The Book Whisperer is Smitten

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Often, I read about a book and immediately request the book from the library. If it takes some time for the book to become available, I sometimes forget why I found the description so intriguing. That is not the case with The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman.

The title could fool one into thinking the book is a romance. It is not. It is a story of loss, love, and reclamation.

When the story opens in 1964, Tom Hope is married to Trudy. Tom is happy and unaware of Trudy’s growing discontent that finally manifests itself in her disappearing from their farm home in central Victoria, Australia. The nearby town is Hometown. Tom begins making a list of all the things he can do to prove to Trudy that he loves her and will make her life better when she returns. He feels certain she will return.

On his list, he writes picnics, pets cat budgie!!, light fire kitchen first thing!!, and tell her about good things she does like when she doesn’t burn the sausages. As he thinks of more and more ways to improve himself for Trudy, he writes them down. Soon, the list is six notebook pages long.

Meanwhile, Tom must see to the work on the farm. He has a flock of sheep, milk cows, and an apple orchard. On a farm, the farmer gets up early and works hard all day. Clearly, farm wife is not the job that Trudy found fulfilling.

Then one day in a pouring rain, Trudy is back. Tom feels overjoyed. He treats her tenderly and is prepared to sleep on the couch to let her have her space, but she wants him to sleep with her. Tom even shows her his six pages of ways he plans to improve to show her how much he loves her.

The next morning, though, Trudy drops a bombshell: she is pregnant with another man’s child. After processing the news, Tom says it does not matter and that he will be the baby’s father. Trudy agrees to stay, but she continues to be moody and depressed throughout the pregnancy. When the baby boy is born, Tom and Trudy name him Peter. Trudy exhibits no maternal feelings and rarely wishes to hold Peter.

Tom becomes the primary caretaker and Peter quickly learns to turn to Tom when he needs something, even from early infancy. That bond continues to grow. When Peter is three, Trudy tells Tom that she must go; she cannot live buried on a farm, so off she goes, leaving Peter with Tom.

Then three years later, Trudy returns to take Peter away. Both Tom and Peter are heartbroken, but Trudy is the boy’s mother and Tom has no hold since he is not the child’s biological father. Tom has worked out a good arrangement of taking care of Peter when still getting all the farm chores done and keeping Peter safe. The two develop a deep bond of love.

Trudy tells Tom she has found Jesus and that now Peter must be with her. Just how much loss can Tom withstand? And, of course, Peter, too, suffers from being taken from Tom. Trudy may love Peter, but she has hitherto not shown him any affection, much less motherly love.

Again, Tom finds himself alone. Then one day when he returns home from working, he discovers two notes, one under the front door and one under the back door. The notes are the same and they are from Hannah Babel, a Hungarian Jew who has moved to Australia to create a new life for herself by giving music lessons and by opening a bookshop in Hometown.

Hannah needs Tom’s help in welding a sign over the bookshop she is opening in Hometown. Tom has seen Hannah in Hometown, but he has not spoken with her. He goes to the bookshop and agrees to fix the sign and even agrees to build some additional bookshelves for the store.

Hannah is unlike anyone else that Tom has ever met; at forty-five, she is ten years older than he. Still, both feel an attraction between them. As Tom continues to help Hannah ready the bookshop for opening, their relationship deepens and they are spending nights together.

Sometimes, though, Hannah withdraws, not physically, but emotionally, leaving Tom baffled about what he might have done or how he might help her return to herself. Readers begin receiving the back story when chapters shift from the present to 1944 and learn that Hannah along with her husband Leon and their young son Michael have been swept up in the Nazi’s relocation plan for Jewish people.

The little family ends up at Auschwitz where Hannah and Michael are separated from Leon. In a split second when she dozes on standing on her feet, Hannah loses Michael as well. From then on, she feels haunted by her losses. Readers continue to learn more and more about the struggle Hannah has in Auschwitz and later when the Germans abandon camp ahead of the Russian soldiers’ arrival.

Hannah, a natural leader, takes eighty women who have survived thus far and they strike out to find safety and food, for they are starving. Along the way, many of the women die. In the end, only three of them survive.

When Hannah and Tom marry, all of Hometown comes to the wedding. The other women of the town cook food for the reception and Tom’s two sisters come to help.

The bookshop is in Hometown and Hannah still gives music lessons as well, but she and Tom live on the farm. Hannah still experiences those unexpected periods of depression when she withdraws from Tom. Given his experience with Trudy, Tom becomes wary at those times and struggles to know what to do to keep Hannah safe.

