Saturday, June 29, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: House of Earth by Woodie Guthrie

I’m a great admirer of Woody Guthrie. I say that and squirm a bit, because my knowledge of Woody Guthrie is actually very superficial. What I really am is a huge Arlo Guthrie fan. I know about Woody Guthrie because he was Arlo’s father. I know he was a famous folk singer of the Great Depression era known as the "Dust Bowl Troubadour." His best known song is This Land is Your Land, but he was a prolific writer of songs, poems and prose, supportive of the poor and downtrodden and crying out against the greed and corruption of society. And I know he died of complications of Huntington’s disease, an inherited neurodegenerative illness.

So, when a novel was "discovered" in Woodie Guthrie’s papers, a novel completed in 1947 but never published until now, I was very curious to read it. The fact that it was edited and introduced by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp was also a selling point, though maybe I shouldn’t admit that. However, with the last page turned and the cover closed, I think perhaps the most interesting part of the book was the introduction by Brinkley and Depp.

House of Earth by Woody Guthrie is a rather soul-crushing tale of two good people, two realistically drawn, poverty-drenched young people eking out an existence in the Texas Panhandle in the dust bowl era. Tike and Ella May Hamlin are a young couple living in a falling down shack on a rented piece of farmland. Tike’s dream is to build an adobe house, a house made of earth, that will be warm in the winter and cool in the summer and that will last, unlike the rotting house of wood that doesn’t belong on the Panhandle. But since they don’t own the land, they don’t own the earth, and they can’t build on it. (They have to continue paying rent on the shack, even though it would be cheaper and more sensible to have a house of earth.)

Guthrie knows the subject well and it is something he feels very strongly about. He is able to paint the landscape vividly. He evokes a clear picture of the couple through the use of dialect that he obviously has an ear for. However, this book just didn’t hang together for me as a novel.

It opens with Tike sharing his dream of an earth house with Ella May and then it slides into a lengthy awkward sex scene. We barely know these people and we are listening to them baby talk and tease while the sex scene alternates between descriptions that are graphic and some that are possibly poetic but by then I was skimming because I didn’t want to be there with them. I don’t think it’s prudishness- this was just a scene that made me think ick- close the door.

The sex scene does finally end. The book then concentrates on the misery and unfairness in their lives, and the grinding hopelessness of it makes this a difficult read. This is Woody Guthrie’s soapbox. There is a lot of injustice in the world. The farmers are being cheated of their land by banks and landlords. Crops are failing. The rich are thriving but the poor are being beaten into the ground. Guthrie uses the inherently good Tike and Ella May as symbols of the downtrodden. The one thing they want is their own little piece of land to farm, their own little adobe house. It truly isn’t too much to ask. But it is completely out of reach.

So, at the risk of spoilers to the plot, Ella May has a baby. Tike, whose mind is constantly on sex, sexually harasses the nurse who is staying with them in order to take care of Ella and deliver the baby, but the nurse is able to fend him off. (The nurse, who is smarter than Tike, talks back to him and makes him look like an idiot.) Ella obsesses over a knot, a lump, in her breast that she has been noticing for months that is causing her a great deal of pain, but she won’t tell anyone about it. (I thought this was going to be a plot point that might go somewhere, but I was wrong.) And they all wish there was some way that they could get out of the rotting shack and bring up the baby in their dream house made of adobe, on a piece of their own land.

The book ends abruptly. Nothing is resolved, but of course, nothing could be resolved. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the hopefulness and resilience of the couple, since they were not buoyed by hope. They were resilient, but that seemed to be more because there was nothing else to do but continue to slog on into the headwinds. I was left thinking that the dreams of this couple could not possibly come true, but it isn’t a book that is going to stick with me, or make me wonder if this or that plan could have worked, because there wasn’t any plan. It was something they wanted, something not unreasonable, but that they could never have, and that was that.

I suppose I was disappointed with House of Earth. I wanted a poignant novel with courageous characters I could love and empathize with as they battled odds to achieve goals. I guess I wanted a bit of a narrative arc to the story. This was a piece of Americana, a slice of life. I admired Ella May but I found Tyke annoying and a bit immature. It made for a realistic portrayal of the couple, but wasn’t exactly encouraging for the evolution of the marriage over the long haul. For now, their love sustains them, but when that’s gone too. . .

