Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Typical Book Group Report - 2

The Typical Book Group found Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray to be a very tough book.  Only 6 hearty souls were brave enough to attend book group last night to discuss it, and of them, only 3 had finished the book.  We discussed the story for very little time, and our discussion focused mainly on the differences between the book and the movie that came out a few years ago, with Reese Witherspoon as Rebecca.

The book grouper who watched the Vanity Fair movie (and also read the whole book) was on Team Rebecca.  The other two groupers who finished the book were on Team Amelia.  It seems as though the movie made Rebecca appear more innocent, and Rawdon Crawley appear less worthy, than the book.

All told, a book that takes 300 pages to get interesting is probably not a great book group pick.  On the other hand, we all felt that we could now check the box and say that we had read Vanity Fair, which gave us a tiny sense of accomplishment.

Next up:  The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Still Reading:  Contested Will  by James Shapiro

Still Listening to:  Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Haunted Island

Every year, my family spends some time on Mackinac Island, which is in northern Lake Huron, close to the Mackinac Bridge.  Note to people outside of Michigan:  Mackinac (the island and bridge) and Mackinaw (the city) are pronounced the same, both ending with an "aw" sound. 

The Island is a step back in time, as cars are not permitted, and horses pull carriages through the downtown shopping district.  Below is a shot of the downtown area, on a typical summer day.  During the day, endless ferries carry tourists to and from the Island.  At night, the Island becomes quiet, as the locals and the tourists who are staying overnight settle in, free from the day trippers.  After the last ferry leaves for the day, the Island can be a little eerie, if one ventures from the beaten path between restaurants and pubs.  There is a lot of history on the Island, with stories of old Indian wars, plenty of spooky graveyards, and Fort Mackinac, which the British captured in the War of 1812.

The Tale of Halcyon Crane by Wendy Webb is set on a fictional "Grand Manitou Island", which Webb admits is based on the true Mackinac Island.  In the story, Halcyon, or Hallie, as she is called, learns unexpectedly that she has a connection to the Island, and travels there to learn more.  In the course of her trip, she uncovers a haunted house, and a ton of family secrets. 
On the author's blog, she boasts that The Tale made it to the North West Michigan Bestsellers list last summer.  Really, although I can see how this book would be attractive to people vacationing in Northern Michigan, there is no reason why it shouldn't enjoy a wider audience.  The Tale was suspenseful, not too predictable, and is a good book for anyone who enjoys a ghost story.  There may be some aspects of Grand Manitou Island which seem too hokey to be real, like the lack of reliable cell phone service, the necessity of horses and bikes for transportation, the big old Victorian houses, and the close-knit relationships of the Islanders.  As someone who visits Mackinac Island, I can tell you that there is such a place.  I was left with a few questions, which I will post on the Spoilers page for anyone interested.

One of the events that Webb incorporates into her story is the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, which affected all of the Great Lakes, and the surrounding states.  I had never heard about this storm before, and liked learning about it. 

Interested in spooky stories based in Northern Michigan?  The Tarnished Eye by Judith Guest is based on a true crime that took place in the northern lower peninsula in 1968, where a family was murdered in their summer home.  The crime remains unsolved.

Next up on CD:  Hopefully Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon - I have a hold on it at the library, but haven't gotten it yet.

Still Reading - Contested Will by James Shapiro

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Missing Piece

Within days after I finished Still Alice by Lisa Genova, I was on the phone with my financial planner discussing disability insurance.  Still Alice is the story of an active, over educated woman, in the prime of her life, who develops early onset Alzheimer's disease.  What was really compelling about Alice was that the author, Lisa Genova, knew what she was talking about.  After all, she has a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard.  Genova managed to tell the story of Alice in a way that inspired compassion, and also educated the reader about the disease, while still keeping the story interesting. 

When The Friends Book Group decided to read Left Neglected by Genova, I wondered if I would be calling to increase my coverage.  Left Neglected is the story of Sarah, a super overachieving mother of three, whose life changes when she is in a car crash, and forgets that there is a left side of herself, or anything else.  Sounds bizarre, doesn't it?  As Sarah tries to explain her experience to her husband, the conversation goes like this: 

Sarah:  "Honey, tell me everything you see in here." 
Bob:  [names every item of furniture in the room]
Sarah:  "Is that everything?"
Bob:  "Pretty much"
Sarah:  "Okay, now what if I told you that everything you see is only half of everything that's really here?  What if I told you to turn your head and look at the other half?  Where would you look?"

Left Neglect is a real condition, which, as I understand it, is usually caused by brain trauma.  Left Neglected shows Sarah trying to conquer her neglect, both that in her brain, and that caused by her mother.  While it probably sounds like a medical story, it's really more of a story of a mom realizing that she was living a crazy life, and that she is more than her office persona. 

This book, like Still Alice, is a page turner.  Also, with a side story line of Sarah's struggles to face and manage her son's ADHD, it is a great book for Friends of Different Learners.  Now I just have to wait a month and 2 days to discuss it with them. 

For all you financial planners out there, here's an idea:  keep a few copies of both of Lisa Genova's books on hand and casually pass them out to clients who are on the fence about disability insurance.  Sales are likely to skyrocket!

Next up:  Contested Will by James Shapiro

Still listening to:  The Tale of Halcyon Crane by Wendy Webb

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Typical Field Trip

Tonight, 6 members of The Typical Book Group met at a movie theater to see the movie of a book that we read a while ago, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.  First off, I have to tell you that I loved the book, and am not quite sure why I haven't put it on my list of Favorites. (done!)  I normally am disappointed when a great book is made in to a movie, but not this time!

