Wednesday, March 25, 2009

No Loose Ends

I came across this book in one of my weekly emails from the Dear Reader book club.

Set in small town Tennessee, The Sweetgum Knit Lit Society follows a group of women whose lives intersect at their monthly knit-lit meeting. Assigned to read “girlhood classics,” each character works on a knitting project (i.e. a scarf for Mr. March) in addition to finishing the month’s reading selection (i.e. Little Women).

Between her account of each meeting, Beth Patillo spins the tale of each member. There’s Eugenie, the town librarian ergo spinster, who leads the group. Sisters Ruth and Esther share the same taste in men, but one is a former Peace Corps volunteer while the other spends her days at the country club. Merry, a stay-at-home mom, tries to conceal her fourth pregnacy from her husband and reconnect with her teenage daughter. Camille looks after her mother when she’s not running her dress shop or trying to have an affair. Teenage Hannah, avoiding a shady home life, soon finds herself reading Heidi and shopping for yarn.

As they tackle these tasks, all the women seem to come unraveled by one of life’s little snags at some point. But Patillo manages to rework each dropped stitch and ties up every last loose end. Perhaps it’s worked a little too perfectly. We’re left with the feel of factory manufactured rather than homespun - wearable but predictable.

You delighted in The Mitford series. You devoured The Jane Austen Book Club. And you dashed off The Friday Night Knitting Club in one sitting. You'll be delving into The Sweetgum Knit Lit Society next.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tickets, Please

In Silesian Station, set in the summer leading up to WWII, John Russell, a journalist/triple agent, watches and writes about events as they unfold in Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union. He frees his German film star girlfriend from the Gestapo, searches for a missing Jewish girl newly arrived in Berlin, and seeks contacts among the underground Communist movement. Meanwhile he transports documents between officials in an effort to secure a safe passage for himself if war should break out.

Though not as singularly thrilling as its predecessor, Zoo Station, Silesian Station covers multiple tracks which sometimes cleverly intersect and sometimes just leave you stranded. Serving to unravel some of the complexities are Russell’s fellow passengers on the journey. Conversations with his German son sporting a Junvolk uniform allow him to raise questions about the prudence of blindly following one’s leaders. Interactions with his ex-brother-in-law portray the humanitarian instinct many Germans felt in aiding their Jewish neighbors. And finally clandestine meetings with an array of organizers and informants explore the line between self-sacrifice and self-preservation.

Author David Downing whisks us from prison cell to dance hall, from beer garden to blackout drill. His short paragraphs and snappy dialog have you running down alleys, tensely waiting in line at checkpoints, and impatiently finishing a cup of your landlady’s bad coffee. With the informative detachment of a news story and adrenaline of a spy novel, Downing makes it worth your while to read beyond the front page.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In Time for Friday the 13th

Gather round kids, and I’ll read you a romantic, chilling tale of a cold, aggressive Duke and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. A traveling minstrel wants to marry Saralinda, but the Duke has set him on an impossible task. On hand to help those in peril, the Golux guides the minstrel, really a prince dressed in rags, in his task to gather the tear jewels of Hagga. Listen quickly - for the minstrel must achieve his task timely or be slit from guggle to zatch.

Intrigued? Written by James Thurber, illustrated by Marc Simont, and introduced by Neil Gaiman, The 13 Clocks was meant to be read out loud on a gloomy day when you are in need of a laugh. You might just bust in half.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Don’t say I didn’t warn you

I’ve been banned from choosing movies for sometime now. Inevitably the movies I choose feature a sick, dying, or dead child, a sick, dying, or dead mother, or a sick, dying, or dead adulterer. But the pick that sealed the deal was Nobody Knows – a Japanese movie about three kids struggling to survive when their mom abandons them. Needless to say the thrill of spotting a box of Pocky was not enough to overcome the devastating images of the ending.

If I chose my husband’s reading material, I’d be banned from this as well for recommending An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken. Of course I almost didn’t read past page one myself: “A child dies in this book: a baby. A baby is stillborn.”

McCracken’s memoir of grief is understandably bitter. As she recounts the doubts and fears of the pregnancy following the stillbirth, she admits she would rather read Pregnant for the Time Being Monthly in the waiting room. She wishes for a calling card to announce her loss to insensitive strangers even while acknowledging, “How could they know?”

Luckily her friend Lib knows exactly what to say. And it’s her wisdom, tempered with other bittersweet moments, that makes the book bearable. For example, as an American living in France, McCracken relates her uncertainty that the nurse’s offer of a dwarf is a misunderstanding of language or culture.

This book will unabashedly provoke tears. But it will also remind you that sleepless nights are a blessing. And it may leave you downright thankful for the lungs - full of life - producing that demanding cry. Now you know.