Lots of reading; not much blogging….2014/2015 update

Hey, dear readers!  Yes, I just thought I would step away for a few minutes and then, wow!  It has turned into a four month hiatus.

But Livritome was never far from my thoughts.  I love my blog home and I’m now dashing around, opening the windows and brushing off the cobwebs.

I’ll admit that I’ve been struggling through a dry spell in my Guardian list reading.  I was doing well, spending the last part of October and early November finishing up the E.M Forster titles with A Passage to Indiapassagetoindia.  I enjoyed it, but didn’t find it as accessible as a some of his others, especially, Howards End.  I didn’t like many of the characters, and the brutality of the racism and hatred was so oppressive that I couldn’t work out a message I could walk away with.  The point seemed to be the complete random tragedy of stupid people who are careless with others’ lives.  I was lost by the spiritual aspects of the book as well.  So, not really a book for me, though I thought about it for quite a while afterwards.

I immediately jumped into another Guardian title, Riddle of the Sands.  I chose this one randomly from the list and was excited by the possibility of another book I would love that I didn’t know about before following the Guardian list.

mysteryUnfortunately, this didn’t work out.  I’ve been struggling with this book for weeks and have repeatedly crept away to read other, more interesting things….and I think I am about to hoist the white flag and declare surrender and not finish this book.

I know this is supposed to be the first spy novel, and I know this book inspired a young Winston Churchill to do everything he could to build up the English navy, and I’ve even read up on the author, Erskine Childers, who was a pretty fascinating and complex guy.  But every time I open this novel I feel like I am as fogged in as the two main characters out there, snooping-around in their yacht on the German coast.

Sad.  My first DNF for a Guardian title.

So, what else have I been reading?  Tons.

redqueenI lapped up Phillipa Gregory’s the Red Queen.  Phillipa’s always got some sort of trilogy or series or something going on with English royalty — goodness this lady is inexhaustible.  The Red Queen was about Margaret Beaufort, a true nut-case if this book is at all factual and the mother of the Tudor dynasty.  Guilty pleasure stuff — break out the chocolates.


I’ve also been feeding my love of medical history with two books, one a relative light weight and the other a superb book —

InfluenzaInfluenza 1918 was a quick read that could have used a better editor — had some repetitions throughout.  Because the 1918 epidemic is a personal obsession, I know that this book was written to accompany the PBS documentary on the same subject.  So, some illusions to individuals that seem strange in a stand alone book work when you know they were highlighted as “personal interest” stories in the documentary.  But if you hadn’t seen the documentary I don’t know how this would work for you.

GhostRegarding another epidemic, this one a cholera outbreak that decimated a London neighborhood in the mid-1800’s was Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map.  This is simply one of the finest books I’ve read in some time.  It’s about a brilliant doctor, John Snow, who makes a connection between cholera and contaminated water — well before germ theory.  Snow was a fantastic, original thinker and maybe the first person who used data and visualization to convince policy makers that action was needed.  His famous “ghost map” (I’ve actually seen a copy at the Walters Gallery in Baltimore Md!!!!) was a depiction of the deaths at each address and their relationship to a local pump.  But this book is about much more — it focuses on cities and what makes them livable or not.  It is also about social networks and what makes one person drink from a pump here (or live here, or have these friends but not others….) or not.  Fascinating stuff.

DissolutionI’ve discovered two mystery writers I’ve enjoyed — one is C. J. Sansom, who writes about Tudor England and whose protagonist is a hunchbacked lawyer who works for Thomas Cromwell.  The first one is about the dissolution of the abbeys and religious houses during Henry VIII’s reign and is called, appropriately, Dissolution.  A bit lengthy but good enough for me to want to check out the next title in the series.

WoodsA good friend turned me onto Tana French and her police procedurals set in present day Dublin.   The first one, In the Woods centers around the killing of a young girl in the same vicinity where two young children disappeared about 15 years earlier.  The investigative team that sets out to solve the murder have as many secrets and mysteries themselves as the murder they are trying to solve.  Very well written, with compelling characters and some dark twists.  Yes, I’ll be back for more.

Ok, that’s it for now.  Thanks for sticking with Livritome!

