About thebooklookery

I started the blog thebooklookery at the suggestion of a friend who noticed the prolific literary oriented posts I make on my personal fb page. thebooklookery will feature reviews of an eclectic reading list of my own choosing, along with occasional posts regarding all things literary. I look forward to your following thebooklookery, and any comments you may make on the blog!

A Mother’s Day lookery at “The Mapmaker’s Children” by Sarah McCoy

Mapmaker's Children

The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy

Crown Publishers

May 5, 2015

320 pages

$25.00


In honor of Mother’s Day today in the United States, this lookery examines two women who redefine “mother” and “children” in Sarah McCoy’s The Mapmaker’s Children.

To be frank, the opening paragraph of this historical novel did not appeal to me. If I had picked up the book in a bookstore, it would have gone right back onto the shelf. However, because Crown Publishers were kind enough to send me an advance copy of the book in exchange for my honest review, I stuck with it — and I’m glad that I gave this novel another chance. The following pages were well worth reading.

Sarah Brown is a daughter of abolitionist John Brown. Her story starts in New Elba, New York in 1859. Although her age is not revealed, she seems to be in her teens. She has barely survived a wide-spread plague of dysentery, only to overhear her physician tell her mother that Sarah would never be able to have children. Mrs. Brown is devastated by the news. Who would love and marry her barren daughter?

Fast forward to 2014, New Charlestown, West Virginia, where Eden and Jack Anderson have moved into an older suburban home. Like Sarah, Eden is not been to conceive, in spite of years of trying and enduring various fertility treatments. As much as she loves Jack, Sarah’s mood swings and other treatment side effects have left her feeling hopeless and on the verge of proceeding with a divorce.

Jack attempts to enlarge their household with the addition of a dog. Eden is NOT amused, and rejects the pet at once. Jack travels for work, so he hires Cleo, a ten-year-old girl to care for Cricket until he can find the mutt a new home. Although Eden and Jack have lived in the small town for some months, Eden’s unsettled health kept them housebound. Cleo becomes Eden’s guide to life in the hamlet of New Charlestown.

The author alternates between Sarah’s and Eden’s stories. Sarah stumbles upon her father’s secret Underground Railroad (UGRR) activities late one night. She draws a map to guide an illiterate group of slaves to safety. John Brown and his select group of trusted friends of the railroad are so impressed by the simplicity and accuracy of Sarah’s map, that they swear her to secrecy and set her to work on creating pictures with hidden codes and symbols directing escaping slaves to freedom in the North.

Eden and Cleo become close friends as Eden drifts away from Jack. Soon the two are cooking organic dog food for Cricket. Keeping her strange eyes on the cooks is an antique porcelain doll’s head found when Cricket discovered a forgotten root cellar beneath Eden’s home.

Back in the nineteenth century, John Brown is arrested for his part in ambushing the Harper’s Ferry armory. Sarah, her mother and sisters rush to Virginia to see the horribly wounded prisoner before his death sentence is carried out. The Hill family are their hosts in New Charlestown, and also trusted friends with an active role in the Freedom Train. George Hill and his son Freddy accept Sarah’s involvement as well, although her family remains ignorant of her activities. The Browns return to their home in New York, but Sarah and Freddy maintain a lifelong friendship and correspondence.

McCoy traces the life of Sarah and the Brown and Hill families based on documents and research into the families’ histories. She ties Sarah’s life to Eden’s, a century and a half later using compellingly believable creative license as well as historical facts. Both women’s stories are intriguing — one real, one fictional. With letters, newspaper articles and other devices, author Sarah McCoy has created an exceptionally readable novel of two women’s struggles to define themselves in their personal lives and communities. Meticulously researched, but never dry or boring, The Mapmaker’s Children is a testament to the abilities of women to take on the mantle of motherhood without being broodmares both one hundred fifty years ago and today.

A lookery at “Inside the O’Briens” by Lisa Genova

Inside the O'Briens

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

Gallery Books

April 7, 2015

352 pages

$26.00

A preview copy of this novel was provided by NetGalley and Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Prepare yourself for an emotional wild ride when reading Lisa Genova’s novel about a family coping with the devastating affects of Huntington’s Disease in Inside the O’Briens.

