Archive Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 1, March 1998

Eva Luna, by Isabel Allende
Story of the life of orphan Eva Luna, from her impoverished beginnings, to her rise to fame and fortune, and all the incredible, nutsy, lovable, detestable characters she meets along the way.  The German immigrant.  The Turkish benefactor and his crazy wife.  The rebel lover.  It wasn’t The House of the Spirits, also by Isabel Allende, which I HIGHLY recommend, but still extremely enjoyable.  I love Allende’s writing: visual, sensual, imaginative, magical…I’ve heard it described as “fantasy surrealism”.  There were chapters when I felt like I could eat the words right off the paper, especially the parts about Rolf and the dalliances with his luscious German cousins.  A lot of fun.
Also by Isabel Allende: The House of the Spirits; Of Love and Shadows; Infinite Plan
The Visitation, by Sue Reidy
I took this out because it sounded hil-ar-ee-ous!  It really was a scream; it covered some very interesting subjects in a very comical way.
While other children in 1960s Chatterton, New Zealand, play cops and robbers or cowboys and indians, Catherine and Theresa Flynn play Martyrs and Suffering Virgins.  They pass their afternoons eagerly reenacting the torturing and demise of their favorite female saints.  Still, they are completely unprepared for the sight of the Virgin Mary, appearing to them in their lemon tree.  All Mary wants them to do, it turns out, is deliver a sealed, handwritten message to the Pope.  Awestruck, the two obediently pass the Virgin’s letter on to their mother – who promptly turns it over to her sternly devout husband – who self-righteously opens and reads it before passing it on to the local priest.  Disagreeing with the letter’s content (the Virgin wants the Pope to acknowledge the importance of contraception), Terrence Flynn alters the message to conform with his own and the Church’s misogynistic doctrines.
The result, as this wacky family history would have it, is Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae forbidding the use of the Pill – an edict that forces Mary to reappear on Earth (with the girls as her witness) to initiate a movement intent on helping women control their own procreative destinies.  A movement longed for by Catherine and Theresa’s exhausted mother.  Eight children has taken its toll on Mrs. Flynn; she resents Rome treating her sex as breeding mares; resents that a group of men have the final say on childbirth and child-rearing; resents giving herself, body and soul, to the care of her home and family with so little rewards.  Most of all, she resents having to feel sorry for feeling this way.  There’s a very moving scene where she cannot bring herself to say an Act of Contrition when confessing these “sins” to her priest, and she walks out of the church.
Meanwhile, Theresa and Catherine go about their own very mortal lives- – experimenting with sex, falling in love with a long-haired cousin, a doctor’s son, and whatever other target wanders into their path.  They struggle to “be good,”’ whatever that means, in the face of their father’s violent temper, their mother’s depression, the local monsignor’s failure to guide them, and the utter chaos of life in a houseful of Flynns.
I loved it.  It was laugh-out-loud funny, and a little tight-in-the throat poignant.  A really offbeat look at Catholic girlhood.
In the Land of Winter, by Richard Grant
Pippa Rede, a single mom and self-described witch, loses custody of her daughter after she is attacked by a number of gossiping, right-winged crusaders.  In this small Rhode Island (I think?) town, QROST is the buzz-word of the day, standing for Quasi-Religious Occult Sexual Trauma.  In other words, Pippa makes the townfolk nervous because she isn’t a Christian:  she prays to goddesses atop a mountain in winter.
When the paper prints attacks on Satanism, implicating Pippa, and an alarmist letter speaks of “ritual abuse”, Pippa’s daughter is deemed in danger and Pippa is deemed unfit to be a mother.  On the contrary, this indifferent witch is a great mother.  OK, she’s a lousy breadwinner, and has racked up more than a few weird relationships, but her daughter, Winterbelle, adores her.
Pippa’s misery at becoming childless leads to her becoming jobless and homeless.  One thing about hitting rock bottom – there’s no where to go but up.  Pippa gathers an eclectic and eccentric band of allies, among them a lawyer, a Native-American law school dropout, a teenage boy (step-son to the woman who started the whole breuhaha of persecution and in my opinion, one of the true witches in the story), a werewolf, a delivery man, and more than one witch.  Together they embark on a crusade to rescue Winterbelle, and Pippa, usually so accepting of what comes her way, discovers the strength of her own magic.
A modern-day fairy tale, with all the usual characters:  heroines and heros, prince charmings, fairy godmothers, wicked witches, elves and fairies.  OK, it gets “out-there” at times.  Like with the werewolf, you’re asked to believe in something you wouldn’t necessarily.  But, hey, it could happen…witch-hunts take on all sorts of disguises.
