Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

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The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discrete sigh of flesh against flesh.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown…but really, crown-wearers seem to have little difficulty with fabrication. Do they mean lie, as in lying down? I mean I would take it off before going to bed. It might get pretty uncomfortable trying to sleep with that thing still on. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say uneasy “sits the head that wears the crown,” although that creates in my tiny mind an image of Mister Potato head, with legs and feet.

Well, I could not find one with legs but you get the picture.

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His and Hers

How about uneasy stands the head… , but, oh, see Mr Potato head referred above. So I guess we will leave that one alone, as, clearly, it could be worse. In any case, as uneasy as that head might be, it is clearly more dangerous to anyone who has anything at all to do with the head that has the crown on it. Chopped tops are practically bounding down the streets like bulls in Pamplona. Of course there is the attraction of the power that emanates from the golden circlet. It seems to radiate a glow and a hum that attract the dishonest, the rapacious, seducers, flatterers, scoundrels and hypocrites in far greater numbers than the sort of person Diogenes was looking for, and many of them make moth-like crackling noises as they drift in a bit too close.

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Hilary Mantel – image from The Guardian

One struggles to come up with a contemporary point of reference to help us grasp who Cromwell was. I suppose one might consider Thomas Cromwell to be a royal bug-zapper. There are other ways to see him of course. He was one of the greatest political fixers of all time. Think Olivia Pope as, say, Chief of Staff to the President. But whereas the fictional Olivia occasionally manifests the odd scruple, the real-world Thomas appears to have manifested fewer. In a similar vein, I suppose we might see him a consigliere to H8’s Don Corleone, or maybe Tony Soprano. Maybe Kissinger to Nixon?

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Cromwell by Holbein and Mark Rylance as TC – from the Guardian

We meet Thomas as a lad, suffering abuse at the hands and boots, of his drunken father. Thomas is clearly a young man with an elevated spirit and he leaves his bloody home in Putney for a world of adventure and diverse experience. He reappears decades later, the person he had become. I could not help but be reminded of another famous personage who vanished from sight for a couple of decades, only to return from his journeys, possibly abroad, to flash across the pages of history, leaving a very large result. Cromwell was involved in a revolution of a religious sort as well, throwing out the money-changers, but with, perhaps not quite the personal up-side of his predecessor.

He is considered to be one of the most ruthless human beings of his time, in seeing that the king’s word was made flesh. Already married, but wifey does not pop out a male heir? What’s a king to do? Why, twist, turn, beg, borrow, steal, threaten, intimidate, and murder until you get your way. Spoiled children with their own states are fond of such behavior. Of course, to a large extent, one must engage in these forms of feces flinging and head-lopping at one remove, as kings are too proud to be seen with their hands so filled, whether with their own droppings or axe handles. Thus the presence of people like Thomas Cromwell. Thank you, your majesty, I’ll take that now.

Since the Catholic Church was all that stood in the way of Henry VIII getting what he wanted, H8 sought to remove it. Seizing the church’s real estate and other holdings would be a nice bonus. And setting up his non-ecclesiastical self as the head of his own sort-of Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, meant that, in addition to visiting horrors on the RC he would be claiming even more divine rights. Sheesh!

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H8 by Holbein – from Wikimedia — and Damian Lewis – BBC

So, you would expect that in Hilary Mantel’s rollicking tale of Tudor England, Cromwell would be painted in rather dark shades. The author offers something other. Hogwarts DA Masters notwithstanding, the darkest of the dark arts is the power of manipulation. The proper words tossed near the proper ear can wreak devastation no less awful than an armored division. Cromwell is portrayed as a practitioner of 16th century RealPolitik, someone who uses his rapier wit, his power, his capacity for manipulation, his wide knowledge of the world, and his deep intelligence to serve his king. Is he in it mostly for himself? Maybe. Probably, but he is shown in small bites, talking to this one, planting spies, chatting with that one, nuancing everyone within reach to see things his way, the king’s way, and he sees that more direct action is taken when words alone will not do.

Cromwell, both the real one and his fictitious doppelganger, is a pretty interesting guy, rising from modest (and, if Mantel does not mislead, abusive) origins, dashing off to soldier for hire, becoming expert in international trade of various sorts, making very useful friends and connections along the way, becoming a lawyer, and with his contact list and rep for discretion, rising as far as a low-born can rise in Tudor England. I am sure that, had he shown an inclination towards the culinary arts, he might have been considered a Man for All Seasonings. (sorry)

He is our window on the Tudor era. Regardless of the accuracy of the portrayal, as a literary device, Cromwell is ideally placed to allow us a look into many of the machinations of the era. Questionable prophetess, the Holy Maid of London, making life uncomfortable for a wandering king? Cromwell is there. Both to hear her speak and see her burned. Anne Boleyn plotting to get around the Church’s refusal to annul H8’s marriage? Yep, TC is right in the middle. The population being laid waste by a plague sweating disease? He loses family. Cromwell was a real-life Zelig of the era, with a hand in every historical pie.

What motivates Thomas Cromwell? He moves through the novel like an avatar of the author, a witness to the things the author wants us so know, but lacking much of a personality himself. The delightfully acerbic wit he manifests is hardly unique to him in this telling. One might point to his ambition, and there are certain decisions he makes or directions he takes that offer some guidance, but I never really got much of a feel for what really makes Thomas tick. Is Thomas Cromwell Horatio Alger, an exemplar of hard work, smarts and ambition paying off in the end? Is he a model for the notion that power corrupts? Does he really have morals, or merely goals? Is he a religious extremist or a technocrat? In the second volume of her series Mantel points us to Cromwell’s quest for vengeance on all those who had seen to the toppling of his mentor and father figure, the larger-than-life Wolsey. But that is only hinted at in Wolf Hall (I absolutely see Sidney Greenstreet in my tiny mind as Wolsey) That makes a lot of sense, lending a core of cohesion to a sequence of loose scenes, a lot of this-happens-and-then-that.

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Anne Boleyn by unknown and Claire Foy in the role

Well, Thomas is only one element here, albeit the largest. It is the era that Mantel brings to life. It was a time of big change. H8 may be established in our 21st century minds as a solidly placed monarch, but the security of his line was very much in question, thus the freaking out about producing a male heir. The Protestant Reformation was underway and the world was in flux. Plagues…um…plagued Europe and the enlightenment was far in the future.

While this look at the Tudor era is gruesome, enlightening and fun, it also shines a light, as good historical fiction does, on contemporary concerns. Torture? Check. Religious extremism? Check. TC is seen by at least one writer as a Tudor version of ISIS. Privacy concerns? Check. Government abuse of authority? Check. The one percent riding roughshod over the rest of us? Check. National wars for private purposes? Check. Issues of separation of church and state? Check. So, for those of you who have not yet taken on this large novel, and it’s younger siblings, one born, the other gestating, keep an eye out for how the Tudor era contains many of the same conflicts we endure today. Of course one might despair by doing this. Really? We have learned nothing in five hundred years? But one might also see some universality in the human condition, across time and space.

There are many, many characters in Wolf Hall. Mantel has included a nice list of them at the front of the book. I found I needed to refer to it frequently. It can be a bit daunting to keep track of what is going on, or to discern who is talking to whom, particularly when so many of the names are used by multiple characters. Most particularly, there are more Toms here than at a convention of male cats held in a turkey farm, enough Johns to construct a considerable public lavatory, as well as herds of Harries and Henries, Annes, Katherines and Marys, and probably a few more household names that repeat uncomfortably often. You will be needing that chart. That said, realizing that TC is the author’s and thus the readers’ eyes on pretty much everything helps.

There is a very different take here on Thomas More than the one we are accustomed to. A Man For All Seasons presented More as a moralist, one who stuck by his principles in opposing H8’s desire to be rid of wife #1 in favor of wife #2. In this version we are shown a Thomas More who is much more an Ayatollah than a serene wise man, as much a political player as a man of the cloth. He happily sends to the torturer and the executioner those who oppose his views. Mantel shows a bit of sympathy for H8 trying to dismantle an organization that includes such dark prigs.

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Thomas More by Holbein and Anton Lesser in the role

The novel does not tie up neatly. There are two more volumes after all, and those who remember their history, or who, like me, are memory-challenged and need to look such things up, know how it ends, anyway. It is the journey through this often dark age that is the treat. The wit alone would have been enough for me. The feel for the time adds depth.

