A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline (2017)

“The most important qualities a human can possess are an iron will and a persevering spirit.” 22

Oh, my! How to describe this gorgeous, epic, masterpiece of historical fiction? It is a daunting task. Christina Baker Kline has unearthed a treasure-trove of research on Christina Olson — a disabled woman who lived during the first-half of the twentieth century almost elusively on her family’s farm in rural Maine, and who became the unlikely subject of many paintings by Andrew Wyeth — into a fictional heroine whose “iron will, persevering spirit,” and New England grit enrich and enliven the pages of A Piece of the World.

Expertly blending fact and fiction, Baker Kline tells the story of Christina and Andrew Wyeth, but also the far reaching tale of Christina’s ancestors and the small town of Cushing, Maine where her family built the farm that would be the center, for better or for worse, of Christina’s world. Rather than telling the story of Andrew Wyeth’s famous paintings, specifically Christina’s World, by writing a book about Wyeth’s life: Baker Kline tells us the story of Christina Olson — a woman whose struggles, heartaches, and determination history would never have known if not for the painting — a woman whose life stories were compelling enough to serve as the inspiration for one of Wyeth’s masterpieces, even if they were overlooked by her peers.

christinas world wyeth

Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth

The book begins in 1896, with four-year old Christina suffering from a terrible illness that causes her arms and legs to lose forever some of their function. At first, Christina’s strong-willed parents and grandmother refuse to let this ruin her life: she is still encouraged to play with her brothers, explore the fields of their farm and the beaches it borders. For both Christina’s well-being and because life on a farm depends on everyone, the family still requires the young girl care for the animals, prepare meals, mend clothes, care for her brothers, and a long list of other chores. Despite the extra time it takes her, and the injuries she endures in the process; Christina does what is asked of her without question.

As Christina’s story unfolds, she shares with readers the stories of her ancestors — witch-hunters in Salem, world-traveling seamen, grim-faced and determined farmers — whose ghosts (and, more tangibly, their souvenirs) live with the family in the farmhouse. The stories of these predecessors are kept alive through the stories her Mamey tells, “Her favorite things are timeworn. Each one of them with its own story to tell.” 32

As she grows, it becomes clear that Christina is very bright. She excels at school work and in her farm and fishing chores. She falls in love with school and hopes her intellect will allow her a life beyond the borders of the farm. Her father has his own ideas: she will leave school at twelve and dedicate herself to serving her family. There will be no more school, no career. Her hands are needed to feed and clothe the growing family; and more importantly, she is told, her disability makes it impossible that she can do what others can.

As she grows, we come to love Christina’s bright mind and rich imagination. Her lush descriptions and poetic voice bring vividly to life to her corner of Maine and the bounty it offers throughout the seasons. Even though her worsening paralysis means her life is very physical demanding and, at times, humiliating; Christina feels honored to have such a gorgeous setting for her childhood.

As she becomes a young woman, Christina’s loneliness increases. Her brothers leave home for adventures denied to her (because of her gender and disability), the other young women around her marry and have children, and her only prize is even more work to make the farm run. When a summer romance in her twenties begins to look promising, Christina falls in love and for the first time she glimpses a hope that her life can be something more. “‘It is terrible to find the love of your life Christina,’ Mamey says. ‘You know too well what you’re missing when it gone.'” (18)

When she is cruelly discarded for a wealthy, able-bodied, better-educated woman; Christina retreats almost completely within in herself; her dreams shelved, her heart-hardened, her body growing more and more defiant. Life unfolds — wars happen, people marry, babies are born — for everyone else, but Christina’s life remains the same. The house, the farm, and the ocean it borders solidify as her domain. “I will be alone in the house on the hill, with nothing to look forward to but the slow change of seasons, my own aging and infirmity, the house turning to dust.” (183) Out of desperation, she bullies her brother Al into staying with her, without whom she could not live alone, and he becomes her only companion.

