Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Gone Girl is a One-Way Ticket to Crazytown

I am hungover. . . from reading.

I flew home this past weekend for a Sacrament filled weekend (a wedding and a baptism) and between two delayed flights and one restful morning I was able to read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. My head almost hurts just thinking about all the crazy contained within its' pages.

Don't mistake my headache for dislike. Flynn writes like wizard - the story is masterfully executed, but emotionally painful to read. Gone Girl begins with the disappearance of Amy Dunne, wife of Nick Dunne, on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. At first it seems Amy is the victim of kidnapping, but as the story unwinds, Nick is pegged as a suspect. It's easy to see from the beginning their marriage is far from perfect, a fact neither seems to have addressed with the other. When I discovered what really happened about three quarters of the way through the novel I was left breathless, rushing to finish the last part so I could pick apart the ending (which then left me really breathless).

The disintegration of Nick and Amy's marriage is both realistic and unbelievable. While it's easy to see how the cracks became ditches which became canyons across which they could not reach, the manner in which they both handle the divide is appalling. At times I found it hard to believe two people could be so deceitful and manipulative, and it's a testament to Flynn's writing that Nick and Amy remain sympathetic and somewhat likable throughout. The truly hard part to swallow is their lack of communication - it literally made me fear for my own young marriage (but then I remembered neither of us are psychos and I breathed a sigh of relief). The issues and struggles Amy and Nick face - both personally and financially- are no joke and the idealist in me has to believe better communication could help. I'm thinking if a book can actually strike fear in to you, then damn, it must be good.

This is a book I certainly struggle to describe without revealing large parts of the plot. If you're a fan of thrillers I highly recommend it - and please let me know if anyone out there has read it so I can have a discussion! I'd compare it to Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. It's not thematically similar, but the complicated, morally ambiguous plot will leave you rushing through to discover the ending. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Past is Present in "Silver Girl"

A few posts back, I wrote about my new-found love for Elin Hilderbrand. I started reading Silver Girl over the weekend and I think I have discovered what makes me love her books so much . . .

The past.

Maybe on the surface that seems like a simple concept, but books set in the present, yet rooted in the past, always intrigue me. Connie and Meredith are the oldest of friends; they can hardly remember how they met. There is not a time during which they weren't friends - until three years ago. Though the reader doesn't discover the details of their falling out until late in the story, the fight and the effect it had on their individual losses is crucial to the story. Stories like this, which link our pasts to our presents are so life-changing for me. While I'm certainly not a believer in fate, I'd like to believe our everyday choices really effect us - otherwise what are we doing?

Hilderbrand intermingles the present day story and the past history so well. By telling the story from both Connie and Meredith's point of view, they can both become sympathetic, relatable characters. Neither of them is the villain. When they reunite at the novels' beginning, you want them to mend their friendship. You can see yourself in their friendship - even if your husband wasn't busted for a ponzi scheme. 

I also love the equal treatment of their stories. The investigation into Meredith's husband and the effects it has on her life is treated with the same importance and significance as Connie's struggles with grief and her estranged daughter. The personal struggles of both women are as intriguing as their relationship with one another. They are both mothers, and yet separated from their children. They are both fighting skeletons and yet, by coming together in Meredith's time of need they are able to rekindle their friendship. All because of the past.

Having finished the book, I find myself rejoicing at their renewed bond. Sure, there is resolution to both individual stories, but my joy comes from their reconciliation. And seeing as how The Saving Graces is one of my favorite books, this should surprise no one. True, wonderful female friendship can make a book for me, even if the story is sub par. 

I'll certainly be adding Hilderbrand to my list of re-readable authors. And maybe soon I'll make my own trip to Nantucket!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Anna & Me: Part Four

As I mentioned here, I'll be reading Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina, and blogging about my journey through one of the great classics. The novel is broken in to eight parts, so I'll post after finishing each one. To read parts one, two, and three of my journey with Anna, click here , here, and here.

"The inequality in marriage, in his opinion, lay in the fact that the infidelity of the wife and the infidelity of the husband are punished unequally, by the law and by public opinion." This line, though not spoken by a character, is really the crux of Anna Karenina. There is no other sentence (so far) that more apptly and concisely describes the novel. 

Part four picks up following Anna's conversation with Alexey during which he proposes continuing their marriage as is, with the caveat in place that she stop seeing Vronsky in public. They live peacefully like this for some time, but when Alexey catches Vronsky entering his home (while Anna believed Alexey was out for the evening) he takes Anna's letters to Vronsky and begins seeking a divorce. 