Murky Moonlight: Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg

moonlightMoonlight Palace

Liz Rosenberg

2014.  I read a Kindle edition.  176 pgs.

Other books I’ve read by Rosenberg:  none.  According to Goodreads, Rosenberg is a poet and author of childrens’ books.  I think this latter occupation is demonstrated in Moonlight; I was not quite sure if this was supposed to be a YA book, or adult historical fiction.  The conflict between the two genres results in a bit of discomfort, for me at least.

I wanted a quick break from my Guardian list reading and thought Moonlight Palace looked awesome.  Who could resist:  “a coming of age tale rich with historical detail … set against the backdrop of dazzling 1920s Singapore“?  Except Moonlight Palace doesn’t pull it off.

Moonlight Palace focuses on young Agnes Hussein, a descendent of the sultan who sold Singapore to the British in 1819.  It is now 1920s-something and Agnes lives in the Kampong Glam palace with a colorful crew of family members, boarders and servants.  But the glory days of the sultanate are long over and the little group lives in genteel poverty with the decrepit palace crumbling over their heads.  Agnes’ parents died in the 1918 flu pandemic and she is being brought up by her grandparents and uncle.  One of her relatives, Uncle Chachi, is the last living male heir of the sultanate.  To make matters worse, the whole legal premise behind the Hussein family’s residence in the palace is tenuous — and will certainly be more so when Uncle Chachi passes away.  The palace is actually owned by the British government.

The palace in the book is quite real.  Here is the restored building:  Malay Heritage Centre, Istana Kampong Glam 3, Dec 05CC BY-SA 3.0

The palace in the book is quite real. Here is the restored building: Malay Heritage Centre, Istana Kampong Glam 3, Dec 05 CC BY-SA 3.0 Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Istana_Kampong_Glam

Emerging from childhood, plucky Agnes’ goal is to preserve her palace and keep her little band of misfits, aunties and grandpas together.  Picture A Tree Grows in Brooklyn set in Singapore.  To this end, Agnes forges ahead as a modern woman, taking on various odd jobs to make money, and encountering dark forces that want to take the palace away, political upheavals and other challenges.

The problem is, so much of the plot is murky and confused.  The book touches on the ramifications of the Chinese revolution, but in just a glancing way.  Conflict between Muslims and Hindus are referred to, but I didn’t understand the significance.  The forces that seemed gathering to take the palace away from the Hussein family weren’t explained — was it the British friend of the family?  Unfortunately, I didn’t see much of the “dazzling 1920s Singapore” in the book, at all.  Major characters, such as one of Agnes’ interesting employers, appear and then disappear.  Some characters are very thinly drawn, indeed.  In all, the moonlight obscures, rather than illuminates.

One bright point, I love adorable elderly characters — spunky aunties, lovable uncles and noble grandpas — and Moonlight Palace is stocked full of them.  I wish that Rosenberg had focused more on their interesting histories rather than on Agnes’.  I think that could have made the entire book stronger.

In sum, a murky moonlight palace I’ll soon forget, unfortunately.


Strumpet City

strumpetStrumpet City

James Plunkett

Gill & Macmillan.  1969.   549 pgs with introduction by Fintan O’Toole.

Other books I’ve ready by Plunkett:  none.  Plunkett was a native Dubliner who worked as a producer for RTE, the Irish national radio broadcaster.  He was also active in the Workers Union of Ireland, where he operated as a staff secretary under the famous Irish labor organizer, Jim Larkin.  Plunkett wrote other books and plays; Strumpet City is considered his masterpiece.

And masterpiece it is.  Strumpet City follows  a handful of representative Dubliners — upper class, clergy, lower class — for seven critical years in the city’s history, concluding with the Dublin Lockout of 1913.

The Lockout was a brutal struggle between employers and workers in Dublin culminating with the eventual starving out and defeat of the workers.  The conflict revolved around the worker’s right to unionize, which at that time was a novel concept.  While the workers’ demands seemed relatively mild, including the right to be paid for overtime, the employers’ response was savage.  A federation of 300 employers, led by the owner of the city’s tramway company, forced workers to renounce their union memberships — or be “locked out” of their respective factories, shops or places of employment.  At the time of the Lockout, Dublin industry was service-based, and fueled by low-skilled, low-wage workers.  Living conditions were abysmalStatue of Jim Larkin.  Dublin had one of the highest infant mortality rates in Europe and tuberculosis was common.  As a result of the Lockout, 20,000 workers, representing about another 80,000 dependents, were thrown out of work.  Employers, in their turn, either shut down their workplaces or employed scab labor who toiled under police protection.  Accordingly, the Lockout resulted in many Dublin businesses declaring bankruptcy.  Many of the clergy, instead of protecting the helpless, connived with the employers by withholding charity from striking families.  To the clergy, the unions represented Socialism, one step away from atheism.  In one memorable scene, Dublin priests prevent a convoy of hungry children from leaving the city for refuge with Protestant trade unionist families.  Starvation, you see, would be preferable to the loss of the Catholic influence.

