Book Report: To read or not to read

lincoln and george

Acceding to all the buzz about this book, I put it on reserve at my local library. Twice. The first time I returned it without reading because I fell victim to a case of “Overdrive overload.” All the books I’d been waiting for showed up on my Kindle in the same week. Aack! The second time I settled in for a challenging, yet beautiful ride.

In 1862 Abraham Lincoln is not yet a beloved icon. The Civil War has just begun. Lincoln is widely believed to be inept and certain to be a one-term President. When his young son dies of typhoid, Mr. Lincoln recognizes the grief that other parents are suffering in the still young war—a war that would eventually claim more than 600,000.

“So we have the dilemma put to us, What to do, when his power must continue two years longer and when the existence of our country may be endangered before he can be replaced by a man of sense. How hard, in order to save the country, to sustain a man who is incompetent.

But those historic events only set the stage for George Saundersnovel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Yes, I had to google “bardo” and learned that it is “(in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.”

The entire novel takes place in a Georgetown Cemetery where young Willie Lincoln has been laid to rest in a borrowed crypt. That cemetery is also populated by numerous and diverse spirits who while quite chatty, aren’t exactly certain of their condition.

This novel is stylistically challenging. Each of the fictional and historic characters speaks or relates the speech of another without much connecting tissue. Their contributions may only be a word or a few lines long, like listening in on the conversation at a large cocktail party. Or perhaps it’s more like a pointillist painting or a patchwork quilt. You may need some distance to appreciate the big picture. That being said, you’ll either get on board with the way the story is told, or you’ll give up. Author Saunders says that’s fine.

Here are a few snippets of the text that give voice to the Lincolns’ grief at the loss of their boy.

“Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforce sadness-masks to hide any sing of their happiness, which—which went on.”

“He is either in joy or nothingness. (So why grieve? The worst of it, for him, is over.) Because I loved hm so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the from of fussing and worry and doing, Only there is nothing left to do. Free myself of this darkness as I can, remain useful, not go mad. Think of him, when I do, as being in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.”

“Mary Lincoln’s mental health had never been good, and the loss of young Willie ended her life as a functional wife and mother…Some blows fall too heavy upon those too fragile.”

our town

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The whole “dead men talking” thing reminded me of the cemetery scenes in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, but with a much darker, deeper, more poetic edge. If it were a movie, I imagined Tim Burton might direct it because of his darkly comedic style. However Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally have secured the rights and no director has yet been named.

Vanity Fair Oscar Party, Los Angeles, USA - 26 Feb 2017
Offerman and Mullally

Draw your own conclusions about reading it. It’s certainly not for everyone. The audio-book was available at my library this week, so I’m having another go. Now that I know the story, I’m enjoying the vivid voice portrayals on my morning walks and appreciating it much more.

Book Report: Dive into this tale

indexThe Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

I loved this luscious, lyrical, and somewhat bawdy historical fiction. Debut author, Imogen Hermes Gowar offers readers not only a great story but also an intimate view of the culture and mores of late 18th Century London. (Click here for a tour with the author.) I’ve read enough Regency Romances (thanks Jane Austen & Wilma Counts!) to be familiar with the period, but this exquisite piece of fiction added oodles of delightful, quotidian detail to my lexicon. Foods. Utensils. Customs. Clothing. Language. Expectations. Examples: syllabub, jade, rosolio, redingote, doxy, Lascar, pelisses, dandyprat, tipsy-cake, calamanco. Reading on a Kindle allowed me to look up word without running to a dictionary. Better yet, the new words never got in the way of the story, but simply added to its depth and feeling.

Jonah Hancock is a respectable but unremarkable businessman longing for some measure of happiness after the death of his wife and child. Angelica Neal is a haughty and renowned courtesan who finds herself suddenly without a protector. Mrs. Chappell is the elderly and successful “abbess” of a “nunnery” where Angelica began her career. Through vividly drawn characters from very different worlds, Gowar explores themes of freedom, security, captivity, and ownership, suggesting that ownership harms both the owner and the owned. Everyone, as the adage reminds us, is the hero of their own story.

