Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout

Paperback, 320 pages
Published February 1st 2000 by Vintage (first published 1998)

0375705198 (ISBN13: 9780375705199)
original title
Amy and Isabelle: A Novel

Goodreads Synopsis:
In a novel about emotional exile, Elizabeth Strout explores the secrets of sexuality that jeopardize the love between a mother and her daughter.
** spoiler alert ** This was a very well-crafted look at a troubled relationship between a mother and a daughter. What I loved about it was how true to form it was – the estrangement between mother and daughter was expected and realistic, and the ways they acted out both with & away from each other demonstrated the anger and hurt each was experiencing.I hated to see Amy start down a path that was at best painful and at worst mentally & emotionally destructive, but I understood what drove her desire. S…moreThis was a very well-crafted look at a troubled relationship between a mother and a daughter. What I loved about it was how true to form it was – the estrangement between mother and daughter was expected and realistic, and the ways they acted out both with & away from each other demonstrated the anger and hurt each was experiencing.I hated to see Amy start down a path that was at best painful and at worst mentally & emotionally destructive, but I understood what drove her desire. She was hurting…she felt weird and ugly…and here is an adult man who made her feel special. She was young and innocent, and didn’t see that she was being played the fool by an unwholesome – and ultimately cruel – man.

I hated that Isabelle was so closed off that she refused to allow herself to connect with friends, preferring instead to maintain her privacy and superior attitude toward virtually every woman with whom she came in contact, including her daughter. I hated that she didn’t understand the need for friendship, because she felt that her existence, such as it was, was sufficient. She wasn’t happy, and she didn’t see a need to be. She fantasized about her boss, an older, frumpy, married man…this personal secret was more valuable to her than a real, loving relationship.

I hated that, when Isabelle found out about Amy’s improper relationship with her teacher, that she attacked her physically, but it was clear that she couldn’t help it at that moment. I hated that she never apologized. But what was good as a result of this meltdown was that the fault lines in the walls she had erected around her life were irreparable, and she finally was able to accept offers of friendship from the women in her office…kind, decent, ordinary women who reached out with tenderness when Isabelle finally admits her own indiscretions. Better even was her recognition that she had hurt her daughter in a way that until that moment she was unaware of, and her heartfelt remorse for that lead to a shift in their relationship that began to heal it.

What was perhaps my only quibble with the book was that, at the very end, Amy comes to the unfortunate understanding that she had a sexual attraction to older men, that they would pursue her, and that she wanted that. The visual encounter with (what I would call) a potentially pervy man in a diner on the way to visit her family showed me that she had learned nothing except that her obsession with Mr. Robertson would end, and there would be others to replace it. How sad.

The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain

Audio CD, 6 disks (6.5 hours)
Published December 15th 2002 by Tantor Media (first published May 10th 1893)

ISBN:1400100682 (ISBN13: 9781400100682)
primary language:English
original title:The Tragedy of Puddn’head Wilson
4 stars overall / 4 stars audio narration

Goodreads Synopsis:
Switched at birth by a young slave woman who fears for her son’s life, a light-skinned infant changes place with the master’s white son.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and am reminded as I am each & every time I read Twain just how good he is. This is a tall tale, to say the least, but wholly entertaining and fun. I love the idea of just desserts, and clearly Twain did too, so the conclusion was a very satisfying end to a tale that was complex, exciting & fun.


Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Audiobook, 7 disks (9 hours)
Published April 1st 2005 by Audio Renaissance (first published November 4th 2004)

ISBN:1593978227 (ISBN13: 9781593978228)
original title:Gilead
4 stars overall / 4 stars audio narration

Goodreads synopsis:
“In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowa preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He “preached men into the Civil War,” then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle. Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father – an ardent pacifist – and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend’s wayward son.” This is also the tale of another remarkable vision – not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames’s soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.
I tried to read this a few years ago and didn’t get very far. This time I loved it, and that is a testament to how being in a different frame of mind can make a huge difference in whether or not a book is enjoyable. I think the fact that I listened to it this time helped, as the narrator was excellent. He had exactly the right voice for John Ames, and It was easy to picture him and everyone of whom he spoke. I also thoroughly enjoyed how Marilynne Robinson wrote such a lovely book without being afraid to deal with meaty religious issues. This book is certainly not a theological epistle, but it isn’t pablum either. It is beautifully rendered, and the portrait I came away with was of John Ames as a man of strong faith, a devoted husband & father in the sunset of his life, and a man humble enough to recognize his own fallibility and frailty.There were several points through the where I had to back up and listen again, because the passage was perfectly written and profound. Perhaps my favorite was about love, and specifically that love and grace are alike in that the quality/goodness of the object is rarely the most important aspect. So true.This was a great read, and one that will remain with me for a while.

Hearts on a String by Kris Radish

Paperback, 336 pages
Published May 25th 2010 by Bantam (first published 2010)
ISBN:  0553384759 (ISBN13: 9780553384758)

Bestselling author Kris Radish delves deeply into the emotions of five very different women who are thrown together by chance—only to discover that they have more in common than they ever could have imagined.

Holly Blandeen has always cherished the story her grandmother told her about the thread that connects all women, tying them forever in sisterhood. It’s a beautiful idea, but with all the curveballs life has thrown her way, Holly has often felt isolated, different from other women. That starts to change when she meets four strangers in an airport and they agree to share a luxury hotel suite because a powerful spring storm is barreling across the country, stranding travelers from California to Florida. What begins as a spur-of-the-moment decision becomes an unlikely, unexpected, and sometimes reluctant exercise in female bonding, as these five exceptional women—each at a crossroads—swap stories, share secrets, and seek answers to the questions they’ve been asking about life, love, and the path to true happiness. A storm may have grounded them for the moment, but after this wild adventure in which anything can and does happen, they’ll never have to fly solo again.

My thoughts:
I barreled through this book over the weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Granted, there are elements of the story that are highly implausible, but who cares? What is suspension of disbelief for if not for reading (and enjoying) the most outrageous of stories?? This is total escapist reading…fun, entertaining, crazy, well written (yay!!) and satisfying in the end.

4 Stars

Making Waves by Cassandra King

Paperback, 304 pages
Published April 7th 2004 by Hyperion (first published 1995)
ISBN:  0786887931 (ISBN13: 9780786887934)
original title:  Making Waves

In a small Alabama town in Zion County, life is finally looking up for 20-year-old Donnette Sullivan. Having just inherited her aunt’s old house and beauty shop, she’s taken over the business. Her husband, Tim, recently crippled in an accident, is beginning to cope not only with his disability but also with the loss of his dreams. Once a promising artist who gave up art for sports, Tim paints a sign for Donnette’s new shop, Making Waves, that causes ripples throughout the small southern community. In a sequence of events-sometimes funny, sometimes tragic — the lives of Donnette, Tim, and others in their small circle of family and friends are unavoidably affected. Once the waves of change surge through Zion County, the lives of its people are forever altered.

Cassandra King was born in Alabama, where she has taught English and writing. Her second novel, The Sunday Wife, was published to terrific reviews and acclaim. She now lives in South Carolina’s low country with her husband, Pat Conroy, whom she met when she asked him to write a quote for Making Waves.

My thoughts:

Well, this was an enjoyable enough book, but I got to the end and was left unsatisfied. As with previous books by Cassandra King, I enjoyed the writing style a lot. I really like the way she tells the story from different perspectives in order to weave a more complex & compelling story. However, in this case, I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likable. Understandable, yes. Likable, not so much.

Let’s start with Tim: He was a good looking jock with a neglected talent & passion for drawing. But he had no self motivation. He pursued what others told him to pursue, but couldn’t seem to make his own decisions.

Taylor: Sarcastic, prone to stir up trouble, and as it turns out, mentally & emotionally unstable. He loved Tim as a friend, and more, and Tim was caught up in the confusion of adolescence. He was weak, covered his weakness in bravado, and his Aunt Della covered for him as well. Only Donnette seemed to really have his number.

Donnette: Manipulative, ignorant, suspicious, and with a fairly simple understanding of the world. Definitely not stupid, and though she misconstrued a lot due to her sheltered life, she understood Taylor. She was also determined to have her man to herself, and would do whatever she needed to so that would happen. She was the perfect stereotype of a small town Southern woman.

Aunt Della: A frail, old woman who was much to forgiving of Taylor’s weaknesses and vices. She loved him like her own son, but raised him in a completely undisciplined way. He was devoted to her, and she to him, which was good, since they were all each other had.

Sonny & Ellis: Vile, ugly, vengeful, rude and manipulative, and ultimately stupid. This is a very, very bad combination.

Daddy Clark: He was a mean, bigoted son-of-a-bitch who used his “religion” to back up how he behaved. He had one view of the world, and anyone who didn’t see things his way didn’t see things the right way. If he couldn’t get you to see things his way, he just forced his will on you. There was no other option.

Aunt Opal: A mean, bigoted alcoholic.

The various other minor characters were not more likable, and while the overall story was engaging, I came away from this book with fairly ambiguous feelings overall. Perhaps the most frustrating part of the story (for me) was the idea (voiced often by Donnette) that some friends and family are completely dispensable. Cat, for instance, who should have made a real appearance in the story. Charlotte, for another. Overall, some additional character development might have rendered this a much more compelling & satisfying read. King has done this in other novels, which made this read disappointing for me.

3 Stars

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Audio CD, 8 disks (9 hours)
Published August 25th 2007 by Brilliance Audio (first published 1920)
ISBN:  1423310888 (ISBN13: 9781423310884)
original title:  This Side of Paradise

4 stars overall / 4(ish) stars audio narration

Fitzgerald’s first novel, reprinted in the handsome Everyman’s Library series of literary classic, uses numerous formal experiments to tell the story of Amory Blaine, as he grows up during the crazy years following the First World War. It also contains a new introduction by Craig Raine that describes critical and popular reception of the book when it came out in 1920.

My thoughts:
Never have I read a more elegantly written novel about…well…pretty much nothing. Amory Blaine – the Romantic Egotist – is consumed with himself, lazy, idle, and bored with everything except his own opinions & women. This is the entire focus of This Side of Paradise, and I am astonished that Fitzgerald could find this much to say about so little. Nevertheless, the writing is witty & clever, and as such makes a spectacularly unlikeable character almost palatable. I enjoyed it, even when I was wanting to slug Amory. There’s something to be said for an author who can provoke that reaction.