With the success of the movie "Philomena," this book was reissued as Philomena with a cover showing Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, the actors who play Philomena Lee and Martin Sexsmith in the film. The book, which came first, is not really about Philomena. It's about her son Anthony, known as Michael Hess in the United States.
Although I found the book to be mostly fascinating, it is decidedly not nonfiction. As a fictionalized account of Michael Hess' life, British journalist Sixsmith took extreme liberties with the story...inventing dialogue and fabricating scenes that didn't actually happen. I looked in the back to see his sources, but no interviews, letters, or other paperwork were cited. We know he interviewed people, but one of his key sources, Susan Kavanaugh, has said that he made up a lot of what's in the book and painted Michael's character in an unflattering way. How could Sixsmith have known what Michael said confidentially to his therapist and priest in confession? He should have stated at the outset that this was a fictionalized account of Hess' life.
With that said, I found Michael's story to be moving and interesting. I learned a great deal about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the inner workings of the Republican party during Reagan's tenure, and the Irish Catholic church. I already knew about the Magdalene laundries and found the beginning of the book to be fascinating and heartbreaking, as Philomena Lee's beloved son is ripped away from her...and she was powerless to prevent it. I saw the film "The Magdalene Sisters" back in 2003 and know the Joni Mitchell song well.
The Catholic church has never taken responsibility for these abuses, and staunch Catholic defenders either defend the practices or deny that any abuses took place. In fact, young women and girls (such as Sinead O'Connor) were enslaved in these Catholic-run prisons until 1996.
In my research, I was glad to discover that Philomena Lee met Pope Francis recently, giving her a sense of closure:
"I felt such a sense of relief yesterday for the guilt I carried and that I still carry a little bit today," said Lee on Thursday, a day after the audience. "Because you were made to feel so, so bad about having a baby out of wedlock. "He really made me feel so good inside because I carried the guilt inside me for 50 years, without telling anybody."
However, the Catholic church has yet to issue an apology or validate the abuses suffered in its name.
Back to the book. One quibble I had, echoed by Michael's friend Susan Kavanaugh, is the author's near-obsession with Michael's sexual practices. He is portrayed as a sex-obsessed, promiscuous. and thrill-seeking gay man who is incapable of staying faithful to his partners. That might be true, but we have no way of knowing where he got his information. It's almost as if he's implying that Michael contracted AIDS because of his sexual behavior. He also infers that Michael is never satisfied and cannot make a commitment because he is tortured by being abandoned by his mother. That seems to underline every single activity in Michael's life...that he didn't deserve to be happy. In spite of this, Michael led a highly successful career (as a closeted gay man and supposed Democrat) in the Republican party and the White House. That must have been enough torture for him--as he heard all sorts of homophobia, hatred, and AIDS jokes from the party itself and the religious right. One Goodreads reviewers put it well:
"Having stuck this very bad book through to the end, I really would have liked to understand Michael/Anthony's true character but perhaps only glimpses of that can be extrapolated from Sixsmith's words. He portrayed Michael on the one hand to be generous, witty, fun loving, brilliant, sensitive and on the other to be moody, self destructive, dangerous and insensitive. Completely misleading and contradictory. If a writer can't truly get to the heart of someone's character, then do bereaved friends and family still living a courtesy and don't write about character at all. If Sixsmith had focused on Philomena's quest rather than trying to fabricate a dead man's personality, he would have been more in his element."
Finally, Sixsmith's writing was choppy and didn't flow together well. In a few early chapters, we learn about a civil servant who is trying to stop the tide of Irish babies being sent to the USA to be adopted...Sixsmith alludes to his man's unhappy marriage as well, but to what point? He drops out of the story. We also never hear about Michael's relationship with his brothers later in life...one of them mercilessly bullied him as a young child. We know he doesn't include them in his will, but that's about it. Sixsmith also wrote a couple of chapters in first person as he described how he wrote the book--this totally threw me off and confused me until I figured out who was speaking. These chapters would have been better put in an introduction.
I would have liked to have known more about Michael's sister Mary in her later years. She is mentioned a few times and comes to see Michael at the end of his life. Given the fact that she was the most important person in Michael's life--and she is still alive--why didn't we get more of her story? I can find little about her on the Internet.
Philomena herself doesn't come into the book again until the very end, which was a loss. I'm not sure why Sixsmith chose to portray the life of a man who had died...instead of the mother who was alive. Maybe so he could take literary license with the facts? Who knows?
I was annoyed by the ending, in which Sixsmith mentions Anthony/Michael's father...he alludes to the fact that his father might have been discovered, but says that is a topic for another book. What the hell? That is definitely not enough for another book. Why not share the information in this book??
Both Michael and Philomena stalled in their efforts to find each other. The Catholic church and the Irish government were not helpful. In fact, if the book is correct, Philomena found out about her son when her daughter Jane spied a photo of a new gravestone on the convent grounds. That small lead led to this story.
I give the real Philomena Lee and Michael Hess, both fascinating characters with interesting lives, five stars. The book gets two or three, because the story was compelling...but loses a lot in the telling....more
If you'd told me I'd finish this book with tears in my eyes, I never would have believed you. I am not an athlete and I know little about rowing crew...my only brush with rowing was when I was a freshman at Pacific Lutheran University, and a member of the crew team approached me in the cafeteria and asked if I'd be interested in becoming a coxswain. (I am only 5' tall.) I wonder how my life would have been different now if I'd said yes. But I am no athlete, and I doubt I could've stuck it out, after reading about the hard training these rowers have to endure.
Daniel James Brown spins a great tale, starting with the heartbreaking childhood of Joe Rantz, the primary protagonist of this book. He delves into the interesting lives of most of the crew team, as well as head coach Al Ulbrickson and shell (boat) builder, George Pocock. The 1936 University of Washington team mostly came from blue collar workers, in contrast to the more educated teams from the East Coast and California.
