Category Archives: Bookmarks

Bookmarksby Lindsey Stefan
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Book Review: Love and Treasure

lindsey stefanJack Wiseman is an elderly man who has only one regret in life. He asks his granddaughter Natalie to take a necklace that he has been keeping for seventy years. Jack want her to find the owner and return the jewelry. As Natalie digs into her family’s past, she discovers that her grandfather had a specific duty at the end of World War II. He guarded the Austrian Gold Train where the treasures and household goods of thousands of murdered Austrian Jews were stored.

Love and Treasure jumps around in time and perspective. The story begins with Jack as an elderly man, entrusting his granddaughter with this important task. The reader is then transported to Salzburg in 1945 and back to the present as Natalie’s quest takes her around the globe. Finally, the narrative follows the necklace itself as we discover its owner and its history. The first three sections are incredibly personal and immediate, while the final one is somewhat removed from the heart of the story. But it is fascinating if only because of the interesting choice of narrative voice. We learn about Nina, the original owner of the necklace, through the musing remembrances of her psychologist. These chapters take place in 1913 Budapest where peace reigns…except for the women fighting for rights and the anarchists staging loud and creative protests.

love and treasureThere is a plethora of novels that center around WWII, but this one focuses on a slightly different aspect. Jack is experiencing life after the war. While he idly guards the treasure, he sees the utter inability of the Allied forces to do anything meaningful for the victims of the Holocaust. Their belongings are taken, bit by bit, by Jack’s military superiors. Even if the belongings had been left on the train, how could Jack ever track down the owners of the thousands of similar wedding rings, watches, and sets of china? He is also privy to the additional victimization of the people who survived the concentration camps. Jack begins to date a woman named Ilona and sees firsthand just how hard it is for her to trust anyone. She and the other survivors are without a home and now without an identity.

In Love and Treasure, everything is more complicated than it first appears. It is nearly an impossible task to find the right home for the belongings of people long dead. And who decides where survivors should go when the people of their own countries turned against them? Ms. Waldman doesn’t shy away from difficulty here. She introduces us to Amitai Shasho, an art dealer in the present day who uses his heritage to make a good deal. We also read about the dissension among the Jewish people after the war – the Israelis who thought that the European Jews didn’t fight hard enough, the survivors who are determined to return to their homes, and those who discover their home are gone and journey to the only home they have left – Israel.

Love and Treasure is a good, if uneven, novel. While this is somewhat the story of Jack and his family, it is truly the story of a piece of jewelry that connects all of our characters. The jumping around in time and narrative is jarring and it is easy to want more in each storyline. The reader may wish that Waldman picked either the story of Jack and the Gold Train or the tumultuous events of 1913 as the topic for this book. 

 

Love and Treasure

By Ayelet Waldman

Knopf April 2014

ISBN 0385533543

Book Review: Perfect

lindsey stefanByron Hemming, his mother Diana, and his sister Lucy are on their way to school one foggy morning. Byron is preoccupied with the news that two minutes will be added to the clock at an unknown time. Despite his distraction, he is the only one to realize that something terrible has happened. Byron and his best friend James begin Operation Perfect, their attempt to find out exactly what happened that morning and to protect Diana from the fallout. Despite their efforts, the Hemmings family begins to change in subtle and major ways.

Byron’s story is interspersed with the life of Jim, a man in the present who has lost the only home he has had in a long time. He was a resident at a local mental institution, but he was released when the facility closed. Jim is attempting to hold down a job wiping tables in a café and put together some semblance of a normal life. But he worries that he cannot control his compulsions and that no one can help him.

Perfect is incredibly atmospheric. Throughout the novel, there is a real sense of melancholy in both Byron’s story and in Jim’s. There is so much that the two of them do not know – Byron because he is a child and Jim because he doesn’t know how to interact with other people. The greatest tragedy in this story is that Byron and Jim can tell when things are terribly wrong, but neither of them have the resources to fix things. The people who should protect them either can’t help or refuse to step in and take care of them. This is a story that you can’t shake – like the cold fog that accompanies much of this story, it sinks into your chest.

Rachel Joyce received great acclaim for her debut novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This story is entirely different from its predecessor in both tone and style. It is a gift to find a writer who can produce such very different stories and an even greater accomplishment when both of them are excellent.

