#133 ~ The Sister

January 2, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Posted in Books, Family, Historical Fiction, Reading, Secrets and Lies | 4 Comments
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The Sister by Poppy Adams, read by Juliet Mills

Virginia Stone, a 70 year old spinster, lives alone with her moths at Bulburrow Court, her family’s mansion.  She is an eccentric old woman who grew up during WWII and its aftermath.  She is peculiar, most especially about time and tea.  To say she is set in her ways would be an understatement.  When her younger sister Vivien returns to Bulburrow Court after leaving the family home and her sister for London nearly 50 years earlier, Ginny reflects on her life, from her alcoholic mother  Maud, her lepidopterist father Clive, who mentored her in the study of moths, and her love for her absent sister.  She approaches her history with the same unemotional scientific eye that she uses with her moths and other insects.  It doesn’t take long to start questioning Ginny’s reliability as a daughter, sister, and narrator.  This novel held my interest from the beginning with Vivi’s tragic, near-fatal fall and the numerous mysteries and questions that continued to come up to the surface.

Poppy Adams is an extremely detailed writer.  Her use of entomology and the study of the moth clearly stem from a great deal of research.  While Ginny loves to go into lengthy and often gory detail about her science, the minutia she shares with the reader provides important insights into Ginny’s morality, mental state, and obsessive compulsiveness. There is an interesting passage about a colony of ants taken over by a butterfly larva that still has me thinking about Ginny and what the truth about her family might have been.

This is the first audio book I truly enjoyed.  No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July and Savannah by John Jakes (which I couldn’t finish) were complete flops for me – both because of the narration.  In addition to the story itself, The Sister had what the others so far have not – the perfect reader.  Juliet Mills’ voice and reading was such a complement to Ginny that I can’t image there being a more perfect vocal performer for the novel.   The way she enunciated “pupal soup” throughout the novel was both sickening and dead on for Ginny’s character.  She expertly read dialog for the other characters as well.  There was a scene where Maud, drunk, could not hold her tongue to Ginny about her opinions of Albert, Vivi’s boyfriend.  That exchange between Maud and Ginny was wonderful and riveting.  Although I’m tempted to read the physical book the next time around, I can’t imagine reading it without hearing Mills’ voice.

This novel, because it is narrated by Ginny, does not provide answers to all of the questions that are raised.  Who exactly is the sister?  What exactly did the rest of the family and the village of Bulburrow know about Ginny that she did not?  If she has been mentally ill her entire life, why in the world would Vivi and Albert entrust her with their family in the way that they did?  Did she truly carry on Clive’s work after he retired? What exactly went on with Dr. Moyse?  At first, this made the ending fall a little flat for me.  However, upon further reflection, it would be impossible to know what Ginny did not and this is made even that much more difficult as she had a talent for blocking out the unpleasant portions of stories and conversations.  Truly, this novel is open-ended, allowing the reader to discern the truth from the delusion.  The Sister invites additional readings.  It would be very interesting to read this a second time to see what I might have missed the first time.  While under no circumstances would I ever sit down for tea with Ginny Stone, I’d love to study her in more depth.  She is a fascinating character whose voice, like that of Vida Winter from The Thirteenth Tale and many of Patrick McGrath’s narrators, will stay with me for a long time to come.

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To buy book in audio, click here.
To buy this book, click here.

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Authors, Mental Illness, and Suicide

September 25, 2008 at 3:42 pm | Posted in Books, LIfe, Reading | 17 Comments
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I just read an article from Globe and Mail revealing for the first time apparently, that L.M. Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables, committed suicide at the age of 67 through a drug overdose.  The author suffered through a great deal of depression during her life.  Reading this made me very sad.  She created a novel that has been an adolescent staple for close to 100 years now, yet she was unable to fully enjoy her life or her success because of the depression from which she suffered. This news also comes close on the heals of the recent suicide of David Foster Wallace, who has now joined the company of Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Brautigan, and Virginia Woolf.

I know that authors are not alone in their connection with mental illness and suicide.  Artists and other highly creative people also seem more likely than the general population to suffer from depression or other forms of mental illness and ultimately commit suicide.  It wonder if it is true that creative people are more likely to have these types of issues or if it only seems that way because of their fame and noteriety?  Is what drove these authors and artists to write or create also responsible for their mental anguish?  Could any of those people have been saved while keeping their talent alive and flourishing?

