Sunday, June 12, 2016

Circling the Sun, West With the Night, and my book club


I was disappointed when my book club selected Circling the Sun by Paula McLain for our May discussion. I listened to McLain's earlier novel, The Paris Wifein 2011 and thought it was a good book, but not a great one. Still, I resolved to give her latest a try. After a winter in Florida, I missed my book club and wasn't about to go to the meeting without having read the book.

Basically, the novel is a fictionalized biography of Beryl Markham, who is perhaps best known as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. She was also an accomplished horse trainer and lived in Africa for most of her life.

I opted for a read/listen combination, borrowing the book from the library and using an audible credit to download the audiobook narrated by Katharine McEwan. McEwan's narration is excellent and easily pulled me into the story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Markham's childhood in Africa, career as a horse trainer, friendship with Karen Blixen (Out of Africa author), and her many affairs.

Yet there was a good deal of frustration, too. Beryl Markham was a real person, so which parts were fact and which were products of the author's imagination? This is a problem I have with all fictionalized biographies... and why they usually end up sending me in search of the real thing.


In this case, the real thing is West With the Night by Beryl Markham. Again, I borrowed the book from the library and downloaded the audio version narrated by the late Anna Fields. It was a pleasure to hear Field's voice again, but I had a much harder time getting into this one.

Markham doesn't let the reader get as close as the fictional Beryl in Circling the Sun does. Her feelings seem to be wholly absent from the book. She obviously loves Africa and her work (horses and flying), but there is very little here about relationships. Her emotional self and personal life remain an enigma. When Denys Hatton-Finch dies in a plane crash, there is no hint of anything more than a working relationship between the two them. (Perhaps that was a fictional aspect of Circling the Sun?) Markham's mother and Karen Blixen are not even mentioned.

West With the Night does provide wonderful descriptions of Africa, as well as stories of Markham's work as a horse trainer and her experiences as a pilot. That is more than enough to make this an interesting memoir.

A couple of quotes:
"Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer's paradise, a hunter's Valhalla, an escapist's Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations."  
"You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness. If you read a book, or shuffle a deck of cards, or care for a dog, you are avoiding yourself. The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all. If it were otherwise, men would never have bothered to make an alphabet, nor to have fashioned words out of what were only animal sounds, nor to have crossed continents -- each man to see what the other looked like."

My final thoughts:

I enjoyed the Circling the Sun and rated it 4 stars. West With the Night  was a very good memoir, but not what I was expecting. For that reason, I ended up giving it 3 stars.

I'm certain I would have liked West With the Night  more if I'd read it before the novel. That way, the novel could have filled in the blanks left by the memoir. Instead, the memoir failed to provide the answers I sought. However, since Markham's personal account is so vague, I now understand the motivation for writing a novel.

Book club meeting:

Six of us met for coffee on a Friday morning, and five had read the entire book. I thought this would have been a very popular selection but, surprisingly, I enjoyed it more than most of the others. I was also the only one compelled to seek out the memoir.

We spent some time bemoaning the current popularity of fictionalized biographies, discussing our frustrations with that type of novel, and wondering how much longer the trend will continue. We also shared our experiences with the author's previous book (not a book club selection, but one most of us had read) and compared it to Circling the Sun.

We spent a great deal of time talking about Markham herself and how she was a woman ahead of her time. Her life was certainly remarkable, but not especially shocking by today's standards. We also discussed life in Africa, both during Markham's time and today, and even took a little detour into the world of "Glamping" and safaris.

Next month we will discuss Nobody's Fool  by Richard Russo.

30 comments:

  1. I didn't love Circling the Sun - at the time I thought there just wasn't enough story for me. I recently read The Paris Wife for my book club and have decided that I'm just not a fan of the author's writing style.

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    1. Kathy - I ended up liking Circling the Sun much more than The Paris Wife, but I've probably read enough by this author now.

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  2. I think I may be the last person on earth who enjoys fictionalized biographies, but they'll never hold a candle to real ones. :)

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    1. Audrey - The one thing I do like about fictionalized biographies is that they cause me to seek out the real thing!

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  3. Isn't it strange how you don't want to read a book and then end up liking it more than most everyone else?

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    1. Vicki - Once I got into this one, I really was surprised by how much I liked it.

