Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer

2008. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Hardcover. 195 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Pearlie and her husband Holland live in the Sunset District of San Francisco with their young son.  It’s the early 1950’s, and Pearlie and Holland still have baggage from the war and from the choices they each made during the war.  When a man from Holland’s past named Buzz Drumer shows up at their doorstep, Pearlie will soon have to reexamine all that she thought she knew about her husband.

Review:

Domestic dramas about married couples do not generally stoke my interest, but my quest for San Francisco books available on my library’s bookshelves led me to give The Story of a Marriage a try.  With its 1950’s setting, the book reminded me slightly of the good film Far From Heaven with Julianne Moore.

The Story of a Marriage is told from Pearlie’s point of view in first-person – an older Pearlie, looking back on six months of her life in 1953.  She’s a tricky narrator, concealing much from the reader at the beginning and then playing out the whole truth in bits.  One revelation had me turning back pages to see the hints that I had missed, and to re-read passages that now had a new meaning to them.

With the excerpt below, I hope to capture how the writing drops hints about further layers to be revealed:

It never occurred to me that I could leave as well, not until a government man walked up to our house and asked for me by name. I tromped down in my faded sundress to find a very ruddy and clean-shaven man wearing a lapel pin of the Statue of Liberty in gold; I coveted it terribly. His name was Mr. Pinker.  He was the kind of man you were supposed to obey. He talked to me about jobs in California, how industries wanted strong women like me. His words – they were rips in a curtain, revealing a vista to a world I had never imagined before: airplanes, California; it was like agreeing to travel to another planet. After I thanked the man, he said, “Well then, as thanks you can do a favor for me.” To my young mind, it seemed like nothing special at all.

“Now that sounds like the first bright idea you ever had,” my father said when I mentioned leaving. I can’t find any memory in which he held my gaze as long as he did that day. I packed my bags and never saw Kentucky again.

p. 5

I liked Greer’s writing overall, such as the way that he worked in historical details such as Pearlie’s wartime job, lesser known aspects of World War II, and the Korean War, which is just lesser known, period.  I also liked the descriptions of places: Pearlie’s home, a dance floor called the Rose Bowl, Buzz’s factory.  I was surprised by how much I liked Greer’s depiction of Sonny, Pearlie and Holland’s little polio-stricken son.  Pearlie’s relationship with Sonny is not the main focus of the book, but their interactions comprise some of my favorite scenes.  A visit to the candy store comes to mind, and also just a totally-kid moment from Sonny when he complains at dinner that the pea on his plate is looking at him.

The parts of the novel that I often did not care for where Pearlie’s musings on marriage, the era and the ‘larger picture’ in general.  The first page was like this – and here’s an excerpt:

We think we know them. We think we love them. But what we love turns out to be a poor translation, a translation we ourselves have made, from a language we barely know.  We try to get past it to the original, but we never can. We have seen it all. But what have we really understood?

Passages like that seem to be reaching for profundity, but sometimes sounded more like expanded versions of movie taglines.  I did like some of the musings, but I thought The Story of a Marriage was better when it stuck to the story and to concrete details and images.

I’m glad I read this novel.  I thought the revelation of some of the secrets was masterfully done.  I liked Pearlie as the main character most of the time, though I was disappointed by the last action she takes in the book, as I was greatly interested to see what would happen if she had chosen to do the opposite.  I’m doubtful that the novel will stick much in my head after time has passed, but I might be wrong.

Interesting fact: I heard in an audio interview of Greer that the book was inspired by something that actually happened to his grandmother, a story which she told the rest of the family late in her life.

Other reviews: (ooh, this was a very divisive book in the blogosphere)

Asylum – “The whole book feels like an exercise in overturning the reader’s expectations, and at times I could almost hear the pop of the cap of Greer’s pen as he sat back with a satisfied sigh at his own cleverness. Dammit, he is clever, but it sits uncomfortably with Pearlie’s heartfelt narrative and confused innocence.”

dovegreyreader – “… as I turned the final page I had one of those ‘this will be a memorable book’ moments. One of those books you know you will still recall with clarity and emotional accuracy years down the line.”

Eve’s Alexandria – “So that, yes, it is beautiful and tender; at the same time, it is also a litany of tired morals and gender cliches.  It has a terrible beginning – a disgracefully superficial first line: ‘We think we know the ones we love.’ – and a sweet, almost irresistible ending, with lots more of the terrible and irresistible in between.”

Linus’ Blanket – “The carefully exposed journey to the end result was a fraught and complicated stew of themes exploring guilt, responsibility, male authority and privilege and a few surprises that it would spoil the book to name.  It was also beautifully written and gorgeous in both language and imagery.”

For more praise and hate, here’s my plug for Fyrefly’s Book Blogs Search Engine, which is where I always start to find book reviews.

8 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

For photo credit, please click on the picture.

