Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain

The Sky Pilot

Beryl Markham’s extraordinary life in Africa at the outset of the twentieth century is the focus of Paula McLain’s novel Circling the Sun. When your subject is as fascinating as Markham —  a life full of adventure, achievement, challenge, tragedy, and romance — it would be difficult to write a novel that failed. And McLain has not. Circling the Sun is a great read.

Told in Markham’s voice, Circling the Sun begins with a prologue dated September 4, 1936, on the eve of her record-setting solo flight from England to North America. She was the first woman to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo non-stop flight and and the first person to fly east to west from England to North America non-stop.

The Vega Gull is peacock blue with silver wings, more splendid than any bird I’ve known, and somehow mine to fly. She’s call The Messenger, and has been designed and built with great care and skill to do what should be impossible — cross an ocean in one brave launch, thirty-six hundred miles of black chop and nothingness — and to take me with her.

It’s quite a trick for McLain to choose and so successfully chronicle Markham’s life, in first-person no less. I say this because Markham herself was the author of a classic memoir West With The Night which essentially treads the same ground. I read West With the Night several years ago and remember it for her descriptions of the world below from the vantage point of her cockpit.

Beryl-markham-west-with-the-night-coverLike night, the desert is boundless, comfortless and infinite. Like night, it intrigues the mind and leads it to futility. When you have flown halfway across a desert, you experience the desperation of a sleepless man waiting for dawn which only comes when the importance of it’s coming is lost. You fly forever, weary with an invariable scene, and when you are at last released from its monotony, you remember nothing of it because there was nothing there.

From West With the Night

According to my memory, McLain might dwell a bit more on the romantic entanglements, multiple marriages and love triangle involving Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen who we know better as Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in Out of Africa. In McClain’s novel, Hatton was Markham’s one true love. In Out of Africa, Hatton was Blixen’s one true love. In real life, Robert Redford is . . . oh, never mind. Redford

Paula McLain wrote the wildly-successful book club choice The Paris Wife, about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley. On McLain’s website, she details how she came to choose to write Circling The Sun and what is different about her novel from Markham’s own book.

The flying stuff is wildly fun to read about in West With the Night, but in the end, I found myself most interested in how she became herself, that daring woman ready to tackle danger and adventure. And then there was the utter mystery of her inner life. In West With the Night, Beryl takes great pains to avoid anything too personal. She never mentions the mother who abandoned her, for instance, or so much as intimates that her father betrayed and disappointed her. She was married three times but doesn’t name a single husband, or speak of her son, Gervase, who she didn’t raise. Karen Blixen never appears, and Finch Hatton is only gently held up as a figure Beryl admires after his death. It was the draw of her enigma, then, of wanting to illuminate the parts of her life she herself avoids that had me fascinated and most activated my imagination. http://paulamclain.com/books/circling-the-sun/a-conversation-with-paula-mclain/

Circling the Sun is full of the scandal of Beryl Markham’s life, the thrill of being an English settler in a wild and exotic country, the challenges of being an adventurous woman at a time when women were not supposed to be. I enjoyed it and found lots of potential book club discussion points. I think you would enjoy it too.

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Dinner at Karen Blixen’s house included lightly breaded chicken in cream sauce, roasted vegetables with herbs, corn pudding studded with mushrooms and thyme, ripe cheese, and oranges.

A honeymoon dinner in Paris included escargot, choucroute garnie with springs of fresh rosemary. In Rome, spaghetti with mussels and black squid ink.

Karen’s dinner for visiting British royalty featured ham poached in champagne with tiny jewel-like strawberries and tart, plump pomegranate seeds, a mushroom croustade with truffles and cream. A dessert of browned rum baba.

And every encounter and meal included champagne.

MUSIC

There are dances at the Muthaiga Club for the white settlers and Kikuyu ngoma with drum music falling “in great and rippling crescendos, while male and female dancers flung themselves rhythmically.”

The soundtrack from Out of Africa includes everything from Mozart and Wagner to the Missouri waltz. It would be a good start.

However, the Kenyan music I searched for is really fun and bright and upbeat and would provide a soundtrack so great you might find your book club dancing instead of talking. The following site has links for good Kenyan music:

http://worldmusic.about.com/od/venues/tp/KenyaMusicPlaylist.htm?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=shareurlbuttons via @aboutdotcom

MOVIE

MarkhamBeryl Markham — Tilda Swinton  tilda swinton

 

 

 

denys-finch-hatton-01Denys Finch Hatton — Tom Hiddleston  tom-hiddleston

 

 

 

Happy Reading!

P.S. It made my day to receive a kind note from author Paula McLain about the post on Facebook. I thought I’d share it with you: “How fun is this, Pamela?! Wow. Thanks for featuring the book!!”

If you enjoy reading daeandwrite.wordpress.com, please become a follower and share it with your friends!

 

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Mirror, Mirror: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

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“Pretty is as pretty does,” my grandmother must have told me thousands of times.  And one can never really believe a mirror anyway.

At least not in Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi which begins:  “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years, I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”  This is the voice of Boy Novak, a girl.  The first narrator.  The daughter of a brutal and sadistic rat catcher whose absent mother is never discussed, living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year nineteen hundred and thirty-something.

Boy runs away to idyllic Flax Hill, Massachusetts, a town where “people make beautiful things . . . [where they are] interested in the process, not the end product.”  Boy marries a jewelry artist named Arturo and becomes stepmother to his young daughter Snow.  But after Boy gives birth to Bird, she sends Snow away.

In Boy, Snow, Bird, it is not only the mirrors that are untrustworthy.  Things are more often than not the opposite of how they appear.  This is the first novel by Ms. Oyeyemi I have read, but according to the New York Times, she is thirty years old and a five-time novelist.  Besides the fact that I hate her a little bit for that accomplishment, I love her writing.  The following is from the section of the novel narrated by Boy’s daughter, Bird, who also has an issue with mirrors.

Sometimes mirrors can’t find me.  I’ll go into a room with a mirror in it and look around, and I’m not there.  Not all the time, not even most of the tie, but often enough.  Sometimes when other people are there, but nobody ever notices that my reflection’s a no-show.  Or maybe they decide not to notice because it’s too weird.  I can make it happen when I move quickly and quietly, dart into a room behind the swinging of a door so it covers me the way a fan covers a face.  Maybe I catch the mirror off guard somehow.  It starts to look for me — “look for me” isn’t quite right — I know mirrors can’t see.  But the image in the glass shifts just a little bit off center, left, then right, then back again, like its’ wondering why it isn’t reflecting all that standings in front of it.  I know a girl just came in; now where’s she at?

In its review, the New York Times says, “Oyeyemi picks myths and fairy tales because she sees the blood and guts behind the glitter and ball gowns. In essence she’s a writer of rather enchanting horror stories, but like the candy-colored blood of the dead ballerinas in Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film “Suspiria,” her violence is all the more gruesome for its misleading pulchritude.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/02/books/review/boy-snow-bird-by-helen-oyeyemi.html

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The author herself admits as much, saying she writes retold fairy tales.  “And fairy tales teach lessons, she says. Lessons like ‘Everything that you see is not necessarily what it is. You have to find another way to know things. You have to find another way to know things. There is inner vision. And then there’s exterior vision. There are levels of seeing.'”  http://www.npr.org/2014/03/07/282065410/the-professionally-haunted-life-of-helen-oyeyemi

In Boy, Snow, Bird, beauty is desired, deceitful and dangerous.  And perhaps that is the point of the Brothers Grimm original tale as well.

Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.

Soon after that she had a little daughter, who was as white as snow, and as red as blood, and her hair was as black as ebony, and she was therefore called little Snow White. And when the child was born, the queen died.

After a year had passed the king took to himself another wife. She was a beautiful woman, but proud and haughty, and she could not bear that anyone else chould surpass her in beauty. She had a wonderful looking-glass, and when she stood in front of it and looked at herself in it, and said,

            “Looking-glass, looking-glass, on the wall,

dfd91135db5fde17a2f44144a2e79482                                              Who in this land is the fairest of all?”

The looking-glass answered,

    “Thou, o queen, art the fairest of all.”

Then she was satisfied, for she knew that the looking-glass spoke the truth.

I highly recommend Boy, Snow, Bird for your book club.

MENU

Just for giggles, I’ve designed a menu based on Walt Disney’s Seven Dwarves (none of whom make an appearance that I can see in Boy, Snow, Bird).

Doc:  Mix a pitcher of Gin & Tonics and pour into a beaker.  (Tonic originally contained quinine as a malarial prophylactic.)

Sneezy:  Anything with black pepper.  Steak au poivre, chicken with black pepper are the two that come immediately to mind.  Here are ten more:  http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/oct/04/peppery-peppercorn-recipes-truffles-monkfish-gratin-10-best

Dopey:  Bugles chips (tiny little dunce caps) to dunk into bugles-original-flavor1

Grumpy:   Buffalo Chicken Wing Dip.  Spicy, yummy and just hot enough to put a little fire into your soul.

INGREDIENTS:
2 (10 ounce) cans chunk chicken,
drained
2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese,
softened
1 cup Ranch dressing
3/4 cup Tabasco
1 1/2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
Heat chicken and hot sauce in a skillet over medium heat, until heated through. Stir in cream cheese and ranch dressing. Cook, stirring until well blended and warm. Mix in half of the shredded cheese, and transfer the mixture to a slow cooker. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top, cover, and cook on Low setting until hot and bubbly.

Sleepy:  Dried cherries, almonds, dark chocolate chips mixed together.  Why?  Because they all make you sleepy!  And it’s yummy! http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/diet-nutrition/g796/sleep-inducing-foods/?slide=13

Bashful:  A blush wine

Happy:  Cupcakes with little happy faces.

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MUSIC

There are several ways to go here.  You could do some moody, New Yorky jazz from the 1930s.  I would play The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love c.d. all the way through.

MOVIE CASTING

Arturo:  Javier Bardem

Boy:  Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones certainly has the look for it

Boy’s mother:  Tilda Swinton

Snow:  Lily Collins (maybe but she’s already played Snow White I think — so maybe some unknown who is younger).

HAPPY READING!