Category Archives: Book Review

Catching Fireflies: A Book Review

Catching Fireflies book coverTony Rocca and his wife Mira left their London jobs and moved to Tuscany, Italy. He was a journalist and she was a travel agent, but they agreed to leave city life behind, and venture into the quaint countryside of Italy. They purchased an old farm that was in sore need of repair and love with the intent of turning it into a small hotel.

 Sounds easy enough right? Well, not really. The red tape, bureaucracy and mistrust of foreigners combined to make them think that they had made a huge mistake. They lived at another location while the repairs were being made and their landlady proved to be a thorn in their sides for many years to come. They moved into their hotel but whenever they felt that there had been some level of sabotage, they would look at each other and call the jealous woman’s name and say, “Mafalda.”

 However, they stayed the course and after going through a host of workers, they finally got the hotel up and running. There are colorful photographs in the book to show how their beloved Collelungo looked before and after its repairs. They also worked the vineyards on their property and became grape growers and sellers of fine wine. What they accomplished is just short of miraculous!

 Tony Rocca is a very descriptive writer who uses beautiful metaphors, similes and analogies as he makes his readers see and feel the Italian landscape. As I sit here listening to the late summer cicadas sing, I remember Tony writing about the sounds of the cicadas and the light from the illusive fireflies. The Italian children sang:

Firefly, firefly come to me,
I will give you the bread of the king.
The bread of the king and of the queen-
Firefly, firefly come to me.

 Interestingly, our area has an unusual amount of both cicadas and fireflies this summer. One of our local weathermen talked about watching the fireflies light up his backyard the other night and he said that we have more this year because of the rainy spring.

We used to watch the neighborhood boys catch them when I was a child. They put them in Mason jars that had holes punched in the lids so the bugs could breathe. We called them lightening bugs and it was amazing to see how they could they could turn on their lights at will.

Yet, quite like the intriguing yet short-lived fireflies, all good things must come to an end. The bureaucracy and red tape eventually caught up with the Roccas and a long-standing court case brought their Italian years to an end. They had to move on from the Collelungo, but the fond memories are forever etched in the psyches of Tony, Mira and all those that they met and touched during their twelve-year stay!

Lynn M.                     August 3, 2019

 

Britt-Marie Was Here: A Book Review

Britt-Marie

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman features a 63-year old woman named Britt-Marie who is determined to find a job after leaving her husband, Kent.  She helped him raise his two children from a former marriage and has never held down a job.

She doesn’t know her own value nor strength because he often criticized her and told her she had no sense of humor.  She leaves after he continually cheats on her and comes home smelling like pizza and strange perfume.

Britt-Marie goes to the unemployment office and the lady working there lets her know that she has nothing for her.  But Britt-Marie, who appears to be sporadic in her thinking, goes back everyday and almost begins to harass the woman. She even cooks for her and plants herself into the office worker’s everyday life.  She often calls the woman on her cell phone and the confused and exasperated woman from the unemployment office finally tells her that she has found one job.

It is as a caretaker for a recreation center in a town called Borg about 25 miles away. Britt-Marie packs up her car and heads to Borg and thus the story unfolds.  The author uses an interesting technique of making the reader wonder if Britt-Marie is mentally sound.  Perhaps this is Blackman’s way of sharing how broken she was from living with a domineering husband and being raised in the shadows of her preferred, now deceased sister.

However, Britt-Marie forges ahead and silently has a persistence and resolve that shock those around her.  She finds the recreation center after meeting the woman who ran the pizza shop which was also the main eatery, the post office and the car repair shop.  Borg had fallen on hard times after the trucking company left town.  It was where the men worked and most of the women work at the town hospital.

Borg has become a city of broken dreams and hopelessness. There are For Sale signs in almost every lawn. But Britt-Marie has a cleaning fetish and she keeps her baking soda and special cleanser called Faxin, on hand.  It provides her the therapy that she needs as she dives in and cleans the dirty and long forgotten Rec Center.  As she is going in the center one day, she is knocked unconscious by a soccer ball.

When she regained consciousness, there are children standing around her and this is how Vega, Omar and host of others make their way into her life.  Overtime, she cleans their jerseys, reignites their hearts and eventually becomes their soccer coach.  The town is inspired, and they too attend the games and the For-Sale signs start coming down

Britt-Marie also uses her cleaning frenzies to clean the dirty pizza shop.  She sets things in order in a variety of ways and even reawakens the town’s enthusiasm and interest in soccer. Subtly, her thinking processes seem to iron out and her confidence begins to climb like the mercury on a thermometer.

