‘Mrs Hemingway’ by Naomi Wood ****

I chose to purchase Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway to contribute to my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, which I am currently working through.  Although the novel is set in several locations – the Sunday Express mentions in its review that it zips ‘from jazz-age Paris to post-war Cuba via 1930s Florida’ – I chose to include it for Cuba, where Ernest Hemingway lived for some years.9781447226888

Whilst I tend to be quite sceptical about fictionalised books about real-life figures, particularly the famous and infamous, I was really looking forward to immersing myself within Mrs Hemingway.  It has been very favourably reviewed, and was also the winner of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize in 2014, as well as being shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize in the same year.  Mrs Hemingway tells of four very different women, forced to be strong in their own ways; indeed, the blurb mentions that ‘over the ensuing decades, as each marriage is ignited by passion and deceit, four extraordinary women will learn what it means to love – and lose – the most famous writer of his generation.’  Mrs Hemingway is told entirely using the third person perspective, and follows each wife in turn – Hadley, Fife, Martha, and Mary – in separate sections.  This structure, as well as the non-linear fragments within each, work well.

The novel begins in 1926, when Ernest and his wife Hadley are living in France, with their small son, Bumby.  At this point, Ernest is already conducting an affair with Hadley’s best friend, Fife.  The novel immerses the reader immediately in the non-conformist relationship which the three have, and hints at the danger which it will bring: ‘Everything is now done a trois.  Breakfast, then swimming; lunch, then bridge; dinner, then drinks in the evenings.  There are always three breakfast trays, three wet bathing suits, three sets of cards left folded on the table when the game, abruptly and without explanation, ends.  Hadley and Ernest are accompanied wherever they go by a third.  This woman slips between them as easily as a blade.  This is Fife; this is her husband’s lover.’

When each protagonist is introduced, the reader sees them as wholly developed; there are different intricacies to each character, and their real-life personalities have clearly been researched extensively.  There is no sense of overdramatisation, or of exaggeration, as far as I could tell.  Each characterisation is perceptive and thoughtful, and Wood is entirely sympathetic and understanding to the women’s plight.  Mrs Hemingway is an immersive and easy to read novel, but it still smacks of intelligence.

The scenes throughout Mrs Hemingway are set beautifully and effectively, and I found the novel engaging from the very beginning.  Wood has made great use of the fascinating period and story which Ernest Hemingway’s real life, and many affairs, gives.  He comes across as the unscrupulous fellow that he was at times, but glimpses are given which demonstrate things which he did to make himself so popular with womankind.  ‘How easily he attracts women,’ Wood writes.  ‘How they come in droves, unwelcome as moths.’

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Books Set in Florida

I’m holidaying in and off Florida later this year, and when turning my mind to literature which I’d read with a Floridian setting, I could come up with very little.  I thought, therefore, that I would make a list of ten books of interest to me, and hopefully then motivate myself to read a large chunk of them before and during my holiday.  I can’t promise that I’ll get to all of these, but I’m going to try!

1. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell 8584686
The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline–think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades–and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the “World of Darkness.”  Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve-year-old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the “Underworld,” a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.


2. Tangerine by Edward Bloor
89755Paul Fisher sees the world from behind glasses so thick he looks like a bug-eyed alien. But he’s not so blind that he can’t see there are some very unusual things about his family’s new home in Tangerine County, Florida. Where else does a sinkhole swallow the local school, fire burn underground for years, and lightning strike at the same time every day?The chaos is compounded by constant harassment from his football–star brother, and adjusting to life in Tangerine isn’t easy for Paul—until he joins the soccer team at his middle school. With the help of his new teammates, Paul begins to discover what lies beneath the surface of his strange new hometown. And he also gains the courage to face up to some secrets his family has been keeping from him for far too long. In Tangerine, it seems, anything is possible.;


3. The Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
When Fat Charlie’s dad named something, it stuck. Like calling Fat Charlie “Fat Charlie.” 373951Even now, twenty years later, Charlie Nancy can’t shake that name, one of the many embarrassing “gifts” his father bestowed — before he dropped dead on a karaoke stage and ruined Fat Charlie’s life.  Mr. Nancy left Fat Charlie things. Things like the tall, good-looking stranger who appears on Charlie’s doorstep, who appears to be the brother he never knew. A brother as different from Charlie as night is from day, a brother who’s going to show Charlie how to lighten up and have a little fun … just like Dear Old Dad. And all of a sudden, life starts getting very interesting for Fat Charlie.  Because, you see, Charlie’s dad wasn’t just any dad. He was Anansi, a trickster god, the spider-god. Anansi is the spirit of rebellion, able to overturn the social order, create wealth out of thin air, and baffle the devil. Some said he could cheat even Death himself.’


