Friday, October 28, 2011

A Sound Among the Trees by Susan Meissner

Book Description:
A house shrouded in time.
A line of women with a heritage of loss.

As a young bride, Susannah Page was rumored to be a Civil War spy for the North, a traitor to her Virginian roots. Her great-granddaughter Adelaide, the current matriarch of Holly Oak, doesn’t believe that Susannah’s ghost haunts the antebellum mansion looking for a pardon, but rather the house itself bears a grudge toward its tragic past.

When Marielle Bishop marries into the family and is transplanted from the arid west to her husband’s home, it isn’t long before she is led to believe that the house she just settled into brings misfortune to the women who live there. With Adelaide’s richly peppered superstitions and deep family roots at stake, Marielle must sort out the truth about Susannah Page and Holly Oak— and make peace with the sacrifices she has made for love.

Marielle Bishop met Carson online and married him, moving across the country and into Holly Oak, the historic home he and his children shared with her grandmother Adelaide. Adelaide thinks the house is stuck, her friends insist the house is haunted- the bottom line is this house has a history that dates back to the Civil War and the battles fought in Fredricksburg, VA. The book tells the tale of Marielle's efforts to cope with the house, her new family, and the shadow of the past.

This book was very hard to get into, and never really captured my interest. The narrative improved dramatically halfway through the books when Susannah's Civil War correspondence came to light, allowing her story to be told. I certainly felt more emotional connection to Susannah than to any of the modern-day characters. Marielle was too undeveloped, Adelaide too cryptic, Pearl too annoying, Carson too absent- the most interesting modern character was Caroline and she didn't enter until halfway through the novel. Susannah and her war-time experiences would have made an excellent stand-alone story freed from the unsatisfying frame of Marielle's story. The historical part was 4 stars but the contemporary portion barely hit 2 stars so 3 overall for this promising but frustrating novel.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres

Book description:
“I love socialism, and I’m willing to die to bring it about, but if I did, I’d take a thousand with me.” —Jim Jones, September 6, 1975

In 1954, a pastor named Jim Jones opened a church in Indianapolis called Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. He was a charismatic preacher with idealistic beliefs, and he quickly filled his pews with an audience eager to hear his sermons on social justice. After Jones moved his church to Northern California in 1965, he became a major player in Northern California politics; he provided vital support in electing friendly political candidates to office, and they in turn offered him a protective shield that kept stories of abuse and fraud out of the papers. Even as Jones’s behavior became erratic and his message more ominous, his followers found it increasingly difficult to pull away from the church. By the time Jones relocated the Peoples Temple a final time to a remote jungle in Guyana and the U.S. Government decided to investigate allegations of abuse and false imprisonment in Jonestown, it was too late.

A Thousand Lives follows the experiences of five Peoples Temple members who went to Jonestown: a middle-class English teacher from Colorado, an elderly African American woman raised in Jim Crow Alabama, a troubled young black man from Oakland, and a working-class father and his teenage son. These people joined Jones’s church for vastly different reasons. Some, such as eighteen-year-old Stanley Clayton, appreciated Jones’s message of racial equality and empowering the dispossessed. Others, like Hyacinth Thrash and her sister Zipporah, were dazzled by his claims of being a faith healer—Hyacinth believed Jones had healed a cancerous tumor in her breast. Edith Roller, a well-educated white progressive, joined Peoples Temple because she wanted to help the less fortunate. Tommy Bogue, a teen, hated Jones’s church, but was forced to attend services—and move to Jonestown—because his parents were members.

The people who built Jonestown wanted to forge a better life for themselves and their children. They sought to create a truly egalitarian society. In South America, however, they found themselves trapped in Jonestown and cut off from the outside world as their leader goaded them toward committing “revolutionary suicide” and deprived them of food, sleep, and hope. Yet even as Jones resorted to lies and psychological warfare, Jonestown residents fought for their community, struggling to maintain their gardens, their school, their families, and their grip on reality.

Working from recently released documents and tapes seized in Guyana after the mass murder/suicide in Jonestown, Scheeres has created a moving account of the People's Temple by focusing on several individuals who followed Jim Jones (some to their deaths). Scheeres treats this tragedy with acute sensitivity and a remarkable lack of judgmental rhetoric. She clearly spells out how Jim Jones initially drew people to his church and how his message shifted over the years from one of openness and integration to one of megalomania and paranoia. Scheeres also reveals a disturbing lack of action on the part of both the US and Guyanese governments whose dismissive attitude towards Jones' public threats of "revolutionary suicide" helped set the scene for his final solution.

As the narrative wound toward its tragic conclusion, Scheeres did a wonderful job of showing how Jones worked his followers, using drugs, violence, and starvation to keep them compliant and apathetic to his discussions of mass suicide. Scheeres' research makes it clear that Jones had a long range plan to kill all his followers and that he used drugs, threats, and both physical and psychological torture (beatings, sensory deprivation boxes, sleep deprivation, and a constant barrage of Jones' rantings broadcast day and night) to desensitize his followers to that danger. Ultimately, Scheeres did a wonderful job of placing the blame on Jones and on the upper levels of the People's Temple leadership, those who saw Jones unraveling and yet either did nothing or actively abetted his insanity. Using their own words (from interviews with survivors and from journals recovered from Guyana), Scheeres portrays the hundreds who dies in Jonestown as victims, horribly betrayed by a man who, through deception on every level, had gradually taken over every aspect of their lives.

Highly recommended!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Very Picture of You by Isabel Wolff

Book description:
At thirty-five, Gabriella Graham—“Ella” to her family and friends—has already made a name for herself as a successful portrait artist in London. She can capture the essential truth in each of her subjects’ faces—a tilt of the chin, a glint in the eye—and immortalize it on canvas. This gift has earned Ella commissions from royals and regular folks alike.

But closer to home, Ella finds the truth more elusive. Her father abandoned the family when she was five, and her mother has remained silent on the subject ever since. Ella’s sister, Chloe, is engaged to Nate, an American working in London, but Ella suspects that he may not be so committed. Then, at Chloe’s behest, Ella agrees to paint Nate’s portrait.

From session to session, Ella begins to see Nate in a different light, which gives rise to conflicted feelings. In fact, through the various people she paints—an elderly client reflecting on her life, another woman dreading the prospect of turning forty, a young cyclist (from a photograph) who met a tragic end—Ella realizes that there is so much more to a person’s life than what is seen on the surface, a notion made even clearer when an unexpected email arrives from the other side of the world. And as her portraits of Nate and the others progress, they begin to reveal less about their subjects than the artist herself.

This story of a portrait painter working on three portraits that ultimately change her life had all the ingredients of a great read but unfortunately never really came together. Though Ella was a sympathetic character, she was also woefully incapable of seeing things that were right before her eyes. As a reader, I was frustrated that the twists that so shocked Ella were things I had figured out ages before. I also thought that the plot devices of visits and stories from clients were too similar to that of Wolff's enjoyable A Vintage Affair.

Given how much I loved A Vintage Affair, I really wanted to like this book but my overall impression after finishing was "meh". Because there were no real surprises, it was hard to share Ella's sense of surprise at every turn. It was also hard to believe Ella was able to see deeply into her clients in order to paint their portraits given her general inability to see the truth about those close to her.