Mrs. Hemingway, Naomi Wood

Mrs. HemingwayI love Ernest Hemingway. That’s probably something you should know about me. I love his writing so much that I’ve been savoring it, because I never want to run out of new things to read. First I read A Farewell To Arms – to this day one of my favorite novels of all time. Then The Sun Also Rises. Loved it. I’ve reread these two novels many times. Then I read The Old Man and the Sea. I didn’t like it as much as the other two, but still effective. And that’s it. That’s all I’ve allowed myself to read for ten years. It’s ridiculous. And it stops…well, soon. But first, I picked up this book: a fictional account of the beginnings and endings of all four of Mr. Hemingway’s marriages.

It is written in four parts (around 80 pages each), one for each wife: Hadley (my favorite), Pauline (nickname:Fife, as in Pfeiffer), Martha, and Mary. Before reading this book, I was only familiar with details from his marriage to Hadley and the transition into Pauline, so I did learn quite a bit from this book. Each section jumps back and forth from the beginning of each relationship to the end, and many times they overlap one another (Hemingway was never known for his fidelity ūüėē). It had to be tough to decide what vignettes to include for each wife that showed why they married and also why they parted, but I feel that the author did a great job capturing the right moments.

Hadley was his first love, who he met when he was 21. They had a son together and lived for most of their marriage in Paris. It was there Hadley and Ernest became acquainted with Pauline Pfeiffer and her sister. Pauline (who everyone called Fife apparently), became fast friends with the pair, and slowly fell in love with Ernest. The affair went on awhile with Ernest still married to Hadley, but finally they divorced and he married Pauline. They lived happily together for many years, mostly in the Florida keys, and had two sons. Ernest went back to working as a war correspondent during this period. He met his next wife, Martha Gellhorn, near his home in Florida, but convinced her to become a war correspondent as well (she was a writer herself). In Spain they began their love affair, and Pauline was pissed when she found out. She is the only of his wives to really hold spite for him, or so they say. He married Martha, and basically did the same thing to her, meeting Mary Welsh while working as a correspondent in London (Mary was also married at the time), and it was Mary who was with him in the end of his life.

While this book is highly fictionalized (no one knows exactly what was said and exactly what happened in all of the details), it is also drawn from historical accounts, letters, and telegrams, so everything in the book is at least in the gist of what actually occurred. Ernest Hemingway had a big life, there are no doubts about that, and I loved seeing little snipits of it through the lens of the women in his life. 

Overall I really enjoyed the book, it was hard to put down at times (I say that because I had to put it down, mommy’s need their sleep!). I love reading about Hemingway’s life. He lived in a different time, that’s for sure, and it makes me wonder how he would have liked the modern world. He wouldn’t have, probably. I have another fictionalized book about him called Hemingway’s Boat. I may be reading that soon, as well as Z. the novel about Zelda Fitzgerald (who was only in one scene of this book, but was alluded to a few other times). Why do the books I read always add so many other books to my to-read pile?! I’m trying to shrink it, but it keeps growing the more I read!! #readerproblems ūüėÖ

E.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Lincoln in the BardoBardo:: A Tibetan Buddhist term meaning ‘of an existence between death and rebirth’.

This novel is quite unconventional. Not quite as unconventional as the book called S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams, but it does not, as a typical novel would, consist of nothing but prose.  The chapters are quite short, and many of them are made up entirely of quotes pulled from historical accounts, history books, and letters. It is almost more of a work of art than a novel. And Although it took me awhile to get the rhythm, in the end I rather enjoyed it.
I came to this book straight off of Gone With the Wind and wanting to stay in the time period of the civil war. While this story does technically take place during the civil war, it is nothing about it but a vague backdrop that almost has no meaning to the story being told. This book is about the death and mourning of a child, and also an interpretation of the afterlife.

I read this book on audible, and it is the first audiobook I’ve listened to with a full cast. For this novel it meant 166 narrators! I can’t move on from this subject without mentioning how odd the experience was at first listening to people reading sometimes only a few words before another person jumped in. It was a cacophony of human voices for awhile, but once I understood what was going on, I loved it. As you may have seen, Nick Offerman (of Parks & Rec fame) leads the cast, playing a dead man called Mr. Vollman. David Sedaris has another leading roll as Mr. Bevins, and together they narrate much of the story from their perspective as ghosts in a graveyard. I was able to pick out a few other voices I knew: Rainn Wilson and Megan Mullally among them, and in 166 voices, I’m sure you will find others you know as well.

