Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #13: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

Belle-Epoque-Elizabeth-RossHave you ever felt prettier or handsomer when you were around friends that society thought were less attractive? Maybe in your teen years, when it felt like everything came down to how you looked, what you wore, and how popular you were in relation to everyone else. Hopefully, it’s something that you grew out of as you became an adult, seeing that beauty is something that shouldn’t come by comparing yourself to other people and feeling better when you’re seen next to someone “ugly.” Hopefully.

And hopefully, an agency that’s sole purpose is to recruit and employ “ugly” or “plain” looking women in order to rent them out to other women who want to seem better looking by comparison would repel you. Make you think, “thank god we don’t live in France in the 1880’s (which is when Belle Epoque takes place)”. I know it did me. But it also reminded me how many commercials there are about skin creams and procedures that “erase the effects of time,” all the air-brushed photos of celebs that trick us into thinking they’re perfect when they’re anything but that flood the newsstands and internet, and the plethora of hair dye because god forbid one gray hair shows through.

Apparently, the quest for the fountain of youth and enhanced beauty is still alive and well. Which makes this book incredibly topical, regardless of being set in the 1880’s. The story is simple: a sixteen year old, Maude, runs away from home in a small French village to escape being married off to the local butcher, some 25 years her senior who possessed a “dangerous smile.” She goes to Paris to start a new life and winds up at the Durandeau Agency, which hires ugly and plain young women to be “beauty foils” to women of means who want to appear more beautiful by comparison. Maude “gets lucky” and selected by a Countess to be her daughter Isabelle’s new “friend”. The Countess believes that Isabelle will shine next to plain Maude, making it easier for Isabelle to secure a husband of good standing. Isabelle, however, has other plans and the Countess doesn’t count on Maude and Isabelle actually becoming friends.

The way it all plays out was, by turns, predictable (of course there’s going to be a showdown when all these secret plans come to light) and quite intriguing (the aftermath of the showdown surprised the hell out of me). Over the course of the book, Maude’s sense of self and of beauty is challenged, as are her friendships, and her plans for her own future. She is shown to be altogether human and given to treating people badly when she loses sight of What Really Matters, such as loyalty, friendship, being your own person, and acting with courage, even in the face of fear. Thankfully, she learns many a lesson on how to be a better, stronger person and made me proud all over again that I’ve never dyed my hair to get rid of the gray.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #11: The Marriage Plot

For other thoughts on this book, the Monkees and how it all relates to Giacommo Puccini, read my independent blog: The Scruffy Rube.

More and more writers want to have a little something to satisfy everyone.

Jeffrey Eugenides (on the other hand) makes a meal out of not satisfying everyone. Satisfaction, after all, is entirely within the perception of the individual. Happiness, true rapturous happiness, is something reserved for the “happily ever after” endings of fairy tales and romance novels. And therein lies the focus of his most recent work: The Marriage Plot.

Take those peppy, cheery, “and everyone got married and had a wonderful life” stories from the late 18th century and plop it down on top of 1980s American uncertainty. Would Lizzie Bennett really want to find her way into Mr. Darcy’s arms, if employment were a viable option for a young woman? Would Heathcliffe wander the moors–woefully disconsolate–when he could just as easily go to a singles bar?

Eugenides knows the answer (I suspect that 98% of anyone reading this review does too), but he still drags us along through 406 pages of characters discovering what the Monkees once sang and we have all long suspected: “Love was only true in fairy tales”. That’s where Madeleine Hanna, directionless post-grad, wants to live: amid the fairy tale romances of the Brontes, Austens and Eliots of the literary canon. She makes a convenient female protagonist and even has to choose between two distinctive suitors: the Heathcliffian tortured soul (now rightly diagnosed as manic-depressive) Leonard Bankhead, and the aloof, Edmund Bertram (the beloved man of Mansfield Park) stand-in: Mitchell Grammaticus. In the end, Madeleine must decide whether to perpetuate this mash-up of archaic literary living, or to step out into the brave new world of empowered-women and independent living.

