25 August 2008

Books! 2008 (so far)

I know I haven't done a book review post in ages. Does that mean I'm not reading? Hardly! I simply relegated my reviews to Library Thing, the site where I keep record of all the books I've owned. So, through the miracle of cut & paste technology, here are some of the reviews I've posted there:

Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners… by Laura Claridge

My idea of Emily Post had in the past been of a stiff, exacting, grey woman, who shouts "elbows off the table!" when you thought you could relax. (I guess it's been a while since I actually peered into her books). Laura Claridge's biography of the etiquette expert set me straight.

Through this book I was taken through the charmed life of the daughter of a hard-working architect (and throughout the telling of his story I found myself saying out loud: he designed THAT? wow), and into a world where breeding was everything, and new money was tolerated condescendingly. I wondered how a girl surrounded by calling cards and debutante balls would become the "mistress of manners" for the everyday reader.

Though it is true that Emily Post never had to experience poverty first hand, her life certainly did go through changes that took massive adjustments in her life, all of which she faced with grace. A public and embarrassing divorce was the turning point. Emily Post started to focus on writing, thus becoming a career woman of sorts. Though her novels were only moderately successful, she showed an ability to adapt to a modernizing society, with its breakdown of class and rigid Victorian structures. With an industriousness learned from her father, along with a combination of a Southern and New York upbringing, she eventually reinvented herself as the most well-known etiquette writer to this day; an architect of manners.

Claridge's writing was well paced and enjoyable. She seemed to be pleased with her subject, while neither gushing about her abilities or harping on her faults. Altogether, it's well balanced. I also found it pleasantly informative about one of the most intriguing time periods in American history. A welcome subject for a life story, I am both glad it was written and surprised at the dearth of biographies about such an important woman of the past century.

Cassandra and Jane: A Jane Austen Novel (Jane Austen)… by Jill Pitkeathley

I tend to be wary of Jane Austen fiction not actually written by Jane Austen. Fan fiction is usually outright disappointing, and I'd prefer to reread Sense and Sensibility or Persuasion instead. Still, when I found Cassandra and Jane, I decided to give it a go, as I'm a big fan of sister relationships.

I enjoyed it, in a sort of historical novel way. Thankfully Pitkeathley does not overdramatize the romantic relationship both sisters were involved in, though I believe she did imagine one courtship of Jane's that I am not familar with. Though at times Jane's sharp wit and slight bitterness are underscored more than I'd like, it's not really out of harmony with what small information we do have about Jane Austen.

Though obviously the main character of the story is Jane Austen, it is narrated from Cassandra's point of view (who history knows even less about though she outlived Jane by decades). Cassandra seems to hold Jane in awe, though tempering this with some jealousy from time to time. This makes her seem more human, I think,than the docile patient sister whose only known life drama of her own was the death of a fiancee.

As a massive Jane Austen fan and (almost) scholar of her life and work, I'd put this work higher up than the fan fiction and "sequels" and almost on a par with my favorite biographies of her. I loved feeling like I was sitting in the room with the Austen family as Jane read scenes of her latest writings to the happy audience, and felt the pain of an intelligent woman frustrated at the lack of financial independence in the late 18th, early 19th century England. The sister's conversations seem realistic enough to me (I have two close sisters of my own) while corresponding to the time period as Jane Austen described it, which is no mean feat considering the author owns to not having sisters.

Sea of Poppies: A Novel by Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies has a vibrant cast of characters, placed in India and the Indian Ocean during the time preceding the Opium Wars. The main character it seems is the ship, the Ibis, where almost everyone ends up by the end of the novel. Then there's a mulatto son of an American slave woman who comes up in the world a bit, a Raj who falls down in the world quite a lot, a wife of an opium addict, a French orphan, and perhaps some pirates.

I was able to keep track of the cast without getting overwhelmed - it was slightly more difficult to understand the local words peppered throughout the dialogue and description. Although there is a glossary in the back of the book, at times I had to ask my (fortunately) Hindi-speaking sisters for an explanation after a line or two threw me. Still, it was infinitely less annoying than say, Wuthering Heights, where certain choppy lines made me want to hurl the novel off a cliff.

Otherwise, it's certainly a page-turner, though without giving anything away, the ending was abrupt. It left me wanting to know how things would turn out for some of the sea travellers. Perhaps the author wanted us to use our imagination along with his hints interspersed throughout the story.

Certainly this is one I'd recommend for anyone interested in historical novels, especially those centered around India in British colonial times.

The Other Queen: A Novel by Philippa Gregory

The Other Queen covers the early years of Mary, Queen of Scots' time in England. The story is told from the points of view of Bess (known as Bess of Hardwick in history books), her husband George, Earl of Shrewsbury, and Mary. At times this varied first person reminded me of those reality shows, when the participants tell the camera how they really feel about their situation.

I had fun with this book. These particular years of Tudor history are not the ones most familiar to me, so I didn't see much in historical inaccuracy. Sometimes I felt too many pages were put into the difficulties of keeping Mary in the care of the Shrewsburys, which ending up translating into Bess grumbling over finances in every chapter, Mary whining about her rights as a queen, and George being daft and insisting on honor. Perhaps this was the point of the book, though. The tension of the married couple when Mary proves to be too charming to resist was covered, though not in any lurid details.

