The Girl You Left Behind, Jojo Moyes

The Girl You Left BehindI have to say, I was not expecting to love this book. Like it maybe, or more likely to be disappointed halfway through and feel obligated to finish it. It is not a perfect book by any means, and yet here I sit having finished the novel (in two days), and I am temporarily at a loss for words.

The Girl You Left Behind is about two women: One living in a German occupied town in France in WWI, the other a mourning widow in modern London. Both of them have lost the men they loved; one is off fighting a war with no word if he is dead or alive, the other died suddenly much too young.

The first part of the book is dedicated to Sophie, the Frenchwoman whose town has been occupied by Germans in World War I. Her husband, who is now off fighting in the war, was a painter. He had painted a portrait of Sophie in their happier days, and it now hung in her family’s hotel, reminding Sophie that she wasn’t always a skeletal being of fear and hunger. When the Germans commandeer the hotel, having Sophie and her sister cook for them every night, the painting catches the eye of the Kommandant, a man feared by the villagers.

Later we are confronted with a jolting change in time. Suddenly we are in England in modern times and introduced to Liv, who is now somehow in possession of the painting. She is a widow, struggling to move on, and clings to the painting as an emotional support. When she finally meets a man she thinks she could fall in love with, she learns he works for a company that restores paintings stolen in wartime to the families they belong to, and that her painting, The Girl You Left Behind, is being claimed by the family of the man who originally painted it.

This novel is two in one: a historical fiction account of what it was like to live in German occupied territory during WWI and the horrors that brings with it, and a modern court case driven thriller/mystery in the second half. In the beginning I wasn’t sure how I liked how lopsided it seemed to be…you never meet the present day characters until around halfway through the book, and then closer to the end it flips back and forth again a few times, but somehow it works.

I was reading the first half of Gone With the Wind (about the American Civil War) while listening to this novel on audio, and I think the wartime stories had a greater effect on me in both novels because of that. Both were terrible, bloody wars and it was difficult at times to read about them. It is quite graphic as it details the horrors of war…not gore from the front lines, but the starvation, pure fear, and destruction of a way of life that existed for those left behind.

*some spoilers in the following paragraph*

The modern piece wasn’t quite as good. To me it felt a lot more formulaic and bordered on unrealistic at times. Would Liv really have blatantly dug her heels in on the matter of keeping her painting without even considering the possibility of giving it back to the rightful family at all? I feel like there would probably have been moments of doubt whether she was doing the right thing, espcecially as those around her began to question it (and when she completely cut out Paul without even pretending to listen to what he had to say seemed odd to me, as they had really spent a lot of time together up to that point). Also how was Liv actually paying for everything? I feel like it was super improbable that she’d be able to get as far as she did financially from the spot she was in at the beginning (who would give her a second mortgage with so little money in the bank and presumably terrible credit). Why did Moe suddenly decide she wanted some space from her? And right when Liv needed her resilience and friendship the most? Because it made the dramatic timing of the plot right, that’s why. It was a little disappointing being able to see the blueprints behind the novel as I read, but those are my only complaints! Overall it was still a very good book and I will probably read it again one day.

My favorite character was Moe. Not only did she serve as the quirky silly friend, but she was just such a character! I could imagine her so clearly in my mind, and yet she was always surprising me. I loved how she came back into Liv’s life at the right moment and was able to bring her back to life a little bit, just by being there.

I would definitely recommend this book to a friend, as it was recommended to me. I have to say I enjoyed this book much more than Me Before You, and it gives me hope that Jojo Moyes has written other good books I’d enjoy. Any suggestions on what I should read next??

E.

Gone With the Wind – A Reading Journal, Part III

This post is a reading journal, and therefore contains pretty much nothing but spoilers. You have been warned.

If you do the right things for the wrong reasons, are you still a good person?

My oh my, part three has quite a lot going on, doesn’t it? As a short summary, it opens when the front lines are just reaching the boarder of Georgia. The inhabitants of Atlanta are still feeling confident at this point that they’ll never get any nearer the fighting than that, but within a few weeks the war is in their doorstep and people are fleeing for Macon. When Atlanta falls to Sherman’s army, Scarlett and Melanie barely escape, and were only able to do so with the help of Rhett Butler, who up and decides to join the army. Having to fend for herself for the first time in her life, Scarlett has to get herself, Melanie, Prissy, Wade, and Melanie’s new baby Beau all the way to Tara by herself while avoiding Yankee troops. Once there, she finds her mother dead, her father lost his mind, and her two sisters on sickbeds unable to contribute. The only lucky thing to have happened is stumbling across a cow on their way there, and having Dilcey in milk in order to nurse Melanie’s baby. At Tara, life isn’t much better, they are always on the brink of starvation, and in constant fear of yankee troops. They are also out of the way of any news and have no idea whether the fighting is still close or if it’s moved off away from the area. And of course, the part wraps up for the third time with a scene involving Ashley – this time, he is returning from prison camp.

