Friday, November 15, 2013

The Anthropology of Motherhood

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

Anna seemed like a normal baby when she was born to her unwed mother Jess. As she grew, she seemed ultimately happy. She was the type of child who glowed from within. So when Jess realized that Anna wasn't normal, that she'd never learn to read or do math, she decided to do everything she could to protect and care for her. Despite this, her mostly abandoned career in anthropology continued to hover in her periphery.

Drabble's style is elegantly simple with a contemplative quality to it, which weaves between squarely based in reality and esoteric and philosophical passages. Told from the perspective of Jess's friend and neighbor Eleanor (or Nellie), the point of view is a mixture of first person singular and plural, as she accounts her own observances, things she's been told by Jess herself, and the memories and gossip from the other people of the neighborhood. This is slightly confusing, especially since we only understand who the narrator is after about a third of the book. It also lends the story a slightly arrogant feel, mixed with enough humility that we never feel that Nellie is being condescending. Rather, she feels lucky that she's been spared the troubles of some of the other mothers we encounter, including not having a special needs child herself. And while she isn't wholly judgmental, there were times when we feel she might have advised Jess to act differently. This makes the relationship between these two characters somewhat tentative, despite the obvious closeness they exhibit.

Some critics might say that nothing happens in this book, which is often another way of calling it boring. In some respects they would be right. We get no major conflict here or any huge climax. Instead, we get to see a life - one filled with minor conflicts, leading to minor climaxes. This is reality; real life and it is far from boring. Writing such a character-centric story in this manner and keeping the reader turning pages to the end is a testament to Drabble's writing talent.

However, about half way through this novel, it occurred to me that I was having difficulty reading this story. On the one hand, I was enjoying the writing. However, there were several things that disturbed me. To begin with, I was misled by the title somewhat, believing I was going to be reading mostly about Anna - this person of wonder and simplicity who, due to her disabilities (which are never absolutely labeled), floats through the world in an agreeably content haze. Anna, despite her aging over the decades from birth to into her 40s, always remains child-like. Being mildly dyslexic myself, I looked forward to hearing her story. However, in reality, what I got was a portrait of Jess, with Anna being the catalyst for how Jess lived her life. There is anything wrong with this, but perhaps a better title would have been "The Pure Gold Baby's Mother."

Another problem was the many tangents the narrator took while telling the story. Thankfully, these aren't wildly off the beaten track, and most of these side steps delved into the world of anthropology. While this makes perfect sense considering Jess's chosen field, some of the information seemed to assume the reader had some background on this topic. It felt like she was bandying about names of people, but only those known within that sphere. Rather than be condescending with lengthy (and usually annoying) explanations, she just let their names lay there. Unfortunately, this method made me feel out of touch with what was going on, and sometimes I just felt stupid.

This puts me in two minds about this book. On the one hand, I have to commend Drabble and her ability to make a compelling and lovingly presented read from the mundane lives of people that are just different enough from the ordinary to make them interesting. Fans of Drabble may even find this to be a masterful piece. On the other hand, I felt I was missing something, which left me dissatisfied with the book as a whole. It may be that my unfamiliarity with Drabble and her previous books has worked against me. For this reason, despite my newly found interest in reading other of her works, I can't fully recommend this (except to hardcore Drabble fans) and can only give it two and a half stars out of five. 

"The Pure Gold Baby" by Margaret Drabble published November 7, 2013 from Canongate Books UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt US is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a version of my review from Curious Book Fans, which also appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady and {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.
My thanks to the publishers for sending me an advance reader copy of this book via NetGalley.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Tasty but not Scrumptious

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

When Vianne Rocher, her daughter Anouk (with Pantoufle - an imaginary rabbit) breeze into the small, religious, French town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes with the intention of opening a chocolate shop during the holy time of Lent, you just know that there's going to be some problems. Since Vianne is a single mother, you can imagine that the least of her problems might be her tempting confections on the town's citizens, who are trying to deny their weak bodies. You see, Vianne believes in magic - not just the magic of delicious foods, but also in the magic of life itself, and that isn't going to go down well with the pious mayor of the town, Reynaud, whose championing of Christianity is the village's moral cornerstone.

Any book made into a movie must have something about it to make it special. And any book that makes its author famous has should be exceptional. Of course, there is always a danger when reading a book before you see the movie that the movie will be a disappointment. And sometimes the opposite is also true. In this case, the latter is was what happened.

Please understand there is nothing horribly wrong with this book. Harris' writing style is ultimately approachable and the text flows at a very comfortable pace. She neither uses overly flowery prose, nor does she go for anything too simplistic. She was one of the first writers to use "magical reality" and she innovated with injections of culinary passages into the text as well. These are both fascinating to read, and help the reader to escape from their hum-drum existence and become absorbed in unusual situations, despite Harris' asking us to suspend disbelief for some of the more fantastical things that happen.

