Monday, September 24, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

For a change of pace, my next book was a light romantic comedy. Set in 1999, it can’t even be called historical fiction, but I was in the mood for something different. I’d read a review of Attachments by Rainbow Rowell over at Sarah Reads Too Much that made me want to give it a try.

Lincoln O’Neil has been hired as the IT guy for The Courier, the daily paper in an unnamed Nebraska city. It’s 1999, and the newspaper is reluctantly transitioning to the digital age–giving its employees limited internet access and e-mail–while preparing itself for various Y2K doomsday scenarios. Lincoln’s job is to monitor what the employees are doing online. He’s supposed to make sure they aren’t downloading porn, gambling, or using office computers for personal emails. He works the late shift and reads other peoples’ electronic communications. Lincoln hates his job.

Moreover, Lincoln is none too crazy about life in general. He has never gotten over the high school girlfriend who dumped him in college. He’s living with his mother. His social life consists of a standing Saturday night Dungeons & Dragons game. He’s bored, lonely, and doesn’t see how to get out of his rut.

Then the email filter picks up correspondence between Beth (feature editor/movie critic) and Jennifer (copy editor.) Beth (in a long-term relationship with a guitarist who’s commitment-phobic) and Jennifer (terrified of having a baby but married to a sweet, sensitive man who wants to start a family) are breaking all the rules about personal emailing on the job. But they do it in an extremely entertaining way. Lincoln is unable to bring himself to send them a warning. And he is unable to stop himself from invading their privacy.

As Lincoln becomes caught up in the drama of the lives of these two friends (and the reader does also!) he’s inspired to make changes in his own life. He gets out more, makes friends, joins a gym. That’s all good. But he has a new problem. He’s fallen quite hopelessly for Beth. Hopelessly, because 1) she has a boyfriend and 2) how can he ever introduce himself as the guy who has been electronically stalking her?

This is an utterly charming book. Lincoln is a sweet protagonist through and through. Still, the real heroes in the book are the two women. Although they are seen only through their emails, their personalities are vivid. Their communications are caring and supportive, very funny, and at times, poignant. Attachments is a light romantic comedy and a feel-good friendship book all rolled into one.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I had a hard time deciding what to read after Lost Illusions. I was a little afraid whatever I read next was going to suffer by comparison. I finally decided to go with another classic that’s been on my shelf for a long time – The Great Gatsby. I can’t believe I was never assigned this book somewhere along the way, but then again, I made it through school without ever reading To Kill a Mockingbird, so I clearly have some huge gaps in my education.

We have a nice collection of Fitzgerald’s novels sitting on our bookshelves waiting to be read. After reading The Paris Wife with its brief but fascinating peep at the relationship between the Hemingways and the Fitzgeralds I reminded myself again that I really needed to read something by Fitzgerald other than Bernice Bobs her Hair. And so...

Not the edition I read
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a surprisingly short novel narrated by the earnest young Nick Carraway, a midwestern gentleman come to New York to make his way as a bond trader. He rents a house in the less fashionable (new money) West Egg which is across the bay from the more fashionable (old money) East Egg where his distant cousin Daisy lives with her husband Tom Buchanan.

Daisy is beautiful, rich, and spoiled; however, she isn’t happy. Her husband, an arrogant, unpleasant man, is having an affair (not his first) and is none too discreet about it.

Nick, meanwhile, is introduced to his neighbor on West Egg, a man who throws frequent, extravagant, wild parties at his mansion. Nick learns that the neighbor, Jay Gatsby, has set up ostentatious housekeeping in this particular place because it is directly across the water from the Buchanans. Gatsby is in love with Daisy. He had vainly hoped Daisy might come over to join the fun, but the Buchanans are not lured by wild parties. He now wonders if Nick will help him reconnect with the girl he once wooed.

Nick does.

Nick narrates the entire train wreck of the couple’s reunion and of the bits of their past that he pieces together. Gatsby was not born to money the way the others were. He craved riches and then he met Daisy and he became obsessed with her too. Could he have loved her if she wasn’t made of money? It doesn’t matter. He had to become fabulously wealthy to be worthy of her. But his method of obtaining money is a shady one. He must keep his methods secret because he has to appear to Daisy to be an insider. He can’t just have money, he has to have come from money.

