Book review: Why you want to catch flies, vinegar girl?

41ajuyjmvpl-_sy346_I’ve been reading and enjoying Anne Tyler’s books for decades, beginning with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist. Her quirky, yet somehow recognizable characters always make me smile.

Vinegar Girl is no exception. It is a contemporary retelling of “The Taming of the Shrew” and is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which respected and diverse authors take on Shakespeare’s best-known stories.

Here, Kate Battista finds herself stuck teaching preschool and running the house for her widowed, eccentric research scientist father and pretty teenage sister, Bunny. Being a scientist, her father has an efficient system for just about everything, from loading the dishwasher to doing laundry. He even thinks cooking just once for the entire week simply makes sense. Watch for his formula for “meat mash.” Naturally, Kate’s forthright and somewhat prickly manner means she’s almost always offending someone.

Trouble starts when Dr. Battista, who is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough that could help millions, has his lifetime of research threatened by the imminent deportation of his foreign-born lab assistant, Pyotr. What to do? An arranged marriage, of course! Kate reluctantly agrees only after it is made clear that the marriage will only be on paper. They just need to convince the Immigration authorities. But then…

Tyler writes some funny and poignant situations around the issues of romance, getting acquainted, family dynamics, and feminism. It’s a comedy with a heart, to be sure.

Pyotr explains something about his country:

 “In my country they have a proverb: ‘Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.’”

This was intriguing. Kate said, “Well, in my country they say that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“Yes, they would,” Pyotr said mysteriously…But why you would want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.”

On Pyotr’s odd attempts at flattery:

“He had a foreigner’s tendency toward bald, obvious compliments, dropping them with a thud at her feet like a cat presenting her with a dead mouse.”

An excerpt from Kate’s big speech on men:

“Women have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers; they’ve been perfecting their radar—their intuition or their empathy or their interpersonal whatchamacallit. They know how things work underneath, while men have been stuck with the sports competitions and the wars and the fame and success. It’s like men and women are in two different countries! I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.”

 

Book review: Oh, that Mr. Darcy…

There are lots of reasons to recommend Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible to you. First, it is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, that pioneer of the romantic comedy genre. The413I14vHnWL._SY346_ writing and the humor are fresh and lively. While it is a longish read, it’s broken into many very short chapters, which kept me turning virtual pages on my Kindle long past my bedtime.

If you’ve read P&P or even seen any of the cinematic treatments, you will recognize members of the Bennet family and the rest of the quirky cast. Darcy and Liz take an instant dislike to each other, of course. Bingley is a recent contestant on a Bachelor-like show, called—what else?–“Eligible.” Even Lady Catherine de Bourgh shows up as Kathy, a Gloria Steinem-like icon of feminism.

The inciting incident here is Mr. Bennet’s heart attack. Liz Bennet, a journalist, and sister Jane, a yoga instructor, are in their late thirties, single, and living in New York City. Their father’s illness and recovery bring them back to their Cincinnati home, which is in a sad state of disrepair. While Mr. Bennet remains sardonic, he is unable to see a way out of the mounting financial difficulties which have caught him by surprise. Mrs. Bennet is still petty and worried about appearances. Her prejudices are only lightly veiled and she appears to have developed a problem with catalogue shopping and hoarding. The younger sisters have remained at home. Reclusive Mary is always studying, except for a mysterious Tuesday night commitment. Lydia and Kitty are unemployed, unmannerly, and vain.

Since what was shocking in Regency Era England, might be pretty ho-hum today, all the scandals and social issues have been updated. Think IVF, LGBT, CrossFit, reality TV, and what can happen to a family’s wealth when they don’t have health insurance. Oh, and there is a lot more casual sex. Even “hate sex.”

I found Eligible to be great fun.

Rising against the wind

blog circling the sunThe noted pilot, Beryl Markham, is just four years old when her mother leaves her in Africa with her father. That loss and her unconventional upbringing in the British colony there leads her into an early and disappointing marriage at sixteen and several notorious affairs. She defies gender role expectations throughout her life, becoming a horse-trainer and bush pilot, the first female to do so.

“I had forged her myself, out of brokenness, learning to love wildness instead of fearing it. To thrive on the exhilaration of the hunt, charging headlong into the world even—or especially—when it hurt to do it.”

She marries a second time and has a fragile child, who must be left behind in England with her now estranged husband (Markham) and monster-in-law when she returns to Kenya, the place she considers home.
Her life coincides with that of Karen Blixen (“Out of Africa”). She even has a long running romance with Blixen’s lover, Denys Finch Hatton. So you see Beryl’s life is anything but orthodox.
Circling the Sun is beautifully written. Author Paula McLain allows the reader to feel what Beryl feels when she’s training, riding and watching horses. Markham intuits what is needed, a skill that makes her a natural as a pilot.

If you love stories of strong women–or loved “Out of Africa”– you should definitely add this one to your “to read” list. You might also consider West with the Night a memoir by Markham herself and Straight on Till Morning, by Mary S. Lovell. I’ve just added them to mine.

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“There are things we find only at our lowest depths. The idea of wings and then wings themselves. An ocean worth crossing one dark mile at a time. The whole of the sky. And whatever suffering has come is the necessary cost of such wonders, as Karen once said, the beautiful thrashing we do when we live.”

Historical fiction? Regency romance? Wilma’s got you covered!

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My friend, author Wilma Counts just sent this message. I am posting it here as a favor. My book club read her compelling IN ENEMY HANDS last fall and loved it. You can find out about her other wonderful books and read her blog here: https://wilmacounts.wordpress.com/

“My editor and his staff tell me I am not using social media enough to get the word out about my books. (They don’t seem to know what a techno klutz I am!)  Anyway, I figure if I can persuade even half of my friends and former students to each tell just TWO of THEIR contacts about my new releases–one in Sept, 2014, and on coming in March), I could be on the bestseller lists in no time!  Check me out on Amazon or at Wilma Counts–Author. And do let me know  what you think.”