Each chapter in Ellen Baker's novel begins with an excerpt from a 1950s homemaking guide...about how women can keep their husbands happy. The centralEach chapter in Ellen Baker's novel begins with an excerpt from a 1950s homemaking guide...about how women can keep their husbands happy. The central theme of Keeping the House is the pressure to be perfect that women faced in the early to mid-1900s.
Told through the lens of Dolly Magnuson, a homemaker who moves to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin in 1950 without any friends in the area, the book goes back to the late 1800s when Dolly begins visiting an abandoned mansion and uncovers the secrets of the family who inhabited it.
Dolly's unhappy in her marriage, just as Wilma Mickelson, the matriarch of the great house, was unhappy in hers. They also both feel stifled by the provincial attitudes of the people in the town. This sweeping novel illustrates the pressures women faced, trying to create a perfect house while sacrificing their own needs. It's homemaking before feminism.
I enjoyed the frequent references to Lutherans in Wisconsin. It was worth the read!...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
Sujata Massey, author of the wonderful The Sleeping Dictionary and the Rei Shimura series, has written a novella about the relationship between an IndSujata Massey, author of the wonderful The Sleeping Dictionary and the Rei Shimura series, has written a novella about the relationship between an Indian ayah and the English children under her care.
The role of a child care taker is a complicated one. During a few summers in college, I worked as a nanny taking care of my two cousins in Seattle. I also babysat extensively during high school and formed strong attachments to many of my charges. When I left my two cousins at aged 2 and 4 to go to Japan, I sobbed because I knew how much I would miss them. I had grown very attached to both of them.
My situation was different than Menakshi, who was forced to drop out of school and take up a job as an ayah (nanny) because of her father's death and her family's poverty. Although she had great potential, she had to give up her own dreams to help her family.
Even though the children in her care were privileged and spoiled, she becomes attached t to them and they to her. What the children (especially middle child, Julian) don't understand is the complication in this attachment. The children's mother, Marjorie, is snobbish and shallow, and disengaged from her children's lives and inner thoughts. She doesn't want to spend much time with her children, but she also feels resentful because of their attachment to Menakshi, their ayah. The children don't understand that Menakshi is paid to be with them: it's not her choice, and she has her own life.
I always enjoy reading stories that take place in locations where I've lived or visited. Menakshi's story starts and ends in Georgetown, Penang in Malaysia, a place I visited in 1988. Sujata Massey beautifully depicts the life of an Indian ayah and the complicated relationships that people in the employ of their colonial employers had to deal with--and in fact, still deal with in many countries.
Even though Menakshi endures great hardships in her life, she finds love in these pages and a more hopeful future than working as an unappreciated ayah. So even though her life improves, she feels some sense of loss as she misses these English children who came to love her.
I'm looking forward to Sujata Massey's next full-size novel. I prefer novels to short stories and novellas, although this was a fun one to read!...more
I love novels like this, when I learn about historical figures through fictionalized accounts of their lives. The Invention of Wings is based on the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, abolitionists and feminists long before women's suffrage or the Emancipation Proclamation.
Sue Monk Kidd quotes Professor Julius Lester in her notes at the end of the novel, "History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another's pain in the heart our own." Kidd expands beyond the facts and events to put flesh on the stories of four women.
The novel begins in the early 1800s, with Sarah Grimke turning 11 and her mother "giving" her ownership of her very own slave, Hetty, or Handful. From the beginning, Sarah is deeply uncomfortable with her family's legacy as slave owners, and she also chafes against her role as a girl and woman. All she wants in life is to study and become a lawyer and a judge, but her family throws cold water on her dreams. As a female, all she could hope to become is a wife and mother. She rebels in her own way, by teaching Handful to read and write.
The novel weaves the story of Sarah with that of Handful and her mother Charlotte. Both Handful and Charlotte are highly talented seamstresses, spunky and spirited and seeking a way out of their own lives. They are the most fascinating characters in this novel, and they are mostly made up. (Sarah's mother did "give" her a slave when she turned 11, and Sarah wanted no part of it, but that's about all that is known about the slave girl.)
