To capture what we cannot keep: review

To Capture What We Cannot Keep
Beatrice Colin

to capture what we cannot keepBeatrice Colin’s new title To Capture What We Cannot Keep tells the story of the building of the Eiffel Tower and a love that almost wasn’t. Caitriona Wallace, a young widow, is forced to find employment after her husband’s estate dwindles, and it’s either work or the poor house. It’s Edinburgh, Scotland, 1895, and her choices for employment are slim. So like many gentlewomen, she becomes a chaperone for brother and sister Jamie and Alice Arrol, who are about to embark on their Grand Tour of the continent. The young people are social climbers, but naive–and, to Cait’s sensibilities, a little gauche in their overreaching. Jamie and Alice have any number of mishaps, spending more money than they should, eluding their chaperone when they shouldn’t, and sometimes falling in with the wrong company.

But the real story is Cait’s–and how she came to love one of the engineers working on the tower, Emile Nouguier. Although immediately attracted to him, Cait resists his attention even as she looks forward to their time together. Young Jamie sets his sights on Emile for his sister’s suitor (Alice is in France to find a husband, after all) and Cait serves as chaperone, all the while fighting her affection for Emile. You won’t need a spoiler alert, but this is fiction geared towards women readers–and most won’t be disappointed in the ending.

For this reader (who took German in high school, much to her grandmother’s consternation: “French is the language of literature, Laurie!”) I found the place names a bit overwhelming. And there were a lot considering the story was set around the building of the spectacular monument. I also realized I knew very little about the Eiffel Tower. But learn, I did. I had no idea the Tower had levels with restaurants and shops–I thought it was like a giant erector set project. I didn’t know that Eiffel’s company also had a hand in building the Panama Canal, until the French effort went bankrupt. Like I say, it’s a good book that will push a reader into a little research to find out more about the characters and events. And that’s just what I did.

To Capture What We Cannot Keep is written in the tradition of other historical novels which fictionalize the lives of famous people, so readers of The Aviator’s Wife and Circling the Sun will not be disappointed.

Why I’ll remember All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

all the light we cannot seeIt won the Pulitzer. Was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Spent 118 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. Wiser readers than I have written more eloquently about Anthony Doerr’s magnificent All the Light We Cannot See, so there’s no reason to write what you can read elsewhere, like here and here. But it’s a World War II novel that I’ll long remember, and not just for the beautiful writing. Here’s why.

Doerr showed us characters who are usually vilified–Nazis–as people who loved and sacrificed and suffered. Werner Pfennig wasn’t one-dimensional. He had  dreams, and the Nazis recognized his gifts and provided him with a means to develop them. He had doubts, but time and place carried him into waters he had no power to fight against. Werner used the cards dealt him, but he wasn’t a player.

And so I can come to better understand the ones who have been labeled our enemies today. Most Americans with open hearts already acknowledge that it’s not Muslims we should condemn, but the regimes that promote terrorism and distort Islam. But in coming to know Werner Pfennig, I must acknowledge that there are young Muslim men and women who, even while seeming to accept (who knows, maybe even carry out) violent acts of terrorism, are also just cogs in a wheel over which they have little control.

That’s powerful.

I’ll also remember how Marie-Laure continued on. Whatever her circumstances. While her world shrank for a time after her blindness and again after her escape to Saint-Malo, it eventually opened again for her–even wider. And when she suffered the deprivations of war, when her life was in danger, she persevered. Put one foot in front of the other. In the horrors of war, Marie-Laure found opportunity.

How spineless we twenty-first century Americans can be.

I’m guessing that those of you who have read All the Light also carry it with you long after reading. Those of you who haven’t read it yet, must.

