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Wiki says: A southern belle (derived from the French word belle, ‘beautiful’) is an archetype for a young woman of the AmericanOld South’s upper class.

RoadTrip Success!

Well maybe the definition of a Southern Belle is a little archaic and superficial, but I plan to become more intimately acquainted with those states who once made up a Confederacy.

For better or worse, Michigan has always been my home.  Although I often detested and felt limited by the small town I was raised in, heading back to MI from college, Chicago, and then NYC was always a trip that I looked forward to.  There’s a feeling of calm when you’re heading back to a world so recognizable – knowing every street, where the creaky floor board is, how to sneakily turn up the heat on the pool just enough that your dad won’t notice, and being able to walk to the bathroom in the dark without tripping and no fumbling for lightswitches, since hell, you’ve been in the same house you entire life (well, except for the first eight months but who’s counting).

Well as of last week, the life I knew has changed by… 692.77 miles and an 11 hour drive (Mapquest).

That’s right, folks, my parents, Northerner’s born and bred, have relocated to Tunica, Mississippi!  You may be familiar with the city (no judgments here) because it is the third most popular gambling destination in the United States, behind Vegas and Atlantic City!  My Dad is not a professional poker player and I doubt my mom will ever wear the costume of a cocktail waitress, but they will live a mere ten minutes from the lights of the casinos.

My mom and I road-tripped down to Tunica last week for the final move – the two of us, Skippy the dog, and a load of my mom’s favorite plants (the “greenhouse” had much more room than poor Skippy and I who had to share the front seat!).  Tunica is a very cute little town overflowing with nice, friendly southerners.  I got my hair done (note to self: always get hair done in South; much better pricing than NYC extravagance!) and in that two hours, was given a brief lesson in Southern etiquette and history.

Dad in front of the Tunica Times newspaper

But I need to know more.  The South truly is a different world. Not only do people have accents  (which is #1 on my Southern Belle list – I hope to pick mine up over the Christmas holidays) but a different history than what I grew up with.  So while I’m searching for all the light switches in our new house next time I visit (when I left after my stay, there were outdoor lights on that we had no idea how they came on, or how to turn off!), I plan to be educating myself on the life from my perch in NYC.

My Southern Book List:

Mom & Skippy in the MS living room pre-moving truck arrival

I wouldn’t even know where to begin to make this a Southern Belle Challenge, but I would love to hear if anyone wanted to dive in to the deep south with me!  Also, I’m sure I’m missing valuable southern literature so please y’all, feel free to make suggestions.

I like to think I’m not a superficial book buyer or reader (I trust you fellow bloggers to tell me about books!), but if I were to buy a book for its cover, I definitely would choose 31 BOND STREET.

Beyond the jacket, the cover language of: “A Novel of Murder, Innocence and Power in New York City” is very compelling. Additionally (like I need another reason), I walk by Bond Street at least once a day, as it’s located between my current apartment in the East Village and just about every other place I go.

Though the house of the “society dentist” in this novel no longer stands, the intersection of Bond Street and Bowery is still a hive of activity, with pedestrians walking and cabs honking all day and well into the night.  Though in this novel, the setting of 31 BOND STREET was in many ways a simpler time of horse-drawn carriages, though the simple times didn’t stop evil from rooting.

Based around a murder that stole the newspaper headlines back in 1857, this novel introduces us to the widowed Emma Cunningham, struggling financially while trying to hold her place in society and raise her two daughters (less raising them than trying to rope good husbands).  When a summer trip to Saratoga (which sounded like an old-fashioned Hamptons!) introduces Emma to wealthy dentist Harvey Burdell, she thinks her future is accounted for.

Bond St & Bowery intersection today

Upon moving in to Harvey’s brownstone at (you guessed it) 31 Bond Street, Emma awaits the marriage proposal she thinks is imminent.  The short time in this abode, she alienates the servants while making the location more pleasant for her daughter’s suitors.  It doesn’t take long for her to realize that while she’s sleeping with Harvey, she may not be next in line to be Mrs. Burdell.

Then Harvey is found brutally murdered, his head almost detached from his neck.  With no witnesses, Emma is quickly the only suspect.

