Book Review: The Red Tent

In high school, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant was on a list of optional summer reading–we had to read something from the list but not everything, and I opted to read something else.  I heard good things about the book from friends though, and it’s been floating at the back of my mind as something I ought to read some time ever since.  I’ve been reading through Genesis in the Bible recently and came to the portion about Jacob and his family–and decided it was time to finally get The Red Tent off my mental to-read list.  And after fifteen or so years…I felt mixed about the book!

I love the concept of this book so much that I’m surprised it took me this long to read it.  (Sort of.  More on that later.)  It’s the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and sister to his twelve sons (most famously, Joseph of the many-colored coat).  It retells the Biblical story of this very complicated family from the women’s perspective, focusing on Dinah and the four wives (ish) of Jacob.  Since the Bible tends to be heavily male, I love that concept–and reading through the Genesis account made me want to explore the women’s side.

But then I didn’t really love what was done with it.  The book starts before Dinah’s birth, telling the story of how Jacob met and married Rachel and Leah and (kind of) married their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah, and how all those brothers came along.  And that sounds complicated and interesting, but somehow the book wound up being very, very focused on sex, childbirth and circumcision.  And I can see how all of those would be important, but it was…very heavily weighted on those three topics.

The story improved for me once Dinah was born and it could focus on her rather than a vague omniscient story of her four mothers.  There was a lot that was interesting about the culture of the time, particularly the women’s culture.  I can’t honestly say how accurate any of it was, but at least as a possible perspective it was engaging.  I liked Dinah’s childhood probably best of any section of the book.

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Book Review: London

My book consumption, in terms of quantity, slowed down significantly in March, because I spent weeks reading just one book: London by Edward Rutherford.  1,200 pages of fairly small print, this is pretty much the definition of an epic tour de force.  It was a big undertaking (and I didn’t realize it would be so long until it arrived on the library’s hold shelf!) but it was definitely worth it.

London is historical fiction, with a little more emphasis on the “historical” than I usually like.  It begins, technically, four hundred million years ago with the formation of the Thames river valley.  It begins properly (on page 4) in 54 BC, in the Celtic village of Londinos on the Thames, where word has come of an approaching conqueror: Julius Caesar.  Starting with one family and gradually adding on more, Rutherford traces the history of London and several interlocking family trees down through the centuries.  The last chapter, an epilogue, is set in 1997, the year of the book’s writing, although the last proper story is during the Blitz.  I loved this way of telling a story, of a city and of its people.

It may have helped that I love London–I’ve never lived there, but I’ve visited five times and I miss it when I’m away.  I also enjoy British history, so most of the major developments I had some initial familiarity with.  There was still plenty in here I didn’t know and, more importantly, Rutherford brought it all to life with a beautiful balance of individual lives set against sweeping developments.

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Book Review: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Agatha Christie is one of my go-to authors for audiobooks–I’m not sure how that happened, but there it is.  The only downside to audio is that I can’t really flip back and see just what Dame Agatha said early on after a twist emerged, to decide if she lied to me or not.  Reading (listening to) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was particularly interesting because I happened to know the twist of the ending–it turned out to be fascinating to see how she built it all up.  And she definitely withheld information, but she didn’t actually lie!

This is the third Hercule Poirot mystery, the fussy Belgian detective best known (I think) for The Murder on the Orient Express.  In classic Christie fashion, wealthy Roger Ackroyd is found murdered in his study, rendering everyone else in the house a suspect.  Poirot sifts through the web of motives, alibis and deceptions with the help of Dr. Sheppard, our first person narrator for the story.  Everyone has something to hide, and the final twist truly is magnificent.

This was my favorite kind of mystery–an intricate puzzle with piece after piece gradually fitting together until the entire picture makes sense.  There are many layers of narrative here, as most characters have something going on unrelated (but we don’t always know that) to the central murder.

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Book Review: The Inimitable Jeeves

In my quest for more funny reads this year, I turned to P.G. Wodehouse and an audiobook of The Inimitable Jeeves.  I am happy to report much hilarity was found.

This is the thirdish Jeeves book I’ve read–the previous two were both short story collections and turned out to have some overlapping.  This one was more properly a novel, but still very much episodic.  The premise was much the same as it was throughout the short stories: English gentleman Bertie Wooster gets into some sort of social scrape–or has a friend in said-scrape, in this book frequently Bingo Wilcox, who falls in love a good half-dozen times throughout the book–and turns to his utterly unruffled manservant Jeeves for help.  Or, alternatively, he tries to go it alone because he and Jeeves are on the outs, probably because Bertie is making a firm stance around a flamboyant article of clothing which Jeeves disapproves of.  Either way, Bertie usually manages to make the situation worse before Jeeves ultimately solves it with an ingenious manipulation of human nature.

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Book and TV Review: Father Brown

I’ve been watching the TV series Father Brown (a BBC series, available on Netflix) for many months now, and it’s quite delightful.  I thought I’d try the original stories, written by G. K. Chesterton, and got The Innocence of Father Brown. the first collection of short stories, from the library.  It was an engaging book with some clever mysteries–though not quite the Father Brown I was looking for.

Father Brown is a Catholic priest in England, with a knack for solving mysteries.  Many of the short stories in this first book feature Hercule Flambeau, first as a criminal and then reformed into a detective.  The setting is mostly London, I think in the late 1800s.  Some of the stories relate to Father Brown’s activities as a priest, though less than you might expect.  The connection is more through the insights Father Brown has gained as a priest than through plot connections.

The TV show, on the other hand, moves the setting to the Cotswolds in the 1950s, where Father Brown is pastor of St. Mary’s Church.  Here his parish work is much more integral to the stories, as usually some aspect of his priest work brings him into contact with the crime–nearly always murder.  The TV show adds in additional supporting characters: Mrs. McCarthy, parish secretary and quite proper; Lady Felicia, local aristocracy and not so proper; Sid, chauffeur to Lady Felicia; and, in later seasons, Bunty, Lady Felicia’s very modern niece.  There’s also an ongoing parade of local police chiefs, none of whom appreciate this priest interfering in the world of crime.

The short stories were interesting and engaging, but the TV show is charming and delightful–so it probably didn’t set me up that well for the short stories!  The tone just feels very different.  The Cotswold setting is a big part of the charm (though one does have to wonder about the number of murders happening in this idyllic rural village!) Continue reading “Book and TV Review: Father Brown”

Book Review: The Go-Between

Based on anecdotal evidence, you likely have never heard of The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, but you might know its opening line: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”  I picked the book up recently because Michael Crawford (of Phantom of the Opera fame) starred in a musical play based on the book–which was why I went to England last September! (I’d have gone eventually…but that was why it happened then.)  The play was wonderful, Crawford was magnificent, and the book was pretty good too.

The Go-Between centers around Leo Colston, an older man remembering the summer he turned thirteen.  He spent it with a school friend’s family, at an estate much above his own social class.  There he had his first crush, on his friend’s older sister Marion, and became the go-between for Marion and Tom, a local farmer.  And while it all seems quite cheerful at first, we know something went horribly wrong.

This is one of those charming, terribly British books that manages to be incredibly discreet, while centering the entire plot around a scandal.  Marion and Tom are of course carrying on a torrid affair, despite the class difference, despite Marion’s coming engagement–but even though the affair is at the center of everything, I don’t think Hartley ever once says so!  But I like that–because we all know what’s going on, but Hartley is subtle and clever about conveying it.  And it also is a good mirror for Leo himself, who is (somewhat out of his own desire) in the dark for most of the book. Continue reading “Book Review: The Go-Between”

Book Reviews: Good Masters, Sweet Ladies and Crispin

I accidentally paired two Newberys lately, and found myself reading two books about small medieval villages in a row.  Which actually worked out well, as a lot of historical elements paralleled and supported each other.

First I read Good Masters, Sweet Ladies: Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz.  An unusual format, this is a collection of monologues (and two dialogues).  Each speaker is a different character from the same village, each speaking about his/her life.

Considering the presentation, I was impressed by how vividly the characters and world came to life.  Originally written for a school pageant (giving each child a good part), all the characters are children.  They’re a wide range of classes and life situations, from the Lord’s son to the beggar boy.  Altogether they depict the society, its rules and hierarchies throughout the village.

I liked best the monologues that built on each other, as when the Lord’s daughter spoke about having a clod of mud thrown at her and her confusion…followed by the monologue of the girl who threw it, and her hard home life, envy of the Lord’s daughter, and ultimate remorse. Continue reading “Book Reviews: Good Masters, Sweet Ladies and Crispin”