Mourning Ruby is more or less about a mother who is grieving the tragic loss of her five-year-old daughter. But the "more or less" part cannot be over...moreMourning Ruby is more or less about a mother who is grieving the tragic loss of her five-year-old daughter. But the "more or less" part cannot be overlooked. If it weren't for the title and the ominous cover picture featuring a little girl skipping in the leaves in a red dress, the reader would have no idea what this book is about for quite some time. It begins with a prologue that is a dream sequence, told in the first person, of the narrator--Ruby's mother Rebecca--and Ruby walking along a road. I thought that a novel should never open with a dream; it's a cheap technique, too easily and often used. And unfortunately the book continues that way, although a lot of the techniques are more original. After the prologue, Rebecca describes what happened to her when she herself was a baby, which was that her mother left her in a shoebox outside an Italian restaurant. She was then adopted by parents who seem not to care for her much, and the feelings are mutual. She tells her own story in such a removed and distant way that it is hard to relate to her. Plus, the tone of the writing is confusing and the plot starts jumping all over the place.
Soon we learn that Rebecca lived with a guy who was in love with her, but those feelings weren't mutual. His name is Joe and he writes historical non-fiction. He's in the middle of writing a book about Stalin's second wife, and this story takes up a good chunk of the first part of the book. That story could be rather interesting, but Joe tells it to Rebecca in a series of long drawn-out conversations, in which he makes clear that she is not interested in what he is talking about. So why should the reader be? I never really figured that out, although I did enjoy reading about collectivist Russia.
We also learn that Rebecca has a husband named Adam, but the relationship between them doesn't seem very convincing. He is a doctor who saves newborn babies, ironically. Some things seem like easy plot devices which aren't very realistic-- such as Rebecca working part-time in a bar while her husband is doctoring.
Another central sub-plot in Mourning Ruby is the story of Rebecca and her boss, Mr. Damiano, for whom she goes to work after Ruby's death. To me he was the most interesting character and his story was the most captivating, albeit even more unrealistic than the relationship between Rebecca and Adam. His family performed in circuses in Madrid, and his little sister suffered a tragedy almost as devastating as Ruby's death. Mr. Damiano likes to re-create "dream worlds"--obviously a theme underlying the novel--and bring pleasure to people as his business. He owns a chain of hotels, all named after minor to rather obsure poets: Sidney, Lampedusa, Villon, Langland, Sonescu, Cavafy, Sexton, and Bishop. Poetry and written language play a central part in this novel. In fact, an obvious theme is a writer writing about writing, which I found at times to be both interesting and annoying.
For instance, each chapter--and many of them are very short--starts out with a rather strange title and a snippet of a poem, excerpt from a book, or folk song. I found these snippets to be distracting because I wanted to know where they came from and how they related to the book and what the rest of the snippet was all about. Like much about the book, this information is never revealed to the reader, except at the very end, when Dunmore includes a list of "sources," which include her own poetry. Also in line with the literary theme, Joe tells Rebecca near the beginning of the book that the Russian poet Mandelstam once wrote about baby airplanes as a metapher for writing poetry: one airplane in full flight gives birth to another airplane, which then flies off and gives birth to another airplane. Dunmore weaves this theme into the novel, as a way to show how one story gives life to another, and all stories are connected. I suppose that Rebecca is trying to find her own life story, but the rather interesting plot line about her birth and her upbringing as an adopted child is abandoned rather early on. It's hard to care about a book when each story drops off after it gives birth to the next one. Ruby's death is the only main theme that continues throughout the book, but it's hard to connect to because so many other stories are swarming around it.
Most frustrating of all, for me, wasn't the fact that so many stories were told, but rather it was the way they were told. Much of the prose during Rebecca's narration is beautiful (the jacket cover states that Dunmore is a poet and short story writer, so I might like to check her out in these contexts, in which the language and style might work better for me than it did in a novel). The flowery language, however, seemed to detract from the plot for me and made it hard for me to related to Rebecca as a real character. And some of the stories that had the potential to be the most exciting were told in the dullest manners possible. Mr. Damiano's fascinating life story is told--much like the history of Stalin that Joe is writing--in long strings of conversation, which to me took a lot away from the potential captivating action. I was unsure why Dunmore chose to do this, even though I "got" that she had this over-riding theme of writing about writing, and writing about stories within stories.
Mid-way through Mourning Ruby, the point of view changes, and we are seeing Joe, told from the omniscient perspective, without Rebecca there, and also Adam in the same way. To me this was disappointing and destroyed any integrity the novel was supposed to have. It was another easy way out. The last part of the book is part of a novel that Joe sends to Rebecca, ostensibly to help her figure out her own story. I found part of this plot interesting, as it was about a prostitute named Florence who lived in France during the First World War. The Madame of the house was the only strong female character in the book (I thought it was annoying how Rebecca learned everything about herself through the three main male characters), although Florence, by the end portion of Joe's unfinished work of fiction, was starting to develop into a strong character as well. Joe tells Rebecca that he hasn't finished the book and so he encloses character and plot notes, which we the poor readers are forced to suffer through, right when we were into the story of Florence, and quite awhile after we had totally lost track of the story of Rebecca and Ruby.
Overall, Mourning Ruby was one of the most discombobulated novels I have ever read. At first it left me feeling disoriented, and then, once I got my bearings, it usually left me feeling disappointed. At times the language was captivating, and at other times the plot was too. These times were nearly canceled out, however, by the parts that seemed to be told in a hurry of rushed dialogue. The concept is certainly ambitious and I like some of the ideas behind the novel, but I think they were executed rather poorly, with style valued much more than substance. I did enjoy the writing theme, but it was much too much: definitely overkill. I enjoyed reading about the different places and time periods. Most of the parts featuring Rebecca--all of which are contemporary--are set in Cornwall, and some in London (Dunmore is a British writer). I also enjoyed reading about historical France and historical and modern-day Russia (where Joe briefly resides and where Rebecca and Adam go to visit him in a rather twisted love-triangle). So I can't say I regret reading this unique book, but it certainly wasn't one of my favorites. I give it two and a half out of five stars.
