Review: A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler

Not too long ago, I joined Litsy, which has been described as a combination of Instagram and Goodreads. It’s not, but I guess that’s as close as it gets. I posted a picture of the books I had purchased and wondered which to start with. A commenter recommended Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread. While I’ve had some things going on and haven’t felt much like reading, it’s also true that this book only sort of half grabbed me. I picked it up because the opening pages are excellent, but they also deceived me about what the book would be.

You’ll have to forgive me. I haven’t read any of her other books, so from what I understand, this one is familiar territory for her: set in Roland Park in Baltimore, about family dynamics and the million tiny ways families disappoint one another. The Whitshank family lives in a house built by the patriarch, Junior Whitshank. His son Red and daughter-in-law Abby live in the house after the passing of Junior Whitshank and his wife (Red’s mother) Linnie Mae. Red and Abby raised their own four children in the house. The novel moves back and forth in time, beginning in the 1990’s with a phone call the Whitshanks’ son Denny makes to announce he’s gay and ending as Denny boards a train to New Jersey to see what appears to be an on-again, off-again girlfriend who is battening down the hatches for Hurricane Sandy. In between, we meet the rest of the Whitshank family and see the Whitshank grandchildren born, we go back and see Red and Abby before they started dating, and then we go further back and meet Junior and Linnie Mae both before and after they move into the house on Bouton Road.

When I say I was deceived by reading the beginning, here is an example of what I mean. Denny calls to announce he is gay. And that whole thread is completely dropped after the opening as Denny has relationships with women and even a daughter, Susan. I have to wonder what the point was. The thread is never picked up. And yes, I am using that metaphor on purpose. Maybe that was what Tyler had in mind. Leaving a lot of loose threads around. For instance, we learn Junior and Linnie Mae died in a crazy car accident, but we don’t really learn why. How did they really even feel about each other? After you read the section about Junior and Linnie Mae, you will wonder if there is more to it. The novel ends without a clear resolution, too. It doesn’t feel satisfying at the end. I wanted to like it more because I do feel that Anne Tyler drew very realistic and recognizable characters, and I liked them. I just didn’t get to see enough plot. It was sort of like peeking through the drapes and watching snippets of a family’s development. I guess I wanted to be a bit closer. In the end, I just kept wondering why Tyler wove in certain scenes and didn’t go anywhere with them.

I am not sure how to rate it because there are parts I liked, but as a whole, it didn’t hang together for me. I will not count it as historical fiction, even though much of it is, because the main storyline is too current.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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Review: Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng

This book has been on my radar since a colleague donated a copy to my classroom library. However, in the last few weeks, it was also chosen as the upper school summer reading selection at my school, so I would have had to read it this summer in any case. I bumped it up in my to-read queue.

Do you ever think that books come into our lives when we really need them? Sometimes I read the perfect book at the time when I absolutely need it, and this book was one of those books for me.

Everything I Never Told You is set in late 1970’s Ohio. The Lee family is a Chinese-American family. Their middle child Lydia, the one upon whom the family pins most of their hopes and dreams, is missing. In fact, the family does not know and will not learn for a while that she is actually dead. The novel is the story of what happens to the family in the wake of Lydia’s death as well as the story of all the events leading up to it. Each family member, including Lydia, suffers under the weight of the conversations they never had. At its heart, this book’s strongest message is about the emotional damage caused when people don’t communicate. However, for those who might be reluctant to pick up a book that might seem to be a downer, I’ll share that there is a note of redemption for the family.

I connected strongly with this book because one of the biggest problems I have is that there are a lot of important conversations I have needed to have with people in my life, especially family, that I have not had. I haven’t had these conversations for the same reasons as Lydia and all of the Lee family—fear. I carry the heavy weight of these conversations around inside me just like the Lee family did. I am learning that I need to change this behavior. This book is more than just a cautionary tale about the dangers of not having important conversations, but it was important for me to read at this time in my life for that reason.

We have recently suffered a tragic, sudden, and unexpected loss in our family as well. I don’t feel right laying out in a book review. I don’t know if that diminishes the loss or not. But having recently finished this book, this loss reminds me too that life is precious and fragile, and we are not promised time. We have to live the lives we want to live now and set aside the fears we have about others and what they will think. That includes family. Perhaps especially family. It’s hard, but our lives are worth it.

