The Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley

IMG_0738

Pan Books, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-4472-1864-7

Summary, from back of book:
Maia D’Apliese and her five sisters gather together at their childhood home of Atlantis- a fabulous, secluded castle situated on the shores of Lake Geneva- having been told that their beloved father, the elusive billionaire they call Pa Salt, has died.

Maia and her sisters were all adopted by him as babies and, discovering he has already been buried at sea, each of the is handed a tantalizing clue to their true heritage- a clue which takes Maia across the world to a crumbling mansion in Rio de Janerio in Brazil. Once there, she begins to put together the pieces of where her story began…

Eighty years earlier, in the Belle Epoque of Rio, 1927, Izabela Bonifacio’s father has aspirations for his daughter to marry into aristocracy. Meanwhile, architect Heitor da Silva Costa is working on a statue, to be called Christ the Redeemer, and will soon travel to Paris to find the right sculptor for his vision.

Izabela- passionate and longing to see the world- convinces her father to allow her to accompany him and his family to Europe before she is married. There, at Paul Landowski’s studio and in the heady, vibrant cafes of Montparnasse, she meets ambitious young sculptor Laurent Brouilly, and knows at once that her life will never be the same again.

My thoughts:
It took me a while before I realized that this is the first book in a series. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, as I have almost 60 books to read lying around the house. However, this can be amended and I will try to find the others at my local library. This book was an enjoyable dip into Brazilian history, and while the premise is a little… outrageous, I liked it.

Okay, okay, the premise is truly outrageous. Six women that have been adopted by a billionaire named Pa Salt meet at their childhood castle on the shores of Lake Geneva. First, what on earth is a billionaire doing adopting six girls? Second, why isn’t he married, and what relation does the nanny have to him? Then third, what does he do for a living? While I know the author wanted me to simply accept the situation, I couldn’t. I like a decent amount of exposition, especially for a book as thick and with a wild as premise as this one. I struggled through every scene set at Atlantis. These were the parts that drug for me, and the places where I would stick in my bookmark and set the book down. However, I really loved the historical sections set in Brazil and France.

Lucinda Riley is an excellent writer of historical fiction. Brazil leapt to life from the page, and I was immediately cast into the Bonifacio’s opulent mountainside villa, I felt the wind whipping at my back on the top of Corcovado Mountain, and I could feel the clay under my fingers in Landowski’s studio. The dialogue was top-notch, and the language of the Roaring 20s felt natural to read. I felt deeply for Izabela, and I waited for the chapters dedicated to her story with baited breath. I wish that I had felt the same for Maia, but her life was too outrageous for me to accept.

Overall, this book wasn’t a quick read- at over 600 pages, I whipped through this book in a matter of days, even with the slow parts. While the life setting was a little wild, the historical settings were pitch-perfect and flowed. Even though I have many other books to read, I will keep this series at the back of my mind to look for while at the library.

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Acquired Tastes by Peter Mayle

acquiredtastes

Bantam, 1993. ISBN: 0-553-37183-5

Summary, from back cover:
In Acquired Tastes, Peter Mayle, the erudite sojourner and New York Times bestselling author of A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence, sets off once more, traveling the world in search of the very best life has to offer. Whether telling us where to buy the world’s best caviar or how to order a pair of thirteen-hundred-dollar custom-made shoes, advising us on the high cost of keeping a mistress in style or the pros and cons of household servants, he covers everything the well-heeled – and those vicariously so inclined- need to know to enjoy the good life.

From gastronomy to matrimony, from the sartorial or baronial, Acquired Tastes is Peter Mayle’s most delicious book yet- an irreverently spiced smorgasboard of rich dishes you’re sure to enjoy.