I listened to this book on CD, which I don't usually do... somehow I think it changes the "reading" experience for me. (It does allow me to fit in mor...moreI listened to this book on CD, which I don't usually do... somehow I think it changes the "reading" experience for me. (It does allow me to fit in more books in small amounts of time, however, so I'm thinking of doing it more). In any event, I became totally engrossed in the story and really, really liked it. I could really relate to the young boy named Oscar who narrates the story--maybe because I'm a very extreme and overly analytical person, just like he is. I don't know who could read (or listen?) to this book without feeling sympathy for Oscar, an extremely precocious and downright geeky kid who has no friends, no close family member relationships, and who is dealing with the tragic death of his father in 9/11. I think the title is great because it's exactly how Oscar talks. I could see how this kind of dramatic over use of adverbs might get on some readers' nerves, but for me, it totally worked. I also feel like New York City is a character in this book and I love how Oscar traipses all over all the boroughs in search of a key to a safe box his father owned, and meets interesting characters all along the way.
For me the story had a rather anti-climatic ending, but I don't know how else it could have ended without being contrived. It's been over a year since I finished the audiobook and now I'd like to re-read the book in print, as well as Foer's Everything is Illuminated.
Although I had some issues with Women Like Us, I absolutely loved it. I should admit my bias up front: this book was written by a Sarah Lawrence Colle...moreAlthough I had some issues with Women Like Us, I absolutely loved it. I should admit my bias up front: this book was written by a Sarah Lawrence College alum, which I also am (class of 2003), and the plot centers around four women who graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1958. I was therefore pre-disposed to enjoy it, but in my opinion, any woman could relate to the plot and characters. That is what makes the book so very readable and also quite depressing. Women Like Usis not a happy story by any means, and its over-arching theme seems to be that women sell out our talent, our ambitions, our own goals, for those of our husbands and our families.
One would hope this is less true now than it was in 1958. At that time most women, including most of the characters in this book, shared the main goal of marrying before age 21 or so. Even intelligent girls from well-off families who went to college did so as something to fall back on, biding time between their childhood/adolescence and the time that their "real" - AKA married -- life would start ("Even at Sarah Lawrence, a caldron of creativity, Art was just an exalted form of occupational thoerapy; you didn't sacrifice romance on its account.")
There are four main characters in Women Like Us-- Daisy comes from a lower class background, having been raised in Queens, but is a very talented dancer who also likes to write. Although the book rotates around the lives of the four different girls, Daisy seems to stand out as the "main" character and I couldn't help but wonder if she was based on the author of the book. Delphine is from a lavishly rich but troubled family, and she is always the center of attention. Franca is tied to men from the beginning and eagerly gives up parts of her soul to be with them. Ginny is the overweight and dorky college misfit, who still somehow fits in with this otherwise seemingly trendy crowd (I never really understood how). The book starts with the girls' senior year in college and then traces their lives through their mostly short-lived careers and the trials and tribulations of marriage to successful and selfish men, and motherhood. Ginny changes her name to Gina and blossoms into the only consistently strong character who continuously follows her dreams into success; I wondered if her character was modeled after Barbara Walters, another SLC alum. Throughout the book Gina is portrayed as self-centered and shallow, and resented by the other three women as incapable of loving anything but herself and her career. To me this represents the two roles into which women have eternally been pigeon-holed: either we are selfless and unhappy (and often "naggy") wives and mothers, or we are selfish and cold career women.
Today it seems more possible to find a middle ground, somewhere where many men lie: we can be family women and career woman, we can have it all. This is what the characters in Women Like Us dreamed of at Sarah Lawrence in 1958, although it didn't turn out that way for any of them. Reading about their horrible experiences in the business world-- most of them went into publishing-- made me feel really lucky that I am living and working today instead of four decades or so ago. In some ways the book made me realize that we have come a long way. In other ways, I realized that many women everywhere are the same. Some of us still ditch our closely-knit friendships as soon as we find a man we think is husband material. And it seems that to many women, a man is still more important than whatever else we used to hold dear: career, education, our own interests and dreams.
I enjoyed reading about this generation of women, and now I want to read books based in similar time periods, such as Mary McCarthy's "The Group" and Rona Jaffe's "The Best of Everything." The women in Women Like Us felt they had been left behind and left out: younger women were marching in the street in the 60's while they were at home nursing their babies and wondering where their cheating husbands might be. They were too early for the women's movement and too late for the old-fashioned notion of Leave it to Beaver and men who had to mean the words "till death do us part." Later they are tossed to the side like used-up goods, left to fend for themselves when they never learned how to do that. That wasn't the way they had planned for things to turn out, but much of their plan involved hitching themselves to men. One thing clear from this book is that a woman only has herself, and she had better not give that up for anyone else, even her husband or children. She has to find a way to hold on to what is important to her and know that she can survive on her own if she has to. The character who comes closest to doing this (besides Gina, who never marries or has children) is Daisy, but it's a hard-fought battle even for her.
Now, for the issues I had with Women Like Us. The writing style is very different from what I'm used to; Abeel often uses short, choppy sentences, or rather, sentence fragmants. From the beginning, I didn't like it and almost stopped reading the book (I'm glad I didn't). But I was annoyed with the style throughout the book, because it made it hard to figure out what was going on. ("Franca offered her own number, mumbling she was overscheduled. A fabrication, Daisy later discovered, to her shame." Why not just say, "Franca gave Daisy her number and mumbled that she was overscheduled, which Daisy later found out was a lie"? This is only one example of many points in the book that drove me crazy by the strange way in which it was written!) Abeel also uses a lot of slang which made the book harder to follow. I think that in this way she limits the appeal of the book to educated East Coast college women. Girls from Radcliffe, for example, are called "Cliffies" (without any explanation, so that the reader has to figure it out for herself), debutantes "debs," locations at Sarah Lawrence and Harvard are mentioned as if the reader has been there before and knows exactly what the girls are talking about and where they're at, and composers and authors are name-dropped without any further definitions.
