Cool New Book by Local Author

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Just got an announcement about this new book by local author and Hartford Courant columnist Susan Campbell.  She will be doing a book signing and talk at Hartford Seminary on February 24th.  Click here for more information.

I don’t subscribe to the Courant but I’ll be subscribing to Campbell’s blog from now on.

Book Club: The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

Knitting Clio appears to be turning into a slow blog, but I finally have come up with something to post.  This month’s book club selection was Wally Lamb’s latest novel, The Hour I First Believed.   It was a good thing we had Thanksgiving break to read this, because this is one very long book.  Lamb’s writing is engaging as always and I found the central story about Caelum and Maureen Quirk, who are trying to rebuild their lives after Maureen survives spending hours in a cabinet during the horrific shootings at Columbine High School in 1999.

One book club member, who is a social worker, found Lamb’s description of post-traumatic stress — which affects multiple characters — to be very well done and moving.  Another commented on the Lamb’s description of chaos theory in the novel and how he draws in the various catastrophic events of the past decade to make commentary on life in twenty-first century America.   Caeleb spends much of the novel tracing his family history, which intersects with local Connecticut history (Mark Twain makes a brief appearance), as well as women’s role in prison reform for female prisoners and other social justice movements.

As a women’s historian, I found the historical material  to be fascinating. I also liked the feminist grad student/Katrina refugee that helps Quirk make sense of all the letters and diaries left in the attic.

One book club member absolutely hated the novel, saying that while Lamb’s writing is excellent, there is just one damn thing after another crammed into the novel. She also thinks Lamb is just showing off.  She was especially annoyed with the ending which I won’t give away here.

I would agree that there is too much going on in the novel.  This easily could have been two books — I would like to see the story of the women’s prison expanded into a longer separate treatment.  Still, I would recommend this to those who like Lamb’s other books.

Book Club: Deaf Sentence

This week, book club finally met to discuss David Lodge’s excellent novel, Deaf Sentence (we had to postpone a month due to various schedule conflicts).  The protagonist, Desmond Bates, is a middle-aged linguistics professor who has retired from his job because of high-frequency deafness. Lodge’s description of Desmond’s condition is based on his own experiences with hearing loss. He has a number poignant quotes about the experience of deafness:  e.g. “although blindness is tragic, deafness may be comic, ”  or at the very least lacking in poetry.  “The blind have pathos” he writes. “Sighted people regard them with compassion,” while the hard of hearing are regarded as lazy and dim. Desmond watches his wife Winifred’s career as an interior designer flourish while he languishes in a boring routine interrupted only by concerns about caring for his elderly father Harry. Adding to Desmond’s troubles is Alex Loom, a clueless and utterly strange graduate student who hopes Desmond will guide her dissertation project on the linguistic aspects of suicide notes.  At first, I feared this set-up would degenerate into slapstick, but Lodge balances out the comedy with frequent literary allusions and reflections on the human condition.  This is certainly one of his best novels — I wasn’t really impressed with the last few — so it was nice to see him return to the grace and wit he showed in Changing Places and Small World.  Highly recommended — and a good choice for holiday reading given his hilarious send-up of the joys and horrors of family Christmas celebrations.

P.S. Now that I think about it, Lodge’s comments about blindness are rather disturbing.  I have friends and colleagues who are blind — they don’t consider this a tragedy, nor do they like being seen as “helpless” or even poetic (remember, even positive stereotypes are still oppressive).

Also, forgot to mention the next selection — Connecticut native Wally Lamb’s new book, The Hour I First Believed.

Book Club: Half a Yellow Sun

This week’s announcement that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”, reminded me to make a quick post that our book club discussed her fabulous novel, Half a Yellow Sun last week (please note we selected this over a month ago — do we have great taste or what?)  The fact that she received her B.A. from Eastern Connecticut State University in 1991 makes me feel mighty old!  I can’t say enough great things about this book — rich character development, intriguing setting, powerful historical events interwoven with heart-wrenching personal life experiences.  I knew almost nothing about the Biafran/Nigerian civil war (in fact, African history is a big black hole in my historical knowledge), so it was great to read something way outside my area of expertise.  Highly recommended, must read.

