Monday, March 23, 2015

Dombey and Son



I've been putting off writing a post about the most recent Dickens novel that I finished, Dombey and Son, because I can't figure out what I want to say about it.  This is one of those "leap-of-faith" posts where you sit down and start typing and hope that something coherent emerges.

Overall impression - I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads, although it is not my favorite Dickens of the ones I've read so far.  It's not as good as A Tale of Two Cities, or Little Dorrit, or David Copperfield, which I'm currently rereading.  But, it's infinitely better than Hard Times, which I disliked.  I think it's really a 4-star book, but the Dickens name counts for a star on its own, I suppose.

The best place to begin with a Dickens book is the characters--he was brilliant at populating his books with an extraordinary number of well-drawn, interesting characters.  My biggest problem with the book is that I don't think Mr. Dombey was a convincing character.  I loathed him, which as a reader, I was meant to do.  But, I never really got why he shunned his sweet daughter, Florence, until it was almost too late.  I know that he was disappointed that she wasn't a thriving boy, ready to step into the role of son and heir, but that wasn't enough to explain to me why he couldn't get over it.  I really think Dickens should've given us Mr. Dombey's backstory.  We get to meet his sister, Louisa Chick, but their relationship tells me nothing about the forces that shaped him into who he was.

I loved Florence, and was absolutely thrilled that Dickens didn't kill her off as he seemed threatening to do with some red-herring foreshadowing. Maybe he meant to, but since this was a serialized work, he could have changed his mind after tossing out some hints that she was as fragile in health as her brother, Paul.  

Speaking of Paul, I went into the book thinking that he made it to adulthood, and I was pretty disappointed that he died before he could convince his father than money was a means and not an end.  He was a sweetie, though, and his deathbed scene was all that I expected of Dickens, whose pathetic scenes are the stuff of legends.

Edith Granger was another character that I never really got.  As with Mr. Dombey, I understand that she hated being in the role of being auctioned off to the highest bidder in marriage market, but for the life of me, I don't get why she didn't tell her mother to back off.  While Mrs. Skewton was a money-grubber, Edith was no door mat and could have managed her.  Again, more of Edith's backstory would have been helpful.

James Carker was a wonderful villain--I liked seeing him as a prototype for Uriah Heep insofar as he was also an underling who ingratiated his way into controlling the firm.  Carker's white teeth were extremely creepy and terribly effective as a way of encapsulating Carker.  Again, I wanted details about his relationship to Alice.  Did he seduce her?  And what were the details of brother John's transgression?  It's amazing that in a book this long, there were so many unanswered questions.  I loved their sister, Harriet, and wished I knew more about her.

Captain Cuttle, Major Bagstock, Rob the Grinder (what is a grinder, anyway?), Polly, Walter and his uncle, Susan Nipper, and Mr. Toots were all wonderful characters and I enjoyed spending time with all of them.

My conclusion is that Dombey and Son was a bit of a proving ground for a lot of what came to perfection in David Copperfield.  Their plots are very different but some themes are similar--make-shift families, surrogate parents, for example.

Dombey and Son fulfills the category of "A Very Long Classic Novel" in my 2015 Back to the Classics Challenge.



Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Top Ten Books on my Spring Reading List


I am currently reading 5 books but haven't finished anything recently, so no fodder for posts, so I was thrilled when I discovered that today's Top Ten Tuesday theme (at The Broke and the Bookish) was about books we are excited about reading this spring.

Turns out, my reading lists are about to being thrown out the window because there a so many great books that just appeared on my horizon that I am very excited to read.

1.  Girl on a Train - I am planning to listen to this using a library copy, which means it might actually be Fall before my turn comes, but I am eager to read it.

2.  Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania - I really enjoy Erik Larson's books and since I am currently reading a lot about WWI, the timing on this couldn't be better.

3.  The Buried Giant - I'm a new Kazuo Ishiguro fan, having only fairly recently read Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, and this latest novel sounds intriguing and I know the writing will blow me away...as usual.

4.  Emma: A Modern Retelling - I have mixed feelings about the quality of the novels that have emerged from the Austen Project (i.e., modern retellings of Austen's 6 novels by well-known novelists), but I like Alexander McCall Smith and I like Edinburgh and I love Emma and I'm hopeful that he has done right by Austen and her Emma.