When a young girl from town brings a young painter to her door in 1939 — a door to a house now in complete disrepair due to Christina’s disability and Al’s indifference — Christina meets Andrew Wyeth. In his paintings, the farm comes back to life, its former beauty restored, and its surroundings once again magical. Their prison is suddenly partially restored to the lush playground of their youth.

“I read once that the act of observing changes the nature of what is observed. This is certainly true for Al and me. We are more attuned to the beauty of this old house, with its familiar corners, when Andy is here. More appreciative of the view down the yellow fields to the water, constant yet ever changing, the black crows on the barn roof, the hawk circling overhead. A grain bag, a dented pail, a rope hanging from a rafter: the ordinary objects and implements are transformed by Andy’s brush into something timeless and otherworldly.” 94

Andrew’s presence also breaths life back into Christina’s inner world. His intense interest in the stories and souvenirs of her ancestors bring the ghosts back to life. Her once vivid imagination is given another chance to soar. Andrew wants to know about Christina’s view of the world, her thoughts about books, poetry, nature, and her encyclopedic knowledge of the farm, beach, animals, house…knowledge that is foreign to a wealthy, urban man and growing faint as the country moves toward the 1950.

Baker Kline’s gorgeous prose brings to life an unlikely heroine in Christina. A woman who was denied so much, asked to shoulder unimaginably heavy burdens, humiliated and pitied throughout her life, but never-the-less was a woman of heart, substance, intellect, and a fierce determination that allowed her to preserve something for herself, even when the world wanted to take it from her.

The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone (2017)

hatching cover

In several rural parts of the earth, a simultaneous hatching of a terrifying and fast-reproducing population of spiders has been awakened from deep within the earth. These insects are capable of devouring every human in their path and of spreading across the globe with little difficultly. How will the world respond to a threat they never could have imagined?

This supernatural thriller reads like a mash-up of Dan Brown novels and the movie Contagion: covering plot lines and introducing characters on six continents in a huge array of political, military, and scientific careers who all work in concert to identify the threat and how to stop it from causing global genocide.

Told through the viewpoint of several narrators, and many other smaller characters — as disparate as the President of the United States, a Marine, a doomsday prepper, entomologist, and FBI agent — the story of the Hatching, and the subsequent effort to contain it, unfolds. The phenomenon grows unchecked in the early days of the hatching; both because no one wants to believe this is possible and because the rural areas where it began were places no one (with the power to intervene) seemed cared about. When it disaster erupts in urban cities and happens on camera, the world begins to pay attention…and to realize their disbelief has put them at a huge disadvantage. The following action shows, in great detail, how the characters respond to the threat.

Despite its great plot line, the book remained a bit underwhelming.  Characters in the story — and there are many, many characters — are presented without too much depth, the author relying mostly on the fast moving, unsettling plot. At times his female and non-white characters — who are already somewhat poorly drawn — seem to devolve into caricatures of themselves (a female scientist who is also obsessed with sex; the young African American solider who joined Marines to avoid jail; a gay prepper who takes time to make cocktails) further emphasizing the weak character development. Overall readable, but not outstanding.

 

Echoes In Death JD Robb (2017)

For an introduction to the In Death series, see this post https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/in-death/

For a review of the In Death book that proceeded Echoes in Death in the series, view this post https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/10/14/apprentice-in-death-by-jd-robb-2016/

echoes in death cover

Echoes in Death, the 44th book in JD Robb’s prolific futuristic, science-fiction murder mystery series, opens with Lt. Eve Dallas and her husband, Roarke, discovering a naked and battered woman wandering the frozen New York City streets. After racing her to the hospital they learn that she is the young wife of a prominent surgeon. Once the hospital staff confirm her identity and concur that the young woman has been the victim of a brutal physical and sexual attack; Dallas and her partner, Peabody, arrive at her home to find her husband has been murdered, presumably by the same attacker as his wife.

