Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Little Women Adaptation, The Little French Bistro by Nina George, Kiss Carlo by Adriana Trigiani, The Waking Land by Callie Bates and All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

On the 150th Anniversary of one of the great classic novels for women (and I say that because I've never met a man who enjoyed Louisa May Alcott's books) the wonderful British are finally bringing the story to Masterpiece on PBS. Hurrah!

TV: Little Women

Principal photography begins in Ireland this month on a three-part
series adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women
for BBC One and PBS Masterpiece, Deadline reported. This year marks the
150th anniversary of the classic novel. The project is being written by
Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) and directed by Vanessa Caswill

The cast includes Angela Lansbury as Aunt March, Emily Watson as Marmee
and Michael Gambon as Mr. Laurence. The March sisters will be played "by
an ensemble of four young actresses": Maya Hawke (Jo), Willa Fitzgerald
(Meg), Annes Elwy (Beth) and Kathryn Newton (Amy), with Jonah Hauer-King
as Laurie Laurence. Little Women will air in 2018.

The Little French Bistro by Nina George is the second novel of hers that I've read, having enjoyed her bestseller, the Little Paris Bookshop last year with my book group at the library. George has a delightful way with outrageous and odd characters, weaving them into an almost soap opera-like drama that always highlights some gorgeous village in France that is filled with luscious foods and wine and dancing and art. Here's the blurb: 
Marianne is stuck in a loveless, unhappy marriage.  After forty-one years, she has reached her limit, and one evening in Paris she decides to take action. Following a dramatic moment on the banks of the Seine, Marianne leaves her life behind and sets out for the coast of Brittany, also known as “the end of the world.”
Here she meets a cast of colorful and unforgettable locals who surprise her with their warm welcome, and the natural ease they all seem to have, taking pleasure in life’s small moments. And, as the parts of herself she had long forgotten return to her in this new world, Marianne learns it’s never too late to begin the search for what life should have been all along.
With all the buoyant charm that made The Little Paris Bookshop a beloved bestseller, The Little French Bistro is a tale of second chances and a delightful embrace of the joys of life in France. 
George paints life in Kerdruc with a colorful canvas of juicy prose and a richly romantic plot. But what struck me most about this novel was the main character, Marianne, who is only three years older than I am, at 60, and who is living a life of self abegnation and colorless slavery to her horribly cruel and dismissive German husband. She feels worthless and worn out, and as she prepares to escape by jumping in the Seine and committing suicide, I truly felt her pain at having not lived the life she thought she should have lived. For women who are nurturers, as so many of us are, our lives become all about helping, raising, healing and pleasing others...our husbands, our children, our aged parents, our co workers.  Often there is nothing left over, no energy to care for ourselves, to nurture our own passions, find our own joy and pursuit of happiness, the things that make life worth living. Eventually, this will leave women in middle age, in their 50s and 60s, who are going through menopause and other physical changes, just as they are undergoing changes within their households as children fly the nest, feeling like a dried out husk who has been used up and is ready to be discarded. 
Though I have more self esteem than Marianne, so I don't feel like I need to jump into a river or ocean and end it all just yet, I still completely identified with her feelings of desperate yearning for joy, love, sensuality, beauty and creative fulfillment. French society doesn't sideline middle aged women (and men) as much as American society does, with its reverence for youth and slender beauty. Few in America want to be reminded of age and the march to death that age represents in our society. So the elderly are locked away, out of sight in nursing homes and hospitals, and older women are ignored and made to feel invisible and useless now that they are no longer seen as sexually viable to the vaunted demographic of males between the ages of 18-35. It's tragic, and very slowly changing, but what impressed me about this book was that the French in this small village faced the aging people in it and their diseases, from Alzheimers to Parkinsons, head on, and the older characters were seen as just as sexual and vital and worthwhile as the young characters. Everyone loved and took care of everyone else, and there was a reverence for the wisdom and compassion of the older women and their competence. In short, if you're a female member of the Baby Boomer generation (or even Generation X that followed), this novel will make you want to move to France and take up with a lover tout de suite! I'd give this sublime story an A, and recommend it to Boomers and anyone else who feels like they need a peek into what life's second chapter could be.

Kiss Carlo by Adriana Trigiani is her 17th novel, and having read them all, one of her very best yet. The story takes place in 1949 Philadelphia, with a young veteran Nicky Castone at its center. The 50s were a time of booming business and blooming families all over America, as the country worked to reinvent itself after WWII. Trigiani, with her love of all things Italian and her vivid and spotlessly clean, clear prose, manages to take readers on a journey that immerses you into the life of hard-working American Italians and their feuds, fights, loves, laughter and creativity.  These are the people who helped rebuild this country and create a forward-thinking and innovative society that pushed for the best that the future had to offer. Here's the blurb:
It’s 1949 and South Philadelphia bursts with opportunity during the post-war boom. The Palazzini Cab Company & Western Union Telegraph Office, owned and operated by Dominic Palazzini and his three sons, is flourishing: business is good, they’re surrounded by sympathetic wives and daughters-in-law, with grandchildren on the way. But a decades-long feud that split Dominic and his brother Mike and their once-close families sets the stage for a re-match. 
Amidst the hoopla, the arrival of an urgent telegram from Italy upends the life of Nicky Castone (Dominic and his wife’s orphaned nephew) who lives and works with his Uncle Dom and his family. Nicky decides, at 30, that he wants more—more than just a job driving Car #4 and more than his longtime fiancée Peachy DePino, a bookkeeper, can offer. When he admits to his fiancée that he’s been secretly moonlighting at the local Shakespeare theater company, Nicky finds himself drawn to the stage, its colorful players and to the determined Calla Borelli, who inherited the enterprise from her father, Nicky must choose between the conventional life his family expects of him or chart a new course and risk losing everything he cherishes.
From the dreamy mountaintop village of Roseto Valfortore in Italy, to the vibrant streets of South Philly, to the close-knit enclave of Roseto, Pennsylvania, to New York City during the birth of the golden age of television, Kiss Carlo is a powerful, inter-generational story that celebrates the ties that bind, while staying true to oneself when all hope seems lost.
Told against the backdrop of some of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies, this novel brims with romance as long buried secrets are revealed, mistaken identities are unmasked, scores are settled, broken hearts are mended and true love reigns. Trigiani’s consummate storytelling skill and her trademark wit, along with a dazzling cast of characters will enthrall readers. Once again, the author has returned to her own family garden to create an unforgettable feast. Kiss Carlo is a jubilee, resplendent with hope, love, and the abiding power of la famiglia.
My only problem with this magnificent family epic is that Calla Borelli makes it plain toward the end of the novel that she doesn't really want to be a typical 50s housewife and mother. She wants to continue to be a theater owner and director, a creator who uses her brains and talent to mount Shakespeare's classic plays in the theater she grew up in. Nicky, instead of being kind and understanding toward her as she prepares to lose her family's theater, comes off as a complete jerk as he "mansplains" to her that the theater is in the red and she needs his money to keep it going. He reacts to her rather cruelly, and instead of telling him that she doesn't want to retire from her career to be a typical housewife, she blusters a bit and then ends up completely capitulating to his desire to marry her. "She didn't want to give up her dreams for that great privilege. But how could she tell him that? She couldn't." Still, there is the hope that Calla managed to keep working in the theater and still have a marriage to Nicky, though why she forgave him for being such a bastard to her, I don't know. But the theme of the book is love conquers all, so in this case, it appears to have conquered all of the problems with nary a qualm from the characters. Other than that, I enjoyed the family fun, even the rift between the brothers, and the way the women of the household always managed to be completely, brutally honest without any consequences. I'd give this sprawling epic tale an A, and recommend it to anyone who has even an ounce of Italian heritage. Even if you don't, you should buy this book, it's heartwarming, funny and so worth it.

The Waking Land by Callie Bates was, I thought, a YA fantasy novel, but it reads more like fantasy romance with a touch of adventure.  The prose is glittering and gritty, and the plot labyrinthine, but understandable. The protagonist comes off as somewhat stupid and wimpy at first, but she gains in strength as she grows in talent throughout the novel. Here's the blurb:
In the lush and magical tradition of Naomi Novik’s award-winning Uprooted comes this riveting debut from brilliant young writer Callie Bates—whose boundless imagination places her among the finest authors of fantasy fiction, including Sarah J. Maas and Sabaa Tahir.
Lady Elanna is fiercely devoted to the king who raised her like a daughter. But when he dies under mysterious circumstances, Elanna is accused of his murder—and must flee for her life.
Returning to the homeland of magical legends she has forsaken, Elanna is forced to reckon with her despised, estranged father, branded a traitor long ago. Feeling a strange, deep connection to the natural world, she also must face the truth about the forces she has always denied or disdained as superstition—powers that suddenly stir within her.
But an all-too-human threat is drawing near, determined to exact vengeance. Now Elanna has no choice but to lead a rebellion against the kingdom to which she once gave her allegiance. Trapped between divided loyalties, she must summon the courage to confront a destiny that could tear her apart. Publisher's Weekly: This superior novel blends passionate romance and sweeping magic in the first-person, present-tense narrative of a young woman struggling with her destiny in a magical analogue of 13th-century Britain. Elanna was only five when King Antoine seized her as a hostage to stop her father from plotting revolt. She’s 19 now, saturated with the attitudes of the royal court but still drawn to the ancient stone circles where the forbidden magic of her northern homeland lurks. Elanna has been taught to deny everything she is, or could be; she knows that she has a special kinship with plants and has the power to control them, but she has subsumed that into planning a career in botany. All this must change when the king is poisoned, she is accused of the murder, and she flees from smothering safety to the wild, free danger of her potential role as “steward of the land.” Throughout, she is aided, tempted, and intoxicated by Lord Jahan, a conflicted sorcerer himself. Watching Elanna’s gentle desires merge with the angry needs of her oppressed people is fascinating, and Bates has a delicate, precise touch with human and superhuman relationships.
As is often the case with me with books and TV shows, I found that I fell in love with many of the "sidekick" characters of this novel faster than I fell in love with the protagonist. Elanna seemed frustratingly obtuse at times, so when her friends like Victoire or Jahan or Hugh came to the fore, I enjoyed their decisive actions and reactions. I was glad Denis Falconier got his just desserts, and though I understood why, I honestly wish that Elanna had killed Loyce instead of having her exiled. Still, the lovely HEA was satisfying and the book itself provided plenty of surprises to keep readers turning pages long after they should have been in bed. I'd give this novel an A, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys earth and plant-based magic fantasy stories.

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai was hailed as a wonderful new science fiction time travel novel that supposedly gives readers a lot to think about. Perhaps it's just me, but I've noticed lately that the books that I read that are written by men focus on women's bodies and sex and rape and abuse way too much. This is a science fiction novel, and while I appreciate the romantic thread woven through it, I found that sexual focus nauseating, because instead of a "love conquers all" theme, the male author seems to believe that the only love that conquers all is sexual love and a man's possession of the woman he loves for sex and reproduction of his genetic line, a form of immortality. The protagonist of this book, a ne'er do well named Tom Barren, is horrified that the woman that he's supposedly in love with (though he has only had relations with her once, and he never told her of his true feelings, fearing that she wouldn't return them) kills herself by disintegration while pregnant, therefore killing what he feels is "his" baby, which seems to him to be the worst thing about her death, that she's taken "his" zygote with her. Her right to her body and its products isn't even considered. Then, later in the novel, he physically abuses/rapes a young co worker while one of his incarnations inhabits his body, so he of course feels that her bruises and pain and shame are not his fault at all. He also sexually mistreats his girlfriend Penny, who eventually forgives him, in another head-scratching, disgusting moment of the book. Women aren't sex toys, slaves or possessions that your male characters have every right to abuse or misuse as they see fit, Mr Mastai. Women are human beings with their own agency. Shame on you for trying to present abuse as forgivable and sexism as normal. Here's the blurb:  
You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks, and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed . . . because it wasn’t necessary.
Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.
But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career, and—maybe, just maybe—his soul mate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents, and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future—our future—is supposed to be.
All Our Wrong Todays is about the versions of ourselves that we shed and grow into over time. It is a story of friendship and family, of unexpected journeys and alternate paths, and of love in its multitude of forms. Filled with humor and heart, and saturated with insight and intelligence and a mind-bending talent for invention, this novel signals the arrival of a major talent.
I didn't actually find it full of "humor and heart." I felt that there were way too many scientific explanations that went on for pages, while most readers would find these discussions of physics and time science incomprehensible and boring. Tom Barren is a shallow, cynical and stupid man who, though he's grown up in a utopia, is warped by having a cold and cruel "genius" narcisisst of a father and a complete wimp for a mother. I was actually relieved when she was killed, because she's only there as a slave to his father's will. His father apparently "allowed" her to have a child because she was lonely, since all Toms father did was work and treat his son like crap. So yet another layer of misogyny was added to an already sexist novel. In this reality/timeline, Toms name is John, and his father is actually a caring person who loves his mother, a dynamic English professor at a local college. He has a rather "twisted" sister who is full of bile and cynical regrets. She comes off as rather creepy, but by this point I wasn't surprised at Mastai's sexist portrayals of women. Somehow, Tom figures out how to time travel back and forth enough to save the world and find his happy ending with Penny here in this reality. So the utopia never existed, but Tom and Penny of course find ways to try to build the other reality here, and become better stewards of the earth. Though it seemed far-fetched, the HEA was actually the best part of the book. I'd give it a B-, and recommend it only to those for whom the sexual aggressiveness isn't a trigger.  

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