Category Archives: historical

Thanksgiving, or how we used Squanto to survive..

Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends. For those in other places, I am most thankful for your blogs, your comments, and this community. In teaching American Literature, early American writings are, by far, the most painful. I am certainly glad we have them for historical purposes, but boy – talking about “how many people have died of that awful disease because we have displeased God” is kind of a downer.

But – the Thanksgiving story fascinates me, or rather, the holiday we have come to know as Thanksgiving and its origins fascinate me. A few lines in journals and memoirs created what is now one of America’s most dearly-loved holidays.

Basically, in 1621, the Pilgrims (or Separatists, as they were also known) were so dang happy everyone had stopped dropping like flies. Half their party had died within three months of landing. Squanto, who could communicate with them because he learned English as a captive, taught them how to best use the land, and Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag, befriended them. So the Pilgrims had actually learned how to navigate this New World, and it was time to party Pilgrim style – with thanks to God, hunting, and boasting to friends and family back in England (even then we were a bunch of disrespectful upstarts).

So here it is folks: a couple of the passages behind your ovens full of turkey and sweet potatoes, stoves with bubbling pots of vegetables, televisions blaring football and parades, and of course, houses packed with family. It’s truly an American holiday, and I love it, even though it marks the beginning of the end for Native Americans and the tenuous friendship we once shared.

From William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation:

Thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity. They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

And Edward Winslow, in Mourt’s Relation:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

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Texas Book Festival – Part Dos

Saturday night, I was exhausted. Like, too tired to read, and I’m never too tired to read. I guess dancing at The Broken Spoke until midnight Friday night and then traipsing across the capitol ALL day on Saturday was a bit much for this gal. I mapped out Sunday’s events, watched some HGTV in the hotel (I don’t have cable, so this was thrilling) and crashed. Sunday found me refreshed and excited to get to my two panels:

Literature on the Lam

Moderated by Skip Hollinsworth of Texas Monthly and filmed by BookTV, I was really excited about this panel. Criminals fascinate me, and I was practically fused to my seat I was so enthralled. Malcolm Beith, Jonathan Eig, Hampton Sides, and James Swanson were all panelists.

Each has a new book out dealing with infamous criminals. James Swanson, who wrote Manhunt about John Wilkes Booth, has a new book out called Blood Crimes, which is about Jefferson Davis. Patricia Cornwell deemed Manhunt to be one of the top two true crime novels along with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Hampton Sides writes about James Earl Ray in Hellhound. Jonathan Eig’s new book Get Capone posits new theories of the life Al Capone. Finally, Malcolm Beith wrote The Last Narco, a book about El Chapo, organized crime leader in Mexico.

The panel started on a light-hearted note as Hollinsworth asked Eig how he switched from writing about baseball players to Al Capone. Eig said he thought long and hard and asked himself: “Who else used baseball bats?” Eig’s sense of humor was welcome on the panel, and I’m curious how much humor comes across in his book. He says Capone was really “a product of Prohibition” who otherwise may have driven a truck or stocked store shelves. He had a chance to rake in money, though, and he took it. The odd thing about Capone, according to Eig, is how willingly he accepted the infamy. He asked “what kind of person welcomes that sort of attention” and ended by saying, “We’ve all got a little bit of larceny in us.”

Sides and Swanson were much more serious, tackling topics of national sensitivity. When asked how easily they could shake off the people of whom they wrote, all the authors said they could not. Sides and Swanson are left with questions as both John Wilkes Booth and James Earl Ray left many unanswered questions.

I particularly felt for Malcolm Beith, as he seemed genuinely disturbed by El Chapo. He answered he would never shake the man off because of the horror of his crimes, at one time killing 300 people in a vat of acid. El Chapo owns 23,000 square miles in Mexico and has enormous amounts of power. Beith, a former Mexican journalist, now resides in America and relates that at least 45 journalists in Mexico have died trying to bring to light the corruption.

Spanning cultural differences and huge time gaps, all the authors were interesting and obviously passionate about their books. I have added Manhunt, Hellhound, The Last Narco, and Get Capone to my reading list.

I can’t embed the video, but the link is here. It’s long-ish but worth the watch.

Swanson, Sides, Hollinsworth, Eig, and Beith at Literature on the Lam

Wickedly Funny Noir

This was a quirky bunch. Harry Hunsicker moderated a panel of authors including Lou Berney, Jonathan Woods, and Mark Haskell Smith. I haven’t read any of these authors, but the panel itself sounded interesting. Each was laidback and humorous and focused mainly on writing itself and not individual books. Hunsicker asked if there is any pressure to be funny, but each responded in the negative, Burney saying he writes characters “who aren’t funny but have a good sense of humor.”

