I am a fan of Anna Quindlen's work. Miller's Valley is her third novel I've read, and I admire her confident, skillful prose. Her ability to capture tI am a fan of Anna Quindlen's work. Miller's Valley is her third novel I've read, and I admire her confident, skillful prose. Her ability to capture the voice of the narrator just sweeps you away. You almost feel like a friend is telling you the story of her life.
In this case, that friend is Mimi Miller, of the Miller's Valley Millers. The story opens in the 1960s with Mimi as a young teen on the farm her family has owned for generations. Anna Quindlen smartly uses a retrospective first person POV, avoiding the self-absorption that can plague first person. She also doesn't let Mimi overthink everything, which allows the reader to gain a bit of perspective on the story situation. And the story situation is bleak.
The government has a plan to release the nearby dam which will submerge Miller's Valley under dozens of feet of water. Slowly but surely the yearly flooding is getting worse and this is the only solution. Over the years, the government begins buying the homes and land one by one.
This is the larger story issue, one that is always in the mind of our protagonist, Mimi, her family, and the entire town. Yet Anna Quindlen doesn't lose focus on the lives of the characters. And she uses the water as the perfect metaphor. Some of the characters are drowning, some are floating along, and some are swimming, able to ride the current.
Ultimately that led to the important theme of the story: what is home? This is echoed in the novel's epigraph by James Baldwin, "Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition." No one ever really lives Miller's Valley, even if it is under water.
Occasionally the retrospective narrator pulls me out of the story by inserting herself from the future. For example, “It's so easy to be wrong about the things you're close to. I know that now. I learned that then.” Or, "When you look back on your life there are always times that you remember as the hard times..." Or, "When I got older I realized that the majority of people in Miller’s Valley..." This is one of the caveats of this narrative style. It removes me from the dream that is the current story and takes me into the future where the narrator is now (if that makes sense). Sentences like this should be used sparingly.
Anna Quindlen's gift is the ability to draw compelling and convincing characters that you care about from page one. You'll be rooting for some, saddened by others, frustrated, disappointed, and annoyed by the rest -- just like real life.
Hands down favorite quote: "Charm is like tinsel without the tree. What’s tinsel without the tree? Shredded tinfoil."
This was my first book by acclaimed author Penelope Lively. It won’t be my last. Each story in this slim collection is nuanced and layered in such a wThis was my first book by acclaimed author Penelope Lively. It won’t be my last. Each story in this slim collection is nuanced and layered in such a way that gets to the heart of the matter — the relationship between the characters. Her prose is so witty and elegant without being imposing. She makes it look easy. (It’s not.)
Read it if only for the title story about a bird and a servant girl in ancient Pompeii who cannot converse, yet share a perfect understanding. But I bet you won’t stop there. If you like Ann Beattie and Alice Munro, you'll enjoy Penelope Lively....more
Turtles All the Way Down offers a powerful view into the mind of 16-year-old Aza, a girl with obsessive-compulsive disorder. She cannot control her thTurtles All the Way Down offers a powerful view into the mind of 16-year-old Aza, a girl with obsessive-compulsive disorder. She cannot control her thoughts as they spiral, and, she wonders, if she doesn't control her own thoughts, who is she? Her illness tightens and loosens its grip on her, but never completely leaves.
John Green really shines when conveying Aza's thought process while in the midst of these repetitive spirals without bogging down the prose or interrupting the momentum of the story. This is the first novel I can remember reading in which mental illness is portrayed with such dignity, compassion, and truth. Aza says to her new boyfriend, "I have these...thought spirals, and I can't get out of them...this doesn't get better...I'm not gonna un-have this is what I mean."
That is Aza's personal struggle, but the larger story focuses on a local wealthy business owner who has absconded after botching a city contract, leaving his two sons to fend for themselves in their mansion.
This is the second book I've read this year about microorganisms. (The first was nonfiction: I Contain Multitudes, by Ed Yong.) This time, those organThis is the second book I've read this year about microorganisms. (The first was nonfiction: I Contain Multitudes, by Ed Yong.) This time, those organisms are in the bread that Lois Clary bakes, with a robot arm. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
These organisms, called a starter, are given to her by two mysterious guys who run a sandwich shop near her apartment. The starter is used to create the sourdough bread Lois loves so much. The starter is also temperamental, preferring melancholy music and creating odd faces in the crust of the finished loaves. Lois must keep the starter alive even while others want to harness its powers to develop lab-grown food.
A charming, quirky, and fun read. And a good choice as an audiobook -- Therese Plummer is terrific. ...more
Like many other reviewers mentioned, I became interested in this novel because I am a fan of Jane Austen, and Pride & Prejudice is one of my favorLike many other reviewers mentioned, I became interested in this novel because I am a fan of Jane Austen, and Pride & Prejudice is one of my favorite classics. And, like many other reviewers, at first I was concerned that Longbourn would simply be a re-imagining of P&P itself, but thankfully, it's not.
