Monday, July 28, 2014

Midsummer Muse

{Lake view from a hammock}

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”     -F. Scott Fitzgerald
I almost named this post "Mid-Summer Blues", given that I've been a bit down recently. I suppose it's because I've just gotten all four of my wisdom teeth removed, that I just finished Jojo Moyes' extremely sad Me Before You (review coming soon), and that I've realized that the summer is already half-over.

Don't get me wrong, I've been having a wonderful summer so far - reading lots, kayaking a bit, sleeping in, and venturing out. But still, I can't seem to shake the feeling that with every day that passes, I'm inching closer and closer to what is supposedly the toughest school year yet.
In spite of all that, there are several small things making me happy as the hot days of July come to a close. For example, J.K Rowling recently released a new Harry Potter short story that surmises Harry and his friends' post-Hogwarts lives. At thirty-four-years-old "there are a couple threads of silver in the famous Auror's black hair" and he is happily married to Ginny Weasley, who is now a sports journalist for the Daily Prophet. The story was posted on Pottermore, and has since left many readers wondering if more short stories will follow anytime soon.
A writer on the Barnes & Noble Book Blog acknowledged that feminism is finally on the rise in literature. The interesting article discussed that two of the most recent book series bestsellers, The Hunger Games and Divergent trilogies, and their box office adaptions have paved the way for the strong, female protagonist. The female authors of these books also wrote under their real names, unlike J.K Rowling (Harry Potter) and Lemony Snicket (Series of Unfortunate Events) who wrote their work under gender-neutral pseudonyms so that their books could be marketed to both boy and girl audiences. The writer for B&N wrote, "One could be a fluke, and two an anomaly, but three or more is a pattern. More than a pattern, even: a sea change. What’s going on here? Why is the kickass heroine ascendant? And where literature leads, does culture follow?"

I'm sitting here writing with my headphones in. Sam Smith's Nirvana is currently flowing through the wires and into my ears, and as I listen to the lyrics and the taps of my fingers on the keys and the post-thunderstorm winds rustling the leaves on the trees, I'm beginning to feel better. I honestly didn't know what "nirvana" meant when I first heard the song, only knowing that I liked the beat of the music, but I have since looked it up: Nirvana (n) - (in Buddhism) a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self.  I suppose its a sort of afterlife, but it also reminds me that we each wish to be happy. But also that despite how much we work to be happy, worrying about a new school year for example that hasn't yet begun makes happiness harder and harder to obtain.

Happiness is this ever hopeful goal that comes and goes and never lasts quite long enough. I believe the summer is the best time in which to be happy, and when we look back, its the season where we will find some of our happiest moments. No matter how small these moments of happiness are, (even as simple as reading about Harry again) or how petty (jumping into the pool with a group of friends on the count of 1,2,3...), when remembered, they will no doubt bring about a smile.
And I believe Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway was right when he said that with the coming of summer we all begin anew, because the summer is always a time for discovering ourselves in unexpected ways and in unexpected places. This was true for me, as I found myself becoming a better writer, as well as better educated in the literary field when I attended Alfred University's Creative Writing Program a few weeks ago. Summer is also a time for discovering a new favorite ice cream flavor, for finally reading that new bestseller, or for getting that new haircut so that when school rolls around you feel like a different person. Summer only lasts two short months, but nonetheless, it could be two of the best.
Reading this over, I've realized this post has gone in an entirely different direction (tacky inspirational direction) than I had originally intended, but hey, sometimes writing does that. I'm okay with it, and I hope you are as well :)
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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Life After Life

Life After Life
Kate Atkinson
544 pages

"Ursula found it very odd to think that up above there were bombers being flown by men...They weren't evil, they were just doing what had been asked of them by their country. It was war itself that was evil, not men.    -page 411
Ursula Todd is born on a cold and snowy night in 1910. She dies before she can take her first breath. No sooner does she die, that she is born again, on the same cold and snowy night, in the same English country home. Ursula continues to die, in varies ways and at varies ages throughout her life, but just as soon as darkness falls over her, Ursula is reborn, allowing her to live an infinite number of lives. As the 20th century barrels towards it's second cataclysmic world war, Ursula's seemingly unusual lifestyle may give her the power to save the world from its destructive destiny.
Kate Atkinson's Life After Life deals with the delicate idea of choices, and it argues that even the individual's smallest choices, can shape the face of history. But is the author right? It seems silly to believe that my choice of chocolate over vanilla will have some sort of worldly effect, but with more pointed decisions, like the one below that refers to Hitler, it is possible to be persuaded by Atkinson's argument.  
“'He was born a politician.' said Eva. No, Ursula thought, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become.”  
The novel marches itself thoroughly through many of the early 20th century's most historic moments: World War I, the roaring 20s, the Spanish Influenza, and the Blitz of the United Kingdom in World War II. Atkinson assumes from the beginning of the story that the reader knows a certain amount of historical context, and therefore does not provide a grand overview. But rather, she uses the narrative technique of in medias res, which means "in the midst", to throw the reader right into the setting,  using small details to reveal time and place.
I was curious though, so part way through the novel I found myself doing a bit of research on  England throughout the 1900s (Wikipedia is good at times like these).  Since I have now done some background reading, I can tell you that Atkinson's historical details are spot on, and her short fragmented style of writing allows the reader to feel the disjointed chaos of the time period.
The Blitz of 1940-41 consisted of over one-hundred German facilitated air-raids on the United Kingdom. The bombings were strategic, targeting London a total of 71 times, and other important cities ten or more. A good portion of the novel takes place during these years, and Ursula volunteers in the recovery squad that helped to locate and help survivors. Ursula herself dies in one of these attacks, even though she'd been hiding in an underground bomb shelter.
I love how novels can teach you so much, and maybe that's why I'm drawn to historical fiction time and time again. I love going into history class and already knowing lots about a particular time period because of something I have read. Sylvie, Ursula's mother, seems to agree...
“Sylvie’s knowledge, like Izzie's, was random yet far-ranging, ‘The sign that one has acquired one’s learning from reading novels rather than an education…”
I found the story a bit slow moving during certain moments, perhaps I found this so because since Ursula keeps living her life over and over again, many of the same events are revisited several times. This would be my only major complaint of the book, other than that the multiple lives were at times difficult to follow.
Along with its strong sense of setting, Life After Life also exhibits very strong characters. Often  in novels, the main character's family is pushed to the background, remaining mysterious and static to the reader. In this book however, the Todd family is very much the opposite. Ursula's siblings: Maurice, Pamela, Teddy, and Jimmy are very much alive and prominent. Their story is told alongside Ursula's in away that is believable and impactful. In fact, without them, there would be very little story at all. Ursula's infinite resurrections allow her to not only try to save the world from pain and suffering, but also the people she loves as well.   
Life After Life is a complicated, but smartly written novel, aimed at deepening the reader's perspective of history, choices and fate, and the idea that life can offer so much, if we allow it.
“'What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?'”  
Life After Life was the winner of the 2013 Goodreads Historical Fiction Choice Award and was named one of The New York Times' 10 Best Books of 2013.