The novel and it’s younger sib have become the source material for both a BBC miniseries and stage productions in Britain and the USA, and seems to be gathering cultural strength and presence as more branches extend from the Wolf Hall tree. Can the graphic novel and the Barbie Anne Boleyn be far behind? The series from the Beeb has already aired on the east side of the pond, and is scheduled to begin on Easter, April 5, here in the states.

In short, for book with a considerable page count, and covering thirty five years of English and European history, the results of most of which we already know, Wolf Hall is an engrossing read, rich with all-world-large personalities, bristling with sharply barbed wit and intelligence, richly appointed with intrigue and betrayal, red with blood, and great fun to read. There are sections that sag a bit, but keep on, there will be another scene just around the bend that will make you smile and sometimes even laugh out loud. And there are passages that will transport you with their beauty and insight.

BTW, the title, Wolf Hall refers to the residence of the Seymours (the family serving up one of theirs to be counted among the many wives) and is a takeoff on a Latin saying, homo homini lupus est, or ‘man is a wolf to man.’ He is indeed, and what big teeth he has.

Review posted – 4/3/15

Publication date – 4/30/2009

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google + and FB pages

A nice article from the Telegraph about the historical TC

Another

Fab item by Mantel in the NY Review of Books on how her characters should be played

Interview with Mark Rylance , who plays TC in the BBC production.

He has no doubt there are parallels between Cromwell’s time and our own. “Although we’re not ruled by a sociopathic 14-year-old king, we seem to be ruled by a group of people who are completely in the service of corporations as much as the kings were in the service of the pope before Cromwell and Henry VIII changed the times.”

I included a link in the body of the review, but in case you missed it Dominic Selwood of the Telegraph has a dark view of TC – Thomas Cromwell was the Islamic State of his day

Martin Kettle of the Guardian has a more positive take – Cromwell, the fixers’ fixer: a role model for our times

An article from the NY Times about the upcoming mini-series

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

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We were no different from the doves above us. We could not speak or cry, but when there was no choice we discovered we could fly. It you want a reason, take this: We yearned for our portion of the sky.

Masada, the word summons up images, war, Romans, Zealots, slaughter, mass suicide. A place of national pride for some, historical and archaeological controversy for many, a bit of Python mockery to others. On visiting the place itself Alice Hoffman was inspired to wonder about the experience of the women who had lived and died there. The result is The Dovekeepers. She uses the writings of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus as the foundation for her tale. (The Monty Python crew used Josephus’s writings as well, for a very different purpose, in Life of Brian.)

The four primary characters meet at Masada, where they are assigned to care for the doves. There are those who might consider this a hardship post, regarding doves as dirty, disgusting, filthy, and lice-ridden, or as rats with wings, but they are also a source of fertilizer, meat, eggs, and maybe a bit of hope. No one is designated as the concierge.

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Alice Hoffman

The four are Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah. Yael is notable for, among other things, her coloring. Her father, Yosef bar Elhanan, is a notorious assassin, a member of the Sicarii , a blade-minded branch of the Zealot movement. They do unpleasant things to Jews who collaborate with the occupying Romans. He was known not only for his effectiveness with sharp objects, but for his talent at going unnoticed. He did notice, however, that his wife died giving birth to their second child, Yael, and, possessing a mind and heart not nearly as honed as his weapons, he blames her. Thanks, Dad.

All the while I was growing up I wondered what it might be like to have a father who wouldn’t turn away from the sight of me, one who told me I was beautiful, even though my hair flamed a strange red color and my skin was sprinkled with earth-toned flecks as though I’d been splattered with mud. I’d heard my father say to another man that these marks were specks of my mother’s blood.

Their relationship is, shall we say, strained. Big brother, Amram, however, is the apple of papa’s eye, (I know, shocking) even follows him into the family business. That business involves doing in a Roman general, which gains them the attention of the occupying force and the family is forced to beat a hasty exodus from Jerusalem. They team up with another Sicarii family, headed by Jachim ben Simon. Things get complicated. They all endure a trial by heat, sand and misery on their trek, offering witness to others’ tales of sundry Roman atrocities as well. It is a road of self-discovery for Yael, and she arrives at Masada much changed from who she was when she had set out.

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Rachel Broshahan as Yael – from CBS

Revka had a nice family. Hubby was a baker. Her daughter was married to a nice studious young man. They had two boys. Romans sacked their town, murdering Revka’s husband while slaughtering anyone within reach. Revka is forced to become a refugee. Further atrocities are visited on her family. While she gets a measure of revenge on the latest evil-doers, she darkens her own soul. Her grandchildren have become mute and her nice-young-man of a son-in-law has become a psycho warrior.

Aziza and her mother were sexually assaulted when Aziza was still a child. Mom decided to raise her as a boy to reduce the likelihood of that happening again. She becomes a bad-ass warrior. Her brother not so much. There is a scene that could have been pulled from Robin Hood in which Aziza demonstrates her proficiency with a bow and arrow. Also gawjuss. Think Xena, at least I did. (you sprouts out there might conjure Katniss)

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Kathryn Prescott as Aziza – from CBS

Last and definitely not least is Shirah. A witchy sort, with a book of magic spells, great hair and ravishing beauty. She comes from a line of women in a particular line of work, but her mother sent her away from their home in Alexandria when she was young, as an anti-them pogrom was going on, to stay with relations in Jerusalem. Things do not go well for her there. She meets The One, but there is a mess with him being already married, and not up to standing up to his parents, and her being, oh, twelve. She later finds someone with whom to share a home, pops out a few progeny, but is now a single mom in Masada, doing the odd spell to help female residents with this and that, and still looking up to the goddess Ashtoreth for her main religious sustenance. But what’s the deal with her and the hunky head of the Masada warriors, Eleazar Ben Ya’ir? And what’s up with his seriously creepy wife?

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Cote de Pablo as Shirah – from CBS

So that’s the four. We know (you know, right?) that things do not go well for the residents of Club Masada. The story is in tracking the progress of the place’s demise and how the four got there, and how they cope with the stresses that are steadily building. We are also given a bit of a tour, and get a sense of place beyond the stick figure general notion.

Hoffman definitely has an inclination towards incorporating history into her work, whether of the maritime sort in Blackbird House or a bit of Transcendentalism in The Red Garden. She is also fond of incorporating dollops of magic into her tales, sometimes more than a little. She usually tells tales of women who are forced to cope with challenging circumstances. And she is quite fond of fairy tales. It will come as no shock that this novel is very much in keeping with her previous work. What makes it different is its ambition, scope, and length. It is not a huge book, at 500 pages or so, but is bulkier than her previous work.

First, and probably most important, it is an engaging read. Her main characters are interesting, all strong in their way, and worth finding out about. The story moves along at a decent pace, most of the time. Place is of obviously central import and is given star treatment. I would not say that you could matter-transmit yourself to the fort and know your way around, but you might see places that look familiar and wonder how you knew about them. Hoffman mixes martial material of different flavors, blending some warriors in combat with the more appalling laying waste of defenseless civilians by armed sorts from both sides. There is romantic entanglement aplenty, but my guy-genes did not feel much inclination to generate spew. It all worked pretty well.

She may have overdone it a bit with her imagery, IMHO. Yael, in particular, is associated with, among other things, a Flaming Tree image. Red hair, get it? There are other bits of significance associated with this, but it seemed to me that it was popping up like one of those birthday candles that won’t go out. Yael is also associated with lions, in various guises, a love interest, an encounter with a feline or two in the desert, a kittie held captive by the occupying army. As a host to six of the creatures, I know that, however much we may love and be fascinated by them, sometimes you need to step back a bit. Maybe it is just that in a longer book there are more mentions than one is used to from Hoffman, who knows her way around imagery. I do not recall feeling bugged by other such strands. Watch for image streams relating to serpents and boids, sorry, birds (I am from Brooklyn, after all) Hoffman associates some elemental aspects with her characters, which seemed very fairy-tale-ish and ok. Shirah is associated with water, for example, and that aspect was used in moderation and worked quite well.

