Thursday, April 17, 2014

Review of Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

If you decide to read Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, pack a steamer trunk because you’re going on a voyage. Several voyages, in fact. You’ll take literal journeys, twice across the Atlantic on steamer ships, and side trips in and around Ireland and Brooklyn, New York. Not long after World War Two, young Eilis Lacey goes to Brooklyn to find a better life than she might have had in small-town Ireland

This novel will take you on figurative journeys, too, as Eilis goes from having decisions made for her to deciding what she wants; as she leaves lifelong friends to forge new friendships; as she falls into a new, unfamiliar culture custom by custom; as she leaves insecurity and heads toward confidence. Brooklyn represents a triple trip—immigration from Ireland to America, another cross-cultural adventure when she dates an Italian boy, and still another when Eilis is chosen to be the first worker to serve black women at the department store where she works.

Quiet, serious Eilis Lacey thinks and feels her way into each new culture, and into womanhood. She tests the waters before she trusts. She distances herself from office, college, dating, and boarding house politics as she observes others and her own reactions. She deliberates about what secrets to reveal to whom, when to speak, when to remain silent. Eilis has no shortage of temptations to return to familiar comforts of her Irish family and life; as each temptation unfolds, she fields it with steady thoughtfulness. In this novel, she travels from gawky and unsure to poised and sophisticated. She navigates the choppy waters of complete upheaval with some angst but mostly admirable composure.

Eilis Lacey is a heroine I cared about. I liked her honesty, her strength, her vulnerability. I also liked Colm Tóibín’s portrayal of the early 1950s, when tradition, courtesy, and respectability reigned—and resulted in Eilis’ finding new family. Customs in Brooklyn’s Irish and Italian neighborhoods, and the role of the Catholic Church, were interesting as well. Back then, television was newfangled, and Eilis’ house mother deemed it a fad that wouldn’t last due to a dearth of programming. Ha! Tóibín’s writing style in this book (I’ve not read anything else by him, so don’t know what style is typical) was plain and simple, which fit Eilis’ character.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Book Review of The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen

Sarah Addison Allen’s The Peach Keeper is a gentle read—a cozy mystery to curl up with in your favorite armchair. I liked that the story is a multigenerational journey; the characters who are 30 delve into their small town’s history to solve a mystery begun by their 90ish grandmothers. In the process, the 30-somethings work out issues with their parents. A number of subplots keep the reader in suspense. The romantic ones are fairly predictable, although some subplot discoveries surprise. And the overarching plotline—the story behind the skeleton unearthed during remodeling of the old mansion—intrigues throughout. That The Peach Keeper is at its core a story of loyalty and friendship is what I most enjoyed.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Review of The Fall of a Sparrow by Robert Hellenga

In The Fall of a Sparrow, Robert Hellenga gives the reader many interesting points to ponder and varied locations to visit, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Italy among them. Woody and Hannah Woodhull had three daughters, Cookie, Sara, and Ludi. In 1980 Cookie, age 22, was killed in a terrorist bombing in Italy. This novel, partly written in the third person about Woody and partly written in the first person by Sara, tells how the waters of the Woodhull family’s lives rippled out in years following this tragic event hurled into their pond by God or the gods.

I mention God because before part one begins, the author gives three quotes. One is from the bible, Matthew 10:29, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And yet one of them shall not fall to the ground without your Father knowing.” But that quote is perhaps the last evidence of any faith that God cares about Cookie and the Woodhull family. Since Woody is a classics professor, his line of thinking almost always supports mythological views of distant, impersonal, capricious gods that cannot shed light on baffling Why’s after a bombing. And Woody’s faith life seems empty; he believes he is on his own in this world with no divine comfort or guidance.

The second quote, from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, uses sparrow imagery to describe the fragility of life. Reading The Fall of a Sparrow certainly accentuated that sense of vulnerability. The third quote, “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, V.II. When I saw Woodhull family members work through their grief and figure out who they were and wanted to be after Cookie’s senseless death, I could see the aptness of that quote. Indeed, Hellenga reminds us of the Shakespeare quote toward the end of the novel.

