“After the Parade” by Lori Ostlund

23492669It’s some kind of masterful when you spend the first quarter of a book thinking that the main character is a self-absorbed, ambivalent, almost blissfully ignorant fool but then you read the middle half of the book, getting ever more caught up in his story, and the final quarter of the book realizing that none of those things that made him unlikable and unrelatable at first were his fault and he did grow from them, whether by choice or by force. Sometimes life isn’t anyone’s fault. To alter the title a bit, sometimes life is just a parade it’s hard to see the end of.

AFTER THE PARADE is Lori Ostlund’s tale of a forty-one year old man name Aaron Englund. An ESL teacher, the story begins with him packing up a U-Haul in Albuquerque and leaving for San Francisco. He’s leaving behind eighty-two year old Walter, the man he’s been with for twenty-three years – and known a few years longer. The math works out to mean that Aaron was eighteen and Walter thirty-six when they first became a couple. That fact lands somewhere between unnerving and sad. As a reader, it’s easy to feel bad for Walter at the start. The man he loves leaves on Christmas Eve after nearly a quarter century. He’s elderly.

But then it becomes so much more complicated than that.

As Aaron travels – literally to San Francisco and figuratively to figuring out who he is – his story is told. His memories of an abusive father and a distant mother, who was more distant because of her abusive husband. His memories of never quite fitting in to normal groups at school. His tendency to gravitate toward the outcasts of society, almost as though he is searching for himself in them more than he is searching for a true friend. And so it comes that by the time he meets Walter as a teenager, his father is dead and his mother is gone.

Aaron is inherently a boy in need of something he never had. That he would find comfort in a stable older man when most boys his age would be doing anything but settling down, makes perfect sense. As in all things, defining love and the existence of love is tricky and almost impossible.

In time, woven into a rich story with so many threads, it becomes clear that Aaron teaches English to immigrants because he sees himself as one of them, in a way. He is an observer too, trying to figure out just how to make it through an uncomfortable, unfamiliar world without getting hurt. And maybe get through it with someone to love. The questions his students ask, the stories they tell him… they help Aaron to find himself.

Ostlund’s novel is harsh and sometimes breathtaking in it’s sadness but it is beautiful. Everything makes sense in the end, especially the most perfect of endings.

(I received a copy of AFTER THE PARADE through NetGalley and Scribner in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“A Want of Kindness” by Joanne Limburg

33271065If I have a weakness when it comes to books, a fail-safe fallback genre, it is historical fiction. Specifically historical fiction based on queens and kings. Specifically based on queens and kings of England. Show me a queen on a cover or in a blurb and I will read that book.

It is not, therefore, at all surprising that I was excited to read Joanne Limburg’s A WANT OF KINDNESS.

To make it even more appealing, her story is centered on Queen Anne of England. Queen Anne, if you don’t know, is not like either Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, Queen Mary, or the wives of Henry VIII who were queens who did not rule. Queen for only five years, her reign was neither glamorous nor marked by controversy nor long enough to qualify for Hollywood films. She was the second oldest daughter of King James II and she succeeded the William III, who had ruled jointly with her sister, Mary. She was the last monarch from the House of Stuart, as she died childless. Childless despite at least seventeen pregnancies and only one child, a son, surviving as far as age 11. She was married from 1677 until her husband’s death in 1708. So her story is one of tragedy, on the whole, and yet the beauty of a reportedly loving marriage despite so much tragedy.

This, perhaps not surprisingly, does not make the sort of thing Hollywood believes it can make money on. And, to be honest, it probably can’t.

It’s really too bad.

I first learned about Queen Anne in my college English history class, and even the professor talked about seventeen pregnancies and no children. And then we moved quickly on, because Queen Victoria was coming after some Georges. I have thought about her sometimes since, wanting to know more but never wanting it badly enough to search out a biography. I’m a terrible history buff sometimes!

