s story is told in a past-tense perspective and Kendra’s in present tense.  This structure allows the reader to easily switch from present  day to the past.

The Q & A with the author at the end of the book is also interesting and informative.

An interesting side note about children’s literature that came out of this tragic time in London history.

Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear is about an orphan bear found by a family in Paddington Railway Station in London, sitting on his suitcase with a note attached to his coat that reads, “Please look after this bear. Thank you.”  Bond said that his memories of newsreels  showing trainloads of child evacuees leaving London during WWII with labels around their necks and their possessions in a small suitcase, prompted him to do the same for Paddington.

In  the movie, Bedknobs and Broomsticks,  based on two novels by Mary Norton, the evacuee children are taken in by a good witch-in-training.

In C.S. Lewis’ novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the children are evacuated from London to the stately manor that contains the portal to Narnia.

On the adult level, If you liked Orphan Train by Kline and The Secret Keeper by Morton, you will like this story that combines history with the emotional stories of the people who lived through horrific times, managed their fears and held on to hope through it all.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

 There are not many women who have the joint title of novelist-neuroscientist.  I should add Harvard grad.  Lisa Genova is one. If her name is familiar to you, it may be because she is the author of the novel Still Alice which was made into a movie starring Julianne Moore who received the best actress Academy Award in 2015.   Still Alice is the fictional story of a Harvard professor who suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s and was inspired by Genova’s grandmother’s affliction with the disease.

In Left Neglected, Genova once again puts her knowledge and training as a neuroscientist to use in a fictional tale of one woman’s brain injury, how she comes to grips with her limitations, and maps out a new life for herself that is perhaps better than the one she had prior.

Sarah Nickerson is a 37-year old career-driven supermom who works 80 hours a week in a high-powered job.  The demands and high pressures are what she loves.  She and her husband Bob, along with a nanny for the three children, live in an affluent suburb of Boston where their life is hectic but seemingly charmed. Sarah manages every minute of her life like an air traffic controller until her multi-tasking throws her life into a free fall.  While trying to make a phone call on a rainy morning commute, she looks away from the road one second too long. Like the sound of tires trying unsuccessfully to stop in time, her life, as she knows it also comes to a screeching halt.

A traumatic brain injury complete erases the left side of Sarah’s world.  If the author’s intent is to shed light, from inside the brain, on rarely looked at neurological conditions, she succeeds with Left Neglected.  The title refers to a little-known condition of left side neglect, also called hemispatial or unilateral neglect. It is the result of an injury to the right hemisphere of the brain and can occur after an aneurysm or traumatic brain injury.  It can be temporary or it may improve in increments through rehabilitation.  Now Sarah, the successful, competent high achiever, is entirely unable to perceive anything on the left, including her left arm, leg and facial features, to a point where she has to be reminded to look left, not a task easily achieved.

One review says the title is also a metaphor for all the things Sarah may have neglected --either inadvertently or deliberately—because of the intense and rapid pace of her overscheduled life.

So begins a new life for Sarah and those around her and as the reader we are taken on this painful road of recovery with her.   She cannot dress herself, walk without a cane, make sense of a newspaper article or trust herself to make a trip to the ladies’ room alone.  Her husband has to supervise her when she brushes her teeth as he does for their three children because her brain does not register the left side of her mouth.  However, Sarah has a stubborn reluctance to accept her limitations and she applies the same high-achieving resolve once given to her career to re-gaining her independence.  She prides herself on being competitive and vows to “recover faster than anyone would ever predict”.  She tries to ignore the voice in her head which asks, “What happens if I don’t get better?”

The surrounding cast, her husband Bob, her therapist, and her mother, who becomes her care-giver at home once she is out of re-hab, are supportive  and interesting characters. There is also a sub-plot of a reconciliation with her mother who has not been present in her life until now. She uses this time with Sarah to make up for the many times she was not present but should have been.  There is also a new awareness on Sarah’s part of her son’s attention deficit disorder which was diagnosed shortly after her accident.  She is now able to sympathize with him in a way she could not have before.

Although all of the above seems depressing and the very thought of such an injury is truly frightening and disturbing, Sarah’s journey and the realizations she makes about life by the end of the story are truly uplifting.  I won’t give any plot spoilers but I was inspired by the turn of events. 

If you like Ms. Genova’s writing, her other fictional titles also put her PhD  in neuroscience to good use.  Love Anthony is a story of autism, Inside the O’Briens is the story of a Boston cop who suffers from Huntington’s disease.  Her books have been described as heart-wrenching with large doses of hope.  It would seem that hope is often the best prescription a patient can have.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

100 Days Of Happiness by Fausto Brizzi

It’s December. The month of good cheer and joy.  So why would I choose to review a book that deals with terminal cancer and a diagnosis of 100 days to live for the main fictional character, Lucio Battistini?  Because although it is a sad subject, the book is by no means tragic. In fact, it is filled with hope, humor and a reminder that “to live life to the full” is to appreciate thoroughly what you already have.