Perfect

By Rachel Joyce

Random House January 2014

ISBN 0812993306

Review – The Returned

lindsey stefanHarold and Lucille Hargrave are shocked when their eight year old son Jacob shows up on their doorstep. Jacob has been dead for almost fifty years. They are not the only one to receive a miracle. People all over the world are being reunited with their loved ones, who are returning with no memory of where they have been. The government steps in and begins the work of reuniting families with their loved ones. But there are many unanswered questions. Where did these people come from? How did they get back? Will everyone be returning? What will society do when it cannot support all of these extra people? Do we truly want the deceased to return?

Although Jason Mott has written two collections of poetry, this is his debut novel and it is a beautifully written, well-crafted story. The characters are delightful and it’s easy to see why this story is already being developed for the screen – Harold and Lucille seem to jump right off of the page. Mott does not stop with just two excellent characters. He also introduces readers to Martin Bellamy, a government agent caught between his concern for the people he is working with and his questionable orders. 

The chapters are interspersed with brief glances into the lives of other Returned – Nazi soldiers who take refuge in the home of a Jewish family, a Japanese soldier from WWII who shows up in America ready to surrender, and an artist who discovers that he has become famous after his death. It seems as if Mott could have written entire novels about each of these fascinating characters. 

While the government tries to figure out where the Returned have come from and why only some people have come back, the people in this story get caught up in all-too familiar scenarios as people are once again separated into “true” people and “others.” This story will not answer every question and some readers may find that frustrating. ButThe Returnedis more concerned with human connection than with cosmic rationale. Mr. Mott succeeds in giving his tale the sort of breakneck pacing where you refuse to set the book down, while tugging at your heartstrings and making you think long and hard about what it means to be human and to take care of each other.

The Returned

By Jason Mott

Harlequin MIRA August 2013

ISBN 0778315339

Review – The Bookman’s Tale

lindsey stefanPeter Byerly is a book seller who specializes in very rare books. Books are his passion, but his wife Amanda was his love and he hasn’t been able to leave the house since her death. On the advice of his therapist, he visits a bookstore and finds a picture of his wife tucked inside a book. But it can’t be his wife – the painting is Victorian. Peter is determined to figure out the identity of the woman in the painting. In the course of his research, Peter will be drawn into a web of secrets, lies, and cover-ups about a manuscript that might prove the identity of William Shakespeare once and for all.

People who read a lot of books love books that have to do with bookstores, booksellers, and bookish intrigue. This book has all of those things in spades. Peter’s love for books as both beautiful objects and portals into other worlds is evident throughout this story. We follow his journey from a boy in a small town who discovered the magic of books to a college student learning about rare books and bookbinding to a successful rare book dealer. 

Mr. Lovett has written an excellent story. Amanda and Peter’s love story is at the heart of this novel and the peaks and valleys of their relationship are realistic and poignant. He has also done an excellent job of weaving historical figures through the tale. There are three storylines in this book – Peter in the present day, Amanda and Peter as they first meet and fall in love, and Shakespeare and his companions in the 1600s. To Lovett’s credit, you will want to spend more time with all of the characters he created. 

The single downfall of this book is the same one that afflicts many mysteries: the protagonist is not too observant and the coincidences are too many. Peter is an intelligent man, but somehow he just cannot figure out what is going on. It’s frustrating to figure out the twist 100 pages before the protagonist and then wait for him to catch up. 

The Bookman’s Tale is a must-read for anyone who loves books. Peter is a character you can’t help loving and you will rejoice with him as he falls in love with rare books and with Amanda and grieve with him as he mourns his lost love. This story moves at the perfect pace as Peter and the reader race to solve the greatest mystery in all of literature – who was the playwright we call Shakespeare? 

The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession

By Charlie Lovett

Viking May 2013

ISBN 0670026476

All That Is

James Salter’s first novel in almost 40 years has been praised widely by critics and readers. His protagonist, Phillip Bowman, is a young man who serves as a navigation officer in the Pacific during World War II. When the war ends, he returns home searching for a career and a wife. He finds the first as a a book editor for a publishing house. The happy marriage proves more difficult.. He meets and marries Vivian Amussen, a wealthy and privileged girl from Virginia. But there are strains in their marriage from the start, the least of which is the vast difference in their families and upbringings. As Phillip navigates the years after the war, he struggles to find a relationship that will last and a place for himself in a rapidly changing world.

