Monday, April 30, 2012

Book Review: Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan

Title: Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan
Published by: Penguin Group, USA
Published on: April 26, 2012
Page Count: 256
Genre: Fiction - Historical and Biographical
Available formats: Hardcover, audiobook and Kindle ebook editions
My reading format: Advanced reading copy for Kindle Fire from Netgalley

My Review:

This story takes place over a few months at the end of 1916 when Anne Sullivan is ill with what is supposed to be tuberculosis and must have someone else come in to assist Helen Keller with her travels, speaking engagements, correspondence and daily activities. That someone is the dashing Peter Fagan, a friend and former coworker of Anne's estranged husband. Almost immediately upon meeting Peter, Helen feels something she's never felt before: a strong, electric feeling for a man. She's attracted to him and can think of nothing else but how to be alone with him. He falls in love with her as well (or does he?), though Sultan paints Peter as suspicious character right from the start. That feeling never goes away throughout the book as Helen and Peter make plans to elope, escaping Anne and Helen's mother's watchful eyes. In the book's afterword, Sultan says that Keller never publicly acknowledged the affair and letters between the two were lost in a fire. Sultan did use existing books, newspaper articles, photographs, other archived letters and her own imagination to recreate the love affair between Peter and Helen. 

I have to say that I struggled with this book. This is not a reflection on Sultan's writing style, which I liked, or her ability to craft a story, which she did very well. The struggles, I think, were my own personal hang-ups. I studied Helen Keller in elementary school and remember watching The Miracle Worker with my class (who can forget Anne and Helen in the dining room scene?). Certainly for anyone with a disability or perfectly able-bodied, she is an inspiration. Everyone loves what she overcame despite not being able to see or hear. Helen Keller was able to learn enough to attend college, write books and speak to groups around the country. She didn't let obstacles stand in her way. She just hurdled them. (By the way, Anne Sullivan must have just been an incredible teacher.) During a time when women didn't typically stand in the spotlight, Helen Keller did and did it well.

Which brings me to what I didn't like. I didn't LOVE Helen as a character in this book like I expected to, and like I thought I should, even upon finishing the book (I won't give away the ending). I have always thought of Helen Keller as being so focused, so capable. Yet in this book Sultan paints a different picture of a Helen Keller: she is easily swayed and distracted by the possibility of love, unable to manage her own finances (even with assistance) and nearing the brink of bankruptcy, and unable to keep her surroundings in good working order as her home slips into disrepair. It was frustrating to me as a reader to learn of this side of Helen. I guess I wanted her private life to be as accomplished as her public one. And, for a woman so smart and accomplished, I just didn't like how her relationship with Peter led her to have questionable judgment in all areas of her life. Was it because she had little to no experience is romantic relationships prior to meeting Peter? Was it because she desired so much to be loved on that level? Was it because she felt the need to rebel against the rigidity of life with Anne and her mother?

However, I will say that as frustrated as I was with Helen, our heroine, I was turning the pages of this book just as fast as I could. Sultan's storytelling has lovely description and the right amount of anticipation to plow readers right to the dramatic last page of this story.

Four out of five stars. 

A German Reading List

In celebration of our fifth wedding anniversary, my husband and I recently traveled to the Rhine Valley and Berlin. Of course I was on the lookout for interesting books to bring back with me, and I succeeded in finding a few and have some recommendations from others. In honor of this recent trip to Germany, I've compiled a list of German reading material. I'm looking forward to blogging about some of these books going forward. And, I'm open to more suggestions if you have them.

