The Book Whisperer Gives Thumbs Up to Pachinko

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As a member of the Books Sandwiched In committee sponsored by the Friends of the Tulsa City-County Libraries, I read a number of books being considered for the review series. My go-to reading is fiction, but I do venture out into other areas, especially for the Books Sandwiched In committee. This summer, in the nonfiction category, I have read Educated by Tara Westover, Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things by Amy Dickinson, and Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. See the Book Whisperer’s reviews on all of them.

The fiction nominees I have read include the following: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Goodbye Picadilly: War at Home, 1914 by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Death in the Stacks by Jenn McKinlay, and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Another nominee is the work of Sue Grafton, the Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mysteries. I have not read the entire series, but I have read through S.

Being a member of the Books Sandwiched In committee causes me to stretch in my reading habits. I admit that I did not tackle several of the nominated books because I was not interested or they were hard to get from the library. Some of the books on the list that I did not read are quite interesting to me given the time and access: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and 4th and Boston: Heart of the Magic Empire by Douglas Miller and Steve Gerkin.

For this review, my focus will be Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. The book chronicles the lives of poor Koreans living in Japan where they are considered visitors, non-citizens, regardless of whether they immigrated or were born in Japan.

Pachinko begins in the early 1900s in Korea, though the main characters soon move to Japan, and takes readers into 1989 still in Japan. Sunja, the beloved daughter and only child of a fisherman in Korea, is a shy sixteen-year-old. Her father has died, leaving Sunja and Yangjin, her mother, to survive on their own. The two of them run a boarding house near the sea.

One evening, Sunja returns home from marketing only to be accosted by several young Japanese thugs who undoubtedly will rape and beat her since she is alone and in an isolated spot. Koh Hansu, a fish broker happens to be walking along the area and sees the young men harassing Sunja, so he steps in to rescue her. He scatters the men and warns Sunja “to be careful not to travel alone or ever be out at night. If you go to the market by yourself, you must stay on the paths. Always in public view. They are looking for girls now.”

Sunja does not understand what Hansu means, but he goes on to tell her that someone who looks safe may offer her a job in China or Japan, but she must be careful. The person means only harm. Sunja continues to be puzzled because she has no intention of leaving her mother. Of course, Hansu means that an evil person may offer her a job making what to her would be a great deal of money. In reality, the job would be prostitution and she would be badly used, abused, and thrown away.

Hansu lulls readers into seeing him as a kind, somewhat older man who has protected Sunja and offered her good advice. He contrives to see her again and persuades her to meet him. For the first few times, he is content to talk with her and admire her for her youth and quiet beauty even though she is not traditionally beautiful, perhaps.

Then Hansu’s desires cause him to lead Sunju astray. Sunju, naïve, thinks he will marry her, especially when she tells him she is pregnant. That’s when he reveals that he is married in Japan and has three daughters. Still, Hansu says he will buy a house for Sunju and will take care of her and the child. Sunju is horrified and tells Hansu she will never see him again.

Obviously, Sunju must tell her mother about the pregnancy before too long. Baek Ksak is a lodger who has been staying at the boarding house. He arrived very ill with tuberculous. Sunju and her mother have nursed him and he has regained his health although he remains thin and weak. Baek is a missionary on his way to Japan to live with his brother and beautiful sister-in-law where he will be a minister in a Presbyterian church.

When Baek learns of Sunju’s dilemma, he decides that he will marry her in order to give the baby a name and that he will be the baby’s father. He realizes that Sunju someone has taken advantage of her naivete. Sunju and her mother agree to the marriage.

Yangjin knows the marriage means she will lose her only daughter, but she also recognizes that the marriage will save Sunju and the child. Sunju and Baek marry and leave for Japan where they live in a tiny shack in an area with other Korean immigrants in Osaka. The interior of their home is clean and better kept than most of the other houses. Yoseb and Kyunghee own their home, but they are careful not to act as if they are homeowners. Most of their neighbors rent their shacks and often they live with livestock in the house with the people.