It was interesting to see how tense things got between the North of England and the Elizabethan government run by Cecil and his spy network. If anything, The Other Queen made me want to delve in the 1570's a little more. It also makes me wonder just how beautiful Mary was, because the artwork of the time didn't quite show this to me.

Occasionally I rolled my eyes over the little insights into the future (not counting the massive one via George in the end). Bess seems to see a future for women that would have been quite blurry in the 16th century. Having a very young Anthony Babington promise Mary that he'd help her to the point of calling his own future efforts "The Babington Plot" was the one moment where I groaned out loud.

In terms of Philippa Gregory books, I didn't feel like as many liberties were taken as in "The Other Boleyn Girl", though I think I liked The Boleyn Inheritence marginally more than The Other Queen.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

This story takes us into late 19th Century New York, where the upper class families are set in their ways and quite protective of them. Newland Archer is a young man among this group, all ready to marry, when the arrival of his fiancee's cousin throws his perspectives into disarray. Ellen Olenska thinks she is escaping from her past and her unhappy marriage into an understanding family and forward-thinking society, but she finds this is far from reality. The story centers on these two, though from the (changing) point of view of Archer.

Wharton's descriptions are well done; I had an easy time visualizing each situation, and I could even hear the conversations - even the stifled ones. Certain characterizations were really funny - Catherine Mingott cut a really legendary figure. Newland is almost an idealist, but comes out like a deflated balloon after a while. The story is romantic without really being passionate. I ended up enjoying the story as well as how it turned out, though not feeling at the edge of the seat as I'd thought I'd be by the end. I could see rereading this one, as it's fun to be taken into the glamorous yet constipated society that I could never be a part of.

The Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History by Phil Baker

The Book of Absinthe was written just a few years before its "return" to the US, but it felt up to date. Neither a cautionary tale nor an ode, it is simply a history of the consumption and making of absinthe. Laced with character studies not limited to Wilde and Van Gogh, but especially centered on the "Decadents" of the 1890's, it's quite colorful. Included are excerpts from various writings, from poetry to fiction, and even criminal studies. There is also a review of various brands of absinthe currently out there. What I found most intriguing is the "cultural history"; basically how absinthe is viewed depending on time period and geographic location. For instance, its goth associations in modern US never quite took in the UK. Not a book that put me at the edge of my seat, but good enough. The jury's out on whether I'll actually try absinthe or not.

The Traitor's Wife: A Novel of the Reign of Edward II… by Susan Higginbotham

This is just what a historical novel should be. There are strong characters (even the weak ones, like Edward II, have a presence), descriptive writing, a thorough knowledge of the times - it's all here. Personally, I appreciated that the dialogue was readable - though you know this was centuries ago, there's a comfortable familiarity with the characters so that you don't feel like you're at one a Ren fair watching a joust (some historical novels do this to me.)

I almost felt a sympathy for the most infamous persons of their time - with the exception of Mortimer, who is simply too thick for his own good. (How could you have front row viewing and participation in the fall of Despenser and just keep repeating the same mistakes?) Since the book centers on the life of Eleanor, wife of Hugh le Despenser, there is a more intimate view of one of the most hated famiies of 14th century England. She's also the niece of Edward II, and she is loyal both to her uncle and her husband. This gets her into some difficulty when Queen Isabella and Mortimer take over, but though she does some thing she is ashamed of, her love of family and fierce protectiveness of those she loves even at some cost to her makes her a worthy heroine.

I still can't believe this is one of the first publications of this author, and I look forward to reading the next one.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

A fantastic look of life in 1950's London. Mildred Lathbury is a capable woman in her early 30's who is slightly self-deprecating, but certainly not self-loathing. She gets involved (sometimes willingly, sometimes dragged into it) with the lives of her neighbors and fellow church-goers. Written in first person, there is a mix of genuine concern and sarcasm. Though perfectly fine with her own situation as the kind of woman everyone praises but no one marries, she is slightly daunted by the lifestyles of others she comes into contact with and maybe a little resentful of certain other women, like Helena Napier and Allegra Gray.

I in particular was taken by the tea references, for instance Mildred's making tea for everyone as a comfort for others despite not wanting to be known as that kind of person, and the strength of tea varying depending on the situation.

I certainly recommend this one to Anglophiles and satire fans alike, and look forward to reading more of Pym's novels.

Some of these books aren't released yet, they're ARCs (Advance Reviewer's Copy), which I loved because it helped me live up to my dream of being a book reviewer. I noticed there's no tea book reviews here. Looks like I'll have to get busy!

These aren't all the books I've read, just the ones I own and reviewed on LT.


Anonymous said...

Wow; that's some extensive reading and writing. Good thing you didn't write it all at once, but just cut and paste selections written over time.
The Sea of Poppies and The Age of Innocence sound like books I might read.

I don't think I even know what absinthe is....

Anonymous said...

You certainly do have the gift of being a book reviewer. I think you should change your career. Go for it girl. You are young and smart. Do what you love most. It is so easy to get in a rut and not be able to get out of it and then you turn around and your 50.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how this thing works bur anonymous was me.