Monday, May 30, 2011

Celebrate Memorial Day

Enjoying your freedom? Thank a soldier.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

What In The Sam Hill????

Sometimes you have to just scratch your head and wonder What In The Hell Were They Thinking? Seriously. What kind of discussion went on at Penguin Publishing that made them decide that this hideous on every level, prime example of a 1970's advertisement for feminine hygiene products cover would be suitable for a novel about a seventeenth century trail brazing female naturalist? I ask you. Was it share the crack pipe day at Penguin?

"Umm...yeah. Have the model in a float-y dress that makes your average bridemaids' dress look fashinable and make her arrange her arms to suggest wings. Get it? That will look great. Oh and add a couple butterflies too"

You know, more that one person at Penguin saw this cover and gave it the okay. That is sad.

Lady of the Butterflies by Fiona Mountain is based on the life of Eleanor Glanville. Eleanor was an intelligent, self taught entomologist. As you can guess from the title butterflies were her particular passion. At a time when other women, with the exception of the hundreds of women about whom historical novels are written, were managing households, working in the fields, raising children, illiterate and struggling to survive from season to season, the heiress Eleanor is making bad marriages, having a prodigious amounts of sex, concerned about the wetlands in Somerset and studying butterflies to the degree that some say she must be mad. It's a full day let me tell you.

The novel itself has some wonderful information about the early days of entomology, environmental studies, Puritanism and the politics of the period. It also has a quantity of actual bodice ripping and bodice ripping type drama. Mountain has a firm hand on the plot, has fully investigated her subject but in Lady of the Butterflies she hasn't found a balance between the heartfelt sharing of all that research and the fervent melodrama that surrounds her use of it.

 Knowing these very bare bones of the story you can see that the original cover for the hardcover is appealing and makes perfect sense. Why was it changed to the atrocity on the paperback? Not a clue my friends. I bought the hardcover of Lady of the Butterflies so that jacket image did it's job. There is nothing about the paperback cover that would even make me pick it up to look at.
Oh well.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


How about a new (to U.S.) series of mysteries that take place in the twenty years or so before the French Revolution in 1789? Sounds good doesn't it? Our detective is Nicolas Le Floch. The police force is new to Paris and Floch is new to both the police force and Paris.

I discovered these books, there are 5 so far, poking around on the Internet. I was looking for a novel I had read a thousand years ago about a lace maker in sixteenth century Paris. Sounds like quite the page turner, right? Well it was and someday when the stars a line, when Mercury collides with Mars, when Sourcebooks* reprints it, I will find but until then what I found instead was the website for Gallic Books, "the best of French in English". Well blow me down. I am always interested in novels in translation. If the translation is into English. Any other language? Not so much. Does that make me a small person?

So. The Le Floch mysteries? Voila! They are terrific. Le Floch like all detectives is an outsider. He's an orphan from Breton where he had worked himself up to the respectable position of a legal clerk. Through the five novels his origins become less of a riddle and his experience and intelligence bring him an erudite sophistication, promotions and a few enemies.

The crimes in the books take Le Floch from back alleys to Versailles, from beggars to royalty from squalor to splendor. Every possible walk of life in eighteenth century France is examined and brought to life within these mysteries. The author, Jean-Francois Parot fills the plots with a large variety of characters and settings. He writes in a somewhat old fashioned style that fits the time period without being mannered or too colloquial. These are books where the descriptions of the food, the habitats and habits are as vivid as the crime scenes.

In all historical fiction you know what's coming next and the authors have to work with and against your knowledge. In the Le Floch series the reader knows that in almost twenty years the Revolution is coming. Parot does an excellent job in setting up the politics of the pre-revolutionary period from all different sides. Le Floch struggles as much with crime as he does with ministers, bureaucrats, free thinkers, business men and the socially ambitious of the 1760's. It's all fascinating but never over takes the importance of the plot.

You do not have to read the series in order, but doing so does enhance the experience. So in order the Le Floch are:

1. The Châtelet Apprentice

2. The Man With The Lead Stomach

3. The Phantom of Rue Royale

4. The Nicolas le Floch Affair

5. The Saint-Florentin Murders

Aren't those covers gorgeous? The design, the typeface, the artwork--it is all a perfect fit. As much as I am a fan of the time period, it was the covers (Of course!) that sold me.