My thoughts:
When the Chicago Sun-Times only says a book is “Intriguing.” in the endorsement of a book, you know it’s going to be a flop. I was very disappointed in this book, especially after being an ardent fan of A Year in Provence. This book felt empty in comparison. Yes- the articles were funny, but they felt too lordly for me. Possibly this is my own personal feelings for the wealthy, but the knowledge that Mayle had actually lived this life made this book rather distasteful. I would have much rather read a book by a “poor” man experiencing these things for the first time rather than a man who had actually lived the life.

Obviously, this is not the cream of the crop concerning Mayle’s work. He has the ability to write delightful gastronomic adventure stories- pick up any of his Provincial books and you’ll find yourself lunching in the French countryside. This book fell short of that standard. Obviously, these articles were intended for being in a magazine, as they are written perfectly for a short column, but as a book, they don’t work together. His sense of humor changes from here to there, and occasionally he waxes on a little more than he should have, while in other cases (especially concerning the caviar) I would have appreciated more context.

Alas, not every book is perfect. While I have written some “I’m disappointed” reviews lately, this was a quick read, well-suited for a summer afternoon without many cares in the world. A great book for when I want to read without paying much attention to it, like I have been with Tess of the D’Urbervilles. This book is definitely that can be tossed aside for whenever a better book comes along, and provide a brief interlude when another book becomes too heavy.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

kitchen

Grove Press, 1993. ISBN: 0-8021-1516-0

Summary, from inside flap:
When Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen was first published in Japan in 1988, “Banana-mania” seized the country. Kitchen won two of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, climbed its way to the top of the best-seller list, then remained there for over a year and sold a million copies. With the appearance of the critically acclaimed Tugumi (1989) and NP (1991), the Japanese literary world realized that in Banana Yoshimoto it was confronted with not a passing fluke but with a full-fledged phenomenon: a young writer of great talent and great passion whose work has quickly earned a place among the best twentieth-century Japanese literature.

Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen is an enchantingly original and deeply affecting book that juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, kitchens, love, tragedy, and the terms they all come to in a pair of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan. Told in a whimsical style that recalls the early Marguerite Duras, “Kitchen” and its companion story, “Moonlight Shadow,” are elegant tales whose seemingly simplicity is the ruse of a masterful storyteller. They are the work of a very special new writer whose voice echoes in the mind and soul.

My thoughts:
Once again, the description directly from the book doesn’t truly discuss the book at all. There are two short-stories in Kitchen, but I firmly believe that their overall tone and meaning vastly varies. I can see how Yoshimoto’s work was briefly popular on Instagram, as they are simple and short, but I think they do have deeper meanings than what once reads at first. I was interested in this book because I am a fervent fan of all things Haruki Murakami, and I wanted to experience more contemporary Japanese literature. In the end, I wasn’t impressed, but I did enjoy the stories.

First, “Kitchen” and “Moonlight Shadow” have some things in common, but I do not think they are overtly incredibly similar. Both stories are about healing after death, and what it means for love and family for the characters. However, “Kitchen” more has do to with the protagonist finding her place in the world, and in “Moonlight Shadow” the protagonist comes to terms with the death of her boyfriend. Casting these stories into one big genre of recovering after loss isn’t exactly the best place. “Moonlight Shadow” is definitely about emotional recovery after a loss, but “Kitchen” is, by far, a coming-of-age story. While the events that lead the protagonists to this place are similar, “Kitchen” has a slightly darker air than “Moonlight Shadow.” The protagonist of “Kitchen” is not as free-spirited as the summary implies- rather, she is very dutiful and bound to the other characters in the story, which leads to her realizing her place in the world and what she needs to do. “Moonlight Shadow” is much lighter, and more full of mystery and hope than “Kitchen.”

Knowing this, I liked the language and style of Yoshimoto’s work. Since I am not reading this in the original Japanese, this is more a commentary on the translation. Over the years, I have become very particular about translators, and I am known to find a new translation of a book if the first was poor. The translation of this book is airy and similar to early Marguerite Duras. However, the style of the work is very close to what I associate “Japanese literature” to be. The protagonists appear to be detached from the world, with astute observations and rambling thoughts. Action is abrupt, but feels natural to the world the characters live in. I often associate this type of literature to being like an out-of-body experience. You can see, hear, and feel everything going on around you, but there is this personal narration that you wouldn’t have, if you were operating completely within your world. Reading Japanese literature is like being at the helm of an out-of-body experience for the protagonist.

