Between the Bridge and the River (CBR10 #51)

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I had such hopes for this one. I have a noted love of Craig Ferguson. I read and enjoyed his autobiography American On Purpose during my first Cannonball Read. Ferguson in this debut is the version creepy but lovable, which is a combination that worked very well for me in his stint as host of The Late Late Show and works less well in this book. I’m still struggling to wrap my head around what I read and what the heck he was after, and I have two weeks to get those thoughts more formulated for honest discussion with my fellow cannonballers but for now I’m left a bit at loose ends.

We have, at the core of the book, two pairs of men traversing life, the globe, and the metaphysical in search of… something.  Around that core we also have a truly problematic book to read today. The worst parts of Ferguson’s shtick (of which I can admit to, while I loved his late night show and his comedy specials) stand out in stark relief against the more nuanced aspects of his writing. He lays in repetitive phrasing in a way to form the Greek chorus in the background which I found highly enjoyable, but also appears to have not managed to write a single woman with agency in his entire book.

Ferguson is on the record as saying that the book would likely be uncomfortable to read as it was uncomfortable to write, and that its pushing against mores, institutions, and values would be divisive. They were, but not in the intelligent manner I think Ferguson was really after. The title refers for one last chance at redemption, I think Ferguson’s redemption happened after this book not during it.

This book was read as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, and specifically both our Book Club and Bingo. Book Club is being held 2-3 November 2018, so stop on by and tell us what you think.

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Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn (CBR10 #50)

When the Cannonballers were voting for the AlabamaPink book club this book was my second choice (my first choice was Between the Bridge and the River and I’ll be talking about my feelings on that one in my next review) so choosing this for the AlabamaPink bingo square made perfect sense to me. I like biographies, Audrey Hepburn, and classic Hollywood – done and done.

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I am however left underwhelmed by the reading experience of this book. I think it can be attributed to the style of Donald Spoto. Spoto is a writer and theologian known for his best-selling biographies of film and theatre celebrities, including Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich, and Marilyn Monroe. However, in the past forty years he has written around thirty books and I fear they may have become formulaic, or I am over a several hundred page walk through someone’s life in chronological order.

This isn’t to say that Audrey Hepburn’s life wasn’t incredibly interesting in and of its own right – she lived through parental divorce, spending years at boarding school, living in Nazi-occupied Holland, an incredible rise to Hollywood stardom, her own failed marriages, struggles in motherhood, and important work with UNICEF in the later years of her life. I wish this book was as alive as Hepburn was; that it relished the life she lead instead of lapping at the edges of her deep ocean.

While I would agree that Spoto is perceptive and well-researched (his endnotes give this evidence, you wouldn’t necessarily know from the tenor of his writing), he is also as Michael Coveney of The Guardian described him: “quasi-academic gossipmonger”. Somewhere in between he lost me, and a review of a biography is a review of the writer and their product – not the subject.

I went back and read AlabamaPink’s review from 2008 and while she was much warmer in her reception of the book than me, she and I share a similar opinion of the author’s take: “Spoto chronicles Hepburn’s personal struggles gently, as a close friend would, never with an air of salaciousness. If there were any faults to the book, it would be Spoto’s obvious admiration for his subject. He finds little fault with any of her film performances, heaping enormous praise (not wholly undue) for her work in A Nun’s Story. While the cynic in me could argue that Spoto intentionally omitted negative remarks about Hepburn from Hollywood, it isn’t hard to accept that her colleagues genuinely adored her and simply didn’t have a slanderous word to say against her.”

I guess I’m the cynic.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of our fallen warrior queen, AlabamaPink.

 

Crimson Peak: The Official Movie Novelization (CBR10 #49)

For my forty ninth book of the year I read Crimson Peak: The Official Movie Novelization with two of my dearest friends who  participate in Cannonball Read with me and are also working on completing the #CBR10Bingo squares.

I’d like to be able to tell you that this is all CrystalClear and Ale’s fault: CC’s for making us watch the movie in the first place (we should apologize now if you enjoyed it, but all we saw were plot holes), and Ale for being lured in by the novelization. But, this really is a three-part debacle because the minute I saw Two Heads Are Better Than One square on the Bingo board I brought up the book and movie that had not entered into group conversation in over a year to make this happen. Because I’m apparently a masochist. You’re welcome. Behold for your reading pleasure, the 3-part reading of “Crimson Peak. A Novelization.” We took turns reading aloud, so imagine three cannonballers on sofas in a living room one Wednesday evening losing our minds. (Spoiler – we DNFed after page 58.)