Gatsby has created a false version of himself to present to Daisy when he reappears in her life. Nick, who styles himself fatally honest, is able to present the facts to the reader so that we see how everyone else is living a series of lies. Yet Gatsby’s pretense of belonging to their social class seems, to all but Nick perhaps, to be the most unacceptable of lies. Events spiral out of control and Nick bears witness to Gatsby’s tragic downfall. (I’m trying avoid spoilers in case I’m not the last person to have read this.)

The Great Gatsby has been called the Great American Novel (or novella) and it is a marvelous book in how much it accomplishes in such a compact story. The characters (although awful) are well-drawn. The settings are stunning. And Nick’s narration is quite ingenious, because while the reader most likely won’t be able to empathize with the protagonists, emotionally they can be drawn right along with Nick.

The novel was not as overwhelmingly good as Balzac’s Lost Illusions, but Balzac’s book was more ambitious in scope and it was part of a much larger body of work exploring the whole human condition. The Great Gatsby illuminates a very unattractive picture of one small subset of people.

If you like The Great Gatsby, you might also enjoy The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington.

I’m making some progress now on my Mount TBR Challenge (hosted by My Reader’s Block.)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac

I love the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge (hosted by Sarah Reads too Much.) I’ve had Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac on my bookshelf for years but might not ever have gotten around to it if I hadn’t decided to make it my "classic translated from the original language to my language." (And while I’m at it, I’m going to add it to my Mount TBR challenge too, since getting this one read was quite an accomplishment!)

This book is amazing. Yes, it’s lengthy and feels it. Balzac does a lot of "telling" not showing, especially to get the ball rolling, so it starts slow. Also, the ending felt a bit dragged out until all of a sudden it seemed Balzac just wanted to be done with it so he squished the last bits together to wrap up. The thread that is left hanging is an obvious set-up for a sequel–things haven’t changed much in the literary world! Nevertheless, the whole long way through, this novel is utterly captivating.

Lost Illusions is one of the major novels in Balzac’s vast collection of works comprising The Human Comedy. The books are models of realism. Lost Illusions is full of meticulous details but it is also packed with incredible character studies. Even minor characters jump off the pages.

There are two heroes. The first, David Séchard, toils in the background and is barely seen. David is a the owner of a failing printing shop but more than that, he is a scientist and inventor with a brilliant idea for making cheaper paper if only he can perfect the process. The primary protagonist is Lucien Chardon (or Lucien de Rubempré as he prefers to be known, taking his mother’s more aristocratic name.) Lucien is a poet. To set the stage: Lucien has a beautiful and devoted sister, Eve. Eve and David are in love, but more than anything else, they love Lucien. By virtue of his Adonis-like looks, Lucien has managed to secure the patronage of the infatuated Madame de Bargeton, the social queen of Angoulème, who has decided to run off with him. This provides Lucien with a chance to leave his provincial backwater life and try to make a name for himself in Paris. Lucien, full of dreams of glory (and full of himself), sallies forth.

The book was enjoyable in its portrayal of small town life in Angoulème, but it really gets interesting when Lucien reaches Paris. Lucien and his patroness become mutually disenchanted the very moment they reach the big city. It has so much better to offer! Unfortunately for Lucien, he needs the lady more than she needs him. David and Eve (poverty-stricken, overly generous newlyweds) have given him seed money. He blows through the cash in no time and finds himself destitute. Now is make or break time. Does Lucien have what it takes to be a writer?

He buckles down. He works on his poetry and a historical novel. And he finds friends. The first group of friends are noble, hardworking men, all geniuses of one sort or another, generous and loyal. They have ideals that they sincerely believe in. And they are poor. Lucien is grateful for the friendship; however, he is unable to abide the poverty. He finds another friend, Etienne, who is a journalist. Although his noble friends warn him strenuously against it, Lucien follows Etienne down the corrupt path of journalism. (And oh boy! is Balzac full of contempt for journalists!)

