02 December 2009

November Book Report

I'm sure if you are reading this, you have noticed that I have Christmas-fied the blog! But before I get too much into December, I think it's only fair to wrap up anything to do with November, so here are my thoughts about the books I read last month.  There's a good chance that this will be my last "mega-reading" month, since I will be busy getting ready for Christmas, and not reading a minimum of 8 hours a day as was usually the case at my job.

Also, I am not going to offer any of the books to readers now.  I'm going to be busy mailing out packages to friends and family as it is, and don't want to have even more things to track. So probably at the end of this month or beginning of next, I'll list the books I have for giveaways, and send them during January.

Now - on to the November reads!

The Yellow House: A Novel, by Patricia Falvey.  This is another family story, which takes place during the Revolutionary Period in Ireland. The story begins in 1905 and ends in 1924, and centers around Eileen O'Neill and her family.

The story opens with Eileen remembering a particular summer when she was 8 years old, and her father returns at the end of the day with yellow paint for their house. As the story progresses, and the family home is lost and the family is torn apart, Eileen holds the idea of the yellow house close to her heart, believing that someday she will be able to reunite her family there.

In the meantime, she takes work at a local textile mill, becomes involved in the early work of the group that would later become the IRA, and faces several personal decisions that change things personally for her while national events are changing the world around her.

 This was an interesting book, taking a historical period and making it personal through the telling of one woman's story. At times it is somewhat predictable, but that is as much the work of history as anything else. Eileen is a flawed heroine, which makes the predictable parts just that. But she is also someone who pays a lot of attention to the world around her, and manages to grow into a strong woman as she is forced to face the truth about members of her family and her own prejudices. I liked the fact that she starts out believing that her destiny is decided by what her family's history is, and at the end of the book has realized that her family's history helps define her place in the world while not holding her in the past.

Saying a lot more about this book would make this review either incredibly long, or lead to spoiler-type revelations, so I'll just say that I enjoyed this book. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, particularly those interested in Irish history.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire.  I think I may be one of the last people on earth to read this book. No matter, I enjoyed it more than I expected.

 This is the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, aka Elphaba, born of parents who were considered "respectable" types in the land of Oz - her father a missionary, and her mother from a family of rulers. Elphaba is doomed from the start though - she is born with green skin, and a not very pleasant baby personality. Her parents don't quite know what to make of her, and she grows up more or less as an outsider in her own family. She has a younger sister, Nessarose (The Wicked Witch of the East, she of the Ruby Slippers), who is the favorite of her parents, and who grows up to be a religious zealot.

There is also Galinda, who Elphaba meets when she goes away to boarding school. Galinda eventually becomes Glinda (you remember, the good witch?), and she and Elphaba are roommates, much to Galinda's dismay, at least at the beginning.

These are three characters that I knew from my 1000+ watchings of "The Wizard of Oz," but this book makes them seem like actual people. Maguire manages to make you feel empathy for Elphaba, a certain degree of disdain for Glinda, and even a little bit of annoyance at Dorothy from Kansas. I am not familiar with the Oz books by L. Frank Baum (though I may now have to read them), so I am not sure how much of this story is actually already known, but I found it to be pretty interesting.

One of the things I was most fascinated by was the idea of Animals and animals - those with the uppercase being creatures who could live the lives of humans, with educational opportunities and jobs other than serving as food or pets. Part of the story deals with the disappearance of this group, and tries to determine if it is due to actions on the part of the Wizard, or other forces in Oz.

 There are various types of political intrigue among the many groups who reside in Oz - such as the Munchkinlanders, the Gillikins, etc., and at any given time there are individuals from those groups populating the story. I found it much easier to keep track of them than to keep track of their origins, since reading fantasy is not one of my fortes.

The story of Elphaba, Nessarose, and Glinda is worth a look. I found myself making comparisons to current events, and also wondering the reasons behind some of my personal beliefs and opinions. I may never look at "The Wizard of Oz" the same way again ...

Oh, and also - the Flying Monkeys are explained! God those scare me, even today ...

The Wettest County in the World: A Novel Based on a True Story, by Matt Bondurant.  I had an Advance Readers' Edition of this title, and I was looking forward to reading it. The story is that of the Bondurant brothers, who were involved in moonshine making and distribution during the Prohibition in Franklin County. I find this time in American history to be quite interesting, both from the temperance viewpoint and the viewpoint of those making/selling/smuggling liquor.

 Maybe this is a good book, but if it is, I didn't read far enough into it to find out. The Prologue was a bit much for me, before I ever even got into the story, and once I started the story, it just seemed to clumsily written to hold my interest. The characters had no redeeming qualities, nor were they at least entertaining (sometimes characters that have no redeeeming qualities are saved (for me) by being interesting or entertaining). And the story seemed terribly disjointed, always making me feel that I had forgotten to remember something from a chapter or a few pages prior. But then I would go back to check, and I hadn't missed anything.

