Best Book of the Week!

18 Dec

Cover for Giving Up the GhostThis week, there is a tie for Best Book, between fiction and nonfiction! The fiction Best Book is Mercy Snow by Tiffany Baker, and the nonfiction is Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel!

Day 630: Amherst

17 Dec

Cover for AmherstAmherst combines the tale of two love stories, one actual and one fictional. The historical actual affair was between Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin and the much younger Mabel Loomis Todd. The modern fictional affair is between Alice Dickinson, working on a screenplay about the affair, and Nick Crocker, an older academic who gives her a place to stay in Amherst while she does her research. All of these people are married to others except Alice.

Emily Dickinson herself is a minor character in the 19th century story. Her brother and Todd used her house for their trysts—a known fact—and there is some debate about how much exposure Emily herself had to sex. Nicholson theorizes a woman listening at doors and a sort of free love attitude by everyone except Sue, Austin’s wife. I found it all a little sordid and probably unlikely.

All of this might be interesting to a reader of literature if Nicholson had spent any time with these characters before thrusting them into their love affairs. We don’t know any of them, so we don’t care about them (alas, too often my complaint lately).

Worse, to me, are the liberties or omissions at the end of the novel. Nicholson gives Todd full credit for her efforts to publish Dickinson’s poetry after her death, even having her spend hours convincing Thomas Wentworth Higginson of the value of Emily’s work. He doesn’t mention that Higginson was already very familiar with Dickinson’s poetry, having been in correspondence with her for 20 years before her death, as related in the excellent biography White Heat. (Although on the surface Nicholson seems unfamiliar with or ignores some of the content of the biography, he interestingly uses the phrase “white heat” to refer to the affair between Todd and Austin Dickinson.) Higginson was already convinced of the worth of Dickinson’s poetry—he just had doubts about how publishable it was. In fact, he almost certainly met Dickinson, which Todd never did.

The other historical fact Nicholson completely glosses over is the one the world of literature finds most shocking—that Todd and Higginson edited Dickinson’s poetry, changing capitalization and spelling but even rewriting some of the passages.

http://www.netgalley.comThe lovers are not really likable, in fact or fiction. Austin Dickinson actually consummated his affair with Todd while his wife was grieving the recent death of their young son. Mabel comes off everywhere as self-centered, and she fought with the Dickinson’s over Emily’s legacy as much as she ensured it.

The two modern lovers are just not interesting, really more of a footnote to the historical section, and I found Nick to be extremely manipulative. The novel also employs that overused trope of having Alice find out immediately in a way that is too crass to be believable that Nick has a reputation as a seducer. Note to minor characters: these warnings never work.

It’s hard to tell whether Nicholson meant these stories to be romantic, although he states in an interview that he is interested in exploring love. I did not find the stories romantic, either one of them. I also did not feel they particularly explored the theme of love. I was not at all drawn in by this novel, neither by the historical nor by the modern story.

Day 629: Giving Up the Ghost

16 Dec

Cover for Giving Up the GhostBest Book of the Week!
In this gripping memoir, ghosts haunt author Hilary Mantel—the spectres of her past, her stepfather’s shade stumbling around the upper reaches of her holiday cottage, the spirit of her unborn daughter, the wisps of her yet unwritten books, and most confoundingly, the black smudge of an apparition that invaded her body when she was seven. Mantel’s is a memoir of wit, anger, and poetic truth.

It also meanders. It begins with the sale of Owl Cottage—where Hilary senses the ghost of her stepfather even though he never lived there—but then returns to the earliest memories of her childhood.

She grew up in the grim north England town of Hadfield, near Manchester, of Irish Catholic parents. Although her family was poor, her earliest memories are the rich ones of her grandparents and aunts, who lived all along the lane, indulging the imagination of a child who was a knight of the round table, a red Indian, a priest, and was due to turn into a boy when she was four. To me, this last detail is one of the most charming. I can see this little girl.

Then a serious illness struck, changing her from a sturdy tough child with long black hair to a wispy, frail blonde girl, no longer due to change to a boy. From then on it seemed she was robbed of her true self.

The memoir details her rigid Catholic school education, where she developed an intolerance for ridiculous questions, from those asked by her teachers. It also tells of the more profound loss of her childhood, when her mother moved the family out of that lane of relatives so that she could take up life with her lover, Jack. Hilary’s father Henry was relegated to the status of a lodger and then left behind when Hilary won a place at a better school, never to be seen again.

The most debilitating events of her life began when she was a young married woman studying law. The extreme pains in her legs were diagnosed by patronizing and sexist doctors as mental rather than physical problems, caused by the stress of her studies on her feeble female brain, and she was treated first with Valium and later with anti-psychotics. What she actually had was endometriosis, which she finally diagnosed herself. It was left untreated so long that she ended up having a hysterectomy at age 29. She had put off having a child, and it was too late. The effects on her health continue to this day.

Mantel’s memoir is vividly and beautifully written. She strips herself bare, and it is unforgettable.

Day 628: Anne of Green Gables

15 Dec

Cover for Anne of Green GablesI have not read Anne of Green Gables since I was about ten, and I’m delighted to report that it is a book that offers as much enjoyment to an adult reader as to a child. As a child, I threw myself wholeheartedly into Anne’s delights and misfortunes, but as an adult, I am more able to appreciate the abundant humor of the novel.

Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert are an elderly brother and sister with a farm in Avonlea on Prince Edward Island. They have taken a momentous decision to adopt an orphan boy to help Matthew on the farm. They sent word to an acquaintance who went to adopt a girl, and she has brought an orphan back for them on the train.

But when Matthew arrives at the station, he finds not an orphan boy but a girl, a funny looking, skinny, red-headed girl. Matthew is a shy and reticent man, and he sees nothing to do but take the girl home and let Marilla break the news that there’s been a mistake. So, they set off home for Green Gables, the excitable Anne Shirley prattling all the way back.

When Anne learns she isn’t wanted after all, she is devastated. But when Marilla takes her to see another woman who might want an orphan girl, she can’t quite bring herself to leave Anne with the mean-mouthed woman with a reputation for mistreating the help (as an orphan would often be regarded at that time, not as a member of the family). Despite her better judgment, Marilla decides to keep Anne.

Thus begins this delightful novel about a young, imaginative girl who is always running into trouble. For Anne is romantic and dreamy and full of big ideas that often go wrong. The delight for me as an adult in reading this sentimental tale is the dry humor of Marilla, as she learns to love Anne and all her mischief. This is a lovely and fun book to read, particularly if you love any other volatile little red-headed girls.

Day 627: Mercy Snow

12 Dec

Cover for Mercy SnowBest Book of the Week!
On an icy Thanksgiving eve outside Titan Falls, New Hampshire, a school bus with children who had been to the movies in the nearby town plummets off the road, killing one girl and incapacitating the bus driver. Readers know that a car passed the bus at a dangerous place, causing the driver to lose control. Up the road from the bus, the sheriff finds the wrecked truck of Zeke Snow, a young man from a backwoods family of ill repute. No one knows exactly what happened, but the sheriff decides it must have been Zeke’s fault.

June McAllister, the mill owner’s wife, soon finds evidence that her husband Cal may know more about the accident than he’s admitting. Her reaction is to close family ranks. After all, the Snows have never been anything but trouble.

Zeke is hiding in the woods, but he has told his sister Mercy that he did not see the bus the night that he wrecked his truck. He ran when the police arrived because he’s known nothing but trouble from them.

Mercy knows that her brother occasionally shows poor judgment, but his main instinct has always been to protect her and their little sister Hannah. While eking out an existence for herself and Hannah and living in a battered old trailer, she decides she must somehow prove Zeke innocent. For her part, June is trying to drive the Snows out of the area, where they have returned to their grandmother’s property after years of a rough and nomadic existence.

This novel may sound like a mystery, but it is not. We know fairly early on what happened to the bus. Instead, the novel is an examination of themes like discrimination against the poor, the exercise of power, the complexity of people’s reactions to tragedy, and the close-mindedness of small, closely knit communities. It also includes a hint of the supernatural. The novel is disturbing and well written. Although I thought I knew where it was going, the novel turned out to be unpredictable.

Day 626: River Thieves

11 Dec

Cover for River ThievesReading River Thieves did not leave me with the same impression of wild originality as did Galore, the other Michael Crummey novel I read. Still, it is an interesting historical novel about the interactions between Europeans and the Beothuk Indians in early 19th century Newfoundland.

This novel is based on a true incident. It concerns an investigation into the killing of a Beothuk man by trappers after they went looking for redress for some thefts. This expedition brought back a Beothuk woman, later called Mary, who is captured at the beginning of the novel. But the narration of this story is far from straightforward, and we do not learn exactly what happened until the end of the novel.

Further, the characters’ actions are affected by a long history of their personal interactions. John Peyton is a young man at the beginning of the novel. He is in love with Cassie, his tutor and his father’s housekeeper, but she is somewhat mysterious and keeps aloof from him. John Sr. hired Cassie thinking that she and John Peyton might marry, but a misunderstanding interferes.

Lieutenant David Buchan encounters most of those figuring in the incident when he makes an earlier attempt to establish more cordial relations with the Beothuk than the violent ones currently existing. This expedition, which includes John Peyton, John Sr., and some of John Sr.’s employees, ends in disaster. It is the seemingly upright Buchan, later a captain, who is put in charge of the subsequent investigation.

This story is told at a remove from the characters. Although we learn the thoughts of several of them, Crummey never reveals everything, forcing us to view his characters more as an ensemble rather than to consider one a central character. In Galore, Crummey used this technique to depict the occupants of an entire village. Here, it is not quite as satisfying.

Best Book of the Week!

10 Dec

Cover for Under the HarrowThis week’s Best Book is Under the Harrow by Mark Dunn!


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