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This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (see above word vomit review), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

All-of-a-Kind Family (CBR10 #48)

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I have no recollection of how All-of-a-Kind Family arrived on my shelves. There’s no inscription in the front, no library book sale note, I didn’t write my name in it so I can’t do handwriting sleuthing. All I know is that I read this book over, and over, and over again in my youth and the book shows my care and use. Still, probably 20 years since the last time I read it, I know the story backwards and forwards and the lilting nature of Sydney Taylor’s writing came immediately back to my mind’s eye.

The book was first published in 1951, but the edition I have is from 1989. This book kicks off a series, and in it Sydney Taylor introduces us to a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1912 – with five daughters ranging in age from 12 to 4. The book follows the five girls, Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie through a year in their life We are treated to things small, such as searching for hidden buttons while dusting the front parlor, or childhood traumas of lost library books and being quarantined and not allowed to see your friends so you don’t give them scarlet fever.  The book also doesn’t shy away from the family’s faith, and  is a primer on how to celebrate the Sabbath, Purim, Passover, and Sukkoth. Fast forward to my thirties when I’m the only non-Jewish person at my job who knows that Sukkoth (Succos) is the thanksgiving for the harvest lasting nine days and generally falling at the end of September after the heavy hitters of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

This re-read had me interested in the author, so I did a little digging. As I suspected, this book is a version of the author’s own childhood. She became a writer by jotting down notes about the stories she would tell her daughter of her own life, following her career as a secretary, then working with the Lenox Hill Players theater group, and dancing with the Martha Graham Dance Company. After Sydney Taylor passed in 1978 the Sydney Taylor Book Award was created in her honor and is given each year by the Jewish Association of Libraries to a book for young people that authentically portray the Jewish experience.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guideline), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Homegoing (CBR10 #47)

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Confession: I took this book out of the library no less than twice before I managed to read it. I was intimidated by the book, both by its content and its acclaim. It has a near perfect five star rating on Cannonball Read and high rating on Goodreads where literary fiction doesn’t normally do so well. I shouldn’t have been hesitant – the book earns its high rating by being one of the most accessible works of literary and historical fiction I have possibly ever read.

In her debut Yaa Gyasi tells a story which is both grand in scope and intimate in its execution, which is often attempted and rarely executed to this level. The book is also nearly flawless. Homegoing follows the descendants of a single Asante woman, Maame, living in late-18th century Gold Coast Africa. Structurally the novel traces the descendant generations of each of her daughters on two continents. One of her daughters, Effia, marries a white Englishman stationed at the fort and her descendants stay in Ghana. Her other daughter, Esi, is captured in a raid and sold into slavery in America. Adding to the nature of the story being told is that each daughter comes into the world into different families and different tribes, completely independent and unaware of the other.

The chapters are vignettes of one person per generation in each line, starting with the two half-sisters.  The chapters follow the next six generations in Ghana and America.  These generations  span over two hundred years of African and American history which includes some of the ugliest chapters each has to offer: colonialism, explicit and implicit racism, and the list goes on. One line has found itself in a land not of its choosing, unwelcome and continually oppressed; the other in the land of its ancestors, but searching for something new and meaningful and struggling to achieve either. The two lines move in concert with one another, across an ocean and in vastly different circumstances, but their shared past unites them in ways they cannot be aware of, and that are gently uncovered for the reader to connect.

Overall, Homegoing took my breath away. The book takes on the big issues that initially scared me away; slavery and the involvement of both the British and African civil unrest, familial ties both pride and resentment, racial identity, segregation, the value placed on female bodies, child raising, and more head on, without blanching from the truth. This is a book that it isn’t afraid of its contents and keeps them from overwhelming the reader.  The characters, the themes, and the sheer ambition of tackling so much time is astounding and could have easily gotten away from Gyasi, and she touched on the possibility briefly through her characters in the final chapters. Gyasi manages the tightrope by keeping the chapters crisp.