5.  My Brilliant Friend - I always seem to be planning a trip to Italy, but whether I actually get there or not, I love to read about Italy.  This is the first novel in Elena Ferrante's trilogy about life in modern Italy.

6. Bring Up the Bodies - Wolf Hall is about to start on PBS and it's high time I read Hilary Mantel's sequel, which has been languishing on my TBR shelf for far too long.

7.  Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall - in keeping with letting the PBS broadcast schedule serve as an impetus to read, I am excited to read this first book in a series by Winston Graham.  It premieres in June, so I just might get to it!

8.  As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of 'The Princess Bride' - my husband received this Cary Elwes memoir for Christmas and it's just the kind of fun book that spring reading calls for.

9.  Opening the Mountain: Circumambulating Mount Tamalpais, A Ritual Walk - I love walking and I love the Bay Area, and I would like to go on one of the ritual walks around it.  My brother has done this a couple of times and lent me this book so that I can get inspired to put it on the calendar.

10.  Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women - I've had this non-fiction book by Jenny Hartley for awhile now, but since I've been reading a lot of Dickens lately, I'm reenergized to read it.

What are your spring reading plans?




Monday, March 09, 2015

Travelogue: San Francisco


We visited our daughter in San Francisco over the weekend to see her in Stop Kiss, an amazing play performed by the A.C.T (i.e., American Conservatory Theatre) Fellows.  But before we saw the play Saturday night, we did a little sightseeing.

First stop was Muir Woods National Monument, just north of the city in gorgeous Marin County.  We did a wonderful 5.5 mile hike—half along the floor of the valley gazing up at towering redwoods, and the other half elevated above the floor but still dwarfed by these magnificent trees.   Signs throughout the park request visitors to be quiet, and the grove really does impart a sacred feeling. 



After our hike we headed down to Stinson Beach where we had a wonderful lunch at the Parkside Café (both the fish tacos and crab cakes were sublime) before heading out to walk along the beach and sun ourselves, like seals, on the rocks.  We were blessed with beautiful clear blue skies and warm weather with just a soft sea breeze.  Heavenly.



Saturday took us to the Farmer’s Market and then Fisherman’s Wharf for taking pictures of all the sailboats jockeying for position under the Golden Gate Bridge.  In the afternoon we headed to South Beach to see the tall ships, Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain, which were docked at Pier 40.  We chatted with the crews and watched Lady Washington cast off with a deck full of tourists for a spin around the SF Bay.  If you are interested in the schedule of these beautiful ships, visit Historical Seaport.


We finished up Sunday with a stroll through Golden Gate Park--birdwatching, peoplewatching, and enjoying the wonderful warm sun and first flowers of spring before we headed to the airport and home.




Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Travel as a Political Act


I love Rick Steves' travel shows on PBS and have a couple of his destination books, but the one that caught my eye a few years ago and then languished on the TBR shelf was Travel as a Political Act.  I read it in February, finally, as part of my TBR Pile Challenge, and it was as good as I anticipated.

The basic premise is a very logical thought--the more we know first-hand about other peoples, countries, and cultures, the more likely we are to understand them, empathize with them, and find a way to live together on this tiny planet more peaceably.  By traveling and meeting real people, not just staying with the people in your tour group, we can overcome much of the media-produced fear of those whose skin color, religious practices, and priorities differ from ours.

With Steves as tour guide, the reader can visit Yugoslavia, "After the War," El Salvador, Denmark (those highly taxed but notoriously content Europeans), Turkey and Morocco (for a look at secular Islam), and Iran. The chapter on Iran was my absolute favorite--Steves was asked to do a travel show on Iran and he had to overcome his personal fears in order to do his job. I learned so much about the country of Iran and its people--this chapter alone makes the book worth getting, although I don't mean to disparage any of the rest of it!

Steves also weighs in on how various countries deal with drug problems, comparing our "war on drugs" to an alternative that legalizes possession but then emphasizes treatment.

I'll be upfront that my political leanings are pretty much aligned with Steves so nothing he advocated offended or shocked me. Reading Travel as a Political Act has resparked my flame to do more than arm-chair travel, especially to places that are more foreign than comfortable, more different than not.

