Thursday, May 26, 2016


Author: Jill Alexander Essbaum
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2015
My Source: Louisville Free Public Library

"Anna was a good wife, Mostly." 

That is the first sentence of Hausfrau, a novel about the downfall of Anna Benz, a 37 year-old housewife, mother, and American expat living in a suburb of Zurich, Switzerland. Nine years prior, Anna met and married Swiss born Bruno Benz. Shortly thereafter, Bruno took a managerial position at Cedit Suisse and they moved to his hometown in Switzerland.

Unhappy in her marriage and isolated in a foreign country, Anna seeks out a psychoanalyst at the suggestion of her husband. Anna is guarded in her sessions, evades questions, and lies by omission. The psychoanalyst encourages Anna to take German language classes so she can communicate better with the locals. In class, she meets a Scotsman and begins an illicit affair with him. The reader finds out that this is not Anna's first affair, nor her last.

One day a family tragedy strikes while Anna is away with one of her lovers. Anna's world is turned upside down after that.

The parts depicting the psychoanalyst are interesting and correspond with Anna's circumstances, but are fictional. From what I learned about psychoanalysis in graduate school, the analyst does not generally answer existential questions from the patient. Typically, strict analysts say very little and when they do speak they ask open-ended questions of the patient. Also, they do not offer specific analysis of dreams because dreams are open to the patient's interpretation. Jungian psychoanalysis is very different from general psychotherapy in which the therapist takes a more active role.

One aspect that was interesting to me was the way the author combined the German language lessons with the ways Anna was feeling and the ways she saw others in her life.

          This is basic, class. Present tense. That which happens now. Future tense.
          What will occur. Simple past: what was done. Present perfect?
          What has been done.
          But how often is the past simple? Is the present ever perfect?
          Anna stopped listening. These were rules she didn't trust.

While I enjoyed this book, I also found it quite sad. Sad does not automatically equal bad, but it did equal only 3 out of 5 high fives from me. Bruno is distant and unsympathetic to Anna's plight. Anna is dissatisfied with her life and compulsively uses sex as a way of distracting herself from her boredom and depression. She lacks adequate coping mechanisms, but then it wouldn't be a very interesting story if she did.

                                                         Rating: 3 out of 5 high fives

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Publisher: Random House, 2012
My Source: Louisville Free Public Library

I know I’m late to the party on this book, but in my defense, I base most of my reading choices on which books on my TBR list are currently available to download from the library. Luckily, Harold Fry was available.

The title of this book is no joke; it certainly is an “unlikely pilgrimage” for a 65 year-old retired Englishman to walk 600 miles across the country without physical preparation, proper footwear, or a cell phone (or as they say in England a mobile.) As I read this book, I made some notes in my phone. Why didn’t he just drive? Why didn’t he go back and pack a bag? What happens if he spends all of their retirement money on his journey? Why did he wear a tie every day? What was his connection to Queenie that made him feel so compelled to make the journey to see her? Well, all of these questions (except for the tie one) are answered as the story unfolds.

One day Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a person from his past, telling him that she is dying of cancer. He struggles with what to write in response and finally comes up with a short note that he intends to mail. He walks to the post office, and then the next closest post office and on and on, until he has an epiphany and realizes he needs to make the 600-mile journey on foot to say goodbye to her in person.

On his journey, Harold recalls early memories of his marriage to Maureen, his relationship with his son David, his connection to Queenie, and his difficult childhood. These memories weave the back story of Harold’s life and explain his current emotional state. The memories and the meanings he attributes to those memories were the most interesting parts of the story for me.

Harold meets many kind and quirky strangers along the way, including a man who wears a gorilla suit. At first he is reluctant to tell others why he is walking because he believes they will think him crazy. Eventually he becomes comfortable talking with strangers about his purpose and finds that others want and need to share their stories with him, too.

He understood that in walking to atone for the mistake he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.

The story of Harold Fry is one of hope, faith, regret, forgiveness, and love. It invoked a wide range of emotions in me. At times I felt impatient with the characters he meets on his quest. Some of them help him cope with his past, but some of them felt unnecessary. I predicted what was going to happen with his marriage, but that did not detract from the satisfaction of the ending. I felt like I might have missed some symbolism, so I read a few literary reviews, however, they did not have much more to offer beyond what I already observed. It was certainly a book that made me think about what is most important in life. 

                                                         Rating: 3 out of 5 high fives

Bonus: The author did not plan to write a sequel, but was encouraged to do so by her fans. It is entitled The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. I plan to read it when it is available at the library.

Monday, May 9, 2016

GodPretty in the Tobacco Field

Publisher: Kensington Books, 2016
My Source: Louisville Free Public Library

I became aware of this book because Carmichael’s held an author event with Kim Michele Richardson. You can read my post about that event here. 

