Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Sunday, December 29, 2013

   The Housemaid’s Daughter by Barbara Mutch

The recent death of Nelson Mendula has put Apartheid back in the news.  The Housemaid’s Daughter is a fictional account of this turbulent time through the voice of one young and humble black girl whose story speaks volumes for the nation.

Barbara Mutch’s debut novel was inspired by her grandmother’s migration from Ireland to South Africa in the early 1900’s to marry her grandfather after a five-year engagement.  They settled in Cradock in the harsh Karoo desert.  Unprepared for Cardock’s isolation and the issues of racial inequality, she befriended the household maid much to the neighbors’ disapproval.

Like Mutch’s grandmother, fictional Cathleen Harrington leaves her family in Ireland in 1919 to marry Edward. Isolated and estranged, her only companions are her diary, her housemaid and later the housemaid’s daughter, who is named Ada after Cathleen’s Irish sister.

Ada is born in 1930 under the bony shade of a thorn tree at the back of the big house and for her entire life feels the fabric of the place.  It is the only home she has known.

In spite of having a son and daughter of her own, Cathleen bonds most closely to Ada, who is receptive to her love and her teachings. Under Cathleen’s tutelage Ada becomes an accomplished pianist. Ada discovers that musical notes are like words. They meant one thing when played on their own and quite another when strung together.  Ada begins to see new possibilities for her life and her awareness of this is one of the most endearing parts of the book.

Ada in turn is the only one in the household who truly understands the inner Cathleen. In her zest to learn to read, she cannot resist reading Cathleen’s diary which she stumbles upon..

However Ada’s dreams of any bright future are shattered when she discovers she is pregnant. She  knows the child will be mixed-race—a child who belongs nowhere in that time of history—so she flees the only home and love she has known rather than disgrace Cathleen’s family. Cathleen must decide if she will risk the constraints of apartheid to search for her.

The only thing that saves Ada and gives her any hope for a new life is her love and knowledge of music.  She becomes a piano teacher in a township poverty community school across the Great Fish River. The geography of this beautiful region of South Africa is described vividly, both in it’s beauty and it’s harshness.

Once the child, Dawn, is born, Ada and Dawn are both ostracized there also.  As she deals with adversity on many levels, Ada Mabuse becomes a powerful symbol for marginalized black women and a role model for those who face oppression anywhere in the world.

Cathleen and Ada’s love of music is a constant theme throughout the story. Music lovers will delight in the variety of music discussed and played.  One of the most inspirational pieces in the story is Chopin’s Prelude no. 15.  It opens with a deceptively simple melody that deepens to a stormy, complex heart before returning to the original theme. The repeating A-flat that echoes throughout reminds listeners of falling raindrops and the piece is often called the Raindrop Prelude.  I think this pattern is also symbolic of Ada’s and Cathleen’s life journey, spanning five decades.

Some call Housemaid’s Daughter South Africa’s version of The Help.  Good Housekeeping says, “The friendship at its center will leave your heart singing.”
I would agree and add that a singing heart is a great way to start a new year in books.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Moroccan Carrot Salad

Trying new recipes from Clean Cuisine book (an 8 week anti-inflammatory eating guide)
This was made with no oil but is still moist.  The cardamom and cumin add an exotic twist.
Warning:  Cardamom was selling for $14.00 for a  spice bottle--luckily my friend, Bonnie, had one in her pantry she was happy to share).  I think friends should have a spice co-op network.

1 orange peeled and cut into segments
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
unrefined sea salt to taste
10 ounces shredded  (this was quite labor time I will buy them already shredded)
3/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/2 cup dark raisins

1.  Place the orange, almonds, cumin, cardamom and lime juice in a high speed blender. Blend until smooth and set aside.

2. In a large serving bowl, add the shredded carrots, mint and raisins. Pour the vinaigrette on top of the carrot mixture and toss gently to coat.  Season with salt to taste.  Let salad sit at room temperature for 20 minutes to absorb the flavors,  Serve at room temperature.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Memorable Journey to Macedonia

Call it Serendipity or fate but whatever it is, sometimes life has a way of coming full circle in a wonderful way.  My recent trip to Macedonia and search for my ancestors was successful thanks to many chance encounters and to helpful people along the way.

I guess my story really begins over 90 years ago.  My paternal grandparents, Spiro and Vaska Bektesh  and their three sons, Peter, Dimitre and Milan (my father) immigrated to America from Prilep, Macedonia in 1921.  They settled in Gary, Indiana ,where a large Bulgarian/Macedonia community was forming due to the work opportunities with US Steel.  It was a wonderful way to grow up as this community continued to practice their Macedonian traditions and religious beliefs.  And of course their delicious cuisine!  I have wonderful memories of that time.  One vivid memory was my mother showing me a photo of an elegant home that had my maiden name carved in the front facing, saying it was our “family” home.  I’ve carried that photo with me for many years through many moves and each time I saw it, I said, “Someday I’m going to Macedonia to find that house.”

Fast forward to 2013.  I meet Monica Araneta through a mutual friend playing Mahjong.  It was only by chance that I mentioned that my husband and I were traveling to Macedonia this summer and I was so surprised to hear that she had been there the previous year through the ASU Sister City program of Tempe and Skopia.  She also introduced me to Dobrin and Tina  Nedelkov who travel to Prilep each year to visit their family.  