But this book, this fictionalized account of Queen Anne’s life from her childhood to her ascension, is really quite incredible. Possibly because, despite not having the glitz, glamour, intrigue, and longevity of the more famous queens, she lived in an incredible time. She was at the center of religious upheaval. She had seen her father, her uncle, and her grandfather struggle in their reigns. She witnessed wars with France and Spain and the Netherlands.

So Limburg’s fictionalized account Anne’s life is not what can usually be read about queens and kings. The intrigue is not romantic. She never had affairs, though it could be argued from her letters – actual things Anne wrote that Limburg uses to illustrate the story – that she had something bordering on romantic love for Sarah Churchill. She tried to do good, for herself and her family, for her country, and for all. And she succeeded, most of the time, even if it never really seems like it. And the reason it never really seems like it is because she never gets her happy ending. Never gets the things she wants more than any other.

Queen Anne deserves more recognition as an important part of British history. She truly is one of the most tragic, yet interesting rulers of England I have read about. And Limburg’s portrayal makes her all the more fascinating and charismatic.

If you have a weakness for this genre, and don’t mind a distinct lack of bursting corsets and illicit rendezvous in shadowy corners, this book is a definite Must Read.

(I received a copy of A WANT OF KINDNESS through NetGalley and Pegasus Books in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History” by Bill Schutt


I don’t remember exactly why seeing Bill Schutt’s CANNIBALISM: A PERFECTLY NATURAL HISTORY on NetGalley made me think “ooh, I need to read that book” but I requested it. I got it. I added it to my To Be Read list. And I didn’t read it. But then… I decided to do a reading challenge for 2017 (and by “do a reading challenge” I do mean “attempt and probably fail a reading challenge”) and events went sort of like this…

I scanned the list of categories to assign books, because when you feel overwhelmed by something you chose to do you should always make it more complicated. I saw the category “A Book About Food.” I remembered that I had an ARC of Bill Schutt’s book on cannibalism. I stopped looking for other books on food.

It was a good match.

And it became a perfect match after I read the book.

Truth be told, I liked this book so much family and friends got tired of me telling them about it. I have no regrets about continuing to tell them about it, even as and partly because they proved some of Schutt’s points about cannibalism being a taboo that still brings out strong opinions – like my pregnant sister being very defensive over the idea that breastfeeding might be a form of cannibalism.

But talking about books is what makes them worth reading, in my humble opinion. And I refused to be swayed from that.

One of the odder things about the book, however, is that I found the first half, the half about cannibalism in the animal kingdom far more interesting than the part of the book about human and human related cannibalism. I think that may be because the human part focused so heavily on BSE (Mad Cow Disease) and the kuru that affected the Fore tribe of New Guinea. That was an awful lot of science for the non-science mind that I possess. Chromosomes and genetics and adapted virus are just… 

I like history so the explanations, more in depth than I’ve read before, of Christopher Columbus and how he maybe turned the larger part of the Caribbean and Central America into would-be cannibals because he found no gold to speak of and needed to make money on heathen cannibal slaves were perfect for my history mind.

And the story about how former President George H.W. Bush narrowly escaped being food… I did not know that!

What made the still science-y part of animal kingdom cannibalism readable and enjoyable to a lay person like me was Schutt’s jokes, self-deprecating humor, and editorial asides on everything. it made a book that could be required reading for a college biology course fun. And it made me kind of, whatever that says about me, obsessed with the topic. 

Not that I’m about to start cooking up my neighbors. I like the history of it, the clear and logical explanations for it as survival, and the way it was presented.

I am so glad I requested this book and I think it fits perfectly a a “Book About Food”!

(I received an advance copy of this book through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“The Bone Witch” by Rin Chupeco

Books that start with necromancy and end with (apparently) necrophilia should not work, one would think.

