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

There aren’t many epistolary novels around — the only one I can remember having read is Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary, and that’s intended for children.  I think the plot of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was served well by the structure.  The nature of the story almost requires the input from many of the characters, and the idea of using letters to tell the story is a fresh way to go about this.  It made for a refreshing reading experience.

My favorite part of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the story of the German occupation of the island of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands.  I had no idea that any part of Great Britain was ever taken over by Nazi forces during World War II.  I found the story of the islanders compelling, and I believe it was made more so by the piecemeal way I had to put the story together.  The letters allowed me some of the history, but not all of it, and not all at once.  It’s a feeling that simulates, in a way, the way it might feel like to be in a war — never knowing exactly what had happened, getting the information you do get from all sorts of sources, some more reliable than others, and having to make the connections yourself as to what exactly did go down.  I absolutely love this part of the book.

I also like the characters.  Juliet, our heroine, is a cheerful and intensely curious woman.  The islanders are all diverse, but also have a cohesiveness to them that makes them realistic.  Juliet’s publisher, Sidney, and his sister are also present, but mainly as a device to allow Juliet to tell her story — they aren’t fully present, but I still like them.

My only issue with this book is that it is a pretty predictable romance — Juliet has a checkered past with romance.  Juliet is wooed by a man she’s not sure she loves.  Juliet runs away and finds a more suitable love interest.  I’ve read it before.  More interesting to me was the love story between a dead islander, Elizabeth, and a Nazi officer.  That story, I feel, should be the center of the book, because it’s so much more compelling.  I found myself not really caring about Juliet’s love life and, instead, wishing that things had turned out differently for Elizabeth.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is, overall, a sweet book with a unique story.  I don’t think it likely that a similar book will be written soon, and that’s a good thing.  Some stories deserve to stand on their own.

Rating: 4/5.

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Filed under 4/5, Book review, Favorable, Fiction

You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers

Heather Sellers says again and again that, when she shares the story of her family with other people, people who don’t know her parents, they react with shock and incredulity.  How, exactly, could a child have grown up relatively normal if both her father and her mother were so irrational, so abusive, so … well, crazy?  In her memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, Sellers explores her current life in the context of her childhood in an interesting way that leads to a greater understanding of her own behavior and the path she is living.

Sellers starts off discussing her trip from Michigan to Florida with her boyfriend and his two sons.  They are going because Sellers has a speaking engagement, because the boys haven’t been to Disney World, because she has her twentieth high school reunion, and because that’s where her parents are.  The visit to both parents’ homes goes badly, leaving Sellers disheartened.

Throughout the rest of the book, we learn why her parents’ behavior is so odd.  Well, not why it’s odd, but we learn that it’s normal for her mother to behave as if someone’s been looking through her purse and for her father to think it’s appropriate for his daughter to sleep in a recliner she shares with a dog while he has an extra room filled with odd gadgets.  These are not people who should ever have had children — at least not together.  Instead of providing Sellers with stable ground to find her feet, these two constantly caused earthquakes.

In her adult life, Sellers accosted by a former high school boyfriend, who pesters her with questions about her mother.  “What was she, schizophrenic?” he finally asks, leaving Sellers struggling to cope with the realization that her mother might be mentally ill.  She asks her parents, but gets no answers from either of them.

Meanwhile, while she’s worried about her mother’s well-being, Sellers is also realizing that she has something going on in her brain.  She can’t recognize faces.  While she can make guesses as to who people are, she often walks right by people she knows (and occasionally greets people who are strangers).  She figures out what she has, asks for diagnostics … and her concerns are minimized.  It is not until researchers at Harvard find out that she thinks she has face blindness and invite her to be part of a study does she get confirmation of the fact that she cannot, in fact, recognize people.

Try getting people to believe that.  Most of the rest of the book documents her attempts to get those around her to realize that, no, she’s not being rude, she just can’t recognize you.  No, it’s not that she doesn’t remember names.  No, hair and clothes aren’t always enough to be able to discern someone.  Sellers explores the difficulties in trying to get others to realize that she does have a disability, which is something a lot of us can relate to.

My main issue with You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is that, with the split structure, I had a limited amount of interest in Sellers’ story.  I wanted her to pick one line and stick to it!  Having read the entire thing, I see why she made the choice she did.  I still think it might have been better to make the two a little more distinct; the book is already divided into chapters and sections; why not use a section to explore one time period?

Other than that, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is a solid medical memoir with some interesting familial twists.  I’d recommend it to anyone who likes reading about dysfunctional families, odd medical maladies, or both.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Filed under 3.5/5, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction