View from Goodnow Mountain

A peak experience on a day in early June

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bittersweet: An Unbeatable Summer Escape

Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore is a heart-stopping novel of gothic suspense, filled with romance, horrific family secrets, and inscrutable characters who commit the darkest crimes imaginable in the present and the past.

When Midwesterner Mabel Dagmar’s famously wealthy college roommate Ginevra Winslow beckons Mabel to spend the summer at Winloch, the Winslow Family’s vacation paradise on the Vermont shores of Lake Champlain, Mabel is stunned but thrilled. She didn’t know that Ginevra even liked her, let alone would consider spending the summer with a scholarship student whose parents own a laundry in Wisconsin.

When the two young women arrive at Winloch, Ginevra immediately sets them both to work scrubbing and fixing up Bittersweet, one of many family cottages at Winloch, which Ginevra hopes will be hers. Mabel is no fool—she now sees at least one reason Ginevra invited her to Winloch. But Mabel doesn’t care. If there’s a price for a summer at Winloch, she’s more than willing to pay it.

While Ginevra is off pursuing a pair of romantic entanglements, Mabel is left to wander the estate. She meets Indo, Ginevra’s eccentric aunt. One afternoon together is all it takes for Indo and Mabel to bond, and for Indo to trust her niece’s friend with an investigation into a family secret that threatens Indo’s future. Mabel, a researcher and detective by nature, is eager to search in an attic for the folder Indo says will provide the crucial proof she needs.

In the midst of her pursuit, Mabel is soon swept off her feet by the “black sheep” of Ginevra’s siblings, Galway, who refuses to sit back on his family’s wealth. He runs  a non-profit to aid immigrants in Boston. While assisting Mabel with her search in the attic, they find they have much in common and the couple fall in love on a star-filled night swimming in Lake Champlain.

At the center of the Winloch mystery is a Van Gogh painting hung in Ginevra’s parents’ house. When Indo claims that the painting is actually hers, Mabel becomes more deeply involved in uncovering the truth of the painting’s history and the Winslow Family’s relationship with it. She discovers that what appears on the surface to be an ordinary family of privilege is actually a group concealing a rat’s nest filled with the darkest unspoken secrets both in the present and the past.  Over the course of the summer, Mabel evolves from a bright, innocent college girl into a worldly-wise young woman of power and conviction who unflinchingly battles with the evil in her midst.

 If you’re a reader who’s attracted to elegantly depicted setting, including mood and atmosphere, then the author’s flawless creation of Winloch and the Lake Champlain landscape, complete with woodlands, fields, rocky shores, sandy beaches, and beautiful family compound will satisfy your vacation dreams. I know it did mine!


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Smothered by My Smorgasbord of Books

On Monday, I started reading one of my BIG summer reads, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The weather was hot and ultra-humid with dewpoints in the low seventies. I know it could be worse, but all I'm capable of doing in such weather is reading. And I'll say I was fully absorbed in my reading of the first 50 pages, but I will say I needed to have my wits about me. (My brain becomes water-logged on hot, humid days.)

As mentioned in previous posts, I'm really enjoying Chris Bohjalian's Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. (See a previous recent entry.)  And I also happen to be reading Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, a "summer vacation" novel that is about two college roommates, one from a very wealthy New England family and one from a working-class family in Oregon. Although the basics of the plot are hardly new, the two young women travel to Ginevra's family compound on the Vermont shores of Lake Champlain. Although I'm a third of the way through the novel, I was surprised to discover online tonight that this novel has gothic leanings. All the better, I guess. At least that element will help distinguish the plot from many other novels depicting poor girl-wealthy girl summers at the wealthy girl's estate. I'm reading this to write a review of it, and I am indeed enjoying it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Alena by Rachel Pastan: A Departure from Rebecca

I purchased Alena by Rachel Pastan in late January or February primarily for its setting on a place beloved to me, Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Not all of Alena takes place there--there's the Midwestern art museum setting, New York City, and please don't forget Venice! But most of the action takes place in and around an extraordinary art museum on the dunes overlooking the ocean near Wellfleet and Truro.

And as I may have told you, and as you may have heard, Pastan models the broad outline of Alena on Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca. The relationships among the main characters resemble those in Rebecca, but the young female narrator is nowhere near as naïve or as inexperienced as the one in Rebecca. And, to mark this novel as a departure, is the universe of contemporary art. Pastan's characters have a lot to say about it, and it is enough to hoist Alena off the Rebecca climbing wall.

