Wednesday, May 31, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Green Hat by Michael Arlen

I love old books. For one thing, if they have to be retrieved from the remote shelving of the local library and the pages are yellowed, you know they were not created by AI. The old-fashioned writing style can be both challenging and charming. In the case of The Green Hat by Michael Arlen, when the author is determined to make a point or elaborate on a theme, he goes off on verbose tangents. But there are gems hidden in the prose, sometimes insightful and sometimes clever and amusing, that make all the verbosity worthwhile. The many references that I don’t get make me all the more pleased when I do recognize something historical or obscure. And the stories draw me in by virtue of their strangeness.

The Green Hat was a popular novel back in 1924. I had never heard of it or of the author until I saw it referenced in The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale. Intrigued, I wanted to read it.

The novel starts slow, primarily because of those verbose tangents. The author is making a point about England – the old aristocratic England that was fading away post WWI. It’s a novel ostensibly about a woman, an idealized woman, but actually the focus is more on the men in her sphere. Her name is Iris Storm, maiden name March. The old aristocrats care about her. They adored her as a child. But they are ashamed of the woman she has become. (She sleeps around.) She has been twice widowed. Her first husband, a favored, honorable young man of their circle, committed suicide on their wedding night. Her fault, she admits.

The narrator is another aristocratic young man, a friend of Gerald March, Iris’ alcoholic twin brother. He first meets Iris when she comes to visit her brother after an absence of ten years. The narrator is smitten with her, but in a detached sort of way. He is almost accidentally present at key points in her tale, but remains on the fringes of her drama. From this vantage point, he tells her story as it was revealed to him in little bits over the next couple of years.

The reader is sucked in as the narrator reveals what he learns, little by little. Always, the reader is aware there is more going on than meets the eye. The men are supercilious and a bit ridiculous as they adhere to their old beliefs and ideas of correct conduct. Iris stands outside of their rules. She goes her own way. And that means they have to shun her, even as they keep tabs on her. But she is as trapped by her own moral code as they are by theirs. And I get the sense that this is all an elaborate metaphor for post-war England.

The big reveal at the end is a nice twist, although it’s hardly the moral shocker to twenty-first century readers that it might have been at the time. If you can find a copy of this novel, give it a try. It’s quite fascinating.

Monday, May 29, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies by Alison Goodman

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

The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies
is the newest release by Alison Goodman. The title may put you in mind of a warm/fuzzy mystery/romance with the cover illustration indicating the Regency Era. All of this is correct, but insufficient to describe this page-turner of an adventure story. It’s lengthy, but a quick read. It’s a book one, so not all loose ends are tied up, but it ends on a relatively satisfying note.

Lady Augusta Colebrook and her sister Julia are the ladies in question, though Julia is usually very well mannered. It’s not quite a society yet, but they are aided, at times by Charlotte, Lady Davenport, and there is room for more help in the future.

Augusta (Gus) and Julia are twins (not identical), unmarried, and 42 years old. So in the eyes of the ton, they are inconsequential and, to some extent, invisible. They have an inheritance and so a degree of independence. Julia was almost married two years earlier but her fiancé died in an accident. Gus is a more determined spinster, but she refuses to consider herself old and useless. The fact that their younger brother, who is now an earl, has always resented Gus and is now cruelly pleased to be head of the family and able to treat her with disdain is not making her life easier. And worst of all, Julia has recently been diagnosed with a canker of the breast, a disease that has taken other female relatives, including their mother.

However, Gus is indomitable. Owing Lady Charlotte a favor, she (and Julia) undertake to retrieve some incriminating letters Charlotte had written to a scoundrel of a lover who is now blackmailing her. The mission turns dangerous but succeeds. Gus is thrilled. And hooked on adventure. The fact that middle-aged, unattached ladies are underestimated gives them an edge. When the chance arises to undertake a rescue mission of a lady being imprisoned in the country by her evil husband, Gus is thrilled. She is even more thrilled when she thwarts a highwayman along the way and discovers he is actually a gentlemen who can be trusted – even if he is a convicted criminal. 

