Reading, Reviews

A Few Great Mid-century Midwestern Books

Most of the posts I’ve written so far have focused on recently released literature (well, at least released in the last five years).  While I like to read new releases and be one of the first to discover great books, most of the books I really love have been around for 50-100 years. Or more. Just that smell of old pages between hardback covers makes me smile deep down inside.  Last fall, I read two great books written in the mid-1900s and set in the mid-west: Heat Lightning by Helen Hull and Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker.

photo Heat Lightning follows the journey of Amy Norton, a 35-year-old wife and mother of two, as she travels from her home in New York to visit her family and hometown in the midwest.  She is basically having a mid-life crisis.  Her kids are old enough to be independent (during the book, they’re at summer camp) and her husband has been distant and is camping while she travels. At the beginning of the book, you meet the Westovers, Amy’s family, who live in the small town where Amy grew up. I felt like I knew them as soon as they were introduced. Helen Hull did character descriptions and development so well.  Forgive me for throwing Downton Abbey into this post that really has nothing to do with Downton Abbey, but if you’re a fan of that show, Madame Westover will remind you of Dowager Countess. She is the book’s best character. As the plot moves forward, the Westovers and their endearing characters and family relationships becoming the heart of the book.  However, a careful reader can see Amy’s spirit returning as she figures her past and present out at the same time.

Rachel of the Book Snob blog wrote that Heat Lightning “certainly should be a classic of ordinary American life.” Now, take into consideration that she is British. =) But I enjoy her book reviews and share some of her book tastes, which is why I decided I had to read Heat Lightning. The only publisher currently releasing it is Persephone, but I got mine used on Amazon.   There are several themes, all well developed, but all very subtle. You could miss them completely if you’re just reading the book for its plot, which is, frankly, not exactly gripping (and that’s fine by me).  One theme pointed out in the Persephone edition’s preface by Patricia McClelland Miller is “how can women flourish when they are expected to make most of the adjustments in situations which really require the efforts of both men and women?” I don’t know if I noticed that theme as much as I noticed the theme of reconciling your childhood home with the home you set out to make with your husband and children.  However, I can think back on the number of couples introduced throughout the book and the life transitions each couple was navigating, and I think I’d like to re-read the book and focus on how Hull presents the husband-wife relationship. All in all, the book is both realistic and favorable when presenting marriage relationships. It kind of reminded me of Ilyrian Spring by Ann Bridge.

The theme that permeates almost all midwestern literature is that of town versus country. The characters are firmly planted in the farmland or rural town where they are born, but dream of something that they think must be greater (the city). Or they’ve been to the city but realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and there’s a part of them that will never be at home unless they’re in the rural setting they came from. The town vs. country debate is a part of Heat Lightning, but it is more central to the plot in Winter Wheat. 

Winter WheatEllen Webb is a girl on the cusp of something totally new and great to her: college in a big city. That is, if the winter wheat crop is good. She has lived on a wheat farm in Montana her whole life with her East Coast father and Russian mother. Her parents met in World War II and they don’t seem to have much in common from Ellen’s perspective. Their relationship is the crux of the book. Ellen tries to reconcile her identity and the direction of her life through her parents’ relationship. She wants to discover that her parents truly love one another, but the more Ellen learns, the more discouraged she feels about love in general and the love that created her. Also, Ellen has a hard time figuring out where she really comes from. She longs to understand and appreciate her roots, but she only knows Montana. I enjoyed following Ellen’s perspective as it went through different seasons of being completely attached to detached to her home and her family. She loves them, she hates them, she wants to understand them, she wants to get away from them.  Along with the importance of figuring out where you’re really from,  the responsibility of a girl to make her own way in the world in the post-war culture is a very prominent idea. Mildred Walker gave Ellen Webb a strong voice and character. Even when Ellen is troubled and directionless, I just knew she would fight her way through to be strong and ready to reach for a life she wants to live. The tone of the book was kind of lonely, as there are so few characters that really play into the plot or have much dialogue. I’ve never been to Montana, but I think the loneliness of the story and the setting are key to the book’s themes.

I enjoyed both of these books, but I liked Heat Lightning the best out of the two. Hull’s thoughtful, tender writing is beautiful and I can’t wait to find another one of her books.

The Magic of Ordinary DaysAnd if you’re not into “older” books but think a novel set in the midwest in the 1930s or 40s sounds like just the kind of book you want to read, check out Ann Howard Creel’s The Magic of Ordinary Days. Written in 2001 and made into a Hallmark movie in 2005, I think it’s a beautiful book. It also explores themes like the loneliness and simplicity of mid-western farming and the importance of relationships that are built and tried by hardships and how they hold up or break down. I have already read it twice and will probably read it again someday.

Happy reading!

Reading, Reviews

Coastal Reads

I don’t travel a whole lot (much less than I would like), but when I do, I love to have a book with me that’s set in the place I am visiting.  When I was in London several years ago, I was reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.  The feel of stepping into a place that has been set in a famous book and has been there for over a hundred years is surreal.  More often, though, my reading happens when I’m not traveling, but firmly set at home.  That’s why I love a book that describes a place so well, I can imagine being there.  There are some places I am dying to go see because I’ve read books about them.  In the past few months, I’ve read a couple of books set on two coasts that are now calling my name.

The Violets of MarchThe first coastal call came from The Violets of March by Sarah Jio.  Set on Bainbridge Island in Washington’s Pugent Sound, it’s one of those books that sucks you right into the setting.  I enjoyed how Jio described the area so vividly without going on and on about it.  She has the rare gift of weaving the setting into the plot seamlessly.  How many times have you read a book and gotten sick of all the descriptions?  I wouldn’t worry about that if you’re thinking of reading this book.   The plot started out a little shaky:  a 30-something woman dealing with a washed up marriage is living in New York but is forced to go back to her roots.  Sweet Home Alabama, anyone?  Thankfully, the plot is much more exciting than the kind of book that deals only with past emotions.  Yes, there’s some emotional baggage the main character, Emily, is working through, but there’s also a mystery to unravel.   And I love a well written mystery. I’m of the opinion they’re pretty rare.  Sometimes the tone reminds me of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, though it’s not quite so dark.   I’d recommend The Violets of March to just about anyone.

 

The next coastal book I read brought me back home to the East Coast.  Moon Over Edisto by Beth Webb Hart is about a woman who Moon Over Edistolives in New York City, is about to get married, and has to return to her hometown, Edisto, to take care of her family in a crisis.  Wait…am I getting these two books confused?  Because, hello Sweet Home Alabama again.  No, they’re different books, but I’m now realizing the starting premises of these books are fairly similar. However, Moon Over Edisto doesn’t turn into a mystery to be solved, but a story of how to forgive and the freedom and healing forgiveness brings.   The setting is very intertwined with the plot, as two main characters are artists.  A lot of the scenery is built on the description of what artworks these two characters are creating.   I wish I owned the real paintings and not just descriptions of their art, because it sounds beautiful.  Though I’ve lived in South Carolina my whole life and visit the coast often, I’ve never been to Edisto.  I know, it’s sad.  After reading this book, I realize even more it’s a problem that must be remedied soon.

 

I can’t embrace travel literature–I need a good plot and intriguing characters to keep me reading–but I think mental travel is one of reading’s greatest qualities.  And even if you’re not looking for a book to take you to a new place, these two books are pretty good light reads apart from their settings.  I’d love to hear what you think if you decide to pick one up!

Everyday Life, Reading

Book Messes and Real Life

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For some reason, book messes don’t bother me as much as other kinds of messes…

But life has certainly been messy around my place lately.  My progress on the books I’ve been reading lately has been slow.  One of my favorite authors, Ann Voskamp, often writes, “Life is not an emergency.”  As much as I appreciate and need that perspective, sometimes, life does feel urgent.  Sometimes your whole family gets a stomach bug; or you really do have to get those errands done before two birthdays and two anniversaries occur in one week; or your husband has to travel for work and it’s all on you, mama; or your first nephew arrives and (happily) other things get put on hold for a few days.

That’s been the month of May for us, so the book messes are some of the nicest messes that have been going on around here. I’ll spare you photos of the other ones.

Even in the frantic days, however, I have to read something.  A lot of times I find I turn to my old favorites; they’re kind of like comfort food for a bookworm.  When I’m having a hard time on the family and home front, reading the later books in the Anne of Green Gables series cheers me up.  (On a side note, if you’re one of those people who says, “Oh, I read Anne of Green Gables but I didn’t know it was a series,” I am jealous of you because there are EIGHT books in that series and they are wonderful. I have read them to mental shreds.  But I still love them).  If I can’t seem to think anything but negative thoughts, I re-read One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp or I Capture the Castle (because it’s just fun and strangely uplifting) or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  When I’m sick of life in the fast lane, I read Austen or Gaskell (usually Wives and Daughters) And if I feel like my brain is mired in the mundane, the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis or some other fantasy fiction is just what I need.

Those are just a few of my comfort books that come to mind.  I have to mention the Bible because I’m always reading that, and it is comfort and beyond.  What about you? Do you have books you turn to when your mind is troubled? I’d love to hear about them.

Reading, Reviews

Don’t Let The Dress Impress

I’ve been in a bit of a book slump lately.  It’s my own fault, because what can you expect when you pick up book after book with a cover featuring a woman in an elaborate, flowing, and frilly dress. Seriously, what was I thinking?

Here are some book busts for you:

The Typewriter Girl Edenbrooke The Time in Between

I don’t have much to say about any of these books except you really shouldn’t bother with them.  I couldn’t make it past the first few chapters of The Typewriter Girl. It was boring. That’s all. I blame Goodreads for putting these books on my recommended reading list. =)

The Dressmaker But I did enjoy The Dressmaker. It’s a light read, but it includes some intriguing history around The Titanic and the political aftermath.  The Dressmaker made me curious about what happened after the catastrophe.  Most of the characters are well done and the plot moves along at a nice pace.  The whole “independent woman” theme can get boring (how many times can readers enjoy a book about a woman going from nothing to success?), but the integrity of Tess, the main character, and the contrasts between characters throughout the book make it more than just entertaining.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it thought provoking. Weeks after reading it, I think of it as a delightful read. I appreciate how clean it was, too. If you’re drawn to books with beautiful, old fashioned dresses on them like I have been lately, pick this one over all others.

I’ve heard good things about The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani, but look at the cover:

The Shoemaker's Wife

No, I can’t bring myself to pick that one up right now.  Maybe someday.

Right now, I’m enjoying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  How is it that I have never read this book?  It’s wonderful.

Reading, Reviews

The Plum Tree vs. Those Who Save Us

In the past few months, I’ve read several novels set in Europe during World War II. The two that stick in my mind the most are Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blume and The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman. The plot lines of these books are fairly similar, and both books have forever changed how I think about Germany during World War II. But the books are actually very different.  I am glad that one is forever ingrained in my memory and I wish I could forget the other. 

Both of these books are coming of age stories. The main character of each book is a German, teenage girl who is in love with a Jewish man. In The Plum Tree, Christine is smitten with her boss’s son Isaac. Anna, in Those Who Save Us, falls in love with a Jewish doctor. Both girls vow in their hearts to never love another, and both women suffer for their decision. I appreciated how both books give readers an idea of what it was like to be a German citizen during the Third Reich’s reign. Though The Plum Tree gave a broader picture of life in war torn Germany, both authors used  their novels to put readers in the shoes of those people who were innocent of war crimes but still considered the enemy. Through reading these books, I set aside some preconceived ideas about Germans in this time period that I didn’t realize I had allowed to form in my head.

But that’s where the similarities end. The narrative structure of Those Who Save Us didn’t appeal to me much. The structure is popular right now in historical literature and hinges on a character in the present day unearthing the past. The very popular book Sarah’s Key is written in that way.  I didn’t think it worked well in Those Who Save Us.  Possibly because neither Anna nor her daughter are very personable characters from the first time we meet them, and they don’t improve much upon further acquaintance. They can’t seem to overcome their hearts’ losses. Anna, especially, lets her circumstances consume her.  This book is grim, cover to cover. It is ultimately a story of a woman surviving and keeping her daughter safe at great cost to her very soul.   I hope I’m not judging Anna’s character too harshly.  Most of the time I was reading, I was upset with her passiveness. Another reason I didn’t enjoy this book was the many gruesome details. You’re probably thinking, “Hellooo, it’s a war narrative for grownups!”  And I get that.  But if you choose books based one how “clean” they are (which I do take into consideration), you probably will not like this one. I’ll admit to skipping over the scenes between two of the main characters after about a third of the book. I understand the author wanted her readers to fully grasp the horror of Anna’s war years, but the details were too much for me. I finished the book because I felt it had some important themes in it that most Americans never consider. And I know this is an area of personal preference–many people like this book, after all–but consider yourself warned. In the end, I was grateful to this book for its perspective, but I wished there was another way to achieve it.

Then I read The Plum Tree. Oh, how I wish I had read this one first! I think this book is magnificent. There was no disjointed feel to the narration; I was completely enthralled.  When I put the book down, I found myself listening for bombers.  The plot was fast paced but the descriptions of the setting were still detailed and beautiful.  I loved Christine and wanted her story to end well.  Her merit is not her willingness to suffer in order to survive, but her spirited desire to endure and thrive.  Yes, she is changed by the war, but she becomes somebody I would want to know.  I gained perspective not only on life for a German woman in WWII, but on what life became for a family and a community.  Though sometimes heart wrenching, this book was inspiring.  At the end of Those Who Save Us, I was sad for the characters.  When I finished The Plum Tree, I was both sad and glad for Christine and her family.

Holocaust era stories are haunting and I sometimes wonder why I and so many others are drawn to them.  It must be because we desire to understand how this atrocity happened and we hope to see good and some kind of triumph come out of even what could be the world’s largest tragedy.  At least that’s my philosophy.  What’s your philosophy on Holocaust/WWII literature? Do you have a favorite book set in that time period? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Reading

The House That Books Build

As this is the inaugural post of the Mia the Reader blog, I should probably start by saying:

Hi! I’m Alana — mom of little ones, reader of books, scribbler of words.

No, my name’s not Mia.  But that’s all explained on the About page.

Did I mention I like books? I really love books. Sometimes I feel guilty when I consider how much time I’ve spent reading over the course of my life. If I had spent half that time, say, practicing the violin, I would be a seriously accomplished violinist by now. But most of the time, I simply accept my love of the written word as who I am.

However, I am becoming more and more convinced that merely reading by myself is throwing away one of the greatest gifts books can give: a house. Yes, a house. If you’ve ever walked into a library or bookstore, you’ve read signs that say, “Reading takes you to far off places” or “A Book is a Door,” or something like that. And for most of my reading life, I’ve been content to go to those places and open those doors by myself. But increasingly over the last few years, I’ve realized that reading by myself is not the best part of books. Books bring us all into a common house, where readers can enter rooms together and experience words that make us think about things and talk about things we otherwise wouldn’t consider.  In that house of thought, readers can open doors to rooms of thought about so much, from how German citizens were affected by World War II, to what it’s really like to give a baby up for adoption, to why lavender is kind of lame color for guys to wear.  Or whatever. And there are these crazy, psychedelic colored rooms where we can ask questions like, “what would you do if you fell into a time warp and ended up living with Incas?”

Sure, any of those rooms are pretty fun to be in by myself.  But I find myself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a few visitors? To talk about these experiences that happen on paper but seem almost real sometimes? Or that were real for somebody?”

So if you love reading and you find yourself having this conversation:

Friend: “How do you find time to read?”

You: “How do I find time to do anything else?”

Well then, I hope you will get something out of the thoughts and book reviews of this bookworm mom. And share some thoughts of your own!

And of course, I’ll probably share some thoughts on this exquisitely beautiful and messy life of mothering that actually does take precedent over reading in my world. Maybe once in a while those thoughts will feed your mind (and maybe even soul?) in some way, too.

Thanks for visiting with me in the house that books build.