Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On Reading Sequels

If you turned to this post, thinking you were going to hear my take on the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, I must disappoint. First of all, I tend not to jump on an already crowded bandwagon.  (I might have missed Harry Potter if I hadn't heard about them early.  Whew!  That would have been a genuine loss.) Second, I keep hearing how poorly written they are.  Since I even make grammar and punctuation corrections to church bulletins, I know I can't make it through a trilogy that's deemed sub-par.

Even more to the point, I have too many well-written books queued up in my list of must-reads.  I've been waiting for Hilary Mantel's follow-up to Wolf Hall since--well, since I read Wolf Hall and knew there had to be a sequel.  (Clue: Wolf Hall was the home of Jane Seymour's family, not Catherine;s or Anne's).  In truth, even though the main character is Thomas Cromwell, not Henry VIII himself, the king actually paves the way for five sequels, covering all his wives (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.)

I love a good sprawling historical novel, and as I am revising my Brit Lit syllabus for the coming semester, I am more than thrilled to dig into the lives of this particular royal family in this era.

Once again the protagonist of the novel is Thomas Cromwell, who rose from poverty and an abusive childhood to the king's inner circle, wielding more power than the higher born in Henry's inner circle. While in the first book, he was working through the complications allowing the king to annul his first marriage (with or without the blessings of Rome) in order the allow him to marry Anne Boleyn--and possibly father a male heir--he finds himself in this book with a new challenge as the king loses his enchantment with Anne Boleyn in favor of one of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.

To accomplish this end, Anne can't merely be sent away.  As any student of British history (or any tourist to the Tower of London) knows, heads rolled.  I was not aware, though, the lengths to which the king's supporters went to prove in court the queen's (or former queen's) treachery (which would have been considered mere adultery had she not been married to the king).

In this book, Mantel managed to smooth over some pronoun reference problems from the first book (when I often had to remind myself that the "he" to whom she referred was probably Thomas Cromwell.  I still had to wrestle with the characters who had multiple names or titles, but I had an easier go of it this time around.  (Since there were fewer Thomases still living by the second novel--Thomas More and others having been dispatched), the duplication of names was less of a problem too.

The question that remained unanswered for me, though, was how Jane Seymour could have gone so readily into a marriage--even to a king--in light of the fate of her two predecessors. I guess readers will either have to wait until Mantel completes that story or dig into the history books.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Book Is Better. . .

I was so glad I hadn't seen the movie I Don't Know How She Does It before I started this book.  I had read Pearson's novel I Think I Love You and found it not as at all as superficial as I was expecting. (for a book about a girl with a crush on David Cassidy!)  Since I didn't have the Hollywood actors in my head, I was able to populate the story with characters of my own, instead of Sarah Jessica Parker--who I am sure did a wonderful job in the movie but who doesn't seem anything like the woman in the book.

For anyone who hasn't seen the movie either, the story--as you might infer from the title--is about Kate Reddy, a working mother trying (unsuccessfully) to balance her high-powered career and her marriage and motherhood roles (with a six-year-old and a baby not quite one as the novel opens.)

The title refers to the grating comment--often a biting insult veiled as a compliment that comes off as anything but--"I don't know how you do it."  Katie has broken through the glass curtain at a London investment firm, but has to cover when she needs to leave early (or at a reasonable time) to attend her six-year-old daughter's Christmas pageant.  She depends on her nanny and often slights her husband, who is often left to manage her honey-do list.

She also toys with a flirtation with an American client Jack Abelhammer after she accidentally sends him an email intended for a female friend.  Kate becomes mentor to the a young Asian female Momo when the two are selected to represent the company's "commitment to diversity" and the two join forces with her other woman friends to bring down one of the most egregious and pompous chauvinists in the firm.

Pearson has created a lovable, self-effacing character who can rely on her female friends and still recognize the value of her own husband.  And no, the message of the novel is not that woman (or anyone) can "have it all"--not without a price.  Maybe in the movies, though, things turn out differently. 