On the surface the attacks appear to be a rape/murder perpetrated in the course of a home invasion. All evidence points to that conclusion: the home of a wealthy couple invaded, the couple attacked, and the attacker had left only after stealing artwork, cash, and jewelry. As the wife begins to regain her memories of the evening, and Dallas and Peabody interview friends of the couple, information that suggests that the husband abused his wife (and possibly a previous wife) comes to light and the cops have to work out whether she killed in self-defense or if someone else was involved in an elaborate escape plan.

Two fellow NYPD detectives approach Dallas and Peabody with evidence that links two of their cold cases with her murder investigation and all four detectives agree that the three cases are similar enough that the attacker most likely is a serial rapist who has escalated into murder.

Tracing the intricate relationships between the three cases, the team begin to uncover a pattern: the murderer is targeting prominent, wealthy couples in which the wife is extraordinarily beautiful. Dr. Mira, the department psychiatrist and recurrent character in the series, creates a chilling profile that suggests the killer is attacking “surrogates” who reminds him of someone he has long known and long wanted to harm.

Although this series can be formulaic and repetitive, this book felt reinvigorated and the plot and details kept it feeling fresh and fast paced. A dark series, too dark for those sensitive to graphic murder mysteries, but one that has fought to remain vital after forty+ books.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (2016)

“I imagined being interviewed ten years from now. My amicable interviewer would ask me about my origins. I would tell him that for so long I thought I would be nothing; that my loneliness had been so total that I was unable to project into the future. And that this changed when I got to the city and my present expanded and my future skipped out in front of me.” 34

Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter is an amazing, raw, gritty story about the wild and seedy underbelly of New York City’s high-end restaurant industry. The story is narrated by Tess, a small-town girl who moves to the the city with dreams for a bigger life. Tess gets a coveted job in one of the city’s most elite restaurants and so begins her education about living an urban, cultured life — wine, fine foods, drugs, drama, hierarchies, art, music, theater, “they were fluent in rich people” — all gleaned from her frantic, heady days working with the restaurant’s staff and studying its wealthy customers.

Tess’s new life is far cry from her small town upbringing: from Dunkin’ Donuts coffee to $100 glasses of wine, from high school football games to exhibit openings at The Met. In the haze of her wild new life — exhausted, high, experiencing something new every minute of every day — things are sharp and real and alive.  The vibrancy of this newness makes her simple, lonely life before New York City blur into a distant memory.

Soon Tess realizes that while the city offers her to chance to learn limitless new things, the people in it are largely emotionally distant from her. The harsh realities of the city — its indifference and rudeness infectious; its anonymity creating an environment ripe for misbehavior — have warped the people around her, making them resist her attempts to befriend them or establish meaningful, trusting connections. They no longer trust the future, she begins to see, the dreams they came to the city with have faded and her hopefulness makes them pity her.

“You’re all terrified of young people. We remind you what it is like to have ideals, faith, freedom. We remind you of the losses you have taken as you’ve grown cynical, numb, disenchanted, compromising the life you imagined.” 196

Although she has been warned against it, indeed her own instincts tell her to avoid the trouble, Tess falls for a angry, withdrawn, moody man who works with her. Not only does Jake bring his own turbulence to her life, with his lies and his unwillingness to commit to her; Jake is deeply entangled with the restaurant’s most important employee (and Tess’ idealized mentor), Simone. Together, Jake and Simone awaken her to all of the tastes, textures, and delights that life has to offer and Tess grows wild with the new knowledge. Her willingness to be mistreated, lied to, and led astray are all part of the hedonistic life she is now living…a life that, despite its draw-backs, makes her feel alive for the first time. The ultimate fallout seems inevitable, but to Tess what she gains in the moment is worth the heartbreak along the way.

Danler’s writing is so vivid that you cannot help taste, feel, and experience everything alongside Tess — each sip of wine; each oyster; each line of coke — and the city seems to come alive as Tess explores it. Although I find their stories heart-breaking at times, Danler’s characters feel undeniably real and it is easy to see the dreamers who came to New York City full of hope underneath the jaded people they have become. Undeniably, this a wonderful book.