I do not know if any or all of these books are available from a used bookstore in the U.S. They have not been published here so they are not available new at your local. After I found them on the publishers site I asked a fabulous friend who lives in London to get them for me. How spoiled am I?

Why haven't the Le Floch books been published here? They are terrific reads. The translations are done, thank you Howard Curtis and Michael Glencross, so what's holding up the works? Are they not Scandinavian enough? Some sharp eyed editor needs to make an acquisition, my friends. And! Keep the same covers!
*Let me say it! Sourcebooks has a fabulous back into print publishing program featuring authors like Georgette Heyer and Daphne du  Maurier but just try finding them and other writers on the Sourcebooks website. Extremely annoying and not user friendly.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog

Ah those Europa editions with their thick paper, lovely covers, generally unpronounceable author names and french flaps! They do seduce me into a quick purchase on a regular basis. I can always count on them for something different. Authors and/or plots that are off center, exotic in their other worldliness.

My latest Europa book was hardly a 'find'. It's been around for a couple years and has gotten a lot of good press. It's The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Mariel Barbery. What took me so long? Goodness knows. Not disinterest certainly. Just plain old inertia probably.

The two main characters in The Elegance of the Hedgehog epitomize the books' title. Renee is the troll like concierge of the pricey apartment house/condo building in Paris where the novel is set. She has successfully created a demeanor and the habits of a typical French concierge. Her tenants view her as crabby, a bit slovenly, slow, forever smelling of cabbage and listening to the radio. Paloma is a very teenager-y twelve year old daughter of a bourgeois family who lives in Paloma's apartment building. She is tired of the lies of convention, the dishonesty of adult life and has decided to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. Renee and Paloma each cultivate a prickly, unappealing exterior to mask what is most important to each: beauty and truth.

 I have read enough reviews of Elegance to know that I am supposed to reference the philosophers whose ideas Barbery uses in the novel but I'm a philistine so that isn't going to happen. The only philosophies that I am familiar with come out of fortune cookies or on Salad tea. However my ignorance did not stymie my great delight in reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog strictly as a novel. The plot is a touching twist on Cinderella. Renee and Paloma are provocative, endearing heroines, this Paris is quite interesting and the cutaway view of the apartment building's lives is tantalizing.

Barbery alternates the chapters between the confessions of Renee and Paloma. Each of them ruminates at length about class hierarchy, art, motivations, their building mates and society in general and yet this novel of ideas is something of a page turner. Their tone is equal parts disdainful, pitying and gossipy and that might be where the page turner aspects of the novel comes from. Who doesn't like passing judgment on their neighbors?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Maybe I'm Just A Little Crabby

Why is the morning so violent? Break of day, crack of dawn. Isn't having to get out of bed enough? Does the sun have to arrive in such a threatening manner?

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Russian Affair

The Russian Affair is about affairs of the heart and the affairs of state. It's the story of Anna Tsazukhina and Russia in the 1970's. Anna is a twenty-nine year old house painter, the caretaker of her father who was once a respected poet but is now just another dissident artist, a loving wife and mother to Petya. Her husband, Leonid, is in the Red Army. The separations brought on by his service have made him a somewhat shadowy but still beloved presence in her life. Bureaucracy and Do Without fill up what moments of her life aren't spent working, caring for her family and in standing in line. She is in line for food, for medical care for her son, for jobs, lines to find out what line to be in, endless lines. Daydreams are her constant companion while in line. Anna fantasies about having a larger apartment, the parts needed to fix a fawcett, more food, a less spartan life.

Anna catches the eye of Alexey Bulyagkov a minister in science research. A smooth dinner leads to gifts and gifts lead to an affair. Alexey is decades older than Anna and successful in ways that Anna or her husband couldn't be in a hundred years. But hey this is Brezhnev's Soviet Union and soon the KGB shows up. Anna is recruited to spy on Alexey. She is a patriot and if the state needs her to do this to be reassured that Alexey is also a good citizen then she can do it. These are the things that the KGB does to justify their paychecks and kickbacks, right? It turns out that the KGB can be even more seductive than Alexey. They offer much greater gifts. The perks that go along with spying bring a full stomach and medical care for Petya, the reinstatement of her Father's reputation and a level of luxury to Anna's life that she has never known. Living a double life proves to be more difficult than Anna expected. The new found prosperity is wonderful. Alexey is wonderful. Living a double life? Less than wonderful and quite costly.

