Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Read Along Check in #2: Clarissa, or the History of a Young Woman by Samuel Richardson

Well, after a slow start, things are starting to heat up in Clarissa’s world. She has been dragged with little warning from her friend Miss Howe’s home because her family learned that Lovelace (her brother’s enemy) had visited there. So she’s now been made a prisoner in her own home, with her family trying to force her to marry Mr. Solmes, who she dislikes intensely, and to get hold of the property her grandfather left her, despite the fact that they obviously have plenty of money themselves.

I’m willing to admit I was totally wrong about Miss Howe. In the last of the February letters we finally hear her perspective on what’s happened, and she appears to have Clarissa’s best interests at heart. In fact, she’s giving Clarissa the same kind of support and advice that any good girlfriend would: “Your family is treating you badly,” “Don’t let everyone walk all over you,” “If you don’t like the guy, you shouldn’t lead him on.” Only with Samuel Richardson it takes a good many more words to get those sentiments across:
I know he has nothing to boast of from what you have written: but is not his inducing you to receive letters, and to answer them, a great point gained? By your insisting that he should keep the correspondence private, it appears there is one secret which you do not wish the world should know: and he is the master of that secret. He is indeed himself, as I may say, that secret! What an intimacy does this beget for the lover! How is it distancing the parent! pg. 53 of Volume 1
You can say that again, Miss Howe.

It’s clear from the agitated tone of the letters that Clarissa's situation is getting desperate. Although she has property of her own that should protect her from her family’s greed (and clearly that’s what her grandfather intended), the convention of the times leaves her at the mercy of the male members of her family. I have a feeling that March is going to be a critical month for Clarissa Harlowe.

I’m assuming that the pace of the letters is about to increase, as we’ve only reached page 24 of the first of nine volumes! Breaking this into 12 parts makes taking on such an enormous epistolary novel possible, so thanks to Terri at Tip of the Iceberg and JoAnn at Lakeside Musing for hosting this year long event. I am headed over to check out the links and see what everyone else thought about this month’s readings. Has the book captured you yet? I think I’m getting there!

Venice in February: Balzac’s Massimilla Doni and Corona’s The Four Seasons

In eighteenth and nineteenth century Venice, music was an obsession, marriage was a part-time occupation, and love was a spectator sport. Ironically, I read two books written more than 150 years apart by authors from two different continents (neither of them Venetian), for Bellezza and Ally's Venice in February event and found them strikingly similar.

The first was Honoré de Balzacs classic novella Massimilla Doni, which forms part of his masterwork, La Comedie Humaine. One of my goals for this year was to read some of the classics I’ve missed up until now, and Balzac was on that list, so I figured I’d test the waters with one of his shorter works. I actually enjoyed it, but his flowery style and the treacly heroine made it a bit slow-going at times.

Emilio Cane is a prince with no money, thanks to the conquering Austrian’s usurpation of the family patrimony. He falls in love with the beautiful and virtuous Massimilla Doni, an heiress who has been married off in a loveless marriage to the aging Duke Cataneo, and they hold hands and yearn for each other while chastely occupying her fabulous villa for what seems like the first half of the novella. But when renowned soprano Clarina Tinti and the great tenor Genovese arrive in Venice, the lovers quickly head back to town for the musical season. This is when the book becomes really interesting, as the tempestuous Clarina becomes – through a set of pretty unbelievable circumstances – Massimilla’s rival for Emilio’s affection.

The Duke, as it turns out, would like an heir, but has no interest in helping Massimilla out in that way, so he and apparently everyone else in Venice are anxious for Emilio and Massimilla to just get on with it. Balzac leads the characters down a circuitous road that involves opium, stage fright and suicide, examining the impact of passion on both relationships and art, and also manages to give the reader a nifty synopsis of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto, all in the course of a 120 page novella. Phew!

For a lighter take on Venice, I returned to one of my comfort zones: the historical novel. I have had Laurel Corona’s The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice on my TBR pile since I first read about it. I have loved Vivaldi’s masterpiece since I first saw those pixies spreading dewdrops to it in Disney’s Fantasia, and I thought I’d enjoy a novelization of how it came about. And I would have, if that’s what I read – but Corona actually delivered so much more than I’d anticipated with this fantastic book!

