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Reading List by Jennie for July and August 2012

What Remains by Carole RadziwillWhat Remains by Carole Radziwill

I have a fondness for the Real Housewives franchise which I would never admit to in public (uh oh, I just did, didn’t I?). Radziwill joined the cast of The Real Housewives of New York this season, and though she can be tiresomely above-it-all on occasion, she’s impressed me with her non-craziness and refreshing lack of raging narcissism (those traits being kind of de rigueur for the housewives across all iterations of the show). What Remains is a memoir that focuses on her marriage to Anthony Radziwill and his battle with cancer, and her close friendship with Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, her cousin by marriage (Anthony Radziwill was extremely close to his cousin John F. Kennedy Jr). Carole Radziwill lost all three within weeks of each other; Anthony succumbed to his cancer barely three weeks after JFK, Jr.’s plane went down. Obviously, it’s an affecting story, and Radziwill tells it well, bringing these famous people to life and humanizing them. Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, particularly, comes off as a lovely and generous person who sometimes chafed under the weight of unwanted fame. Well worth reading, particularly for those who like memoirs.

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A Game of Thrones by George R.R. MartinA Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

I finally finished this! I bought the second book in the series but am in no hurry to start reading it. I’ll wait until I’m climbing the walls in anticipation of the return of the HBO series. I wish I loved the books as much as I do the tv show, but at least they give me a bit of depth and background on some characters only glanced upon in the series. I’m sure I”ll have forgotten about a hundred characters, though, by the time I pick up the second book.

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Fifty Shades GreyFifty Shades of Gray by E.L. James

I read this for a bookclub thing (which I then didn’t even end up participating in, making the whole thing kind of pointless). I don’t know how I might’ve evaluated the book absent all the hype (good and bad) that surrounds it. On the plus side, it was relatively readable. On the minus side, Anastasia was an incredibly annoying first-person narrator. A friend who also read it and thought it was pretty dreadful did find herself moved by Christian’s bad-boy troubled persona. My friend doesn’t read romance, though, and I think for me such heroes are a dime a dozen, and though I often find them appealing, at this point one needs to stand out a bit (through good writing and characterization) to make me care. I didn’t like or dislike Christian. He was just sort of there. And I wanted to smack Ana (and her “inner goddess”) like, all the time. My grade for this was a C.

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A Freewheelin' Time by Suze RotoloA Freewheelin’ Time by Suze Rotolo

This memoir by one of Bob Dylan’s early girlfriends was published in 2010; Rotolo, sadly, passed away in early 2011. She writes in an impressionistic manner about life in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. It’s a subject that interests me: my parents met in New York around the time that the book is set, and many of the places mentioned (The Kettle of Fish, Cafe Figaro) were part of their personal histories. I wouldn’t read this looking for deep insights on Dylan – Rotolo was always pretty careful not to trade on her association with him, and in the book she’s generous – perhaps too generous, reading between the lines – about his shortcomings as a romantic mate. A lot of other famous and semi-famous people move through the couple’s orbit during their time together, but again, Rotolo’s focus is not on scandal or gossip. She eventually became an artist, and that comes through in her writing in an interesting way – she seems interested in capturing the feeling of the era with a specificity that is almost painterly. A very good book, and worth reading if one is at all interested in the subject matter.

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On Beauty by Zadie SmithOn Beauty by Zadie Smith

I read Smith’s earlier novel White Teeth a few years ago and really liked it; she’s a smart and compelling writer, with a certain warmth and generosity towards her characters that blunts the sharp edges of her prose. On Beauty employs the same satirical style as White Teeth did in telling a tale modeled somewhat on E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. Set in a fictional New England Ivy League college, the story focuses on the Belsey family: Brit transplant Howard, a Rembrandt scholar (who hates Rembrandt) going through a mid-life crisis, his African-American wife Kiki, long suffering (but maybe reaching the end of her rope, finally) and generous, and their three almost-grown children. My favorite was the middle child (and only daughter) Zora, whose devotion to academia is both touching and a little heartbreaking (she’s the kind of student who would remind the teacher that there was supposed to be a quiz, but she means well). Contrasted with the chaotic Belseys are the Kipps family: visiting scholar Monty (that’s Sir Monty Kipps), a black British conservative whom Howard despises (he seems to consider him a rival, though the rivalry may exist chiefly in Howard’s mind), and his ostensibly perfect family. In the end, the perfect Kippses end up not being all that perfect (rather predictably), and the Belseys sort of kind of get their acts together (though not without trampling on a few semi-innocent victims). Anyone with a background in academia would probably appreciate the way Smith skewers absurdities of the Ivory Tower.

