Review 1327: Brief Lives

Cover for Brief LivesAlthough John Aubrey has been criticized as a historian, he was actually a collector, of documents, stories, and little bits of information. For a project in the late 17th century undertaken by Anthony Wood, he began collecting short biographies of Oxford scholars of his time but then expanded his collection to include other notables of the 16th and 17th centuries. From 426 lives, this book has collected the most significant 134, some as short as a few sentences while others are several pages long.

These lives do not necessarily list their subjects’ accomplishments, although most of them begin with a short biography included by the editors. Aubrey’s talent was for telling something about each person that defines him or her, makes the person seem more knowable, whether it be a physical description or a story about the person.

Aubrey was apparently a rather disorganized person, so sometimes we are amused by a story or comment that seems to have nothing to do with the subject. Although well written and entertaining, his lives sometimes use pronouns confusingly, so that you’re not always sure who he’s talking about.

Just as entertaining as the original subject matter is the 100-page introduction about Aubrey’s life and milieu. I have to say that he seldom says anything really negative about anyone, even if you can tell he didn’t like that person. He was plainly a good-natured man who also sometimes likes to tell bawdy stories. Centuries after his lives were written, they make a living document, bringing exceptional people back to life. I was interested to see that one of them was Venetia Digby, the main character of Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine.

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Review 1326: The Coffin Path

Cover for The Coffin PathIt’s 1674, and Mercy Booth helps her aging father work a sheep farm in remote northern England. She feels that at 28, she is beyond marriage, but she really only cares about the farm.

In early spring, she is out on the moor when she feels that someone is watching her with enmity. After that, strange things begin happening in the house. Three old coins disappear from her father’s drawer. She hears noises upstairs when no one seems to be there. She catches glimpses of a pale face. The home is believed to be cursed after the three prior inhabitants were all murdered, their mouths covered with those missing coins.

Early in spring the head shepherd hired Ellis Ferreby, a wandering shepherd. The novel is narrated by him in alternate chapters as he observes what is going on. He, too, has seen and heard strange things.

Also key to the story is Sam, the young son of Ambrose, the head shepherd, who lately lost his twin brother after a fall. He is a favorite of the house but begins to behave strangely.

This novel is truly atmospheric, and although I had glimpses of its secrets, I could not figure everything out. I found myself interested in the characters and involved in what was happening to them. This is a real page-turner.

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Review 1321: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

Cover for Samuel PepysYears ago, I attempted to read Samuel Pepys’s diary, but I didn’t make much headway. However, I was reading it without any context. Now that I’ve read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Pepys, I am interested in trying it again.

For one thing, I was not aware that Pepys worked his way up, by his great energy and organizational skills, from a poor beginning to an eminent position in the British admiralty. He was responsible for setting up many of the procedures used today. In the diary’s beginning, he is just a lowly clerk who seems to go out drinking a lot.

But Tomalin’s admiration is for Pepys’s unstinting truthfulness, even when it makes him look bad, as well as the literary and historical value of the diary. In short, he was a marvelous writer who documented significant events in a tumultuous period of British history.

Tomalin’s talent as a biographer is in giving her readers a true feeling for the personality of her subject. Pepys was a pleasure seeker, a womanizer, and not always an honest man, but he was curious, cultured, highly intelligent, dedicated, and faithful to his patrons. Although he had a poor opinion of both Charles II and James II, he served them faithfully, even when it was against his best interests. Pepys turns out to be a very interesting person.

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Day 1297: The Weight of Ink

Cover for The Weight of InkThe Weight of Ink is a dual time-frame novel set in the current time and the 17th century. At first, I wasn’t as captured by the present-day sections as I was by the past, but eventually the entire novel absorbed me. There is a big revelation at the end that I anticipated, but that did not lessen the power of the novel.

In the present day, Helen Watt is an English university professor of Jewish history who is elderly and ill. Requested by a previous student to examine a cache of papers he found in a wall of his 17th century house, Helen does not expect any great finds. What she discovers is a genutza, the hidden papers of a 17th century rabbi, and on one page, a mention of Spinoza. Understanding that this could be a major discovery, she requests help and gets that of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student.

One of their first, startling discoveries is that Rabbi HaCoen Mendes’s scribe, identified only by the Hebrew letter aleph, is a woman. Having reported her initial findings to Jonathan Martin, the head of the History Department, so that he could buy the papers from the owners, Helen is dismayed to find her place on the investigation usurped. She can continue working with the papers, but Martin has also given Brian Wilton access. He arrives with four graduate students to beat Helen and Aaron to any discoveries and immediately publishes an article about one of the topics in the letters.

In 1657, Ester Velasquez is a young Jewish woman who has been allowed an unusual education. In these dangerous days of the Inquisition, her family fled Portugal for Amsterdam, where her parents were killed in a fire. She and her brother Isaac are part of the household of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, who travels to England to educate the British Jews in their heritage, these people having been hiding there pretending to be Protestants during hundreds of years when Jews were not allowed in England. Rabbi Mendes’s difficult job is made harder when Isaac, his scribe, leaves. But the rabbi lets Ester take his place.

Offered an opportunity of knowledge, Ester comes to know that she does not want to return to a woman’s life. So, she sets about a daring deception.

