BOOK REVIEW: The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin

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BOOK REVIEW: The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie BenjaminTitle: The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Published by Delacorte Press
Published: January 26th 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 368
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)
Goodreads

Centered on two dynamic, complicated, and compelling protagonists—Truman Capote and Babe Paley—this book is steeped in the glamour and perfumed and smoky atmosphere of New York’s high society. Babe Paley—known for her high-profile marriage to CBS founder William Paley and her ranking in the International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame—was one of the reigning monarchs of New York’s high society in the 1950s. Replete with gossip, scandal, betrayal, and a vibrant cast of real-life supporting characters, readers will be seduced by this startling new look at the infamous society swans.

Melanie Benjamin’s The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a delightfully gossipy look into the lives of a handful of New York City socialites and Truman Capote from the 1950s to the 1970s. Admittedly, I knew nothing of Truman Capote’s life outside of the film Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and even then details are a little bit fuzzy. I know he wrote In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s with a smattering of short stories, but other than that, I’m a bit lost. I think that helped me a bit with the novel, going into it without knowing much, because it helped shape that fairy tale sort of quality I found in it.

I really liked Babe, and I like that she found some companionship and love in her friendship with Capote. I liked the life Benjamin brought to each of the women Capote befriended. Parts of the novel were told through the eyes of each of these women, and each of their points-of-view added to an excellent character study. These sheltered, beautiful “swans” of New York trusted Truman Capote with their thoughts, ideas, and secrets, and he ultimately betrayed all of them, including Babe, his closest friend out of all of the swans. Capote’s insatiable desire for gossip and his inability to keep it to himself led to some serious consequences. I couldn’t help but see that the driving question behind the entire story is why does one friend betray another? What drives all of them to backstab and spread secrets and lies? I think, perhaps, if you have it all and believe you have nothing left to do with your lives because you’ve “accomplished everything,” what more can you do with your life? Maybe for all of them, in their sheltered lives, all they wanted to do was to create a little drama to distract them from their terrible husbands and other disappointing or awful aspects of their lives.

New York’s high society in the fifties and sixties seems so far gone, but it wasn’t, not really. Beyond the fancy apartments, jewels, all of the designer dresses and shoes, Melanie Benjamin showed us that beyond the perfect veneer, the rich and famous were human just like the rest of us, dealt with similar heartbreaks and dramas the rest of us see in day-to-day life, but we’re so far removed from their world that it seems like a perfect fairy tale to us.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue has made me want to read Capote’s work, especially the pieces he wrote about the Swans and has made me want to read more about this era, because it’s an era in which I’m entirely unfamiliar.

Thank you to Netgalley for a review copy!

BOOK REVIEW: Vicious, by V.E. Schwab

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BOOK REVIEW: Vicious, by V.E. SchwabTitle: Vicious by V.E. Schwab
Published by Tor
Published: September 24th 2013
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 364
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
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Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong. Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?

I feel like I rarely give out five-star reviews, but I think V.E. Schwab’s Vicious earned it by the end. It started out a bit slow for me (but that might also be attributed to a little reading slump), but once I hit the halfway mark, I was hooked and couldn’t put the book down. Vicious grapples with the superhero ideas of good and evil, hero and villain, and what results from all of the chaos each of two main characters create.

Eli Ever is the self-regenerating, self-proclaimed hero after discovering the secret behind the creation of EXtraOrdinary people, often called EOs throughout the book. After his best friend Victor Vale becomes an EO, accidentally murder’s Eli’s girlfriend, and goes to prison, Eli makes it his mission to remove other EOs from the population.

The book alternates between the present day with Eli being the ‘hero’ and the past with the beginning of Eli and Victor’s struggle to the present with Eli trying to take control over the EO population and Victor’s escape from prison to get to Eli. The alternating chapters threw me off at first, but then it fell into a really interesting rhythm, as if each chapter set in the past connected with each chapter in the present.

