REVIEW: The Girl in the Blue Beret by Bobbie Ann Mason

During a dear friend’s visit she finished reading Bobbie Ann Mason’s The Girl in the Blue Beret and upon leaving thought I would enjoy it and left it for me to read. I had just finished Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety so although my expectation of historical fiction was high; I was also looking forward to a lighter read. Mason’s book is based on the true account of her late father-in-law’s experiences in WWII, but it’s mostly a modern day story with historical passages thrown in as the main character, Marshall, tries to come to terms with his past.

Marshall was a B-17 bomber pilot. His plane, the Dirty Lily, was shot down over Belgium during his 10th mission. He was rescued by members of the French Resistance and eventually made his way safely back to England and the U.S. Now 40 years later, forced into retirement and recently widowed, he moves to France to find those brave people that helped him.

Most of Mason’s historical passages come from published histories and interviews of WWII veterans and some from travelling to France herself and meeting with people who had been involved in the Resistance. She does a good job of letting the realness of those parts of the book stand on their own merit. She adds vivid visual details from her own time there that bring it all to life, both the past and the present.

Marshall’s search brings him closure of his long held guilt at not doing more during the war, at being finished after only 10 missions, at the loss of the crew members that didn’t survive the crash or ended up in POW camps. It also possibly brings him a second chance at love.

The most impactful part of Mason’s novel is the bravery and selflessness of the Resistance fighters. Young people who had to grow up too fast taking on adult responsibilities and average families already destitute by the war who risked their lives to protect bravado young Allied soldiers. Soldiers who they would harrowingly get back to safety while the French stayed under Nazi Occupation, we’re caught and executed, sent to labor camps or Holocaust camps where they endured well documented horrors. Unlike soldiers taken prisoner during the war, Geneva Convention rules didn’t apply to the captured French Resistance fighters.

Mason’s treatment of both the soldiers and the Resistance fighters in the novel is heartfelt and respectful of what they went through and how utterly it shaped their lives and personas in the modern day parts of the story. Her writing is direct with descriptive journeys and not a lot of sentimentality, stoic much like the way Marshall is portrayed. This is simply a story that needed telling and any frivolity would have detracted from it. Sometimes that’s exactly what a good book does.

REVIEW: The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Years ago I tried to read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova after a friend recommended it, but I just couldn’t get in to the story. I think I gave up about a third of the way in. I never bothered with The Swan Thieves and I only decided to read her newest book, The Shadow Land, because I currently live in Sofia.

I liked the book because I love Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people. I’ve been to many of the places she writes about and so much of it felt like home. I’ve met Bulgarians who really will drop what they’re doing to help a foreigner. In fact, the character Bobby could easily be based on a real Sofia taxi driver that many of us in the Ex-pat community know and love.

But I’m still not a fan of Kostova’s writing style. So much of it feels dumbed down and predictable. The main character, Alexandra, is a young American who has come to Bulgaria, a country that always intrigued her deceased brother, to teach English. She mixes up her luggage with someone else’s at a local hotel and in trying to give it back, a journey of intrigue ensues.

The parts of the story that involve her brother seem almost an afterthought and don’t really fit in. I suppose it is background meant to add depth to Alexandra, but that could just as easily have been accomplished with one of her heartfelt conversations with Bobby. It’s through those that we learn the most about her anyway and it’s the Bulgarians in the novel who have the real depth and offer the story that holds the reader’s attention.

The story alternates between the present and the past. We go back in time, when Bulgaria was communist, when life was a little more difficult, movement wasn’t quite so free and labor camps were a reality. In the present day, Bobby explains the political corruption (Transparency International recently named Bulgaria the most corrupt country in the E.U.) that still has a hold on his country and the concrete apartment blocks, overgrown parks with rusted out playgrounds, and empty factories leftover from the communist era. We travel to quaint villages where time seems to have stood still and through majestic mountains that rise about centuries-old monasteries.

Kostova clearly loves Bulgaria and when she focuses her novel on the country, its past and its present, that love practically jumps off the page into the reader’s heart. Read The Shadow Land for that – to fall in love with Bulgaria and its people.