I truly liked and empathized with the characters in this novel. Some parts, like the sexually explicit exploits of a middle-aged man, I could not identify with and found uncomfortable to read. But other aspects, like Woody’s questioning his relevance and identity and abilities in middle age, resonated with me. The stories of Woody’s, Hannah’s, Sara’s, and Ludi’s lostness leading to foundness give four very real pictures of grief. Woody’s being in academia influences the novel’s verbiage; many academic references were above my head. As I mentioned earlier, the spiritual emptiness of classical civilizations permeated this story, and I found grief with no hope of joy depressing. That the story is rich in music, growth, and cross-cultural experiences makes it worth a read though.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sorting the Sock Drawer—And Other Grief-Coping Methods

So many things to miss after a loved one dies. You miss what you had and what you could have had with him or her. You grieve for what that precious person went through. Everyone grieves differently, too.

Some days when I especially miss my dad, I call family or friends. Some days I cry by myself. Some days I walk wired for sound—praise music or classical comfort me most. Some days I walk fast, some slow. I always whistle back to cardinals now, the way Dad used to. Some days I journal prayers. Some days I sniffle into my husband’s shoulder. Sometimes I talk to my dad as if he were here and still whole. Yesterday, reading my father’s name in the In Memoriam column of his alumni magazine led to a sobbing meltdown, and I did all the above. Still sad today, I decide to sort my sock drawer. Mindless is my mantra.

The “A Time to Grieve” booklet my pastor sent me a few weeks after my father’s death includes many coping methods, including screaming. It does not mention sorting socks. This just feels like grief therapy today.

First I put the contents of the sock drawer on the bed to see what I’ve got.

·         Athletic footies with dog hair on them, which means I haven’t worn them in 2 years

·         Footies I bought in France because I forgot to pack some  

·         Footies now threadbare that I haven’t discarded because well, I bought them in France

·         Those annoying, thin, little footies that are supposed to enable you to wear summery dress shoes without nylons but in reality just bunch up after your third step and press into your arch until you want to scream

·         Christmas socks: black with green Christmas trees on them and a second pair that’s red with candy canes on them

·         Nylons. Seriously, nylons? LOL

·         Boot tights I bought in the grand hope that I’d find a nice winter skirt but I never did

·         Gardening socks, basically former thick white walking socks that I wore once in the garden and the dirt never came out in the wash, so they’re gray

·         Gardening footies, former tennis socks worn once in my gardening clogs, never to be white again

·         Diabetic socks. When I see them, I hear my mother-in-law’s shriek when I mentioned my husband and I both like to wear them because they give us ankle coverage without binding elastic; she assumed we both must now have diabetes.

·         Colored cotton ankle socks, which I don’t even recognize, it’s been so long since our weather was mild enough that I didn’t want warm wool socks

·         Myriad designs of SmartWool socks, my saving grace this long, bitter winter

·         Dad’s scratchy red wool ice-skating socks which I have no idea how I ended up with but they’re what he wore when he took us kids ice skating in the 1950s; for however many decades they’ve been in my sock drawer, I’ve treasured them. I used to wear them a lot before SmartWool arrived on the scene, so they now have a hole in one heel.

·         Purple socks made from bamboo that are so soft, I find comfort holding them to my cheeks

·         Last but not least, white cotton ankle socks whose cuffs sport metallic gold palm trees to match the shiny gold bow on the hat my aunt bought me in glitzy, glam Palm Springs but which I would be too embarrassed to wear here in the Midwest, unless of course, I were lunching with Liberace

From the organized piles spanning the bed, I grab groupings to restock the drawer. It’s satisfying to be reminded what’s there and to know I’ll be able to find the kind I need each day. Placing the wool socks toward the furthest reaches and the gardening and tennis and cotton socks within easiest reach feels hopeful. Spring might really come. I caress a cheek one last time with the silky-soft bamboo socks and lay them toward the front, then slide the drawer shut. I feel better.