It is oddly coincidental that I found myself reading The Visitors when I learned of the death of Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy obviously had legions of fans beIt is oddly coincidental that I found myself reading The Visitors when I learned of the death of Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy obviously had legions of fans because of Spock. I was his fan because of In Search Of. I will always think of Sunday evenings in 1976 or 1977 with fondness. They used to show In Search Of followed by The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. It was 90 blissful moments for a ten year old kid who loved nothing better than 'the mysterious and unexplained!!" Generally I was parked in front of the old color TV/stereo 'console', seated on the funky concrete looking bench 'seat' that lined our open fire place (that was never used) with a bowl of "Heavenly Hash" ice cream from Convenient Food Mart...or some jello loaded with fruit cocktail bits and Cool Whip. It was the 70s in all its glory. A half an hour with "Mr Spock", learning about Unsolved Mysteries! -- and then another hour to goggle at Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson (I was Team Parker) -- combined with highly processed sugary treats and the metabolism of a crack head. Ah. Such are the delights of being young...
My favorite In Search Of episode of all time was The Curse of King Tut! God, that episode rocked. The endless chain of death and tragedy that visited the aristocratic colonial grave invaders....the exotic locale...the priceless treasures from the depths of antiquity...Carter, Carnarvon and all the other Downton Abbey style explorers and Tut, himself -- the enigmatic boy king!!
I fell for that curse story hook, line and sinker as a credulous 5th grader. My little pal did, too. She was a British expat (a detail that I also found tantalizing at the time) who had been around Europe and brought back stashes of Cadbury to grade school. She exuded an aura of sophistication and was also keen on pop-archaeology. Thus we planned to be archaeologists and read everything we could find about The Curse. We looked for evidence of 'curses' everywhere...and, occasionally found some. I'll never forget the wild eyed gasps and bugged out stares we threw at the film projector one Friday morning when Tut's death mask popped up in the midst of some film strip we were snoozing through at Chester Elementary. Tut was on to us, for certain! We knew too much, with our encyclopedia reading and obsessive discussions about In Search Of at the lunch table. Tut had awakened to our activity and we were doomed...
Never in my adult life have I felt the same thrill of delicious terror.
Thus, The Visitors...a lush tale set in the Valley of the Kings, during the discoveries and excavations of the lost tomb of Tutankhamen...set in the 1920s and featuring an unloved and intellectually precocious 11-year-old protagonist and her best chum, the daughter of an American archaeologist....This book was practically written for my Inner Child. It was almost as if Sally Beauman also watched In Search Of as a kid, got curse-struck and fantasized about a life involving adventure and the discovery of priceless antikas.
Lucy, the 11 year old visitor who falls in love with Egypt on her first visit in 1922, grows up to be a very old woman, indeed. As the ninety-something Lucy looks back on her life, with the lure of Egypt and the wonders to be found there always in the background, the reader is taken on a literary adventure across 3 continents. We meet aristocrats and socialites and academics. We are privy to Cambridge politics and Bloomsbury Bohemianism...the Blitz touches us, and we even venture forward into our own contemporary era. Throughout the decades the lure of Egypt and the friends that were made there never completely ebbs. Tragedy strikes Lucy and her friends more often than is kind. It is fanciful to think these incidents are the spiralling web of an ancient curse, but more than likely they are merely the random misfortunes of a long life.
I was predisposed to love this book, as it held the dual attractions of archaeology and quintessentially British saga story telling. In some ways The Visitors conjured another book I raved about a few years back: Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. I found the academic settings, the erudite writing style and the transcontinental adventuring to be similar. I loved both books and I highly recommend this one. My inner eleven-year-old is occasionally fun to visit and she is delighted with The Visitors.
Oh Canada. I am drawn to the place, living as I do on the other side of the lake (Erie.) My house is a couple blocks from the American North Coast shoOh Canada. I am drawn to the place, living as I do on the other side of the lake (Erie.) My house is a couple blocks from the American North Coast shore and our local park affords me a nice view. I am known to sit on the gliders by the edge of the cliff face and look over across Erie pondering a Canadian life. Sometimes I think I could be happier there. If to be British is just an impossible dream, perhaps becoming Canadian is a more attainable fantasy? -- In my mind Britain and it's former colonies populate a geographic high school. Britain must be the upper echelon prom kings and queens; the first tier. The Aussies are the popular and attractive jocks. The Kiwis are the exotic foreign exchange students. And, alas, in my mind the Americans are the kids who eat glue, who barely pass voc ed and who sadistically bully the 'weaker' members of the student body. This leaves the Canadians...they must be the nice people who do in the band and do school fund raisers. Maybe I would be less of a stranger in a strange land if I could just get absorbed into our nicer, cleaner, and blander nation to the north? -- What did Robin Williams once say about Canada? "You're a nice country. You're a big country. It's like having a really nice apartment over a crack house."
My first encounter with Canada was typical -- a series of family vacations to Niagara Falls and Toronto. Niagara Falls was a true obsession with me for awhile in my junior high school days. I was fascinated by the tales of the 'stunters' who fecklessly braved the plunge over the brink in search of fame and prize money. Many left life and limb deep in the rapids of the lower Niagara, but a few lived to tell the tale. I used to buy the little pamphlets and paperback books in the Niagara souvenier shops so that I could read all about these daredevils. Then there were the suicides -- not always published or acknowledged but ever present. Once when my family was visiting we very narrowly missed witnessing a lost soul climb over the edge of the railing at the top of the Canadian Falls and jump to his death. (My sister and I stalled in the hotel room, much to the consternation of my father, because we were addicted to General Hospital and we wanted to see the last 10 minutes of the show before taking our first walk down to the falls. When we did arrive there a bit later, a crowd was still gaping and another tourist filled us in on the grim spectacle that had just played out. Later my dad told us that he was never more grateful in his life that we were so hooked on that soap opera crap because he really didn't want to watch some poor guy leap to his death as a kick off to the family vacation.)