 

 

Review: A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is probably my favorite historical fiction writer because she leans more heavily on historical facts than fiction. Her books always make me feel as if I’m back in a beloved history class reading stories of the past that enthrall me and make me want to learn more. A Place of Greater Safety was no different albeit it was long, 749 pages long, and at times felt just a bit of a slog.

The French Revolution. I had a vague knowledge of it. Mostly to do with Marie Antoinette and the Terror and sadly mostly through films. In reading Mantel’s interview with The Paris Review, they referenced her novel as one of the best books written on the subject. I immediately ordered it. Then it sat on my shelf waiting for a time when 749 pages would be doable. A very wet and stormy June allowed for that.

The novel starts with the childhoods of George Danton, Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins and it follows them through adulthood as the main orchestrators of the revolution and to their deaths at its waning. There are others in the background: their wives, their mistresses, Lafayette, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Jean-Paul Marat, Dr. Guillotine and even Grace Elliott. They add to the story and give depth to the main characters, but none of them play great roles in the telling. It’s the events themselves that are told in exquisite and vivid detail adding to the tension building from every act, every description, every included document, speech or letter, Mantel’s powerful voice leading us with great skill to the terror we know is coming. The writing is alive with it and holds your attention steadfast even through the slow parts. I wanted to be done with the book, but I didn’t want to miss a word of it.

“History is Fiction” – and in the case of A Place of Greater Safety – what dramatic fiction it is!

 

 

Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was first published in 1847 England. Readers and critics alike have been falling in love with the story ever since. It is British literature at its finest.

Young Jane is orphaned and sent to live with an unkind aunt and spiteful cousins. She is then shipped off to a rigid and poorly run boarding school managed by a pious bully. Think Oliver Twist.

Naturally all of this hardship is character building and she becomes a fine stoic young woman fit to serve as governess to a wealthy man’s charge.

Mr. Rochester is not only wealthy, he is strict and distant. He is intrigued by Jane’s strong will and intelligence. He soon invites her to evening conversations about books, current events and ideas. They slowly fall in love, but just as they are about to be married it comes to light that he is already married and his mad wife is locked up in the attic. Jane departs at once.

Time passes and she finds work as a teacher in a small village. She inherits a rather large sum of money. Mr. Rochester remains in her heart so she sets out for news of him. She learns his wife has died horrifically and he has been savagely injured in the process.

She marries him reader. And if that wasn’t happy ending enough, she learns the horrid aunt and cousins have come to ruin.

It’s hard not to love Jane Eyre, even if you aren’t partial to English literature or classics in general. The story is beautifully written and the reader is easily drawn to a very likable Jane.

 

Review: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Ove has rules. Because life has rules. At least it should. And people should follow them for God’s sake.

A few years ago I was visiting a cousin in Sweden and we got on the subject of books by Swedish authors. I had just finished The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and was telling her how much I’d enjoyed it. She said I should definitely read Fredrik Backman then. I made a mental note to add him to my lengthy list of authors I want to read. Now having just finished A Man Called Ove, I wish I’d taken her recommendation straight away and am looking forward to reading all of Backman’s other books that have been translated into English.

Ove is a 59 year old widower who’s just been forcedly retired. Might as well join the wife. He methodically sets about committing suicide. But the pesky new neighbors keep getting in the way. They need this help or that help and their kids keep treating him as if he were their grandpa for heaven’s sake. No one knows how to do anything anymore. What has the neighborhood come to.

So bit by bit Ove is entangled in the affairs of all his neighbors. Teaching one to drive. Taking another to the hospital. Adopting a homeless cat. Preventing the state from putting an Alzheimer patient away despite his wife’s wish for him to stay home. Easing the tension between a father and the son who he has kicked out of his home. Ove knows how to do things.

Of course he complains and mutters under his breath every step of the way. Hilariously so.  Ove is an over the top curmudgeon who will have you laughing out loud.

In between are chapters that take you back to when Ove was kid. His parents die when he’s still a boy. He loses the family home. He loses his job. Nothing seems to be going the way it should. Until he meets Sonja. The woman who becomes his wife and his light. Tragedy strikes again and again, but she never sees it that way and remains his light. Now if you didn’t already love Ove despite all his grumbling, these chapters would melt your heart and you would come to.

One of my dad’s favorite movies is Grumpy Old Men so halfway through the book I said to my dad, oh I wish you were a reader! Ove is so much like you that I know you’d enjoy this book. In outwardly Ove fashion he pointed out that he wasn’t a novel reader, but he read multiple newspapers. Every day. Every article. Point taken. Sorry dad. My younger brother’s a novel reader and he’s just as lovingly grumpy as my dad and Ove. Maybe I’ll tell him to read the book.

Men like Ove are rare gems. It’s nice to see them get the nod they deserve. They’d probably harrumph that, but it is. Thank you Backman.

REVIEW: Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea

Sometimes I pick up a book that’s been sitting on my TBR shelf for years and within a few pages, wonder why on earth I didn’t pick it up sooner. That happened with Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea.

In the depressed seaside town of Tres Camarones, Mexico, the men have long fled to the United States in search of work leaving the women to hold it together. Three of the women set off on a mission to bring seven Mexican men who can be policia or soldiers back to protect their town from banditos and to bring their town back to life. They take with them the delightful Tacho, the only man left in town.

Even in the current time of anti-immigration and talk of wall-building, the book strikes notes of rationality and human connections. Urrea does an excellent job of taking the reader on an illegal border crossing with the four main characters. The tone is jovial and adventure seeking with hope tossed in. They aren’t trying to live in the U.S. illegally, they simply want some of their own to come home. He sneaks in heavier themes that never feel that way. Tacho is gay and attracts unwanted attention bordering on abuse from some Mexican soldiers, their belongings are hi-jacked by a dishonest bus driver. We read about the ill-effects of NAFTA on the average Mexican, the filth and poverty of Tijuana in the midst of so many trying to cross over to perceived better opportunities, and the scourge that feeds off them, the lack of common sense among DHS border agents, the power of drug lords and their underground tunnels. The characters discuss their own illegal immigrants coming up from Central America and talk themselves of building a wall.

It’s all here, the deeper discussions for the reader to discern, but without judgment and without pressure. If you want an enjoyable light read, this story can be one. If you want something that makes you question your beliefs, this story can be that as well. Urrea has given his reader a wonderful gift. You decide how much you want unwrap.

REVIEW: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby Dick by Herman Melville is so iconic it’s hard to believe it was ever considered a failure. But it was, by many, when it was first published. Over 100 years later it is now routinely listed in the 100 greatest books ever written and often required reading in American Literature classes.

The book begins with Ishmael, the narrator, announcing he means to find and join a whaling vessel. He meets a harpooner from the South Pacific named Queequeg and together they obtain work on the Pequod, an intimidating whale ship in Nantucket.

They learn the Pequod has a mysterious captain, Ahab, who has a peg leg thanks to an encounter with a giant sperm whale, but they don’t yet meet him and aren’t put off by the warnings of experienced whalers. When they do finally meet him, they are inspired by his story and the gold prize he offers should they catch his nemesis Moby Dick.

The journey is long. While they sail, the reader is treated to page upon page of the technical details of sailing, whales and whaling and action filled pages of the hunt and capture of  other whales. Despite predictions of doom and warnings of disaster, Captain Ahab pushes them on through a typhoon and drownings of sailors in his revenge-filled quest. Finally, in the Indian Ocean, they find the whale of their purpose, Moby Dick himself. The battle is intense, boats are destroyed, the Pequod sinks and Ahab and his men are drowned. Only Ishmael survives.

It’s a story you probably know even if you’ve never read the book or seen any of the movies. But the tome is very much worth reading, through its lengthy seafaring passages, through Ahab’s soliloquies, as if you are as driven by the narrative as Captain Ahab is by vengeance. Melville’s well written themes of self-destruction and anthropomorphism are worth the reading time. The classic novel’s place among the top 100 is well deserved and its early critics proven wrong.