Tuesday, May 31, 2011

New Orleans' Literary Scene

Recently my husband and I celebrated our anniversary with a long weekend in New Orleans, and I'm not sure whether I was more excited about the food I was planning to eat or seeing the city where many great writers have penned their famous works. We spent three and a half days mostly in the French Quarter and I tracked down all the places I could find with literary significance. Here they are:

Hotel Monteleone has been visited by many important writers (see photo above for list). It's a beautiful hotel, and if you sit in the Carousel Bar near the window overlooking Royal Street, the people watching is top-notch.

Here I am on the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar. I was so excited thinking about Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire that I could barely contain myself.

William Faulkner lived in this townhouse just off Jackson Square in his early years as a writer. He wrote Mosquitoes and Soldier's Pay while he stayed here. As bookstores go, this one is pretty small, but so filled with great stuff you hardly even notice. I bought three books here that I'll likely be writing about after I've read them later.

This home on Bourbon Street was occupied at different times by both Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. Now it's owned by Cokie Roberts' mother, Lindy Boggs, a politician and activist.

This home on St. Peter Street is where Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire.
And finally, this is Galatoire's, a French restaurant on Bourbon Street frequented by Tennessee Williams. Also, Stella took Blanche here in A Streetcar Named Desire. We ate here and the food was good, but many of the places we ate were much better than good.

My self-guided tour of New Orleans was satisfactory, but it was merely a substitute for a real one I'd tried to line up. There is just one literary tour in town and though the woman who gives them is supposed to be fantastic, she doesn't return phone calls and even hangs up on people calling at an inconvenient time for her (she has, apparently, never heard of voicemail). My suggestion to New Orleans is that someone else needs to give her some competition. New Orleans is far too important to American literature to only have one person telling all the good stuff. OK, the gripe session is over now.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

London/World War II Reading

One of the books I read over last weekend was one I brought back with me from London, The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison. It's a fictional story centered around a little girl, Anna, who moves from London to Yorkshire during World War II to escape the bombing. Her mother remains behind in London working, while her father is a British soldier in Africa. Though she misses her parents terribly, Anna has a wonderful experience in a home-turned-school for London schoolchildren and becomes particularly close to her teachers.

From reading the back of the book I was hooked (see similar blog post on Kisses on a Postcard, and note that my recent read, The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie and Literary Society, contained the same situation of children separating from families during World War II). However, about a third of the way through, the book began exploring deep and complicated adult issues and moved away from Anna for a bit.

Overall, I just couldn't put this book down. As sad as it was (and perhaps it wasn't the best choice for a weekend spent celebrating my wedding anniversary with my husband due to all the broken marriages in the book), I enjoyed it thoroughly. Another good book from across the pond!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Book Review: Jane Austen: A Life Revealed by Catherine Reef

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed 

Published by: Clarion Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Published on: April 18, 2011
Page Count: 208
Genre: Juvenile Biography
My reading format: Advanced reading copy in Adobe Digital Editions from NetGalley
Available Formats: Hardcover

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed is a readable, easy to understand report on Jane Austen's life during the late 18th century and early 19th century in England. It's geared toward younger readers who may or may not have had prior experience with Austen. The book provides context on the social norms, politics, customs and ways of life of those living in England during Austen's time, which is helpful both for one who has never read Austen and is unfamiliar with Georgian England, and also a good review for those of us who haven't considered these things in a while.

Of course this title caught my eye immediately, having recently visited the Jane Austen Center in Bath and listened to James Edward Austen-Leigh's A Memoir of Jane Austen, so I had to know what Reef's take is on things. Her biographical information is fairly familiar to me, so I was looking for something a little bit different. What I liked the most about Reef's version of Austen's life is that a sense of mystery can be found within the pages. Reef's book is not much different than other accounts of Austen's life in that no new information is ever really turned up. A limited number of the several thousand letters Austen wrote during her lifetime have survived (most were destroyed by her family members), so our view into her world and her personality is limited. We do know enough, Reef maintains, to have reason to believe that Austen had a certain amount of sass in her personality.