Our selection for next month is much lighter — Deaf Sentence by one of my favorite authors, David Lodge.  His classic books about academia, most notably Small World, are what inspired me to become a professor.  Let’s hope this one lives up to my expectations.  Also, because it is about a disability topic, I can sort of count it as research, right?

[speaking of Small World, Lodge’s humorous satire on the strange world of academic conferences — I hope to have a conference report on my recent trip across the pond shortly!]

Book Club: Wild Nights by Joyce Carol Oates

Last week, we read Wild Nights: Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway,  by Joyce Carol Oates.  One person loved it, a few of use liked it (including me) and others thought it was just too strange to finish.  I merely liked it because I didn’t think it was her best work.  I think she’s much better at novels that allow her to develop characters and storylines. Still, some of the stories were engaging.  The one on Henry James was probably the best one.  The one that imagined Emily Dickinson as replicant was also quite clever —  an interesting comment on fame and its discontents.  The one about Twain and his club of “Angelfish” — i.e. prepubescent little girls — was downright creepy.  The one about Hemingway was quite moving and I was surprised I liked it since I don’t care for Hemingwary (then again, it’s Oates writing like Hemingway).  So, while I wasn’t blown away by this, I think the concept of Oates attempting to write like great authors is worth checking out.

Book Meme

My buddy Kittywampus has posted this book list meme — see how many you have read.   Supposedly the average American has only read six of the books on the list, so I’m  not doing too bad although some of these choices are embarrassing.

The rules are:

1) Bold what you have read
2) Put in italics what you have started to read
3) Put an asterisk next to what you intend to read

So, here’s my list.

1.  Pride and Prejudice *– Jane Austen — nope, but seen the miniseries with Colin Firth.

2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien — tried it, couldn’t get beyond the first chapter of The Hobbitt.

3.  Jane Eyre — Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling okay, I only read the first one does that count?

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6.  The Bible – read parts of it

7. Wuthering Heights — Emily Bronte
8. Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell — or maybe it was just the Mac commercial?

10. Great Expectations — Charles Dickens

11 Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14. Complete works of Shakespeare — yeh, right.  I’ve read Hamlet and the Scottish play.

15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier — why bother, when the film with Sir Lawrence is so fabulous?

16.  The Hobbit — JRR Tokien

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

19 The Time Traveler’s Wife — Audrey Niffengegger

20 Middlemarch — George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22. The Great Gatsby- F. Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens

24 War and Peace — Leo Tolstoy

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited* – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck (I’d like to re-read this one, as well as East of Eden)
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

30 The Wind in the Willows — Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

33. Chronicles of Narnia — C.S. Lewis

34.  Emma* — Jane Austen

35.  Persuasion* — Jane Austen

36. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe — C.S. Lewis

37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown (but I wish I hadn’t!)
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez — twice!
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52 Dune — Frank Herbert

54 Sense and Sensibility* — Jane Austen

54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth — left this one on an airplane, may get around to finishing it someday
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History — Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66 One the Road — Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Oscure — Thomas Hardy

68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

70 Moby Dick — Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holme — Sir Arthur Conana Doyle

90 The Faraway Tree Collection
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams

95 A Confederacy of Dunces — John Kennedy Toole

96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Book Club: Dervishes

This month, I suggested Beth Helms’ book Dervishes because of my trip to Turkey.  The novel is set in Ankara during the 1970s and tells the story of 12-year old Canada, her disinterested mother Grace, and her alcoholic father, a U.S. ambassador, who live within the dysfunctional world of American and Canadian diplomatic families.  I was hoping the book would have more information about the political and historical situation in Turkey at that time, but it focused solely on the infighting between the various wives of diplomats, who are bored and isolated from the culture either by choice or design; and their children who generally run wild and try to adapt as best they can to frequent moves.  The setting reminded me a bit of a Henry James novel, especially Daisy Miller, where the Americans abroad keep to themselves, in a foreign country but not of it — except of course this being a modern novel, the bored housewives have affairs with the local men and fight with each other for lovers and status.  In the end the novel was not as good as I hoped — certainly the writing was superb but the ending was rushed and disappointing.  It definitely was worth reading though.

