Monthly Archives: October 2017

The Book Whisperer Reviews Penny’s Latest Gamache Mystery

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Kirkus Reviews says of Louise Penny’s thirteenth mystery, Glass Houses, starring Chief Superintendent Armand Gamache mystery that “the tension has never been greater…. A meticulously built mystery that follows a careful ascent toward a breaking point that will leave you breathless. It’s Three Pines as you have never seen it before.” Louise Penny’s fans will not be surprised at that declaration or the praise. For those who have not read Penny before, such praise may entice a new reader to become immersed in the current and previous mysteries.

Maureen Corrigan, whose reviews on NPR are always scintillating, tells listeners that Glass Houses “along with many of the other Gamache books is so compelling that, for the space of reading it, you may well feel that much of what’s going on in the world outside is ‘just noise.’”

Glass Houses begins in Three Pines, the idyllic village where Armand Gamache lives with his wife Reine-Marie. Other members of Three Pines figure in the stories, and they are present in this one: Myrna, Ruth with her duck Rosa, Clara, Olivier, and Gabri. Of course, Jean-Guy Beauvoir and Gamache’s daughter Anna are also present, especially since Jean-Guy is Gamache’s second in command. Chief Inspector Isabelle Lacoste is also back.

In Glass Houses, readers quickly learn about an ancient Spanish custom of shaming someone who owes a debt. In the modern world, the Cobrador del Frac, debt collector, dresses in top hat and tails. He is paid to follow the debtor, thus shaming him or her into paying the debt.  In the  1300s, the Cobrador del Frac dressed much like the grim reaper. The debt that the Cobrador del Frac sought to be paid was about judgment and collecting on debt of conscience rather than a monetary debt. The Cobrador del Frac becomes part of mythology.

But what does an ancient Spanish custom have to do with modern-day Three Pines, Quebec, Canada? Gamache determines that the Cobrador del Frac has come to shame someone in Three Pines, but whom? Is it a long-time resident or is it one of the visitors to the village: Matheo Bissonnette, Lea Roux, Katie Evans, Patrick Evans? Newcomers to the village include Jacqueline who works for Sarah in the bakery and Anton Lebrun who is the new chef at the Three Pines Bistro. Is the Cobrador del Frac there for one of them?

The Cobrador del Frac appears on Halloween when villagers and visitors are dressed up for Halloween. However, unlike the others dressed for Halloween, the Cobrador del Frac remains in costume and stands, mute, on the village green, causing consternation among the residents and visitors alike. However, as Gamache tells everyone, he cannot arrest a hooded figure for standing on the green.

Glass Houses begins with the trial in a hot summer of Quebec, and the courtroom is sweltering because the air conditioning is broken. That sweltering heat adds to the difficulty of the trial. Crown Prosecutor Zalmanowitz and Armand Gamache, head of the Sûreté du Québec quickly show readers the two are at odds with one another, despite being on the same team. That is, they both want to solve the murder, send the murderer to prison, and return Three Pines to safety.

Readers soon learn a larger plan is afoot, however. Gamache and Beauvoir along with Lacoste and Toussaint are working on a long-term sting operation to put drug cartels in Canada out of business, or at least do serious damage to their enterprises. Gamache’s plan is daring and means that the drug lords must assume the Surete du Quebec is incompetent since the drugs slip through Canada and into the US without hindrance.

The plot in Glass Houses is complex and Penny keeps readers holding their breath until all is revealed at the end.  Perhaps more than any of the other Gamache novels, Glass Houses stands alone and does not require knowledge of Three Pines and the villagers, though they certainly play a part.

The Cobrador del Frac, debt collector, frightens the villagers. Then Reine-Marie Gamache discovers a body in the church basement. Oddly, the body is wearing the Cobrador del Frac costume. What does that mean? Will this trial be the end of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Crown Prosecutor Zalmanowitz? Gamache has only recently cleaned out the Surete of corrupt officers. Is he now going to join them as someone corrupting justice? Will his plan to take down the drug cartels work? Even if the plan does work, will Gamache be censored and possibly lose his job over his method of attack?

Penny brings in thoughtful questions about conscience and justice. Is Gamache right to allow huge shipments of drugs to flow into the US with part of the drugs staying in Canada, thus endangering many lives in both countries? Using “burn the ships” as his mantra, Gamache risks a great deal in order to ensure success. One must be willing to burn the ships and cut off all sources of retreat in order to win the war on drugs. Gamache refers to what Ghandi deemed “the court of conscience, a court that supersedes all others.”

That court of conscience plays into the notion of using the Cobrador del Frac to shame someone without a conscience into admitting guilt. Glass Houses is a complex novel, sure to keep readers up reading late at night in order to discover who murders Katie Evans and why along with whether Gamache’s plan to kill the drug trade works as well as how these two are connected.