Story Line - 7/10
Narrator's Voice - 8/10
Writing Style - 8/10

Overall - 23/30

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife
Paula McLain
314 pages
"We were all on the verge now, bursting with youth and promise and little trills of jazz...Girls everywhere stepped out of their corsets and shortened their dresses and darkened their lips and eyes...Youth, in 1921, was everything."  -page 40

Hadley Richardson expected her trip to Chicago to be simple - as she was a simple girl with simple wishes. What she did not expect however, was to fall madly in love with Ernest Hemingway. After a speedy courtship and wedding, the newlyweds set sail for Paris, where the Jazz Age has already swept what becomes known as the "Lost Generation" right up into its chaos. Once there, Ernest throws himself into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises while Hadley struggles to balance the roles of friend, wife, and muse. All too soon, a deception more complicated  than either of them could have imagined, blows the marriage they had built on loyalty and love, to pieces.

My reading of The Paris Wife was another side effect of my addiction to Jazz Age-America and Paris. It was an extremely important decade for women, and so much great literature and art arose from the joy and frivolity that followed World War I. I often wonder if I would have had the guts to sneak into a speakeasy for a shot of vodka, or the self-confidence to light up a cigarette with other women loving the freedom of hiking up our skirts past our ankles.

The Paris Wife is the second novel I have read (the first being Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald) that tells the story of the wife of one of America's greatest writers. Both novels explore the creative conflicts that occurred within each couple and detail the time period vividly. Although someday I hope to be a great writer myself, and not just the wife of one, both novels give an eye opening account of what it's like to live in literature's circle.

I almost missed Paula McLain's author's note at the very back of the book, it was not until I began to write this review that I found it, and now I'm quite glad I did. McLain makes it clear that The Paris Wife is a work of fiction, therefore making Hadley and Ernest fictional characters, but she also notes that she tried to make them as true to themselves as possible. The author mentioned that she did not travel to Paris to do research, but rather did not make the trip until after the book was published. The best part of the trip she said, was standing below the window of 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, the apartment where Ernest and Hadley lived together throughout their years in Paris.

Hadley Richardson's voice is authentic and engaging throughout the novel. She captivated me with the simple lens through which she looked at life, and the genuine feelings she had for those around her. Cameos from other literary figures such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and the Fitzgeralds, can be read throughout the novel, but McLain makes a clear distinction between Hadley and these famous characters. Hadley was content with living her life, rather than making an extraordinary one, as people like Ernest and F. Scott Fitzgerald were obsessed with. McLain does an excellent job in juxtaposing these too separate views, and encircles the plot around it in a way that leads to the dissolution of the Hemingways' marriage.

Hadley divorced Ernest in 1927, even though she was still in love with him, after struggling with their differences and upon learning of his affair with Pauline Pfeiffer. She says, "He had four wives altogether...It was sometimes painful for me to think that to those who followed his life with interest, I was just the early wife, the Paris wife" (page 311).

But then, a few lines later she notes, in what is my favorite quote of the novel:

"We knew what we had and what it meant...and there was nothing like those years in Paris, after the war. Life was painfully pure and simple and good, and I believe Ernest was his best self then. I got the very best of him. We got the best of each other."

The novel had a much sadder ending than I had expected, and I was left feeling both happy that Hadley had found love after Ernest, but extremely upset that happiness had never found Ernest. The ending of The Paris Wife becomes all the more heart-wrenching, when noting that in the last few pages of Ernest's memoir, A Moveable Feast, he writes of Hadley, "I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her."

The Paris Wife was the winner of the 2011 Best Historical Fiction Goodreads Choice Award and was named one of the Best Books of the Year by People Magazine, NPR and The Chicago Tribune.

Story Line - 9/10
Narrator's Voice - 10/10
Writing Style - 9/10

Overall - 28/30