I am behind on writing about books. I have been caught up in an Internet drama, and watching two rival websites react to a newspaper article attacking one of them. The other website is populated by people who have been banned from the first. It’s very exciting. Lots of people are sputtering and indignant, and it’s better than television. My favorite part so far is that a gossip and fashion blog has gotten in on the action, and all the women who usually be shoppin’ are now sitting around chattin’. It’s way cool.
It’s a tragicomedy of Shakespearean proportions! Sadly, following it has been a huge waste of time that I should be spending on other things. I did manage to find the error in my check register–there was an ATM and a deposit entered twice–so it balanced. That’s good! I also cooked a spaghetti squash–not my favorite of the winter squashes but a beautiful side dish, especially if you put a green leaf salad right next to it on the plate. Plus you just have to cut it in half and microwave it! And add butter, of course. I even did some work for money today, which didn’t take any longer than usual because I edit this newsletter and I always take a break between articles because my attention flags. And I totally got out of having to fold laundry today, too. Shame on me, right? But on the other hand, I kept both kids alive from dawn to dusk so I figure it all works out.
So that’s my drama. Now for my books.
I’ve accumulated quite a list, but I only want to talk about two of them tonight because they basically have the same structure and I had the exact same reaction to each.
The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.
By Sandra Gulland
OK. This is Josephine Bonaparte we’re talking about–the shocking woman who pushed the waistline of her dresses up so she could appear longer in public pregnant (or so I have in my head)! The wife of the Emperor of the World! The French Revolution! The sugar plantations of the Caribbean! How on earth could this book turn out so dull? It was dull. So dull, in fact, that I have to get up and reheat a leftover Chipotle carnitas taco right now I can’t stand thinking about this book.
I received the entire trilogy that this book starts when I was on my road trip a few weeks ago. My stepmother gave it to me in a very nice box set box and said that she had read it and didn’t really want it back. That maybe should have alerted me, because other times she has given me my own copies of books she has read and kept, but I was on a road trip with an iPod I couldn’t charge (that Blue Screen of Death Debacle I never wrote about) and accepted them. So it’s in diary form. Ugh. Not my favorite, but readable if it is actually in diary form. You know, like Mary Chesnut’s diary of the Civil War. Not when it’s just a first person novel broken up into faux date segments as if she were making notes in her book, complete with dialogue and quotation marks and explanatory footnotes. So the diary conceit was perfunctory at best; maybe that was the hook that got it published. Something has to make a book original, right? My second complaint is how episodic this story was, and the head pounding over the magical Negress back home who prophesied that Josephine would be queen. Go figure.
Josephine ends up in prison to have her head cut off by the revolutionaries eventually, and that could have been pretty exciting. I liked how the character of her son was portrayed. He was a minor character but he seemed quite real to me. Something was missing, though, in Josephine’s reflections on the world around her and the way people treated her. It was like being wrapped in cotton batting and not really having any reactions. The diary/first person/unrealistic prose (for a diary–it would have been better as a straight novel) put too much distance between the events and the reader. I finished the book and that’s it. I feel a little guilty now for passing the whole box set to my mother, who ran out of things to read. I feel like I am keeping secrets from her that she should know, and that I am committing a lie of omission. It is my secret sorrow. Maybe she’ll never get around to reading it. Retirement keeps her pretty busy, you know.
Part of the problem might be that I have rather recently seen the Kirsten Dunst Marie Antoinette movie, which just sparkled. The clothes! The setting! The soundtrack! I don’t know how much of it was true to life or character (or events) but it left an impression. I really liked it and I didn’t know that I would. This book just fades away in comparison. I don’t even remember the titles of the other two books.
On the other hand, it made me very badly want to read a good book about the French Revolution. Whatever biography of Marie Antoinette the movie drew from is supposedly good (I haven’t researched it thoroughly), and you can’t beat the French Revolution for a misunderstood and glorified phenomenon. I had wanted very badly to look up such a book after seeing that movie, and I forgot about it. I am grateful, then, to this novel for rekindling my interest.
Did you know that Marie Antoinette was accused of child molestation at her trial? It was trumped up, of course, but isn’t that interesting? I learned that on Wikipedia–even better, on a page that has a disputed neutrality. You go, Wiki!
