The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (Book Review)

The Sun Also RisesThe Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Bookshelves: literature-with-a-capital-l, artsy-fartsy, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous, classic

I hadn’t actually read anything by Hemingway before; I’ve just been in love with his “the first draft of anything is shit” line for years. Then I read The Paris Wife recently and figured it was time to bump up my Literature-with-a-capital-L cred.

And here I go, being all lowbrow.

As far as I can determine, this is a book about a bunch of whiny-ass alcoholics who can afford to be pretentious elite whiny-ass alcoholics in Paris instead of garden-variety peasant whiny-ass alcoholics in Bumfuck, South Dakota. They start out in Paris where they drink and then they go drink in San Sebastian and then they go to Vienna where they drink some more and then they go drinking in Paris again and then they go to Spain and catch some fish and drink and then they go their separate ways because they’re finally all sick of each other–still drinking. They have repetitive conversations about nothing, probably because they’re always drunk. And did I mention they drink? They drink a lot. A lot. I’m surprised any of them can stand up.

I did try to get into the spirit of it. I was early for work one morning so I went next door to McDonald’s and pretended I was reading over breakfast at Les Deux Magots. Très continental. My lips were turning blue in the air conditioning and the toddler at the next table was screeching so I moved to an outside table and pretended I was looking out at the cobblestones of Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève instead of at that homeless guy on Houser Street. No joy. My Egg McMuffin did not turn into a brioche. My coffee did not turn into espresso, which is okay because I don’t like espresso. Jake and Brett did not stop drinking.

I get it, though. I do. This is the quintessential novel about the Lost Generation with all its angst and navel-gazing, its souls seared by war and ennui and its future filled with existentialist despair. All I can say is, maybe if they pulled their heads out of the bottle and thought about something other than themselves and actually did something useful, life might take on some meaning. And I see why Papa’s writing style is so universally admired, but you can only drink so much absinthe and drop the names of so many Paris streets before I start to think you’re just showing off.

Things I appreciated:

1. Basques, and the fine art of drinking from a wineskin.

2. Trout.

3. The romanticism of bullfighting.

4. Brett Ashley running off with a fine young bullfighter just because she wants to. Women with sexual agency and all that.

Things I didn’t appreciate:

1. The barbarism of bullfighting.

2. Pretty much all of the dialogue. It sucks. Maybe it was supposed to, I don’t know.

3. Brett Ashley. She has the right to boink a fine young bullfighter if she feels like it, but I still don’t like her.

I did finish it, and now I have the frustrating feeling that I’m a failure if I don’t get something out of Hemingway.

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Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine (Book Review)

Asta’s Book

Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A bloody good book.

There’s a reason for the word “bloody.” I’d been reading another book that led me to mini-rant on Facebook about the anachronism of a woman “having her period” in the 16th century. The ensuing discussion led me to this book, in which a somewhat obscure menstruation euphemism provides a clue to the hidden origin of a child and the solution of a century-old murder.

One of THE BEST family saga-mystery type books I’ve ever read, told partly from the present-day viewpoint of Ann and partly from the translated and published diaries of her grandmother Asta, a Danish immigrant to Edwardian London. Asta is contemptuous of her husband, a bully to her maid, an enigma to her children, and a wee bit of a snob to the neighborhood in general, but is curiously likable for all that.  She’s a treat, actually.

The story is compelling, the plotting is complex, the writing is elegant, the characterizations are vivid. Until this book was mentioned to me I’d completely forgotten about Ruth Rendell, who penned this tale under the name Barbara Vine. I have–happily!–so much catching up to do.

Bookshelves: historical-fiction, immigrant-life, women, mystery, family-saga, epistolary

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Comet (Jane Doe Flash Fiction)

“They say our origins dictate our path in life, our fate,” Henry says. He looks at the homeless tent city around them. “The son of a teacher and a CPA, upright churchgoers, shouldn’t end up without an old-age pot to piss in, wouldn’t you think?”

