Fiction

Book Review: This Rough Magic

mary stewart

marystewartnovels.blogspot.com

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: 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

Book Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

Picador, 2010.

Years ago, before I ever read one of her books, I saw part of an interview with author Hilary Mantel. I didn’t know anything about her and I had no reason to continue listening, until she said something that grabbed my attention and has inspired me ever since. “I only became a novelist because I thought I had missed my chance to become a historian.

Mantel repeated this idea in an interview for The Paris Review and proceeded to explain how she found herself in the midst of historical fiction:

“I’d read all the history books and novels [about the French Revolution] I could lay my hands on, and I wasn’t satisfied with what I found. All the novels were about the aristocracy and their sufferings. And I thought those writers were missing a far more interesting group—the idealistic revolutionaries, whose stories are amazing. There was no novel about them. I set about writing it—at least, a story about some of them—so I could read it. And of course, for a long time it seemed as if I were the only person who ever would. My idea was to write a sort of documentary fiction, guided entirely by the facts. Then, not many months in, I came to a point where the facts about a certain episode ran out, and I spent a whole day making things up. At the end of it, I thought, I quite liked that.”

My mind has been captured by this idea—writing fiction to cover the territory that history leaves out—ever since. And I, too, feel as if I have missed my chance of becoming a historian. I am hours from the resources that interest me, tied to the schedule of running a house and raising children, and undoubtedly lacking the education that would make me a respectable member of the historical community. Given my love for literature, maybe I should just start using my historical imagination and write a story.

In her novels, however, Mantel proves that it’s possible to be both a good novelist and historian. There are academics out there who would debate that statement based upon the spin she puts on certain historical figures, but I think it’s safe to say she has revolutionized the way we view Tudor history. In her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, which opens with Wolf Hall, Mantel takes everything she could find about Cromwell and dramatizes it, creating her “documentary fiction.” Wolf Hall follows Cromwell from near the end of his service to the powerful Cardinal Wolsey through the years in which Cromwell insinuates himself into Henry VIII’s innermost circle. He engineers the downfall of Queen Katherine and the rise of Anne Boleyn, prodding Henry away from the Church all the while. By the end of the novel, Cromwell’s rival Thomas More is dead, Anne has failed to produce a male heir, and Henry is on his way to Wolf Hall, home of Jane Seymour’s family—and it’s a little less certain who Cromwell really is.

The White Tower within the Tower of London

Cromwell is a fascinating enigma in Mantel’s hands. He is at times tender, patient, generous, and terribly cold and calculating. He serves Wolsey and then the king, yet is secretly an evangelical who despises the abuses of the Church. He is the blacksmith’s boy with a murky past, yet he rises to advise and turn the heart of the king. Cromwell hides—even from himself—behind a cloak of ambiguity. The reader is never sure what Cromwell believes. He masters the “defensive art of facing both ways, faith and works, Pope and new brethren, Katherine and Anne.” Early in life he adapts the motto “Choose your prince”—and then serves his prince in whatever way is expedient, becomes whatever his prince needs him to be. “That is what you do, you choose him, and you know what he is. And then, when you have chosen, you say yes to him.” Over and over we are left wondering, How can such a man go along with this? How can he be party to something so terrible?

We get the feeling that Cromwell orchestrates every Englishman—and Frenchman and Spaniard and Pope—to his purpose. And he loves it. “Henry says, ‘Do what you have to do. I will back you.’ It’s like hearing words you’ve waited all your life to hear. It’s like hearing a perfect line of poetry, in a language you knew before you were born.” Yet Mantel is sure to remind us what a horrifying place Tudor England is. Each man is out for himself—out to raise his family’s name and out to better his own station. Lives change overnight at the king’s whim and the world dances to stay on his good side. Cromwell, after making a last ditch effort to save the life of Sir Thomas More, receives from Henry a chilling dressing-down and reminder of the razor-thin edge between even his life and death: “‘Do I retain you for what is easy? … I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm… Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it.’”

This Tudor world, with its plagues and beheadings and burnings-at-the-stake, is so vivid that it’s hard to look away. Even though I know the end of Thomas Cromwell, and seeing his life unfold is something like watching a train wreck, there’s enough tenderness and humor in him that I cannot help but like him. The book is undeniably hard to read—Mantel doesn’t tell us everything, and understanding Tudor history is like unraveling a Gordian knot—but I’m looking forward to diving back in with the second volume of the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies.

★ ★ ★ ★/5

**Reading tips: Wolf Hall is not only hard to read because of the complexity of Tudor history, but also because Mantel has an annoying tendency to use the pronoun “he” all the time. Before reading the book, I was lucky enough to find a book review telling me to assume that “he” usually refers to Cromwell. It gets easier to follow as the book goes on. Also, as “documentary fiction” about a corrupt foreign world, there are some adult elements in the book.

Book Review: Hannah Coulter

My grandmother’s childhood home in Center Point, Indiana.

Both sets of my grandparents moved into assisted living in the last couple of months. One of each couple is struggling with mental or physical difficulties, and living at home came to be too much. All four of them are in their nineties, so you might say that they are lucky to have made it this long on their own. Yet there is something indescribably sad about watching an elderly person’s world grow smaller while, at the same time, your own grows wider. It does not require much imagination to think of how it must feel to have a lifetime of independence stripped away, bit by little bit.

One of my grandmothers, possessed of unusual foresight, wrote out the story of her youth for her grandchildren some time over twenty-five years ago. Maybe she had always felt loss at not knowing enough of her own grandparents’ backstory and determined to record her own story for posterity. Whatever the reason, I have a handwritten journal from her, filled with her earliest recollections of childhood on a west-central Indiana farm—learning at a one-room schoolhouse heated by a pot-bellied stove, bottle-feeding a pet lamb, using a chamber pot at night, and picking corn by hand in the summer.

About the time these written recollections leave off, the slide photos pick up. One of the favorite family gathering pastimes of my young cousins and I was asking to have the slide projector set up for a slide show. We soaked up the story of our grandparents and our mothers through pictures of different houses, road trips across America, funny clothing, and hilarious hair styles. Aside from all of the fun, sitting together in the darkened living room and watching the snapshots as they shuffled through the projector grounded us in a sense of place and the kind of people from which we came.

Hannah CoulterReading Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter is like sitting and listening to your grandmother tell stories about the people she knew and the corner of the world in which she lived. Recently widowed for the second time, the elderly Hannah sets herself to remembering life and laying up the lessons it taught her. Her life is not my grandmother’s life, but their need to tell their stories brought them together in my mind.

Hannah came to adulthood shortly before World War II, and her life grew from the farmland of northern Kentucky. She was dirt poor—but bright and intelligent—and had the advantage of a grandmother who prepared her with everything she would need to know simply by teaching her how to run a farm. Her insulated world was scarred when her first husband was killed in the war, but Hannah rebuilt her life a few years later with a survivor, Nathan Coulter. For Hannah and Nathan, carving a living out of the land, raising responsible children, and dwelling in “membership” community with their neighbors was the only right response to an outside, foreign world that had been on fire and consumed so much of what they loved. Hannah discloses her hopes and expectations for her children and grandchildren—even though in them she begins to see her way of life, lived for hundreds of years before her—aging and dying with the members of her own generation. She shares her tender sorrow at the change and loss of her world.

Hannah tells her story gently and with a lifetime of wisdom; I found it as thought-provoking and inspirational as if it were told to me by someone that I respected and loved. She describes the years of work in building a marriage by love and kindness and how to survive grief and the loss of expectations with thankfulness in all things. Peeking through Hannah’s words is a vision of a God of love and a communion with Him and our loved ones in that love.

Hannah Coulter is the first novel I have read by Wendell Berry and he certainly strikes me as a modern master of his craft. He’s created a story of truth, not only in the way his characters seem to be people I’ve known at one time or another, but also by mingling the way that they live with the broad truths of the world that God gave us to live in. He turned my thoughts to my grandparents, to the lives they’ve lived and the people they’ve known, and how their stories will only ever be fully known by them.

I cannot do justice to the words Berry wrote, so here is some of my favorite wisdom from Hannah.

