REVIEW: MANHATTAN BEACH, BY JENNIFER EGAN

 

Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. She is mesmerized by the sea beyond the house and by some charged mystery between the two men.

‎Years later, her father has disappeared and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles again, and begins to understand the complexity of her father’s life, the reasons he might have vanished.

 

My Thoughts: Our multiple narrators take us back and forth in time, centering on the 1930s and 40s.

Anna Kerrigan was twelve years old when we first meet her, but then time moved ahead and we see her after the loss of her father to mysterious circumstances…and how she meets up once again with Dexter Styles, who is a vivid memory of a time on the beach with her father.

The war years reveal the ways in which women were dismissed, and how hard Anna had to fight to get some of the things she wanted. Anna was a strong character struggling against the norms of the times, and experiencing pushback from the men around her.

The disabilities of Anna’s sister Lydia informed her life in the early years, and the moments would leave their mark of pain and loss.

What would ultimately fill in the gaps in Anna’s life? How would she make some crucial discoveries as she tries to create her niche in the world?

Manhattan Beach had some promising moments, but just when I would start to connect with a character, we would switch to another one…and stay away for a while. Back again, picking up with the previous characters, it took more time to fall into that character’s perspective. The book was too long and too erratic for me. I was disappointed, and kept trying to love the book…without success. Beautiful writing, with some interesting characters. 3.5 stars for me.

***

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REVIEW: VIVIAN IN RED, BY KRISTINA RIGGLE

 

Famed Broadway producer Milo Short may be eighty-eight but that doesn’t stop him from going to the office every day. So when he steps out of his Upper West Side brownstone on one exceptionally hot morning, he’s not expecting to see the impossible: a woman from his life sixty years ago, cherry red lips, bright red hat, winking at him on a New York sidewalk, looking just as beautiful as she did back in 1934.

The sight causes him to suffer a stroke. And when he comes to, the renowned lyricist discovers he has lost the ability to communicate. Milo believes he must unravel his complicated history with Vivian Adair in order to win back his words. But he needs help—in the form of his granddaughter Eleanor—failed journalist and family misfit. Tapped to write her grandfather’s definitive biography, Eleanor must dig into Milo’s colorful past to discover the real story behind Milo’s greatest song Love Me, I Guess, and the mysterious woman who inspired an amazing life.

MY THOUGHTS:
A dual time line story with a mystery at its core, Vivian in Red captured my interest immediately. Why did the vision of Vivian Adair topple poor Milo, and catapult him into the past via visions he now sees and cannot describe, as he has lost his voice?

Granddaughter Eleanor is aware of the visions, although she does not know the meaning. She may be onto something, however, as a stranger named Alexander has called to ask about Milo, and to suggest a more than passing connection between Milo and Vivian.

I liked how the story unfolded by showing us moments in the past, along with Eleanor’s searches from the present while interviewing Milo as best she can. Through gestures and yes and no questions, she finds out more than any of the others have managed. I felt a connection with Eleanor, the grandchild without parents, the condescension she feels from the aunts, uncles, and cousins. The one they now turn to for this final tribute to Milo: a biography that will come out at the same time as a musical revival from the past.

Milo’s son Paul and daughter Rebekah were annoying in the way they demanded things from Eleanor, so I was happy when she started standing up for herself, making them realize that she will do what she can, but at her own pace.

Her boyfriend Daniel has left her, so moving into her grandfather’s home feels right. While interviewing Milo and doing her research, she has time to ponder her choices.

From the glimpses into the past that revealed Vivian’s layers, I had mixed feelings about her. She seemed like a manipulative user who somehow captivated Milo, and is now holding him hostage in his silence. What were the secrets between them? How can Milo be freed from the past? Another brilliant book from an author I enjoy, this one earned 5 stars.

***

CALL ME ZELDA, BY ERIKA ROBUCK

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and his lovely wife Zelda were legendary in their time. For the glitz and glamor of their lives, for their often chaotic behavior, and for the passionate yet stormy nature of their relationship.

Call Me Zelda is a story that began in 1932, in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, in the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic. Zelda was a patient, and Anna Howard, a nurse. The story is narrated in Anna’s first person voice, and we learn about the losses that have devastated her. How the ravages of war have hollowed out her very soul.

Almost as if the two of them were born to be connected, Zelda and Anna developed a close, almost symbiotic relationship that was mutually beneficial for a time, but then seemed to turn, until Anna was consumed by the needs of Scott and Zelda. Having a relationship with Zelda meant also having to relate to Scott, who proved difficult and challenging on the best of days.

Why was Zelda obsessed with finding her old diaries? Does her quest have anything to do with her assertions that Scott has “stolen” her writings and her ideas? That he has created his work from her life?

At one point in the story, there is a break between the Fitzgeralds and Anna, and only then is she able to start her own life over. To move past her losses.

And then there is a leap forward to post-WWII, when Anna is married to old friend Will, and has settled in with their three children: twins, Ben and Will; and Sara.

When Anna receives a letter from Zelda, years after Scott’s death and long since their last communication, all the old feelings of connection are stirred up. Will Anna take a final journey, at Zelda’s request, to search through the moments in Zelda’s past and find the diaries? And afterwards, what sad ending will finally close the chapter for the two of them?

An unforgettable tale that will stay with me, and which I enjoyed enough to award four stars. Recommended for those who love historical fiction and who won’t mind slogging through a lot of detail to reach the core of the story.

LEARNING EMPATHY, COMPASSION, AND THE FACT OF INJUSTICE

From this story’s beginning, we walk right into 1930s Southern life, visualizing the characters in this small town through the eyes of one of its children, Scout Finch, who narrates this wonderful tale.

With her older brother Jem and their summer friend Dill, these children explore the small world within two blocks of their home, imagining and fantasizing and sometimes obsessing over a mysterious man named Albert (Boo) Radley. The stories about him reveal a troubled young man contained in his home by his punitive father. But long after the father’s death, Boo stays out of sight.

Meanwhile, the town begins stirring over a controversial happening—Atticus Finch, a lawyer and the father of Jem and Scout has taken on the case of defending a black man against charges that he raped a white woman. Never mind that there is no physical evidence, nor are the “witnesses” even slightly credible. Finch pokes holes in the prosecution’s case, and Jem, Scout, and Dill, watching from the balcony, feel sure of an acquittal.

What these children learn from this case and the subsequent aftermath is that life is often unjust. But their father tries to help them see that understanding another person can only happen when you “walk in his shoes.”

Empathy, integrity, compassion, and yes, life’s injustices—all of these are brought home to these children growing up in a Southern small town during the 30s. When a surprising rescuer saves Jem and Scout from the evil of one bitter man, they also learn that things are not always the way they seem.

The ending of To Kill a Mockingbird (slipcased edition) was just a beginning, in a sense, as Scout, our narrator, comes to understand what Atticus has been saying all along…most people are “nice,” too, “when you finally see them.”