Jane laughs ruefully. “I was conceived on a hot summer night, in the blaze of forbidden teenage passion, in the backseat of a ‘64 Mercury Comet,” she tells him. “Shouldn’t that make for a charmed life?”

Henry tops her wine cup, his grin brilliant. “Maybe, maybe not. I’d love to have that car, though.”

Photo: sv1ambo

Every week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less)  write a story about a comet. You can consider how it features into a story, influences a character, or creates a mood. Go where the prompt leads.”

I’ve always thought Mercury was the coolest name for a car make, being the Roman god of travel, and I had one that I drove literally to pieces. I was a bit sad when Mercury discontinued not too long ago. And the whole time I was writing this and looking for pictures, I was hearing the Steve Miller Band’s “Mercury Blues.” (Can someone tell me why this video has a Mazda ad in front of it? That’s just wrong.)

Fear (Jane Doe Six Sentence Stories)

“If you’re not afraid of flying, please explain to me why you’d rather we drive for fourteen hours instead of taking a two-hour flight, especially since, statistically speaking, it’s the safest way to travel, and if it’s claustrophobia, then you can have the damn window seat.”

Torrey shakes her head sharply, embarrassed and angry about being embarrassed. “I’m not claustrophobic, and it’s not agoraphobia either, and I’m not scared of heights, and I’m not scared of speed.”

“Then what?”

“It’s the panic attacks–can you imagine a panic attack, stuck in a narrow metal tube with 200 strangers and the threat of arrest for making a disturbance, at 35,000 feet up in the air? It really is true that there’s nothing to fear but fear itself!”

Photo: Gellinger

Every week, Girlie on the Edge hosts the Six Sentence Stories flash fiction link up and blog hop. This week’s cue: FEAR. Fun Sixes from other writers are at the link. Join us! It’s a blast!

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Book Review)

The Poisonwood BibleThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bookshelves: africa, historical-fiction, in-the-news, women, literary-fiction, bible-thumpers, alternating-povs

I discovered Barbara Kingsolver when I chanced across Prodigal Summer. Other fans enthusiastically recommended The Poisonwood Bible so of course I put off reading it, because I didn’t want to be not cool by not liking it. I needn’t have worried; this novel ranks among the top 50 I’ve ever read.

Factoid: African driver ants bite so ferociously that indigenous people use them as emergency sutures, positioning them to bite on both sides of an open wound, then breaking off their bodies. Imagine having a line of stitches made of ant heads. Then imagine what a swarm of them will do to a baby or immobilized adult. I think I’d rather face down a lion, thanks.

This is the story of fire-and-brimstone preacher Nathan Price, who drags his wife and four daughters to rescue the souls of the savages in 1959’s Belgian Congo, through the American overthrow of their democratically elected independent government and the aftermath. None of the Price family escape unscathed.

Anatole leaned forward and announced, “Our chief, Tata Ndu, is concerned about the moral decline of his village.”

Father said, “Indeed he should be, because so few villagers are going to church.”

“No, Reverend. Because so many villagers are going to church.”

And in case that seems unduly harsh toward Father, be aware that he is livid because the villagers will not agree to full-immersion baptism in the river because they don’t want their children eaten by crocodiles. He takes this as a personal affront and an affront to Jesus. Zealous to the point of madness, arrogant, abusive, concerned solely with earning redemption by a God he will never admit he has let down. Viewing his wife as an appliance and his daughters as troublesome property, Nathan Price is despicable, showcasing everything loathsome about those who insist on ramming a vengeful and punitive religion down other people’s throats.

So, as with the others of Kingsolver’s books I’ve read, she has an agenda. I don’t mind it because I agree with it, but people who identify with evangelicalism or white supremacy should probably pass (although they may identify with daughter Rachel).

All of Kingsolver’s settings are characters in their own right and the Congo is no exception – living, breathing, raped and savaged by colonialism and capitalism and those who will just not let her be, but breathtakingly beautiful nonetheless. There is a feeling I get when I read about Africa, that its very earth is different, that it is somehow on a different Earth from the rest of the world, a shimmering existence in a slightly different dimension. Kingsolver captures this perfectly, telling a riveting story with prose that is poetic and elegant. A must read.