Saturday, August 11, 2012

Case Studies from the Great Migration

I don't think I ever heard the term "Great Migration" in any of the American History courses I took during high school or college, but I have since taught August Wilson's Fences many times, though, in freshman lit, which the playwright opens with a brief expository  section about this group of Americans and how they fared in comparison to European immigrants coming into the same areas of the United States.  In her nonfiction account The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson, whose mother was part of this "movement," traces the lives of three individuals who left the South over a three-decade

span, moving to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. 

The book is difficult to read, not because of the writer's style but the subject matter.  After reading it, though, I don't think I can ever teach Fences or A Raisin in the Sun or a number of other works without drawing from what Wilkerson reveals.  The treatment of blacks in the post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction South demands attention not only from a historical perspective but as it sheds light on much of the continued disparity between the races in the U.S.  The stories that unfold often contrast facts with the misrepresentation in accounts concerning segregation, housing, crime, and many other facets of the lives of those who left the only home they had known, out of desperation or despair.

I was particularly surprised to find how difficult they found the actual process of leaving, since employers often guarded train stations and blocked their exits.  Many left in secrecy, slipping out of town and going to distant train stations, left they be arrested under false charges to prevent their leaving.  The vast numbers choosing to head north or, in some cases, west had a huge impact on agriculture in the South, taking away much-needed but poorly paid and poorly treated workers.

Rather than presenting an economic or sociological survey, however, Wilkerson focuses on individuals. Readers come to know and care about her three protagonists, one woman and two men, through the story of their lives from childhood until old age and death.

Wilkerson occasionally inserts details from her mother's story, and she herself remains a presence--though never an intrusive one--in and out of her narrative as she interacts with the characters as she researches their lives.

The Warmth of Other Suns provides no answers, easy or otherwise, but it opens up the possibility of dialogue and helps readers to understand the tangles and complexity of racial issues that continue in this country.  Her contribution, though only a portrait of three individuals adds much to a conversation that needs to take place.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Summer Reading Catch-up

I rarely go as long as I have this summer without posting about my reading. I don't even have a good alibi.  If you were worried that I hadn't been reading, though, you can relax. As usual, I've enjoyed a blend of traditional books, electronic books, and audio to feed my reading habit.  For the next few days (as the school year is fast approaching), I'll post a review or two every day.  I can't wait to hear about your reading list too--the ones you meant to read and the ones you actually got around to reading.  My two lists never match.

I'm starting with the last book I finished first, a recommendation from my sister Amy, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Keep in mind that when you go shopping for the book, you need to remember the author's name; otherwise, you might end up with a botanical handbook instead.  (Just as one of Amy's book club friends, when the group read Rules of Civility, bought George Washington's manual, rather than the novel taking its name from the same, and wondered why anyone made that choice).

I had hardly started reading the novel when I started thinking of the specific people I wanted to tell to read this book.  The book opens on what is the legal eighteenth birthday of Victoria, as her social worker comes to take her away from the group home where she has been living after a number of foster homes and failed adoptions.  Given a place to live for six weeks while looking for a job and a place to live, she instead uses the time transplanting plants, especially flowers, from all over San Francisco to the park where she will hide out and sleep once her time runs out. 

The sections of the novel told as flashback reveal the source of her obsession with "the language of flowers" and of her mistrust of others and her own self-loathing, her life with Elizabeth, a single woman who owns a family vineyard and who plans to adopt Victoria.  Diffenbaugh moves between the past and the present seamlessly, drawing the two parts of Victoria's life together when she meets a gentle flower vendor who shares her private language of flowers. Grant proves patient enough to allow Victoria to overcome her personal barriers to relationships.

Among the secondary characters Diffenbaugh creates to people her stories is Renata, the florist who sees through an inexperienced homeless girl and gives her a chance to use her gift, as well as Renata's family, who walk right past Victoria's protective wall and care about her.

I frequently do little more than skim the afterword and other material following the end of a novel, but (after midnight) I read through the alphabetized list of flower and their meanings in the appendix, and noticed the mention of the Camellia Network, "a nonprofit organization [established by Diffenbaugh] dedicated to helping youth make a successful transition from foster care to adulthood."  For personal reasons, this is a cause touching my heart. Before I start the next book on my list (or my syllabi for the new semester), I plan to learn more about this particular cause.