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Archive for the ‘read in 2010’ Category

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die.  Grief, terror, love, longing — these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.  They carried shameful memories.  They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.

(from The Things They Carried, page 20)

I just couldn’t let the War Through the Generations Vietnam War Reading Challenge end without reading something by Tim O’Brien, and since Serena bought me a signed copy when she attended an author event earlier this year (thanks so much, dear friend!), I decided to read The Things They Carried.  This book blew me away, and I can see why many people consider it THE novel about the Vietnam War.

The Things They Carried reads like both connected short stories and a memoir and focuses on a group of soldiers who fought together in Vietnam.  The stories are not presented in a linear fashion, as O’Brien skips around from before, during, and after the war.  It takes some time to really get to know the characters, but the story unfolds and the characters are developed bit by bit.

The narrator is named Tim O’Brien, but the book is subtitled “A Work of Fiction,” and in a few of the stories, O’Brien discusses the idea of truth and war stories.

A true war story is never moral.  It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done.  If a story seems moral, do not believe it.  If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.  There is no rectitude whatsoever.  There is no virtue.  (page 65)

Here is the happening-truth.  I was once a soldier.  There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look.  And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth.  He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty.  He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe.  His jaw was in his throat.  His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole.  I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.  (pages 171-172)

Wow.  So I guess it boils down to this:  War is ugly, and there is a bit of both truth and fiction in these stories.  Sometimes the true facts are unemotional and distant, while a fictional account that truthfully portrays war is more emotional and more alive.

O’Brien punctuates thoughts like these with stories of the men, such as those about First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, who carries the photo of a girl he loves who doesn’t love him back, who carries the guilt of mistakes he made when his mind was on Martha and not on his men, who was afraid to disobey orders and camped his men on a village latrine (a literal shitfield) and had to face the disastrous consequences.

The Things They Carried is about the physical things (weapons, keepsakes, other men) and the mental things (fear and guilt) that the soldiers carried on their shoulders.  O’Brien covers everything from memory and guilt, to friendship and loss, to action and inaction, to decision and dishonor.

As a novel of the Vietnam War, I expected The Things They Carried to be brutal and gruesome and heartbreaking.  I’ve read many war novels, and they all have stayed with me in some way.  But after I finished this book — in my opinion, a literary masterpiece — I carried with me a great sadness and will for a long time carry the stories of these men (whether fact or fiction) in my heart.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Things They Carried as a gift from a friend. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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The weapon in my right hand is a pirated Ithaca Magnum-10 shotgun, gas-operated, semi-automatic, a full-choke barrel sawed down to ten inches for ease in single-hand handling at close quarters.  It was captured from a North Vietnamese officer, later presented to me as a gift.

The bulge in my left hip pocket is a soggy paperback edition of the poems of Emily Dickinson.

Such things live together here, poetry and shotguns.  Alive and well in a single body.

(from Fatal Light, page 46)

First published in 1988, Fatal Light is the story of a young man who receives his draft notice in 1967 at the age of 18 and is sent to Vietnam as a medic.  Richard Currey uses some of his own experiences as a Navy corpsman in Vietnam, but he says the book is “highly fictionalized” (page xiii) and draws also from the experiences of people he knew.  Fatal Light is not a linear novel, but more like snippets from the life of a young soldier who becomes disillusioned with war and life after all that he witnesses.

The unnamed narrator is close to his family, and Currey gives a glimpse of what his life is like before the war.  He spends summers with his grandfather, has a girlfriend for whom he bought a ring just before being drafted, and spends the night before recruit training listening to his father’s stories from World War II and Korea and dancing in the living room with his mother.  And then his life changes dramatically.

As a medic, he is told he will be in the rear most of the time and have people looking out for him.  They make it seem like war will be easy for him.  Instead, he sees men minus heads after their jeep hits a mine, and he sees soldiers go nuts, shooting random villagers and keeping body parts of the dead Viet Cong as souvenirs.

Because the novel is written as snippets from the narrator’s life and war experiences, the chapters are short and disjointed.  There are only a few other characters, and you don’t see too much of them.  There are odd dreamlike sequences when the narrator is suffering from malaria.  But they join together to form a powerful and heartbreaking story about the way the war changed the men who fought.  The prose is sometimes sparse, sometimes poetic, but the scenes are full of emotion and description that tear at your heart, punch you in the gut, and thrust you into the scene.