Overall, it was not so much a novel as it was a sounding board for Guthrie’s admiration for the idea of adobe houses. Read it as a period piece. Read it because you’re a Guthrie fan. Read it because his ideals resonate today as much as they did in the first half of the twentieth century. Read it because Guthrie is a poet with a gift for language. But I can’t really recommend it for its success as a novel.

This is my 17th book read for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee

For all historical fiction fans, I can’t urge you strongly enough to check out the Historical Novel Society. Membership is $50 per year, but it’s well worth it. With your membership, you become part of a welcoming community of historical fiction readers and writers. The website is full of information and book reviews, and the society puts out a quarterly print journal containing author interviews, articles on historical fiction, and hundreds of reviews of new releases.

If this isn’t enough, the society holds a biannual North American conference. (On alternate years, there is a conference in England.) Last weekend, the conference was held in St. Petersburg, Florida at the spectacular Vinoy Renaissance Hotel. From Friday night until Sunday noon, we had panel discussions, author guest speakers, agent and editor sessions, cocktail parties and banquets, and never stopped talking about historical fiction. Next time, I’ll bring a camera to record some of the fun.

There is also opportunity for book buying as well as book giveaways in our conference goody-bags. So I’m well-stocked with more reading.

On the plane ride home, I dug into one of my purchases, The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee. (At the book signing, I was thrilled to discover she’s another Kentucky author.) Because of a weather delay in St. Louis, I had ample time to read the whole book, and thanks to Atlee’s engrossing story, I didn’t mind (too much) the fact that it took me the entire day to get home.

Betsey Dobson is the typewriter girl. An intelligent, hardworking woman, Elizabeth (Betsey- don’t call her Lizzie) is a working-class Londoner whose prospects once seemed limited to being a domestic servant. Unfortunately, as a fourteen-year-old maid, she was seduced by the 19-year-old heir of the house where she worked and was abruptly dismissed, establishing a pattern for her future employment. The book opens with Betsey once again out in the cold with limited options because of scandal. She is a typist for a London company–a very good typist. But her employers have caught wind of the fact that she is having a love affair with one of her typing teachers.

It might not be a love affair, but Betsey is definitely sleeping with Avery Nash, an instructor who owned a typewriter and who let her practice on it after hours. (Betsey is ambitious and resourceful.) Avery liked Betsey, but he never intended to offer her marriage. He can’t even bring himself to stand up for her when she is harassed on her last day of work, dismissed without a reference, and denied her last few days of wages.

Betsey needs the money and reference because she has an offer to work as an excursion manager at a seaside resort, Idensea. Mr. John Jones, the contractor in charge of overseeing the expansion of the Idensea pier and all its entertainments, had taken note of her when at a meeting in London. He saw her potential. Perhaps he saw something else, as well. But without a character reference, will he still hire her?

Mr. Jones is a Welshman who has worked his way up from a poor country boy to a master contractor. His wealth now is such that he is courting heiresses and hobnobbing with gentry. Despite his great ambition, he remains a good-hearted, fair-minded gentleman. Although he doesn’t know quite what to make of Miss Dobson’s appearance in Idensea days too early and without a character reference, he is still willing to give her a chance.

Betsey has the summer season to prove not only that the tourist excursions are a good idea, but that she is the one to manage them. She has to deal with men who are out to prove that she cannot do it. She also has to deal with an increasingly strong attraction to Mr. Jones–and his to her. Betsy’s trouble in the past has always come from poor decisions. A woman in Victorian England has no freedom to act on her sexual attraction, but Betsey did, more than once, and paid the price. The Typewriter Girl is a sexually charged romance that will keep you rooting for the protagonists as they struggle to find their way to each other.

It’s fun to read a historical romance with characters that have different, interesting jobs and are placed in unusual settings, rather than the typical gentry in Regency England looking for mates. Those are fun too. (See my review of A Little Folly by Jude Morgan.) But this is a great book if you’re looking for something a bit different.