Despite (or perhaps because of) this lurid undertone to the place, the Canadian side of Niagara Falls struck me as a really fascinating place to live and I used to fantasize that I was Canadian when we were there. It was a place I dreamt I might actually be able to live in some time in my future. Later these dreams migrated a bit further north to Toronto...but you get the idea.
My thoughtful friend sent me this book over the summer, shortly after my parents died. She thought I needed a bit of a care package and intuitively sent me all the essentials...lovely chocolate, a gift card for a coffee shop, some TLC products and a copy of this book. We had enjoyed our own teenage adventures in the Falls when we were college students and my friend thought this book might take my mind back to happier times. I guess my reviews on here also betray a fondness for historical fiction. So, this was the escape I needed!
The scene is set at Lauretto, a posh Catholic girls' school. Elizabeth (hitherto referred to as Bess) Heath has enjoyed her school days here very much and has often sat at her window pondering the beauty of the falls and feeling an almost spiritual connection with them. Bess, her elder sister Isobel, and her parents have lead a beautiful and privileged life together at their home, Glenview. Their fates, however, are about to take a turn for the tragic. Mr. Heath has made a series of miscalculations at his job at the Niagara Electric power company and he has lost some money for some important people. He gets the sack and Bess and her family find themselves in reduced circumstances. Bess's mother is forced to return to her youthful role as a seamstress and Bess must give up her last year at Lauretto. Compounding these setbacks, vivacious Isobel is thrown over by her wealthy fiance, Boyce, and grows despondent and suicidal. Life has turned quickly for the family and Bess begins to feel her way through this dismal situation. She no longer spends her time in the company of other privileged young women of the community, but, instead, spends most of her time at Glenview helping her mother sew, watching her father drink, and seeing her beautiful sister fade away.
At the same time, however, Bess has encountered a young man who will change her life. His name is Tom Cole and he is the grandson of legendary river man, Fergus Cole, who could read the Niagara like a map and who became famous in the lore of the region for his many life saving exploits. Tom has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and the river runs in his blood. He spends his days fishing and exploring the river and carefully noting the changes and degradations which have occurred due to the demands of the generators used by the power company. Although the populace can leash the power of the water to produce the electricity they need to make their lives simpler and easier, progress always comes with a price. This is a price Tom is unwilling to pay and he forecasts a dim future for the river.
Bess finds herself on the other side of the debate, but is also very drawn to Tom, as he is to her. In a world that is falling apart around her, Tom represents a breath of fresh air -- someone who does not disparage her because she has lost her money and social standing -- and also a strong attraction.
The Day the Falls Stood Still takes us on a tour of Niagara Falls during the nineteen teens and follows the characters into the First World War and through their trials on the Canadian home front (an area I am unschooled in but find an interesting parallel to the stories I have heard about the American experience.) This is enjoyable historical fiction set in one of my Happy Places. I also love the river and I can picture the River Road and the parkways quite clearly in my mind, although it has now been about 20 years since my last visit. I do not want to get into the end of the story because...spoilers...but I will say that I agree that the book needed to end in the manner in which it did. I think it would have been taking the easy way out if the ending was different. I agree with the author's choice to leave the characters where they were. Sorry to be cryptic. But readers who enjoy historical fiction of this time period can carry on and find out for themselves!...more
West of Sunset is a reason to stand up, clap heartily and even yell out a few 'brava!' rounds at the end of the last page. I suppose the rest of thisWest of Sunset is a reason to stand up, clap heartily and even yell out a few 'brava!' rounds at the end of the last page. I suppose the rest of this review could read 'superlative...superlative...more praise...sorry it had to end...how will even someone as gifted as Stewart O'Nan follow up this one?"
I have enjoyed O'Nan's versatility and his almost microscopic attention to character study for 15 years now. I 'discovered' him back around the year 2000 when I was working for the Akron libraries and I came across a slender little volume titled The Names of the Dead. I was hooked by this strange and moving little story. Although I have not yet read O'Nan's entire canon, he is one of the few writers whom I will eventually get around to reading in completion. Last Night at the Lobster was, in my opinion, a little contemporary masterpiece.
So O'Nan does people extremely well. In past books he has shown a dignified light on the everyday lives of Little People like You and Me. He has embued the lives of everyday characters with a beauty that comes from the struggle of just being alive -- working your deadening jobs, grieving your past, losing your loved ones, and slowly seeing the years erode some of the bright promise. Yet, he is canny enough as a writer to leave the reader with something positive about his characters; hope or quiet strength or just the responsible habits of getting up each morning and doing it again.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Hollywood, is a much more Larger Than Life protagonist than what I have seen O'Nan handle in the past. I was confident in his ability to take this departure, because, again, I am impressed with this guy's versatility with plot and 'feel'. My confidence was not eroded! O'Nan's sympathetic and somewhat sensitive (yet honest) portrayal of the sad and stressed and alcoholic Fitzgerald in his later days was beautiful to read. West of Sunset was both 'fun' and somewhat escapist (Bogie and Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitz hanging out by the pool together at the Garden of Allah? How much fun is that?) -- and melancholy (we all know how it is going to end, right?)
