06 June 2009

May Book Report

OK, here is my book report for May. Instead of dividing it into two parts like I did for April, it's here as one long post. I don't know which works better, feel free to let me know in the comments section. Another option would be to direct you to my comments on Goodreads, via a link for each title. (Who knows, maybe I'll try that next month ...)

I have marked any of the books that I have to give away with an asterisk (*) at the title. Let me know if you are interested, either by leaving a comment, or sending me an e-mail at thekittyknitterATverizonDOTcom, by the end of the day on Monday, June 8, 2009.

The Lost Dog, by Michelle de Kretser. This was a book that sounded interesting from the info on the dust jacket, and I enjoyed reading it. The story is written mainly from the viewpoint of Tom Loxley, a grown man who currently lives in Australia, but spent many of his growing up years in India. At the beginning of the book, his dog runs away, having broken the knot in the rope that tied him up. Loxley is afraid of what might happen to his dog, lost in the Australian bush, and sets out to try and find him.

He ends up being helped by Nelly Zhang, an artist he knows and with whom he is smitten. We get to know Nelly and her artistic friends, as well as learning the story of Nelly's husband, who mysteriously disappeared years ago. Tom Loxley becomes obsessed with her story, and wants to determine whether or not she may have killed her husband.

Also playing a large role in the book is Tom's mother, Iris, who is living in the guest house of a relative as she declines from age, and what sounds to be Alzheimer’s.

I enjoyed this book, as it was different from a lot of others I have read. The descriptions of Tom Loxley's childhood in India, and the Australia which is still so strange to him, were well written and interesting. His swings of mood regarding whether or not he will find the dog (who is never actually given a name in the book) seem real, especially if you have ever had a pet suddenly disappear. The story goes back and forth between the present day and the past, weaving the lives of the characters into the plot fairly seamlessly.

I found these two passages from the book to be particularly striking:

(When Tom is remembering how Nelly told him about different homes in the Artists' Preserve, where she had her home and studio)

"To possess a city fully, it is necessary to have known it as a child, for children bring their private cartography to the mapping of public spaces. The chart of Tom's secret emblems was differently plotted. Oceans separated from the sites featured on it."

(And this one especially, when someone talks to him about the possibility of never finding the dog)

"'There's a limit to how much you can do ... It's not like losing a kiddie, is it? Count your blessings he's only a dog.'

Love without limits was reserved for only his species. To display great affection for an animal invariably invoked censure. Tom felt ashamed to admit to it. It was judged excessive: overflowing a limit that was couched in philosophical distinction, as the line that divided the rational, human creature from all others. Animals, deemed incapable of reason, did not deserve the same degree of love."

This story intrigued me enough that I am likely to try and read some of de Krester's other work to see if she is someone I want to follow.

American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, their Loves, Their Work, by Susan Cheever. Oh how I enjoyed this book! I knew bits and pieces about Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, but it was so interesting to read about them on a more "personal" level. I was not at all familiar with Margaret Fuller, so I was fascinated to learn what an important woman she was, particularly for the literary types of the nineteenth century.

The book is divided into sections, and each character has a chapter related to them within the section. Sometimes you are seeing a situation from the point of view of several of the individuals, which is interesting since they are all there at the same time, so you don't need to remember to follow-up later. (Because I am lazy about following-up ...)

I had no idea how Emerson was so much a part of creating the intellectual group that lived in Concord, Massachusetts, and he must have been truly committed to the whole idea, when you read in this book what things he experienced as a result of loans to his literary friends.

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to visit Concord during a visit to my cousin's in Boston. We toured the Alcott House, but now I really want to return and have a "closer" look at the whole town!

One of my favorite passages is from the beginning, where they describe the Alcott family's arrival to Concord. It quotes Louisa May's journal as listing the vices she wants to overcome: "idleness, willfulness, impudence, pride, and love of cats" !!! (Italics mine.)

*Farewell My Queen: A Novel, by Chantal Thomas. This book was given to me by a friend. The story is told from the perspective of a woman who is the Reader to the Queen, Marie Antoinette. The story is remembered from the perspective of 1810, in Vienna, and covers the story of the last days of the court at Versailles in 1789, when the French Revolution started.

