Book Review: Nine Folds Make A Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan

Of course, there is nothing remarkable about the process, this much at least she knows. Because we do it to ourselves all the time— turn our lives into a story— anything to try to keep the chaos of the self in check.

Three separate narratives presented with intricate detail and knitted together showcase the history of Jewish people in Ireland. One immigrant family from Lithuania struggles to find their place in Cork when they mistakenly disembarked their ship bound ultimately for New York. One young man, silenced in an attempt to protect his mother’s secret out of loyalty and love finds solace in the story of another. One young Irish woman living in London grapples with a decision that with change her life forever. Nine Fold Make A Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan is a rich examination of humanity and the struggles we face that transcend generations.

“What about a man who courted his woman via pigeon mail, so he called the chef the night before their wedding to ask if he can cook the bird and serve it at the reception, to allow the guests to ingest the effort of their love? To tear the brown, gamey flesh and hook the wishbone with their little fingers and pull either side ’til it snaps?”

The story opens with Ruth, a child aboard a ship bound for New York where they are hoping to reunite with family and start anew. However, they make a misguided early departure from the ship and land in Cork, Ireland.

Just as long as she ignored the pull in her pocket where the compass tried to drag her down. It must be broken too, she told herself, the magnets somehow mangled when the boat slammed the shore, because as they boarded the tram she had checked it, just to be sure. She had stood at the edge of the dock and gazed out at the Atlantic, knowing the sea was meant to be East. The arrow had dithered, stuttering like a lip before tears. And then it had fallen down. South. The sea spreading off the bottom of Ireland and away.

Outsiders by birth and belief, Ruth and her family attempt to navigate the tricky waters as immigrants in the early 20th century. Ruth looks to her father, a playwright with a fierce imagination who crafts fantastical stories, for escape from their harsh reality.  Many of these stories have a mysterious origin until Ruth understands that sometimes the most mysterious thing of all is one’s own family.

A wall of hush lingered in the room. Not one of them moved. Instead they just hovered there in the darkness of a north Lithuanian shed with a beautiful young girl and an earnest young boy, stupid with love; a woman they had never quite liked and a man they had never quite understood. But suddenly the light had caught them differently, just two characters in a story, right back at the beginning— a story that had finally been told. As Ruth realized that now, everything really was lost.

Shem Sweeney is a young man trapped in the silence of his own creation. In an effort to protect his mother, Shem becomes a mute to avoid the temptation to share a secret that he was sure would break her heart. Keeping with the beliefs of the late 1950’s, he is sent to Montague House, an asylum run by Catholic nuns, with the hopes of restoring his ability to speak. Shem begins a complicated friendship with the only other Jewish person at Montague House, Alf, who coerces Shem into transcribing his memories before he succumbs to his illness. Through these exchanges we discover the depth and details behind Shem’s history.

So I wondered now if a family could ever really exist without these lies, these secrets, to keep it alive. Or if, in the end, that was the definition of love.

Aisling Creedon is a present day obituary columnist for a newspaper in London. Her relationship with Noah takes a significant turn when he presents her with a second-hand Irish written book of instructions on converting to Judaism. In a flight of panic, she abandons Noah following a Hanukkah celebration with his family to return to her family in Ireland where they are celebrating Christmas.

Not even a tiny white swan bent into place, the lines so defined that when you take it apart it can just be put back together again, in nine simple folds, exactly the same as before.

She struggles with the weight of and the possible consequences of her decisions- both to leave Noah so abruptly and to shed her past, her family, her life before. Searching for answers she seeks out the woman who owned the book prior to her, hoping to see satisfaction in her decision. Through this quest, aided by annotations in the book made by the previous owner, Aisling reveals the stitching that held each of the three narratives together.

He picks it up. He stares at the title, still struggling to believe. And then he reads, knowing he might not stop, not tomorrow or even the tomorrow after that when the pigeons have flown off somewhere better again, resisting the urge to come home. Because in the end, it is the only story to have survived.

With imaginative prose each story is woven to a satisfying completeness. A powerful account of what defines family and what we do to belong, Nine Folds Make A Paper Swan takes the mostly unknown stories of the Jewish community in Ireland and uses it as a mirror to reflect the greater human experience.

Read voraciously.

Thoughts?

Intrigued? Buy the book here:

Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan
by Ruth Gilligan
Trade Paperback
Powells.com

A review copy of this title was provided by Tin House Books via Netgalley.

Book Review: The Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

Intention was one thing; it was the smallest decisions that made any difference.

The Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson is a poignant and solidly written examination of the private lives of a group of entitled, unaware teenagers and eager teachers at a wealthy, suburban high school. It begins with a group of seemingly perfect middle school kids as they begin to set the ranks within their group- who is in and who is out. A note and the bullying of the boy that wrote it highlights the quantity of and effect of cyber-bullying that many kids endure.

From then on, Tristan spent his lunch periods outside, walking the edge of the schoolyard where asphalt crumbled into marshland. He kept his head bowed, and when he came back inside, his ankles were purpled with mud. Nobody bullied him at school. Nobody minded him at all. And every afternoon, Cally and Abigail watched from Abigail’s bedroom as the Facebook posts continued, flashing onto the computer screen at an inexorable pace, gleeful, hateful, now from people they didn’t even know. Sometimes Tristan wrote back, defending himself angrily or desperately, but each comment he posted only renewed the energy of the attacks.

Johnson writes with finesse as she charts the tearing down of a person in such a vulnerable stage of life. These opening scenes provide a back-drop, and possibly a cause, for what occurs throughout the rest of these teenager’s adolescence.

Turning to his left, he saw the red-orange spires of the Golden Gate Bridge, like masts of an enormous ship, like skyscrapers of an alien nation, like ladders to the sky. His heart beat frantically in his ears. Yet for the first time in a long time, he felt like he could breathe.

Bouncing between perspectives we learn more about those involved in this initial encounter and how their lives progressed. We learn, also, just how vulnerable each one of them is in their own right. Personal accounts flesh out the depth of each character while the contrasting viewpoint from one earnest, young teacher proves the degree to which these teenage characters will go to hide their undesirable emotions and characteristics.

And she’d realized there was something worse than being ignored; there was being a target.

Each narrative blossoms with emotional depth and unexpected weakness.  A raw examination of the truth behind the lives of teenagers today. Though admittedly the focus is on upper middle class, white narratives, the problems faced are real. Johnson appears to put much of her personal story onto the page and her work shines as a result. The Most Dangerous Place On Earth is a young adult crossover that deserves a special place on your shelf.

There was only the decision to get up. There was only standing and brushing herself off, only turning and hiking back to her friends whose hoots and laughter carried through the trees, to her friends who were flawed but, yes, living; there was only digging through her bag for the last remnants of high school, throwing them into the fire. As the flames ate the papers to curling black, she knew there was only this, and whatever moment would come after, only Calista Broderick going on and trying, like everyone, to live in this beautiful world.

Read voraciously.

Thoughts?

Intrigued? Buy the book here:

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth
by Dan Hampton
Hardcover
Powells.com

A review copy of this title was provided by Random House via Netgalley.

Preview: My Netgalley TBR 

Just a quick peek at my Netgalley shelf! Four great books to carry me through this month. I can’t wait to start them!

I have four reviews to write this weekend as well so I’m going to be busy. Here’s a look at what’s to come:

The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti

Nine Folds Make A Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan

The Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

The Girl Before by JP Delaney

Read voraciously.

Book Review: The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church 

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I first loved him because he taught me the flight of a bird, precisely how it happens, how it is possible. Lift. Wing structure and shape, the concepts of wing loading, drag, thrust. The perfectly allotted tasks of each differently shaped feather. The hollowness of bones to reduce weight, to overcome gravity. I was too young to realize that what I really yearned to know was why birds take flight— and why, sometimes, they refuse.

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church examines the delicate balance between love and duty and the multitude of ways each is present throughout life. Meridian is an intelligent woman whose love for birds transcended all other things in her early life.

That’s where my career as an ornithologist began— at the dinner table, beside the train tracks, in the late-night hours while my parents slept and I read lying in the empty bathtub. When I found a dead goldfinch on the walk home from school, my father applied the balm of Darwin to my broken heart.

As she grows she becomes more desperate to solidify her place in academia. She sets out to study ornithology- a field in the sciences that is, like most, male dominated, during a time that women are still the large minority in the universities.

The whole enterprise was far bolder than I. I concealed fears: near-certainty of my dire lack of qualifications and absolute certainty of my inability to fit in. The first day of classes, I rushed between buildings, the heavy, costly textbooks in the book bag bouncing off of my hip. In a gloomy, bell-jar-lined classroom in the zoology building, I sat near the front and watched men— all men— file in to join me. A few of them met my eyes, smiled tentatively. I saw clean-shaven cheeks and starched shirts, hastily tied Windsor knots. Some nodded, but none sat next to me.

As she struggles to find her place, she finds solace in a romance between a renowned physic’s professor, Alden Whetstone. Her growing love for him helps to spark the topic for the final project of her academic career.

