Book Review: Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

After abandoning a slow moving book, I was pleased to quickly get hooked on my latest book Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah.  Set both in the modern day and a fairy tale time, which slowly becomes real (namely the second world war).

Ah I didn't notice the butterfly til I uploaded this image! source: http://www.bookdepository.com/Winter-Garden-Kristin-Hannah/9780312663155

Ah I didn’t notice the butterfly til I uploaded this image!
source: http://www.bookdepository.com/Winter-Garden-Kristin-Hannah/9780312663155

I love a great World War 2 story, but only European stories. The book I gave up on was about the second world war, but based in the US, and I just couldn’t get into it. I think I prefer the depths of despair and suffering the war inflicted on Europe (and it’s fictional storytellers like Kristin Hannah).

The book is set in an apple orchard in the US. (I’m sure it probably mentioned the state, but the information seems irrelevant to my memory.) It gets cold enough to snow, which draws parallels to the fairy tale world of the matriarch, Anya. Anya has two daughters, Nina and Meredith. Nina’s the photo journalist who’s forever in some remote corner capturing wars and poverty. Meredith has followed in her father’s footsteps, managing the apple business and bringing up her daughter Jillian and Maddy with her husband Jeff. The story starts with the patriarch’s death, where he urges his daughter Nina to connect with his cold and distant wife Anya, and asks Meredith to care for her mother.

Meredith takes the request to heart and works tirelessly to look after her mother, Anya, who seems to be losing her mind after a few interesting incidents the most common of which is sitting the Winter Garden in the cold snowy nights. Meredith works herself into the ground between maintaining her father’s orchard and caring for her mother. Suddenly, Nina returns from the far flung assignment in Africa and finds Meredith’s put their mother in a nursing home. Nina, being the impulsive child, discharges her mother and takes her back home to the orchard. Nina’s conviction lies in her promise to her dying father to make sure she hears the entirety of her mother’s fairy tale.

The childhood fairy tale enchanted Nina and Meredith as children, though they never heard the end of it.  One year, in an effort to attract the love and warmth they missed from their mother, the children acted a play of the fairy tale.  Their mother became further isolated, and Meredith vowed never to seek the love or affection of her mother.  Nina, being younger, felt the same, but committed to her father’s request, continues to ask for her mother to return to the fairy tale in adulthood.

Slowly the fairy tale shows signs of truth.  Of real places.  Of grandmothers who smoke – and who smokes in a fairy tale?  The sister slowly unravel the story from their mother, and in the process, discover the depth of suffering and pain their mother endured in a life long before them, and even their father.  This book captivated me – I read it in the short minutes whilst I waited between activities.  I was a little slack on reading and commenting on my favourite blogs, even though they are a little more time sensitive than a novel!  But it was well worth it – I now have a stronger desire to see Russia and I’m even thawing to the idea of going in winter.  Call me insane, right?  An aussie in a Russian winter? I don’t know what I’m in for!

Book Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This book came onto my radar thanks to reading http://www.71toes.com  Actually, I think it might have also have been mentioned on another blog I read too, and so with that sort of serendipity, I added it to my reading list: A tree grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith.

Despite not really being a reprieve from the doom and gloom of my last few books(here, here and here), I did thoroughly enjoy this book. I’ll admit that I’m usually a little reticent to read ‘history’ books – I’m not great at adjusting my imagination to yesteryear, at least that’s what I thought. But I didn’t have any trouble reading, and enjoying this book set in the 1910s. The book, I believe, was meant to be an autobiography, but fears that it wouldn’t sell turned it into a character narrative.

The book focuses on the tween to teen years of the main character, Francie, and her life with her mother (Katie), father (Johnny) and brother Neeley. Evidently, all the other characters of the neighborhood and extended family are also woven in the narrative. Francie lives in Brooklyn in relative poverty – which was hard to grasp in some respects, as it’s hard to know what a penny then is worth in today’s money! But from the tales, it’s clear that anyone who collects trash in exchange for pennies is surely not living a prosperous life.

There are some delightful observations – of Aunt Sissy who changes after “adopting” a baby (after 10 stillbirths). Francie only seems to be able to establish that when you have a child you stop smelling so heavily perfumed?! There are some great quotes I want to share – some because they are topical to my life, but others for their sweetness. Here’s some of the ones I liked enough to write down:

‘She puzzled as to why learned people didn’t adopt chemistry as a religion’

On work/life balance
‘You work eight hours a day covering wires to earn money to buy food and to pay for a place to sleep so that you can keep living to come back and cover more wires. Some people are born and kept living just to come to this. Of course, some of these girls will marry, marry men who have the same kind of life. What will they gain? They’ll gain someone to hold conversations within the few hours at night between work and sleep’

And isn’t that all life seems sometimes?

