Thursday, December 10, 2015

My Reading Life...

Happy December! What have you been reading? As you can see from the stack above, my reading has been eclectic. It's the end of the year and critics have been compiling their favorite book lists. I haven't had time to look back on all the books I read this year, but glancing at the stack on my nightstand gave me a sense of the books I have been reading for the last few months. It's a varied group and I have to confess to jumping from book to book. There are books that felt like homework as well as books chosen for pure pleasure. Happily the categories have occasionally merged and it turns out that some of that homework has been satisfying. Here is a little report on my reading life as it stands right now:

A book I loved and can highly recommend --
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

This is one of the best books I have read in a long time. The writing is beautiful and the story is fascinating and unexpected. It looks at a successful marriage from two perspectives, that of the husband and the wife. The first part, "Fates," is told by the husband. The second part, "Furies," is told by the wife. The question the book explores so brilliantly is how well anyone can really know their spouse. It is about the secrets kept in a marriage.

The characters are drawn with tremendous depth and skill. The husband, Lotto, is a much-loved and pampered young man when he first meets his wife, Mathilde, at Vassar. Handsome, rich, and destined to be an actor, he is attracted to the calm and mysterious Mathilde, a beautiful young woman who seems to have no past. Her strong and supportive nature is the foil he needs to balance his tempestuous and all-consuming personality. She will become the caretaker in their marriage. He soon discovers his talent as a playwright and becomes successful, though Mathilde edits and rewrites most of his work. She gives up her career to be his helpmate. Only in the second section do we find out how much she is responsible for his success. There is a dark side to her story. The second part of the book will take your breath away. The book is brilliant and a tour de force. I rank it among the best books written in recent years, one of those books I will hang on to and go back to later. I promise it will sweep you away. And, this is so exciting, President Obama just announced it is his favorite book of the year! Lauren Groff must be in heaven right now.

A book that takes a little time to get into but is well worth it --

The story begins in a small village in Chechnya during the conflicts between the army of post-Soviet Russia and the Chechen guerrillas. It occurs between 1994 and 2004. An 8-year old girl named Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father and burn her house down. Akhmed, a kind neighbor and friend, rescues her from the woods and takes her to the nearby bomb-shattered hospital for safekeeping. He puts her in the care of Sonja, the only doctor left at the hospital. Sonja is war-weary and dejected; she has been searching for her sister Natasha who disappeared during the war. We learn through flashbacks of the horrors this group of people have experienced. Refugees have poured into the little village for ten years and many people have gone missing. Akhmed has painted portraits of the dead and vanished and hung them around the neighborhood. People have become informers after being tortured and turned in their friends. The nightmare of this episode in Chechnya is heartbreaking. As I make my way through the book, I am moved by the tragedy of this war. Somehow I think that the child Havaa holds the key for helping the characters find some kind of peace. A harrowing book but I think well worth reading. Especially now. It is a powerful depiction of the innocent victims of war.

A book that is escapist fun -- 
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon 

My hand keeps reaching for this each night and now that it's finished I will move onto the second book in the series. By now most everyone knows what "Outlander" is about, either from watching the television show or reading the series of books by Diana Gabaldon. But just in case, here is a quick review:

Claire Randall is an English woman who is united with her husband Frank at the end of World War II. They spend a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands where Frank, a historian and former intelligence officer, researches his Scottish ancestry. Claire, who has been a nurse during the war, goes off to collect plant specimens and enters a circle of standing stones. She is pulled toward a strange buzzing noise and faints when she touches one of the stones. She awakens in the middle of a firefight between British soldiers and Scottish rebels. At first she thinks she has stumbled into a movie set. But she quickly realizes that somehow she has ended up in the year 1743. Her husband's ancestor "Black Jack" Randall is about to assault her, when she is whisked away by a group of Highland rebels. Among them is the handsome and brave Jamie Fraser who is injured. She tends to his wounds and in time they fall in love. This turns into one of the great literary romances.

I was a latecomer to the "Outlander" phenomenon and experienced it for the first time on television. When the first season ended I bought the book and devoured it. I loved getting more details about Jamie and Claire as well as what was happening in Scotland at the time. This tale is even better in book form. I continue to be amazed by the imaginative genius of Diana Gabaldon and the entire world she has created. I highly recommend these books.