Also by Richard Grant:  Tex and Molly in the Afterlife. While wandering in the woods, Tex and Molly, two aging hippies, fall into a ditch and die, thus beginning the greatest adventure of their afterlives. Soon the couple finds themselves communing with ancient woodland spirits and battling genetic manipulation and a mega-corporation.  Sounds…interesting.
The Chin Kiss King, by Ana Veciana-Suarez
A tender novel about three generations of Cuban-American women who turn the brief life of a handicapped baby into a celebration of life and love.
There is Cuca, the grandmother and matriarch, long-widowed but still in touch with all her dearly departed ones, and mindful of their advice.  Cuca’s daughter, Adela, a compulsive Lotto player, who calls on her spirituality when it best suits her.  Adela was divorced while raising her only daughter, Maribel, and now has a long-standing affair with her best friend’s husband.  And Maribel, a career woman and compulsive housekeeper with no time or interest for her grandmother’s ghosts and her mother’s eccentricities.  Maribel, in fact, is a “stranger to risk and adventure”…except for that wild, passionate affair she had with Eduardo, the drug dealer.  The affair that has left the single mother of a severely handicapped child, Victor.
Victor is born with trisomy 18–an extra chromosome–and Maribel is told he won’t live long.  In the months that follow, she at first fights to keep him alive, then eventually learns to accept what can’t be changed as Victor begins to weaken.  Adela also joins the fight, discovering some surprising inner resources along the way.  And Cuca, keeping watch over the dying baby, is comforted by seeing all she had loved and lost “waiting for Victor, ready for him.”
A book about life, love, pain, mothers, women and letting go.  Tissues necessary.  And Xerox machine for the chapter on Cuca’s 8 life lessons.  I loved her scenes the most…
The Tree of Red Stars, by Tessa Bridal
Apparently this book began when the author jotted down some amusing memories of her aunts coming to tea.  It ended as an intense coming-of-age story set agains Uruguay’s transisiton from a democracy to a military dictatorship.
Bridal describes life in Montevideo through the eyes of Magda, a young woman from an upper-middle-class family who has lived a sheltered and secure existence–until the growing political unrest threatens to erupt even within her own wealthy neighborhood.  Magda recalls how, as the youngest in a distinguished family, she was brought up to be a young lady of traditional habits and interests.  But Magda also relates how she befriended the beggar Gabriela; listened as Emilia’s mother talked of revolution; heard Che Guevara speak and was assaulted by the police in the subsequent riot; and admiringly watched Marco, a handsome young neighbor and soldier, attempt to help the poor.  Soon a member of the Tupamaros, she spied on the US and British, was imprisoned, then eventually released only with Marco’s help.  But Marco, who had used his military rank as a cover for revolutionary activities, was finally arrested, and Magda fled the country.
Now Magda has returned to Uruguay, having learned that Marco is about to be released from prison.  Will they be reunited?  Will happiness last?  Read this amazing story to find out.
The Villa Marini, by Gloria Montero
Spanish immigrants in Australia?  Well, I didn’t know.
Marini Grau battles prejudice, a loveless marriage, and Australia’s harsh natural elements to maintain her family’s plantation, mold a life for her son, and fulfill her late father’s Hispanic dreams.
When Mariano Grau arrives in North Queensland, Australia, with small daughter Marini in tow, he ends a journey that began in his native Spain.  In Cuba, he had grown sugar until the Yankees ousted the Spanish; then, still mourning the loss of his beautiful wife Guillermina, who died soon after Marini’s birth, as well as the death of his first-born son, Mariano, he wandered the world until he reached Queensland.  There, he starts to grow cane as he did in Cuba, dreams of building a fine villa, and sends Marini to the local convent school.
It’s in the convent that Marini, now 17, nurses a mysteriously ill Irishman, Dominic Moran, who’s been rescued from Aborigine cannibals.  When her father is accidentally killed, Marini decides to marry the convalescing Dominic, the idea being that he will help her fulfill her father’s aspirations.  Soon, Marini–a dynamo who cuts cane with the men, defies strikers by driving a locomotive, and faces down any male chauvinist who dares to question her–is rich enough to build the splendid villa her father dreamed of.  She is also the mother of an adored son, Joel.
Things are going too well, in fact, so of course they must fall apart: Dominic smokes opium; Marini has an affair with his brother Michael, who has moved in with them; she gives birth to handicapped Rosemary; and on the night they all celebrate Joel’s coming of age, fate delivers the ultimate blow.
It was a little soap-operatic, but it read quickly and was entertaining.  The ending was a surprise.
