Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair
by
William Makepeace Thackeray

Rating: 4.5

Lately I’ve been trying to balance my reading with some of the classics I haven’t read. (See my Classic TBR list here). I was between books a few weeks ago and decided to read Vanity Fair. It’s been waiting patiently on my Kindle for years, one of those free, public domain books that are so easy to download. Until I started, I didn’t realize how substantial the book was. It’s a whopping 834 pages! For me, the only way to get through a book this long was to put the rest of my blogging and social media to the side. Reading Vanity Fair was definitely work, but well worth the effort!

The book is a satire about 19th century British society and takes place during and after the Napoleonic Wars. It follows the lives of about a dozen characters from various stations in society. The main story is about the naïve and sheltered Amelia Sedley, raised in riches and betrothed to George Osborne, spoiled son of the wealthy Mr. Osborne. Rebecca Sharp is Amelia’s orphan friend, a manipulator and social climber. And then there’s George’s awkward friend, William Dobbin, an honorable captain in the British army. Dobbin is secretly in love with Amelia and vows to protect her, even if he can’t win her heart. The second story is about Sir Pitt Crawley, his lineage and all the players who are positioning themselves to inherit a great sum from the Baronet’s half-sister. Captain Rawdon Crawley is the favorite nephew, and when Aunt Matilda’s health begins to fail, the dirty business of money begins.

Thackeray’s seemingly upper class characters, in an effort to match the truly wealthy and titled, live extravagant lives, traveling, gambling, and hosting lavish parties, but paying no bills. They skillfully avert their creditors by playing one off the other and sometimes leaving the country. Some of his characters change for the better during the period’s booms and the busts, but others do not. Of course, there’s also the war, which changes some lives, but doesn’t stop the posturing. Among all classes, there is no guarantee of happiness.

Thackeray also shows the timeless appeal of a story about two people who are meant to be together, but miss their chance and make other decisions that force their separation. Who doesn’t want to see how that works out?

Something should be said about the often forgotten appeal of a very long book. When you read a story in which characters come together and then are apart for many pages, you have time to think about them while other things happen. You can’t get that in a shorter book. Vanity Fair and other long books are big picture stories, showing how all the pieces eventually come together, over lots of pages. I like that.

I enjoyed Vanity Fair very much, but it was hard work to read. Thackeray’s sentences are long and convoluted and there are many, many characters to keep track of. For me, it was impossible to whip through and hard to read more than 50 – 75 pages a day without feeling wiped out.

Vanity Fair was first published as a 19-volume monthly serial from 1847 – 1848 and was originally titled, Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society and included Thackeray’s original illustrations. The title comes from the 1678 Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyon, and refers to the pilgrim’s stop at a town called Vanity where there is a never-ending fair.

Have you read this classic? Have you seen the 2004 movie starring Reese Witherspoon? I’m going to watch that soon!

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Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon
by
Daniel Keyes

Rating:

Do scientists and doctors have the right to tamper with a person’s brain power?

In a return to the classics, here’s an excellent science fiction novel that looks at this important ethical question. The story is about Charlie Gordon, a thirty-two-year-old man with a low IQ. Committed to a state home as a teenager, now he is out. He’s living in a rooming house and working at a bakery in New York, all through the help of a family friend. He is happy, has friends at work and friends at his school, where he has worked hard to learn how to read and write.

Because of Charlie’s impressive motivation, Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss from Beekman University determine he is an excellent candidate for an experimental procedure to increase intelligence, one that has only been performed on mice. Algernon is their superstar mouse that has learned how to navigate through complicated mazes. Now Nemur and Strauss want to take it to the next level.

Charlie is willing. “After the operashun Im gonna try to be smart. Im gonna try awful hard,” he writes.

The surgery is a seeming success and Charlie’s intelligence increases, at first slowly, but later at a fantastic rate. Soon he is reading voraciously and learning ancient languages, complex theories, sciences, history, economics and classic literature and eventually surpassing Nemur and Strauss. But Charlie’s emotional intelligence is woefully behind and he doesn’t know what to do with the many new strong and complex feelings he experiences.

Through memory recall, Charlie begins to understand that the people in his life had been cruel to him, with their hurtful jokes and abuse, and that he had played a part in their jokes. “That hurts most of all,” he writes.

