J. Courtney Sullivan: Commencement (2009)

A sparkling debut novel: a tender story of friendship, a witty take on liberal arts colleges, and a fascinating portrait of the first generation of women who have all the opportunities in the world, but no clear idea about what to choose.

Assigned to the same dorm their first year at Smith College, Celia, Bree, Sally, and April couldn’t have less in common. Celia, a lapsed Catholic, arrives with her grandmother’s rosary beads in hand and a bottle of vodka in her suitcase; beautiful Bree pines for the fiancé she left behind in Savannah; Sally, pristinely dressed in Lilly Pulitzer, is reeling from the loss of her mother; and April, a radical, redheaded feminist wearing a “Riot: Don’t Diet” T-shirt, wants a room transfer immediately.

Celia, Bree, Sally and April are best friends even though they couldn’t be more different. During their time at Smith’s College they are inseparable. They help each other through minor and bigger disasters. Four years after graduating they meet again at Sally’s wedding. A stupid dispute drives them apart and they avoid each other for almost a year when April disappears.

Commencement is a novel of ideas. I don’t know why it has been called chick-lit. Because four young women are the protagonists? Quite unfair. It is as if this label proves the point the book wants to make. Even years after women’s lib began, we are still nowhere. A large part of Commencement is dedicated to topics like sex-trafficking, rape and child abuse. Despite the serious topics it tackles, it is an entertaining book with a lighthearted quality. But it is definitely a feminist novel in the vein of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room and not chick-lit. I needed some time to get into it as each chapter is told by someone else. We hear that person’s story and get to know the others through her eyes. That wouldn’t be confusing, but they sound similar and their names are similar. Sullivan let’s her characters explore all the possibilities women have today. Getting married, staying single, having kids, having no kids, become lesbians, have various sexual partners, be monogamous. She looks into the mechanics of family and friendship. One girl’s parents are still in love, another has lost her mother, the third grew up with a single hippie mom and the fourth has a career mom. Regarding their professional choices Sullivan goes a similar way. They all chose something quite different. Sullivan who is a feminist deliberately chose to show every possible combination/choice. This could have gone wrong but it is well done. From page to page I liked those girls more. I wouldn’t go as far as comparing it to Mary Mc Carthy’s The Group but it is very good.  Ronnie, April’s boss, a militant feminist and audacious filmmaker is a very interesting character. Her ideals are such that she is blinded by them and becomes a true fanatic. A selfish zealot who does not shy away from endangering others for the cause. Another interesting aspect is that even though one girl loves another girl, she never considers herself to be a lesbian. The depiction of a women’s college is probably very realistic as Sullivan went to Smith herself. The friendship of those girls is very touching. It’s cute how they cuddle up in bed together, watch movies or chat.

If you are looking for an interesting, thought-provoking but still entertaining read, go for it. Especially when you are a feminist, interested in women’s topics or just love stories about friendship among women.

I mentioned The Group and The Women’s Room before which I loved both. Which books about female friendships and developpment did you like?

The Young Victoria (2009) The Early Years of Queen Victoria. A Gorgeous Period Drama

This movie is a gift. It is gorgeous, sumptuous, enchanting and simply uplifting. Emily Blunt as the young Queen Victoria is such a good choice. She is really lovely. No one who enjoys this period, the style, those wonderful clothes should miss this movie. It makes you dream. I am enthusiastic about the colors they chose for her dresses, always very strong colors, purple, emerald-green, ruby-red, saffron yellow and sapphire blue. She wears them with matching headdresses and exquisite jewellery.

The Young Victoria follows the early years of the young queen. It starts shortly before she becomes Queen and shows how she had to fight for her right to become Queen despite her young age (she was only 18 years old). Her mother was her worst enemy at the time, although she herself was under the influence of another. She controlled and manipulated young Victoria to an unimaginable extent. Once Queen, Victoria freed herself. Lord Melbourne, her Prime Minister, helped her and assisted her in all her duties. She was a very spirited young woman and I enjoyed to see how capable she was to fight for herself. The love story between Victoria and her German cousin Albert is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. They are really a cute couple. It wasn’t a head over heels passion but a strong fondness from the beginning. After initial struggles they reigned together for twenty years. I had no idea about any of this, frankly. I did not know that they loved each other so much until his early death parted them. I did not know that she was the first sovereign to live in Buckingham Palace.

The Young Victoria is really a must-see for everyone who loves period drama, this particular era and the story of a strong woman and a true love.