When I started this blog, I was trying to find some way to fight my way out of the depression and anxiety that was strangling me after my beautiful and beloved daughter Allison was born.  She was two at the time, but everywhere I turned I smacked into the same wall.  I was hoping that making a goal for myself that had nothing to do with being a wife (I love you, Danny!) and a mother (you too, Em -n- Em and Ally McBeal!) could help me.  I decided to read 52 books in 2007.  After I got started, I wanted to document what I read in some way.  That was the beginnings of what is now The Literate Housewife Review.  It has been the combination of reading and the creative outlet of writing my blog that has helped me feel more like myself.  I could not imagine what it would be like if this made no difference or if it made me feel worse.

I have had the wonderful opportunity to correspond with and, in some cases, talk with several authors who have written novels and memoirs that I have really enjoyed.  I am also eagerly anticipating my trip to D.C. this weekend to listen to Neil Gaiman, Philippa Gregory, Salmon Rushdie (great way to kick of Banned Books Week!) and James McBride and hopefully get my books signed.  I do not know any of their personal circumstances, but it would be devestating to me if any one of them were to be in such a situation.

While I know that the appreciation of millions can do nothing if someone is so dark inside, I want to express my appreciation for authors and other artists.  As you reflect the human experience, you enhance it and make it beautiful.  You provide a context through which to speak, discuss and think about that which is without words and I will forever be grateful.

#98 ~ The Last Queen

September 4, 2008 at 12:00 am | Posted in Books | 17 Comments
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The Last Queen: A Novel by C.W. Gortner

I am pleased to publish this review as one of the stops on C.W. Gortner’s Virtual Book Tour!

The Last Queen tells the story of middle child of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, Juana. She watched her parents take back the country of Spain from the Moors and return it to a united country. She also was witness to the Spanish Inquisition meant to unify the country under the Roman Catholic Church. She was never meant to rule, but as a series of deaths befell the children and grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand, Juana was left to take over as Queen of Castille upon the death of her mother. The one thing that Juana had in common with her mother, being married to a man whose wealth and title were dwarfed by her own, proved to be a battle of a lifetime for Juana.

I enjoyed the picture Gortner painted of the young Juana, loving to explore the world and willing to push the limits of propriety to do so. Despite her independence and drive, her somewhat sheltered existence made it possible for her to fall under the charms of her husband, Phillip the Handsome. He is painted as a good hearted man who gave in to his advisers who fed his lust for power. As Juana stood in his way, her heart got trampled over and over again. When her mother dies, Juana fights for what’s best for her homeland, desperately hoping that there are those who will fight with her.

It was no surprise when I read C.W. Gortner’s bio and learned that he is of Spanish decent. It could be sensed in his writing and the way that he wrote about Spain and his characters. When Juana wrote of her love of her country, she was speaking through the author. He treated the faults and mistakes of the leaders who shaped the future of Spain with respect and sympathy. They may have been sovereign leaders, but they were human. It is a blessing to have your history told to the ages by someone as who speaks with honesty driven by love.

There is only one aspect of this novel that tripped me up at times – the use of Spanish when the story was written in English. The terms of endearment did not bother me, but to read a sentence in Spanish and then have it translated into English again by the narrator brought me out of the story. I was able to catch the meaning of those Spanish sentences with me weak Spanish and the context of the paragraph. Even without any exposure to Spanish, I don’t believe the translation back into English was necessary.

On its own, this novel was intriguing, but after having read so much about Juana’s youngest sister, Catherine of Aragon, and Tudor England, I found this story absolutely fascinating. It was unfortunate how the lives of Isabella and Ferdinand’s children played out. With the possible exception of Marie, they all met tragic and heartbreaking fates: their eldest children died young, Juana lived out much of her adulthood in isolation to keep her from the thrown, and Catherine wasted her youth patiently awaiting her destiny to be the Queen of England only to spend her last years valiantly and perhaps stubbornly claiming to have never lost that crown. Whether it was simply bad luck or bad karma from the Inquisition, this family had a cosmic thumb pressed down upon them. Juana dealt with the storms of her life with grace, dignity and strength. Her life might have been tragic, but when told by someone as passionate about his subject and as skilled an author as Gortner, reading about her life was one of my most pleasing reading experiences this year.

If that’s not enough to entice you to read this novel, here’s more from the author:

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To buy this novel, click here.

