Friday, July 29, 2016

Tracy Chevalier's "The Virgin Blue"

Since 1997 Tracy Chevalier has been writing historical fiction novels with strong foundational history bases through which the characters move. It is clear that author Tracy Chevalier and I share a love of art history. In the late 90s I read Chevalier's popular book Girl with a Pearl Earring, like most novel readers of that time, and with it I discovered the genre of historical fiction.

Set at the time of Johannes Vermeer, part of the narrative and part of the action of Girl with the Pearl Earring describes the delicacy and dedication it took to create both paint colors and canvas. Part of the action included the running of the household and the financing of Vermeer's work by sponsors and art patrons. Chevalier's love of history shone bright and clear in that novel and drew me in like a moth to the genre of historical fiction.

Since Girl with the Pearl Earring I have read dozens of historical fiction novels. Some are more based in real history than others while some are less history and more fiction. I prefer the very historical books. If you like the genre I can recommend three favorites that I've read in the recent year or two:  Benjamin Franklin's Bastard: A Novel by Sally Cabot, Losing Julia by Jonathan Hull, and  
Mr. Emerson's Wife by Amy Belding Brown. I have about a dozen more historical fiction books on my ereader that I haven't read yet but that I'm looking forward to.

In this book The Virgin Blue we follow two characters on parallel paths. Current-day American Ella Turner and 16th century peasant woman Isabelle du Moulin lead dual storylines, my favorite type of set up.  Ella Turner and her husband are temporarily living in France for her husband's work. Ella struggles to fit into the small French town they are living in and begins to bristle a bit at the edges. Being of French descent she begins to do some genealogy. During her research Ella begins to have nightmares of a red-haired woman wearing a blue cloth.

The second storyline with Isabelle, a hidden Catholic in a town of Heugonots, is accused of witchcraft and is generally a pariah in town. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew in Paris, the murder of thousands of French Protestants, Huguenots, in Paris beginning 24 August 1572, sends waves of persecution throughout France. Being a Catholic was...not good. The family Isabelle is forced to marry into is quite cruel, rigid, and very anti-Catholic. Isabelle and her daughter Marie, named after the Virgin, are treated cruelly, so cruelly that Ella of the 20th century feels the pain of their treatment.

Suffice it to say, religious persecution is not new. Although the book never uses the words ghost or reincarnation, the reader can't possibly get through the book without wondering if some sort of spiritual hanky-panky isn't at play

I can't use the words elegant or scholarly to describe this early Chevalier novel because it lacks grace, sophistication, and balance at certain points in the story, qualities that her later books possess. But this is an early book and the author does read as a diamond in the rough in this book and I can't help but wonder if I had read this book before reading later Chevalier books, if I would have loved it more by not having the comparison available to me.

My favorite quote by Tracy Chevalier: It's a rare book that wins the battle against the drooping eyelids. 

I absolutely adore the concept of taking a work of art, real historical events, and creating a story of dramatic human suffering and struggle. Chevalier is a master of this formula and I highly recommend her books. As for this book, I give is a high six stars out of ten.

My THANKS if you can help me figure out why Ella's eczema was mentioned so often.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Next Up: Tracy Chevalier

Were you among the many who were enamored with Tracy Chevalier's bestseller Girl With the Pearl Earring?

OH, with Girl With the Pearl Earring we were delightedly moved and transported to the time of Danish painter Johannes Vermeer and drawn into a beautiful historical fiction about that beautiful, enigmatic painting. For me that book was an introduction to the historical fiction genre'. I loved it. I didn't love the film, but I did like it.

What I loved about Chevalier's GWTPE was the history, the real history, in the book. How paints were created, Vermeer's life and family, Danish culture. It was wonderfully and richly written and I adored it. That is why I picked up my next book The Virgin Blue: A Novel by Tracy Chevalier. I've had it on the book table to read for a couple of years now. I'm finally giving it some attention.

The Virgin Blue: A Novel was written before GWTPE and was, therefore, written before the fanfare of that novel.That is noteworthy because that makes this book the original Chevalier historical fiction novel. I can assure you, the wealth of historical information in this book is very satisfying and worth a read; Tracy Chevalier really did her research for this one.

I saw several different book covers for this book, all of them beautiful, but I didn't see a single book cover with the painting of the actual inspiration for the book.
It is this one:

Check back in a day or two for my post on The Virgin Blue: A Novel.
I'm enjoying it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

And the Next Book, and the Next...

This post in an important and totally typically TMI post.:

I will probably never be fully satisfied with posts that I write about the books I read. I have an expectation for myself that my posts should be intellectually keen, surprisingly savvy, intuitive, insightful, or unique. I expect my own posts to display some intellectual depth, to exhibit my unique connections, or maybe to incite further interest or something. Not necessarily brilliant or slick, but unique.

But the truth is, when it comes time to write I go blank and I can think of nothing to say. Just like every other writer in the world, I guess. The truth is that much of the processing of novel reading happens over time. The book needs time to percolate, to make connection, to figure out meaning. In real life, sometimes I don't appreciate what I've read for months, it takes time to process.

I'm writing this post for two people.
For me.

For you.

I'm allowing myself to write posts that are, sometimes, less than they can be and I'm letting any readers know that any review or post here is simply thoughts of a moment in time. Probably an embryonic and premature moment in time.
But there you are.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Terry Tempest Williams: When Women Were Birds

It happened again; I found an amazing book. When I picked it up I had no idea it was such a treasure. And it wasn't.

When Women Were Birds:
Fifty-Four Variations
of Voice

By Terry Tempest Williams

I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won't look at them until after I'm gone.

This is what Terry Tempest Williams' mother told Terry just a week before she died. Terry's mother left her three shelves worth of personal journals. When Terry's mother died Terry discovered that the shelves of journals were all blank. This memoir is Terry's exploration of voice and what it means to have voice.

While I was reading I couldn't stop highlighting. The beautiful words, the contemplation, the questions, the poetry, the lyrical meditation on what it means that her mother's journals are empty, what it means to have a voice, what it means to find beauty in the world.

As it happens, we all have to fight for our voices, men and women. This book is a call to finding your own voice. You won't be able to help yourself. You will be drawn in for many of the fifty-four chapters and you will be grateful for it. Terry Tempest Williams truly has a voice worth listening to.

I highlighted hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of words in the first half of this book. Words, voice, speaking out. Terry Tempest Williams is a woman who learned that speaking out was essential, and so she spoke out in this beautiful book.

The beginning of the book, Tempest's writing is like poetry or prose. Lyrical and stunning and meaningful and personal, clean and pure, philosophical. It is like a delicious buffet of ideas and rich flavors. If only she had stuck with the subject of her lessons and relationship with her mother.

Somewhere part way through the entire feel of the book changed and I started wondering what I was reading. About half way through I realized that I was reading a memoir of a woman with an ecological message, and that she was trying to combine her  emotional processes of her relationship with her mother and the struggle to protect millions of Utah acres. This is when the confusion came for me...and when I realized that the book was a bit of a scrapbook. It became uneven, meandering, a bit too much. At times, I felt as if her voice veered off as the book would weave into pompous effluent feminist, ecological and political issues and falls just short of becoming too false to me. Although I personally agree with the some of her opinions (who wouldn't want to protect the beautiful topography of Utah) the writing loses it's compelling key. 

The cry for the National Parks in Utah almost killed the book for me, truly felt like an entirely separate book. But I stuck with it for the beautiful parts. And that is why I give this book a very strong seven stars.

Harper Lee: Go Set a Watchman


Starting a blog about my reading is presumptuous as hell because it seems as though I am saying that my thoughts and musing about my reading are so very readable. But I know that they are not. I know that my reading is rather mediocre and that my opinions and reviews about books are fairly pedestrian.

But I decided to do this blog anyway because sometimes I run across a remarkable book among the many stacks that is so worth sharing or that I simply need to talk about. That's why this blog exists. But this next book is not one of the remarkable books. It's a good one, but not remarkable.

While reading the book I was talking with a friend who expressed an opinion that surprised me, that Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is probably not a Great American Novel and that she doesn't support its being included in most high school required reading lists. I had to stop and think about that one.

So much happens in the world that we all just go along with, without question or with out questioning. Even though I like to think that I question question question, still reading TKAM was one of those thigs for me that I simply accepted as fact: To Kill a Mockingbird is a Great American Novel. In fact, my son is reading it right now for a high school reading book and he's enjoying it very much.

I guess I'll leave it up to you what you think about TKAM. I think I will always love it. It takes me back to my childhood (in the 60's) in a small town where things were slow, we were all generally innocent (read: we didn't question what was), and bad things and good things happened around us all of the time and we just lived with them.

Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015, though it was written in the 1950s, a draft that was written and rejected. It was not originally written as a sequel to TKAM but was an early draft written as a stand-alone novel. Although the events of the novel occur twenty years after those in TKAM, it is helpful to know that Go Set a Watchman was intended as a novel on its own. However, most of us of this era will always view the newer novel as a sequel because of the updating of characters' lives and because of the seeming resolution of Scout's move from young person to adult.

The book opens up as Scout returns to Maycomb after being in the Big City for about a decade, living on her own. Viewing the smaller town through her eyes is more than a right of passage, it is an eye-opener that almost everyone who has ever lived in a small town has experienced. Not surprisingly Scout has grown into a quick, smart, accomplished young woman.

She is still likable, Scout with her sharper edges. Visiting her aging father, Scout reminisces about absent people and important childhood events (Oh no, I'm not letting the cats out of the bags) as she struggles to figure out her relationship with her boyfriend, Henry Clinton, a reputable young lawyer in Atticus’s practice who hopes to marry Jean Louise one day.

Scout seems to be just about ready to enter into a commitment with Henry Clinton when she learns, to her shock and dismay, that Henry and Atticus are members of a Klan-like organization in Maycomb called the Maycomb County Citizens' Counsel, a group established after 
Brown v. Board of Education, designed to appear as a respectable organization for the good business people of Maycomb 
but is, truly, a means to empower those who support racial segregation. 

Scout makes this discovery, that her father openly supports community 
framework for racism, and it rocks her entire world.

I enjoyed it enough to finish it but not enough to recommend a read. It's not bad and worth a read if you are a fan of KTAM, if only to get further idea of what was in Harper Lee's mind when she wrote that book. Scout is likable and her struggle is relatable. I do feel as though some further processing could have gone on with Scout and between she and her father. As well as between she and Henry.

My favorite quote from the book comes from a conversation between Atticus and Henry; Atticus says: Don't push her. Let her go at her own speed. Push her and every mule in the county'd be easier to live with. For cutting Atticus down to an average man of his time, I give the book a zero. For some good and interesting writing that feels like a familiar and likable Scout in Maycomb, I give this book a six. Average that out and I give it three stars.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Next Up: Harper Lee

Last night I was doing some research on great new books to read and I've got a new list a mile long, well, half a mile long. In the meantime I'm on to my next book, a book that has been on the list for about a year.

I am a huge fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, especially Scout and Atticus. I think Go Set a Watchman is essentially about these two characters. I'm open to anything that comes my way. The reviews on the book in the beginning were quite mixed and I haven't heard much about the book since, so we'll see.

I'll be back soon; I'm already half way through.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Last Picture Show


Well, I didn't love it.

I've been a huge reader my entire life. As I was growing up Lonesome Dove was so popular, I think I might have been the only human being on the planet who didn't either read it in the 1970s or watch it in the 1980sm and that's why I randomly decided to give it a go.

The Last Picture Show is a story of the small town America, a coming-of-age story some would say. But I rather dislike the idea that growing up is a singular event in a book, UGH A Separate Peace and Catcher in the Rye, or maybe I fail to grasp the universality of the events typically depicted in such books. I admit it might be my own issue, the generally not appreciating this genre, the so-called coming-of-age novel. I don't think I have ever, ever liked a coming-of-age novel... (If  you're looking for a great coming-of-age book, though, try Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.

The major players in TLPS are Sonny, our hero, his best friend Duane, and Duane's girlfriend Jacy (Jack ee? or Jasey?) all living in the fictional Texas town called Thalia. As these three high school students navigate their own identities and their own sexual experience I found myself wondering if some of the things that they did were truly common among young teens or among teens living in a small town. Almost none of their experiences seemed to sync with my own teen years...except for the many questions and the much confusion about sexuality, the opposite sex, and the sense of self. Maybe I lived in a cave in high school...

So much of the sexual stuff described in the book might be considered sexually-deviant and appalling; it felt that way, even to me...and how square that sounds. But really, without giving away too much of the content of the book, I'm pretty sure you would agree with that. How realistic? Not very, I think. But I would describe many of the sex scenes as sad, sadistic, crass, humiliating, unappealing, cold, or impersonal. On the other hand, Sonny's confusion and questioning was very readable and relatable. Sonny's journey through the year portrayed in the novel is not a happy journey. From his unrequited love for the town flirt to the secret affair with a married woman, Sonny is bound to find unhappiness while living in Thalia.

The dry and dead town of Thalia, in my opinion, is also a character in the story because the failing little town suffocates each character it varying ways, causing them to act in painfully desperate ways. Perhaps Thalia's aridity and dead-ended-ness is what causes so many of its citizens to look to sex as a way out, as a way to feel something, as a way to connect, to find meaning, maybe to feel alive, though very little of the sex described in the book is life affirming. Interestingly, the ancient Greek goddess Thalia was the goddess of festivity and rich banquets and the Greek work thalia is an adjective used to describe banquets, meaning rich, plentiful, luxuriant, and abundant.

Only two of the characters in the book seemed to offer any wisdom or humanity to Sonny, to the town. Jacy's mother Lois, though also one who has found only pain in her sexuality, is clearer-eyed and strong enough to maintain her individuality among the small-minded small town bunch. She is truthful, even when it is painful. Mostly Lois seems to be an artifact of a time when Thalia was a thriving cattle town. 

The other minor character who seems to bring humanity and wisdom to Thalia is Sam the Lion, the man who operates the local billiard club. His behavior tends to be reserved, guided, in control, in stark contrast to every other adult in the book. The more we learn about Sam's life the more we recognize how unique he is in town. 

Seems like something needs to be said about the town flirt, Jacy, and her similarities with her mother, maybe a word about the ceaselessness of the town's decline and how that decline effects her, maybe something about the numbness Jacy feels that calls for extravagant behavior to feel alive, maybe a few words about the wastefulness of idle, wealthy teens, or perhaps something about the essential need for good role models. But I'm not saying it here.  ;) 

Summarily, as our teens change into young adults we see no growth or improvement in their sense of maturity or in their direction in life. In fact, the morbid fact of same old-same old leaves the reader with an overwhelming sense of depression at the continuation of squalor, painful and dead end life choices, and little opportunity presenting itself to our characters. Sorry to be blunt, but there it is.

Notable quote:  Anything gets boring if you do it enough.

I did not find McMurtry's writing to be compelling or deep or appealing at all, frankly. It is bloody unlikely I will ever pick up another McMurtry book ever, including Lonesome Dove.

I have to give this book three stars, mostly for some scenes where Sonny and Billy, a simple-minded townie, connect and also for a few scenes between Sonny and his best friend Duane.

  What did you think?  
  Did you like it?  

Monday, July 4, 2016

Next Up: The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

Turns out the author of The Last Picture Show also wrote Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment, and The Evening Star. I'm imagining two of my least favorite actresses: Cybil Sheppard and Shirley McClaine...yet I am still reading TLPS and I refuse to image Cybil as a character.

Up next, Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show , copyright 1966.

  Interested in reading along with me? 

Friday, July 1, 2016

Losing Julia


I'm one of those people who will approach a person in public if they are reading or prominently holding a book and I always will be. And this book is one of the reasons why I will always do that:

Losing Julia
by Jonathan Hull

I was at a restaurant and saw a woman about my age reading. When I asked her about her book she enthusiastically recommended it. In fact she could barely contain herself...and now I know why.

This book would probably be considered historical fiction for the wonderful attention to detail and historical continuity. WWI, and if you recall I read another book about WWI just a few weeks ago All the Light We Cannot See.  If you are anything like me, you will spend some time researching locations and historically accurate events from WWI. Thank you to Pinterest for so many revealing images of the war in Verdun, France and the Battle of the Somme. What a horrific place and time. And what, I ask you, WHAT makes one country decide to decimate the young men of their own AND of another country? WHAT is it all about?

So to tell about the book. Our main character Patrick opens up the book at the unveiling of a WWI memorial in Verdun France, the unveiling happening about ten years after the end of the war. At the ceremony he sees a woman who was the wife of his fallen friend, Daniel. Julia. 

The threads of story follow Patrick through the trenches of WWI, through the days following the unveiling of the war memorial, and well into his life at a retirement home in his older years. The times and storyline flow through the book in a most delightful way.

Books are quite sublime. I don't crease the corners. I don't write in them. I don't fold them back so far that the binding cracks. For this book I was grateful to be reading it on my ereader because I highlighted about a hundred different things. From sublime turns of phrase to riotously funny passages to things that I wanted to read up on to words that moved me.

When I review the words that I've highlighted on my ereader I discover that I have been the most moved by words that attempt to explain the inexorable changes of becoming old, losing yourself, losing connections, ultimately losing everything. But it's not a sad book, not really. In some ways Patrick is truly a heroic human; he is a man who examines his life with beautiful nostalgia, who is aware of that feeble quest for meaning in the intensity of passionate love, and who acknowledges the very human experience of knowing that our time is limited and still not living that one life to its fullest or not making the choices that one longs to make. He is a man who survived the horrific trenches in France during WWI and who discovers, ultimately, that those years in France never really leave him.

I actually feel that the more I attempt to describe the book the more I diminish it. Instead allow me to describe my own experience of the reading.

Perhaps being in my fifties has made me more aware of the passing of time, of the places in life where one makes decisions that direct our course, of the echoes and shadows of past the live with one each day, and of how that passing of time begins to feel a bit cruel at times. I'm fairly certain this book would have been different for me had I read it twenty, or even ten, years ago. I can't recall ever feeling so connected to an elderly character as I did to the elderly Patrick. His remembering and observing and attempts to figure out meaning would hit me in the heart at the same a time that they made me laugh.

Surely dark, sad, war torn, but ultimately hopeful and richly beautiful. Jonathan Hull has written a truly moving story of one man's search for meaning, and because of his ability to write beautiful words I have already downloaded another book by him called The Devoted. Also, if I ever see the woman at Panera Bread Co. reading her book again, I'll be sure to get another recommendation. 

I give this book 9 out of 10 stars because something has to be better...
It's about as good as a book can get.