The Sunday Salon: Children on My Mind

In the confluence of events that is the reading life, the fate and experience of children is much on my mind this morning, and the thoughts are enhanced by feeling a particularly deep longing to stroke my grandson’s silky cheek and hear my son’s laughter.

Today I’m reading The Baker’s Daughter, by Sarah McCoy, another in a long list of summer books (The Sandcastle Girls, The Chaperone, The Shoemaker’s Wife) that astound me with their perfectly expressed sense of time, place, and truth. Traveling between present day and Nazi Germany, McCoy invites us to reflect on the cost of what happens when good people do nothing, and when the cost to the individual finally becomes too high to bear.

One of the young women in this novel is involved in the Lebensborn Program, established by Himmler in 1935 for widowed or unmarried women who had become pregnant through their association with SS officers. Seen as a way to expand the best attributes of the Aryan race, there were strict provisions for the mothers involved. As the  Nazi eugenic program expanded, so did Lebensborn, until there were numerous “homes” throughout Germany, Norway, and Sweden. It is believed that the program evolved into a “breeding ground” for young women who were impregnated by SS officers and their children adopted out in an effort to ensure the future of the Aryan race.

Somehow, in all the reading I’ve done over the past 50 years, I’d never heard of this “program” before.

Or if I had, I had blocked it from my mind because the thought was so horrible to contemplate.

In McCoy’s novel, one of the infant children (a boy) is deemed “not quality,” and is taken away and ostensibly adopted out of the country. However, his mother later hears rumors that such “rejects” are actually poisoned and their bodies burned to eradicate any trace of an “imperfect” specimen.

I am still astonished at the cruelties human beings can perpetuate on one another in the name of misguided principle.

So I read this after spending some time talking this weekend with friends who are parents and teacher, people who are all concerned about the fate of children in 21st century American where the pressures to excel and achieve seem to outweigh the need for personal responsibility or the desire to live a decent life of simple happiness and ordinary human goodness.

And today I read this post (thanks to Beth Kephart, who always points me toward enlightenment of one sort or another) about a book (Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, by Madeline Levine) that addresses this very subject, and a reviewer who has this to say:

“…the inconvenient truth remains that not every child can be shaped and accelerated into Harvard material. But all kids can have their spirits broken, depression induced and anxiety stoked by too much stress, too little downtime and too much attention given to external factors that make them look good to an audience of appraising eyes but leave them feeling rotten inside.”

We must learn to value our children, not simply as conduits to fulfill our personal dreams, commodities to ensure our future, or examples of a pure nationality, but as human beings with the universal and lifelong need to be loved and cherished and whose well being depends not on how much money they make but on how much satisfaction they attain from their work, their relationships, their self image, and their place in the world.

Now I wish I could go and hug my children, large and small.


The Sunday Salon: All A-Twitter

Rarely have I read so many good books in a row as I’ve read this summer.

The Sandcastle Girls.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.

Today, I’m adding The Chaperone to that list.

I loved this story of a Wichita matron in the 1920’s who spends a summer in New York chaperoning a young Louise Brooks (who became a star of silent movies). But the book is really Cora Carlisle’s, a woman with an unfolding story far more complex than I ever imagined when we first meet her in her corsets and high necked dress. And Laura Moriarty unfolds that story in such a masterful way, pulling the reader in and making you long for more on every page.

I finished it this morning, and haven’t yet chosen my next selection. I was excited to receive a copy of The Baker’s Daughter in the mail on Monday. I’ve been wanting to read this, and may choose it next. You have to be careful after reading a book you really love, don’t you? It’s so easy for things to fall flat.

In other bookish news, the airwaves were all a-twitter with some wonderful news for two of my favorite authors. Beth Kephart’s newest book, Small Damages, received a shining review in The New York Times this week, and was listed (along with Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls) as one of Publisher’s Weekly best books of the week.

I was vicariously thrilled for both of them, and it was also great fun to see Twitter and Facebook streams suddenly light up with people passing these accolades around. Sort of the cyber equivalent of tossing confetti and toasting with champagne.

So, here’s you you, Beth and Chris. Thank you for sharing your wonderful words with all the rest of us.

The Sunday Salon: All A-Swelter

Like much of the country, we’ve been in the midst of a heatwave. For days now I’ve avoided opening the door or even the curtains, saying frequent prayers to the gods of electricity and freon, that they might continue to bless my house with the gift of cool air, thinking with great pity of those who are not so graciously blessed and must find other ways to keep survive.

