Friday, November 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A History of France by John Julius Norwich

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I’ve read a couple of John Julius Norwich’s histories and although the style is rather old-fashioned, focusing on great men/great events, I’ve found them to be very useful for providing broad, sweeping, big-picture narratives.

Norwich died in June, but managed to complete his final work, a labor of love: A History of France (which is also published, I think, as France: A History: From Gaul to deGaulle.)

In just 400 pages, Norwich races through the history of France up to WWII. It’s a book for those who want to know about France but need a place to start. He works his way chronologically through the major leaders in the pre-king stage, then through the kings, then through the Napoleons, and finally through the Republics. He writes in a chatty way, interrupting himself with entertaining anecdotes (often mildly racy and essentially the only place where women enter the picture, except, of course, for Joan of Arc.) In this way, he succeeds in delivering a vast amount of information painlessly.

The Netgalley version, unfortunately, did not contain the illustrations or the bibliography, so I can’t comment on those. The bibliography would have been interesting, since Norwich doesn’t cite references as he goes and seems to be relying more on his memory than on specific sources. In fact, part of what makes the book so entertaining is that some of the unsourced anecdotes are a little vague and he admits he may not have the story exactly right. It’s like listening to an accomplished storyteller at a dinner party after a few glasses of wine, one who has most of his facts right or, at least, close enough.

The history is straightforward and surely oversimplified. This is Norwich’s interpretation after having synthesized a good deal of material over many years. He tells us who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, leaving out the nuance and controversy in order to give the reader a framework to build upon. And this framework is something I sorely need since my "big-picture" history knowledge is sadly lacking.

If you’re curious about how France came to be France, this is a great place to start.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Founding Brothers. The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis

Founding Brothers. The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis is our book group’s next pick. This relatively short book examines the crucial post-Revolutionary War period when the U.S. was not at all united and was in danger of being unable to fulfill the lofty goals of the war. Having won independence from Britain, the revolutionaries were not quite sure what to do with it. Or, more accurately, each was quite certain he knew what should be done if only everyone else would just get in line.

The men treated in this work, primarily Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Washington, are more usually referred to as Founding Fathers. Ellis uses the term Brothers to emphasize that rather than spreading a mature, protective, paternal wisdom over the newborn nation, these men grew up with it, squabbling all the way.

The first two chapters can be read as background to the extraordinary musical Hamilton. "Chapter One: The Duel" leads us into what the author describes as an anomalous outcome of the brothers’ squabbling: violence and death. "Chapter Two: The Dinner" had me singing The Room Where it Happens in my head. Other chapters discuss Washington’s Farewell Address (who wrote it and what a legacy it was), the collaborative efforts, infighting, and strained friendships among the men, as well as the taboo subject of slavery.

With such fascinating subject matter, the author does an admirable job of focusing each chapter around its theme. Some chapters are less interesting than others and in places he wanders too far into the weeds, but overall there is a good balance of big picture versus close detail. If you feel your historical knowledge of the time period could use a little filling in, this book is a good place to start.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A Well-Behaved Woman. A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

Therese Anne Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, has a new book – A Well-Behaved Woman. A Novel of the Vanderbilts.

In late nineteenth-century New York, Alva Smith is a desperate young woman. Reared with her sisters to expect a life of privilege, at twenty-one she discovers how tenuous her hold on that privilege is. She comes from Old South wealth and her pedigree is impeccable, but her mother is dead and her ailing father is nearly bankrupt. Alva needs to marry well and soon.

Despite her initial concerns, she catches a husband with surprising ease. William Vanderbilt, grandson of the railway tycoon, Cornelius Vanderbilt, is looking for a well-connected wife to help the family climb the New York social ladder. He is good-looking, easy-going, and shallow enough to marry simply to please his family. Alva’s connections are not as good as the Vanderbilts believe them to be, but Alva does a grand job faking it. Her fortune is secured, her family saved. Now, she has to live with the consequences.

The novel whisks us along on a tour of the extraordinary pursuits of the obscenely wealthy. Alva has come close enough to ruin to feel some compassion for the plight of the poor. She does invest time and money in charitable programs. But her main occupation is Society. She is determined to cement her position within the Vanderbilt hierarchy by raising the profile of the Vanderbilt family name. With the help of an older gentleman friend, insider Ward McAllister, Alva navigates the difficult waters of society, dominated by Caroline Astor, until the Vanderbilts can no longer be excluded from the upper echelons.

Successful as she is at social climbing, Alva is discontent. She does not respect or love her vapid husband. Conversation between them is merely polite. Sex is an undignified chore. And William spends more time on his boat or with his friends than he does with his wife. At least, he claims to be with friends. Alva remains willfully blind to his many affairs.

