Archive for category Books
The Engagements by J.Courtney Sullivan. Publisher: Knopf (June 2013). Fiction. Hardcover. 400 pages. ISBN13: 9780307958716.
In the mid-40s a young female copywriter created that now well-worn saying “A Diamond is Forever” for a De Beers advertising campaign. Frances Gerety worked in the copy department of N.W. Ayer and Son among mostly men, never married and for the most part enjoyed her independent lifestyle. At the time, women in advertising worked on “women’s products” and provided the “women’s perspective” to particular clients [think about when Peggy on Mad Men gets called on for her opinions on lipstick or home cleaning products instead of airlines and cars]. Author Courtney Sullivan writes: “Others treated her like an exotic pet—a woman of forty, who worked alongside their husbands, with no apparent interest in a husband or children of her own.” I’d like to read an entire book about Frances Gerety.
Sullivan weaves Gerety’s story among those of four couples to illustrate love, marriage, commitment. Engagements, marriage, big wedding extravaganzas don’t interest me. I abhor diamond rings and would never wear one. Think about the suffering and wars fought in order for women to wear something that symbolizes their desirability. Wedding and engagement rings symbolize societal expectations, status and possession. People marry for varied reasons: love (of course); companionship; financial security; fear to be alone; to have a family and check off the societal expectations to-do list. The novel’s strength lies in its feminist meditation on relationships.
Wealthy, near-retirement Evelyn and Gerald met during college in the late 1920s–he a Harvard student from a wealthy family, she a Wellesley scholarship student. Gerald’s best friend, also Evelyn’s first husband, who died in WWII connects them. Financially struggling Sheila and James married when Sheila became pregnant. Sullivan writes: “Her friends, who she had felt so superior to back then, had seen their average-looking husbands grown into men with money and power, the sort of guys who took them to the Bahamas for an anniversary, or out to dinner in town every Friday night. And what did Sheila have? The formerly handsome teenager who failed to live up to his potential.”
Parisian Delphine married her friend and much-older business partner Henri, settling into a comfortable, passionless marriage that pushes her toward an affair. Describing Delphine, Sullivan writes: “It was absurd that she had not had a boyfriend to speak of since university, and that boyfriend was now married with two children, and living in a vineyard in Bordeaux, while she still managed to get her heart broken every year or so; she was a hopeless romantic with a taste for unkind men. It was absurd that she was thirty-three and yet still unsure about what to do with her life.”
Kate and her husband live together with their daughter and not intention to marry. Of Kate, Sullivan writes: “She hated the way a bride would raise up her bouquet in victory after saying “I do,” as if she had just accomplished something. She hated that even normal-sized women dieted for their weddings they looked like bobble-head versions of themselves. She hated all the money thrown into some dark hole, when it could have been put to good use in a million other ways.”
The novel zigzags back and forth through time various time frames as well as from couple to couple. The time shifts could be smoother. I found myself looking back to the beginning of chapters to recall which decade I was in when it should be obvious. When a few characters finally interact it’s rather choppy. It gets a tad confusing with so many characters but there’s a character for every reader. For me, I appreciated Kate as well as Delphine.
Sullivan excels at creating vivid characters and situations which engulf readers from page to page. Her writing reflects hot button topics– gay marriage, feminism, blood diamonds, cohabitation, affairs– in a smart manner without alienating anyone. It’s a well-written, thoughtful and engaging read.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Random House.
Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende. Publisher: Harper (2013). Fiction. Hardcover. 400 pages. ISBN 9780062105622.
Isabel Allende novels engulf you with impressive stories rooted in Chilean customs. With its present day setting, her latest novel could be considered a departure. The novel commences with 19-year-old Maya sent into exile by her grandmother to Chiloe, an island off Chile’s southern coast . Her grandmother and step-grandfather raised her in the liberal enclave of Berkeley, California. Her Scandinavian mom took off early in her life and her Chilean father, a pilot, wasn’t around much. Maya falls into a terrible drug-fueled scene when her grandfather, an African-American astronomer, dies. Allende writes about drug use and abject despair as magnificently as she writes about Chilean landscapes.
