Wednesday, June 21, 2017

GRANDMOTHER AND THE PRIESTS









Grandmother and the Priests, Taylor Caldwell, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1963, 469 pp
 
 
Whenever I see a Taylor Caldwell novel on one of My Big Fat Reading Project bestseller lists, I sigh and groan and gird myself to suffer through another wordy, melodramatic, sometimes religious tone layered in with her odd political views. (You may ask, why do I read them then? For the answer, see my post on My Big Fat Reading Project.) This one was the #6 bestseller in 1963 and turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It does have a strong religious theme but was much more palatable for me than The Shoes of the Fisherman. I will explain why.

The grandmother of the title is a rich Irish widow who gave up the Catholic religion at a young age. She likes to dress up, drink, and throw parties. For no explained reason, she regularly hosted dinner parties for a group of priests. Is it a cliche that priests love good rich food and fine wines, brandy and whiskey? I seem to have run across this trope in many novels ranging from mid 20th century bestsellers to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall series. 

What made this an enjoyable novel was the tales told by these priests as they sat around the fire after dinner, well fed and certainly a bit drunk. All of them are Irish and another cliche is what good storytellers the Irish are. That storytelling gift is also evident in all of Taylor Caldwell's books and I decided she was almost the Danielle Steele of her era.

The tales were entertaining as each priest looked back at his younger days, usually spent at some poor parish in off-the-beaten-track Irish towns. The housing was often shabby, the food spare, the weather beastly, and the nuns controlling. Yet these priests became father figure, judge, psychologist and just plain problem solver for their parishioners. 

Every tale includes a moral conundrum demanding the young priest to think outside the box while maintaining a grounding in Catholic doctrine and needing to save as many souls as possible. Though a couple of these stories went on a bit too long, I actually loved the ways these holy men overcame doubt and fear and sometimes downright criminal behavior. In each case, it was their humanitarian urges that brought them through hardship to create better conditions for all involved.

We could use a few more men like them today!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

DREAMING IN CUBAN






Dreaming in Cuban, Cristina Garcia, Random House, 1992, 245 pp
 


From the French Revolution in The Glass-Blowers I went directly to the Cuban Revolution. In light of recent developments in the United States relations with Cuba, the Tiny Book Club decided to read a novel set in Cuba and written by a Cuban. Cristina Garcia was born in Havana on July 4, 1958, just about six months before Fidel Castro's revolution ousted dictator Batista. So even though her family fled Cuba when she was only two years old, we thought her first novel would fit the bill.

It is a wonderful novel and like The Glass-Blowers, deals with the impact and consequences of revolution on a family. For various reasons I have lately been thinking about the consequences of divorce on families with children. There are numerous parallels between the two. The bottom line is upheaval accompanied by the necessity to take sides, the emotional turmoil, the economic disruption, and the fact that nothing will be the same as it was before.

The viewpoint in this novel is decidedly female and each female is her own unique person. My favorite character was Celia, the grandmother, who remained in Cuba and was a supporter of Castro and his hopes for the country. She is a complex character who harbored a life long love for her first boyfriend, who had a difficult relationship with her husband, who went crazy at the birth of her first daughter and was sent to an asylum by that husband where she was given shock treatments. Good God!

That first daughter, Lourdes, moved to New York after her marriage. She purely hates Castro and is a complete piece of work with not one gentle emotion in her makeup, but I liked her too. A second daughter remained in Cuba and is a wild woman who dabbles in a Cuban mystical religion originated by slaves and succumbs to it in the end.

Then there is Pilar, daughter of Lourdes and an example of a 1970s daughter of immigrants in New York's art scene. She is Celia's favorite granddaughter and they long for each other. She was my second favorite character.

Basically every character is fractured in some way, even the men, and if you are looking for exemplary mothers you won't find a one. But you will find fierce mothers and strong emotions and wild behaviors. The lushness of Cuba, the magical realism that is just part of the country, and the search for identity in an essentially broken society are all brought to full and vivid life.

Though one of the Tinies had some trouble with the way the story jumps about in time, we all felt we got what we were looking for. I had no idea Cristina Garcia has written so many books. I read The Aguero Sisters about 20 years ago but now I want to read them all.


(Dreaming in Cuban is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

THE GLASS-BLOWERS








The Glass-Blowers, Daphne Du Maurier, Doubleday & Company, 1963, 348 pp
 
 
Daphne Du Maurier has two distinct voices as a novelist. One is the gothic, psychological voice of Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, and others. The second is the one she uses for her historical fiction, as in The King's General or Mary Anne. The Glass-Blowers, #8 on the 1963 bestseller list, is in the historical fiction mode. The author was descended from a family of glass-blowers and honors them with her novel.

Some readers are more pleased with the gothic novels but I like both of her genres, especially because in the historical ones I always learn pieces of history I didn't know. This one takes place in several renowned glass-blowing establishments, operated by the Duval family and situated south of Paris. It covers the period of time leading up to the French Revolution through to Napoleon becoming emperor. The political upheaval of those times causes great disturbances for the family including loss of business and division between family members who sided with the Republic and those who were Loyalists to the King.

Though it was sometimes tricky to keep all the family members, locations, and political factions straight, I was never less than captivated by the story. It is full of intrigue, heartbreak, and hardship. As in any family saga, there are heroes and heroines alongside less admirable characters. I loved the ways the family dealt with all the problems and divided views. Several awesome female characters are central to the tale.