I knew my master’s thesis would be on crow behavior, the social aspects of the bird, but I also knew I needed to hone in on a narrower aspect of their social lives. I longed to know how, when, and why they formed allegiances and if those bonds crossed familial boundaries. I wanted to understand loyalty— to know if it derived solely from evolutionary advantage, or if it might also be motivated by something else, something akin to caring, love, and devotion.

Like her crows, when Alden is dispatched to Los Alamos, New Mexico for a top secret project (what is known to us now as the construction of the Atomic Bomb), Meri loyally follows her husband- giving up her studies, her degree and her dreams.

Men do. Women make do. We wait, patient Penelope at the hearth. We conform, good girls in girdles. We serve, suppressed sighs growing stale. We meld with oblivion, Flying ever in his slipstream.

Resentment and discontent slowly erode the foundation of Meridian and Alden’s love. The pressure and weight of the truth behind Alden’s work drive him deeper into his science while pushing Meri away because she so desperately wants to have a place in her community both scientific or otherwise.

In the gloom I heard his breath deepen, watched his shoulders release their tension. He’d said his piece at long last, and now he could relax. For me, any chance of sleep had vanished, and so I took my book, a blanket, and a pillow into the bathroom and climbed into the empty tub, just as I had when I was a girl. The hard sides of the bathtub seemed an appropriate place for me to lay my body that night— unforgiving and nonmalleable. I couldn’t concentrate, though. Finally, I pulled a hand towel from the rack, bit down on it, and used it to muffle my sobs. I let my shoulders spasm, felt the muscles of my lower back tighten into fists of pain.

To fill the void left by Alden’s rejections Meri embarks on an attempt to rediscover her love for birds in the desert of New Mexico. She finds a lone group of crows and throws herself wholeheartedly into their study. In the desert she discovers more than just her love for ornithology- she finds her youth and sexuality in a young war veteran, Clay.

Nestled against Clay’s naked body and drifting off to sleep that night, I thought about what Clay had told me about geologic rifts. That they were the earth pulling apart, like wounds opening. I wondered at the depth and mystery of it, a crack in the earth, in myself. Part of me recognized it as a potentially dangerous breach of my skin; another part of me relished the possibility for change that it posed, the powerful forces at work.

A poignant examination of family and the expectations therein The Atomic Weight of Love takes all the nuances of marriage, infidelity, feminism and self-worth in the 1940s and beyond and puts them under the microscope to be examined with true finesse and depth.

As I watched him, I wondered how many times a heart can heal. Are we allotted a specific number of comebacks from heartbreak? Or is that what really kills us, in the end— not strokes or cancer or pneumonia— but instead just one too many blows to the heart? Doctors talk of “cardiac insults”— such a perfect turn of phrase— but they know nothing of the heart, not truly.

Read voraciously,

Thoughts?

Intrugued? Buy the book here:

Atomic Weight of Love
by Elizabeth J ChurchHardcover
Powells.com

 

A review copy of this title was provided by HarperCollins via Netgalley.

Book Review: The Twilight Wife by A.J. Banner

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What if my brain is choosing to block out not trauma, but something else altogether? Impossible. I have to dismiss the thought. I have to believe what Jacob is saying. The conversation was all in fun. Just because someone talks about murder, doesn’t mean they intend to actually kill someone.

Kyra suffered a traumatic brain injury following a  diving accident. She has no memory of the past four years of her life and she struggles to form new, lasting memories. Her husband, Jacob, has been put to the task of reintroducing her to her life through shared experiences, friends and photo albums kept at their home on the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest.

Desperate to regain her past, Kyra begins to search the island for clues to help corroborate her husband’s story. She revisits places her and Jacob frequented and meets with friends they shared with the hope of sparking recognition. At the urging of one friend she begins to see a therapist- someone to whom she can confide her deepest worries and thoughts.

As I leave her office, I should feel calmer, less confused, and better equipped to face the mystery of my past. I do, in a way. But I also feel as though my memories stop short, before the storm, at the edge of a precipice leading down into darkness.

Kyra attempts to pursue something akin to a normal life. She returns to the ocean- her haven of sea creatures that she studied for years and one of the few things she can remember. She tries to reacquaint herself with Jacob and she can’t help but admit to the attraction and companionship she feels. She can’t ignore the nagging suspicion, either.

I kiss him back, the way I know I have before, many times. His lips taste familiar. I’m enjoying his touch. I want him. I wanted him before. But something went wrong between us. And I suddenly remember thinking, What secrets would I hide to save my marriage?

A discovery leads to a rapid unraveling and the reveal that proves everyone has their secrets. The Twilight Wife is a solid thriller with the perfect combination of emotional depth and suspense.

Read voraciously.

