1. Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Bridal Wreath by Sigrid Undset
The more I read, the more I want to read great books. As I looked through some lists on Goodreads (love that place, by the way), I found a three-part series by a Norwegian woman, Sigrid Undset. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 and these three books were published between 1920-1922. Kristin Lavransdatter is a girl living in Norway during the Middle Ages. The Bridal Wreath is during Kristin's childhood and teenage years.
In some of the reviews I read of Undset's books, the readers wrote that they have to read these books every year. What?! The translation that I read (NOT the Tina Nunnally nonsense) left the language in Old English, which reminded me of reading The Canterbury Tales. It made the book feel more authentic, I thought. Anyway, as I was reading I couldn't figure out what was so compelling that anyone would need to read this every year. As a girl, Kristin is doted on by her father, Lavran, and lives a fairly easy life for a woman in the Middle Ages. Her father has done well and is very respected in their little Norwegian village. The family is quite religious (everything revolves around religion, superstition and spirituality) and Kristin is taught from a young age to revere the church and its leaders. Lavran and his wife, Ragnfrid (I call dibs on that name for a girl!) lose three baby boys in a row before they have Kristin. Throughout the book, Ragnfrid is described as being kind of a bummer - not much sympathy is given to poor Ragnfrid.
Kristin is betrothed to a good young man, Simon, and they are betrothed to each other for 10 years. Ha! Maybe it just seemed that long. Simon comes for visits and he is jolly... in the fat way. Kristin isn't that excited about marrying him, but she knows it will be good for her family, plus her parents, especially her father, really like him. Kristin has an unfortunate experience that ruffles her very much. She decides to spend a year in a convent in Oslo to get her bearings and prepare for her wedding and married life. Of course! While Kristin is living at the convent (I guess this was common for girls to keep them pure and to teach them everything they'd need to know as the woman of the house) she hooks up (LITERALLY HOOKS UP IN THE EXACT WAY YOU'RE THINKING) with a guy named Erland. We're talking sneaking out of the convent and getting together in the barn during a rainstorm.
At this point I had to stop and ask myself, is this a kissing book? Or worse, is this Twilight in disguise? Kristin shows absolutely no remorse or guilt about this whole turn of events (which isn't described in any detail - I had to go back and make sure my mind wasn't in the gutter) and in fact goes out of her way to be sneaky and get together with Erland as much as possible. So, Kristin is engaged, she has the weight of her family's honor on her shoulders, the love and pride of her doting father and she throws it all out for Erland, who is currently living with his married mistress who has given birth to two of his children. Thumbs down, Kristin.
When Kristin starts getting into the consequences of being slutty and a liar, that's when this book really got interesting to me. The lies get bigger, the confrontations get more unbearable. She confesses to a monk (a long-time family friend) and tries to justify her actions saying Erland has told her that they are fine because they've made promises to each other and that's enough. "I see well, Kristin, some one who knew it not to the full has spoken to you of the canonical law. You could not bind yourself by oath to this man without sinning against your father and mother: them had God set over you before you met him. And is it not a sorrow and a shame for his kin, too, if they learn that he has lured astray the daughter of a man who has borne his shield with honour at all seasons - betrothed, too, to another? I hear by your words, you deem you have not sinned so greatly - yet dare you not confess this thing to your appointed priest."
2. The Fields by Conrad Richter
The story of Sayward (Luckett) Wheeler in her early married life and her child-bearing years. Remember how much I loved The Trees, so I was looking forward to this book. At first there was a lot of talk about who owned how much land and where boundaries were and taxes and representation. It read a little too much like a dry history of any American town. I want to know who the people are and what they're doing!
Just in case you're my husband and you haven't finished The Trees yet.
I know the way Sayward and Portius ended up getting married was not exactly the greatest love story, but I was hoping their unspoken (but shown) respect for each other would develop into a great love story. He's educated and she knows how to do pretty much everything. I was disappointed - Portius leaves a lot to do lawyer stuff in the nearest town. Apparently it's enough for Sayward that she has babies (lots and lots of them) to care for and teach.
Once the story moves to Sayward and her children, that's when I enjoyed this book the most. Only one of the children dies (unusual for the time and circumstances) and even that was an accident and not because of disease or childbirth complications. Sayward is the real deal - Pioneer Stock. She starts selling little pieces of her land, first for the church, then a school, then a store where the boats can dock. Before she knows it, Sayward's home and property are at the center of an actual town. She has cleared the land with her bare hands (I love that her nemesis is tree stumps - I bet she couldn't have imagined a shortage of them).
Sayward's oldest son, Resolve (dibs!), is one of my favorite characters in The Fields. He works alongside his mother in everything that she does. They get each other completely. Sayward convinces Portius (her husband) to start the school just so Resolve can get a proper education. Resolve excels at book-learnin' and after his graduation speech Portius announces that Resolve will be apprenticing with him (Portius) in town as a lawyer. (Ta da! You are now a lawyer. That's the same now, eh?) When Portius makes the announcement in front of the gathered parents and students, I cried.
"Resolve sat stiff as a poking stick when he heard it... Out here in the school he saw his sisters Huldah and Libby peering at him and whispering together. But his eyes went to his mam? Did she hear that? his look said. Did she know what that meant? That was his pappy's way of saying Amen to what he did. He was telling out loud in front of everybody that he stood by him; that like father, like son. His Mam's eyes looked back at him warm but her face stayed calm as could be. That was his mam all over. You could never tell what thoughts she had behind that broad, steady, sweet-smelling face."
Something about this writing is just getting to me. So much is going on with so few words. The Fields is still better than a lot of books, but there is an added soap opera-y story that I thought was out of place. I thought Richter was better than that. (And in fact he may be. I read a review from a publisher at Knopf that said this particular printing of all three of the books in The Awakening Land had things that were not in Richter's original text. What the WHAT?) I would still recommend reading it - especially (and really, only) if you've read The Trees.
3. Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales by Ali Wentworth
You would probably recognize Ali Wentworth more for her appearance on Seinfeld as one of Jerry's girlfriends. (The one who called him Shmoopie and it was in the Soup Nazi episode.) Anyway, she has also been in other TV shows and a few movies. She's always funny and she seems like she'd be a fun friend. I read somewhere that Ali comes from a well-connected family in Washington DC (her mother was the Social Secretary to Nancy Reagan during the White House years) and I was intrigued. How did a debutante end up in Hollywood? Ali is well-educated and married to George Stephonopolous.
Ali in Wonderland is supposedly a memoir, but it was pretty disjointed. I'm wondering a little what is up with modern memoirs. I felt like I was reading a bunch of stories from a conversation competition - "Oh yeah? That happened to you? Well THIS happened to ME." Meh. Ali's internet show, The Daily Shot, is really funny. She's honest without being vulgar and you really get the sense that she is who she appears to be. Her personality just didn't come through on paper.
So, no recommendation for this book from me, but do check out her little news show online.