As the opening quote suggests, women and men were held to different expectations socially. While this double standard is certainly sexist and archaic to our modern minds, remember that Anna is ridiculous. Her selfish behavior appalls me. I just can't sympathize with her "plight." She seems (at first) unwilling to get a divorce but simultaneously unwilling to leave her affair alone and move forward with her husband. Though Anna is defiant and  proud, when it comes to discussing her infidelity with Alexey and facing her actions she clams up and appears crazed and unbalanced (foreshadowing?). Now, there is certainly an argument to be made that if it were not for women like Anna women would not be where they are today, but for the re-cap purposes of this post that argument will remain unaddressed.  

Anna's behavior is borderline ridiculous. Perhaps it's my idealism or my modern perception of divorce, but her inability to control herself and perpetual shirking of blame is irritating at best. When Alexey discovers Anna disregarded his request, he avows to seek a divorce. Seeking a divorce was quite the undertaking in 19th century Russia, making Alexey's wait rather long. So long that during the interim Anna delivers Vronsky's baby. This seems to smooth things over - Alexey rushes to her side when he hears of her illness and potential death (one she attempted to foresee). 

Post-labor, Anna and Vronsky become rather unhinged. Alexey retracts his desire for a divorce and promises to stay be Anna's side. This throws Vronsky into an absolute tailspin. 

(DISCLAIMER: I'm sure you're reading these Anna posts to understand the gist of this novel. I think the next statement requires a major spoiler alert because my mind was blown by what I am about to write) Vronsky returns to his own home and promptly loses his shit and shoots himself in the chest. That's right, he attempts suicide. It's insanely stupid, but also effective. By the end of part four Anna has returned to him and they have left the country, without divorcing Alexey. 

The other important development in part four is that Levin and Kitty are reunited! Stepan hosts a dinner party ate which the two loves overcome their misunderstandings and become engaged. My little romantic heart did some dancing at this development. I would elaborate further on the details, but those don't matter to me. The real hero of this story has found his mate - and I can continue disliking Anna. 

*All quotes are taken from the 2012 edition of Anna Karenina, written by Leo Tolstoy and edited by Constance Garnet

Monday, October 14, 2013

Go Ahead, Judge a Book by the Cover

I do it all the time. I did it last weekend when I bought The Island. I did it in a Borders once and came home with a copy of Naked simply because the cover was funny. Sure, we shouldn't judge people by their "covers," but judging books by their covers is a tried and true way to pick out a new book! 

For example, after my dear friend Trixie noticed me reading The Island, she lent me two more books by Elin Hilderbrand and two by Marisa de los Santos. All of the book jackets are beautiful. If these images don't make you want to read, I don't know what will. Well, okay, yes, the book jacket descriptions are certainly captivating, but book covers exist for a reason. 

Silver Girl, by Elin Hilderbrand

To my delight, Hilderbrand continues the beach themed book covers. I finished The Love Season yesterday and it did not disappoint. I was worried, after loving The Island so much that I had built Hilderbrand up in my head too much and that perhaps the first novel was just a flash in the pan. Thankfully, my concerns were unfounded and The Love Season was more than wonderful. This book portrays, very eloquently, how your life can change in just one day, or over the course of many, many years. 

I have never read Marisa de los Santos, but if her book covers are any indication, I will love her too. This cover speaks to me in so many ways. There are multiple pairs of boots in varying sizes, leading me to believe the book is about a family, probably narrated (narr-i-ated if you're my husband) by the mother. 

This one looks great too! The inside flap of the book jacket is certainly more descriptive, but once you read it the cover makes more sense. 

So when it comes to picking books, ignore your Grandmother's advice and judge a book by its cover. Someone, somewhere, in some marketing office designed that cover to draw you and and grab your attention. If it worked, all the better! You could discover a new favorite author. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Women & Mothers in "The Island"

There's nothing quite like a rainy day of reading, unless that rainy day involves coffee and book shopping with your husband at the local Barnes & Noble. Sure, I have a stack of library books just waiting to be finished, but who doesn't jump at the chance to buy clearance books? I picked up The Island by Elin Hilderbrand this weekend, and I am psyched to add her to my list of go-to-beachy authors (along with Dorthea Benton Frank and Patricia Gaffney). 

