Sunday, December 30, 2012

War is Hell on My Reading Equilibrium

A couple of beautiful, trying novels that stuck to my gut, with war at their centers.

This is a book I am in love with. A desert island kind of book. Ignore the 'teen' categorization - don't discount it for any of the reasons that you might sometimes discount a book - and sink into Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity. At its center is the friendship between Verity and Maddie, young women assisting the British war effort in October, 1943, when Maddie's plane is shot down over France and Verity is captured by the Gestapo. Verity's astounding character emerges as she writes a closely-monitored confession that is mostly a paean to Maddie and the story of their unlikely but deep and everlasting friendship. When the story switches to Maddie's POV, the true depth of Verity's intelligence and devotion both to her friend and to Britain is revealed. I listened to the audio of this, and can't stress enough how gorgeously Morven Christie (as Verity) and Lucy Gaskell (as Maddie) narrated. They're both actresses, mostly doing British TV, but I hope they've been bitten by the narration bug after this project, because both were a real pleasure to hear. Christie in particular was a phenom with a wide range of accents and emotions, and Gaskell had me in tears more than once with just her tone as she approached a section of text that would have had had me in tears, regardless. Preemptive tears - one of the special benefits of a well-narrated audiobook. At any rate, text, narration, semaphore, whatever your format - this is a so so worth it book. Enjoy (for the portrait of an extraordinary friendship, not so much for the tears, and how much war destroys beauty, etc.)

Also emerging from WWII, Mark Helprin's In Sunlight and In Shadow is set primarily in New York City in 1947. Harry Copeland was a pathfinder in the war - he and his team of paratroopers were charged with ranging ahead to bring the troops safely to their next engagement. Post-war, he returns to an expected life running the family business, until he runs across heiress and singer Catherine Thomas Hale, which changes everything for them. Their instant connection causes them both to adjust their course, forcing them to seek the most essential parts of themselves in order to be together. The city of New York is as much a character as Henry or Catherine, and Helprin transmits it with such evocative lyricism that I actually had wistful thoughts about moving there. (I... am not a New York life kind of gal.) There's a great deal of fun language to surf in this novel, which is a good thing since it's 700+ pages (30 hours on audio.) Narrator Sean Runnette seemed to be as much a fan of the language and the pacing and movement as I was, though I wish he'd differentiated the character voices a good bit more. I didn't think, starting a 30 hour book, that I'd be impatient for it to continue as I approached the end, but this is a world I didn't want to leave. Helprin had that effect on me with Freddy and Fredericka, the only other of his I've read, and I clearly ought to put him on my ever-expanding list of 'novelists to seek out.' This one is very different, but Harry's pathfinding in a post-war America will stick with me for ages to come.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Miracles Scary and Sacred

And now back to my regularly scheduled program of books coverage. I've got quite a few fun novels to cover, so buckle your seat belts, because I'm a-bloggin', people.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is another of those mind-bending debuts that makes me happy about modern fiction. It has a sci-fi premise, but more coming-of-age than space-age. Julia is ten when the world begins to slow. Something's wrong with the gravitational pull of the Earth, making days and nights stretch out first by minutes, then by hours. Birds fall from the sky, crops fail, but the school bells still ring, whether it's light out or dark. At least at first. Meanwhile, Julia's parents are struggling with their marriage, her Mormon best friend has moved from their San Diego suburb to Utah to face the End of Days, and she has a crush on the boy whose piano lesson is after hers. Walker does a fascinating job juxtaposing Julia's growing awareness of the world around her, both the global and the smaller moments that shape her changing reality. As her neighborhood dissolves in the battle between the Real Timers and the Clock Timers, as her parents struggle with their connection, Julia realizes that no one can tell her what the future will hold. The uncertain world will go on, in surprising, sad, beautiful ways, but Julia can only live one moment at a time.

