Wednesday, March 24, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Visitor's Guide to Victorian England by Michelle Higgs

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

Having read A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England by Sue Wilkes, I was anxious to follow up with A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England by Michelle Higgs. This uses the same construction of a guidebook of sorts to England for travelers (time travelers?) curious about daily life during a specific period in the past.

Higgs does not focus as much on the upper crust, but rather on the middle and underclasses. It also is a little less London focused. Otherwise, it similarly relates the typical foods, clothing, modes of travel, types of entertainment, and courting customs of the English. It doesn’t get into politics or economics. And it quotes from primary sources to support its observations.

Although it’s fairly dry reading, it contains a wealth of information—difficult-to-find information such as how much things cost and how long travel takes from one place to another. It’s a wonderful resource for basic information about life in Victorian times.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley

 I chose Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley for my next European Reading Challenge book because of its setting in France. I could have used Band of Sisters, also set in France, but I didn’t think of it because the protagonists were so American. Besides, I wanted to read another book by Jane Smiley.

Many, many years ago, I read A Thousand Acres, a very deserving Pulitzer Prize winner. Then I read The Greenlanders, which I loved even more. But I didn’t find Private Life all that memorable and I didn’t like Moo at all, so I haven’t sought out her other books. But Perestroika in Paris sounded like something very different and I was curious.

Perestroika (called Paras) is a young racehorse, a jumper, from just outside Paris. One day, her groom inadvertently left the door to her stall open and Paras wandered out, just for a look around, and she kept looking until she ended up in Paris.

A thoroughbred alone in the big city should not have gone undetected, especially with the owners searching for her frantically, but Paras has a bit of luck. She is discovered by a stray dog, a German shorthaired pointer named Frida, who has been on her own since her owner disappeared (died). Frida leads Paras to a park where they can both hide away from people who might curb their freedom. A raven (Raoul) swoops down to offer advice. And they meet a duck couple, who also befriend them.

The novel describes the day-to-day life of these animals, mostly how they find food, but also their inner thoughts and vague yearnings. They do make contact with a few humans, shopkeepers who help them out, the caretaker of the park, but mostly they keep their distance. The humans are interesting but decidedly secondary in importance.

At the same time, there is an 8-year-old boy named Etienne who lives in an old mansion with his great grandmother. She is in her late 90's and is blind and deaf. Etienne is her only remaining family. She took care of him at first; now he takes care of her. They make occasional outings to the store, but are otherwise secluded in the house, hiding from do-gooders who would likely separate them.

In the winter, when the cold and lack of forage are beginning to be a problem for Paras, she meets Etienne. He invites her into the house, and a new phase in all their lives begins. 

The story is written in a fable-like manner. Very simply. Very quietly. Conflict is muted. The main looming problem is that Etienne’s great grandmother is coming to the end of her life, and no one knows what will happen next.

It is a sweet, soothing story, pleasantly written, but, unfortunately, a bit dull. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan

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

I love biographical fiction. It was a gateway for me into my favorite genre: historical fiction. So Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan was right up my alley.

The protagonist, Katherine Faulkner Swift, is an extraordinarily talented, classically trained pianist, who lives for her music. She does not come from wealth, but she moves in wealthy circles, primarily as a performer, providing background music for social events. It is at one such event that she meets James Warburg. The twenty-year-old son of a fabulously wealthy banker, “Jimmy” is a sensitive-seeming, handsome, ambitious charmer. Before long, they are an item. Despite his family’s objections, they marry.

Life as a society wife and mother is not satisfying for Katherine. She never wanted to be a mother. She misses performing. And worst of all, Jimmy is unfaithful. Repeatedly. He feeds her the tired excuse that it’s what men do, and none of the women mean anything to him. He even gives her permission to cheat, too.

Still, she isn’t looking to take a lover. Until she hears George Gershwin perform Rhapsody in Blue. She meets him. She falls hard. Her marriage (and children) become an encumbrance. If Jimmy has regrets, and it seems he does, too bad for him. She loves Gershwin with all her heart. 

The book traces the course of Katherine’s life and her trials as Warburg’s wife and Gershwin’s lover. More than just lovers, they work together. They help one another reach greater musical heights. They inspire one another. However, there is always the sense that Katherine is more invested in the relationship than Gershwin. He, too, is unfaithful. Repeatedly and publicly. He claims he can’t commit because she’s married, but it’s pretty clear he’s glad she’s married so he has an excuse.

Katherine wants to compose music, and with George’s encouragement and connections, her career takes off. Along the way, she discovers that her husband has a talent for writing lyrics. They begin a musical collaboration as well. Because it wouldn’t do for James Warburg the banker and financial whiz to be known as a pop-song writer, they go by the pseudonyms Paul James and Kay Swift. (It is as Kay Swift that she is mostly known today.)

The novel is steeped in the music. I found myself jumping to youtube to listen to songs that are mentioned along the way. It is also steeped in early twentieth-century entertainment culture. Famous names are sprinkled throughout, grounding the story in its larger-than-life setting. 

Despite the celebrity, the talent, the success, the extreme wealth, and the elaborate partying, the main characters, people who “have it all,” are fundamentally unhappy. The poignancy is that they recognize their selfishness but wallow in it rather than attempting to change. And, in the deft hand of this author, the novel succeeds because, despite their flaws, these are multi-dimensional, likeable characters. 

You don’t have to be knowledgeable about early twentieth-century music to enjoy this novel. I certainly am not. But I found I was familiar with more of the tunes than I expected and the little bursts of recognition enhanced the reading experience. 

If you enjoy Rhapsody, look for Kaplan’s previous novels, Into the Unbounded Night and By Fire, By Water.

Monday, March 8, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Band of Sisters: A Novel by Lauren Willig

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

Band of Sisters: A Novel
by Lauren Willig (subtitled The Women of Smith College Go to War) is a spellbinding World War I novel that focuses on the relief efforts of a small group of young women, graduates of Smith College, who travel to France to provide direct aid to villagers who have been devastated by the Germans. Women, children, and elderly men are living in cellars or bombed-out villages, trying to eke out an existence close to the front lines. Most have lost family members. Schools are gone. Livelihoods are gone. They are forgotten people in the midst of the ongoing fighting.

These women come in, set up schools, build simple houses, feed people, and provide them with the means to begin to rebuild their lives. They bring hope to the hopeless. There are a couple of doctors, an agriculturist, and a few teachers but, for the most part, they learn on the job what they need to know to get things done.

They settle in Grecourt, a bombed-out village in close proximity to the front. They live in constant low-level danger until the Germans overrun the lines and things become suddenly very dangerous. The women from Smith College then help to evacuate the villagers one step ahead of the advancing enemy.

Although the characters are fictional, they are inspired by real-life people and the episodes depicted have their basis in real historical events.

The beauty in this novel is how the women come together as a cohesive unit despite personality conflicts, differing backgrounds, and differing goals. It’s common in war stories to see men bonding under duress, but camaraderie like this among women is less often showcased. These women are hard-working, brave, and devoted to their cause, but also flawed, at times insecure, and very human. The novel passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Although a romance does develop, it doesn’t dominate the plot. 

Although fairly long at 524 pages, this is a quick-paced, engrossing read. Despite the horrors of war, which are not sugar-coated, it’s an uplifting tale.  Highly recommended. 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy by Anne de Courcy

The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy by Anne De Courcy is an interesting look at the role of obscenely wealthy women (meaning women married to or daughters of obscenely wealthy men) in Gilded Age America. It provides mini-biographies of some of these daughters who used their dowries (or settlements) to catch titled husbands. The goal was not necessarily the title for its own sake, but the social cachet of the connection. For Americans whose fortunes were “new money,” the only sure way to scale the fortress of New York Society (ruled by old money knickerbockers) was to acquire a title. Often the dominant force was not the girl herself, but her mother, who used her daughter’s beauty and her husband’s money to force her way into the New York “in-crowd.”

The book does a wonderful job of fleshing out the intricacies of that New York Society. More interesting than the mini-biographies was the detailed explanation of how that society worked. Women ruled that world and used extravagant spending to advertise the success of the men. It was women’s duty to spend lavishly. The parties thrown, the mansions built, the jewels collected, and the Worth gowns worn are reported upon.

The lives of these women, seen from a historical distance, is shallow and sad. The majority of the daughters who bought titles and moved to England were desperately unhappy in their roles. Many of the marriages ended in estrangement or even divorce. 

The Husband Hunters is well researched, well organized, and easy to read. It shines a light on a very small segment of the population during the late eighteen hundreds that has been romanticized in popular culture. One would imagine that stories of fabulously wealthy young American women marrying earls and dukes would have fairy tale endings, but they do not. And a large part of this book left me rather appalled at all the energy invested and money wasted in the cause of snobbery and social climbing. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo by Stephanie Storey

 I needed a novel for the European Reading Challenge. I also wanted to read something about men for a change, other than historical mystery/thrillers. So I picked Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo by Stephanie Storey.

The novel covers the years 1499 through 1505 and is mainly set in Florence, Italy. Chapters alternate between the viewpoints of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. During this time period, each completes a masterwork. For Leonardo, it is the Mona Lisa. For Michelangelo, it is his David.

The two artists are as different as could be, and the novel plays up their differences and the rivalry between them.

Leonardo is in his fifties and is at the height of his fame. He is charming, well-liked, and is known as a profligate lover and seducer of many of those who commission work from him. However, he’s also a dabbler, often more interested in his scientific and engineering endeavors, particularly his dream of inventing a means for human flight, than he is in his art. As a result, he has left a string of unfinished works in his wake. He’s always looking for that next project rather than completing what he has begun. Moreover, he’s a bit of a jerk. He’s vain and selfish, self-important and condescending.  When he doesn’t get a commission he wants, he sells himself and his ideas for war machines to Florence’s enemies. When he sees a young artist as a potential competitor, he does everything he can to humiliate and thwart him.

Michelangelo is young, uncouth, largely unknown, devout, and passionate only about his art. When he wins the commission to carve a new statue of David from a massive block of damaged marble, the task consumes him. He’ll do whatever is necessary to complete it. He craves the love and respect of his family and has a few close friends, but he is not the gadabout that da Vinci is. He’s able to respect Leonardo’s work even if he hates the man. Michelangelo, un-charming though he may be, comes across as the better man in this novel.

Leonardo is saved, to some extent, by a chance meeting with a merchant’s wife. He is enchanted by her and, after a time, is able to wring a commission from her husband to paint her. She is the model for the Mona Lisa. From her, he learns something about emotional depth that softens his rough edges.

There is a lot going on in Florence besides the workings of these two. The city is threatened by Borgia’s army and by followers of the Medici. In the greater world, popes die and new popes are named. Their policies will affect the people of Florence. The politics of the times influence the city’s patronage of the artists.

The author knows the subject matter well and is able to make the historical events and the rivalry between the two great masters come alive. In addition, she guides the reader step-by-step through the creation of these two masterpieces so that they are almost visible on the page. This is engrossing historical fiction.