December was the whirlwind it always is. Exams, hiring, and personnel evaluations at work. Christmas cards and wrapping gifts at home. Celebrations with families and friends. The bestie and I had a great time on the last weekend before Christmas shopping. Yes, you read that correctly. We braved the stores on the Sunday before Christmas and had a blast. Kisa and I traveled to South Deerfield, Peaks Island, and Rockland for the holidays. Rockland was an unexpected twist, but it gave us more time with the mom. I didn’t get to all the books on my list. I couldn’t get a hold of the Seuss book to save my life. I should have known better. And, I wasn’t in the mood for Milne. Imagine that. The November Early Review never arrived. No big surprise there. That makes three for the year that didn’t show up. Here are the other books:
Aguero Sisters by Cristina Garcia
Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
Long Way from Home by Connie Briscoe
Art of Travel by Alain De Botton (AB)
Before the Deluge: a portrait of Berlin in the 1920s by Otto Friedrich
People’s History of the Supreme Court by Peter Irons
Saddest Pleasure: a journey on two rivers by Moritz Thomsen
Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (AB)
The Master of Hestviken: In the Wilderness by Sigrid Undset
Without Fail by Lee Child
Briscoe, Connie. A Long Way From Home. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.
Reason read: Briscoe’s birth month is Devember. Read in her honor.
Clara starts off as a nearly eleven year old slave, owned by former president James Madison. As she grows up, she struggles to conform to the polite, obedient, and subservient ways of her mother and aunts, all house slaves in the Montpelier mansion. The inevitable and imminent death of President Madison means unclear futures for all of his slaves, field and house. Whispered questions like, ‘when he finally died would they be freed?’ ‘Could they stay on the plantation, especially if it is all they ever knew?’ scatter through hallways like runaway marbles on a tile floor. Would Madison’s slaves even have a choice? What no one saw coming was Madison’s awful stepson, Todd, taking over as Massa of Montpelier. His attraction to Clara sets off a terrible chain of events and life changes for everyone involved.
This is supposed to be the story of three generations of house slaves: Susie, Clara, and Susan. Susie is barely in the story, but Clara passes on her feisty nature to her daughter Susan. When Susan is sold away to satisfy a debt, readers follow her coming of age, growth into womanhood, and emerging sense of independence.
Aside from a great character story, A Long Way From Home is a fantastic historical fiction. Events of the Civil War described in detail color the fate of the south and give the story an interesting perspective.
Telling quotes, “These days, no one wearing a skirt at Montpelier ever slept alone when Mass Todd and his buddies were around” (p 70).
Author fact: According the back flap of A Long Way From Home Briscoe is a descendant of the slaves on the Madison family plantation. This story is her story.
Book trivia: I could see this made into a movie. It has an important story to tell so why isn’t it a movie?
Nancy said: Pearl said to consider A Long Way From Home for the reading list when considering African American fiction written by women.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “African American Fiction: She Says” (p 16).
Chatwin, Bruce. The Viceroy of Ouidah. New York: Summit Books, 1980.
In the simplest of terms this short (155 pg) novella follows the life of Brazilian slave trader Francisco Manoel da Silva from 1812 to 1857 in the West African region of Dahomey. This is not a book full of character development and ambling plot lines. The writing is concise and what Chatwin doesn’t say is almost more important as what makes it onto the page. He takes a true story and weaves magic into it. Francisco grows up destined to be a slave trader. Orphaned at a young age, he was coldly indifferent to the sufferings of man. He knew early on that feelings were a sign of weakness. As he grew older he wandered from job to job, each one taking him closer to destiny; branding cattle until he moved on to work with a man who sold the equipment of slavery, for example. Francisco too a fascination with slave dealings watching the boats come in and the “cargo” unloaded.
Lines I liked: “His boot crushed a begonia as he went” (p 19) because it connects to the last line of the book, “…crushing a cockroach under the hell of his combat boot” (p 155). One final quote, “Each year, with the dry season, he would slough off the habits of civilization and go to war” (p 116).
Reason read: November is a sexy time to visit Brazil. This book may not inspire that trip, though.
Author fact: Chatwin was art auctioneer for Sotheby & Co.
Book trivia: The Viceroy of Ouidah feels like the ugly, less famous brother of a rock star; a brother deemed unworthy of even a corner of the red carpet. When holding The Viceroy of Ouidah in our hands, no less than nine times are we reminded that Chatwin also wrote In Patagonia in addition to The Viceroy of Ouidah. In fact, the entire back cover of Viceroy is dedicated to the praise of In Patagonia. It made me think I was reading the wrong book and that The Viceroy of Ouidah wasn’t worth my time. It was off putting to open a book only to read about the “other” one.
BookLust Twist: Even though The Viceroy of Ouidah was inspired by real people and real events Chatwin decided to call this a work of “the imagination” because of “the patchiness of my material” (preface, The Viceroy of Ouidah), but that didn’t stop Pearl for including it in the chapter called “True Adventures” (More Book Lust, p 224).
Banks, Russell. Cloudsplitter. New York: Harper Collins, 1998.
