“The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – Book Review

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“A book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us.”

     A gothic-esque suspense, “The Shadow of the Wind” chronicles a novel within a novel.  An adolescent boy discovers a long abandoned read in a library of sorts known as The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  It is a story of love & loss, of friendship & betrayal, and of corruption & justice. 

     The novel not only inspires the boy’s love of reading, but also awakens a rite of passage – the intense feelings of a first love.  He is however unaware that his treasured find from the Cemetery of Forgotten Books is thought to no longer exist.  As others become aware of his discovery, the chase begins in an effort to destroy the book. 

     Unearthing the cryptic significance behind this seemingly bizarre effort, spans into the boy’s adult years.  While he has hidden his cherished childhood book, characters from the forgotten novel appear to walk right out of its pages and into his life.  As the story line progresses, the main character realizes that he and his loved ones are in grave danger and that in an eerie coincidence, his own life begins to mirror that of the plot in the forgotten, yet highly coveted book. 

     The author, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, reflects the characteristics of the four seasons as a metaphor in transitioning the plot from one major event to the next.  What begins as a leisurely summer read, cultivates into a chilling mystery that ultimately resolves in a spirited renewal.  Without providing a spoiler, “The Shadow of the Wind” ends in the same manner as it begins.  The novel is a mesmerizing tale that takes place over the course of a decade only to come full circle. 

     The events in “The Shadow of the Wind” unfold within the ruins of Barcelona and Paris and on the heels of World War II.  The novel was also originally written in Spanish.  Undoubtedly, its English translation preserves the author’s engaging writing style.  There are however literary flourishes that render passages as over the top and that border on flat out corny clichés.  This would be the one and only negative criticism I have of this novel.   Since Spanish is my native language, albeit from the Caribbean which differs from the so called Mother Tongue, I may someday read this novel in its original version.  If nothing else, out of curiosity to see if certain nuances were missed or mistranslated into antiquated phrases in the English language. 

     “The Shadow of the Wind” is available in 41 different languages.  This novel will keep you up into the wee hours of the night, I trust in any of its translations.  A great read.

“The Light Between Oceans” by M. L. Stedman – Book Review

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Far from the gaze of friends and family on the mainland, a lighthouse keeper and his wife find a healthy infant inside a dinghy that washes ashore on their desolate island.  The couple resolve to not report the incident back to the mainland and to raise the child as their own.  While the lighthouse keeper does so reluctantly, he is sympathetic to his wife’s wishes as she is unable to carry a pregnancy to full term. 

With trips to and from the mainland occurring only once every two to three years, the characters in “The Light Between Oceans” never suspect that the child may actually be the daughter of a local woman who lost her husband and child at sea and presumed dead. 

Several years after the baby’s “birth” announcement, the moral compass of each character in the novel is tested as a close-knit community discovers an unforgivable act of deceit.  The characters become so deeply divided over their loyalties to each party involved that the line between love and hate, or even madness and reason, becomes thin as ice.

A modern day account of the biblical verse, the Judgment of Solomon, this novel is a heart-wrenching story of loss and ultimate sacrifice.  Set against the backdrop of World War I, the characters wrestle with the realities of sons and brothers never returning home from the battlefield.  Of adult children forsaking their families in order to marry a lover once considered the enemy.  And of banishing a spouse due to an indiscretion even at the expense of tearing a child from his mother.  These seemingly disconnected struggles all intersect on the lighthouse keeper’s desolate island with the child’s mysterious arrival.  The wreckage left in its wake becomes irreparable.

M.L. Stedman’s narrative in “The Light Between Oceans” tells an engaging, compelling story.  According to the publisher’s website, Hollywood has bought the rights to the movie.  It will be produced by the same person responsible for bringing “Harry Potter” to the screen.  This is one novel to read before the movie comes out if nothing else, to see how true the movie stays to the novel.  How can it not maintain the same course?

Next read:  “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

 

On Living Out A Fantasy

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     We all fantasize no matter our age.  Maybe romantic thought bubbles filled with sizzling steam decrease a bit with age.  Maybe not.  Sometimes there is that one persistent fantasy that just won’t go away or has actually materialized and knocked on your door. 

For a long time, I’ve secretly harbored a romantic notion of living by the sea in a cottage as my child rearing years were winding down.  That time is getting near and I am about as close to fulfilling my fantasy as I am to building a castle in the sky.  It seems that the notions of where I’d be at this point in my life may have been a little unrealistic.

