Monday, November 11, 2013

Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
2/5 stars

Princesses Behaving Badly is a collection of mini-biographies (ranging from a few paragraphs to a few pages) of various royal (or royal-wannabe) women over a wide selection of history and cultures. The premise is that these are rebellious women who broke with the traditions of society, and promised to be a highly entertaining and interesting book.

Unfortunately, McRobbie writes about her subjects in a colloquial, flippant and at times campy style, which detracts from the subject matter. I've no doubt she intends to be humorous and accessible, but (for me) it clashed with the seriousness of her topic. For example, her use of terms like "crazy cat lady", "baby maker", and "broad" feels derogatory, not funny.

In a book that is supposed to be lauding women who are not typical of society's expectations, McRobbie manages to portray many of these ladies in a negative, as opposed to a neutral, light. Conversely to the premise, McRobbie appears to judge their actions by the very standards that these "princesses" faced in their own time. I was very disappointed by this; I had expected Princesses to be more on the lines of the "Uppity Women" series.

There is no doubt that the information was truly interesting, but I think the book would have benefited from more detailed biography on fewer subjects, instead of the small amount given on a large number. Photos or illustrations would also be helpful; I don't know if these will be included in the final copy.

Another point of irritation for me was the cover. It shows a slovenly drunk woman and a passionate lesbian kiss, neither of which actually occur in the book. I felt that this again was an example of trying to be humorous about the topic, but instead it depicted women in a manner that is supposed to be insulting (the drunk) and shocking/titillating (the kiss).

Overall, I was disappointed in this book as (based on the cover blurb) I expected it to be a celebration of individuality, of rule breaking, of women who didn't "stay in their place". Instead, it appeared as if McRobbie couldn't make up her mind as to whether she wanted to promote or condone this "bad behavior"; she seems to send mixed messages.

If McRobbie had approached her topic with a less jokey tone and had seemed to respect her "princesses" more, I think it could have been an excellent read. As it was, I would not recommend it. If this is a topic of interest, I would instead recommend the "Uppity Women" series by Vicki Leon, or Royal Pains by Leslie Carroll.

I was given this book by the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review.

On a personal note: What the deuce?!  Who is her intended audience?  I can't see it being well received by feminist readers. . . perhaps she intends it for young adults?  If so, I wouldn't recommend it for that audience either.  

I'm just puzzled by her attitude toward her subject.  I was so turned off by her slangy language and the disrespect that I felt she was showing these women, that I could hardly finish it.  

That being said, there are many positive reviews by others that didn't feel the way I did, with 38% of the reviews being five stars.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Classics Club: Breakfast at Tiffany's

(about the classics club)

I first read "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in high school, after I saw and fell in love with the movie.  I found the novella a sad disappointment, as it wasn't like the movie, so promptly pushed it out of my mind.

As an adult, I wasn't so impressed with the movie--the horrible portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in particular and pretty much everything else in general--so I began to think maybe I needed to reread the novella and see what Capote really intended.

I'll confess, I'm just as unimpressed as I was some twenty years ago, though not for the same reasons.

Frankly, very little.

Louise Brooks
I did think that Holly looked (not at all like Audrey Hepburn, but) like a blonde Louise Brooks, with even fuller lips.  The description of her resembled Hepburn in no way whatsoever; I can't imagine why she was cast.  Having set it in the present day when they filmed it, the clothing and manners were all wrong in the movie as well; I was glad that I had the knowledge to be able to imagine the right clothing, hair styles and props that were suitable for the story.

I also thought what an unappealing character Holly was.  I had no sympathy for or connection with her at all, nor did I find the plot particularly interesting.

Capote's prose was fine, but not stellar, certainly not captivating enough to make this (to my mind) a classic.

With the exception of the final line, which generated a small bit of emotion due to Capote's obvious attempts to twang the heartstrings, I was unmoved.  Again, I'll say that neither plot nor characters interested me enough to have any feelings for them.

I'm sure Capote had a message or an impression he wanted left with the reader, but I was unable to find it.  I was not a good match for this book.  

