My Lost Cuba by Celso Gonzalez-Falla

my-lost-cubaLike most Canadians I love Cuba. That is one of the things that makes us different from Americans. All winter long Cuba is filled with Canadians on holiday. We like the people (terribly friendly), we like the beaches, we like the music and the rum isn’t bad either. That being said, only a small fraction of Canadians ever leave their resorts and see the ‘real’ Cuba. Fewer still understand the recent history that brought Cuba to where it is today. And that is why I was so interested in reading My Lost Cuba.

My Lost Cuba focuses on an affluent farming family during the 1950’s. Mike, the eldest son is summoned back to Cuba from his studies in the States to help out with the family business. Unlike his father, Mike is much more at ease with the farm workers and seems to be eager to see a new era emerge in Cuba. It is through Mike that we learn much about the lives of the ‘common man’ during this era.

As a piece that gives insight into the social history of Cuba, My Lost Cuba is amazing. As a novel, however, I found it lacking. The story is very simplistic and the tone rather didactic. Make no mistake, the novels reads as though it was written to teach history. Moments of crisis emerge more to show the reader the precarious nature of the government than to forward the plot. And my personal pet peeve: every single and eligible individual finds love by the end of the story.

Who would like this book? This book definitely satisfied my need to understand more about pre-Communist Cuba. It was insightful and interesting from a historical point of view. It is not, however, the type of book I would recommend to take on your beach vacation to Cuba. Unless you normally sun yourself by the pool with a huge tome of history, My Lost Cuba will not fit the bill. It is a book more for history buffs than those looking for a literary romp where they might learn something.

This book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? By Maria Semple

bernadetteSitting by the lake at the cottage, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple kept me laughing and reading through the hottest part of the day. That’s how good it was. I couldn’t tear myself away for long enough to go in for a cooling dip and I became down right anti-social with my friends.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is told in a series of ‘documents’ – emails, faxes, parent newsletters, reports etc – interspersed with 13 year old Bee Branch’s commentary. The story follows Bee’s mother, Bernadette, as she descends a slippery slope. Is she mad? Or just unlike the other other ‘Subaru parents’ who populate her life? The documents extracted from the Subaru parents are priceless in the way they capture this sort of parent. As a mother who spends much of her day at either school pick up or drop off, those passages made the novel worthwhile.

I enjoyed the commentary on life that Semple provided throughout her novel. As a former Vancouverite I could relate as she poked fun at Pacific Northwest types in Seattle. I also enjoyed the friendly ribbing handed out to Canadians. However, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is more than just a commentary on a certain kind of upper middle class lifestyle. It also conveys the angst of the artist who is no longer producing art. The insight into this type of character reveals may in fact reveal more than we know about Semple.

Who would like this book? As most people already know Semple has famously written for TV shows including Mad About You and Arrested Development. She is a humorist and a very good one at that. What she has produced in Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is by no means heavy literature, but it does stand above the notorious lightness of some chick lit. It is funny and clever. At times her commentary on modern life veers into territory normally occupied by the likes of Jonathan Franzen, but without the gravity that accompanies his work.

The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler

bookstoreAgainst all odds I really liked The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler. Why do I say ‘against all odds’? Well, I sometimes think that books called something along the lines of The Bookstore are a bit of a gimmick. Take Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, as another example. Who’s going to buy books with titles like those? Why, people who frequent bookstores, of course. So you already have a built in audience and a pretty sound business plan.

Enough cynicism. When I started reading The Bookstore, I didn’t think I would like the story: Young graduate student gets knocked up by jerky older man. Depressing. But the truth is, I couldn’t put this novel down. That speaks to Meyler’s abilities as a great writer. Her prose and characters were gripping. Mitchell, the older man, was such a subtle jerk, watching Esme’s relationship with him unfold was a bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion. I was begging for her to leave him and yet I could not look away as things progressed.

A thread of feminism ran throughout The Bookstore. I liked that because all too often feminism has become another sort of F-word, left unspoken in certain company but I think it is something we cannot become complacent about. Throughout the novel Esme seems to struggle with her own feminist conceptions. As an art history graduate student she is well versed in feminist theory but cannot seem to put that theory into action. The ‘male gaze’ is epitomized by Mitchell and yet she is almost unwilling to see that as a fault.

My one complaint about the novel were the occasional rants against Amazon and the rise of electronic reading. These targets are too easy, and let’s face it, regardless of our feelings about them they are part of the literary industry that is not going anywhere.

