Tag Archives: American authors

#BookReview ‘French Braid’ by Anne Tyler #literary #family

Anne Tyler writes about everyday relationships with a sharp eye and a silken pen, choosing subjects which to people who have never read her may appear boring or worthless. Her books are never boring. French Braid, her 24th novel is, like all the others, about people, individuals and their families, ordinary people who become so familiar they could be real. Anne TylerWe first meet college students Serena and James, on the train returning to Baltimore from a Thanksgiving visit to James’s parents in Philadelphia. They’re in love and think they know each other well but this visit has highlighted differences in their experience of family and childhood and the expectations each has of how their own family will be in the future. Not all families are alike, they discover. After this shortish section, Tyler settles into the main story of Mercy and Robin – Serena’s grandparents – and their three children Alice, Lily and David through births, marriages and deaths from the 1950s to today.
The Garretts think themselves an awkward family, aware they’re not perfect – as Robin thinks when preparing for his and Mercy’s fiftieth wedding anniversary party, ‘Oh, the lengths this family would go to so as not to spoil the picture of how things were supposed to be!’ But in fact they’re being themselves, getting along together in the way that suits them, dealing with what life throws at them.
There’s a brief scene in the kitchen between sisters Alice and Lily as the family gathers at Easter to meet David’s new friend, Greta. They’re setting out food for lunch when their mis-communications and misunderstandings are laid bare. Hilarious lines – ‘Was bottled mayonnaise not a good thing?’ – are typical Tyler and made me smile. It’s a classic way of showing how two sisters can be so unalike but still rub along together. Tyler has such a deceptively simple way with words, summarising sprawling emotions so concisely that I want to write it down to enjoy again later.
Tyler examines how each family finds its own way through life. Not all siblings are best friends, not all spouses live in each other’s pockets. There is no right way or wrong way of being a family. Close-knit families may find looser-knit families cold or odd, but may in turn themselves seem claustrophobic and cliquey to outsiders. Neither is odd, simply different. Everyone muddles through the best they can. The trick to being part of a family, in Tyler’s world, is to adapt. Allow individuals to be themselves and accept annoying traits, awkward memories and uncomfortable truths along with the happy memories and shared laughter as part of a family’s mosaic.

Read my reviews of these other books by Anne Tyler:-

And read the first paragraphs of:-

If you like this, try:-
At Mrs Lippincote’s’ by Elizabeth Taylor
The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt
The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donoghue

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First Edition ‘The Age of Innocence’ by Edith Wharton #oldbooks #bookcovers

Published in 1920, The Age of Innocence was Edith Wharton’s twelfth novel and the one which would win her the Pulitzer Prize in 1921; the first woman to do so. This [below left] is the American first edition, published by D Appleton.

It is said the first choice of the Pulitzer judges was Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, which was rejected on ‘political grounds’. Wharton’s story first appeared in 1920 in the magazine Pictorial Review, serialised in four parts, then published in book form in the USA by D Appleton.

Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence – character study by Joshua Reynolds

It is believed the title of the novel was taken from the painting by Joshua Reynolds [above] which was much reproduced in the late 18th century and came to represent the commercial face of childhood.

Edith Wharton

Wordsworth Classics current ed 1994

The current edition by Wordsworth Classics [above] dates from 1994.

The story
Set in 1870s upper class New York society, The Age of Innocence was set around the time of Wharton’s own birth. She wrote the book had allowed her to find “a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America… it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914.”
Gentleman lawyer Newland Archer is due to marry the shy and beautiful May Welland until he encounters May’s cousin. The exotic Countess Ellen Olenska pays no court to society’s fastidious rules and, scandalously, is separated from her husband, a Polish count. To avoid scandal, Ellen is advised to live separately from her husband rather than pursue divorce. Newland tries to forget Ella and marries May but their marriage is loveless. Newland and Ellen meet again and as Newland falls in love with Ellen his behaviour breaks the rules of accepted behaviour. When he finally decides to follow Ellen to Europe, May announces she is pregnant.

Other editions


Edith Wharton

film poster 1993

The 1993 film [above] starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, Michelle Pfeiffer as the Countess Olenska and Winona Ryder as May Welland, was directed by Martin Scorsese. Watch the trailer.