Read more about Louse Penny and her works at her site: http://www.louisepenny.com/.

Watch an interview with Louise Penny: https://www.cbsnews.com/videos/louise-penny-on-her-new-inspector-gamache-novel-glass-houses/

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The Book Whisperer Reviews The Bridal Chair

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The Bridal Chair by Gloria Goldreich tells the story of Ida Chagall, only child of artist Marc Chagall, born Moishe Shagal, and his wife Bella. Marc and Bella grew up in Vitebsk, Russia. Marc Chagall was born in 1887; at that time in Russia, Jewish children could not attend Russian schools or universities. Chagall went to a Jewish religious school. When Chagall was thirteen, his mother paid fifty rubles to the headmaster of a Russian school, so Chagall was accepted there. Chagall gained early recognition for his art. Robert Hughes, art critic, calls Chagall “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century.”

Chagall painted on canvas, but he also created book illustrations, stained glass windows, stage sets, ceramic art, and tapestries, thus creating art in many formats. He and Bella with their infant daughter Ida moved to Paris in 1922. Bella and Ida became Chagall’s most frequent models.

Goldreich begins The Bridal Chair with Ida’s eighteenth birthday. Ida is the protected, cherished only child of Marc and Bella Chagall. As such, Ida is privileged; however, at eighteen, she begins to chafe under the close supervision of her parents. She wants to spread her wings and become her own person. She persuades her parents to send her for a second year to a holiday camp “geared to the young adult children of Russian Jewish emigres, held in a French alpine encampment.”

The year before, Ida meets Michel Rapaport, a young Jewish man of modest means. The two fall in love and correspond by letter over the year they are apart. When they both go to the camp a second year, they become lovers. Ida thinks she is being careful, but she becomes pregnant. Telling her parents is difficult; Ida believes, however, they will support her. Too late, she discovers that her pregnancy enrages and disappoints her parents, especially her father.

Finally, Michel comes to the Chagall home and the four decide to terminate the pregnancy. To Ida’s surprise, though, her parents say Ida and Michel must marry. Michel’s parents feel the same. Ida thinks with the abortion that she can go on with her life and marry Michel later. Still, Ida and Michel bow to their parents. As a wedding gift, Chagall paints “The Bridal Chair” for Ida and Michel.

Ida and Michel start their married life under the cloud of rumors of war and the ever-encroachment of Hitler. Ida tries over and over to persuade her father to leave France and go to the US or anywhere to keep the family safe. Chagall, however, insists his famous name will protect the family.

Goldreich continues the story with the declaration of WWII. Finally in 1941, at Ida’s insistence, Marc and Bella travel to the US. Ida and Michel follow and Ida has a large portion of Chagall’s work on board the SS Navemar.  Ida continues as her father’s champion, promoting his work and taking care of the finances. Bella, always prone to illness and headaches, dies in 1944 of a viral infection.

Ida continues her life’s work of promoting her father’s art. She introduces Marc Chagall to Virginia McNeil, who becomes his mistress and bears him a son. Other women enter Marc’s life, especially Valentina, Vava, Brodsky, whom Marc marries, divorces, and remarries. Ida and Vava clash over the art work and the finances.

Gloria Goldreich is a graduate of Brandeis University. Later, she spent time in graduate studies of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her first published fiction was a short story in Seventeen; she entered it into a contest and won. She has since published fiction and critical essays in Commentary, McCall’s, Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, Mademoiselle, Ms., and many other journals.

Goldreich received a National Jewish Book Award for fiction in 1979 for Leah’s Journey. Other novels include Four Days, Promised Land, This Burning Harvest, Leah’s Children, West to Eden, Mothers, Years of Dreams, and That Year of Our War. Goldreich has published novels for young adults.

Read more about her at her Web site: http://www.gloriagoldreich.com/index.html

See an interview with Gloria Goldreich at https://youtu.be/KmHmiihq9JE

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews Shaun Tan

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I’m still working to meet my 2017 reading challenge. Also, I read an article about several graphic artists and graphic novels one should know. Shaun Tan was featured in the article along with other authors, but I have chosen two of Tan’s books to review here: The Bird King: An Artist’s Notebook and The Arrival.

The Bird King: An Artist’s Notebook provides insight into Shaun Tan’s creative process. He relates that “”I’m often wary of using the word ‘inspiration’ to introduce my work — it sounds too much like a sun shower from the heavens, absorbed by a passive individual enjoying an especially receptive moment. While that may be the case on rare occasions, the reality is usually far more prosaic. Staring at a blank piece of paper, I can’t think of anything original. I feel utterly uninspired and unreceptive. It’s the familiar malaise of ‘artist’s block’ and in such circumstances, there is only one thing to do: just start drawing.” The images below are from The Bird King: An Artist’s Notebook.