This was an interesting read, as it was told from the perspective of someone who is part of the court, but not one of the higher ranking indviduals. Marie Antoinette is presented as a woman who is one person to the public, and another - more caring - person to those who are directly in her orbit.

I found this to be an interesting book, since others I have read about this time were written from the perspective of history, automatically condemning Marie Antoinette. This time, we are given a queen who is more approachable, even if she, and the other royals, have no real understanding of the average person's existence. They are presented as people who were raised with the strong belief that they were not ordinary, and knew what was right for the population at large.

The book covers the dates of July 14 through July 16, when the last members of the court leave Versailles. It is a fascinating story of the hierarchy of those serving the king and queen, and the sort of amazement that the characters feel when they realize they are dealing with those "below" them. For instance, this passage:

"Close the gates: very well, but who would go out and give orders to that effect? It was for the King to give such comnands. Before daybreak. BAut how could he be reached? It would be best if one of us went instead. The mole catcher volunteered. It was unanimously agreed that, however great might be the chaos confronting us, a mole catched could not the bearer of a royal order."

This is what the main character is thinking. Meanwhile, I'm thinking, "There was a MOLE CATCHER as part of the court?????"

The book is not necessarily high and mighty literature, but it is very readable and very interesting.

Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories, by Elizabeth Strout. This was a really interesting book, not just because of the main character, Olive Kitteridge, but because of the way it progressed. Instead of what I was expecting - a narrative novel - the book is a series of short stories, where Olive and her husband, Henry, as well as their son, Christopher, are sometimes the main characters, and other times just mentioned as part of the story.

It takes place in a town called Crosby, Maine, and Olive is a retired schoolteacher, and Henry is a retired pharmacist. Except for one of the stories, they all take place in the small Maine town where they live. Olive is a pretty complex character, not necessarily likable, but extremely well-drawn. You're never really sure that you would like her if you knew her, but you come to understand her a lot more as the stories progress.

I liked this book for the development of the relationship the reader has with the various characters, and for its portrayal of a woman who is not always a sympathetic character, but never seems false.

*The Best of Friends, by Joanna Trollope. Here is another book I read this month that I ended up liking more at the end than I did when I started reading it. It covers the period of one summer into the fall, when two families lives changed drastically, throwing their individual and mutual universes into total chaos. In the beginning, I felt it was going to be a little too soap-opera-ish for my taste, but things improved.

The story deals with two families, who are friends primarily because the husband (Laurence) in one and the wife (Gina) in another have been best friends since they were in high school. The character driving the story is Gina and Fergus' daughter, Sophy, who is devastated and angry when her father suddenly announces that he and her mother are separating. They always seemed to be at one another's throats, but Sophy cannot believe that they are breaking up. As the story develops, the relationships of all the characters to each other change quite a bit, sometimes unexpectedly, and usually with very sad consequences.

As I said earlier, it started out like a soap opera plot, and though it still contained some of that type of story, the narrative was effective enough to make you wonder what would happen next. The characters are pretty well-drawn, and fairly complex, and the story creates as many questions as are resolved by the end.

Not great, not awful, and slightly thought-provoking.

*The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters. This book surprised me, by turning out to be one that really made me think. At the beginning, I wasn't even sure that I wanted to read it!

The story takes place in rural Warwickshire, England, in the time just after World War II. Dr. Faraday (the narrator), finds himself called to look after a patient at Hundreds Hall, the family estate of the Ayres family. As a child, his mother worked in the nursery, and he recalls fondly the time he was there to receive a medal from Mrs. Ayres, and his mother took him inside the house.

The intervening years have not been kind to the house or the family. Colonel Ayres is long dead, and Susan, the oldest daughter, had died as a child from diphtheria. Her mother never really recovered, though she had two more children, Caroline and Roderick. Dr. Faraday is called to look in on Roderick, who was injured - both physically and mentally as we learn - in the war. Caroline has been called home to help care for him, as their mother is elderly by this time.

The estate is physically in ruins, and barely being kept afloat. Dr. Faraday begins a friendly relationship with the Ayres family, and by turns they all begin to confide in him. However, strange things begin to happen, first to Roderick, and then eventually to everyone. Though Dr. Faraday scoffs at the idea, the family firmly believes that there is some kind of presence in the house that taunts them, and eventually, though he finds no scientific evidence to indiate they are right, the turn of events makes him wonder if such things really are possible.

