Wednesday, August 26, 2020

August Reading (So far...)

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is quite a creative book that I really enjoyed. It imagines what Hillary Rodham's life would have been like if she never agreed to marry Bill Clinton. So it starts out based on fact - with Hillary's early life (particularly the cruelty of her father), her undergraduate years, and finally her time at Yale Law School where she meets, and immediately falls under the spell of, Bill Clinton.

From this point on the narrative becomes part fact, greater part fiction. Hillary is immediately enamoured with Clinton even though she has evidence of his philandering ways early on when they spend a summer together in San Francisco. Despite the reservations of her close friends she follows him to Arkansas and supports his initial runs for office. As in real life, Clinton proposes three times.  But unlike in real life, Hillary refuses all three proposals.

She instead moves back to Illinois and becomes a university professor. Eventually it is her turn to run for public office.  I don't want to give up too much as the fun was in the discovery - but the book follows her academic career, her political career, her personal life and her future interactions with Bill Clinton.  It also gives us a picture of what his life might have been like without her - and he doesn't come off as terribly sympathetic. There are also a few scenes of what the political landscape may have been like in this alternate reality - including Trump's role - which were very entertaining. 

I thought the end was a little too contrived, but it didn't take away from the experience.  I definitely recommend this book.

A Few Books by Mhairi McFarlane

British author Mhairi McFarlane may just have become one of my favourite rom com writers.  Her work is intelligent, humorous and predictable in just the right romantic comedy way.  All take place in Northern England and/or London, involve the typical mishaps before happy ending and very likeable characters.  Not to be mistaken for great literature but a really entertaining, fun and easy read.  In particular I read Who's That Girl, Don't You Forget About Me, It's Not Me It's You, and You Had Me At Hello.

Grown Ups by Marian Keyes

This is a fairly typical lengthy family drama from the Irish author, Marian Keyes. The novel centres around three adult brothers, Johnny, Ed and Liam, and their respective wives, Jessie, Cara and Nell. The extended family also includes Jessie's young adult children from a prior marriage, Johnny and Jessie's three young daughters, and Ed and Cara's two young sons.

The first chapter is at a family dinner - Cara has suffered a head injury and it removes her usual filters.  She thus spills a host of family secrets to the assembled group.  The narrative then steps back in time and builds up to the story which Cara is about to tell - though some of it is not what it initially appears.

I will leave out the facts of the story so as not to ruin the surprise, though truthfully it is not the facts that matter as much as the family dynamics and, in particular, the impact of keeping secrets on a family.

Four Books based on the Royal Family

The Royal We and The Heir Affair by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

This pair of books are romantic comedies inspired by Prince William and Catherine - although interestingly it is the older serious brother (and the heir), Nick, who falls for an American exchange student, Bex, at Oxford. Funnily enough the first book was written before Prince Harry met Meghan Markle so is perhaps a bit prescient.

There are some differences from the actual royal family - the Queen was widowed at a young age; her son (the Prince Charles figure) is still married to his first wife; and it is Nick who struggles with the expectations put on him by his family.

Other than being based on the royals, these are pretty standard rom coms. There is love, misunderstanding and eventual happy endings. The first book deals with the courtship and up until the wedding (which does not go off without a hitch). The second picks up after the scandals that are revealed at the wedding and continues through pregnancy and eventual childbirth.

Some of the relationships are quite nice - eventually the Queen and Bex become companions. She also develops a fun relationship with the Queen Mother figure.

Again these are not great literature but they are quite fun.

The Queen's Secret by Karen Harper

This was probably my least favourite of this group of four books. I just didn't really enjoy the writing style - I guess I found it a bit simplistic (even compared to rom coms). The title character is Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. The book takes place primarily during World War II and following her husband's ascension to the throne after his brother's abdication. Hitler is reputed to have called Queen Elizabeth the Most Dangerous Woman in Europe.

And, she seems hell bent on taking advantage of that power. The book paints her as the driving force behind the monarchy - not only directing her husband's decisions, but having a personal relationship with, and strong influence over, Winston Churchill. While she uses this power in part appropriately, to defend England during the war, she uses it in part to cover up personal secrets which she thinks will threaten her marriage and her position. In particular, she works tirelessly to keep the former King Edward and his wife Wallis Simpson away from the country. They know a few things about her past that she wants desperately to remain hidden.

By the end the reader has learned all of her secrets - but it didn't really make me like her or sympathize with her anymore although I suppose I was expected to. I wouldn't really bother with this one.

The Woman Before Wallis by Bryn Turnbull

By contrast, I would highly recommend this book. It takes place earlier in time than the prior book and is far more based in historical fact.

Before taking up with Wallis Simpson, Edward, the Prince of Wales had an affair with another divorced American, Thelma Morgan. After a disastrous first marriage, Thelma marries into the British Aristocracy - Lord Furness. He is a widower with two teenaged children. Thelma is much younger than him and together they also have a son. While her second husband is not abusive like her first one, he does have a string of extra-marital affairs and is unapologetic and public about them.

This leaves Thelma vulnerable to the attentions of the Prince of Wales. She begins a very public affair with him (meeting other members of the royal family, though not his parents). Eventually she separates from her husband to give her more freedom to be with the Prince. Although she loves him, and he even proposes, she does not seem to live under the illusion that they actually have a future together.

