Review: Glass Houses by Louise Penny

33602101Glass Houses is one of Louise Penny’s best novels in her Armand Gamache series. What drew me to the first book I picked up (A Great Reckoning) was the distinct humanness of all her characters, but in particular, Gamache.

Oftentimes I feel that protagonists lack a bit of humanity. Something is missing, not large, but enough to elevate them above an average human. (At least, that’s what’s happening in the books I’m reading.) They are often characters we can aspire towards or admire. But they are never quite vulnerable enough to make me think deeply.

The quality that elevates Gamache over the host of other characters I’ve gotten know across many, many books is his vulnerability. Penny crafts a character who is at the same time thoughtful, brilliant, and kind with one who is flawed, who doubts himself and his choices, and is at times haunted by his past. Gamache is someone we can both aspire to be and relate to, because he faces his troubles with an unnerving honesty, clarity, and transparency.

All of these qualities were highlighted to their full extent in Penny’s most recent novel, with an interesting delivery. Glass Houses brings us back to three pines with the murder of a mysterious figure. Penny uses flashback to weave the past and present, bringing the reader from the trial in the courtroom to the investigation in the village. Far from being confusing, the back-and-forth gave clarity to both plots. The murder is one, but there is a (slightly) lesser sub-plot with Gamache, now the new head of the Sûreté du Québec, and his new task force working on an operation to bring down the bourgeoning drug trade in the city. We soon find that the murder and the operation are more closely intertwined than could have been imagined, inviting some delightful and unexpected twists that make the novel a page-turner. (I’ve been known to marathon Penny’s books, not sleeping ’till I’ve finished!)

With decisions that toe the line at morality, Penny puts beloved characters in the interesting position of potentially being portrayed as “the bad guy.” The situations ask the reader to question right from wrong, and at what point power is abused. Speaking poignantly to present issues, Penny’s novel questions how we define what is moral and the authority and integrity of the judicial system.

 

Review: The Little French Bistro by Nina George

32283424***This is the start of a new section of the blog, where I keep my reviews for all francophile reads!!! The regular book blog is still here, too.***

Marianne, wife of a German military officer, has suffered for decades under an uncaring husband when she throws herself into the Seine. Later, after breaking out of her hospital room, she finds her way to Brittany, reputed to be “the end of the world,” and to a little restaurant called Ar Mor. There, Marianne learns to discover what she has for so long missed.

In The Little French Bistro, Nina George explores self-love, renewal, second chances, and adventure, showing that despite past choices, it is never too late to turn around.

Love is twofold in the world George creates. There is external love, given by others. However, there is also a love of self, a permission we grant ourselves to be who we are. Arguably, lack of self-confidence and self-love can be infinitely more limiting than lack of external love. Marianne must learn this as she learns to love, be loved, and give herself permission to take ownership of her life.

At 60 years old, it seems that she has let her life slip away. Her unexplained unwillingness to leave her husband shadows her throughout the novel, but her actions in Brittany attest to the belief that we can always have a fresh start—but that we choose it is key. In many parts of the novel, Marianne is on the verge of returning home, believing that it is impossible to stay and own her life in the small coastal village. But, as she slowly discovers what it means to be alive, she finds her will to commit suicide and her urge to run back to her husband waning.

Through all of the lessons, George still shows that Marianne is very human, and highlights the struggle to break free of our old selves. One of the greatest powers we have is that of choice, and oftentimes it is our unwillingness to make or commit to one that traps us.

{Review} The Paradise Prophecy by Robert Browne

10110260John Stuart Mill was on to something when he wrote about achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. The question of how to achieve this remains mind-boggliningly relevant as we look for solutions to the world’s problems, and it is also a question that Robert Browne expertly wrestles with in The Paradise Prophecy.

With a plot that brilliantly combines history, mystery, and classics for a Dan Brown-esque thriller, Browne transports key figures of John Milton’s Paradise Lost to present day as they all race, in good against evil, to be the determiner of the world’s fate. Tangled up in the action, albeit unwillingly, are Batty and Callahan, and it is unsurprisingly the two humans who, through their actions, ask the hard questions.

First, there is Callahan. She’s skeptical, at best, about religion; tough as nails; no-nonsense; and no frills. Callahan sees what she wants to see, and it troubles her when events don’t line up otherwise. “Seeing is believing” is her mantra, and she holds tight until proven wrong. Proven wrong she is, which leads readers to question her decision and, perhaps, their own life philosophy: Callahan was in Mill’s camp. Greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. She was willing to sacrifice an innocent to save the world, but at what cost? Callahan also chose out of fear for herself.

Are we willing to sacrifice innocence as the price for survival? Extrapolated, will we choose the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people? It is also important to look at what drives this decision, because it must somehow, always, benefit ourselves as well—no one would choose the greatest good for the greatest number unless they stood to benefit in some way.

Batty, perhaps, wrestles with the heavier topic: the freedom of choice. Batty’s made many poor choices, but it all boils down to one. He must decide whether or not to sacrifice the innocent; the choice is his and his alone. Does he save the world and kill a blameless child? Or, does he spare her, and face unknown, and potentially devastating consequences?

