Friday, January 16, 2015

Recent holiday reading

I always manage to get a lot of reading done while I'm on vacation, and this past holiday season was no exception. :) 

I actually read "The Wilder Life:  My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie"  by Wendy McClure before I left on Christmas vacation. I had been searching for a copy of "Pioneer Girl" -- a newly released annotated version of Laura Ingalls Wilder's original unpublished memoir, which served as the foundation for her Little House series of books -- but it appears impossible to get in Canada at the moment. :p  "The Wilder Life" has been in my to-read pile for awhile and recommended to me by other Wilder fans, so it seemed like a good compromise.

McClure rediscovered Wilder's books -- which she had loved as a child -- as an adult. Thus begins her obsession with exploring what she calls "Laura World" -- the world of the books as well as the world of the author and the sometimes jarring differences she finds between them. Not only does she visit every place where Wilder lived during her lifetime (in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota and Missouri -- as well as Almanzo Wilder's boyhood home in upstate New York, the setting for "Farmer Boy"), she learns how to do things such as churn butter and twist hay into sticks for burning (as Laura & her family did during "The Long Winter"). In one memorable chapter, she and her husband go on a rural "homesteading" weekend to immerse themselves in learning pioneer skills. They wind up leaving early when they realize their companions for the weekend are a cult-like group of apocalyptic survivalists.

As an stillbirth mother, I was reminded in this book that Laura's mother, Laura herself and her only daughter, Rose, all lost baby boys at birth or in infancy.  Rose never had any other children. None of Laura's sisters (Mary, Carrie and Grace) had children either, so the Charles Ingalls family tree ends with Laura's daughter -- just as the branch of the family I grew up in will end with me and my childfree-by-choice sister. I also felt a pang of recognition near the end of the book where, watching little girls in bonnets in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, McClure writes: 
Watching the girls with their families made me think about something else, too. I knew my decision to make this trip was  in some small way informed by the fact that Chris and I had decided not to have kids. In other words, I knew that if I wanted to see these places, I'd have to go for myself;  I wouldn't ever be sharing the experience with a daughter, the way Little House fans often do. A friend of mine who similarly lacks the childbearing instinct once said, "I don't want kids because I don't want kids," and it's always made perfect sense to me. I've never really regretted being childless, but it started to feel different after my mother died, in a way I couldn't describe.  
But here in Walnut Grove, I knew what it was:  I felt invisible sometimes. Not ignored, but anomalous and ghostly. I wasn't the girl anymore, and I wasn't the ma.
Despite these insights, I must confess, I wanted to like this book more than I ultimately did. I did like it, but I didn't LOVE it;  I would probably give it about three stars. There is some interesting stuff here, and a few tidbits I had not known or had forgotten about Wilder's life -- but between the back & forthing between the Laura of the books, the real Laura, and McClure's own story, the story rambles a bit, and the ending, where we (and McClure) finally figure out the real, underlying motivation behind her Laura quest, falls just a little bit flat.  Ultimately, I think I would have gotten more out of "Pioneer Girl."

If you are a fan of the Little House books or TV show, and want a bit of an introduction to the author and the truth of her life vs her writing, you might enjoy this book.

*** *** ***

I found "I Will Marry George Clooney (...By Christmas)" by Tracy Bloom on display with other holiday-related books just before leaving for the holidays. "There comes a time in every woman's life when the only answer is to marry George Clooney,"  the tagline reads. As a big fan of George myself, how could I resist, with a title & premise like that?? lol 

This is chick-lit with a British accent and a celebrity tie-in -- extremely light and silly, totally unrealistic at some points and completely predictable at others -- but sometimes, light & silly is what you want & need from a book. It was a quick and easy read and, overall, I enjoyed it.

The plot:  Michelle, 36, is a gourmet chef by training who once dreamed of a career in London, but became pregnant and now works at a dead-end job in a chicken factory in her hometown to support her rebellious 15-year-old daughter, Josie.  Josie has announced her plan to lose her virginity on her upcoming 16th birthday to her loser of a boyfriend, Sean -- which Michelle desperately wants to prevent.  This results in a bet between mom & daughter: Josie agrees that, if Michelle meets and marries George Clooney by Christmas, she will not sleep with Sean and she will go to university. Hanging over Michelle's head is the ghost of her older and more successful sister, Jane, who died 16 years ago in a car accident -- and the unexpected appearance of Jane's fiancé, Rob, whose return to town creates more complications. The lingering impact of grief and its longterm effects on Michelle and her family was one of the things I liked most about this book.

Michelle's quest to meet and marry the desirable Mr. Clooney is more about a mother's love for her daughter and her desire to see her daughter live a better life -- to encourage her, by this outrageous example, to pursue her dreams -- than any huge celebrity obsession. (Also, other than the title and cover design, it really doesn't have a lot to do with Christmas.)  But it's fun to watch/read as (with the help of her loyal friends and coworkers) she confronts -- and overcomes -- one obstacle after another in pursuit of her goal.  Three stars.

