Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy

Earlier this week, someone asked me if I was reading anything good. I had to pause before I answered, because I was still in the middle of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. It's a classic, sure. It's well written. But good? It's not a feelgood read. It also turns out that the contemporary reaction to Jude was such that Hardy gave up writing novels for the rest of his life.

Jude the Obscure
Jude the Obscure has a (deserved) reputation as a difficult, anti-marriage novel. Like all of the other Hardy novels I've read, lives spin out of control and no one finds happiness. Jude's sin, as I saw it, was that he wanted what he couldn't have. As a child, Jude built up a dream to be a scholar in Christminster, a city based on Oxford and Cambridge. Jude taught himself Latin and Greek and read the classics. But his dream is almost immediately derailed. Then Jude falls in love with his cousin, Sue Bridehead. He will not rest until he's won her love—even though both of them are married to other people when they fall in love with each other. But let me start at the beginning.

Jude is raised by his Aunt Drusilla, who doesn't like him. She constantly tells him about his parents' tragic relationship and informs him that it would have been better if he had followed them into their graves. Jude develops a one-sided love affair with scholarship. He begs used books off of travelers. He carves his wish to attend Christminster into a mile marker on the road to the city from his village. He works and saves for years until, in his late teen years, he meets Arabella Donn. Arbella catches his eye and inspires deep lust in Jude. She even tricks him into marrying her by faking a pregnancy. Jude spends his little spare cash to set up a household with Arabella and gives up his dream to be a scholar. Within months, Arabella gets fed up with Jude and emigrates with her family to Australia.

Jude does eventually move to Christminster, where he gets work as a stone mason. He sends letters to various dons at the colleges, but they either ignore him to tell him to stick to stoneworking. Jude finds his dream crushed and turns his back on the college. He then plans to teach himself to be a minister, but he meets Sue at this point and, once again, falls in deep lust. His attraction deepens for her, but Sue keeps him at arms' length. Everyone around them can see that they're in love with each other, though they both pretend (to themselves and others) that they just have a deep, Platonic friendship. Sue even marries another man, Mr. Phillotson, who gave her a job as a teacher and encouraged her to go to a training school.

Sue—who I found more interesting than Jude—soon develops an aversion to her husband. She can't bear for him to touch her. After only a few years, Sue asks Phillotson to release her to go live with Jude. When Phillotson divorces her, and Arabella divorces Jude, Jude presses her to marry him. But Sue has come to view marriage as "a sordid contract, based on material convenience in householding, rating, and taxing, and the inheritance of land and money by children, making it necessary that the male parent should be known" (Part IV, Chapter II*). Sue systematically argues Jude away from marriage. She also refuses to tell Jude that she loves him. For the longest time, she refuses to sleep with him, though Jude pressures her repeatedly. (This really bothered me about Jude.) Sue only gives in when Arabella shows up.

Hardy starts to skip ahead in the story at this point. Jude has a hard time keeping a job. A few times, he is fired when his employers find out that Jude and Sue aren't married. They're also taking care of Jude and Arabella's son, a disturbingly somber child everyone calls Little Father Time. Each time we rejoin the couple, they're a little worse off. And they have more children. Then Hardy twists the screws even more when Little Time kills his siblings and himself "because we are too menny" (Part VI, Chapter II). This is too much, for the reader and Sue. Sue decides to punish herself by remarrying Phillotson and forcing herself to be "a good wife" to him in spite of her aversion. Jude ends up being tricked into remarrying Arabella before deliberately catching a fatal illness.

Jude the Obscure is going to haunt me for a long time. It's a bold work for 1895. (It's still a bold work.) Sue and Jude deliberately turn their backs on marriage for so long. Yet everything was against them. The more I read of Hardy, the more I view him as an anti-Victorian. He is constantly pointing out how people naturally fail to live up to the moral standards they set for themselves. Instead of modifying the rules, they punish themselves and others for infractions. Sue fascinated me. She's anything but a typical Victorian woman. At times, even Jude accuses her of being "sexlesss," unwomanly, cold, satirical, even blasphemous. She's a feminist before we had the term. When Sue goes off the rails at the end, I truly felt for her—more than I did for Jude.

Jude is not a strong person. Except for Sue, Jude turns away from his goals when barriers spring up. He has no follow through. When he does follow through on his pursuit of Sue, he comes across as a man who's read too much advice from pick up artists. He won't take Sue's no for an answer. He sulks and broods and needs women to nurse him because he can't (or won't) take care of himself. It would have been amazing if Hardy had made Sue his primary protagonist. That book would have been mind-blowing.


* All quotes from the Project Gutenberg edition.


Neverhome, by Laird Hunt

Constance Thompson was taught by her mother that their family does not turn the other cheek. If someone wrongs them, they right it. They don't stand by when they see someone being wronged, either. This doesn't make her family very popular in their corner of Randolph County, Indiana. It also gives Constance an urge to wander. Sometime in 1861 or 1862 (it's not quite clear in the text), Constance cuts her hair, dresses in pants, leaves her husband behind on the farm, and enlists in the Union Army. Constance takes us along on her journey over the next few years in Laird Hunt's Neverhome.

Constance enlists as Ash Thompson. Her strong hands and willingness to fight her new comrades actually helps her fit in. She becomes known as a reliable, capable soldier. She's loyal. She doesn't run, even when her regiment fights at Antietam. Even when she's captured by armed men looking to return deserters for money or left wounded on a battlefield, Ash returns to her regiment. 