Filled with power, corruption and greed, this novel has many strands of historical significance weaving through.  From the “good” lawyers to political corruption to issues of slavery and power, it is not only a courtroom drama but a colorful fictional look at a different time.

Beyond the rough-edged paper, my other favorite unique aspect of this book were the fictional clips from The New York Times, which did a wonderful job setting the scene and lending a feeling of legitimacy to the time and place.

While I enjoyed the historical imagery, throughout the book I was disappointed by the lack of emotion felt by all characters.  Not once does Emma seem to consider falling in love with Harvey (or anyone else), nor does she seem to have many maternal affections toward her daughters beyond finding them a suitable husband.  I found the most feelings to be from the lawyer who seems to accept Emma’s case rather spontaneously and accept the loss of position with a prestigious law firm.  I also enjoyed the young character John.  Beyond those, I was surprised by how unemotional the book felt, when murder trials typically incite very passionate responses.

This is a wonderful book for readers who appreciate historical details and a setting painted with a talented hand.  It really did take me back to a different time period.  If you enjoyed Jed Rubenfeld’s THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER you should definitely pick up 31 BOND STREET.

You can find this debut novel for sale on Amazon, B&N, Borders and IndieBound.  I look forward to Horan’s next novel.

Thank you to TLC Book Blog Tour for planning this tour!  Hop over and visit the rest of the tour stops here.

Cover Blurb:  “Treat yourself to this book, please–I can’t recommend it highly enough.” -Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society BookSweet but never boring.  Intense but never overdone.  Inspiring but never preaching.  Loving but never raunchy.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a rare novel, one that comes into our life without a sound, but leaves having made an imprint on our soul.

Such an odd, cumbersome title, and one that may have never appealed to me personally except Random House professionals, Susan Kamil, SVP, Editor-in-Chief, and Jane Von Mehren, VP, Publisher, Trade Paperbacks, came to my NYU SPI class to share their experience and the road to success.  This title is globally recognized as this book has been on the New York Times Bestseller List since publication in 2008 (read the inside story of how it achieved such fame in my column on Beneath the Cover, “The Making of a Bestseller”).  Small in stature (the trade paperback a mere 274 pages), this book may initially be cast-off as a whimsical historical fiction novel until you try to put it down… I dare you to leave it untouched for a full 24-hours once you’ve begun.

The characters are lively, quirky, and lovable as they communicate via hand-written letters in 1946, as they rediscover themselves and their world post the trauma and impact of World War II.  You find yourself wanting novelist Juliet Ashton as your own pen pal and quiet Dawsey Adams as a neighbor.  Twists and turns are discrete and natural so that you almost don’t realize when a revelation occurs and the impact in the character’s life.

This novel celebrates people who love books and the written word.  Text, language and history are embraced within remarkable friendships.

Though the era has passed, issues of love, hope, and the kindness of the human spirit will always be timeless and this book (I wager) is destined to become a classic alongside the titles of the authors celebrated in the text, including the Brontes, Austen, Shakespeare, etc… This book  appeals to a wide audience, as it is told from multiple perspectives allowing a glimpse into different psyches.  I agree with Elizabeth Gilbert’s quote, above, to give yourself the gift of this book.

  • NovelWhore’s Grade: A
  • Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  • Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  • Publisher: Random House

Sundays are notoriously unproductive (is this true across the board or just for my roomies and I?), typically spent lolling around in front of the Lifetime Movie Channel or, weather permitting, relaxing on the pool deck, rejuvenating from what was undoubtedly a raucous weekend.  So it makes me proud to say that yesterday, I accomplished quite the feat: one sushi meal with Char at RA, one Lifetime movie (the disturbing & sad Natalee Holloway one), three cups of tea and two books!

Quite unintentionally, both books I read dealt with ghosts/spirits/other-worldly forms of energy.  The protagonist in Joshilyn Jackson’s The Girl Who Stopped Swimming saw the ghost come to her of the young girl who drowned in the pool while Ronlyn Domingue writes a captivating tale from the ghost’s perspective in The Mercy of Thin Air.

girlwhostoppedswimmingThe Girl Who Stopped Swimming is Jackson’s third novel, following Gods in Alabama and Between, Georgia.  Having read them all, I’ve come to realize that Jackson employs a formula in each: Takes place in the South, involves a family secret, poor relatives and a young woman.  While these traits are shared, each book is individual, offering a different story and secret to be uncovered.