The reader is whisked along with Lucien as he rises and falls. Balzac masterfully portrays the corruption throughout Paris’ artistic world--from the publishers to the newspapers to the theater. Reviews are bought and sold. The newspaper editors are in bed with the publishers and favors are exchanged and negotiated. Vengeance is obtained through the clever use of the mighty pen. Wit rules. Ideals (if they exist at all) are sacrificed to the highest bidder. Lucien imagines himself to be on top of this world, but in fact, he’s in over his head.

Lucien’s weaknesses are always on full display. Although he is faced with hardship aplenty, he is also handed numerous opportunities. Every time he is faced with a moral decision, he makes a bad choice. He takes the expedient path. Surrounded by bad company, it’s easy to understand how he can justify his own failings and count them as strengths–everyone else does it. But Lucien is not a protagonist whose success you can root for. He’s such an arrogant, smug little guy that his comeuppance is no tragedy. What hurts is that he pulls down innocent people as he falls.

The terrible tension that drives the last part of the book is whether the truly good people in the book, David and Eve, will be able to rise above the desperate situation they fall into through no fault of their own. Bankrupted by Lucien’s excesses, tricked by people they are naive enough to trust, they must somehow ride out the storm.

I loved this book. It did require a significant investment of time and mental energy. I’m sure that if I had more mental energy I would have been able to appreciate it even more. (The politics of the time period are fascinating and play no small role in the journalists’ discussions/banter, but my knowledge of French politics of the time period is pretty superficial.) What I appreciated even more was how frightfully relevant the book is. The Human Comedy indeed! As to the seedy portrayal of journalists–they have sold out to be paid mouthpieces for one party or the other–read any of the comment boards on today’s internet news sites. Everyone accuses "the other side’s" news of bias. And as for the poor struggling writer–Lucien is laughed out of the publisher’s office when he presents himself as a poet. He fares slightly better with his historical novel written "in the manner of Sir Walter Scott." Yet he can’t get it published until, as a journalist, he has access to the power of reviews.

Lucien is intricately involved in the incestuous publishing process. He has written numerous paid reviews; in fact, he has learned how much better it is when he hasn’t read the books. If the pages are uncut, he can more easily sell his free review copies to discount book sellers. He uses his position as a reviewer to anonymously tear apart a "friend’s" novel in order to scare the publisher into accepting his own manuscript, then wrote two more reviews of the same book with different viewpoints. Running through my head was the scandal (is it even so scandalous or did everyone pretty much know it all along?) of paid reviews on Amazon and other web forums.

More interesting details– Lucien has a beautiful young actress for a mistress, so we see how corruption works in the theater. Newspapers are sent tickets for their reviewers and some extras for the reviewers to sell to ticket discounters. In addition, the theaters buy subscriptions to the newspapers. The reviewers write mainly positive reviews. But it’s more complicated than that. Some of those discounted tickets are used to seat "claqueurs," who could be hired to applaud or make other noise of approval for favorite actresses/actors and help ensure the success of a play. (How much simpler to use laugh tracks on TV!) If a rival theater or other vengeful person wanted to bring a play down, he could hire people to hiss, boo, or maintain stony silence at appropriate times. Or he could simply pay a reviewer to write a terrible review, but that would have to get the editor’s approval. For some reason, I think I’ll be reading theater/movie reviews with a jaundiced eye.

The weird thing is, as I read this painfully cynical book with its weak, selfish, amoral protagonist who swam through a sea of corruption and imbibed it all, it didn’t weigh me down. This is one of the wonderful things about historical fiction: perspective. When I read about life in the Middle Ages, the horror of a siege, the primitive medical knowledge, the cynical political maneuvering of kings and religious leaders throughout the ages, the mixed motivations of crusaders, I come away thinking 1) at least I’m not living then or 2) they got through that, we can get through this (whatever this happens to be that week.) Or, as when I read about the state of the literary world in post-Napoleonic France, I can say to myself: things never change. Is that good? Of course not, but it does put things in perspective. When we decry the state of publishing today and worry that books are going away, writers can’t make a living, reviewers are paid robots, it’s the end of literature as we know it–it seems the same was true two hundred years ago. I don’t know why, but I find that oddly reassuring.

  hosted by My Reader's Block.