Rating: ★★★★★
Set in the late 1970’s, nearly 40 years ago now, this book counts toward the Historical Fiction Challenge.

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Review: American Girls, Alison Umminger

Alison Umminger’s novel American Girls will be released next month on June 7, but I received an ARC at an English teacher’s conference in November. I hadn’t picked it up until recently. April and May were busy and stressful at work, and I’m afraid my reading life took a bit of a backseat. I share books I think my students will like each class period because they are doing independent reading, and I know hearing about a book that sounds intriguing will encourage them to pick up books to read. Book talks make all the difference in helping students select books to read. I shared this book a couple of weeks ago and found myself rather intrigued by the book’s premise, so I picked it up instead of putting it back on the shelf for my students.

Fifteen-year-old Anna steals her stepmother’s credit card and buys a plane ticket to Los Angeles with the vague notion of visiting her sister, who is trying to make it as an actress. As the story unfolds, it is clear Anna is running from a fairly dysfunctional family. She feels sidelined and ignored by both her mother and her father, and her best friend Doon talked her into bullying a classmate of Doon’s. Anna’s mother agrees to let Anna stay in Los Angeles for the summer, but she needs to work to earn back the money to repay her stepmother. Delia, Anna’s sister, manages to find Anna a job researching the Manson Family for creepy film director Roger, Delia ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, Delia also arranges for Anna to stay with Delia’s current boyfriend Dex on the set of the TV show for which he writes, Chips Ahoy, a ridiculous and terrible show starring the Taylor twins, Josh and Jeremy, the younger brothers of washed-up superstar actress and pop singer, Olivia Taylor. Anna spends her summer hanging around the D-list, immersing herself in the history of the Manson Family, and becoming increasingly intrigued by the Manson “girls,” Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkle, Susan Atkins, and Squeaky Fromme. Ultimately, what this book really explores is the way in which American society crushes its girls and women, particularly in Los Angeles, where “pretty winds up looking like a hundred girls who look like a hundred other girls who are all trying to look like the same person,” and “after a while, pretty doesn’t even register” (263).

This is an interesting book, and not only because it’s probably the first YA novel I’ve ever seen to explore the Manson Family. Anna’s voice is whipsmart and sarcastic. She has a chip on her shoulder, but she has pretty good reasons. Even with its sometimes dark subject matter, there is plenty of humor in this book, courtesy of the strong first-person narration of Anna. She is realistically drawn and easy to sympathize with. The book skewers the Disney child-star road to ruination quite effectively. We should all be praying for those kids with Disney shows. Olivia Taylor is clearly similar to Miley Cyrus/Britney Spears, and the Taylor twins (and even their TV show) make one think of Dylan and Cole Sprouse, whose TV show The Suite Life on Deck sounds remarkably similar to Chips Ahoy. Though it should be said, the real-life Sprouse twins don’t seem to have as many issues as the Taylor twins, and they have even taken time away from Hollywood to go to college. Olivia, Josh, and Jeremy’s mother could be Pamela Des Barres or Bebe Buell—she was a groupie whose children are the results of relationships with rock stars. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Olivia Taylor’s name is so similar to that of Liv Tyler, the daughter of Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler and groupie Bebe Buell.

One thing the book captures really well is the disposable way in which young women in Southern California are treated. I lived there for a few years when I was in high school, and if there is any place in the country that is the absolute worst for sexualizing teenage girls and taking their identities away and replacing them with these plastic veneers—all facelifts, capped teeth, and anorexia—I can’t think of one. One scene stands out vividly in my mind. I was in marching band, and the girls in the flag corps were running some drills or practicing or maybe getting ready—that part is actually fuzzy—but I clearly remember their coach saying, “Be sexy! Be sexy!” They were fifteen and sixteen. I could tell you about worse, but I don’t really want to put it on a blog. Suffice it to say I don’t think teenage girls grow up in Southern California unscathed. This book really exposes what it’s like. A couple of passages that particularly resonated:

But If I had to write a memo to America, on what to do to improve the future, on how to go back and correct the past, it would be simple: Dear America: Please give your daughters sturdy bedroom doors that lock from the inside. And when they are hungry, give them a place at the table. (262)