While Sarah struggles to put a voice to her passionate thoughts, Handful and Charlotte have no problem expressing what's on their mind. They weave their own pains and desires in their quilts and pass on their family history through stories. They take chances for the sake of freedom, even if it might cost them their own lives.
Angelina is the sister with the gumption--probably because she'd been mostly raised by Sarah--but Sarah, too, eventually finds her own voice. I enjoyed reading about the sisters speaking out against slavery, even though their family and their own city (Charleston, South Carolina) were horrified by their actions. The schism in the early abolitionist movement between abolition and women's rights reminded me of the division in the 1960s, when women who fought for civil rights were not given their own voice in the movement.
Sarah, Angelina, Handful, and Charlotte are all trying to find their own wings and escape the prisons of their lives. Handful's and Charlotte's restraints were real, while Sarah and Angelina were bound by the cultural expectations of their time.
This novel is not an easy read--Kidd depicted the horrors of slavery without flinching. I was grateful for Kidd's notes at the end, and also for the Internet, so I could learn more about the Grimkes when I was done reading the book. Sarah and Angelina Grimke were pioneers of their time, standing up for what they believed was right, even if their voices shook....more
As a long-time Sujata Massey fan, I was anxious to get my hands on her latest novel, and it did not disappoint!!
Sujata Massey was born in England to parents from India and Germany (just like my friend Nandita), and she grew up mostly in Minnesota. After working as a reporter, she spent several years in Japan where she taught, studied, and began writing her first novel, The Salaryman's Wife. That first novel grew into a detective series with smart, industrious, and savvy Rei Shimura, a Japanese-American antiques dealer who lives in Japan and solves mysteries on the side. I read every single one of the Rei Shimura novels as soon as they came out and have widely recommended them to friends. In fact, the Rei Shimura series is the only detective series I've devoured in its entirety outside of the VI Warshawski series by Sara Paretsky (my first introduction to detective novels). I'm not naturally drawn to mysteries, so I'm highly selective. Authors (e.g., Sue Grafton and Patricia Cornwell) lose my attention if their books are not well written or if I get tired of the main character. Of course, Rei Shimura held my attention completely because of the series' setting in Japan (mostly). Loved them!
So onto The Sleeping Dictionary. This book took six years for Massey to research and write, because it involved so much in-depth research into Indian history, culture, and language. Massey's family comes from Calcutta (now Kolkata) and she spent time there as a child (read her wonderful diary entries here!), so it was a natural choice for setting this novel.
It's the story of Pom, who lives with her family in a small village by the sea. Her family is very poor, but she feels secure and well loved until a tidal wave wipes out her whole village and her family. Completely alone and helpless in 1930s India, Pom is a survivor. She ends up at a British boarding school, where she is renamed as Sarah and begins working as a maid. She learns how to read and write while operating the fan in a classroom. When she befriends a wealthier Indian girl, Bidushi, who she had known as a child, she comes to discover her own intelligence and talents. Although she hopes to become Bidushi's ayah and always stay together, these dreams are soon dashed by tragedy.
Still very young, she next finds herself in the city of Kharagpur, lured into prostitution at a high-class brothel. As an Indian girl without a family, she has few options for survival. She desperately tries to cling to her dignity in the midst of her despair at being forced to sell her body, and she continues to nurture dreams of becoming a teacher. (The title of the book comes from the term for young Indian women who slept with British men and taught them the ways and language of India.)
I hesitate to give away too much of the plot and adventure in the novel, but I will say that she moves to Calcutta where she renames herself as Kamala, begins to work for an English man, and gets involved in the Indian independence movement.
So here are some of the reasons why I loved this book:
--Pom/Sarah/Kamala is a strong, spunky Indian female, and I found myself rooting for her immediately and throughout her story. Faced with desperately difficult choices in her life, she does the best she can with what is given to her. While she is certainly a victim many times in her life, she has no privilege to wallow in misery and self-pity, but time after time she finds ways to rise above her difficult circumstances.