A relationship blossoms between Gus and this highwayman, Lord Evan, despite Julia’s insistence (and Lord Evan’s) that any further contact is too dangerous. However, Gus is unable to refuse to help others in need and she is not above enlisting Lord Evan’s help. She is also determined to prove that he is not guilty of the crime he was convicted of. 

The adventures continue. The danger mounts. And Gus and Lord Evan cannot stay apart. 

This novel blends historical fact into the unlikely but thoroughly enjoyable storyline. Each of the adventures is based on ways that women and girls were abused and held powerless by the laws of the times. Readers will be aghast and indignant and root all the more for the success of the sisters and their accomplices. And this reader will eagerly anticipate the next installment.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: In the Hands of Women by Jane Loeb Rubin

In the Hands of Women by Jane Loeb Rubin is a newly released work of medical historical fiction. Set in 1900, in Baltimore and New York, it follows the story of Hannah Isaacson, a young Jewish female physician. During her training, watching the poor obstetrical care provided by male physicians and appalled by the dangerous abortions being performed by midwives (who were being driven out of business by the rising interest in hospital-based deliveries and who needed new sources of income), Hannah makes it her mission to provide better care for pregnant women.

During her time at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, she not only learns medicine but also how to work around male egos in order to accomplish her goals. (She has to let them take the credit for her ideas and work.) Painfully, she also discovers that too many men are not to be trusted.

Nevertheless, she lands her dream job, an obstetrics residency at Mount Sinai in New York. But her troubles are only beginning. 

This novel delves into the historical problems of placing care of women’s health exclusively in male hands. It demonstrates how broader socioeconomic problems affect health care, particularly for women. And it calls out the dangers of limited access to contraception, especially for the poor. While we may be tempted to be thankful for the progress of the last 100 years, such gratitude may be premature. For anyone paying attention, it looks an awful lot like we are heading backwards rather than forwards. This novel deftly illustrates all that is at risk.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Man's Place by Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux is a French writer who draws on her own experiences in her work, and who won the Nobel Prize in 2022. Her work is readily available in translation, so I dipped my toe in with her memoir-like narrative about her father, A Man’s Place. A short book, it explores her working class father’s efforts to move up in the world and the dignity of his life as it was lived. As his daughter, Annie had more access to education and economic advantage, which took her well into the middle class that her parents aspired to. As the gulf between them widened, and her father aged and then sickened, Annie looked back to reevaluate what he had gone through to create a memoir full of empathy and admiration.

The prose is spare but lovely. 

The style and subject reminded me a little of The Hero of this Book by Elizabeth McCracken, although I found Ernaux’s father to be more stoically heroic.

Monday, May 22, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Four Weddings and a Duke by Michelle McLean

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

Four Weddings and a Duke by Michelle McLean is a fun Regency Romance with a moderate steam level.

Lady Lavinia Wynnburn is a middle child and has always felt overlooked. For this reason, she is uncomfortable in social situations and would rather be tucked away in the corner, reading a book.

Alexander Reddington, Duke of Beaubrooke, has a reputation for being a recluse, due to his obsessive interest in botany and the development of new varieties of plants. Currently, he is competing against his old childhood friend and rival, Nigel, for a large grant from the Royal Academy to develop a particular new medicinal plant. The fact that he is now the duke and must marry is a distracting nuisance. At least he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time looking. His father made arrangements long ago with Lord Wynnburn. The heir to the duchy would wed one of the Wynnburn daughters. It is expected that he will choose the imperious eldest, Harriet, or the vivacious youngest, Kitty. But after catching Lavinia reading a novel at a wedding and hiding behind a plant at a ball, he knows that she is the woman for him.