The Conquest, by Elizabeth Chadwick
Love thine enemy, as the saying goes.   In The Conquest, a young Saxon woman suffers the harsh consequences of the Norman invasion of England.  After both her husband and brothers suffer violent deaths at the hands of the conquerors, Ailith temporarily loses her wits and attempts to take her own life. Thwarted by Rolf de Brize, a lusty, sympathetic Norman, Ailith agrees to assume the position of chatelaine of his English estate. Though she bears his child and spends many contented years as his mistress, she reluctantly realizes that the fundamental gulf that separates them is too wide to sufficiently bridge. When she discovers that Rolf has betrayed her both physically and spiritually, Ailith flees, bequeathing her young daughter a bitter legacy of love and loss.
Historical romance on a grand scale.  I found that I lost a little interest once the character of Ailith was gone.  I pushed on to see what would happen to her daughter, but it wasn’t like I was dying to find out.
Also by Elizabeth Chadwick: Daughters of the Grail.  Set in 13th century France, focusing on a descendent of Mary Magdelene.  Haven’t read it but sounds pretty neat…
A Stone Gone Mad, by Jacquelyn Holt Park
Difficult (for me) story of a girl trying to come out of the closet in the 1960s.  Fifteen-year-old Emily Stolle of White River, New Hampshire, first recognizes that girls turn her on when her big sister’s best buddy, Mattie, starts meeting her for trysts on the terrace behind Emily’s house.  Alas, Dad (a widower who keeps his distance from his daughters) and straight-laced sister Sheila stumble onto the pair, resulting in a boarding school for Emily and a further breakup of the already fractured family.  It’s the Fifties, so Emily tries to bury herself in the trappings of adolescent sexuality. But in college her urges resurface and are played out with a friend who retreats from Emily once the two of them achieve consummation.  Then it’s off to beat New York, where Emily studies English at Columbia and defeatedly accepts the fact that she’s a lesbian, frequenting downtown gay bars with names like Circle 3, The Naughty Angle, and Pandy’s.  It takes a few unsatisfactory relationships before she finds a woman she can love.  Still, Emily can’t bring herself to tell her friend Lillian–the only person from her past who means anything to her–that she’s gay. But then Lillian admits she has terminal cancer, and that opens up Emily’s floodgates at last.
I found it difficult because it was so heartbreaking.  Besides Emily’s wondering if she is sick or mentally ill, and her painful attempts to “cure” herself, there are the estrangements:  first her family – her father sends her away, and her sister refuses to allow contact between her daughter and “perverted” Aunt Emily.  Then her friends distance themselves; throughout Emily’s repeated bouts of depression, friends beg her to confide in them, whatever it is, they will understand.  So she confides.  And they either flee in denial or retreat in homophobic horror.  Her one true champion, Lillian, is kept in the dark the whole time…A review from Amazon.com wrote “ …a tangled mess of finding and defining oneself according to one’s understanding of society’s rules.”
It got my feelings in a tangle.  I couldn’t say if I liked it or not, but it stuck with me for a long time, afterwards.  I guess you could say it upset me in a way.
               
The Characters of Love, by Susie Boyt
A short novel of obsessive love.  Another one that I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not, but I thought about it for a while after I’d finished reading.
Nell Fisher’s 11th birthday party is interrupted by the sudden appearance of her father, Richard, whom she hasn’t seen in nearly a decade.  Richard, a cool and detached psychiatrist, has recently become interested in the field of child psychology, and in doing so rekindles an interest in his daughter.  He begins to “woo” back Nell by meeting with her every Wednesday for tea.  He wins, at first, her adolescent awe, then her trust, and after a few years of the father-daughter ritual, her heart.  Richard then announces, rather abruptly, he is leaving the UK for a job in the States. 
Bewildered and betrayed, Nell pines for her father as she enters college.  She develops a crush of epic proportions on her tutor/father-figure, the distinguished drunkard/melancholy poet Bill Marnie. The crush evolves into a obsessive fixation which both Nell and Marnie translate as love.  Surely it must be love:  Nell is sick to her stomach at nearly every encounter with Marnie, just as many of her Wednesday tea-times with Richard ended with her throwing up.  That’s love, right?
Marnie proposes marriage but then, afflicted by a recurring mental illness, suffers a total breakdown, which in turn throws Nell into a near-catatonic tailspin.  The book ends quite suddenly, with Richard returning to London, and an implied therapeutic resolution to Nell’s problems.  I couldn’t really tell what the implications were, actually. 

A well-written, complex portrait of a troubled woman, but a lot of loose ends left dangling at the end.  I guess that’s why I kept thinking about it later.

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