The story itself is devastating; Lincoln’s young and beloved son Willie dies. Since this was an audiobook it is hard to go back and pull quotes, but I will just say that the chapters full of quotes were extremely powerful and put together very skillfully. As a new mother, I found new layers of meaning and understanding in the scraps of real world accounts surrounding this event and my heart ached for our 16th president. Not only was he dealing with this horrific personal event, but he was also facing enormous backlash because of the war, where thousands and thousands of other men’s sons were being slaughtered on his order. What a terrible burden it must have been. Again, I find I am intrigued to learn more about this era, and even Lincoln himself. Knowing that his life was prematurely ended not terribly long after this, it makes me feel so terrible for him. What a hard life he had. Poor man.

But this is all only backdrop for the novel. Mostly the story takes place in the graveyard Willie is taken to after his death. The ghosts there are unwilling to accept that they have died, and therefore linger on, resisting their fate by essentially squeezing their eyes shut and ignoring anything that doesn’t fit their faulty beliefs. When Willie’s spirit joins them, he is confused, and resists ‘passing on’ when his father comes back to the mausoleum to hold onto his dead son’s body (apparently a true event). Through the quest to get this child’s spirit to pass on (something they all agree should happen), the other ghosts become more aware of themselves and what the true situation of their existence is, eventually accepting their fate and moving on themselves.

Yes, those were all spoilers, and yet I feel like none of that will ruin the book for new readers. This is the kind of book you don’t necessarily read for the story, but for the experience itself. I hope you read it, you who are reading this, and that you can appreciate it for what it is. I loved this book, and it has stuck with me in the weeks since I’ve finished it. Maybe it will for you too.

E.

Thoughts on My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier

My Cousin RachelLast night I finished reading My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. It had been at the top of my to read list for the past several years, but I never got past the first several pages until last week, which is strange, because the first several pages are almost as gripping as the first pages in Rebecca, one of my favorite classic novels.

My Cousin Rachel begins in a place similar to Rebecca, with an orphan and a gothic, almost sinister, undertone. If I hadn’t been expecting great things already judging by the woman who wrote it, I definitely was after the first chapter, and I think ultimately this is what led to my disappointment in the novel.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is about a young man named Phillip who was raised by his cousin Ambrose. When advised to winter away from his damp home in Cornwall by his doctor, Ambrose goes south to the continent of Europe. He goes to Italy where he meets and marries his cousin Rachel. Having been a bachelor all his life, this comes as a great surprise to Phillip and their friends in Cornwall. The marriage seems to suit him until Phillip begins to receive odd letters from his cousin, and before he is able to see Ambrose again, he is dead. Did his new wife have something to do with it? How will Phillip behave once he finally meets this mysterious cousin? What about this woman caused a lifelong bachelor to finally ‘take the plunge’?

This novel lacked the feeling of suspense that I adored in Rebecca. There were no twists, no shocking revelations, and honestly once I set it down for the last time I was left wondering what the point of the book had been. I’m not saying it wasn’t compelling or well written, because it was, but there was never the sense of satisfaction in the end for me. After such a kick ass beginning, I expected more. I gave it three stars on goodreads because it is quite an entertaining book, I just took issue with the ending – it left things unresolved for me. I’m having the same issue with the ending of Gone With the Wind (I am still working on a post for that one).

For those of you who have already read it, here is a little more detail of what I thought of the story::

The beginning is excellent. It sets the tone beautifully and anchors the story in a gothic mood. The plot set-up is also perfect – a man meets a woman, marries her, has a crisis that leads to his death, and his family is left to wonder/discover whether or not this mysterious woman had a hand in it. I mean, that’s got to be an excellent story, right?

Eh.

I felt like I was turning pages in order to find out if Rachel had really had any fault in Ambrose’s death or not. Since I still don’t know for sure it just feels unfinished. I feel like the story leaves off in exactly the same place as it was after the first few chapters of the book. In the end, none of the plot really changed anything in the character’s lives. I guess I was expecting something equally mysterious and scandalous to happen to Phillip once Rachel came to town, but the only thing that happened is Phillip absolutely losing his mind in love and sabotaging himself. And yet, he wasn’t really sabotaged after all. It’s like everything that happened had the ability to be a complete disaster, but in the end Phillip is left exactly as he was after Ambrose’s death, a wealthy bachelor.