Ash's narration includes flashbacks to her childhood and her courtship by Bartholomew Thompson as she walks the forests of Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky. We learn more about how her mother broke down after saving a woman from being killed by angry townsfolk when events take an even worse turn for Ash. A nurse turns Ash in after she's wounded and Ash is incarcerated in an insane asylum. Ugly rumors about her time in uniform surface. She's accused of being a Confederate spy. Her colonel, who formerly praised her and wanted to give her a promotion, turns on her. 

The ending of Neverhome is explosive. Even though it's a brief 250+ pages, Neverhome is full of suspense and drama and heart-wrenching emotion. The narration, in period dialect, is superb. As I read, I was reminded of The Red Badge of Courage and—to a lesser extent—All Quiet on the Western Front. Hunt captures the madness of a countryside at war, as told by a woman who sounds like an authentic veteran.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 9 September 2014.


A trip to Powell's

Taste in used bookstores is as individual as a reader's taste in books. In my hometown, there were three. One had so many books the owner had given up on organizing it. You couldn't find anything except by accident. At another, the owner would argue with you about books. The third closed because no one would buy the owner's cigarette smoke-infused books. (Another store popped up right before I moved away.) Finding one that fits what you want is tough.

Ever since I heard about Powell's, a city block sized store (bigger now), I put it on my booky bucket list. Thanks to a library conference, I got the chance to go. I spent two glorious hours wandering around the collections over three floors. When I found the fiction, I was overwhelmed. Rows and rows of novels, seven feet high! It was too much to take in. My to-read list went tight out of my head. It was wonderful. And then I found the science fiction/fantasy section and geeked out all over again.

My haul from Powell's
Being able to find the book you're looking for and being able to stumble on a book serendipitously in the same place was wonderful. And the Rare Books room was a joy. I got to see a first edition of The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss, and a 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. The best was a volume of Richard Francis Burton's narrative of his trips to Medina and Mecca. It was inscribed by Isabel Burton herself!

If I ever get back to Portland, I'm going to have to go again. Seriously, it's the Valhalla of bookstores.


Book talk; Or, Reader, read thyself

This post was inspired by a recent episode of The Readers, in which the hosts responded to a question about how to talk about books. As is usual when I listen to book-related podcasts, I want to drop my own two cents. 

"I liked it. What more do you want?"
Unless you're an English major, you haven't been trained to talk about books. Thus, book group conversations often end once everyone has said either, "I liked it," or "I didn't like it." I bug my book-happy niece all the time because I keep asking her "Why?" until she breaks down or tries to weasel out of it by saying she forgot what it was about.

English majors, however, are taught a handful of critical lens to apply to texts. We're lucky that someone helps us pull aside the curtain to take a look backstage. We learn to deconstruct and psychoanalyze. We can read as feminists or Marxists. We can read closely or look at the historical context. I think the most useful lens of the amateur reader (like me and you, probably) is to examine the book as a Reader, through readers' response. More than anything else, a book's meaning is dependent on what the reader makes of it. Any response is valid, so long as it can be backed up by the text.

The trick to reader's response is to know yourself as a reader. As much as you're psychoanalyzing the text, you're psychoanalyzing yourself. (This can be a disturbing thought if you like zombie and pandemic novels, as I do.) You have to question your response to a book's content or characters. Why do I hate this character? Why do I like the way the plot turns at this point? These questions can lead to great discussions. And I think this is a less daunting approach to how to talk about books than trying to cram a bachelor's degree worth of critical theory into your head before the next book group meeting.

If this doesn't work, you can always harass your book buddy by asking "Why?" until they break down.


Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven
The events of Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven drift back and forth in time, some times to years before the Georgian Flu wiped out almost everyone to years later. A handful of narrators tell their stories, linked to each other through an actor who died the day before the flu arrived. They meet and part, sometimes discovering their link to each other, sometimes not. As this contemplative novel spins along, characters mediate on what they've lost, but Station Eleven isn't a depressing novel. One character has a phrase from a Star Trek episode tattooed on her arm: Survival is insufficient. This is the other link between the characters, before and after the flu. The characters before the flu are just going through the motions; one describes it as sleepwalking through life. The characters after the flu travel and perform Shakespeare's plays and music to bring something more into the lives of the people who are just surviving.

In the opening section of Station Eleven, Jeevan Chaudhary sees an actor he once interviewed and stalked as a paparazzo suffering what appears to be a heart attack during Act IV of King Lear. Arthur Leander dies in spite of Jeevan's efforts. That night, abandoned by his girlfriend, Jeevan gets a call from an old friend who tells him to get out of Toronto. An incredibly virulent influenza has just arrived in the city on a plane from Moscow. It kills within 48 hours. St. John Mandel then jumps us twenty years into the future. Kirsten Raymonde, one of the actresses in that long ago production of Lear is now a member of the Travelling Symphony. Her life as a traveling minstrel is dangerous but, as she asks later, "Where else would I get to play Shakespeare?"

Kirsten is our narrator for most of Station Eleven, but we also meet two of Leander's ex-wives, his longtime best friend, and his son. Through Kirsten's eyes, we get to see what has happened to post-plague Michigan. Some small towns survive. Some are too dangerous to approach. One town, St. Deborah by the Water, has been taken over by a prophet from the south. When the Traveling Symphony disappears, Kirsten has to make her way to the next rendezvous point, the Museum of Civilization in Severn, while being pursued by the prophet and his men.

