Book Report: Start with one grand old house and one evil step-mother

THEThe Dutch House by Ann Patchett DUTCH HOUSE

This is one of the best books I read this year by one of my favorite authors. As I settled in and began reading, Ann Patchett wrapped me up and carried me through decades of poignant family drama. She wove the past and present, not to mention the many characters’ perspectives into one cohesive narrative, told in one point of view. It’s simply masterful. I’m in awe.

The nature of memory, insights into the human heart, and the power of forgiveness are at the core of this story.

Here are a few quotes, just because she says everything better than I can.

“There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.”

“But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”

“We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it. I was sickened to realize we’d kept it going for so long, not that we had decided to stop.”

“Thinking about the past impeded my efforts to be decent in the present.”

Patchett earns all the stars. Recommend.

My husband’s latest obsession? Dishes

Nearly fifty years ago, as my Darling Husband (DH) and I were planning our wedding and life together, I tried to involve him in many of the details. I didn’t want to cut him out of what at the time was a traditionally female process. But, as a twenty-one-year-old man, he was disinterested to say the least. Go figure. I especially wanted his help in choosing the everyday dishes that he’d be eating from–and washing up–for the foreseeable future.  I dragged him to a local department store where we selected a very simple design—ivory, with a thick band of olive green and thin brown stripe. (Earth tones were very big in 1973.) Not my first choice, but in the interest of compromise, we registered our pattern.

Weeks later my mother began displaying wedding gifts on the dining room table, as one does. Or did. Is that still a thing? Anyway, DH remarked that he liked the dishes.

“You should like them. You picked them out,” I said.

“Huh. I don’t remember ever seeing them before.”

Henceforth, I was a little less worried about involving  DH in those kinds of decisions. And in the intervening years, as our needs and my tastes evolved, I chose kid-proof Corelle or beautiful Pfaltzgraff dishes with minimal input from him. Over time our earth tones were replaced by blue and white china, white enamelware, and lovely cobalt blue glass. Pretty, right?

Fast-forward forty-six years.

My much-loved Pfaltzgraff collection was showing signs of thirty years everyday use. I mentioned to DH that I might get some new dishes, but not all at once. I’d merely incorporate the new, little by little. DH said he’d always like Fiestaware. Me too. It’s been around since the 1930s and fits right in with our vintage-old-crap-from-every-dead-relative decor. So, I chose a few Fiesta place settings that coordinated beautifully with the remaining unchipped pieces of Pfaltzgraff. Even the transition would look fine. Slowly, I’d add more pieces I found at thrift shops and yard sales. Keyword: Slowly. The hunt would give me pleasure. Not to mention the thrill of serendipitously finding a bargain. Remember, I didn’t really need new dishes.

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My starter sets of Fiestaware in Lapis, Ivory, and Meadow

Conversely, DH is very much an instant gratification sort of guy. Always has been. That hasn’t changed. Hence, he soon became dogged in his search for pieces to replace every single item in the cupboard and others that were somehow iconic to the Fiesta brand. Now. Watch lists on eBay. Wish lists on Amazon. Email alerts when new pieces arrived. He ordered things without telling me until they are on their way. He even bought me a Fiestaware encyclopedia.

All to show he loves me, of course. Bless his heart.

While I am donating my discarded Pfaltzgraff to a local charity that helps needy families furnish their homes, my material footprint has not shrunk in the least. And I’ve lost control over what had been my purview for decades. Granted it’s only the color scheme for our dinnerware–and the pace at which it changes–but still.

Furthermore, we once again needed to have that little chat about how the ways in which he shows his love don’t always match the ways I feel that love.

So, where is that oblivious young man I married? At the other computer, checking to see if the cute miniature pitcher is available in Cobalt. Or maybe Scarlet.