The secret in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming begins to unravel once Laurel finds the body of her daughter’s tween friend floating in her pool.  After enlisting her free-spirited sister, Thalia, to help, Laurel discovers more than she had anticipated about her marriage, her daughter, DeLop (the oppressed town of impoverished relatives), the murder in her past and even about herself.  An enlightening novel that makes the reader question happiness and wonder about their own ghosts, outside their line of vision.

  • NovelWhore’s Grade: B+
  • Title: The Girl Who Stopped Swimming
  • Author: Joshilyn Jackson
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (Hachette)

mercyofthinairHard to believe The Mercy of Thin Air is Domingue’s first novel.  Written with such insight and conviction, even a non-believer like myself questions reality.  Told in first person by the intelligent and vivacious Raziela Nolan after her tragic death at the turning point of her life, it tells the story of love that doesn’t die with the body.

Even though Razi dies in 1929 at the age of 22, the story carries the characters up into the 21st century, as she stays “between” – invisible to mortals but remaining on Earth. Her  tale is intertwined with the love story of a couple struggling through their relationship and hidden past, whose lives intersect with the one Razi left behind.  Interesting subplots abound: Razi’s dedication to educating women on their reproductive options when this knowledge was illegal (apparently in the 1920s pregnancy was the only job women were expected to do), the growth and development of independent women, the relationships with other souls in “between” and the life of her great love.

Both The Girl Who Stopped Swimming and The Mercy of Thin Air are more than love stories, though I do feel they appeal to women readers much more than men.  I consider myself to be grounded in reality and both these books made me more open to the presence of those we can’t see.  The next time I feel a cold draft or smell a scent that seems out of place I may have to smile, wondering if possibly a spirit is sharing in my experience. Who is to say otherwise?

  • NovelWhore’s Grade: A-
  • Title: The Mercy of Thin Air
  • Author: Ronlyn Domingue
  • Publisher: Atria Books (Simon & Schuster)

I do, however, suggest you read these books at least a few days apart.  I had a hard time sleeping last night imagining the spirits hovering around my bed!

When I think of a jungle, I imagine a happy place with abundant greenery, tigers roaming the underbrush and monkeys swinging through the massive trees on leafy vines.  Obviously I’ve totally bought into the Disney jungle vision depicted in “Tarzan”.

jungle3I had thought all my imaginings of jungles to be far away from Chicago, thinking I would have to travel by land and sea before reaching one.  Until, that is, I devoured Upton Sinclair’s groundbreaking novel The Jungle.  I hate to even use the word “devour” when discussing this novel, since so much of it deals with contaminated meat, blue milk and inhumane conditions that completely quell any appetite.

The year is 1905, and immigrants scramble to Chicago to begin a new, better life with the promises of secure jobs and wealth within the Stockyards.  Following Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis as he strives to support his new wife, son and her family, it is a true tale of survival that is hard to digest.  From the gruesome work conditions to the utter squalor at home, this is a story based on a truth that was debilitating and deathly to many.

Jurgis begins as an optimistic young man, newly married and naive, yet physically and mentally strong.  In the beginning he embraces his demanding life at the Stockyards, ignorant to the politics and corruption.   As his awareness is raised, his life becomes harder.  Through injury and circumstance, the family’s situation at home worsens, and food and heat are both harder to come by.  While I’m not a fan of Chicago Winters (you should all know how desperately I’m waiting for spring!), I’ve never had to worry about freezing to death stuck in a snowdrift, literally having my ears break off from the cold (poor little Stansilova) or freezing in my sleep.

More than just a bleak story of one poor family, it is a political piece looking at work conditions and the quality of meat packaged for the United States.  Sinclair actually went undercover in Packingtown as the Stockyards were called, so experienced the conditions of the workers and the meat first hand.

“It seemed that they must have agencies all over the country, to hunt out old and crippled and diseased cattle to be canned.  (they would come in) Covered with boils.  It was a nasty job killing these, for when you plunged the knife into them they would burst and splash foul-smelling stuff into your face… It was stuff such as this that made the ’embalmed beef’ that had killed several times as many United States soldiers as all the bullets of the Spaniards…”

In addition to the spoiled meat, Sinclair tells about workers falling into vats, and when they were discovered all that was left of the human is a pile of bones, since every other body part had gone out packaged as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard (as in, human parts consumed by other people).  Minor injuries often meant death, directly or indirectly through blood disease or no money to buy food.  Never have I appreciated health insurance so much.