Sleep ceased to be rest, was never an escape.  Dreams careened, haunted, collided, and I was always forced to look:  the double amputees, incinerated faces with lips burned off and teeth locked in satanic grins, bodies in decay and distended with gas, fingers and noses and ears rat-gnawed, the ones floating face down in paddies pulled out after days with tongues and eyeballs protruding from macerated skulls and their gunshot wounds looked so innocent, so simple.  On the road out of a northern ville I saw a dog eating the body of a man.  The man had been shot in the head, eviscerated, tossed aside.  The dog pulled at a dirty loop of intestine, one paw braced against the opened belly.  The passing scene on any ordinary day.  (page 96)

If this nauseating scene was ordinary, it’s no surprise that many Vietnam veterans have trouble talking about their experiences.  Currey forces readers to consider these scenes because war isn’t pretty.  There is a scene right after the narrator comes home in which he shows his grandfather pictures from Vietnam that he took as proof of what really happened.  His grandfather tells him not to show people because they won’t want to see them and aren’t ready to see them.

The truth about war is that it’s terrible and grotesque, it destroys innocence and scars people’s souls.  The truth hurts, it angers, and it leaves men who’ve witnessed this truth wondering what to do and where to go with all they have seen and learned.  Fatal Light emphasizes this from the first page until the last, but Currey takes these horrifying images of war and turns them into a beautifully crafted, powerful novel.

Disclosure: I borrowed Fatal Light from a friend. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Our fathers would have praised our bravery (had they lived) as would our sons if we would ever tell them.  But to speak of war diminishes its magnitude.  Language cannot accurately describe the terror of enemy fire, tanks approaching, grenades, land mines.  Words tarnish the already-clouded moments, unreal.

Single file to the train after being tied helpless in front of one’s wife and children, the ultimate purloining:  of a man’s stance, ability for action.  Cut those moments out and bury them — to be excavated and relived only privately.

Rip the pages out of Helcia’s dictionary and set them on fire.  The way books claim certain atrocities never happened.

(from Maps and Shadows, pages 103-104 in the uncorrected galley)

Maps and Shadows is a soon-to-be released novel by poet Krysia Jopek that tells the story of a Polish family living on land that once was part of Russia, which was given to the father, Andrzej, by the Polish government as a reward for serving in the Polish-Bolshevik War.  The Soviets invaded the eastern part of the country shortly after World War II began in September 1939, and in early 1940, the family was ordered out of their home and deported to a labor camp in Siberia.  More than 1.5 million Polish civilians made the journey described in Maps and Shadows, and Jopek aims to bring this little known piece of history to life.

Each chapter is told from a different point of view, and Jopek gives voice to Andrzej, his wife Zofia, their daughter Helcia, and their eldest son, Henryk.  (Their youngest, Józef, was only four when the family was deported and too young to remember the details.)  Before each chapter, there is a passage of lyrical prose that emphasizes the internal thoughts and emotions of the characters (see the passage quoted above), and each chapter concludes with poems written by Helcia in the labor camp on scraps of paper torn from a beloved dictionary, which she brought with her even though she was told to grab only the necessities.

Maps and Shadows is not a traditional novel, as Jopek draws heavily on her family’s history.  There is no author note, but there are black and white photographs of the family, and she thanks her father, Henryk, and her Aunt Helen (Helcia) in the acknowledgements for recalling the horrible details of their experiences during the war.  Moreover, despite the use of poetical language here and there, the book reads like a memoir.  There are no descriptions to set the scene, no real character development.  It reads as though you are sitting down with the family and listening to their stories; it’s all telling and no showing.

However, the message of the book is an important one and made it easy for me to overlook any issues with the structure and writing.  Jews were not the only ones deported during World War II, and the Nazis were not the only ones committing atrocities.  The Siberian labor camps were brutal because of the back-breaking labor, the lack of food, and the severe cold.  The family endured this and much more, and Jopek makes you feel their desperation as they join the military or travel to Africa for shelter and education.  By writing the family’s story from four different points of view, the deportees are no longer seen in the abstract, but as real people who suffered horribly and survived.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Maps and Shadows from Aquila Polonica for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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And so Europe was caught up in a war that few had expected and almost no one wanted.  Even today, historians continue to debate the tangled and confusing causes of the conflict, the series of accidents, blunders, and misunderstandings that swept the nation of Europe toward war in the summer of 1914, whether war might have been avoided, and which persons or nations were most responsible.  Wars in the past had often been caused by countries seeking more land or natural resources, or acting out of suspicion and fear of their rivals.  And once a country is fulled armed and poised to attack, war, it seems, is hard to avoid.