I appreciate the mash-up, I do. I appreciate the analysis, the brutal frankness, the irredeemable humanity of our three main characters. But I’m an Austen fan. I’m a romance/true love fan. Heck, I’m a Monkees fan. And though Eugendies presents a solid story to support his argument (one that fans of his writing or cynics of romance will undoubtedly enjoy), I want characters to find satisfaction both in themselves and in true love! I want them to see a face…and become believers.

Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #5: Drama by Raina Telgemeier

ImageRaina Telgemeier’s latest graphic novel is a delightful romp through a middle school drama production.  Ms. Telgemeier is also the author of Smile which is an autobiographical account of when she had to get braces in sixth grade.  It was a cute story and well illustrated, but I vastly preferred Drama.   Of course, I’m biased.  I’ve been involved in various theatrical productions from all aspects since I was five.

It was refreshing to see a school setting that was sweet, happy, and embraced creative kids. The main character, Callie (with adorable purple and pink hair!), knows she can’t sing for a lick but still adores all things Drama. Since she wasn’t meant to be on stage, she’s a dedicated and happy part of the tech crew, ready to dive headfirst into her middle school’s new production of “Moon Over Mississippi.”

Callie builds props and is working on an impressive canon that will fire on stage while her best friend Liz is the costume designer. Various other characters put on the play, and the course of mounting it and performing it provide many pages of warm, colorful reminders of the good and bad parts of middle school drama. Oh, the boys you’ll want to date but who like someone else! Oh, the unlikely friendships you’ll make! Oh, the crazy props that are a pain in the butt to build and only work half the time!

Telgemeier deals gently but favorably with homosexuality, communication, creativity, teamwork, preteen romance, and friendship. The reading level is not challenging, but it makes a joyful and breezy read. I can’t wait to see what she comes out with next.

Sophia’s #CBR5 Review #23: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsI feel like I don’t need to say very much about The Fault in Our Stars (2012) by John Green. I first heard of it through a review on Cannonball and since then I’ve seen countless others, all of them raving about this cancer-stricken teenage, love story. This is another book that has been sitting on my wait list at the library forever. It was worth the wait, a quick but thoughtful and powerful read.

Hazel is sixteen years old and has been dealing with terminal cancer since she was thirteen. She meets Augustus at a cancer support group meeting and almost immediately likes him. I don’t want to say too much about this book, in part, because the more I think about it, the more sad it makes me. Okay, let’s just say that Hazel and Augustus have a fun, sweet, and realistic relationship hampered by their pasts, their illnesses, and their fear of what the future has in store for them. Hazel’s relationship with her parents is also very well done and heartbreaking. Green managed to handle the depth of their feelings and their tragedies without getting melodramatic.

Most of the time I was reading this, I was thinking it would make a fantastic movie. A lot of that has to do with Green’s writing. The witty banter between the characters would be fun to see on-screen, and the dialogue is sometimes even written in a script-like form, making the transition to the screen feel inevitable. I was glad to see that they are making a movie of this book. It could  be really good. Just, please, please don’t mess it up.

To visit my blog to see more reviews, click here.

Malin’s #CBR5 Review #27: Sonen (The Son) by Jon Fosse

Jon Fosse is a contemporary Norwegian novelist, poet and playwright and his works have been translated into more than forty languages (which isn’t shabby for a Norwegian). He is highly critically acclaimed both nationally and internationally and apparently considered one of the world’s greatest contemporary playwrights.

In the play Sonen, or The Son, an elderly couple (most likely living somewhere in the picturesque but often sparse region in the West of Norway – because that’s where Fosse sets a lot of his works) go about their daily life in the same monotonous routine as every other day. They keep repeating the same phrases over and over, lamenting the darkness outside (it’s worth pointing out that in the winter time, much of Norway barely gets any daylight at all) and the increasing lack of people in their little village. The young people move away to the cities because there is nothing to do, the old people wither away and die. The only light they see is the window of their neighbour’s house. They wonder about their son, who they haven’t heard from in months. More on my blog.