The entire tone of Women Like Usalso gets very over-dramatic to the point of gagging ("She'd been preparing for this concert all her life," "She was persophone sprung from the underworld!"), but maybe this type of over-sentamentality was en vogue in the 50's. The book also bounces around in time and among the different characters' lives, and, even though I read this long book straight through in about a month, I often became confused, wondering what the date was and mixing up the characters. And the most annoying thing for me was how far-fetched the plot was. I don't want to give any of it away but pretend that one girl nearly dies in a plane crash, to be miraculously saved at the last moment, another goes to prison in a case of mistaken identity, the third gets hauled off to a mental institution and the fourth is shot by a bandit in a super-market.... all of that could have easily been thrown into the plot of this book along with all the other crazy escapades. To me this unrealistic drama was unnecessary and cheapened the book; I thought just telling the rather common lives of these four women over time would have been enough of a plot and I'm not sure why Abeel did this. From the blurbs and cover this looks like it was a "popular" book when it was published in the early 90's (which seems to go against some of the isolating or elitist references I was complaining about earlier), so maybe Abeel felt that she had to make the book exciting and totally plot-driven.
In the end, though, Women Like Us' redeeming qualities are that it is completely relatable and completely readable. I devoured it like I haven't any book in awhile, staying up late or deciding to read instead of do something else because I was so intrigued with the current character's situation. I also like how a theme in the book was writing and that Daisy aspired to be a published writer. Overall I give it four stars and would recommend it to any woman, while challenging her to not to be able to see herself or her female relatives or friends in many of the pages.
I had high hopes for The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton. (Maybe I had such high hopes that I had raised the bar too high?) I had read somewher...moreI had high hopes for The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton. (Maybe I had such high hopes that I had raised the bar too high?) I had read somewhere that Ms. Clayton used to be a corporate transaction attorney at a large law firm. After she ceased practicing law, she wrote this book. As a lawyer and aspiring writer, I was drawn to it from that angle. Then there was the fact that the book is about a group of aspiring writers, who form a writing group and try to publish. That sounds like me, so I thought I could relate. Finally, the book takes place in San Francisco starting in the 1960's. The interview I'd read with Ms. Clayton said she'd scoured old newspapers and magazines for historical tidbits to include in the book. How exciting! I thought.
Well... I have to say that the beginning of The Wednesday Sisters: A Novel really didn't meet my expectations at all. I found the first third of it quite dull. The characters all seemed stereotypical and flat to me. And it seemed like the story was dragging and almost nothing was happening! I pushed on, thinking a big part of it was that I just couldn't relate to these women. They admitted that they had put their dreams on hold, or permanently curtailed them, to marry their husbands, and their lives revolved around their children. It's not that I didn't want to read a book about housewives, but I think that many housewives, in real life and in books, are awesome. Many have confidence, charisma, interests and hobbies. But these women were so self-defacing that it was annoying. The main character, Frankie, tells the entire story, and she's always saying things like, "I can't imagine that I could actually write a book... I'd like to, but I'm no good, and what would these other women think?" We're not talking about writing a masterpiece novel here, or publishing, just writing in general. I wanted to scream at her, it's not that hard, just get a little self-esteem and try it! I really didn't understand the big deal.
Knowing the author's background, and that she was both a lawyer and a mother, I started thinking that maybe the problem was that she was writing what she didn't know, and it didn't seem real. But even the historical parts weren't that interesting in the first third of the book. The characters were on the outskirts of society, seemingly purposefully left out from everything exciting that was going on. They would see feminist protests on the news, but not attend. (Then Frankie would couch the events by saying something like, "We didn't know what to think of these crazy women on TV... we are just little stay at home moms who don't know anything about the world." Honestly, if I were a housewife I would be offended at the way that women in my profession/position were portrayed by the characters in the book!) Then there would be tidbits of history dropped in all too conveniently, like, "we read in the news that this happened..."(couched by Frankie in terms of "not that we understand what it all means, of course"), which to me isn't all that exciting. It's like too much historical data was given without the main characters really being a part of the context.
I kept reading The Wednesday Sisters since I had had such high hopes. Towards the middle, the book started to get better. And then the last third turned into a pretty good read. I think it's because the characters were actually doing something, making decisions instead of letting life just happen to them. For the first time, some of them seemed like separate characters, instead of all being lumped into one stereotypical housewife. (Some of them still fell flat to me even during the exciting parts). And they also went out into the real world and took part in some of the historical goings-ons, which made the historical parts a lot more interesting.
In the end, I think that the best parts of The Wednesday Sisters make for kind of a stereotypical chick-lit-for-mature-chicks read. Like, ladies that belong to knit clubs and church socials would probably like some of this book. But I bet even they'd be bored with a lot of it. It just doesn't go anywhere, or do anything, until near the end, and I don't know if a lot of people would hang on that long! I hate to give negative reviews, so I'll throw in something positive and say that this book has a lot of interesting parts about writing and the writing process, and it includes some good quotes and tips from famous writers. But even that part is annoying, because one of the women, Bret, will say things like, "Well, you know, Mark Twain always said..." at the beginning of their writing groups, causing Frankie to must out loud "How does Bret have such a good memory and always remember what all these great writers said?" Still, The Wednesday Sisters has some appeal for writers, so I recommend it, with reservations, to other writers. For this reason I give it two stars.(less)
Disclaimer: I neither read nor enjoy much bestselling contemporary fiction. There are exceptions (I like Elizabeth Berg, John Grisham, and some Stephe...moreDisclaimer: I neither read nor enjoy much bestselling contemporary fiction. There are exceptions (I like Elizabeth Berg, John Grisham, and some Stephen King) but in general, these books are not my cup of tea because I feel that they sacrifice good writing for popular plot twists and edge-of-the-seat drama. I especially steer away from "chick lit" and even more some from family-based drama that is about a mother and her children, because I usually find that it's overly cutesy and I just can't relate to it.
