Showing posts with label book club. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book club. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Nightingale

For its September selection, my book club chose The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. The novel takes place during the occupation of France during World War II and depicts the lives of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, as they cope, very differently, with the horrors of war. There is a framing device involving an elderly woman in present day who discovers a trunk of memorabilia from the war and then recounts the story of the sisters.  Vianne is rendered almost helpless as her husband, Antoine, joins the army and eventually ends up in a POW camp.  She spends the war trying to keep life and limb together for herself, her daughter, and her Jewish neighbor, doing whatever is necessary, even exploiting her relationship with the German officer billeted in her home.  Isabelle, restless and headstrong, joins the Resistance and leads downed airmen back to safety through the Pyrenees Mountains. The unknown woman, once again in present day, then travels to France for a reunion with several of the characters. The reader does not know which of the sisters is depicted in this framing device until the very end and that definitely kept my attention throughout. However, I thought this novel was good but not great. I enjoyed reading about the perspectives of women fighting the war at home but many of the historical details didn't ring true to me (The Nazis didn't advertise that Jews were being sent to concentration camps on posters).  Certain events seemed too coincidental to be believed (Did everyone in France have a secret place in their homes where Jews and resistance leaders could hide?).  I sometimes got the impression that Hannah thought of every horrifying event that happened in France during World War II and then applied it to these two sisters and the town of Carriveau (Why were there so many German officers in this little town?).  I also found the romances to be cliched and melodramatic (Of course Vianne will develop feelings for the handsome German officer so far from home who is only following orders.  Of course Isabelle will fall for a dashing resistance fighter after a dramatic brush with death). Most people will probably enjoy this novel; in fact, everyone seems to be gushing about it but, in my opinion, it does not equal All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (which it is often compared to) or Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.  I would recommend reading those.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

For its August selection, my book club chose The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. It is a sad story with an ending that is, ultimately, very uplifting. Harold Fry, recently retired, is is in a loveless marriage, is estranged from his adult son, and is filled with regret about his mundane life and his many missed opportunities. Out of the blue, he receives a goodbye letter from Queenie Hennessy, a former colleague who is dying of cancer. He immediately writes a response and, while on his way to post the letter, he makes the irrational decision to take the letter to her in person by walking more than 500 miles from his home in Kingsbridge to her hospice in Berwick Upon Tweed.  He is ill prepared for this journey (he is out of shape, is wearing inappropriate footwear, and left his phone at home) but he becomes convinced that he can save Queenie if she can just hold on until he gets there. As he walks, he encounters many different people from whom he learns important life lessons and the walk becomes less about Queenie and more about Harold finding his way back to himself and to his wife, Maureen, with every passing step. The writing is beautiful and evocative and there were many times when I felt such profound sadness for Harold.  I really loved his character and I found Maureen to be an absolute shrew until an unraveling of past events, little by little, reveals the reason for her bitterness.  In fact, Maureen goes on a metaphorical journey of her own living without Harold, eventually finding her way back to him.  It makes their eventual reconciliation all the more powerful. I must admit that I cried during some of the final scenes.  I did start to lose interest as the journey dragged on and on and became rather predictable but it is worth it to push through because the message that it is never too late to begin again is absolutely lovely! I definitely recommend it.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

