Thursday, May 25, 2017

Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation by Daisy Hay

While I was reading Jane Eyre and reading about the Brontes the term "Byronesque hero" kept appearing to describe Mr Rochester.  I had heard the term before and I knew a bit about Lord Byron, famous in his day as much for his scandalous personal life as his poetry and so I became curious. Who was Lord Byron? How much of a rogue was he?

This question and many others are answered in Daisy Hay's Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation.  Ms Hay is a professor at the University of Exeter in the UK and in Young Romantics she digs into the lives of John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, Leigh Hunt and their friends and family.  I would have liked to have learned more about John Keats who died tragically from TB when he was only 25 but what a gifted young man.  I could have done with a little less about Leigh Hunt who though an influential editor of the literary magazine the Examiner didn't in my opinion warrant as much attention as the author paid to him.  As for Byron a little of him goes a long way.

Mostly though Young Romantics tells the story of the poet Percy Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein when she was only nineteen. Mary Shelley was the daughter of the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the radical philosopher William Godwin.  Percy Shelley, a big fan of William Godwin, went to see him and fell in love with his daughter Mary.  She was sixteen years old and Percy was twenty one when they eloped.

Sounds romantic except that Percy Shelley was already married with a young child. Mary and Percy eloped to Italy accompanied by Mary's step sister Clare Claremont who wanted to go along for the adventure.  Clare would later have an affair with Lord Byron which ended disasterously when Byron got custody of their daughter Allegra and then shipped Allegra off to a convent where she contacted typhoid fever and died at age five.

Death permeates the story of the Young Romantics.  John Keats died at 25, Percy Shelley drowned at sea at 29.  Byron dead at 36.  Then there was Mary and Percy Shelley's children. They had four but only one survived beyond the age of three. Shelley to his credit loved Mary and was a supportive husband and generous to his sister-in-law Clare and his editor Leigh Hunt.  It does not excuse his behavior to his first wife Harriet but due to the excellent job of research Ms Hay has done in reading old letters, diary entrys etc you get a sense of who Mary and Percy Shelley were and I closed the book realizing they were flawed but human.  Clare Claremont who lived to age 80 left behind a partial memoir of her life with the Shelleys and Byron and it was a seering indictment of the costs of free love particularly on the wives and girlfriends involved.

Young Romantics is well researched and well written and though not a poetry reader I closed the book wanting to give the poetry of Keats, Byron and Shelley a try.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Ex by Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke is a critically acclaimed and relatively new mystery novelist and I was researching which of Ms Burke's books to read and review.  I decided on her latest, The Ex, which was one of five novels nominated in 2017 for the prestigious Edgar Award.  The Ex didn't win but still quite an honor.  Ms Burke knows crime having been a prosecutor and she is the daughter of James Lee Burke a big name in the mystery genre best known for his award winning Dave Robicheaux series.

So, The Ex (published 2016) is a stand alone mystery set in New York City.  The novel is narrated by Olivia Randall a brilliant defense attorney who leaves no stone unturned when defending her clients. Her professional life is going great.  Her personal life not good at all.  Twenty years ago Olivia was engaged to her college sweetheart Jackson Harris.  She broke off her engagement to Jackson in a very cruel way which set forth a series of events that almost ruined his life.

Olivia and Jackson have not spoken or seen each other in the twenty years since the breakup.  Both have gone on with their lives.  So when Olivia recieves a call out of the blue from Jackson Harris' sixteen year old daughter asking Olivia to defend her father on a murder charge, Olivia is shocked.  She weighs the ethics of defending someone she was once engaged to but takes the case anyway because of the guilt she feels about the breakup.  Olivia starts out believing Jackson but she hasn't spoken to him since the breakup.  Is he the same person Olivia knew in college or did she really know him at all?  These are the questions the book ponders along the way and the tension is gripping. You get an education in The Ex about how a defense attorney goes about uncovering the facts and preparing her case.  The Ex is a page turner which is not an easy thing for a writer to accomplish and Alafair Burke pulls it off.

Problem is, I wish I liked Olivia Randall more as a character.  Olivia does a good job as the narrator bringing us along on the investigation, explaining the law and getting the story from point A to point B.  However, in a murder mystery there will be many characters you can't root for which is okay as long as you care about the private investigator, detective or defense attorney trying to solve the mystery.  Also there is the ending which I had a problem with.