4. Turtle Moon by Alice Hoffman
40806Turtle Moon transports the listener to Verity, Florida, a place where anything can happen during the month of May, when migrating sea turtles come to town, mistaking the glow of the streetlights for the moon.  A young single mother is murdered in her apartment and her baby is gone. Keith, a 12-year-old boy in the same apartment building—the self-styled “meanest boy” in town—also disappears. In pursuit of the baby, the boy and the killer, are Keith’s divorced mother and a cop who himself was once considered the meanest boy in town. Their search leads them down the humid byways of a Florida populated almost exclusively by people from somewhere else; emotional refugees seeking sanctuary along the swampy coast.


5. To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway 913744
To Have and Have Not is the dramatic story of Harry Morgan, an honest man who is forced into running contraband between Cuba and Key West as a means of keeping his crumbling family financially afloat. His adventures lead him into the world of the wealthy and dissipated yachtsmen who throng the region, and involve him in a strange and unlikely love affair.  Harshly realistic, yet with one of the most subtle and moving relationships in the Hemingway oeuvre, To Have and Have Not is literary high adventure at its finest.


85911076. The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
Mara Dyer doesn’t think life can get any stranger than waking up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there.  It can.  She believes there must be more to the accident she can’t remember that killed her friends and left her mysteriously unharmed.  There is.  She doesn’t believe that after everything she’s been through, she can fall in love.
She’s wrong.


7. The Everglades: A River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas 2083005
Before 1947, when Marjory Stoneman Douglas named the Everglades a “river of grass,” most people considered the area worthless. She brought the world’s attention to the need to preserve the Everglades. In the Afterword, Michael Grunwald tells us what has happened to them since then. Grunwald points out that in 1947 the government was in the midst of establishing the Everglades National Park and turning loose the Army Corps of Engineers to control floods–both of which seemed like saviors for the Glades. But neither turned out to be the answer. Working from the research he did for his book, The Swamp, Grunwald offers an account of what went wrong and the many attempts to fix it, beginning with Save Our Everglades, which Douglas declared was “not nearly enough.” Grunwald then lays out the intricacies (and inanities) of the more recent and ongoing CERP, the hugely expensive Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.


8. The Aguero Sisters by Cristina Garcia
376004Reina and Constancia Agüero are Cuban sisters who have been estranged for thirty years. Reina–tall, darkly beautiful, and magnetically sexual–still lives in her homeland. Once a devoted daughter of la revolución, she now basks in the glow of her many admiring suitors, believing only in what she can grasp with her five senses. The pale and very petite Constancia lives in the United States, a beauty expert who sees miracles and portents wherever she looks. After she and her husband retire to Miami, she becomes haunted by the memory of her parents and the unexplained death of her beloved mother so long ago.  Told in the stirring voices of their parents, their daughters, and themselves, The Agüero Sisters tells a mesmerizing story about the power of myth to mask, transform, and finally, reveal the truth–as two women move toward an uncertain, long awaited reunion.


9. Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye 23615823
Huron Key is already weighed down with secrets when a random act of violence and a rush to judgment viscerally tear the town apart. As the little island burns under the sun and the weight of past decisions, a devastating storm based on the third-strongest Atlantic Hurricane on record approaches, matching the anger of men with the full fury of the skies. Beautifully written and seductive, Under a Dark Summer Sky is at once a glorious love story, a fascinating slice of social history, and a mesmerizing account of what it’s like to be in the eye of a hurricane.


10. 90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis
13722320When Julian’s parents make the heartbreaking decision to send him and his two brothers away from Cuba to Miami via the Pedro Pan operation, the boys are thrust into a new world where bullies run rampant and it’s not always clear how best to protect themselves


Are there any other books which you feel should be on my list?  Which are your favourite tomes set in and around Florida?


