3

A very pleasant read: Women in Sunlight

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

You know how sometimes you are just in need of a solid three star read? Something that doesn’t really need anything from you, it doesn’t stoke strong feelings either way, is just thoroughly pleasant?

That’s kind of what Frances Mayes’ Women in Sunlight was for me. Completely and totally pleasant.

women in sunlight

Kit Raine is an American writer living in a village in Tuscany. Her neighbour is renting out her house for the next year to a group of older American women – after the year, they will have the option to buy. Kit witnesses their arrival and becomes a part of their quest to upend expectations and figure out what the next chapter of their lives look like.

Julia, Camille and Susan meet as they all tour a retirement community, thinking it might be the next logical step. Camille and Susan are widowed, Julia has left her husband and a tragic situation. Instead of signing up for little homes in this community, Susan convinces the other two to follow her and move to Italy. And so these three women move to a small hillside Tuscan town and jumpstart the next phase of their lives: through food, art, gardening and learning to embrace an Italian way of living.

Nothing unpleasant happens in this book – everything bad or tragic has already happened before the story begins. In this way, the story doesn’t really have a huge impetus to move forward. It’s more a meandering through a year in Tuscany, living in a glorious villa, making friends with locals, eating all the greatest food and discovering the delights that Italy has to offer.

At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about this – shouldn’t something happen?

But then I realized, I actually really like these kinds of books, the ones that are just a collection of everyday happenings that together make a life. I really appreciated the representation of mature female friendships – these women don’t compete with each other or tear each other down. They are supportive of the others’ desires and need for space or time to work through what is going on. Each allows the others to live this life on their own terms, working together to create a paradise of their own making.

I mean, this is the dream no? Retire and move to Italy for a delicious and beautiful second act?

If you end up reading Women in Sunlight, for the love of all that is holy make sure that you have good food on hand. You will die if you have to read this book without food. The description of eating and drinking in this book will end you. So consider yourself warned on that score.

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4

Beach Bag Read: Other People’s Houses

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

We’re getting to the time of year where we all start dreaming about uninterrupted reading time in the sunshine, preferably near a body of water.

Which means that we need to start thinking about what titles are going to be included in said time.

I think I have a good one for you today: Abbi Waxman’s Other People’s Houses.

From Goodreads:

As the longtime local carpool mom, Frances Bloom is sometimes an unwilling witness to her neighbors’ private lives. She knows her cousin is hiding her desire for another baby from her spouse, Bill Horton’s wife is mysteriously missing, and now this…

After the shock of seeing Anne Porter in all her extramarital glory, Frances vows to stay in her own lane. But that’s a notion easier said than done when Anne’s husband throws her out a couple of days later. The repercussions of the affair reverberate through the four carpool families–and Frances finds herself navigating a moral minefield that could make or break a marriage.

other people

This is the kind of book that’s all about the things we don’t know about other people’s lives and relationships. Waxman has created a neighbourhood cast of characters that all have things going on that they don’t necessarily share with each other. Nothing bad or nefarious or life-destroying, just things that they aren’t totally comfortable bringing out into the light.

I liked how easy this was to read, how realistic it was about it’s portrayals of relationships without depressing the sh*t out of you. Other People’s Houses admits that life isn’t always what you think it will be but you will come out on the other side of whatever crap it throws at you.

I was charmed by Frances and her neighbourhood, how with all the residents’ foibles they still all pitched in and helped each other out when it was needed. I laughed out loud a few times at the situations that they all got into – not like Lucy and Ethel level shenanigans, more like Mad About You level misunderstandings.

This was a book I devoured in a couple of sittings and I think it would make for entertaining airplane reading, a great companion on a road trip or tucked into a beach bag for a glorious summer day of doing nothing.

My copy is about to be loaned out, potentially for some combination of all three.

9

DNF Chronicles: Two for the price of one

It is RARE for me to not finish books. It’s something that I have always struggled with and only in the last year or two have I made not finishing books a priority of sorts.

Listen, if you are someone that struggles with this, let it go. It is FREEING to stop reading something you’re not enjoying. Do you know how many books exist in the world? There are so many other books you could be reading right now instead of forcing yourself to slog through the one you’re not connected to, the one that you dread returning to.

Life is too short to read books you don’t love.

So what are the books that I didn’t finish recently?