“This is about choices. And the intent behind those choices, and proving to the father that humans are still capable of making the right ones. And this is a choice not made through malice, but out of love. A love for humankind.” -St. Michael to Batty

As St. Michael points out, intent can make a choice evil or good. Whether Batty kills out of malice or love will make the difference, and it’s something we can confront in our lives, too. What are the motives that drive our actions? Selfish gain? Selflessness? Sometimes, what we feel is right may not make sense. But that’s where intent and motive come into play.

“‘If creating some kind of utopia on earth requires me to take the life of another living, breathing human being, I’m sorry, but you can count me out. Self-defense is one thing, but this is flat out murder.'” -Batty

In deciding not to sacrifice the innocent, Batty does right by his conscience and the child, at the risk of potential havoc. His decision only highlights the paradox: If he had chosen to sacrifice the child, it would have only been because of his sense of obligation to prevent the world’s destruction. Obligation obstructs free will and the freedom of choice, because the choice Batty made would not have been solely his own. It would have been heavily influenced by outside factors.

“Free will, Batty thought. That’s what it ultimately came down to. And what so many people thought of as weakness—the ability to empathize, to care, the thing that seemed so absent in the world of late—was really man’s strength. His lifeblood.”

{Review} The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton

23460961How daring must we be, for how long must women fight for the recognition of equality? When will all men stand up and say, “yes, you matter, too, as much as we do”? Meg Wait Clayton, in a beautifully crafted novel, uses two brilliant heroines to make the point that not much has changed…but it could, if we are brave enough to stand up. Based on real female war correspondents reporting during World War II, Clayton delivers sharp social commentary, as relevant today as it was in 75 years ago, with fearless heroines proving that determination and good friends can get you just about anywhere.

As the scene unfolds at a hospital camp in Normandy, the readers are introduced to three journalists whom Clayton skillfully uses to portray a few common mindsets prevalence even today.

Olivia “Liv” Harper is a daring, headstrong, and extraordinary photographer, defying even her husbands wishes as she heads to France. Jane is a young journalist, writing for a Nashville newspaper owned by the family for whom her mother works as a maid. Marie is Jane’s fellow journalist and stiff on following the rules. She may not like them, but she will not break them, nor allow herself to think beyond them.

When Liv defies direct orders to remain at the camp, Jane, hungering to see and write about more than field hospitals, takes the risk and follows Liv. As they experience life at the front, Liv and Jane find themselves fighting against the obstacles that come with being females amidst the sea of male war correspondents, but also find allies along the way.

There is a great need in the world for men like Fletcher Roebuck and Hank Bend. In aiding Liv and Jane, from driving them to the front against orders, to keeping the women safe and distributing their stories and photos when they were denied access to the men’s press camp, Fletcher and Hank showed their support with something much more powerful than words. They acted.

Of course, they weren’t perfect, as revealed in Fletcher’s character: “…he certainly didn’t need the distraction of Charles blood Harper’s beautiful wife, no matter how talented she was…”, but his ultimate support of Liv and Jane, acting against the wishes of even his best friend Charles, showed that even engrained opinions can be pushed aside. We are not always obligated to hold onto all the beliefs of society.

Liv’s eventual death while photographing the front is a larger allegory of the sacrifices women have made and will be forced to make in order to obtain the same opportunities and prove themselves equal and capable. More than that, it’s a tribute to the women taking risks, defying norms and doing something that they love, with or without society’s approval.

In Jane’s decision to accompany Liv to the front, she represents those who want something badly and only need a push, people fearless like Liv to pave the way and show us how to live. Sometimes all we need is a friendly face and an outstretched hand, knowing that we’re supported and not alone.

So what should we women be doing? Reading about what’s happening, after its happened? No. Rather, we should look to Liv’s daring philosophy to be in the trenches of our lives: “Photos of the parachute sermon itself, the gunfire, the bicycle ride—those are the photos I ought to be taking. Not photographs of a woman in a safely liberated French town recalling them.” We need to be in the thick of it, not picking up the pieces.

Right now, many of us are Marie, discontented with the confines of society, but unwilling or unable to fight against the system. We find ourselves “couch potato activists,” unable to do more than support the Livs from behind a screen.

Not all of us will be Liv, but we can be Jane. Clayton is right. We need to acknowledge the risk, but take the chance and follow. Otherwise, we could be missing out on the greatest adventure of our lives. Liv and Jane were living in a changing world, and it’s still evolving now. Where will it take us?

{Review} Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

I have a running joke that I like science. I’m actually not well suited to the field; I lack patience, am not fond of following directions to the T, and crave a little bit of creativity and my own rules. However, I find its principles fascinating…when I’m not sitting in class. Seeing scientific principles in action is actually quite fun, and so I picked up this little book to learn a little bit more about how the world spins. It’s probably fair to say that I only really processed 60 percent of what was explained, but this was all for fun, after all.

Rovelli divides this book into the following chapters: “The Most Beautiful of Theories,” “Quanta,” “The Architecture of the Cosmos,” “Particles,” “Grains of Space,” “Probability, Time, and the Heart of Black Holes,” and “Ourselves.”

