March 31, 2011

The Paris Wife - Paula McLain

I did not know much about Ernest Hemingway apart from the legends and I have never read any of his books so I came to The Paris Wife with a little bit of a blank slate - although I have to say my feminist ideals soon kicked in!

The Paris Wife is a fictionalised account of Hemingway's relationship with his first wife, Hadley Richardson whom he met in the United States as a young man and ended up moving to Paris with soon after their marriage.

The book is told mainly from the perspective of Hadley although there are a few small sections where Hemingway's voice speaks for himself.

Ernest and Hadley move to Paris in the early 1920's - the "Jazz Age" and they meet and befriend people such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Hemingway's obsession with his writing is evident from early on but it soon starts to intrude heavily on the marriage and we are able to see how it might have been for an intelligent, independent woman such as Hadley - as her wishes and needs always seemed to come second to the great author (although at that stage Hemingway was still establishing himself as the writer he would come to be known as).

I really enjoyed this book - I thought it was told in a way that captured my attention and kept it - it wasn't a book I wanted to be away from for long. And although my compassion tends to lean all the way in Hadley's direction in regards to the relationship between herself and Ernest I am very interested now in finding some of his novels and reading them for myself.

March 28, 2011

The Summer Without Men - Siri Hustvedt

Firstly, can I just say how much I love the cover of this book - so simple and yet very effective. I found myself turning to look at it at random times throughout my reading. Which is not to say that the book is not an absorbing read!

The Summer Without Men is the story of Mia - a middle aged woman whose husband has just told her he would like to take a "pause" in their 30 year marriage to explore a relationship with a much younger colleague. Mia does not take the announcement well and she spends some time in a psychiatric hospital after Boris's decision sends her into a psychotic depression.

When Mia leaves hospital she decides to temporarily move to the town where she grew up as a child to get some distance from her life with Boris and to continue to write and teach poetry. While in the small town of Bonden Mia spends time with her ageing mother and her variety of friends, she teaches the craft of poetry and life lessons to a group of adolescent girls and she connects with a young mother and her two children living in the house next door to her. Mia refers to this part of her life as "the Yawn between Crazed Winter and Sane Fall".

The book is told from Mia's perspective and at times it can feel very insular and indulgent - I didn't particularly find the sections where Mia shares some of her poetry very enlightening for example. But the parts of the book where Mia talks about her relationships and the new connections she is making (especially with the woman next door and her mother) I could have read so much more of. There is a growth and a discovery process going on for Mia over the the course of the novel and it is great to be able to see this take place - the narrative form of the book almost makes it feel as though you are a part of this process also.

I loved this story for it's focus on women and the relationships we form - both good and not so good.

March 19, 2011

Into The Woods - Anna Krien

Into The Woods was one of the books on the recommended reading list for one of the courses I am currently taking looking at creative non-fiction. I can't say that I was all that excited about picking it up at first - the environment and nature are not things that I normally enjoy reading about, I know that is probably the most un-politically correct thing you could say in this day and age but I've said it!

I think it is a major strength of the author and the book she has written that I am now much more interested in this topic - and I have noticed myself not automatically tuning out when stories like this are presented in the media.

Into The Woods covers the story of the Tasmanian forests and the battle that is currently taking place (and has been taking place for some time now) between various groups interested in the forests for one reason or another. Krien has looked at the issue from every angle and has talked to key people from the different interest groups - environmentalists and conservationists, loggers and logging businesses, the government, local community members and she has included her own views and thoughts throughout the book.

The book is so well researched that I found myself diving into all sections of it - even the sections that quote numerous facts, figures and statistics. These sections are well balanced by the voices of the people Krien speaks with along the way. Although Krien's leanings and her own position are displayed at times this book feels balanced and fair - I felt very much as though the information was being put in front of me for me to make my own decision.

This book is a brilliant combination of fact and emotion - I am in complete awe of Krien's abilities as a writer and I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the craft of non fiction writing.

March 17, 2011

We Had it So Good - Linda Grant

It has been so long since I finished this book now that I hope my ever failing memory can do it justice!

My memory of some of the intricacies of the plot may be poor but I definitely remember the feeling of really enjoying the read and getting totally immersed in the characters Grant had written.

We Had it So Good is the story of Stephen Newman, an American born to immigrant parents who moves from sunny Los Angeles to attend university in England - and ends up staying.