Reef's biography is full of good information on Austen for those who haven't read her novels before (generous summaries of each major work are included, which should help young readers decide which one to start with), and which should inspire a whole new generation of Janeites.   

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Earlier this week I finished reading a delightful book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It's an epistolary book (written solely in letters), and I didn't feel, not even one time, that this kept me from getting in on the action or getting to know the characters as well as I wanted to. The book takes place first in London where author and journalist Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger living on Guernsey (an island in the English Channel) asking for assistance in finding a certain book in London. Juliet obliges and her correspondence with the reader leads her to write letters back and forth with several of his friends, all part of the organization in the title of the book. Later, Juliet, convinced she may be able to write a story about these charming people on this island, visits Guernsey to see them for herself. Guernsey had been occupied by the Germans during World War II and its English residents had been cut off from the rest of the world. The book takes place in the first few years after the war when everyone in Europe is getting back on their feet.  

This book fits in so well with my current World War II obsession, and since I'm doing a lot of reading on this topic at the moment, I was glad to have some perspective. Some parts of the book wouldn't have meant quite so much otherwise. For example, the grandson of one of the letter writers from the island has recently returned to Guernsey after spending the War years on a farm in Yorkshire to escape German occupation and potential danger. Not all the children in Guernsey were sent to the mainland. The grandparent reports, "It was a terrible thing to decide - send your kiddies away to live among strangers, or let them stay with you? Maybe the Germans wouldn't come, but if they did - how would they behave to us? But, come to that, what if they invaded England, too - how would the children manage without their own families beside them?" (p. 122).

I've heard members of the Greatest Generation talk about gathering around a household's only radio each evening to hear news of the War. Anne Frank and her fellow housemates knew what was going on during the War because they listened to forbidden stations on the office radio. This brings me to one of my favorite parts of the book when Juliet tells her publisher of the stories she's hearing about life during the War for Guernsey residents: "A reporter asked a Guernsey Islander, 'What was the most difficult experience you had during the Germans' rule?'....The Islander told him, 'You know they took away all of our wireless sets? If you were caught having a hidden radio, you'd get sent off to prison on the continent. Well, those of us who had secret radios, we heard about the Allies landing in Normandy. Trouble was, we weren't supposed to know it had happened! Hardest thing I ever did was walk around St. Peter Port on June 7, not grinning, not smiling, not doing anything to let those Germans know that I KNEW their end was coming. If they'd caught on, someone would be in for it - so we had to pretend. It was very hard to pretend not to know D-Day had happened'" (p. 135).

And, two more of my favorite lines include: "Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true" (p. 10) and "That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive - all with no end in sight, and for no other reason that sheer enjoyment" (pp. 11-12).

Sheer enjoyment is what I got out of this book. If Juliet were a real person, I'd want her to be my friend. My book club is discussing this book next week, and I can't wait to see what smartness we can come up with during discussion.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Book Versus the Movie

Have you ever liked a movie more than the book that preceded it? That almost never happens to me, except for recently with Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen. I listened to the audiobook about three years ago, and recently saw the movie. I thought the movie was very well done. I didn't think of Twilight each time Robert Pattinson was on screen. I like Reese Witherspoon in the role of Marlena, and I thought her husband, August (played by Christopher Waltz), made my skin crawl in just the right way.The elephant in the movie was just beautiful.

I remember when I finished listening to the audiobook that I felt like I had somehow missed something big, because otherwise, I would have liked the book a lot more. Then, as the movie release approached and I heard that more and more people had read and liked the book I figured I'd better go see it. I'm glad I did. I liked the movie so much that I'm on the waiting list at the library to borrow the book to read this time instead of listen to.

Have you seen this movie or read this book? What did you think? Are there any books you've read where you liked the movie version better?

P.S. I bought May's issue of Vogue because Reese Witherspoon is on the cover. I really enjoyed the story. She seems like such a nice person. Self-assured. Normal. Unlike other celebrities out there.