Although the book is full of drawings, it also includes notes from Tan about his creative process and thoughts. For example, in a post titled “Untold Stories,” Tan explains that he usually begins with images rather than words in order to tell a story. He tells readers that “a drawing feels successful to me when it is both clear and ambiguous.”

Later in the book in a note titled “Book, Theater, and Film,” Tan describes his process of working with film. He keeps drawings pinned all over the walls. As the project continues, he may rearrange the drawings, or even cut them apart and reposition them with other drawings, thus creating a new picture.

In the last note of the book, “Notebooks,” Tan explains that “it’s surprising what sense can emerge from nonsense, and how the juxtaposition of odd images on a page can have a serendipitous effect, catching ideas that might otherwise be hidden beneath the waves.” The entire book reflects Tan’s creative spirit; the pictures are in color and sepia-tone. The Bird King: An Artists’ Notebook is a lovely book, one a reader can enjoy over and over and always find something new to admire.

The Arrival depicts in sepia-tones without words the feelings of immigrants as they enter a new country. Critics and readers alike have found The Arrival touching and inspiring. Jeff Smith who wrote Bone describes The Arrival as “a shockingly imaginative graphic novel that captures the sense of adventure and wonder that surrounds a new arrival on the shores of a shining new city.”

Without words, The Arrival conveys the sense of wonder, strangeness, and fascination the immigrant feels upon arriving in a new country. Like most good books, The Arrival is one readers can return to and find something new each time.

Shaun Tan was born in 1974 in Perth, Western Australia. After graduating from the University of WA with degrees in fine arts and English literature, he began working full-time as a freelance artist in Melbourne. He has illustrated books on social, political, and historical material. In addition, he has contributed to films such as Horton Hears a Who and WALL-E. Learn more about Shaun Tan at his Web site: http://shauntan.net/.
 

The Book Whisperer Recommends…

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Many readers are familiar with the feeling of being so completely absorbed in a story or a character’s life that they do not want a book to end. I had just such a feeling about Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine; yet, I also wanted to finish the story unraveling Eleanor’s past in order to understand her current situation. People provides readers with this insight into Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine with this explanation: “This wacky, charming novel…draws you in with humor, then turns out to contain both a suspenseful subplot and a sweet romance…. Hilarious and moving.”

When we meet Eleanor, she has completed her university degree and is working in “an office. In almost nine years, no one’s ever asked what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there.” In truth, the firm is a small graphic design company where Eleanor works in accounts. She has a regular routine, bringing her lunch from home, eating in the office lunchroom, working her crosswords in the Daily Telegraph. She does not interact with anyone else in the office during lunch, or often during the rest of the day.

Eleanor is solitary and pays little attention to others around her. Generally, she finds them shallow, unmannerly, and uninteresting. Her weekends also are also spent in a routine. On Fridays on her way home from the office, she buys “a margherita pizza, some Chianti and two big bottles of Glen’s vodka.” She drinks the wine with the pizza and then drinks the two bottles of Glen’s over the rest of the weekend so that “spread throughout both days I am neither drunk nor sober. Monday takes a long time to come around.”

That early description in the book sets the stage for Eleanor’s dreary, repetitious life: daily work and semi-drunken weekends to ward off loneliness and nightmares. She ponders the question of her own existence. She even thinks she may be “a figment of my own imagination.” Eleanor is a faithful employee, consistently doing a good job, never missing a day, and rarely taking even all the vacation allotted to her. She knows she is the butt of her fellow employees’ jokes, but Eleanor prefers to ignore their jokes and pretend they do not exist even though they are all in an open office.

Eleanor reminds me of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. She answers honestly and directly when questioned. She also had difficulty understanding why others must be rude and disrespectful. Eleanor’s life might have gone on for many years in that same routine pattern of working every day, eating lunch alone, going home alone, and spending weekends in a semi-drunken stupor, but for a chance encounter at work.

After entering a charity raffle, Eleanor has won two tickets to a concert. She asks Billy from the office to accompany her to the concert “mainly because he was the youngest person in the office; for that reason, I assumed he’d enjoy the music.” At the concert, Eleanor is struck when the singer walks onto the stage. In Eleanor’s eyes, “he blazed. Everything he came into contact with would be changed. I sat forward on my seat, edged closer. At last, I’ve found him.”

Eleanor decides the singer who turns out to be Johnny Lomond, a handsome man. Eleanor builds quite a life for the two of them in her head because she is certain they are destined to meet, fall in love, and marry. To that end, she decides to reinvent herself. Readers are recognizing at this point that Eleanor has a distorted view of falling in love and living happily ever after. Still, she systematically sets about her task of reinvention and of meeting Johnny Lomond.

