31 Jul 2012

Women in a Time of Change

A while back I read "The Best of Everything" by Rona Jaffe and my review was pretty raving: I loved it! So when I heard that others who like "The Best of Everything", also liked Mary McCarthy's "The Group", there was no way around it. I had to have it. Last week, when my boyfriend and I went on vacation, I started reading "The Group" on the train to Gatwick airport and pretty much from the first page, I was hooked. 

"The Group" is a eight young women, all graduates of Vassar, who become close friends during their college years. The novel follows them as they leave their college days behind to pursue love, careers and plans for the future. As characters, they are very different and the focus of the novel shifts from one girl to the next so that we get to understand their individual stories one at a time while glimpsing the all of them in each others stories. It is a genius way to to tell the story of this group of girls and it kept me reading furiously, as I tried to understand how their lives interwove and how their actions impacted each other. 

What becomes very clear from the stories of these girls is, that they are living in time of change. World War I, the depression, the changing roles of women, of marriage, of sex. These are a generation of women who have to find their own way in life because the world has changed tremendously since their mothers were young. They are all keen to make a difference, to do something meaningful with their lives in a world where nothing is as it once was. As a historical novel, it works beautifully. 

For me, however, the history aspects were an advantage but not the main advantage. I found that one of the best things about "The Group" is that there are no clear goodies or baddies emerging from the stories, each of us readers will root for a different girl and who we root for might change. Personally, I found the bohemian "women who loves too much" Kay slightly exasperating and Priss made me want to shake some sense into her. However, I suspect that many others will see Kay as a hero because of her fierce pursuit of her ambition to "do good" in New York. 

My favourites changed a bit as I read but at the end of the book, I was found that three girls had made most impression on made and had come closest to my heart: 

Dottie for her robbed innocence and her steely character as she realizes that sometimes the happy ending will look different to what we imagined. 

Polly for her maturity and her insistence that what counts is that she is happy - not other peoples perception of her or her circumstances in life. 

And last but not least the beautiful and fascinating Lakey who is understood to live a charmed existence in glamorous Europe but who turns out to be the girl who may have most to fight for. 

Read it if: You like "The Best of Everything" by Rona Jaffe, "Valley of the Dolls" by Jacqueline Susann. You wouldn't mind going back in time and visiting 1930s New York. 

18 Jul 2012

Packing Up the Books

The time has come - there are only a few days left until I go on holiday and I have now officially started packing. Most girls would probably start with their dresses and bikinis but I have to admit that I start differently. With my books. The rights books can make a vacation just that much better. Lazing on the beach or in a flowery garden with a fantastic book is one of the best things ever! Pure bliss!

So here is what I will be bringing with me as summer reading: 

The Group by Mary McCarthy
From amazon.com: Mary McCarthy’s most celebrated novel follows the lives of eight Vassar graduates, known simply to their classmates as “the group.” An eclectic mix of personalities and upbringings, they meet a week after graduation to watch Kay Strong get married. After the ceremony, the women begin their adult lives—traveling to Europe, tackling the worlds of nursing and publishing, and finding love and heartbreak in the streets of New York City. 

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
From amazon.com: In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge schoolmate—a handsome, aristocratic young poet named Cecil Valance—to his family’s modest home outside London for the weekend. George is enthralled by Cecil, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by him and the stories he tells about Corley Court, the country estate he is heir to. But what Cecil writes in Daphne’s autograph album will change their and their families’ lives forever: a poem that, after Cecil is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will become a touchstone for a generation, a work recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried—until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
From play.com: Compulsive daydreamer Isadora Wing doesn't want much - just to be free and to find the perfect, guiltless, zipless sexual encounter. Pursuing this ideal across two continents, she discovers just how hard it can be to make one's dreams come true. Though Isadora fears flying (in all possible senses), she forces herself to keep travelling, risking her marriage and even her life for her own special brand of liberation. This intensely witty and exuberant novel is about how she achieves her freedom and loses her fear.

The Leopard by Guiseppe di Lampedusa
From amazon.com: Set in the 1860s, The Leopard tells the spellbinding story of a decadent, dying Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution. The dramatic sweep and richness of observation, the seamless intertwining of public and private worlds, and the grasp of human frailty imbue The Leopard with its particular melancholy beauty and power, and place it among the greatest historical novels of our time.

16 Jul 2012

Review: "What the Nanny Saw" by Fiona Neill

Interesting genre, the nanny literature. A close sister of the governess literature and sometimes a twin of the chick lit. As confessed in an earlier post, I have a thing for books about nannies. Not sure why but it is a topic that interests me so when I saw that Fiona Neill, who has previously made me laugh out loud when I read her book "The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy", had written a book about a nanny, I had to read it. 

Ali Sparrow is an English Lit student who is barely making end meets so when she sees an advertisement seeking a nanny for a busy, professional London family, she takes a year off to improve her financial situation. She's quite ambiguous about the whole thing but the money is too much of a temptation so suddenly she finds herself abandoning her life as a poor student to move in at one of the most expensive, posh addresses in London. It is a different world. Bryony and Nick has everything that money can buy except from time for their kids so Ali has to learn how to deal with four kids, a housekeeper and the other nannies in the neighbourhood. Yes, that is about as difficult as it sounds. 

How would you deal with young twins speaking in their own, private, invented language? Or a teenage girl with bulimia and goth tendencies? Or a teenage boy who sticks to himself and is very difficult to "nanny"? 
Not easy right? And we haven't even gotten to the adults yet... The controlling grandparents, the picture perfect wife and the banker husband. It takes all her social skills to navigate that cast of more or less eccentric characters is great fun! 

