Thursday, April 11, 2013

Book Review: FLAUBERT'S PARROT by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot is a strange book, indeed. I spent the first half thinking I was reading a book about a literary obsession when I suddenly realized I was reading a book about a widower trying to understand his relationship with his late wife. Talk about confused! Several months have gone by since I read it, and in retrospect I believe one story was actually told through the other. But somehow I can’t quite decide whether or not I think Barnes pulled it off.

Let’s start with the fact that although I have read Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, it was a long time ago. And that is the only Flaubert novel I have read. I have not read, most importantly, A Simple Heart, also known as The Parrot which winds up being central to the plot – or at least what there is of a plot. I had no idea about Flaubert’s family life, his philosophy, or his, shall we say, eccentricities. That didn’t actually detract from my enjoyment of the novel, because I found reading the biographical bits on Flaubert really fascinating. But it certainly may have impacted my ability to decipher the story.

The ostensible plot involves a retired British doctor and Flaubert aficionado, Geoffrey Braithwaite, touring through France in search of the answer to a mystery: which of two ancient stuffed parrots claiming to be so is actually the one that stood on Flaubert’s desk while he wrote A Simple Heart? What, in a nutshell, is the inspiration for genius, appeared to be the question to which Braithwaite was seeking an answer. But what the asynchronous narrative slowly reveals is that Braithwaite believes understanding Flaubert’s life and inspirations will help him understand his own domestic story – one that has the small, sad dimensions of a Flaubertian tragedy.

The book was slow-going, but it wasn’t as heavy as it sounds. In fact, there are quite a few very funny bits. One of the most interesting chapters in the book is entitled “Braithwaite’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas,” which encapsulates the conventional wisdom about Flaubert and his work with tongue-in-cheek encyclopedia entries:
WHORES: Necessary in the nineteenth century for the contraction of syphilis, without which no one could claim genius. Wearers of the red badge of courage include Flaubert, Daudet, Maupassant, Jules de Goncourt, Baudelaire, etc. Were there any writers unafflicted by it? If so, they were probably homosexual. (Kindle location 2525)
The book is beautifully written, I’ll say that. But there was something of Joyce’s Ulysses in this to me, so think with literary illusions that I couldn’t get a fix on the book I was actually supposed to be reading. The book ought to come with The Parrot as a pre-req – maybe I would have understood it that way!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Back from hiatus with THE LOVE SHACK -- and not a Chrysler or a B-52 in sight

As anyone familiar with this blog knows, I’ve been on hiatus for some time. I didn’t actually mean to go on hiatus – it just happened. We went to Shanghai, my daughter went to college, I went on sabbatical, my mom got sick. I’ve certainly been reading – as always, it’s been a huge comfort. But I just couldn’t find the time and energy to share my thoughts. It became stress, and not fun, and that’s exactly what I didn’t want when I started this blog. So I stepped back – and vegged.
Around January, I realized I was getting antsy, and had some things to share. But I held back from jumping back in to the book blogging world – I felt detached from a community I had been part of, and I didn’t know how to jump back in. So I waffled, which is like vegging, but with the addition of conflicted thought.
But then I got an email about a TLC tour that was way off my normal reading radar – a beach romance, for goodness sake. And I thought to myself, “Maybe that’s just the thing. Read something you haven’t read since you were a teenager, and see if it gives you something new to say.”
Which is the long way round to explaining why my usually lit/fic, historical novel and mystery blog is featuring a romance for my return to blogdom. A romance called, The Love Shack, no less. (Cue  the B-52s, my favorite 80s band).                                                                                                                                                            
All I can say was, it was a reading vacation. It was fun, decadent, and not terribly demanding.
Christie Ridgway gives the reader a story more Georgette Heyer than Nora Roberts. There’s lots of back story, lots of emotion, lots of complications and even a rumored necklace with lots of jewels. Oh, and there’s romance too. But it’s way more cerebral than I thought it would be. Seriously.    
The story is as simple at its heart as you might expect. Gage is a photojournalist who books some downtime in the place he happily vacationed as a child – Beach House No. 9. The owner’s little brat of a daughter, Skye, is now the owner of the place – and predictably gorgeous. He’s been working behind enemy lines in the war on terror. She’s been dealing with her own war on peace at home. Both Gage and Skye have incidents in their past that tend to keep them isolated – but they are also absolutely drawn to each other. You know they belong together from the first chapter – it’s a romance, for goodness sake – but Ridgway keeps you wondering if they’re going to figure it out before calamity strikes.
The Love Shack is a good beach book: comfortable and escapist, but just a little unexpected. Ridgway definitely channeled the Regency Romance aesthetic in a contemporary setting. The book was honestly far more restrained than I had expected. If you are looking for a fun, contemporary romance with an interesting set of supporting characters, consider putting The Love Shack in your beach bag this summer. No one is going to confuse it with Anna Karenina -- or The Gulag Archipelago for that matter* – but it’s good, reasonably clean fun.
I was supposed to receive a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion, but had so much trouble with NetGalley that I bought the book myself. Still, many thanks, as always, to Lisa at TLC for including me on this tour.  For other opinions about this title, follow this link.

*Deperado Penguin knows this to be true!