Pick of the Week: Longbourn by Jo Baker
When it was my turn to pick the July classic for Cook Memorial Library’s Classics Book Club, I went to one of my favorites, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in honor of its 200th anniversary. I love Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, two characters who have captured the imaginations of readers and writers for the past two centuries.
For our discussion, I pulled out dozens of books from our shelves that were inspired by Pride and Prejudice, including Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, where the murder of the despicable Wickham must be solved. I also found several books dealt with Lydia Bennet’s exploits after marrying Wickham, including The Bad Miss Bennet by Jean Burnett.
Poor, misunderstood Mary Bennet got her own book with The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough, who imagines Mary setting off for adventures in her 30s. Elizabeth Aston writes about Elizabeth and Darcy’s children 20 years later in Mr. Darcy’s Daughters. And last but not least, Seth Grahame-Smith imagines a bizarre world where Elizabeth and Darcy become adept at whacking zombies in a very polite manner in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is available as both a novel AND a graphic novel.
I have to admit that as much as I love Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, I have been reluctant to read any of the spinoffs. But I thought I would take a shot at the newest one, Longbourn by Jo Baker (publication date Oct. 8), which imagines the story from the view of the Bennet servants. Baker said in interviews she was inspired to write the book from the line, “The very shoe roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.’’ Who was the proxy? Baker took Austen’s slight mention of the two housemaids, the housekeeper, the butler and the footman and created a wonderful novel about what went on behind the scenes in Longbourn.
Baker’s protagonist is Sarah, a young housemaid who longs for a life beyond emptying chamber pots every morning and scrubbing the mud from petticoats when Elizabeth goes on one of her long ambles. When James, the new footman, is hired, Sarah is drawn to the quiet, secretive young man. Baker also touches on current events that Austen avoided, including the Napoleonic Wars and the slave trade.
Wickham is even more sinister in this depiction, while Mr. Collins comes off a little more likeable. If you have a crush on Darcy, this book won’t give you much satisfaction because he rarely makes an appearance. Just remember that this book is told from the servants’ point of view, which I enjoyed immensely. Baker wrote a wonderful book that reminds the reader that behind all the glamour and drama of finding husbands during Austen’s time, the people who did all the hard work lead difficult lives.
Pick of the Week: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Sometimes you come across a gem of a book that makes you so happy that you want to tell everyone you meet that they need to read it.The Rosie Project (publication date Oct. 1) by Graeme Simsion is one such book. This book made me laugh out loud. It makes me smile when I think about it. It is a marvelous, quirky story.
The narrator is Don Tillman, a brilliant genetics professor who is challenged by social situations. He schedules his day down to the minute. He has few friends and has never been on a second date. When he decides he should find a wife, he starts “The Wife Project’’, and creates a 16-page questionnaire to find the perfect partner. She must be punctual, logical and enjoy traveling by bicycle. No smokers, drinkers, or horoscope readers need apply. She definitely should not wear makeup or jewelry, and must not be scientifically illiterate or a vegan.
Enter Rosie Jarman, who smokes, drinks, wears jewelry and uses makeup. Rosie asks Don if he could give her some advice on how to determine the identity of her biological father. Despite all of Rosie’s “negatives’’, something about her makes Don feel good, and he decides to help her with the “Father Project’’. Her spontaneity and sense of humor gets Don to do things he’s never done before.
Simsion’s story of Rosie and Don’s growing relationship was so honest and refreshing. The author does a wonderful job at reminding the reader that everyone needs companionship and love. “The Rosie Project’’ is a quick read and a lot of fun, and will be one of my favorites of 2013.
Pick of the Week: Night Film by Marisha Pessl
The troubled 24 year old daughter of enigmatic filmmaker Stanislas Cordova is found dead of an apparent suicide, and former reporter Scott McGrath is drawn into an investigation of her death and the elusive Cordova family. Along the way, he picks up two quirky assistants and together they go deeper and deeper into the underworld of the Cordovites, the cult of followers of Cordova's violent and terrifying body of work. The lines between reality and fiction are never quite clear in this book, until the very end. Cordova's own existence is shrouded in mystery, yet McGrath and his team are clearly being followed by someone because his apartment is broken into and all his research is stolen.
An unusual addition to this book are the research documents about Cordova and his family---faux news articles, pictures and internet posts add another level of realism to this creepy book. Cordova's films explored and made real on film the darkest fears imaginable, and the reader is taken deeper and deeper into the shadow world of his former actors and the Cordovites.
Although I prefer to read books about the more positive side of human nature, this book grabbed me. I started it as an audiobook and listened in my car, but at the end had to finish it in its paper form since I just had to know how it was going to end. Wow---what a wild ride!
This book is not for the faint of heart or for those who prefer short books. But if you like a well-written exploration of the darkest aspects of human nature, this one is for you.
Add a comment
Pick of the Week: Five Days at Memorial
UNPUTDOWNABLE. I know that's not a word, but that's how I felt about this book. This is the gripping story of the doctors, nurses, family members, and patients trapped in New Orleans' Memorial Hospital for five days during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Retelling the story from the points of view of various people involved, author Sheri Fink made me feel as though I was right there amid the chaos and panic. Trapped without power in 110-degree heat, without working toilets, and with no organized plan of evacuation, these heroic hospital workers struggled to keep their patients alive... until the final hours in the building. When it appeared that some patients would not survive the ordeal, a decision was made to help them along on their path to the next world. Was it euthanasia? Was it ethical? As we like to say at the library, "You couldn't make this stuff up!"
Fink, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a medical doctor, has a gift for breaking down a complex situation into understandable parts. The ethical issues this book confronts are vast, but Fink provides just enough detail to frame the questions without oversimplifying. Despite the large cast of characters, I was never confused, because Fink reminds you who's who as she switches between situations. Her physical descriptions are vivid and evocative, and she paces the action briskly to keep the reader engaged.
This is non-fiction writing at its best: thought-provoking, suspenseful, and clear. I highly recommend it.
Pick of the Week: Bitter River by Julia Keller
Mystery Writer Julia Keller
Julia Keller follows up last year’s terrific debut novel, A Killing in the Hills, with another gripping mystery set in West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains.
In Keller’s second novel, Bitter River, Prosecutor Bell Elkins continues to struggle with her personal life. She desperately misses her teen daughter Carla, who is living with Bell’s ex-husband in Washington, D.C. She is seeing a man 15 years younger than her and is trying to keep their relationship hidden. She keeps hoping her sister Shirley will finally come home after being released from prison for killing their child-molester father many years ago. She is also distracted by a friend from the past, a former CIA agent who wants to spend some time in the town, looking for peace and quiet.
But solitude can be hard to come by in Ackers Gap. When 16-year-old Lucinda Trimble’s body is found in the Bitter River, her murder rocks the poor town. Lucinda had shown great promise and was hoping to be one of the few teens from Acker’s Gap to go to college. Elkins and Sheriff Nick Fogelsong team up to solve the murder and learn that Lucinda was pregnant at the time of her death. The leading suspect is Lucinda’s boyfriend, who insists he loved the girl and wanted to marry her. The boy’s mother, who disapproved of the relationship, also is a prime suspect.
Keller, who grew up in West Virginia, won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing while working at the Chicago Tribune. She clearly is a talented writer, and her novels are full of descriptive, authentic prose and wonderful character development. Packed with plot twists, Bitter River will keep the reader going to the very end. Keller has created a fascinating, fiery protagonist in Bell Elkins whose adventures I look forward to continue following.