"Ethan Frome"

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

I finally got around to reading this, only my second Edith Wharton, and I feel much like I did after reading "House of Mirth". I closed the book kicking and screaming "Noooooooo! Don't end it like that!" I loved the story and the writing is sublime, but oh my goodness does everybody have to live miserably ever after? She surely must be related to Thomas Hardy.

Ethan lives in the town of Starkfield, Mass. where he owns a run down mill and lives in a run down house with his (run down) wife, Zeena. The name of the town tells you all you need to know about the location and gives you a pretty good picture of Ethan's life with Zeena, too. Then cousin (sort of) Mattie comes to live with them and Ethan's world takes on a little colour. Things get better, then worse, then a little more worse until the end, which I have to say I did not expect.

This book is only 87 pages long (my copy anyway) but Edith Wharton manages to tell a whopper of a tale in that small space. There is lots of great description, character development, and dialogue. Even the secondary characters are fairly well fleshed out with enough detail to make you feel you know them a little. It's amazing really, quite an achievement.

Wharton is a wonderful writer. Part of what I love about reading is finding a writer who can put into words a feeling I've never been able to articulate. An example: I've always believed it's possible to make some kind of life for yourself in any kind of circumstances but I never was able to say as she did in this book: "I chafed at first, and then, under the hypnotizing effect of routine, gradually began to find a dim satisfaction in life."  I also love the freedom writers have to use words in ways that would be seen as odd in conversation. For example she says: "...one phrase stuck in my memory, and served as the nucleus around which I grouped my subsequent inferences...". That's a great sentence, but imagine saying it to your husband at the dinner table.

I particularly love that she has made Ethan a realistic character. He has moments of nobility along with moments of complete disregard for right and wrong. He appreciates the beauty of nature and even has a touch of the poet about him: "He looked out at the slopes bathed in lustre, the silver-edged darkness of the woods, the spectral purple of the hills against the sky, and it seemed as though all the beauty of the night had been poured out to mock his wretchedness...". (Poets do love their wretchedness.)

The only character I saw as a cliche was Ethan's wife, Zeena, but then in the last couple of pages she surprised me. I'd love to hear from others who have read this what you think went through Zeena's mind when they brought Ethan and Mattie home. Why the sudden change in her behaviour? And why change her behaviour but not her attitude, because she still seems pretty miserable at the end?

On one hand I think Ethan brought most of his problems on himself, but on the other hand I think life was unusually cruel to him and he deserved better. Whatever the cause of his misery, he's a memorable character you can't help but like. He made me wish the book was longer.  
I do, and heartily, recommend this book, even if slogging through all that misery leaves me looking for a cup of hemlock. It does sound like Thomas Hardy doesn't it? I will keep reading both authours, in small doses, and well spaced between things a little more optimistic.

"The Septembers of Shiraz"

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer

First, "The Septembers of Shiraz" isn't a book about wine. That was, I confess, a disappointment for a brief moment, but only a moment because I loved what this book is.

And what it is is one of the best first novels I've read in a long while. Dalia Sofer writes beautifully, with a refreshing restraint usually found only in more experienced writers. Her maturity - her groundedness - is impressive and made for an unexpectedly good book.

The story is set amid the political and religious unrest of post-revolutionary Tehran, where fear has become a way of life for everyone. People disappear with no warning, then are killed or tortured in prisons. Homes and belongings are confiscated or destroyed in raids. The next knock on your door could destroy your life; no one is safe. 

Isaac Amin and his wife, Farnaz, have already sent their son, Parviz, to America to attend university, but they are stilling live in Tehran with their little girl, Shirin. They have a nice life: a beautiful home, expensive cars and enough money to travel when and where they choose, but in this new regime their wealth is a liability. They are suspect, and in Tehran that's a dangerous position to be in.   

Their story unfolds as chapters alternate between the points of view of the four family members. As I think back on it now, Parviz's story in New York had very little connection to what was happening to his family in Iran, but at the time I was reading it I didn't even notice that. I don't know why it didn't feel more disjointed but it seemed to work fine, with the alternating view points doing a good job of letting the reader experience the situation from all sides. 

The gravity of the Amins' situation and the horrors of life in Iran are clearly described and never made light of, but it is done with graceful subtlety. I often can't read terror or torture scenes that are horrifically detailed but this authour can present the truth without being gory or sensational. There is an elegance to her writing, a delicate touch that is a pleasure to read.

I loved this book. There's something about it that I can't shake, like a tune that gets inside your head and stays there for days. It's haunting (a badly overused word but I can think of none better in this situation), and it's beautiful. An interesting and informative read that I definitely recommend.

"French By Heart"

French By Heart by Rebecca S. Ramsey

The authour and her family (husband, 9 yr. old daughter, 7 yr. old son, infant son, and cat) packed up and moved to France for four years when her husband accepted a transfer with his company. They started out in an apartment, then found a house where they could settle down and start their new lives as foreigners trying their best to fit in.

I loved hearing all the details of their daily lives as they adjusted to a new culture. Everything they had taken for granted in their previous lives became a challenge: buying groceries, getting cheques from a bank, enrolling the kids in school, getting acquainted with neighbours - it all becomes one daunting adventure after another. Some of it is funny, some endearing, but all of it is good story-telling. She held my interest from start to finish and left me wanting more at the end of every story.

Complicating the Ramsey's lives is Madame Mallet, a meddling older neighbour who has an opinion on everything the Ramseys do and who never passes up an opportunity to tell them what that opinion is. She's irritating, hard to put up with and drives them almost to distraction at times, but she couldn't be more perfect for this story if she had been especially created for the role. I hope this book gets made into a movie just so I can watch Madame Mallet in action. She is priceless!

If you like the "We-Moved-To-A-New-Country" genre of books, or if you're like me and will read just about anything set in France, you'll probably enjoy this. Add it to your tbr for one of those times you want something quick and not too serious. I hope it'll be as much fun for you as it was for me.

Comment Shenanigans

I've been having problems with the Comments function on this blog. I've been using Intense Debate for a while now because I liked some of the features it offered, until a couple of weeks ago when it stopped showing any comments on any of my posts. I was getting them in my email so I knew there were comments but I couldn't find a way to make them show up on the blog.

Since for me hearing from other people is half the fun of blogging I wasn't very impressed. I tried the ridiculously confusing fixes offered online but none of them made any difference whatsoever. So, frustrated, I finally decided the best thing to do was get rid of Intense Debate all together. And that, my friends, was a whole new exercise in both confusion and frustration. I'll never understand why instructions for things can't be written clearly and simply.

I finally managed to get rid of it today and in the process it seems I've lost whatever comments I already had. So to those of you who have left comments I apologize that they aren't showing up where they should be. I very much appreciate the time you take to read my posts and make comments, in fact it makes my day to see one arrive in my email. It irks me no end to lose them, but hopefully the problem is solved now and future comments will show up, and stay, where they belong.

I have learned my lesson and will be satisfied with the Blogger comment function and not play around with outside ones no matter how cool they look or how many nifty features they offer. Thank you for being patient while I worked this all out.

"The School of Essential Ingredients"

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister.

Lillian holds a cooking class on Monday nights in the kitchen of her restaurant. She has eight students: a long-married couple, a busy young mother, a grieving widower, an Italian designer, a troubled young girl, an aging woman with failing memory, and a single man discontent with his ordered life. Strangers at the start, their lives will become permanently intertwined in a few short weeks.

Each character is given a chapter of his own with the others weaving in and out so that none of the characters gets lost, each staying present and relevant. Three of the characters stood out to me but that will be different for each reader. All of them are likeable with no conflicts arising among them in the course of the story, which is unrealistic but then there's a lot of that in this book.

I have mixed feelings about the writing. For me there are a few too many similes, some of which are very good but some of which feel forced. Either way it gets almost comical after a while and I'm sure that wasn't the impression Bauermeister wanted to make. She does put words together nicely. Phrases like: "words had a meaning beyond the music of their inflections" and "Lillian's mother collected exquisite phrases and complicated rhythms, descriptions that undulated across the page" are evidence of her skill with words and her lyrical bent, though when she finished that last one with "like cake batter pouring into a pan" it fell apart for me. Not everything has to be compared to food.

There's a lot of weirdness between the covers of this book. For example, Lillian's classes are centered on dishes that seem chosen to explain and provide solutions for the problems of her students, though she knew none of them beforehand. The implication is that if they can master the intricacies of the dish, they will master the intricacies of their lives. Everything she says is terribly deep and heavy with meaning. She always seems to know just what each person needs to hear; in my Book Club they called her Yoda. And Lillian is only the beginning.

Another character, Ian, lives above a Chinese restaurant where they "sense" what he needs to eat (they do have menus and they must give some of their customers what they order or they'd have gone out of business long ago). Somehow the foods they bring him (and he never complains about not getting what he ordered) open his eyes to truths about life that set him free to pursue what he really wants. I would like to have some Chinese food like that.

Then there's Tom, the grieving young widower who in learning how to make a meat sauce also learns how to let go of his grief, and Claire, who feels she's lost something of herself in being wife and mother to her family, but finds herself again in killing and cooking crabs. And Isabelle, an older woman who has lost most of her memories of a past lover and is encouraged to handle some pasta dough to help remember again. And if you think that's odd, wait till you find out what Tom bakes into his cake.

It's not as silly as I'm making it sound, but the whole thing seems a bit naive to me. I can appreciate the authour's basic point about slowing down and savouring the moments and flavours of life, but seriously comparing the complexity of human lives and problems to cooking and finding every character's solution in a recipe is awfully simplistic and stretches credibility to the limit.

In spite of all that, it's not bad. It's an easy, pleasant read with interesting characters and a decent story. I might have enjoyed it more if only I'd been able to shake the recurring mental image of crowds of people in robes chanting mantras about meat sauce.