Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese

Look at this cover! Isn't it gorgeous? If you're looking for your next read and love historical fiction and art and lovers and all of those good things, this is the book. Right here. Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese.

Stolen Beauty is a novel about love and passion and strength in the face of evil. It's about the power of art and its lasting legacy. Stolen Beauty follows the story of a young woman, Adele Bloch-Bauer, as she navigates a man's world in early 1900 Vienna. A woman of intellect and curiosity, Adele struggles to find her place, in a time where women are to be seen and not heard let alone smoke or attend coffee shops.  During the rising art movement in Vienna, Adele meets Gustav Klimt (the painter) and is immediately taken with him. He requests to paint her, seeing the strength, power, passion and desire that is just under her mask of propriety and in so doing embarks upon the creation of some of his most famous works of art, with Adele as his muse. Their love affair and mutual respect is something Adele craves and is unable to find in her own marriage at the time, creating a passionate atmosphere for the work Klimt is creating in his studio. Some of my favorite passages were the ones that brought Klimt and Adele together in the studio.

And alongside, in alternate chapters, is the story of Adele's niece Marie. Fleeing Germany as Hitler invades, Marie faces her own demons in her new husband and way of life. Time moves forward, as Marie and her husband eventually escape to America. Following in the shadows is the fate of The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (or The Woman in Gold as the Nazi's renamed it), the portrait Klimt created of her Aunt Adele. This portrait is something that haunts Marie until late in her life, when the story finally concludes.

I found these chapters to be a bit disjointed from Adele's. Im not sure if that is because I was so attached to Adele's character and her relationship with Klimt, but these sections of the story seemed just a bit less in comparison. I didn't feel a strong connection with Marie and I know that had something to do with it. I also felt the concluding chapters were a bit rushed, but mainly because I feel like I didn't get to know Marie very well or appreciate her relationship with Adele.

All in all, I loved this story! Like I've mentioned before, I really enjoy books that revolve around artwork or artists from the past and this one did not disappoint! I've seen a few of Klimt's pieces in museums and have always been intrigued by his use of the metallic gold and silvers along with the symbolism in paintings like The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer and The Kiss. I loved reading  this fictionalized account of Adele's life, life in Vienna at the turn of the century and Klimt's artwork.

Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese
320 pages
Published by Atria Books

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

Have you ever picked up a book thinking you had a pretty good idea what to expect and then were completely blindsided with how you ended up feeling by the end? This is exactly what happened to me during my reading of Jessica Shattuck's new novel The Women in the Castle. I read the synopsis and immediately knew I wanted to read it, I love stories set in WWII that involve strong women characters and hardship. I find it fascinating because through school and during my WWII class in college, all we ever focused on were the battles fought, the generals, the atrocities, the dates. Reading stories set in this time helps fill in some of the blanks for me, when it comes to understanding a little better what life was really like during either war.

Where The Women in the Castle changes things for me is that it's story centers around three very different women living in Germany before, during and after WWII. Marianne, Ania and Benita were all such strong women living out their own truths and battling their own shames and lies while their homeland fell apart around them. With husbands who died fighting with the resistance, with family members and friends part of the Nazi party, each woman has to decide at some point what she is willing to move past and forgive, at the expense of living.

I've never once put myself in the place of these women, wondering what it would've been like to live in Germany surrounded by friends who no longer agree with what you believe in.  How would you keep yourself safe? How would you maintain your morals and raise your children in such a place? Or even more so, keep on living after its all over, after the truth of what happened during those years actually came out. Those were the questions I kept coming back to, especially toward the end of the book.

My favorite character was Marianne, who used her strength and willpower to help others and keep the women and their children safe during those years. I really appreciated that despite all of those things, she was also flawed, unable to offer forgiveness and understanding until time had passed and she could look back on things from a safe distance. This seems like a very real and honest portrayal.

Much of what I loved about Shattuck's story is just that. Everything seemed so real and honest. There weren't any sugar coated endings or perfect friendships. As strong as these women were, they were still flawed and their relationships with each other suffered because of it. I think that is just being human and something that I can believe would actually have happened. That time and distance heal wounds, that a quiet suffering remains from those terrible years that no one could understand unless they had been there too. In the end, this book was extremely emotional. Not just for the content and the storyline, but the true portrayal of human nature in such a time. I absolutely loved it. Well done, Jessica Shattuck!

Thank you to William Morrow books for the advance copy!!!

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck 
368 pages
Published by William Morrow Books

World Poetry Day

In honor of World Poetry Day, I pulled out a few of my poetry volumes by Mary Oliver. Right now, at this stage of my life, Mary Oliver speaks to me in a way that I don't think other poets have before. Poetry has never been something that I've felt moved by. I'm not sure why.

