Sarah’s Key

Sarah's Key As many of you know, WWII historical fiction is right up my alley. A majority of my “Want to Read” fiction on Goodreads consists of WWII fiction. I even have a book in my mind that I will write someday. So I went into this thinking it would be a layup.

It starts with two stories: the 1942 story of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of Jews by the French police. It is the story of one ten-year-old girl and her family and their tragic separation. The second is a modern-day journalist studying the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup (nearing it’s 60th anniversary) and finding her own link to the history there. The chapters go back and forth between these two stories.

The 1942 story is wonderful. It draws you in and you picture what is happening in your mind; you put yourself there. You do it despite the writing. The 1942 story is told from the third person: The girl did this, the girl thought that, etc. It detaches the reader from the story, but despite this, you enter in.

The modern-day story of the journalist, however, is told in the first person. Yet I found myself struggling to relate to her. I didn’t understand her. I didn’t really even like her that much, though she gave me little to like or dislike. She, and her story, was bland. About half way through the book the 1942 story ends, and the rest of the book is the modern day story, which by now has intertwined with the story of the past. I remember getting to that first chapter that didn’t take me back to 1942, back to the little girl- my heart sank. That was the story the reader wants to hear.

In literature, there is story, and there is beautiful writing, and a handful of times, you find a gem that combines the two. This one absolutely leans toward story- there is nothing beautiful in the prose. It doesn’t read like music, it isn’t moving, it doesn’t create a scene you are entranced with. It is plain and tells a story. This is ok when the story is fantastic. This story could have been fantastic. But in the end, it wasn’t. Rosnay had a great beginning in her mind, one with amazing potential. But in the making of it, too much was lost. I wish she had stuck with the 1942 story and seen it through to the end. I wish she had made that the only story, the first-person account. It could have been….so much more.

(If you, like me, love WWII fiction, I recommend instead reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.)

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Ivan I bought this to read to my five-year-old. She is creative and loves story. She is, herself, a storyteller. She has the ability to be moved without losing it. Because of this, I’m able to read to her things that I would otherwise wait on until she’s a bit older, things I still haven’t read to my seven-year-old because she’s so sensitive she wouldn’t handle it well.

Again, there are no chapters. This one is written like snapshots in the daily life of Ivan. Some are a few sentences. Some go on for a few pages. He is a gorilla, after all. It took me some time to get Ivan’s voice right (since I was reading it aloud). I probably should have read further ahead of time to get a better feel for Ivan, who seems at first, rather aloof. But as the story progresses, the many pieces of Ivan begin to come together, and it is beautiful and touching. I will warn you though, that there are many sad parts, like when Ivan’s family is killed by humans, or when his best friend dies. It does, however, have a happy (but not too-happy) ending. Judge the appropriateness of these subjects for your children- you will know best. Penny Mae loved it, as did I.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway I began this book in a study of point of view, specifically when an author has several POV characters. There are rules for this, and though Virginia Woolf breaks most of them, she is heralded for it. Artful prose, like poetry, is that balance between following form, and knowing when to break with the form. Being consistent enough with your reader that they can follow where you are leading them, but making exceptions at some points to allow you to take them by surprise. We readers want this too. We bore of the books that do exactly what we predict, and even those that do what we want.

It is beautifully written, and reflected the inner life of the mind well. I valued hearing the inner monologue and its relationship to the outward actions of each of these characters. It would often bring up a memory or a thought such as, “Yes, I’ve done that before,” or “Yes, I have felt that same way.” It allowed me to connect with the characters, especially those of which, if one hadn’t heard their inner monologue, one would have guessed they had nothing in common, or even made up their own simple reasons for why that character did what they did. It is equal parts novel and study in human nature.