 

Book Report: Dive into this tale

indexThe Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

I loved this luscious, lyrical, and somewhat bawdy historical fiction. Debut author, Imogen Hermes Gowar offers readers not only a great story but also an intimate view of the culture and mores of late 18th Century London. (Click here for a tour with the author.) I’ve read enough Regency Romances (thanks Jane Austen & Wilma Counts!) to be familiar with the period, but this exquisite piece of fiction added oodles of delightful, quotidian detail to my lexicon. Foods. Utensils. Customs. Clothing. Language. Expectations. Examples: syllabub, jade, rosolio, redingote, doxy, Lascar, pelisses, dandyprat, tipsy-cake, calamanco. Reading on a Kindle allowed me to look up word without running to a dictionary. Better yet, the new words never got in the way of the story, but simply added to its depth and feeling.

Jonah Hancock is a respectable but unremarkable businessman longing for some measure of happiness after the death of his wife and child. Angelica Neal is a haughty and renowned courtesan who finds herself suddenly without a protector. Mrs. Chappell is the elderly and successful “abbess” of a “nunnery” where Angelica began her career. Through vividly drawn characters from very different worlds, Gowar explores themes of freedom, security, captivity, and ownership, suggesting that ownership harms both the owner and the owned. Everyone, as the adage reminds us, is the hero of their own story.

The interactions among these characters within and without their strict class boundaries makes for some lively conversations and insights, including this one with the aged bawd, Mrs. Chappell.

“Hypocrites!” she exclaims. ‘Who let their own daughters starve almost to death, or put them in cruel marriages, or slake their lust upon them most unnaturally. To think I do any worse by them. Tis an insult! The girls that come to me –and, mark me, their own parents bring them often enough—suffer worse abuses in their own homes that they ever will with me.”

I believe the two (yes, two!) mermaids—one dead, one alive—are stand-ins for the longings, desires, and even that fears that each of the vividly drawn characters harbors. Fortune. A child. A protector. Status. Happiness. Survival. However, “…mermaids are the most unnatural of creatures, and their hearts are empty of love.”

 

 

And from the lyrical voice of the mermaid herself, we hear her compel Mr. Hancock to her.

“A loss is not a void. A loss is a presence all its own; a loss takes up space; a loss is born just as any other thing that lives. You think your arms are empty, but I shall lie in them…I am here; you are not alone. Here I am; I am grief, the living child of your suffering. I am the grief that sits within in you; I am the grief that sits between you.”

Thank you, Ms. Gowar, for a thoroughly enjoyable journey. Recommend.

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Author, Imogen Hermes Gowar who acknowledges, “If my parents had not made me a reader, I’d be no sort of writer at all.” 

 

Book Report: Motherhood is like playing with fire

51kgOTJWNXLLittle Fires Everywhere

Notions of motherhood and parenting play a central role in Celeste Ng’s second novel as they did in her first, Everything I Never Told You.  She explores this basic question: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?” And what do we do for (and to) our children in our efforts to fulfill that duty. The book starts with a fire that destroys a home.

“The firemen said there were little fires everywhere. Multiple points of origin. Possible use of an accelerant. Not an accident.”

A sample of the author’s words about parenting:

“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.”
“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches…. a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and asps it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it like and eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.”
“Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed: if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.”
“Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less…. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.”

Recommend.

Personal note: Although I have enjoyed talking about books with you, I will be taking a break from writing about every book I read. In the new year I want to focus my efforts on a major rewrite of my novel. <heavy sigh here> Ties That Bind needs my full attention if it’s ever going to get done. There may be an occasional blurb about something I’ve LOVED, but that’s it.

I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy, healthy, and productive New Year! XO

Book report: A lusty, time-traveling romance

51PrW27sXWLWhile my daughter has been a fan of the STARZ TV series for a while and I’d known of the books’ popularity, I had resisted starting the series. But when the Outlander series was named the second most popular book on PBS’s Great America Read poll, I decided to give it a try just to see what the fuss was about. Besides, I had several long trips and car rides coming up and could dedicate enough time to read its 642 pages. I loaded up my Kindle and set off on what turned out to be an epic journey.