For more info, visit Steves website, which has a section on Philanthropy and Social Activism, and which provides more insights into his thoughts on meaningful travel.




Thursday, February 26, 2015

Starvation Heights



Starvation Heights by Gregg Olsen is a narrative non-fiction  thriller (i.e., reads like a novel, based on a true story--you know, the genre Truman Capote invented with In Cold Blood) and was a chilling account of quack medicine that kills, circa 1911.

The book is about the arrest and trial of Linda Burfield Hazzard, a woman who called herself a doctor although she had no medical degrees but was issued a license by the state of Washington to practice osteopathy.  Her specialty was fasting her patients to health at her sanitarium in Ollala, WA, which she dubbed Wilderness Heights, but which became known as Starvation Heights.

Many of her patients fasted for 40 or more days, only taking asparagus or tomato-based liquids. Many of these patients died--more than 40, in fact.  Among these was a young Australian woman, Claire Williamson, who also happened to be an heiress. Claire's sister, Dora, survived the fasting treatment with the help of her former nanny, and together the two got the British consul to pressure the local authorities in Washington state to prosecute Hazzard for Claire's murder.

The subject was absolutely fascinating--I love learning about historical cases and since I have visited the Puget Sound area quite a bit over the past four years, I felt somewhat familiar with the landscape.  The book portrayed a wonderfully complex set of characters, from the wacko "Dr." Hazzard to her alcoholic lapdog of a husband, Sam, a variety of nurses and handymen who worked for her, the Williamson sisters, the British Vice Consul Lucien Agassiz, and a host of others.

The book was a pretty fast read, with the focus on the Williamson case interrupted occasionally for some backstory on the Hazzards--Sam was a bigamist, for which he spent time in prison--and some recollections of Ollala residents about the infamous fasting doctor who lived up the hill from them.

I confess I struggled a bit with Olsen's style--he is a true crime writer and tends to overuse metaphors and similes, and resorts to sensationalism more than I care for.  I won't say it's the best-written book I've ever read, but it was certainly interesting and the narrative related to the trial itself was riveting.

For more on the book, visit StarvationHeights.com and be sure to take a look at the pictures.  Just incredible!

I read this book with the GoodReads TuesBookTalkRead-a-Longs group.  The next book we're reading is Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson.



Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Rilla of Ingleside


I finally got around to rereading Rilla of Ingleside, the last in the Anne of Green Gables Series by Canadian author, L.M. Montgomery. Unlike the rest of the Anne books, I'd only read this one once, when I was about 15, and didn't much care for it.  For one thing, Anne is in the shadows for most of the book. And for another, it is focused exclusively on WWI.  Back when I was 15, I was definitely not interested in the least in WWI and wanted more Anne!

Time flies and people change.  Now that we are in the midst of the centennial of the Great War, I am actively seeking out books about WWI and trying to wrap my head around it.  I confess that I still have big gaps when it comes to understanding the flow of the war and the issues before and during it. I found Rilla of Ingleside to be a perfect introduction to the war.

Much of the novel is either extracts from Rilla's journal--she is Anne and Gilbert Blythe's youngest child, and is 15 in 1914--or conversations about the war, with Susan Baker, the Blythe's housekeeper, holding court in her kitchen about the latest news from the front.

In the course of the war, Rilla's three brothers, countless friends, and sweetheart join up, and she matures from a giddy, vain, flibbertigibbet to a lovely earnest, capable, caring woman.  It's classic L.M. Montgomery, with starry eyes, toothsome cookery, bewitching glens and hollows and valleys and meadows, and apt quotations.  It's full of small-town quirkiness, quaint charm, and spirited misunderstandings.  It is sweet and funny and warm, but it is also poignant and patriotic and threaded with the tragedy of senseless destruction.

Much as I love historical fiction, I really valued the fact that Montgomery wrote this novel in 1921, just three years after the end of the war.  I felt that she must've responded to the war in much the same way that the Blythe family did. Pouring over newspaper reports, studying maps, debating military strategy, praying that the lines would hold, raising the flag over victories, and working hard to keep the faith over defeats.  