To show just how unmemorable "Breakfast at Tiffany's" was to me, I will mention that I forgot it even existed in my literary world. I read it in mid-to-late September, but was so unmoved by it that I didn't add it to my list of books read and didn't think of writing up the notes until now.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Classics Club: 1984

(about the classics club)

1984 is one of those classics about which references are always being made, and it seems like everyone has a general idea of the plot, whether or not they've read it.

I knew it was one that I needed to read, but had always put it off, thinking it would be too depressing.  I am so glad I finally read it and recommend it wholeheartedly.  If you've not read it, make this the next book you do read!

While Orwell's dystopia is a terrible place, the book was not so much distressing as thought-provoking.  Like Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, I also found it disturbingly prophetic.  NewSpeak made me think of the horrible text message shorthand, and the Ministry of Peace was frighteningly similar to the way current governments present the need for war.  As for the Two Minutes Hate. . . How often have we seen a more subtle version of this in the recent past?!

I thought a great deal about how easily people can be "brain-washed" into living in horrid situations or doing vile acts by the government or other powerful institutions--good people, too, with honest intentions who think they are doing the right thing.

I thought about the fact that Orwell wrote this not long after the ending of World War II, and how Hitler's Germany must have been foremost in his mind.

I also thought about the control of history; the victors always write (and sometimes rewrite) history.  This is nothing new, and continues to this day.

 I felt frightened at times, by how similar some of the situations were to today's society.

I was enthralled by Orwell's prose; I had expected it to be dusty, dry, and yet it was alive and relevant.

I felt so much sadness for Winston; he was so real to me that I was emotionally invested in his journey.

I did feel confused by the Party requirements, and struggled to comprehend it fully.  I felt that it would have been better if Orwell had given that explanation early in the book, and more completely.  However, who am I to judge?!  I assume he had an excellent reason for waiting as long as he did, and my lack of understanding  was the fault of the reader, not the writer.

"The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in."

"Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull."

"If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened — that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?"

"The object of waging a war is always to be in a better position in which to wage another war."

"A peace that was truly permanent would be the same as a permanent war. This—although the vast majority of Party members understand it only in a shallower sense—is the inner meaning of the Party slogan: War is Peace."

"All rulers in all ages have tried to impose a false view of the world upon their followers."

"We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power."


Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Night Guest

The Night Guest
Fiona McFarlane

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber (October 1, 2013)
  • 3/5 stars

I received the advanced copy of this novel from the Amazon Vine program in return for my honest review.

This begins as a gentle, charming novel about a 70-something lady dealing with aging, memory and love--as well as what she thinks is a tiger roaming her home at night. It then becomes a psychological thriller about trust, deception and abuse.

McFarlane writes well; her character are fully fleshed out and her descriptions bring the setting to life. With one notable exception, the situations are completely believable, and could easily happen. Even the magical realism of the tiger incidents are well done.

I'm not adverse to reading uncomfortable novels; in fact, Lolita is one of my favorites, due to Nabokov's exquisite skill. However, I found The Night Guest so disturbing that McFarlane's prose could not make this a "good read" for me.

One a more personal note:

I can not stress how disturbing this novel is; it made my stomach hurt and I had to skim several chapters as the end neared.  

At the risk of spoiling it for a potential reader, I have to say that it focuses around the abuse of an elderly woman by a trusted caregiver.  It is not at all what I expected from reading the blurb. McFarlane just isn't a good enough writer to take a topic like that and make it readable for me.  I've tried to understand why I can find Lolita an amazing novel, and yet be so squeamish about this one.  As my husband pointed out, it could be because that Nabakov is not graphic and the psychological abuse in The Night Guest was explicit.  All I know is that when I pulled off the pretty paper of McFarlane's writing, all that was left was gut-wrenching abuse.  When I pull off the pretty paper of Nabokov's writing, I see so much more.