The most beautiful part of this book is how wonderfully the whole turns out to be much, much greater than the sum of its parts.  Each individual story is interesting, well-researched and developed in order to be compelling even in the quiet moments.  As a whole, the interwoven stories are a sparklingly nuanced, producing a thought-provoking picture of race, the past, and inheritance.  You can tell Gyasi put an ocean of thought into the whole thing and took greatest advantage of the fellowships she was awarded to put the time in to craft this work. The evidence of the mechanics falls away and we are left with the world, the story, and the characters; and a plain prose that could be confused for simple and unskilled but that would be confusing density with expertise.  Gyasi’s expert craftsmanship shows in the lack of obvious work, which is quite the trick.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

The Governess Game (CBR10 #46)

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I love a fun, feminist, anachronistic romance novel and that is something that Tessa Dare delivers regularly. Dare writes what I fondly refer to as Historical Fantasy Romance. There is *some* historically accurate details running through her narrative but they are very thin and often bent to suit her plot needs. In the second outing in the Girl Meets Duke series we’re following Alex Mountbatten, introduced in The Duchess Deal, who makes her living by setting clocks to Greenwich Mean Time. Following a terrible, and hysterically inappropriate interview for a governess position she doesn’t realize she’s being interviewed for, Alex loses the chronometer that is her livelihood. With literally no way to make her living she returns to the home of Chase Reynaud and takes the governess position after all. Chase Reynaud is heir presumptive to his uncle’s Dukedom as well as the guardian of two little girls, and a renowned rake who wants none of the responsibility of any of it.

With that starting point we’re off on a classic Dare story. Readers who don’t enjoy her works usually either don’t like the anachronisms or find her structure too repetitive. I don’t have problems with either of those things, and in reality read her books for exactly those things. I like knowing what to expect and Dare’s writing breaks down into a pretty clear set of standards. We’ve already covered the first, Alex Mountbatten is absolutely an independent lady making her own way in the world, in fact, Dare sets her up to have had no other option since the age of 10.

While Dare tends to specialize in a Marriage of Convenience plot, this book plays on the motif by having the characters living under the same roof as employer and governess. Chase is the Wounded Hero to Alex’s Independent Lady, emotionally stunted by events in his past who is nevertheless smitten with the heroine. The being smitten leads to smolder and steamy sexy times, and because Dare is writing in a more and more feminist way Chase focuses on consent in his interactions with Alex. Dare also delivers on sincere emotion and great emotional chemistry. While Chase’s emotional withholding worked less well for me than Alex’s very realistic fears there was never a false note in their emotional interactions.

The other two common aspects of a Dare novel are interesting, but not overtaking, side characters and an infusion of comedy or whimsy in some regard. Dare is not afraid of humor and in The Governess Game it is the two characters of the little girls where this strength is used. Children can devolve to plot moppets very easily in Romance, but Dare manages to write believable children who are never twee and rooted in the emotional landscape of their experiences. They are also the stage for the laugh out loud moments in the story: the morning burials of Millicent the doll who dies each day (sometimes more than once per day) from some terrible disease and is buried in the toy box following a eulogy from Chase.

I read the book in one afternoon/evening taking only a few breaks. I did not want to leave these characters even while a headache was developing. There was perhaps one too many will they/won’t they back and forths, but the characters we are introduced to, the characters we see again, and the direction we’re headed for book three next year all worked for me in just the way I hoped they would when I purchased the book.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review them how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

The Silkworm (CBR10 #45) (reread)

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Yes dear ones, the book was indeed better.

I genuinely missed the world of Cormoran Strike and when the television show was announced I knew I would do my best to track it down. It wasn’t easy in the States without a Cinemax subscription, but I sent a plea to my brother and he managed to procure the series for me and it was waiting for me as I started my re-read. Talk about perfectly timing for The Book Was Better bingo square.

Most people can’t reread mystery novels; once they know the ending the book loses its ability to hold their interest. Because my brain doesn’t hold onto details the mystery is often new to me again – in fact I didn’t remember who had committed the actual murder until well past the 90% mark of the audiobook. The clues were there, and it was fun to recognize which I remembered to be the red herrings. The Silkworm remains a fascinating examination at what can bring out a criminal genius.

Until this point in my reading of the Cormoran Strike books I have thought of Charlotte as non-critical to the story. I thought she was there to give us a better idea of Strike’s past, as a comparison point to Robin. Oh how wrong I was. In my first reading of book three, Career of Evil, I pulled apart the ways that sexism and misogyny were being examined in the book and in this reading I saw so many of the ways Rowling was setting up those points in this book. What I had missed, or what I had just assumed as part of the fabric of The Silkworm on my first go through was how Rowling as Galbraith was pulling the strings on unhealthy, codependent relationships and Charlotte and Matthew are part of that important subtext.

Back to the adaptation question, yes the book was better. Odds were always going to be so, how do you slim down a 17 hour audio book into a two hour television show and not lose something crucial to the story? Like the adaptation of the first book this one moved the timeline around a bit, one of the character’s first name was changed for reasons passing understanding, and an entire swath of side characters were left behind. But the television show did keep the main character beats of Robin and Cormoran’s relationship and the mystery, so for that I am thankful.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.