Something Old, Something New, Something Asolutely Fascinating

When I was a child (circa 1970) my entire family spent weeks watching the BBC series The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth. That marked the beginning of my interest in Tudor history.

When a new popular book on one of the Tudor monarchs comes out, I’m always eager to read it, to see how it confirms or challenges the understanding I have of Tudor history based on my previous reading. So, I was delighted to be offered an electronic review copy of Leandra De Lisle’s Tudor: The Family Story, just published earlier this month. This is the first book I’ve read that focuses on the entire family, instead of just one or a few individuals, and it’s added a great deal to my understanding of the era.

De Lisle is a historian who’s a relatively new arrival on the scene (her first full-length work was published in 2005)—and a prolific one, given that Tudor is her third title in the seven years since then. The 2005 volume was a study of the transition from Elizabeth I to James I and VI. The 2008 volume looked at the Grey sisters, the eldest of whom had a brief reign as Queen Jane during the interval between the death of Edward VI and Mary Tudor’s rise to power. In other words, she’s focused on some very interesting transitional moments in addition to the lives of the monarchs themselves.

Given this focus on transitions of power, Tudor is an engaging read, whether you’ve been reading Tudor history for years or are looking for a first book on the subject. De Lisle’s prose is crisp; she piles up detail without ever becoming tedious. I particularly appreciate the clarity with which she treats her sources—she takes time to explain her interpretation of key documents, and she’s also done some digging to locate documents not used in previous biographies of members of this family.

Tudor offers a blend of continuity and revelation. The continuity helps readers see the period as a series of related historical events, rather than as individual reigns in isolation from one another. The revelations are many (at least if I didn’t forget a great deal of my Tudor history just prior to reading this book) and well-explained.

One example of these revelations is her discussion of the deaths of the two princes in the tower that preceded the rise of Richard III. She asks, as many have, why Richard didn’t firmly acknowledge the prince’s deaths, putting to an end the possibility of uprisings led by pretenders. She also asks (a question that to the best of my knowledge is a fresher one) why Henry VII didn’t search for the prince’s bodies after his ascension. After all, proving Richard a regicide would seen an appropriate move to strengthen Henry’s claim that he served by moral, as well as military, authority. De Lisle’s answer to both these questions draws on the instability of these two reigns and the popularity of pilgrimage in still-Catholic England. Both Richard III and Henry VII were threatened by the growing cult of and movement to canonize Henry VI: the last thing they needed was a new, more-threatening religious movement viewing the princes as innocent martyrs whose deaths could unite citizens in opposition to either regime. She reminds us of the gathered throngs after Princess Diana’s death, suggesting a similar response were the prince’s deaths to be publicized. That’s the sort of new, interesting thinking this book is full of.

I also appreciated de Lisle’s commentary at the end of the book, offering analogies like the above one between events in the Tudor period and our own. She compares the political villification of Catholicism in Protestant England with the west’s current villification of Islam. She reminds us of the biases created by our own popular culture: Elizabeth is played by Cate Blanchett, Mary Tudor by Kathy Bates.

If you want an interesting historical read that does more than rehash earlier work and that surprises with its reflections on the past and out own time, I absolutely recommend de Lisle’s Tudors.

Oscar Wilde, Detective

Once again, I’ve jumped into the middle of a mystery series—this time the Oscar Wilde mysteries by Gyles Brandreth. I requested (and received) a review copy of the sixth book in the series, Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Goal. I figured Oscar Wilde, mystery novel, free ebook—that’s a chance worth taking. And I was right.

This book is largely set in (no surprise) Reading Goal, where Wilde spent the majority of his two-year sentence for gross indecency. (There’s a whole back story here that deserves study from biographical, legal, and cultural perspectives, but I’m not going to go into that here; just know that if you poke about on the internet or in a library there’s lots to learn.) The pace is slow. The clues, which often aren’t immediately recognizable as clues, are dealt out sparingly. The beginning, end, and a central interval are set in Dieppe, France, after Wilde has been released and where he is recounting the story of his imprisonment to an unknown man who’s offered to write the story up for publication and split the profits.

Because Wilde’s prison life is monotonous (both as lived and in the later retelling), one needs to be prepared for a somewhat turgid pace. (Note that I don’t mean “turgid” in a bad way; it’s just the best word I could come up with in terms of denotation, even though it’s not quite right in terms of connotation.) This novel isn’t a cliff-hanger that ends each chapter leaving the reader desperate to begin the next. Once one adjusts to the pace, this is an ideal book for end-of-day reading: engaging, but not over-stimulating, something that will allow you to enjoy settling in for the evening without tempting you to sacrifice sleep in order to keep reading.