I did give it three stars, though, because McFarlane does write well. It does have 38% of the reviews as five stars, so maybe I just wasn't a good fit for it.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Classics Club: The Martian Chronicles

I was a late bloomer as far as Bradbury is concerned.  While my friends were discovering Bradbury and Vonnegut, I was engrossed in Austen and Shakespeare and Hardy.  The idea of "science fiction" (or "fantasy" for that matter) just didn't appeal to me; I had to grow into it.  As an adult, I came across Bradbury as I began to read the books that it seemed like I "should" read.  Fahrenheit 451 made me an instant Bradbury fan and I've been trying to catch up ever since.  I chose The Martian Chronicles for my latest, knowing it to be one of his most highly regarded and one that I should read sooner than later.

Wow.  No, I'm not being facetious.  It so often made me stop and think, "wow!"--not just for the story he unfolds, but for the amazing way he uses words in this book.  It is stunning.

As most of you know, The Martian Chronicles is a series of linked short stories, telling the story of Mars and it's people, of Earth's exploration and subsequent colonization, and of the end result.  Naturally, I thought a lot about colonization and the harm it has done over the years.  I thought about how often we do things, particularly as a nation, in absolute surety that it is the right thing, only to look back in horror years later.

I also thought about the cyclical nature of things: life in general, civilization in particular.

Bradbury also make me think about the power of words.  His masterful command of the English language, his ability to write volumes in a few sentences, his amazing use of words to set tone and mood. . . it is awe inspiring.

I thought about "space: the final frontier".  My husband and I have often discussed our belief that our world is such a violent one because there is no longer a "frontier" to explore.  We've discussed how, the roughs and toughs were most often the ones that went off to explore, lightening some of the violence in the "civilized" world.  I was interested to see that for Bradbury, too, the first Earthmen to go to Mars were those types.

I thought about how the line between science fiction and fantasy is so blurred, and about what makes a book "fantasy" or "sci fi".

 I felt the entire spectrum of emotions throughout these stories.  The Martian Chronicles made me sad, melancholic, nostalgic, and happy.  It gave me joy and pain.  I felt love, hatred, embarrassment and hope.  Putting it into words seems to somehow belittle the emotions, but it is all true.  Reading the Martian Chronicles was a highly emotional experience for me, due to Bradbury's ability to create such reality inside his stories.

I know that this will be one that I will reread; it felt familiar immediately, while still feeling new and vaguely threatening.
There were many amazing passages that made me stop, go back and reread.  Here are two favorites.

"He awoke to a tap on his brow.
Water ran down his nose into his lips.  Another drop hit his eye, blurring it.  Another splashed his chin.
The rain.
Raw, gentle, and easy, it mizzled out of the high air, a special elixir, tasting of spells and stars and air, carrying a peppery dust in it, and moving like a rare light sherry on his tongue.
Rain."  --from "The Green Morning"

"There was a smell of Time in the air tonight.  He smiled and turned the fancy in his mind.  There was a thought.  What did Time smell like?  Like dust and clocks and people.  And if you wondered what Time sounded like it sounded like water running in a dark cave and voices crying and dirt dropping down upon hollow box lids, and rain.  And, going further, what did Time look like? Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room or it looked like a silent film in an ancient theater, one hundred billion faces falling like those New Year balloons, down and down into nothing.  That was how Time smelled and looked and sounded.  And tonight--Tomas shoved a hand into the wind outside the truck--tonight you could almost touch Time. --from "Night Meeting"

Michael Whelan's amazing cover art.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Classics Club: The Thirty-Nine Steps

(about the Classics Club)

Despite never actually having read Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), I was familiar with it as one of the earliest hero-on-the-run suspense-thriller-mysteries, and one that was influential on the genre as a whole.  I take a historical interest in my favorite genre, and felt I needed to read it.

What a grand adventure!  I had to think that this is the precursor to those heroes so prevalent in today's thrillers (you know, the ones that get out of bed, get beat up, shot, drowned and beat up again all before they take the dame back to bed) but yet it didn't seem hokey.  Hannay was just this side of believable, like a hero should.  He was crush-worthy for the female reader and role model-worthy for the males.