Yoseb, Baek’s older brother, welcome Baek and Sunju. Sunju is eager to be helpful to her sister-in-law. Yoseb and Kyunghee have no children of their own. Kyunghee especially looks forward to becoming an aunt and helping to care for the child. She quickly calls Sunju “sister” and the two women share the household duties.

Pachinko is a sweeping story. Because of the length of the book, Lee has had the opportunity to develop each character fully. Sunju and Kyunghee work tirelessly to earn a little money to help the family get by. Yoseb is well-liked at his job and does the work well; because he is Korean, though, he receives less than if he were Japanese despite his hard work and talents.

Baek and Sunju have son and six years later another son. Baek earns a little money from the church, but he is arrested for being a Christian and kept in jail for two years. When he is near death, he is thrown out of the jail and sent home.

Sunju and Kyunghee make kimchi to sell from a cart; they take turns caring for the children. One day Kim Changho, a restaurant manager, approaches the women and offers to buy all the kimchi they can make. He wants them to work in his restaurant. At first, they are reluctant because they want to make the kimchi at home and deliver it to him. However, he says they must make it in the restaurant and the salary he offers the two of them is too great to ignore.

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The story is full of turns, some of which readers will expect, perhaps. Others come as surprises. The little family prospers despite losing Baek. WWII begins and Hansu reappears. He tells Sunju the family must leave for a farm outside of town. He has arranged for the women to work and for Yoseb to go to Hiroshima to work as a foreman.

The family survives the war although Yoseb is badly burned and will never be able to work again. Still, Sunju and Kyunghee and now Sunju’s mother who has come from Korea all work together to keep the family going.

Lee describes the difficulties of the family just trying to survive. They endure hardships, but their strength lies in their devotion to one another. Hansu does help them, surreptitiously, until Sunju discovers he has been behind some of their success.

Pachinko is Min Jin Lee’s second novel. Her first published book is Free Food for Millionaires. She has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts. In addition, she has written for a number of journals.

 

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The Book Whisperer Discovers a Juvenile Winner

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I first discovered Dave Eggers when I encountered A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. In it, Eggers writes of the deaths of both parents to cancer, a matter of weeks apart. Eggers, then a college student, must now become guardian to his eight-year-old brother. Later, I read What is the What, another nonfiction book, that tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a survivor of civil war in the South Sudan.

Eggers has written other books as well. In addition, he is the founder of McSweeney’s, independent publishing company. McSweeney’s publishes McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a journal of new writing in addition to publishing books and a monthly magazine, The Believer.

Not content with writing his own books and promoting the writing of others, Eggers is also cofounder of 826 National which is a group of “eight tutoring centers around the country and ScholarMatch, a nonprofit organization that connects students with resources, schools and donors to make college possible.” Whew! Eggers is a busy man.

Not only is he a writer, Eggers is also an artist. His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the Nevada Museum of Art, and other galleries. His awards are too numerous to mention, but they include the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

He has begun writing books for young readers: Her Right Foot, This Bridge Will Not Be Gray, and The Wild Things.

The Lifters, published in 2018, stars Gran Flowerpetal and his family. The story opens with Granite Flowerpetal, Gran, moving from his home on the ocean to his father’s birthplace, many miles away. His father is unable to get work as a mechanic where they live, so they move in hopes of finding work. They also have a house in Carousel, the town where his father has grown up.

Gran decides that in his new town and new school, he will become Gran instead of Granite because he tires of explaining how he got his name. His father’s explanation is that with a surname like Flowerpetal, Granite needs a strong name. The family consists of father, mother, Gran, and younger sister Maisie. Mother is in a wheelchair, but Gran does not know the cause of his mother’s paralysis. He can remember when she could walk, but he has no memory of when her legs became twisted or why.

Gran walks Maisie to her new elementary school and then goes on to his middle school. School has already been in session for a month, so Gran is behind his classmates. In addition to being new, Gran feels left out. In fact, he feels invisible to both students and teachers.

One afternoon, he decides he must really be invisible, so he walks into the school’s decidedly hard wall outside. Gran realizes “the pain of bricks against one’s head cannot be overstated. Given that bricks are quite solid.” Catalina Catalan, a classmate, rescues him from the wall and wipes the blood off his face with her flannel shirt.