But. My mom had been telling me I need to read My Sister's Keeper, and she sent it to me. Even my sister, who hates to read, read and enjoyed the book. Then, a movie was coming out about it with a concept that looked new and interesting: one sister was created so that her other sister could live. I thought, I'd better read the book.
Well. What can I say? I guess My Sister's Keeper was everything I had expected to be. It had an interesting theme and some dramatic plot twists, but lacked good writing (for the most part) and character depth.
The main character is Anna, who is supposed to give up a kidney to save her sister from dying from cancer, or at least to prolong her life a bit longer. Anna has been doing similar things since she was born and her umbilical cord was used for a transplant for her sister. Her parents had purposefully created her to save or prolong her sister' life. At the beginning of the book, Anna has decided to fight back and has hired a lawyer to file a lawsuit for rights over her medical decisions (the legal aspects of the book are pretty murky).
The story is told in different first-person points of view, with each chapter being told by a different character, whose name is plastered on top, and, get this, the font type and style even changes with each chapter so you know it's being told by someone else. Gag.
I felt that Anna's voice was interesting and pretty convincing for a young teenage character. This made it feel like a young adult novel, but hey, I like young adult novels so I wish the entire book were told by Anna; I might have liked it a lot better. I hated the parts that were told by the mother because I was mad at her for having a baby for her own selfish purposes-although some may not think that keeping another child alive is a selfish purposes). Try as I might to grasp it by reading her sentimental and overly-protective dribble, I wasn't convinced that a mother, let alone this mother who was telling the story, could really do such a thing, and feel no shame or doubts about it. My own mother could relate to the mother of the book more than I could, so maybe it's a mother thing. Still, the mother came across as a self-righteous know-it-all to me. I didn't believe that she had had a successful law practice before beoming a mother, and I didn't feel any real love between her and her husband.
Speaking of the husband, the chapters that were told by him and his son, Anna's brother, read horribly for me. I just wanted to skip them. He's a fire-fighter, which I thought was conveniently contrived and also very unrealistic (who is paying for this family's luxury when the father is a fire-fighter and the mother is a stay-at-home mom who only practiced law briefly before having kids and is therefore probably in a lot of student loan debt?). He seems more ambivalent about the family's decision to have one child to save another child, but he comes across like a spineless wimp who's afraid of expressing his opinion to his wife, or, worse, like he doesn't care enough to do so. And the brother, Jesse, is a juvenile delinquent, which also feels very contrived, who is out roaming the streets and starting fires that his father has to put out without knowing that his son started them (see the irony? har har). His character does the best job of capturing the anger and angst that I'm sure Anna was feeling and that most of the readers would be feeling. Still, he comes across as superficial and stereotypical. The voices all blend together and do not sound like individual characters, a pet peeve I have when an author tries to do different points of view. Anna's came across as the strongest but the rest of the narrators--including the guardian ad liten and Anna's lawyer, both of whom get a turn--all jumbled together into one indistinguisable or trying-too-hard voice.
The legal sub-plots of the book didn't seem realistic, although I did enjoy the character of Anna's lawyer and his German Shepherd dog named Judge. He (the lawyer, but also his dog) seemed to be the only rationale character while the rest of them were floating around in no-man's-land.
I did enjoy the plot of the book and it was a very easy read. I read it during a rainy camping trip where I had the luxury of laying in a tent all day. I wanted to find out what happened, and at times there was a piece of beautiful writing included. Most of the time, however, the writing was gimmicky and overly sentimental and I felt like I was just pushing through to see what happens, like in a movie, not a well-written book. And then when I got to the end I was so annoyed that I seriously wanted to throw the book out into the mud. I won't include any spoilers but it was the worst ending I think I have ever read, and such an easy way out that I htink Picoult should be ashamed of herself. I hadn't planned to read any more of her books because I was more interested in the concept of this one than the writing, but, having gotten to the end only to be let down as a reader in such a huge way, I am 100% sure that I will never read anything else by her. Yes, I was that mad at how she wrote the ending! Grrr.
So, I give My Sister's Keeper two stars because there were parts of it that I enjoyed, but the rest of it was downright awful. I cannot in good conscience recommend it, but I think it's one of those books that people read because everyone else is reading it and talking about it (which is never a bad thing, people talking about books), and because there's a movie, all of which were reasons I read it, so, read it and see whether you agree with my many critiques or if you find something redeeming in it. By the way I later watched the movie and enjoyed it. The ending was much better than in the book although they did leave some things out from the book's plot that I missed. I would recommend the movie over the book, which I rarely do, but, there you have it. I guess in the end my foray into popular family-drama chick lit proved to be what I thought it would be: mostly empty, with a few splashes of interest and annoyance. (less)
Ethan Frome is set in Starkfield, Massachusettes, where everything is very stark indeed. Much of the story also takes place in the winter, when the Ne...moreEthan Frome is set in Starkfield, Massachusettes, where everything is very stark indeed. Much of the story also takes place in the winter, when the New England town is covered in snow and bitter cold. At the heart of the story is, of course, Ethan Frome: a farmer living in the early 1900's who has been dealt a bad lot in life. He had been living away from Starkfield, at college, studying to become an engineer, when his father died and he had to return home to the family farm to care for his ailing mother, Zenobia. He ends up marrying Zeena, the nurse who took care of his mother, more out of duty and gratefulness than love or passion. Before long Zeena becomes a hypochondriac, inventing illnesses and perpetually seeking possible cures for them.