The difficulty I had with it was the lack of structure. At first I was baffled. There are no chapters. It begins and does not stop until it ends. I knew, before reading, that it would only cover one day of time, but dozens of pages in and only 15 minutes into the day, having jumped from the thoughts in Clarissa’s head to (anyone!) the florist, the couple passing by on the sidewalk, then back to Clarissa- I was bewildered. It jumped, and it jumped, and it jumped again with no warning, no transition. Once, about 10% of the way in (I read it on a Kindle) I realized this is what the whole book would be like, and I was able to let go of every assumption and drift along the current of her thought. Some people would take to this style of writing better than others- it may be too scattered for some. I did find it hard to keep up with all of the characters- some she returned to over and over again, while others you would hear from for a few pages and then never again. You never knew if this person, whose thoughts you were hearing, would be a significant part of the story or not.

All in all, it is truly different from most books and beautifully written. And if you are nervous because you’ve seen the movie The Hours, fear not! It was barely resembled.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette


I wanted to like this because people I love and admire really liked it. Maybe I went into it with too high expectations. It was sharp and funny, but I had a love/hate relationship with Bernadette. I liked her, but she was selfish, and her selfishness was devastating to others, but it read like you were supposed to forgive her for that because it was just her mysterious way. I couldn’t. I saw in her my tendency toward selfishness and the devastation that can have on those around me and I was angry with her, with me. Her excuses were not good enough. (No, neither are mine.) It was an entertaining read, but I hoped for much more at the conclusion.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Novel by [Barrows, Annie, Shaffer, Mary Ann]I read this in two days- it is so good! There is a profusion of interesting and lovable characters, and I found it fascinating to hear the story only through letters and telegrams. My only complaint was that the author waited until the absolute end to resolve the building conflict. It made the conclusion seem too quick; I wanted to relish in it longer and to see how it played itself out. This is how one usually feels when a book ends that was a pure joy to read. C.S. Lewis says, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” I would have been happy for this book to go on forever.

I love the WWII era- they were such a chivalrous and scrappy people. To think of so many nations fighting the same fight. Yes, they all had their own reasons. Some entered the fray before others. Some did so reluctantly. But they sacrificed. They lived in wartime and felt the effects of it. Unlike now, when I had to explain to my little girl that actually our country is at war and has been for many years. No, we don’t see the fighting. No, we don’t feel the danger. No, we don’t have to give up anything for it. It felt absurd to say. It feels a bit absurd to live. Hear me, I love that my children don’t live in a war zone, but there is something beautiful and strong that emerges within a people who have suffered. Those who have been brought low have a greater capacity for seeing every little thing as a gift. And those who have been brought low together experience a deep connection with one another. Then think of the scale of the connectedness! These were the thoughts traveling through my mind as I read this book, where destruction from the war was everywhere. It was on the front porch, in the empty seat at the table, piled up against ruins of buildings, and in bones showing through the skin of meager bodies. But what beauty and valor came of it!

So that’s one love this book hit on for me. The other was letter writing. The book is told entirely from letters, with an occasional telegram thrown in. It occurred to me how much fluff was removed from the book because of this. Imagine if your only way to communicate was through writing! That back and forth conversation with your best friend written in the form of letters. That is the way to cut the fat of what we say! You don’t go to the trouble to beat around the bush. It’s trickier to hide behind small talk. Letter writing is intentional; nothing slips out. You speak as much by what you don’t say as by what you do. It revolutionized the conversation!

I found myself laughing out loud until my sides ached, holding back tears with a quivering lip and tight throat, and thinking upon the connections these characters made with the authors and books they read long, long after setting the book down. The poetry and stories lived on inside of them as this story will live on inside of me.

Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary (Illustrated) by [Flaubert, Gustave]The same book that introduced me to Tess of the D’Urbervilles has introduced me now to Madame Bovary. This is a book I am thankful for, not because of any enjoyment in the reading of it, but because it spoke so truly on things society would rather you ignore. Gustave Flaubert released his book to a shocked audience. For a woman of his time to seek enjoyment in lovers outside her marriage was unthinkable. But as Karen Swallow Prior says,

Books meet with disapproval because of their objectionable content. Wisdom, however, considers not only what a book says (its content), but how it says it (its form). Just as important- or perhaps more important than- whether a book contains questionable themes….is how those topics are portrayed. Are they presented truthfully in terms of their context and their consequences?…Discerning judgments of literature consider form as much as content, just as with any other art.