How do you make sex funny? Woods, Berney, and Smith all agreed sex just is sort of funny. In fact, Berney doesn’t like writing sex scenes: “It embarrasses me; it embarrasses my Golden Retriever.” He relayed a couple of humorous scenes from his book. Smith said sex is just plain awkward, and he starts with that. He, though, apparently doesn’t shy away from these scenes, instead writing every gory detail. (My mom went to another panel the day before and said it was the closest thing to porn she’s ever heard. Apparently people with children there walked out as there was no warning and a children’s author was on the panel. Odd)

All agreed, as Burney said, “You have to learn to love killing things.” There is not a lot of humor in crime, but as Smith said, often the people with the best sense of humor are in law enforcement. The gist was, if we can’t laugh at something, we might as well “put a collective gun to our collective head,” Woods said

The audience here definitely felt more like a bunch of amateur writers. You know the type. They are really there for validation of their own work as opposed to really listening to what the authors have to say. Not all amateurs are like this, but many are. I did ask a question, though, to see if any of these guys knew any other funny noir other than Dashiell Hammett who wrote around the same time. They gave me some more current names, but that wasn’t really what I was looking for. It was a fun panel, though, and I will likely pick up Burney’s book Gutshot Straight. Mark Haskell Smith has written several books, Baked, Salty, Delicious, and Moist. Woods has a new collection of short stories Bad Juju and Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem.

Hunsicker, Berney, Woods, and Smith at Wickedly Funny Noir

 

The weekend was fabulous, and I can’t believe I have to wait another year to go back. I will definitely have to find some bookish events in the meantime. I hope you, dear reader, have something fun and bookish to look forward to – any great events happening near you?


Will we still have this argument in another 153 years?

Is it in feminine novels only that courtship, marriage, servants, and children are the staple? Is not this true of all novels? — of Dickes, of Thackeray, of Bulwer and a host of others? Is it peculiar to feminine pens, most astute and liberal of critics? Would a novel be a novel if it did not treat of courtship and marriage? and if it could be so recognized, would it find readers? When I see such a narrow, snarling criticism as the above, I always say to myself, the writer is some unhappy man, who has come up without the refining influence of mother, or sister, or reputable female friends…

These words begin Fanny Fern’s article “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books,” first published in the New York Ledger in 1857. 1857. 153 years ago, and if you need a little perspective, it was prior to the Civil War. Fern was one of the most commercially-successful writers during this time period, and at the height of her career was the highest paid journalist – male or female. Again, I’ll put a little perspective on that. Most of us my age or older didn’t study many female writers in school. They weren’t included in the textbooks for study. In my American Literature class, we discuss this article, and when we got to it this week, the parallels were blatant between that time period and the current controversy over whether or not the New York Times is biased toward male writers.

I haven’t said much about #franzenfreude, as the argument has been dubbed on Twitter. If you haven’t heard, two female writers, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, publicly discussed how the Times seems to favor the white male darlings of the literary world. At the time, Jonathan Franzen’s name was absolutely everywhere. He was the first writer to be on the cover of Time magazine in the past 15 years (Stephen King was the last). His book was pre-selling like crazy. Reviews abounded. Even President Obama got a copy, causing a rush on an unpublished book (and headache for the publisher).

Picoult and Weiner both agree they are not on the same plane as Franzen (they are considered commercial fiction as opposed to literary fiction), but they do not argue for themselves alone but for all the women writers whose names seem to remain in obscurity. Now I’m not a huge fan of Franzen as I have read The Corrections, a novel, and How to Be Alone, a collection of essays, but I have not yet read Freedom. Neither of the former reads blew me away; in fact, the essay collection was a bit pretentious. Ultimately, though, Franzen is just the vehicle for the current issue: do white male authors receive more attention than female authors and authors of color? I don’t think anyone is really even trying to claim otherwise.

In fact, the Times is not alone in the pomp and circumstance. I read an excellent blog post at Color Online about how even Oprah has bowed to Franzen. I don’t have a problem with her adding him to her Book Club as that is her right and choice (even though he snubbed her in 2001, citing previous “schmaltzy” picks behind his reasoning). But as the article points out, it’s about who Oprah’s list leaves off: women. But again, is it really Franzen’s fault? No. Obviously, this is much larger than the Times or Oprah. (I’ll leave the chick lit discussion for another day and time).

