Serendipity in Italy


We were on the hunt for gelato.

The sky over Rome was dark, but the pavement still radiated heat gathered from a long day under the Mediterranean sun. The streets, even the busiest ones, had quieted to a low hum. With the tourist crowds gone for the night, many of the smaller shops were dark. Although we were still full from dinner at a small nearby ristorante, we had learned that looking for gelato is always the appropriate next move in Italy. We wandered aimlessly, asking a couple of people where we could find the nearest gelato shop. No one seemed to know.

We walked up alongside the walled garden of an old cathedral, St. Paul’s Within the Walls. Cello music poured through an open side door. Intrigued, we stepped into the garden to see if we could take a peek inside. A young man sat in the doorway. Somehow we managed to convey to him that we wanted to go in, and he somehow managed to convey that he was sorry, but his boss would be angry if he let someone in without a ticket. No problem. Ciao. Prego.

Just across from the front of the cathedral was a tiny gelato shop, fated to be right where we needed it to be. The Verde Pistacchio shop had a vintage pistachio green gelato truck parked inside, holding all the beautiful piles of gelato. We chose our flavors, picked up our tiny spoons, and walked out with our filled paper cups. We sat on a bench along the street, where we could hear the faint operatic music emanating from the cathedral.

I hadn’t finished my gelato when a man bounded across the traffic and rushed over to us. It took me a second to realize it was the young man from the cathedral concert. He waved his arms at us, beckoning us back to the cathedral. From what we could understand, the concert was more than halfway over and he would let us in the side to sit at the very back.

We dumped the remains of our gelato and followed him back across the street. With a big smile, he led us to the back row of wooden chairs in the darkened nave, handed us a pamphlet, then returned to his chair in the doorway.

The front of the nave glowed under a dome of golden mosaics, the side aisles under the arches faded to black. A cluster of musicians played from the front while three tuxedoed men belted Italian opera favorites with passion. It was I Tre Tenori, The Three Tenors in reincarnated form. The timeless melodies washed over the room. Most of them were recognizable. The triumphant climax of my favorite, Nessun Dorma, gave me chills.  I’ve never been a huge fan of opera, but hearing it in its native land in such a setting was exhilarating.

The Tenori finished their program and performed a long encore. Applause erupted and held through an extended period of bowing and waving and bowing. I could have sat much longer, soaking it all in. Italia, Roma, spine-tingling music in an old chiesa—I could not have planned it any better. Serendipity had taken over the reins of our trip once again.

On our way out, we offered a whispered grazie to our young man in the doorway. He dipped his head in acknowledgment, and we passed into the night.

The search for gelato never leads you wrong.


Nessun Dorma, performed by the original Three Tenors:

The Best of January 2018

In 2018 I would like to dedicate more of my time to original writing—which means I want to spend less time writing about books. Musing on the truths found in books is still important to me, so I plan on reviewing the best ones. But otherwise I’ll just aim for a monthly round-up.

charing cross

84, Charing Cross Road—Helene Hanff

Long gone are the days of “pen pals” and delayed correspondence, when it took a week or more to receive a reply to a letter. Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems as if writers took more care with their letters when they couldn’t expect a reply in the next few seconds. I wonder what we are missing by not putting more of our real thoughts to paper these days.

I plowed through the little book 84, Charing Cross Road, which contains the 1949-69 correspondence between American writer Helene Hanff and the staff of the London bookseller Marks & Co., in one evening. In 84, Charing Cross Road, a business transaction blooms into a heart-warming relationship between pen pals. The book is billed as a love story, but it isn’t one, at least in the way we would think of it. True attachment grows between Helene and the staff of the bookstore after Helene, in her warm and open-hearted way, sends a food package to the Londoners who are still living with post-war food rationing. Helene’s jovial, teasing tone cracks the “stiff upper lip” British writing style and words of love and friendship fly across the Atlantic for nearly twenty years.

Reading 84 Charing Cross Road was a reminder that thoughtfulness—in word and in action—goes a long way. We may never be able to foresee the ripple effect when we decide to give generously.

★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars


And There Was Light—Jacques Lusseyran

French writers (at least the ones that I’ve read) see the world differently, as if they’re looking on it from the inside out. In the case of Jacques Lusseyran, there was no other choice. Blinded by an accident at a young age, Jacques saw the inside of himself and developed the ability to “see” the people around him in varying degrees of color and light produced by his impressions. Armed with an unshakeable foundation of love from his parents and an almost insatiable thirst for knowledge, Jacques experienced very little in the way of handicaps in his life.

What came to define Jacques’ life was not his blindness, but what he did with that blindness in Nazi-occupied France. Jacques and a small band of friends organized a resistance cell in Paris, fueled by adolescent energy and anger at the inactivity and passivity of their fellow citizens. With his ability to see the light (or lack thereof) in other people, Jacques acted as the group’s final “filter” on who and what should be allowed to aid their efforts. Until they were arrested, these young people acted with a courage that is almost impossible to comprehend from this distance of time.

By far, Jacques’ greatest gift was not his ability to see “light,” but his joy. If I were blinded after seeing and loving the world around me, and if I were carted off by Nazis and had to know first-hand the atrocities of a concentration camp, I do not think I would know joy. Undoubtedly there were moments when Jacques knew fear and anger, looking on evil and death, but he found that when you fall to the bottom of these things—in the darkness at the very end of yourself—God is there. And if God is there, then all you have to do is live on. He found joy in knowing his utter helplessness, and he shared his heroic joy with the people around him.