Aside from covering some key events of its time—the Inquisition, the return of Jews to England, the plague, and the Great Fire—The Weight of Ink offers us an intrepid, determined heroine in Ester as well as an interesting modern story. I was really touched by this novel. It’s terrific—the kind of novel I look for in historical fiction.

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Day 1261: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Cover for The Last Painting of Sara de VosBest of Five!
In 1957 New York, Ellie Shipley is a graduate student in art history who also does restorations. A contract for restoration work asks her to make a copy of a 17th century painting, “At the Edge of a Wood” by Sara de Vos, her only known work, for the owner. Soon, however, Ellie understands that she is creating a forgery, but she is too interested in the work to stop.

Marty de Groot, the painting’s owner, notices that his painting has been stolen. He determines he will find out who took it.

In 1631 Amsterdam, Sara de Vos and her husband are poverty stricken after the death of their young daughter. Because they have sold paintings without the permission of the guild, they have temporarily lost their membership. Sara has been painting flowers for a catalog and her husband has been working for a bookbinder. But secretly, Sara has been painting a symbolic memorial for her daughter, “At the Edge of a Wood.”

In 2000 Sydney, Ellie is now a respected academician and museum curator. She has discovered that both of the de Vos paintings, the original and the copy, are being sent to her museum for an exhibit on 17th century Dutch women painters. Now, after 40 years of strict integrity, she is afraid her past is catching up with her.

Although I found the story interesting, I was not at first that involved with this novel. Soon, however, I was totally captivated by all three stories. At first seemingly a crime novel, it goes much deeper. I really enjoyed it.

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Day 1051: The Bookman’s Tale

Cover for The Bookman's TaleIt was difficult for me to decide how much I liked The Bookman’s Tale. Parts of it were very interesting and just up my alley, while other parts of it struck me as unnecessary.

Peter Byerly is a young seller of antiquarian books. His beloved wife Amanda died unexpectedly, and since then, he has been taken over by grief. He has moved from the States to the cottage in the Cottswolds that they bought just before she died, because their previous home held too many memories.

Peter finally becomes interested in something when he finds a watercolor of a woman who looks like Amanda in a book in an antiquarian book shop. In trying to track down more information about the artist and his subject, he gets onto the track of a document that could be the holy grail for antiquarians—something that proves Shakespeare wrote his own plays. This document is in the form of the Pandosto, a play written by Robert Greene that formed the basis for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. This play seems to have Shakespeare’s annotations in it. Later, there is a murder.

Periodically, we go back in time to trace the course of this document. We know there was a real Pandosto, because we see that a man lends it to Shakespeare with some trick in mind.

We also periodically look back to Peter and Amanda’s romance. Peter trains as a book restorer, so we learn something about this field, which I found fascinating. However, although I was interested in Peter and Amanda’s relationship at first, after a while I started to wonder why we were getting so much detail about it, since it didn’t have that much to do with the rest of the book.

So, a mixed review on this one. It has a good mystery about two feuding families and a lot of interesting detail about books, but the romantic storyline slows it down after a while.

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Day 1034: Ulverton

Cover for UlvertonBest Book of the Week!
We’re now more familiar with novels written as related short stories, but Ulverton was written in 1992 and may be the first novel of this kind. The novel covers 300 years of English history and is set in one place, the fictional village of Ulverton. Other hallmarks of this unusual novel are that each chapter is written in a distinctly different voice and the chapters are written in different formats, from a tale told in an inn to the captions from a photographic display to the script of a documentary.

In 1650, the novel opens with the return of Gabby Cobbold from the Cromwellian wars. He meets the narrator, a shepherd named William, on his way home, but William does not have the courage to tell him that his wife, Anne, thinking he was dead, has remarried Thomas Walters. Gabby explains that he was away earning money to support the farm. Gabby disappears, and William is sure that Thomas and Anne killed him. But three hundred years later, Gabby gets his own back against a descendent of Thomas.

In 1689, the foolish Reverend Brazier tells the story of a strange night out on the downs, when he, William Scablehorne, and Simon Kistle were making their way through a snowstorm. As related in his sermon, they were apparently attacked by the devil and Mr. Kistle went mad.

Diary entries made in 1717 reveal a farmer’s preoccupation with improvements to his property and begetting an heir. Since his wife is ill, he does not touch her but begins trying to impregnate the maid.

In 1743, Mrs. Chalmers writes letters to her lover while shut away after childbed. Apparently having read her letters, her husband gets his doctor to keep her isolated longer.

And so it goes, stopping in about every 30 years, so that we sometimes hear of characters again. Through time, names are repeated and the story of incidents changes.

On occasion I had problems with the vernacular, although I tried to stick with it. The most difficult stories for me were the 1775 letters of Sarah Shail to her son and one side of the 1887 conversation between a man plowing and two boys. Sarah Shail is illiterate and is dictating her letters to John Pounds. However, this chapter has its own humor as Sarah is writing to her son Francis, who apparently answers her abusively, to the indignation of Pounds, who begins adding threats to the letters. Pounds’ spelling is so bad, though, that the letters are sometimes incomprehensible. In the case of the plowman, his dialect is so thick that I kept rereading parts of it but was unable to understand very much.

This was just one chapter, though. Overall, I found this novel deeply original and interesting. The countryside is so integral to the story that it features almost as a character. The writing is lovely, and the novel contains a great deal of drama and humor.

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