Catalina states, “You just walked into a building” as if Gran does not realize what he has done.

Gran has noticed Catalina in history class. She always wears the same clothing: a Ruth Bader Ginsberg t-shirt, jeans, a flannel shirt tied around her waist with the sleeves dangling, and (usually) dirty boots. At first, Gran does not know whose face is on the t-shirt, but he later realizes it is Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

At that moment, Gran becomes acutely aware of Catalina and wants to know more about her. She is, after all, the only person in school who has noticed him. When Gran tries following Catalina, she disappears as if into thin air.

That disappearance only intrigues him more about Catalina. On another day, he follows her again. This time, he is certain she uses a handle to open a door into the hillside and that she disappears into the tunnel of the hill. He even sees the tiny twinkling lights like Christmas lights in the tunnel.

Gran also makes another discovery in the school building when he walks into an unlocked door where all sorts of equipment and furniture are stored. There, he meets El Duque, the Duke. The Duke invites Gran to stay and eat his lunch in the room. Since the Duke represents one of the few people who seem to see him, Gran stays. This meeting of the Duke will be important later in the story and Gran continues to visit the Duke at lunch time on school days.

Gran sees carousel horses and the poles which attach the horses to the carousel itself in the Duke’s rooms. When he asks the Duke about them, he learns that the town has been dependent upon the Catalan Carousel Company.

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Gran’s real obsession, however, is Catalina. He sees she DOES open the hillside with some kind of handle. He then decides he needs a handle in order to open the door and follow her. He spends his savings of $18.00 at a flea market to purchase a handle only to find it does not work. Then he remembers the old trunk in the attic of the house his great-great-grandfather built. It contains a “mess of old tools and scraps of metal. There were dark metal fragments of a dozen shapes and tools that neither Gran nor his father had ever seen before. There was a giant C, about the size of Gran’s hand.”

Gran remembers that C and rushes home to take it from the attic. In his heart, he knows it will be the handle he needs for opening the door where Catalina goes.

In his meetings with the Duke, Gran learns the town of Carousel used to the world-famous home of carousel horses made by Catalan Carousel Company. Everyone in the town worked for Catalan in one way or another. Then rollercoasters came along and carousels became outmoded. The townspeople fell upon hard times. People feel depressed, buildings begin collapsing, and work is hard to find.

Will Gran discover how and why Catalina Catalan slips into the seemingly impervious hillside? What will become of the town and its people? Eggers has written a tale for the third to sixth grade readers that will capture their imagination as it did mine. Eggers also infuses the story with humor. The fact that Catalina wears a Ruth Bader Ginsberg t-shirt is amusing. The dialogue is also fresh and often funny.

Dave Eggers maintains a Web site at this link: https://daveeggers.net/dave-eggers/.

The Book Whisperer Is Not Thrilled by This Cozy Mystery

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Jenn McKinlay, http://www.jennmckinlay.com, has written nearly forty books including romantic comedy, Library Lover’s Mysteries, Cupcake Mysteries, London Hat Shop Mysteries, Good Buy Girls Mysteries under the name Josie Belle, and Decoupage Mysteries under the name Lucy Lawrence. McKinlay has a loyal following.

McKinlay receives a great deal of praise with terms like “exuberantly entertaining,” “tender cozy full of warm and likable characters,” and “a deliciously thrilling mystery.” Sadly, I am not a fan. Death in the Stacks is the second in the Library Lover’s Mysteries. Amateur sleuth and full-time librarian Lindsey Norris has promised herself and her boyfriend Sully, a tour boat captain, that she will no longer get mixed up in solving murders. That’s because she nearly dies in Hitting the Books, the first in the series as readers learn in Death in the Stacks.

When I see books set in libraries and bookstores, I am always willing to give them a chance. Some live up to expectation while others do not. The dialogue in Death in the Stacks tries too hard. Far too many puns appear in the conversations with characters trying to out-pun one another. Puns form terrific humor in small doses.

