"A Darker Sea: Master Commandant Putnam and the War of 1812" by James L. Haley, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017

A good historical novel is a rare treasure.  Few authors want to take the research time to craft characters into past, engaging and educating the reader simultaneously—and do it accurately.

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A Darker Sea is the second of Haley’s new series based on U.S. Naval history.  The first book of the series (though by no means the first book written by this honored Texas author) is The Shores of TripoliSee my January 2017 review

Like the first book, A Darker Sea is easy to read, with an engaging story, and an excellent description of why we fought the War of 1812, often considered the second U.S. war for independence.  The plot is not laden with nautical detail.  There is family lore, romance, bromance, action, and intrigue.  Highly recommended for U.S. history lovers.

What to look for next year?  In Haley’s own words, here are the eight scenarios he proposed for the series.  “I sent off an outline for eight interlocking novels that followed the adventures of a juvenile midshipman in the Barbary War, through the War of 1812, perhaps chasing pirates in the Caribbean in 1818, with the missionaries in Hawaii in the 1820s, in the Texas Revolution in 1836, and so on to the Civil War, when he would be a white-haired old commodore.”

“The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir” by Ruth Wariner (Flatiron Books, 2015)

I’m not alone in the perverse fascination with Mormon polygamy.  Two cable shows, “Sister Wives” and “Big Love” (neither of which I have seen.) averaged 1.75 million viewers per show. Warren Jeffs and his band of polygamists in Colorado City, AZ and Texas repeatedly make news with sensational trials for raping underage girls (marriage in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Later Day Saints - FLDS) and welfare fraud because the mothers claim state support and food stamps for each child.  

So, I grabbed The Sound of Gravel when browsing the shelves of the Chicago Public Library--it was an unexpected find.  The story of Ruth Wariner is different from the FLDS.  Her family lives in LeBaron, Mexico, home to a polygamist LDS sect founded by her grandfather in 1944.

The following is from Wikipedia on the section “Mormons and Polygamy”.
 
“In 1862, the United States Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which prohibited plural marriage in the territories. In spite of the law, Mormons continued to practice polygamy, believing that it was protected by the First Amendment. In 1879, in Reynolds v. United States, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the Morrill Act, stating: "Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinion, they may with practices.

In 1890, church president Wilford Woodruff issued a Manifesto that officially terminated the practice of polygamy. Although this Manifesto did not dissolve existing plural marriages, relations with the United States markedly improved after 1890, such that Utah was admitted as a U.S. state in 1896. After the Manifesto, some Mormons continued to enter into polygamous marriages, but these eventually stopped in 1904 when church president Joseph F. Smith disavowed polygamy before Congress and issued a "Second Manifesto", calling for all plural marriages in the church to cease and established excommunication as the consequence for those who disobeyed.”

Many polygamist Mormons settled in Mexico, where they were tolerated.  Thus began the back and forth cycle for the members.  They always obtained U.S. citizenship, and when welfare was established, assured that they returned each month to collect their checks.  Each “wife” declared that she did not know the father, so there was no chasing for child support, etc.  

Ruth Wariner’s story begins in Mexico, her mother is the third wife of an entitled failure, father of 47 children, who feels little responsibility for providing for either wives or offspring.  These are cult members, indoctrinated in the original Book of Mormon which endorses polygamy and practically deifies polygamist men.  There is unhappiness within her community, but little thought of revolt.

As the mother and children shuffle back and forth between grandparents in California, who have returned to the official LDS religion, and LeBaron.  The children begin to understand that their settlement life style offers stark poverty and no opportunity.  Their religion, instead of providing consolation, threatens the women and empowers the men.  Since The Sound of Gravel is a memoir, we know from the outset that Ruth and her siblings survive, but not before catastrophe decimates the fragile family. This is a quick and engrossing read.

If you are interested in another graphic memoir of a totally dysfunctional Mormon family, please read Melissa Anderson’s Eleven Regrets (Little Bear Publications, 2015).  Beautifully written, it is perhaps the most disturbing memoir ever.  

