Tag Archives: World War II

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

Book Review: The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking; 384 pages; $27.95).

           girl This book is not just about a painting; it’s not just about a wife left behind during wartime; it’s not just about a young widow whose husband died unexpectedly; it’s not just about a random girl a guy meets in a bar; it’s not just about a bitter woman whose German husband was an officer occupying a foreign country; and it’s not just about a beloved sister whose family never spoke of her again.  The title of Jojo Moyes’ incredibly affecting and thought-provoking third novel The Girl You Left Behind (her second was the 2012 breakout word-of-mouth bestseller Me Before You) has multiple meanings throughout her absorbing narrative.   One thing, though, is certain: her powerful female characters will linger long after you close the book.

Employing a dual narrative format, Moyes moves from World War I-era occupied France to 2006 London.  In 1916, Sophie struggles to feed her family; she watches as her family and her village collapse.  Her husband fights for France, while Sophie skirmishes just as he does but on another battlefield, one immensely more complicated.  After German forces take control of her family’s hotel, Sophie and her husband’s painting, The Girl You Left Behind, draw the eye of the Kommandant.  When the enemy takes her spouse prisoner, Sophie will use every means at her disposal to free him.  In 2006, Liv labors to stay in the home her late husband, an architect, built.  Bills pile up, and work is difficult to find.  She cherishes a piece of artwork her husband gave to her as a wedding present during their honeymoon to Barcelona.  Entitled The Girl You Left Behind, the painting symbolizes their happy life together.  When Liv learns the painting was perhaps a spoil of war, she is determined to fight to keep her most prized possession.

Both Sophie and Liv are strong women who threaten to leap off Moyes’ pages, and thank goodness for that.  I loved these ladies; moyesthrough her narrators, Moyes explores such universal themes as conflict, faithfulness, survival, loss, restitution, property rights, and love.   I identified with both women equally, even though Moyes writes them very differently, varying perspective and tense as she tells their stories.

Equally impressive and bold are Moyes’ minor female characters: Mo, lovingly quirky, gives Liv a dose of tough love; Louanne Baker, brash and ballsy American reporter covering the American liberation of Nazi concentration camps, who comes alive in her journals; and Liliane, perhaps the bravest in the whole book, who risks her life for her village and for her country.

If you enjoy reading novels set during wartime (like Sarah’s Key) or stories in which artwork features prominently in the story (such as Pictures of an Exhibition or The Art Forger), I highly recommend The Girl You Left Behind.  Moyes’ tale will resonate with anyone who has ever fought for the person or thing she loves most in the world.  I never thought Moyes would ever be able to top Me Before You, but, amazingly, she does!  Some advice—don’t let this be the book you left behind.

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes is the She Reads October Book Club Selection.  To read more reviews of the book, enter exciting giveaways, connect with other readers, and discuss the story, please visit She Reads.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (Ecco; 304 pages; $26.99).

greta wellsWho would we be if we had lived other lives?  Would we be ourselves or would we be altogether different people? Andrew Sean Greer forces us to ponder these existential matters in his third novel The Impossible Lives of Greta Lives, a deeply moving, atmospheric, and haunting tale.

“The impossible happens once to each of us,” Greer writes in his book’s first sentence.  Immediately, the reader knows this is a novel that will distinguish itself from others; Greer succeeds in producing a singular achievement that lingers in the imagination and in the heart.

In 1985, Greta Wells suffers.  Her brother, Felix, has died from AIDS, and her lover, Nathan, has left her:   “What is it, the missing of people?  It kills, and kills, and kills us.”  Depression plagues Greer’s main character but the possibility of a cure emerges in the form of electroconvulsive therapy.  Miserable and lonely, Greta decides she has nothing to lose.

After her first session, though, Greta experiences a rather curious phenomenon.  In bed the night of her treatment, Greta wishes Felix had not died and that Nathan had never left.  She closes her eyes and sees “one bright blue star floating there in the darkness, pulsing with light.” She thinks, “any time but this one,as the light splits and then splits again, “the throbbing blue stars dividing until they formed a circular cluster of light, and there was a kind of thunder.”  Her last recollection is falling into the radiance.  Her doctor had warned that she might experience confusion, but Greta is ill-prepared for this.

Greer transports Greta into the past to 1941 and 1918, where she is herself yet not herself.  In these periods, Greta is sister, lover, wife, and even mother.  People around her are the same, but their circumstances are different, much to Greta’s surprise.  “A shift in weather, and we are a different person.  The split of an atom, and we change.”

In The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, Greer effectively accomplishes a stunning feat in historical fiction by evoking qualities of not one but three past eras. From the beginnings of the battle on AIDS in 1985 to a nation on the brink of war in 1941 to a country recovering from the “war to end all wars” in 1918, Greer shows how Greta is powerless as the weight of the future bears heavily on her shoulders yet she cannot change anything.  She knows how World War II will take the lives of millions and change men’s and women’s roles forever.  Greta is all too aware of how soldiers returning from Europe have survived trenches and mustard gas only to be felled by the Spanish Flu.

Yet Greta can appreciate all the things that others take for granted.  She laments the beauties of the past eliminated in the name of progress.  Greta is “the only one who” knows “what would be lost.”

