REVIEW: Flying Changes by Sara Gruen

flying changesFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  General Fiction / Equine Fiction
ISBN:  978-0-06-124109-3
Published:  2005

Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Anxiety rules Annemarie Zimmer’s days—the fear that her relationship with the man she loves is growing stagnant; the fear that equestrian daughter Eva’s dreams of Olympic glory will carry her far away from her mother . . . and into harm’s way. For five months, Annemarie has struggled to make peace with her past. But if she cannot let go, the personal battles she has won and the heights she has achieved will have all been for naught.

It is a time of change at Maple Brook horse farm, when loves must be confronted head-on and fears must be saddled and broken. But it is an unanticipated tragedy that will most drastically alter the fragile world of one remarkable family—even as it flings open gates that have long confined them, enabling them all to finally ride headlong and free.

My Thoughts:

I always find it interesting to read reviews after I have finished a book, especially if I am having a difficult time articulating my reactions to the book. In this case, I found the reviews highly informative, most noticeably because there was very little middle ground on this novel. The vast majority of reviewers either loved it or hated it, so I find myself in the minority here.

I read Riding Lessons immediately prior to Flying Changes, and were it not for the redeeming factors in that book (noted in my review), I may not have pushed forward. That, and unless I truly hate something, I am often compelled to get to the end of the story…and clearly the end of the story was not at the end of Riding Lessons. And I’m glad I did, because this book had, in the end, more to redeem it than Riding Lessons did.

Amazing to me was that I grew to like Mutti, and to understand her better. AnneMarie continued to be a collossally immature trainwreck until very near the end of the book, when a convergence of several factors forced her to step up and be an adult. Thankfully there was a good support system surrounding her, because otherwise it’s hard to fathom that there was any hope she could actually do it. Eva continued in her truant ways, and frankly, it was understandable considering how little her mother seemed capable of mothering her. It was never AnneMarie who dropped the hammer on her, but Mutti (or Dan). I am not an iron-fisted parent by far, but I do believe in setting limits, and disciplining disobedience and defiance, so I found AnneMarie’s inability to handle Eva frustrating, even after accounting for a divorce and a seemingly absent father (who started a new family with his new wife).

Still, in the end, she (AnneMarie) redeemed herself. She got hold of her irrational fear…at least, enough to keep from derailing her daughter’s ambitions. She also pulled herself together when there was no other choice, and considering her track record, I was relieved and gratified by that. Had she not, I am certain I would have heaved the book across the room with curses following. It’s not a ringing endorsement, but if you’re a horse person with a reasonably forgiving nature for irrational, unlikeable characters who may or may not change, then you’ll like this book.

REVIEW: Riding Lessons by Sara Gruen

riding lessonsFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  General Fiction / Equine Fiction
ISBN:  978-0-06-124108-6
Published:  2004

Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

As a world-class equestrian and Olympic contender, Annemarie Zimmer lived for the thrill of flight atop a strong, graceful animal. Then, at eighteen, a tragic accident destroyed her riding career and Harry, the beautiful horse she cherished. Now, twenty years later, Annemarie is coming home to her dying father’s New Hampshire horse farm. Jobless and abandoned, she is bringing her troubled teenage daughter to this place of pain and memory, where ghosts of an unresolved youth still haunt the fields and stables—and where hope lives in the eyes of the handsome, gentle veterinarian Annemarie loved as a girl . . . and in the seductive allure of a trainer with a magic touch.

But everything will change yet again with one glimpse of a white striped gelding startlingly similar to the one Annemarie lost in another lifetime. And an obsession is born that could shatter her fragile world.