I learned a lot in this section. Growing up in Colorado, which didn’t exist (as a state) during the time of the Civil War, we didn’t spend too long studying about it. Basically I knew there was a battle at Gettysburg, brother fought against brother, the Underground Railroad was a thing, slavery was abolished, and the south lost the war. It’s pretty pathetic really, my lack of education on the subject. I did not know that Atlanta was captured and essentially burned to the ground. I didn’t know that soldiers marched and fought while barefoot and starving to death. I didn’t know that the entire south was cut off from the world, unable to receive goods and supplies from anywhere else, which basically starved the whole confederacy. War is a terrible thing. A terrible terrible thing. 

I read another book as I read this called The Girl You Left Behind. It’s a novel by Jojo Moyes which describes in detail a fictional account of a family (all women and children since the men are off fighting) living in German occupied France during World War I. This made the atrocities of war in both books stand out even more than they would have on their own. Those were some somber days as I read them. I even had to set Gone With the Wind aside for awhile to get through some of the tougher passages about the suffering and wounded soldiers. I cannot possibly imagine living through that time. 

This leads me back to Scarlett. Our selfish Scarlett who resented every moment she spent tending to wounded and dying men. She seemed to hate them, and as I write this it occurs to me that I can’t blame her for that. I was just about to go on and on again about how selfish she is and how much I dislike her, but maybe it wasn’t just that. Yes, Scarlett is a selfish person and is upset about how life has changed so much from what she was raised to be a part of. But perhaps the soldiers served to remind her again and again that her old life is gone now, and slowly she was realizing unconsciously that it was never going to come back either. The relentlessness of the incoming wounded and dying must have been a painful reminder of that. I don’t think anyone would have been able to deal with it all fully. You would have to put out a mental block to keep yourself from thinking about it too hard, or you’d just go crazy with death all around, wouldn’t you? 

I marked one passage to that effect as I read:

“Gradually, Scarlett drew courage from the brave faces of her friends and from the merciful adjustment which nature makes when what cannot be cured must be endured.”

On another note, Melanie has continued to amaze me. She is by far the most sensible character and such a contrast to Scarlett. She does her duty and endures that which comes her way with no complaint. She’s a better woman than I, certainly. I was sure she would die in childbirth, but I’m glad she’s still around.

I’ve never enjoyed a book with such a dislikable main character before, it’s very strange. I’m waiting patiently for the ‘epic love story’ everyone goes on about…I am having a hard time picturing how Scarlett and Rhett will end up with a happy ending, but that’s part of the magic of a story I suppose. And maybe there isn’t a happy ending after all, I shall find out soon enough!

I’ve already started part four, I couldn’t stop reading after finishing three. Hopefully I’ll finish the book by the end of June – that is my goal! Stay tuned ;-)

E.

Thoughts on The View from the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman

The View from the Cheap SeatsNeil Gaiman is one of those authors whose fiction has a distinct style. You can point to something he wrote and say with confidence, Neil Gaiman wrote that. It’s in the names he chooses, the subjects he writes about, the stories he weaves, and the language he uses as the strands to do so. After having read and loved many of his novels (Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, and Stardust are some of these), and hearing his incredible speech titled Make Good Art, I was very excited to read his book of collected non-fiction, The View from the Cheap Seats.

The book is comprised of magazine articles, essays, speeches for various occasions, and book introductions which are grouped together in an order that generally flows from subject to subject. Some pieces are short, others are quite long, and some of them seem to overlap each other slightly. He writes about everything from his own fiction, authors he admires, his career in comic book writing, the internet, music, films, mythology, and his childhood.

Beginning with the dedication – “For Ash, who’s new, for when he is grown. These were some of the things your father loved and said and cared about and believed, a long time ago.” – I loved this book. It is filled with the wisdom and insights of a man who has dedicated his life to telling stories. From a young boy reading his way through the children’s section of the library, to the young man who discovered and devoured the science fiction genre and comic books, to the young journalist, to the comic book writer and finally the award-winning novelist he is today. This book is all at once a reader’s guide to great fiction, a quasi-memoir, a conversation about what makes a book great, but most of all it is a love letter to story telling and literature. Neil Gaiman is one of the great authors of our time (in my opinion), and getting to see the inside of his brain in this book was such a treat.

Right off the bat we are confronted with discussions about the importance of literacy, libraries, and the freedom to read whatever you feel compelled to read. Reading teaches you how to think, it exercises your imagination, and it teaches us that anything is possible. According to Neil, a child should never be forbidden to read a book, even if it is not necessarily what you want them to be reading. He says every book is a gateway drug into the next book, and eventually they will probably stumble onto things you do feel more comfortable with, while all along learning about themselves and the world.