As a homemaker and mother, I try to keep our days slow moving and full of light. I want to focus on the good things, the memories and moments I can keep for later. Children grow so fast and I don't want to miss it! I try not to dwell on worries and things, but when I do,  reading a few of Mary Oliver's poems helps me feel a bit more at ease.

I also enjoyed her book of essays, Upstream, immensely when I read it in the fall. It was the perfect time to read this book, while we were taking weekend walks as a family and focusing on being outdoors before the cold and snow began. I can't wait to reread it soon, as Spring brings more light and warmth back to our days.

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

"He did get one thing right: Sometimes a sanctuary, sometimes a prison, that house on the hill has always been my home. I've spent my life yearning toward it, wanting to escape it, paralyzed by its hold on me." (prologue)

I cannot say enough how much I loved this story. Christina Baker Kline (author of The Orphan Train)  has magnificently portrayed the quiet life of Christina, the girl in Andrew Wyeth's famous painting Christina's World (see photo below, from the back of the book).

I really love reading books about art, works of art lost and found, artists and paintings. As an art teacher and someone who thinks the perfect date is wandering around an art museum, its really no surprise that these are the type of stories I get excited about. A Piece of the World was no different. There is something really fulfilling to me, reading a story about a work of art. I've seen Christina's World in person at the MOMA and felt moved by the girl in the painting. The way her arm is outstretched reaching toward that house. The colors in the grasses. The mystery of her face. I already felt a kinship toward Kline, who has also wondered these same things, enough to write a story about it.

Kline's story slowly unfolds between Christina's present at the time of the painting and her past, as a young girl growing up in the farmhouse with her family. After a strange illness as a child, Christina's bones and muscles begin to deteriorate over time, affecting her ability to walk, run and be a 'normal' person.

"We all have our burdens to bear." " You know what yours is now. That's good. You'll never be surprised by it." (p. 22)

Over time Christina adjusts to her life of hard work on the farm with her head held high, despite numerous instances of humiliation and meanness. We see glimpses of her true emotions regarding her condition and her frustration with it but I really think, rather than it being a character flaw (or as some reviewers have said, she was too flat of a character) I think her lack of emotion is a vital part of her character. There are enough moments where she lets herself really feel that I think show in contrast how vital her hardness of character is to her everyday life. She wouldn't have been able to get through her days of work and cleaning and cooking, dragging herself along the walls and up stairs, if she let every emotion show.

I had to put the book down about halfway through, as her relationship with Walton reaches a breaking point. It was hard as a reader to see that outcome happening before Christina, knowing how devastated she would be. Seeing a glimpse of something different, a life path completely opposite of the one she had so long resigned herself to, be closed before she could experience it was heartbreaking.

"It feels as if my life is moving forward at two separate speeds, one at the usual pace, with its predictable rhythms and familiar inhabitants, and the other rushing ahead, a blur of color and sound and sensation. It's clear to me now that for twenty years I have gone through the motions of the day like a dumb animal, neither daring to hope for a different kind of life nor even knowing enough to desire one." (p. 120)

Reaching her lowest point, Christina compares herself to the main character in The Yellow Wallpaper, seeing her self confined to the farmhouse forever. It was a hard section of the book to read, trying to put myself in her position. I appreciated the breaks from this sadness as we traveled to her present day, enjoying Andrew Wyeth's company and companionship as he painted on her property.

The outcome of the painting, the way Wyeth positioned Christina on the field, starts to have new meaning as the story moves forward. Christina looks toward her future with determination and resolve, knowing she has resigned herself to it, that her pride (as her parents stated multiple times during her child hood) and her fears kept her there too.

"Maybe my memories of sweeter times are vivid enough, and present enough, to overcome the disappointments that followed. And to sustain me through the rest." (p.217)

"Do our natures dictate the choices we make, I wonder, or do we choose to live a certain way because of circumstances beyond our control?" (p.240)

In the end, I think what really made me love this book was how well Kline was able to give Christina from the painting and entire story, make her a character that was entirely realistic and believable. Which is something I wonder about any painting I stand in front of for more than a few seconds. Who is this person? What are they thinking? What is their story?

"You showed what no one else could see," I tell him" (p. 295)

I highly recommend this book! Especially if you love wondering about the story behind a painting too. Christina is not a character I will soon forget.

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline
320 pages
Published by William Morrow Books

Sunday, March 19, 2017

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

I fell in love with Eowyn Ivey's writing when I read her first book The Snow Child almost five years ago. When I saw she was releasing a new book, I couldn't wait to read it. I was not disappointed!