In addition, memories of his mother’s shame and embarrassment and her ultimate rejection make Charlie’s new knowledge painful. Even Nemur and Strauss treat him as an experiment and not as a human, forgetting that he was already a person with feelings before the surgery.

At his intellectual peak, Charlie detects a flaw in the theory and foresees his decline. How will it end as Algernon runs through his maze and Charlie navigates his own complicated path? With limited time, Charlie will try to figure it out. He writes, “I see now that the path I choose through that maze makes me what I am.”

Flowers for Algernon began as a short story in 1959. In 1960, it won the Hugo Award for best short story. The novel was published in 1966 and was the joint winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel. No surprise that both forms won awards. Despite being an older story, Flowers for Algernon raises important points about human feelings and the ethics of scientific experimentation.

Charly is the 1968 film adaptation – I’ll be watching that soon as part of my library’s summer reading challenge to watch a movie based on a book!

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Books with unlikable characters – can you add to the list?

I don’t know about you, but I love reading books with unlikable characters. Here’s list of some of my favorites:

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage – Psychological thriller that will make you very uncomfortable. What are Suzette and Alex to do when life with their demonic 7-year-old daughter gets dangerous? What’s their breaking point?

The Dinner by Herman Koch – What would you do if your child committed a horrendous crime? Is it more important to save your child’s future than do the right thing?

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – Psychological thriller in which a stranger may know more about a crime than the people involved. When a woman goes missing, the girl on the train is sure she can help, if she can only dig through her alcohol-clouded memories.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – Creepy story about a completely dysfunctional marriage and the extreme lengths to which the wife goes to get the upper hand over her husband. He proves to be an equal match, however, and as the details emerge and opinions form, it’s hard to know whom or what to believe.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of thirteen integrated short stories about the people of Crosby, Maine, a seemingly simple town on the New England coast and the town’s most complicated character, Olive.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn – A nine-year-old girl has been murdered and now a ten-year-old girl is missing. When the second girl’s body is discovered, details of the murder suggest a serial killer. Is the killer a stranger to the town or, more disturbingly, one of them?

Those People by Louise Candlish – On the problem of despicable neighbors, here’s a new book about a couple that moves into an idyllic and award-winning neighborhood in South London and drives the families to desperation.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart – Something bad happens during Cadence Eastman’s fifteenth summer on the family’s private island off Martha’s Vineyard. Cady, her cousins and their friend risk everything to break free from oppressive, greedy and narrow minded family pressures.

There are many more – can you add to the list?

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Those People by Louise Candlish

Those People
by
Louise Candlish

Rating:

On the problem of despicable neighbors, here’s a new book about a couple that moves into an idyllic and award-winning neighborhood in South London and drives the families to desperation. Straight away, Darren and Jodie annoy the neighbors with dramatic home renovations in a style that doesn’t fit their picture-perfect street. Darren hacks away at walls and uses loud power tools and construction equipment, but that’s only the beginning. The couple also runs a used car business out of their driveway, and the unsightly vehicles soon take up spaces on the street. Tension grows when Darren refuses to move the cars for the street’s weekly Play Out Sunday, when neighbors clear the street of cars and traffic in order to let their children play safely. At night, even louder music and partying keeps the neighborhood awake, especially their direct neighbors, Ant and Em Kendall and their brand new baby.

This is a street of upwardly mobile families, who are used to getting what they want. They quickly organize a multi-pronged effort to either stop the new neighbors’ low class and unacceptable behavior or drive them out. Surveillance cameras, tough talk and complaints soon spiral out of control. Of added interest is a look at the families on the street, their marriages and relationships to each other. Each is nursing a private beef with a spouse, partner or neighbor and these inner conflicts cause them to make wildly irrational decisions, leading to a shocking fatal accident.

As inspectors investigate the accident, readers begin to wonder whether the author’s title refers more to the new neighbors or the rest of the group. I enjoyed reading their statements and interviews with the police and seeing how they dig themselves deeper into the pit of suspicion. These reckless behaviors lead to a second tragedy, muddled by the neighbors’ escalating dread of being implicated.

