Monday, December 15, 2014

Wonder by R J Palacio

Wonder by R J Palacio has a lot to recommend it and it is easy to love. The story is about a boy, August, who has been homeschooled because he was born with a physical condition that has distorted his facial features.  So for August, this is going to be a very challenging year.  The novel is told through various first-person voices, beginning with August’s own.   Unsurprisingly, the other children are not quite sure of what to make of this new student and August has to learn how to navigate the complicated politics of being in a school for the first time.

The characters are all interesting and, give or take, well-rounded.  The narrative arch is good, with highs and lows, and the shift in narrative voices allows for the novel to take on more layers than it could, otherwise, if it were focused on August’s story alone.  Also, Palacio doesn’t isolate her characters from the adults in their lives so parents and teachers play pivotal roles in what happens to the younger characters.

My only reservation regarding this book, and why I probably won’t be giving it to Bibi when she’s old enough to read it, is that there are references to heaven and a belief in god.  Given that none of the characters actively practice a religion, the conversations about heaven and god seem sort of dumped in, as if the author was more comfortable with a cliché conversation rather than the integrity of the characters.  This may not be a flaw to others but I found it off-putting.

 That said, I would still give this book to my niece, who is being raised Catholic.  I found myself thinking about the characters after I had finished reading.  And if I found the climax a bit contrived almost bordering on deus ex machina, I nonetheless enjoyed this book and am eager to read 365 Days of Wonder.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Tower by Nigel Jones

Tower:  An Epic History of the Tower of London by Nigel Jones is a sweeping history of the iconic British landmark.  As you probably already know, my husband and I recently went to London and one of our favorite days was the one where we spent the morning at the Tower of London.  We took hundreds of photos that day and I even took a photo of the memorial near where one of his ancestors was beheaded. 

Jones does a good job of covering the history of the Tower, including its various purposes. First built shortly after William the Conqueror gained tenuous control of his new empire, the White Tower was designed by a Bishop, Gundulf.  (I found myself wondering if the similarity between his name and Gandalf’s is merely a coincidence.  Possibly but, given Tolkien’s own love of history and language, would it surprise anyone if there were an intentional connection?)  At first, the Tower was used for more than a prison.  Part palace, part menagerie, many famous and infamous people found themselves within the Tower’s walls.

The book is mostly well organized although I found it a bit confusing.  The second chapter focuses on the menagerie and mint, both of which found a home within and near the Tower.  Because of the focus on these roles, the chapter spans a lot of time, with overlaps of information.  The condensed history is more fully explored in the later chapters, more than three of which focus on the Tudor period.  Then the final part returns to focusing thematically on the history, first focusing on the men who successfully escaped or failed in their attempts to regain freedom.  The book then concludes with the civil wars in England (ironically, not very different from the political climate of England’s beginnings) and the final executions that occurred in the Tower during the World Wars.

I’m not sure that the book could have been organized differently, frankly.  It’s hard to imagine how a strictly chronological exploration of the Tower’s history would have allowed for the detailed look at things like the menagerie.  It’s hard to read about the animals, how they were mistreated either due to ignorance (the animal keepers believed that ostriches could ingest iron and fed them iron nails) or outright brutality (James I was especially vicious when it came to using and abusing the animals).  But reading about them in one chapter is inevitably more distressing than the occasional mention a more chronological organization would have created.  Focusing on certain parts of the Towers history by theme works, even if it is a bit confusing.  Still, I found the second part, the one that takes up the bulk of the book, was easier to follow.

The entire book is fascinating and a great way to get an overview of England’s history.  And, let’s face it, trying squeeze over 1000 years of very complicated politics, relationships, and more intrigue than can be imagined into under 500 words is bound to be hard to organize.  Jones does a remarkable job and provides the reader with a thorough list of recommended reading in case a certain era, person, or event sparks particular interest.  I’m glad I waited to read this book until after the trip but now I want to go back and revisit the Tower to see what more I can notice now that I have so much more historical context for things.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Afternoon Tea Book by Michael Smith

The Afternoon Tea Book by Michael Smith is out of print and I honestly don’t know why.  I borrowed this book from the library when we returned from London and this book fulfilled all of my expectations. Upon our return from London, I borrowed several books about tea and afternoon tea in particular and only two of the several stood out to me.  This was the first one.  It is simple with illustrations that look like they come from another era. 
The author begins with a brief history of how tea became so influential in British culture, its gradual preeminence over coffee, and the development of the ritual known as afternoon tea.  The next chapters go into details about how tea is grown, graded, best served, etc.  This all sounds potentially dull but Smith’s ability to infuse his text with personal stories and amusing anecdotes make the first part of the book easy and fun to read.  It is the authorial voice that makes this book a delight to read and utterly fascinating.  He is a food historian and has worked as a consultant on television shows so he knows not only food but the history behind it.  Better still, he knows how to make it all interesting without being too stuck in the past. 