Lush and lavish: Amy Snow (review)

Amy Snow
Tracey Rees
Simon & Schuster

Life just seems to move at a slower pace in the summer. Afternoons are hot and humid, the evenings languid. We spend a lot of time on the deck and not so much time in front of the television. It’s a time when we try to break free from our daily routine.  Amy Snow, a novel published earlier this month, makes for a great escape. One of this novel’s blurbs reads: “An abandoned baby, a treasure hunt, a secret. As Amy sets forth on her quest, readers will be swept away …” Pretty accurate, I’d say.

Wealthy heiress Aurelia Venneway finds a newborn baby naked in the snow. Without a thought to propriety, she bundles the little girl under her cloak and rushes into the parlor.amy snow Lady Venneway is cold and distant; she’s just lost yet another pregnancy and the foundling is like a slap in the face. The orphan (named Amy Snow by Aurelia) is banished to the kitchen while the entire household staff tries to keep her out of Lady Venneway’s sight. For a time, Amy is Aurelia’s play thing–eight years younger, she adores the headstrong lady, and is game to join in any of Aurelia’s escapades. And then the two young women grow to be best friends. It’s harder now to stay invisible to Lady Venneway, but the consequences if Amy doesn’t are humiliating. When Aurelia becomes deathly ill–and the prognosis is dire–she demands that her parents permit Amy Snow to be her companion.

The real story begins after Aurelia’s death. Turned out of the house immediately after the funeral, Amy Snow is on her own. Or is she? A mysterious letter is secreted away in her skirt–and Amy soon begins the work of getting to know the real Aurelia Venneway. Before her death,  Aurelia arranged a scavenger hunt, of sorts, for Amy, each clue giving her specific directions: find Enwhistle’s bookshop; stay in Twickenham for three months; travel to Bath. At the end of her travels, Amy doesn’t simply adore her friend blindly but rather with eyes open to Aurelia’s charms … and her faults.

What adds even more fun to the novel is that it was an unsolicited manuscript, submitted by writer Tracey Rees to the Richard and Judy ‘Search for a Bestseller’ Competition–which makes the author’s story a bit of a fairy tale, just like Amy’s. Amy Snow kept me turning page after page–like the post title says, the novel is lavish. If you want to get lost in a world of nineteenth century manners, velvet dresses, carriages, stately horses, dashing young men, and strong-willed women, Amy Snow is perfect for your blanket or beach chair reading.

Destination: Walnut Grove & Plum Creek

sod house
Soddie with sod roof

My goal was De Smet–850 long miles from home–where I’d visit Little Town on the PrairieThe Long Winter, and By the Shores of Silver Lake sites. But I sure couldn’t travel that far without a stop along the way to the banks of Plum Creek. The small town of Walnut Grove, namesake of the TV home of the Ingalls family, is just a few miles from Plum Creek, so I figured a stop at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Gift Store was in order. Except for the fact that TV actors visit Walnut Grove each year for the Wilder Pageant, Walnut Grove doesn’t offer much to LIW fans. Wilder herself only mentioned the town in passing; the family’s home in the area was at Plum Creek. This little town’s fame is totally reliant on the television show.

soddie with windows
Walls like concrete

The emphasis is on ‘gift store’ at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Gift Store. This museum was similar to the one on my trip to the Little House in the Big Woods last summer–a lot of books, dolls, and souvenirs for sale, but not much actual Ingalls’ memorabilia. (But of course I did buy two books!) One room housed story boards floor to ceiling, illustrating the family’s journey with photos and explanation of the period, along with excerpts from Wilder’s books. There was a binder of photocopied articles Wilder wrote when she and Almanzo settled in Missouri. A buffalo coat like Pa wore. But other than that? Only a place setting of dishes, a sewing basket, and two balls of crochet thread actually belonged to Wilder. My favorite (and most authentically museum-worthy) display was a few original sketches and paintings by Garth Williams that became the illustrations fans of the books know and love so well.  The originals are surprisingly small–some only 3″ X 3″!