Later, Anna connects her understanding of what she has seen in Los Angeles to the American Dream of Jay Gatsby:

Maybe Los Angeles was like Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, but for all of America. Instead of sitting on a pier and gazing at a green light across the water, now people just sat in their living rooms and watched the wide-screen, 3-D version of some life that was out there for the taking, if only they could get off the couch. (284)

Anna thinks a great deal about the Manson girls and what led them to follow Charles Manson’s orders to kill. Ultimately, her conclusions should make all of us shudder. I thought this book was different from most YA I have read, and I would highly recommend it. The gritty picture it paints of American girls will trouble you, but it’s all the more troubling that the picture is real.

Rating: ★★★★½

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free at the NCTE annual convention. I was not asked to write a review in exchange.

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Review: The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

I picked up Tim O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical novel/short story collection yesterday while trying to think of something to write for the blog challenge I’m participating in on my education blog. I have been wanting to read it for a long time, and I purchased it so long ago that I can count it for both the #ShelfLove and Mount TBR challenges, but I struggled with whether to count it as historical fiction. It blurs the lines between memoir and fiction perhaps a bit too much for me. In the end, though, Tim O’Brien says it is a novel, and I shouldn’t argue, but if you’ve read it, perhaps you will understand.

The Things They Carried is a collection of vignettes or chapters, some might say individual short stories—and most chapters certainly have a full story arc—based on Tim O’Brien’s time serving in the Vietnam War. Many of the stories were previously published. The stories are not arranged chronologically. For instance, “On the Rainy River” takes place before O’Brien goes to Vietnam as he is contemplating going to Canada to avoid the draft, while the few stories preceding it all take place during the war. Three post-war stories are interspersed throughout the remainder of the narrative as well.

I’m fairly certain I read “Speaking of Courage” in another form in college. The other stories were all new to me. I’m finding it hard figuring out what to write in this review because it’s hard to review books like this book. What can you say, aside from that the stories and writing are fantastic, and everyone should go out and read it? As I grew up, the country was still processing how it felt about this war, and in many ways, it still is. I couldn’t believe, for instance, that this novel was published in 1990. I felt sure it had been around longer than that. It’s a book I feel like I’ve been hearing about for much longer than that.

You know, Westmoreland visited my high school. I remember it. I didn’t really know or understand who he was, but I distinctly remember feeling like he expected us to be hostile. But maybe that was the teachers. I am still baffled as to why he came. We were all born during the war. Our fathers may have served in it, but beyond that, what connections did we have? And yet I still remember how his back was up as he spoke to us. He was very defensive. I can no longer remember anything he said—just how defensive he was.

When I was young, I remember the controversy over the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. I remember hearing stories about vets in the news. That war was all around me in media when I was young. I always had this powerful sort of personal connection to it because I knew my dad had been there when I was born, and I had been told the story of how he missed the first six months of my life because he was in Vietnam. He must have been there about a year. He was in the Air Force, so he was not out on patrols, in the thick of the most danger. Still, he was in a war zone, and it was all, more or less, dangerous.

O’Brien’s spare stories remind me a great deal of Ernest Hemingway. In fact, I find “Speaking of Courage” to be a descendant, of sorts, of Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home.” Of the stories included in the novel, I think “The Things They Carried,” “On the Rainy River,” and “Speaking of Courage” were my three favorites, but the stories do speak to each other and weave together. I think one of my favorite aspects of the book is O’Brien’s awareness of the importance of telling stories. O’Brien writes the reader into that time and that place. It seems effortless, like the best art is, and the reader is unaware of the stagecraft at play until the next chapter, when O’Brien uncovers it. I’ve not quite read anything like it. I was reading a Buzzfeed article the other day about a list of books you wish you could read again for the first time. I know that feeling of envy—the desire to have that wonderful book in front of you again for the first time. Someone had put this book on the list. I don’t necessarily agree with all the choices other readers made for the list—I do agree with many of them—but I can see why this book made someone’s list. I gulped it down in a day. It was one of the most engrossing books I’ve read for a while.

Rating: ★★★★★

I requested this book via PaperBack Swap in June of last year. I don’t believe I’ll be putting it back into the pool. I want to keep it. It’s been on my to-read list for a lot longer, however.