(from The War to End All Wars, pages 18-19)

I knew very little about World War I, the Great War, before picking up The War to End All Wars, but Russell Freedman does such a good job explaining something that really can’t be explained so that when I closed the book, I felt that I had learned a lot.  What began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne of Austria-Hungary, by Serbian rebels in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, escalated into a rush by the nations of Europe to form alliances and amass advanced weaponry, beginning with Germany forging an alliance with Austria-Hungary.

Germany wanted to become a colonial power like France and Great Britain, and having already built a big army, decided to beef up its navy.  Despite the blood ties connecting  Europe’s powerful nations — many of the monarchs were relatives of Queen Victoria — and pleas from the leaders to avoid war at all costs, threats of war made by Austria-Hungary led to the mobilization of Russia, Germany, and France.  And in all the chaos, no one remembered the role Serbia played in sparking the conflict, and it was almost as if the war took on a life of its own.

The War to End All Wars is a heavy hardcover complete with large black-and-white photographs that bring the war to life on the page.  But at less than 200 pages, it’s a quick study of a bloody war that many believed would put a stop to such carnage forever.  Of course, just 20 years later, Hitler would start World War II, indicating that humankind may never learn from past mistakes.  Approximately 65 million men fought in World War I, and over the course of four years, 8.5 million lost their lives, more than 2 million were wounded, and close to 8 million became prisoners or were missing in action.  Famine and disease cause the deaths of 10 million civilians.  World War I was different from previous wars, with more casualties due to the use of modern weapons.

Freedman provides a comprehensive and detailed account of World War I, with chapters devoted to trench warfare, the war at sea, and the battles of Verdun and the Somme.  Most interesting was the chapter on the new weapons employed during the war, such as machine guns and tanks.  Freedman tells how barbed wire played a major role in trench warfare, how poison gas was introduced, and how developments in aviation led to the first dogfights and eliminated the need for reconnaissance missions by the cavalry.

The War to End All Wars is a fascinating book and a perfect introduction to World War I.  There is no complicated military terminology, and Freedman writes so that children as young as 10 (depending on maturity) could understand it.  However, he doesn’t sugarcoat the carnage, and some of the pictures (I’m thinking of a particular photo showing dead French soldiers caught in barbed wire) might be too much for younger readers.  Freedman also devotes several pages to the armistice, the Versailles peace conference, and the failures and events that enabled Hitler to wage another world war just 20 years after the end of the first.  Despite the heavy subject matter, The War to End All Wars was difficult to put down and made me want to read more about the Great War.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The War to End All Wars: World War I from Clarion Books for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Review copy from Sourcebooks
Rating: ★★★★★

Darcy relaxed a bit.  “The old Thompson place?”  She answered with a nod.  “You’re one of Tom Bennet’s daughters?  I was told he had a herd of them.”  Almost immediately he recognized how his choice of words could be considered an insult, but it was too late.

The girl’s voice was ice cold.  “Tom Bennet is indeed my father, sir, and I thank you for your kind observations about my family.  Now, if you’ll pardon me.”  She pulled her reins to return from whence she came, only to be halted by Darcy’s words.

“I’ll escort you back to the ford, miss, if you don’t mind.”

She looked over her shoulder at him.  “I do mind.  You’ve made it clear that I’m not welcomed here, and I can see myself home.  Good day.”

(from Pemberley Ranch, pages 23-24 in the ARC)

Now that I’ve read so many retellings of and sequels to Jane Austen’s novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice, I’m worried that I’m going to tire of the books that have become my guilty pleasure.  I just love revisiting Austen’s characters — although these books will never outshine the originals — and the more unique, the better.