Rilla felt personal in a way that, much as I love the other Anne books, they do not.  In reading Rilla, I feel like I had an insight into what Canadians living through the Great War thought and felt about it, how they responded to their role in the global conflict, and how they viewed not only England and France, but also the U.S. and its late involvement in the war.

Rereading Rilla now, I can fully understand why I didn't like it as a teenager.   It wasn't what I wanted an Anne book to be.  That said, I thought it was wonderful.  Despite the sadness (and there are some very sad parts), Rilla is still definitely a feel-good book.

Final thought--I couldn't help but do the math and realize that if Rilla and Ken Ford, her sweetheart, do marry and have children right away, as expected, their children will be of age to march off to WWII in 1939-1945.  L.M. Montgomery died in 1942 at the age of 68.  Recently, it has been revealed that she suffered from depression and her death was possibly a suicide.  I can't help but wonder if seeing the world enveloped in yet another catastrophic war after soldiering through the first one was too much to bear.  I don't mean to end this post on a downer.

Rilla is a lovely, warm, uplifting novel from an author whose works shaped me into the person I am today.  It's also a great way to get a handle on the outline of the Great War.

This is the first book in my Back to the Classics challenge for 2015, nicely fitting into the category of Classic Children's Book.




Tuesday, February 10, 2015

State of Wonder



I'd been hearing about how good Ann Patchett's State of Wonder was, so when I was putting together my TBR Pile Challenge reading list in December I added it and then moved it to first position on the shelf.  It was a wonderfully satisfying novel.

It takes place mostly along the Amazon, where protagonist Dr. Marina Singh goes to try to find out what happened to her friend and colleague Dr. Anders Eckman.  He disappeared after being sent down by the pharmaceutical company they both work for to investigate the progress of a new drug being developed by a third colleague, Dr. Annick Swenson.

At first I was thrilled to be reading a compelling novel that was pretty much unlike anything I have read before.  My armchair travels frequently to Europe but very rarely to South America so that change of venue I found refreshing.  Plus Marina is an American-Indian (not as in Native American, but her father was from India), and I found that aspect of her backstory interesting as well. She's an interesting, sympathetic character that I found I could relate to despite our lives being drastically dissimilar.

I was impressed with her sense of loyalty and friendship, her professional integrity, and her chutzpah. She keeps her head in crises, thinks through and solves problems, and doesn't let her head rule her heart.

Once she finally got to the Amazon, however, I realized that the basic story arc started to seem familiar and it struck me that State of Wonder is a reworking of Joseph Conrad's classic, Heart of Darkness.  Just as Charles Marlow in Heart of Darkness goes down the Congo in search of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, Marina Singh goes down the Amazon in search of both Anders Ekman and the mysterious Annick Swenson.  I haven't read Heart of Darkness since I was a sophomore in high school in the 70s, so I can't draw more parallels than that, but now I'm considering a reread of it just to see if there are more parallels.  I just did an internet search and it appears that I am not alone in making the connection!  Can't wait to read what others wrote about this.

Anyway, back to why I found it satisfying.  I liked Marina--I had a stake in her story.  I visited the Amazon, which is not exactly on my top 50 places to visit, but I found the armchair visit fascinating.  I learned a ton about how drugs are developed.  I adored Easter, the native deaf manchild who has got to be one of the best fictional characters I've encountered in a long time.  I liked the moral and ethical conundrums that Marina faced as she came to understand what her role in her world could be, given her skills, her emotional constitution, and the opportunities that Dr Swenson reveal to her.

State of Wonder made me think--it took me to a world I know very little about and educated me--it got my heart thumping (there are a couple of heart stopping scenes: ever wrestle an Anaconda snake?)--and it made me care deeply about what happened to the characters in the story.  What more could I ask for?  Oh, yeah.  The writing is magnificent.  Ann Patchett is a new favorite author.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Spotlight: Authentic Arts: Venice, A Travel Guide to Murano Glass, et al

I love Venice, even though I haven't visited it yet.  I enjoy reading about the history of this queen city, and especially enjoy books set in Venice, fiction and non-fiction.  It is one of those places that has captured the imagination of poets and novelists, travel writers, and adventurers for centuries.

It's magical, mysterious, insular, and fragile.  