Joe O’Brien is an officer on the Boston PD, a third generation Irish “Townie” of the Charlestown neighborhood in Boston, and a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan. Fearing that he will end up like his mother Ruth, who was rumored to have driven herself to drink and the nuthouse, and who died when Joe was only twelve years old, Joe never allows himself more than two beers. Except, of course, on St. Patrick’s Day.

Joe and his wife Rosie have four children in their twenties. All of the children live in the family home — a “triple decker” — with three separate units. Katie and Meghan occupy the top floor as roommates, JJ and his wife Colleen live in the middle, and Patrick still has a room in his parents’ home on the first floor. The close-knit Catholic family gathers in Joe and Rosie’s kitchen each week for Sunday night dinners.

As a police officer, Joe is always “on”; aware of his surroundings, activity in the home and Charlestown, and always in control of his emotions. Very slowly, Joe seems to be losing some of that control. He begins to misplace items, including his service firearm, finds it difficult to write reports at work, becomes confused and clumsy, and experiences involuntary body movements that he doesn’t notice. He begins to make mistakes at work, and loses his temper at home.

Finally, he agrees to see a doctor about his symptoms, and is referred to a specialist in movement disorders. Joe’s diagnosis is devastating. Joe O’Brien has Huntington’s Disease. Inherited from a parent, Huntington’s Disease is a rare illness that usually starts in the prime of life, slowly killing a person by their mid-fifties. The worst news — each of Joe and Rosie’s children have a fifty percent chance of already having the disease.

Genova’s novel delves into each of the family members’ reactions to the diagnosis of their father, and their individual struggles whether or not to be tested for the presence of the disease in themselves.

JJ is a firefighter and his wife is expecting their first baby. Is he affected, and if so, what about his unborn child? Patrick is a bartender, and still trying to find his way in life. A positive diagnosis for Meghan, a dancer with the Boston Ballet, could end her dream career, and yoga instructor Katie has just fallen in love.

Even the most hardened of readers will have a difficult time not tearing up or outright sobbing at the challenges and decisions the family members face. Genova’s ability to evoke such strong emotions in her readers is masterful. Inside the O’Briens not only tells the story of a family, but deftly and simply educates the reader about Huntington’s Disease. Lisa Genova’s novel is a fantastic book and is exceptional on all levels. She has definitely hit a grand slam with this book.

A lookery at “The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand” by Elizabeth Berg

Dream Lover

The Dream Lover:  A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg

Random House

April 14, 2015

368 pages

$28.00

The prolific author George Sand, born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin in 1804 to an aristocratic father and commoner mother, is the subject of Elizabeth Berg’s, The Dream Lover:  A Novel of George Sand. This fictionalized autobiography, written in the style of a personal memoir of Sand’s is typical of the era of the 19th century, giving the reader some insight into how the writer viewed her life experiences.

Aurore was raised by her paternal grandmother on the family’s country estate of Nohant, where as a child she was tutored by the philosopher Deschatres. Her grandmother tried to instill the duties of a lady in Aurore, who preferred nature and freedom to the conventions of her time. At the age of eighteen, she married Casimir Dudevant and later gave birth to a daughter and son. However, Aurore was bored with domestic life, and eventually separated from Casimir, sharing custody of the children with him. Although Aurore was wealthy in her own right, under French law her husband had control of her finances. Unhappy with his wife’s decision to move to Paris for a more exciting existence, Casimir allotted her a pittance of an allowance. Eventually the couple sought a formal and legal separation (divorce being illegal in France), and Aurore took the children to live with her.

Realizing that she would have to work to support the lifestyle she wanted to experience in Paris, Aurore began writing for a local paper in tandem with another journalist, and eventually took the nom de plume of George Sand. As a theater critic for the newspaper, Sand was required to pay her own admission to the plays she reviewed. At the suggestion of her editor, she dressed in men’s clothing to gain access to the less expensive seats in the house. Sand discovered great freedom dressed as a male, and continued to dress as one the rest of her life, although she carried on numerous affairs with men.

Among her friends and lovers were Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, Gustave Flaubert, Alfred de Musset and the actress Marie Dorval. Her social and intellectual circle consisted of some of the greatest minds of the European Enlightenment. Sand was often perceived as a promiscuous and fickle bisexual lover, even to this day. In Berg’s novel, she is portrayed as a woman constantly searching for true love. Love, not necessarily sex, is what drove Sand’s affairs, but she was rarely satisfied with her romantic relationships. At the end of her life, she discovers her key to true and constant love, and also realizes which of her many lovers was the one that captured her heart.