On grief and loss:

“I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the tread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.

Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever. Some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after. I was in it a long time with Nathan. I am still in it with him. And what about Virgil? Once, we too went in and were together in that room. And now in my tenderness of remembering it all again, I think I am still there with him too. I am there with all the others, most of them gone but some who are still here, who gave me love and called forth love from me. When I number them over, I am surprised how many there are. And so I have to say that another of the golden threads is gratitude.

I was grateful because I knew, even in my fear and grief, that my life had been filled with gifts.”

On marriage:

“The gentleness I knew in him seemed to be calling out, and it was a gentleness in me that answered. That gentleness, calling and answering, giving and taking, brought us together. It brought us into the room of love. It made our place clear around us.

Nathan said, ‘You’ve seen those dragonflies flying together joined. How do they know to fly in the same direction?’

‘They know,’ I said. ‘They know the same way we know.'”

“It would be … like the coming of the rhymes in a song, a different song, this one, a long song, the rhymes sometimes wide apart, but the rhymes would come…. But you may have a long journey to travel to meet somebody in the innermost inwardness and sweetness of that room. You can’t get there just by wanting to, or just because the night falls. The meeting is prepared in the long day, in the work of years, in the keeping of faith, in kindness.”

On memory:

“What you won’t see, but what I see always, is the pattern of our life here that made and kept it as you see it now, all the licks and steps and rounds of work, all the comings and goings, all the days and years. A lifetime’s knowledge shimmers on the face of the land in the mind of a person who knows. The history of a place is the mind of an old man or an old woman who knows it, walking over it, and it is never fully handed on to anybody else, but has been mostly lost, generation after generation, going back and back to the first Indians. And now the history of Nathan’s and my life here is fading away. When I am gone, it too will be mostly gone.

Sometimes I imagine another young couple, strong and full of desire, coming quietly into this old house that will be empty again of all that is of any use, and will be stale and silent and dingy with dust, and they will see it shining before them as Nathan and I saw it fifty-two years ago. And I say ‘Welcome! Love each other. Love this place and use it well. Bless your hearts.’”

“You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can only return by surprise. Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind. And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.… When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.”

“Even old, your husband is the young man you remember now. Even dead, he is the man you remember, not as he was but as he is, alive still in your love. Death is a sort of lens, though I used to think of it as a wall or a shut door. It changes things and makes them clear. Maybe it is the truest way of knowing this dream, this grief and timeless life.”

“Like a lot of old people I have known, I am now living in two places: the place as it was and the place as it is.”As it was it is almost always present to me, with the dead moving about in it as they were.”

On expectations:

“Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, ‘hopeth all things.’ But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.”

On thankfulness:

“The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice everymore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.’ I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars

Book Review: The Vicar of Wakefield

vicarAmong the earliest of enduring English novels is The Vicar of Wakefield, published in 1766 by Oliver Goldsmith. The English novel tradition had been up and running for nearly half a century by this time, producing, among other works, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. I claim no extensive knowledge of literary history—I’m afraid that what I learned of it in college didn’t stay put for very long—but I am intrigued by it in certain historical contexts. What was going on in the world when The Vicar was published? Who would have been reading it?

In 1766, George III sat on the British throne and colonial Americans stewed over the Stamp Act—the Act which turned almost anything paper (newspapers, legal documents, playing cards—books were a notable exception) into an inconvenient expense for the colonists. Benjamin Franklin, the most well-known American at that time, was in London protesting the Stamp Act before Parliament. In March, shortly after his appeal, Parliament repealed the Act (only to replace it with another act shortly). I like to think that Benjamin Franklin was wending his way homeward after a day of international political machinations and saw a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield in a shop window and took it home with him, perhaps having heard about it from a learned colleague who suggested it to him for a good laugh. Franklin seems like the type to have found enjoyment in the farcical, moralizing novel.