I won’t try and delve into all the details, because I’m not sure how well I understood everything, but I was thoroughly fascinated. His tone is conversational as he carefully explains the principles and history of topics such as the Theory of Relativity (space is gravity?) and what actually happens in black holes. I think that this little book is a lovely way to become acquainted with some the basic theories and principles in physics, whether or not you are scientifically inclined.

Happy reading!

The Loveless Cafe

Nashville. If you’re a true foodie, the city does not evoke thoughts of country music. Instead, you’re dreaming about biscuits and fried chicken, the two foods that put Loveless on the map.

Like everything else I’ve found during my (roughly) three days in the South, Loveless was charming, quaint, kind, and friendly. Lots of “y’all,” “dear,” “baby,” young lady,” and “how ya doin’s.” As venerated as it is in the foodie world, Loveless is not flashy. A café, general store, and motel compound, it sits inconspicuously on Highway 100, 30 minutes outside of the city. Although it is technically “Nashville,” we drove through a bit of country road to reach the café, and I think it’s actually in a little suburb, Bellevue. If you’re not paying attention, you may even miss it; the sign isn’t even brightly colored.

Once you find Loveless, you’ll walk into one of the most amicable places with the sweetest waitresses. The only thing that beats that is the plate of warm biscuits that they set on the table covered with a simple red-checkered tablecloth.

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The biscuits are served with little cups of strawberry, blueberry, and (surprisingly delicious) peach jam! The peach jam was our favorite, so we bought some at the general store. They even sold two-ounce pots, so I can take one back to Boston!

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It took every ounce of self-control not to eat all the biscuits…and I didn’t! But I really did want to. I will never look at biscuits the same way ever again. Sorry, Boston University biscuits. I thought I loved you but…we’re breaking up.

I will confess that I probably would have eaten all the biscuits, but Loveless is also known for their fried chicken, and it would have been a real shame to come all this way and not try it. There was so much chicken. I had to call for reinforcements (grandma).

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Again, Loveless has earned its reputation. The chicken was sublime. Yes, sublime. Which means it was super-amazing, because according to my writing professor, sublime is a very strong word. This is mighty-good chicken. It deserves a strong adjective.

Loveless serves its fried chicken piping hot, with delicate, crispy skin. The chicken is juicy and it melts in your mouth. I never understood what people meant when they described chicken as melt-in-your-mouth good. Now I do, because this chicken was just that. It was so good, I’m going to use sublime for a third time, and in doing so, I am probably committing a journalism faux-pas or two. Good thing I’m not a journalism major.

Please vist Loveless Cafe. Also, if I raved to much about everything, please set the bar low. Everything was horrible. (I’m joking, of course, but I want you to visit and form your own impressions.)  Cheers, friends, and if you do anything, eat all the biscuits!

 

~Marissa

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

(Originally written over winter break!)

Okay, I can’t remember if I’ve raved written about Pride & Prejudice here…I feel as if I have, because if I haven’t, that would be disastrously out of character, and you would never know about my extremely unhealthy (but totally okay) obsession. Case en pointe:

13568894_912547038872853_8100235906221232866_oI FOUND MR. DARCY’S BUST AT PEMBERLY!!

I also have this little tradition of reading Pride and Prejudice every time I get on an airplane…so (I didn’t manage to finish) this journey home from BU for Christmas break marked the seventh(!!!!!!!!!!) time I’ll have read it.

 

 

 

25852870My lovely friend Haley (hi, Haley!!) recommended Eligible to me after we discovered that we both have a love for P&P and Jane Austen. There are approximately 40 books on my reading list on Goodreads  and I have finished three in the five days I have been at home. Eligible was one of the books (aside from The Elegance of the Hedgehog and If I Stay), and I have to say…I’m a fan! It is, in all essence, P&P set for 2016 (or somewhere between 2014-now??!!). Honestly, when she first recommended it, I had my doubts. I was a P&P purist. How could anyone even think about adapting or modifying Jane Austen’s already very perfect love story? With all the observations on social protocol, a fierce and headstrong Lizzy Bennet, and wit? How? Sittenfeld did it, and actually quite brilliantly. As a bonus, it was also hilarious. I ACTUALLY laughed out loud at some parts. The 2016 version of the Bennett family was everything that it should be, and Sittenfeld adeptly transposes 1800s Lizzy Bennett into a very modern, but still very Lizzy, Liz Bennett. READ THE BOOK!

This afternoon I wrapped up a re-read of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, English-language version. Not as beautiful sounding, but still made me want to cry huge, heavy tears. After re-reading, though, I cemented what I thought I understood in French, and better understood the sections of the original novel that were a little fuzzy when translating French to English didn’t work out well. Regardless of the language in which you read the novel, there are some extremely beautiful excerpts that you should read, and that I’m going to share, accompanied by photos when the opportunity arises and inspiration strikes. For now…I recommend it, too! A recap of If I Stay will be following soon, and I’m excited because I’ve just started Gourmet Rhapsody, also by Muriel Barbery, abut Pierre Arthens, one of the minor characters in The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Happy reading!