Wednesday, April 22, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: A Great and Terrible King. Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris

Browsing in the bookstore a while back, in the nonfiction/biography section, I happened across A Great and Terrible King. Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris. I came SO close to buying it, because I really did want to read, as its jacket blurb pronounced it: "A major biography of a truly formidable king, whose reign was one of the most dramatic and important of the entire Middle Ages, leading to war and conquest on an unprecedented scale." The book has an eye-catching cover, too. A headless man–mimicking all the headless historical women covers that were so popular not so long ago!

I really don’t know enough about Edward I (1239-1307), king of England (1272-1307), nicknamed Longshanks and Hammer of the Scots. However, since I still have a stack of biographies already purchased on people I’d like to know more about, I reluctantly put the book back on the shelf. But it kept nagging at me. So I did the next best thing and got it out from the library. With a due back date soon and a long car ride last weekend, not to mention the nonfiction challenge, the book was bumped to the top of my TBR list.

And I’m so glad I read it.

Edward I is a fascinating king who lived through a tumultuous period in medieval history (aren’t they all?) who is credited with shaping Britain into what it is today. He was, at least as emphasized in this book, a warrior king, fighting someone or another throughout his reign. He conquered/annexed Wales and attempted to do the same with Scotland. (He is the king who fought William Wallace and Robert Bruce–think Braveheart.) He also went on Crusade and scuffled with France. While his subjects resented all this because of the constant demands for men, money, and resources, they nevertheless considered him a great king because of it.

So, was he a great and terrible king? I initially thought the title was one of admiration and the term "terrible" had more of a connotation of "one who inspires terror." Sort of more along the lines of "awesome." But as I read, I realized that no, he was actually terrible.

Who was Edward and what did he accomplish? Did he forge a united, national identity? Did he strengthen the legal system? Was he pious? Etc. Etc.? Or was he a greedy, grasping, bigoted war-monger whose loyalty was questionable and whose word could not be trusted, who left his kingdom bled dry?

The book follows Edward’s career chronologically, which I liked. It was a logical, linear presentation of the history. It’s a compact account, only 378 pages with the notes, bibliography, and index bringing it up to 462. So history buffs who are well-acquainted with Edward and his friends and foes will no doubt find that things were left out or dealt with only superficially. But for people like me who wanted to get Edward more firmly set in their minds and arrange the medieval puzzle pieces around him, this was the perfect book.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr popped up on all the "best of" lists for historical fiction in 2014 – or at least it seemed so to me. A literary work set during World War II in Germany and France, it follows two adolescents (actually starting in their growing-up years before the war.) Given the subject, despite the glowing reviews, I didn’t rush into this book because. . .well. . .did I really want to do that to myself?

Of course, I did. I couldn’t resist. The description sounded too compelling.

Werner Pfennig is a German orphan, brought up (with his younger sister) in a mining town by a woman who is French by birth. The woman takes care of a house full of orphans. His father died in a mining accident and Werner has a dread of going to work in the mines, which is presumed to be his eventual fate. Except that Werner discovers a gift for fixing radios. From that, he becomes fascinated with mathematics and engineering–as much as he can be given the little teaching available to a poor boy fated to be swallowed up by the mines. Then comes the war. The Nazi machinery is efficient enough to sniff out talent like Werner and he is, instead, swallowed up by the war effort.

Marie-Laure Le Blanc lives in Paris with her father, who is the head locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. At age six, she went blind. Her father built a miniature replica of their part of Paris so she could memorize the streets and landmarks. She learned braille and loves adventure stories. She loves the museum. Her world is not so small after all. And then, Paris is attacked.

Marie-Laure’s father is sent from Paris in charge of one of the museum’s most valuable artifacts–or a decoy. They flee to the walled city of Saint-Malo by the sea where her father’s uncle, a man damaged by WWI, has taken refuge. There, her father builds her another replica, this time of Saint-Malo. The adolescent Marie-Laure spends the war here. Her story will eventually intertwine with Werner’s, but not in any conventional fictional way.