Why are we so dismissive of women’s voices? To me, good fiction is good fiction. I just find it ironic and sad that we have not really evolved past the problems with which Fanny Fern takes issue. Male writers at the time were criticizing Fern’s commercial success, which is a slight shift, but you could certainly view J.K. Rowling in a similar light. In fact, part of the reason no one knows her first name (Joann) is her publisher encouraged her to be a bit androgynous on the book cover so male children would pick up Harry Potter as well. This is discussed in a Salon article here, though the author seems to get a bit off track. Jodi Picoult is also a commercially-successful writer, having most recently had her novel, My Sister’s Keeper made into a movie. Hunger Games is written by a woman, Suzanne Collins. Are these books less important or less literary because women wrote them? Harry Potter is certainly in a league of its own, but I would argue Rowling knows her craft and is extremely literary. Does her popularity mean she cannot be a good writer? Lorrie Moore, on the other hand, is not a well-known name. Similar to Franzen, she writes quiet novels of family and home. Her face, though, has not graced the cover of Time; she was not chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. There are frighteningly good women writers out there, but we tend to marginalize them or use their popularity as a bar to their “literary” status.

Fanny Fern knew and understood this, and she ends her small column from 153 years ago with a stinging retort to all those who have written her off (and I couldn’t say it better myself):

But seriously — we have had quite enough of this shallow criticism (?) on lady-books …. Whether ladies can write novels or not, is a question I do not intend to discuss; but that some of them have no difficulty in finding either publishers or readers, is a matter of history …. Granting that lady-novels are not all that they should be — is such shallow, unfair, wholesale, sneering criticism (?) the way to reform them? Would it not be better and more manly to point out a better way kindly, justly, and, above all, respectfully? or –what would be a much harder task for such critics – write a better book!


Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

A few weeks ago, at the library, I saw a really interesting book cover: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. I didn’t pick it up as I have been insanely busy, and my book bag was already overflowing. However, when I saw the Texas Book Festival site and got so excited about the author list, I knew I had to go back and pick up Leviathan as Scott Westerfeld will be in Austin in October! There are also other bloggers whose opinions I respect (like Amanda at The Zen Leaf) who rave about Westerfeld’s series, The Uglies.

Leviathan is set during World War I, and much of it is historically accurate. Westerfeld’s genius, though, is in changing how these events take place, and I was fascinated pretty much from page one. I’ve learned since reading this, the technique is called ‘steampunk.’* The major dividing line between the two sides is not simply political. Instead, the Germans, Austrians, and Russians are Clankers – they create and depend on huge metal, industrial machines to defend themselves. Alek, the son of the assassinated archduke, is thrust from a cush life with simple defense training in a mechanical Stormwalker into defending himself and several servants bound to protect him. Alek’s questionable lineage makes him a threat to the forces wanting to take the place of the archduke. Running from his own people, Alek is forced to look at life in a much different way, made unbelievably clear to him when he comes into contact with the outside world.

The British, not yet in the fight, believe themselves to be more enlightened. Termed the Darwinists, the British rely on new crossbred animals to defend themselves. Scientists look to animals to find strengths and abilities and then use these  to create super animals, such as the leviathan (have I mentioned my love affair with this word? I love it). Filled with hydrogen by other smaller working animals, the leviathan is an air ship, similar to a blimp. Deryn Sharp, a young woman whose father was obsessed with flight, is determined to be in the British Air Service. Young women are not allowed, however, and Deryn must disguise herself and prove she is capable enough to man the ship. When Leviathan comes under attack and crashes in Switzerland near Alek’s secret hiding place, both Alek and Deryn come face to face and forge an unlikely alliance, as the two sides with distinct ideologies (Clankers and Darwinists) are distrustful and skeptical of one another.

This story was fascinating to me: the Darwinist animals and their purposes were interesting (although the implications were somewhat troubling), but the descriptions of them were beautiful as well. The book is illustrated with beautiful work by Keith Thompson and though I loved the illustrations, Westerfeld’s words truly built these creatures in my mind. The mindset of the two sides was evident and understandable – the Darwinists are seen as intervening where they should not be, creating “beasties” for the sole purpose of exploitation. The Clankers are seen as wasteful and unimaginative. Both sides have excellent points, which I think will further be explored in the sequel.

