Book Review: Bird in the Snow

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What Betty said wounded her. And she put it away with all the other hurtful things gathered up during a lifetime. Like a magpie, she stores things in her heart. Nurtures them and takes them out and goes over them again and again. It’s like counting spoons in a drawer.

She makes a great collection of sayings that have wounded her over the years. She can’t remember her husband’s face sometimes. But she remember the wounds. The wounds that shaped her.

Bird in the Snow is a fairly slim tale about Birdie (Bernadette) Waters. She is telling us her story on the eve of burying her son, Gussie. Her husband has passed sometime before. This is Birdie’s tale to tell, or her thoughts of Gussie, The Vet, as she has always referred to her husband, and her son’s girlfriend, Louise, as she lays in bed on the evening before laying her son to rest. She tells us her story in the way that a very elderly woman only can, remembering bits and pieces here, there and everywhere. Pulling them out from the corners of her mind when they are triggered by a smell, an object, a fleeting memory.

Overall, it’s poignant, it’s tender and it’s sad. But as it is written in that here, there and everywhere stream of consciousness of an old woman, it’s often confusing and difficult to follow along. Birdie’s son Gussie is a very odd duck, but it is difficult to fully surmise the many errors of his ways from Birdie’s almost secretive memories. Yet, there would be moments of clarity when she shares moments from her past like her reasons for disliking nuns, her feelings for her husband and his friend Hughie.

It’s a sad yet heartwarming story about Birdie and how she is now all alone in her home that used to hold her two fondest loves – Gussie and The Vet. The ending is sweet, sad and very tender and your heart tugs quite a bit for Birdie.  Bird in the Snow is the first from my Backlist Challenge, and taken from the Kobo category. It was a book I purchased long ago for my Kobo and after I read On Canaan’s Side, a story I loved dearly. I came across Bird in the Snow after reading a review for it on the Reading Matters blog. She associated this book as being in a way similar to On Canaan’s Side, so I was immediately sold. I quickly purchased after reading this review, but it languished on the Kobo shelf for quite some time. While On Canaan’s Side will always hold a better part of my heart for me over Bird in the Snow, Birdie and her story is a nice read. A 3 – 3.5 star read.

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Book Review: The Girl from Station X: My Mother’s Unknown Life

Thanks to Lisa at Aurum Publishing Group for sending us not one, but two copies of The Girl From Station X: My Mother’s Unknown Life (Quayside Publishing Group and Union Books). Reading the blurb from the publisher it sounded like it would be a most interesting read and the packaging was just absolutely gorgeous:

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From the publisher:

When her needy and troubled mother began a slow descent into Alzheimer’s, Elisa Segrave faced a host of unenviable tasks– not the least of which was sorting through the chaos of her old childhood home.

Although aware of aspects of her mother’s personal history– the privileged childhood, the early losses– Elisa had no knowledge of the life she uncovered in a box of diaries, stowed carefully in the attic. On those pages she encountered a woman of strength, passion, and purpose– a woman who left behind the sheltered world she’d always known to embark on a secret life of wartime adventure, intrigue and tragedy.

Elisa Segrave’s mother, Anne, was the daughter of Gladys and Raymond Hamilton-Grace, owners of Knowle– a sprawling and beautiful property located in Sussex, England. Although not part of the aristocracy, they were a well off family and her parents were madly in love. Tragically, Raymond never returns from WWI and Anne’s disabled brother is dead soon after the war is over. Gladys eventually marries another wealthy man when Anne is 5 and she is raised as a spoiled rich, pampered and indulged only child. Life is all finishing schools and fox hunts; balls and trips abroad; manor houses and servants (like Dowton Abbey!)– Anne never has to lift a finger to get what she wants. Continue reading

Audiobook Review: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

ruthieThe Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a heartfelt ode that author Rod Dreher wrote for his sister.  This book gives new meaning to the word sincerity, and I would be remiss if I did not commend the respect that this man demonstrated for his entire family.  In his quest to discover what made his sister tick, the author took an unflinching look at himself, which is never easy.  The book opens its heart to the reader, and reveals truths that were both sweet, and sometimes unkind.

Living in a small Louisiana town of 1,700, Ruthie Leming never felt the need to leave.  She was a simple girl, and her aspirations revolved around her town, her family, and her community.  She knew from the start that home is where the heart is, and her personal goals never took her far from her parents or her neighbors.  She married her High School sweetheart, and had three lovely children.  She became a school teacher, and by all accounts, was a gifted one at that, inspiring her students to be the very best that they could be.  She was a devoted wife, mother, and daughter.  She was happy.

Her brother, on the other hand (the book’s author), was not happy with small town life.  His aspirations took him away from home, and he became an accomplished journalist.  He lived in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.  His parents and his sister did not take kindly to his departure, and on more than one occasion, I was very disappointed by the accounts of their behavior.  His sister thought that he was too big for his britches, and would toss comments his way during family dinners, to ensure that he knew in no uncertain terms that his leaving home was wrong.  At one point, the author and his wife visited his Louisiana family and decided to make everyone dinner.  Because the dinner had a fancy name, however, no one would touch it.  I found this so disappointing and childish that it colored my view of the family.

In her early 40s, Ruthie was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of lung cancer (a surprise for someone who never smoked).  She fought the horrific disease for 19 months, and during the battle, she was surrounded by the extraordinary love of her family and her friends.  There was no question that this was a remarkable town.  Everyone knew everyone. Neighbors were always ready to lend a hand, or a shoulder to cry on.  It was a community of faithful, and it was clear that Ruthie was blessed to be part of it.  It was impossible not to be moved by her fight.  Her determination to keep her family safe from fear while the disease sapped her strength was valiant; she tried to protect them to the end.  When cancer finally robbed this community of their beloved Ruthie, the heart of the town stopped beating for a few moments. Everyone was devastated, and this portion of the book was completely heartbreaking.