Recommended
 

“New York”, by Edward Rutherfurd, Ballentine Books Trade Paperbacks, 2010

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Better than most “epic sagas”, New York begins in the 15th Century with the Dutch and the Indians and ends with the fall of the World Trade Center.  The story traces various families representing old money, new money, illegal money, etc.  The focus is on New York as the financial center of the world, not just the U.S.  

The stories around the various financial crises provided insights on the role of J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt and others who knew that several New York financial institutions were “too big to fail” long before our debacle beginning in 2008.  They appear to have been right.  

There are adequate maps to use as Rutherfurd pulls the story from Downtown to Uptown following Manhattan’s development.  The growth of the boroughs is included, but the focus is Manhattan.  

The Masters family are the main characters—old money going back to the Dutch, who evolve into new money as they change with the times.  Nice characters, well drawn.  

Recommended for those who can deal with a book of 860 pages!

"Fifteen Dogs:  An Apologue" by André Alexis (Coach House Books, 2015)

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How often do you open a book, read a few pages and become captured by the story, the writing, the imagination of the author? Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs had me from the first sentence, “One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes were at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern”.  You know immediately there is going to be a punch line to this story.

And what a story it is.  I’m not going to spoil your reading pleasure (and you must read this book) by revealing the plot.  Only that dogs do die, so those who cannot abide animal reality should not indulge in this wonderful story.

André Alexis is Canadian and has just been awarded Canada’s Windham-Campbell Prize for his body of work.  So why don’t we know more about him?  Ah, Canadian?  Not so exciting; perhaps a bit intellectual; published by a small Canadian house and therefore lacking the publicity machine?

Alexis refers to Fifteen Dogs as part of a Quincuix (a series of five interlocking novels that investigate the idea of faith, of community, of morality, of humanity).  Fifteen Dogs is Quincuix II, an apologue or moral fable often using animals as characters.  Each part of the Quincuix is written in a different genre: a pastoral, an apologue, a ghost story, a quest, and a romance. Pastoral is Quincuix I and The Hidden Keys is Quincuix III.  

Don’t miss is wonderful, quirky, amusing, sad book.  I plan to dive into I and III immediately.  
 

"Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World" by Jack Weatherford, (Three Rivers Press, 2004)

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And we think that Game of Thrones is complex.  In one century, from 1206, when Genghis Khan was born, through 1294, when Khubilai Khan died, the Mongols spread from a small group of nomads on the steppes of what is now Mongolia to control all of Russia, northern India, Persia, Iraq and China.  

Inventive warfare, featuring swift warriors shooting arrows from galloping horses, overwhelmed rigid peasant armies and fully armed, mounted knights.  Mongols attacked front on, while stealth battalions came from the rear, crushing the enemy between the two.  The Mongols did not always exterminate the conquered.  They demanded loyalty and taxes.  If there was no pledge of loyalty, you were exterminated.  Where inhumane systems governed, they supplanted it with religious tolerance, rights for women, and learning.  Originally the Mongols were illiterate nomads.  When exposed to systems of writing, accounting, teaching, they brought these skills to their people and to other, less developed, cultures.  While Europe was in the Dark Ages, the Mongol Empire and culture flourished

As nomads, their focus was always on trade routes.  Mongols opened all the groups they conquered to international trading, developing the Silk Road and the system of caravanserais, motels of the ancient world build one camel-day journey apart.  At the caravanserais, all were welcome, baths were available, food was available, merchants could store goods to reclaim as they returned.  What they paid was tax in return for the services.  

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is not an easy read because there are so many important characters spread over such vast territory.  Jack Weatherford is an academic who spent years on the ground researching this book.  He presents the material in a logical and thorough manner.   This is a worthy read for armchair travelers and historians—eye opening to say the least.  
 

"Machinal" by Sophie Treadwell, produced by Greenhouse Theater Center, directed by Jacob Harvey

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Based on the lurid story of Ruth Snyder, a New Yorker who, with her lover, murdered her husband and was electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison in 1928, Machinal is an “expressionist” play.  That description was used in 1929 when Treadwell’s (an investigative reporter and feminist) play opened on Broadway.  It is characterized by extreme simplification of characters to mythic types, declamatory dialogue and heightened intensity.

Considered a hit on Broadway, Machinal (derived from the French word for mechanical) ran 91 shows.  It was the first big role for Clark Gable, who played the feckless lover.  The show has been revived many times, and is popular with colleges and universities--perhaps because starkness makes for a low-budget production. It’s hard to be involved with a stage full of performers who move woodenly, rarely smile, and, since you know the punch line, hard to become involved in plot development. The movement direction by Elizabeth Margolius was well done and added dimension to flat (purposely) production.  The evening we attended, the understudy, Abigail Schwarz, a student at North Central College, played the Ruth.  She was outstanding.  North Central College collaborated with Greenhouse on the production.

We can assume that when the play was first produced, it alluded to homosexuality in the cabaret scene.  In this production, two homosexual couples, one male, one female, sit woodenly in wooden chairs, mumbling inane lines to each other, holding hands, on the periphery of the set.  Was this added just to appeal to a “special” theater crowd?  To show modern sensibilities that were not likelycast in an early 20th century play? IMHO, the special crowd might be offended because the characters seem so clumsily grafted into the play.

Expressionist theater makes for a rigid and rather boring evening.  If you are a student of theater, see it to learn about the genre.  Otherwise, skip it.  

“A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and Putin’s War with the West” by Luke Harding (Vintage Books Original, 2017)

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We visited Highgate Cemetery in London last year.  Aside from noting how cleaned up the grounds were, we were attracted to the grave of Alexander Litvinenko, marked with candles and a sign posted by his wife requesting that we not take photos.   So, when this book released, I jumped at the chance to read what I knew would be a disheartening story of espionage gone wrong.

Luke Harding is award-winning foreign correspondent with the Guardian, who has reported from Delhi, Berlin and Moscow and covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.  He is the author of Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia, and this book on Litvinenko. 

Litvinenko was well known in the U.K. as are many of the other Russian emigres who have fled either to escape political murder and mayhem and/or to protect their billions.  They are reported on daily in the press.  In the U.S., coverage is less frequent, unless, like Litvinenko, you are poisoned with polonium that contaminated every surface the bumbling assassins encountered on their death mission through London

Litvinenko’s story is of a middle-class Russian military espionage officer who appears to responsibly serve the state.  When he completes his military career, he uses former contacts throughout the world to serve commercial interests.  In that arena, it is easy to run afoul of criminals in the “New Russia”.  He did; he tried to escape to London; Putin put a hit out on him.  Litvinenko was finally murdered in the second attempt.  Bumbling murder assignments seems to be common among the Russian henchmen.  They use poison because it is often undetected.  The heart of Harding’s book is that after many years, the murderers were tried and convicted in U.K. law courts.  By implication, Putin was convicted. 

Harding is no friend of Putin and the “New Russia”.  He tells it as he sees it—Russia is country run by criminals with accountability only to Putin and his cronies.  The mask of statesmanship and amiability is geared to only one thing—restoring Russia to the former USSR borders and putting money into Putin’s pockets.  Things get done when Putin is paid.  Things go away when Putin pays or murder others. 

When I finished reading this book, I found it shading anything about Putin and Russia that was in the news as the work of criminals and liars acting in their own overt and covert self-interest.  I’m not uncomfortable with the opinion.  Looking at any Trump or U.S. contact with the Russians in this light make me realize they are as evil as North Korea, a lot smarter and therefore magnitudes more dangerous.   Communism failed Russia.  What filled the void is an evil criminal state without a moral center, not unlike Russia under Stalin.

"Perfume River" by Robert Olen Butler, (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016)

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Robert Olen Butler is a prolific writer – and each time I read a book of his, I’m encouraged to dive into his bibliography and read others.  Perfume River is his latest book.  I chanced upon it in the Portland, MA library, but that’s another story.

Butler’s most famous book, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, is short stories, many of them about the Vietnam war, from the POV of the Vietnamese, both in Vietnam and in the U.S.  In Perfume River, he returns to the war again, this time from the POV of American families in the U.S. 

We are long post-war.  Robert Quinlan, the main character, is 70, a veteran; his father William a veteran of WWII.  Robert and his wife, Darla have a long and happy marriage, even though she was a demonstrating pacifist in the 60’s.  Robert is still dealing with his father’s attachment to war and killing.  This has affected Robert and his brother Jimmy since childhood.  They took different paths regarding the war:  Jimmy fled to Canada and Robert enlisted so he would not be in the infantry, as his father was.  This rift in the family has never been healed.  William’s illness and unexpected death force the family to deal with secrets that will change their lives.  

Twined throughout the Quinlan saga is the story of Bob, the son of a Vietnam veteran.  Bob is now homeless and suffering from his own PTSD.  Through him, Butler examines the war’s impact on next generations, a fascinating exploration.

This is a beautifully written book—the tale of brothers who chose different paths, their families and their ability to face life’s unpleasant revelations and move forward.  It is also a story of marriage, how it changes with age yet remains a defining source of loyalty.

Highly recommended
 

“The Wife’s Tale” by Lori Lansens (Back Bay Books, 2009)

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This is a Laundry Room book—picked from our usually packed bookshelf of free exchange books in the building.  The author is eastern Canadian, so in keeping with my research reading for the Nova Scotia trip.  But, I wasn’t expecting more than a quick read.

The plot concerns an obese wife, Mary Gooch, who is deserted by her husband on the eve of their 25th anniversary.   Her husband, Jimmy Gooch, a good man by anyone’s description, appears to have won a small lottery pot and deposits $25,000 into their joint account, saying in a note that he split it with her.  Then he begins making mysterious withdrawals.

Mary begins her quest for her forever love.  Reasoning that Jimmy would likely have gone to see his mother in southern California, she takes her first flight and lands in the world of possibility.  Here the cast of characters unfolds:  Big Avi, the limo driver with a heart of gold, Eden, her mother-in-law, with a heart of silver, Jesus, an Hispanic hunk, who cleans Eden’s pool and befriends Mary.  IMHO, everyone is just a little too nice and cooperative.  Mary’s passionate love for the contents of the refrigerator mysteriously disappears.  The weight falls from her porcine frame.  She befriends a frantic woman with three-year-old triplets, and is unexplainably able to tame them and open her heart to love and be loved.

It’s a coming-of-age story for a 45-year-old.  And, it’s the American story of promises fulfilled, but not always the ones you want.  As the Stones say, “You don’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.”  And it is a quick read indeed.

Recommended for a quickie; you can leave the book on the plane, and I left this one in the shared library at the Halifax Comfort Suites.


 

“Lela & Co.” a play by Cordelia Lynn, Directed by Robin Witt, Produced by Steep Theatre Co.

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The performance area of this store-front theater, nestled next to the Bryn Mawr El stop is set in a square.  Cabaret tables, complete with candles casually surround a large square platform, raised about two feet.  The extremities of the room are furnished with old chairs, sofas and floor lamps—an unusual setting for a heartbreaking drama.

There are only two performers in Lela; Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel as Lela and Chris Chmelik as various men in her life.  Lela opens her story by promising us the truth, something that rarely exists in her world.  Though not mentioned, you can imagine that the setting is a Balkan country at the time of one of the recent wars. 

Lela is the youngest in the family; a fresh 15-year-old whose father has already figured out how to win at emotional games.  On her first trip to the “big city”, she meets and soon marries a friend of her sister’s husband.  When the fighting begins, her husband, noted for his business sense, sees the opportunity in a brothel.  Initially he just sells Lela’s time to friends, but the business prospers and he makes other women sex slaves to service the soldiers. 