Bonus track — while onboard the Almira, I read Snow by Orhan Pamuk.  It was an interesting contrast to read about the clash between secularists and political Islamists in the eastern portion of Turkey, while traveling through the very European western region (especially Bodrum which except for the Mosques was pretty similar to other beach towns in southern Europe — a lot of British youngsters clubbing at night, roasting themselves on the beach during the day).  I’m also glad I read it in summer, since this is a quite dark and depressing look at the fate of a political exile named Ka who returns from 12 years in Germany to the small town of Kars to investigate a spate of suicides among observant Muslim girls, and to try to win back the love of his life.  It was a tough read — lots of intrigue, reversals, and betrayals.  I’ll probably have to go and look up the historical events on which it’s based before I fully understand it.

Next up:  Wild Nights, a collection of short stories Joyce Carol Oates, in which she imagines the last days of Edgar Allen Poe, Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Clemens, and Ernest Hemingway.  The concept alone is intriguing.

Book Club: Unaccustomed Earth

This month’s selection was the critically-acclaimed Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. I didn’t like The Namesake as much as I liked Interpreter of Maladies, but a Pulitzer prize winning book is tough to follow-up. So, I was hopeful that the return to short story form would fulfill the earlier promise and I certainly was not disappointed. In fact, I think I like UE better. Although I would agree that she returns to characters of the same background (Bengali, transplants to Massachusetts or thereabouts) this isn’t necessarily a flaw. After all, isn’t this true of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, or other modern, white, male, middle-class, American-born authors? Or white, female authors like Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro (both of whom I love but who seldom venture far beyond their native Toronto or Vancouver — except into future dystopias in the case of Atwood).

The new book tends to lean more towards the experience of the second generation immigrants than the first two books. Consequently, the themes covered balance between those that are in many ways universal (e.g. relationships between aging parents and adult children, between siblings, husband/wife) and those that are peculiar to the immigrant experience, e.g. assimilation vs. cultural identity — although I would not say these are unique to South Asian immigrants. All the stories were superb — elegantly written and engaging — my favorite was “A Choice of Accommodations” about a married couple (the husband is second-generation Bengali, the wife is white American), who attend a wedding at the husband’s alma mater, where they find their own marriage has, as the husband puts it, “disappeared” as each partner became absorbed in childrearing and the dailyness of their professional and personal lives. This remark, of course, infuriates another wedding guest who leaves their table in disgust. I wonder if this is common, especially in marriages where the focus is so much on the children that the relationship between partners gets buried.

In short, Lahiri just keeps getting better — highly recommended for a summer read or anytime.

Book Club Backlog

Now the semester is over and we just had a long holiday weekend, I’ve managed to get caught up with the last two books from my bookclub (I’ve missed or been late to the last two, didn’t finish either book, just like my students, hah!) As it turns out both selections involve psychotherapy and the politics of academia, not surprising since the club has two psychiatric social workers, a retired school counselor, three professors, as well as a lawyer, a journalist, and an accountant (am I forgetting anyone?)

April’s selection was House Lights by Leah Hager Cohen, which describes the life of 20-year old Bebe Fisher-Hart, the child of two hip psychotherapists who merged their surnames long before it was fashionable. Bebe decides to reject her parents’ expectations that she go to college and instead seeks out her estranged grandmother for advice on how to become a successful actress. Meanwhile, her father is accused of sexually harassing several students and is eventually forced to resign his academic appointment. Bebe’s first acting gig is as a historical reenactor at a historic homestead on the Underground Railroad (it later turns out to be a fake historic site created to attract tourists to the town). I really enjoyed reading this book and while the central theme is rather serious (and creepy — I’ve seen too many guys prey on their students around here) — the descriptions of the grandmother’s “salon” and the rehearsals at “The Farm” in Western Massachusetts were light enough to keep my interest and move the story along.