Barbara Trapido: Sex & Stravinsky (2010)

This was my first book by Barbara Trapido but I think it will not be the last. It has flaws but I could generously overlook them as there is so much to enjoy in Sex & Stravinsky.

Sex & Stravinsky is told in alternating points of view something I usually  don’t like unless it is done as well as Barbara Trapido does it. What is really impressive is how different those voices sound. The story could be told in a few words as the book is really focussing more on the characters than on the plot.

The Australian Caroline meets Josh, a South African, in London. Josh is fascinated by opera, ballet and pantomime, dedicating his whole live to these topics. They have a daughter Zoe who would love to become a ballet dancer but since money is tight she has to make do with reading ballet books that are written by Hattie whom she doesn’t know.

Hattie is the secret love of Josh’s life. She still lives in South Africa with Hermann, the tall blond of Boer descent. They have a daughter Cat who is highly creative but hates her mother’s guts.

And there is Jack, Jacques or Giacomo, depending on the mood of the day, a young man of modest background who reinvents his own story as he moves from South Africa to Senegal, to Italy and back to South Africa.

There are a lot of coincidences in this book that seem unrealistic and still Barbara Trapido can get away with it as her characters are truly wonderful.

At the beginning of the novel, the couples are in their respective countries, at the end they all meet in South Africa, more or less by chance.

Caroline is by far the most appealing character and I could relate to her story. She was followed to London by her awful mother who exploits and abuses her whenever she can. Although Caroline is strong – she can renovate and redecorate a house like any man could, she is over six feet tall and a stunning blonde beauty, she transforms a bus into a little paradise, she knows how to cook delicious meals out of nothing, sews the most wonderful clothes out of old pieces -she cannot fight her own mother and her horrible sister. Unfortunately the description of her mother, the event of her cerebral hemorrhage including the story of the will and the unhappy discoveries linked to it felt all too familiar…

Each one of them does not live the life they had dreamt of but they will all get their chance in the end.

I really enjoyed this book. It exudes globalization and all the elements of living in a multicultural world. We hear as much about Stravinsky as about the masks of the Dogon. But, and this is my critique, it sort of flies over these cultural elements. It is a bit like standing at an enormous buffet with fingerfood from every corner of the world. A little taste of Moroccan cuisine, morsels of Northern Italian anti-pasti, a sandwich with a Caribbean spread.

Still, I liked it a lot: I loved the descriptions of the characters. Talented Caroline, Hattie the petite dancer, rebellious Cat, adopted Josh, Herman the boorish architect, little Zoe who discovers France on a school trip.

Zoe’s school trip to France is one of the best parts. Poor Zoe lands in a dysfunctional lower class family with unhealthy habits, a lot of shouting, awful driving in a smoke-filled car.

One theme that we find in the whole novel is legitimacy. There are three characters in this book who don’t know who their real parents are.

I believe Barbara Trapido just invented the genre of the  21st century multicultural fairytale.

One thing I would be interested in however, why did she choose this title? Has anyone an idea?

Mary Higgins Clark: Voices in the Coalbin (1989) A Ghost Story

This is not on my R.I.P. list but it suits just fine and I am in the mood to stray from the path. I felt like reading some Mary Higgins Clark after having visited The Book Whisperers’ Blog the other day. I remembered that I had a collection of her short stories (in German Träum süss, kleine Schwester). They  don’t exist in this combination in English but that does not matter as I think there are only two very goods ones in it and those are available as Audio Book. However That’s the Ticket does not classify for an entry in R.I.P. as it is neither fish nor fowl. No ghost story, no mystery, but it is OK.

Voices in the Coalbin is also in The Mammoth Book of 20th Century Ghost Stories (Danielle from A Work In Progress has reviewed some of them and will go on reviewing more for R.I.P.) as it is really an eery story, something  I did not expect from Mary Higgins Clark. It has all we like in her writing, great descriptions, detail, atmosphere. And it is spooky. It tells the story of a young couple, Mike and Laurie, who drive to a weekend house in the country that belonged to Mike’s grandmother. The trip is meant to help Laurie to recover from nightmares, depression and phobias. She has been seeing a psychiatrist who warned the husband to be very careful as she is fragile. She seems to be on the brink of remembering things that are linked to her own grandmother who mistreated and abused her emotionally as a child.  When they arrive at the holiday house  nothing is like he remembered it. It’s rather bleak and sad. When something happens that reminds Laurie of her childhood, she panics and then disappears. I am not revealing anything more. I already said it, it is not a mystery, it is really a ghost story and the end was creepy.

I loved to read it, cuddled up in bed, both cats close by and sipping a cup of tea. It is already quite cool over here, crows are sitting in the trees in front of the window and their cries sound already much more eery and lonelier than in summer…

E.T.A. Hoffmann: The Sandman aka Der Sandmann (1816)

The Sandman was the short story I read for this years R.I.P. challenge.

Much has been said about E.T.A.Hofmann’s The Sandman. Interpretations abound. Even Sigmund Freud used this story to illustrate some of his theories. Hoffmann was part of the so-called dark romanticism that explored the uncanny in all its forms. Be it as it may, for me this is and will always be one of the spookiest stories I have ever read. I remember that it haunted me quite  a bit when I read it for the first time years ago but I did not expect it to have the same effect after all these years. But it did.

It is a mysterious story, many interpretations are possible. Nathanael lives away from his beloved and his family in a student town when, one afternoon, he sees a person who reminds him of someone who visited their father when he was a child. These memories are very dark and scary. Whenever the old man, Coppelius, appeared the children had to go to bed as fast as they could. They were told that the Sandman was coming and that he was after their eyes. Nathanael being the most curious of the children sneaked into the study of his father one night and hid behind the curtains. Unfortunately he got caught and what followed shocked him so much that he came down with a fever that lasted for weeks. Shortly after this evening Coppelius came one last time during which they all of a sudden heard a big bang from the father’s study. Upon entering the family finds him dead, with a completely blackened face.

It is this very Coppelius that Nathanael believes to have seen. Once again he feels the same terror as in his childhood. I do not want to further spoil this story. It does get scarier and darker from then on. We never really know if these things happen or if Nathanael has gone mad. Is Coppelius the devil? Did he and Nathanael’s father do some alchemical experiments? There are a lot of mysterious elements the strangest of which is Nathanael’s falling in love with Olympia who doesn’t seem human.

Hoffmann has written quite a lot. Novels and short stories. Many are very famous and were influential. The Sandman is the most famous of his stories. In Jacques Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, one part is dedicated to The Sandman. There is also a movie based on the opera including many ballet scenes. I attached a video for those who like opera or ballet.

Hoffmann who was very talented at drawing illustrated some of his tales, as you can see above.

You can find a link to the story here, if you would like to read it.

Nora Murphy: Knitting the Threads of Time Casting Back to the Heart of our Craft (2009) A Memoir

You don’t need to be a knitter to enjoy this book. I am not. Still I liked this book for many reasons. It is a memoir in which Nora Murphy takes us on a personal journey on which she starts and finishes a difficult sweater for her son and explores the manifold meanings of knitting, yarn and clothes.  Now is the perfect time to read it as the memoir starts in October and ends three months after All Soul’s Day. Her style is very evocative.

A woman sits in her comfy chair. Two needles and a ball of yarn keep her company. She is knitting away at something. Maybe a scarf? Socks? She enjoys the sound of her needles beating like a soft drum. She inhales the smell of the waxy yarn. She exhales the satisfaction of watching a single strand transform into an object of beauty. She is perfectly present, in perfect bliss. (Epilogue, Darkness Falls p. 3)

And another teaser:

October is a bit like the last dance in Minnesota. We know it’s the first month of darkness, but we don’t want to acknowledge it. We’d prefer to keep our attention on the sunlight dancing off the red and orange and yellow and gold and brown mosaic in the trees overhead. But we know better – a long winter awaits us. (Leaves p. 13)

Nora introduces us to herself, her family and her friends and the people she meets on her journey. She opens up her house and her heart for us. We are allowed to catch a glimpse of her cozy little home and the life she lives with her two sons and Diego her friend and lover. Through her we meet a woman who owns a yarn shop, an owner of a sheep farm and all of her animals, and many other people. We get to know Minnesota through several seasons. And we learn a lot about yarn. Nora Murphy combines history and cultural anthrolpogy. I did not know, for example, that King George’s Wool Act of 1699 might have been responsible for the American Revolution. England felt its wool industry was threatened by the colonies and forbid to export sheep to America. But some animals had been smuggled in and where already quite numerous by 1665. At some time, anyone found guilty of trading in wool faced severe punishment. The cutting-off of hands is mentioned. However, unlike Ireland, America was too far away from England to be threatened for long and the way to independence could not be blocked forever.

Nora’s book is also a lesson in values. Cherish the moment. Learn from the past. Try something new. Remember the simple things. In a world that spins in confusion she tries to build stability and conveys this to those around her and her readers. I felt very comforted, enchanted and energized by this book.

Nora Murphy’s Homepage