All Passion Spent - Book Review

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

Perhaps best known for her passionate affair with Virginia Woolf and for her creation of the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, Vita Sackville-West's writing is often overlooked. But if All Passion Spent is any indication of her talent as a writer, she deserves to be considered as one of the finest female British authors of the 20th century.

The novel is divided into three parts: first, we're introduced to the children, then the widow of the newly deceased Henry Holland, first Earl of Slane, dead at age 94. Lady Slane's children are debating what should be "done" with their mother who, at age 88, they consider flighty and unable to take care of herself. They're shocked when she reveals that she wants to live alone - with her maid in attendance - in a cottage in Hampstead, one that she'd dreamed of for 30 years.

The second part of the novel takes us to Lady Slane's now simple life in Hampstead, where she realizes she will spend her final days. She has plenty of time to reminisce about her life, her dream of being a painter and her lack of choices as a woman in the 19th century. Though her marriage and exciting life would be the envy of most women of her class, she faces the fact that she gave up her one true passion to do what was expected of her by society and her family. But she isn't angry about her fate; she is resigned to life as it is in her era:
Yet she was no feminist. She was too wise a woman to indulge in such luxuries as an imagined martyrdom. The rift between herself and life was not the rift between man and woman, but the rift between the worker and the dreamer. That she was a woman, and Henry a man, was really a matter of chance. She would go no further than to acknowledge that the fact of her being a woman made the situation a degree more difficult. (Page 164)
In the third part of the novel, a person from Lady Slane's past makes an appearance. Their conversations are frank and startling to her. But she is relieved to have a confidant with whom she can be honest about her feelings of having given up her dreams all those years ago.

This is a beautifully written novel with some finely drawn characters (though her children, portrayed as despicable vultures, are a bit over the top). I enjoyed reading some of the insights this aged woman had and about the surprising relationships she developed with people she encountered late in life. Highly recommended.

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The Sunday Salon: August 22, Playing Catchup, Continued

Some more mini-reviews from the last few months:

1. One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson. Good, fun mystery, well written. A sequel of sorts to Case Histories. Atkinson is master at weaving a bunch of stories together. (4/5)

2. The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. Excellent book. Love the story, the writing, the characters. (4.5/5)

3. A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson. Charming, funny novel with much irony and an occasional nod to some serious subjects (AIDS, death, politics, boy soldiers). Lovely writing. (4/5)

4. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Astonishing book - the characters, narrative, dialog, story, setting, all practically flawless. And that's saying a lot for 850+ pages. McMurtry is a master storyteller. I never thought I'd be interested in this Western, but Lonesome Dove will make it onto my top 20, if not top 10 books of all time. (5/5)

5. The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini. Interesting novel about Zimbabwe after independence. Beginning in the 1980s, we follow the narrator Lindiwe from adolescence through adulthood. The boy next door is Ian, a white boy, who is charged with murdering his stepmother by setting her on fire. In the first part of the book, Lindiwe is filled with teenage angst as she explores her attraction to Ian, who is released and returns to the neighborhood after just a few years.

The story is full of tensions -- racial, sexual, political, familial -- and secrets. The chaotic inner worlds of Lindiwe and Ian are mirrored by the chaos in the outer world, as Zimbabweans try to find their way after independence, which involves a great deal of fighting and inner turmoil.

I found the first part of the book choppy and difficult to follow -- but the narrator was a 14 year old girl; as Lindiwe matured, so did the story and the narration. There were a number of Shona words and no glossary, so I had to guess at the meaning sometimes.

That said, this was an excellent read and I recommend this debut novel - the 2010 winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers. (4/5)

6. No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym. I love Pym's writing, but this one seemed a little draggy to me. (3.5/5)

7. The Outcast by Sadie Jones. Compelling, difficult subject matter, intense, very well written novel of a young man in 1950s England who is not permitted grieving over a very traumatic event in his life and the effects this has on his coming of age. Recommended. (4/5)

8. The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenberg. Fabulous book. Orange Prize shortlist for new writers, 2008. (4.5/5). Highly recommend.

9. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Absolutely delightful novel full of humor, compassion, social justice and romance. A love story with a lot of depth. Some of the characters are a bit over the top, but most are spot on and endearing. So glad I read this! (4.5/5)

10. Property by Valerie Martin. Another Orange Prize book (winner, 2003). Another excellent, if difficult, read. (4/5)

That's it for this week. One more Sunday and I'll be caught up! Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.
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The Good Daughters - Book review

The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard
This review is based on the uncorrected proof, advanced readers' edition.

This book had so much potential. I know the story that this novel was loosely based on - such a fascinating human interest story that deserves a better telling than this. (I won't reveal too much since the whole book leads up to the reveal - which is a little too easy to spot early on.)

First, the good news. Some of the pieces were handled so tenderly and poignantly. I loved the story of Dana and Clarice. It was so refreshing to see a lesbian relationship treated so normally; the love between the two women was evident and portrayed beautifully. Some of the stories on the farm were beautifully written: Edwin's love of the land and the struggles of a family farm were told well.

The bad news: since this is an uncorrected proof, I do hope that some of the many inconsistencies will be corrected. I found myself thumbing back through a number of times, feeling confused about a character's name that changed or a scenario that changed. There was also a tremendous amount of repetition early on that felt messy. If it was done for effect, it failed.

The piece that bothered me the most was that there were two first person narrators, Ruth and Dana, yet they were virtually indistinguishable in their manner of telling their stories. I would get confused - again! - as to which was whom sometimes because their voices were so much alike. I appreciate novels with multiple narrators, but please make them individuals, not carbon copies!

This book was seriously flawed and fell flat for this reader.

FTC Disclosure: This book was provided to me by the publisher for review on LibraryThing. Read More!

The Sunday Salon: August 15, Playing Catchup

Oh blogs o' mine, you stand so neglected. I should know better than to promise to post a review of every book I read or to take a photo a day for a year and post to my photo blog.

So here on this ultra hot Sunday (100ish degrees), I'm sitting in front of a fan and looking at the long list of books I've read in the last several months. I post mini-reviews of most of them on LibraryThing, so I will begin my list here and re-post those comments, just so you know what I think about what I've read.

1. The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi. Must gather my thoughts after reading this short and powerful novel. Disturbing and poetic. 4/5. (Apparently my thoughts remained ungathered.)

2 .Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Wow. 5/5 Review coming (hopefully) soon. (And we keep hoping.) This was one of my favorite books so far this year, so well written and such a wonderful story.

3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Wow. Just wow. Amazing book. Will review soon. (4.5/5) (Do you see a pattern here?)

4. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. This is a re-read for me. I first read this book ~15 years ago and was struck by the lyricism. I didn't remember much about the story. On this re-read, I'm still struck by the lyricism - I feel as though I've read an extended poem. The story is almost incidental to the language. But the story, largely character driven, is wonderful, too. (4.5/5)

5. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. Excellent historical fiction about a little known fossil hunter, Mary Anning, in early 19th century England. (4/5)

6. The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir by Elna Baker. Quite a remarkable book - very funny with not a little twenty-something spiritual and romantic angst.(4/5)

7. Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich. A wild departure from Erdrich's usual novels. Compelling, disturbing, readable; almost a psychological thriller. Will have to mull this one over awhile. (3.5/5) (Still mulling.)

8. Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens. Engaging story, but overly long for what it is. Also, a few too many convenient events and coincidences. Lansens wrote the fabulous novel The Girls after this debut novel. The Girls was stunning, so it was good to see she got better after this one! (3.5/5)

9. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I love this book. Probably my fourth read and it still gives me pause. I was especially moved by it in light of the gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico. A little bit fantasy, a lot philosophy and a cultural message we should have taken in decades ago. (4.5/5)

10. Potiki by Patricia Grace. Excellent. Really stunning writing and good to read a story of exploitation through the eyes of the exploited Maoris.(4/5)

I'll stop there for now. There are another 15 or so, and I will try to get them posted by next week's Sunday Salon. I'm not sure why it's been so challenging for me to write reviews - I think I just want to get on to the next book! I have quite a list of good ones on the horizon, including All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, and Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

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