The transitions can feel jarring. It sometimes takes a sentence or two to re-ground yourself. Fortunately, St. John Mandel is a gift for making all of the parts of her story equally interesting and illuminating. Most books with this much time-jumping and this many narrators run the very real risk of readers forgetting something important or getting bored by one or more of the plot lines. Station Eleven also doesn't smack readers over the head with its message. It's there for you to tease out as we piece together the connections between our narrators, worry over them, and wonder what the future holds for them.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 9 September 2014.


Expo 58, by Jonathan Coe

Expo 58
All the world is coming to Brussels for the World's Fair, beginning in the spring of 1958. Thomas Foley is coming because his bosses at the Central Office of Information think he'll be a natural at overseeing the replica British pub in the British Pavilion, because his mother is Belgian and his father ran a pub. This is just the first of many bewildering things that happen to Thomas in Jonathan Coe's Expo 58.

Thomas's role is never very clearly defined. The man in charge of the day-to-day at the Britannia is a veteran barman. Shirley Knott (yeah, you read that right) is perfectly capable of running things when Mr. Rossiter is soused (constantly). Mostly, Thomas spends his time in the company of a Belgian hostess named Anneke.

Because it's 1958, the Expo is also a hot bed of clandestine activity. The organizers have amusingly put the US and USSR pavilions right next door to each other. Everyone is spying on each other. Through absolutely no effort of his own, Thomas is approached by a KGB official and bunks with a scientist working on the ZETA project. Thomas is roped in by British secret services when it appears that the KGB agent might be about to run away to Moscow with the daughter of a prominent American scientist. A man with a gun stuffs him into a Volkswagen Beetle for a rendezvous with the Secret Services. I'm not really supposed to quote from an advanced reader copy, but this is too funny (and illustrative of the tone of Expo 58) not to share:
'What's this?' [Thomas asked.]
'What do you think it is? It's a blindfold. Now hold still while I tie it at the back.'
'What the...?'
Remembering the presence of the gun, Thomas decided that protest, let alone resistance, was useless. He waited in silence for the blindfold to be tied firmly at the back of his head.
'Right,' said Wilkins, emphatically. 'That should do. How many fingers am I holding up?'
'Three,' said Thomas.
'God damn it to hell, how did you know that? Can you see through the cloth?'
'No. It was a guess.'
'Well you're not supposed to guess. For crying out loud, I'm trying to make sure that you can't see where we're going. We're not here to play guessing games. How many fingers am I holding up?'
'I've no idea. I can't see a bloody thing.' (Location 1720*)
The very next day, Thomas gets his marching orders and his first "errand" for England: stop the potential elopement. (Hilariously, when Thomas tells his handlers about how Wilkins kidnapped him, they tut about the bad influence the books of a certain Mr. Fleming is having on the other men in the office.)

The second half of the book is full of Thomas attempts to foil Mr. Chersky's romance. Unfortunately, this half isn't as enjoyable as the set up. The ending in particular is a let down. I think I was expecting something as silly and madcap as the first half. In fact, the second half is downright melancholy as Thomas gets sucked deeper and deeper into the Great Game.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 2 September 2014.


* From the advanced reader's copy for kindle, provided by the publisher.

The Monster's Wife, by Kate Horsley

The Monster's Wife
I often think of characters in terms of Venn diagrams. (Okay, I think of people in these terms a lot of the time. What do you expect? I'm a librarian.) Character's circles collide with each other as they get caught up in each other's stories. Authors let us zoom in on these circles and this shapes our perspectives on what's happening in the novel or short story or whatever we're reading. This image of a Venn diagram kept popping into my head as I read Kate Horsley's The Monster's Wife. In this book, Oona Scollay's circle is pulled into a story already in progress when a Herr Doktor Frankenstein arrives on the island of Hoy, in the Orkneys.

Oona Scollay and her best friend, May, toil with the rest of the members of their small archipelago of villages. The men fish and herd livestock. The women tend the house and hearth. Nothing changes, until a foreign doctor sets up shop in the laird's abandoned manor house. May is hired as maid for Doktor Frankenstein. As the days pass, May grows more secretive and distant from Oona. One night, May asks Oona to help her get rid of something foul smelling in their village's firth. The next morning, dead frogs wash up on shore and the local fish are dying. Then Oona's chickens are killed. A neighbor's pigs are killed. When Oona pushes her way into the manor house, the Doktor reveals that he can galvanize frogs back to life. He's an unsettling man. He mumbles to himself and only some of it makes sense to Oona and May. (If you've read Frankenstein, however, you know exactly what's going on.) Frankenstein hires Oona once he knows that she can read—though it seems he also hires her because he thinks she has a sympathetic ear.

Horsley began her tale with an ominous tone, but she quickly builds The Monster's Wife into a full blown horror story. May disappears. Her fiance threatens Oona. The Doktor is beaten to within an inch of his life. And all through this, Oona keeps catching sight of a scarred man with piercing, angry blue eyes. Horsley eventually reveals the devil's bargain that the Doktor had to make to save his family back in Switzerland. Unfortunately, May and Oona are trapped in the crosshairs of that deadly deal.

I love retellings of classic stories (as long as they can live up to the quality of the original.) I adored Daniel Levine's Hyde, which told the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the "alleged" monster's perspective. The Monster's Wife is an epilogue to Frankenstein. Fortunately, Horsley more than lives up to the original. In fact, I liked this book a lot more than Frankenstein because there's so much more action and suspense and the philosophizing doesn't grind the narrative to a screeching halt.

To sum up, read the plot summary of Frankenstein on Wikipedia, then go read The Monster's Wife.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be 
released 8 August 2014.


