Book Club Reads: The Florist’s Daughter

I haven’t dropped out of book club. But it has been a while since I’ve posted about our goings-on…part of it is sorting out some of my thoughts on some of the books, and the other was the new Kindle I received that got me all sucked in to the local library system’s e-book process.

Still, for the month of March one of the members grabbed a “Book Club Kit” from the library: 10 copies of the same book and a discussion guide! Pretty handy to get everyone on the same page right away. The book she chose was “The Florist’s Daughter” by Patricia Hampl.

The timing of reading this book was unexpectedly poignant for me; after losing my maternal grandfather in early February, we mourned the loss of my maternal grandmother about five weeks later. Some members of the family had long speculated that one could not live very long without the other, and so it was.

Still, opening the pages on a daughter holding her dying mother’s hand immediately struck a nerve. It was almost too close to what I understood others were going through as well as my own reflections on loss and life to really appreciate the book just off-the-shelf.

Even so, I have to give the author credit: classified as a memoir, we float back and forth through memories, with some rough chronological order but nothing straight and defined as one decade versus another. Her storytelling style reminds me of being a child and receiving a Polaroid Instamatic print fresh out of the camera that You’d watch develop right before your eyes. And how your eyes raced from corner to corner, trying to predict which parts of the picture would take shape first, and excited to see what the camera captured for the print – and what it missed.

Memories can be very much like those instant pictures. What you recall may not be the same as what another person recalls, but the emotions are just as vivid. And as memories are often internal dialogues, it’s almost fitting that conversations are sparse snippets of longer conversations, with less important exchanges blurred to hone in on the words said that stuck in memory.

There’s a weariness in the tone of the story, though, that I think helps amplify some of the youthful optimism communicated in some scenes, such as when the writer waits on what she thinks is her first big customer at the flower shop, or her struggles in trying to please two parents who were very different and held her to high expectations. The struggles she shares are nothing new: we all want to be good children, to earn our parents’ love and to find some satisfaction in doing the right thing. Yet we want to only be ourselves and praised for doing nothing more than that. The distance of time and maturity bring a sharper perspective on what a parent’s sacrifice entails, and brings an understanding to those high expectations – but that awareness does not lighten the load for the storyteller.

The book’s close, which concludes shortly after her mother passes, leaves one both hopeful and exhausted. Which seems right for a memoir; your mind should feel hollowed-out, shoulders sore from the story you just carried around. The cover closes, and a sense of “what now?” immediately enters your mind. And that right there may be the hallmark of a well-written memoir.

Book Club Reads The Cousin’s War Series

Oh, that War of the Roses – and no, this is not a reference to that black comedy starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. The real Wars of the Roses was a spate of civil wars between the noble houses of York and Lancaster that spanned some 30 years in England. Follow the trail of murders and betrayals, to say the least of powerless minions pressed to serve and die at the hand of a few, and you get the idea that today’s political bickering amounts to little more than baby babble.

An author that book club has enjoyed before, Phillipa Gregory covers this war through two novels that have been grouped as the “Cousin’s War” series. So the book club members chose between the Red Queen and the White Queen. As I’m a sort-of-fan of Henry Tudor (represented by the Red Rose), I opted for the Red Queen.

As many wars are men’s stories, it was intriguing to study conflict from the perspective of a girl, who is sheltered and has limited access to information or power. In the case of Margaret Lancaster (Red Queen), she’s no beauty to be celebrated; instead, she believes a devout life is her calling. Too bad for her that she’s nobility and nothing more than a strategic pawn to be played in various power games. Through the book we get a glimpse of her early visions, and how her convictions were built around them to guide her future decisions.

One quick aside: though I’m sure Margaret Lancaster was devout, I couldn’t help but think of a line from the quirky film Dogma: “Any documented occasion when some yahoo claims God has spoken to them, they’re speaking to me [Metatron]. Or they’re talking to themselves.”