--I could practically taste Calcutta through Massey's detailed descriptions of the city. I've traveled only in the north of India (we concentrated our time there in Delhi, Agra, and Rajasthan), but I found myself intrigued by the City of Palaces and sad to read about its devastation during the pre-Independence riots and violence.
--I have read great quantities of Indian fiction (and a bit of nonfiction, too), but this book taught me things I did not know...for example, about the massive famine in Bengal caused by the British Empire hoarding India's rice (millions died), India's amazing female freedom fighters and independence activists, Japan bombing India during the war, some members of the Indian resistance movement joining the Japanese led by Subhash Chandra Bose, to name a few...it also gives the Anglo-Indian perspective on what was happening during that time.
--Massey develops multidimensional characters, including Hindus, Muslims, and British, and even some of the women who are sucked into prostitution. Kamala herself makes some unfortunate decisions and lies to people because she feels she has no choice. She's a complex character who is far from perfect. Both Kamala and Simon evolve through the story. There's even a Scottish clergyman who is open minded, fair, and compassionate...imagine that!
--As a consummate book lover, I enjoyed the sheer love of books in this novel. From the moment "Sarah" borrows books from a kind teacher at the British boarding school and her gradual collection of the great masters, to Kamala landing a wonderful job as a librarian for Mr. Lewes...books offer her an escape from the great losses in her life.
I was excited to learn that this book is the first in a planned trilogy, AND that Rei Shimura will be making a reappearance! The Sleeping Dictionary will be near the top of my "Top Reads of 2013" list! If you enjoy reading historical fiction or books about India, the colonial era, or strong female characters, give it a try! ...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, but it's probably not for everyone. Kate Manning was inspired to write this book when she saw this photo and learned that 30,000 homeless children lived on the streets of New York in the nineteenth century.
Introduced as a lost diary, the book opens with a suicide. We don't know who died, but we learn that the main character fakes her own death with this dead body of another. We know she's married, and her husband helps cover it up. The authorities are after her, and we know she is famous because her carriage would be recognized in the street.
Then we go back to her childhood, Axie Muldoon, who is a poor Irish immigrant child, wandering the streets of New York with her sister Dutch and brother Joe. Her father--an alcoholic--has died, and her mother has lost her arm in an industrial accident. Soon they are discovered by a famous do-gooder, who gets medical care for Axie's mother but arranges for the children to go to the Children's Aid Society. Soon the children are off to the midwest on the Orphan Train. (This is the second novel I've read this year about the Orphan Train--the first was The Chaperone.) Axie--a spunky, independent, and bright child--ends up returning to New York City after a few months, but her siblings have been ensconced in new families and appear to not mind their separation.
Once back in New York, Axie finds her mother again, but she has remarried Axie's layabout uncle and is pregnant again. When she goes into labor, Axie must act as midwife...at 11 years old. And so begins her story of helping women in labor and childbirth.
Without giving too much more of the plot away, I will say that Axie is a complex, fascinating character, as are her husband and best friend. Axie's story is based on the life and death of Ann Trow Lohman (1811-1879), also known as Madame Restell, a "notorious" midwife who was a friend to desperate women but the enemy of moral crusaders such as Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Comstock finally brought her down, she was vilified in the press and in society, and she ended her own life (although it was rumored that she had faked it). Comstock was proud of the number of suicides he prompted.
My only quibble about this book is that at times I found the Irish brogue inconsistent. I think it was written in such a way because this was Axie's true speaking style, but it comes and goes and at times I found that off-putting.
We had such interesting conversations last week at book group when we discussed this book...about feminism, history, birth control, the status of women in this era and now, midwifery, and abortion. This wonderful piece of feminist historical fiction will give you new perspectives about the status of women--then and now--and the lesser evil of abortion. I couldn't help but think about Rush Limbaugh, our modern-day Anthony Comstock, and Sandra Fluke, who in advocating for birth control was blamed for debauchery...much like Madame Restell/Axie Muldoon.
As the mother of three children, one of whom was born at 24 weeks, I am deeply grateful to have been born and become a mother when I did. I'm also grateful to have been able to plan my own family by using birth control.