Many s take notice of her and she makes friends with the woman in the pizza shop who is called Somebody along with a few others.  This is the first time that she’s ever really had friends.  The local policeman, Sven takes a special liking to her. They start having coffee together and she trusts him to drive her around after her car is damaged.

And then, as she is recovering and growing, her husband Kent shows up.  He convinces her to come back home and promises her that the affair is over.  He comes to Borg and is first quite arrogant but backs down and appears to be somewhat reformed. She keeps putting him off until she can tie up some loose ends.

Kent uses his business acumen and helps her go to the city council and get a soccer pitch for the kids’ soccer team.

The book closes with Britt-Marie walking and thinking.  She had knocked on Sven’s door though he was not there.  He had asked her to do so many times in the past.  Kent is waiting at a hotel for her to knock on his door the next morning.  Yet there is a slight indication that he knew it might be too late for him.

The reader is unsure which door Britt-Marie knocks on to start another chapter of her life.  But one thing is certain; Britt-Marie left a big mark on the hearts on the people of Borg.

Lynn M.                                                                                         May 13, 2019

You Get What You Need!

 

The Blue Bottle Club: Newly Repackaged Edition

The Blue Bottle Club by Penelope J. Stokes is a well-crafted piece.  I also read another work by Stokes called Circle of Grace where she used creative techniques to tell the tale.  Her writings seem to mirror life as she shows how the puzzle pieces fall together after her characters are confounded by life’s mysteries.

In this book, Brendan Delaney is a news reporter who is doing a story on a historic landmark that is about to be demolished in Ashville, North Carolina.  It is a huge house that once belonged to the Cameron family and was later used for other city events.  As she is about to leave the property, a guy on her crew gives her a blue-bottle that he had found in the attic.

She tucks it away and later discovers that it has four notes inside written by four teen girls.  They each write what they would like to achieve in life and vow to remain friends on that Christmas Day in 1929, the year of the stock market crash.

It is now some 65 years later, and Brendan immediately wonders what became of the women who would now be in their 80’s if still alive.  This story seems to pull on her and is just the impetus she needs because she has begun to lose her drive for her job and her faith had been waning for quite some time.

With her station manager’s approval, she takes on the momentous task of searching for Leticia Cameron, Adora Archer, Eleanor James and Mary Love.  Did Leticia marry her beloved wealthy boyfriend and have lots of babies as she had vowed?  Had Adora become a successful actress in Hollywood?  Had Eleanor become a social worker like  Jane Addams? And, had Mary Love become a great artist and painter as she dreamed?

Brendan, who rarely prayed had uttered the prayer,” Please God.  Please let them still be alive.” After that, she followed a lead and went to a nearby church that the Archer family had once attended.   She met the current pastor and sure enough, he referred her to Dorothy Parker, a senior in her 90’s who lived at the local home for the aged.  From there, the door to discovery swung open as Brendan was pointed to the whereabouts of Leticia Cameron who was a short distance away.

Brendan’s journey begins as she hopes to interview each woman and see how their lives turned out.  In her search for the truth, Brendan finds a new-found faith, friendships and a sense of belonging.  But what happened in these women’s lives?  Did she find them all still alive as she had prayed?

Read this remarkable story which is filled with life lessons, faith and perseverance. See how these four women’s lives turned out in the long run.  The Blue Bottle Club is filled with many strong prayers and Brendan comes out much richer in the end.

The Rollin’ Stones song You Can’t Always Get What You Want best exemplifies the message of this book.  Push play and enjoy this 1969 version of their song!

Lynn M.                                                                                   January 19, 2019

 

Good ’til the Last Drop!

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I had to read The Octopus by Frank Norris in college but at the time, I was too young and immature to appreciate Norris’ writing talent and I had no interest in the story itself.  But I just finished The Pit: The Story of Chicago and I was mesmerized by his ability to paint such clear images through his choice of words and of course, the locale of Chicago kept me on the edge of my seat.

The Pit takes place in the early 1900’s and it is set in the heart of Chicago.  I could see every step that Curtis Jadwin and Laura Dearborn took before and after they married.  They settled off North Avenue close to the Conservatory in Lincoln Park.  She often spent her lonely evenings riding her horse over to the park where she listened to the waves of Lake Michigan for consolation.

Her husband was a financial guru, known as the Unknown Bull who privately controlled the stock market.  Wheat was king at the time.  He worked at the Board of Trade Center which is located at the south end of LaSalle.  Coincidently, my first job in the Loop was steps away so it was easy to envision him going in and out of the building.

The only things that seemed different about places such as The Palmer House or the rumbling of the elevated train was the time and era.  The men and women dressed differently and were still traveling by horse and buggy, but the Chicago streets are the same and the gamut of human emotions that the characters felt remain unchanged.

This story, the second of a trilogy, shows how people get so caught up in the game of winning that they lose sight of what is truly important in life.  Jadwin controls the stock market and has already amassed millions but cannot let go of the fervor of the chase.

The Jadwins’ mansion is humongous, and they do not even remember all of the rooms in their home.  Laura has many gowns, yet she does not have anywhere to wear them all. They have a summer home at Lake Geneva but eventually, they do not have time to get there because Jadwin needs to stay on top of the game of speculating the wheat prices.  It gets to the point where he stays in a downtown hotel and does not always go home to Laura.

Invariably, it all begins to come crashing down after Jadwin’s identity is exposed and his dear friend kills himself. Jadwin finally loses all his wealth.  As things spiral out of control, Laura seriously considers having an affair with an artist-friend who always loved her.

Jadwin physically and mentally breaks down and after a near-death experience, he vows to start anew. The beautiful, self-centered Laura stops focusing on her own personal needs and nurses her husband back to health.  The Pit closes with him and Laura leaving Chicago and heading out west to start a new business venture.  They have just a little more than the clothes on their backs, but they have finally realized that the greatest of these is love.

Lynn M.                                                                                December 15, 2018

The Forgotten Road

Forgotten Road

Maya Angelou wrote a book called, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now.  Well in The Forgotten Road (Richard Paul Evans), Charles James takes a long unexpected journey.  He is a highly successful businessman who is presumed to have died in a plane crash.  But as fate would have it, he did not board the flight because he ran back to get his bag.

Yet, when he decides to attend his memorial service in disguise, he sees that the place is basically empty.   He realizes that it is the perfect time to use this opportunity to take a long walk. He sets out on the old Route 66 and his goal is to end up in California where he hopes to make amends with his former wife, Monica.

Each town teaches him something about the American landscape but more importantly, he has time to take a look within himself.  He has a backpack full of cash because he is a multimillionaire so supply is no problem for him. He meets many interesting everyday people along the way and some leave greater imprints than others.

One woman saves his life by giving him a ride in a dangerous area.  He rewards her richly.  Another man makes him take a deeper look into his spiritual beliefs when he shares his near-death experience.  Charles is left plenty of time to ponder his life more deeply and each encounter further pounds into his psyche.

Probably, the most memorable character is Eddie, a Mexican migrant worker.  Charles is forced to live and work as a migrant worker after he was is robbed by a motorcycle gang.  His soul is opened while living that life for a week.  He sees how the workers have to take whatever they are given because they are undocumented and have no other recourse.

Ultimately he is forced to look at his father’s life towards whom he still harbored a strong resentment. His father, also a migrant worker, was harsh and treated Charles as he had been treated by his father.   Charles soon realizes that those circumstances helped to shape him into becoming a financial success.

Now, if he would add a dose of humility, kindness and love, he could work towards becoming a whole person. He breaks down and calls his assistant, Amanda because he is out of cash.  After she is slowly convinced that it is indeed him, she shows up at his hotel.  She tells him that he  has changed.  She notices a greater calm and peace.

At the end of the book, Charles has only made it halfway across the country. Readers will have to wait for the sequel to see what happens when he gets to California.  He fully intends to complete his walk which will end up at Monica’s doorstep at the end of Route 66!

 

Lynn M.                                                            August 4, 2018

Sparks Fly!

My first encounter with the whole concept of mail-order brides was when I saw Glenn Close and Christopher Walken in the movie Sarah, Plain and Tall.  I didn’t know about this piece of Amercan history. I later picked up the book by Patricia MacLachlan to get an added perspective from the original writer.

Just think of the risks taken by both the man ordering the bride and the brave woman who traveled during the stagecoach days to meet a total stranger.  In this piece, they both agreed to keep their vows and often life in the West was so challenging that they rarely had time to really get to know each other.

Remembering the gruffness of Christopher Walken, one would wonder if love was ever a part of the deal.  Gwen Close was busy learning the harshness of the Western plains and raising his children.  What a life!  Yet when Close was almost lost in a storm, I believe he realized how much he valued and treasured her presence.

Recently, I visited my local library and picked up a book called Beneath the Prairie Moon by Kim Vogel Sawyer.  I was drawn to its cover and did not realize that it was about mail-order brides until I started reading the book.

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It is 1888 in Spiveyville, Kansas.  Over sixteen men have paid a fee for a mail-order bride and are waiting for their arrival from Newton, Massachusetts.  However, when they go to meet the stagecoach, only two women get out.  They are the owner, Helena Bingham and her assistant, Abigail Grant.

The men are shocked and dismayed and even more so when they discover the plans of these Eastern women.  The men must take a variety of classes in etiquette so that they will know how to treat a lady. Of course, they are outraged, but with the Sherriff’s protection of the women, the prairie men soon comply and go along.

Needless to say, there are a few bumps in the road and the women’s stay is unexpectedly lengthened.  The women have to put their airs and hoity-toity ways on the back burner as they are forced to dig in and find ways to survive prairie life.

The men soften some too and the classes get underway, until the unthinkable happens.  Helena Bingham, the owner of the matchmaking business, disappears. Everyone puts their aside their warring ways and aid in the search for her.

Will Helena Bingham be found alive?  Will the men complete their classes on etiquette?  And most importantly, will their brides that they have paid for arrive from the East? Get this book and watch the sparks fly up and see where they land!

Lynn M.                                                                            July 21, 2018

Our Souls at Night: Book to Film

Our Souls at night-bookIsn’t nice when a writer leaves a screenwriter some material that he or she can mold and make come to life?  Well, the late Kent Haruf did just that when he wrote Our Souls at Night.  I happened to pick it up from the New Books Shelf at the public library.

The plot is unique where a widow knocks on her neighbor’s door who is a widower and asks him to do something quite unusual.  She, Addie Moore, asks him to come over and spend the nights with her. She admits that the nights are the hardest for her and she simply wants to talk.

Louis Waters, a former high school teacher, is taken aback and quietly contemplates her offer.  They both have been alone for years and ultimately each feels that there is little to lose. So, on the next night, he travels through the alley with his pajamas and a toothbrush in a paperback. He knocks on her back door and thus, the story unfolds.

In the small town where they live, tongues start wagging but they are in their seventies and they are quite oblivious to what others think about their actions. They proceed and share many intimate details of their lives.

She talks about the tragic loss of her young daughter who was hit by a car.  Both her husband and son basically shut down and their marriage suffered along with the loss of any intimacy.  He, on the other hand, had an affair with a school teacher which almost ruined his marriage and did indeed destroy the other woman’s marriage.

Both Addie and Louis continue their new routine and at one point, they decide to make a public showing.  As others gawk, they walk down a main street arm in arm.  Just as they are reveling in their new-found friendship, the unthinkable happens.

Addie’s son calls and says that his wife has abandoned the family and that his finances are in shambles.  He asks her to take in her seven-year old grandson Jamie for the summer. This leaves Louis wondering how and if he will fit into the new scenario.

Fortunately, Jamie is in need of a lot of comfort, so the three of them have a number of experiences that help them bond.  He accepts and gets used to Louis coming over at night; they play catch ball; they go on a hike in the mountains and Louis gets him a dog as a reassuring companion.

And then, crash.  Gene, Addie’s son comes to her house outraged that she is allowing Louis to stay over around his son and things get pretty salty.  It was a prime example of how some people cannot run their own lives, but they still feel the need to control others.

As I was reading the book, I met a woman who saw the cover and told me that Our Souls at Night had been made into a movie.  To my astonishment, not only was it a movie, it starred Jane Fonda and Robert Redford.  Who knew?  I was excited and knew that I had to compare the two after finishing the book.

Souls-movie

Afterwards, I was able to see a blurred version of the 2017 movie on You Tube which I observed closely. The script pretty much followed the book with a few exceptions.  In the book, Louis used a family of mice to entertain little Jamie but the movie chose an electric train set instead.  Also, the movie added a scene which included Louis’ adult daughter Holly.  And most importantly, it minimized the son’s aversion to their union and this made for a much lighter ending.

When I finished the book, I was a bit disturbed because Addie was so vulnerable and was being victimized by her controlling son.  He made her leave her house after she experienced a fall.  She was subjected to him and his yelling wife who had returned home.  Addie had to sneak and call Louis to talk and it made me think of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic ending.

However, the movie’s ending was more tolerable and it left me feeling hopeful.  Yes, she did move in with her son and grandson after having a fall, but in the movie, the wife did not return home. It seemed like a more peaceful living arrangement for the three of them.  And yes, she does call Louis but she does not sneak and it signals a happy continuation of their relationship.

Thank goodness for great writers and thank goodness for optimistic screenwriters who know the importance of leaving their viewers with a good feeling!

Lynn M.                                                         June 9, 2018