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Review: Murmur of Bees by

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My Interest

This book, free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers, caught my attention when I was trolling through my Kindle to see what I had in translation. I struck gold for this a Women in Translation Month–appropriate book! I splurged and bought the audio narration and it was well worth it, for this is a longer-than-average book. 470 pages used to be pretty average, but with the change of centuries books just started getting shorter on average.“We walk without looking back, because on this journey, all we care about is our destination.”

“We walk without looking back, because on this journey, all we care about is our destination.”

The Story

Simonopio is found abandoned as an infant, with a cleft palate or other facial disfigurement, and covered in bees. He is taken in by a local land-owning family and raised as their own. Meanwhile, all around them in Mexico revolution is raging and the Spanish ‘flu of 1918 is doing its own damage. Simonopio and the rest of his adopted- Morales family go on with their lives, taking what is dealt out to them.

“The miracle would have been if those arrogant fools with the fate of the country in their hands had listened in time to the voices of the experts. Now it was too late.”

My Thoughts

I laughed at some of the comments about it being too long, with too many characters. We have become a nation of lazy readers! The story is slow–it has an old-world pace to it. I did not find there were too many characters, though, it did take me a while to understand who one of them “was.” There were times when a sort of folklore tale took over and I did nearly quit in that scene. The family saga, though, kept me going–I wanted to know what happened to the family.

I have studied little of Mexican politics, but this revolution was among what I did encounter in college so I was aware of the setting. It is helpful, but not necessary to making sense of the story. This book made me truly aware that Texas and California were once truly part of Mexico. No reason for that to be the case–it just really hit me. Like most Americans today who are not of Mexican heritage. I suppose, Those two huge states, along with neighboring Arizona and, of course, New Mexico, have always been part of the U.S. Woodrow Wilson sent troops down to the boarder during this revolution.

The Murmur of Bees by Sofía Segovia and translated by Simon Bruni

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Review: Last Train to Key West: A Novel by Chanel Cleeton

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My Interest

I loved the author’s previous books (see the bottom of the post for links to my review) so much that she is now a “must-read” author for me!’

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The Story

Three young women have lives that are about to intersect. Mirta, the Cuban society girl married off to a mobster with a heart for her, Helen a waitress married to a cruel Cracker-fisherman and about to give birth to her first child, and Elizabeth, a once rich New York debutante whose family has lost all in the Crash of ’29.  Helen works in a small diner in Key West to which a quiet man comes to lunch. Elizbeth flirts all the way down on the train, catching the eye of a genial young man. And Mirta goes to her honeymoon with a man she has met only briefly.

Meanwhile, outside Key West there are scores of Great War veterans in camps–the Bonus Army that Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower teamed up to run out of Washington, D.C. Conditions are deplorable. Many, if not most, of the men, suffer from “shell shock” as PTSD was known back then. Among them is Elizabeth’s brother–the brother she needs to find.

When a record-breaking hurricane hits, the story gets really interesting! [No Spoilers!]

My Thoughts

At first, I was disappointed that this book did not tie into either of her other books, but then I got into the story and didn’t care. I shouldn’t have worried–Cleeton is a masterful storyteller. No cliched storylines here! While she did occasionally use a modern term “give him his space” is an example, I really didn’t care. The story consumed me! I listened to the audio for 3 hours straight because I HAD to know the ending–and I was not disappointed at any point in the story. Admittedly, occasionally, Elizabeth was a touch too modern–especially on care for the veterans, but there WERE people like that so I let it go. I just loved the story so much.

Last Train to Key West: A Novel by Chanel Cleeton

 

My Rating

4 Stars

 

My reviews of Chanel Cleeton’s other books:

 

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When We Left Cuba: A Novel by Chanel Cleeton

 

 

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Next Year in Havana: A Novel by Chanel Cleeton

 

 

 

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Review: Lions of Fifth Avenue

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I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.com in exchange for an honest review.