Fitzgerald arrives in Hollywood in 1937 in a last ditch effort to write some screenplays in order to finance Zelda's life in the mental hospital and Scottie's school tuition. Fitz is past his prime. He is no longer as famous as he was during the Roaring Twenties. At 40, life has begun to pass him by and he feels the weight of his responsibilities pressing in. He is, certainly, a drunk. Yet he truly wants to manage his boozing and has an almost Puritanical work ethic when it comes to his writing. He encounters old friends (in the form of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Dottie's husband, Alan Campbell) and meets new ones (notably Humphrey Bogart and his second...or is that third? wife, Mayo Methot.) He also meets the British transplant, society gossip columnist Sheilah Graham (nee Lily Shiel) who will become his last love.
I am a soft touch for anything in the Fitzgerald Universe. I suppose I have read just about all the fiction I can find about Scott and Zelda and their Jazz Age coterie. This book is a stellar addition. Just like Fitz, West of Sunset is sad and beautiful and memorable. It follows in O'Nan's pattern of revealing broken lives. Fitzgerald lead a more glorious and golden and public life for awhile. However, by the time the action in this story takes place...just like in several other books O'Nan has written...the protagonist finds himself in a reduced situation with only his sense of responsibility to those around him and his daily habits of living to carry him through.
In one scene near the beginning of the book, Fitzgerald attends a party at the home of actor, Fredric March to premiere a film done by Ernest Hemingway (which is dreadful) to promote interest in the Spanish revolutionaries. Scott prepares to leave the party and approaches March, who obviously does not recognize him:
"Thank YOU, sir," March said heartily, clearly unaware of who he was, a fact Scott dwelt upon, cruising the neon gauntlet of Sunset. L. A. had never been his city, and as the glowing late-night coffee shops and drive-ins slid by on both sides, he thought he understood why. For all its tropical beauty there was something charmless and hard about it, a vulgarity as decidedly American as the picture industry which thrived on the constant waves of transplants eager for work, offering them nothing more substantial than sunshine. It was a city of strangers, but, unlike New York, the dream L.A. sold, like any Shangri-La, was one not of surpassing achievement but unlimited ease, a state attainable by only the very rich and the dead. Half beach, half desert, the place was never meant to be habitable. The heat was unrelenting. On the streets there was a weariness that seemed even more pronounced at night, visible through the yellow windows of burger joints and drugstores about to close, leaving their few customers nowhere to go. Inconceivably, he was one of that rootless tribe now, doomed to wander the boulevards, and again he marveled at his own fall, and at his capacity for appreciating it."
After the end of The Great War, the genteel class in England felt a great shift beneath their well heeled feet. Society was irrevocably changed by theAfter the end of The Great War, the genteel class in England felt a great shift beneath their well heeled feet. Society was irrevocably changed by the amazing cost of the war, in blood and in treasure. Those who returned from the trenches were often much altered, by shell shock or by the sense that nothing much mattered after you have spent your youth bathed in the blood of your fellow men. That ruthlessly lovely dreamland of Downton Abbey and Upstairs/Downstairs that we 21st century types love to romance ourselves with was crumbling along with the grand houses that populated its landscape.
Sarah Waters, once again, takes her finely honed writing skills into the landscape of a house and the sad family who inhabits it. The setting could not be more attractive to This Reviewer...it is a feast of 1920s delicacies! A once gracious home in a 'good' neighborhood is slowly sinking into disrepair. The widow Wray and her headstrong spinster daughter, Frances, now live there alone after the death of both sons in the war and the death of Mr Wray by the anxieties and despair of this new age.
The elder Mrs Wray plays hard at ignoring the plight their small female household has descended into after the late Mr Wray frittered away the money on poor investments. There is no money for staff, so it is up to Frances to see to the house. Some of my favorite scenes in the story were those of Frances setting her back to one domestic chore or another -- the better to picture the house in my mind's eye. (I often delude myself that I would enjoy housekeeping so much more if there was a grander house to keep. I am also positive that this is bullshit. I'd still find it a bore. But a girl can dream...) But my enjoyment of retro upper crust housing stock is a well that never runs dry and Waters does a fine job with her houses.
The people who populate them are also of interest. The character of Frances is prickly, dissatisfied but also broken. She once dreamed of a love of her own and a bohemian life in London. Alas, but her love was that of the Sapphic variety (to parse a more Edwardian phrase) and the hint of the affair was enough to scandalize her mother and, quite possibly, send her father to a premature demise.
Frances is cowed. She shoulders the burden of the scrubbing and wiping and hauling and penny pinching and devotes herself to shielding her mother from the worst of their genteel poverty. Thus the story begins with a declasse solution: that of taking in 'paying guests' to help meet the budget demands of their household. Taking in renters is the first truly tangible bit of evidence that the Wrays have, indeed, 'slipped'. It is distasteful business. But mother and daughter prepare to meet their new lodgers with characteristic British stiff upper lip.
The lodgers are Len and Lil (short for Lilian) Barber -- members of the Clerk Class. They are suspect and they arrive much too noisily. It is enough to give one vapors. But needs must. Mrs Wray retires early. Frances feels the distaste of her home being invaded by others.
Feeling the need to escape, Frances soon goes to visit her former love, Christina, who has achieved her bohemian life without Frances, and instead shares a flat with a new partner -- school mistress, Stevie. Upon hearing of Frances's new living arrangement with boarders upstairs, the women (all of 'good homes' though scandalous themselves) trade jokes at the Barbers expense and Stevie warns Frances of the underlying viciousness and poor breeding of the Clerk Class. Although the class system is beginning to crumble, it will die hard in the minds of most of the Right Sort of People...
