I've read a couple of Jane Smiley's books (A Thousand Acres, Moo) and while I enjoyed them, and she's stayed on my radar, I haven't sought out othersI've read a couple of Jane Smiley's books (A Thousand Acres, Moo) and while I enjoyed them, and she's stayed on my radar, I haven't sought out others of hers. But this concept really intrigued me. Called The Last Hundred Years: A Family Saga, she's got three books coming out over the course of one full year (book #2, Early Warning, comes out in May), and they cover one farm family in Iowa over 100 years. Each book covers 33 years, starting in 1920 with the young couple Walter and Rosanna. It then follows their children, who grow up, marry, and have their own children by the end of the book.
I really got to love this family. I didn't realize it for a while as the story is told in a simple, straightforward, unromantic way (perfectly suited to the Iowa farming community) but they really got to grow on me, to the point where it was hard for me to read the 1930s. I was so worried about them, and bad things do happen that hurt me. But overall they come through. They have a core strength that allows them to overcome even the worst luck that comes in life. In that regard, it captures the atmosphere of both the region and the agricultural lifestyle.
When the book ended, I wanted to keep reading. It does have a conclusion and you could read just the one book without the others, but I am so eager for the next book. I think I will put myself on the waiting list for it at the library, now. It's amazing how masterfully it is written, considering how spare the style is, but Ms. Smiley is such a great writer, the book reads effortlessly. A real treat of precision and heart, Some Luck is a beautiful and touching novel of Americana....more
What a fun book! And this is the perfect example of why I love book club. I never would have read this book, even though the premise intrigued me, becWhat a fun book! And this is the perfect example of why I love book club. I never would have read this book, even though the premise intrigued me, because it so far outside of my usual fare. Having it assigned for book club was the only way to force me into it, and I am so glad that I was!
Owen Wedgwood, a chef, is kidnapped by Mad Hannah Mabbot, captain of the pirate ship, The Flying Rose. Each week he is forced to cook her a marvelous meal out of the meager foodstuff on board, in order to survive another week, Meanwhile pirating continues and Owen tries to escape and there are murders, robberies, the hunt for the elusive Brass Fox, and the avoidance of the vengeful Laroche in his ship, La Colette, with its many inventions and innovations. Naturally most of the pirates are misfits and eccentrics, pretty delightful in their variety and in their character development. Owen is nicely not a hero, but someone who bumbles his escape attempts, and has no pretensions about saving anyone or anything except his own neck.
Some in book club were less enamored of the book as it was on the lighter side of literary, but the discussions of food and the descriptions of flavors and of the ship were masterful. There was still a lot to discuss, and we don't have to read an uber-intellectual book every month, in my opinion. It was thoroughly enjoyable (although it did start off a little slow) and a nice change of pace....more
Fifteen-year-old Thea has grown up on a Florida estate in the 1920s, riding horses and hanging out with her twin brother and her cousin, mostly isolatFifteen-year-old Thea has grown up on a Florida estate in the 1920s, riding horses and hanging out with her twin brother and her cousin, mostly isolated. Then comes 1930. As the world is crashing down around them, they remain fairly isolated from it thanks to their mother's citrus farms, but their cousin isn't so lucky, as his father invested unwisely. And then something terrible happens. But you don't know what it is for a long time. Thea is sent off to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp in the North Carolina mountains (turns out it is also a school and her parents don't intend to collect her in the fall although they don't bother to tell her that.) Thea is being punished for an awful thing that happened back home, which we readers don't find out the details of for quite some time.
In the meantime, Thea builds a new identity, having girl friends for the first time, roommates, rivals, and even an inappropriate crush. She is obviously working out some of the trauma for herself through distance and physical activity, but that can't last of course, and the incident must eventually be dealt with.
Some members of my book club found The Incident quite graphic, but I did not. I was okay with it. I did though think people overreacted a fair amount. I really enjoyed the book so much more when she was at Yonahlossee. Her mother I found cold and controlling. Her brother was odd and diffuse. The book had some brilliant turns of phrase, and really captured the timeframe well (although at a horse camp like that, it could have been any year in the previous 50 years, as not much had changed in that time.) It was fascinating to see the relatively slow impact of The Great Depression on the students and the school as the year 1930 spun out, with us knowing what they don't: that this will not be a fast rebound, and in fact will get worse before it gets better. There were some flaws in the plotting and some unrealistic parts. I found the cousin in particular to fluctuate times when he seemed so juvenile that I wondered if he were mentally handicapped, to other times when he seemed overly mature. Thea was prickly to say the least, but I liked her. I liked her strength, her ability to move forward no matter what, and her determination not to be a victim....more
I wanted to love this book. It's set in my home state of Tennessee. The author came to an event in the spring that I attended. I generally like SoutheI wanted to love this book. It's set in my home state of Tennessee. The author came to an event in the spring that I attended. I generally like Southern literature and don't feel I read enough of it. But sadly, this isn't the type of Southern lit that I respond to.