I prepped for reading this book as I often do by searching for on-line reviews, both professional and amateur. Most of the reviews agreed on a few points:

• the murders are secondary to the central story

• the central story is, in fact, a tale of Wilde’s emotional and ethical maturation that results from his imprisonment.

I have to say I disagree.

I approached this book anticipating a character study, but found myself reading—as the cover promised and as most reviewers denied—a mystery novel. Yes, Wilde reflects a bit on his life during his time in goal, and he is somewhat changed. But the material of real interest starts about two-thirds of the way through as one begins to see the puzzle that’s being presented, but can’t yet begin to predict its answer. The mystery is presented with subtlety, but mystery it is, and as far as I’m concerned the mystery is the heart of the book.

I’m not going to say more about the plot here because I think this book is best approached “chastely,” without the bump-and-grind or quick feel provided by spoilers and near spoilers. There is, however, one last topic I’d like to remark on, and that’s the pleasure of reading a book peopled in part by writers whose work I appreciate. Wilde is the only author who is present as a character in the book, but Wilde’s friend Arthur Conan Doyle is an on-going presence. Wilde knows Conan Doyle’s work and identifies with Holmes with the same sort of smug self-confidence typical of Holmes himself. I enjoyed the amalgam created by this blending of bon mot and great detective. I’m eager now to read earlier books in the series in which Conan Doyle appears as a character. (And Bram Stoker appears in the second volume in the series—bonus!)

If you have the patience—or the need—to move slowly and take pleasure in thinking about the ways writers’ mind operate, I expect you’ll enjoy this series as much as I enjoyed the one volume I’ve read thus far.

Ivy and Evalina

Melissa and I have what we call the “essentials” shelf. Right now, it’s not an actual shelf, but the books themselves are real. What makes a book an essential is not just the fact that it’s  good read—it has to be the sort of read that is rich enough to invite rereading, that promises to keep providing moments of surprise and insight even as it become familiar. We often get our books in paperback or electronic copies, but once we’ve decided a book is an essential, we pick up a hard-cover copy. We feel comforted knowing that we own a copy of the book that is ready to stand up to the years of revisiting we intend to spend on it.

One of the essentials I discovered this year is Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies. This book opens with a one-way correspondence from Ivy Rowe, a young girl growing up in Appalachia, to her unresponsive Dutch pen-pal, Hanneke. From the start Ivy’s voice rings true and spills out across the page in an engaging  jumble of observations and reflection:

“My dear Hanneke,

“Your name is not much common here, I think it is so pretty too. I say it now and agin it tastes sweet on my mouth like honey or cane or how I picture the fotched-on candy from Mrs Browns book about France, candy wich mimicks roses. Have you seed any such as this? I have not. I have seed them in her red book that is all.”

In her next letter to Hanneke, Ivy announces “I want to be a famous writer when I grow up, I will write of Love,” and despite her circumstances, we already feel as if this might be possible, given Ivy’s voice and force of personality.

And a bit further along, as Ivy rants at her unresponsive pen-pal, we can’t help but both laugh at and admire her change in tone and her angry re-imagining of both Hanneke and the Dutch countryside where Hanneke lives: “I hate you, you do not write back nor be my pen friend I think you are the Ice Queen instead…. I know you are so rich with all your lace and those fine big cows. I know you have plenty to eat…. I hope that the sea will come in the hole in the dike and will flood you out and you will drown. I will not send this letter as I remane your hateful, Ivy Rowe.”

From the moment Ivy turned on Hanneke, I knew I wanted to spend time with Ivy—a book’s worth of time. I wanted to see what sort of woman this feisty girl would grow up into; I wanted to watch her take on the world. I wanted to be around when she became that famous writer, writing of Love.

Ironically—spoiler alert!—Ivy never leaves the mountain community of her birth, but her life is remarkable nonetheless.

Given the pleasure my time with Ivy brought me, I’d been waiting eagerly for Smith’s latest book, Guests on Earth. In this novel, as in Fair and Tender Ladies, we first meet the narrator, Evalina Toussaint, as a girl. Evalina, the soon-to-be-orphaned daughter of a New Orleans exotic dancer, is an altogether different creature than Ivy: unsure of herself, carried along life’s eddies and unwilling to chart a path for herself. She does gain the opportunity to attend music college—but recognizes that she’s happier as an accompanist, using her playing to highlight the accomplishments of others. While both girls are highly observant, Ivy charges into the world, while Evalina watches it from a remove.