#93 ~ Surviving Ben’s Suicide

August 7, 2008 at 6:00 am | Posted in Books, Family, LIfe, Reading | 13 Comments
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Surviving Ben’s Suicide: A Woman’s Journey of Self-Discovery by C. Comfort Shields

When Comfort Shields was a freshman at Sarah Lawrence she met and fell in love with Ben, a former Navy recruit who joined the college as a second year freshman. Their relationship would impact Shields’ life on many levels. While he initially helped her cope with the tragic death of a classmate a year earlier in London, his mental imbalance proved to turn her life upside down. He didn’t return to Sarah Lawrence for sophomore year without telling her and it all kept tumbling out of control after that. When his erratic moods and behavior culminated in his not altogether unexpected suicide, Comfort is without an anchor. Finding little advice that applied to her situation or anywhere else to go, she wrote this book to provide others with what she did not have.

Having survived a suicide within my family 16 years ago this October, I was very much interested in Comfort’s story. Although in my situation it was my paternal uncle and not my lover or spouse, I was interested to read about the author’s experiences and insights. I turned 21 the week before Uncle Randy died. Although I knew that he had been sick for some time, his illness wasn’t something I had to experience very often. What sticks out the most to me when I think back on my relationship with him was how he seemed to become another person overnight. All of my dad’s brothers teased us cousins continuously and Randy was always the edgiest of the bunch; but, about 5 years before this happened, edgy became cruel. I spent many years afterwards being angry at him for how this affected his family, my grandparents, my father, and my brother. It took time and life experience for me to come to understand him. Now I’m just sad that he wasn’t able to get the medical help he needed and never got to meet his beautiful grandchildren.

What hit home the most to me when reading Surviving Ben’s Suicide was the author’s discussion of shame and guilt that is associated with those directly impacted by another person’s suicide. Even though this happened almost 20 years ago, it’s not something I share regularly or talk much about. Just like Shields, I worry about what people I don’t know well might think about me, my family, and – more importantly, my children. My family lived over an hour away from Randy’s and at the time he was his most sick, I was in college. Family wasn’t my highest priority then. I still feel guilty for caring more about my own life when my uncle and his family were suffering. I also know that this wasn’t my fault and, while I’m sure that my aunt and cousins would have appreciated my support, there wasn’t anything I could have done singlehandedly to change what happened.

As much as I could empathize with Comfort Shields, I didn’t find this book particularly insightful. I believe this was due to a combination of the differences in our experiences as well as the way in which the story was told. Had this story been told in a linear fashion, the impact would have been greater. Toward the end of the book she indicates that Ben’s suicide marked the end of his life and a major turning point in hers. Because of the back and forth, I was unable to fully identify how that turning point changed her life. Despite the fact that this was written after she wrote about meeting and marrying her husband and the birth of her two children into the world, there was a disconnect for me. I couldn’t recreate how she got there from where she started. I couldn’t identify what might have been different had Ben not been a part of her life or if he did not commit suicide at all.

Although Surviving Ben’s Suicide was not as meaningful to me as I’d anticipated, I hope that others who have shared similar experiences will read it. I will be passing my copy on to a friend whose brother, also named Ben, committed suicide 6 years ago this month. Books like this and Regina’s Closet are a wonderful way to heal from a suicide as well as create dialog about it. I wish Comfort Shields much success with this book. It is an excellent resource and I’m so thankful that she gave of herself to write it. Perhaps this is something that I should consider myself.

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To buy this book, click here.

#88 ~ The Gargoyle

July 24, 2008 at 10:12 pm | Posted in Books | 7 Comments
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The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

Death often brings about new life. After his near fatal car crash that left him permanently disfigured and emasculated by a significant amount of 3rd degree burns, the unnamed narrator of this novel spent a great deal of his lengthy hospital stay planning his eventual suicide. His life as a porn star and producer of adult films went up in smoke like his skin. He had no interest in making a new life after the death of his good looks and his livelihood – at least not until Marianne Engel, a patient in the hospital’s mental health unit, unexpectedly begins visiting his bedside and telling him how their lives have been intertwined now for several hundred years.

The Gargoyle follows the narrator through his hospital recovery and beyond in a compelling way.  While the narrator’s salacious past and gruesome present are fascinating, Marianne Engel’s stories are poetic, mystical, and engrossing.  I do not want to reveal too much of the plot here.  It’s best to go into this book knowing as little as possible. Just expect to go on a ride like no other.  One image that has not left me since reading this book is of the woman who stands watch for an hour each day by the edge of the cliff, never losing hope that her beloved husband will return.  I can smell the salt in the air as the breeze whips her hair about in the wind.  Her anguish makes that story of love all the more beautiful.  There is no down time in this book.  Each section moves the story forward.