The Jazz Age in Literature

I could have so easily filled a post about the Jazz Age in literature with books by my beloved F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Instead, I have chosen one Fitzgerald, two other works of fiction, and two pieces of non-fiction which I think sum up the period wonderfully.

Tales from the Jazz Age by F. Scott Fitzgerald 9781492896227
Tales of the Jazz Age (1922) is a collection of eleven short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Divided into three separate parts, according to subject matter, it includes one of his better-known short stories, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” All of the stories had been published earlier, independently, in either Metropolitan Magazine (New York), Saturday Evening Post, Smart Set, or Collier’s.’


9780099286554Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald
‘One of the great literary curios of the twentieth century Save Me the Waltz is the first and only novel by the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. During the years when Fitzgerald was working on Tender is the Night, which many critics consider to be his masterpiece, Zelda Fitzgerald was preparing her own story, which strangely parallels the narrative of her husband, throwing a fascinating light on Scott Fitzgerald’s life and work. In its own right, it is a vivid and moving story: the confessional of a famous glamour girl of the affluent 1920s and an aspiring ballerina which captures the spirit of an era.’


Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin by Marion Meade 9780156030595
‘In her exuberant new work, Marion Meade presents a portrait of four extraordinary writers- Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St.Vincent Millay, and Edna Ferber – whose loves, lives, and literary endeavors embodied the spirit of the 1920s. These literary heroines did what they wanted and said what they thought, living wholly in the moment. They kicked open the door for twentieth-century women writers and set a new model for every woman trying to juggle the serious issues of economic independence, political power, and sexual freedom. Here are the social and literary triumphs and inevitably the penances paid: crumbled love affairs, abortions, depression, lost beauty, nervous breakdowns, and finally, overdoses and even madness. A vibrant mixture of literary scholarship, social history, and scandal, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin is a rich evocation of a period that will forever intrigue and captivate us.’


9781843547785Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties by Lucy Moore
‘Bracketed by the catastrophes of the Great War and the Wall Street Crash, 1920s America was a place of drama, tension and hedonism. It glittered and seduced: jazz, flappers, wild all-night parties, the birth of Hollywood, and a glamorous gangster-led crime scene flourishing under prohibition. But the period was also punctuated by momentous events – the political show trials of Sacco and Vanzetti; the huge Ku Klux Klan march down Washington DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue – and it produced a splendid array of writers, musicians and film stars, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Bessie Smith and Charlie Chaplin.’


The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway 9780743297332
‘The quintessential novel of the Lost Generation, “The Sun Also Rises” is one of Ernest Hemingway s masterpieces and a classic example of his spare but powerful writing style. A poignant look at the disillusionment and angst of the post-World War I generation, the novel introduces two of Hemingway s most unforgettable characters: Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley. The story follows the flamboyant Brett and the hapless Jake as they journey from the wild nightlife of 1920s Paris to the brutal bullfighting rings of Spain with a motley group of expatriates. ‘



Have you read any of these?  Which are your favourite Jazz Age books?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain ***

First published in February 2012.

The Paris Wife is Paula McLain’s second novel. It begins two years after the end of the First World War and tells the story of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley.

The Paris Wife is told from the first person perspective of 28-year-old Hadley Richardson, an American woman from St Louis, Missouri. Hadley’s narrative voice is relatively relaxed and captivating from the outset. Despite the first person perspective, many details about Ernest are revealed – his time in World War One and recovery after a horrid injury sustained in battle, for example. A few of the chapters are told from the first person perspective and detail some of Ernest’s choices. His thoughts and feelings are also revealed through dialogue and included correspondence. McLain’s choice of two different narrative styles works very well with the story.

The novel features not just Hadley and Hemingway, but such famous characters as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, along with those whom Hadley and Ernest have grown up with in America – their mutual acquaintance Kate Smith who is simultaneously vibrant and overprotective, and Hemingway’s disapproving parents.

The prologue, which is incredibly harrowing in places, is told in retrospect. Hadley looks back at their time spent living in Paris and the female-shaped storm cloud which seems intent upon ruining their married life together. The first chapter then goes back in time to the couple’s first meeting in Chicago. At this point, Hemingway is desperately trying to make a name for himself as a writer, and Hadley is impressed by him as soon as she meets him.

McLain wonderfully portrays how their relationship develops and details the growing trust which enables Ernest to share his writing with Hadley. She moves from their first meeting to their plentiful correspondence with one another, to their eventual marriage. The shifting marital roles of the Hemingways are dealt with incredibly well. In places, Hadley becomes Ernest’s protector as he distances himself from her in order to write. He receives a stream of seemingly endless rejections and the concrete devotion which he had to his craft has been written about rather sensitively and with great understanding.

Although the novel begins in the United States, the couple leave their old life behind in 1921 to live in Paris. Ernest soon falls in love with the city, but Hadley is homesick and discontent.

The novel does not just deal with their relationship, but also with the pasts of Hadley and Hemingway – the events which have combined to create their characters. McLain includes flashbacks to the most formative events of Hadley’s past in particular – her mother Florence focusing wholly on suffrage meetings, the sudden suicide of her father James, and the fractured relationship which Hadley had with her elder siblings Dorothea, Jamie and Fonnie.

McLain has used a great mixture of character traits throughout and has made her rendering of each of the characters incredibly believable. From the outset, Hemingway is an intriguing, unpredictable and quirky character. Hadley, more robust and sensible, seems like his antithesis in many ways. The volatility of human emotions – jealousy, anger, love and betrayal – are highlighted. Friendships break up and begin again, and almost each relationship which Hemingway has with others is fraught with misunderstandings, rudeness and spite.

With fiction books where the characters have historically existed, it is always difficult to know how many of the occurrences which the author writes about actually happened, and how many have merely been added for effect. In McLain’s ‘A Note on Sources’ section which is printed after the novel’s epilogue, she signposts the way in which it was important for her to ‘render the particulars of their lives as accurately as possible, and to follow the very well documented historical record’. The Paris Wife has consequently been well-researched and quite a comprehensive list of sources has been outlined.

McLain beautifully captures the wonder of Paris. Her scenic descriptions are very evocative and she describes the period beautifully. The author has used many details to effectively set the scene of the 1920s – jazz music, Victrolas, séances and the suffrage movement to name but a few. The language used also fits well with the time period. McLain has made Hadley a very charismatic character with an incredibly absorbing narrative voice. The reader feels sympathy for her and her situation throughout. The only small discrepancy in the novel is that the age difference between Hadley and Hemingway is reported as different on two occasions.

In The Paris Wife, McLain really brings Hadley and Ernest Hemingway to life. Her rich detailing and inclusion of many elements of social history throughout, such as the changing climate in Europe, works very well. Her precise period details add another layer to the story and makes it more realistic. The Paris Wife is an incredibly absorbing novel.

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Flash Reviews (10th May 2014)

The Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway **
I really like Ernest Hemingway’s work on the whole, and certainly tend to enjoy his fiction more than his non-fiction.  (The Green Hills of Africa still makes me shudder a little when I think of it.)  This novella sounded relatively interesting, so I added it to the pile of books which I checked out of Cambridge Central Library in early April.  The book has been split into four sections – ‘Red and Black Laughter’, ‘The Struggle for Life’, ‘Men in War and the Death of Society’ and ‘The Passing of a Great Race and the Making and Marring of Americans’.  There is also an introduction and an afterword, and the book still only comes in at 104 pages.

The entirety of The Torrents of Spring takes place in Michigan, and follows a couple of characters whilst outlining their historical and social surroundings.  As tends to happen with Hemingway’s work, I did find his prose a little sparse at times, but too much here seems to have been baldly stated rather than inferred.  Nothing at all was left to the imagination of the reader, which was a real shame.  The novel was not a striking one either, something which much of his other work tends to be.  Whilst The Torrents of Spring was interesting in terms of Hemingway’s interpretation of racial differences, it was ultimately flat.  I am determined to keep reading his work nonetheless, and keep hoping that he has written something else which is on a par with the haunting The Old Man and The Sea.

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Infinite Sky by C.J. Flood ***
I had heard Infinite Sky mentioned in a couple of BookTube videos and spotted it by chance on display in the library.  Its gorgeous cover and the fact that it is a ‘coming of age’ story were enough for me to pick it up, regardless of the way in which I knew little of what it was about.  It is a YA book, and I think I enjoy reading the genre more now than I did when I was of the age to.  The first few sentences are striking:

“You can’t tell that the coffin holds the body of a boy.
He wasn’t even sixteen, but his coffin’s the same size as a man’s would be.
It’s not just that he was young, but because it was so sudden.  No one should die the way he did.  That’s what the faces here say.”

Iris is the novel’s narrator, the child of a grumpy father and AWOL mother, who has run away to travel the world.  Infinite Sky begins with a family of travellers going to live – without permission – on the farmland in Derbyshire which belongs to Iris’ family.  She soon meets Trick, the son of the family, who is just a year older than she.  Although they both know that they should stay away from one another, the pair soon forge a friendship.  Flood makes good use of the different perspectives which the child and adult characters have of the travellers throughout the novel, and how these change along with the circumstances.  I found the first half of the book a little flat, but as soon as the pivotal event occurs, the pace improves and one wants to read on to see what is going to happen.  Flood captures uncertainty so well.  The novel was not how I would have expected it to be, but it is a relatively interesting work which raises several rather topical issues.  I will certainly be keeping my eye on Flood’s future work.

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Granta 87: Jubilee ****
Before checking this out of Cambridge Central Library, I was unaware that Granta magazines existed in the form of collaborative good quality paperback-sized books with jolly cover designs.  Both my boyfriend and I thought that it looked great, and it featured a lot of different authors, so I added it to my checking out pile.  The contributors to this volume – and, indeed, their contributions – are numerous and the book includes, amongst other things, Martin Amis’ screenplay adaptation of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a memoir-style essay by Graham Swift, and a ‘newly discovered’ story by V.S. Pritchett.  As I often do with anthologies, I decided to read it alongside other books, something which works very well for me personally.

As suggested by the title of the issue, Granta 87: Jubilee celebrates the 25th anniversary of the publication of Granta magazine.  It is a local one to me: ‘The Granta’, as it was originally known, first appeared in early 1899, ‘as a magazine published for and by the students of Cambridge University’.  In its current status, it prides itself upon being a magazine of new writing.  I will not make a list of my favourite entries in the volume, as it would be incredibly long, but the highlights for me were Martin Amis’ adaptation of Northanger Abbey and Ian Jack’s fantastic ‘Motley Notes’ introduction.  Granta is a magazine of substance, and I am now contemplating purchasing a subscription so that I can enjoy it indefinitely.

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Two Disappointing Reads

Sadly, at the start of the month I read two rather disappointing books one after the other.  I was so looking forward to both of them, and was a little disgruntled that I didn’t enjoy either.

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick **

‘Sleepless Nights’ by Elizabeth Hardwick

Attracted as I am to lovely green Viragos, I spotted this in a Brighton bookshop.  It isn’t a novel which I’ve come across on my many book shopping jaunts before, and so I had to purchase it.  From the start, I found Hardwick’s prose rather beautiful:

“So, from Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, to Europe, carried along on a river of paragraphs and chapters, of blank verse, of little books translated from the Polish, large books from the Russian – all consumed in a sedentary sleeplessness.”

The entirety of Sleepless Nights is made up of fragmented memories, some true and some fabricated, but there is nothing whatsoever to distinguish between the two.  Whilst interesting, the structure of the book made the entirety feel a little too disjointed, and I found that it did not flow at all.  Characters were introduced at whim and disappeared just as quickly, and it was therefore rather sifficult to identify or sympathise with any of them.  I am not sure how I feel about reading more of Hardwick’s novels.  I think that they will all be stylistically intriguing, but I am not sure whether I will enjoy them.  On further thought since finishing this volume, I have decided not to read any more of her books on the lack of strength of Sleepless Nights.

Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway **
I do really enjoy Hemingway’s fiction, particularly the way in which he uses language so sparingly.  This was the first volume of his non-fiction which I had come across.  I should perhaps have studied the blurb a little when I came across it in Fopp, as I am fascinated with Africa and African society, but not with the hunting of innocent animals.  I found some of the passages rather difficult to read.  The entirety was rather gory, and I found Hemingway’s flippancy about such horrible things rather unsettling at times.  His writing does not seem so startling or interesting when he is writing non-fiction, and in consequence, it seemed a little dull and too matter-of-fact.