2008. Penguin Books. Paperback. 244 pages.

From: I bought this at a Borders (that is still in business!)

Recommendation from: Fizzy Thoughts

In a nutshell:

Pollan writes in the beginning of In Defense of Food: “I started on this quest to identify a few simple rules about eating after publishing The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006. Questions of personal health did not take center stage in that book, which was more concerned with the ecological and ethical dimensions of our eating choices.”

Pollan spends the first part of the book describing The Age of Nutritionism.  He argues that when food scientists reduced food’s value to the nutrients they contain, they started a new era.  In this era, the definition of “healthy eating” is ever-changing: a nutrient will be lauded one year only to be condemned the next.  The second part of the book focuses on the rise of the Western diet and the havoc it has wreaked on those who eat it.  And finally, the last section elucidates the eating manifesto which adorns the book’s cover: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”

Review:

This is the first book I’ve read by Michael Pollan, but certainly not the first time I’ve been exposed to his ideas.  A number of years ago, I was visiting my friend Jocelyn in her apartment in Baltimore.  On her kitchen wall, she had affixed a clipping of a news article about Pollan and one of his books (possibly The Omnivore’s Dilemma).  I asked about the clipping and Jocelyn explained to me Pollan’s ideas as she knew them.  Since then, I have run into Pollan’s ideas from reviews of his books, or radio interviews, or from word of mouth.

So when I finally did read this book, In Defense of Food, I found myself running into ideas that were already familiar from these Pollan snippets.  Additionally, I’ve read a good chunk of Jane Goodall’s Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating, which I found a little austere, but thought-provoking.  Her book has some similar recommendations to Pollan’s.

While the eating recommendations tread some ground familiar to me, Pollan’s discussion of ‘nutritionism’ was new to me.  Certainly, I have long been skeptical of new health findings, as each new health claim is quickly supplanted by a newer one in quick succession.  Still when Pollan illuminates the dubiousness of certain accepted principles of eating, I was surprised by how many of them I had assimilated anyway.

One criticism of this book that I have is that Pollan challenges the validity of most food studies, but then uses other scientific studies to support his point, sometimes without telling the reader why we should trust them when he’s cast doubt on others. For instance, he uses a study run by the Organic Center for examples on how current food quality is compromised, but doesn’t address the fact that an institute “established by the organic food industry” might have an agenda too (p. 119).

In the end, what I really liked about In Defense of Food is all the take-away points.  Though I have been gradually altering my eating habits for some time, this is a book that encouraged me to take some further action.  I think a lot more now about how food interacts with each other, and not just consider each item on its own.  In response to a specific recommendation in the book, I’ve started adding a half-glass of red wine to some of my dinners (one of the more pleasurable take-away points to be sure.)

I’m also buying the grocery store’s bakery bread, instead of the packaged kind.  The bread I used to buy had been both appealing and suspect for its ability to last a long time.  Also, I really liked Pollan’s recommendation that, if possible, we should be willing to pay more for good food, and not just settle for cheap options that degrade our health. I’m lucky to have a decent job and to live in an area with a plethora of food options.  (Unlike in some urban and rural areas of the United States where finding healthy food options is actually quite difficult and can be labeled “food deserts.”)

The take-away point that I would ideally like to enact, but might not be in the cards: “Try not to eat alone.”  I often have the option of eating with my co-workers at lunchtime, but at dinner I’m frequently on my own and I usually take it to my computer desk, so I can multi-task.  The picture I chose for this review reflects the kind of meal experience I’d like to have more often – eating a home-cooked meal with friends.

Other reviews:

The Book Nest – “I really like Pollan’s writing style – for non-fiction, it’s completely accessible and wow is he persuasive. I finished reading this book and wanted to chuck out every processed food in my house.”

Shelf Love – “On the whole, In Defense of Food feels like a puffed-up appendix to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Much of the new information here is worthwhile, but there’s not enough to warrant a whole new book.”

So Many Books – “Pollan also writes with his usual easy-going style that does not put down the reader. In fact, I always feel like he includes himself as among the people who had no idea.”

4 Comments

Filed under Non-Fiction

Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

1931. Academy Chicago Publishers. Paperback. 388 pages.

From: picked up for free at The Book Thing

Recommendation from: Savidge Reads

In a nutshell:

The fictional Diary of a Provincial Lady is as labeled: a diary of a married woman who lives in the country.  She herself is unnamed, but her husband’s name is Robert and her children are Robin and Vicky.  The diarist chronicles – in hilarious fashion – the little victories and failures that make up her days, whether it is dealing with the snobbish Lady B., managing servants, or going on a trip to France. The diary covers a period of one year.