The Russian Affair is a different kind of spy novel. The author, Michael Wallner has ignored most of the usual espionage trappings in this novel. There are no breakneck chases, microfilm, meetings with handlers, state secrets aren't bandied about between generals and arms dealers. There are not cliffhangers every five pages. Wallner has written us a compelling study of a woman whose indiscretion brought her into a world that put herself and her family in great jeopardy. Anna isn't magically, unrealistically transformed into Mata Hari after the KGB comes to call nor does she become a martyr to justice. Wallner keeps her true to her upbringing, her experience and her time. The story of Anna's choices, of personal and political corruption and the ceaseless toil of life as a have-not in 1970's Moscow come together to make their own unique version of an action packed spy story.
P.S. The cover? Love it! Beautifully done.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Jamrach's Menagerie

You would not know it living here in the States but Carol Birch is a big deal. She is the author of eleven well regarded novels. She has been long listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize. So where has she been all our lives? Well, the short answer is England. The longer answer is something only American publishers can answer. Why didn't any of them bring her over for us? Random House has brought her to us now so I'll pretend to be a bigger person than I actually am and let my irritation go for now. The novel that Random House chose to initiate Birch's U.S. publication life is her newest, Jamrach's Menagerie.

Jamrach's Menagerie is the most colorful, grimy, brutal, salty coming of age story you are likely to read. It's the story of Jaffy Brown a nineteenth century boy who comes fully loaded with all that the best urchins have to offer: abject poverty, a single parent, limitless optimism, no education but natural smarts and a love of the sea. Jaffy is part Pip, part Popeye, part Ishmael, part Steve Irwin and thanks to Birch all freshness and charm. He's our narrator in Jamrach's so it's good thing you want to spend time with him, to root for him.

Jaffy's life pre-Jamrach is all work and the cesspool atmosphere of London slums. His one bright light is his Mother. She seems barely older than Jaffy at the start of the novel and they are devoted to one another. Jaffy enters Jamarach's life through the jaws a tiger. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Birch describes this magnificent tiger through Jaffy's inexperienced eyes. Jamrach is an agent of procurement for the wild and exotic that fill wealthy,private Victorian zoos. He is Jaffy's Magwich, a mysterious benefactor who puts him on a path out of the slums. Through the menagerie business Jaffy gets teamed up with another boy, Tim who becomes his friend and rival and Dan Rymer the sailor and adventurer who becomes father and mentor to both boys on the voyage to catch a 'dragon' that is the crux of the novel.

Jaffy's hard knock life thus far takes a turn for the worse after he goes to sea. At this point the novel shifts gears a little. Jaffy's childhood as difficult as it was still had an innocence to it, as he approaches adulthood on board the Lysander the tone of the book becomes harsher, more adult too. The change is subtly done. It goes from an almost lightheartedly dangerous Dickensian tale of life on the streets populated with colorful characters to a more Joseph Conrad nature verses man while man verses man tale.

Birch does a magnificent job bringing nineteenth century London and a globe crossing ocean voyage to life. The sights, the smells, the struggle to survive all leap off the page at you. What could have been an endless dirge of squalor, gin, abuse and near death experiences instead become a brilliant tour of lives lived by wit and sheer determination to last just another day. These places: London slums, the deck of the Lysander, a deserted island these are not locations that bring out the hopeful dreamer or the rags to riches tale. Birch makes these stops the natural progression of Jaffy's life after his singular good luck in finding himself in the tiger's mouth.

Jamrach's Menagerie owes some of it's events to the real life sinking of the whaling ship The Essex in 1820 (which inspired Melville's Moby Dick) and in exploits of Charles Jamrach. Jamrach was a German born merchant who dealt in wild animals and whose escaped tiger in London carried off a small boy. There are other plot elements in the story that I won't detail but will have a vaguely familiar ring to them. This is not a criticism. Birch's use of a true facts and a few known legends only enhances the feeling of historical accuracy in Jaffy's story. She retells these moments within the larger plot with a vivid immediacy that makes Jamarach's a page turner as well as a graduate level course on how to write historical fiction.

So how about the other ten Carol Birch novels? Any chance we will see them? After reading/devouring Jamrach's Menagerie I certainly hope so!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

This Is What I Want, What I Really, Really Want

There was a time back in Big Hair 80's when instead of a Starbuck's on every corner there was a Benetton clothing store on every corner. Really. True Story. Their clothes were part of the uniform of the times. Their sweaters were especially gorgeous. They had great shapes, a lot of intricate intarsia patterning and the most amazingly enticing color palettes. I had quite the yen for them.