Out of the few Japanese authors I have read (primarily Haruki Murakami and Kobo Abe) I feel invigorated in my bookish scramble thanks to Banana Yoshimoto. There’s something so different about Japanese authors. I think it has a lot to do with how different Japanese and American cultures are, and how curious I am about the culture and values held by Japanese people. While not every aspect of a culture can be represented by a single book, reading many different books will help me understand what Japan is like. I really struggle with this as I do not want to be perceived as a weeb, especially after my high school years of being a manga fanatic!

In the end, this book featured two simply written short stories about two women in eerily similar circumstances, and how they grow and change after death in their lives. While the plots may be close, the endings are very different and signify how individuals move on from death in different ways. This book is an interesting peer into Japanese culture, and how citizens deal with death after the fact. The translation is good, and the style of writing simple, succinct, and packing a punch when it needs to. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto is a good introduction to Japanese literature, and for once, the accolades are correct.

Busy, Busy… Booksale!

Now that I am officially graduated, I can take a breath. A very transcendent, relieving, fulfilling breath. I am celebrating with the books I have bought at the big AAUW book sale, plenty of iced tea, and returning to work. Life, for the meantime, is relatively simple… the way I like it. I think I have enough books to finish out the year without having to buy any more. While that is at once saddening, it is also a grand challenge. I feel that I have found many excellent and tantalizing reads.

Just today I spent my day off wandering all over with my family. It’s weird to actually have some time with them. It fills me with a lot of joy to be with my family. I know some think I’m strange for liking my family so much. I don’t mean it in a weird, Duggar-esque “We stick to our own” way, but more… Little Women. We went to the Way Cafe for lunch, and then went down to the park for a sweet snack and playtime. Even though my family is on the Ultimate Frisbee team scale, I don’t ever feel overwhelmed or disgusted. Annoyed, yes. I do have an eight-year-old brother, after all.

I am still trucking away on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It has come to a boring, drama-less part right now, which is terrible. I think if I persevere, I will get to the good stuff again. Today I am typing up the titles list and adding the book names to my TBR Jar. I will, however, leave out Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, as I think I will read it this afternoon. It’s a surprisingly short book, so stay on the lookout for my review. I have been wanting to read it for a long time, and I’m thrilled to find the exact edition I wanted to read at the book sale.

It has been a very busy few days in between graduation, returning to work, and running all over. I am excited for this next chapter in my life to unfold. While it may be a full year before I am able to attend graduate school, I feel finally ready to start perusing it full-force. There’s so much I want to learn between then and now, though- so I have to start being on the lookout for textbooks to read. I am so glad that you have stopped by today, and I will see you again soon!

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

theroad

Vintage International, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-307-38789-9

Summary, from back of book:
A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food- and each other.

The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, “each the other’s world entire,” are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, The Road is an unflinching meditation on the worse and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.

My thoughts:
The Road is an empty, yet heralded novel about the least interesting characters of an otherwise attractive plot situation. The Road is a boring read, as it lacks essential descriptions and exposition. The author expects the reader to “be in the know” with what happened to the world, and how it came to be. While The Road had potential, this book is an example of how an author can get away with poor writing and be thought of as the creator of a “moving story of a journey.”

My biggest problem with The Road is that it is fake deep. It tries to be a great book, but fails. There is no lesson or moral to be learned. The book is pretentious for expecting the reader to understand with the minimal face-value information it holds. The style of writing is an obtuse choice- in a situation where description is the most important ingredient, there is such a lack that the reader feels like they are reaching into a grey and ashy void. I can’t believe this book was selected for a Pulitzer, or even the Oprah Book Club. At first, the book appears as if it will hold a great lesson on love in times of struggle, but it has no lesson. The events do not appear to teach the characters anything- the protagonists continue to make the same mistakes, and the reader continues to wonder why.