Pemberley Ranch is the first Austen retelling I’ve encountered that is written by a man, and that alone grabbed my attention.  Jack Caldwell takes the basics of Pride and Prejudice — the misunderstandings of a stubborn young woman and an arrogant young man from two different worlds who find themselves unexpectedly attracted to one another — and makes the story his own.

Set just after the Civil War, Will Darcy is a Confederate officer who returns to Texas to run the family cattle ranch and care for his younger sister, Gaby.  Beth Bennet’s family — father Tom, mother Fanny, and sisters Jane, Mary, Kathy, and Lily — leave Meryton, Ohio, for a farm in Rosings, Texas.  Beth and Will’s first meeting is less than pleasant, with Beth caught riding her horse on Pemberley land, and it doesn’t help that carpetbagger and scoundrel George Whitehead, a friend of the Bennet family, has nothing but rotten things to say about Will.

Stories about the Wild West aren’t usually my thing, but Pemberley Ranch was a book I just could not put down.  Using only the barest skeleton of Pride and Prejudice, Caldwell builds a story with romance, murder, unscrupulous business dealings, post-war Union vs. Confederate tension, segregation, and the lingering horrors and loss of war.  I found Caldwell’s rewriting of Austen’s characters to be especially interesting, with Mr. Collins turned into banker Billy Collins, Bingley into a doctor, George Wickham into deed recorder George Whitehead, Col. Fitzwilliam into Pemberley ranch hand Fitz, Lady Catherine into the ruthless ranch owner Cate Burroughs, and Charlotte Lucas into the daughter of the sheriff.  Caldwell also pays homage to other Austen heroes, with characters named Henry Tilney, Edmund Bertram, and Mr. Knightly, which I thought was a nice touch.

Pemberley Ranch is an engaging read on its own, and I forgot early on that I was reading a retelling of Pride and Prejudice.  But I must admit it was fun to picture Mr. Darcy as a handsome cowboy with a twang and to see all the shady characters in Austen’s novel portrayed as being truly evil.  Caldwell does an admirable job balancing the lightness of the romance with the darkness of dirty deeds in a small town.  You definitely don’t need to have read or even loved Pride and Prejudice to enjoy Pemberley Ranch, and while most people will read it because its an Austen reimagining, Caldwell should get some credit for being a talented storyteller in his own right.

Disclosure: I received Pemberley Ranch from Sourcebooks for review.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Harriet twisted the gold wedding band around on her finger, her gaze focused far beyond the front porch and green grass.  “She loved him so much that she sacrificed everything she loved so he could be happy.”  Her eyes met her sister’s, her expression somber.

Cassie shook her head.  “Love isn’t about sacrifice.  It’s about meeting each other’s needs — it’s about companionship.  not to mention the fact that Miss E’s sacrifice makes Daddy sound incredibly selfish.”

“I don’t think Daddy was being selfish — because that’s not like him at all.  I don’t think he was given a choice.  I read that letter up in the attic, too.  It seemed that Miss E was doing everything she could to make sure Daddy didn’t find her.”  She pushed her hair out of her eyes, her gold band catching the sunlight.  “And I think you’re wrong about the sacrifice part.  Love is all about sacrifices — big and small ones.  It’s only when you know how much you could give up for somebody that you know what true love really is.”

(from Falling Home, page 230)

Karen White is my go-to author for Southern fiction.  Her endearing characters, emotional stories, and rich descriptions make me want to drop everything, move to a small town far below the Mason-Dixon line, and incorporate humorous phrases like “Butter my butt and call me a biscuit” into everyday conversation.  So when I was offered a copy of her latest release, Falling Home, I jumped at the chance to read it.  Falling Home was originally published in 2002, and this latest version has been revised to include two additional points of view.

Falling Home is, of course, a coming home story.  Fifteen years after leaving home, Cassie Madison is called back to Walton, Georgia, by a late-night phone call from her sister, Harriet.  Their father is dying, and Cassie must put her pride on the backburner and make peace with the past and the sister who stole her boyfriend so many years ago.  After all, she has several nieces and nephews she’s never met.  So Cassie leaves her stylish New York apartment, arrogant fiancé, and successful career behind to say goodbye to her father.