2016 HF Reading Challenge Button 2

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Review: The Hours, Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours is an ambitious undertaking: to retell, engage in conversation with, and illuminate Virginia Woolf’s classic novel, Mrs. Dalloway. The novel focuses on three women: Clarissa Vaughan, who unwittingly re-enacts Clarissa Dalloway’s day as she prepares to throw a party for her friend Richard, who has won a prestigious literary prize; Virginia Woolf, who is engaged in writing Mrs. Dalloway and puzzling over some of the plot points; and Laura Brown, a woman suffocating under her life in 1950’s suburban Los Angeles. Just as the stories of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith (and their loved ones and friends) coalesce at the end of Mrs. Dalloway, the stories of the three women at the heart of The Hours entwine by the end of the novel.

I first read this novel in 2003 and later watched the movie in 2005. At the time, neither resonated with me much, perhaps because I wasn’t ready for either of them. I struggle with two warring ideas a lot: we enjoy books more when we’re ready for them, but I am also an English teacher, and I teach full-class novels—and I’m fully aware that the students aren’t ready for for some of them yet. I don’t mean that they can’t understand them. I mean that the characters and their stories will not necessarily be relevant—yet. As I grow older, I believe that more stories seem relevant to me than when I was younger because I’ve lived more, and I have developed more empathy. So I am thinking all of these thoughts because I re-read The Hours in preparation for teaching it after spring break is over. My students studied Mrs. Dalloway before the break. My students proved to me much more capable than I would have been at their age of empathizing with an older woman planning a party, but I could tell the person they were really drawn to was Septimus. And why wouldn’t they be drawn to the young, doomed, poet Septimus?

In some ways, the task is so monumental that it shouldn’t work. You almost have to admire Michael Cunningham for even trying, never mind succeeding. I know he is a big fan of Mrs. Dalloway. For this book, he borrowed not only the author and plotline of Mrs. Dalloway (though with his own twist), but also the working title Woolf was considering for Mrs. Dalloway. The book speaks to the ways in which all of literature can really be seen as one big conversation, though books rarely talk to each other as directly as Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours. I feel like I understand Mrs. Dalloway better seeing it now through the lens of The Hours as well. I have to wonder what Virginia Woolf would have thought of it.

When I was in college—a freshman, in fact—I was assigned to read Doris Lessing’s short story “To Room Nineteen.” It’s impossible not to see this story’s influence on The Hours as much as Mrs. Dalloway’s influence. The couple in “To Room Nineteen” live in Richmond, a suburb of London, which is where Virginia and Leonard Woolf are living in The Hours. Much like Laura in The Hours, Susan goes to a hotel and stays in room nineteen (here the allusion is at its most assured). Both Laura’s and Virginia’s stories in The Hours can be glimpsed in that of Susan in Lessing’s story. Even when I was myself only 19, I connected to that story. It is one of the few things I read in that year that I still remember and think about. Why I was ready for the story of Lessing’s Susan at 19, but not ready for the women in The Hours at 32, I’m not really certain.

I have a theory that we should try to return to some books later because we will read different books. We will bring the experiences, the other things we have read, the person we are at that later period in life to bear on whatever we read, and the book will not be the same to us. I recall distinctly feeling annoyed by Holden Caulfield’s whining when I read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager. I had very little empathy for Holden, and I had none at all after he hired Sunny. Years later, I read the book again when I had children, and saw in Holden a lost child who was desperately reaching out for someone, anyone, to listen to him and love him. And there was no one. A completely different book. So, The Hours is a completely different book because I have now read Mrs. Dalloway, and because I’m 44, not 31, and because I felt empathy for the characters closer to my own age now than I did when I was younger. I see myself in the women of The Hours in a way I just couldn’t 13 years ago.

One strange moment I have to mention—Clarissa is in the florist’s shop buying flowers when she hears a loud noise made by a movie production up the street. When she looks out, she think she sees a movie star—maybe Meryl Streep, but maybe Vanessa Redgrave. Meryl Streep would play Clarissa in the film version of The Hours, and Vanessa Redgrave would bring Mrs. Dalloway to life in a film that was released the same year as Michael Cunningham’s book. I’ll bet that creeped him out.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Euphoria, Lily King

Lily King’s novel Euphoria is based on the lives of the anthropologists Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson, respectively. While many of the details are changed, including some rather significant details, much of the story, as it unfolds, is firmly based on the actual experiences of the three anthropologists who worked together, for a time, on the Sepik River in what is today Papua New Guinea.

