Tag Archives: historical fiction

Thoughts on “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain

This book has been in the pile beside my bed for a while. My wife had read it and thought I would enjoy it, and I did (she knows me well). I read most of it while traveling, and then stalled upon return (work and responsibilities took precedence), but I finally finished it.

Essentially, this is a work of historical fiction, telling the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, from the wife’s perspective. The writing is great and the story moves along nicely. And some of the dialog from the book reminded me of Hemingway’s style, which I thought was a nice touch.

During the part of the story where Hadley tells Ernest she is pregnant, the dialog is very similar to Hills Like White Elephants, which is especially poignant since that short story also deals with a discussion about pregnancy.

“You’re a strange one today.”

“You’re not in love with any actress in Paris, are you?”

“God, no.” He laughed.

“Violinist?”

“No one.”

“And you’ll stay with me always?”

“What is it, Kitty? Tell me.”

I met his eyes then. “I’m going to have a baby.”

“Now?” The alarm registered immediately.

“In the fall.”

“Please tell me it’s not true.”

“But it is. Be happy, Tiny. I want this.”

He sighed. “How long have you known?”

“Not long. A week maybe.”

“I’m not ready for this, not nearly.”

“You might be then. You might even be glad for it.”

“It’s been a hell of a few months.”

“You’ll work again. I know it’s coming.”

“Something’s coming,” he said darkly.

(pp. 146 – 7)

McLain does a great job of using metaphors in her tale. One that particularly resonated with me was the description of a false spring, symbolizing the false hope of renewed love.

Outside, the gray rain fell and fell. Where had spring gone? When I’d left for the Loire Valley, the leaves had been out on the trees, and the flowers were beginning to bloom, but now everything was drenched and drowned. It had been a false spring, a lie like all the other lies, and I found myself wondering if it would ever really come.

(p. 259)

Overall, Hemingway comes across as a fairly despicable character, which does not surprise me. He’s misogynistic and driven by ego, and just kind of a jerk. He did write some great books, though. I’m thinking that it might be time to go back and re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls, one of my favorite Hemingway books that I read in my teens.

What about you? Do you have a favorite Hemingway novel?

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“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

My friend and bandmate, Terry, loaned this book to me. She said that I would really enjoy it. She was right.

The book is a work of historical fiction, with some mysticism woven in. It is about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who gets stuck in the space between death and rebirth. Having recently read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which goes into a lot of detail about the bardo state, I was able to relate to this book on a deeper level.

The book is a quick read. It is essentially constructed of short snippets of text, some from historical sources and others fictionalized to reflect the consciousness of the characters. Stylistically, it works very well, and the inclusion of the historical references definitely added a level of verisimilitude to the work.

One of the things that I got out of this book was the affirming of the fact that every single person, every life, has an impact on the world. We may feel that our existence is insignificant; but that is not so. Throughout our lives, we have an influence on every other living being with whom we come in contact.

What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.

(p. 71)

One scene in the story I found particularly interesting and creative features a military officer stuck in the bardo and attempting to communicate with his wife in the form of a letter. His words express the emotions associated with being trapped in a dismal space, desperately longing to move on.

O my dear I have a foreboding. And feel I must not linger. In this place of great sadness. He who preserves and Loves us scarecly present. Since we must endeavor always to walk beside Him, I feel I must not linger. But am Confin’d, in Mind & Body, and unable, as if manacled, to leave at this time, dear Wife.

I must seek & seek: What is it that keeps me in this abismal Sad place?

(pp. 137 – 8)

The last passage I want to share is an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s consciousness, where he is contemplating the transitive nature of life, how we emerge from non-being into being, and maintain a state of constant change through our short sojourn in this life.

I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.

He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

(p. 244)

As I think about this passage, I think about all the changes I have gone through in my life—some major and others so subtle they were barely noticeable. And I think of the changes I have seen in the people around me, and in the world as a whole. It is the single constant, and the one thing for which we can be certain. We will experience change throughout our entire lives. And when we reach the end, it will be yet another change and transition as we cross the threshold into the bardo.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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“Midnight in Europe” by Alan Furst

MidnightEurope

So this is not the type of book I normally read. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a spy novel, especially when it’s considered “historical fiction,” it’s just that it is not the type of book I would generally go out of my way to purchase. But, I was at a fundraising event not too long ago which had a silent auction; so of course, I had to bid on the package of books. I won the bid and this was one of the books in the cache. Anyway, I felt like reading something different, so I opted for this one.

Overall, I thought the book was pretty good. Not great, but I didn’t feel like I had wasted my time reading it. I suspect fans of the spy genre would probably find it more interesting than I did. Still, it held my interest enough for me to finish the book.

The story is about a lawyer in Paris just before the start of World War II. He gets recruited to assist an organization securing arms for the resistance against the Franco regime in Spain. And from there, the plot thickens, to use the old cliché.

Early in the book, Furst describes what it was like for a family to be displaced as a result of the political upheaval, something I have thought about but thankfully have never had to experience.

Two days later they left for Paris. Ferrar, twelve at the time, would never forget the journey: this rupture in the family life had frozen them into silence. Nobody said a word, their minds occupied by the refugees’ litany: Where will we live? How shall we survive? What will become of us? In time, these questions were answered as the family adapted as best they could.

(pp. 26 – 27)

Since I am a bit of a word geek, I liked coming across the etymology of the word Gestapo,

Ferrar and de Lyon were led through the busy waiting room—inspiring the occasional furtive glance—to an office with a sign on the door that said GEHEIME STAATSPOLIZEI, abbreviated in common usage to “Gestapo.”

(p. 79)

While in college, I took a class that explored totalitarian government, and how fascist regimes come into power is something I found fascinating, albeit somewhat frightening. In this book, it is asserted that the goal of fascism is to destroy the established order.

“There is a good possibility that his malice is political. Fascism is a revolutionary force, it wants to destroy the established order and take its place—take its money, its businesses, everything it has because, to these people, the governing class in Europe is hesitant, ineffective, effete. So, destroy it. That’s what they’ve done in Germany and Italy and what they will do in Spain, with the excuse that they’re fighting Bolshevism.”

(p. 152)

I would have to say, though, that the descriptions of the various cities and towns in pre-WWII Europe are this book’s strongest aspects. There were times when I was actually able to envision myself walking along dark, wet streets, taking in the sights and sounds.

As I said, I thought the book was pretty good. If you’re a fan of spy novels, you might want to check it out. If you do, I’d be interested to hear your impression of this book.

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Win an Autographed Copy of “Call Me Zelda”

Zelda2I am officially nearing the two-year mark for Stuff Jeff Reads. Two years of blogging; wow, it went fast. So, to celebrate, I am giving away an autographed copy of Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck. The book is supposed to be great. I’ve read nothing but good reviews.

OK, let’s talk about the contest and the rules.

How to Enter the Contest:

To enter to win the book, simply write a comment below suggesting what should be the next book/poem/short story/comic that I should read and review on Stuff Jeff Reads. One entry per person. Please provide a reason why you are suggesting the piece–don’t just enter a title. Remember, this is not a random drawing, you will have to convince me.

In the event that I cannot narrow it down to one, I will randomly pick one from the top entries.

Anyone can enter, you do not have to follow my blog, but feel free to do so. Oh, sorry, I will exclude my family from this contest, just to be fair.

Easy, right?

Winner Announced:

I will select and announce the winner on Friday, June 14.

Claiming the Prize:Zelda1

If you win, all you need to do to claim the prize is comment on the “Winner Announcement” post with your name, address, and optional email (I will not approve the comment so your info will remain confidential). If you are in the continental US, I will mail the book to you.

If you are NOT in the continental US, then I will substitute a $20 Amazon gift certificate for the book and send it to your email address. Sorry, but overseas shipping is expensive and not in my budget right now.

Finally, I will bump the winning selection to the top of my reading list and that will be the next piece that I read and review on my blog.

Good luck, and as always, thanks for taking the time to read my blog!!

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