The second part is overflowing with recipes.  I won’t even pretend that I tried them all.  The recipes are a blend of the traditional with the contemporary and the author takes the time to explain to the reader the history behind some of the recipes.  Knowing where a recipe got its name or how it gained popularity gives even a simple bun or tart significance. I did make the basic scone recipe.  It was very easy to pull it together.  We had them with butter and marmalade.  They were good enough that I want to try some of the other recipes.  (Rob and I agreed they would have been better if our shortening hadn't turned and I hadn't been forced to make a necessary compromise in the ingredients.) 

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to indulge in the best that afternoon tea has to offer, from Battenberg Cake to how to best brew different types of tea.  And while you're enjoying your tea, you can read more about all the curious history that made this singular drink so significant in British culture. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Collected Stories by Willa Cather

Collected Stories by Willa Cather is perhaps the best collection of short stories I’ve read in a long time.  The choices made by the publisher are brilliant, inviting the reader to see a progression in the author’s writing style, themes, and more. I’ve had this book since at least 1999 and I’m only sorry I didn’t read it sooner. 

The first few stories from The Troll Garden are good but not remarkable.  They are nice but not as powerful as her later works. The collection concludes with an essay that puts these early stories in a literary context, that Cather’s writing was influenced by Henry James and Edith Wharton.  The stories, as a result, are good but they are not necessarily new or interesting.

The next set of stories are culled from Youth and the Bright Medusa and here is where Cather begins to truly find her voice and the themes that she would return to again and again, exploring them from different angles, developing ideas in new ways, even revisiting some of her characters.  There is still something both Jamesian and Whartonian about these stories but it is clear that she is beginning to pull away from the influence of other writers.

The rest of the collection comes from her later writings and here is where the stories truly begin to fly.  While the earlier stories take place in “high society,” often in the city rather than the pioneering west for which the author is best known.  Her novels My Ántonia and O Pioneers are possibly her most famous and some of the themes explored in these novels manifest in these short stories.  But there is another theme that begins emerging, one that informed her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop.  In her maturity, death and regret become more evident throughout the stories.

There is something wonderful about seeing a writer’s personal journey emerging in her stories and Cather reveals so much through the disparate characters that move through the pages of her stories.  I am, for lack of a better phrase, blown away.  As I said, I wish I had read this book sooner.  It’s powerful and some of the stories, like “Scandal,” “Old Mrs. Harris,” “The Old Beauty,” and “The Best Years.”  These resonated with me most deeply.  I’m eager to pass this book on to my daughter, who is the impetus for my reading his collection.  I’ve no doubt she’ll find stories that resonate with her as well and I expect she’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Bloomsbury Recalled by Quentin Bell

Bloomsbury Recalled by Quentin Bell is both a memoir and a collection of essays on some of the remarkable people who were a part of his life.  For those who do not know, the author’s mother is Vanessa Bell, sister of Victoria Woolf.  The two women were the core of the Bloomsbury Group, a gathering of artists and writers who discussed philosophy, politics, and more. 

Bell does a lovely job of conveying the humanity of such icons as E. M. Forster, Roger Fry, Leonard Woolf, and the others who came in and out of his life.  He does not shy away from the more scandalous realities of this remarkable community of peers.  The incest that was hidden is mentioned and not dismissed nor excused.  The homosexuality between men and women, the affairs and open relationships are all mentioned but not in a way that makes them seem remarkable or even unnatural.  Rather, he shares these many details with an accepting candor. 

This makes sense because this is the world into which he was born and raised, one where his mother’s lover lived in his home and his father raised the lover’s daughter as his own.  All of it is told with an easy objectivity even as he shares his own subjective experience.  Blatantly missing is a chapter on Virginia Woolf which makes sense because Bell had already published a biography about his famous aunt.  After reading this book, I very much want to read his biography about Woolf. 

Anyone familiar with the Bloomsbury Group and/or any of its members will be fascinated with reading this book.  Meeting these amazing larger-than-life people through Bell’s evocative memories is a remarkable opportunity to vicariously experience what life was like, for better or worse, within this group of people. An absolute must read for anyone who wants to know more about the group or any of its members. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond is a charming children’s book I remember reading when I was quite young.  Rob remembered reading when he was a little boy which is why he insisted on buying our niece and granddaughter a stuffed Paddington the Bear from Hamley’s, London’s landmark toy store.  We also gave them each a copy of the book.