My Interest

Ever since I read Robert K. Massie’s account of researching the court of Nicholas and Alexandra and reading the memoirs he found in the main reading room of the New York Public Library’s research library on 5th Avenue, I’ve wanted to go there. As a student, I loved hiding away in the stacks, not to study, but to discover new books. Indiana University’s main library–now the Herman B. Wells Library, has 10 accessible floors on the graduate side and 1 additional floor accessible by stairs. I knew them all. As a librarian, I never had the ambition to work in pubic libraries–though I did for a few months. The library with those fabled lions out front is not your average public library. This is a closed-stacks research institution with a rare book collection, incredibly knowledgable staff, and much, much, more.

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Reading room of the NY Public Library on 5th Avenue

The Story

The story is told in two time frames: 1914 and 1993. Grandmother Laura and granddaughter Sadie are both involved with the great NYPL on 5th Avenue. The story shifts back and forth between the two eras, but the story in both is about the theft of rare books and the possible relationship of the family to the thefts.

While granddaughter Sadie has the job of head of the Berg Collection–the rare books collection, dropped into her lap, she has never disclosed her relationship to the long-ago Supervisor of the building–her grandfather, Jack. Her grandmother Laura went on to become a well-known feminist, ahead of her time in just about every way until a bomb took her life in the London Blitz in World War II. Can interest in her grandmother be a help to Laura’s career? Or a major hindrance? Was a member of her family involved in the theft of books as rare as Poe’s Tamerlane?

My Thoughts

Oh, how I LOVED the idea of that apartment within the great library building! Creepy? Sure at night, I bet it was a horror movie of sounds and imaginary movement. But, gosh what an amazing address, right?

I cannot say that I fell in love with anyone in this book. If I felt for anyone it was Jack–the husband. He had every reason to feel trampled by his wife and her ambition. I did not warm to fellow [fictional[ librarian Sadie either. She just wasn’t very likable.

Davis’ writing and storytelling were fine. Her characters just weren’t people I could invest in. Overall, this book was a major disappointment. It just did not hold my attention. I wanted to love it, but it was pretty “meh” to me.

My Rating

3.0

 

Fiona Davis discusses the book at the NYPL

 

 

Between The Lions–a fun tribute to the iconic lions from PBS that encouraged reading.

 

 

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Review: Force of Nature by Jane Harper

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My Interest

I loved the first book in this series, The Dry.

 

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The Story

An Aussie corporate retreat’s team-building exercise goes badly wrong. Agent Aaron Falk is brought in to find out what went wrong in the wilderness of a national park. The story is made more interesting by the mean girl dynamics hanging on between two Old Girls of a very posh girls’ boarding school who have endured the school’s year-long outback program together years ago. Now their daughters are at the pricey school. Is all well? How about the family-owned business that brought them here? Or that unsolved murder of years back? Agent Falk has his hands full.

My Thoughts

The narrative barrels along at a good clip, alternating between the events of the team-building exercise and the search for the missing executive. The tension builds as the stories begin to flesh-out. Just like in The Dry, I reached a point in the story where I could not stop listening until I knew the ending! The story artfully twists, turns, dives, and climbs to the conclusion. I did not predict the ending! That’s always the sign of a well-told mystery or thriller.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

I listened to the audiobook.

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My review of the first book in this series, The Dry by Jane Harper.

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Review: Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women’s Olympic Team by Elise Hooper

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My Interest

I’ve been fascinated by the Olympics since 1972 when the world met Olga Korbut and saw the Israeli (and American-Israeli) wrestlers killed. I was horrified at the Soviet Sports System that made kids leave home to train! (And I’m freaked out that America until COVID-19 seemed to want to replicate that–albeit with a sleep at home twist]. This book was my most anticipated read of the summer as well.

