I won this biography from First Reads and was really jazzed that I did because biographies and memoirs about/by interesting women are a favorite of mi...moreI won this biography from First Reads and was really jazzed that I did because biographies and memoirs about/by interesting women are a favorite of mine. I have to admit that although I’d heard of both subjects, I really didn’t know anything about either woman. Susan Hertog relates the two women’s friendship and similar life trajectories to write this joint biography of two female writers who pushed the boundaries of twentieth century womanhood in their professional lives. Hertog juxtaposes West’s and Thompson’s widely known public lives with their often fruitless search for love, painting a complex picture of two extraordinary women.
The first chapter didn’t bode well for me; I was turned off by Hertog’s weird, overly detailed recounting of the party where the women met. I was relieved that the rest of the book was written in a more traditional biographical style. Although I generally enjoyed this book’s prose and flow, I found its structure to be clumsy and almost jarring at times as a reader. It alternates chapters between Rebecca and Dorothy; for example one chapter will be about Rebecca’s life from 1941-1945 and the next will explore Dorothy’s life from 1939-1942. It generally wouldn’t be a big deal but as there are some important contextual events happening (WWII anyone?) it was somewhat disconcerting to read about VE Day in one chapter to be hustled back to the beginning of the war in the next. Also it was rather annoying to read about an important event in one woman’s life in the other woman’s chapter before it had happened in the first woman’s storyline.
I think the whole premise of the biography as a joint work was a little flawed as well. I finished the book with the impression that the two women held a casual friendship rekindled at several points in their life, but no enduring relationship was apparent to me. I would expect such a detailed joint biography to be about two people who were closer than Dorothy and Rebecca seemed to be. I was also surprised that I didn’t find either woman particularly likable. Generally when I read a biography, I’m left with a sense of connection to the person profiled but I didn’t feel that same spark in this book. Perhaps Hertog was too brutally honest addressing their flaws; Dorothy’s obsessive career focus and Rebecca’s self-pity annoyed me.
I was fascinated by the chapters that covered WWII. Both women, (probably Dorothy more so) were profoundly affected by the events that led up to and followed WWII. Rebecca and Dorothy endured personal hardships as loved ones were lost and were also professionally and intellectually inspired and challenged by the war’s horrors. I think WWII was the defining world event for Dorothy, not just because she experienced the peak of her popularity through her wartime columns but because so much of her worldview was stretched by the war.
This duo both led fascinating lives but Hertog pays equal attention to their private lives, and the more mundane events were just as compelling to read. The two women both lost parents young and this seemed to affect them profoundly in their adult lives as they relentlessly searched for companions (famous and unknown) who truly understood them.
I can see Dangerous Ambition having wide appeal among those with an interest in Rebecca West or Dorothy Thompson, but it’s also an interesting read for people like who started the book without much knowledge of either woman and a fondness for biography and outspoken women. (less)
I won this memoir from the First Reads program. I was excited to receive a copy because I love memoirs and this particular one piqued my interest. Goi...moreI won this memoir from the First Reads program. I was excited to receive a copy because I love memoirs and this particular one piqued my interest. Going in, I knew very little about Tibet other than some scattered impressions gathered from the periodic popularity surges of the “Free Tibet” movement here in the United States. I enjoyed this easy read. Its structure as a multigenerational memoir was interesting and well done. I appreciated that Brauen isn’t an apologist for the unattractive aspects of Tibetan culture as it is probably easy for exiles (especially those a generation removed) to look back with nostalgia’s distorting lens.
Yangzom Brauen has a Tibetan mother and Swiss father and although she’s spent most of her life in the West, her mother and maternal grandmother wee born in Tibet before the Chinese occupation. The three women’s experiences and attitudes fit on different places in the East-West spectrum. Her grandmother, Kunsang, spent her time in Tibet serving as a devout Buddhist nun who rather unconventionally fell in love with a Buddhist monk. Even in the several countries Kunsang has lived in since her flight over the Himalayas, she has retained her devotion to Buddhism and incorporates many of the Tibetan traditions she grew up with into her daily life thousands of miles away. Yangzom’s mother, Sonam was born in Tibet but has spent most of her life in India and Europe. Sonam is not particularly Buddhist, but retains her cultural roots. Yangzom has secular Western attitudes but her Tibetan heritage is a source of great pride and she is active in the Tibetan exile community abroad.
