SPOILERS ALL OVER THE TOWN IN THIS REVIEW (Okay you have been warned).
This book is amazingly clever. Truly. How the beginning and the end tie together is one of those great “oh wow!” reading moments that are really fun (and rare) when they happen.
The novel opens with Melanie, a young girl, who lives in a cell. Each morning, armed guards come into her cell and strap her down in a chair and take her to her classroom with other children also strapped in chairs. No one touches her, no one hugs her, and the guns and harsh reprimands seem to indicate that she is different from the people who guard her.
But one teacher, Ms. Justineau, seems to like Melanie and Melanie looks forward to the days when Ms. Justineau is in the classroom. She reads the children stories, answers their questions, and seem to genuinely care about Melanie. And life would have continued this way, but then Melanie is taken beyond the steel door at the end of the hall.
On the other side of the door, Melanie finds herself in the laboratory with clear plans on the part of the cold and calculating doctor that she be dissected and placed in jars. At the moment that a scalpel is at Melanie’s head, the army base (as we find out) is attacked and zombies or “hungries” swarm into the clinic and begin attacking. It is in this attack and the stopping a man from attacking Ms. Justineau that Melanie begins to realize what she is. A hungry. But a different hungry. A thinking, talking, feeling hungry. And so the question for the humans that remain, after a fungus has turned so many into hungries, is why are these children and specifically Melanie different? Will she lead to a cure that could save everyone? And that is all I will give away here.
In truth, the middle of this book made me a little road-weary and in parts felt a bit like “The Walking Dead.” But, overall this book is a brilliant take on the genre. The depth of the characters, the struggle of defining what makes us human, the pain of our pasts all are interwoven into what otherwise could have been a stereotypical apocalyptic-zombie book.
And all of that said, I am also proud of myself that I made it through an entire sci-fi book without even an eye-roll. So there’s that.
This book, like approximately 60% of any book being published right now, is set during World War II. While I do understand that WWII as a device is extremely compelling for writers I wonder when this trend will begin to tamper off. Honestly, it is getting a little wearisome. And this was my mind-set when I started “Lilac Girls” – oh look another WWII book. Which is too bad because this book is well researched, well written and two of the characters are based on real people. Unfortunately, at the time I read this book I did not know it was based on real people. So please forgive my assumptions which will be included in this review for your amusement.
The novel covers the life of three woman during WWII, dedicating each Chapter to one of the woman and the story flits back and forth. There is Caroline, a former broadway actress and blue-blooded New Englander, who lives in New York City and volunteers her time for the French Consulate helping French orphans. Across the ocean, Kasia Kuzmerick is living in Poland and is one-quarter Jewish when the Nazis invade her town. Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor looking for employment and a way to be independent and financially secure.
The three lives come together in both harrowing and beautiful ways. Kasia becomes a part of the Polish resistance, only to eventually be taken to Ravensbrück when captured by the SS. Herta finds a position at a wonderful spa-like resort (also Ravensbrück) doing medical experiments on political prisoners, including Kasia which she seems to excuse by the mind-set that are meant to be executed anyway. And Caroline falls in love with a married man, prunes lilacs and after the war raises money for the women who suffered from the experiments of Dr. Herta Oberheuser.
As apparent by my description, as I read the book, I found Caroline’s story to be the least interesting and the most drawn out. Again, I had no idea this was based on a real life, so I was a bit confused as to why this character’s story mattered. Now that I am not as ignorant as I was before realize that Kelly had some limitations here with Caroline. Her real story does indeed have a lot of parts to it, as most lives do, and I admire Kelly for trying to write so much about Caroline. She was quite the hero in multiple ways through-out the war but particularly in helping the women who had cruelly suffered both medically and psychologically from the camps. So I am that jerk who feels like her story lags a bit (I really am sorry about that).
I do think one of the short-comings of the book is Herta’s story. At the beginning, Kelly seems committed to examining Herta’s choices and explaining how she ended up becoming who she was and doing what she did. But in the middle of the book, Herta’s voice seems to end. I am unclear if Kelly wrote chapters here that were removed or if she just felt like she couldn’t push that envelope further. Either way, it seems that it would have been interesting to follow Herta through her arrest and her time in prison to her release and reentry into society. If the book starts with these three stories then it seems disjointed that it somehow become two stories instead.