One of the novel’s strengths is it tapestry of characters — each drawn so skillfully that even the minor players haunt you once the book is over.   Plunkett divides his characters into upper class, clergy and lower class — but of course, nothing about the book is that simplistic.  There are heroes and devils sprinkled liberally throughout all three domains and perhaps even more terrifyingly — the horror of the banality of evil, poverty, disease and disparity between the haves and havenots.  In one of my favorite scenes, the alcoholic priest Father Giffley visits Jim Larkin, Dublin’s union leader and a real life character:

There is something I need advice about,’ Father Giffley said.  “Today, in one of the houses in my parish I found a body of police who were acting like blackguards.  They had beaten a man and terrified his wife and children….”

“Didn’t you know that it happens all the time?”

“Perhaps I did.  But I had never witnessed it before.  I intend to lodge a complaint and if necessary, give evidence.  I want advice on how best to go about it.”

“It would do no good.”

“It can be tried.”

“It has been tried countless times already,” Larkin said.  “by eminent men who have courage and sympathy.  And by a few men of your own calling, too, Father….”

Larkin rejects Father Giffley’s help because later in the interview he recognizes that the priest’s alcoholism disqualifies him as an ally and effective witness.  However, the rest of us are not so easily excused.  The lessons of Strumpet City are that the same disparities of class, education, opportunity and even health keep people as helpless today as the tenement dwellers of 1913 — and these problems still lock all of us out of our true human potential.


Trollope’s The Way We Live Now

way we liveThe Way We Live Now

Anthony Trollope

1875.  According to Wikipedia, The Way We Live Now was one of the last major Victorian novels to appear in serialized form.

I read a public domain version, downloaded from Amazon.  This is a very long novel — with 100 chapters.  A 2012 paper reprint counts it in at 890 pgs.

Other books I’ve read by Trollope:  none!  But the Guardian list contains at least three — and once again, thanks to the List I’ve read something absolutely fantastic that I would never have picked up.  So, more from Trollope as soon as I can get to them.

Guardian 1000 Challenge.  State of the Nation titles.

Where do I begin to try to summarize this huge, fantastic story??  First of all, Trollope’s life is interesting — an unhappy childhood dominated by broke, creative, volatile parents — his father failed taking the bar because of his bad temper and his mother actually went off to America to try to make the family fortune.  She then returned home and wrote novels to try to support them.  Despite not making ends meet, Anthony’s parents were both very concerned with maintaining their gentry status — so Anthony was sent off to the best schools where he was bullied for being the poor kid.  Then, Anthony began a long and somewhat up and down career as

a civil servant in the British Post Office.  He was said to be responsible for establishing the the famous red postal boxes.

Trollope was really upset about the financial crisis of 1873, some of which was caused by speculation—especially in railroad building.  The plot of The Way We Live Now revolves around a huge swindle concerning this very same subject.

Augustus Melmotte has come to London with his family to set up a financial house in the City. He is rumored to be a Jew, fantastically wealthy and somehow connected to the failure of a bank in Vienna — or maybe in Paris.  No one is sure, but every broke aristocrat is dying to get in good with him.  (Shades of Bernie Madoff??).  His daughter, Marie, is rumored to be an heiress worth millions — which attracts a raft of worthless, stupid noblemen hoping to make their fortunes.  Mixed in with this crowd are the Carbury’s — broke gentry who pin their hopes on son Felix (one of the most dissolute, ridiculous characters you will ever meet in fiction) snatching up Marie.  Of course Melmotte has no intention of giving his rich child over to the penniless Felix — never mind the fact that he is Sir Felix — but Melmotte is also intent on playing his own game of stocking a board of directors for his Grand South Central Mexican Railway with stupid and quiescent nobility.  So, Melmotte will use Felix for his own purposes for a while.  What Melmotte doesn’t count on is:

