Thursday, October 18, 2018

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler
Published October 2018 by St. Martin's Press
Source: my ecopy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Alva Smith, her southern family destitute after the Civil War, married into one of America’s great Gilded Age dynasties: the newly wealthy but socially shunned Vanderbilts. Ignored by New York’s old-money circles and determined to win respect, she designed and built 9 mansions, hosted grand balls, and arranged for her daughter to marry a duke. But Alva also defied convention for women of her time, asserting power within her marriage and becoming a leader in the women's suffrage movement.

My Thoughts:
Alva Vanderbilt
Kirkus Reviews called this one “mesmerizing.” That’s not the word I would choose, but I did enjoy this book a lot. Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont was a fascinating woman who lived her own advice, “First marry for money, then marry for love.” In the end, she truly found her own path.

William K. Vanderbilt
First marry for money: Alva was desperate and William was willing. His family needed the social cache her family name brought. Both of them got what they wanted. Sort of. William is well aware of his wife’s worth (she did, after all, find the ways to bring the Vanderbilt family into high society), but he is so self-absorbed that he didn’t think to do the things that would truly make Alva happy. Instead he showers her with jewelry and then is off again to do his own thing. William was far more interested in boats and horses than in his family or the family business. He comes off as a grown up little boy.

The Fifth Avenue house
In Fowler’s hands, Alva vacillates between kowtowing to society standards and standing firm for her beliefs. She convinces her father-in-law to foot the bill for magnificent mansions for all of his children on the pretense that it will benefit society at large as these will be works of art. Yeah, right. But she also insists on working closely with the architect, shocking society matrons by being so closely involved. I vacillated between really liking Alva and really believing she was all about the Benjamins. This is the bulk of the story and Fowler really makes the Gilded Age, and the gilded cage, come alive.

Then marry for love: Alva harbors the hots for one of William’s friends for decades; her back and forth got a little old, sometimes. But she’s far too virtuous and far too aware of what’s at stake, especially for her children if there were to be a scandal, to ever act on it. Until at last she is a free woman. As the wife of Oliver Belmont, Alva finally gets to be loved and to be understood for who she is. She cuts loose and does what she wants, society be damned. You can’t help but be happy for her.

Alva Vanderbilt
Find her own path; In her later years, Alva became a very active suffragette. She’d long championed women’s rights and, at last, she could be part of a group advocating for women. Unfortunately, there’s not much of that in this book. Fowler has, instead chosen to make the book about Alva’s life with the men in it. She does include an afterward that brings readers up to speed with Alva’s life on her own.

Two last things:
This is one of my favorite book covers in a while. It’s perfect for the story. It’s the little things, sometimes.
Gratuitous picture of Hugh Grant
Also, Is it wrong that I thought of the Wade brothers from Two Weeks’ Notice when Fowler was writing about William and his brother, Corneil, William being the Hugh Grant character of the Vanderbilt family? I mean, Corneil was serious about the work and maintaining the family business, William was the social one, more interested in the ladies and fun. To be fair to Grant's character, George Wade, George spent more time in the office than William apparently did.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Narrated by Mohsin Hamid
Published March 2017 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through. . . .

Exit West follows these remarkable characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are.

My Thoughts:
Mohsin Hamid is always inventive with his writing, with a singular voice. He tells stories about people most Americans don’t know about, lives we can’t imagine. There is always something to be learned from his books, a new way to look at the world. In Exit West, Hamid focuses on the lives of refugees in the various places they find themselves, not on their journeys, which we know are perilous. What is life like in the camps? How does life change depending on the country they find themselves in? What changes when the refugee community starts to change the balance in the areas where they're located? I seriously always feel smarter when I finish one of Hamid's books.
“It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class—in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding—but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are puttering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”? 
One of the things that really got me thinking in Exit West was Nadia's wearing of an abaya, despite being an independent, modern woman who isn't religious. Nadia doesn't wear an abaya for religious reasons, nor for modesty. She chooses to wear an abaya as a barrier, particularly to keep men from bothering her. It's her choice. Which makes me wonder how many of the women I've seen wearing abaya's are doing less because it's required and more because it is their choice. In this day and age of #MeToo, it's interesting to consider that some women may just decide it's easier to hide from men.

Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist blew me away. I wanted this one to do the same. It did, after all, appear on many "best of" lists for 2017. But, whereas Fundamentalist built to an ending that left me sort of stunned, this one  just left me sad. Hamid doesn’t do happy endings; I’ve certainly learned that by now. So I suppose I might have suspected where this book was going and I'm not sure where I wouldn't have wanted him to go with the story. Still...

Hamid always narrates his books and his reading style mirrors his writing style perfectly. I’ve grown used to it; but, when I tried to listen to the book with my husband, he found the book really odd which I felt was mostly due to Hamid’s detached, flat style. Listening may not be for everyone. But books like Exit West should be.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Life: It Goes On - October 14

If only it actually looked like the picture at the left today! Instead, it's snowing. After three weeks of grey, cold, wet days, we come to this. Ugh. Fingers crossed that next week's forecast for drier, warmer days is right but it's almost too late for a proper fall. So many trees have dropped their leaves before they even changed colors. I feel like I'm living in Westoros - I just keep thinking "winter is coming!" At least yesterday was warmer and sunny and I was able to get some stuff done outside.

Today I'm doing meal prep for the week so there'll be a crockpot and oven on. I'll light plenty of candles and plan some time to curl up and read and watch some football and try to ignore that white stuff falling from the sky!

Last Week I:

Listened To: Hamilton: The Revolution and I'm back to Love and Ruins now that it's available again. I did finally manage to figure out how to change the length of my check out from seven days to fourteen days so I can actually finish books before my loan expires.
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Watched: Football, baseball, volleyball, and Terence Crawford defending his welterweight boxing title. We aren't boxing people, hardly ever watch it. But Crawford is an Omaha guy who promotes the city and state of Nebraska tirelessly. It was nice to watch at least one Nebraska "team" win yesterday!

Read: The Library Book, which I reviewed on Thursday and I'm about half way done with A Well-Behaved Woman. I'm seriously on a reading jag lately, having given up playing games on my phone.

Made: Chicken and corn tortilla soup, chili, chicken noodle soup - that pretty much tells you what the weather's been like, doesn't it?!

Enjoyed: Sunday evening with Mini-me and Ms. S. They are in such a good place now and we had a great time going out for dinner and drinks with them. It's so nice to have them so much closer now!

This Week I’m: 

Planning: A quick weekend trip south. Sadly, this will mean I'm missing Dewey's Readathon. Again.

Thinking About: I'm in a strange "spring cleaning" mood. I have other things I need to do, but I'm thinking that reorganizing and decluttering is on the agenda!

Feeling: Accomplished. I managed to, for the first time in ages, get through all of the posts on my blog reader (except event posts I wanted to keep). It won't last long, but maybe I can try to keep up now.

Looking forward to: A quiet week. Hopefully this will mean it will be productive around the house.

Question of the week: Obviously I've been in a soup mood lately. What's your favorite soup?

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Published October 2018 by Simon & Schuster
Source: my ecopy courtesy of the publisher, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual false alarm. As one fireman recounted later, “Once that first stack got going, it was Goodbye, Charlie.” The fire was disastrous: It reached 2,000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Investigators descended on the scene, but over thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

[Orlean] investigates the legendary Los Angeles Public Library fire to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives. To truly understand what happens behind the stacks, Orlean visits the different departments of the LAPL, encountering an engaging cast of employees and patrons and experiencing alongside them the victories and struggles they face in today’s climate. She also delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from a metropolitan charitable initiative to a cornerstone of national identity. She reflects on her childhood experiences in libraries; studies arson and the long history of library fires; attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; and she re-examines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the library over thirty years ago. Along the way, she reveals how these buildings provide much more than just books—and that they are needed now more than ever.

My Thoughts:
In April, Entertainment Weekly said “Susan Orlean’s next book will be a passionate love letter to libraries.” Indeed it is.

Orlean grew up with a love of her mother and her weekly trips to the library.
"Together we waited for the librarian at the counter to pull the date card out and stamp it with the checkout machine - that loud chunk-chunk, like a giant fist of time thumping the card, printing a crooked due date underneath a score of previous crooked due dates that belonged to other people, other times.
Our visits to the library were never long enough for me. The place was so bountiful. I loved wandering around the bookshelves, scanning the spines until something happened to catch my eye. Those visits were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived."
But, like so many of us, as she got older, she stopped going to the library. She had a burning (no pun intended) desire to own books, not just read them and give them back. "I wanted to have my books around me, forming a totem pole of narratives I'd visited." When her son was young, though, she found herself rediscovering libraries when she began taking him to them; and when she learned about the fire at Los Angeles' Central Library her love of libraries and her investigative journalism career made the perfect match.