I really enjoyed Laura Morelli's The Gondola Maker, and so leaped at the chance to spotlight her new book, Authentic Arts: Venice, A Travel Guide to Murano Glass, Carnival Masks, Gondolas, Lace, Paper, & More.  I consider this an essential book to read before my trip to Italy, hopefully later this year.

Book Description for Authentic Arts: Venice Travel Guide

Every traveler to Venice wants to go home with a special souvenir--a carnival mask, a piece of Murano glass, a handcrafted piece of lace. But selecting which mask or which goblet to buy can be an intimidating experience. How do you know if you're buying something authentic, something made in Venice, something made in a traditional way? How do you gauge how much you should pay, and how do you know if you're being ripped off? How do you determine if you have fallen prey to one of the city's many tourist traps? Laura Morelli, an art historian and trusted guide in the world of cultural travel and authentic shopping, leads you to the best of the city's most traditional arts: Murano glass, carnival masks, gondolas, lace, paper, and more. This indispensable guide includes practical tips for locating the most authentic goods in one of the busiest tourist destinations in the world. Packed with useful information on pricing, quality, and value, and with a comprehensive resource guide, Laura Morelli's Authentic Arts: Venice is the perfect guide for anyone wanting to bring home the unique traditions of Venice. Artisans of Venice is the companion to Laura Morelli's Authentic Arts: Venice, A Travel Guide to Murano Glass, Carnival Masks, Gondolas, Lace, Paper, & More. Put both books together and you'll be the most knowledgeable traveler in Venice!

Book Description for Artisans of Venice: Companion to the Travel Guide

Going to Venice? Don't buy anything in Venice until you read this book! Buyer Beware: Venice is full of tourist traps and mass-produced souvenirs passed off as authentic. Do you know how to tell the treasures from the trash? In Venice, it's not easy to tell the treasures from the trash. This is true now more than ever before, as increasing numbers of carnival masks, glass, and other souvenirs flood into Venice, imported from overseas and passed off as authentic. There is no substitute for an educated buyer. Laura Morelli helps you locate the city's most authentic artisans--those practicing centuries-old trades of mask making, glass blowing, wood turning, silk spinning, and other traditions. Wouldn't you rather support authentic Venetian master artisans than importers looking to turn a quick profit without any connection to Venice at all?Venice boasts some of the most accomplished master artisans in the world. Here's how you can find them.Laura Morelli leads you beyond the souvenir shops for an immersive cultural experience that you won't find in any other guidebook. Artisans of Venice brings you inside the workshops of the most accomplished makers of Venetian fabrics, Murano glass and millefiori, carnival masks and masquerade costumes, gondolas, Burano lace, mirrors, marbleized paper, hand-carved frames, and other treasures. This book leads you to the multi-generational studios of some 75 authentic master artisans. If you're reading on your Kindle device, tablet, or smartphone, you can click directly on their street addresses for an interactive map, and link to their web sites and email addresses directly from the guide. A cross-referenced resource guide also offers listings by neighborhood. Laura Morelli, an art historian and trusted guide in the world of cultural travel and authentic shopping, leads you to the best of Venice's most traditional arts. Laura Morelli's Authentic Arts series is the only travel guide series on the market that takes you beyond the museums and tourist traps to make you an educated buyer--maybe even a connoisseur--of Florentine leather, ceramics of the Amalfi Coast, Parisian hats, Venetian glass, the handmade quilts of Provence, and more treasures. Bring Laura Morelli's guides to Venice with you, and you'll be sure to come home with the best of Venice in your suitcase.


Author's Bio:

Laura Morelli holds a Ph.D. in art history from Yale University, where she was a Bass Writing Fellow and Mellon Doctoral Fellow. She authored a column for National Geographic Traveler called “The Genuine Article” and contributes pieces about authentic travel to national magazines and newspapers. Laura has been featured on CNN Radio, Travel Today with Peter Greenberg, The Frommers Travel Show, and in USA TODAY, Departures, House & Garden Magazine, Traditional Home, the Denver Post, Miami Herald, The Chicago Tribune, and other media. Recently her art history lesson, “What’s the difference between art and craft?” was produced and distributed by TED-Ed.

