Mini-Reviews: Women, Coconut, Belle

Madeleine St. John, The Women in Black

This novel follows the lives of four women who all work at Goode’s department store in 1950s Sydney, Australia. Patty, in her mid-30s, is married but unhappily childless, and her husband Frank is oblivious to her emotional turmoil. Fay is around 30 and has been going out with men for years, but somehow none of them seem to want to marry her. Lisa, a temporary hire for the Christmas season, dreams of going to university and becoming a poet, but her strict father won’t hear of it. And Magda, a glamorous Slovenian immigrant, is adjusting to a culture very different from her own. I loved this book and devoured it in a single sitting. It’s light and charming and slyly funny, and I became invested in the stories of all four women. I especially loved Magda, who enjoys the finer things in life and is generous in sharing them. There’s a bit of romance, but the main focus is on women’s experiences and relationships. The book reminds me a bit of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, but with a slightly more satirical edge. I expect to revisit it often and would recommend it as a great comfort read!

Amy E. Reichert, The Coincidence of Coconut Cake

Milwaukee restaurateur Lou Johnson is having a run of terrible luck. First her fiancé cheats on her; then, that very night, food critic Al Waters samples her cooking — which is subpar because of her distress over the breakup — and writes a scathing review. The day the review comes out, Lou goes to a bar to drown her sorrows and meets Al. They’re attracted to each other and soon strike up a romance. The only problem is, he doesn’t realize she owns the restaurant he panned, and she doesn’t know he’s the hostile reviewer because he writes under a pen name. I’m a sucker for a You’ve Got Mail story, and this is a fun one that made me want to visit Milwaukee and eat some fried cheese curds immediately. I never quite believed in Lou and Al as characters; they seemed like stock types rather than real people to me. But I liked the setting and the overall cheerful, Hallmark-esque vibe of this novel, so I’d consider trying more by this author.

Paula Byrne, Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice

The idea for this book came from an 18th-century English portrait of two young women — one white, one black — who are portrayed as equals, almost as sisters. The black woman was Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of an English naval captain and an African slave. She grew up in the house of her great-uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, who happened to be the Lord Chief Justice and who decided several cases that would be crucial to the antislavery movement in Britain. It’s a fascinating story, but unfortunately, there’s very little about Dido in the historical record, and consequently very little in the book! Instead, Byrne focuses on the English slave trade, the status of black individuals in London, the Earl of Mansfield’s legal career, etc. It’s all interesting, but I was hoping for more biography, less history. The book does have numbered endnotes, many of which cite primary sources, yet Byrne also editorializes a fair amount. I’d say it’s more of a popular history than a scholarly one. Overall, I’d recommend it for people who are interested in the period. Apparently there’s also a movie about Dido, called Belle, which I’m interested in watching now.

Here is the portrait of Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray:

Review: Spinster

SpinsterKate Bolick, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own

In this book that’s part literary biography, part memoir, journalist Kate Bolick engages with the notion of “spinsterhood” and claims that, rather than being used pejoratively, it should be seen as a term of female autonomy and empowerment. She notes that contemporary society is full of single women (whether never-married, widowed, or divorced), but “spinsterhood” is still largely viewed as an aberration. In other words, as she states in the first sentence of Chapter 1, “Whom to marry, and when it will happen — these two questions define every woman’s existence…” Bolick talks about her own life as a 40-something, never-married woman and how she was inspired to find her own path by the lives of five literary women: Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton. She weaves the biographies of these women into her own autobiography as she explores what it means to be a spinster and concludes that it can actually be a good thing.

This book was an odd read for me; some parts of it were very interesting and thought-provoking, while others made me roll my eyes in annoyance. I think its main problem is that it’s trying to be too many different genres; I was hoping for more of a cultural study and often found Bolick’s personal reminiscences tiresome. I also struggled with her definition of spinsterhood. To me, a spinster would be a woman who remains unmarried and uncoupled throughout her life. But Bolick’s literary inspirations, all of whom she styles as “spinsters,” mostly did get married eventually. Some of the marriages were tempestuous, and some of them ended in divorce, but these women did not live their entire lives uncoupled. Bolick herself, though technically never married, talks at length about her previous and current relationships, and she has even cohabited with some of her romantic partners. So I feel like she’s not really writing from the perspective of a spinster, but rather as a woman who is in a long-term, committed relationship — married in all but name. That said, the little biographies of the five “spinsters” who inspired Bolick were interesting, and I’d like to learn more about these writers and/or read some of their works. But overall, this book disappointed me; it just wasn’t what I expected.

Review: Life of Johnson

Life of JohnsonJames Boswell, Life of Johnson

James Boswell and Samuel Johnson were unlikely friends: Boswell was a young Scottish nobleman with a penchant for drinking and whoring, while Johnson was poorer, much more devout (in theory, at least), and a good 30 years older. Yet throughout the course of this monumental work, Boswell describes his reverence for Johnson’s intelligence, morality, and literary talents — a reverence so extreme that Boswell took notes on almost every conversation he ever had with the older man. As a result, this biography is stuffed full of Boswell’s personal anecdotes, letters both to and from Johnson, and first-person accounts of other contemporaries who knew him. Near the end of the book, Boswell states: “The character of Samuel Johnson has, I trust, been so developed in the course of this work, that they who have honoured it with a perusal, may be considered as well acquainted with him.” And indeed, anyone who reads this book will come away with an extremely vivid picture of a remarkable man.

This book is so huge and deals with so many things that I don’t quite know what to say about it. At first I was very intimidated, both by its length and by Boswell’s flowery 18th-century prose. But even though it’s not a quick read, this book contains a wealth of fascinating details about Johnson and the age in which he lived. I was struck by how literary the 18th century was, in the sense that seemingly anyone with a claim to intelligence was churning out books and pamphlets. In that way, Johnson’s time is very similar to our own, where everybody can (and does) publish blogs, tweets, and other forms of instantaneous literature. I was also fascinated by Johnson’s unique character; though intelligent, he was often pompous, narrow-minded, and abrasive. I frequently found myself underlining various Johnsonian sayings that were wise, or funny, or both — but I would have hated to be forced to converse with him! Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the time period or who enjoys very thorough biographies!

Review: Luckiest Man

Luckiest ManJonathan Eig, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig

This well-researched biography of Lou Gehrig follows his life and baseball career in vivid detail, from his humble beginnings playing high school ball to his stellar performance as first baseman and power hitter for the New York Yankees. Along the way, Eig discusses some of the broader social developments in America in the 1920s and ’30s, but the focus remains on baseball and how it evolved throughout the early 20th century. The book uses a wealth of primary sources, particularly the many newspaper stories that covered Gehrig’s remarkable career. Most importantly, though, this biography illuminates Gehrig’s personality — humble, modest, conscientious, hardworking, and determined to do his best in life both on and off the field.

I don’t particularly follow baseball (or any other sport, frankly), but for some reason I’ve always been interested in Lou Gehrig — probably because he was left-handed, like me, and because he died tragically young. So I decided to check out this biography, and I’m glad I did because it is fantastic. I felt like I really got a sense of Lou Gehrig as a person, and it was a pleasure to read about someone so admirable. I also loved learning more about the other legendary players of that era: Babe Ruth figures prominently in the book, and there are plentiful references to other greats like Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio. Eig discusses Gehrig’s baseball career in great detail, sometimes describing almost every play of a game. I suppose this might be boring for some, but I really appreciated all the information since I knew basically nothing coming in. Overall, I would highly recommend this book to anyone, although it will probably be most appealing to baseball fans.