★ ★ ★/5 stars


Lilli de Jong—Janet Benton

The story of Lilli de Jong is a simple one: what was life like for an unwed mother in the pre-modern era when extra-marital pregnancy was socially unacceptable?

Lilli de Jong is a young, unmarried Quaker from Germantown, Pennsylvania, in the 1880s. During a period of vulnerability after the death of her mother, Lilli indulges in a moment of passion with her father’s young apprentice. Before Lilli discovers her pregnancy, he moves to Pittsburgh in search of work and promises to send for her when he has enough money to provide for them. As the months pass, she doesn’t hear from him and despair sets in.

Lilli finds a place at a home for girls “in trouble,” which offers her the option of discreetly delivering her baby and giving it up for adoption before returning to her normal life. But while living in the home, she starts to wonder if giving up her baby will just be the start of a life full of lies. And then when her daughter is born, she can’t imagine giving her up. Against all advice, Lilli chooses to keep her baby.

Like dominoes, the consequences of this choice fall on Lilli hard and fast. She has a ruined reputation, so it will be hard to find work. She has no money, so it will be impossible to keep herself and her child in a decent home. The only work she is qualified for is that of a wet nurse, which means she will, in turn, have to send out her own child to another, cheaper, wet nurse.

The options available to women like Lilli during this time period were truly horrifying, and Janet Benton does a great job of eloquently bringing historical facts to life. Although it feels like everything that can go wrong does go wrong for Lilli, from sexual assault to the workhouse to absolute destitution, the novel is thought-provoking. Few nineteenth-century Americans were willing to show an unwed mother compassion, choosing rather to see her hardship as the natural consequences of her sin.

I hesitate to recommend this one whole-heartedly because there are a few graphic descriptions that I thought were unnecessary.

★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars

Book Review: A Revolution in Color


W. W. Norton, 2017.

I tend to look at American history through the lens of my own life; that is, I unconsciously transfer 2018 onto an imaginary earlier-American self—my education, social status, faith, my American patriotism. For example, if I were to think of myself as a nineteenth-century American female, I would assume the viewpoint of an educated, middle class, Protestant housewife for no other reason than that that is what I am now. Never mind how likely or unlikely that would actually be. And If I moved that imaginary time-dial back even further to the 1770s, I would presume again that I would be some kind of a bourgeois-class female Patriot.

Yet how dangerous it is to read history backwards. By reading history backwards, we assume we know how people made decisions. We read their lives through a lens of inevitability. We think of the 1770s and see people divided into neat groups of Patriots and Loyalists, the Patriots obviously inspired by lofty ideals of liberty and equality and the Loyalists either cowards or suck-ups. We take for granted that of course we would have been Patriots in those days, too.

But the reality of the 1770s was far messier, far less idealistic than we imagine it to be, the line between Loyalist and Patriot razor-thin and ofttimes movable. The messy reality of that world comes to life in A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley by Harvard historian Jane Kamensky. In Kamensky’s capable hands, A Revolution is not so much a biography of one of America’s first great artists as it is a view on the Atlantic world through the eyes of one of its observers and participants.

copley revere

Paul Revere, by J. S. Copley

John Singleton Copley is one of those names that pops up in textbooks alongside Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, and Charles Willson Peale under stiff portraits of those American gods, the Founding Fathers. Oddly enough, however—and this is why it is so intriguing to look at individuals of the period—Copley did not fall into the American Patriot type that we might think he did, given his famous Patriot portraits. He lived in a strange no-man’s land of loyalty, personality, and circumstance—more British than American, and at the same time more American than British. He was a man of the British Atlantic world, having what Kamensky calls a “bivious gaze, forever alternating between glancing over his shoulder and peering at what was ahead of him.”

The strength of Kamensky’s book lies in her narrative style, which is as vibrant and colorful as her subject’s paintings, and the rapidity with which she creates sympathy for the Loyalists in a patriotic American like myself. Copley’s youth is rendered in such a way that we can see young Boston around him, strive with him to improve as he paints and paints and paints some more, and feel his yearning for the centers of culture and better instruction in Europe. Copley, the son of a poor, widowed tobacco merchant, is ever ambitious to be the best American painter, to be better than the European masters. His portrait subjects become increasingly more elite and connected, giving him an entry into wealthy and cultured society. His fellow American in London, Benjamin West, constantly urges him to jump the pond and truly fulfill his British potential.

But Copley’s life is characterized by a fatal indecision, and he puts off any move until it is nearly too late. He marries the daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant, Richard Clarke, and essentially seals his fate forever. For shortly after his marriage, Boston rages against Parliament and throws the tea—Richard Clarke’s tea—into the harbor. Clarke, justifiably outraged, is forced to flee to safety, and any sympathy that Copley once had for the American cause rapidly evaporates. Copley, caught now between his American roots and his antipathy for the rebellion, chooses to finally make his European tour, to protect his reputation, to play for time. As simple as that—a marriage, an unlucky connection—Copley loses his footing in the British and American contest. He didn’t really choose a side; he wavered. He never returned to America.

Copley’s European tour revolutionized his painting and catapulted him to greater fame in Britain than he ever attained in America. Yet Copley never fully planted his feet in Britain, either. He spent the last years of his life embittered over American matters and still straining for the British applause. He let his circumstances master him, rather than mastering them himself.

In his indecisiveness, Copley was a visible example among hundreds of invisible Americans who, caught up in the events between the radicals and the governing British, bided their time, rode the fence, or chose the side that was most convenient at the time. Who am I to say that I would have done any differently, had I been in his shoes?

★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars

Book of the Year 2017: A Gentleman in Moscow


Viking, 2017.

I am not sure that I have ever before read a novel two times in one year, but in 2017 I read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles twice. When I finished it the first time, I wanted to flip back to the beginning and start over. Eleven months later I did. Reading it was like peering in to the back of a watch or a clock and looking on with a sense of wonder at the inner workings, intricately detailed and perfectly orchestrated. Very rarely does a book capture my imagination as this one did and I was loath to say good-bye to the world within.

A Gentleman in Moscow could more accurately be titled “A Former Person in a Hotel.” Before you start thinking that you don’t want to read a book that takes place entirely inside one building, let’s take a moment to think about how nice it sounds to stay in a hotel for a long time—if you’re like me. I’m one of those weird people that wants to extend my hotel stay indefinitely while everyone else is ready to be a homebody. I’m happy to not cook and clean up after myself or run to the grocery store. The only mental stress comes from deciding what to eat next. But A Gentleman in Moscow asks, what if I were forced to live my entire life in a hotel—to make it my world?

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the esteemed Gentleman of the title, is, after two readings, my hero. Alexander had the life—a country estate, money to travel the glittering Western world, friendship, and youthful cheerfulness. But at the end of the Russian Revolution, he found himself on the wrong side of Russian history. As all revolutions tend to do, the Russian Revolution found Alexander to have far too much elite about him. In 1922 when his fellow aristocrats were not-so-quietly being eliminated, Alexander was saved from death by a poem he had written years before that just hinted that he might have a revolutionary mind. Thus at age 33 he was sentenced to life imprisonment in his hotel, the Moscow Metropol.

At this point, A Gentleman in Moscow could have become a dark, psychological novel about the effects of being the last of one’s kind, alienated, disoriented, useless, and invisible. But it doesn’t. It is, instead, joyfully humorous, ironic, and charming, for Alexander does not succumb. He proclaims as his maxim, “A man must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them.”

So what is A Gentleman in Moscow about? It’s about taking the reins of life and never giving them (the enemies and the naysayers) the satisfaction. Alexander reinvents himself—not just once—but two, three, four times. Herein lies Alexander’s heroic mental toughness. He never lets himself languish for long if he can do something to make his life better. He alternately lives the life of a gentleman, a teacher, a waiter, a spy, and his greatest role—a father.

Half the time, Alexander’s reinvention comes at the hands of small, precocious girls, for, just when he becomes comfortable, life interrupts. As he says, “Life is every bit as devious as death,” and pops up just when you need it. Nina and Sofia, the two little girls who bring life to the Metropol, repeatedly inject youth and a breath of the fresh outside air into Alexander’s insulated world.

Moscow, Russia, Europe, and the farther world spin outside the Metropol. Regimes come and go, wars begin and end, philosophies wax and wane. Alexander remains. He ages, he learns. “If we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity—a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.” We suddenly start to think that the punishment Alexander was given saved his life, many times over. Sometimes, we learn, the worst things that happen can really be turned into the best things. By the end of our magical stay in the Metropol, our Count is the axis on which the hotel spins.

I feel inadequate in reviewing a book I enjoyed so much, but if I can motivate you to read it for yourself, then I suppose I have done my job. It’s magical voice will speak for itself. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, and it will make you angry. But most of all, I think it will carry you away into a miniature world where, “towering over this tableau, peering down through the glass ceiling, [is] a gentleman of sixty with his hand on the crank,” preparing to set your imagination in motion.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★/5

2017 Wrap-Up

Back at the beginning of 2017, I wrote here about reading with a more disciplined approach and I listed 17 books that I wanted to be sure to read. Well. I made it through only 6 of those 17. But I did read 68 books last year. I can only laugh—I apparently have very little discipline and choose my next book based upon how I am feeling at the moment.

Obviously I read far more books than I write reviews for, and this is also an area in which I lack discipline. Most often I don’t get around to writing a review because I’m off to the next book—after all, reading is like breathing and I can’t go long without it—and by the time I think of sitting down and writing, my thoughts on the subject have lost their edge.

So in the interest of doing a little “house-keeping” before plunging into 2018, here are several blurbs about notable books I read that didn’t make it to the full-length review process.


Doomsday Book—Connie Willis

Last year I ventured a couple of times into the sci-fi and fantasy genres, areas I usually determinedly avoid. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis hooked me with its promise of historical fiction tucked inside sci-fi, having perhaps the most interesting take on time travel I’ve read yet.

In the 2050s, Oxford scholars have developed the ability to “drop” historians into any time and place in the past for the purpose of historical study. Young scholar Kivrin is dropped into the 14th century to study life in England before the Black Plague. Her mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, is filled with misgivings over her outing into the past, and it isn’t long before events prove that something did go terribly wrong with her drop. Doomsday Book proceeds along dual lines, following Kivrin’s immersion into the household of a medieval family and the crises erupting in Mr. Dunworthy’s 21st-century Oxford. Although the novel is long and, at times, overly wordy, it was a page-turner, a race against time until the very end.

Connie Willis avoids several of the problems that I usually have with time travel fiction, addressing Kivrin’s ability (or inability) to resist disease, understand language that has long since evolved, and adapt to unspoken social conventions, like the hierarchy of women in a medieval household and the proper interactions between men and women. But Willis’s real strength lies in the way she humanizes the millions of faceless people from the past, especially those who are invisible through poverty or lack of education. She tenderly shows that the relations between people have always been the same and, despite the fact that life in the Middle Ages may have been “nasty, brutish, and short,” grief and loss have always been heavy burdens to bear. She asks a lot of hard questions: what do you do with a God who allows so many people to die at once, as they did during the Plague? Why did people have to experience the terror of watching other people die and wondering if they would be next? Where did God go?

★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars


The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir—Jennifer Ryan

World War II is hardly a heartwarming topic, but the women who lived through this terrible time are trendy right now. I think their popularity lies in our natural curiosity about what it must be like to be a normal person living a normal life and to suddenly have all “normal” ripped away.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan manages to make the story of the British women on the home front a heartwarming one. When the Chilbury vicar dissolves the village choir on account of there being too few men, the ladies defy convention, overcome their squabbles, and work together to make their all-new females-only choir a success. As it turns out, setting up the choir is only the first in a wave of changes the women effect in their lives as their world turns upside-down.

I was almost disappointed in The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir in the beginning because it has an amateurish feel and it is written from the perspective of multiple characters’ diaries and letters. I have never been a fan of this style of novel-writing, and for the most part the novel is a fluffy, vacation-day read. But Ryan succeeds at making two of her characters into convincing personalities—Mrs. Tilling, a widow who is forced to repeatedly leave her comfort zone, and young “tween” Kitty, who is in a terribly awkward stage of life and who keeps finding herself in impossible situations. I wanted more of the novel to be written from their perspectives.

Overall, the Chilbury ladies are an up-beat, lovable bunch. There is a lot going on in their village beyond the usual wartime hardships, including forbidden romances, espionage, and blackmail. It was sometimes enough to stretch my imagination too far.  But I did get caught up in it and found the world of Chilbury hard to leave behind at the end—two signs of an effective story. If you liked the British TV show Home Fires, then this book will be right up your alley.

★ ★ ★/5 stars


The Tenant of Wildfell Hall—Anne Brontë

I recently expanded my knowledge of the Brontës by reading a biography of Charlotte and by reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. This one was on my original 2017 to-read list, so I have to give myself a pat on the back for actually reading it.

I found Anne’s writing in The Tenant to lie somewhere between the polished intensity of Charlotte’s novels and the crazy weirdness of Emily’s Wuthering Heights. The central figure of the story is Helen Graham, a young widow and mother who takes up residence at Wildfell Hall. She is unconventional and reclusive, refusing intimacy with everyone in the village. Gilbert Markham, a local gentleman farmer, is mesmerized by Helen, despite all her efforts to discourage him. Rumors soon fly through the village that Helen has a shady past. When Gilbert begs Helen to tell him the truth about herself, she gives him her diary in a fit of anguish.

Until Helen hands over her diary, the story falls neatly into that period’s literary style, with drawing rooms, vicars, and village intrigues. But when we hear from Helen herself through her diary, we are thrown into a raw and agonizing account of her past. It’s as if Anne Brontë peels the shiny veneer off of our romanticized view of that period, showing us the ugly realities of dissipated, wealthy men and the women they imprison by their careless lifestyles.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a novel that I did not necessarily enjoy, but which I can appreciate for its revolutionary and courageous work. The themes of the book are frustrating ones and Helen’s choices and personality sometimes hard to tolerate. But the Brontës were nothing if not courageous truth-tellers, and The Tenant is no exception.

★ ★ ★/5 stars


His Bloody Project—Graeme Macrae Burnet

Although I haven’t attempted to read through the Man Booker Prize list like I am trying to do with the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction list, when the short-list for the Man Booker prize comes out I tend to pay it some attention. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet was a finalist in 2016 and created a lot of buzz because the author appeared to come out of nowhere.

I was intrigued by the book in spite of its macabre blood-stained cover. The novel masquerades as true crime—it includes police statements, medical reports, a contemporary account of the trial, and a lengthy narrative supposedly written by the criminal himself.

His Bloody Project has a superb set-up. We know the “whodunnit” from the outset—17-year-old Roderick Macrae confessed to murder in a remote Scottish village in the 1860s. Roderick, a strange but brilliant boy, has always led a bleak life under his father’s thumb, and soon enough he is mistreated by the local constable as well, who wages an unjustified vendetta against the Macrae family. As the tale unfolds, the reader is faced with a conundrum; the several facets of the story told by the villagers and Roderick himself create in us a sympathy for what he did. We shouldn’t feel sympathy for a murderer, should we? But the real punch is that we’re never sure who’s telling the truth.

*His Bloody Project is gruesome and disturbing—it’s definitely a book for mature readers.

★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars

Book Review: The Real Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Harper, 2013

Reading The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne gave me more pleasure in a book than I’ve had in a very long time. I find that I’m really becoming fond of Jane, and not only because I love her novels. Perhaps part of it is having had just a glimpse of her own world in London and Bath—a real picture to replace my many imagined ones.