Well, I was really excited about both of them!

the-wife-s-tale-7

The first was Aida Edemariam’s The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History. It’s the story of Edemariam’s grandmother, who lived alongside some incredible history in her native Ethiopia. I was looking forward to reading about the life of this woman who witnessed history happening while also living her life, married to a man twenty years older than her, the birth and death of her children.

This one lost me because of it’s writing style. It felt almost biblical and I don’t know if you’ve ever tried reading the bible for the stories, but it’s a slog. I couldn’t get into the story because I was trying too hard to figure out what was even happening. The narrative also seemed to keep changing from who was telling the story which added a new layer of confusion for this reader.

It didn’t take me long to get frustrated with this one and give it up – maybe 50 pages. And I’m bummed about it because I’ve not read anything about Ethiopia or its history and I was really looking forward to doing that via a woman’s perspective.

macbeth

The next one was Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth. Last year I posted about Hogarth Press’s project that had authors updating Shakespearean classics. I liked Tracy Chevalier’s take on Othello in The New Boy. I have been a fan of Nesbo’s for ages Macbeth felt like a good fit for him!

I tried really hard to like this one. Nearly 200 pages. In Nesbo’s Macbeth, it’s the 1970s in Fife and a couple of sex workers tell Macbeth, commander of the police’s SWAT team, that he will be the Commissioner but he needs to remove those who are in the way. So, influenced by his girlfriend, a casino and brothel owner called Lady, Macbeth seeks to fulfill the ‘prophecy.’

Part of what makes Shakespeare’s Macbeth so good is the mystical element which is weird and clumsy in the 1970s Scottish underworld. And Macbeth, a trained SWAT commander, reallllllly likes to use his knives as his murder weapons of choice which also just felt like a strange choice to me. I had a hard time with lack of women, which I guess is kind of down to the original but Lady was an old sex worker/brothel madam. I guess an effort was made to have her seem like Macbeth’s partner, but it fell flat for this reader.

Aside from Banquo and his son, everyone in this story is horrible. I don’t remember enough of the original to confidently say that that wasn’t the case there too but I feel like there was a desire to see Macbeth win and I didn’t feel that. It makes zero sense for the man hoping to become police commissioner to go on a junkie bender and murder the people who stand in his way. Does it make sense in a Scotland of old? Yes, absolutely. Less so in modern times.

I want to feel bad for not finishing either of these books but then I look around at the 700 books piled up around my house and realize I don’t have time to feel bad!

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with copies of these books in exchange for honest reviews.

12

Literary Wives: The Headmaster’s Wife

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene.

Ariel @  One Little Library
Kate @ Kate Rae Davis
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink
TJ @ My Book Strings

The Book

headmaster'

Arthur Winthrop, like his father before him, is the headmaster of a prep school in Vermont. Far from feeling like his father decided his fate, Arthur has always had his eye on taking over from his father one day. He has worked towards becoming headmaster and has found his life on the grounds of the school to have been a worthy and fulfilling one. But when he is found naked and wandering around Central Park in New York City, we find that the school has also become the site of his unraveling.

Arthur begins to tell his story to the police and we find that something tragic has happened to Arthur, something that has undone his orderly life. The story is told in stages, first from Arthur’s perspective, then his wife’s and finally an old school mate. The first story is kind of bananas and horrible and then the wife’s story fills in some of the blanks before finally we get the entire picture. I kept hoping for some brilliant pay off but in the end all I got was relief that I had finished the damn book.

My Thoughts

OK so if you haven’t read this book, just know that this part is going to be full of SPOILERS. I want to speak freely about this book because I was SO frustrated with it almost from the first page.

The first section of the book is Arthur recounting an affair he has with a new student at the school, a girl called Betsy. At this point, Arthur is firmly in middle age and this CHILD is under his care. There are lots of descriptions of young bodies and the things he would like to do to hers – they do end up having a physical relationship. And maybe it’s me but I could actually live the rest of my life without reading one more book about a middle aged man having a crisis and acting out some kind of fantasy on a young woman.

kim-k

At the end of this section, Arthur KILLS Betsy. After ruining the scholastic life of a boy she was dating, kicking him out of the school after he plants alcohol under his bed, Betsy is angry with Arthur. And he realizes that he doesn’t want to let her go. So he kills her. It was at this point that I actually yelled “WHAT THE F*CK?”

I don’t know why I kept reading. But I did. In the second section we find out that actually Arthur is losing his marbles and his wife is the Betsy he thinks he’s having an affair with. Things did kind of play out the same way all those years ago – Arthur did plant alcohol in his rival’s room and he was kicked out of school. But he and Betsy were at least the same age and ended up getting married and building a life together on campus. They had a son together and as their son grows it becomes clear to both that he’s not content with his life being mapped out for him in the way that Arthur’s was.

When their son enlists in the army and ends up being killed in action, Arthur and Betsy must come to terms with the loss. Arthur begins to drink heavily, Betsy to spend long periods of time in their son’s room, thinking about what has been lost.

But honestly, even though the second and third acts attempt to illuminate a tragedy and excuse the behaviour from the first section, for me, the damage was done. I’m so over men using women as objects to work through their feelings. Go to therapy for God’s sake.

In the afterword, Greene talks about this as the most honest book he’s ever written, that it was penned sitting by the bed of his daughter in the NICU. She sadly did not survive and the book is dedicated to her memory. I was just left kind of confused. How is a book that fantasizes about an affair with an underage girl (and I know that part wasn’t real, it still sucked) the most honest thing you’ve ever written??

 

What does the book say about being a wife?

It is not my favourite thing to think about what a book says about being a wife when most of said book is about the experiences of the men in her life. In the end, it felt like Betsy was just an object of desire, for her husband Arthur but also for her old boyfriend, Russell, the boy Arthur had kicked out of school who ends up becoming a lawyer and helps Arthur out when he’s found in Central Park.

For Arthur, marriage is about suffering:

…if you learn anything in a marriage it is when to give up. I used to think all marriages ran the same trajectory. They start with wanting to climb inside the other person and wear your skin as your own. They end with thinking that if the person across from you says another word, you will put a fork in her neck…the truth usually lies in between, and the most one can hope for is accommodation, that you learn to move around each other, and that when shit hits the fan, there is someone to suffer with.

For Betsy, the hope is that you find someone like yourself. At some point in their courtship she realizes that Arthur is broken, just as she is. “And she thinks perhaps this is what love is: letting someone else see that part of you shatters like glass. All of us are broken in our own way.”

The whole time, I was very aware that this is a book written by a man. He’s trying to peek inside the experience of women but he’s only capable of coming at that via his experience as a man. Betsy’s life has odd sexualizations – how breastfeeding her son feels like such a sexual experience, how her relationship with her son has the kind of lust that usually comes from romantic relationships. A lot of focus on breasts.

This books seems to think that women, wives, are there to fill in the blanks in a husband’s life. Those things that are misremembered, that are lost to time, it’s the role of the wife to pick up those pieces. The entire time, Betsy feels like a possession, not her own woman.

Have you read The Headmaster’s Wife? If you have, would love to hear your thoughts. And be sure to tour the other blogs participating. They probably won’t be so harsh…

In June, we’ll be discussing Stay With Me by Ayobami Adobayi.

6

Canada Reads: The Boat People

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

It’s that time of year again! Canada’s national book competition, Canada Reads, is kicking off once more!

This year the theme is One Book to Open Your Eyes. The books that will be competing are:

And because I’m still working on becoming a better CanLit reader, I’ve only read one of the books this year: The Boat People by Sharon Bala.
From Goodreads:
When the rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees from Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war reaches Canadian shores, the young father believes he and his six-year-old son can finally begin a new life. Instead, the group is thrown into prison, with government officials and news headlines speculating that hidden among the “boat people” are members of a terrorist organization infamous for their suicide attacks. As suspicion swirls and interrogation mounts, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka now jeopardize his and his son’s chances for asylum.
boat people
The Boat People is told from alternating perspectives: Mahindan as he tries to figure out what is happening to him in this new country and worries over his son, who he has been separated from; his lawyer Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan-Canadian who has never really been a part of Sri Lankan culture and must grapple with her identity and her role in Mahindan’s life; and Grace, the adjudicator, a third generation Japanese-Canadian whose family was interred during the war and stripped of everything they had worked to achieve, who must decide if Mahindan is a threat to the safety of her country, just like people decided her family was all those years ago.
The alternating perspectives provided a lot of layers to this story – Mahindan’s story is told from when he is in Canada but also what happened to him and others in Sri Lanka, that brought him here in the first place. Bala tells the story of Sri Lanka through Mahindan and Priya who learns about what happened to her own family that prompted them to escape to Canada.
But The Boat People can feel heavy handed with it’s message of inclusion and the duty to provide asylum and it’s mostly because of Grace. Grace has been appointed as an adjudicator by a former boss, a minister who is intent on kicking all of these people out of the country because they are probably terrorists. She is terrified of disappointing him and is infected by his xenophobic rhetoric. And as she continues to ignore her own family history, she is doomed to be the reason history is repeated.
There is a lot of complex history about Sri Lanka that Bala has no doubt simplified for her readers. And still I found it really overwhelming. The political history of that country is still something that I do not understand but Bala does do an admirable job of focusing those politics on the people they affected. In this way, Bala focuses on the human toll of political upheaval and forces readers to decide where the line is in offering asylum or shutting the door.
I think that The Boat People can be the kind of book a lot of people should read. It clearly did open my eyes to suffering in a part of the world I wasn’t paying attention to. But I’m not sure that this is the one book that will force the entire country to open their eyes and pay attention.
The competition starts on March 26 – tune in at cbc.ca!
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I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

