Category Archives: fiction & literature

Catching up..hodgepodge #2

The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell

A wonderful book containing two stories that seem to be unrelated, but all along we somehow know that they have to be related. Lexie is just starting her career in the 60s in London. Elina has just had a baby but somehow can’t remember exactly having the baby. She and her husband Ted are coping with being new parents, but also Ted’s lack of memory about his childhood.

Village School – Miss Read

Set in the 1950s, through the eyes of the headmistress of the school, this is the first installment in the Miss Read series. I’d been wanting to get to know the characters in this English village for some time. Generally these are the daily happenings of the village and it’s people, a soothing read.

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

I don’t think there is much left to say about this blockbuster and I will spare anymore summarizing. When I read it a while ago it was wildly popular. I don’t remember talk of a movie but everyone seemed to love it. I did too! I still struggle with it though. On one hand the story is nicely written, the characters are rich and lovable both for their personalities and because of the amazing feat they take on. But I couldn’t help but think that it was too clean and too safe regarding social and racial tensions. I kept waiting for Stockett to take a leap into the horrors that so many experienced at this time. Even so, this book is accessible to a wide audience and that may have been the point. I’m planning on seeing the film as I love love love Viola Davis’ work. I think I even imagined her in this story…though I may be imagining that now!

Image from the The Help Official Movie Site


Catching up…Hodgepodge #1

The Island Beneath The Sea – Isabel Allende

I wish it hadn’t been so long since I read this. The details are fuzzy now though I remember really enjoying this story. I always find that Allende’s stories are sweeping and lushly descriptive. The Island Beneath the Sea tells the story of Zarite, a slave born on the island of Saint-Domingue which after the revolution became Haiti. Like many other slave narratives I have read, Zarite becomes a force and is instrumental in the survival of her master’s family.

Sharp Teeth – Toby Barlow

This was an interesting one. Barlow tells the story of various packs of wolves living in LA.They are able to transform from human to wolf depending on their needs at the time. The groups are fighting, the story is intense, gritty, and written in verse. Yes, that’s right, verse. But there is no rhyming. It’s amazing how much detail Barlow is able to get in such few words. There were a lot of different wolves/people to keep up with. There is also a lot of social commentary.

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree

I lit a kerosene lamp and got the book of fairy tales from the parlor. I admired the feel of the book. The cover on this one was worn…I opened the book and held it to each girl’s nose. I always believed that smelling the pages of a book took a person into the story.

When we meet Rachel she is a mother, a wife, a pioneer. She recounts the events that have led her and her husband to the Badlands, an area in South Dakota where families are staking claim and farming the land. She has struck a deal with Isaac DuPree, a man who has returned from military service. She will marry him for one year in return for her claim of 160 acres of land (Homestead Act of 1862) as a way to double Issac’s claim. One year turns into 14 and 8 births.

The whole idea behind the story is of a black pioneering family trying to make their way in the early 1900s. They will have to fight the land, stand in the face of racism, and manage the turmoil of unsettled territory and the baggage of history past and historical events to come. The idea itself seemed great initially, but the idea never really played out as thoroughly as I’d hoped. There were struggles both with the land, between the couple, and within Rachel herself. There are times when thirst and the possibility of running out of food and hope nearly overwhelm Rachel. There are times when the Badlands are not what Rachel or Isaac bargained for. There are times when Rachel just wants a taste of sweetness for her children. But Rachel and Issac both just seemed too quiet. It was like they were both following scripts of what someone might have said they did and might have said they thought. I could never exactly feel what it meant to be planted in the middle of hundreds of acres of land, the nearest neighbor 90 miles away. Loneliness and isolation are major themes here. Rachel often wishes for another woman to talk with, to invite over for tea. She wishes for playmates for her young children.

I expected to book to show me what it would have been like for a black couple during this time as I haven’t read about black pioneers much less black pioneering women. This was a story about any woman. The racial tension was uneasy but not really tense. There were no major run-ins, the biggest confrontation is when a group of white men deliver a stove. They are surprised but generally pleasant. Rachel and Isaac sometimes mention being black in their narratives but it seemed thin. It was like they were just reminding you of their race.

There is a moment in Rachel’s recollection of her previous life as a cook in a boarding house in which Ida B. Wells-Barnett has been invited to speak to a black women’s reading group. The women are beyond excited in anticipation of this event but when Mrs. Wells-Barnett arrives in less than tea time finery and wants to talk only about lynchings and action for the future, the women are appaled. Rachel greatly admires Mrs. Wells-Barnett and often remembers to think of how she would advise her to go on, holding up her head, hopeful.

