The Road to Little Dribbing: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson, (Doubleday, 2015)

Crammed with things you’ll enjoy as he travels from Bognor Regis in the South to Cape Wrath in the North of Scotland.  Bill Bryson is funny.  Not what you would expect from a Des Moines, Iowa native who spent most of his adult life in the U.K., much of it in senior copy and editing positions with the The Times and The Independent.  It must have been galling for the British reporters to take direction from an American.

Bryson returns to his strongest theme in Little Dribbing—the joys of travel among the annoying idiosyncrasies of his adopted country.  Unlike Paul Theroux, who makes you not want to visit the countries about which he entertainingly writes, Bryson revels in the beauty of the UK, the ignorance of British clerks, and the unique history of minor lay-bys that dot his island's highways and byways. 

I’ve read most every book of Bryson’s—he’s that kind of writer.  Not one who produces series thrillers or mysteries, but one from whom you will effortlessly learn in beautifully written prose.  And, if you want to take on a 500-page science education (A must for those of us educated 50 years ago by the RSCJ’s.), A Short History of Nearly Everything is a must read.  Also suggest that you read Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island prior to Little Dribbing

25489012.jpg

Book Reviews - a Winter Collection

Five Skies by Ron Carlson, (Penguin, 2008

five skies.jpg

The beautiful skies of the high plateau in Southern Idaho are the tableau against which Carlson draws this compact tale of three lonely men who come together to construct a reality TV set.  Each has a difficult background:  Darwin, death of a spouse; Art, death of a brother and Ronnie, petty criminal.  The opportunity of a summer job with good pay brings them to the Idaho plateau where they establish camp and a work rhythm.  The set reveals as it is built, without much focus on the production itself.  The focus is on the development of trust, friendship and grief.  Highly recommended.

 

fractured.jpg

Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crises and the Fate of the West by Wlliam Drozdiak (W. W Norton & Company Ltd., 2017)

Taut read that covers a lot of territory—almost all of Europe.  In journalist style, Drozdiak delivers most pertinent 21st Century history about 13 European countries and Washington D.C.  How different it is today that at the close of the 20th Century when a united Europe seemed almost a certainty.  His thesis is that the rise of nationalism within the European countries has weakened the strength of numbers, threatens global trade, and leaves them weak and susceptible to Russian interference, if not takeover.  This is a good read if you follow U.S. and European current events and sometimes cannot figure out “the back story”.

Bishop.jpeg

Elizabeth Bishop:  A Miracle for Breakfast by Megan Marshall, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

This is a new biography of Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979), one of the U.S.’s greatest poets.  She was born in Lowell, MA.  Her father died when she was one and her mother was committed to an asylum when she was five.  She was raised by her mother’s family in Nova Scotia, a time she recalls fondly.  Her father’s wealthy family brought her to U.S. for a boarding high school and Smith College.   Early on, she acknowledged she was lesbian and had lots of lady friends throughout school.  Her great love was an architect from Brazil, Lota de Macedo Soares.  Elizabeth lived off and on in Brazil for years, and the country influenced her writing.  Her actual literary output was small, but perfect—100 poems.  She won the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize and was U.S. Poet Laureate in 1959.

This biography is written by one of Bishop’s students at Harvard, so there are interesting insights into her professional life as well as her difficult, personal life.  If you are into poetry, this is a good read.

smile.jpg

The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey by Salman Rushdie (Picador, 1987)

A short book that I listened to in the car, it was Rushdie’s first non-fiction book.  It details his three-week visit to Nicaragua in 1979, while the Sandinistas were in power.  He was invited by an arts organization, and in a style reminiscent of Paul Theroux, does little to paint a pretty picture of what he finds.  On the one hand, life is better, more democratic (if that means better) for the mestizos and indios.  On the other, the Sandinistas were enjoying power and money much the same way that that powerful people do.  Ties were close with Cuba, and the U.S., supporting the Contras, was hated.  

At the end of the book, there is an Epilogue that Rushdie wrote in the 90’s when the book was republished.  That should be read first to really benefit from the content of the book.  It provides the perspective of time.  Eventually the sanctions imposed by the U.S. choked the Nicaraguan economy and the Sandinistas were democratically voted out of power.  A good little book if you like history in the Americas.

Phineas Finn: The Irish Member by Anthony Trollope, originally published as a serial October 1867 to May 1868 in St Paul's Magazine, London, England.  Read by Librovox.org.

finn.jpg

Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope were contemporaries in the U.K. literary world.  So why is Dickens a household name and most readers have not heard of Trollope?  Some say Dickens was a more creative writer, with memorable characters and a unique knack for portraying hardscrabble London and general misery.  Trollope is gentler, easier to read (for me).  Dickens is the fruit cake and Trollope the egg custard—both lovely, but in different ways.  Trollope’s 40 novels usually run in series, and there is enjoyment in tracing the characters who appear, downstage, front and center, then in another book, upstage, a marginal figure.  

Phineas Finn is part of Trollope’s Pallisar Series.  Finn is Irish, a unique hero in any mid-19th century British book.  It deals with both British parliamentary politics of the 1860's, including voting reform (secret ballot and eliminating rotten boroughs and Irish tenant-rights) and Finn's romances with women of fortune, which would secure his financial future.  The education and the romance are never heavy-handed.  These would be excellent books to read to children as my grandmother did for me with Dickens’s novels.  They are also good books for listening.  They are large and heavy to tote as print books; and, if you miss a paragraph or two on the recording, it’s no big thing.  Recommended

"The Wanted" by Robert Crais (G.P. Putnam & Sons, 2018)

wanted.jpg

I liked this book the minute I looked inside: 307 pages, with large leading between the lines; short chapters and U.S. names – a comfort read.  I’m interviewing Crais, one of the U.S.’s bestselling mystery authors at the Tucson Festival of Books.  He has twenty books in his bibliography and is going strong--The Wanted is his new bestseller.

Crais handles the many elements of his mystery with ease.  He introduces characters that most readers know intimately; his protagonists, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are featured in 16 of his books.  I've not read any of them, but  Elvis and Joe were immediately familiar to me.  I never felt like the backstory was missing.  His new characters, a devoted single mom, her teenage, spineless son and his wacky girlfriend, become embroiled with major crime due to the teens’ burglary spree.  There is a unique criminal team, who may be lovers, that provides a taste of comic relief—reminded me the radio comedians Bob and Ray (RIP), professional and droll. 

Crais’s writing style flows, carrying the reader in a bubble of good writing and thoughtful character development.  The tag lines that appear at the end of chapters bring characters further into the reader’s confidence. You are reading their minds.  It’s an elegant device and paces the plot. 

I enjoyed The Wanted.  It’s a great plane read (5 to 6 hours).  If Robert Crais is even a bit like Elvis Cole, I’ll be the privileged interviewer.  

Beautiful Pair of Memoirs by Lucette Lagnado, WSJ Feature Writer

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, and The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth from Cairo to Brooklyn, by Lucette Lagnado, (Ecco, 2008 and 2011.) - Review

pano.jpg

I stumbled across these in a used bookstore.  Lucette Lagnado is familiar as a feature writer for the Wall Street Journal – usually interesting and often obscure articles, covering New York or Middle Eastern topics.  What a powerful treasure of information and family homage is captured within these books.  Sharkskin Suit is the Lagnado family’s life in Cairo, traditional and as secure as any Jews ever feel.  Her father Leon is the focus, his mysterious life as a trader, a bon-vivant, and a dispassionate husband and loving, yet absent, father.  His marriage was between a patriarchal, Sephardi Jew, Leon, and a beautiful, submissive, Syrian Jewish wife, Edith—and between Edith’s mother, abandoned by her husband and family, and Leon’s mother, the autocrat who ruled the house.  For a Gentile, the combination of regionally close, yet traditionally different, Jewish spouses (Syrian and Sephardic) was interesting.  Prayers are different, relationships are different, roles are different.  Naturally, Edith’s were purged. 

After Egypt took control of the Suez Canal, Jews began to leave—taking the opportunity to migrate somewhat thoughtfully.  By the time the Lagnados left Cairo, with 26 suitcases and $200, there were no choices.  They fled to Paris to a pauper’s life assisted by Jewish Relief.  Eventually, they made their way to the U.S., but Leon, crushed by the loss of his life in Cairo, never adapted.  He kept his merchant ways, selling ties out of a cardboard box, and scrupulously repaying the $2,000 loaned to him by Jewish Relief for fare from LeHarve to New York. 

The Arrogant Years is not so much about Lucette as about Edith, who blossomed in New York.  A skilled teacher of French before her marriage, she found work and a new life within the city library system accessioning books.  Stories of the siblings, a rebellious older sister and two older brothers, are told, but not in depth.  Lucette excelled in high school, struggled at Vassar, regrouped, graduated and began work as a reporter.  Throughout both books, her mysterious illness, finally diagnosed as Hodgkin’s disease, interstices her life with pain and despair.  The Arrogant Years, as with most memoirs, does not plow new ground of the immigrant, destitute Jews who thrive in the U.S., but is beautifully written with love and thanksgiving.

Both books are elegantly illustrated with photographs that bring the family to life.  Highly recommended for history lovers and those who appreciate well written memoirs.

“How to be both: A Novel” by Ali Smith (Pantheon Books, 2014) Review

A “tour de force” of inventive writing.  But for me, a struggle to both figure out and keep up with the double plots and the cross references bridging 500 years.  

smith.jpg

How to be both is two unique stories:  a teenager, George/Georgia (actual name Georgia, “both” because she has her first stirrings of same-sex attraction), who has tragically lost her mother and seems abandoned by her father who mourns in drink and her brother too young to really understand; and a young woman in 15th century Ferrara, Italy, Francescho del Cossa, who is a masterful painter, posing as man to gain commissions.

The book’s “tie” is a fresco, seen by the mother in a magazine that prompts her to take both children out of school and drive to Ferrara – these frescos are not fictional.  Per Wikipedia, 

Palazzo Schifanoia is a Renaissance palace in Ferrara, Emilia-Romagna (Italy) built for the Este family. The name "Schifanoia" is thought to originate from "schivar la noia" meaning literally to "escape from boredom" which describes accurately the original intention of the palazzo and the other villas in close proximity where the Este court relaxed. The highlights of its decorations are the allegorical frescoes with details in tempera by or after Francesco del Cossa and Cosmè Tura, executed ca 1469–70, a unique survival of their time.

When I researched the palace after reading the book, I immediately recognized the work of Francesco del Cossa, though I have not visited Ferrara.  Having these in mind would enrich the reading.  

To soothe her loss, George/ia ditches school and spends her days at the National Museum in London in a room with a painting by del Cossa, as she imagines her mother did.  George’s time there becomes a study on the insensitive way most museum visitors dash past roomfuls of art, rushing to “complete the tour”.  I warmed to this activity and empathized with George’s precise method of examining all sections of a painting, thinking of each as a solo work.  del Cossa is known for his malicious depictions of stingy benefactors in the face of pigs and devils—totally missed if all you study is the face of the central character.   

To further confound readers, Pantheon issued two version of the book:  one with George/ia’s story first, the other with Francescho’s story first.  Mine began with George/ia, and that was difficult enough because you are thrust into the first scenes with no context.  However, Francescho’s would have been even more difficult as the first section.  

Smith’s writing pushes the envelope on guidance for the reader.  There is no dialogue punctuation – a blessing in a way because the flow is livelier.  There are sections of blank verse with no punctuation at all.  And there is this force that pulls the reader along because you hope that the next page will provide more comfort.

I came to this book after reading several NYT best sellers and recommended books for 2017. To me, they seemed pedestrian, too easy a read.  Ali Smith has two current bestsellers:  Autumn and Winter.  At the recommendation of Sam Sacks, reviewer for The Wall Street Journal, I began with her 2014 book.  Wish I had known what you know now, because then the read would have been enjoyable and challenging.  As it was, I struggled.  However, I highly recommend this book if you want to put your foot into the genre of a successful Scottish contemporary author.  This book summary on Amazon says it all.
 
Passionate, compassionate, vitally inventive and scrupulously playful, Ali Smith’s novels are like nothing else. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, How to be both is a novel all about art’s versatility. It’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a Renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real—and all life’s givens get given a second chance.

Amen.
 

"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.

51UzR8UmA0L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

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

new york.jpg

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)

fifteen-dogs.jpg.size-custom-crop.0x650.jpg

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)

genghis.jpg

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.  
 

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

Putin.jpg

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)

perfume rivere.jpg

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
 

“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.

margaret.jpg

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.
 

"The Nymph and the Lamp", a novel by Thomas H. Raddall (Little, Brown and Company, 1950)

In 2005, Erik Larson wrote an excellent book about Marconi and the invention of transatlantic radio called Thunderstruck.  The secret of the wireless communication involved very tall receiving antennae on shore and electrical generating power at the source to create huge sparks of electro-magnetic energy.  They used the language of Morse Code.  The radio signal, which travels in a direct line, bounced off the earth’s atmosphere creating a curve towards its destination.  It’s far more complex than this; good reason to read Larson’s book.

Marconi stations were built on the most remote extremities of land abutting the ocean.  One of these is Sable Island off the Southeast Coast of Nova Scotia.  From its birth, Sable Island was not used to transmit across the ocean, but was a relay point for ships heading to Halifax, Montreal and Boston. There grew on the island a small population of hearty souls divided into three groups: the civilians who supported the lighthouses at either end, the lifesavers who ranged across the island ready to respond to shipwrecks.  These were established long before the Marconi station. The third group, signalmen, were employed by the wireless company, at the station built on the highest point of the island.  The former were permanent settlers, the later were usually one year and done.

