If you like WWII fiction, Linda insists you read All The Light We Cannot See

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When I fall in love with a book, I regurgitate cliches. It’s embarrassing.

“Oh, that book was great.” “Fantastic.” “Amazing.” “Soooooo good. You HAVE to read it.”

All The Light We Cannot See is fantastic and amazing and yes, you have to read it. Why? Because it’s great, that’s why.

But for those detail-oriented folks out there, here are multiple reasons to pick up Anthony Doerr’s  beautiful book:

1. The people: Our two characters are growing up hundreds of miles apart in pre-War Europe. Motherless Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father. She goes blind early in the story, but that doesn’t stop her from knowing every inch, every employee, ever pinned butterfly inside the Museum of Natural History, where her father works as a locksmith. Meanwhile, in the slowly-growing war machine that is Germany, there’s an orphan boy named Werner. Because he’s without parents or means to live, his destiny is to work in the same coal mine where his father died.  But as soon as you meet him, you know there’s so much more for him to do: “He captures snowflakes, tadpoles, hibernating frogs; he coaxes bread from bakers with none to sell; he regularly appears in the kitchen with fresh milk for the babies. He makes things too: paper boxes, crude biplanes, toy boats with working rudders.” How can you not root for Werner when you know in a few years the coal mines or the war  will be nipping at his heels?

2. Times and places:  The setting changes regularly throughout the entire novel.  Doerr makes a quick trip into  1944  during the first few chapters. Marie-Laure and Werner are young adults,and no, they have not met. They’re in the midst of unrelenting allied bombing over Saint-Malo,  a historic walled city on the Breton coast of France. It’s two months after D-Day and the Germans have retreated. Their backs are against the sea. A few short chapters later, when our characters are younger, the story retreats to 1934 . Werner’s got a damp, dirty industrial complex outside  his window  while in Paris Marie is at home or at work with her father.

3. The ‘Ah-ha! moment:  I’ve watched just as many WWII documentaries, programs and movies growing up as I did cartoons.  My Dad was a history teacher and a WWII veteran and there was always an ongoing, “What was it like during the war, Dad?” conversation floating around. I watched each episode of Combat, 12 O’Clock High, Victory at Sea and World at War  with the same question on my mind: how did this happen? How did the German people succumb to this madman? Now, thanks to this novel, I’m starting to get answers. It was the radio.

Werner survived in that orphanage because of the radio. He  found one in a storage shed, fixed it and began to listen to music and science lectures  broadcast all the way from France. He tinkered and experimented and kept his soul alive with knowledge tucked away during those science programs. It was the mid-1930s, and in between those elevating moments, he heard this: “Is it any wonder that courage, confidence and optimism in growing measure fill the German people? Is not the flame of a new faith rising from this sacrificial readiness.”  It’s no wonder, then, that Doerr used this quote to introduce his first chapter: “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.” –Joseph Goebbels.

4. The plot: You know the Germans will invade and conquer. Before they arrive in Paris Marie-Laure and her father flee the city and find refuge in Saint-Malo, where great Uncle Etienne lives. He is an emotionally-damaged WWI veteran who has remained indoors since he returned from battle. We discover that he’s got a radio transmitter in the attic. Hmm. The radio, again, contributes to the story.

As Werner grows he masters the inner workings of the radio. Eventually, he’s selected for military school where Nazi political doctrine and brutality are on full display. Those chapters were the most disturbing to read, especially how faculty isolated and then tested and punished the weakest among them. Another “Ah-ha” moment for me, I suppose. So this is how young SS officers were created, huh? Werner’s refuge was the science lab , but not even those perks will protect him from war on two fronts.

And with every page, the big question lingered: Will Marie-Laure and Werner ever cross paths? Will the war somehow throw them together?

Back in 2009 I read The Book Thief, and I thought that it would remain at the pinnacle of WWII fiction for a very long time. Five years later this book comes along.  Here’s what they have in common–both feature children living in dire circumstances who come of age during war. They do what they need to do to survive while trying to keep their humanity in tact. The Book Thief  was a sensation, but All The Light You Cannot See is every bit as good. It’s fantastic, amazing. You have to read it.