Into this depressing scene steps Mattie, who is quite the breath of fresh air for Ethan. A distant relative—-she was the daughter of Zenobia’s cousin-—Mattie's father had squandered all of the family’s money, a fact which was only revealed after his death. Mattie’s mother apparently dies of the shock and shame, leaving Mattie a penniless orphan. Zeena’s doctor suggests that Zeena find someone to help with the household chores, so Mattie comes to Starkfield to do just that, and also ends up winning Ethan’s heart.
The story is so depressingly tragic that at times I wanted to stop reading it. But it was like watching a scary movie or sitting down on a roller-coaster: you want to stop, kind of, but you also want to keep going. The story starts out by revealing that Ethan was in a freak accident, and then goes back in time, so you know things don’t end up well. The entire feel of the book is incredibly ominous and its pace marches you right on from the sweet tale of a simple and down-on-his-luck farmer who falls in love with a young, care-free girl, to the bad ending you know is coming. The language is simple and no-nonsense, yet it alternatively scares you like Stephen King and pulls on your heart strings like Jane Austen.
There’s a scene near the beginning in which Ethan has gone to pick Mattie up from a barn dance that puts you right there in the middle of their budding relationship, which is technically illicit and wrong, but feels so right that you find yourself rooting for them, even though you know it will end horribly. Ethan watches Mattie dancing, yearning for both Mattie herself and the simple innocence and hopefulness of youth, which is long-lost for him. When the dance ends, a young boy flirts with Mattie and offers her a ride home, and Ethan thinks that soon Mattie will get married and leave him. Yet, she is so surprised and happy that he is there to pick her up, and she reassures him that she’s not going anywhere. The tone of the relationship between Ethan and Mattie is light-hearted, casual and happy, in the middle of this otherwise entirely depressing book.
Despite its tragic subject matter, Ethan Frome is a gem of a book I plan to re-read again and again. I also want to read more of Wharton’s work. This is the first book I’ve read by her and I know that most of the rest of her works deal with the upper class New York society from which she came. I don’t know how she can write so well about a poor New England farmer, so I can only imagine what she writes about those characters that comprise her own element. I give Ethan Frome four and a half stars and highly recommend it to anyone.
Notes from Underground is an addicting book. Just thinking about it makes me want to re-read it.
The first half of Notes from Underground is mainly the...moreNotes from Underground is an addicting book. Just thinking about it makes me want to re-read it.
The first half of Notes from Underground is mainly the ramblings of a former civil servant who lives in an underground basement-type dwelling in St. Petersburg. We quickly find that this unnamed narrator is cynical and detached. He thinks that he is superior to everyone else, but he is also very insecure. He is one of those people who never fit in with everyone else, and who feels angry and isolated because of it. He both hates the fact that he feels different from everyone else, and loves it, at the same time.
Certain parts of the first half of this book were boring and confusing to me. But the overall tone was fascinating, and the language just gripped me. There are such beautiful and true passages in here! I'm glad I stuck with it because the entire second half of the book is told in a more traditional "story-telling" format. We see the narrator's beef with a former supervisor, we see him at a dinner party with his "friends", and, in my favorite parts of the book, we see him with a prostitute named Liza. At the same time he confides in Liza and uses her selfishly, he also lectures her about why she shouldn't be a prostitute, and how lovely her life could be if she were to leave that lifestyle. The ironic thing is that the narrator's life is empty and unhappy, and he wouldn't even have Liza if she were to take his advice. It's so strange to read because his advice seems so helpful and on point, yet, he clearly doesn't take it himself.
The version I read is excellently translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (I always wonder how translators can capture the original tone and language from Russian, which is so different from English! But then I think, maybe they don't, and I love the tone and style of the translators, and not the original author?!) There are long passages on marriage and family which I'm thinking of using for a reading at my upcoming wedding. In short, I loved this book and want to re-read it and read more by Dostoevsky.
This is a fast-paced, interesting and well-written book about a dirty old man professor who repeatedly seduces his young art students in New York City...moreThis is a fast-paced, interesting and well-written book about a dirty old man professor who repeatedly seduces his young art students in New York City. Finally he falls for one and shows some vulnerability. I read this book in two days on vacation in Scottsdale and I recommend it for a great vacation read! (less)
I've been a fan of Elizabeth Berg's since I was in high school. I enjoyed reading Say When. At times it can be trite, but at its best it's the touchin...moreI've been a fan of Elizabeth Berg's since I was in high school. I enjoyed reading Say When. At times it can be trite, but at its best it's the touching story of a man whose wife says she has a lover and is leaving him. They have a daughter together, whom the man struggles to care for in the midst of his shattered world. Some parts of the novel seem very true to life while others seem a bit far-fetched. I don't want to include any spoilers but at times you get frustrated with the main character and wish he'd grow a backbone. Still, you see that his love is the glue that holds the fractured family together. Parts of the book read rather melodramatic, like you can see them in a movie or something. But still it's an interesting and fast read -- a good beach read!(less)
Carson McCullers's The Member of the Wedding is such a strange little book. I loved some parts and didn’t love other parts. It revolves around Frankie...moreCarson McCullers's The Member of the Wedding is such a strange little book. I loved some parts and didn’t love other parts. It revolves around Frankie Addams, who is twelve and a half years old. For me this was a really significant age, and I think the book does a great job of encapsulating the feelings and experiences associated with that age: Frankie’s no longer a child, yet she’s not yet a woman. She feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere, and she’s trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. So the first thing I loved about The Member of the Wedding was its theme, although I think some would criticize it for not having much of a traditional plot.