Which brings me to: THE SEQUEL!! I didn’t know anything about this book when I picked it up and certainly didn’t realize there was a sequel, scheduled to appear in October, until I got to the end – a total cliffhanger. When I went in search of the sequel, I realized it wasn’t out yet and was more than a little miffed that Westerfeld would leave me in such a bind. In other words, I LOVED this book. It is an excellent, fun read, and I would recommend it to adults and children alike.

Last and not least, I loved the female roles in this book. Deryn is a feisty, spunky character with great dialogue and an inner drive that is admirable. Plus, she likes science. In fact, she gets totally wrapped up in it:

How old Darwin figured out how to weave new species from old, pulling out the tiny threads of life and tangling together under a microscope. How evolution had squeezed a copy of Deryn’s own life chain into every cell of her body. How umpteen different beasties made up the Leviathan – from microscopic hydrogen-farting bacteria in its belly to the great harnessed whale. How the airships creatures, like the rest of Nature, were always struggling amongst themselves in messy, snarling equilibrium.

Deryn makes no apologies for her preferences and passions, but she certainly gets a kick out of one of Leviathan’s passengers. Dr. Barlow, a female relative of Darwin, makes a surprise appearance on the airship, shocking Deryn, who thus far has only seen that a woman must hide her true identity to do what she loves. Dr. Barlow is stubborn and intelligent and a leader in her field. It was exciting to see such strong female characters, even if one is in disguise. I trust Westerfeld will address this further as the series moves along. Leviathan is an action novel, fun for all ages; pick it up, and watch for my review of Behemoth, the next book of the series.

*Steampunk is really quite fascinating, with origins in many familiar classics authors. I once wrote an essay on the marriage of science and fiction in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The beginnings of the idea are there. Alternate history is really what it’s all about, but it’s also about the scientific discoveries during the late 19th century and early 20th century, which allowed writers, inventors, and artists to open their imaginations to a world previously unknown to them. Another aside: I heard on NPR this morning that Charles Babbage actually invented the first computer in the mid 1800s. Who knew? (If you did and think I’m really lame, please don’t tell me in comments. Thanks.) 🙂

Other reviews:

The Book Smugglers

The Zen Leaf


Ah, my man Jeeves

P.G. Wodehouse. I wanted to read him for years. You know, on Twitter, there are frequent conversations about authors who intimidate us, authors we know we should read but don’t, etcetera, etcetera. I’ll be perfectly honest, I can’t stand Dickens. Nope, not even a little bit. No, not even that novel you love that you think I should just give a second chance. There are no second chances with Dickens. Life is short; Dickens is always long… winded, that is. However, I can also admit when I am wrong: I thought the Jeeves books would be a total joke, which in all fairness to me, they sort of are.

However, to call the genius that is Jeeves a total joke is the equivalent of comparing a 3-year-old’s knock-knock joke to Margaret Cho. (And that chick is fu-nny.) For those not in the know, this is Jeeves:

He’s thoroughly British, full of common sense, and 110% competent. He is valet to Bertie Wooster. Mr. Wooster…not so competent. Bertie is young, wealthy, and a bit of an airhead. He is constantly engaged to some woman or another, and usually, the engagement is either a ruse or the result of some verbal altercation with a beautiful but slightly crazy female. Jeeves is there to save the day, however.

I have now read two Jeeves stories: The Catnappers and How Right You Are, Jeeves. In both, I felt supremely sorry for Jeeves, who was attempting to visit relatives or take a small break from his exhausting boss. Alas, there are no holidays for valets. Instead, Bertie manages to ruin these mini-breaks, and Jeeves once again steps in to save Bertie and his surrounding cast of characters from disaster or at least, social disaster. The other recurring characters are Bertie’s aunts, whom he treats with loving disdain, referring to them as “aged relative” or “battle-ax.” The aunts are often as inane as Bertie but are also endearing and entertaining.

The plots are fast and funny, as is the dialogue. Wodehouse is a peach for knowing his grammar well enough to use it and misuse it well. Bertie will dangle a modifier and then humorously correct it. He is also one for malapropisms, and they are littered throughout the books. I highly recommend these social parodies; Wodehouse’s biting sarcasm equals the humorous social commentary Jane Austen was quite famous for. He just jazzes it up a bit.