“You will see it coming. Not you, actually, because you don’t see for yourself yet, everyone is busy seeing for you, days filled with unsolicited advice you don’t take and trite warnings you can’t hear and the whitewashing of all your excitement. Yes, they definitely saw it coming, exactly the way it came. When you’re older you will know that at some unconscious level not only did you see it coming, but you created it, in your own blind, stumbling way.” 255

On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman (2017)

On Turpentine Lane was a sweet, quirky novel with a bit of a “chick-lit” air about it, that I enjoyed on a lazy weekend afternoon. The novel follows Faith Frankel through several months of her unconventional, and at times very funny, life. A former New York City urbanite, Faith has recently moved back to her home town and taken a job at her old high school. Her boyfriend’s selfishness and free-loading nature comes to light after he borrows money and sets of on a cross-country trip to “find himself.” Feeling unsettled in a cramped apartment with a boyfriend gone for an indefinite period, Faith buys a crumbling, ancient cottage in town on a whim.

Almost immediately the house’s past begins to haunt Faith, when rumors of multiple suspicious deaths come to light causing her great unease. When an album with pictures of dead infants in it is found in the attic, Faith asks Nick, a male colleague, to move in so she has a roommate to keep her fears at bay. Soon a romance blossoms between Faith and Nick and the two team up with her wacky family to play amateur detective and learn what really happened in the house and who was to blame.

In the end, a house that had been very, very unlucky for its previous tenants proves to be filled with only good luck for Faith, Nick, and her entire family.

Thankless in Death by JD Robb (2013)

I was startled to learn that I had missed a book in JD Robb’s In Death series, a series which I have been reading for years. Even though the series is loosing a bit of its appeal after more than 40 books, for loyalty sake, I checked out the missed book, Thankless in Death, and read it yesterday.

An introduction to the series, and a commentary on the series and its author, was written by me and published on this site in 2015.

Devoted in Death is the forty-first book in the Eve Dallas “…in Death” series by prolific writer JD Robb (nom de plume for Nora Roberts, who has written hundreds of additional books under her real name). I have read all of the books in the series, many of them more than once, and always find they are well worth the read. The books are science-fiction murder mysteries set in the 2060’s, following the life and work of NYPD detective Eve Dallas. Despite the futuristic settings and high-tech gadgetry, the books are largely told in the traditional police-procedural style. The stories portray, in graphic detail, the murders committed (often in very dramatic ways) and the minutiae of police work required to solve them.

A moment of commentary here seems in order. I know that serialized books in general are dismissed as overly simplistic and often formulaic. Some readers would say that murder-mystery serials sensationalize crime and gore and sentimentalize the work of the police. Novels such as the In Death series may not be “literature,” but the author never sets out to write a Pulitzer, she sets out to entertain readers. I suggest that there can easily be room in any reader’s book list for novels such as these. It can be tiresome and confining to only read books at the high-end of the literature spectrum. While there is much value in books that demand a lot of their readers, there is also value in books that ask just a little. Books such as the In Death series demand only two things: that we come willing to be entertained (even if we have to suspend disbelief at times) and that, especially when we read serials, we are looking to form deeper connections to story’s main characters.

We meet Eve Dallas in In Death Book One as she is both becoming a NYPD detective and forming relationships with a slew of characters who will appear in most of the following books including: her billionaire lover-turned-husband, her hippy police partner, a savvy news reporter, an orphan turned rock-star, the police department shrink, and many more. My continued love of the series is largely tied up in these relationships, more so than the detective stories (although those are compelling as well). An abused former foster child, Dallas must open her life to welcome in more and more friends and loved ones, something that does not come easy. She must also deal with her unexpected celebrity resulting from both her sensational police work and her marriage. These caring relationships, and the steamy love life she shares with her husband, Roarke, are a nice counterpoint to the otherwise dark material of the books. (Another comment: the fact that her books include romance — and not just sex — is often cited as evidence of their inferiority to similar books written by men.) — Originally posted October 18, 2015

Thankless in Death finds Eve Dallas and her partner Peabody working to solve a double homicide in the days before Thanksgiving 2060. A husband and wife were murdered in what appeared, initially, a home invasion. Discrepancies on the scene do not sit right with Dallas, and she soon suspects that the couple’s adult son is their murderer. Once it becomes clear that her hunch is correct, Dallas and Peabody begin begin to work the case assuming that the son has gone into hiding. They are both shocked and angered when they learn that this was not a one-time crime of passion and the man has not run, but rather he has decided to use his new found “skills” to hunt down and kill everyone against who he has a grudge. Knowing that they are now dealing with a unstable serial killer, Dallas and Peabody are racing the clock to catch him while the try to puzzle out whom he plans to target and in what order.

Thankless in Death also finds Dallas and her husband preparing to host a large family Thanksgiving in their New York home — an event that makes our main character feel panicked and claustrophobic.  After spending most of her adult life dedicating herself to her police work, she still finds it a shock that she has a family that she has married into, and a family of friends and loved ones she has grown. While she feels fiercely protective of her extended family, she still finds it a tremendous challenge to have to welcome them — and their opinions, their drama, their chaos — into her life.  Despite her inclination to cut herself off from others, something she can easily justify since her work as a police detective is all-consuming, it is her husbands insistence that she make time for family and holiday celebrations that, in the end, fill Eve’s heart of love and gratitude.

A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan (1997)

a place own cover pollan

“What is a place after all but a bit of space that people have invested with meaning?” (38)

In this book, the outstanding non-fiction writer and journalist Michael Pollan has created a completely unique piece of work: one that is part memoir, part how-to, and part complex cultural commentary about the abstraction that we call “place.” The novel chronicles the author’s efforts to design and build — by himself — a cottage in which he can conduct his work as a writer. Along the way, Pollan educates himself — and all of us — on the various disciplines that inform our ideas about place, home, and ownership; including discussions of history, geology, geography, science, architecture, sociology, literature, and carpentry…to name just a few. The resulting book is a rich, in-depth discussion about our place in the world and the places in the world that we attempt to make our own.

At the start of the book, the author lays out his reasons for wanting a work space that is wholly separate from his living space. “A room of one’s own,” he argues, allows for privacy, solitude, and freedom from interruption — all elements that he deems essential for daydreaming, daydreaming being the heart of all creative work. By carving a space from himself away from his home, rather than in it, he seeks to gain an entirely different perspective on the place he calls home. Pollan’s decides to build the house on his own (with one helper) in order to meet a need he has to build something that will exist in the physical world, not just the intellectual one. He longs to do “work that involves very little intellect, but all the senses. It reminded me just how much reality slips through the net of our words, and that time spent working directly with the flesh of the world is the best antidote to abstraction.” (25)

The idea of abstractions versus concrete realities runs throughout the book and offers readers an examination of the physical act of building a place, as well as a dissection of its emotional and cultural importance of trying to lay claim to a piece of the earth. Pollan discusses building codes as well as daydreams; the realities of weather, soil, and climate versus the desire to build a place that suits our whims regardless of its practicality; or even the abstraction of “lumber” that allows him to separate himself from the discomfort of cutting down living trees to meet his needs. The greatest contradiction, though, comes from Pollan’s ruminations about whether any piece of land can ever really be considered ours, or whether it is on loan from nature, and who may reassert her claim at any time.

When we lay claim to an area, and call it “ours” we suddenly infuse that place with a tremendous amount of meaning. Far beyond just ground, air, light, and plants; our “place” comes to represent our goals, dreams, ideals, and our sense of ownership of a piece of the earth. While it may be just a cottage on one level, it is also a place of refuge, safety, comfort, wealth, and a place that tells the world the work you conduct there is completely your own.

“Houses only comes into their own in bad weather, when the poetry of shelter reaches its fullest expression…’I will be an inhabitant of the world, in spite of the world.'” (18)