Thursday, October 17, 2019

Review: Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney

I am only ever in fashionable by accident. I quite appreciated the trend for grey hair recently and was tickled when some women (models? actresses? famous for some reason anyway) were photographed carrying books that the media dubbed the new fashion accessory. Both of these looks I can accomplish without the thought and effort that goes into actually being on trend. But if thought and effort is required, well, I can be found in pajamas or jeans and sweatshirts/t-shirts. I am nothing if not the epitome of unfashionable. So it is perhaps odd that I'd choose to read a biography of Coco Chanel. In fairness, it was a book club choice but in a perfect world, I would also like to be able to pull off that certain panache that style imparts. Lisa Chaney's biography, Coco Chanel, certainly discusses Chanel's impact on and belief about the guiding tenets of fashion but it is less about her public success and her designs and more about the little bit of her private life that can be uncovered and verified.

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was famous for obscuring the truth about her life, contradicting things she'd already claimed, and leaving little written documentation of her life for biographers to work with. Chaney had access to newly discovered documents so she had more than usual to go on but her factual information was still quite limited and she fleshed out her biography with conjecture and speculation. Because of the dearth of actual documented information on Chanel, there's a lot of detail about the historical times and the people around Chanel, about whom more is known. These extensive details become long diversions from the topic and life of our ostensible subject. Often there are long lists of the names of potentially prominent people who are not generally remembered by history and never appear again in the book. They might be named in order to show Chanel's influence and evolving depth of her inner circle but as they are unknowns, they add nothing to the book. And certainly Chanel knew, befriended, dressed, otherwise worked with, or had an affair with so many very famous people that the other names were just tedious to read. Many of the chapters were quite repetitious both in descriptions of certain people (physically and in terms of personality) and in ideas.

When focusing on Chanel herself, as the reader expects in a biography, Chaney appears to be writing something of a hagiography. In writing of anything remotely negative, she then justifies Chanel's choices in some way. And she is almost entirely uncritical about the most controversial bits of Chanel's life, ignoring or making only glancing mentions of things like her drug addiction and her early abortion. As for Chanel's well known affair with a Nazi officer during (and after!!) WWII and possible collaboration, Chaney only skims the surface, suggesting that Chanel didn't know the depths of his position despite all the obvious evidence pointing to his importance. Either Chanel was an incredibly smart and savvy woman, as presented prior to this instance, or she is the most naive and, frankly, unobservant woman ever. Impossibly, Chaney chooses both to make Chanel look as good as possible in all cases, including this affair.

There are odd authorial intrusions into the text to tell the reader that she (Chaney) was the first to see and use certain sources like recently discovered diaries and letters. Even with these new sources, Chanel's secrets don't seem to have been uncovered and I'm not entirely certain they would really be all that interesting if they were uncovered given the portrait we're presented with here. I enjoy history and learning how actual individual people either fit into their times or challenged and pushed them but this biography did not end up succeeding in this for me. It was long and unfocused so it turned out to be a rather dull read unfortunately.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

It seems pretty obvious to say that your family shapes you, that your experiences make you who you turn out to be. As obvious as it sounds, it is true. But people react to their same circumstances, their same raising, the same major events in their lives in very different ways because there are also things that are hard wired into us, that are coded on our genes, that have nothing to do with nurture and everything to do with nature. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane is the story of two families, and more specifically, two children of these families, and how their lives and who they become depends so greatly on a shared tragedy.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope are rookie NYC cops and partners for a brief time. Each is young and starting out in similar circumstances so it's not entirely surprising when they each move to the suburbs and end up as next door neighbors. Lena Gleeson tries to befriend Anne Stanhope but Anne keeps her at arms length, even after the Gleeson's third daughter, Kate, and the Stanhope's son, Peter, are born within six months of each other. The two families could not be more different and Anne is unhappy about Peter's growing friendship with Kate but the two have a bond that cannot be broken by something as weak as parental disapproval.  Lena worries about their friendship as well, but for entirely different reasons than Anne does.  And eventually their friendship starts to morph into a tentative something more until one night something happens that shatters both families.