Intelligent and driven, Alva throws herself into architectural pursuits, partnering with architect Richard Morris Hunt to build a number of mansions costing millions of dollars.

Eventually, none of this is enough. Alva wants love and passion. And Alva tends to get what she wants.

This novel immerses the reader in Gilded Age society, showing its mores, extravagances, and hypocrisies as well as its preoccupation with absurd shades of status. Alva is drawn as a well rounded character, but it is difficult to sympathize with her. Although her husband’s true character is not at all admirable, he is, in some limited way, pitiable. Alva puts him off from the get-go, having achieved the financial security she desires. She never gives the marriage a chance. It may have been more poignant had she tried and failed.

The book skims more lightly over Alva’s attempts to do good for the less fortunate. More emphasis on these pursuits may have made her a more sympathetic protagonist, but the emphasis on her attempts to spend an unspendable amount of money upstaging her society rivals is likely a more realistic portrait.

A Well-Behaved Woman is a compelling, richly detailed historical novel showing lifestyles of the rich and famous in the Gilded Age. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is an impressive book.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer is as delightful as all her Regency Romances.

Abigail Wendover is a gentlewoman nearing spinsterhood living quietly with her significantly older sister in Bath. They are bringing up their spirited niece, Fanny, who is lovely, vivacious, and an heiress. Fanny is just seventeen and has not yet come out, but she has already attracted the attention of a fortune-hunter, Stacey Calverleigh.

Stacey is nearly thirty and quite broke. He was already disappointed in his hopes of financial rescue when an elopement with a different heiress was warded off. Now, he has set his sights on Fanny.

Abigail is horrified, especially since her older sister is unable to see through the odious man and finds him charming.

Stacey is not the only Calverleigh to appear in Bath. Stacey’s uncle, Miles, has returned from India, escorting the favored son of a local widow who was taken ill there. Miles had been banished to India twenty years earlier by his father and elder brother and was not expected to return. Miles is the black sheep of the family, a man whose lack of family feeling and numerous indiscretions have made him very suspect in the eyes of the ton. He is not particularly welcome in Bath. However, he and Abigail meet cute, a case of mistaken identity, and he is taken with her unconscious charm. She is taken with his sense of humor.

Abigail is determined to protect Fanny from Stacey. Miles listens, to a point, but insists the whole thing is tedious. He admits he dislikes his nephew, but says he has no influence to exert.

The courtship between Abigail and Miles is delightfully entertaining as their relationship develops based on enjoyment of time spent with one another rather than instantaneous profound passion. Miles supports her endeavors, even as he claims it is none of his business. Miles’ reputation may be in tatters for long ago sins, and, even now, he may not behave within the bounds of strictest respectability, but he nevertheless behaves well.

For lovers of "clean" old-fashioned Romance, Georgette Heyer never disappoints.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Lost Carousel of Provence by Juliet Blackwell

This has been a terrible summer for blogging. I have been reading, just not blogging. I’m currently trudging through a doorstop of a history book that I’ll review when I finally finish. I’ve broken that up with working my way through Mary Balogh’s Survivor’s Club series. Two more to go!

In the meantime, I took a break to read a book in my Netgalley queue that was recently released.

(Thank you to Netgalley! I received the book for free. That did not influence my review.)

The Lost Carousel of Provence by Juliet Blackwell is a multi-POV novel set in multiple time periods: early 1900s, WWII, and current day.

Because the early part of the book jumps around so much between characters and time periods, it’s hard to get engaged. In particular, the current day character, Cady, is introduced with both forward moving chapters and chapters that slip into her backstory. Perhaps it’s supposed to give the whirling up-and-down feeling of being on a carousel, but it was frustrating to read at first. The lack of cohesion got tedious. Eventually, the different stories intersected and the novel clicked. This is a novel that rewards patience as it draws to a close as a rich, emotional, multi-generational tale.

Cady Drake is a young female photographer who has difficulty connecting with people, largely due to her foster care upbringing. She was a troubled youth, who was fortunate to find stability living with an older woman, an antique store owner named Maxine. When Maxine dies, Cady is devastated. At the urging of her only friend, Cady embarks on a trip to Paris to photograph carousels for a coffee table book. This idea is inspired by the gift of an old carousel rabbit she had once received from Maxine. Inside the rabbit was a box with a photograph of a young woman from long ago, standing in front of a carousel. Cady becomes obsessed with learning who made the rabbit and the identity of the mysterious woman.

Maelle Tanguy is a young Breton woman in turn-of-the-twentieth-century France. She is a talented sculptor who yearns to make carousel animals. She bravely sets out on her own to apprentice with Monsieur Bayol, the acknowledged master carver. Although he refuses to take her on at first, she impresses him with her spunkiness. He hires her to help his wife with housework, but gradually allows her to take on menial tasks in his workshop, and finally help make the animals. Unfortunately for Maelle, there is a handsome charmer in the workshop, Leon, and she is very gullible.

Finally, there is Fabrice Clement from Provence. During WWII, he was a young resistance fighter in Paris. He survived, barely, to become a writer known for difficult post-modern novels in the war’s aftermath. He then retired to an inherited, falling-apart chateau back in Provence, where he became a cranky recluse.

Fabrice’s chateau was once known for a carousel built for its aristocratic owners by the master Bayol. And, this is the carousel in the photograph Cady found in her rabbit. Maelle is the woman in the photo.

There is a good deal of mystery surrounding all these elements. And the author does a lovely job of piecing it all together. Cady blossoms in France as she never could in her California home.

The novel also beautifully describes the carousel making process in fascinating detail.

I tend to enjoy these types of multi-period novels less than historical novels that follow a more chronological plot line. I don’t like having the flow of a narrative interrupted so frequently. I’m not thrown off by different POV characters so long as their stories are moving in the same direction at the same time, but when the stories are all unconnected for too long, even when I can see that they will eventually connect, I lose patience. That said, I’m glad I stuck with this one until it all came together to its satisfying conclusion.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is a classic dystopian novel written in 1920-21 that was translated and published worldwide at the time, but banned in Russia until 1988. It was the inspiration for George Orwell’s 1984.

The novel is set in a future world on earth, after a 200-year war that changed society completely. People now live in a world made of nearly indestructible glass, their lives on public display. (They are under surveillance by "guardians.") They live according to rigid schedules, everyone rising, working, eating, taking a walk in the square at the same time, even chewing according to regulation. Sex is permitted only when a person receives a pink ticket to "lower the blinds" of their apartment for an hour. The partner is assigned. People are not named, but numbered. Nonconformity is swiftly, and publicly, punished by death.

The protagonist, D-503, is a mathematician, one of the chief builders of Integral, a spaceship designed to spread their ideal society to other planets. He is fully indoctrinated into this totalitarian society, ruled by the Benefactor. He believes himself completely happy.

And then I-330 enters his life. She makes him very uncomfortable. He dislikes her at first, but is sexually attracted to her and she exploits this, leading him to break rules and become reluctantly complicit in hiding her noncomformity. I-330 is one of the leaders of the resistance. Their goal is to hijack Integral and use it to smash the barriers of their glass world. They want to start a revolution that will return freedom to the people.

There is nothing heroic about D-503. He wants to remain in his bubble. But he also wants I-330. He discovers, to his dismay, that he has a soul and imagination. With all these upheavals, his life is a torment.

The resistance permeates society to a greater degree than D-503 realizes. But the state is strong and has a new weapon – an operation that can remove human imagination. Which will prove stronger?

The stark philosophies of the characters provide interesting food for thought. D-503's fear of freedom and his contrasting comfort with the highly intrusive state are chilling. The novel does come across as somewhat dated, since dystopias are now so numerous with much more explicit sex and violence and more in-depth characterizations. D-503 thinks mathematically and is confused much of the time, which makes it a tough read. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to see how many of the issues are still relevant and likely always will be.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Our book group’s latest book was Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. This journalistic historical account of the Osage murders of the 1920s is a fast-paced, detailed narrative of yet another shameful event in the long history of the exploitation of Native Americans.

In Oklahoma, members of the Osage Nation became (theoretically) extraordinarily wealthy when oil was discovered in their territory. Although the land had been ceded to the government, mineral rights had not, and anyone wishing to drill for oil had to pay the Osage.

In practice, although some of the Osage did acquire mansions and servants, they were not allowed to spend their own money without the permission of government-appointed guardians. Deemed incompetent by the government, the Osages’assigned guardians exploited them through various schemes that made the whites much more wealthy than their wards. But bleeding their wards dry was not quick enough for some of the guardians, who wanted more of the money and more direct control.

Members of the Osage Nation began to die, some of outright murder and others more insidiously under suspicious circumstances. Local law enforcement investigated half-heartedly and backed off quickly under threat of violence. Corruption ran deep. As the death count rose, the Osage had nowhere safe to turn.

At this point, the Federal Government stepped in. The newly created FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, was called upon to find out what was going on. Hoover assigned a former Texas Ranger, the incorruptible Tom White, to head the investigation.

White proceeds with determination and intelligence to uncover a widespread conspiracy of greed, racism, and utter moral bankruptcy that is horrifying and, unfortunately, not at all surprising.

The book is well-researched and provides a crisp, clear, devastating story.