In alternating sections (which jump back and forth in time) the book deals with Thelma's twin sister, Gloria Vanderbilt and her bitter custody battle for her daughter, "Little Gloria". Gloria was married to an heir to the Vanderbilt fortune who died quite young. His remaining family consider Gloria an unfit mother due to several scandals (including some relating to members of the extended royal family) and fight her for custody. Thelma supports her sister at all costs - including eventually her relationship with the Prince. Ironically, when she returns to the US to attend the custody hearing she asks her friend Wallis Simpson to look after the Prince for her - and that she did.

I found this story very compelling - and the main storylines are fact based and were something I knew nothing about prior to reading the book. Both the story of the royal relationship and of the American royalty (the Vanderbilts) are very interesting. And the book is well written and easy to read.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

This is another author who is somewhat prescient as she wrote this book before the outbreak of COVID-19 and rushed it to print when the current pandemic hit.

The entire narrative takes place over three days in a Dublin hospital during the 1918 flu pandemic. The story is told from the perspective of a junior nurse, Julia, who is left in charge of a maternity ward for pregnant women who have the flu. The hospital is severely understaffed and short on supplies so she has to be as innovative as possible in dealing with her patients. The only help she has is from a teenaged volunteer, Birdie, who makes up for lack of knowledge with her enthusiasm. She also gets periodic support from a female doctor, Dr. Lynn who also happens to be an Irish separatist on the run from the police.

The story gives great detail about the patients' struggles - both with the flu and their pregnancies. And we of course see how Julia struggles with her responsibility at work and to her brother who has returned from the War and due to psychological trauma no longer speaks. We also learn a lot about Birdie's past - she was an orphan who grew up in a Catholic home for orphans where she was neglected and perhaps abused. We also see the influence of the Catholic church in its treatment of unwed mothers on the ward.

I quite enjoyed this book - though it is obviously not uplifting. I worried a bit that I would find it too much to read it during our own pandemic but because it takes place in the maternity ward it was sufficiently distanced from my current circumstances to make it bearable.

The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel

I wasn't sure I felt like reading yet another Holocaust book when I picked this one up, but I ended up enjoying it. The narrative starts in current day Florida when Eva, a semi-retired librarian, reads a newspaper article about a German library trying to find the owner of a book. Eva recognizes it as The Book of Lost Names which she hasn't seen since leaving Europe in the 1940s. She decides immediately that she must go to Germany to claim the book - much to the confusion of her son who knows nothing of her past.

In alternating chapters we learn about this past. When in her early 20s Eva is forced to flee her home in Paris with her mother after her father is round up by the French police, working for the Nazis, for being Jewish. On the advice of a former boss of her father they take refuge in a small mountain town in the French Free Zone. There Eva becomes involved with the underground - working as a forger in the local church. She is supported by the priest as well as several women in the town who are involved in smuggling Jews and others, such as downed pilots, into Switzerland. Her strongest supporter is Remy, a Catholic forger who is also connected with the underground. Eva decides she must preserve the original identity of all the children who are smuggled out under false names so that they can find their true identities when they return. So using a code devised by Remy based on the Fibonacci sequence, they hide these identities within the text of an ancient religious book thus creating the book of lost names.

The members of the underground are eventually betrayed and we learn of their various fates throughout the end of the war. Eva survives - not a secret since we know that from the start - but we also learn how she survived, who else survived, how the book of lost names came to be in Germany, and how Eva eventually ended up in Florida with a son who knew nothing of her past.

I really enjoyed this book - I thought the characters, both good and bad, were believable and well developed and that the story was not completely predictable as is often the case with Holocaust fiction. I recommend this one.

Daughters of Smoke and Fire by Ava Homa

This is a fascinating book written in English by a Kurdish woman. It tells the story of a Kurdish girl, Leila, who grew up in Iran. Her father is a drunk who is dealing with demons after having witnessed the slaughter of most of his extended family when he was a child. Her mother is distant, away from home a lot and critical of Leila when she is at home. However, Leila is extremely close with her younger brother Chia.

When they grow up Leila is unable to get into university despite several attempts so follows her brother to Tehran when he gets into university there. Chia becomes involved in anti-government activities and is eventually imprisoned for them. Leila fights tirelessly to get him freed, and when she publishes some of his writings she is also in danger.

Leila is forced to flee Tehran and is given the opportunity to leave Iran, but must decide whether she can trust the man she feels was partly responsible for Chia ending up in prison. Eventually she realizes she has no choice and accepts his assistance to go to Canada.

I thought the descriptions of life in Iran - particularly for a woman and the Kurdish minority were fascinating. They shed light on terrible atrocities as well as the subjugation of various people. I thought the book lost a bit of steam when Leila moved to Toronto and the pages there read a bit more like a tourist's guide to visiting the major sites in Toronto. This may just be because the author is new at her craft.

Despite the somewhat weaker ending, I do recommend this book.

The Answer Is... by Alex Trebek

This is a long-awaited autobiography by Alex Trebek. He claims in the introduction that he has always turned down requests to write his autobiography as he did not feel his life was that interesting. However, faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis he decided he would write about his life.

This is really more a series of vignettes than an actual book. I found some more interesting that others - I particularly enjoyed the stories about the better known Jeopardy contestants like Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer (he clearly likes Jennings; his feelings about Holzhauer are less clear which is telling). I also liked some of his insights into the game itself and changes made over the years.

Otherwise, he is right, he lived a pretty ordinary life so there was not a lot to the personal stories. Worth reading, but  maybe picking and choosing the stories. It's certainly not necessary to read chronologically or even in full. Though the whole book did only take me a couple of hours.

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