Mid-Month Reading: Such an Extraordinary bunch of books I couldn’t wait any longer to tell you about them!

What a fabulous reading month!!!! THREE, count ’em, THREE that are MUSTS.….(Though these are not listed in any order–just the order I typed them. They are equally brilliant to me).

truthofusWhen a wealthy Senator’s daughter is forced to take the “Pauper’s Pledge” and work for the W.P.A. Writer’s Project in Macedonia, West Virginia, you might expect predictable rubes and hillbillies to populate the story. But, you’d be wrong–way wrong. Just as she brought wartime in the Isle of Guernsey to life, so Annie Barrows now brings small town West Virginia to life. And how!

Layla Beck, daughter of a Delaware senator, has never worked a day in her life. She was “finished” not “educated” and her life has been that of a typical husband-hunting debutante until she arrives meets Willa, Felix, Jotty and Emmet Romeyn–the family she boards with while writing a history of their town.

Coming-of-age happens throughout a life. This book shares the coming-of-age, in one way or another, of nearly every character. The story is peopled with characters so finely drawn, so vividly described and so accurately voiced that you’ll carry them in your hearts forever.  The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows.

ParisWow! Meg Waite Clayton has written her best book ever. Liv and Jane are reporters chafing at restrictions and trying to get to Paris for the liberation of the city.

These are REAL women–real to me and they will be real to you as well. These are the type women the independent, well read ladies of my family would have been in life, given half a chance. They are women I now truly admire and who cares if they are fictional.The way they set their goal, endure what must be endured and rise to the challenge required to reach it is the sort of Can Do spirit that only the strongest of women have and use.

Nothing in this book sounds an “off” note. It all rings true, authentic, believable. It was like being along for the ride. I ducked and winced at gunfire, had my bones jarred on jeep rides and nearly wet myself in that forest along with them.The only sad thing is the length–I wish publishers would get over the Tyranny of the 300 page book club limit and let authors like Ms. Clayton write grand sweeping books again. I wouldn’t have put this down if it had been 1000 pages. All I can say to Ms Clayton is MORE LIKE THIS!!!  The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton

circleBeryl Markham, who enjoyed another burst of popularity in the late 1980s, is one of those “colorful” figures part legend, part reality, but mostly real, in Jazz Age history. Kenya pre-Independence and pre-WWII was the preserve of daring aristocrats trying to recreate the great estates of England in the highlands of East Africa. The louche Happy Valley set are the ones mostly receiving attention–and they come to light here, too.

But Beryl was a different sort all together. Raised with the local children, allowed to run wild and hunt with native boys, she came into her femininity much later and in her own unique way.  Dumped first by her mother as a child and then by her father as a teen, she made rode her own path, made her own success–always owning her own failures, too. She was part wild child, part African warrior, part creative genius–a master at living by her wits. She was also deeply flawed in ways familiar to anyone who has worked with abandoned children. Her egocentricity shines through as brightly as the jewels shimmering on the Colonial Mem Sahibs at the Muthiaga Club dinners she often chose to attend in slacks.

Her love triangle with Out of Africa’s Karen Blixen and Dennis Finch-Hatton is perhaps the best-known part of her life. But I loved the way Ms. McLain brought an endearing sweetness to Prince Harry–the younger brother of the glamorous Edward VII (Duke of Windsor) and of George, Duke of Kent who would find his drug addiction in Happy Valley. Harry is usually the forgotten brother–the quiet or “dull” one in the English meaning of not very bright. I loved the humanity she gave him–the tenderness that gave no hint of anything more than Beryl claimed. Just a decent friend who stood by her and such an awful moment in a mother’s life.

I’ve lived near Kenya in a small expatriate community like Beryl endured, read masses of British social history–especially in this time period, helped prepare for a Royal visit (Princess Anne), had very close relationships with Ngoni men, studied the history of East Africa, read Out of Africa and other colonial-era classics as well as literature by African writers. Like the racehorses in Beryl’s stable, Ms McLain never puts a foot wrong in this marvel of a tale.

Instead of remaking Out of Africa, I hope this becomes a blockbuster movie or mega-hit BBC tv mini-series and that Ms MClain has a fabulous ball-breaking lawyer who secures complete approval for her on script, costumes, casting, locations, music–you name it. It will be sensational. An African Downton Abbey only better. But please? Ask Robert Bathhurst to be Lord Delamare. He’d be perfect–he’d epitomize the caring “D” did for Beryl in the story. Circling the Sun by Paula McLain.