At times long-winded, The Dream Lover:  A Novel of George Sand can be difficult to read. The stylized writing and Sand’s constantly shifting romantic loyalties begin to wear on the reader. However, for fans of George Sand who’d like to discover more about the woman’s thoughts and heart, this novel explores the mind of the great writer. It is not simply biographical details of the author’s life; Elizabeth Berg’s novel is an interesting view of this extraordinarily gifted woman’s unconventional life in 19th century France.

Thank you to the publisher, Random House and NetGalley for a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

A Lookery at “Leaving Berlin” by Joseph Kanon

leaving-berlin

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon
Atria (Simon and Schuster)
March 3, 2015
384 pages

Alex Stein, a German Jew who escaped Nazi Germany to America with the help of close family friends, is now going back to Russian-occupied Berlin, leaving behind his son Peter, and his estranged wife, Marjorie. Stein is a victim of McCarthyism, refusing to inform on his friends who may have Communist sympathies. Singled out because of his membership in the Party prior to World War II, Stein is forced to leave the United States for being in contempt of the Congressional committee.

Alex is asked by the precursor to the CIA to “keep his eyes open” while in Berlin; the incentive to comply with this request being the possibility of returning to the U.S. and his family.

Such is the premise of Joseph Kanon’s latest espionage thriller Leaving Berlin.

But immediately on arrival in the divided city, Alex’s singular contact with the U.S. government is killed, and he is left adrift without support from his adopted homeland. He is welcomed by the German Kulturbund, which is recruiting previously exiled artists to create a new artistic community in the Russian sector of Berlin. There he meets old friends — actors, directors, playwrights, poets, authors and of course, Irene, an old flame who is part of the family that helped him escape to the U.S. fifteen years ago.

But there is no free ride in the new Germany, under Russian control in the East. Before long, Stein is asked to inform on certain members of the Kulturbund and is unwittingly tricked into reporting on friends’ activities and conversations. At the same time, the U.S. makes contact with their green asset and pumps Alex for kernels of information on Russian and German actions only whispered about in the West.

Alex becomes involved with hiding Erich, an extremely ill escaped political prisoner. Friend and family ties are tested in the efforts to heal and hide the young man. When Stein makes arrangements to get his friend to the safety in the West, all hell breaks loose.

It is at this point that Joseph Kanon’s expertise at plot twists involving betrayals and secrets becomes evident. His characters don’t know who to trust and the tension and their fear is palpable on the page. Leaving Berlin is an excellent look at the emerging Communist society of what will become East Berlin.

The Berlin Airlift, the appalling rubble and ruin towering everywhere one looks and the confusion and fear of average citizens (even those who support Communism) is reported faithfully by author Kanon.

An insightful look into the fledgling East German Communist society, Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin is a tension-filled exciting page-turner. Recommended for fans of the early days of the Cold War and post WWII espionage and politics.

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon is courtesy of the publisher Atria (Simon and Schuster) and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

A Lookery at: “My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War” by Heinz Kohler

7684584

 

My Name Was Five:  A Novel of World War II

Heinz Kohler

Mill City Press, 1979, 2004, 2009

$17.95

I am a big fan of World War II literature, both fiction and non-fiction. “My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War” by Heinz Kohler is an excellent example of the blending of fact and fiction about the Second World War as viewed from the perspective of a young boy (Hans) who was born at the time that Hitler came into power.

Hans, his mother and his younger brother Helmut spend most of the war living in Berlin. His father is in a concentration camp for being a political enemy of the Nazi regime, but is released when it becomes apparent that more men are needed to keep the German war machine in action. An exceptionally bright boy, Hans is intellectually encouraged from a very young age by his mother, father and Aunt Martel. Naturally curious, he asks dangerous questions about Nazi policies and eavesdrops on conversations that are not meant for little boys. However, it is obvious that his parents, their friends and some of their family do not buy the Nazi rhetoric. They listen to illegal broadcasts from the BBC as often as possible. Hans collects handbills, posters, newspaper articles and propaganda about the war and Nazi policies. Throughout the book, much of this type of material is reproduced.