Review: In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson

As I sat there remembering, time went by …. Then a full moon rose, scattering its bone-white light, in which I fancied I could see clear through the water to the village that used to be there, like an image preserved in water glass. There it was, spread out below me, darkly glittering and shimmering under the barely perceptible rippling of the surface

As I stared, I began to feel that I could reach out and touch it. It was like the wold beyond the mirror in Cocteau’s Orpheus. When you reach out and touch the glass, it turns to water and you can plunge through it into the Underworld.

Peter Robinson’s In a Dry Season revolves around Hobb’s End, a Yorkshire village flooded and turned into a reservoir in the early 1950s. In a particularly hot summer, the reservoir dries up, and a young boy playing in the detritus discovers a body buried under an outbuilding. DCI Alan Banks is on the outs with his boss Jimmy Riddle and is given the case as punishment. Riddle should know better as Banks sinks his teeth into the decades-old case, determined to find the killer if he or she is still alive.

Robinson interweaves the present with Banks’ marriage and career in tatters with a country in similar plight: 1940s Hobb’s End, complete with blackout curtains, RAF dances, rationing, death, and suffering. Gwen Shackleton, the shopkeeper’s daughter, cares for her ailing mother and minds the shop. One day, Gloria comes into the store, and Gwen the quiet, bookish girl compares Gloria’s eyes to Hardy’s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. When Gloria asks for cigarettes out of the store’s ration, Gwen tells her no.

I was lying, of course. We did have cigarettes, but what small supply we had we kept under the counter for our registered customers. We certainly didn’t go selling them to strange and beautiful land girls with eyes out of Thomas Hardy novels.

Gloria is enigmatic – loved and hated for her beauty. Gwen’s brother walks in, and their fortuitous meeting forever links Gwen and Gloria, through war, through loss, and through love.

I find Robinson to be at his best when he melds two storylines from different time periods, both inside the minds of the victim/victim’s family and friends as well as the detective seeking justice for these people. The scenes of Yorkshire during World War II were really interesting; the quiet desperation amid a hopeful, fearful people was heartbreaking.

Banks is a quiet detective. If you’ve had no exposure to him before, he likes his Laphroaig, but he likes it with a side of opera. He’s flawed but fascinating with a deep sense of right and wrong, whether right and wrong is inside police procedural or not. In a Dry Season is one of his best, and I’m looking forward to reviewing his newest book for LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer group.

If you have never read any Robinson, I urge you to look him up (as well as Ian Rankin). If you’ve read any Robinson, what are your favorites? Have you read this particular novel? Are you looking forward to his latest?


Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters

I first picked up a Sarah Waters novel as an undergraduate. I was buying books at the campus bookstore, and the book caught my eye because Sarah Waters was my great-grandmother’s name. Plus, the cover was beautiful. Reading the back, I was hooked. When I think about it now, I laugh at my naive self – at the time, buying a book for a class I wasn’t taking seemed illicit and dangerous. Yes, I know. I was a dork. No underage binge drinking or kegstands. Instead, I bought books THAT WERE NOT ON MY COURSE LIST.

After seeing The Little Stranger reviews the last couple months, I decided I needed to find more of her work. My library didn’t have any, but I filled out a handy little card with Affinity, and lo and behold, they called me last week to let me know they had acquired the book and were holding it for me. (I love the library).

A splendid example of Gothic literature, Affinity is an exploration of mental illness, spiritualism, confinement, and sexuality. Margaret Prior is “ill.” Her father has died and with him, any hope she may have of freedom. A spinster, she worked with her father, a writer and researcher of Renaissance art. He has promised Margaret a trip to Italy with her close friend (and, it appears, former lover) Helen. After he dies, though, Margaret sees a long, bleak life, caring for her mother. Her father’s friend Mr. Shillitoe intervenes and convinces Margaret and her mother to allow Margaret to visit Millbank, the local prison, as a Lady Visitor. There, she will show the inmates how to be a lady and, more importantly, will learn how much better she has it than the women she visits.

However, the prison seems to be the last place to heal the depressed young woman:

[Millbank’s] scale is vast, and its lines and angles, when realised in walls and towers of yellow brick and shuttered windows, seem only wrong or perverse. It is as if the prison had been designed by a man in the grip of a nightmare or a madness – or had been made expressly to drive its inmates mad. I think it would certainly drive me mad, if I had to work as a warder there. As it was, I walked flinchingly beside the man who led me, and paused once to glance behind me, then to gaze at the wedge of sky that showed above.