Yet, as the pages turn and the description of Lil's frocks and her decorating style meld seamlessly into the building of her character, we begin to wonder what else might be happening behind the shopgirl facade. And Frances becomes, at first intrigued, and a bit later, attracted. A tenuous friendship between the two women begins as Lil is left alone each day when her husband ventures out to his insurance business and Frances is abandoned to the housecleaning by her mother (who prefers to visit the vicar or the neighbors).
As Frances grows closer to Lil, she grows more and more uneasy with the husband, Len. Len always seems to be there, crowding into her kitchen, smoking in the garden, or coming and going up the stairs. She feels that all is not as it should be in the Barber marriage. She is easily annoyed by his presence.
And, of course, this all ends with an admission of attraction -- and later -- of love. But this is nowhere near the end of the story (or much of a spoiler). It is this admission and the tentative yet dangerous steps taken to a second shot at happiness that take Frances down a much darker path than she ever could foresee.
The Paying Guests is a first class read for Anglophiles, for the dreamers who want to live in 1924, for any reader who gets enjoys getting caught up in a good character driven historical fiction/crime story that will keep one rapidly turning pages to the very last paragraph....more
The Hundred Year House was a compelling read populated with people I did not like. Although the characters, in many ways, combined to form an assholeThe Hundred Year House was a compelling read populated with people I did not like. Although the characters, in many ways, combined to form an asshole convention, I was soon rapidly turning pages to learn how their stories would intertwine over the course of decades. In this way, the story reminded me of Gone Girl -- a tale of unpleasant people both perpetrating and enduring unpleasant things at a master level.
The inhabitants of Laurelfield, (the Hundred Year House and former artist's colony), are all haunted in various ways. Some are haunted by their pasts (the members of the troubled DeVohr family) and others are haunted by their present inability to reach their goals. The House seems to lend a feeling of ennui and depression to some of the residents (Case and Zee) -- and a certain manic-ism to others (Miriam, Eddie Parfitt, and, to a degree, Doug). The House harbors many secrets about many of the troubled souls who have established residency within it's walls over the years. Will the house reveal its secrets?
Doug sets out to uncover the Laurelfield archives and, in the process, learns more about the fates of the Devohr family. Others secrets about the artists from the Colony years are not revealed to Doug. However, we as readers become privy to them in a unique and twisty plot.
I would say more about this well crafted suspense story...but I have to jump in the car and drive to Pittsburgh. I am in the midst of a another good one I hope to read in the hotel later tonight.
In the meantime, readers who might enjoy a family saga filled with mysterious surprises would do well to begin here....more
This was a charming little book and a very quick read. I finished it awhile ago (read it in less than a week, even with my hectic schedule) and am jusThis was a charming little book and a very quick read. I finished it awhile ago (read it in less than a week, even with my hectic schedule) and am just now getting around to posting about it. There are some familiar plot points in this haunted house story...a young Victorian lady who is left alone in the world when her loving father catches his death of a chill, rather literally, and dies after venturing out in inclement weather to hear Charles Dickens give a lecture. Eliza, unsettled after the death of her last parent, must find a way to begin anew. Despite her position at a girl's school in London, Eliza decides, impetuously, to answer an ad for a governess. Her inquiry is promptly responded to and she is hired.
Her new position takes her to Norfolk and the brooding walls of Gaudlin Hall...but not before a series of bizarre and unsettling events occur at the train station in Gaudlin. Eliza meets a friendly enough couple who assist her when she nearly steps into the path of a train, shrouded in the almost preternatural fog that surrounds the platform. However, upon admitting to her new friends that her destination is Gaudlin Hall, Eliza notices a sudden chill in their reaction to her...
Eliza is also nearly run down by a woman who is fleeing onto the outgoing train as if her life depends upon it. There is something familiar in the letters "H B" which are monogrammed on the woman's valise, but Eliza cannot quite determine what detail is tugging at the back of her mind.
Thus, she meets the surly driver who is sent to take her Gaudlin and proceeds with the final leg of her somewhat treacherous journey. Upon arrival at the manor, Eliza is troubled to learn that her two young charges appear to be left alone to greet her. Isabel and Eustace attempt to settle Eliza into her new quarters at the hall, but their parents are nowhere to be found and Eliza's questions are only half answered.
Soon Eliza realizes that they are not, indeed, alone in this house, but that the house is filled with forces all its own. Some of these forces are malevolent and wish Eliza great harm. In the spirit of the fortitude shown by Jane Eyre while in the company of the forbidding Mr Rochester, Eliza does not flee. Instead she takes it upon herself to learn the secrets of Gaudlin Hall, of which there are many and dark. We, the reader, are in for a gothic treat as we accompany Eliza on her quest to know the truth behind the tragic Westfield family.
I am giving this book 5 stars. Maybe this book is really just a 4 star read. I might even be convinced at a later point that this book is a 3 star reaI am giving this book 5 stars. Maybe this book is really just a 4 star read. I might even be convinced at a later point that this book is a 3 star read. I don't do a lot of 5 star rankings because I usually want to 'leave room' for an even better next effort from the author, or for a future book I will love even more. But today I am feeling generous. Life After Life was a fabulous piece of story telling. Atkinson is a talented writer. I would probably enjoy just about any story she might care to tell, based on what I saw in her ability to set a wide variety of scenes and develop a panorama of characters. -- But the combination of a reincarnation story set in England (London and its environs) during the mid 20th century? An author who can give me that is doing the equivalent of a baker giving Homer Simpson a bag of crack laced doughnuts. I am going to devour that story greedily and in large chunks...mourn the ending and immediately begin to search frantically for my next literary 'fix'.
