Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Grace Kelly Dress


The Grace Kelly Dress / Brenda Janowitz
NY: Graydon House, c2020
336 p.

I've never read Brenda Janowitz before, and the blurb by Emily Giffin on the front didn't bode well since I don't usually like her books. But the dress element of this book convinced me to pick it up. And I am glad I did! It was a poignant and enjoyable story of three generations of women, and one dress. 

The story moves between three women: Rose in 1958 who is creating The Dress, Joanie in 1982 who wore it after her mother did, and Rocky in 2020 who is getting married but doesn't want to wear her mother's dress. 

The chapters are all short, and each woman is quite different so it's easy to keep them sorted. Also, Rose is a seamstress in Paris, Joanie is a college student, and Rocky is a contemporary software developer, so they're distinct in their interests, surroundings and behaviours, too. 

Of course I loved Rose and all the time spent in Madame Michel's Parisien atelier, where she works. Rose is very skilled, she loves sewing and designing; her focus and her sketches catch the eye of Julian, Madame Michel's assistant, and is called upon to assist him in keeping the atelier running after the unexpected death of Madame Michel, which he is trying to keep a secret. Lots of drama! 

Joan is a young college student, a sorority member and recently engaged to a fraternity dude, but she's starting to question a lot about her life. She tries very, very hard to be 'good' to make up for the loss of her older sister, who died at age twenty. This character was a little weak to me, because in parts it felt like she was living more in the late 60s than the early 80s, with her sorority and her pearls and her innocence. But she certainly experiences some of the early 80s when she leaves campus in search of the truth about her sister. 

Rocky is a bit rough around the edges, unlike her sultry sister Amanda. She likes logic and order and things being straightforward. She wants a simple wedding, and isn't thrilled about wearing the elaborate Grace Kelly dress from her mother -- but doesn't want to hurt her mother by turning it down, either. There are a bunch more side stories in Rocky's chapters; Amanda is gay and longing for the last girlfriend she ditched, Rocky's fianc√© is South Korean but was adopted by a Jewish family and he's now searching for his birth mother, there are mother issues between Rocky and Joan. 

But through all three of the stories, the dress, and all the details of making it, shine through. I loved how Rose takes the inspiration from the Grace Kelly wedding dress that was the ideal in 1958 and updates it for a younger client. She talks about details like shortening sleeves, updating necklines, adding lace motifs, and about how to construct a dress like this (in separate parts, skirt held up with underpinnings and cummerbund to cover the bodice and skirt join. As a sewist, a reader can picture this and understand how it makes a gown like this work on the body).

Joanie adapts the dress to her taste in the 80s (think poofy Princess Diana sleeves) and Rocky eventually comes to see how she can make it work for her, too. (no spoilers...) It ends with a fairytale-like omniscient narrator telling the story of the dress' future, and it works, and it's touching and sweet. 

If you like stories that move between characters, and don't mind the sentimentality of a book centred around love and weddings, and of course you like to read about sewing, give this one a try. You can't go into it cynically or it just won't work, but if you're looking for a gentle read with some great sewing content and an interesting set-up, you might just find it's exactly what you need. 

(this review was first published at Following The Thread)

Monday, February 08, 2021



Outlawed / Anna North
NY: Bloomsbury, c2021.
272 p.

Now this was a different book than I'd expected -- it's not just a modern, feminist Western, it's also a kind of retroactive post-apocalyptic novel. How can one explain this? Once you get your head around it, it's simple. But like I said, unexpected... somehow I'd missed that part. 

Ada is married at 17, happily and expecting a great future. But after a year of marriage and no children in sight, her husband (and especially her mother-in-law) decides that she's barren and so they cast her out. In Ada's world, a world of 1894 in the west of what used to be the United States of America, before the Great Flu that killed most of the population, children are the reason for existence. Barren women are considered curses and driven from their towns so that they won't cause other women's pregnancies to fail, or deformed children to be born. If they're not chased away, they are hung as witches or abnormalities.

Ada's mother is the local midwife, but even all her help in delivering others' babies can't help Ada now. She flees to a convent that takes in women like her. Discovering that she's not really cut out for the nun life, the Mother Superior recommends Ada head out to find the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, a refuge for women like her, led by The Kid

And so Ada does, and as she opens her story, "In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.".

The story is rooted in the idea of women and fertility, and the control of fertility. When this is added to the Western tropes, this story feels like it could only be American. There is an atmosphere of fear and small mindedness, suspicion and superstition, and these women who don't fit in are having to carve their own living space out in whatever way they can. The way forward is community and education, timely thoughts for today as well. 

I liked this book; the world created was convincing, and the characters were all unique -- there were really strong individuals found here. I thought the combination of the Western with the "women's apocalypse" themes worked well, and had lots of room to expand. But I didn't absolutely love it, and I think that might be because it's really quite short, and the ending feels a bit sudden to me. There was so much more room to really go into some of the themes and conundrums the author set up, which were left open-ended and not taken to their full potential. I feel that with more context to the book there would be so much more to discuss. It feels a bit like the author is revealing situations but not taking a position or showing an opinion on them; it's not often I think that a book needs more writing, but in this one I think it could have fleshed it out some more, given it more heft. 

