On Brassard’s Farm: review

On Brassard’s Farm
Daniel Hecht
Blackstone Publishing

Ann Turner wants to get away from it all–her job (middle school teacher), her ex-husband (cheating scumbag), her city life in Boston (harriedOn Brassard's Farm and superficial). With a small inheritance, she looks for a  piece of land. Just a little place in the middle of nowhere. Vermont, maybe. Breathe the fresh country air. Meet some down-to-earth folks. Buy fresh corn and blackberries from a roadside stand.

Well … don’t we all?!

But most of us aren’t dealing with Ann’s mess of a life. Her dismissal for ‘inappropriate touching’ of a student. Friends who abandoned her. The brother who went missing several years ago.

Daniel Hecht’s On Brassard’s Farm is the story of how Ann made sense of it all. By buying an (almost) inaccessible piece of land on a farm in Vermont. Tent living in the woods for six months of the year. Working on a dairy farm to pay off unexpected debt. And questioning, always questioning, how she came to that place in her life. The property on Brassard’s farm was the means to confront “[her] own bramble patch, [her] own deep woods.”

And the hard work paid off.

She faced fear. Physical exhaustion. Utter loneliness. Even her rage. Gradually, she begins to feel “as if I possessed some degree of luminosity again. I felt a strand of resilience inside, strong yet supple, in body and psyche, as if I’d been at least party woven back together.”

Of course she finds love, again, too. It’s probably Ann’s revelations about love and loneliness that touched me the most. Like always, I’m so taken by a novel where a male author speaks with such accuracy about women’s inner lives–and Hecht did this well. Like chick lit on a deeper level.

(I also learned a lot about farming, dairy cows, trimming trees, and growing hops. Sometimes, quite frankly, a little too much, but still.)

On Brassard’s Farm is a good read.

[Not] Lost in translation: Hotel Silence (review)

Hotel Silence
Audur Ava Olafsdottir
trans. Brian FitzGibbon
Grove Atlantic

hotel silenceJonas Ebeneser built his life around the narrative of family: husband, wife, and child sustained by a Great Love.  But then his wife reveals a secret that causes him to question everything. They divorce. Add to this the fact that nearly every day Jonas visits his querulous mother in a nursing home where he must confront the loneliness and despair that so often accompanies old age and life simply becomes too much. Jonas decides to take preemptive action–and end his life.

Will the world miss me? No. Will the world be any poorer without me? No. Will the world be any poorer without me? No. Will the world survive without me? Yes. Is the world a better place now than when I came into it? No. What have I done to improve it? Nothing. 

Pretty dire, no?

But even in his misery, Jonas can’t bring himself to kill himself in his home town where, most likely, his daughter Waterlily would find him. (And Jonas adores Waterlily.) So he leaves for an unnamed country in the Middle East ravaged by war, but recently quiet under a cease fire. Jonas buys a one-way ticket and writes a letter to Waterlily.

And it’s here that the magic of Hotel Silence begins.

One of three guests at the Hotel Silence, he is met with rusty water, out-dated furnishings, and broken fixtures. The proprietors, a brother and sister gradually–very gradually–come to be his friends. He is warned of the mines. Learns of mass graves and the soccer killing field. Witnesses the bullet-pocked buildings. Jonas takes his meals at Restaurant Limbo, where he is the only diner. And despite his personal despair, he begins to serve as the hotel’s handyman: rewiring, refinishing, and re-plumbing the rooms.

While Jonas rebuilds the Hotel Silence, he also begins to rebuild his own life. As he reflects on his life, we come to realize that his Great Love Story probably wasn’t. That as a young man he had felt unmoored. That his mother had always been difficult.

I nearly abandoned the novel not too far in. It’s a depressing subject, to be sure, but I was leery that it was rip-off of A Man Called Ove. And there was the language–the book was translated from Icelandic, and something about how the book read was slightly out-of-kilter. Nothing I can identify specifically–no odd diction or awkward syntax–but something just a little off-putting.

Hotel Silence won’t be for everyone, but Olafsdottir has a powerful message for us all: “Everything can happen. It can also be different than what one expected.” And one can still have a life well lived.

