Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Wonderful Prequel to Little Women--Geraldine Brooks' "March"

A few weeks ago I was reading an article somewhere (it seems I read so many online publications these days it's hard to keep them all straight) and the article referenced a Pulitzer Prize winning prequel to Little Women, my all time favorite book.* How had I MISSED a prequel to Little Women? Especially a Pulitzer winning one? I jumped onto Amazon and ordered this book up for my Kindle immediately. Luckily I had a day of jury duty right around the corner in which to read this wonderful story.

Geraldine Brook's "March" envisions the world before the classic novel "Little Women". She explores how Mr. and Mrs. March met, and why they are the people we know in "Little Women." The book also explores Mr. March's service during the Civil War, including the incidents leading to his injury and recovery.

Geraldine Brooks does an excellent job rounding out classic characters in "March" and making them into much more than what the reader of "Little Women" knows about them. She explores Mr. March's character as a young man, and creates for the reader the events that made him into an abolitionist, and eventually led him to invest his life earnings in the schemes of John Brown. She shows us Marmee, as a fiery woman with a fierce temper who is passionately committed to the Underground Railroad and the independence of women. Brooks' narrative is beautiful, and I felt transported to her locations throughout the first half of the 19th century. She also has a wonderful way of getting inside the heads of these characters that I thought I knew to give me a whole new perspective.

If you are a "Little Women" fan, I highly recommend that you read this book. I think it will reintroduce you to the world of "Little Women" a create a new perspective for you on why the novel is how it is.

*When you're named after a character in a book like Little Women, it basically HAS to be your all time favorite!

Monday, November 23, 2009

An Unnamed Thing Cannot Conquer Love--Joshua Ferris' "The Unnamed"

Sometimes you read something so far outside of your normal reading habits, that its almost like a breath of fresh air. I read a lot of books by women and about women, often in the historical fiction category. Rarely do I find myself picking books by men, often because I feel like they lack the emotional element I really love in my books.

In October, I decided to pick up The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris from the Amazon Vine program. I remembered that I had wanted to read Ferris' first book Then We Came to the End but I had never gotten around to it. So I decided to take a leap and try this book. I was so glad that I did, because this book was really different than everything else I've been reading this fall, and may be one of the more interesting books I've read this year.

"The Unnamed" follows Tim, a high powered New York lawyer who has an unnamed disease. Tim's disease causes him to drop everything at a moment's notice and take off on long, meandering walks. Tim's wife, Jane, stays at his side as he has bouts of the disease, even though they last up to a year. Tim has seen every doctor that money can buy, but none of them can offer an explanation for the disease that plagues him. Will Tim and Jane's love be able to overcome the disease, or will it, and the miles it causes Tim to put between them, ultimately lead to their undoing.

"The Unnamed" is a puzzle of a novel that sucks its reader in from the very first page. Tim and Jane appear to be a fairly normal suburban couple, until Tim's disease reveals a whole subtext to their relationship that is complex and unexpected. Ferris uses the disease to explore his character's inner thoughts and emotions, and the disease operates as a stand in for the realities of modern life--long separations and distractions due to work, children, and other relationships--that can tear apart a marriage. I liked how Ferris made the point that Tim's money can't save him, anymore than it can save his relationships. Although Tim, Jane, and their daughter Becka change significantly over the course of the novel, Ferris always brings them back together in a way that makes them human and accessible to the reader.

This novel really made me think, and it is really much more complex than it seems on the surface. I think ultimately this novel could stand as a metaphor for our times. And although overall it is bleak, Ferris leaves his reader with some hope at the end that like Tim, maybe we could find a way to overcome our unnamed.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Vivid Journey Through the Turbulent Mexico and America of the 30s and 40s--Barbara Kingsolver's "The Lacuna"

I love Barbara Kingsolver, and just about everything she's ever written. So when I heard she had a new novel coming out this fall, I was a bit anxious. I've had a bad run of favorite authors turning out disappointing novels recently, so I didn't want my expectations to get too high, only to be dashed by a poor showing.

Oh Barbara, why did I ever doubt you! This novel is fantastic. It has all of the rich language you've come to expect from Kingsolver, with a riveting story to match.

Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel "The Lacuna" is the story of Harrison Shepherd, a young man with a split identity--he's half Mexican and half American and feels like he doesn't truly fit in either country. After being born in America, Shepherd's mother takes him to Mexico, where he spends much of his childhood, before going back to America to finish school, then shortly going back to Mexico, where he starts working for Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo. Meeting the Rivera's sets Shepherd's life on a course from which he will be unable to escape, despite his eventual fame and fortune.

"The Lacuna" is a novel so sweeping, it's difficult to describe. Kingsolver has structured the novel as a series of journals written by Shepherd over the course of his life and edited by his secretary Violet Brown. Although this seems like a difficult structure to work with, Kingsolver uses it to really get inside of Shepherd's head and to use him as a unique type of first person narrator. His perspective on Mexico in the 1930s and America in the 1940s and 50s is unique, and unlike anything I've read before. The story is thoroughly engaging and Kingsolver's beautiful language takes this novel to a whole other level.

I really enjoyed this novel. If you are a fan of Kingsolver's previous novels, I would recommend you pick up this one, because it is not one to be missed!

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Program for providing me with a review copy of this book.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Journey to France with Julia--Julia Child's "My Life in France"

After reading and really enjoying "Julie and Julia" I felt like I HAD TO READ Julia Child's "My Life In France." I felt like not reading it was like reading a sequel without reading the original. So after several foiled attempts (why does a book suddenly become unavailable in Kindle edition? I mean it's not like they run out of copies or something), I managed to download this book. It was WONDERFUL. Like being transported to Paris with Julia Child. If you're a fan of Julia or you simply love Paris, French Food, or just plain food--you MUST read this book!

"My Life in France" is a wonderful autobiography. Julia Child recounts the joys of her life in France, and it's easy to see why her experiences led her to love both the food and the country. She also discuses how she came to become the famous figure we all know and love--from her modest expectations for her first cookbook to her first TV show. Throughout the narrative it is clear that this was a life well lived by someone who truly loved her life.

While I really enjoyed this book--what fan of Julia Child wouldn't love it--it's not the best written autobiography and at times I felt like I was reading a technical cookbook rather than an autobiography. I supposed Julia was simply writing in a style that she was comfortable with, but these more technical passages lessened some of the joy in the rest of the narrative.

This book is a must read for Julia Child fans. If you're interested in reading this because you enjoyed the film "Julie and Julia" I don't think you'll be disappointed with the original!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Keep Halloween Going a Little Longer with a Spooky Read--Sarah Waters' "The Little Stranger"

Happy November! This month officially kicks off my favorite time of the year--the holiday season. The only bad thing about the holidays--it cuts into my reading time!

In case you're in the mood to keep the fall and Halloween creepiness going a bit longer, today's review is from a gothic novel from Sarah Waters.

Sarah Waters' "The Little Stranger" is set in rural England in the years immediately following the Second World War. A country doctor, Faraday, is called to the isolated country house of the Ayres family to treat their maid. This simple and routine house call pulls Faraday into the peculiar world of the Ayres family. The Ayres' fortunes are not what they once were, and their great country estate, Hundreds, is falling down around them. Slowly, each member of the Ayres family becomes ill--either by a family mental illness or under the influence of an evil presence that is haunting the house. Faraday tries to save the family before the illness effects the Ayres' daughter Caroline, who he has become engaged to. Will Faraday be able to save the family and Hundreds before it's too late?

In the tradition of great Gothic novels, Waters paints a thoroughly creepy mystery in "The Little Stranger." Her portrayal of the Ayres family is excellent, as is the mental picture she gives her reader of Hundreds, the manor house past it's prime. My problem with this novel was the timing. Waters would build a sufficient amount of suspense and energy in her story, and then instead of sustaining it to build a truly great Gothic story, she would let the suspense fade and the pace of the novel would slow WAY DOWN. This unevenness made it really hard for me to remain engaged in this nearly 500 page book. I also found the ending and the characters other than Faraday disappointing.

If you're a big fan of Gothic novels I would recommend this book, but if you are only a casual fan, I recommend that you read something else.