The two are well-suited. (Even if Lavinia’s closest friend is Alex’s nemesis, Nigel.) Unfortunately, they misunderstand their expectations of one another. Lavinia believes Alex needs someone to serve as a social secretary. Dukes, after all, have obligations to society. And now that she is a duchess, and people are taking notice of her, she finds she doesn’t mind society as much as she thought. Alex thought that Lavinia truly did prefer spending time alone, quietly, and would be no bother as he struggled with his experiments. Despite a strong physical attraction, they have trouble connecting.

Things come to a head when Alex fails to attend his own birthday party, leaving Lavinia, once again, looking pitiful in the eyes of the ton. It takes some meddling on Nigel’s part and on that of Lavinia’s sisters to force them to talk things out and find common ground.

Although I was not particularly caught up in any chemistry between them, this is a quick read and a sweet addition to the Regency Romance genre. 

Saturday, May 20, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Collected Regrets of Clover by Mikki Brammer

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

The Collected Regrets of Clover by Mikki Brammer is a heartwarming new release, a contemporary novel about navigating death and grief, and about living life to the fullest.

Clover is a death doula.

This is a relatively new profession/concept for the twenty-first century U.S.A., which tends to treat discussions of mortality as a taboo. Death doulas are trained to bypass the taboos to help shepherd the dying through the process.

Clover is particularly well suited to the task. Her own parents died in an accident when she was just six. However, Clover’s relationship with them was not close. In fact, they died when they were out of the country on one of their many jaunts taken without her. She was brought up by her grandfather, who became her best friend. In fact, aside from an elderly neighbor, he was her only friend. He died thirteen years prior to the period covered in the story – and she was not at his side when he passed, a source of unending guilt.

A combination of extreme introversion and an off-putting profession has left Clover always feeling like an outsider. At 36 years old, the closest contact she has with other humans is with her dying clients.

Clover has a lot of emotional baggage. And yet, her empathy for the dying is extraordinary. If you’ve ever wondered what to say to someone at the end of their life, or to their grieving loved ones, this novel serves almost as a guidebook. It isn’t that she always says the right thing, but that she has vowed never to look away from someone’s pain. She is there for them. She doesn’t want anyone to have to die alone.

And maybe not go through life alone either.

This summary makes this book sound depressing. But it absolutely is not. It’s quite beautiful and life affirming. Recommended!

Friday, May 19, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph

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

The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph is a historical novel that imagines the life of the subject of Thomas Gainsborough’s 1768 painting, The Portrait of Ignatius Sancho. The first Black man to vote in a British general election (in 1774), Sancho’s history is pieced together by the author based on Sancho’s own letters and writings and on contemporary accounts. There are great gaps in the historical record, but the author fills them in with rich, imaginative, and credible details.

Born on a slave ship and brought to England as a toddler, Sancho is reared in slavery (until the age of ~20) by three unmarried sisters who treat him as a pet rather than a person. Finding a path to education in secret with the influential Duke of Montagu, who is sympathetic to the antislavery cause, Sancho becomes a learned man as well as an excellent musician and composer. He eventually escapes the sisters (who he refers to as ‘the coven’) and, with difficulty, scrapes together a living. But he must always keep one eye out for his nemesis, a brutal slave catcher. It’s a lonely existence. He is seen as an oddity by the White community and cannot find a place for himself within the free Black community in London. 

After the death of Montagu, Sancho’s position becomes more precarious, and for a short time, his situation is desperate enough that he is ready to end his own life. Fortunately, he reconnects with the duke’s widow, who gives him a small pension and, in due course, a job.

Sancho’s life changes focus when he meets a Black footman, John Osborne, who introduces him to his daughter Anne. 

A large part of the middle of the novel consists of correspondence between Sancho, in London, and Anne, who has gone to the West Indies to nurse a sick aunt, who is a slave there. She remains in the West Indies for years, writing home of the horrors of the plantations. Eventually, she returns home where she and Sancho are reunited and marry. Anne is clever and kind, and supports Sancho unconditionally.