Peter runs away from the Jesus camp and finds his way back to Tom. Unfortunately, Tom feels he must return Peter to Trudy at the camp, so he does. Tom and Peter both wish life could be otherwise. Now, though, thrown into the mix is Hannah who does not want Peter to live with her and Tom. The loss of her own Michael is too great for her to bear.

Of course, Tom and Hannah must encounter a number of other challenges. Running a bookshop in a small, rural town is not easy. Obviously, a farm requires constant care, too.

How will the story turn out? Does Hannah overcome her nightmares? Can Peter come back to the farm to live with Tom, the only father he has known? If he does, what will happen to Trudy? And should readers care about her?

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is an engaging novel and provides a moving story. I read it all in one day.

Read more about Robert Hillman and his work at this link: https://www.roberthillmanauthor.com/.

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The Book Whisperer Reviews an Advance Copy!

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After receiving an advance copy of Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center, I did some research on Center herself since I had not read her previous books. Watch this TEDXBEND Talk, https://youtu.be/tk_8r0BF1hk, as Katherine Center explains not only that “We Need to Teach Boys to Read Stories About Girls,” but also that “stories can save you because stories are not just entertainment; they’re not just something we do in the margins of our lives as a break from reality. Stories help us construct our framework for understanding reality.”

Things You Save in a Fire will be on sale 13 August 2019. I am delighted to have received an advance copy. Once I picked the book up, I hardly put it down. I wanted to see how Cassie Halwell, a strong female who has cut herself off from emotions since she was sixteen, would handle the massive changes in her life. Those changes start in the early pages of Things You Save in a Fire.

Cassie is a firefighter in Austen, TX. She has succeeded far beyond her stature would lead people to think. Because of her grit and determination, she meets and exceeds the physical demands of her job as firefighter and paramedic. She trains relentlessly, both physically and mentally. She passes her lieutenant’s exam on the first try and with very high marks.

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But one thing now stands in her way in Texas. In receiving an award, Cassie attacks city councilman Heath Thompson on the platform during the ceremony when he hands her the award and simultaneously grabs her butt. What readers do not know is that there is history between Cassie and Heath, but they need to read the whole story to discover that history.

The day after the award ceremony, Captain Harris calls Cassie into her office. Cassie knows she will be reprimanded for her actions the night before. However, Captain Harris begins with the news about Cassie’s stellar performance on the lieutenant’s exam: “It might surprise you to hear, then, that not only did you pass, you got the number one score in the entire city. You scored two points below me.”

Captain Harris tells Cassie that “you’ve been on the city’s radar ever since that feature the Statesman did on you last summer, but that test score clinched it.” Harris explains that Cassie would have made an excellent spokesperson and example for the city’s fire department. That is, until last night when Cassie attacked Councilman Thompson.

Harris tells Cassie that if she lies low for a year or more, perhaps she can regain the status she has lost. At that point, Cassie says she is moving to Rockport, MA, to live with and help her estranged mother for a year. Both Captain Harris and Cassie hope that she can return to Austen following that year or perhaps two years away.

Captain Harris makes phone calls to fire stations in the Rockport area and secures a place for Cassie as a firefighter and paramedic in the small town of Lillian. The Lillian Fire Station is losing two firefighting brothers who are retiring together and moving to Florida.

Before Cassie leaves Austen, Captain Harris demands that Cassie take notes on her advice. Harris starts with “don’t wear makeup, perfume, or lady-scented deodorant.” From there, she continues with a great many other don’ts.  Cassie realizes that Captain Harris started in the fire department thirty years earlier, so the advice she is giving Cassie has been hard won. Most of the advice boils down to “make them [fellow firefighters] less aware I’m a girl.”

Other complications in the story include the estrangement between Cassie and her mother. Diana, Cassie’s mother, left the little family on Cassie’s sixteenth birthday. She leaves to marry another man, Wallace. Cassie’s hurt over her mother’s departure has consumed Cassie ever since. The fact that another significant event takes place on that sixteenth birthday adds to Cassie’s reserve and inability to forgive her mother.

Diana has called asking Cassie to give up the job which Cassie loves and is good at and to move to Rockport, MA, where Cassie has never been. Diana says she has lost sight in one eye and needs help navigating the stairs in her home along with help in daily living.