Paris By the Book: review

Paris By the Book
Liam Callanan
Dutton

Paris By the Book is a love story, plain and simple.
About a girl and her guy.
A reader and the author.
A bookseller and her shop.
A mother and her children.
An artist and Paris.

Leah was trying to finish her masters thesis on Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 movie The Red Balloon when she met her husband in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Met” is just a half truth–he actually chased her down after she shoplifted a copy of the picture book The Red Balloon from a Milwaukee bookstore. One thing led to another, then they were in a bar, discussing which author did Paris more justice: Lamorisse or Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the Madeline stories. It didn’t hurt Robert Eady’s appeal that he was an author in his own right. After publishing a few YA novels, he was trying to make his way in the world as a writer. So how do the poor student and the starving artist spend their courtship when they can’t afford to travel to Paris, France? They travel to Paris, Wisconsin–as well as Stockholm, Cuba, Montreal, and Berlin. All small towns in Wisconsin.

Paris by the bookThe rest, as they say, is history. Leah never finishes that masters thesis. She’s too busy working as a speech writer for a university president, supporting the couple while Robert tries to get his Next Big Novel finished. They have two daughters, Ellie and Daphne, and life is a whirlwind of birthday parties and university functions and neighborhood gatherings. Robert sometimes needs to retreat from the day-to-day grind to focus on his writing. He always leaves a note (“I’ll be back soon!”) and stays away for a few days at most. Leah lovingly calls them his “writeaways”–just a quirk of life when one lives with an artist.

That is until life begins to disintegrate. Because there has been no Next Big Novel. Money is tight. The couple argues. And Robert withdraws. So he leaves, presumably on one of his writeaways–but there is no note or phone call. Robert is gone a week, then two. Leah alerts the police and tries to stay calm, but there is no activity on his bank account or credit cards. No contact with friends or colleagues. He vanished. But after four months of limbo, Leah shakes a cryptic note out of a long-forgotten box of granola. It’s a confirmation number, her good friend Eleanor guesses–and within a week, Leah and the girls are on their way to Paris, France. On a flight Robert had booked before his disappearance. Because if he hasn’t shown up in the U.S., he’s sure to turn up in Paris, right?

As if that’s all not a crazy enough plot line, Leah buys an English language bookstore called The Late Edition. The three make some small headway into life without Robert–the girls attend school, Leah finds satisfaction in running the store. But there’s a strange sense that Robert is close at hand. Leah finds a copy of one of his books in the store with a scribbled “I’m sorry” in Robert’s handwriting. And the girls catch a glimpse of him on crowded streets.

The story’s ending fits where author Liam Callanan wanted to take Robert and Leah. And us, the readers. Oh, you might be frustrated. Vexed. And you might not know much more than you did at the beginning of the novel … but it’s a very writerly unwinding.

Paris By the Book also offers a brutally honest picture of a threadbare marriage that will either rip wide open or be darned back together. In fact, I could see my own life reflected in so many ways. I’ll let Leah speak for both of us here:

“I do want many things … to have raised brave independent daughters; to have read and loved every book on the shelves in my store. But more than anything, I had for the longest time, wanted Robert to be healthy, to be happy. To be here. He wanted to be elsewhere.”

“… I think [Robert] was afraid … of how much we loved him. Of how much that love required his presence.”

 “I do know what I saw in his eyes … I saw love, longing. What’s certain is that bodies, celestial or human, have a pull. It’s impossible to imagine he doesn’t still feel our tug. It’s impossible to imagine his fully gone.”

And finally:

“I don’t so much read anymore, but rather teeter, wonder, take flight … Like anyone who has ever started or finished a book, or a love affair, or confused the two, in sweet anticipation of the fall.”

The Bad Daughter: review

The Bad Daughter
Joy Fielding
Ballantine Books

Every year I read at least one mystery just to keep myself open to the idea of reading whodunits and thrillers and all books mysterious. This bad daughteryear’s is Joy Fielding’s The Bad Daughter. (Of course I might also have chosen the book because of the title, so there’s that. Years of therapy … but that’s another post, I guess!) And even though I almost bailed on it, I’m glad I didn’t. It was a rollicking good time, with suspects galore.