On hairstyles (for those who read 6 reasons I shaved my head will understand why I added this!)
‘Why do you want short hair like a boy?
It would be easier to take car for.
Taking care of her hair should be a woman’s pleasure.

A woman’s hair is her mystery. Daytimes, it’s pinned up. But at night, alone, with her man, the pins come out and it hangs loose like a shining cape. It makes her a special secret woman for her man

When you’re eighteen you can shave your scalp for all I care

Overall, the book paints a wonderful portrait of living in the tenements in Brooklyn, and the naive life of a young lady, hoping to make more of herself than those before her. There’s a wonderful spirit to the book – of rejecting charity, and ensuring education of the two children to elevate them above the generations before them. I can understand why this book is still being read today!

Oh my – the innocence of youth (mine!) – this was turned into a film in 1945. Rest assured, if anyone had told me, or offered to let me see it, I would have said no – now that I’ve read this, I might open myself up to seeing the film adaption of this ‘olden days’ period.

Book Review: Kitchen

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto was recommended by my blogger friend Dar, after I read another Japanese book recently: The Wind Up Bird Chronicle

Kitchen by Banana yoshimoto

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

The book is written with two stories – the longer ‘Kitchen’ and then ‘Moonlight shadow’.  The stories are similar in themes and feeling, but don’t share characters.  The themes of death and grieving are pervasive, but it’s interspersed with healing and growth.

Kitchen focuses on a university aged girl, Mikage, becoming an orphan, after her grandmother passes away. (The story’s name of the story comes from Mikage’s peace and love of kitchens – spending the first days of grieving sleeping by the refrigerator) Another family takes her in, a transvestite ‘entertainer’ Eriko and his/her son Yuichi.  As the story unfolds,  Eriko dies in a perverse attack at work, and Yuichi starts to experience the same grief as Mikage had when she’d been living with them.

The second episode is about a young woman, whose name escapes me (like most characters’ and I can’t find now!).  She’s suffereing the grief after her boyfriend, Hirage, dies in a freak accident.  In the accident, Hirage’s brother girlfriend also dies. Both the main character, and Hirage’s brother continue to see one another, and explore their grief in differeing ways – either running or cross dressing.

It’s a short book, and relatively easy ready, with some challenging themes.  It was published in 1988 (I would have been 3!), but I wonder where the world was with concepts like transexuality and cross dressing that this book touched on?

Book Review: The Blade Itself

The Blade Itself by Marcus Sakey may or may not have been the book recommended by a friend on Facebook.  The small issue of the author was unknown, but I took the gamble nonetheless.

Danny, an Irish American living in Chicago, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, with his mate Evan.  In their late teens, they commit a robbery of a pawn shop.  Danny sees a chance to slip away, after Evan turns violent and severely injures two people.  The book opens with this crime, and then fast forwards seven years.  Danny’s still with Karen, but he’s now straight and in the building trade.  Evan has been granted early release (due to prison overcrowding).  You can almost guess what’ll happen next.  Evan’s spent seven years stewing on the fact that he served time and his mate walked free.  Evan, of course, did not implicate his mate in the crime all those years ago, but now the time to settle the score…

Danny, naturally, wants nothing of his old life, now that he’s happily in love, and earning a great living in construction.  But as Evan starts to threaten Karen, there’s no alternative for Danny but to join Evan ‘one last time’.  The plot is tightly written, and carefully sets itself up for the final scene.  Every character serves a purpose to enhance the story.  I thoroughly enjoyed this easy read, and will be looking to see what other things Sakey has published.

Book Review: Leon and Louise

My mother, bless her heart, sent this book (Leon and Louise) to me from France where she was living last year.  She knows I love a good book about the war, and so this one suited.  Oh, and whilst the book is set in France, and my mother was in France, it is, in fact, in English!

The story centers around two young lovers – who coincidentally meet at the beginning of the war.  Leon is sent to a far off town to be the Morse code expert (which he is not… but picks up quickly with lots of practice on the job, and some magazines!), Louise cycles past him and is absolutely mesmerizing.  The book moves between ‘then’ and ‘now’, and times in between, and it’s clear that despite the early chemistry of Leon and Louise (and the book’s title), that they are not in fact together.  It was an enjoyable book, and like most books, makes me think about ‘what if’ I was one of the characters.  What if the love of my life disappeared without a trace?  Would I keep looking? Would I move on? (Would I continue to be sure they were in fact the love of my life?).  I’m not usually into romance, and I suppose this is what this book is simply about, but it does delve into the dynamics of family and war and separation  and I truly do find that fascinating and inspiring.

Nest us – The Blade Itself by Marcus Sakey – I’m well into it, but probably another week til a review is better (less taxing on the memory – it was a while since early Feb when I read Leon and Louise!)