This book tells the tale of the last years of Samuel Johnson's (compiler of one of the most influential English dictionaries, among other things) life...moreThis book tells the tale of the last years of Samuel Johnson's (compiler of one of the most influential English dictionaries, among other things) life, focusing on his time spent with the Thrales', and even more specifically, on Queeney Thrales, the eldest daughter of the family.
Reading this book is sort of like the literary equivalent of watching Gosford Park. You start out with an excess of characters thrown at you, none of which you're really sure about, and then as the story evolves, you get to know some of the characters very well (Johnson himself, Queeney, and Mrs. Thrales) some a bit better, and some not at all. You hear bits of conversations and stories that are never fully explained, and some that are fully fleshed out.
I felt that, rather than Johnson, Queeney was the beating heart of this story, and when she wasn't present, it got a bit lost, like a boat without its rudder. I did feel, though, that the author did a fantastic job of making a huge historical figure seem very, very real. I mean, she was unstinting in making his portrayal, and everyone's, really, as unglamorous as possible. Was it accurate? I don't know. But when you read historical fiction, how can you truly know how much was history, and how much was fiction, without doing some research...which, frankly, I wasn't the least bit tempted to do after this. In fact, I was more than ready to close the book and move on, by the time I was 3/4 of the way through. Never a good sign.
I have to mention an odd storytelling device the author used. Interspersed between the chapters, were letters from an adult Queeney, responding to an unknown woman, who was attempting to write a biography of Johnson. You never saw the biographer's letters, just Queeney's. Their function, I suppose, was to fill in some of the gaps, and answer some of the questions that were left, because of the way the story was written, but more often, they left me with more questions.
Specimen Days to According to Queeney by way of a famous literary figure's appearance in the story. Walt Whitman in the first section of the former, and Samuel Johnson being the focus of the latter.(less)
This book contained three stories. The first was a historical fiction set during the Industrial Revolution in New York, and was a creepy horror story,...moreThis book contained three stories. The first was a historical fiction set during the Industrial Revolution in New York, and was a creepy horror story, with a literal Deus Ex Machina. The second was set in a post 9/11 New York, and was a police detective story, realistic enough to remind me of my work, and with an ending to it that I found even more unsettling than the first section's. The final section, my favorite of the three, took place in a post-apocalyptic future, and involved a road trip from New York to the midwest, with three unlikely characters.
The book is beautifully, beautifully written, and is by the author of The Hours, which I did not love, but could see shades of that in this. Because it is in three parts, and because the parts were so linked to each other (Walt Whitman's poetry, the character's names, a china bowl, and even more, if you looked closely for them) I was hoping for something, at the end, that would tie it all together into something bigger. It ended up that the parts were greater than the whole, but the parts were lovely, and the story lingered enough in my mind, that I didn't want to pick something else right up after it, which is always my indicator of a good book, so I have no reservations at all with giving this the full 5 stars.
The View from Saturday to Specimen Days because I had no other books with days of the week in them, and this was closest to that.(less)
A group of four sixth grade classmates, with inexplicible ties between them, form a group they call The Souls, for inexplicable reasons. Then they are...moreA group of four sixth grade classmates, with inexplicible ties between them, form a group they call The Souls, for inexplicable reasons. Then they are chosen by a teacher to compete, as a group, in an academic bowl...or did they choose her?
As you can probably tell by my description, and my one star rating, of course, I was not fond of this book. Too much in it was pat, pretty, unrealistic, and completely unexplained. So many times, I found myself saying 'that would never happen,' or 'how would they know that?' or 'that person would never react that way.' (Most notably, the trite ending to Nadia's anecdote, Mr Singh acting as a deus ex machina, and knowing the unknowable, and I'm sorry, but no school would get so excited about an academic bowl. They just wouldn't.) This was surprising, because the author used to be a teacher, but seemingly had no understanding of how sixth graders actually behave. Added to this was the lack of any contractions in speech, which added to the unrealistic feel.
The method of telling the story was similar to what the author used in A Proud Taste For Scarlet and Miniver, but it didn't work well in this story. To elaborate: the first four chapters would begin at the academic bowl, narrated by the teacher, with one of the four students ringing in to answer a question, and would then launch into that student telling an anecdote, in their own voice, which explains how they acquired the knowledge to answer that question...I thought. Third and fourth students' turns, however, didn't follow this pattern, since their anecdotes had nothing at all to do with the question or answer, and then the rest of the chapters proceeded with the plot, in the normal fashion. Oddly, one of the students had a verbal tic, when telling their anecdote, of using the word 'fact' a lot, but that tic continued, after the story wasn't being told in that character's voice anymore.
