May 2007 archive

Not Just Another Ordinary Day

Sometimes life seems so ordinary – getting up, checking emails, making coffee, going to work, shopping for groceries, paying bills, going to the post office,  watching a few of your favorite TV shows…and then doing it all again the next day. Lately my life has seemed to have a mind of its own; I feel like I am rushing around doing the necessary things and then falling into bed at night exhausted. Every now and then I need a miracle or some magic to remind me that life is more than menial tasks and obligations.

Yesterday I drove out to Triple Creek Ranch to volunteer for a special event – a group of adults with developmental disability were coming out for two hours of riding and learning about horses. The event went smoothly and there were lots of smiles all around – exactly what we always hope for! After it was over, I helped pick up tack and put things away and as I was getting ready to leave, my friend Carla said: “Oh, the mother cat moved her kittens into the office. I meant to tell you!”

The mother cat is a stray. She is aptly named Spooky as she avoids people like the plague and will bolt whenever anyone gets near her. She delivered kittens high up in the barn about three weeks ago and since then had been routinely moving her kittens to keep them hidden. Now she had moved them to a spot where we could actually put our hands on them!

Carla, Dwayne, Cherry, Alycia and myself tromped into the office, pulled aside some boxes and there they were, three teeny-tiny balls of fur sans mama!

There is nothing like a baby animal. I scooped one of the little guys into my hands – his bitty bones felt frail beneath my fingers, his fur was pure silk against my cheek. He opened his blue eyes and released a little “mew” into the warm air of the office. I cuddled him, stroked his miniature ears, gazed at his perfect features. I held a miracle of creation in my hands. My heart filled with love – an ordinary day became something special.

Last night as I settled into bed a warmth still glowed inside me – and I was reminded that life is not just a series of menial tasks. It is much bigger than that.

The Art of Mending – Book Review

As for mending, I think it’s good to take the time to fix something rather than throw it away. It’s an antidote to wastefulness and to the need for immediate gratification. You get to see a whole process through, beginning to end, nothing abstract about it. You’ll always notice the fabric scar, of course, but there’s an art to mending: If you’re careful, the repair can actually add to the beauty of the thing, because it is testimony to its worth. -From The Art of Mending, page 14-

Elizabeth Berg has written a story of family secrets and ultimately forgiveness in her thirteenth novel. I don’t believe this is Berg’s best effort – the story felt a bit contrived to me and the characters are deeply flawed. And there is plenty of blame to go around in this dysfunctional family.

Luckily, Berg revealed her brilliance as a writer enough times to redeem the novel for me. The carefully drawn character of Laura (the narrator) along with her friend, Maggie, uncover the joy of women’s friendships – a common theme in Berg’s novels.  Berg’s ability to uncover the truths of every day life always astounds me. At one point, she describes Laura’s addiction to quilting and her penchant to collect fabric – needed or not. It reminded me of a recent conversation I had on a book group where the participants were discussing “hiding” their newest purchases from their loved ones who thought they already had enough unread books in their home. It is passages like this that kept me reading:

One of the reasons I liked to be in fabric stores was that I was surrounded by people who shared the same benign illness as I. Once, waiting in line to pay for a nice selection of miniature florals, I’d heard the woman ahead of me say, “I have to hurry up and get home and hide this. If my husband sees me bringing in more fabric, he’ll kill me.” “Oh, I know,” the woman she’d spoken to had answered. “I’ve been hiding mine for years. Try taking it home in a grocery bag. Just throw a box of Kotex on top and he won’t go near it.” That second woman had such a high pile of fabric in her arms she could hardly see over it. When the clerk who rang her up had asked what she was going to make with it, the woman answered with no sense of irony whatsoever, “Nothing.” I smiled at the woman behind me, who shrugged and said, “You know what they say. Whoever dies with the most fabric wins.” -From The Art of Mending, page 137-

This was a quick read and Berg’s literary style and appeal kept me turning the pages despite the thin plot.

Cautiously recommended.

Alias Grace – Book Review

The pattern of this quilt is called the Tree of Paradise, and whoever named that pattern said better than she knew, as the Bible does not say Trees. It says there were two different trees, the Tree of life and the Tree of Knowledge; but I believe there was only the one, and that the Fruit of Life and the Fruit of Good and Evil were the same. And if you ate of it you would die, but if you didn’t eat of it you would die also; although if you did eat of it, you would be less bone-ignorant by the time you got around to your death. Such an arrangement would appear to be more the way life is. -From Alias Grace, page 459-

In the year 1843, at the tender age of sixteen, Grace Marks was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for her role in the slaying of her employer Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Mongomery (Kinnear’s mistress and housekeeper). The case garnered excessive interest in Canada (where the crimes occurred) due to Marks’ uncommon beauty, her young age and the juicy combination of sex, violence and what was considered ‘the insubordination of the lower class.’

