Saturday, October 24, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Those Who Stayed Behind. Rural Society in Nineteenth-Century New England by Hal S. Barron

In keeping with my attempt to read diverse nonfiction for the 2015 challenge, I picked a work of nineteenth century social history from rural Vermont, a book first published in 1984: Those Who Stayed Behind. Rural Society in Nineteenth-Century New England by Hal S. Barron.

This is a study of how social, political, and economic forces effected changes on a small Vermont agricultural community, Chelsea. It reflects similar changes throughout rural New England. As Barron states in his preface:

The majority of people in nineteenth-century America lived in rural communities, but most of the social history of nineteenth century American is not about them. This book is. Instead of following the long-standing emphasis on the frontier, however, I have written about those who stayed behind in settled rural areas.

I admit, when I think of farmers in that time period, I tend to think of pioneers, westward expansion, the bold and adventurous people who struck out to settle new lands. I have a Little House on the Prairie view. I’m guilty of forgetting about those who stayed behind.

Barron challenges the more conventional view that everything interesting was going on along the frontier, and that older rural communities suffered nothing but decline as the population decreased, the farmland grew exhausted, and economic opportunity dried up. Instead, he paints a picture of stabilization and homogenization. The people bemoaning the downfall of rural New England communities were not the people living there, but outsiders looking in. Rather than looking to "get rich quick" or even not so quick, the settled rural population was looking for contentment. And the people who stayed were the people who had, for the most part, found it.

This is a short book at 135 pages plus notes. It’s academic and a bit dry, but nevertheless easy to read. He makes a good argument. Although I went into the book hoping for more day-to-day details of rural life, I ended up very pleased with this bigger picture synthesis. If you’re curious about life in old New England towns, this is an interesting read.

Friday, October 23, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Death Comes to Kurland Hall by Catherine Lloyd

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

I have been overly eager for the release of the third book in Catherine Lloyd’s Kurland St.Mary Mystery series. I loved books one and two: Death Comes to the Village and Death Comes to London. Book three, Death Comes to Kurland Hall is due out in November. If you like cozy historical mysteries, I recommend you dash out and get the first two books.

The detecting couple in these novels comprises 1) a "managing" female, Miss Lucy Harrington, daughter of Kurland’s rector who has raised her siblings since the death of their mother. She’s also had her hands full with her self-centered father. And 2) the lord of their little village, Major Kurland, a war hero who was badly injured fighting Napoleon. He’s still rather grumpy about the whole thing and hates being physically limited by a bad leg and a somewhat crippling fear of horses. They’ve solved two murder mysteries in the past and grown very fond of one another in the process. But each is wary of letting the other know just how fond.

As this novel begins, a wedding is in the works. Lucy’s dearest friend is marrying a close friend of Major Kurland, and the wedding is to take place in their village. Relatives and friends are invited to stay at Kurland Hall and at the rectory. Included in the mix is Kurland’s ex-betrothed, Miss Chingford, and her sister and mother. The mother, Mrs. Chingford, is a malicious gossip and busybody, who immediately sets everyone’s teeth on edge. Also present is Mrs. Fairfax, the widowed stepmother of Thomas Fairfax, Kurland’s exceedingly efficient new land agent.

Immediately following the wedding, the irritating Mrs. Chingford is found dead at the bottom of a staircase. Is it another murder or an unfortunate accident?

Much as Kurland and Lucy would like to dismiss it as accidental, (especially as no one seems too broken up over her death), there are too many inconsistencies to let it go. And so, they are off again in detective mode.

The plotting of the mystery is solid, with clues ferreted out and false leads to keep the tension high. It isn’t too hard to guess who the villain will be, but having the detectives discover all the connections takes time, and it’s charming to go along for the ride. The romance proceeds in fits and starts. In this third installment, the fighting and misunderstandings between the two was getting a bit wearisome. It was much more entertaining in the first two books. Now it seemed dragged out for the sake of dragging it out–particularly on Lucy’s part. She seemed to willfully fail to understand Kurland’s feelings and was almost petulant in baiting him. But since their slowly developing relationship is so integral to the storyline, it does make sense that they have to carry on as they did earlier, at least through the bulk of the book. And they do make progress!

The series remains compelling. Lucy’s no-nonsense approach to solving cases and her tenacity make her an appealing protagonist. I will certainly be reading the next in the series to see how their partnership plays out.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Twain's End by Lynn Cullen

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

After thoroughly enjoying Lynn Cullen’s previous book, Mrs. Poe, I was eager to get my hands on her latest novel, Twain’s End. This rather intense book is the story of the doomed relationship between Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain and his long-time secretary, personal servant, and, well, lapdog, Isabel Lyons.