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Pee(r)ing Through the Woods (Jane Doe Flash Fiction)

Jane hunkers down in the foliage. Her knees already ache from the awkward stance. She checks her pants and shoes; both should be out of the splash zone.

Just as she relaxes her muscles, feels the stream start beneath her, of course that’s when she hears voices.

She’s been here for hours, hoping for someone who might buy a paper. Naturally, it’s not until she can’t hold it anymore, with the nearest public restroom an hour away, that anybody comes along.

Jane narrows her eyes, peering through the bushes. If she can’t see them, they can’t see her…right?

Photo: annekroiss

Each week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes  an act of “peering from the woods.” Go where the prompt leads.

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson (Book Review)

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in HistoryIsaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bookshelves: mother-nature-will-kill-you, non-fiction, history, science, americana

I love how Erik Larson’s non-fiction books read like novels. I stayed up too late on a school night finishing this and I’m not sorry.

This is the story of what remains the biggest natural disaster on U.S. soil (in loss of life terms*), the 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas with virtually no warning. And self-aggrandizing politicians played their ugly part, with the U.S. Weather Bureau’s bigoted and competitive refusal to recognize Cuba’s superior ability to predict dangerous storms; had Cuba been allowed to telegraph its own data over American wires, thousands of lives might have been saved.

I also learned that you can, if conditions are right, draw rain by lighting a fire. Who knew? This is commonly mislabeled pyrocumulus, which is the kind of cloud formed if there is sufficient moisture in the fire-heated air through the process properly called flammagenitus.

Lots of info about weather patterns, including understandable explanations of the Coriolis effect, trade winds, and the westerlies; how hurricanes form and travel; and some interesting bits of the history of meteorology. Lots of recounts of personal stories: horrific, inspiring, grisly. It’s unputdownable.

*That may have been matched or exceeded by the death toll in Puerto Rico from 2017’s Hurricane Maria, possibly as high as 8500, although most of Maria’s victims died later from issues stemming from the inexcusably shitty aid provided by the U.S. government. As of two months ago, thousands of Puerto Ricans (who are bona fide American citizens) were still without power.

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Spinsters, Periods, and English Royal History (Triple Play Book Review)

Yes, I know Queen Elizabeth I and the Wars of the Roses were not directly related, but these three were from the same author and two can be read sequentially. Of the three, I only read one in its entirety. Here’s a threefer review, with a tiny rant about apparent anachronisms at the end.
The Wars of the RosesThe Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII and can usually read biographies just fine, but I couldn’t stick with this one. It covers a lot of time and involves a multitude of people, all of whom are named Richard or Henry or Robert or Alice or Elizabeth and are interrelated in convoluted ways. This gets even more confusing when titles are added. I’d see a reference to de Vere doing something, and then to Oxford doing something, and to Lord Richard saying something, and go wait a minute, who the heck are all these people again? and flip back to recall that they are all the same guy. Add in the fact that titles were either passed down father to son or yanked away and given to someone else if the king got pissy, so you have multiple Oxfords, and it’s just a royal noble mess. I know it’s a nobility thing and an English thing but please have mercy on my poor commoner Yank brain. Call him Oxford or call him Lord Richard or call him de Vere, I don’t care, but pick one and stick with it.

I chose to be too lazy to finish the book. Other readers loved it, so maybe I’ll try again someday, particularly since these events inspired Martin’s ASOIAF series. Other readers also recommended The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, so I’ll give that one a try.

Bookshelves: history, merry-olde-england, i-am-an-anglophile, abandoned, well-i-tried

The Lady ElizabethThe Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I fairly enjoyed this one. Considering her scholarship, Weir’s fiction writing is pretty pedestrian romance novel stuff–lots of telling as opposed to showing, plenty of head-hopping, and people are always exclaiming or lying or remonstrating or reminding as opposed to simply saying something–but it’s still readable.

