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.

 

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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.

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 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.

From Here to Eternity (CBR10 #44)

Two years ago I read and truly enjoyed Caitlin Doughty’s debut book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which chronicled her journey from someone curious about the business of death into an advocate for seeking out what she terms “the good death” and changing the funerary business as it is now in the United States.  Besides being an interesting story about her life, the book is basically a treatise about making death a part of your life, of staring down your fears and accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of our modern culture is not.

I wasn’t expecting their to be another book by Caitlin Doughty, which is perhaps silly based on the work she does at The Order of the Good Death and Ask A Mortician so I was caught off-guard last year when Lollygagger raved about Doughty’s second book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. I was so excited to find out that there was another book and one well-loved by Cannonball Read’s resident non-fiction medical/disaster/death reader (I hope that’s a description she doesn’t mind) that I promptly added it to my to read list and I had my Cannonballer Says bingo square.

Picking up where her first book left off, From Here to Eternity strives to demystify death and examine how other cultures deal with the rituals of mourning. Doughty remains the kind of author I enjoy reading; she takes a possibly taboo topic and makes it both welcoming and absorbing. Doughty believes (and I agree with her) that it is time once again, as a culture to become comfortable with what death really means, since it’s an experience we will all share. Our ancestors only two or three generations ago knew death, were familiar with its look, its smell. We now have an industry built around keeping these things away from us, and to what end? The book chronicles the travels to remote and near places to investigate people who are still intimately familiar with death and how they inhabit those relationships and those who like us are on the spectrum away or towards a more personal relationship with death.

Not every chapter held my attention so I find myself rating this one four stars as opposed to Lollygagger’s five, but it is still a book I would suggest to any reader wholeheartedly.

(This is neither here nor there but the cover art is beautiful for this book and the interior illustrations by artist Landis Blair are delightful as well.)

 

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 Arrangement (CBR10 #43)

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I have stuff going on in my personal life right now (as do we all from time to time) so I found myself ready to check out of reality for a bit and sink into a safely fictional reality where things end happily. Off to Romancelandia I went to visit Mary Balogh’s Survivors’ Club and check off the Brain Candy square for bingo.

The Arrangement is the second book in the series, and I’ll admit that I was a bit put off by which characters were going to be our focus having enjoyed the romance of people in their thirties in the series opener. In The Proposal we’re introduced to the entire Survivors Club, including youngest member Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh who was blinded in the war at the tender age of 17. Now 23, he’s determined to reclaim his adulthood from the women in his family who have dedicated themselves to making his life easy. Their latest trick is setting up him up with a wife. Vincent is decidedly against anyone who understands and realizing the woman they’ve set him up with is as truly uninterested as he, takes off with his valet without word for his family.

As his travels bring him to his childhood home he runs across Sophia Fry who is living with relatives. When Sophia’s cousin attempts to trap Vincent in marriage Sophia steps in to stop it, costing Sophia her place in their home. Feeling responsible for her destitute state Vincent convinces Sophia to marry him – and agrees to a classic marriage of convenience arrangement – a year of proper marriage and then they can each be on their way to independent lives.

It’s a bit of a slow burn, even with the marriage of convenience bringing the characters together quickly. Balogh accounts for the relative youth of her characters (23 and 20) and the inherent inexperience they each bring to the table in all matters and achieves a sweet love story. The last third is plagued with the usual problems in this trope: communication issues and could have been trimmed by about forty pages without hurting the narrative structure in any way. I’ve landed at 3 stars, and remain interested in the rest of the series, even though I’m now nervous about book three, which features the only member of the Survivors Club who did not appear on page in this installment.

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, and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

The Sisters Brothers (CBR10 #42)

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I have an enormous backlog. My Goodreads account tells me as of today, I have 649 books on my Want to Read shelf. I still have 62 that I added on the day I joined, January 6, 2012 during my first year participating in Cannonball Read 4. What better book to knock off the Backlog square than something I was introduced to in my first week of Cannonball Read and has been languishing for more than six years on Mount TBR (and also has a movie adaptation coming out later this month).

The Sisters Brothers of the story are Charlie and Eli. They are infamous mercenary killers traveling the 1850s Gold Rush west, hunting down the enemies of their boss, the Commodore. Their reputations precede them and the mention of their names makes people pay very close attention because no one survives when Charlie and Eli draw their weapons. Through them we have deWitt building a story about the nature of greed and the illusion of dreams and what is sacrificed to both.

The story is told by Eli, the younger of the two who has been following older brother Charlie’s lead since they were kidsyoung. Eli, however, is getting tired of life as a paid assassin and thinks it might be nice to settle down, run a store, and have a family. But they’ve got an assignment from the Commodore, so there’s not much he can do right now except for dream. The book follows the brothers from Oregon City to San Francisco as they seek out their latest target, and Eli is working towards this being their last target.

The predicaments they find themselves in as they travel towards then man they are supposed to kill are studies in the two different personalities of Eli and Charlie, how they see and interact with the world, and what those interactions cost them. Where Eli spends pages with his mind spinning out romance and back story of what was and will be, Charlie takes half a moment to figure out where he can get his most basic of needs met. The reader is left with the feeling that for every one of Charlie’s thoughts, Eli has one hundred, and very little of them have to do with reality in front of them. Eli’s life is in his mind, and Charlie’s life is the gun in his hand.

I appreciated the portrayal of the West and life therein. Patrick deWitt is riffing on the classic Western structure, and while I wasn’t completely sold on the “comic tour de force” the blurb was trying to sell, this is a book that is willing, wanting, and able to unpack the absurdity of life.  It doesn’t villainize nor romanticize violence, the old west, or the life of an outlaw but rather those components become well-rounded characters in their own right. Many characters are not human, and the horse Tug, who represents the relationship between man and nature and how man tends to destroy the latter, is integral in the growth of Eli.

While I’m not using this for my Snubbed square, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and I found it to be a much more cohesive and engaging book than that year’s winner The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes so if you’re looking for a choice for that square, I can suggest this one for you.

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 a fallen friend.