The book at first seemed like it might be a little too cliche - the lower-class doctor becomes friends with the estate family, but eventually he is put in his place by them. Instead, the story takes a few twists and turns, and ultimately ends up being a suspenseful story that makes you think about what you do and don't believe, and about the relationships you have with other people, particularly your family.

It's not the best-written book I've ever read, but the author does a nice job of evoking time and place. The characters are more believable than I expected, and when I finished the book, I sat for a while and gave some thought to what I think/believe about "ghosts" and the spirit world, and how family relationships can sometimes be the one thing you always go back to, regardless of what else you have done in your life.

Overall, I think it was a good story, and I really enjoyed reading it.

*The Exploits & Adventures of Miss Alethea Darcy: A Novel, by Elizabeth Aston. A friend gave me this book, and I figured it would be an OK read. It was, but just *barely* OK, in my opinion. The main character is Alethea Darcy Napier, one of the daughters of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. She has made an unfortunate marriage, as a result of being on the rebound from a relationship where her intended married another woman. Her husband, who is much older, and named Norris Napier, won her with his admiration of her musical talents. But it turns out that he is a terrible person, wanting to control every aspect of her life, and treating her very poorly.

As the book opens, Alethea and her maid Figgins are sneaking out of the estate house dressed as men to flee to Venice, where Alethea hopes to stay with her husband Camilla and her husband, who she feels will understand her predicament and help her. During the course of the book, they end up traveling with a group of other English people, one of whom immediately recognizes Alethea and is curious about why she is traveling dressed as a man.

I will admit that even though I wasn't crazy about this book, I read it to see what would happen. Overall, it was pretty predictable and the characters did/said/acted the way you would expect. I found it hard to believe that a girl/woman like Alethea would be the daughter of Lizzie and Mr. Darcy, because it just didn't seem to fit, as far as I am concerned. True, it brings into the limelight the position of women in the society of the time, and the limitations to their behavior and personal power, but that didn't work for me to move the story along.

The character of Norris Napier seemed to be simply a way to get to a story. (Besides, who the **** would marry someone with that name???) We never really get an idea of him, other than as an ogre. And the character that becomes involved with Alethea, Mr. Titus Manningtree, is so transparent, it isn't hard to guess what might happen.

I've read worse books, but this one just wasn't worth the effort in the end.

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. This is a book I had tried to start reading when it was first published, but for whatever reason, it just didn't hold my interest. At the time I remember thinking I was the only person not sucked in to its popularity, and really couldn't figure out why other people thought it was so great. At the library a few weeks ago, I saw it, and thought I'd give it another try. I am so glad that I did! This time the story completely engaged me, and I could barely put the book down to do things like eat a and sleep.

The story of the Price family, and their missionary venture to what was then the Belgian Congo in 1959, is told from the viewpoints of the wife and daughters of Nathan Price, a Baptist missionary who is a megalomaniac. The chapters are each narrated by one of the family members - Orleanna, his wife; or, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, the daughters who he is so disappointed in, mainly because they are not sons.

I have always thought that anyone choosing the life of a missionary must be different from the rest of us. Especially in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, when some of the places they were sent were literally terra icongita. I will also admit to being more understanding of those who were medical or educational missionaries, and somewhat suspicious of those who were religious missionaries. This is largely because I have a personal suspicion of people whose main goal in life seems to be forcing me (or anyone else) to listen to what they have to say about their God, with the implication that anyone's current belief system is wrong or misguided. So the character of Nathan, who is one of those people who is ALWAYS right, and expects everyone else to defer to him, is the type of character whose downfall I usually relish. At the end of the book, I felt that since he did not likely think he had been defeated, nothing had been learned on his part.

His wife and daughters, however, were a different story. For the most part they were products of their time and Southern upbringings, so it was not surprising that they felt that the native Congolians were lesser beings. But it was interesting to read the changes in how they felt, what they thought they could learn, and how they had changed by the end of the book.

The story put me in mind of another book, The Mosquito Coast, by Paul Theroux. The characters of the fathers, who take their families into alien territories, and have the need to control everyone and everything, were very similar, though the father in the Theroux book was moving his family to South America to return to a simpler way of life, rather than to preach on behalf of any organized religion.