I was dubious about reading a novel even remotely based on Rebecca, but I must emphasize that I enjoyed the ride. The so-called naïf is extremely observant and wise enough to detect what's happening around her. I liked her a great deal and sympathized with her. Bernard is her mentor, her Laurence Olivier character, but because he's a homosexual, their intimate friendship is based on a deep fondness and a mutual love of art, which is so refreshing. You may wish to read the Washington Post review.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Summer House with Swimming Pool: Thoughts and Questions

I would never discourage anyone from reading this book. Even though I thought The Dinner had more to say to me about  life (whatever that is), and although it was a cutting-edge allegory of Europe since World War II (yes, of course, I’m crazy!), Summer House with Swimming Pool is, all in all, for better or worse, impossible to forget and encompasses much, much more than what appears on the slippery surface of the “family” story he tells.

After all, what are we to make of Marc Schlosser, the physician-narrator? He is more than a little abnormal from page one. Most people who become family doctors, internists, or general practioners—whatever one calls them—have significant defenses built up to protect their psyches from being grossed out by every single incident that occurs with medical contact with the human body, whether in health, detritus, or decay. Not Marc Schlosser. He is creeped out by nearly everything about the serious business of medicine. I found him to be ghoulishly repulsive in this regard. And I thought that Koch intends us to be repulsed, and to imagine our naked selves unclad on Schlosser’s examining-room table. Horrid!

What is Schlosser seeking when he insinuates his entire family into Ralph's (the great actor and movie star mogul) Mediterranean rental commune? Is it to brush shoulders with Ralph’s fame? To see if he can find a way to imbibe Ralph’s incessant breaking of boundaries to recharge his (Schlossser’s) own life and thus compensate for the daily suppression of self he suffers in his medical practice? What??? I think Koch begs the reader to find an explanation for Schlosser’s lunacy, or at the least, his off-balance intentions.

The crux of the novel, as it impends on the climax, focuses on a murky mishap that involves or befalls Schlosser’s gorgeous 13-year-old daughter Julia. Did Ralph really rape Julia, as Schlosser is convinced? Or is Schlosser merely projecting his incestual predilictions onto Ralph? What do you think?
How are we to view Schlosser's grotesque assault on Ralph's body in Schlosser's examining room? Is this a mere novel of horror? I ask you.

And what are we to make of Schlosser’s neon flashback to the anti-homosexual lectures/rants of his medical school professor, which was for Schlosser, an indoctrination into what was, for him, the horrors of anal penetration?

In my review of The Dinner, I stated my convinction that it was, among other things, an allegory. I suspect that Summer House with Swimming Pool may be also—there’s just too much social commentary for it not to be, to my mind. So what’s my problem? I don’t have a clue what Koch is trying to say. Do you? Koch is definitely saying something in this novel. What are your views? Please share them openly!


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Too Many New Books to Read This Summer!

About Alena by Rachel Pastan, which I blogged about yesterday. After page 45, I put two or three thumbs up! What a novel to decompress the over-taxed brain. I guess I'd say I'm loving it. The Rebecca thing bothered me for only the first 40 pages; now I'm completely over it and am thrilled for the ride! Now onto other matters:

I have two full months before the fall semester begins. I'm determined to make the most of the time and do a great deal of reading in addition to all of my other activities. As I've mentioned before Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, Mantel's Wolf Hall, and Orhan Pamuk's Snow will be consumed come hook or by crook. They are my priorities.

Yet, loads of new books are demanding my attention. You know how it goes. To rest my mind at the pool, I've ordered C is for Corpse by Sue Grafton. I do love Kinsey Milhone's gutsiness and her lackadaisical care for her personal appearance. If her hair gets washed, fine; if it doesn't, then that's okay, too. There are more pressing worries in this world.  I've ordered it for my Kindle, which I only tend to use in the summer, because I can read it in the sunshine unlike the Nook.

Then Chris Bohjalian has a new novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands--a post-apocalyptic sort of novel about a teenage runaway trying desperately to survive after a nuclear disaster in Vermont, which is to be released next Tuesday, July 8. I'm almost sorry to say I have a predilection for post-apocalyptic fiction. Not everyone's taste, I'm sure, but I'm drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I've lived most of my life in the scary "downwind" perimeters of nuclear power plants and have always protested the use of nuclear power. Not to mention the fact that the Seabrook, New Hampshire and Vermont Yankee power plants are notorious for being old and having less than the best designs and engineering. Seabrook is offline now, though Vermont Yankee in the western part of the state is still! operating, forty-three years, long past its sell-by date, and is all too close to us here in northeastern New York.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Grasping Freedom with Rachel Pastan's Alena and The Vacationers

Because I am finally, at long last, done with final papers and projects and grading, as of tonight I feel the freedom of leisure approaching.

Yesterday, when I discovered that large sections of two out of twenty final papers had been plagiarized, I threw in the towel and immediately zoomed to my local swimming pool where I swam laps like a crazed beast until exhaustion took over. I then sat, dripping wet, and turned to the first few pages of Wolf Hall and immediately realized that the novel is much too complex for my frazzled brain to handle at this point. Frustrating!