The novel is constructed as an autobiography written by the elderly and ill Sancho for his son, Billy. Sancho utilizes his old diaries to help reconstruct the tale. It is a fascinating look at the hidden lives of Black men and women in eighteenth century London, although Sancho is considerably more fortunate than most.

The audiobook is narrated by the author, who smoothly navigates the transitions in time and the various speech patterns of the characters, telling a compelling story that rings true as being told in Sancho’s own words.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale

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

Nancy Hale was a best-selling author in the 1930s and 40s whose work is enjoying a recent revival. A book of short-stories, Where the Light Falls, was released in 2019, edited by Lauren Groff. And now, her most celebrated novel, The Prodigal Women, has been re-released by The Library of America. The book’s introduction, written by Kate Bolick, was recently featured as an essay in the New York Times.

The Prodigal Women is a tremendous novel. Set aside time to read it, as the print length is ~875 pages. The time will be well spent.

The book immerses the reader in the lives of three women, all growing from girlhood to womanhood in stuffy Boston during the Jazz Age. It is a time when social mores are changing and opportunities are opening up for young women. We may picture flappers and suffragists and good times for all (until the Crash), but this deeply psychological novel shows just how simplistic that image is. These women are unmoored.

Leda March is a poor cousin in an old-money, established Boston family. A childhood of insecurity and unpopularity leaves her with a need for social power, for respectability. She tries to sacrifice an unsuitable love for the stability of marriage with her staid older cousin, but she is stifled by boredom when she is with him.

Betsy Jekyll is the second daughter in a social-climbing Virginia family who transplant themselves to Boston. Full of light and joy as a child, Betsy latches onto Leda, who is equally pleased to finally have a friend. Betsy’s chaotic, fun-filled family seems a refuge to Leda. But the two grow apart as they reach “debutante” age. After a failed love affair, Betsy escapes Boston’s strictures by moving to New York where she works for a fashion magazine, then turns to modeling, and then to essentially living off men – with all that implies.

Maize is Betsy’s older sister. A southerner at heart, Maize never quite recovers from the family move to Boston. She is a renowned beauty and accomplished flirt, but the only Boston man who interests her is a self-centered artist, who marries her under duress. Maize’s love is a desperate, all-consuming one. Her eventual descent into mental illness was precipitated by this obsession, but it is just as likely that the mental illness was behind her obsession.

The lives of these women are fascinating. But their misery is palpable. Is this frantic unhappiness a product of the times? The novel is set in the 1920 and 30s. Hale, who wrote this as a contemporary novel and not a historical one, fills the pages with realistic depictions of life in that era. Although many of the conversations seem stilted to a modern reader, they serve to remove the reader from today and place her squarely in that century-ago age.

This hardly seems a feminist novel, but it is a reminder to us of how much we owe to those women who challenged tradition and pushed for the progress that we now can enjoy without the psychological toll – for the most part. This book can also be seen as a cautionary tale to those who would shove women back into Victorian roles. The men are all miserable too.

Monday, May 15, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Captured by Mary Lancaster

Captured by Mary Lancaster is the second book in the series, The Duel. The timeline overlaps with book one, Entangled.

The duel that is at the center of the series took place just prior to the opening of both books. The participants were the honorable Major Butler, an officer in Wellington’s army, and the miserable old Duke of Cuttyngham. The duke died, but it is unclear whether Butler actually killed him or if he had something lethally wrong with him before the duel.

Lady Hera Severne is the daughter of the deceased duke. She doesn’t regret her father’s death. He was a cold, selfish man. Now that she is freed from his control, she is eager to learn what she can make of herself. She takes a job in a distant town (the village of St. Bride) as a companion to Lady Astley (local gentry) and the Astleys’ ward. It turns out the ward is a thirty-ish man named George, who is neurodivergent. The more Hera learns about the situation, the more appalled she becomes. The Astleys keep George locked in the attic or in the garden, and they are determined to keep his existence secret.