Naturally, at first, Cassie refuses her mother’s request. Even when her dad calls and tells Cassie that she must move to Rockport and help her mother, Cassie is reluctant. Then the unfortunate incident at the award ceremony sends Cassie away so she can repair her reputation and return to Austen. In one last effort to keep Cassie in Austen, Captain Harris requests that Cassie apologize to Councilman Thompson. Cassie absolutely refuses. I was very proud of Cassie for refusing to apologize when she is clearly not the person who is wrong—although bashing Thompson over the head with the award trophy could have been handled differently. It was the heat of the moment and the previous history that kicks in with Cassie then.

Lillian Fire Department is small and has hitherto been all males. The old hands do not take kindly to having a woman in their midst, totally disregarding the fact that Cassie is better than many of them at their jobs. Some of them have let themselves get out of shape. Cassie must fight prejudice on her own. She has to be tougher, stronger, and more resilient than her male counterparts. She has to prove herself every day.

Center has written a story about a strong woman who has to hide her femininity in order to compete in a male-dominated world. She must change herself in order to be accepted. Over the course of the story, Cassie finds both acceptance and the ability to change herself. She learns about forgiveness and human connections, both of which she has kept at bay for ten years since she was sixteen.

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Katherine Center is funny and engaging. Just watch the TEDXBEND Talk mentioned above, or watch the other videos on her Web site: http://katherinecenter.com/. Center infuses Things You Save in a Fire with her own sense of humor. Center has written seven novels. The fourth one, The Lost Husband, is being made into a feature film.

 

 

The Book Whisperer Enjoys a Picture Book

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Oliver Jeffers was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but he currently makes his home in Brooklyn, NY. His picture books have been translated into more than forty languages. For his children’s books, he has received a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award along with an Irish Book Award and a United Kingdom Literary Association Award. He exhibits his original art at the Brooklyn Museum in NY, the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and the National Portrait Gallery in London. Discover more delightful information about Jeffers and his work at his Web site: https://www.oliverjeffers.com/.

Oliver Jeffers has written and illustrated a number of children’s books including the following: The Day the Crayons Quit, Here We Are, Once There Was a Boy, and Stuck.

In This Moose Belongs to ME, Jeffers explores the issue of ownership of something bigger than one’s self. Wilfred says he owns a moose and names the moose Marcel. Wilfred also develops a large number of rules for Marcel to follow.

Of course, being a moose, Marcel is not inclined to follow all the rules, at least not all the time or not always when Wilfred expects him to do so. This obstinate behavior on Marcel’s part annoys Wilfred, so he tries to cope with Marcel’s recalcitrance.

Then, as Wilfred and Marcel are out and about, they encounter a little, old lady who calls Marcel by the name Rodrigo! Wilfred is appalled. Marcel is the moose’s name, and Marcel belongs to Wilfred.

The difficulty stems from the fact that Marcel/Rodrigo does not belong to anyone. Thus Wilfred learns a valuable lesson about rigid rules and about sharing. Once Wilfred realizes that Marcel/Rodrigo is not a possession, the two reach a compromise of allowing each to go his own way and to remain friends.

This Moose Belongs to ME is a visual delight. Wilfred and Marcel/Rodrigo are drawn as if by a child’s hand. Then the background in each double-page spread forms a beautiful landscape of mountains, streams, and trees. The muted colors on some pages engage the senses as the readers take in each passage. Then vivid color will strike the readers’ eyes as Wilfred and Marcel/Rodrigo continue their adventures.

 

The Book Whisperer Examines a Book on Writing

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I was totally unfamiliar with Alice Mattison until I read about The Kite and the String: How to Write With Spontaneity and Control—And Live to Tell the Tale.” The title alone should intrigue writers and would-be writers as well as readers who enjoy learning about the process of writing those beloved stories.

I opened The Kite and the String to the “Introduction: Excuse Me, Don’t We Know Each Other?” That title added to my interest. The first two paragraphs are engaging:

“Maybe you’re that woman in the corner of the coffee shop. You’re gazing over the lid of a laptop, then typing fast, then gazing again. Or possibly you’re that man with the narrow-ruled notebook, writing fat paragraphs in black ink…. And I? I’m the woman with messy gray hair who’s at risk of spilling her coffee down your neck, because she can’t help glancing over your shoulder to get a glimpse of what you’re writing. Is it, perhaps, a story? Is it a novel? A memoir?”

Mattison goes on to explain that The Kite and the String is not a how-to manual. Instead, she says it “describes one woman’s way of thinking about writing.”