I would not recommend this book. It had promise as far as the story line goes, but did not deliver.

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova.  This book was a real change of pace for me, and an enjoyable one at that. It begins with a present-day well-known artist, Robert Oliver, being arrested for slashing a painting at the National Gallery of Art. He is sent to Goldengrove, a mental hospital where Dr. Andrew Marlow becomes his psychiatrist. Marlow is first and foremost a doctor, but has studied art, and still makes time to paint whenever he can.

 As he spends time with Oliver, who refuses to speak, he notices that his patient paints the same woman all of the time. Marlow then begins a quest to try and learn who the woman is, and why Oliver is so obsessed with her. This leads to a trip to North Carolina to speak with Oliver's ex-wife, and a meeting with Oliver's later girlfriend who lives in DC. Marlow essentially begins to spend all of his time trying to solve the case of Robert Oliver - to understand him, his relationship to the woman in the painting, and to try and help him in any way he can.

There are several levels of story here - a psychiatrist obsessed with a single patient, who skirts medical ethics to learn whatever he can; an artist who has success in his work, but has basicallly lost his family and his reputation; and, a story of the French Impressionists, where we learn about a wrong that as it turns out, Robert Oliver is trying to set right.

This was a great story, and for anyone who read, or tried to read, Kostova's other book, The Historian, it is a completely different experience. I found it much more accessible, though perhaps that is my basic knowledge of psychiatric practice and art history. It just did not seem as labor-intensive to get through! I would recommend it to any art lover, regardless of how much background you may or may not have in the subject.

A Duty to the Dead, by Charles Todd.  Bess Crawford, the heroine of this book, is a woman who volunteered for the nursing service in World War I in England. As the book begins, she is serving on a hospital ship Britannic, when it is hit by an underwater mine and sinks. Bess is sent home to recover from a resulting broken arm, and to await her next assignment. I really enjoyed this book. The writing was good, the descriptions evocative, and the information about the way that shell shocked soldiers were thought of and treated at the time was really fascinating to me. I would recommend it, particularly if you like period suspense stories.

While home, she is determined to deliver a message from a soldier that she nursed who died. He made her swear to deliver it to his brother, and she ventures to Owlhurst, the family home of the soldier. This leads to a series of new characters and interesting developments, based on the message itself, which is cryptic and vague all at the same time. As the entire family of the soldier becomes involved in knowing about the message, Bess becomes more and more suspicious of its meaning. When she is called upon to help nurse two characters in the village - the "insane" brother of the family she is visiting, and a soldier sent home with shell shock - things become more and more curious to her, and she starts talking to others in the village.

 Without giving away anything, I can tell you that as she receives an unexpected visit from someone she met at Owlhurst once she returns to London, the story becomes more and more involved, and she decides that it is up to her to see that justice is served. 

The Red Door, by Charles Todd.  Though I have not read the earlier books in this series, I did recently read the first of another series by Charles Todd, and wanted to see what the Ian Rutledge mysteries were like.

In this installment, Inspector Ian Rutledge is called on to investigate the death of a woman in the Lancashire countryside of England who may or may not have a relationship to a family that Rutledge has recently helped in London. The initial investigation, into the disappearance of Walter Teller from a hospital where he had recently been admitted. Rutledge feels from the beginning that there is something going on in the family, but cannot place his finger on it. It seems that each person is harboring a secret, but it's not until a woman with the same last name in the Lancashire countryside is found dead inside her home that he feels that he may be on to something.

 Rutledge's investigation comes at a time when he is still being haunted by a comrade who did not return with him from the battlefields of World War I, and when those nearest and dearest to him are trying to help as he pushes them away.

I enjoyed this book, though there were certain times when I thought "Oh come on and move it along!" I found the "solution" part of the story to be somewhat confusing at first, though by the end, I think I understood everything.

I think I'll give an earlier book in the series a try to see what I think.

Overall I felt it was an enjoyable read.

Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.  Another book I've had for a while and just got around to reading. I had seen a documentary-type program on PBS a couple of years ago on The Midwife's Tale, another book by Ulrich, and when I saw this one, picked it up because I find the topic and the time period to be interesting overall.

 Though this is a work of non-fiction, and I guess could be classified as "academic," the writing is very straightforward and approachable. The author takes different aspects of women's lives during the time period covered, and shows how the realities were different, depending on time, community status, and geographical location.

 I really found this book to be interesting. There are really so few sources that provide details of women's every day lives for this time period, that any tidbit is something I want to know. I am fascinated by their lives and surroundings, as well as the societal and family expectations that were often different than what I assumed.

 Ulrich breaks the book into three sections: Bathsheba, Eve, and Jael, using the biblical stories of these three women to illustrate different aspects of women's lives and personalities. It's clear that she has done an enormous amount of research, but the reader never gets the sense of being lectured. Yes, there are footnotes and bibligraphical notes, but it's not necessary to keep going back and forth while reading the book to understand what is being said.

