Monday, June 26, 2017

THE SHADOW LAND





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The Shadow Land, Elizabeth Kostova, Ballantine Books, 2017, 476 pp


Summary from Goodreads: An engrossing novel that spans the past and the present and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country.

A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes.

As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shattered by oppression and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.

 

My Review:
If you loved The Historian as much as I did and even if you didn't love The Swan Thieves to the same degree (I loved it in a different way from Elizabeth Kostova's first novel), you will probably love The Shadow Land. In each book, we have a literary writer who also never fails to include mystery, romance and the sense of a thriller while covering parts of history that at least I did not know before.

Alexandra Boyd is similar to other female characters in Ms Kostova's books. At first I found her a little too bewildered and passive, but then at the beginning of the story she had just arrived in Bulgaria after more than 24 hours of air travel, jet-lagged, under slept and a stranger to the country. As the novel progressed she proved to have a strong sense of what she felt was right and to follow that sense despite fear and doubt.

The ashes she mistakenly came to possess on that groggy morning in Sophia turn out to be the remains of the talented violinist Stoyan Lazarov, who was prevented from living the life of a celebrated touring musician because of the political turmoil of his home country. He spent years in Communist work camps where his hands were ruined and his dreams destroyed.

In order to return the musician's remains to his family, Alexandra must learn the history of Lazarov's life and penetrate a great deal of secrecy and fear. She turns out to be a determined young woman with an abundance of courage.

Once again I learned the history of a country I could barely find on a map. There is so much to learn about the world that I don't like to spend time berating my ignorance. A novel that can teach me so much in under 500 pages while keeping me on the edge of my seat the whole time as well as introducing me to such vivid characters is something extra special. I even got some insight into the current political scene in the world.

Highly recommended. 


(The Shadow Land is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

 

Friday, June 23, 2017

THE REBELLIOUS LIFE OF MRS ROSA PARKS





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The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks, Jeanne Theoharis, Beacon Press, 2013, 244 pp


Although this book was only 244 pages, short for a biography, it took me quite a while to get through it. I had wanted to read it ever since it was published and I learned much I hadn't known before, so I can only think that it was something about the writing style which made for a somewhat dry read.

The premise put forth by Jeanne Theoharis is that Mrs Parks has been relegated to being thought of as only a nice little lady who refused to give up her seat on the bus in 1955. The resulting year-long bus boycott by Negroes in Montgomery, Alabama, brought Martin Luther King to nationwide recognition and positioned him as the leader of the Civil Rights movement but left Rosa in the background. The biography recounts her earlier full decade of activism before the bus incident. Instead of suddenly deciding to stay in her seat after a long day at work, her resistance was in fact the product of long discouraging hard work as she and her husband tried in many ways to fight against Jim Crow segregation in the South.

We get the whole history of her life which went on for another 50 years after the day on the bus. Due to decisions made by predominately male civil rights leaders and due to developments in the movement, she was converted into a symbol of non-violent protest. She was a soft-spoken and somewhat shy person but actually held strong beliefs about freedom and rights for all people. She never stopped working to bring those beliefs into reality.

Though she willingly traveled the country for years to speak at rallies and events, she also spent countless hours, days, and years at a desk, managing civil rights offices, making phone calls, and writing letters. Much has been written about how the male leaders of various civil rights groups were reluctant to put power in women's hands. Rosa comes across in this biography as a women who cared deeply about others' rights to equality and freedom but had difficulty claiming her own rights.

She suffered from dire financial insecurity after the bus boycott because no white business would hire her or her husband following the arrest and trial she endured. She was fired from her job as an alterations seamstress at one of Montgomery's fine department stores. She also had health problems and no money for treatment, while daily hate calls came through her phone and bricks through her windows. In her political views she was closer to Malcolm X and the Black Panthers in the 1960s than she was to Dr King. Mainly she was tireless, determined, and not given to petty disputes.

I am so glad I read the book as it added to my understanding of those times. The author's research goes deep and felt sound. The racism encountered by Mrs Parks and her husband after they moved to Detroit in 1957, though not as outwardly virulent, was nearly as bad as it had been in Alabama. Rosa called it "the Northern promised land that wasn't."