The crux of the novel is the relationships Stephen has with the various people in his life but especially his wife, Andrea and his father. Through the book Stephen reflects on key moments and decisions in his life, trying to put together why he is where he is now.

I know I'm probably not making this sounds very interesting or intriguing but it truly is! Each of the characters are full of depth and complexity and I felt the novel was rich in ideas and plot.

This is the first fiction from Grant I have read but if her style is similar in her other works of fiction I will be seeking them out.

March 08, 2011

Left Neglected - Lisa Genova

I read Lisa Genova's first novel, Still Alice last year and really liked it -I didn't think it was a perfect novel in any way but it had an emotional impact on me - it lingered.

I'm afraid to say that Genova's second novel, Left Neglected will not be lingering with me in the same way.

Left Neglected tells the story of 37 year old high flying business woman, wife and mother, Sarah Nickerson who is involved in a serious car accident while driving to her workplace one morning.

Sarah survives the accident but is left with a brain injury and a neurological condition referred to as "Left Neglect" which basically means that Sarah is unaware of the existence of "left". The left side of her body, the left side of a page in a book, the left side of a room just don't register for Sarah after the accident and the majority of the book is spent detailing her rehabilitation - both physical and psychological.

The main problem with this book for me was Sarah herself - I didn't like her or have any emotional connection with her. She felt like a cardboard cutout and I felt she was often displaying "text book" responses to certain situations. There was no depth there for me.

Another issue for me was once again Genova has chosen to tell her story through an upper middle class, educated and resourceful character. I also had a problem with this in Still Alice but in that book I could overlook this device whereas in Left Neglected I just had the feeling that I had read this exact same story before - except with a new health concern being the vehicle for the story.

For me this book was all formula and no heart - pretty disappointing.

March 07, 2011

The Thoughtful Dresser - Linda Grant

I may not have mentioned it on this blog before but I have a totally materialistic and deep love of clothes and fashion. I am far from a fashionista (I don't have the budget or the sense of style unfortunately!) but I love to gaze longingly through fashion magazines and plan what I would dress myself in if I had half the chance. I think long and hard about what I am going to wear each morning - I attribute this mostly to my job. I work in an emotionally draining and often challenging work area and what I wear can often give me a spark for the day.
I was so glad to hear Linda Grant talk about this passion and desire for nice clothing and the psychological impact it can have on us in The Thoughtful Dresser.
This book is one part Grant's personal reflection on the clothes that have been, and are, an important part of her life and the meaning she has attributed to them and one part social commentary on the way clothes are perceived in our (mostly western) society.
I especially loved the first chapter of the book "In Which a Woman Buys a Pair of Shoes" about Grant's mission on one particular day to hunt down and purchase the perfect pair of shoes:

One day last summer, at the moment of waking, I knew that I had to go out at once and buy new shoes. Shoes which fulfilled another function apart from walking. I wanted high heeled shoes. Ridiculous, sexy, I don't care how much they cost, I have to have them shoes.
Grant also talks about how the clothes we have worn throughout our lives contribute to the story of who we are:

Clothes as text, clothes as narration, clothes as a story. Clothes as the story of our lives. And if you were to gather all the clothes you have ever owned in all your life, each baby shoe and winter coat and wedding dress, you would have your autobiography.

I absolutely adored this book and Grant's take on the history and sociology of clothes and dressing - with some red high heels thrown in!

March 02, 2011

An Object of Beauty - Steve Martin

I was tossing and turning about whether or not I would read this one but then I read Nadia's review which praises the book pretty highly so thanks to that I bit the bullet and jumped in!

An Object of Beauty is a novel that focuses on the art scene in New York from the 1980's to modern day. The main character is the feisty and ambitious Lacey Yeager, a young woman intent on moving her way up in the art scene from back room packing girl to high flying dealer and gallery owner - sometimes making some dubious moves and decisions along the way.

I was grabbed by this book from the very beginning - something about the writing that is really captivating, even though at times you really feel like an outsider looking into a completely different world.

The book is very informative and quite detailed in relation to the in's and out's of the art world in New York and more broadly and I think a reader who wasn't so interested in this subject area might find the book a little boring - but then again, it was not necessarily an area I thought I was all that interested in and I found myself wanting even more information. I especially liked how the book included photos of some of the pieces of art being talked about.

Lacey Yeager is not the most likeable character but she certainly makes up for that in being an interesting and engaging character - without her the book may have fell flat for me but with her in it I found it to be a great read.