Intrigued? Buy the book here:

Twilight Wife
by A J BannerTrade Paperback
Powells.com

 

A review copy of this title was provided by Touchstone via Netgalley.

Book Review: The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa 

Photo courtesy of GoodReads

There was a blast on the ship’s siren. We were going— together— to somewhere where no one would measure our heads or noses, or compare the texture of our hair, or classify the color of our eyes. We were going to the island you drew in the muddy water of a city to which we would never return.

Hannah is a Jewish girl growing up in Germany at the onset of Hitler’s reign. When the exile begins she struggles to understand what it means to have your personhood defined, measured and ranked.

In the end, I knew that however much I washed, burned my skin, cut my hair, gouged out my eyes, turned deaf, however much I dressed or talked differently, or took on a different name, they would always see me as impure.

As things escalate, Hannah begins to learn the true nature of the grave situation she is in.

The cleansing had begun in Berlin, the dirtiest city in Europe. Powerful jets of water were about to start drenching us until we were clean. They didn’t like us. Nobody liked us.

Fortunately, Hannah’s family has means and they secure passage to find asylum in Cuba- an exotic, unknown land.

We would start from scratch and make Khuba into an ideal country, where anybody could be blond or dark haired, tall or short, fat or thin. Where you could buy a newspaper, use the telephone, speak whatever language you wished and call yourself whatever you wanted to without bothering about the color of your skin or which God you worshipped. In our watery maps, at least, Khuba already existed.

However, safety is fleeting and Hannah soon finds herself amidst an unsure future aboard the St. Louis.

We were a wretched mass of fleeing people who had been kicked out of our homes.

Juxtaposed with Hannah’s story is that of Anna, another young girl and descendant of Hannah who is also looking to understand what the future holds- but she must look first into the past.

I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I see Dad in Berlin, Havana, New York. I’m German. This is my family, forced to call themselves Sarah and Israel, whose businesses were destroyed. The family that fled, that survived. This is where I come from.

The German Girl is a sweeping tale of the controversial and largely unknown voyage of a ship meant as a safe haven for Jewish German citizens which turned out to be something worse.

Until now, in Cuba, the tragedy of the St. Louis has been a topic absent from classrooms and history books. All the documents related to the arrival of the ship in Havana and the negotiations with Federico Laredo Brú’s government and Fulgencio Batista have disappeared from the Cuban National Archive.

Read voraciously.

Thoughts ?

Intrigued ? Buy the book here:

German Girl A Novel
by Ernst Hepp
Hardcover
Powells.com

A review copy of this title was provided by Atria Books via Netgalley

Book Review: The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

Turn the knob and push the door open, I told myself. You can do this. Crossing this threshold is nothing new. You have passed over the supposedly insurmountable divide between male and female in countless classrooms before. And always succeeded.

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict tells the story of Mileva Maric, an intelligent woman who was amongst other pioneers for women in science. At a time when education for women was rare, Mileva, better known as Mitza, set out to accomplish a great deal.

I walked a fine line between my insistence on this untrodden path and the conformity still demanded of me.

Mitza set her sights on the boys club of physics. Her study at university proves to be enlightening in a variety of ways.

The world of physics was where I belonged. Embedded in its secretive rules about the workings of the world— hidden forces and unseen causal relationships so complex that I believed only God could have created them— were answers to the greatest questions about our existence. If only I could uncover them.

Struggling throughout her life for acceptance, Mitza finds it in the women at her boarding house who are of the same caliber. She finds it also in one man, a fellow physics student, Albert Einstein.

My feelings were more complex; I felt alive in Mr. Einstein’s company, understood and accepted.The sensation was unique and unsettling.

Mitza is forced to battle between her studies and the role forced upon her as a marriagable woman by the society she inhabits. Her choice is difficult and and times nearly impossible.

Suppressed over the past year, my feelings for Mr. Einstein hadn’t disappeared. If anything, they had grown. Sometimes, I wondered whether maintaining my friendship with Mr. Einstein was folly, whether it ignited emotions I should be dampening. But I had chosen my physics path, and he sat firmly upon it, I reminded myself for the hundredth time that day alone. I couldn’t very well ignore him; after all, he was my lab partner.

Mitza and Albert create a life together that is built on their shared love of physics but can it outlast the struggle for success and against the strains of conventional society?

Dripping  with feminist undertones, The Other Einstein is a heartbreaking story of one woman’s swim against a current of obstacles.

Read Voraciously .

Thoughts ?

Intrigued ? Head to Good Reads or BookBub for this week’s deal!

A review copy of this title was provided by Sourcebooks Landmark via Netgalley