The interactions among these characters within and without their strict class boundaries makes for some lively conversations and insights, including this one with the aged bawd, Mrs. Chappell.

“Hypocrites!” she exclaims. ‘Who let their own daughters starve almost to death, or put them in cruel marriages, or slake their lust upon them most unnaturally. To think I do any worse by them. Tis an insult! The girls that come to me –and, mark me, their own parents bring them often enough—suffer worse abuses in their own homes that they ever will with me.”

I believe the two (yes, two!) mermaids—one dead, one alive—are stand-ins for the longings, desires, and even that fears that each of the vividly drawn characters harbors. Fortune. A child. A protector. Status. Happiness. Survival. However, “…mermaids are the most unnatural of creatures, and their hearts are empty of love.”

 

 

And from the lyrical voice of the mermaid herself, we hear her compel Mr. Hancock to her.

“A loss is not a void. A loss is a presence all its own; a loss takes up space; a loss is born just as any other thing that lives. You think your arms are empty, but I shall lie in them…I am here; you are not alone. Here I am; I am grief, the living child of your suffering. I am the grief that sits within in you; I am the grief that sits between you.”

Thank you, Ms. Gowar, for a thoroughly enjoyable journey. Recommend.

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Author, Imogen Hermes Gowar who acknowledges, “If my parents had not made me a reader, I’d be no sort of writer at all.” 

 

Book report: A lusty, time-traveling romance

51PrW27sXWLWhile my daughter has been a fan of the STARZ TV series for a while and I’d known of the books’ popularity, I had resisted starting the series. But when the Outlander series was named the second most popular book on PBS’s Great America Read poll, I decided to give it a try just to see what the fuss was about. Besides, I had several long trips and car rides coming up and could dedicate enough time to read its 642 pages. I loaded up my Kindle and set off on what turned out to be an epic journey.

Author, Diana Gabaldon’s skill as a storyteller is evident on every page–telling details, romance, adventure, sex, and history all leave a trail of breadcrumbs compelling readers to keep turning pages. And her judicious use of Gaelic and Scottish words, folklore, and culture immerse the reader deeply into the time and place.

The gist: A young and strong-willed British Army nurse, Claire Randall and her husband are enjoying a second honeymoon in Scotland after WWII when she is unexpectedly transported through a time portal at a stone circle. She finds herself suddenly in a time two hundred years in the past. Claire’s goal, at first, is to get back to her husband and her own time as quickly as she can. However, she is assaulted by a nasty Redcoat–who bears a striking resemblance to her husband—and then rescued somewhat roughly by a band of kilt-wearing Scotsmen.

And thus begins her adventure in which her nursing skills and knowledge of local flora are called into service repeatedly, mostly saving the life of the young, strapping, red-headed Jamie, who of course becomes her love (and lust) interest.

When at last Claire is offered a chance to return will she take it? Is she bound by her marriage vow to a man who hasn’t yet been born? Will she thrive as a physician or be burned as a witch?

So many scrapes. So much swashbuckling. So much sex.  All very enjoyable, but I think I’ll not read the rest of the eight-book Outlander series just now. There are simply too many other books out there winking at me and crooking their fingers. So many books, so little time.

Book Report: Just one kiss

51Y+LLxP6nL“It Only Takes a Kiss” is the second in Wilma Counts’ “Once Upon a Bride” trilogy, in which she gives three familiar stories the Regency Romance treatment. Kiss is inspired by Sleeping Beauty, but in this tale both the hero and heroine have been asleep.

Hero Whitby is her physician father’s assistant in every way allowed in her time and place. Now in her mid-twenties, she is intelligent and compassionate, but mistrustful of the men of her class. Hero has buried the reason for her mistrust—a brutal assault by some upper class boys. She remains “on the shelf.”

When a badly beaten, unconscious, and handsome stranger is brought to her father’s Devonshire clinic in the dead of night, Hero and her father patch him and wait days for him to regain consciousness. Hero finds herself drawn to him, and inspired by the fairy tale, kisses the sleeping patient.

When Alexander Stern awakens, he has no memory of his identity, although his nightmares are of bloody battles in Wellington’s army on the Peninsula.

Having read several of Ms. Counts books, I appreciate how she places her stories in the historical and social context of the period. She brings readers into the time not only with her skillful use of language but also with pertinent details of clothing, food, women’s issues, customs, and the workings of local estates. Estates were not merely grand houses, occupied by an oblivious upper class. Estates were economic centers that needed to be wisely managed and maintained. Farms, mills, breweries, mines, and all other industry worked together for the community’s well-being. The local aristocracy could make or break the system.

In Kiss, the town of Weyburn has for years been terrorized by Willard Teague, the estate’s evil steward. Teague exerts considerable power in the absence of the Weyburn heir who has been off soldiering on the Peninsula or whoring in London. Teague and his band of bully boys use the vacant estate, its mine, and farms in an increasingly violent smuggling operation. Teague employs fear and coercion to enlist the reluctant cooperation of the citizenry. And he’s got his eye on Hero as his next wife. <shudder>

Teague’s advances repulse Hero. After all, she treated his first wife for the abuse he dispensed. She also sees patients at a local home for unwed mothers, the unhappy result of men exerting their power.

“The young mothers were of two sorts: either daughters of upper class, even aristocratic families, or servant who had been seduced—or, in some cases, raped—by males in such households. The babes were most often placed with foster families.”

In fact, Hero has taken in one such child, raising little Annabelle as a member of her family.

As the story unfolds, most of what Hero holds dear in life is threatened–Annabelle’s place in her home, her position as her father’s assistant, the lives of her siblings, and her romance with the handsome stranger.

When all seems lost, Ms. Counts compels readers to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion, complete with a little swashbuckling and, of course, a happily ever after for the newly awakened lovers.

 

Book Report: Another political wife who stood by her man

51tPdMoM89L._AC_US218_My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton

Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

For months the Hamilton soundtrack quickened my step on long walks in the neighborhood. Then there were the months I slowly slogged through Ron Chernow’s tome. Still, I was left wanting to know more about Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth. Living until she was ninety-seven years old, she made it her life’s mission not only to ensure that her husband’s many contributions to the United States be remembered, but also to provide for the care of hundreds of orphans. After all, Alexander Hamilton had been one.

“I was struck by the powerful conviction that God put us here to make a better world. And it is a conviction that has informed the rest of my life.”

hamilton_elizabeth-wife-feature.jpg__400x412_q85_crop_subsampling-2_upscaleThe Eliza we encounter in this well-researched historical fiction, is a reminiscent one. This mature Eliza (called Betsy by her family) already knows the betrayal and tragedy that is to come, as do most readers. But the authors work some sort of magic that both informs and compels us. Eliza’s loyalties and her longstanding mistrust or both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr are perfectly clear, as is her intellect and diplomacy. Early on she adopted a “policy for the dinners that took place at my table: no man’s politics should be held against him, and all were welcome.”

 “Silence is often the only weapon available to ladies. And I wield mine expertly.”

The Revolution

My Dear Hamilton provides insight into the monumental struggles of the Revolutionary War. Eliza and other officers’ wives, including Martha Washington, aided the troops by knitting socks and serving as nurses. After all, their lives were at risk as well.

“Inside the church, officers lay upon church pews, but the rank and file rested on naught but piles of straw. Nurses moved amongst the groaning mass of patients, combing hair for lice, and dousing everything with vinegar as a purifier.”

“Win, and nothing would ever be the same. Lose and, well, my husband, my father, my family, my friends—we stood to lose everything.”

The battles continued

Even winning the war didn’t bring peace. Yes, there were battles over the writing of the Constitution, but imagine rubbing elbows and doing business with those who had been on the other side.