Another flaw in the book lies in too many characters. Keeping track of who does what becomes difficult. The romantic entanglements in the book are stilted and don’t ring true to me.

Death in the Stacks begins when Lindsey finds Olive Boyle, newly elected library board president, sitting at Lindsey’s desk using her phone and holding up a finger as if to say, “Wait!” Lindsey is chagrined, but she maintains her composure, interested in what Olive will say about being in the office.

Readers soon learn Olive is a vindictive and hateful cow. Although the library board acts in an advisory capacity since the town council really regulates the library, Olive is under the impression that she is in charge. She wants the library staff to wear black and white uniforms as if they are servers in a restaurant. She wants Paula, one of the staff members fired because Paula has tattoos and purple hair. Olive also hints that Paula has a criminal past.

Olive is the kind of bull that carries its own china shop around. She noses into everyone’s business and discovers people’s secrets in order to control them and get what she wants. At the biggest fund raiser of the year, dinner in the stacks at the library, Olive is stabbed to death in the library stacks near the end of the evening when most people have left. Paula discovers the body and even picks up the knife. Obviously, she is the killer because Olive has wanted her fired and has publicly announced that fact.

Right? Of course, that would mean the end of the book on page 69 at the beginning of chapter 8 and we have 17 chapters to go. Clearly, too, Lindsey must get involved in solving the murder along with her friend Robby, the British TV and movie star.

The Library Lover’s Mysteries continues with seven more volumes currently. For those who want a cozy, quick mystery, Death in the Stacks will fit the bill.

 

 

 

The Book Whisperer Discovers a Winner on a Friend’s Recommendation

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Recently, I have read two debut novels by women in their 40s. Gale Honeyman, author of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, worked in administration at a university where she wrote before work, on breaks, and after work. See the Book Whisperer’s review of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Eleanor has been damaged by an unknown incident in her childhood. Readers must read the book to discover what has happened in her past. She is quite an interesting character.

Then on my friend Sue’s recommendation, I began reading The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard, another debut novel by a woman in her 40s. What a delightful choice to make too.

Ellie, 27, who has a Condition lives with her mother, 71, in a quiet neighborhood. Neighbor Sylvia is a kind woman who visits Agnes and Ellie. Trevor, Sylvia’s husband is less kind, but he generally keeps his dislike of Ellie to eye rolls and comments she does not understand.

Readers will quickly determine that Ellie is autistic. She recognizes that she is different; she also knows that she is not stupid. She knows a lot of facts about animals and about cookies, her favorite topics.

Once she finished school, her mother has kept her at home. Ellie loves routine. She can cook and clean the house and has a schedule for her duties. She also goes to Asda, the large supermarket on her own on the bus, and to the library for her mother.

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Ellie’s father is now dead, but she believes he had been in the Secret Service. He was an engineer who would disappear for stretches of time. When he returned, he would bring Ellie presents like the Japanese notebook she is now using to keep track of questions that are plaguing her.

Ellie and Agnes, her mother, have a routine. Suddenly, Agnes has a stroke which requires Ellie to become Responsible. Ellie calls for an ambulance and then calls her neighbor Sylvia. Sylvia goes with Ellie to the hospital. Ellie is convinced her mother will be all right and their lives will return to their normal.

However, that is not the case. Once Agnes is stable, she goes to a rehab center and then must enter a nursing home. Sylvia helps Ellie locate nursing homes that will be an easy bus ride from her home. Once Ellie has settled on the nursing home she likes, Agnes is moved there. Ellie visits twice a day. She tries very hard to talk with her mother; Agnes can say only “Not that way!”

Ellie knows how much her mother loves opera, so she buys an iPod and loads it with the music her mother loves. Now, Agnes can listen through the earbuds and find some semblance of her old life.

Meanwhile, Ellie is becoming even more responsible by taking care of the household. She and Sylvia meet with Agnes’s lawyer. Fortunately, Agnes has a trust fund. Agnes has also prepared for emergencies such as her illness or death. All the plans are clearly laid out. Ellie does not have to worry about money; she can concentrate on taking care of herself and visiting her mother.