I can trace the origins of my particular fantasy back to when I first watched an old classic movie, “The Ghost & Mrs. Muir”, starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison. I must have been about 10 at the time but it left quite a lasting impression on me.  Mrs. Muir, a London widow adrift in her city life, impulsively moves to a windswept seaside community where she rents a stately old house that sits atop of a seaside bluff. Creaky but cozy, the cottage offers a panoramic view of the sea in all its splendor and glory, and is appropriately known as Gull Cottage.  But Mrs. Muir is unaware that the former resident still “lives” at the cottage. He is the previous owner, the long dead Captain Gregg. Salty, and sometimes boorish and brash, he makes himself known to Mrs. Muir in short order, his apparition blowing out candles, opening windows, and trying to scare the widow right out of his former earthly home. By and by, a romantic tension develops between the two, and eventually leads to their eternal happily-ever-after love story.  Paranormal eroticism does not float my boat but I certainly fell in love with the romantic notion of living out my later years by the sea.  And with my lover in the flesh.

     At the tender age of ten, I fancied that fifty-something would be the point in my life when relocating to a seaside paradise of my own choosing would make perfect sense.  How exciting to just up and move at such a ripe old age!  What would it take beyond finding a new job, continue working until some pre-designated retirement age, and then living out whatever is left of my years already tucked into leisure? Now I fast forward four decades later, having weathered a fair amount of personal and professional storms, and reality hits me in the face like a cold ocean spray. The thought of just pulling up roots and moving in our fifties today may be riddled with more anxiety than excitement for most of us, especially if the move is one forced by a job loss.  We live in a youth centric culture and the job market is no exception.  A number of recently published articles have expounded on the difficulties in obtaining a job for those 50 and above.  So most of us in the “second” or “third act” of our lives pretty much stay put where we are and keep a Plan B in place (or C or D).  Of course, throwing caution to the wind is always another option for those with some moxie and a sense of adventure for greener pastures.

As it turns out, in this new millennium, fifty-something is far too young for most of us to entertain the thought of leaving the side of our barely adult children, aging parents (if so blessed), extended family members, long-time friends, and our jobs (even if that job consists of trying to find one).  I dare say the same holds true for the 60 something crowd. My husband is game to play in the sandbox of my seaside fantasy – somewhere in a New England community – but not just yet.  It may take another 10 years or so for me to realize this fantasy of mine but as other recently published articles point out, we are living longer. I say, we are staying young longer. 

I will patiently wait to fulfill my fantasy and move into my very own Gull Cottage.  Until then, I’ll ride out whatever storms come my way and heed the sage words of Captain Gregg’s ghost:  “You must make your own life amongst the living and, whether you meet fair winds or foul, find your own way to harbor in the end.

Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors – Book Review

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     The depiction of a teardrop falling from the heavens serves as the architectural centerpiece for the world’s legendary mausoleum, the Taj Mahal.  Well documented is the history – and many a fable – at the center of its construction.  During the earlier part of the 17th century, the queen of the Mughal Empire (what is now India) died in the process of childbirth.  The emperor became so grief stricken that he diverted his attention from ruling and to the commissioning & building of his beloved’s final resting place.  It took over two decades to complete the marbled and heavily jeweled crypt that today, is designated as one of the Wonders of the Modern World.  Throughout that same time period however, it is said that the emperor remained in mourning and lost the will to rule.  In turn, he was overthrown by one of his sons and imprisoned in a room with its only view being that of the Taj Mahal.  Treachery, greed, and war mongering ensued during the emperor’s imprisonment destroying whatever peace he had been able to maintain throughout his kingdom.  With the death of the woman he deeply loved, so did ruin befall his empire.

     From this premise – whether part real, part fabrication – John Shors writes “Beneath a Marble Sky” as a work of historical fiction. Shors pieces together tales passed down over time on the making of the Taj Mahal with facts from the era of the Mughal Empire in order to tell what is ultimately, a love story.   Princess Jahanara, the daughter of the queen buried in the Taj Mahal, functions as the novel’s narrator.  She tells of the devotion between her parents, of her brothers at odds with each other over the throne, and of the cruel dismantling of her family – along with her father’s kingdom – at the hands of a son blinded by power.  Elements of loyalty, religious and cultural adherence, liberties and restrictions based on social status or gender, forbidden relationships, and the methods of war are all folded into this tale that takes place centuries ago and under a Muslim/Hindu co-existence.  At times peaceful, at times in conflict, but seemingly never without tension.  As such, the Taj Mahal does not take center stage in “Beneath a Marble Sky” but more so the history – and suffering – of the people surrounding its creation. 

     In true literary form, Shors’ use of the first person narrator as an unreliable one provides him with the proper tool to collapse fact with fiction and clearly blur the line between the two.  The author names the characters in the novel with the actual names of the Mughal Empire’s ruling members.  Sometimes they are used to depict the characters accurately while other times they are used symbolically.  The ruler known as Akbar “the Great” is represented as a mighty falcon that provides much solace to Princess Jahanara and her father while both are imprisoned in a tower. According to legend, an incestuous relationship developed between the Princess and her father during that time merely because Jahanara greatly resembled her mother.  The rumor is alluded to by a character in the novel and which Princess Jahanara denies.  The exchange serves as an example that a denial from a first person narrator is just as unreliable as the rumor itself.  There really is no way of knowing the truth.  It’s the kind of “stuff” that also makes Memoirs unreliable.    