Life After Life begins with the odd and precarious birth of Ursula Todd. Ursula is born to the Downton-esque Sylvie and Hugh. They are not nobility. Hugh is a middle class banker. They are, however, well off enough to live in a country house with grounds which is called Fox Corner. Ursula nearly dies at birth when she is delivered with the cord wrapped around her throat. The doctor and the midwife are held up by weather. Cold but indomitable Sylvie and the skittish Irish maid, Bridget, see Ursula through her first of many life challenges. The forces of life, you see, wish to kill Ursula. She is born and dies several times over. Accidents happen. Ursula returns to the scene of her birth -- always with a memory of what had gone wrong before. She lives under a perpetual haze of deja vu. She becomes known as an odd and intense child.
Throughout all of her lives there is always the constant of Fox Corner and the family who resides there. Ursula and her parents and siblings. Each lifetime revolves around this same closely connected group of people. Ursula loves her family and wants only to keep them safe and to avoid the accidents and tragedies (WWI, the Spanish Flu Epidemic, WWII/the Blitz) that only she can foresee.
Atkinson uses this plot device to play with the character of Ursula -- who always remains fundamentally the same personality -- but who ends up with very different destinies depending on the choices she makes during each lifetime. It is fascinating to think of one's life running along an infinite array of parallel trajectories...and how our paths are so significantly altered by the people we meet along the way and by the times in which we live.
I found the scenes of the London Blitz to be most affecting. Everyday people went stoically to their cellars night after night to wait it out while bombs dropped over their streets. Survivors waded through rubble and human remains, cleaning and sorting and making due. Without providing too much in the way of spoilers, I must mention that Atkinson takes the story further afield than I initially anticipated and moves some of the story to Germany. This provides a counterweight to the story that is not typically given. The German scenes were some of the most memorable for me.
I did not actually like Ursula so much as a person. I loved Hugh. I was highly entertained by Ursula's bad girl Aunt. I thought sister Pamela was a Good Egg. I would have made different choices in Ursula's shoes. But this is the point. What if you were given do-overs? Ursula gets to try so many paths. I became thoroughly engrossed in her journeys and experiences. This was entertaining and also thought provoking fiction at its best.
Life After Life gave me a clear example of how books can be lifelines. Books have been lifelines for me throughout my life. When I have gone through tragic times and when I have felt my most lonely I have turned to reading as an escape hatch into another world. I spent hours reading Nancy Drew stories when I was 8 years old and I learned that my mom had cancer. I spent more hours reading mysteries and espionage stories home alone on weekends as a gawky and socially awkward teenager. In a book I could always picture myself as a glamourous and rapier witted protagonist. In a book I could always find a friend. It became easy to lose myself in a world that was more exciting and less painful than my own. -- I picked up this book about one week after the death of my mother. This summer I lost my mom and dad to cancer -- (it finally caught up with us)-- two of the most loved people in my world left me within a three week period. I did not know when or how I would be able to feel much of anything. It seemed impossible that I would be able to enjoy a book (or anything else). I was stunned with grief and life felt surreal.
On autopilot I did what I always do: I went to the library and looked for a good book. I found this one. I became completely immersed. I couldn't put it down. I enjoyed it! It took me away to that other world. And it gave me the first evidence that I will go on to enjoy so many more stories. By the middle of this book, I knew I was on my way back to a whole life. -- If a book that can do this doesn't deserve 5 stars from me, then I guess nothing ever will.
I would recommend this book as a "3 to 5 star read' for people who love historical fiction with a touch of magic. Kate Atkinson is someone I am immediately adding to my 'Must Read Authors' short list.
One of my fonder memories of growing up in the Redneck Sleepy Hollow was the sometimes lonely walk up my street in the autumn when the leaves of the tOne of my fonder memories of growing up in the Redneck Sleepy Hollow was the sometimes lonely walk up my street in the autumn when the leaves of the thousands of trees that surrounded it were in full regalia but the sky was darkening and bleak. It was both beautiful and terrifying. Being morbid I would often consider the fact that just about anyone could be watching me from behind one of those big old growth trees. If they ever decided to do more than watch...who would see or hear? For whatever reason (probably youthful stupidity) -- this feeling was more drama than fear. Sometimes I would merely enjoy the silence and the view. Other times I would think about a character in one of the era's horror movies (Halloween comes to mind) or I would think about Stephen King.
Because Stephen King has a way with small towns. He loves them...the reader can tell. His small town characters are almost schmaltz. They can be such salt-of-the-earth heroes that they are about as believable as a Frank Capra movie. Still, it is nice. Stephen King needs to craft the amazingly good because he counters it with the rot of the evil. Being me, it is the Bad Small Town that has always captured my imagination.
In my case, I lived in the Bad Small Town. Oh...not like Derry, Maine. There were no clown ghouls pulling children down into drains below. Just an ill match for me. As the race riots and the escalating crime of Cleveland's more urban east side neighborhoods ushered in the seventies my parents decided that it would be good for the family to pack up and move farther out to a bucolic little crossroads on the county line. Hoping for Mayberry we ended up in Dogpatch-- just about the time it was scheduled for a head on collision with New Money.
Not having the bank for one of the faux colonials in the upstart developments we landed on a little street in Old Dogpatch instead. Our neighbors were a collection right out of Stephen King's plot lines. One neighbors son was a charismatic little imp of a five-year-old who broke into our house our first morning there. My mother found him sitting in our kitchen eating our cereal when she came in to fix her morning coffee. His dad was a drunk and his older brother was already in jail. This kid had a big heart. He occasionally shielded me from a neighborhood ass kicking. And, even at age five, he was considerate enough to take his pilfered smokes outside.