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Mansfield Park by Jane AustenMansfield Park by Jane Austen

I finally finished this one as well. I can’t be the only one who finds Fanny Price to be a self-righteous, overly pious drip, can I? Ugh, she bugged me. I may be an Austen apostate. The book was still readable enough, though slow. I think I still like Sense and Sensibility best.

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Books already reviewed:

  • Riveted by Meljean Brook.  Jane’s review here. My grade for this was lower – maybe a B- or a C+? The characters were likable but not compelling to me, and the setting and story didn’t really grab me. I can usually articulate why I dislike a book (though I didn’t really dislike this one), but about all I can summon up for Riveted is a “meh.” Perhaps there just wasn’t enough h/h conflict for me. I did find the villain compelling, not in a anti-hero way but more in a horror-story way. Since I liked The Iron Duke, I’ll definitely try other books in the series.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  Dabney’s review here.  OMG, I loved this book. It’s a pretty dark but ultimately thrilling ride.
  • Hidden Paradise by Janet Mullany.  My review is here.
  • The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James.  Review here  - I really liked this one.

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

18 Comments

  1. Susan
    Sep 14, 2012 @ 19:16:56

    I’m not a Real Housewives fan so I wasn’t familiar with Carole Radziwill, but the book sounds interesting. I just bought it for my mother.

    I seem to be in a minority, but I just couldn’t get into The Ugly Duchess. It was a DNF for me. (Could just be me; I’ve had a shocking number of DNFs recently.)

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  2. carmen webster buxton
    Sep 14, 2012 @ 19:34:16

    You are not the only one turned off by Fanny Price. The PBS presentation starred Billie Piper, the first time I ever saw her. To this day I don’t know if I don’t like her as an actress because I associate her too much with Fanny or if it’s just her.

    I would put Pride and Prejudice in front of Sense and Sensibility , but they are my top two. I find that the older I get, the more I see the appeal in Persuasion, too.

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  3. Suzanna Medeiros
    Sep 14, 2012 @ 19:44:14

    My favorite Austen is Persuasion, with Pride and Prejudice second. I read Mansfield Park once, and that was more than enough for me. I wasn’t fond of Fanny, but mainly I hated that she reacted to everything instead of acting. I didn’t buy into her HEA. She was more like a consolation prize for the hero.

    I’ll also admit I have a special fondness for Northanger Abbey. Catherine Morland and her overactive imagination just cracks me up. :)

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  4. Jennie
    Sep 15, 2012 @ 02:33:45

    @carmen webster buxton: I can’t imagine Billie Piper as Fanny, but that’s probably because I only know her from The Secret Diary of a Call Girl – a very different kind of role!

    I quite like Persuasion, as well.

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  5. Alison
    Sep 15, 2012 @ 05:14:59

    I remember feeling sorry for Fanny more than being annoyed by her, but I read the book as a teenager, and plenty of it went over my head. However, it may say something that I loved rather than resented all the changes and additions in the movie adaptation with Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller. Fanny is more Jane Austen than Fanny in that one. Always have to stop if it comes up in the channel surf.

    Jennie, I thought your description of Radziwell on the show was spot-on. I don’t know what mystifies me more, that they cast her or that she did it. And wow, what a poignant cover for that book. I hadn’t seen it before.

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  6. DS
    Sep 15, 2012 @ 08:31:04

    I’ve read nearly every scrap of Austen that I have found over the years, but I have never managed to finish Mansfield Park. I even read Mansfield Park with Mummies– ok I got most of the way through it, I’m not a mash-up fan, but I got further in it than I did the real book.

    My favorite Austen book depends on my mood at the time, but I can say with some assurance that it won’t be Manfield Park.