My Thoughts (**spoiler**):

Well, I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it. I found it disappointing after having read Water for Elephants a few years back, which I loved. I pretty much disliked every single character in Riding Lessons…which makes you wonder why I went on and read Flying Changes. I found AnneMarie to be ridiculously immature for a woman of 38 years, married 18 years and mother to teenage daughter. She doesn’t seem to have outgrown her own adolescence, and maybe that was a direct result of her career-ending accident when she was 18, but her seeming inability to admit her weaknesses and learn lessons from them was very frustrating. Add to that the once overbearing father who is now dying – and with whom there are unresolved issues, an iron-fisted mother who is intrusive and continues to parent her daughter as if she were still an adolescent, and Eva, with a huge attitude and a smart mouth.

I suppose a woman who has not yet resolved issues with her own parents can not be expected to be a mature, effective parent to a daughter just like herself. Particularly when she is going through a divorce from a cheating husband, a husband whom her daughter adores, and who therefore blames the split on AnneMarie. Still, there does come a point when big girl panties are necessary.

**spoiler**

As much as I disliked almost every character, the book did have some redeeming aspects to it. I related very much to AnneMarie’s devotion to finding the truth of Hurrah’s lineage, and what really happened to him. I also appreciated that, in the end, AnneMarie recognized how much damage she had done, and used her own money to set it right. She was so selfish and had blinders to everything except what was immediately in front of her for so long, that I was gratified to see her make this very real effort, since she had basically run the stable into the ground.

REVIEW: Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt

pictures of youFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  General Fiction
ISBN:  978-1-56512-631-2
Published:  2011

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Two women running away from their marriages collide on a foggy highway, killing one of them. The survivor is left to pick up the pieces, not only of her own life, but also must go back and deal with the devastated husband and fragile, asthmatic son the other woman left behind. Together, they try to solve the mystery of where April was running to, and why. By turns riveting and unsettling, Pictures of You looks at the choices women make-the roads they choose-to be loved.

My Thoughts:

Pictures of You is classic Caroline Leavitt, and if you have read her books (as I have), you will know what to expect. The women are damaged, they are running from trauma of some sort, there are always complications, and (ultimately) that which has been hidden gets discovered in the end. It is a formula that Leavitt uses very effectively, and she weaves her words together in a way that typically sucks you into the story within a few pages. This book is no exception.

I loved that photography was the connective tissue in this novel, and in particular that Isabelle took pictures of kids. That is the kind of detail through which both mounting discomfort and eventual healing took place. And that worked for me. I also liked that in the end, what I was rooting for was NOT what happened. It was a good choice, and though it made for some unfinished business between characters, it made the ending good, and open-ended, and hopeful.

My first experience with Caroline Leavitt was Into Thin Air. I loved it, and I have read her work faithfully ever since. Though she uses a familiar formula, I like her spin on it. I like the characters (for the most part anyway), and I like most of all that she doesn’t tie her stories up neatly. The truth is, life is never tied up neatly, and if the argument that fiction is truth has any merit at (I think it does), then it does have to reflect the messiness of life and truth to some degree. Leavitt gets that, and she writes good stories as a result.

REVIEW: The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

the prince of tidesFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Fiction / Southern Fiction
ISBN:  978-1-4418-0791-5
Published:  1986 (1988 audio)

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Pat Conroy has created a huge, brash thunderstorm of a novel, stinging with honesty and resounding with drama.  Spanning forty years, this is the story of turbulent Tom Wingo, his gifted and troubled twin sister Savannah, and their struggle to triumph over the dark and tragic legacy of the extraordinary family into which they were born.

Filled with the vanishing beauty of the South Carolina low country as well as the dusty glitter of New York City, The Prince of Tides is Pat Conroy at his best.

My Thoughts:

I am convinced beyond any doubt that Pat Conroy is one of the finest writers living today, and perhaps one of the finest I have had the pleasure to read. This is the book that put Pat Conroy on the literary map, and deservedly so. It is an epic story, and I don’t mean in the “beyond awesome” sense of this generation’s iteration of epic, but in the true definition of the word. It is a work of art, a story that tells of exciting events and adventures, a story “extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope.” (Merriam-Webster) This is certainly true in the good and happy sense, but even more true in the bad, dark and disturbing sense. The story sprawls the decades of the Wingo children’s lives, hitting expected highs, but also dipping to horrifically disturbing lows. Maudlin & melodramatic? Perhaps so, but there isn’t a single thing that Pat Conroy could conceive in his mind where something more maudlin, more dramatic, more horrific, more disturbing has not occurred time and again in real life. It has been said many times that fiction contains truth, and Conroy’s fiction portrays the truths of life, ugly or otherwise, in language that penetrates my soul.