The overall feel of her writing reminds me of a trickling, wandering brook. This can have its disadvantages, as we sometimes wish that the action in the book would pick up a bit in order to inject a touch of variety. This also means that her climaxes don't have as much of a punch as they could have. Moreover, this book seems to include more than one conflict, which means that each one needed to come to a head separately. This made the story a touch confusing and lessened the major focus.

To be more specific, first we have the problems of Vianne's opening her shop in this conservative town and the reaction of the priest Reynaud. Then we have an over-protective mother trying to keep her son away from his grandmother. We also have the barkeeper Muscat and his abuse of his mousey wife Josephine. Then there are Vianne's own personal problems, which stem from her relationship with her dead mother. Add to this the gypsies docking at the town's river, as well as a couple other things, and there's too much going on. Of course, some people find this makes the story more interesting, but I found it just made the novel bloated. Had Harris focused on just one or two of these conflicts, and left the others to be more minor sub-plots instead of giving them almost equal weight, the result would have been more concise and cohesive.

The other problem with this novel was the time the story is set. Harris's book is in a contemporary setting of the very late 20th century, while the movie sets it in the 1950s. The earlier setting of the movie works better than the later one in the book, mostly because it is harder to believe that even a very small town in France would still be fervently religious in the 1990s. However, we can better accept this taking place in the not-too-distant past. Of course, perhaps we could find a tiny town in France that would follow their priest with such blind loyalty, but it just doesn't seem likely.

On the other hand, Harris develops her characters very fully. Mind you, if you see the movie first, the faces of the actors that portrayed these characters may get into your head while you read this. Still, this isn't a drawback, and Hollywood didn't make many mistakes in casting this movie. What doesn't come out in the movie as well as it does in the book is Vianne's mother and her history, which actually gives the reader better insight into Vianne and her motivations than the film had time to allow. It is for this reason that I'm glad I read this book, despite the other drawbacks.

Overall, Chocolat is a very nice novel, but not Harris' best. Harris has definitely grown as a writer since she wrote this book, so if you want an introduction to her work, this might not be a bad place to start. However, if you saw and loved the movie, you could end up being disappointed. Despite this, the prose is lyrical with a gentle style; it has excellent character development, and; includes innovative mechanisms that edges away from realistic fiction and tickles the fantasy genre. The drawbacks are the incongruous era, too many sub-plots and too many conflicts, which lead to too many climaxes. For all this, while I will still recommend this book, I can only give it three out of five stars. 

"Chocolat" by Joanne Harris is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo (for other eBook reader formats), as an iBook or Audiobook from iTunes, in print from The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping) or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), which previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Adopted Siblings Road to Discovery

Brother & Sister by Joanna Trollope

David and Nathalie and are the children of Lynne and Ralph. You wouldn't find a closer brother and sister anywhere – except that they're not really siblings. This is because Lynne and Ralph adopted them. This fact was never a secret, and all their lives both David and Nathalie believed that it made no difference to them. They've grown up healthy, loved and become well-adjusted adults and are both in good relationships – happily married and with children of their own. But when Nathalie is interviewed about how being adopted effected her life, although initially she denies that it made any difference to her, she suddenly discovers a need to find her birth parents, and insists that David do the same. This takes them down a road that neither of them were ever prepared to travel, and yet, are both, inexplicably drawn towards. This is the story of "Brother and Sister" by Joanna Trollope.

From that plot summary, you can easily see that this book centers on difficult relationships, which is a topic Joanna Trollope is no stranger to. All of her novels seem to revolve around families or couples that have one type of problem or another. As such, she seems to have an excellent handle on these types of situations and finds a way to portray them in a very natural fashion. What I mean by that is she brings up emotions and reactions that are totally in line with human nature, and puts her characters through true psychological workouts. What's more, she does this with such simplicity of plot that we can easily be fooled into believing that she is recounting a true story. This is because Trollope has the innate ability to write truly believable characters, and use these characters to drive her story (which, if you've read any other book reviews of mine, you'll know that I prefer character-driven to plot-driven novels). What's more, Trollope knows how to make her characters develop and grow within her stories – something that is essential for a good climax and conclusion. Plus, although Trollope knows how to make her characters act like we would expect them to act if they were real persons, she also knows how to keep them from being predictable as well – which is yet another fine line she travels.

In this story, Trollope takes Nathalie as her main protagonist, and then brings her brother David in to act as a sort of back-up protagonist. Their interaction and closeness makes the reader wonder if they might have become lovers, had these two not grown up as brother and sister. This becomes more evident as we see some resentment coming from their respective spouses because of the increased contact between David and Nathalie over the possibility of meeting their birth parents. This is a very normal reaction of any husband or wife sees their spouse suddenly having far more contact with someone they are very close to already. Remember that despite their sibling status, David and Nathalie aren't actually biologically brother and sister, the knowledge of which exasperates those spousal feelings.