I can't recommend The Ex but Alafair Burke is a talented writer and a number of her books have been given starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly (and they don't give those out lightly).  My friend Lorraine has recommended her novel, 212, the third book in Ms Burke's Ellie Hatcher series which I might try since its quite popular.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

The year was 1995 and Cheryl Strayed, the author of the New York Times Bestseller Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, was 26.  Her life had hit bottom, divorced, broke, one-night stands and dabbling with heroin.  Her beloved mother had died four years prior and her death had affected Strayed deeply.  One day depressed and desparate, Strayed spotted a book in a Minneapolis store:  The Pacific Crest Trail Vol 1: California. Its considered the bible for anyone planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, also known as the PCT,  a 2650 mile wilderness trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada.

Cheryl Strayed had never heard of tne PCT.  She was young and comfortable in the outdoors having grown up in the Northwoods of Minnesota but not really a hiker. Yet something about the book spoke to her, a chance to test herself against the elements, accomplish a very difficult goal which might lead to some answers and a new beginning. Cheryl bought the book and began planning her trip to hike part of the PCT from the Mojave Desert in California up through to the border of Oregon and Washington.

It would be a life changing experience, an 1100 mile hike through all kinds of weather and geography: mountains, rivers, meadows, snow, extreme heat and then temperatures that would dip to the 20's.  Strayed would walk miles each day and set up her tent at night and (when not exhausted) take out her flashlight and read her favorite books she brought with her on the journey as a coyote howled in tbe distance.  Hiking the PCT was a magnificent but also gruelling and dangerous journey.  Along the way Strayed would encounter rattlesnakes, black bears. She would meet other hikers and arrive every two hundred miles or so at the post offices and small towns along the way so she could pick up her resupply boxes faithfully mailed to her by her friend Lisa in Portland.

Strayed recounts all of this and much more in Wild.  It's an inspirational, fascinating and very honest memoir.  Strayed is not shy about showing us her flaws but the best memoirs are frank and though readers may find themselves questioning her choices along the journey, her courage and perseverance is indisputable.  Most of us will never hike the PCT but vicariously going on the journey with Strayed is the next best thing and it will get you thinking about your own life and the changes you might want to make.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

John Knowles published his first book A Separate Peace in 1959 and though he would go on to write other books, A Separate Peace renains his most famous, an American classic that has never gone out of print.  I read it in high school and I remember the novel as a cautionary tale about how in a moment of anger and envy you can do something rash that you will always regret. The book made an impression on me and I wanted to read it again to see if that would still be true.

A Separate Peace is narrated by Gene Forrester one of the two main characters in the novel.  When the story begins he has returned to Devon, the New England boy's prep school where he was a student fifteen years prior. As Gene walks the grounds of Devon he is haunted by the place and the rest of the book will transport us back to what happened that summer of 1942 at Devon when sixteen year old Gene and his best friend Phineas (Finny) were students there.

One thing I had forgotten about a Separate Peace is the big role World War II plays in the story.  Gene, Finny and their classmates are juniors about to enter their senior year.  Upon graduation they will be enlisting..  The younger teachers are already overseas and the school has a gloomy atmosphere.  The one exception to all the somberness is Gene's best friend Phineas.  If there is a war going on you would never know it from Finny who has lost none of the school spirit.  Finny is the best athlete at the school and popular with everyone. He also loves to break the rules and he gets away with it because of his charm and ability to talk his way out of anything.  Gene, his best friend, is more introverted and a follower at least where Finny is concerned. Gene never says no to Finny.  The most he will do is make a sarcastic renark and grumble but Gene always gives in and he has come to resent this a great deal.

One day Finny suggests that he and Gene go to the beach which the school forbids since it's hours away.  They  arrive back from the beach the next morning just in time for Gene to take his trigonometry exam which he fails because he is too exhausted. He blames Finny and begins to suspect that Finny wanted him to fail, that Finny is jealous of the fact that Gene is an A stdent and was trying to sabotage him.  Gene confronts Finny who is suprised that Gene felt this way:

"I didn't know you needed to study", he said simply, I didn't think you ever did.  I thought it just came to you ... Listen I could study forever and never break C.  But it's different for you, you're good.  You really are.  If I had a brain like that, I'd have my head cut open so people could look at it... Why didn't you say you had to study before? Don't move from that desk.  It's going to be all A's for you".  

Gene's reaction to this is odd.  You would think he'd be sorry to have misjudged his best friend but instead Gene gets angrier.  He now realizes that Finny was never jealous of him at all and that Finny is such a born athlete that he doesn't need to practice and that Finny assumed that would be true for Gene and studying.  As Gene says " I was not the same quality as he.  I couldn't stand this".  