As the novel begins, Nell Stone and her husband, Schuyler Fenwick, known as Fen, are looking for a new tribe to study. At Nell’s insistence, the couple leaves behind their research on the Mumbanyo tribe when Nell felt she could no longer stand living the group. They meet up with Anthony Bankson, a fellow anthropologist from England, who has been alone in the Sepik, and is relieved and excited for the company of fellows. Soon, however, Bankson finds himself entranced by Nell. He is inspired by her intellect, insight, and work ethic—all aspects her personality that her husband both envies and disparages. Their lives become entwined as they work together, but Fen has secrets. Suddenly their relationships, their careers, and even their very lives are careening toward disaster.

While I understand why King took liberties with the stories of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson so that she could tell the story she wanted to tell, there are so many details drawn from their actual lives that it seems strange to me that she didn’t just go all the way with a historical fiction account of Mead in New Guinea. For example, like Bateson, Bankson had two older brothers, John and Martin, and their respective deaths prior to the start of the book, in battle in WWI and in a spectacularly public suicide under the statue of Anteros at Piccadilly Circus, were identical in all details to those of the real Bateson. I suppose you can’t make that stuff up. Like Bateson’s father, Bankson’s father was a renowned geneticist who coined the term genetics. Like Mead herself, Nell studied with Franz Boas and probably had an affair with Boas’s fellow student, Helen (who is based on Ruth Benedict).

However, as I said, the story does deviate from that of the historical anthropologists involved in some significant and rather spoilery ways, so I can’t delve too deeply in exploring those differences without endangering your enjoyment of the book (if you want to read it). Suffice it to say the details make for a highly romantic and cinematic story, especially near the end. I suppose reality didn’t play as well for King, hence the changes. Actually, the book would make a great movie—It has romance and adventure, humor, a complicated villain, and great characters—but based on the reading I’ve done about Mead, Fortune, and Bateson, just fact-checking as I read, I have to said their own real story would be equally good fodder for film.

King’s characterization reminds me quite a lot of Hemingway’s: tough women idealized by the men; over-the-top alpha males; masculine men who are also in touch with their feelings. The writing, too, was perfect for the story it told: spare in some details, leaving readers to put pieces together; poetically descriptive in other places. The characters seemed visceral and real. King makes the reader feel the heat and steamy damp of the New Guinea, and I felt as though I had traveled down the Sepik with all three of the main characters. I definitely found myself more interested in Margaret Mead, and her fellow anthropologists after reading this. Aside from an introductory course in college, I know little about anthropology, and I have to admit, some aspects of this science are troubling to me. There is always the whiff of the colonial about it when I read about it. I can’t put my finger on what it is that bothers me. Euphoria is a quick read. I had the paperback, and though the length is about short-average (257 pages), the paper is thick, and the font is largish. I think I probably read the whole thing in about five hours.

I am not sure if the photos are copyright, so I didn’t want to post them here on my blog, but you should definitely check out this exhibit at the Library of Congress. It has a wonderful picture of Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune (what a heck of a name!), and Gregory Bateson together, along with their notes about the personality classification system the three of them developed after reading Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture together, an incident that is described in breathtaking detail in the novel. In fact, I had run into this idea without knowing Margaret Mead had anything to do with it in some professional development. Four major personality groups are divided on points of a compass (those who fall between two groups tend toward the intercardinal points on the compass. For the record, I identified myself as a “South” with some “West” tendencies. Here is a link to a PDF about the system. I will be anxious to talk about this aspect of the book with my fellow book club members, most of whom have also had this training and/or experienced an opportunity to define themselves on the compass.

Euphoria is a unique novel. I’ve never read anything set in Papua New Guinea before (nor am I likely to again, as it’s just not a setting writers use). I have also never seen anthropology tackled quite like this in fiction, though it does remind me a bit of State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Ultimately, I think it’s a better novel than State of Wonder; I realize I gave State of Wonder 5 stars as opposed to the 4.5 for this novel, but I think I just really hated Fen, and were I to rate State of Wonder now, some time after having read it, it is probably more of a 4 star book for me. But I don’t go back and rethink or change ratings, which are based on my gut response right after finishing a book.

