Tuesday, January 18, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Master by Colm Tóibín

I am awed by Colm Tóibín. A short while ago, I read his biographical novel of Thomas Mann, The Magician, and was blown away by the writing. I immediately put one of his earlier works, The Master, a biographical novel of Henry James, on my TBR list. I just finished it.

I haven’t read much of James’s work, only The Turn of the Screw and The Bostonians. I think I read The Portrait of a Lady over thirty years ago but remember next to nothing about it. Now, of course, I’ll have to read it again and more of James.

The Master
drew me in slowly, but the more I read, the more engrossed I became. I fell completely into the world and into the head of a 50-something-year-old Henry James as he settles into sedate middle age in his off-the-beaten-track country home in Rye. He works. He muses. He spends time with old friends, rare new ones, and family members, but not too much time. Then he works and muses some more. He reminisces. Most of his memories are somber ones. Yet he seems more contemplative than sad. He recycles every experience, one way or another, into his writings. He observes life as much or more than he lives it. And I was fascinated to observe it alongside him.

The amazing part of Tóibín’s work is how deft he is at creating a convincing thought process for a turn of the twentieth century writer. He made Henry James seem so real, so immediate, that he (Tóibín) disappeared, just as he did when writing The Magician.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. And I’m thrilled to know I’ve come late to Tóibín’s writing because there are more books out there waiting for me.

Friday, January 14, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Universe of Two by Stephen Kiernan

 My second read of the year is also superb!

Universe of Two by Stephen Kiernan (author of The Baker’s Secret) is a WWII novel that I could not put down, even though I thought I was tired of WWII novels.

Set in Chicago and Los Alamos, this is a dual narrative of a young couple, Charlie Fish and Brenda Dubie, whose lives are upended by the war and then hijacked by the Manhattan Project.

Charlie is probably the nicest guy who ever lived. He’s an exceptionally smart mathematician, but more hands-on than theoretical, which makes him feel insecure when he compares himself to some of his peers. At eighteen years old, he’s prime soldier material. The one thing he dreads more than getting killed is having to kill, so he’s relieved when a relative pulls strings to keep him off the battlefield. He lands a job at the University of Chicago performing complex calculations but is given no hint as to their significance. Or maybe he doesn’t want to know.

It’s in Chicago that he meets Brenda, a sassy young woman working in her parents’ music shop. Brenda’s ultimate goal is to study to become a professional organist. But her father and older brother are both overseas helping with the war effort, so Brenda and her mother have to keep the home fires burning. For Brenda, that includes flirting with and dating young men, particularly soldiers on leave. 

They meet in the music store. Charlie is not Brenda’s type. At least, she doesn’t think so. But they spend time together and it soon becomes clear they’re meant for each other.

Unfortunately, Charlie is chosen to go to Los Alamos to work on a top-secret government project. It only slowly dawns on him what they are building. His job is to design and build the detonator. In many ways, it seems the success or failure of the project all hinges on him. 

Charlie either purposefully drags his feet or he is truly stumped by the enormity of his task. But when Brenda, who hasn’t a clue what’s really going on, tells him to “be a man” and do his part to end the war, he reapplies himself to the task.

Charlie is not the only one who struggles with the morality of what they are doing. There is a whole team of young, brilliant scientists collaborating on the bomb. Many of them are sickened by what they are unleashing on the world but the momentum behind the project is unstoppable, despite moral qualms, petitions, and the resignations of some of the top people on the project.

We know how this unfolds. 

This book is devastating. It begins slowly. Charlie is such a good guy. Brenda is funny and peppy. They are both painfully innocent. As the war chugs on and the death counts rise, they grow up all too quickly–Charlie in particular. You really wish they could be spared what is coming. The main question for Charlie and Brenda will be how to move forward while carrying their tremendous burdens of guilt.

The details of the Manhattan Project are gripping. (An author’s note clues us in to what parts are real and which are fictionalized.) The pace picks up as the war winds down and the Manhattan Project achieves its mission. The novel raises many largely unanswerable questions which makes it a great book club book.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher

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

Historical fiction?  ✔

Story about writers, booksellers, or booklovers?  ✔

Set in Paris? ✔

How could this not be my first must-read book of the year?

Released today, The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher is an extraordinary novel. In a nutshell, it’s the fictional biography of Sylvia Beach, the owner/manager of Shakespeare and Company, the first English-language bookstore in Paris.

What a life she led!