I have no doubt that a great many Americans on both sides of the Atlantic gobbled up popular English novels, for in 1766 they had none of their own. It stretches the imagination to think that America, today the largest English-speaking country in the world, did not publish its first novel until 1789. [Read about the first American novel here.] Although there would have been a delay (even of years) in The Vicar’s arrival in America, the more cosmopolitan areas such as New York City, Philadelphia, or Charleston certainly read what the British read. So in the years when American liberty was born, with deprivation and destruction on all sides, Americans had for comfort and entertainment only British-English novels on their bookshelves, The Vicar of Wakefield perhaps among them. (Now, wouldn’t that make for a fascinating topic—colonial reading habits during the Revolution?)

The Vicar of Wakefield is the oldest novel that I have read. For me, the non-literary-historian, the novel truly shows its age. The premise of the novel is this: Dr. Primrose, the vicar of the country parish of Wakefield, leads a comfortable life until all of his money is lost in an investment gone bad. The vicar, with his wife and children, removes to a much smaller parish where extreme misfortunes—including fire, theft, imprisonment, kidnapping, and even death—befall them with astonishing (and highly improbable) regularity. The vicar’s two eldest daughters, Olivia and Sophia, now penniless, appear to be removed from all marriage prospects. The only eligible men of the area include the womanizing Squire Thornhill and the also penniless Mr. Burchell. But as these things tend to go, Olivia, of course, falls for the Squire and Sophia for Mr. Burchell. Every melodramatic twist of fate possible comes to pass before the novel is resolved. Through it all, Dr. Primrose solemnly moralizes on the highs and lows. As the non-literary scholar that I am, I did not realize until at least one-third of the way through the novel that it has to be a comedic satire. I am sure any English major could have told me this.

Although I could hardly stop rolling my eyes at the ridiculousness of the story, the novel held interest for me in other ways. The Vicar of Wakefield says, for instance, a great deal about the world in which it was written. In The Vicar’s world, women have no power over their own lives. Their financial resources, modes of daily living, and marriage dealings are held entirely in the hands of their fathers, brothers, and husbands (or husbands-to-be). When Olivia falls for the slick (and slimy) Mr. Thornhill, she, according to the dictates of the period, cannot tell Mr. Thornhill of her affections or make any suggestion of a deeper relationship. She is forced to (I say “forced,” but in real life I’m sure few would go to such lengths) manipulate an elaborate plot to make Mr. Thornhill declare himself to her. That women such as Olivia have no power over their own lives is a symptom of the general male view that women are weak, both physically and mentally, and easily victimized. Indeed, there are no heroines in The Vicar; the females are all victims of something or other. Dr. Primrose views his own wife as suitable primarily for domestic uses—“she could read any English book without much spelling, but for pickling, preserving, and cookery, none could excel her”—and although he loves her affectionately, he portrays her from time to time as having a definite silliness.

Goldsmith, using the voice of Dr. Primrose, also delves into the matter of liberty and sovereignty for the length of an entire chapter. “I am … for, and would die for, monarchy, sacred monarchy; for if there be any thing sacred amongst men, it must be the anointed sovereign of his people, and every diminution of his power in war, or in peace, is an infringement upon the real liberties of the subject. … I have known many of those pretended champions of liberty in my time, yet do I not remember one that was not in his heart and in his family a tyrant.” In Dr. Primrose’s view, having a king lessens the likelihood that rich men raise themselves as tyrants over others and gather servile people around them. This chapter of The Vicar taken by itself surely gave Americans a lot to chew on.

I will probably not revisit The Vicar of Wakefield. It lacks the polish of the later novels that I enjoy, although the form of those later works lies here in seed form. My biggest take-away was in thinking of the novel in an early-American context, in a way that highlights the “everyday” behind the famous events of history. Literature is just one of those cross-over areas.

★ ★ ★/5

Book Review: News of the World

news of the world

Paulette Jiles, News of the World. William Morrow: 2016.

“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news.”

Jefferson Kyle Kidd’s self-appointed purpose in life is to carry the news. In 1870, Captain Kidd has survived three wars and in each has found his place as a runner, courier, and printer. “He loved print, felt something right about sending out information into the world. Independent of its content.” Now, at seventy-one years, he travels the wild and violent roads of central Texas, stopping in each town and standing each evening at a lectern with newspapers from around the world spread before him, reading the best and most magical information aloud. At one point in his middle age Kidd believed, “If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms.” Learning the hard way that this is an illusion, he settles for creating escapism. “What people needed, at bottom, was not only information but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information … Then the listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.”

Captain Kidd’s lonely and monotonous rounds are interrupted when, to help a friend, he takes on the job of returning ten-year-old Indian captive Johanna Leonberger to distant relatives outside of San Antonio. After four years as a Kiowa captive, Johanna appears not to remember her parents, who were killed in her sight, or any German or English language. Kidd is understandably somewhat resentful of this intrusion into his life and the great risk involved to him in crossing the state of Texas with her. He mournfully repeats to himself that he has already raised two daughters. Yet he accepts the fifty dollar gold piece in payment and buys a beat-up wagon with “Curative Waters” printed on the side to carry the girl home.

Their journey south to San Antonio is a journey toward purpose and rescue as much as it is a passage through Texas. The strange Indian/English/German girl pierces Kidd’s crusty old-man exterior. His heart is tender and empathetic; he starts to see life through little Chohenna’s eyes—not all American ways make sense, just as not all Kiowa ways do. In turn, Johanna’s shell-shocked heart opens just a little and she looks on the Kep-dun as Kontah—grandfather.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles ranks with the best fiction I have read in the last few years. In its tidy 209 pages, it shows—beautifully—so much more than it tells. Its words are poetic and vivid. Many scenes—a darkened barn during a downpour, a stream-side camp under the pecan trees, a wild and raging river at night—played in bright, sparkling images across my mind. Jiles has mixed the best parts of the Western with poetry and literary fiction to create a beautiful picture lesson of rescue, a life redeemed, and human compassion.

I cannot let this review pass without also pointing out the history work that Jiles has done with News of the World. She has brought to life two very obscure pieces of the past: the circuit news-readers and the captive children who lost all sense of their Euro-American identity. These children, floating fragmented in a no-mans-land of cultures, escaped all attention—“And the newspapers, they say nothing about this at all or about the poor at all. … There are great holes in your newspapers. Nobody sees them. God sees them.” And now we see them. I could only ever hope to teach so much history in such a powerful way.

“Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★/5

*I think you will love this book, but note that it is a Western and as such has one scene of graphic violence.

Book Review: O Pioneers!

Nebraska prairie. 

“The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”

I have to admit to being woefully behind in my reading of classic American literature. I read several of the traditional high school stand-bys in eleventh grade—volumes by Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Steinbeck—but I never loved any of them. I can appreciate the “art” value in them, but my heart has always been with British literature. I can’t even define what it is that I haven’t liked about American literature, except to say that a lot of it seems to be really depressing. But I am trying to fill this gap in my reading experience and I made myself read O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.

pioneers

Willa Cather, O Pioneers! Originally published 1913.

Cather was a path-breaking female journalist of the early twentieth century, serving most notably as an editor for McClure’s Magazine. Her foray into fiction led her to be one of the formative authors of modern American literature. She found her niche in portraying regional America, particularly the prairies of Nebraska where she spent a great part of her childhood.

O Pioneers!, published in 1913, is the saga of the Bergson family, with the eldest sister Alexandra at its center. Children of Swedish immigrants, Alexandra and her three brothers inherit their father’s farm on the Nebraska prairie (circa 1880s). Their father knew nothing but struggle and failure on the harsh, unyielding land, but Alexandra determines that that will not be the case with her generation. She makes several daring, cutting-edge moves and, in less than twenty years’ time, her family is one of the most prosperous in the area.

In the novel, two things are going on, one being that the land itself is a powerful presence and yields only to the one that loves it. The O Pioneers! title is an ode to the men and women who work and love the land and earn their reward: “For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face [Alexandra’s] was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”

But the success or failure to thrive on the land is not the only focus of the novel; the other is the fatalistic drama in the hearts of the people on the land. Cather sets up a Greek-like tragedy that, without giving out too many spoilers, just cannot end well. And while she’s at it, she paints a dark picture of what it was to be a pioneer and a woman at the turn of the twentieth century. Alexandra, having made the crucial decisions that led to her family’s prosperity, struggles to escape her brothers’ condescension toward her as a single female. She is a plain, sensible girl—“Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. . . . She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries.” She always knew what had to be done and did it, very rarely letting her “self” have a say. Yet now in her middle age, she becomes a victim of how her middle brothers (and by implication, society) view women. Her desire to marry Carl Lindstrom, a penniless childhood friend, in order to find companionship in her loneliness is met with the response that she has no sense. Alexandra’s neighbor and friend, Marie Shabata, is trapped as well. She is hopelessly in love with Alexandra’s youngest brother Emil, the brother Alexandra raised to enjoy the freedom to choose between a life on the land and a life pursuing a career away from the prairie. But Marie and Emil have no freedom while Marie is married to a violent, insensitive man.

Although my impression that American literature can be depressing continues to hold true, in the end, my reading of O Pioneers! surprised me. It was certainly easier to read than I had thought it would be (sometimes I feel like the American classics can be cryptic). The prose is really pared back and is yet so immediate and realistic. Cather’s prose says exactly what it should say, almost as if there were no better way of saying it. In the introduction to my edition of the book, Cather’s work is called “cinematic,” and maybe that is the best way to describe how she shows us everything, all while saying very little. She makes evoking a certain time, place, and curious mixture of pioneer cultures look quite easy. There is a lot for a would-be writer to emulate in the way she crafted the book. Despite the tragedy, Cather’s writing is warm and welcoming and has inspired me to read her other novels, especially My Antonia.

★ ★ ★ ★ /5


“She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.”

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

“People have to snatch at happiness when they can, in this world. It is always easier to lose than to find.”

“Down under the frozen crusts, at the roots of the trees, the secret of life was still safe, warm as the blood in one’s heart; and the spring would come again!”

Book Review: Belgravia

Belgravia

Julian Fellowes, Belgravia. Grand Central Publishing: 2016.

Have you been missing Downton Abbey? It’s been a year since the last season aired. There hasn’t been a lack of great British television, but nothing seems to fill that Downton Abbey-shaped void.

In the intervening months the series’ creator, Julian Fellowes, hasn’t been idle. He hosted (from his armchair) a production of Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne viewable on Amazon. Lord Fellowes was even spotted in the South Carolina low-country strolling the gardens of his New World counterparts at Middleton Place plantation (check it out here). Perhaps his most intriguing accomplishment was the release of a serial novel for digital download. Unbeknownst to me, Fellowes has already published several novels, but this revival of the modern interest in the serial novel is, to me, his most unique literary endeavor. It’s now available in one hardback volume as Belgravia.

The world of Belgravia is a familiar one for fans of Downton Abbey. It’s a society novel, with characters pulled from the ranks of the nobility down to the servants’ hall. Belgravia, however, is a story of London, rather than a Yorkshire estate, and takes place about seventy years earlier than Downton Abbey during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Belgravia follows two families from one of the wealthiest of London neighborhoods who are inescapably linked by a decades-old secret. Lord and Lady Brockenhurst, inhabitants of one of the grandest mansions on Belgrave Square, lead an aristocratic life but suffer the emptiness of a childless old age. Their only son and heir died years before at the Battle of Waterloo. On nearby Eaton Square in a not-quite-so-grand yet still luxurious mansion, James and Susan Trenchard live the up-and-coming lifestyle of the nouveau riche. They, too, have their share of sorrow as they continue to mourn the loss of their only daughter more than twenty years before. In 1840s London these two families, so close in proximity and lifestyle, would never have mingled, given that old money does not condescend to accept the new. But in this case, their paths cross, again and again, as both families display an immense and puzzling interest in the young entrepreneur Charles Pope. The relations and servants of the two families are left to discover just who this man is, and how his presence will affect them all.

Belgravia is reminiscent of the quintessential Victorian novel. There is a convoluted plot, extensive family connections and lost relatives, disgruntled employees, a little bit of romance, and a great deal of mystery and drama surrounding secret papers. More than once, I was reminded of a Dickens, Trollope, or Thackeray novel. But Fellowes doesn’t go as far as Dickens; Belgravia addresses the seamier side of Victorian London only in passing. And Belgravia does not have any of the long, descriptive passages typical of Victorian literature, either. It is much easier to read, if it is at times a little sluggish.

I admire Julian Fellowes’ work; I am appreciative whenever a novel or television show is able to make the past “come alive.” Fellowes says at the outset that he writes his stories to show that people living in the “foreign country” of the past are just like us in their hopes, dreams, temptations, and failures. He certainly succeeded in that aim with Downton Abbey. I am less sure that he succeeded with Belgravia. While I was not at all expecting it to be great literature, I suppose I was expecting it to have more “heart,” for what, if anything, was Downton Abbey but a dramatic emotional trip? Belgravia had all of the machinations of Downton Abbey, but it was missing something. I am convinced now that the actors made the show, putting flesh to the bones of a very good plot.

Perhaps, if you choose to read Belgravia, you should people it in your imagination with the actors from Downton Abbey and read it as a highly descriptive script. Or, imagine Julian Fellowes in his armchair reading it to you, teaching you about the Victorian period. You won’t be disappointed in the Victorian world he creates, but you may wish you could become more emotionally attached.

Book Review: Anne of Green Gables

anne “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

I’m so glad I live in a world where there’s an Anne of Green Gables. Stepping into Anne’s world is always like wrapping up in a cozy, warm blanket. It’s like comfort food for the book lover.

The story of that spunky little redhead is, I imagine, familiar to nearly everyone. Who out there does not know about the slate breaking or the fateful afternoon tea, the dyed-green hair or the near-drowning? Anne Shirley’s youthful scrapes were a part of my childhood, Anne herself a beloved companion.

The other evening I finished listening to Anne of Green Gables on audiobook (one of my latest and most favorite things to do), performed by Rachel McAdams. I’ve read the book numerous times in my life, but I have to have something to pass the time on the treadmill or while house-keeping and Anne is just so hard to resist. So as she cried over Matthew’s death and healed up that bitter old wound with Gilbert Blythe, I sniffed and blinked away tears over the pasta I was making for dinner. I would have been happy had the book gone on for, say, another few hours—or 400 pages (whichever you prefer).

Anne2

Pinterest

So what is it about this classic that gives it such timeless appeal? Although it’s categorized (unfairly, I think) as “children’s fiction,” this book just seems to get better with age—my age. I remember having the book in my hands as early as first or second grade, when the descriptions were too long and certain elements just went right over my head. I’ve revisited it several times, of course, and I always absorb more of what’s there. It always has more and more to say to the adult me.

Anne’s experiences and escapades, while certainly not what I would call typical of girls her age during her time-period or ours, were all made up of little things. By little things, I mean that ordinary life was dramatic for Anne. The more I read, the more I come to appreciate fine authors who can demonstrate the drama of normal life. Drama is always present, completely apart from a terrible, apocalyptic event. Anne didn’t have to be a girl with superpowers or a charmed life. That may have been what she wanted, but she was just Anne with an “e” from little old Avonlea. How dramatic to leave the pudding uncovered and find a dead mouse in it before dinner—to long for stylish clothes and finally get them—to get in a fight at school and have to be separated from your best friend—to accidentally wake up a scary old woman in her bed? In all of this, Anne is one of us.

In a similar way, Anne of Green Gables demonstrates Montgomery’s genius for characterizing real people. There are no saints or super-villains here. Instead we have a gossipy, know-it-all Mrs. Lynde, who is really rather kind on the inside, a stuck-up girl at school (we all know a Josie Pye), a boy who shows his “liking” by teasing, and a stiff old maid who really can’t help but laugh at her girl and cry private tears of pride and maternal affection. Matthew is the closest we may come to seeing a saint, although his chronic timidity gives us a sense of his real humanity. And then we have Anne, a little girl with a sweet spirit who desperately wants to do right, but who is forever being dragged into trouble by her run-away imagination and fiery temper.