“No royalists should not be suffered to live amongst patriots…. how easily any man could lay claim to the title Son of Liberty now that the war, and the danger of being hanged for it, had passed.”

“…angry, unpaid soldiers seized the city arsenals and held my husband, Jemmy Madison, and the rest of Congress at bayonet point in a standoff. After that Congress became a runaway government, fleeing to Pennsylvania, to New Jersey, then Annapolis.”

And then there were the personal battles

A woman whose husband is unfaithful is often judged more harshly than the man himself. Eliza and her contemporaries expected a wife to make her husband happy and to give him children. She knew  “…how society looked upon a wife who wasn’t enough to satisfy her husband. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.”

 “For I was a wife who’d failed to inspire fidelity. And yet, my fidelity to him was now also to be counted against my virtue. I could neither leave my husband nor love him without offending someone.”

Modern, political, and very public infidelities remind us that not much has changed.  For the most part it seems, Eliza followed her father’s advice when she discovered Hamilton’s affair.

“And, as you will find is so often the case in life, …the only prudent thing to do was frown, make them humble, and forgive.”

imagesEliza Schuyler Hamilton’s intelligence and contributions to her husband’s career–as well as her pain and prejudices–come alive brilliantly in this retelling. It also serves as a reminder of just how brutal American politics has always been, even at its inception. The founding fathers and mothers were all too human.

 

 

Book report: The power of the book

51WSWSDYnKLThe People of the Book

Australian archivist Hannah Heath has come to Sarajevo to investigate and conserve a priceless text, an illustrated haggadah. The small book relates the story of the exodus from Egypt and is a common part of the ritual at a Passover Seder.

“…The hagaddah came to Sarajevo for a reason. It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.”

This particular hagaddah is special because of its detailed illustrations. It has been sought by warring factions and preserved at great risk by individuals over centuries of conflict. But who made this unique book and why? How far has it traveled and by what means? What stories can be told through the analysis of inks, parchment, and butterfly wings? Through stains of blood, wine and salt? The reader is transported to every place and time that the book has traveled. The surprising stories of each person connected to the book–its creation and its rescue over centuries—make for a compelling read.

“A book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.”

Geraldine Brooks’ research of this hagaddah also resulted in a 2007 article in The New Yorker. So yes, this is fiction, but VERY historical fiction. In fact the story of the Jewish girl protected by a Muslim family is true as are other characters Brooks employs to tell this story. There were and are good and heroic people of all faiths, just as there were and are monsters and murderers.

Because the audio-book was available through my library and the book-book was not, I listened to this book. While Brook’s writing alone is rich and evocative, the vivid voices and accents provided by narrator Edwina Wren worked well to place the me in the scenes. Brava!

“I had to remind myself that Islam had once swept north as far as the gates of Vienna; that when the haggadah had been made, the Muslims’ vast empire was the bright light of the Dark Ages, the one place where science and poetry still flourished, where Jews, tortured and killed by Christians, could find a measure of peace.”

Trust me, this is a good, profound book illustrating man’s historic cruelty to and mistrust of anyone perceived as “other.” However, the very survival of the Sarajevo Hagaddah also demonstrates that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have lived and worked together without fear and hate. Indeed, our shared humanity can and must outweigh the ideologies that divide us. Recommend.

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Author Geraldine Brooks

Book Report: Women in war

51jVzFgR9fL._SY346_The Alice Network

I told myself I wouldn’t go back to the dark and desperate world of WWII Europe’s deprivations. But it’s been awhile, and a friend recommended The Alice Network. Besides, this story takes place during WWI and just after WWII. I took the risk and was rewarded.

Quinn’s writing is intimate and compelling, alternating between the points of view of the two main characters. Eve is a young, intelligent British woman with a profound stammer who in 1915 longs to do something in the Britain’s war with Germany. She is thwarted by both her gender and disability. Charlie is a young, intelligent American woman of privilege in 1947 who finds herself pregnant and on her way to Switzerland for an appointment to relieve her of her “little problem.” Their stories connect when Charlie seeks Eve’s help in locating a beloved French cousin who went missing in France during WWII. Both Charlie and the reader need to know why Eve, now a cranky, damaged old drunk, refuses.

Thus begins the tale of Eve’s recruitment and service as part of a web female spies in France, “les fleurs du mal.” The flowers of evil.

“There are two kinds of flowers when it comes to women… The kind that is safe in a beautiful vase, or the kind that survive in any conditions…even in evil. Lili was the latter. Which are you?”

Lili was the head of this network. As such it was her “… job was to be anyone, to shift with a few tricks of posture or grammar from one persona to another, whether seamstress or laundress or cheese seller. And if Lili’s job was to be anyone, Eve’s was to be no one, to be unobserved and unnoticed at all times.” Eve’s assignment was to be a waitress and report on the conversations of the German officers who dined at the restaurant owned by the cruel collaborator, Rene’ Bordelon.

“Why did it matter if something scared you, when it simply had to be done anyway?”

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Author Kate Quinn

As I read the author’s notes at the end of the book, I discovered that many of the vividly portrayed supporting characters, including the colorful Lili, and many of the incidents described were taken directly from true accounts of the time. This is why I read and enjoy historical fiction. I learn about lives and times outside of my own. They make me quesiton myself. In the same circumstances would I have been able to do what they did? This story of war is bloody and brutal. The bravery of both those who fought in the resistance deserve to be remembered. These were no shrinking violets.

 

Book report: Do you really want to know?

TruthOn its surface, this is a coming of age story. It’s told in the lively and distinct voices of three women–Willa and  Jottie Romeyn and Layla Beck–during the sultry summer of 1938 in the small town of Macedonia, West Virginia. Annie Barrows’ makes readers swelter and seek one cool spot in the days before air conditioning.  We sit on the screened porch in creaking wicker chairs in the evening.  We feel the relief offered by the tiniest breeze and sweating glasses of iced tea.

In other ways though, The Truth According to Us is the story of how we all come to terms with the stories we tell ourselves about our pasts. Sometimes the truth hurts, even when those we love try to protect us.

Young Willa Romeyn introduces the story, almost as Scout does in To Kill a Mockingbird.

 “Everything that was to heave itself free of its foundations over the course of the summer began to rattle lightly on the morning of the parade. That was when I first heard of Layla Beck, when I began to wonder about my father, and when I noticed I was being lied to and decided to leave my childhood behind.”

At twelve, Willa is a voracious reader and has grown suspicious of her mysterious father’s frequent absences and the secrets being kept from her.

“If you’re going to unearth hidden truths, keen observing is your shovel.”

“It seemed so hard that I had to work out the answers on my own, but that’s what I had to do. I had to keep at it, finding out, guessing what would happen next, fighting for the right ending, trying to save them all.”

Willa’s Aunt Jottie is her surrogate mother. Jottie knows—or thinks she knows–the secrets and tries to protect Willa and her little sister Bird from them.  She tries to instill in them the Macedonian virtues of “ferocity and devotion.”

“If only Willa could have what I had, Jottie mourned. If only she could be so certain and proud. It was an illusion every child should have. And Willa was losing it, right before her eyes.”

Pretty, spoiled Layla Beck, a  Senator’s daughter, is sent here to grow up and earn her keep during the WPA era. She is tasked with writing the history of Macedonia for its upcoming sesquicentennial. She is soon confronted with conflicting versions of events and comes to a conclusion about history in general.

“A successful history is one that captures the living heat of opinion and imagination and ancient grudge.”

Those short weeks in West Virginia reveal “truths” about the town’s founder, the Civil War, bootleggers, the tragic death of young man years ago, and the price of family loyalty. Some of those lessons take a toll, especially on young Willa.

“I didn’t want to know everything anymore; I didn’t want to know anything.”

Nonetheless, the truth is I’d love to have sat on the Romeyn’s front porch sipping iced tea with the colorful residents of Macedonia that summer. Even in the heat.  I was sorry to say good-bye.