The brutality of the war is inescapable. Werner’s fear and psychological distress as he adapts to being a Nazi soldier, going along to get along, is very real and sad. It is so much easier to read about a protagonist who stands up against evil, even if the consequences are terrible. Yet in reading Werner’s story you can see how it was that so many were caught up.

This is a long book, and yet I was hooked from the very first few pages. It’s beautifully written, wrapping you up in its imagery and forcing you to care what happens to its characters. This is one "best of" that lives up to the hype.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

One of my book groups is meeting in a few days and the book picked was The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. This is a sweet, contemporary love story with a small town/island bookstore for setting. The target audience is clear!


A.J. Fikry owns the sole bookstore on Alice Island. A recent widower, he is a bit of a curmudgeon and with the death of his wife, he has neglected the store and attempted to drink away his grief.

Amelia Loman, a quirky, upbeat sales representative from a small publisher comes to the island to gently push her company's fall list and he rebuffs her rudely. He feels a bit bad about his behavior. Nevertheless, after she leaves, he follows his usual evening pattern of too much alcohol and passing out in bed. This time, though, he dines with a special companion, a rare and valuable collection of Poe’s poems–a book he usually keeps under lock and key. When he wakes in the morning, the book is gone.

The theft is the first odd occurrence. Next, a gift is left in his shop. A precocious toddler.

What next?

In the tradition of sweet, redemptive stories, what comes next is not a surprise to the reader, though Fikry’s transformation is unexpected and welcome to the small island town. And there are ripple effects throughout.

The book is a quick read. Although reminiscent of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand or A Man Called Ove, it was not as emotionally compelling, but perhaps it’s because the curmudgeonly widower finding new love and redemption genre is getting a bit worn for me. What kept me turning the pages this time were the conversations between the various characters as they discussed books. The characters’ love of literature of all stripes provided this book its charm.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

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

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd has been on my TBR list since it came out early last year. I was waiting for a push to move it to the front of the list, and since it is my book club’s choice for next month I knew I’d get to it fairly soon. Then I saw it as a Netgalley offering!

Set primarily in pre-Civil War Charleston, The Invention of Wings follows the lives of two unforgettable, unbreakable protagonists. The first is Handful/Hetty, a young slave in the Grimke household. The second is Sarah, one of the Grimke daughters.

The Grimkes are well-to-do plantation owners, living in Charleston. The father is a respected judge. The mother is a southern lady, worn out with bearing too many children, who takes out her frustrations and irritations primarily on her slaves but also on Sarah. On Sarah’s eleventh birthday, she is given Hetty as a gift, a personal maid of her own. Sarah tries to refuse–tries even to free Hetty, but her little rebellion is punished. Her parents are determined to make a slave holder of her.

Sarah and Handful grow up alongside one another. They aren’t friends. They are too aware of the divide between them, but there is a bond, nevertheless. Handful’s life does not revolve around her "mistress." It revolves around her mother and their shared yearning for freedom. As she matures, she learns her mother’s skill as a seamstress and also her mother’s skill at hiding what she is really thinking and planning. Sarah grows to adulthood trying to fit in to Charleston society. She finds herself as ill-suited for Charleston’s ways as the city is for her. Over the course of their lives, each woman searches for her own freedom of mind and body.

Sarah Grimke (and her sister, Angelina) are real historical figures and the novel has its basis in historical fact, though liberties are taken. It’s an inspiring and emotionally gripping read. Fans of this author’s previous work (The Secret Life of Bees, The Mermaid Chair) will recognize her gift for rich language and character development.

You don’t have to be a historical fiction fan to appreciate this painful and beautiful story.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Dream Lover. A novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg

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

The Dream Lover. A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg is a historical novel written as a first person account of a difficult search for love in a life filled with literary and political success.

I knew next to nothing about George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin) but I tend to seek out historical novels about literary figures and/or their significant others. I’m also interested in this late eighteenth century time period. Curious to learn more about this woman, who was recognized as an intellectual force to be reckoned with by her contemporaries (Balzac! Flaubert, Turgenev, Chopin), I approached this novel eagerly.