“Exasperated, insane, I waited eternal seconds until the rocks burned to the color of wax, with the tube burning my fingers and my lips, and finally they broke and I deeply breathed in the redeeming cloud, the sweet fragrance of mentholated gasoline, and then the unease and premonitions disappeared and I rose to glory, light, graceful, a bird in the wind. For a brief time I felt euphoric, invincible, but soon I came down with a band in the semidarkness of that room.”
After escaping from the rehab facility, she finds herself deeply involved in a dangerous drug scene in Las Vegas. Once her grandmother rescues her and sends her away, Maya has ample time to discover her innermost strength while in the isolated community. Given a notebook by her grandmother on her departure, Maya contemplates the harrowing past few months and her journey to bring her shattered soul back together. Maya’s Notebook is yet another beguiling, contemplative novel from one of my favorite authors.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.
The engaging new novel from author Erika Robuck, CALL ME ZELDA, illuminates the fascinating and complicated Zelda Fitzgerald. Married to F. Scott Fitzgerald and a party girl in the 1920s, Zelda fought mental illness and thwarted creative endevours. See my review. Currently on a book tour, Erika took the time to answer a few questions.
Amy Steele: Why did you decide to write about Zelda Fitzgerald?
Erika Robuck: My research on Ernest Hemingway for my last novel, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL, led me to Zelda. His dislike of her intrigued me, so I wanted to find out about her for myself.
Amy Steele: What interests you about the women involved with well-known writers?
Erika Robuck: I’m curious about spouses who support and endure their artistic partners. It takes a special person to marry a creative man or woman, and the experiences in the relationship often shape or inform the work. It is what comes from that intimacy that fascinates me.
Amy Steele: Do you think Zelda truly had an untreated or misdiagnosed mental illness or do you think the relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald pushed her to a breakdown?
Erika Robuck: I think it was a combination of factors. Scott’s alcoholism and Zelda’s place in history as a woman had something to do with her troubles, but from hearing voices, to vision issues, to suicide attempts, to family members’ suicides, there is compelling evidence that she did have mental illness. Contemporary psychiatrists say she may have been bipolar or manic depressive.
Amy Steele: Sometimes it seems in the novel that you place blame on Scott and not a chemical imbalance. What type of research about her condition did you find or complete?
Erika Robuck: I hoped to show that he aggravated her symptoms, but I do not wish to imply that he is the cause of her illness. The two of them were toxic for each other, but still had enormous love and loyalty for the other.
What most informed my portrayal of Zelda were the Fitzgerald papers at Princeton University: Zelda’s medical records, journals, letters, and various other documents were essential to my understanding of the Fitzgeralds at that time and place.
Amy Steele: How did Scott hinder Zelda’s treatment?
Erika Robuck: This is a hard question. He worked himself to death to keep her well cared for in reputable psychiatric clinics, and clearly loved her. That said, physicians’ requests to him to curb his drinking were resented or unheeded, he thwarted her attempts at creative expression at times, and could be abusive. It seemed to be a classic co-dependent relationship.
Amy Steele: How did Zelda and Scott go from being such a celebrated and popular couple to becoming so unhinged and insolvent?
Erika Robuck: Like any celebrity couple who indulges in excess, the party has to end at some point. Zelda’s mental collapse corresponded with the economic crash and depression. Scott’s stories about the problems of the rich went out of fashion as families struggled to feed their children. Scott’s alcoholism and Zelda’s increasingly troubling mental episodes hindered their ability to recover.
Amy Steele: Why did you want the narrator of CALL ME ZELDA to be a psychiatric nurse?
Erika Robuck: I needed a character who would be intimately connected to the Fitzgeralds, and I kept noticing the reference to nurses as companions and escorts. Zelda didn’t have many close female friends but formed strong attachments to some of her nurses, so it seemed like the most natural choice for a narrator.
