Posts filed under ‘October 2013 reads’

In vain have I struggled* – “Longbourn” by Jo Baker

“Longbourn” by Jo Baker. Published in 2013. 

I  do this to myself. I hear about a book and I think “I will not read that book about four angry single women who find love” or “I will not read this Jane Austen spin-off.” But then the New York Times Book review tells me that the book is good or a pleasant surprise and then, against all reason, I find myself in the middle of a book thinking “why did I do this?!!!”

longbourn-by-jo-baker-2013-x-200Longbourn” is about the servants in perhaps the best known household in British Literature, the Bennets.  This new take on “Pride and Prejudice” is…well…pointless.  It is mainly the story of Sarah, one of the housemaids, who has been in service since she was dumped on the Bennet’s doorstep as a young orphan.  She spends her days washing the soiled linens worn by  Jane and Lizzie Bennet, feeding the livestock, helping in the kitchen – all the while catching bits and pieces of the family conversations, heart breaks and scandals.  Her life is lackluster and pointless until the day the new footman is hired. Need I really say more?

This has been called “The Upstairs/Downstairs of Pride and Prejudice” or the “Austen Downtown Abbey” but it is actually neither. This is really just all about the servants.  And, while the reading is good and the story is fairly well executed (though a bit long in the middle), the fact that they are servants in the Bennett household seems to be a gimmick to sell the book.  Baker throws the reader the occasional storyline from “Pride and Prejudice” but it is all really not needed.  The story could hold its own and it is troubling that an author as famous as Baker couldn’t just have written the novel without riding the notoriety of the Austen spin-off.   But sadly, she did.  Of course, the gimmick is a good one.  Case and point, I am now an owner of “Longbourn” in hardback. Curses.

*Mr. Darcy, of course.

October 23, 2013 at 9:00 pm 12 comments

It is all in how you tell it – “Memories of a Marriage” by Louis Begley

“Memories of a Marriage” By Louis Begley, Published in 2013 

I loved this look into the marital troubles of an upperclass New York socialite.  It is hard to put my finger on exactly what I liked about this book. I am pretty sure it is what a lot of us love about reading the gossip magazines about celebrities – the train wreck is hard to not watch.  And when the story is written by Louis Begley it will be a well told train wreck.

The narrator is a past his prime writer and widower, Phillip, who, while taking an intermission from the Opera one night, runs into his former acquaintance/one night stand, socialite Lucy de Bourgh.  It is awkward, she is not really as interesting as she once was and neither are as young and shiny as they were in the 1950s when they first met.  Phillip has not really16085480 seen Lucy since her husband, Thomas Snow, left her, fairly quickly remarried and passed away (run over by both a motor boat and the waterskier it was pulling).  Lucy quickly catches on that Phillip may be less than thrilled to see her but invites him to her apartment for dinner later in the week.  Phillip having no excuse that he thinks would be believeable finds himself at Lucy’s apartment where she begins to tell the tale of her woeful marriage to Thomas.  Phillip finds himself drawn into the story, particularly Lucy’s narrative, enhanced by quite a few highballs, of how cruel and subversive Thomas was.

Phillip begins to dig into Lucy and Thomas’ marriage finding that there are always two sides to how a marriage goes terribly wrong.  While he tries to figure out what truth is in the story-telling he also returns to the country home where he and his wife had spent many happy summers.  The parallel between his fear that the story of his happy marriage will die with him is a beautiful background to the painful story of the de Bourgh-Snow alliance.

Begley’s study of relationships is an interesting one.  We all have our versions of our bad relationships.  The person who walks out on us must be evil, unforgivably cruel and callous.  Of course we eventually come to the point of self-examination – wondering what we did wrong, how it could have been better or successful. Often this self-awareness is accompanied by ice cream, in pint sizes.

Quite differently, privileged Lucy is not bothered by any such self-revelation.  She instead loses any of her carefree, energetic self to a bitter, angry determination to remain in her version of the truth.  It is graceless and isolating.  Luckily, Begley doesn’t leave her there though. He gives her a sympathetic edge so that while the reader loves to hate her, the reader also can’t help but hate that you kind of feel bad for her.  That kind of complexity makes reading fascinating.  Truth is overrated anyway.

October 13, 2013 at 8:12 pm Leave a comment

Girls grow up, it is just not always pretty – Three books, three girls

I seem to have run into a theme, it was an accident I swear.  The last three books I read have been about three girls and the things that make them grow up – always too quickly and harshly.  They were all interesting in their own ways and though I am ready to leave the theme behind they are worth checking out (some more than others).

1.  Cemetery Girl by David Bell (Published in 2011) – This was absolutely one of the most disturbing books I have ever read, it is just haunting.  Tom and Abbey have a beautiful daughter, Caitlin. They are doting parents, middle class, educated, they have done everything right. When Caitlin is twelve years old she disappears while out walking the family dog.  The next four years Tom and Abbey hope that Caitlin will return.  But then Abbey decides to move on and have a memorial service with a gravestone engraved in Caitlin’s honor.   Tom has refused to let go and is validated when he receives a call from the police that they think they have found Caitlin alive.  And indeed it is Caitlin.  Their lives then change again as they try to adjust to the return of their daughter. Of course the question becomes is it better to be a parent who has lost a child or a parent who finds his child but they are unrecognizable and extremely damaged.   This book was painful.  As a parent it ripped my heart out.  It was well written and kept me engaged – but it is harshly realistic.

2. The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani (Published in 2013) – I am just going to say I don’t know what to make of this book. It is set in 1930s and begins with Thea, a fifteen year girl, driving with her father to a horse camp for young women from affluent families. It is clear from the outset that Thea has done something that has made her family send her away.  The author drags out the mystery a bit longer than necessary especially because you can guess pretty early on what happened (I bet you can even guess what happened at least in part).  Thea also continues to be victim to the adults around her making bad decisions. It is hard to hold her blameless because she is the narrator and seems like she is in control. But you have to remove yourself from the narrator and remind yourself that she is only 15 and really has no control over her life or what will happen next.  I found this book creepy.  And just when I felt like it was creepy enough it just got creepier.  And I am unclear if that was the author’s intent.  Out of the three this was my least favorite coming of age story.

Cover of "Moloka'i"

Cover of Moloka’i

3. Moloka’i by Alan Brennert (Published in 2004) –  If you are keeping score out of the three this is the book to read.  It was recommended by one of my favorite people and she was right – it is a great book.  At the turn of the century Rachel is 6 years old and lives with her family in Hawaii.  Her life is pretty typical until a sore on the back of her leg will not heal. Her mother immediately recognizes the signs of leprosy and is only able to hide Rachel’s illness for so long.  Eventually, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, a quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i.  What follows is the beautiful, tragic, touching story of Rachel’s life at the settlement.  Rachel is an endearing character and the novel is well researched.  Even better Brennert’s writing is really good and his passion for his topic is evident in the depth of the story.

All of this tough coming of age stuff means it is time to read more books with adult characters – they have as much drama but without all of the hormones…or maybe I have that backwards.

October 9, 2013 at 9:10 pm 1 comment


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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