Rebecca is Haunting the Airwaves

A good movie at the end of the day seems to have become a routine. The remake of  Roald Dahl’s The Witches is coming to HBO in time for Halloween, and other scary movies I’ve watched lately include The Trial of the Chicago Seven and David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet on Netflix, but last night I watched Lily James and Armie Hammer in the Netflix remake of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a classic scary movie.

James is a little too beautiful for the frumpy second wife Du Maurier wrote about, despite her clunky shoes and baggy sweaters, and Armie Hammer is too young and debonair for the cold, older, reticent aristocrat of the novel, but, oh, they are so good to watch together on the screen,  The steamy scene on the beach reminiscent of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s famous scene in From Here to Eternity would never have happened in the novel, but I’m glad it was in the movie.

I wondered at the Netflix ending and spent an hour trying to find a free version of the novel on Gutenberg to compare.  When I read Rebecca, I remembered the Gothic overtones and the feeling of ghostly despair haunting the ending; noone was living happily ever after.  Netflix cures this authorial intent with another steamy bedroom scene, but offers a nod to the possibilities with Lily James crazy stare into the camera at the end.  If you didn’t know the novel, you might think all was well and Rebecca’s ghost was still swimming in the deep.  The movie was good, but, as always, the novel was better – give it a try – you can listen to it, complete with eerie music  – here.

Although true to the novel in most scenes, the romantic ending might be better for viewers in this virus ridden world.  After all, we already have a specter to fear and resist; who needs another one.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Today is Scott Bakula’s birthday.  You may know this actor in the crime drama he plays on television, but back in the early nineties he was a time traveling scientific wonder, jumping from life to life in the serialized show Quantum Leap.  Matt Haig uses this construct to create an entertaining story in The Midnight Library.

The heroine, Nora Seed, is so despondent and dissatisfied with her life, she sees no reason to live.  Cue the angel in the Jimmy Stewart classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Ms. Elm, the kind and generous librarian who manages the midnight library, appears with a trove of books documenting Nora’s life and regrets as the stacks precariously slide along the ethereal walls.  Before she dies, Nora has the chance to be in lives that might have been, and the adventure begins.

Who hasn’t wondered about the ‘road not taken,” life decisions leading to inevitable consequences.  What if another choice had been made?  How would a different decision have affected your personal life, your career, your impact on others, your contribution to the world?  We can only speculate, but Nora gets the chance to really experience the results of other choices she might have made.

The book of regrets reminds Nora of what she might have done, and she starts a series of quantum leaps through the universe, reliving her life as a successful rock star, wife of a pub owner, glaciologist fighting a polar bear, revered author and professor, married, unmarried, with children, without children – the possibilities are endless but Haig sticks to just enough detours to convince the reader that Nora is probably happiest back in her old life.

And like the song, “Back in Your Old Backyard,” Nora finds herself seeing the life she has as not so bad, with still time for constructive changes.

The Midnight Library offers some respite from reality, and a reminder to be grateful for what we have, no matter how dire the circumstances.  

 

The Authenticity Project

Although I am still recovering from the Presidential debate debacle and the shock (well, maybe not so much) of the President being infected, I found a book to distract me.  Clare Pooley’s The Authenticity Project promised to be a light cheery read and I submerged myself in the ebook version.  Starting light with the premise of a journal passing anonymously to subsequent readers and writers, the story quickly morphed into a confessional.

Long before the pandemic was a household word, I often left paperbacks on planes or in terminals.  Sometimes I found a book in the waiting area, and once I accidentally left The Dutch House on a seat.  I had finished it but had to buy it again when it was time for the book club discussion (this time I listened to the Tom Hanks version).  Sometimes, I purposely left a book on a park bench and tried to follow its trajectory through a website created for that purpose, but I quickly lost interest and the website address.

I have never revealed the pages of a personal journal; in fact, I follow the advice of a good friend and destroy the pages after purging my soul, rereading my angst, and moving on.  In The Authenticity Project, the characters not only write about themselves but point to their identities so subsequent readers of the journal can find them.

One reviewer called the book a “cozy, feel-good read.”  It does have a happy ending but the surprise betrayal took it off that course and strengthened the story with tension and realism.  Julian, an elderly artist starts the project, writing about his loneliness and leaves the journal in a cafe where the owner, Monica, picks it up and decides to help him.  She too writes about her desperation, and the book passes to a series of characters looking for friendship and love: an addict and wealthy banker Hazard, Australian surfer Riley, social media queen and new mother Alice, and a few others.  Monica’s cafe becomes home base as they eventually connect in person and become friends, trying to help one another.

Through a series of humorous twists, the story morphs into the revelation of each character’s real inner identity; aspiration meets reality, and friendship reigns.  The Authenticity Project will make you grateful for your friends, and mesmerize you into a better world for a while – we could all use that distraction.

Zooming with Books and The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

Although I belong to several book clubs, I’ve been a member of a local group for years.  The size has morphed from a handful of people to over thirty when the snow birds are in town.  Snow birds, for those of you who live in the same place year round,  is that category of lucky people who fly South or West to winter in warm lazy climes and return to their civilized home territory, complete with neighborhood bookstores, professional theater, and real newspapers, in the Spring – the best of both worlds.

I live in the same place year round – and it’s not the one with the bookstores, theater, and newspapers – but with great weather and amazing views.  Lately, traveling has been a distant dream of days in the past.   Even before the pandemic, I had become wary of attending this book club.  As my dear friend, Julia Child, always said, I lacked the cour- ahge (courage).  More about this later.