Kaitlin rematriculates with Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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Cath is a nerd. She wears a lot of cardigans and Converse, reads too much, and posts stuff online that may or may not get read.*1

Cath goes away to college with her twin sister, Wren, who couldn’t be more different from Cath. Wren is pretty and popular, and she soon makes a new best friend and hits the party circuit. Cath, on the other hand, eats protein bars in her room rather than ask a stranger how to get to the dining hall.*2

Fangirl verges on cliched when it deals in abandonment issues and book-nerd-turned-beauty (a la She’s All That), but there is so much depth in this novel. Cath is an amazing writer of fanfic. She spends most of her free time writing stories about fictional characters (think Harry Potter) and how they might exist outside of their novels. She’s witty. She cares deeply about her father, who is wonderful but manic. And when her beautiful, gothy roommate – at once hilariously mean and touchingly empathetic – introduces Cath to somebody who gets all the weird stuff about her, I couldn’t help but be so, so happy for them.

I loved this little book. It reminded me of what I felt when I went away to college, and how awesome it was to realize I had somebody who loved even all my nerdiest nerdness.

Rowell also wrote Eleanor and Park, another YA novel, and Landline, a work of adult fiction. You can check out those titles (and of course Fangirl) at the Bethel-Tulpehocken Library.

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*1. Though this sounds familiar, I can assure you that I was not the inspiration for this book.

*2. See 1.

Linda reads and raves about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

fikry     It’s a rare book-reading experience that includes the start and finish in one weekend, but that’s what happened to me with this one. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry clicked with the booklover  (and fantasy bookstore owner) inside of me.  There must be others who love books like I do and secretly dream about opening a little bookshop of our own, right? Well, the store is here. In this book.

Throw in a New England island,  quirky publishing sales rep,  sleazy brother-in-law novelist,  police chief who starts a book club for other law enforcement types, and a steady patter of book references and you’ve got one yummy reading experience that will be over too soon.

But wait. Look at the book cover closely and tell me what you notice in that basket. Yup. It is a small child with a book in her hands.

So, yes, there’s lots more to this story than the bookshop. Have I mentioned the cranky, snobby owner A.J.?  Sales are down, and he’s grumpy as ever. Granted, A.J. is a widower and drinks too much, so there’s a reason for his dark, gruff ways. But then his life is made over in an instant when this little tisket-tasket of humanity lands in the children’s book aisle. A.J. and a child? Eeesh.

I was enjoying the book a lot before this little one showed up, but once she was involved, the story really took off, like a booster rocket firing after the first 90 seconds of a space shuttle launch. I was thrust into the stratosphere as A.J. responds and reacts to the child. The book becomes impossible to put down at that point.

Booklovers, please make time for this one. I promise you’ll fly through it, and when you’re done, you’ll have an appetite for short stories, A.J.’s favorite form of literature. Each chapter begins with a review from him about pieces written by Roald Dahl,  Bret Harte,  F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Grace Paley and Irwin Shaw, among others. I’d only read one out the 13 included, which left me wanting to do the obvious—read.

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Linda walks like an Egyptian

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Reading this book  is as close as I’ll ever get to the Pyramids.  And that’s OK. I don’t possess the adventuress gene that’s required to step inside Egypt these days.  Anyhow,  after reading  The Visitors I plan on checking  this ancient destination off my to-do list.  Author Sally Beauman took me there.  At the right time too– 1922– the year archeologist Howard Carter found King Tut’s tomb.

My  guide was Lucy Payne, our young narrator,  who arrives in Cairo after losing her mother to typhoid. Lucy was stricken, but survived, and was sent to warmer climes to recover and regroup with Miss Mackenzie, her escort and caretaker.

Lucy and Miss “Mack” are two of more than 50 characters who populate the book.  At least 30 of the characters are based upon real people, which not only boosted my Egyptology IQ but gave the novel great historical heft. For example, I had heard of Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon but never grasped the whole story behind the archeological find of the 20th century.  Beauman  delivered all of those details and, for good measure, supplied important supporting players who were on the scene. I met Herbert Winlock, from the Metropolitian Museum of Art, his wife Helen and their daughter Frances, who becomes Lucy’s best friend and confidant. She included Egyptian antiquities officials, dig foremen and servants, too.  All real.

Beauman delayed the tomb discovery until the second half of the story, which was a tad frustrating to me. I became impatient and felt like  I was the one in the desert trudging through the sand.  l liked Lucy and Miss Mack and all the references to the Nile,  palm trees,  bazaars, the Sphinx, but I obsessed too much over what lay ahead. When Lucy’s Egyptian vacation ends, Beauman redirects the story to Cambridge where we can size up her father and new teacher/governess Nicola (think Miranda Priestly meets Anne Boleyn). Like it or not, those passages forced me to slow down, attend to our hard-luck narrator, and brace myself for all the action to come.

