Whats everyone reading now and/or read lately

eagle2250

Connoisseur/Curmudgeon Emeritus - Moderator
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Summer of '69 by Elin Hilderbrand published in 2019


Summer of '69 is an enjoyable beach read that would have been unmitigated fun if author Elin Hilderbrand hadn't, as almost all authors today do, jammed a lot of virtue-signalling modern politics into her period novel.

1969 was a jarring year in America that saw the flower-power, hippie movement finally break the traditional culture that had reigned in the country since the end of WWII. With the Vietnam War tearing America apart, conventional beliefs in politics, religion, sex, race relations and gender roles were all being challenge by and, often, losing out to the new ideas of the "youth movement."

Rock and roll, drugs and "free love" were some of the new memes and norms shoving the old values and customs out the window. Whether you embraced the new or stood on the ramparts defending the old, the ground beneath everyone was shifting quickly.

In Summer of '69, an old Boston family comprising matriarch "Exalta" Nichols, her daughter Katie, Katie's second husband and Katie's four children from her two marriages face the challenges of the times. From their Nantucket summer outpost - Exalta's in-town old house on the "best" street - her family is buffeted by all of the summer of 1969's cultural and political crosscurrents.

Katie and second husband David's thirteen year old daughter, Jessie, has a coming-of-age-summer as she has to survive having her heart broken by her first crush, Exalta's required tennis lessons, the embarrassment of shopping for her first bra (with her very pregnant sister), the perceived disapproval of her Jewish heritage at Exalta's very Waspy Nantucket tennis and boating club and being caught at her occasional shoplifting habit.

The bra-buying sister, in-her-early-twenties Blair, is pregnant with twins while her college professor and NASA technical advisor husband appears to be having an affair that throws Blair into the arms of her husband's brother whom she dated before marrying her husband. Hey, it's a beach read.

Late-teen middle sister Kirby is the required "rebel" (you can't be a family during the summer in 1969 without having one kid in full rebel mode) who decamps from Nantucket to the "horrors!," according to Exalta, of Martha Vineyard to gain some independence. There, she engages in an interracial relationship, while she nearly crosses paths with the famous senator Ted Kennedy on the night of Chappaquiddick.

Also required for accurate reflection of the summer of 1969 is Kate's eighteen-year-old son "Tiger," the handsome, high school star athlete and kid everyone likes who has just been drafted and sent to the front lines in Vietnam.

This fractious summer for Exalta's family is one of trying to keep up a surface appearance of normal (that's her culture), despite the body blows they all are absorbing. Author Hilderbrand portrays this family as a microcosm of the country in that turbulent summer.

Kate, unable to find a place for her fear about her son fighting in Vietnam, escapes into the bottle, something the family does its best to ignore (once again, that's their culture). How many in the country in 1969 were burying their fears in some sort of mind-altering substance?

Thirteen-year-old Jessie's emotions almost bubble over when she wants to scream "I'm Jewish" (she's half Jewish) to force the Nantucket club and her grandmother to face her heritage. But she learns later from her Jewish father she has exaggerated the issues as he has been, basically, accepted by all but a few at the club.

Nothing is ever perfect, but sometimes it's good enough, for now anyway. Yet, like thirteen-year-old Jessie, many in the country couldn't accept that in 1969; whereas, those who could felt that they were under assault.

Kirby, loving her status as the family rebel and ready to become a political science major, has the scales fall from her eyes when she learns what a drunk Ted Kennedy did that night in Chappaquiddick.

After that, she's looking to turn her summer job as a front desk clerk at a small inn into a career in hotel management, including an Exalta-funded semester studying abroad in Geneva. Like many in the country, as the sixties ended, idealism gave way to pragmatism, especially as many rebels saw they were being played by politicians like the famous Senator.

Pregnant Blair learns her husband wasn't cheating, but was so embarrassed that he was seeing a psychiatrist that he let his wife think he was having an affair rather than admit the truth. Once the truth is out, they begin to repair their relationship.

It's an early embrace of therapy for the masses, which, along with many former personal failings being redefined as "diseases," would change how America judged itself and its fellow citizens in the ensuing decades.

Finally, son Tiger, after a brief appearance early, effectively haunts the book as a looming death stalking Exalta's clan, an experience familiar to many families in 1969. In a dramatic moment, Tiger rejects his mother-maneuvered non-combat assignment as he's proud of his soldiering ability. He did not want to be "the fortunate son," from one of that era's defining songs.