The action of this book takes place just before the Great War starts (but is written after the War started, so it is written with the knowledge that the War will start, if that makes sense) so it also made me think a lot about the War, about patriotism during that War, and about how this book would have been the most excellent sort of propaganda.  It depicts an average man who realizes the fate of Great Britain, if not the world, rests on knowledge he has, so he steps up to the plate and does what he can.  I hate to borrow the overused phrase "stiff upper lip" for Blighty, but that is exactly it. Hannay is willing to die--even as an expatriate Scotsman just over from Rhodesia--to protect home and country.  Just an average guy (okay, maybe a little above average in strength and endurance but we'll not quibble) and he single-handedly beats the Germans at their own game.  Pretty good stuff to be reading in the muddy, infected, hell-on-earth trenches.

So yes, I started thinking about what a fun adventure it was, and ended by mourning the slaughtered Tommys who probably died a little happier for having read this.

 I suffered nostalgia for a time I've never experienced--that time, right before the Great War, when a speeding car went 40 mph and putting on working man's clothing could disguise a gentleman, when airplanes were a novelty and to be hatless was unconscionable.   I felt sad for the innocence that was lost in that War, sad that books like this--new as it was--would only have a few more years to exist, a few more years before violence and sex become the staples of fiction.  (Let me note here that there is no romance in this book--not even one slightly attractive woman.  How refreshing!)

I felt patriotic, too, for a country that isn't mine, for a cause that is hard to remember.

I also felt a longing for Scotland.  Apparently Buchan was Scottish; his descriptions of Scotland are lovely.  I've always wanted to visit and the mental images of Hannay's on-foot adventures to the highlands (or was it the lowlands?) added fuel to that flame.

Most of all, though, I felt satisfied by a good read.  It was a darn good yarn, and I enjoyed every moment of it--and for some reason, especially the ginger biscuits.  I'll never eat gingersnaps without thinking of Hannay hiding in the heather, munching on ginger biscuits.

Patriotism!  This was the subtle undertone and blatant overtone throughout the entire book.  Even an expatriate will answer the call to save Great Britain when it comes, because of natural patriotism.

 It is a level of dedication and love for country that I don't think we, in the U.S., will ever experience again. As such, it was almost a novel idea to me, here in this skeptical, cynical age.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Classics Club: Flame and Shadow

 I first read Sara Teasdale as an immature 11 or 12 year old, and then multiple times in my (still immature)  mid-teens.  It has been many years since I have read any of her poetry, and I was curious as to whether my reaction would be much different than it was all those years ago.  I chose the volume Flame and Shadow (1920), as opposed to her Pulitzer Prize winning 1919 Love Songs, to fit in with another reading challenge.

First off, I was interested in how the title, Flame and Shadow, fit in with the poems.  I noticed several direct references to flame and fire, as well as indirect references to the fires of romantic love.  The "shadow" theme was more subtle, referencing the shadows of pain, loneliness and depression that is evident throughout many of the poems in the volume.

Sara Teasdale
I was still drawn to her poems, but not often  to the same ones that I had loved as a child.  I also saw a depth that I had not seen, recognized (and empathized with) her depression and also understood more of the (now historical) allusions.

I found it surprisingly hard to accustom myself to her more traditional, lyric style, after years of reading modern free verse.  I had to change my mindset, and not think it juvenile (as modern poets often want readers to believe) that her couplets rhymed.

 I was immediately caught up in her word pictures, and could easily visualize the scenes she described.  Teasdale and I share a love for the moon, winter and night, and I felt the feeling I feel when I am walking in the moonlight on a winter's evening.  I also felt the depth of her depression and loneliness in several of the poems.

I wasn't as interested in her love poems, as I have become jaded in my old age and find myself feeling superior to the love poetry.  I don't know why; I'm just explaining the feeling I get, and certainly am not justifying it or even saying I'm right. Despite that, I did feel compassion for her while reading several of them, and even found a connection to some of the more "happy" love poems.  This shows the power of her verse, I think, that it can transcend time and ennui to create a connection.

"There Will Come Soft Rains" was one of my favorites, long before I understood that it referred to the tragedy of the Great War's trenches or to the historically early idea of warfare wiping out man, and decades before I read Bradbury's short story of the same name.  As a result of coming to understand the poem in historical context, and loving the Bradbury story, I have a deeper love for this particular one.