Laura has taught college-level art history at Trinity College in Rome, as well as at Northeastern University, Merrimack College, St. Joseph College, and the College of Coastal Georgia. Laura has lived in five countries, including four years in Italy and four years in France.

Laura Morelli is the author of the guidebook series that includes Made in Italy, Made in France, and Made in the Southwest, all published by Rizzoli / Universe. The Gondola Maker, a historical coming-of-age story about the heir to a gondola boatyard in 16th-century Venice, is her first work of fiction.



Giveaway:

There is a Rafflecopter giveaway for this tour. The author is giving away a set of these books along with two authentic Carnival masks (one male Bauta style and one female Colombina style).


To signup for the Giveaway, visit this site.

More info:

Here is a little background info on each mask that might be useful to include with the giveaway:

The baùta or baùtta


The baùta is the quintessential Venetian mask, worn historically not only at Carnival time but any time a Venetian citizen wished to remain anonymous, such as when he may have been involved in important law-making or political processes in the city. The simplest of the traditional Venetian mask types, the baùta is a stark faceplate traditionally paired with a full-length black or red hooded cloak called a tabàro (or tabàrro), and a tricorn hat, as depicted in paintings and prints by the Venetian artist Pietro Longhi. Most baùte were made of waxed papier-mâché and covered most of the face. The most prominent feature is a distinctive aquiline nose and no mouth. The lower part of the mask protruded outward to allow the mask wearer to breathe, talk, and eat while remaining disguised.



Colombina

In the Commedia dell’Arte, Colombina played the role of maidservant. The Colombina is a half-mask that covers the forehead down to the cheeks, but leaves the mouth revealed. Originally, it would have been held up to the face by a baton in the hand. The Colombina is often decorated with more feminine flourishes, from gilding to gems and feathers, but both men and women may wear it.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Goldfinch


I got on the list at the library for the audio version of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch 7 months ago, and finally got to have a turn at it in Dec/Jan.  It was wonderful--all 26 disks of it.  I'm so glad that I went for the audio version as I think the reader, David Pittu, really added so much to the story with his voices for the various characters, particularly Boris.  I ended up getting a paper copy to finish the book because I couldn't finish it by the due date (6 weeks doing errands in the car couldn't quite get me to the end of the book), and I missed Pittu's accents and inflections and overall narration in the closing pages of the book.

Much as I liked the book, and it is a long, sweeping story, I admit that I was ready for the part in Las Vegas to be over much sooner than the actual story called for, but then I love reading stories set in NYC, where the bulk of the story took place.

In a nutshell, The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker, who we meet as a 13 year old boy who loses his mother in a horrific terrorist attack, and spends the next 10 years of his life essentially dealing with the post-traumatic stress that just about consumes him.  I think Tartt did a terrific job of getting inside the head of a 13 year old, which is a jumble of half-learned truths and a whole lot of misconceptions.

At first, I was thinking that Tartt was brave to choose 1st person for her narrative--after all she's a middle-aged woman--but then I remembered that her other major work, The Secret History, was also a 1st person story with a college-aged man being the protagonist.  Now, it seems that Tartt has a knack for getting in the head of criminally-oriented, self-effacing young men.

I like stories the springboard off of art--I'm a big fan of The Girl With the Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn, for example--but this one is different.  Rather than giving the reader a fictionalized backstory of a painting, Tartt uses a 1654 painting of a goldfinch by Carel Fabritius as the lynchpin in Theo's personal story.  The painting triggers catastrophe in Theo's life and his response to it and relationship to it shape almost every action and reaction that he has in his life.

As with The Secret History, I was profoundly skeptical that any adolescent could consume the amount of drugs and alcohol that Theo and his Russian friend, Boris, do during their time in Las Vegas, but that could be tempered by my middle-aged fuddy-duddy nature shining through.

I did like the character of Boris quite a bit--I have to say, he is the most engaging criminal adolescent since I met the Artful Dodger in Dickens' Oliver Twist when I was in my teens.

I found myself thinking about all the various parents and surrogate parents and came to view The Goldfinch as a study in parenting to some degree.  There's Theo's mother, of course--why she didn't spell out guardianship for Theo in her will, given the powderkeg that was Theo's father completely baffled me--apart from that glaring omission she was a good parent.