I could not put his book down...read it! It's sad and thought provoking, but redemptive. ...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'm dreadfully behind in my book reviews and have three to catch up on. I read The Light between Oceans for my May book group selection, and I reallyI'm dreadfully behind in my book reviews and have three to catch up on. I read The Light between Oceans for my May book group selection, and I really enjoyed it.
Could you live in a lighthouse on a remote island and have contact with other humans only once every few months...and be able to go to the mainland only every few years? I couldn't do it. I would need more human contact, being an extrovert!
Tom Sherbourne, a returned WWI vet and clear introvert, signs up as lighthouse keeper on remote Janus Rock in Australia. Then he gets married and takes his wife Isabel to the lighthouse. At first she loves it, but then she experiences two miscarriages and a stillbirth. Racked with grief, she's also told that she has entered menopause and she won't be able to have any more babies.
When a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a live baby, the couple decides to keep the baby and not tell anyone. Tom is uncomfortable with the idea, but Isabel persuades him. They both fall in love with "Lucy," their adopted baby, and claim her as their own.
However, Tom's racked with guilt over the years...especially when they learn more about the circumstances that led to the boat washed ashore and the damage their decision has done on others.
Some in my book group felt critical of Isabel, but I could understand her rationale. She didn't think she would be hurting anyone by keeping the baby. They were more sympathetic to Tom, but at times I found Tom hard to relate to because he kept himself so remote from others.
My only quibble with it was the idea that a woman in her 20s would be going through menopause...that just didn't make any sense to me! Also the book had a pattern of people dying right before someone important was to happen.
But...if you like books laden with ethical dilemmas and no easy choices, you'll enjoy this lyrical novel. ...more
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 took a break from reading A Game of Thrones to read The Chaperone, and I found it to be highly engrossing (much more so than Game of Thrones)!
It's tI took a break from reading A Game of Thrones to read The Chaperone, and I found it to be highly engrossing (much more so than Game of Thrones)!
It's the story of Cora Carlisle, a small town Kansas woman who agrees to be a chaperone for young Louise Brooks, who heads to New York City to study dance. The story is loosely based on the life on silent film star Louise Brooks, who lived life more freely than her time allowed. Cora has her job cut out for her in trying to keep the reins on young Louise.
Cora has another motivation to go to New York--to plumb the depths of her childhood. She learns about herself as a result, and most important, realizes that her high moral ideals are hypocritical and not all that they seem...and that other things in life are more important than strict morals.
The story is more about Cora's life (which is fictional) than Louise's, which is one disadvantage to the book. After Cora returns from New York, the rest of the book focuses on her life, and rarely touches on Louise's story.
But I enjoyed this book and learned some historical tidbits, always a great thing!...more
I just finished reading Book 2 with 8-year-old Kieran. We are going to visit the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City over spring break, and I wanted Kieran to have some historical context for the museum. I had tried to interest him in Little House on the Prairie, but either he was too young at the time or he was better able to relate to the male narrator. (Or perhaps it was the idea of traveling to Oregon that interested him.)
These books are very easy to read--he could have easily read them himself but instead I read to him while he was in bed. They depict the trail and homesteading from the perspective of a 10-year-old boy.
The only difficult thing about the books was the high number of deaths and tragedies. And it doesn't end when they finally arrive in Oregon. One of the deaths at the end of Book 2 (of Joshua's grandfather) really took the wind out of our sails, and at that point Kieran did not want me to read any more! A few days later, though, he wanted me to finish.
The books served their purpose: I know that Kieran will be able to relate more to what we see at the interpretive center...and 5-year-old Nicholas, too! ...more
My apologies to the author, but I had to give up on this one.
Hill is a renowned historian on the Salem witch trials, and I thought the premise sounded fascinating. I remember visiting Salem, Massachusetts, when I was 16 years old, so the topic appealed to me. I love great historical fiction. I should have paid closer attention to the negative or lackluster reviews, though.
About the only positive thing I can say is that the author clearly knows her history and can paint a realistic setting--in the beginning I was intrigued by the Indian attacks, conflict between Anglicans and Puritans, and the girls who kept having seizures. But she lost me completely in the plot details (or lack thereof). Hill is a historian, not a novelist, and it shows. It felt like she thought we should understand the story without telling us what was going on.