A book that I have been dipping into for pure pleasure --
Daphne Du Maurier At Home by Hilary Macaskill

This book is about the homes that Daphne Du Maurier, author of "Rebecca," lived in and how they affected her life and work. Especially her homes in Cornwall, a place that became the love of her life. I have been enchanted by everything I have read about her life so far. Here are a few highlights:

Du Maurier grew up in London in a big and bustling well-to-do family. Her father was Sir Gerald Du Maurier, the leading actor-manager of his day. Her home life was Peter Pan-like, led by her imaginative and whimsical father. In fact, the writer J.M. Barrie was a friend of the family. In the first production of "Peter Pan" in 1904, Gerald played the parts of Captain Hook and Mr. Darling. Barrie often visited the Du Maurier house and loved watching the children act out "Peter Pan." It was a household dominated by the theatre. The leading writers and actors of the day were in and out all the time and it wasn't surprising that Daphne began to dream of being a writer. When she was nineteen her family moved to Cornwall where she discovered her muse. Cornwall, its place and people, would inspire all her writing. It was there that she fell in love with her future husband, a dashing young major in the Grenadier Guards. And it was there that she discovered an ancestral home called Menabilly. It would become the inspiration for Manderley in her novel "Rebecca."

This is as far as I have gotten. Having gone to Cornwall last year and fallen in love with it myself, I am getting so much pleasure reading about Du Maurier's life set in this beautiful part of the world. She was a romantic at heart and poured great spirit into her life and her writing. The photos are gorgeous and the story reads like a novel itself.

A book I just purchased and can't wait to read --

Another book about a writer, this one is a memoir by novelist and historian Lady Antonia Fraser. It promises to be about her passion for writing and history and the childhood "wonderland" where it all began. Like Daphne Du Maurier, Antonia Fraser was from a big literary and artistic family. As a young girl she became fascinated with historical figures and read all the biographies she could find of kings, queens, and warriors. She went on to write some pretty famous biographies herself. "Mary Queen of Scots" was her first big success. It became a worldwide bestseller. She wrote her first memoir a few years ago about her romance with the playwright Harold Pinter. I loved that book. Now she has written a memoir of growing up. It is being described as a magical memoir about her journey to becoming a writer and a historian. I am looking forward to this one!

Happy reading!


  1. I read about the Antonia Fraser book this weekend in the Times and was very intrigued. Also, I adored that photo of her as a child in Cornwall. And I just saw that Fates and Furies was the President's favourite book this year. Another one on the list! xx

  2. I love your list. I adore Daphne du Maurier and have read most of her books. 'Rebecca' is the most acclaimed buy my personal favourite is 'Frenchman's Creek'. I had read Antonia Fraser's biography of Mary Queen of Scots some twenty years ago and I think she has done a wonderful job with it.

    1. Loree, thanks for the tip about "Frenchman's Creek." I will be sure to pick up a copy!

  3. I am so happy to hear about these. Read all the Outlander books and I have read so many since then that I either couldn't finish or my quote "eh." My latest post is about a book I am reading and the newly released book by Patti Smith. Finally! I want to really be entertained and my head finally exploded.

  4. So many wonderful books! The Outlander series is great fun and I read and loved Antonia Fraser's memoir earlier this year - I'm sure you'll love it.

  5. I have Fates and Furies, but I haven't read it yet, and now will - for sure. I just finished The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende, and I adored it. I will be bringing it to my book club today as my favorite book that I've read this year.

  6. Great list of books. Can't wait to get started. Reading a Barbara Pym book now. Are you familiar with her? Love her spare style. I gobbled up the Outlander series. I think I'm on book 6 now. Had to take a break because I started speaking Welsh and no one could understand me. I did read the Mary Queen of Scotts book. I think my next will be the Fates and Furies. Love your book recommendations. Interesting suggestion from Kathy. The Japanese Lover. Would love to meet for tea or coffee one day. Sandra Sallin

    1. I've been debating whether to read Fates and Furies but after your post I will definitely read it. Thanks for that, Sunday! I will also add my vote for The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende.

    2. Sandy, I adore Barbara Pym. She is one of my favorite writers. I have read most of her books and they are all good, though "Excellent Women" is my favorite. And yes, that would be fun to meet up!

  7. Great list Sunday.
    Thank you for your blog in 2015.
    Will look forward to your posts next year.
    Cheers and Happy Christmas