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.
Notions of motherhood and parenting play a central role in Celeste Ng’s second novel as they did in her first, Everything I Never Told You. She explores this basic question: “What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?” And what do we do for (and to) our children in our efforts to fulfill that duty. The book starts with a fire that destroys a home.
“The firemen said there were little fires everywhere. Multiple points of origin. Possible use of an accelerant. Not an accident.”
A sample of the author’s words about parenting:
“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.”
“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches…. a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and asps it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it like and eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.”
“Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed: if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.”
“Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less…. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.”
Personal note: Although I have enjoyed talking about books with you, I will be taking a break from writing about every book I read. In the new year I want to focus my efforts on a major rewrite of my novel. <heavy sigh here> Ties That Bind needs my full attention if it’s ever going to get done. There may be an occasional blurb about something I’ve LOVED, but that’s it.
I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy, healthy, and productive New Year! XO
While 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.
“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.
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.”
The 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.”
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.”
Eliza 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.
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.
The author links teacher walkouts to the #metoo movement. He may have a point. Read on…
Frequently we hear folks of a certain age bemoaning progress and the passage of time. They wish for bygone days when life was simpler. Not me. Especially after reading Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth.
The author first gives us a little history of maternal healthcare before 1948 and the advent of Britain’s National Health Service.
“It is hard to imagine today that until the last century no woman had any specialist obstetric care during pregnancy. The first time a woman would see a doctor or midwife was when she went into labour. Therefore, death and disaster, either for mother or child, or both, were commonplace. Such tragedies were looked upon as the will of God, whereas, in fact, they were the inevitable result of neglect and ignorance.”
“In the mid-nineteenth century, maternal mortality amongst the poorest classes was around 35-40 percent, and infant mortality was around 60 percent. Anything like eclampsia, hemorrhage, or mal-presentation, would mean the inevitable death of the mother.”
Worth graphically describes— in sometimes intimate and cringe-worthy detail—the conditions and very real life and death struggles of the residents of the London Docklands just after WWII.
“Children were everywhere, and the streets were their playgrounds. In the 1950s there were no cars in the back streets, because no one had a car.”
Many of those children were born into two-room tenements without a toilet–or even running water–where four or more other children were already present. Some lived in ruined buildings left standing after the Blitz. Domestic violence and mental illness were common and mostly untreated. A girl “in trouble” was ostracized and–after surrendering her child for adoption–was many times forced into a life of prostitution. And while races bumped into one another frequently and companionably in the streets and at work, a mixed-race baby was unthinkable.
Those were the “good old days.”
What difference did reliable birth control make?
“The Pill was introduced in the early 1960s and modern woman was born. Women were no longer to be tied to the cycle of endless babies… Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s, we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!”
Fans of the television series, Call the Midwife, will enjoy becoming acquainted with the real-life Jenny, Trixie, Chummy, and Cynthia, as well as Sisters Julienne, Monica Joan, Evangelina, Bernadette. Dr. Turner and Fred are here as well.
But mostly this book is a reminder that things have gotten better. We know that access to affordable healthcare—especially birth control—matters. And to the most vulnerable women and children among us–the poor and the sick–it is a matter of survival.