Who would like this book? Obviously this book is geared towards book lovers, so I am not even going to tread into that discussion. In correspondence to some discussion taking place out in the world these day, I would have to say that this book is decidedly ‘Women’s Fiction’. That is not a name I embrace, or that even interests me, but sometimes we have to give way to current trends. I call it ‘Women’s Fiction’ because it seem altogether too intelligent and well written to be lumped in with ‘Chick Lit’, and yet it is definitely a story about a woman that will appeal most to women. Overall, I think we may see some good things in the future for The Bookstore and Meyler.

* This book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

50 Shades of Funny with Gill Hornby and Deborah Moggach

We can all sleep a little easier, apparently the tyranny of ‘mommy porn’ has ended. No more 50 Shades of Grey or any of its numerous imitators. Now it is time for funny. Or at least that was what we were being convinced today at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I had the pleasure of witnessing a lighthearted and enlightening discussion with Gill Hornby and Deborah Moggach. Both are authors of social comedies and very funny ladies.

the hiveGill Hornby was there discussing her first novel, The Hive, which I plan to review in early September. As her name suggests, she is the sister of famed literary humorist Nick Hornby. In her novel she explores the social cliques women and girls tend to form. She argues that this does not end in high school, and may even become more vicious on the playgrounds of primary schools as mothers drop their children off for the day. Reading from The Hive, Hornby illustrated her argument to the chuckles of the audience. Since this is the social milieu that I now inhabit I found Hornby’s observations hilarious and true. Even as adults there is a pecking order on the school ground and heaven forbid you step out of your allotted spot!

heartbreak-hotelDeborah Moggach is a well known author and screenplay writer. The making of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel may have sprung her work into the spotlight, but she has commanded a loyal following, especially in the UK, for years. Like Hornby, she had me in stitches during the discussion. Humorous off the cuff comments peppered her observations as one who has worked as a writer for a good long time and who has very particular views on aging and growing ‘more mature’.

Although Moggach talked a fair bit of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, she also gave us the pleasure of reading from her latest novel, Heartbreak Hotel. This novel brings back Buffy, a character that would not leave her mind after she was finished writing The Ex-Wives. As a serial ex-husband, Buffy opens a hotel in Wales and offers ‘Courses in Divorces’, which draw on his ample experience. Not surprisingly, the BBC has picked up the novel for serialization and I believe is in pre-production.

Crazy Rich by Jerry Oppenheimer

crazy-richWhen I picked up Crazy Rich by Jerry Oppenheimer I knew it was going to be a salacious and scandal filled read. That seems to be what Oppenheimer specializes in: unauthorized biographies of the rich and famous (the Clintons, Martha Stewart and Anna Wintour to name a few). Crazy Rich recounts the rise and multiple falls of the Johnson family of Johnson & Johnsons fame. Yes, this is a book about band-aid magnates. Or to put it another way, it is a book about rich kids gone bad.

The early years of the Johnson Dynasty pass as one might expect. Brothers from poor, immigrant roots make good through hard work and intelligence. But things start to get more exciting with the second, third and burgeoning fourth generation of this famous family. When I say exciting, I mean scandalous. This large family is filled with multiple marriages and messy divorces, untimely and tragic deaths, and reckless spending, partying and drug use. On more than one occasion, Oppenheimer draws apt comparisons to the Kennedy family.

So for a book filled with so much exciting material that should make you want to turn the page, Crazy Rich was a bit more of a slog than I anticipated. It felt like it was written on an (unmanageable) deadline. Although I wasn’t expecting a work of great literary merit, the sentences that filled the book were long and cumbersome to the point of being nonsensical. I did not know that using that many subordinate clauses was even legal! Beyond that the narration was meandering.

Who would like this book? I can imagine business people reading Crazy Rich on their daily commutes into the various business metropolises where they work. This gives another side of the story of one of the great family run business empires of American. It also a story about a couple of brothers who made good and how their descendants turned much of it bad. The later half of the book may be of interest to people who enjoy tabloid fodder – and let’s face it, we all read the headlines while waiting in line at the grocery store. The Johnson family have important connections to Kirk and Michael Douglas, Paris and Nikki Hilton and the New York Jets, to name just a few. I suspect that there are better books out there about the Johnson and Johnson corporation, but this one focuses on the dirt.