To Kelly’s credit, this first book is quite a feat. I will also admit I came to this book with assumptions and a bit of an attitude. Needless to say, Kelly as a writer has my attention and I look forward to her next book.
But seriously writers, there really are other wars to write about. I promise…
I need to admit that I “read” this book by listening to it on audible.com. And yes, that is kind of a shameless plug for audible.com because now I am addicted and childishly excited when it is time for my monthly audible credit. In my house yesterday was called “Audible Tuesday.” Okay plug over.
This memoir is about Jenny Lawson’s struggle with depression, anxiety, an auto-ammune disorder, and a number of other things that make life a bit of a challenge. But those challenges in Lawson’s hands are hilarious. Between explaining how the TSA is just collecting things for the zombie apocalypse to how God made the appendix to her love for taxidermy, Lawson takes those things that occupy her life and mind, in that endless cycle that all those who suffer from anxiety understand, and makes it funny and poignant and then funny again. It is a rare art form.
She admits that life is sloppy and scary, that self-sabotage is easy to do. But Lawson is also able to look at life in way that makes even the biggest issues seem manageable. And as someone who can obsess about how it is even logistically possible to get my bag from one plane to another in a twenty minute lay-over or who finds herself staring at a book shelf for longer than I care to admit thinking about how important a new book lay-out might be for my sanity, I appreciate Lawson’s take on things. Yes, things could be easier without all of the things that Lawson faces, but just because it is easier doesn’t mean it is necessarily better.
This book is likely not for the easily offended or for the parent who finds every moment of parenting sacred and magical (do those people exist?) or for the person who is completely sane (do those people exist?). But for the rest of us fumbling through life, anxiety-ridden, and worried about how many pens we have on hand, this book is for us.
I know it has been 9 months since my last book review and I am sure you have frequently, if not daily, thought “how can I know what to read? How can I go on?” So never fear. I am back.
I have still been reading, I just seem to not have gotten around to blogging about it. But let’s ease back into it with a list – phew, I don’t want to dig too deep this time around. I have read some good things and some not so good but here are some fun reads I fell into:
- “Sweetbitter” by Stephanie Danler: This book is getting a lot of press and for good reason. This lady can write. It is beautifully done. The story of Tess leaving behind small-town Ohio, landing in New York City, and getting a job at a high-end restaurant is all consuming for both her and the reader. The description of tastes, the world of dining behind the scenes, hot kitchens, and copious amounts of drug-use are all spot on. I didn’t as much find the over-arching story as interesting as everything else, but that really is not the most important thing about this book. It is that good.
- “Eligible” by Curtis Sittenfeld: Let me say I hate reimagined books. This retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” made me cringe but it was Sittenfeld so I had to try. And honestly, it was really fun. The Bennetts are living in Cincinnati, Ohio (Ohio is so popular). They are overextended and double mortgaged. There are Bingley and Darcy, rich surgeons, who have just relocated from LA to work in the Cincinnati region. Lydia and Kitty are cross-fit fanatics. All of the Austen characters fall right into our current culture and it is a great fit.
- “The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George: The story of Monsieur Perdu who is the apothecary of books to heal is so wonderful and made me smile (and tear up) often. I have also decided that surely it is reasonable to believe that someday I too will own a barge of books that I can travel with from Paris to Provence. This will happen…probably.
- “Triptych” by Karin Slaughter: I have no idea how I am just stumbling onto this author but her suspense writing is so, so good. She is coming to speak at my local library next week so I started reading her books and all of them are fun. Her writing is very, very graphic so it is not for the faint of heart but for suspense novels these are some of my favorites I have read. “Triptych” has been my favorite so far out of all of them. I also loved “All the Pretty Girls” and “Cowtown.”