Truthfully, I’ve not been fit for much these days except lying on the sofa bolstered by books and magazines. I lapped up Anna Quindlen’s new book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. Let me tell you, reading her thoughts on middle age was akin to sitting down with an old friend I hadn’t spoken with in 30 years. From there I took on Natalie Serber’s collection of short stories, Shout Her Lovely Name, which was in some ways a disturbing dissection of the relationship between mothers and daughters, but nevertheless I was appreciative of Serber’s ability to go right to the secret heart of her characters and lay it bear.

Now I’m reading the magnificent work of art that is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Somehow I’ve managed to miss reading this book for all these years (it was first published in 1980!!) and came across a brand new copy hiding away in the basement bookstack. It is a heart-wrenching beauty of a book, every sentence a poetic masterpiece that traces the legacy of loss and insecurity and makes your heart cry out for comfort and protection. Not light summer reading, certainly, but the kind of book that feeds the soul.

Today I will venture out, happy that a cool breeze has blown through during the night, to meet with friends and see the musical Wicked (another cultural phenomenon I seem to have missed until now).

Happy reading, and stay cool!

The Sunday Salon – Mystery Upon Mystery

It’s been a mysterious week – at least in my reading life.

I’ve completed two mysteries this week, one that took me to England in the early part of the 20th century, the other set in modern day in a small village outside of Montreal.

A Duty to the Dead is the first in a series of historical mysteries by Charles Todd, a mother-son writing team who also pen another series featuring detective Ian Rankin. In Duty, we meet Elizabeth (Bess) Crawford, an educated gentlewoman from England who has become a nurse in WWI (rather like Lady Sybil, from my beloved Downton Abby television series.) One of Bess’ young patients made a mysterious deathbed request, one she felt duty-bound to fulfill particularly because her feelings for him were deeper than those for most of her other patients. In carrying out this request, Bess becomes embroiled in a series of mysterious deaths related to this young solider and his family.

Watching Downton Abby fueled my interest in this time period, when the British aristocracy was facing great changes in their way of life as the demarcation among social classes begins to blur and women seek employment and fulfillment outside the normal parameters of home and marriage. Bess Crawford is such a woman, and I’m eager to see where life takes her next. The second installment of this series, An Impartial Witness, is waiting for me atop my bookstack. (Note: Join others in reading this series in a in the Book Time With Bess readalong hosted by Book Club Girl.)

Fast forward to the 21st century and the village of Three Pines, the small hamlet in Quebec where Louise Penny sets her mysteries featuring Chief Surété Inspector, Armand Gamache, his colleagues, and a quirky cast of villagers. I love these books, mostly because I’m a little in love with Gamache, a sensitive soul who so often speaks the feelings of my own heart. Like this paragraph on page 5 of A Trick of the Light

From far off Armand Gamache could hear the sound of children playing. He knew where it was coming from. The park across the way, thought he couldn’t see the children through the maple trees in late spring leaf. He sometimes liked to sit there and pretend the shouts and laughter came from his young grandchildren, Florence and Zora. He imagined his son Daniel and wife Rosalyn were in the park, watching their children. And that soon they’d walk hand in hand across the quiet street for dinner. Or he and Reine-Marie would join them. And play catch or conkers.

He liked to pretend they weren’t thousands of kilometers away in Paris.

And here I thought I was the only grandparent with fantasies like that. Silly me.

Once again, I thoroughly enjoyed this installment in the series, one that dealt with the murder of an art critic and delved into the world of modern art and all that goes on behind the scenes. Penny’s characters are all wonderfully fleshed out, and her research is impeccable. She also has a lovely website and blog where she shares tales of her life in the Canadian town where she lives with her husband and their dogs.

 As of today, I’ve moved away from mysteries and into the world of music. I’m now reading Marrying Mozart, a historical novel by Stephanie Cowell about the young Mozart and his early relationship with the daughters of the Weber family.

This one simply begs to be read with pastry and a cup of Viennese coffee at hand while a Mozart piano sonata plays softly in the background. Which sounds like a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon, doesn’t it?

So tell me, what are you reading this Sunday?

The Sunday

The Sunday Salon: Armchair Traveling

Ah, Venice.

