The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

Valerie Martin (Adult Historical Fiction)

A medical doctor and creator of the world-renowned detective Sherlock Holmes.  A journalist who describes herself as a seeker of frauds and spiritualist debunker.  A shy and gifted clairvoyant of extraordinary powers who many claim to be the genuine article.  All of these people are connected—it seems—by the merchant vessel Mary Celeste that was discovered adrift off the coast of Spain devoid of crew, but replete with questions…many, many questions.  Will the ghosts of the Mary Celeste ever find peace and will these three individuals play a part in their healing?

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, from its onset, attempted a rather difficult feat by building an entire story around an unsolvable mystery.  Much like the Lost Colony of Roanoke, the only things that one can add to this ancient enigma are theories, speculations, hypotheses, and suppositions.  With that said, Martin gives us a story that is held together by the sheerest veil of it being about the doomed ghost ship.  Instead, readers are presented with multiple storylines that fail to reach any kind of reasonable conclusion and tend to spawn more questions than the Mary Celeste herself.  There are several scenes when the action takes place on the sea and the sailing vessel is enveloped in a thick shroud of fog.  That is how Martin’s story seemed to be—blindly inching along with no real direction and hoping for a break in the clouds to offer some semblance of light and order.

With its abrupt story shifts, numerous plot holes, and a tale that really doesn’t seem to have a point, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste seems doomed to aimlessly drift along while seeking solid ground—much like its namesake.  One could only imagine what this story would have been like if Martin chose to highlight Arthur Conan Doyle rather than spiritualism.  To look at this mystery through the eyes of one Sherlock Holmes—who famously said, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”—we can probably assume that Mr. Holmes would not only have handily solved this case, but would have done so with enough time to make afternoon tea and biscuits.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com

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The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic

Julie Otsuka (Adult Historical Fiction)

They came from all over Japan: Yamaguchi, Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Yamanashi, and Kagoshima.  Most were virgins ranging in age from just fourteen to thirty-seven years old.  Some came from the city and wore stylish clothes while those from the country wore patched and re-dyed kimonos.  They all came—from the mountains to the seashore—to board a boat that would take them to America.  All were going with a promise and a picture.  All were leaving to marry.

Julie Otsuka writes about the “picture brides” (similar to mail-order brides) of the early 1900s who, through a matchmaker and family recommendations, traveled from Japan to marry a fellow countryman in America.  The families of the brides were often influenced by money, the brides went to escape poverty and held dreams of a better life, and the grooms were looking for companionship while reaping the benefit of an extra pair of working hands.  The women quickly realized the folly of their aspirations and that their lives as migrant workers would define them as no better than slaves.  The promises of a picture showing a smiling young man with a hat in his hands standing in front of a white picket fence were quickly replaced with beatings, curfews, and living conditions often unfit for an animal.

Otsuka presents these women’s stories in eight sections: Boat Ride, First Night, Whites, Babies, The Children, Traitor, Last Day, and A Disappearance.  She takes her readers from the initial journey to America and then through marriage and childbirth and finally to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment camps. We are dragged through an emotional gauntlet yet these disturbing and deeply personal stories lack any kind of emotional teeth.  There’s simply nothing to really sink in to due to the choice of the author’s writing style.  Otsuka opts to tell her story through first-person collective.  Because she paints her story using very wide brushstrokes, we are presented with anywhere from six to twelve lives in the span of a single paragraph.  She sacrifices depth for breadth and we end up with prose that reads more like a bulleted presentation.  When describing the dreams of the women’s children, she writes, “One wanted to save up money to buy his own farm.  One wanted to become a tomato grower like his father.  One wanted to become anything but.  One wanted to plant a vineyard. One wanted to start his own label.  One could not wait until the day she got off the ranch.”  And on and on.  The vast majority of the book is like this with sentences starting off with “Some of us” or “Most of us” or Many of us”.  Only briefly are we allowed some glimpse into the humanity of these women when we get flashes of names like Akiko, Kazuko, Chiyo, and Makiyo.  The only time we really get a sense of mourning and loss, ironically enough, is when the Japanese had been driven from their communities and it is their American neighbors who are left to deal with their absence and loss.  As they recollect memories of their displaced Japanese neighbors, only then do we get a sense as to who these people were and the impact they had on those around them.

I feel that Otsuka really missed an opportunity by choosing to tell an anonymous and faceless story.  Without some figures to latch on to, we fail to form any kind of connection with these women and their ill-fated lives.  I feel nothing would have been lost and so much more would have been gained had she decided to focus on three or four individual women and allowed us to follow each of their separate journeys.  We would have been able to hope, dream, despair, and mourn with them as they tried to navigate a world that was often cruel, unforgiving, and unfair.  Instead, we got Polaroids rather than a movie.  We got one-dimensional versus 3D.  We got an indistinguishable group and not a living, breathing person.

The title of this book refers to what these women had to leave behind.  Instead, it might have been nicer to focus on what these women carried with them: not just a lifetime of pain and hurt and sorrow, but also an abundance of hope and honor and resilience.  These women slaved and birthed and suffered and endured because to do otherwise would have brought dishonor to their family and to themselves.  Former hi-tech executive and mentor, Peter Strople wrote, “Legacy is not leaving something for people. It’s leaving something in people.”  I am grateful for Julie Otsuka for bringing the stories of the “picture brides” to light and although this particular book didn’t resonate with me, these women deserve to have their stories heard so that their legacy is not confined to the written page, but rather should live on within our hearts.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Adult Historical Fiction)

Juliet Ashton is tired of writing under the name of Izzy Bickerstaff and no longer wants to be considered a light-hearted journalist.  She wants to create something meaningful, but has no idea where to find inspiration…until a letter comes.  It’s a kind note from a Mr. Dawsey Adams of St. Martin’s, Guernsey who found her name and address written on the inside front cover of a book written by his favorite author, Charles Lamb.  He asks if she could kindly send him the name and address of other bookshops in London (for there aren’t any left on Guernsey after the war) so that he may acquire more Lamb books?  Through several letters, Juliet begins to learn more about Guernsey and its famed Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and she has questions.  Questions such as how could a pig begin a literary society and what exactly is a potato peel pie?  Perhaps this is the inspiration that Juliet has been looking for?

I admit I was in Heaven while reading this book—a book about people who love books.  What’s not to like?  It also doesn’t hurt that the writing was witty and sharp, the characters were endearingly flawed and humorously relatable, and the story had an equal mix of quirky, sadness, drama, humor, treachery, suspense, and yes, love.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a touching and bittersweet book about the residents of Guernsey during the German occupation of the Channel Islands during WWII.  Through the stories of the island’s residents, as well as a few of the prison camp survivors, we get a glimpse of the toll that the destruction, separation, and isolation had on the human psyche.  We are also given stories of bravery, selflessness, and heroism, which illustrates the strength of the human spirit even during the darkest of times.

What started out as a ruse to prevent dinner guests from being arrested by German soldiers, the literary society ended up showing its members how much power a book possesses.  Books can motivate, educate, inspire, entertain, and transport us to worlds far beyond our borders and imagination.  For the members of the Guernsey literary society, a book turned a fisherman into a Casanova, saved a man from a life of inebriation, allowed a collector to find his faith, and bridged two very unlikely friendships.

I was a little wary when I discovered that this book consisted entirely of letters.  Would it have the same depth and weight of a typical novel?  O me, of little faith.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a descriptive, warm, engaging, and satisfying read that will make you long for village life and allow you to believe in love again.  And while this book reminds us that life is often tragic and history sometimes reveals the worst in humankind, it also shows us how resilient the human spirit is and how expansive our hearts can be when the need arises.

Just as a particular song might come on the radio when you need it most or the perfect meme pops up on your Facebook feed that strikes a certain chord, I believe a book acts in the same capacity.  It finds us—chooses us—and makes us think, challenge, defend, or dream while allowing us to imagine, escape, explore, or be comforted.  The perfect book always seems to find us at just the right time and it changes us somehow.  And when it does, WE then become the conduit and pass it along to someone in need of a good laugh, cry, or shriek.  Books are indeed powerful.  As Juliet wrote in one of her letters to Dawsey, “Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.  How delightful if that were true.”  Maybe as delightful as a potato peel pie?  I’ll let you decide.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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