When Eleanor tries to log into her computer one morning, her password does not work. After several tries, she calls IT and finds that a new person has taken over IT: Raymond Gibbons. When Eleanor calls Raymond’s number, she is appalled at the message on his extension: “Hi, Raymond here, but also not here. Like Schrodinger’s cat. Leave a message after the beep. Cheers!” Despite her dismay at his message, she leaves this message for Raymond: “Good morning, Mr. Gibbons. My name is Miss Oliphant and I am the finance clerk. My computer has stopped working and I would be most grateful if you could see your way to repairing it today.”

Readers can see that Eleanor demonstrates the proper way to leave a voice mail even if the recorded message on the recipient’s voice mail is less than stellar. Raymond finally gets to Eleanor’s desk and clears up the virus that has attacked her computer and resets the firewall to protect her against further attack. Eleanor is not impressed with Raymond; his dress is sloppy and he “loped off with a strange bouncy walk, springing too hard on the balls of his feet.” He also wears trainers, not proper shoes!

To learn more about Lomond, Eleanor buys a laptop and mobile Internet access on Friday on her way home. She wants to research to discover as much as she can about her future husband. She discovers his Twitter account and follows him. She also learns about Instagram and looks at the photos he has posted. At this point, we start learning about Mummy. Mummy is in Eleanor’s head, but we discover that Mummy phones Eleanor every Wednesday evening. The conversations begin well, but Mummy always ends with some kind of jab at Eleanor and then hangs up the phone, leaving Eleanor with no opportunity to respond.

One Friday, soon after Raymond clears up the computer virus, Eleanor and Raymond are at an engagement party for a fellow employee. Eleanor stays only long enough to be polite. She wants to be off home to buy her pizza, wine, and Glen’s and so she can continue her research into Johnny Lomond. Unfortunately, Raymond is leaving the engagement party at the same time, so they walk out together much to Eleanor’s chagrin.

As Raymond and Eleanor continue down the sidewalk, they see an elderly man stumble and fall, dropping his shopping bags and continuing to lie without moving. At first, Eleanor and Raymond think the man is drunk. Then they discover he has a gash on his head. Raymond calls 999 to ask for an ambulance. When it arrives, Raymond goes with the man in the ambulance while Eleanor takes up the man’s shopping and takes it to her apartment. She agrees to meet Raymond at the hospital later and to take the shopping then.

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This chance encounter with the elderly man will change Eleanor’s life completely, although not all at once. The man is Sammy Thom, a man in his early seventies. Eleanor and Raymond visit Sammy in the hospital. Sammy is grateful to them for caring about him and seeing that he received care. Eleanor and Raymond meet Sammy’s adult children, two sons and Laura, a hair stylist.  After Sammy leaves the hospital, his children host a coming home party and invite Raymond and Eleanor. These visits with Sammy continue to throw Raymond and Eleanor together, but readers should not expect a romance to blossom right away. Eleanor is still determined to meet Johnny Lomond, her Mr. Right.

Still, slowly, ever so slowly, Eleanor’s routine begins to change. She now meets Raymond once a week for lunch at a café near their office; they are becoming friends, a new experience for Eleanor. At first, Eleanor is reluctant to eat at the café, but finally she orders a coffee and a cheese scone and discovers the scone is delicious. She learns how to converse with Raymond, even if the conversations are somewhat stiff at times. Raymond invites Eleanor to go with him to visit his mom. Eleanor finds that she has a lovely time meeting Raymond’s mom and having tea in her home.

As readers might expect, Eleanor soon learns that her fantasy of falling in love with Johnny and of his loving her in return turns out to be just that, a fantasy. She discovers he is a rude, vulgar man and immediately drops all her dreams of meeting him. She realizes she has been foolish and feels embarrassed.

The telephone calls with Mummy continue to be problematic. If Eleanor is not at home on a Wednesday evening to take Mummy’s call, Mummy is very angry. Though the course of the story, readers learn bits and pieces about Eleanor; she is alone in the world. She has been in foster care and group homes. She still receives visits from social workers.

Eleanor has been stockpiling pills for some time; she plans to kill herself. When she does not show up for work for four days, a real rarity for Eleanor, Raymond finds her address through HR and knocks on the door until Eleanor groggily drags herself to the door. Raymond comes into an apartment full of empty Glen’s vodka bottles, Eleanor’s vomit, and an array of tools for suicide: “Painkillers (twelve packets of twenty-four tablets, prescribed and carefully hoarded); bread knife (hardly used, shark’s teeth ready to bite); drain cleaner (“cuts through all blockages, even hair and grease” –also flesh and internal organs.”