I have always been drawn to books set in a small New England beach town or a small coastal town in the Carolinas, so when I saw the cover for The Island I immediately knew it was the book for me [ASIDE: this realization sort of makes me wonder what e-Readers are doing for book marketing? I mean, if you're "old school" like myself and my mother, you don't view book covers in color  (because you have an original black-and-white Kindle). What kind of effect does this have upon the books we actually buy? END OF ASIDE

Boy was I right! The Island has many of my favorite story elements - interesting, complex female characters who, through self reflection and familial support, go after what they really want from life - be that romance, career, solitude, family, or self discovery. Hilderbrand also employs one of my favorite story telling techniques - multiple narrators. Though Birdie's narration opens the story, her daughters Chess and Tate, and her sister India, take part in the narration. I have always found this to be a compelling way to tell a story and Hilderbrand does not disappoint. By narrating from four different perspectives, Hilderbrand allows a multitude of readers to connect with her work. There can be no bad ending to the story because each woman has a different, but equally satisfying conclusion.

The story begins when Chess, Birdie's over-achieving, seemingly perfect daughter calls to tell her she has broken off her engagement. Chess explains very little about the fallout with Michael and quickly sinks into depression - Chess buzzes her head, quits her lucrative magazine job and refuses to talk about the breakup. Ever the good mother, Birdie grows concerned and plans a trip to Tuckernuck Island, a small rustic isle off the coast of Nantucket where the family once summered. Along with Tate and India, Birdie attempts to help Chess heal herself - but the funny thing about helping others is that it often leads to healing wounds we ourselves didn't know we had. All four women benefit from a "life" vacation, growing and changing in unexpected and illuminating ways.  

It's funny, but my favorite quote from The Island is part of the acknowledgements section wherein the author thanks her mother -"this book is for my mother . . . she taught me absolutely everything I know about unconditional love." This unconditional love Hilderbrand refers to fuels the novel, and it is this that makes me enjoy it so. Many of my favorite books include intense mother-daughter relationships. Any author who can write full, complicated, and long-standing relationships in the pages of a novel and make them feel real is a winner in my book. And in spite of my Kindle love, I never would have discovered Elin without a trip to a real bookstore. 

*quotes from The Island, by Elin Hilderbrand, Little, Brown, & Company 2010

Friday, October 4, 2013

Once Upon a Time . . .

. . . in a land far, far away, two young girls discovered Ella Enchanted, the greatest interpretation of Cinderella ever. Okay, well maybe Ever After could give Gail Carson Levine a run for her money, but that's a movie. 

To this day, I still read Ella. It's absolutely, hands-down, my favorite book. And it's written for children ages eight and up. A true work of art, I have re-read this book countless times, as has my sister. In fact, between the two of us we'd read it so many times in high school our copy was in pieces. Actual pieces. So, we did what any baby-sitting 15-year-olds would do and bought a replacement copy, which proved a serendipitous decision that allowed us to read the book at the same time (Out loud. To each other).

The story exists within the kingdom of Frell, an imaginary land inhabited by humans, ogres, fairies, giants, and other mythical creatures. As an infant the title character receives a gift from a fairy, constant obedience, which in reality turns out to be a curse. As with all Cinderella stories, Ella loses her mother - though in this version her father does little to compensate for the loss. Unlike traditional tales, we meet Ella's mother early in the story. The mother is a wonderful, bright, funny lady and Ella's best friend. Though as readers we see her death coming, it is no less painful. It is at her mother's funeral that Ella meets Prince Charmonte, sparking her journey towards love and liberation. 

Following her mother's death Ella's father re-marries a hideously materialistic dolt of a woman who, of course, has two daughters of her own. The story follows Ella through a stint in boarding school, an ill-fated quest to find the fairy who cursed her, a bumbling nit-wit of a father, a banishment to the scullery by her step family, a loss of friendship - all while forced to listen to commands and orders, no matter who issues them. Despite her obstacles, Ella maintains a correspondence with Prince Charmonte. The friendship and then romance between Ella and Char reads true - Ella is bright, smart, funny, and kind where Char is loyal, true, and steadfast. Instead of love at first sight, Levine builds a real relationship between Ella and her prince, making the eventual happy ending that much more satisfying. As a reader you want Ella to be released from her curse and marry Char not because that's what you expect but because she is so deserving of happiness. Levine sculpts a whole character, with flaws and charm and feelings. Ella's strength and determination are empowering for young girls (and twenty-five-year-old married women like myself). 