Jane Austen has always been an elusive figure for me. I know several of her novels inside and out, backwards and forwards. Yet even after reading biographies of the woman behind them, such as Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life, I couldn’t have told you much about her, other than the outline her life followed. Part of the problem surely lies in the fact that her sister Cassandra supposedly burned the bulk of Jane’s correspondence, so there are large gaps in Jane’s own commentary on her life. But some of the fault lies with the family as a whole, who, according to Byrne, “wanted to project the image of a Jane that was ‘discreet, decorous, and reticent.’”

We are left with the idea of a Jane Austen who led a highly circumscribed life, trapped in her spinsterhood and passively dependent upon her family for any socialization or promotion. As Byrne puts it, “in the popular imagination, Jane Austen spent nearly all her life sitting in a parsonage, working on her embroidery, gossiping about the neighbors and writing novels confined to ‘three or four families in a country village.’” Byrne thoroughly disproves this myth in The Real Jane Austen. Inspired by a scene in Mansfield Park describing the effect of “homey” objects and surroundings on Fanny Price, Byrne looks at eighteen objects that either belonged to Jane or affected her life in an important way. She paints a picture of a woman who is daring, worldly wise, well-traveled, happily independent, and connected to, rather than insulated from, the people and events in Europe and the British Empire.

Several portions of The Real Jane Austen truly bridged the gap for me between the Jane of biography and the Jane that “appears” in her novels. I have to be honest and say that the wry, all-knowing voice that I hear when I read can hardly be that of a lonely, sheltered spinster sitting in a parsonage.

The real Jane spent a good portion of her life traveling and visiting friends and relations scattered throughout England. She twice lived in Bath and had a brother in London with whom she several times stayed. She visited a relative of her mother’s who had inherited Stoneleigh Abbey, a grand estate in Warwickshire, and its house and grounds were an obvious inspiration for many fictional scenes. She loved the seaside, particularly the town of Lyme, and sight-seeing to places like Box Hill. These places and carriage scenes (which Jane must have experienced time and again) ground her novels in her own reality.

The real Jane had connections with the exotic world of British India and with revolutionary France, a circumstance which forever colored her opinions of the French. Her father’s sister, orphaned and impoverished, sailed for India to try to find a husband. She not only found a husband, but perhaps also a lover—Warren Hastings, the first governor of India. Many speculated at the time that her only daughter was Hastings’ daughter. This daughter, Eliza, eventually married a French aristocrat and spent a period during the Revolution with the Austens while her husband tried to defend himself and his property in France. Jane certainly was not isolated from the wider British empire.

The real Jane had an intimate knowledge of the works performed on stage during her lifetime. The Austen family reveled in presenting amateur theatricals over the holidays and chose popular plays, which, surprising perhaps for a clergyman’s household, ran the gamut of content and moral tone. In this family atmosphere Jane began writing her own stories, which were far from the moralizing works we might expect from a clergyman’s daughter. Her experience of theatrical literature and their amateur productions is apparent in her novels, especially Mansfield Park.

The real Jane had two brothers at sea and one in the army, which explains why soldiers and sailors feature so prominently in her books. She had an aunt tried for shoplifting in Bath. She had a fair share of love interests and turned down (after accepting!) one very appealing proposal. Indeed, Byrne makes a reasonable case that the real Jane purposefully chose singleness in order to avoid the endless work and literal physical danger of marriage and childbirth.

Sir Walter Scott liked to read Jane Austen; he said she was “the first novelist in history to offer an accurate representation of ‘the current of ordinary life.’” He perceived that Austen’s characters are instantly recognizable as ‘real’ people.… He was thus the first to pinpoint in print one of the greatest qualities of Austen’s characters: the fact that we can all identify people like them among our own acquaintance.” Byrne demonstrates that Jane’s novels are this realistic because she mastered the art of transferring her own wide-ranging experiences and acquaintances onto the page. While her novels are far from autobiographical, her life informed them in an exceptionally rich way.

I think I would have liked the real Jane Austen. I might have been intimidated by her, but I think I would have liked her. She was pointedly honest, brave, and had a cheeky sense of humor. The Real Jane Austen was a treat to read; it was lively and just different enough from the typical biography to really propel the book forward. I’m ready now to buy my own copy of this book, read some of Jane’s favorite authors, and reread Mansfield Park (my least favorite of Jane’s novels) with a fresh, open mind. I’d say Paula Byrne accomplished a lot with her biography!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★/5

Book Review: Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

charlotte bronte

Vintage, 2017.

I always have a hard time answering the question, “What’s your favorite book?” It’s kind of like trying to figure out my favorite food—there are just so many good ones out there. There’s a favorite for every mood and for every season of the year. But Jane Eyre always rises up to near the top and, if I’ve recently read it, it is the top. Jane Eyre is, perhaps, a cliché-sounding answer given my literary interests and my personality. It’s rather like Joe Fox assuming that Kathleen Kelly digs Pride and Prejudice and how he bets she “just loves that Mr. Darcy.” Yet it is terribly easy to come up with ways in which Jane Eyre is one of the best of all novels (Pride and Prejudice is, too!). It never disappoints in its vividness, its intensity, and primarily in the way in which its words reach to the very heart of human thought and emotion.

It’s hard to imagine such a novel coming from an author with inner solitude. And, come to find out, Charlotte Brontë herself embodied that impassioned spirit of her novels. She was intense, socially awkward, and endowed with what William Thackeray called “an impetuous honesty.” Yet I never realized how much—and how brazenly—she poured her experience into her work until I read Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman, my first Brontë biography.

The Brontës (all of them) were undeniably an awkward and puzzling, if genius, bunch. I had a brief introduction to them in the BBC drama To Walk Invisible, but even that dark and unflattering portrait failed to display the full extent of the Brontë family’s hardships and—honestly—weirdness. After reading A Fiery Heart, it seems like the themes of their literary production were a natural outpouring of their great hardships and losses.

“Charlotte was essentially a poet of suffering; she understood every corner of it, dwelt both on it and in it. In life, this propensity was a chronic burden; in her art, she let it speak to and comfort millions of others.”


Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery

Jane Eyre, the greatest of Charlotte’s creations, is a fiercely independent woman. Most of Charlotte’s females are. This doesn’t mean they are ultra-feminists; rather, it’s as if they are fierce in their forced independence. Charlotte and her sisters had responsibility thrust upon them almost from their earliest consciousness. Charlotte lost her mother at age five, her older sisters three years later, and her father was never an emotionally-steadying influence. His clergyman’s income was insufficient support for all of the adults living in the home, and it naturally fell upon women in the Brontë’s class to earn income by teaching, whether in a boarding school or as a governess. For Charlotte, this forced employment, which she came to despise, led her into great mental and physical distress. It was as if she felt her soul stifling in the life she had to lead. This gave her an air of fierceness in her social interactions, the way she expressed opinions, and the way she pursued relationships. This comes through in Jane Eyre’s conversations with Mr. Rochester and in her determination not to abuse her morality.

Charlotte’s female characters also suffer through impossible love—love that is unrequited or morally forbidden. Lucy Snowe agonizes over Monsieur Emanuel in Villette. Villette, I learned from A Fiery Heart, could be Charlotte’s autobiography. While studying at a boarding school in Brussels, Charlotte developed a great passion for the school director’s husband, Constantin Heger. He recognized her talent and encouraged it, but that was not enough for her. She sought a level of mental and spiritual communion impossible between a married man and his pupil. I felt shame for Charlotte in her inappropriate and blundering pursuit of Heger, her letters to him awful to read. Yet I was brokenhearted for this young girl that just wanted to be loved and to have someone recognize the real person inside her. She repeated the process a second time when she assumed a relationship between herself and her publisher, George Smith. This relationship, however, does not seem to have left as many scars, for it was Heger that ended up in Villette.

I get the sense from a A Fiery Heart that several of the Brontë siblings, Charlotte included, must have suffered from mental illness, although Harman never calls it anything other than a vague sense of “depression.” Their personal losses were staggering, watching a mother and two siblings die while they were young. And then Charlotte endured the deaths of her other three siblings—first Branwell, then Emily and Anne—in rapid succession. I feel like Branwell never stood a chance of success between having a sense of entitlement and suffering from what must have been something like PTSD. Emily and Anne never wanted to leave home. Charlotte herself suffered extreme health anxiety for herself and her sisters in adulthood, and no wonder.

I believe, then, that Charlotte’s acute suffering drove her success as a writer. Undoubtedly good writing comes from great perception and an appreciation of beauty or psychology or whatever truth the writer wants to focus on. But for Charlotte her suffering became her art. She suffered “over how she would ever accommodate her strong feelings—whether of love for Heger, or her intellectual passions, or her anger at circumstances and feelings of thwarted destiny—in the life that life seemed to have in store for her, one of patchy, unsatisfying employment, loneliness and hard work.” Harman says of Villette that “all her life’s suffering” went into it, but I think that it could as easily be said of Jane Eyre, too. Her novels “travelled inward, not outward … [and] reached psychological depths never attempted in fiction before.” Here was Charlotte’s travail in the birth of the modern novel.

As a present-day reader, I have always assumed that Jane Eyre held a certain Victorian sensibility, an inevitable moral message. I assumed that by having a heroine with enough moral courage to refuse illicit love that Victorians would have loved and applauded it. I have never thought of it until now as “cutting-edge.” But contemporary readers were shocked by it—shocked by its raw passion and its rage against society as Jane found it.

Reading A Fiery Heart has changed the way I view Charlotte and will change the way I read her books. It’s time to revisit Villette and try The Professor. The story of her life—and death—is a haunting one. I am glad she lives on in her words.

★ ★ ★ ★/5

Book Review: This Rough Magic

mary stewart

The author Mary Stewart is one of my favorite finds from years ago when I wandered up and down the library shelves looking for something new. The old book I picked up then was Nine Coaches Waiting, and it captivated me. It captivated me in the way an old movie from the 50s or 60s does, portraying a brilliant, exotic backdrop, an unrealistic luxurious lifestyle, and sparkling dialogue.

Mary Stewart was a British author who came to the height of her powers in the late 50s and 60s, so it is no coincidence that her books remind me so strongly of the same era’s films. She excelled at writing contemporary Gothic-style romance and romantic mysteries. Normally, I am not a huge fan of romance, but Stewart is just that good, and the romance is not too heavy-handed.

During our trip last summer to the UK, I spent a lot of time in Waterstone’s, the British equivalent of a Barnes & Noble, only far better. So much of the fiction I love is British fiction, and it was a paradise to see all of my hard-to-find-here favorites stocking the shelves, covered in lovely, attractive designs. I can rarely find Mary Stewart on a bookshelf here, even at the library, and over time I’ve ordered a few American reprints online. But Waterstone’s had gobs of them with period artwork on the covers. Oh, if only I had had more space in my suitcase. I came home with way too many books as it was.

Of the many Stewart books on the shelf, I chose This Rough Magic, thinking that it was one I hadn’t read before. Unfortunately, as soon as I started reading it, I realized it was one that I had read probably ten years ago. But I lucked out in that I couldn’t remember “who did it!”

this rough magicThis Rough Magic is the story of young and single Lucy Waring, who is visiting her sister’s family for the summer on the Greek island of Corfu. Lucy has been trying her luck as an actress in London and failing miserably. Although she’s on holiday, she’s thrilled to find out that the London stage icon, Julian Gale, is living on the estate next to her sister’s villa. The elderly actor lives the life of a recluse, however, and Lucy does not expect to meet him.

Lucy’s adventures begin when she’s out for a swim in the bay and encounters a dolphin. The dolphin charms Lucy with his apparent desire to make friends. A few minutes into their friendship, however, shots are fired toward the dolphin from somewhere up along the rocky coastline. Lucy spots a man standing on the balcony of Julian Gale’s estate and assumes he is the shooter. Foolishly running back uphill, Lucy has a fevered exchange with the man, who turns out to be Gale’s son, Max. (Max is played in my head by a middle-aged Cary Grant.) Max, of course, denies being the shooter. Needless to say, Lucy and the Gales get off to a rough start.

While she might be able to dismiss someone cruelly taking shots at a dolphin, events soon become so serious that Lucy cannot ignore them. A local teenager, the son and brother of the hired help at her sister’s villa, drowns out at sea during that same night. The young boy was out with the English neighbor, Godfrey Manning, taking nighttime photographs of the sea. Godfrey claims the death was an accident.

Lucy finds herself caught between the conflicting tales of Max Gale and Godfrey Manning. The men hate each other, but why? And what was really going on during that nighttime sail? Lucy quickly ends up in over her head trying to trap a killer. But Mary Stewart loves strong heroines—intelligent, full of common sense, likable—and Lucy is no exception.

Along the way, Lucy discovers the secrets of the reclusive Gales. Julian is convinced Corfu is the magical island of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The locally revered saint is St. Spiridion, which is a close Greek match for Prospero, and many local boys are named Spiro. The island’s topography and plant-life are reminiscent of the play, as well. Is “this rough magic” of Prospero’s still at work on the citizens of the island?

Mary Stewart never disappoints me with a cookie-cutter or lackluster tale, and her writing is always smart. She might be writing popular fiction, but she does not dumb it down. In This Rough Magic alone, she covers Shakespeare, local religious beliefs, counterfeit money, and the Communist-era conflict surrounding Albania. She has a great command of dialogue (which is another way in which it is reminiscent of a classic movie). The only thing that did not ring true to me in this volume was the speed with which Lucy falls in love. For all of her cleverness, she assumed the innocence of her favorite rather too quickly, in an uncharacteristically emotional way.

My favorite thing about Mary Stewart, though, is her firm grasp on her setting. She makes the most of her setting’s history and local color, and literally provides an armchair vacation for her readers. In This Rough Magic, Corfu comes alive in vibrant color and sound. Reading Mary Stewart is escapism at its best.

★ ★ ★ ★/5

Book Review: Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries


McFarland: 2016

My career in the publishing industry was a short one. Yet during that time, I was able to indulge my enjoyment of combing through resources and turning them into a narrative, a cohesive whole. My writings were small-time, my name on the contributing writers page printed in what was probably a size 6 font. After many history classes and many years of reading history books and biographies, I admit that I sometimes dream of writing a work of my own.

A colleague from my writing days, Dennis Peterson, recently realized the dream of having his own name on the cover of a published work. Dennis has long been an enthusiast for Southern history and the history of The War Between the States in particular. He found his niche in researching Jefferson Davis’s cabinet and bringing together all of the scattered knowledge of the secretaries and their accomplishments in one volume, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries. I am thrilled for him that he achieved such an accomplishment and, of course, I am more than a little envious. He asked me to do the honor of reading and reviewing his book here.

Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries is perhaps the most thorough treatment of the subject available to historians today. As Mr. Peterson points out in his preface, authors who attempted a similar objective were published more than sixty years ago. Many personalities and cabinet positions continued to remain unknown. Mr. Peterson’s book is devoted to a detailed explanation of each cabinet department and sub-department and the men who filled the varying positions within them and a narrative of how each department operated during the war.

Certainly there are so many individuals catalogued here that, aside from the most influential personalities, it is hard to keep a firm grasp on them. Yet taken together, a pattern, or narrative arc, emerges; that is, the story of the Confederate cabinet is largely a story of failure. Many highly-educated and politically experienced men filled these positions, yet, nearly to a man, they were unsuccessful in their given task. Part of me wonders if this was largely because the Confederate government was thrown in over its head far too soon after its birth. There was no honeymoon period in which to streamline operations; it was immediately in crisis mode. Looking at the flip side of this situation, it’s obvious that the Union had a great advantage in its own momentum as a working government (all other advantages aside).

The greatest blame for the failure of the Confederate cabinet, however, appears to lie with Jefferson Davis himself, who had deeply flawed ideas about leadership. One of the recurring themes of Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries is that Davis could not or would not delegate; he micromanaged his deputies and, in many instances, purposely installed yes-men. He also chose men who he thought would be political assets, but who had no experience in their appointed field. These factors led to natural frustrations and a high turnover rate—another reason the Confederate government never gained any momentum. And he failed to understand the political dynamics at work in the states of the Confederacy; these states, which had felt so strongly about their rights as to leave the Union, were not eager to work again with a central government. I cannot help but contrast Davis’ management style with the way that Lincoln strategically assembled his cabinet. Whether or not we like the way Lincoln managed the war from his end, it’s apparent that Lincoln was an immense advantage to the Union, whereas Davis was a disadvantage to the Confederacy.