When Cassie learns she has inherited the family home, she stays longer than she’d planned to prepare it for sale.  And while Andrew waits for her to return home and is dismayed that her Southern accent has returned, Cassie must figure out how to rebuild her relationship with Harriet; manage her feelings for Sam, the local doctor and an old friend; uncover a secret her father harbored for years; and figure out where she stands in the battle of development vs. preservation.

Told in alternating points of view by Cassie, Harriet, and Harriet’s eldest daughter, Maddie, Falling Home is an emotional tale of family, love, and sacrifice that, despite being predictable, had me shedding a few tears by the end.  White’s love for her characters and the small, close-knit town setting shines through, and her easy writing style makes for a quick read.

Cassie, Harriet, and Maddie are all lovable and easy to relate to, and Walton has several eccentric characters, those types that have a special place in my heart for making me laugh.  The book made me think about all the places I’ve lived over the years and what home means to me.  I thought about my sister and how we’ve been living 8 hours away from one another for nearly a decade.  If you’re like me, you’ll need a box of tissues close by when you’re reading this one.  Falling Home is both humorous and serious, heartwarming and heartbreaking, but the emotional rollercoaster is definitely worth the ride.

Other Karen White reviews:

The House on Tradd Street
The Girl on Legare Street
The Lost Hours
On Folly Beach

Disclosure: I received a copy of Falling Home from Joan Schulhafer Pulbishing & Media Consulting. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Art & Max is a delightful picture book for young children about the creative process.  Art is a painter, and Max wants to learn to be an artist.  Art makes him promise not to get in the way, but when he can’t figure out what to paint and decides to paint Art (literally), chaos ensues.  When Art becomes a line drawing that unravels into a pile of spaghetti-like strands, Max must put his artistic ability to the test.

The Girl (age 10) was very excited when we unexpectedly received a copy of Art & Max.  While she’s older than the target audience, she loves art and was intrigued by the book when we saw its display at Book Expo America 2010.  We both enjoyed David Wiesner’s story about friendship and creativity and loved his vivid illustrations, with lizards in a variety of colors and the juxtaposition of full color illustrations and simple line drawings.

Children will be entertained by Max’s attempts to recreate Art and will want to paint or draw their own creations afterward.  Wiesner does a good job showing children that anyone can create a work of art, and painting doesn’t only mean a canvas and an easel.

Wiesner uses words sparingly in Art & Max, focusing more on the visual.  This is a book that children will want to hold themselves and just stare at the many illustrations that, in fact, do much of the storytelling.  Wiesner compels children to use their imaginations, to go out and create, which is an important message in an age when computers, video games, and television take up too much of our time.

Disclosure: We received a copy of Art & Max from Clarion Books for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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She had always known what she wanted to do — get married and have children.  There had never been a moment’s doubt, no other possible choice.  And yet Sam Hutchinson seemed to have molded her future.

He had decided that her oldest child was a boy — and musical.  Carney could almost see him.  He had thick dark hair and a crooked smile.

(from Carney’s House Party, page 129)

Originally published in 1949 and recently reissued by HarperCollins, Carney’s House Party reunites some of “the Crowd” from the beloved Betsy-Tacy series.  Maud Hart Lovelace based the characters in the Deep Valley books on herself and her childhood friends in Mankato, Minnesota.  Carney Sibley (based on Lovelace’s friend, Marion Willard) returns to Deep Valley for the summer following her sophomore year at Vassar College.  Her fashionable and wealthy roommate, Isobel, who hails from Long Island, is intrigued by Carney’s tales of life in the Middle West.  Carney invites Isobel to stay at her home for part of the summer, and she hosts a house party complete with social engagements and nights on the sleeping porch.  She and Isobel are joined by Carney’s friend, Bonnie, home from Paris, and Betsy Ray (who is based on Lovelace herself), who just returned from California.

Carney is eager for news about Larry, her high school boyfriend with whom she has exchanged a letter every week of the last four years since his family moved to California.  She and Larry are so fond of one another that they haven’t dated anyone else, much to the dismay of their parents.  Carney waits for Larry to pay her a visit and determine whether their feelings for one another have remained romantic despite the years that have come between them.  Meanwhile, the girls meet Sam Hutchinson, the son of Deep Valley’s wealthiest man.  Sam and Carney become fast friends, and she suspects that he and Isobel like one another.  But how does Carney feel about the unkempt young man who left college to work in his father’s mill and buys everything on credit — a practice that Carney just doesn’t understand?