Agnes has always told Ellie that she cannot hold a job because of her Condition. Agnes has held Ellie back, but now Ellie must figure out how to do more than simply cook, clean, and stay home. She learns about an animal rescue shelter where she can volunteer. She also gets help at the library on using a computer and buys one for herself to use at home.

Ellie is navigating the world much better than her mother ever expected, but, of course, Agnes knows nothing of Ellie’s progress. The progress is not smooth and not without its back steps as well as forward ones. Still, Ellie is progressing. She decides to use the red Japanese notebook to record her questions and then she develops seven rules to help her understand the NeuroTypicals and their world:

THE SEVEN RULES

Rule 1: Being Polite and Respectful is always a Good Idea.

Rule 2: If you Look or Sound Different, you won’t Fit In.

Rule 3: Conversation doesn’t just Exchange Facts – it Conveys how you’re Feeling.

Rule 4: You learn by making Mistakes.

Rule 5: Not Everyone who is Nice to me is my Friend.

Rule 6: It’s better to be too Diplomatic than too Honest.

Rule 7: Rules change depending on the Situation and the Person you are speaking to.

Sylvia praises Ellie for developing the rules: “A lot of sense in these, pet. How clever of you drawing them up yourself!” Sylvia goes on to remind Ellie that “you can never say too many pleases and thank yous or sorrys.”

As Ellie becomes more confident in herself, she explores some areas of the house that her mother has kept off limits. She goes through an old chest in the living room and discovers some disturbing newspaper articles. Many of the discoveries are disturbing. They shatter her beliefs about her father. Not all the discoveries end badly, though.

Ellie is a delightful character who learns and grows despite her limitations. Agnes had simply not allowed Ellie the freedom to learn and make mistakes. Now, on her own, Ellie must cope with the world and figure out how to be part of it instead of being a bystander. She makes mistakes, but she remembers Rule 4: You learn from Mistakes.

Read The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr to fall in love with Ellie as she learns to be part of the world.

In an interview, Frances Maynard responded with her own seven rules:

  1. Be kind.
  2. Don’t blame – find the reason for the error/conflict and work to stop it happening again.
  3. Don’t let the past or the future colour the present.
  4. Don’t let other people’s expectations of you define your life. (Elvira has to learn this)
  5. Don’t let your life be defined by your job. Life outside work is important.
  6. Have the courage to tell people how much they mean to you before it’s too late.
  7. Don’t look like prey – meaning if you appear vulnerable, unfortunately you may be taken advantage of.

Frances Maynard has taught English part-time to adults with learning difficulties. Her experience with students with Asperger’s helped her write Ellie’s character so she is authentic and likeable.  Discover more about Frances Maynard at her site: http://francesmaynard.co.uk/.

In England, the book is published under the title The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr.

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The Book Whisperer Reviews The Nightingale

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Occasionally, the Book Whisperer becomes obstinate. That’s the case with reading The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. Often, when I hear a great deal about a particular book, I am eager to read it. On the other hand, sometimes, I just stop short and refuse to read the book so many are reading and discussing. I also put Kristin Hannah in the romance writer category, not generally what I read: romances. Then one of my book clubs chose it for the July discussion.

Now, I have to change my attitude and read the book. So I did and I have: change my attitude and read the book! The Nightingale has lived up to the hype about it.

The story opens “April 9, 1995, The Oregon Coast.” The unnamed narrator is an elderly woman who is moving from her long-time home to an assisted-living apartment.  To do that, she goes up the “flimsy stairs” which “wobble beneath my feet as I climb into the attic.” She wants to find a trunk, one of the few things she really wishes to take with her from her home. Her son, also unnamed at this point, finds her in the attic and reprimands her for climbing up the rickety stairs.

The narrator takes out a “small, passport-sized photo of a young woman. Juliette Gervaise.” She tells her son she wishes to take the trunk with her when she moves. He wants to repack the items into a smaller container, but she insists on having the entire trunk: “I love you and I am sick again. For these reasons, I have let you push me around, but I am not deal yet. I want this trunk with me.”

