Review: Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, by Gwen Cooper

A friend and fellow cat lover gave me this book for Christmas last year, and I admit I put off reading it because I feared cuteness overload.  But after two less than satisfying reads, I was in the mood for something very different.  This fit the bill, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

Gwen Cooper was a young aspiring author when she adopted Homer, a kitten who lost both his eyes because of a severe infection.  She was experienced with rescue cats, but not with a special needs cat like Homer.  But Homer quickly demonstrated he didn’t need sight to live a full life.  He got along well with Gwen’s two other cats, and easily found his way around her apartment, relying on hearing and smell to find things. He was playful and affectionate in a way uncommon to cats, and endeared himself to all who met him.

What Gwen didn’t realize, as she cared for Homer’s basic needs, was how much he was supporting her journey into adulthood.  As she struggled to find consistent employment, Homer was there for her.  He defended her against danger (really!  I’m still not sure how they made it through that situation safely).  When Gwen decided to pull up stakes and  move from Miami to New York City (no small feat with three cats in tow), Homer helped Gwen to see that sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith, and not let others limit your potential.  The one area where he wasn’t much help was in her relationships with men, most of whom seemed put off by a woman who had three (count ’em!) cats.  But eventually, that all works out, too.

As I said, this book could have suffered from cuteness, but it didn’t.  It also could have suffered from pretentiousness, but it didn’t, mostly.  Her writing is good, if a bit repetitive.  There was one point where it seemed Gwen was going to pull out all the melodramatic stops and I thought, “oh, don’t go there!”  But this turned out to be one of the best-written sections of the book, where Gwen faced a stressful, life-changing situation beyond anything I can imagine.  For a while there, I couldn’t put it down.

And the best part:  it all ends well.  The book ends in 2010, when Homer is twelve years old and still living a full life.  And he’s still alive today.  So you can keep the tissues on the shelf and just enjoy reading about the life of a pretty remarkable cat.

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Review: Breaking Night, by Liz Murray

Talk about overcoming obstacles.  Liz Murray has done it.  Born to drug-addicted parents living in the Bronx, Liz was homeless at 15.  By that time she had already experienced life’s hard knocks in ways most of us could never imagine:  waiting up all night for her parents to come home from bars, watching them shoot up in the kitchen, having her belongings sold to buy drugs.  The family’s apartment was in poor condition to begin with, and her parents were unable to keep up with basic maintenance.  The bathtub drain was so backed up, the smell permeated the rest of the apartment.   By the time she turned 10, Liz was skipping school regularly, trying to earn her own money pumping gas or bagging groceries.

Liz’s mother left for another man, and Liz remained with her father.  When conditions forced him to move to a shelter, Liz entered the foster care system, living in a group home for a while.  She was then returned to her mother’s custody, but soon began skipping school again and eventually left home to live on her own.  She stayed the night with friends or slept on the subway.  She became involved in an unhealthy relationship, and stayed in it too long simply for the perceived security.  Shortly after her mother died from AIDS, Liz “hit bottom” and began working to get her own life together, attending an alternative high school and obtaining her degree in just two years.  She also obtained a prestigious New York Times scholarship that enabled her to pursue a university degree.

However, despite a compelling story, the writing was just average, and repetitive in parts.  Sometimes the emotions were raw and hit hard; at other times I failed to connect even when I felt I should.  Because it’s a true story, it was a difficult read.  I know there are thousands like Liz facing similarly extreme hardship, who will never be able to turn their lives around.  While Liz’s perseverance was amazing, what most impressed me was her ability to love, accept, and forgive those who wronged her.  There’s a lesson in that for all of us.

Review: Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain

To me and my contemporaries, with our cheerful confidence in the benignity of fate, War was something remote, unimaginable, its monstrous destructions and distresses safely shut up, like the Black Death and the Great Fire, between the covers of history books. … What really mattered were not these public affairs, but the absorbing incidents of our own private lives — and now, suddenly, the one had impinged upon the other, and public events and private lives had become inseparable. (p. 98)

For those who read this memoir, War will never more be “something remote, unimaginable.”  It will be real, searingly painful, ineffective and so obviously wrong.  When World War I broke out in 1914, Vera Brittain was only 18 and had recently overcome tremendous odds to be admitted to Oxford.  When her fiancé Roland, her brother Edward, and two good friends all joined the Army, Brittain left her studies to become a nurse.  She served first in London, later in Malta, and finally at the front in France before returning to England.

Brittain was an early feminist; every decision she made went against the norm, something she was keenly aware of:

Probably no ambitious girl who has lived in a  family which regards the subservience of women as part of the natural order of creation ever completely recovers from the bitterness of her early emotions. Perhaps it is just as well; women have still a long way to travel before their achievements are likely to be assessed without irrelevant sex considerations entering in to bias the judgment of the critic … (p. 59)

She was driven, but also understood the “frivolity” of pursuing a degree in wartime.  Her nursing experience forms the heart of this book, and is also the most emotional.  Brittain describes each hospital’s harsh and inadequate conditions, and some of the soldiers under her care.  When she is assigned to a ward for German prisoners, the reader begins to understand that “the enemy” also have mothers, wives, and families who love them.  And, while Brittain is “doing her bit,” she experiences tremendous personal loss as those she loves lose their lives in the conflict.  I found myself holding back tears, and cautiously turning the pages, fearing the next death.

After the war, Brittain found that not only had her country changed, but so had she:

Only the permanence of my fondest ambitions, and the strange and growing likeness of my son to Edward, reminds me that I am still the individual who went to Uppingham Speech Day in 1914, for although I was a student at Oxford in both my lives, it was not the same Oxford and I was not the same student.  (p. 495)

Her experience left permanent emotional scars, and she struggled to cope with being part of “the lost generation.”  Still, she was able to return to Oxford, and obtained her degree shortly after the university began awarding them to women.  Brittain became a regular lecturer with the League of Nations Union.  She returned to Europe, touring several countries to understand the impact and aftermath of the war; this once again brought home the pointlessness of it all.

This is one of the most moving and powerful books I’ve ever read.  If all you know of war is strategy, tactics, good guys and bad guys, then you must read this book.  Brittain has left us an important legacy.  In her words:

Perhaps, after all, the best that we who were left could do was refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came, would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation.  (p.646)

Review: 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

Well, that was an hour well spent.  I read this short memoir in a single sitting over breakfast, and it was a lovely way to start my day.  This is a well-known book, and I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said.  But just in case you are not familiar with 84, Charing Cross Road, it is a collection of letters between an American woman in New York, and an employee of a London antiquarian bookshop.  Helene Hanff sent her first letter to Marks & Co. in October, 1949, politely requesting a few books she had been unable to find in the US.  Marks & Co.’s representative Frank Doel replied with customary courtesy, and thus began 20 years of correspondence.

The letters between Helene and Frank deal mostly with books, but as time passes they share more details about themselves.  Helene is a freelance scriptwriter, struggling to make a living and ever hopeful of traveling to England.  Frank is married with two daughters.  Initially his family must cope with food rationing and the aftermath of World War II.  Grateful for Frank’s ability to find rare books, Helene regularly sends “care packages” to Marks & Co., filled with hard-to-find meat and eggs.  Later on, Frank and his wife buy their first car, and their daughters reach adulthood.

In some ways it’s surprising the correspondence ever moved beyond the transactional.  Helene displays all the usual American stereotypes:  she is forward, informal, and somewhat demanding.  Frank never rises to the bait, always maintaining his professional reserve.  I smiled to myself, imagining the conversations Marks & Co. employees might have had about Helene.  But over time, bonds formed and a genuine friendship developed between Helene & Frank.  I wished so much that the two would have an opportunity to meet face-to-face, but it was not to be.

This is a wonderful book about a relationship formed through a shared love of books.

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