The Boys in the Boat takes us from the Dust Bowl to the building of the Hoover Dam, from Eton College in England to eastern Washington, from Seattle and Poughkeepsie to Berlin...to the way Hitler pulled the wool over so many people's eyes, including Avery Brundage. president of the IOC, who refused to believe mounting evidence about the Nazi campaign against the Jews.
It's an inspiring story of a small group of nine men, trained by highly driven and skilled coaches, who beat all the odds and build a perfect team together. Like a skilled novelist, Brown uses the technique of building a perfect boat out of Northwest cedar as an analogy for building a finely tuned crew team out of young men like Joe Rantz, who was a man of true resiliency against the odds:
"The result was that the boat as a whole was under subtle but continual tension caused by the unreleased compression in the skin, something like a drawn bow waiting to be released. This gave it a kind of liveliness, a tendency to spring forward on the catch of the oars in a way that no other design or material could duplicate.
To Pocock, this unflagging resilience--this readiness to bounce back, to keep coming, to persist in the face of resistance--was the magic in cedar, the unseen force that imparted life to the shell. And as far as he was concerned, a shell that did not have life in it was a shell that was unworthy of the young men who gave their hearts to the effort of moving it through the water."
I found this book to be moving and fascinating. The Gold Medal-winning Husky Clipper still survives--in fact, my alma mater appears in the book as it was lent to PLU in Tacoma in the 1960s. Now it's in Washington's Conibear Shellhouse.
A few weeks ago when we attended a Seattle Mariners' game, I saw a street named after Royal Brougham, the legendary columnist in the Seattle Post Intelligencer who chronicled the rise of this team. What an exciting story this was!...more
I found this at the library and thought I'd read it before seeing the movie, as is my habit! Turns out that Richard C. Morais wanted to make a film evI found this at the library and thought I'd read it before seeing the movie, as is my habit! Turns out that Richard C. Morais wanted to make a film even before and while he was writing the book.
I loved the first half of the book...the colorful depiction of Indian cooking, Hassan's relationship with his family and then Madame Mallory, and the process of running a restaurant in India and then France.
But AD (after the deaths of both Hassan's feisty father and the equally feisty Madame Mallory), the book slumps. It takes us, very quickly, through Hassan's trajectory of becoming one of Paris' top chefs. Much of the fancy French cuisine, heavily butchery and innards-focused, does not sound very appealing to me. The second half of the book focuses on the Paris restaurant scene and the process and snobby politics of earning Michelin stars.
Hassan seems more devastated by the death of another character than his own father or most significant mentor. Morais also confesses that he didn't go to India until after he'd begun writing the novel, and then only for 10 days. This is evident to me, not in the way he describes Indian cooking but rather how he describes (or fails to) the culture. After Hassan moves to Paris, he's hardly even Indian any more. This doesn't seem realistic to me. I was hoping to have the author touch on the perspective of an Indian chef learning and practicing French cooking, and that just doesn't happen.
I've heard great things about the movie, so I'm looking forward to seeing that. I understand from friends that Madame Mallory does not die in the movie, and Hassan's also more in touch with his Indian roots....more
By the author of my #1 favorite last year Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire is another novel set in World War II illustrating soul-deep friendships among women. One of the main characters in Code Name Verity appears in Rose Under Fire, but as more of a minor character.
Rose is an American ATA pilot and poet who gets captured by the Nazis and deposited in Ravensbruck, where she befriends Russian, French, and Polish women. She is especially drawn to the "Rabbits," the Polish women who were the subjects of the Nazis' horrific medical experiments.
It's the kind of book that makes you wonder what you would do if you were in similar, horrifying circumstances.
This book focuses more on the Christians and political prisoners in the concentration camps and not as much on the genocide of the Jews...a story that is not as likely to be told.
I didn't love it as much as Code Name Verity, but that book set a high bar...and like that other book, I stayed up into the wee hours to finish it. That is truly the sign of an excellent book!...more
I LOVED this book...in fact, it's my favorite so far in 2014. I would not have been drawn to the title, but it was my book group selection for the month.
The story is about "Verity," a female British spy, is captured in Nazi-occupied France, and her best friend Maddie, the pilot who flew her into France. The Nazis torture and interrogate Verity (or "Queenie"), and she writes about her friendship with Maddie and their training before and during the war. Slowly, the reader learns the pieces of her story...at least, what she is telling the Nazis.
I don't want to say much more about the book for fear of giving any details away. It did take me a bit of time to get into (I'm not terribly interested in flying airplanes--so the beginning bored me a bit at times), but it is SO WORTH PERSEVERING.
I finished it in the middle of the night before book group...and I found myself crying in the living room at 5:00 a.m. The book is not only beautifully written, but it's cleverly crafted. It's one of the few books I've read that makes me want to go right back and reread it now that I know the ending...it will stick with me for a long time.
I think next time I will listen to it so I can hear the English and Scottish accents. It's one of the few books I've read that has the word "gormless" in it (one of my English husband's favorite words, which I'd never heard before I met him).
Some have called it as a "love letter to female friendship," which is an excellent way to describe it. I do think it's one of the most beautiful homages to friendship I've ever read. This is one of my favorite lines from the book:
"It's like being in love, discovering your best friend."...more
My book group chose this book for October, mostly based on the fact that two members had read De Rosnay's earlier bestselling book, Sarah's Key.
It's the story of Rose Bazelet, a widow who lives in an old house in Paris in the 1860s, an era when hundreds of houses are being demolished to rebuild Paris. She refuses to leave her home, and the book consists of her reminiscences of her life in the house.
I found Rose to be a bit difficult to like, especially because of her neglect and dislike of her daughter, who clearly needed more love. She poured all of her love and affection into her son instead. And to stay in a house and put others' lives at risk all for the sake of principle? I found her to be reckless at best.