If you are a true crime fan, if you listen to the podcasts, you were waiting for the posthumous release of Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer.

gone in the dark

Michelle McNamara was the brains behind the True Crime Diary blog. When she started looking into the unsolved case of the East Area Rapist – Original Night Stalker, she became obsessed. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the story of both her obsession and the search for the identity of the man who terrorized California with over 60 rapes and at least 10 murders in the 1970s and 1980s.

This book is amazing and horrifying and great and the worst. I could not read it before bed, in the dark, or if I was alone in the house. Three friends read it at the same time as me and one night one texted me about it right before I went to bed. I couldn’t fall asleep for ages thinking about this book. McNamara lived alongside her investigation and as you read the book, you are living that with her. She once scoured yearbooks looking for waterpolo players because one time a victim said that the guy had muscular thighs. She tracked down a pair of cufflinks with the letter N off eBay because she thought they were ones that he stole from a victim. She spoke with those involved in the case, then and now, and with other online amateur sleuths as obsessed as she was.

McNamara’s brilliance is on display on every single page she wrote. This book was put together after her death by her husband, Patton Oswalt, and some of her research partners. Because of this, sometimes the book feels a little disorganized and disjointed. But don’t let that put you off because this is a classic in the true crime genre. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark will live alongside The Stranger Beside Me and In Cold Blood for always, it’s that good.

It’s hard to think about the fact that she didn’t get to see her book out into the world, that her search for the identity of the man she dubbed the Golden State Killer was cut short. I have no doubt that she would have figured it out, if she hasn’t already. I think the hope of anyone who reads this book is that this will spark interest from others who will figure it out.

If you love true crime, this book needs to be on your list. Just, seriously, don’t read it in the dark. Or alone.

6

The sinister mystery of The French Girl

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

french girl

Ten years ago, on a holiday at a farmhouse in France, the French neighbour went missing on the last night Katie and her friends were there. Now, Tom is telling her that they found Severine’s body in the well at the farmhouse and a french detective would be coming to speak with each of them once more.

In the ten years since that week, Katie has become a lawyer, starting her own legal headhunting business and doesn’t need the stigma of being involved in a murder investigation. Still, everyone from that week is cooperating – Tom, who is coming back to London from Boston, his cousin Seb, Katie’s ex-boyfriend who she hasn’t seen since they broke up right after that week, Caro, still singular-minded, working at her father’s law firm, and Katie’s best friend Lara, a Swedish transplant who has never had any trouble getting the kinds of men she wants. The only one missing is Theo – it was his family’s farm, he knew Severine the best and after whatever happened happened, he signed up for the military and ended up dying over there.

Lexie Elliott’s The French Girl is a different kind of mystery. The mystery happened ten years ago, there are no flashbacks, no clues uncovered by intrepid investigators or curious friends. We stick with Katie as she is haunted by Severine, as she tries to piece together what might have happened all those years ago, while trying to get her business into the black. She reconnects with the group that was there that week and all of them talk about what the French detective has been asking, what he’s been focused on.

The French Girl is kind of sinister because we don’t have anymore idea what happened all those years ago than Katie. There is no evidence, no trail to follow. The entire book is the interactions this group has with each other and the detective. It’s a unique way of telling this kind of story and I really did appreciate it. I enjoyed my time with The French Girl, reading it in glorious late-winter sunshine.

But I’m not sure that this one will excite everyone. It was clever for sure but was it compelling? Not especially. I wasn’t counting the minutes until I could get back to it. It was an easy, no-pressure read that I would have been happy reading on a beach or poolside. I’m not convinced it would have held my attention on a long flight or a commute though.

I liked The French Girl, I will loan it out, and I’m OK with not getting anything more out of it.