The movie, "The Help" is very true to the book.  The casting is perfect.  I love Emma Stone as Skeeter, Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, and Ahna O'Reilly as Elizabeth.  If I had done the casting, I would have had Selma Blair as Skeeter, and Reese Witherspoon as Hilly, but I would have been half a generation off.  It was important to the story that these characters all be very young. 

And the clothes.  I would take every piece of Skeeter's wardrobe, even though our coloring is completely different, I'm plenty of pounds heavier, and 2 decades older.  Well, every piece except the plaid jumper, but if it was all or nothing I'd take that too.

If you haven't read the book yet, you need to stop procrastinating and read it.  The Help is set in the deep South, during the time of the early civil rights struggle.  These 20 something women were hiring African Americans twice their age to raise their children, clean their houses, and do their cooking, all for less than minimum age.  As a Northerner, it seems ridiculous that this was happening in the 1950s and even 60's.  The story is told from the perspective of Skeeter, who is a college educated single woman, coming home after graduation to rejoin all of her high school friends, who are married and lunching while the help takes care of their children.  Skeeter can see the hypocrisy in loving the "help" who raises you, and then hiring her and treating her poorly while the same person raises your children.  She convinces some of the "help" to tell their stories, and publishes them.

If you find that you just don't have time to read one more book, in this case, you could see the movie and get the full story.

Still reading:  Left Neglected by Lisa Genova.  I am tearing through this book, and can't wait to tell you about it when I finish!

Still listening to:  The Tale of Halcyon Crane by Wendy Webb

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Reinventing Dora

In the early 1900s, Dr. Sigmund Freud treated a woman who he identified as "Dora", finding that she had symptoms of hysteria.  While I don't purport to be a Freud scholar, Wikipedia says that Dora discontinued her treatment after telling Freud about her father's affair with a woman whose husband was pursuing Dora.  Dora then confronted her father and her pursuer, and reported to Freud that her symptoms had much improved.

The Fig Eater by Jody Shields seems to explore what could have happened if Dora had not met with Dr. Freud and if the tension between her father, his lover, her husband, and Dora had continued.  The story opens with the discovery of Dora's body after she has been murdered.  It is soon revealed that she ate figs just before she died.  The inspector who is investigating the case quickly discards the figs as being irrelevant, but his wife, who was raised with gypsy superstitions, sees the figs as the key to solving the crime.  The husband and wife each continue to investigate the murder, although the wife does so only in secret.

If anything, this book is too well researched.  Jody Shields incorporates words from early twentieth century Vienna and from a gypsy language on nearly every page.  While I understand her using a word like "liderc"  and explaining that it is an unclean spirit, Shields also feels the need to say everyday words in the other languages and then provide their English translation, which just makes the prose choppy.

The whole premise of this book also confuses me.  Shields takes a person who is something of a historical figure, Dora, incorporates her family members and the other relevant parties from Freud's research, but instead of exploring the relationship that history supports in a creative way, she murders Dora.  Why not just murder any old woman in Vienna at the time and create the mystery there?  It did not add to the story that it was Dora who was murdered, and in fact I found it distracting that she was contradicting history.  She then adds further complications such as the mystery of the figs and photos of a burn victim, which are purely her creation. 

In the end the idea behind this book is interesting, but it just didn't work.

Next up:  Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

Still Listening to:  The Tale of Halcyon Crane by Wendy Webb

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Frankly, Rebecca

As I mentioned in the last post, once I realized how similar Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray was to Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, I liked it much better.  After I blogged, I googled a little and found that other people had also seen the similarities.  My favorite was a poster who said that Vanity Fair "must have been Margaret Mitchell's very favorite book."  I think that's a great way to phrase it.  Mitchell clearly didn't steal the story from Thackeray, but some of the characters share traits, and the story has a similar tone.  I laughed out loud in chapter 37 when Rebecca said "fiddlededee!", reminding me of Scarlett.

One difference in the writing of Vanity Fair and Gone with the Wind is that Thackeray relies heavily on a narrator who carries the story along.  This narrator is so interwoven in the story, that at first I was comparing him to Burl Ives in "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer".  Once I stopped thinking of the narrator as a kindly but intrusive old man, and started thinking of him as my sassy gay friend, I felt more comfortable with him.  Specifically, I imagined Cam from "Modern Family" as the narrator, and then spent a great deal of time debating whether Gloria or Claire should be Rebecca.  Ultimately, I decided Claire.

Vanity Fair is the story of the Sedley Family, the Crawley Family, William Dobbins and Rebecca Sharp, and their trials and tribulations from roughly 1814 through 1840.  It details Rebecca's social climbing, and the decline of old families, as their patriarchs make questionable decisions and the money passes through generations.  It is a story of loving the memory of a person, even when the person in life was not all that lovable, with an overarching theme of the preservation of honor and family ties. 

Vanity Fair is a great story.  I think that what I liked best about it is that it ended as it should have, with no shocking surprises.  It was just a nice, satisfying ending.  Amelia showed a touch of strength when it was really needed, and likewise, Rebecca showed a touch of kindness, even if it was self serving.  Thackeray declares Vanity Fair to be "A Novel Without a Hero" in its subtitle.  I have to disagree with him here.  Although the acts of heroism were not action packed,  a couple of the characters showed themselves to be heros in the end.

All told, if you loved Gone with the Wind, Vanity Fair just might become your new very favorite book.

Next up:  The Fig Eater by Jody Shields

Next up on CD:  The Tale of Halcyon Crane by Wendy Webb
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