Still, it was thought-provoking and should stimulate discussion if read in a book club, for example. I can think of many partner reads to this one, like The Outcasts by Kathleen Kent, if you like the women in the west themes, or Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, if you're more drawn to the apocalyptic fertility themes. 

Saturday, February 06, 2021

The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman


The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite / Laura Freeman
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, c2018.
260 p.

I recently gave a class on Bibliotherapy for my library, and in my research I came across this book. It looked so good, I immediately requested it via Interlibrary Loan. I've just finished reading it, and I wholeheartedly recommend it as an excellent bookish memoir, but more, as a story of how literature helped the author (and still does) through her experience of anorexia starting at age 13. 

Freeman is a fantastic writer. Her evocation of her life experience and how and why reading came to be a salve to her is so honestly and harrowingly done. She's clear about the terrible affliction of anorexia, and how it is a mind disorder that she still has to fight with -- and she also powerfully engages with classic British literature to find her appetite again. She's a British writer, and one educated traditionally, so the books she reads are older and canon, for the most part. But she can make Dickens sound so exotic and colourful, and Virginia Woolf so terribly fragile and yet strong. She recoils from the vulgar appetites and indulgences of books like Gargantua & Pantagruel, but is encouraged by the homely love of boiled eggs and tea in Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man

It's not that she read a book and then rushed to recreate meals and suddenly eat with no issues, it's that the books showed her that enjoying food, anticipating meals, eating communally, can be a reasonable and healthy appetite to have. That food often meant comfort and community, and that it was alright to want to eat. 

Books also gave her sustenance in other ways: her habit of extreme walks was reflected in Virginia Woolf and in Dickens, but for both of them, a walk was preceded or concluded by a hot bit of food -- so she realized it was best to walk when fortified. And in one of the most moving parts, for me, she reads T.H. White's The Once & Future King, & finds her key to surviving the vicissitudes of her condition.

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then -- to learn. Learn why the world works and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting."

I imagine this works for a certain kind of bookish person, of whom the author is one. It resonates with me as well. 

If you love reading about the deep experience of books and reading in another's life, and want to engage with a writer examining English novels, memoirs, children's books, food writers and more, this is a wonderful choice. Beautifully written, full of passion for the enchantment of books, and for life, I highly recommend it. 

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Better Luck Next Time


Better Luck Next Time / Julia Claiborne Johnson
NY: Custom House, c2021.
274 p.

Now this was a surprise find for me -- I picked it up by chance solely because it was new at my library, and I read the back and it said "1938 quickie divorce dude ranch in Nevada...." and that's all it took.

I was familiar with the concept of Reno as the place for women to go to get a quick, no-questions divorce, after a 6 week residency was established. This was only because I read Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country about this time last year, in which women take their Nevada trips to while away the six weeks between getting divorced and marrying the richer catch.

Anyhow, this book was a delight. Wade is a Yale dropout, forced to that extreme when his wealthy family lost everything. He's now working at the Flying Leap dude ranch as a handsome cowhand (yes, his handsomeness is highlighted, he's noted as a Cary Grant in cowboy boots). 

He has his routine and his life there, but this summer two women arrive and upend everything: Nina, a barnstorming pilot back for her third divorce, and Emily, who has left her cheating husband (and young teen daughter) in San Francisco and driven herself to the ranch. 

These two become fast friends, and commandeer Wade to be their driver and escort whenever possible. And things develop in ways that aren't really going to end well....

This novel investigates love, friendship, marriage, money, parenting, adventure, self-determination and more. It's funny, bittersweet, thoughtful, and full of wonderful characters. The setting, both the ranch and the nearby town, is richly evoked and makes up a key element of the book. If you want to travel through your reading, take a trip to the Flying Leap -- you'll feel like you're there. 

The set-up is interesting too -- it starts as an interview with an old man, kind of an oral history thing, and then fades back into the summer of 1938. The framing device does pop up again once or twice in the storytelling, and then again to close. It works, and it's a great technique here, if you relax and go with the flow and just believe that the dialogue and so on from the 30s is this clear. I recommend enjoying it and not worrying about that part! 

It has an emotional heart to it, and the ending is perfect. I really enjoyed this unexpected read that was not on my reading list -- it jumped to my attention at just the right time, and was a very satisfying read. 

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Cat Who Came in Off the Roof

The Cat Who Came In off the Roof / Annie M.G. Schmidt
trans. from the Dutch by David Colmer
NY: Yearling, 2017, c1970.
149 p.

I picked up this charming little book from my library late last year, when I was looking for translated children's books for a list I was sharing. It's adorable and I loved it! 

I hadn't known of Annie M.G. Schmidt previously, but was informed that she is a classic Dutch author, like the Astrid Lindgren of the Netherlands. This book was first published in 1970 so it has some bits that might seem a little unusual now, especially when it comes to mothering skills, but overall it holds up extremely well. 

Mr. Tibble is a meek journalist who is in danger of losing his job because most of his stories are about cats. His editor tells him to write something a little more hard-hitting, but he's not sure how. Then he rescues Miss Minou, a young woman who has dashed up a tree to avoid some dogs and can't get down. 

Miss Minou has a strange connection to the various cats in Mr. Tibble's neighbourhood, and since cats are everywhere and hear everything, she finds juicy gossip to pass on to him as payback for his allowing her to stay in his apartment. His career as a journalist is on the rise! 

You will not be surprised to hear that Miss Minou has a deep, dark secret, and that Mr. Tibble's love for cats is a Very Good Thing here. There is a fair mix of humour here, both light and darker, and great set pieces highlighting various characters, whether human or feline. I wouldn't recommend it for really young children, but as an older middle grade novel it's fine, and definitely has much to be appreciated by adult readers. 

If you're also a cat lover and looking for a brief, entertaining read in translation, see if you can get your hands on this one. Charm, humour, cats, and a bit of snark. Fun reading experience!

Monday, January 25, 2021

Daughter of Black Lake

Toronto: Harper Collins, c2020
306 p.

Cathy Marie Buchanan keeps moving backwards in time; from her first novel set in Canada at the turn of the 20th century, to Degas' era in Paris, now we arrive in Boadicea's England. 

We meet Devout, a young girl growing up in a tiny village in harsh times. She's in love with another working boy, but is being courted by the youngest son of the Smith, a much more advantageous marriage. She makes choices that have repercussions for decades. 

We jump between her youthful years and seventeen years on, when we focus on Devout's daughter Hobble, who is lame and thus at risk in their hard world. Hobble also has the sight, however, which comes in useful during a time that Romans are attacking the countryside and Druids are travelling widely, trying to stir up a peasant resistance to the Romans to protect their own ascendancy. The Druid who comes to stay in their village doesn't endear himself to anyone, least of all Hobble's family. In fact, the Druidic tradition in general doesn't come off well in this book. Rather than holy and mystical, these druids are like any other religious organization full of men: power hungry and self concerned above all. It's quite an ominous set-up. 

I thought it was really well done. The setting is viscerally presented, with the sounds and smells and physical experience of hard work and hunger clearly shown. Both Devout and Hobble are complicated women, and so is their relationship. The Celtic world-view, of the meaning of life and the existence of an afterlife or other realm, plays a constant role as well, immersing you into this community and family in a fully imagined way. 

There were interesting characters making difficult choices that felt realistic, and not always expected. We encounter love, anger, friendship, grief, complicated marriages, loyalties tested, and concerns about survival in both physical and financial ways -- this covers so many areas of life, even ranging to social niceties and work satisfaction, but all in ways that felt congruent with the story and the era in which it's set. No clanging anachronisms to be found. 

This was an unexpected and unusual read, but one that caught me. I was concerned about both the main characters, wanted to know how the Roman/Druid feud was going to play out, and enjoyed the evocation of this settlement in a time so long ago. Another rich reading experience from Cathy Marie Buchanan. 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Mexican Gothic

NY: Del Rey, c2020
301 p.

All of the early hype about this book intrigued me, and the idea of a new gothic also appealed -- I do love a good modern gothic. However, be warned that this book is a shade more horror than gothic. I'm not a horror fan, but this was 'horror-lite' so I survived ;) 

Noemi is a modern young woman in Mexico City in the 1950s. But she gets called away from her socialite life by a desperate letter from her cousin Catalina, who'd married the year before and moved to her husband's estate, High Place, far off in the countryside. 

When Noemi arrives to this dark and foreboding, English-style manor house built by Catalina's inlaws -- a family once massively rich due to silver mining but now fading -- she finds that things are suspiciously unsettled, from the rude and unfriendly family to the silent and secretive servants. But from this standard gothic beginning things get even weirder...we have bioluminescent fungus, visions and waking dreams, odd behaviour from everyone in the house, and maybe a ghost? Noemi isn't sure what's happening but it's definitely not what she expected to find. Only her strength of character and indomitable will can save her now. 

I appreciated the unusual setting, and the focus on a different society than usual in these kind of books. The description of Noemi made her not the usual kind of gothic heroine, either. She had far too much gumption and common sense to be a victim. Her cousin was definitely more of the naive and delicate gothic heroine type. Noemi and Catalina recalled Marian and Laura from The Woman in White in rheir respective roles, and like Marian, Noemi pulls them out of the fire. 

I didn't quite love it, as the horror and weirdness was a bit out of my taste range, but I did like a lot of it, and definitely appreciated this take on a classic genre. Worth reading, full of intriguing details and a fresh approach to gothic themes.