Sunday, February 23, 2020

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Second book club book #8

I don't usually read two books by the same author that aren't in a series this close together, but that's the way the book club schedules played out. That, and I may have purposefully put another Patchett book so soon after my last (see The Dutch House,) because I'm really liking her work. It's also nice that her stories are so different even though all the characters feel very real and believable.

While Commonwealth gets off to a confusing start, mostly because it's really a very busy book, it's still so good. The large cast of characters are all dynamic because they're all struggling in some way in an environment seemingly full of pitfalls and trauma. Everyone deals with things differently, but nobody is safe. 

It's hard to say who the main characters are, but for me it was about the kids of two sets of parents. Caroline and Franny belong to Beverly and Fix. Cal, Holly, Jeanette, and Albie belong to Teresa and Bert. The kids merge together into one mixed-up family when Beverly and Bert run off together and get married. In the flashbacks, the kids come together at only certain parts of the year, operating as many kids did in the 60's, without much supervision. In the present, we see them as adults, recovering from their childhood and trying to figure out how best to relate to each other and their parents. It's a lot to track.

However who's related to who and how isn't the crux of the book. This is a book about larger themes -- love, devotion, and how family is built through connections and not necessarily blood. It's about bearing the scars of your past while navigating the present, keeping an eye on the future. It's about the universal fact that people are complex beings who can take others to such incredible highs and devastating lows. It's about survival and what happens when someone doesn't make it. It's the daily struggle.

Even though I didn't share many experiences with the characters, I felt a connection to the way they felt because it's all so real. The dysfunction, the good and bad, is all heightened to a certain extent, but it's all out there in the world. I think this is why I like Patchett so much after just two books. She gets what's out there and puts it under a magnifying glass in her books to help show it to others. Another recommended read.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

I know there are so many book about WWII out there. Even those that cover a triumph during this time period are sad because hate is sad. Unnecessary death is sad. You can't avoid these themes and talk about WWII. Taking all of this into account though, with a Hoffman spin, transforms a WWII story, like this one, into something with a little bit of magic. It's more about love, survival, sadness, and pain; pushing the other themes to the background. It's a complete story that culminates in hope.

The World That We Knew focuses on a set of children, just old enough to enter adulthood during the war. Their lives intersect as they navigate the war as Jews, in France. They suffer and see death, but also emit this amazing sense of survival and bravery. The four main characters, Lea, Ettie, Julien, and Victor all have completely different experiences during the war, but all impact each others' path.  

The first interaction leads to the creation of a golem, a mystical being in Jewish folklore, a protector. Ava, the golem is responsible for Lea's safety, but her creation liberates Ettie, the rabbi's daughter. Ettie goes against her orthodox upbringing and creates the golem, which changes her forever. Julien and Victor are brothers, born in Paris, but eventually seen as Jews to be feared rather than natives of the country. They flee separately and enter into an underground world that includes a passion for resistance.

Clever and complete, this story captures so many moments that evoke the terrors of war, but also puts forth so many moments of hope. Placing the main characters at such a delicate time in their lives also allows Hoffman to grapple with the question of whether someone can become who they're truly supposed to be even during a war. She shows how you can love when surrounded by hate, and how good never totally disappears. It's a tough and intriguing story, where you feel a real connection to the characters and the "fate" that intertwines them all.

I really do like Hoffman as an author, so would recommend this book, but I'd also suggest you start with another one of her titles first. WWII is a heavy setting to meet an author, so something a little lighter might make for a better introduction. Here are reviews of some of her other books I've read:

She's also the author of Practical Magic and The River King which are both excellent.

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

This book is a lot. A lot of characters with dual purposes. A lot of movement and action in a place that's hard to visualize. A lot of narrative changes which reveal information so far apart, it's hard to pull it together. I still don't totally understand the ending, but I get it enough to feel a little, "meh," about it.

A secret world exists right beneath our feet. It's a world that holds story -- all of it. People find this world because they're meant to, by going through the right door. While it seems that most people who make the discovery just go down and enjoy being surrounded by caverns upon caverns of books, a few enter with a purpose to fulfill. Zachary and Dorian are two of those people. Lured down by the discovery of two curious books, and aided by two locals of this underground world, the men must complete a journey full of fear, pain, heartache, and ultimately love. One that concludes rocking along the waves of the starless sea, which seems to be a living thing itself, on its own mission.

This synopsis leaves out a ton of characters and a lot of action. It's all difficult to explain and harder to summarize. Whether that's a good or bad thing is up to you. Suffice it to say, this is a book about love and creating the right situation for the love you're meant to have to grow. It also drives home how complicated it is to find happiness.

I almost feel like this is the kind of pseudo-philosophical story a developing writer creates before they really know anything about writing. There's a compulsion to put all your thoughts into the story without self-editing, to use a lot of metaphor, and to blur good concepts with an excessive amount of words. While I like the ideas toyed with in the book -- love, human connection, and the evolution of a person's story -- the setting really overcomplicates things. There's just too much to this book all around. The physical space and layers of time within the story somehow dilute the ending, which I feel should have hit with a more exciting punch.

This book is tough to recommend. I liked it, but I wish the story had pieced itself together better. There's definitely something here worth reading. An adventure is always fun. It just doesn't feel totally right to me.