Dr. Justin Rivers is an army surgeon and a good friend of Major Butler. He is trying to clear Butler’s name because he’s certain it was not Butler’s bullet that killed the Duke. He meets Hera, fleetingly, when he goes to the home of the Cuttynghams to question the surviving (adult) children about their father’s underlying health. While there, he and Hera share a light flirtation.

Coincidentally, the village of St. Bride is Justin’s family home. When he goes home for a brief visit, he and Hera meet again.

Justin is duty-bound to return to the battlefield. Nevertheless, during his leave, he spends time with Hera. Their attraction grows. At the same time, they become concerned about George. Who is he? And why do the Astleys keep him hidden away and locked up?

There is a touch of the gothic in this Regency Romance. The mystery is easy to solve, but the complications draw the reader in. Lancaster’s emotionally rich, light-on-steam style makes for an enjoyable read, as always.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is a lovely but painful-to-read “book club favorite” that we are reading for our next book group meeting.

Set in the early 1800s on a Virginia tobacco plantation, the story is told by two women whose lives intertwine there. Lavinia comes to the plantation as an orphaned six-year-old after her parents, Irish immigrants who were to be indentured servants, died on the ocean crossing. The master of the house sends her to be looked after by the slaves in the kitchen house. There, she is lovingly raised. She comes to see the enslaved family as her own. One of the members of her new family is Belle, the illegitimate daughter of the master. While her identity is not a secret to the slaves, the master’s wife, Miss Martha, misunderstands the affection he shows her. Miss Martha believes he has taken Belle as a mistress. Their son, Marshall, also comes to believe this and conceives an impassioned hatred for her.

No story immersed in a setting of slavery in the antebellum south can be anything but painful, and this is one I had to keep putting down to gather strength to continue. The evil of slavery is pervasive. The Black characters have love-filled lives and their own strength and dignity, but nevertheless, their tension is palpable. Their fates lie in the hands of lesser men, most immediately those of Marshall and the overseer, Rankin. Rankin is a stock character, a twisted and unredeemable sadist and rapist. Marshall is given a backstory, one of abuse and neglect, but this does not excuse the man he becomes.

The novel follows the lives of Lavinia and Belle. As they tell their stories, they also tell the stories of life on the plantation and what happens to the slaves focused on the kitchen house. (The field slaves, who live under far worse conditions, are shown only tangentially.) It’s a powerful book.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Guest by Emma Cline

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

The Guest by Emma Cline is a stark, sad novel about a young (early twenties) woman who belongs nowhere and hustles her way through life. Alex is a modern-day Holly Golightly but darker and with drugs.

Alex has run from a toxic relationship with a dangerous man named Dom, who is now stalking her. She escaped the city (an unnamed city) with a fifty-ish man named Simon, who took her along to his beach house for the summer. Simon is a shallow, wealthy man, divorced, fitness-obsessed, who gravitates to trophy girlfriends. He buys her things. She skims from his supply of painkillers. She spends her days lounging on the beach and trying to be agreeable. She wants this safe place to last. 

She isn’t the first of his young lovers. And he is not the first man she has sold herself to. But she is having trouble finding new “clients.” It takes more and more effort. She’s burned too many bridges. Simon is a lifeline and the security he represents takes on a mythic quality as Alex drifts farther and farther from any solid footing in life.

Floating around amidst Simon’s friends, ungodly wealthy summer people, Alex is aware of the falseness of their lives and recognizes that she doesn’t belong. Still, she wants to keep this relationship going. But she missteps. Simon throws her out. This is a pattern. Alex cannot stop self-sabotaging.

The remainder of the story is an odyssey of sorts. Alex does not return to the city. Instead, she attempts only to survive the next few days. Simon is throwing a Labor Day party and she believes, or tells herself that she believes, that she needs only to show up at the party and he’ll be so glad to see her that he’ll take her back. So she wanders, grifting, using people, detaching herself from reality, and breaking things and people along the way. Readers will weep for her, but not much, since she is hardly actually there.