But apparently sometimes they do. Just ask Rin Chupeco, or read her book The Bone Witch when it comes out on March 2, 2017. Then you’ll see. Now, according to Amazon the recommended ages for this first book in a coming YA series are 12-17. I read it anyway, because I was lucky enough to get an advanced read copy through NetGalley and the book’s publisher, because just about any book will make me happy. However, I would not let a twelve year old read this book – if I had a twelve year old. Why?

Necromancy, possible necrophilia (at least platonically) are big reasons. But Chupeco also focuses heavily on war and violence and political intrigue… and those topics are important, but perhaps best explained in a different setting.

All that being said… YA books about twelve year old girls who discovers she is a (dark) witch when she accidentally raises her brother from the dead are surprisingly good! I feel it important to mention that said girl, named Tea, is not in love with her brother… it’s a different dead person, see.

The story is compelling on the whole; a collection of city-states vastly different from one another and yet united against destructive mythical creatures, that women are at the forefront of society and the last line if defense against the dragons, that it is a female driven society…

It does falter in places, though. Chupeco has tied a large part of the story to color – the color of dresses, flowers, uniforms, and heartsrune necklaces. Each color has a meaning and there are a lot of colors heavy with meaning. It is nearly impossible to keep it all straight. I hope that final editions have appendices with lists and explanations for readers. I would have liked that. Chupeco also spends a lot of time… organizing. Organizing is a good word. And it makes sense. It is the first book in a coming series so the world needs to be organized and established. 

So despite the slow moments of organization, The Bone Witch is a compelling start to a series and I will keep an eye out for the next book. It is going to be good!

“Summer of My German Soldier” by Bette Greene

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

“Time to get going on my ambition. It’s not the only one I have, but it’s the only one I work at.”

Exciting news, fellow readers!

I have, inadvertently, just read one of the most banned books of the 2000-2009 era in school libraries! Summer of My German Soldier came in at #55, according to my Wikipedia-ing for background to use in this review. I am rather proud of this accidental discovery, and the reasons for my pride and happiness are many.

First and foremost, as evidenced by the photo of my book it is not a new book. No, I got this book in fourth grade – and I was in fourth grade before 2000. I remember it was fourth grade because it’s even marked with a reading level grade five, age eleven and up and I was not at those milestones when I got it. I don’t remember exactly why this book called to me. Possibly my mother had introduced me to Anne Frank. What I do remember is this – I loved this book. I scoured the library for the sequel (which I may look for again because I only remember it being beyond my understanding at the time). I made sure I did not lose this book when we moved. This book has never not been on my bookshelf with all the other books I love.

And that is the second reason for my reader joy – it’s been a years since I read Bette Greene’s pre-teen novel, though I did read it a couple times between fourth grade and now, and I still love it. Just enough time passed that I forgot just enough that I was able to rediscover passion for the story of Patty Bergen in the four days it took me to read this book.

“Cruelty is after all cruelty, and the difference between the two men may have more to do with their degrees of power than their degrees of cruelty.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I can see what people might use for grounds to ban this book on; child abuse (physical and emotional), the use of the n-word among other racist things, a twenty-one year old man declaring love – in words alone – for a twelve year old girl, religious intolerance…

However, I do not believe in banning books. Certainly not on the grounds that they accurately portray history in a fictional setting, and that would be the story of this book. 

In case it isn’t clear, Summer of My German Soldier takes place during World War II. It is set in a small town called Jenkinsville, Arkansas. Patty Bergen is the daughter of the only Jewish family in town. They are wealthy enough to employ a housekeeper named Ruth who is African-American. There is a POW camp for German prisoners on the outskirts of town.

If we compare that to history, we find that:

  • small town Arkansas was probably not the most open-minded place in America for Jewish families to live
  • African-Americans and white people did not live in the same parts of town, especially in the South, during the 1940s
  • white families often employed housekeepers and staff who were not the same color as them
  • the n-word was a part of daily language, for better or for worse
  • there were POW camps for German prisoners of war all over the United States during World War II
  • it was not necessarily seen as against the rules or against the rule of law to use a belt on your daughter when she did not do as you wanted her to do

In essence, the truth hurts sometimes but it is still the truth. To paper over truth because of modern sensibilities is to ignore what mistakes were made, and risk the mistakes happening again.