Spanning four decades, this is a novel about life trajectories and intersections, mental illness, alcoholism, desertion, and forgiveness. The beginning of the story gives some insight into the Gleeson and Stanhope families but the narrative only focuses on the inside of the Gleeson family, leaving Peter to share (or hide) the incomplete inner workings of his own family with Kate.  The change in character focus illuminates Francis, Lena, Kate, and Peter, but leaves Brian and Anne mostly as shadowy ciphers.  The bulk of the story follows Peter and Kate in the years after they were neighbors and the impact their youthful relationship and their shared tragedy had in shaping them and their futures. There was a lot going on in the novel and quite a few issues touched on within these two families, but chief among them was forgiveness and its price. The book was a slow read and unhappiness leached out of many of the characters giving it a depressed tone most of the way through although there was ultimately some redemption, some sense of overcoming and acceptance. Keane handles the tension of the novel well, keeping it rising, even after the event that drives the latter two thirds of the book.  There is a measure of predictability here but the characters are more the focus than the plot, except in the one catastrophic instance.  Fans of character driven, family dysfunction novels will find much to satisfy them here.

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

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was 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. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Other Windsor Girl by Georgie Blalock.

The book is being released by William Morrow Paperbacks on November 5, 2019.

The book's jacket copy says: Diana, Catherine, Meghan…glamorous Princess Margaret outdid them all. Springing into post-World War II society, and quite naughty and haughty, she lived in a whirlwind of fame and notoriety. Georgie Blalock captures the fascinating, fast-living princess and her “set” as seen through the eyes of one of her ladies-in-waiting.

In dreary, post-war Britain, Princess Margaret captivates everyone with her cutting edge fashion sense and biting quips. The royal socialite, cigarette holder in one hand, cocktail in the other, sparkles in the company of her glittering entourage of wealthy young aristocrats known as the Margaret Set, but her outrageous lifestyle conflicts with her place as Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister. Can she be a dutiful princess while still dazzling the world on her own terms?

Post-war Britain isn’t glamorous for The Honorable Vera Strathmore. While writing scandalous novels, she dreams of living and working in New York, and regaining the happiness she enjoyed before her fiancĂ© was killed in the war. A chance meeting with the Princess changes her life forever. Vera amuses the princess, and what—or who—Margaret wants, Margaret gets. Soon, Vera gains Margaret’s confidence and the privileged position of second lady-in-waiting to the Princess. Thrust into the center of Margaret’s social and royal life, Vera watches the princess’s love affair with dashing Captain Peter Townsend unfurl.

But while Margaret, as a member of the Royal Family, is not free to act on her desires, Vera soon wants the freedom to pursue her own dreams. As time and Princess Margaret’s scandalous behavior progress, both women will be forced to choose between status, duty, and love…

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Review: Questions I Am Asked About the Holocaust by Hedi Fried

The generation who lived through the atrocities of WWII is aging and dwindling. Their stories are too important to disappear with them because they remind us of the evil man is capable of, the horrific tragedy of genocide, and ultimately of the resilience and hope of the human spirit. They give us first person insights that personalize the abstract, making the truth immediate. It is impossible to look away in the face of such stories. Hedi Fried has spent years teaching young people about the Holocaust and her experiences in Auschwitz and other labor camps. In Questions I Am Asked About the Holocaust, she has gathered common questions and her answers to them together in one place, addressing the inhumanity of what was done to millions of people, the motivations behind this evil, and how she lives her life now with such horror in her past.

Fried has previously written an autobiography so this memoir is very different, both in form and in function. This is meant as a teaching tool, an aide to ensure that something like the Holocaust can never happen again to anyone anywhere. It is set up in a question and answer format. The questions are pretty basic and the short answers are interesting and informative. Sometimes there isn't an answer, per se, but only speculation and guesswork, especially for the more philosophical questions. Questions range from "Were you always hungry?" to "Did you dream at night?" to "How could an entire people get behind Hitler?" and "Do you hate the Germans?" The answers are easily understood and processed by younger readers. They are honest and unflinching and they boil down Fried's experiences to their very essence without needing to describe every detail to get the point across.