In due time our Lucy and Miss Mack return to a houseboat on the Nile and witness the tomb’s discovery first hand. In fact, they take a private excursion inside, and Beauman rendered those passages with lush description. She made me feel like I was  breathing  the same ancient dust as our excavators. There was also mystery and intrigue involving Carter, Carnarvon and Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn after the tomb was discovered. That was an unexpected bonus to the story and again, all based upon fact. The three of them sidestepped antiquities protocol, but I won’t divulge their misdeeds here. You’ll have to read that for yourself.

The Visitors will entertain anyone who dreams of Egypt or can envision life nearly a century ago when reporters traveled by train, boat and donkey to get the big story in the Valley of the Kings. A blurb on the back of the book said the novel was a combination of Death on the Nile (yes, a socialite is found dead in Cairo) and Downton Abbey. Carnarvon lives in Highclere Castle, where the Crawleys of Masterpiece Theater fame, reside.  It’s a cute way to describe the convergence of time,  place, characters, and events, but for me it was always about that tomb. Getting inside. And finding King Tut.

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Linda’s shares more with P.S. Duffy

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My interview with P.S. Duffy continues today. In Part 2 the author of  Cartographer of No Man’s Land tells us about her science writing at the Mayo Clinic, post-traumatic stress among returning WWI soldiers, and the strong sense of spirituality and religion that she inserts into her novel.  Angels on the battlefield? Read on.

1. You’re a science writer at the Mayo Clinic. What is it that you write about? There are many moments in the book when you describe birds or seascapes, and I sensed those passages came from someone who loved and respected the natural world. Would you agree there was a connection between your background in science and those parts of the book?

I would agree on several levels. My research was actually in neurological (e.g., stroke, head-injury, disease-based) communication disorders, and after I retired, I began writing in the neurosciences for Mayo Clinic. I now write/edit for Mayo’s Neural Engineering Laboratory, which is investigating biologic mechanisms of deep brain stimulation for neurologic/psychiatric disease. Although fiction and science seem at odds with one another, both are focused on the unknown and call on the imagination. Whether setting out an experiment or starting a poem or a book, there is the leap—a moment of hope and faith.  Both creative writing and science writing also demand precision of language and word choice. In fiction, I’m highly attuned to the rhythm of language and layers of meaning; in science to rigors of absolute, literal interpretation.

Regarding references to nature—birds and seascapes–these are part of me and of my growing up. My father, an Episcopalian theologian and philosopher, was a great observer of the natural world and extremely interested in science—especially physics and math (at which I am terrible!). Sailing with him, I learned to observe the patterns of wind, water, currents, sea birds, seaweed, dolphin, etc. You are always alert to the natural world on a boat.  And my mother shared my love of birds. I think I share with my father a poetic sense of wonder and the scientist’s urge to catalogue. I’ve tried to share those two takes with my grandsons on our trail walks—they can now name the birds and plants, and honestly, what could be better than seeing the natural world all over again through their fresh eyes?

2. A strong thread of spirituality/religion runs through this novel. Simon Peter’s name has strong Christian ties, and you include tales of angel sightings around the battlefields as well as efforts to contact the dead. Did soldiers really have these visions during the fog of war? And did you select the name Simon Peter for that reason?

That’s a very good question. In fact, there were many sightings of angels and other religious phenomena during the war. As on ships, superstition and hallucination/delusions were rampant in the trenches. Hundreds of British soldiers, for example, were convinced at the battle of Mons that they saw their fallen comrades in the skies above them.  “The Crucified Canadian” was believed to be true by Canadian troops. One of the best memoirs I read about the war was by Will R. Bird, who later became a well-known Canadian journalist. The book was titled Ghosts Have Warm Hands, a reference to his brother who had died in the war and came back from the dead twice to take Will Bird by the hand and rescue him.

Of the many other spiritual references in the book, some I was aware of like the hymns and the sense of a “knowing beyond our knowing,” and some I was unaware of, like Angus, Christ-like, washing the feet of the soldiers under his command. The subconscious has a way of taking over in the creative process! You mention the biblical implications of the name Simon Peter. That was the name of my grandfather, long dead, who left his home in Nova Scotia at age 16 and came to Boston, trailing his younger siblings. He was in many ways a very good man, but also a very bad one. I  think I might have used the name in an a sort of unconscious effort to rehabilitate him (!), for it was the name that came to me, unbidden.