Monday, May 8, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Kudzu Queen by Mimi Herman

The Kudzu Queen by Mimi Herman is a touching coming-of-age story set in 1941 in small-town North Carolina. The heroine, Mattie Watson, is fifteen years old and lives in farm country with her down-to-earth, generous parents, her ambitious, clever but naive older brother Daniel, and her earnest younger brother Joey. She has a best friend, Lynnette, whose family is about as dysfunctional as can be, with an abusive alcoholic father and sickly mother. Lynette essentially takes over the care of her two young sisters. Mattie treats the whole situation with compassion, discretion, and increasing maturity.

Mattie wants more from life but isn’t sure what that “more” is. Until James T. Cullowee rides into town preaching the many advantages of a new crop called kudzu.

If you’ve ever driven through the countryside of the American Southeast, you’ve seen kudzu. It’s an invasive plant that grows quickly and covers everything. It’s very difficult to eradicate and chokes the native flora as it takes over. But in the early 1940s, it was seen as a wonder plant, useful for everything from fodder to medicine to food to a substitute for tobacco. In fact, the Civilian Conservation Corps was paying farmers to cultivate it. 

Mr. Cullowee, the self-proclaimed Kudzu King, is traveling about North Carolina encouraging the locals to turn their acres over to kudzu. He claims this is his mission – that he is doing this from the goodness of his heart because he believes in the benefits of this new cash crop. He’s handsome, charming, and slick. Mattie is smitten.

As part of his scheme, he proposes a Kudzu Festival with the crowning of a Kudzu Queen. The whole town is caught up in the excitement. He holds camps to teach the older boys how to plant the weed and he enlists the mayor’s wife to teach a group of high school girls beauty pageant comportment. Mattie is determined to win the crown and Cullowee’s approval. But as she learns more about his methods and the kind of man he is, she plots to expose him.

Mattie’s innocence, intelligence, and honesty give this novel its heart. Readers will cheer her on. 

Saturday, May 6, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Like the Appearance of Horses by Andrew Krivak

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

Like the Appearance of Horses
by Andrew Krivak is a complex but tightly focused multi-generational saga of war. As the third book in the Dardan Trilogy, it continues the narrative of the family of Jozef Vinich, an American-born transplant to Austria-Hungary who becomes a sharpshooter in WWI before eventually finding his way back to the U.S. to build a home in Dardan, Pennsylvania. The backstory is trickled into the current story, so that Like the Appearance of Horses works very well as a standalone novel. While jumping back and forth in time, this novel primarily focuses on the next two generations of men (in the Vinich family) going off to war – first WWII and then Vietnam. 

Jozef, now a patriarch, has a daughter, Hannah. She marries Becks (Bexhet), the boy who, as an infant during the war, was saved by Jozef, a story told in the previous book.

Becks goes off to war in turn. When he is separated from his company during the Battle of the Ardennes, he is rescued by Roma – his people – and guided back to where he hopes to find his grandfather. The journey is an epic in itself. And what comes of it is tragic.

Becks and Hannah have two sons. The eldest stays at home on the family farm while the younger, Sam, is forced to enlist in the army after an arrest. He is very good at soldiering, but that doesn’t prevent his capture, imprisonment, and torture. While he is MIA, his fiancee and brother back home fall in love and become engaged. When Sam finally returns home, addicted to heroin, he must make an epic journey of his own.

The saga wraps up in the next generation, when Sam’s son has gone off to war, not to return.

The writing is lush and dense. It is a moving story of how war damages not only the men who fight it, but all those who live within war-torn landscapes and all those left at home.

Thursday, May 4, 2023

BOOK REVIEWS: Charlotte Corday and Certain Men of the Revolutionary Torment by Marie Cher and Jean Paul Marat. Tribune of the French Revolution by Clifford D. Conner

In an ongoing, random, and probably futile attempt to fill gaps in my knowledge of history, I read two biographies of historical figures of the French Revolution. 