Edith Wharton

film poster 1934

A 1934 film [above] with the same title took inspiration from the Wharton novel but set the action two generations later. Dallas Archer has fallen in love with a married woman, to the displeasure of all his family except his grandfather Newland Archer. And in 1924, a black and white film of The Age of Innocence [below] starred Elliott Dexter as Newland.

Edith Wharton

film poster 1924

If you like old books, check out these:-
It’ by Stephen King 
Ulysses’ by James Joyce
Five on a Treasure Island’ by Enid Blyton

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#BookReview ‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson #classic #literary

Jack by Marilynne Robinson is fourth in her Gilead series, following Gilead, Home and Lila and is a love story. Jack Boughton is the troubled son of Presbyterian minister, and Della, the attractive, black, high school teacher, daughter of a Methodist minister. This is a novel about the quality of love, its consequences, and whether sometimes loving someone means saying goodbye. Marilynne Robinson

The story starts with such a brave scene for any author to write – a two-hander between Jack and Della as they meet accidentally at night. They are locked in a graveyard in St Louis and spend the night walking in conversation about life, their families, themselves, the world. A disreputable white man and a successful attractive black woman, in 1950s America. The conversation ebbs and flows, jumping from subject to subject as a real discussion does. They do not talk about love, but throughout the course of a number of chaste meetings, they fall in love.

It is sublime prose to sink into and absorb. Such small, familiar detail brings Jack and Della instantly to life. They are real and you care for them. The graveyard scene is long, so long I wondered if it took up the whole book.

We have heard of both these characters in the earlier Gilead books. We know Jack is a bad ‘un, as told by others. This is the first time we see into his head.

Robinson has a beautiful way of summarising truths that are easy to identify with. When Jack is with Della in the cemetery, he thinks, ‘Forever after, the thought of her would be painful, because it had been pleasant. Strange how that is.’ Jack is a mixture of insecurities, resentments, injuries and injustices brought upon himself and also by his strict religious upbringing by his pious pastor father.

Not a long book or a quick read, but absorbing. I totally understand why Jack falls for Della, wanting to save and protect her; I’m less sure why she loves him given the risks and dangers of a mixed marriage at that time. He loves his wisecracks and makes jokes at inappropriate times, misjudging the mood and causing silences. Their discussions range from Hamlet to theology, end-of-life world scenarios to poetry.

If you are new to Gilead, please don’t start with this book. Read them in order to get the most enjoyment of these complex stories of the Boughton and Ames families from Gilead, Iowa.

Read my review of Robinson’s other novels Housekeeping, Gilead and Home.

If you like this, try:-
Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain
Time Will Darken It’ by William Maxwell

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
JACK by Marilynne Robinson #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-561 via @SandraDanby

Great Opening Paragraph 130 ‘Gilead’ #amwriting #FirstPara

“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to life a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! Because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows singed after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.”
‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson Marilynne RobinsonBUY THE BOOK

Read my reviews of Gilead, Housekeeping and Home by Marilynne Robinson.

Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
Agnes Grey’ by Anne Bronte
The Big Sleep’ by Raymond Chandler
The Collector’ by John Fowles 22

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#FirstPara GILEAD  by Marilynne Robinson #amwriting https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4eD via @SandraDanby

Great Opening Paragraph 125… ‘Beloved’ #amwriting #FirstPara

“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had runaway by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill.” Toni Morrison
‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison

Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
The Ashes of London’ by Andrew Taylor 
The Garden of Evening Mists’ by Tan Twan Eng 
Queen Camilla’ by Sue Townsend

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#FirstPara BELOVED by Toni Morrison #amwriting https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4ec via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Home’ by Marilynne Robinson #classic #literary

Home by Marilynne Robinson is the story of two adult children who return home, coincidentally at the same time, who feel the shame of not living up to the standards set by their minister father, Reverend Robert Boughton. It is a profoundly sad book; the slow winding tale towards the inevitable ending is curiously addictive. It is a three-hander, concentrating on father, son and daughter. Marilynne Robinson

Glory and Jack Boughton grew up in a clerical family home in Gilead, Iowa. We learn of their country childhoods, quite different as siblings go, from their conversations and the memories prompted by visits from neighbours Reverend John Ames, his wife Lila and son. The story is told from Glory’s viewpoint. Jack takes lots of ‘dark nights of the soul’, long solitary walks in the dark to which we are not privy, and his true thoughts remain a mystery to the end. Just when you think you have worked him out, he confounds you.