While this is advertised as Bowman’s story, it is not quite that simple. It is more an exploration of a whole world of characters. Bowman will disappear for pages at a time, only to be picked up again as if  there was no break. Characters are introduced and followed for a page or two, never to be seen again. This is both fascinating and frustrating. Salter creates a world of really interesting characters and I often found myself so intrigued by an auxiliary character that I was disappointed when they did not appear again. But this creates a disconnect for the reader with Bowman himself. It’s hard to connect with a protagonist who is frequently absent and often the least interesting of the bunch. 

 

Salter is often noted as writing beautifully simple prose. He excels at writing sentences that manage to be bare and simple while holding great depth and grace.”Day was rising, a pale Pacific dawn that had no real horizon with the tops of the early clouds gathering light. The sea was empty. Slowly the sun appeared, flooding across the water and turning it white.”

 

But the lovely writing doesn’t cover some of the book’s flaws. Throughout the novel, Bowman acts with no consideration for other people. This doesn’t change as time goes on, despite the many failed relationships that litter the story. This gives a stagnant feeling to All That Is. This seems to be an intentional decision on Salter’s part, but it gives a weight to the story that makes it difficult to keep reading with enthusiasm. This novel is also decidedly male in that the women in it are more plot points than characters. They are not developed in any meaningful way because Bowman (and Salter) will use them for a few pages and then dispose of them. 

All That Is was lauded as a return of a very talented author. Unfortunately, this collection of one man’s conquests and failures without much introspection or change doesn’t match the excitement this book generated. 

 

All That Is

By James Salter

Alfred A Knopf April 2013

ISBN 1400043131

Life After Life

lindsey_stefanUrsula Todd is born on a snowy night in 1910 but dies when the cord wraps around her neck. Ursula Todd is born again on a snowy night in 1910 and dies as a small child when she drowns in the ocean. In Life After Life, Ursula is born (and dies) again and again and goes through many different lives. She is unaware of this with the exception of a vague sense of déjà vu and occasional foreknowledge.  Which life is truly Ursula’s? If the universe is determined that she should live, what is her destiny?

This book can seem intimidating. A single glance at the almost 600 pages is enough to convince the reader that there is a lot going on here and the constantly evolving structure doesn’t make it look easy. In each section, something as small as taking a different road or a stranger in the right place at the right time radically changes the course of Ursula’s life. Keeping track of these minor changes and their impact is enough to make your head spin. But Life After Life is not really about charting the differences in Ursula’s many lives. It works best if you sit back, trust in the brilliance that is Atkinson’s writing, and settle in for a wild and wonderful ride.

Ursula is perhaps one of the most developed and complicated characters to ever be committed to paper. This is, of course, because we encounter so many versions of her. We meet her many times as a child, several as a teen, and a few times as an adult. She goes through many different careers and loves during a very tumultuous time period. In her early years, her father goes off to WWI and in one of her adulthoods, she becomes an air raid warden where she must deal with the incredible devastation wrought by WWII.

Perhaps one of the most impressive features of this novel is how well Atkinson draws each of the characters. We spend a lot of time with Ursula’s family, as she gains different insights into her parents and siblings in each life. But even the characters who appear in only one iteration of Ursula’s life feel like people you have known for a long time.

This is a book that can and should be read multiple times. It appeals to our universal sense of “what if?” and our curiosity about how our lives would be different if just one thing had changed. It is also a beautiful portrait of one woman’s life and choices against the background of a society that would be changed forever by two terrible wars. Life After Life is both a sweeping historical novel and a very small, personal story about one woman and the effect of minor decisions on a life. This unique book is deserving of every bit of praise it has received. 

Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson

Reagan Arthur Books April 2013

ISBN 0316176486

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures

lindsey_stefanElsa Emerson is living an idyllic life as the youngest daughter of a theatrical family. Each summer, the Cherry County Playhouse fills with actors and stage crew and a new season of magic takes over her home.  When tragedy rocks their family, Elsa takes the first ticket out of her small Wisconsin town. She marries a young actor named Gordon and the two of them strike out for Hollywood. Despite the bright lights and glamour of the screen, life doesn’t go quite the way Elsa expected. Her career takes a back seat to Gordon’s. Will she find happiness as a wife and mother or will she rise through the ranks to become Laura Lamont, movie star?

