Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I Heart Crumbling Estates

When I was posting about The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters in November, I looked again at the Amazon review of that book, to confirm that it really did have spoilers.  The next time that I went to Amazon, it told me that since I had recently looked at The Little Stranger, I might also like The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.  Now Amazon has led me astray with shaky recommendations in the past, but since The Thirteenth Tale was sitting in my nightstand waiting for me to read it, I checked out the editorial reviews to see what they said.  Based on those reviews, I was a little worried that The Thirteenth Tale would turn out to be an earlier, better version of The Little Stranger that I had somehow missed.  They said that The 13th  was a ghost story, set in a "haunted ruin of a house" in England, and was full of family secrets.  Does that sound a little familiar to you?

After reading The 13th, however, I have to disagree.  The 13th is not a ghost story, nor a mystery, nor a fairy tale, but instead is a crazy blend of the three.  It is certainly set in a crumbling estate in rural England, like The Little Stranger, but where the Ayers family in TLS was eccentric, the Angelfield family in The 13th is mentally ill.  The story teller in The 13th is Margaret Lea, who although she is our narrator, is actually reporting the story that she is hearing as The 13th unfolds.  As in TLS, there is a kindly housekeeper, who understands the family and their problems perhaps better than the family itself does, and a doctor, who races to misdiagnoses.

Margaret hears the story of the Angelfield family when she is hired to write the biography of a reclusive writer who has attained celebrity status.  This writer knows how to keep Margaret and the reader interested by doling out little morsels of truth, which in this case are more interesting than any fiction. 

If you are a fan of a true ghost story, this book may be a disappointment to you.  However, if you liked The Little Stranger, like I did, and want to read something else along those lines, The 13th  is a great find.  And now I have a new "mini-genre" to follow, which I didn't even know I liked three months ago - 20th century stories set in crumbling estates in rural England and the crazy families that inhabit them.

Next Up on CD:  Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
Next Up in Book Form:  Enemies of the People by Kati Marton

Monday, December 27, 2010

Something Worth Fighting For

Almost a year ago, I was at a party with some friends, Dave and Brooke, and we were talking about great books that we had read recently.  They could not stop talking about one, so I asked them to write down the name, so that I wouldn't forget it.  Dave handed me a note later that said:

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
Everything Mark Helprin has ever written

 So, I put Soldier on my TBR list, and figured that I would eventually get to it.  That time has come.

A Soldier of the Great War  is the story of an Italian man, Alessandro Giuliani, and his struggle to survive World War I, with his self respect intact.  The story begins with Alessandro as a dignified old man helping a young man, who is a stranger to him.  The two wind up going on a long walk together, during which Alessandro tells the young man, Nicolo, the story of his life, and challenges and expands Nicolo's view of the world. 

Alessandro's profession is the study of beauty, and that he is able to make a living in this field is an amazement to all.  According to Alessandro, La Tempesta by Giorgione is the reason for war and the reason for peace. The painting, which is at the top of this post, depicts a soldier going off to war, and leaving a naked woman and a nursing child behind.  The message being that the only thing worth leaving a wife and child behind for is to fight for their continued way of life, and a better future for the child.  Although he joined the war as a single man, Alessandro carries this image with him, and it helps him through difficult times. 

One interesting detail that I noticed in Soldier is that although the author is American, the United States is not mentioned at all during the story of the war - no mention of American soldiers, prisoners of war, or even participation. America is only mentioned toward the end of the book as a place to visit or move to after the war is over.

From the beginning, there was something about Soldier that reminded me of Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.  There are many similarities before one even opens either book.  Follett and Helprin were born within 2 years of each other (1949 and 1947, respectively), the books Pillars and Soldier were published within 2 years of each other (1989 and 1991, respectively), and both books are massive, with Pillars having 1008 pages, and Soldier having 792 pages.  Both novels are set in Europe, and another strange similarity is that they are the only novels that I have ever read with scenes in a rock quarry.  But more than that, the stories feel similar in the tone and voice of the main character.  However, the plots themselves are completely different.  Pillars takes place over several decades in the 1600s, and the story is the struggle to build a great cathedral.  Soldier takes place between 1915 and 1919 in the flashback, and for 2 days in the 1960s.  I guess my point is that if you liked Pillars, you will like Soldier too.