When I read about women as strong as Rosa, as dedicated to her beliefs, as filled with hope and faith that change is possible, it becomes impossible to complain about any single thing in my life. (Of course I still do.) Change is not the result of one memorable deed. It is the result of long, hard, persistent work. I thank Jeanne Theoharis for resurrecting the real Mrs Rosa Parks from the oblivion of having been made into a political symbol and giving anyone who takes the time to read her book the full picture of an amazing female.


(The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

GRANDMOTHER AND THE PRIESTS









Grandmother and the Priests, Taylor Caldwell, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1963, 469 pp
 
 
Whenever I see a Taylor Caldwell novel on one of My Big Fat Reading Project bestseller lists, I sigh and groan and gird myself to suffer through another wordy, melodramatic, sometimes religious tone layered in with her odd political views. (You may ask, why do I read them then? For the answer, see my post on My Big Fat Reading Project.) This one was the #6 bestseller in 1963 and turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It does have a strong religious theme but was much more palatable for me than The Shoes of the Fisherman. I will explain why.

The grandmother of the title is a rich Irish widow who gave up the Catholic religion at a young age. She likes to dress up, drink, and throw parties. For no explained reason, she regularly hosted dinner parties for a group of priests. Is it a cliche that priests love good rich food and fine wines, brandy and whiskey? I seem to have run across this trope in many novels ranging from mid 20th century bestsellers to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall series. 

What made this an enjoyable novel was the tales told by these priests as they sat around the fire after dinner, well fed and certainly a bit drunk. All of them are Irish and another cliche is what good storytellers the Irish are. That storytelling gift is also evident in all of Taylor Caldwell's books and I decided she was almost the Danielle Steele of her era.

The tales were entertaining as each priest looked back at his younger days, usually spent at some poor parish in off-the-beaten-track Irish towns. The housing was often shabby, the food spare, the weather beastly, and the nuns controlling. Yet these priests became father figure, judge, psychologist and just plain problem solver for their parishioners. 

Every tale includes a moral conundrum demanding the young priest to think outside the box while maintaining a grounding in Catholic doctrine and needing to save as many souls as possible. Though a couple of these stories went on a bit too long, I actually loved the ways these holy men overcame doubt and fear and sometimes downright criminal behavior. In each case, it was their humanitarian urges that brought them through hardship to create better conditions for all involved.

We could use a few more men like them today!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

DREAMING IN CUBAN






Dreaming in Cuban, Cristina Garcia, Random House, 1992, 245 pp
 


From the French Revolution in The Glass-Blowers I went directly to the Cuban Revolution. In light of recent developments in the United States relations with Cuba, the Tiny Book Club decided to read a novel set in Cuba and written by a Cuban. Cristina Garcia was born in Havana on July 4, 1958, just about six months before Fidel Castro's revolution ousted dictator Batista. So even though her family fled Cuba when she was only two years old, we thought her first novel would fit the bill.

It is a wonderful novel and like The Glass-Blowers, deals with the impact and consequences of revolution on a family. For various reasons I have lately been thinking about the consequences of divorce on families with children. There are numerous parallels between the two. The bottom line is upheaval accompanied by the necessity to take sides, the emotional turmoil, the economic disruption, and the fact that nothing will be the same as it was before.

The viewpoint in this novel is decidedly female and each female is her own unique person. My favorite character was Celia, the grandmother, who remained in Cuba and was a supporter of Castro and his hopes for the country. She is a complex character who harbored a life long love for her first boyfriend, who had a difficult relationship with her husband, who went crazy at the birth of her first daughter and was sent to an asylum by that husband where she was given shock treatments. Good God!

That first daughter, Lourdes, moved to New York after her marriage. She purely hates Castro and is a complete piece of work with not one gentle emotion in her makeup, but I liked her too. A second daughter remained in Cuba and is a wild woman who dabbles in a Cuban mystical religion originated by slaves and succumbs to it in the end.

Then there is Pilar, daughter of Lourdes and an example of a 1970s daughter of immigrants in New York's art scene. She is Celia's favorite granddaughter and they long for each other. She was my second favorite character.

Basically every character is fractured in some way, even the men, and if you are looking for exemplary mothers you won't find a one. But you will find fierce mothers and strong emotions and wild behaviors. The lushness of Cuba, the magical realism that is just part of the country, and the search for identity in an essentially broken society are all brought to full and vivid life.

Though one of the Tinies had some trouble with the way the story jumps about in time, we all felt we got what we were looking for. I had no idea Cristina Garcia has written so many books. I read The Aguero Sisters about 20 years ago but now I want to read them all.