I read about 60 pages into the book, but it was so poorly written and with so many colorless characters that I finally had to put it down. And it was such a relief to do so. ...more
I'm struggling with giving this book a rating--it would have been 3 or maybe even 4 stars while I was in the middle...
Although originally published in 1989 (in the height of apartheid), I'd never heard of The Power of One until my sister read it for her book group. The plot sounded appealing to me, so I put it on hold at the library. Some actually call this "a classic novel of South Africa," although I think that title should belong to the work of Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing instead (whose books I read years ago).
I think my opinion of this novel will shift some as I sit with the ending for a few days...but I wanted to write this review while it was still fresh in my mind. It feels like I've been reading this novel for a long time...although it stuck in my mind when I was not reading it, I was also really ready to be done with it. Not a great sign...
English boy Peekay is sent to boarding school at the age of 5 (!) because he has no father and his mother has had a mental breakdown. He is horribly, mercilessly bullied by his South-African schoolmates, who all see him as the enemy because of the Boer War. Right away, I felt dubious because I kept thinking about my own 5-year-old son and realizing that Peekay seemed more like 10 than 5. His only friend is his pet chicken, Grandpa Chook, who understands Peekay thoroughly and can do magic tricks. (Seriously.) In spite of the bullying, Peekay survives and finds a way to rise above it all. (His extreme genius assisting him in this endeavor.)
The story begins to get more interesting when the school year ends and he's sent on a 2-1/2-day train journey to join his family in their new home. (Yes, a 5-year-old, sent alone on a 2-1/2-day train journey...) Along the way he makes some true friends, among them a train guard named Hoppie, who teaches him all about boxing and inspires him to become a boxing champion one day. (In spite of this great friendship, Hoppie goes off to war and is never mentioned again...which seems odd to me.)
When he arrives in his new home in Barberton (where he is to live with his grandpa and his born-again-crazy mother), he makes more true friends in Doc (a German professor of music) and Mrs. Boxall (the town librarian). When Doc is interned in a nearby prison because of his German ancestry, Peekay develops friendships in the prison and begins taking boxing lessons there. Biracial prisoner Geel Piet becomes his dedicated boxing coach and teaches him everything he knows.
Years later Peekay goes off to another boarding school, where he becomes friends with a Jewish boy, Morrie Levy. In the final book of the novel, Peekay spends a year working in the mines in Rhodesia. This is a very MALE book...about the world of boxing, boarding schools, prisons, and mines. Few women live in this world, and the black ones do not even have real names.
First, what I liked about the novel:
•Learning more about the history of English-Boer hostility during World War II •Reading about life in South Africa during that period--especially as a former coworker was visiting South Africa while I was reading the book and blogging about her adventures and perspectives on the country's crime and racism •Peekay's unlikely friendship and adventures with Doc •Some of the earlier stories during the train journey, and the colorful characters such as Hoppie and Big Hettie •Peekay's efforts to transcend his difficult beginnings and become his own person •The imagery of the African singing and the music Doc wrote as a tribute to the African tribes (in fact, I really enjoyed all the musical bits, especially the prison concert)
Well. My biggest beef with this novel is that Peekay is too damn perfect. For example (spoilers below!):
•He is several classes ahead of all his peers, wherever he goes, because of his sheer genius. •He knows several African languages, in addition to Latin. •Everywhere he goes (after the initial boarding school disaster), people come to worship him. •He develops a highly successful scheme to smuggle in tobacco and other goodies into the prison, and smuggle letters to prisoners' families out. All while he is a child. •He NEVER loses a boxing bout. Never, ever. •He becomes a cactus expert under Doc's tutelage. •Peekay and Morrie become chosen for the most select group of students to be tutored by the headmaster. Of course. •Peekay and Morrie make a mint in boarding school through various schemes dreamed up by Morrie, all of them rip-roaring successes. •He exceeds in every single task he takes on (academics, languages, boxing, rugby, mining), with the one exception of the piano, at which his talent is merely passable. •He becomes a virtual god for the African people--referred to as the "tadpole angel." •Even the Black Mamba he faces does not bite him. •He displays superhuman strength and will as a 17-year-old miner and survives an accident that would have killed anyone else. •He gets the opportunity to take revenge on his most bitter enemy. The book was far too long...it could have lost 100 to 150 pages and been much stronger. Courtenay often resorts to getting preachy and "tells" far more than he shows. The bad people are REALLY bad, and they all get their due in the end...every one of them. Several people lose their lives because of Peekay, and he doesn't seem to have any sort of self-reflection or guilt that he caused their deaths through his arrogance. He takes all his privileges and success for granted.
I believe that Courtenay, who grew up in South Africa but now lives in Australia, had great intentions to write a book that examined the origins of apartheid and criticized the cruel way that blacks were treated. But instead, it's just another book about a white savior--a perfect white boy who triumphs over the odds. The black tribes all come to worship Peekay because he begins smuggling in tobacco to the prison and starts a letter-writing initiative so they can contact their relatives...and they've seen his expertise in the boxing ring. In fact, he becomes legendary across South Africa so that when he moves to his new school in another part of the country, they all know about the "Tadpole Angel."
I thought it would be more about the origins of apartheid and race relations in South Africa, but really, it wasn't. It was about this perfect boy and his life .
I'm not sure I understand the meaning of "The Power of One," especially because of all the friends and supporters Peekay developed throughout his life. They all lifted him up and helped him accomplish what he did. Yet when Morrie tries to help him by lending him the money to go to Oxford, he refuses his aid. This didn't make much sense to me, especially as Morrie wouldn't have had such success over the years without Peekay...and he allowed others to help him before. Instead, he puts aside his academic career to choose a rough, dangerous life in the mines.
And the ending...horrific, unredeeming, and sickening. Any fondness I had for Peekay as a character dissolved in the last few pages. In spite of all the love and support he received, Doc's wise guidance, and all the superhuman success he'd achieved, when he meets his nemesis, he must take revenge in a truly merciless manner? Maybe the message of "The Power of One," in the end, is that each person is alone and must fight to the death to survive? Closing the book, I felt sick to my stomach....more
I wouldn't have picked this up so soon after rereading The Red Tent, but my 8-year-old son was in a play about Queen Esther this week and I had a business trip, so Queen Esther it was.
Kohn's writing was not nearly as strong as Anita Diamant's, but I did have some similar issues about perspective. The novel was told in the first person, but Esther seemed to be omnipresent. It was interesting and disturbing to read about harem life and the subjugated roles that women led in this era.
One thing I had a hard time swallowing was Esther's undying devotion to Mordechai, and after she realized that King Xerxes was a weak tyrant, she still had the hots for him. Being a woman who has never been attracted to bad boys, I found this to be implausible.
The women (in particular, Esther) were much more vividly described than the men, many of whom were one dimensional. This might reflect the severe division between men and women, and the lack of personal connection they had. (Everyone in the kingdom was forbidden to approach the king without being called, including his wife.)
Some of the descriptions of Esther's clothing got to be a bit tiresome, and the writing seemed melodramatic at times. However, I found it to be another interesting story about another woman in the bible (and a Jewish hero)....more
This book drew me in because of its story about sisters and setting in New Brunswick, Canada, where my mother's ancestors lived. I loved the characterThis book drew me in because of its story about sisters and setting in New Brunswick, Canada, where my mother's ancestors lived. I loved the character development in this novel, as well as the beautiful descriptions of the land and environment, especially in New Brunswick.
I'd never heard of The Beekeeper's Apprentice before my friend Kristin recommended it as a book group selection. It's the first in a series of five, and I will definitely be reading more of the series.
Mary Russell is a girl of 15 when she is wandering about in Sussex Downs, her nose in a book. Right at the beginning, I knew I would like her--I do not know many other people who are crazy enough to read while they are walking. Like Mary Russell, I have had one accident while doing so...but I was not too terribly injured. I'm just more careful now!
Whilst she was wandering, she nearly tripped over Sherlock Holmes, who was bee peeping at the time. After an initially rough start together, the eccentric Holmes realizes what a bright spark she is and adopts her as his apprentice and erstwhile daughter/friend.
"Russell," as Holmes calls her, goes off to Oxford when she comes of age (she is an orphan and was living in the care of her unlikable aunt) and returns home to visit Holmes and his housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. Russell has a brain similar to Sherlock Holmes; she is extremely observant and intuitive, in addition to being off-the-charts bright. She and Holmes get involved in some small cases, followed by a rescue of an American senator's daughter, who has been kidnapped. These all lead to the penultimate case, in which someone is trying to kill both Russell and Holmes. At last, they meet their match.
I have never actually read any Sherlock Holmes stories. The most I know about him comes from that clumsy Robert Downey film that came out a few years ago (I saw it while riding on an Amtrak train going up to Tacoma). From what I've deduced, the author paints a faithful picture of Holmes and Watson. She doesn't shirk from his drug habits, but they are minimized.
The story is told from the perspective of Mary Russell, and what a great young feminist role model she is! It's also rare to find a novel about the purely platonic friendship between a young woman and an older man. They had a marriage purely of minds.
Definitely recommended for mystery or historical fiction fans who like spunky young heroines....more
Satisfying read about 18th century England and the historical making of fireworks...in addition to a young unmarried woman's plight in that era. ReadSatisfying read about 18th century England and the historical making of fireworks...in addition to a young unmarried woman's plight in that era. Read my full review here:
This marks the first time I've given a 1-star rating since starting this book blog. David Rabe primarily writes plays about Vietnam, but has begun braThis marks the first time I've given a 1-star rating since starting this book blog. David Rabe primarily writes plays about Vietnam, but has begun branching out into novels.
I picked this book up at the library. The reviews both on the book jacket and online were stellar.
I read the first 25 pages or so and could not muster any sympathy for or interest in the characters. The chapters alternate between an American GI and a Vietnamese prostitute, who eventually end up becoming entangled. It's written in the present tense, in a removed style that could not capture my interest. It's also a very macho book, with all sorts of "tits" and "dick" references, among other things.
It's interesting to note that both Goodreads and Amazon have just a handful of reviews (most of them positive), so it's not a very well-known book. I think it might be a case of a book that appeals more to book critics than real-life readers.
Rachel DuPree cooks for a Chicago boardinghouse that serves African-American slaughterhouse workers in the early 1900s. She meets the snobby landlady'Rachel DuPree cooks for a Chicago boardinghouse that serves African-American slaughterhouse workers in the early 1900s. She meets the snobby landlady's son and decides that he's her ticket out of Chicago. Isaac has ambitious plans to homestead in the Badlands in South Dakota. They strike a deal: she can give Isaac her 160 acres of land and he'll marry her.
In preparation for our trip to Vancouver, BC, last summer, I looked up books about Vancouver. Wayson Choy was one of the most frequently mentioned autIn preparation for our trip to Vancouver, BC, last summer, I looked up books about Vancouver. Wayson Choy was one of the most frequently mentioned authors. I find that Canadian authors are not very widely read in the U.S., and I've found many Canadian gems.
The novel is divided into three sections, each telling the unique perspective of three siblings growing up in the Chinatown of Vancouver. It touches on many issues of race, family, rivalry, the battle between the old ways and the new ways, discrimination, war, and homosexuality.
I found many parts of the novel interesting (for example, the young girl's unique friendship with an older, disfigured Chinese man, or the affair between the Chinese girl and the Japanese boy), but it dragged in other parts. In some sections Choy included far too many characters for the reader to follow. I didn't get the same feeling of place as I did in reading Vancouver.
I have Choy's autobiography out of the library, but I'm not sure whether I'll read it just yet. This book didn't grip me enough as it could have....more
Englishwoman Clara marries soldier Hal, knowing what will be expected of her as a military wife. She follows him to his posting in Cyprus, along withEnglishwoman Clara marries soldier Hal, knowing what will be expected of her as a military wife. She follows him to his posting in Cyprus, along with her two small daughters.