Readers will not discover who Juliette Gervaise is for some time. Is she the narrator? Is she someone else? What secret has the narrator withheld from her son, Julien?

At the end of the chapter, readers learn the son’s name is Julien. Hannah is creating a mystery of who the narrator might be.  Chapter two shifts to “August 1939; France.” Now, we have Vianne Mauriac telling the story from her tiny village of Carriveau in France. Vianne, her husband Antoine, and her daughter Sophie live the perfect life in their village until the Germans march into France.

Antoine conscripted by the army, leaves his little family at home. German soldiers occupy the village as quickly as France surrendered to the enemy. Readers also meet Vianne’s much younger sister, Isabelle, who is expelled from yet another school. The tension between Vianne and Isabelle is strong. Vianne has married young, the only man she ever dated. Both girls suffer from their father’s indifference and their mother’s early death. Vianne has her husband and daughter, but Isabelle still longs for her father’s approval. Being cast out by both her father and Vianne leaves Isabelle rebellious and impetuous.

Isabelle’s father tells her to go live with Vianne and Sophie while Antoine is away in the war. Isabelle does not wish to go, but she decides she must. She walks along with many, many other Parisians who are fleeing the city. Along the way, the hordes of people run out of food and water; those in vehicles also find there is no more fuel, so they, too, must walk. In addition to the long walk without food and water, German planes begin strafing the crowds. The situation is dire.

Both Vianne and Isabelle must make difficult choices. They take different paths, often leaving one another without saying how much they care for one another because their natures are so different. They usually end with a fight and then regret that during one another’s absence.

Isabelle quickly joins the resistance and provides a valuable service in helping downed British and American pilots find their way to Spain and back home. Obviously, she risks her life every time she finds, hides, and leads these pilots to safety.

Back home her village, Vianne simply tries to keep her daughter safe and hope for Antoine’s return. A German soldier, Captain Beck, is billeted with her and her daughter. She has no choice but to allow him to stay. Luckily, he is a kind man who has a young family of his own in Germany. Still, he is the enemy.

Vianne begins helping save Jewish children whose parents are being taken away by the German soldiers. Her actions are fraught with danger too because she could be shot for creating false papers for the children and for hiding them among other children in a Catholic orphanage.

It will not spoil the novel to say that Antoine does return, damaged, but alive. When he has been home a few months, Vianne tells Antoine they are having a baby. Before Sophie was born, Vianne had suffered through several miscarriages. Antoine tells her: “We won’t lose thisone. Not after all of this. It’s a miracle.” When Vianne says Antoine has been though a great deal, he responds with “We all have. So we choose to see miracles.”

Hannah writes about the terrible deprivations war brings. She also does not stint on the descriptions of the horror brought on by the German soldiers. She describes children being separated from their mothers and mothers being shot if they protest. Late in the story, Vianne describes seeing the bodies of Frenchmen hanging in her village, their bodies bloated and turning dark. The horrors of war are much too realistically portrayed in The Nightingale.

The Nightingale is full of secrets which cannot be revealed in a book review because that would spoil the reading for someone who has not read the book. Suffice it to say that both Isabelle and Vianne put themselves in harm’s way in order to save others. Some secrets will go with Vianne to her grave.

At Hannah’s official site, https://kristinhannah.com/, readers will find a wealth of information about Hannah herself and her books. She has written more than twenty. Hannah suggests other books readers who like The Nightingale might also like. The Nightingale is being made into a movie.

 

The Book Whisperer Provides a Service For Readers!

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Kirkus Reviews hooked me into reading The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall with this description: “Classic elements of Southern comedy—evil twins, people dropping dead, a faith healer, a river-rafting trip—[surrounding] a lovable pair of central characters. Unfortunately, The Book of Polly does not deliver as fully as promised. Oh, yes, the story does contain evil twins, people who drop dead, a faith healer, and a river-rafting trip; that much comes true.

The story simply misses the mark for me in other ways. Willow is an engaging little girl who grows from a worried ten-year-old to a worried sixteen-year-old over the course of the story. The story’s premise is interesting. On the day of her husband’s funeral, Polly discovers, at fifty-eight, that she is pregnant with her third child. That child turns out to be Willow.