Words cannot accurately express how intense and wonderful The Gargoyle is. From the first scenes of the unnamed protagonist’s fiery car crash to the conclusion, I was hooked into his world of burnt flesh and the possibility of a love strong enough to be tested by fire over and over again.  It was a pleasure to go to hell and back with Andrew Davidson.  This book is inspiring.  It will encourage its readers to write.  It will encourage its readers to come back again.  Trust me, you definitely must read this book.

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To buy this novel, click here.

#62 ~ The Forgery of Venus

March 23, 2008 at 9:47 pm | Posted in Books, Brain Food for Thought, Culture, Free, Historical Fiction, LibraryThing, Reading | 1 Comment
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The Forgery of Venus: A Novel by Michael Gruber

What would it be like to live a life in which you cannot trust your memory or your senses to tell you what is true or even who you are? Charles “Chaz” Wilmot lives that nightmare in The Forgery of Venus, the latest novel by Michael Gruber. Chaz is the son of a successful artist who crafted in the tradition of Norman Rockwell but, in his son’s eyes, could have been so much more. Chaz has even more talent than his father did, but he chooses to subsist as a commercial artist taking in piece work for magazines. It isn’t that he doesn’t believe in himself. He just doesn’t believe in the worth of what is being peddled and sold as art. He’s so adamant that it costs him his wife, Lotte, and prevents him from providing the best medical care possible for his ill son. When the use of the experimental drug salvinorin causes Chaz to believe his is actually experiencing parts of Valazquez‘s life and paint exactly like the old master, he finds himself entwined in another man’s art and in the world of high stakes art forgery.

I enjoyed this novel and found its questions about the meaning of life and art very interesting. Not being able to rely on your memories, your senses, or even the answers you requested from your own very young children would be very frightening. I think that I, like Chaz, would prefer to be crazy than for that to be a permanent state of existence. The mystery behind Chaz’s life/lives was intriguing and it was difficult to put this book down. Although I understand the premise of Chaz taping his story for an old college friend, I found the voice and tone of the first narrator hard to overcome. I also found it somewhat difficult to become comfortable with Chaz, but it was worth the effort. If you enjoy Tracy Chevalier don’t mind waiting out the first narrator, you will enjoy this book.

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To buy this novel, click here.

#50 ~ Fight Club

November 26, 2007 at 2:23 am | Posted in Books, Childhood Memories, Culture, Film, Free, LIfe, My Life with Books, Reading | Leave a comment
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Fight Club: A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk

Throughout the year I’ve been talking with people at work about the books I’ve been reading. Two of my co-workers mentioned Fight Club. I’ve never had a desire to read this book or see the movie. They are six and 13 years younger than me respectively and I reasoned that I was too old. I missed the boat for this book. After arguing that I was not, in deed, too old to read this book, I asked if either of them had a copy of the book that I could borrow. I figured that would be the end of the story. Not so fast. The very next morning, I was handed a nearly pristine copy in paperback.

After finishing Love in the Time of Cholera, I wanted something quick to read. Thumbing through this book, it seemed the obvious choice. Well, maybe it wasn’t such a good next choice. Given the lack of hope, kindness, and charity of the characters, it wasn’t the best book with which to start off the holiday season. Additionally, where there was too much personal hygiene-type information in Cholera, that was amplified and modernized in Fight Club. Had I not made a promise to myself that I would finish every book I started this year, I would have tossed this book as soon as I found out that the main character, who is never named (what’s up with that type of thing happening all at the same time with my book choices?), does not kill the wanna be veterinarian. I can not stand torture in art (or life – but I thought that should go without saying – although I am saying it here). I threw up because my date wouldn’t let me leave The Silence of the Lambs. Reading that scene in Fight Club wasn’t much better for me.

Now that I’ve finished the book, it’s good that I didn’t simply toss it during the torture scene. It gave a very interesting insight into human nature – especially when not everything is fitting together as it should. I can’t say that I would ever read it again, but I’m glad that I read it the first time. If for no other reason, knowing what happens will save me from ever having to watch the movie. I can now report back to my co-workers that no, I’m not too old for this book (or the movie). I just don’t have the stomach, and that’s been true since I was in college.

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To buy this book, click here.

#45 ~ The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn

November 7, 2007 at 2:21 pm | Posted in Books, Family, Reading, Religion | Leave a comment
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The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn by Janis Hallowell

The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn tells the story of Francesca, a young teenager from a broken home, who comes to believe the hype when a local homeless man makes his belief that she is the holy mother of a new savior. This is an interesting story that explores the nature of fantastical spiritual beliefs on a girl, her friend, her family, her neighbors, and her town.