Carney’s House Party is a slice of innocent small town life around 1910.  There are certain acceptable gifts a young man can give to a young woman on her birthday when they’re not engaged, like a book, and a young woman shouldn’t allow a young man to even kiss her if they aren’t engaged.  While Carney wants to finish college, she believes her place is in the home, being a wife and mother.  But in Lovelace’s stories and life, women had a choice; Betsy, for instance, is pursuing a writing career.  And like his daughter, Carney’s father is a supporter of women’s suffrage.  The women in Lovelace’s novels enjoy their place in life, and readers never need to question their happiness.

I loved Carney Sibley just as much as I love Betsy Ray.  Both girls are smart and vivacious, but while Betsy is a romantic dreamer who thinks with her heart, Carney is rational and spends a great deal of time thinking out her decisions.  Like all the other Lovelace novels I’ve read, Carney’s House Party is quaint yet timeless.  I could relate to Carney’s hesitance about inviting Isobel into her world.  What if Isobel wasn’t impressed with Deep Valley, if Carney’s stories didn’t ring true to her?  And many of us can relate to Carney’s idealization of first love and questioning whether romantic feelings can span several years and a great distance.

The more I read these novels about Deep Valley, the more real it becomes to me and the more I wish I had grown up in Lovelace’s world, where friends picnic and sing and care about little beyond the plans of the day.  Lovelace wrote with a great fondness for the past, and she and her friends will live on in the hearts of readers for generations to come.

Other Maud Hart Lovelace reviews:

Betsy-Tacy
Betsy-Tacy and Tib
Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill
Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown
Heaven to Betsy
Betsy In Spite of Herself
Betsy Was a Junior
Betsy and Joe
Emily of Deep Valley
Winona’s Pony Cart

Disclosure: I received a copy of Carney’s House Party from HarperCollins for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Dignified!  Dignified!” she was saying crossly.  She kicked her heels against the white stones of the wall.  It hurt, but she didn’t care.

She was saying “dignified” because her mother had told her that she ought to be more so.

Her mother had come out of doors a little while before to call Winona in, and had found her sitting on top of the bird bath.  This marble bowl stood on a tall pedestal on the front lawn.  Winona had been calling, “Giddap!  Giddap!” and bouncing up and down and slapping imaginary reins.  She was pretending, of course, to be riding a pony.

Naturally, she had gotten wet — her dress, her two petticoats, even her panties.  There was water in a bird bath; wasn’t there?  Was that her fault?  If she had a pony she wouldn’t have to go riding on so many other things.

(from Winona’s Pony Cart, pages 289-290)

Winona’s Pony Cart, originally published in 1953 and recently reissued by HarperCollins, is another Maud Hart Lovelace novel set in Deep Valley, Minnesota, which is based on her home town of Mankato.  Although Betsy, Tacy, and Tib of the beloved Betsy-Tacy series (with Betsy Ray based on Lovelace herself) make an appearance, their fun-loving friend, Winona Root (based on Lovelace’s childhood friend, Beulah Hunt), takes center stage in this novel.

Set in the early 1900s, Winona’s Pony Cart is a short novel about Winona’s eighth birthday.  She has already asked her parents for a baby doll and a small printing press (her father is the publisher of the Deep Valley Sun), but then she gets her heart set on a pony and a pony cart, so she asks for them, too.  Her mother, fearing Winona acts too much like a rambunctious boy, is against the idea, and although Winona stops mentioning the pony to her parents, she never stops hoping and believing she will receive one on her special day.

Winona’s mother plans a new party dress for Winona, and her father prints the party invitations at work.  There are only 15 invitations, and her mother has selected the children who will attend.  Winona has her own guest list, and she’s determined that her other friends will attend, so chaos (of the innocent variety) ensues.

Lovelace’s stories about her childhood and that of her friends in the small town of Deep Valley are charming and timeless.  It was a simple life, where everyone knew one another, children played outdoors as much as possible, and families sat down together at every meal.  There’s something so attractive about this life and the innocent pursuits and concerns of the children.

