60 Books In 2019 #51: Hotel On the Corner Of Bitter And Sweet By Jamie Ford

This is a book that I remembered seeing in Barnes and Noble and Borders a lot when it first came out. I never quite knew why we never picked it up. I think it was on the “I’ll get around to it,” list for a while.

Anyway, I’m glad I got around to it. Much like The Stationary Shop last weekend, this is another story of first love disrupted by reality intruding on the sweet bubble of teenagerdom, and the way life goes it’s own way, growing in around those cracks.

As I said last week. This is a theme that I’m very very fond of. This time, the world that’s disrupted is the Asian community of Seattle, Washington in the 1940s.

Henry Lee is the child of Chinese immigrants, who are strongly nationalist Chinese, but they want their son to be as American as possible, without forgetting who he is and where he came from. Such a delicate balance for immigrants. Henry is the only Asian kid at his school, until one day, Keiko Okanabe, a seceond generation Japanese American girl joins his class.

Keiko and Henry bond over art, and their outsider status and jazz. It’s touching and innocent and lovely and then of course everything falls apart. Henry’s father doesn’t approve of his friendship with a Japanese girl. And then of course, Keiko and her family are interred.

If you don’t know about Japanese internment, I really don’t know what to say to you. I’ve been darkly fascinated by this very dark chapter of our national history since I was twelve and it’s well worth researching if only so you can know how easy it is for people to turn against their neighbors. (BTW, Disband ICE, close the camps, ETC.)

In the 80’s the Panama Hotel, where Keiko and her family stored their valuables during internment is reopened and Henry goes looking for a gift, a secret, and in turn comes to understand himself, his past and his son.

Seriously, I love this sort of book and this was a very good version of it. I suggest picking it up.

Up next is Cavedon Hall by Barbara Taylor Bradford, I picked this up before Downton Abbey was a dud, but I’ll still disappear into the fading glamour of the between wars era in Britain. I’ll always go there. Every time.

60 Books in 2019 #49: The Stationary Shop By Marjan Kamali

The Stationary Shop is the kind of book that is exactly what I would describe as my favorite kind. A historical fiction novel about a culture different from my own, about young people and lost love, and the way lives curve turn and intersect.

The Stationary Shop is the story of Roya, a sixteen year old high school student in Tehran in 1953, who falls in love with Bahman, a politically minded 18 year old of a slightly higher social class. They get engaged, the difficult politics of Iran and his mother’s disapproval eventually split them apart and Roya goes to America, lives a full life, always haunted by the lost love of her youth.

It’s a beautiful book and quick to read and consume, which is for the best with this kind of thing. It needs to either be fully epic, or readable in an afternoon. Also, Iran before the Islamic revolution is one of my favorite topics for explorations. (Thanks, Reading Lolita In Tehran!) Marjan Kamali invokes her Tehran beautifully, and Roya is a wonderful lead.

Like all of these kinds of books, there are generational secrets and abuse at play, manipulation and tragedy and life lived unfulfilled, but still lived. I don’t quite know what it is about these kinds of stories that really entrance me, but I do love them. The stories of those shining, glorious romantic moments that just can’t last, for what ever reason. (If you want a pure American example, I suggest Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere) so I heartily recommend The Stationary Shop.

Up next is This One Summer by Jillian & Mariko Tamaki. It’s Comic Con week, so y’all are going to start seeing more and more graphic work creeping into things.

60 Books In 2019 #40: Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck

If I could pick anywhere at any time to go on vacation, it would be Paris, 1925-ish, get to hang out with the Lost Generation, and drink champagne and eat in cafes and where fabulous linen dresses.

I have no illusions about who those men actually were, assholes at best and monsters at worst, which is why I wouldn’t want to live among them, just go on vacation.

Hemingway’s Girl takes place after that glittering era, about ten years later, when a nineteen year old girl named Mariella Bennett gets a job working as a maid in Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West. Mariella becomes smitten with the author, despite his marriage and a growing relationship with a far more appropriate veteran working for the EPA just north of the island.

I have a soft spot for historical fiction about the women near the “great men.” There’s a silliness to it, but a great deal of fun too, and that’s what I had with Hemingway’s Girl, Mariella is a delightful heroine, strong and willful and a little bit out of her depth. Robuck’s picture of Hemingway is bright and fun and intoxicating. It also got me looking at Air BnB’s in Key West for the winter, so we’ll see how that goes.

This wasn’t a great book, by any means, but did get me thinking I should give Ernest another shot. (I hated him in highschool, and even though I got it a lot more in college, still would rather read Fitzgerald for my bare bones prose of that era.)

