Reviews: Under the Wide and Starry Sky and Little Failure

Well, in a first move I’m putting the finishing touch on a post a couple of days in advance.  Normally, I do that the night before because I’m always tweaking something!  However, what is being called “Snowpocalypse 2014” is descending on my area overnight, Saturday into Sunday.  We will experiences near blizzard conditions and at least a foot of snow over the next twenty-four hours.  I knew I needed to have my first post of 2014 ready in case we lose electricity.  I live in a rural area and it happens too frequently in bad storms and/or high winds.  Both are coming Sunday and bitter cold will descend as well.  Monday the temperature won’t even rise above zero Fahrenheit.  Throughout, the windchill will be 20-30 below.  Needless to say, our region is not used to this weather!

On good weather news, it should not be a blizzard like I experienced in grad school three years ago-twenty inches of snow in twenty-four hours; complete white out conditions; sustained winds of 40+ mph and gusting 80+ at times; and three days of the university and city being shut down.  Nor will the cold be as bad as a stretch when I was 3 or 4 when the temperature remained below zero for over a week.  Dad recounted multiple times this week how he had the go outside every couple of hours back then to break the pond ice so the cattle could drink.

Anyway, taking a break from the weather news, below is the official first post of 2014.  The two books reviewed will be new releases this month.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

Ballentine Books; Jan.21,  2014.  Hardcover, 496 pages.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky CoverUnder the Wide and Starry Sky was a memorizing book.  After extensive research, Horan wrote a historical and biographical fiction novel about the relationship between Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, Fanny Van De Grift Osbourne.  They met in 1870s France where Fanny, an aspiring artist and writer, and her daughter, Belle, are studying art after a family tragedy sent them on a vacation outside of Paris.  Louis, as he in known to family and friends, quickly becomes smitten with the then married Fanny, whom is estranged from her husband.  Over the course of several years and two continents, the relationship grows and Fanny files for divorce in order to marry Louis.  The newly married couple and Fanny’s son, Sammy, settle in Europe.  During this time we see how Fanny cares for the often ill Louis and is willing to travel to places to benefit his health – it is a huge sacrifice on her part.  After realizing the sea air strengthened Louis’ fragile health they opt to travel the South Seas, eventually settling in Samoa.  There they bought a plantation called Vailima and we see the struggles of creating a home, tending the land, and Louis’ foray into politics (he wanted the right’s of natives to be acknowledged).  Throughout the novel, we gain an understanding of Stevenson’s writing habits such as how he wrote in inspired bursts and created his characters.  Excerpts from Stevenson’s works and family letters make occasional appearances and help add a realistic element to the novel (sources and recommended readings are included at the end).

Overall, I was thrilled with this novel.  On one hand, I could not put the novel down because I wanted to know what would happen next.  On the other, I felt I should not because I did not want the story to end.  While the novel provided wonderful descriptions of the Stevenson family adventures, it was the relationships that took the forefront.  Fanny and Louis were devoted to each other, so much so that they feared life without the other.  Their many trials and tribulations demonstrate this harsh reality.  Then within the relationships with other family members, such as Fanny’s children or Louis’ parents, we see their ups and downs as well; often the theme of these are that parents and children do not always get along and how these divisions are overcome.  Lastly, we see how Louis’ interaction with his friends and cousin, Bob Stevenson, helped to drive his career, both creatively and financially.  In addition to readers of historical and biographical fiction, I do think the story would resonate to all readers through the aforementioned relationships.  Furthermore, the travel adventures might also lure in readers of action fiction, especially in part three of the book (set in the South Seas).

I received an advanced readers copy of this wonderful work via the Random House Library Marketing division.  As such, I will recommend the title for purchase to my library in addition to readers.

Also, the novel’s cover ranks among my favorite book covers!  The shades of blue and the font are gorgeous, the profile fits Fanny’s character, and the starry sky is a perfect touch.

Little Failure:  A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart

Random House; Jan. 7, 2014.  Hardcover, 368 pages.

Little Failure CoverLittle Failure is Russian immigrant and novelist Gary Shteyngart’s memoir of his life thus far.  His story begins as a sickly child in Russia.  Fearing how he may be treated, his mother made the decision to move the family as refugees.  Eventually, their family ended up in New York.  The book then covers his life in America, including childhood, college, and first jobs in addition to finding his literary voice.

I will admit, I only succeeded in reading the first three chapters of the book.  It just didn’t strike my fancy.  I had picked up an advanced readers copy at a library conference thinking it would be an interesting read.  However, I found the, as the book summary reads, “deprecating humor” too harsh and the topical jumps too disjointed.  That said, others may enjoy the book.  It just wasn’t for me.  As Levar Burton always said on Reading Rainbow, “Don’t take my word for it.”  If it sounds interesting to you, please do give the book a chance and perhaps drop a comment below with your thoughts.

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2 thoughts on “Reviews: Under the Wide and Starry Sky and Little Failure

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan |

  2. Pingback: Review: Enchanted Islands | Amy's Scrap Bag: A Blog About Libraries, Archives, and History

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