The Story

“…a whole world filled with girls who had no idea how fast they could run if given the chance….’ Someday they won’t be able to stop us girls.'” (Louise Stokes, p. 476)

With press nicknames such as “The Fulton Flash” and the “Malden Meteor” the American women who ran track for the U.S. at Hitler’s Olympics were a varied bunch of young women. Hooper creates characters out of the real athletes  (though one is fictional) that are mostly believable. Their struggles, especially the one that nearly turned me off the book, are all based on their real-life stories, so I’m glad I didn’t let one incident put me off!

“Our founding member, the visionary Baron Pierre de Coubertin, has always believed that the primary measure of a woman is the number and quality of offspring she produces, not the number of athletic records she achieves….A woman is best suited to encourage her sons to excel rather than focus on her own ambitions.” (p. 82)

Starting with the 1928 Olympics and the triumph of sprinter Betty Robinson, who was still in high school, and running through the final race of the Berlin Olympics, the politics of race, gender, “privilege,” and patriotism are woven into the struggle of the women to make the team, and, more importantly, make the races in the 1932 and 1936 Olympic games. At a time when it was vulgar for “ladies” to sweat or be seen doing any strenuous exercise, many were opposed to women doing something like running for fear it would “damage” their health. All of these women endured slights to their femininity, but none more than Helen Stephens, “The Fulton Flash,” who was accused of being male. She was cleared, of course, but not without the humiliation of it all. She was already plagued with self-doubt regarding her femininity:

“Getting married, having babies, tending to her future house? She couldn’t picture herself doing any of these things.” (p. 137)

“As soon as she had stepped inside the salon, she felt as though she was entering a secret world, one that had been hidden from her all of her life. So, this was how women managed to look beautiful. Professional help!” (p. 301)

I loved that she did not know how to put on a girdle and garter belt! But, I was dismayed that in the 1930s the author forgot that ladies always wore or carried gloves! Helen is the one I had the greatest sympathy for and not because the notes tell us she later became a librarian. I had the same doubts at the same age, but I did not have the same talents nor was did I ever endure a challenge to my gender or have the same proclivities. I understood all that awkwardness though and my heart broke for her.

“Even after all that had happened, the anthem still made her vision swim with tears. Though this country had betrayed her in so many ways, she couldn’t bring herself to reject it. Its promise still had the power to stir something powerful in her.” (p. 476)

But the greatest humiliation was endured by the Black athletes, Louise Stokes, aka “The Malden Meteor,” and Tidye Pickett, who were subjected to being housed in hotel maids’ rooms, left out of team pictures, and even worse slights [No Spoilers]. That they persevered both in their sport and in wanting to represent their own country at a time in which it barely let them be citizens, is inspiring.

My Thoughts

Overall, I enjoyed this book so much. It is a good read. I did think that certain characters had attitudes that were not realistic for their day. [SPOILER] but a few things that happened in the Berlin part of the story were a bit too modern–yes the Weimar years had seen great liberalization of morals and constraints, but I did not think any German working in an official capacity would take the risks Ruth did with Helen. Nor did I think any teammate would be so complacent and accepting. They just had a star athlete disciplined for merely being drunk on the ocean voyage. What would have happened to ALL the women athletes if this event had been seen? Yes, Helen has a fit of conscience, but to me, this was not realistic.

A few other moments like this were cited as true in the historical notes though This is one novel to read those notes–they were well done as was the interview with the author in which she explains what she fictionalized.

My Verdict

 

Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women’s Olympic Team by Elise Hooper

 

Other Books on the Berlin Olympics

 

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Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes

This book is cited by the author of Fast Girls.

 

 

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Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

See also the PBS Documentary, Boys of ’36 based on the book.

 

My review of Boys in the Boat from my old blog, May 27, 2014

Let’s be clear, this book is NOT about the sport of rowing. Nope. It’s about a boy overcoming the most heartless neglect and abandonment. But wait! It’s not one of those books where we read about a kid being sexually molested, mercifully that does not happen. Joe’s story of overcoming the extreme neglect, dysfunction, and abuse of his childhood should be required reading for social workers today. The power of will at work. Amazing story. Today his folks would deservedly be in prison, but WOW what a strong young man he became and I’m not talking about the muscles he developed rowing One of the most compelling nonfiction books I’ve ever read. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

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Review: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

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My Interest

Elizabeth Acevedo is truly one of THE voices of her generation. Her fiction captivates with its rich language, believable characters, and storylines that pull you in and let you experience the characters’ world. I’m so glad that I listened to her fine audio performance of The Poet X–for now, I prefer her writing on audio, especially if she is the performer.

“But one thing I learned from the Saints, when the crossroads are open to you, you must decide a path. I will not stand still while the world makes my choices.”

“Can you claim a home that does not know you, much less claim you as its own?”

The Story

Camino lives in the Dominican Republic with her Grandmother, enjoying life with far greater material comfort than her neighbors’ thanks to her father’s job in New York. The highlight of her year is her father’s annual summer visit. Yahaira, the same age as Camino, lives in New York, where she is a school chess champion, coached, and encouraged by her father. Both girls are robbed of the security of a father’s love by a plane crash–the plane taking Camino’s father home for his summer visit.

There are secrets, angst, fear, danger, and grief–but also love in this story. The girls are so vulnerable–on the cusp of womanhood, needing that man in their life to guide them. Losing him at the wrong moment. When the tragedy brings the girls together, what will happen to their dreams? Their families? Will this meeting alter their lives for good or bad?

My Thoughts

There is a single-sex romance in this book which I thought was fine given the target age group. Some reviewers have been less than happy with this. There is also an attempted sexual assault.

I felt so emotional once the plane crash occurred. The start of the book was choppier and less well written than her previous books, but as the story developed so did the language. Camino and Yahaira are modern, believable high school girls. Young people reading this book will relate well to them.

Personally, this story took me back to the ways men deceived women in Southern Africa when I was in the Peace Corps. But this story is viewed through the eyes of two girls who have always looked up to a good and kind “Daddy.” It is ok for them to love a flawed father unconditionally, well, at least until the plane crash releases its load of secrets.

My Verdict

4 Stars

 

My Reviews of Elizabeth Acevedo’s other books:

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The Poet X

 

 

 

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With the Fire on High

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Review: The Old Girls’ Network by Judy Leigh

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The Story

Sisters Barbara and Pauline are both in their 70s, both alone, but on opposite poles in terms of relating to people. So, when Barbara has an accident and needs a place to stay, it is with real trepidation that Pauline agrees to open her home for her sister’s convalescence. Barbara spent her working life in an RAF uniform as a top secretary. Pauline was happily married and raised a daughter who now lives in New Zealand. She now has a full life as a widow in a country village, enjoying the attentions of a local farmer, taking yoga, and having a wide circle of friends. Barbara has only her memories of one man. She has locked herself away from any chance of having her heartbroken again.

Just as the sisters are getting the hang of co-living, Pauline runs into a man who appears to be homeless. Her kind nature means she simply must invite the man, Bisto Mulligan, to recover in her home, much to Barbara’s horror.  The tree of life is given a good hard shake. Which way will the fruit fall?

My Thoughts

This book is a delight from start-to-finish. Don’t question anything too deeply–it isn’t that kind of story! It’s just warm, sweet, a little funny, and very engaging. The wonderfully eccentric, but believable village residents add spice. Not expecting rural life to feature “Granny Clampet shooting beer bottles off the barbeque” is only the half of it! The “feral peril,” The Sheep Dip, and much more are here to delight anyone who comes along to Winsleigh Green. This isn’t Miss Read’s quaint village–after all they have yoga! It’s more like the village Jean and Lionel visit often in “As Time Goes By,” and just as endearing. Barbara is just enough Diana Trent from “Waiting For God” while Pauline is the good neighbor, but never precious. I swear she was written for Julie Walters! Now, put the kettle on and get out the fudge cupcakes, and keep Derek from bringing in any headless vermin.

This is the perfect book for anyone to enjoy in quarantine or by a large body of water or while watching a game of village cricket.

The Old Girls’ Network by Judy Leigh

My Rating

4 Pimm’s

I listened to the audio version.

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Review: A Passage to India, a classic just right for today

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My Interest

Never mind that I chose to finally read it because it is a classic. It is as much about today as it is about early 20th Century India. For minorities, even when they are the true majority in a country, real justice is often hard come-by. The British rule over India enforced a Western sense of order, justice, and manners and morality. But was that justice as fair to one group as to the British themselves? This is a very timely topic. In the United States, justice for Blacks has always been a problem, though as a nation we pride ourselves on an independent judiciary.  Reading Passage to India, if you substitute an American location, Passage to Indiana if you will, could as well be written about a white American woman and a Black American or Mexcian-American man. No difference.

The Story

“The issues Miss Quested had raised were so much more important than she was herself that people inevitably forgot her.”

“God who saves the King will surely support the police.”

A trip in a mixed (English and Indian) group to the Maranbar Caves has newly-arrived Miss Adela Quested sure she has been molested by the Indian host, Dr. Aziz. The Echo. The subsequent arrest and trial of Aziz bring out the worst in the rulers. The plotting, obfuscation, and outright lying would be right at home today in any court in the U.S.A. not trying the rape case of a top white, wealthy, collegiate swimmer. Miss Quested is treated like an imbecile (also still common today in rape cases anywhere in the world). But the predictable does not end predictably. In this case, justice prevails, but only in court. Aziz must remake his life elsewhere. Miss Quested returns home never to venture out of the UK again. Damages? A civil suit? No, no, no, move on, nothing to see here. The more things change the more they stay the same, eh?

My Thoughts

“The conversation had become unreal since Christianity had entered it. Ronny approved of religion as long as it endorsed the National Anthem, but he objected when it attempted to influence his life.”

“Ronny’s religion was of the sterilized Public School brand, which never goes bad, even in the tropics. Wherever he entered, mosque, cave or temple, he retained the spiritual outlook of the fifth form, and condemned as ‘weakening’ any attempt to understand them.”

First of all, I had a problem keeping two Ronnies straight. Ronnie Heaslop, the City Magistrate and putative fiancee of Miss Quested and the other Ronnie of the Raj–Ronnie Merrick of Jewel in the Crown–a story that also involves “fraternization” between a British woman and an Indian man, and which I enjoyed more, likely because I read it pre-cell phone attention span. I loved the miniseries, too, but then, back in the 80’s I loved the movie of Passage to India, too.

This book reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird even though it predates TKAMB by many years. The vivid portrayal of racism, the proceedings in court, the emotions generated. All were very much alike, only set in different countries and cultures.

Confession: I was not expecting an Indian voice to narrate the audio! #WhitePrivilege strikes again.

Note: This book was published in the 1920s. There are racial slurs in use at the time in this book that would not be used today. I think there were two such instances. Do not let that stop you from reading this impressive work that deserves its reputation as a classic.

My Verdict

4.5

 

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Review: The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

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The Story

Aging artist, Julian, starts the journey of a green exercise book he titles “The Authenticity Project,” by writing his own “authentic” story of his current life and leaves it in a local cafe. It travels a bit, in the neighborhood, and much farther, and is sometimes helped along on its journey by the latest author. Some well-intentioned ‘social engineering’ takes place by those who have read the entries and easily identify the author’s who have signed their work and are in the neighborhood of the cafe. But is all the authenticity really authentic?

My Thoughts

This is a sweet, fun book, that makes you wish you lived in that neighborhood! I especially liked the story of the Instagram Mommy-Influencer and that of Julian’s late wife. This is a perfect poolside read or a behind-your-mask [PLEASE] beach read.

My Verdict

3.0

The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

P.S.

I’d like Rod Stewart! to play Julian in the movie.

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Classics Club Spin #23: Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy

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#ccspin

The Classics Club helps make reading the classics more fun! What is a Spin? Read all the fun details here. In April we made our lists, the wheel was spun, and we were told to read number 6 by June 1st. You can read my list here. Number 6 was a kindle bargain book I got a while back–The Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy, whose Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, I read too early in my life, in the literature of self-discovery–my freshman lit/writing class first semester in the Fall of 1980. The world was very different then–Ronald Regan was about to become president. Fast-forward more years than I like to say and I read and loved her novel, The Group. I’ve always planned to read her backlist, so this is my start at that goal.

 

The Story

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The Story

Imagine teaching today at a very liberal Liberal Arts college and proclaiming your affiliation with Donald Trump? But not really–just saying you loved him. There you have the premise of this novel set in progressive Jocelyn College during the McCarthy era. Published in 1952, during the reign of Senator Joseph McCarthy, this novel has stood the test of time fairly well. In a few ways–too well.

The book opens with Henry Mulchay, an instructor who was

“…he was intermittently aware of a quality of personal unattractiveness that emanated from him like a miasma;” [Kindle location 57]

reading a letter telling of his position not being renewed. The book then showcases the machinations of Mulchay and other members of his department in concocting a narrative around the letter, including Henry’s outing himself as the Communist he never was.

McCarthy, described once as

“...earnest, and empty Liberal with no sense of how complicated it is to be human.” (Leslie A.Fiedler)

wrote this book following her own experience at progressive Bard College and another college, so it sparkles with subtle wit, making fun of the academic life and its many trivialities. Like many who have read and reviewed this book, I found the little things to be hilarious. That colleges nearly 70 years on are still debating stuff like:

whether, for example, students in the dining hall, when surrendering their plates to the waiters, should pass them to the right or to the left…at an all-college meeting…compulsory for all...”[ Kindle location 780]

Another superb example was whether it is acceptable to drop the Latin diploma. Honestly, this stuff is still going on!

Many reviewers have loved the poetry conference–the ultimate send-up of academic pretensions. The will of the participants in ignoring the time-table, the egos that must be accommodated, the manners, the utter ridiculousness of the program–it is all there, beautifully written. I’ve helped with academic conferences. She nailed it, believe me.

“He had a style of old-fashioned, elaborate compliment, in which there could be detected the flourishes of an antique penmanship and the scratching for a bookkeeper’s quill.” [Kindle location 3224]

My Thoughts

My first impression was: “Wow! They had it good back then!” Instructor Henry Mulchay (“the only Ph.d in the Literature Department,” but only an “instructor” still) complains:

“How was he expected to take care of forty students if other demands on his attention were continually being put in the way?”

Only forty? What, per class? lol. The golden days of University life!

“Hen” as Mulchay is known, then goes on to speak suggestively, and in private, to a female student to whom he is “tutor” [in the Oxbridge sense of the word]! With that, the story instantly seemed to make sense to my #metoo era academic’s brain!

There were oh, so, many familiar things here! Suggestions of work being done for students to get them a diploma and get them out of someone’s hair–very today. The unforeseen idiotic comment that loses the college a huge donation from a “liberal lady.” The backbiting, in-fighting, turf-protecting, knowledge-siloing–all still there today. And, no tenure either–at least at schools without a union. All for the equivalent of Hen’s precious $3200 a year–and Hen the only Ph.D. in the department yet an instructor–not a professor. How prescient.

My Verdict

I enjoyed this book as you can see. I still think The Group offers more to the general reader. So much of what was funny in Groves of Academe was funny to me because I’ve worked in two Universities. Some of that would not be as funny to someone looking in from outside.

4.0

The Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy

 

For other fictional and funny, looks at Academic life read

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Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. My review is here.

 

 

 

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Changing Places by David Lodge.  My mini-review is here.