Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: In a Dark Wood by Joseph Luzzi

Books teach us many things. The best books and stories reflect the human condition, helping us understand how to face any number of situations we encounter in our lives. They show us what is possible, both good and bad. And although we may hope to never feel the need to look to certain works for guidance, they are still available to us if we need them. To read books is to live many lives, some truly and some vicariously. But what happens when you are forced to lead a life you didn't want and didn't choose, one that threatened to pull you under? When Dante scholar and professor Joseph Luzzi loses his wife in a car accident the same day his daughter is born, he is thrust into a life he doesn't want to lead, lost and wandering without any map. His memoir, In a Dark Wood, recounts the years he spent learning to find his way out of grief and mourning, finally learning to be a father and to love again, thanks to close a close reading of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Luzzi's wife Katherine was eight and a half months pregnant when she was hit and killed in an automobile accident. Although doctors could not save her life, they could save the baby, delivering tiny Isabel by emergency caesarean. Luzzi had been looking forward to becoming a father, despite the fact that his own father did not give him a model he wanted to follow in his own parenting. But when he loses Katherine, he is too overcome with grief to take care of Isabel, giving her over to the care of his old-world Calabrian mother and sisters, plunging himself into work to distract himself from the pain of loss. Luckily his work is on Dante, author of one of history's most famous lost love's laments and ultimately a guide to helping Luzzi come to terms with his unwanted and unlooked for vita nuova (new life).

The deeply personal memoir of loss, grief, and longing is intricately intertwined with Luzzi's literary exploration of Dante, especially as Dante's loss of his beloved Beatrice mirrored Luzzi's own journey through his loss of Katherine and the exile he feels from his own life. Dante's journey through the underworld, purgatory, and ultimately into paradise, is mirrored by Luzzi's years of struggle to come out the other side of his own dark wood of deep and paralyzing grief. He looked to Dante to help him understand how it is possible to still love someone who has become incorporeal, gone from this world forever. Luzzi finds some solace in the parallels he finds in Dante but the book cannot show him how to be a father. From the very beginning, he has an inability to connect with Isabel because of being emotionally frozen to protect against the overwhelming agony that his wife's death carries for him. And in Katherine's absence as Isabel's flesh and blood mother, Luzzi does not know how he should father this baby, this toddler, this child either.

As he addresses his own despair, he pulls directly from Dante's writing and life experiences, weaving the literary and the personal tightly together. His own life is an illustration of Dante's journey. Or perhaps Dante's journey is an illustration of Luzzi's life. His writing about his own life is raw but the literary analysis, while reinforcing the shared experience, helps make the emotion a little less overwhelming to the reader. Luzzi spares nothing in opening up about his loneliness and his floundering as a father. He is honest about the failures at moving on in his life, wanting to replicate the family that was forever lost with Katherine's death, one that truly perhaps never quite existed in the first place. But Dante doesn't just teach him about death, pushing him to the purgatory of healing and the paradise of love as well. As Luzzi says, "every grief story is a love story" and this is certainly that.  It's a wrenching tale skillfully told, literate and accessible both.

For more information about Joseph Luzzi and the book, check out his website, like his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter. Takes a look at the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

Two Fridays in April by Roisin Meaney. The book is being released by Hachette Books Ireland on June 1, 2015.

Amazon says this about the book: It's Friday, April 2. Daphne Darling knows that she should be celebrating her stepdaughter Una's 17th birthday, but it's hard, because the date also marks the one-year anniversary of her husband's death, and she and Una just can't seem to connect anymore. Daphne can't turn to her own mother Isobel for advice, as their relationship is distant, to say the least, and Mo, Finn's elderly mother, is still grief-stricken at the death of her only son, so she is of little help. But by the end of that day in April, marking the occasion with a slice of cake and a glass of wine will be the last thing on anyone's mind. . . Before that Friday, Daphne, Mo, and Isobel were all stuck in the past, with their grief and their loss. And then Una takes matters into her own hands, and even though she makes a terrible mistake, she teaches Daphne, Mo, and Isobel something about life: that it is to be lived and that, in spite of everything they've been through, happiness can still be a part of it.