Best of all, the novel gave me another side of the Revolution than the one taught in school. It showed the daily and yearly challenges that such political turmoil brought to the livelihoods and history of families, especially families who were intrinsic to the character of the society and nation that was France in the late 18th century.

I finished the book with the realization that my knowledge of the French Revolution and its outcomes is rather thin. I have decided to read A Tale of Two Cities (how have I gone through the majority of my life without reading that?) and Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund, which has lingered on my shelves for years.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

LITTLE NOTHING





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Little Nothing, Marisa Silver, Blue Rider Press, 2016, 333 pp


This is the third novel I have read by Marisa Silver and it is amazing, definitely a contender for my top 25 of the year.

Pavla is born a dwarf in an unnamed Eastern European country on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. Her small village is steeped in superstition. At first her mother, who has at last had a child, cannot accept what she views as a freak. But both parents come to love this late life child, so that even though Pavla is tormented by the kids at school who call her Little Nothing, she has a loving family.

Eventually that love takes a weird turn as the aging parents worry about Pavla's future after they are no longer there to protect her. They begin taking her to doctors, one of whom claims that if he stretches the girl, she will grow. Thus ends the good part of the little person's life and thus enters horror.

At that point the novel takes a weird turn and becomes a dark folk tale. I will not say more except that there is a fractured love story, that Pavla is an admirable character of many levels, and that in Marisa Silver's hands the story takes you to places you will not expect but you will believe.

This is a novel about transformation, about how people deal with trouble and are changed by it. It is hard to put down and if you can suspend your disbelief it will bring you gifts.


(Little Nothing is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

THE SNOWY DAY





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The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats, Viking Books, 1962, 28 pp


THE SUNDAY FAMILY READ


In 1937 the American Library Association  created The Caldecott Medal to recognize the preceding year's "most distinguished picture book for children." It is awarded to the illustrator. As part of My Big Fat Reading Project, I read the major award winning books of each year's list. In 1963, there were only six major awards in the United States. (As of 2017, I include 21 award categories!)

Ezra Jack Keats won the Caldecott Medal in 1963 for The Snowy Day. In keeping with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, it was the picture book that broke the color barrier in children's publishing. Keats wrote the prose and created the illustrations.

Peter, a black child, wakes up one morning to find that snow has fallen. He has breakfast and then dons his snowsuit and ventures out to see the snow. He observes his footprints, he knocks snow off tree branches with a stick, he watches the big boys having a snowball fight but feels too young to join them, slides down a mountain of snow, and so on.

I have read this book to many toddlers including my sons. I grew up with snowy winters. It was a pleasure to revisit the story on a 90 degree May day in southern California.

Ezra Jack Keats was born in 1916 in the Jewish quarter of Brooklyn, the son of Polish immigrants. He grew up to make his living as an illustrator. He created Peter saying, "None of the manuscripts I'd been illustrating featured any black kids...My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along." The Snowy Day made him famous.


(The Snowy Day is available as a board book on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available paperback and hardcover by order.)

Thursday, June 08, 2017

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING




The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes, Alfred A Knopf, 2011, 104 pp
 
 
This was my first Julian Barnes novel and I liked it overall; the writing, the way he created the characters, and the theme about how our memories are subject to change as life goes on. After three earlier nominations, he finally won the Booker for this one.
 
Tony Webster was one of a tight group of friends in his school days, so tight that they vowed to stay in touch for the rest of their lives. Adrian Finn, the latest addition to the group, was the brightest of them and Tony developed quite a bromance with him. 
 
The novel is narrated by Tony who is looking back over his life. He has been divorced for many years but is still "friends" with his wife and in pretty good touch with their daughter. The news that Adrian committed suicide after stealing and then marrying Tony's first girlfriend has kept the other three men in touch, though more sporadically than they had planned. When the mother of the lost girlfriend dies, she leaves a sum of money and Adrian's diaries to Tony in her will even though she and Tony only met once. 
 
As an older man, Tony is the quintessential English man, unadventurous with suppressed emotions. The bequest sends him into all manner of uncharacteristic behaviors and stirs up memories he had completely blocked out.
 
The old girlfriend was a mean, heartless bitch who toyed with the young Tony, especially sexually. She is one of the most unlikable characters I have met in a novel. As the stories of these characters unfold, the reader becomes as obsessed with finding out the truth as Tony is.

Then comes a completely unexpected reveal at the end which left me unsure of how much I liked the novel. We discussed the book at length at the Bookie Babes reading group meeting. I decided that as a novel, it was actually excellent, especially because I didn't see at all what was coming and was made to reevaluate each character. 

How do you react as a reader to surprise endings? The kind that make suddenly make you realize that the book you thought you were reading is something else entirely. I felt a bit like I had been tricked but without that ending I may have found the story somewhat boring and predictable.

Has anyone seen the movie? If so, did you find it good?


(The Sense of an Ending is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
 
 

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

JUNE READING GROUP UPDATE








It must be summer, at least almost. I only have 4 reading group meetings this month and I have already read all the books. That means I get to see all my favorite reading people while I read what I want to read for the next several weeks. I think I have got this down!


Molly's Group:

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Tiny Book Club:

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Laura's Group:

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Bookie Babes: 

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So I know by now that most of you who follow this blog are not in reading groups. But, if you were, what book that you have read lately would you most want to discuss with other readers?