Mattison has divided The Kite and the String into five parts. Within those five parts, she has included a variety of chapters. She includes chapters titled “Imagine,” “Let Happenings Happen,” “Become Someone Else,” and “Revising Our Thought Bubbles.”

My favorite chapter is “What Killed the Queen? and Other Uncertainties That Keep a Reader Reading.” Mattison reminds her readers, “we don’t write well without touching on painful subjects, and many of us need to write for a long time before those painful thoughts emerge from wherever we ordinarily hide them.”

Throughout The Kite and the String, Mattison uses examples from other novelists to illustrate the points she is making. This technique allows her readers then to research further for themselves by referring to those books and authors.

In “Revising Our Thought Bubbles,” Mattison gives advice about showing one’s writing. She explains that a writing workshop she attended for thirteen years with poets Jane Kenyon and Joyce Peseroff “made me dare to be a writer.” She goes on to say that “it’s possible to show your writing, cautiously, to people who aren’t writers and to learn from them.”  She emphasizes the word cautiously if showing the writing to non-writers. The writing workshops provide a much-needed service then because they consist of other writers.

Mattison is forthright in her teaching. She says, “Cherish the readers who offer more praise than you deserve, but find others as well—which may be more difficult.”

In the end, Mattison tells writers “be ambitious, in the best sense. Write—write first drafts—when you’re sleepy and stupid, receptive and vulnerable…. Take outrageous risks, and then have the patience and humility to fix your work.”

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Mattison has published six novels, four collections of short stories, and a collection of poems. She has received a number of awards. She currently teaches in the MFA program at Bennington College. Learn more about Mattison and her work at her site: http://www.alicemattison.com/index.htm.

The Book Whisperer Ruminates on Book Clubs

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Belonging to a book club is an exciting adventure. The members all bring a perspective to the discussions. We learn from one another even when we disagree. In a recent letter in Dear Amy, a member of a book club complained that her long-standing book club had changed over the last few months. The members had moved away from discussing the books to talking about recent or upcoming vacations or family rather than delving into the book chosen for the monthly discussion.

Book clubs, like individuals, can change over time. I belong to one that has been meeting steadily for 34 years. A few of the original members are still participating, but we have had a number of members come and go over that length of time. Fortunately, the meetings have stayed true to the discussion of the chosen book, but we do take time at the beginning and end of meetings for general chitchat and catching up with one another.

Leadership is important in a book club. Someone has to take responsibility for keeping the group on track, sometimes gently nudging the conversation if it strays. That leadership can rotate among members or one person can lead for a year and then another person. The group can choose a wide variety of ways to keep the club on track and running smoothly. Communication is a key to keeping the group healthy and meeting its purpose of talking about books.

Another important characteristic of a well-cared for book club is innovation. The leader(s) should find ways to engage the members, not always doing the same thing over and over. See the examples below:

  1. At the beginning of a meeting, put a child’s oversized drawing pad, 18”X12”, and colored markers on the table. Ask members to write a comment or question about the book under discussion that day on the pad. You can also use a large sheet of paper on an easel if you have access to one.
  2. Put questions into a jar and have everyone in the group draw a question out to read and answer; others can also chime in with their answers to the questions.
  3. A few days before the scheduled meeting, send an email to the group with a question and ask everyone to think about it in preparation for the discussion.
  4. Write questions on index cards and pass them out at the beginning of the meeting.
  5. Choose a provocative passage from the book and begin the discussion with it, asking everyone to comment.
  6. Ask for two or three words members would use to describe the book under discussion.
  7. Do some research to share on the author or the background of the story, setting, or time period.
  8. Ask everyone to identify a theme found in the book.
  9. Ask members to identify a character or scene that is particularly memorable and explain why.
  10. Wrap up the discussion; perhaps ask everyone to give a brief summary of the book, or a main point that they will remember, or simply rate the book on a scale of one to five.

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Every book is a mystery until it is read!

Our book club has agreed to choose books that are readily available in paperback, as used books, and as e-books.  That means we are not reading the books hot off the press since they are usually only available in hardback and are the most expensive as well as the most difficult to find at the library without a long waiting period.

The Book Whisperer Reflects on Dawn, Turkish Short Stories

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I just closed a book of short stories titled Dawn by Selahattin Demirtaş, who has imprisoned in a maximum-security prison in Edirne by the Turkish state since November 2016. Demirtaş was a co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). As a human rights lawyer, Demirtaş “helped transform the HDP into a more inclusive party with an emphasis on progressive values, feminism, and LGBTQ rights.” He even ran for president of Turkey from behind bars, coming in third.

