Sunday, February 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist by Gary Scharnhorst

Several months ago, I read Matthew Goodman’s book Eighty Days about Nelly Bly’s race around the world in 1889. I was intrigued by this celebrity journalist and even more intrigued by her rival, Elizabeth Bisland. However, these two were relative newcomers to the field. Kate Field (1838-1896) was a famous woman of letters/journalist who predated them by many years.

Although famous in her time, Kate Field has slipped into obscurity. I chanced upon a biography written by Gary Scharnhorst, Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist, and learned a great deal about this extraordinary woman.

Born in 1838 to parents who were celebrated actors of the time, Kate had an unconventional upbringing. Her father not only acted, but he also wrote for a number of newspapers, showing Kate that this was a viable way to earn a living. She was introduced early on to influential people and perfected the art of networking.

At age 16, after the death of her father, Kate went to Italy to study voice. Bronchitis put an end to her studies, but she began writing letters for publication in newspapers back in the states. She became fascinated by Italian politics and, for a while, reported on the goings-on in that country, until her editors, put off by her increasingly biased articles, declined to print any more. She continued writing less controversially on her travels. When she returned to the U.S., she went on the lecture circuit, a more lucrative career than reporting. She was an instant hit.

Having mastered self-promotion, she applied her skills to promoting products. She became a spokesperson in Britain for the newfangled telephones, even getting the queen to listen in and purchase a couple. By all accounts, her advertising campaign was a great success.

In addition to advertising products, Kate used her writing and lecturing platforms for many political causes. She made enemies in the feminist community because she was anti-women’s suffrage. (She was also anti-universal suffrage, preferring property requirements.) She went on the attack against Mormonism. She was also anti-Temperance. Or, as she preferred to say, she was pro-True-Temperance, which was NOT abstinence. She became a spokesperson for the California wine industry, insisting people were better off drinking good wine in moderation.

Despite constant work, Kate was always in need of money. She decided to turn her hand to acting, believing it would be more remunerative than writing. Acting was in her blood. Nevertheless, her first attempts on the American stage were panned. Undaunted, she returned to Europe and tried again, using a stage name. There she was more favorably received.

Kate Field was a whirlwind. She had her admirers and detractors. (Mark Twain couldn’t stand her, but they competed for some of the same audience and dollars.) She was intelligent and a biting critic. She was kind to her friends, but quick to turn on them when they disagreed with or criticized her. (She handed out criticism freely but was very thin-skinned.)

The biography is balanced, highlighting her versatility and perseverance, but not sugar-coating her faults. She left behind a large body of work and, whether admired or not, she deserves to be remembered more than she has been.

Friday, February 8, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Abigail. A Novel by Jess Heileman

After the last two books I read, I needed some light escapist fiction. I chose Abigail. A Novel by Jess Heileman, which was getting good reviews on goodreads.

This clean Regency Romance is told from the perspective of Abigail Blakeslee, a young woman who missed her debut because of the death of her mother. Abigail is not a particularly social person, partly because of a secret in her past that needs to stay secret. However, her father and younger brother are determined that she find happiness, which means pushing her out into the world.

For a start, Abigail is persuaded to accept an invitation issued by her aunt to join her cousins for the summer at the country house of the Stantons, a wealthy but untitled family. Abigail’s cousin Helena is as good as betrothed to the heir, Edwin Stanton. Abigail is not overly fond of Helena but she does like the younger cousin, Hannah. This small gathering is a good opportunity to polish her social skills in anticipation of the next Season.

From the moment she arrives, Abigail is put off by Edwin, who is harsh, serious, and unfriendly. Helena fawns over him, excusing his ill manners. Edwin is attentive to Helena but not enthusiastic. He soon begins paying more attention to Abigail, though much of the attention seems critical, at least as Abigail interprets it.

There are other houseguests as well, including the handsome, charming Lord Ramsey. (Everyone but Abigail can see his charm is false.) But he makes such a pleasant foil to Edwin that Abigail allows him to flatter her and finds herself flirting in return. Yet, as the days wear on, she finds there is more to Edwin than was first apparent. Moreover, Edwin’s sister, Diana, works tirelessly to throw the two of them together, much to the irritation of Helena and Abigail’s aunt. Helena and her mother grow nastier and more threatening as they become concerned Abigail is drawing Edwin away.

Abigail falls for Edwin, but tries to avoid him, since she has no intention of stealing her cousin’s betrothed. It’s clear to the reader that Helena and Edwin are a terrible match and that Edwin is much more impressed with Abigail. But Abigail is convinced Edwin loves Helena. (Helena is pretty, but her personality is so grating it’s hard to see why Abigail is fooled.) Even when she begins to believe Edwin may want her instead, Abigail refuses to be the cause of Helena’s broken heart. Finally, she discovers Helena does not love Edwin. But what does Edwin want?

It’s a sweet story even if Abigail is a bit slow to pick up on what’s going on. Her own secret is eventually revealed. It’s rather a contrived bit of coincidence, but ties up the loose ends and allows for a satisfying happy-ever-after. This is a quick, light read, just the antidote I was looking for.

Monday, February 4, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Overstory by Richard Powers

A friend lent me The Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s a remarkable book, but since it left me feeling depressed, angry, guilty, and hopeless, I hesitate to recommend it. Reading it on the heels of The Financier by Theodore Dreiser was doubly painful. Yet the book is powerful and I’m grateful my friend brought it to my attention.

The author is undeniably talented. The writing is evocative and the structure brilliant. I’m impressed by the breadth and depth of his knowledge of trees and of human experience. The amount of research that had to have gone into this is daunting to imagine. It’s a book with a strong message presented in such a poetic way it doesn’t come across as preachy. But that message is damning. If there is a hint of redemption for mankind in the end, I think I missed it.

The book begins with a section titled "Roots." Powers introduces the reader to several main characters, sometimes beginning with their ancestors so we truly get to know how they were formed into what they are. Some are individuals and others we meet as part of a couple. As I waded through the first part of the book, I got a bit exasperated because even beautiful writing plods when it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Where was the plot?

The plot shows up in the second part, titled "Trunk." Incredibly, the varied people come together and forge a purpose. (And the book grows into a novel instead of what seemed to be a collection of unrelated short stories.)

Trees are being destroyed. Old growth forests are being mowed down at a shocking speed. These trees are irreplaceable. By now, we have been immersed enough in each character to understand how different trees have played a formative role in each of their lives. Maybe we’ve even paused to remember significant trees in our own lives. The fact that trees communicate, that trees have agency, is acceptable fact and not fantasy. We pull for the trees as hard as the newly-minted radical tree-huggers do. We feel the urgency of the plotline. Saving the trees is essential to saving us all.

The novel is not as simplistic as that. It has too many layers to try presenting them all. I won’t go into spoilers, except to say there is a painful inevitability to the story’s progression, through sections titled "Crown" and "Seeds."

At roughly 500 pages, the novel is long but not frighteningly so. Yet it is so dense with meaning that it reads as a much longer book. Nevertheless, it was worth the time invested. It’ll stick with me a long while.