Under the circumstances, I indulged in rereading the novel myself and I’m surprised by how much I remember.  When Mr and Mrs Brown go to Paddington Station to pick up their daughter Judy, home from school, they see a small bear and take him home with them.  Paddington is mostly serious but he keeps getting into trouble.  He is well-meaning so his destruction is never malicious and children are naturally going to delight in the chaos that he incidentally causes. 

The illustrations by Peggy Fortnum are still delightful, reminiscent of Winnie-the-Pooh and E H Shepard’s. It is inevitable that there will be comparisons.  Both novels are written by British men, have a talking bear as the primary character.  However, Paddington holds his own.  The older Pooh is clearly rooted in the imagination of a child, using his nursery toys as inspiration for animal adventures. Paddington, however, is an anthropomorphic bear from Darkest Peru, who lives in a real human world.  He talks, wears clothes, even carries a suitcase.  I won’t deny that I far prefer Milne’s bear but I can see why I was enchanted by Bond’s and have no doubt that Isabelle and Bibi will fall in love.  At least I hope so, anyway.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Plan B by Anne Lamott

Plan B:  Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott is another collection of personal essays that take place in the early days of George W Bush’s presidency, shortly after 9/11 and before America once again went to war.  Reading Lamott’s books out of order can be a bit disorienting.  In this book, I’m reading about a single mother raising a teenaged son but in a previous book I was reading about Sam making the author a grandmother.  However, because so many of the people in Lamott’s life remain on the page, reading her essays is like coming home to family.

I suppose I especially feel this way because the author’s humor is so much like my mother’s (and my own, needless to say).  I’ve said this in other reviews I’ve written about Lamott’s nonfiction and I’ve also mentioned that her strong Christian faith, which informs so much of her life, never sounds forced or makes the reader feel judged.  She is, if nothing else, humble, her humor self-deprecating, and her candor never discomforting. 

If Lamott is perhaps more neurotic than I consider myself, I do recognize myself in her shifting self-acceptance.  With age come body changes and it’s fun to read how a trip to the beach means taking “the aunties” out in the sun, comparing herself with other people who have aged with more or less grace.  I can’t imagine many aging with more humor, regardless.  But it isn’t all about the lightness of living.  There are times when Lamott shares stories of sadness, confesses her struggles with acceptance, expresses anger and even outrage at what is happening in the world. 

Yes, reading Lamott feels like visiting a good friend or even family, getting to know them, and yourself, all over again.  Lamott will always be someone I want to return to over and over again.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Mildred Pierce by James M Cain

Mildred Pierce by James M Cain is perhaps most familiar, not for the book itself, but the film noire classic starring Joan Crawford as the titular long-suffering mother.  So iconic is this film, Carol Burnett did a wonderful spoof of it on her variety show but that didn’t keep HBO from releasing a mini-series version starring Kate Winslet. The mini-series is much more true to the novel than the classic film. 

Cain is best known for writing hard-boiled detective novels so, on the surface of things, this novel seems to be a sharp departure.  Opening during the Great Depression, Mildred Pierce is supporting her family by baking pies.  Fed up with her husband’s inability to help, she kicks them out of their home and has to find a way to make a means for herself and their two daughters.  She does all right for herself, in spite of her circumstances, but it is her relationship with her elder daughter, Veda, that is the emotional force in this novel.

In a way, Veda fulfills the role of femme fatale, becoming a source of obsession for her mother, Mildred.  None of the screen versions does justice to the possessive nurturing that perverts the mother/daughter relationship.  Some of the nuance of this is not lost in Winslet’s performance but, while reading the novel, I found myself cringing at Mildred’s desperation, her relentless drive to appease her manipulative and dishonest daughter.  So, for all that this is no detective novel, it still fulfills some of the “underbelly of society” laid bare.  Mildred of the novel is perhaps less sympathetic than Winslet’s interpretation while also being far less pathetic than Crawford’s. 