"There Will Come Soft Rains"

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools, singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Becoming Myself: Embracing God's Dream of You by Stasi Eldredge

I received the advanced copy of this novel from the Amazon Vine program in return for my honest review.

Becoming Myself is an encouraging book written to help Christian women "lay down their past" and embrace who they are in Christ. Eldredge writes frankly about her feelings of failure and short comings. She directs comments to the reader as if she and the reader were carrying on a conversation, creating a very personal feel to the book.

Eldredge's first chapters deal with finding healing for the emotional wounds that can be caused by one's mother. She is very open about her own experience, and bases her advice and encouragement on those experiences. Happily, this is not a wound I have, so I was not able to connect with this, but it did seem that it would be beneficial for adult women who bear scars from childhood.

She also discusses the importance of female friendships and how best to nurture and keep those friendships. Though this has been presented in other contexts by other writers, Eldredge does a nice job with this and again makes it very personal.

Her main theme throughout the book is to find self-worth through Christ and not through the eyes of how one perceives that OTHERS see her. Despite this, Eldredge still, most likely unintentionally, connects self-worth with beauty, size, weight and even marriage. She frequently mentions her size, how her self-worth was caught up in her larger size but now it's not, all the while mentioning that she has lost quite a bit of weight. As another example, the word "beauty" is used to mean both how God sees us, and the standard the world sets for women. Her good intentions are there, but her actual meaning becomes fuzzy at times; it seems almost as though she, too, is still trying to find self-worth outside of society's view of what a woman should be.

In the final chapters, Eldredge focuses on freeing oneself from fear, becoming a Godly woman like Mary, and seeing the vision that God has of you. She gives lots of Bible verses, personal anecdotes and stories from friends, but I never felt like she actually gave solid information on how this was to be done.

The premise of this book is great, and she does provide good insight in some areas. However, in the end, I came away with a "feel good" message, but no actual working plan of how to achieve the goals she suggests.

On a personal note: for those that have "mother wounds" and that still have any sort of difficulties with or stemming from their relationship with their mother, I recommend borrowing this book from the library when it is released and reading those first chapters.  I was struck by how open Eldredge was with that issue and to me, it seemed that it could be very beneficial.  The rest of the book contained, for me, nothing new or revelation-ary that couldn't be found just as well explained, if not much better, by other Christian writers.  

Note: This is my opinion; on Amazon, 78% of the reviews were 5 stars.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Book of Secrets by Elizabeth Joy Arnold

  • The Book of Secrets
  •  Elizabeth Joy Arnold
    Paperback: 464 pages
    Publisher: Bantam; First Edition edition (July 2, 2013)
    5/5 stars

I received an advanced copy of this book from Amazon Vine in return for an honest review.

"The Book of Secrets is a complex novel that tells a story in the present, as it simultaneously recounts the known past and uncovers past secrets. It is narrated by Chloe Sinclair, a bibliophile and bookstore owner. She and Nate have been married over twenty years, and have begun to drift apart. One evening, Nate is gone, leaving only a letter telling her that he has gone back to their childhood home to deal with a family crisis. Chloe is hurt at his departure, at his secretiveness and at his willingness to return to a place that holds emotional scars for them both. She then finds Nate's secret book, a journal he has kept in code. As she begins to decode it, both she and reader return to the past, face the future and find answers to secrets.

Arnold very skillfully allows the reader only glimpses of events that were so pivotal in shaping Nate, Chloe and their relationship. She allows the reader to guess, to anticipate and to be surprised. Her prose is beautiful and descriptive, drawing both people and places in vivid pictures.

In addition, Arnold celebrates words and literature with the Book of Secrets. She weaves various classics as integral parts to the story throughout, and the joy of words, especially the right words, as another recurring theme. With this novel, Arnold gives, not only a love story of people, but of people for books.

The Book of Secrets is an absorbing novel of love, loss, betrayal, deception and books.  It is also one that is certain to appeal to fellow bibliophiles."

On a personal note, despite it's size of over 400 pages, I read this in two nights.  It was quite engrossing and I would certainly recommend it.  Yes, there were bits that I didn't like, but were overshadow by the overall quality of the rest of the book.