What follows is Finny suggesting they put it behind them and that he and Gene go to the tree for a dive into the river.  This was Finny's favorite thing to do that summer. But it was also dangerous. Gene agrees and goes with Finny in what will turn out to be their final tree jump. Finny climbs up tne tree first and Gene climbs up the wooden rungs behind him. Then holding onto the tree trunk Gene moves toward the limb and bends his knees a bit which shakes the tree and FInny ahead of him loses his balance and falls to the ground.   Finny's leg is badly broken and sports will be over for him. The rest of the novel is the fallout from what happened on that tree that day..

What I discovered by rereading A Separate Peace and checking out what the critics have said is it's a novel about friendship and betrayal certainly but it is also and maybe even primarily a novel about war, Not World War II where real enemies existed but wars in general where misunderstandings and jealousies can develop not only between friends but peoples and countries and battlelines get drawn.  Or as Gene says at the end of the book reflecting on his time at Devon and his subsquent service in the army:

"I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform.  I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there ...this enemy who never attacked that way -- if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy. 

A Separate Peace is a beautifully written book.  It's a dark novel and autobiographical since the author John Knowles went to Exeter Academy which the fictional Devon is modeled after and he also served in World War II so the subject matter here is deeply felt.  I'm glad I read A Separate Peace and it's interesting how different rereading the novels of our teenage years can be when we pick up the book decades later.

Friday, March 17, 2017

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Jane Austen wrote beautifully about the south of England in such masterpieces as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion but did she ever wonder about the north of England and what life in Yorkshire and Manchester was like?  She must have wondered but it would have been difficult for Austen during her lifetime to visit these regions.

But by the mid 19th century England had changed.  Trains were transporting people regularly from the rural and agricultural south of England of land owners where class and one's family mattered to the grittier industrialized north of England, a population not as intimidated by class or even by the mill owners for whom they worked.  Both regions had harsh views of each other and in North and South, published in 1855, Elizabeth Gaskell set out to bridge the gap by creating two formidable characters, Margaret Hale and John Thornton.

Margaret Hale is a beautiful, intelligent, spirited young woman from Helstone in the south of England.  John Thornton is a cotton mill owner from Milton in the north of England who after his father's death, when he was a young boy, worked long hours in factories to rescue his mother and sister from poverty. Normally these two would never have met but Margaret Hale's father due to a downturn in his finances moves his family to Milton so he can accept a position as a private tutor.

Margaret is not happy about the move.  She loves her home in Helstone but she moves with her parents to Milton.  Her eyes will open to a new world not only her growing attraction to John Thornton but also to the conflict between the Masters (mill owners) and their employees.  Eighteen months later, Margaret is back in the south of England.  Alot has changed in her life during her year and a half in Milton and she has experienced tragedy as well.  As Margaret sits in her wealthy cousin Edith's home she reflects:

"But all the rest of the family were in the full business of the London season, and Margaret was left alone.  Then her thoughts went back to Milton, with a strange sense of the contrast between her life there, and here.  She was getting surfeited of the eventless ease in which no struggle or endeavor was required  She was afraid lest she should even become sleepily deadened into forgetfullness of anything beyond the life that was lapping her round with luxury.  There might be toilers and moilers there in London, but she never saw them; the very servants lived in an underground world of their own, of which she knew neither the hopes nor the fears, they only seemed to start into existance when some want or whim of their master or mistress needed them".

I began this review by writing about Jane Austen parly because North and South has been compared to Pride and Prejudice, two characters ((Margaret Hale and John Thornton) meant to be together but their pride and prejudice getting in the way.  And also because the one criticism I've had about Austen's novels (at least from the two books of hers I've read) is she stayed very close to home, the landed gentry and the world surrounding them of balls and ball gowns, horse drawn carriages, summers at their country homes, witty drawing room conversation and of course happy endings. The lives of anyone from the lower classes, as Gaskell writes about above, left firmly off stage.

But here is the thing.  I enjoyed North and South a good deal and Gaskell is to be commended for taking on such important issues as the Industrial Revolution.  She has created a complex and admirable mill owner in John Thornton and Margaret Hale is an attractive and good hearted heroine.  North and South is a great novel included for example in the literary critic Harold Bloom's book on the Western Cannon.  However, now that I have finished North and South I am reminded that Jane Austen is in a class by herself.  Gaskell is a great writer but Austen is simply greater.  So if you have read Pride and Prejudice I think you will enjoy North and South (and the BBC miniseries of North and South now on netflix is very good).  But if you haven't read Pride and Prejudice, what in the world are you waiting for?

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World by David Denby

Books are my passion but there have always been significant gaps in my reading experience and that is particularly true when it comes to the great books:  The Iliad and the Odyssey, The Confessions of St Augustine, Don Quixote, King Lear etc. Fortunately, the noted film critic David Denby has read these books.  First in 1961 as an 18 year old undergradate at Columbia University and then in 1991 at age 48 Denby went back to Columbia to retake these core-curriculum courses.  He writes about his journey in Great Books: My Adventures With Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World published in 1996.

Denby states in the Introduction to Great Books that he decided to go back to Columbia because college had changed in the thirty years since he'd first been a student.  These great books courses were now under attack for not being diverse. Many in academia complained that not enough women writers were on the curriculum and practically no writers from outside Europe. Denby sympathised but he didn't want diversity to come at the expense of bumping Homer, Milton and Shakespeare from the list.  Denby says the debate also affected him because he had gotten out of the habit of reading serious literature and as he looked back he had trouble remembering many of the classics he had read. Were the critics right? Were these books obsolete?

So in Great Books we accompany David Denby back to college for one year.  We listen as professors teach these classics,  poking and proding their students to get the most out of these texts and apply what they learn to their own lives and today's world. Mostly though we learn about David Denby's reaction as he rereads these books this time in middle age with much more life experience behind him.  Great Books is part memoir and Denby is a very good writer, insightful and opinionated with a deep knowledge of the arts, history and the culture.

As for my reaction I did struggle to understand many of the writers Denby quoted in Great Books.  Alot of it was beyond me.  The ancient Greeks for example.  One needs a professor to go through Homer's lyric poetry at least I did. Ditto for the writings of Plato and Aristotle.  But then my interest picked up when we got to Sophocles' play Oedipus the King and as I continued to read Great Books I found more classics I would like to check out: The Confessions of St Augustine, the Decameron and I was particularly impressed by the last two chapters where Denby discussed and quoted passages from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.  These were two writers whose novels I had not read before but I want to now.

Denby said that one can read Great Books chronologically or you can skip to the chapters that interest you.  I read Great Books from beginning to end and I am glad I did.  It was a struggle and alot of it went over my head but I felt by the time I got to the last page I had been on a worthwhile journey.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo

Sworn to Silence is the first novel in Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder mystery series and after finishing the book I immediately ordered the second book in the series, that's how much I liked it.  But a warning.  The book is graphic with a number of very disturbing scenes.  A serial killer is on the loose murdering, raping and torturing young women and we are not spared the gory details.

I realize I may be turning people off at this point but what sold me on the novel were the two main characters:  Chief of Police Kate Burkholder and Special Agent John Tomasetti who is called in to help Kate and her fellow officers catch this brutal killer. Kate and John have wonderful chemistry together and I'd follow them anywhere.

So, all that said, Sworn to Silence is set in the town of Painters Mill, Ohio where about a third of the population is Amish.  Kate Burkholder has been the Chief of Police in Painters Mill for two years, prior to that she was a homocide detective in Columbus, Ohio.  Kate is originally from Painters Mill.   She was raised in the Amish faith but left as a teenager.  After all these years away Kate does not regret coming back to her hometown.  She gets along well with her officers.  She isn't close with her Amish family though having left the faith when she was a teenager and there is also a dark secret from years ago that she shares with her family which has certainly added to the rift.

Still, things are peaceful in Painters Mill until the dead body of a young woman is discovered.  The killer made carvings on the body, the same carvings that appeared on the bodies of four young women who were killed in Painters Mill sixteen years ago.  Is the same killer back after a sixteen year hiatus? Everyone in the town is on edge and Kate Burkholder is worried too but for a different reason. Sixteen years ago when Kate was fourteen she was raped and might have been murdered like the other young women but she was able to kill her attacker in self defense.  Her father and brother disposed of his body.

But is Daniel Lapp the rapist from years ago back?  Was he alive when Kate's father and brother placed his body down into a pit located in the abandoned grain elevator? Was he able to crawl out and is he now back committing these murders?  The guilt weighs on Kate since no one in her family ever went to the police about any of this and now this secret could be impeding the case.  As another young woman's body is found the Mayor sends for extra help, a Special Agent from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation John Tomasetti.  John like Kate has certainly experienced tragedy in his life and he is barely holding it together.  Still he's a smart relentless detective and like Kate committed to solving this case so that no other women are killed.

Linda Castillo is a talented writer and you learn about the Amish faith and culture in her novels.   For me though, and I say this again, Kate Burkholder and John Tomasetti are the main attraction.  They begin an on again off again romance which will continue throughout the series and I am eager to see how that develops.  So if you have a strong stomach and are a fan of shows like Criminal Minds and the novels of Patricia Cornwall then I think Sworn To Silence might be for you but it is graphic in terms of the violence and so I recommend the novel with an advisory.