All in all, it was a muddled, confused, unexplained story, and I was happy to have finished it. It's an award winner, but gets no award from me!
A Proud Taste of Scarlet and Miniver to this one by way of author (among other things)(less)
Eleanor of Aquitane is waiting for her second husband to assend to heaven, and to help her pass the time, since she is rather impatient, three people...moreEleanor of Aquitane is waiting for her second husband to assend to heaven, and to help her pass the time, since she is rather impatient, three people who knew her take turns telling the story of her life.
Really, it's as simple as that, and I thought it was an interesting device to use, but one that could have been better utilized. For example, the three narrators have distinctive voices, but they could have been even more so. But mostly, I thought that it would have been more interesting to have some insertions from Eleanor herself. The narrators are quite uncensored in their opinions, and since Eleanor is a rather fiery lady, it seemed out of character that she was so dispationate about their opinions on the way she lived her life. You do get a short section between each narrator's tale, back in heaven, and in those sections, you do see Eleanor interacting with them, but still...dispassionately.
I do have a concern about accuracy, because twice since I've read the book, and it's only been less than a month, I've come across things that don't line up with what I read, so it's made me wonder what sort of license the author took. Always troubling.
The author also has a rather unique idea about heaven, and what life after death is like. It's well explained, but I was like, 'um, okay.' She kept going back over it, though, so I could have done without that part.
Finally, I had questions about whether I should assign this to my children's bookshelf, since at no point at all during reading this did I feel like I was reading a book intended for children, other than the length. Maybe, maybe advanced middle schoolers. Additionally, while you can't help but learn while reading this, as they bring the time period to life, there were a lot of missed opportunities. One big example: I thought, as I began reading the story 'I guess I'm going to find out what miniver is,' but no. Part of that is due to the method of narration. The tellers and audience knew what everything was, so it wouldn't have made sense to explain it, but really, a lost opportunity. Despite these things, I got the book from a Scholastic catalog (bundled together with the book I will read next), when I was teaching, so I went ahead and put it there.
All in all, it was a quick and enjoyable read of an interesting character and time period that are rarely written about, but with some quirky elements. I would have rated this 3.5 stars, if I could have, but decided to round up, due to my overall enjoyment.
**Reviewer blather which has nothing at all to do with the book. Feel free to ignore altogeher.**
Due to this and that and writing and work and Netflix, I have not actually sat down and read a book for a shockingly long time. Like seriously shocking. And also since I have an entire room ringed with bookcases, a good number of the books on them ones I've never read, and some of them (cough, cough) borrowed and never returned, I decided to set a goal for myself: at least one book I possess but have never read a month. And since I tend to keep my interest longer with some sort of boundaries, or framework, or what have you, I added the rule that there must be some connection from book to book, which I will state in each review. For example, Catherine, Called Birdy to Midewife's Apprentice by way of author, to this book, by way of time period (although I'd read the first two books before, and just wanted to read them again, so A Proud Taste of Scarlet and Miniver is my February book.) Actually, funnily enough, Eleanor of Aquitane is briefly mentioned in Catherine, Called Birdy.(less)
Readish. This is a massive book, a reference book, that we read for book group, and I can't claim to have read every single page, but what I did read...moreReadish. This is a massive book, a reference book, that we read for book group, and I can't claim to have read every single page, but what I did read was incredibly fascinating, as was our discussion. I own it, so I definitely plan on picking it up again, and reading more. It's certainly not a book to read cover to cover, though.(less)
Ugh. This was generally panned--loathed--by the book group ladies, and I can't disagree. Very depressing. Not much good to say about it. And don't get...moreUgh. This was generally panned--loathed--by the book group ladies, and I can't disagree. Very depressing. Not much good to say about it. And don't get me started on the ending!
Nicole Kidman bought the movie rights, and she's going to star in it, and good luck to her, because I really can't see this making much of a movie.(less)
This was very gruesome in parts, and left some things mysterious that I wish had been better explained. It was fascinating, though, reading a book set...moreThis was very gruesome in parts, and left some things mysterious that I wish had been better explained. It was fascinating, though, reading a book set, in part, in Ethiopia, since my Dad was stationed there in the '60's, and parts of the book reminded me of his stories of living there.(less)