One of the things I like most about Schwab’s stories is that every character feels relevant and feels fully developed. Vicious is a character-driven superhero story about that sometimes very fine line between good and evil and the complexities that each character faces. With obsession driving them both, the hero does some really terrible things and the villain does some really wonderful things. By the end of the book, we’re left with a lot to think about. In the face of adversity, ignorance, and power, who defines what is good and what isn’t?

BOOK REVIEW: Bradstreet Gate, by Robin Kirman

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BOOK REVIEW: Bradstreet Gate, by Robin KirmanTitle: Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman
Published by Broadway Books
Published: April 5th 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 336
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Blogging for Books
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A tour de force about three friends affected by a campus murder, for readers of Donna Tartt, Meg Wolitzer, and Jeffrey Eugenides.

Georgia, Charlie and Alice each arrive at Harvard with hopeful visions of what the future will hold. But when, just before graduation, a classmate is found murdered on campus, they find themselves facing a cruel and unanticipated new reality. Moreover, a charismatic professor who has loomed large in their lives is suspected of the crime. Though his guilt or innocence remains uncertain, the unsettling questions raised by the case force the three friends to take a deeper look at their tangled relationship. Their bond has been defined by the secrets they’ve kept from one another—Charlie’s love and Alice’s envy, Georgia’s mysterious affair—and over the course of the next decade, as they grapple with the challenges of adulthood and witness the unraveling of a teacher's once-charmed life, they must reckon with their own deceits and shortcomings, each desperately in search of answers and the chance to be forgiven. A relentless, incisive, and keenly intelligent novel about promise, disappointment, and the often tenuous bonds of friendship, Bradstreet Gate is the auspicious debut of a tremendously talented new writer.

The copy on the back of Bradstreet Gate compares the novel to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. That’s really what drew me in to choose the book in the first place, and I felt surprised that I hadn’t heard about the book until I saw it as an option on Blogging for Books. The only comparisons I found to The Secret History were the simple fact that this novel revolves around a group of students attending Harvard (and what comes after) and that there is a death/murder of a student. Other than that, the comparison ceases to be relevant.

Bradstreet Gate is a character novel, and there is no blatant revelation over who killed Julie Patel. It could have been Storrow, it could have been Alice, and it could have been Charlie, but nothing is ever made quite clear and I found that entirely frustrating. Halfway through I thought it might have been Alice because of her stilted relationship to everyone else on campus, but as the novel progressed and Charlie became more and more successful with weird little hints and recollections of “what he did,” I have to wonder if Charlie was the one who did it. He was the little brother, the one his father “[looked] for ways to be rid of him.” Charlie had a strained relationship with his father, and his father always referred to his youngest son as “the judge.” Charlie’s the one who shows an interest in Georgia, who has a relationship with Storrow the professor, and he shows a passing interest in Julie Patel and later finds out she has a boyfriend. In his frustration over Storrow’s relationship with Georgia, Charlie could have very easily staged Julia’s murder to destroy Storrow, which did happen. On the other hand, Storrow had a military history and had the working knowledge to execute a flawless murder.

The writing was clean, but I found everything structural in the novel to be lacking clarity and cohesion. The characters lacked depth and resonance (as in I didn’t really feel anything at all towards any of them), the plot and pacing seemed jumpy, like one moment it was one day and years had passed in the next paragraph. I felt like I had to read the last several pages just to make sense of what happened and to see if I’d missed some important, revelatory detail. I didn’t. It just sort of ends, falls off, and nothing’s really resolved.

However, after reading the essay in the back of the book, there is some connection thematically to some of the content of the novel. Kirman writes that she had a charged friendship with a professor of hers as a student with whom she had a relationship ten years later, and it got me thinking of this novel in the sense that she is trying to come to terms with that relationship and the attraction students have to their instructors. At the beginning of the essay, she writes, “Why did people speak of falling in love? Why was the experience of romantic enchantment described as a fall?” In that context, and if that context was advertised with the book in the first place, I might have gone into reading the book differently. The essay in the back of was my favorite part about the book, and I’ll be thinking about some of the ideas she presented for quite a while.