This is my 16th book read for the Historical Fiction challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Friday, June 21, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck

Choosing to read two novels within a short space of time that cover the same topic can be tricky. If the first one isn’t any good, I might be put off and never get around to reading the second, which is hardly fair. Or, if I really love the first one, the second will have a hard time living up to it and will suffer by comparison–not fair to the second novel either.

Nevertheless, with two books out recently that both sounded wonderful, I decided to give it a go. Zelda Fitzgerald is such a rich character, and her life story is so full of drama and passion, she is a perfect focus for a historical novel. Even two historical novels. How could I choose just one?

I reviewed Z. A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler back in April and loved it. Still, I wasn’t afraid to tackle Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck because, from the descriptions I’d seen, Robuck’s approach to the story is quite different.

In Call Me Zelda, the first person protagonist is not Zelda Fitgerald, but rather a psychiatric nurse named Anna who works in the Phipps Clinic in Baltimore, and who is assigned to be Zelda’s nurse when she is admitted for care in the winter of 1932.

In this novel, Zelda and Scott are in the last stages of their marriage. We don’t see the early, falling in love phase, or the frenetic partying, or the dizzying downward spiral. Now, Zelda is sick and Fitzgerald’s alcoholism is crippling. There are tender moments between the two, but they are few and far between. These two hurt each other more than they help, and they are in desperate need of help.

Enter Anna. From the start, Anna is wary of becoming too involved with the Fitzgeralds because she knows there will be an emotional cost. A war widow who has lost her only child to illness, Anna has experienced too much loss in her own past and has very carefully built a wall around herself. And yet, Anna is seduced by Zelda’s neediness and by the friendship she offers.

Really, this is Anna’s story, using the Fitzgeralds toxic marriage and illnesses (schizophrenia and alcoholism) as a framework. It weaves in biographical data about the famous couple, but told from the point of view of an outsider looking in. Meanwhile, we are also learning about Anna’s past, living in her present, and looking forward to better things for her future.

Robuck brings Anna to life, showing all facets of a nurse who cares deeply about her patient--her friend–while recognizing that she brings too much of her own baggage to the relationship as she crosses professional boundaries and questions her own motivations. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful book that doesn’t necessarily seem to be about the Fitzgeralds so much as about the idea of them and how such a couple could affect this fascinating protagonist, Anna.

So, Call Me Zelda is well worth the read.

This is another historical fiction challenge book (hosted by Historical Tapestry) and also a library book for the Library Challenge (hosted by Book Dragon's Lair.)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was an immensely influential British political philosopher in the late eighteenth century. An advocate for women’s rights, her best known work is the treatise: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

I’ve seen Wollstonecraft and her book referred to time and again in novels and nonfiction histories of the time period and, each time, I’ve thought: I should read that Rights of Woman book. Eventually, I bought it and set it on my shelf. Finally, I chose it as both my nonfiction back to the classics choice AND one of my TBR challenges. Since I am woefully behind on both challenges with June drawing to a close, I pulled out the book.

I made it through to the end. In all honesty, I have to admit I skimmed a great deal of it. I tried to read it, but my eyes kept glossing over. I even fell asleep a couple of times. There are interesting passages, but the interesting parts are buried under mounds of verbiage. She repeats herself, wanders off on tangents, gives gossipy examples. . .this may be the most boring book I have ever tried to read.

Part of the problem is that it is dated. I can appreciate the fact that it was revolutionary in its day. Wollstonecraft was a woman far ahead of her time. The fact that she wanted equality for women, at least educational equality–even co-ed elementary school with mixing of social classes!–shows how progressive she was. And while the points she makes seem painfully obvious now, I do recognize that they are not universally obvious even in the twenty-first century. Women still have not achieved even basic human rights in some parts of the world. But that doesn’t make the book any easier to slog through.

The introduction to my Folio edition (introduction by Claire Tomalin) states: "The Vindication is a book without any logical structure: it is more in the nature of an extravaganza. What it lacks in method it makes up for in élan, and it is better to dip into than to read through at a sitting." I think I should have heeded the warning. There are lots of gems in here, things that made me nod in agreement. But the bits that could hold my attention were few and far between. Most of the time I was thinking: Ugh. I am really not a political philosopher.