It's a light read, created for entertainment and sure to make you laugh. As a comedy it works wonderfully. However, it is also an attempt at a commentary on the financial crisis, on greed, on bankers who earn vast sums of money and spend it on champagne but it doesn't work well as a reprimand. Neill should have stuck to what she does best: commentary on the haves and the haves-more-than-you-ever-imagined. Her observations about the ways of the astronomically rich upper class Londoners is hilarious, she does that better than anyone else. 

Read it if: You subscribe to The Times mainly to read the "Slummy Mummy" column. You don't mind stereotypes as long as they're funny. 

14 Jul 2012

The Two Sides of Italy

As I've mentioned before (but will mention again because I'm literally counting down the days), I will very soon be off for a week or so in Italy. London seems to have forgotten what summer is about and instead of sun, we've had rain, rain, rain, rain. So lazy days of sunshine and pasta sounds heavenly to me and I can't wait to go. I've been preparing by reading non-fiction books about Italy and today I'll share my opinions of two of these with you - they each give an honest account of life in Italy but oh what different lives they tell of. 
"Extra Virgin" by Annie Hawes
This is the most wonderfully life-affirming story of two young British women, who are fed up by the London weather and price levels (oh do I know that feeling!) and flee to Italy for a summer of rose-pruning. In the small, traditional village of Diano San Pietro, Annie falls in love head over heels in a small hovel of a house that she and her sister buys on a whim. In the following years, they live part-time in the Ligurian mountains (to enjoy life) and part-time in London (to make money enough to enjoy life) and "Extra Virgin" is the story of how two very British women who know nothing about olives (the horror!!) learn to adapt to the Italian way of life where every piece of string or wood can be fashioned into furniture and where food is something that you forage for in the mountains and turn into feasts. 
The worst thing about this book is that it left me perpetually hungry for proper Italian food. Go away Pizza Express, I want a proper meal of antipasti, primo, secondo and homemade wine. 
It is a fantastic non-fiction book because Annie conjures up the characters with such vividness that they leap off the pages. It is a book about people and about the Italian spirit and it is absolutely gorgeous. This is la dolce vita sprinkled with village feuds and a dash of fresh olive oil. 
"Gomorrah" by Roberto Saviano
Have you been to Napoli? We went there a few years ago on a daytrip and I wasn't impressed. Everything was dirty and people were less than welcoming. It was a different Italy to the one I knew - which is mainly Liguria, Umbria, Piemonte, Tuscany and Rome. This was crime capital in a way that I hadn't imagined. At all. 
So when I started reading "Gomorrah", I had a clear picture of Napoli in my mind but it was nowhere near as horrible as the picture painted in this book. It's divided into sections focusing on the different types of crime happening in Napoli and spreading not only across Italy but across Europe and the world, like rings in water. There is the smuggling from China, the workers in small, factories in Napoli sewing designer clothes that end up as far away as the Academy Awards red carpet in Hollywood. There is the drug cartels, supplying Italy with cheap heroin and testing the drugs on volunteers who'll do anything for a free fix, even die. The toxic waste dumping and the mountains of landfill waste. And then there's the violence. Everyone in Napoli might not be involved with mafia-like gangs but everyone is a potential victim in their wars. 
It is not a happy read, it won't make you feel good. It will probably make you feel worried, even scared. But it is an important book because it deals with a topic that no one wants to touch out of fear for repercussions. When I closed it, having read the last page, I admired Saviano that he had the courage to write this book and hope that it will inspire others to do the same. 

3 Jul 2012

Review: "Cassandra at the Wedding" by Dorothy Baker

Take one motherless, disillusioned, obsessive, neurotic grad student battling to finish her thesis and trying to come to term with her twin sister's wedding. Add a swimmingpool, a stiff drink, a wedding dress disaster and a whole lot of unspoken tension. Recipe for disaster? So I should think.

Cassandra is going home to her childhood home to celebrate the wedding of her twin sister Judith to a young doctor. It is a joyous occasion for everyone - apart from Cassandra. For her it is a horror story. She and Judith used to do everything together but when Judith met her fiancee what was supposed to be the future was suddenly the past. The possibility that one of them might end up getting married and setting up home with someone else has never crossed Cassandra's mind and when the reader meets her, she is in a state of shock. As the book progresses, Cassandra seems to get more and more erratic and angry, her actions becoming increasingly selfish and destructive at the same time.

"Cassandra at the Wedding" by Dorothy Baker is a classic. It is at the same time funny, heartbreaking, sad, tender and beautiful. Cassandra's difficulty coping with her sister's marriage becomes more and more encompassing until it obliterates her sense of perspective completely. What is so impressive is that even though Cassandra behaves like a selfish, spoiled brat towards her family, her sister, her sister's fiancee, it is impossible not to like her and not to empathize with her.
Dorothy Baker has given her such a strong voice that the reader will not fail to see the story from Cassandra's angle. Even when she is horrible, I still felt for her and that is the strength of this book.

The story itself and Cassandra herself is actually pretty sad. She is so miserable, so unable to find her place in life, yet it is told with a certain cheerfulness. The juxtaposition enhances the misery yet highlights that for everyone around Cassandra, for her immediate family, this is a time for celebration, while for her it is more like a funeral than a wedding and her mourning are a pair of glasses that colours how she sees all the events around her.

At the same time, Cassandra and Judith can be seen as representing a very exciting historical period in American history. Judith follows a traditional pattern, getting married, laying her ambitions aside to devote herself to her husband and let their life be dictated by his career. Cassandra is the modern woman who finds this incredibly difficult to accept and who instead follows her ambitions and her heart. She has no interest in men and actually behaves quite masculine herself at times but she feels out of place and cannot find her way.

Read it if: You like to be challenged by a clever story with realistic and not necessarily likeable characters. If you like a 1960s vibe and reflections on the changing roles of women.