When Hans first attends school, he and his classmates are assigned seats according to their academic abilities. Hans sits in seat five, near the top of his class, and is thereafter called “Five” and not Hans, until his classroom status moves up or down. Even at school, which is run along party lines, Hans asks intelligent, controversial questions and writes thoughtful essays that often perplex and infuriate his teachers. His best friend, Dieter does not excel academically, but the boys are nearly inseparable. When disaster strikes Dieter, Hans’ life changes, and the episode haunts him for the rest of his life.

Eventually Hans, Helmut and their mother leave Berlin to live in a village that is relatively safe from Allied attacks. However, in the village, as in Berlin, aunts and uncles who support the Nazis make life difficult for Hans’ family. When the Russians liberate his village, the town becomes part of East Germany and is under Communist control. These same family members jump ship and become supportive of the new government, while Hans and his parents continue to doubt and question the new regime. Under the Stalinist rule, Hans is one of the very few students selected to attend high school away from his home in the village, thanks to the pull of an uncle who has become mayor of the little town.

Once Hans graduates from high school, his family makes a daring decision that saves them from a life of repression. But the wartime experience continues to cause trouble Hans for decades to come.

Written from an unusual point of view, “My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War” is fascinating in its details and insight into the life of Germans that were not supportive of Hitler’s policies, trying to survive first in a war-torn city that is the seat of power for the Nazi government, and later, in a village absorbed into a new country with a different, and equally repressive form of government. As the population of the WWII generation ages and passes on, it seems that more information is being revealed, shedding light on how average citizens were affected by this horrific time in history. Heinz Kohler writes an amazing account of a child’s exposure to war that should not be missed.

Five eyes from thebooklookery.

A Lookery at: Laura Moriarty’s “The Chaperone”

The Chaperone

Laura Moriarty

Penguin Books (2012)

$26.95

The Chaperone, written by Laura Moriarty, is billed by many sources as one of this summer’s “must-reads”. This title was high on my reading list, so when it was featured as a Kindle Daily Deal at a fraction of the price of a hardback, I snatched it up and downloaded it immediately.

Setting off on an adventure of a lifetime, Cora Carlisle agrees to chaperone teenager Louise Brooks on a six week visit to New York City, where Louise intends to study dance with the famed Denishawn Dance Company. Thirty-six-year-old Cora is a well-regarded woman in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas. She is married, the mother of twin boys bound for college in the fall.

Louise Brooks is fifteen, beautiful, arrogant and sexually precocious, and is anxious to leave the cultural confines of the Midwest. Louise sees no need for a chaperone, and defies convention from the moment she and Cora step foot in the Wichita train station. Her seductive nature and actions become even more pronounced as the women travel further east.

Cora has her own secrets and motives for visiting New York in the summer of 1922, known only to her husband. She explores both the vibrant city and her past – hidden from the conservative citizens of Kansas – while Louise practices with the dance company. But while Cora tries to keep Louise’s wild and artistic personality in check fearing that the young girl might sully her reputation, Cora’s eyes are opened to new possibilities for leading a more liberating life when she returns home.

After training for several weeks, Louise earns a spot in the Denishawn Dance Company before eventually heading to Hollywood. There she becomes a film star known for her beauty, her modern bobbed hair and her sex appeal.

Although it is Louise who moves on to great fame as a screen actress, it is Cora’s life that the reader explores in greater depth. Firm beliefs about hemlines, hairstyles, birth control (believe it or not, a well-known household disinfectant advertised itself as a prophylactic in the twenties), and racism are all tested while in NYC. Before returning to the Midwest, Cora makes a life-changing decision. She alters her outlook on the myriad of cultural possibilities taking place in American society. Louise is a flash-in-the-pan success in the film industry, while Cora seizes new opportunities. A respected woman in Wichita, Cora works to influence her community to embrace the progressive transformations emerging in more metropolitan areas such as New York and Los Angeles.

Laura Moriarty has meticulously researched the material used in her novel The Chaperone. A bibliography illustrates how the author incorporates the tiniest of details into the fictional life of Cora, while staying true to the story of real-life film actress Louise Brooks. But rather than create a biography of Louise and her crash and burn career, Professor Moriarty shows how an average woman in the guise of Cora Carlisle – a mere chaperone – can change her life and that of others by an experience which exposes her to a life she might have never known as a privileged homemaker in America’s breadbasket.