Over time Margaret learns how to execute her duties to family and country, while quietly building her case for what she sees as her true calling: put the king chosen by God on the throne of England and end the fighting.

For a conflict that’s 500 years old, Gregory keeps the pace and timing moving along so you feel like you’re experiencing the same fits and starts, as well as the unknowns that anyone would have gone through during that time. You know how it will end, but you don’t know who may live to see it.

If I were to place myself in Margaret’s role, I can see how clinging to your convictions may be the only sanity-saver you have…even if people will think you’re off your gourd. While her instincts may not have been understood, they were what ultimately kept her alive. Perhaps that’s the ultimate compliment to the author, here: some chapters you sympathized with our heroine, and in others you couldn’t be angrier at her and her decisions.

I’ll confess, I’m hooked: now I have to go back and read The White Queen to see how the other side took the story…

Book Club Reads Lorna Landvik

After hearing that Lorna Landvik was coming to speak at our local library, the Book Club decided that October’s book should be anything by Lorna Landvik. We’ve all enjoyed books by this author and figured that whomever could make it to the library gig would go and report back to the group at our monthly meeting.

Unfortunately, life intervened and none of us attended Ms. Landvik’s library event. (I was close, but actually at the library for a storytime that my son likes to attend. And he wasn’t in the mood to sit still any longer than that!) So if Lorna happens to come across this post, just want to say we’re very sorry we couldn’t make it.

I’ve read a few of her books: “The Tall Pine Polka,” “Patty Jane’s House of Curl,” and “Your Oasis on Flame Lake.” So as I browsed the selection at the library I skipped over those in favor of one I haven’t read yet: “Welcome to the Great Mysterious.”  And three other Book Club members chose the same!

As we discussed the novel, we agreed that – while the character development was as wonderful as ever – the story line itself could have used a little more development. The premise of the novel was an interesting one: a fraternal twin who left her hometown to chase a Broadway dream with great success returns to watch her nephew while her sister and husband take a long-overdue vacation. The main character, Geneva, feels like the one part of her life where she hasn’t succeeded has been on the personal side with a long-since-ended first marriage, a string of boyfriends, and the beginnings of menopause that confirm she wouldn’t have a child of her own. Yet her 13-year-old nephew has Downs syndrome, the perfect twist that has her managing the next generation’s drama that she probably brought to her own parents without realizing what she was truly up against.

Packing up a freshly-broken heart, Geneva jets back to Minnesota to help her twin sister. In the process she discovers what makes her happy and puts her in the role of observing truly loving and nurturing relationships, such as the one her nephew enjoys with his best friend who also lives with a disability. There’s the perhaps obvious example of a successful man who gave up his career when he realized that having it all wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be – and in losing the corner office he gained a wonderful life with his school-age daughter instead. (Even though he lost his marriage in the process.) The pieces fit together to give Geneva the sort of “rehab” she needs to break down what she enjoys most in life and what just isn’t worth worrying about any more.

Yet despite what she’s learned, Geneva still makes mistakes. I actually like this, as it rings more true to life. But the resolution is a little too tidy, as many of us agreed. I’m a Type-A personality, so admitting that sometimes messy or less tidy endings can benefit a story is a pretty big leap for me. But in this case, understanding how life works in the most perplexing ways, I think it would have been better that way.

Overall I would have to say that I liked this book. But I can also say that I’ve liked other books written by Landvik better. But one lesson from the story comes from the source of the title: Welcome to the Great Mysterious was a book created by Geneva and her twin sister over a rainy weekend at their grandparents’ cabin. It was filled with what, in their young years, were some pretty big questions with room for the girls and their family members to contribute their answers. Geneva’s discovery of the book was one of those things that I would compare to opening up my box of youth in the attic: when you’re tired, feeling like you haven’t contributed anything to the world or done anything worthwhile with your life, along comes this brief flash that illuminates something extraordinary you once did. Something that reminds you of what sparks your imagination, gets your brain all tingly and energized to pick yourself up and ride the adrenaline of that brilliance to drown out the “nos” in your head.