Walker isn't the only one seeing the world reeling from unexpected changes. One of my for-decades-now favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, has messed with the Monarchs in her latest, Flight Behavior. The butterflies have settled for the winter in the woods of Feathertown, TN, instead of their recently-destroyed habitat in far-warmer Mexico. It's a miracle, but a scary one, since it grows out of climate change and the depletion of natural resources. And it's scariest of all to the marvelously drawn Dellarobia Turbow, who first discovers the forest of quiet flame when hiking her in-laws' land in a desperate climb away from the stifling mundanity of her daily life. She was pregnant and married at 17, which was the end of her illusive dreams of college and a different life from that she'd seen growing up. Years of failing to fit in with her husband's family, years of staying home catering to the demands of small children, years of failing to speak up as her mother-in-law belittled her and her neighbors took advantage of her and her husband took her for granted all propelled her to that butterfly-covered copse. And the mass of bright orange wings (a sight I remember well from my college days - if you ever get a chance to visit Natural Bridges during a Santa Cruz winter, take it!) was enough to stop Dellarobia in her not-yet-adulterous tracks and return her, though changed, to her family. When the in-laws plan to sell the butterfly grove for timber money, Dellarobia finds herself getting charismatic Pastor Bobby involved in her preservation efforts. The butterflies, and Dellarobia, inadvertently go viral. Everyone has a say: the church, climate scientists, biologists, lumberjacks, activists. Everyone but Deallarobia's husband, who is just waiting for the furore to settle down so he can go back to his normal life. The poor man just can't see the silent orange fire now in Dellarobia's spirit, but oh, will she soar.

Another atmospheric, lovely, absorbing novel is Louise Penny's The Beautiful Mystery. I've mentioned Penny's Inspector Gamache before, and he's no less dear to me after eight novels. I'm also mighty taken with his top aide, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who accompanies him this time to the reclusive, almost hidden, monastery to investigate the murder of the choir director who brought Gregorian chants to modern ears. It is a closed community of only 24 - now 23 - living in apparent self-sufficient harmony. Now their vows of silence are rescinded to allow Gamache and Beauvoir to find out which of the men is a killer. The mystery itself is adroit and complex, and the effect of the monastery on Gamache and on Beauvoir is compelling. Both men are dealing with the long fallout of a previous case, and being isolated has brought much of it to the fore. I was grabbed tight by their struggles and enchanted, as well, by the chants and the monastic community. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


It's my birthday!! And just because I'm 43 now is no reason not to react to it with child-like giddiness, right? After all - 12-12-12 is pretty darn awesome, as these things go. I've been saying lately, as if it was a cute joke, that I've been looking forward to today for decades. So now it's time to admit, in all seriousness, that I meant it.

(Yes, I get that y'all probably picked up on that already.)

Fortunately, I am surrounded by wonderful people who are indulgent towards me. My boys woke me up this morning with breakfast in bed and a homemade card, plus gifts from them and from Robert. Robert gave me a dozen truffles, plus signed me up to receive a gift a month for 12 months, plus sent me a dozen gorgeous red roses.

I sent them all off to work and school (I took today off) and soaked a while in a bubble bath with the delicious vanilla gel my friends gave me at a birthday dinner last night. Then I set off, just in time for noon, to have lunch with more friends. (I have such a lot of wonderful friends. And all day my phone was buzzing to tell me about emails and FB messages from more far-flung places.)

So, in addition to my other lovely gifts, my friend M set the center of the table with this tower of a dozen cupcakes. Okay, this photo doesn't do them justice, not least because there are far fewer than 12 now. Trust me, they were delicious and artistically presented and a joy to behold.

At 12:12, on 12/12/12, my mom called (not that I heard her, what with the chatter at the table), and my brother texted. And then my more tech-savvy friend taught me how to take a screen shot from my cell phone.

But this is the thing that send me over the moon with glee. My friend D pulled these one by one from the gift bag, reading the poem. It is just beyond awesome, am I right? Don't you wish your birthday was 12/12/12 (and that D was your friend?) (She's very nice - I'm sure she'd be your friend if you asked.)

Pipe cleaners! Lords! (I've read 3 of those romances.) Dance Music - playing as I type!

Swans! French Pens! Turtle Doves!
So anyway, Happy Birthday to Me, and happy 12/12/12 to y'all. I hope it was a good one. And thanks to all the people who helped me celebrate - you're all the best.