The Reader by Bernard Schlink*
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada* (I'm reading this right now. Cannot put it down.)
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak*
The Violin of Auschwitz by Maria Angels Angalda* (OK, so this takes place in Poland, Germany's next door neighbor. It relates and it was a great read, so I included it.)
Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends who Resisted Hitler by Anne Nelson
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Berlin on the Brink: The Blockade, the Airlift, and the Early Cold War by Daniel F. Harrington
A Good American by Alex George
The Beauty of Transgression: A Berlin Memoir by Danielle De Picciotto

The Good German* by Joseph Kanon (Don't watch the movie. It's terrible even with George Clooney.)
The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
A Woman in Berlin by an anonymous author
The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961 - 9 November 1989 by Frederick Taylor
Dearest Vicky, Darling Fritz: Queen Victoria's Eldest Daughter and the German Emperor by John Van der Kiste
Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 by Christopher Clark
After the Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life that Came Next by Jana Hensel
Hiding Edith: A True Story by Kathy Kacer
Berlin Diaries 1940-1945 by Maria Vassittchikov
The Blind Side of the Heart by Julia Franck

The Lives of Others
Run Lola Run

Berlin Stories - Anna Winger's NPR radio series on life in Berlin(These are ready to go on my iPod.)

**Indicates that I've read and enjoyed these books already. No * means it came recommended to me by someone else, or I bought the book in Germany and will soon be reading it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

It's Monday! What are you reading?

I'm participating in this event hosted by Sheila from Book Journey (be sure to visit her site). Here's what I'll be doing this week:

Finishing Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan for future book review

And reading the follow (I'm ambitious this week!):
The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It by Tilar J. Mazzeo 
Quietly in Their Sleep by Donna Leon
How Nancy Drew Saved My Life by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Monday, April 9, 2012

It's Monday! What are you reading?

I'm participating in this event hosted by Sheila from Book Journey (be sure to visit her site). Here's what I'll be doing this week:

Finishing The Cider House Rules by John Irving
Starting Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan for future book review

It will be a busy week, so if I can do those things, I'll be doing well. Happy reading!

Book Review: Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

Blue Asylumby Kathy Hepinstall
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Published on: April 10, 2012
Page Count: 288
Genre: Adult historical fiction
My Reading Format: Advanced Reading Copy for Kindle from NetGalley
Available Formats: Hardcover and Adobe Reader for ebook

Note: This is my second recent review about a female main character who bravely stands firm in her beliefs, which are way ahead of the time in which she lives. Clara in Clara and Mr. Tiffany and Iris in Blue Asylum are the kind of characters I really enjoy reading about.

My Review:

Iris Dunleavy made the mistake of marrying the wrong man. Her husband, Robert, a powerful Virginia plantation owner, assumes he can own his wife much in the same way he owns his slaves. When Iris objects to Robert's treatment of his slaves, she knows she has crossed the line but doesn't change her mind. When Iris discovers one of his dark secrets, Iris joins several slaves in running away. She's caught, put on trial and deemed insane by the judge. Then Robert ships her off to an insane asylum on Sanibel Island. Here she meets an interesting cast of characters: Wendell, the head doctor's young son who becomes a friend and confidant; Ambrose, a Confederate soldier suffering from the atrocities he's seen; and Dr. Cowell, the man in charge who is in charge of each patient's therapy, treatment, recovery, and ultimately, their destiny. As Iris changes hands from one overbearing man to another, she continues to test the limits set before her. Iris causes Dr. Cowell to admit to himself that all the notions he'd deemed true about women, insanity and everything else in his life may not be accurate. Dr. Cowell also comes to realize that by immersing himself in the care of his patients, he has neglected his wife and son.

Hepinstall conveys the frustration Iris feels at being locked away as prisoner, first to her husband, and second to a doctor who Iris feels has misdiagnosed her. In chapter three, Iris says, "I do not belong here. I am here simply for the act of defying my husband, who is a man of most indecent character," while Dr. Cowell maintains that "women...became unhappier the better they were treated" (Chapter 8). Iris knows all along that she's been put in the wrong place and her entire being becomes focused on how to escape from it. 

As Iris and Ambrose embark upon a dangerous journey together, they are running away from their past, hoping that those lives don't continue to haunt them. The book leaves readers questioning the choices Iris has made: whether they were the right ones, or whether the choices she made were the only ones she had.

This book causes readers to think about what constitutes mental instability and where the line should be drawn for people to make their own decisions about their destiny, and the amount of control one human should have over another. It's a beautifully described story, and the plot takes readers to some unexpected places.

