Friday, October 11, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

My Notorious Life by Kate Manning has been on my TBR list since 2013. Finally, I decided to move it to the top of my pile.

This novel, written as a memoir of a mid-19th century midwife (who had the audacity to also provide contraceptives and abortions), has a strong voice and poignant message that is all-too relevant today.

Axie Muldoon, otherwise known as Ann Jones, otherwise known as Madame DeBeausacq, is born into poverty in the tenement houses of New York City. After her father’s death, while her mother is hospitalized for a work-related injury, Axie and her two younger siblings are sent west on an orphan train. Her siblings are snatched up, but the rebellious Axie returns home to find her mother. Unfortunately, after a brief reunion, her mother dies of a postpartum hemorrhage, extracting a deathbed promise from Axie to find her siblings.

In the midst of these tragedies, Axie experienced two bits of good fortune. First, on the orphan train she met a young man named Charlie who will find his way back into her life later. And second, Axie took her dying mother to the home of the Evans’, a doctor and midwife, who gave Axie a place as a servant and later trained her to be a midwife.

After the death of Mrs. Evans, necessity and compassion lead Axie/Ann to begin selling pills and powders to desperate women. Eventually, she branches out into delivering babies, carrying for women pre- and postpartum, dispensing information about health and sex, and providing abortions. In doing so, she falls afoul of obscenity laws, championed by Anthony Comstock, which made the distribution of any form of fertility control illegal.

The novel is graphic in its language and descriptions, true to the subject matter. The horrific lives of women, poor or rich, unmarried or married, desperate to conceive or to end unwanted pregnancies, is heart-wrenching. Ann is presented as a caring woman, skilled at her profession, conflicted about the “complexities” of what she is doing, insecure, and remarkably brave. She is also, admittedly, greedy. She loves her newfound wealth. She (and her husband) have known grinding poverty and are determined not to fall into that trap again. Her conspicuous consumption aggravates her problems as the “old money” folks determine to bring her down–even though many are not above using her services when needed.

When Comstock discovers a way to arrest Axie, things spiral out of control. 

Axie is a vibrant, compelling, sympathetic character, and she narrates the novel at a brisk pace. This is historical fiction at its finest.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer

Browsing in our newly renovated public library and in the mood for something quick and light-hearted, I came upon Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer. I hadn’t read this Regency Romance of hers yet, so I picked it up.

Lady Serena Carlow, a beautiful headstrong heiress of twenty-five, is mourning the recent loss of her father. Serena’s mother died a dozen years earlier. Her step-mother, Fanny, is a shy, retiring girl of twenty-ish, who failed to produce the required son. Serena and Fanny get along shockingly well considering they are absolute opposites. They retire together to the dower house when Serena’s cousin inherits the earldom. But they are both bored and take off for the quieter and less restrictive Bath.

Serena cannot receive her full inheritance until she weds and it must be with the approval of her guardian. The man her father chose for this task is the Marquis of Rotherham. Serena and Rotherham were engaged years before until Serena jilted him. Both believe her father arranged this in hopes of seeing them reunited – a ploy that infuriates them both.

In Bath, Serena comes across a man that she once adored, a man who worships her still, and they quickly reconnect. He is a good person but completely wrong for her. Obviously, the only true match for her is Rotherham. However, he becomes engaged to a weak-willed silly girl just out of the schoolroom, whose horrible mother is desperate to catch her daughter a marquis.

The mismatches abound. Heyer’s signature quick plotting and witty repartee move the story along as the couples sort themselves out. The pace lags a bit in the middle as the characters go through contortions in order to do the honorable thing even though they all know they have committed themselves to paths that will make them miserable. Sanity and love prevail in a whirlwind of Romance activity, complete with an elopement, a chase to Gretna Green, and a showdown.

While this isn’t one of my favorite Heyer Romances, it is nevertheless a delightful read.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Inland by Tea Obreht

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

Tea Obreht is a brilliant writer, as proved by her bestselling The Tiger’s Wife (which I have to admit I liked but did not love.)

Her newest book, Inland, is more up my alley and I did love it. Set in Arizona Territory in 1893, the book follows the fates of two very different people: Lurie, an orphaned ex-outlaw turned camel driver, and Nora, a frontier farmer trying to hold the family together while her husband searches for water during a drought. It’s clear the two disparate stories will eventually intersect, and part of the beauty of the story is piecing together all the individual parts until it becomes a narrative whole.