Rating: ★★★★½

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Review: The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown

Daniel James Brown’s book The Boys in the Boat is not subtitled “Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” for nothing. I had already planned to read this on the recommendation of some fellow teachers when my book club also decided to pick it up. I wasn’t quite finished with it when we had our book club meeting about it, but I finished it this afternoon.

The Boys in the Boat tells the story of the University of Washington’s varsity crew team, working class men, the “sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers” who achieved the impossible and rowed their way all the way to the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Meanwhile, in a side storyline, the Nazis see the Olympics as an opportunity to show their superiority to the world, and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl are hard at work putting Berlin’s best face forward to the world in an effort to deflect attention from the Nazis’ true plans, at least for a few more years.

I need to explain that I am not an athlete. I don’t know anything about crew, except that it’s on a boat (which I now know is called a shell), and I couldn’t have possibly been less interested in a book about crew before I picked this up. The fact that Brown was able not only to interest and educate a reader like me and make me invest in this book is a huge accomplishment. I suspect people with a passion for crew would love this book even more. The heart of this book is in the nine young men in the Husky Clipper, and especially in Joe Rantz. I connected to his background because like Joe Rantz, my grandfather came from Spokane, Washington and had a complicated and fraught childhood which in many ways resembled Rantz’s own experiences. The race scenes are riveting, and even though the outcomes are a matter of historic record, Brown still manages to write on the very edge of his seat, and the outcome seems uncertain and even bleak. Brown captures the special nature of the relationship these young men had—their sense of camaraderie, their friendship, the way they worked together as one unit. Not having been an athlete, I can only compare it to being a member of a band. Some of the moments Brown describes as everything looks certain to be lost remind me of one time in particular when we were playing at a Festival competition, and things looked like they were about to go off the rails. The music was coming unglued, and our band director turned beet red. His eyes bulged. He was sweating. He looked frantic. Then all of a sudden, the music clapped back together again, and it sounded brilliant. As a matter of fact, it sounded better as it was about to fall apart and came back together than it would have sounded if we’d kept it together the whole time. It’s a moment I have never forgotten because it involved such tight teamwork, much like the rowing descriptions in Brown’s book.

I have to admit I shed a few tears at the end of the book. All of the men who won that gold medal race have passed on. In the epilogue, Brown describes the various roles they played in World War II and their lives afterward, which included gatherings with family, culminating in rowing at least until 1986, the 50th anniversary of their stunning victory in the Olympics. Brown has a true heart for his subject, and he will persuade you to fall in love with these men, too—from scrappy coxswain Bobby Moch to coach Al Ulbrickson (a man of few works and scant praise) to George Pocock, boat-builder and crew guru. In fact, this book would make a brilliant and inspiring movie. I’m sure Hollywood is already on that. Truthfully, though, it has all the elements of fantastic drama and managed to keep me biting my nails even though I knew the outcome. The story is gripping. A fantastic read.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser’s comprehensive biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey inspired a film starring Kirsten Dunst in the role of the queen some years ago. Essentially, Fraser’s portrayal of the queen is sympathetic. Not well educated or especially groomed for a role of greatness, Marie Antoinette found herself packed off to France at the age of fourteen to make a political marriage. It seems the French never really warmed to her, and in the end, she became a scapegoat for the entire French Revolution. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her, and Fraser clearly wants the reader to feel sympathy for the woman whom history misremembers as suggesting, upon hearing of the lack of bread and subsequent starvation of her people, “Let them eat cake.”

I started reading this book over a year ago—on February 8, 2015, to be exact. I have been picking away at it here and there, but I never found it so engaging that I couldn’t put it down until the Revolution started and Marie Antoinette’s tribulations truly began. I think, and I’m probably not alone in this, that the most interesting thing about Marie Antoinette is her death. It sounds terribly cold and callous to put it that baldly, but as a queen she was fairly similar to most aristocrats. A little vain, a bit frivolous, and not terribly smart. She seems to have been devoted to her children. She also seems to have had genuine great affection for Louis XVI. Antonia Fraser argues that Marie Antoinette had an affair with Swedish Count Axel von Fersen. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, they were great friends, but Fraser really seems to want this affair to have happened, and I think her treatment of that particular aspect of the biography suffers as a result—too much conjecture, and not enough real evidence, especially given how carefully Fraser describes the queen’s utter lack of privacy from the moment she entered France. The whole story just doesn’t hang together well.