Robinson draws a picture of rural America at a time of great change. There are demonstrations in Montgomery, but Gilead seems insulated from the outside apart from occasional telephone calls to their father by Glory and Jack’s siblings, and news reports of violence. Jack is drawn to the news coverage; his father dismissive. Jack is a contradiction; he struggles to believe yet knows his Bible backwards, plays hymns on the piano, and quotes scripture at Ames.

Slowly, piece by piece, we find out the details of Glory’s shame. Why she really came home, why she is no longer teaching. But Jack is more opaque, hiding his past, unable to share, he is spiky when offered help and understanding. Does he feel unworthy? He is spiritually isolated from his family, unable to connect though at times he longs to, other times he kicks out. A to-and-fro battle proceeds as Jack opens up a little to Glory, then slamming shut again when faced with his father’s well meaning but blunt questions. There are parallels between the siblings; Glory is recovering from a failed relationship with an unscrupulous man who sounds rather like Jack, while Jack mourns the loss of a good woman who sounds rather like Glory. This book tells the story of how the brother and sister come to understand themselves, and each other, more clearly, but based on fractured pieces of the truth.

As the book progresses, Boughton grows weaker as death approaches. He is one moment gentle towards Jack; the next, angry. Does he think that in striving for achievement for his children he also failed them, by channelling them towards a path they might not otherwise have followed, by not allowing them to develop naturally. I’m not sure Boughton sees it like that. They all live within the constraints of a family entwined in the strait-jacket of belief.

Robinson is best at the detail of ordinary life, the garden, the fruit and vegetables, the weather, the faded house, drawing pictures as clearly as Leonardo da Vinci drew pencil sketches of hands. “Glory made up a batch of bread dough. Brown bread was her father’s preference. Something to lift the spirits of the household, she thought. The grocer brought her a roasting hen. She opened the windows to cool the kitchen and air out the dining room a little, and the breezes that came in were mild, earthy, grassy, with a feel of sunlight about them.”

How many adults can return to visit their parents in the family home in which they grew up and find that home unchanged? “It was in fact a relief to have someone else in the house. And it was interesting to watch how this man, gone so long, noticed one thing and another, as if mildly startled, even a little affronted, by all the utter sameness. She saw him put his hand on the shoulder of their other’s chair, touch the fringe on a lampshade, as if to confirm for himself that the uncanny persistence of half-forgotten objects, all in their old places, was not some trick of the mind. Nothing about that house ever did change, except to fade or scar or wear.” The unchanging nature of the family house mirrors the unchanging nature of the family that lives in it; the patriarch with his rules and expectations, the children trying to please him but falling short and feeling guilty. Each not wanting to worry the other, protective of the myth of their family, sensitive to their father’s opinion, fearful of striking out on their own again away from Gilead and what they know. Wanting to leave, wanting to stay.

Home will stay with you a long time after reading, whether you have faith or none. It is a companion to Gilead which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Read my reviews of Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping, and Gilead.

If you like this, try:-
‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara
‘The Witchfinder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown
‘Skin Deep’ by Laura Wilkinson

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#BookReview ‘Olive, Again’ by @LizStrout #literary #contemporary

OliveAgain by Elizabeth Strout is a return to the town of Crosby, Maine, and the life of Olive Kitteridge. Strout does it, again. If you loved the first iteration of Olive you will love this one too, it is like slipping into a sloppy pair of comfortable slippers. Olive lives her life, day by day; irascible, impatient with indulgence and self-importance, unsympathetic on the surface; but with a keen eye for those who need help, a kind word, a supporting hand under the elbow. But she cannot stand pseuds and snobs, though she fears she may be the latter. Elizabeth Strout