Up next is City Of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert which I have been waiting all stinking summer to read and I am so so excited. (It just came in from the library last week!) 20 Books left in my challenge which I feel pretty good about at the moment.

60 Books In 2019 #8: Peony In Love By Lisa See

After a few more fantastical jaunts, lots of fantasy and speculative fiction in the past few months I wanted something a little bit more grounded. So, I picked up Peony In Love, I’d read and enjoyed Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls a few years back and it had been a while since I’d dove into some real high grade historical fiction you know?

And as I read the first sixty pages of Peony, I was thrilled! Oh my god! It was a story about a young woman in 17th century china who’s obsessed with The Peony Pavillion, a tragic romantic opera, and how she falls in love for the first time on the eve of her wedding.

This was so up my alley! When I assembled my “things I like,” list when asking for recomendations, “historical fiction that bends to romance,” was one of my top descriptors. Then, about sixty pages in, Peony dies, and we follow her into the afterlife.

It took a few days for me to recalibrate and continue on because I was so disappointed. I’d just read a whole book about grappling with life after death and heaven and hell and  wanted some transportive realistic historical narrative damnit!

But once I got past my annoyance that the book wasn’t what I wanted it to be, I really enjoyed it. Peony is an interesting narrator in both life and death, and the exploration of the Chinese afterlife, and the rituals surrounding it were fascinating. Peony looking in on her husband and his next two wives as she learns how to be a ghost makes up most of the story, but it’s heart is in learning the secrets of the women who died before her. Her mother and grandmother, other female intellectuals who studied The Peony Pavillion, even the vengeful spirit of her husband’s second wife.

It’s a pretty special book, but know what you’re getting into. I like See’s style, and I think I’ll seek her out more. Growing up, some of my favorite reading was always historical fiction, because it gave me a window into places and people I would never see. I especially loved historical fiction about other cultures, because I’d really likely never see that.

Up next is The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, which was actually way down the list, but I know that’s just some straight historical fiction, because I watched the movie! (The movie has Lily James and Jessica Brown Findley, as two women who wind up occupying the same space in different times, which, as a Downton Fan is the most glorious meta flourish in anything ever!) 

45 Books In 2018 #39:I Was Anastasia By Ariel Lawhon

I’ve read a lot of historical fiction about the Romanovs. And by that I mean the “final family” as I’ve been calling them in my head for the past decade. I became fascinated by the legend of the lost princess Anastasia when I was really little. (My obsession even predates the Fox animated classic Anastasia. I was that annoying kid pointing out all of the historical inaccurracies in that flick.) (And not even the obvious stuff, like “Zombie monk.”) (I was very popular, as I’m sure you can tell.) My favorite is certainly The Kitchen Boy, but I’ve read some doozies.

I Was Anastasia is a very good book, focused on two timelines, one moving backwards, the other forwards until they meet, we’re told the story of Anastasia’s last days as a prisoner, and the story of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess for years. Anna’s half of the book begins on the day her final appeal to be recognized by the German government as Anastasia Romanov. Anastasia’s half begins the day of her father’s abdication.

The stories meet in the middle, with the most likely explanation of what happened to Anderson facilitating her great con. (Or delusion, depending on your point of view.) Anderson’s story was more fun for me as it’s the one that I’m less familiar with.

Lawhon didn’t really add many new wrinkles to the “Romanovs in Siberia” stuff. Everything I’ve read before was here. The girls sewing their jewels into the clothing, their fierce protection of Alexie, Anastasia’s torture of their tutors, flirtations and love affairs with revolutionary guards. She does add a rape subplot. I’d never seen that before. (I’m not sure why. I mean, asserting that the guards may have raped the Grand Duchesses and Tsarina isn’t exactly a huge stretch) (I think this proves how unnecessary rape subplots are in certain narratives though.)

Look, reading this book was like curling up someplace homey for me. I wasn’t ever going to be blown away by it. An Anastasia book would have to be amazing to blow me away at this point, but it was good, comforting and had some stuff I’d never seen before, mostly the Anna Anderson stuff, but still, it’s nice to get back into old obsessions occasionally…maybe I’ll listen to some Billy Joel and watch Glee now.

OK, not really, I’m actually going to read The Witching Hour. Because old obsessions are great to revisit, and all, but new obsessions are better.

 

36 Books In 2018 #26: Lincoln In The Bardo By George Saunders

There’s a kind of human melancholy to ghost stories that doesn’t exist in other genres, that I’ve always loved. The questions of the afterlife is so deeply ingrained into our society that the idea that perhaps it’s existing beside us, that those who’ve died are still among us, still preoccupied by the troubles of the living world is really bleak when you consider outside of the provenance of the spooky.