Next up:  Enemies of the People by Kati Marton

Still Listening to:  Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

It's Olive's Fault

I am so not excited about posting for the third time in a row about a book that I didn't really like.  What a downer.  This time though, it's not my fault.  It's Olive's.  And Elizabeth Strout's. 

The last book that I read by Elizabeth Strout, Amy and Isabelle, was not one of my favorites.  Amy and Isabelle is the story of a woman who became a mom as a teenager, and her struggles to raise her daughter, and keep her from also becoming a teenage mother.  The mom, Isabelle, is hard to like, but I would have liked her a lot more if Strout had done a better job of reminding me that Isabelle was only 33 or 34 while she was trying to deal with her 16 year old daughter.  So that one is Strout's fault.

Olive Kitteridge, also by Strout, came out to great fanfare, and even won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.  I liked the idea of several short stories all set in Maine, and all tied together by one person, Olive Kitteridge, who plays lead, supporting, or cameo roles in each story.  So, I decided to give Strout another try. 

Like Isabelle, Olive is a very hard person to like.  She is abrasive and hostile to those closest to her, but reveals a tender side to virtual strangers.  As her husband, Henry, says, she does not ever apologize.  This seems to be because she feels deep within her being that she is always right.  She is also quick to lay the blame on others for her problems, always saying that what is wrong is someone else's fault. 

So, if you are in the mood for a cheerful tale, this is not it.  But if you are preparing to go home for the holidays, and dreading dealing with your mother or mother in law, Olive Kitteridge might be the book for you.  After reading about Olive, your family members will look kind and thoughtful.

As for me, I'm done with Elizabeth Strout.  I think she'll muddle along without me.

Post Script:  After sleeping on this post, I have to concede that Olive Kitteridge is not a bad book.  It is interesting how you learn about each character through the eyes of the others, and the differences in character that each shows when with their own family versus when they are with acquaintances.  Additionally, there is light at the end of the tunnel, in that the book ends optimistically, with the hope for change and growth.  Olive's son, Christopher, is a more resilient character than he first appears, and while she only admits it grudgingly, Olive does learn from him.  I appreciate that Christopher does not allow himself to be damaged by his past, but instead works toward a better future.  But I still think I'm done with Elizabeth Strout.

Next Up on CD:  The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Still Reading:  A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Book Group Report - 5

Wow!  It was a big night at book group!  First Heather showed us the amazing bathroom that she and her husband just renovated.  All 9 of us fit inside.  Then, while we played a game involving not saying each other's names, which I sucked at, Lynne told us about being in the Oprah audience for the Favorite Things episode!  She even wore the Ralph Lauren sweater and the diamond watch so that we could see them.  Then we had our annual used book exchange.  I scored copies of Out Stealing Horses by Per Peterson, The Rose Labyrinth by Tatania Hardie, The Fig Eater by Jody Shields, and a Rachel Ray cookbook.  Finally, we talked about our book of the month, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson.

I try not to spoil books by telling you too much about them on this blog.  That being said, I can't tell you how I feel about TGWTDT without giving away the ending.  So, if you plan on reading the book, you should stop reading now.  I will take this opportunity to insert a nice picture of the book cover, so that hopefully you can avoid reading the next paragraph, if you don't want to know.

Any who . . . if you are still reading, this is what I hate about this book.  In the beginning, Henrik Vanger is introduced as a wealthy man, who is unhappy.  Despite the fact that he has money and business success, he is not satisfied because he does not know what has happened to his niece.  He is fine with knowing she is dead; he is fine with knowing that she is alive; but he just needs to know.  In the end, his question is answered, but in reaching his resolution, he learns of several other girls who have died.  He decides not to tell their families what has happened to them, but instead to give their families monetary gifts.  He was not satisfied with money, but he expects that these other families will be.  It just seems that the whole point of the novel for Henrik is the importance of knowledge, but in the end, it is more important to him to preserve his family's reputation than to set the record straight, and give closure to other families. 