  • Marie’s infatuation with Felix and her own ruthless ambitions
  • Paul Montague’s nagging questions about when actual building on the railway will begin
  • Some impertinent questions from a jealous newspaperman
  • Questions from his faithful and usually complacent clerk about actually how far Melmotte is going to go this time…

This story really has everything:  greed, power, status, love, politics, finance, bigotry, a visit from the Emperor of China….I could go on and on.  There must be almost 50 substantive and fascinating sub-characters, each with his or her own story to tell.  But in the center of it all sits Melmotte.  Is he a swindler?  An anti-hero?  A fatally flawed adventurer who is merely the instrument to punish a corrupt and valueless society?  Read this fantastic story and be the judge yourself.

I have to also add that the BBC produced a luscious adaptation of TWWLN in 2001 starring David Suchet as Melmotte and Mathew Macfadyen as Felix Carbury.  I made myself the read the whole book before watching it, though, and hope you will also.

Ayla Meets the In-Laws

SheltersThe Shelters of Stone

Jean M. Auel

Book 5 in Earth’s Children Series.

Crown Publishers   2002.  753 whopping pages including list of characters, maps, and the unforgettable “Mother’s Song.”

I bought this book for .50 cents at the Library’s used book sale.

Faithful Livritome followers may possibly remember my great affection for prehistoric adventure-gal Ayla from my blog post about her travels across late Pleistocene Europe with her hunky boyfriend, Jondalar.

In this tome we continue the story of Ayla and Jondalar as they return to Jondalar’s home people, the Zelandonii.  The goal is to settle down, marry and raise a family among Jondalar’s people.  This might seem as no big deal, but you may remember that Ayla is not your typical girl from the next cave over.  Ayla knows how to tame wild animals and she is bringing two tame horses and a tame wolf along with her.  Also, Ayla was raised as an orphan child by the despised Flatheads, which is how Jondalar’s peeps label Neanderthals — and she’s actually proud of this upbringing and the skills and understanding she gained from it.  You know there is going to be conflict and heartache but in the end, beautiful and good Ayla will win the day and the hearts of her new family.

And that’s it.  That is pretty much the story for over 700 boring, repetitive pages.  The basic “plot” of this book goes like this:

1.  Ayla meets some new Zelandonii folks.

2.  They express wonder and awe at the (a) tame animals or (b) worry and concern because Ayla was raised by Flatheads.

3.  Ayla “introduces” them to the animals by (a.) holding their hands out to the tame wolf or (b) having them stroke and pet the horse; or (c) preaches love and understanding about Flatheads.

4.  The new folks accept Ayla unless they are drunks, jealous bitches or other low caste folks who just don’t get it.

5.  Ayla and Jondalar have sex.

6.  Ayla meets some new Zelandonii folks.

7.  They express wonder and awe at the (a) tame animals or (b) worry and concern because Ayla was raised by Flatheads.

8.  Aylat “introduces” them to….

And on and on and on and on and on…..

If you have never read any of the other books, no worries.  Auel actually repeats almost every major incident from her four previous books throughout this one.  For example, I was almost screaming with frustration by the time when Ayla was actually reminiscing about every other sleeping arrangement she ever had in the earlier stories as follows: 

In their sleeping rolls in the family tent that night, with everyone much closer together, Ayla was reminded of the sleeping arrangements within the Mamutoi earthlodge and found herself thinking about them.  When she first saw it, she had been amazed at the semi-subterreanean longhouse the Lion Camp had constructed.  They used mammoth bones to support the thick walls…

She recalled the family of the Clan had had separate hearths, too, but there were no walls, only a few stones to indicate boundaries.  The people of the Clan also learned to avoid looking into other family’s living rooms….

And this shizzle is from three books ago!!!  Why why why — it does nothing to advance the plot of the current book.  Much of the 700+ pages of this hunk of pulp goes on exactly like this.  At one point I was longing for the pet wolf to bite some Flathead-hater right in the ass.

I honestly can say it is probably impossible to read this book.  The only way I got through it was to put myself in my text book reading mode (which as I should be doing my homework or at least reading Guardian novels is appropriate).  Skim the first sentence of each new paragraph to look for anything new you haven’t already seen — either in this pages of this block of junk or in one of the past four books.  If it looks familiar, move on.  That is how I skimmed through about 400 pages of this book and trust me, I know exactly what happened in the end.