Many years ago, a friend of ours spent a year in Cyprus and had an amazing experience. What she told us is the extent of my knowledge about the country, before reading this book.
In the 1950s, Cypriots were rebelling against British rule. Clara gets caught in the middle of this civil crisis, as Hal witnesses some life-changing, very disturbing actions by his men.
I found it frustrating that the author used a number of acronyms and abbreviations in her book, which are most likely unknown and not understood by the reader.
The characters felt distant--from each other as well as from the reader--which I suspect was intentional. It was a "very proper British marriage," with not a lot of lively conversation taking place, but clearly fondness for each other.
Barbara Cleverly's Joe Sandilands series is about a British detective and former army man working in India during the time of the Raj. I found the firBarbara Cleverly's Joe Sandilands series is about a British detective and former army man working in India during the time of the Raj. I found the first three of the series to be unique and colorful, portraying the evocative, fragrant era of 1920s India. As I've found with other series (such as those by Patricia Cornwell and Sue Grafton), though, this one is struggling to maintain its originality and verve. My interest is waning a bit.
The book opens up with an exciting scene: a person-eating tiger attacks a small Indian village girl. Soon we move onto the lives of the British ruling class in India and Joe Sandilands is sent by his supervisor down to a Northern territory where the ruling maharaja is dying.
I enjoyed the scenes of Joe engaging with Lizzie and Madeline, as well as the scene when Bahadur catches him by surprise while he was sleeping. But much of the story got bogged down in detail, especially the scenes involving just the British. At times I found myself ready for the book to be over so I could move onto something else, which is not a particularly good sign.
So I've been vacillating between 2 and 3 stars but ultimately decided on 3 because it was good...but not great. I'll read more of Cleverly--the Sandilands series has a unique premise and setting, and all of the characters--Indian, British, and American in this book--are equally considered as possible perpetrators.
I find also that Cleverly writes interesting, strong women characters, and it's clear to me that this series (although masculine in many ways because of the era) was written by a woman....more
Beginning in 13,477 BC with the stories of Manto and Inish, First Nations people, and ending in the 1990s with the story of another First Nations persBeginning in 13,477 BC with the stories of Manto and Inish, First Nations people, and ending in the 1990s with the story of another First Nations person, this Michener-like sweeping saga describes the hopes, dreams, and journeys traveled of people around the globe, all heading for Vancouver, BC.
Written as a series of short stories, some interweaving, its characters not only include First Nations people, but also a Georgian cartographer sailing with Juan de Fuca, a Scottish fur trader, a Chinese worker, an eccentric English adventurer, a Sikh immigrant, son of a German count, and a conniving and unlikable Canadian stock trader and his daughter. This book doesn't appear to be very widely read in the U.S. (as I've often found to be the case with Canadian fiction, a sad fact), but some of the reviewers have faulted the book for being about the journeys TO Vancouver, and not always taking place entirely in Vancouver. I do not agree with that criticism.
I chose to read this book because of our recent vacation in Vancouver in early August, and I was in the middle of the book while I was there. At 750 pages, it took me several weeks to finish.
I believe it paints an evocative picture of the unique landscape around Vancouver and also educates the reader about the crusty, adventurous sorts who built Vancouver into what it is today. It also respectfully pays tribute to the First Nations who were there before the city and have suffered in so many ways because of industrialization, disenfranchisement, and discrimination (and plain old white greed and colonization).
Many of the stories were not easy to read...especially the early First Nations stories, given the extremely low status of women and the horrible way they were treated. Most of the characters in the book were not particularly likable or sympathethic, with a few exceptions. However, I found their stories and struggles to be fascinating.
The only exceptions were the stories of Walter and Tiffany Dolby (especially Tiffany). All of the stock wrangling and backroom dealing did not hold my interest, and it did not help that Tiffany was completely unlikable and sleazy, using her sex appeal to become rich. I had a much higher opinion of the book until I reached those chapters, which I ended up scanning through.
The authors clearly did an amazing amount of research to write this book. Overall, I really enjoyed it and would recommend it for anyone traveling to Vancouver or who loves that fascinating city....more