The second thing I loved about The Member of the Wedding was its setting. Frankie lives in a small town in Georgia during World War II. Loneliness surrounds her. Her mother died during childbirth with her, so she has never had a mother or siblings. Her father works a lot and when he is home, he is in his own world of books and newspapers, and really doesn’t pay her much attention. Her only good girl friend moved away, and she’s not a member of the “club” of popular girls at her school. She used to be part of it at one time, but as she got a bit older it’s clear that she’s different from those girls. Sexual identity is explored in the book: Frankie wants to be a pretty, grown woman, but, with her dirty elbows, her crew cut, and her hyper (some would say obnoxious) personality, in many ways she looks and acts more like a boy.
The Member of the Wedding takes place during the summer, so Frankie’s not in school and she spends her days hanging out at home—mostly in the kitchen—with her black housekeeper Berenice and her seven-year-old cousin John Henry. The constant kitchen setting causes the book to lag and feel like it’s dragging on; I think I would have liked it even better if it was a long short story or an even shorter novel. At the same time, the drawn-out kitchen scenes show Frankie’s daily life and how it’s filled with boredom yet comfort. (“They sat together in the kitchen, and the kitchen was a sad and ugly room. John Henry had covered the walls with queer, child drawings, as far up as his arm would reach. This gave the kitchen a crazy look, like that of a room in the crazy-house. And now the old kitchen made Frankie sick. The name for what had happened to her Frankie did not know, but she could feel her squeezed heart beating against the table edge.”)
Frankie longs for change and adventure, and at the same time she longs to fit in with someone somewhere. (“The spring of that year had been a long queer season. Things began to change and Frankie did not understand this change. After the plain gray winter the March winds banged on the windowpanes, and clouds were shirred and white on the blue sky. April that year came sudden and still, the green of the trees was a wild bright green. The pale wistarias bloomed all over town, and silently the blossoms shattered. There was something about the green trees and the flowers of April that made Frankie sad. She did not know why she was sad, but because of this peculiar sadness, she began to realize she ought to leave the town. She read the war news and thought about the world and packed her suitcase to go away; but she did not know where she should go.”)
All of this leads up to Frankie’s recent obsession: running away with her brother and his fiance after they get married. She has been invited to be in their wedding, and she is so happy to “belong” to something that she really gets very carried away in a fantasy of living a new life in a new place with the newlyweds. She changes to her name to “F. Jasmine,” she finds a pretty pink dress that her father buys her for the wedding, and she goes around town telling everyone her plan to move away with her brother and soon-to-be-sister-in-law. All dressed up for the wedding and on the verge of womanhood, she looks much older, and is invited out on a date with a soldier, which she accepts with a mixture of hesitation and excitement.
What I didn’t love about The Member of the Wedding is that there’s a lot of slow build-up without too much action or delivery. Most of the book takes place over just a couple days, but they feel like years. (I guess that’s how it feels for a twelve-and-a-half year old, too!) I enjoyed the scenes featuring Frankie, Berenice and John Henry in the kitchen, savoring delicious-sounding Southern food and talking about everything from love to race relations to what they would change about the world if they were God. (“Now hopping-john was F. Jasmine’s very favorite food. She had always warned them to wave a plate of rice and peas before her nose when she was in her coffin, to make certain there was no mistake; for if a breath of life was left in her, she would sit up and eat, but if she smelled the hopping-john, and did not stir, then they could just nail down the coffin and be certain she was truly dead. Now Berenice had chose for her death-test a piece of fried fresh-water trout, and for John Henry it was divinity fudge.”)
After awhile, though, I was anxious to have Frankie get out there and experience the real world. I suppose that that was the point of writing the book like that, so the reader could feel what life was like for Frankie. Although it may appear to an outsider—even the reader—that not much is going on, to Frankie, a lot is happening. She is bored and excited, fearless and fearful, lonely and comfortable with the familiar, happy and sad and up and down. That’s all because she’s at the crazy in-between age of twelve and a half. I loved that about Frankie but at other times she seemed very contradicting and hard to figure out. At one moment she would seem so thoughtful and mature, and the next moment she would be stomping her feet and saying cruel things to the people she loved, and seeming very immature and annoying. I guess, again, that’s because of her age and her transitioning. At times Frankie–or F. Jasmine–is confused about her own expressions and mannerisms. At one point she is upset with Berenice for not telling her about a grown-up matter, but happy with Berenice for ironing the little pleats around the collar of her pink wedding dress. “She would have liked for her expression to be split into two parts, so that one eye stared at Berenice in an accusing way, and the other eye thanked her with a grateful look. But the human face does not divide like this, and the two expressions canceled out each other.”
What I absolutely loved about The Member of the Wedding was its language. McCullers has a way of describing the small, even mundane, things in life in a completely lovely and relatable way, and then of course she describes the big, mind-blowing things in life the same way. (“The twilight was white, and it lasted for a long while. Time in August could be divided into four parts: morning, afternoon, twilight, and dark. At twilight the sky became a curious blue-green which soon faded to white. The air was soft gray, and the arbor and tress were slowly darkening. It was the hour when sparrows gathered and whirled above the rooftops of the town, and when in the darkened elms along the street there was the August sound of the cicadas. Noises at twilight had a blurred sound, and they lingered: the slam of a screen door down the street, voices of children, the whir of a lawnmower from a yard somewhere.”)
For me this book is best read all at once if possible. When I put it down and picked it back up it seemed rather boring, like not much was happening, but when I read whole parts straight through, I became so wrapped up in the language and tone that it felt magical. I would like to read this book again when I have time to read it all in one day or weekend. Although I really liked it the first time around, I was trying to cram it in, in between selling my fiance’s house, renting out my house, moving into a new house, planning a wedding, traveling to Vegas, etc. It seems to me to be one of those books that gets better with re-reading.
