Friday, May 29, 2015

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

Title: Etta and Otto and Russell and James
Author: Emma Hooper
Read by: Robert G. Slade
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Length: Approximately 8 hours
Source: Simon & Schuster Digital Audio Review Copy – Thank-you!

Etta is an eighty-three year old woman with dementia.  One day she wakes up and decides that she wants to see the ocean and begins a trek from her rural Saskatchewan, Canadian home to the Atlantic Ocean.  Along the way she meets a coyote named James and the two become an unlikely duo on their epic voyage.  Etta’s husband Otto awakens to find a note from Etta describing her voyage and hope that she will remember to return.  Otto mourns her absence by creating wonderful works of yard art as he awaits her return.  Their neighbor and Otto’s childhood friend Russell sets off to find Etta.

As Etta’s reality and past are muddled together seamlessly, so is the story.  It flashes back to Otto and Russell’s youth growing up together and Etta’s first foray into their town as their young school teacher.  Otto is sent to Europe to fight in WWII while starting a correspondence with Etta.  Back at the home front, Russell farms for Canada and dances on the weekends with Etta.  They are in their own love triangle, one that will ultimately end with Etta and Otto married and Russell their bachelor neighbor. 

I really enjoyed listening to this audiobook.  Robert G. Slade was a good narrator and I really got into the story.  I loved Etta’s epic trek, but even more I loved her, Otto, and Russell’s past and seeing how all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together.  The WWII experience through Otto’s letters and Etta and Russell’s experience on the Canadian home front was both interesting and tragic.

This novel is not a straightforward novel and it is often confusing on what is real and what is not real.  While I would have loved James to be a real talking coyote, he seemed like a manifestation that Etta was able to talk to.  James was also the name of her sister’s baby that died and Etta has a deep sadness that she and Otto were not able to have kids.


Did anyone else get the sense that when Otto said, “This wouldn’t have happened with Russell” about Etta not being able to carry a baby to term that it was something that Otto picked up from his prostitute in Europe?


The novel was lyrical, but also seemed to consider the question of what is love and how love can grow and change over a lifetime.  The ending was rather abrupt and confused me; I had to listen to it a couple of times.  Etta is waiting at the train station for Otto it seems like both in the past and in the future and after pondering I thought it was a good ending.  It was definitely a book that got me thinking and will keep me thinking about it in the future.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The End of Innocence: Behind the Scenes in World War I era Boston By Allegra Jordan for Laura's Review

Nearly 100 years ago during World War I, a soap opera emerged in the U.S.’s elite symphony halls more brightly sensational than anything Downton Abbey may offer. In Boston, the world-famous Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor, Karl Muck, and one-third of that orchestra were clapped in prison chains and hauled down to Georgia. They were classified as enemy aliens and imprisoned with other elite musicians in the U.S.  From there he orchestrated what experts at that time considered the greatest event in U.S. musical history.

Karl Muck was not actually German, but a Swiss citizen. He was at the top of his field and considered one of the best conductors and innovators of his time. This fact didn’t matter to his jailer, the 22 year-old J. Edgar Hoover, who was in charge of the Enemy Alien Registration department during World War I.  More than 250,000 Germans living in the United States were forced to register at their local post offices and carry their registration cards with them at all times. 2,048 Germans and at least one Swiss citizen living in America were arrested and forced into internment camps.

I was working on a novel about divided loyalties when I stumbled into the story of Karl Muck. I wrestled with the themes of the limits of loyalty, and living in and after catastrophe for 21 years while writing my novel The End of Innocence. When I came into contact with Karl Muck, I lost a bit of my heart. He taught me through his actions what concrete steps one takes when one chooses to see all that is terrible in life, and yet fight for joy.

I had not planned to study joy but divided loyalties. In 1991, I heard Harvard’s Rev. Peter J. Gomes preach a sermon called, “The Courage to Remember.” He told the story about a mysterious Latin memorial placed in a shadowy corner of the church. It addresses Harvard’s “German” problem: students who fought for the Kaiser during World War I.

Divided loyalty is not a theoretical issue to me. I’ve worked around the world in post-conflict resolution and in hospice and seen communities who can overcome and those who do not. And up until 1991, I had seen many memorials, but not one like I saw at Harvard’s Memorial Church.  That memorial spoke of grace instead of judgment it included members of the community who had been “the enemy.”

Peace treaties, judicial pronouncements, or civil agreements may stop a conflict, but if our wounds are not tended to, communities begin to say, “That’s just how things are.” We need people who can speak peace and renewal into these wounds in concrete ways. But how? If this were easy, there would be no internment camps, no injustices. We’d all agree on how to live together.

The miracle of life’s renewal and hope is found when people or communities with legitimate resentments do not harden their hearts and settle for “this is just how things are.” They are far more accurate than this. They remember that life has its terrors and also its sweetness. Both are true.

Swiss conductor Karl Muck was understandably bitter at his treatment. He vowed he’d never conduct again in America.  But in this prison near the Chickasaw battlefields, his friends in prison persuaded him to change his mind.  His circumstances didn’t change, but perhaps he realized his friends and his own heart could use the encouragement. Significantly, he agreed to conduct Beethoven’s Eroica. a revolutionary work which expresses the idea that “Yes life can be terrible, but beyond the terror, there is renewal and even joy.”