I really hated The Road. I kept reading out of spite- I wanted to know why so many people think this book is great, but I was left feeling unsatisfied. I have read books where there is purposeful Spartan style, but here, it feels lazy. The choice of words and events is repetitive, lacking any symbolic or significant meaning. I had so many questions that I resorted to checking Google for answers and was disappointed when I saw so many other readers outraged by the same problems. I hate this book on a level of hating The Catcher in the Rye. It’s loathsome how a book expects me to just know about the state of the world when I very obviously do not. The Road had the chance to open up a vision of post-apocalyptic America, but it shuttered me out with presuming that I had the same level of knowledge as the author.

Aside from this complaining, I have nothing else to say. I was disappointed. This is definitely a book that will not stay on my shelves. I think this is the first book I have hated since reading The Catcher in the Rye as a high-school student! I don’t think I will peruse any more of McCarthy’s works. If this were to be his masterpiece, then I can’t expect anything out of his other books.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

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Penguin, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-14-310773-6

Summary, from back of book:
Escaping dreary London for the sunshine of Italy, four very different women take up an offer advertised in the Times for a “small medieval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April.” Among them are disheveled Mrs. Wilkins and sweet-faced Mrs. Arbuthnot, both fleeing unappreciative husbands; ravishing socialite Lady Caroline, sick of lovestruck men; and Mrs. Fisher, a formidable widow who reminisces about the “great men” she knew in her Victorian childhood. As each blossoms in the warmth of the Italian spring, quite unexpected changes occur. An immediate bestseller upon its first publication in 1922, The Enchanted April set off a craze for tourism to the Italian Riviera and inspired the beloved 1992 film of the same name.

My thoughts:
At first, I did not enjoy The Enchanted April, but after making it through halfway, I started to enjoy it. I disliked Lady Caroline throughout the whole book. Yet, Lady Caroline held a lot of power over the narrative. Like Elizabeth and her German Garden, this book was full of stunning imagery. By the end, Mrs. Wilkins was my favorite character, and I am glad that each woman “bloomed” in her own right.

In the beginning, I felt as if von Arnim was warming up to writing rather than actually writing. The first five chapters (up until arrival to San Salvatore) were slow and dreary. Upon further thought, this may have been a writing tactic on von Arnim’s part. The rest of the book, in increasing measures, has an airier and lovelier vocabulary. Sentences changed from being tedious descriptions of preparation to airy, delightful thoughts. I imagine this reflects the difference in character’s lives before and after arrival. Mrs. Wilkins and Mrs. Arbuthnot led claustrophobic lives in London- and then an open and adoring lives in San Salvatore. Much is true for Lady Caroline and Mrs. Fisher, but it’s most evident for Lotty and Rose.
 
Lady Caroline annoyed me from beginning to end. I loathed how she held an absolute power over the characters and the narrative. While beautiful, Lady Caroline is also very selfish. She doesn’t respect Mrs. Wilkins or Mrs. Arbuthnot in the slightest. I felt that Lady Caroline was mocking Mrs. Wilkins by laughing at her, treating her as amusement and not a friend. The only blooming moment for Lady Caroline was at the very end. Her “manly manner” in treating Mr. Arbuthnot as a friend revealed how generous Lady Caroline could be... but also how little she respected the others until she needed to.
 
As the summary suggests, the Italian Riviera became popular after publication. According to Wikipedia, von Arnim used Castello Brown as an inspiration for San Salvatore. I hadn’t looked anything up about the Italian Riviera before this book- and boy, does von Arnim do it justice! From a quick image search, the city of Portofino (the location of Castello Brown) is gorgeous. The Enchanted April is supplemented by luxurious descriptions of the many gardens of San Salvatore. While reading, I felt as if I could smell and feel the flowers underneath my fingertips. The only misfortune is that I couldn’t go out and see these flowers with my own eyes!
 