3. You take on post-traumatic stress syndrome as well, although at the time the soldiers enduring this had limited psychological and psychiatric services available. Is it inevitable that a WWI novel has to touch upon this subject?

While writing fiction, you make conscious choices, but are just as often led by the characters or the story into unplanned territory. The term “post-traumatic stress” never occurred to me as I wrote, but by inhabiting the character of Angus, I was able to experience his reaction to battle.  Just as I didn’t set out to write a “World War I” novel, what happens to Angus was simply was the story I was telling. So I don’t know if a WW I novel must touch on the subject, but it makes sense. Every war brings these same readjustment issues, the recurring nightmares of experienced atrocities, of your part in them, and that lingering, heightened sense of vigilance. But WW I is particularly known for it (note that “shell shock” was the first reference to the concept of PTSD). Perhaps this is because  WW I was the first war fought by a citizens’ army, an army extremely naïve to what lay ahead, and perhaps, too, it is because WW I was the first war in which people realized that modern weaponry gave man the capacity to actually wipe out civilization—as echoed in the dystopian world-view of so much art and poetry immediately after the war.

4. The book’s chapters alternate between the soldiers’ world in France and life by the sea on the Canadian home front. I found the chapters back at Snag Harbor a welcome respite from the vivid war accounts.  Did those Canadian chapters offer relief to you as a writer as well?

Yes, they did. But I must say that the writing of the war chapters was not as hard on the soul as was reading about the war itself. It gave me a way to cope. I could be Angus and the other characters; I could act. I could feel the pain of loss, the terror of battle, but also the comfort of connection—whether to a comrade, a young boy at the front and his mother, or to a sunset above a trench, or a lark bravely making her nest in No Man’s Land.

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Kaitlin reviews “The Secret Life of Sleep” by Kat Duff

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I received this book for free through a Goodreads giveaway. Thank you! In no way did that influence my review.

I enjoyed Duff’s look at the phases, perspectives and mysteries of sleep. The scientific and experimental evidence was easy to understand, and Duff didn’t venture too far into her personal experiences, which is good. (In fact, I could’ve done without knowing about her dreams at all. If I can’t trust memories of my own dreams, why should I trust hers?)

Though some of what I read here I already knew, I found refreshing the information about cultural approaches to sleep. Duff explains that the American view of ideal sleep is one unbroken period that happens quickly and ends suddenly. In other cultures, though, people spend more time in repose, drifting in and out of sleep. I also was interested in the idea of what is “real,” the dream state or our mutually experienced “awake” state. Duff inspired me to spend more time relaxing and thinking about what I dream, because dreams are their own kind of reality.

Don’t worry – most of the book isn’t that kind of weird, hippie nonsense that weird hippies like me appreciate. That was just the part I found most unique, as I’ve read enough about sleep and the brain in the past to understand the phases of sleep, how sleep changes as we age, the memory filing that occurs while we sleep, etc.

A fun, quick read. This would be a good introduction for folks who haven’t approached the science of sleep before.

Linda interviews author P.S. Duffy

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P is for Penelope by the way.

And Penelope and I have exchanged a fair share of e-mails this summer to “talk” about her WWI novel, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land. I blogged about it last month and have recommended it to scores of friends and book lovers.  It sometimes feels odd to swoon over war books–makes me feel like one of those sword maidens on History Channel’s Vikings series. War is hard to love, but I continue to lavish praise for this one because Duffy so keenly balances recreations of trench warfare with great characters and moments of true beauty.

Because of the 100th anniversary of the Great War, I wanted to do more than blog about Duffy’s story of a sea captain/artist/soldier and his son at home in Nova Scotia. I wanted to know more about Duffy and all the work she must have put in before writing a single word. I also believed it was important to shine light on this war and its warriors.

My eight questions came back with rich detail, none of which I wanted to eliminate. So, in two parts, my chat with Penelope.   Here’s Part One.

1. Why a Canadian war story instead of an American or British one? The book jacket mentioned you spent summers in Nova Scotia as a child. Is that part of the reason?

It is the whole reason. The minute I arrived for the summer in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia at age ten, I felt I’d been there before–an unusual feeling for a child. And after that first summer, sailing around all the islands of that bay, in a rented boat with my father, I knew I’d write about it someday. Of course, back then I thought it would be a swashbuckling pirate story!

2. You must have immersed yourself in Canadian military history, maritime history, WWI history. The book is rich in battlefield detail and sailing terms and lingo. How long did it take to do your research, and did you ever feel overwhelmed by all the facts and maps, sails and ropes, weaponry and trench warfare?’