I loved his discussions about what makes a genre a genre, and another piece on what the difference is between a children’s book and a book for adults. He comes at these questions from a place of pure curiosity, taking the questions down to their fundamentals and building up from there. Truly, what is the difference between a book for children and a book for adults? It is not easy to point to one criteria that makes the difference, is it?

There is a good chunk in the middle of the book to do with comics; how he read and collected them as a kid to his eventual career writing them, working with different artists, as well as reviews and introductions for them. I myself have never read comics or graphic novels at all, and while this was not my favorite section of the book, I still feel like I came away from it having learned a lot about them, and harboring a new curiosity to find one of the ones discussed to see what I might think of it.

Neil, like me (and you, I presume), is a lover of fiction. He shares the names of works and writers who have inspired him, books that helped shape him, and the stories of how he came upon them in the first place. His introductions offer new perspectives on works you may have read before, and have definitely sparked my interest in some books I’ve never heard of. His recommendations span throughout many genres including children’s, science fiction, horror, and classics so you’re bound to find something you’ll love as well as something that may be out of your comfort zone.

The one thing that surprised me the most about this collection was how much Neil Gaiman has done. He has been involved with magazines, newspapers, collaboration fiction, short stories, children’s books, novels, comics, as well as being the speaker at any number of conventions and events, he’s been asked to write about books in all different types of genres, as well as writing for music albums, film scripts, and essays. What hasn’t the man done? He has a curious mind, and is a true believer in art and creativity. He understands the impact one good book can have on a person, and more importantly, he wants everyone to be able to feel that incredible feeling.

If I’ve come away from this book with only one thing, it’s that I love Neil Gaiman. I already knew it, but I saw so many more facets of the man through this book, and it’s made me love him all the more. I highly recommend it for any reader.

E.

Gone With the Wind, A Reading Journal – Part II

[Please be aware this post is full of spoilers!]

It is difficult to know where to start with this entry, so much has happened in the second section of this novel…and yet it has ended in virtually the same place as the one before it. Scarlett, while she has been through many life altering events up to this point, remains fundamentally unchanged. It is almost annoying how she has not matured at all. Still, even after being married and widowed, after bearing a son, after tending to wounded confederate soldiers in Atlanta hospitals, she is more concerned with clothes and fancy hatsZ than anything else. She seems almost even more of a spoiled brat in this section because in these times when she is needed to work for ‘the Cause’, she does so only for pretenses, not for any actual desire to do good. She has no compassion whatsoever, which is going to be hard to forgive – she has a lot to make up for in order for me to respect her. She is so hung up on this ‘love’ of Ashley Wilkes that she constantly takes for granted the only person who seems to truly be her friend, Melanie. I put love in quotes because although Ashley is a very smart and honorable character who is easily loved, Scarlett only ‘loves’ him for how beautiful he looked one day after she’d not seen him for awhile (and probably most of all because she can’t have him) and not for his brain or heart, as she should do.

Melanie seems to be the only female character with any sense so far. She is everything Scarlett isn’t: compassionate, empathetic, smart. She tends to the soldiers and raises money for The Cause dutifully and with a sense of righteousness, even when it means she has to sacrifice something. Scarlett is horrible to her and Melanie believes it is because the loss of Charlie that makes her act so, well, bitchy. Her brother’s loss is so prominent in her own heart, and this makes me dislike Scarlett even more. Because Scarlett is so catty and attention grabbing, Melanie makes less of her own feelings because she feels it must be even worse for Scarlett having lost him as a husband than for her having lost him as a brother…and all the time Scarlett could care less. What kind of soulless person can have married a man, had his child, lived in the house he grew up in with his sister and aunt who raised him, and not feel even the slightest bit of sadness, or at least a bit of sympathy? I think this is the thing that bothers me the most about Scarlett.

I also feel that Scarlett is made to be less bright in this section. I thought in the beginning she was too preoccupied with herself to pay attention to things, but that she did really have reasoning skills. This section made me question whether she has the ability to reason at all. Unless it had to do with manipulating the feelings of a man, of course. When Scarlett reads the letters from Ashley, she doesn’t seem to understand what they mean. Is she really that dim, or is it because she just doesn’t have any interest in it? It must be a severe disinterest, since those are the only words from her ‘beloved’ that she has to read, so you would think she would hang on to every one of them. It’s a little confusing when she hears the things Rhett Butler says and goes on to call it common sense. Is it just that she has been so brainwashed by the southern culture that she doesn’t seem to understand his concepts very well? Perhaps. But maybe she’s just dim and requires everyone else to do the thinking for her.