Maddalena and Chiaretta are abandoned as children by their courtesan mother on the doorstep of the Ospedale della Pieta, an orphanage known for its famous “coro” of musically gifted young women who perform for Venetian society. The young women of Pieta are taught the womanly arts and allowed to make money from their crafts and performances until they are old enough to either get married or enter a convent – the basic choices for women in 18th century Venice. Chiaretta’s extraordinary voice leads her to the coro early on, but Maddalena’s talent with the violin goes almost unnoticed until Vivaldi (who I had no idea was a priest) takes the job as musical director of the coro. Vivaldi begins to write for the sisters, and the novel follows the sisters’ diverging paths: Chiaretta as the wife of a wealthy Venetian businessman and Maddalena as Vivaldi’s muse.

The irony is that the cloistered life of the Pieta actually gives Maddalena far more autonomy than Chiaretta has as a member of Venetian society. In order to marry Chiaretta, her husband signed an agreement that she would never sing in public, so the book puts the sisters’ struggle with their musical passions in stark relief. Chiaretta adores her husband, but finds that fidelity is not an accepted part of marriage in Venice. In fact, her husband goes so far as to choose her paramour. This seems to have been a function of Venetian society, where to keep wealth in the family, second daughters were put into convents and second sons acted as a sort of “honor guard” for the women whose husbands were otherwise engaged with the city’s courtesans – unless they went into the priesthood, like Vivaldi.

The Four Seasons was a surprise. The female characters were complex and interesting – such a contrast to Balzac’s heroine. I would heartily recommend it to any lover of historical fiction, especially those who love books associated with masterpieces, like Tracy Chevalier’s novels. As for Massimilla Doni, I would say it’s an accessible introduction to La Comedie Humaine. I enjoyed it, and I think anyone interested in the roots of French literature would too. Just don’t expect Zola!

I did some double-dipping with my Venice in February titles. Massimilla Doni is my translated classic for the Back to the Classics 2012 Challenge, and The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice counts toward the Historical Fiction Challenge 2012. Thanks to Sarah Reads Too Much and Historical Tapestry for hosting!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review: SONOMA ROSE by Jennifer Chiaverini

Normally, I am a person who hates to come into a book series in the middle. So I’m going to admit to being a little worried when Jennifer Chiaverini’s Sonoma Rose arrived and I saw the subtitle: An Elm Creek Quilts Novel. I had never heard of the series, so I went to visit the site and realized I was jumping into the middle of what appeared to be a cottage industry: novels, fabric patterns, even a cookbook, all inspired by Chiaverini’s work. There was no way to catch up (there are already 18 books in the series), so I just decided to jump in and hope for the best. I’m happy to say I was rewarded with a novel of depth and grit that brought a time and a place that I know very little about – Prohibition era California – to life.

The novel begins with Rosa Diaz Barclay trapped in a loveless and increasingly volatile marriage to John, desperate at having lost four of her 8 children to a mysterious wasting disease that attacked them right after they were weaned. Two of her four remaining children suffer from the same affliction, although the other two, including her eldest, are completely healthy. Having been abandoned by her family, her only support comes from her childhood sweetheart, Lars Jorgensen, and a new arrival in Arboles Valley, Elizabeth Nelson. When Elizabeth witnesses one of John’s jealous rages, the stage is set for Rosa to run. The family’s attempt to free themselves both from the tyranny of an abusive spouse and the nightmare of a disease that the local doctors cannot understand comprise the main action of the novel, and I was caught up in Rosa’s world from the very beginning.

This novel serves up a really interesting piece of historical fiction, and throws in a offbeat love story for good measure. Rosa and her family find themselves among the desperate northern California vineyard owners who are trying to hold onto their land and their heritage as Prohibition slowly destroys their way of life. I had never really thought about the unintended effects of Prohibition on law abiding citizens – and how desperation might have forced vineyard owners into relationships with criminals, just to keep their heads above water. The book emphasizes the ambiguity of the time by contrasting the slimy Prohibition agent, Dwight Crowell, with the protective bootlegger, Mr. Lucerno.

It was also fascinating to think about how much medicine has changed our lives in less than 100 years. In the time before genetic testing and antibiotics, illness must have seemed so much more mysterious and ominous than it does to us now. Rosa’s attempts to deal with her children’s condition were so heartbreaking that any mother reading could easily put herself in Rosa’s place.

While Sonoma Rose was identified as part of the Elm Creek Quilt series, quilts and quilt-making are only tangential to the storyline. From what I’ve read, this may make Sonoma Rose an unusual part of the collection, but for me it meant there was no problem understanding what was going. It’s possible that the heirloom quilts that Elizabeth gives Rosa are detailed in a previous book, but not knowing that didn’t detract in any way from my enjoyment of the book.

I’ve been reading a lot of translated fiction and classic fiction lately, and Sonoma Rose was a nice, light break. Not being a quilter, I’m not sure if I’d go back and read the rest of the series. But I did enjoy this novel very much, and recommend it to those interested in 20th century historical fiction, regardless of whether they are quilters or not. This book counts for the Historical Fiction Challenge 2012 – it’s about time I got something done, challenge-wise, to keep February from being a complete bust! Thanks to everyone at Historical Tapestry for hosting!

I read this book as part of a TLC book tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: Catherine McKenzie’s SPIN

I worked in publishing for about ten years before I went to graduate school. Which is probably why I felt an immediate affinity for Catherine McKenzie’s debut novel Spin. When writer Kate Sandford got an interview at her favorite magazine, The Line, I remembered walking into the USA Today offices for the first time. Okay, I didn’t go down in flames spectacularly by showing up to my interview drunk. And I didn’t get an offer to “try out” for my dream job by going undercover at a rehab facility to spy on a famous actress. But I really did relate to the whole “trying-to-get-a-job-in-publishing” pressure that Kate put herself through.

Kate is a very likeable character: talented and driven, but also deeply flawed. She meets starlet Amber Sheppard and is amazed to find her a real person with real problems. Problems, as it turns out, that aren’t so different from her own.

Spin would have been a pretty light chic-lit title, if not for Kate’s own emerging realization that outside of the tabloid spotlight, she has more in common with Amber than she ever would have believed.

Now, I don’t usually drink in the morning, but there was something about that morning that felt out of the ordinary. It was a combination of things, really. Seeing the tiny plane I was going to have to fly in. Going undercover. Being about to meet a celbrity I’d been watching for weeks on television. Having the opportunity to finally get where I wanted to be as a writer. Going to rehab. It all balled up inside me, and I needed something to calm me down. The chamomile tea I had before I left for the airport wasn’t cutting it, so I headed to the always open airport bar and ordered a gin and tonic. p. 83-84
McKenzie did a credible job of showing Kate’s growing ambivalence about her assignment as Amber transforms from tabloid fodder to a living, breathing human being. Kate’s growing self-awareness definitely made the novel more interesting. That being said, I was sort of surprised by the grittiness of the story. Based on the description and the cover, I thought the book would have a “lighter” feel to it – but it’s definitely not a comedy, not even a dark one.

I also have to admit that the love story element didn’t work well for me. This may be because there were so many characters to keep track of – but there just weren’t enough interactions between the characters to truly develop a good romance. That’s not to say I wasn’t rooting for the main characters, I just didn’t feel all warm and fuzzy when the resolution came.

I liked Spin, and am intrigued by McKenzie’s writing. Her first-person narration was direct and accessible, without ever feeling “staged.” I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

I read this book as part of a TLC book tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Super Bowl Entertaining Edition

No need to let the Packers’ and Steelers’ dream-crushing losses keep us from enjoying a perfectly good pseudo event here in Central PA. So tonight we’re having a few friends over to watch ads – and some football in between. And to make sure we don’t expire before the halftime show, I’m serving up two Foccacia Super Sandwiches.

We started by making two loaves of foccacia this morning: one white and one whole wheat. We waited for them to cool and sliced the tops off. Then we got to work on the sandwiches.

The first one is for Veggie Lovers: goat cheese, olives, roasted red peppers, marinated artichoke hearts and thinly sliced yellow tomatoes dressed with olive oil.

The second one is for Meat Lovers: hard salami, prosciutto, provolone, roasted red peppers, mild banana peppers and basil dressed with vinaigrette.

These get wrapped tightly (with the top layer replaced) and sit in the fridge until game time. Then we’ll slice them each into 16 pieces. My friends are bringing the sides and dessert – so all I have to do is sit back and watch Giselle’s husband lose. Or maybe Peyton’s brother. Either way, it will be tasty!

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!