The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Alexandra is fresh off of a plane in Sofia, Bulgaria when she runs into a family struggling to get into a taxi. She offers her help and comes away with an unexpected adventure in the form of a piece of luggage she accidentally took from them. Inside that mystery bag is an urn with the ashes of a deceased musician named Stoyan Lazarov. To return the urn, Alexandra enlists the help of her own taxi driver and several of the deceased man’s family. She learns of his troubled past and his passion for playing the violin, and when she finally finds the family to which the urn belongs, she is in for a twist of fate.

I’ll tell you… Kostova sure knows how to tell a story. Her characters are so well-developed throughout the entire book. And there are a lot of them. That’s what I think impressed me most about this book. With so many characters introduced, usually we don’t get to wrap everything up, but Kostova managed to leave me satisfied with everyone’s story. Every character, even the ones who die, are summed up by the end. The other impressive element in Kostova’s writing is her detail in describing the landscape in which the story is taking place. Never have I felt the urge to visit Bulgaria until I read this book. Her descriptions of Sofia and the small villages that surround it are incredible. But the description of the mountains is what got me. What I wouldn’t give to visit those mountains.

The only criticizing I have to do for this book is the ending. I also read Kostova’s “The Historian” and, if I recall correctly, I had the same complaint. The ending was too quick. Kostova does such a good job at weaving the story and creating twists and turns that it seems she ends everything quite abruptly. While everyone’s story is summed up in the end, it is summed up very quickly and I feel like she could have made it somewhat more detailed in the end.

Regardless of the quick ending I thoroughly enjoyed this book and hope I get to read more by Elizabeth Kostova. I am interested in learning more about Eastern Europe from her stories.

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Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows

Officially titled Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America¬†which is a mouthful to put at the top. James and Deborah Fallows are reporters who decided to travel across the United States and write about what they saw in the towns that no one visits. They went to these so-called “fly-over” cities and dug into what really makes this country so appealing. They visited some cities that we’ve heard of such as Fresno, California and Columbus, Ohio, but most of the cities I had never heard of such as Ajo, Arizona; Duluth, Minnesota; Eastport, Maine, and so many more.

What they did when they got to these cities was met the people. They met people in these tiny cities who had lived there all their lives. They met people who came from big cities like New York and L.A. and fell in love with the small town they were relocated to. They met small-town mayors who were working their tails off to better the city in any way they could. They met with school officials who were making a difference in the lives of children that would probably otherwise be forgotten. The Fallows’ wanted to know what made America tick, and they found it in these little po-dunk towns.

Schools were a big theme I found in this book. Every city they went to there was a school mentioned. Many different schools. In a few cities there was a school that was rundown. Small classrooms, not a whole lot of supplies. But the students were proud of their city still. They wanted to help raise it up. In other cities there were schools doing extraordinary things. Schools that started a community garden and sold their crops at local farmers markets. An elementary schools that had a sole focus on engineering. I read about a high school that went from a 44% graduated rate up to a 96% graduation rate because the students were given the help they needed to prepare for college. These are the leaders of tomorrow and they love the little towns they grew up in.

My favorite cities were Duluth, Minnesota and Winters, California. Duluth because it sounded kind of similar to my hometown of Morgan Hill, California. Not the smallest city, but cozy. Has a downtown where restaurants and boutiques thrive. I liked Winters because it was the town I always wished I did come from. So small that all of the kids at the high school had gone through all schooling together. Families that had known one another for generations. All packed tightly in the woods near Yosemite. I think maybe I’ll retire to Winters.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book for those of you looking to find hope for this country. Or maybe for those of you searching for a new home.

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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I found this title in a list titled “Books You Won’t be Able to Put Down,” and boy were they right. This book had everything I love within it. History, legends, travel, romance, and plot twists.

The narrator takes us on a journey through time and through most of Europe. She finds a strange book in her father’s study that leads him to tell her the story of how, first, his university mentor, and then he himself took on the hunt for Vlad Dracula, the ancient Wallachian ruler. Told through a series of letters from the university mentor Bartholomew Rossi, and then her father Paul, the narrator must solve the puzzle that led both scholars into Eastern Europe during the Cold War. What they, and she, find is a dramatic turn of events through history.

I think my favorite part of the book what the descriptions of all of the different cities and countries the characters visit. We get to travel through Amsterdam, Istanbul, England, Budapest, and rural France and Bulgaria. All visits include making a trip to historical churches like the Hagia Sophia. Thinking about what these characters must have seen took my breath away. There was a point in the story where I thought I would get turned off by it because it almost became a horror story, and I don’t do horror. But the history within it was amazing, too amazing for me to care about how scary it got.

If there is any bit of a historian within you, read this book. Travel. Learn. See if you can solve the puzzle before the author tells you.

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