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Here’s another historical novel with a romance that has a woman ending up with a different guy than anticipated, set during a war, written in an alternate first-person style (epistolatory rather than diary this time). It’s post-WWII, and a charming, vivacious, war-weary author is looking for inspiration for her next book. She’s an orphan! She has a gay friend! She is courted by an American! She loves books and ended an engagement over them! Her pen name is Izzy! She falls in love with the countryside! She’s just too cute for words! She interacts with quaint personalities who become her second family! She gets jealous of a traumatized concentration camp survivor, too, which is a strange and unpleasant episode. Not that you shouldn’t be jealous of concentration camp beauties who are after your man, but this one was clearly shellshocked and blowing in the wind and subject to the whims of people who took a fancy to her (and who were fortunately good-hearted). That Juliet wigged out about her was off-putting, really.
The book works for a while. The first half is far superior to the second, and unlike the botched diary format of the Josephine book, these letters–although they mostly sound like the same person wrote them all–actually sound like letters. So that conceit holds up. It becomes an integrated part of the story rather than a pretentious distraction. The second half of the novel turns into this bizarre pastoral romance that just isn’t supported by the details of the text, and that has this annoying Mary Sue character in the middle of it. A dead Mary Sue, but she died for principles and to save another. We read this book for Book Club last week, and someone more charitable than I suggested that perhaps the picture we have of Elizabeth is one that has been romanticized by the writers of the letters after her death. I can roll with that. But hell–even the way she has decorated her home is Mary Sueish (the place feels like one of those homey and hip bungalow San Francisco residences you see in movies, what with the art pieces and the books everywhere and the eclectic but tasteful furniture choices). She manages to pick out the one good Nazi to have a love affair with, and her orphaned daughter is raised by the village as a loving testament to her memory.
Blah blah blah. And it’s one of those books about books. You are supposed to love instantly people who love books and have life-altering experiences because of books, because you, Reader, are currently reading a book so you must be just like them. It’s a lovefest. And now my hating on this book is crossing over to hyperbole, but the constant name-dropping of authors and the emphasis on what powerful literature can do for even uncultured folk did get on my nerves.
I was absolutely enchanted, however, by the woman who read the cookbook during their times of occupied scarcity. I can easily understand why that would upset the other members of the society and why she would be unable to read anything else. That seemed true. That said more about the war and Guernsey and the effect of art on life than anything else in the novel.
Having looked up the book on Amazon to get verification that my negative impressions were entirely correct (they of course are), I half-learned (being not quite sufficiently interested to fully learn) that one of the authors died or got sick before the book was published and the other author picked up the slack somehow. I’m not really surprised. The book changes in tone and plot so dramatically that you can almost tell where the first author stopped and the other author tries to pick up the pieces. The vision wasn’t fully shared or realized. The love story, I have to say, blindsides you. Say what? I so don’t buy it. Living on an island with a view of the English Channel? That I could buy. After all, the post boat comes daily. How remote could it be?
So by the last third of the book I was having my alright already reaction and reading as fast as I could so I could finish as fast as I could without actually just flipping pages. But you know what? This book made me want to learn more about the Guernsey occupation during World War II. I’m sure there is fascinating material on it. It makes me wonder, too, if the book should have actually been about one of the people on the island, instead of the breezy and cute author who pops in and is immediately accepted by local folk. Had the book actually been about Elizabeth McKenna and her Nazi lover and her freedom fighting and her town’s book club I think I really, really would have liked it. She wouldn’t have seemed like such a Mary Sue.
At least I had the book loaned to me by my friend, who brought it to my house and to whom I returned it at book club. I didn’t have to drive or spend money on it at all.
It wasn’t even a terrible book. It’s just that it seems bad because of the second half, which probably wouldn’t have seemed that bad if the same person had written the entire book, or if both people had written the whole book in consultation the whole time. I still don’t really want to recommend it to anyone.
I’ve also read Japan Sinks, Blindness, and Out–three foreign novels that I really shouldn’t lump together because they were so different and my reactions so varied. Next time!