The rest of the first half of September–not a bad book yet!

indigoHilary McKay’s Casson Family is a new favorite of mine. I discovered them last year and am loving them! They’re the sort of family I imagined having. Everyone doing creative things–their own thing, but meeting up and making meals for each other and discussing the books, paintings and ideas they are enjoying, but most of all, caring about each other. Only son Indigo is at an awkward age–an age I know only too well as a parent. With father Bill off in London being both a bit posh and a real artists and Mum Eve holed up in the garden shed cum artsy “she cave” painting portraits of other folks’ long-dead pets–perhaps to pay mundane un-artsty things like electric bills, perhaps because she is parked with four kids in a mid-sized town where the state [public] schools are decent so Bill doesn’t need to shell out for school fess. Perhaps because she misses the husband who seems to be growing away from them all. Whatever the reason for the parent’s hibernating in their respective “dens” it’s left Indigo and little sister Rose needing a friend. Ball-bouncing, guitar playing, bully-baiting American Tom soon fits the bill.  Tom, too, it seems, has a bit of distance problem from his father–so much so that he’s chosen to come to England and live with his Grandmother for a while. The story is pure Casson and pure great reading. Like the Penderwicks, this is a modern family that cares, but a modern family that deals with normal modern family difficulties in ways appropriate for the target age group. No one goes off the rails and does drugs or anything like that. Can’t wait for the third book–which since I’m late to this series, is already available. Don’t let the idea of “children’s book” put you off–this series is a great read.  Indigo’s Star by Hilary McKay.

germanThis is the first of the books on my self-assigned “school year” list that I’ve finished. It is so poignant (you likely knew that) and so timely (maybe you knew that, too).

“I wish people would have stood up to Hitler,” I said.

“Some people did, but not many. My father chose acquiescence and life rather than resistance and death. Not a very admirable choice, but a very human one.” (p. 91)

While it is impossible to read those words and not see the death camp images seared into the collective brain of the world, it makes me squirm to read them and think that people are again making life or death choices–not in an organized, systematic way personified by the camps, but one-by-one to convert, to flee, to die. Europe is again awash in refugees–for the too-many-th-time. As I read this story of a Jewish girl not quite seeing things as an adult would–hearing the words, but not knowing them in her gut, I thought of the young people in the camps (and those in the Armenian genocide the proceeded the Nazis), the young people who lived under Pol Pot, or in Rwanda or under Milosivic and…today…the Syrian Christians, the young people trying to make sense in the face of unfathomable cruelty at any time in history. Young people wanting something just their own. Wanting their own sort of justice. To exhibit their own kind of caring.

This was a hard book to read–Patty’s father, the FBI, the times, the town, the injustice done to all Jews, the hard lives of Jews anywhere in America outside a few big cities, the death of “our boys” in the “Good War,” it’s all part of what makes this a hard book–but also what makes it so darned hard to put down.

This book came out when I was in school, but I did not read it way back then in the 1970s. I hope teachers will pull it out, ignore the 70s cover and the Scotch tape holding some copies together–I hope they’ll assign it anew. Let the young feel pain, explore justice and to talk about their own sort of caring. I hope those teachers will have cross-cultural couples come in and talk–old ones, young ones. I hope they’ll have returned Peace Corps volunteers and missionaries come speak. I hope they will show them art work from the camps, music from Rwanda and outrage in all forms of art. I hope they’ll talk about being oppressed in the starkest of terms: When it is choose “us” or die. Oh, yes, Mommies will be self-righteous and object.I’m sure trauma counselors will need to be on-call. Get them now and teach them now. Use this book and others to do it. To teach them to do the right thing. To admire those who do the right thing. To not be afraid to walk in the right.

Note: This book was written before politically correct speech. The N word and a variation thereof are in it. It depicts a time when those words were freely used and a time in which those using it were unconcerned with the pain they inflicted in doing so.

NeverOn my old blog I reviewed Claire Cook’s fun novel The Wildwater Walking Club.This month I read her very helpful “reinvention” guide: Never Too Late: Your Roadmap to Reinvention. It was well worth the small cost for the Kindle version. I took notes, said “yep” and “Amen” throughout and came away feeling the book was written to me PERSONALLY because it is so well targeted at what I’m trying to do in my life right now. That Claire began writing as a Mom sitting in a parking lot waiting for her kid to finish pre-dawn swim practice just takes a whole lot of excuses away! No, I really don’t need the complete office on page 14 of the Pottery Barn catalog or that super-cute antique book skin for the MacBook I don’t own to actually write. Well, I’ve already proved that, but part of me keeps wishing, hoping–in short procrastinating on my dream. This book, with its wealth of short references to other successful reinventions, has motivated me to keep on keeping on. I want to do what I set out to do–write and publish my novels. If you are looking, for whatever reason, to reinvent your life do yourself a favor and start with this book.

What have you read so far this month? Leave me a comment–I’d love to hear from you.

4 thoughts on “Mid-Month Reading: Such an Extraordinary bunch of books I couldn’t wait any longer to tell you about them!

Add yours

  1. I so enjoy these! Only problem is, I end up wanting to read so many of them and I do not read as quickly as you … love you quote “Coming-of-age happens throughout a life” — so true. The Casson family sounds familiar — I think I’ve read the original of the series? Heard of “German Soldier,” haven’t read — yet. “Race for Paris” does sound wonderful. This a.m. I finished Pioneer Girl and began the memoirs of a small-town doctor — he’s a friend of a friend and lives not far from here.


  2. I’m so glad you pointed me to this review! Now I’m even more interested in reading The Truth About Us! I’ve been meaning to get to the Beryl Markham book for ages as well (ever since reading West With the Night), so I’m happy to see your review of this one too. And seeing Summer of My German Soldier really takes me back. I read it as a teen and remember how blown away I felt by it. Lovely reviews!

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