May’s selection was Kyra by Carol Gilligan. I was looking forward to reading this since, while I find Gilligan’s theories of women’s psychology problematic, she was “must read” for graduate students during my time at Cornell. I have say I was really disappointed. Although there were some (unintentionally?) funny descriptions of the mendacity of faculty meetings and hiring procedures, and the therapy sessions seemed realistic for the most part, on the whole I found the story rather boring and the writing uneven. Since this is Gilligan’s first venture into fiction I’ll give her a bit of a break, but she really needs to take a fiction-writing class. She has lots of good ideas and themes going on — love, heartbreak, architecture — but it doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. I didn’t really find Kyra to be an engaging character and the ending was really disappointing.

Next up is Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, one of my favorite writers.

Book Club: People of the Book

This month’s selection was Geraldine Brook’s latest, People of the Book. Brooks has been a favorite of our group — we’ve read Nine Parts of Desire, Year of Wonders, and of course the Pulitzer Prize winning March. I really enjoyed this selection but missed our gathering because I got the night wrong. Oops!

Brooks is especially gifted at creating compelling characters with rich interior lives. The novel centers on Australian book-conservation expert Hanna Heath. I just loved her intelligence, wit, and independent spirit. Who could have thought that the subject of a book and its history would be so exciting, even sexy?

My field is U.S. women’s history, so my knowledge of early modern and modern European history is a bit rusty (last time I took Western Civ was in 1983). This book certainly forced me to go back and review and/or fill the holes in my memory. I found the historical characters and settings very convincing for the most part. The only one that didn’t really wring true for me was the last one set in fifteenth-century Seville. Like the ending to Year of Wonders, it just didn’t ring true to me. I also thought that the explanation of how this character fit with the illustrations of the Sarajevo Haggadah was really a stretch. Finally, I think the book could have done without the potboiler ending — seemed to me she was trying to duplicate The Da Vinci Code here. Nevertheless, the detective work certainly beats that predictable piece of crap by a million miles. I’d love to see this book made into a film — I could easily imagine Rachel Griffiths as Hanna.

I also really admire her approach to historic preservation. In the voice of Hanna, she writes: “To restore a book to the way it was when it was made is to lack respect for its history. I think you have to accept a book as you receive it from past generations, and to a certain extent damage and wear reflect that history. The way I see it, my job is to make it stable enough to allow safe handling and study, repairing only where absolutely necessary.” Now, I used to serve on the board of the Burlingon, Ct Historical Society — one of the goals of the group is to preserve the Elton-Brown Tavern in the center of town. One member stubbornly insists that the name should be restored to just the Elton Tavern — this seems to me to ignore the history of the town’s inhabitants. Also, the tavern was in private hands for many years, only being bought and restored in the 1970s. I think it would have been really cool to preserve some of that history — I wonder if the kitchen had any of those funky avocado appliances from the 1970s, or orange shag carpeting?!

The book group discussion guide on Brooks’ website asks a question about Hanna’s mother Sarah, a neurosurgeon who left Hanna in the care of nanny’s so she could pursue her career. I’d agree with the guide that gains in women’s rights owe something to gusty women like Sarah, but it’s too bad Brooks felt it necessary to portray her as such a bitch (yes, I know female surgeons of her generation had to be bitches to survive). Also, it seems to me that Sarah’s story is an individual struggle, not one for women as a class, although she does show respect for nurses (unlike some other female surgeons my Mom, a retired OR nurse supervisor, has told me about). My intro to WGSS class just finished reading “Mommy Wars” — I’ll say more about this later, but my main problem with that book is that with the exception of Jane Smiley’s essay, the book portrays each women’s story as an individual balancing act rather than examining the structural problems that place women in this dilemma to begin with.