Across Many Mountains covers almost an hundred years of Tibetan history as told through Yangzom’s family’s experiences. This memoir is rich in details about Tibetan life before and after Chinese occupation and the author writes about her great grandmother’s traditional sky burial with the same finesse as she describes the daily drudgery facing her mother and grandmother as Tibetan exiles in India. One of the things I really enjoyed about this book is that Kunsang and her family appear to be typical Tibetans. Many of the memoirs I have read written by exiles from various strife filled countries represent the country’s more privileged classes with the money and wherewithal to leave the country relatively comfortably and safely. Kunsang and her husband hiked over the Himalayans with two young children with very little provisions or a plan for their arrival in India; they didn’t board the last plane out or use student visas to escape their war torn country. Every refugee’s story deserves to be heard, but there is something thrilling and inspiring about Kunsang’s poor families setting out in one of the harshest climates of the world to an uncertain fate.
I think what surprised me most about this book is the revelation that Tibetan culture really sucked in a lot of ways. Before I read this book, my knowledge of Tibetan culture began at the Dali Lama and ended at prayer flags (throw in yaks and snow and you’ve got all my synapses dedicated to Tibet). Both the Dali Lama and prayer flags are bright, joyous, friendly things that beloved by friendly hippies in American college towns, leaving me with the superficial impression that Tibetan life was sunshine and butterflies. To learn that the unifying feature of Tibetan life for the last millennia seems to be the acceptance of unending drudgery capped by a probably early death was a bit of a shocker for me. What was even more shocking was the information that it particularly sucked to be a Tibetan woman. I thought that Buddhism was a fairly egalitarian religion as religions go so I raised my eyebrows when I read about Kunsang’s experiences as a Tibetan woman and Buddhist nun.
Tibet’s harsh living conditions also imbibe its citizens with a quiet sense of self-sufficiency and although they may resign themselves to the life fate has given them, their acceptance that life is hard also gives them great resilience. I recently ventured out with my daughter for a three mile walk on sidewalks in forty degree weather and that felt like quite the trek with a stroller and the two of us warmly bundled up. My high fructose corn syrup fueled ass couldn’t make it several hundred feet hiking through the Tibetan mountains with the supplies Kunsang and her husband carried with children in tow. I find Kunsang’s resignation to her hard life as a Tibetan woman contrasted with her unbelievable resilience fascinating.
Across Many Mountains dragged on in several spots and like many translated works, some passages made me scratch my head a bit. But I can see this family’s saga engaging many readers, both those with a compelling interest in Tibet and memoir lovers like myself. Another good read for people who enjoyed this book is Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World, a memoir written by a member of a different minority group living under modern China’s rule.
I’m going to preface this review with a bit of a complaint. When I signed up to win this book from the First Reads program, there was zero indication...moreI’m going to preface this review with a bit of a complaint. When I signed up to win this book from the First Reads program, there was zero indication in the description or author’s blurb that this book is a contemporary Christian novel. I have no objection to Christian presses or authors writing Christian novels but I am a secular gal and I feel a bit annoyed that this book was not accurately described. I often see novels that either make it implicitly or explicitly clear in their descriptions that they are intended for a religious audience in the First Reads list. I don’t enter to win those books because by and large, I am not interested in reading those books. When a book like this is presented with no indication of its religious underpinnings, I have to assume the not mentioning it is an attempt to trick the unknowing into reading these books. I think I speak for at least 99% of the population that reading a novel with mildly religious undertones isn’t going to get people into churches. So if this really is the case to get a secular population to read religious novels, I don’t appreciate it. Not to mention handing out a religious novel to people who don’t follow that religion probably isn’t going to garner a lot of glowing reviews.