I’m sad for this book and sad for my favs Ayla and Jondalar.  How can Jean Auel treat these two this way?  They deserve better — as do Auel’s loyal readers.

The Book of Madness and Cures

The Book of  Madness and Cures

Regina O’Melveny

Little Brown & Co.  2012.  320 pgs.

Other books I’ve read by O’Melveny:  none.  This is a debut novel; author has two books of poetry out.

Ugh.  320 pages of slog and it was my OCD madness about never quitting books that kept me going to the confused and sorry end.  I wanted a little break in my Challenge reading and I’m a sucker for historical fiction — particularly about medicine — but this was a total waste of time.  I should have kept chipping away at Howards End, like a good girl.  Oh, well.

Gabriella is supposedly a female physician in 1590 Venice.  Her father, a renowned physician, has gone walk-about in Europe, doing research for his encyclopedia of diseases.   The trouble is, papa’s letters home are getting more and more disturbed.  So Gabriella and two faithful servants set off to follow him.  But they don’t actually have a lot of info on where Daddy is — just snippets of letters home, sometimes not dated.  So the trio have to trace his footsteps as best they can, going on the last place he was heard of.  Their travels take them to Germany, Holland, Scotland, France and eventually to Spain and Morocco.

Now, I love historical fiction but it’s got to be somewhat realistic.  How come everyone is so nice to our little trio?  A journey of hundreds of miles across semi-medieval Europe and no one even gets robbed?  My commute is scarier than the journey these guys took — at least according to O’Melveny.  Where did they get all the money they would have needed to keep things going?  How come Gabriella can talk to pretty much everyone — no matter what country they end up in?  How come 30-year-old Gabriella is such a stud magnet?  That would have been practically middle-aged back then.  Do you think peeps ever really made love in a library in 1590 Edinburgh?  I mean, I’ve worked in libraries for years, even been aware of students (and staff) partying and carrying on in libraries.  I’ve seen Party Girl, too.  But….just, no, this scenario didn’t work for me.  Last, for a book about doctors, there wasn’t a heck of a lot of medicine in it.

So, chalk this one up to a temporary madness and a pretty cover on the new book shelf at the library.  I’m cured — now, back to the Challenge.

Bring Up the Bodies

Bring Up The Bodies

Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt & Co.  2012.  410 pgs. with list of characters and genealogical charts.

Book 2 of the Wolf Hall Trilogy:  novels about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s secretary.  The first of the series was Wolf Hall; we’re waiting for the third and last novel.

Other books I’ve read by Mantel:  not enough.  I read the acclaimed Wolf Hall last year (winner of the Man Booker Prize, 2009) and of course I admired it greatly but I found it….a bit dense.  I also started and put down:  A Place of Greater Safety, which is about the French Revolution.  I’m definitely going back and trying that one again at some point.

I know, I know!  At this rate I’m never going to finish the Guardian 1,000 list!  I just keep getting distracted by too many delicious detours and when my mother in law sent me Bring Up the Bodies, I knew I was going to have to go off track again.

Bring Up the Bodies takes place during a very short, but eventful period at the court of the Tudor monarch, Henry VIII:    September, 1535 to May-June, 1536.  Henry waited long and fought hard to marry his second queen, Anne Boleyn.  Unfortunately, Anne has disappointed Henry in many ways.  Despite her promises, she has delivered no heir, her ambitious family has alienated various court factions, she plots and schemes for the French and she exhausts Henry with her incessant hatred of his former wife, Katherine of Aragon and his daughter:  Mary.  The days of Henry’s infatuation with Anne are long-gone and he returns again and again to the quiet, peaceful and somewhat vacuous side of Jane Seymour for comfort.

So….who is there to make sure Anne is removed?  Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s low-born, ambitious and powerful Secretary.  An enigma to many — a focus of jealousy and hatred for some — Cromwell once again takes center stage in Mantel’s brilliant portrayal of policy, strategy and intrigue in a world shaped by the personal desires of a despotic and sick king, and where a queen’s very life depends on the frailties of her own biology.  Within this world, we don’t really know who Cromwell is — is he the abused child of the London slums he came from — a ruthless mercenary — a loving and sympathetic father and uncle — an international intellectual and diplomat — or merely the instrument of Henry’s policies?  In this second book of the trilogy, we know Cromwell thinks sadly and fondly of his former boss and patron, the fallen Cardinal Wolsey.  He effectively and strategically affects the dissolution of religious houses, making Henry a very rich king in the process — but we really don’t know what his own religious views are.

