Monday, March 22, 2010

Before Women Had Wings, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, and Second Nature

Last week I read three books. I'm not sure how I accomplished this considering the weather was gorgeous here, and the boys and I played outside on most days.
Before Women Had Wings
Before Women Had Wings by Connie May Fowler is one of those books that I appreciated for its good writing, but wouldn't necessarily recommend it to anyone because of its gloomy subject matter. Therefore, this review is going to be short. The story centers around a young girl, Bird, and her effort to survive in a home of violence. The husband beats the wife. The wife beats the kids. The voltures kill the kittens. (Sounds like a really bad round of The Farmer in the Dell.) The one shining character in the book is Miss Zora, the loving grandmotherly figure who befriends Bird. I kept hoping something good would happen to Bird to make up for all the awful things in her life. While the ending was hopeful, I was left unsatisfied.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon
The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen, on the other hand, is very enjoyable. I picked this book up right after I finished Before Women Had Wings, and I'm glad I did. This book just made me smile. I've read Allen's other two novels, Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen. Out of the three, Garden Spells is still the best.

Allen uses magical realism in her novels: apple trees with attitudes, books that follow people around, and in this latest novel ever changing wallpaper. This technique makes the books whimsical and charming.

Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the first time I encountered magical realism, and I loved it. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez is considered the masterpiece of magical realism and is an amazing family saga if you can keep all the Jose Arcadio's and Aureliano's straight. Of course Allen's books are much easier to read and lighter than Marquez. If you enjoy his novels, you might consider Sarah Addison Allen.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon opens with Emily, an orphaned teenager who goes to live with the grandfather she's never met in Mullaby, NC. This grandfather happens to be an eight foot giant. As her mother has never spoken of her childhood, Emily doesn't know that the people of Mullaby are not happy with her arrival, especially the Coffey's. Reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, Emily falls for Win Coffey. Together they try to heal what has happened in the past. This is a ridiculously simple synopsis of the story, but I'm scared of giving too much of the mystery away.

The only issue I have with this book is that there is a scene that reminded me of Twilight.

Second Nature
Second Nature by Alice Hoffman was another gloomy read though I did find it very interesting. Robin, who is separated from her no good cheating husband, goes to visit her brother at a mental hospital where he is a doctor. In the waiting room, she sees the infamous Wolf Man, a wild man who was raised by wolves. Handcuffed and awaiting transportation to a permanent institution, the Wolf Man asks Robin to help him. She ends up creating a story to get his handcuffs taken off and then smuggles him home where she and her teenage son work to socialize him. Most of the middle of the story is a trio of love stories between Robin and Stephen, the Wolf Man, and Conner, the teenage son, and Lydia, his girlfriend, and Stuart, Robin's brother, and his ex-wife, Kay. When first animals and then a person are murdered in the town, Stephen becomes the prime suspect.

Overall, I liked this book. The parts where Stephen struggles with identifying himself as a wolf or as a human are really interesting. The ending was a let down. I've not read too many books by Alice Hoffman, and I've yet to find one that I just love though I think there might be one out there. If anyone has any Alice Hoffman book recommendations, please let me know.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier

Although I haven't read all of Du Maurier's novels, I've read enough of them to officially acknowledge that she is one of my favorite authors. The first person narration of The Scapegoat reminded me a lot of Rebecca in that the reader is privy to the psychological state of mind of the narrator. Maybe adding the word "super" would better explain the intensity of this POV...super first person narration...yes, much better. I felt that I had truly stepped into the mind of the narrator, John/Jean de Gue'.

At the beginning of the novel, John is an English professor of French language and culture on holiday in France for research. He is dissatisfied with his life, commenting that he is simply an observer and not an active participant. John wishes he could belong to a French family and feel the sense of kinship and community instead of always feeling on the outside of life.

The phrase "Be careful what you wish for" applies here as John meets Jean de Gue', a French aristocrat who shockingly enough looks exactly like him. After a few drinks and some intimate conversation, John discovers that de Gue' has the opposite problem; he is overburdened by his family. They drink quite a bit. The next day John discovers that de Gue' has drugged him and absconded with his identity, clothes, and car. De Gue's family driver does not believe John when he denies he is Jean de Gue' and takes him to the family chateau. John's first puzzle is figuring out which woman in the sitting room is his "wife."

This book was hard to put down as it was utterly fascinating how John handles his mistaken identity not only in dealing with the family members, but how he becomes so involved with this new identity that he begins to think of himself as Jean de Gue' and not as John. There is a lot of intrigue and family trouble that he is forced to handle. Ultimately, he comes to love the family. The ending is a bit of a shock, but of course I won't share it here. I will end with my two favorite passages from the novel.

One had no right to play about with people's lives. One should not interfere with their emotions. A word, a look, a smile, a frown, did something to another human being, waking response or aversion, and a web was woven which had no beginning and no end, spreading outward and inward too, merging, entangling, so that the struggle of one depended upon the struggle of the other (74-75).

Sometimes it's a sort of indulgence to think the worst of ourselves. We say, 'Now I have reached the bottom of the pit, now I can fall no further,' and it is almost a pleasure to wallow in the darkness. The trouble is, it's not true. There is no end to the evil in ourselves, just as there is no end to the good. It's a matter of choice. We struggle to climb, or we struggle to fall. The thing is to discover which way we're going (200).
Du Maurier, Daphne. The Scapegoat. New York: Doubleday, 1957.

Crock Pot BBQ Pulled Pork and Ranch Coleslaw

This is a recipe I created when I couldn't find a pulled pork recipe to my taste. It makes a lot, so it's great one to make when you're expecting guests. Often I let the pork cook the night before, prepare it in the morning, and then reheat it in the oven for my guests. The BBQ recipe is sweet and tangy. I also like to put slaw on mine, so I included a really simple recipe for that as well.

Sirloin Pork Roast (4-5 lbs)
2 large onions (Sliced into rings)
1 large carton Swanson's Vegetable Broth

Spritz large crockpot with non-stick spray. Layer one onion on the bottom. Add roast. Be sure to remove netting and plastic thermometer from it. Layer the second onion on top. Fill the crockpot with broth a little over half of the way up the meat (2 cups or so). Cook on high 1 hour. This is important in getting a roast up to temperature faster. Turn to low and cook 8-10 hours or overnight.

Drain the broth and discard most of the onions. Shred the meat with a fork. It should just fall apart. Add just enough BBQ sauce to coat and stir gently. If you are serving right away, spread a layer of BBQ sauce over the top. Heat and serve. If you are serving later, spoon BBQ into lightly sprayed large casserole dish. Put a layer of BBQ over the top, cover, and store in fridge. Reheat in microwave or oven.

Sweet and Tangy BBQ Sauce (Depending on your roast size, this may make more than you actually need. You don't have to use it all, unless you like a lot of sauce.)

Mix together:
2 cups KC Masterpiece Hickory Smoked Brown Sugar BBQ Sauce
1 cup ketchup
2 tsp prepared yellow mustard
1/2 cup brown sugar

If you like sweet and spicy, add some hot sauce to taste.

Ranch and Bacon Coleslaw (From Kraft Food and Family)
1 bag cole slaw
Ranch Dressing (I like the light NOT the fat free)
Bacon (cooked crisp)

Mix together adding enough ranch dressing to coat.

I hope your family and guests enjoy this meal as much as mine do!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte
The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James is my third selection for the All About the Brontes Challenge. It took me several weeks to finish this one. Not because it was slow, but because I wanted to read it when I could give it my full attention. I enjoyed this book very much. However, it felt more like a memoir than a diary as most of the text was Charlotte reflecting on her life and not daily diary entries as events occurred. This in no way disturbed my enjoyment of the novel. The writing felt very true to Charlotte Bronte, as if I was actually reading her words.

This book is wonderfully researched. I learned so much about Charlotte and her family. I especially enjoyed how James revealed the inspirations for Charlotte, Emily, and Anne's novels. I didn't realize the extent that these books were based on people the sisters knew and events that actually happened to them. The most tragic of which was the Helen Burns story based on Charlotte's loss of two of her sisters from tuberculosis at The Clergy Daughters School. This school was the inspiration for the Lowood School that Jane attends in Jane Eyre. I'd like to give away more of these parallels as I marked each one of them in my book with a Post-It, but I won't.

I was also fascinated by Branwell Bronte, Charlotte's brother and a literary genius in his own right. He was a bit of an enigma. At times, I pitied him and at others, I found his behavior despicable and inexcusable. I don't know if I want to read The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte knowing what I do now about his tormented life. I did really appreciate James' sensitive treatment of Branwell's madness.

Additionally, James treated the love story between Charlotte and Arthur Nicholls with delicacy. It was so tenderly expressed, and I love the contrast between what Charlotte imagined love to be and what she experienced love to be with Mr. Nicholls, who was so unlike Mr. Rochester. I couldn't help but compare their love story to Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy's considering all the misunderstandings and false judgements.