Magic most definitely plays a part here. Spells are cast and have the expected impact. Of course some of what works is an expert’s knowledge of science, and that seems like magic at times. It is suggested that one character’s cloak has a feature may make it a likely ancestor of a similar garment used in Hogwarts. One expects magic in AH’s novels. This is all good.

For her historical basis, Hoffman relies on the writings of Flavius Josephus. Here we get into a bit of controversy. The tale of mass suicide that is Masada appears not to have a particularly strong foundation in archaeological research. It was fluffed at a time when it served well as a symbol of Israeli determination and nationhood. Evidence that proves that the events Josephus describes actually occurred is less than entirely persuasive. While there are certainly elements of Josephus’s tale that have a basis in reality, others might constitute a bit of playing to his audience. We all have our national myths. Think George Washington and the Cherry Tree, Paul Revere’s ride, WMDs in Iraq. I do not fault Hoffman for centering her tale around a historical event that is less than universally accepted. Myth is what she does. And she has done an outstanding job with this one. Whether one sees the source material as ancient history or a mythologization of a less exceptional reality, the story she spins around that core is a compelling one.

I have only read a handful of Alice Hoffman’s adult books, so cannot claim a deep knowledge of her oeuvre. But I would put my shekels on The Dovekeepers being the crowning achievement of her career. (One might say it is the feather in her literary cap. I wouldn’t, but some might.)

Review posted – 3/28/15

Pub Date – 10/4/11

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

Here is a reading guide from Hoffman’s site

The CBS mini-series is due any day now. The series makes do with three of the four primary characters, (sorry Revka) and Josephus is not a character in the book.

Oy, there are so many unfamiliar words used in this story that it would be a useful thing to have kept track of them. Sorry, kids, I did not. However, AH does collect some of those in a glossary on her site. It is not comprehensive, though. There are plenty more in the book.

A documentary that looks at the historical event: Time Travellers: Myth of Masada

Here is a nifty site if you are interested in this particular sort of boid bird

A couple of songs that seem, vaguely, suitable

Yes, yes, I know the title of the song is Edge of Seventeen, but I imagine most of us think of it as The White Winged Dove

A favorite from a non-Jewish Prince

And then there is Monty Python, noted at the top. Here is a site that not only links to the infamous Python suicide scene from Life of Brian, but offers a look at a scene, cut from the film, that had been intended to set it up.

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A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell

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The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd and 4th generations

Three sisters plan to see out the millennium together, really see it out. The agree to a mutual suicide pact (life has not been particularly kind), to be carried out as midnight approaches on December 31, 1999. (We doan need no steenking millennium). As a part of this deal they agree to write a family history in which the end is really…you know…the end. A Reunion of Ghosts is that, rather lengthy, suicide note. Sounds cheery, no?

One might suspect that some families might carry forward propensities, whether by DNA, the class-based transmission of means and opportunities, or, maybe something even darker. So much nicer for folks to have a familial propensity for, say red hair, or artistic achievement, like the Wyeths, or Brontes, or Marsalises, maybe an athletic endowment. The Alou boys pop to mind. Sometimes, however, what is passed down is less rewarding. If there are detectable genetic markers for suicide, these folks would probably light up the test like a Christmas tree, although, of course, being Jewish, it might be a Channukah bush instead. There is even a chart on page 8 of my ARE listing members of the family with when, where and how they pruned themselves. It could make for the beginning of darker version of Suicide Clue. Is it Great Grandfather Lenz in a hotel with morphine, maybe Great Grandmother Iris in the garden with a gun, or Grandfather Richard in the bedroom with an open window, maybe Mother in the Hudson with a Bridge? It goes on. I do not want to give the impression that the only way out is DIY. For good measure there are plenty of non-suicide deaths as well. But the question is raised, can the crimes of our forbears curse future generations? Are we to be held accountable for the dark doings of our parents, grand-parents, great-grand-parents? What if we are not, but think that we may be? Is history destiny?

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Judith Claire Mitchell

There is certainly considerable family history here, however much individual tales might have been truncated. The story flips back and forth between the lives of the sisters (and within sundry periods of their lives) and the lives of their ancestors in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The oldest sister is Lady, approaching fifty. She wears nothing but black; Delph is the youngest, at 42. It is on her calf that the introductory quote is inked, a bible item uttered by their mother when JFK was shot. She is cursed with seeing peoples thoughts in bubbles as they pass. (Then never—not ever—have anything nice to say about anyone.); Vee is in the middle, and losing her latest battle with cancer. The three contend with scarring of one sort or another.They live on Riverside Drive in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in an apartment their family has inhabited for ages.

The three let us in on pieces of their lives, loves sought, found and lost, sometimes tossed. Hearts are broken. They are very engaging, relatable and often very funny. Their conversations sometimes effervesce. There are wits aplenty to go around and we are witness to the banter. Whereas the sisters’ dramas tend to the personal, however difficult, awful mates, lousy luck, the issues of their ancestors are painted on a more colorful European palette. They endure personal travails, for sure, but the issues are a touch larger.

The Alter family originated in what is now Germany. Members of the clan were involved in various enterprises and professions. One owned a dye factory, another was responsible for technology that increased agricultural yields dramatically. One was a brilliant, educated woman struggling to find a place in an exclusively male world. There are plenty of colorful sorts in the family history, including a homosexual, malarial dwarf, who was also Germany’s trade ambassador to Japan. Wedded bliss was hardly the norm, and there are sundry carryings-on. One family shares space with Albert Einstein and his relatively miserable marriage. One bright light concocts and supervises the implementation of some very, very dark science. And of course, there is that familiar issue of Jewishness in Germany. While the sisters’ contemporary tales are relatable and moving, I found the historical segments much more interesting and fun, however distressing the content.

Aside from destiny, there are concrete ways in which the travails of one generation are visited on the next.

“All I said to her was the truth. It’s the same thing I said after the other two were born. The lesson from the camp. I tell it to Lady and Vee, too. When they’re asleep. ‘Never love anyone too much. You never know when they might be taken away.’ I whisper it in their ears. Every night, I whisper it.”

There are plenty of literary bits in here, but Mitchell keeps them at a reasonable level. The females in the family are all named for flowers. Color is a presence across generations. There is a wonderful piece on horizontal light, another on acausal time. But it is not the flourishes that carry the day, it is the characters and their tales, very well told.

Not really a spoiler. A bit of a rant here, which should not take up actual review space, but which requires an outlet, so, a su-aside (I have not yet figured out how to emulate the spoiler tag I used in Goodreads, so this thing is taking up space it was not intended to. Sorry. ) Really, fate, schmate. We are all given a hand. It may suck, or it may be a flush. Point is that it is up to us what to do with the hands we are dealt. It is definitely true that there are real-world limitations, whether because of how society or one’s DNA is organized. Maybe the damage we have suffered has become too much, or our resources for keeping on have become too depleted. Tossing away one’s life can be understandable when one is faced with having to endure extreme pain or loss of self en route to the end of the line with a terminal illness. Depression factors large in the world today, and, untreated, steals one’s resolve to carry on. And I am sure there are probably other understandable reasons to go all Kevorkian. But to give up in the absence of such extremes, the case for some of the characters here, seems an abdication of responsibility. For most of us there are at least some human connections that will be affected, so this usually solo act sends tendrils out to grip others. One’s sense of hope may have been plucked clean, but some feathers can grow back. There is a time to die for all of us, sooner, later, whenever. We take umbrage at the making of a pact by three, admittedly fictional, people to mutually cease to exist in the absence of a terminal condition times three. Maybe it is my former-Catholic DNA popping up and saying that suicide is a sin. I wouldn’t say that, but I would say that it is a waste. Society does a pretty good job of throwing away people. We do not really have to give it any extra help. Ok, rant over.

The worst thing, of course, the ultimate crime, is to even consider giving up a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. I mean, if the rent ain’t too damn high , you can walk to Zabar’s, see the Hudson, hang out in Riverside Park and discretely shoot spitballs at the joggers who trot by in thousand dollar sweats or bikers speeding by on their five-K rides, or stand around and watch the filming of one of the three thousand cop shows that use NYC for a set, exchange snide remarks about the blight of unsightly construction on the other side of the river, get in on some excellent sunsets, have reserved seating for fireworks, and not have to give up eating and replacing your threadbare threads just to manage the monthly. If that does not make life worth living I don’t know what might. Of course now I must fear that if I write a crap review my great-grandchildren will suffer because of it. And which of my bloody ancestors, I would like to know, is responsible for the state of my bank account? Talk about being cursed.

