"The Paris Wife"

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

My inexplicable fascination with Hemingway, especially his Paris years, made me buy this book. His "A Moveable Feast" is one of my favourites but I'm not that keen on his other books so I really don't know what it is that appeals to me so much. I can't say I particularly like him as a person. He was rude and self-centered and often controlled by his dark moods and temper. Maybe it's the bad boy image, or maybe it's just the idea of being in Paris at a time when it was filled with writers, artists and other creative sorts.

This is one of those tricky novels that is based on the lives of real people. I find it gets hard to separate what I've learned about these people in biographies and memoirs from what I'm reading about them in the fictional story. I love reading these novels, but I get frustrated later when I realize that my view of them may not be accurate at all because part of it came from fiction.

Hadley Richardson was Hemingway's first wife and this book is written from her point of view. It's very well written, with vivid, utterly believable characters. McLain is able to make you feel Hadley's excitement as their relationship develops, her growing uneasiness as her life with Ernest begins to fall apart, and her heartbreak when it is finally over. You can't help but like and admire her as a good person and a strong woman who is capable of great love, but also able to be independent and make the hard choices that need to be made.

The book does a good job of describing life in Paris during the years after the first world war when so many American writers were living there and writing the books that would make them famous. Nights were glittering and carefree, but the reality of morning always followed. Ernest and Hadley started out very much in love, but the lifestyle of constant partying, heavy drinking and overt flirting was hard on relationships. Marriage didn't stand much of a chance in that atmosphere, but then marriage to Ernest Hemingway wasn't a very good bet in any atmosphere.

Published in 2012, The Paris Wife was named one of the best books of the year by several newspapers and magazines and I agree it is a compelling read. It's one of those atmospheric novels you can easily lose yourself in and I have to say I very much enjoyed getting lost.


Evelina or The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World by Frances Burney

An epistolary novel published in 1778, it originally showed the name of  Burney's brother as author because at that time it was considered improper for a woman to read or write novels. Once it achieved success, the true author came forward. This novel is said to have been an influence on the writings of Jane Austen, which fact alone, I think, makes it worth reading.

It is the story of a young girl who was raised and educated in the sheltered environment of a rural clergyman's home, the man who stepped in after her natural father was tricked into believing a different child was his own daughter. She is grown now, and at the invitation of friends, and with her guardian's reluctantly given permission, Evelina sets off on a journey to visit friends. While at their home she meets her maternal grandmother who has plans to take Evelina into society where she can learn the ways of the world and enjoy some of the entertainments a city has to offer.

The grandmother and her entourage are loud, ill mannered and at times obnoxious, not at all what Evelina is accustomed to. Her trusting and innocent nature gets her into some uncomfortable situations, including a meeting with her biological father meant to convince him she is his rightful heir. She is taken to many and varied social events, at one of which she is introduced to a young Lord, a handsome gentleman with courtly manners who offers her his friendship and who is more suitable in every way than most of the young men who are being shoved into her path. Evelina is very much aware, and appreciative, of the difference.  

There are a number of, let's call them lively, characters, some a bit over the top for me, but no doubt as realistic in that age as in this. Evelina herself is a bit too good all the time. I'd have liked to see her lose her temper or do something slightly selfish to prove she was human. Not that I didn't admire her; in fact I spent most of the book wishing I could be as kind and good as she was.

You can easily imagine how the story ends, still, getting there is fun with some of the situations she relates in her letters being comical for us, if frustrating for her. There are also several tenderly written expressions of gratitude and affection for the man who raised her. Their relationship is quite beautiful, one I'm sure many of us might envy.

I read this on my e-reader, taking a chance on a free version, and it was a mess. The formatting got worse as the novel advanced, with words running together, sentences out of place and huge gaps on several pages. It was not an enjoyable reading experience. You get what you pay for. I'd like to get a hard copy just to have it in my library. I may not read it again, but I do think it's worth having on my shelves.

"The Invention of Wings"

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

This is the story of two nineteenth century women, one black, one white, each struggling in their own way to find the freedom denied them by their time and culture. The narrative alternates between the two vibrant characters, Sarah and Hetty, who grew up together, one a slave, the other a slave owner's daughter. Their struggles are very different, but each longs for a life without constraints and both eventually find the courage to take the dangerous paths that will lead them there. Neither were born with the wings of freedom, so they had to invent them for themselves, each finding their own individual way.