It was somewhat interesting to learn about this era in Paris' history, but I'm not sure I would recommend this book to anyone....more
I loved this book, and it was especially delightful to finish such a fun, well-written, and entertaining book on the evening of a wonderful birthday.
One reviewer calls this book "Babette's Feast meets Pirates of the Caribbean." If you like historical fiction, cooking, eating, or pirates, you'll enjoy it too.
England, 1819...after pirate captain "Mad Hannah Mabbott" kills Lord Ramsey (big wig of the Pendleton Trading Company, new name for the East India Trading Company), she kidnaps Owen Wedgwood, Ramsey's talented chef. She informs him that he can stay alive if he cooks a sumptuous dinner for her every Sunday evening.
“Dear Mr. Wedgwood,
Welcome to the Flying Rose. I hope you have settled to sea comfortably. Your lot may improve in direct proportion to your willingness. I do look forward to more of your fare. Let me lay out my proposal: You will, of a Sunday, cook for me, and me alone, the finest supper. You will neither repeat a dish nor serve foods that are in the slightest degree mundane. In return I will continue to keep you alive and well, and we may discuss an improvement of your quarters after a time. Should you balk in any fashion you will find yourself swimming home, whole or in pieces, depending upon the severity of my disappointment. How does this strike you?
In anticipation, Capt. Hannah Mabbot”
Wedgwood, a widower, is a bit of a milksop at first...but he makes delectable food out of the crudest ingredients. Meanwhile, Abbot is on the hunt for the elusive Brass Fox, while she's on the run from the British Navy and a Frenchman named Larouche and trying to rout out the saboteur on her ship. Wedgwood makes a few escape attempts but eventually he comes to appreciate the enormous Mr. Apples, fierce Chinese twins, and deaf-mute Joshua, who he teaches to cook and read. Author Eli Brown will make you want to cook and eat, and you will appreciate the fresh and plentiful ingredients in your kitchen and wish you could cook like Wedgwood.
“Some foods are so comforting, so nourishing of body and soul, that to eat them is to be home again after a long journey. To eat such a meal is to remember that, though the world is full of knives and storms, the body is built for kindness. The angels, who know no hunger, have never been as satisfied.”
He discovers the root of Abbot's passions for justice and becomes taken with her love for fine food, quick wit, and extreme bravery. This book sent me to the Internet to look up the opium trade. It also brought back memories of our two visits to Macau, as I read about the pirate era on that island. A wild pirate adventure, love story, and culinary tale all rolled into one!...more
Unless you've been sleeping under a rock, you'll know that this is the latest book, a debut mystery, by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym of Robert GalUnless you've been sleeping under a rock, you'll know that this is the latest book, a debut mystery, by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. Its protagonist is Cormoran Strike, a private investigator who lost his leg while a soldier in Afghanistan. A bit of a tragic figure, he has just broken up with his manipulative, cruel, but beautiful girlfriend. He owes tons of money and is living in his office.
Cormoran is hired to figure out whether supermodel Lula Landry really killed herself, or if she was murdered. He, along with his temporary secretary Robin, dabble in the world of fashion designers, druggies, and movie producers, most wealthy and competitive. Editor David Shelley apparently first read the novel without knowing of its true author and expressed surprise that a woman had written the novel...she writes from a man's (and a soldier's) perspective that well.
I was reading out examples of classically British English to my British husband all through this book. So glad they didn't try to edit it to suit American audiences. I suspect that some American readers might not understand every single word or phrase without looking things up...just fine with me. It's truly a London novel, too....more
I loved this book about an intersex English teenager. Max Walker is his family's golden boy, but he and his family are harboringTrigger warning: rape
I loved this book about an intersex English teenager. Max Walker is his family's golden boy, but he and his family are harboring a secret. His parents Karen and Steve are successful attorneys, and Steve is eyeing an MP vacancy, so there's good reason to keep things covered up. His younger brother is definitively NOT the golden boy, but he has a sweet relationship with Max anyway.
But when Max has a horrific encounter with a boy from his childhood, everything shifts and the secrets begin to leak out.
Abigail Tarttelin is a young actor and novelist who is the crazy talented type who drives my husband crazy. She moved to London at age 19 to attend university but "sacked it off after a month because she had too much free time and it wasn’t fun enough," as she says on her Web site. In 2013 the London Evening Standard named her as one of the most powerful 25 people under 25 in London, and Golden Boy has won an American Library Association ALEX Award and was shortlisted for a LAMBDA Award for Best Debut LGBT Fiction.
This book is painful, poignant, and beautiful, and is an artful and sensitive depiction of sexual orientation and intersex issues. Read it! This is an author to follow! ...more
I read Jane Casey's first novel, The Missing, and was not as nearly taken with it as her second, The Burning, which felt similar to BBC's "Prime Suspect" (with Helen Mirren), but with a young Irish detective named Maeve.
One reason why I didn't like her first novel was that I didn't find her main character, Sarah Finch, to be very likable. She ended up being a teacher after she hated school, and she didn't seem to get any enjoyment out of her job. I cannot relate to this, but my husband tells me that he thinks it sounds British...he thinks that more people in the UK go into teaching without really being called to do so. That might be true.
At any rate, I prefer Maeve. She has to put up with her English colleagues' misogyny and crap about her Irish ancestry, but she is a strong and complex character. She's working on a case to catch a London serial killer who likes to beat his female victims to a pulp and then set their bodies ablaze. It's more of a police procedural (hence the Prime Suspect comparison) than a mystery book, but I liked it.
The other thing I appreciated about this book was the publisher didn't dumb it down for Americans...as in, they didn't change the British terms and language (like they did in Harry Potter, for example). Most Americans will not know what a bacon buttie is...but that's okay! They can look it up if they want to know.
I will keep reading Casey's books (she has three more Maeve Kerrigan books published with another one on the way), and I'm so glad she redeemed herself after the first one....more
Last year my husband and I watched a short British made-for-TV movie called "Good Night, Mister Tom," and I became interested in the history of English children evacuated to the country during World War II...so this book intrigued me.
It's the story, in part, of Anna, an eight-year-old girl who is evacuated from London and sent to a stately home in Yorkshire in 1939. Wise beyond her years, she soon becomes aware of the adult secrets around her. Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, who have opened up their home, are deeply unhappy with each other. Soon they each start affairs. In the meantime, Anna's mother (whose husband is fighting in Africa) starts up her own affairs in London, for no particular reason except that the war is on. Every adult in this book is unhappy and unfaithful....even Anna herself when she grows up.
Unfortunately, none of the characters are sympathetic with perhaps the exception of Thomas. Anna was more likable as a child, but when she grew up I found myself getting irritated with her choices and the way she let her life fall to ruin. This book, unfortunately, does a great deal of telling rather than showing. In fact there's little dialogue. The writer is a documentary film maker, and in many ways that shows.
I felt this book had promise--the setting in Yorkshire, the time it happened, the idea of children being sent away from home, the war--but I feel let down. I think I will have to read Good Night, Mister Tom (also a book) instead. ...more
A friend recommended I try out Maisie Dobbs for my post-surgery recovery because I find I lack mental energy when I'm in pain and on pain meds. (My brain just doesn't work right!) After my Joanna Trollope waste of time, I finally dove into Maisie Dobbs. I was beginning to worry that I'd lost my passion for reading from the brain surgery I had, but I'm happy to report that I'm getting back into the swing of things. Maisie Dobbs was just the ticket, although it took a little getting into in the beginning.
Maisie Dobbs is the daughter of a costermonger (a street seller of fruits and vegetables) and after her mother dies, she's taken into service because her dad cannot afford to take care of her. Soon Lady Rowan (lady of the house) takes her on as a project after noting Maisie's keen intelligence. She's tutored by Rowan's friend Maurice, who helps her prepare for Cambridge entrance exams. However, after a year of studying at Cambridge's women's college (in those days they didn't actually bestow degrees on women, but they were allowed to study), she decides her country needs her. She signs up as a nurse and is sent to France. After returning from France, she sets up her own business as a private investigator.
Much of this first book in the series is used to set up the character of Maisie. She takes on a case that requires her to delve into her own sad history in the war and her one true love. The book starts in the present (well, 1929), but then flashes back to her childhood, life in service, and time during the war. I found those pieces the most interesting because I wanted to get to know more about Maisie. Winspear slowly unravels the secrets of Maisie's past and her own tragic life.
Like Downton Abbey, it tackles themes of British class mores and the impact that World War I had on its participants. For example, both the show and the book feature stories about soldiers who deserted in cowardice and were shot.
I'm not sure how realistic this series is...how likely is it for the aristocracy to actually invest in one of their young housemaids to help them better themselves? She seems to fit in well at Cambridge, but all we really see about that part of her life is her close friendship with her roommate. How did she do with her studies? Not sure.
I really enjoyed this novel but it wasn't perfect. I found some details lacking, but I will keep reading in the hopes that it will only improve! I'm curious to learn more about Maisie--she's an interesting character. ...more
I picked this book up at the library because I was stocking up on some lighter fiction to read after my brain/ear surgery. I've read a few Joanna TrolI picked this book up at the library because I was stocking up on some lighter fiction to read after my brain/ear surgery. I've read a few Joanna Trollope books in the past (my mother-in-law likes her), but I hadn't read her for a number of years. I should have known better...I gave the last two books I read only two stars. This was definitely light, but it was not interesting. I wish I'd given up halfway in, but I finished it.
It's about a couple (Anthony and Rachel) who have three sons. Rachel struggles in her relationships with her daughter-in-laws. Her son Luke's wife Charlotte challenges her authority and their conflict spreads throughout the family. When Charlotte announces that she is pregnant, Rachel reacts in a rude, critical way.
I asked my husband what he thinks about the British view of apologies. Luke calls his father Anthony to see if he will get his mother to apologize, and Anthony is horrified that Luke would suggest that, even though they all agree that Rachel was in the wrong. This seemed preposterous to me.
The characters were shallow and unmemorable, and very little happens in the plot. Trollope is known for writing about relationships, but the relationships in this book are shallow and weak. The brothers cannot be distinguished from each other, and Rachel rarely interacts with her daughters-in-law in the book.
Trollope said she wanted to write about the relationships between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law because she believes they are more difficult than relationships with sons-in-law. But this book missed the mark.
Some light reads are enjoyable or memorable, but this book is neither. It was a waste of time....more
Such a wonderful quiet surprise of a book! Harold Fry, an Englishman in his early 60s, is feeling driftless in his retired years. One day he learns that his old coworker and friend, Queenie Hennessy, is dying of cancer all the way at the farthest north point of England. He's inspired to walk all the way up England--a 600-mile journey--to see her, with the hopes that she will stay alive until he can get to her. He thinks this will save her.
Along the way, Harold reflects on his life and his marriage, and gradually we learn what has made Harold be the way he is. He attracts followers and meets interesting people who help him along the way. Even though all he possesses in the beginning is a pair of yachting shoes and a simple set of clothing (no rain gear, map, or cell phone), he is determined to keep things simple along the way and refuses to invest in hiking boots or better attire or equipment.
I thought this was a sweet, sensitive book, and extremely English. It's also very sad--both about Harold and his wife Maureen's life and own son--and about Queenie herself. But in the end, he finds redemption...always a good ending in my book!...more
I'd heard of Vita Sackville-West but didn't know much about her before my book group chose this for October's selection. Sackville-West was married to Sir Harold Nicholson and spent most of her life at their estate at Sissinghurst Castle. She and Nicholson had an open marriage, and both of them carried on extensive same-sex relationships. Sackville-West's most famous lover was Virginia Woolf. Some describe this novel as the fictional version of A Room of One's Own.