The first is Charlotte Corday and Certain Men of the Revolutionary Torment by Marie Cher. Published in 1929, this is a fascinating book both because of the subject matter and because of the flowery writing style which is rather historical in itself. Charlotte Corday is known to history as the Girondin sympathizer who murdered the revolutionary leader Jean Paul Marat by stabbing him in his bath. (It’s not as racy as it sounds.) If you have only a muddy knowledge of eighteenth century French history, seeing some of the events of the Revolution from the perspective of how they shaped this…fanatic…martyr…madwoman…murderess?…is a great way to get a handle on the more than two sides of the issue. It is full of little novelistic details that make Corday visible and real to the reader. Corday is not portrayed as a heroine, but she’s not condemned either. 

The second biography is Jean Paul Marat. Tribune of the French Revolution by Clifford D. Conner. This is a biography of Charlotte Corday’s victim. It also gives a concise analysis of events of the day. The major players and their relationships with Marat are explained. Corday is given a surprisingly small role. Robespierre is mentioned a little, but without insight into his character or explanation of his centrality. Mostly, the book provides a great outline of Marat’s life. However, it is a very biased presentation. The author often presents absence of evidence as evidence when lionizing Marat, and the reasoning may leave you shaking your head. Nevertheless, whether you perceive Marat to be a principled if violent activist, a political terrorist, or something in between, you’ll probably agree Charlotte Corday shouldn’t have assassinated him.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese

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

Lately I’ve been reading some good books, some great books, and some mediocre books. And now, I’ve just finished reading The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese, which is in a category all by itself. This novel is monumental. I think I loved it even more than I loved Verghese’s earlier Cutting for Stone.

Some novels draw you in slowly. Others capture you from the very first words. The Covenant of Water is one of the latter. It is a long book, over 700 pages, but it reads quickly because it is impossible to put down.

This sprawling multi-generational saga follows, in particular, the life story of Ammachi (Big Ammachi) of Parambil in South India. In 1900, at the age of 12, she marries a widower with a young child and she grows to become the matriarch of the family and a pillar of the community. Her husband’s family has a long history of a strange “condition,” a familial inheritance of a tendency to die by drowning. The future victim can be identified by their avoidance of water and varying degrees of deafness. This fascinating medical oddity is tracked through the generations, influencing the course of their lives. 

The second major protagonist is Digby, a surgeon from Glasgow who enters the Indian Medical Service because, as a Catholic, he is denied further training in the British system. Digby is a kind, lonely man and an excellent surgeon. However, a scuffle with his chief and a disastrous love affair force his exile from Madras and he must make a new life for himself.

There are too many characters to mention and too many twists and turns of the plot to summarize more. And yet, Verghese manages to keep the interest level high with his beautiful prose and his well-developed characters. Their lives all connect like the system of rivers and canals on which they live. The story manages to be completely realistic even as a tiny bit of magical realism is injected. I was particularly fascinated by the medical aspects of the storyline, but there is something in here for everyone.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Monday, May 1, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Big Two-Hearted River by Ernest Hemingway

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

Big Two-Hearted River is a novella by Ernest Hemingway, being re-released in an illustrated Centennial Edition. This is one of the Nick Adams stories and it has the typical Heminway-esque voice and style.

Nick arrives by train to the burned-out town of Seney, a place near the Big Two-Hearted River where he has fly-fished before and intends to fish again. He is alone. The destroyed town is deserted. Nick strikes out on foot for the river. When he finds a good spot, he sets up camp. In the morning, he rises early and goes fishing. The End.

The setting is given in minute, attentive, loving detail. The particulars of the camp are meticulous. And the descriptions of fishing are so step-by-step that they could be a how-to manual. Throughout, the reader can feel Nick’s quiet satisfaction in an activity done well. 

If you’re a fan of Hemingway, this classic short work will be deeply satisfying. If you’ve never read his work and are curious about it, this is a fine introduction. One of the best things about this particular edition is the insightful foreword by John N. Maclean, who gives a strong, straightforward analysis of what Hemingway likely intended the story to illustrate, which gives the novella added punch.