Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge cover

I decided to read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout because so many bloggers that I follow seemed to have enjoyed it, and also the setting is Maine in the US which is a setting I’ve enjoyed in the past. But although I ploughed on to the end of this book hoping that it would get better – it didn’t. I found it to be a car crash of a book – a fix up. Apparently it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – the mind boggles!

It’s just as well we are all different I suppose but I couldn’t find anything good to say about it. The front cover says that it is now a HBO miniseries sky ATLANTIC – and I can see why the book would be snapped up for TV as it basically lurches from one bad situation to another. Just the sort of thing that gets people watching soaps.

There were no likeable characters, particularly not Olive Kitteridge who spends her life telling people how awful her mother-in-law was, but when her son marries, Olive is an even worse m-i-l. She’s so much of a power freak that she has designed and built a house for her son to live in when he grew up, close to her house. She has a strangle hold on his life and her husband Henry is a pathetic soul living on dreams, as anybody would who was faced with Olive day in day out.

In parts of the book it wanders off and to me it felt like the author had pulled some unpublished short stories out from under her bed (all writers have them) and shoe-horned them into this book to bulk it out. Then threw the name of Olive Kitteridge into them by way of tying it in.

If you feel the need to wallow in depressing human circumstances then go ahead and read Olive Kitteridge. Given what 2016 has been like, I’m in need of something altogether more entertaining and uplifting – and less like a bad soap in search of ratings.

One of Ours by Willa Cather

I loved this book which was first published in 1922 and I downloaded it free from girlebooks. I’ve read quite a few books by Willa Cather and I’ve liked them all but I hadn’t even heard of this one so when I looked it up to see when it was published I was gobsmacked to see that she had won the Pulitzer prize for it.

It begins in Nebraska and I thought it was going to be one of her rural, pioneer type books which would’ve suited me fine but it goes on to be so much more.

Claude Wheeler is the middle son in the Wheeler family and his parents are quite well off, the farm is successful but Mr Wheeler is an awkward character and Claude doesn’t really fit in. He’s supposedly the brightest son and he’s dutiful and does as he’s told but in truth his father would like Claude more if he was more like his brothers who don’t toe the line and therefore are given more respect for having stronger characters.

Everything which Claude does is wrong and he even ends up marrying a dreadful, cold woman who is only interested in Christianity and prohibitionism. His parents can see history repeating itself as Claude’s father-in-law has had a miserable life with his wife.

Meanwhile the news from abroad is grim as the First World War is raging in Europe and the inhabitants of Nebraska are horrified at the newspaper reports from the old country. They are keen for their president to take them into the war but they have to wait quite a long time. When it does happen, Claude joins up immediately, wanting to escape his situation.

Eventually he gets to France as Lieutenant Wheeler and army life seems to suit him. For once he fits in.

As you can imagine, this is a sad tale, given the subject matter, but it’s something that I’ve always been interested in and I think this is the first novel about that war which I’ve read which has been written by an American. I’d be happy if anyone can recommend any others to me.

I love Cather’s descriptions so here’s a flavour from France.

When the survivors of Company B are old men and are telling of their good days they will say to each other, “Oh that week we spent at Beaufort!” They will close their eyes and see a little village on a low ridge, lost in the forest, overgrown with oak and chestnut and black walnut …. buried in autumn colour, the streets drifted in autumn leaves, great branches interlacing over the roofs of houses, wells of cool water that taste of moss and tree roots.

Summer by Edith Wharton

November's Autumn

I read this book as part of the November’s Autumn Classics Challenge. Although Summer is set in rural America, the Massachusetts Berkshires, rather than Wharton’s more usual setting of New York high society, she’s still writing about similar situations.

Charity Royall is a young girl who is living in the village of North Dormer which has nothing in it but a library which hasn’t had a new book in it for over twenty years. The books that are there are mouldering and damp and Charity gets the job of running it all. Charity is really a mountain girl but she was taken from her mother when she was a baby by the lawyer Royall and although he never adopted her he is the father figure in her life. Mrs Royall died seven years after Charity arrived from the mountain.

The mountain people live their lives completely separate from the rest of society and it’s a desperately hard and miserable existence for them. They don’t seem to want to help themselves and are portrayed as feckless, lawless drunks. Charity never hides the fact that she is really one of them and she never seems to realise that the snootier people of North Dormer and the larger nearby town of Nettleton look down their noses at her and she isn’t even able to get into the boarding school because of her background. Despite the fact that Charity has been brought up in the household of the most important man in town, her humble origins are held against her.

This is a recurring theme in Wharton’s writing where there are often young women who don’t quite fit in to society and will never be accepted by the ‘old’ families of the area. They teeter on the edge, just as the mountain people teetered on the edge of the law and starvation.

It’s a very quick read at just 190 pages and if you haven’t read anything by Edith Wharton before I think Summer would be a good place to begin.

Who was Edith Wharton?
She was born in New York City in 1862 and died in France in 1937. She’s buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles.

I didn’t know an awful lot about Edith Wharton before I read this book. I knew that she came from a very privileged and wealthy American background and that Henry James was a friend of hers. She must have made a lot of money from her writing and she moved to France as she seemed to be happier in European society. I also knew that she had won the Pulitzer prize for The Age of Innocence and was furious when she heard that she was given it because of its “wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” She wondered if they had understood the book because she had been trying to highlight the hypocrisy and double standards of the society.

So I was really surprised when I discovered recently that she had worked very hard in France during World War I. She wrote a series of essays called Fighting France (1915) in an attempt to get America to join the war. She raised money for relief work and organized and ran American Hostels which helped shelter and feed the thousands of refugees who had been uprooted by the war. The whole experience was an exhausting and depressing one and she wrote to a friend at the time that she had a sense of waking “in the middle of the night with a black abyss where one’s heart ought to be.” She was very angry at the American government for refusing to join the war. Surprisingly it was at this time that she wrote Summer, and for all we know it might just have been the thing which got her through it all. Thankfully by the time Summer was published in 1917 the US government had joined the war.

Edith seems to have had a very bad relationship with her mother and although she had two brothers, they were 12 and 14 years older than Edith and I think this is why she often seems to write about abandonment and not being part of society. I think this is something which inevitably happens in families where there are large age gaps and the children don’t share the same experiences and schools. It certainly happened in mine. It also has to be said that there are a lot of women who really put their sons on a pedestal high above their daughters and Edith’s mother seems to have been one of those. She seems to have given Edith no help or support, and even when Edith asked her mother for some information and advice about sex just before she was married – none was forthcoming.

Well nobody has a perfect upbringing I’m sure and Edith’s experiences all contributed to her writing. I don’t know about your mother but mine didn’t even tell me about the birds and the bees! I should be a modern day Edith Wharton really. What went wrong?! Oh well, such is life.

Edith Wharton’s estate The Mount is in the Berkshires so it’s an area which she knew well. It looks a gorgeous place, I just wish that I could click my fingers, or wiggle my nose to get there. This year is the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth.

Ice Palace by Edna Ferber

I’ve been neglecting my CPR Book Group recently so I thought it was about time I got around to reading another book by an author in need of a bit of a boost. Edna Ferber was a very successful author in her day, which was the 1920s and 30s but she had a long career and her last book was published in 1963. She was a Pulitzer prize winner. I hadn’t even heard of Ferber when Anbolyn at Gudrun’s Tights mentioned her as a possible candidate for The CPR Book Group which is a place where people can nominate authors whom they consider to be neglected or even particular books which they think deserve more attention than they are getting.

I read and enjoyed Show Boat which was made into a musical of course but Ice Palace was written in 1958 and was her second last book.

It’s set in Alaska in the 1950s, a time when Alaska was a territory and not a state, which meant that they were suffering from that old bugbear taxation without representation. Although Alaska was being plundered for all her minerals, fish and such goodies, it wasn’t getting any benefit from all the industrialisation which was going on around the territory. The workers all came from ‘Outside’ and they didn’t even receive their pay until they got back to the States so the wealth was being taken out of Alaska in all ways.

I must say that it took me a wee while to get into this book but after about page 60 I did begin to enjoy it and I learned a lot about Alaska along the way.

Quite a lot of characters seemed to be thrown at me in the beginning but the main ones are Christine Storm and her two granfathers who are completely different from each other. Czar Kennedy is a rampaging capitalist whilst Thor Storm is a conservationist, naturalist, historian and anthropologist, well educated and decent.

Christine’s upbringing is shared by her two grandfathers who have her for three months at a time and Bridie Ballantyne helps out too. Christine is an orphan, in fact according to this book the female mortality rate in Alaska must have been very high!

It’s a book about greed, ambition, murky politics and dodgy people as well as decent ones. In some ways it was way before its time as Christine has no ambition to be the First Lady which is Czar Kennedy’s wish – she wants Alaska to get statehood and plans to become the Governor one day. Fortunately she’s not at all like Sarah Palin!

All in all it’s well written and an entertaining informative read, for me anyway as I knew very little about Alaska but it did seem to end very abruptly with things left up in the air, as if there was going to be a sequel, but I don’t think there was although Ferber did write another book after this one. Definitely one to be given a bit of a boost.

If you have a favourite author or book which you feel should be more widely read don’t hesitate to mention them.