This is also a story chock full of unlikable characters, and not just Darren and Jodie. Candlish tells the story from different points of view and I liked trying to understand the neighbors’ thoughts. Some readers may not find that relatable, but I would much rather experience these people in the pages than on my street!

There are many red herrings and an abrupt open-ended finish, leaving the reader to imagine what may happen. I like this kind of ending and think it would be a great book club book. I recommend Those People to those who are looking for a quick read and enjoy vicarious conflicts!

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Audiobook review: Roar by Cecelia Ahern

Roar
by
Cecelia Ahern

Rating:

I’m not sure how to review a book like this. It’s a collection of thirty feminist fables, with titles that all begin with “The Woman Who…” The author addresses many of the challenges women of many ages face, mostly dealing with identity and self-worth. Some of them are coping with not being “seen” or taken seriously, or being treated as possessions. Some are mothers in crisis, who rush around with their young children. Others are young professionals, feeling suppressed by their male colleagues.

I listened to the audiobook version, which was narrated by three women. I would not call this a relaxing experience. The stories are combative and aggressive and I felt as if the message for most had a very “us against them” approach. The exceptions were some I did enjoy, including “The Woman Who Thought Her Mirror Was Broken,” “The Woman Who Forgot Her Name,” and “The Woman Who Walked in Her Husband’s Shoes.” I liked these because there was better resolution and understanding between the men and women in the stories. Although Ahern uses exaggerated metaphors to make her points (women disappearing, unraveling, being eaten up by guilt), these three fables were more relatable.

Many of the stories, at least in the audio version, have such an angry and staccato tone to them that I grew tired of the message, despite its worth. I think this collection, 289 pages in print and an eight-and-a-half-hour listen, would have been better if it was shorter.

Perhaps these stories were just not for me. There seems to be an equal measure of critical and positive talk online. I’m sharing several bloggers’ positive opinions here so you can decide for yourself:

Bookshelf Fantasies
Emma R
aclaireum

Have you read Roar? What did you think?

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Run Away by Harlan Coben

Run Away
by
Harlan Coben

Rating:

Simon Greene is desperate to find his daughter Paige, who has dropped out of college, is addicted to drugs, and on the run with her user boyfriend, Aaron. Acting on a tip, Simon sees her in Central Park and is sure he can save her. But Paige runs and Simon may never catch up.

Harlan Coben’s latest action thriller looks at a seemingly normal family with highly successful parents and smart children as they struggle with one daughter’s addiction. How right it had all seemed when Paige went off to college! Now the future is anything but bright.

Before long, Simon and his wife, Ingrid are deep into trouble and surrounded by highly dangerous people. Murder, conspiracies, family secrets, paid assassins and a cult cloud and threaten their search for Paige and before long, Simon is packing a weapon.

I enjoyed this fast-paced story, with a plot that’s hard to explain without spoilers. Coben gives the reader a view of a happy marriage that comes close to crumbling and a family that, like many families, isn’t what it seems. As in the two other Coben books I’ve read, I like the author’s references to New Jersey and New York, an area where I grew up.

Run Away is entertaining, but the reader will need to accept several far-fetched plot developments. I was okay with them, but did not feel the story was as good as the other Coben books I’ve read (see below). Despite this comment, I would recommend Run Away to readers looking for a fast-paced, not-too-deep summer read and, since summer has just begun, the timing is right!

Looking for other Harlan Coben books? Try Caught and Tell No One

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A backyard rabbit’s nest and Home for a Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown

We’ve had a very busy bunny in our yard lately. One morning this week, she had my pansies for breakfast and that evening, I spotted her out back, working hard. What on earth was she doing, digging a hole in the middle of our yard and lining it with mud and grass? I wish I’d taken a picture of her when I went out to visit her, but she quickly hopped away and only returned after I’d left.

I did get a picture of her work, which I’m now sure is a nest. I don’t know if she’s still making it ready for babies, or if she decided on a better place. But I took a peek this morning and there are no little bunnies in there. I hope she makes this the place, though. My pansies may suffer, but I’d like to see some little ones hopping about.

It’s a cozy little place and it reminded me of one of my favorite children’s books,  Home for a Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Garth Williams. Here’s an early post from my blog:


Home for a BunnyI think everyone knows the classic children’s book, Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, but do you know about Home for a Bunny? It is just one of Brown’s many books, but it became one of our favorites here. And the illustrations are as great as the words in this nice story about a bunny looking for a home.

But there’s more to this story than you think. Brown has a way of stating the facts plainly and although the bunny looks sweet and innocent, he knows the realities of nature when he searches for a place to live. He doesn’t belong with the birds or the frogs or the groundhog. He would fall out of a nest, he would drown in a bog, and the groundhog tells him bluntly, “No, you can’t come in my log.” He’s safe at last when he finds a place where bunnies live.

Somehow, in just a few words, Brown and Williams show how all the creatures know where they belong and they accept it. And these words are balanced nicely with illustrations that are both realistic and sweet.


Margaret Wise Brown

Margaret Wise Brown
Margaret Wise Brown

Margaret Wise Brown (1910 – 1942) was an American author of children’s books. She led a short, but very successful career writing over a hundred children’s books, most notably, Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. Brown was born in Brooklyn, New York and attended school in both Switzerland and the United States. She earned a degree in English at Hollins College, in Roanoke, Virginia and began her writing career while working at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York. Her first book, When the Wind Blew, was published in 1937.

Brown died unexpectedly, of an embolism, after surgery for appendicitis. Brown was an interesting character, who had a quirky personality and several tumultuous romantic relationships. You can learn more about these details from the following links.

Harper Collins biography
Britannica biography
Slate.com article


Garth Williams

Garth Williams
Garth Williams

 

Garth Williams was a well-known American illustrator of children’s books, including Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and the Little House series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.


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What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

What the Dead Know
by
Laura Lippman

Rating:

It’s 1975 when Sunny and Heather Bethany disappear from a busy mall outside Baltimore, Maryland. Under eye-rolling protest to her parents, Sunny had agreed to let her younger sister tag along and eleven-year-old Heather was thrilled to go. Maybe she’d spend her birthday money and they’d definitely get a Karmelkorn. But at fifteen, Sunny had her own plans and the two had separated when they arrived. ”I don’t want to do anything with you. I don’t care where you go. Just do your own thing and come back here at five-twenty,” she’d told her sister.

At 5:30, Dave Bethany waited and waited to pick up his daughters, but they never showed. What happened that day and when do you stop looking? Despite an intensive investigation, the case goes cold, and their exhausted parents’ lives are shattered.

Thirty years later, a mysterious woman returns to Baltimore and claims to be Heather. She knows a great deal about that day in 1975, the Bethany family, and the old neighborhood, but her wily personality is making the detectives suspicious.

In this character-driven mystery, the key players lead the reader through the day the girls disappear and the details of the case. Heading the investigation are Detective Kevin Infante, a twice-divorced ladies’ man and retired detective Chet Willoughby, who was so invested in the case he took the file home with him when he left the force.

The story is written in past and present and from various points of view and readers get a look at the Bethany family before and after the girls’ disappearance, including the parents’ imperfect marriage. I thought it was particularly interesting to see how Dave and Miriam Bethany cope and what they do as the years pass. They have both faced the same tragedy, but adapt in very different ways.

Heather or no, whoever this woman is, she has a painful past and has learned how to survive under the radar, mostly by using her quick mind and manipulative personality.

Lippman reveals key details as the story develops. Some are false leads, others suggest the truth. All is revealed in the final pages with a satisfying conclusion. I enjoyed reading this mystery, published in 2007. Laura Lippman is a New York Times best-selling author of nineteen novels, both stand-alones and the Tess Monaghan series. Her newest standalone, Sunburn, looks like a good summer read!

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Book Club Mom’s summer recommendations – grab a book and some fresh air!

Image: Pixabay

Summer reads have a certain feel about them and grabbing the right book can take you back to when you had long lazy days stretching out in front of you. Now, for many of us, it’s more a matter of creating the mood of an endless summer. So steal an hour, find a nice place in a park, in your yard or even at home with the windows open, and dig into a book that will grab you right away. Here are some recommendations to help you choose:


Dig Right In

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin – light, entertaining historical fiction during the late 1800s when billionaire American families match their daughters with cash-poor dukes and princes in need of American money.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer – set in Greenwich Village, NY, Greta discovers her 1985 self living in two other time periods, one in 1918 and one in 1941.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin – historical fiction and fascinating portrait of Truman Capote and his distinct sides, as both pet and confidante to the New York upper class, and serious writer.

