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review 2018-06-17 18:14
THE ROMANCE READER'S GUIDE TO LIFE by Sharon Pywell
The Romance Reader's Guide to Life: A Novel - Sharon Pywell

This was totally different from what I expected. It is part murder mystery, part magical realism, part contemporary romance, part historical romance, and some things I cannot name because I do not know how to name them.

From the beginning you know Lilly is dead. Neave, her sister, needs to know how. Much of the story is told through Neave's eyes but Lilly fills in her parts when it would clarify what is happening. Then you get Mr. Boppit's view. I liked Neave and Mr. Boppit (loved him actually) but Lilly should have been paddled and Neave would never have been put in danger.


As a young teen, Neave read for a neighbor lady and she "borrowed" a forbidden romance which is interspersed through the story. It parallels Neave's life and paves the way for her to grow into her life. She is stronger than she realizes and has talents she develops as they are needed.

I liked this book. It was different and fresh, not cliched.

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text 2018-06-10 18:35
Reading progress update: I've read 63 out of 940 pages.
The Adventures of Don Quixote - J.M. Cohen,Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Why did no one tell me Don Quixote was this much fun? Also, he's like the ultimate (and worst) fan; I'm surprised he's never referenced in fan studies.

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review 2018-06-07 21:18
Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan
Evening Is the Whole Day - Preeta Samarasan

Why should I feel sorry for her when she doesn’t feel sorry for me? It could be the family motto, this question, something to emblazon on their coat of arms, except that not one of them has noticed how often the others ask it.”

This is a fantastic book with a tragic story, about a well-off Indo-Malaysian family slowly tearing each other apart. Don’t be fooled by the simplistic design and bright colors of the cover; this is a dark and complicated novel that offers plenty of sympathy but little hope for its damaged characters.

The book begins in 1980, with a teenaged servant being sent home in disgrace with her drunken father. From there the book moves backward in time, tracing how events arrived at this point. Between the recently-deceased grandmother, the older daughter who has transformed from an exuberant girl into a withdrawn teenager interested only in going abroad for college, the younger daughter who talks to ghosts, the parents with their toxic marriage and the uncle who has been banished from the house, there’s a lot to unpack, and Samarasan does so slowly, layer by layer, with close attention to emotional detail.

The mysteries at the center of the story and the non-linear storytelling through which readers can piece them together are compelling. But the characterization – the complexity and psychological insight with which each character is drawn – is what really elevates this book above the rest. The book is full of flawed characters hurting each other, but the reader comes to understand where each of them is coming from and why they react the way they do. We get to know these people and their relationships with each other so well, and they are so three-dimensional and realistic, that it’s hard to believe they don’t exist in real life.

But the book goes beyond just the family’s life, delving into class divisions and racial politics in Malaysia, where ethnic Malays are privileged over the large Chinese and Indian populations. It is a history not without violence – though thankfully not overdone for shock value here, as some authors are tempted to do – and I learned a lot about Malaysia from reading this book. The author also shows a keen understanding of how money and social class influence people’s behavior.

So I have little criticism, except that I never quite believed the father’s choice of

mistress

(spoiler show)

and the book did take me around 50 pages to get into. The language is lyrical and seemed a little overly stylized until I came to trust that the author knew what she was doing. Once I finished though, I found myself flipping back to read sections of it again.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who loves reading about complicated characters and relationships and who doesn’t require well-defined heroes and villains. It was a treat to read, and I look forward to more from this author!

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review 2018-06-07 16:32
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton,Elizabeth Hardwick

This is a well-written, engaging classic with complex characters and psychological insight, though a depressingly predictable story. Published in 1905 and set in the wealthy New York society of the late nineteenth century, this feels in many ways like a 19th century British novel, populated by independently wealthy leisure types who spend their days attending house parties and gossiping about one another. But the protagonist, Lily Bart, stands out as a complex individual: aged 29 at the beginning of the novel and raised to a life of leisure, she doesn’t quite have the judgment or ruthlessness needed to succeed in that milieu, and the book is more or less the chronicle of her downfall.

