Sunday, March 20, 2011

Portobello by Ruth Rendell

I'm a huge Ruth Rendell fan and will read anything she writes.   This book was recommended on a travel site when someone said they were looking for a book about London.  London is one of my favorite cities, so I was anxious to read this.  But I didn't find it to paint that clear of a picture of the city.  I've read other books by Rendell that I thought did a better job. 

I would not list this as one of my favorite Rendell books.  It took me forever to read this, I kept setting it aside and reading something else.  The characters were so strange, almost a bit too strange.  The novel has several different characters, only casually connected to each other.  The focus is on their different addictions, habits and obsessions.

One of the main characters seems to be obsessed with a particular kind of sugar free candy.  And he makes such a big deal about this.  He's worried others will be aware of his so-called addiction and fears that he has so break the habit before he gets married.  I couldn't quite grasp what the big deal was.  It was candy.  Who isn't a bit addicted to candy?   I guess the point wasn't that it was candy, but that he felt he couldn't live without it. 

There wasn't much action to the story, which is probably why I had no issue with setting the book aside for weeks at a time.  The characters are fairly well-developed, this is one of Rendell's strong points.  But I didn't like most of the characters, and wasn't especially concerned when bad things happened to some of them.

I did find the ending to be very nice though and was glad I stuck with the book.  Seems like the last few Rendell books, I found myself horrified by the endings and wishing I'd not spent so much time with the book, this was just the opposite.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

It was the cover and the title that drew me to this book.  I noticed it while wandering around a bookstore one day.  It sounded interesting.  Rose takes a bite of lemon cake one day and can feel the emotions of the person who baked the cake.  Luckily, I didn't buy the book and instead waited until it was available at the library. 

As much as I was looking forward to reading this, I was quite let down by the actual experience of reading it.

The story had potential.  Rose has a rather bizarre ability.  But it felt like three fourths of the book just described this curse and how she coped.  It was described in such a way that it began to not make any sense at all.  I can understand a feeling of sadness or anger.  But the author goes on and on about how she can tell the exact location of where the cheese was made, where the cows were born, if the factory workers had a fight with their spouse.  It got ridiculous.  Maybe I'm just having a bit of trouble suspending belief, but if this sense, curse, or whatever it was, really affected the way something tasted, after a while wouldn't a person simply become accustomed to it? 

Another thing that bothered me about the book is that Rose is almost nine years old when she discovers this, but she understands it at the same level as an adult would.  I tend to not like books about young children who are presented as adults.  I spend much of my life with teenagers and while I do view them as fairly intelligent and knowledgeable about many things, I can't imagine them examining feelings in such a way, so I certainly can't imagine a nine year old doing so.  Nothing else in the book indicated that she was especially intelligent.

Her brother though is described as a genius, and yet, he can't get into any of the schools he wants to attend.  Her brother seems to suffer from some rather severe anti-social issues.  And yet, he has a mother who adores him, and a father that always tries to do what is best for his family.  The brother's issue is never fully explained, and in the end it's all just very, very confusing.

I'm generally a fan of magical realism.  But in this case, it didn't quite work for me.  Everything else was so simple and normal, and throwing in these bits of surrealism felt awkward.  I wasn't able to suspend my belief enough to accept this story.  I kept thinking maybe the supernatural abilities mentioned were a metaphor of some sort, but if that was the case I never quite figured it out.  I kept reading, waiting for the big reveal, the deep, dark secret that must be triggered all these bizarre experiences, but again, never happened.

There wasn't much action in the story.  The characters, despite their odd abilities, lived very dull lives.  I kept waiting for the story to begin, for the action to happen.  It never did.  And in the end I was very disappointed because none of it made sense.

The characters are sad and confused, but they do nothing to try and improve their situation.  They remain very childlike in the lack of knowledge that life gets better as a person gets older, that a person doesn't have to remain crushed by the weight of their parents' experiences, that the opportunity to move on a create a life of one's own is available.  That rant there comes from the ending of the book, when Rose tries to justify her brother's behavior.  Life had become too much.  But why?  There's never an explanation.

I found the story frustrating.  I needed more of an explanation as to why things happened.  I think this story could have been interesting, but wasn't.

I really don't recommend this book.  Despite the pretty cover, with the delicious looking piece of cake, the story was rather bland and lacking flavor.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Paris Wife by Paula McClain

Put Paris in the title, and I'm automatically interested.  Set the story during the twenties, the Jazz Age/Lost Generation, and feature characters such as Scott and Zelda, Gertrude and Alice and Ernest Hemingway and yeah, it's being added to the "to be read" list.  I'm fascinated by that time period.

