Birthday twins, shrapnel and seeing angels everywhere

Alan Taylor is an American television and film director. I’ve never met the man and had never heard of him until just now. The reason I’ve brought him up at all is he is my birthday twin. Which means not just that he was born on the same day I was born (which is also true of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Orlando Bloom and Shonda Rhimes), but born the very same Tuesday in the very same year. Which makes him, at the time of this writing, 65 years, 3 months and 26 days old. Just like me. Birthday twins.

Chic, popular podcaster Alix Summer in Lisa Jewell’s recent novel, “None of This is True,” is at a pub cheerfully celebrating her 45th birthday with a gaggle of friends when she unwittingly stumbles onto her birthday twin, Josie, who is also out celebrating her 45th birthday with her husband at the same pub. Their meeting seems serendipitous, sure, but not particularly significant. Yet, the rendezvous proves life-changing for both celebrants and a catalyst for this fast-paced, gripping psychological thriller which I could not put down for two seconds to save my life.

Full of twists and turns, truth, lies and questions, it kept me going, and grounded, and pleasantly distracted for the many miles I traveled back and forth to Tufts Small Animal Hospital last month after my little dog was attacked by coyotes. (He is doing well, thank heavens.)

Jewell, author of a slew of novels which I fully intend to read one by one, does a great job providing readers with a scintillating, page-turning plot while ably developing characters who, unlike many in this genre, are in no way one-dimensional or cliché. Full of surprises and intrigue, passion, deception and obsession, I highly recommend this book for those of you who are looking for a good escape from the “real” world. An enthralling contemporary yarn — well-narrated and produced on Audible. I loved it.

Another gripping read is “The Women” by Kristin Hannah, a coming-of-age story about a young American nursing student who joins the Army Nurse Corps and ends up on the other side of the world as a combat nurse in Vietnam. This book doesn’t sugarcoat the chaos and horror of war, nor does it gloss over the shock, pain and betrayal experienced by veterans when they returned home to a country that wanted to forget that the war ever happened.

Delia Owens, author of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” writes, “Hannah tackles one of the most cruel and despicable wars of the last century. … ‘The Women’ reveals the powerful contributions and horrific sacrifices of the American military nurses who served in a war whose agencies refused to acknowledge that they were even there. … The heroine, Frances McGrath, stirs a deep, overdue compassion and tears for every single soldier — and especially the forgotten women who sacrificed so much. Never has a novel of war metamorphosed so profoundly into a story of the human heart.”

Hannah dedicates the novel to “the courageous women who served in Vietnam” — “most of them nurses and many of them raised on proudly told family stories of World War II heroism” — who “heeded their country’s call to arms and went to war. In too many instances, they came home to a country that didn’t care about their service and a world that didn’t want to hear about their experiences; their post-war struggles and their stories were too often forgotten or marginalized.”

This book was captivating. Kristin Hannah, masterful storyteller and a big favorite of historical fiction-lovers everywhere, has a powerful gift in her ability to engage readers in extremely difficult subject matter while adding just enough light, warmth, passion, romance and family relationships, for better and for worse, to keep us interested and enthralled.

“The Women” begins in California on a twilit evening in 1966 at the McGrath estate, “a world unto itself, protected and private”: “The Tudor-style home’s mullioned windows glowed jewel-like amid the lush, landscaped grounds. Palm fronds swayed overhead; candles floated on the surface of the pool and golden lanterns hung from the branches of a large California live oak. Black-clad servers moved among the well-dressed crowd, carrying silver trays full of champagne, while a jazz trio played softly in the corner.”

This was the world of 20-year-old Frances, “the very portrait of a well-bred young lady, smiling and serene,” any “untoward emotions … contained and concealed, borne in silence.”

That this is where the novel begins is especially eye opening in light of where our heroine ends up: in a makeshift operating room in a sagging, wind-lashed tent with wounded soldiers who are barely conscious, moaning for help, riddled with shrapnel, missing limbs and in some cases even entire faces; too many to tend to, too many to save; electricity flickering on and off; “the constant whine and thump of shells” rattling the IVs in their holders … all against the backdrop of the growing question from the American media back at home: “What in the hell is going on in Vietnam?”

Everyone I know who has read this book has loved it. Highly recommend.

Last but not least, I want to give a shout-out to Lorna Byrne’s autobiography, “Angels in my Hair: The True Story of a Modern-Day Irish Mystic,” which begins, “When I was 2 years old the doctor told my mother I was ‘retarded.’”

But Lorna Byrne was not retarded. Far from it. Different, maybe, but not retarded. Byrne, at a very young age, saw angels. “I was a late talker,” she writes, “but I had been conversing with angels from very early on.”

“When I see an angel,” she writes, “I want to stop and stare; I feel like I am in the presence of a tremendous power. … The angels I see don’t always have wings … occasionally they are like flames of fire, and yet they have shape and solidity. … Their eyes are not like human eyes; they are so alive, so full of life and light and love. It’s as if they contain the essence of life itself — their essence fills you completely.”

This book is surprisingly engaging; simply told, honest, straightforward, profoundly moving and strangely comforting. I learned much from the author’s humility and her acceptance of the things she had no means to change. Sharing her story took a great deal of courage, as Ireland was a difficult place to be different — any slight departure from the “norm” frowned upon and rejected. Yet Byrne doesn’t miss the kindness and the holiness of her life, because of these angels.

One thing noteworthy for me was the way angels told Byrne that “even though they have been gathered from all over,” Americans, though they are not perfect and have their own wounds to heal, may be “a new race” and “the gateway to humanity’s future.”

Another thing that stood out for me was a passage wherein one of Byrne’s childhood friends asks Byrne to tell her about God, and though the author feels uncomfortable with this — as no doubt you would, too, if you grew up in that place at that time, where to speak of anything beyond the practical and mundane could get you committed — she complies: “Do you see the finch, that beautiful finch with all those golden colors and yellows and blues? That bird is like God. Really look at that bird and see its beauty and perfection. You are like the bird; you are beautiful, because you are like God. If that bird falls and hurts itself it won’t feel all the pain of that fall, because God will feel 99 percent of it. God feels everything that happens to each and every bird and it is the same with us — when something happens that would hurt us, we feel a fraction of it. God feels the rest and takes it away.”

“I know these weren’t my words,” Byrne says. “I was too young for words of wisdom like this — they were words I was given by God or the angels.”

There is much to love about this book. Illuminating, optimistic, loving and potentially transformative, as you, too, says Byrne, can learn to connect with your angels. She gives us 12 ways to do so at the book’s end. Highly recommend for those with an open mind and a desire to read an authentic, heart-opening story of a brilliant light in a world that for many years could only see her as less than.