Monday, April 30, 2012

The Dream by Harry Bernstein

This follow-up memoir to The Invisible Wall chronicles the author's life as he moves from England to America with his family. It focuses on the idealized version of America many immigrants had post-World War I and how devastatingly quickly that dream was dashed during The Great Depression.

I like a memoir to have something of the unusual about it and The Dream was severely lacking in this department. Bernstein lives a life full of struggles common (unfortunately) to immigrant families in the 20's and 30's. Money is tight, jobs are impossible to find, dad is an all read pretty predictably when you compare this one story to history. I even felt like events were foreshadowed in a style more akin to fiction - the set-up was all too perfect at times - that I never expected to see in a memoir.

Bernstein also relates stories in an overly-detailed manner. I felt like I was reading a diary at times of his day-to-day life. It was actually pretty boring.

To sum up the story, Bernstein, amidst all the trials of immigrating to the US post WWI finds love and lives an overall happy life. His siblings all struggle in different ways, but overcome too. The only sad character in the end is Bernstein's Mom, who suffers beyond the scope of The Great Depression, wanting only happiness and comfort for her children and dying before everything smooths out.

I would not recommend this book. I think you can find a more readable account of life during this time period if that's what you're looking for. I would suggest picking up The Invisible Wall though. It's an interesting story with enough unique elements to really make it an engaging memoir.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series is one of my all-time favorite collection of books. It's such a mix of literary references, fun, mystery, and fantasy - there's something new at every turn.

The sixth book in the series finds us again in the BookWorld which has finally been remade to be geographically similar to a planet rather than a library - so helpful. The real Thursday Next, who divides her time between working in the real world and BookWorld, is missing and the written Thursday Next, through a few of classic plot devices, gets on the case to try and find her. Of course, the BookWorld is so literal that nothing is simple to wrap up, but the real Thursday has to be found or else war might break out between the islands of Racy Novel and Women's Fiction (which in itself is a funny thought - porn characters vs fictional women's lib advocates.)

The great thing about this novel is the subtlety. Literary references, plot devices, writing techniques are all major components in the BookWorld that Fforde subtly and humorously weaves into the mystery story of locating the real Thursday and discovering why someone wanted her dead in the first place. Simple things like naming a cab driver Mediocre Gatsby (the brother of Great Gatsby) and having roads and squares named after authors who have found great success are just a few examples of how Fforde weaves the entire lexicon of literature into his stories.

An even deeper layer to this story is the character development of the written Thursday Next. She's battling her insecurities and uncertainties, pushing back against previous failures to really prove herself as an individual (while also staying true to the written version of a real person.)

The series is engaging and exciting and so much fun to read. Definitely start at the beginning though if you're new to Fforde with The Eyre Affair and enjoy!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

I'd like to start this review out with a little advice -- Don't claim you're paying homage to a great piece of literature in your modern telling if you're not going to stay true to the classic version of the story. Everyone will be comparing your book to the original story and when you deviate we will HATE it.

The Three Weissmann's of Westport focuses in on the lives of three women, a mother and her two adult daughters. The mom, Betty, has recently been uprooted from her home and is going through a divorce. Her two adult daughters, Annie and Miranda, decide to give up their own homes to live with their mom as she goes through the divorce in order to support her. This is the start of Schine's homage to Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. It's a well-known classic so you can probably imagine most of the plot from there yourself -- until Schine ruins it in the end.

Without the connection to Austen, this book is pretty good, but you can't read it without comparing it and that where the trouble sets in. Firstly, her daughters are just too old. Austen's girls are still young and most of that book has them struggling to figure out who they are as they grow into womanhood and face real life. Annie and Miranda have already sunk shoulder-deep into real life so you miss out on a huge element of their characters. It's not quite believable that women nearing their 50's would hold a lot of naivete in their characters.

Then, we get to the end of the book so let me just say SPOILER ALERT here because I have to talk about it in order to adequately illustrate my frustrations. In the end of S&S the eldest sister end up with the man she's been pining for through the whole book. She forgives him a secret engagement to another and lives happily in love. Annie (Schine's Elinor) does not forgive her real love and ultimately settles for sweet, older guy who has been hanging on the fringes of the story all along, working behind the scenes to help. This older guy sound familiar because he should -- he's the character who should have ended up with the second sister if Schine would have stuck to Austen's story. What happens to Miranda? She falls in love with a woman and finally realizes that she's gay.

So all the build up of a modernized Sense and Sensibility, all the familiar characters in one form or another come together and have you waiting for a specific ending, and then nothing. Why go to all the trouble to imitate another story just to write your own ending? I don't get it. Schine could have written this great novel about these three women, could have kept the story almost the same as it is and just left the allusion to a classic out of it. If I wasn't spending so much time comparing this book to the Austen I know I would have enjoyed it more.

It's hard to say whether this book is worth reading. If you're an Austen fan - I'd say NO! If you actually aren't familiar with S&S then this would make a good beach read for the summer. It just left me feeling angry and appreciating works in their original form all the more.