I loved this book and couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.  It reads more quickly and the dialogue is more accessible and somehow, less dense than Wolf Hall.  As Mantel says in the author’s note to Bring up the Bodies:  “This book is of course not about Anne Boleyn or about Henry VIII, but about the career of Thomas Cromwell, who is still in need of attention from biographers.  Mr. Secretary remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie; but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out.”

Can’t wait to dig into the third and last book of the trilogy to get a taste of what Mantel will offer us!  Knowing some history, I’m both fearful, and curious — about the ending.

Thomas Cromwell

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South

North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell

Free download available from Project Gutenberg:  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4276

Other books I’ve read by Gaskell:  none, yet.  I’ve spotted at least three others on the Guardian list:   RuthMary Barton and Cranford.  Gaskell wrote North and South in 1855.  She was friends with Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte (whose biography she also wrote), Florence Nightingale and a whole lot of other famous Victorians.  She was the wife of a Unitarian minister and had a strong interest in the poor and disenfranchised.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  State of the Nation titles

Some quick thoughts about this book:

  • It is not about the American Civil War
  • It is modern and sexy.
  • It’s all about power to the people!
  • There’s some weird slang in this book — I guess the lingo of 1850 Manchester, England.  I could figure out most but in case you get hung up, “to clem” means to starve.

If you are put off by the idea of plunging into a Victorian Novel with a capital N:  envision sexy Richard Armitage or Brendan Coyle in the lovely 2004 BBC miniseries based on the novel, hold your nose and plunge in!  Or even— watch that first, or read this book as you watch.  Either way, you won’t regret it.  This book was written 160+ years ago and its ideas, dialogue and characters are as fresh and vibrant as any novel today.  There are no long sermons, Gothic passages in the moonlight or incomprehensible political references, I promise!

Briefly, the story goes like this:  lovely but somewhat naive Margaret Hale, who has been brought up in London as a lady-companion to her rich cousin, returns to her parents’ home in the South of England.   Margaret’s dad, a very idealistic and cool minister (he reminds me of an early hippy)  has decided that he must leave the church because he can’t go along with some of its precepts.  He moves Margaret, her mom, and their cranky maid, Dixon, to Milton — which is actually the real-life Manchester, in the North of England.  (Get it, North vs. South….).  They arrive smack in the middle of the Industrial Revolution.  Envision:  dust, dirt, smoke, lots of grubby scrounging peeps, tubercular factory workers, etc.  This move is a big come-down for the Hales — Mr. Hale cheerfully goes to work as a private tutor-professor — but this smoky nasty town is a major paradigm shift for the gentle Mrs. Hale (who has some sort of aristo connections), spunky Margaret, and the ever-whiny Dixon.   The other two families that feature in the book are the Thorntons — nouveaux riche factory owners and the Higgins — struggling factory workers.  Margaret develops a love-hate sexual tension thing with John Thornton, the young, ambitious factory owner and a touching friendship with Bessie Higgins, who is dying from some lung problem picked up working in the factories.  Bessy’s dad, Nicholas is a leader in the nascent Union movement.  The cool thing about this book is that it portrays all the classes of English society of the times:  the old, languid aristocracy (Mrs. Hale and her relations), the intelligentsia (Mr. Hale and his Oxford buddies), the industrialists (the Thortons) and the workers (Higgins and crew) and treats them all with intelligence and sympathy.   Gaskell is very in tune to the plight of the workers but she balances that with the struggles of the Thorntons realistically and fairly.  Margaret and John’s relationship is symbolic of the misunderstandings between the older way of life (pastoral, agricultural) and the new way (industrial, mechanical).  Their love story is sweet and simmery.  In turn, Gaskell also demonstrates that workers and bosses have a lot in common and can work together productively.  There’s a lot about labor and management in this book — but it doesn’t come off preachy or sodden thanks to Gaskell’s deft handling of plot and character

I really loved this book.  I loved its modernity and big message.  This was a great addition to my Guardian 1,000 challenge reads.  On to Cranford!