After the death of his sister, Rod Dreher wanted back in to the community that he left so many years ago. Seeing first hand the warmth of a tight-knit town propelled him to move his own wife and children “home.” (I thought very highly of his wife for doing this, as she had her own hometown in Texas that she left to be with Rod.)  Regardless, the move was made, and here Rod was forced to come to terms with a troubling discovery, that his sister had unkind words to say about him when he was not around.  I found this to be terribly sad, because life is just too short to pay heed to petty issues.  Love your family for who they are.

The author repeatedly chastised himself for pursuing selfish dreams, and for forsaking the love of his hometown for his own interests.  (The author does eventually note that he does not regret the life that he led before returning to his roots, and for that admission, I say thank you.)  Overall, however, he maintains that there is no true happiness to be found in large cities, because neighbors don’t know neighbors.  The gist here is that people essentially live in bubbles of self-indulgence while missing out on true happiness. That happiness, according to the author, can only be found in the zip code of your youth, where roots have been growing for generations.  You should know everyone that surrounds you, and you should always be ready and willing to be there for them in their time of need.

Is this a nice message?  You bet.  I agree that people today are too busy to know one another.  I agree that we could do more to be present for those who love us the most.  I agree that a simple life can certainly be a happy one.  Material wealth isn’t impressive, and shambling up corporate ladders will leave many feeling hollow rather than accomplished.  Where the author and I part ways, however, is the assertion that a town of 1,700 is the only place to find true fulfillment.  That it’s selfish to want more for yourself or your children.  That’s it’s indulgent to pursue a career that takes you away from you parents. None of this, in my opinion, is true.  People leave home all the time for academics, for employment, for love.  It does not mean that they don’t adore, or miss the extended family that they have left in the community of their youth.  It also doesn’t mean that they don’t get homesick.  I think that a successful life is one where you find love, intellectual fulfillment, and spiritual health.  It’s a life where you not only cherish your family, but are there for them in their time of need (even if you have to travel a great distance to be there).  That’s my version of perfection. Is it the case for everyone?  No, of course not, and I would not determine that this is right for you. Everyone has their own path, and strong extended families support one another during life pursuits.

Do I think that Ruthie Leming was a good person, who had faith in God, and a wonderful family?  Of course.  She was blessed.  Cancer robbed this family of a loving member, and they will forever be changed.  Such loss is also true of many, many other families.  The one thing about cancer is that it steals lives indiscriminately.  Thousands of people could write similar tributes to their missed loved ones, and each would be full of unyielding heartbreak.  I do hope, however, that the people who are left behind on this earth are not blanketed by guilt for having lived their own lives.  Because that would be another tragedy.

3 stars for The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.  While I don’t agree with the book’s takeaway, the pages are full of heart, and any sibling would be lucky to experience this kind of devotion.

2013 Man Booker Shortlisted: We Need New Names

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Rating: 3.5
We Need New Names
A Novel by NuViolet Bulawayo
2013 / 298 pages

Darling is a 10 year old girl from Zimbabwe. She and her family have been forced out of their home and now live in a shanty town (called “Paradise”). Her father has gone off to South Africa (to find work/money) and her mother is trying to scrape together what she can so they don’t starve while he is away. Since there is no longer a school to attend, Darling and her gang of friends (Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina) are free to spend their days waiting for the NCO truck to arrive with supplies and gifts. In the meantime they hunt for guavas, play intricate games (find bin Ladin, Country Game, War Lord) and get into mischief in the “white” section of town all while avoiding the men with the machetes. They are trying to make the best of what they have but it is hard when they have known a different life– before the bulldozers came; before 11 year old Chipo got a baby in her belly.

More than anything else Darling would like to go to America. Her aunt is already there and has promised to send for her. She has grand plans once she finally arrives. She will drive a Lamborghini, become friends with Lady GaGa and wear beautiful dresses. She will live in a mansion and bathe in money (like all Americans do). She just has to bide her time until the day comes when she can leave this kaka place!

The day finally arrives when she gets on the plane– promising to write, promising to return. Things are not what she imagined. The streets are not paved with gold. “Destroyedmichygen” looks like a different kind of war zone– slummy and bare . And there is snow! Everywhere!! Still, Darling makes the best of what she has while she is there.

This book does have some flaws. Some of my fellow BookerMarkers might even say many flaws plus a pile of kaka on top. But, because I listened to it I was able to over look (or not notice) what has now been pointed out. Narrator Robin Miles’ sing-song African accented voice made Darling seem, well, darling!! She charmed me– especially in the first part while they were still “innocent” 10 year olds living in a cruel, cruel world. The language and presentation almost made their lives seem light hearted when nothing could be further from the truth– a heartbreaking scene where the girls attempt to give their pal Chipo an abortion, a maniac preacher who seemed to be raping the devil out of a woman and a mother’s absolute anguish as she buries her only son– but maybe in Africa this is what children are used to seeing.

As Darling spends more time in America she loses her charm (and in the narration she also loses her accent as well– very well done and very clever!!). Six years in she has used America for all it is worth– she has attended school, found a steady job and has even made some American friends. She still feels a kinship with Zimbabwe and would like to return to visit but she feels that she has truly belongs in America. Trouble is she never will be. Her visitors visa has long expired and she risks never being able to return if she leaves. Darling has found herself stuck between worlds– not really belonging to either place. It is actually very sad.

Maybe not the best written book in the world– and it is still surprising to me that it made the short list instead of Transatlantic— but I think that I know what Ms. Bulawayo was trying to do here. 3.5 stars from me.

This review was simultaneously posted on BookerMarks.