Saying good-bye to a series

Deborah Harkness, book witch
Late on Thursday night (actually, early Friday morning), I finished Deborah Harkness' The Book of Life, the last book in the All Souls' Trilogy. Ever since, I've been left with an ineffable feeling of sadness. I usually read mystery and thriller series; those buggers go on forever, even when they should end. When I finished The Book of Life, I wanted to start over with the first book just so that I could have some more time with the characters and the amazing world Harkness created.

I can't win. Either series last so long that the characters stop growing and the plots become stale that I stop reading them. This is usually what happens. Mysteries series have been doing this for ages. If you have a series that continues to sell well, why not milk it for all it's worth? Or the series are so short that they're over much too quickly. Creatively, the trilogies and short series are probably the best thing for authors. It lets them move on to something new, so that they don't start to phone it in. They have to focus on their words, because they have limited space to do the job. I have yet to see a long (five or more books) series that didn't start to sprawl.

Even though I'm not going to write a review of The Book of Life*, I will say that I was pleased to see how the book ended. Mysteries were solved. Plot threads were tied up. Justice was served. But what I loved most about the ending of The Book of Life was the way Harkness made it clear that Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont's world would go on without us readers looking in on it. This is one of the signs of a great read: if you can easily picture the story carrying on even though you've reached the last page.

I decided to post about this because of this week's episode of Dear Book Nerd and because of all the book hangover references on the book-net blogs I follow. At least I'm not the only one who has a hard time saying good-bye.  


* I don't review books in a series after the first one. I usually find that I don't have anything to say beyond, "Well, things are carrying on as usual." Unless the author has a planned ending point, there usually isn't an over-arching plot to talk about.


The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad
Alzheimer's is a devastating illness. Newer memories disappear, leaving only older and older memories. Marina Buriakova is slipping deeper into its grip as her husband takes her to their granddaughter's wedding. Memories that Marina has suppressed for sixty or more years are coming closer to the surface. Because she never told anyone that she was a survivor of the 872 day Siege of Leningrad, her comments serve only to make people worry even more about her state of mind. Debra Dean's hypnotic novella, The Madonnas of Leningrad, is a bittersweet meditation on the fickle nature of memory.

In the fall of 1941, Hitler's Wehrmacht storms across Russia's western frontier. The Red Army is losing men by the thousands. Marina works at the State Museum of Leningrad (the past and present Hermitage Museum) as a tour guide, but as the Wehrmacht closes in on Leningrad, she is pressed into service with the rest of the staff packing the paintings and statues for transport into safer territory. Marina then lives with her family in the bomb shelters under the museum during the long days of starvation, until the Road of Life was built over frozen Lake Ladoga.

Dean's protagonist's mind drifts between the Siege and the present. Short snatches of Marina's tour script make brief interruptions to share her love of the paintings that hung in the museum. Most of the short book takes place between 1941 and 1943. We see Marina become engaged to her future husband, Dmitri, before he left for the front. Dmitri spent most of the war in a German slave labor camp. It was a miracle that they found each other. Marina's great love in life, however, is the art she helped protect.

emptied of paintings for the duration.
Every day during the Siege, sometimes in the company of the babushka Anya, Maria walks through the empty rooms of the Hermitage. She knows the museum's collections so well that she can see the paintings and sculptures in her mind's eye. Anya teaches her how to build a memory palace so that Marina won't lose any of her mental collection. As the starvation and deprivation take their toll on Anya, the old woman starts to teach Marina about the paintings that disappeared before the war, sold by Stalin or claimed for the private collection of some apparatchik. There is an incredibly beautiful scene near the end of the Siege when Anya takes a group of very young conscripts on a tour of the empty museum and brings the paintings to life from her memory for them.

Of course, this scene grows tragic when you realize that none of her family know anything of Marina's sufferings during the war or of her deep love of art. The only way Marina could move forward was to lock everything away and never speak of it. When she reunites with Dmitri, all she does is to introduce their son, who miraculously survived the Siege with his mother. She made a home in the United States with her husband and son. Her daughter, who struggles to be an artist, knew nothing of deprivation. Now that Marina is faltering, Dmitri and her children take care of her.

I read The Madonnas of Leningrad partly because I recently read Robert Edsel's The Monuments Men and watched The Rape of Europa, a documentary on the theft of art from across Europe during World War II. All three works left me in awe of the people who were willing to die for the sake of Europe's art and architecture. Art is the height of human achievement. It's meant for future generations. Art feeds the soul. The people who worked to protect European art knew that, and it's thanks to them that we still have as much of our cultural heritage as we do. We owe them a debt that can never be paid back. Marina is fictional, but people like her lived. Her family's lack of knowledge about her past is much like history's forgetting of the Monuments Men and their allies. It was good to be learn their stories.


The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter, by Rod Duncan

The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter
The word Luddite is now a gentle insult for someone who doesn't like technology. Two hundred years ago, it referred to people who smashed the "infernal machines" of the Industrial Revolution and followed the fictional Ned Ludd. This is the point of divergence in Rod Duncan's Gas-Lit Empire series. In The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter, set about 150 years after the Luddites managed to grind technological advancement to a standstill, the United Kingdom has been split into two countries: the Kingdom of England and South Wales and the Anglo-Scottish Republic. The Kingdom was home to our protagonist, Elizabeth Barnabas, until a corrupt aristocrat bankrupted her father's circus and she was sold into indenture to pay off her father's fabricated debts. She fled north.

During the five years between her escape to the North and the opening of The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter, Elizabeth has been working as an intelligence gatherer. Or, to be more accurate, she has been disguising herself as a man and pretending to be her own twin in order to make a living. We meet her as she is meeting (as her brother, Edwin) with the Duchess of Bletchley, from the Kingdom. The Duchess asks Elizabeth to find her missing brother. Their meeting is interrupted by armed men. This is just the first time we see Elizabeth having to make a quick change and a quick escape.

Elizabeth is in sore need of money. Her houseboat payment is coming due. If she can get enough money, she can return home to the Kingdom and leave the repressing Republic behind. Though she receives many warnings, Elizabeth takes the case. Clues lead her to Harry Timpson's traveling show, the Laboratory of Arcane Wonders. She is far from the only person on the trail of the Duchess's missing brother. The International Patent Office—which squelches technology and scientific innovation—are after him. Timpson is after him. The chase leads all over the border zone between the Republic and the Kingdom.

I was immediately hooked by the world Duncan created. What would the world look like if the Industrial Revolution had been halted, even reverse? What really made this book for me was Elizabeth Barnabas. Her unusual upbringing in a traveling circus and her five years of forced independence have made her clever and strong. She's a wonderful character and it was a treat to watch her work through the challenges the cropped up as she find out why everyone wants to get their hands on the Duchess's missing brother.

The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter is the opening book in a series and I will be eagerly waiting for the next installment of Elizabeth's adventures.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 26 August 2014.


The bogeyman

At the end of 2015, Bavarian publisher Eher Verlag's copyright on Mein Kampf will expire. Anyone will be able to publish their own copy. The book has been suppressed (if not outright banned) in Germany ever since the end of World War II. Since then, the book has been the Godwin's Law of every conversation about censorship and book banning. Whenever someone takes a stand against banning anything, another person will always ask, "What about Mein Kampf?"

Just this week, I've seen two articles (linked below) asking whether people in Germany will start to read it. Both of them take a similar tack. They argue 1) that not having the book available to read has given the book a mystique it should never have had and 2) the book is so impossible to read that no one will get very far anyway. Those who argue against letting the book out into the world again worry that it will inspire people to anti-Semitism and fascist thought.

I'm not arguing that we should read Mien Kampf, but I don't think it should be banned. It should be studied, like a fungus. (Personally, I think it was Adolf Hitler more than his book that sparked the Third Reich. According to McGrane's article for The New Yorker, few Germans—even Nazi Party members—actually read it.) I wonder if scholars had had access to Mein Kampf if the book would still have the ability to instill such fear in people even now.

Sweetness #9, by Stephan Eirik Clark

Sweetness #9
It is a truth universally acknowledged—at least it should be—that the Western diet is crap. So it's ironic that I read Stephan Eirik Clark's Sweetness #9 just a month after reading In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. The book is a fictional memoir of a flavorist who did some of the original testing for an artificial sweetener back in the 1970s before suffering a qualm of conscience.

David Levereaux is a transplanted Englishman in America. As a kid, he studied American culture so that he could fit in. In college, he studied chemistry before going to work for a flavor company as an animal tester—the first rung on the corporate ladder. But when the animals start to grow obese and lethargic, Levereaux voices concerns to the management. They suggest he takes a vacation. The next thing he knows, all the animals have been replaced and no one believes him. His life starts to fall apart. His wife worries and suggests he takes some time at the state psychiatric facility because he can't get past his fears about Sweetness #9 and his depression over quitting his job.

A few weeks after admitting himself, Levereaux is visited by the president of FlavAmerica. Ernst Eberhardt offers him a job as a flavorist and once again, Levereaux is soon living the American middle class dream. His kids aren't that fond of him. His wife spends a lot of time trying to lose weight. They're all pretty much addicted to convenience food until Priscilla, their daughter, starts to ask questions to she can write "think pieces" for her school newspaper and agitates against #9 and food additives. Levereaux knows there's something wrong with #9, but he won't speak. Once someone starts to send Levereaux packets of pink-dyed Sweetness #9, it all gets to be too much for him again.

Not much actually happens in Sweetness #9. Levereaux worries and frets for most of the book. Unlike a thriller or a work of science fiction, there's no big finish. Clark goes for realism and the second half is much more interesting than the first. An unknown group of activists/terrorists start to blow up supermarkets, making people terrified to go buy food. Unfortunately, this turn comes far to late to make up for all the prior dithering. I wonder if I would have enjoyed reading this book if I hadn't read In Defense of Food. There was nothing in Sweetness #9 that surprised me.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 19 August 2014. 


The Monuments Men, by Robert M. Edsel

The Monuments Men
In every big disaster movie, when the aliens invade and blow up Paris or a volcano wipes out a city in Italy, my first fleeting thought is always for the art and architecture that gets destroyed before the people. I'd feel a pang when I'd read a note about a painting or a building that was destroyed during war in an art history text. So of course I ended up staying awake until 1:30 in the morning to finish Robert Edsel's history of the Monuments, Find Arts, and Archives mission in The Monument's Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

During World War II, organizations like the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) looted works of art from all over Europe under a veneer of legality. (Some of the art they took have still not been found.) As early as 1941, museum officials in the United States were worried about what could happen, but people like George Stout and the people who became known as the Monuments Men had to fight through years of army red tape to get their chance that tracking down missing art and stopping historically important buildings from being blown up.

Edsel points to the destruction of Monte Cassino during the invasion of Italy as the turning point for the Monuments Men. After the monastery at Monte Cassino was gutted by Allied bombing, General Eisenhower wrote a directive that monuments were to be protected unless it would cost too many lives. In the middle of a war zone, however, there aren't any people or supplies to spare to protect art. During the invasion of Normandy, Saint-Lô was destroyed before the Monuments Men could even get on the scene.