On the other hand, the portrait Fraser paints of the imprisoned Marie Antoinette as pious, stoic, and forgiving is admirable and seems to square well with other historical evidence I’ve read. In her last days, her treatment was much harsher than her husband received prior to his own execution. She was separated utterly from every aspect of her former station in life, from her children and other family to her comforts and even occupations. In the end, she emerges as an admirable figure through the fortitude she displayed as she faced death. There is a horrible sentiment expressed by the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” after he shoots and kills the Grandmother: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” It’s a horrible thing to say, I suppose, but Marie Antoinette was undeniably a brave woman at the end of her life. Whatever she may have been in life, she didn’t deserve for her life to end the way it did.

Fraser’s biography is, in the end, not without its faults, but it is certainly thorough and the reader senses the affection the author feels for her subject. Perhaps because this book is Marie Antoinette’s story, and not a story, necessarily, of the Revolution that killed her, one will not learn a great deal about many of the other movers and shakers in the events of the time, though Fraser did clear up a few issues I had difficulty understanding—why Marie Antoinette was so reviled, for one thing, and on a more minor point, the difference between the Girondins and Jacobins (I was quite fuzzy on that point, thought I admit I haven’t read widely on the Revolution, and that confusion may easily have been cleared up elsewhere as well). Robespierre, for example, is mentioned only a handful of times. While he never seems sympathetic in anything I’ve read about him, I can’t deny he’s a great deal more interesting to me than Marie Antoinette.

In some ways, I don’t feel like I’ve been quite fair to Marie Antoinette in this book review, but the truth is that I didn’t quite find her fascinating enough to merit the comprehensiveness of this biography, however fascinating her death might have ultimately been. In a way, I sort of felt like one of those gawkers passing an accident on the side of the road. Still, I can’t deny that Fraser does her best, and Marie Antoinette comes to life and ultimately emerges as a sympathetic person in the pages of this book.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I am going to count this for the Mount TBR Challenge because I’ve been meaning to finish it for a long time, but I’m not sure about counting it for the Shelf Love Challenge because it hasn’t really been neglected on my shelf if I’ve been picking away at it for a year.

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Review: The Book of Life, Deborah Harkness, narrated by Jennifer Ikeda

Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy is a bit like Twilight for adults, with a more compelling heroine and a few more thrills and chills. The last book in this series is The Book of Life, the denouement of Matthew Clairmont and Diana Bishop’s unlikely story with a few hints of potential sequels. In the first book in the series, A Discovery of Witches, reluctant witch Diana Bishop calls up the mysterious manuscript coded Ashmole 782 from the Bodleian Library at Oxford, only to attract the attention of several other creatures—other witches, daemons, and vampires. Specifically, a vampire named Matthew Clairmont. Diana and Matthew strike up an unlikely (and forbidden) relationship. In the second book, The Shadow of Night, Diana and Matthew timewalk back to 1590 to try to track down Ashmole 782 again and meet almost literally every historical figure of importance who lived at the time. Matthew also turns out to be one of those important historical figures in disguise. In this final book, Diana and Matthew pull out pretty much all the stops to try to find the missing manuscript, now known as the Book of Life, which will tell the secrets that the witches discovered centuries ago. This gruesome book, made from the skin, hair, and blood of witches, daemons, and vampires, is believed by witches to be the first grimoire and to hold the secrets of witchcraft and by vampires to hold the secrets of their origins. As it turns out, Matthew’s bloodthirsty and deranged son Benjamin is also after the book. And Diana. And possibly their children. Oh, and Matthew, if it will lure Diana to him.

Sigh.