“What George Eliot understood so well about young women – and intellectualism and naïveté and practical life and corporeal desire – can be revealed, also, by experience. Reality inevitably assaults our fantasies and brings the objects of our infatuation down to earth, whether we wish it to or not.”

“Possibly he was after the same idea that I’ve introduced here: the fall from grace accomplished by Eve, thanks to her wish to taste of wisdom reserved for God alone. Such a wish may not drive everyone who falls, head over heals, but I suspect it is present whenever some co-ed finds her pulse quickening as her dark, magnetic professor looks her way, and she begins to dream only about him, and to ignore the boys who sit beside her in the dining hall or stalk the showers of her dorm. Rules may discourage her from doing more than dreaming – they might try to rescue her from her own desires – but now and then she’s bound to fall. That’s just part of the story of being young, human, and hungry: tempted to seek knowledge beyond what is permitted, in the highest places and forms, and in the lowest, too.”

Book provided for an honest review by Blogging for Books.

BOOK REVIEW: Eleanor, by Jason Gurley

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BOOK REVIEW: Eleanor, by Jason GurleyTitle: Eleanor by Jason Gurley
Published by Crown
Published: January 12th 2016
Genres: Magical Realism
Pages: 384
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)
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Eleanor and Esmerelda are identical twins with a secret language all their own, inseparable until a terrible accident claims Esme’s life. Eleanor’s family is left in tatters: her mother retreats inward, seeking comfort in bottles; her father reluctantly abandons ship. Eleanor is forced to grow up more quickly than a child should, and becomes the target of her mother’s growing rage.   Years pass, and Eleanor’s painful reality begins to unravel in strange ways. The first time it happens, she walks through a school doorway, and finds herself in a cornfield, beneath wide blue skies. When she stumbles back into her own world, time has flown by without her. Again and again, against her will, she falls out of her world and into other, stranger ones, leaving behind empty rooms and worried loved ones.    One fateful day, Eleanor leaps from a cliff and is torn from her world altogether. She meets a mysterious stranger, Mea, who reveals to Eleanor the weight of her family’s loss. To save her broken parents, and rescue herself, Eleanor must learn how deep the well of her mother’s grief and her father’s heartbreak truly goes. Esmerelda’s death was not the only tragic loss in her family’s fragmented history, and unless Eleanor can master her strange new abilities, it may not be the last.

Eleanor opens with a woman named Eleanor, trapped in her home life as a mother and desiring to go swim in the ocean. At the end of the prologue, Eleanor, stripped to nakedness, walks into the ocean and never returns. Agnes, her daughter, feels the loss of her mother for the rest of her life. When she has twins, Agnes names one of her daughters Esmeralda while her husband names the second daughter Eleanor. It becomes obvious as the novel progresses that the children each parent names are their individual favorites. The young Eleanor beings to realize this after a horrific accident kills her twin sister. After her parents’ divorce, Eleanor stays with Agnes. Agnes, in her grief, falls into an alcoholic spiral as she cannot handle seeing Eleanor everyday because her surviving daughter is the exact image of Esmeralda and a reminder of her own mother’s death and disappearance.

Eleanor cannot live up to her mother’s expectations, and that knowledge affects her relationship with her mother and her father. As she ages, strange things begin happening to her. Eleanor falls out of time, disappearing into the space beyond time. Sometimes she is gone for seconds or minutes, sometimes she is gone for much longer. When she is in this space beyond (or between??) time, Eleanor meets an entity that we as readers know has been watching Eleanor for a long time. Eleanor is given the option to change everything, a decision with which she struggles but eventually accepts.

I won’t spoil it, but the option of a resent and the whispery, time-free monsters that human language cannot define is so similar atmospherically to Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. If you liked that novel, I totally recommend this one, and if you enjoy magical realism, I wholeheartedly recommend this one. It’s lyrical, magical, and a little bit heartbreaking. It’s a read that will keep you thinking about what happens and what could happen long after you read the final page.

BOOK REVIEW: The Garden Party and Other Stories, by Katherine Mansfield

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BOOK REVIEW: The Garden Party and Other Stories, by Katherine MansfieldTitle: The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield
Published by Penguin, Penguin Classics
Published: 1922
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 159
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)
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Innovative, startlingly perceptive and aglow with colour, these fifteen stories were written towards the end of Katherine Mansfield's tragically short life. Many are set in the author's native New Zealand, others in England and the French Riviera. All are revelations of the unspoken, half-understood emotions that make up everyday experience - from the blackly comic 'The Daughters of the Late Colonel', and the short, sharp sketch 'Miss Brill', in which a lonely woman's precarious sense of self is brutally destroyed, to the vivid impressionistic evocation of family life in 'At the Bay'. 'All that I write,' Mansfield said, 'all that I am - is on the borders of the sea. It is a kind of playing.'

I am trying to be better at reading short stories, and I saw a blurb about Katherine Mansfield’s short stories on Alice’s blog, so I checked it out and thought I’d be interested too! I enjoyed all of the stories. Some stories fell flat for me, but I thought this was a very well-rounded collection. My favorites were “The Garden Party,” “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” and “The Singing Lesson.”

Mansfield’s short stories read like impressionist paintings. I think they need to be looked at, examined, and mulled over for a bit before the meaning settles in. I finished the book about a couple weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about the stories.

In “The Garden Party,” the Sheridan family is in the midst of preparing for the titular garden party. During the set up of the party, the family finds out that their working class neighbor, Mr. Scott, has died. Laura, the daughter in charge of setting up the party, wonders if the party should be canceled out of respect for the death of their neighbor, but none of her family agrees and the party goes on. The story explores the differences between class and the awareness of class differences, the illusion created by the upper class to avoid dealing with certain realities, and the roles of life and death in day-to-day activities.

In “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” two sisters are figuring out what to do with their lives after their father’s death. He was their only real relation as their mother died many years ago, and he was possibly one of the only stable men in their lives. The sisters have very little grasp on reality and how to exist in day-to-day life. This is shown through their inability to tell the cook how they want their fish cooked because they’re so used to decisions being made for them and their lives dictated by others. They are both so far removed from reality that when they try to think about what to do with their future, they forget what they are even speaking about in the middle of the conversation. It’s a terrible, haunting look at what happens when women aren’t allowed any agency over their own lives.

“The Singing Lesson” is about a teacher, Miss Meadows, who is engaged to a man five years younger than her. Basil, her fiancé, has written to her before the story begins calling off their engagement, and Miss Meadows enters the school that morning incredibly upset. Basil writes that their “marriage would be a mistake” and that he “love[s] her as much as it is possible for [him] to love any woman” because he is “not a marrying man.” The language in this convinces me that Basil is homosexual or confused about his sexuality and that he is doubting his convictions because he later sends Miss Meadows a telegram saying to disregard his letter and that he has “bought [a] hatstand,” again using language that symbolizes phallic imagery. It’s clear that Miss Meadows is unaware of her future husband’s sexuality, and her mood changes significantly when she receives that telegram because her future is secure again. The title itself evokes the symbolism of a bird in a cage, that women are pretty things to be caged and possessed, and that men ultimately control a woman’s fate and can change their minds at will with no repercussions to themselves. Both Basil and Miss Meadows are trapped by society’s expectations and both are forced to “sing out” what they’ve been taught.

I really enjoyed this collection, and I’m looking forward to reading more by her and by Modernist writers. If you enjoy Modernist and feminist writings, I think you’ll enjoy her work!