Archive for March, 2014

Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Still Life With Bread Crumbs is the name of a piece of photography that made Rebecca Winger famous when she was younger.  But she is 60 years old now, divorced, and has not had much success lately.  Because of the financial demands of her mortgage, her mother’s nursing home, her aging father’s apartment, and wanting to give some money to her grown-up son each month, money issues cause her to rent out her NYC apartment facing Central Park and take a small cottage in the woods in upstate NY in an attempt to find some inspiration and live without having to sell her apartment.

When she arrives at the dilapidated house (rented online based on glowing descriptions), it seems that she will not be able to survive in that wilderness on her own.  But Rebecca becomes stronger throughout the book, and the characters that Rebecca meets in the small town near to her rented house help to add a bit of comical relief to this story – as well as to help her make it through her hard times.  The writing is amazing and so easy to read, and the point of view of many of the chapters changes – I have to say that the one that is told from the point of view of the dog is my favorite.


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When We Were Strangers Swimming in the Moon

These books are nonstop emotion!  Wow they are powerful.  They are so hard to put down because you keep wanting to find out what happens next –  I finished both of them in a day and a half!

The first book, When We Were Strangers, takes place in the late 1860’s, when thousands of immigrants arrived in America to start new lives.  It is the story of Irma, a 20-year old girl who lives in a small village in Italy, whose mother dies, whose great-aunt is old and feeble, whose father is becoming malevolent, and whose older brother leaves to go to America.  Irma is not the most beautiful girl in her village and knows that her options are limited, so she eventually decides to go to America – she leaves to go to Cleveland, where her brother told her he would be.  The adventures that encounter Irma on her way from her village to Naples to catch the boat, on the boat crossing the Atlantic, and in NYC Cleveland, Chicago, and San Franciscso are what make the book unstoppable.  Irma can sew, so she tries to find work while trying to keep her dignity when faced with difficulty finding housing, learning English, robbery, and other brutality.  When We Were Strangers paints a very realistic picture of the lives of immigrants in America in the late 1800’s.

While not a connected series, per se, the second book Swimming in the Moon also follows the story of immigrants coming to America.  In 1905, Teresa and her daughter Lucia have to leave Naples for America, and they end up in Cleveland.  The difficulties they face are similar to those that Irma faced, including learning English, making enough money to pay rent, and dealing with American prejudice against immigrants.  Irma is determined to become a high school graduate and wants to go to college, but also has to deal with her mother who seems to slowly be losing her mind.  Swimming in the Moon again paints a vivid portrait of immigrant life while also delving into the issue of workers’ rights at the time, and the fight for higher wages and shorter workweeks.

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In 1946, Colonel Morgan moves his wife Rachael and young son from England to Hamburg to be with him while he oversees the rebuilding of the destroyed city.  Colonel Morgan, who feels empathy for the Germans remaining in Hamburg, allows the family (a widower and his teenage daughter) that owns the house where he has been stationed to live in the floors above the main floor.  Colonel Morgan, however, has a lot of work to do and is rarely at home, leaving Rachael to figure out how to appropriately interact with the man and his daughter, and the servants who remain there to serve her.

The book alternates focus on Rachael, Colonel Morgan, his son Edmund, the German widower, the daughter, and a young German boy who was orphaned during the bombs and who, with a group of other young boys, travels the city looking for items to sell or exchange for food and a warm place to sleep at night.

It is difficult to use the “Enjoyed it!” category for this book, since it is a very somber tale throughout.  But it is very well-written and engrossing and nicely captures the difficulties of the time and place in which it is set.

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Alice I Have Been comes up with the story of the muse of the author who wrote Alice in Wonderland.  Told in first person by 81-year-old Alice, who is tired of being the true Alice in Wonderland, the book explains that being Alice is not as wonderful as it would seem.  Growing up, Alice was the daughter of the don of Oxford, and so grew up on a stuffy campus with a very proper mother.  Alice and her sister began spending time with a shy, stuttering professor who liked to take them for picnics and take photographs of them dressed in costume.  He told them stories that Alice convinced him to put to paper, ultimately leading to Alice in Wonderland, and forever changing Alice’s life.


Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Warren Bump, who only grew to two feet, eight inches tall, had a personality that more than made up for her size, as The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb explains. Vinnie was born to a family with siblings that were normal size and one sister who was even smaller than she.  Vinnie made her own decision to leave the safe home of her family to travel with a riverboat show just prior to the Civil War.  She then managed a spot in the famous show by P.T. Barnum, whose best friend was Tom Thumb – another star of his show.  After their pint-sized marriage, Tom & Vinnie became celebrities of their time, meeting President Lincoln and his wife, and touring the country and the world to meet their fans.  Vinnie’s story is an incredible one, and this book, told from her point of view, is a great read.

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The Astronaut Wives Club tells the true story of the women behind the first astronauts.  These women were celebrities just as movie and TV stars are celebrities today.  They were hounded by the press wherever they went and were always expected to look and act perfectly – as the support for the brave husband risking his life to try to go into space.  The astronauts and their families even had exclusive contracts with Life Magazine, giving the magazine access to the family house while an astronaut was on a mission, meaning that the wife had to maintain her calm and composure while not knowing if her husband would be blasted into a million pieces.

The Astronaut Wives Club starts with the wives of the initial astronauts, and follows them from their homes to the bases, and ultimately to Texas, where they all built fancy houses and attended fancy balls.  It then introduces more wives as more astronauts were added to the program.  It then introduces still more wives as more astronauts were added when NASA’s mission went from going into outer space to travelling around Earth, and finally to landing on the moon.

I found it difficult to keep track of each of the initial women, let alone more women and men when they were added to the mix throughout the book.  As a result, when some men ultimately passed away (either on a mission or flying planes), it was a bit difficult to remember which family would be affected by that death.  But that is my only criticism – the insight into each of the women that the book highlights were well-written and very in-depth and transformed this nonfiction piece into a novel that I could not put down!

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Under the Wide and Starry Sky is another novel that focuses on the wife of a great artist – a style similar to The Paris Wife (Paula McLain), Loving Frank (Nancy Horan), The Aviator’s Wife (Melanie Benjamin) and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (Therese Anne Fowler).

Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, from Indiana, had been living in California with a philandering husband when she decided to take her 3 children to Europe to study art.  They started in Belgium but ended up in Paris when her youngest child became seriously ill.  After the stress and toll that illness and death took on Fanny, it was suggested to her that she go to Grez – a quiet country inn outside of Paris – to recuperate.  Little did she know that it was a popular place for artists (painters and writers) of the time.  As a result of this stay in Grez, Fanny met Robert Louis Stevenson for the first time.

Robert, a Scottish man ten years younger than Fanny who had just finished studying law, came from a wealthy family, but risked being cut off from financial support if he decided to become a full-time writer.  Robert had been sickly with bad lungs his entire life, but was at his best health when he met Fanny.

Fanny and Robert ultimately married, after tribulations involving Fanny’s divorce from her current husband, Robert’s illness flaring up as he traveled from Scotland to California, and living hand-to-mouth in England.  Robert ultimately found success with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island, but his health did not improve until the family finally uprooted to Samoa.  Fanny’s fight with Robert’s peers to gain recognition for her part in Robert’s success (both in keeping him alive and in helping edit and talk through his stories) plagued her throughout her time as Robert’s wife – yet again a them with the wives of great artists.

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I have loved all of Sarah Addison Allen’s books, and this newest release was no exception!  Allen mixes a little bit of fantasy in with her novels, creating worlds that seem like they exist, but with a little magic.  Lost Lake follows Kate and her young daughter Devin as they take a spur of the moment trip to southern Georgia where Kate’s great aunt Eby owns a lake resort.  Kate’s husband had died recently and they were ready to escape.  Kate had great memories of being at Lost Lake when she was a young girl, and meeting a young boy (Wes) with whom she shared many adventures.  When Kate arrives at Lost Lake, she discovers that Eby is considering selling the property, and that the last few regular guests – Jack, Selma and Buhladeen – have come to enjoy one more summer.

Interspersed within the chapters about Kate are chapters about Eby, and how she came to own Lost Lake and also how she met her mute best friend Lisette in Paris on her honeymoon.  The magic creeps in during chapters about Selma and Wes’ little brother Billy who died just after Kate had been there when she was young.  Soon everyone’s story lines all come together and bring hope that when they all cooperate, they can work to save Lost Lake and keep it open.

See my previous reviews of other Sarah Addison Allen books:

The Sugar Queen (*****)
Garden Spells (*****)
The Peach Keeper: A Novel (*****)
The Girl Who Chased the Moon: A Novel (*****)

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