To get onto the actual review now. This novel looks like a historical fiction novel based on its cover and cover blurb, but almost all of it is set in present day Fredericksburg where the past’s echoes reverberate loudly for the Holly Oak family. (Historic fiction fans, rest easy as there is a hunk of this novel set during the Civil War and written in epistolary form between Adelaide’s great grandmother living in Fredricksburg and her cousin living in Maine.) The Civil War continues to play a large role in family matriarch Adelaide’s life; she lives in her ancestral antebellum house complete with an embedded cannon ball from the Battle of Fredericksburg and she makes Confederate uniforms for Civil War reenactors. There are many rumors swirling about the ghosts of Holly Oak and although Adelaide is quick to dismiss such rumors, she has her own opinion about the house’s women’s notorious bad luck, including her granddaughter’s death at a young age. As Adelaide settles more into her old age (she’s 90-something) changes happen with her extended family that prove no one’s life is static, even in the twilight years.
In all, I thought this was a rather typical historic fiction novel and the story was compelling and fun to read. For years, I have loved reading about the Civil War and appreciate how A Sound Among the Trees depicted both the torn loyalties of many Americans as well as the Civil War’s presence in modern life. But as an agnostic (or something like that), I was not thrilled by the book’s wrap up. I’m trying to avoid spoilers here but let’s just say I find it highly unlikely that faith alone can solve 60 plus years of mental health and addiction issues as it seemingly did for one of the supporting characters. However, I can see Christian fans of historic fiction and light novels digging A Sound Among the Trees. (less)
I won this historic fiction novel from the First Reads program. I entered because I have been satisfying my historic fiction itch with a lot of WWII n...moreI won this historic fiction novel from the First Reads program. I entered because I have been satisfying my historic fiction itch with a lot of WWII novels lately. I mainly read books about Great Britain during the war so I enjoyed that this one was set in France because it was a nice change of pace for me.
I had a bit of a hard time getting into this book because I didn’t really enjoy any of the characters. Thankfully, Claire grew on me with time but she started out awfully flat. In general, I think all the characters could have used some more fleshing out. Sheene came up with an interesting storyline but it didn’t really stand on its own for me. It seemed that there was a lack of historic research to bolster the little details that I often enjoy the most about the historic fiction genre. There were also some points when the writing style veered dangerously close to Harlequin romance territory for me.
In the end, I did enjoy this book and felt that it got much more interesting (and intense) as the story progressed. It was a good light read and I can see many romance and historic fiction fans enjoying this novel. (less)
I’m having a rather tough time processing this book to make any sort of coherent review, but since I won a copy of this from First Reads, I am going t...moreI’m having a rather tough time processing this book to make any sort of coherent review, but since I won a copy of this from First Reads, I am going to do my best!
Aimee Bender definitely wrote a one of a kind book-her style combined with the elements of fantasy reminded me a lot of The Time Traveler's Wife. I didn’t adore this book because I thought some of it was rather disjointed. For example, her brother’s final fate was a ball way out in left field…I appreciate that he is a member of a family with mystical talents but Rose‘s and her grandfather’s special talents were at least related. I had such a hard time dealing with that plot deviation, I think I focused on that to the detriment of the rest of the book, which benefited from Bender’s clear, affective prose and a heart-rendingly pure portrayal of the relationship between Rose and her father. I can see why people would love this novel, because it really is some lovely writing but I was too distracted by the incongruity. (less)
I bought this book on a whim because it had a unique premise and I enjoyed it. It's no great work of art(and man alive, is it full of sloppy editing)...moreI bought this book on a whim because it had a unique premise and I enjoyed it. It's no great work of art(and man alive, is it full of sloppy editing) but it was an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon. I'm normally not into chick lit at all but this novel was ok. I'm still not giving it many stars because it was written like a young reader's book and the editing was so awful.(less)
Oh Connie Willis, you delight and disappoint me so. I love love love "To Say Nothing of the Dog" and "Doomsday Book" but I find myself less than impre...moreOh Connie Willis, you delight and disappoint me so. I love love love "To Say Nothing of the Dog" and "Doomsday Book" but I find myself less than impressed by some of her other work, ESPECIALLY "Passage." I loved her focus on the Civil War in this book. It reminded me of how much I used to like reading about the Civil War and her words describe perfectly how deeply traumatic it was for our nation. However, I found the actual plot of this book to be unwieldy and unsatisfying. I think I should perhaps stick with just her more conventional time travel books from here on out. However, it wasn't a total loss-I didn't feel the colossal sense of disappointment I had when I finished "Passage" and the fact that I got this and then traded it to someone out within two weeks on swaptree suggests there is still significant demand to read this novel. (less)