I told Monica of my search for the “house” and thought perhaps they could tell me how and where to begin.  Thanks to modern technology, I emailed the photo to Monica who forwarded it to Dobrin and to my amazement, they replied that they knew exactly where the house was in Prilep--“next to the high school by the river”.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune.  I was  finally going to see my ancestors’ home. 

My husband and I met with Dobrin and Tina who were so kind to give us a detailed map of the city and the location of the house.  Shortly after, they sent me an article that had just appeared in the Macedonian paper showing the home restored under the project of the Ministry of Culture for restoration and conservation of the more significant facades in urban cores.  The current owner and resident was Trajce Bektesh.  (my maiden name) Tina phoned her mother in Prilep who called the current residents and told them “relatives from America” were hoping to meet them on our visit. 

The first week of June we knocked on their door and Trajce Bektesh and his wife, Donka embraced us with open arms. As we discussed our family stories, the pieces fell into place and we learned that Trajce’s father, Peter, and my grandfather Spiro were first cousins.  They came to America at the turn of the century to “earn their fortune”.  We believe they worked on the transcontinental railroad.  When they returned to Macedonia, Peter invested in property consisting of hotels and retail shops and built this beautiful home.  My grandfather took his “fortune” and brought his family to America. 

Our new-found ancestors insisted we spend the night and we shared several meals and stories.  They were the most gracious hosts to five people they had never met. (We were traveling with Bulgarian friends from Chicago—another serendipity story I’ll save for another time).

This was a wonderful trip to Macedonia and it makes my heart sing when I think of the fortuitous events and kind people who helped me reach my destination:


One of the other Macedonian families who also settled in Gary, Indiana, were the Choncoffs.   Although Mary Choncoff was older than me, we did become acquainted at the many dances, weddings and picnics that brought all the Macedonians together and our fathers were friends.

In 1991 my husband and I moved to Phoenix but when I returned to Gary for my mother’s funeral in 1994, a mutual friend told me that Mary Choncoff lived in Tempe.  I got in touch and was able to experience some of the wonderful events she hosted and co-coordinated for the Macedonian community in Arizona.  Sadly, she passed shortly after that and I regretted that I did not have more time with this amazing lady.

I am grateful to Mary Choncoff for establishing Sister Cities which in turn led to meeting Monica and then Dobrin and Tina. How rewarding to think that the friendship of my father and Mary’s father has come full circle.  This was not only a journey of many miles but of many generations who value their heritage. I am so proud to be a Macedonian...a rich culture of loving, ambitious and hospitable people.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

A true story made headlines November 4, 2013.  A trove of approximately 1500 works of art confiscated by the Nazis in WWII were seized in a Munich apartment. The value was estimated to be $1.3 billion by artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Chagall.  The news goes on to say that determining the rightful owners of the works decades after they were either sold under duress or seized could take years. 

One might think this would be a great premise for a novel and The Girl You Left Behind might just be that novel.  Published earlier this year, it was obviously written before this news broke.  The work of art at the heart of this story is of course fictional as are the events surrounding it.  The painting entitled “The Girl You Left Behind”, was painted in the year 1915 by a French artist, Eduardo Leferve and it resurfaces in the year 2001 in London.

There are actually two girls left behind in this story.  The first is Sophie Lefevre whose artist husband Eduardo goes to war for France in 1916.  The second is Liv a young widow in London whose husband dies prematurely in 2000.  Their stories, some eighty years apart, are connected through a painting  of “the girl” who is actually Sophie painted by her husband.  The painting resurfaces in the story in Liv’s bedroom. It was a gift from her husband on their honeymoon.  The two girls are united by a passion for this painting which represents both their husband’s love and devotion to them.

The dual timeframe storyline almost a century apart flows effortlessly from one to the other, although Sophie’s historical storyline is, I believe, the stronger of the two.  Sophie, struggling to keep the family’s hotel afloat under the German occupation of France, hangs her portrait in the hotel where it is a daily reminder of the proud self-reliant girl her husband saw.  She wants this reminder as the German invasion causes her to feel that the “glowing girl willful in her confidence” is slipping away due to enemy oppression and poor nutrition.  Although the opening scene would have readers doubt this when she confronts the German Kommandant’s accusation that she is harboring livestock.  It is my favorite scene in the book.

The risk she takes in hanging the portrait in a public place is that it is also visible to all.  When the German Kommandant notices the painting, his comments reveal that he is a cultured man..  The portrait is the catalyst that  causes Sophie to risk everything—reputation, family and her life—in hopes of seeing her Eduardo again.
What follows is a wary connection made between the Kommandant and Sophie that leads to tragic circumstances

Ninety years later the portrait hangs in Liv’s bedroom, as a cherished memento of her husband and their honeymoon.   On the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death, Livy meets Paul and his friendship is the first stirring of feeling she’s had for anyone since the death of her husband.  Unfortunately, Paul works for a company specializing in the return of artworks looted during wartime.  I think you can see where this is headed.  Instead of a blossoming relationship, they are now on opposing sides. The tension mounts as the case of rightful ownership goes to court.  Documents produced at the trial take us back in time to Sophie’s ordeal and  we discover, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story”.  Was the portrait stolen from the Lefevre family or was it gifted? 

Liv, like Sophie, takes a great risk as she defends her right to keep the portrait as she becomes subject to unthinking public hostility. Although the painting disappeared during WWI, she gets hate mail urging her to end the suffering of the Jewish people. Return what is rightly theirs. Both heroines are united in their determination to fight for the thing they love most....whatever the cost.