If nothing else, this book should be appreciated for its reminder not to let go of childish zeal. It’s easy to get caught up in the expectations of adulthood and drown in a vat of “shoulds.” But the buoyancy of glee, of enjoying the challenge before you, is what keeps the toils of life less like work and more like living. And that should never be allowed to grow old and wither.

Book Club Reads: Sarah’s Key

Fact: the events of the Holocaust, and their impact on humanity, defy our grasp of descriptive language.

Fact: journalists, historians, and writers still attempt to do so.

Fact: people continue to read about it, continue to search for an answer to the complex question of “why?”

Fact or fiction, reading about the Holocaust is a sheer act of will. Odds are you won’t find much out there that could be summarized as a feel-good read. Which is probably why a knot of dread formed in my gut before I even cracked the cover on this month’s Book Club read: Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay.

I’ve read the book before, at the suggestion of a good friend, so I read this time with an intent to refresh the gaps in my recall and be well-versed for the gathering this month. For in all honesty, it’s a difficult book for me to read. I kind of have to force myself to continue reading when I dread turning the page.

In the novel, intersecting stories span generations as an ex-pat American journalist is assigned a story to commemorate the anniversary of the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup that happened in 1942 occupied Paris. For those of you not too schooled in this event (and I certainly wasn’t), it was a roundup of Jewish families that was conducted by the French police. Which may be why not many people heard of it. It’s hard to face a past that is not pretty, and this is far from a noble chapter in French history.

The author places a fictional family in the roundup and weaves a heartbreaking tale. As the events unfold for the family enduring the roundup, the story jumps back and forth between then and now as the journalist in the story begins to suspect connections between her in-laws and Vel’ d’Hiv. As we witness a young girl’s fight for life that she doesn’t even realize she’s waging, we also discover a new internal battle the journalist finds herself fighting without realizing that she’d ever step up to her own battle for life.

One thing a journalist learns is that truth is presented as a prism. You can circle people around a truth, and everyone will see something different within the truth; none of them are necessarily incorrect in what they see, but they may not see the same thing. Finding the truth when no one wants to see it is a different challenge, which the writer in this story encounters from the insignificant plaque marking the roundup at Vel’ d’Hiv to her father-in-law’s insistence on leaving the past behind. Perhaps it would be better to ask the question: if the truth is evident, but no one looks at it, is it still true? That appears to be the struggle the young girl faces in later years as we learn of her efforts to move on, to live a life, and to defy the intent of one regime to deny that she is worthy of life. She does not triumph over that struggle, but we only learn how long that battle lasted as we comb through the final chapters of the book.

After turning the final page, I let my mind drift back a couple of decades to a time when I got to visit a former concentration camp in Germany. It was a warm spring morning, and even though there were many people visiting the same place, it was eerily quiet. In some ways it was almost as though we were all straining to hear the cries of the voices silenced in this otherwise calm place. We yearned to find an answer to help understand how. And why.

Life sometimes defies explanation, which is the origins of myth and I also think faith. But if that little girl in the book hadn’t engaged in what she thought was a child’s game, would she have been compelled to struggle her way to freedom? If the journalist hadn’t been assigned the story she dove into, would she have been content and at peace with her husband’s demands for their family life? And would she have taken the same leaps of faith that the little girl did six decades earlier? It’s difficult to say.

Perhaps that is the main message in this story: we all float along in life, happy to ride the currents for the most part. But every now and then, a new ripple may come along, and whether you fight the ripples or coast along is not merely a decision of the moment. It changes your course, in ways both good and bad, that further your path in life. And who are we to say in the moment whether fighting or not fighting is the right thing to do? Our internal compass is the best one to follow.

