Frayed edges: Spool of Blue Thread (review)

Spool of Blue Thread (Edelweiss DRC)
Anne Tyler

“The disappointments seemed to escape the family’s notice, though. That was another of their quirks: they had a talent for pretending that everything was fine. Or maybe it wasn’t a quirk at all. Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever.”

Spool of Blue ThreadI started reading Anne Tyler about twenty-five years ago when I with Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant (which is still one of the few novels my husband has read at my prodding).  From there I backpedaled and read some of her earlier novels (Morgan’s Passing, Searching for Caleb, Celestial Navigation) then, through the years, read on to Breathing Lessons, Saint Maybe, Ladder of Years, and, just a year and a half ago, The Beginner’s Goodbye. I never regretted a single one of those reads–which is unusual for me 1) because I’m picky and 2) because the quality of authors’ work does tend to fluctuate–and A Spool of Blue Thread is no different.

Red and Abby Whitshank frequently squabble, sometimes disconnect, often nag, but, in the end, settle back into their love story which Abby’s many retellings always begins the same way: “It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon …”  Abby, a social worker, is a bona fide hippie turned grandma. She writes found poetry from scraps of magazines, newspaper, and letters. Her biscuits melt-in-your-mouth. And Thanksgiving dinner always includes “orphan” guests—immigrants, students, widows, and an odd assortment of down and outers. For his part, Red runs the family construction business along with two of the children. Red is busy, a bit gruff, a little stiff—especially next to Abby’s earth motherliness. But always, there is that love.

The Whitshank children—Denny, Amanda, Jeannie, and Stem—are in and out of Red and Abby’s lives and there’s a passel of grandchildren nowadays to keep track of. Only Denny gives them any cause for concern, really. He’s every family’s never-keeps-a-job-girl-home kind of guy. The kids jostle for attention, competing (most of the time) with good nature. Yes, Amanda is bossy and Stem is a goody two shoes—but always, there is that love.

And center to it all is the Whitshank home, built to perfection for another family by Red’s father Junior, (who probably had a plan all along for the home to return to him). It is Norman Rockwell picturesque, right down to the flagstone walk and the deep, wide porch.

But while it seems like a story book family, the Whitshanks hurt each other. There are secrets. Betrayal. And loss. Lots of loss.

What I like about Tyler’s novels is the fact that she takes some pretty dysfunctional families and endears them to us until we realize that there are more ways than one for families to live and love. If the characters were in therapy or marriage counseling, it would be a pretty messy business. But Tyler shows us that families come in all shapes and sizes, usually with a little wear and tear, a few frayed edges. But no matter—family is just that.

Sailing the ocean blue: As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust (review)

As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust (DRC)
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press
Release date: January 6, 2015

If you haven’t caught Flavia fever by now, you’re missing out on something special. Twelve-year-old Flavia de Luce is a chemist prodigy-turned-sleuth who has solved any number of thefts, murders, and kidnappings in her six previous adventures.  At the end of The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches we knew Flavia was bound for Canada to train for her role in an As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust“ancient and hereditary” organization at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, the very same school her legendary mother Harriet attended.  And true to his word, Bradley opens As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust with Flavia standing on the deck of an ocean liner–in a storm, covered in sea spray, planning the murder of her chaperone Mr. Rainsmith by champagne and bicarbonate of soda. Flavia fans would expect nothing less.

As to be expected, Flavia and boarding school prove to be an odd bedfellows. At home, playmates were decidedly missing, with Flavia preferring the company of the vicar’s wife and the police inspector. Just how would she manage the drama of dozen’s of girls living under one roof? It helps that she is quickly taken under the wing of the headmistress Miss  Faulthorne—who sympathizes with Flavia on a level she’s not accustomed to–and also finds out that these girls aren’t just any girls. They are, in fact, also members-in-training of Nide, the same group that Flavia’s Aunt Felicity told her she must “learn her way into” at the end of Vaulted Arches. It also helps that by the end of Chapter 2, a mummified body falls out of the fireplace in her room, its desiccated head rolling across the floor and landing at Flavia’s feet.