As one review, which I totally agree with, says,  “JoJo Moyes does a majestic job of conjuring a cast of characters who are charismatic, credible and utterly compelling.”

This is the second book I’ve read by this author this past year and the other one, Me Before You was also mesmerizing.  Moyes finds a way to place her characters in extremely difficult situations where the stakes are high no matter what decision they make.  Me Before You is the story of a young caretaker who falls in love with her patient—a young, handsome, formerly virile man now a paralyzed from an accident.  A full box of tissues read.

JoJo Moyes, who lives in London, is a former journalist turned novelist. Her novel Foreign Fruit won the Romantic Novelists’ Association Novel of the Year Award in 2004.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Safe with Me by Amy Hatvany

If you like Jodi Picoult novels, you’ll probably like this one.  It deals with sensitive issues such as child loss, organ donors, spousal abuse and the boundaries of women’s friendships—yes, all in one book.

The story grabs you right at the start and doesn’t let go until the last pages (which I kept turning) to see how these characters would react to the many challenging issues they faced.  Their actions are believable yet controversial so this would make a good discussion book.

Friday, October 25, 2013

In my monthly book club group we open the discussion with just a word and a number--how much we enjoyed the book on a scale of 1-10 and one word that best describes it for us.
Wingshooters would be a 10 and my word would be powerful.  The better the book the harder it is to choose just one word...sometimes we fudge and try to string two words together.  In that case I would say hauntingly powerful.
Wingshooters is set in 1974 –the years of the Boston school bussing crisis, Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War and just after the Civil Rights Movement. These events seem distant from the small town in rural Wisconsin, but in fact they are a great influence in the events that take place. This story also reminds us that racism was not limited to just the south.
Often compared to To Kill a Mockingbird and Snow Falling on Cedars, Wingshooters explores the effects of change on this small isolated community when the Garretts, a black couple from Chicago arrive to work there.  Their presence challenges and disrupts a set way of life.  Betty Garrett is a nurse in the new medical clinic and her husband, Joe, works as a substitute teacher at the elementary school.  The very thought of them having responsible positions deeply disturbs an influential core of people in the town, especially because Mr. Garrett has contact with their children.  And then the very idea of “an N word nurse laying hands on our children” repulses them. The N word is used freely by these people so fearful of change.  At times, it’s hard to believe this is a northern town in the 70’s. 
These events are told from the perspective of Michelle LeBeau, now in her 40’s and living in Los Angeles, as she remembers them from the year she was nine years old. Her Japanese mother who she lived with for eight years in Japan disappears and her American father sets out to find her, thinking she is somewhere in the states.  He leaves Michelle with his parents in Wisconsin temporarily, but as time passes it is obvious he is not returning for her and this realization breaks her heart.  Her savior is grandfather, Charlie LeBeau.
Thus begins one of the most endearing aspects of the story—the love affair between Michelle and her grandfather Charlie, a former minor league baseball player, an expert hunter and one of the town’s most respected men. What makes his love for Michelle so amazing is there is no mistake that Charlie is a bigot in every sense of the word. He is “not shy about using racial epithets or blaming blacks, Jews or Democrats for all the country’s problems”.  Yet he alone in the town is able to overlook the fact that she is half Japanese, as her appearance so aptly reveals.
Although the townspeople do not embrace Michelle, they tolerate her because of their respect for Charlie, but he cannot follow her to school where she endures abuse from the children on a daily basis, from insults such as “Nip Head, Your Daddy’s a Jap lover, Your Mama’s a Geisha whore.” to physical torments—shoving, pushing, black and blue bruises.  What we today call bullying was ignored in this town where children repeated what they probably heard their bigoted parents say. Deserted by her parents and friendless at school, Michelle is a sad, lonely child who spends more time observing life around her than living it.
She finds comfort in her Springer Spaniel, Brett, romping through the woods or riding her bike on the many trails near her home. But her greatest enjoyment is with her grandfather, Charlie, who teaches her to hunt, fish, play baseball, and eventually how to defend herself.  He calls her Mikey, perhaps to replace the son who never followed in his manly footsteps. Michelle however loves being his protégé.  By the age of eight she could shoot a gun, milk a cow, scale fish, gut squirrels, drive the Pontiac and even operate the tractor. She is in awe of her grandfather who has taught her not only these things but an appreciation of nature.  ”He was a man in a vital fundamental way that grown men simply aren’t today, at least not in the city.” Decades later as an adult, Michelle still marvels that “this strong handsome man whose company everyone desired seemed to want nobody’s company more than mine.” 
Michelle is also attracted to the black family, the Garretts, who appear kind, graceful and dignified. As the town’s prejudicial meter now swings from her to the Garretts, she waits with pity and fear for the rejection they are going to face. There is no one more qualified than herself to warn them as they bravely go about their jobs.  She knows they will never be accepted, but even she cannot foresee the tragic events that are set into motion when Mr. Garrett suspects child abuse of one of his students, Kevin.  When Kevin ends up in the emergency room with a broken arm from a “clumsy fall”, Mrs. Garrett sees evidence of previous harm to the child and, merely doing her job, reports it to the authorities.  This controversial accusation is against one of the town leaders, Earl, who happens to be Charlie’s best friend.  Earl, a Vietnam vet, owns the local gun shop where the good ‘ole boy network often meets.  They decide to take action to make conditions for the Garretts so uncomfortable that they will high tail it back to Chicago. This doesn’t happen and the consequences become ugly.
There is a sense of foreboding right from the start yet there are moments of tranquil beauty in the writing and the setting.  On one of their nature walks, Charlie shows Michelle a secret place with a beautiful lake that he has been coming to as a child—a spiritual place that he has shared with no other person and where his reverence for God is more visible to Michelle than what she has seen of him at church or in his nightly prayers.  In their hunting outings his steadfast rules often apply to life as well, such as “never hurt anything female,” and “you should always take care of what you kill”.   The scene describing the Canada Geese is another beautiful passage and also relates thematically to Mikey’s situation.
This is a rich, complex story that book discussion groups will devour. There is much to explore both of our nation and the people in it.  It shows them at their best and worst and how those qualities are often portrayed in the same person. It pits family members against each other and tests friendships and loyalty.  At the climax, Charlie must make difficult choices and it is only years later that Michelle truly comes to understand the motivation of both her own actions one fateful night and her grandfather’s decisions.  
Like the main character, author Nina Reboyr, who now lives in Los Angeles, was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American father and spent a few childhood years in Wisconsin. Although her book is fiction, it’s themes ring true to life as it explores sin, faith and redemption.  Most remarkably, it is the story of an enduring love between a grandfather and granddaughter and how this relationship continues to influence her life on a daily basis. One note of caution. It’s powerful message may haunt you long after you put it down.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty has been billed as a great beach read or one you want to curl up with for the whole day beside a cozy fireplace.  Since we have no beach in Phoenix, it’s too early for a cozy fire, and even poolside season is over, what’s one to do?

