Book Review: Flush

Flush: A Biography

Virginia Woolf

Persephone Books

144 pages

Flush is the fictionalized biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Cocker Spaniel.  Barrett Browning lived as a recluse until eloping with her husband, Robert Browning, to Italy.  Thus, Flush was her one true companion for many years.  As anyone with a dog can imagine, Flush was her closest confidante, and although their relationship had different meanings at different times, Flush was constantly by her side.

I have long been a fan of Barrett Browning.  As cliche as it sounds, Sonnet 43, from Sonnets of the Portuguese is one of my all time favorite poems; one of the few I have committed to memory, so that was one of the reasons I chose this book to start with. I wouldn’t consider it an in depth look into Barrett Browning’s life, but it gives a good idea of how she lived and, even more so, the environment in which she lived. That aspect was just as intriguing to me as the life of Flush himself.

Flush seems to have quite the personality.  Described, in part, by letters written by Barrett Browning, Woolf writes–

He rejected bread if not buttered; then discovered he preferred muffins to bread, then macaroons to either.  He would eat only beef or fowl, and only if cut into morsels and hand-fed to him: ‘If you were but to eat partridge from a silver fork . . . ‘ the poet wrote fondly.  ‘He has given up ice creams for the season, and his favorite substitute seems to be coffee–coffee, understand, not poured into the saucer, but taken out of my little coffee cup . . . He sees that I drink out of the cup . . . and in spite of his nose, he will do the same.  My dear pretty little Flushie!’

Seems a bit silly, I am sure, especially when compared with the remainder of

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Woolf’s canon.  In fact, critics generally did not have a favorable view of Flush, and many reviews were disparaging. However, in reading Flush, it becomes apparent that there are many more underlying issues and it is not just a novel about a dog.

Woolf might have disguised her feminist concerns in Flush, but even at first publication they did not entirely escape feminist critics . . . Critics like Rose Macauley saw the obvious parallels between mistress and dog, between Elizabeth Barrett’s imprisonment on Wimpole Street and Flush’s in Whitechapel.

I admit (*gasp*) that I have never read anything by Woolf prior to this.  As an English major, I feel a deep embarrassment  about such a gap in my reading, so I am happy to have remedied it.  I’ll be honest–while I loved this book, I doubt I will be reading more Woolf anytime soon.  I don’t expect that I will enjoy her other books nearly as much, especially considering that I very rarely appreciate books written in a stream of consciousness style.  What do you think–am I making a mistake?  Are there other Woolf books that I simply must read?

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I purchased this book from Persephone Books.

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Book Review: Every Secret Thing

Every Secret Thing

Laura Lippman

Avon

432 pages

Ronnie and Alice are 11 years old and walking home from a pool party the day everything goes wrong.  They notice a baby carriage sitting on the front porch of a home in an affluent part of Boston; inexplicably, there is a baby inside.  They kidnap the baby.  While the details remain hazy throughout the book, the reader is aware from the start that something went horribly wrong and the baby had been killed.  It is now seven years later, and both Ronnie and Alice have been released from juvie.  They are both emotionally stunted, as they spent many of their formative years in lockup, so they struggle to re-acclimate with the outside world.

Meanwhile, there is a new little girl missing.  Detectives begin to wonder whether Alice and Ronnie could be involved, and through the investigative part of the book, the reader is also clued in as to the death of the first child years ago.

I was on the lookout for a thrilling read, as I was just coming out of my reading slump and I wanted to be sure that whatever book I chose would keep me fully engaged.  I have read two of Lippman’s other stand alone books in recent months and I absolutely loved them, so I chose Every Secret Thing in the hopes that it would fit the bill. It definitely did that, although I think it was Lippman’s first book–if not, then it is very close to the first–so I feel as though she hadn’t quite hit her stride yet.  There was an amateurish note that I haven’t noticed in her more recent books.

Regardless, Lippman is fastly becoming one of my favorite mystery writers.  I plan to read the rest of her standalone novels in the order in which they were written.  I am also very interested in her Tess Monaghan series.  Of those of you that have read both, which do you prefer–her standalone books or her series? I already have Baltimore Blues downloaded for my Kindle!

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I purchased thins book for my Kindle.

Book Review: Her Last Death

Her Last Death

Susanna Sonnenberg

Scribner

288 pages

Susanna Sonnenberg is a seemingly typical married mother of two young sons when she gets a horrible phone call.  Her mother has been in a terrible accident and is likely to die.  Susanna needs to get on a plane immediately to try and make it to her bedside.  Except . . . Sonnenberg does not want to go.  She has washed her hands of her mother and can’t bear to be pulled back into her mother’s vortex.  Sounds cold hearted, until Sonnenberg fills the reader in on the tumultuous relationship she has had with her mother.

Sonnenberg grew up with a single mother as well as her younger sister, Penelope.  Her childhood was anything but normal.  Her mother had no qualms about doing cocaine in front of her daughters and often brought strange men in the home and had sex with them while the girls were in the next room.  This behavior continues on for years, with Sonnenberg’s mother “christening” Sonnenberg’s dorm room with her young boyfriend while her daughter was at orientation.

Not only was I horrified at the behavior Sonneberg’s mother displayed, but I eventually got a bit bored too.  It seemed like the same story over and over again, with not much resolution.  I don’t generally shy away from abundant references to sex and drugs, but it just got to be too much for me.  It reminded me of an amateur retelling of Jeanette Walls’ Glass Castle which, coincidentally, I loved.  Ditto for Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs.  If you are looking for a great memoir about a sordid childhood, go with one of those two and skip Her Last Death.

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I purchased this book from Borders.

Book Review: The Home-Maker

The Home-Maker

Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Persephone Books

288 pages

Evangeline Knapp is your typical housewife of the 1920s.  She has three young children that she cares for, while also keeping the house spotless and the meals on the table.  The biggest difference is that she is not happy.  She doesn’t have to say it; her frustration is practically tangible, and the effect that it has on her family is stultifying.  Her husband Lester is a bookkeeper for a local department store and loathes his job.  Evangeline’s three children are scared of her, with the youngest, Stephen, constantly acting out.  It seems as if the Knapp family is at a dead end, with happiness a faraway dream.  This all changes when a horrible accident takes place and forces Evangeline out into the world.

While it seems awful at first, Evangeline is able to discover her real self.  Her once stifled family is also able to blossoms and grow.  The standard gender roles of the 1920s are carefully examined and and dissected.  Given the social climate when The Home-Maker was published in 1924, it is a very courageous topic for a book to deal with.

I think The Home-Maker is still very relevant today, as many people feel forced into gender roles, including mothers.  Many women choose to work after having children, even if they have the means to stay home and care for the house and kids.  The stigma associated with women who choose to work is unfounded and unfortunate. So while we, as women, are lucky that we have the option to stay home or to work, I still think that there is room to grow.

I am glad that I was able to finally read my first Persephone, and I am happy to say that my collection is growing!

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I purchased this book from Persephone Books.

Book Review: Manhunt

Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

James L Swanson

Harper Perenniel

496 pages

I think we all know the condensed version of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865.  He was enjoying an evening at the theater when John Wilkes Booth burst in and shot him in the head.  I don’t know about you, but that was about all I knew, despite the fact that I read Henry & Clara a few years ago (more on that later).

Manhunt certainly filled in the gaps for me.  I had no idea that Booth had been on the run for twelve days after the shooting, quite a feat given that the entire nation was on the lookout for him.  Given the political climate of the day, the Civil War having just ended, Booth would have had relative security had he only made it to the deep south.  He had a bit of difficulties along the way though, including the broken leg he suffered when leaping from the presidential box directly after the shooting.

John Wilkes Booth

As I mentioned before, I read a historical novel called Henry & Clara, by Thomas Mallon, which was about Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, a step brother and sister who ended up marrying after the assassination and wound up with their own salacious circumstances throughout the years.  I think that if I had read Henry & Clara more recently, I would have had a better insight, so they would definitely be great books to read in tandem.

I used to be a big non-fiction buff, but I have found that I rarely read non-fiction anymore.  I have no idea if that is due to my book blogging; I have a feeling that it is a contributing factor.  I just don’t seem to enjoy it as much anymore, so I have a feeling I would have appreciated this book more if I had read it a few years ago. 

Manhunt was, however, written in a very readable, fiction-like way, which I appreciated.  500 pages can seem long though, and I felt the length in this case.  Given the fact that the book really only focuses on the twelve days Booth was on the run, along with a bit of his personal history, I felt that it could have been condensed more.  Other than that, I really have no complaints, and I would recommend this book to people interested in American history and/or non-fiction.

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I purchased this book from Barnes & Noble.

Sunday Salon: 4/17/2011

Happy Sunday everyone! I hope you all have a relaxing day planned.  I doubt I will have much time for reading today–I will be on my way to work shortly and then I will be meeting my family for dinner later.  Even so, I have gotten a lot of reading done this week, so I can’t complain!

This week, I finished Escape, by Carolyn Jessop and then read The Wrong Wife, by Sophie Hannah, The Report, by Jessica Francis Key, Little Face, by Sophie Hannah and I am now reading Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin.  I must say, I am really enjoying Sophie Hannah’s books.  I found her after I had finished Tana French’s last book, Faithful Place, when I noticed French seems to have high praises for Hannah. I have now decided to read all of Hannah’s books!

Have you discovered any new authors recently that you love?

Book Review: The Forgotten Garden

The Forgotten Garden

Kate Morton

Washington Square Press

560 pages

Nell is an older woman living in Australia who is attempting to trace her parentage.  Her adopted parents had found her abandoned and alone after she got off a boat from England at age four.  She is unable to tell them anything about her family or where she came from, so the only clue her parents have is the small suitcase Nell has with her and the fact that she was put on te boat by “the Authoress”.

Now, as an older woman, Nell is determined to discover her true parentage.  She seems to be on the right path when her no good daughter drops Nells’s granddaughter, Cassandra, off on her doorstep.  Nell’s quest to discover the truth is derailed by the new responsibility she has to her granddaughter, so her search comes to a halt.  After Nell’s death in 2005, Cassandra discovers the questions her grandmother had about her own ancestry, and Cassandra drops everything in order to unravel the mystery.

I had never read anything by Morton, but I have read plenty of reviews of her novels, so I went out and bought this  book and another of her books a few months ago.  I must admit I am also a glutton for literary mysteries as well, so I had no doubts that I would enjoy Morton’s books.

I think the actual storyline was pretty fantastic.  There were plenty of twists and turns to keep me engaged and the relationships between different family members seemed so intricate and interesting that I was really drawn in.  I did, however, find that the book lagged a little bit in places.  I always find that it can be a bit more difficult to keep a reader engaged if a book is longer than usual.  The book must have a little something special to warrant the extra length, and I am not sure The Forgotten Garden had that. Regardless, that is a small complaint for a book that I found to be truly entertaining.  I will definitely be reading more fro Morton in the future.

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I purchased this book at Barnes & Noble.