Evalina spends much of her life in and out of Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina—the hospital in which Zelda Fitzgerald spent much of her adult life and where she died in a fire, trapped in a locked ward. So this isn’t just a novel about Evalina; it’s a novel about Zelda and Highland’s other residents and staff as well. Evalina half watches, half participates in their lives, accompanying them as much as traveling on her own journey.

I’ve been interested in Zelda’s life story since I read Tennessee William’s play Clothes for a Summer Hotel—one of his last works and one that features Zelda Fitzgerald. Guests on Earth doesn’t focus on Zelda nearly as much as the jacket blurb suggests it will, but it turns out that’s not a problem. Zelda comes across as a talented woman, as much conceited as self-confident, and given to sudden bursts of unkindness. Evalina is a pale character beside her, but she’s nonetheless a much more interesting character.

Reading Guests on Earth, I had an experience I don’t recall having had before with a novel: there were moments when I forgot I was reading fiction. Yes, I’ve been lost in the worlds created within novels any number of times, and the characters of my favorite novels feel utterly real to me—but Evalina’s story made me forget I was reading a story. I kept slipping into a different sort of consciousness, one that I can’t define well, but that I know I experience when reading memoir or biography, not fiction.

I’m not quite certain yet whether I’ll be buying a hardback copy of Guests on Earth for the essentials shelf, but I do know it is a remarkable book with a subtle magic that has nothing to do with the occasional, fiery presence of Zelda Fitzgerald. Read it. Read Guests on Earth. Read Fair and Tender Ladies. Spend some time with Ivy and with Evalina.

The Non-Neurotypical Detective

One thing I know about mystery novels is that they mystery itself seldom carries the book. A few writers can keep us breathless, anticipating the next plot twist. Most successful mystery writers, however, succeed not only by providing a good mystery, but by building a relationship between reader and protagonist that can develop richly over the course of multiple books. You see what’s coming, but you still want to go along for the ride just to see how the character you’re attached to manages things.

The trick with this kind of novel is that, if the attachment to the protagonist doesn’t happen quickly enough, the reader lacks the sense of personal connection that makes her keep reading. One example of this conundrum is the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters (a pseudonym for the recently deceased Barbara Mertz). Initially, Peabody (an amateur Egyptologist) is nothing but irritating—a pre-WWI blue-stocking with a highly elevated sense of her own intelligence and social position. I slogged through the first few novels in the series, grinding my teeth at Peabody’s arrogance, kept going by the ancillary information about early-20th Century Egyptology (Peters/Metz held a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago). And somewhere around book four, I was hooked. I started seeing Peabody in context: in relationships with people she loved and respected, who loved and respected her. Their willingness to see beyond her off-putting exterior allowed me to do the same. And, well, it turned out she is pretty much every bit as smart  (but nowhere near as socially sophisticated) as she thinks she is. What was once irritating became amusing, then almost comforting. I loved my time with her and her extended family, who also became occasional narrators as the series progressed. I counted on a new Peabody novel every year or two, and now that Paters/Metz has passed away, I’m mourning the loss of that anticipation.

I relate all this, not just because I’d urge you to read the Peabody mysteries (and I am hereby urging—check them out!), but because I’ve recently read a book that may (or may not) allow me to develop the sort of relationship with the protagonist that keeps me going. In this case, the protagonist is Estelle Ryan’s Genevieve Leonard, a high functioning autist with three doctorates in psychology, great skill in reading body language, and real difficulties in following metaphors and slang.

As an academic who feels emotionally and socially challenged on an almost-daily basis, I delight in the care with which Leonard explains interactions to herself. We sit inside her head, watching her wrestle with terms like “red herring” and with the profound discomfort of sharing a computer screen with another individual. While I don’t feel the character has yet hit her stride (mind you, I’ve only read the middle of the three Genevieve Leonard mysteries), at this point I’m willing to keep reading and see what develops.

The good news is that the first Genevieve Leonard novel, The Gauguin Connection,  is currently available for free download on Amazon. You can take her on a first date, so to speak, with no out-of-pocket expense and see if you want to continue the relationship.

As I said, I’ve only read the second book (The Dante Connection) in the three-book series, which also includes The Braque Connection. I suspect that when I go back to the first book, I may find it less engaging simply because—as many other reviews of the series have pointed out—the characters don’t really begin to solidify until book two. But at this point, I have decided I want to go beyond the first date with Leonard. I want to spend more time with, see how she understands herself, see how she understands others, look at my own world from the neuro-nontypical perspective she offers.

My one real complaint about the series at this point is that it needs better editing. I cringed at the regular problems with subject-verb agreement, which seem inappropriate to a character as well-educated and precise as Leonard. I’m hoping that if the series continues the quality of the editing will improve.


