Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Love and Ruin

Title:  Love and Ruin
Author:  Paula McLain
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1101967382 / 978-1101967386

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Near dawn on July 13, 1936, as three assassins scaled a high garden wall in Tenerife hoping to catch the band of armed guards unaware, I was asleep in a tiny room in Stuttgart, waiting for my life to begin."

Favorite Quote:  "Even when other things come in loud, we have to keep choosing each other. That's marriage. You can't only say the words once and think they'll stick. You have to say them over and over, and then live them out with all you've got."

Love and Ruin is the fictionalized account of the relationship and five year marriage between Ernest Hemingway and Martha Ellis Gelhorn. They were married from 1940 to 1945, a tumultuous period in world history. This was also the time in which Ernest Hemingway published For Whom the Bells Toll, written based on his experiences during the Spanish civil war.

Martha Gelhorn was the third of Ernest Hemingway's four wives. They in fact met and began their relationship while Hemingway was still married to Pauline Pfeiffer. Much - fiction and nonfiction - has been written about Hemingway and especially his marriages. Naomi Wood's Mrs. Hemingway was a snapshot of all four marriages. Paula McLain's earlier book The Paris Wife was about his first marriage to Elizabeth Hadley Richardson.

Martha Gelhorn was a renowned journalist in her own right. In fact, a journalism prize established in 1999 is named in her honor. The Martha Gelhorn Prize for Journalism is awarded "for the kind of reporting that distinguished Martha: in her own words 'the view from the ground'. This is essentially a human story that penetrates the established version of events and illuminates an urgent issue buried by prevailing fashions of what makes news. We would expect the winner to tell an unpalatable truth, validated by powerful facts, that exposes establishment conduct and its propaganda, or 'official drivel', as Martha called it."

This book begins in Martha's life before she is an established journalist; it begins when she meets Ernest Hemingway by chance on a trip. That chance meeting, a promise, and Martha's dream land her on the front lines of the Spanish civil war and in close proximity to Ernest Hemingway. So begins the relationship, and so begins Martha's career as a war correspondent.

Beyond that point, their relationship and hence the book follows a cyclic path - periods in a war zone, and periods of peace in an idyllic island haven. Interspersed throughout, of course, is writing for and from both of them. The relationship is depicted with the competition from both being in the same line of work. Ernest Hemingway has achieved his fame; Martha Gelhorn is working on finding her voice. At times, the pendulum of success seems to shift from one to the other.

The focus of this story remains throughout the relationship more so than the woman and her accomplishments. Even the portions set in the middle of war zones center on the two of them; I don't really get a sense of the time and place that were the basis of Martah Gelhorn's career. Her career was about the history she lived through; her writing was about the places and people and events she witnessed. Yet, that history seems not to take a back seat in this book.

I am honestly not sure I get a complete picture of the woman herself. She was twenty-eight when she met Ernest Hemingway. She had had affairs previously. She was willing and able to travel alone into a war zone. She was obviously independent and strong. Yet, somehow, the impression I am left with is of someone younger and more innocent. I don't know enough of the actual history to say which is the more accurate one, but I am left with the question in mind.

I guess in many ways I would rather have read the story of Martha Gelhorn, groundbreaking war correspondent, than Martha Gelhorn, one of the wives of Ernest Hemingway.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Little Clan

Title:  The Little Clan
Author:  Iris Martin Cohen
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0778312828 / 978-0778312826

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Ava waited, watching the stopped clock."

Favorite Quote:  "I always thought it might be nice to be a type. If  people have a way to place you, it might be nice to be a type. If people have a way to place you, I think you draw less ire, less attention, less bullying. Or at least you'd know why it happened. I feel like I'm always a mystery."

Ava and Stephanie are both in their twenties. Ava is a librarian; Stephanie has tried different careers. Ava lives a quiet life in the middle of Manhattan as if in a previous century; Stephanie is returning from an unexpected year abroad. Ava loves her classic books; Stephanie is about the "in" thing. They are friends, but are they really?

The plot of the book is about the Lazarus Club, the obscure but at one time stately club where Ava works and lives. Stephanie comes in like a whirlwind with grand ideas to create a literary salon. Ava loves the idea, but their ideas of "literary" and "salon" differ greatly. Both are carried forward on the force of their ideas into a somewhat mad escapade in the art and literary world of New York City. The descriptions of an old building being restored to its glory and the commentary on the literary world are perhaps my favorite aspects of the book.

I love books (obviously!), and I love books about readers and books. The idea of recreating a literary salon reminiscent of an older time was intriguing. Unfortunately, the love of books and all things literary only goes so far in this story as a supposed literary salon devolves into more of a disco party.

The characters - Ava and Stephanie - and their relationship is really what this book is about. Interestingly, neither one is particularly likable. I did not expect that. I expected to like one and perhaps dislike one, creating a hero and a villain perhaps. However, the book is surprisingly balanced between the two.

Ava is a bit of a pretentious snob and a doormat at the same time. She lives in the nineteenth century and refuses to acknowledge that anything more modern her precious than literary classics has value. Quill pens, gowns, and candlelight only in modern day Manhattan; really? Stephanie is an opportunistic player. Both of them are also just mean girls - to each other and to others around them.

Simmering under this on again off again college friendship are hints of more. With the introduction of side characters is the possibility of a budding romance, or not. Without a spoiler, let's just say that the ending has certain decisions and actions that seem completely out of character. For the most part, the characters are too self-involved for relationships to even play a major role.

The book description touts this book as "a love letter to classic literature and an illuminating look at new found adulthood." Unfortunately, the literary references are not the memorable aspect of this book. They serves more to highlight Ava's pretentiousness than to pay homage to the literature. As far as "new found adulthood", neither Ava nor Stephanie seem to progress on the journey to adulthood in the course of this book. The book description also sets this up as a coming of age story. However, the story really does not go anywhere in terms of character growth which is unfortunate in a character driven book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.