Category Archives: Books

Summer Reads: A Double Header: Italy and Maine

Destinations: Italy and Maine

Books: Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen (NEW in June, 2015)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim (originally published 1922, NEW in Penguin Classics in June, 2015 with introduction by Brenda Bowen.)

Four women who are strangers come together to rent a vacation home for a month. They become friends, renew romantic attachments with the men left at home and experience the magic of place.

That describes both of these books. The venerable The Enchanted April (Penguin Classics), first published in 1922 by Elizabeth Von Arnim and the new book inspired by that one–Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen.

I realize that the style of Elizabeth Von Arnim can seem a bit dated–the book is, after all, 83 years old. But I enjoy the trip back in time and a refresher course in the dry wit and emphasis on propriety of manners seen in books from England in the 20s.

Of course, the thing that everyone enjoys about this book is not the time travel, but the travel to a gorgeous piece of the world–Italy–somewhere near a coastal village, in a mansion practically smothered in flower beds, where flowers bloom all summer, presenting a constantly changing foreground for the mountains and the sea.

I had seen the movie (1992), but not read the book. I remembered gorgeous scenery, but not much more.

I am very glad I had this opportunity to read Von Arnim’s original book. Two women meet in a private club in London where they both have noticed an ad for an Italy villa for rent in Italy. Lottie Wilkins persuades Rose Arbuthnot to join her there, and they recruit the beautiful and well-born Caroline Dester. The fourth character, Mrs. Fisher, is an older woman who likes to name drop about famous people she knew, and judge everyone around her.

 There were many things she disliked more than anything else, and one was when the elderly imagined they felt young and behaved accordingly.

Von Arnim’s well-crafted sentences of description are what was missing from the movie, although the movie showed us the scenery that we can only imagine in the book, as when Lottie first looks out her bedroom window in Italy.

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet.  The sun poured in on her.  The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring.  Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violet and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.

As I rewatch the movie on Netflix, Joan Plowright, as the very proper Mrs. Fisher, recruited to help pay the rent, still cracks me up. Mrs. Fisher’s mannered observations bring to mind Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey.  And lo and behold, Elizabeth Von Arnim makes an appearance in Downtown Abbey, so perhaps the writer was influenced by her as he penned the character of Violet.

Please don’t skip the introduction to the Penguin edition of The Enchanted April.  It frames the book perfectly, and sets the scene for the time and the style. Perhaps it will lead you to Brenda Bowen’s book, Enchanted August

Bowen, who obviously adores Von Arnim, updates the 1920s book’s concept, placing it firmly in the 20th century. Playing to an American audience rather than the British home of the other author, the book is set in Maine. The two women who launch the idea–Lottie and Rose, and the woman trying to escape all her adorers, Caroline Dester, share the names and character traits of the matching characters in The Enchanted April.

Class disparities in the American version are  based on occupation and celebrity rather than inherited titles.  Lottie and Rose meet at their children’s upscale preschool in Brooklyn rather than in a private club in London. Caroline is a movie star instead of a titled wealthy woman

Lifestyle changes in the past 80-plus years are striking. The large cottage in Maine has no servants. Unlike their predecessors in that isolated Italian villa, where they had only each other, the ladies interact with other summer residents on the small island somewhere near Mount Desert.  The two younger women have children–an encumbrance that would merely have cluttered the lives of the women in Von Arnim’s book. And of course they must worry a great deal about computer reception and cell phones with no signal.

While the women in the English book take advantage of the isolation to contemplate their lives, the American women busy themselves with projects–Rose in the village library and Caroline with a teen age drama group. Is this lack of introspection an American trait, or a casualty  of the cultural changes between 1920 and 2015?

Admittedly, in 1922, Caroline Dester also has no desire to tax herself with introspection as she lies in the sun in the Italian garden:

It was very curious, and no one in the world could have been more surprised than she herself, but she wanted to think. She had never wanted to do that before…She had not been there more than a few hours when this strange new desire took hold of her.