As I read this book I questioned if I would have been strong enough to have survived in this time period.  The life depicted is so tough I was depressed while reading it.  It seemed to me the people had very little to live for.  There was no end in sight to their squalor; they weren’t working to get ahead and have time to relax and enjoy their effort, they were working to stay alive.  There as no real home life to speak of, as they were so exhausted from working so long with little nourishment people climbed right into bed upon walking in the door.  As a parent, it’s hard to feel right about sending your child to work the streets or in the factories, knowing they don’t have a future but you need their meager contributions to keep the family alive.  My mom says hope springs eternal, and throughout this book I’m inclined to agree.

I think everyone should read this book.  I wouldn’t even say it’s inspirational exactly, but more a realistic view at how life could be, and how it has been for people in the past and how far we’ve come.  It also may make you chuckle at how germaphobic a society we’ve become, since people survived (of course, many did not) on spoiled milk and infected meat.  I made a point to eat my asparagus that fell off the side of my plate onto the coffee table today, telling myself it will only toughen me up!

jungle-coverMy main complaint is the Socialist rally cry that takes up the last few chapters of this novel.  I understand Sinclair considered himself a Socialist, but I thought the political propaganda could have been discarded and a very strong novel would have remained without any stated biases. Just be sure to not eat canned meat when reading!  Good news though: this book inspired the Pure Food Act passed in 1906, shortly after the book became a success after it’s book publication in February of the same year.

  • NovelWhore’s Grade: A-
  • Title: The Jungle
  • Author: Upton Sinclair
  • Publisher: Doubleday in 1906, originally run as segments in “Appeal to Reason” magazine 1905

I’ve led a pretty blessed life.  Lucky in family and friends, my only big unrequited “want” comes in the form of Mingo, the thousand pound horse I fell in love with when I was twelve.  Always an imaginative child, I also believed in the mythical counterpart of my beloved palomino – that of the Unicorn.

Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry - Paris

Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry - Paris

Being a fan of historical fiction, along with my admitted interest in unicorns, when I found Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn on sale at betterworldbooks.com (great site – cheap books, free shipping, and profits help fund literacy programs) I immediately added it to my overflowing digital shopping cart.  Being a fan of Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, I planned to enjoy this novel about my mythical unicorn even more.

I was disappointed.

While an interesting look at the almost-noble family of Jean Le Viste – his miserable and unappreciated wife and their three daughters (Le Viste blames his wife for not bearing a son), the story lacks character development and interaction.  Based on the real-life mystery surrounding the six Lady and the Unicorn tapestries that hang in the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris (pictured above), this novel follows the imaginary artist Nicholas des Innocents in his seductions while his art is woven into tapestries.

The figure of the mythical unicorn is used as a tool in seduction, as des Innocents uses the supposed purifying powers of the horn to deflower and impregnate women.  His true love and passion for Claude, the eldest daughter of Le Viste, can only show through his artwork, as they belong to different classes which were nontransferable in the the 15th century.

While rich in details of life in the 1490’s, especially when following the family of the weaver, it is hard to get too attached to any character.  There are many minor players in the story, whose lives all manage to weave together (excuse the pun) throughout.

My biggest fault with this book is the lack of a satisfactory conclusion.  lady-and-the-unicorn-bookNicholas des Innocents is invited to a part at the Le Viste compound at which the tapestries will be unveiled.  At this event, he and Claude have a quick rendezvous under the table before her arranged marriage is announced.  The book comes to an end with a look at the unsatisfactory and unfulfilled lives of those we learned about throughout the story.  I guess realistic, as not everyone ends up happy all the time, but it seemed to be an incredibly melancholy ending for an imagined tale.

Mediocre at best, this book left me wanting much more from the 250 pages read.  Also, I wanted the unicorn to have a bigger impact, but that’s a personal complaint!

  • NovelWhore’s Grade: C
  • Title: The Lady and the Unicorn
  • Author: Tracy Chevalier
  • Publisher: Dutton Adult

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