This is a remarkable novel, able to take on very serious subject matter and maintain a very smart sense of humor at the same time. A Reunion of Ghosts is definitely well worth checking out.

Review posted – 3/13/15

Publication date – 3/24/15

======================================EXTRA STUFF

This is Mitchell’s second novel. She teaches fiction writing to grads and undergrads at the University of Wisconsin in Madison,

A theme song for Reunion – oh yes, I did

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

BUZZ

On January 8, Buzzfeed listed Reunion among 27 Of The Most Exciting New Books Of 2015

Barnes and Noble listed Reunion as one of its top picks for March 2015

The American Booksellers Association listed Reunion as one of its Indie Next Great Reads for April 2015

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Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

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All great shows, she told me when I was little (and still learning to flex the tiny muscles in my esophagus), depend on the most ordinary objects. We can be a weary, cynical lot—we grow old and see only what suits us, and what is marvelous can often pass us by. A kitchen knife. A bulb of glass. A human body. That something so common should be so surprising—why, we forget it. We take it for granted. We assume that our sight is reliable, that our deeds are straightforward, that our words have one meaning. But life is uncommon and strange; it is full of intricacies and odd, confounding turns. So onstage we remind them just how extraordinary the ordinary can be. This, she said is the tiger in the grass. It’s the wonder that hides in plain sight, the secret life that flourishes just beyond the screen. For you are not showing them a hoax or trick, just a new way of seeing what’s already in front of them.

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up. The show is about to begin. See the four-legged dancer, the half-man-half-woman. See the wheel of death, where knives fly toward a spinning lass. See the sword swallower (no, not that sort, puh-leez) and watch as one of our performers eats actual glass. But you had better be quick. This Coney Island sideshow, the Church of Marvels is about to burn to the ground.

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1996.164.5-10 bw SL1” by H.S. Lewis – Brooklyn Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons – Remnants of a 1903 fire at Coney Island.

Sylvan Threadgill is 19 years old and living on his own in the bowels of end-of-the-19th century New York City. He earns a meager living as a night-soiler, cleaning up the remains of the day, and picks up some extra cash as a boxer. It is while at the former job that he comes across an unusual discard. Sylvan is a (mostly) good-hearted sort, and he takes the baby in, intending to find it’s mother.

Odile Church, the spinning girl on the Wheel of Death, having lost so much, including her mother, worries about what became of her twin, Isabelle, the star of the Church of Marvels. Belle had vanished before the fire. Odile sets off to the never-seen far away land of Manhattan on a quest to find Belle, following a single clue.

Alphie, a “Penny Rembrandt,” and sometime sex-worker, is in love, having been swept off her feet by an undertaker. His old-world Italian mother does not approve, but he marries Alphie anyway, making for a very tense household. Alphie suddenly finds herself a virtual prisoner in Blackwell’s asylum on what is now Roosevelt Island. It is a lovely place, specializing in order over humanity, with generous doses of cruelty tossed in. Charles Dickens actually visited the real Blackwell’s in the 1840s and did not have anything good to say about it. Alphie encounters another prisoner (who never speaks) with unique skills and they plot their escape. Sylvan pursues the truth about the found infant, as Odile tries her best to track down her sister. Truths are discovered, both wonderful and horrifying and all converge to a thrilling climax.

Leslie Parry has written some wonderful characters, people you will most definitely care about, and she has placed them in a marvelous setting.

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Leslie Parry – from Missouri Review

The New York City of 1899 must have been a particularly bleak place for those at the lower end of things. But it is a marvelous place to read about. Parry has painted a colorful portrait of the time, offering chilling images of the era. She has a Dickensian penchant for naming her characters. A noseless street urchin is Sniff. A servant girl is Mouse. A nightsoil foreman is Mr. Everjohn. Another night-soiler is No Bones. A “widow” working in a bordello is Pigeon. There is much here about seeing what is in plain sight, but it is also clear that the author has done considerable digging to bring to light things that were hidden, or at least only slightly known. Opium dens among other things. The treatment of asylum inmates is as appalling as one might expect. The profession of night-soiler was news to me, as was the presence of a civil-war era floating ship hospital. You will enjoy learning of the professions of penny Rembrandt and JennySweeter, and of the significance of a north star symbol on the facades of local businesses.

There are sundry images that permeate the story. Tigers figure large for the girls, from the quilt their mother made for them as kids, to carnival tigers grooming Odile, to a literal take on Blake, to a notion of the secret in plain sight being a “tiger in the grass.” Church references extend beyond the family and family business name. A floating “church” serves as a venue for boxing matches, complete with a preacher and prayer cards. A sense of divinity is summoned on occasion as well. You might keep an eye out for crescents. Parry offers some passages on passages that certainly remind one of birthing and a sort of Campbellian descent.

…for a moment Sylvan had the dreamy sensation that he was swimming through the vein of a body, toward a lush, warming heart. Ahead of him the man was lumbering and stout, so large he had to duck beneath the doorframes, but he moved quickly, almost gracefully. The passage seemed to turn and fold back on itself, and then it came to an end. The man pulled aside a blue curtain and beckoned Sylvan inside.

One consistent concern is being seen for who one is, being appreciated, or at least, being accepted.

To be seen but not known was perhaps the loneliest feeling of all.

While I adore this book, I do have some gripes. There are enough orphans here to cast a production of Pirates of Penzance. While lost or missing parents may have been a much more common thing in 1899 than it is today, it seemed to me that the rope being used to lower the bucket to this well was getting a bit frayed. Mickey Finn is put to considerable use as well. There are two concerns that are heavily spoilerish, so I urge you to pass these by if you have not already read the book. RED means spoiler. Ok, you have been issued fair warning. We are to believe that Isabelle was de-tongued by one person. But how might that have been possible? Did Belle’s assailant grow extra arms? One set for holding Belle down, another for wielding both tongs and knife, and a third set for holding Belle’s mouth open? Nope. Did not buy that one. Also, we are to believe that Siamese twins, joined at the head, were successfully separated by a non-doctor in the 19th century? I doan theen so.

Church of Marvels offers a richly colorful landscape, although the hues tend to the dark end of the spectrum. The story is riveting and moving. The main characters are very interesting and mostly sympathetic. And there are enough twists to keep a contortionist bent out of shape. The image that Parry conjures of the time is richly detailed enough without being overwhelming, and the whole is presented with a warmth and charm that reminded me of The Golem and the Jinni. No, there is not the literal magical element of that other book, but both look at a historical New York and their characters with warmth and charm. In this case, presenting early New York as a kind of sideshow in and of itself.

I am not a regular attendee at any church, but I can heartily recommend Leslie Parry’s debut novel. This church is both unforgettable and marvelous.

Publication date – May 5, 2015
Review posted – 1/30/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Facebook and Twitter pages

A 5 minute sample of the audio version, read by Denice Stradling

Flashback: When Roosevelt Island Was Blackwell’s Island


Ten Days in a Madhouse, by Bill De Main – about Nellie Bly’s 1887 undercover commitment to Blackwell’s

Some of Bly’s report is available here

Some of Bly’s report is available here

An intro to Nelly Bly on PBS

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The Harder They Come – T.C. Boyle

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Here was guilt. Here was the shit of the world coming home to roost right here in the redwoods.

There is a part of the American mind that has been off its meds for a very long time. There are some fine specimens of the syndrome tramping through the landscape in TC Boyle’s latest novel, The Harder They Come. Sara Hovart Jennings, 40, divorced, lives with her dog and her paranoia.

Was she wearing her seatbelt? No, she wasn’t, and she was never going to wear it either. Seatbelt laws were just another contrivance of the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the corporate that had had given up the gold standard back in 1933 and pledged its citizens as collateral so it could borrow and keep on borrowing. But she wasn’t a citizen of the U.S.I.G.A, she was a sovereign citizen, a U.S. national, born and raised, and she didn’t now and never would again acknowledge anybody’s illegitimate authority over her.

She makes a living helping take care of horses and other animals on the northern California coast. Sara is more a garden-variety crank than a certifiable one.

