How To Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman (October 2013)

how-to-be-a-good-wife-emma-chapmanChapman has written a novel that reminds me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.  I suppose it also reminds me of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.  It’s quite a good book, I couldn’t put it down.  How To Be a Good Wife is creepy in a slowly oozing sort of way.  It’s not slow, I don’t mean that — it moves along quickly enough.  I just mean it’s scary, but not in the monster jumps out of closet suddenly way.  There is no graphic violence.  There was physical harm in the main character’s past, but it is not described in detail.  The harm is mostly psychological, and it is a harm that is primarily part of the female experience: the roles we play as young women, as wives, as mothers.  The novel is about how hard it can be to be believed, and how quickly our experiences can be trivialized.  There were two junctures in the novel where I thought, “but why aren’t you doing the obvious?!”  But I believe now that the failure of the main character to do some key things to save herself, while not rational, is realistic.  We make choices.  And it’s not always about saving ourselves, when our freedom and vindication and attainment of justice means, for someone else, destruction.  There are many questions that linger after finishing this novel, in the best sense.  I can see this being a great read for book clubs.  Advance Readers Copy provided by BEA.

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The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (October 2013)

signatureElizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, deserves every bit of that fame.  Her writing is exquisite.  This novel of the 19th century will sweep you away with the esthetic of it’s period language.  And that esthetic is not in the least bit stodgy; it’s rather humorous.  For a large book that covers two generations and travels the world (London, Philadelphia, Tahiti, Peru), it was quick and engulfing reading.  The story centers on Alma, a woman who does not fit her century’s mold for females:  She is not only brilliant, but she lives the full life of the intellect, pursuing a life-long study of mosses and evolutionary theory.  MOSSES?  you say.  Yes, mosses, that lowly plant that perhaps you dislike if it invades the shady places of your pristine lawn, or perhaps you discount because it has never grabbed your attention.  I’m actually quite fond of the stuff, having grown up close to the PNW rainforests.  And I once tried to grow it in my sidewalk garden, only to watch the fragile plant whither to wiry brownness in the unrelenting New York sun.  But I guffawed at first at the notion of spending one’s life dedicated to understanding moss.  Nonetheless, I was entranced by Alma’s enthusiasm and complete absorption in the subject.  And heartbroken at the price she paid for being brainy, tall, and not terribly attractive.  The consequences of Alma’s choices, coupled with those things out of her control — those aspects of her time and culture that determined her fate — combine to form a deeply drawn character whose life was, in the end, very full in spite of gnawing absences.  Like the fragile mosses she studied, Alma struggled to thrive.  But when she found the right ecosystem, she flourished.  One of the best books of the year, I think.  Advance Readers Copy supplied through BEA.

The Last Patriarch by Najat El Hachmi (Oct., 2011)

This book was actually published in 2008, when it won a most prestigious Catalan literary prize, but it’s just recently made it to U.S. shores.  And we are lucky readers, those of us who pick up this gem.  A gem that is caked with mud, perhaps.  I say that because there are places in this flowing, easy to read, conversational. even funny book where I felt sullied.  Not in an unwelcome way, and I did not resent it.  But in the way that truths about human nature, and the shock of bitter ironies we create, can make us face the inescapable.  It is often a most unpretty picture.  And yet this is a beautiful book that has us living the lives of characters far removed from the lives that many of us know.  I would recommend this book to the following readers:  anyone who has ever traveled to Spain or North Africa; anyone who has ever emigrated or even lived far from home; anyone who has ever grown up and known the optimism, fears, and dangers that accompany budding sexuality; anyone who has ever known, in their own lives or those close to them or strangers whose lives stir curiosity, the pull and push and pull and push of abuse at the hands of family; and anyone who has looked their religion and traditions in the eye and observed their many contradictory meanings.  So, hmmm . . . we have a book here, an adventure, that details an experience so removed — and yet, so very very close.

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