Sunday, November 24, 2013

What's new this year? November Edition

Once a month, I take a look at some of the published-in-2013 books that I have read. Today's look will be at one of my favorite non-fiction books I read this year, The Astronaut's Wives Club, an insightful novel, The Good House and last but certainly not least, a book I just read and loved, Mrs. Poe. Each book offers something different, Ann Leary's The Good House is contemporary fiction at its best. It is special to me because I am not generally a big fan of contemporary fiction but this story hooked me. Mrs. Poe garners lots of love from me for its look at a segment of Edgar Alan Poe's life. Although, I'm not a huge fan of Poe, reading The Raven in this book was the first time I had done so, I love reading about famous authors in fictional formats and this story is nicely done. The Astronaut's Wives Club was one of three non-fiction books I read this year, that I thought were exceptional. This time around, all the books I'm reviewing were winners!

Lily Koppell with her book
The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

Ever wonder what it would be like to stand in the shoes of an astronaut's wife? If you grew up in the 60s and 70s, I can almost guarantee that you did! Well, you have your opportunity with The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story.

The book wends its way through the years of lift-offs, landings and explosions with an emphasis on the wives' friendship and support of one another. The book's main focus is the Mercury 7 wives since they began it all. "Mother" Marge Slayton is attributed with beginning the Astronaut Wives Club when her husband, Deke, was grounded for a congenital health ailment and was made head astronaut, a position that included monitoring and keeping the other astronauts organized. Marge saw a similar need with the wives, as well as an opportunity to offer a listening ear to the other women. Being the caring person she was, the chance to mother the other ladies fell naturally to her.

Through the years, cheating husbands, widows, colorful personalities among both the astronauts and their wives, the first divorce, the women's liberation movement and political mayhem, the book offers a window into the lives of people who were more often than not treated like the rock stars of their time.

What I didn't like was that there was no chart of which astronauts belonged to which missions. I also often forgot who was married to whom since only first names were frequently used. I was able to sort out the Mercury 7 wives since most of the book centered on them and there was a nice picture of all of them together that included their names. I wish there were a similar picture for all the other wives. I would also have included pictures of each woman with her husband. The lack of relevant pictures annoyed me as did, the fact that some women had no pictures included at all. Perhaps, this is due to them not wanting their picture in the book, but for the reader, it would certainly have been easier to relate to each wife's story.

3.5 stars rounded to 4.0 stars

The Good House by Ann Leary
Ann Leary relates the story of Hildy Good, Realtor, Divorcee and new grandmother with ease and skill. The skill comes in with her ability to give the reader a little tidbit each chapter in the form of a small revelation about Hildy. For example, chapter one will leave the reader thinking Hildy is an honest, almost perfect lady. But each subsequent chapter, the reader finds out Hildy's life isn't so ideal and she has problems with a capital P!

I learned a lot about what it's like for a recovering alcoholic. Leary did an excellent job of presenting the self-deception an alcoholic has. She also revealed the flaws in the Al-anon method of recovery. Even though the story was entertaining, it was also educational in this regard.

This is chick-lit that I believe many of my friends would enjoy.

3.5 stars rounded to 4.0 stars

Mrs. PoeMrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the latest contributions to what is becoming one of my favorite fiction sub-genres, the telling of tales from the viewpoint of a spouse or person closely connected to a famous person. The choice of Frances Osgood to be the narrator proved to be excellent. Fanny offers a unique look at Edgar Alan Poe as she was a fan of his, a poetess and therefore, a contemporary of his, his married lover and a member of the preferred society of the time. She also shared his pain in many regards including an unhappy marriage and financial woes. I enjoyed this book immensely, but hesitate to give it more than 3.5 stars for a couple of reasons.

First of all, while I appreciate that this is a work of fiction, I found the frequent use of other historical characters of the time as participants in literary social functions or just as strollers down the street as unlikely. For example, Herman Melville is supposed to have attended one such literary gathering. I find this highly improbable as Melville achieved little fame during his lifetime other than for his Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life which was short-lived. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale never became the classic that it is today until well after his death. Melville was a dour character, not much liked by those who knew him. The only literary personage who befriended him was Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is unlikely that any member of good literary society in New York would invite Melville to such a gathering. The book continues with mentions of passing on the street, Roosevelts, Astors and other famous persons, as well as rubbing shoulders with other historical figures at the evening conversaciones. I understand the author's desire to include these figures to show the time period and give a sense of what was going at that time, but it was like putting a couple of tablespoons of sugar in one's ice tea when a couple of teaspoons would have done fine.

Secondly, a little closer proofreading was needed. For example, during one scene a mention was made of a certain maid having gone on a trip, then a couple of paragraphs later she is mentioned as being present although no time has passed since the first mention of her not being there. This doesn't impact the story in any way, but is annoying in regards to the continuity.

Thirdly, my next observation is more a question than a complaint. Is the Mrs. Poe of the title referring to Fanny or Virginia Poe, Edgar's wife? It makes more sense that it refers to the former except she never was "Mrs. Poe." The only connection I can make there is that her editor while encouraging her to pursue writing dark stories like E.A.P. alluded that she could become the "Mrs. Poe" of that genre. Even though Virginia Poe played a large role in this story, it wasn't "about" her but about Fanny and Edgar, primarily Fanny. So, if you read this book and think you have the answer to why it is titled Mrs. Poe, I would love to hear your thoughts.

What I really like about the book is Cullen's commitment to keeping as many facts about both Fanny and Poe's accurate. She says in the Afterword that she attempted to keep the framework of their lives intact and only fill in the blanks with her fictional account. I think she succeeded. I do recommend this book to my fiction-loving friends. It is entertaining, easy to read and historically educational.

View all my reviews

Happy Thanksgiving to my USA readers. I will be taking next week off to get some Christmas shopping done and catch up with stuff around the house. Have a great week all and see you in two weeks.