Polar exploration has wound up on my radar thanks to Melissa, who has a bit of an obsession with it. So, like the good wife I am, I tend to notice books with ice on the cover or titles that include words like ice and longest and search. If this is a subject that interests—or that might interest—you, I can recommend Andrew Cohen’s Lost Beneath the Ice.

This book recounts two searches: the HMS Investigator search in the early 1850s for the lost Franklin expedition and the present-day search for the remains of the Investigator. The text is brief—just thirty-eight pages—but well-written. The style is as crisp and transparent as one might  imagine the the arctic skies the crew of the Investigator found themselves trapped under (though that analogy falls apart pretty quickly given the rigors of their voyage and the pleasure of leafing through this book).

The bi-temporal story in the text sets the scene for the real riches of the book: the collections and historic and contemporary images that take up the bulk of the pages. You can pour over detailed ship’s plans, 19th century photographs and paintings, and under- and above-water photos from the present-day expedition.

As I’d mentioned above, polar exploration is a favorite topic of Melissa’s both for reading and for her artwork. She’s found the open spaces of the arctic productive ground for conveying the smallness of our human selves against that vast landscape. (If you’d like to see some of her images and to read about her print making process, click through here to her piece titled, “Explorations.”)

That sense of our own smallness also comes across in Lost Beneath the Ice in the pictures of some of the artifacts recovered from the Investigator, particularly the single leather shoe that somehow survived more than a century under Canadian ice. Imagine the foot in the shoe, the man attached to the foot, the ship that man sailed on, the endless, yet insufficient, rations that man ate while his ship was trapped in the ice for nearly two years. Our endurance and our hubris are staggering.

Please note: I was lucky enough to receive an early electronic galley of Lost Beneath the Ice. If you want to read this book yourself—or give it to the polar-expedition-inspired artist in your life—you’ll need to wait until its official publication date, 10 December, 2013.

And Then the Wombat Pulled Out a Gun

One of the odder books I’ve read recently is Howard Anderson’s Albert of Adelaide. The cover image of the platypus makes it easy for one to expect a heart-warming animal tale along the lines of The Wind in the Willows, but that impression doesn’t last long. Albert—he’s the platypus—has escaped from the Adelaide zoo to search for “Old Australia,” a human-free promised land of sorts, dreamed about by the creatures in the zoo. He’s tired of his daily routine: wake, get shoved out into his viewing area, get fed, crawl back into the burrow at night. He’s also haunted by the memory of his mother’s death defending him from a dog when he was just a pup (a pup? a kit? a platypette?).

When we join Albert, he’s wandering lost and on the verge of heat stroke through the Australian desert. The book quickly moves into a sort of hallucinatory western, “peopled” with kangaroos (most of them gun-carrying), a pyromaniac wombat, a pair of gay bandicoots, and a raccoon who landed down under after a panicked flight from the docks of San Francisco on a ghost ship. There are also dingoes. And a badly scarred, formerly prize-fighting Tasmanian devil.

I don’t watch westerns. I don’t read them. But one way or another, this book kept me going. Partly, I just wanted to see what craziness would happen next; partly, I really did start to grow fond of the blood-thirsty little marsupials. When you need a little something unexpected, you may want to pick this volume up. Just bear in mind that you’ll be reading the equivalent of a collection of just-so stories penned by Hunter S. Thompson.

White Room, Yellow Wallpaper

I’ve just finished reading Stephanie Carroll’s A White Room, a novel set in the first decade of the 20th Century. As my title suggests, one of the inspirations for the book was Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, a novella that I’ve read again and again and that I’ve encountered in completely different ways, depending upon my age, my mood, and the topics I’m most enjoying or most wrestling with in my own life.

My first encounter with The Yellow Wallpaper occurred when I was in junior high and found it in an anthology of horror stories. The story in brief as I understood it then—creepy house, the creepiness of which only the female protagonist is aware; she knew the house was trying to drive her mad, no one believed her, and the house won. The story was particularly disturbing because it hinted that this woman was not the first the house had destroyed.

I confess that when I was in junior high, photocopiers were a new technology and I had not yet figured out that one could go to a bookstore and ask that a particular title be special ordered. But I wanted, needed a copy of The Yellow Wallpaper because I relished its menace, the way the reader becomes isolated along with the protagonist as she sees her own doom while those around her deny it. So, I copied it. By hand on binder paper.

In college, when I was coming out, I read The Yellow Wallpaper as a novel about the inherent inequality in relationships between men and women—the heroine goes mad because her husband refuses to take her seriously, insists on his perception of the situation being the accurate perception, an insistence that ultimately comes at the price of his wife’s sanity.