We also see two people who, despite their closeness, are highly different personalities, and almost come to odds with each other due to their strong individuality. Trollope shows this in the resistance that David shows in wanting to contact his birth parents, after Nathalie has made the decision that they both should do it. Furthermore, we see that while we expect both David and Nathalie to have some kind of change in their relationship between themselves, they also react differently towards their own families – but each in their own way. Trollope also includes some background into their childhoods by allowing their adoptive parents into the mix, who express both their own feelings towards this investigation, as well as their thoughts regarding how they saw these two as children.

What I found particularly interesting with this book was that there is no human or physical antagonist here. In fact, Trollope seems instead, to use the situation as an antagonist – it is the idea of being able to find ones birth parents that becomes the catalyst for all the conflict and resolution in this book. While personal growth and internal conflict as antagonist isn't completely innovative for a novel, it is probably the type of antagonist that is most difficult to portray. However, Trollope has such an excellent understanding of human nature and behavior that she shines using this form. Moreover, she doesn't use any tricks like diaries or letters to help the reader understand what is in the characters heads, nor does she depend on long tirades into their internal thoughts or speeches to their audience. Instead, she uses pure dialogue and action to show us what these two are going through. Take note that I said "show" and not "tell" – and yes, Trollope is actually showing us what is going on, not telling us. That is usually the first rule of writing fiction – "show, don't tell" – and Trollope is a master at this.

I'm sorry that this review doesn't make this novel sound as interesting as I found it to be, but I'm not sure how to make it sound better. What Joanna Trollope gives us is a parallel study in human nature, but she does so with such simple artistry that you'll find yourself compelled to read this straight through. Her characters are vivid and alive, while acting as we would totally expect them to act, while still surprising the reader with how they go about dealing with their conflicts and problems. Her magic here is in making us believe that these people are so real, we could pick them out of a crowd. In sum, Trollope has given us yet another marvelous piece of fiction that I wholeheartedly recommend and will give it a full five stars out of five.

"Brother & Sister" by Joanna Trollope is available from and, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. (This is a revised review from one previously published on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Looking for Mister Good-Read

How many times has a book blurb made you immediately think "been there, done that"?

As mentioned in some of my earlier posts here, I belong to a few sites that let me request advance reader copies of books, and in exchange, I review them. For the most part, I've been very lucky in that almost all of the books I've gotten have been surprisingly good. Some have even been amazing. But the down side of this is that the bar for books I might want to read has gotten higher.

I recently received from one site a list of upcoming books from one of their publishers. As always, the site asks me if there are any of the books on the list that I might want to read and review. So, like the avid reader anxious to get my hands on the next best seller before it goes into print that I am, I start going over the list.

I quickly pass over all the books with covers that look like advertisements for "The Game of Thrones" (no offense, it just isn't my thing). I also scroll away from the authors who, while I'm sure they've written some excellent stories, are just a touch too prolific for my taste, and I have my suspicions that they are, in truth, robots. I'm also not going to ask for a book that's part of a series, especially if it isn't the first one. Thrillers, adventure, crime and mystery… I think not. Sci-Fi… well, I love things like Doctor Who, but I prefer to see them on TV. What about romance novels? Well, some of them could be good but we can quickly rule out the ones with covers that have overly muscular, half dressed men in a heated embrace with a women wearing a gown (century of the dress style, notwithstanding). And most of the ones that have the pastel colors or hearts and flowers with childish drawings are probably also not my thing.

So what does that leave me with? Well, it should leave me with contemporary, literary and historical fiction. Okay, it may seem snobbish, but what do you want? That's the type of stuff I like to read. So why shouldn't those be the ones I ask for, right? Absolutely - and so I begin my perusal.

As I go down the list, quickly jumping past all those books that don't meet my stringent criteria, I soon realize that those I do stop to look at, seem to sound strangely familiar. No, these aren't books I've already read - they haven't even been published yet. But I do see something of a pattern here. There seem to be a bunch of books about everything being perfect and then suddenly something goes wrong and how will he/she/they cope with this. Or those who have difficult lives to begin with and suddenly find someone that can turn it all around, but will they take advantage of their chance or screw it up. I also find the ones where someone's past comes back to haunt them, and the ones where someone has great ambitions but can't achieve them until they find a way to be accepted. It all just seems so… done already.

Yes, I know people say that there are only anywhere from three to 36 basic plots. But surely these writers, if they're good enough to be published by a major house, could have approached the one they chose with just a little more creativity. Don't you think?

And then, hope springs. There they are - those gems that are almost hidden underneath the usual chafe. These are the books that sound like they've taken one of those plots and looked at it in a different way. Yes, those are the ones I'm going to request; the ones that not everyone else is going to ask for.

Watch this space, people - we could all be in for a truly unique ride!

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