I found one other difference to be perhaps whimsical but. to my mind unnecessary. One of the characters–the fusty older woman, Mrs. Fisher– became a fusty older gay man, Beverly Fisher, grieving the passing of his partner, a famous poet.  At the risk of sounding incredibly politically incorrect and insensitive, I have to ask,”Why has it become obligatory to include at least one gay character in every book, movie, and TV show?” Does that make up for pretending they did not exist for the past 200 years of American literature and entertainment? I don’t think so. The question should be, what does this sex change of a character add to the book?

Answer: The character of Beverly Fisher is pivotal to Enchanted August, replacing the cook in the original version with his gourmet creations, eliciting much more sympathy than the older woman in the original, and in general practically stealing the show. But it takes away the intimacy of a women-only retreat and their sharing of knowledge about their own development and the men they deal with or have dealt with.

In general, Enchanted August presents a lovely escapists novel for summer reading. But Brenda Bowen’s writing is uneven. She took a great chance in allowing her first adult novel to be compared to the seasoned writing of Elizabeth Von Armin. There are times when Bowen rises almost to the eloquence of Von Armin, although she is writing about a much less eloquent age. And through most of the book I was eagerly turning pages to see how things would turn out for one of the characters, who were appealing each in their own way.  However, there were also times when the plot seemed to bog down in trivia and the unnecessary intrusion of subplots concerning the island’s summer crowd.

Which place would I most want to go for a month?  If I could travel back in time, as well as distance (and at 1920’s prices), the Italian villa would be a dream.  But all things considered, I have to admit that I would probably be most comfortable in a large cottage on an island in Maine.

How about you?  Would you like to inhabit the world of The Enchanted April, or that of Enchanted August. Or does a month away with three other women sound awful. Or if you’re a guy–would you join these four women if invited?

Timely Summer Read: Historic Charleston Novel


Destination: Charleston South Carolina (1800s)

Book: The Invention of Wings,  by Sue Monk Kidd (NEW in Paperback- First published 2004)

 

If you are traveling to Charleston, you can visit sites mentioned in this book. In fact, one location, the Emmanuel AME church, has recently made the news in a tragic way.

Sue Monk Kidd’s book, The Invention of Wings, a historical novel set in pre-Civil War Charleston South Carolina may not be what we usually talk about as summer reading.  There is nothing frivolous about this book that explores the effects of slavery, the abolition movement, and the birth of women’s rights. But do not worry that it will be depressing. The characters are deeply true and fascinating, and the plot keeps you turning pages.

Since I was traveling in the South, and having read the blurbs on the book, I was eager to read it.  I knew that the novel told the story of a slave girl and her mistress in a wealthy Charleston family. When I started reading, I realized it was a fascinating portrait of two women each trapped in a different way, and was reminded that Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees is a delightful companion for a reader. She weaves some delicious sentences, like “One Sunday when the air was crisp and razor-cut with light…”

I later learned that Sarah Grimké, the woman who grew up as a privileged member of society, was based on a real woman.  Besides being opposed to slavery from the time she was a child and speaking publicly for the abolition, she and her sister defied convention in other ways.

Hetty “Handful”, the other main character, is an invention of the author. However, Kidd’s carefully researched story of the life of urban slaves is so impressive that you have to believe it is true, in the way that novels can frequently be more true than fact.

Handful is “given” to Sarah as a birthday present when Sarah is just 11 years old. Although Sarah fails to set Handful free as she wishes, the two become close friends. Sarah’s older brother teaches her to read and she longs to follow her father and brother’s career path by becoming a loawyer.  That dream is as impossible as is the slave’s dream of living free of a master.

But there is freedom and there is freedom.  The theme of the book is summed up in a line spoken by a black preacher, “Be careful, you can get enslaved twice, once in your body and once in your mind.”