Anne of Green Gables also boasts “all the feels,” yet unlike so many books out there, never leaves the reader feeling manipulated. One of my favorite things about Anne is her infectious emotions and love for beauty. She sees beauty everywhere and takes it to herself—in renaming the “Lake of Shining Waters” and the “White Way of Delight” and, of course, in the way she sighs over the sunset, the sounds of the sea, and the cherry blossoms at her window. She has a boundless love for all of her favorites, and in true adolescent fashion, an equally vehement dislike for her enemies. How deeply we feel with Anne that she did very wrong in rejecting Gilbert’s friendship that day at the pond, and how great the warmth at learning that Gilbert kept on caring anyway. We can’t help but love Matthew and silently cheer as he champions Anne’s cause by “putting his oar in” when he feels that she has been wronged. And I think you’d have to have the coldest heart out there not to crumble a little when Matthew dies and Anne and Marilla are left to cling to each other. While Anne may be quite the dramatic young girl, all of these feelings we walk through in Anne of Green Gables are the emotions of real life, neither melodramatic nor manufactured.

I somehow feel when I’m in Anne’s world that everything will come out right. Love, friendship, and self-sacrifice are all granted a place and a value. I think I’m going to have to go back to Green Gables soon.

Book Review: The Rose Garden

rose garden

Susanna Kearsley, The Rose Garden. Sourcebooks Landmark: 2011.

Susanna Kearsley has been on my to-read radar for a while. She always appears on those “Recommended for readers of” lists on my Amazon and Goodreads accounts. The only one of her books the library had, although not her highest rated, was The Rose Garden.

I was dubious when I pulled the book off of the shelf. The cover, with it’s bare-backed female, screams romance. I try to stay far away from reading strictly romance genre novels. There are very few romance novels that make it into the “literature” category and, honestly, you can never know when the book will suddenly turn explicit. The description on the book’s back cover almost turned me away, reminding me too much of the Outlander series, which sounded like great fun but which I abandoned because it broke too many rules and tipped the “explicit meter” too much for me.

I decided to read The Rose Garden anyway, and all I can figure is that the cover and title (which doesn’t really have anything to do with the plot) are all marketing. The novel has romance elements in it, but that element wasn’t overwhelming. It is hard to categorize, though. It could settle easily in the fantasy genre, too.

In The Rose Garden, Eva travels to scenic Cornwall to scatter her sister’s ashes in a place that was significant to them both as children. She stays at the Trelowarth estate with her childhood friends, brother and sister Mark and Susan Hallett and their step-mother, Claire. She finds her friends and their flower business in financial trouble and decides to work through her grief over her sister’s death by helping them open a tea shop on the estate. Eva’s research for the business’s website leads her deep into the history of Trelowarth and Cornwall.

Not long after her arrival, however, Eva begins having strange episodes in which she is disoriented and sees an unknown man walking around Trelowarth. She soon realizes from her modern-day research into the estate that she is going back in time to the early eighteenth century. The historical inhabitants of Trelowarth house are brothers Daniel and Jack Butler and their Irish friend, Fergal. The Butlers are smugglers running between the Cornish and French coasts and are deeply involved in the Jacobite rebellion.

Eva quickly becomes attached to Daniel and Fergal and finds herself disappointed and uncomfortable when she’s thrown back to the twenty-first century. It isn’t long before her life becomes tangled up with theirs as she, too, seems to be irrevocably involved in their perilous schemes. Her historical research offers her few comforting clues as to how the Butlers’ story ends. She is forced to start asking herself hard questions. How will she manage to have a meaningful life in the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries if the time travel continues? What if her actions in the past do damage to the modern world as she knows it?

Although I rarely read romance or time-travel novels, The Rose Garden was just the right book to read over the Christmas holiday. It isn’t serious literature, and it didn’t tax my brain when I had to pick it up and put it down so frequently. It was pure escapism and proof that a gentle, “PG,” romance can be written. There were a few things that drove me nuts, like why Eva never tried to figure out what triggered the time travel or how to control it and how easily she adapted to living in the eighteenth century. History is quite a foreign place and I think it would have been far harder to adapt than Kearsley made it out to be. But I did enjoy the novel for something different and I’ll be reading Kearsley again.