Richard Armitage as John Thornton in North and South. He said in an interview that North and South was a favorite read. Me, too!

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell

Random House.  2011.   492 pgs. with afterword by author and book club questions.

Other books I’ve read by David Mitchell:  none, yet, unfortunately!  I’m putting Cloud Atlas on my to-read list soon.

This amazing story centers around Jacob de Zoet, a minister’s nephew who is gambling all he has in a stint as bookkeeper to the Dutch East Indies Company’s trading post on Dejima Island, Japan’s “window on the west” in Nagasaki Harbor.  It is the year 1799 and De Zoet’s well-considered plan is to make his fortune over the course of a few years and then return home to win the hand of his rich fiance.   But Jacob’s plans are in as much danger as the thin-walled Dejima buildings in a typhoon over Nagasaki.  One fellow tradesman tries to give Jacob some perspective:  ” ‘Who ain’t a gambler in the glorious Orient, with his very life?’ ”  Quickly, Jacob’s fate becomes bound up with two others:  his plan to smuggle in a precious prayer book through Japan’s strict prohibition against Christian objects earns him an unlikely ally in Ogawa, an ambitious and intelligent young interpreter.  His chance meeting with Orito, the scarred daughter of a samurai who is making an audacious gamble of her own to gain European medical knowledge, shatters Jacob’s neat plans about his Dutch fiance.  Jacob, Ogawa and Orito become players in a struggle as complex as the moves of black and white go stones  —  as they take their parts in a triad of love, honor, loyalty and misunderstanding.  Against this larger story Mitchell weaves a tangled web of corruption and betrayal among Dutch traders and maneuvers among Nagasaki’s leaders to simultaneously extract as much profit from the Dutch as they can, while keeping the foreign devils at bay on their man made island in Nagasaki harbor.  Jacob’s attempt to stay true to his own code of honor brings about his temporary downfall, while Orito falls prey to a horrific danger that necessitates her own gamble with fate — as she tries to help those who need her healing gifts.  Ogawa learns that he is willing to risk his conventional and safe existence to rescue Orito, even as he joins forces with Jacob, a foreigner who he learns to respect and trust.  Finally, against all this complexity, Mitchell introduces yet one more conflict when the British frigate HMS Phoebus enters Nagasaki Harbor bent on usurping both the Dutch East Indies Company’s goods, as well as its position as Japan’s preferred trading partner.  Jacob’s final gamble in the face of overwhelmingly bad odds will keep you turning the pages as fast as you can read.

One of the most fantastic things about this book was Mitchell’s skills in depicting richly drawn, unforgettable minor characters.  From Otane, the mysterious old herbalist who plays a key role in Orito’s story, to the proud and unforgettable Magistrate Shiroyama whose key decision shapes the fates of our main characters — all are as fully realized as the three main protagonists.  My only wish would have been to have a chart of characters since so many of them have complex Japanese and Dutch first and last names — as well as honorific titles.

Another wonderful theme that Mitchell uses throughout the novel is the power of the written word, or written record.  Jacob’s first job on Dejima is to create a ledger of financial mid-deeds about his boss’ predecessor; this work seals Jacob’s own fate in an unexpected twist.  Jacob’s bargains with Ogawa by “lending” him a copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in order to ensure Ogawa’s silence about the presence of his forbidden prayer book.  Orito’s fate is shaped by a scroll that contains the horrible secret of a monastery where she is a prisoner.   Jacob’s tedious and painstaking translation of the scroll from Japanese to Dutch is a work of love and courage that not only reveals the danger that she is in but also how far Jacob has come from being a cautious company man to a man who is willing to gamble everything.  In the end, Jacob gambles for love but for even more than love:  for the chance to translate away the differences of what he once thought of as foreign, strange, and unknown in order to embrace the possibility of a fully-realized life.

Go Game board

Venus Suppressed

Birth of Venus cover

The Birth of Venus

Sarah Dunant

Random House.  2004.  403 pgs with book club questions.

Other books I’ve read by Sarah Dunant:  none, so far.  In the Company of the Courtesan looks promising!

Sorry, spoilers!!

This was a very good historical fiction novel, that missed the mark of excellence — much like the main character’s evaluation of her own fresco painting:  “…one might say it was the work of an…artist…who did her best and deserves to be remembered as much for her enthusiasm as for her achievement.” (pg. 391).  It left me frustrated because it could have been really fantastic, but at the end it brought me back down to earth with a let-down.

