The Most Perfect Book

frances and bernard

I’ve always heard that if you have ambitions to write you should write the novel that you would want to read, the novel that embraces all your passions and literary likes. Well, thanks to Carlene Bauer there’s no need for me to ever write my own novel – she has written my perfect book.

Frances & Bernard is an epistolary novel set during the late 50’s through the late 60’s and chronicles the evolving relationship between a novelist and a poet. Their passionate and intelligent letters illuminate the difficult choices we all make about love, self-worth, creativity and spirituality. It is endearing and bittersweet and will make you laugh, cry and think.

With a mid-century setting, a New York vibe, characters who are based on Robert Lowell, Flannery O’Connor and others of their smart literary set, witty book talk, earnest spiritual discussions and honest observations on art and romance it ticks every one of my boxes. I wanted to re-read it immediately after finishing. It is a book that captured my heart and my mind and I think it will be a forever favorite.

Have you ever encountered the most perfect book for you?

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

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After reading Revolutionary Road last summer I felt great interest in reading more of Richard Yates’ startling novels. However, as these things go, it has taken me almost a year to read The Easter Parade, my second of his books.

Just like Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade sucks you into the hyper-realistic world of a dysfunctional family at mid-century. Sisters Sarah and Emily Grimes grow up with their painfully desperate single mother, who has a drinking problem that escalates as her daughters grow up and away from her. While Sarah marries and starts a family, Emily goes to college and afterwards begins work at an advertising agency. She dates a succession of men and completely distances herself from both her mother and her sister Sarah, losing herself in her relationships, until she is forced to confront the disastrous mess they’ve all made of their lives.

Reading Yates is uncomfortable yet so utterly enthralling. His characters are us and they are our relatives, friends and neighbors so reading about their empty and wretched lives is alarming. Are we all doomed to live meaningless lives full of emotional coldness, unable to face our disappointments and accept that life is not always about big moments, that no one is perfect? Yes, these thoughts really did go through my head while reading this book! And that is part of the beauty of Yates – he really makes you confront the sadness and the hopeless moments we all face. Depressing and humbling, yes, but also invigorating because the truth of it is that everyone can find their own way to rise above the mundanity while acknowledging that our day to day life IS our real life – there’s no ‘someday’. And we also must find a way to connect with those around us in an authentic way.

So, this is my take on Yates! His books are hard to read and agonizing to ponder and, honestly, not full of much hope. But I take them as a manual on ‘how not to live my life’ while enjoying his straight forward writing style and the mid-century settings.

After reading The Easter Parade I did buy two more of his novels – Cold Spring Harbor and Young Hearts Crying – and I’m interested to see if my thoughts about his writing stay the same after reading them.

Have you read Richard Yates?

Also, I apologize for the theme changes. I am constantly looking for something that I can’t find in the themes available to me, but this one will stay for the time being.

Have a non-Richard-Yates-like weekend!

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

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I received an eGalley from Harper through Edelweiss.

This is the first book I read in what I consider ‘summer mode’. Do you find your reading tastes/expectations change when summer comes around? I do. I want to read mysteries, YA, contemporary more than classics and the ‘buzz’ books of the season. I think it’s all so fun. Elizabeth is Missing is definitely a buzz book. I’ve been hearing good things about it for months now and it is the #1 LibraryReads pick for June.

The entire novel is told from the viewpoint of Maud, a woman in her seventies who has dementia. Is she the ultimate unreliable narrator or is her friend Elizabeth really missing? She hasn’t seen her friend in months and on the many notes she keeps to jog her memory she finds she’s written the phrase ‘Elizabeth is missing’ over and over again. She tells her frustrated daughter Helen, calls Elizabeth’s son in the middle of the night, even goes to the police department many times to report the disappearance. In the midst of her forgetting and then suddenly remembering that she doesn’t know where Elizabeth is, her mind dwells in the past, in her teenage years.

Maud was a teen during the post-war years in England when her young married sister Sukey disappeared from home. She and her parents searched and waited, always suspecting Sukey’s husband of hurting her, yet there was no evidence and he seemed just as devastated as they were. The police believed Sukey purposefully ran away and couldn’t devote any man hours to investigating.

As the two parts of Maud’s memory weave together, seamlessly moving forward, there is doubt that these events are true. Did Sukey really disappear, is Elizabeth missing? After all, Maud can’t even remember where she is half the time – is she accurately portraying these dismaying events?

This is a clever and very tightly written novel that propels the reader forward, desperately wondering if either or both of these mysteries will be solved. Though it’s much slower paced than a typical mystery novel it summons just as much suspense and that eerie and subtle feeling of dread that the best thrillers contain. I marvel at Healey’s ability to make both the past and present storylines compelling and to create such smoothly flowing transitions between them.

