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Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography
Peter Conn
A Romantic Education
Patricia Hampl

The War and its Horses

The Last Daughter of Prussia - Marina Gottlieb Sarles

I read The Last Daughter of Prussia as a writer myself, also writing about eastern Europe, though at different points in history. The author has based this novel on the stories told by her family, natives of East Prussia, which was German during the time of the second world war. I visited the area in 2010, to connect with my Polish family's roots. Danzig is now called Gdansk, and the area is part of Poland, so the title character is indeed the "last daughter of Prussia." 

Sarles describes the sense of loss of Manya and her family as they flee the approaching Russian troops. She gives us a look into the hearts of Germans who while not Nazi sympathizers also suffered greatly from the war. She does a particularly good job of describing the trek across the bay in winter to reach safety in German territory. The horses Manya's family rides are major characters themselves, and I learned about the Trakheners, a breed I'd never heard of before.

Although I've read other stories of the Holocaust and WWII, this one had a unique perspective. It was hard for me to like the aristocratic family, though, perhaps not the author's fault but still, an obstacle to my enjoyment of the book.

The Signature of All Things: A Novel

The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert Not what I expected from the author of Eat, Pray, Love, this novel is written in the old-fashioned style of prose popular in the nineteenth century, when the story takes place. It's a long, sweeping novel, but it held my interest for the week or so it took for me to read it.

Alma Whitaker is such a great character I wanted to stay with her story to see what happened to her next, and to see if she ever found happiness.

Alma is a precocious, smart little girl raised in an emotionally chilly household. Her quest to know everything eventually focuses on mosses. Yes, there is more than one moss, something I did not know. There's a lot in this book I did not know, which made it worth reading.

Gilbert raises some good questions: what do we need to be happy? what is a fulfilling life? do we ever get over our childhood?

Recommended for when you have the time to sink into a long, good story well told.

TransAtlantic: A Novel

TransAtlantic - Colum McCann Threading history and fiction, with three female characters from the same family in different times and places, and a living historical figure (George Mitchell) in the middle of the book, from all their different points of view - whew.
I enjoyed reading this, don't quite know what to make of it, admire the author for so easily inhabiting his characters and putting history on the page through their individual eyes.
Beautifully wrought sentences, unusual similes, wonderful metaphors.
A real treat for the reader. I enjoyed his earlier novel, Let the Great World Spin, and will look for more of his work.

The Shortest Way Home: A Novel

The Shortest Way Home: A Novel - Juliette Fay While reading The Shortest Way Home, I learned some things I didn't know, which I love to do when enjoying fiction. Huntington's disease, Ireland, and sensory disorder - these are the topics the author obviously researched well, and used to advance the plot. Told from a 43-year-old man's point of view, this is a book about family, the challenges of being part of one, and the healing that can happen when we confront our deepest wounds.

After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story

After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story - Michael Hainey There is a family secret at the heart of this lovely memoir, but it's nothing terribly shocking. The author's father died when he was very young, and as he grows up, he realizes the story of how and where his father's body was found has some big holes in it. Why was he on that street? Why weren't the police called? Was it a heart attack? Or murder?
Hainey takes us with him as he travels to the places he lived as a boy and unravels the secret his father's friends kept for so many years. The joy of reading this book comes from watching the author get to know his father and mother better, and thus end with a fuller picture of both.

The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters

The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters - Sarah Susanka Not just another self-help book, this one is written by an architect who uses designing and building a house as a metaphor for making a beautiful and satisfying life.
Lots of good advice about how to get clear on what is really important and how to get rid of the rest, leaving plenty of open space for good things to come into your life.
She advises keeping an 'owner's manual' for your life, writing down what works for you, your passions, ideas, favorite inspirational quotations, and dreams.
The Not So Big Life does not talk about goal-setting. Instead, a convincing case is made for finding out what really matters to you by taking time alone, meditating and recording your dreams. Then you will know what to focus your daydreams on, and what people, experiences and objects bring your dreams into being. Definitely worth the time.