 If you are interested in women's history on a more personal level, I would recommend this book. It has made me want to read more, and the bibliography provides some great additional sources.  

Martha Washington: An American Life, by Patricia Brady.  I am glad I read this book right after the one by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, because it dealt with a particular woman's life during part of the same time frame, but in another geographic area as well as in a different economic class. Plus, it was just a good book!

 I really didn't know much about Martha Washington before I read this. I've visited Mount Vernon a few times, and so I knew some basics, but nothing really substantive. As Brady mentions, after George Washington's death, Martha burned their letters to one another, so there are very few primary sources for learning about their lives together. Brady manages to locate those that are available, and paints an interesting portrait of our very first First Lady.

Martha Washington was already a fairly well-to-do widow with children when she married George, and it was her land holdings and money that really provided the basis for their shared existence. She comes across as someone who was very smart and very capable, but also quite loving to her family and close friends. The stories of her willingness to share her husband with a fledgling republic, while facing personal challenges and several long-term separations, made her seem much more like a real person. I found it interesting that she and Abigail Adams thought highly of each other, while she and Thomas Jefferson definitely did not!

Patricia Brady does a fine job of making the life of Martha Washington come alive. Her descriptions of time and place are believable and very approachable. And comparing Martha's life and experiences with those of the less financially fortunate women in Ulrich's book made me feel that I had a true sense of women's existences during the colonial period.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris.  I am one of those people who finds David Sedaris very funny, and this collection of essays was no disappointment. From the childhood memory of the family who comes trick-or-treating to the Sedaris home on November 1 because they were out of town, to his grown-up "Six to Eight Black Men," there wasn't a story in this collection that didn't make me laugh out loud at least once while reading it.

 I think part of the reason I enjoyed this so much, was because it included a lot of stories about his parents and his siblings and their adventures growing up. He comes from a really unusual family, but to me they seem completely believable. (This may be due to the fact that my family is also "unusual" - at least by other families' standards ...) With all of the weirdness and conflict, it's still very clear that he loves his family for reasons other than just fodder for his writings.

 If you are a Sedaris fan, you should like this. If you are not familiar with him, this would be a good start.

Collected Fictions, by Jorge Luis Borges.  OK, I actually listened to the audio version of this title over the summer, but forgot about it until the other day. So I'm adding it to my November books.

 This was my introduction to Borges, and I found this collection of stories to be interesting and enjoyable. They were varied enough that I felt I had a good idea of his writing style.

 My favorite was the first story - "Borges and I" - as it was a good way for me to be introduced to the man himself. I also particularly enjoyed "Shakespeare's Memory."

This has made me curious to read more of his work.

Among Women: Short Stories by Women Writers, by Susan Cahill.  OK, I've had this book for years, but never go around to reading it. But one day, I realized just before I left for work that I needed something to read, so I grabbed it as I was leaving the house. I'm so glad I did! First of all, it's the perfect thing to read in an environment where you are constantly being interrupted, since it's a collection of short stories. Secondly, I was introduced to some new writers, got to read things by writers I've heard of but not read before, and got to spend time with some "old friends."

 As is the case with most collections, there were some stories I really enjoyed and others that did not seem all that memorable. The theme of the book is the relationships of sisters, and how they are lifelong. The ones that tended to appeal to me were those that dealt with sisters who are close as far as their relationships go, but far apart distance-wise, and who may or may not have become friends if they were not related. But there were also some very touching and sweet stories about the lengths sisters would go to for each other, as well as one or two about sisters who did just not get along.

 I think this may be one of those books you can pick up every once in a while to read one or two of the stories again, and they will seem just a little different each time.

Oh - and check out my new countdown banner at the bottom of the page ...


Mr Puffy's Knitting Blog: said...

That WAS a lot of reading last month! I didn't care for Wicked and tossed it after about 100 pages.

In retrospect, I suppose it's lucky that Martha Jefferson didn't have a bag of golf clubs handy ;)

Anonymous said...

I checked, and you are, indeed, the last person on Earth to have read "Wicked."

Thought of you last night as we watched "Rudolph". . .

Kathleen Dames said...

That's a lot of reading! Glad you liked Wicked; I did, too, though I found his other books a little disappointing. I knew the woman who made the Midwife's Tale documentary years ago - Good Wives sounds intriguing. And I love Sedaris! Thanks for adding more titles to my "must read" list.

Geek Knitter said...

Nope, you're not the last person not to read Wicked... I haven't read it yet either!

Flying monkeys still give me the shivers.

SissySees said...

I forced myself to read Wicked, but only enjoyed the last few chapters... It really was tedious in the beginning.

Maureen said...

I shall NOT be visiting the bottom of your page for the next little while. It makes me lurch and break into a cold sweat, thinking about all that I still have to get done. Ack!

PS-the toque will be making its way to you within the next few weeks :)