40 Days of Book Praise, Day 33

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 33, Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

cranford

In the 1850s, Charles Dickens edited a journal called Household Words, which published affectionate and sometimes comic stories about small town life. The town of Cranford is not a real one, but the 16 chapters of Cranford the book bring it to life. The sketches appeared as serial contributions to Household Words and reflect the changing world in the microcosm of a English country town.

The narrator is Mary Smith, who is not a resident of Cranford but a frequent visitor, and so her eye and observations are not colored by inhabitancy. When she is not in Cranford, Mary keeps up with the changes and events through correspondence with the town’s leading ladies. Her first note of interest is that the town is possessed by the Amazons: “all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are ladies.” There are love affairs, old and new; childbirths and deaths; upheavals caused by progress; scandals and tiffs and friendships—events that appear small on the surface but are big news to the lady who reports them to Mary. Into the mix of Cranford’s ladies comes Captain Brown and Mr. Carter and brother Peter, who add drama but who also usher in change to a place not built for or easily swayed toward it. But change comes, and Cranford adapts with it.

Why is Cranford a good read for women? Elizabeth Gaskell was a minister’s wife who raised her family and assisted in his parish work in a rough area in Manchester. Her other novels are set in and about industrial life, so the sweet, poignant charm of Cranford is a departure. In addition to possessing a socially aware eye about challenging conditions and social classes, Gaskell was said to be an uncompromising artist. The introduction to Cranford explains that she and Dickens often butted heads, but she would not allow the much renowned male author to bully her or make changes she did not approve. Her devotion to her craft is reflected in the upright and strong-willed ladies she portrays in Cranford.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 32

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 32, Guests on Earth by Lee Smith

guests on earth

“The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this in a letter to his daughter, referring to his famously troubled wife Zelda. In this book by renowned Southern author Lee Smith, Zelda Fitzgerald is a “guest” of the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. It is 1936, but this institution for women with nervous diseases is modern and innovative, so alongside treatments such as ice wraps and shock therapy, the doctors push patients outside for fresh air and to garden, to exercise and dance, to enjoy music, art, and theatre. In 1948, Highland Hospital burned. The fire devastated the building. Seven women who were trapped upstairs in a locked ward died. According to the police chief, the fire started in the kitchen, but that finding has been disputed. Guests on Earth investigates what might have happened.

The story is narrated by a child. Thirteen-year-old Evalina Toussaint was a music prodigy, so gifted at playing piano that the hospital director’s wife became enamored of her and had her play for the patients, at social functions, for the pleasure of all. Now, as an adult, Evalina tells the story of her childhood: her years in the Garden District of New Orleans with Mamma and a man named Mr. Graves who was somehow her father; of Mamma’s fall; of being sent to Highland. Because she is favored and a child, Evalina has access to more than the wards and grounds, and so can observe the patients and staff—and Zelda. As she writes her memories of the events leading up to the fire, she makes observations about sanity and insanity and the peculiar qualities of the human mind. She likens herself to Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby and remarks, quite insightfully, that Gatsby was not Nick’s story so this one is not hers—yet, isn’t every story the narrator’s story?

Why is Guests on Earth a good read for women? Zelda Fitzgerald has been the subject of many books, but as Evalina notes, this is not wholly Zelda’s story. This memoir-style novel includes her observations about the treatment and mistreatment of girls and women suffering from mental illnesses that run the range from melancholia to schizophrenia to clinical depression. They are all at the mercy of their husbands or families or doctors or caretakers—just as girls and women suffering mental issues are today. And then there is the mystery of the fire. Lee Smith has a gifted hand with characters, and she weaves fact and fiction here for a heartfelt and riveting story.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 31

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 31, The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories by Daphne du Maurier

notebook

Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, The Birds, The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte – Daphne du Maurier’s body of work is a testament to the prolific, hard-working, risk-taking author who wrote across the genres of suspense and romance, short stories and novels, and memoir and biography. Her novel Rebecca catapulted her career and reputation into fame, and like all stories, Rebecca had an origin. This collection of the three “Rebecca notebooks” plus 15 early short stories, plus 10 memoir pieces, plus 3 poems, is an overview of du Maurier’s creative risk-taking. In addition, each section includes an introduction with du Maurier’s retrospective views on writing each type. The pieces are varied and surprising, a peek into a mind that must have been brimming with story ideas and creative energy all all all the time.

The hook for the collection are the three “Rebecca notebooks” which include du Maurier’s original outline for the novel; the original epilogue; and a story that reveals how she discovered a home in the woodlands of Cornwall that became the inspiration for Manderley. In the introduction, she explains why she did not give the narrator of Rebecca a name. This section of the collection is short. The bulk of it is devoted to her short stories and memoir pieces, each with an introduction written by du Maurier with thoughts on her writing process and tidbits about her personal life.

Why is The Rebecca Notebook a good read for women? This collection was put together forty years after the publication of Rebecca, which enjoyed worldwide acclaim and changed du Maurier’s life. In this book, she shares what that was like while showing the original plans for the story. It feels like a shared secret, as if a writer in your critique group passed out a storyboard for a new idea. This is a glimpse into a creative mind and artist who knew what she did well but still seemed surprised when it worked out. It’s a gem for any writer and admirer.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 30

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 30, Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

catherine called birdy

In 1290 in England, a young lady of a good family had one purpose: to marry well. “Well” meant finding a suitor whose name, means, and property were advantageous to the young lady’s family; compatibility or love were secondary concerns, if they were concerns at all. An arranged marriage is fate of the spirited and inquisitive Catherine, the only daughter of a minor nobleman, who is nicknamed Birdy because she collects and cages birds. At fourteen, Catherine is being prepared for betrothal by her father, a rough and loud country knight whose choices of mates horrify his willful daughter. His final choice is the most horrible of all: an old, crude, unschooled man Catherine calls Shaggy Beard. The thought of marrying this beast is repellent to Birdy and she steadfastly refuses, to the frustration of her father and amusement of her annoying older brother. She dreams of someone younger, a man who is pleasing and clean—and can read. Birdy, though alive centuries ago, wants what every woman wants in a compatible mate.

The pending banns hang over Catherine’s daily existence. Her domestic education is managed by her loving but conventional mother, now pregnant herself, but Catherine finds the tasks of managing a household achingly dull. Over the year of the book, she shares adventures as well as the mundane–the arrival of a performing troupe and the rescue of a bear; her mother’s prolonged labor and near death; the daily ritual of killing fleas. She gets some spiritual relief with the arrival of George, her favorite uncle, returned home from the Crusades. George is her ideal, but George is poor and hence limited in his choices. He loves Catherine’s childhood friend, but makes a beneficial match of his own to a wealthy but peculiar older woman. Though George’s new wife is sweet despite her strange behavior, the idealistic Catherine is confused. Are all marriages disappointments?

Why is Catherine, Called Birdy a good read for women? The book, awarded the Newbery Medal for excellence in writing for children, is presented in the epistolary style, so Catherine’s diary entries come from her pen to the reader’s heart. In modern terms, it could be said that Karen Cushman’s young heroine is seeking agency—the capacity a human being has for making choices. Agency was not awarded to the young daughters of minor English noblemen in the Middle Ages, and so Catherine’s wish for independence is dependent on the men who control her. The idea that this intelligent girl, so observant and eager to learn about the world, would be doomed to marry an old man with dreadful manners, little compassion, and no need for learning, is a chilling prospect. Catherine is smart enough to find a possible way out, but that requires luck–and help from unexpected sources.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 29

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 29, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

olive kitteridge

It is difficult to be around Olive Kitteridge, a retired 7th grade math teacher from a small coastal town in Maine, but more than that, it is difficult to be Olive Kitteridge. Olive is blunt, abrasive, cynical, and sometimes unkind; she is married to a man, the town pharmacist, who is very kind; and she has a son who tells her point blank that she hurts people with her sharpness. It would be easy to write off Olive as a wretched old witch, but Olive also volunteers at places like the Red Cross and a local museum, and she has flashes of insight and empathy even as she tells a friend how much she enjoys grousing about her miseries. Olive is not easy to dismiss though she is dismissive of others. Why is she this way? What makes a person with a solid marriage, a meaningful job, in a safe town, become bitter and so willing to spread her misery?

Oliver Kitteridge is told in short stories. While Olive is a participant in each of the thirteen stories, she’s not the lead in every one. Her presence, however, is the glue of the collection. She’s an enigma because she is not simple to define or understand. Reading about her attendance at a local funeral, a run-in with an anorexic young woman, a hospital visit that becomes traumatic, a tense visit between mother and daughter-in-law, all portray life in a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business. . Olive Kitteridge observes her fellow humans, and their large and small problems, with a sometimes unforgiving eye, but her brutal honesty also means she must acknowledge the promise within each person to touch and love his fellow man.

Why is Olive Kitteridge a good read for women? Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for this collection, which places the reader solidly in this town, among these townspeople. Olive is a woman of a certain age, to use a cliché, but she represents flaws and disappointments every person experiences. She is not good at handling her problems or holding her tongue, but that makes her human, so these stories reveal a person who is real and who seeks happiness even if she’s not sure how.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 28

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 28, Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

black water

An idealistic young woman named Kelly attends her best friend’s 4th of July party on a place called Grayling Island. Also attending the party is “The Senator,” a big, powerful, boozy politician currently separated from his wife. Kelly is thrilled to meet The Senator. She knows all about him—she follows his political work and even wrote her Senior thesis on him. Pretty, and a little shy, Kelly is surprised and flattered when The Senator flirts with her. He invites her on a walk on the beach, kisses her, and asks her to ditch the party for dinner at his hotel. Kelly is not a particularly worldly young woman, but even she knows what he means by “dinner.” It is out of character for her to go off with a man she just met, but The Senator is her hero–and who knows what such a connection could mean to her future? As Kelly packs an overnight bag, her friend warns her not to go. She is afraid Kelly will regret it.

Regret puts it mildly. All of the above happens before this novella begins. The live action of the story happens in The Senator’s car, which is slowly sinking in a murky pond. The Senator took a back road and, driving drunk and too fast, plowed through the guard rail of a wooden bridge. The car landed passenger side down and Kelly, strapped in her seat, is badly injured. The Senator is not. He opens his door and, using Kelly’s body for support, pushes himself up and out to safety. Kelly grasps at his leg so he won’t leave her and is left holding his shoe. She continues to hold onto his shoe, certain The Senator will return to rescue her. Hurt and delirious, she reviews her brief young life as the black water slowly rises around her. Eventually Kelly realizes The Senator is not coming back. Her hero has abandoned her.

Why is Black Water a good read for women? Writers are often asked where they get their ideas for stories. This one is a no-brainer. Joyce Carol Oates may have changed the names, but The Senator is Edward Kennedy and Black Water is a fictional account of Mary Jo Kopechne’s drowning at Chappaquiddick. Published in 1993, twenty-three years after the Chappaquiddick incident, the book gives the victim a voice that is hard to forget. There are lessons to be learned when an idealistic young person looks up to an older and experienced one, when esteem is misplaced and influence is misused. As her friend warned, Kelly’s impulsive act is regrettable in the extreme. Her mistake was to confuse experience with wisdom, charm with character, and power with courage. Her time alone in the car, as she comes to understand that her hopeful future is now impossible, is heartbreaking and haunting.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 27

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 27, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Capture Castle

The head of the Montmain family is a celebrated author who, back in the good times, leased a beautiful and isolated English castle that would inspire his writing. At the castle, James Montmain’s second wife Topaz could paint and commune with nature, his three young children could run wild and free, and he could write a second novel as ambitious and astounding as his first. That was the plan ten years ago, but the reality of the Montmain family as this novel begins is that James has had a decade-long bout of crippling writer’s block; Topaz is secretly selling furniture to buy food; his oldest daughter, beautiful Rose, desperately seeks an eligible man so she can marry and escape; young son Thomas is virtually unschooled; and middle daughter Cassandra, who wants to be a writer too, fills notebook after notebook of an intelligent seventeen-year-old’s worries, angst, and fantasies about her future. The castle is crumbling, literally and figuratively, around this eccentric family in a precarious life of what used to be called genteel poverty.

The novel takes place in the 1930s, over six months that change the fortunes of the Montmains. Cassandra narrates those months as she grows from child to young woman. As the child, she views the castle in its former romantic state, in the same way that she views their loyal friend and neighbor Stephen. As a young woman, she sees the castle as a prison and realizes that Stephen is in love with her, but she does not feel the same. The change of fortune comes through new landlords, the Cottons, a wealthy American family with two handsome and eligible sons. The polite and pragmatic Cotton lads are charmed by the exotic Montmain clan, and it’s not long before they both fall in love with Rose. Rose thinks the elder son, Simon, is the better catch, so she accepts his proposal, only to realize she’s falling in love with the younger son, Neil. Cassandra has fallen in love with Simon herself, but it is Rose who can save the Montmains by marrying well, even if that means marrying without love. Can Cassandra do the same, with her honorable and good Stephen?

Why is I Capture the Castle a good read for women? The author of this novel is Dodie Smith, best known for writing the children’s classic The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Cassandra is sensitive and insightful, but she is also very young, and her world view is limited by the isolation of her upbringing. Despite the struggle to meet the most basic needs of good food and proper clothing, and the tension and turbulence once the Cottons arrive, she remains focused on what she feels is her destiny—to be a writer. She gets no help from James, who has been only pretending to write for all these years, so she must struggle to “capture her castle” on her own. She does it through her painful and poignant experience with first love as she learns the meaning of loyalty and betrayal.