 Sad to say my wallet could not keep up with my desires. So I turned to what my much loved Aunt Gladys and fourth grade teacher, Miss Corsones, had taught me...knitting. I became a devoted life long knitter because of my barely controllable Benetton sweater lust. That was win-win.

Now I would like another win. I would like one of the many lovely craft book publishers out there like Interweave, STC Craft, Lark, Potter Craft, Vogue, Chronicle Books or Workman or one of the many other companies that I am not remembering to get together with Benetton and make me a knitting pattern book of their sweaters. Some from today, some from the last twenty years but mostly from the 80's. Who's going to make this happen for me?

London Train

Tessa Hadley keeps proving herself as the kind of writer whose books get better and better. London Train is her fifth novel and I have to say it was wonderful.It was on the long list for the 2011  Orange Prize. Most of the novel is divided into the story of two separate characters but don't think short stories. Think more like Carol Shields  Republic of Love.

Story one is about Paul. He lives a thoughtful life in Cardiff with wife #2 and children #'s 2 and 3. He's a poet and a father and an about to be midlife crisis man. His eldest daughter, Pia, #1, is the one whose life he's a part timer in. She lives with her Mother. Paul's life of comfort and untested intellectual liberality is put to the point when Pia disappears and is found pregnant, living in squalor in London with her illegal boyfriend.

Story two is about Clara. She is seeking peace. Clara has spent 25 years working hard teaching other people's children. Her parents have recently passed away and her marriage is in trouble. Clara's much older husband is facing disciplinary actions at work. Like Paul, Clara is a relatively untried liberal intellectual whose life is suddenly in a crisis. Clara moves from the anxiety of her London life to take a job as a librarian in Cardiff.

When Hadley takes these strangers on a train and adds a touch of Brief Encounter you have London Train. In fact this novel really is a contemporary retelling of Brief Encounter. It has the same domestic responsibilities and virtues verses romance and freedom theme. Oh and trains too. In Hadley's version we learn much more about the lives of the characters than we do in Brief Encounter. Like Coward's Laura and Alec, Paul and Clara have reached middle age relatively unscathed and with dreams of hearth and home if not completely intact then at least still glimmering. Unlike Laura and Alec, Hadley's characters are not quietly noble, restrained, 'proper' people. Paul and Clara have left their self absorbed little fingerprints all over their messy lives.

After five very enjoyable novels Tessa Hadley is an old hand at making troubled relationships fresh and entertaining. She stirs up London Train a bit more by playing fast and loose with chronological order. Hadley has made London Train an observationally acute examination of choices and a terrific read. Time to wait for novel #6.

 How about the covers? Above is the U.S. cover which I find very attractive, but after reading London Train I fail to see the connection between that cover and the novel. This cover suggests a story about a much younger and more inexperienced woman than Clare is.

What about the U.K. cover?
I love it. The layout, the graphic look and the palette all work. I think it's beautiful and a perfect match for the book.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Can't We Just Buy The Tomatoes?

Oh Flower!

I'm tired of and bored with gardening already and it isn't even Memorial Day yet!

There is a line in The African Queen that has been a guidepost for me my whole life. Katherine Hepburn tells Humphrey Bogart that, "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on Earth to rise above." 'Rise above' is too superior for my outlook I would have changed those words to 'keep outside', but I think you get where I'm going.
 I am not the least bit nature-y. I can appreciate the beauty of it, the majesty, the wonder, the power, the diversity but I do not want to be around it or have it touch me. True. I don't actually have any real interest in it either. I enjoy the occasional factoid or story about nature but I do not seek either of those things out. I do care about the environment. Recycling, re-using, conserving, supporting manufacturers who use less packaging and produce their goods in energy efficient and green ways, buying local---I do all that with a dedicated consciousness. However none of that means that I want to go camping or pet a puppy or smell a flower.

 Nature and I live on different planets. I live on planet Inside and Nature lives on planet Outside. Every day I have to suit up and travel through and work in Outside but I do not live there. On Inside I have a home, friends, restaurants, theaters, museums, books and book stores (independent ones), yarn stores, television, many things. Outside I have small children sporting events ~~shudder~~, walks (That's a whole other ball of wax), squirrels and gardening. Is it any wonder I want to stay on my planet?

Gardening represents the very worst of Outside for me. I adore that other citizens do it with such ardor. They make beautiful spaces but I hate having to garden. Would that I were able to cover my yard in asphalt. Save the disgust. That is not going to happen. It's not good for the world and my Father would be very, very unhappy. Daddy is why I garden. He's 86, a fabulous Father and good person who loves fresh vegetables, trees and flowers. The trees and flowers part of the equation are terrifically independent and do a lot of their own up keep but those damn $%#&*%# vegetables are a huge  $%&*$@ thorn in my side.

This morning the tomatoes plants were planted. They are in the soil and with luck and w-o-r-k there will be many right off the vine tomatoes for Daddy. Great. I am thrill for him and pleased that I can help to make his eating more pleasurable but I still hate it and bitch about it incessantly behind his back.

 A friend who obviously has me confused with someone else she knows told me that when Daddy is gone I'll miss having a vegetable garden for him. I will miss him as a hilariously funny and loving Father, as a man who others like and respect but the tomato loving side of him? Not so much.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Never were there such devoted sisters....
Sister is two sisters: the one gone and the one left behind. Those two sisters, Beatrice and Tess, are intensely close but physically separated by an ocean. While Bee has been advancing her career in NYC, Tess is attending a London art school. One day Bee gets a call. Tess has gone missing. Then Bee gets The Call. Tess has been found dead in a public restroom. The police have reason to rule the death a suicide. Tess had been through an unhappy love affair and in quick succession a pregnancy shadowed by a diagnosis of cystic fibrosis and the death of her infant son. Easy-peasy for the police to decide her death was a suicide.

 Bee doesn't believe that her sister would have killed herself and dedicates herself to finding Tess' murderer. She goes to London against the advice of her Mother and fiancee and immerses herself in Tess's old life. Beatrice soon discovers that murder is not the only mystery Tess left behind. Bee finds a few very likely suspects: Tess' married teacher lover, a drug addicted fellow student, a well respected doctor and a top man in a bio-med company.

 Those are the bones of this stylish and clever mystery/thriller by Rosamund Lupton. The how-well-do-you-really-know-someone and the no-one-knows-that-this-was-really-murder plot elements are as old as Wilkie Collins but Lupton has remade them with insight into multidimensional relationships and some nice, spooky originality. She has written Sister in the form of a long, confessional letter from Beatrice to Tess. This technique underscores the level of intimacy between the sisters and immediately makes the reader a part of that relationship and therefore have an added stake in the search for answers. Sister is a persuasively suspenseful and satisfying novel.

P.S. Sister was a Richard and Judy Book Club (The U.K. version of the Oprah Book Club) pick last year. It is due out from Crown, Random House in early June 2011.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Just saying...

                                             Hogwarts is my safe school.

Plum Wine

Hello Flower!

My Mother had five sisters. All six of the W girls had a tremendous amount of similarities and differences. They were all independent, smart women who could go months and sometimes years without seeing one another without any loss of intimacy. Looking back I see that the relationships between those sisters had a huge influence on me. Those women defined what my relationships with my five sisters and my girlfriends would be.

When Aunt G would come to visit with my Mother whether alone or with a combination of children and husband she and my Mother would always open a bottle of plum wine. Whatever else was going on and no matter what time of day she stopped by, out came a bottle of plum wine. Neither one of them ever even seemed to get tipsy let alone drunk but the bottle would be drained.

I'm sure that I must tried the wine on several occasions but I have no memory of what it tasted like. I do remember the bottle. It was a clear glass bottle, a little more squat and square than a regular wine bottle. The label had two branches with pale pink flowers (plum blossoms presumably) intertwined around the name of the wine and the makers. I always thought that it was pretty and was fascinated that the name of the wine was in Japanese. Japanese. For ten year old me that was the pinnacle of worldly.

Of course when I came across a novel called Plum Wine with those same flowers on the cover I had to buy it. It wasn't just the misty eyed sentimentality that got me to open my wallet. Heck no! This baby clocks in at 352 pages and you know I like the heft.

Plum Wine, by Angela Davis-Gardner is set in 1966 Japan. Barbara is a young American student teaching English at Tokyo University. She is happy in the life there and is especially attached to an older Japanese woman, Michiko. Michiko has been friend and surrogate mother to Barbara. When Michiko loses her struggle with cancer, Barbara is devastated.