My suggestion is read it anyway, but don’t start it if you have a LOT of things to do because I don’t think you’ll want to put this book down.  Perhaps an exaggeration on my part, but the author does keep the action and suspense moving from page one until the very last page.  It centers on the lives of three women—Cecilia, the driven and successful Tupperware specialist and mother of three; Tess, a career woman and mother whose husband falls in love with her cousin; Rachel, a widow and school secretary in her 70’s who is still grieving the premature death of her daughter twenty years ago and is now in a panic because her only grandson, who she adores, is moving to New York. (The story takes place in Sydney, Australia).

Although this description makes it sound like  “chick lit”, trust me-- there is enough suspense, mystery and male perspective to keep the male audience riveted too.

On a side note, because I read this as an “audio” book, I must say the narrator was a wonderful actor who was able to portray all the voices brilliantly in beautiful Australian accents, from the 2- year old grandson to the 70-year old and everyone in-between.  And there are a lot of in-betweens who captivated me as well as the three main characters—Rachel’s son and daughter-in-law; Cecilia’s husband, John-Paul; and Tess’ husband Will and cousin, Felicity.  Within a seven-day period, culminating on Easter Sunday, the lives of these eight people will interact in a way none of them could ever have imagined.  In fact, it seems to me that they are all main characters because they reveal so much of their thoughts as the plot moves forward.

At the heart of the story is a letter that is not meant to be read.  Cecelia stumbles upon a faded, yellowed, sealed envelope from her husband that reads,  “To be opened upon my death,” but her husband, John-Paul is very much alive.  John-Paul is out of town when she finds the letter. She does not open it and discusses the finding of it in a phone conversation with him.  He begs her not to open and Cecelia agrees to honor his wish. But when he returns home, his suspicious actions cause her to renege on her promise.  And thus, Pandora’s box is opened.

The story is told from the three women’s perspectives during the seven-day period, but includes many flashbacks which explain their motivations and make them credible and sympathetic.  Their brutally honest thought processes as they deal with their particular circumstances also make this multi-layered story rich and very relatable. 

Cecilia, Tess and Rachel are three very good women.  They have lived blameless lives until two husbands’ secrets are revealed.  Then they have to re-asses their relationships with those closest to them

There are many themes to explore:  grief, love, guilt, fate, obligation to one’s loved ones and society as a whole.  I believe it is no accident that the story culminates on Easter Sunday, a day of resurrection and redemption because none of these characters can go back and undo the damage, but must now decide how to forgive and move forward in their lives with courage and hope.

Neurotic insecurity is also another issue explored as it affects the decisions these characters have made in their lives. I think causes the reader to examine how their own insecurities may have altered the paths of their life.  This would be a great book discussion choice for all the above reasons.  There is so much depth yet the fast pace of it leaves one not time to dwell or ponder on these issues—we have to keep reading to see how it all turns out for these people.  Only when we are finished with the story can we appreciate how much there is to discuss—including ethics and morals—what happens when we find that we are capable of doing something which seems entirely out of character?

And one final theme to emerge is exploration of the   “What  could have been?”  The epilogue tells us what might have been for these characters, but also cautions us,  “Perhaps some secrets are meant to stay secret forever.  Just ask Pandora.”

Author Liane Moriarty has written four previous novels for adults as well as a series of books for children.  Born in Sydney, Australia, she earned a Masters degree at Macquire University in Sydney.  She was sitting in a suburban café with her toddler when she got the news every author wants to hear:  Husband’s Secret had just raced to the top of the NY Times bestseller list shortly after its release.  Movie rights for the book have been snapped up by CBS Films.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sisters and Surprises.

Who doesn’t love a surprise?  Well, I participated in many this weekend.  Both as a surpriser and to my surprise—a surprisee!