The research took about four years. I grew up sailing in Nova Scotia, absolutely loving it, and eventually had my own little boat—very much like the one Simon Peter helps build in the book, so I didn’t have to research sailing terms etc. I did, however, spend a lot of time at the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Lunenburg, N.S. to gather details on sailing/fishing in that era. The war research took longer. I read both primary and secondary materials and visited the battlefields of the Somme and Vimy Ridge in France. I spent time on the French coast and at the military library in Halifax, Nova Scotia. All of it helped the story evolve. I’m especially grateful to our local library here in Rochester, Minnesota, for providing me with materials on international interlibrary loan. And, you are right, it was sometimes hard to manage all the data and events of the war. I had intended to set the book after the war, but the more I researched it, the more I saw my characters in it, and it was their small acts of humanity that helped sustain me through the devastation I was reading about on a daily basis.

3. I felt like there are two heroes in this book–Angus, the father who leaves his family to join the fight and his son Simon Peter, who demonstrates great maturity, strength, talent and compassion to friends and family. Did you plan that in advance or did the characters evolve as you wrote? 

It wasn’t calculated; it happened organically. It was originally going to be Simon Peter’s book—in fact, I titled it “Simon Peter.” It was always going to be about the broken bond between him and his father, Angus, who suffered his own post-war demons. But recognizing that to understand Angus, I had to understand the war, things changed, and Angus became the second major protagonist. I love them both!  There was once a little sister, but I got rid of her because she ruined every scene she was in.

4. Angus is a boat captain, artist, and reluctant cartographer, and a rifle and bayonet just seem so incongruous to his way of life. Is that what you had in mind? 

Oh yes. Definitely. At the start of the book, Angus is sensitive and a lost soul. He could not begin to imagine himself in combat. His reasons for joining up are complex—far more than he realizes. He wants to make a stand against his father; he wants to do something heroic (find his wife’s missing brother); he wants to belong to a noble cause, and just belong to something larger than himself. But he never imagined he’d be in the front lines. He thought he’d be making maps. The title of the book is, of course, metaphoric, for he is the navigator of that uncertain, upturned ground, and the journey is one of finding his place in it and himself.

Next week: Part II

Duffy discusses her other life as a science writer and how themes of religion and spirituality float through her novel, just as they did on the front lines.

Kaitlin rambles about Russell Banks’s “Affliction”

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I want so badly to like Russell Banks. And really, I guess I do. I’ve now read three of his novels: Lost Memory of Skin, The Sweet Hereafter and this one (in that order). I gave each three out of five stars, though part of me felt stingy every time, while another part of me was like, “Why did I even finish reading this?”

Banks is a master at exposing the gravity of mundane situations. He takes normal people in small towns and shows that really bad things can happen to them suddenly, with nobody to blame. There it is – that’s what I like about him. He’s a master at creating real characters. There’s nothing I hate more than a book about “good guys” and “bad guys,” which is probably why I don’t read a lot of James Patterson. Lost Memory of Skin features a sympathetic pedophile, The Sweet Hereafter is about a school bus accident that rocks a quiet neighborhood, and this novel is about policeman Wade, whose sole goal in life is to not be like his alcoholic, abusive father but ends up…an abusive alcoholic. Just like his father.

There’s a weird kind of suspense in this novel. It’s suspenseful because of the atmosphere – it’s all dark and snowy and everybody is hunting deer, which seem to be constantly bleeding from the mouth (and you people make fun of me for eating tofu). Plus the narrator, Rolf (possible name for my first-born?), is telling Wade’s story, so you just KNOW something terrible happened to Wade. And it’s weird because like nothing seems to be happening, but then people start dying and Wade gets all paranoid and I felt like I had no choice but to keep reading.

Reading this made me uncomfortable, which is how I knew it was good. Wade is by no means a protagonist, but you can’t hate him, even when he makes his daughter cry or lashes out at his kind-hearted girlfriend. Somehow, it’s not his fault, and don’t we all just feel like things are beyond our control sometimes?

Banks will never be one of my favorite authors, but if you check back with me in a year, I’ll probably have read his 1995 work, Rule of the Bone. The man has a hold on me.

Linda reviews “The Cartographer of No Man’s Land”

nomanslandIt’s been 100 years since the start of WWI, so the time was right to read The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, historical fiction about a Canadian seaman-turned-WWI soldier and his family back home in a Nova Scotian fishing village.