This story cut to the top of my "to be read" list when I needed an audiobook for my drive to Austin.  So many hours in the car, have to try to be productive with my time.  So I checked out a few audiobooks that have been on my ever growing "to be read" list.  I was so happy to see this available, as the book is fairly new and there is usually a long waiting list for new books. 

I really enjoyed this story.  Easily passed the time during the drive, and I barely noticed as I sat in a huge traffic snare on the way home.  (I believe it took about an hour and a half to move less than ten miles.) 

I admit I don't know a lot about Hemingway.  Of his work, I've only read a few short stories and A Farewell to Arms - which I consider one of my favorite books.  But most people are familiar with the idea of Hemingway, "a man's man", a fighter and hunter, served in the war and traveled around the world.  This is the story of his early twenties, while living in Paris, as told through the eyes of his wife.
Hadley is the "Paris wife," the first of four wives he would eventually have.  She was the one who was with him before he became known as one of the greatest writers of his generation.  She was with him when all he had was his dreams and ideas, when they lived in a small apartment above a dance hall in Paris because it was all they could afford. 

Hadley's 29 when she meets the handsome 21 year old Ernest Hemingway.  Already he's a character, well known among his group of friends as being something of a ladies man.  Hadley's friends try to warn her away from him, but she falls hard for this man.  Even at 21, he possessed the qualities that turned him into the myth that the world would eventually know.  He was passionate and strong.  Hadley had lived a sheltered life, she'd been devastated by the suicide of her father and the death of her sister.  Her attempt at attending college had been short-lived.  She lived with her mother and cared for her until she died.  Hemingway represented everything that was missing from Hadley's life.  Despite being younger than her, he'd already seen much of the world, having served in the war and been wounded.  He'd already been in love and had his heart broken.  He was ready to take on the world, while Hadley was still hesitate to enter a world outside of her home.

Newly married, they have plans to move to Rome, but then Hemingway is told Paris is the place to be - that's where all the writers and the artists are living now.  So they move to Paris and become friends with Ezra Pound and his wife, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.  In the beginning though, this is simply the story of a couple in the early stages of marriage, still learning about each other and getting used to their living arrangements, as Ernest is trying to establish himself as a writer.  Unlike Ernest, Hadley doesn't have any grand ambitions.  She wants a simple life, she wants a happy home and to please her husband.  As depicted in this book, she is a sharp contrast to the other women in their social circle.  This was a time in which the women in Paris were seeking their independence, trying to become equal partners with the men in their lives, selecting their own careers and interests.  Also this was a time in which couples were openly and boldly redefining long-held ideas about relationships.  Hadley's own desires seemed old-fashioned and out of place and as some of her friends commented, "Very American."

As someone who can't relate to the yearning to have a simple life and family, I had trouble relating to Hadley.  She seemed much too dependent on her husband, and weak.  She allowed him to make all the decisions about their life together.  I couldn't help but cringe when she describes him keeping track of her menstrual cycle in a notebook.  She's a 31 year old woman at the time, allowing her 22 year old husband to tell her when and how to use birth control.  She seems content to hand over all of her autonomy, without question, and does so because she loves her husband so much.

As Hemingway becomes more successful and more involved in their circle of friends, he begins to feel entitled to live as the others do.  Suddenly his wife isn't enough for him.  Why can't he do like his friends and have a girl on the side?  Everyone else is doing it.  And so he begins an affair with one of Hadley's friends.  An affair which Hadley tolerates, even allowing this woman into their home and into their bed in one especially horrible instance.  She seems to do this because she feels she has no other choice, she loves her husband so much and after years of doing as he wants, doesn't seem to know how to do otherwise.

Considering that Hemingway's future relationships didn't work out too well, I have to wonder if maybe a better way of loving him might have been to exert some force, to take back some control and issue a few demands.  Maybe Hadley could have saved her marriage as well as her husband.  But that wasn't the kind of person she was.  So instead, she agreed to a divorce so he could marry his mistress.

I don't know how accurate the story is.  I don't know that it matters.  Some reviews I've read of the book say it's too romantic and sentimental.  But isn't that sort of fitting with the story of Hemingway?  Shouldn't a story about him and those who loved him be a bit extreme?  I wasn't looking for a dry, textbook version of their story.  With this book, I got exactly what I was hoping for, a romantic story about two people very much in love with each other who did their best to make things work, but ultimately failed.  But more than that, this novel painted a picture of a time period that I revisit as often as possible through literature and film, a Paris filled with artists and intellectuals, people trying to change the world or create their own brand new world, using their words and art.  The story is written in such a way that readers become easily immersed in the Roaring Twenties of Paris, the words recreating the energy that much have existed within that atmosphere, ideas drifting in and out of cafes and salons. 

And now I'm off to find a copy of Moveable Feast to read about Ernest's version of this time period.

Finished: March 18, 2011