Margaret Atwood has taken this moment in history and created a novel both compelling and fascinating. Told alternately from the point of view of Grace and Dr. Simon Jordan – a doctor who is eager to uncover Grace’s lost memories of the murders and determine her guilt or innocence – the story gradually reveals Grace’s secrets and her complex personality.

Alias Grace is constructed with an eye to detail and contains beautiful symbolism and exquisite imagery.  Atwood’s use of quilt patterns both as titles for the chapters as well as clues to the mystery is brilliant. As quilts are layered and stitched together, the stitcher gradually reveals the pattern hidden in the fabric…just as Grace Marks re-constructs her life and the events surrounding that fateful day. Nothing is as it seems. For every character there is a dark side and a light side; good vs. evil; innocence vs. guilt. And even Grace tells us: ‘…and that is the same with all quilts, you can see them two different ways, by looking at the dark pieces, or else the light.’

Margaret Atwood once again demonstrates her ability to create memorable characters and weave a story which enthralls.

Highly recommended.

The Madonnas of Leningrad – Book Review

Whatever is eating her brain consumes only the fresher memories, the unripe moments. Her distant past is preserved, better than preserved. Moments that occurred in Leningrad sixty-some years ago reappear, vivid, plump, and perfumed. -From The Madonnas of Leningrad, page 5-

As the Nazis advanced on Leningrad in 1941, the staff of the Hermitage Museum began evacuating their treasured art, packing up more than 1.1 million objects, but leaving the empty picture frames hanging on the museum walls as a promise that the art would some day be rehung. When the Nazis lay siege to Leningrad, the Hermitage staff and their families (more than 2000 people) were forced to live in the museum’s basement in horrific conditions. Many starved before the siege was over. Debra Dean’s novel The Madonnas of Leningrad is set during this dark moment in history.

The main character of Dean’s stunning novel is an elderly woman named Marina who is slowly sliding into the final stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. As the disease advances, Marina’s memories of the siege which she has buried for years begin to surface and Marina slips from the present into the past. Dean’s portrayal of a young girl surviving the conditions of war is beautifully wrought. She shows us how Marina – with the help of an older woman named Anya – builds a “memory palace” in her mind, recreating the museum and all its gorgeous works of art – a place where the many Madonnas hang in exquisite perfection.

“They don’t teach this in school anymore?” Anya asks and clucks in dismay. “When I was a girl, we made memory palaces to help us memorize for our examinations. You chose an actual place, a place worked best, but any building with lots of rooms would do, and then you refurnished it with with whatever you wished to remember.” -From The Madonnas of Leningrad, page 68-

The Madonnas of Leningrad is a radiant novel about the tenuous nature of memory, the power of imagination, the endurance of love, and the sad descent into Alzheimer’s disease. Written with a strong sense of place with many fine details of art and the museum itself, Debra Dean’s first novel is a treasure.

Highly recommended.

The Bright Forever – Book Review

If you want to listen, you’ll have to trust me. Or close the book; go back to your lives. I warn you: this is a story as hard to hear as it is for me to tell. -From The Bright Forever, page 4-

Lee Martin’s novel, The Bright Forever, is captivating. It grabs the reader by the throat and compels them to continue reading despite knowing that the end will not be a happy one. Martin uses multiple points of view to tell the story of nine year old Katie Mackey who disappears one bright day in her small Indiana town. At once horrifying and far too real, the novel reveals what happened to Katie through the senses of its various characters. The reader will feel like a voyeur while watching the story unfold – much like the ravenous public in today’s world who watch hours of footage revealing the latest headline tragedy.

Henry Dees, a private tutor who has been teaching Katie and become obsessed with her, is the primary narrator. He appears both cunning and painfully lost and by the end of the novel, the reader will question his reliability to tell the truth. Henry, along with all the characters, harbor secrets which they reveal as the story unfolds.

Well-crafted, suspenseful, a real page-turner – The Bright Forever will be a novel not easily forgotten.


Arthur and George – Book Review

Julian Barnes has crafted an imaginative, compellingly readable ‘whodunnit’ that keeps the reader compulsively turning the pages.

Based on the life and work of Sir Arthur Conan Boyle, it is a tale of two men – George and Arthur – who seem to be living worlds apart, but whose paths cross when a mystery surfaces. The novel explores larger themes of racism and morality, but is driven by excellent story telling and Barnes’ gift of creating  character.

I read this for a book club read and also because it was listed as a 2006 New York Times Notable. I am happy I picked it up. If you enjoy evocative novels which spin a good yarn, you will love this book.


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