Okay, where to begin. This book isn’t bad. It’s pretty cheesy, and I can’t figure out why. I kind of liked the first book in this series, but it seemed like each successive book just got crazier and crazier. Diana and Matthew are supernatural creatures, yes, but why do they have to be the most powerful or crazy of their ilk? Why does she all of a sudden have to be Superwitch? I liked it better when they were nosy about their origins, but the fate of their entire world didn’t have to rest on what they managed to do (or not). I guess maybe I’m a bit over vampires unless they are awful like Dracula. I did enjoy a very cheeky joke Matthew made about Twilight in the middle of the book. Jennifer Ikeda is a good reader, as well. There is a pretty awful torture scene reminiscent of Jamie Fraser and Black Jack Randall, though without, I suppose, the element of rape. What it is with all the torture p*rn in women’s fiction now? (By the way, that word is not spelled out because I don’t want weirdos who are looking for that stuff to land on my blog and be super disappointed.) I also felt like Harkness was stretching to bring back all the characters from the first book, even if if they only got a cameo. For some reason, that irritated me. Mainly because I didn’t really remember them that well after all that time had passed. I found the whole blood rage deal that Matthew had and passed along to some (not all, apparently) of his children an irritating plot point. It seemed to me like an excuse for Matthew to be a dick sometimes more than anything else. And on top of everything else, no one really explains it satisfactorily to me. And finally, the Book of Life is a sort of letdown. That’s IT? That’s what the big secret was? I figured that sort of thing out about creatures from the first book. I wanted a big reveal. You let me down, Diana Bishop. You let me down. And I guess the biggest issue I have with the books in general is that I don’t particularly like Diana or Matthew. I mean, I don’t wish them ill, or anything, but I don’t like them nearly as much as some of the secondary characters. I can’t remember if I mentioned how I feel about them in earlier reviews I wrote. Diana can be tiresome in her ways, but Matthew is controlling, and it grates on me that a controlling guy like that is being put forth as an ideal romantic boyfriend/husband. Yuck. At least he figures out by the end of the book that he needs to step it back a notch.

So, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either, and it gets three stars.

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father Thomas died in the 9/11 attacks. One day Oskar finds a mysterious key inside an envelope inside a vase. The envelope says the word “Black” on the outside, and Oskar goes on a quest to find out what the key opens and why his father has it. Thinking the word might be the last name “Black,” Oskar does some research and determines the addresses of all the people in New York City with the surname Black. One by one, he begins visiting them to see if he can find out more about the key. He meets interesting people and leaves an imprint on all the people he touches. Interspersed throughout Oskar’s story is the story of his grandparents and their strange, fraught relationship.

I wanted to like this book a little more than I did. I think Oskar, and possibly his grandfather, are supposed to be autistic, and because of my own children, I do find books about characters with autism interesting. I did like Oskar, though I found his mother strangely unconcerned about letting her son roam all over New York City. I guess you could argue she knew he was going to what he was going to do anyway, but her absence, even if you try to explain it away by pointing out she was grieving, was deeply troubling to me. Oskar’s grandfather abandoned his pregnant wife and did not know his son. One of the reasons I didn’t quite like this book were the portions dealing with Oskar’s grandfather. I found him to be a deeply unsympathetic character, even if I took into account his troubled past and the things he had dealt with. I know some people are better at dealing with grief, and for that matter life, than others, but part of what I think made his story less sympathetic was Foer’s postmodern experiments in his storyline. My least favorite, for example, were pages in which the letters seemed to bleed together, almost falling into a puddle on the bottom of the page, until the page filled up. Rather than interesting, I found these experiments deeply annoying. I found rather than being emotionally affected by Oskar’s story (and that of his grandfather), I really felt more like the story was manipulative and self-indulgent. Not to say I totally hated it. I didn’t. I can’t even say I didn’t like it. I’ll just say it was not a hit for me because of the gimmicky postmodern style. The parts I liked, I really liked, but I did find myself in the midst of a new chapter on Oskar’s grandparents and saying, “Oh, here’s one I need to slog through to get to a good one on Oskar.” I don’t want to feel like that reading a book. Because half the book was pretty good, I can’t give it one or two stars, but because about half the book wasn’t, and also because I found the ending unsatisfying, I can’t give it four or five stars either.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I purchased this book in November, but it’s been on my TBR list for a while. I’m counting it toward both the Shelf Love Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge.
 

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