Things We Set on Fire by Deborah Reed – great story about a mother who believes she is doing the right thing, but can’t see its impact until decades later.


Family Dramas

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler – a complicated family from Baltimore, full of secrets and an unacknowledged division between its members.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – great family saga that begins in the 1960s with six kids from two different families, thrown together because of an affair, a divorce and then a marriage.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub – light beach read about a dysfunctional family on a trip from Manhattan to Spain for some forced family vacation fun.

When I Found You by Catherine Ryan Hyde – a man goes duck hunting and finds an abandoned baby boy in the woods, changing his life in unimaginable ways.


Historical Fiction

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – classic tale about post-war immigration from Ireland to America.

The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor – set in NY in 1950 during the Red Scare, the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, arrested for spying for the Russians.

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor – biographical novel about Emily Dickinson and a fictional coming-of-age story about her young Irish maid.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – a look at Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson and their six-year marriage, spent mostly in Paris.


Secrets and Suspense

The Dry by Jane Harper – atmospheric thriller set on the edge of the Australia’s bushland during a devastating drought.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey – an old woman on the edge of dementia falls into a confused world of memories and suspicions, certain that her friend Elizabeth is missing.

The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian – a flight attendant wakes up after a night of heavy drinking and discovers she is in bed with a man who has been brutally murdered.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart – Young Adult story about mysterious events of one summer, forcing a family through painful changes.


I hope you find a good place to escape for a bit. What will you read?

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Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

Miracle Creek
by
Angie Kim

Rating:

To what lengths would you go to achieve normalcy? To fit in? To have the kind of regular life that everyone around you seems to enjoy? Would you lie? Would you commit murder? Would you frame someone else for the crime? These questions are rooted in Miracle Creek, a mystery/courtroom drama in which a young mother stands trial for the murder of her 8-year-old autistic son.

In her debut novel, Angie Kim shows how a controversial treatment for autism and other health problems can lead to desperation. Parents and others in this story hope that hyperbaric oxygen therapy (H-BOT) will correct, reverse and improve autism, brain damage and even infertility, and give their families the normal lives they deserve.

The story takes place in 2008, in Miracle Creek, Virginia, and is set at the Yoo family’s H-BOT facility where they call their chamber the “Miracle Submarine.” After years of sacrifice, Pak Yoo, his wife, Young and their teenage daughter, Mary, have moved to Miracle Creek to set up their business. Young and Mary have been in the country for four years, waiting for Pak to join them. He has been a “wild-goose-father” in Korea, working for an H-BOT company and preparing to come to America. They are certain this is how they will secure a future for Mary.

Regulars include three hyper-focused mothers who are desperate to improve their children’s, and their own, lives and a young man seeking fertility treatment. During one evening session, an explosion rips through the barn where the chamber is housed. Two people are killed, including the boy, Henry Ward, and others are severely injured. Henry’s mother, Elizabeth, had chosen not to enter the chamber with her son that night and everyone suspects murder.

The story quickly advances one year to the trial where testimony and back stories fill in missing pieces, with just enough lies, secrets, rivalry and false friendships between the mothers to cast doubt on others besides Elizabeth. In a parallel story about fitting in, the reader also learns more about Pak Yoo, his family and their struggles to assimilate into American life, including the prejudice against and ignorance about their Korean culture.

Throughout, Pak is honor-bound to lead and protect his family and Young must decide whether to obey or to think for herself. In addition, Mary’s secret teenage life reveals a shocking relationship with repercussions that shake both their family and the others involved in the treatment.

One of the strongest parts of the story is how Kim’s characters experience a range of troubling emotions including resentment and wild fantasies about being freed from their burdens and contemplating whose life is more worth saving, a sobering look at the roller coaster lives of special needs families.

I enjoyed reading Miracle Creek because of its original ideas and engaging plot and recommend it to readers who like character-driven stories about the devastating impact secrets can have. I’m looking forward to future stories by Angie Kim!

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