Monday, September 3, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH:The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer

I decided to relax a little this long weekend and read something for pure enjoyment.

I call myself a historical fiction fan, yet I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Georgette Heyer until I saw her name mentioned on an enthusiastic YA blogger’s site. I made a mental note to read something of Heyer’s, but didn’t act on the thought until the same blogger (Stephanie at Books are a Girl’s Best Friend) hosted a Georgette Heyer challenge in 2011. I read three books at the introductory level of the challenge and I was charmed.

Sourcebooks Casablanca has re-released all 52 of Heyer’s books so they are now easily available. Thanks to a promotional giveaway (I signed up through Burton Book Review– thank you Marie!) I won a three-pack of books. My collection now includes: Penhallow, The Spanish Bride, and The Quiet Gentleman.

The blurbs all sound wonderful, but the one that caught my fancy for this weekend’s read was The Quiet Gentleman, a Regency Romance with just a touch of whodunnit (or who is doing it.)

The hero of the story is Gervase Frant, the Earl of St. Erth, who is returning to his ancestral home, Stanyon Castle, after fighting Napoleon at Waterloo. Awaiting him there are his younger half-brother Martin and step-mother Lady St. Erth, as well as his cousin Theo, who has been managing the estates for the family. Theo is Gervase’s friend and is glad to see him safely arrived home, but his other family members are a bit miffed at him for not doing them the courtesy of dying in battle. It seems that Gervase’s mother had run off with a rake when he was young. His father remarried and ever after resented his first wife and his firstborn. Martin had always been the favored and much spoiled son while Gervase had been shuttled off to other relatives. Martin had been treated as the heir even though he could have had no real expectations of becoming the next Earl so long as Gervase was alive.

Gervase settles into the household where he is distinctly unwelcome. He knows his own mind and goes about quietly yet decisively taking control despite the fact that it ruffles the feathers of his stepmother and angers his hot-headed young brother even more.

Also in the home is his step-mother’s...friend? Young assistant? There’s a young woman at Stanyon named Miss Morville, an extremely sensible, capable companion, visiting while her parents are traveling. Miss Morville and Theo are able to defuse some of the tension. But while Theo sees the worst in Martin, Miss Morville is more charitable and clear-eyed, she doesn’t judge, she just observes.

There is also a local beauty, an heiress named Marianne. Every young man in town is in love with her but Martin considers her to be his property since, at least until his brother’s return, he had been the highest ranking man about. Although Marianne flirted equally with all the young men, he believed himself singled out. Gervase meets her cute by rescuing her after she has taken a tumble from her horse. He also begins to pay her some attention, including holding a ball at Stanyon so that she will be invited to dance.

While these things are taking place, the mystery is also set in motion. Gervase is beset by a series of "accidents," which are clearly not accidental and are all potentially fatal. Luck, Theo’s presence, or Miss Morville’s are all that save him. More and more, the evidence points to his jealous and high tempered brother as the culprit.

Heyer’s characters are a delight. Gervase is a fine hero for a Romance, intelligent and fair. Marianne dazzles the men but she is good hearted and there is no sense that she is a social climbing schemer. Miss Morville is the best type of heroine. I found myself drawn in to the developing love story in an easy way–there was none of the grating arguing/misunderstandings that can sometimes overwhelm Romances and make me feel like the lead couple really don’t belong together if they are such poor communicators.

Heyer steeps her characters in the Regency setting. Sometimes the dialogues can get a bit overloaded with dated slang so that even with all the context it can be a bit hard to know exactly what the meaning is, but I think I got it well enough. And the plot is just plain fun. It wasn’t too hard to see where the fault was eventually going to lie, but I enjoyed watching the characters work it out. And the romance unfolded in a predictable but satisfying way. Sometimes I just want to be entertained. And I’m thrilled to have two more books by Heyer waiting in the wings.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


The winner of Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd (selected via is Dovile. I sent out an email. If I don't get a response in a week, I'll select a new winner.

Thank you to all the participants. The hop was a lot of fun. It was great to see so many historical fiction fans out there!