The family next door was a veritable Peyton Place. Mom stumbled around the yard with her wine glass by 3:30 in the afternoon. The two younger boys heaved rocks from the driveway at one another's heads with the dim purpose of what country folk call 'eejits". The oldest son was a terrifying hulk with absolutely nothing going on behind his eyes. One day those boys burned a cat to death for sport. Other days were more light hearted. My father was grotesquely fascinated by these 'cretins'. He would occasionally sit with his glass of iced tea in a lawn chair and simply watch...transfixed by their actions. We invented Reality TV back in 1971. We just did not know it.
Finally, one Saturday afternoon my mom, my sister and I came back from a trip to civilisation (the mall located a good 25 minute drive from our house.) "Lock the door!" was my dad's greeting. "That imbecile next door has finally gone stark raving mad. I watched the whole thing! He's running around the woods right now (located behind all of our houses there in Sleepy Hollow) -- screaming and waving an axe!! He thinks the trees are after him." Axe man vanished for awhile. Came back. And blessedly moved away with the rest of the clan late one night without warning...but only after chucking an actual porcelain dinner plate with his half eaten dinner on it into our yard as a parting shot. Five minutes after they pulled out of our life forever, their eyeball searing garage light, which had shined steadily and directly into my parent's bedroom window for the past eight years like some malevolent alien eye, burned out. Exit stage left.
You really can't make this shit up. And thus was life.
I left as soon as I decently could. Nobody in my family questioned why! But I would return at college breaks and then later...after I moved farther into the city, to visit my parents. It was on one of these visits that I had my very own Bad Small Town encounter with a mob of high school kids in the local McDonalds. They did not like me. They did not like my clothing. They did not like my friends. So they surrounded us and started to harass us en masse. Well into my twenties and sporting a new City Mouth I couldn't believe this shit. So I told off the ring leader and marched up to the counter to demand some action from the weary woman at the cash register. In true Derry, Maine form she told me "There's nothing I can do about it. One of them is my son." Incredulous I told my friends that we were going to go visit Barney Fife up the street and file a police report. The Mob followed us into the parking lot and blocked our car. Eventually they grew tired of the abuse and moved on to terrorise another day. It was near midnight when we entered the police station in my 'home town'. Where we were laughed out the door by Officer Fife. Apparently he didn't care much for me either.
Casual malice...condoned (or at least unchecked) by authority. This was the modus operandi in my little burg. I think Stephen King understands that this happens.
So when I read Stephen King as a young teen it was certainly for his signature brand of Name Brand Normal terror. He could unearth the nightmare that lurked just behind the most mundane of surfaces. But I also loved his early stuff for his towns. To this day I am a sucker for the collision of the decent with the twisted in small town life. I love Rod Serling for this. I love David Lynch when he works with this theme. And I love and miss vintage Stephen King.
I can say with no small amount of pleasure that, although King has taken a departure with 11/22/63 into a saga of time travel and historical fiction, he has also remained true to the best of his roots. In this new novel he has returned to Derry...a town who's chilling grip has not let go of me since I last ventured into it back in grad school while reading It. King has balanced the scale through the creation of the Good Small Town of Jodie, Texas. These towns play off of one another throughout the book like two sides of a mirror. (We all have a dark side somewhere, right?)
I am further in love with the time travel element. Time travel fascinates me and when it is done well it makes for some of the most compelling reading I ever experience. As many readers are already aware, King has created a story in which the protagonist accepts a challenge from a dying friend to make a trip back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. In the tradition of a good time travel story, we meet characters, learn their motivations and ponder their future acts for good or for ill. Why does history unfold as it does? Can it be changed? Should it be? Thus the gauntlet is thrown for a page turning extravaganza that is Yes: over the top in places and Yes: implausible in many ways and Yes: descends into King Schmaltz from time to time. But it is Stephen King placing characters in poisonous environments (because the Big D has a malevolent personality too) of varying kinds and letting them loose to see what they can do.
There is a car. There is a dame. There is a hero of sorts. There are the usual sages and sad sacks and vicious small town prudes. There is horror. But there is really more tragedy here. Enjoy the ride. This is very entertaining reading.
I suppose that, before the Big Question of "Beatles or Stones?" arose, there was probably a similar query about "Fitzgerald or Hemingway?". I have alwI suppose that, before the Big Question of "Beatles or Stones?" arose, there was probably a similar query about "Fitzgerald or Hemingway?". I have always been in the Fitzgerald camp and was never much interested in Papa Hemingway or his work. By the time I was of age to read The Master Works, Hemingway had come to represent the macho-schmacho world of philandering and hard drinking and less than evolved views of women. The bull fighting and the brawling and the Ego and the long stream of discarded wives and lovers were a turn off. By comparison, Fitz just seemed like a tragic drunk undone by a fascinating sociopath.
But part of me will forever attempt to live in the Jazz Age and I remain captivated by almost any story with that setting. And Hemingway was at its very epicenter in Paris between the wars. How could I resist?
The Paris Wife worked well for me because, although I have neutral or negative feelings toward The Man Himself, this story was not his story. This is the story of his first wife, Hadley Richardson, who met and fell in love with Ernest when she was a quiet spinster of 29. Through Hadley's devoted eyes, the reader sees the young Hemingway in a more sympathetic life. Certainly there are foreshadows of the ego and the single minded careerism and selfishness to come. But the lovers meeting in Chicago is sweet enough and you find yourself rooting for the couple. Hadley wants him so badly and loves him so much. As a reader, you want her to have that.
Paris becomes the change agent...the metaphor for the harder edged modernity and cruel experimentation that will usher in a new social era just as Hemingway and his peers are crafting a new form of literature. The Paris of the 1920s is a glittering gem in the imaginations of 21st century dwellers who are responding to a period that seems so much more attractive than our own. This same Paris leads the Hemingways and their friends down a mad cycle of self destruction that we know to be inevitable. Still it is such a let down to see that brief pageant fade into ruins. Few of the literary luminaries and their immediate circle seem to survive it well.