After Michiko's death Barbara finds that she has been left a chest filled with bottles of plum wine by her friend. There are twenty bottles in all. Barbara discovers that each bottle is wrapped in rice paper and on the paper in Michiko's elegant calligraphy is written a portion of her life story. Unable to read Japanese, Barbara asks a Seiji, a potter, for help translating. Barbara learns that Michiko and Seiji are Hiroshima survivors. They are called hibakusha and are reviled by other Japanese.

Davis-Gardner uses the revelations that Michiko's writings provide to open up an inventive storyline and to examine the national character of the Japanese in relation to individual experience. The story of sixty years of tragedy and rebirth both personal and of Japanese history are told through the elderly Michiko, Seiji and Barbara. The sense of privacy and restraint that we associate with that nation are a moving juxtaposition to the love and tenderness between the three main characters.

Plum Wine has long hidden secrets enough to satisfy, a marvelously intimate look at a fascinating culture and quietly commanding writing that will keep you spellbound .


P.S. As I said Plum Wine takes place in 1966. How the Japanese in general look at the hibakusha now is not something addressed in this novel.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

It's All So Very Seed-y

Hi Flower.

If ever there was a book that should only be available as an e-book, Seeds by Richard Horan must be it. This book seeks to celebrate trees, but it's brought to you by the many trees who lost their lives to share that celebration with us. That is really taking one for the team.

Seeds is described on the cover as," One man's serendipitous journey to find the trees that inspired famous writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton". OK. No where is there any disclaimer that none of these special trees were hurt in the creation, printing, packaging, labeling and shipping of this book. I hope the reader's copy I was sent of Seeds wasn't printed on wood pulped from the catalpa in the front yard of Muhammad Ali's childhood home or John Muir's fig tree.

I liked the idea of Seeds but sorry to say I found the execution self indulgent and self congratulatory. Horan's voice is too present in Seeds. Yes, it is about his 'serendipitous journey' (that actually seems quite planned in the book) but there is too little about why or how these trees 'inspired famous writers'. Seeds is more about how Horan arrived at the home of a writer and who he spoke to there than the power of nature to aid in creativity. Seeds has all the of the insight but none of the charm of a Hollywood Map of the Stars.


'From Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton'? Why not from Kerouac to Cather or Fitzgerald to Faulkner? The use of the alliteration for Welty and Wharton but not on Faulkner and Kerouac bothers me. It's very untidy.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Caleb's Crossing


The true story part of Geraldine Brooks' novel, Caleb's Crossing is that in 1665 a young man from the Wampanoag tribe on Martha's Vineyard, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck, became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Everything else in this wonderful book is fiction. Writer Geraldine Brooks has taken that fact and built a history for Caleb and a window into American life a century before the Revolution.

Caleb's Crossing is narrated by Bethia Mayfield. She is witness and participant. Bethia lives in Great Harbor, a small settlement with her father, a Calvinist minister and her brother Makepeace. Bethia is twelve when the novel begins. Her mother has recently died after a long illness. The harsh religion of her upbringing has led Bethia to believe that her Mother's death was her fault. That it was brought on by her wicked ways. While her father tries to convert the Wampanoag, Bethia and Caleb share a secret friendship. They meet in the woods teaching each other their own languages and about their worlds. This is Bethia's first chance at tolerance and she takes it.

The Minister sees Caleb as his special project. Caleb gets to be part Pygmalion part Fresh Air Fund. After three years and a conversion, he is brought into the Minister's household not as a servant but as a student. Caleb's crossing is from savage to civilization. On the surface he has succeeded. He can talk about Philosophy and Mathematics in Latin, he can mix with the upper crust of Cambridge but Caleb has been persuaded to leave the only world he's ever known and enter a world where he will never belong.

Bethia's crossing is much less direct. Hers will not be a formal education with all the choices that might bring. Aside from what Caleb taught her, Bethia's learning has all been done by observation and eavesdropping. To her family she is little better than a slave so it makes sense when she is sold off as an indentured servant in order to pay for Makepeace and Caleb's formal education at Harvard.

Despite the title, the main character in Caleb's Crossing isn't Caleb it is Bethia. Though smart and clever, Bethia is a young woman of the 1600's and therefore under estimated and undervalued. Her Father's punitive religion has convinced her that she is unworthy and yet Bethia is hopeful, eager for the future. Since she is female she has come by her illegal eduction by listening at keyholes, her relationship with Caleb has to be confidential and her hopes for the future must stay hidden. She has to live her life behind a screen but her vision is crystal clear. She sees all and tells all in a unique and strong, colloquial voice.