It was our daughter LeAnna’s 50th birthday.  LeAnna is my husband’s youngest child and she was 22 when I married her Dad.   My daugher, Roberta, was 16.  LeAnna took her under her wing and they became friends as well as sisters. (I don’t know if LeAnna enjoyed acting 16 again or Berta enjoyed acting like she was over 21). Their adventures are another whole blog so I won’t digress.

When LeAnna was approaching her 50th birthday on Sept. 20 of this year her sister-in-law Brenda planned a surprise party for Friday, the day of her birthday.  My daughter Berta could not come from California that day to surprise her sister—yes, they consider themselves REAL sisters— heartwarming to say the least to Don and I....once again I digress.

So..Berta and Maribelle flew in secretly on Wednesday.  Berta made arrangements with LeAnna’s boss at UOPhx to have LeAnna NOT show up for work that day.  The plan was for Berta to be in LeAnna’s bedroom when she awoke on Thursday and whisk her off to a spa for the day.  My treat was getting a day with Maribelle, (age 4 ½..going on 13.). Another digression I wil spare you at this time.

As it turned out, we drove to LeAnna’s house at 7:30 am when she normally takes Emma to school (3rd grade. ) We drove past her house and parked on the other side of the street....the stake-out.  As Berta said, we needed Styrofoam cups of coffee in hand like the real cops do it.  When she came out of her house, I yelled “Duck”. Even   tho she wasn’t even looking our way...she probably heard us with my big mouth.  But she didn’t see or hear us.

When LeAnna and Emma drove out of their driveway, we followed them to the school parking lot, trying to keep our distance yet not let her car out of our sight—what we didn’t count on were so many other parents driving the same route and keeping us from a close follow at the turn.

When LeAnna walked Emma into the school, we crouched behind the grill of her car and watched for her return. As she approached her car, we started singing” Happy Birthday” and jumped up.  She was SOOOOO surprised.  We thought we better sing a happy song....otherwise she might think something terrible had happened to someone in the family.  She kept saying, “I need to go to work” and we said, “no you don’t”....but unknown to us or her immediate supervisor who we made the arrangements with, LeAnna had a meeting with her bosses’ boss...the BIG boss..  A phone call took care of that.  Being the “good famiy man” he was, he was totally cool with it and bought into the surprise gift.

So it WAS a great day...and then Friday night LeAnna had another surpise coming –the party at her brother and sister-in-laws.  She thought they were dropping Emma off there while she and Robert went to dinner.  But in fact it was a party including a surprise visit from her mother and aunt from Colorado...and her niece Courtney from Seattle.  This was a total US too.  We were told she could not find a work replacement (just started a new job there in Sept.) 

They had placed a big gift wrapped box in the living room which could be seen from the front door...and when LeAnna came in, Courtney popped out of the box like a jack –in-the-box.   A wonderful amazing moment.

And speaking of amazing, LeAnna truly is.  She’s a wonderful mom, wife, daughter, sister, and aunt.  She juggles a full-time stressful job with her family responsibilities and is always there for whoever needs her.  To my continual joy, she calls me “bonus mom”.

But when it comes to daughters, I think I got the BONUS. A double bonus with two dear girls. Happy Birthday  LeAnna and many many more in good health.  May you be showered with many more happy surprises.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Silent Wife by A.S.A.Harrison

If you liked last summer’s block buster, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, you might like The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison, a debut paperback novel just published in June but quickly climbing the best-seller charts. Called one of the summer’s sleeper hits, one reviewer says, “It ensnares the reader on page one and doesn’t let go.”  Even if you didn’t read Gone Girl, but like psychological suspense based on an unusual relationship, this might be the page-turner you are looking for.

Another reason it is compared to Gone Girl is because it too is told from both points of view in alternating chapters—in this case Her and Him.

Her is Jodi, 45 years old, a psychoanalyst who selectively counsels two patients a day in her 27- story high rise Chicago condo overlooking Lake Michigan. Him is Todd (46), a successful property developer whose income provides their luxurious life style including a Porsche (Him) and an Audi coupe (Her).  Jodi’s light schedule allows her time to pursue her interests—decorating their condo, Pilates, shopping for and preparing the gourmet meals they enjoy each evening. Their home provides them a life of comfort, order and predictability.  And there is the dog, a golden retriever as perfect as their home, which Jodi brought home as an adorable puppy when Todd, at age 40, developed a sudden interest in progeny, hoping this would placate him. She named the puppy Freud so she could also poke fun at his namesake, having been forced to endless study of him in college. Now she could use such phrases as Freud passing gas, Freud eating garbage, Freud chasing his tail.

Jodi loves pampering Todd as she has done for the twenty years they have been together and because her personal philosophy is “peace of mind comes with taking people as they are and emphasizing the positive,” she chooses to ignore Todd’s philandering. She continues to provide a safe haven for him by acting as if she doesn’t know that he cheats-- and HE knows that SHE knows and so they continue this charade as they have through the years, both apparently satisfied with this unusual relationship and how it benefits each of them.  Jodi admitted her life was “imperfect but utterly acceptable”.

Then one of Todd’s flirtations (with his best friend’s young daughter Natasha) escalates to an affair which careens out of control and Jodi and Todd’s orderly lives take a nosedive that neither are able to set right again.  Although we are told early on (first page) that Jodi will become a killer, it does not destroy the suspense element.  In fact, it heightens it.  We now anticipate it and read on to discover how this self-assured, loving, forgiving, and confident-in–her-relationship woman unravels.  At what point is she pushed beyond her limits and what, in a final attempt to protect herself and her lifestyle, causes her to resort to murder. It’s a chilling story that keeps the pages turning and with a few unexpected twists along the way.