Robin is heading home after five years away, and she’s a bundle of nerves. Not necessarily because her father and step-mom have been brutally murdered, but because she is heading home to Red Bluff and her older sister Melanie. To say their relationship was contentious is putting it mildly. Melanie is snarky and snide and downright cruel where Robin is concerned. She’s got a chip on her shoulder and she’s not shy about voicing her resentments: Robin went to college; Robin is a professional; Robin lives in L.A. And truthfully, Melanie’s life sucks. She had her son Landon when she was in her teens, and he is autistic. She never escaped Red Bluff, and her love life is non-existent. So the battle between the sisters is intense–in fact, it was the reason that I almost didn’t stay with The Bad Daughter. The first chapter or two were a little too “chick-lit-y” for my taste. You know, the “my-sister-hates-me-and-I-don’t-know-why” sort of book.

But once the investigation gets going and the suspects start lining up, it’s a great read. When the evidence was stacked against each new person of interest, I’d play the rest of the novel out in my head to see if it made sense. Now I’m no whodunit expert, but that has got to be the sign of a good one. But the victims? Their lives made the story. Melanie and Robin’s father is a wealthy, philandering loud-mouth. Always has been. So truth be told, we don’t feel terrible that he got his. But their step-mom Tara was Robin’s best friend in high school (I know, ewwww) and once engaged to her brother Alec. Complicating matters, Greg and Tara have a twelve-year-old daughter, Cassidy. The girl was indulged by their dad as Robin and Melanie the never were. Cassidy witnessed the robbery–and perhaps even the murder–but she’s hospitalized with gunshot wounds.

So who did it? The daughter? The nephew? The son? Or someone else entirely? I’ll tell you what–this family puts the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional!

White Houses: review

White Houses
Amy Bloom
Random House

The story begins April 1945, just weeks after FDR’s death. Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt’s dear friend, is readying the apartment–Eleanor white housesneeds to gather herself after the President’s funeral with all its pomp and obligations for the widowed First Lady. She is tired. Bereft. (She only learned after his death that Lucy Mercer had been at Warm Springs with Franklin when he died.) So Eleanor turns to Hick, as she calls Lorena, for comfort and tenderness. The two had met eleven years prior and their relationship was an anchor for both of them.

What follows is a flashback of those eleven years, four of them with Hick living in the White House, just down the hall from the President and Eleanor. Lorena Hickok was a trailblazing political journalist for the Associated Press at a time when newspaper women were relegated to the social pages. After an interview with Eleanor shortly before FDR took office, the two women developed a fast friendship. They vacationed together, went on road trips and picnics, corresponded daily when apart.

Author Amy Bloom tells the story of Eleanor and Hick as if the two had been lovers. And it’s difficult to know if that was the case. Or not.

Their correspondence was certainly passionate and even suggestive of an affair. Here is Eleanor to Hick just after Franklin’s inauguration: “I want to put my arms around you … to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it and I think she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it” (Goodwin).  Hick moved into the White House after resigning from the AP to work for the Democratic National Committee, but the real reason for her career move might have been to be closer to Eleanor. Her years long relationship with Ellie Morse was in the past, and Hick was smitten with Eleanor. For her part, Eleanor was not at first comfortable in her role as First Lady and it was Hick who saw her potential and urged Eleanor to start her syndicated column My Day and hold press conferences of her own. Each woman had suffered and was insecure in her own way–the other provided support and encouragement not found elsewhere.

One of the best books I’ve ever read about the Roosevelts was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time which covers Franklin and Eleanor during the War years. It’s a painstaking look at the couple, one that reveals how their relationship changed over time. Goodwin’s book is much less concerned with romanticizing the couple, as did the popular Franklin and Eleanor by Joe Lash. I’m not certain how Goodwin would view this novel, but she did write that the communication between women of the Victorian age needs to be put into the context of the time, that because the relationships between men and women “lacked ease … women opened their hearts more freely to other women.” Goodwin admits the correspondence between Eleanor and Hick  does”possess an emotional intensity and sensual explicitness that is hard to disregard,” but that a historian recognizes that there is no way to ascertain the true nature of what went on behind closed doors.

Amy Bloom goes behind those doors in a novel that some will find engaging … and others unsettling. But the novel is thought-provoking–maybe enough so that you’ll read its perfect companion No Ordinary Time.