Which is why I wasn’t overly shocked, but still moved by the incredible beauty and sadness of Lincoln In The Bardo, which features a cacophony of ghostly voices inhabiting a limbo in a Georgetown cemetary, where young Willie Lincoln, the young son of our most honored Commander In Cheif has recently been interred. Each ghost has a tale, that as his father comes to visit Willie, they try to impart to the boy.

The ghosts don’t know they’re dead for the most part. They know they’re someplace else, in waiting, either to move on, or for a path back to their former world. They fret over their “sick boxes” and their final moments. To stay they have to express their stories, get them out.

We should all be heard, I think is at least part of the point. The other part is that while alive we often don’t share those stories, or don’t notice them. I thought of Our Town a lot while I was reading. The idea of slowing down and seeing our world while we’re still in it, while we can, is ever present in tales like this.

Of course Lincoln In The Bardo also bears the weight of a crux moment in history, illustrated most powerfully in the spirits of slaves tossed into a mass grave, one of whom follows Mr. Lincoln out of the cemetary, mingling his soul with that of the president.

While obviously, the idea that Emancipation occurred because the ghost of a dead house slave, mostly content with his comfortable life, but still struggling against bondage possessed Lincoln, is ridiculous when taken literally, when taken symbolically, it’s beautiful. It’s about awareness, and feeling and connection. About something larger overcoming everything to bring about a great good.

The human condition is somewhat absurd no matter how you slice it. But it’s made beautiful by love, transcendent, deep and beautiful love that lasts beyond all other things.

Up next is How Not To Be A Dick: An Everyday Etiquette Guide by Meghan Doherty, because, hey! Etiquette! Also lightness.

30 Books in 2018 #4: The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin

I think a lot about where my various obsessions come from. Who gifted them to me, as it were.

So many of them came from my dad. Star Wars and fantasy and guitar music. Others from friends, comics and Doctor Who and YA series. From teachers, Shakespeare and memoirs and feminist theory.

And from my mom, comedy and Broadway and historical fiction. My John Jakes obsessed mama happily presented me with the American Girl books, The Dear America series and then, leading to my favorite fictional historical subject, royalty, The Royal Diaries. (I read the Marie Antoinette one over and over again. The Anastasia one didn’t grab me, oddly enough, but only because I knew Anastasia’s story by heart by the time I read it. The Romanovs were a favorite favorite subject of mine. And they still rank pretty high!) That lead to a decade long love affair with the Tudor intrigues of Philippa Gregory, visits back to the Romanovs with Robert Zimmerman, and eventually, through her portrait of Young Victoria, to Daisy Goodwin.

I’ve read Victoria (and watch the show Ms. Goodwin adapted from it) and The American Heiress, so I decided in between visits to Russia and a far flung galactic empire, (I’m starting Dune today) that I visit to Victorian England through Ms. Goodwin’s eyes would be a nice distraction.

And it was distracting. The Fortune Hunter centers around a love triangle (YAY!) constructed of Bay Middleton, a cavalry officer, (and distant family tree cousin of Kate! WEE!) Charlotte Baird, a brainy and artistic young heiress, and Empress Elizabeth of Austria. (I don’t know much about the Hapsburgs. If anyone knows of any other wildly inaccurate novels about her, I’m super game.)

Bay and Charlotte meet at a house party and fall in love. But he’s hired to guide the Empress for the hunting season, and then they fall in love. Or at least obsession. It’s unclear. They spend a year trying to untangle this very odd knot. Also there are horses and nosy relatives and photography is a big thing.

Oh, and a gay American. Sooo…yeah.

This is not a plot heavy book. Lots of neat atmosphere though.

I liked Charlotte a lot as a heroine. She was very Austenian, even if she came from a different era, all frankness and fiery spirit. I liked Elizabeth too, she’s definitely a tragic figure, so showing her that way was sad, but necessary.

The problem comes with Bay, and it’s frankly, a problem I’ve had with all of the male protagonists in Goodwin’s books. All of her men seem to wander around in existential despair until they meet a cheery young woman who brings them to life and gives them purpose. (Albert might be the exception, but the book Victoria was much more focused on Melbourne, and that’s definitely the arc she set up for him.) Bay is carrying on affairs with married women and riding horses and feeling a great deal of ennui until he meets Charlotte and she makes him feel alive for the first time.

It’s fine, it’s certainly great that Goodwin seems much more interested in her ladies than her gentlemen, which worked in Victoria, since the focus is well, Victoria, and in Heiress because Cora is meant to find her new husband mysterious and her English surrounding alien, but with Bay, it just makes him kind of boring.

I enjoyed The Fortune Hunter, and I’ll read dubious historical novels until I drop dead, but this was never going to be my favorite.

Outlander: Resistance Is Futile

One of the first times I clearly remember understanding that something dirty and sexy could be a whole lot of fun was when I read The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillippa Gregory when I was 16, and that has shaped my taste in, well, I don’t want to call it erotica, because I don’t have a long gray braid down my back. But, basically, if I’m looking for sexy times, by God, someone better be wearing corset. I maintain that this is why I didn’t quite get why 50 Shades was such a big deal. I mean, sure, the riding crop was shocking, but not Anne and Mary Boleyn discussing giving Henry VIII a handjob shocking. (One of the best scenes EVER by the way.)

So when Outlander landed on my radar a few months ago, thanks to Ally over at Fandom Obsessed, I decided I should read the books.

Then I got a job and that sort of fell by the wayside, and the show premiered, and I figured if I liked what I saw I would feel compelled to read the books, much as I had with Game of Thrones.

And that’s exactly what happened, while I wasn’t 100% sold on the plot and characters, I was totally sold on the sexy times. After all, our leading lady, Claire had lots of sexy sex with her husband, Frank in 1945, and then time traveled back to the 1700s, a concept that I love, because time travel YAY! And back there she makes broody eyes with a sexy Scot named Jamie. So yeah, I wasn’t sure I liked Claire but I was willing to give her story a shot.

Wow, are the first hundred or so pages of Outlander dull. Still after having finished the book, I don’t think I like Claire, but I did like the book. And also it speaks to Claire as a character that I’m not sure if I like her.

I don’t like Jamie. I mean, he’s sexy, and I totally get why women on the internet and in life are obsessed with this character, but he does suffer from Darcy complex, which is that somehow, Jamie Fraser is always, always, always right, about everything. It’s maddening.

For something like that to annoy someone who loves Batman as much as I do, well, I mean, it’s saying something right?

But resisting Outlander was just not going to happen for a girl like me. On Sunday, I lay on the beach talking to my friend Katie, (not that Katie, I went to Catholic school. I’m friends with 17 Katies.) and she was also trying to decide whether to start the show and read the book, as she too, is a fan of books that you can say you’re reading for the history but even though you’re actually reading them for the sex and everyone knows it. Mary was actually saying, “you two know that Starz is just porn, right?” To which Katie responded, “Yes.”

Then Katie said, “It’s porn with fluffy shirts and gladiator sandals, it’s fine.”

Then we laughed, but Katie was 100% on board with the idea of a nurse from 1945 who goes back in time and helps the Jacobites and has sex with a perfect Highlander.

Because who wouldn’t be OK with that as a concept? I don’t know. I do know that I’m not sure that I’m OK with how much addicted I am because I still haven’t decided if I like it.

But, there was no point in pretending I wasn’t going to be obsessed with it. No point at all.

Hail to the historically inaccurate & totally bad ass chief

Sometimes actors develop trademarks. Like how Chris Evans is in a lot of comic book movies, or Vin Diesel blows things up, or Jason Lee makes Burt Reynolds references or Tom Cruise is always in the Navy (OK, that’s only twice, but come on Top Gun and A Few Good Men always win.)

Well, there’s a new sheriff in the random pattern town. His name is Benjamin Walker, and it looks like he’s going to make a career out of playing warped versions of our nation’s presidents.

Most people (or most nerds) know that Walker is poised to break in to the (nerdy) mainstream by playing Abraham Lincoln in the film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which come out this Friday. Most people (even nerds) don’t know or at least don’t realize that this isn’t the first time that Walker is taking a less than accurate walk through the White House.

He’s already played Andrew Jackson. But not you know, normally. He played him in the Off Broadway/Broadway musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The show, um, played a little fast and loose with a few things. Namely, it portrayed him as an emo frontman.

Seriously. The show is brilliant and hilarious. How could it not be, with lines like, “I’m President Andrew Jackson. I am wearing some seriously tight jeans, and tonight we are going to delve in to some serious shit!” And Walker was amazing in it.

Also, this. And a lot of fake blood.

It’s also surprisingly poignant, reflecting on the way history gets colored and how we as a nation were formed in blood, and nothing is black and white.

Except for what a badass Andrew Jackson was. That’s pretty much black, or white.

Abraham Lincoln did not slay vampires, however. I mean, as far as I know.