Reviews

Me and Mr. Darcy

While suffering withdrawal pangs from Downton Abbey last week, I came upon Alexandra Potter's light but literate Me and Mr. Darcy.  Like Downton Abbey it offers fancy English estates, afternoon tea on fine china, cool British accents, and couples in love.

You can tell that Alexandra Potter, a Brit, writing about an American heroine, has spent a lot of time in the States. Her bio notes that she travels often to New York and L.A. She has the American idiom down and captures Yankee humor well.

The book starts out with Emily (a New York bookstore manager) out on a date with a cheap guy who is calculating how much extra she owes for the pizza that they just shared. (She added toppings for her half.)  Unfortunately, Emily has a track record of being unlucky in love.  Her fashionable friend, Stella, who also works at the bookstore, invites her on a winter beach vacation with the hope of meeting new men. Emily refuses. Glancing at a flyer on the counter, Emily has a ready excuse--she can't because she's going on a one week "Jane Austen Tour."

Impulsively, Emily snags the last spot for the event and joins a coterie of much older ladies on the bus tour.  The only two men are the aged driver and a rather obnoxious, poorly dressed reporter who will be covering the event.

Potter has a good ear for snappy dialogue. Spike, the reporter, and Emily don't click at all. In fact, Emily really

To See Every Bird on Earth

To See Every Bird on EarthMicrohistories are a subgenre of non-fiction books which take a particular subject or single event and through intensive historical research try to contextualize the chosen subject within the broader picture.  Both Simon Winchester and Mark Kurlansky are well known microhistorians.  Kurlansky in particular is known for Salt: A World History, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell.  As a history nerd, I find that a well written microhistory uncovers a previously unthought-of subject or event and breathes life into the history cannon as a whole.  Curious?  Check out titles like Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug, Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, or Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  Several years ago I read and enjoyed a microhistory called Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel.

Blue Nights

OK. I confess. This book sat for most of its check-out period on my night table. I had read Didion's excellent book The Year of Magical Thinking but I knew that this new memoir covered another territory  of loss--not that of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, but of her daughter who had the wonderful name of Quintana Roo (a state in Mexico.)

And yes, Blue Nights is sad. As would be any book about losing your only child. But it's also amazingly human, full of insights and many questions, some of which go unanswered.

First the title. It comes from those late June, early July nights where twilight seems to linger for hours until darkness finally comes. The light is soft; the world is warm and alive. Didion speaks of them as occurring only in the north, not far south in LA where she spent much of her life as a screenwriter, essayist, and novelist and where Quintana grew up. No, the blue lights happen in New York City where Didion now lives now and where Quintana died young at the age of thirty-nine from a massive infection. To make matters even more tragic, she first got ill only five months after her wedding.

The book covers other things as well adoption, meeting with biological family for the first time as an adult, parenting, the failures of parenting, and, in particular, aging.  Didion writes with brutal honesty especially about this last topic.

War Books

MatterhornMy question of the week - Do women read war novels?  I don't mean to ask this in a polarizing and dramatic way, but out of genuine interest. 

I recently finished the excellent Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, a novelization about the Vietnam War.  Marlantes is a highly decorated Marine who served in Vietnam and this 600 page book was 30 years in the making.  The book is technical and almost solely set in Vietnam.  There isn't room for families, girlfriends, or real life.  This book is intense - filled with racial tensions, horrifying wounds, tigers, leeches, jungle rot, thirst, hunger, diarrhea, boredom, bad language and inept military structure.  I probably lost some of the technicalities of the military maneuvers, but in the end you really care about the characters.  At times, reading this was stressful but the pain and longing seems universal and touching.  

Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas

Told in brief (one or two page), intensely personal poems, this novel manages to be both fast-paced and agonizingly slow. Anke's character bounces between a life on the volleyball court that makes her shout for joy and a home life where keeping her father from noticing her is the difference between feeling unloved and being beaten (or worse, as she begins to realize her sister knows all too well). The contrast between the two Ankes makes the transition from school life to home life at times almost violent, and Chaltas manages to do this by using a quiet, tense voice for Anke at home and a loud, exuberant voice at school.  Two very different romantic interests and the choice she makes between them add insight into how her relationship with her father is influencing her first interactions with boys.

Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness

Alexandra Fuller writes beautifully about Africa. This is her second memoir set there. Both Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight also give homage to her parents, particularly her mother, Nicola, or Nicola of Central Africa, as her mom playfully nicknamed herself.

Nicola loves books and reading and wanted her first daughter to become a writer but Vanessa held firm about spurning books and taking up art. So Alexandra became the writer in the family, but not one that her mother could not control.  For Nicola, Alexandra's career as a writer is a mixed blessing.  She constantly calls her daughter's first memoir that "awful book" probably because Alexandra tells the truth in it about her Mom's drinking.

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