This is an excellent book in the way you expect from a novel that has stood the test of time: Wharton has a keen eye for people and their behavior and motivations and hypocrisies; the book brings to life a particular slice of society in a particular place and time; and it is an engaging story, one I read to see what would happen next as well as for the polished style and complicated characters.

But the most interesting thing about it is the character of Lily. Even after finishing the book I can’t quite decide how to view her, and how much it is fair to condemn or excuse her. On the one hand, Lily has a massive sense of entitlement: she wants to live a life of ease without having to do anything to earn it. On the other hand, she lives her life surrounded by people who do exactly that, who inherited or married into wealth and pass their days showing it off. And by the standards of her society, Lily is more “worthy” than many, being naturally beautiful and socially skilled. (Amusingly, the concept of a “brilliant woman” and her “career” in this context refers to a beautiful, sophisticated woman and her social trajectory, more specifically her run as a husband-hunter.) Lily’s qualms about marrying for money a man she doesn’t actually like are sympathetic, but if she doesn’t want to live her mother’s life (her mother clearly not having cared a whit for her father as an actual person, while he was working himself to death for their sake), it’s frustrating (though believable) to not see her reconsider her mother’s insistence on luxury and social success as the measure of meaning in life. And most frustrating of all is the fact that she has so many options and opportunities to avoid her fate – and rejects all of them, because in one way or another none of them conform to her vision of what she wants herself and her life to be. In that way the story feels a bit like a Greek tragedy, where the character’s downfall is due entirely to her personality. 

Yet it is a story that remains relevant today. Lily’s predicament is not so different from that of many modern folk who struggle with the sense that they are too smart or talented for the jobs or incomes available to them. In answer, Lily’s story is a warning that the world is largely indifferent to inherent worthiness; you still have to actually take the opportunities that are offered and work for what you want, not just expect success to fall into your lap.

So it is a book whose themes have outlasted the society that gave birth to it, and one that made me think. My biggest criticism of the novel is that for me it was an illustration of the perils of writing tragedy; because it was clear what would happen to Lily, to an extent I disengaged emotionally from her story. And it's worth noting that there is some anti-Semitism here, in the form of stereotypes and generalizations. But overall it’s an excellent book and one that I would recommend.

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review 2018-06-07 16:32
Another Country, by James Baldwin
Another Country - James Baldwin

"So what can we really do for each other except--just love each other and be each other's witness?"

 

When I finished Another Country, it brought tears to my eyes. There's so much suffering exquisitely depicted alongside glimmers of love and beauty, such whole, flawed characters. Like the recently read The Fire Next Time, a nonfiction work by Baldwin, it might have been written today. Again, this is both a compliment to Baldwin's art and his powers of observation but also a lament that so little has changed, particularly regarding race but also gender and sexuality.

 

Nothing is easy about this book except its gorgeous, lucid prose. It's not afraid of the dark things in people, the mistakes we make, and what holds us back. I felt deeply for these characters, but the book doesn't give in to despair, which, at the end, is what made me cry in relief.

 

I was surprised to be reminded of Virginia Woolf as I read. There are passages where a character's inability to express "it" or oneself or story are noted. There's a suicide. There's also something about the way both Baldwin and Woolf capture fine states of emotion or the way our feelings and attitude can change so quickly, from seemingly small things. And, when we learn Cass's real name is Clarissa (her husband is Richard), I knew I wasn't crazy to make these connections!

 

The book is a landmark queer text, and Baldwin clearly knows how to write sex, the act itself--between men and women and between two men--and desire. Its queerness affected its reception at the time; I'm sure many would prefer Baldwin stick exclusively to race and racism. The quote above is spoken by Vivaldo to Eric, and it is a beautiful and simple idea even as the story proves it may be impossible to live by.

 

However, Baldwin does privilege love between men and the homosocial above all. Nearly all the central male characters are queer or explore their sexuality with one another; at the very least, platonic love between them is a source of comfort and hope. This is not the case with the women. Women's sexuality and power emasculate or cannot be known. There appears to be no escape or solution for women and their pain and oppression, whether white or black. If there is one flaw or problematic issue in this book, in my mind it's that. The love and act of witnessing in the quote seem to be for men only.

 

 

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