This is the story of Elizabeth I before she took she throne, as her father’s daughter, as Anne Boleyn’s bastard, and as sister to King Edward VI and to Queen Mary I. Sometimes her precocity as a child had me rolling my eyes, but I also understand she really was both very clever and highly intelligent (although that could be a relative thing, as the intellectual capacity of women was not explored or held in much regard at that time). Some reviewers took exception to a series of events such that the Virgin Queen was–ahem–not actually a virgin, but the rumors had gone around, and building upon that to make the story a bit juicier is poetic license and it worked for me here. I appreciated the devotion to her deep affection for Catherine Parr, and the detail of Wyatt’s Rebellion that landed her in the Tower of London, fully expecting every day to receive word that she’d be sent to the block. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of Anne Boleyn’s “A” pendant as worn by Elizabeth in the Whitehall family portrait; I’d never have noticed that otherwise and it was a great scene.

Bookshelves: just-barely-not-a-romance, merry-olde-england, historical-fiction, i-am-an-anglophile

The Marriage Game: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth IThe Marriage Game: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth I by Alison Weir

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

According to Weir’s fiction, Good Queen Bess gave Robert Dudley the most extreme and prolonged case of blue balls in recorded history.

The title is not misleading. The focus is on romantic games rather than Elizabeth’s actual queenship and is disappointing for that reason alone. The Virgin Queen was constantly pressed by her council to take a husband and produce heirs, and constantly told her council to stuff it, while constantly playing suitors against each other to keep their home countries allied to England. Well and good, that’s politics for you, but the constant yes-I-might-marry-you-but-no-I-might-marry-this-other-dude-oh-no-I-will-not-submit-myself-and-my-realm-to-any-man-no-wait-yes-I-really-might-marry-this one-oh-no-I-can’t-possibly got really…fricking…boring. Over and over, the same princes or kings or dukes around and around like a carousel, the same conversations every time, with poor Lord Robert straining against his codpiece and dangling from her little finger through all of it, lather, rinse, repeat.

After 140 pages of this my eyes were glazing over so I skipped ahead to Mary Stuart’s arrival on the scene. That devolved into more man-juggling, so I skipped ahead again to the Babington Plot, the Spanish armada, and Robert Dudley’s death, which according to this book is the end of Elizabeth’s story because, you know, women only have stories as they relate to men and not because they are real, actual RULERS, enacting policy, influencing art and culture, dealing with councils and Parliament and threats of war and assassination plots, handling economic, religious, and international political issues. We’re just concerned with whether she was getting any.

I did learn that Elizabeth had one of the first known wristwatches, a timepiece set into a bracelet. I bet it was stunning.

Bookshelves: historical-fiction, just-barely-not-a-romance, merry-olde-england, couldn’t-really-read-it, i-am-an-anglophile


Anachronisms always annoy me, and it must be pretty glaring for my non-historian self to spot. Not items or clothing, but words. As Robert Dudley was thinking Elizabeth was “sexy” my mind screeched to halt; Mirriam-Webster says “sexy” came into use in 1896, a lot earlier than I would have guessed but still more than 300 years after Dudley was supposedly applying it to Elizabeth Tudor.

I got somewhat schooled when I bristled at the use of the phrase “stay single.” That sounded too modern to me, but my historian son pointed me to a quote attributed to Elizabeth that uses the word–“I would rather be a beggar and single than a queen and married.” I’m unable to find if that’s apocryphal or not, and historians can’t seem to agree on stuff like anyway. I did learn that a “spinster” was, ca. 1300’s, an older, unmarried woman of no independent means who supported herself by spinning. By the 17th century it referred generally to any woman still not married past the usual age for it.

The other one that annoyed me was the reference to Elizabeth “having her period.” I can’t find anything on it, but other history-minded book-loving peeps agree with me that the phrase is anachronistic. One friend said the earliest citation she could find with that usage was mid-1800s.

Of course it’s entirely possible that Weir is right and I’m wrong, and all the other historical fiction I’ve read was using phrases like “unwed” and “being indisposed” and “moon time” to set atmosphere. But it remains that they felt out of time to me. If anyone can shed further light on these things for me, please do!

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