Author, Diana Gabaldon’s skill as a storyteller is evident on every page–telling details, romance, adventure, sex, and history all leave a trail of breadcrumbs compelling readers to keep turning pages. And her judicious use of Gaelic and Scottish words, folklore, and culture immerse the reader deeply into the time and place.

The gist: A young and strong-willed British Army nurse, Claire Randall and her husband are enjoying a second honeymoon in Scotland after WWII when she is unexpectedly transported through a time portal at a stone circle. She finds herself suddenly in a time two hundred years in the past. Claire’s goal, at first, is to get back to her husband and her own time as quickly as she can. However, she is assaulted by a nasty Redcoat–who bears a striking resemblance to her husband—and then rescued somewhat roughly by a band of kilt-wearing Scotsmen.

And thus begins her adventure in which her nursing skills and knowledge of local flora are called into service repeatedly, mostly saving the life of the young, strapping, red-headed Jamie, who of course becomes her love (and lust) interest.

When at last Claire is offered a chance to return will she take it? Is she bound by her marriage vow to a man who hasn’t yet been born? Will she thrive as a physician or be burned as a witch?

So many scrapes. So much swashbuckling. So much sex.  All very enjoyable, but I think I’ll not read the rest of the eight-book Outlander series just now. There are simply too many other books out there winking at me and crooking their fingers. So many books, so little time.

Book Report: Just one kiss

51Y+LLxP6nL“It Only Takes a Kiss” is the second in Wilma Counts’ “Once Upon a Bride” trilogy, in which she gives three familiar stories the Regency Romance treatment. Kiss is inspired by Sleeping Beauty, but in this tale both the hero and heroine have been asleep.

Hero Whitby is her physician father’s assistant in every way allowed in her time and place. Now in her mid-twenties, she is intelligent and compassionate, but mistrustful of the men of her class. Hero has buried the reason for her mistrust—a brutal assault by some upper class boys. She remains “on the shelf.”

When a badly beaten, unconscious, and handsome stranger is brought to her father’s Devonshire clinic in the dead of night, Hero and her father patch him and wait days for him to regain consciousness. Hero finds herself drawn to him, and inspired by the fairy tale, kisses the sleeping patient.

When Alexander Stern awakens, he has no memory of his identity, although his nightmares are of bloody battles in Wellington’s army on the Peninsula.

Having read several of Ms. Counts books, I appreciate how she places her stories in the historical and social context of the period. She brings readers into the time not only with her skillful use of language but also with pertinent details of clothing, food, women’s issues, customs, and the workings of local estates. Estates were not merely grand houses, occupied by an oblivious upper class. Estates were economic centers that needed to be wisely managed and maintained. Farms, mills, breweries, mines, and all other industry worked together for the community’s well-being. The local aristocracy could make or break the system.

In Kiss, the town of Weyburn has for years been terrorized by Willard Teague, the estate’s evil steward. Teague exerts considerable power in the absence of the Weyburn heir who has been off soldiering on the Peninsula or whoring in London. Teague and his band of bully boys use the vacant estate, its mine, and farms in an increasingly violent smuggling operation. Teague employs fear and coercion to enlist the reluctant cooperation of the citizenry. And he’s got his eye on Hero as his next wife. <shudder>

Teague’s advances repulse Hero. After all, she treated his first wife for the abuse he dispensed. She also sees patients at a local home for unwed mothers, the unhappy result of men exerting their power.

“The young mothers were of two sorts: either daughters of upper class, even aristocratic families, or servant who had been seduced—or, in some cases, raped—by males in such households. The babes were most often placed with foster families.”

In fact, Hero has taken in one such child, raising little Annabelle as a member of her family.

As the story unfolds, most of what Hero holds dear in life is threatened–Annabelle’s place in her home, her position as her father’s assistant, the lives of her siblings, and her romance with the handsome stranger.

When all seems lost, Ms. Counts compels readers to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion, complete with a little swashbuckling and, of course, a happily ever after for the newly awakened lovers.