I would imagine my husband is very happy that I’m finished reading this book, given the number of times a day I interrupted whatever he was doing to read him passages. I read to him about Ray Bradbury, who never got a college education but read his way through the Central Library. I read to him about the number of books and libraries destroyed during World War II, including the German group which was tasked with burning dangerous books and which inspired Bradbury. I read to him about some of the real characters who have headed the Los Angeles library, including Charles Lummis who walked from Ohio to Los Angeles when he accepted the job. And I read to him about Bertram Goodhue, who designed both the Central Library and the Nebraska State Capital, a building we both love. Being so familiar with the Capital building gave me a good idea of what the Central Library building looked like even before I looked up pictures.

There is nothing dull or dry about this book. Orlean's writing is vivid, bringing history to life.
"Usually, a fire is red and orange and yellow and black. The fire in the library was colorless. You could look right through it, as if it were a sheet of glass. Where the flame had any color, it was pale blue. It was so hot that it appeared icy."
"In the building, the air began to quiver with radiant heat. Crews trying to make their way into the stacks felt like they were hitting a barricade, as if the heat had become solid. "We could only stand it for ten, fifteen seconds," one of them told me...The temperature reached 2000 degrees. Then it rose to 2500. The firefighters began to worry about a flashover, a dreaded situation during a fire in which everything in a closed space - even smoke - becomes so hot that it reaches a point of spontaneous ignition, causing a complete and consuming eruption of fire from every service."
Did you know that fire could be colorless, that it could become so hot it cause spontaneous ignition, and have you heard of a stoichiometric condition (when a fire achieves the perfect burning ratio of oxygen to fuel)? I'm sure I would not have believed I could be so interested in reading about fire.

Although, The Library Book is never heavy handed, Orleans touches on the ways libraries have had to deal with homelessness, immigration, and politics in order to remain relevant and to achieve their missions. Reading this book is about learning about so much more than just one fire in one library. Through it all, though, books remain at the heart of any library and their value is beyond measure.
"Book are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between it's past and its future is ruptured."
This book makes me happy that I'm again a card carrying library patron.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Listen To The Marriage by John Jay Osborn

Listen To The Marriage by John Jay Osborn
Published October 2018 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Source: my ecopy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Publisher's Summary:

Gretchen and Steve have been married for a long time. Living in San Francisco, recently separated, with two children and demanding jobs, they’ve started going to a marriage counselor. Unfolding over the course of ten months and taking place entirely in the marriage counselor’s office, John Jay Osborn’s Listen to the Marriage is the story of a fractured couple in a moment of crisis, and of the person who tries to get them to see each other again. A searing look at the obstacles we put in our own way, as well as the forces that drive us apart (and those that bring us together), Listen to the Marriage is a poignant exploration of marriage—heartbreaking and tender.

My Thoughts:
At only 140 pages, this was a quick read with much to recommend it. But I found myself wanting both more and less from it.

What I Liked:
Osborn has taken nearly a year of a marriage on the brink of divorce and narrowed it down to just the time the couple  spends in the office of their marriage counselor. The reader never really leaves the office and yet Osborn manages to bring in the couple's children, friends, and lovers. I enjoyed the tight focus on  Steve's and Gretchen's emotions, reactions, interactions, and perspectives.

I have to say that both the title of this book and the cover are perfect. Those might seem like little things, as though I'm scraping for things to like but I actually very much appreciated the fact that both  tell the reader a lot about the story up front.

What I Didn't Like:
Osborn works to make the counselor, Sandy, a full person in the story but it didn't work for me. While her thoughts and guidance are important, her back story is not relevant. If Osborn intended for it to be relevant, he needed to have included more of it, made is so. I haven't been to marriage counseling, so I can't speak to the reality of how Sandy handles this couple. But it didn't feel terribly professional for Sandy to divulge details about her personal life, either.

Likewise, I can't speak to Sandy's methods. But when Osborn even has Gretchen questioning Sandy's method, it did make me wonder. And I'm not sure about being so in Sandy's head. If we hadn't been, I wouldn't have gotten so tired of Osborn's use of trains on tracks as an analogy for the way the counseling sessions were going.

In the end, I would have liked the book to have less about Sandy and more about Steve and Gretchen.