This book is not so much about adultery as it is about the difference between love and passion, the oppression that follows the consumer, and the isolation and futility of disenchantment with reality.  Do not come to this book for entertainment. It will not deliver you that; but if you come to seek the reality of love, the repercussions of bottomless desire, come. This book has saved many from the errors of its heroine.

Emma Bovary, were she to enter upon 21st century music, would have been a fan of The Darkness:

Love is only a feeling
(drifting away)

She would have sung it with gusto. She is a woman searching for love, finding it, losing it, searching again, finding, losing, ad infinitum. For her, love is a feeling; it is synonymous with passion.

As to Emma, she did not ask herself whether she loved. Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings—a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.

We see it all over: in music, in film, in literature, we even feed it by the spoonful to our children (enter Disney). Emma realizes in the weeks following her wedding the stark difference between her idea of love and the reality of it:

Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.

But rather than question her idea of love, she assumes her mistake was in the finding of it as opposed to its definition.

As to me, I have found love to be a number of things in my life. It takes shape in a myriad of ways. It is a Person, an action, a choice, and sometimes a feeling. Feelings, even the feeling of love, is fleeting. It is susceptible to changes in circumstance, evolving personhood, or even things as fickle as the lighting of a room, the time of day, the latest story to influence imagination, or the mood one happens to be in- everyone knows this. I have walked into my daughter’s room to watch her sleep and felt so full of love for her I could burst. But when I was up in the middle of the night nursing a screaming baby, I was not feeling the love. I didn’t love her any less than eight hours before, but the feeling was gone. The love was still there, it was the very thing motivating me to hold her gently, nurse her, sing and rock her back to sleep- despite the hour, despite the cold, despite the exhaustion. Love was a choice; love was my act.

We cling to this romanticized version of love because the story sounds prettier. Because we want to believe that something or someone can fulfill every desire, even though deep down we know (don’t we?) that love reveals itself not in self satisfaction but in service to others. That is why this novel is truly novel. Gustave takes our culture’s mistaken understanding of love and pursuit of self and presents it truthfully in terms of its context and consequences. The result isn’t pretty at all. It doesn’t start pretty, and it certainly doesn’t end pretty. And in this way, Gustave becomes an artist.

She was not happy—she never had been. Whence came this insufficiency in life—this instantaneous turning to decay of everything on which she leant?… nothing was worth the trouble of seeking it; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure satiety, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight.

I always want to advise the characters I’m reading, not because I am a wealth of wisdom, but because in them I can see parts of myself, but without blindness. I wanted to give Emma Bovary this piece of a poem from Hans Ostrom’s “This is the Gazelle Ghazal”:

This is the love affair, so raging it convinced itself it would last forever but ended.
This is the friendship, which began before it knew it began and will not end.

Emma, said my soul, you cannot force the feeling of love to do what it cannot- remain. Pursue a love for others that exceeds your love of self. Rather than become a student of fantasy, become a student of friendship. Find in your husband a friend, rather than a lover, and you may find that he becomes both.  Love is so much more than a feeling.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Image result for pictures of tess of the d'urbervilles I am currently reading a phenomenal book by Karen Swallow Prior in which each chapter brings the reader through her life like a memoir, but each chapter also centers around a piece of literature that shaped that life, that contributed something to her evolving identity, as good literature does, most especially in our very formative years. There are a few chapters that center on books I have not read, so as I get to those, I have stopped to read the books. That is how I came to this novel, written by Thomas Hardy in 1891.

