Tuesday, April 30, 2013

April 2013 Book Reports

1. Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

I think I was mixing up "Roman Holiday" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's."  Now I know I've seen "Roman Holiday" and I have not seen the movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's."  The novel is very short - more like a novella.  I've never read Truman Capote's work, but I've heard (read? something) that he is a sharp-tongued (penned) little man.  He was friends with some famous people, then he wrote about them viciously and honestly and then he was no longer friends with those famous people.  I think. (This reminds me of George Washington making friends with the writers of his day because he knew they would be responsible for how he would be presented to the generations that followed.  Astute.)  In any case, I would have remembered seeing beautiful and pure Audrey Hepburn portraying a 19 year-old prostitute.  Holly Golightly is a prostitute.  Did anyone else get that?  Look at that photo of her!  She's delightful and pulled together and so stylish.  In the book, she's supposedly stylish as well, but she also smokes like a chimney (a number of substances), drinks all day long, parties all night long, and charges old men for a few minutes in the powder room with her.  No one looks that fresh-faced and has that lifestyle.  Fiction!

I guess I was supposed to fall in love with Holly Golightly (like every other character in the book, including the narrator who lives in the apartment above her).  She wasn't nice to anyone, though, and she was gross.  I did like Capote's catty style, though.  I'd read his stuff again.  Maybe if the book was longer and Holly had more of a chance to be redeemed?  It was too hard to be sympathetic to a woman like that.  Even when I pictured her as Audrey Hepburn.

Whipple's books were so popular that several were made into movies.  They Were Sisters was made into a movie very soon after it was published in 1945.
2.  They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
I am a sucker for any books about sisters.  It is one of the central themes of my life - I am a sister!  This book (a Persephone book) was riveting to me.  I stayed up late into the night reading, I neglected my chores during the boys' naps to read instead.  About halfway through, I looked up Dorothy Whipple's other books and put almost all of them on my To Read list on Goodreads.  I love her.  Whipple was hugely popular in her day (late 1930s and early 1940s).  She fell out of popularity because "domestic fiction" fell out of fashion.  What a treasure to discover!  Domestic fiction!  Who knew.

They Were Sisters follows the relationship between three sisters; Lucy, Charlotte, and Vera.  Their mother died when Lucy was in her early teens and the other two were very young.  Lucy gained a feeling of responsibility for her little sisters.  She followed them to dances, always in the backseat, always sitting on the sidelines watching instead of participating.  Charlotte falls in love with a Jerk (Geoffrey) and Vera and Lucy can both see that the marriage is doomed, but they can't stop it.  Vera is the most beautiful woman in every room and she marries a man, Brian, who worships her, but the worship doesn't go both ways.  Lucy marries a little later in life to a comfortable and insightful man, William.  Lucy settles down in the country with William and even with the sadness of being unable to have children, they are happy.  Content.  Lucy has spent her life listening to people talk because she recognizes their need.  "Talking about themselves restores most people.  It was only exceptional people like William, thought Lucy, who had no need to talk about themselves."  Truth bomb!

Charlotte and Vera both have children, but neither is terribly interested in their children.  Charlotte because she is scared to death of disturbing her stupid husband (who is The Worst, for real) and Vera because she is too vain and selfish to care about anyone but herself.  Lucy invites Charlotte and Vera to come to her house in the country for a few weeks and Charlotte brings along her youngest, three year-old Judith.  I absolutely fell in love (we were going steady before this) with Dorothy Whipple's writing when little Judith appeared.  She captured the way a little girl behaves down to the eyelash.  Judith takes a big whiff of her Auntie Vera when they meet and then exclaims, "Oohh!  Lovely."  :)  This first visit (in the book, anyway) restores the bond between the sisters.  Unless you've experienced it, you may not be able to appreciate how a visit with sisters can be so restorative.  There may be things we don't share, but when I'm with any of my sisters, my guard is down completely.  They know everything!  We have talked into the night when we were just discovering who we are.  We have done each others hair and make-up and laughed until we were in pain.  There is no other relationship quite like it.

They Were Sisters is also about marriage.  Charlotte made a terrible choice in Geoffrey (have I mentioned that he is THE WORST) and we have to watch Charlotte slowly be destroyed by this choice.  Vera is awful to sweet Brian.  She flirts with other men and spends Brian's money and rolls her eyes at everything he does.  This selfishness destroys Vera's marriage in an unexpected way.  Lucy and William are good to and for each other, which makes their lives happy.  During their last visit together, Vera asks Lucy if what we do here (on earth) really matters.  "It matters to ourselves, of course, but it matters terribly to other people.  Moral failure or spiritual failure or whatever you call it, makes such a vicious circle...  It seems as if when we love people and they fall short, we retaliate by falling shorter ourselves.  Children are like that.  Adults have a fearful responsibility.  When they fail to live up to what children expect of them, the children give up themselves.  So each generation keeps failing the next."  More truth.

Auntie Lucy becomes Judith's lifeline (and eventually Vera's daughter, Sarah's, as well).  Judith will be okay!  Thank goodness.  I don't know if I could have handled it if that rotten Geoffrey got away with ruining so many people.  I found myself thinking a lot about what actually makes me happy.  Whipple really got it right - getting everything you want easily does not bring happiness.

I put this on my All Time Favorites list.  I loved loved LOVED They Were Sisters.  LOVED.

3.  The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore

Any book that followed my new favorite author was going to suffer by comparison.  It didn't help that Jennifer Gilmore is a modern author (this book came out April 9).  Every modern author I've read (except Marilynne Robinson, who is amazing) tends to sound too... privileged? spoiled? self-righteous?  I can't put my finger on it.  There is a lack of empathy, though.  And humility.  Moving on...

This is a memoir disguised as a novel.  The narrator and her husband have gone through invitro fertilization a few times and since they are nearing 40, they decide to adopt a baby to get their family started.  The subject matter is what made me buy this book on the day it came out.  Jesse and Ramon go through the adoption process (as it was in 2010 and 2011).  I was interested to hear something (anything) sympathetic to adoptive couples.  When it was us (from 2005 to 2006 and then again from 2007 to 2010), there were many many times during our training sessions and meetings with case workers that I felt like I'd been slapped in the face for... no reason, really.  One case worker told me that she didn't show a birthmother our file because I was "too short."  (This birthmother found us on her own and chose us, but it didn't work out.)  Too short for what?  To be a mother?  Huh?  At an all-day training session, the adoption agency case workers (two single women in their early twenties, both wearing hats) who were teaching us what to expect and how to navigate the process of adoption told us that a birthmother's grief and pain "trumped" ours "every time."  I'm still stunned by that blanket statement to a room full of couples who had gone through humiliating and expensive medical procedures, some had had multiple miscarriages, some were nearing the age when there was no way they would be chosen after years of wanting a baby - a family.  Why were we even talking about whose grief was winning?  Oh, man.  I better stop there.

The Mothers was familiar, in conclusion.  Gilmore has clearly been there.  A few parts were fun for me - finally getting an "amen" to some of the things I've thought about over the years.  Her description of the all-important letter to the birthmother and the photos; "We learned the word count for birthmother letters (950 words), what we should communicate in these letters (who we are, where we're from, why we've chosen open adoption, just to start), the sizes of the photos (five by seven for the main one, the one that should communicate visually that we are in love, which should be in front of a seasonless plant), what we should be doing in the photos, what we should be wearing in the photos (bright colors), what we should be thinking in the photos (how much we want to be parents)."  It's funny, 'cause it's TRUE. :-)

While it was nice to feel a little vindication on some points, I didn't think The Mothers was a good book.  Gilmore threw in a lesbian kiss (why?), a flimsy marital relationship, over-reactions to every little situation the wife, Jesse, found herself in.  I think Gilmore focused too much on the negative aspects of the process of adoption.  Of course they are there and it's fun to point them out and show the absurdity, but when she couldn't find the humor or the humanity or bring some new insight to the table, she should have left it alone.  Also, the book ends (abruptly) when they finally get chosen by a birthmother.  Gilmore had a chance to bring the whole thing around!  The reason why we went through the adoption process twice, why we were willing to listen to people say odd and hurtful things to us... because it is amazing, that's why!  Every insanity is worth it.  There are few experiences to compare with that pure, unselfish moment when a birthmother signs papers making us parents.  She can only be thinking of this little baby's future life - her fear of how she is going to feel has to be put aside.  It's a powerful, eternal moment.  That's motherhood.

4.  Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science's First Family by Shelley Emling
I didn't know anything about Marie Curie before reading this book, so I found her accomplishments staggering.  However, the author didn't deliver on the "private lives" part.  I'm betting there is a much better book out there (probably Marie's daughter, Eve's) on Marie Curie.  This one is BO-ring.

Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium.  They are the reason we have X-rays today.  Marie is Polish and Pierre is French.  Marie's mother, an educator and gifted piano player (player piano), died when she was forty-two.  Her father devoted himself to the education of his children.  When Marie was eleven years-old, the headmistress of her school told her father that Marie was at the top of her class, but more sensitive than her peers and she suggested holding Marie back.  Marie's father did the opposite, sending her to a Russian-run school that catered to high achievers.  That was one of their family "things" - Sklodowskis always go forward, not back.  I liked that a lot.

During the World War I, Marie and her oldest daughter, Irene, had a small fleet of ambulances equipped with X-ray machines that they took to battlefields to treat injured soldiers.  Awesome, right?!  Irene was also a gifted scientist (she also married a scientist and the two of them discovered atomic fission, which was then used to create the atomic bomb).  Irene and Marie shared a really wonderful relationship, it sounds like.  They both devoted every moment to research in Marie's lab.  Marie had a lab because she did a tour of America raising funds to buy a gram of radium, which was $150,000 in 1921.  YIKES.  Americans loved her so much that she was bombarded by reporters and universities wanting her to speak.  They even had different companies bidding for the opportunity to be the ones to provide Marie with her radium.  Eve Curie, Marie and Pierre's youngest daughter, was not a scientist.  She did become a war correspondent during World War II and she was a great writer.  I think she was my favorite because she was always so gracious about her mother and her sister Irene.  "'You are not mixing me up with my sister by any chance?" she said to a journalist who requested an interview in 1972.  'You see, I am the only one of my family not to have won a Nobel Prize.'"  Endearing, right?

So with all that rich material, it should have been a great read.  The last half was really bad - I couldn't stay awake to read it.  And I was on vacation.  Missed again on the vacation read.  Still, I'm glad to at least know what Madame Curie did to be so famous. :)


allyn said...

I think the amazing thing about sister stories is at it depicts how very different three people growing up together can turn out as adults. I do love a good visit with the sistas. Rejuvenating every time! Why make sweet Audrey Hepburn a whore? For real.

melissa said...

Now you definitely have to see Breakfast at Tiffany's. Audrey Hepburn as a prostitute is not nearly as upsetting as Mickey Rooney as her Asian upstairs neighbor. So very wrong.

Jill said...

So much to say....

First of all, watch the movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's." You'll like Holly Golightly so much more in the movie. But, yes, she is still a prostitute, albeit, The more expensive "escort" type. Not gross in the movie at all.

I'm LOVING "They Were Sisters!" ,and I don't even have any sisters of my own to make the story more relatable. I didn't finish reading your write-up on it though because I didn't want to spoil the story for myself. Thanks again for letting me borrow your copy. Let me know if you get your hands on any more Dorthy Whipple.

I loved reading about some of your experiences with adoption. You should write a book about it yourself. You certainly know what makes a good book!

Jill said...

Oh yeah, one more thing...I love Marilynn Robinson!