Book Club Reads: The Help

For the month of June, the Book Club decided to set up a potential “Ladies’ Movie Night” in the near future, and read “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett. (Due to be released as a movie in August.) And, as we enter that season of beach reads – books we read to transport us to another place and time, forget our surroundings and breathe in time with the characters – there could not have been a better pick.

Stockett’s storytelling takes us back to the early 1960’s, when civil rights was slowly, quietly organizing, separate-but-equal was an acceptable standard throughout much of the South, and three characters caught up in the lore and tradition of Southern roles for women are eager to change their destinies

A daughter of privilege, a mother channeling the love for her lost son into her young white charges, and a woman keeping her family together form the facets of this engrossing story.

The book opens with Aibileen, a maid trying to heal after losing her grown son in what was likely a racially-charged killing. Aibileen’s specialty is helping with babies, and finding an unloved daughter to give her love to, and help them both in the end find happiness.

Aibileen’s best friend, Minny, is one of the best cooks in Jackson. But with her sass, keeping a job isn’t easy for Minny. She’s got a house full of kids, a husband who sometimes hits her, and the need to bring in money, which lands her a mysterious job that holds secrets of its own.

Skeeter, a recent college graduate, is a disappointment to her parents for returning home without the requisite “MRS” degree. Without a wedding to plan, she’s stuck in her parents’ home, fielding questions from her dying mother and keeping up with her other friends who are married and starting their own families. Knowing that she’s not ready for marriage, and not satisfied with being a socialite, Skeeter strikes out to find a new path for herself, leading her to the local newspaper.

Three very different motivations – teach a white child not to hate someone based on the color of their skin, find the job security to keep a family together, and follow a passion for writing – gel into the book’s point of conflict: a proposed book that would tell an honest story of what it’s like for a black person to work for a white person. None of the relationships are easy ones, especially as they spill over into other relationships.

Theirs is a world with very clearly-defined lines that are not to be crossed. Ideas of what makes a lady, and who helps make a lady, witnessed from both inside and outside the intimate circle that starts to look like a junior high clique after a while.

The author knows the territory well, having been born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, an English degree, and a New York-based career in magazine writing and marketing (sound familiar, Skeeter?). This is her first book, in fact, and one that’s informed by her own experiences growing up. The pacing moves in fits and starts, much like the writing process itself, with the story growing as the idea of the book itself takes off.

What I appreciated about this story was that it wasn’t a “statement” story. There’s no defining ah-hah moment where Skeeter suddenly understands the risk she’s taken, or Aibileen’s boss suddenly aware of what building a separate bathroom meant. The actions documented in this book did not shake the world – but it shook their worlds, enough to make a tangible difference for all of them. Thinking back to what I learned about the Civil Rights movement, it seems far more realistic that – in the midst of grand, public statements and gestures – a million small things happened at all levels to effect the change that ultimately came. In fact, the biggest lesson from this novel is perhaps to seek out those little changes that add up over time to a big change.

Will I see the movie? I’m not sure yet. It’s sometimes hard to see a movie made based on a book you’ve enjoyed just because the kind of storytelling that is required for a movie’s success is not always the same for a book’s success. What if a favorite scene is over-emphasized for the sake of drama? Or (horror of horrors) the ending is somehow changed? I hope not. And according to a friend of mine who saw a special screening, it was thoroughly enjoyable. Here’s hoping…

Book Club Reads Chris Bohjalian

First off, a brief confession about the April book club. We read “Fannie’s Last Supper” that month, and since I already reviewed it here, I gave myself a pass from writing up the meeting last month.

For the month of May, our designated host instructed us to read anything by the author Chris Bohjalian. Browsing the shelves at my local library, I very randomly picked out his work, “Midwives.”

I did not know that this particular book had been an Oprah Book Club pick. But after reading it, I can see why.

The setup is a dramatic one (especially if you’ve ever borne a child): an experienced midwife, trapped in a late winter storm in rural Vermont, with a laboring mother who just suffered a stroke. After the midwife, her assistant, and the mother’s husband all attempt to resuscitate the mother and don’t get a pulse or breath, the midwife takes the bold step of an emergency c-section to save the baby because the mother is believed to be dead.

I use the word “believed” because doubt is cast by the midwife’s assistant. She thinks the mother, while unconscious, was still alive when the c-section was performed, and died as a result of the emergency procedure and not from a stroke.

What’s interesting is how the story is told, which is from the perspective of this midwife’s daughter who was 14 at the time of the event – old enough to process some of what happened, and at the time she relates the tale, removed enough from the events to offer perspective for her readers. By the time she’s telling the tale, the young girl is now an Ob-Gyn, and her mother passed away from cancer. So the expertise and clinical understanding of our narrator is well established. But even though she is knowledgeable and a professional, she still retains some of the intrigue and speculation that naturally forms in a teenager’s mind as she relates key scenes that stand out in her memory.

The pace of the story never flags, and soon enough you find your heart beating a little faster and staying up way too late just to get to what you hope will be the breaking point. We learn the verdict, and we learn of a secret that the midwife’s daughter kept that could have changed the outcome of the case. If you are familiar with Bohjalian’s writing style, you almost expect there to be “the twist” that no reader should have seen coming. Taken as it’s printed on the page, though, the impact is undeniable.

As a woman who experienced birth in a hospital setting, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to deliver at home. Given the fact that our child’s head was too big to fit through “the chute” and necessitated intervention, I know I would not have been all that successful. I’m very thankful we all came through the process healthy, and also know that – despite the advances made in the practice of maternal and fetal medicine – outcomes still wind up very, very differently than expected sometimes. But don’t think there weren’t a few scenes in the book that played to some pretty deep fears of mine. Especially given the snowy state we live in for half the year, it seems.

Based on reviews from some of my fellow bookclubbers who read other works by this author, this guy would make for a nice summer read. After you slather on the sunscreen, of course.

Book Club Reads: Persian Girls

Well, talk about timing.

Before the crowds began gathering in Egypt, or in Bahrain, or in Libya, one member of book club suggested a memoir for our February read. Little did we know how prescient this book would be to current events that continue to unfold.

The book? Persian Girls: A Memoir by Nahid Rachlin.

In this memoir, the author recalls her growing-up in Iran. It was a unique beginning for this author, and she opens her story at the point when she was happiest in her childhood. And then plunges us into the confusion that followed as her father picked her up from school and brought her to the “real” home she was meant to grow up in. And so we learn of how Nahid had two mothers, and two families who lived very different lives.

The story takes place as the Shah’s power in Iran begins to slip and the uprising that follows puts the Ayatolla Kohmeni in power. The storytelling is true to the voice of a child who grows in awareness and understanding, making us aware alongside her memories of her youth of how much things are changing, and what sort of uncertainties compel her to take risks she might not normally take.  So, while certain moments in history aren’t fully explored, they are to the level it applies to our storyteller. That was interesting to read just for the sense of how much (or little) events observed the world over are experienced on the ground.

The risks, which perhaps ultimately save the author from a very closed-off life, come at a cost: strained relationships with her parents, losing a sister that she loved dearly, and adivided sense of identity and home.

As you might guess, the book club is made up entirely of women, which led to some interesting conversations about the quirk of birthplace and how our lives might be different if we were born in a different society than the ones in which we were raised. Would we be miserable in not living our fullest? Are we constrained in ways here that aren’t acknowledged?

Bottom line, this extraordinary tale helps a reader appreciate the determination of a human spirit to soar where it can, and find the light it needs despite many, many hurdles. None of us can honestly answer the question of what they would do to fulfill their wishes, but through her story, the author gives the example of patience, persistence, and unwavering vision even when faced with losses that could easily derail a person emotionally. Knowing she has written several books – this is perhaps her most personal – it will be interesting to find out how her style changes when the subject is perhaps a bit more removed from herself.