Friday, December 25, 2009

Lit Crit at Christmas

Merry Christmas bibliophiles!

I finished two books yesterday, "The Birth of Venus" by Sarah Dunant and "The French Gardener" by Santa Montefiore.

I picked up a copy of Dunant's "Birth of Venus" and "In the Company of the Courtesan" before Thanksgiving, and was going to just add them to my TBR stack and get to them later, when I happened upon the Queen of the Seattle book scene, Nancy Pearl, interviewing Dunant at University (of Washington) Bookstore, and I was glued to my seat for the next 30 minutes. Dunant is a fascinating British woman who does extensive research and has a unique POV in all her novels, particularly the four book set that she began with "Birth of Venus." Apparently she wanted to have her novels speak not only from a woman's point of view, but also from the inside of convents in Italy and France that were stuffed full of women and girls who were required to be there because they were unmarriagable, poor, widowed or disgraced.
Once I began reading Birth of Venus I realized I'd read it before, and I don't recall if I liked it or not, but this time, I really enjoyed the story, the setting of Medici Florence (in the 15th century)and the protagonist, willful artistic genius Alessandra Cecchi. Alessandra is a child of the Renaissance, and loves to draw and paint, but though she is educated and the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant, she is still proscribed in what is allowed of her, and painting/artistry as a career is only allowed for men and boys. She is expected to marry and produce children and run a household. Unfortunately, Alessandra has two brothers, one a cruel and vituperative gay man, and the other a dolt who loves to fight and kill. When a former monk turned painter is hired by her father to paint the family chapel, Alessandra is fascinated by him,and tries to get him to help her learn to be an artist.
Her brother, noticing that his sister strains at her bonds of staying virginal and in the household at all times, sets her up with his lover, and after the two marry Alessandra realizes that she is being used to keep her brothers lover from being arrested by the religious fanatics and tortured into confession of his 'sin' of being a homosexual. Christoforo, her husband, only has sex with her to procure an heir, and Alessandra soon finds herself in need of something more in her relationship. After rescuing her family's painter from a deep depression, she has sex with him and becomes pregnant, but isn't sure if her child is the painters or her husbands.
Soon after her evil brother is arrested, her husband pays to rescue him, fakes his own death and runs away with her brother (who now has a kind of plague)and Alessandra is forced to move into a convent with her slave Erila and her daughter. The painter finds her, makes love to her many more times and tattoos her body with a large serpent which winds down from her shoulder to her pubic area. She has her servant Erila brew her a concoction to allow her death, and she fakes using a pigs bladder full of offal as a breast cancer tumor to help others believe that this is why she died.
I found the book riveting reading, staying up until 1 am to finish it. Dunant's prose is complex and rich with images that make you feel like you are right there in Florence, watching them burn paintings and gowns and other items believed to be too showy and not pious enough for the current political/social climate. Like most British authors, she can go overboard on the details, but Dunant only strays into the minutia a few times, thankfully.
I would recommend this book to anyone who finds stories of women in art, women in history and women in religious communities interesting. It certainly beats the skirts off of most "chick lit" novels.
This brings us to The French Gardener, which was an impulse buy from the library book cart. The author is also British, but is not of the same calibre as Dunant.
Miranda and David Claybourne are successful Londoners, with two children, Gus and Storm, who purchase a country estate that is in near ruins. Miranda is a freelance writer who yearns to be a novelist (she constantly complains that writing articles is soulless and unworthy of her talent as a writer, because we all know that writing for magazines and newspapers doesn't make you a real writer, only a fictional novel can do that, right?) and doesn't see much of her lawyer/banker husband, because he's got a mistress (her best friend, but she doesn't know that) that he's keeping on the side while both parents ignore their children, who are in turn sullen bullies due to lack of parental guidance or attention.
The first 80 pages of this novel goes into detail of the lives of these awful people, who are all shallow, cruel and stupid. I was ready to throw the book against the wall and call it a day, when the author introduced the character of the French gardener, a man named Jean Paul, who came to work for the Claybournes because of his history with the estate, and his illicit relationship with the previous owner's wife, Ava. We learn, though Miranda's reading of Ava's journal and scrapbook, that Jean Paul had come to their estate at the behest of his father, who wanted him to gain wisdom and maturity, as well as gardening skills, so that one day he might take over his family's vineyard in France. Ava, who is happily married to a man much older than she is, (and who has three children) teaches Jean Paul about the magic of gardening and helping things to grow, and in so doing, Jean Paul falls in love with her and eventually wears down her resistance to a physical relationship. Ava realizes she can never give JP what he really wants, which is a full marriage, because she still loves her husband and children, and when her husband has a stroke, she moves away with her family and leaves JP unsuspecting that she is pregnant with his child (whom she names Peach, which borders on the precious and silly). Miranda learns of all this, eventually weaning herself away from her expensive and glamorous London lifestyle, and after befriending some of the locals, embarks on her novel, telling the story of Ava and JP. She also comes to realize how neglected her children are, once she sees how carefully and lovingly JP takes them in hand, building them a tree house, teaching them to plant and grow a garden and generally giving them the time and attention they seem to crave. Once the children begin to turn around in their attitudes, so does Miranda, and once she realizes her husband is having an affair, she bans him and her vulgar best friend from the estate. David Claybourne is mortified when he realizes he's lost his family for a cheap and sleazy affair that meant nothing to him, and he begs to be given a second chance.
Here is where the novel veers off into extreme fantasy, in my opinion. I find it hard to believe that a wealthy snob like David who thoroughly enjoyed having his cake and eating it too would give a rats rump about his wife and children, when he's been virtually ignoring them for years. Just because he has been exposed as a jerk and a cheating heel of a guy doesn't mean he will change his nature overnight, and suddenly become a loving husband and father. Nor does it mean his wife and children will just accept him as that, when they've all been shown what an asshat the man is over the years. I felt that Miranda and her children were much better off without David, who I really though deserved to wither and die alone somewhere after making such a mess of his life. However, with that kind of shallow person, it seems doubtful that is what he'd do...more likely he'd mess around with dozens of women and enjoy the life of a sleazy divorced businessman. He didn't seem to see women as anything but possessions anyway, something he felt he 'deserved' as part of his success. So the ending when they're all back together as a family and happy seemed far fetched to me. Poor old JP learns that the love of his life, whom he's waited for, died without telling him about his daughter, but he meets her and is enchanted by her in the end, and takes her back to his estate in France. Still, it seemed like JP got the short end of the stick there. There is a nice secondary storyline with a pudgy townswoman named Henrietta who learns to love herself just as she is, and gets the local farmer falling for her in the bargain, which is charming, but all too brief.
I'd give this novel a solid B grade, though I am tempted to add a minus for those first onerous 80 pages.
Fortunately, for Christmas I got a copy of Jennie Shortridge's "When She Flew" which I plan on delving into immediately, along with Dunant's second novel, "In the Company of the Courtesan."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Seattle is the Most Literate City in America, Again!