* This book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Group by Mary McCarthy

thegroupThe Group by Mary McCarthy is one of those book I had always heard about but never read. Originally published in 1963, it was alternatively praised as a frank piece of early feminist literature and derided as sexually explicit filth. It is also said to be the inspiration for Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City. Hmmm, sounds interesting.

The story focuses on eight Vassar graduates in New York in the 1930’s. It chronicles their struggles and triumphs as they leave the comforting and sequestered upper class world of their youth and break out into the world for themselves during the years of the Great Depression.

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More than anything else, The Group provides a insightful look into the lives of women during those turbulent years. Each character encounters her own obstacles whether it be obtaining contraception for the first time or work place harassment. Unfortunately, many of these issues are still struggled with by women today.

Although the style of writing is very contemporary, some of the issues are dealt with in such an instructional manner that The Group can almost be considered a how-to guide. This was particularly true of the episode in which Dottie looses her virginity. It was laid out in a way that could have been subtitled Things Your Mother Never Told You. It is likely because of this, the premarital sex and the drawn out descriptions of birth control that The Group garnered itself a bit of a reputation when it first came out.

I must admit that I did not finish the novel. As much as I enjoyed it in the beginning, the more I read the more tedious and tiresome I found the book to be. I did not feel invested in what was going on in the lives of the charact

ers and that is important to me. There was nothing to make me want to keep turning the pages.

Who would like this book? This book would be of interest to those who enjoy (women’s) social history. In spite of the fact that I put it down, I was fascinated by the conflicting politics of the group, which very much reflected an end to the gilded age for the affluent. I also enjoyed the perspectives on what constituted a fulfilling life for women in the 1930’s. And of course there is humor to be found in some of the views such as the conveniences of modern living which included casseroles made from cans of Campbell’s soup and the new super crispy Iceberg lettuce. I would wholeheartedly recommend The Group to book clubs. It definitely provides fine fodder for discussion in how much times have (and haven’t) changed. In fact, it may be a nice companion piece to The Astronaut Wives Club, although it is set in a different period.

Peggy Riley and Jenn Ashworth at Edinburgh International Book Festival

I had planned to talk about Peggy Riley and Jenn Ashworth at the Edinburgh Festival and review Ashworth’s latest book, The Friday Gospels, all in one post. What was I thinking? There is no way I could do that because a) The Friday Gospels is a pretty amazing book, and b) they both had a lot to say at the festival.

The Riley/Ashworth talk was held in one of the smaller venues at the Edinburgh Book Festival and it was a sold out show. Not only that, the audience was quite engaged and asked good questions all around. That is something that is all too rare at events such as this. The mediated discussion flipped back and forth between the two women, but for simplicity I am going to deal with each woman separately.

Not surprisingly, Ashworth’s relationship with Mormonism informed much of what Ashworth had to say. The salient points to come across were that although she was raised a Mormon, she no longer is one and The Friday Gospels is by no means autobiographical in the least. Obviously she was writing about a world she knew intimately, but beyond that the characters had very little in common with her. There was some discussion about how her book had been received in Mormon circles and I got the impression that it varied quite widely.

One of the most fascinating aspects to me about The Friday Gospels and today’s discussion was the differences between Mormonism in the United States and Britain. Much of what circulates in the popular conscious about Mormonism has to do with the more extreme and fundamental strains of the religion. In the media one tends to hear about abuses and polygamous marriages, however that is not the experience of most Mormons, especially in the UK. While British Mormons are very different from the break away sects in places like Bountiful, Canada, they are also very different from the typical middle class, white collar image of the American Mormon going door to door. In spite of these differences, however, conformity is very important to Mormons in Britain, probably because it is such a small community compared to that in the United States.

Turning towards Riley’s portion of the discussion, she said that Jonestown and Waco had a greater influence on her writing of Amity and Sorrow than Mormons, though she also looked at them in her research. In particular, she was interested in the charismatic men who lead these groups.

This issue of a polygamous family group was a recurring theme in the discussion. Riley raised some very interesting points about it that I had not considered before. Specifically that in leaving a group such as the one she imagined in Amity and Sorrow one is not just leaving a cult, but a family and a faith as well. In essence, all aspects of your identity have to be re-invented. Riley also considered her protagonist’s choice to take her two biological daughters with her when she leaves the cult in which all children are raised communally.

I really enjoyed hearing Riley read from Amity and Sorrow. Her reading gave the book, and in particular Amaranth, a very different tone than I had in my head. Instead of finding this unsettling, I thought it added greater texture to my understanding and interpretation of the novel.