In 1936, TVA is damming up the river which will flood the town of Yuneetah near Knoxville. Everyone has been ordered to move and most have taken relocation packages from the government. Some moved to the next county to another farm, but some took the opportunity to move away north where there are factory jobs. Annie Clyde however does not want to move. She wants to stay with her three-year-old daughter Gracie, although her husband James has already rented them an apartment in Detroit. As they fight about their future, Gracie wanders off. Their hunt for her soon turns desperate as the lake is rising after days of rain and everyone has lost someone to the river before. A local drifter, Amos, has returned to the town to say goodbye and to visit his adoptive mother, Beulah, who lives up the mountainside and is outside of the evacuation zone. He quickly falls under suspicion. The sheriff struggles to organize a search party with nearly all of the town's residents long gone. Will Gracie be found before it's too late?
The book is languid, flowing slowly like a slow rising river. The descriptions are spot-on, and the reader can picture the twisted trees, the forest full of briers, the apple tree, the abandoned buildings. But personally, I need more than that. From my description it sounds like the book has a lot of plot, but that doesn't get going until nearly halfway into the book. And now, I don't mind a character-driven book, but I need to empathize with the main characters. Instead Annie Clyde is prickly, a loner who shuts people out. A lot of the book also dwells on her aunt, Silver, a recluse who lives at the top of the mountain and avoids people pretty constantly. And then there's Amos, who grew up in the town but has been riding the rails for 30 years, getting into trouble (as evidenced by his missing eye) and (sound familiar?) avoiding people. His adoptive mother is definitely an outsider although I wouldn't describe her as necessarily a recluse. But all of the main characters in the book are outsiders and most of them are recluses who dislike people. That's hard to believe (why are all these recluses living in or near a town anyway?) and harder to understand. I certainly understand there are cranky, socially maladaptive Southerners, but to populate all of your main characters from that subset is, to my mind, a mistake. The empathetic characters were James, the sheriff, and the TVA employee, who are all fairly minor characters. I'm sure some people will love this book. The skill of the writing is excellent, the descriptions evocative, and yes, some readers like their book full of quirky, cranky people. But I don't. That last point just didn't do it for me. And with the characters as they are, I'd have needed a lot more plot to be moving a lot faster, to get over it. And that was lacking too. With an extremely slow start and backstories that go back multiple generations, there wasn't nearly enough going on for my taste.
I want to emphasize this isn't at all a bad book. There are even people I would recommend it to. It's just not my cup of tea....more
I don't seek out books with unreliable narrators as I tend to like things a little more straightforward, but every once in a while, especially when itI don't seek out books with unreliable narrators as I tend to like things a little more straightforward, but every once in a while, especially when it's very well done, it's a treat. And that was the case with The Other Typist.
In the 1920s in New York, Rose, a plain but self-sufficient orphan, is a typist at a police precinct. She likes her job, takes pride in her skills, and enjoys helping to put away the bad guys. One day Odalie starts as another typist. Odalie is beautiful, glamorous, and takes a shine to Rose. They become fast friends and under Odalie's influence, Rose starts to go to speakeasies, moves out of her Brooklyn boarding house into Odalie's fancy hotel suite, and get involved with Odalie's fast crowd. Then things go terribly wrong.
This book took a lot of twisty turns, especially at the end. It was a very cool mystery with a few fascinating reveals that I could have never predicted (but which were well set up; once you knew the ending you could see where there had been some earlier clues.) In fact, it was tricky to figure out exactly what happened, but in an intriguing way, not a frustrating way, and it led to some very interesting and passionate debates in my book club. It was a perfect book for a book club for precisely that reason. It also was a favorite, and many people commented that it was their favorite book club selection this year, by far (I agreed.) I enjoyed it thoroughly, and was almost tempted to reread it, to see the set-up in action. It was a lot of fun....more
I read Ordinary Grace for my Great Group Reads book club, and it was well-liked across the board (one member declared it her favorite book this year.)I read Ordinary Grace for my Great Group Reads book club, and it was well-liked across the board (one member declared it her favorite book this year.) I did like it but it had some issues for me.
Frank is 13, living in a small town in Minnesota in 1961, and the son of a preacher. That summer starts with the accidental death of a mentally handicapped boy Frank's age, and the deaths keep coming, including one that hits close to home.
The voice and the sense of place were very powerful. Mr. Krueger has a knack for conveying the flatness of the midwest, and the people in this small town who are good and bad, striving, gossipy, prejudiced, and helpful. The story kept me reading too, to find out what happened. There were some red herrings along the way, but it isn't a traditional mystery. It's more of a novel with a mysterious element.