Miss Lyons is a well bred, highly educated daughter of a society woman and a university professor. Her prospects should have been bright, but her father died bankrupt, leaving Isabel and her mother destitute, sewing pincushions and selling them to friends to get by. Fortunately (or not) Isabel is hired as a nanny and, through connections, meets Samuel Clemens. Later, she is dismissed from that job and hired as a personal secretary to Livy Clemens, the invalid wife of the famous author. It isn’t Livy who needs a secretary, but rather the entire family needs someone to take care of them. The competent, intelligent Isabel takes on the task, mainly because she, like everyone else in the U.S., is an ardent admirer of the humorist.

For seven years, Isabel devotes herself, heart and soul, to the welfare of the Clemens family, though in fact, she is devoted only to Samuel. She pities and resents the wife she never sees and puts up with the daughters, Clara and Jean. The daughters are intermittently ignored or verbally abused by their self-absorbed father. Isabel attempts to befriend them, partially out of true concern but also because she has to maintain her place in the household. The attraction between Isabel and Samuel is strong, and she convinces herself that she holds a special place in his heart, ignoring evidence that he has felt similar extramarital attractions in the past. He’s a master manipulator, playing on her pity by occasionally letting down his guard and showing her how vulnerable he is, and how much he despises the need to continue to play the role of Mark Twain, America’s Sweetheart.

The novel very realistically portrays the narcissistic artist and a woman caught in his web. Isabel is pretty and intelligent, but has few resources outside her ability to please her employer, who feeds on constant female admiration. He can be as cruel and foul-tempered with her as his personality dictates, and Isabel forgives him because she understands him as no one else can.

This is a fascinating portrayal of "Mark Twain" and an all-too-credible journey through the late stage of Twain’s life and career, supported by the devoted secretary he very publicly repudiates before his death. To me, the main characters are not likeable, but for some reason that made the story even more powerful.

Monday, October 19, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati

I have a new author to add to my list of favorites: Sara Donati. I haven’t read any of her previous books, but I’ve become interested in the time period of her latest: The Gilded Hour. This is the type of historical novel I can lose myself in for hours at a time.

Primarily a family saga, there is something here for everyone: romance, social commentary, a well-researched historical setting, and a murder mystery for good measure.

The primary protagonist is Dr. Anna Savard, a female surgeon (who, as I understand it, is descended from characters populating Donati’s previous novels) dedicated to women’s health and women’s rights. It’s a frightening time for women of all social strata. Although opportunities are expanding, as evidenced by Anna’s own role, there are also powerful social and economic forces aligned to hold them back. One of the most divisive issues is women’s reproductive rights. Not only abortion was illegal, but also contraceptive use. Women who tried to prevent their pregnancies were subject to imprisonment. Anyone who provided any type of advice or instruction on contraceptive practices to women would also be fined and imprisoned. And the prisons were terrible places. (One gets the sense that male condom use was ignored by the authorities chasing down culprits.) As a surgeon who witnessed the consequences of back alley abortion, and who worked in enough charity hospitals to see the devastating effects of poverty, Anna is very well aware of the dire situation of too many women.

Anna’s cousin, Sophie, a "free woman of color," is another Dr. Savard, an OB/GYN with similar convictions and similar interests, but even more constraints.

These women are fortunate to be well off financially with strong family connections and many friends. One of these friends, Cap Verhoeven, is a scion of New York old money families. He’s deeply in love with Sophie, but he’s dying of tuberculosis, which limits the development of Cap’s character, though we do get a sense of him.

And finally, there is Jack Mezzanotte, an Italian police detective. Prejudice against Italians is rampant, but Jack has worked himself into a respected position on the force.

As the book opens, Jack and Anna cross paths while helping a group of Italian orphans who are being shepherded into the care of a Catholic charitable organization. A spark is lit. And when they meet up again, in unlikely circumstances, both are smitten. The relationship builds slowly as they are pulled in to one another’s company by a series of interconnected events, and discover just how much they have in common and how well they complement one another.

This is a long book with numerous interwoven stories and a variety of characters who come to life under Donati’s skilled storytelling. The pace is steady despite the breadth of the tale, and I found the book difficult to put down. It’s hard not to fall in love with these extraordinary people. When the book ended, I was disappointed to leave their world. I was also a bit surprised by how many loose ends were left untied. However, this is supposedly a first book in a series, so I’ll be looking forward to seeing how it all plays out, and how minor characters in this book may blossom later on. In the meantime, I’ll have to search out Anna and Sophie’s forebears!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

One of my goals in the Nonfiction Challenge is variety. I didn’t want to read all medieval history or biography, though that’s where my nonfiction reading is generally concentrated. I think I’ve done a fairly good job of keeping my challenge choices diverse. (So much so that I’ve hardly read anything medieval this year!) I discovered my current read, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on another blog that I follow.