Here is what an imprisoned eye-witness  wrote about Karl Muck’s prison concert, given in the humble Appalachian foothills of northern Georgia:

“The mess-hall was packed with two thousand listeners.  The orchestra numbered more than a hundred men, picked musicians all.  The front benches were reserved for the army officers, the censors, a few doctors in uniform. Behind, wave upon wave, was the sea of the nameless, eager faces of the prisoners. …

In the moment of breathless silence preceding the first note it was as if an electric current had run through the entire unkempt audience in overalls and shirtsleeves, in heavy camp boots that seemed frozen to the floor. Muck waved his magic wand and jubilantly the “Eroica” rushed at us, lifted us on winds and carried us far away and above war and worry and barbed wire.

It is my conviction, and the belief of many others more qualified than I to speak with authority, that this last concert Karl Muck conducted in America was one of his greatest achievements and one of the greatest events in the musical life of the United States.”

When the baton was put down, Karl returned to his cell. The days were still long and freedom had not yet come to him. But he was not a prisoner in his mind or soul. His act was one of a man free to create beautiful music, even despite the horrors of life. He invited those across the decades to remember the softness and joy of life, and in doing so emerge above from our prisons as free souls.

Three sentence bio: Allegra Jordan is the author of the forthcoming World War I novel The End of Innocence releasing in paperback this May from Sourcebooks. She graduated from Harvard Business School with honors and works at the intersection of innovation and community building. She is a regular columnist for and her work has appeared in USA Today, TEDx, among other places. She curates a top-ranked reconciliation poetry website.  

Friday, May 22, 2015

The End of Innocence by Allegra Jordan

Helen Brooks is young woman in 1914 New England that is having troubles at home.  Her mother is a suffragist that is getting arrested for distributing family planning materials and seems to care more about her causes than her daughter Helen.  Her mother’s activities have caused her to lose the man that she thought would ask for her hand in marriage.

At this low point, Helen meets the dashing British playboy, Riley Spencer, and his German cousin Wils Brandl.  Both are rowing teammates of her brother Peter.  Helen is charmed by them both, but finds herself falling love with German poet Wils as they both attend a class at Harvard with the renowned Professor Copeland and have a shared love of poetry.  World War I tears their class and world apart.  Helen discovers that she has a hidden strength within her through the course of the novel.

I really enjoyed this novel.  Helen is a very interesting character and I liked her metamorphosis through the novel. The WWI scenes were a tear-jerking narrative of the traumas of war.  Wils Brandl was also a fascinating character – a poet who loves America and his British cousin, but who must fight for his country and Kaiser.

I also thought it was intriguing that the novel is based on a plaque at the Memorial Chapel at Harvard commemorating students that died fighting for Germany in WWI.  The afterward and questions with the author at the end of the novel also gave more insight into this and author Allegra Jordan’s fascination with this plaque and history that inspired the novel.  I will have a wonderful guest blog with author Allegra Jordan posted next week.  There were also book club questions at the end of the book as well, The End of Innocence would make a great book club selection.

Overall, The End of Innocence is an excellent historical fiction novel set in WWI with a unique premise and intriguing characters.  I highly recommend it!

Click on this link to read an excerpt of the novel and for a chance to win a copy!

Book Source:  Review Copy from Sourcebooks – Thanks!

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Trivia Night was supposed to be a fundraising event for Pirriwee Public School; it was not supposed to be the scene of a murder.  Big Little Lies starts with this event and then tells the story starting from months before this event to what lead up to it.  The constant question is, who was murdered and who was the murderer?

Three mothers live very different lives.  Madeline is a strong, funny woman who tells it like it is.  She feels like life is starting to spin out of control when her ex-husband and his new wife move into her community.  Even worse, her daughter Abigail is enamored with her stepmother Bonnie and wants to move in with her Dad’s family, even though he abandoned Madeline and Abigail when she was just an infant.  Madeline’s daughter Chloe is set to start kindergarten with her ex-husbands kindergarten aged daughter and it is the kindergarten class that starts off the troubles for the school.

Jane is new to town.  She is a single mother trying to get by, but she also has a terrible secret.  She is 24 and much younger than the rest of the kindergarten mothers, but she wants what is best for her son Ziggy and thinks that life in this ocean front community with the perfect elementary school will be just what she and Ziggy need.  Unfortunately on the day of kindergarten orientation, Ziggy is blamed for strangling a girl and the other kids and parents turn against Jane and Ziggy.

Fortunately Jane has made new friends in Madeline and Celeste.  Celeste is a beautiful woman with the perfect loving rich husband and twin boys that are a handful.  Celeste seems to live a perfect life, but there are dark secrets hiding under the façade.

I read this book on a road trip to Michigan to visit my family last weekend.  I couldn’t stop reading it when I was in the car, it was so good!  I stayed a bit too late when we got home to finish it up.  It was an interesting story.  I really wanted to know who was murdered and who the killer was, but I just loved reading more about the characters.  I thought it was also an interesting study in perceptions and gossip.  The end of each chapter would have other parents talking about what they thought was going on with events and each other and most were completely wrong.  

Overall, I really enjoyed this book with its fantastic characters and mystery. It is a perfect summer read.

Book Source:  The Kewaunee Public Library