I have just finished Abbi Waxman’s The Bookish Life of Nina Hill – bought from the only small independent bookstore in the neighborhood  – and decided it is perfect for the next zoom meeting of this book club.  Not only is it upbeat, fun, and easy to follow, but the back of the book has a Reader’s Guide with questions for discussion – and some even go beyond literal meaning.

Answering prescribed questions has become the standard for this book club, despite a few members’ attempts to steer the discussion into a real conversation.  The new zoom format begs for structure, and prepared questions seem to be an easy organizational tool, and a way to corral a group of participants.

Here’s where my courage is lacking.   Before I can take a quiz on a book I’ve read – and the questions usually are testing factual knowledge – I’d have to read the book at least twice and take notes.  I’ve decided life is too short to read many books twice; there are too many other books I want to read first.  And, knowing there will be a quiz can be scary – feels too much like being in Sister Eugene Marie’s sophomore literature class.

But I will be reading Waxman’s book again to take notes, not only for the books mentioned that I want to read, but also to outline the sights and sounds of the Los Angeles I seem to have missed whenever I visited there.  Next time, when I finally use the cancelled airplane ticket, which now will be free of its change charge, I will be ready to find the food, the streets, and the city Waxman describes.   And all those books she mentions, from Saroyan’s The Human Comedy to Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham will be on my list to read on the plane.

The story follows Nina, who prefers reading to anything else – even people.  Of course, she works in a bookstore and has floor to ceiling bookshelves in her little apartment.  But Nina is not just the smart bookish stereotype; she’s clever and witty.  She discovers her missing father when he dies and writes her into his will, suddenly immersing her into a family of brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, leading to a series of hilarious conversations and not too shabby inheritance.  Romance is added to her life when she connects with someone on a rival trivia team in a classic meet-cute scene.  If you enjoy Sophie Kinsella and Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones), add Abbi Waxman to your list of modern Jane Austen novelists.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill was fun and refreshing. Go ahead – ask me a question.

TIPS For Your Next Zoom Book Discussion:

  1. Keep participation optional, including the video – not all of us can get to our hair dresser these days.
  2. Send the discussion questions a few weeks before the meeting, and be sure to include open ended questions. No one likes to have to remember what Aunt Mildred was wearing on the third Tuesday before the murder.  But relational questions can help connect the book to the reader, e.g., Would you have handled the character’s anxiety differently?
  3. Steer away from the “Writer’s Process.”  Instead ask readers to identify a favorite character, a plot twist they found believable or unbelievable, the value of the setting (locations) in the story – could it have been anywhere or did the setting make a difference?
  4. Have readers identify a favorite quote or passage from the book.
  5. Reading Guides are usually available, but don’t feel compelled to use all the questions.  Remember it’s a guide, not a quiz.
  6. Have fun – isn’t that the point?

Women’s Dreams, Decisions, and Defaults

How do choices decide a lifetime?  Two books, sitting for months on my shelf, turned out to be similar in addressing the answer.

The Confession by Jessie Burton

In The Confession, Jessie Burton, the author of The Miniaturist, uses a well-used relationship theme in the lives of two women – one older and famous, the other young and impressionable.  Burton’s story has some of the same elements as Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Thirteenth Tale (one of my favorite books) but lacks the page-turning thrills I craved.

The plot alternates from present day Rose, searching for her mother in 2017 to her mother Elise’s story as a young woman 35 years earlier.  Elise abandoned Rose when she was a baby, to be raised by her father, who claims not to know why she left or where she went. The secret drives the story, as Rose disguises herself to work as an assistant to her mother’s former lover, a famous novelist who has not written in thirty-five years, hoping to discover more.  Both Rose and Elise have no self-confidence as young women, and both seem to be searching for something or someone to take charge of their lives.

Rose finds Joe, a wannabe restaurant owner, and muddles through years of a bland relationship.  Elise finds love with Constance until Connie betrays her with another woman; in revenge Elsie has an affair with a married man and becomes pregnant with Rose. Both have complicated lives, accentuated with decisions which change their futures.

Burton’s agenda for asserting women’s rights becomes lost in the circumstances, but the search for closure kept me reading.  Sadly, Rose only finds her mother peripherally – not very satisfying, but the open ending leaves possibilities.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

Although I’m not a fan of Weiner’s books, this one is signed and had been sitting on my shelf since I missed her author luncheon last year, and it turned out to be a good complement to The Confession.

Mrs. Everything alternates between two sisters, Jo and Bethie (Weiner’s little women), as they grow up in the 1950s era of family values, find their way through the turbulent sixties, until finally landing as adults in suburban Connecticut and a feminist collective in Atlanta.  Elizabeth Egan for the New York Times notes:

Weiner tells the story of the women’s rights movement and the sexual awakening of a woman coming of age at a time when being attracted to women would keep her at the fringes of the world she was raised to join. She opts for the safe route, making unimaginable sacrifices along the way, especially on behalf of her sister, who finds the freedom to live the life they both wanted.

Weiner often cringes when her books are called chick lit or beach reads, and  Mrs. Everything seems heavy on the issues for such a label,

but my next book really is a beach read – says so in the title.  I’ve started reading, and so far, it seems to be a romantic comedy starring Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Weiner in their famous literary feud. The two main characters are writers, accidentally living in houses across from each other and each has a summer to write a book.  To encourage a new muse in their writing, they agree to write in the other’s genre.  The Franzen character, known in the book as serious Gus, will write a happily-ever-after romance, and the Weiner character, with the name January Andrews agrees to write serious stuff.

Should be fun…