There was a lot that worked well in the novel.  Dunant’s prose is matchless; there is never a false or awkward phrasing anywhere.  I hate when authors try to recreate “authentic” historical speech patterns and phrases and Dunant doesn’t.  The characters are truly wonderful:  even the minor characters down to a simple-minded kitchen maid who plays a crucial role are fully formed.  Villains are understandable and authentic.  As for plot, I don’t think you could have a more fascinating historical backdrop than Florence at the end of the 1400’s during the waning of Medici power and the ascendency and fall of the dictator-friar, Savonarola.

So, what about the plot?  The main character, Alessandra Cecchi is a pampered and spoiled daughter of a newly-wealthy cloth merchant.  But Alessandra has a secret.  Coltish and a little awkward, Alessandra was educated with her brothers (one a dolt, the other a fop — more on that in a minute) so as a result her sharp mind and sharper tongue openly revolts against her fate to be a baby-breeding doll-wife of some wealthy man.  Alessandra’s secret passion is art and she hungers to be part of Florence’s brilliant art scene.  When her father brings home a silent and mysterious Northern (where North, this is never made clear) artist to decorate the family chapel, Alessandra is drawn to the man in a mix of jealousy and thwarted passion.  She begs the artist (who is never named) to guide her and teach her — and even shows him her secret drawings.   But spending time alone with a strange man is completely outside the norms of Alessandra’s society, a fact that even she understands.  Finally, to escape her stifled role as an unmarried daughter, Alessandra accepts the proposal of an older, wealthy man of noble family who offers her the freedom to paint.  Naive and innocent, Alessandra accepts, not understanding that her fiance is a homosexual seeking the cover of marriage to continue his pursuits of male lovers — especially her own brother.

The plot rolls on against the tumultuous events of the waning of Medici power — including Pietro Medici’s ineptitude and disgrace, and the subsequent invasion of French troops.  The collapse of Medici power and the republic brings on the fanatical rule of Savonarola — who calls all Florence to cleanse itself and return to God.  Savonarola and his army of “angels” have a particular bent toward suppressing women and homosexuals (hmmm….history always repeats itself) and Alessandra’s subsequent affair with her mysterious painter-lover, her husband and brother’s downfalls and disappearances, her pregnancy, the plague, birth of her little daughter, widowhood (although not really), the arrest of Savonarola all start to blend together with a frantic crescendo that leaves you gasping.  Somehow all mixed into this are a series of brutal murder-mutilations that never seem to be solved….or make you think, wait a minute, did Alessandra’s brother do them (the dolt, not the fop).  Herein lies the book’s failure.  I think Dunant just bit off a bit more than she could chew, or fresco.  There were confused references to Michelangelo here and there in the book — was he Alessandra’s unnamed lover and the father of her child?  Alessandra’s husband left her a precious manuscript that I think was illustrated by Botticelli — was that why the book is entitled, The Birth of Venus — after Botticelli’s masterpiece?  But Botticelli was never introduced as a character in the book and the illustrations are supposed to be of Dante’s Inferno — not the beautiful painting of Venus on the half-shell.  So, what was the connection?  At the end, Alessandra retires to a convent with her baby daughter and her faithful maidservant.  Her lover-artist comes to her once more after the passing of years.  She lets him take her daughter away with him to ….somewhere where the girl can be free and express her own artistic talent.  After they leave, Alessandra has her maidservant tattoo most of her upper body with a sexy snake.  Not too long after that, she kills herself and leaves us this story as her memoir.

No, uh-uh, I’m not making that one up.  I’m sorry, at that point I just wanted to say, hey, come on.  I think what Dunant was trying to say was:  women — we can’t be suppressed.  Even if our art is a secret snake tattoo, we’ll keep making it.  I get that, but I was disappointed and kind of sad.  I was hoping that Alessandra would lead history’s first all-woman graffiti gang to protest the suppression of love, art and women — or something along those lines.  Or take off after her lover and her daughter to join them in their new free life.  That would have been the ending I would have liked to see:  a true birth and renaissance, not a sad and quiet death of an interesting and talented character.  All in all, this wasn’t a bad book — but with the terrific material, writing and characterization, I think Dunant had the making of a masterpiece.  Unfortunately, this was not one.