Amy Steele: How did Anna’s tragic life help you tell Zelda’s story?
Erika Robuck: I needed a nurse who would bond with Zelda more than her other patients, so there had to be a deeper connection. That connection came through loss of a husband and daughter—one from mental illness, the other from the war. I wanted my character, however, to bring redemption to the story. Scott and Zelda’s story is so tragic, I needed balance.
Amy Steele: What do you like about writing historical fiction?
Erika Robuck: Reading and writing historical fiction is my passion. The greatest challenge is remaining faithful to historic timelines while weaving in the stories of my fictional characters. I love experiencing history through the emotions of compelling characters. It’s what I hope to bring to readers.
Sunday, June 9, 3pm, Concord Bookshop, Concord, MA
Monday, June 10, 7 pm, River Run Bookstore, NH
Thursday, June 13, 7 pm, Common Good Books, MN
Saturday, September 7, 11-2:30 pm, Author Reception hosted by the Metastatic Breast Cancer Assoc.
Thursday, September 26, 7 pm, Broadneck Library, MD
Tuesday, October 8, 10 am, Linthicum Women’s Association, MD
Tuesday, October 15, 10 am, Crofton Library Book Club, MD
The Woman Upstairs
Friday, June 7at 7pm
The Concord Bookshop
Call Me Zelda
Sunday, June 9 at 3pm
The Concord Bookshop
Lies About My Family: a memoir
Wednesday, June 12 at 7pm
Harvard Book Store
J. Courtney Sullivan
Friday, June 14 at 7pm
Note to Self
Monday, June 17 at 7pm
Wednesday, June 19 at 7pm
Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Interdependent Self
Wednesday, June 19 at 7pm
Porter Square Books
Thursday, June 20 at 7pm
TransAtlantic: a novel
Tuesday, June 25 at 6pm
Brattle Theatre (Harvard Book Store)
What My Mother Gave Me edited by Elizabeth Benedict. Publisher: Algonquin (2013). Essays. Trade paperback. 289 pages. ISBN 978-1-61620-135-7.
Mother-daughter relationships wrought with anguish, endearment, benevolence, resentment. In this essay collection, women write about their mothers with honesty, humor, empathy and depth. What did these gifts mean? What lessons did these women learn from their mothers? How have these gifts influenced them? Contributors include best-selling novelists, a U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winners, NPR commentators and winners of the National Book Award. Maud Newton got books. Jean Hanff Korelitz’s mom gave her Sylvia Plath. Mary Gordon received a Circle Line boat trip. Mameve Medwed’s mother gave her a door. Joyce Carol Oates’s mother gave her a quilt. Lisa See’s mother gave her writing. Elizabeth Benedict’s mother gave her a scarf. It works either to dip into here and there or read from cover to cover.
Maud Newton: “I was expected to be a prodigy of some kind. My parents had married, my mother told me, not for love but because they believed they would have smart children together.”
Jean Hanff Korelitz: “I was adolescent (still), poetic, moody, feminist, and – it went without saying—misunderstood. It was only a matter of time before I fell beneath the sway of a certain strain of lyrical intensity, a white-hot declaration of brilliance and femaleness and power. The verse, in other words, was already on the wall.”
Mary Gordon: “And so, I have come to understand why she never got me presents, and this failure was the objective correlative of her inability to give me any useful guidance on a good way of being a woman. This, too, has been a cause for generous lashings of self-pity when I drink the hemlock of deprivation and regret for what I have not had, or what I had to earn or win myself, through luck or labor.”
Joyce Carol Oates: “After my mother died in 2003, for a long time I would imagine her with me, in my study in particular, though imagine is perhaps a weak word to describe how keenly I felt Mom’s presence. In writing the novel Missing Mom, I tried to evoke Carolina Oates—well, I’m sure that I did evoke her, not fully or completely but in part. Mom is so much a part of myself, writing the novel was the antithesis of an exorcism, a portrait in words of a remarkable person whom everyone loved.”
Lisa See: “She’d shown me that to be a woman, a mother, or a writer I must sacrifice, show courage, and be loyal. I must look for those authentic emotions. I can never give up or bow to people who tell me that I can’t write because I’m a woman, that no one cares what I have to say, or that I’m worthless.”
Elizabeth Benedict: “I kept my distance from both of them. I moved to California and changed my name, had a ton of therapy, moved back East, wrote several novels that were—beneath a kind of surface of glitter and glibness—fundamentally about women who had a hard time expressing their deepest feelings.”
I received this book for review from Algonquin Books.
No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood edited by Henriette Mantel. Publisher: Seal Press (2013). Essays. Trade paperback. 248 pages. ISBN 978-1-58005-443-0.
As with many essay collections, these selections present a mixed bag of experiences, memories and opinions. I was disappointed by No Kidding. Many writers, most of them comedians or working in television/entertainment industry in some capacity, were unknown to me. Choosing not to have children, not to marry, not to follow societal norms pushes someone to the fringes. When women get to that certain age, people expect women to be wanting children or wanting a family life. There are plenty of women [and men] who make enlightened and personal decisions not to have children. This shouldn’t make them outcasts. Most of the essays were standard, predictable fare. These women stressed how successful they’ve been career-wise. Couldn’t be possible they say. Few essayists said that either way, children weren’t for them. That probably takes the most guts to do. Writing about being too busy to do something or not getting around to it because you’re too busy with a career makes the sharing easier. I’ve known I didn’t want children since I was 12! The best piece and one I could most relate to as someone who chose not to have children: “The Plus of Child-Less” by Cheryl Bricker.
“I consciously decided early on (seriously . . . like preteen) that I had other priorities for my future and that adding children to the mix would be impractical and, quite frankly, undesirable. I was never great at fulfilling societal expectations.” –Cheryl Bricker
A few other thoughts on not having children:
“I have pushed a lot of things in my life, but I never pushed having children. Partly because I could never imagine raising a child alone and partly because my choices in men have always been just this side of serial killers. But most of all, I never had the gotta-have-a-baby visceral craving that ruled so many of my friends.” –Henriette Mantel
“Jack never explained why he refused to believe I didn’t want kids. Perhaps, like many people, he assumed that if you had estrogen coursing through your body, you would naturally want to own a Baby Bjorn.” –Bonnie Datt
“I no longer believe that everyone who is married has fallen in love, or even wanted to.” –Laurie Graff
“Like many women who gave up their careers to have children, I basically gave up my children for my career, and by “gave up my children for my career,” I mean “didn’t really entertain the thought of having them.” I was too busy entertaining—telling jokes—sometimes about just this topic, laughing with others instead of crying alone.” –Wendy Liebman
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Seal Press.
The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan [Random House, 2013]– feminist meditation on relationships, engagements, marriage
The Innocence Game by Michael Harvey 
What My Mother Gave Me: essays edited by Elizabeth Benedict [Algonquin, 2013]
Crazy Enough by Storm Large
Sight Reading by Daphne Kalotay—musicians in Boston. Well-written but I’m not terribly invested. Halfway through and could easily stop reading.
The Killer Wore Leather by Laura Antoniou—sharp, funny murder-mystery set at a BDSM event.
in the TBR pile:
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
–I must read more classics and more books on my shelves.
The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
hosted by hosted by Sheila at Book Journey
In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler. Publisher: Metropolitan Books (2013). Memoir. Hardcover. 240 pages. ISBN 978-0-8050-9518-0.
Eve Ensler has long been an advocate for women and women’s bodies. Traveling around the world, she’s empowering women to speak about themselves and value their bodies. Ensler founded V-Day—a global movement to end violence against women and girls. She wrote the award-winning The Vagina Monologues and The Good Body. Ensler writes about cancer in a beautiful, compassionate style that connects her body to the earth and connects her healing process to her plans to help other women to heal. She divides the memoir into scans of her body correlating with her experience creating a learning center/sanctuary for women in the Congo.