The issues I had were with Frank and his little brother Jake's ages seeming to fluctuate (sometimes they seemed wise beyond their years, other times I thought they were a lot younger than they're supposed to be.) I also had issue with how much of the plot revolved around eavesdropping, which is somewhat necessary for a book narrated by a child but about adult issues. Others in book club assured me that they had eavesdropped a lot as a child (I didn't) but I still don't like it as a convention. It seems convenient and passive. I thought the character of their older sister could have been more developed. And certain events were telegraphed so strongly that I saw them coming from a mile away. I hate books that don't use quotation marks. And for me, the biggest problem was that I was reading an advance copy, and the letter in the front of the book from the author gave away the biggest plot twist in the book (not even by hinting, but flat-out said it.) That's unforgivable. I was incredibly disappointed. When will publishers learn--if you're going to give away a spoiler, put it at the back where it can't hurt anyone. Luckily for you, you are not going to have that same problem.
Overall, I really did enjoy the book, particularly the atmosphere and I liked the resolution. It was not quite lyrical, but there is a poetry to the midwest which Mr. Krueger captured beautifully....more
This book scared me. I heard great things about it, but I saw the length (544 pages) and heard the set up, and it put me off. So in this book, UrsulaThis book scared me. I heard great things about it, but I saw the length (544 pages) and heard the set up, and it put me off. So in this book, Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in England in 1910. And then she dies. And then the book starts over and Ursula is again born on a snowy night in England in 1910. That time she lives to be about three but then dies in an accident at the beach. Then she is born on a snowy night in 1910.
See, that's weird. That's not how books work. Is it reincarnation? Not exactly, because time goes back to the beginning too. It's more like a loop in time. And each time, things are slightly different. Sometimes things turn out better, sometimes worse, but each time when it reaches the end, it begins again. Sometimes Ursula is living in pre-WWII Germany. Sometimes she is living in bombed-out London. Sometimes she is married. Sometimes she is not. Sometimes she seems like she could change history.
I really enjoyed this novel. I enjoyed the inventiveness of it. I like Ursula's quiet, British-stiff-upper-lip determination that sees her through even the more unpleasant futures. I like how it made me think about life choices and how something small can mean a huge change, and how something that seems like a good choice can lead to a bad outcome, and that we shouldn't put values like "good" and "bad on decisions, because they're just hinges that open doors, but they're not what is behind the door.
“What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?” Hm. Ms. Atkinson does a great job of making me think....more
Lately I found myself lecturing my intern on the importance in the publishing business of being open-minded and reading widely, and I pushed him to reLately I found myself lecturing my intern on the importance in the publishing business of being open-minded and reading widely, and I pushed him to read some women's fiction and he didn't bat an eye. In the back of my mind, I felt guilty though, as I know I have my own preconceptions and although they have been frequently proven wrong over the years, they persist. So when I was looking at my shelves for what to start reading three days before my wedding, knowing I couldn't handle something that wasn't very light and fluffy, it occurred to me that I had a couple of romance novels hidden in the back of my bookcase, given by a romance-novel-loving friend, who wanted me to give them another shot (I read a handful in high school, and again a few in my mid-twenties when I was interviewing for a job at a publishing house that mostly published romances.) I read half of one but had never tried the other. And guess what the title was? The Bride. It was kismet.
The Bride was certainly light and fluffy and reading it zipped along at the speed of light. It was not great literature. No male in the book can speak in a normal tone of voice, instead they are constantly roaring, bellowing, shouting, yelling, and hollering. There were loose threads left dangling, particularly our heroine's family who never factor in again (aside from one sister whose story line was resolved very quickly and off-page.) But I was surprisingly impressed by the sex scenes. I recently discovered that probably forever, I have been at best skimming and probably usually outright skipping sex scenes in books (not being an avid romance reader, they don't actually come up all that often.) I was dreading reading those, but they were very well written, with not a throbbing member to be seen, and none of the icky awfulness usually seen in literary novels (and as that is a big part of these books, one would expect a higher bar, but it exceeded even my expectations.)
For the plot, Jamie, an English young lady, and her sister Mary are told by the king they will marry a couple of Scottish lairds who will come for them shortly, and they do making their father and twin sisters sad but we never see them again so who cares. Jamie is feisty and stubborn but Alec, her husband, is patient and willing to wait for her to settle in, especially so long as they continue to have acrobatic and frequent sex. Jamie is conveniently already skilled in speaking Gaelic, healing, archery, and horseback riding despite having been also raised to be a proper lady. She naturally gets into minor troubles here and there and yet by the end, despite thinking she has caused several impending wars with other clans, she has instead united them all. And won over her husband, who has won her over too, and they declare their love for each other (it's a romance novel so if I'm giving away any big secrets here, sue me.) There is a twist although it's not hard at all to figure out, and is a little hard to believe. And all of this plays out over about a two week period.