Friday, May 6, 2011

What Women Want

When I’d show up for class in college on the day we’d start talking about a new work, one of my favorite things was hearing my professor lecture for a bit on the author of the work, giving context and insight into their life, their work and how the two were intertwined. Now I really enjoy works of fiction and movies that depict authors’ lives, drawing conclusions, filling in blank spaces and speculating on what might have been going on in an author’s life. In this genre I have read The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James and watched Becoming Jane, among other works about both Austen and other authors. It’s fun to think about what lives authors were leading before, during and after the writing of their notable works. What has been left out of their biographies? Lost or unrequited loves? Dissatisfaction with home and family life? A secret desire to have a certain type of career? In many cases we’ll never know for sure, which for me is part of the fun.

Last week I read The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees just after finishing reading Little Women for the first time since high school or maybe even middle school. A friend of mine had also just finished The Lost Summer and asked me what about the work was fiction and what was written based on truth. Of the top of my head, I knew Alcott’s father, Bronson, was a free-spirited Transcendentalist philosopher who never earned quite enough money to support his wife and four daughters comfortably. I knew Alcott was the second of four sisters and is often thought to have written her character Jo to reflect herself.

These things were reflected in The Lost Summer, and the author notes at the end of the novel that she had been on a quest to find out about the real Alcott, as her biographies portray her in different ways (now I’m interested in reading some of those biographies for myself). Once McNees discovered in one of the biographies that Alcott often burned letters she received after reading them, she latched on to that and began to form a story around a supposed love affair (Alcott’s love interest in the novel is a fictional character). She set the story during a summer when the Alcott family lived temporarily in Walpole, New Hampshire, where not much is known about how Alcott spent her time while she was there.

The book was well-researched and seemed very real to me, contributing more to the enjoyment I got out of reading it. Also, I was happy to have just read Little Women again, which is a story I just adore. I’m still hanging on to my VHS tape of the 1994 movie version starring Susan Sarandon, Wynona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Samantha Mathis, Gabriel Byrne, Claire Danes and Christian Bale. I think it’s about time to watch it again.

It was interesting to be reading The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott while listening to Leslie Bennetts’ The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? in the car. Since I don’t have children, I don’t really have a dog in this fight, but it’s an interesting subject considering that I have friends that are moms. Some have chosen to keep working and some have put careers on hold to make parenting at home their full-time job. (**Note: I’m not taking a position on the mommy wars, just simply reporting that I’ve read an interesting, thought-provoking book!)

Bennetts’ stance is that women who fool themselves into assuming they’ll always be financially taken care of by their husbands are assuming too much. With a high divorce rate, an unstable economy and risks of disability, medical issues and death, stay at home moms are taking a huge risk by giving up their own income to rely solely on their husbands’.

In The Lost Summer, Alcott struggles with the fact that she’s different from every other unmarried young woman in Walpole and Boston in that she has absolutely no desire to change her marital status. That makes her different and it’s a hard concept for some, like her landlady in Boston, to understand. She says things like, “The dainty ones [women] look pretty in a sitting room, ma’am, but when a woman is making her way in the world on her own, she must resolve to take fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.” She thinks to herself, “Was it too much to ask to simply be left alone? It seemed her very existence as a single woman invited speculation and offers of help, as if it were simply impossible that she truly might not want to be married.”

Bennetts cites woman after woman who is left in the lurch after her husband runs off with a younger woman from the office, is diagnosed with terminal cancer or just decides marriage isn’t for him, and she has to earn a living to provide for herself and her children. Bennetts give a lot of evidence on why and how it’s so hard to jump back into the labor force once you’ve been out, even if just for a little while. (This book was published in March 2008. I would LOVE to get Bennetts’ take on this topic now that the economy has tanked and some families have been forced to get really creative to keep their households going.)

I guess women have been struggling with some of the same things for centuries, trying to decide what’s best for them. I expect going forward that will stay the same.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


I've had a lot of fun in the past couple of years rereading the classics that were on my required reading lists in high school. As it turns out, as much as I enjoyed them before and as much as they influenced me to keep the literary analysis going by majoring in English in college, I've enjoyed them even more by rereading them 10 to 15 years later. Jane Eyre, The Scarlett Letter, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Little Women and several others all fall into this category, and so does F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic masterpiece: The Great Gatsby.