The war is shown as the confused disaster it was, but adumbrating today's view, in Summer of '69, the soldiers are respected even when their political leaders are denounced. That was not a universal view in angry 1969, when returning soldiers were sometimes called "baby-killers" and spat on.

Summer of '69 often captures the feel of that tumultuous period. Occasionally, it even uses restraint and perspective looking at 1969 through a 2019 lens. But as is the wont of modern authors, Hilderbrand can't help stuffing too-many modern political tics and narratives into her period novel.

"Progressive," "diversity," "privilege," "cultural appropriation" and "patriarchal power structure" were all words and phrases that existed in 1969, but none of them were on the tip of the tongue of the average person or even political rebels in that period.

There are plenty of books, movies and newspapers from then to confirm that those were not the words or framing that liberals or others of that generation generally used.

Yet, it just feels so good to today's authors to virtue signal their modern political pieties that they can't help undermining the verisimilitude of their period novels by having their characters speak as if they were time travelers from today. Or maybe the authors need to do it to get the elitist (read uber-liberal) New York City editors interested in their books.

Perhaps it's because of this political bent that so many of the men in the book are serial cheaters or sexual predators who physically abuse their girlfriends or molest teen and pre-teen girls, while most of the women are caring, giving and kind - and often unappreciated by the Neanderthal men in their lives. The men who are good in the book are so epicene and deferential to women, most women (and normal men), in real life, couldn't stand them.

If you can put all that political preening aside - and you have to if you read modern fiction - Summer of '69 is a darn good beach read that often takes you back to that chaotic and defining summer. The end of the book isn't surprising, as a change in summer houses for Exalta's offspring symbolizes the period's generational schism, while foreshadowing the long-term impact the summer of 1969 would have on the country.

Having lived through the period in which the Summer of 69 was set, I found your review to be absolutely absorbing. While the characters in the book represent starkly different financial/social strata that those from which a poor, white country boy in Pennsylvania was drawn, the problems with which they must grapple were not all that different from the issues I witnessed in that period of my life.

Although my summer of 69 was spent working for Penn DOT, The Pennsylvania Dept of Transportation, repaving roads throughout Clinton County, PA. and based on the heat and a blazing sun, seemed more like a scene out of Cool Hand Luke, rather than the settings in The Summer of 69. My older sister had gotten married, just the year before and had begun a career as a beautician, My younger brother was a rising junior at Lock Haven High School and working at Villelo's Fruit and Vegetable Stand and I had finished my first 2+ years at Penn State. And our Mom was at home, holding it all together for us! My beech/swimming trips were to a section of rounded out river bank along the Susquehanna River where some accommodating individual had cleared out some brush and dropped a couple of dump truck loads of sand, so that we wayward kids would have a place to call a beach and swim.

Looking back, life had it's challenges...and plenty of them, but it was nonetheless pretty darned grand

I am adding the Summer of 69 to my reading list and am going to recommend it as a futuer monthy selection for our local neighborhood book club Thanks for another great review. ;)
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
Having lived through the period in which the Summer of 69 was set, I found your review to be absolutely absorbing. While the characters in the book represent starkly different financial/social strata that those from which a poor, white country boy in Pennsylvania was drawn, the problems with which they must grapple were not all that different from the issues I witnessed in that period of my life.

Although my summer of 69 was spent working for Penn DOT, The Pennsylvania Dept of Transportation, repaving roads throughout Clinton County, PA. and based on the heat and a blazing sun, seemed more like a scene out of Cool Hand Luke, rather than the settings in The Summer of 69. My older sister had gotten married, just the year before and had begun a career as a beautician, My younger brother was a rising junior at Lock Haven High School and working at Villelo's Fruit and Vegetable Stand and I had finished my first 2+ years at Penn State. And our Mom was at home, holding it all together for us! My beech/swimming trips were to a section of rounded out river bank along the Susquehanna River where some accommodating individual had cleared out some brush and dropped a couple of dump truck loads of sand, so that we wayward kids would have a place to call a beach and swim.

Looking back, life had it's challenges...and plenty of them, but it was nonetheless pretty darned grand

I am adding the Summer of 69 to my reading list and am going to recommend it as a futuer monthy selection for our local neighborhood book club Thanks for another great review. ;)

I enjoyed your personal summer of '69 memories - very real. Like you, I was not of Exalta's family's class. I was five years old in the summer of '69 and we lived in a neighborhood somewhat like the one portrayed in the TV show "The Wonder Years."

The only "pool" we had was one of those silly little plastic ones you filled in two minutes with a garden hose and, maybe, two small kids could sit in it at once.

I do remember (and this was into the early '70s) a neighbor losing a son in Vietnam and that was an enormous and scary event. I also remember driving down the highway and you'd see all these hippies on the side of the road. I didn't get what it was all about back then, but I can still see those "kids" with their long hair, tie-dyed shirts, suede fringe jackets, etc.
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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Love in the Afternoon by Claude Anet originally published in France in 1924


"They persisted in proving to themselves that they were not in love, that between them stood nothing but an episode in which pleasure was the beginning and the end." - Claude Anet, Love in the Afternoon

"The lies we tell ourselves are the most subtle of all lies." - Lewis B. Smedes


I found my way to this short novel via the 1957 Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper movie Love in the Afternoon based on the book. Very loosely based on the book would be more accurate as you can see some of the book's outline in the movie, but it's much easier to note the many differences.

Set in pre-Revolutionary Russia (versus 1950s Paris, as in the movie), this 1924 novel has a surprisingly modern feel as the heroine - young, beautiful, scholastically brilliant and fiercely independent Ariane Nicolaevna - is the kind of heroine modern period writers love to create.

But modern writers, in their virtue-signalling glee, can't control themselves and often create a two-dimensional character who is more out of time than of their period. The intention of these modern writers is to have the character check every in-vogue progressive box versus creating a real, living, breathing and flawed human from a historical era.

Ariane Nicolaevna, though, is of pre-revolutionary Russia if famous 19th century Russian novelists accurately represented their country's views toward women, society and sexual freedom.

While hardly as libertine and out loud as our anything-goes 2021 world, 19th century Russia allowed a lot of sexual escapades to take place if handled with discretion and within the unwritten rules that kept "proper" society still looking, well, proper.

Ariane Nicolaevna, by the time she is a high school senior, is the cynosure of her provisional town as men of all ages so covet her that they shower Ariane with attention and gifts, often, in return for nothing more than the opportunity to be seen in public with her. That is an odd foreshadowing of our present-day social media age in this 19th century Russian village.

When her father denies her request for funds to go to university and the aunt who raised her attaches strings to her offer of tuition dollars, Ariane, very business like, obtains the funds from an older admirer in return for sex.

Sure, we're in the realm of the famous quote about having already established what a particular woman is with only the price left to discuss, but with limited options and done with cold detachment, Ariane comes out looking like a calculating woman in control of her situation.

It's now off to Moscow and university, where Ariane meets Constantin Michel, a man several years her senior. He's a successful and worldly businessman who is the first lover Ariane has wanted for pure passion and not for what she can obtain from him.

Yet, she still approaches her relationship with him in a detached manner often telling him this will be just a short affair. That aligns nicely with globe-trotting Constantin who avers he is an old pro at this and equally happy to have a quick affair before moving on.

Pause for a moment on the moderness of this 1924 novel looking back a decade or more from there to pre-Revolutionary Russia. But nothing then or now is ever easy.

We have two people who enjoy casual dalliances, not love affairs, getting together. What could go wrong? Well, one or both could fall in love and ruin the equanimity of their relationship. What if they both fall in love, but deny it to themselves and each other? What if they try so hard to deny it to themselves and each other they end up brutally hurting the person they love?

That is, basically, the last third of the novel. Two people who have designed their lives and psyches not to fall in love - who mock and dismiss it - begin falling in love and repeatedly cycle through the five stages of grief trying to deny it.

They lash out at each other, do petty things to hurt each other, talk about their other lovers (some real, some made up) or what they are going to do when their affair is over. Yet when they are not brutally hurting each other, they can't help falling in love.

(Spoiler alert) Literally, right at the end, they drop their guard and kinda, sorta admit their love or, at least, that they are going to stay together - end of novel. Yet it's only a somewhat happy ending as you wonder if these two can really do the hard work of sustaining a long-term relationship when they are so good at finding and indulging in casual affairs.

Love in the Afternoon has an incredibly modern feel to it, adjusted for time and place. Movies and novels before and since have been exploring its same theme: can two people turn casual sex into a life-long monogamous love. The human condition is eternal.

What oddly makes Anet's novel fresh is its 1924 publication date; a time when a women having casual sex openly and without guilt was a statement. It's libertine attitude is recognizable to us today, yet also, thankfully free of our modern obsessive politics. Love in the Afternoon is a short, entertaining trip to pre-Revolutionary Russia with a surprisingly open take on sex, love and relationships.
 
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