A best seller in the author’s native Italy, this is Fausto Brizzi’s first novel, deftly translated by Antony Shugar.  Brizzi, an Italian director, screen-writer and film producer,  structures the novel in a very readable format, counting down the days from 100, documenting Lucio’s three-month journey, or better called his “adventure”, to achieve his goals of enjoying the smallest pleasures in life, spending time with those he loves. His search for happiness lies not in unfulfilled dreams and ambitions but in appreciating the things in life that he has taken for granted.

 But he also sets himself the hardest task of all—to earn his wife’s forgiveness.

Told in first person, we meet Lucio, who at the opening of the book is sleeping on a camp bed in the back room of his father-in-law’s bakery. Why?  Because his wife, Paola, has thrown him out of their home when she discovers he has had an affair with one of his clients at the gym where he is a trainer.  In spite of this discretion, we find ourselves sympathizing with this flawed character because realizing the error of his ways, he is well aware that he has been “a complete moron” with this one aberration in what has otherwise been a happy marriage.  He spends the next 100 days seeking his wife’s forgiveness, trying to win her love back and to repair what he calls his “shipwreck” of their marriage.  Paola, not angry or bitter, remains distant and unforgiving, in spite of Lucio’s diagnosis. We find ourselves hoping she will relent and forgive Lucio.  The tension mounts as the day count goes down.

Lucio also makes every effort to maximize his time with others dearest to him-his two children, ages six and nine and his life-long friends Umberto and Corrado.  These colorful characters are developed with such affection, warmth and humor you find yourself smiling or laughing each time they enter a scene in Lucio’s heartfelt journey. There is also another constant companion he has come to accept who he has named my friend Fritz.  Yes, he has named his tumor after an Italian phrase to “describe hypothetical friends you don’t want to name outright”.

As one reviewer said, “There is so much to love about this novel.”  It is filled with vivid descriptions of Rome, references to great works of literature and poetry, and occasional facts about the many inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Some readers might find fault with the premise of the story saying it is not realistic--Lucio’s acceptance of his fate, refusing treatment and setting off on a grand adventure.. Others, myself included, are willing to suspend their disbelief for the sake of a heart-warming story.

This book has been compared to Beckman’s A Man Called Ove, the Swedish novel that swept across Europe last year. Ove finds solace and purpose in community spirit and neighborly good deeds after his dear wife’s death.  Both books offer us an alternative to the cynicism and violence our attention is so often drawn to in the world around us.    

As for me, a simple, feel-good narrative with plenty of gentle humor is exactly what December and a Christmas story should give us.  Oh, one note of caution. You might find yourself craving a delicious donut by the end of the book.  Read on and enjoy this delectable tale.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Roasted Salmon and Fennel with Pistachio Gremolata

2 medium fennel bulbs about 1 and 1/4 lb total. Cored and sliced into 1/2 inch thick wedges
1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced
2 TBS extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and black papper
4 6-oz salmon fillets skinless
1/2 cup packed fresh flat-leaf parsley coarsely chopped
1/3 cup salted  and shelled pistachios coarsely chopped
1 TBS finely grated lemon zest
1 TBS finely chopped garlic
flaky sea salt.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees
Line a large rimmed sheet pan with foil or parchment. On the pan, toss the fennel and onion with the olive oil and a big pinch of salt and pepper. Spread the veggies evenly and roast until brown at edges and tender, about 20-25 minutes.

Push the veggies into a pile to make a bed for the salmon. Place the fillets on top of the veggies spaced evenly apart and season with salt and pepper. Roast until the salmon is cooked about 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile in a bowl combine the parsley, pistachios, lemon zest and garlic to make the gremolata.

Serve the salmon and veggies topped with gremolata and a sprinkling of sea salt.  Can put lemon wedges around platter for additional garnish.

This recipe is from Fine Cooking October/November issue 2015. My only suggestion is that next time I would use more fennel because it is so delicious, fragrant and mellow.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

800 Grapes by Laura Dave

“You don’t give up on a family. Not without trying to put it back together.”  This is what Georgia Ford’s brother says to her. “My brother who always said the wrong thing, said the most important thing of all.” This conversation comes late in the story after we have spent a week with the Ford family as seen through the eyes of Georgia in her first person account.

It’s not an ordinary week. It’s harvest week at her father’s vineyard in beautiful Sonoma in northern California. It’s also the week leading up to Georgia’s wedding to a successful British business man she met in Los Angeles where she practices law.

Within the first few pages however, Georgia, makes a startling discovery that her fiancĂ©e is not the person she thought he was.  In a desperate panic she drives alone all night, 400 miles to her parents’ home and vineyard where the wedding is to be held.  But there she uncovers a few other disturbing events.  Instead of finding solace and understanding in the home she always loved, upon her arrival in the middle of the night, her world is turned upside down one more time.  And yet another time.  It appears that everyone in the family has been harboring their own secrets and it is in this unnerving climate that she must make life-changing decisions.

It’s difficult to discuss the events of the week without being plot spoilers so I will focus instead on some of the other interesting aspects of the story.

