Tag Archives: Ambition

THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA

Once upon a time there were two sisters raised on a Minnesotan farm where they learned the Midwestern values of responsibility and hard work. Edith, the oldest, lived life day-to-day. Helen, obviously the younger sister, lived for the future. They loved each other very much.

Edith, the oldest, would give you the shirt off her back if you needed it. She loves farm life; the swaying grassy fields filled with cows, the comfort of routine, and the satisfaction at day’s end of a job well done. When life throws road blocks at Edith, her mental gyroscope finds a way to reset things to an even keel. Life throws a lot of lemons at Edith over the years but she always manages to find a way to help others and to care for herself.

Helen, the youngest, is a rebel; a master manipulator. The “Idgie Threadgoode” of the family. The sister determined to make her mark on the world and to be remembered for her efforts – whatever it turns out to be. She sees herself climbing the ladder to success by looking out for number one and keeping her eyes open for opportunity. She dearly loves her sister but can not understand how Edith can she be so happy living only in the moment with no long range life plan? 

In 1959, Edith marries a local truck driver, Stanley Magnusson. Now that Edith is married, she rationalizes that Edith has settled for an obscure easy life. Helen, now fifteen-years old, on the day of a family gathering, sneaks off to the barn with a bottle of stolen beer. With her first sip, she has an epiphany for her future. “I want to make beer!”  And she does just that.

To achieve her goal to make herself world famous and rich, she doesn’t mind stepping on other people. And she begins with Edith. 

Helen convinces her father that Edith has no long range goals in life. She gets him to secretly change his will. Upon his death, without Edith’s knowledge, Helen inherits everything. Helen doesn’t have the guts to tell Grace face-to-face. She breaks the news over the phone to Edith and she finds she misjudged how Edith will handle the deceit. That is the last day the girls will speak to each other.

Edith feels betrayed. Rather than sulk, she picks up the pieces of her life and moves on leaving Helen to her own life. From time to time, she briefly reflects how inheriting half of the family farm would have made her life easier.

The years chug along. Edith makes a life through hard-work and a positive attitude achieving fame in her own way. In the end, Helen sits alone in her crumbling ivory tower.  The final chapters hold surprises and a reunion.

The lives of the two girls provide us a full range of human emotions – admiration, amusement, anger, disappointment, pain, love, loss, sadness, sympathy, and triumph to name a few. This moving and captivating story will, at times, break your heart. And more often, it showcases how some people overcome obstacles to lead a loving and productive life. Ask yourself, have you ever thought you knew someone so well that you could get away with just about anything and they would still love you? Did you? Have they? Fabulous read during these pandemic times.

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A LADDER TO THE SKY

Maurice Swift took a notebook from his bag… and began to make some notes.
“What?” asked Erich, “Did I say something particularly wise?”
“I’m writing something down about balance. You seem to have struck a good equilibrium between your work life and your artistic life,” said Maurice.
“You can’t write all the time, Maurice. There’s more to life than words and stories.”
“Not for me there isn’t,” says Maurice.

And believe me, this diabolical sociopath really means it.

In 2018, I was granted an advance copy of a reprint of John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky. I have always enjoyed his works including the 2006 young adult book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the wonderful 2017 novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies.  But somehow this book became buried in my TBR stack. Now that I have read A Ladder to the Sky, I could kick myself for waiting so long to read and review it.

Truth be known, I can’t remember when I intensely disliked a protagonist more than Maurice Swift. I found myself hissing and booing but totally unable to put the book down. We have all met people that are manipulative and taken advantage of us. They have the uncanny ability to upset our resolves and get us to reveal our deepest insecurities or darkest secrets. Sometimes they seem to enjoy causing pain or harm to us for no reason other than they can do it.

Maurice Swift has always wanted to be a writer. And not just any writer. The best of the best. Someone that history will remember as a literary great and whose books will never go out of print. But he has one problem. He can put together the words on paper but he is incapable of generating the original idea; he lacks imagination.

Maurice is well aware of his assets. He was gifted at birth with a Hollywood attractiveness that he used to his best advantage throughout his life. He was also born an undiagnosed sociopath with a innate ability for furthering his long-term goals with charismatic charm, flattery, and deceitful behavior. His early books rejected or published with little success didn’t deter his goal. He just had to find someone with a story and steal it.

The novel offers three views into Swift’s life. The first begins as a novella of an aging German-American novelist. There’s a melancholy edge to his story. Narrated in the first person, Erich Ackermann speaks to us about his childhood, his literary career development and his modest successes. The narrative darkens as he relates meeting a sexy barkeeper who tells Erich that he hopes to become a successful author himself one day. Like a frog placed in a pan of tepid water on the stove, Erich doesn’t sense the danger until he is sucked into Maurice’s dangerous web and is unable to extricate himself. It is too late when he is tricked into sharing a dark secret from his own youth in Nazi Germany. Erich’s worst nightmare from the the past is exposed in Swift’s highly successful fiction entitled, Two Germans.

The second part of the book, to me, was the most interesting. Maurice Swift, accompanying his latest victim, American author, Dash Hardy, unexpectedly met the renowned Gore Vidal at his home in Italian villa, The Swallow’s Nest. This serendipitous encounter exposed Swift’s wiles as he tried to vandalism Vidal’s life and ingratiate himself into his social community; if successful there would be no need to squander his unproductive time with Dash. The world-wise Vidal recognized Maurice’s tactics. The acerbic literary elder sparred with Swift and privately let him know that wasn’t blind to the young man’s game; he couldn’t out-master the master.

Dash, poor defenseless Dash, was obviously besotted. . . Gore  lamented quietly, his heart grieving for the pain that this young man would inevitably cause his friend.

The third part of the novel begins with Swift, now recognized for his successful fiction, Two Germans, celebrating his fifth wedding anniversary with his wife, Edith. After five years, Maurice hasn’t achieved the second of his two life ambitions -becoming a father. Edith has been unable to produce a child having suffered four miscarriages.

To add insult to injury in Maurice’s mind, Edith, also an author, has recently published her first novel, Fear, to rave reviews. It has been eleven years since Maurice published Two Germans and he is beginning to be perceived as a has-been. When Edith announces that she has begun a second novel, the wheels come off the bus.

In the end, Maurice Swift earns his just reward, landing in Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell after a lifetime of treachery.

I rarely give a book 5 stars. Giving a book a perfect score usually requires me to be transported to a different place and/or time. There were flaws in this book, but I have found myself reflecting on many aspects long after I finished reading it. Why did his mentors, sensing his disloyalty,  turn into simpering snivelers grasping at his ankles as he pulled away. But of more import to me revolved around the question -where do ideas for a book come from? When is it right or wrong to use something overheard or told by someone? And does anyone understand why a narcissistic sociopath would set being a father as a life ambition? Humm.

Recommended.

 

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