Lurie is a lonely figure, wandering the west, trying to outrun his past. He settles into whatever occupation he can find, finally finding peace with a group of cameleers who take him in. When his past catches up with him, he sets off again, this time taking along his camel, who has become his most faithful companion. Lurie’s other constant companions are ghosts. (And there are many of them haunting the barren West.) He can feel their wants and if he gets too close to them, he absorbs the yearning – not a healthy gift to have.

Nora is raising three boys on a hardscrabble farm; two are grown and one is still quite young. She’s devoted to them, yet detached. She’s walled herself off, having lost her firstborn, a daughter, many years before. The stated cause of death was sun-poisoning (sun-drowning) but, of course, the story behind that is complicated. Nora talks to her daughter’s ghost, who has not remained a baby but rather grown up as though a normal child, but one with a vaster perspective than that of a living child.

All the disasters that can beset a struggling frontier farming community have hit this one. The precipitating event is a severe drought that leaves Nora and her family desperate for water. Her husband, Emmett, who runs the local newspaper, has set off to find the delayed water delivery man. Her two eldest sons disappear, ostensibly gone looking for him. Alone with her youngest boy, her mother-in-law (incapacitated by a stroke), and her husband’s cousin, a somewhat batty young woman who undermines Nora’s practicality with an insistence that she can communicate with the dead. (Lots of that going on.)

It’s a gorgeous story, solemn without being depressing. Nora’s resilience in the face of almost unrelenting hardship manages to provide hope to a narrative that would otherwise be painfully bleak. The mix of dreamy otherworldliness with the stark realities of frontier life make for a complex, absorbing novel.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is a modern-day epistolary novel, constructed by narrator Bee Branch, a wise, sweet 15-year-old girl, who pieces together the story of her mother’s disappearance using emails, faxes, doctor’s notes, receipts, and even a transcript of a TED talk.

Bee’s mother, Bernadette Fox, is/was a brilliant architect, winner of a MacArthur genius grant, known in architectural circles for two quirky “locally sourced” houses, but best known for disappearing. Following the demolition of her second house, she abandoned her career, escaped to suburban Seattle with her Microsoft-bound husband, and focused on raising her daughter. Averse to people in general and Seattle-ites in particular, she essentially drops out of sight.

Her reclusiveness incites the ire of the other parents at Bee’s exclusive (but second-tier) private school. Bernadette would rather avoid conflict but stirs it up effortlessly–leading to the amusing if farcical train of events that make up the narrative.

The story takes off when Bee earns straight A’s and reminds her parents that her promised reward is a trip to Antarctica. Bernadette hates the thought of traveling, especially by boat, but cannot disappoint Bee. She tries to pull herself together for the trip, relying on an outsourced email personal assistant. Things spiral out of control. Drastically. Then Bernadette disappears again.

Bee is unwilling to accept that her mother would abandon her. And she adamantly refuses to believe her mother is dead. So she reconstructs the last few weeks of her mother’s life, then delves into her mother’s past.

The result is a wacky picture of a creative genius, stifled by circumstance, whose love for her family helps her find a way forward.

The book is fast-paced and entertaining.  It suffers bit by comparison with Daisy Jones and the Six, which I had just finished reading, which also had a pieced together narrative but was more realistic and grittier. Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a fun book and I imagine it makes for a delightful movie, but it isn’t something that will stick with me.

Monday, September 16, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

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

Painful and powerful, The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell is engrossing historical fiction. Set in Calumet, Michigan, during the copper mine strikes of 1913, the novel follows the labor leader Big Annie Clements, a twenty-five-year-old woman whose father died in the copper mines and who married a miner because she knew nothing else. Annie has grown tired of watching the men in her community sicken and die in the mines while their wives struggle to raise families on too little pay and less security. When men are injured or killed on the job, their families are out on the street unless they find a family member or friend to take them in.

The mines are incredibly dangerous, especially given the long hours the men work and the introduction of the single-operator drill dubbed “the widow-maker.”