Lisa and Shel, Willow’s older sister and brother, are long gone from home. Both have married and live in other states while Polly and Willow continue to live in Texas. Because of Polly’s age and because Polly insists upon smoking, Willow worries constantly about losing Polly.

Willow goes to great lengths to keep Polly alive, even hiding her cigarettes on the Great Smoke Out day, but Polly bullies Willow into showing where she has hidden the death sticks. Willow also exhibits other behavior I find strange. She wakes up in the middle of the night and stands in her mother’s bedroom doorway to watch her mother breathe. Willow frequently checks on her mom in this way, yet one night when Shel returns home after a nasty divorce, Willow is unaware of his presence until the next morning.

Some reviewers call The Book of Polly laugh-out-loud funny. I did find some amusing points, but not much laugh-out-loud humor. The story begins with Polly taking Willow to school to dispel for the school’s counselor that Willow is a liar. Willow has told several truth-stretching things about her mother to other children. Their mothers complained to the school; hence, Polly must take Willow and meet with the counselor.

Polly takes a borrowed falcon with her, having it perch on the leather arm cover because Willow has told her fellow classmates that her mother hunts with a falcon. Luckily, Polly knows someone who will loan her a falcon. Now, the story may be funny, but it is rather unbelievable. Willow has also said her sister is “with Jesus” which the children have taken to mean that Lisa is dead.

Polly explains to the counselor that Lisa is not dead, but she is with Jesus, meaning she is very devout. After several more explanations, the counselor gives up, knowing she cannot counter Polly’s arguments. The counselor ends the interview by saying she hopes never to meet Polly and Willow in her office again.

Willow and her mother are constantly at odds over a variety of things. Polly wants to chase all the squirrels out of the yard because they eat her pecans and garden vegetables. Willow does not want the critters hurt. Then surprisingly, Polly rescues a baby squirrel after a storm when its mother does not return. Willow is shocked that her mother would care for the baby squirrel so tenderly. Polly names the baby squirrel Elmer.

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Besides desiring to keep Polly alive, Willow wants desperately to know about Polly’s past in Bethel, LA and why Polly is so secretive about it and why she says she can never go back there. Feigning illness one Sunday, Willow stays home while Polly goes to church. Dalton, Willow’s neighbor and playmate, comes over to help Willow search Polly’s room for clues to Polly’s past.

Shel, Willow’s brother, has told Willow that he found some letters once from LA. Willow wants to know what he read in them, but he says he was only seven then and Polly scolded him soundly so he never tried finding the letters again. Certain the letters hold the clues to Polly’s past and most likely will help keep Polly alive, Willow searches the closet until she finds a shoebox full of letters. Before she can read more than an address and a first name, Polly returns to check on Willow.

Incensed, Polly takes the box of letters and a lighter to the backyard with Willow begging her to stop. Before her eyes, Willow sees the letters turn into wisps of smoke and blackened paper. That avenue is now lost.

Willow’s fears become heightened when Polly discovers she has cancer, but she calls the cancer bear. Fortunately, Polly’s treatment chases the bear away. Unfortunately, the bear returns, causing Willow even more grief.

In the end, Polly, Willow, and Phoenix, Shel’s childhood friend, all drive to Bethel, LA, to meet with a faith healer. Willow will finally discover her mother’s past.

Kathy Hepinstall has written five books including The Book of Polly; her other books are Blue Asylum, The House of Gentlemen, The Absence of Nectar, and Prince of Lost Places. The books differ widely from one another. Blue Asylum, for example, is set during the Civil War. The Absence of Nectar is a modern-day thriller.

Kathy Hepinstall maintains a Web site at this link: http://kathyhepinstallwriter.com/.

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews Nomadland

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Have you ever read a book that compelled you to continue reading even as you were horrified by the content? That’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-first Century by Jessica Bruder. Bruder has interviewed people, mostly senior citizens, across the US. The people in the book form “a new low-cost labor pool: transient older Americans. With social security coming up short, these invisible casualties of the Great Recession have taken to the road by the tens of thousands, forming a growing community of migrant laborers dubbed Workampers.”