     “Beneath a Marble Sky” is a page turner, quick read, and a novel for the curious of another time and place.  After reading “Beneath a Marble Sky,” I leafed through a history book in order to learn a bit more about India’s past and how events that took place during the Mughal Empire shape India today.  If ever I have the opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal, I can do so now with a deeper understanding not only of the mausoleum itself, but of the people and their struggles during the time period that it was built.  For that, I can forgive parts of the narrative where the reader must suspend disbelief – of which there are several passages – but not difficult to put aside given the telling of one fascinating story. 

Next read – The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman 

 

If These Torn Down Walls Could Talk

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     I live in a quaint, century-old Dutch Colonial located just north of NYC and on the Jersey side of the Hudson River. My home also happens to be located in an area rich in American history. The emblem of the town I now live in bears the sketch of an unknown horseman who rode to Fort Lee, NJ and warned George Washington’s troops about the British crossing the Hudson River. His ride started just about half a mile from my house and a little less than 250 years ago. Obviously, there is no one in my neighborhood still around from that time period but the father of my elderly neighbor, “Meredith”, built my home.  On nights when we gathered, I would ask Meredith about the history of not only my home, but of all the homes on our street since she lived here most of her 90 plus years.  Our conversation led to story after story about what took place within the walls of each residence. Every home has its own tale of turmoil but just like the courage of the unknown horseman, the spirit to forge ahead remains in the character of our neighborhood.

     There is the home up the street where a woman once lived with her adult son and daughter.  The daughter had been engaged for a lengthy amount of time but experienced difficulty in finalizing a wedding date.  According to Meredith, the fiance’s mother feared losing her son to the marriage and so he continually postponed any wedding plans.  By the time he was near the age of 50, his mother passed away and so the couple finally set their wedding date.  Shortly before the wedding was to take place, the groom suffered a massive heart attack and died as a result.  It was as though his mother shadowed the couple even from the grave.  Not too long afterwards, the brother of the bride-to-be, a rather young man, also died unexpectedly.  The home indeed housed much sadness but fortunately, its “curse” does not linger today.

     In the house directly across the street from mine, lived a single elderly woman.  “Ruth” would purposely break her basement windows so that animals could seek shelter from the elements.  She had started to “lose her marbles” as they say but Meredith and Ruth became close friends over the years.  During one particular week, Meredith noticed that it had been a few days since she had heard from or seen Ruth.  It was winter so not an unusual time to go for days without seeing much of your neighbors but still, Meredith bundled up, went over to Ruth’s house, and persistently knocked on the door.  No one answered.  Meredith returned home and called the police so that they could investigate further.  When the police entered the house, they found Ruth’s body upstairs in her bedroom and slumped over a radiator.  The heat had been on and Ruth had obviously been dead for days.  The stench between the poor woman’s body and that of the animal feces coming up from the damp basement, was more than the police, or anyone, could handle.  But Meredith’s friend, Ruth, was finally at peace.  The home has since been repaired and many a happy family has found warmth and comfort within its walls.

     As for our own home, on the first day of moving in we found a loaf of bread and a box of salt sitting on the kitchen counter with a note that said: “Here is some bread and salt so that you may never go hungry. We raised 4 children in this home and it provided us with much happiness. We wish the same for you.” Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham, the couple we bought the house from, were fine people. We carefully saved that note, and went about our business of packing and unpacking. While storing away one of those boxes in the attic, I found a small door that opened to a section of exposed beams. I poked my head in and just looked around since it wasn’t big enough to enter. Tucked away in one of the corners near the door, was a very old camera. I didn’t think much about it at the time, and kind of forgot about it until I attended a neighborhood barbeque years later and mentioned the dusty relic I found in my attic. Meredith elaborated that Mr. Cunningham was not only a photographer for the New York Daily News, but one of their Pulitzer Prize winning photographers who took that iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe – the one with her skirt flaring high in the air. In disbelief, I Googled Mr. Cunningham and came across his obituary from The New York Daily News. It stated the following about Thomas Cunningham: “One of the most famous of his nearly 3,000 photos in The News’ archives is of Marilyn Monroe standing over a Times Square subway grate in 1955, the hem of her dress blowing up to reveal her thigh-highs.” He was also described as someone “…who made pictures of actors, mobsters and hero cops while roaming the streets of New York after dark.” This man was extraordinary. And here we had bought the house from a couple we subsequently became friendly with and not once, did they ever mention Mr. Cunningham’s career successes and achievements.  A humble home indeed became ours where we also raised 4 children.