Strout has such a light touch when handling difficult, deep emotions, set amongst the picture frame of predictable daily life. There are thirteen connected stories. Each feature Olive; in some she is the protagonist, in others she appears in the periphery of someone else’s life, always at a time of turmoil, grief, divorce or trauma. Often the people featured are former pupils from her years as a maths teacher, often they are friends or neighbours. In the course of this book, Olive mourns the death of Henry and struggles alone in the house they built together. She sleeps downstairs on the large window seat though she spends most of each night awake, listening to a transistor radio she cradles to her ear. Jack Kerrison is mourning the loss of his wife, Betsy. Olive and Jack have an on-off friendship, hearing each other’s travails with their children. Olive worries she was a bad mother and that Christopher avoids her, and she doesn’t know what to do to put it right. She is so prickly on the outside, sometimes on the inside too; but she is also empathetic, determined to be herself in the face of frightening change and old age.

My favourite scene is the one where Olive attends a baby shower, reacting with incredulity then impatience as each present is unwrapped and circulated endlessly around the guests who ooh and aah. Olive has a way of cutting through the crap. ‘She thought she had never heard of such foolishness in her life.’

Another 5* book by Strout.

Strout was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for Olive Kitteridge and Frances McDormand played Olive in the HBO television series of Olive Kitteridge.

Read my reviews of My Name is Lucy Barton, Anything is Possible and Olive Kitteridge.

If you like this, try:-
The Stars are Fire’ by Anita Shreve
A Thousand Acres’ by Jane Smiley
Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx

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#BookReview ‘Olive Kitteridge’ by @LizStrout #literary #contemporary

Elizabeth StroutThere are some books you read and as soon as you finish them, you want to go back to the beginning. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout made me feel like that. Strout’s writing style is at once beautiful and expressive, economical and un-wordy. She tells you enough detail to create the picture, not one word too many.

The structure is not a linear narrative, instead Strout tells the story of Olive in a series of inter-connected stories set in the small town of Crosby, Maine, where Olive lives with husband Henry. Some stories are told from Olive’s viewpoint, others by by neighbours and people whose path crosses hers; her dry irascible tone made me smile often, but also frown. Olive can be caustic, she tells it as it is. She does not suffer fools and believes she is always correct, though recently her vision of herself has been challenged.  Living in one place for such a long time means she has left a trail through generations of friends, neighbours, shop owners, passers-by and the schoolchildren she once taught. Strout has created a realistic character who is imperfect of whom you warm to because of her faults and because she is as thoughtful and kind as she is prickly.

When the novel starts, Olive is already retired. This is the story of how she deals with ageing and the realisation that her life will have to adapt, her expectations tempered. Actually, Olive doesn’t deal with any of this well whether it is nosy acquaintances or nosy children, of the latter she says, ‘the child out to have her mouth washed out with soap.’ Unaware of the effect she has on others, particularly Henry and their son, Christopher, Olive ploughs on regardless. She seems angry all the time and I was curious about the source of this anger.

If you like novels with a clear straightline story, then this may not be for you. Strout compiles her novels with a patchwork of stories, Olive is the thread that holds everything together. You have to trust the author to tell you the story her way.

A 5* book for me.


Strout was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for Olive Kitteridge and Frances McDormand played Olive in the HBO television series of Olive Kitteridge. Olive Kitteridge

Read my reviews of My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible.

If you like this, try:-
The Stars are Fire’ by Anita Shreve
Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson
The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
OLIVE KITTERIDGE by @LizStrout #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3YZ via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Bright Center of Heaven’ by William Maxwell #literary

William MaxwellThis is the first novel by William Maxwell, author of Pulitzer finalist So Long, See You Tomorrow and fiction editor of The New Yorker magazine. He was there from 1936-1975 and worked with Cheever, Updike, Salinger and Nabokov, among others. Not a novel published singly, I found Bright Center of Heaven in an American anthology of Maxwell’s early work. This is a quiet read though ambitious in its subject matter, and well worth spending time with before reading Maxwell’s later works.

He follows the time-honoured structure of placing a group of people in one place over a limited time period and observing what happens. It is a contemplative novel and, although it does work to a climax, it is more an insight into the mind of each character as events unfold.

