The Homesman

The Homesman educated me about some of the hardships specific to women who settled the American Mid-West in the 1850’s. The land was cruel; the loneliness brutal. Families settled on land far from one another with very little community support established. As much as Glendon Swarthout captured how they tried to look out for one another as best they could, for the most part, each family were on their own.

The story centers on a small group of families where the woman of the household has gone mad. Each story that accompanies the madness is so sad and personal, but the hard reality is that the women cannot stay on their farms with no one to care for them and the men needing to care for the land. They need to be sent back east to families or possible sanitariums to care for them. While many of the women suffered things that women elsewhere in the world have suffered, the madness is intensified by their isolation and desperate circumstances.

Mary Bee Cuddy is an independent woman who owns and tends her own settlement. Due to one of the women’s unsympathetic husband, Mary Bee ends up being the one who collects the women with the intent of heading back east alone. After coming across a stranger in dire circumstances, she ends up partnering up with him, a claim jumper named George Briggs, who is only out for the money that is promised him.

Swarthout’s detail of what life was like on the American Mid-West is well researched and full of personal stories. I don’t doubt any of what he says, and it amazes me that America somehow spread beyond this period of time and this land. Its interesting that Swarthout also included that there was importance placed on keeping the women’s stories from reaching any women westward bound, lest they turn around and head back east.

This was an interesting and nice read. I would recommend to anyone who’s interested in learning about how women lived in the American Mid-West during the great American expansion west.

Read August 2014

The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy

The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy enticed me, as I’m guessing was the intent, by the thought that Darcy from Pride and Prejudice dies under mysterious circumstances. The novel quickly cleared this up when a family member dies and Mr. and Mrs. Darcy travel through the country to attend to the other Mr. Darcy’s estate and take care of some last wishes and the inheritance of Darcy.

Regina Jeffers sticks to the language and culture of Jane Austen’s novel, but this one is so dense and dripping with sugary romance. I think part of why Austen’s novels have held up so well is that the romance is secondary to the social commentary within her books. Jeffers does not accomplish this. I think she’s trying to make the crime the primary theme and the romance second, but I don’t think she succeeded. If I was more inclined to read romance novels, perhaps I would have appreciated this book more. And when I say romance, I mean the dime-back romance novels, not the Chick Lit romances that I do love.

Overall, it felt hard to read this book to the end.

Read August 2014.

A Bridge to the Stars

Henning Mankell’s A Bridge to the Stars is about a young boy discovering the world around him. Joel Gustafson’s mother left him when he was much younger and this defined much of who he was at the age of 11. Joel’s father worked long hours at the lumber mill, but shared romantic stories of his former self as a sailor. Its hard to say if these stories are what provoked his nighttime adventures, or if it really was the dog wandering by at night.

Joel is a lonely kid who carried around his sense of abandonment and fear that his dad will leave him too. In gaining his own adventure stories while traversing his small, cold town in the middle of the night, Joel gains an insight into his neighbors that everyone around him misses. He develops friendships that change who he is at his core.

I read this novel almost 2 months ago now so many of the details of the story have escaped my memory, but the beauty and whimsy of the characters and writing has stayed with me. This book was written for a younger audience but it screams of a great writer. The words and story are beautifully told, which I was not expecting from the author of the Inspector Wallander series. This is such a departure from the crime novels where Mankell’s starkness of character and scene drive the depth of those stories. I feel silly writing this paragraph, but it really was the writing that carried me away.

I loved this novel so much, that I’ll probably end up reading it again. Its a quick, easy read, and the story really carries the reader the whole time.

Read July 2014

The Supreme Macaroni Company

I’ve read another novel by Adriana Trigiani and really love her strong female characters and the settings that she choses. In The Supreme Macaroni Company, Trigiani creates a small family village in the middle of Manhattan. Valentine Roncalli runs her family’s shoe company The Angelini Shoe Company in Greenwich Village, one of the most crowded places in the world, and yet the space the characters inhabit feels like everyone knows everyone.

This is the 3rd novel about Valentine, but the first that I’ve read. Valentine comes from a very large, very immeshed family that runs from NYC to Jersey to Ohio and down to Argentina. This story focuses on Valentines romance and marriage to a much older Italian leather tanner, Gianluca Vechiarelli. While I loved the family dynamics and even the difficulties shown in a different cultured May-December relationship, I was very annoyed at the resolution to their problems. I don’t want to give the ending away, but it disappointed me. It felt like an easy out for the writer and made Valentine’s life easier while maintaining her love/romance with a much older man whose culture clashed with her beliefs and work ethic.

I haven’t read the other novels in this series, and there may be another one after this which would make this ending less contrived, but I don’t know if I want to read more about her exploits. This novel could be read for enjoyment except for the ending. It was disappointing.

Read August 2014.

Freakonomics

Steven D. Levitt is an economist. Stephen J. Dubner is a writer. Together they wrote Freakonomics. They take general ideas and prove whether their is any relationship between things that have nothing in common or things that seem to be related. For example, Levitt and Dubner proved that both teachers and Sumo wrestlers, both groups held in high esteem, will cheat based on the system set up for their success. They support the premise that allowing legal abortions had more to do with decreased crime rates in the 90’s than any other public policies. They support that a parent’s education has more do with a child’s success that any child rearing strategy out there.

While a lot of their facts were fascinating and captivated my attention, much of the book read like a economics textbook. I know they are very interested in their topics, as are many of the readers, but I thought it kept going much longer than my interest. This isn’t the first time I tried to read this book and I think I only finished because my book club chose it.

So I think most people who would gravitate to this book would be interested in portions or all of it. Its not a book that needs to be read from cover to cover. In fact, in retrospect, if I had read only chapters every few months, like articles in a magazine, I would probably have like the book more.

Read August 2014

Then Again

Before talking about Diane Keaton’s memoir, Then Again, let me say that I’ve never had a strong opinion about Diane Keaton. Her role in Baby Boom was one of my favorite as a young girl, but I never saw her iconic movie Annie Hall until I was in college and at that point, while I could appreciate some of its charm and cinematic significance, it just felt dated. I also knew nothing of her personal life or much about her acting life.

Now that I’ve read Then Again, I don’t feel like I’m better off. For someone who led a pretty interesting life, Diane Keaton mostly focused on her relationship with her mother. A relationship that, while not great, was a pretty decent mother-daughter relationship. She describes her mother as a lost artist and she shares a kinship with her. But, to be honest, I don’t really care about her relationship with her mother. I also was not interested in very much that she had to say. In this memoir, Keaton relates that Woody Allen wrote the role of Annie Hall based on her and her family. That is interesting. Her description of Warren Beatty as a lover, director, and actor didn’t last long, yet it was one of the more interesting sections. Yet, somehow, her mother’s presence dominated the pages.

It felt like Diane Keaton had a ghost writer and anytime something too personal came up, Keaton wouldn’t allow the writer to expand on it. But the writer recognized the interesting parts of the story and tried to include them as best as they could. Or Keaton knew that people’s interest would be peeked by her small personal revelations, and included them to help boost sales. Either way, this book might be better suited to a contemporary of Diane Keaton’s who could appreciate the time period where the majority of movies came out. I kept having to reference her movies online to try to remember if I’d ever seen them. For the most part, I have not.

Overall, I would say this book was not terribly engaging since I knew very little about the topic ahead of time and the most interesting parts were condensed stories. For anyone interested in Diane Keaton’s life, this memoir would be a required read and wouldn’t take too long to get through.

Read July 2014.

Evidence of Murder

Evidence of Murder is the second in Lisa Black’s series about forensic scientist Theresa MacLean. Theresa goes with her police detective cousin to investigate a missing person case, only to have the victim show up days later in a freezing Cleveland park. Theresa has nothing but contempt for the victim until the forensic evidence doesn’t show a cause of death. No signs of hypothermia, drugs, foul play, nothing. It looks as if Jillian Perry walked into the park without proper clothing, sat down and stopped breathing. Since that’s not how most people would be able to control their body’s reflexes in the intense cold to commit suicide, Theresa keeps investigating the physical evidence until she’s able to figure out what cause Jillian’s death.

The cast of possible suspects include her former escort service boss, her stalker best friend, and her internet-game developing husband. All have a possible cause to murder her, but Theresa finds it hard to pin point the murderer until the method of murder is discovered.

This novel kept my interest but there are many plausibility problems for me. First, how would a forensic scientist who’s been kept in the lab find the time to do this investigation. Also, she investigates almost all on her own, hardly ever bringing in her cousin who’s the detective on the case. Throughout the story it is clear that Lisa Black has a strong background in forensic science, and the details about the murder and cover up are great! Its the rest of the investigation that cause me trouble. Its still a decent read if you can let some of the plot problems go.

Read July 2014.