     The home that Meredith was born and raised in was eventually sold and a modern home built in its place.  By then, Meredith was living directly across the street from her childhood home – right next door to mine – and in a house that her father had also built.  It was with much sadness that Meredith witnessed the tearing down of the walls of her youth since they held far more than the sum of their brick and mortar parts. Gone was the home of her upbringing that held a treasure chest of memories for her from days gone by.  Sadly, Meredith recently passed away and not too long afterwards, her home next door (pictured above) was also demolished in order to make way for yet another modern style home.  As of this writing, all that is left of her home is an uprooted trunk of what was once a majestic 60 foot pine tree and surrounded by a pile of dirt. 

     With Meredith’s passing, even more tales from our neighborhood are buried.  She once told me that I would have to brace myself for the horror that took place in one particular home on our street but that she could not repeat the story until she was ready.  That time never came.  No doubt, many spirited and interesting tales remain within the walls of the older homes on my street.  Maybe I will learn of them before it is time for my husband and I to sell our home.  Hopefully, not to a builder – who would further uproot the unique charm of our neighborhood – but to a young family.  A family that would also be fascinated and inspired by the history etched in the gentle curves of these old walls. They too would inherit our home’s personality, history, continuity, and happiness associated with its carefully assembled pile of plywood and plaster, that for most of us, makes a house a home.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (Audio Version: Performed by Barbara Kingsolver)

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Many claim that listening to a novel versus reading it can make a difference in one’s opinion of the work.  Indeed, the listening experience can be a nice change to the more customary cracking of the spine.  And especially, when the individual performing the audio version is talented in not only narrating the story, but also skilled in modulating their voice as a means to portray different characters.  In this particular case, the performer for the audio version of Flight Behavior also happens to be the novel’s author, Barbara Kingsolver.  She is indeed a master story teller.

In Flight Behavior, Kingsolver employs a tone of melancholy in order to patiently tell her fictional tale centered on change and adjustments – in oneself, in relationships, and in the world around us.  Kingsolver borrows from the controversial subject of Climate Change in order to venture into other topics that are similarly contentious in nature when affected by change.  Changes of consequence in marital commitments, family loyalties, and/or one’s belief system, would no doubt trigger considerable adjustments to those affected.  Similarly, significant shifts in the environment that alter familiar patterns would also require suitable adjustments.  The questioning of these changes – be they gradual, abrupt, unforeseen, inevitable, etc. – are all folded into the novel’s story line.

At the core of Flight Behavior, lies an unusual and unexpected change in the migratory pattern of monarch butterflies.  The erosion of their customary winter habitat forces the monarch butterflies to instead travel – by the millions – to an entirely new location in order to weather out the harsh season.  Yet the new location is vulnerable to freezing temperatures which places the existence of the species at risk.  Climate change is believed to be the root cause in setting this new and unstable migratory pattern in motion but not without skepticism.  The characters within the novel assess, or dismiss, the phenomenon based on their various beliefs — religious, scientific, indifference, or a combination thereof.  Parallel to the plight of these butterflies, the narrative simultaneously unfolds the erosion of relationships between the characters.  They too are affected by unexpected changes in the course of their daily lives.  Illness, adultery, stagnant marriages, the unraveling of family secrets, and failing sources of income negatively impact the characters.  As each character unpacks whether the changes thrust upon them were indeed unexpected or more realistically inevitable, much like the monarch butterflies, the characters are forced to make adjustments accordingly.  Some decide to take flight and risk exploring new territory while others resign themselves to remain tethered to their circumstances as the world around them evolves – for better or worse.  The scale of which dilemma is more difficult to measure – that of the characters or the butterflies – is difficult to gauge since one is on an individual basis while the other is on a global level.  Nevertheless, the narrator makes the point that changes in the environment, especially drastic ones, ultimately inform the existence, or extinction, of any life form on the planet.

There are several passages in Flight Behavior on the science of climate change that are a bit daunting.  Listening to the novel however, renders such sections in the narrative easy to grasp.  (I for one have no shame in admitting that I put the rewind button to good use.)   Kingsolver’s various degrees in biology and her experience working as a Scientist, were certainly reflected on the pages (or CDs) of Flight Behavior.  Her credentials at the very least lend an area of expertise worthy of attention even though she uses a work of fiction in order to raise awareness on the topic of climate change.  She does not however exploit Flight Behavior to draw any conclusions on climate change one way or the other.  The reader/listener is left to draw his/her own conclusions.  As for the characters, with their not so uncommon troubles and stories of human interest, provide an engaging story line alongside that of the butterflies.  So much so, that I arrived at work just a little late or stayed in my driveway just a little longer in order to hear the end of the novel’s section that I was listening to.  If you have ever listened to a novel, you know exactly what I am talking about…

Next read:  Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors