Sunday, May 31, 2020

Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her Life, by Gillian Gill. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2019

I’ve read two or three biographies of Virginia Woolf, but this one went at telling her story from a very different angle than usual. Gill goes back in time, and tells us about Woolf’s female predecessors. The women aren’t just her foremothers; Gill includes Anne Thackeray Ritchie, who while not well known now showed Woolf that a woman could be a successful writer, her siblings including half –sister Laura, who got called an ‘idiot’ and was put away in an asylum when she was in her 20s. Of course, her family also included men. Most were good, but her two half-brothers were nasty characters who sexually abused both Virginia and her sister Vanessa- and possibly Laura and Stella. It’s odd that Gill stresses that it was the women who shaped Woolf’s life, when she and her siblings (and her mother, Julia) were shaped very strongly by the male-dominated times in general and their family in particular. Later, Woolf became part of the influential (in intellectual terms) Bloomsbury group. This group was composed of mainly gay and bi men who had little use for women, but changed their minds when it came to Virginia, and her sister Vanessa, who both married into the group. Woolf and her sister transformed the group; the group transformed the women. It was here that Woolf found her literary voice. 

Gill has a great enthusiasm for her subject. She sometimes writes in a breathless manner, as if she were a teenager writing about her heartthrob. It’s a somewhat odd choice of style, given how much scholarly research she put into the book, but it works. At times it’s like listening in on gossip; the Bloomsbury group seems to have put as much energy into their sex lives as they did into their art; a discussion of the grooming and marriage of Woolf’s niece to the former lover of the girl’s father is had. The only thing I found annoying was the author’s habit of jumping around in time- it made it even more difficult to sort out the large cast of characters. Four stars.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen. Bantam Books, 2007

The Waverly family has always been a bit… odd. They have gifts, and this makes them outsiders. Even the apple tree has a reputation- and a temper. Generations of Waverlys have lived and gardened at the family home. Now, Claire is a caterer. Her dishes are not just delicious, but magical. Made with plants from her garden, they can protect, promote love, and more. Her cousin Evanelle has a talent for giving the gifts you don’t need- yet. Now Claire’s sister Sydney is suddenly back, after years with no contact, along with her young daughter. The sisters need to heal from their pasts, but can they? 

The bones of this story are pretty close to those of “Practical Magic”. Allen doesn’t write with the ability to grab your heart and shake it like Hoffman does, though. It’s a pleasant enough book and I enjoyed reading it; I doubt I’ll read more of the series, however, even though I tend to love magical realism and magical plants.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, by Julie Powell. Little, Brown & Company, 2005

I never thought I’d have any interest in this book or movie, but one day it was on TV and I watched it and really liked it. So when I found the book, I figured, well, the book is always better than the movie, I grabbed it. Sadly, my presumption turned out to be wrong. I did not like the book better. I liked it considerably less.

In the movie, I much preferred the sections on Julia Child, who was considerably more interesting that I would have ever thought from just watching her TV show a few times. A lot of time was given to her story. In the book, Julie, quite naturally, gives more time to her own story- that she would undertake making every single recipe in Julia’s foundational cookbook in the space of one year. She starts a blog to tell the world about this project, and it becomes a huge hit. A book deal appears, and it’s optioned for a movie. This book isn’t just a collection of her blog entries; she’s looking back from the end of the project and going through the memories.

I should have liked it. She can be witty, with the kind of self-deprecating humor that grabs me. She swears almost as much as I do. I get obsessed with food at times. But I disliked her continual complaining about the same things over and over again (note to self: stop doing that! I’m sure NO one likes that!), given that she was living a fairly privileged life. The things she says and thinks about her perfectly good, supportive husband are nasty. Her story telling is not linear in the least. I just got tired of her, and wanted the book to end.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Angina Monologues: Surgery for Broken Hearts, by Samer Nashef. Scribe Publications, 2019

 Nashef’s memoir starts with some truly awful cardiac situations. An older man needing two different operations, in which everything must be done in a certain order; a pregnant woman with cardiac artery ready to explode, so that the babies must be delivered by Caesarian Section before the lifesaving heart operation can commence. Those stories have happy endings, but not all do. The author is open about the risks of heart surgery, as well as the benefits. He describes a number of types of heart surgeries, in terms anyone can understand. He’s funny at times and heart breaking at times. He lives and works in England, but has gone to the West Bank to perform surgeries more than once. His most memorable story is about going to pick up a heart for transplant- and everything goes wrong (the heart makes it on time). It’s engrossing and easy to read. Five stars.