An interesting look at the changes in society during the 20th century (particularly those concerning women), The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty has earned four eyes from thebooklookery. The bohemian life led by Louise seems more believable than the duplicitous life that Cora creates after her visit to the Big Apple, however; the overview of women’s history during the 20th century is excellent.

A Lookery at: Gore Vidal, a personal memory

Author Gore Vidal passed away Tuesday, July 31, 2012, at the age of 86. Since his death, a plentitude of biographical articles have been written about his life, personality and achievements. However, I would like to take the opportunity to recall a personal encounter I had with Mr. Vidal while a student at UC Irvine. This post is not a political or social commentary about the writer, but rather a very likely flawed recollection of an event that happened over thirty years ago.

My manager at the university’s Lectures and Publications Department would book guest speakers for the annual lecture series. As an Administrative Intern in the department, it was my responsibility to attend to the menial tasks, such as making dinner reservations for the speaker, those who accompanied the person of note, as well as various administrators from the school. I also had to compose an introduction and present it to the audience prior to each lecturer’s speech.

Gore Vidal must have been one of the first speakers of the year, because I remember being very anxious to be properly prepared to interact with someone of his stature. I researched as much as possible about him, so that it would appear that I knew who he was. I had heard of him before – I think on “The Laugh-In” — as a child. I wanted to converse with Mr. Vidal somewhat coherently, if not intelligently, should he deem me worthy of a comment or two.

Since this was the P.G. (pre-Google) era, it required a bit of effort to look into a person’s history. I don’t recall what I found out about him, other than his blind, maternal grandfather was in politics and Gore used to escort him onto the Congressional floor as a youngster. I did decide to read one of his novels, 1876, to show him that I was familiar with his work.

My manager asked me to make dinner reservations for a small party (probably fewer than a dozen diners) at one of the very rare premier restaurants in the Irvine area at the time. I asked if I should include Mr. Vidal’s wife in the party, and my manager looked at me as though I were nuts, and said that no, that would not be necessary. I did not know then that Mr. Vidal was a confirmed bachelor. (This event occurred just as the gay movement was beginning to be discussed publically, and also at the time when AIDS was still referred to as “the gay cancer”.  I later learned that Gore had a long-time companion, and did not care for the term “gay”.)

When the evening arrived, I was a wreck. For some reason, I had to borrow a dress from a roommate, so I was not entirely comfortable in my clothing.  At dinner, I miraculously ended up seated next to Mr. Vidal in spite of being the only student in attendance. I did not know that this was traditional for the dinners. Later in the year I found myself seated next to Gloria Steinem and other well-known personalities.

The first question I asked him set the tone for the entire evening. Knowing that he was originally from the East Coast and had come to Irvine from LA, I asked him what he thought of Orange County.  His reply?  “Oh, it’s just a place I pass through on my trips to Carlsbad.” It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking anything at the time, or it would have been iced tea (not being old enough to drink alcohol yet), through the nostrils at the dinner table. “Carlsbad??” I asked him incredulously. “Why in the world would you want to go to Carlsbad, of all places?” To which he replied, “That’s where my sister lives.” I then told him that the little town by the sea was my hometown, and I couldn’t imagine that anyone important would ever want to go there.  He got quite a kick out of that.

Gore Vidal and I had a wonderful discussion during the meal. I knew that guests were expected to spend an equal amount of time speaking to the dinner partners seated on their left as well as right, but Mr. Vidal spent the entire meal talking just to me. He told me about his childhood, attending Phillip Exeter Academy, his grandfather, and so on. We talked about 1876 and books we both enjoyed. He put me completely at ease.

Later, when presenting him as the featured speaker, I raced through my introduction out of nervousness, and had to repeat it slowly so that the audience could understand what I had said. I was utterly embarrassed by the situation, but he came on stage, gave me a kiss on the cheek, and thanked me for the introduction.

Gore Vidal had gone out of his way to make me comfortable all evening, which was quite extraordinary given that I was the plebe and he was the guest of honor. I will always think of him fondly.

“I am exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.” – Gore Vidal

Not so, Mr. Vidal. Not so.