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The Love Letters

Posted by nliakos on January 30, 2017

by Beverly Lewis (Bethany House/a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2015)

I found a copy of this book at my local Little Free Library. Since I had enjoyed The Atonement and The Photograph, I traded Trains and Lovers for it. Like the others, it was an easy read (about a day); it kept me engaged without claiming to be great literature, and it taught me some things I didn’t know about the “Plain People” that we call the Amish.

There are multiple stories woven into the novel. There is Marlena Wenger of Mifflinburg, who is engaged to Nat Zimmerman. Marlena and Nat were brought up in an Old Order Amish community, but Marlena’s parents left that community to join the “Beachy  Amish-Mennonites“, and out of deference to her parents, Marlena has been worshiping in their church. Then Marlena is sent to spend the summer in Brownstown with her grandmother Janice, a “black-bumper Mennonite“, after the death of her grandfather, to provide company and assistance as the older woman gets used to her new reality. This sacrifice will delay Marlena’s marriage to Nat.

Then there are the Old Order Bitners, Janice’s neighbors: Roman and Ellie, and their children Dorcas, Julia, Sally, and Jake (“Small Jay”), who is small for his age (14) and has some disabilities (both mental and physical). Ellie and Marlena are quite close. Small Jay is unloved by his father for his disabilities, and Ellie’s heart breaks to see how much her son wants to help his father, who continually rejects him. Small Jay meets a homeless man, “Boston”, who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; he has no memory of who he is or where he comes from. But he treats Small Jay with respect and courtesy, earning his trust and affection.

Marlena has an older sister, Luella, who left their family and went “fancy”, marrying an “Englischer.” Tragically, Luella is severely injured in an automobile accident. Since her husband is serving in the military overseas and his parents are on a European vacation and are unreachable, Marlena is tasked to take care of her five-month-old niece, Angela Rose, until her parents can take her back. But Luella dies from her injuries, and then Gordon is missing in action and presumed dead. Marlena, who by now adores the baby, would like to keep her forever, but the presumption is that Gordon’s parents will take her. Nat is less than understanding of Marlena’s deep attachment to the baby; he wishes she would give her up so that he can court her properly when she returns from Brownstown. He is also unhappy that Marlena is attending her grandmother’s church, rather than Old Order prayer services with the Bitners. Marlena, however, is undergoing a spiritual transformation in the (slightly) more liberal faith communities of her grandmother and her friends the Masts. She persists in believing that Nat will come around, but he seems to be losing patience with her refusal to obey him.

The eponymous love letters are carried in a satchel by Boston, the mysterious homeless man. They seem to be from a devoted wife, Abigail, whom he insists is gone from him forever. Small Jay reads him a letter from time to time, becoming more and more curious about the man’s origins. (There are also letters between Marlena and Luke, but the love they express begins to lose ground to their spiritual disagreements.)

What will happen to Angela Rose? Will Nat come around and marry Marlena, while allowing her to worship in her New Order community? Will Roman ever accept his son and give him the love and trust he deserves? Will he relax his authority over his wife and daughters? And will Boston be reunited with his Abigail? These are the questions that kept me turning the pages.

The theme of the various Amish and Mennonite communities, and how they differ from one another, was very interesting. Clothing, colors, use of electricity, whether they drive traditional buggies or cars, style and language of prayer and relationship with the Divine, place of worship, presence or absence of missionary work-all these combine to keep the communities apart. Individuals like Roman Bitner and Nat Zimmerman, both Old Order Amishmen, refuse to socialize with (or even be friendly with) members of other Anabaptist sects (or to permit their womenfolk to do so). It’s the Sh’ia vs. the Sunni, the Protestants vs. the Catholics, the Orthodox vs. the Conservative or Reformed, all over again, but playing out in what is essentially one religion which has splintered over and over into many tiny communities that won’t talk to each other anymore. It’s quite sad, really.

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The Photograph

Posted by nliakos on January 3, 2017

by Beverly Lewis (BethanyHouse 2015)

My daughter Vicki gave me this novel set in the Amish communities of Pennsylvania and Ohio, knowing that I had enjoyed The Atonement by the same author. It was a very quick read (just one day!), and the ending was obvious from Chapter Two, but I read on, keen to find out how that ending would be achieved.

Twenty-year-old Eva Esch’s younger sister Lily runs away from their Lancaster County community, intending to “go fancy”. Eva and her older sister Frona must deal not only with this crisis but also with their brother’s family’s impending move into their deceased parents’ home and farm, which will necessitate their finding another place to live. In a parallel plot line, Ohio Amishman Jed Stutzman travels to Pennsylvania by train to learn more about his trade; on the train, he finds a copy of Little Women, with many notations in the margins, and a photograph of a pretty Amish girl between the pages. Since the Amish do not permit personal photos which show their faces, it’s a bit of a mystery how the photo came to be, but Jed finds himself smitten by not only the lovely face but also by the sentiments in the notes. When he gets to Pennsylvania and sees Eva, he takes her for the girl in the picture, who is in fact Lily, the runaway sister. It takes a while to sort this misunderstanding out.

Eva finds herself drawn to Jed and he to her, and the rest of the book details how they manage to get together. As in The Atonement, I enjoyed the glimpse into this unique culture. I couldn’t help but wonder why they aren’t all obese, because they are always eating sweets (Eva sells the candy she makes in a little shop attached to her house, and the characters are constantly eating cookies, ice cream, pies, cakes, fudge, peanut butter balls, Butterfinger truffles. . . .)!  I suppose the fact that they are constantly walking or working might have something to do with it.

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The Autumn’s Brightness

Posted by nliakos on December 18, 2016

by Daisy Newman ( Macmillan 1954)

I’ve now read four novels set in the Quaker community of fictitious Kendal, Rhode Island: Indian Summer of the Heart; I Take Thee, Serenity; Diligence in Love, and now The Autumn’s Brightness. It seems I never blogged about Diligence in Love, which I read several months ago. That one was about an insufferably boring New Yorker, Vaughn Hill, who travels to Kendal for a work project and finds peace there, eventually moving there with her husband and teenaged children. Vaughn and her family appear briefly in The Autumn’s Brightness, although Oliver and Loveday (of Indian Summer of the Heart) do not.

Anyway, the protagonist of The Autumn’s Brightness is named Diligence, or Dilly, which confused me for a while, but Newman explains in the book that diligence in love is a Quaker concept referring to what is needed to sustain loving feelings during hard times in a relationship. The novel opens when Dilly, a widow  whose children have left home, travels to new York to visit her brainless, materialistic cousin Elmira and meets a man who makes a deep impression on her. Despite her determination to avoid a romantic entanglement, Dilly finds Mr. Durand Smith impossible to forget, and he seems equally smitten. But could he just be after her money?

A sweet story, which I finished in just one day. But my favorite is still Indian Summer of the Heart!

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Persepolis

Posted by nliakos on September 25, 2016

by Marjane Satrapi (L’Association, Collection Ciboulette, combined edition published in 2007; ISBN 978-2844142405 [4 volumes originally published separately between 2000 and 2003])

Published in English in 2007 by Pantheon; ISBN 9780375714832.

I’ve seen this called a graphic novel, but it isn’t a novel. It’s a graphic autobiography, written by an Iranian woman in her twenties, telling the story of her life in pre- and  post-revolutionary Iran and also in Vienna, where her parents sent her to study for four years in high school because they were afraid her penchant for getting into trouble and her independent streak would end badly for her.

I read it in the original French, which was not difficult; the style is conversational but without too much slang. Perhaps the simple black and white illustrations (also by Satrapi, who studied art at university in Tehran) provided enough context to make guessing the meaning of the occasional unfamiliar word or expression easier.

Satrapi does not mince words, nor does she try to make herself look good. She includes her failed romances, unkindnesses, rudeness, and many cases of poor judgment on her part. Volume 3, which recounts the story of her wild years in Vienna, made me cringe in horror. She falls in with a wild crowd, smokes, drinks, takes drugs, sleeps around, lives on the streets and ends up in a hospital (without which, I think she would have died). Maybe not all that surprising for a rebellious teenage girl living on her own in a foreign country far from her parents, but scary. Only the Iran-Iraq war could have made her parents think she would be better off in Austria without supervision.

After Vienna, she returns to Tehran, depressed, and not surprisingly, has difficulty re-integrating into her native culture, which has been rendered schizophrenic by the Islamic revolution. She even tries to end her life, but her failed suicide attempt convinces her that she is meant to go on living. She finds a boyfriend, whom she eventually marries (but later divorces), enrolls at university, and reads widely. Eventually, she decides to leave Iran to live in France, realizing that she will never be able to control herself enough to stay out of trouble in Iran.

For those readers who have no idea about Iranian culture or history, this book is an excellent introduction as well as a great story. I know many Iranians; they were the first large group of students I had when I starting teaching ESL in the Washington area in 1974. I’ve also read a fair amount about Persian culture and know a little (but not much) about Persian history, so there was a lot that was not new to me in the book. However, I learned many new things–for example, that Reza Shah (father of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah I remember) was an illiterate army officer before the British used him to overthrow the Qajar emperor (from whom Marjane Satrapi is descended).

The thing that surprised me the most is that Satrapi’s parents and other relatives were not arrested following the publication of the book(s)! She goes into great detail about their politics.

Persepolis is really a coming-of-age story (Bildungsroman). It’s too bad Marjane had to suffer so much on the way to adulthood, and it must have taken enormous courage for her to write and draw her story for public consumption. Since she had the courage to write it, we should have the courage to read it, even though parts of it are difficult.

By the way, Persepolis was made into an animated film  in 2007, with Satrapi as co-director with Vincent Paronnaud. You can watch a trailer here. I think the story would be even more appealing with animation. I am not a fan of graphic books; I find the images rather distracting and not necessary. But I think I will enjoy the film.

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I Take Thee, Serenity

Posted by nliakos on August 29, 2016

by Daisy Newman (Houghton Mifflin 1975; ISBN 0-395-20551-4)

I am not in the habit of reading abridged books (The Origin of Species being a notable exception!), but sometime in the 1980s, a Reader’s Digest volume containing two abridged novels came into my possession. One of the novels was Dick Francis’ Banker, which I duly read and then forgot so completely that during my Dick Francis phase, when I read everything Francis wrote (including his biography of jockey Lester Piggott), I reread Banker without realizing that I had already read it. The other one was a very sweet love story called Indian Summer of the Heart by Daisy Newman: Quaker farmer/writer Oliver Otis and feminist/college president  Loveday Mead find love together in their eighth decade. I was fascinated by the description of Quaker beliefs and lifestyle. Every so often, I would pick it up and reread it, or reread parts of it; and when I realized that it was actually the sequel to another book about Oliver and the  Quaker community in Kendal, R.I., I promised myself that I would read that, too. But then I would forget to look for I Take Thee, Serenity at the library or in bookstores–until this month, when I finally searched, came up with nothing (neither in the Montgomery County Public Libraries, nor in the University of Maryland’s libraries), and decided on an impulse to buy a used copy (it’s out of print) for $0.01 (plus shipping and handling of course). While I waited impatiently for it to arrive, I quickly reread Indian Summer of the Heart in its abridged version for the umpteenth time, and enjoyed it as much as ever.

In that book, Oliver is sharing his home, Firbank Farm, with his young cousin Serenity Holland, her husband Peter, and their toddler son Ross. I Take Thee, Serenity tells the story of how Serenity and Peter came to live at Firbank. It begins in their sophomore year at a small college in New York State, in the 1970s. They are in love and sleeping together, much to the dismay of Rennie’s parents, who urge them to marry, while Peter’s parents would prefer that they not marry while they are still in college. Rennie’s parents assume they will have a big wedding and start to plan it, but Rennie and Peter are reluctant. They become interested in the idea of a simple Quaker wedding, and the book opens with Rennie traveling to Kendal, Rhode Island to meet her father’s cousin Oliver Otis to ask him about the possibility of a Quaker ceremony. The encounter proves to be life-changing; Rennie is captivated by Firbank, by Oliver and his artist wife Daphne’s loving welcome, and by the simple friendliness of the entire Friends community in Kendal. But before the wedding can take place, both Rennie and Peter have a lot of growing up to do, over several years. Rennie especially is a childish know-it-all at the beginning of the novel; by the time she and Peter are man and wife, she has matured considerably. I didn’t like her at all in the first chapters, but had come round by the end.

And then I discovered that this novel is actually the third in The Kendal Trilogy! Now I have to find Diligence in Love and Dilly to complete the set.

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Spider Woman’s Daughter

Posted by nliakos on May 23, 2016

by Anne Hillerman (Harper 2013; ISBN 978-0-06-227049-8)

Tony Hillerman’s daughter Anne has taken up the mantle of continuing her father’s Leaphorn and Chee  mystery series. I have only read a few of these, but someone gave me this one, and I liked it well enough, although I am not so enamored of mysteries as I once was. Joe Leaphorn himself is out of action in a hospital CCU after being shot in the head by an unknown assailant. It’s up to Jim Chee and his wife Bernie Manuelito, Leaphorn’s former colleagues, to solve the mystery. Of course, there are some tense moments when it looks as though the assailant will succeed in getting rid of them, but I don’t think I will spoil anyone’s reading experience to say that the assailant’s evil plot does not succeed.

Lots of information about Navajo rugs, Chaco pots, and the Navajo way of thinking. There’s an interesting side story concerning Bernie’s relationships with her ailing mother and younger sister.

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A Woman of Substance (Harte Family Saga Book 1)

Posted by nliakos on May 21, 2016

by Barbara Taylor Bradford (RosettaBooks LLC, 1979, 1984)

The first in a series of books about the family of Emma Harte, A Woman of Substance tells the story of how Emma, born into poverty in a Yorkshire village on the estate of the Fairley family, rises to wealth and power due to her intelligence and stubbornness. Emma’s rise is driven partly by her desire to seek vengeance on the Fairleys, because she was abandoned, pregnant, by Edwin Fairley, son of the current lord. So she devotes her life to the Fairleys’ ruin, and she eventually achieves it, only to find that her cherished granddaughter Paula has fallen in love with a Fairley, who happens to be in her (Emma’s) employ. Along the way, there are several marriages and romances and lots of machinations.

I am not a romance reader, and although I found the story engaging, I also thought it was very over-written and unbelievable (all of the main characters are gorgeous; several [astonishingly handsome, muscular/masculine] men become so hopelessly enamored of Emma that they can no longer function; Emma reminds me of Ayla in The Clan of the Cave Bear–she is Proto-(Business)Woman, singlehandedly inventing the modern department store and more…). I read it with interest but am not tempted to read further books in the series.

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My Mother’s Books

Posted by nliakos on February 3, 2016

Sometimes I feel guilty about always going to the library for books when I have so many unread ones at home, like the ones on these shelves, most of which were my mother’s. (I have read a few of them, like A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman and Out of Africa by Karen Blixen, but not the majority.)

I am currently reading A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. I got it from the library.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Posted by nliakos on January 10, 2016

by Karen Joy Fowler (G. P. Putnam 2013; ISBN 978-0-399-16209-1)

It’s interesting to look at the suggested classifications for a novel on the copyright page. This one is classified as Families, Self-realization in women, Human-animal relationships, Life change events (all the preceding followed by –Fiction), Domestic fiction, and Psychological fiction. It kind of gives you a preview of what the book is about–but not really.

Rosemary Cooke is the woman who realizes who she is (and narrates the story). SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading here if you want the same reading experience I had–

That is, shock to discover in Chapter 5 that Rose’s missing sister is a chimpanzee. Fern came to live with Rose’s family when Rose was one month old and Fern about the same age. They were raised together for five years, after which Fern was taken away,and Rose was left to wonder what had happened. This event is central to Rose’s life and to her story. Her entire family was profoundly affected by Fern’s removal, and Rose’s whole life experience reflects an alienation from human society that she attributes to her closeness to Fern. She feels in some ways more like a chimpanzee than a “normal” human.

The book is full of memorable characters: Rose, her brother Lowell, whose life was even more affected by the loss of Fern than hers was, if that is possible; Rose and Lowell’s parents; Fern herself; and even the minor characters of her peculiar friend Harlow, her roommate Todd and his lawyer mother, and her apartment manager Ezra made a deep impression.

This is not just a novel; it is a crusade against psychological and medical research using animals, chimpanzees especially. It reminded me in many ways of Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats, in which the story is a thinly veiled diatribe against the meat industry. (Imagine my surprise to read in the Acknowledgments that the author gives thanks “most especially to the amazingly awesome Ruth Ozeki for her friendship and support”!

Highly recommended.

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A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope

Posted by nliakos on October 18, 2015

by Tom Brokaw (Random House 2015; ISBN 978-1-4000-6969-9)

NBC news anchorman Tom Brokaw has chronicled the year that he was diagnosed with and treated for multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow. He describes the back pain that turned out to be compression fractures of the spine due to the cancer. While hiding his condition from the public and most of his friends and colleagues, Brokaw continued to accept projects for NBC even as he embarked on a year of  fatigue, pain, chemotherapy, and learning how to live his life with cancer (Myeloma is treatable, but it is not curable.).  He kept a journal which eventually became this book, which is divided into sections by season (summer 2013, fall 2013, winter 2013-2014, spring 2014, summer 2014, fall 2014). Interspersed among the descriptions of hospitalizations, doctors’ appointments, time spent with family, and professional projects accomplished during the treatment year are recollections of career high points, memorable interviews and encounters, and unforgettable news stories (such as September 11, 2001), with some name-dropping thrown in. (Brokaw, who grew up in the West, spends a lot of time fishing and hunting; sometimes it seemed incongruous to me that while fighting for his life against cancer, he suffered no qualms about depriving animals of their lives.) Eventually, of course, Brokaw can no longer hide his disease from the world; during the winter, he is “outed” by a digital news organization and finally admits publicly that he has cancer.

For me, this book held a special significance; a friend of mine is being treated for multiple myeloma, and Brokaw’s simple but clear descriptions and explanations helped me to understand what she is going through.

As the title indicates, Tom Brokaw has in some ways led a charmed life, and he frequently expresses his gratitude for his wonderful luck. But for all of us mortals, luck eventually runs out. Cancer, as he reminds us, becomes more and more likely the longer we live, and no one lives forever. Brokaw is also acutely aware of how lucky he is to have access to the best doctors and hospitals, to work for an organization that is supportive and has excellent benefits, to have enough financial resources to pay for whatever he needs, even to have a daughter who is a doctor and can participate in his treatment plan and interpret medicalese for him. So few people have all of these advantages in the fight against cancer or whatever disease is ravaging their body and/or mind.

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