Four stars out of five

Monday, April 2, 2012

Book Review: Heaven is Here by Stephanie Nielson

Published by: Hyperion Voice
Published on: April 3, 2012
Page Count: 310
Genre: Memoir
My Reading Format: Hardcover book mailed to me by publisher
Available Formats: Hardcover, Amazon Kindle edition

Note: I guess I've been living under a rock because I was completely unfamiliar with Stephanie Neilson and her story before starting this book. I have never read her blog and didn't see her appearance on Oprah. I had never heard about the accident. When I got the opportunity to review the book, I decided to leave myself in the dark until after my review was written. So I will now look up her blog and learn more about her. I just wanted to let the outside influences stay outside, and let my lack of prior knowledge of Stephanie stay that way so I could simply enjoy and review her book.

My Review:

Stephanie Nielson, a wife and mom, had the kind of life she'd always dreamed of. She and husband Christian were raising their four children in the Mormon tradition. Christian enjoyed a successful career, which allowed Stephanie to be with their children, create a beautiful home for them, and cook dinner each night. Even when she and her family moved from Utah to New Jersey to a house grossly misrepresented in the photos she saw from thousands of miles away, and in a neighborhood where people had lived for decades without knowing their neighbors, Stephanie remained happy. While in New Jersey she began blogging to keep her far-away family apprised of the Nielsons' daily goings-on and to give herself a creative outlet. To her surprise, her blog audience grew beyond the friends and family she'd left behind in Utah, and strangers read regularly and posted comments. 

Stephanie continued to blog as her family moved to Arizona for Christian's job. When Christian had earned his pilot's license, Stephanie was thrilled to accompany Christian and a friend on a flight. Something went wrong on this flight and it crashed, burning Christian on 40% of his body and Stephanie on 80% of hers. Though their friend initially survived the crash, he later died as a result of his serious injuries. 

Here the book takes a dramatic turn. The wonderful home life Stephanie enjoyed has been traded for months in a medically-induced coma, followed by excruciating therapy and surgeries at the burn unit of the hospital. Her parents and siblings remained by her side, but Stephanie was reluctant to let Christian see her changed appearance, but even he did before Stephanie summoned up the courage to look in the mirror at her own reflection. Stephanie's four young children didn't see her for months, and when they finally did, Stephanie started the process of rebuilding her relationship with them to regain their trust and love.   

This book outlines the unbelievably difficult journey Stephanie took to regain her health, her appearance (though she is forever changed), and her family life. The emotional roller coaster she traveled was recounted in brutal honesty. Though the first part of the book outlined a happy woman in a happy home with her loving family, she didn't hide the fact that after the accident she was devastated to see the changes in her body, her family situation and relationships, and in herself as a person. Understandably, upon waking from her coma and becoming aware of the treatments and surgeries she's been undergoing and would continue to endure, Stephanie's spirit sunk as low as it possibly could. While she doesn't wallow in her own self-pity, she's suffered so much physical and mental trauma that it takes her a while to decide to live again and to do it fully. She makes a choice to return to her former life, however difficult it might be to get there, and knowing that her life will never truly be as it was before the accident. 

Stephanie describes in detail how a positive turn of events would give her a boost, but then when she hadn't progressed as far medically as she'd hoped, or she felt rejected by her children, she took a few steps back. Though it takes a while for her determination to show up and stick with her, she began to set goals for herself, however large or small, and gain momentum as she started achieving them. 

This book is a powerful statement about the capabilities of the human spirit. Stephanie describes her highs and her lows in brutal honesty, and describes her body, its injuries and its progress in great detail. Much of this book is difficult to read (descriptions of the crash scene and medical procedures will stick with me for a while), but I couldn't put the book down. I had to keep reading to know what happened and how Stephanie got there (though I assumed things worked out since a book came out of her experiences). This is one of the best and most honest memoirs I've read in a while. 

Many thanks to Voice for the complimentary review copy.

It's Monday! What are you reading?

I'm participating in this event hosted by Sheila from Book Journey (be sure to visit her site). Here's what I'll be doing this week:

Finishing Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall for future book review
Reading The Violin of Auschwitz by Maria Angels Anglada and translated by Martha Tennet
January 2012 issue of Our State Magazine
Starting The Cider House Rules by John Irving
Starting Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan for future book review