Book Reviews May 2018
This may be the most compelling group of books I’ve read in one month. I listened to The Woman in the Window and Educated via Hoopla (audio books through the library). I rushed out and purchased hardbacks of both The Great Alone and Varina because the authors of these new releases wrote two of my all-time favorite books—The Nightingale and Cold Mountain. Talking to the Trees was an unexpected gem by a local Arkansas author.
Sometimes stories align like constellations in the night sky.
May turned out to be one of those star-studded months.
The Woman in the Window
by A. J. Finn
The Woman in the Window has been hyped as THE suspense read of 2018. Whether or not that’s true, I can’t say because I don’t often read this genre. I did, however, read Girl on the Train when it debuted. The Woman in the Window is written along the same vein, a whodunit story with a film noir tone.
Dr. Anna Fox, once a successful child psychologist, now suffers from an extreme case of agoraphobia. As she watches life (and death?) unfold through the window of her New York City apartment (often through the lens of her camera), she guzzles Merlot and pops pills 24-7. With these elements, the author created the perfect setup for an unreliable narrator.
This story kept me guessing. It was a rollercoaster ride in the dark. Trying to stay one step ahead was part of the fun. When Scott Rudin produces the movie based on this book, I think he should film it in black and white.
This book made me: want to watch Rear Window again.
My favorite line: My head was once a filing cabinet. Now it’s a flurry of papers, floating on a draft.
The Great Alone
by Kristin Hannah
The Great Alone is the haunting saga of a family in turmoil during the 1970s. For fans of the author’s wildly popular, best-selling novel The Nightingale, you won’t recognize this novel as having been written by the same author. It’s that different. Told from the point-of-view of thirteen-year-old Leni Allbright, the story reads more like a young adult novel than mainstream adult fiction. Not that that’s a bad thing.
But there’s a whole lot going on in this story.
There’s the story of Cora and Ernt’s marriage, a twisted, unhealthy thing they label as love. Readers who enjoy coming-of-age tales will appreciate Leni’s budding romance with new friend, Matthew. But the primary plot line is cold, hard survivalism and the tragedy of a family held firmly in the grip of mental health problems.
No, The Great Alone is not uplifting yet it unfolds in intriguing layers that kept me reading. Hannah’s stunning descriptions of the harsh Alaskan landscape bring America’s last great frontier to life. Even within the story’s bleakness, there’s romanticism in the idea of living off the grid.
An entire book’s worth of drama arises and resolves within the last few pages. To me, the ending felt rushed. Or perhaps I simply didn’t want it to end.
This book made me: want to visit Alaska.
My favorite line: All this time, Dad had taught Leni how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.
by Tara Westover
Growing up on a remote mountain in Idaho, Tara and her older siblings never attended traditional school. They weren’t homeschooled either. Instead of learning about world history or algebra, Tara learned about herbs and midwifery and the dirty, dangerous junkyard business.
(The family in The Great Alone who moved to Alaska to live off the grid? Tara’s family took it to the EXTREME. A major difference? Educated is a modern-day, true story.)
Mom and Dad were the epitome of religious zealots. They shunned all medication including vaccinations, aspirin, and hospitals, even during life-threatening accidents. Dad, highly suspicious of anything related to the government, hoarded bullets and gasoline, food and rifles, as he prepared for the Days of Abomination, surely just around the corner.
At seventeen, Tara left home. She enrolled in college and set out to catch up on everything she’d missed. Her saving grace—she knew how to read and had an incredible thirst for knowledge. Tara not only graduated from college, she earned a Harvard fellowship and a Masters Degree +PhD from Cambridge University. Even with all her success, family tugged at her, made her second guess herself.
Educated emphasizes the incredible responsibility we have as parents and the influence family and religion have on the children we bring into this world. Good or bad, positive or negative, early beliefs and influences shape us, sometimes nearly smother us, and are difficult to alter even in the most horrific situations.
This book made me: think I should have accomplished a whole lot more so far!
My favorite line: My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.
Talking to the Trees:
Big Time Ephaphanies of a
Small Town Girl
by: Beverly Beldin Litzinger
Sometimes a book comes to the reader at exactly the right time. That’s how Talking to the Trees was for me. A collection of twenty-seven essays written by Beverly Litzinger, former Northwest Arkansas Times columnist, these life reflections provided an honest, straightforward read filled with insights that felt personal to me.
I read Talking to the Trees on Mother’s Day which made it seem all the more special, like a gift, a treat to savor. From the poignant to lighthearted contemplation, Litzinger’s book is part commentary on her life, part meditation on the bigger picture.
As a young girl, Litzinger often found herself spending lots of time alone. Trees became her companions as she whispered her worries into their branches. As a small town girl myself (and a friend to trees), this concept hit home. After reading Talking to the Trees, I felt refreshed, as though I’d spent the day chatting with a good friend. Or my favorite old tree at home on the farm.
This book made me: make a batch of popcorn the old-fashioned way.
My favorite line: No joy is too small.
by Charles Frazier
At age seventeen and nearly a spinster, Varina Howell (called V for short) reluctantly married Jefferson Davis who was 19 years her senior. V was smart, educated, compassionate. Her views were in opposition to those around her, ironic considering she became the first lady of the Confederacy.
After Lee surrendered, V fled with her children to Florida. Among her children was a mixed-race boy named Limber Jimmy, whom she had adopted. They traveled undercover as refugees with “bounties on their heads, an entire nation in pursuit.” V’s plan was to seek refuge in Cuba. Instead, she was captured. Jimmy was separated from the group and taken to live elsewhere.
The story is told years later in a series of flashbacks between V and a man named James Blake. Although he has no memory of the events, Blake believes he is Limber Jimmy.
The tragedy of war told from a female perspective is compelling. Frazier brings alive a relatively unknown character who had a front row seat during one of the darkness times in our nation’s history. For me, Varina wasn’t quite the brilliance of Cold Mountain, yet I found it to be engrossing all the same.
This book reminded me: that Charles Frazier is a master at crafting sentences.
My favorite line: You can mire yourself in the past, but you can’t change a damn thing in that lost world.
That’s it for my May 2018 Book Reviews. If you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts on them.
And now, let our official summer reading begin!
What’s on your list?
Grace Grits and Gardening
Farm. Food. Garden. Life
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Rear Window Suite (arr. J. Mauler for orchestra) : I. Prelude