Aside from its daunting size (well over 700 pages) this was fascinating to read. Owen Brown, the third of John Brown’s sons, tells the story of his father’s controversial life, beginning with Owen’s own childhood. Cloudsplitter opens with a written apology to Miss Mayo, a young Columbia University student who had been rebuffed by Owen after she traveled to his remote mountainside home in Altadena, California in hopes of inviting him to a reception. After chasing Miss Mayo away Owen is feeling the pressures of mortality, for he is not a young man anymore, and decides to tell his entire story from start to finish. While he is apparently ambivalent to his father’s tragic path of life he is deeply reflective and apologetic, detailing the process of how his father become of of history’s most complex antislavery agitators and martyrs. Owen desperately wants to appear open and honest by saying, “I will tell all” over and over again. Seeing as how Cloudsplitter is told from the point of view of John Brown’s surviving son it is safe to say the story was not meant to be yet another retelling of the famous yet failed raid on Harper’s Ferry specifically. It is more accurately an illustration of how one man’s religious beliefs can grow to become the catalyst for one of the most well known events in history, in this case, the anti-slave movement. While Banks’ style of writing is, at times, rambling and contradictory (a reflection of Owen’s ability to tell the story) he is able to seamlessly weave nonfiction into fiction; reality into imagined to create a vivid political and cultural 19th century landscape.
One of the reoccurring themes of Cloudsplitter is guilt, guilt driven by religion, guilt driven by family obligation and guilt driven by society. As the child of John Brown, Owen is pulled in many different directions by his guilt and it apparent in every story he tells.
Profound lines: “I was, during those first few weeks…precariously balanced between opposing commitments which were set to create the shape of the rest of my life, and I knew that not to chose between them would lead me inescapably to a resolution that expressed not my will, but my father’s” (p 199), “It was the year that Lyman Epps and I finished our elaborate dance, and I went howling into the wilderness, leaving wreckage and smoldering ruin behind me” (p 536), and “Our specialty would be killing men who wished to own other men” (p 549).
BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “Biographical Novels” (p 38).
ps~ I have read four out of five of the Russell Banks books on my list.
June was a month of reconnection. By far, my favorite musical moment was the lovely Rebecca Correia at the Iron Horse. It is awful to say but every single artist that follows her on stage can’t compare. Not that they are NailsOnaChalkboard bad, but they have nothing on Rebecca. On the professional side of things June was a very frustrating month. On the personal sides I got one of the best hugs of my life (thanks, Gracie). For books, it was this:
- Happenstance by Carol Shields ~ this should be a movie
- Hatchet by Gary Paulsen ~ this also should be a movie
- The Confession of Nat Turner by William Styron ~ this was a hard one to read
- Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World by Carol Brightman ~ a very thorough biography that helped with my insomnia
- I Don’t Know Why I Swallowed the Fly by Jessica Maxwell ~ first year fly fishing story
- Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym ~ a sociology experiment in a land of anthropologists
- Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brien ~ this took some time to get into…so much so that I didn’t finish it.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald ~ I needed to lick my wounds with something enjoyable!
For LibraryThing’s Early Review program:
- The House on Oyster Creek by Heidi Jo Schmidt ~ once I got beyond the first chapter I loved it. Beautiful writing.
For the fun of it:
- Winning By Losing by Jillian Michaels ~ I’m most interested by the subtitle on the cover of her book, “Change You Life.” I’m up for that. Really.
Styron, William. The Confessions of Nat Turner. New York: Random House, 1966.
I have never run so hot and cold about a book before. On the one hand William Styron has a beautiful writing style. His descriptions of the Virginian south in the 1830s are breathtaking while his depictions of slavery are simultaneously heartbreaking. What I didn’t care for was the obvious artistic liberties Styron took with the plot surrounding historical fact. Obviously, in order to fill an entire novel he needed to expound on the factual confession of Nat Turner which was less than a standard chapter in length. He had to assume supporting plots and characters, but was it necessary to have Nat Turner only lust after white women? Do we know this to be a true trait of Nat? His sexuality seems to be fodder for controversy. I saw The Confessions of Nat Turner to be the truth bundled by fiction. At the heart of Styron’s novel is Nat Turner’s confession, but what surrounds it is pure imagination and speculation. While the book garnered a Pulitzer Prize it was also banned in some parts of the south. That should tell you something.
Two lines that stuck with me: “They were in the profoundest dark” (p 17), and “I do not believe that I had ever thought of the future, it is not in the mood of a Negro, once aware of the irrecoverable fact of his bondage…” (p 171).
BookLust Twist: From Book Lust and More Book Lust. From Book Lust in the chapter called, “100 Good Reads, Decade by Decade: 1960s” (p 178) and from More Book Lust in the chapter called, ” Southern-Fried Fiction: Virginia” (p 209).
June is a weird month for me. I might have a Monhegan plan. I’m not sure. The one thing I know about June is that there will be music. Plenty of music and books. As two constants in my life, I doubt anyone is honestly surprised by that remark. Music and books. For music it is the lovely Rebecca Correia at the Iron Horse in Northampton. June 11, 2010 at 7pm. That same weekend it is the eternally talented Sean Rowe at the DreamAway Lodge in Beckett. June 13, 2010 at 8pm…I think. There is Phish somewhere in there as well…I know, don’t say it.
For books it is:
- Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brien ~ in honor of National Ocean month
- Hatchet by Gary Paulsen ~ in honor of Adventure fiction month
- Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron ~ in honor of Virginia becoming a state in June
- Happenstance by Carol Shields ~ in honor of June being the most popular month to get married in…
- Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World by Carol Brightman ~ in honor of Mary McCarthy’s birth month.
For LibraryThing’s Early Review program:
- The House on Oyster Creek by Heidi Jon Schmidt
For the fun of it:
- Master of Your Metabolism by Jillian Michaels