I read this novel for the first time as a junior in high school and for the second about two summers ago while at the beach. I loved it so much more the second time, and I'm now so, so hoping that rumors of a movie version turn out to be true (I can see Leonardo DiCaprio as Nick Carraway; what about you?). Three more Gatsby-related things have recently popped up on my radar: 1) The house said to inspire Fitzgerald during the writing of the novel was recently torn down (read about it); 2) I recently listened to Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise on my iPod while training for the latest half marathon (the book that first brought Fitzgerald notoriety as a writer); and 3) I listened to The Summer We Read Gatsby by Danielle Ganek recently in the car.

I'm always sad when historic buildings have to be torn down, and this one is no different. It just seems a shame that a place with a grand past but some wear and tear can't be restored by someone. It's especially sad when a house has such literary significance.

The Summer We Read Gatsby was a fun read, and I was glad to have already read and enjoyed the original novel, though this new one was just a fun story, such that could be enjoyed as a summer beach read due to its length, quirky and funny characters, mystery and setting.

Speaking of summer reading, I just can't wait to get my hands on a few things I've been dying to read. To me, a vacation anywhere is the perfect way to enjoy a story. I'll be reading lots and lots this summer and of course, reporting it here.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Disappointing Post-Katrina Read

In light of an upcoming trip to New Orleans, I'd really been looking forward to reading a book I'd heard about by Julia Reed called The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story. Reed is a writer who had never put solid roots down anywhere for about 20 years when she decided to marry and buy a fixer upper in the Garden District. The house had once been very grand and needed a lot of work, which the couple started with the hire of a general contractor and a host of laborers only four weeks before Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast. All of that sounds interesting, right? Here's where I began to grow frustrated. While I enjoyed the funny anecdotes at the beginning of the book, and Reed's writing style throughout, at some point my opinion turned and I started to not like her New Orleans story so much.

I remember very well watching all the coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath back in 2005. The weekend after the storm when the levees had broken in New Orleans and the chaos was just heartbreaking and unbelievable, a friend was visiting me for the weekend. We absolutely could not turn away from the reports on CNN. I won't ever forget the images of people and animals being lifted from rooftops by helicopter, those unfortunate people waiting for help along the bridge and the terrible reports that were coming out of the Superdome. Each image of a demolished house with spray painting indicating that it had been checked for bodies was haunting.

Reed only touches on these things likely because she didn't have these experiences. First, she and her husband were luckier than many New Orleans residents in that they owned a car and had the money to buy gas and had a place to stay elsewhere. Second, she and her husband have connections all over Louisiana and Mississippi, and I will say that they used those connections for good. However, I realized at some point that Reed was more focused on dropping the names of all the notable people she associates with in New Orleans and all those people to whom she gave money. Couldn't she have left these things out? When it started to be a focus of the book, and no longer a focus on her beautiful home or the city of New Orleans itself, I lost interest quickly. For example, she starts dropping money like crazy after the storm, helping people who'd worked on her house, been servers at parties she'd thrown over the years, etc. Then, she ordered barbecue enough for 700 National Guard troops who were watching her neighborhood, and she didn't even ask the price. Not to mention all the expense incurred to do over a historic home twice. There's no doubt that she was trying to help those who needed it, but my goodness, did she have to tell us over and over and over again that she gave/sent so-and-so money?

Reed must be friends with nearly every notable person in New Orleans, and she mentioned each one of them by name in the book. A few weeks after the hurricane, Reed tells about all the restaurant reopenings she attended each night as the city was coming back to life. Fun, yes, and I know that's what New Orleans is all about most of the time. But what about all those folks who were still eating meals fixed by church mission teams because that's all they could get?

Don't take this the wrong way. I finished this book just as excited to see New Orleans as I had been before. And I know that everyone is entitled to share his or her story the way he or she experienced it, and Reed has certainly exercised that right in her book. Though I haven't been there before, the media portrays the city as a place of the very poor and the very rich. Reed clearly hangs with the very rich (or at least the very connected), and I think the resilience of the regular folks with less options was more what I wanted to read about. This leaves me with the desire to read something about the regular folks in New Orleans and how they've risen above the destruction. Does anyone have a suggestion for me?