“Maybe you’re right, but maybe, just maybe, we all have an enormous capacity for believing in anything that will provide us with a bit of comfort.”

“I’ve found this here a cold world, a mighty cold world, and a man and a woman, well, they needs a little comforting ‘for they freeze to death.”

This book should be read, not banned.

In any case, the summary of the book is more than why people might wish to ban it.

Patty Bergen’s parents are rich, on the comparative scale of Jenkinsville, and they do not particularly care what she does so long as she does what they expect her to do. Her mother’s mix of hyper-criticism of her looks and total lack of interest in her is heartbreaking. Her father is obsessed with no one ever seeing fault with him or the world he has created, so much so that he uses a belt on her for playing with a poor boy but buys her the finest steaks. Until a prisoner escapes from the POW camp, Patty’s only real friend is the family housekeeper, Ruth. It is Ruth who gives her the nuturing she craves and needs, and she substitutes Ruth for her parents with such intensity that she prays the prayers Ruth teaches her rather than the ones she learned at synagogue.

Patty hides the escaped prisoner, seeing it not as treason but as an act of kindness. It is obvious that it is a kindness she wishes someone would show her if she ever got away from her parents. She is able to see the prisoner, Anton, as a young man away from his home and his family and in need of help. And he sees her not only as a means to an end but as a kindred spirit who will look past labels and see the honest truth of anything and everything.

Summer of My German Soldier is a story of three different people, as different as possible in that time and that place, sharing a tiny spot in time during which their beliefs, their values, their hopes, and their dreams are called into question. 

Now I really want to go to Paris… in 1889…

  • The book: To Capture What We Cannot Keep
  • The author: Beatrice Colin
  • Dates read: September 28, 2016 – October 21, 2016
  • Where to get it: Amazon (on November 29, 2016)

25901561.jpgI’m gonna be honest here, I requested an ARC of this novel for three reasons; 1) it takes place in Paris(!), 2) it is historical fiction – i.e. the stuff I live on, and 3) the cover looked like the covers on a lot of “must-have” books that I’ve been too cheap to buy in recent months. See? Honesty.

Anyway, that third thing on the list is the lucky, if silly, reason I found myself getting lost in Beatrice Colin’s lyrical, fantastic novel of love, mostly unrequited in Paris, France as it was during the years that Eiffel Tower was being built for the World’s Fair in 1889. Sometimes it really does pay to be cheap and stubborn.

It is the story of Caitriona Wallace, a thirtysomething widow from Scotland who, because widows in the 19th century had few prospects, takes a job as chaperone to the newly adult niece and nephew of a Scottish engineer as the brother and sister leave for a tour of Europe, as the children of the wealthy did then. Alice and Jamie Arrol are essentially as I expect wealthy kids of their era were – a whole lot of spoiled and just a little bit naive. The fourth person who makes the story is Emile Nouguier, who is an actual historical person – an engineer and architect who was one of the designers of the Eiffel Tower.

Books are nothing without characters to care about (love them or hate them, so long as you feel them) so they are what makes or breaks a story for me and, god, did Cait, Alice, Jamie, and Emile make this story for me.