The prison is damp and dark, covered with lime and with women whose eyes

were terribly dull. Their faces were pale, and their necks, and their wrists and fingers, very slender. I thought of Mr. Shillitoe saying that a prisoner’s heart was weak, impressionable, and needed a finer mould to shape it. I thought of it, and became aware again of my own heart beating.

Margaret herself is impressionable, though, and as she follows the matrons on her tour, she stops to compose herself and becomes aware of one cell in particular, a cell closed off except for an inspection flap and the prisoner’s sentence hanging above it.

It was only from this, indeed, that I knew the cell was occupied at all, for there seemed to emanate from it a marvellous stillness – a silence, that seemed deeper yet than all the restless Millbank hush surrounding it. Even as I began to wonder over it, however, the silence was broken. It was broken by a sigh, a single sigh – it seemed to me, a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story; and the sigh being such a complement to my own mood I found it worked upon me, in that setting, rather strangely.

The woman prisoner, sentenced to four years because of fraud and assault is Selina Dawes, a young spiritualist. The novel switches between Margaret’s written diary and Miss Dawes’ own account of her activities as a spiritualist. Miss Dawes, taken in by Mrs. Brink, a lady obsessed with communicating with her mother’s spirit, holds dark circles (or seances) for Mrs. Brink and her friends. One fateful night, however, she sits with a young woman who is beaten during their session. When Mrs. Brink comes upon the scene, she has a heart attack and dies. Selina explains that her spirit guide Peter Quick hurts the young woman, but to no avail. She is imprisoned.

The two women are drawn to one another. As not quite lady but not quite thief, Selina enjoys the companionship, and Margaret feels bolstered. She is at first skeptical of Selina’s gift, but Selina sees things about Margaret she cannot. The two become close, and Selina calls Margaret by a secret name – Aurora. Selina tells her:

I feel your sorrow as darkness….Oh, what an ache it is! I thought at first that it had emptied you, that you were hollow, quite hollow, like an egg with the meat blown out of it. I think you think that, too. But you are not empty. You are full – only shut quite tight, and fastened like a box. What do you have here that you must keep locked up like that?

Selina hits upon it, and it seems to set Margaret burning. For Margaret has much hidden – she loves or loved Helen, now her brother’s wife; she wants to go to Italy and is jealous of her sister’s honeymoon there; she writes constantly, hiding her diary from her mother and the servants. She begins a sort-of symbiotic relationship with Selina. She strengthens, saying:

I knew my trips to her had made me too much like myself, like my old self, my naked Aurora self. Now, when I tried to be Margaret again, I couldn’t. It seemed to me that she had dwindled, like a suit of clothes.

But instead of the relationship sapping Selina of her strength as the dark circles did – Selina, too, seems emboldened by it. Margaret and Selina begin to make plans for an unbelievable escape, and Margaret stands up to her mother. She is tired of being discussed while her back is turned and wonders, when Stephen discusses her illness with her mother:

Why do gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly, when women’s are so easily stifled?

Affinity was captivating for a lot of reasons, particularly for me because the correlation between much of the book and the story “The  Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s one of my favorites – in fact, part of my graduate thesis focused on it – and the similarities were too blatant to ignore. Knowing it is one of Waters’ favorites sealed the deal. If you have read the story, look back at the first description of the prison: it’s spot-on Gilman. The narrator is convincing, even though she is, on closer examination, unreliable. The story is told through a diary, a forbidden means of expression. “Voice” is also a concern in both – who hears the narrator? There were actually points within the novel where I found myself wondering if Selina was part of Margaret’s psyche; she already has an alternate identity – Aurora – that makes her feel more like herself.

The novel, as most of Waters’ books, has an astounding twist, one that left me both haunted and betrayed. Because other than setting the tone masterfully, Waters has the ability to make me feel like her main character. At first, I was skeptical of Selina, but I, too, was drawn in by her and began to believe the spirits visited her. I believed she could escape through the help of her spirit friends, so at the end, (I won’t go into detail) the twist so startled me, I felt rocked, but not in the sense that it was implausible or not in keeping with the rest of the book. The somewhat unreliable narrator (Margaret is given chloral and laudanum through much of the story) felt believable and sympathetic. The one problem I had with the ending was not knowing the truth of Selina’s story. However, the more I thought about it, the more I could see the full effect of Waters’ writing. Much like Margaret, I was left in confusion. Bothersome though it may be, I wasn’t ever to know the truth of Selina’s story. Dark and oppressive, Affinity is an irresistible read – just think about starting it on a bright, sunny day, not a rain, dreary evening like I did…

Other opinions:

Matt

Nymeth

A Work in Progress


Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

I strike the ground with the soles of my feet and life rises up my legs, spreads up my skeleton, takes possession of me, drives away distress and sweetens my memory. The world trembles. Rhythm is born on the island beneath the sea; it shakes the earth, it cuts through me like a lightning bolt and rises toward the sky…”Dance, dance Zarite, the slave who dances is free…while he is dancing”…I have always danced.