In July my book club chose to read Harper Lee's long-awaited second novel Go Set a Watchman.  I have never been more nervous or excited to read a book in my life!  This novel takes place in the fictional town of Maycomb, Georgia twenty years after the events portrayed in To Kill A Mockingbird so, in many regards, it might be considered a sequel. However, it was submitted for publication before To Kill A Mockingbird so it could just as easily be a prequel, especially in light of the fact that Harper Lee used it as a jumping off point to write the beloved classic.  Twenty-six year old Jean Louise (as she is now known) returns to Maycomb to care for her ailing father.  After living in New York for a number of years, she finds Maycomb to be small and provincial and she is horrified to learn of her father's views on integration. Jean Louise still views Maycomb and her father through the rose-colored filter of her childhood and she struggles with the reality she finds.  I personally really loved the story. The character of Jean Louise is everything that I wanted her to be as an adult (still as sassy as ever) and I was quite moved by her relationship with her father and how it evolved. She discovers that the man who has been her moral compass her whole life is flawed and it is Atticus himself who teaches her that she can and should disagree with him.  Much has been made of the fact that Go Set a Watchman portrays Atticus as a racist.  Like Jean Louise, many To Kill a Mockingbird readers view him as an absolute and they, like Jean Louise, struggle with the fact that he is fallible.  This story did not in any way diminish Atticus in my eyes; if anything, it made him a more complex and interesting character. Atticus is, after all, human and his opinions gave me a lot of insight about that particular time and place in history and how otherwise good people could have thought and acted as they did. I do not believe that this novel is an equal to To Kill a Mockingbird nor do I believe that it should be considered a classic.  It is an early draft and it definitely reads like one (although there are some beautifully written sections).  However, I am glad that I read it for the poignant reminder that you can disagree with someone and still love and respect them.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls

The June selection for my book club was The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani. The story revolves around Thea Atwell, her twin brother Sam, and her cousin Georgie who are raised in the lap of luxury on a secluded plantation in Florida during the Great Depression. Their lives are incredibly insular and they have no other interactions besides their own close-knit family. As the three of them grow up and mature, their relationship changes and the incident occurs. Because of the incident, Thea is shipped off to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls in North Carolina where she is completely overwhelmed by her interactions with the other girls, the instructors, and, particularly, the headmaster. Thea does not know how to have appropriate relationships with any one and, inevitably, another incident occurs. The narrative alternates between the events in Florida and the events at Yonahlossee, giving tiny little hints about what the mysterious incident might be.  (By the way, I figured it out long before it was finally revealed but I kept reading to make sure that I was right and it was strangely unsatisfying when I was.) In the end, Thea is chastised yet again and sent home in disgrace where we learn that her mother also has a scandalous past. This coming-of-age novel about family secrets set during an interesting historical period sounds like it would be right up my alley but I didn't entirely like it.  The action moves very slowly and it eventually got annoying every time Thea would reference the incident without explaining what happened. I suppose DiSclafani uses this device to heighten the tension but it is not altogether effective. Thea is an incredibly unsympathetic character. Part of me was angry because all three of the main characters in Florida are culpable in what happened (have you figured it out yet?) but only Thea is punished because she is a girl. The events at Yonahlossee are highly disturbing (surely you have figured it out) and in my opinion Thea is a victim, but she is the only one held responsible. However, by the time I made it through the novel, I didn't really care what happened to her. Certain scenes are quite salacious and I was a bit put off by them. What I did enjoy about this book is the writing.  DiSclafani uses beautiful and evocative prose, especially in the scenes involving horses (I think I liked the horses more than the main characters), and in the descriptions of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I really wanted to like this book but, ultimately, I wouldn't recommend it.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Dead Wake

Several years ago, my good friend Jim recommended the book The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. I'm not a big fan of nonfiction so I put it aside, eventually picking it up when I had nothing else to read. I should have known better because Jim has never yet disappointed me! I loved the story about the search for a mass murderer during the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and I loved how Larson was able to bring these historical characters to life so vividly, almost like a fictional narrative. I immediately read In the Garden of Beasts, Larson's account of U.S. Ambassador William Dodd and his daughter Martha in Berlin during Hitler's rise to power, next and it was so riveting I couldn't put it down. (I just learned that a film adaptation is in the works starring Tom Hanks and Natalie Portman!) Larson is a brilliant storyteller so when my book club chose Dead Wake for its May selection I was thrilled (I had already pre-ordered it from Amazon)! Larson's latest offering is an enthralling account of the sinking of the Lusitania which precipitated the U.S. entry into World War I. After conducting an almost staggering amount of research, Larson uses numerous primary sources to present the perspectives of Captain William Thomas Turner (of the Lusitania), Kapitanleutnant Walther Schweiger (of the German U-boat, U-20, which sank the Lusitania), executives from the Cunard Line, President Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty), secret intelligence operatives in Britain's Room 40, as well as passengers aboard the ship (both famous and lesser-known).  He gives a thorough day-to-day account, from the preparations for the voyage to the aftermath of the sinking, and I was particularly struck by the descriptions of life on board a German U-boat. Much has been written about the purported conspiracy that the British failed to protect the Lusitania to hasten America's entry into the war and, while Larson alludes to that, I appreciated the fact that he presents certain facts and then lets readers come to their own conclusions.  Absolutely fascinating!  Dead Wake is definitely not some dusty scholarly tome but a suspenseful thriller that, despite knowing the outcome, had me on the edge of my seat.  I highly recommend it!

Note:  I highly recommend The Devil and the White City and In the Garden of Beasts as well.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

My book club chose The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin as its April selection. Bibliophile that I am, I absolutely loved this novel about a curmudgeonly proprietor of a bookstore located on a remote island in New England. A.J Fikry is a literary snob who doesn't really like people and he has a lot on his mind. His wife was recently killed in a tragic car accident, his bookstore has fewer and fewer customers every month, and his priceless first edition of Tamerlane by Edgar Allan Poe has been stolen. Books are the only consolation in his life despite the well-meaning intentions of his sister-in-law, the police chief, and an eccentric sales rep from a publishing house. Suddenly, Fikry's life is turned upside down when a young woman abandons her toddler in his bookstore (because she thinks it will be a safe place for the child to grow up). This novel is a funny and tender exploration of how life can change in an instant and how books can bring people together.  It spans a decade in A.J. Fikry's life and every chapter begins with a reference to one of his favorite short stories, such as "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl (which I teach to my sophomores), "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" by Mark Twain, and "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe, among others. I think I must be as much of a literary snob as Fikry because I took great pleasure in the fact that I understood each of his references and the significance of each of them in his life.  Figuring out each reference is half the fun of the novel! Even though Fikry is as irascible as can be, he is such a sympathetic character.  I loved the fact that he judged people based on their favorite book and I loved that he organized book clubs for people (whether they like to read or not). This is a book for book lovers and I highly recommend it.

Note:  It is especially appropriate for book clubs!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Girl on the Train

My book club chose the wildly popular novel The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins as its March selection.  I was enthralled from the very first page.  Rachel takes the same commuter train into London every morning and, at a signal crossing, she sees the same couple having breakfast on their deck.  Little by little, we learn that Rachel is an alcoholic whose husband has left her for another woman and, furthermore, that she has been fired from her job and only takes the train to keep up appearances with her landlady.  She idealizes the couple she sees every morning, even making up names for them, and assumes they have the perfect life.  Then one day she sees something she shouldn't and the next day the woman goes missing. Rachel inserts herself into the investigation and learns that the couple didn't have the perfect life she imagined for them after all.  The narrative is told from multiple perspectives and the suspense builds and builds to a climax I didn't see coming (although several members of my group did). There have been many comparisons to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (which my book club also read) because they are both psychological thrillers with unsympathetic characters and huge plot twists but I actually liked this book more. Even though Rachel is a complete mess with questionable judgement, I couldn't quite hate her.  I kept rooting for her to put the gin and tonic down and get herself together.  I did, however, get a bit confused with the sequence of the multiple narrators occasionally but I found it to be a quick and enjoyable read.  I would recommend it to fans of psychological thrillers.

Note:  Does anyone else romanticize people you don't know at all but come in contact with on a regular basis?  I have had season tickets to Broadway in Utah for years and I always sit near the same couple. They are quite a bit older than me and they are very affectionate with one another. I decided that they were a newly married couple who found each other later in life and were now living a fun and adventurous life together.  I was completely devastated when I eventually talked to them and learned that they had been married for years and had several children...

Friday, February 27, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

In February my book club chose to read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and I literally couldn't put it down, reading well into the night and on my lunch hour to finish it.  I loved this book so much!  I had to know how what happened but, at the same time, I was sad to finish it!  The story is set during the Nazi occupation of France and the narrative alternates between Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind girl living in the ancient town of St. Malo on the northern coast of France, and Werner Pfennig, an orphan who is sent to a prestigious military school in Germany because of his engineering skills.  Both of these characters are wonderfully developed and I began to care about them immediately.  Marie-Laure loves the book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and wants to explore the world around her despite her overprotective father.  Werner is grateful for the opportunity to leave the dreary life of a coal miner that he was destined for to join the army but questions the brutality of the Nazis (I loved the character of Werner because I don't think all Germans of this era should be described as evil in absolute terms).  What ties these two characters together are radio airwaves (described as invisible filaments of light connecting everyone).  Marie-Laure and her family use the radio to send information to help the Resistance while Werner helps develop triangulation methods to locate the radios that are illegally broadcasting. When their stories converge during the aftermath of the D-Day invasion, it is heartrendingly beautiful! I loved so many things about this book!  I spent some time in the city of St. Malo when I was younger and Doerr's incredibly descriptive language transported me back there: I could feel the wind on my face, taste the salt from the breeze on my tongue, hear the sound of the crashing waves, feel the cobblestone streets under my feet, and see the majestic city walls all around me as I read. Such an amazing setting.  Doerr also brilliantly captures the anguish Werner feels when he realizes that everything he has been taught is a lie.  Not only did I love the characters of Marie-Laure and Werner but I also enjoyed the cast of supporting characters, especially Madame Medec and her "Old Ladies Resistance Club," Jutta, Werner's sister, who is dismayed at the thought of her brother turning into a Nazi, and Etienne, so traumatized by the Great War that he cannot leave his house.  I have a particular fondness for historical fiction, especially World War II, but this novel transcends the genre.  I would highly recommend it to everyone for its compelling story, strong characterization, and beautiful prose!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Leaving Time

My book club chose Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult for its January selection.  Picoult can usually be relied upon for an entertaining read (my book club has also read My Sister's Keeper and House Rules) and this novel is more of the same.  Jenna Metcalf is a 13-year old girl searching for her mother Alice, a renowned elephant researcher who disappeared ten years ago in the wake of a tragic accident on the elephant sanctuary where she worked.  Jenna enlists the help of Serenity Jones, a psychic who has lost her gift, and Virgil Stanhope, the police officer who first responded to the accident and is tormented by his inability to solve the case.  The story is told from multiple perspectives, including Alice's journals detailing her research on elephants, as the three main characters search for clues about that fateful night.  There is an epic plot twist at the end, of the I-can't-believe-I-didn't-see-that-coming variety, which, if you can suspend your disbelief,  brings about a satisfying resolution.  My favorite element of the story is the juxtaposition of Jenna's experiences with that of elephants (my very favorite animal).  Much is made of Jenna's inability to remember the accident while elephants never forget.  Jenna is distraught over the fact that her mother may have willingly left her behind while elephants are devoted mothers who often refuse to leave a calf who has died.  I think the elephants are my favorite characters in the novel, although Jenna is endearing and the duo of misfits who help her are wonderfully quirky.  I did feel that the multiple perspectives were sometimes confusing (Serenity was my favorite narrator) and there were definitely some holes in the plot, but I enjoyed the compelling mother-daughter story and I loved the elephants!  If you are a fan of Jodi Picoult (and elephants), I recommend this book.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Year of Magical Thinking

My book club chose to read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion for its December selection. This memoir is an account of the year following the sudden and unexpected death of the author's husband, John Gregory Dunne. Didion dispassionately equates her grieving process with temporary insanity, becoming almost obsessed with the medical condition that killed her husband, feeling that she could have done something to avert the tragedy, refusing to give away his possessions because he might come back and need them, and deliberately avoiding all locations (around the world) associated with him. I did not relate to this book at all. It is an intellectual, rather than emotional, response to the death of a spouse of 40 years which reads like a treatise on grief (even citing research). I had not read anything by Didion, or her husband, before and I found it rather off-putting that she kept quoting herself throughout. I did not understand any of the references out of context.  I also found all of her name-dropping to be quite annoying, mostly because I didn't know the majority of these New York literati.  I was further alienated by her lavish and privileged lifestyle.  The fact that she still had to send out her laundry no matter how empty she felt did not leave me very sympathetic! Once again, whenever I dislike something that has received such glowing reviews, I wonder if I have missed something. However, I sometimes had the sense that this memoir was Didion's self indulgent way of coming to terms with her own grief with memories and anecdotes only she can appreciate and that it was published and so well received solely because of her friendship with the aforementioned New York literati. I can appreciate Didion's exceptional writing style, but I wouldn't recommend this memoir.

Note:  To be fair, this was probably not the best thing to read while teaching Hamlet to my seniors and Night, by Elie Wiesel, to my sophomores.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Redemption Song

My book club chose Redemption Song by Bertice Berry as its November selection. Josephine and Ross both end up at a bookstore looking for a rare manuscript written many years ago by a slave called Children of Grace.  Miss Cozy, who owns the bookstore, senses that this manuscript could change both of their lives and refuses to sell it to them. Instead, she insists that they read it together in the shop. The manuscript tells the love story of Iona and Joe and how they were ultimately separated but continued to love each other all of their lives. Spoiler alert: Ross and Fina (Josephine) are both struggling with identity and with their relationships but as they read the book, they discover that they are descendants of Iona and Joe and that they are meant to carry on their love story. (I figured this out about 20 pages into the story so it is not a very dramatic spoiler). This is a really quick read but it is a sweet story about things happening for a reason. Even though all of the coincidences which bring about this love story seem a bit far-fetched, it is very beguiling to think that there is someone out there who is perfect for you just waiting for you to find them! I did find the love story between the slaves Joe and Iona to be more compelling than the modern one. I am obviously not African American, but the dialogue between Ross and Fina seems very stilted to me. I think Berry tries too hard to make Ross sound like a brother. However, the emotion between both couples is very real and I almost cried when Joe and Iona's son are both sold away from her to punish her and I almost cried again when Ross and Fina figure out their relationship to Joe and Iona.  I loved the message that the only way to move forward in life is to know where you came from and I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone searching for love.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Vacationers

The October selection for my book club was The Vacationers by Emma Straub.  I was not impressed. This is a very vacuous novel about an American family's two week vacation to Mallorca.  Franny and Jim Post are ostensibly celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary but we soon discover that Jim has been unfaithful with a much younger intern at his office and has, consequently, lost his job. Franny wants to use this vacation to think about the future of their marriage.  Their daughter Sylvia, who is about to leave for college, has decided that this vacation is the perfect opportunity to lose her virginity. Their ne'er-do-well son Bobby is having financial difficulties and is trying to find a way to ask them for a rather sizable loan. Bobby's girlfriend Carmen, whom everyone dislikes because she is older than Bobby, wants a commitment from him. Franny's best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence are on a short-list to adopt a baby but Charles is having second thoughts. Obviously, the perfect vacation envisioned by Franny does not go according to plan.  Through much of this novel, I kept waiting for something, anything, to happen.  The plot was so predictable and riddled with cliches that I almost abandoned it several times. I kept thinking it would get better because it received such glowing reviews. It didn't.  The characters whine and complain (while lying around the pool) and never really deal with the underlying problems in their lives.  Furthermore, all of the characters are completely unlikable people who do some really despicable things to each other! They are so unsympathetic that I was a bit disappointed when none of them got any sort of comeuppance!  The resolution was just a little bit too perfect for me and it definitely wasn't satisfying.  This is another one of those times when I wonder if I've read the same book that everyone else did...