There was talk on the radio, but it was mainly left-wing Communist crap-NPR, and how was it their signal was stronger than anybody else’s?

Adam Stensen is more the latter sort, mid 20s, hitchhiking, late of a local institution for the very nervous. Sara picks him up. Adam has issues. His grasp on reality is less than firm. He calls himself Colter, for John Colter, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, considered by many the first mountain man. The border between Adam’s reality as Adam and his reality as Colter is way too permeable.

Sten Stensen, 70, a Viet Nam veteran and retired school principal offers an example of the traditional Protestant work ethic.

He’d been up early all his life and though everybody said the best thing about retirement was sleeping in, he just couldn’t feature it. If he found himself in bed later than six, he felt like a degenerate, and he supposed he could thank his mother for that. And his father. The work ethic—once you had it, once it had been implanted in you, how could you shake it? Why would you want to?

He and his wife, Carolee, were on a group tour in Costa Rica. The bus driver who drove them to a remote location may or may not have been in on it, but after getting off the bus the group is accosted by several armed men and robbed of their possessions. At least that was the plan. Sten, away from the group when the action begins, gets the drop on a gun-toting bandit and kills him. The other robbers flee. Sten returns home a hero. Sten was raised with a good dose of the American work ethic.

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T.C. Boyle – from his site

Boyle’s northern California is a place living in fear, of BIG government, of Mexican drug runners and drug growers, of foreigners. That fear plays a big part in the story of Adam’s surrender to madness. Violence plays a huge role as well. The story of Adam/Colter’s descent is a gripping, moving, and frightening one. But, as in most good stories, there is another layer. Boyle opens the book with a quote from D.H. Lawrence

The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.

Boyle has been looking at that soul for a while. His vision of it remains interesting. It is not a pretty sight. In straight narrative sections he gives us an up close and personal look at the historical Colter contending with existential 19th century threats. America was a challenging environment, whether for its early residents enduring a European invasion or for explorers taking on the risk of encountering actual hostiles in parts of the continent that were not under European/American rule. Of course, like so much of history, American and other, the details can be lost over time while the idealized image remains. See, for example, Supreme Court justices basing decisions on mythical, lumped-together, founders, while the fact is that those founders were a contentious lot who disagreed about most things. History as fantasy is as rich a seam in the American lode as is violence. Adam has fixated on one such fantasy, glorifying hardship. As a result he cannot reconcile his image of the archetypal independent mountain man with the fact that Colter actually returned to civilization after six years away and settled down. Adam, like much of America, has failed to learn from the lessons of the past.

Sten’s actions in Costa Rica, justified or not, echo his, and his country’s, army experience in Viet Nam, Americans in the jungle, killing natives. Boyle is known for his satire and Sara is nothing if not an exaggeration (hopefully) of an extreme segment of the national psychosis. At least she is not out shooting people. Adam, before diving even farther off the deep end, built a wall around the place where he was living, his grandmother’s home. He does not even build a door to allow entry and exit. It is hard not to smile at this concrete manifestation of isolationism. He sees hostiles everywhere, which is merely aberrant when he is going about his business, but manifestly dangerous when his paranoia combines with automatic weapons. (Think Ditto-heads with Glocks, or stand-your-ground vigilantes in Florida)

The notion of invasion is considered. The original Colter was nothing if not an invader of Native American land. The US invaded Viet Nam, and most Meso-American countries, among other places. The American tourists in Costa Rica might be considered invaders of a sort. But the tables are turned as Mexicans are seen as invaders of American territory. A local couple run a reserve for non-native endangered species, another sort of invasion, perhaps.

The general terrain is one Boyle knows, a not-long drive from his residence in Santa Barbara. There’s plenty of crazy up in them thar hills.

One of the things that dogs Boyle’s writing it that it is tough to relate to many of his characters. The same applies here. If you are hard-core, biochemically delusional you may relate to Adam. The rest of us are mostly limited to observing him. Despite her quirks, Sara is actually an appealing character and we don’t want to see her come to harm. She is more crazy-aunt nuts than Adam’s more virulent form. She seems to have a good heart.

The satire and attempt to understand the American psyche may be major elements in Boyle’s oeuvre, and they are present here in abundance, but if the story is not engaging, it all goes for naught. Happily, Boyle does know how to engage readers and keep his story rumbling through. There is certainly some fun in the satirical elements but there is also considerable action throughout. The tale moves quickly. You will definitely not be bored.

I have no idea of the title of the book was meant to reference Jimmy Cliff beyond a bit of weed in common.

I have read only a small sample of Boyle’s body of work. Budding Prospects, When the Killing’s Done, probably a short story collection, so I cannot really place this among his works for a compare and contrast. I do believe it is a better book than WTKD. I was reminded of a 2014 book that also looked at an extreme national element, Fourth of July Creek, but while their subject matter intersects, they are very different stories.

So, bottom line, an interesting tale, well told and with some perspective on larger issues. What’s not to like?

=======================================EXTRA STUFF
In a piece on Boyle in The Guardian the author talks about his relationship with the digital world.

I’m not on Twitter or Facebook. My website contains my blog going back 13 years. It requires a good deal of my attention and serves the purpose of Twitter and Facebook for me as far as connecting with and providing information to the public. I like to disconnect and experience life outside the electronic media and other machines that control and limit our lives. I like to go out into nature, whether here at home where I am a short walk from the beach and a longer one to the mountains that frame Santa Barbara, or up in the Sequoia National Forest, where I spend several months a year, beyond the reach of cable, email and the internet. What I’m talking about is unplugging and enjoying some contemplative time, sitting by a waterfall deep in the woods with a book and the sights and scents of nature. I think people are “deep reading” less these days and it concerns me. We are so distracted that we’ve lost the habit of being idle. How can you engage with a novel if you’re plugged in constantly?

Thomas John Boyle changed his middle name to “Coraghessan” when he was 17, a nod to his Irish heritage and away from the less interesting middle name he had been given at birth. He stopped using it years ago and is now TC on his books, and Tom to friends.

Here is a nice piece on Boyle from the Encyclopedia of World Biography Encyclopedia of World Biography

An interview in the Paris Review

A wiki on the Redemption Theory that Sara is so taken with

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Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

book cover In principio erat verbum

In the beginning was the word, (well according to John 1:1 anyway) but in the absence of someone writing it down, then printing millions of copies, you might never have known. So maybe in the beginning was the word but right behind it was the printer. Before Stephen King, Dan Brown, JK Rowling or AC Doyle, there was once a major global best-seller, the first one. It had an initial printing of one hundred eighty, and it changed the world.

Alix Christie has given us a look at how the Gutenberg bible came to be, and in so doing has illuminated the image we might have of this seminal work with portraits of the man himself, the era in which he lived, the politics of the time, details of the technical advances that went into development of the movable type press, and a look at the people involved.

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The finished product – from the University of Cambridge Library

When you combine the words Gutenberg with Bible, you might conjure an image of some monkish guy in a garage basement, or barn, banging away at his personal project until Voila! You might also think printing the bible was his first gig. Turns out, not so much. While it may not have taken a village to make the famous big book, it came close. Johannes Gensfleisch, the man we know as Gutenberg, (the name of the town where his mother had been born) had some help. There is no question that he was a genius, and that his notions of using movable metal type ushered in a new age. But he was also a very results oriented entrepreneur. Bit of a slave-driver too, as well as being someone of questionable ethical standards, and maybe not the guy you would want having your back in a critical moment. One of the joys of Alix Christie’s tale is learning at least some of the many challenges of all sorts that had to be met along the way from revolutionary printing notion to reality. She came on her less-than-glowing notions about Gutenberg as the sole source of the genius behind the press as a result of relatively recent research by several European scholars. She goes into details on the book’s site.

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The author – from her Facebook page

Our window into this world is his assistant. Peter Schoeffer, the apprentice of the title, was a scribe in Paris when Johann Fust, who had adopted him, summoned him back to Mainz (pronounced mīn(t)s) to work as Genfleisch’s apprentice. Fust had seen what Gutenberg might do with his marvelous new machine and committed a significant financial stake to the project. Part of the deal was for Peter to be an apprentice in Gutenberg’s shop. Fust’s intentions were not wholly beneficent. He wanted a spy on the inside. The story of how the bible was ultimately made is given by Peter, relating his history to a monk many years later. We step back and forth between the then (1450-1454) and the now (1485), of the story. This offers the author a way to present some views on Gutenberg from a more objective distance. Well, from a distance, anyway. JG is presented in a rather dim light as seen through Peter’s eyes.