Many of the people find themselves in dire circumstances through no fault of their own. They simply do not have enough money to live, especially in areas where rents are very high.  People from many different professions and work histories find themselves with too little on which to live. As a result, they are making do by living in tiny RVs, always purchased second or third-hand and generally still in need of some repair and often on the verge of breaking down or needing tires replaced.

Bruder interviewed Silvianne who lives in a 1990 Ford E350 Econoline Super Club Wagon, formerly “a transit van for the elderly and a work vehicle for convict labor crews before she bought it off Craigslist, complete with leaky head gaskets, bad brakes, cracking power steering hoses, worn-out tires, and a starter that made ominous grinding sounds.” Silvianne calls the vehicle Queen Maria Esmeralda. Read her blog: https://silviannewanders.wordpress.com/2016/03/18/you-gotta-be-kidding/. There, you will find her story and her “Vandweller Anthem.” See Silvianne’s home below.

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An entire subculture has grown up around the Workampers, wur-kam-pers. Workamper News, https://www.workamper.com/workamping, calls itself “the #1 Resource for Workamping & Jobs for RVers.” The newsletter further defines a Workamper in the following: “If you work in exchange for something of value and sleep in a RV at night, you are indeed [a Workamper]. From coast to coast, there are many positions available for Workampers—or those still dreaming of an RV lifestyle—to work and play on the road. Let us put you in touch with the perfect opportunity to meet your Workamping needs.”

The newsletter includes these topics: destinations, featured stories, finding work, outside the box jobs, real life, Workamping, and Young Workampers. Readers will discover a number of tutorials such as how to set up a campsite quickly a well as explanations of what Workampers do.

That piece above makes the Workampers’ life sound inviting. No doubt, for many, the lifestyle is inviting. Americans have long been in love with the idea of the open road and the opportunities to travel that road unrestricted. Workamper News does provide a wealth of information for Workampers.

Workamping, http://www.snowbirdrvtrails.com/workkamping.htm, provides free listings of jobs. It also includes information such as staying at a campground free of charge in exchange for ten to twenty or more hours of work. Fellow Workampers add their own reviews of campsites and jobs, certainly helpful information. Here is a link to a video on how to set up an RV campsite: https://youtu.be/SYH7Ka7ZGmE.

The sites indicated above would lead the casual reader to think the Workampers’ lifestyle is one of adventure and fun. Bruder paints a different picture through the many people she interviews in Nomadland. Most of the time, those Bruder interviewed are living in the brink of exhaustion and fear of another breakdown—of their campers or themselves through ill health.

The part-time jobs are difficult. Amazon warns would-be Workampers “that they should be ready to lift up to fifty pounds at a time, in an environment where the temperature may sometimes exceed 90 degrees.” Amazon’s company slogan is “Work hard. Have fun. Mae history.” Working ten-hour shifts with two fifteen-minute breaks and a thirty-minute lunch break is hard work for those supposed to be enjoying retirement.

Bruder does explain that Workampers help one another. Linda May, a Workamper with whom Bruder spent quite a bit of time, was ill with bronchitis. She was unable to work or even to cook for herself. Fellow Workampers took food to help Linda. Bruder recounts other such instances when a Workamper needed help because of illness or injury. Other Workampers showed up to lend a hand. That sense of community is certainly uplifting, especially in today’s political climate.

Jessica Bruder ends her book with “Acknowledgments” in which she says, “You meet a lot of people in three years and 15,000 miles. This book exists due to their kindness.”

Workampers are new in the sense of living in the tiny RVs and involving both men and women. In the 1900s, men looking for work hitched rides on trains seeking work wherever they could find it. They often shared camps and whatever food they had. Today’s nomads have certain advantages over those earlier traveling workers, but they still exist on the periphery and often their existence is perilously in danger of collapse.

Learn more about Jessica Bruder and her work: https://www.jessicabruder.com/about-1/.