Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Paris Wife by Paula McClain

It is unfortunate that students in high school never get to know the story behind the story. It is almost certain that every student reads at least one Ernest Hemingway novel, novella, or short story. Maybe, if there is time, a teacher when teaching about the author will mention Hemingway's service in wartime, his fascination with bullfighting and his tragic end of life. What is left out is his struggle to become a writer, his bohemian life-style in Paris, and unfortunately, his treatment of women. These are the things that make an author come alive and therefore his works.

The Paris Wife is a fictionalized account of Hemingway's marriage to his first wife, Hadley Richardson. There is enough history here that the reader knows that not too much of the book has been fictionalized. Richardson and Hemingway are introduced as young people who are living in Chicago. They become infatuated with each other, fall in love and are eventually married. Hemingway is writing for The Toronto Star and the Cooperative Commonwealth.  Hadley's mother was very over-protective of her as a child, she heard the gunshot that was the cause of her father's suicide and when she met Hemingway a bit unsure of such a relationship. They were married after less than a year, a courtship that was carried on mostly by short visits and letters. They decided that they would go to Rome to live for a while, but Sherwood Anderson convinced them that Paris was a better place to be.

McClain vividly describes their life in Paris from their impoverished accommodation, to the dance halls, the sights and sounds of the Latin Quarter, and of course their association with the members of the "Lost Generation." I have always been fascinated with how all of these incredibly creative people converged in this city and managed to produce volumes of literature. From Stein to Dos Passos to James Joyce to Ezra Pound, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. There is an energy that one senses that was passed from one to the other. The wives, including Alice B. Toklas, were an important support group and one has the distinct impression that that's who Hadley was.  

The gradual disintegration of the marriage was hastened by the attention paid to Hemingway by one of Hadley's best friends, Pauline Pfeiffer, a wealthy fashion designer who was living in Paris. The Hemingways' lives were marked often by traveling to Austria, Pamplona, and even back to North America. It was not uncommon that the two traveled separately. It was during one of these trips when Ernest returned to Paris without Hadley that he began an affair with Pauline. They eventually agreed to a divorce, but remained on amicable terms for the sake of their child, Bumpy (John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway).  Pauline eventually becomes Hemingway's second wife and Hadley marries Paul Mowrer. 

The Paris Wife was a good read, albeit sometimes the writing seemed choppy, that is a glimpse into the life of Hemingway in Paris. Despite knowing the outcome of the relationship, the reader does root for the two to make it through the rough times of the marriage. Hemingway is not always the villain, and Hadley is not always the persecuted and maligned wife. She is, however, a woman who gave up dreams of pursuing her own career in music for that of her husband. She was supportive and encouraging. It will be interesting to read Hemingway's version of the Parisian life in A Moveable Feast. A good read that was both educational, enlightening, and enjoyable. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The buzz about Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl started in the spring with advanced reviews.  It was on nearly every book and entertainment publication as THE must read of the summer. I was so glad that The Gables Book group decided to read this for our September book. A word of caution. Do not start the book unless you can devote all waking hours to reading it. It is, in the true sense of the words, a page turner. Flynn hooks you from the very beginning and then keeps you on the edge of your chair as she weaves one of the most unpredictable psychological thrillers that I have read. 
The reader meets Nick Dunne the morning of his fifth anniversary. He describes his recent move from New York City to North Carthage, MO - how he and his wife Amy had both lost their job, how his mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, how he and his sister Margo (Go) opened THE BAR, and how unhappy his wife was. Immediately we get the hint that this marriage is not on solid ground. And then the scene is set - Amy has disappeared from their house and everything implicates Nick. Using alternating chapters by Nick as he goes through each day's happenings from the time of her disappearance and Amy's diary from the time she met Nick at a NYC party, Flynn's gripping description of two people trapped in a marriage built on lies and deceptions results in the reader not knowing whom or what to believe. He follows his traditional anniversary Treasure Hunt that is not what it seems to be. All the clues are there, but their real meaning is shrouded by diversionary tactics.

Amy is a single child of two famous children's book authors. She has had a privileged life, but has also been on "display" since she is the subject of those books -Amazing Amy..... This, however, does not contribute to the happy life. She is resentful and feels like a pawn in their cause. Her diary is commentary on her life, her marriage, and her happiness or lack thereof and portend the future.
“The question I've asked more often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I supposed these questions storm cloud over every marriage: What are you thinking how are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?”
Flynn's writing is infused with truth and humor that often slaps the reader in the face. One of the most compelling passages is Amy reflecting on Cool Amy or Amazing Amy.
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, ..., and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bit..h doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point f... someone else. Because
“I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)” 
The secondary characters, Amy's parents Rand and Marybeth Elliott , Nick's sister Margo, Amy's implicating best friend Noelle, stalker Desi, college friend  Hillary Handy, detectives Boney and Gilpin, and Andie Hardy all add to the twists and turns that the book takes. What actually happened to Amy? How did Nick contribute to her disappearance? Did the police overlook the obvious? Could Amy possibly survive? There is no way to reveal any more about the plot without contributing major spoilers.

In addition to being the summer's greatest thriller, the book transcends that description by serving as a wake-up call as to who we actually are and who is that other person in a relationship. As Nick ponders:  
"What are you thinking how are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?”

