Friday, July 18, 2014

Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion by Karen White, Kristina McMorris, Jenna Blum, Sarah Jio, Alyson Richman,Pam Jenoff, Erika Robuck, Amanda Hodgkinson, Melaine Benjamin & Sarah McCoy


Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: July 18, 2014

A war bride awaits the arrival of her GI husband at the platform… A Holocaust survivor works at the Oyster Bar, where a customer reminds him of his late mother… A Hollywood hopeful anticipates her first screen test and a chance at stardom in the Kissing Room… On any particular day, thousands upon thousands of people pass through New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, through the whispering gallery, beneath the ceiling of stars, and past the information booth and its beckoning four-faced clock, to whatever destination is calling them. It is a place where people come to say hello and good-bye. And each person has a story to tell. Now, ten bestselling authors inspired by this iconic landmark have created their own stories, set just after the end of World War II, in a time of hope, uncertainty, change, and renewal…

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Grand Central Terminal

I don't read a lot of anthologies. In point of fact I actually make serious effort to avoid them whenever possible. I know it isn't fair, but these collections drive me crazy. The authors are rarely matched, the stories usually bleed together and by the time I reach the end, I usually want to scream. 

Now I know what you're thinking. If I hate these publications so much, why did I not only pick up, but actually spend money on Grand Central? The answer my friends is simple: World War II. I'm a sucker for any fiction set during the conflict. The fact that three of my favorite authors happened to contribute to the collection didn't hurt, but the truth is, if it connects to the war, I'm in. No questions asked. 

Fair warning friends, what follows promises to be a long review so please make yourselves comfortable. On the rare occasions in which I've consented to review an anthology, I've made a habit of offering thoughts to each author and with ten contributors on the docket... you get the idea. 

Before I get too far ahead of myself, however, I do want to note how well each of the stories fit together. Though each entry touches on something unique and often times profound, Grand Central is very much a collective narrative that highlights the individual style of each author as well as their ability to work collaboratively. Reading this book was everything experience has taught me not to expect from such collections, but the attention to detail and mutual respect shown by each contributor made discovering these stories a rare pleasure. 


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Going Home by Alyson Richman
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Alyson Richman was one of the three authors whose contributions prompted my notice of Grand Central and as usual, she did not leave me disappointed. 

The nature of the anthology requires that Gregori and Liesel's story be brief, but I loved what Richmond did with it. I found the concept of two people connecting through music amid the hustle and bustle of Grand Central quite romantic and I loved her nod to the old world masters and the comfort cultural compositions might have brought those who escaped the turmoil and devastation of the war. I also appreciated the addition of historic references such as those to Carl Laemmle and Terezin as these facts anchored the story to the period and added depth where I didn't expect to find it. 

"He realized he was playing it both for himself and for the girl, two strangers in New York who were neither Americans nor complete refugees. But a pair of souls finding themselves caught between each of those worlds."

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The Lucky One by Jenna Blum
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This being my first experience with Jenna Blum, I had no idea what to expect from The Lucky One, but was both pleasantly surprised and thoroughly impressed with her contribution to Grand Central. 

A powerful short, the story centers Peter, a German Holocaust survivor who is haunted by the ghosts of loved ones lost in the genocide. Though notably less atmospheric than Going Home, The Lucky One is remarkably emotive. Blum taps into something incredibly poignant in her deft interpretation of Peter's experience, his personal loss and his struggle to move forward in a world whose prejudice and perceptions find him socially displaced.  

"What did it matter whether he was performing like a trained seal or lying on the cot in the Loom Room, hands crossed behind his neck, staring into the dark? There was no place he wasn't without them, Masha and Vivi and Ginger, and no place where he could be with them either. There was no respite from this grinding existence, no restful place anywhere anymore."

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The Branch of Hazel by Sarah McCoy
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Sarah McCoy's The Branch of Hazel is factually interesting, but I admit I found the piece something of a challenge. Historically speaking I loved the material in Cata's story, but I couldn't help feeling as though I were missing something.

It is my understanding that both Cata and Hazel were introduced in McCoy's The Baker's Daughter, a fact which probably explains my bewilderment as I've not yet had opportunity to read the title. Still, I was drawn to McCoy's use of the Lebensborn program and the varied emotions and ideologies she attributed to the mothers who took part. 

"So many people believe that his minute is all here is to the story, when in truth it is so much larger and freer than that. It is the wind sweeping up to the stars and bubbling down through the fathoms, round and through the planet regardless of our temporal lives."

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The Kissing Room by Melanie Benjamin
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I was more than eager to get into Melanie Benjamin's The Kissing Room. Already a fan of her work, I was intrigued by the title of her piece and couldn't wait to see how it played into the anthology. 

Several things about this chapter really appealed to me. One, it incorporated an aspect of the terminal as a major component in the story. Two, the lead was not an immigrant and had a mindset that was very different from the characters I'd already been introduced to. Three, Marjorie's naivety is fun to read and offers a nice break from the heavier drama in McCoy, Blum and Richman's contributions. And four, the ending. I wont ruin it for you, but I loved the one-eighty Benjamin pulled off and how that moment stood in such contrast to the rest of the short. 