One constant remains: in each epoch, Greta is unhappy and pursues the same kind of electroconvulsive treatment she sought in 1985.  They will each keep switching lives as long as each Greta prefers a different present.  “If other worlds surround us, just a lightning bolt away, then what would stop us from slipping there?  If love has left us, well, then there is a world where it has not.  If death has come, then there is a world where it has been kept at bay.  Surely it exists, the place where all the wrongs are righted…”

Andrew Sean Greer

Andrew Sean Greer

In his newest novel, Greer concerns himself with righting imbalance; he wants to set things right in the world, and this motivation appears in his other works as well.  “A  mistake, made in another world.  And here: it could be righted,” he pens in his intriguing narrative.  The idea of romantic devotion is the focus of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, and Greer’s use of time travel allows him to achieve equity where inequity once reigned.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is perfect for fans of Audrey Niffenegger’s  The Time Traveler’s Wife and the recent bestseller ( and one of my favorite novels) Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.  As with The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Greer makes the impossible possible, wonderful, and mesmerizing.  Upon closing the book, I was left with this question: “Why is it so impossible to believe: that we are as many headed as monsters, as many armed as gods, as many hearted as the angels?”  Indeed, why?

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Interview with Julie Wu, Author of The Third Son

Debut novelist Julie Wu

Debut novelist Julie Wu

Jaime Boler: Julie, thank you for allowing me to ask you these questions.  The Third Son utterly captivated me from the first page and transported me to 1940s Taiwan.  Once I started reading your story, I couldn’t stop!  I know readers are going to love The Third Son just as much as I do.

Julie Wu: It makes me so happy to hear that—thank you, and thanks for having me!

JB: You are a physician.  How did you get into writing?

JW: The writing actually came first.  I always loved fiction, and actually my undergraduate degree was in Literature.  I started writing soon after college, when I was in graduate school, studying opera at Indiana University.  I realized then that writing would be my ultimate occupation, but I also realized that my sheltered life experience limited my writing.  I wanted to see and experience all I could of life, and meet all kinds of people.

I’d previously been thinking of pursuing medicine, and I thought that a medical career would not only be personally rewarding but would also enrich my point of view as a writer.  So instead of MFA programs, I applied to medical schools.

JB: I did some searching and saw where The Third Son is your father’s story or loosely based on his experience growing up.  Can you explain?

JW: I would describe The Third Son as “inspired by” my father’s story.  The emotional journey is very close to his, but the actual scenes and events of the story, large and small, are essentially fictional.

JB: I also discovered you began working on this novel in 2001.  What has the journey been like?

JW: Long.  A learning experience.  Torture.  A joy.  I have learned a lot about myself, about writing, about the writing industry, and about Facebook.

JB: Your first agent suggested you write The Third Son as a memoir.  Why did you want to tell your story in novel form?

JW: I enjoy the immersive, emotional aspect of fiction.  Writing a non-fiction book was not going to give me that, especially since my father does not recall a lot of sensory detail or actual dialogue.  And I did not want to write a story about myself and my relationship with my father because I have had a pretty good, privileged life and a pretty good relationship with my parents.  How boring is that?

JB: How many revisions did the story undergo?  And how different was it then compared to the final, printed book?  Was all the revising and rewriting worth it?

JW: I lost track of the number of revisions.  I didn’t even print them all out, but I have drawers, trunks, and filing cabinets filled with drafts.  Someday I’ll have a big bonfire.

The book is about 98% different from the first draft.  The first draft, I’d say, was a somewhat tentative family chronicle.  At some point I committed wholeheartedly to fiction, and the finished book is a real, dimensional, and hopefully satisfying novel.  I think it’s the best book I could have written, so yes, it was worth it.

JB: How does it feel to finally see it in print?

JW: Awesome!  I’ll admit I didn’t jump up and down hyperventilating when I first saw my galley, but I do hold it and flip through it a lot.  I think seeing the hardcover with all the blurbs on it, in bookstores, will be very exciting.

 

JB: All the early reviews about The Third Son are positive; some are positively glowing.  How do you feel about the wonderful early praise your book is getting?

thirdJW: It feels great.  One of the reasons I wrote the book was to shed light on the modern political history of Taiwan, which is so little known in the West.   The more successful my book is, the more people will be learning a bit more about Taiwan and the Taiwanese people, which is wonderful.

JB: What kind of research did you do for your story?

JW: I interviewed my parents extensively.  For the Taiwan sections, I read as many books and articles as I could find on Taiwan before, during, and after that period.  I was able to use the internet to find photographs.  I had traveled to Taiwan in 1990 with the intention of writing a (different) book set in Taiwan, so I also had extensive notes from that time.

For the sections in America, I consulted books and magazines from and on the fifties and sixties, watched some old movies, and read a lot about the International Geophysical Year.   I also visited MIT’s Haystack Observatory to speak with a slightly puzzled atmospheric scientist.

JB: When you were writing the story, did you have any sense how big it could be?

JW: I knew the story had the potential to be big.  My job was to realize that potential.

JB: My favorite characters in the story are Saburo and Toru.  Do you have a favorite?

JW: Oh, that’s like choosing among your children.  I really do love them all.   One of the things I’ve learned over the course of revising this book is that even your minor characters must have richness and purpose.  I’ll say I’m particularly fond of my mathematician-gardener, Professor Chen, in part because he did not exist until my latest revisions and now he’s not only kind of fabulous, but also a core part of the book.

JB: Your story is so emotional, especially when Saburo is mistreated and/or abused.  Yet, this is based on your own father.  Did you ever get emotional while writing it, so choked up to had to stop and leave it for a while?

JW: Interestingly, I did not.  I really thought of Saburo as his own character.  While writing I was imagining what this person Saburo would feel, think, and do.

JB: What do your parents think of the novel?

JW: It’s difficult for them to read it with any objectivity, of course.  They are on some level disappointed that the novel isn’t their true story.  At the same time they recognize that the story I’ve written is much more page turning and appealing to the general reader than one that would have stuck to the facts.  And my father still finds reading the book to be a very emotional experience.

JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

JW: Gosh, lots of things.  I like to sing, read, garden, snuggle with the kids.  When the kids are older I’d like to get back to painting and playing the violin.

JB: If you could have dinner with any author, living or dead, who would you choose and why?

JW: Tolstoy.  I’d love to pick his brain.  I’d also love to tell him how many former Taiwanese political prisoners I’ve spoken to have listed him as one of their favorite authors.

JB: What book is on your nightstand right now?

JW: My nightstand is covered in piles of books—novels, biographies, writing craft books, children’s books, and parenting books.  I can’t even see the clock anymore.

JB: If you could describe yourself in one word, what would it be?

JW: Keen.

JB: Are you going on an author tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?

JW: Yes.  I’m still waiting to hear where I’m going.

the third sonJB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Third Son?

JW: I’m hoping readers will feel moved and empowered.  I’m also hoping they’ll have learned a bit about Taiwan and the Taiwanese people.

JB: Are you working on anything new?

JW: I am working on a book inspired by the former political prisoners I interviewed in Taiwan this past October.  It will cover the same approximate time period as The Third Son, but will be about people more directly involved in the February 28 Incident, the subsequent massacres, and the White Terror.  The book will take place partly on Green Island, a wind-swept volcanic island off Taiwan’s coast, where political prisoners—mostly apolitical university students—were kept for years, forced to build their own prison and grow their own food.  In the early years the prisoners interacted with the island’s poor inhabitants, teaching them in schools and in the fields, and providing medical care.  These people were, and are, amazing.

JB: This story, so grim, is full of hope.  I felt as if I were reading a Jamie Ford or Janice Y.K. Lee novel and not a debut novel.  You are so amazingly talented, and I thank you for agreeing to chat with me about The Third Son. Good luck with the book, Julie!

JW: Thanks so much, Jaime!  This interview was a pleasure.

 

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Spotlight On Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the newest novel from Kate Atkinson–Life After Life.

life after life

 

About the Book:

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.

Wildly inventive, darkly comic, startlingly poignant — this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best, playing with time and history, telling a story that is breathtaking for both its audacity and its endless satisfactions. –from Goodreads

 

 

About the Author:

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson was born in York and now lives in Edinburgh. Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and has been a critically acclaimed international bestselling author ever since.

She is the author of a collection of short stories, Not the End of the World, and of the critically acclaimed novels Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird, Case Histories, and One Good Turn.

Case Histories introduced her readers to Jackson Brodie, former police inspector turned private investigator, and won the Saltire Book of the Year Award and the Prix Westminster. 

When Will There Be Good News? was voted Richard & Judy Book Best Read of the Year. After Case Histories and One Good Turn, it was her third novel to feature the former private detective Jackson Brodie, who makes a welcome return in Started Early, Took My Dog.–from Goodreads

I read this book yesterday and I was utterly enthralled.  I don’t believe I’ve ever literally wrung my hands or gnashed my teeth because of a book, but I did both those things while reading Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.  The story left me spent, breathless, and eager to read it all again!

Look for my review soon.  In the meantime, get your hands on a copy!

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Book Review: A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Viking Adult; 432 pages; $28.95).

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            The relationship between a writer and a reader is sacrosant.  Nowhere is that truer than in Ruth Ozeki’s wildly imaginative, ambitious, and brilliant novel A Tale for the Time Being.  Ozeki redefines that sacred link between novelist and bibliophile and simultaneously blurs the lines between fiction and reality, exhibiting an unbridled and whimsical style so convincing and creative that the reader feels part of the story.   Ozeki intertwines multiple voices in her parallel narrative:  a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun, a Japanese kamikaze pilot, a troubled Japanese teenage girl, and a writer named Ruth.

She opens with the unforgettable tale of Nao, a teen living in Tokyo’s Akiba Electricity Town.  “My name is Nao, and I am a time being,” she writes.  “A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”  “Nao” is eerily similar to “now,” and her name is a deliberate play on words that lends even more power and urgency to this story.

Depressed and anxious from being bullied by her classmates, Nao is an outcast with one friend half a world away.  She is a desperately unhappy young woman who seriously contemplates suicide.  “The truth is that very soon I’m going to graduate from time…I just turned sixteen and I’ve accomplished nothing at all…Do I sound pathetic? I don’t mean to.  I just want to be accurate.  Maybe instead of graduate, I should say I’m going to drop out of time.”  First, though, she vows to write down her great-grandmother’s life story in a diary.  Not only does Nao provide insight into the life of her great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun, but she also illuminates her own existence.