Elizabeth is Missing was a great start to my summer reading. It will be published this week in the UK and Australia and next week in the US.

Do you already have plans for your summer reading?

Fin & Lady by Cathleen Schine

fin and lady

“Fin’s funeral suit was a year old, worn three times, already too small”.

I knew I wanted to read this book when I saw that it takes place in the mid-sixties, one of my favorite time periods. I love the music, the fashion, the films and the changing social and cultural norms. Fin & Lady opens in 1964 with the death of Fin Hadley’s mother. As his father has already died, he is left in the care of his 24-year-old sister, Lady. She sweeps him away from his Connecticut farm to her home in Greenwich Village where the bohemian, beautiful and fickle Lady raises him in a most unconventional manner (he goes to a progressive school that doesn’t teach math, etc). She enlists Fin to help her find a husband by the time she turns 25 and collects a trio of suitors who endure when everyone else falls away. But Lady doesn’t love any of them and searches in vain for the right man to marry her.

The problem lies with Lady’s obsession with freedom. She doesn’t like anyone or anything to restrain her lifestyle and has a habit of ruthlessly disentangling herself from emotional attachment. It makes her relationship with Fin a challenge and causes him to constantly question Lady’s commitment to raising him. As the years pass they broker a stormy yet mutual adoration until Lady’s 28th birthday. That’s the day that Lady disappears and the day their lives change forever.

Fin & Lady is such a joyous and funny book. I constantly chuckled and grinned over the clever dialogue and the banter. Fin is a great character – very precocious, curious and a huge reader. He is practical minded, but adapts to Lady’s erratic lifestyle and thrives in the chaos. Lady is also a wonderful character. She is one of the ‘beautiful people’ yet a free spirit and true sixties creation. Her unpredictability can be maddening but she has enough charm and wisdom to temper the crazy.

Most of the book is set in Greenwich Village and it is energetic and quirky – it must have been quite amazing in the sixties. Another chunk of the novel takes place in Capri and it is a lovely contrast. Peaceful, sunny and magical – Lady loves it and Schine makes the reader fall in love with it too.

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click photo for credit

The novel is narrated by an unknown ‘me’ and part of the enchantment of the book is finding out who the narrator is – and it is a bittersweet discovery.

The more I think about Fin & Lady, the more fond of it I am. It really is sweet and fun and sophisticated and beautiful. Vibrant characters, fascinating setting and lots of humor – perfection.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility

“It was the last night of 1937.”

Rules of Civility was the third book that we read for my new book group. It had a bit of a mixed review from the book group members with the majority of us liking it, and other members being a bit put off by some of the plot turns and themes, but overall I think it was a hit.

The novel is set in the late ’30’s in NYC and centers on Katey Kontent, a young, ambitious woman who lives in a boarding house with her wild friend Eve. Katey works at a law firm as a typist and goes on adventures with Eve at night. One New Year’s Eve they meet Tinker Grey who appears to have money and class – something both Katey and Eve are attracted to. When they join Tinker’s wealthy set life changes for both of the girls, tragically for Eve and advantageously for Katey. As the year goes on, Katey, who is bright and curious, makes the most of the opportunities that come her way yet endures heartache and sadness along the path to discovering herself.

The two best things about this novel are the setting and Katey. Towles conjures the allure of city with his vibrant descriptions of the buildings, the streets, the nightlife, the energy and bustle. Katey is described with the same enthusiasm. She is smart, funny, clever, sassy and self-reflective. It is a joy to watch her make her way in the world and discover who she wants to be and how she wants to live. She narrates the story and her voice is completely endearing and authentic.

The other characters are also very polished. For a debut novelist Towles does an amazing job of creating distinct and colorful people who are full of complexities. He also writes fantastic dialogue that reads like a movie from the 1930’s sounds.

This is a first-rate coming of age story with wit and intelligence. I really enjoyed it and can’t wait to see what Amor Towles writes next.

For those of you who’ve read Rules of Civility, did you know that Towles wrote a short story collection called Eve in Hollywood? It will soon be available as an ebook (Thanks to Melissa from Life:Merging for letting me know about it).

Other thoughts:

Ciao Domenica

Lakeside Musing

Miss Bibliophile

Tiny Library

A Work in Progress

Beautiful Lies by Clare Clark

There are few things better than a good neo-Victorian novel, so I was really looking forward to this book set in London in the 1880’s. I’d never read Clare Clark before, but I’d heard from patrons at the library that her novels are full of rich historical details. Beautiful Lies definitely had that, but I was left curiously puzzled by my indifference to the novel.

Maribel Campbell Lowe is a politician’s wife – a bored politician’s wife. Childless and uninterested in the pursuits of other women of her class, she spends her days drifting until she develops an interest in photography. Her husband, Edward, is a radical Scottish MP who makes quite a few enemies among his fellow politicians and captures the attention of the press. Maribel has secrets that would destroy not only her reputation, but her husband’s career if they ever came to light. When the intense and controversial newspaper editor Alfred Webster takes an unhealthy interest in her she begins to live her days with acute anxiety, waiting for the news that Webster has discovered and revealed the mysteries of her past.

Beautiful Lies is very slow-paced, almost too slow in some chapters. The story is told leisurely; the prose is very repressed and contained, just as Maribel seems to be. Clark does an excellent job of creating the sense of controlled panic that Maribel feels throughout the novel, but reading through this feeling was too much after a while – I think the novel could have been shorter and would have conveyed the suspense a bit better without wearing on the reader.

As we learn more about Maribel’s past and Edward’s struggles, a mournful tone settles on the story. The loss and sadness that both of them conceal has formed them into wary and watchful people, only trusting of each other and sometimes they can’t even count on that. I liked Maribel, but she is not a character that a reader can feel passionate about or connect with strongly because she is as aloof to us as she is to the other characters. The story is told from her viewpoint so we only see Edward through her eyes. I think he is a really intriguing character, devoted and courageous – I would have liked to have seen more of the events from his perspective.

The best thing about Beautiful Lies is the  fascinating historical details – the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show is in London during the duration of the novel and Buffalo Bill makes a cameo appearance. The political turmoil – the riots in Trafalgar Square, especially – is really interesting to read about. And so is the process of taking and developing photographs.

Beautiful Lies is not a bad novel, but it lacked the sparkling energy that memorable books nearly always hold for me. I enjoyed some of it, but as far as neo-Victorian novels go it was just mediocre.

Have you read Clare Clark?

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

The Shooting Party takes place in 1913, over three days in October, at a shooting party at Nettleby Park, the home of Sir Randolph Nettleby and his wife Minnie. At first glance it seems like nothing much happens in this novel, but it is one of those books that, despite a slight plot, reveals heaps about the characters, the culture, the politics and the society of this particular time period in England just through the subtle conversations and interactions between the characters and the way they react to the confusing events of their shooting weekend.

Sir Randolph’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren live at Nettleby Hall and there are 3 or 4 couples who are also in attendance. The competition between the best shooters is vicious and occupies the minds of the men while the women tend to the comfort of the party and keep the conversation sparkling and witty.

I was intrigued by the way the hunts were organized and contrived and how the violence of the shooting party, the language used to describe the hunts and the formation of the beaters all foreshadowed the human violence and death that was coming with the war, which the characters are vaguely concerned with. The decline of country life, the rise of the working class and the growing respect for animals and disgust for senselessly hunting them all tinge the events in  The Shooting Party. The tensions these changes are bringing simmer below the surface of the traditional hunt weekend and nag at many of the characters. They all sense that their world is shifting yet they continue in their accepted roles. There is a sense that they have every right to enjoy their lives as they are because what is heading for them is too harsh to bear, though the events of this weekend change most of their lives forever.

This book is not fast paced. It meanders very slowly through the weekend, but it is never boring because there are so many interesting relationships, personalities and histories that are explored and examined throughout their stay.

I feel that I can’t do this book justice, at all, but I did love it and was intellectually stimulated by its themes, language and humor. Why is it that the books that make such a great impact on us are sometimes the hardest ones to write about? I thought about it for many days after finishing it, however I am having the hardest time finding words to relay to you why I think you should read it!

Please visit Sunday or Darlene to read more about this outstanding book!

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by E. Speller

I’ve always had a strange fascination with people who’ve disappeared and have never been seen again. The tv show Disappeared is one I never miss because I just don’t understand how someone can vanish into thin air. The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton deals with just such a case. Set in the 1920’s the book follows the main character, Laurence Bartram, as he is engaged to help his friend William renovate an ancient church at a country house called Easton Deadall. While there he learns that more than 10 years previously the daughter of the home’s owner disappeared in the middle of the night and was never found. Her name was Kitty and she was only 5 years old. Though Laurence is not a professional detective he is a very curious man and quietly sets out to solve the mystery of Kitty’s disappearance.

This book is the second in the Laurence Bartram mystery series. I didn’t read the first book in the series, The Return of Captain John Emmett, and I do feel like I missed a few key details about Laurence and his past that would have helped me to better understand his actions in this novel. However, I did enjoy this despite not knowing anything about what happened in the first book. This is a slow-paced mystery, not full of adventure and adrenaline. It is more cerebral and relies on Laurence’s plodding inquiries and his diligent conversations to solve the mystery. Laurence is a great character; a reserved, complex and intelligent man whose  personal restraint encourages people to trust and talk to him.

Though I felt this novel lacked energy in some ways, I enjoyed it. The time period, the characters and the solution to the mystery were all very well executed and I would certainly read more about Mr. Bartram and his life.

Do you like historical mysteries?

The Solitary House by Lynn Shepherd

The Solitary House, Delacorte Press, 2012

The Solitary House (called Tom-All-Alone’s in the UK) is a dark Victorian mystery that uses characters and plot points from two grand Victorian mysteries – The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and Bleak House by Charles Dickens – to create its own riveting tale.

Charles Maddox is a young private investigator, an outspoken man who was fired from the police force after challenging an older and well-respected detective, Inspector Bucket. He’s scraping by, taking small jobs here and there, when he is summoned by a powerful attorney, Edward Tulkinghorn, to find the writer of some threatening letters sent to one of Tulkinghorn’s clients. With hopes of making important connections, Charles takes the job though he is wary of Tulkinghorn’s shady reputation. He quickly finds the letter writer, but he still becomes embroiled in a murderous and dangerous scheme when he realizes that Tulkinghorn has lied to him.

At the same time, Charles’s uncle, called Maddox, is rapidly degenerating into dementia so Charles moves in with him to help care for his admired uncle. Maddox was once a detective himself and taught Charles most of what he knows.

There is also a parallel plot line involving a young woman, Hester, who lives with her Guardian and several other young ladies in a peaceful country setting. At first, I was perplexed by this separate narrative, but Shepherd deftly connects the two stories together before the end of the novel.

There is a lot going on in this book. There are lots of little diversions that are all really interesting and, though hard to describe, they are not confusing to read about. I highly enjoyed the Victorian setting, the description of the gloomy, dirty and seedy London underworld and the glimpse into how the police operated in the 1850’s.

Fortunately, you don’t have to have read either The Woman in White or Bleak House to understand the plot or to appreciate the story. I have read The Woman in White, but did not catch very many of the references to its plot. I recognized many more details and characters from Bleak House, though I have only seen the tv adaptation!

Excluding Mary Stewart, this is the first suspense novel I’ve read in 2012 and it made me realize how much I like and miss the genre. Have you read any exceptional suspense novels lately?

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Hello, friends, it only took a short week for me to start feeling better! I’m very glad not to be away longer because I did miss blogging and being part of the community of readers I so treasure. Thanks for being understanding and kind during my little break!  I didn’t go to the doctor because I am pretty sure that my generally poor diet and lack of exercise are the main culprits in my fatigue, therefore I decided to give up sugar to see if it helped with the lack of energy and it did! I haven’t had very much sugar this past week and I feel so much better. I even feel like I can muster up enough energy to start exercising. But enough about me….let’s talk about The Lifeboat.

Can you imagine being stuck on a small lifeboat with 30-some other people, all of them relative strangers, drifting in the ocean waiting for rescue after your ocean liner has blown up for no apparent reason? This is exactly the position that Grace Winter finds herself in in 1914 while traveling  with her new husband, Henry. As the lifeboat drifts along the passengers are directed by Mr. Hardie, a crew member whose strong leadership style and seafaring knowledge initially create trust among the group. However, factions soon begin to form when an older woman, Mrs. Grant, quietly influences many of the women on the boat to go against Mr. Hardie.  Most of the passengers are convinced that they can’t survive without some of them sacrificing themselves for the good of the group. The fear, anxiety and tension mount until a devastating decision changes the dynamics on the lifeboat for good.

The story is narrated by Grace who’s been commissioned by her lawyers (she’s on trial after what happens on the boat) to write an account of everything that happened during those harrowing three weeks. She is not a truly reliable narrator. The reader can feel that she tries to spin events to make herself look, not innocent, really, but more a victim of confusion. The psychological fallout from trying to survive is very well portrayed and so is the terrible human tendency to turn on each other when we face extinction.

I think this would be a great book for book clubs because the ending is ambiguous and I can see book club members having a heated and entertaining debate over what really happened on the lifeboat and whether Grace’s part is as neutral as she makes it out to be.

Though I enjoyed The Lifeboat, it won’t be remembered as one of the best of this year. The end was disappointing and it was just one of those books that left me flat when I closed it after reading the last page.

What did other bloggers think?

Books & Chocolate

Fleur Fisher