As one might expect when someone’s fighting off an aggressive cancer– surgeons removed seventy nodes, fallopian tubes, cervix, ovaries, sections of colon, uterus, rectum and part of her vagina—there are high and low moments. Humor. Love. Giving. Beauty. Anger. Loneliness. Regret. Sometimes this reads like a stream of consciousness diary. She’s extremely candid about uterine cancer and every aspect of her treatment process—from surgery to getting a buzz cut to having a central port line placed to chemotherapy to being surrounded by loved ones to being alone and scared.
“I am a pool of pus on a couch. I have two bags now: One drains the abscess, the other, poop. The infection and the antibiotics and Xanax have made me weak and I have lost my appetite.”
Not only is this a memoir in which a strong women shares her personal journey back from the worst possible experience but it’s a battle cry. It’s an urging to be involved in the community, to do more, to be impassioned, to speak up, to dare, to help others and to be the change within. It will move you beyond anything. I cried when I finished reading it.
“And those of you who can live without will survive. Those of you who can be naked, without a bank account, a known future, or even a place to call home. Those of you who can live without and find your meaning here, here, wherever here is. Knowing the only destination is change. The only port is where we are going. The second wind may take what you think you need or want the most, and what you lost and how you lost it will determine if you survive.”
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Henry Holt.
Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck [NAL, 2013]–****
In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler [Metropolitan, 2013]–*****
re-read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald– read along with One Literature Nut (Becky). will see the film tomorrow!
hosted by hosted by Sheila at Book Journey
Becky at One Literature Nut has done a fabulous job with this Read Along.
Here are the final questions for Ch. 7 through the end of the novel:
What do you think happened to Daisy after the “accident” with Myrtle? What conversation do you think happened between she and Tom?
Was the laser-point focus of Gatsby his own sick fault, or did he ever have a real chance with Daisy? Could they have ever had a life?
What is it about the past that we somehow can never escape it or relive it? Or can we actually relive parts of it, and so that gives us some sick hope?
What most stood out to you in these final chapters?
What do you most look forward to seeing in the film?
Gatsby couldn’t escape the fact that he’d been poor and someone else in the society he now entertained. Daisy would never date James Gatz. She’s now settled in her rich life with Tom and even if she’s unhappy with Tom’s dalliances, she’s not going to be with someone who reinvented himself. As cool as Gatsby now is, Daisy cannot accept him. What can’t we often escape about the past? Or former selves. Our regrets. As far as we get. As well as we go, there’s always someone from the past who wants to remind us from whence we came and who wants to take us down.
“He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was . . .” [pg. 110]
love this line:
“Human sympathy had its limits, and we were content to let all their tragic arguments fade with the city lights behind. Thirty–the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.” [p. 135]
You have to feel some empathy for Gatsby and his lack of pedigree in competing for Daisy’s affections with the likes of Tom Buchanan. Maybe things might have worked out for the two of them but Daisy doesn’t seem the type to stick with a guy through thick and thin. She’s about the glitz and glamor. She’s not in it for the long haul, the bad times, merely the good. “he let her believe that he was a person from much the same stratum as herself–that he was fully able to take care of her. As a matter of fact, he had no such facilities–he had not comfortable family standing behind him, and he was liable at the whim of an impersonal government to be blown anywhere about the world.” [p. 149]
Can’t believe that Nick turns out to be as bad as the rest of them. He tells Gatsby: “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” He then says: “It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.” [p. 154] They seemed to become good friends but I guess we knew Nick wasn’t extremely fond of Gatsby’s ways and he certainly didn’t fawn over him like many others.
Haven’t had a chance to see the film yet. Will see it on Tuesday. Looking forward to the costumes, the party scenes, Leo DiCaprio and Tobey MacGuire and like Baz Luhrman. Not wild about Carey Mulligan.