The course of the Hemingway marriage is on a compatible path with that of the Roaring Twenties. Hadley provides the stable foundation for Hem's drive and genius. He loves her and he needs her but his sense of grandiosity and self-interest (and greed) are already planted somewhere within him when he and Hadley first meet.
One would expect that Hadley's voice would grow weaker and more tragic as she begins to see Hemingway slip away into the arms of slicker and more sophisticated friends who recognize the role he will eventually play in the literary world. However, the most gratifying aspect of this story, for me, is that Hadley's voice and spirit actually grow stronger as her life with Hem begins to slip out of control.
This is literary history so it cannot be much of a spoiler to conclude that their love affair ends badly. Happily, Hadley -- 'The Paris Wife' -- is one of the survivors...much more equipped for what the future years hold than her much celebrated ex husband. Hadley's voice is gracious and generally lacking in resentment toward Ernest. As a reader, I appreciated that strength of character and celebrated her eventual success.
The Paris Wife is straightforward and decent quality historic fiction. It has provoked my interest in reading Hem's 'A Moveable Feast' eventually and correcting that omission in my reading history. ...more
In Snow in August, Pete Hamill reconstructs a time and place that is very dear to me...in a second hand way. The ethnic working class city neighborhooIn Snow in August, Pete Hamill reconstructs a time and place that is very dear to me...in a second hand way. The ethnic working class city neighborhood in post-War America. I knew parts of this tale already; my favorite stories growing up were the ones my dad told me about the Old Neighborhood in those optimistic years after the war but before the realization dawned that the city was dying. Before I knew the man, there was the Boy. I have caught only glimpses of the Boy throughout my life -- the love of baseball and comics and running like the wind through the parks and sand lots and down the city streets; all the buddies with the impossible ethnic surnames shortened to nick names...the priest who first inspired and then disillusioned...the refuge and freedom found in the city library and the desire, eventually, to escape the Old Neighborhood for Someplace Better. Then the mourning for what was and what can never again be.
Hamill's boy protagonist, Michael Devlin, would be my father's age if he were real and alive today. They would have been great friends as city boys. I know for a fact that my dad loved Terry & the Pirates, collected comics and had the same boundless enthusiasm for baseball. I am also well aware of the significance of 'pegged pants'. Michael softened his rough edges through his chance meeting with Rabbi Hirsch and the ensuing friendship they forged over stories and language lessons. My father found his outlet through art and reading. Their 'Silent Generation' is not known for navel gazing prose and self actualization. But theirs is a generation that is as elegiac about their collective past as any other. There is still time to hear their story. But not all the time in the world.
So, I liked this book. The characters seemed plausible to me because I have heard about them many times in many forms and personalities. The inevitable changes in Hamill's Brooklyn working class Irish neighborhood were as traumatic and sad as the changes experienced here in Cleveland and, indeed, in cities across the nation at that time. There were a few golden years after the war when the men came home and there were jobs and the neighborhood celebrated being together again. And then the diaspora to the suburbs began. At first it was a trickle and then it was a stream of people loading up and moving out. And there was a vacuum left by the families and the new prosperity. This vacuum was filled by people of a more desperate nature in some cases. People with less.
As Michael yearns for a father (his was killed in the war), loses his childhood, discovers loyalty and meaning, forges a dangerous friendship, and faces a horrific set of challenges over the course of one terrible yet beautiful summer I, as a reader, am moved. Snow In August reminds me of all that was good and all that was brutal about mid twentieth century American life in the lower classes. Hamill uses the larger backdrop of a world forever changed by the Holocaust and the Atom Bomb to offset a smaller microcosm of a neighborhood and the people who lived in it who were also forever changed by their times.
Pete Hamill's style is workmanlike. He is not 'literary'. He is not clever or ironic or post-modern. Thus, he will not appeal to some readers in my generation who enjoy a more snide or less sentimental take. He tells a good story the way my dad tells a good story. There is color and punch and some elements of magic are present. The heroes are heroes and the villains are rat bastards. Although Hamill hints at gray areas and some aspects of his tale are up for interpretation, the story needs a satisfying ending and it gets one. The ambiguity my generation craves...the anti-hero...the constant reminder that "life is a bitch and then you die" is not Hamill's style. Snow in August, like much that has been gifted to us by my parent's generation, gives the reader hope. Hope that all is not lost and that, every once in awhile, the better side of human nature rises up. (Besides, I tip my glass to Mr. Hamill for also reminding us, in another book, Why Sinatra Matters. Michael Devlin, Rabbi Hirsch and my dad join me in that toast.) ...more
Needing a break from Real Life this month, I once again dove into a Kate Morton story. Almost exactly one year ago Kate Morton got me through 6 weeksNeeding a break from Real Life this month, I once again dove into a Kate Morton story. Almost exactly one year ago Kate Morton got me through 6 weeks of bronchitis and pleurisy and basic exhaustion. Winter 2013 features cancer in the family, a stressful workload for my spouse, as well as all the usual worries about finances and schedules and getting everyone where they need to be at the right time while simultaneously getting my work done at the office and at home. The 21st Century has lost a bit of its questionable lustre lately and I have basically fled into Kate Morton World.
You know...stately manor homes with dread secrets...whispers from the past...a survivor or two from a distant era who may uncover the truth at the eleventh hour. And lovely pictures of glamorous people from storied eras...