*** *** ***

When I was in high school, I discovered the novels of D.E. Stevenson at my local library. Dorothy Emily Stevenson Peploe (1892-1973) was a cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, etc.), and wrote more than 40 novels of her own between 1923 and 1970. Seven million copies of her books were sold in both Britain and North America during those years. I adored her books, and when I was in university, I found a couple of dog-eared paperbacks by her in a used bookstore (including my personal favourite, "The Baker's Daughter").

Over the years, I have occasionally searched for more Stevenson's books -- sadly, without much success, as they have mostly gone out of print (and most of the used or older edition copies I've found online are horrendously priced).  They are perhaps a little old-fashioned, very much products of the time & place they were written -- but still, well-crafted and realistic stories -- funny, charming romances, comedies of manners and family dramas featuring engaging characters. As one recent cover blurb reads:  "There are no vampires, no faeries, no weird creatures, just a sweet story about real people living in a world I've always dreamed of."
"The Baker's Daughter," for example, is the story of Sue, an "old maid" who lives in small-town Scotland and keeps house for her widowed father, the village baker. Her father remarries and Sue, feeling like a third wheel, takes the bold step of leaving home and becoming the housekeeper for an eccentric artist and his wife who just moved to the area. When the bored wife returns to her glamorous life in the city, Sue stays on -- much to the shock of the scandalized villagers -- until (predictably) she realizes she has fallen in love with her employer.  It's a sweet little story that would likely never be written today -- and therein lies part of its charm, I think.
This past summer, dh & I were touring the home of the author Lucy Maud Montgomery in Leaskdale, Ontario (which I wrote about here), and noticed that several of the women in our tour group were wearing nametags with their names & locations. They came from all over North America -- Toronto, Tennessee, Missouri. "They must be part of an Internet group of some kind," dh guessed and, as we trooped upstairs to view the bedrooms, we asked them what group they were part of & how they had all met.
Turns out they WERE part of an Internet group (on Yahoo), and were in Toronto for their annual meetup. And -- in one of those weird, "small world" coincidences, they told me they were all fans of "a British author named D.E. Stevenson... you've probably never heard of her." 
I just about fell over. "You're kidding! I LOVE her stuff!"  I said, as dh rolled his eyes & shook his head in amazement.
They all just about fell over too -- what are the odds, right?? -- and invited me to join their group. :)  They told me that several Stevenson books have recently been reissued in new paperback editions, and since then, I have found five titles, in bookstores and online. The new covers have all been designed to show chic-ly dressed women in 1920s & 30s-era fashions (see one above). My theory is they're hoping to attract "Downton Abbey" fans as readers. ;) 
It's been quite a while since I last read a Stevenson novel, and I don't believe I had ever read "Miss Buncle's Book before. First published in 1934, it's about quiet, guileless, unassuming Miss Barbara Buncle, whose diminishing dividends (no doubt because it's the Depression) have forced her to look for ways to increase her income.
And so, Barbara writes a book -- a thinly disguised portrait of Silverstream, her hometown, and its residents (all using different names, but highly recognizable). To Barbara's surprise, an affable publisher agrees to publish her book (under the pseudonym "John Smith").  To her even greater surprise, it becomes a bestseller -- particularly in Silverstream, where the enraged residents immediately recognize themselves and set out to learn John Smith's true identity. Each chapter features a different Silverstream resident, his or her reaction to the book, and what happens to them after they've read it.
Among the new Stevenson editions in my to-read pile are two sequels:  "Miss Buncle Married" and "The Two Mrs. Abbotts."  I am looking forward to reading them soon! 
*** *** ***
I wish I had the funds to hand a copy of "WonderWomen: Sex, Power & the Quest for Perfection" by Debora L. Spar to every young woman I know, and to every naysayer who wonders whether feminism is still relevant or needed.
It's not that this book brings any hugely revolutionary ideas or insights to the table -- but it is a readable and well researched summary about how women's lives have evolved over the past 50 years, where we still have work to do and some possible solutions. My copy is full of dog-eared pages.
Spar is President of Barnard College (a prominent American women's college). She is roughly a year or two younger than I am, so her cultural references are mostly quite familiar to me -- e.g., the iconic ad for the 1970s perfume, Charlie (a huge bottle of which once adorned my dresser top). Her book is essentially a tour of the stages of her life -- and my life, and most women's lives of the past 50 years -- from childhood through establishing careers, marriages and families to aging -- and what lessons young women today can & should draw from our experiences. 

"Somehow -- without meaning to -- we became convinced... that having it all meant doing it all... And that being good meant being perfect," she says near the beginning of her book. (p. 50) The inflation of expectations, and the quest for perfection and control (versus the promise of liberation) is a running theme throughout the book (thus explaining the subtitle). 

Spar is the author of a previous book on reproductive technologies ("The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception,"  which I have not read) who has experienced birth, pregnancy loss and adoption. She believes that pregnancy, birth and children remain central to most women's lives and are a core issue that make women's lives essentially different from men's -- and that we need to recognize and deal with this difference. As a result, the book includes some interesting discussions about the quest for conception, including ARTs, infertility and pregnancy loss, "pregnancy pornography" and the modern motherhood.