REVIEW: Day by Elie Wiesel

dayFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Classic Lit / Holocaust Lit
ISBN:  1419396714
Published:  1962 / 2006 (audio)

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

The publication of Day restores Elie Wiesel’s original title to the novel initially published in English as The Accident and clearly establishes it as the powerful conclusion to the author’s classic trilogy of Holocaust literature, which includes his memoir Night and novel Dawn. “In Night it is the ‘I’ who speaks,” writes Wiesel. “In the other two, it is the ‘I’ who listens and questions.” In its opening paragraphs, a successful journalist and Holocaust survivor steps off a New York City curb and into the path of an oncoming taxi. Consequently, most of Wiesel’s masterful portrayal of one man’s exploration of the historical tragedy that befell him, his family, and his people transpires in the thoughts, daydreams, and memories of the novel’s narrator. Torn between choosing life or death, Day again and again returns to the guiding questions that inform Wiesel’s trilogy: the meaning and worth of surviving the annihilation of a race, the effects of the Holocaust upon the modern character of the Jewish people, and the loss of one’s religious faith in the face of mass murder and human extermination.

My Thoughts:

This is an exceptionally written book, as all three of Wiesel’s holocaust trilogy books are, but it is my least favorite of the three. I found this surprising, as I anticipated liking it more than Dawn, precisely because he returned to himself as main character, even though it is a fictional story. Harrowing is a good descriptor of this book, and though Night is equally so, I found Wiesel’s character in Day utterly incomprehensible in his seeming inability to love and be loved. He survived the Holocaust, and as much as he seemed to be trying to make sense of what it had done to him, I kept feeling like he had in many ways become like his persecutors – so much so that years after the fact he was more hardened, more hurtful, and utterly disinterested in living. After SURVIVING such incredible atrocity, I had a really difficult time coming to terms with his complete lack of interest in LIVING. It’s as if, in the end, Hitler & the Nazis won anyway, because they destroyed his soul. That is indescribably sad to me.

REVIEW: Dawn by Elie Wiesel

dawnFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Classic Lit / Holocaust Lit
ISBN:  1419396722
Published:  1961 / 2006 (audio)

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Elisha is a young Jewish man, a Holocaust survivor, and an Israeli freedom fighter in British-controlled Palestine; John Dawson is the captured English officer he will murder at dawn in retribution for the British execution of a fellow freedom fighter. The night-long wait for morning and death provides Dawn, Elie Wiesel’s ever more timely novel, with its harrowingly taut, hour-by-hour narrative. Caught between the manifold horrors of the past and the troubling dilemmas of the present, Elisha wrestles with guilt, ghosts, and ultimately God as he waits for the appointed hour and his act of assassination. Dawn is an eloquent meditation on the compromises, justifications, and sacrifices that human beings make when they murder other human beings.

My Thoughts:

I don’t know if “enjoy” is the right word to describe the reading of Holocaust literature. I appreciate it deeply. I am continually amazed at the fortitude and resilience of those who survived the Holocaust. I admire Wiesel’s ability to put his thoughts into words in a way that touches people, first with his memoir Night, and then with this novel.

Wiesel’s words are spare, his thought processes complex, and as he weaves this tale of a Holocaust survivor – an 18 year old boy – who is now part of the Palestinian resistance, and who has been tasked with assassinating a hostage in response to the assassination (by the English) of fellow freedom fighter, I am wrestling right along with him, trying to make sense of how it can be acceptable to commit this murder, while still being absolutely horrified by Hitler and his Final Solution. Certainly one is on a massive scale, which makes it much more horrific, but it started with one person. One murder. Even if the cause is a good one – and truly, the Israelis were (and are) fighting for the survival of their homeland – the moral implications of committing murder because someone else murdered one of yours is something Elisha struggles with…and we, the readers, struggle with him. It is a true moral dilemma, and one with no easy answer.