The Nymph and the Lamp, set in the early 1920’s, tells the story of a signalman, Matthew Carney, who loved the island, called Marina in the novel, and stayed far beyond one year.  Finally, he took a three-month shore leave to find his family in Nova Scotia, with whom he had lost contact.  During this unfruitful search, he finds Isabel Jardine, an independent spinster, secretary to the ED at the wireless company.   Sparks fly between these two non-reactive subjects, culminating with Isabel accompanying Matthew back to the island for permanent settlement after knowing him only from his files, his reputation and no more than 35 hours together over three days. 

The story of her acclimatization to the station residents, all men, and the island’s citizens, both men and women, is a fascinating story.  It is hard not to like all the characters in this book, and to feel their anguish as the tale unrolls. 

Within a year, Isabel returns to Nova Scotia and finds a safe harbor in the region of her birth among the apple orchards of the north island.  She joins the roller coaster of boom and bust following The Great War, nurtured by an employer who is smart enough to give her responsibility and authority.  Such a man was a rare find in 1920’s provincial Canada, and a rare character coming from a male author, writing in 1950.

Raddell does a fine job of tying up the stories.  The book is beautifully written, full of glorious similes and descriptions of the nature of sea and shore.  Highly recommended for those who love an old-fashioned novel complete with love, betrayal, sadness, joy and a fascinating setting.  The book is out of print.  You may find it at a library or a used book store.  I purchased through a seller on Amazon.

"Jackie's Girl: My Life with the Kennedy Family" by Kathy McKeon (Gallery Books, 2017)

When Jackie Kennedy died, May 19, 1994, I cried—not the same kind of tears as the death Jack Kennedy, who died when I was 20—the tears of one woman mourning the loss of a great woman who died long before her time.  Jackie should have enjoyed her later life:  the Onassis money, her adult children, her grandchildren, her lovers.  We wanted her to find peace.

So, when I saw that Kathy McKeon, former personal maid and sometimes nanny for Jackie Kennedy, wrote a memoir, it was required reading.  And a lovely memoir it is.  Just enough beans spilled to pique interest, nothing in bad taste.  An homage to a great American family.

Such fascinating things are revealed.  The lives of Irish immigrants who serve the wealthy on the Upper East Side, paid a pittance, but given lodging and meals and a foothold in the U.S. The title, Jackie's Girl, comes from Rose Kennedy who could not remember any names in the throngs that surrounded her.  There was such sadness in Kathy’s telling of the solitary evenings of “Madame” as she rearranged furniture and artwork to kill time.  Caroline is shown to be the blossoming figure of adult responsibility.  John Jr. is shown to be capricious, rowdy, even described as medicated for ADD.  Both children loving and respectful with Kathy and their mother.  

Madame was grateful for Kathy’s talents, which she needed to raise her children in the rarefied air of the truly wealthy.  But she did not respect Kathy’s personal time or needs.  Madame came first, not surprising.  

The story is woven throughout with the trappings of the lives of U.S. royalty (Greek, too): private planes, multiple homes with staffs, summers on the Cape.  But the Kennedy family and Onassis, never seem stuffy, overly demanding or entitled.  Ok, somewhat entitled.  Kathy’s life experience while with the Kennedy’s (She joined them when she was 19 and lived with them for 12 years, until 1976.), at least in her retelling, was touched at various stages by learning, tenderness and inclusiveness.  

Jackie’s Girl reads quickly—large leading on the pages, so it fluffs out to 300+.  It shows the polish of a good ghost writer and editor.  The small photo section in the middle is heart-warming.  Recommended for all Jackie fans.  

“Barometer Rising” by Hugh MacLennan (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941)

Second in the books I’m reading to prepare for my first visit to Nova Scotia in September.  Barometer Rising is an historical novel based in 1917, the First World War as experienced from the Canadian Maritimes.

MacLennan’s first novel (he went on to become a prominent figure in Canadian letters) folds elements of the Canadian experience into a romance set in history.  The reader’s experience is multiple:  how Halifax embraced her key role as the UK’s major port in the West, the jumping off point for convoys heading to the war bearing munitions, arms, lumber, coal, men—all produced in Canada and extracted to support a war effort that was not Canada’s. There is the experience of a provincial city (about 60,000), influenced by the mores of immigrants from the colonial U.S., Scotland, and the U.K., all conservative.  There is a touch of women’s rights, but only because of the war effort.  

The focal point of Barometer Rising is the Halifax Explosion, December 6, 1917.  As I was unaware of this tragedy, it pulled me right into the climax of all the characters’ development according to how they responded.  It is the largest man-made explosion prior to the atom bomb.  Read the book or check Wikipedia if you want the horrible details.

MacLennan did an excellent job of setting up rich characters who harbor slowly revealed secrets and set the story in a time unique to Halifax.  This is an “old fashioned” historical novel. Just a soupçon of sex, lots of conflict—a well-written and easy to read book.