If you are only familiar with Mildred Pierce from the classic film, this novel will surprise you because it is both familiar and so very different.  The HBO mini-series is true to the novel, blunting some of the harder edges, making at least Mildred a somewhat more likeable person.  The novel is a revelation.  I enjoyed reading it very much.  Far more than I did Dashiell Hammett’s novels when I read them as a teen.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

There Once Lived a Mother . . . by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (trans. Anna Summers)

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated by Anna Summers) is a collection of three novellas, the first being the longest while the other two are more like short stories in length.  With an introduction by the translator, this book is very slender, a quick but uneasy read.  Don’t read the introduction before you read the stories unless you don’t mind knowing how a story will end. 

“The Time is Night” is the first story about a grandmother, Anna, who is a poet subsisting as she tries to keep food on her table for herself and her grandson.  We meet Anna and Tima as she seeks charity from others who are themselves struggling.  Through the first person narrative, the reader soon comes to see Anna’s complexity. She is a long-suffering artist who seems enamored with her martyr status, sacrificing everything for the sake of others while never acknowledging her own role in her dire circumstances. If she is not necessarily likable, she is at least recognizable, reflecting the worst in ourselves.

“Chocolates With Liqueur,” according to the translator’s introduction, is an homage to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and it works perfectly at that level. Lelia is married to a brutal man and fears for herself and the safety of her children.  What hope she has for survival is desperately stifled by a system that makes it impossible for her to do anything that could protect any of them, leading to a climax that is truly reminiscent of the best of Poe.

“Among Friends” concludes the collection with another first person narrative about a mother who describes the weekly gatherings of some longtime friends, the curious intimacies that develop over time. The unnamed narrator is herself married and a mother, but her marriage is falling apart, as is the center that holds the friends together.  Serving as both an indictment of the bourgeoisie attitude of the intelligentsia, this short story creates a striking claustrophobic sense of doom, culminating in a startling conclusion.   

These three stories are well written, evocative in their starkness, drawing a curtain back on life in Soviet Russia.  There is nothing comfortable or comforting about these stories and yet they draw you in, invite you to see the hateful foibles of humanity even as you want to turn away from what is perhaps too familiar. This is humanity at its most honest.  And its most tragic because it isn’t dramatic or earth-shattering, just small lives that make ripples on the reader’s hearts nonetheless.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar is a surprising novel that focuses on the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers that included such notables as Duncan Grant, Henry Lamb, E. M. Forster, and the titular Vanessa Bell (née Stephen) and her sister Virginia Woolf. 

The novel is predominantly written from the perspective of Vanessa herself in journal entries.  Although there’s no evidence that Vanessa actually kept a diary, Parmar does a beautiful job of not only infusing her narrator’s voice with eloquence and poetry, she creates a fully rounded character, a woman with a complicated history and self-doubt.  Interspersed are also letters, postcards, telegrams, and other missives sent from one person to another. In fact, the novel begins with a letter sent to “Nessa” by her sister Virginia, a short one that establishes a tone for the sister’s relationship before immediately moving back in time to when the two sisters and their two brothers were living together in London.

I had not realized how risqué it was for these young women to have other young men in their homes.  Had anyone pointed it out to me, I would have thought, “Oh but of course.”  Nonetheless, the men and women are striving together to evolve beyond the accepted Victorian social construct, as evidenced not only in their intimate intellectual gatherings but also in the literature and art they created.  Of course, none of the men and women in the group could realize how pivotal a time it was.  They were all just living their lives.

Oh and their lives are fascinating.  Parmar alludes to some of the more salacious stories of the Stephen’s family without making them the focus.  Some scholars believe that there was some incest within the family and that this, along with an obvious genetic predisposition, resulted in Virginia Woolf being so emotionally damaged.  Although this informs some of the interactions the characters experience, this back story does not define the novel.  Instead, the author leaves such things in the past and maneuvers her characters on the stage of her narrative in surprising ways, always sticking close to the historical facts, such as they are known through the many journals and letters that actually were written and survived.

I don’t know how to praise this novel enough. It was almost impossible to put down and I learned a few things about the Vanessa and her sister’s relationship of which I was unaware.  Most of the characters are as complex as you would expect them to be, with only minor characters remaining two-dimensional and, therefore, of little interest.  This is not the first novel I’ve read about the two.   I read and did not especially enjoy Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers. I hope anyone who read that novel will choose to read this one because it is, in my opinion, the superior one. If you haven’t read the other, read this novel and skip the other altogether and read Mrs Dalloway, if you haven’t done so already. Heck!  Even if you have read it already, Woolf's novel merits multiple readings.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

The Marriage Game by Alison Weir is a novel by a Tudor historian who knows more about Elizabeth I than most people forget.  Drawing on her knowledge, she focuses this novel on one aspect of Elizabeth’s reign—the push to get the queen married and secure the Tudor line. Without bogging down the story with a lot of details that lead up to the events of the novel, the author is able to focus on the personal life of Elizabeth with the point-of-view being dominated by herself, occasionally shifting to other characters including, naturally enough, Robert Dudley and William Cecil as well as a few others. 

Weir chooses to focus particular on the romance between the queen and Dudley, leaving the political turmoil that followed the rapid fire reigns of two half-siblings as a backdrop.  However, political alliances made in a marriage bed often come to the forefront as Elizabeth’s counselors pressure her to make a choice between a variety of suitors.  Ultimately, Elizabeth’s emotional scars seem to be her impetus for not making a decision, playing one kingdom against another as various nations strive to bind England to a foreign power.

Arguably, to write a more rounded story would have resulted in a cumbersome novel that tried to include too much—the personal with the public, the political with the private.  If anyone could have done this, Weir, with her impressive knowledge of the many power-players, could have easily been inclusive.  Instead, in focusing on Elizabeth’s fears about marriage, and on her decades long flirtation with Dudley, creates an Elizabeth who is not only mostly vulnerable but often driven more by her fear and vanity than any true intelligent manipulation of both her circumstances and the people around her.

Having read several of Weir’s biographies and even a previous novel, I was somewhat disappointed in this novel.  There are several things that made it more difficult for me.  For one thing, Weir’s nonfiction is brilliantly written. It is easy to forget that one is supposedly reading “dry history.”  And therein lies another potential reason for my disappointment because, in narrowing down her story’s focus she may have kept the novel from evolving into a tome but also removed some of the drama that defined Elizabeth’s reign. And while I was put off by some of the anachronistic words (e.g. “tetch” was not introduced into the English language until 1590 but used decades earlier in the novel’s chronology), the editing itself seems to be flawed.  It is not unusual for historians to repeat details to reinforce to the reader how one event influences another.  While effective in a nonfiction book, it is tedious in the novel.  Throughout the book, one of the characters will say something and, a page or two later, will say the same thing verbatim. I don’t know if this is because Weir was drawing on primary sources for precise quotes (which would not surprise me in the least) or if she, and her editor, simply didn’t notice that these things were already said a page or more before.  Regardless, it is something that could and should be easily caught during revisions.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the novel infinitely more than any other Tudor based novel I have read.  Unlike some of the other authors out there who seem to have gained unmerited popularity, Weir does not allow gossip or salacious stories to drive the drama of narrative.  Instead, she trusts the very real drama of the time to compel the reader to turn the page. While I may have preferred a more fully rounded fictional exploration of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, I appreciate the care that Weir puts into her work and hope that someday she will choose to put as much weight on a woman’s head as on her heart for, if any woman in history deserves to have her story told in all its glory, then surely it is Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England.   

Monday, November 24, 2014

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz is another in the ever growing list of banned books.  So what are the offensive elements?  Well, the usual guilty parties.  Drugs.  Language.  Sex.  And homosexuality. 

Oh but this is a lovely novel and it makes me sad to think that young readers out there are being warned off reading it because of some over-protective, narrow-minded parents.  For one thing, how often are children in young adult novels allowed to have a real family?  Think about it.  Even those characters who live at home with one or more parents, you rarely see the protagonist interact with the parents, except maybe to be grounded or obstructed in some minor way.  However, in this luscious novel, Ari (short for Aristotle) has a loving, if complicated, relationship with both of his parents.  When he meets Dante, they seem to be polar opposites.  However, like Ari, Dante has a loving relationship with his parents and both boys are Mexican, adding a much needed layer of diversity. 

The boys become very close, spending the summer swimming, getting to know one another, and mostly staying out of trouble.  Dante, unlike Ari, is an open book but Ari has reasons for being more secretive; he comes from a family weighed down with untold stories.  Through Dante, Ari is introduced to literature and poetry.  But their differences begin to drive a wedge between them and, when summer ends, things have irrevocably changed for both of them.

The novel is done a disservice in being poorly edited by the publisher, with some sentences missing a word and others having extra words.  As frustrating as this can be in a good novel, it is all the more unforgivable in a novel with as much beauty and poetry as this one.  There are elegant metaphors and subtle uses of foreshadowing.  The author is a master and has written not just another young adult novel but a truly remarkable piece of literature.  There were times I chuckled and more than once I got a little choked up.  At the novel’s close, I even had tears in my eyes.

I can’t remember the last time I cried over a book I was reading.  That is how deeply I was affected by this novel which I obviously highly recommend.
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