Reading Lately: Update #1 for 2015

I set a goal again this year to read a book every week, for a total of 52 books during the year.  We're three months into the year, and so far I'm on track!  Here are my reviews of a few of my favorites in the first three months of 2015... (SPOILER ALERT!)



Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline:
This is the beautiful story of two orphans from different time periods who have the opportunity to impact each other’s lives in unforgettable ways. It’s a story about acceptance, perseverance, and fate.

Molly Ayer is a troubled teenager growing up in Maine who has been in and out of foster homes. She finds herself on the brink of being kicked out of yet another family after she is caught stealing. For her community service sentence, she is assigned to help an elderly woman clean out the attic of her mansion. Molly dreads the task but is determined to finish her required hours. As Molly spends time with the woman of the house, Vivian Daly, the two discover the many parallels of their lives. 

Vivian (originally named Niamh, then Dorothy) is an Irish immigrant who arrived in New York with her family in the 1920s. Her family was killed in a fire when Vivian was nine years old, and she was soon one of the thousands of abandoned children rounded up onto the orphan trains bound for the Midwest. These orphans would be assigned to families looking for children to welcome as their own, or to help with the heavy labor and farm work.

Vivian realized instantly that a nine-year-old, redheaded Irish immigrant was not the most desirable child for a Midwestern, Protestant family to adopt. 

“I find myself retreating to someplace deep inside. It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary. So I am learning to pretend, to smile and nod, to display empathy I do not feel. I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside.”

She struggled to be placed with a home, and then was forced to endure two cruel and abusive fostering situations before seeking guidance from a trusted teacher, Miss Larsen, and finding placement with a loving couple who accepted her as an adopted daughter. The next few years were happy ones for Vivian as she finished her education, developed skills in the family store, and even found love. She would later relocate to Maine, but it was the first two decades of her life that were most influential for the person she was. Vivian later reflects, “Time constricts and flattens, you know. It’s not evenly weighted. Certain moments linger in the mind and others disappear. The first twenty-three years of my life are the ones that shaped me, and the fact that I’ve lived almost seven decades since then is irrelevant.”

The story switches back and forth between the Midwest in the 1930s-1940s, and present day Maine. This is the kind of book that makes you wish had 100 more pages to learn about the characters' lives. You grow to know them and love them. It’s the type of story that makes you realize that everyone's lives have deep secrets and harsh experiences that define them. It suggests that perhaps things happen for a reason, maybe there's such thing as fate, or perhaps there isn't a defined course of life but it can still turn out okay in the end.



All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr:
This is an intriguing and beautifully written story of two children growing up during World War II whose lives become connected in unforeseen ways. In Germany, a young boy named Werner lives with his sister, Jutta, in an orphanage, where Werner's inherent intelligence and fascination with radios earns him a ticket out of working in the mines and an opportunity to attend a prestigious military academy. Although only a teenager, Werner goes to war, where he eventually ends up defending the German occupation in Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast. Meanwhile, Marie-Laure is a blind girl living in Paris with her father, who has a very important position at the Museum of Natural History, where he carries the keys for the museum's hundreds of locks. When the Germans come to occupy Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo and move in with Marie-Laure's great uncle, Etienne. Life during the war becomes stressful for them, especially when Marie-Laure's father never returns from a planned trip back to Paris. Marie-Laure learns that her father was the keeper of a very important jewel from the museum -- real or fake, they do now know -- and that other people seek this treasure desperately.

The story bounces back and forth between the lives of Werner and Marie-Laure, and between time periods as well, creating suspense as their lives slowly begin to converge. It is clear from the beginning that the two characters are connected somehow and that their seemingly opposite experiences and lives seem to have profound effects on one another. This story points out the importance of seemingly trivial events in life -- such as a children's radio broadcast, or the friends one makes throughout life -- and suggests we are all connected in the grand scheme of life. This is a story about kindness, and encourages us to look deeper into a person. It is also a story about the passage of time, and of appreciate what lies before you in the present. This book is full of beautiful metaphors and connections.

"All the light we cannot see" refers to many concepts in the book: the radio waves that fascinate Werner and unite people internationally, the beauty of Marie-Laure's world despite her blindness, the famous and beautiful jewel that is hidden for safe keeping and that many people crave to find, the brightness of one's feelings and emotions for the ones they love, the imaginary colors that are invoked by voices and music in our ears, and the magnetic waves that connect us all. "What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible." (page 53)


Finally, a few of my favorite quotes from this story:
"You know the greatest lesson of history? It's that history is whatever the victors say it is. That's the lesson. Whoever wins, that's who decides history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are." (page 84)

"To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air." (page 390)

"And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded by audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it." (page 529)

"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever." (page 264)




Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue:
The year is 1876, and the people of San Francisco are suffering from an extreme heatwave as well as the smallpox epidemic, both of which create an air of fear, hostility and superstition. Blanche Beunon is a French burlesque dancer in living with Arthur, her boyfriend since her teenage years who introduced her to the world of show business in their former roles as circus performers. Jenny Bonnet is somewhat of a vagabond, roaming throughout the city, dressing in a masculine manner (which was prohibited at the time), and catching frogs to make a living. The two women could not be any more different, until the day that Jenny runs into Blanche with her enormous bicycle, and their lives are forever changed.