The story begins with the death of Lady Slane's husband, who had been prime minister and Viceroy of India during his prime. Suddenly, Lady Slane is presented with freedom for the first time in her life...at the ripe age of 88. Her scheming children devise a plan by which she would be passed around from family to family, but she has other ideas. She retires to a modest cottage in Hampstead and directs them that she is to live on her own, and she doesn't want her grandchildren or grandchildren to visit her (no one under 60)...and doesn't much want her children around either.
Lady Slane reflects back on her life and her regrets, chief among them the fact that she was never able to pursue her artistic ambitions. She is quite happy with her little circle--her French maid, Genoux; her landlord, Mr. Bucktrout; and Mr. FitzGeorge, a reclusive, wealthy collector who fell in love with her in India, in another time, and saw immediately what she had given up.
She revels in the precious time she has left, finding pleasure in sitting outside in her back garden, going for brisk winter walks, and quietly reflecting back on her life, mistakes, and relationships. It's a beautiful, feminist story about what women in those days (and still, now) give up to pursue marriage and family. Lady Slane never really enjoyed motherhood, being a wife, or being a grandmother. She just wanted time to reflect and paint, and she never got it. She comes to peace with her realization that she did not really love her husband and she had given up everything to be with him.
And she realizes that she doesn't, really, want to be completely alone. She just wants to carefully choose her companions and how she will spend the remainder of her time.
I enjoyed this book very much and plan to view the BBC miniseries about Vita Sackville-West's relationship with her husband, "Portrait of a Marriage," based on their son Nigel's book of the same name.
To hear Vita's own voice, listen to this recording of her talking about Virginia Woolf and Orlando....more
I've never read Penelope Lively before, even though she is an incredibly prolific British writer.
In fact, this must be one of the most English modern novels I've read in some time! When I started reading, I was struck by how many expressions most Americans wouldn't necessarily understand, but I have the advantage of knowing after cohabitating with a Brit for 25 years. For example--these are from scanning just the first few pages:
-Her hip was giving her stick. -Shirty enough if anyone looked like taking liberties. -Lord Peters does not provide puffs for other people's books. -Occasionally you considered chucking in the job. -He'll be tetchy. -Breeding will out. -You endure, but also observe; you become a beady eye, appreciating the spectacle. (And the constant reference to oneself as third person rather than first person) -Day's supply of whatever is their particular tipple... -She'll be coming to us for awhile. -Rose will fetch her and install her in her room. -Nice girl? (the tendency to call women girls until they are well into their 40s)
I liked how this book started out: "The pavement rises up and hits her." The book is about "the butterfly effect," how one minor incident (in this case, the main character, Charlotte, getting mugged on a London street) can affect many people seemingly unconnected from the person directly affected.
Because Charlotte breaks her hip as a result of the mugging, she moves in with her daughter Rose, who must find someone else to accompany her pompous and very English employer Lord Peters to Manchester. That someone is his niece Marion, who sends a text to her lover, Jeremy, which is intercepted by his highly anxious and dramatic wife, Stella, putting their marriage into a tailspin. Before breaking her hip, Charlotte tutored English foreign language students, and one of them, an Eastern European named Anton, begins getting private instruction from her. Rose takes a shine to Anton, although neither act on their attraction to each other.
One of the challenges with this book is that the characters are not particularly likable or relatable for me. Most of the characters seem to be just propelling through life without any effort to be happy or fulfilled. Jeremy, I just wanted to slap upside the head. He's having an affair with Marion yet wants to keep his wife as well. He's a complete narcissist. Lord Peters is amusing but would be incredibly annoying in person. Charlotte is the most sympathetic, but the reserve of the writing and the setting keeps "one" from becoming attached.
Ultimately, it's the kind of novel where no one is truly happy at the end, except perhaps Marion (hard to say). I enjoyed this novel more in the beginning than at the end...by then I was ready to move on....more
Monsters. Children with peculiar powers, who are hiding from the monsters. Time travel. World War II and the Holocaust. Haunting black & white photographs (most of them actual vintage photos). A Peregrine falcon.
Sixteen-year-old Jacob travels to Wales to find out what happened to his grandfather, who suddenly and mysteriously died. His grandpa, Abe, had shared strange and unimaginable stories with Jacob when he was a child, and he doubted his sanity. Jacob soon discovers that Abe was not lying, and he becomes irrevocably connected to the children at the home for peculiar children.
In the beginning, this novel reminded me of "Grimm," Portland's own haunting TV series. Apparently this story has similarities to the X-Men. But what was unique about it was the photos. Ransom Riggs wanted to create a book with the photos alone, but he was convinced to write a novel around the photos instead. At times, this is obvious, as is the fact that this is a first novel. Although only ten children live in the home, the photos capture images of many other children...and it's not clear what happened to those children.
Other readers have criticized the fact that the children seem too American when in fact they are supposed to be British or Welsh. Riggs has never traveled to Wales. Others found the narrator (Jacob) to be unlikable and spoiled, and the parents to be too detached (apparently this is a convention in young adult novels, though, for some reason). The writing is geared toward young adults, although at times Jacob seems to talk as if he's much older. His speech seems older but his actions seem younger.
The ending is not wrapped up in a neat and tidy way, and Riggs is reported to be working on a sequel expected for release in 2013. A film is in the making. I thought this story was highly readable, with an intriguing premise and captivating photos. I will read the sequel to find out what happens next!...more
Do not read this if you are expecting anything like Harry Potter! I have described this book to a few people as a story about a town full of Dursleys.Do not read this if you are expecting anything like Harry Potter! I have described this book to a few people as a story about a town full of Dursleys. None of the characters, really, are likable. Some are despicable. I found this book to be very timely during our American election season, as it depicts the battle between the "47 percent" and those that support them, and those who do not wish to help the less fortunate.
When Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly in his 40s, his death opens up a seat on the Pagford Parish Council. (Pagford is apparently a mashup of the towns of Padstow and Chagford.) Soon a war of factions begins in the town, between those who want to keep the idyllic town of Pagford pure (not in my backyard), and those who believe in lending a hand to the poor, addicted, and disadvantaged.
J.K. Rowling is, as always, a great storyteller. This book starts off slowly because it's a great character study of the town's residents as well as those in the council flats in "the Fields," on the edge of Pagford. At first I had a hard time keeping all the characters straight. One of the most vivid and tragic characters is Krystal, who lives in the Fields but attends school in Pagford. Barry Fairbrother had taken an interest in her and coached her on the school rowing team. Krystal's mom is a heroin addict and she adores her neglected, developmentally delayed 3-year-old brother. She's trying to keep her family together at all costs.
It's clear that Rowling has major parent issues. The teenagers are at war with their parents, and many of the parents treat their children with scorn, apathy, or even hatred. Apparently Rowling's mum died when she was a teenager and she has had a highly strained relationship with her father (and did not speak to him for nine years after he sold off several first-edition Harry Potter books). The character of Simon (one of the most hateful in the book) is purported to be based on her father.
It's an intensely political book, based much on the fact that Rowling was living on the dole before she struck it big, and her husband once worked as a doctor in an addiction clinic. She has said, "The poor are discussed as this homogeneous mash.To me, it’s heartbreaking. This is a book about responsibility, how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery.”
The book tackles drug abuse, child abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder, cutting (self-mutilation), theft, Internet bullying, infidelity, racism, homophobia, cruelty, and marital unhappiness. In fact, none of the couples are happily married. The teenagers take revenge on their horrible parents. It's not an easy book to read. But it has an important message about how we live our lives and our responsibility to help people by giving them a lift out of their miserable lives. Those who refuse to do so do not come across very well in this book.
The Casual Vacancy is not fine literary fiction, but it's a good story. I found the book to be highly British...not just in usage and culture but also in the way people interact with each other. Much is below the surface, never to be expressed aloud.
Some say that Rowling had too much of an agenda for this book, but I think this is an important book for our day and age. Mitt Romney is a much suaver, more handsome and trim Howard Mollison, believing that the hangers-on are to be cut off, as they are sucking on the teats of society. How you feel about that idea will probably indicate how you feel about this novel.
The Invisible Bridge is the story of Andras Lévi, a Hungarian-Jewish architecture student, who is studying in Paris in 1937 on the eve of World War II. He falls in love with a mysterious older woman, Klara, who brings her own set of complications. His older brother, Tibor, wants to study medicine in Italy, and his younger brother, Matyas, loves the stage.
Before long, Hungary is at war as part of the Axis powers. As Andras and his friends and family watch in horror, Hitler and the Nazis are overtaking Europe and spreading their horror throughout the continent.
The Invisible Bridge is 600 pages (hardback), crafted in the tradition of great, sprawling Russian novels. Following Andras, his friends, and family from Paris, to Budapest and the small towns of Hungary, to forced labor camps, The Invisible Bridge is about the great bonds of brotherhood and family, true friendship, love, and endurance. It's also about the healing power of art in the darkest times.
Author Julie Orringer got the idea for this book when she discovered that her grandfather had studied architecture in Paris as a young man. As a Hungarian Jew, he wasn't able to study in Hungary but was able to get admission to a French architectural school. After the war started, he lost his visa and had to return to Hungary, where he ended up being conscripted into forced labor.
“I knew he’d been in labor camps during the war, but I knew nothing about what had happened to him there or how he’d managed to survive. As I started to ask questions about that time, a series of amazing and devastating stories emerged, and a novel began to take shape in my mind—the story of a young Hungarian Jewish man who’d envisioned one kind of life but who was forced by the turnings of history to live quite another.”
Andras' story was inspired by her grandfather's experiences. I knew very little about the situation in Hungary during World War II, especially for the Jewish population, so I found this to be a fascinating read. Even now, Hungary has its share of right-wing fascists, just as it did during the war.
“In a sense, the fate of the Hungarian Jews is particularly painful because the deportations occurred long after the Nazis’ defeat was inevitable. For a long time, Hungarian Jews believed they would escape the fate of the Jews of other occupied nations—not only because the Hungarian government considered Jews necessary to the financial welfare of the country, nor only because so many Jews had served heroically in the First World War, nor even just because Hungarian Jews were particularly assimilated, but simply because the Nazis were bound to admit defeat before deportations could occur.”
This book was instructive and beautiful. I cried out loud in one of the final chapters. I loved reading about the friendship among the three brothers, in particular, and Orringer beautifully describes the way people survive terrible traumas and burdens....more
I discovered this book by reading a review of one of British author Jane Casey's other novels, The Burning. Because I like to read authors (especiallyI discovered this book by reading a review of one of British author Jane Casey's other novels, The Burning. Because I like to read authors (especially mystery authors) in chronological order, I sought out her first book. It needn't have mattered in this case, as it does not have the same protagonist.
Unfortunately, this book did not live up to my expectations. I found it to be very readable, but much of what happened seemed unrealistic and unlikely to happen. I also guessed who the murderer is long before it was revealed, which I rarely do. (I'm one of those rare mystery readers who does not try to guess the perpetrator, but in this case it could not be ignored.)
As the protagonist, Sarah Finch is not entirely likeable and a bit too overcome with problems. She is a lost soul, lacking anyone she can confide in or trust, and in the end things just spiral downward in her life. Soon she is left with no one. She also makes some bizarre choices, and a few plot elements seem unlikely (such as the policeman on the case falling in love with her, and the highly convenient coincidences that keep occurring, to name a few). Life seems to just happen to her, and because of this she is not very sympathethic. For example, after she truly hates school and appears to have no motivation to succeed because of what happened to her brother, she somehow becomes a teacher herself, and does not seem to enjoy her job.