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Johannes Fust and Peter Schoeffer

In the world of the late 15th century the Catholic Church was a particularly corrupt and oppressive force, impacting the world of earthly politics to an unholy degree. It was within the power of an archbishop, for example, to essentially quarantine an entire city if, say, the ruling council of that city went against his wishes. The Church was also busy selling indulgences, pieces of paper on which the church had incorporated its imprimatur, and which, once you filled in your name, would guarantee forgiveness in heaven for sins committed on earth. The 15th century variety was a way for the church to raise funds, for things like Crusades and large papal celebrations. As the mass production of these monstrosities could be stunningly lucrative to the church, those in charge had a considerable interest in the possibility of new printing technology. And Gutenberg had to be on his guard to keep the church from learning of his project too soon, lest they seize his entire workshop for their own purposes. Secrecy was paramount, and many tongues needed to be stilled for the project to proceed. This creates considerable tension in the story, even though we know that the book is eventually made. Christie also looks at the local politics of the city, the importance of guilds, and the political push-pull of the elders (think the one percent) vs the workers (in this case, guilds).

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The G-Man

The focus on the people involved in the time and place make this a tale of Mainz and men (sorry), and not just a tracking of technological innovation. There is a bit of romance in here as well, as Peter and a local lass become entangled. This offers Christie an opportunity to look at the status of women in the late 15th century and note the life-threatening aspect of childbirth that was much more a hazard then than it is today. Of course the tech stuff is fascinating, as it took considerable trial and error to work out the kinks. Christie is a master of these details. As she should be. She apprenticed as a printer and owns a working press. However, she is equally adept at portraying the many interpersonal tensions and complications in the relationships of the major players.

For centuries the ruling class had run the city like their private bank. They’d lent the council sums they then repaid themselves at crushing rates of interest. These bonds they then bequeathed to their own spawn, in perpetuity. Thus was the city fated to insolvency, like half of the free cities of the Reich. Each time the treasury was bare, Archbishop Dietrich would step in, prop up that rotting edifice, enact some other tax that only workingmen and merchants had to bear.

Contemporary issues resonate here. Just as the internet, a marvelous bit of technology, can be put to low or dark purposes, so could the original printing press. In fact an early money-maker for Gutenberg was the equivalent of a penny-dreadful. The selling of indulgences by the Church is echoed today whenever the Department of Justice investigates corporations for malfeasance. What remains clear is that tools, even miraculous ones, are only as good as the people who control them. The stresses between old and new, between powerful and less powerful, between religious and secular power comes through. BTW, one of the reasons Gutenberg opted to produce a bible is that a project that was in the works with church leaders to print a standardized missal fell through. I suppose one might call this an early missal crisis. I wouldn’t, but I suppose some might.

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The press

I expect Christie was hewing as closely as possible to the history she is writing about. Peter was a real person, as were all the major and maybe even minor characters in this impressive book. As the fictional Peter here tells his story to a monk many years after the events described, so the real Peter did the same. This is definitely an instance in which the historical aspect of this historical novel is a very powerful element. She even includes in an afterword a bit of what happened to each of the characters after the bible was completed. No, nothing on Dean Wormer.

I have two gripes with the book, neither of them major. I appreciate Christie hewing to history in her re-telling of how the great book came to be, but I did not find the steps forward to Peter’s telling the tale to a monk altogether necessary. Second, one thing you should know about Gutenberg’s Apprentice is that, as informative and satisfying as it is, it is a slow read. At least it was for me. You are unlikely to be taking this one to the beach to while away a few hours. But if you settle in for a longer spell, you will be richly rewarded.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice may not be the first book you have ever read, but it will definitely leave a lasting impression.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

An informative Wiki piece on Fust and Schoeffer

A nice video on the press. Ignore the word kids on the site. This is accessible and interesting, even if the documentary video cadged music from John Adams and is a bit amateurish.

A nifty wiki article on movable type

==================================AUTHOR

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google+ and FB pages

In addition, there is a lot of excellent material on Christie’s book site

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O, Africa by Andrew Lewis Conn

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Point a camera at something, you change it.

Change is definitely in the air in the summer of 1928. With the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927 the Grand brothers, silent-film director Micah, and his cameraman, partner and brother Izzy, might be feeling a bit of heat from the new kid on the block, the talkie. Their producer certainly is. Mired in debt and fearing for the future of his group’s stock in trade, he wants Micah and Iz to secure another foundation for their company. When he proposes that they go to Africa to create stock footage for sale to other companies, they are reluctant. But Micah has a bit of a problem with gambling, and really, really needs the money such a grand tour might generate.

The seed of the idea for O, Africa! came from an incident in the lives of the Korda brothers, who made several trips to Africa in the early period of moviemaking to create a vault of B-roll footage of the bush—an anecdote that immediately suggested to me a big, freewheeling book that could accommodate many of the themes that most interest me. – from KGB Bar interview

They do not get to Africa until about a hundred pages in, so there is a lot of local color to absorb. Historical figures, whether by reference or named overtly, are a large presence here. Babe Ruth pops by for a cameo in a film they are shooting in Coney Island. There are gangster sorts that seem lifted from the pages of Damon Runyon or Elmore Leonard. At least a few, such as Bumpy Johnson, and Stephanie St. Clair, are fictionalized versions of historical NYC baddies. The brothers’ leading man, Henry Till, is an avatar of silent film comedy star Harold Lloyd, complete with signature eyeglasses, and damaged hand.

Conn’s love for cinema shines through. O, Africa is a celebration of film-making and the characters involved, and includes a look at the first Oscars night. And while the characters may not always be the purest of the pure, they are certainly colorful. Micah, although married and a father, is a committed philanderer. But he is most heavily involved with a light-skinned black woman, Rose. Iz has complications of his own. He is so closeted that he makes his first appearance in O, Africa in a box. A dwarfs wrestles well beyond his stature, and a gangster has that most Hollywood of things to offer, a screenplay.

There is range in Conn’s tonality. There is a light touch in looking at the brothers’ lives in the beginning, but events take place that call for a much more serious approach, and the lightness floats away.

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Andrew Lewis Conn

Conn’s content (Conntent?) is considerable. He looks at a slew of minorities. Conn’s 1920s gangsters (with the trailing “er” intact) do not fit the usual image we have of tommy-gun-toting bank robbers and Prohibition-fueled thieves, killers and smugglers. These mobsters are black. He includes a dwarf director, a mixed race relationship and an adult gay virgin.

You have these different minority characters who are trying to find a way in, a way into the culture and, you know, it could be either through some sort of artistic endeavor or criminality. But the instinct is the same. It’s all trying to break through somehow. – from Momemt Mag interview

There is some powerful imagery. A dump site near the African village is particularly poignant. Subtlety does not always rule, however, as we are treated to a bludgeoning when it comes to interpreting a nightly film showing.

GRIPES
Sometimes, it seems that the author is trying too hard to sound substantive, and it comes across as stretching rather than insight. …heading west is an instinct, too. It has to do with mortality, catching the last light before it slips beyond the horizon. Such an impulse is as likely related to fleeing one’s creditors.

Conn’s eyes must need a rest after all the winking to the reader he does regarding references to future events. King Kong, black exploitation films, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Where’s Waldo, Cheech and Chong and the crash of 1929 jumped out at me. There are doubtless many others. I found these to be distancing.

Occasionally, a bit of fact-checking or at least explanation seemed in order. An African village is reported to have a considerable number of bison horns on display. There are no bison in Africa. Ditto a reference to a local lemur. Lemurs exist in nature only in Madagascar and not on the African mainland.

IN SUM
So, what to make of all this? It is pretty clear that the author has put in a considerable amount of work to create O, Africa. There is much to enjoy in this book, and a fair bit to learn. Conn offers a Kavalier and Klay-like portrait of an early time in a particular art-form and in an era that is interesting, lively and enjoyable. But the literary legerdemain on display here, like that which is often displayed on screens large and small, did not succeed in creating that necessary reader-character magical bond for me. There were moments, for sure, when this or that character seemed to breathe an actual breath, but I never felt truly engaged for more than a spurt here and there. O, Africa is definitely worth a few hours of your time, as long as you are looking for more of an intellectually than emotionally satisfying read.

