I came across the idea of Read Women 2014 in a Guardian article titled the “Year of reading women” which discusses a bias toward male (especially white) authors in the literary community. I’m not sure why this is a surprise to anyone but I liked the idea of dedicating a year to reading books by women and writers of color to try and even up the scales a bit. I didn’t read the article until the beginning of February but since the last few books I had read had been by women anyway I thought I could backdate my year to cover those. I won’t promise to read no books by men in 2014 (doesn’t seem any more fair to entirely boycott them than it was to ignore female authors) but I’ll keep it to a 5:1 ratio at most. Deal?
Now you’ll get to see the glorious randomness of my reading habits, including anything from serious histories of World War I to the latest serial killer in a page turning thriller. I won’t apologize for anything, I love to read and have never read a book and not learned something from it.
Book #1: Chances by Jackie Collins
What can I say? I love a guilty pleasure and it doesn’t get much guiltier than Jackie Collins. I devoured her books when I was a teenager and they’re a great time as an adult. I had just been through a rough patch in my life and need a good escapist read. When I saw a copy of Chances at my local book warehouse I knew it was just what I was looking for.
Chances is the first book of the Santangelo family series and tells the story of Gino Santangelo and his rise from a dirt poor immigrant kid to millionaire as well as the story of his daughter, Lucky, who is trying to make her name in a world of strong men, none as tough as her mob connected father. Other characters include a child prostitute turned New York society matron, a spoiled Greek heiress, a straight as an arrow District Attorney, and dozens of others from two bit hustlers looking for a deal to a Unites States Senator with a secret.
Jackie Collins’ books are fast-paced and her dialogue is slangy. She never uses “said” when she can use “gasped” “stormed,” or “fumed” instead which would drive me crazy except I plow through the book so fast I don’t even notice. While the author in real life moves in movie and entertainment circles (some of the fun of reading her books is trying to decide what movie or pop star a character is based on), Chances has its share of poor and desperate characters like prostitutes and starving artists. She cares for her downtrodden characters as much as her high rollers and they often are more likable than her pampered rich people or bratty movie stars.
I’m not going to defend Chances as serious literature or declare it peopled with multi-faceted and deep characters but I will declare it as fun, fun, fun. So if you need a break between reading the first volume of War and Peace and the second, give Jackie Collins a whirl.
Book #2: Divergent by Veronica Roth
I’m not sure how I came across this first book in this young adult dystopian series. I was looking for a book to read and when I checked out my Amazon wishlist I found Divergent saved there. I do this a lot, I’ll read a brief review about a book or someone will mention a title to me and I’ll save it in the Amazon list for later and when later comes have no idea what that book is. In any case, although I’m a 40ish (shhh!) woman who leans more to mystery/thrillers for my fun reads, I like to sample all sorts of genres. I read and enjoyed the Hunger Games books so I thought why not and loaded Divergent up on the trusty Kindle. Any book with a teenaged girl who is not obsessed with finding the perfect boyfriend is already ahead in my eyes.
Divergent is set in a future post-apocalyptic Chicago where people have divided up into factions dependent on their most defining traits. The Dauntless are brave, the Abnegation are selfless, the Amity are kind, the Candor are honest, and the Erudite are smart. When children turn sixteen they are tested for their aptitude for a faction but are allowed to make the final choice of which to join on their own.
Our heroine Beatrice is conflicted and when tested is shown to be Divergent, a shamed and feared condition that her tester is so horrified by she fudges the results and tells Beatrice she should keep her condition a secret or risk fear and condemnation from all members of society, but I’m never quite sure why. Heeding her advice, the adventurous Beatrice hides her Divergent nature and forges her own way during the initiation period even while the fragile society is breaking down around her.
I liked this story and I especially liked how strong Beatrice (who later goes by Tris) is while not even realizing it. Her self doubts make her real even while her fellow initiates are intimidated by her abilities. She’s not big or strong but her perseverance and stubbornness and innate abilities carry her through her initiation ordeals.
There is a love interest in the story but it’s a side plot and not the main focus of the novel. The story is focused on Tris’s struggles to succeed in her harsh environment and even thrive.
I did have a few problems with the book. I found many of the scene descriptions confusing and couldn’t visualize some of the complex settings found in the story. Another problem was that of numbers. This was set in a future Chicago and while much of the city was abandoned, the number of initiates for each faction still seemed woefully low. Where there really only a few dozen 16 year olds each year making their all important choices of which factions to join? These problems weren’t overwhelming but did distract me at times from what was otherwise an enjoyable and quick read. I’ll probably read the next one but won’t make it a priority.
Book #3: How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate by Wendy Moore
The key word in this book is research. If you happen to read the Kindle version of the book, just know that it actually ends about 2/3 of the way in, the rest of the book consists of notes. It was enough to make the history major in me swoon.
Besides the voluminous notes and painstaking details of this story, the premise itself is very interesting. The main focus of the book is the search of the 18th century philosopher, poet, and writer Thomas Day for the perfect wife but when he fails in this endeavor, he changes tactics and tries to create the perfect wife instead. It’s crazy and it sure keeps you reading to see what happens. One thing I love about nonfiction is the stuff an author can get away with. Thomas Day walks into an orphanage one day and walks out with a pre-teen girl not long after to be the guinea pig in his experiment fashioned from Rousseau’s early ideas on education. Hedging his bets, he picks up another orphan a short time later so he can double his luck. If this had been a novel I might have been shaking my head by this point, my suspension of belief wavering. But this actually happened.
At times Moore belabors her Pygmalion analogy (the statue coming to life i.e., the orphan girl, and falling in love with her creator, i.e., Day) and gets a bit repetitious but I think this might be in part to emphasize the factual aspect of this story. I really wanted to find out the results of Day’s experiments and what happened to everyone involved.
I didn’t like this book quite as much as Moore’s Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore. That story was black/white, good/bad and it was easier to root whole heartedly for the poor wife at the center of the awful marriage. The characters in How to Create a Wife were more ambiguous. While my sympathies were with the orphan girls and his other love interests, Day had some redeeming qualities such as giving vast sums of money to the poor which made him not so much a pure villain as the husband of Mary Eleanor Bowes.
Dazzled by the research and the entertained by the scandalous nature of the story, I was sad when I reached the end. I’m two for two now with Wendy Moore and will certainly be reading more of her work.
I don’t have my whole book list for February, I often don’t know what I’m going to read next until I start it, but I have begun the first book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. If you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them.