The Piazza de san Marco.

The square filled with people, lingering arm in arm, chattering merrily.

The cafes redolent with wonderful aromas, the melody of wine goblets clinking in air.

And the canals, always the canals, the rhythmic slap-spap of the water against the gondolas, the slurp of the oar in the water.

No, I really haven’t been in Venice this week.

But I’ve been tucked into my cozy armchair with A Thousand Days in Venice, Marlena de Blasi’s richly evocative memoir about her bold and unexpected move to Venice to marry a man she fell in love with on her first visit to this romantic city.

If I hadn’t known this was a true story, I would never have believed a middle aged woman would pack up her entire life in America and move to Venice to live with (and eventually marry) a man she affectionately calls “The Stranger.”  But De Blasi is nothing if not adventurous, and I have to admire her sheer moxie even if I can barely believe it.

This was one of my choices for the Venice in February reading challenge. I’m now happily engrossed in another of my selections, Crossing the Bridge of Sighs, by Susan Ashley Michael.

There seems to be something about Venice and Romance, doesn’t there?

Making it perfect reading for February, the month of  love.

So tell me? Are you reading about love on this Sunday? Or armchair traveling? Or both?






The Sunday Salon

The Sunday

This Sunday finds me at our home in Florida with one of my dearest bookish friends. M. and I have made a tradition of annual trips here in the winter, but decided to indulge ourselves with a few days this fall, knowing that my availability this winter could be unpredictable because I expect my winter travels to include numerous trips to Dallas for visits with my new grandson.

Our trips here always include lots of reading. Time was, we’d each haul a suitcase of books down with us, and make at least one pilgrimage to the book store as well. Things have changed all round in the last couple of years. M. uses an electronic reader for all of her reading these days, which makes book sharing impossible (if anyone knows how to share books on the iPad, let me know asap!) Plus, our favorite Borders is shuttered and blank (but there’s always Barnes and Noble, and a new Books-A-Million has opened at the upscale shopping center down the road.)

So we’ve managed just fine.

I’ve yet to make the complete conversion to e-reading, and brought Joanna Smith Rakoff’s A Fortunate Age with me in hardcover. I finished it last night, and started The Swimming Pool, which I had downloaded onto my iPad before we left. I was reluctant – I don’t like reading on the iPad, but have to concede that’s it’s much more convenient for traveling.

After brunch this morning, I decided I couldn’t go home tomorrow without buying a book. It’s traditional, after all. So we stopped at Books-A-Million, where I picked up a copy of Cradle in the Grave, by Sophie Hannah, with the excuse that I can use it for an October book review post for All Things Girl.

Our plans for the afternoon are almost entirely book-related, as we continue reading and plan a trip to the movies to see The Help.

I hope your Sunday afternoon is just as pleasant.

Reading Off The Radar

The Sunday

Take one warm sunshine filtered through leaves tinged with crimson and gold. Mix in a light breeze with just a nip of chill. Add in a glass of tart apple cider and a sweetly spiced cake donut. Relax and enjoy all ingredients together for a picturesque fall Sunday afternoon in Michigan.

Today so classically embodies all of the above, you might be tempted to call it a cliche.  But I prefer to call it perfect, and simply enjoy it to the max. In addition to having all this beautiful weather, I’m engrossed in a fascinating novel, the kind you can lose yourself in for hours.

Everything I read this week has been an unexpected pleasure. Two books came from directly from their authors, and the third I picked up on a whim at Bargain Books. All three of these new-to-me voices have provided interesting reads.

The first, Wherever You Go, by Joan Leegant, was the story of three Americans who each find themselves in the city of Jerusalem for very different reasons. Yona Stern, a 30 year old woman, has left her lackluster life in New York city and come to make amends with her idealistic sister, Dena. Mark Greenglass, a drug addict from New York who embraced Orthodoxy and became a Talumd teacher in Jerusalem, has mysteriously lost his passion for the religion that he credits with saving his life. Aaron Blinder is a hapless college dropout whose girlfriend convinces him to join her on a semester abroad program in Jerusalem, where he becomes involved in a group of fringe radicals dedicated to the violent far-right settlement cause.  At the start of the novel, these three are strangers, but after the events of one tragic night, they’re lives become bound together in unbelievable ways.  The author spends half of each year living in Jerusalem and teaching at Bar-Ilan University. She admits to a fascination with radical movements, stating that “those who cast their lot with causes fascinate me.” Her novel is an intriguing look at the hidden factors which can contrive to motivate people’s dedication to even reprehensible causes.