Rhett Butler is also unlikeable, yet I like him much more than Scarlett. Although his motives are entirely monetary, he doesn’t seem like a bad person, just one who has learned the hard lesson that the only person you can depend on is yourself. He has given many gifts out of compassion (buying the satin for a wedding dress, and acquiring Melanie’s wedding ring back for her). He doesn’t care what people think of him, but that is ALL Scarlett cares about. As Rhett tries to make her see that the gossip doesn’t mean anything, it becomes a battle of ‘how much can I get away with as a widow in mourning without my mother finding out?’ for her. She is entirely selfish, although, so is he’s.

I also want to touch on the southern traditions and culture at play here. There were very strict rules of ‘proper’ conduct and when you acted outside of those expectations, you were at best gossiped about, and at worst, ruined. The ‘rules’ of mourning sound especially tough, and this is one area where I do feel sorry for Scarlett. Not that Scarlett is in grief, but people deal with it differently, and should be allowed to partake in whatever they feel comfortable doing to heal. It seems very silly to me to not allow someone to go to social events for YEARS. Especially girls who are widowed so young in times of war. Luckily Scarlett had Rhett Butler, who is maybe one of two people who truly know Scarlett’s true character (the other being her father Gerald), to help her be more herself and break down the social barriers a little bit. Reputation was everything in those days.

I am annoyed by Scarlett’s behavior towards the end of this part. Still believing that Ashley returns her love after he has spurned her again and again – how is it possible? She is blinding herself, making up her own reality and doesn’t even seem to realize she’s doing it. And beyond that, she is falling in love with Rhett, but is too stupid to actually realize that they are REAL feelings she is having towards Rhett, when her relationship with Ashley is actually a relationship with her own mind.

I do not know where the story will go from here. Already the war is almost over and I am only a quarter of the way through the book. I am skeptical that Scarlett will be able to redeem herself and become someone I can respect. I am infinitely curious to see what the catalyst could possibly be for so radical a change. Hopefully there will be some progress in Scarlett’s character in Part III.

E.

Summer 2017 TBR – & the 10 Books of Summer Challenge

I was in the middle of drafting a summer 2017 TBR post when I came across the 20 Books of Summer challenge hosted by 746books.com. What a happy coincidence! So instead of the conservative 5 books I was planning to list, why not double it and see if I can finish them all? Here are the books I plan to read for this challenge (June 1st – September 3rd)::

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Some books have a seasonal aura about them, and for me The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy screams summertime. I first read it in the summer of maybe 2010 – 2011 era? I remember it being short, light, and absolutely hilarious. I’m really looking forward to a refresher.

A Study in Scarlett by Arthur Conan Doyle

So far, the only Sherlock Holmes I’ve read is The Hound of the Baskervilles, and to be honest, I wasn’t really impressed. Last week I was searching through Audible looking on something to spend my credits on and I saw the complete Sherlock Holmes collection read by Stephen Fry. It’s nearly 63 hours long! The first piece in the series is A Study in Scarlett, and I hope to have it completed by the end of the summer.

Finders Keepers & End of Watch by Stephen King

While on maternity leave earlier this year, I read Mr. Mercedes, the first in a trilogy of psychological/crime thrillers by Stephen King. While I wouldn’t necessarily say I LOVED Mr. Mercedes – because seriously, Brady Heartfield is messed up – but it sure was a page turner, and I’ve borrowed the next two books in the series from a friend at work, so I want to make sure I get them read and returned. Besides, I love Stephen King and would love to make a bigger dent in his body of work.

 

The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

This is the book I am currently reading as an audiobook. It is a non-fiction collection of Neil Gaiman’s speeches, essays, and articles. From what I’ve read so far, it’s superb. It is also narrated by the author, which makes it 100xs better.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I was not planning to start this novel anytime soon, but after posting my new Classics Club reading list I was convinced to start it immediately. This book is over 1,000 pages long, so it may throw a wrench into this challenge, but oh well. I’m only 10 pages in so far and I already feel like I’m going to love it!

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

This book has come highly recommended to me by a friend from work, so I added it to my audible list. I can usually crank out at least one audiobook a month at work so this one will probably be up next. By the synopsis I’m not fully entranced, but my friend sings nothing but praises, so we’ll see how it goes!

Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

I’m shamed to admit I’ve never read this book. Lately I’ve been seeing it everywhere, and I think it’s about time to remedy that. It is also on my Classics Club Challenge list, and it’d be nice to knock out a few early to give myself a great start!

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

I’ve been meaning to read this forever, and I have a feeling it’d be a great book to read in the summer (it’s about a road trip after all)…but I kind of want to leave this spot in the list open for any Steinbeck. I have a bindup copy of his seven short novels that I want to get through as well, so I’d be happy to read one of those instead. We’ll see what mood I’m in when we get to it :-)

The Fireman by Joe Hill

I originally read the first quarter of this book just after it was released, but for some reason I put it down and never picked it back up. I really want to finish it up! I read Horns a few years back and really enjoyed it, so I have high hopes for this one.