Theo's father and Xandra were complete enablers and leading contenders for "worst parents in the world," except that Boris's father could probably edge them out.  The Barbours are weird parents, whose offspring reflect their misaligned approach to parenting...from bully/drifter Platt, to poor Andy, to ice-princess Kitzy, to TedKennedyesque Toddy.

Hobie is wonderful, nuturing parent, although perhaps a tad too trusting and naive.  I sincerely hope that Bill Nighy gets the role in the upcoming movie version as he is who I pictured in the role from the minute I met Hobie in the book.

Bill Nighy as Hobie in my dream cast for the movie.
Welty, must get the prize for best parent in the book, to both Theo and the wonderfully drawn Pippa, my absolutely favorite character in the book.  I found it perfect that she and Boris, the angel and devil characters who sit on Theo's shoulder and try to guide him, instinctively liked each other.  Given my view of Boris and Pippa as Janus-type guardian angels, you can argue that they play foster parent roles in Theo's life as well.

I loved the writing of The Goldfinch--Tartt created a rich, varied, multi-textured, layered world that was entirely believable but also an alternate universe to the one I inhabit.  I found Theo's story fascinating and the pacing perfect--focusing on minutes and days for chapters and then leaping forward by years to focus again minutely.

The story (art and the art underworld), the characters, the writing, the details were all spot on.  Great book, worth the time to read or listen to it.  Much, much better than The Secret History.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy


I really wanted to love this book--it has all the right elements--it's a history book about the Civil War ( a lifetime interest of mine), it's about women breaking through traditional gender roles and doing interesting things, and it was dissed in a book review in the Washington Post that made me want to rally to author Karen Abbott's side.  I snatched it up as soon as my local library got a copy because I knew it would have a long waiting list.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, by Karen Abbott, is about four women who were actively engaged as military spies during the Civil War.  Belle Boyd and Rose O'Neal Greenhow were Southerners who spied on behalf of the South, and Elizabeth Van Lew and Emma Edmonds were Northern spies.  Van Lew was a Southerner who was a Unionist, living in Richmond, and Edmonds disguised herself as a male (renaming herself Frank Thompson) and served in the Army of the Potomac until she deserted when she thought her true identity was about to be discovered.

I finished it last night and sad to say, I pretty much agree with Jonathan Yardley, the author of the WP post linked to above who complained about Abbott's flights of fancy:
If there were only one of two such passages the reader could grant Abbott poetic license and let the matter pass, but there are so many of them that the line between fact and invention is exceedingly difficult to discern.
Abbott provides an extensive index and dozens of pages of notes at the end of the book.  In fact, she actually responded to Yardley, saying:
...he overlooked the breadth of my citations as a whole, a combined 60 pages of endnotes and bibliography that draw from more than 200 sources, and that far exceed the guidelines set forth for narrative nonfiction by the Chicago Manual of Style.
The problem is that despite 60 pages of endnotes and 200 sources, I didn't believe a lot of what Abbott wrote.  Partly because scenes that she fictionalized were based on the memoirs of the women themselves--Belle Boyd in particular retold her stories over the years, embellishing and rewriting history as she struggled with her mental illness.  It interesting to think about, but sometimes one's own story does not make for a credible source.

Once incredulity enters into a reader's mind, it seems that the author can do nothing right.  In the end, I found the book quite shallow.  It didn't reflect a strong premise and didn't argue a point.  I learned some stuff about the four women, but it didn't change how I think about the war or broaden my understanding of the issues that divided the U.S. 150 years ago.

I did end up giving the book 3 stars on Goodreads because it actually was fun to read (all that breathless, sensational prose coupled with cliffhanger endings to chapters is fun) and it piqued my interest in finding out more about these four women, particularly Elizabeth Van Lew, who was by far my favorite of the foursome.

I really hope Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy doesn't mark a trend in historical books where research and sticking to the facts gives way to romanticizing and embellishment. If I had wanted to read a novel about these women, I would have done so.  As it is, I think Abbott would have done better to have let Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy be the novel she so clearly wanted to write.  It would have been a pretty good novel, but it wasn't a very good book of history.