To The Bright Edge of the World is set in the wilderness of Alaska along the Wolverine River, during a time when it was still being explored, when the native people with their mysteries and beliefs were the prevailing force of the unexplored lands. Told in letters and diary entries between a husband (Col. Forrester) and his wife (Sophie) as they navigate the early days of their marriage against the harsh Alaskan backdrop, I found this way of storytelling to be so enjoyable.

Even against this hard to imagine setting (so cold and isolated!), the story of Sophie and her unwavering strength living in the army barracks while her new husband is away exploring the Alaskan wilderness, won me over completely. I loved her! I loved her patience and desire to learn the rather new skill of photography, I loved that she wanted to be more than "wife", that was able to pull herself out of her grief. And that her desire to learn and be something was so strong she was able to overcome whatever gossip the women in town shared about her. Knowing her husband would only approve of her time spent photographing birds while he was gone, made me love and appreciate their relationship even more. Although it was painful to continue reading the length of the book after Sophie loses the child, knowing the miscommunication that happened in her relaying the news in a letter to Col. Forrester, I really admired her strength in getting through those months while she waited for him. I think that really made me rush through to the end,  I just needed to know that he came back safely and showed her he still loved her and wanted their marriage despite the loss of the child.

I also feel that the mystical elements that Col. Forrester experienced while exploring the Alaskan terrain fit perfectly in the wider context of the story too. That raven! And how it connected husband and wife over such great distance, really turned the story into something subtly magical that wasn't necessarily obvious at all times but still there throughout. Lingering under the surface. I think that is why I enjoy Ivey's writing so much. She added elements to the story that you could almost escape you, but added a depth unique to her way of story telling. This wasn't just a story of husband and wife exchanging letters, but so much more. And if anything, it made me want to visit Alaska and see those landscapes for myself.

To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
417 pages
Published by Little, Brown and Company

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick

The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick caught my eye partially because the cover is intriguing and also because a review I read compared it to The Time Traveler's Wife (LOVE). I purchased this soon after it was released, taking a gamble on both of those things that I would love it. I wasn't wrong!

Again, a well written setting is one of the things that will keep me going in a story and this one did not disappoint, being that it revolved around various comets throughout time. I love books that travel generations, especially when there is something significant linking them together. In this case, the comets.

Roisin and Francois captivated me not through their own present day story, but the numerous instances in which they crossed paths prior to actually meeting in Antartica. It made me wonder if you would sense something like that, in another person, all those previous encounters before you "knew" them. If some fiber of your being would be able to connect those dots regardless of your knowing.

Pair that with ghosts of relatives past, all connected through the comets, oh gosh. I couldn't get enough of these stories! I loved traveling back in time and meeting each family member, watching their story unfold under another miraculous comet in the sky.

I think this book is highly underrated, I've hardly heard mention of it anywhere and am SO glad I came across it. Sedgwick's storytelling, crafting all of these events into a larger picture and connecting two people over time, was masterful. I cannot wait to read this one again, more slowly this time.

The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick
302 pages
Published by Harper Collins

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Tea Planter's Wife by Dinah Jeffries

The Tea Planter's Wife by Dinah Jeffries was my seventh read for 2017. I found it to be an engaging story, set in the exotic land of Ceylon during the 1920's and beyond. Gwen, the wife of the tea planter, grew on me as the story unfolded. My heart ached for her sorrows and worries as she tried to piece together the life her husband had prior to their marriage and who she could trust around her. An interesting setting goes a long way for me and the descriptive narratives of Ceylon and the workers on the plantations made it possible for me to really connect with Gwen and her daily struggles.

A longer read, it still kept my interest and while I had more or less guessed the general outcome I still appreciated the realistic ending (as opposed to some sort of fluffy everyone ends up happy ending). I gave this three stars since I was able to see about halfway through where the book was going but all in all it was a mysterious story. It honestly reminded me in a (very) small way of Daphne Du Maurer's Rebecca, which I absolutely love.

The Tea Planter's Wife by Dina Jeffries
432 pages
Published by Crown 

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I have a hard time using the word "favorite" with books. Its just too hard and there are too many good ones and sometimes I read a book at just the right time and it feels perfect but I go back and reread it later and I don't feel the same way. So what makes a "good" book? What makes a book worthy of that title "favorite"?? Im still trying to figure that out myself. But I do know there are a handful of well written books that make me feel all heart eyed after I'm finished reading them. That make me think, change something in me. Those are the ones I deem for that "favorite" title.

The Night Circus by Emily Morgenstern is by far one of those. I've read it a few times and felt completely immersed in her world of magic each time. There are endless quotes that give me goosebumps and I have a constant yearning for that perfect fall smokey bonfire smell when I read it.

I think you can tell a lot about a person by the books they read (or don't read). What better way to kick off my little home on the internet of book reviews than to introduce you to myself through my favorite book?

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”