Jenny enters Blanche's life with curiosity and openness, causing Blanche to question her own decisions and ultimately her happiness. Blanche realizes she has never had a true friend until Jenny came into her life, and the two develop an intimate connection. "Jenny's an odd kind of woman; part boy, part clown, part animal. An original, accountable to no one, bound by no ties, who cocks her hat as she pleases. Their closeness had sprung up as rapidly and cheekily as a week. Blanche was meant to cross Jenny's path... This is the friend Blanche has been waiting a quarter of a century for without even knowing it." Jenny questions social norms and the dominance of men over women: "Why should your lot have all the firepower? As they say, God made men and women, but Sam Colt made them equal." This attitude gives her a lot of friends, but even more enemies. 

With Jenny as a companion, Blanche discovers a newfound courage to stand up for herself against her chauvinist boyfriend, take her infant son, P'tit, out of an orphanage, question her life of prostitution, and be her own person. "She [Blanche] is different these days, she knows that. Was it meeting Jenny Bonnet that began the metamorphosis. Or taking P'tit away from Folson Street? Or has this different, older, somehow harder Blanche been hidden inside her all along?"

Then, one month after the women meet, Jenny is shot dead in the hotel room she is sharing with Blanche. Blanche is convinced that the murder was committed by her ex-mac, Arthur, and his companion, Ernest, but there is very little evidence pointing toward any one suspect. Both women had enemies, and any number of scenarios is possible. Blanche is on a mission to seek justice for her friend's murder. In the days following Jenny's death, Blanche discovers that Jenny was a complex and multifaceted woman, and as close as the two were, Blanche had only just begun to peel back the first layer of the onion. Blanche discovers secrets about Jenny's past, and also realizes that Jenny's friendliness, openness, and resilience had created a whole network of people who loved her, even though she seemed like an isolated individual most of the time. As Jenny had said before she died, "Everyone's a moon... with a side nobody sees."

The novel is based on a true story of the shooting of Jenny Bonnet outside of San Francisco in 1876. Much of the evidence was later lost, and a murderer was never found. Blanche reflects as she fled from San Francisco at the end of the book, "Some crimes are better not solved, maybe. Some scars better kept covered up."

As in Donoghue's first major hit, Room, Frog Music features women whose bodies are abused and treated like garbage, yet who have the strength and determination to rise above their circumstances. Both novels also describe the unique and unremitting bond between mother and child that surpasses all reason and logic.


The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins:
This gripping thriller will keep you up all night. It's no surprise that it has been compared to Gone Girl, because just like Gillian Flynn's riveting mystery, the characters are well-developed and the plot is filled with endless twists. Just when you feel that you get to know the characters, they shock you with secrets from their past or bold, unexpected actions.

Rachel is a depressingly hopeless alcoholic, riding the train to London daily to avoid telling her roommate that she got fired from her job. From her seat on the train she observes the people in the houses she passes. One particular couple, whom she names "Jess and Jason," appear so happy and makes Rachel long for the life she once had when she was happily married to Tom and beginning to plan a family. Rachel: "They're a match, they're a set. They're happy, I can tell. They're what I used to be."

Rachel's fantasy of "Jess and Jason" (really Megan and Scott) could not be further from the truth, as both have secrets to hide and a depressing relationship. Megan: "I can't do this. I can't just be a wife. I don't understand how anyone does it - there is literally nothing to do but wait. Wait for a man to come home and love you. Either that or look around for something to distract you." Rachel discovers a secret about her imagined "Jess" shortly before Megan disappears. While Rachel feels betrayed by a person she thought she knew (but never actually met), she finds a new purpose in her life and dedicates her existence to solving the mystery of Megan's disappearance. Rachel: "I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose." She becomes deeply tangled in a mess of deceit and lies, and realizes quickly that no one can be trusted.

All the characters are so tainted by their flaws, and yet they are so honest and depressingly real that you can't help but relate to them. This story goes to show that even the seemingly happiest people have their secrets and baggage. Rachel can't stop drinking herself into a blackout stupor, while longing to get back together with her abusive ex and become a mother, believing that this would make her worthwhile. Meanwhile, Megan was unhappy in her marriage, seeking comfort elsewhere, and happened to cross paths with Anna, the new wife of Rachel's ex-husband. Everyone is mysteriously connected, and it turns out that Rachel is actually the good one, the one who loves unconditionally, forgives the faults of others, and recognizes the dangers of following one's heart. 



And the complete list so far for 2015:

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins
A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler
Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul, by Mark Victor Hansen
The Snowman, by Jo Nesbo
Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue
Emotional Intelligence 2.0, by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves
Flirting with Felicity, by Gerri Russell
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez
Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn
Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult
The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci


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