Jan Vermeer's The Astronomer is recovered from the
Altaussee salt mine in Austria.
They had better luck after the Allies broke out of Normandy, liberated Paris, and started marching through Belgium and the Netherlands. Information started coming to them about where the ERR had been sending works of art "for its protection." Once the Monuments Men made it to the Rhineland, they started finding cache after cache of looted art. Most of the paintings, sculptures, books, and prints were stashed away in salt mines (many of them beginning to flood as their machinery broke down). The second half of The Monuments Men has the chief members of the MFAA racing towards the caches at Neuschwanstein and the salt mine at Altaussee as the American and Soviet armies closed on remaining German strongholds. The MFAA spent years after the war looking for and trying to repatriate art. Unfortunately, many of the rightful owners were dead or missing.

The Monuments Men was a great counterpoint to a novel I read earlier this year, Ayelet Waldman's Love and Treasure. In that book, based on the history of the Hungarian Gold Train, we saw the Allies at their less than honest as they used looted art and furniture to decorate generals' commandeered palaces. Along with the lack of men and supplies, the Monuments Men had to fight against their own servicemen. James Rorimer would blister people for even contemplating getting sticky fingers. Some of the Allies—like the Soviets—viewed recovered art as trophies.

Rose Valland
Reading The Monuments Men was a heartening (though occasionally nail-biting) experience. The pace of the book slows down in the middle, as Rorimer tries to get traction with Rose Valland. Valland was a hero who stayed at the Jeu de Paume to protect its collection and pass information to the French Resistance. Because she had spent the war unsuccessfully trying to fend off the ERR and Hermann Göring's people from using the Jeu de Paume as their own personal art dealership, Valland was rightfully trepidatious of the Americans. Her information made it possible for many of the German caches to be found and for the owners to be named, if not found.

Edsel ends his book with a short post-history in which the Monuments Men were mostly forgotten—even though their mission still existed. Edsel points to the looting of Iraq's state museum during the second Iraq war as an example of how the MFAA is still needed. Edsel didn't need to dress up the Monuments Men's story. (I do wish Edsel's editor had taken a firmer hand. There were a lot of repeated explanations and sentences that just didn't need to be there.) I'm glad that their story is finally being told.


Cover story

After I finish writing a book review, I always post an excerpt and a link on the book's page over at GoodReads. Because GoodReads is home to readers from around the world, finding the right edition can be tricky. The upside of this complication is that I get to see the UK and the US covers for the book. I've written before about how a cover can change your expectations of a book's tone, and I have another example to share.

Here is the US cover of The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, by Michelle Lovric:

And here is the UK edition's cover:

On the UK cover, Manticory Swiney—the narrator of the novel—is only sister on the cover. Her expression is not a happy one, but the color of her hair brightens things. The US cover shows Manticory in her place as the middle sister. The cover is dark, ominous—much closer to the tone of the book. I love the Art Deco design of the US edition, too. (Though, I'm normally more of an Art Nouveau kind of gal.)

I think if I had only the UK cover to go on, I would have been more frustrated with Manticory as a character. She is dominated by her oldest sister throughout the novel. She often gets lost in the crowd with her six siblings. Because she is the narrator, The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters may seem like Manticory's story. But the US edition cover reminds us that the book is really about all seven Swiney sisters.


The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, by Michelle Lovric

The True and Splendid History of
the Harristown Sisters
Michelle Lovric's The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters is a dark tale. The seven Swiney sisters, born in poverty in rural Harristown, Ireland, spend their days fighting with each other. Black-haired Darcy, the eldest, has them all in fear of her temper and her fists. The brunette twins, Berenice and Enda, hate the mere sight of each other. Red-haired Manticory runs away to the fields to read and write in peace. The youngest three, blonde Oona and brunettes Pertilly and Ida, often get lost in the shuffle—though the sisters agree that Ida is not all she might be. Their mother insists that their father will return someday, but the Swiney sisters are gossiped about throughout the village because of their missing parent and because of their long, abundant hair. Manticory is our narrator as Darcy turns her family into a commercial empire before leading them into ruin in Venice. Lovric's tale is the kind that you know from the beginning will not end without trials and tribulations for everyone.

When Manticory was thirteen, a man on the Harristown bridge tried to drag her into a stand of trees before being spooked away. Instead of giving her sympathy, her sister Darcy (who has no sympathy to give anyone) decides that the sister's hair is their (her) ticket to riches. She bullies them into singing and dancing and books them into a local hall. Darcy knows that the only reason people will pay their sixpence is to show off their hair at the end of the show.The shows grow more elaborate. Manticory is drafted to write new ballads and sketches for the sisters to act out. Too keep things looking respectable, she includes stinging banter and stage violence to cover for the sisters aggression towards each other. This might have been as far as the Swiney sisters got if it hadn't been for Mr. Rainfleury, a doll maker and "Brother of the Hair." Rainfleury is one of many well-heeled hair fetishists that agree to help the sisters in exchange for a touch of their hair. Eventually, Darcy incorporates the "Swiney Godivas." Before long, they're shilling dolls in their likenesses and hair products. Rainfleury even marries one of the twins (though he carries on with the other twin).

The seven Sutherland Sisters were Lovric's inspiration for the
Swiney sisters. 
The six youngest sisters hate being in Darcy's show, but they feel trapped by Darcy and Rainfleury and Tristan Stoker (another fetishist). Manticory stays to try and check Darcy et al. from making the show even more of a spectacle than it already is. The sisters' luck starts to turn—as you know it must—when a journalist starts to stalk the sisters and expose their past lies. Ida's mental state deteriorates. A man attacks Pertilly and steals her hair. The strain is too much and they all decamp for Venice. (Manticory convinced Darcy to buy a palazzo there after she fell in love with the city during a trip to work with a local photographer.)

Lovric puts her battling and embattled Swiney sisters into smaller and smaller corners, turning their tale into a full blown tragedy before it's all over. The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters is a dark tale, full of betrayal and unscrupulousness and pure creepiness. But I had a fantastic time reading it. Lovric's characters are so well-developed. Her plot overturns so many narrative conventions that I read with my iPad plugged into the wall for a few hours because I was running out of juice and I couldn't bear to leave off while it charged. I had to know what happened next. This is a brilliant, challenging novel.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 12 August 2014. 


Working Stiff, by Dr. Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

Working Stiff
One of the questions Dr. Judy Melinek hears is some variation on "How can you do this job?" Since 2001, Melinek has been working as a forensic pathologist. Her job is to determine cause of death—homicide, accident, suicide, natural causes, medical complications, or undetermined. Her memoir, co-written with her husband T.J. Mitchell, shares examples from all of those categories. Working Stiff is the story of how Melinek became a medical examiner during her fellowship in New York City's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in 2001 and 2002.

Working Stiff is not told chronologically. Melinek and Mitchell grouped cases together into rough categories in the book's chapters. Reading it is akin to sitting down with Melinek and listening to her stories. Many of them are grim. Some are downright gruesome. (Thankfully, this book is not illustrated.) Some of her stories are heart-breaking. A few remain frustratingly without a conclusion. During her time in New York, it seemed that Melinek saw every way that a person might die in the city. She was even on site after September 11 to help identify the thousands of victims.

Because Working Stiff does not follow a narrative arc, there's not a lot of structure other than the categorizing of cases. The last chapter ends with Melinek finishing her fellowship and moving with her family to take up a position in San José, California. Melinek never really answers the question of how she can do her job without breaking down. At one point, she attributes her steadiness to being an effect of her father's suicide when she was a teenager. She responds to one questioner than she is doing it "for the living." Melinek never really dives below the surface of her psyche to answer the big question in Working Stiff. If you are looking for a good answer to that question, you will be disappointed. But if you're looking to spend some time with, and hear stories from, a forensic pathologist, Working Stiff is perfect—as long as you have a strong stomach.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 12 August 2014.

My Name is Resolute, by Nancy E. Turner

In the epilogue of Nancy E. Turner's My Name is Resolute, our narrator, Resolute tells us:
Many men I have known in my life will be written about and remembered for the deeds they have done these many years since the colonies loosed their bonds. My story is the story of other women like me, women who left no name, who will not be remembered or their deeds written, every one of them a restless stalk of flax who lent fiber to the making of a whole cloth, every one of them a thread, be it gold, dapple, crimson, or tarred. Let this tapestry be a recorded, then, that once there lived a woman, and that her name was Resolute. (585*)
I can't think of a better way to introduce this book other than to let Resolute's words speak for themselves.

My Name is Resolute
Resolute's story begins in Jamaica, in 1729. Her parents own the Two Crowns Plantation at what will later be known as Montego Bay. One night in late September, their idyllic life is destroyed when pirated attack the plantation. Resolute, her siblings, and her father are captured. Their mother is murdered. The ship takes them north so that the captives can be sold into slavery in the American colonies. Along the way, the pirates are attacked by yet more pirates. Resolute's father is killed. Her brother, August, signs on to escape the fate that awaits his sisters. Resolute survives mostly due to the actions of her older sister, Patience, who is much more savvy about the world than her ten-year-old sister.

Throughout the 1730s, Resolute and her sister are sold over and over again. They work as slaves for "Reformed Puritans," are captured by Native Americans, then sold to an Ursuline convent in Canada. Resolute is not a biddable child and her masters are rarely kind. She never really learns to master her temper, in spite of everyone's best efforts and advice. Patience arranges for them to escape with the tribe that brought them to the convent in the first place and the two flee to Massachusetts. Patience, however, chooses to stay with the tribe and marry her rescuer. Resolute is abandoned near a farm on the outskirts of Lexington.

During her years of slavery, Resolute has only had one goal: to get back to her mother in Jamaica. No matter what anyone tells her, she refuses to believe that her mother is dead. Still, she lands in luck in Lexington. Her kindness to a madwoman, Goody Carnegie, shunned by the community leads to her inheriting a house and 420 acres of farm and woodland. Her honesty wins her a friend in Lady Spencer after the Spencer heir jilts Resolute. Goody Carnegie advises Resolute to make her living as a weaver, telling her that she can't be sure what awaits her in Jamaica—especially after the Crown repossesses the family plantation when no heirs can be found.

In Massachusetts, Resolute finds love, family, home, a livelihood, friends—a full, rich life. The years spin by with babies and building with her husband, Cullah MacLammond. Cullah is the son of a Jacobite and never forgot that the Crown sentenced him to hang when he was just eight years old. He grows infuriated with the increasingly unfair and ruinous taxes inflicted on the colonists. His Jacobite sympathies lead him to become one of the first Patriots. Resolute involves herself in the cause, much to her husband's fear and fury. By 1775, they are in a position to play an incredibly important role in the opening shots of the American Revolution.

As she did in her novel These is My Words**, Turner plays the full range of human emotion. In the course of My Name is Resolute, our heroine sees revenge, love, violence, success, injustice, prejudice, joy, sorrow, and much more. You will be exhausted by the time you finish the book because you will have lived a whole life with Resolute. I haven't run into a character recently who so fully embodies the old curse, "May you live in interesting times."


* Quotation from the 2014 hardback from St. Martin's Press.
** One of my absolute favorite novels.


Well-loved books

I have a confession to make. I dogear pages. I leave books open, pages down on tables. Sometimes, I underline passages or make notes in the margins. I have read three paperbacks to death and had to replace them. These are heretical acts to most readers. Of course, I don't do any of the above to library books or books I've borrowed from others; I only torture my own books. Since I'm being confessional, I'll also add that I like the look of worn spines and furry cover corners. Books are meant to be read a loved. Books that sit, pristine and untouched, on the shelf make me feel a little sad.

I blame my English professors for this. I wasn't always an abuser of books. They taught me that, to truly interact with a text and engage with an author, you have to be constantly responding to their words. The best way to do this was with a pen in hand so that I could argue and agree and compare what I was reading as the urge occurred. After a few years, I stopped seeing the books, the codices, as sacred. The content is the important thing*. (I also started to see students who'd used the copies of novels and anthologies that I bought used from the university book stores as idiots. Whoever marked up my old copy of The Scarlet Letter was so very wrong about so very much! If I ever find that student, I will slap them upside the head with my corrected copy.)

The downside is replacing books I've loved to death. It's hard to find a copy of some of them. I found a new copy of Tim Powers' Declare at a used bookstore in Salt Lake. I replaced my copy of Jurassic Park—which I've read at least fifteen times and which still bore stains from the orange I was eating the second time I read it—with a lovely new hardback from Barnes and Noble. I've gone through two copies of Good Omens in less than a decade. But you know what? When I buy new copies, I help keep them in print so that new readers can find them in the bookstores. That's more than worth the cost of a new paperback.


* Of course, if I lend you one of my books and you hurt it (more than I have), I will dogear you.

The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms, by Ian Thornton

The Great and Calamitous Tale
of Johan Thoms
If you thought you had made a mistake that led to the greatest disasters of the twentieth century, how would you atone? This is the question that haunts Johan Thoms the rest of his life after he takes a wrong turn while driving Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, one day in late June of 1914 in Ian Thornton's The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms.

Prior to 1914, Johan Thoms has lived a charmed life. He wasn't expected to live when he was born. He was gored by a deer when it was seven. His father's decline into a benign insanity almost halted his career at the University of Sarajevo. But Johan has always had a knack for making devoted friends, even though he is an oddball. He even managed to find the love of his life at an embassy party while blitzed nearly out of his mind on absinthe.

That all changes when he replaces the intended chauffeurs and drives the Archduke and Archduchess in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Those who know their history already know what's going to happen. Johan manages to drive his charges safely through a few botched assassination attempts. On their way to their designated rendezvous, however, Johan starts to daydream of his love Lorelei's perfume and takes a wrong turn. The turn takes them right to Gavrilo Princip, who is eating a sandwich after having given up on his plans to kill the Archduke. History resumes. Johan flees Sarajevo, fearing that he will be blamed for his mistake. He spends the rest of his life on the run.

The royal couple and their party, the morning of 28 June 1914.
Image via Wikicommons.
A very rich friend provides money and documents for Johan, but at first, Johan is in too much of a daze to do more than walk west. He ends up in a hospital in Mostar. He has blinding headaches and comatose episodes whenever he reads or hears the news. There he inadvertently rescues a dying boy. They flee to Italy and then Spain and Portugal. The boy, Cicero, recovers. The two care for each other as Europe erupts into war over and over again. Johan's best friend is killed at the Somme in 1916. His lover returns, pregnant, to America. She searches for him for almost the rest of her life, to tell Johan about his son and grandson.

The years pass and Johan and Cicero have to flee the violence of the Spanish Civil War and then World War II. Only in 1946 does Johan return to his small village in Bosnia. He blames himself for every death that followed the Archduke's. He experiences madness many times and becomes known for wandering around naked or naked with a cape. He wears an eyepatch, but changes which eye he covers. Strangely, he also experiences literary success as the author Blanche de la Peña, the author of pacifist adventures and subversive tales of Asian opium fiends. Still, he spends his last decades hiding from his mistake.

Johan's story is related via a pair of narrators. Our main, unnamed, narrator listens to the tale as told by his grandfather on the grandfather's deathbed in 2003. The grandfather is the son of Johan's best friend who was killed at the Battle of the Somme. The grandfather and Johan met by chance two years previously. The old man, Johan, was in bad shape. He had tormented himself with the idea of somehow traveling back to 1914 to undo his mistake. Ernest, the narrator's grandfather, tells him that World War I was inevitable. The assassination was just the spark to the gunpowder that touched the whole thing off. Johan admits that he came to this realization, but how can he know for sure?

The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is not an easy read. While it is full of a delightful off-kilter humor, it's hard to stay invested in a character who runs away all the time. The novel is punctuated by letters from Lorelei. Even though Johan didn't receive them until much too late, you have to wonder how strong his love for her was if he didn't brave capture and blame to find her. He's a coward. He knows he's a coward. This is a good book, however. It will challenge readers to find the worth in a man who doesn't see the worth in himself. It asks unanswerable questions. (My favorite kind.) And the irreverent, pervasive humor keeps the absurdity of the twentieth century at the front of your mind.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review.