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The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

The Last Runaway

It is 1850. Honor Bright is an English Quaker, who accompanies her soon-to-be married sister to America..  Tragedy strikes.  The sister dies following a short illness, and Honor is stranded in Ohio, with a not very welcoming community of Quakers.

The hardships faced by immigrants and pioneers alike are addressed by Chevalier, in this novel, that pits human compassion against self-preservation.  Honor Bright cannot return to England, and as a single woman in a Quaker community she is only left with one choice:  to marry.  Her prospects are extremely limited.

This area of Ohio is also a major stop on the underground railroad.  Many slaves come through on their way to safety in Canada, and even though Ohio is a free state, the Fugitive Slave Act has made many Quakers reluctant to help slaves, for fear of the legal repercussions.

This book does a wonderful job of presenting the Quaker community and the moral dilemmas faced by religious and non-religious persons in a secular world.  Honor Bright, in trading the English Quaker community for its American counterpart,  must come to terms with the fact that life in America is far different than the life she left behind.

I’ve always enjoyed Tracy Chevalier’s novels, and this is no exception.  Her details about Quaker life, the underground railroad and the history of quilting make this a worthy read.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013
305 pages

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The International Bank Of Bob by Bob Harris

The International Bank Of Bob

Bob Harris is a freelance writer who, when the book opens, is working on a magazine piece rating top hotels worldwide.  As he sits amid luxurious surroundings in Dubai, he notices the immigrant workers slaving away in unfathomable heat.  We learn that they come from places like India, in the hopes of providing their family with a better life.  But the work they do isn’t paid what was promised, they are given no housing, and the brutal conditions mean thousands die before they are given the opportunity leave.

In the short-term, Harris shares his complimentary hotel food basket with the men, and attempts to converse (although they are limited to hand signals).  In the long term, as the author continues his travels, he becomes concerned with the impoverished and wonders what can be done to help.  Eventually, he comes to the conclusion that microfinance is the answer, and there are already several worldwide organizations committed to that task.

He becomes involved with one, Kiva, and throughout the book, tells about the company, makes loans himself, and follows up by traveling to various countries to find out how his borrowers have been able to improve their lives with the help of this micro loans.

This was a very enjoyable and eye-opening memoir.  Bob Harris reminds us that the poor, are truly our neighbors and we can see in them our own fathers, mothers and family members.  I love the idea of micro loans, and was pleased to learn more about them.  I even went so far as to make a few loans of my own through Kiva.  I definitely recommend this book to everyone.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013
416 pages

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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex

I’ve heard a lot about the author Jeffrey Eugenides.  His writing has been nominated and won a laundry list of literary awards.  I thought I’d put my foot into the waters of his literary style with his Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex.

The framework of the story centers around Calliope Stephanides, a Greek-American who was born a hermaphrodite.  Eugenides weaves a narrative tapestry worthy of the ancient Greek masters, when he relates the history of Calliope’s family, and how Calliope came to be “Cal.”

I did enjoy Middlesex, but Eugenides writing is much like going to an enormous buffet.  It’s a lot to take in.  Just when you are enjoying your first plate, more comes along.  Sometimes you don’t like what you get and you feel like giving up, but then, ooh – chocolate torte!  Or in this case, an interesting twist in the book.  A slow-moving chapter in the book gives way to a quick twist in the story-line, grabbing your attention again.

The characters are larger than life, but not particularly endearing.  His writing reminds me a little of Mark Helprin.  Full, meaty, unusual, humorous and sometimes a little strange.  I’m glad I read this book, but would I visit the Eugenides buffet again?  Maybe, but not for a long time.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2002
529 pages

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A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale For The Time Being

This is one of those novels that lingers with you long after you’ve put it down.  It is thought-provoking, touches your heart, and amazes you with it’s masterful, creative writing.  This five-star book is the best I’ve read this year, and has earned a place on my list of all-time favorites.  Here’s the jacket description of A Tale for the Time Being:

On a remote island in the Pacific Northwest, a Hello Kitty lunchbox washes up on the beach.  Tucked inside is the diary of a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl named Nao Yasutani.  Ruth – a writer who finds the lunchbox – suspects that it is debris from Japan’s 2011 tsunami.  Once she begins to read the diary, Ruth quickly finds herself drawn into the mystery of Nao’s fate…

Definitely read this book!  You will be quickly drawn into the mystery as well!

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013
422 pages

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Paris In Love by Eloisa James

Paris In Love

A memoir of Ms. James’ year of living in Paris with her husband and two children, Paris in Love is more of a collection of images than a narrative.

It’s snowing again and the roofs opposite my study window have turned white.

Boulevard des Invalides is lined with chestnut trees that lost their leaves months ago, but not their burrs.

These glimpses of Paris, while lovely, were not enough to satisfy me.  Where were the people, the experiences?  James herself rarely discusses meeting others and it seems she never had so much as an acquaintance with a Parisian.  The closest we come are her children’s experiences at their school – and it’s an Italian school!

My first trip abroad was Paris.  I was twenty-two and it was enchanting.  I took scores of photographs, but when I got them developed, I was disappointed.  There were no people in any of the pictures.  Paris is Love is much like my photographs of the City of Light.  The absence of Parisians make it two-dimensional.  Paris is lovely, but it’s the people that make the experience memorable.

2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2012
260 pages

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Snapper by Brian Kimberling

Snapper

In his debut novel, Brian Kimberling uses a fictional narrative to relay the story of a bird researcher from Indiana.  The narrator, Nathan Lochmueller is a young man who observes birds and others with humor and some wisdom; but mostly a kind of adolescent charm.

Kimberling’s writing is wonderful.  His knowledge of bird watching really shines and this author knows how to tell a good story.  The mesh of nature and humans work well here.

“I knew every tree, ravine, raccoon lair, fox den, and deer run within my square mile.  I knew the local humans only by reputation, and I would have preferred to keep it that way:  that reputation was one of armed service in the cause of white supremacy.”

The main character reminds me of myself and others who, in our early twenties, failed to see good in their home towns or states.  Even though Nathan is narrating, the reader can’t help but see the charm and goodness.  We also know that eventually, Nathan will see it too.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013
210 pages

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