I also found it unlikely that a character who is completely obsessed with her would attack her and harm her outside of her home. And why on earth did she stick with her mother when she treated her so horribly? Of course, Casey ties it all up with a happy ending, also implausible.
I have The Burning checked out of the library, and I will give Casey one more try...I'm hoping her second novel is an improvement over the first. ...more
I finally got around to reading Second Fiddle, the middle-grade novel written by a long-time friend from our church, Rosanne Parry. Years ago Rosanne invited Mike to join her children's writers' group (which has been a great boost and encouragement for him), so she's been a great help to Mike in his own writing career.
Second Fiddle's focus on orchestral music and girls' friendship drew me in and kept me hooked through the novel. Jody is an army kid in Berlin, Germany, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She plays second violin in a string trio with her more sophisticated friends Giselle and Vivian; however, Giselle and Jody are due to return to the U.S. soon and Jody is feeling sad that their trio collaborations are about to come to an end.
Their last big hurrah is meant to be a solo and ensemble competition in Paris, but their music teacher falls ill and cannot accompany them. Just as they are nursing their disappointment about the thwarted Parisian trip, they venture into East Berlin to have gelato...and inadvertently witness an attempted murder of a Soviet Union soldier.
They rescue Arvo (who is actually Estonian) out of the river and revive him. In the ensuing days, they nurse him back to health as he hides under the bridge in East Berlin. Then they come up with a plan: why not go to Paris with Arvo disguised as their music teacher? Then he can meet other Estonians and return to his country.
They get into all sorts of adventures in Paris, and girls especially will enjoy reading about the friendship among the three young musicians. Rosanne has a special knack about writing about military families, because of her experience as part of a military family herself. (She lived in Berlin around the time the novel was set with her soldier husband and baby.) She also illustrated this knack and sensitivity in her first published novel, Heart of a Shepherd. Her web site has some great resources and tips for military families--and for supporting friends in military families.
Second Fiddle made me want to pick up my violin again! Check back on my blog for an interview with Rosanne and a book giveaway in March, in time for the paperback release of Second Fiddle. ...more
I didn't have high expectations for this book, because the reviews were lukewarm at best. Interestingly, the New York Times gave it a good review while actual readers were less impressed.
The unpopular Wickham is accused of murdering his best friend on the Pemberley estate, and Darcy is forced to come to his aid. The novel moves along at a fairly slow pace, and James introduces some new characters. The upshot is that this is a book mostly about the male characters of Pride and Prejudice, with Darcy mostly in the spotlight.
The female characters are very weak and lackluster, including our previously spunky, independent Elizabeth. Now a wife, mother, and mistress of Pemberley, her life consists mostly of managing the large household. Jane is her closest friend, and she features some in the book. In fact, perhaps because of the popularity of Downton Abbey and the like, Death Comes to Pemberley contains more details about the servant class at Pemberley. We see Elizabeth and Darcy interacting with the servants, and the servants actually play a role in the plot.
The biggest difference, however, between this book and the original Pride and Prejudice is the complete lack of comedy, which was one of the most memorable bits about P and P. Absent (except through letters) are Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine DeBurgh, which brought great comic relief through their ridiculous words and actions. Elizabeth's reactions to their snobbish, outlandish behavior helped the reader appreciate her even more.
I have never read a P.D. James book before, but I'm told that this book is very different than her usual ones. One major gap I noticed was the absence of Lydia throughout Wickham's stay in the jail before his trial. Where did she go, and what was happening with her? Altogether, this book just didn't hold together well, and I missed Elizabeth Bennett.
I don't know why I did it...read this book, that is. It caught my eye at the library, and I was interested in the British setting (Brighton) and a supposedly "chick lit" type of story written by a man. As I've said before, I don't like the term "chick lit," because I find that title denigrating to novels written by and for women. However, it is a certain type of genre, and this novel fits into that category. My husband says I should call it "dick lit." I like it. :)
Here's the plot in a nutshell:
•Nice, overweight-and-out-of-shape, and somewhat clueless doormat Edward's girlfriend of 10 years, Jane, moves out and leaves behind a note saying she's off to Tibet for 3 months.
•Edward determines to reinvent himself during the time Jane is away. He's assisted by his ethics-lacking, philandering, and shallow friend Dan...who is really not very nice to Edward (or other people).
•In addition to makeovers to his wardrobe, flat, car, and lifestyle, he starts working out with a cute, peppy trainer named Sam (female).
•Edward works for an IT recruiting firm, and his boss sleeps with her clients to get new business and treats him like crap. Really? Talk about a stereotype of a successful businesswoman. We're not all like Anna Wintour.
•Of course, we don't ever really understand why in fact Edward wants Jane back or why he is friends with Dan.
You can guess where this story goes. It wasn't horrific, but when I dove into my next book (Faith by Jennifer Haigh, which I'm almost finished with), I realized how much I wasted my time on this one. ...more
Bitter Bitch is billed as "the international bestseller that has shocked Europe"; however, the only thing particularly shocking was the title, which caused all sorts of commentary from my family (especially when my husband showed it to my visiting mother-in-law and sister-in-law!). Apparently the literal translation from the Swedish is even more schocking: "Bitter Cunt"!
Sarah, mom of a toddler, has just turned 30 and is feeling like a bitter bitch. She flies to Tenerife (in the Canary Islands) for a week's vacation and reads Erica Jong's feminist classic, Fear of Flying, while she's away. However, she finds herself longing for quiet and uninterrupted sleep rather than the classic "zipless f--k."
Sveland examines the state of modern woman- and motherhood and peels back the facade that women can easily have it all. Although Sarah loves her husband Johan, she also has great unresolved hostility towards him. Having experienced horribly sexist men in television journalism and other areas of her life, Sarah reflects that "Refusing to admit your own part in oppression is an incredibly smart power strategy, since oppression is made invisible by diminishing it." Not only does this lack of awareness exist in men, but it also exists in the privileged--both men and women.
After Sarah is unable to nurse her baby Sigge successfully, she develops a life-threatening breast infection. Johan chooses to take Sigge home instead of having them both stay in the hospital with Sarah, an action that Sarah views as betrayal. (Having experienced the extreme bonding connection that exists between mother and newborn, I can completely relate to this feeling.) Their marriage is damaged as a result of this and the fact that Johan is gone for weeks at a time (because of his job) while Sarah is caring for newborn Sigge. She feels exhausted and completely alone, even though she loves her child passionately.
Sarah struggles with the fact that women still bear the burden in marriage: they do most of the housework and the child care. "I really do not think there is much difference between becoming a mother during the 1970s or in the twenty-first century. In the beginning you are just as alone with your child as most mothers have been for centuries...it is sad, but becoming a mother seems to be one of the most difficult undertakings when it comes to equality."
When the couple goes to married marriage counselors, they tell Sarah that achieving equality in a marriage is impossible. Both Sarah and Johan storm out in disgust. But in fact, Johan's paternity leave (more common in Sweden) was what saved their marriage. "That's when he understood what it meant to take full responsibility as a father. Men should take longer parental leave than women, since women have a biological head start because they have carried and given birth to their children. Men need more time to get the innate experience."
She talks in detail about the great guilt work-outside-the-home mothers feel when they leave their children in day care (or take off for a weekend or week away). Fathers tend not to experience that same amount of guilt. Why is that? She concludes that women should be more self-serving: "The one who demands the most gets the most." For example, who is most likely to be doing the cleanup at a party? The women (especially with older generations). Sarah feels guilty when she doesn't jump up to help the other women, but the men don't seem to feel guilty at all. Why is that?
She also laments the fact that women are rarely able to relax or feel completely safe out in public. They can never escape the potential for men to harass them. (I discussed this very topic with friends at Holden Village late one night.) "I strongly doubt that men can comprehend the discomfort or ferar involved in having to deal with it. I wonder how this really affects women, deep down."
Sarah was raised with a doormat mother and a verbally abusive, alcoholic father, so she didn't have a lot of faith in marriage. Lest you conclude that Sarah is anti-men, though, she waxes lyrical about how much she loves men who peel oranges in public, bring packed lunches to work, bike or walk to work, and dance.
Reading this book, it made me realize how lucky I am to be in a marriage of relative equality. I nursed my sons constantly (and through the night) for many years, and then my husband took over the late night wakefulness after they stopped nursing. He is a stay-at-home dad and does the cooking during the week. I call him our "household manager," because of course he does much more than looking after the kids and cooking. We still fall back into gender stereotyped roles when it comes to some responsibilities: he takes out the garbage, mows the lawn, and deals with the car maintenance, while I am responsible for all of the gift and clothing buying and storing the kids clothes over various seasons. We both grocery shop. But he writes the thank you cards. I let him drive much of the time because he likes to, and I'd rather be reading. I'm the breadwinner but he still has a career and associated goals. I hope someday I can work less and he can get paid for the work he does (writing). We make decisions together.
I feel that we have achieved as close to equality as I can imagine in our marriage. So thankfully, even though I feel that Sveland's observations about marriage and parenting are completely sound, I am not a bitter bitch myself. I must say that it's refreshing to read a feminist novel given all of the anti-feminist backlash out there in popular society.
I'm not sure what I think about the ending...it depends on whether you are cynical or optimistic. As an optimist myself, I'd like to think that Sarah found some comfort and peace with her life. I'm glad that Sveland wrote this important book, and I have no doubt that many women would be able to relate very closely to this story. ...more
Ellie Lerner's best friend, Lucy, is murdered in broad daylight--in front of her 8-year-old daughter--in an upscale Notting Hill neighborhood. Ellie flies to London to be with her goddaughter Sophie and help Lucy's husband pick up the pieces of their lives.
While she's grieving the loss of her close childhood friend, she's still mourning her son Oliver, who died in utero at eight months gestation. Ellie's difficulty in moving past her deep-seated grief has put her marriage at risk. While she's escaping her own commitments back in Boston, her husband wants her to return home, but she just can't.
To comfort themselves, Ellie and Lucy escape into Francis Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. Sophie is an unusually bright, too-blunt-for-her-peer-group child, and she has endured more than any child should. I had to chuckle while reading her father's response to Ellie's suggestion that Sophie go to a therapist (because of bed wetting and nightmares)...reflecting the prevailing opinion that therapy is too American and completely unnecessary for the stiff-upper-lip British. Sophie returns to school a scant few days after watching her mother be murdered, because the headmistress convinces her father that "she should get right back into the swing of things. Routine, structure, and all that. Good for kids. She said that breaking from that will shake Sophie up even more."
Through the process of mourning Lucy (and discovering that Lucy was keeping at least a few deep dark secrets from her and she didn't know her as well as she thought), Ellie realizes that she hasn't fully mourned for Oliver. Instead she's been trying to escape her own feelings of loss.
Buxbaum effectively and sensitively handled the issues of grief, including the different ways people grieve (and not to assume that someone is not grieving just because they grieve in a different way from you). One thing I realized about the characters, though: I would not have liked Lucy. She came across as shallow, unfeeling, and snobby. The most egregious thing she did was after Ellie lost her baby: her first response was to tell Ellie she could always have another one. Perhaps she was stunned and didn't know how to react. But after the losses I have experienced in my own pregnancies, I cannot imagine being able to move beyond that kind of completely insensitive comment. Although Ellie was upset about the comment, she didn't seem to think it was quite as horrible as I did.
I'm always attracted to stories about Americans in England or vice versa, so I enjoyed this book overall. Buxbaum lives in London and has done an excellent job representing the British culture through American eyes. ...more