I would be remiss not to mention Mandy, Ella's fairy godmother - every good Cinderella story has one and Mandy does not disappoint. Loving, magical, nurturing, and a little bossy, Mandy functions as Ella's guide towards deliverance. Throughout the story Ella grapples with understanding her curse and Mandy is instrumental in helping Ella grow into the lady she was always meant to be. Though Mandy cannot replace Ella's mother by any means, she does her best to provide Ella with all the love and encouragement she needs.

If you're a lover of children's literature or a mother of a young girl, pick this up at B&N this weekend. I cannot recommend a book with more enthusiasm. And if you read it please check back in and tell me! Now off to read it all over again :-)

See, my second copy isn't even in one piece!

And, though I hesitate to even reference its existence, yes - the film starring Anne Hathaway and Hugh Dancy is an "adaptation" of this book. But it is terrible! Completely, absolutely awful. The movie is so loose an adaptation of Levine's work I'm surprised Hollywood could use the same title. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Anna & Me: Part Three

As I mentioned here, I'll be reading Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina, and blogging about my journey through one of the great classics. The novel is broken in to eight parts, so I'll post after finishing each one. To read part one and two of my journey with Anna, click here and here

Surprise! I finally made it through part three of Anna Karenina. It wasn't necessarily slow, but I was simultaneously reading The Night Circus for book club and it was ridiculously good, so Tolstoy took the back seat. 

Part three picks up with Levin holed up in his country estate, attempting to heal his broken heart through the physical labor of farming and agriculture. Through meetings with Sviazhsky, a local district marshal, Levin learns about more efficient farming techniques and attempts to put them in to practice on his land. Though Levin experiences some resistance from the peasants who work his land, he remains firm.

Levin becomes quite enamored with country life, must to his brothers' dismay. It seems evident that Levin's character and his increasingly simple life operate as a stark contrast to the city life in Moscow. Meanwhile, Dolly is also out in the country. Stiva asks that Levin to check in on Dolly, as he believes she is having a hard time. Dolly was initially overwhelmed, but comes to enjoy the simplicity of the country as well. I hate to laugh, but when Stiva's neglect is so laughable. Stiva sees absolutely nothing wrong with leaving his city wife alone in the country with few comforts and little help.  Sure, the disregard Stiva shows for his wife and her needs rings true for such an era, but it's still rather pathetic. Thankfully, Levin gladly checks on Dolly - and finds out some interesting information about his one-time-love Kitty. I was hoping he would go see Kitty when Dolly mentioned she'd be visiting, but it seems I must wait a little longer for their inevitable (please, please, please!) reunion. 

Unsurprisingly, Vronsky begins to show his true colors in part three - much to the dismay of romantic readers, I'm sure. I however, am not surprised in the least. When speaking to his friend Serpuhovskoy, Vronksy seems almost remiss that he has not achieve more in his career. I held on to hope that this exchange would change Vronsky's attitude towards Anna - Serpuhoskoy is married and believes "there's only one way of having love conveniently without its being a hindrance - that's marriage" because others have "ruined their careers for the sake of women." I thought this conversation would urge Vronsky to end his relationship with Anna and perhaps find a wife - or at least concentrate on his career. But alas, my previous suspicions that Vronsky was unworthy (you know, if being with him was even an option for Anna) are proven correct. 

To be sure, Alexey is no knight-in-shining-armor - he's a little cold and stiff. But Anna's husband is not completely unfeeling. Again, as with Stiva, he is not abnormal for the time. While it's sexist for Anna's indiscretions to be so frowned upon with Stiva's own faithlessness goes unpunished, it seems unwise to engage in such an affair when, by all accounts thus far, Alexey is a far better husband and man than other Russian socialites. Alexey's reaction to Anna's infidelity could function as a defense mechanism. Now, to a modern mind his proposal that they go on living life as usual seems ridiculous - but in those times it was not abnormal. Alexey's concern is deeply rooted in his desire to maintain appearances, as it's not until Anna brings her affair to their doorstep that he grows truly angry with her.

So, as with the first two parts, I am left feeling indifferent towards Anna. She has an ideal situation  - Alexey will allow her to continue on as usual and will act as though nothing has happened. Her refusal to follow such demands is shortsighted at best. Vronsky has done nothing to prove he will support her, and despite her worries that Alexey will take her son away if she does not comply, she continues her affair. I am far more interested in Levin's story line. The paper copy I have clearly indicates the two stories are of equal merit, which just furthers my belief that the title of this book is huge misnomer.