The questions and answers range across Fried's entire life, drawing a picture of her family's existence before the war to contrast with what they endured during the war. She shares her purpose in life now, finding her voice as a way to reconcile surviving when so many others didn't. While it is not the last question in the book, one that really resonates is "Are you able to forgive?" combined with its answer, "This is a question I've thought about often, until I realised that you do not have to think in those terms. What has been done may not be undone, time cannot be turned back, those who are gone will never come again. Today we have to look to the future. What we can do today is work to make sure that it never happens again." Words we would all do to remember forever. This is not a traditionally written memoir and it is clearly geared towards younger readers.  The format makes it easy to dip and out of but also easy to set aside for a while.  It is simply written and described and there's no linear narrative but as one woman's first person experiences and feelings, it is invaluable.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me this book for review.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Review: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Imagine a United States much like ours. Now make abortion illegal. Endow embryos with legal rights and personhood according to a Constitutional Amendment. Outlaw in-vitro fertilization because said embryos can't give consent to be transferred from lab to uterus. Set this alternate American story on the eve of the implementation of a law that states that only married couples can adopt because "Every Child Needs Two." This is the world that Leni Zumas has created in her novel, Red Clocks, a world quietly at war against women.

Four women in a small Oregon town, a history teacher (called The Biographer), an herbalist who lives alone in the woods (called The Mender), a pregnant teenager (called The Daughter), and a discontented stay at home mother (called The Wife) are all straining against society's definition of them.  In the erasure of their identities, they are simply the embodiment of their roles rather than individual women who have hopes and dreams and complicated feelings. Naming them according to their roles strips them of their personhood much as the ever tightening laws about women do. But Zumas isn't consistent with their anonymity, allowing other characters to call the women by their names, which confuses matters. Ro, the history teacher, is single, in her forties, and cannot seem to conceive a biological child through IUI. Time is running out for her to adopt as the law restricting adoptions to married couples only is mere weeks away from becoming reality. As she struggles with the unfairness of her situation, especially in contrast to Susan (The Wife) who appears to have it all and pregnant teenager Mattie (The Daughter), she is also writing a biography of a little known, female Faroese polar explorer named Eivor Minervudottir who faced her own immense struggles against the ideas of men and their ideas of women's place in the world. Susan, the wife, has two children she loves but her marriage is unhappy and she feels and rejects the pressure to be the perfect wife, entirely eschewing cleaning and cooking a certain way and demanding some time to herself to escape her children and their constant needs. She keeps hoping that her husband will be the one to end their marriage because she dreads being seen to be the one who ruined everything. Mattie, the daughter, who is Ro's student and Susan's occasional babysitter, is fifteen and pregnant. She knows what happens to girls who seek abortions and are discovered but she doesn't care. She just doesn't want to be pregnant and she'll go to extreme lengths to find a way to terminate despite the fact that her own parents would never approve. Gin, the mender, is looked at askance in town, living as she does, out in the woods, supplying women with herbal healing concoctions. It is to Gin that Mattie first goes in her quest for an abortion. And it is Gin who is the thin skein of connection between the other three women.  How this unkempt, witchy woman is connected to each of them gets revealed slowly throughout the novel as she herself comes under unwanted scrutiny and is placed at risk.