I found this book to be really interesting, but also disturbing. It always astounds me when I read a book where one person totally rules the lives of the rest of the family. When the story is set in an earlier place and time, I do at least recognize that the characters are products of society at the time. But I cannot for the life of me understand how any woman could be so under the control of her husband that she had no say in what their life was to be.

In the end, I'm glad I gave it another try. And my respect for Barbara Kingsolver's talent has only increased after reading this.

Gilead: A Novel, by Marilynne Robinson. I read this book right after I finished The Poisonwood Bible, and what a contrast in religious characters! Where the father in the Kingsolver book is a religious control freak, the main character in this book is an older man who has been a minister his entire life, writing a letter to his young son, since the elder is dying from heart disease.

From a story of a family that traveled across the world, I came next to this story, which takes place for the most part in Gilead, Iowa. John Ames, an older man whose first wife and daughter died years ago, has married a younger woman, and they have a son. Ames fears that his son will be too young to remember him at all, and begins to write to him, not only to tell his life story, but to let him know how important his family, friends, and life in general were to him. He is hoping that his son will read it and understand things that only his father would have been able to tell him.

Most of the characters in this book seemed very real to me. The pace of the story seemed true to the way a person thinks, and how one thought can trail off into another whole topic or experience. I thought the language was beautiful, and I also felt like I could picture John, his son, his wife, their cat, and the other people who moved the story along.

The book was spiritual, since Ames is a minister from a family of ministers, but it is not preachy. Rather, as you read it, you are reminded of universal truths, and you start to pay more attention to the world around you.

One of the statements that the character of John Ames makes really stuck out. He is talking about the part of a person's life when they have grown up, and he encourages his son to live his life in an attentive way, because "adulthood is so fleeting." I have never heard anyone say this. People say things like life is too short, and that childhood passes before you know it, but adulthood is never spoken of in this manner, at least that I have heard. Upon reading it, I was a little bit surprised to realize that it is completely true.

I am very glad that I read this book, and I know that parts of it will keep me thinking about it for quite a while.


SissySees said...

Might have to add the Lost Dog to my list. I read Poisonwood Bible years ago and found it very compelling. I actually did a paper on the Bloomsbury group in school, and tried to get as enthralled with their American counterparts, but never quite did...

Mistrmi said...

"A Novel in Stories" is a terrific subtitle.

Chris said...

I listened to The Poisonwood Bible and found it very powerful.

But I'm still boggled at the thought of the Royal Mole Catcher. Hee hee.

Carol said...

I had the same reaction when I tried to read the Poisonwood bible, but maybe I should give it another go.

I would read the Little Stranger if no one else claims it....

Also, I have this thing about the kazillion novels that purport to be "the sequel" to an Jane Austen book, or to rewrite it from another character's perspective or to write about the alleged children of Austen characters. That's an awfully big burden to shoulder in writing and very, very few authors are up to the challenge.

Brigitte said...

Dibs on "Farewell my Queen"! It sounds like a book right up my alley.

Marie said...

You do write very good reviews. I'm a dedicated mystery reader, though, and after having finished an Iraq war memoir, I'm ready for a good mystery to cheer me up.

May I say, Bridget, you leave the nicest comments on my blog and I thank you very much.

Lorraine said...

Bridget- I'm a huge fan of both Trollope's, Anthony and Joanna- The Best of Friends was a great book.

I will not admit to most of the mindtrash I've been reading lately.

mary said...


Wow, I have not been keeping up with your blog and I've been missing a lot! Congratulations on your new job!!! Hurray for you. I too left a ENB this year and life is so much better. Really enjoyed reading all about your new job.

The kitties look good and happy. Your knitting is lovely. Enjoyed your book reports and wrote down several titles as I've read some losers lately.

Sorry I've been gone so long. Happy (very) Belated Birthday too!

Carrie K said...

Maybe I should give The Poisonwood Bible another try now too.

American Bloomsbury looks excellent. We toured that area when I was 16 and I was most struck by the drawing all over LMA's walls.

Quite a lot of great titles last month! I haven't read that Sarah Waters book either. She always writes the oddest but gripping books.