Switching between a slave narrative and an omniscient narrator, Island Beneath the Sea spans 40 years and two countries and also tracks the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (later Haiti*) that would result in the island’s independence from the British, French, and Spanish and the mass immigration to New Orleans. It follows Toulouse Valmorain, who comes to Saint-Domingue in 1770 from Paris, the pampered son of a sugarcane plantation owner. However, upon his arrival for a quick visit, he finds his father dying and sees the condition of the land, and “the tour was sufficient for him to understand that the slaves were starving and the plantation had been saved from ruin only because the world was consuming sugar with increasing voraciousness.” He works hard to improve the conditions, although he does not see himself as a plantation owner, much less the owner of slaves. Valmorain, instead, sees himself as “a man of letters” and has difficulty punishing slaves or allowing his overseer Prosper Cambray to mete out discipline.

Throughout his early years in Saint-Domingue, he encounters Violette Boisier, a cocotte or courtesan, with whom he keeps company. Violette, even though of mixed blood, is a sign of civility and elegance, so different from the harsh life on the island. She is a smart, independent woman who, with her slave Loula, amasses a small fortune through enterprising businesses. When Toulouse Valmorain decides to marry a Spanish woman, Eugenia de Solar, it is Violette’s advice he seeks as to house and home. Violette outfits the home  and chooses a personal maid for Eugenia, the young Zarite, also known as Tete.

Tete is nine when she is bought from the home of a minister’s widow and leaves her only family, Honore, an old man who cares for her like a grandfather and maman. It is through him that she learns of the loas, or spirits of voodoo. She is taught to serve and cares for Eugenia Valmorain, the weak wife of the master who, as he says, “spends the night tormented by nightmares and the day tormented by reality.” Eugenia was raised in a convent and is not at all prepared for the heat, insects, and cruelty on Saint-Domingue. As Eugenia’s health deteriorates, Valmorain begins raping Tete, and in doing so, ties Tete to himself in more ways than he would like.

Island Beneath the Sea, beautifully translated from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, is certainly no love story in the traditional sense, for in this day and age, love is withheld or allowed based on wealth, class, skin color, and religion. But this was a time when blood was measured by percentage, and Allende tells us:

Among the free mulattoes, the affranchis, there were more than sixty classifications set by percentage of white blood, and that determined their social level. In spite of subtleties of color, the mulattoes were united by their shared aspiration to pass for whites and their visceral scorn for Negroes. The slaves, whose number was ten times greater than that of the whites and affranchis combined, counted for nothing, neither in the census of the population nor in the colonists’ consciousness.

In such a place, humanity is always relative; thus, the slave revolt is courageous but bloody while Valmorain’s own discovery of slaves as people is both typical but appalling. Violence is traded for violence; hatred for hatred. During one period, all the slaveholders are being killed by the rebels, and this included domestic slaves because they were treated better than field slaves. In essence, the rebels began imposing their own systems of prejudice upon the slaves. In the historical context, Island Beneath the Sea is truly fascinating while Allende’s cast of characters, including Sancho, Valmorain’s pleasure-seeking brother-in-law; Dr. Parmentier, a noble man with a secret; and Tante Rose, a slave, healer, and mambo, struck me as more real than any I’ve read in quite some time.

From Saint-Domingue to the streets and slave markets of New Orleans, the novel is impressive and much more worthy of what I’ve come to expect from Isabel Allende**. Although not a romance as some others have claimed, the characters are in love with freedom, but the question remains: what can be gained from freedom and what will it cost?

*The novel is very timely, but Allende began researching and writing the novel four years before the 2010 earthquake.

**Her novel, Daughter of Fortune was somewhat disappointing. You can read my review here.


Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

I hate when I really, really love the first book I pick up by any particular author. It makes anything thereafter usually pale in comparison. I’m not saying that is always the case. However, I read Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende because her book The House of the Spirits is one of my all-time favorite books. If you haven’t read it, please please add it to your TBR list right away. The last time I was at the library, I decided to try to remove the stigma of the first great book and pick up another Allende.

