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Reviews Written by
Graceann Macleod "Books Fuel My Life" (London, UK)

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American Wife
American Wife
by Curtis Sittenfeld
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What Happens When a Woman "Settles", 8 Jun. 2009
This review is from: American Wife (Paperback)
Much has been made of the fact that the inspiration for this novel is former First Lady Laura Bush. The author quite readily states this, and then further states, for those who care to listen, that she then takes the story in its own direction. While some situations will be familiar (an auto accident, the September 11 attacks, a Karl Rove-like guru), others are pure fiction and the author, in numerous interviews, has shared with us that Laura Bush is simply a leaping-off point, and not the whole story.

Having said that, I think that there's more to be gotten from American Wife by divorcing it from any political inspirations and reading it purely as the story of a woman who loves, and only God knows why, a boorish, inconsiderate, cocky man (and I would believe this based on the narrative, even if I didn't know who inspired that narrative). The character in the novel, Alice, while naive, has an interesting career, a loving family, and a history of terrible memories and mistakes that I'm sure all of us, if we're honest, can relate to. I may not have ever been in an auto accident that took another life, but I do have my share of deep regrets, so I understand this mindset perfectly. She is a fairly settled and content person, if occasionally lonely, when Charlie Blackwell blows into her life.

Alice finds Charlie impossible to resist, and this is where I have problems with the story. He is not a likable character - he is crude, selfish, and not a man who should be terribly interesting to a character as seemingly intelligent as Alice. He constantly mocks Alice (she calls it "endearing" - I call it "emotional abuse"), and he plows into public life though she has made it abundantly clear that she wants no part of politics. He is a tiresome boor, and I constantly felt as I read these pages that Alice deserved much better. Reading American Wife reminded me that the cliche of "any man being better than no man at all" is pure garbage. Sometimes being single is a much better choice, if this is the alternative.

My other problem with American Wife, as a native Wisconsinite (note that I didn't say "Wisconsonian" as Ms. Sittenfeld does, because there is no such thing), is that if Ms. Sittenfeld wishes to use Wisconsin as the backdrop for her story, she should know a lot more about it, or use whatever knowledge she has but didn't share in these pages. Wisconsin is a big part of American Wife - so much so that it could almost be considered an additional character. The problem is that I spent thirty-eight years of my life in Wisconsin, and I don't recognize the place about which Ms. Sittenfeld writes. I've never heard of Riley, Maronee, Houghton or Halcyon. It would have been extremely easy to use real locations such as Lake Geneva, Fox Point and Waukesha, and still kept the same narrative. There's more to Wisconsin than Milwaukee and Madison, and a bit of research regarding location would have served the author very, very well.

Curtis Sittenfeld is a marvelous writer. Her use of language and the places she takes her characters are wonders to behold. There is room for improvement, however, and I'll be delighted to watch her talents develop in the years to come.

Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself
Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself
by Alan Alda
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Speeches are Best Heard, not Read, 5 Jun. 2009
Perhaps I would have enjoyed Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself if I had listened to it, rather than reading it cold. Unfortunately, the book is not what I was expecting. I was hoping to read more anecdotes such as what he presented in Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, but this is a recitation of his various speeches, commencement addresses and eulogies, with some personal information used as set-up for those orations.

The set-ups to the speeches are the best part of the book. The stories of his first daughter when she was an infant; the heartbreaking story of the rabbits; his friendships with Ossie Davis, Peter Jennings and Anne Bancroft. This is the Alan Alda I wanted to read. I wasn't particularly interested in the advice he had for college graduates, scientists, or even other actors. His life as he's lived it is infinitely interesting, and I would have liked to have learned more about it.

It's certainly a worthwhile read for fans of Alan Alda (and I definitely count myself in that number). It is not the compelling read that I was counting on, however, and this is a pity.

The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole
The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole
by Sue Townsend
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Angst Continues, 3 Jun. 2009
After reading the first book in this series, I proceeded to buy all of the others and I'm reading through them (I won't say "working my way through them" because reading Sue Townsend cannot be described as "work"). That a woman well into her adult years has channeled the angst of a teenage boy fairly screams of chutzpah - that she does it so believably and humorously is nothing short of a miracle.

Adrian Mole is in the wrong place at the wrong time. His parents are in financial trouble; Margaret Thatcher is ruling the country with an iron fist; he is madly in love; he has spots. Adrian is an astoundingly naive teenager, but also kind and loving in ways that are surprising. He takes care of his elderly friends Bert and Queenie with a tenderness that belies his occasional selfish behavior. At one point in the book, he writes a poem about Queenie, and it moved me to tears.

Make no mistake, however. This novel is riotously funny.

Reference: "I lay back listlessly on the pillows and let him feel my pulse, etc. He muttered 'Bloody Camille,' as he left the room. Perhaps Camille is a drug that he's thinking of using on me." (an excellent example of the naivete, as well as the humor)

I read several passages out loud to my husband, and because I am not a native-born Brit, there were some referenced he had to explain to me. All of Adrian's experiences take place against a backdrop of Prince William's birth, the Falklands War, the Thatcher administration and the ramp-up of fears over nuclear war. I remember very well being worried about these things (I was about Adrian's age at the time they were happening) and I also remember how much of my day I spent worrying about things I couldn't control. Sue Townsend manages the reality of this feeling masterfully.

I can't wait to move on to the True Confessions of Adrian Mole.

Southern Women (A Star book)
Southern Women (A Star book)
by Lois Battle
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Generational Saga - More of Nonnie's Generation, Please, 30 May 2009
Three generations of Southern Women - matriarch Nonnie, mother Lucille, and daughter Cordy, struggle with their own difficulties while trying to maintain a sense of normalcy for those around them. Set in Savannah, with a side trip to New York City, this is an interesting study of relationships and life in mid-1980s America; pre-9/11 and pre-Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It's difficult to imagine Savannah having "sleepy, almost empty streets" now.

In any event, most of the story concentrates on Cordy, a young woman whose marriage is in trouble and who looks to her hometown and grandmother, Nonnie, for guidance and support. The problem I had with the construction of the novel was that Nonnie's story, only briefly alluded to here and there, seems much more interesting than Cordy's. Nonnie rose from difficult circumstances, had a passionate marriage and lost a child in the Second World War. These events are only briefly mentioned, while Cordy's angst and efforts to spread her wings are described in great detail. This wasn't uninteresting, but I believe Nonnie's life would have been a more fruitful subject on which to concentrate.

Lucile, Nonnie's daughter and Cordy's mother, is only a small part of the story, and her subplot is a rather silly one. I found her character fairly unlikeable, and would have preferred that someone take a stronger hand with her at some point.

All in all, Southern Women is a good read for it's accurate description of southern life and Savannah locations. Generational sagas have always been a firm favorite of mine, and I'm not sorry I read it. Lois Battle is an excellent writer and I'm looking forward to reading more of her novels. I'm only disappointed that a different generation from the one I was hoping for was explored.

The Longest Night: The Bombing of London on May 10, 1941
The Longest Night: The Bombing of London on May 10, 1941
by Gavin Mortimer
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars There's Something Missing, 23 May 2009
Because I live in the area most carefully discussed in The Longest Night, the neighborhood of Elephant and Castle in London, I was especially interested in reading this book. Even my familiarity with the neighborhood did not help me with the descriptions of streets affected in the horrific bombing of May 10-11, 1941. I should not have to resort to using a London A-Z Guide in order to determine what the author is referring to.

This book positively screams for a series of maps to show what areas are being discussed and how they figure into the timeline. There are also some glaring errors - the one that leapt out at me was a statement about the roof of Westminster Abbey falling in to the church "almost four years to the day since King George VI had married Elizabeth on that very spot." Well, no. May 12, 1941 would be four years to the day since his coronation - he and Elizabeth were married in 1923. If something so simple and easily checked can slip through without being corrected, what else is inaccurate?

The book does have a "cast of characters" at the beginning that is enormously helpful, and an epilogue that is very interesting, telling us what happened to people (and buildings) after that night. The stories are interesting, if a bit scattershot and confusing, and for that I give The Longest Night three stars. I'm still interested in knowing what my neighborhood looked like before it was redecorated by the Luftwaffe, but unfortunately, this book was not the best means for retrieving that information.

Carter Beats the Devil
Carter Beats the Devil
by Glen David Gold
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars They're Not "Tricks," They're Illusions, 21 May 2009
This review is from: Carter Beats the Devil (Paperback)
I was initially reluctant to read Carter Beats the Devil. Even though I love historical fiction and the era represented (the teens and twenties vaudeville years) I don't have much of an affinity for magic and wasn't terribly excited to read more than 600 pages about a magician's adventures. However, a close friend assured me that I would love it, and boy was she right.

Charles Carter is a magician whose past has craters of hurt that I could get lost in, and who is constantly walking a high wire between solvency and bankruptcy. He is surrounded by a wonderful cast of characters who make the pages fly in an amusing, entertaining, and occasionally suspenseful way (a sequence where Mr. Carter has to make a difficult escape is especially hair-raising).

Along the way, Carter meets President Harding, Harry Houdini, Philo Farnsworth, and three brothers whose names are Julius, Arthur and Leonard, a comedy/musical act managed by their Mother, Minnie. Though Gold only briefly and cleverly alludes to it, the savvy reader will know that their last name is Marx.

This was a gloriously enjoyable read - well-researched and evocative of the time it represents. Glen David Gold is funny and smart, and he knows how to tell a good story. I will unhesitatingly trust my friend's reading recommendations in future, because she definitely got it right this time.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Edition: Paperback

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What you Get Out of It Depends on What You Bring to it, 17 May 2009
Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover as an entry-level worker to determine whether or not she can make it on the wages paid to the majority of American employees. She freely admits that she is only dipping a toe into the experience - she will not be homeless, she will have a vehicle, and of course she knows that at the end of the month she will be able to go back to her regular life. The goal is to see if she can earn enough from her various jobs (a waitress, a maid and a clerk in a department store, respectively) to feed herself, house herself and save enough money for the next month's rent. She is healthy and single with no dependent children, and has no chemical dependency issues weighing her down, and even with these advantages, and in a job market that was plentiful compared to the current one, she finds that she is unable to manage it.

