Serious fiction, fun fiction, and a memoir this month—dive right in!
Most of my historical fiction reading is set in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. I know the framework—the history, the royalty, the social trends—so the stories tend to be reassuringly familiar. This month I ventured out of my comfort zone and read The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani. Set in 17th century Iran, this is an enlightening story of one young woman’s attempts to choose her life’s path in a time and place in which female autonomy was virtually unknown. When the 14-year-old narrator’s father dies, she and her mother must throw themselves on the mercy of her father’s half-brother, a wealthy carpet designer for the court of the Shah. They are treated as servants in his house, but our heroine’s talents as a rug maker and designer are encouraged to develop. Still, her marriage prospects are bleak; without a dowry, her chances for a respectable match are slim. Instead, she is contracted out for a temporary “marriage” of three months to a wealthy man who may, at his whim, choose to continue the relationship or not as it pleases him. While this arrangement is financially beneficent to her uncle, our narrator is ashamed of her position and yearns only to make her own choices for her future. How she manages to do so with pluck, daring and fortitude make this novel a treat to read. The Blood of Flowers reminds me of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Caroline See; in both cases I learned more about a foreign culture and my education was cleverly disguised as entertainment. This would be an excellent discussion choice for a book group with a multicultural bent.
By now, you may have figured out that I am an ardent Jane Austen fan. Luckily for me, June brings another offering to the Jane Austen altar: Austenland by Shannon Hale. Hale, better known as an author of young adult novels, turns her talents to chick lit and the result is well worth reading! Jane Hayes, like Bridget Jones before her, is a young woman with an unhealthy obsession with Mr. Darcy as played by Colin Firth. Somehow, her real-life relationships never measure up to the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice” that rules her fantasy life. When Jane’s great aunt dies and leaves her a three-week trip to Pembrook Park, a Jane Austen fantasy camp for adults, she vows to take the trip, then swear off her fantasy forever. Thus begins the story (and if there isn’t already a Regency-era England theme park, someone should create one, because this book will make you want to go there). As Jane learns the social conventions of the era before heading to the manor house (no first names with members of the opposite sex unless you are engaged to that person; no electronic gadgets; the rules of whist; the servant class is invisible), she worries about living a make-believe life for three weeks, especially while dressed in low-cut gowns and corsets. Her arrival at Pembrook Park eases her fear (there is modern plumbing!) and we are plunged into a story that is one-third Jane Austen and two-thirds modern day chick lit. Could there be a real Mr. Darcy at Pembrook Park? Will fantasy trump reality? Can a modern woman find love the old-fashioned way? You’ll find all this and more in Austenland, and have a rollicking good time doing it.
It is almost time for summer camp, and Mindy Schnieder’s new memoir, Not A Happy Camper, is just in time to remind us of those carefree days of youth, frolicking in the arms of Mother Nature. Or not. In the summer of 1974, 13-year old Mindy spent eight weeks at Camp Kin-A-Hurra in Maine. Her goal? To have her first boyfriend so she would have someone to kiss goodbye on the last night of camp. Camp Kin-A-Hurra turns out to be the antithesis of her previous camp. Instead of wearing a uniform, she can wear her own shorts and t-shirts. Instead of regimented activities being mandated over a PA system, the campers do what they want to do when they want to do it. And instead of snobby rich girls, Camp Kin-A-Hurra is populated by friendly girls who are willing to welcome the new girl into their midst. The owner of the camp may have slightly misrepresented Kin-A-Hurra when he was extolling its virtues to Mindy’s parents—the cabins aren’t heated, there is no photography lab and kosher is more a state of mind, rather than an actual practice. Still, she manages to have the classic camp experiences—raiding the boys’ camp, starring in the softball game against the rival camp on the other side of town, hiking the Maine mountains on an overnight away trip and participating in the camp color war. This is a delightful memoir. You needn’t have attended a sleepaway camp to appreciate Mindy Schneider’s book. If you’ve ever left home, wondering who you really were and searching for a place to belong, this will resonate with you. Plus, there’s a heavy dose of 1970s nostalgia—what’s not to like?
Susan Taylor has been in the book business, in one aspect or another, since 1982. She recently returned to the Capital District after 14 years in the Boston area (which included stints at the Harvard Bookstore and the Wellesley Booksmith), and is happily re-employed at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza. Stop by the store if you are looking for a good book—she’s read a lot more than she can talk about here!