The word synchronization is a repeated refrain throughout the story and if you were giving a book report saying it was one of the themes of the book, you would probably get an A+.   Georgia’s father, a key figure in the story,  defines it as “the coordination of events to operate in unison.  A conductor managing to keep his orchestra in tune.  The impossible meeting  of light reflection and time exposure that leads to a perfect photograph. Not fate”, Georgia’s father would add. “Don’t confuse it with fate. Fate suggests no agency. Synchronization is all about agency. It involves all systems running in a state where different parts of the system are almost, if not precisely ready”.   When seen in a negative light, many people would call this the “perfect storm”.  And  a perfect storm is brewing during harvest week leading up the wedding date.

Synchonization is also what leads to a perfect bottle of wine.  Georgia’s father is a biodynamic winemaker. “My father believed the most important aspect of winemaking was the soil. That his wine got better year after year because the soil did. He would monitor his soil carefully….no chemical, nothing added from outside the farm. This created a lot of work but it also created a more stable ecosystem. That’s what he was most proud of, that he had made the land stronger.”

There are some flashbacks where we learn how her parents met, their beautiful love story and how they started their vineyard with a meager ten acres.  Her mother gave up a rising career as a concert cellist in New York and in turn, her father names his favorite varietal of wine, Concerto, as an ode to her mother’s musical roots.  The word concerto has its roots in two words, which mean to tie and join and also to compete and fight.  Much as the soloist and the orchestra both cooperate and compete in the creation of the musical flow—synchonization.  One doesn’t need to know much about vineyards, as I didn’t, to appreciate the father’s spiritual yet highly successful approach to winemaking. 

There are beautiful descriptions of the scenery of the countryside and also of what happens during a harvest week, including the traditional Harvest Party. The tension builds to a startling climax, reminiscent to me of Anne River Siddons’ books. Georgia’s voice also reminded me of the main character’s voice in Rules of Civility by Amor Towles for whatever reason, although the setting could not be more different.  New York City in 1930 vs. wine country California in present day. Throughout the story, we are as torn as Georgia is—will she go through with the wedding or not? It’s a fascinating story of family life and relationships as Georgia searches for answers and solutions, not just for herself, but for her family.   We meet many other colorful characters during this week, all set against this beautiful tapestry of wine country.

This book begs to be read with a glass of wine at your side. And according to this author, did you know it takes 800 grapes to make one bottle of fine wine?  Perhaps that will make you appreciate your next happy hour a little more.

Friday, August 28, 2015

In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

Author Judy Blume has become a household name for anyone growing up in the 70’s and 80’s either as a child, teen, or the parent of one. She dared to write fiction with controversial issues of the day which caused her works to become either beloved, banned or both.   She dared to write of taboo topics of the day such as racism in Iggie’s House, bullying in Blubber and sex in Forever. Perhaps her most noted for teen girls coming of age is Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.

Now at age 77, she has written her second adult novel, In The Unlikely Event, a fictional tale that takes place in the 50’s based on actual events that happened in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey.   Using her own young life as source material, she recalls three actual and horrific plane crashes at the Newark airport that took place over eight weeks.  In an interview she said, “…that story lived so deep inside me. I’m glad it’s out. I’m glad the book is finished.  I never told anybody this story. Not even my daughter, who became a commercial airline pilot. When she read an early draft of this book, she said “Mother how could you never have told me this story.’”

The story begins in 1987 when the main character, Miri Ammerman, returns to her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, to attend a commemoration of the worst year of her life, when the three plane crashes occurred.  Then the reader is transported back to Mimi’s life in the 50’s, where fifteen-year old Mimi  lives with her 33-year-old single mother, Rusty. She knows nothing of her abandoned father.  Other colorful characters are grandmother Irene, who sells cosmetics and best friend Natalie, the affluent dentist’s daughter.   Miri is experiencing her first love with Mason, an orphan with secrets of his own and she lives in constant fear that Rusty will not approve of him because he is not Jewish. Another forbidden love is the dentist’s secretary who has fallen for a boy who is not Greek as she is and the family will never approve. There is also a beloved uncle to Mimi, Henry, a reporter who lives with them and is a positive influence in Mimi’s life.

Then as the planes descend upon this community, devastation occurs both physically and emotionally for the people who live there. In a panic state, the people try to find a reason for the disasters in such close proximity.  Could it mean something that all three crashes narrowly missed schools?  Was it the work of Communists? (this was the 50’s) or even aliens or sabotage.  The site of the third crash almost takes on a carnival air, with hawkers selling popcorn and families taking their children to see the devastation.  As awful as the crashes were, Blume focuses on the way people themselves crash and burn, or often fly higher than expected.

The novel is told in short chapter bursts in many voices.  The characters are introduced quickly and at times can be a little confusing, but eventually you realize that all these lives are threaded together.  The details of the 50’s will be recognizable to many of you—post-WWII suburbs, refinished basements with knotty pine walls, Bird’s Eye vegetables, Elizabeth Taylor haircuts and the Korean war references.

The end takes us back to the reunion of the 80’s to show how eventually the people who lived through this experience managed to make sense of what they saw.  One character sums it up, “Terrible things can happen in this life, but being in love changes everything.”  Blume says, in her unique writing perspective,” We are all passengers in this world, fastening our seatbelts, hoping we reach our desired destinations and bracing for what comes next.”