Geraldine Brooks has written an engrossing and evocative novel that juxtaposes the similarities and differences between two powerless outsiders in colonial Massachusetts. Brooks has the talent and insight to elevate the straightforward story of Caleb's Crossing into historical fiction with a social consciousness that enlightens as much as it entertains.


Sunday, May 1, 2011


Hi Flower,

Two Westerns in a week? First it was The Sisters Brothers and now it's Doc. Does this qualify as the start of a trend? I hope so. I don't want this to be just a happy coincidence.

So...I am delighted to have a new Western, Doc, to read but I am super sized delighted that it was written by Mary Doria Russell one of my pet authors. The Sparrow? Fantastic. Children of God ? Excellent. A Thread of Grace? Heartbreaking, one of my favorite novels. Dreamers of the Day? Lyrical.

Now if you have already guessed that Doc is about Doc Holliday you can pat yourself on the back but don't expect anyone to be impressed. Doc is also about Wyatt and Morgan Earp, Holliday's sometime companion Mária Katarina Harmony a Hungarian prostitute, the American west of 1878, fate, violence and friendship.

Doc arrives in Dodge City, Kansas with Kate by way of Texas and his hometown of Atlanta. He left Atlanta a cultured and tubercular young dental surgeon still grieving for a beloved Mother. The West was going to be his cure, his new start. Unfortunately for Doc his skills and a dentally challenged population did not add up to enough income for his support so Doc moonlights as a gambler. Kate thought the pots would be richer in Dodge City and off they went.

Once in Dodge, Holliday is soon working his tooth magic by day and gambling his nights away. Through his eyes Russell paints a portrait of the varied citizenry and local customs that fascinates. She reinvigorates the myths of Doc, the Earps, the prostitute with the heart of gold and even Bat Masterson by focusing on the beginnings of their careers and in Doc's case that career is dentistry. These aren't road hardened people yet. These characters all still bare the fresh scars of their youth. They are all immigrants in a new promised land learning the language and looking for those golden streets.

There is research galore on display in Doc but it's never in the way. It's in the atmosphere in Dodge, in every whiskey, in every fallen woman, the characterizations, but it is the story that is paramount. Russell has done what only good writers can do. She has taken people we think we know, a place we think we know, a situation we think we know and has somehow crafted a novel that feels new and original. Discoveries on every page. How? Writer voodoo magic.

Happy. Happy. Happy.

22 Britannia Road

Flower, it's May!

The 22 Britannia Road of the title is the destination for a young family destroyed by WWII. Silvana and Janusz Nowak and their 8 year old son Aurek are Polish refugees. When the novel begins it's 1946 and they are all about to start a new, picket fence life in England. They have been separated since 1939 when Janusz left his wife and son to fight for Poland against the Germans. Each of these spouses then spent the next seven years struggling with the choices that would keep them alive. Once the war began the lives of all three of the Nowaks became equal parts horrific and terrifying but so far peace has not brought them a happy ending. Their efforts to reunite as a family are stymied by years worth of suffering and guilty secrets.

After reading 22 Britannia Road it's difficult to believe that it is author Amanda Hodgkinson's first novel. She confidently travels well trodden territory with a fresh eye in this book. The characters lives go from storybook to nightmare to somewhere in the middle of each of those extremes in 300 pages. Through each of those stages Hodgkinson details not only the events of the story but the emotional circumference of her characters. Janusz, Silvana and Aurek are well defined, charismatic characters who are lucky enough to come out the other side of war but may or may not be able to win their peace. Amanda Hodgkinson brings a sensitive but authoritative voice to what could have been soap opera historical fiction.


P.S. What do you think of the cover on 22 Britannia Road?

It fits the story and it's invitingly mysterious but I find it excessively annoying. It's such an obvious attempt to lure in anyone who liked Suite Francaise, don't you think? Not that this kind of thing doesn't happen all the time. I think however that there are talented enough designers and art directors working at Penguin that they could have come up with something that suggested Suite Francaise without making 22 Britannia Road look like a sequel to Suite.

Here's the U.K. cover for 22 Britannia Road. Any thoughts?

 I'm on the fence about this one. There are elements I like, in particular the coat the female is wearing but over all I'd say this cover is more of a nice start than a finished idea.