An American partly brought up in Paris, Sylvia returns to the city she loves to join the American expats congregating there in the 1910s. Her first stop is a shop in the Latin Quarter: A. Monnier, bookseller. There she meets Adrienne Monnier, the proprietor, a woman who is to become her inspiration, fiercest supporter, and love of her life.

Sylvia immerses herself in the artistic and literary culture of early twentieth century Paris. Adrienne’s store is a gathering place and Sylvia is rapidly accepted into the world of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Valery Larbaud, Jules Romains—great thinkers and writers of the time. Determined to create something of her own, Sylvia realizes that what Paris needs is an English-language bookstore to help the cross-fertilization of Continental minds and English-speaking ones. And so, she starts Shakespeare and Company. Soon the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald are added to the mix. She even meets and becomes friends with the brilliant, innovative writer she admires most of all: James Joyce.

This novel succeeds so well because it is not a name-dropping tale of historical greats, but a resurrection of that vibrant community. (I’m so envious of that lifestyle, those conversations, that food!) Sylvia’s gift is her ability to befriend these artists, support their work, and become a part of their lives. (Kerri Maher’s gift is the ability to bring this all into my living room, dissolve the walls, and make me feel I’m in Paris.)

In the free-living Parisian society, no one bats an eye at Sylvia’s relationship with Adrienne, a well-established essayist, reviewer, publisher, and hostess, already beloved by all. Yet Sylvia is still dissatisfied. She wants to accomplish something unique, something lasting. She finds her cause when Joyce’s latest work, Ulysses, is in danger of being banned in the U.S. for obscenity on the basis of a few serialized chapters in literary journals. No one will publish the book. Not in the U.S., England, or Ireland. Sylvia decides Shakespeare and Company will be his publisher.

Joyce is a genius. His work is important. No one in her circle disputes that. He can be charming and even occasionally thoughtful. But the man is a parasite. A needy, greedy, self-centered parasite. And Sylvia is a giver. 

The novel is beautifully balanced. As awful as Joyce is, he’s also single-mindedly driven for a purpose. And if we readers, like Adrienne, wish Sylvia would give him the shove, we can also appreciate why she doesn’t.

While the strife with Joyce and Ulysses are central and bound up with the success and struggles of Shakespeare and Company (and Sylvia often feels she and the bookstore are one entity), The Paris Bookseller is more than the story of the conflict between these two. It’s a sweeping story of a time and place, and of a heart-warming community.

My first read of 2022 and I’ve already found this year’s favorite.

Just please don’t say I should now try to tackle Ulysses.

Friday, December 31, 2021


 Just in under the wire -- my 100th post of the year!!!

I'm signing up for a challenge to read 22 books off my TBR pile over the next year. The challenge is hosted by Rose City Reader and the sign-up page can be found here

Hopefully this will help me put a dent in my pile. Thank you to Rose City Reader for hosting!

Links to reviews will be posted below.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Wellington. The Iron Duke by Richard Holmes

I am squeezing in one more book review before the end of the year. One of my Christmas presents this year was the biography, Wellington: The Iron Duke by Richard Holmes. I wanted to balance the biography of Napoleon with one of Wellington. 

This book is only about 300 pages, as opposed to Napoleon: A Life, which was nearly 1000. So it is nowhere near as comprehensive, but as a trade-off is a much quicker read. Despite its brevity, it presented a detailed, balanced discussion of Wellington’s life with a concentration on the military history. It whet my appetite to learn more about the man, but not right away.

If you’re interested in a very good overview, one that gives a good sense of the man and his accomplishments (though less of a sense of the times), this biography is just right.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021


 For 2022, the second reading challenge I'm signing up for is the Netgalley and Edelweiss challenge hosted by Socrates' Book Reviews. See the sign-up link here

I'm going for the Silver level- 25 books, with the hopes of getting through my Netgalley queue.

 Thank you to Socrates Book Reviews for hosting.

My links will be listed below.

1. The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher


 It's that time again! Signing up for reading challenges. 

I'm starting with The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Intrepid Reader. The sign-up link with rules is here

Last year I went for the "Ancient History" level, 25 books, and blew right past it. I squeaked past the next level, "Prehistoric"- 50 books. So this year, I'm going out on a limb and setting 50 as my challenge. 

To wrap-up last year, a link to my 2021 challenge with links to all review is here.

I'll tally my 2022 books with links to reviews below.

Thank you to The Intrepid Reader for Hosting again!

1. The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher

2. Universe of Two by Stephen Kiernan

3. The Master by Colm Toibin