Someday I will get up the courage to post about “Hillbilly Elegy” which made me yell at the author when I finished. Although the author was not in the room, and likely could not care less about my opinion, I wished he had been in the room hearing my strongly worded opinions because great gravy, that book was so frustrating. As an aside, feel free to use “great gravy “as you see fit. An aside to the aside, if you are under the age of 70 you probably should never see fit to use that phrase.
Okay, keep on reading. And most importantly, happy autumn!!!!!
I am a notorious last minute shopper. In my childless days, I prided myself on getting all my Christmas shopping done in one day. And that day was Christmas Eve. Now that I have children I am a bit more proactive but I still enjoy waiting until at least the latter half of December to get started.
Books are always my favorite gift to get (and maybe new Hunter boots *hint, hint to the husband*). So, for my fellow procrastinators here is a bit of help for your holiday shopping lists.
- General Fiction:
- “Fates and Furies” by Lauren Groff: The story is told from two sides of a marriage. It is about the versions of ourselves we show each other and the pieces we keep hidden. It is extremely well written and one of my favorites of the year.
- “The Lake House” by Kate Morton: Morton keeps doing what she does well, a bit of a story of the past with the present trying to make sense of what has happened. This book is fun and a lighter read than “Fates and Furies.”
- “Everything I never Told You” by Celeste Ng: I reviewed this one before but it is worth restating that this is an amazing book.
- “We are not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas: A heartbreaking story about Alzheimers but well worth the read…and the tears.
- Love story:
- “A Desparate Fortune” by Susannah Kearsley – I love this author. I heard her speak earlier this year and she is funny, smart and very down to earth. This book is not completely a love story – there is some mystery to it – but it has all of the elements of romance that Kearsley does so well and it is set in Wales. So what is not to love?
- Start someone on the Louise Penny Detective Gamache series. I can’t say enough about how great this series is.
- “The Winter People” by Jennifer McMahon: This book scared me to death. The end was a little predictable but it is still was very fun.
- “The Weight of Blood” by Laura McHugh: This was a page turner for me and the narrator, sixteen year old Lucy, was one of my favorite characters in my reading this year.
- Science Fiction
- “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel: Another post-apoclyptic book but well done. The author does a great job of tying all the characters in the book together. Though as some have noted the end is a bit abrupt.
- “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson: This is tough read because it is so shocking. Stevenson is an attorney working on appeals for death row inmates. The stories of how easily African -American males can end up on death row is harrowing. But this book is an important read for everyone.
- “Furiously Happy” by Jenny Lawson: This book is not for the easily offended but it is amazingly hilarious. Lawson talks about her struggles with mental illness and physical hurtles as well as the inevitable zombie apocalypse and the use of taxodomery in daily life. I listened to this on audible.com and the author’s reading of this book made me cry I laughed so hard.
Alright my friends, good luck with your last minute shopping. I will likely see you out and about.
And have a Happy, Happy Christmas!
This author is just good. He is a great storyteller and his writing is well suited for the story. But his writing goes deeper than that – you can see in his writing that this author has a story all his own. I really liked his book “The Healing” and was happy to come across this book at my favorite local book store The Book Loft (little plug for the independent bookstore).
Don’t be fooled by the summary, this is a story you think you have read before, but it just isn’t. Is the late 1940s and Hazel is a poor, white trash Southerner. She is plain and stooped and doomed to be a farmer’s wife. But convinced she is destined for more, Hazel teaches herself how to stand up straight, how to apply make-up, how to do her hair just so. And so she becomes the desirable woman that Floyd is looking for when he walks into local Dairy Barn Diner. Floyd sweeps Hazel off her feet. They marry and move to Delta, Mississippi where, through the power of positive thinking, he is going to make all of their dreams come true. By the 1950s, Hazel has two children, a house bigger than she ever dreamed, and a hole inside of her that she just can’t seem to fill. And so, she drives around town and all over the countryside with her two boys in the back and a flask of whiskey in her lap.
By the time, Vida is hired as the housekeeper, Hazel has lost one son to an unfortunate jump off the porch and has been hospitalized multiple times for nervous breakdowns. And while Hazel’s story is a sad one, it pales in comparison to Vida’s, which is not unlike the story of many Southern black women growing up in the 1940s and 50s. She is a woman who was raped by the white sheriff, lost her son (who looked too much like the sheriff), and then lost her home. Because of this, Vida has replaced her sense of self and her security (what little there was) with a quiet but deep-seeded rage. It is an interesting parallel. While one woman, Hazel, is trying to fill a void that is slowing killing her, the other is trying to find an outlet for her rage that she is willing to let destroy her as long as she gets revenge.
The way Vida and Hazel’s lives intersect is not an unusual story, black housekeeper working for a sad rich, white lady, but their need for each other is what makes the story more interesting than others of its ilk. The white woman doesn’t save the black woman here. Or really vice versa. But they do help each other accomplish what they need to in order to fill those holes in themselves that were slowly and methodically destroying them. That combination makes the story powerful and worthy of telling.
As in “The Healing,” Odell spends a lot of time with his female characters. And, not even just for a male writer, he excels at it. I recently heard Gillian Flyn (author of “Gone Girl”) speak and she said that sometimes when writing from the female prospective, male authors really push it. And then you are stuck with some ridiculous line like “and then I got my period” so you can feel like the male author really knows women. But Odell does not need to rely on the triteness of this kind of writing, because quite frankly he is skilled – and that, perhaps sadly, is refreshing.
The topic is a tough one. Let’s be honest here, how much whining can a rich white woman do – particularly in the presence of such extreme racism in the 1950s South? But somehow, because of the way Hazel pulls out of her slump to help the black women in her community, the reader can feel okay about Hazel’s hardships. And as always, Odell’s afterward is key to the story. We haven’t heard enough about women in the Civil Rights movement. Great numbers of women boycotted buses, suffered beatings and rapes and police dogs. They linked arms and walked to demeaning jobs in white households, sometimes just to spy on their employers to forward the equality movement. They have stories and those stories are important. As Odell so insightfully points out, Mrs. Parks, on the day that she refused to move on that bus, “showed a million women where to plant their feet.” And they did, time and time again. I can only hope, when the time comes, we all have the courage to do the same.
As for Jonathan Odell, I just hope he keeps writing.
One of our favorite American writers gone wrong is Edgar Allan Poe. His stories are haunting but maybe equally as
interesting is his bizarre marriage to his 13-year-old cousin and his death which is surrounded by urban legends of drunkenness, being found homeless in the street, etc. “Mrs. Poe” is Cullen’s historical fiction novel about Poe’s affair with the little known poet Frances Osgood. It all should be the formula for a pretty intriguing book. But somehow Cullen is deftly able to skirt the intrigue and make this book a mundane and strangely redundant story.
In 1845, Poe had become quite popular with his publishing of “The Raven.” His wife, Virginia, was suffering from declining health as she and Poe made the rounds of the literary circles in New York City. Like the Poes, Frances Osgood spent many evenings socializing in parlors with Whitman, Atwood and a whole other host of literary giants when she finally met Poe. Frances and Poe seemed to have an immediate connection. While Frances is married, her husband is a well-known philandering artist. She is lonely and destitute, hoping to publish some of her work. She and Poe form a fast friendship which quickly grows into more.
There are clandestine meetings where gloves are left behind, whispers in crowded rooms, jealous spouses, gossiping neighbors. And then there are more clandestine meetings, more rumors, love poems exchanged, societal gossip, some weird behavior by Poe’s wife, etc. If you read the first one hundred pages of this book, you really can either read those pages again or read the second 200 pages because it is really all the same. I hope I don’t ruin anything by sharing that they all do die at some point, so the cycle does end…eventually.
I am not trying to diminish the research and work Cullen must have put into this book, but truly it is baffling how she has made her characters so predictably repetitive and mundane. I have a young adolescent crush on Poe. He was one of the first writers I read that really scared me. And the man himself has always been a bit of a puzzle. But this book is just more of a curiosity then an insight into who Poe was. I guess sometimes the riddle of the writer is best left alone.
*The unanswered riddle from “Alice in Wonderland”