Thursday, July 31, 2008

LEEWAY COTTAGE by Beth Gutcheon

When I first started reading Leeway Cottage by Beth Gutcheon, I thought it was going to be a family saga about debutantes with a summer house in Maine. Fortunately, that was not the case. The book actually revolves around WWII, especially the Danes' feat of protecting the lives of almost all of their 7000 Jews. Sydney, an aspiring teenage singer in the U.S., leaves her jealous mother, takes her trust fund, and moves to New York. There she meets Laurus, a half-Jewish Dane who becomes her accompanist. Shortly after they're married, he goes to Europe to assist in the war effort. The harrowing experiences of Jews in Denmark, including Laurus's parents, attempting to escape to Sweden, is the most gripping section of the book. Laurus's sister Nina becomes involved in the effort to provide safe havens for Jews and is eventually caught and sent to a series of prisons and concentration camps. Her experiences leave her forever scarred. The situation in Europe is sharply contrasted with Sydney's life, where she is remodeling Leeway Cottage, the summer home she has purchased in Maine, and giving birth to her first child. This book is largely about Laurus's and Sydney's marriage and their relationships with their children. Sydney begins to harbor animosity toward her daughters, just as her mother did toward her, and dotes on her son Jimmy, who can't stay out of trouble. The marriage itself is a big question mark. Laurus believes that in heaven you'll see a movie of your life in which everything is explained, and the author reveals the essence of the marriage in the finale.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is narrated by a fourteen-year-old girl, and I found it to be much more juvenile than a Harry Potter book. The story takes place in South Carolina just as the Civil Rights Act has been signed. The plot is sappy and predictable and has been better told before; it felt like a knock-off of Huckleberry Finn. A white teenage girl (Lily) whose mother is dead leaves her abusive father, and hitchhikes out of town with a large black woman (Rosaleen) that Lily has busted out of jail. She finds solace with a group of black sisters who make their livings as beekeepers and gets a taste of what it's like to be the one who's a different color. I'm not sure which character Queen Latifah plays, but I can definitely envision Dakota Fanning in the lead role of the movie that's coming out this fall. The unique thing about this book, though, is that each chapter begins with a quoted fact from one of various books about bees, and I found these interesting and educational. Kidd doesn't bother enlightening us too much about the details of beekeeping, but she sheds a lot of light on the relationships and duties of the various members of the hive. For example, if something happens to the queen, the hive eventually becomes dysfunctional if she is not replaced very soon. This metaphor for a motherless child isn't even thinly veiled, but it works, I guess.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

WHILE I WAS GONE by Sue Miller

Sue Miller's While I Was Gone is a sort of literary thriller and exemplifies how someone's youthful mistakes can hamper his or her credibility later in life. Jo is a veterinarian with a checkered past, married to a minister, Daniel. In her twenties, Jo abandoned her first husband and reinvented herself, spending a year under an assumed name in a mini-commune or group home. The utopia of the home was blasted apart when one of the female residents, Dana, was murdered. When Jo re-encounters Eli, a biochemist from the group home, the reader anticipates that he will shed some light on who killed Dana. Jo, on the other hand, has begun to fantasize about an affair with Eli. Besides being an engrossing page-turner, this book raises several intriguing questions, and the author spells them out without the annoying subtlety of obscure symbols. Can someone be absolved of murder by saving other lives? Why do we feel so burdened by our secrets that we have to share them, without considering their impact on our listener? Are thoughts of adultery just as unforgivable in a marriage as actually having sex with another partner? Celebrity divorce lawyers are addressing this last question as we speak.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

CLAPTON by Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton's story is not a pretty one, but he's obviously a survivor. He spent three years as a "wasteful" junkie, did two stints of rehab for alcoholism, and mourned the accidental death of his young son. Now he's happily married with three daughters but still affirms that the most important thing in his life is maintaining his sobriety. He credits music with seeing him through all the dark times, but many people that he knew were not so lucky. He peppers the book with tales of other musicians, such as Jimi Hendrix, that I wouldn't have guessed that he knew. He's careful not to slam his fellow musicians, but he does complain about Mick Jagger stealing his girlfriends. Delaney Bramlett convinced Eric that he must sing, and Eric finally realized that to do the kind of music that he wanted to do, he'd have to be the front man. He pays homage to all the great blues musicians and remains a blues purist, despite his having had to conform to the musical trends of the day in order to fulfill contracts, fill concert halls, and sell records. This memoir proves that he can write more than song lyrics, although he does have a tendency to repeat phrases such as "the time of my life." The book lays a myth or two to rest, especially the one that claims he stole his best friend's wife. First of all, George Harrison was not his best friend, and secondly, Pattie Boyd left George after her marriage had begun to disintegrate. Needless to say, before that finally happened, Eric carried a torch for her for years and repeatedly begged her to leave George, making good on his threat to become a full-fledged heroin addict if she didn't. Pattie's memoir Wonderful Tonight is a good companion piece.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

TARA ROAD by Maeve Binchy

Maeve Binchy's Tara Road is the sort of book that you read while sipping tea by a cozy fire. It's literary comfort food with no big surprises. Ria Lynch, her handsome husband Danny, and their two children are residents of a gentrified Dublin neighborhood. Ria is the mother hen of a diverse cast of characters, mostly women, including Gertie, the wife of an abusive drunk, and the successful, beautiful, unmarried Rosemary. Everyone's problems are aired in Ria's bustling kitchen, but secrets figure largely into the relationships between the characters, especially secrets that could cause pain if they were revealed. Ria's world is blown apart when Danny leaves her for his young pregnant girlfriend, and Ria impulsively jumps at an opportunity to swap houses for two months with Marilyn, an American woman living in New England. Marilyn is the exact opposite of Ria and has become even more aloof following a tragedy that she can't bring herself to speak of. Each woman overcomes her grief in the other's home. It's a sweet, enjoyable read, despite its predictability. The unsavory characters are duly punished, and the good ones prevail.