There was a looming mystery as to what Rachel’s big fault was, and all it turned out to be was a shopping addiction (who doesn’t know someone like that?). There was the giving of the estate to Rachel, and what changed for Phillip? Not a thing, except Rachel’s attitude was a bit colder (but that’s because he is a fool who expects her to marry him). There was the death of Rachel, but even that was unsatisfying. Did Phillip intend to let her die that night, or was he so preoccupied with his own mission that night that he completely forgot there was any danger in the garden? For me, it seemed like the emphasis kept falling on things that didn’t matter, and the things I was really interested in were only briefly mentioned.

In my group on goodreads, everyone seemed to agree with the implications at the end, that Rachel had been innocent the whole time and that she had done nothing wrong. But how can that be? Did he not find the poisonous seeds in her drawer? …..hello!? Was that just another figment of his imagination? …or mine? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!!

This story just wasn’t for me in the end. I still adore Rebecca, and I for sure haven’t sworn off du Maurier by any stretch, but this one just didn’t sit well with me. However, it will be lingering in the back of my mind for quite some time, I’m sure. And maybe that was the point after all.

If you’ve read My Cousin Rachel, please share your ideas with me in the comments about your theories. This is a book that begs to be discussed!

E.

Thoughts on The View from the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman

The View from the Cheap SeatsNeil Gaiman is one of those authors whose fiction has a distinct style. You can point to something he wrote and say with confidence, Neil Gaiman wrote that. It’s in the names he chooses, the subjects he writes about, the stories he weaves, and the language he uses as the strands to do so. After having read and loved many of his novels (Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, and Stardust are some of these), and hearing his incredible speech titled Make Good Art, I was very excited to read his book of collected non-fiction, The View from the Cheap Seats.

The book is comprised of magazine articles, essays, speeches for various occasions, and book introductions which are grouped together in an order that generally flows from subject to subject. Some pieces are short, others are quite long, and some of them seem to overlap each other slightly. He writes about everything from his own fiction, authors he admires, his career in comic book writing, the internet, music, films, mythology, and his childhood.

Beginning with the dedication – “For Ash, who’s new, for when he is grown. These were some of the things your father loved and said and cared about and believed, a long time ago.” – I loved this book. It is filled with the wisdom and insights of a man who has dedicated his life to telling stories. From a young boy reading his way through the children’s section of the library, to the young man who discovered and devoured the science fiction genre and comic books, to the young journalist, to the comic book writer and finally the award-winning novelist he is today. This book is all at once a reader’s guide to great fiction, a quasi-memoir, a conversation about what makes a book great, but most of all it is a love letter to story telling and literature. Neil Gaiman is one of the great authors of our time (in my opinion), and getting to see the inside of his brain in this book was such a treat.

Right off the bat we are confronted with discussions about the importance of literacy, libraries, and the freedom to read whatever you feel compelled to read. Reading teaches you how to think, it exercises your imagination, and it teaches us that anything is possible. According to Neil, a child should never be forbidden to read a book, even if it is not necessarily what you want them to be reading. He says every book is a gateway drug into the next book, and eventually they will probably stumble onto things you do feel more comfortable with, while all along learning about themselves and the world.

I loved his discussions about what makes a genre a genre, and another piece on what the difference is between a children’s book and a book for adults. He comes at these questions from a place of pure curiosity, taking the questions down to their fundamentals and building up from there. Truly, what is the difference between a book for children and a book for adults? It is not easy to point to one criteria that makes the difference, is it?

There is a good chunk in the middle of the book to do with comics; how he read and collected them as a kid to his eventual career writing them, working with different artists, as well as reviews and introductions for them. I myself have never read comics or graphic novels at all, and while this was not my favorite section of the book, I still feel like I came away from it having learned a lot about them, and harboring a new curiosity to find one of the ones discussed to see what I might think of it.