Reconciled to not becoming a lawyer, Sarah continues to do audacious things.  Since she can’t set Handful free of slavery, she sets out to free her mind by teaching her to read.  You may not realize, as I did not, what a serious offense this was in the antebellum South. It is a serious infraction not just of custom, but of the law.

Handful and Sarah make a good pair.  Sarah, resolving to be audacious (despite her fears and her stammer) and Handful’s rebellion (perhaps bolder, since she has less to lose).  Handful’s mother tells her stories–legends brought form Africa. She sets an example of deception and refusal to allow her soul to be enslaved, and Kidd tells an interesting story about Handful’s mother, Charlotte that winds up coinciding with an event in the news this week.

The news event:

A man shot   people in the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston.  Washington Post story outlines the history of that church, including the slave revolt incited by a free black named Denmark Vesey. See historic photos of the church in this Daily Kos article.

In the novel, The Invention of Wings, Charlotte has an affair with a free black named Denmark, who preaches in a black church and Handful later becomes enmeshed in a plot for slave rebellion during which Denmark is caught and hanged.

This is just the most startling example of how contemporary this historical novel actually is.  Reading today’s news jolted me as I realized that Sarah Grimké and her family and the slaves they owned lived in a Charleston where there actually was a serious threat of the mayhem of a slave revolt, abolitionists were actually shunned, people who educated blacks were punished, and women who dared to speak in public were shunned and became the target of sermons in churches.

This post contains links to Amazon for your convenience.  You need to know that I am an Amazon Associate, and make a few cents when you buy through those links. THANKS!

EXCLUSIVE Travel Memoir Excerpt: Careening Around Cairo

It is not every day that we get an exclusive look at a future best-selling travel book! I am delighted and privileged to re-introduce A Traveler’s Library contributor, Edie Jarolim, who shares with you excerpts of a chapter from her work-in-progress, a travel memoir you won’t want to miss–Getting Naked for Money.

EXCLUSIVE to A Traveler’s Library

The following is an excerpt from Getting Naked for Money: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All.  Please contribute to the Kickstarter campaign that will allow the book to be finished and published (see badge at the end)

***

I am a terrible Jew. This I knew from an early age. At Passover seders as far back as I can remember, I would recite the story of the Israelites’ enslavement while harboring a secret love for the land of the pharaohs. “Let my people go,” I intoned, while longing to visit Egypt.

I don’t blame the Jewish holiday for my disloyalty, although, like most kids, I found the Haggadah reading interminable. I was also a bit dubious about parts of the story that it told. My favorite food on the seder plate was charosets, a mixture of apples, walnuts, and grape juice meant to represent the mortar used at forced construction sites. If you can eat the building materials, I thought, how bad could the work be?

Nor do I blame Hollywood for my Egyptophilia, even though Cecil B. DeMille cast sexy Yul Brenner as Ramses against Charlton Heston’s buff-but-boring Moses in “The Ten Commandments.” My childhood friend Sharon and I would cross our arms and mimic the bald hunk intoning, “So let it be written. So let it be done.”

Brooklyn Museum: Relief of Queen Nefertiti Kissing One of Her Daughters. Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund.
Brooklyn Museum: Relief of Queen Nefertiti Kissing One of Her Daughters

No, I blame my mother—which maybe makes me a typical Jew after all. Every few weeks, before I was old enough to go on my own, my mother would walk with me from our apartment on Lincoln Road down Empire Boulevard to Grand Army Plaza and the Brooklyn Museum. There I came to adore the hushed, high-ceiling Egyptian halls.