Raymond cleans up Eleanor’s bedroom first, putting clean, fresh sheets on the bed. Then he puts Eleanor gently into the bed under the covers and she promptly falls asleep. He cleans up the rest of the apartment, flushing the pills down the drain. He makes soup for Eleanor and persuades her to drink water. Raymond saves Eleanor.

Because of the suicide attempt, Eleanor takes a leave of absence from the office and begins seeing a counselor, Maria Temple. At first, Eleanor is quite wary and standoffish with Maria. Mummy is off limits during the sessions until one day Eleanor mentions Marianne. That name brings many memories to the surface and Eleanor slowly opens up to Maria. At the same time, Eleanor and Raymond resume their weekly café lunches.

The therapy sessions with Maria help Eleanor to decide she will tell Mummy goodbye. Raymond also tells Eleanor that he has done some research and has discovered what happened in Eleanor’s childhood. At first, Eleanor tells Raymond she is not ready to rediscover the past horror. After a few more weeks of meeting with Maria, Eleanor is ready, and she and Raymond read the newspaper accounts together. Eleanor returns to work and is welcomed back by all of her coworkers. That is not to say the story is “happily ever after.” Eleanor has much to do to repair all the hurt; she is truly moving forward for the first time in her life and finding happiness in the world around her.

Janet Maslin in the New York Times calls Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine “a charmer…satisfyingly quirky.” I agree! Reese Witherspoon will produce a movie based on the novel.

Read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine! You will be glad.

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews The Cherokee Strip

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Marquis James wrote The Cherokee Strip: A Tale of an Oklahoma Boyhood at his daughter’s behest. She asked her dad, “Pop, why don’t you write some of the things you tell about instead of what you do write?” James told readers in the preface that he wrote about what he himself knew about the Oklahoma Strip with the “object to give an idea of what the place was like in those days.” William W. Savage, Jr., remarks in the forward that The Cherokee Strip is a “personal book that tells us a great deal about Marquis James. Savage goes on to write that “[Marquis James] was a boy seemingly into everything.” Readers can agree to that notion.

Marquis James was born 29 August 1891 in Springfield, MO. Houstin [sic] and Rachel Marquis James, Marquis’s parents, took the family to a claim near Enid about 1894. Marquis had two much older sisters, Zoe and Nan, and two sisters who did not survive infancy. The two sisters had married and moved to Chicago when Marquis begins his tale of his boyhood in OK.

Clearly, Marquis was a bright child; he learned to read by the age of four and was especially interested in history. His mother had a large collection of history books and Marquis took advantage of those. His father was a lawyer. Their finances went up and down with his father hoping to secure a fortune from striking oil. Sadly, that dream never materialized. The picture below is dated 1910, just a year before Marquis James left Oklahoma in pursuit of his newspaper career.

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Marquis met a number of interesting people as he grew up, including outlaws like Arkansas Tom and Dick Yeager. At first, the family lived on a farm; when Marquis was ten, the family moved into Enid. Once they lived in town, Marquis’s world expanded considerably. He found odd jobs all over town so he could earn pocket money. When he lived in the country, trips to town were occasional and his parents would give him money. Living in town proved to be expensive, so Marquis decided he needed to earn money. He swept his father’s law office and other offices, also emptying and cleaning the spittoons in those offices.

He became interested in sign-painting and in setting type for the newspaper. Eventually, though he thought working as a typesetter more interesting, he began writing for the paper. At first, he had to write personals such as who visited whom and who painted his barn or put up a new addition to a home. He also wrote poetry which the paper printed. He began with original poetry, but he also did some plagiarizing in that he took published poems and changed a few words here and there and called them his own.

When Marquis was in high school, his father died suddenly and unexpectedly. Marquis and his mother found that their home and other property was mortgaged and his father’s law firm was in debt. His brother-in-law, an attorney in Chicago, stepped in and helped Marquis and his mother. Marquis also took whatever jobs he could to help. His mother refused to allow him to drop out of school, however.

Marquis James included one anecdote after another in The Cherokee Strip.  Readers certainly develop a sense of life during those early years in OK. James left Oklahoma by 1911, so his stories in The Cherokee Strip all predate that time.

When the family still lived on the farm, Marquis saw a picture of a boy who was following a horse along a path beside a creek. The horse seemed to be pulling a funny-looking boat.” When Marquis asked his mother about the picture, she told him the boy was James A. Garfield and that the horse was pulling a canal boat. She went on to tell him that Garfield was “a good boy, who worked hard and studied hard and obeyed his mother and got to be President of the United States.” Marquis felt sorry that he had no canal or horse so he could guide the horse to pull the canal boat and thus become President of the United States.

One of the stories I liked best occurred when Marquis’s father took Marquis to school. Marquis was excited about going to school, but he did not reckon on having to wear shoes! His father told Marquis that he would get Marquis “boots—red-topped, copper-toed boots.” His father went on to say that he himself had had such a pair of boots and had worn them everywhere.