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  4. I have the same thoughts on fictionalized biographies. I like them because they might be the only way I learn about certain historical characters and events. However, I always go off to research the real thing afterwards.

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    1. Athira - Me, too... since they're real people, I hate not knowing the true story.

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  5. Don't you feel like you still have so many questions after both books?! I have done some research online and there are other books I might check out to round out the subject.

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    1. Lisa - I do! Would be curious to hear what other books you'd consider reading.

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  6. I dislike fictional biographies. I read West with the Night and I agree that the narrative voice is odd. Impressed that she fought off a lion, though!

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    1. Vintage Reading - West With the Night was definitely an odd narrative voice. At the time, there was even some talk that she may not have even written the book herself. The lion scene was definitely impressive though ;-)

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  7. I've only liked (not loved) the fictional bios (including Paris Wife) I've read. I don't plan to read Circling the Sun because of that. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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    1. Deb - For what it's worth, I thought Circling the Sun was better thanThe Paris Wife.

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  8. I went on and on before so I won't here. :<))) But I think the fictionalized biographies should be illegal! Haha

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    1. Nan - I certainly share that opinion!!

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  9. Speaking of Paris Wife, is that about Hadley? If so, there is a real biography of her: Hadley by Gioai Diliberto. Now it has been renamed probably because of the fictional book. New name is: Paris Without End The True Story of Hemingway's First Wife. It has a beautiful cover.

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    1. Nan - Yes, The Paris Wife was about Hadley. I remember rereading A Moveable Feast shortly after, but never got the story from Hadley's perspective. I'll have to look for Paris Without End.

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  10. Interesting that emotion was missing from Markham's memoir...definitely makes me not as excited to read it. Probably won't bother now.

    And interesting that your book club isn't a collective fan of fictionalized biographies. I tend to like them, but like you, always try to seek out what was real vs. fiction. I love it when there's a good Afterword mapping this out at the end of the book.

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    1. Sarah - I wish there had been a good afterword in Circling the Sun... it would have added so much! West With the Night was not at all what I was expecting and I felt like it didn't add much to my understanding of Beryl Markham. If that was the best source for information about her life, now wonder McLain wrote a novel!!

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  11. I LOVE fictionalized biographies. I thought The Paris Wife was great and I hope to read this one soon. I will have to keep the memoir in mind.

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    1. Reviewsbylola - I enjoyed this one quite a bit more than The Paris Wife. But even really good fictionalized biographies frustrate me because I don't always know which parts are fiction. If you love them, then I definitely recommend Circling the Sun

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  12. I also go in search of learning true facts when a book I read is based on true events and I loved it. I've seen a lot of people rave about Circling the Sun, but it honestly never appealed to me. Sadly, I never made time for my last book club pick. *yikes*

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    1. Kathy - Searching out the facts is a good thing, and I really did enjoy Circling the Sun.... was just frustrated not know exactly what was fact and what was fiction.

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  13. Yes I think you're right -- I had read West With the Night many years before -- I think in the late 1980s and since I read it way before Circling the Sun -- I liked the memoir a great deal. It's definitely reserved and doesnt mention her emotions and relationships but what it does share is wonderful. Men with Blackwater Die and the chapter on her flight are really great etc. I recall last year communicating to Beryl's biographer Mary Lovell via email and she was very upset by what she said Paula McLain had "stolen" from her biography Straight On Till Morning (1987). She used all her research basically - that Lovell had done on Beryl. I still liked Circling the Sun but someday I think I should go back & read the biography -- as Beryl was still alive until 1986 & was interviewed by Lovell. Interesting though eh? Lovell seemed livid -- dont think it was plagiarism but used her book without acknowledging it -- until Lovell objected

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    1. Susan - That's so interesting! Now that I've read the novel and the memoir, maybe the biography would compete the picture. Markham sounds like a fascinating woman, but I still don't feel like I know much about her.

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  14. I get the same frustrations with historical fiction; how much is accurate? And, like you, I picked up West With the Night. Even though the writing is beautiful, I haven't been able to finish it.

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    1. Bellezza - I might not have finished West With the Night without the added 'help' from the audiobook. Plus, I really wanted to have extra information (or fuel) for the book club discussion. In my opinion, you're not missing much if you don't finish.

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  15. Well. I am supposed to read west with the night for the spin! I need to step my reading up.

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    1. Care - You still have a week, right? ;-)

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