And that, I think, is my real problem with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I’m not a philosopher. I had the feeling she could have put her main points on 4 or 5 powerpoint slides and swayed me with her argument in about 5 minutes. Her argument is strong and convincing but there isn’t really all that much to it. (Meaning she seems to be stating the obvious–so I guess in a way, it’s horrifying that she wasn’t.) But I really didn’t need 270 rambling pages of her beating her points to a pulp.

At any rate, I’m counting this for my nonfiction back to the classics challenge (hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much) and the TBR Pile Challenge (hosted by Roof Beam Reader.)


Thursday, June 13, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: How to Create the Perfect Wife. Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate by Wendy Moore

I’ve been on a strange non-fiction binge lately. I have no idea why. My most recent read is How to Create the Perfect Wife. Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate by Wendy Moore. I don’t remember where I saw this one mentioned, but the description grabbed me. I checked my library’s catalogue and there it was, so I added it to my Library Challenge list (hosted by Book Dragon’s Lair.)

How to Create the Perfect Wife is a remarkably detailed, thoroughly researched recounting of a true-life Pygmalion-like undertaking that is as awful as a true-life version would naturally be. In the second half of the eighteenth century, a bizarre young man named Thomas Day, independently wealthy, educated, yet arrogant and lacking in social graces, finds himself rejected by one woman after another. (Reading the descriptions of his social interactions, it’s difficult to imagine why any woman would have allowed him to reach the courting or engagement stage, but a few actually did.) Convinced that the fault does not lie with himself, he decides that women are ruined by their upbringing. If he wants to find the perfect woman, he will have to create her himself. Cherry-picking Rousseau’s ideas on enlightened education, using Emile as a rough guide, Day thinks that if he can catch a girl before society ruins her, he can mold her to suit him properly.

Day’s ideal woman must be attractive and intelligent. She should be able to carry on conversations about all manner of things, but she will always defer to his superior judgment. She must be physically hardy, hard-working, and submissive. His intention is to move away to a secluded cottage somewhere, away from society, away from servants, to live under primitive conditions, and have his wife cater to his every whim.

Since no woman in her right mind would agree to such a scheme, Day cooks up a plan. He manages to remove two female orphans, aged eleven and twelve, from a Foundling Hospital. Although he tells the hospital that he would be taking them to a married friend to be apprenticed as housemaids, he lied. (Single men were not allowed to adopt young girls.) He secrets the two girls away and begins an education program intended to groom them as perfect future brides. Whichever one succeeds best, he will marry.

The plan seems destined to fail, particularly as Moore details the methods Day uses: dripping hot wax on the girl, sticking her with pins, firing a pistol into her skirts. What makes the story particularly interesting is that Day is unable to keep his project hidden. Eventually, he chooses one girl, Sabrina, to keep and sends the other on her way. Sabrina is introduced to her -for lack of a better word- "benefactor’s" friends. They become aware of what he is doing. They are interested and wary. They gossip. But no one does anything to rescue Sabrina, not even when they hear about the sadistic trials he puts her through.

The book also gives details about the personal lives of the people surrounding Day and Sabrina. It was an odd crew all around. And we follow them all through to the end of their days. It’s impressive that Wendy Moore tracks down so much information on so many people.

Overall, it’s an interesting, readable account of an eighteenth century sociopath and the cruel experiment he performed on a vulnerable young girl. Some of the narrative became a little repetitive but the material is well-organized and Moore covers a lot of ground.

If you like quirky social history, this is a well-written and bizarre tale.

Monday, June 10, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted and All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

I knew, from quite a young age, what I wanted to be when I grew up: a doctor. But there was something else to consider–there was who I wanted to be. Deeply embedded in my psyche, a role model lurked. I may not even have been aware of how influential this person was, but I know I’m not the only woman of my generation to feel this way.

I wanted to be Mary Richards.

I grew up watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s out on DVD now and I’m a little afraid to watch it because I suspect I’ll find it dated. I’m afraid that it won’t be what I remember. I’d hate to tarnish the image of a hero from my past.

I bring this up because I read a recent review in our paper of the book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted and all the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. (That title is way too long.) Overwhelmed by nostalgia and a strong curiosity, I bought the book. And read it in a couple of sittings.

