Paul Harvey visits Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker
3 words: domestic, sympathetic, frank
So this one made me a little nervous. A retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ viewpoint?
My fear: snark. Or worse.
Katie of Words for Worms (her review is, of course, a fabulous thing to read) assured me it would be OK.
And it was.
In P&P, the servants are sort of there, taking care of things… but really? They’re pretty much making the Bennets’ lives comfortable, and their thoughts and feelings are completely absent.

Here, we get The Rest of the Story.  (Anyone else kinda miss Paul Harvey?)

And Jo Baker does it up right. 
Sarah, a young housemaid, is smart and hardworking and likeable. And her hands usually hurt, cuz that was some horribly hard (and often disgusting) work they had to do. (I’ve never looked at my washing machine with such fondness as I do now.)

Then a new footman arrives at the house, and that upsets the applecart downstairs almost as much as Mr. Bingley’s arrival disrupts life upstairs.

The thing that surprised me — and eventually delighted me — is that Elizabeth and Darcy’s story is hardly even mentioned in this version of events.

Here, we get to hear Sarah’s story. And James the footman’s story. And Mrs. Hill’s surprising back story.

And it was a little bit Downton Abbey-esque, all this downstairs business, as we follow these characters through their daily lives and care about what happens to them.

And it’s not necessarily the happily-ever-after story of P&P, but the author leaves her characters in reasonably good situations, so no worries there.
And even the poor, overlooked, middle Bennet daughter, Mary, gets a happy ending. These lines made me so happy, I nearly cried.

“And to be flourishing, and happy, was to be a good way towards being beautiful. And being flourishing, and happy, and beautiful, was a good way towards being beloved…”  (326).

So, good people… What’s your take on pastiches? Yay, nay, or maybe?

A Gentleman in Moscow delights a lady in the U.S.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
3 words: gracious, engaging, triumphant

I was pretty sure I’d love this book, given the way I felt about Amor Towles’s debut novel, The Rules of Civility.

And then when I heard him speak about this new novel at BEA, that completely clinched it. (And I spoke to him, and he was gracious!)

So when I actually started reading, it shouldn’t have surprised me — but did — that I loved it so very much.
And all of these things happened despite the fact that I don’t like novels set in Russia. And I don’t like novels of political imprisonment. And I’m not all that very much into historical fiction, though I wish I were.
And this book is all of those things, but it won me over almost immediately.
Here’s how it did it…
Count Alexander Rostov is the central figure in this book, and the dude is witty, cultured, good-humored, and positive to a degree that’s seriously impressive.
If there’s anyone on earth who would not like this man, I hope I never meet that person.
So we have a delightful main character whose charm and humor and approach to life create an atmosphere that’s like breathing fresh air.
Then you plunk him down in a luxury hotel in Moscow, where he’s been ordered to live out his days. In a tiny attic room.
And so it begins…  this story of a man whose life has been turned into a miniaturized version of itself, who responds by expanding his world within those hotel walls and creating a family from those who work and stay there.
And then there’s the author’s writing style, which perfectly matches its subject. It’s sophisticated and wry and urbane and witty, and it’s smooth and smart and polished, and it makes a person feel very comfortable. The author is like a fine host who caters to his guests.
I read most of this book on the flight home from Reykjavik, and I truly felt like I was soaring. 
So now I’m doing that thing, where I dart around telling everyone about this book. (If I see you in person, prepare yourself. This book’s coming up in conversation.)
Fellow readers… what book are you pushing these days? 

Biggest book of BEA?

(photo credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
3 words: brutal, lyrical, magical realism

At BEA, it was clear that Colson Whitehead’s forthcoming book was gonna be one of THE books of the fall publishing season. And I felt really lucky to have the opportunity to gush briefly at the author himself and to secure an ARC of The Underground Railroad.
And then I started reading the book, and it was an even more intense experience than I had anticipated. (That’s saying something.)
First, the book pulls the reader in immediately. Cora, the main character, and those who surround her on her journey north, became real people the moment I met them. 
Cora’s life has been pretty darn horrific, and when she sets off for freedom via the Underground Railroad, I’m sad to say it remains rather horrific.
But then there are brief periods of calm, when I’d think, “She’s gonna be OK. She’s made it to a good place.”
But… no.
Whitehead doesn’t hold back and he doesn’t shield his characters from the harshness of the reality they faced. It makes for some wrenching reading.
And again I was reminded of the power of fiction to convey truth.
Second, I realized early on that I was reading a Colson Whitehead book. Because here’s the thing: in this novel, the Underground Railroad is depicted as an actual underground railroad.
And each state has its own slavery culture, with its own horrors to learn anew. So, again, even though the book wasn’t a factual depiction of life in (and escaping) slavery, the story wields enormous emotional power, and some of that strength comes through its symbolism.
And third, the language. Oh, dear people, the way this writer writes. It’s enough to take your breath away. He writes with a lyrical precision that is stunning.

As we careen toward autumn, what books are on your radar?

Sometimes it sucks to be the wife

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin
3 words: biographical, personal, lyrical
Since I went through a spree of reading everything Anne Morrow Lindbergh ever published (except that horrid-sounding thing, The Wave of the Future) I approached this fictional account of her life with a wary eye. There are so many ways a novelist can get it wrong.
(photo: courtesy of the Library of Congress)
But Melanie Benjamin has seriously impressed me here.
Yes, this is a work of fiction, but yes, she has done the research and I feel like
she’s speaking in Anne’s voice in this book. That’s high praise from an AML
reader.
The thing I didn’t expect was to come away from this book detesting Charles
Lindbergh.
Sure, I already had pushed away from him once I learned of his anti-Semitic speeches in the pre-WWII years. And then there were those other families of children he fathered. Dude had some serious flaws. And big, unpardonable ones, too.
But this book put venom in my fangs.
I think it’s because fiction did that thing it goes so well: it made things more
immediate, more personal, more felt. Even AML’s diaries and letters, which were edited before publication (by both AML and her husband) keep her at a greater distance.
So: this book surprised me with the depth and honesty of its characterization, and by the loveliness of the writing. I went in, expecting to emerge partway through, shaking my head. Instead, I was sorry when it ended, and I’m shaking my head in admiration.

I finally read it

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
3
words: compassionate, lyrical, wry  
Worth
the hype? Yes.
So… Death
as the narrator. I know. But if you can get through the first chapter and meet
the characters he describes (I think Death
is a “he;” at least the audiobook narrator was), you just might get hooked on
the book as fast as I did.
The
thing is: to describe The Book Thief
makes it sound sad and depressing. Which it is, yet really isn’t. It has too
many moments of light and goodness amidst the difficulties.
It’s
Germany, WWII is raging, and Liesel is only 9 when she’s orphaned. Her new
foster parents are a study in contrasts: Rosa is foul-mouthed and harsh (yet a
good woman in a crisis), and Hans is notable for “the brute strength of the
man’s gentleness.” (CD 1, track 13)
And
then their small household grows in population when Max Vandenburg joins them.
But his presence must remain a secret, because he’s Jewish.
Since
Death tells the story, a person is rather on edge throughout the entire novel. Who’s he coming for? But then Death
becomes rather likeable himself, and that’s even more unnerving. He’s a darn
credible narrator, and he doesn’t sugar-coat things.
The
audiobook is a remarkable thing. Death’s voice is calm, cynical, wry,
occasionally kindhearted.
Zusak
has an extraordinarily strong ability to draw memorable characters. The good
ones have flaws that make them real, and they all have quirks that make them
believable. I won’t soon forget them.