It’s a slow starter, but does pick up once you get used to the structure. The slow start may be because the narrator, a fictionalized George Sand, begins the story three times. There is a prologue set in 1873, where we catch a glimpse of the writer in her element but hinting at her disquiet. Then she jumps back in time to 1831, starting her tale when she runs off to Paris, leaving her stifling, loveless marriage (and necessarily temporarily leaving her children behind) to seek her literary life.

The journey sends her into a reverie about her past, which includes her family history. A lengthy “tell” of her parents’ back story follows. This leads up to the narration of the events of her own birth, start number three in 1804, setting the stage for the structure of the book. Chapters alternate between young Aurore (George narrates the difficulties she experienced growing up) and grown Aurore/George (George narrates her ongoing difficulties with balancing her need for love and her need to write.)

The book does succeed in providing the framework for George Sand’s life. I ended up with an appreciation for the conflicts she faced. I was also rather astounded by the life she managed to lead in the Paris of her day. She was a trailblazer and must have been brilliant. There were some beautiful passages and interesting vignettes. However, the narrative was choppy, particularly until you get used to it, and much of it read as narration. She was always telling the story; it rarely ever seemed to come alive.

Moreover, Sand never became, for me, a sympathetic character. That, in itself, is not a problem. A protagonist does not have to be likeable. But I wanted to admire the writer, and I had a hard time doing that, possibly because she, herself, was either informing the reader of her own achievements or complaining about her problems. Or, unfortunately, she was trying to justify her errors or affix the blame for her troubles on others.

Finally, I generally come away from historical novels about literary figures eager to read their works (or read more of their works if I was already a fan.) This novel had the opposite effect. It gave me the impression that Sand was a writing machine, prodigiously dashing off page after page of thinly disguised autobiographical work, which her eager publisher then snatched from her hand. (Once, her daughter burned three pages she had written and George had to rewrite them. She was surprised to find them better than the originals. So. . .was this the only time George Sand ever edited/rewrote anything?)

I’m glad for the introduction to the author because there is a lot of information in here that I’m pleased to have learned. However, those better acquainted with Sand’s biography and her bibliography may be better able to evaluate the merits of the novel because their feeling about the protagonist will already have been formed. I’m afraid George Sand’s “voice” left me unimpressed.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Drinking Den (L'Assommoir) by Emile Zola

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola was first published in 1877 and was an enormous, if controversial, success. The title has been variously translated as "The Hammer," "The Dram Shop," "The Trap," "The Drunkard," and, in the edition/translation I read, "The Drinking Den." Apparently, the original title, French slang for a working class bar, derived from assommer - to bludgeon, does not translate directly. Cheap booze bludgeoned the customers. This is the theme of the book, but it is their poverty as much as the alcohol that destroys them.

The sad heroine of the tale is Gervaise Macquart. A good-hearted, well-intentioned young woman, Gervaise is burdened with a lover who is a wastrel and two sons (four and eight). Lantier, the lover, seduced her when she was fourteen. Thinking she would escape a life of rural poverty and a father who beat her, she fled with Lantier to Paris. However, they quickly ran through the little money they had. Lantier decided he wanted someone more fun than the mother of his children. He took off with their last few sous; he even took the pawn tickets. Leaving was the kindest thing he ever did for Gervaise.

Shortly, Gervaise pulls herself together and goes to work as a laundress. She is pursued by a neighbor, the sturdy Coupeau. He’s none too bright, but he’s cheerful and devoted. He is also a sober man with a steady job. He’s a roofer (so he doesn’t dare drink. . .much.) However, Gervaise has had enough of men and refuses him, time and again. At last, desperate, he proposes marriage. Worn down by his persistence and pitying his apparent sincerity, Gervaise accepts.

This couple works hard, struggles, and scrapes by. They scrimp and save. They have a baby girl. Every once in a while, they splurge, partly to enjoy themselves and partly to impress the neighbors. They meet a blacksmith, Goujet, who lives with his widowed mother. The four of them are upright people who seem to be on course to ride above the tide of poverty and despair all around them. In fact, Gervaise has saved up nearly enough money to take out a lease on a bigger place and open a laundry shop of her own.

No such luck. Coupeau is hard at work one morning and falls off the roof.