As Nao writes in her diary, she wonders about the person who will one day read her words.  “You wonder about me.  I wonder about you.  Who are you and what are you doing?…Do you have a cat and is she sitting on your lap?  Does her forehead smell like cedar trees and fresh sweet air?”  Although she is just a teen, Nao seems very aware of the passage of time and meditates on the brevity of her existence on earth: “Actually, it doesn’t matter very much, because by the time you read this, everything will be different, and you will be nowhere in particular, flipping idly through the pages of this book, which happens to be the diary of my last days on earth, wondering if you should keep on reading.”

The character of Nao allows Ozeki to introduce Japanese manga and anime culture into her story, making it more lively and accurate.  For Nao, the characters in manga are her friends who help her discover her very own superpower.  Nao needs to find an inner strength, and time with her great-grandmother also helps the girl become confident and strong.

It would have been fairly easy for Ozeki to write a book based solely on Nao’s narrative, yet Ozeki changes her tone and style to present a kind of detective story.  No one is better at detective work than a novelist accustomed to research.  So Ozeki brings in an author named Ruth.

Curiously, Ozeki puts herself in her own fictional work.  Like Ozeki, Ruth lives on a remote island off British Columbia.  Ruth is also a novelist who suffers from writer’s block (Ozeki’s last novel, All Over Creation, was published in 2003, so perhaps this is also true).  Like Ozeki, Ruth is married to a man named Oliver and her mother has recently passed away.  Ozeki is part Japanese and so is Ruth.

I do not recall ever having read a story in which the author becomes such a central figure in his or her own story.  It is a weighty technique, leading the reader to wonder how autobiographical the work is or if it is simply fiction with a revealing twist. Whatever the case may be, the line between fiction and reality is not clear-cut in this novel, which makes it all the more enthralling and appealing.

While walking along the beach one day, Ruth finds a plastic bag containing a Hello Kitty lunchbox.  Inside the lunchbox are a number of items: a series of Japanese letters, a red book containing a famous Marcel Proust piece, and a watch.  However, the pages written by the French novelist, critic, and essayist have been removed and the book now contains the diary of a Japanese teenager named Nao.  The teen’s diary captivates and even obsesses Ruth; she begins a dogged pursuit to find out what happened to Nao.

The deeper Ruth gets into her research and into her quest to locate Nao, the more Ruth is certain that, through the humble act of reading Nao’s diary, she can save the troubled teen.  Ozeki goes a step further, though.  She makes the reader feel like he or she can effect this tale  by reading the story.  The reader really becomes Ruth, transfixed and possessed by Nao’s account.  The fate of the Japanese teen matters deeply not only to Ruth but also to us.

Ozeki expresses our universal desire to connect with others through words and stories.  Ozeki’s characters speak to us across time and across continents and beckon us to follow them to unknown worlds.  Equal parts sobering and inspiring, A Tale for the Time Being is wholly inventive from the first page to the last.  Not since Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has a novel so deeply moved me.  Profoundly touching and amazingly good, A Tale for the Time Being is destined to become a modern classic.

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Book Review: Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler (St. Martin’s Press; 336 pages; $24.99).

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            William Shakespeare wrote that the course of true love never did run smooth, and nowhere is that truer than in Julie Kibler’s sobering, yet heartening debut Calling Me Home.  Kibler drew inspiration for her tale after learning her grandmother had fallen in love with an African American when she was a young woman.  At the time, though, any romantic connection between the two was unfeasible.  A story idea was thus born.

Employing a dual narrative format, Kibler sets Calling Me Home in both present-day Texas and in pre-World War II Kentucky, introducing us to two extraordinary women: eighty-nine-year-old Isabelle McAllister, an elderly white lady and thirty-something Dorrie Curtis, a single black mother of two.

Isabelle has a huge favor to ask of Dorrie, something so big she cannot ask anyone else.  She has to go to a funeral in Cincinnati, Ohio, and she has to leave tomorrow.  Isabelle wants Dorrie to drive her there.

Why does Isabelle ask Dorrie?  What kind of connection can an elderly white woman and a young black female have?  It’s simple, really.  Dorrie is Isabelle’s hairdresser.

If you are a woman, then you immediately understand the intimate relationship between a woman and her beautician.  There is a connection between the two women that belies age and race.  Isabelle and Dorrie have bonded over hair and have become friends.  But there are things both women have chosen not to tell the other.

Dorrie agrees to drive Isabelle to the funeral, although Isabelle refuses to say who died or how she is connected to the deceased.  For Dorrie, it’s a bit of a mystery.  But she does not pry.  She knows instinctively that Isabelle will reveal everything when she is good and ready.

When the two women set off, Kibler begins her second story arc.  Isabelle confides to Dorrie that she fell in love with Robert Prewitt when she was a teenager (Isabelle is only loosely based on Kibler’s own grandmother).  Robert wanted to be a doctor; he was the son of her family’s housekeeper and was African American.

Because this is 1939 Kentucky, the reader knows this is a doomed romance.  Especially in a “sundown” town like Shalerville where blacks were not allowed after dark.  Such places really existed.  It was quite alright for African-American maids, chauffeurs, and workers to be in Shalerville during the day, but, come sundown, they had to vacate the area or face the consequences.

Kibler’s decision to set part of the story in this sundown town has a sobering effect on the reader, or at least it did on me.  I worried for Robert and for Isabelle, but especially for Robert’s safety in such a dark, chilling and painful place.

As Isabelle narrates her part of the story, Kibler illustrates the sheer ugliness of the world in which Isabelle lives.  It’s full of small minds and discrimination so common at the time.  Robert and Isabelle know how difficult life will be for them but they are in love and determined.  They run away together, but the course of true love never does go smoothly, does it?  And Robert and Isabelle are no exception.

As Isabelle conveys her story to Dorrie, the young black mother begins confiding to Isabelle.  Dorrie likes Teague, a handsome, successful black man, but he just seems too perfect—something she is not.  After her divorce, Dorrie is hesitant about bringing a new man into her life and into the lives of her children: a sweet young daughter and a son who is a senior in high school.  Her son and his future constantly worry Dorrie, who is uncertain if she needs the added concern of a new relationship.  Listening to Isabelle’s story, though, Dorrie learns something profound about life and about love.

A bond that first formed over hair expands further.  For Isabelle and Dorrie, age and color matter not; they are insignificant things.

Calling Me Home is a courageous tale because Kibler holds nothing back.  Just a few weeks into President Barack Obama’s second term in office, you hear so often how we live in a “post-racial” society.  But is that actually true?  When Dorrie and Isabelle stop to eat at a restaurant on their trip, a white man and woman look curiously at them.  The man soon turns rude and openly stares at them.  In a stage whisper, he wonders why a white lady is with a black woman.

If the romance between Isabelle and Robert highlights race in the American past, then this scene is an eye-opening look at race in the American present.  Kibler shows us how far we’ve come in this country; however, she also shows us how far we still have to go.

Calling Me Home is both a solemn and stirringly emotional novel that takes us deep into a woman’s heart and backward into one country’s harsh past.  Kibler’s story of love, loss, family, faith, and friendship hearken to the stuff of life.  In the end, Calling Me Home is a surprising novel.  Because Kibler is always patient and easy on the foreshadowing, the conclusion is an ending that will surely amaze readers, just as it did me.

We should never dwell on our differences and focus instead on the ways we are the same.  That’s what I learned from Calling Me Home.  Kibler will break your heart in this tale, but she will also put it back together again.

julie kibler

Julie Kibler’s Calling Me Home is the She Reads February Book Club Selection.  You can discuss the book and enter to win one of ten copies and read the fabulous reviews of members.  The book comes out February 12.  Check back here on my blog February 12 for my interview with Kibler.  It’s going to be amazing!

 

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Book Review: Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann (Little, Brown and Company; 368 pages; $25.99).

 

            When I discovered that Liza Klaussmann was the great-great-great-granddaughter of Herman Melville, my heart sank.  What debut novelist can live up to such a pedigree?  If Ancestry.com announced that Stephen King was the great-great-great-nephew of Edgar Allen Poe, I would nod and think what great sense that made.   The same would be true if a genealogist found a link between National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward and Zora Neale Hurston.  But these are established authors.  Their previous work stands alone; nepotism played no role in their success.

I will admit that it was with great reluctance that I picked up Klaussmann’s debut Tigers in Red Weather.  My expectations were high; however, Klaussmann surpassed all of my hopes for the novel and then some.  I think Herman would have been proud.

 

If you are looking for traces of Melville within Klaussmann’s work, though, you will not find him.  Instead, Tigers in Red Weather opens with smidgens of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It is September 1945.  World War II has just ended.  Cousins Nick and Helena endure a hot summer night on Martha’s Vineyard at an old family estate called Tiger House.  The cousins are “wearing their slips and drinking gin neat out of old jelly jars.”  On the record player, “Louis Armstrong was stuck repeating that he had a right to sing the blues.”  It feels like the 1920s rather than the 1940s.  Nick would have been right at home in that earlier era.  She is a reckless free spirit, much like Zelda Fitzgerald.  Nick wants to “stuff the whole world into her mouth and bite down.”

 

With the war over, the cousins eagerly begin their lives.  Nick and her husband, a veteran, settle in Miami.  Helena and her husband settle in Los Angeles.  Nick gives birth to Daisy; Helena to Ed.  Nick puts up a front as she is unhappy in her present circumstances.   Martha’s Vineyard feels far away, and Nick longs for home.  Hughes is not the man that Nick believed him to be.  In her eyes, Hughes had become “something rationed,” ordinary, and “asleep.”

 

In 1959, the cousins and their families reunite for the summer at Tiger House.  For them, the estate reminds them of a more idyllic time, when the world was full of promise and so were they, a time when they could do anything and be anything, but that time has long passed.  Nick especially misses her youth on Martha’s Vineyard: “We could do exactly as we pleased and no one expected anything of us.  I even miss those horrible ration books.  I wish it could be like that now, for me and Hughes.  Not all stuffy and respectable.”  Sometimes, Nick confesses, “I want to rip my clothes off and go running down the street stark naked and screaming my head off.  Just for a…change of pace.”  Nick longs to recapture that moment when she wanted to stuff the world in her mouth and bite down.  Since she cannot, Tiger House becomes her refuge.  There, she is like a general.

 

All that changes on a beautiful summer day when Daisy and Ed make a gruesome and shocking discovery.  They find the dead body of a Portuguese maid.  As Klaussmann writes, “Half of the girl’s face looked like it had collapsed or something, with the Man of War swimming out from her dark curly hair.  The eyes were open and bulging like a frog’s, the fat tongue running between her teeth.”  Just like that, the idyll is over.  Tiger House loses its innocence; the real world creeps in and will not let the family go.

 

Klaussmann expertly tells this story from five different perspectives, which is not an easy thing to accomplish.  Each voice is distinctive and compelling.  As she carries us back and forth through time, Klaussmann allows us to witness the same scene as different people experienced it.  She changes the lens to show how point of view matters in a story and can enhance the storytelling.  Klaussmann manages to keep her plot suspenseful, especially with all of her time and character shifts.  This is what makes Tigers in Red Weather so readable and enjoyable.

 

The events of the summer of 1959 leave a mark on Klaussmann’s characters.  We see this clearly.  The author would be remiss if she did not emphasize this alteration.  Helena retreats deeper and deeper into her world of prescription drugs and alcohol.  In fact, Helena’s narrative is jumbled and broken in parts to show her state of mind.  She cannot cope with reality.  Meanwhile, Ed is in his own little world.  Finding the dead girl fascinated him.  Perhaps he is not the boyscout his mother thinks he is.  For Daisy, the discovery shakes her to the core.  Hughes must confront his past and the secrets he is keeping.

 

Nick, though, is Klaussmann’s most interesting and most central character.  Nick is the protagonist of the story.  Yet many of Klaussmann’s characters also view her as their antagonist.  That is no easy feat either, yet Klaussmann pulls it off without a hitch.  She has such a hold over a young Daisy that Klaussmann intersperses her mother’s voice throughout Daisy’s narrative.  Nick admonishes her daughter to do this and not do that.  “Only horses sweat,” Daisy hears her mother say in her head, “men perspire and women glow.”  Klaussmann peppers Daisy’s account with more echoes of Nick.  Nick’s shadow looms over the whole story really as the other characters alternatively envy, admire, resent, love, and loathe her.

 

In addition to Nick, Ed’s account also stands out, but for different reasons.  In contrast to Klaussmann’s other narratives, she writes that of Ed in the first person.  The change is gripping, intimate, and engrossing.  What we learn from Ed is shocking, but nothing Klaussman writes is implausible.  Her plot is always believable.  Tigers in Red Weather ends with a satisfying denouement, leaving readers to ponder the story well after they close the book.

 

Just as I was reluctant to begin Tigers in Red Weather, I was just as equally hesitant to finish the novel.  Upon closing the book, I said aloud, “Herman who?”

 

 

 

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Interview with Kristina McMorris

Interview with Kristina McMorris, Author of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves

Kristina McMorris

 

Jaime Boler: Bridge of Scarlet Leaves is your second novel.  What was your first book and what was the premise behind it?

Kristina McMorris: My debut novel, Letters from Home, was inspired by my maternal grandparents’ wartime courtship letters. Here is a brief summary: In the midst of World War II, a Midwestern infantryman falls deeply in love through a yearlong letter exchange, unaware that the girl he’s writing to is not the one replying. Woven around this tenuous thread are three female friends whose journeys toward independence take unexpected turns as a result of romance, tragedy, and deception, their repercussions heightened by an era of the unknown. It’s a story of hope and connection, of sacrifices made in love and war, and the chance encounters that change us forever.

Her debut novel, "Letters from Home"

JB: You and I share a mutual fascination with the 1980s miniseries North and South.  How did that story inspire you to write Bridge of Scarlet Leaves?

KM: Years ago, an old family friend shared with me that he had fought for America while his brother served for Japan. I was captivated by the idea. But it wasn’t until a decade later, when I’d found my calling as a writer, that I remembered his story and realized what an amazing premise it would make for a novel. Combined, as you mentioned, with my undying love for the U.S. miniseries North and the South, wherein loved ones were labeled enemies overnight, I set out to write my book. But in the midst of research, I happened across an obscure mention of roughly two hundred non-Japanese spouses who had chosen to live in the U.S. war relocation camps voluntarily. I phoned my agent that very day and said, “This is it. I have my story!”

JB: I know you did lots of in-depth research for this book.  Did anything that you found surprise you?

KM: Aside from non-Japanese spouses living in the camps, other discoveries that shocked me were the cases of Japanese American men who became stuck in Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, then, on account of their ancestry, were conscripted into the Imperial Army or Navy. I was also surprised to learn that you only had to be 1/16 Japanese to qualify for internment, and that even adopted Japanese American children were torn from their Caucasian families and placed in an orphanage in the camp.

I’m proud that I was able to weave these findings into my story, as I believe people should know these things happened.

JB: I read where you actually rode in a B-17, just as TJ does.  What was that like?

Kristina McMorris

KM: It was anything but a hard day at work! There was a maximum of only ten passengers allowed, and after takeoff, we were encouraged to roam the B-17 for the entire flight. It was incredible. I spent the majority of the flight in the nose-gunner’s seat, with nothing but Plexiglas beneath my feet. Flying over lush green farmland, I could imagine for a brief moment what it must have felt like to soar over English farmland during the ’40s. That is, until I reminded myself that there was a huge difference: nobody was trying to shoot down my aircraft—thankfully.

JB: In writing for the character of Maddie, you show such knowledge of music.  Do you play any instruments?

KM: As with most of my research, I relied on generous “experts” that made me look much wiser than I am! Although I used to play piano, I was clueless when it came to the violin. Fortunately, an old friend from high school is a violinist who attended a conservatory and continues to perform in a symphony. She and my husband, who used to play violin as a kid, were immensely helpful. I also learned a great deal from watching performances of the specific pieces on YouTube.

JB: Please describe what a typical day of writing is like for you.

KM: You mean a usual day of being pampered by my personal chef, maid, chauffeur, personal assistant, and… oh, wait, you’re referring to the actual not-so-glamorous life of an author, ha. Well, my alarm goes off at 6:30am, in order to get the kidlings ready for school. After doing dishes and tossing in a load of laundry, I’ll clear out my emails then take a quick shower. Next, I get into my comfy clothes and ugly fuzzy socks, and I park on the couch with my half-caff coffee and laptop to tackle writing, publicity and/or marketing. It’s a cyber sprint until the kids come home, at which point I give myself an extra hour to wrap things up before handling all the usual mom activities until the munchkins are in bed. I often work on my laptop while my hubby and I catch a little TV. Since I’m a night owl, I stay up until at least midnight, then hit the hay and wait for that dreaded alarm to go off at 6:30am. (The cycle reminds me a bit of the movie Groundhog Day actually.)

JB: My favorite character was Lane.  Do you have any favorites?

KM: Which of my children is my favorite? LOL. Bea, Jo, Eddie, TJ… I honestly enjoy every one of them, since I understand who they are and why. I suppose if I had to choose, however, I would say Kumiko. It takes time and effort to peel away her layers and gain her trust. She reminds me of that tough teacher we all had at one point in our lives who didn’t believe in giving A’s, so the day you actually earned an A from her—or in this case, her full approval—you appreciated it more than any others.

JB: Are any characters autobiographical?  If so, who?  I know many are based on actual people, particularly those you came across in your research.  Are any of your characters based on people you know?

KM: I’ve pondered the question a good amount when asked this in the past, and I think it’s the most accurate to say that my own personality is sprinkled throughout each of my characters, even the guys; in fact, mostly the guys!

As for basing characters on other real people, there’s only one person in the story that portrays an actual figure: Justin “Sam” Barry, the legendary USC coach. In order to feel comfortable depicting him, I researched as much as I could, but found very little about him. Luckily, the Sports Information Office Director at USC was kind enough to connect me with Coach Barry’s godson and namesake, who offered some helpful insight about the man’s demeanor.

JB: Were any of your ancestors victims of the Japanese internment?  If so, what happened to them?

KM: My father, an immigrant from Kyoto, was actually born after WWII, so our family didn’t have to face these challenges directly. Now, that’s not to say my parents didn’t encounter resistance from both sides of the family when they wanted to marry. My maternal grandfather had, after all, served as a U.S. Navy signalman on a Destroyer escort in the Pacific during WWII. On a side note, I will add that ironically my father’s birthday is December 7th, which of course is Pearl Harbor Day. In that way, I suppose I should have always known I was destined to write about this pivotal moment in history.

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Bridge of Scarlet Leaves?

KM: Quite simply, the blank page. That blinking, taunting cursor is typically not my friend. I do, however, love to edit, which is what keeps me trekking away.

As for research that I found most challenging, it was definitely the Japanese POW camps. Reading about the senseless horrors humans are capable of inflicting upon each other—and even finding enjoyment in those acts—often left me in tears. Fortunately, surprising tales of wartime compassion would help alleviate those dark moments.

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of researching and writing this novel?

 KM: I think the greatest thing I gained was a newfound admiration for the Japanese American veterans who often risked their lives in the name of democracy, despite their families being unjustly incarcerated by their own country. Also, the humbleness of those families and lack of resentment they held after being released continues to both astound and, though it might sound odd, inspire me. Their resiliency and determination to move on, regardless of hardships, is truly remarkable.

 JB: Do you think something so awful as relocating a people based on their race and keeping them corralled could ever happen again in our country?

KM: Sadly, it continues to happen to this day in other parts of the world. Do I think it could happen again in America? Given our current means of instant and mass communication, and thus widespread awareness, I think it’s unlikely on such a large scale; just imagine the protests that would occur if even a single neighborhood was forced out of an area due to race. That said, nothing is impossible. Lack of knowledge breeds ignorance, which largely fueled the hysteria that led to the Japanese American internment. And no doubt, cases of similar discrimination could be made following 9-11, affirming that learning about the past is vital for many reasons.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Bridge of Scarlet Leaves?

KM: In addition to being transported into another world, I hope readers gain a deep appreciation for real-life heroes they otherwise didn’t know existed, as well as knowledge about history too often brushed over. On a more personal note, if the story causes them to reexamine their own values and perspectives on other cultures, I really couldn’t ask for anything more.

JB: Are there any plans on making this book into a movie?

KM: Ooh, a red carpet stroll sure sounds nice. The truth is, my film rights agent at CAA is very enthusiastic and recently started shopping the book to producers. Realistically, even if it’s optioned, the chances of a book making it to the silver screen are slim—but hey, you never know! It’s definitely a fun thought, anyhow. And in the end, I’ve been fortunate enough to see my story published into an actual book that is reaching readers’ hands; that alone is an accomplishment I’m extremely grateful for.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

KM: Up next, my novella, The Christmas Collector, will be released in October in a holiday anthology titled A Winter Wonderland, headlined by Fern Michaels. In this contemporary story, Jenna Matthews, the daughter of a former hoarder, seeks catharsis through her career as an estate liquidator. However, while preparing for a sale just before Christmas—a season of overpriced “junk” exchanges she despises—she stumbles upon a shoebox of wartime memorabilia that reveals the secret past of an elderly woman (her young version is a minor character in Letters from Home), and soon leads Jenna on a hunt to understand the true value of keepsakes, holidays, and memories.

Other than that, I have two more novels on contract with my publisher. The first one is tentatively titled Through Memory’s Gate, which I’ll be diving into as soon as the whirlwind of my current book tour settles.

JB: And your readers look forward to them all!  Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview.  I wish you much success.

The Subject of Our Interview--"Bridge of Scarlet Leaves"

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Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf; 144 pages; $22).

            I am glad I was not one of the judges who chose the winner of this year’s National Book Award!  There were three novels that I really loved in the field:  Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and, the subject of today’s review, Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic.  Other books nominated were Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn and Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision.

Ultimately, Ward’s Salvage the Bones took home the literary prize.  The Buddha in the Attic, though, was just as worthy and just as affecting. Otsuka writes this intimate novella with elegance and subtlety.

Although you need not read them together, The Buddha in the Attic is a kind of prequel to Otsuka’s 2001 novel When the Emperor was Divine, published just prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Otsuka uses the increasingly popular first-person plural (“we”) to tell her story.  Of all the novels I have read whose authors used this method of storytelling, I have to say that Otsuka does it the best of all.  Does she create the sense of place that Carsten Jensen does in We, the Drowned?  No.  Does she create the incredible feel for her characters that Justin Torres gives us in We the Animals?  Again, no.  So what is so wonderful about The Buddha in the Attic?  Many, many things.

The Buddha in the Attic begins with a hopeful group of Japanese picture brides who are on their way to America in the early 1900s.  Otsuka chose real history about which to write.  Many Japanese brides came to America at this time looking for better opportunities and for husbands.

Otsuka writes as if one of them were your sister or your best girlfriend.  You, the reader, sits down with her for tea and she recounts to you what it was like.  Sometimes she whispers and you must lean closer.  Sometimes she laughs, as do you.  Sometimes she gets a wistful look in her eye  when she remembers her family she left behind back in Japan.  Sometimes, when she recalls something especially painful, she cries.  And you do, too.

“On the boat we were mostly virgins,” Otuska begins.  “Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years.”

The first thing the girls did on the boat was compare photos of their husbands.  They were giddy to see them.  The husbands “were handsome young men with dark eyes and full heads of hair and skin that was smooth and unblemished.”  They wore Western-style suits and posed by their American cars and American houses.

But when they reached port in San Francisco, the girls did not recognize the men waiting for them on shore.  Who were these men?  If you guessed that the men were older, darker, and poorer, you are correct.  The photos they sent were pictures of their cousins or of pictures decades old.  The girls were shattered.

When The Buddha in the Attic begins, the girls share a collective experience.  They are all on the same ship, all going to the same place, all picture brides.  When they reach San Francisco, though, their experience ceases being a collective one; it becomes individual.  No one girl will lead the same life.

Otsuka never concentrates on just one of these women; she wants to tell us about them all.  This may frustrate some readers who seek to feel deeper attachments to the characters they read about.

Again, picture the tea you are having with your sister or girlfriend.  She tells you a little about her own life, but there are so many other lives to tell you about.  She cannot focus only on herself.  The story is bigger than just one person, and that is what Otsuka wants her readers to realize.  I feel that is why she chose to use the first-person plural.

What happens to these women after their dreams were shattered?  The brides cannot return to Japan.  They have no money for the passage home.  They have nowhere else to go.  Some leave their husbands to become prostitutes.  Some leave their husbands for other men.  Others stick with their husbands and work with them in the fields.  They to make their lives work.  They have children and the years pass, as they are wont to do.  The women grow older, and their needs and lifestyles change.

Otsuka takes this story all the way to World War II and the Japanese internment.  You will cry here.  My one criticism is that Otsuka deviates too much at the end in the section entitled “A Disappearance.”  Otsuka writes this in third-person from the point of view of the women’s Caucasian neighbors who wonder what has become of the Japanese.

Otsuka, it is important to point out, was born in Los Angeles long after the time period in which she sets her novella; she writes, though, as if she lived it.  The Buddha in the Attic is an emotional, detailed, heartbreaking story.  Its 144 pages packs a powerful punch.  Japanese culture comes to life under Otsuka’s guiding hand.  Her prose is stylish and elegant.  This is one of those novels that will stay with you for your entire life.

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