This could be a frightening view of our political future but it was actually more about society's defining of women's roles than it was about the laws that curtail their freedoms (although it is about some of that too), laws that aren't so far off in the imagination now. The four women, and Eivor the explorer too, must conform or be punished, must suffer quietly or be outcast, or be considered unnatural. The chapters alternated between each of the women and either a small fragment of Eivor's diary or Ro's biography of her (it's unclear which it is), showing how each woman chafed at her situation. The characters each showed a different face of what society expects of women but in doing so they became fairly stereotypical. If intentionally drawn to show they acquiesced to what was expected of them, Zumas has succeeded but this also meant they lacked the engaging emotional depth of more complex characters, which made the reader less interested in their stories. Their stories, individually or collectively, didn't feel as if they were the most important things here though anyway. Unfortunately the message of the novel took precedence over the plot. For as interesting as the premise was, once the reader got used to the staccato prose style and choppy narrative, this ended up being fairly pedestrian. Maybe that makes it all the scarier as a near future dystopia. That certainly seems to be true for many other readers; it just wasn't for me.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed over the past few weeks are:

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivak

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas
The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresan
A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon
Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhannon
Breaking the Ocean by Annahid Dashtgard
Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
The Ventriloquists by E.R. Ramzipoor
The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell
A Stranger at My Table by Ivo de Figueiredo

Reviews posted this week:

Southernmost by Silas House
The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handler
When Death Takes Something From You, Take It Back: Carl's Story by Naja Marie Aidt
Oh, Tama! by Mieko Kanai
The Flicker of Old Dreams by Susan Henderson
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

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

Exposed by Jean-Philippe Blondel
Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Miss Blaine's Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas
Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
Granny’s Got a Gun by Harper Lin
White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf
At Briarwood School for Girls by Michael Knight
The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel
All Ships Follow Me by Mieke Eerkens
Like This Afternoon Forever by Jaime Manrique
Gravity Well by Melanie Joosten
Motherhood So White by Nefertiti Austin
America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Dear Baba by Maryam Rafiee
Saint Everywhere by Mary Lea Carroll
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Tonic and Balm by Stephanie Allen
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons
In the Shadow of Wolves by Alvydas Slepikas
The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin
CinderGirl by Christina Meredith
The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones
The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis
Autopsy of a Boring Wife by Marie-Renee Lavoie
The Fragments by Toni Jordan
The Question Authority by Rachel Cline
The Plaza by Julie Satow
The Lonely Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya
To Keep the Sun Alive by Rabeah Ghaffari
Haben by Haben Girma
The Paris Orphan by Natasha Lester
Educated by Tara Westover
State of the Union by Nick Hornby
Turbulence by David Szalay
What a Body Remembers by Karen Stefano
The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S. Laskar
Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok
Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain
Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers by the New York Public Library
The Honey Bus by Meredith May
The Liar in the Library by Simon Brett
The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib
Church of the Graveyard Saints by C. Joseph Greaves
Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery by John Gregory Brown
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
Advanced Physical Chemistry by Susannah Nix
Death of a Rainmaker by Laurie Lowenstein
No Good Asking by Fran Kimmel
Laurentian Divide by Sarah Stonich
The Abolitionist's Daughter by Diane C. McPhail
A London Country Diary by Tim Bradford
Crazy Cupid Love by Amanda Heger
A Moveable Feast edited by Don George
Tiny Hot Dogs by Mary Giuliani
Tomorrow's Bread by Anna Jean Mayhew
Love You Hard by Abby Maslin
Unfurled by Michelle Bailat-Jones
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland
Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
Hungry Monkey by Matthew Amster-Burton
Retablos by Octavio Solis
The Unbreakables by Lisa Barr
The Tubman Command by Elizabeth Cobbs
The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner
All the Wild Hungers by Karen Babine
Vacationland by Sarah Stonich
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
The Last Ocean by Nicci Gerrard
Something Like Breathing by Angela Readman
Nothing to Report by Carola Oman
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George
The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivak

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson came from me for myself.

With this title, can you resist? This memoir of a young married woman during WWII looks both funny and poignant.

Somewhere in England by Carola Oman came from me for myself.

The sequel to the delightful Nothing to Report, I couldn't resist this one and I'm looking forward to getting back to the quirky characters and the small English village as WWII comes to England.

If you want 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.

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