The beginning of this book really grabbed me. The voice was moving and the early plot was interesting: a woman is on an airplane with the husband she...moreThe beginning of this book really grabbed me. The voice was moving and the early plot was interesting: a woman is on an airplane with the husband she had been with for a long time, and has decided at that very moment to leave him.
Of course, such a decision is never made at that very moment. A lot has gone into such a decision. And so the narrator takes us back with her through the history of the relationship between her and her husband. We find out that it began in the 1950's, when she was his creative writing student at Smith College and he was married. That's rather cliche, and so are a lot of things about their relationship. I thought that Wolitzer did a convincing job of showing me that this is what it could be like for a couple who began in such a way, as cliche as it may have been.
There were other cliched parts, though, that I didn't think she portrayed so well. Essentially this is supposed to be a story about a wife who sacrifices everything for her husband. The first part of the book is the strongest in my opinion, because the reader can easily see how she sacrifices the approval and support of her parents and her college education for this selfish, haphazard, impulsive man who doesn't truly love anyone, including himself. The reader can see how he is so caught up in his ambitions of writing that he is incapable of being much else. (The "selfish writer" is a theme I always find interesting, in Andre Dubus's short stories and in biographies of Raymond Carver, etc., because it does seem that being a successful writer requires a narrowly-focused, internal, solitary drive, to the exclusion of most everything else in life.)
What wasn't convincing in The Wife, however, was that the narrator was supposed to be giving up her own writing ambitions or her "career" for her husband. The problem was, she never really had any writing ambitions until her professor-turned-husband encouraged her, for the sake of starting an affair with her of course, and she never reveals that she has any desires to have a career outside of the home. In the flashback scenes to her early and mid-married life, she either seems content to be a housewife or she is bitter about the fact that her husband is cheating on her.
Perhaps it's that times have changed or perhaps it's that I can't relate to a character that I can't see myself being, but I just didn't understand why she put up with it. She seems to be resentful of the fact that her husband thinks he is some God when it comes to writing, yet she obviously encourages such thoughts by placating to him, encouraging his writing career and staying with him even though he doesn't treat her right. If this was supposed to be a book that showed why a woman sacrifices her own dreams (or never fully forms any in the first place) in order to stay with a rotten, no-good husband, it failed. But maybe it wasn't supposed to show me that; maybe it was supposed to just be about this character. Still, for whatever reasons I found those parts very unconvincing and it made me dislike the narrator when she seemed to get whiny and become a "poor-me" victim. The following is a passage that I feel sums up the theme of the book:
"Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream up blueprints, recipes, ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib in the middle of the night, on the way to the Stop & Shop, or the bath. They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husband and children will ride serenely through life.
But it's their choice... they make a choice to be that kind of wife, that kind of mother. Nobody forces them anymore; that's all over now. We had a women's movement in America, we had Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem... we're in a whole new world now. Women are powerful.
Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend; they hover. Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites pricking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaciton. Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies. We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else.
'Listen,' we say. 'Everything will be okay.'
And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is."
The ending of the book contains a twist which wasn't incredibly surprising but was nevertheless interesting. I don't want to include any spoilers, so suffice it to say that it adds another layer to the entire analysis about why a woman would do such things for a man.
I did think that the book was written well and that the first-person narrator voice, when not overly bitter or victim-y, was intriguing. Although there wasn't much to the plot--basically a history of the life of an unhappily married couple--it seemed realistic and it kept me interested, as I read the book straight through in a couple of days. I would like to read more of Meg Wolitzer's work, especially a book that has a completely different theme, plot and characters. So overall I give The Wife three and a half stars and I would recommend it with some reservations.
I devoured this book, reading it mostly over the period of two days and becoming completely engrossed in it. It's the story of a boy who is a senior a...moreI devoured this book, reading it mostly over the period of two days and becoming completely engrossed in it. It's the story of a boy who is a senior at an all-boys' prep school in the 1960's. He is enamored by the written word: he loves to read and he wants to be a writer. Many of the other boys at his school are the same way, and many, including the narrator, are pretty competitive and driven to outshine the other boys in the literary arena.
Objectively speaking, there's a lot about the book to critique-- a lot that some people wouldn't like, and that I didn't necessarily like. Take, for instance, the fact that we never learn the narrator's name, not to mention the name of his school, or the exact setting of his school. Or take the fact that on its surface the plot could seem rather boring, and it lacks a conflict until towards the end. Basically the boy writes stories for a school contest in which the winner gets to meet one of the visiting authors who come to the school: first Robert Frost, then Ayn Rand, and then Ernest Hemingway. The story is told like a memoir, or almost like a diary, which gives the reader a very limited view of the world at large and instead focuses on the boy's inner thoughts and limited experiences. At some points I guess this could get frustrating because I wanted to know more details about certain things and less details about certain things. And I suppose the narrator isn't all that likeable, because he can seem petty, insecure, and perhaps even snotty over things that many people would think insignificant or banal: who can write the best essay, or who can memorize a passage by Faulkner, etc.
What made me love this book despite all of the above would-be flaws was that I could completely identify with the narrator's immersion in literature. I loved how he loved words, he loved thinking about books and authors, how he loved dreaming about being a writer. I could completely relate. At one point he gets all caught up in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, which I also did in high school, and he spends all the time he is supposed to be writing his story instead reading or thinking about the book. Another thing that I liked is that I felt that much of the book must have been autobiographical, and I know that Wolff is known for his memoirs. I don't know whether it is or not, although I know that Wolff went to a prep school called the Hills and that the front cover photograph is of his class at dinner. But I kept wondering how much of the book was kind of a trick that Wolff was playing on the readers, because at certain points the narrator would start wondering about how much of an author's work is reflective of the author's life, and vice versa. I loved Wolff's portrayals of the different famous authors and I wondered what he used (except for legend, and maybe that was all) to write so convincingly in fiction about these larger-than-life characters.
For me the only issue I had with the book was that I really didn't like the last chapter, and I was left wondering what the book's overarching theme was supposed to be, if any. At first I thought the book was about how many writers or would-be writers are really only dreamers, and it inspired me to actually take action and write and work hard at it instead of just thinking about how much I'd love to be an author like all the famous authors. Obviously not many published writers are famous and it seems to me that the allure to be well-known as an author can sometimes outshine the down and dirty aspect of just sitting down and writing, with the realization that maybe few people if any will actually read your work. Kind of like the guts is more important than the glory thing. But by the end I thought maybe the book was supposed to be about redemption, or about how all humans are fallible and make mistakes and have secrets, and to me there was a disconnect between that theme and the earlier theme. I obviously liked the earlier theme and therefore thought the later theme or explanation unnecessary.
Anyway, I can't put into words why I loved this book so much. I think it is simply that it captures the experience of being a reader and a wannabe writer. In my opinion people who love literature will love this book and people who like more of an entertaining story or likeable character could probably hate this book. I personally loved it and wish it was longer because it seemed to be over way too fast. I give this book 4.5 stars and classify it as one of my favorites!(less)
This was a gripping book that I couldn't put down (I downloaded the Kindle version during a free promotion and read most of it on my iPad). I found th...moreThis was a gripping book that I couldn't put down (I downloaded the Kindle version during a free promotion and read most of it on my iPad). I found that it was appropriately timed for my life, as its subject is grieving the loss of a family member, and I was reading it after going through a tragedy. In this book a 12-year-old girl dies in a tragic accident. Her mother, father and brother are left to pick up the pieces of their lives and try to move on without her.
I definitely had some "issues" with this book, but not enough to stop reading it. Some plot lines were overly contrived, cliche and unrealistic. It switched narrators/points of view from one character to another, which normally irks me to no end, and I can't say I loved it in this book but it actually worked out okay. And the characters were frustrating-- I get that they were supposed to be having trouble communicating but this tension/plot line dragged on and on and on until I was annoyed by it.
I thought that the mother was ignoring her son and while I understood her grief about her daughter I didn't think she was being the best mother to her son. At the same time, I thought the dad/husband was being whiny and demanding too much attention from the mom/wife while she was trying to grieve. He seemed selfish and rather like a douchebag to me and I wished she wouldn't have felt so much guilt related to him and instead had felt more guilt related to her son. They were supposed to be this long-term romantic couple but I didn't buy it and it seemed like they barely knew each other. From reading the background on this author, she usually writes romance, so I would think that the husband/wife relationship would be written the best; however, ironically I felt it was the worst relationship in the book. I found it overly complex and then overly trite, but maybe I'm just not the right audience for the "romance" aspect of the book.
With all of that being said, I still enjoyed the book and found it to be a good distraction from everyday life, which I needed when I read it. I ended up buying copies of the book for special women in my life for Mother's Day because I think almost any woman would like this book. It never got boring and kept moving on towards a relatively satisfying conclusion. I would like to read more by this author; however, this is her first mainstream fiction book and the rest of her books are romance, which I don't read. (There was a preview of one of her books at the end of this book that seemed interesting and non-romancy, though... even though it's classified as a romance... so maybe I'll check it out, because overall I did like the author's writing style.)(less)
I read this book because Elizabeth Strout's linked short story collection "Olive Kitteridge" is one of my favorite books, and I wanted to read more by...moreI read this book because Elizabeth Strout's linked short story collection "Olive Kitteridge" is one of my favorite books, and I wanted to read more by the same author. I was not disappointed. Like "Olive Kitteridge," "Amy and Isabelle" is set in a small New England town and features everyday characters with dark secrets, and it is written in a sparse and distant tone that sucks me in from the beginning and keeps me enthralled the whole way through.
I actually thought this book was about sisters, but Isabelle is an older, single mother and Amy is her 16-year-old daughter. Isabelle is known to be cold and distant, and she is very strict in raising her daughter. Amy is awkward, and not just the typical teenager kind of awkward: she is painfully self-conscious and shy, and can't easily relate to anyone except for her one friend Stacey. Amy alternates between love and hate for her mother, and it seems that Isabelle alternates between love for her daughter and hatred for herself or for life in general that is so powerful that it causes her to not be able to love her daughter in the way that Amy likely needs. She doesn't seem to understand, accept, or unconditionally love her, although it's clear that she does love her in her own way or to the best of her ability, maybe. In that sense the book was overwhelmingly sad for me, and I rooted for the awakening of both characters, which does come (to some extent) by the end, but in a more realistic way than one would expect in a novel.
I can't say more about the plot without giving things away, so I won't. I knew nothing about the plot of the book when I started reading it, and I think it's best that way. I will say that the events that unfold are quite shocking and disturbing. There is some dark subject matter here that I imagine some readers wouldn't like. But it remains true to life and is a portrait of both a mother and a daughter as well as a town and its townspeople. It is mostly a coming of age story, as well as a story about a rather dysfunctional little family that is trying to overcome a lot of issues, and it's even, surprisingly, about the power of female friendship and solidarity. At its heart I would say it's about human nature, including all of its hypocrisy, irony and deep dark secrets that everyone seems to carry around with us until we can find the right time and place to unburden ourselves, hopefully with the help of an understanding support system.
I read this book in just a few days (granted, I was on vacation and had a lot of time to read at the beach and on the plane) and was really captivated by it. It's no fluffy beach read but the writing and character portrayal is just excellent enough to have kept my attention despite its heavy and dark story. I would recommend it to anyone although it's definitely more of a book for and about women than men. (less)