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures gives readers a nuanced look into the glamorous and the ugly parts of old Hollywood. We meet actors who are pigeonholed into the same roles for their entire careers, actresses desperate to lose those last few pounds, and producers with an eye for the next big thing. The degree to which these actors and actresses are willing to give up their appearances, personalities, and even names is amazing. Getting one big role doesn’t guarantee that you will get another one, and becoming famous doesn’t ensure happiness.

While Laura’s journey is about success and failure in Hollywood, her story is familiar to anyone who balances a family and a career. At different points in her life, Laura focuses on pursuing her passion or mothering her children or caring for her husband.  For those who lived long ago and those of us in that situation today, we realize that there is no winning – there are only seasons where one or the other takes precedence. While it has a shiny surface, this is actually a dark story. Laura’s life is fractured by family tragedy, by parents who refuse to address problems, and by a happy-ever-after that is forever just out of reach.

Straub is a lovely writer and through her words, readers truly begin to care for the characters. Laura is a resilient woman who loves her family and wants the best for them, but not at the expense of her own dreams.  When she achieves success, you want to cheer for the recognition and when her life is ripped apart at the seams yet again, we grieve for her loss.

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is an insightful peek behind the curtain at old Hollywood. Straub balances the glitz and pain of fame and success with ease.  This is a do-not-miss read for anyone who wonders what life was like for movie stars of the past or readers who appreciate a well-crafted story and beautiful writing. 

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures

By Emma Straub

Riverhead September 2012

ISBN 1594488452

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures

lindsey_stefanElsa Emerson is living an idyllic life as the youngest daughter of a theatrical family. Each summer, the Cherry County Playhouse fills with actors and stage crew and a new season of magic takes over her home.  When tragedy rocks their family, Elsa takes the first ticket out of her small Wisconsin town. She marries a young actor named Gordon and the two of them strike out for Hollywood. Despite the bright lights and glamour of the screen, life doesn’t go quite the way Elsa expected. Her career takes a back seat to Gordon’s. Will she find happiness as a wife and mother or will she rise through the ranks to become Laura Lamont, movie star?

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures gives readers a nuanced look into the glamorous and the ugly parts of old Hollywood. We meet actors who are pigeonholed into the same roles for their entire careers, actresses desperate to lose those last few pounds, and producers with an eye for the next big thing. The degree to which these actors and actresses are willing to give up their appearances, personalities, and even names is amazing. Getting one big role doesn’t guarantee that you will get another one, and becoming famous doesn’t ensure happiness.

While Laura’s journey is about success and failure in Hollywood, her story is familiar to anyone who balances a family and a career. At different points in her life, Laura focuses on pursuing her passion or mothering her children or caring for her husband.  For those who lived long ago and those of us in that situation today, we realize that there is no winning – there are only seasons where one or the other takes precedence. While it has a shiny surface, this is actually a dark story. Laura’s life is fractured by family tragedy, by parents who refuse to address problems, and by a happy-ever-after that is forever just out of reach.

Straub is a lovely writer and through her words, readers truly begin to care for the characters. Laura is a resilient woman who loves her family and wants the best for them, but not at the expense of her own dreams.  When she achieves success, you want to cheer for the recognition and when her life is ripped apart at the seams yet again, we grieve for her loss.

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is an insightful peek behind the curtain at old Hollywood. Straub balances the glitz and pain of fame and success with ease.  This is a do-not-miss read for anyone who wonders what life was like for movie stars of the past or readers who appreciate a well-crafted story and beautiful writing. 

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures

By Emma Straub

Riverhead September 2012

ISBN 1594488452

The Age of Miracles

lindsey_stefanLife for Julia is normal, until the day when everything changes. One sunny morning, everyone learns that the world has started to slow its rotation. The days and nights become longer, until darkness or light can last for several days. People start to become ill and communities divide into those who continue to observe 24 hour cycles and those who mark their days by the changing sun.  In the midst of a chaotic world, Julia still goes through the normal angst of being a teenager – the first serious crush, changing friendships, and the sudden realization that your family is not as secure as you once believed.