This morning I felt the need for a leisurely hour of reading before I finished my course work, so I turned to Alena by Rachel Pastan, a novel I purchased for the Nook when it was first published earlier this year. It's had some excellent reviews, but I must warn you that it is a contemporary, re-structured version of Du Maurier's Rebecca. Ordinarily, a book that's a knock-off of a classic would not interest me in the slightest. But I chose this one because it takes off, literally, from Rebecca, with surprises of its own, and also because it's set on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, a place where I spent a great deal of time in my youth and young adulthood. My longing to spend time there may be what motivated me to purchase this book. Maybe this novel will rest my brain so I can turn to the more serious, challenging reading I have planned for July and August. So I hope!

Just a few minutes ago I also purchased The Vacationers by Emma Straub, which has received rave reviews. I'm looking forward to this novel as well. So here's my self-medicated prescription: Stick to non-taxing reading for my befuddled brain, and then, when it has healed, onto Wolf Hall! I can't wait to read it, which is why my mental incapacity is extremely frustrating at the moment.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

La Peur by Gabriel Chevallier--A World War I Novel

What struck me most about this novel narrated by a French infantryman of the intelligentsia is the utter isolation of his experience apart from his comrades. Yes, I know so far I'm not explaining myself well. Aside from a just a couple of comrades, Negre being one, the narrator experiences this universe of the absurd alone. We know his fellow infantrymen are near and that they share their bodily and psychic miseries, but the narrator doesn't draw us into these relationships or into these characters. The focus is solely on the narrator's personal relationship with Total War.

While reading this book, it seemed to me that the French infantryman was less well-provided for than his British counterpart, in terms of food, clothing, and other sustenance. I may be wrong in my interpretation, and I should study the facts. But the French war machine seemed less well-prepared to care for the men in extremis. I was shocked that in the Vosges mountain region that soldiers were expected to endure -25 to -35 degrees below zero. I'm assuming that's Fahrenheit? Was Celsius the norm in France in World War I? (If you know, I'd love the information. Obviously, I need to research that as well.) In any case, I know how extreme cold can fatigue the human body to a point where an individual ceases to care about anything, including his survival, very quickly. I was so surprised that it was that cold, and that they had to endure it without respite. When it is -25 below Fahrenheit here, everything stops.

I loved the narrator's rebellious, solitary nature and admired his sneering, scathing point of view of the military, the war machine, the governments involved, as his thinking evolved.

I feel Chevallier's voice is one of the very strongest in WWI literature. So why isn't he more popular? Yes, his work was censored during WWII, but it was available during the 1930s and after WWII. I wonder how popular it is in France, and in the rest of Europe.

The only copy of the novel that I could obtain was for my Nook. I found much text to highlight.

Friday, June 27, 2014

La Peur (Fear) by Gabriel Chevallier: Mention Today, To Be Completed 6/28

Many thanks to Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat for selecting Gabriel Chevallier's 1930 World War I novel, La Peur for the Literature and War Readalong for the month of June. I've been so excited to connect with a French novel about World War I, and I have nothing but positive things to say about it, but I'm not able to write my thoughts this evening. It's on my docket to write a post tomorrow, Saturday the 28th. My excuse: It was a glorious summer day today, and I spent it hiking early in the morning, then sketching and painting en plein air by a local lake, and then swimming in an outdoor pool. Lovely.

I'm also halfway through Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch at the moment. I don't want to say a thing about it until I'm finished. I've had some queasy feelings, I will say, but no point in discussing the novel until I've finished. Are you reading it, or do you plan to this summer?

More to come!

Friday, June 20, 2014

In My Mailbox: The Zhivago Affair

Since my birthday early in June, I haven't stopped indulging myself by buying books. It has to stop, of course, but there have been a number of titles that I have refused to wait for at the library. Sometimes these moods strike me and my bank account.

Recently published and in my mailbox today: The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee (Pantheon). When I read the review in BookPage, I knew I had to order the book immediately. You see, Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak has been a big part of my life since age 14. It just so happens that the David Lean film was my first introduction to Dr. Zhivago (and it is still my favorite film after all these years). I first saw it in March 1967 with my older brother, and I was astounded, awed, shocked, and swept away. A love affair with Russian literature and history ensued. I turned 15 that June and read Dr. Zhivago the novel while sunning myself at the beach every afternoon for many weeks that summer. I was determined to read every word. I loved it, though I haven't read it since. I'd like to, especially the new translation that was published two years ago.

There is another connection I have to the smuggling of the Dr. Zhivago manuscript out of Russia in 1956. I'm afraid that due to the late hour and empty stomachs, I must save this rare tidbit for another post. In any case, I'm so psyched that Finn and Couvee have written this book.