The Secret Keeper: A Novel

The Secret Keeper - Kate Morton Loved, loved, loved it. As a writer, I more and more read with a critical eye, or to see how the author manages plot, develops characters and tells a story that holds my interest. After the first fifty pages of The Secret Keeper, I suspended all that. It's a wonderful, moving, suspenseful love story, a step back in time, about a country I love. At first, I thought the author could have used a better editor: she says the same thing three times in the same sentence, in different words. But she says it so well, I didn't care anymore. It felt good just to read those three different ways to say the same thing. ;-)

What's it about? World War II, love and betrayal, family, motherhood. Losing and finding one's moral compass. Redemption.

This was my first book by Kate Morton. I'm going to read the rest, but I'll wait till I have hours to devote to reading. If they are anything like The Secret Keeper, I'm going to be occupied...or maybe the word is obsessed...or, as Morton might say, "occupied, obsessed and devoted" to her stories to the exclusion of most of the rest of my life for the duration.

Little Century: A Novel

Little Century - Anna Keesey Using lyrical prose, author Anna Keesey tells the story of Esther, an eighteen year old orphan from Chicago who travels west to Century, Oregon, a frontier town in the early years of the twentieth century, to live with her distant cousin, her only known relative.
Against the backdrop of the range wars between cattle ranchers and sheep farmers, Esther must live in her cousin Pick's cabin for five years, which will automatically add it to his spread.
Not your ordinary Western, nor your typical romance novel, Little Century taught me about the struggle to survive in a land where water is scarce and the promise of free land if only you can work it is fast disappearing. When we are about to lose our livelihood, we become desperate, and some of us become violent. Keesey managed to portray the struggle for land with empathy for both sides, and, just like life, with no easy answers.
Her writing is entertaining, educational and thought-provoking, even philosophical. Read sentences like this: "Whoever grasps territory on a plain of dust, a green island, or a rich field in France grasps sand...liberty must move inside, to be found in the mind." You just have to stop and think about that before you can read on. And there's plenty more where that came from.

Elsewhere: A memoir

Elsewhere - Richard Russo So here's a memoir focused on a man's relationship with his mentally ill mother. You'd think it would be sad, depressing, frustrating. Not so. It's all about survival and resilience. True, some things don't get better: the author's hometown of Gloversville, NY, went downhill after the glove factories closed, much like my neighboring hometown of Amsterdam, NY, when the carpet mills moved out. Russo writes about the pollution and the disregard for workers' health, and the common identity and pride of place, lost when manufacturing left so many American towns in the mid-twentieth century. In that context, he gives us the story of his mother, Jean Russo, trying over and over again to reinvent her life. After her husband left, she was unable to break free of her parents and "live independently." It was a life's dream she was unable to realize without the constant help of the author.

When I wrote Off Kilter, my own memoir about growing up in Amsterdam with an unhappy mother, I tried to show her tenacity and resilience, too, and can only hope I did it half as well as Russo.

"What nourishes us in this life might be the very thing that steals that life away from us," he writes near the end, noting that his "paralyzing anxiety at the thought of returning home" is his mother's legacy. Gloversville is described so well in this memoir(and in his novels, by other names) it's hard to believe he wasn't there just the other day, and maybe that's because the place where we grew up remains a part of us always.

Written with a novelist's sensitivity to the story hidden in every life, "Elsewhere" is a beautiful testament to love, survival and putting one foot in front of the other, just to see what happens next. Russo's message: even if we can't, in his mother's words, make "it all work out," we keep trying. That's what it all comes down to, for all of us.

Patterns in the Sand: A Seaside Knitters Mystery

Patterns in the Sand - Sally Goldenbaum This one was loaned by a friend, and I read it on vacation after my Kindle broke. I won't be reading any others in the series. It was a tedious read, but I finished it. Typos throughout were annoying, as were misuse of "lead" for "led" and other grammatical errors. The first victim's name is Aidan, not Nick, as stated in the blurb here.
I love knitting, and I love mystery novels, but this one was just too contrived. The characters were sympathetic but not developed enough for me to care what happened to them. There was some good writing, but overall I'm going to pass on this author. Too many other good books out there, so little time for them all.

The Wisdom of Compassion: Stories of Remarkable Encounters and Timeless Insights

The Wisdom of Compassion: Stories of Remarkable Encounters and Timeless Insights - Victor Chan, Dalai Lama XIV I really loved this. Had to finish it and return it to the library, but it's a quick read. Made the Dalai Lama much more human and accessible than he is already, and that's saying something. The author is a longtime friend, and took me with him as he traveled around the world meeting various groups and dignitaries, all of them touched and heartened by the presence of this great man who calls himself "a simple monk."
Most useful for me were the teachings on compassion and how learning to open one's heart leads to a happy and fulfilling life. So simple. A lifetime practicing just this one thing would be a life well-lived. I'm going to try it.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide - Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn I read this book over a period of several months. It's easy to dip in and out of when you have time to read just a few pages. The stories of women empowering themselves with a little boost from those of us who are privileged are amazing. Kristof and his wife Cheryl WuDunn, have traveled the world highlighting the places where women's rights have been violated. But they don't stop there. What makes this book so inspiring is the research they have done, and the personal interviews they did, to tell about the grassroots organizations and individual women who lifted up girls and women so that they can support themselves and their children, be assets to their communities and even raise the economic level of their countries.
If you've ever wondered "what can I do" about the injustice in the world, read Half the Sky, then turn to the many organizations at the end where you can do as little or as much as you are able to really make a difference.

Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom

Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom - Rick Hanson, Richard Mendius, Daniel J. Siegel, Jack Kornfield This book is a life changer. As a student of Buddhism without delving fully into the practice, this was very enlightening to me. The philosophy of accepting what is and limiting suffering combined with the neuroscience of brain chemistry described by the authors in Buddha's Brain are a cogent and helpful guide to life in the 21st century.

The information is contained in four parts: The Causes of Suffering; Love; Happiness; and Wisdom. Each part has chapters that explain why and how to practice retraining your brain toward happiness. Key points are summarized at the end of each chapter.

For those interested, there is a section at the end of nutritional chemistry to bolster your efforts. I'm keeping this one, and recommending it to my friends.

The Light Between Oceans: A Novel

The Light Between Oceans: A Novel - M.L. Stedman One of the best books I've read in a long long time. Motherhood, love, loss, and the right thing to do when there are no easy choices. Plus I learned a lot about life in a lighthouse in 1920s Australia. Definitely time well spent. I'll be looking for this author's next book.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn A spellbinding, page-turning, breakneck plot that might have kept me up all night reading, if I could have stayed awake. Plot twists and turns and surprises aplenty, so many my head spun. But all the way through Gone Girl, I felt sad, and sick at heart. All the bad characteristics of miscommunication, bad marriage, manipulation and deceit work together in this bleak story of a marriage gone horribly wrong. I kept reading to the end, hoping for some resolution, or at least some uplifting message. I didn't get it. Sad, disappointed, I won't be reading any other books by this author. Too bad. She is quite skilled at creating a devious plot. But when I close a 415 page book I have invested days of my life in reading, I want to think something besides "bleh."

The Body in the Boudoir (Faith Fairchild Series #20)

The Body in the Boudoir: A Faith Fairchild Mystery - Katherine Hall Page I think I've read every one in this series, and this latest did not disappoint. It's a "cozy" fast read, yet very well written. The author obviously knows New York City and I loved reading about familiar places, albeit the tony, upscale ones. The lone exception to "beautiful New York" was the subway platform - a very scary scene takes place there.

I was sure I knew who the killer was about two-thirds of the way through the book, but once again, the author fooled me and I was stunned at the ending. The action scenes are vivid and scary, and the tender moments between Faith and her sister and mother, as well as with her fiance, Tom, are sweet and heartwarming. This is one heroine you will root for all the way through, and eagerly anticipate her next adventure.

The books always come with recipes from the story, and this one is all about a wedding, so you'll get directions to make Strawberries Romanoff and other delights.