He doesn’t die. Gervaise devotes herself to nursing him back to health and, to everyone’s astonishment, he recovers. But after a convalescence of more than a month, then two, he finds he prefers not working. And if he’s not working, he can drink with his buddies. Gervaise’s savings disappear. Goujet comes to the rescue, lending Gervaise the money to open her shop, but this may be a mixed blessing.

For some time, hard work again seems to pay off for Gervaise. Unfortunately, no matter how hard she works, she can’t keep her head above water as Coupeau descends into drunkenness and dissipation. And then, Lantier returns.

It is a train wreck from here on out, but the sad thing is, even from the beginning, even rooting for Gervaise to succeed, you always know there isn’t any hope. They are swimming in an ocean of poverty and despair. It’s only a matter of time before Gervaise, too, gives up.

The book is astounding in its meticulous attention to detail and its psychological characterizations. Zola follows a Naturalistic method of writing– and the book is painfully real.

It makes a fascinating comparison with the novel I just finished, Mademoiselle Chanel. Gabrielle Chanel also began her life in poverty in rural France, but experienced a "rags-to-riches" trajectory by dint of driving ambition, hard work, and good fortune. Gervaise went from rags to slightly better rags, then fell to utter destitution. Although she worked hard, she had miserable luck (no rich men), a yielding personality, and her ambitions were modest. She wanted to work quietly, to always have bread to eat, to bring up her children well, to have a reasonable place to sleep, not to be beaten, and to die in her bed. These things don’t seem like too much to ask. When you follow Gervaise each step of the way, watching each of them slip from her grasp, it is ghastly. Yet it’s difficult to see how her life could have turned out differently, given how trapped she was by circumstances. It’s terrible when "phew!–they’re finally out of their misery"– is the end of the story.

Zola’s books will put you through the wringer, but they are unforgettable classics. Some are true masterpieces. (I will vouch for L’Assommoir and Germinal.)

This is my classic in translation for the back to the classics challenge. It’s also book number 9 for the historical fiction challenge.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Mademoiselle Chanel by C. W. Gortner

Who knew Coco Chanel was such a fascinating woman? A lot of people, apparently, and, fortunately, C.W. Gortner is one of them. An acclaimed historical novelist, Gortner is known for books that are set in the medieval or Tudor periods. (I have one of his earlier books waiting on my shelf.) Given my usual preference for those time periods, it’s perhaps a little strange that instead of starting with one of those, I’ve jumped to his new release: Mademoiselle Chanel. Since I’ve been meaning to delve into Gortner’s work, my reading habits have been including more twentieth century fiction, and because this book has been generating a lot of buzz, I grabbed a copy from my local library.

Wow!

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel begins her life in miserably disadvantaged circumstances. Coming from a poverty-stricken, rural French home, Gabrielle, along with her siblings, is abandoned by a shiftless father after her mother dies. Her aunts send her and her sisters to be brought up at a convent. It is there that her talent for sewing is nurtured and her dream of one day owning a shop is born.

Owning a shop takes time, hard work, and most importantly, capital investment. Gabrielle has the drive and is not afraid of work. With her youth, verve, and good looks, she has a remarkable penchant for attracting men with money, LOTS of money. But she never intends to be a "kept" woman. She wants to earn her own way by creating something, building something of her own. Fortunately, she is able to attract a man who believes in her enough to stake her start in a business of her own and she takes it from there. The iconic Coco Chanel is born, more than a designer but a personality and businesswoman of immense influence.

The novel, told in Chanel’s first person viewpoint, paints a nuanced portrait of a complex woman. She lived in Paris during both World Wars. (That alone caught my interest. Of course, that’s what French people did, but what might such a life be like?) She never married but had a series of lovers (French, British, and German.) She faced a number of business and economic challenges, tackling them all with a ruthless determination to succeed and stay relevant in an ever-changing world. Gortner puts the reader right into the midst of all that talent, striving, yearning, loneliness, and success. Although the novel is clearly a labor of love, the author does not sugarcoat Coco’s flaws. With this balanced portrayal, her accomplishments shine forth all the more.