There are times as you read where you can’t believe what either Jodi or Todd are saying or doing (or not doing), yet the author skillfully weaves past and present for full character development.  As the plot moves forward, we also learn the back-stories in the HER/HIM chapters which often explains their present day behavior and makes the plot more credible.  The character of Natasha, the little paramour, now pregnant, provides some comic relief in an otherwise tense story. I don’t know if that was intentional but I found her actions and dialogue amusing as she plans the wedding of the century—a wedding Todd is dreading yet he can’t seem to stop the snowball from gathering momentum each day as it rolls down the hill.  I think I said to myself several times, “These people are insane,” yet I had to read on to see what their insanity led to.

There are also some chapters where we witness Jodi’s earlier experience with her own analyst as part of her training which are interesting and revealing.  Different analysts’ philosophies (Jung, Freud and others) are also woven into the story which adds another dimension.

In a real-life and tragic twist, the author, Ms. Harrison, died of ovarian cancer at age 65, just weeks before her book was published.  According to her husband, visual artist, John Massey, she was able to read early positive reviews of her book and had a sense that it could be a success.  He says, “She was very modest and knew she had worked very hard on this book. She had clear ideas about what was good...I think she believed she had written a good novel.”

I would agree that she had and I think readers are proving it through rapid word-of-mouth recommendation—the best kind.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Ordinary Grace is a touching coming- of- age novel set in the fictional town of New Bremen, “somewhere in the broad valley of the Minnesota River”.  It is the summer of 1961, a time of innocence and hope for the country with a new young president. It’s the first year the Twins played in Minnesota, ice-cold root beers were enjoyed at Halderson’s drugstore soda fountain, and Hot Stuff comic books fill the magazine racks. For thirteen-year old Frank Drum it is a summer that becomes much more than a winning baseball season as his innocence is shattered due to a series of tragic events and deaths, including accidents, suicide and murder.

The story is told from Frank’s perspective forty years later, recalling his attempts to understand a world that seems to be falling apart.   “When you look back at a life”, says Frank, “what you see is a path that weaves in and out of deep shadow. And to construct a narrative from the past, you must build from what stands in the light as well as what you imagine in the dark. I still spend a lot of time thinking about the events of that summer. About the terrible price of wisdom. The awful grace of God.” As we are caught up in his journey from innocence to awareness, we are also swept up in the amazing power of grace in the lives of the Drum family. 

Frank’s father, Nathan Drum, is a Methodist minister charged with the spiritual needs of not one but three small congregations in the surrounding area, so Frank has had many opportunities to witness faith, yet that summer caused him and each character, from the wealthy to the ordinary, to come to terms with who they are and how they will respond to the tragedies that befell their community.

Like the characters in the book, the author gives us much to think about.  How would we face the loss of a loved one at the hands of another?  Could we exercise forgiveness?  Would we seek revenge?   The writing however is never preachy or moralistic but rather simplistic and poignant. We are simply swept up in great story telling with a multi-layered plot and well-defined characters. Like any small town, there are villains and heroes and many secrets harbored. The events of the summer bring many of these secrets into the open in touching revelations of human nature. And I should mention that there are a few redeeming miracles among the tragedies.

Frank is the middle child with an older sister bound for Juilliard and a wise-beyond- his years kid brother, Jake. One of the most endearing parts of the book is the relationship of the siblings who like any family have differences yet we experience the profound and enduring bonds of sibling love.

As Frank describes eleven-year-old Jake “He was younger than me by two years and two heads shorter. Because he had red hair and freckles and freakish ears that stood out like the handles on a sugar bowl, people in New Bremen sometimes called him Howdy Doody.  When I was pissed at him, I called him Howdy Doody too.”

“You’re not the b-b-b-boss of me, “ he said.  Jake almost always stuttered in public but around me he only stuttered when he was mad or scared.”

“No,” I replied, “but I can p-p-pound the crap out of you anytime I want.”

Author Krueger is no stranger to good story telling.  He is best known for his New York Times best-selling Cork O’Connor mystery series which also take place in Minnesota.  He just completed the fifteenth book in the Cork series, but in an on-line interview, he said he considers Ordinary Grace his finest writing.  It took him five years to plan and write, saying that he tried to put everything he has learned in his writing experience into Ordinary Grace.  He tells us that the story is basically told in two parts. In the first part we are introduced to the Drum family and the community, hopefully in a way that we come to care about them very much. (I think you’ll agree he achieved this as you fall in love with Frank and Jake). Then tragedy strikes and the remainder of the story is how this family and those closely involved respond once horrible wounds are delivered to them.

As I read it I could not help but think of To Kill a Mockingbird as Frank’s father has the profound and gentle wisdom of Atticus Finch while Frank and his little brother Jake are voices reminiscent of Scout and Jem.  Initially I thought it was perhapss presumptuous to compare it to this stellar piece of literature but by the time I finished it I had no doubt it will rank among the classics.  Evidently others feel the same way.

From The Bookreporter review, “One cannot read Ordinary Grace without feeling as if it is destined to be hailed as a classic work of of those rare books in which one regrets reaching its end, knowing that the experience of having read it for the first time will not be repeated. Krueger, who is incapable of writing badly, arguably has given us this masterpiece.”

Ordinary Grace, is at times reminiscent of Stephen King's THE BODY (or if you are a movie buff rather than a reader, the movie STAND BY ME).  I also found many similarities of this book to BOY’S LIFE by Robert R. McCammon which is a story told by a forty-year old man, looking back on the summer he was thirteen in small town Alabama in 1964.  An excellent read.

I think Ordinary Grace is anything but ordinary. We feel the strength of a father, the depth of friendship and the horrors of misfortune while capturing small town life and the profound and enduring bonds of sibling love. What Frank learns that summer and how he sees and interprets the evil and the grace of that time, will affect him for his entire life.  In spite of incredible sadness throughout the story, the epilogue left me feeling inspired and lifted.

Ordinary Grace has been nominated for the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association's Bookseller's Choice Award for best work of fiction. The winner will be announced at the Heartland Forum in Chicago in October.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


The adage “truth is stranger than fiction” is proven in The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman.  She has succeeded in blending both for an unforgettable reading experience.

Ms. Richman’s mother was an artist and taught her to look at the world with the eyes of an artist, so it was natural that her first novels’ protagonists were painters (The Mask Carver’s Son and The Last Van Gogh). Richman was also an art history major in college and wanted her next novel to be about artists who continue to create during the most difficult of circumstances.  What circumstance could be more difficult than the Holocaust?  In spite of her agent’s discouragement and warning that this would be a difficult sell, Richman pursued her idea, but didn’t know how she was going to frame the story. 

Fate stepped in at, of all places; a hair salon where she overheard a true story which she knew immediately would be the opening scene and framework of her book.  The improbable story:  at a wedding rehearsal dinner the grandmother of the bride and the grandfather of the groom were introduced for the first time.  He kept insisting that she looked familiar. Something about the eyes.  By the end of the evening he politely asked if she would raise her sheer dress sleeve and let him see her wrist.  He was looking for an identifying birthmark, which as he suspected beyond his wildest belief, was there -- as well as a tattooed number from Auschwitz.  She was indeed the wife who had been separated from him for over sixty years. Through the horrors of war-torn Europe, each believed the other had died.

This is not a plot spoiler—it is the opening scene of the book-in fact it compels you to read on like a reverse mystery.  How did they get separated?  What choices did they make that caused them to get separated?  Who did they eventually marry?  How did they both end up in New York in the year 2000? What follows is their individual stories in alternately seamless narration—hers primarily from the concentration camp and his in America.

Lenka and Josef first meet in the 1930’s in Prague where she is an art student and the daughter of a prominent artisan glassblower.  Josef is a medical student and son of a doctor. They fall in love and rush to marry hoping to escape Czechoslovakia before it is attacked by the Germans.  Although separated by the tragic circumstances of war, their achingly beautiful love story continues throughout the book and is felt deeply through lyrical writing, such as the description when Lenka first meets Josef. “He laughs. And in his laugh I hear bliss.  I hear feet dancing, the rush of skirts twirling.  The sound of children. Is that the sign of first love? You hear in the person you’re destined to love the sound of those yet to be born?”

The Lost Wife, however, is much more than a love story.  Richman’s four years of research including interviews with concentration camp survivors is historical fiction at its finest, portraying actual places and including real people alongside the fictional characters. The setting is Terezin, a concentration camp I had not heard of until this book. Terezin (just outside Prague) was less of a death camp and more of an authentic work camp.   Many Jewish artists were sent there where their skills were utilized to draw blueprints for the Germans or to copy masterpieces onto postcards which were then sold.

If one Googles Terezin, they will read,  Hitler told the world he built a city for the Jews to protect them from the vagaries and stresses of the war.  A propaganda film was made of this “showcase” community spruced up for the Red Cross visit.   Bakery windows and shelves were suddenly overflowing with baked goods and bon bons the inmates had never seen during their time at Terezin.  Inmates were given decent clothing to guide visitors along flowered walkways.  Thousands of inmates were deported to Auschwitz  to give an impression of space and comfort.  Immediately after the film and Red Cross visit, all these embellishments disappeared and life returned to normal. Normal was a ghetto housing a population of 55,000 Jews for a community that comfortably held 5000. Normal was the death of 97,297 Czech Jews at Terezin, including 1500 children.  Only 132 children were known to have survived. 

What also survived, however, from Terezin was the artwork that notable Jewish artists of the day buried in the floors and walls, depicting life as it really was.  This underground artist movement was done at great risk to their lives.  They also smuggled art supplies which they gave to the children, resulting in some 6000 artworks by Jewish children who were incarcerated at Terezin during the years 1942-44. For these children, drawing opened up the path to memories of the world from which they had been uprooted, transporting them from a harsh reality to a world of fantasy and imagination where good prevailed over evil. Their drawings expressed the constant hope for a safe return home, often featuring highways and crossroads with signposts to Prague. These artworks were hidden and later retrieved, now on display at Prague’s Jewish Museum, in Israel and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C. They also resulted in a book entitled, I Never saw Another Butterfly.

