Monthly Archives: March 2014

Read Women 2014- March

My output this month isn’t as prolific as last month’s. For one, I’m back at work full-time and for another, the first book I chose for March was a massive biography. No quick read there. So for your Read Women 2014 pleasure, here are my March reads:

Book #12: Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations- Georgina Howell

Have you heard of Gertrude Bell? I had not, at least not that I could remember.  She was a scary smart badass. She took a first at Oxford (first women in her subject to do so), she learned Persian Farsi and Arabic along with several other languages like French and German, she was such an accomplished mountain climber there is a peak named after her, after journeying several times to that amorphous region known as “Arabia” (pre-World War I) she decided to become an archeologist as well. Maybe she was bored.

A contemporary of Lawrence of Arabia, she spoke better Arabic than him and helped map uncharted lands throughout greater Mesopotamia (yeah, she learned cartography as well). And she worked for the Red Cross and was a spy and was involved in the creation of the nation of Iraq. Ho hum.

Howell’s biography is very thorough and I enjoyed learning about Bell, warts and all. Her accomplishments were made easier (or possible) by independent wealth and the freedom that comes with it but she also lived at a time where women in England did not have the vote or many other rights we take for granted today. Her enlightened father encouraged her at every step of her various journeys and was the biggest influence in her life.

For all that I loved reading about Bell, the structure of the book was odd and made the story disjointed at times and repetitive. Instead of Bell’s life unfolding chronologically, after the early chapters of her life it was sorted into categories. I am not a fan. One chapter was “Desert Travel” and another dealt with her love affair with a British officer. These times in her life overlapped but the chapters had them in their own separate niches and this theme was followed throughout the book. It was disconcerting to read all about a certain part of her life only to get to the next chapter when the same bit was examined through a whole new perspective. A book just about her travels through the Arabian deserts would be amazing all on its own and I wish this part of her life would have received more attention.

Overall I enjoyed learning about this amazing woman and can only imagine what would have happened if she had a publicist as good as Lawrence’s. I wonder who would play her in the movie…

Book #13: Night in Shanghai- Nicole Mones

I want to go back in time and go to Shanghai and I am sad that the place evoked in Mones’s story no longer exists. The descriptions of the international city are so evocative I almost tapped my toes to the scenes of American jazz playing in the hot clubs around town and scrunched up my nose at some of the Chinese delicacies offered at the best restaurants.

Mones’s vivid accounts of Shanghai during the late 1930s and early 1940s are reason enough to read this book. Otherwise, the plot is uneven and jumps around without rhythm. Music is a major theme in the story that follows the life of African-American musician Thomas Greene who escapes the prejudice of his home country and finds freedom in the international jazz scene of Shanghai. The musical references can be heavy handed and a bit precious- Greene’s love is a woman named Song. I have a working knowledge of music theory and composition but I wonder how many scenes in the story would play for someone without that background. A fascinating subplot of the novel revolves around Jewish refugees from Europe resettling in China and I would love to read more about this subject.

Mones spent a lot time getting the Shanghai of this era just right, I would have liked the plot within the setting to be as tight and interesting.

Read Women 2014- February

In February I had a lot of time off work and got to read much more than I usually do, yay! I was off due to surgery on my arm and I couldn’t type or write so I got to read lots and not even feel guilty. I’ve linked each title to its Amazon page so you can read a synopsis on your own if you so wish. No particular endorsement of Amazon, it’s just easy to find pretty much any book on there. I don’t want to regurgitate a summary of each book every time, that’s boring for us both. Instead I’ll try to just give you a few quick observations about each book so I can get back to reading. So continued from January, here’s the next installment of Read Women 2014:

Book #4: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption– Laura Hillenbrand

This book was a natural for me because of my long held interest in World War II and my growing interest in the Pacific theater. If this wasn’t a true story it would be unbelievable. The horrors endured by Louie Zamperini after his plane was lost at sea and the unimaginable conditions of a POW camp in Japan are incredible in the classic sense of the world, straining credulity to the utmost. Humbling and somehow uplifting, this book will become a classic of its type.

Book #5: Carthage– Joyce Carol Oates

Carthage is the story of a young woman who goes missing and the effects it has on her family. At the beginning of this novel I felt despair-not because of the sad story but because I can’t imagine being able to write like Joyce Carol Oates. But I believe most people feel like that so I’m sure I’m not alone.

The feelings evoked by the disappearance of the daughter and her presumed murder are intense and masterfully portrayed by the author. So much so I often felt real pain for the family as the story unfolded. Not an easy book to read but a compelling one.

Book #6: The Haunting of Hill House– Shirley Jackson

I’ve long wanted to read this story. A classic of the “dare-you-to-stay-in-the-haunted-house” genre, this story creeped me out from start to finish. No gratuitous violence or gore, just a straight up mind f*ck, just the way I like it. If you like scary/sinister but are bored by buckets of blood, this story is for you.

Book #7: The Wicked Girls– Alex Marwood

This novel reminded me of the movie Beautiful Creatures, another story (based on fact) of young girls who commit a murder. However, in this book the author explores the life of the girls after they grow up and leave their respective detention centers and the tale picks up about 25 years after the precipitating event. This murder tale is unusual both because of who the murderers are (young girls) and how the story begins with their arrest rather than ending there. It’s a nice touch and makes this story stand out.

Book #8: Alena– Rachel Pastan

Alena is a modern retelling of Rebecca, the classic novel by Daphne du Maurier. I read the original Rebecca after reading so many books over the years that referenced it or paid homage to it by describing a particular type of nasty older woman as being like Mrs. Danvers. Rebecca was compelling enough although the ever unnamed main character was milquetoast and rather annoying.

Alena could not have the same impact because the secret wasn’t so secret if one had already read Rebecca. The secret was my biggest problem with this story. When unveiled my reaction was ho-hum. I didn’t care enough about any of the characters to care what happened to them. But, I didn’t care that much about Rebecca’s characters either. I find this is often the case in “must read” books. The hype is so large that I’m frequently disappointed in the reality.

Book #9: Pavilion of Women– Pearl S. Buck

The protagonist of this novel is Madame Wu, who is about to turn 40 and is done with the physical aspects of her marriage. She arranges a concubine for her husband so he won’t be neglected and sets in motion a chain of events. As usual with Buck, her characters are of a depth not apparent at first glance but so layered and nuanced that it is a pleasure to explore them. Madame Wu is very much a traditionalist with a goal of keeping her family happy and stable but she throws tradition aside when it becomes burdensome and threatens her family’s happiness. Like her China, Madame Wu has one foot in the past and tradition and another in a future of progressive and unsettling changes.

Book #10: Die a Little– Megan Abbott

I discovered this book when googling “tart noir,” a type of noir featuring female protagonists. All sorts of “best of” and “favorites” lists are out there in the Internet void so I took a gamble and ordered this up on my trusty Kindle. I’m so glad I did.

Die a Little is set in barely post-war Los Angeles. Characters smoke and drink so much I swear I got a buzz just from reading about the parties. So yeah, I loved it.

Book #11: Legwork– Katy Munger

I enjoyed Die a Little so much I decided to read another tart noir adventure. Legwork is more a straight up detective novel than Die a Little. Casey Jones, unofficial detective, is a woman after my own heart. The book opens with Casey and an occasional (and much younger) lover asleep in bed after an adventurous night. Munger had me right there. I’ll be reading more about Casey and her, umm, cases.

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