The Age of Miracles might be referred to as sci-fi light. While the slowing of the planet is a major plot point, it is not explored very deeply. This has much to do with our narrator. Julia is just 11 years old when our story begins and her viewpoint is much different than the one we would get from an adult narrator. Julia neither understands nor cares about the finer scientific points if they don’t affect her directly. She is more interested in discovering if things would have happened similarly even if the planet had remained the same. Would she lose her best friend? Would she still have the same first love? Would her family dissolve in the same way if everything had been normal?

At its core, this is really a coming of age story. Author Karen Thompson Walker explores what stays the same even when everything we once knew about our planet is changing. People still age and relationships begin and end. Growing up still seems impossible. Parents seem like best friends and strangers within the same day. The title does not, in fact, refer to the natural changes that the characters observe. Instead it refers to adolescence, the ‘age of miracles’ when “kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove. Our first flaws were emerging, but they were being corrected. Blurry vision could be fixed invisibly with the magic of the contact lens. Crooked teeth were pulled straight with braces. Spotty skin could be chemically cleared. Some girls were turning beautiful. A few boys were growing tall. I knew I still looked like a child.”

When we leave Julia at the end of the story, we still have no answers as to the future. I appreciated that Walker did not neatly tie up the ending, leaving Julia and the reader unsure about what Julia’s future will be, or even how much of a future she and humanity as a whole will have. The earth has continued to slow and humanity has still not devised solutions for the problems that the slowing is causing. But I think this is one of the great strengths of this book. Julia must ultimately come into her own in this new, strange world. She is forced by both normal and incredible circumstances to stand by herself, separate from family, friends, or a boyfriend, and make decisions for her own uncertain future.

The Age of Miracles does not move at a breakneck pace. Instead, it is a slow examination of the ways things change and stay the same, regardless of circumstances. In spite of seeming to meander at points, this is an incredibly readable book that most people will get through in just a day or two. Julia is an affable and awkward narrator, willing to share her darkest moments and deepest insights with the reader. Through her eyes, the end of the world looks surprisingly like normal life. 

The Age of Miracles

By Karen Thompson Walker

Random House 2012

ISBN 0812992970

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

lindsey_stefanHarold Fry is recently retired and going through the motions with his wife, Maureen. One day, among the minor tasks that fill up his days, he finds a letter in his pile of mail. The letter is from Queenie, an old colleague. She writes that she is dying and that she wanted to thank Harold and say goodbye. He writes an unsatisfactory response and walks to the mailbox to mail it. But for some reason, he continues to walk. He thinks that he will just stop at the next mailbox, and then the next. Then Harold realizes what he is really doing. Somewhere deep inside he believes that if he continues walking, Queenie will continue to live. Harold sets off to walk across England and give Queenie a goodbye in person.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is one of many debut novel getting rave reviews this year. This novel is a heartfelt look at the way we come to terms with our past and the ways in which the human experience is universal. As Harold walks, he thinks about his relationships – with his wife, his son, and with Queenie. He knows that he has made mistakes with each. Some can still be repaired, but there are others he will have to live with forever.

As he walks, he begins to pick up other travelers; people with things to prove, losses to mourn, or fame to be gained. Harold’s new community both inspires him and disappoints him. He deplores the people who walk with him just because his story has become newsworthy. But Joyce excels at writing characters that are complicated and nuanced. No one is as easily categorized as it seems at first glance.

“He judged no one, although as the days wore on, and time and places began to melt, he couldn’t remember if the tax inspector wore no shoes or had a parrot on his shoulder. It no longer mattered. He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique, and that this was the dilemma of being human.”

This book has a simple, almost old world feel to it. The idea that someone could walk across the entirety of England, and that people would cheer him on and care for him across the way feels almost like a page out of a history textbook. It calls back to mind a simpler time when relationships were more easily made, when you could knock on the door of a stranger and ask to use their telephone. This is the sort of book that will restore your faith in your fellow man, in the strength of relationship, and in the power of faith. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a book that will resonate with anyone who has ever taken a journey, whether it was across the whole of England or simply through a lifetime of memories. 

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

By Rachel Joyce

Random House July 2012

ISBN 0812993292