Mrs. Wilkins was my favorite character. I felt that she needed San Salvatore the most, even if she opened up straight away. None of the events would have ever happened if she hadn’t acted upon the advertisement. She was the most open-hearted character in the whole book. If San Salvatore was a person, Mrs. Wilkins would be it! She blossomed in San Salvatore, speaking and acting as freely as she could. Mrs. Wilkins definitely wanted the respite and freedom of San Salvatore. Her actions throughout the book came from a place of total joy. Even inviting her husband- and she was even right about him needing San Salvatore! Mrs. Wilkins was full of action, and kept the narrative moving.
 
Overall, I enjoyed The Enchanted April. While it was not my most favorite book of the year (so far!) it comes as a Top Five. My misgivings with Lady Caroline were eliminated by scenery and Mrs. Wilkins. I am even glad I read this book in the month of April- it gave me hope that eventually, spring will reach Pennsylvania!

Openings: Poems by Wendell Berry

Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. First Edition

Summary, from front flap:

The poems brought together in Openings are those of an American, a countryman, a husband and a father- a man who is deeply concerned about the pass to which his nation has come.

As a countryman, acutely and continuously aware of the natural world, Wendell Berry writes not just to celebrate the satisfactions it offers, although he does this notably well; he speaks about the use and abuse of our environment, about the violence we arrogantly inflict upon it to the increasing peril of all life on the planet. As a citizen he writes about a man’s responsibility toward himself and his fellow men, and about certain manifestations of American power, most notably in Vietnam. But if there is anger in some of these poems, there is no despair, and in others there is hope- and humor, too. As husband, Wendell Berry writes love poems that are both tender and passionate; as a father, he writes of parenthood. And in an extended sequence entitled “Window Poems”- possibly the most substantial and impressive poetic work he has yet achieved- he weaves into a kind of fugue all the dominant themes of his book.

Subtleties of thought and language open out beyond the surface simplicity of these poems, whose lucidity, directness, and moving eloquence give them an uncommonly strong and wide appeal.

My thoughts:

I don’t know how to phrase my thoughts about Openings. This volume blended antiwar poetry with illuminating poems, like “Before Dark” and “October 10.” As the final installment of my Wendell Berry poetry adventure, Openings is my favorite due to it’s enlightening nature.

The antiwar sentiment expressed throughout this volume comes across loud and clear. “Dark with Power” was the poem that is the most angry of them all, even next to “Against the War in Viet Nam.” This is because “Dark with Power” is raw and unforgiving. The last stanza of the poem, Fed with dying, we gaze/ on our might’s monuments of fire./ The world dangles from us/ while we gaze calls the ugliest pictures to my mind. Berry, such a lover of nature, conjures an image of burning valleys, villages, and people, which reveals his hatred of what was happening. Berry despairs at the lack of empathy in the government and humanity. Instead of outright calling the perpetrators of Vietnam monsters- he says We are carried in the belly/ of what we have become. The reader is left to imagine a great howling monster prowling the countryside. Berry does not deny himself the guilt of Vietnam, but he does allow himself the grief of being a part of a people capable of such despicable destruction.
With this said, the beauty of other poems in Openings can’t be denied. “October 10” is a poem early on in the volume, and it brings alive the transition from summer to fall. “April Woods: Morning” gives life to early spring and “The Meadow” is about life in a place where there was none before. One of the love poems in this book, “Marriage,” showcases the adoration Berry has for his wife. “Before Dark” was my favorite poem in this whole book.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my thoughts about Wendell Berry’s poetry over the last few weeks. While there are a great many volumes of his work I have yet to read, this was the limits of my local library. I encourage you to recommend me other poets I may enjoy- and I hope to explore more poets like this in the future.