Widow Mrs West and her two teenage sons Thorn and Whitey live at Meadowland, a dilapidated farm that they can no longer afford to run, with her husband’s sister Amelia and her son Bascomb, German cook Johanna and farmer Gust. Thorn feels close to the land to the ten-acre field gifted to him by his father on his sixth birthday. Now Thorn helps Gust to work the fields. Gust is all that remains of the farm in its agricultural days when talk around the dinner table was of crop yields and mechanisation. Whitey runs errands for his mother ‘Muv’ and tends to his canoe. Into this quiet rural world come the summer lodgers – a teacher, artist, pianist and actress – and with it the dinner conversation changes. It changes again when Mrs West’s invitation becomes known; Jefferson Carter, a Harvard-educated New York intellectual who is black, is coming to visit.

It took me a while, at least halfway through, before I figured out the relationships and identities. Each person’s viewpoint is shown, their outward behaviour explained by inner worries. There is an intricate network of connections between them as well as individual stories, invisible from the outside, which Maxwell reveals piece by piece. Carter does his job as the catalyst for trouble around the dinner table. First he is blanked by Amelia, a hypochondriac Southern lady, old before her time; next, he argues with teacher Paul. Carter’s bewilderment and growing anger at this group of people serves to add a voice from outside Meadowland, another view of the world; he is as convinced he is correct about racial equality, as they are. “These seven people,” he thinks, “had no meaning beyond themselves, which was to say that they had no meaning at all. They did not express the life of the nation. They had no visible work. They were all drones and winter would find them dead.”

Bright Center of Heaven was published in 1934 [the same year as F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night], before Maxwell joined The New Yorker, and was out of print for almost 70 years until this Library of America edition published in 2008. It is the beginning of Maxwell the novelist, a sensitive writer who takes his time and needs to be read without hurry. His are delicate stories without shouting. Maxwell was later unimpressed by Bright Center of Heaven, describing it as“hopelessly imitative” and “stuck fast in its period.” In The Paris Review he said, “My first novel… is a compendium of all the writers I loved and admired.” Virginia Woolf is a particular influence. Ten years after the novel’s publication, he reread it and wrote, “I… discovered to my horror that I had lifted a character—the homesick servant girl—lock, stock, and barrel from To the Lighthouse.”
Read my review of Maxwell’s Time Will Darken It.

If you like this, try:-
‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx
‘Housekeeping’ by Marilynne Robinson
‘A Thousand Acres’ by Jane Smiley

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First Edition: ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ by Thomas Pynchon #oldbooks

I admit here that I read Thomas Pynchon’s post-modern novella The Crying of Lot 49 at university and enjoyed it without really understanding it. First published in 1966, it tells the story of Oedipa Maas and what happens after her ex-partner dies. Pynchon had fun creating wonderful character names, so unusual and clever they reminded me of Charles Dickens – Oedipa’s partner is Pierce Inverarity, her husband is Wendell “Mucho” Maas, Oedipa’s lawyer Metzger works for Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus, and in a bar she meets Mike Fallopian. The plot is labyrinthine, it is a Marmite book, love it or hate it, and I suspects features on many people’s lists of unfinished books. It does, however, have some interesting cover design.

Thomas Pynchon

US 1st ed JB Lippincott & Co 1966

The first edition in the USA was published by JB Lippincott & Co [above]. The current Vintage Classics edition [below] was published in 1996. Buy here

Thomas Pynchon

Vintage 1996 current ed

The story
In brief, Oedipa’s ex partner Pierce has died and she is named as co-executor of his will. The catalyst to the story is her discovery of a set of stamps which may, or may not, have been used by a secret underground postal delivery system called the Trystero. As she travels around California meeting a host of eccentric characters, Oedipa discovers that the Trystero was defeated in the eighteenth century by a real postal system, Thurn and Taxis. However Trystero went underground and survived into the 1960s by using secret mailboxes disguised as regular waste bins displaying its slogan W.A.S.T.E [We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire] and its symbol, a muted post horn. Without proof, Oedipa fluctuates between believing, and not believing, in the Trystero. Is she imagining it, or is it a practical joke?

Other editions 
My copy, bought for university, is still on my shelf today. It’s the Picador 1979 edition.

If you like old books, check out these:-
‘An Ice Cream War’ by William Boyd
‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte
‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding

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First Edition: THE CRYING OF LOT 49 by Thomas Pynchon #oldbooks https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3Gt via @SandraDanby