The rest of the book group was not bothered by this issue.  Of the 9 of us, 2 refused to read it, 1 loved it, 1 (me) hated it, and the rest were somewhere in between.

Next up:  The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.  I told you I would have the book group read this one!  I can't wait to hear what they think about it.

Still Reading:  A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin.  I am really liking this book so far.  I am about 220 pages in, which is only about 1/4 of the way through.  So far, the tone of the story and the voice of the teller are reminding me of Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. 

Still Listening to:  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Light and Fluffy

A couple of years ago, when our neighbors abandoned their house to move to Arizona for a new job and let another family move in until the bank foreclosed, I knew what to do.  Of course, no one in our neighborhood was happy to have a family with 8 "home schooled" kids, all named after Disney characters, squatting in a vacant house.  But, because I had read Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, I knew that the question was not if, but when one of these squatter kids would write his or her memoir.  My legacy was in my hands.  Well, really, probably not.  But I did drop off groceries once and bags of winter clothes and books another time during the night when I don't think anyone was watching.  When the memoir comes out, we'll see if the kids had any idea where those goodies came from.

I read You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs, thinking that it would be light and fluffy.  After all, it has a Santa Claus exposing himself on the front cover - how intense could it be?  But instead, this was a pretty depressing and heavy read.  Burroughs has had some miserable Christmases, even after moving away from his parents.  Running with Scissors was a horrifying recount of Burrough's childhood, but it did have its moments when you couldn't help but laugh.  Not so with You Better Not Cry, which was just sad.

Next Up:  A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

Still Listening to:  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Reading Gatsby in Tehran

In Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, I got an unexpected look into life in Iran from about 1980 through 1997, when the author left the country.  What surprised me was how many choices were allowed in a country which I understood opposed anything "Western".  For instance, it never occurred to me that women are wearing jeans and t shirts under their chadors, or that such clothing would even be available for purchase in Iran.  I was also surprised that women could divorce, e-mail and travel outside of Iran.  Of course, women could not travel outside of Iran without their husbands, but the fact that they were permitted to go to places like London or the US at all was news to me.  However, while that was what life was like in 1997, based on news reports, I think that Iran must be more restrictive now.

Much of the book, Reading Lolita is spent with the author, Azar Nafisi, and her students, a group of women who are interested in Western literature.  One of the books that they discussed was Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.  I expected that Lolita  would be intolerably scandalous for Iranian culture, and was shocked to realize that with one simple plot twist, it would have been perfectly acceptable.  The problem for Iranians was that Lolita (actually, Dolores) and Humbert were not married.  The problem for Americans was that Humbert was sleeping with a 12 year old, and blaming her for it.  The American issue with Lolita is no concern at all for the Iranian hardliners, because a woman can be married at the age of 9 in Iran, and it is perfectly understandable that a woman of that age could seduce an older man.  The Great Gatsby,  by F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, was considered absolutely outrageous when Dr. Nafisi taught the book in Iran.  Her students were horrified by the glamorization of American excesses and lax morality.  The fact that the reader is supposed to be judgemental for just those reasons was lost on Dr. Nafisi's more conservative students.

As I mentioned earlier, while this book is a memoir, it reads more like fiction.  Dr. Nafisi is a talented story teller, and as an added perk, she brings the reader up to speed with mini-lectures on the classic pieces of literature that may have been missed in college.  I would like to see another epilogue, written now by one of her students who stayed in Iran.  It would be interesting to hear about whether Western literature is being taught at all, what women are wearing, whether foreign travel is permitted, and what rights women have gained and lost since the late 1990s.

Next up on CD:  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Still reading:  You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs
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