On the porch, I looked north once again where the White River still had a trickle of water. I scanned the sky. It felt like a storm-the air was thick as if it held rain. I lifted my arms a little, my sides sticky. It might have felt like a storm, but that didn’t mean anything. The weather liked to tease. I remembered times when big splinters of lightening split open the sky, making the ground shake and roll from the thunder, sending the children crying to me. Curtains of rain would surround the ranch, and yet not a drop would come our way. Other times it would rain for days on end, making me and Isaac fret about the crops and root rot. Then from out of nowhere, right in the middle of a downpour, the sun would show itself, lifting our spirits, making us think that the crops might just be all right after all. But it would keep on raining, us worrying about root rot, the sky bright with a rainbow. All the same, the orange-tinted clouds off to the west raised my hopes.

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

A Whipple so we know it has to be good…

Jane lands a job as an assistant in a draper’s shop. A very poor girl, she has an extravagant imagination and even better taste. She is always innovative and on top of, really ahead of the latest fashion trends. She is willing to take chances in suggesting fabrics and items to clients, dressing windows, and soon works up a reputation with customers in the shop. Soon she is negotiating her way to more accounts and more wages, but when she finds there is a ceiling she makes a way around. Of course there is a love component and a bit of a twist.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim

I remember this one clearly, August of last year sitting on the steps of the School of Public Health (that is, before classes took over and reading for fun vanished). I would take this book out of my bag and read in gulps beneath the sunshine. Elizabeth is renovating the gardens on her husband’s estate. It is a wonderful little tale of her thoughts and day-to-day comings and goings in the garden. Her children make an appearance and so do visitors but it is clear that she prefers the garden. Her frustration about defending her ideas is very witty and a sign of the times in which the book was written. She does not garden herself but orders seeedlings and such to be placed about. It is as if she is the decorator.

Father of The Rain – Lily King

Last week I jumped in the car for my hour and a half ride to bookclub. I enjoy this ride and going back to the town where I lived while completing my graduate degree. This month was different because I had not finished the book and really had no intention of doing so. Even if there was no book, the company, chatter, and catching up make it worth it. I’d struggled for 3 days to make headway and the tassel on my bookmark swung at about the middle. That’s not like me and t even told me so when I walked into her kitchen.

When we meet Daley she is 11 years old and witnessing the dissolution of her parent’s marriage. Watergate is unfolding in the media and Daley is learning how to navigate the tension brought on by her father’s alcoholism. After her parents divorce Daley must change herself to fit in as she moves between the two homes. What we see is a very good portrait of the effects of alcoholism on children and relationships. But long after Daley has moved out and completed graduate school, she continues to struggle with her relationship with her father and finds herself going back to help him when he is at his lowest point.

The group seemed to have 2 major issues with Daley and the portrayal of her relationships. While we agreed that the alcoholism and its effects were very real, we found Daley’s relationship with her African-American boyfriend to be a bit strange, as if the relationship was an afterthought to add more fuel to the story or that King just had no basis for writing about interracial dating. The group was also perplexed that Daley, an intelligent observant woman, could never really see or realize the manipulation her father brought upon her and her family, even at the urging of her closest friends.

The great thing about bookclub is that every month we are reading something that I wouldn’t have normally picked for myself. We talked for a while about what the book made us feel, for some the portrayal of an alcoholic parent hit close to home. When I left home that day I fully intended not to go back and finish the book, but later I wanted to see for myself the resolution that Daley might come to with herself, her boyfriend, and her father’s illness.

It took me another 2 days but I got there.

To help us along we had these yummy cupcakes and gorgeous roses.

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

I remember this book well. Valancy daydreams about romance and escaping to a blue castle where she can be rid of her overbearing mother and meddlesome family. 29 years old, awkward in the eyes of her family, and without any suitors Valancy prefers to steal time reading books about nature. After visiting the family doctor about peculiar pains in her chest, she receives a heartbreaking letter from him. For her, this is the deciding factor in making decisions about her own life regardless of the opinions of her family.

When it was over, something had happened to Valancy-perhaps the culmination of the process that had been going on in her mind ever since she had read Dr. Trent’s letter. It was three o’clock in the morning-the wisest and most accursed hour of the clock. But sometimes it sets us free.