It took me a while to start enjoying this book. I realized in the reading of it how much point of view really affects my ability to engage with the story. In the beginning, it felt like eavesdropping on the life of Tess. I could see what she did or what would happen to her, but I couldn’t see who she was. She seemed stoic, her thoughts and feelings hidden by a stony exterior. This made it hard for me to connect, so I didn’t. And then I met Angel Clare. If Tess is a charcoal sketch, Clare is a life size statue. In getting only rough images of her, he is a character you can walk right up to, look in the eyes, view from behind, take in the creases on a hand or the thought behind the brow. I connected immediately to him and began to enjoy the book. Still, as more and more characters are brought into the story, Hardy gives us more glimpses inside them than of our main character, choosing to keep her veiled for a good portion of the book. I found this so interesting as a writer, but it frustrated me as a reader.

This story is a tragedy, and you can feel the foreboding of it early on. There were times I wanted to throw down my book and plead with the characters to stop, to rethink their plan, to be brave and admit they were wrong, to surrender to the difficult and scary, but better choice before them.

This book was significant in that it presented a new understanding of purity, and that what made Tess pure was not her actions, but her will. Hardy wanted to show a woman who, though not a virgin, was pure in the real sense of the word, because she desired what was pure. The problem with this is that her will is veiled to the reader, and her actions are equivocal. In different editions of the novel, Hardy portrays different accounts of the first tragedy, ranging from full on rape to seduction. The edition I read leaned toward the latter. Nonetheless, Tess appears blameless, which is Hardy’s point. I loved this quote by Karen Swallow Prior on Tess’ tragic flaw: passivity.

This is why the ambiguous circumstances surrounding that night in The Chase are not important to her status as rape victim: whether she was taken by Alec through force or through seduction, equipped by neither nature nor circumstances to do otherwise, she passively succumbs to this fate. This passivity is both literal and symbolic: literal within the story’s plot and symbolic of her role as the archetypal tragic heroine victimized by a combination of her own choices and forces beyond her control. This is how Hardy could deem Tess as “pure” despite her “ruined” physical state: she does not will such a thing even as she does not know how to exert her will against it.

This not knowing how to exert her will against something happens on repeat throughout the story, constantly lowering her to circumstances she never chooses. But everything is a choice. Not making a choice is a choice. What was clear was that Tess did not want Alec, but he very much wanted her and was willing to use any opportunity he had to have her. Tess had no good choices on the night mentioned above. It seemed inevitable that Alec would use her. But isn’t there a great difference in how that happens and isn’t that Tess’ choice? It happens all throughout the story, not just with Alec, but with Clare too- Tess chooses not to exert her will. I have to wonder if it is because indifference is hidden beneath the weakness of her will. For all of her non-choices, she chooses to accept the very thing she doesn’t want. Then you get to the end and Tess finally wakes up from her stupor to decisively act. And what she chooses condemns her. She proves that there cannot be such a separation of will and action. The will should determine the action, and the strength of the will determines the action’s ability to endure.

Hardy, I have to disagree with you: where the will is good, but the action evil, what remains is guilt, not purity. A tragedy indeed.

The Phantom of the Opera

I was wearing a mask and a strapless black tuxedo dress and high heels. A man in a long nosed Venetian mask was playing the violin in a way I could watch and hear all night long. As I sat down at the table, placing my napkin in my lap, ready to hear all about Juvenile Diabetes, the thrilling dance scene from the masquerade ball in The Phantom of the Opera came on. It was beautiful and I was reminded that the movie lay on a shelf in my house, unseen, because I wanted to read the book first, which sat on another shelf in my house. When the night was over, having taken off my mask, trading my black dress for some pajamas, I climbed into bed with the book in hand and began.

Three days later I finished it and rewarded myself with the movie. This has been my most disappointing book in a long time, and for a classic too! It was released to American readers as a serial, much like The Count of Monte Cristo, which I had loved. It was a page turner- I wanted the riddle of the Opera Ghost to be solved, but much of my desire was based on the high expectation I have for classics that have withstood the test of time. I expected the ending to make it all worth it. But for me, and this may not be true for you, I have to resonate with at least one character. I have to be able to see the world as they do, to feel it as they do, to understand them as they understand themselves. I couldn’t do this with any character in the book. I didn’t understand the fascination Christine had for the OG, and was baffled by her behavior and Raoul’s continued dedication to her. In the end we finally glimpse the OG, know him as a real man, hear some of his story. There was a line after which I paused and for the first time felt something for the character. It was a singular event, not making the reading of three hundred pages worth it for one line’s worth of reflection.