Most interesting is that Wiesel does not answer the question…at least, not at the end. I’ll come back to this point. The book ends as it does without Elisha or the reader reaching a conclusion on the morality of the task before him. Or perhaps it is only Elisha. I love the ambiguity that Wiesel leaves here, as it mirrors life in so many ways, including the times when we are tasked with doing something (necessary), that is nevertheless morally repugnant to us. What will we decide? Do we do what we believe is right, and damn the consequences? Do we complete the task before us and learn to live with our consciences?

Elisha wrestled with whether or not the job before him would turn him into “one of them.” IF you catch it, the answer is foreshadowed early in the book with this passage: “Why has a man no right to commit murder? Because in so doing he takes upon himself the function of God. And this must not be done too easily. Well, I said to myself, if in order to change the course of our history we have to become God, we shall become him.” This is as clear an answer as there is, and yet Wiesel puts it early in the book, as an unrelated conversation. Very artfully done, and as a reader I appreciate being stretched to think more deeply, and in a more personal way, about where we ourselves may be trying to take on the function of God.

REVIEW: The Lost Daughter by Lucy Ferriss

ld_bigger.inddFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  General Fiction
ISBN:  978-0-425-24556-9
Published:  2012

Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Brooke O’Connor — elegant, self-possessed, and kind — has a happy marriage and a deeply loved young daughter. So her adamant refusal to have a second child confounds her husband, Sean. When Brooke’s high school boyfriend Alex — now divorced and mourning the death of his young son — unexpectedly resurfaces, Sean begins to suspect an affair.

For fifteen years Brooke has kept a shameful secret from everyone she loves. Only Alex knows the truth that drove them apart. His reappearance now threatens the life she has so carefully constructed and fortified by denial. With her marriage — and her emotional equilibrium — at stake, Brooke must confront what she has been unwilling to face for so long.

But the truth is not what Brooke believes it to be.

Lucy Ferriss’s haunting novel reveals the profound ways in which remorse over the past can not only derail lives but also — sometimes — redeem them.

My Thoughts:

This wasn’t the best book I have ever read, and it wasn’t the worst. The characters said and did what you expected them to say and do, and the ending was more or less predictable. I did enjoy the book overall, despite it being a middling read.

I read a number of reviews of this book, with varying degrees of criticism, and the one that stuck out to me was the one complaining about the characters always looking back instead of putting the past behind them. That is an impossible expectation for real life, and to wish it for a book is to wish for a different sort of book. In that respect, I think the author got it right. I think the author understood, and conveyed in a reasonably convincing way, how trauma can change you, and how just putting it behind you & moving forward into your future life is not always easy, or even always possible. Brooke & Alex experienced something AS TEENS that most adults would be traumatized by, and their attempts to tuck it into a little box and set it aside (no pun intended) damaged them as much as…well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it yet. So it is hardly unpredictable that their lives would start to unravel, and hardly surprising that their quest for peace would take them back to the beginning. That is human psychology in a nutshell. Predictable, sure, but the nuts & bolts of human psychology nonetheless.

I do think Ferriss tied up the book a little too neatly. Things worked out a little too perfectly for my imperfect and off-kilter taste. The necessary money was just a little too easy to get. The mom was just a little too ready to help, after having been critical & hurtful because Brooke didn’t turn out how she planned. Alex went from one conviction to the other a little too easily to believe. Too neat. Too tidy. Too wrapped up nicely in a box (see, there’s the pun again). I like ambiguity, and the impossibility of fixing things…of finding a balance in some relationships. Truthfully, a bit more of that would have made this book stronger. There was plenty of struggle, but in the end, it was just a bit too easy to “fix.”