From the blurb:

Orphaned at birth, Eliza Sommers is raised in the British colony of Valparaiso, Chile, by the well-intentioned Victorian spinster Miss Rose and her more rigid brother Jeremy. Just as she meets and falls in love with the wildly inappropriate Joaquin Andieta, a lowly clerk who works for Jeremy, gold is discovered in the hills of norther California. By 1849, Chileans of every stripe have fallen prey to feverish dreams of wealthy. Joaquin takes off for San Francisco to seek his fortune, and Eliza, pregnant with his child, decides to follow him.

Although it sounds promising, this book became really tedious for me at times. In fact, almost any book I read, I read in one or two sittings. This book took a bit longer, and I needed frequent breaks. I really enjoyed the historical aspect of this novel as well as the look into life in China during the 1800s and the Gold Rush. The character Tao Chi’en was my favorite. He is a zhong yi, or medicine man. As a young boy, he is sold into service but manages through his healing skills to be sold again as an apprentice to a Cantonese master. The man teaches Tao Chi’en and guides him through life. After a series of unfortunate events, Tao Chi’en is shanghaied into service at sea. Apparently, this was common practice. The sea men would get a man drunk and either force him to sign a document of service or use his thumbprint. Tao Chi’en wakes up aboard ship, but his skills as a healer are noticed early on, and the captain, John Sommers, comes to respect him. Tao Chi’en later helps Eliza follow Joaquin to San Francisco, and again, their relationship is interesting, but Allende doesn’t fully develop it.

The book drags. I could not stand Eliza’s character once she falls in love. Her actions are rash, and after a certain point, they are also completely unbelievable. She follows her lover to San Francisco and endures all sorts of hardship simply to find him. She continues  her search, at times, out of principle only. Her exploration of a woman’s freedom is refreshing but a bit – again – unbelievable. Her foster mother, Rose, has a back story that also tries to reinforce the theme of female independence; it’s just not very convincing. Worst of all, the ending was the most abrupt I believe I have ever read. I really had to look (as this is a library book) to make sure no pages were torn from it. Nope. It just ended.  There are a lot of things for which I will forgive an author, but an unsatisfying ending is not one of them. It felt shocking (outside of the story). Within the story, it just did not seem to make sense. There was quite a bit more I wanted to know upon reading the last sentence.


A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

It’s not often I venture from the tried and true. I’m an American lit girl. I’ll stray for a good mystery, and I’ve always loved British lit, but I’m an American reader through and through. I’m fascinated by novels of race and identity, and the collective consciousness of American writers intrigues me. However, I’m also very open minded as a reader. (Yes, you can be open minded and picky – I promise… I know you were thinking it.) The world of book blogging has made me consciously consider my reading choices, and for that, I am very grateful. I don’t mean that I run out and pick up the book about which everyone is blogging. Far from it. I would much rather find my own rewarding reads. The library makes that a possibility for me. I know some bloggers are making a concerted effort not to spend money on books for very valid and personal reasons. My reason is necessity. This past year, after quitting a lucrative but miserable job to teach as a university adjunct instructor (a choice I don’t regret in the least), life has been difficult financially. So the library enables me to make adventurous choices in my reading.

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam was an adventurous choice for me. Set in Dhaka, East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and in the 1970s, the surroundings were completely foreign to me. I love to travel, but have never visited this region of the world. The novel opens with the words: “Dear Husband, I lost our children today.” No, the children have not died, and no, they are not simply lost in the colorful markets of Bangladesh. Rehana Haque, widow, has been declared unfit to raise her children because she has little money and took her children out of school to see Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. She grieves, and in grieving, her brother and sister-in-law make a play to raise the children on their own across all of India in Lahore, West Pakistan. This event shakes Rehana deeply and forever alters her life even though she is able to get her children back. As grown children, Sohail and Maya are headstrong, enthusiastic, convicted citizens who want a better life and a better country. When her son decides to join in fighting, he leaves and cannot stop him, “not just so she would have Sohail’s confidence, but because she could not blame anyone but herself for making him so fine, so ready to take charge. This was who she had hoped he would become, even if she had never imagined that her son, or the world, would come to this.” Rehana worries her children will be lost to her once again when internal and external conflicts threaten their existence.

A tale of love, loss, heartbreak, war, and sacrifice, A Golden Age is full of humanity and the lengths to which a mother can and will go in the fight for her children.