Lela moves throughout the set, often talking directly to audience members, even standing on a table.  Her men stalk behind her, menacing Lela and audience alike. This fluid choreography around the set affects the audience with the audacious proximity of action and keeps them constantly following the actors with their eyes and bodies.

There is nothing pretty about Lela & Co..  The ending is not unexpected.  While Lela continues to speak words of hope, the audience sinks into despair.  The beauty is the performances.  Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel is splendid as Lela—never losing our attention throughout nearly two hours on stage.  Chris Chemlik is a worthy sparring partner—lithe, mean and deceitful, cringeworthy.   

Steep Theatre hits it out of the park again.  This play is a prince, highly recommended for those who seek challenging theater. 

 

 

“Margaret the First” by Danielle Dutton, Catapult, 2016

Visiting the Chicago Public Library branch at Water Tower, I can’t help but peruse the newer releases.  And so, I chanced upon Margaret the First.  The velvety feel of the paperback cover, and its beautiful illustration of Margaret immediately made me feel this was a book above others.  And, an historical novel to boot.

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Margaret is royally born Margaret Lucas, in 1623 in Colchester, Essex, England.  She joins the court as a lady in waiting for Queen Henrietta Maria and goes into exile in France with her and the court of Charles I during the Civil War with Cromwell and the Roundheads.  While in France, Margaret marries William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle on Tyne, a fellow exiled royal. This is a love match.  The Duke is considerably older than Margaret and supports her emotionally her throughout their childless marriage. Margaret indulges her interest in writing poetry, memoir, plays, some of the first science fiction—much of which she published in her name.  This was a first for a woman of her time and today Margaret, who was an early influence on Virginia Woolf, is revered by women’s liberation advocates.  

Dutton’s writes in a style evocative of the erratic nature of her subject.  Some chapters are a paragraph, other much longer.  She follows the historical landmarks of the time: war, exile, the restoration and life after the restoration.  Margaret and William lose their fortune in property, regain it after the restoration and eventually leave Margaret a wealthy widow.  Throughout, Margaret writes and writes—her preferred method of expression.  That and her costume, which titillated the masses who could read the first tabloids documenting the exploits of Mad Margaret.  

For my taste, the book was too short, exciting my interest in the historical period and in the characters.  That is a good thing and will lead me to seek other books relating to Mad Margaret.  
Recommended for history lovers.

“All We Shall Know” by Donal Ryan, (Penguin Books, 2017)

This is a sad, but well told story—set in Ireland, home of sad stories.  And Donal Ryan knows how to tell them.  The protagonist, Melody, seems evil, involved in a bitter marriage that she ends with pregnancy by her 17-year-old literacy student from a local community of Travellers (Irish Gypsies).  The pace of the novel follows the weeks of pregnancy, each landmark bringing another reason for spite towards her husband, Pat, his family, the village, the Travellers—and her self-hatred. She lives alone in her house; Pat with his menacing family.

Mary, a young Traveller ostracized by her husband Buzzy's clan because she is barren, befriends Melody as she lurks around the camp.  The troubles caused by Mary’s infertility and Melody’s fertility are the soul of All We Shall Know. Melody keeps her pregnancy secret from the young father, using it only to wound her husband and his family.  Mary's family enters into a protracted battle with Buzzy's clan, who claim he was cuckolded.  Melody’s own father, a passive figure, accepts her situation, and provides a safe home and care as the pregnancy ripens.  Unhappy in his marriage to Melody’s deceased mother, you feel he can begin life again with a grandchild.  

Ryan’s writing is flat-out beautiful.  

“I could still fly to London and end this, and come back and say, Yes, Pat, I was
lying, and he could persuade himself to believe me, and we could take a
weekend break somewhere and be massaged together, and walk along a river
hand in hand, and stand beneath a waterfall and feel the spray on our faces and
laugh, and think about the cave behind the falling water, cut off from the world,
and all the roaring peace to be found there, and have a drink in the bar after
dinner, and go to bed, and turn to one another's flesh for warmth, and find only a
hard coldness there, and no accommodation, no forgiveness of sins; and we'd
turn away again from one another, and lie apart facing upwards and send words
into eternity about babies never born, and needs unmet, and prostitutes and
internet sex and terrible unforgivable sins and swirling infinities of blame and
hollow retribution, and we could slow to a stop as the sun crept up, and turn from
each other in familiar exhaustion, and sleep until checking-out time on pillows
wet with tears"

All We Shall Know is concise, 180 pages, and spell-binding.  Highly recommended.


 

“The Spinning Heart” by Donal Ryan (Steer Forth Press, 2014)

The time is 2008, or so, the early days of the Great Recession in Ireland.  The Celtic Tiger period of the 1990’s through the mid-2000’s was fed by direct foreign investment, a subsequent property bubble and lax bank lending standards.  Unemployment in 2006 was 4.6%, in 2012 it was 15%, and among young workers, it was 33%.  Ireland was hit hard; they could not replace the foreign capital that fled the country.

The Spinning Heart brings this macroeconomics down to the micro world of small town Ireland.  A local contractor, headed by the scoundrel-son of a well-to-do citizen, flees the country in financial ruin, leaving his employees and his customers in a mess.  And what a pretty pickle it is: job loss, broken hearts and marriages, sad stories as only the Irish reveal in literature.  

This is a novel told from multiple points of view.  Each chapter is a character, speaking in the first person.  It takes a few chapters to see the web of plot holding them together.  Even then, it is possible to miss links that would be clearer in a sequential novel.  

The first-person narrative gives Ryan the opportunity to reveal the characters intimate thoughts and private actions.  The writing is terse, with a good deal of Irish patois and grammatical rhythm.  It takes a few re-reads to grasp the full meaning of some sentences, especially the articles and pronouns.  This may be the reason for not seeing some of the plot links.  But, stick with it.  This is a worthy and engrossing read by an emergent Irish author.

Book awards for The Spinning Heart – not bad for a first published book.

•    2012: Irish Book Awards, winner, Newcomer of the Year (The Spinning Heart)
•    2012: Irish Book Awards, Book of the Year (The Spinning Heart)
•    2013: Booker Prize, longlist (The Spinning Heart)
•    2014: IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, shortlist (The Spinning Heart)
•    2013: Guardian First Book Award, winner (The Spinning Heart)
•    2015: European Union Prize for Literature (Ireland), winner (The Spinning Heart)

Recommended
 

“The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry (Custom House, 2016)

As the white cliffs of Dover soar above the Atlantic, the Essex shoreline on the English Channel is low and muddy with river estuaries.  This mud sets the tone for the Gothic novel The Essex Serpent.  Mud that clings to clothing; mud that seizes boots and shoes forever lost; mud that pulses with brackish tidal water.

Freed by the death of her husband from an abusive marriage, Cora Seaborne escapes from Victorian London, loses her corset, and her elegant town house to embrace the plain life of Colchester in Essex, a bit northeast of London.  She is accompanied by her adolescent son, Francis, and his nanny and Cora’s companion, Martha. Dear friends from London figure in the story, but the plot develops around the denizens of Colchester.

The novel is full of Dickensian characters including the wry parson and his sprightly wife, old fishermen, curious children, learned physicians.  All spin around Cora and her trip from death and desolation to redemption.  The time is Victorian—London is a bustling, electrified city while Colchester still lives in the dark, lamp-wise and spiritually.  The myth of The Essex Serpent and it’s resolution reflect the seismic change that is coming to rural England with the 20th Century.

The themes of spirituality, demonism, and unrequited love, along with the intense observations of the writer reminded me of A. S. Byatt.  But, as dense as Byatt’s writing is, Perry writes in a flowing manner that quickly moves the story along.

Highly recommended – the best “new” novel I’ve read in several years.