The other room in the museum itself was dedicated to the TV series–magazines, photos, autographs–but that really isn’t my connection with Laura Ingalls Wilder and I admit I barely looked at it. The museum site also has a few other exhibits representing the time period: a chapel, a “Grandma’s House” (which focused on all things housekeeping), and a school room.There was also a sod house on the museum grounds, but it couldn’t compare to the display of sod houses (or soddies as they’re lovingly referred to) on the McCone family prairie grass farm in Sanborn.

I actually visited the Sod House on the Prairie (which is a private venture) first since it was on the way into town. The family has built replicas of different styles of sod houses–a dug out, a sod house with plastered walls and wood floors, a rough soddie with dirt floors and hay roof–and furnished them accordingly. It is a labor of love–and the re-creations gave me an idea of what life would have been like in prairie homes. One word: dirt. Dirt everywhere. Even the display cards in each soddie were covered with gritty grime … and bird poop. So when you look at Garth Williams’ endearing renderings of Laura frolicking on the banks of Plum Creek with the cozy little sod house tucked into the hill like a Hobbit house, just remember: dirt.

on the banks of plum creek
Plum Creek

Even though Plum Creek is just a creek (!) and the “remains” of the Ingalls’ dugout is only a depression in the bank, the site is surrounded by restored prairie that is home to birds and snakes and foxes (oh, my!) that makes a lovely little hike. (Bring bug spray!) In all honesty, I’d skip Walnut Grove and just drive through Plum Creek for a quick walk to stretch your legs and maybe a wade in the creek.

It was those times when I walked on Ingalls’ land and listened to the tall grass rustle, maybe catching sight of a thrush on the wing, that I felt Laura’s legacy. And that’s what I came for.

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven (review)

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven (NetGalley)
Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster

I read Chris Cleave’s Little Bee for book club just about five years ago. And I liked it–with a few reservations. I liked this new novel of his–which also received a great deal of hype–with the same uncertainty.

London, 1939. Mary North, a Pimlico blueblood, signs up to help with the war effort before her parents can intervene. She expects excitement–espionage, even. What she gets is a teaching position. But at nineteen, Mary is still almost as rebellious and childish as her young charges; she doesn’t last long in her first assignment. She does, however, meet Tom Shaw, a young administrator with the Education Authority. Mary importunes until he gives up and offers her a classroom of her own.

[Now did you see how that word ‘importune’ is a little out of place there? It’s just a little too stuffy–the word almost calls attention to itself, doesn’t it? Well author Cleave is a master of using words that call attention to themselves, as in this little beauty: “”Her confusion grew, the heart lucent and the mind lucifuguous, the great clash of music …” What the heck?!] 

Everyone Brave Is ForgivenBut her classroom is made up of London’s cast-off children–the ones who couldn’t be evacuated to the countryside: children with mental handicaps and physical disabilities. Oh, and a negro child Zachary, whose father is an American performing with a minstrel show in London. But Mary treats the children tenderly and offers them some sense of normalcy, even during the London Blitz. She also takes up with Tom, and their love story is a respite in the midst of wartime.

Mary also meets Alistair, once Tom’s roommate, now on leave for a few weeks, a seasoned officer in the British military . She’s drawn to him in ways she wasn’t with Tom–and then he’s gone to war again, this time to Malta. There’s also Mary’s friend Hilda who plays the plain girl sidekick role. We have a jar of blackberry preserves and more than a few near-death situations. A little morphine addiction. A foray into ambulance driving. A loyal servant and a father in Parliament.

I know I sound overly critical–it’s a rollicking World War II saga. But maybe that’s a problem when it comes to war stories, no? It comes too close to trivializing a horror. I’m not the only reader who had some misgivings–USA Today’s review was lukewarm, at best; The Washington Post also had some misgivings. I did read Everyone Brave Is Forgiven straight through one weekend, so that says something–apparently I was able, on some level, to forgive the story’s faults.

But if you want a really good World War II novel, try to get your hands on a copy of Marge Piercy’s Gone To Soldiers.