With that, Flavia is off and running. Those girls I worried about become no more than stand-ins for the adults she was accustomed to interviewing (and, truth be told, manipulating) as she parsed together the truth. As always, Flavia runs into some dead ends and meets any number of decoy characters. She jumps to conclusions and puts herself in danger. But truth she finds.

When I first realized at the end of book six that there would be no more Daphne or Dogger, no more Mrs. Mullet or Colonel, my heart dropped. Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey, along with her friends and family, were as much a part of the books’ charms (almost!) as Flavia. But just as the almost-a-teen Flavia was experiencing some growing pains, I, too, wanted to see how Flavia would manage outside the familiarity of Bishop’s Lacey. Bradley’s oh-so-perfect details help with our transition: a chemistry teacher who is an acclaimed—and acquitted—murderer; dorm rooms named after pioneering women (Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Edith Cavell); girls singing Ninety-nine bottles of arsenic on the wall. It’s a world of delights.

But it’s the magic of Flavia de Luce herself that successfully carries this little sleuth across the ocean, and us, the reader, with her.

Simply Lovely: The Illusion of Separateness (review)

The Illusion of Separateness
Simon Van Booy
Harper Collins

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Martin. Mr. Hugo. Sebastien. John. Amelia. New York, France, England, Los Angeles. A Nazi soldier, a baker; an orphaned baby and a U.S. fighter pilot. Writer Simon Van Booy tells their stories in a series of (seemingly, at first) unconnected narratives, from pre-war Germany in 1939 to present day California. The tone is evocative and their memories shimmer in Van Booy’s hand. This is a book to be read simply for its beauty. The lovely language, for one. Like this: “Rain says everything we cannot say

to one another. It is an ancient sound that willed all life into being, but fell so long upon nothing. The silence after is always louder.” Or this: “Whether you know it or not, we leave parts of ourselves wherever we go. I wonder if I should wear perfume tonight for my date.”

You can take away from the title and the epigraph that the character’s stories lap along the edges of each other. It would be a shame to tell you their stories, though. The volume is slim and my guess is that you’ll be compelled to read it in one sitting as I was. And then, as my friend Denice warned me, turn right back to the beginning to start all over again.

We, one day, will be vanquished with a last puff and then nothing. Nothing but the fragrance of our lives in the world, as on a hand that once held flowers.

Big-hearted: A Man Called Ove (review)

A Man Called Ove (NetGalley DRC)
by Fredrik Backman
Atria Books

Time is a curious thing. Most of us only live for the time that lies right ahead of us … One of the most painful moments in a person’s life probably comes with the insight that an age has been reached when there is more to look back on than ahead. 

There isn’t much Ove likes–not Volvos (Ove is a Saab man) or handbag dogs or lead-footed drivers or recycling bins or rule-breakers or cell phones or espresso machines. And Ove isn’t likely to keep his opinion (or his temper) to himself. He is, in a word, the quintessential Grumpy Old Man. The only tenderness Ove admits to is for his wife Sonja–beautiful, smiling, long-suffering Sonja.

For nearly forty years Ove has made daily inspections of his neighborhood every morning at five minutes to six. Not one minute more or less. The terraced homes were still dark, the street silent, but there was the traffic sign to check, garage locks to scrutinize, rubbish bins to sort. On this particular morning he meets a stray cat–tattered tail, patchy fur, one ear–which he quickly stomps away. (Ove didn’t like cats. Sonja did, but not Ove.) And before he can get back to his one cup of coffee (no more or less) he meets new neighbors moving in across the street–pregnant mom (a foreigner!), two young daughters, and a husband who crashes Ove’s mailbox and overruns his flowerbed with the moving trailer. Perhaps because Ove is at loose ends this particular morning, he takes matters into his own hands and maneuvers the trailer into their driveway himself.