Aside from some of the intriguing and new-to-me information found in the book (my favorite being the history of torpedoes and submersibles), what I appreciate the most about Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries is that Mr. Peterson found a hole in history and he set out to fill it. Time and again in my casual reading of history I find mention of people whose stories are yet to be told. Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries goes a long way toward telling some of those stories.

Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries appears at an opportune time—or a very unfortunate one, if Americans are trying to run as fast as they can from any hint of the Confederacy. My opinion, however, is that now is the time to learn all that we can about our American past, approach historical people and their ideas with objectivity, and place the current American sociopolitical climate in context. In that case, works such as this one are necessary.

Book Review: The Last Days of Night

last days of night

Random House, 2016.

I have two favorite periods in American history: the colonial and Revolutionary era and the Gilded Age. Perhaps what fascinates me most about these two particular periods is that, in each, America is recognizable as America, but it’s also on the cusp of becoming something new, something even more familiar to a modern American. During the Gilded Age, it’s the emergence of the financial and manufacturing empires and the technological advances like the telephone and the automobile that turned America into its modern self. One of the most revolutionary of all Gilded Age advances was the switch to electric power and its use in creating light.

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore is the fictionalized retelling of the “current wars” of the blossoming electric industry and its transformation into the form familiar to us today. During the “current wars,” Thomas Edison holds the patent for the lightbulb, but George Westinghouse is making a better one—and he’s harnessed the superior A/C current. But Edison brings a series of lawsuits against Westinghouse and it looks like Edison will eventually win the years’-long war of attrition between them. Westinghouse, in a last-ditch effort to find a fresh solution to his legal troubles, hires Paul Cravath, an extremely young and inexperienced recent graduate of Columbia Law School.

Paul Cravath is someone with whom it is easy to identify. He’s smart and he’s lucky to have a good job and be selected by George Westinghouse. But he’s stuck between his humble Tennessee roots and the expectations of the glamorous New Yorkers with whom he rubs shoulders. After being personally intimidated by Edison, Paul determines to beat the manipulator at his own game. Yet he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He navigates threats and deception and makes more than a few rookie mistakes. He also falls in love, but feels unworthy of that love as a New York outsider. Paul is always striving—to stay ahead of Edison, to impress Westinghouse, to be worthy of love—but along the way he is tempted to cross the line and become the very thing he hates, a man without honor.

Paul Cravath

Paul Cravath, Wikipedia.

In the beginning, Paul sees himself in the business of telling moral stories—making a narrative from the facts, telling who was bad and who was good, “until the righteousness of his plaintiff or his defendant became overwhelming.” But in the “current wars,” it quickly becomes hard to distinguish the good from the bad. And what will become of Paul himself? Reading his story leaves me asking the question: is it possible to keep your honor, to not stoop to deception or intimidation, in trying to win battles of this scale? Making a profit and coming out ahead is not inherently a dirty business, but what do you do if you stand to lose everything when your opponent stoops to manipulation, or even violence? In the end, Paul “committed his own sins to prove that Edison’s had been greater.” Moore makes the case that it’s possible for the underdog to win in big business, but there’s inevitable collateral damage and an immense personal cost to character. There are no longer clear boundaries between good guys and bad guys.

The birth of something new is inherently painful. I think most people would agree that many of these “titans” of modern industry were also “robber barons,” but it is less likely that we think of the inventors and revolutionaries of the same era as having just as shady a past. After all, we read about them from youth upward in brightly illustrated books, observe their history displayed in museums, and think of “progress” and “The American Dream.” Reality is not often so clear-cut. The Last Days of Night dissolves our illusions about the inherent altruism of innovators and cautions us for the future.

Reading The Last Days of Night is a rich and rewarding experience. Moore brings to life the two radically different inventors, Edison and Westinghouse, the bizarre genius Nikola Tesla, the famous opera singer Agnes Huntington, and the intimidating financial baron J.P. Morgan. Paul travels from the glittering, yet still dim, streets of New York and the lush Delmonico’s restaurant, to the farms of Nashville, Tennessee, and the specialized laboratories of Westinghouse and Tesla. Under the influence of Moore’s pen, America in 1888 becomes a living, breathing place.

The Last Days of Night is perfectly well-paced and suspenseful. From the opening scene in which a lineman burns to death on an electric wire, to the first attempted execution with an electric chair, the novel is atmospheric and suspenseful. Moore captures the spirit of an era in which anything is possible, yet there is great uncertainty. The switch from gas to electric light was by no means guaranteed.

I was inspired by how Graham Moore put his interest in this historical story to use. Each of the major figures portrayed here was a historical person with a fascinating story. But because there is little scholarly research about Paul himself, Moore turned to writing fiction rather than biography. This seems like a risky business, and as I am not an expert in the subject area, I don’t know if he did the characters justice. However, there is a chapter-length section at the end of the novel that explains how he made his character and plot decisions and the changes he made in order to make the narrative flow. So, in the end, I can’t tell you if The Last Days of Night is true, but I can say it was marvelous entertainment.

★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars