Monthly Archives: February 2016

Famous or Infamous?

FamousWomenDoes your bookclub select reading material based on a theme? Mine does on occasion and now I think we should have picked this gem to honor International Women’s Day (March 8th). The book I’m taking about is Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise. This volume contains a collection of stories about women who may have been more infamous than famous or were condemned to hide their talents in the shadow of their more famous relatives.

Bergman expertly takes us into the lives of women such as Standard Oil heiress “Joe” Carstairs, a cross-dressing speed boat racer and master of her own island; Allegra, the cast-off willful, illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron; “Tiny” Davis, an outspoken jazz trumpeter and vocalist in the first mixed-race female swing band touring the Jim Crow south; Butterfly McQueen, the maid in Gone With the Wind who wants to leave her body to science; and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s equally talented and fiercely loyal sister, Norma, just to name a few. Bergman gives us a glimpse into their lives, usually not in their voice, but through the observations of a close friend, loved one, or care-giver, which provides a unique view. The vignettes range in length from a lengthy short story to just a few pages, but each is packed with heartbreaking detail and insight.

Some of the stories feel complete, some feel as if we were allowed a peek through a window for just a moment in their lives. Each one, however, sent me running to the computer to read much more about these fascinating and tragic women.

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The Twist Feels More Like a Trick

LeavingTimeJodi Picoult’s novel Leaving Time tells the story of teenager Jenna Metcalfe’s decades long search for her mother who disappeared–a dedicated scientist who was studying grief in elephants. When Jenna was a baby, something horrible happened one night at the elephant sanctuary where her family lived. A caretaker was found trampled to death and Jenna’s mother was taken to the hospital, only to disappear hours later and never return. If she was still alive, why hadn’t she returned for Jenna? The daughter’s search for her mother and the search for the truth about what happened that night leads her to accept help from two unlikely characters. The first is Serenity Jones–a famous psychic specializing in lost children who has lost her powers and knows she’s a fraud–the second, an out-of-work private eye, Virgil Stanhope, a former detective who investigated the case years ago and ignored critical evidence. All Jenna has to go by is a pile of her mother’s journals wherein she makes observations about the nature of grief in elephants and tracks their behavior. It isn’t long, however, before the mother’s writings and the events playing out start to dovetail. Eventually, hard questions the characters ask of themselves arrive with difficult questions they have to face.

Picoult draws some quirky and intriguing characters in this work and tells the story in the point of view of four main ones: Jenna, Serenity, Virgil, and Alice (through her journals.) I think this approach works, although other readers have found it jarring and disruptive to the flow of the story. I particularly enjoyed the amount of description about elephant behavior via the character of the mother, although, again, other readers criticized the level of detail, claiming it slowed the pace of the story. I did not, however, connect with the “main” character, Jenna, and felt she was too precocious, too smart and confident for her age and circumstances, and lacking certain dimension. More important, I was very let down with the ending. I felt as if the author had not prepared us for the twist at all and it had the feeling of being forced and very contrived. When an author holds back critical information from the reader to execute a big reveal, it always runs the risk of making the reader feel cheated–as if the author held back information just to trick you. The ending did not satisfy, as I said, and short of going back and re-reading the story, I’m convinced there were some continuity problems that would have made the events impossible. ((Hard to describe without spoilers)).

On the positive side, Picoult’s prose as always is luscious and rich, her dialog sharp. As mentioned, I drank in the scenes describing the elephants and wanted to research more about them. Ultimately, however, I would describe the book as “The Secret Life of Bees” meets “The Sixth Sense.”

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