The book covers a span of 35 years. At her 11th birthday party, Sarah is presented with Hetty as a gift. Even at that young age, Sarah feels the evil in the concept of one human being owning another and she refuses the gift. That is the beginning of a lifelong struggle against her mother's societal edicts.

Sarah and Hetty develop a close friendship in the innocence of childhood, but as the years begin to reveal the vast chasm between them, they grow apart. I thought the author did a good job of telling their separate stories, even when their lives became separated by distance as well as circumstances. The bond formed in childhood stays alive even when they are worlds apart and have no idea what is going on in the other's life. Later, in their attempts to create meaningful lives for themselves, they are drawn together again to stand in even greater solidarity as adults.

Our book club discussed this one last week and we all felt awkward talking about the freedom denied to a slave in the same breath as that denied to a white woman. No one wanted to equate the struggles, or deny either one, and I don't believe the author is implying those two forms of repression were equal. She is simply telling the story of two women who were, in vastly different ways, denied their freedom.

I don't know what it is to be a slave or what it is to be a wealthy slave owner. I do know what it is to have my thoughts and opinions dismissed as trivial based solely on the fact that I'm a woman. Also, pain, loneliness and hopelessness are common to all human beings and I could empathize with those things. I could only be horrified at some of the other aspects of their lives. At times it was heartbreaking; sometimes at the end of a line I'd have to stop for a moment till I could cope with the inhumanity I'd just read.

With both women's stories, the author was able to avoid cliches and trite sentimentality and she thankfully stayed away from sensationalism. There were cruel punishments dealt out to people and those things were openly described, but not dwelt on to make them the focus of the story. The focus was the fight for freedom in the lives of these two women who had very little influence on anything around them. These characters felt very real, and in fact are based on real people. Several of the characters in the novel are actual historical figures.

This is an excellent book, most definitely worth your time and effort.

"A Short History of Nearly Everything"

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Well it wasn't particularly short, but it was full of information about our universe and our place in it. It begins with space and what we know of what is out there, then it zooms in to earth and its plant, animal and human inhabitants. It doesn't attempt to answer the big questions as much as to review what it is that we already know (or, in many cases, assume) and what yet remains to be discovered.

The first part covers some of the same territory as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of the World, but I found this one easier to read. I enjoyed Hawking's book but would find myself reading the same section over and over to try to get my head around it. This one felt lighter and it certainly had more comic relief. Bryson has a knack for using everyday things to explain huge concepts, a skill that makes this book fun to read and hopefully will help me remember some of it. I haven't read a lot of his work, but from this book I would say that's his outstanding characteristic: taking big ideas that are hard to understand and expressing them in smaller, more common terms that normal people can get their heads around.
There were a couple of sections I found boring. He talked for quite a while about scientists and scholars arguing over who should get credit for various discoveries (apparently this is a common argument in scientific circles), and there was a section on mosses, about where and how they grow, that I thought would make a great lullaby. I'm sure there are people who are interested in such things, somewhere.

Here, as in everything I've read about earth's formation and history and about our history as a species, there is so much conjecture that it's impossible to get what I want: a nice tidy answer to all the questions. Much of it starts with "we think", or "it's probable that" or "it would seem". Things the experts were sure of a hundred years ago have been dis-proven by new discoveries, and as science continues to advance many of the things believed now will likewise be discarded in light of new evidence. As much as I love science I find it frustrating when sweeping assumptions are made every time some new thing comes to light. Billions of never-even-imagined things are still hidden and as they are uncovered our theories will change....again, and again, and again. We need to stay open to the possibility that some - or all -  of our assumptions could be way off.

What I came away with is a renewed sense of awe at how truly impressive the universe and the human body are. There is so much going on in our bodies at the cellular level at any given time that it seems impossible any of us could survive for even a few seconds; that we grow and thrive is almost beyond comprehension.

Bryson writes well and leaves you with lots to think about. If nothing else, you'll be reminded of just how vast and unknowable the universe is, and how very small a part we play in it. It's humbling, but it's good to be humbled once in a awhile.