The one negative about the book and the reason for some lukewarm or panning reviews is that the ending seems a bit forced, but given the psychological tricks Flynn has pulled, it could be considered the only solution plausible. That's up for the the reader to decide. The only action that is not up for debate is to read this.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson's name is usually associated with travel, science, and language  books from across the pond, but in this case he returns to his native United States to take on an amazing adventure. The Appalachian Trail (from here on referred to as the AT as in his book) is the subject of this book that was written in 1998 after he moved back to Hanover, NH. The short read is a combination of humorous, botanical, and zoological reflections. 

Hanover is very near a point of the AT that stretches 2184 miles from Maine to Georgia. Being the curious person that Bryson is, he decided that it would be a good thing to hike it, all of it. And so he begins his preparations from being state of the art gear including pack, tent, and clothes. He decides to bring along a friend, Stephen Katz, and the two embark on the journey in March, 1996. They set out to be "thru walkers" - those who walk the entire length of the trail. Katz provides a bit of comic relief through the hardships with his insistence on certain foods, getting used to the equipment, jettisoning supplies and clothes right and left, and interaction with those whom he meets on the trail. 

Bryson and Katz begin in Georgia with all good intentions, but the snow and miserable conditions cause them to rethink their plan. By the time they get to the Smokies and Gatlinburg, TN, they decide to skip a portion of the AT and resume the hike near Roanoke, VA. Unfortunately, the amount of time necessary to complete the entire trail was miscalculated and after a mere 500 more miles, Bryson leaves the AT to go on a book tour. His discussion of Stonewall Jackson and the Harper's Ferry raid was very interesting and insightful, especially for the history minded reader. He managed to do some bits and pieces of the trail after the publicity tour including a walk through Centralia, PA. His description of this abandoned mining town was graphic and disturbing. Could this be what we might find if we allow fracking to poison our land. He meets up with Katz again and they continue to the the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine

The book was enjoyable especially when Katz and Bryson were on the trail and relating their experiences. Some of the descriptions of the geology and biology of the areas were a bit protracted and in too much detail for my non-scientific brain. His style is very much like that of an oral storyteller who can keep a listener's attention through tales and tangents. A good read and an impetus to reread Notes from a Small Island before returning to England.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Fault in our Stars by John Green

The one down side of retiring from my job as a school librarian is the lack of ready access to new and exciting children's and young adult books. When highly acclaimed books are released, they are often hard to get at a library because the kids want to read them. I waited patiently for almost 8 months to read the new John Green book, The Fault in our Stars.  John Green is right up there in my estimation with Chris Crutcher, Terry Trueman, Laurie Halse Anderson and Jennifer Donnelly. Their books are not to be missed. 

TFIOS, as it is known over at Twitter, is Green's 4th book and is an unbelievable read. He has a knack of really getting into a teen's head and understanding and expressing the thoughts and feelings contained therein. He has managed to write a book about teens with cancer that still makes you laugh, look at the positive, and stave off the anger at the situation. We meet sixteen year old Hazel Grace Lancaster as she is negotiating/arguing with her mother about why she should not have to attend a cancer support group. Hazel has had thyroid cancer that spread to her lungs. It is only because of a very aggressive and experimental medication therapy that she is alive. Her lungs have been compromised and she is constantly on oxygen. She relents and goes to the support group where she meets Augustus Waters.  Augustus has had a leg amputated due to osteosarcoma but is in remission. Hazel also forges a friendship with Augustus' best friend, Isaac, who suffers from eye cancer and goes blind because of it. 

Hazel, who has not attended a physical school since the treatment's onset, is a reader and introduces Augustus to her favorite book. An Imperial Affliction by the fictional Dutch author Peter Van Houten is a novel about another girl with cancer. Augustus becomes as infatuated with the books as Hazel had and the two commiserate over Van Houten's audacity in ending the book mid-sentence with no resolve. Although Van Houten has never responded to Hazel's inquiries, he does to Augustus' by saying if he wanted to ascertain the answers to his questions, Augustus would need to travel to Amsterdam. Not wanting to go without Hazel, Augustus approaches the Wish foundation to see if it would be possible to include Hazel on his "wish" trip to Amsterdam. (Hazel had used her wish when she was first diagnosed with the terminal cancer.) And so, even despite a medical setback, the two along with Hazel's mother,  travel to meet Van Houten. It is a trip full of awakenings: the two are repulsed by Van Houten's meeting and realize that An Imperial Affliction was written about someone very close to him; Hazel and Augustus face the feelings that they have toward each other; and they must confront a worsening medical condition.

This book's character are believable and well developed. We are privy to the innermost thoughts of Hazel and August. But we also experience the feelings of those who surround them with love - their parents and close friends. Hazel's best friend from when she attended high school, Kaitlyn, depicts how superficial a friendship can be, especially when trying to avoid reality.  The ending of the book is not what you would expect and will not be given away here. John Green has breathed life and a zeal to live into characters that must face death on a daily basis. They are not going to be chained and bound to an existence of waiting. They will face the inevitable, but on their terms. Van Houten's reappearance at the end of the novel serves as the laces that will tie Hazel and Augustus' story together through eternity - “a forever within the numbered days." 

Autographing Looking for Alaska  for my students at Sackets Harbor
 I met John Green at the AASL Conference in Pittsburgh in 2005. He was in the early stages of promoting his book, Looking for Alaska, that eventually went on to win the Michael L. Printz Award. He was witty, personable, and engaging. I knew that his novels would forever be on my "must read" list.  The Fault in Our Stars is destined to be a Young Adult classic. It is a complex mix of philosophy, romance, teen angst, and laughter. Put a box of tissues near your reading chair. But don't miss this one.