Themes of poverty and racism are central to this coming-of-age story set in eastern Kentucky during the summer of 1969. The main character, RubyLyn, is a 15 year-old girl being raised on a tobacco farm by her strict uncle, Gunnar.

As sure as ugly is found in the morning addict waiting to score in the parking lot of a Kentucky Shake King, there is GodPretty in the child who toils in the tobacco field, her fingers whispering of arthritic days to come.

My uncle Gunnar Royal, says I’m that child and that I’ll find Salvation if I work hard enough. But it’s doubtful. I’ve been working these fields since knee-high, and ain’t nothing but all kinds of GodUgly keeps happening around here.

RubyLyn is orphaned at the age of five and taken in by her mother’s brother. She still feels the absence of her parents in her life and holds onto the few memories she has of them. Her stoic uncle teaches her to work the tobacco fields and to follow his rigid rules of behavior. RubyLyn’s closest companion is her uncle’s African American hired hand, Rainey, whom has had a crush on her since they first met 10 years prior. In her free time and when she can find paper, RubyLyn creates fortune tellers for the townspeople. She draws pictures of rural life on them and is praised for her talented artwork. Gunnar, however, disapproves of her hobby and punishes her and destroys her creations when he finds them. RubyLyn becomes restless in her small town of Nameless, Kentucky. She sees poverty, violence, racism, and hardship all around her and dreams of moving to the big city of Louisville for a better life. With Rainey’s help, RubyLyn prepares a tobacco plant to be shown at the Kentucky State Fair. She is counting on wining the blue ribbon and using the prize money to help her get out of Nameless. RubyLyn and Rainey make plans, but Gunnar’s long-held family secrets are revealed, permanently altering RubyLyn’s life.

The compelling story of RubyLyn is both heartbreaking and uplifting. The most notable aspect of this novel is the beautiful writing. The painstakingly detailed descriptions of the characters, settings, and events filled my mind with vivid images of rural life in eastern Kentucky. I particularly enjoyed the description of small town girl, RubyLyn’s experience of attending the big city Kentucky State Fair (an event I have also attended in the past.) The dialog, written in the vernacular of rural eastern Kentucky in 1969, transported me back in time. The historical events woven into the plot, such as the visit by President Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson and the looming Vietnam War, lent authenticity to the story and anchored it in time. It was obvious that the author did a lot of research for this project.

I recommend this book to those who enjoy southern fiction and want to be transported to a different time and place. As a Kentuckian, it was particularly interesting to me to learn about a different part of the state that I have not visited. The book depicted an intimate look into the personal lives of the Appalachian people behind the commonly held stereotypes.

                                                         Rating: 5 out of 5 high fives

Monday, May 2, 2016

Circling the Sun

Author: Paula McLain 
Publisher: Ballantine Books, 2015
My Source: Louisville Free Public Library

Like the author’s previous book, The Paris Wife, the current book is another foray into historical fiction. The main character is based on the real life Beryl (Clutterbuck) Markham, an English woman who grew up in Kenya in the early 1900’s when it was a British colony.

When the story begins, Beryl’s mother has just abandoned her to return to England with her brother, leaving her father to raise her alone. Because she has no female role model until later in her development, Beryl doesn’t learn “girl things” and thus grows up in an unconventional way for a girl at that time. She instead learns how to care for and train racehorses on her father’s horse farm and how to track and hunt animals in the bush with her African friend, Kibii.

This was certain: I belonged on the farm and in the bush. I was part of the thorn trees and the high jutting escarpment, the bruised-looking hills thick with vegetation; the deep folds between the hills, and the high cornlike grasses. I had come alive here, as if I’d been given a second birth, and a truer one. This was my home, and though one day it would all trickle through my fingers like so much red dust, for as long as childhood lasted it was a heaven fitted exactly to me. A place I knew by heart. The one place in the world I’d been made for.

When she is a teenager, Beryl’s father encourages her to marry a local farmer much older than herself. The marriage fails and so begins the string of unsuccessful romantic relationships she has throughout her life. As a young woman, she learns through trial and error the social rules of the wealthy adult colonists of the time and often raises an eyebrow or two with her decisions. Beryl is continuously trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. She eventually finds success as the first female horse trainer in Africa during a time when most women didn’t even work outside the home. Beryl also becomes a pilot and the first woman to fly from Africa to North America alone. In my opinion, she could be considered a pioneer and a feminist.

I usually enjoy historical fiction, and this one did not disappoint. The descriptions of the land were vivid and beautifully detailed, but I felt the action of the story started out slowly. For me, it didn’t get interesting until she became an adult and found herself in complicated relationships with friends and lovers. As a female, I was inspired by the way Beryl forged a new path for women. By the end of the story I was fully engaged. For the readers interested in learning more about Beryl Markham, the author added references to other books and movies about Beryl’s life, including a memoir written by the woman herself.

                                                         Rating: 4 out of 5 high fives.