Review:

Although written in 1931, The Diary of a Provincial Lady seemed very fresh and accessible to me.  While my life does not resemble the narrator of Delafield’s novel, there was still much that was recognizable to me, as a 21st century reader.  For example, here is an excerpt that I identified with:

Arrive at station too early – as usual – and I fill in time by asking Robert if he will telegraph if anything happens to the children, as I could be back again in twenty-four hours. He only enquires in return whether I have my passport? Am perfectly aware that passport is in my small purple dressing-case, where I put it a week ago, and have looked at it two or three times a day ever since – last time just before leaving my room forty-five minutes ago. Am nevertheless mysteriously impelled to open hand-bag, take out key, unlock small purple dressing-case, and verify presence of passport all over again.

p. 275

I totally do that sort of thing before heading off on a trip!

I love Delafield’s style of humor.  I wouldn’t call it subtle exactly and definitely not difficult to understand, but she does approach it kind of sideways, slyly, with a formal vocabulary, so that the humor has a very slight delay to it.  And then your brain is like “oh! yes, I get it!” and you laugh or smile, depending on the level of the funniness.  It kind of prolongs the humor in a way.  The wit is in the writing, for sure, and not so much what is actually happening, as what is happening could be described in a completely different tone and been an entirely different kind of book.

As I was reading, I wondered if Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary drew on Diary of a Provincial Lady for inspiration.  Although Bridget’s diary focuses on the life of the single woman and Delafield’s book focuses on a married woman, the narrators share some similarities: they are very open about their flaws, their egos, fantasies and inept attempts at various improvement projects.

By the way, my copy is 388 pages but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a long book.  The print is rather large in this edition and the reading just feels like it trips along at a good clip.

Others’ reviews:

My Porch – “Although I enjoyed reading this very much, there was a huge part of my middle-class, American, OCD brain that kept wanting to “fix” what was wrong in the lady’s life.”

Savidge Reads – “If like me you enjoy crazy characters, wry observational humour and village life then I doubt very much you could resist its charms.”

things mean a lot – “But as fabulous as the humour is, even better was the fact that behind it I could sense the workings of an acute mind, and of a sensibility that, historical context aside, I didn’t find too distant from my own.”

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

1920. Berkley Books. Paperback.198 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell: This is the first book in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot detective mystery series.  The book is narrated by a Mr. Hastings, sent home from the Front on sick leave.  Hastings is invited by an old friend, John Cavendish, to finish his leave at his family estate.  The estate actually is owned by Cavendish’s recently remarried stepmother, Mrs. Inglethorp.  It is she who is the murder victim in the mystery, with any number of suspects, as everyone seems to have at least one secret.

Review:

This is the first Agatha Christie novel I have ever read, and I must thank my cousin Phil for getting me to read it.  Phil has started a Book Group on Facebook, and every couple of months he and I, and assorted other relatives all read the same book.

As far as mysteries are concerned, in recent years I’ve been most drawn to the police procedural type thriller, as opposed to old-fashioned detective mysteries.  I don’t read a lot of mysteries on the whole though.  I had never really had a desire to read Agatha Christie, under the (mistaken) assumption that I have been spoiled by her legacy.  That is, I expected that more recent mysteries in print, film and TV, have employed every trick that Christie was using fresh in her own time.  And so I suspected her mysteries would not seem fresh to me, because I would have seen it all before in derivative form.

Well, I’m pleased to say I was wrong.  Christie makes sure to make almost every character in the book look a little suspicious.  I was pretty sure that this book was not the one where Christie made the narrator the murderer (I think that one is a standalone and I’m glad I don’t remember its title.)  As my suspicions roved around the cast of characters, I was on the right path at one point.  But then, even a broken clock is right two times in a day.

I liked that the everyman Hastings was the narrator.  He is blind to his own faults as most people are, which makes it kind of funny to observe his easily hurt pride and blunders.  But he’s overall a likable chap.  And he is a great perspective from which to watch Poirot work.  Brilliant detectives can be fun to read about, but I think it would be hard to make them good first-person narrators.  I like having a little distance in the perspective.

I think I’ll probably read more Christie mysteries in the future.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles was a quick, pleasant read, good for interspersing among longer, heavier books.

And with that, I’ll leave with a funny statement of one of the characters:

Poor Emily was never murdered until he came along.

Other reviews:

BooksPlease – “I do enjoy those detective stories where you’re given the clues that have been dropped into the narrative throughout the book in a seemingly haphazard way and then are reorganised  at the end as Poirot does in this one to explain how and why the murder was committed.”

FleurFisher – “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” has flaws. Arthur Hastings is too much like John Watson – something that will be corrected in later books – and there are afew two many points that Poirot correctly deduces from no real evidence . . . But there is much more to love.”

Letters from a Hill Farm – “Not only is The Mysterious Affair at Styles the first Hercule Poirot story, but it is her first published novel, period. What a way to start. The talent is right there just bursting at the seams to come out again and again and again throughout her long and prolific writing life.”

8 Comments

Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers