January 20, 2012

Women in Literature

Entirely without meaning to do so, there's a motif running throughout this post--books written about women.

Way back in the early fall, my book club chose to read Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff, a historically-researched nonfiction account of the life of the last pharaoh of Egypt.  I will admit that the first time I started the book, I stopped about 20 pages in for a break that lasted almost a month.  After our book club met to discuss the book, I decided that I just had to finish it, so I started it over from the beginning.  I'm the first to admit that "history" books don't always interest me from the beginning, one reason I enjoy Erik Larsen's work so much, since they read as novels vs. dry historical accounts.  However, there is so much mystery and controversy surrounding the life of Cleopatra that once I began, I couldn't put the book down.  Did she love Marc Antony or did she love Caesar?  Did she love either of them, or were her liaisons only a play for power?  It's also fascinating to read about the golden city of Alexandria which now only exists in written accounts.  Truly a worthwhile and well-written read.

For our October book club, I was the lucky gal who got to choose our next selection.  We take turns alphabetically by first name, and present a list of four to five titles which are then voted upon by the members.  My first choice, The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, won the round; however, since the book was only available in hardcover (shame on me for not checking that first), we ended up choosing One Day, by David Nicholls.  One Day has been adapted into a movie starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess (who is incredibly British and adorable), although I've heard it isn't a great movie.  The book, however, is wildly entertaining.  The story introduces us to Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew who first meet on July 15, 1988, and we revisit Em and Dex on July 15th for the next 20 years.  An engaging story that starts out fun and a bit sad, and ends as a moving and poignant tale of romance and friendship.  A good, satisfying read.

Next up for book club was One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd, by Jim Fergus.  I'll be honest, I wasn't very excited about this book initially, since it deals with the Western frontier in the 1800s; that makes me think of dust, horses, horse poop, and the Oregon Trail (which I would still play if I had the chance).  I am so glad that I'm wrong as often as I am, because I tend to learn things that way.  I really, really liked this book.  While Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States, the Cheyenne tribe of Native Americans approached him to ask for 1,000 white women in return for 1,000 horses; the thought was that integrating "white culture" with "Indian culture" would help assimilate the Native American population as the whites continued to steal their land.  In real life, the offer was declined, but this novel assumes that President Grant agreed to the offer, and tells the story of the "Brides for Indians" program from the first-person perspective of May Dodd.  Though the characters are a bit flat and one-dimensional, Fergus weaves an interesting story of the American West, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Lastly, since I thought the story sounded so interesting, I decided to revisit The Paris Wife.  I love to read about the roaring 20s, and particularly about the Lost Generation who escaped to Paris for a roaring time of their own.  This novel is historical fiction, based upon the life of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's first wife.  I enjoyed reading about Hemingway as a young man, and in this novel we see the foundation for some of his best-known works, particularly The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast.  The writing is elegant, the story is heartbreaking, and I would recommend this to book to everyone, even if you're not a huge Hemingway fan.  From the Amazon website, which does the book far more justice than I could:
Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway and her life changes forever. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group—the fabled “Lost Generation”—that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. 
Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking and fast-living life of Jazz Age Paris, which hardly values traditional notions of family and monogamy. Surrounded by beautiful women and competing egos, Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history, pouring all the richness and intensity of his life with Hadley and their circle of friends into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises. Hadley, meanwhile, strives to hold on to her sense of self as the demands of life with Ernest grow costly and her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Despite their extraordinary bond, they eventually find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage—a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for. 
A heartbreaking portrayal of love and torn loyalty, The Paris Wife is all the more poignant because we know that, in the end, Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley.

That's it for now.  I'm heading to Baltimore for the weekend to visit some friends--bon weekend to you all!

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