Tuesday, January 25, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

Time to read something frivolous and light-hearted, so I picked a Georgette Heyer Romance that’s been sitting on my shelf for a while: The Nonesuch.

“Nonesuch” is one of those weird Regency epithets. It apparently refers to a gentleman without equal, particularly in the athletic or sporting realm, which in those days encompassed riding horses, skillful driving of carriages, and boxing. (Feel free to correct me or add to this understanding.) 

In this case, the Nonesuch is Sir Waldo, a handsome, charming, unflappable thirty-five-year-old gentleman who does everything well. He has just inherited a ramshackle house out in the country, so he leaves London to check it out. Waldo is not only wealthy but also philanthropic, and thinks this house may suit as an orphanage to endow.

The arrival of such a paragon sets the town in a frenzy. All the young men want to mimic him. All the young girls hope he comes courting. One girl who anticipates she will be the natural winner of his attentions is the seventeen-year-old Tiffany Wield. She is a wealthy (orphaned) heiress and extremely beautiful. People have been telling her for years how beautiful she is, so she is spoiled, selfish, vain, and manipulative. It’s difficult to imagine a worse person. She’s currently living with an aunt, who continues to spoil her out of fear of her tantrums and a vague hope that the girl will marry her son (a cousin) and bring all that money into her side of the family. The son sees through Tiffany and has no interest, but he’s about the only young man in the town who is not bowled over by her. 

Tiffany would like to add Waldo to her list of admirers, but not to marry, since she expects to marry a peer. 

The woman who must try to reign in Tiffany’s bad behavior, and has some limited success in doing so, is her governess/companion, Ancilla Trent. Ancilla is wellborn but poor. She’s also twenty-eight, and therefore past the age of expecting romance.

Ancilla and Waldo are made for each other. They have hurdles to jump and some misunderstandings to get past, but they are both such sensible, good-humored characters that it isn’t hard for them to find their way to one another. The situations were not as ridiculously hilarious as in Sylvester, but their witty dialogues make their interactions funny and fun. The ending was a bit abrupt, but things had been resolved so it didn’t really need more winding up. If you’re in the mood for a quick, clean, amusing Regency Romance, The Nonesuch delivers.

Friday, January 21, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Violeta by Isabel Allende

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

Isabel Allende is one of those authors I keep meaning to read, but never seem to get around to. So I was very glad to be approved for her new novel, Violeta, from Netgalley. Now I was sure to read one of her books!

Set in South America (Chile?) Violeta is the story of Violeta del Valle as told by herself in a long letter to her beloved grandson. It’s a memoir of sorts, of a very full fictional life.

Violeta was born in 1920, in the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic, to a wealthy, conservative, and very traditional South American family. They were not much affected by the pandemic because of her father’s wealth and influence. However, the next shattering event, the Great Depression, hit them hard. It seems her father was a crook and his wealth was largely an illusion. So Violeta spends her formative years in what her mother and aunts referred to as “exile,” out in the country, in poverty. But here, all the previously “sheltered” del Valle women have more independence and seem much more content.

The novel follows Violeta through her return to the city, her first marriage, her budding businesswoman career, her affair with a dynamic but evil and abusive man (another wealthy, powerful crook), her difficult relationships with her children by this man, and how she finally moves beyond this. She lives out the rest of her life in healthy relationships, finding causes she can believe in. During this time, democracy in her country fails and a right-wing military coup occurs. The country descends into a brutal, violent dictatorship. The people in her life are either complicit with the new regime or are protesting and fighting against it. (The right wing coup is sponsored by the U.S. because it’s the Cold War.) The novel draws to a close in 2020, when Violeta, at the age of one hundred, is dying during another pandemic (though she does not die of covid.)

There is A LOT happening in this book. Many fully-rounded peripheral characters populate Violeta’s life and seem so real that I was swept along in the story. That said, I wasn’t all that emotionally involved. Violeta’s life was interesting, she lived through fascinating times, but there was a disconnect. Maybe it was because her wealth and privilege isolated her (though not friends and family) from the worst of the violence. Or maybe it was the distance created by the format of looking back over a life and recounting it. It’s a compelling story, but I didn’t find it a particularly moving one.

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.