 

 

Book report: What will the neighbors say?

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Fannie Flagg never fails to find humor and wisdom in everyday life and I am never disappointed when I pick up one of her books. The Whole Town’s Talking is no exception.

The book begins quietly with Swedish immigrant, Lordor Nordstrom advertising for a bride to join him on his dairy farm in Missouri. Katrina Olson, recently arrived from Sweden herself, reads the ad in Chicago and comes for a visit. Lordor is smitten, but wisely awaits the verdict of the women of the community.

 

“It was a look in her eye that certain immigrants recognized in one another. A look of hope and determination, almost as it she was gazing past him, far into the future.”

Lordor and Katrina marry and build a community that eventually becomes the town of Elmwood Springs. Their story reminded me of my own Swedish and German immigrant ancestors who settled in Minnesota, Ohio, and Missouri. They relied on one another and their neighbors when they first arrived here.

“You depended on them for your very survival. It didn’t matter if you liked some more than others. They were your neighbors.”

And the neighbors do talk. And talk. We soon discover that the conversations go on beyond death, as we listen in on residents of Still Meadows Cemetery reconnecting and chatting amongst themselves. They enjoy visits from loved ones they left behind and they remark on some hard-won life lessons.

“I think most people are confused about life, because it’s not just one thing going on… It’s many things going on at the same time. Life is both sad and happy, simple and complex, all at the same time.”

But every once in a while, one of the voices at Still Meadows goes silent and is never heard again. Where do they go? It’s a mystery.

The book also tracks the growth and eventual demise of small-town America, from 1889 through 2020 with references to wars, music, technology, and the arrival of Wal-Mart. The changing times have some residents of Elmwood Springs worried.

“Macky was glad he and Norma had grown up when they had. They had come of age in such an innocent time, when people wanted to work and better themselves… Each generation had become a weaker version of the last, until we were fast becoming a nation of whiners and people looking for a free ride—even expecting it.”

Of course, the young people feel differently.

“… people are so much more tolerant and accepting of everything now: different races, different religions, different lifestyles… Life is so much easier that when you were growing up, and women are just doing everything, and now with the Internet, well…the whole world has changed. Honestly, I have to say I grew up in the very best time possible.”

I was also charmed when Flagg mentioned Elmwood Spring’s connection the WASPS, the fine female pilots she wrote about in The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.

The takeaway lesson here is “It takes time and lot of suffering, but sometimes, when you least expect it, life has a strange way of working out.” Readers can count on Flagg for a happy ending, even when it happens in the most unlikely of ways. You just never know…

“It may take a while, but everybody gets what they deserve, eventually.”

Fannie Flagg
Author, Fannie Flagg

Book report: War comes to a small town in Sussex

The Summer Before the War has been51eS2lPk4cL._SY346_ on my “to be read” shelf since I heard author, Helen Simonson interviewed on NPR some time ago. I’d enjoyed her debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I found to be simply charming and have recommended often.

Now I can recommend her second novel to you, especially if, like me, you were a fan of “Downton Abbey.” This book is not set on a grand estate, but rather in the town of Rye in Sussex, just before England enters World War I.

We meet liberally-educated and well-traveled, Beatrice Nash, whose father has recently died. She arrives in Rye, still grieving, to take a position teaching Latin as she seeks to gain independence from her family who controls what little money she has inherited. Already in her early twenties, she has resigned herself to spinsterhood. Moreover, as a woman in 1914, she is thwarted at every turn by convention, pettiness, hypocrisy, and prejudice embodied by landladies, solicitors, and small town gossips. Through Beatrice, we are also introduced to a cast of artists, progressives, and a few gypsies who challenge the status quo with their kindness, courage, intelligence, and heart. Beatrice even finds love.

I admire Simonson’s skill at immersing readers into the landscape and conflicts of this time and place. Every well-chosen detail does double duty, informing character or enhancing tension. Simply a pleasure to read. Recommend.