The House at Riverton especially appealed to me because it placed me in my fantasy setting: The Jazz Age. Being Kate Morton, it automatically placed me in my fantasy geographic location: Britain. Beyond that, all I need is a reasonably good story in the hands of a reasonably talented writer. Kate Morton fills the bill superbly.
In short, the troubled Hartford family is introduced through the narrative memories of 98 year old Grace Bradley. She was in service to them at their estate, Riverton, during the heady days of World War I and the glittering 1920s. Young Grace comes from her own small family of secrets and has a special connection to the Hartford estate through her mother, who also had worked at the manor as a domestic during her own youth.
Her duties put her in the path of the three Hartford children, David, Hannah and Emmeline. Grace's life is vastly different from that of the privileged Hartford children, but fate has put her on a parallel course with theirs. Grace grows especially connected with the eldest daughter, Hannah, and, for a decade or so, their paths are entwined, Upstairs/Downstairs style.
Tragic events involving the casualties of war and of love ensue. Grace is haunted throughout her life by the cameo role she played in the drama at Riverton and...eventually...the dark truth is revealed.
This is a great choice for anglophile readers who enjoy Country House dramas and gothic tragedy as well as family sagas. I keep this author for specific times in my life when I need that literary escape and she has not failed me yet!...more
I was born in 1966 -- just a few years after the setting for most of the activity in Kathryn Stockett's very affecting story about the dual worlds ofI was born in 1966 -- just a few years after the setting for most of the activity in Kathryn Stockett's very affecting story about the dual worlds of blacks and whites set on a collision course in the segregated South. It is generally a blow to the ego to start regarding the era of your childhood as 'historical fiction'. I make the modernist mistake of being far too easy on the post-war era and often romanticize it into a stereotype. The Help reminded me why this is a problem. There is plenty from The American Century that is best left behind us--to put it mildly. I am more than ready to view the overt racist cruelties inflicted on "the Help" as history. As ugly as our society can still be today, it is hard to fathom the behavior portrayed in Stockett's book if you came of age, as I did, after the Civil Rights Era.
Growing up in the northern Rust Belt in a progressive family, I never recall a time when it was 'ok' to use racial slurs or to regard members of any race as inferior. But I do remember, on the peripheries of my life, plenty of racial division and mistrust and even hate. The old folks in those days had grown up in the 1920s, an era roiling with prejudice, lynching and views on race that would make Archie Bunker blush with embarrassment. Had they lived in the south, many of these people would have worked their 'colored help' shamelessly and with little regard for personal dignity.
Although I am too young to remember this, when we joined the white exodus to the outer suburbs in 1970, one of the neighborhood boys asked my dad if we were "selling out to n#ggers". The Hough Riots had occurred a couple months after my birth and the entire Cleveland area was still a racial tinder box just waiting for another match to strike conflagration in any neighborhood, black or white. Two years later, in 1968, the Glenville shoot-outs erupted. Behind the suburban bungalow fantasies lay plenty of violence and ugliness.
Still others rose to great heights in this era and stood for change. My husband has a friend whose dad was close friends with a young Presbyterian minister back in the 1960s. This man, still in his twenties, had a wife and young family and a lot to live for. But one day he stood in front of a bulldozer in protest against a segregated school building project. He was a white man. But he had had enough. He was crushed to death by this bulldozer. But people here still remember his act of conscience almost fifty years later.
Recently Dr. Laura Schlessinger has made national news by basically telling an African American caller to "just get over it" when her white husband's friends and family make racist comments around her. We are not finished with racial battling in America yet.
Stockett's characters -- affluent white women in Jackson, Mississippi and their maids -- represent the good, the bad and the ugly in the Jim Crow Era. In Hilly Holbrook we see a truly vile woman who is determined to hang onto her power and maintain the status quo come hell or high tide. She is a fierce segregationist who plays dirty underneath her high society veneer. Skeeter Phelan is her foil -- an awkward intellectual misplaced in the Jackson social milieu. Skeeter's sentimental attachment to her childhood caregiver, a black maid named Constantine, causes her to start asking awkward questions when she returns from college and finds Constantine mysteriously gone.
The maids are given full voice in the unforgettable characters of Aibeleen and Minny. Aibeleen is a big hearted older woman who has spent her entire life caring for white babies and young children. Aibeleen's own son, Treelow, was killed in an accident and this event has deeply scarred Aibeleen more than any other trauma she has experienced. Minny is Aibeleen's close friend and her counterpart in the story. She is brash and bold, devoted to her kids and married to a drinking man who beats her.
The individual lives of Aibeleen, Minny, Hilly and Skeeter become entwined in a complex web of deceit when Skeeter decides to write a book about "the Help" and represent life from their point of view. In so doing, Skeeter is courting disaster and estrangement from her world -- but she is also taking the first steps toward the life she really wants. By agreeing to help Skeeter, in secret, with this forbidden project, Aibeleen discovers her own amazing voice and the power of the written word and starts to find meaning in her life once more.
This is a story about abiding love and vicious hatred and the larger issues of segregation and racism. Mainly, however, it is a compelling story of friendship and how something that simple can promote enormous change in the lives of people.
I read this many years ago and it has stayed with me. A tale of how obsessive love can poison a person. Characters who stay with me for decades are raI read this many years ago and it has stayed with me. A tale of how obsessive love can poison a person. Characters who stay with me for decades are rare. These characters did....more
I had a passion for Robert Goddard in the 1990s and recall this as one of my favorites. When this author is on top of his game the results are brilliaI had a passion for Robert Goddard in the 1990s and recall this as one of my favorites. When this author is on top of his game the results are brilliant. Time to go through the back list and see what I have missed from this master of psychological suspense....more