For someone who doesn’t even watch TV anymore, reading a history-of-television book is a strange undertaking. But this book is so much more than a TV fan book. Armstrong puts the making of the Mary Tyler Moore Show into the context of its time. It’s social history. She tells a fascinating story of the people behind the scenes, the writers, producers, the woman in charge of casting. The show was groundbreaking not only in its portrayal of women, but in its actual employment of women. Eager to get the details right, the producers hired female writers in unheard-of numbers. The show reflected society and pushed boundaries for women.

Readers meet each of the cast members when they were still little-known actors. (Mary Tyler Moore was well-known, but her career had taken a nosedive after The Dick Van Dyke Show.) Armstrong shows the struggles the creative team had in convincing the network to get behind the show and how close it came to being killed by being put into an unwatchable time slot. Finally, the book reassured me that the warmth displayed on-screen was real. The caring in Mary’s on-screen life was mirrored by an off-screen environment of friendship and mutual striving for excellence.

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted is an interesting look at seventies television and at seventies society. But I mostly enjoyed the book for the insight it gave me into why, even after all these years, I’m still a little awed by Mary Richards.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow

The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow has been a "should read" for me for awhile now. It’s YA historical fiction and it has been receiving great reviews. So every time I hear it mentioned (or see it mentioned) in passing, I think: I should read that. Holding me back has been the pile of books I already have decided to read and, I have to admit, the subject matter. The Berlin Boxing Club focuses on a young Jewish boy growing up in Nazi Germany, who finds strength and inspiration, as long as he is able, from boxing.

Of course, it’s a thrilling setting and an emotionally gripping coming-of-age story addressing multiple issues. But boxing? Meh. Also, in the past couple years I’ve read more WWII-era fiction than I’m accustomed to reading, and it is always difficult to get through the horror of Nazi Germany–the insidious creep of evil and reign of terror. Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada is a must-read that epitomizes this. These books are crucially important and yet so painful to read.

All that aside, I could no longer ignore the fact that I really SHOULD READ The Berlin Boxing Club. So, using the library challenge (hosted by Book Dragon's Lair) for added incentive, I borrowed the book and settled in.

Karl Stern is a fourteen-year-old Jewish boy whose nondescript physical appearance and atheist parents leave him identifying more with his non-Jewish classmates than with the few Jewish boys who have been singled out as targets. When not with his family, Karl can "pass" for non-Jewish, as long as he is not seen by anyone who knows him. He imagines that he is getting away with pretending in school, until the day three older boys, members of a National Socialist club, catch up to him after school and beat him up. From then on, things go downhill for Karl, just as they are going downhill for Jews throughout Berlin.

The one bright light for Karl is boxing. Karl’s father, who owns a fast-failing art gallery, is friends with Max Schmeling, a German (and international) boxing champion. In exchange for a painting Max wants, boxing lessons for Karl are arranged. Karl begins a fitness regimen and then training at the Berlin Boxing Club. This focus for his energy, this ray of hopefulness, becomes a lifeline as the world dissolves around Karl and his family in Hitler’s Berlin.

This is the first book I remember reading that deals specifically with an adolescent boy in Nazi Germany. It is a wonderful book about courage in the face of adversity. It is also a wonderful book about family. Karl’s voice and his journey will keep you hooked throughout the story and the last few chapters in particular race along to the powerful conclusion. It's not just a book for YA boys, but something that all YA and adults can appreciate.

This is my 14th book for the historical fiction challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


It’s been a long time since I’ve taken part in the book blogger hop, now hosted by Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer.

 For some reason, my Fridays are crazier than they used to be and I’ve fallen out of the habit. But I miss the weekly opportunity to explore new blogs and visit some favorites. So I’m back. Luckily, this week’s prompt, supplied by Tanya at GirlXOXO, is a question I can answer pretty easily.


What is your favorite trilogy (series)?


My answer: There are so many series that I’ve read and loved. In fact, I find it very difficult to start a series and not finish it. But the one that made the biggest impression on me was Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles.

Any other Dunnett fans out there?
How would you answer the question--what series should I be looking for next?
Join in the hop and see what other bloggers are answering!