I received a copy of O, Africa! from Blogging for Books in return for an honest review.

Review posted – 8/7/14
Publication date – 6/10/14

This review has also been posted at Goodreads.com, or soon will be

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Interviews – KGB Bar Lit Magazine and Moment Magazine

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The Confabulist by Steven Galloway

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What no one knows, save for myself and one other person who likely died long ago, is that I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.

Stephen Galloway, the award-winning author of The Cellist of Sarajevo, takes on a legendary real-life character and tries to make some magic with his lesser known history.

He tells a tale of Houdini, vaudevillian superstar, greatest magician of his time, escape artist extraordinaire and, maybe, an international spy.

Martin Strauss is none of these things. When we meet him, in the present day of the tale, he has just gotten some bad news:

”Yours is a rare condition,” [the doctor] said, seeming almost excited, “in which the damage that is being done to your brain does not destroy cognitive function but instead affects your brain’s ability to store and process memories. In response to this, your brain will invent new memories.”

Strauss is Galloway’s external, invented character, there to help frame the narrative. So, Harry Houdini meets Memento?

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the author

Strauss, a student in Montreal, is fascinated with magic, although he is not a capable practitioner. He is smitten with a young lady who shares his interest, and when they have a chance to see the great Harry Houdini perform, they avail. Strauss is not the most secure beau and when the object of his desire seems more interested in the famed escape artist than is comfortable, things get heated.

On October 31, 1926, the real-life Houdini died from a ruptured appendix. A few days earlier, in Montreal, a student named Whitehead was granted permission to punch Houdini in the stomach, a test of the performer’s claim that it would not hurt him. Under normal circumstances it might not have, but it turned out that Houdini was compromised with a case of appendicitis. He kept traveling and performing, but was brought to a hospital in Detroit, in severe pain, and died there. Ascribing his death to the student’s blows was really a ploy to get his life insurance to pay double.

“Houdini’s death has always really interested me. What would it be like to be the guy who punched Harry Houdini in the stomach?” from the Globe and Mail interview

There are alternating tale-tellers in The Confabulist. Martin Strauss speaks for himself, and the Houdini chapters are told by an omniscient narrator. The time lines are dual as well, present day alternating with a past that advances from 1897, before Houdini had achieved world-wide renown, to 1927, as Martin recalls and we see for ourselves what transpired. We cover some real estate in The Confabulist, as well, from Canada to New York to sundry locales in Europe.

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Houdini – image from wikimedia

We get to see how the gifted Erik Weisz, a Budapest-born son of a rabbi, became the amazing Houdini, professionally and theatrically. There are explanations for a few of the stage tricks of the age, and that is a particular bit of fun. There is some insight into how the entertainment business of the early 20th century was run, and a look at the latter day Houdini as an exposer of charlatan psychics and spiritualists.

When asked how he landed on Houdini for his new novel, Galloway says he was fascinated by the showman’s iconic status, but also by the fact that Houdini himself was a sort of fiction. “Most magicians are kind of made-up characters, but him more than any. He’s a Hungarian Jew pretending to be Mr. America. Most of what he said about himself biographically was a total, total lie. So I just kind of arrived there and never left.” – from the Globe and Mail interview

Strauss’s history is far less interesting, but in his musings we get at some of the thematic issues of the novel. Some insight into international intelligence goings on of the period is also noteworthy.

What is real and what an illusion is a consistent theme throughout the tale, on stage and off

How is it we can be so sure that we’ve seen, heard and experienced what we think we have? In a magic trick, the things you don’t see or think you see have a culmination, because at the end of the trick there’s an effect. Misdirection tampers with reconstruction. But if life works the same way, and I believe it does, then a percentage of our lives is a fiction. There’s no way to know whether anything we have seen or experienced is real or imagined

or

a memory isn’t a finished product, it’s a work in progress

So does Galloway succeed in making magic? Only somewhat. There are two issues I had with the book. One is the inherent difficulty of having an unreliable narrator. That this is done openly from the opening chapter does not make it any less problematic. How are we to know if what Strauss reports is true or imagined? And if one cannot know if what he reports is real, it makes for difficulty in relating to his experience, and knowing for ourselves that what we are reading is or is not an accurate rendering of events. The dimorphism between the wonderful tale of Houdini’s and the far less gripping tale of Martin Strauss makes one want to slip the knots of Martin’s chapters to make one’s way back to the real action. And, while the story of Houdini does succeed in holding our interest, it seemed to me that there remained a distance between reader and character, even for Houdini, that kept one from the sort of emotional engagement that is needed if we are to feel much for him. Martin is an obvious literary device, so one does not hope for too much there. But one does want to feel more of an investment in Houdini than was possible here.

There are compelling elements at play in The Confabulist. The contemplation of reality versus illusion counts as a strength. On the other hand, the rationale for Strauss’s attack on Houdini seemed forced. One would expect that there is a marvelous story encased in the available elements. Unfortunately, the tale is only able to extract a limb or two and remains locked up. While there is no obvious tell in the author’s literary sleight of hand, there is certainly enough going on to sustain a reader’s interest, this remains an instance when the magic simply does not quite go poof.

Review posted – 6/20/14

It was first posted on Fantasy Book Critic

Publication date – May 6, 2014

==================================EXTRA STUFF

The condition ascribed to Martin Strauss was discovered by one Sergei Korsakoff, a Russian neuropsychiatrist, who is represented in The Confabulist by a Russian Dr. Korsakoff practicing in the West, presumably New York. Here is some info on the actual condition.

A bit of info on Harry Houdini

Interviews with the author – from The Globe and Mail and The National Post

Houdini’s grave

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The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith

book coverIn 1793, ten-year-old Tabitha is smitten with the idea of the sea. Her father, John, an erstwhile pirate and soldier in the Continental Army, owns a shop in Beaufort, NC. Tab’s affection for the maritime may have to do with her mother, Helen. John and Helen had eloped, over her father’s objections, and sailed together under a black flag. But her father’s tales are all Tab has of her mother, who died giving birth to her. When she contracts yellow fever John is desperate to find a way to help his daughter.

…to save her from the graveyard he must take her to the sea. He took her mother once, and being on the water only made her bloom.

They board a ship bound for Bermuda. This does not sit well with her grandfather, who believes her chances are best ashore, and well prayed over. Asa owns a plantation, producing turpentine from considerable stands of pines. A religious sort, he is hell-bent on making sure that his legacy is carried forward. When his wife died in childbirth, he focused that need on his daughter. But his attempts to root her to his land failed when she fell in love with John, a man of not much family, but an excellent heart.

The story is told in three parts, beginning with Tabitha’s struggle. Part two goes back to Asa raising Helen, giving her a slave, Moll, for her birthday, and the complicated relationship between Moll and Helen. While the comparison falls very short, both Moll and Helen are chained to their roles in life. Both resent their restrictions. But only Helen can actually act on her desires without being scourged for it. Asa is chained to his land and his attitudes, unable to see past what is to what might be, and unwilling to see beyond self-serving adages to what is right, to ever loosen himself from his own bindings.

Part three returns to John and Asa, Moll, and her son, Davy. It goes into how each of the primary characters ultimately copes or tries to cope, with the challenges of their lives, their losses, and chances.

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Katy Simpson Smith

Katy Simpson Smith has more than enough background for undertaking a look at America in the late 18th century. Before she returned to school to get her MFA, she completed a doctorate in history, and has published an examination of motherhood, We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835, which covers the period on display in her novel. It was a hard knock life for women in late 18th century America. Not only was the risk from childbirth far greater than it is today, even past that life-threatening event women were treated as chattel. Not to the same extent as actual slaves, but to a significant degree.

He [Asa] had a possessiveness in him that encompassed his house, his land, his women

And he would use marriage as a way to shackle both his daughter and her slave to his land. And what of the reverberations of the lot of females to those around them? Increased peril for their children, for one. Strained existence for their survivors, both emotionally and materially. And various forms of torment as the storms that rise from imprisonment bring forth dark gales. Parents are taken from children and children are taken from parents by the foolishness of custom, the limitations of ignorance and the blind eye of fate.