Monday, May 25, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison
The Balance Project by Susie Orman Schnall
The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry
In a Dark Wood by Joseph Luzzi

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave

Reviews posted this week:

Five Night Stand by Richard Alley
Find the Good by Heather Lende
It's Not Me It's You by Mhairi McFarlane
The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin
Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society by Amy Hill Hearth
The Unlikely Lady by Valerie Bowman

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

The Surfacing by Cormac James
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
The Promise by Ann Weisgarber
A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison
The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry
In a Dark Wood by Joseph Luzzi

Monday Mailbox

Even a few days short of a full week (long explanation that no one cares to hear), I was a very spoiled girl as you can see below. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman came from Washington Square Press.

I've already reviewed this absolutely delightful novel here.

The Balance Project by Susie Orman Schnall came from Spark Press and BookSparks for a blog tour.

The assistant to a work-life balance author is the only thing keeping the balls in the air for her employer, at the expense of her own life. Since I think it's pretty nigh impossible to "have it all," I am very curious to see what happens when said assistant must make the decision between continuing on like this or letting a ball or two drop.

Fishbowl by Bradley Somer came from St. Martin's Press.

A goldfish decides to jump out of his bowl and as he plummets 27 stories toward the street, he gets a view into all the apartments he passes. Sounds quirky and fun, no?!

Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave came from BookSparks PR for a blog tour.

About a woman who returns home to the family vineyard after discovering her fiancé has been keeping secrets only to find that everyone else has too, this sounds delicious.

In a Dark Wood by Joseph Luzzi came from Harper Wave and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

This memoir about grief and Dante speaks to the literature student of my soul.

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Review: The Unlikely Lady by Valerie Bowman

I do enjoy my Regency-set historical romances, especially when the heroine is a bluestocking and the hero has a grand library. That makes me want to dive into the book and win the hero myself despite the fact that most likely I would have been the illiterate maid dusting the books if I had actually lived in this time. Valerie Bowman's third novel in her Playful Brides series, The Unlikely Lady, has the bluestocking, the hero's amazing library, and as an added bonus, it's an homage to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

Jane Lowndes and Garrett Upton don't much like each other. Given that Jane is one of Garrett's cousin Lucy's best friends, they cannot avoid each other though. They meet again at the pre-wedding house party before Lucy and Jane's mutual friend Cassandra's long awaited wedding. They immediately start their customary sniping tossing pointed barbs at each other until they resolve to try and be civil to make Cassandra more comfortable. They still don't think much of each other though. An uneasy dĂ©tente is maintained until the beautiful but nasty and conniving widow of Garrett's friend arrives uninvited and imposes herself on the party in an effort to ensnare Garrett, who has been financially maintaining her and her children for years now thanks to his guilt over his friend's death.

One of the pre-wedding festivities is a masquerade ball. Jane agrees to forgo her usual frumpy clothing, leave her book behind in her room, and navigate without her glasses, despite her appallingly poor eyesight. Garrett spends much of the ball trying to politely avoid the widow and as a result ends up completely drunk. When a blind as a bat heroine looking for a little scandal to convince her parents she never wants to wed and a blind drunk hero end up together, they end up in each others' arms, not knowing who the other is, at least not at first. The scandal is that they find they like it and perhaps each other too. When Lucy and Cassandra come to almost the exactly right conclusion about Jane and Garrett's disappearance from the ball, they conspire to match these two up by telling each that the other is in love with them. Of course, with a determined widow lurking about, the path of love cannot run smoothly.

Both Jane and Garrett were engaging characters and if one overlooks the fact that their chemistry goes from dead annoyance to desire and love in zero flat after just one kiss, the story was a fun one. That Jane didn't change her interests one jot and that Garrett not only didn't want her to but also shared a mutual enjoyment of reading was definitely appealing. The resolution of the widow's plot line was a bit over the top but overall, this was an amusing and quick read for readers of historical romance.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society by Amy Hill Hearth

Some things just can't be believed and Southern literature in particular is chock full of such things. Characters are zany; events are outlandish. Or is it that characters are outlandish and events are zany? Either way, the hallmark of fun southern fiction is pure wacky. Amy Hill Hearth's novel Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society has over the top and wacky in spades.

When Dora Witherspoon, who rescues turtles and works at the Post Office is caught leafing through the only copy of Vogue magazine to ever come through the Naples, Florida post office by it's rightful owner, Jackie Hart, they strike up a conversation. Jackie is new to town, a Yankee in a very southern enclave. She's bored and doesn't fit into this town her husband has moved her to so she decides to start up a book club at the library. The oddly eclectic bunch who show up for the first meeting are all town outsiders of one sort or another. There's Dora, who is divorced; the librarian; a plain woman who secretly writes steamy romances and sexy articles for magazines; an elderly woman convicted of killing her husband and newly released from prison; a literate young, black maid with dreams of higher education, and the only homosexual man in town who also happens to live with his alligator hunting mother. The only thing any of these people have in common is their outsider status and their interest in the book club and yet they come together as friends and partners in crime on some truly crazy, sometimes scary adventures.