Deborah Reed’s Carry Yourself Back To Me is a much gentler look at human relationships, a classic love story played out between the 1970’s and the present. Annie Walsh, a singer-songwriter, has returned to her home in Central Florida after her long-time lover leaves her for a younger woman. When her younger brother is implicated in a brutal murder, Annie is forced to re-examine her loyalties and rethink the events of her past, leading her to uncover some painful family secrets. While the tone of the book is somewhat elegiac and melancholy, the characters are sympathetic and believable, and the reader is quickly engaged in the story and eager for a happy ending.

Today’s read (the Bargain Books selection) is A Fortunate Age, by Joanna Smith Rakoff, an immensely satisfying ensemble novel about a cadre of intelligent and ambitious young people pursuing their creative and artistic dreams in New York City following their graduation from Oberlin College. The novel opens with a wedding – Lil, an scholar wanna-be, to Tuck, a writer with more ego than energy.  At the ceremony we meet the rest of the gang who are all at varying stages of success. The time is the early 1990’s, when the dot-com boom was in full swing, and young people felt the world was their technological oyster.  As the book progresses through that decade and into the sobering post-September 11 world, it will be fascinating to see how their lives and fortunes evolve. Rakoff’s writing is dense and detail packed, and she captures the emotional and physical scenery with brilliant aplomb. This is the kind of novel I love to sink my teeth into – and I intend to do just that for the remainder of this beautiful afternoon.

I hope your Sunday is equally satisfying in all ways.

Now tell me, have you ever read books that were completely off the radar but really blew you away?

The Sunday Salon – Closure

Borders bookstores were in the news last week, at least here in Michigan where the chain began.  It appears more and more likely the store will liquidate completely, rather than reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  That makes me sad, because Borders is Michigan company and I hate to see (another!) Michigan company bite the dust.

But there’s something that’s altogether more frightening to me than the closure of a bookstore chain, and that’s the potential closure of a library.  The library in Troy, Michigan, an upscale suburb about 30 miles east of me, is in a very clear and present danger of being forced to close its doors.  It’s survival depends, of course, on money.  A millage vote is scheduled on August 2 that will determine the library’s fate.

The Books for Walls Project, one of my favorite book blogs because it’s produced as a family affair, has mounted a wonderful informational and motivational campaign – Save Troy Library Tuesday. With only three weeks left until the vote, it’s so important to encourage people within communities to value their libraries, even if it means parting with a few more of our admittedly hard earned dollars.

I know if I had to choose, I’d rather spend the money to maintain my library than to maintain a bookstore.  Libraries give everyone the opportunity to read, and to gather information, and to learn about books and the changes they can make in your life.  That’s a valuable commodity for any community, and definitely one worth saving.


The Sunday Salon

I bought my husband a book for Father’s I’ve mentioned before, he has become quite the reader, although recently he’s taken to reading many of his book on the iPad, and I’m trying to coax him back into the world of paper and ink.  You see, we have a small rule about the iPad  – actually, it’s about the internet in general. The rule involves refraining from internet surfing prior to falling asleep.  I think he’s pretending to be reading on the iPad when he’s really surfing the internet. Actually, I know he is. At least he’s reading and not playing some computer game that will give him nightmares about plants vs. zombies!

Hence the purchase of an actual book – a hardcover book. He doesn’t care for paperbacks in general, so I figured it best to go with a real hardcover, not to big so it’s doesn’t hurt when he falls asleep and drops it on his nose. (I have to be mindful of the same thing when choosing my own bedtime reading.)

I ended up with Seal Team Six, because I know he’s interested in military operations, and also because I can never remember which Michael Connolly-David Baldacci-Stuart Woods-Vince Flynn books he’s read.

I hope he likes it.  But if he doesn’t .he’s had enough treats already this weekend to make him plenty happy. He’s gone off his diet for every meal today. He got to skip church and sleep in this morning. And, he’s picking up a shiny new car tomorrow.

In the end, if he’s still not satisfied with all his gifts this Father’s Day, he’ll just have to wait until next year when he’ll be getting the biggest gift any Father can get – a grandchild.

I’m quite certain that will make him happiest of all.