The Lost Wife is a story that will immerse you in a time in history that is horrific, yet paradoxically, the writing is beautiful. From the glamorous ease of life in Prague before the Occupation to the horrors of Nazi Europe, The Lost Wife explores the lasting power of first love, the strength of family loyalty, and the mystery of memory.  In the author’s words, it validates that the human spirit and the artistic spirit cannot be extinguished. Lenka’s and Josef’s story will haunt you long after you read it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

I have read so many good books lately I couldn’t decide which one to review.  It was a toss up between The Secret Keeper by Kate Norton and The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood.  (I don’t know about you but any title that contains the word “secret” draws me like a magnet---maybe it was that early Nancy Drew conditioning.)

Then I realized these two books have several common elements.   Both tell the story from two points of view spanning many years and generations; both are fiction yet
use specific historical events as their framework; both are passionate love stories dealing with loss and grief; both contain deathbed confessions between mothers and daughters; and both would make great book club choices, especially multi-generational discussions.  Oh, did I mention murder and unfaithfulness?  Sure to spice up any discussion. 

In the Obituary Writer, the narrator is twenty- three-year-old Vivian, telling her story in 1919 after she survived the Great San Francisco Earthquake. She kisses her lover David good-bye as he leaves for work on the morning of April 18, 1906 at 5:00 A.M. Twelve minutes later, her world is turned upside down in two ways.  Not only does the city crumble; it sends Vivian on a thirteen-year quest for David, who she wholeheartedly believes survived the earthquake and is wandering around with amnesia from an injury, possibly a blow to the head.  During these years, she discovers she has a gift for writing obituaries that capture the true essence of a person beyond their vital statistics.  She is sought out by many who come to her in their grief to pay tribute to their loved ones. Perhaps it is her own sense of loss that allows her to be so compassionate and empathetic.

The alternating story chapters in Obituary takes place 2000 miles away in Virginia and forty-two years later, 1961.  The narrator is Claire, early twenties, married to Peter, one of the few civilians working at the Pentagon. Kennedy has just been elected president and author Hood so effectively portrays the hopeful tone of the country and the fervor caused by America’s infatuation with Jackie.  In suburbia, Claire’s friends are hosting inauguration day parties with contests like who can choose the color Jackie will wear at the inauguration ceremony.  One review says the author dropped a few too many product names in her effort to re-create the 60’s, but having been Claire’s age myself at that time I found it authentic and pleasantly reminiscent.  For younger readers, I think it gives an accurate picture of the times.  But more importantly, this novel deals with the barriers women faced in the early 1900’s as well as the 60’s.  Both periods are on the brink of great changes for women and the country.

As Claire’s story opens, she too experiences a seismic shift in her life when the kidnapping of a young boy in their upscale “protected” neighborhood causes something in her to snap. She succumbs to an affair, jeopardizing her marriage to Peter and supposedly “perfect” life with their three -year old daughter.   

The alternating chapters flow easily with two very different yet believable and sympathetic characters, both searching for love and meaning in their lives. Although years and miles apart, their stories bind and unite them in an unusual twist.  No plot spoilers here, of course, but I will say that one of the reasons I recommend this as a book discussion is because I think the author leaves the ending open to the reader’s interpretation.

An extra bonus are quotes from Emily Post’s Etiquette as chapter markings on how to soothe the life of a grieving person.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Norton also has dual narrators.  The first is Laurel, age sixty-six, a successful and well-regarded actress in London in the year 2011.  When she visits her dying mother, Dorothy, to celebrate her 90th birthday, a childhood memory is invoked by unusual remarks her mother makes in her dementia state.  She is also clutching an old Peter Pan playbook with an inscription from a friend and a childhood photo of two girls Laurel has never seen before.  Laurel becomes obsessed with discovering her mother’s life before she became the mother of five children with a bucolic existence in the English countryside...and with uncovering the real story behind a disturbing memory her parents asked her to keep secret from her siblings.

Laurel, at age sixteen in 1961, witnessed a shocking event from her perch in their garden tree house while the rest of the family gathered for a picnic birthday celebration at the nearby pond.  Mother returns to the house, carrying Laurel’s baby brother, to retrieve the special knife decorated with a red bow, used specifically for the cutting of the birthday cake.  This day however, her mother, knife in hand, brutally kills a man who appears on their front porch. Laurel is the only witness to the murder which the authorities conclude was self-defense as there had been a wanted pervert reported in the area in recent months. The parents convince Laurel that it is best not to discuss this with her younger siblings and the event is never mentioned again.  Laurel told the police what she saw, but it is years later that she recalls she left out one important thing she heard. The intruder called her mother by name as though he knew her well.

The alternating story in this event is mother Dorothy’s and the WWII years during the London Blitz.   Through these flashbacks, amidst the bombings and escapes to air-raid shelters, we learn of Dorothy’s friendship with Vivian, her love affair with Jimmy, and a wicked blackmail plot that goes terribly wrong.  Norton’s characters are fascinating and her plot line so engrossing, we find ourselves totally immersed in that time period yet easily shifting to Laurel’s present-day personal investigation, trying to piece little clues together.  There is no shortage of twists and suspense, bringing us to a culmination of Dorothy’s story and Laurel’s search.

So there you have it.  Two books, four main characters in four different time periods, I think they represent historical fiction at its best—vivid portrayals of the times told through riveting personal stories. Final ironic trivia--both books have a main character named Vivian and both stories have mothers celebrating a significant birthday (one 80, one 90) which serves as the catalyst for the unraveling of their past lives.

This is Kate Norton’s 4th novel and Ann Hood has been writing short stories and novels since the late 80’s.  If these two books are any indication, I am looking forward to some good reading, catching up with their earlier writings.