I had planned to re-read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front to note the War’s centenary, but now I’m not sure I can. I’ll need some time in between P.S. Duffy’s compelling debut and the 1929 classic.  There’s a limit to how much mud, blood and death a soul can take.

The good thing about Cartographer, though, is that Duffy balances the vivid battle accounts with generous amounts of beauty.  I found beauty  in her characters and beauty in her descriptions of the natural world on both sides of the Atlantic.  For example, Angus, the soldier, enlists in order to search for his brother-in-law Ebbin, whose letters have ceased but who has not been declared missing or dead.  Angus is also an artist and plans to be safely behind enemy lines working as a cartographer in London. But warriors are needed more than mapmakers, and Angus is shifted to the front lines.   Instead of becoming hard and bitter, Angus brings a reassuring sense of calm and compassion to the trenches.

As much as I admired Angus, I liked his son Simon Peter  even more. Duffy colored him with  loyalty, kindness, intelligence and talent.  It was Simon who steadfastly defended his father while his pacifist grandfather railed against the war. It was Simon who poured tea for his mother and visited the school teacher to study Greek and talk about the world outside their small village.

Duffy’s day job, according to the book jacket, is science writing. I sensed that many of her descriptions of birds and butterflies or the waters off the coast were created by someone who loves the natural world. Whether she was detailing a lark roosting in a makeshift scarecrow on the battlefield or “the pounding seas, the flat calms, the rise and fall of swells,” Duffy had me believing she respected nature and needed to describe it with the right balance of precision and awe. Those life-affirming passages helped me catch my breath after her re-creations of attacks, bayonet thrusts, and explosions.

If it’s possible to love a book about war, then I suppose I do love this one. Angus’s odyssey through France searching for Ebbin and his survival of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, for example, were heart-pounding and heartbreaking.  All the while Simon Peter was coming of age  at home without his father.  In the midst of going to school, helping at home, and  honing his own skills as student , sailor, and artist, he kept a vigil for Angus’s return. The stories of both father and son touched me deeply.  And haunt me still.vimy

Linda reviews “The Interestings”

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In between the dedication page and the first chapter of The Interestings there is a page with two quotes that foreshadow Meg Wolitzer’s big themes for the book. Naturally, I ignored them, as so many quotes that introduce novels baffle me.

Last night @ 1:53 a.m. I finished this superbly crafted novel and rediscovered the quotes, which I read with newfound clarity:

From “Bob Dylan’s Dream”:

“While riding on a train goin’  west I fell asleep for to take my rest

I dreamed a dream that made me sad concerning myself and the first few friends I had.”

There it is.  In a nutshell.  The Interestings is a book about old friends and how their lives and friendships change over time.  Some people stay. Some go.  And sadly, loyalty and dedication shift as careers and fortunes evolve. I noticed some reviewers on Goodreads hated the book because not enough happened or it was just about life. Hmm. The characters’ lives seemed full and at times exotic to me. Bustling New York streets, trips to Europe, celebrity sightings, dreams materializing. Life was good enough for me.

The “interestings” gather at an arts camp in 1974. Five of them live upper-class lives in New York City. Julie, soon to be known as Jules (so cool to have a name change at age 15), lives in the ‘burbs and attends camp on scholarship. She’s middle class, quirky, not too pretty, but somehow gets their attention because she’s funny.  So she’s in. With the in crowd. There’s the son of a famous folk singer, a beautiful brother-sister duo, the kid who draws amazing cartoons and the dancer. How frizzy-haired Jules keeps up is a credit to her quick mind, comedic talents, and eagerness to reject her own dull home life.

That second quote from the intro: “…..to own only a little talent….was an awful, plaguing thing….being only a  little special meant you expected too much, most of the time.”

Talent. It’s Wolitzer’s second theme. Which “interesting” will most successfully tap into his/her God-given talent and finish strong? Who gains fame? Who among the group drops out?  I was absorbed reading how the characters’ talents whittled away at their ability to stay close and connected.

Here’s the bottom line for me. Aside from our age, I had nothing in common with these people.  Our upbringing, class, politics, education and talents were miles apart, but Wolitzer made me care deeply about them. She made me believe they were real, and that they were walking around the Village or the Upper East Side doing their thing. I love when that happens–when it all feels so real. The other thing I love is when those real characters experience something we’ve lived in our own lives. I wasn’t born to a banker or schooled at Yale, but I can relate to friends entering and exiting my life. It was–for lack of a better term– interesting to observe how others–even fictional others–handled that sad but inevitable part of life.