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Big Little Lies

My book club chose to read Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty during the month of September. We read Moriarty's What Alice Forgot several years ago and I really enjoyed it so I was looking forward to her latest offering. Like Alice, this novel also focuses on a group of women who volunteer at their children's primary school in Australia, ostensibly to support and encourage their children, but in reality to compete with each other. Ironically, these machinations are often to the detriment of their children (and highly damaging to their marriages).  I find these so-called "Mommy Wars" to be highly amusing (it should be noted that I do not have children).  The novel begins with a murder at a school fundraising event.  The reader is given details in the form of flashbacks from multiple perspectives and this is highly effective at building suspense.  The reader doesn't even know who the victim is until the final chapters (although there is no shortage of possible victims and murderers as the events unfold).  It all begins at kindergarten registration when one child is accused of bullying another child.  Battle lines are immediately drawn between those who support the single mother of the child accused and those who support the powerful mother of the victim (these women are nicknamed the Blonde Bobs because they all have the same distinctive hairstyle).  The novel is narrated by Jane, the single mother desperately worried about her son, Madeline, whose ex-husband and his new wife live in the neighborhood, and Celeste, a beautiful and wealthy woman with what appears to be the perfect life.  Each of them have secrets which shock the school community, eventually leading to a murder.  This novel is incredibly suspenseful!  I read it during every spare moment because I just had to know who did what to whom!  I was very surprised when everything was revealed which, in my opinion, makes it a great murder mystery!  Even though there are very serious issues addressed, such as bullying, eating disorders, divorce, rape, and spousal abuse, I frequently laughed out loud at these parents behaving badly!  The characters are incredibly believable; just remember the cliques found in your high school and imagine the members all grown up with children.  I'm sure you all know someone exactly like these women!  I couldn't put Big Little Lies down and I highly recommend it!

Note:  I also highly recommend What Alice Forgot!

Sunday, August 31, 2014


In August my book club chose to read The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (who wrote the popular novel The Secret Life of Bees). It seems as if every book club is reading this book and, frankly, I'm not sure it lives up to the hype.  In early nineteenth century Charleston, eleven year old Sarah Grimke is given the slave Hetty (nicknamed Handful) as a personal servant.  A friendship of sorts develops between them and each girl narrates her own personal struggle for freedom (with alternating perspectives) beginning from girlhood into middle age.  Sarah desperately wants a voice and yearns to follow her father's footsteps and become a lawyer but is restricted by the patriarchal society she is born into.  Handful, obviously, wants freedom from the cruel institution of slavery.  Even though this novel is based on the real life of Sarah Grimke, an abolitionist and early crusader for women's rights, I found the fictionalized account of Handful to be much more compelling.  All of the horrors of slavery are graphically depicted and I was frequently brought to tears by the Grimke's treatment of their slaves (much like my reaction to the movie 12 Years A Slave).  I have always loved the use of the blackbird as a metaphor for freedom (the Beatles song "Blackbird" is one of my favorites) and I sincerely wanted Handful to take her broken wings and learn to fly.  Sarah's story is less compelling because I had a difficult time equating the brutality experienced by Handful with Sarah's frustration at not being allowed to read her father's books.  I never really connected with Sarah because I felt like she could have done so much more to help Handful.  She has all of these aspirations to end slavery and promote the notion of equality for all but laments her powerlessness for much of the novel.  It is only when spurred on by her sister (and others) that she reluctantly takes action.  Handful is much more proactive than Sarah in securing her freedom so, ironically, she seems more believable to me. The Invention of Wings is a meticulously researched and beautifully written novel about a powerful subject but the juxtaposition of the two main characters doesn't work for me. I didn't love it but I would recommend it because almost everyone else in my book club thought it was amazing.  I must be missing something!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Under the Wide and Starry Sky

One of the reasons I like being in a book club is that it forces me to read books I wouldn't necessarily choose on my own.  I did not vote for the July selection, Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan, because a biography about Robert Louis Stevenson sounded perfectly dull to me.  Of course, I couldn't put it down!  I was completely drawn into the fictionalized account of the relationship between Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Osbourne.  I was fascinated by Fanny because she was so unconventional, especially for the time.  At age 35, she takes her three children to Belgium, where she hopes to become a painter, in order to escape from her unfaithful husband in San Francisco.  She eventually meets the much younger Stevenson in France and they begin a passionate affair. They live an extraordinary life wandering from Scotland, to Switzerland, and, finally, to Samoa searching for a climate conducive to Stevenson's tubercular lungs. Much of the novel deals with Fanny's total devotion to and care of Stevenson (often to the neglect of her children, her own health, and her own artistic ambitions) which enabled him to write Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Horan definitely makes the point that it is extremely difficult to be the woman behind a genius; although, Louis (as his is known to his friends and family) has such a magnetic personality that it is easy to see why Fanny loves him so much and, in the end, he gives her the life of art and adventure she was in search of when she left San Francisco. This novel is meticulously researched and Horan uses many of their letters and journals to bring the characters to life.  Her writing is rich and colorful and pulls you into the world of Fanny and Louis, describing wherever they happen to be with such verisimilitude. However, this is a long book. It seems as if Horan wanted to account for every moment the couple spent together so the pace really slows down towards the end of the book. There is an ever changing cast of characters surrounding the couple and they are not as fully developed as Fanny and Louis are.  I sometimes had trouble keeping track of who was who. Nevertheless, Under the Wide and Starry Sky is a compelling love story which I enjoyed very much and I highly recommend it.

Note:  The title of the book comes from a lovely poem by Robert Louis Stevenson called "Requiem."   I definitely want to read more of his work now.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Return to Manderley

During the month of June my book club chose to read the classic Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.  Even though the movie adaptation is one of my very favorites (I am a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock), I had never actually read this book! It was quite unusual for me to be comparing the book to the movie instead of vice versa.  I kept picturing Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter and Joan Fontaine as his second wife (I didn't realize until reading the book that the narrator is never actually named).  The narrator is a shy, mousy, and penniless young woman in Monte Carlo as the paid companion to an odious woman. There she meets the aloof and tormented Maxim de Winter and, after a whirlwind romance, she spontaneously marries him.  When they return to Manderley, Max's opulent home on the coast of Cornwall, she begins to feel the oppressive presence of Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter. Knowing that she cannot compete with the beautiful and sophisticated Rebecca, the narrator begins to doubt her relationship with Max and sinks into despair.  The housekeeper at Manderley, the sinister Mrs. Danvers, tells the narrator that she will never live up to Rebecca and tries to convince her to commit suicide.  There are quite a few plot twists as the circumstances of Rebecca's mysterious death are revealed and the story builds and builds to a startling conclusion. Despite seeing the movie more times than I can count, I was literally on the edge of my seat from the suspense.  The novel is even more suspenseful than the movie because the reader is actually inside the head of the narrator as she is slowly driven mad. However, I do feel that the movie does a better job of making Rebecca an actual character in the story, perhaps because film is a visual medium.  I really enjoyed reading this classic Gothic romance and, if you are a fan of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (and I certainly am), I suspect you will enjoy Rebecca as well.

Note:  I also highly recommend the Academy Award winning movie.  Good stuff.

Saturday, May 31, 2014


My book club chose Blame by Michelle Huneven for its May selection.  It is an intense character study of a woman who must deal with the consequences of an unimaginable act. History professor Patsy MacLemoore wakes up in jail, again, after a long night of drinking with no memory of what has happened. Police officers inform her that she hit and killed a mother and daughter in her own driveway while driving with a revoked license. She is consumed by guilt and eventually pleads guilty to the charges and goes to prison for several years. While there, she joins AA and gets sober to show the victim's husband how remorseful she feels. Once released, she is determined to be "good" in an attempt to assuage her guilt.  She gives much of her salary to the victim's son to pay for college and law school, volunteers at an AIDS hospice, and marries a much older man, whom she meets at an AA meeting, because he is "safe." Twenty years later she is a caretaker to an elderly husband, with whom she has nothing in common, and is forced to share her home with a rotating group of AA members being "saved" by her husband and his grown children and grandchildren, who are always in crisis.  She is obviously unhappy but feels she deserves to be so, even rejecting a chance at happiness with a colleague who sweeps her off her feet.  Out of the blue, Patsy receives new information about the accident which calls into question her culpability. This changes everything she believes about herself and sends her reeling. The story builds very slowly (I was especially struck by the minutiae of daily life in prison) but Huneven takes us deep within Patsy's psyche and we come to understand her pain intimately.  In fact, the whole strength of the book comes from all of the memorable and well-developed characters rather than from the story itself.  The plot twist requires the suspension of disbelief and the ending is a bit too ambiguous for me. However, I recommend this book because I really love the theme of redemption. Sometimes the hardest person to forgive is yourself.

Note:  Huneven does not use quotation marks for dialogue. I really hate this trend in contemporary literature because, in my opinion, it makes reading unnecessarily difficult. There were many times when I found myself re-reading passages because they didn't make sense, only to discover that they contained direct quotes.
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