The novel is set in 1962 but it is told from the perspective of Dora fifty years on, now in her 80s. She recounts the group's formation and slow bonding plus the roiling tensions in town that particular summer through the lens of Jackie's non-native lack of understanding. There's the ongoing mystery of what really did happen to Bailey's husband and the not really a mystery of who Miss Dreamsville, the sultry sounding radio personality who keeps the town captivated, is. The group also has a scary run-in with the local KKK and Jackie's young son is arrested as a suspected Communist. The tone of the book is light as fits a goofy caper style novel but it actually has some weightier issues than it appears at first blush from prejudice and racial hatred to the expected role of women and the embracing of "othernesss." The characters aren't always fully fleshed out and the situations are definitely over the top but the breezy telling of the tale keeps the reader turning the pages even as she shakes her head at the crazy.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Review: The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin

My parents have long had an alluring looking coffee table book on Sisi, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, that they brought back from a trip. Since I usually take my own collection of books with me to read on the holidays we spend at their house, I haven't done much more than flip through it to look at the pictures but I've done that one more than one occasion. So I was definitely intrigued to read a book where the famous royal beauty was a major character. That the author was Daisy Goodwin, whose The American Heiress I enjoyed, made it that much more appealing. But The Fortune Hunter is not focused on Sisi so much as it is on two characters whose lives are changed by her very presence.

Charlotte Baird is a quiet and unassuming young woman possessed of an enormous fortune. She has a quick wit and a settled sensibility to her. Her older half brother has the administration of her fortune until she attains her majority or marries and he has short-listed several suitable men for her consideration. She's more interested in pursuing the art of photography than she is marrying until she meets one of her brother's fellow officers, the dashing but rather unsuitable Captain Bay Middleton. When they meet, Bay has just been thrown over by his married lover after she discovers that she is pregnant with his child and must go to her husband to prevent the child from appearing illegitimate. He is still smarting from his dismissal but finds himself captivated by this intelligent and no nonsense young woman. And although they come to a sort of secret understanding, the arrival of Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria, threatens to change everything.

As the preeminent rider in England, Middleton, who is in fact a cavalry officer, is assigned to pilot Sisi for the current hunting season. She herself is a marvelous equestrienne and the two of them spend hours out in the field riding together and testing each other's prowess in the saddle. And soon they are lovers as well. Despite this liaison, Bay doesn't want to give up Charlotte, and torn between them, he must juggle the two women carefully, one too astute to miss the situation and one too entitled to give her rival much of a thought. When Charlotte takes a furtive picture of the Empress, who is accounted the most beautiful woman in the world, and of Bay gazing on her with patent adoration, and the picture comes to public view, not only the personal is revealed but political underpinnings come suddenly into play.

This is not a typical romance, even if it has many of the hallmarks of one. Goodwin draws a fascinating picture of Victorian England, the horsey set, and the nascent art of photography. She's captured several different, sometimes unconventional, love stories and the longing and desire in each beautifully. But she's also captured the uncertainty of women through Charlotte's fear that she is only being pursued for her money rather than herself and through Sisi's poignant fear of aging and losing her much vaunted looks. A thick feeling of unhappiness pervaded much of the novel with each of the characters trying so hard to find something to hold onto in life that would bring them joy. For Charlotte, that thing is clearly photography. For Bay, it's riding and horses. For Sisi, it's hard to say as she continually pushes for more of everything in search of the elusive happiness. In both Bay and Sisi, there is a certain recklessness while Charlotte is a much steadier character. The secondary characters surrounding this trio were well drawn and helped to show the stifling social rules under which each of them was forced to live. Based on real people, the story was very readable although Sisi as a character was rather less likable than Charlotte for me, coming across as petulant and spoiled on occasion. Charlotte's continued devotion to Bay, despite the rumors of his infidelities and her own photographic proof, would be inexplicable if not for her tender age and the mysterious workings of the human heart. This is pleasant and readable historical fiction although I must admit to liking Goodwin's prior book more.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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