I am unable to call this book eye-opening, because I know just how difficult it is to make ends meet, and I was working in what is rather condescendingly referred to as the "pink collar" sector. Even with my "middle-class" earnings, I was never more than a paycheck or two away from being in real financial trouble, and I did NOT live lavishly by any stretch of the imagination. It is no surprise to me at all that $6-8.00 per hour is not enough to keep body and soul together. Especially in America, where necessities of life (health care, food, housing) are, for some people, luxuries, this is a frustrating situation.

What Ehrenreich does is open her own eyes to the drudgery and difficulty of daily life in this grind. She has no pat answers for solving the deeply-entrenched problems that the working poor face; she is only able to shed a light on them. What emerges in her occasionally witty, always gritty prose is confirmation of what I experienced as a worker - even on the somewhat higher rung that I occupied; if you're not one of the top 2%, you're invisible and expendable. It's this attitude that helped me make my decision to leave the United States for more civilized climes, and I have never regretted that choice.

Kay Francis
Kay Francis
by Robert Osborne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.00

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thanks to Scott O'Brien, She Won't Be Forgotten, 15 May 2009
This review is from: Kay Francis (Paperback)
This review pertains to the revised and expanded second edition of "I Can't Wait to Be Forgotten," which I highly recommend.

Biography is a difficult endeavor, especially when you're writing about someone as exceptionally private as Kay Francis was. Especially toward the end of her life, Miss Francis was distinctly uninterested in talking about her career, and there are very few people left who worked with her. Scott O'Brien, however, found people who knew Kay, and was also able to access her private diaries, which he uses to great effect. She wrote in shorthand, but what she wrote was not censored in any fashion.

What results from Mr. O'Brien finding these sources is a remarkable account of a passionate, interesting and eventful life. Though she was terribly careful with a penny, thus allowing herself to gather a vast fortune for a comfortable retirement, Kay was anonymously generous to a plethora of friends, fans and others in need. Her greatest legacy, in addition to the beautiful films we can see whenever we wish, is her bequest to The Seeing Eye, something she told friends she intended to do, but which came as a surprise to the institution that still benefits from her gift.

What is most surprising and illuminating from reading Kay's diary entries is the sheer passion with which she lived her life, and I mean this literally and figuratively. Kay had many, many lovers, and documented most of them in her shorthand notes (with ratings on their quality). She was also tireless in her quest to "live for today;" doing work very near the front lines during WWII and standing up to career misfortunes with class and guts. Scott O'Brien manages to capture all of this, giving us a very good idea of what made Miss Francis tick and why we should be interested in her life. He doesn't shy away from the more unpleasant events in her life, but he doesn't wallow in them. Thanks to this deft handling of all the facts, he creates a fair, even-handed, yet respectful document to an actress, and a woman, who should be celebrated and never "forgotten."

Freedom Road (American History Through Literature)
Freedom Road (American History Through Literature)
by Howard Fast
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vision of a New World, and Denunciation of Tyranny, 14 May 2009
Gideon Jackson, a former slave, returns to the home of his youth after the American Civil War in order to begin his new life. His wife and children await him and they take their first, halting steps into a free future.

Then the notice comes that all the men over age 21 are meant to go into town to vote. From this simple act comes more change than Gideon ever counted on, and maybe more than he wanted, at least at first.

Based on historic facts for those who care to dig deeply enough, Freedom Road presents a searing, alternative view of the period immediately following the American Civil War, known as Reconstruction, using the words and work of the people it helped; the people for whom freedom was recently earned with great difficulty, and not to be forsaken at any price.

Freedom Road should be required reading for any devotee of quality fiction, for anyone who thinks they know the story of Reconstruction, and for anyone who is not afraid of being presented with issues that cause anger, introspection and, ultimately, hope that a better day has finally come.

The Handmaid and the Carpenter
The Handmaid and the Carpenter
by Elizabeth Berg
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Joseph and Mary - A Love Story, 12 May 2009
I was unaware until recently that a novelist had taken a very familiar story, that of the birth of Christ, and given it this twist. I love the idea of showing us the meeting of Mary and Joseph, their courtship and betrothal.

The confusion that both of these characters feel is deftly handled, and though Berg does acknowledge taking liberties with the "facts," I didn't encounter anything that sounded incorrect for the story she was telling. I did become frustrated with Joseph's lack of faith in his wife and in her faithfulness to him. Intellectually, I understand that being told your virgin bride has been visited by an angel and is now with child is a bit out of the realm of believability for mere mortals, but my opinion was that any doubts he still carried should have been eliminated by the visitations he himself received. Joseph is also very of his time in his attitudes toward women in general and Mary in particular, and this required an adjustment of attitude on my part in order for me to be able to continue reading.

All in all, a simple story, yet beautifully told, and only reduced from five stars to four because Joseph is such an unsympathetic character.

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