This is from Shelf Awareness and USA Today newspaper:
Seattle has once again topped the list of America's most literate
cities, but this year Washington, D.C., edged traditional literate city
powerhouse Minneapolis as a surprise runner-up. The annual study by Jack
Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University, "focuses on
six indicators: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library
resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment and
Internet resources,"

Seattle tops list of literate cities

By Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
Cities where lots of people read also tend to feature a vibrant singles' scene, a study suggests. It finds that Boston, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta boast high rankings both as "literate cities" and as places for single people to live.

The study is by Jack Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn., who for seven years has compiled the literate-cities list. It focuses on six indicators: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment and Internet resources.

Seattle and Minneapolis have typically traded the top two spots, and this year Seattle comes in first. But Washington, D.C., edged Minneapolis out for of the No. 2 spot.

This year, Miller correlated results with rankings based on other surveys by Forbes, Bert Sperling's BestPlaces, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and American City Business Journals.

Among findings, top literate cities also:

•Tend to offer the most active singles' scenes: Boston, Seattle, Washington, and Atlanta

•Are safer: Minneapolis, Boston, Seattle, Portland, Denver and Cincinnati

•Are more walkable: Seattle, Washington, D.C., Portland, Boston and Denver

•Are healthier: Washington, D.C., and Denver

But Miller also found that these cities are not immune to hard times. Only Washington had relatively low unemployment.