The day before, Ove was sent home from work with a jolly “slow-down-a-bit” and “take it easy”. Sent him packing was more like it. Sonja was the only one who would listen, but these days Sonja doesn’t have much to say because Sonja waits under the frozen ground for his visits, under the boulder around which Ove plants flowers weekly. So Ove, now without even the work he lost himself in, is determined to join Sonja–a deed he approaches methodically, first checking weight bearing walls, then tailpipes–careful to spread plastic sheeting or newspapers accordingly–then turning off the furnace and unplugging electrics so everything is in order when he goes.

But Parsvaneh and her family, the cat, a stray letter carrier, a journalist keep interrupting, and slowly, Ove is pulled back. By love, of course, but he doesn’t quite know it yet. While Ove fusses and fumes about the intrusions, we learn about Young Ove, who while always reticent was not always so curmudgeonly, and his love for Sonja. We learn that after Ove and Sonja’s great loss, pushing others away is just one way to keep his heart safe. Ironically, it’s Ove’s heart that finally trips him up–a heart too large, too full.

A Man Called Ove is a tender story, with the sweetness of The Misremembered Man and perhaps the poignancy of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. I can’t imagine you’d be disappointed.  

Liebe uber alle

The Book Thief
Markus Zusak

The Book Thief  has been on my Amazon Wishlist for ages; published several years ago and a New York Times bestseller for now a second go-around, it seemed like good summer reading. Okay, so a novel about Nazi Germany might not be everyone’s idea of a beach book, but what can I say? And from the first page, I was (dare I say?) enchanted by the narrator: Death. A kinder and gentler death, to be sure, but Death all the same. It was a poignant and powerful device.

Liesel Meminger is on her way to a new life with a foster family. The year is 1938; her father, a communist, has disappeared with the advent of Nazi rule, and her mother fears she’ll be next. So Liesel and her little brother are off to Molching, a small village just outside of Munich. Hans and Rosa Huberman were anxiously expecting them and the small stipend that would accompany the children, stretching the family dollar a little further. But  little Werner dies along the way, leaving just his big sister to meet her foster family–and refusing, once she arrives, to budge from the placement agency’s car.

We know from the first that Herr Huberman, Papa, is one special man. He coaxes Liesel from the car, shows her how to roll a cigarette for him. He plays the accordion and brings life into their cramped home. He helps Liesel navigate around the treacherous Frau Huberman, whose swearing and yelling and name-calling are legendary. But perhaps most important of all, Papa teaches Liesel how to read–he paints letters and words on the walls in the cellar and pours over the book Liesel found at her brother’s gravesite: The Grave Digger’s Handbook. (Other than that one teensy spoiler, I’ll let you discover who the book thief is and how the books are stolen.)

Liesel navigates school and afternoon soccer matches in the street and wins the heart of Rudy Steiner, friend and confidant extraordinaire. She helps Mama deliver the laundry, attends her Hitler Youth troop–and marches in parades and sings Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles and shouts “Heil, Hitler.” I think this might be the first novel I’ve ever read set in Germany in World War II where the main character is an active participant in Nazi life and it was a bit of a shock. But very little in this world is black and white, and Liesel soon finds out that life in Nazi Germany is many shades of gray.

Zusak scatters the pages of his novel with unexpected lists, labels, and asides. Here’s the list that begins Part One: “himmel street–the art of saumensching–an ironfisted woman–a kiss attempt–jesse owens–sandpaper–the smell of friendship–a heavyweight champion–and the mother of all watschens”. There are also two handwritten and illustrated books, one written by Liesel and one by a Jewish friend of hers. Which probably should have alerted me to the fact that The Book Thief  is marketed as a Young Adult novel. But because it’s been several years since the book was first published, I either forgot or totally missed the initial hype (Read: I had no idea what this book was really about) and was fairly surprised at the target audience.

Young adult fiction or no, The Book Thief  is poignant and thought-provoking and beautifully crafted.