There are many different themes that could be discussed here:

  • Single mothers and the struggle to raise children without losing oneself
  • Religious/spiritual fanatics
  • Schizophrenia and the homeless
  • Young girls cutting themselves
  • Phantom pregnancies

What I am choosing to discuss is the role of the parent when a teenage daughter becomes pregnant. Francesca believes that she is pregnant and her body is showing the physical signs, including morning sickness. Francesca lives at first with the fear of being pregnant, but this fear soon skews as she grows to believe that she has spiritual powers and that the life she is nurturing inside her womb is someone special.

Francesca’s mother, an atheist, at first overlooks the changes in her daughter’s body because she is shocked and overwhelmed at the role that religious fanatics are playing in her life. When Anne finally asks her and learns that Francesca is pregnant, she is doubly shocked. She immediately makes arrangements for a pregnancy test and abortion with her gynecologist. Francesca knows that her mother plans on getting her an abortion, but she has no intentions of letting that happen.

Had Anne forced her child to keep her child or even place the child for an adoption, she would have been portrayed as a villain. Although I did like her character, I found it equally wrong to push an abortion upon your child – even more so when you do so under the guise of “taking care of everything.” Yes, women have fought for the legal right to have an abortion, but does that mean that this should always be the plan of action when an unplanned pregnancy occurs? How is a forced abortion any better for women than forcing a woman to raise or place a baby for adoption?

So, what are the rights of pregnant teens or any other expectant mother who is suffering from a mental illness? Should the wishes of these mothers to abort or to carry a child to term be honored or should a parent or guardian be able to determine what is best? As the mother of two young daughters, this book gave me a lot to think about.

Although elements of the story line are not probable and seemingly dictated by the author’s agenda (gynecologist ends up getting shot by religious fanatic who turns against Francesca after he/she believes that an abortion has taken place), it was an enjoyable book with interesting characters.

#04 ~ Keeping Faith

January 31, 2007 at 3:33 pm | Posted in Books, Jodi Picoult, Parenting Dilemmas, Reading, Religion | 4 Comments
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Keeping Faith by Jodi Picoult

I love Jodi Picoult. The last time I finished one of her books I suffered withdrawal symptoms because I didn’t have another one waiting in the wings. So it was surprising to me as I began this book that I was growing tired of her. I actually was wishing I’d chosen another book. This happened a couple times before while I was in high school. I read so many Steven King and Danielle Steele books that I began to recognize patterns and just couldn’t read them anymore. At one point I swore that if I ever read another book that mentioned Carmel, CA that I would throw it against the wall. Thankfully, as I read further into the story, I got hooked and couldn’t put it down.

This is the story of a messy divorce and custody battle and its effects on an only child named Faith. Mariah, Faith’s mother, suffers from a lack of self esteem. From the moment that Colin shows interest in her in college, she allows him to mold her into the type of wife he wanted. She loses her identity. Colin’s first infidelity drove Mariah to suicide. He had her institutionalized against her will and it was in the hospital that he discovered her pregnancy. That was the only thing that kept their marriage together. The book begins when Mariah and Faith come home to retrieve a lost ballet leotard; they find Colin getting ready to take a shower with another woman. In the aftermath, Colin leaves, Mariah calls in her mother to take care of Faith while she gets herself straightened out, and Faith begins to see and talk to God.

Mariah takes Faith to psychiatrists, doctors, rabies, and even allows interviews with Catholic priests in order to get to the bottom of Faith’s visions. Faith was found by all to be mentally stable, but no one was brave enough to believe that Faith’s visions were actually contacts with the divine. That is, until her touch brings her grandmother back to life after being clinically dead for an hour. Once that story hits the press, people begin to congregate outside of Mariah’s home. The story is spread even further by an atheist televangelist name Ian. He has made it his life’s work to debunk religion and especially the miracles. When Colin returns home from his honeymoon with his pregnant wife, he discovers what is going on and decides to sue for full custody of Faith, using a renowned cutthroat lawyer. Not only does Mariah need to find the inner strength to handle the situation with Faith, she then has to fight to keep custody of her daughter.

Some of the relationships that develop seem too convenient and predictable. As with many other of Picoult’s lead female characters, Mariah is not alone for long. On the other hand, I enjoyed the way in which Mariah interacted with her mother. They have a truly special relationship. Still, the most interesting thing about this particular Picoult novel is the way in which visions, religion, faith, and God are handled by each of the characters. I believe that the book covered this topic and all sides with respect.

This was not one of my favorite Picoult books, but I would recommend the book to others. It provides the opportunity to explore your beliefs about the extraordinary. What would you do if your child began seeing visions of God?

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