Rewarding myself with the movie was like taking a steaming hot shower after going running on a summer afternoon in Texas. If you thought the book was bad…..see the movie. Or better yet skip them both: put on a mask, some high heels and a fancy dress, and dance the city down!

The Space Trilogy

I love C.S. Lewis. I am reading through the Chronicles of Narnia with my oldest daughter right now (we are on Prince Caspian) and I can’t get over how affecting his writing is to me: intellectually, spiritually, emotionally….I am moved. So as we are reading through Narnia together, I thought I could enjoy a little Lewis fiction all by myself and grabbed this trilogy. It was different than I expected in a number of ways, both for good and ill.

In all three of these books, Lewis made me experience what the character, usually Ransom, experiences. This was both a pleasure and a pain. It usually meant that things would drag on much longer than I wanted them to, getting a shadow of what the character himself was feeling. So that as Ransom grew weary, I did too. As he lost hope, so did I; as he struggled with bewilderment, I felt the same. Oh but then! When rescue and victory and rest finally came, I was rewarded with him! It takes time to write that way and to read that way. And for all the fatigue of the journey, I was grateful for it.

The first two books take place on different planets (Mars and Venus, respectively.) I grew attached to Ransom and the various creatures that he built relationships with on those planets. Their worlds were beautiful to me, as they were beautiful. I cherished their ways of life and was challenged (in my soul) by the struggle they faced. As I entered the third book, I was hungry for all things to be made right. And here my aversion kicked in. Maybe I anticipated an ending like The Last Battle, where final justice is perfectly metered and all is forever finished. Maybe it was the abrupt change in characters (Ransom took a minor role) or location (Earth). Maybe it was that I was hooked into the big picture that had been created and struggled to see how all of what was happening had anything to do with it. All three of the books took me by surprise a number of times, suddenly heading in a direction I had not foreseen. This was delightful until the third book. It was not all loss- there were ideas in the third book that I enjoyed working through. But the pleasure of the journey was not there. It ended in disappointment for having such a beautiful beginning.

I am grateful for C.S. Lewis and especially for the way in which he never wasted his writing. He used his imagination, his style, his time and place, to unite in words that spoke to belief and truth and beauty. It moves me, every time.


The Count of Monte Cristo

Product DetailsThis book has been on my shelf for eight years. Feeling a craving for some adventure, I pulled it down anxiously. It’s always strange to meet an original after having experienced an imitation. In this case, reading the book after having seen the movie. You go into it with characters already sketched in your mind; presuppositions are full to overflowing.

So I was shocked to find that the story is quite different than what I had thought. Several central characters were completely unknown to me, not having made any appearance in the movie. In fact, a majority of the book was entirely new and unexpected. What a treat! Even of the characters that I knew, or thought I knew, not one of them went the path of the movie. Not one was portrayed exactly. This led to quite a few surprises.

This is first and foremost an adventure story. It’s pace is fast. It doesn’t go into a lot of scenic detail or emotional diversion, even when I wanted it to. And though it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) realistic, I did appreciate the realness of the ending. Rather than being tied up in a pretty bow, as in the movie, where the Count walks away arm and arm with Mercedes, having gained a son, with no second thought to what he’s done. Because in reality, things can’t be undone. There is pain that doesn’t disappear. Not all can be made right here. Vengeance doesn’t deliver what it promises. So I love the lament of the Count:

Tell the angel who is going to watch over you, Morrel, to pray for a man who, like Satan, believed for one moment he was the equal of God, but who now acknowledges in all Christian humility that in God alone is supreme power and infinite wisdom. Her prayers will perhaps soothe the remorse in the depths of his heart.

And yet….not all is loss and sorrow. The resounding cry of the book is one of expectation: Wait and hope!