Neil, like me (and you, I presume), is a lover of fiction. He shares the names of works and writers who have inspired him, books that helped shape him, and the stories of how he came upon them in the first place. His introductions offer new perspectives on works you may have read before, and have definitely sparked my interest in some books I’ve never heard of. His recommendations span throughout many genres including children’s, science fiction, horror, and classics so you’re bound to find something you’ll love as well as something that may be out of your comfort zone.

The one thing that surprised me the most about this collection was how much Neil Gaiman has done. He has been involved with magazines, newspapers, collaboration fiction, short stories, children’s books, novels, comics, as well as being the speaker at any number of conventions and events, he’s been asked to write about books in all different types of genres, as well as writing for music albums, film scripts, and essays. What hasn’t the man done? He has a curious mind, and is a true believer in art and creativity. He understands the impact one good book can have on a person, and more importantly, he wants everyone to be able to feel that incredible feeling.

If I’ve come away from this book with only one thing, it’s that I love Neil Gaiman. I already knew it, but I saw so many more facets of the man through this book, and it’s made me love him all the more. I highly recommend it for any reader.

E.

Leaving Time, Jodi Picoult

Leaving TimeSometimes you just want¬†a book that will grab you early and keep you turning the pages the whole time.¬†I picked up Leaving Time¬†exactly for that reason; Jodi Picoult is pretty reliably compelling, whether it’s a controversial subject, a thrilling court case (…or both), or a mystery (like this one).

Leaving Time is the story of a young girl named Jenna Metcalf¬†in search of her mother, Alice. Alice¬†was a researcher living and working in an elephant sanctuary in Pennsylvania. She¬†ended up there for love, following a man who didn’t think her study on grief in elephants was¬†a waste of time like many of her colleagues. When Jenna is only three, a woman is found dead, trampled to death by an elephant, and Alice¬†disappears. Due to the lazy work of a retiring detective and no missing persons report, there is no investigation into the¬†disappearance. Now a young teen, Jenna takes the search into her own hands. Consulting with a washed up celebrity psychic and the detective whose guilt never went away after the botched investigation, they are determined to find out what happened that night in the elephant sanctuary.

In the format of a typical Jodi Picoult novel, the narrative bounces back and forth between characters. Alice is the only narrator who isn’t in the present. Instead, she acts a flashback character, providing the background story that leads up to the night she disappeared, eventually revealing what actually happened. It is done skillfully, the reader never learns until the end whether or not she is still alive or if her story ends that night. Hers was ultimately my favorite perspective,¬†although an impatient reader would call hers the slowest. I really enjoyed reading about her accounts of elephant behavior observed both in the African wild and in the sanctuary. The elephants definitely have personality, especially Maura, and I enjoyed the sections about them – you can tell, maybe a little too much, that the subject matter was researched well by the author. It reminded me of another of her novels in that way, Lone Wolf.¬†As an animal lover and general softie in life, I could have done without some of the graphic descriptions of what happens to some of the elephants, but Alice is researching grief, so grief-inducing events are kind of necessary and expected. And everyone knows that historically elephants have not been treated very well in captivity, which were some of the hardest parts for me to read.

Another characteristic element of a Picoult novel is a twist ending, sometimes even on the last dang page (Handle With Care, anyone?). Leaving Time is no exception. While I did enjoy the pleasure of the plot completely flipping (a twist you don’t see coming is always oddly satisfying), it also cheapened the whole story in a way. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say this particular twist has been done before, and very famously. The author had to know it was a risk to use it, and I kind of wish I could get into her head to see what the other possibilities were, if there ever were any. For me it didn’t ruin the story because it made complete sense once it was revealed. It wrapped up the storyline of one of the characters in a great way – in fact, you could say the entire story was actually about her. Okay okay,¬†let’s move on…

All things considered, this wasn’t my favorite novel by Jodi Picoult. I haven’t read them all, but I’ve read around a dozen. Leaving Time¬†probably floats around the middle of the pack among them.¬†As I said, I wanted something compelling to read, and in that sense it did not disappoint. However, if you are new to Jodi Picoult, I would recommend some of her other novels over this one. Some of my favorites have been Keeping Faith, Handle With Care, Lone Wolf, Vanishing Acts, My Sister’s Keeper, and Plain Truth. Just whatever you do, don’t start with Songs of the Humpback Whale. I couldn’t get through it!

Any other fans of Jodi Picoult out there? Which of her novels is your favorite?

E.