Monday, July 13, 2009

Nuns & Charles Dickens & Warm Woollen Mittens

Hi Flower!

Nuns and Charles Dickens and warm woollen mittens. These are a few of my favorite things. Whiskers on kittens? Not so much. But that's okay because there are some new books that will fulfill my nuns and Dickens needs. The mittens? I am currently knitting a pair seeing as it's going to be a cold summer.

This is a nice on sale week for Random House. They have one of their established bestselling authors, Sarah Dunant's new novel, "Sacred Hearts" going on sale as well as a first time author's debut novel, "Girl in a Blue Dress" which was long listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and got a lot of publicity in the UK. And... I imagine they have a lot of other nice things happening this week as well, but those I don't know about.

Just as Phillipa Gregory has a lock on the backstairs lives of English royalty so Sarah Dunant has with Renaissance Italy. Dunant is your go to girl for the annuls of antipasto. She's got the research done, gotten all the facts and we get to enjoy. In "Sacred Hearts" we are enjoying the many mysteries and rites of convent life in 1570 Ferrara, Italy. Sound a little tame? Not at all. This is a strong, engaging book about very interesting individuals.

The lives and history of nuns has always held interest for me. I'm not entirely sure why. I have no personal religious background. Until I was in college all I knew about the Bible or any religion really was what I had learned from watching Cecil B. de Mille movies and to the best of my recollection Cecil B. never made a movie about nuns. Maybe it's the disappearance of the individual into a communal life whose goal is to serve a common good. Maybe it's Belief which I've never had. Maybe it's the outfits. I envy women who can wear a hat and black is so New York and hip. Maybe it's that their regimented, shut in lives under the rule of men is a microcosm of the history of women for the last few thousand years. Maybe it's just that they exist. I don't know.

In "Sacred Hearts" the convent of Santa Caterina is a repository for the unmarriable of Ferrara's wealthiest families. Some know from childhood that the Church will be their lives, some are what's left when dowries have been stretched to nothing for a sibling's advantageous marriage and some are the end of their families and it's either the nunnery or... what? Once under God's protection at Santa Caterina each woman must come to terms with what they have lost and the life they will live from the moment of entrance until death.

The politics and complex relationships of "Sacred Hearts" are not wholly confined to the convent itself. There are pressures for change within the Church that cannot be ignored. These changes could turn the relatively liberal Santa Caterina into a completely isolated and devotional house. Also, the noble and wealthy families of the nuns and Ferrara must be kept happy to keep their patronage and thereby protect the convent. Into this cloistered but not unworldly community Dunant brings character, intense period and religious detail and good, strong storytelling.

When the novel started out I immediately fell into deep fascination with the details of life and religion in 1570, but I felt as though the plot was going to be as new and intricate as a communion wafer. I was wrong. The plot unfolded in surprising ways and is exceptionally well served by the fully drawn secondary characters in the book. The women in the book are of all ages and at all levels of devotion. In fact one of the strongest elements of the book was how accurate and true all of the characters felt. No small achievement in historical fiction where passionate and powerful women characters too often come across as contemporary.

Flower, how much do I love Charles Dickens? A lot. He's my all time favorite writer. He's my desert island choice. I fell in love with his books at 12 for three reasons: I loved all the words, the books are chubby and here were books that had more main characters than I had siblings--a first! But. Can I accept that he was human and a far from perfect one? Sometimes a far from nice one? I couldn't have at 12 but at 12+ I can.

Good thing or I would have missed an excellent novel.

"The Girl in the Blue Dress" is a fictionalized account of the life of Charles Dickens from the viewpoint of his wife Catherine. For years Catherine was viewed as sort of a 'Shakespeare's Wife'. A shadow of no real interest except for the number of children she gave birth to. A dull footnote in a brilliant man's career. In "Girl" Dickens is Alfred Gibson and Catherine is his wife Dorothea. In this Alfred is the It Boy of Victorian letters, magnetic, representing the values of home and hearth, popularly viewed as a social reformer and successful beyond belief. Dorothea is the quiet wife once loved and pursued now humiliated and left behind.

When "Girl" opens, Alfred is dead. The world is mourning his passing. He is being remembered as 'The Great One' and 'The One and Only'. He and Catherine have been separated for 10 years. Alfred had grown tired of his dutiful, ever pregnant wife. He cast her out, publicly painted her as mad, installed her in a barely decent apartment and kept all but one of their eight children from seeing her--just as Dickens did to Catherine. Dorothea humbled by the estrangement, did as she was told and moved on to a nun-like life. Spending her days reading and re-reading Alfred's novels and brooding over what had been and what it had become. An invitation from another widow, Queen Victoria pulls Dorothea back into the world and compels her to try and reclaim her life.

The events of Alfred and Dorothea's lives so faithfully follow those of Charles and Catherine that you might wonder why write a novel? Why not write a biography of the Dickens' marriage? A novel gives Catherine/Dorothea a voice that history can not. The subject matter is at the level of you-can't-make-up-this-stuff but the author's insights and handling of it all is made credible and consistent with the time period and her descriptions of Victorian life would have made Dickens jealous. The research is impeccable.

There never seems to be any middle ground with first novels. They fall into one of two categories: better luck next time or wham, a homer. First timer Gaynor Arnold has put this one out of the park and I'm thrilled. A new author to look forward to! Because after all it really is all about me.

Now I worry that I won't have a new nun or Dickens book for years to come. I'll find other lovely reads to fill the time but I'll always have one eye open for my favorite things.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Little Stranger Than Us

Book Jacket Smack Down!
Which cover is more likely to make you pick up "The Little Stranger"?
The Brit version on the left? Or the Yank take on the right?

Hello Flower!

Have you ever read Sarah Waters? She's one of a handful of authors that due to my bookstore employment I feel as though I discovered. Do you have authors like that? Authors who you have followed since their first quiet book? You read that first one and fell in love with the storytelling or writing style--- something-- and started putting it into friends and customer's hands while you impatiently waited for the next book? Sarah Waters is one of those writers for me. I feel very proprietary and protective towards her books. --I didn't mean that to come out so much like a warning, but I'm not unhappy that it did.

All of these titles have been enjoyed by me and lovingly forced onto others by me:
Tipping the Velvet 1998
Affinity 1999
Fingersmith 2002
The Night Watch 2006
And now in 2009 there is--TA-DA! The Little Stranger.

On the page turning surface "The Little Stranger" is a ghost story. I have to say seeing that description on the book jacket stopped me in my tracks. I'm no reader of scary tales, Flower. Scooby Doo cartoons make me nervous. I am a certified, sleep with the light on coward. I do not want creepy thoughts and scary images tucked away in my brain files ready to pop out at me at any time. But... Sarah Waters is one of my pets so onward I pressed.

"The Little Stranger" could be called a follow up to the wonderful "The Night Watch". In Night a group of desperate people struggle to survive WWII London. There the war was the main character. It drove all action and decisions. In Stranger the war has ended but it's power has not diminished and the ghosts it left behind are many.

The novel is set in a rural community in England. The national anxiety of waiting for bombs to drop or news of loved ones has been replaced with the death of hierarchies and the worries that massive social change brings. Those changes are especially strong in the Great Houses across England. In the book, Hundreds Hall is the former grand estate of it's neighborhood. It is now a shabby, barely hanging on wreck of a place. The great family is still living there: Mrs Ayres clinging to the past like grim death, her war damaged son, Roderick and her war missing daughter, Caroline. They have economized to the point of austerity. Half of the house is shut down, land has been sold off, they are attempting to keep the farm viable and have let all but 2 of the servants go but with the Labor Party ruling the day and the family's inability to adapt Hundreds Hall seems to be doomed to extinction.

Into this very contained world comes our narrator. The classic Victorian ghost story bachelor, Dr. Faraday. Set in his ways, slightly woman hating and socially unremarkable. Dr. Faraday isn't the sort who ever would have made it into the Ayres's circle in their glory days. He is the middle class on the doorstep of his betters. His Mother had been a maid at Hundreds Hall in her youth and his father a shopkeeper. Both of his parents sacrificed to raise him above his station. Faraday carries with him enough inbred British class system romanticization that his acceptance by the Ayres family into their world is the ultimate success for him. He is flattered, ready to worship and agonizes over each setback the family endures. This and his unshakable belief in science makes the veracity of his narration suspect and adds to the drama of the story.

Ghosts abound in "The Little Stranger". Each reader will decide whether or not there is an actual haunting at Hundreds Hall and as I have an aversion to giving away plot and will not go the spoiler alert route here is where my descriptions of the action and the characters ends. As for the other ghosts? The Ayers family is haunted by their past riches, snobbery, lost ambitions and the illusions they had about themselves. Dr Faraday is haunted by his own failures and the spector of the incoming National Health Service which could cost him his hard won rise in social standing.

Sarah Waters is always a great storyteller and always challenging herself. She has mastered the intricately plotted Victorian novel, the Merlin-esque ending to the beginning construction of "The Night Watch" and here the ghost story. Ghost stories follow a form. An innocent taken over by malevolence with an operatic finale. "The Little Stranger" does not marry itself completely to that template. Sarah Waters has not written a make you jump tale of terror. She has written a restrained, controlled, creepily suggestive novel about all kinds of hauntings. In fact the grand finale of the novel we are not even witness to. It takes place off stage with no witnesses and is all the more unsettling for that.

There are also touches of other classic things here like "Great Expectations" and "Rebecca" but don't think that this is not a unique work for all of the trappings. This is a sublime novel by a gifted writer that I discovered, sort of...


P.S. I prefer the Brit cover. The Yank cover I feel as though I've seen too often and it reads too English county house murder to me. The Brit cover successfully captures the 40's period and creates an intimacy that US cover lacks.