Let’s start with the siblings. You would be forgiven for worrying that spoiled rich kids could come across as annoying cliches, especially in the realm of historical fiction. The Arrols do not. Perhaps it’s because Colin writes them with a slight air of being proverbial fish out of water, and more “nouveau riche” than cushioned by centuries of wealth, but both Alice and Jamie struggle mightily to balance the world they want to live in with the world they do live in. Alice is perpetually obsessed by making a good marriage, and there is even a line where her uncle tells Caitriona that she’d marry a lamppost if it asked her, but she is still a girl at heart, one who wants to have fun and toe the line and figure out who she is before she marries. She might not always recognize those things but, through Colin’s writing, it is easy to see that she is really an ordinary girl. Alice’s brother Jamie, a few years older, can also be seen as typical – the young man who wants to impress not only the nearest eligible female but his uncle and the older men in his world. Jamie’s struggles with this are almost tragic, it’s clear he’s got little interest in his uncle’s ironworks but he knows he should so he manages to secure a job, that he fails at rather spectacularly, working on the Eiffel Tower when he, Alice, and their chaperone returned to Paris to live. Likewise, he is driven by the urges of young people everywhere and, much to his very real shame, he ends up designing a room at the famed, and real, Le Chabanais brothel to pay off his debts.

Caitriona and Emile are the opposites of Alice and Jamie (and it should be noted I only just Googled Emile and discovered he was real so I cannot say how… true to life Colin wrote him). She married who she was supposed to marry, and suffered terribly for it. He never had any interest in marrying, despite his mother’s desperate wishes, and kept a mistress he was misguidedly, to put it mildly, enamored with. He was, to be fair, more married to his work. And then Emile met Caitriona by chance and Beatrice Colin managed to write one of the least cheesy, most beautiful loves-at-first-sight I have ever read. The novel is the story of them not being together. They travel parallel with one another, occasionally intersecting as Jamie decides Emile is the man to marry his sister – irregardless of neither Alice nor Emile wanting that, and finally pulling apart when the shame that an amateur historian knows came with being a woman in the late Victorian period.

Maybe there’s a happily ever after, maybe Cait and Emile find each other again. Maybe there’s no happily ever after, maybe he stays married to his work and she does just what Victorian widows were expected to do.

You’ll have to read this breathtaking book to find out!

(I received a copy of TO CAPTURE WHAT WE CANNOT KEEP through NetGalley and Flatiron Books in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “The Dogs of Littlefield” by Suzanne Berne

55I don’t know quite what to make of Suzanne Berne’s The Dogs of Littlefield.

I don’t know what I expect when I started the book but… it was not what I found in the book. The cover, obviously, makes it seem as thought terrible things happen to the dogs of Littlefield, Littlefield being an upper middle class suburb sort of place in Massachusetts. And there are dogs in Littlefield, a lot of dogs. And yes, terrible things happen to the dogs. Well, just five of them, really, but still.

Dogs are not what the book is about. Dogs are… what brings the story together, I suppose you could say.

The story is more a sociological commentary on upper middle class suburbia and the way the citizens of such a place tend toward manic and depressive from one day to the next. And this would have been a super interesting idea, especially since Berne included a visiting professor studying just that. But Clarice Watkins, the professor, is not the focus of the story. She is not even the third focus of the story. She is a passing, minor character who briefly drops in to watch things. The focus of the story is on Margaret Downing, unhappy wife and frustrated mother. She becomes Clarice’s focus for the study we don’t get to really see and she is the thing which everyone else in the story reacts to and revolves around.

It sounds odd to say it that way but… it’s true. Margaret has a dog and Margaret is a suburban housewife with all the issues that would seem to come along with that. And suburbia, as Hollywood and literature tell us even if we haven’t experienced it ourselves, is made up of small circles of people caught in sometimes vicious cycles.

It is a good story. It could be a better story. There were too many times that I didn’t understand why a storyline was dropped, why Berne suddenly picked up the most remote sounding narrator’s voice where it had just been warm and relatable, and why the book ended the way it did. That is what holds the book as just “good” for me. Maybe I’m not an upper middle class suburbanite and that’s why I can’t get it.

The thing that sticks with me, though, is when Clarice Watkins asks “why aren’t they happy?” at the end of the book and… that’s what I wanted to read about. And I mostly did. But I could have read more about it.

I received a copy of The Dogs of Littlefield from NetGalley and Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.