I’m sure the serenity of the setting and the shared time with my busy parent, sister free, were part of the appeal. But the alternate universe showcased in those rooms, the grand kingdoms, dynasties, and mysterious hieroglyphs, also grabbed my imagination. I loved the busts with elegant headdresses and exotic names like Hatshepsut–a female pharaoh!—and the clean lines of the towering statues, representing powerful beings who transcended the messiness of everyday life. I was especially drawn to the Wilbour plaque shown above of Akhenaton and Nefertiti, a rare artist’s slab, the label said. I devoured all the books I could find about the Eighteenth Dynasty couple, and about Akhetaten, the city Akhenaten devoted to his revolutionary new religion.

All this is to say, my assignment to update Frommer’s Egypt didn’t come from out of the blue.

My interest in Egypt, always on the back burner, had returned with a mummy-like vengeance when I started working at Prentice Hall Travel (PHT). I regularly tried to convince Marilyn Wood, PHT’s editorial director, that the company needed a new, more in-depth book to supplement Frommer’s Egypt—and that I was the ideal person to write it. As far as I was concerned, there could never be too many Egypt guides.

My persistence paid off. When, in the spring of 1989, about a month after I parted ways with Rough Guides, Marilyn learned that the author of Frommer’s Egypt wanted to take a break from updating her book, she asked me if I wanted to fill in. Naturally I said yes.

***

Maybe the most memorable part of my Cairo research [for Frommer’s Egypt] was visiting the great pyramid complex at Giza.

Pictures make the necropolis look like it’s in the middle of the desert—and of course it was, at one point. Now, however, Giza is a suburb of Cairo, with the pyramids fringing its outskirts. Picture the Seventh Wonder of the Ancient World at the edge of Queens.

That didn’t detract from the impact of viewing it in the direction of the limestone bluff on which the pyramids sit–or from my excitement at seeing camels, wearing colorful, ornate saddles, clustered around the imposing structures.

I am a sucker for camels. The moment I first looked into their mischievous long-lashed eyes in a crowded Tunis market, I was hooked. There was something about the unlikeliness of their shape, the contrast between their ungainly gait and their innate dignity, that spoke to me. After years of ogling these creatures at zoos, I was excited to learn that camel rides were available at the pyramids.

The camels were all standing placidly, chewing, looking bored, as I approached. The camel drivers next to them were not nearly as placid. A tourist actually seeking out a camel ride must have been a rarity, so a group of men descended on me, pleading, “Lady, you ride my camel, she is the most beautiful and gentle. For you, not expensive.”

Overwhelmed, I finally just chose a guy with a camel that didn’t look depressed and who didn’t have a whip in his hand (the guy, not the camel).

Camels are very tall and even a kneeling one is difficult to mount; the large saddle adds to the height and is awkward to negotiate. When my chosen camel driver—I’ll call him CD—helped me up, his hand grazed my breasts, not a part of the body generally required for leverage. I told myself it was an accident and tried to focus on the fact that I was at the pyramids, about to ride a camel.

After we plodded along for about two minutes, we came to a halt, my camel having decided it was time for a bathroom break and CD having decided it was time for a sales pitch. He said, “I have authentic antiquities, not expensive for you.” I nodded and smiled blandly. “You buy?” he asked. “No, thank you,” I said.

But CD was persistent and I suspected that I would be forced to sit in the midday sun, listening to his spiel and smelling camel poop until I gave in. I looked at the statuettes he had wrapped in a cloth, and finally chose a small one for a large price. “Do not let them see it at customs,” CD warned, explaining that it was illegal to take antiquities out of the country.

“Only if they’re authentic,” I wanted to say. But CD was holding the reigns to my camel, and I really wanted to get out of there. For a change, I kept quiet.

No surprise: as CD helped me off the camel, his hand grazed my breasts again. Maybe he was trying to authenticate them.

I can’t vouch for the antiquities, but this book is the REAL DEAL–travel around the world with Edie who shares adventures from camels to insider info on the travel writing business (including the getting naked part).  If you want to hear more about Edie’s adventures as a travel writer, how about becoming a publisher by helping to finance the book? Join Edie’s KickStarter campaign.
Kickstarter-Campaign-Badge