This compact book is an essay that is adapted from a TED talk so the style is very accessible. She makes her points (to be called a feminist is not an insult!) and sprinkles the book with anecdotes that will have people nodding along. The problems she discusses are not new, but her book is thought-provoking because the discussion is so reasonable and well laid out. It was not particularly startling, and as a call-to-action, it was not so much inspiring as supportive. But it’s a great summarization of the issues and well worth the read.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

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

I’ve long thought King David would make a marvelous protagonist for a historical novel. What a life! And when I heard that Geraldine Brooks had taken on the challenge, I couldn’t wait to read The Secret Chord. It’s newly released, and it is superb.

David’s life story is recounted by the prophet, Natan. Younger than David by several years, Natan came into David’s service while still a boy. He had his first vision when his father was killed by David and his band of rebels because he refused them provisions. Though it was odd under the circumstances to join the rebels, Natan saw no option. He was drawn to the young leader who would one day be king.

Natan is in a unique position. Rarely far from David’s side, he is able to describe in detail the various life stages of the man. And when David assigns him the task of chronicling his tale, Natan is able to visit with and interview important figures from his earlier days. As Natan is a prophet and David’s conscience, we are able to get an in depth look at the psychology of the king.

The story is fascinating. The rise from shepherd boy to King Saul’s (Shaul’s) favorite to shunned, hunted rebel, to king of Israel– and then that king’s downfall, is exciting and poignant. Brooks (through Natan’s eyes) does not sugarcoat the violent, brutal nature of David’s rise to prominence. He did what was necessary to forge a united kingdom. And he took what he wanted along the way, including many beautiful wives and concubines. His treatment of women is appalling in modern eyes, and it doesn’t help much to say: well, those were just the times. But Natan’s recognition of the injustices softens the impact. Just because David got away with it, doesn’t make it right. And, of course, David doesn’t get away with it. This very flawed man suffers very real consequences.

David is a biblical king, and the story does not shy away from his devotion or Natan’s. Though God’s presence is only distantly felt, there is no doubt He is present. The plot plays out according to a greater plan, and when David sins, his retribution is terrible. There is nothing he can do to atone.

Geraldine Brooks has received acclaim for her previous novels and her writing is gorgeous in this one as well. The Secret Chord is highly recommended.

Monday, October 5, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Sir Nigel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Hurray! I’ve completed another book for the Back-to-the-Classics challenge. This time, it was the Forgotten Classic, defined as: a lesser known work by a famous author or a classic that no one reads anymore. I think my choice, Sir Nigel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, fits the bill either way.

Doyle is, of course, the author of the Sherlock Holmes detective stories. However, he had a lot of other literary credits to his name, including seven historical novels (which he and many critics consider to be his best work.)

Sir Nigel, loosely based on the English knight Nigel Loring, is set during the early years of the Hundred Years War (appx 1350.) It follows the career of the gallant Squire Nigel Loring, an impoverished gentleman whose family lands have nearly all been stolen away by a neighboring abbey. Nigel lives with his aged mother, a formidable woman who has brought him up with the old ideals of chivalry. After a series of adventures, proving what a capable and romantic figure he is, he’s plucked up by one of King Edward’s best knights to be his squire. Nigel is to follow him off to war against the French.

After saying his farewells to a neighbor’s daughter, a serious, loyal damsel who loves him well, he pledges to return home to marry her. She doesn’t want to tie him down or hold him back, but he turns that to advantage by promising to do three honorable deeds proving his worth, entirely for her.

There are more adventures all along the way, and Nigel rises in the king’s favor as he completes more and more bold deeds. He is always chivalrous and true to his nature, sometimes impetuous to the initial dismay of knights around him, but he always prevails.

The novel is written as an old-fashioned romantic adventure, sounding in tone like medieval knights-of-yore stories. It is episodic, one thing after another, with the overarching goal to be to complete the three deeds, above and beyond the call of duty, to prove his honor and win his love. The story is battle-heavy and occasionally tension-filled, but there is never really doubt that he’ll succeed. Even when the action is not particularly realistic, it’s entertaining.

Several years ago, I was looking for medieval-type non-fantasy historical fiction for my son, who loved that kind of thing. This would have been a great one for him then. I fear he may be a bit too cynical for it now. But I recommend it for its innocent look at the notion of chivalry.