The union is beginning to make inroads, but acting too slowly for Annie. After one particularly gruesome death, Annie leads the women in an effort to convince the men to strike. The outside union organizers feel she jumped the gun. There’s not enough money in the strike fund and the percentage of union members among the miners is not high enough to guarantee support. Yet Annie forges ahead, gaining support, gaining newspaper coverage, and impressing the nation with her fierce determination.

The other side of the coin is James MacNaughton, the local manager of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. Presented as so coldly despicable he seems inhuman, he is representative of a type that is all too real. Greedy, self-important, convinced of his own superiority and entitlement, he is utterly devoid of compassion for the men and women suffering in the mining community. MacNaughton knows his company has the resources to wait out the strike. When it lasts long enough to truly inconvenience him, he brings in strike-breakers who unleash violence with tragic consequences.

The book is inspiring and yet, devastating. It’s impossible not to be caught up in Annie’s struggle and to root for her success. At the same time, I kept thinking “this is not going to end well.”

This type of realistic historical fiction is hard to read because it highlights how terribly people treat one another and reinforces how consistently the bad guys still win. However, it also shines a light on the heroes and heroines who fight for justice. It isn’t hard to see which side of the fight is the right one.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I absolutely loved Taylor Jenkins Reid’s earlier book, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, so I was excited to read her new release, Daisy Jones & the Six.

This novel uses an unconventional narrative style – an anonymous interviewer sets out to learn the reason behind the breakup of a phenomenally successful 1970s rock band at the height of their popularity. (The novel is loosely based on Fleetwood Mac.)

The story is told more or less chronologically but in snippets excerpted from interviews with band members, spouses, producers, friends, etc.  Because the events happened long ago, memories are sometimes foggy, and different perspectives shade things differently. The truth lies somewhere in between so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, giving a more complete picture of what actually happened. The various personalities come across better as a result of the way they present their stories than they would if a single narrator described them all.

As in the previous book, the author does an incredible job of creating complex, fully-rounded characters and an absorbing storyline. Readers can feel the elation, the pain, and the love that these characters are feeling as the band makes it big and then cracks apart.

The format lends itself to fast reading, so it is doubly impressive that so much emotion can be conveyed in so short a time. And rather than feeling disjointed, it coalesces as a whole.

Even if the thought of a novel based on a seventies rock band doesn’t grab you (I wouldn’t have picked up the book if I wasn’t already enamored of the author), give this one a try.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald

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

A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald is meaty, in-depth historical fiction, recounting the life of a lesser known historical figure from the Middle Ages (my favorite time period). This rather somber tale is the type of historical fiction I love. The action is subdued, but the psychological picture of the man it portrays is vivid and compelling.

Canon Michael Scot was one of the most learned men in the court of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Scot was born in the wilds of Scotland (so he was always an outsider in the south) but he was educated in Paris, the foremost Christian intellectual center of the day. The depth and breadth of his learning was so impressive that he was chosen to be one of the young King Frederick’s tutors. Their relationship flourished over the years, fortunately for Scot, as the King/Emperor’s patronage not only allowed him to pursue studies in far-flung locations but also lent him protection when the subjects he chose to study offended the Church.

Scot was fascinated by philosophy, in particular Aristotle (unfortunately pagan) and the commentaries on Aristotle by Averroes (unfortunately Muslim). He lived for a time in parts of Spain under Islamic rule so that he could translate the Islamic studies into Latin. He studied not only philosophy, but mathematics, natural history, medicine and astrology. Although I usually find depictions of the occult distracting, the otherworldliness of Scot’s astrological predictions and their frightening accuracy fit in so well with the storyline that it was all believable.

Because of Scot’s knowledge of medicine and his skill in healing, the emperor chose him for his chief physician. Scot’s own medical and mental torments made him an even more sympathetic and interesting character.

Although he was a monk himself, his unorthodox interests and his close work with Muslims and Jews earned him the enmity of his fellow churchmen. His friendship with Frederick also made him a target for ambitious courtiers. His life was one long struggle to learn and to disseminate what he had learned, despite the opposition. The details of his studies seemed well-researched and were presented in enough detail to convince without becoming burdensome to read.

A Matter of Interpretation takes us into Canon Scot’s world with all its intrigues, prejudices, and opportunities. The author does a superb job of bringing Michael Scot to life and pulling the reader into the story. I’ll be looking for more by this author!