You may not agree with all of her prescriptions, but hers is a thoughtful and welcome voice in the ongoing conversation.  
*** *** ***
I have, as I have admitted in the past, a weakness for celebrity memoirs, particularly those rooted in Old Hollywood. "A Story Lately Told" by Anjelica Huston fits the bill perfectly.  The style is sometimes a bit disjointed, but there are some wonderful stories here, well told and full of familiar names.

Huston was born in Los Angeles but spent most of her growing up years in Ireland and in London (she was a teenager there during the Swinging Sixties). She was also a model in New York before moving back to LA in the early 1970s (which is the point where this book ends).  She is the daughter of legendary Hollywood director John Huston and granddaughter of actor Walter Huston -- the first three-generation Oscar-winning family in Academy Award history. Her mother, Enrica (Ricki) Soma, was a ballerina, and the fourth of John Huston's five wives. She died tragically in a car accident in 1969 when she was just 29 and her daughter was just 17. Huston writes movingly about her mother's death, how she and her siblings found out and dealt with the devastation. 

A second Huston memoir, "Watch Me," was released this fall, covering her Hollywood career, including her longtime romance with Jack Nicholson. I'm waiting for the paperback, but my understanding is she left Nicholson when she found out another woman was pregnant with his child. She eventually found love and marriage (but not children) with sculptor Robert Graham, who died in 2008.

I am not sure whether Huston is childless by choice or circumstance (or perhaps a bit of both), but hearing this story about her & Nicholson, I was reminded of Pattie Boyd's memoir (which I wrote about here), her struggles to conceive with both of her husbands (George Harrison & Eric Clapton) and how she left Clapton when another woman became pregnant with his child.

I'm looking forward to reading Huston's sequel (& possibly finding out more).
*** *** ***
These were books #17 through #21 that I read in 2014.

Since coming home, I've read one book (book #1 for 2015). 

I was happy to start the new year off with a new Flavia de Luce mystery by Alan Bradley (even happier that it was on the bookstore shelves several days before the scheduled release date, and even more so that I managed to get a discounted price on it). :)  Over the last few years, I've become very fond of Flavia -- a precocious 11-year-old would-be chemist (now about 12) -- and eagerly look forward to each new tale of her adventures, set in early 1950s post-war Britain. The last was published at this same time last year, which I blogged about here.

The 7th Flavia book, "As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust" picks up where the last one left off, with Flavia en route across the Atlantic to attend her late mother's old boarding school in Canada. But all is not quite what it seems at Miss Bodycote's Female Academy: Flavia has barely arrived when a charred, mummified body wrapped in a flag tumbles out of the fireplace in her room. Whose body, how did it come to be there, who put it there, and why?  (And that's just for starters...)

I have to admit, while I adore Flavia, and the book was as well written and fun to read as usual, it ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied. I would rank most of the previous Flavia books 3.5 or 4 stars out of 4;  this one would probably rate a bit lower, perhaps a 3 to 3.5.  In part, I think this is because the story takes place away from England, the village of Bishop's Lacey, and the family estate of Buckshaw, including Flavia's family and the other familiar characters we've come to know in the previous books. Flavia is homesick for Buckshaw in this book and, frankly, so was I. There is a new cast of characters, and new adventures to be had, of course -- but perhaps a few too many new characters to keep straight sometimes, and few that measure up to the ones we've come to know and love in the previous books.

(Also somewhat unsatisfying (**SPOILER ALERT!!**) -- I was taken aback when Flavia was sent off to boarding school in Canada. I assumed (as did many others, I'm sure) that this was a major shift in the arc of the overall story, and that the next several books, at least, would be set there. Instead, at the very end of the book, Flavia is on her way back to her family in Merrie Olde England, leaving me wondering, "So what the heck was THAT all about??")

While the main mystery of the book is, of course, resolved in the end, the reader is still left with a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions. Presumably (hopefully), there will be future books where more of the ongoing mystery will be revealed and questions answered. 

This is one book where, to get the most out of your experience, I think you should probably read the previous books in the series first. 


  1. Wow, you did get a lot of reading done. Very impressive.

    I grew up reading Wilder's books and have fond memories of those bedtime story moments. It blew me away later to learn that Wilder had changed the timeline of her travels. Still, they are treasured books.

    Thanks for the summaries. I now have some novels to check out!

  2. Wow ... I'm impressed that you plowed through so many! Deborah Spar came to speak at my campus; I thought she was impressive, and I hoped that the young women in her audience took her message about (not) perfectionism to heart.

  3. Thank you for doing these book summaries! I often find books through it that I really enjoy.

  4. Great list! I love hearing about what books others are reading. I"m going to add the Wonder Women to my list of books. That sounds great! This also inspires me to do a post about books I'm reading, which haven't done in forever.

  5. I know this is an old post, but I just listened to this Flavia de Luce last month, and I agree- it was a weird one. I was completely gobsmacked when she got sent back to England at the end. It just didn't seem to make very much sense. (That said, the Canadian voices on the audiobook are great!)