Longbourn takes us behind the scenes of the Bennet household to the people who keep everything running smoothly -- the servants. The story loosely follows the plot of P&P, but from the perspective of the servants. Their story centers on Sarah and Polly, the housemaids; Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper; Mr. Hill, the butler; and James Smith, the new footman/stable keeper who has a mysterious connection to Longbourn.
In P&P, the servants are rarely mentioned, so tangential and interchangeable are they to the Bennets, but here they take centerstage with their own dreams beyond the drudgery of their duties. The descriptions of the servants' laborious chores reminded me never to complain about laundry. More than that, we are shown again and again how the class system keeps everyone to his or her station as if it is their destiny. If the "upstairs" women have little agency, the "downstairs" women have even less.
Sarah, a teenager, desperately wants to be seen. She wants validation and she'll take it wherever she can get it. Polly, younger but also craving attention, nearly falls prey to Wickham's promises of candy. Most of this goes unnoticed by the Bennets. In one poignant scene, Sarah inquires of the Bennet girls if they heard any news of James, who had left the household suddenly and without forwarding address. It takes them several minutes to recognize his name -- the man who had served them and drove their carriage every day for months -- and they didn't even realize he had gone.
My one quibble is with a section of the plot involving James before he comes to Longbourn. For a long stretch, we are taken to a recounting of James's war experience, which explains some of his current behavior. It is drawn out with almost no dialogue, and it doesn't feel necessary, bordering on gratuitous. These scenes are given too much page time for the corresponding future plot point.
Don't let this minor point deter you from reading Longbourn -- a captivating story with universal appeal that will make you thankful how easy it is to cook today.
Anna and the Swallow Man is a remarkable allegory. In fact one of the characters says, “The world understands stories, not as absolute, irrevocably faAnna and the Swallow Man is a remarkable allegory. In fact one of the characters says, “The world understands stories, not as absolute, irrevocably factual truths that simply don’t exist, but as flaccid allegories or metaphors.”
And so we are off on this heart-wrenching, meaningful journey with Anna and her Swallow Man to evade both the Nazis and the Russians in 1939 Poland.
In keeping with the genre, we are kept at arm's length from the thoughts and feelings of the characters through an omniscient narrator. This is important because it is what they -- Anna, the Swallow Man, Reb Hirschl, and the minor characters -- represent, more than their lives as fully realized characters. The characters and the few objects they handle (Reb Hirschl's reedless clarinet, the Swallow Man's satchel, as two examples) are aspects of the self. The meaning behind the literal is just as or maybe more important in revealing the theme.
While the plot advances along the general time frame of the war and Anna ages from a precocious seven to pre-teen, time feels fluid and untethered, the way I imagine it would if you were hiding in the forests of Eastern Poland in a netherworld between two dastardly forces.
What makes this rather slim young adult novel even more appealing is the unraveling of the allegory as the characters themselves begin to mistrust and question the tale they have been woven into. A sort of stepping out of the metaphor into where things are as they appear and not just representations.
Reading this novel as an allegory rather than a literal telling of these characters' experiences gave me a fuller experience with depth and understanding of the story. Let me know if you had the same takeaway from Anna and the Swallow Man.
When I tell friends about the book I've been reading, they scrunch up their faces and say that it sounds depressing. The Golden Age, by Joan London, tWhen I tell friends about the book I've been reading, they scrunch up their faces and say that it sounds depressing. The Golden Age, by Joan London, takes place in a polio rehabilitation home for children in 1950s Western Australia. I can understand why the subject might be off-putting, but please don't let this keep you from reading The Golden Age or you will miss out on a marvelous novel from a superb author. (And I promise, it's not depressing!)
London's prose is never saccharine or melodramatic. In fact, she tends toward spare, matter-of-fact writing. I appreciate this approach. It enabled me to move past the effects of the polio and allowed me to get to know the characters. This is what the children wish for most of all. They want to be seen as individuals -- not just the crutches, wheelchairs, and calipers. Resourceful Frank the poet. His muse Elsa the quiet dreamer.
Of course polio does not only affect the children. Their families and caregivers in the rehabilitation home must address the long-term consequences of the illness. Some have more compassionate responses than others, but London never judges the characters. She presents their actions and lets us decide. While polio plays a central role in all of the characters' lives, and it is the one thing with which they must come to terms, they are all ennobled by love. "Meyer sat down humbly on the white cover, next to his son's wasted legs....This is why the human race goes on having children, he thought. To remind us of the bliss of being loved."
It is a testament to London's gift as a storyteller that she is able to weave this generous story about nostalgia and hope, old world and new world, and most of all, belonging and exile....more