For more on the findings, go to

America's most literate cities for 2009:

1) Seattle
2) Washington
3) Minneapolis
4) Pittsburgh
5) Atlanta
6) Portland, Ore.
7) St. Paul
8) Boston
9) Cincinnati
10) Denver

I loved the movie "Rain Man" with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, as I found it to be tender and wise, something that doesn't often happen in movies today.
Sadly, the original "Rain Man" has died, but the movie and the actor who played him had a profound effect on his life. Hurrah for the effect of art to change lives!
This is from MediaBistros FishBowl LA Blog:

The Real Rain Man Has Died
By Pandora Young on Dec 22, 2009 03:38 AM

Kim Peek, the mentally disabled savant who inspired the Oscar-winning film "Rain Man," died Saturday of a heart attack. He was 58.
Peek was a mega-savant with the ability to recall 98 percent of everything he read, saw or heard. Peek's remarkable mental abilities left such an impression on screenwriter Barry Morrow that he was inspired to write the movie "Rain Man." The film, while fiction, significantly raised public awareness of Autism, Savant syndrome, and mental disabilities.
The film was beneficial for the deeply introverted Peek as well, helping him learn new social skills. From the Times Online:
It was not until he met Dustin Hoffman, when the Hollywood star was researching his role in "Rain Man", that he could look into another person's face. He was 37 at the time.

Dustin Hoffman advised Fran Peek not to hide his son away. Mr Peek said of that meeting: "Dustin Hoffman said to me, you have to promise me one thing about this guy, share him with the world. And pretty soon it got so that nobody was a stranger to him, they were people, and so was he".
He took Hoffman's advice, putting his son on stage in front of thousands of people for whom he answered, almost always correctly, the most obscure questions they could test him with.
He thrived on his new found fame. Mr Morrow said of him: "I love the way he's flowered, it belies the myth that people don't change, especially people with developmental disabilities."
Four years before his death, Mr Peek said: "I wasn't supposed to make it past about 14, and yet here I am at 54, a celebrity!"

And finally, the Couth Buzzard Used Bookstore, a haunt of mine for 10 years when we first moved to Seattle and lived in Phinney Ridge and Ballard, closed down last year to much sorrow and protest by locals who had loved the 30 year old store.
Fortunately, a young man named Theo bought the store and its contents and is reopening on Greenwood and 83rd, just down the road from the original location in January, 2010.
This is heartening news for booklovers in the Seattle area, because the best book bargains were always to be found at the Buzzard, along with some great conversation, and now you can get a cuppa joe there as well!

This is from an email I got from the owners:
Greetings Friends of Couth Buzzard Espresso Buono Cafe.
Well, the New Couth Buzzard Books Espresso Buono Cafe had a week exceeding our expectations! A special thanks to all our old and new friends who came by.

And, our Grand Opening Party is Saturday, January 9th all day. Food, Fun Entertainment. Come on by and check out our new digs. Let me know if you can help, or if you want to do a little performing.
Theo, Penny and Gerry

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Afternoons With Emily by Rose MacMurray

First, a brief appeared today in Shelf Awareness about Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle:

Elliott Bay Book Co., Seattle, Wash., has found space in the Capitol
Hill neighborhood and will move from Pioneer Square next spring,
according to a letter from owner Peter Aaron on the store's website

The new space has slightly more selling space than the store's current
location, will have a cafe and offers ample parking below street level
and in a nearby parking lot. The building, which dates from 1918, "has
the fir floor--complete with creaks--we're used to treading, and
gorgeous high wood ceiling--including massive wood beams--and
skylights," Aaron wrote. "While no space could exactly duplicate the
charm of the original store, I can promise that the new building will
offer a warm, comfortable and cozy environment that will be true to the
beautiful place Walter Carr founded on Main Street."

He added: "When I first became involved in the ownership of Elliott Bay
eleven years ago, it was because I believed fervently that this gem,
which had been 'my' bookstore since I first moved here twenty-seven
years ago, was worth saving--that it was a precious asset that must and,
in fact, could flourish in this city--if anywhere on earth. Since that
time I have done my best to be a faithful steward in preserving both the
spirit and the body of this unique place which has been built and
nourished cooperatively by the generations of booksellers who have
worked here over the years and the book-lovers who have supported
us--here in Seattle, across the country and indeed around the world. I'm
inexpressibly grateful for that ongoing support--and most especially for
the outpouring of concern and commitment we've received in recent
months. We're committed to doing everything in our power to continue to
earn your patronage and support."