Thematically there is a lot going on here. Property views figure large. Asa considers Helen a form of property and takes as little heed of her wishes as he does of those of her slave, Moll. Marriage and choice come in for some consideration. Within that larger theme, both Moll and Helen confront the conflict between who their respective owners want them to marry and what they want for themselves.

“I wouldn’t mind if I had some say in who I laid down with.” [says Helen’s slave, Moll]
Helen nods. She puts her chin in her hands, nodding. People want what isn’t given to them. And this is not sin, but hope.
What if God didn’t put us here to accept, but to struggle? Isn’t love itself built on that precise impossible hope?

It is also clear that love is not always allowed to be the greatest consideration in choosing a mate, or to define one’s relationship with a mate after the marriage is made.

“Do you miss your husband, Mrs Randolph?” He had died looking for free land in the frontier, shot through with a Cherokee arrow. His partner had buried him in the west and sent Mrs. Randolph his musket and his spectacles. The gun she keeps hung behind her cabin door, where all the little Randolphs know to find it.
“I mostly miss the money he brought in, to speak frankly. He was a good father to the little ones and did well by us, but there’s something rather nice about one’s own life. Making decisions without someone to tell you ‘no, best not do that.’ He never thought I could do much for myself.”
“We’re lucky to have you,” Helen says.
“There’s no telling what all I can do without him, miss.

There is a tautness to this relatively brief novel. The concept of Checkov’s gun is well implemented. A beaten slave in one scene is employed relevantly in another. A notion of escape by boat is recommended and no sooner done than an actual boat appears. Sometimes this seemed a bit too neat. As is the bludgeoning irony of Asa freeing a panicked bird that is trapped in his house, while denying freedom to enslaved humans.

On the first page of the novel, John interrupts Tabitha’s request for more information about her mother.

He looks down the hall at the shadows whipping across the slats and holds a finger to his lips. “Can you hear any birds?”

This certainly gives one the notion that birds might be related to souls of the dead, or shadows. Could be something else entirely of course. Birds might be functioning as a sort of Greek chorus. In any case, you might want to keep this in mind as you come across the many bird references throughout the book. Land references abound as well, as wood is noted many a time, particularly pine, and flowers.

The writing in The Story of Land and Sea is beautiful, moving, and insightful. The story begins:

On days in August when sea storms bite into the North Carolina coast, he drags a tick mattress into the hall and tells his daughter stories, true and false, about her mother. The wooden shutters clatter, and Tabitha folds blankets around them to build a softness for the storm. He always tells of their courting days, of her mother’s shyness. She looked like a straight tall pine from a distance, only when he got close could he see her trembling.
“Was she scared?”
“Happy,” John says. “We were both happy.”

There is plenty more where that came from.

The Story of Land and Sea is set to launch on August 26, 2104. This is one boat you won’t want to miss.

Review posted – June 6, 2014

Publication dates – 8/26/14 – paperback, e-book, kindle, Audio CD

======================================EXTRA STUFF

The book opens with an abridged version of an Isaac Watts hymn about the joys of heaven offering one a reason not to fear death. It seems an odd intro, given that the focus in the tale is, to a large degree, about the impact of death on those left behind (no, not in the Tim LeHaye way) with no assurance of a heavenly reward waiting. Perhaps it was intended ironically. In any case, the hymn is beautifully set to music by Red Mountain Music here.

From mentalfloss.com – The Historical Horror of Childbirth

The author’s site is now up

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

book coverThe death of Nella Oortman’s father left the family in difficult straits, saddled with unexpected debts and a declining standard of living. But the widow finds a suitable match for Nella, in a successful Amsterdam merchant and trader. As he travels extensively, the wedding is a quick affair, and it is a month before he will return to his home. In October of 1686, Nella arrives there, in a very exclusive part of the city. She is greeted by her new husband’s sister, Marin, who makes her feel as welcome as a case of influenza, and who just might make you think of Mrs. Danvers.

As a wedding gift to his 18-year-old bride 39-year old Johannes Brandt acquires for her a cabinet, a kind of doll house that mirrors the Brandt home. Nella engages the services of a miniaturist, a craftsperson, to help fill the spaces. What she receives is far more than she expected, as the pieces reflect a bit too closely persons and events in the family’s life, some frighteningly so. Also, they do not always remain exactly as they were when she’d received them. And they arrive with Delphic messages. Do these tiny constructions predict the future, reflect their owners’ fears and concerns, reveal secrets, tell truths, or offer misdirections? Nella determines to find out who this mysterious miniaturist is and what is behind these small objects.

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Burton says “When writing my hero, Johannes, I had this guy in mind.”

Burton did considerable research to get her 17th century details right.

I have a bibliography as long as my arm. And then there are first-hand resources—maps, paintings, diaries, prices of food, inventories, wills—and the physical city of Amsterdam itself. I first went in 2009, which is when I saw the house in the Rijksmuseum, and then again August 2012 for my birthday – with a long list of questions and locations to visit post-fourth draft. Where did they bury the bodies in the Old Church? How many windows on the front of a gable? How did they winch furniture in? A lot in the book is all historically true in terms of life in the city… – from the Richard Lee interview

Nella’s search and her coming of age occur in a difficult time and place. The Amsterdam of the late 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age, is a world financial and military capital, a harsh, unforgiving place, where human failing and difference is not be tolerated, where neighbors are encouraged to spy and report on neighbors, (yes, very much like your office) and where it is always a contest whether the worship of gold or god will hold sway in any given circumstance. The two domains cross paths frequently.

It is this city. It is the years we all spend in an invisible cage, whose bars are made of murderous hypocrisy.

It is a time when being a woman was much more of a challenge than it is today. Marriage, paradoxically, was seen by some as the only way for women to secure any influence over their own lives. But what if a woman wanted something more, something of her own, the opportunity to be the architect of her own fortune, and not submit to a life in a golden cage. Nella may have stepped into a wealthy man’s world, but she must still take care for the many traps that have been laid by a cold society and those jealous of her husband’s success and of her. And there are challenges as well with her marriage, which was not quite what she had bargained for.

I wanted to create women who are not more ‘strongly female’ or ‘stronger than other females’, or ‘strong’ because they are braver than men, or can physically lift more saucepans or anything like that. I just wanted some women who for once are not defined by any other ideal than that they are human. – from the Richard Lee interview

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Images that inspired Nella and Marin

Jessie Burton has written a dazzling first novel. The Miniaturist presents readers with a worthy mystery, and maybe a bit of magic, offering enough twists and turns for a figure skating contest, opening tiny door after tiny door to reveal the secrets of Brandt’s household. This is a look at the Dutch golden age that will resonate with contemporary gender, race, religious and power issues. The author offers just enough imagery to enhance without overwhelming, and breathes life into an array of compelling characters. In addition, Burton paints this world with the eye of a true artist, and does it all in a book that you will not want to put down. It will require no Dutch courage to get through this one. To have crafted The Miniaturist is no small achievement. Jessie Burton has written a book that seems destined to be huge.

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The dollhouse of the real Petronelle Oortman, currently in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Review posted – April 4, 2014
Release date in the UK – July 3, 2014
Release date in the US – August 26, 2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

One must wonder what London-resident Burton thinks of actors, given how she portrays one here, and given that she has worked as an actress, while toiling as an executive assistant to bring in a few guilders. Here are links to the author’s personal webpage and her Twitter feed. She has a few more historical novels in the works. If she continues writing at this level she will be making history instead of writing about it.

In addition, her Pinterest page is most definitely worth a look

There is a lot of interesting material on Burton in this interview by Richard Lee at the Historical Novel Society site and more here in a piece from The Guardian.

Sugar loaves figure significantly in the story. While I had heard the term Sugarloaf before, my only association with it was with mountains, whether the iconic mound in the Rio de Janeiro harbor, or the host of other mountains across the planet that share the name. Never gave it much thought. But folks with a bit more historical knowledge than me (most of you) would probably know that there was a time when sugar was routinely formed into solid cone shapes for shipping. That Rio hill and its cousins seem a bit more understandably named now.

Here is a link to the wiki entry for sugarloaf, which I found pretty interesting. And another that deals with tools used for handling the stuff. Sweet.

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