Children will make friends with Winona and her friends, and adults will remember begging for birthday gifts and fouling up the parties so perfectly planned by their parents.  And while we might not be able to relate to the way Winona’s family handles her disappointment and might find her spoiled, we can feel the family’s love and share in their carefree fun.  Lovelace’s stories are old fashioned, but they are sweet and give us a glimpse of a time long past.  Winona’s Pony Cart takes readers to a happy place and offers a feel-good read for children and adults alike.

Other Maud Hart Lovelace reviews:

Betsy-Tacy
Betsy-Tacy and Tib
Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill
Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown
Heaven to Betsy
Betsy In Spite of Herself
Betsy Was a Junior
Betsy and Joe
Emily of Deep Valley

Disclosure: I received a copy of Winona’s Pony Cart from HarperCollins for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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“How can you advise me about infidelity or marital responsibility, or whatever it is you’re going to say?”  I cross my arms against the damp, heavy air.

“Because I’ve been there,” she snaps.  “I know how intoxicating it is to have a man’s desire and secret devotion — to be adored, seduced, seen — married life pales in comparison!”  She’s trembling, whether from the cold or from emotion, I can’t say.  Somehow this gratifies me.  “But it’s a dangerous game, Sylvia.  It will tear you apart,” she concludes.

She’s right about that.  I want to ask if she ever felt she was falling through her life, pulled down through dream and memory by a force larger than gravity.  I want to know if she felt the splintering pain of it — a terrible, fruitful pain like birth, a pain you can’t stop because you have to know what’s on the other side.

(from Outside the Ordinary World, page 261)

Outside the Ordinary World is an ambitious first novel, but Dori Ostermiller pulls it off with beautiful prose and complicated characters.  Infidelity is something that always seemed black and white to me:  how can a marriage survive when all trust is gone, and how can you move past the images of your spouse with someone else?  Ostermiller explores the gray areas of infidelity in a story spanning three decades and that many generations.

Sylvia is only 12 when her mother’s relationship with Mr. Robert threatens to tear her family apart.  Mr. Robert is so different from her father.  He’s friendly and full of adventure, while her father drinks and lashes out.  She carries her mother’s secret and takes sides — something a child shouldn’t be asked to do.

Thirty years later, Sylvia insists she will never be like her mother, Elaine.  But weakened by her husband’s commitment to rebuilding their dilapidated dream house in the country, the trials of mothering a rambunctious 4-year-old and a troubled teenager, and pains in her hands that make it difficult to paint, she succumbs to the attentions of Tai, the father of one of her art students.  Sylvia thinks her situation is different from her mother’s because she won’t involve her children — but is it even possible to commit adultery without involving one’s children?

Ostermiller compels readers to think long and hard about infidelity — how a marriage breaks down, how one lets it happen, and whether forgiveness is possible.  Sylvia and Elaine commit adultery under two different circumstances, and Ostermiller portrays them both as neither good nor bad but human and prone to mistakes.  She juxtaposes their relationships with a marriage that endured for decades and a single woman who would give anything to have Sylvia’s marriage and children.  Sylvia and Elaine are such dynamic characters, and Ostermiller makes it impossible to hate them even as readers question and maybe even despise their actions.

Outside the Ordinary World is not just about infidelity.  It’s about mothers and daughters, sisters, families, and even the way religion (in this case, Seventh-Day Adventist) affects and shapes one’s relationships and actions.  The book was difficult to put down despite my inability to feel the passion of Sylvia’s relationship with Tai.  I just didn’t see what was so attractive about him, and the way their relationship commenced seemed a bit forced to me.  But that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book.

Ostermiller skillfully shifts the narrative from past to present and back again, adding layer upon layer to Sylvia’s story and slowly developing her character.  As the events of the past unfold, readers better understand the present.  Outside the Ordinary World is a rich, emotional novel about finding oneself, recognizing the bonds of family, and rebuilding broken relationships.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for asking me to participate in the blog tour for Outside the Ordinary World.  Click here to check out the rest of the tour dates.

Giveaway: Courtesy of the publisher, I have one copy of Outside the Ordinary World for my readers.  Simply leave a comment telling me your thoughts on infidelity and why you want to read this book.  Because the publisher is shipping the book, this giveaway is open to U.S. and Canada addresses only.  You have until 11:59 pm EST on Sunday, December 5, 2010, to enter.

**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**

Disclosure: I received a copy of Outside the Ordinary World from MIRA Books for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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