(Dreaming in Cuban is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

THE GLASS-BLOWERS








The Glass-Blowers, Daphne Du Maurier, Doubleday & Company, 1963, 348 pp
 
 
Daphne Du Maurier has two distinct voices as a novelist. One is the gothic, psychological voice of Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, and others. The second is the one she uses for her historical fiction, as in The King's General or Mary Anne. The Glass-Blowers, #8 on the 1963 bestseller list, is in the historical fiction mode. The author was descended from a family of glass-blowers and honors them with her novel.

Some readers are more pleased with the gothic novels but I like both of her genres, especially because in the historical ones I always learn pieces of history I didn't know. This one takes place in several renowned glass-blowing establishments, operated by the Duval family and situated south of Paris. It covers the period of time leading up to the French Revolution through to Napoleon becoming emperor. The political upheaval of those times causes great disturbances for the family including loss of business and division between family members who sided with the Republic and those who were Loyalists to the King.

Though it was sometimes tricky to keep all the family members, locations, and political factions straight, I was never less than captivated by the story. It is full of intrigue, heartbreak, and hardship. As in any family saga, there are heroes and heroines alongside less admirable characters. I loved the ways the family dealt with all the problems and divided views. Several awesome female characters are central to the tale.

Best of all, the novel gave me another side of the Revolution than the one taught in school. It showed the daily and yearly challenges that such political turmoil brought to the livelihoods and history of families, especially families who were intrinsic to the character of the society and nation that was France in the late 18th century.

I finished the book with the realization that my knowledge of the French Revolution and its outcomes is rather thin. I have decided to read A Tale of Two Cities (how have I gone through the majority of my life without reading that?) and Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund, which has lingered on my shelves for years.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

LITTLE NOTHING





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Little Nothing, Marisa Silver, Blue Rider Press, 2016, 333 pp


This is the third novel I have read by Marisa Silver and it is amazing, definitely a contender for my top 25 of the year.

Pavla is born a dwarf in an unnamed Eastern European country on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. Her small village is steeped in superstition. At first her mother, who has at last had a child, cannot accept what she views as a freak. But both parents come to love this late life child, so that even though Pavla is tormented by the kids at school who call her Little Nothing, she has a loving family.

Eventually that love takes a weird turn as the aging parents worry about Pavla's future after they are no longer there to protect her. They begin taking her to doctors, one of whom claims that if he stretches the girl, she will grow. Thus ends the good part of the little person's life and thus enters horror.

At that point the novel takes a weird turn and becomes a dark folk tale. I will not say more except that there is a fractured love story, that Pavla is an admirable character of many levels, and that in Marisa Silver's hands the story takes you to places you will not expect but you will believe.

This is a novel about transformation, about how people deal with trouble and are changed by it. It is hard to put down and if you can suspend your disbelief it will bring you gifts.


(Little Nothing is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

THE SNOWY DAY





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The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats, Viking Books, 1962, 28 pp


THE SUNDAY FAMILY READ


In 1937 the American Library Association  created The Caldecott Medal to recognize the preceding year's "most distinguished picture book for children." It is awarded to the illustrator. As part of My Big Fat Reading Project, I read the major award winning books of each year's list. In 1963, there were only six major awards in the United States. (As of 2017, I include 21 award categories!)

Ezra Jack Keats won the Caldecott Medal in 1963 for The Snowy Day. In keeping with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, it was the picture book that broke the color barrier in children's publishing. Keats wrote the prose and created the illustrations.

Peter, a black child, wakes up one morning to find that snow has fallen. He has breakfast and then dons his snowsuit and ventures out to see the snow. He observes his footprints, he knocks snow off tree branches with a stick, he watches the big boys having a snowball fight but feels too young to join them, slides down a mountain of snow, and so on.

I have read this book to many toddlers including my sons. I grew up with snowy winters. It was a pleasure to revisit the story on a 90 degree May day in southern California.

Ezra Jack Keats was born in 1916 in the Jewish quarter of Brooklyn, the son of Polish immigrants. He grew up to make his living as an illustrator. He created Peter saying, "None of the manuscripts I'd been illustrating featured any black kids...My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along." The Snowy Day made him famous.


(The Snowy Day is available as a board book on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available paperback and hardcover by order.)