Marquis got into trouble often enough, mostly for little infractions. However, when the family first moved into Enid, they ate breakfast his mama cooked on a gasoline stove in the Cogdal-McKee Building where his dad had his law office. They ate “their dinners and suppers at the Donly Hotel.” Marquis treated his friends to meals in the Donly only to learn that “Mr. Donly’s dinners cost fifty cents apiece.” That put an end to Marquis’s generosity.

In high school. Marquis founded the Enid High School newspaper, The Quill. He went on to become a newspaper reporter, working in such cities as New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York. James helped found the New Yorker Magazine and covered the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. He wrote The Raven: A Biography of Sam Houston, which received a Pulitzer Prize in 1930. He received another Pulitzer Prize in 1937 for two books about Andrew Jackson: Andrew Jackson: The Border Captain and Andrew Jackson: Portrait of a President.

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Marquis James married Bessie Williams Rowland, also a journalist. They collaborated on a number of books, particularly biographies for children. They had one daughter, Cynthia. In 1952, Marquis and Bessie divorced. Marquis then married Jacqueline Mary Parsons in 1954. The two of them collaborated on books as well. He died in Rye, NY, in 1955.

 

Read about Marquis James at this Oklahoma Historical Society link: http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=JA007.

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews A Friend’s New Book

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Readers are often familiar with the stories of Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps during WWII. Fearing the Japanese-Americans would send messages to Japan to undermine the American war effort. This relocation project meant over 120,000 people, many of whom had been born in the US, were evicted from their homes and sent to various camps across the US. Though their story is less well-known, German-Americans also faced detention as enemy aliens. During WWII, the United States detained 11,000 ethnic Germans, some were sent to internment camps while others were watched.

Different Days by Vicki Berger Erwin centers on German-Americans in Honolulu beginning with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We learn about the family through eleven-year-old Rosie. Rosie and her younger brother Freddie live with their mom and dad near Pearl Harbor. On that Sunday, December 7, the noise of explosions shatters the air. Papa wonders if a fuel tank has exploded.

Rosie and Freddie dash into the yard and watch planes flying overhead. They run and play pretending to be in the Army. Rosie notices the planes look different from the ones she is used to seeing; a bad feeling creeps over her. Then Mama calls Rosie and Freddie into the house: “Schnell Lieblinge!” They know she means business.

Mama and Papa are German-Americans. Mama had been born in America and Papa had become a naturalized citizen. Both are staunch supporters of the United States. Little does Rosie know that the bombs being released upon Pearl Harbor will also unleash horror on her own life.

Papa has a store where he repairs and sells radios. Mama runs a kindergarten in their home; that allows young working mothers a safe, nurturing place for their children. Malia, who has formerly owned the kindergarten, now works with Mama as a second teacher.

On Monday, with no school due to the bombing, Rosie helps her mother with the kindergarten children, at least those who show up. Papa has gone to work. Soon, two men in dark suits knock on the door. The men ask for Mr. and Mrs. Schatzer. They learn Mr. Schatzer is at work; they demand that Mrs. Schatzer go with them. When she protests that she needs to care for the children, they tell her they are not requesting her to go.

Rosie is puzzled about why the men would be so gruff and why they would take her mother, an American citizen, away for questioning. She will soon learn the situation only gets worse. Papa is taken from his store. Two carloads of men come to the house and remove all the radios and flashlights; they search the house. The men return from upstairs with the camera, some books written in German, and photographs taken in Germany and at Pearl Harbor taken by their Aunt Etta. Aunt Etta’s photographs have been published in newspapers and magazines.

Rosie still cannot understand why these items are so important to the hateful men in her home. The men all leave, taking the items they have confiscated with the. Another car pulls up in front of the house. Rosie breathe a sigh of relief because Aunt Etta climbs out of the car. Unfortunately, Aunt Etta will also soon be detained herself leaving the children. Rosie calls her mother’s older sister, Aunt Yvonne, to ask is she will come stay with her and Freddie until her parents return. Aunt Yvonne is married to an American, not of German descent. She is stuffy and standoffish, not at all like Mama and Aunt Etta. She agrees the children can stay with her because she could not possibly stay in their home, her because “I have far too many responsibilities here, my dear.” Readers soon learn her responsibilities are meeting her friends and shopping. Still, as the adult, Aunt Yvonne holds power over Rosie and Freddie.

Rosie, thinking she and Freddie will stay only a few days with Aunt Yvonne, does not pack much for herself and her brother. In fact, she forgets two of the most important items to her: her journal and her spelling guide. Rosie is a champion speller, and she practices her spelling often to keep her skills sharp.

Staying with Aunt Yvonne also means Rosie and Freddie will be in the house with their teenaged cousin Rainer, who is mean-spirited. Aunt Yvonne reminds me of the aunt who takes in Seita and his little sister Setsuko after the attack that destroys Kobe, killing their mother, in 1945. Their mean-spirited aunt takes the children into her home temporarily, but she mistreats them. Akiyuki Nosaka tells the semibiographical story in the anime movie Grave of the Fireflies.

Rosie loves mystery stories, so she determines that she will discover what has happened to her parents. She watches and listens for clues. Unfortunately, she has forgotten her journal, so she cannot write down her thoughts. She manages to find some scraps of paper until she decides she will sneak into Rainer’s room and find a notebook. He won’t miss it as long as she can slip in and out without being seen.

Being resourceful, Rosie thinks that going back to her home will provide her with some clues. She learns that Malia is now living in the Schatzer home. Malia tells Rosie the home is now hers and that she is again running the kindergarten. Rosie finds that information puzzling. Late, she takes some change from Rainer’s room and rides the bus to her father’s store only to find it closed. Later, she learns where her parents are being kept and blackmails Rainer into taking her to the fort in order to ask to see her parents and Aunt Etta. Of course, she is denied the opportunity to see them, only leading to more pain and frustration.

In Aunt Yvonne’s home, Rosie and Freddie are treated unkindly. Aunt Yvonne considers them dirty, noisy nuisances. Rosie does her best to entertain Freddie and keep him out of Aunt Yvonne’s way. Uncle Charlie is kind to the children, but he is seldom at home; he even goes to work on Christmas Day. When Rosie protests, he says, “War doesn’t take holidays.”

Rosie continues to watch and listen trying to find out what will happen next. She especially wants her parents and Aunt Etta to come home. Readers will feel the growing disappointment and the feelings of loss. While Aunt Yvonne provides a place for the children to stay and food for them to eat, she lacks any warmth or love.

Eventually, the family is reunited. Rebuilding their lives is not easy. When Rosie sees her parents after their release, she feels she is dreaming or losing her mind. Papa calls her name, “Rosalie!” Her parents are wearing the clothes they left in, but now the clothes “hung on them. Papa’s hair was shorter that she remembered and Mama’s was tied back with a scarf.”

Vicki Berger Erwin reveals the source of her story in the “Historical Note” found at the end of the book. It is based on the true story of Doris Berg, who, like Rosie, watched the bombs fall on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The following day, just as for Rosie, life for Doris and her younger sister changed drastically. Doris had the same questions as Rosie about why her parents were targeted when they certainly were not enemy aliens. Finally, Doris and her sister are reunited with their parents. For a long time, the family did not speak of the incarceration. Mr. Berg told his daughters: “Only cowards give up, so pick up your bootstraps, move forward, and achieve.”

Vicki Erwin grew up in Mexico, MO, where she began her voracious reading habits which certainly continue to this day. She has written twenty-six books. Different Days is the most recent and it publishes October 3, 2017. She is currently co-authoring a book with her son Bryan: Slaying in South St. Louis: The murder of Nancy Zanone. It is slated for publication in late spring 2018.

Vicki’s first book was Jamie and the Mystery Quilt.

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Vicki’s husband Jim Erwin is also a writer. They are both friends of mine since Jim and my husband grew up together in Springfield, MO. Vicki sent me an advance copy of Different Days and I am pleased to write a review of a little told story of German-Americans who were detained during WWII. Vicki is a talented writer!

Read more about Vicki Berger Erwin at her Web site: https://www.vickibergererwin.com/.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Book Whisperer Reviews A Piece of the World

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Christina Baker Kline wrote A Piece of the World centered on Anna Christina Olson, whom Kline describes as “Andrew Wyeth’s muse and his inspiration. In each other, I believe, they came to recognize their own contradictions. Both embraced austerity but craved beauty; both were curious about other people and yet pathologically private.” The story takes readers back and forth in Christina’s life, from her early childhood until her late life.

Wyeth meets Christina when he is twenty-two and she is forty-six. They meet because of Betsy James, Wyeth’s soon-to-be wife who has known Christina since Betsy was eight and Christina was in her thirties. Wyeth becomes fascinated with the Olson home, formerly called the Hathorn House, and with Christina and her brother Al who remain in the family home. In fact, Wyeth said of the house, “The world of New England is in that house, spidery, like crackling skeletons lost at sea…. It’s the doorway of the sea to me, of mussels and clams and sea monsters and whales.” He spent the next thirty summers using the empty rooms upstairs as his studio.

Christina’s family came from Massachusetts to setting in Cushing, Maine. In 1743, according to Mamey, Christina’s maternal grandmother, brothers Samuel and William Hathorn and William’s son Alexander left Massachusetts, moving to Maine in the middle of winter. Alexander’s son Samuel became a sea captain. He built the two-story wood-frame house in 1793 on the foundation of the original cabin built by Samuel, William, and Alexander. The first three Hathorns left Massachusetts because their relative Judge Hathorne had presided over the Salem Witch Trials. To distance themselves from him, they move to Maine and drop the “e” from their name.

Christina’s grandfather, Samuel IV descended from those original Hathorn men who settled in Maine. He, too, became a sea captain. Unlike many other seafaring men, he took his wife, Christina’s Mamey, on the ship with him, so she had been to many exotic places. They also took their children along. Finally, Samuel retired from the sea and settled his family in the old house built in 1793, Hathorn Point.  Sadly, his three sons died, leaving Christina’s mother as the only surviving child.

When Christina’s mother was in her thirties and unmarried. Mamey tells Christina about “dauthtering out,” which means “no heirs survived to carry on the family name. Your mother was the last of the Cushing Hathorns.” John Olson, then Johan Olauson, a sailor from Sweden, six years younger than Christina’s mother, showed up at the door to court the Hathorn heir, Christina’s mother. They were soon married and John became a farmer instead of a sailor.

Christina’s life is hard. She develops Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a hereditary motor and sensory neuropathy. It affects her muscles, causing her progressive loss of the muscles and loss of touch sensation in her hands and feet. Christina suffers from this disorder her whole life, becoming progressively worse. She stumbles and falls frequently, so she has burns and scabs and scars on her arms and legs. Much later, when he is in his fifties, her father also develops Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease; at least the worst symptoms for him show up then, much later than they began affecting Christina.

Kline takes readers back into the past to help them understand Christina’s lot in life, the background of her family, the taint of the Salem witch trials on the family, and the loss that haunted the family. Christina is bright and articulate. She loves learning. Mrs. Crowley, the teacher in the one-room school, asks Christina to stay on and become her helper when Christina finishes the mandatory eight years of schooling. However, Christina’s papa says no because he says Christina’s mother needs help at home. Christina offers several ways she could help her mother and still help Mrs. Crowley eventually taking Mrs. Crowley’s place as the local teacher. However, her father is firm and that’s the end of the discussion. Mrs. Crowley’s parting gift to Christina is a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Mrs. Crowley tells Christina, “I want to say, Christina, that you are … unusual. And somehow… your mind—your curiosity—will be your comfort.”

Christina often finds comfort in Dickinson’s poetry. She especially understands the following:

This is my letter to the world

That never wrote to me—

The simple news that Nature told—

With tender majesty—

The story moves back and forth from Christina’s growing up to her meeting Andrew Wyeth and on into her later years. Struggling to deal with her progressive disease, Christina refuses to use a wheelchair as her father has done. Eventually, she has to drag her body from place to place. In her kitchen, she uses a wooden chair to bump her way between the stove and the table in order to perform her daily tasks. Through the story, readers receive a clear picture of Christina and Al’s lives on the farm.

Both Christina and Al suffer heartbreak and loss of love, leaving them to live out their lives in the ancestral home while their two younger brothers marry and have families. Life on the farm is hard, but it is not without pleasure and beauty, stark as it may be. Andrew Wyeth recognized that and portrayed it in his work.

At twenty-five after a trip to Boston, Christina speaks of memories. In reading My Antonia, she finds a line that is meaningful to her: “Some memories are realities and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.”

Christina’s World may be the most famous of the paintings Wyeth created from his inspiration there. It depicts Christina wearing her favorite color, pink, and crawling across the field.  When others would ask why Christina’s World was Christina’s favorite of all the paintings Wyeth did, she replied, “You know pink is my favorite color. Andy put me where he knew I wanted to be. Now that I can’t be there anymore, all I do is think of that picture and I’m there.”

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After Wyeth meets Christina and Al and begins painting them and their farm, his painting technique and style changed significantly. About that same time, Wyeth’s father, N.C. Wyeth died in a railway accident. Both of these events caused Andrew Wyeth to mute his palette, use more barren landscapes and plaintive figures.

A Piece of the World gives readers a look into a stark and unforgiving world, yet also portrays the strength in the human character. It provides insight and helps readers understand as Wyeth himself said, “My memory can be more of a reality than the thing itself.”

Hathorn Point is now protected as a National Historic Landmark, owned by the Farnsworth Art Museum. Visitors can tour the home which reopened in 2016 after extensive restoration.

Christina Baker Kline researched Christina’s family life. She also spent a great deal of time learning about Andrew Wyeth and his paintings. She portrays both Christina and her extended family with warmth and sincerity. Read more about Kline at her Web site: http://christinabakerkline.com/. Watch an interview with Christina Baker Kline: https://youtu.be/9U-FGbTx-0A