My romance-reading friend did tell me this book is nowadays considered rather old-fashioned, as being forced into marriage is not "in" right now (although arranged marriages then are historically accurate and there isn't exactly forcible sex, although there is persuaded sex.) And the author's note in the book mentions she broke with romance novel-writing tradition at the time by having the book be quite humorous (I think she overstates its humor a bit but I did appreciate it not being overly earnest.) Another friend said she couldn't overlook the bad writing, and it's interesting that it didn't bother me so much, being an editor and all, but I have gotten better at turning off that side of my brain, particularly when reading fluffy books. Yes there are stereotypes galore, characters aren't well developed at all, and the plot is fairly predictable, but none of those are crimes and I am willing to overlook them for a few hours of mindless fun....more
I had absurdly high expectations for this book, which were pretty much asking to be dashed. That said, I liked it pretty well overall. I do though wisI had absurdly high expectations for this book, which were pretty much asking to be dashed. That said, I liked it pretty well overall. I do though wish it had been a bit shorter, and had read faster.
In Tennessee in the period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, a man named Richardson has an unusual relationship with his slave Wash (short for Washington.) Rutherford had loaned out Wash's mother to an older friend, Thompson, who took her to an island in North Carolina's Outer Banks where Wash was born and raised. After Thompson's death, things got bad for Wash quickly, as he was someone who does not easily overlook being disrespected and treated like trash. After a couple of incidents, Wash is returned to Richardson, injured and ill. When we recovers, Richardson, who has bred horses all his life, finally finds the right job to suit Wash's temperament: being a stud. Literally. Nearby slave owners contact Richardson to rent Wash for a weekend, during which he's expected to impregnate as many slave women of child-bearing age as possible. Richardson, who is conflicted over slavery, finds Wash a companion to confide in, even if Wash doesn't return his trust.
I found this a fascinating time period that's almost never written about, 1812-1835 or so. And it was very neat to see through Richardson's eyes how during the Revolution, he and many others hoped slavery would be outlawed. And it's interesting that he ended up owning slaves after that. For him, it was a matter of practicality, not tradition or honor or principles. I really liked the character of Rufus, a blacksmith who tries to show Wash how to be a proud black man without getting himself killed, although he disappeared halfway through the book. Wash's mother was also interesting, who had been kidnapped from Africa and tried to teach Wash their old ways and old religion, although she too disappeared about halfway. At that point, when Wash was an adult and fell in love with Pallas, the local midwife, and when Richardson started confiding in him, was when I found the book bogged down. It felt repetitive at times and the atmosphere-building became too much for me. I did not understand why she both flipped between multiple first-person narrators and occasional third-person narration. I did stick it out though, because of the good reviews and the personal recommendations and that I have met Ms. Wrinkle and really liked her.
My book club discussed the book and it was very interesting for that. There were a ton of topics to discuss and interesting characters and parallels between the first half and the second half of the book. But I wish it had been a little shorter, which would have taken care of the repetition and too-much descriptions, and it was too slow for my taste, although some people will love to get lost in the world Ms. Wrinkle's so meticulously and poetically built....more
This novel tells two stories. First is the story of Josephine, a slave girl in Virginia whose mistress is a wannabee artist--while Josephine really isThis novel tells two stories. First is the story of Josephine, a slave girl in Virginia whose mistress is a wannabee artist--while Josephine really is talented. The second is the story of Lina, a lawyer in modern-day New York City, working on a slavery reparations case and searching for descendants of a slave who would be good plaintiffs for the case, when she stumbles across Josephine's story.
I found Lina's story much more compelling. Josephine's, while overall not bad, did strike me as a bit cliched (it starts off with her master hitting her in the face for absolutely no reason and no history of doing that, and it comes to nothing, just gratuitous violence.) Lina felt a lot more real, more well-developed. While she's searching for the truth about Josephine, she's also searching for the truth about her own mother who died when she was a small child and about whom she knows next to nothing. But her artist father might be finally ready to talk with her.
The book does move forward at a pretty good pace, but a chunk of the book that is a letter from the 1860s did drag, as did another collection of letters. I wish she had incorporated the content into the storyline more, rather than giving us the unexpurgated, full letters, which were written entirely too on-point to be considered remotely realistic, and yet were too slow-going and artificially historically-written to flow well.
The above storyline is quite enough for one book, but throw in a controversy about the legitimacy of the paintings, an entire subplot about another family working the underground railroad, a missing baby, and it started to feel like she's dumped in everything but the kitchen sink.
Now don't get me wrong, I did overall like the book well enough, but it did have some first-time novelist flaws. And I just wasn't in the right mood for the book, as I am feeling overdosed on Civil War-slavery novels right now. I liked the book well enough as a whole, and it did have some interesting discussion points for our book club, but it was flawed....more