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  7. Sophydc
    Sep 15, 2012 @ 09:44:30

    As I get older (38) and reread Austen, I like Persuasion more and more. When I was a teenager, I preferred Pride and Prejudice (it is the most accessible). I find Mansfield Park very difficult because Fanny is soo humorless. But, the side characters such as Aunt Norris and Lady Bertram make the book in my opinion. I never look at Mansfield Park as a romance, more as character studies of some really fascinating people.

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  8. Mom on the Run
    Sep 15, 2012 @ 10:22:28

    Another vote here for Persuasion. It’s inspired some pretty good Austen fan fiction, too. I particularly like Juliet Archer’s Persuade Me.

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  9. Ros
    Sep 15, 2012 @ 10:40:29

    I adore Fanny Price and I will defend her against allcomers. She is the strong moral centre of the whole book, despite her physical and social weaknesses. She has almost no agency because of the circumstances of her life and yet she remains her own person throughout. She is the only one who holds to her principles without being distracted, no matter what the consequences. She is unloved and unvalued and yet she doesn’t become bitter or resentful. She is one of my great literary heroines.

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  10. Ros
    Sep 15, 2012 @ 10:41:38

    @Sophydc: None of her books are really romances, at least according to modern genre conventions.

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  11. Kathryn
    Sep 15, 2012 @ 11:57:43

    @Ros: I’ve come to appreciate Mansfield Park and Fanny more and more for exactly the reasons you’ve stated. It’s still not my favorite Austen nor is Fanny my favorite heroine, but I do think that it is a more interesting and complex story about ethics, class, gender, and economics than it seems at first glance and there is more to Fanny than I originally thought. Fanny seems so timid compared to other Austen’s heroines–but none of the others are quite as poor and more importantly none of the others are the products of as a poor misalliance and have so little family or social support as Fanny.

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  12. Janine
    Sep 15, 2012 @ 13:40:26

    Can I just say how much I enjoyed this post? I really enjoyed it. I wish you would review a memoir or biography for DA once in a while. Your post made me want to read both What Remains and A Freewheelin’ Time. And I am not a memoir reader.

    BTW, 50 Shades was reviewed here as well, by Angela.

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  13. Janine
    Sep 15, 2012 @ 13:41:55

    Forgot to ask. Can you say more about why you loved Gone Girl? I’m torn about reading it.

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  14. Estara
    Sep 15, 2012 @ 14:38:00

    @Ros: Sherwood Smith agrees with you, she’s had quite a few discussions involving this book on her LJ. I haven’t read the book yet myself.

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  15. Ros
    Sep 15, 2012 @ 17:14:03

    @Kathryn: I agree that Fanny isn’t as easy to like as some of Austen’s other heroines. She’s probably not the person you’d choose for a fun night out! But she’s not self-righteous or overly pious and she’s definitely not a drip.

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  16. Jennie
    Sep 16, 2012 @ 02:12:47

    @Ros: I find her attitude towards Mary Crawford self-righteous and downright obnoxious. She looks down her nose at Mary’s shortcomings, in spite of the fact that Mary does seem to try to be nice to Fanny (granted, perhaps with ulterior motives of getting in good with Edmund). She seems to me to be less concerned about Edmund’s happiness than what his potential happiness with Mary would mean for her own romantic prospects. Which I wouldn’t have a problem with – it’s very human of her – if she wasn’t presented as such a morally superior goody-goody. I like heroines with a strong moral center but they need some personality in order for me to root for them.

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  17. Jennie
    Sep 16, 2012 @ 02:18:44

    @Janine: Thanks. I would definitely consider reviewing a memoir – I read a lot of them.

    As for Gone Girl, I’m scared to say much about it for fearing of hinting at spoilers. I will say that it’s a page-turner in the best sense of the term – you really do keep reading wanting to find out what happens next. The other thing I’ll say is that you have to be open to the fact that the main characters aren’t likable. I mean, I ended up liking them in a weird way but they are definitely not characters you’d root for in the conventional sense. It’s just a very, very entertaining, psychologically trippy book.

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  18. Belinda Kroll
    Sep 17, 2012 @ 09:42:28

    For what it’s worth, I remember reading that even Jane Austen found Fanny Price “too good,” and therefore slightly annoying. Her favorite heroine was Emma, because she was so flawed and so unaware of it; she was the most fun to write apparently.

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