I must note that now I will have no reason to visit Pioneer Square, as that store was a landmark and the only reason the 25 mile trip was worthwhile, really. Now that area is going to become just another corridor of cheap and scuzzy bars surrounded by the bums and panhandlers that sleep at the mission and then try to get enough together to buy booze and get drunk or buy drugs and get high.
Capitol Hill already HAS bookstores, and it is notorious for being bereft of parking, day or night. Cap Hill also has a well deserved reputation as a gay and lesbian enclave, (and that is fine, really, I have no problem with the GLBT community) and a haven for 'wierd' people and strange restaurants. It's not considered a family-oriented place, so, as a woman with a family, I don't bother to go there often, though when Jim and I first moved here, we did visit Capitol Hill for their Japanese noodle houses. Yet I think that Elliott Bay has shot themselves in the foot, and I don't believe their business will thrive when transplanted to the funky soil of Cap Hill. But I wish them good luck with the move, regardless.

I bought Afternoons With Emily on a whim, mainly because of the lovely Victorian art cover and the back flap blurb that mentioned that the author, Rose MacMurray died unexpectedly after finishing the manuscript of this book, and her family had it published for her posthumously. I am a sucker for a publishing sob story, so I had to buy this book.
Fortunately, the book lives up to its cover and its author with a fine, if somewhat melodramatic story, fascinating characters and rich prose sprinkled with the luscious poetry of Emily Dickenson.
It should be noted that Ms MacMurray was a well-educated woman who studied Emily Dickenson's life and poetry for many years before writing this work of fiction.
That kind of dedicated research informs every page of the novel, making all the characters seem real and well-fleshed-out.
The story's main protagonist is Miranda Chase, a young girl whose mother dies of TB and leaves her with an absent-minded professor father who hasn't a clue how to parent a little girl, and is selfish and arrogant enough not to care. Following the death of her mother, Miranda and her father move to a sugar plantation on Barbados for a year, where Miranda learns a great deal from the natives and finds out that her mothers insistence that she, too, had "consumptive lungs" is a lie, and that she is actually hale and healthy. Miranda's father wins a position in classics at Amherst College, and the two move to Amherst, Massachusetts, where they will live with Miranda's Aunt Helen and next door to the town's founding family, the Dickensons.
Miranda learns that Emily Dickenson, the genius poet of the family, is a recluse and rarely allows anyone to see her, as all her relationships are maintained via letter writing.
However, once Emily hears that a teenaged Miranda has told the local reverend that she prefers Zeus to Jesus, she insists that Miranda come to call upon her, and therein starts a riveting relationship. Miranda initially comes to visit Emily every Monday, but as she grows and her lifes work takes shape, Emily's attitude toward Miranda becomes less that of a friend and mentor/teacher, and more of a Svengali who is cruelly possessive and wishes to shape Miranda's life to be exactly like her own.
For example, when Miranda's cousin Kate dies right after Miranda has lost her fiance to the Civil War, Emily writes her comforting poetry and is sympathetic to a point. Yet once Miranda brings home her cousins daughter to raise as her own, and falls in love with her fiance's trust lawyer, Emily seems consumed by jealousy and rage, and works to undermine Miranda's life and love.
Though we see many bits of Emily Dickensons poetry, readers are allowed to see that Dickenson's immaturity and bizarre mental state often lead her to produce works that were not great, and her pride kept her from allowing any famed publishers of the time to edit her work. Here we see that high intelligence and insanity really are flip sides of the same coin.
I enjoyed this book, though it became something of a treatise on the rights of women in the 19th century, and the serious lack of quality early childhood education, which Miranda tries to rectify by creating a montessori-style kindergarten in New York and Amherst. I would have appreciated more of Emily's daily life and less of Miranda's, because Emily was a real person and Miranda was not.I would have liked to have known, for example, which of Emily's mentors finally persuaded her to publish, and if they were able to edit her work, and what happened to all the poems Emily sent to her relatives and friends--were they published posthumously? Also, the fate of Emily's sister Lavinia and her mother are never brought to light.
Still, the love story of Miranda and Roger was nicely done, and the HEA ending wasn't amiss.
I recommend this book to all who are fans of Emily Dickenson's poetry, those who are interested in how people lived during the Civil War era and those who appreciate a good historically-accurate romance.