But onstage, underneath a mask of makeup with her hair pinned up inside a hot wig, wearing a threadbare, stained costume that still turned her into someone else entirely; onstage, beneath bright lights that nourished her, fed her, made her blossom and go and expand...

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I'll Be Seeing You by Sarah Jio
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Confession: The title of Sarah Jio's contribution made poor first impression. No joke, I actually stifled a groan. I adore Sinatra as much as the next girl, but the nod to his iconic tune is such a cliché. Don't believe me? Ask Suzanne Hayes, Margaret Mayhew, Benita Brown, Jerry Borrowman...

Now my initial reaction aside, I loved this story and not just because I need a Grace in my life. This whole idea of standing at a crossroad, needing closure, being intimidated by the decisions one is faced with - the whole thing spoke to my soul. I'm not much of a crier, but if I were I would have been reaching for a tissue over this one. Sentimental and stirring, Rose's story isn't one I'll soon forget. 

"The details of true love are so faint that sometimes we fail to see them unless we stop and look more closely. They're there, you just have to really want to see them." 

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I'll Walk Alone by Erika Robuck
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This sounds ridiculous, but I'm actually speechless. Like Sarah Jio, Erika Robuck tapped into something raw and relatable. I know I shouldn't make this about me, but there is a moment in this piece where I literally saw myself and had to do a double take before continuing. 

Josie's story is heartbreaking, but it is also hopeful. There is something very authentic in Robuck's submission, something intimate and emotional. Again, I'm not one to blubber, but I really liked how Robuck harnessed such an intense theme and molded into something that is both meaningful and thought-provoking. 

I should have seen the strength of his charm and been wary, but I was just as snowed as everyone else...

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The Reunion by Kristina McMorris
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Moving back into period specific fiction, author Kristina McMorris' The Reunion tackles two birds with one stone. Touching on both female pilots and the loss of a fellow service member, her submission adds new dimension to the collection for its incorporation of topics yet seen in Grand Central.

I don't want to downplay the historic content in this piece, but I truly appreciated McMorris' depiction of feminine friendship. Maybe it's just me, but I found the complex dynamic she created between Millie and Virginia refreshing for its accuracy. At risk of looking the fool, I'll also admit to developing a bit of a literary crush on Taz. I know the adage, boys are better in books, but the simple charm in McMorris' portrayal of her romantic lead added much to the story. 

Trust your instincts, she heard Millie say. And only then did it occur to Virginia that maybe, all along, the advice was intended for more than flying. 

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Tin Town by Amanda Hodgkinson
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War brides are easily one of the most romantic plot points in war fiction, so I figured it was only a matter of time before one appeared in Grand Central and while it took longer than expected, my assumption proved correct with Amanda Hodgkinson's Tin Town.

Interestingly enough, this piece proved one of the more intriguing submissions in the collection. Traditionally, we think of young women, running into rushed affairs with dashing soldiers, but Hodgkinson threw readers a curve ball in matching a widowed English mother with a New York lawyer turned officer. Told from the perspective of a child, Hodgkinson turns the romantic stereotype on its head while examining the magnitude of what happened to those women who crossed the Atlantic for their GIs. 

We hadn't seen Jack for five months. He'd gone back to America in April, just before the war. Would I even recognize him without his uniform?

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Strand of Pearls by Pam Jenoff
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Strand of Pearls was a fun piece for me. Jenoff has been on my favorites list for a while, but the fact that I read Grand Central while reading The Winter Guest marked the first time I'd ever attempted two works by the same author at the same time.

Does this mean I favored her? No. In fact I was probably harder on this piece than I was any other as I couldn't help cross-comparing the two, but that's neither here nor there. What I liked about this piece is how Jenoff used Ella and David to examine micro level issues like survivor's guilt and faith, as well as macro level points such as global politics and cultural change in the aftermath of World War II. The ending hit a little close to home, but even so, I liked the piece and can't help wishing there were more to Ella's story.

There were soldiers everywhere. Though the heaviness of the war had lifted from their faces, the pain and hardship were still fresh enough that their eyes danced with appreciation at everything ordinary around them. 

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The Harvest Season by Karen White
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Of all the contributors to Grand Central, Karen White was the only name with which I was entirely unfamiliar. I checked her out before opening the anthology and I wasn't exactly sold so the fact that her submission is my favorite is as much a surprise to me as it is anyone reading this. 

There is so much in this piece that I hardly know where to begin. White's treatment of Germanophobia by itself would have hooked me, but the story she created between Will and Ginny was so wonderfully unpredictable... It sounds like a cheesy pitch, and I don't mean to sway anyone as every story in this collection is worth reading, but if you limit yourself to one, let The Harvest Season be the one you choose. 

Three years is a lifetime when each minute is measured by all the things that have been lost. 

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