I am shaken by the stories and am still processing what I have read. Having participated in a number of activities at Raindrop Tulsa and having become friends with Turkish people now living in the US, I was aware of the atrocities and the imprisonments, which have affected families of my friends here and in Turkey.

While Dawn is a work of fiction, the stories portray the difficulties of daily life of ordinary people in Turkey. The stories are not all sad, but each is tinged with sadness and some are infused with horror. Yet, readers also feel a sense of hope through the human desire to overcome difficulties and injustice. Demirtaş wrote the stories from his prison cell.

A review in Booklist says of the stories in Dawn that they are “visceral tales that expose unfathomable darkness with an unshowy, fable-like straightforwardness as the book nonetheless subtly arcs toward hope… Already a publishing sensation with 200,000 copies sold in Turkey alone, Demirtas’ empathic collection shines the light that its title promises.”

I read the first two stories and slammed the book shut, thinking I could not read further after reading “Seher,” about a trusting, naïve young woman who is raped by men in her workplace and then killed by her father and brother to save the family’s honor. A day later, I returned to the book and continued reading because I was haunted by what would be next.

Demirtaş wrote “I’m in Prison. But My Party Still Scored Big in Turkey’s Elections” for The Washington Post in April 2019. Here is an important excerpt from that article:

“Thousands of members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who should currently be participating in politics — including me— are in prison on political grounds. The security forces continue to harass and obstruct those members of our party who remain free. Many of us have been criminalized and deemed ‘terrorists’ by government officials. And yet my party, which I co-chaired for many years, still showed its strength in these latest elections.” Read the entire article at this link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/04/19/im-prison-my-party-still-scored-big-turkeys-elections/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.62449c9aa7cd.

Dawn is published by Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint.

 

The Book Whisperer Read Home Fire

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I requested Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie because I read a great deal about it. After reading the book, I am ambivalent. Shamsie is certainly a talented writer who captivates her readers with her eloquent prose.

Here’s an exchange between two Isma and Eamonn, two of the main characters, in a coffee house:

He starts with this greeting: “Hey, Greta Garbo, why so serious?” Then Shamsie follows with “he sat down across from her, one arm slung over the back of the chair. Such a languid contrast to the coiled spring of his father.”

Home Fire has won prestigious awards such as the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It has received high praise in a number of reviews. I wanted to like the story.

Isma Pasha has brought up her younger siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. Now, she is free to pursue her own interrupted education in the US. In leaving London, Isma spends hours being interrogated by airport security. The interrogators went through every item in her luggage, handling all her possessions and questioning her over and over. Finally, she is released, long after her original flight has left London.

Isma is headed to Amherst, MA where her former tutor in London, Hira Shah, has secured a place for her in graduate school. Shah also lives in Amherst now. Aneeka, Isma’s younger sister, is in college in the UK. Parvaiz, their brother and Aneeka’s twin, is missing. However, he does show up on Skype occasionally.

Home Fire retells the Greek tragedy Antigone. Antigone must not bury her brother Polynices because he has been declared a traitor. In Home Fire, Parvaiz is now a traitor connected to Isis, but readers do not learn that fact right away. At first, Shamsie focuses on the estrangement for unknown reasons between Parvaiz and Isma.

Obviously, other complications occur. Isma meets Eamonn Lone in Amherst. She recognizes him because of his father’s political career in England. Unfortunately, she does not let him know she recognizes him until weeks after their first meeting when his father becomes Home Secretary and is in the news.

The two families’ lives become intertwined when Eamonn sees a picture of the strikingly beautiful Aneeka. When Eamonn returns to London, he takes a package to Auntie Naseem, longtime family friend of the Pashas in London, He intended to post the package once he arrived in London, but, on impulse, he takes the package to Auntie Naseem in person.

No doubt, Eamonn hoped to meet Aneeka when he delivered the package, and he is not disappointed. He does meet Aneeka and finds her as breathtakingly beautiful as her picture.

These connections between Isma and Eamonn in Amherst and then Eamonn’s meeting Aneeka in London spark the link between the two very different Muslim families.

Kamila Shamsie has published five other novels: In the City by the Sea; Salt and Saffron; Kartography; Broken Verses; Burnt Shadows, and A God in Every Stone.

Penguin and Random House offer a brief biography of Kamila Shamsie: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/90146/kamila-shamsie.