Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Book Reviews March 2015

George Eliot: A Life by Rosemary Ashton.  In my opinion, there is nothing better than a good Victorian biography, and this one by Rosemary Ashton is a specimen of excellence.  I wanted to read a more traditional George Eliot biography after reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, and this was one she recommended, so I put it on my Christmas list and received a lovely jacketed copy (thanks, Mom & Dad!).  I then proceeded to read one chapter on Saturday and Sundays during Owen’s naptime – if indeed there was a naptime – and looked forward to it all week.  It’s the perfect blend of Eliot’s life and work, and was very respectful of Eliot and Lewes, and fair.  As a good biography of a writer should, it made me want to re-read those books of Eliot’s I’m familiar with, and read the few I’m not.  Eliot herself was an interesting blend of progressive and conservative.  She was intellectually progressive, of course, but her living a “married” life with an already-married man made her conservative in political gesture.  That is, since her status kept some men from bringing their own wives to visit her, she was hesitant to rock the boat except in her writing.  I think Middlemarch is close to perfection and this biography of its writer a gem.

Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller.  This is Alexandra Fuller’s third memoir, and I have very much enjoyed all three.  Whereas Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs Tonightwas about her parents and her childhood in Africa, and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness was more about her mother, Leaving Before The Rains Come is about the slow dissolution of Fuller’s own marriage, while also concentrating a lot on her father and the advice he has given to her over the years.  After spending her first 23 years in Africa on the various farms her English and Scottish parents try to make a go of, Fuller marries an American and moves to the US with him, eventually settling in Wyoming with their children.  Fuller seems very intense, which is contrasted with her now ex-husband’s normalcy.  And the husband doesn’t come off looking so good.  But on the whole it is a very well-written (a great use of language) and sad story of two people who are a really bad fit.  Fuller repeatedly refers back to her whirlwind of a childhood, and creates what seems to me a very honest and compelling portrait of how there got her to here, and how she is trying now, post-marriage, to live her beliefs. 

Exile by Denise Mina.  This was the second book in Mina’s Garnethill trilogy and my review of it is mixed.  I still plan on reading the third – and I’m still interested in reading Mina’s other books – but reading this one was a bit of a slog.  Basically, when the book begins Maureen is working at the women’s shelter where her friend, Leslie, also works.  A woman who had stayed there gets killed down in London, and Maureen then goes to London to solve the crime.  While in London, she very much misses Glasgow – and thus the “exile” of the title.  The writing on the whole is good, and I still like Maureen, but to be honest, I find her drinking problem stressful.  She is an alcoholic and is always drinking too much whiskey and then doing things that are dangerous because of her relaxed inhibitions.  She goes into the apartments of drug dealers she doesn’t know, and gets beaten frequently.  I’ve started the third novel already to get closure, and I’m hoping that in it Maureen finds some peace!  I can’t take much more of this!

My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.  I am very fond of a food memoir with recipes, and this is a great one.  Weiss grew up in Berlin and Brookline, MA, with her divorced American math professor father and Italian journalist mother.  She lived in Berlin until the divorce at age 4, and then lived primarily in Brookline with her father, but spent her summers and holidays in Berlin (and Italy) with her mother.  Her childhood seemed rather lonely, since she was of and not of three cultures, and she often turned to cooking, and to cooking the food of the place she was missing.  In her (very) early twenties (seriously, this woman lived a lifetime by the time she was 30, in a way that makes me quite jealous), she put her love of reading and food to use as a successful cookbook editor in New York City.  In 2005, she started a blog which she called The Wednesday Chef, since the main focus of the blog was to try out the recipes she had clipped over the years from the New York Times food section on Wednesdays.  She had a fiancé who didn’t like to travel, and eventually she realizes that staying with him would mean choosing to be just a small part of who she is.  So she rekindles a previous relationship with a Berliner, and returns to Berlin with a book contract of her own, and sets about to cook.  She’s a good writer and leads a calm yet fascinating life.  And the recipes!  I have a long list of ones I plan to try, beginning, perhaps, with the seven-hour ragu.  I recommend this book highly—in ways I can’t quite put my finger on, it is an inspiring tale.  At the very least, it will make you hungry.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.  This is a very cute read, and I’m not using that term pejoratively in this instance.  The narrator, Don, is a genetics professor who has Aspergers but doesn’t really know it.  He does know that he sees the world differently from other people, and that he has to very consciously decide how to respond correctly in social situations.  He’s 39 when the book begins and decides that he will try again to find a wife, and so begins The Wife Project, involving a long questionnaire for women to fill out if they are interested in dating him.  Towards the beginning of the project, he meets Rosie, who is on a hunt to find her biological father; Don starts helping her with her Father Project, as he calls it.  It’s very funny and very easy to imagine as a movie (in fact, it was originally a screenplay before being turned into a novel).  I found it a bit slow at the start, but then very enjoyable as the story progresses.  Don is unwittingly hilarious in his rigidity, yet he is not unwilling to learn new things and tries his best to make sense of a world he can’t quite understand.  It is a fun book.

Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres.  This book made its way to my kindle via two interviews I read over the past few years with the actress Emma Thompson:  in both, she stated that Corelli’s Mandolin was the only book she’s read that made her cry.  I was intrigued!  So knowing only that, I began the novel with tissues at the ready.  And reader, I did not cry.  But I very much enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book.  De Bernieres has an excellent sense of humor – I laughed often and merrily.  The book takes place on the island of Cephalonia in Greece during World War II.  The island was eventually invaded by the Italians under Mussolini, and then the Germans, and then became occupied (and perhaps treated the worst) by Greek Communists.  Anyway, the story focuses first on an erudite and humorous doctor who lives with his daughter, Pelagia, a young woman.  The doctor is an amateur historian and is always working on histories of the island, which are in the book, and which more often than not get eaten by Pelagia’s goat.  Pelagia follows in her father’s footsteps and learns from him all his medical knowledge.  We also get the narrative point of view of an Italian soldier, who barely survives the Albanian campaign before getting transferred to Cephalonia.  Before long, Antonio Corelli, an honorable captain in the Italian army, and a musician, gets billeted at the doctor’s cottage, and a friendship and romance begins.  As I said above, I really enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book.  All the characters are very well done and the writing is witty; he tells a good story.  My problem with it is that he didn’t know when to stop writing, so the story goes on and on and on until all the characters are in their eighties in the 1990’s.  We just didn’t need to know all that and it could have been left to our imaginations.  Plus there is one really annoying and cheap-trick plot twist which we learn at the end, and almost ruined the entire book for me.  I shook my fist; I did not cry.

Resolution by Denise Mina.  This is the third book in Mina’s Garnethill trilogy, and unlike the second one, I liked this one very much.  It is partly a more satisfying read because it is back to dealing with the original mystery begun in the first book, and a lot of the plot gets wrapped up.  It’s also better because the main character, Maureen, begins to try to stop the downward spiral that took over the second book.  She still causes a few fights, and still gets in a lot of trouble, but she is once again admirable with her blunt speech and her insistence on sticking up for the underdog.  I read in a review of Mina’s work in general that “Her novels explore feminist themes in a radical way” and that she on purpose writes female characters who do the work and solve the crimes themselves.  Mina herself seems quite interesting – she went to law school later in life and then taught criminology in Glasgow.  She’s also a big graphics novel aficionado, and did the graphics novel version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series.  Interesting, no?  Anyway, this third book was a success and a good read.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.  You will read this slowly, because it is lobster and chocolate cake – a rich feast that takes time to digest.  You’ll read of how the sudden death of Helen Macdonald’s father and the grief she felt caused her, a former falconer, and current birdwatcher, nature writer, poet, instructor, to buy a baby goshawk to tame and train and allow to hunt.  You’ll be amazed at the vocabulary used in each sentence, and how specific is the language of hawking.  You will shudder, however, at the amount of rabbits a hawk can kill and how it delights in the killing.  But it is all so evocative and clearly drawn and exquisitely seen.  You’ll find the T.H. White parts a little tiresome, since it turns out White (of Once and Future King fame) was a rather odious man – but the comparison she makes between White’s trial and error and her own more knowledgeable approach is interesting.  You are glad the hawk is in her capable hands.  You will wonder why as a six year old you didn’t clamor after your own falcon or goshawk, and learn to make jesses and small leather hoods to turn day into night.  You take a moment to reflect upon how you’ve wasted your life.  But Macdonald’s writing is so satisfying that reading the book and her tales of Mabel (the goshawk) become an act of forgiveness and a renewal.  And you will read these sentences slowly, and savor them, and let your thoughts go where the sentences take them, and you will be very very pleased. 

& Sons by David Gilbert.  If I had written a review of this book when I was halfway through reading it, I would have started with:  “If you want to read about a bunch of jerks, then this is the novel for you.”  There are five narrators, more or less, and I only liked one of them (the 17 year-old boy).  The other main characters – a Salinger-esque writer, A. N. Dyer, his two sons, and the son of his childhood friend – are all very flawed and unlikeable, although this does seem to be the author’s intent.  (There are no main female characters at all – just, of course, an ex-wife, a maid and nanny, and a few girlfriends, sigh.)  However, in the second half of the book, Gilbert’s really excellent and witty writing more or less won me over, or at least led me to forgive him some of his trespasses.  I got this novel after reading a very good review of it in The New Yorker, and he is definitely a really talented writer – I laughed often at his phrasing, and with one exception the overall structure of the plot with its layers of quotations from the books of A.N. Dyer and letters, etc. was very clever.  One thing that does not work is that throughout the novel, the son of the childhood friend, Philip Topping, is sort of the uber-narrator, so that even when you think you’re seeing things from the viewpoint of one of the sons, say, it is really the viewpoint of the sons via Philip.  I get why Gilbert did this structurally (A. N. Dyer used Philip’s father as a character in his most famous novel, and not very sympathetically, so now Topping’s son gets to tell the story of the Dyers), but it often was confusing:  you’d be in someone’s head and then all of a sudden Philip would start talking and it would take me a while to figure out who was saying what.  So:  a very witty novel, impressive writing, yet the story of a bunch of not very likeable men.

In contrast, here's a likeable man:


Judith Ross said...

Oh why oh why, can't I get all the way through Middlemarch? I know Dorothea Brooke is an amazing character. I want to, I have tried, yet I cannot read the whole thing. Just stamp the word 'loser' on my forehead.

Similarly, I have had trouble finishing Alexandra Fuller's memoirs. I picked up her latest with high hopes, but again, gave up. In this case, however, I think the description of her slightly crazed family hit a little too close to home for me.

And YES to My Berlin Kitchen and everything you said about Luisa Weiss. And also YES to H Is for Hawk, which I am still reading and savoring -- it inspires me to be a better writer as well as helping me think about my relationship with my own father, who died 14 years ago. I don't think you met him, but you sure may have heard about him.

Elizabeth said...

Maybe Middlemarch just isn't your thing, Judith! I admit to remaining unmoved by Dickens (so far; I always think that eventually I'll like him), and finishing War & Peace and thinking: was that all there is? (And thus haven't been able to even start Anna Karenina.) Perhaps one day.

I first read Middlemarch in grad school and our professor had us read an article which talked about how most novels end with a happily ever after, whereas Middlemarch started with the happily ever after, and showed how it wasn't so happy. And for some reason this made me very enthused about the book!

But perhaps you should just go watch the masterpiece theater version from 1994 (with Rufus Sewell!). I really liked that version.

And I agree that reading Alexandra Fuller can be a bit tense: it's a wonder she survived.

I didn't meet your dad but I remember you talking about him and your stepmom (Edith?). H Is For Hawk was really so impressive. You can see how Macdonald had so much knowledge behind every single sentence. I hope she writes more!

Elisabeth Ellington said...

H Is For Hawk is sitting here on my shelf looking at me and wanting to be read. I do like a very slow, savory kind of read before bed, so perhaps I will start reading it soon. I've been wanting to reread Middlemarch for years. Maybe someday? I find it quite difficult to reread when there are so many books to read for the first time. I'm quite interested in My Berlin Kitchen.That seven-hour ragu sounds like something I need to cook. (Especially if it involves five minutes of prep before you throw it in the oven for seven hours.) I still need to read Fuller's 2nd memoir. I did love her 1st book very much.

Patience_Crabstick said...

I have added the George Eliot biography and My Berlin Kitchen to my reading list. I was going to add H is for Hawk, but I found it was already there!