More recently, I’ve read it as a historical piece, a documentation of the specific ways in which women were treated/tormented by the medical profession in the early 20th Century—the protagonist has the time to dwell on the house (particularly the wallpaper of the title) because she’s perceived as being in fragile health and is condemned to a “rest cure” (endless days in bed, no reading, writing or stimulation of any kind allowed) that drives her mad. This reading is, I believe, closest to Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s original purpose. She wrote The Yellow Wallpaper as a work of social criticism. The rest cure was standard medical practice at the time she was writing, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman was subjected to a rest cure herself with devastating results, so she wrote to depict the rest cure in a way so horrifying that the medical profession would be forced to abandon it.

All of this is a long preamble to my consideration of A White Room, which, given its inspiration, I can’t help but compare to The Yellow Wallpaper. A White Room initially feels like a slower, expanded remake of The Yellow Wallpaper—a woman is forced into a marriage in which she feels unloved and disrespected and in which her sense of self slowly deteriorates until she is hallucinating, imagining the house in which she lives is attempting to destroy her.

If this were all A White Room did, I would probably be telling prospective readers something along the lines of “don’t bother; stick with the original.” But Carroll is trying to do something different than Perkins Gillman did. Her protagonist descends into madness, but also finds a way out again. At this point, I don’t want to offer more summary; I don’t want this essay to be a “spoiler.” I just want to say that I enjoyed Carroll’s imagining of a positive alternative for a woman of that time.

The book is uneven. The pace in the first half is slow, slow, slow, while the second half races along in a “this happened, then this happened, then this happened” fashion. It contains far too many descriptions of the protagonist’s clothing, most of which don’t contribute purposefully to the story. The characters are unevenly developed, so, while we can understand the perspectives and motivations of some, others, particularly the “villains,” are drawn with much less nuance. At times, the phrasing and word choice felt decidedly un-1900-ish—though I can’t claim expertise in this area, so it may simply be that the book didn’t meet my preconceived notions.

But despite these weaknesses, A White Room is still most definitely worth a read. It attempts to solve a problem, not just depict it, which is challenging work, indeed. It leads one to some very worthwhile consideration of the quality of women’s lives, the impact of class divisions, and the practice of medicine in the early 20th Century. So, instead of saying “stick with the original,” I’d say to give it a go. Don’t expect perfection, but do expect intellectual engagement and a worthwhile use of several hours of your time.

What If Knits—and books and cats and other stuff and, oh, yeah, books

Obviously, I haven’t been writing about knitting much lately. In fact, I haven’t been knitting much lately. What I have been doing is reading. And reading. And reading. Reading fiction after years of devoting myself to non-fiction. Getting caught up in character and voice. Slipping inside other people authors have invented.

I’ve been pushed in this bookish direction by a few specific things:

• First off, I bought a Kobo eReader for myself after Christmas. I had no idea whether I’d like it or not, but I felt that it was time for me to try out this brave new world of books from the aether available by the hundreds in the palm of my hand. And the experience is every bit as wonderful as it sounds: books from the aether by the hundreds in the palm of my hand.

• Second, I started using GoodReads and LibraryThing. My obsessive self absolutely adores being able to catalogue and rate the books I’m reading. I like seeing that page with cover shots of all the books I’ve read this year. I love, love, love the variations on “if you enjoyed this book, you’ll probably enjoy these as well” that both sites offer. Plus, free books! Both sites have regular giveaways for members—GoodReads on a daily basis (though one has to wade through a lot of dreck to find the books one is really interested in), LibraryThing on a monthly basis (less frequent, but overall higher quality selection).

• Third, once I realized I was addicted to my Kobo Arc, which can surf the net and has a colored, back-lit screen, I suddenly found myself longing for an eReader that would function better in bright daylight, and I quickly convinced myself that it was only sensible to buy a Kindle Paperwhite.

So books. Books. Books. Books. For now, let me just list a few of the best. Soon, I plan to start writing about individual books in more detail. Knitting will still crop up from time to time, but I am allowing myself broad discretion in my choice of blog topics.

This year’s five-star reads as chosen by me:

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

Imagining Argentina, Naming the Spirits, and Tales from the Blue Archive, all by Lawrence Thornton

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal

Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphries

The World to Come by Dara Horn

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow

The Giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum

No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Saints and Villains by Denise Giardina

Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith

The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

Those are the five-stars. I’ll leave the four-stars for another time. I know a list isn’t a particularly valuable thing in itself, but I promise to think more and to write more thoroughly in the future. For now, I just want to say that these are great books. Any two or three of them could keep you—or at least keep me—content on a desert island for several years.