Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Rival Queens LGIf Shonda Rhimes were to write a book about Renaissance France, it would likely resemble The Rival Queens—a dramatic and almost soapy page-turner by Nancy Goldstone. I don’t mean this as a knock, but more as another case of truth being stranger than fiction.

The court of the Valois Kings was a treacherous place, rife with scheming, betrayals, love affairs, and murder. G.R.R. Martin has cited this era in France as a source of inspiration, and fans of his books (or of the Game of Thrones TV series) will recognize parallels and at least one major plot development.

The Rival Queens are Catherine de’ Medici and her daughter, Marguerite de Valois—two singular and fascinating women who both were queens of France. Their fractious relationship was par for the course in the House of Valois, which seemed to have nurtured few familial bonds. Catherine pitted her children against each other to the extent that they were, at times, in greater danger from one another than from their professed enemies.

Her oldest son, Francis I, was sickly and died not long after marrying Mary Queen of Scots. The younger brothers schemed and connived as they competed for the throne. Two of them succeeded to the crown, and Marguerite was married off to become Queen of Navarre. However, this made her position even more tenuous, and she had some close and harrowing escapes from assassins and kidnappers sent by her mother and her brother, King Henri III.

Goldstone felt that historians had been unkind to Marguerite and wanted to tell her story in a more sympathetic light. I must say that I came away with a real respect for this woman who thought fast under pressure, maneuvered through relentless threats, and somehow managed to survive. Also, unlike her mother, she was very popular with the French people who called her “Queen Margot.”

Goldstone zooms out to show how European rivalries and the rise of Protestantism fueled the wars at court. In addition to Mary Queen of Scots, both Elizabeth I of England and Phillip II of Spain appear as significant influences on French politics and diplomacy.

The book offers historical detail and insights into daily life, but its salacious tone reads more like a Philippa Gregory novel than a scholarly biography. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading Gregory. I enjoy her novels, but I know they are fiction. I find it disturbing, though, when “nonfiction” veers into unfounded supposition and sensationalism.

For example, without any cited source Goldstone credits Nostradamus as predicting “the tragic death of Princess Diana” and “the horror of 9/11.” Seriously? Which prophecies and which translations? This feels rather spurious and hokey. In particular, the 9/11 claim has repeatedly been proven to be a hoax—here I cite Snopes and LiveScience.

Goldstone is capable of much better than that and seems to have gotten a bit swept up by the melodrama of her material. I actually preferred her earlier work, Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe, as that felt more weighty and academic, while still being so readable. However, I think that readers will take to this fictionesque style of writing—The Rival Queens really is hard to put down.

Overall, I recommend this book. It’s a riveting account of two extraordinary queens and of the machinations of a dynasty that is just as intriguing as the Tudors but has gotten much less attention.

Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone

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Village School Miss Read LGI’ve been curious about the Miss Read books and was so pleased when Village School was lucky number #5 on my Classics Club Spin List. It tells the story of the small village of Fairacre, England, as narrated by the school mistress of the local, two-room elementary school, aka “Miss Read”.

Set right after World War II, the book begins on the first day of school with all the anticipation and excitement felt by the two teachers and their students. The story unwinds in a series of slice-of-life vignettes that follow the school year. Miss Read has a knack for creating evanescent moments: children making straw bunches for the harvest festival; strained conversation while drinking tea in a dusty sitting room; an evening of skating on the local pond lit up by a farmer’s lorry (truck) headlights.

Throughout the book I had that wistful feeling of the passing of time, for example this lovely summer afternoon:

“We were disposed at the edge of the half-cut field under the elm trees’ shade. The air was murmurous with the noise of the distant cutter and with myriads of small insects. Far away the downs shimmered in the heat, and little blue chalk butterflies hovered about us … the children sat or lay in the grass with their books propped before them. Some read avidly … But others lay on their stomachs, legs undulating, with their eyes fixed dreamily on the view before them, a grass between their lips, and eternity before them. … When these boys and girls are old and look back to their childhood, it is the brightest hours that they will remember. This is one of those golden days to lay up as a treasure for the future, I told myself, excusing our general idleness.”

The author, whose real name is Dora Jessie Saint, taught school for many years, and the Fairacre novels are fictionalizations of her own experiences—much like James Herriot’s books.

Village School is a delightful, cosy, and relaxed read. That’s not to say that it is sugar-coated. The thatched cottages look pretty, but inside they are dark and damp, with no plumbing or drainage. Likewise the narrative touches on difficulties such as a drunkard father, a boy who has no dinner (lunch) money, and the formidable test that decides the educational fate of 11-year-olds. Miss Read empathizes with her students and neighbors, especially the grubby but beguiling Joseph Coggs. Overall, however, the book is upbeat and highlights the charm of village life. The school janitor (who has laid out all the courses) has a role of prominence at the summer sports day, walking about in a blue serge suit with the vicar.

My one serious complaint is that the “n-word” jumped off page 135, which was shocking and, honestly, somewhat horrifying. Miss Read uses it to describe how hard one of her students is studying. This was especially jarring given the comforting cadence of the prose.

Back in 1939, Agatha Christie had a book with the “n-word” in its title, although when it was released the next year in the U.S., the title was changed to And Then There Were None. The UK version adopted the latter title by the 1980s. Village School was published in 1955, and my edition was reissued in 2001. So it seems even more egregious that this has not been addressed.

That aside, I found this a charming book, and I think the many Fairacre sequels will be perfect reading for cold winter nights by the fire with a cup of tea.

Our Classics ClubTo read other reviews from this CC Spin, check out @ourclassicsclub or #ccspin on twitter.  Why not join us in the next Classics Club Spin?

My Classics Club Spin #10 Reading List

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Jane's Fame LGIn 1820, three years after her death, Jane Austen’s publisher remaindered all copies of her books. She sunk into obscurity “out of print, out of demand, and almost out of mind.” Today, of course, Austen is a worldwide phenomenon.

Claire Harman offers an engrossing account of the erratic and somewhat inexorable rise of Austen’s popularity in Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Harman flavors her narrative with diverting bits of trivia, for example Rudyard Kipling was a fervent Janeite! He considered Austen’s gravesite at Winchester Cathedral to be the second holiest place in England after Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford.

Harman begins with a look at Jane the author. In particular, I was fascinated to learn that Austen devised a proto cut-and-paste approach to revision by pinning small paper cutouts with new wording over sections of a working draft.

Austen struggled, however, to get her works published. Ultimately she sold both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice at somewhat bargain rates just to see them in print. The success of these books allowed her to get a better deal for Mansfield Park, which financially was her most successful work, earning her £30 a year. Emma, however, sold the most copies on its initial run.

Tragically, it was just as Austen was gaining success and recognition—albeit anonymously as her works were published by “a Lady”—that she died. Her tombstone made no mention of her as an author.


An 1816 first edition of Emma.

An 1816 first edition of Emma.

During the nearly 13 years her books were out of print, copies were treasured and traded by a niche of faithful readers, including several luminaries of the literary world. Sir Walter Scott had the full set and read Pride and Prejudice at least three times. Other admirers included Robert Southey, Maria Edgeworth, Benjamin Disreali, Lord Tennyson, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—but not William Wordsworth because, according to Coleridge’s daughter, he had no sense of humor.

Both English and pirated translations of Austen’s novels were read in France, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and even in America. I was gobsmacked to learn that James Fenimore Cooper’s first novel was actually a reworking of Persuasion titled Precaution, which flopped.

In 1833, Austen’s books were reissued as part of low-cost series, Standard Novels, sort of the Penguin Classics of the day. These editions began to sell steadily, gaining steam as the Victorian age took hold. Interest in Austen the author also grew steadily, erupting by the 1870s into the cult of the “Divine Jane.” Noted literary critic Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, lampooned this as “Austenolatry”—a riff on “Bardolatry” the cult of Shakespeare. Not long after, another critic named George Saintsbury coined the term “Janeite,” still so popular today. At Winchester Cathedral, so many visitors turned up looking for Austen that her nephew and biographer James Edward Austen-Leigh erected a memorial plaque.

Janes Fame pb

During World War I, Austen’s novels were a favorite among British soldiers and were well stocked in the trenches. They were also prescribed reading material to the wounded for their soothing and “salubrious” effects. By the 1920s, a “Janeite cabal” ran the Royal Society of Literature which would brook no criticism of the author. Beyond these hallowed halls, Austen had also exploded into the mainstream, via magazine articles, compilations, decorative special editions, and Austenalia: sequels and continuations of her novels. There was also a clamor for her letters, juvenilia, portraits, and any other related memorabilia, all of which were unearthed and published.

Jane had her share of detractors, though. Ralph Waldo Emerson had found her to be without genius or wit—a startling and somewhat paradoxical appraisal, but then he was rather severe. Surprisingly, Henry James felt she was overrated. Mark Twain’s derision of Austen has long been celebrated by her detractors, but what I didn’t know is that Twain repeatedly tried to read her works.

Still, Austen continued to gather fans: W.H. Auden, G.K. Chesterton, E.M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Rebecca West, and even the crotchety Winston Churchill. Another unlikely candidate, Aldous Huxley, wrote the screenplay for the first film adaption of Pride and Prejudice in 1940.

Memorial plaque honoring Austen at Winchester Cathedral.

Memorial tablet honoring Jane Austen at Winchester Cathedral.

There are so many other delicious tidbits, as Harman takes us through different film adaptations and pop-culture trends to the current online zeitgeist of fansites and blogs. But I don’t want to give away the too much of the book, which I highly recommend. Throughout, Harman manages to keep Jane very much in the present with anecdotes, family memories, quotes, and a clever musings as to how Austen would react to all this. Indeed, we all wonder and that’s part of what drives our Janeite mania.

Even after reading her novels, her letters, various biographies, and, yes, many of the Austenalia takeoffs—we still thirst for more of Jane Austen.

As Harman quotes Katherine Mansfield:

“The truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone—reading between the lines—has become the secret friend of their author.”

I read this book as part of the Austen in August annual reading event hosted by Roof Beam Reader. #AusteninAugustRBR

Worn Out With Civility at Mansfield Park

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Kate Middleton Decried as Jane Austen Character

When Pride and Prejudice Clicks, from Boring to Brilliant

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Today I am writing about Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park over at Sarah Emsley’s blog. Mine is the twenty-seventh in a series of guest posts celebrating 200 years of Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.

Practicing the art of Regency Era manners.

One of the great pleasures of reading Jane Austen is that while you are lured along by her refined and carefully measured prose, suddenly off the page jumps one of her distinctive zingers: “I am worn out with civility,” says Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park. Read more …

Read Mansfield Park with us!

Sarah Emsley on Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, and Edith Wharton


Word Hits posts on Jane Austen

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Marriage PlotI was surprised at how much I laughed reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. At least the first part, which lampoons life as an English major at Brown, had me in stitches. Jeffrey Eugenides (who studied English there in the early 1980s) pokes fun at the “hard-up blinky people” poring over Beowulf or Restoration drama in favor of proto-hipsters in black jeans who had discovered “the new imperium of Derrida.”

Still, he also takes aim at these oh-so-earnest semiotics students. I cracked up when one says the “idea of social introductions is so problematized.” That is the word—problematize—to toss about in seminars on literary deconstruction.

This remark also struck me because Eugenides spends the first pages of this novel introducing a literary hit list—Jane Austen, the Brontës, John Cheever, Collette, Charles Dickens, Theodore Dreiser, George Eliot, James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Longfellow, Anthony Trollope, John Updike, Edith Wharton, Tennessee Williams, William Wordsworth—only to follow this with a novel that intentionally challenges tradition. We know, of course, that he is questioning “the marriage plot” as a device, but Eugenides does not seem to offer up much plot wise in its place. Instead, this book feels as if it’s really about the writing. Much like a student in the Semiotics 211 seminar, I was less concerned with the storyline than with the words themselves. I found myself pausing to appreciate the masterful sentences, with little regard to their meaning.

There is a love triangle starring Madeline Hanna, who is doing her thesis on “the marriage plot.” She falls for Leonard Bankhead, who eerily seems to resemble David Foster Wallace—though Eugenides denies this. The third wheel is Mitchell Grammaticus, a sort of variant of Eugenides himself in this roman à clef. Even readers who know little about literary theory can easily make a link between Mitchell’s surname and Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, which the students revere as sacred text (ironic, given that Derrida argued text is meaningless). The novel follows these three from graduation at Brown through their first year in the real world—a literary Reality Bites.

marriage plot paper backWhile the first half of the book reminded me of Lucky Jim or David Lodge’s satiric novels on academia, the second half seems to mirror Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther—another canonical work that Eugenides spotlights. Like Werther, Mitchell suffers painfully from unrequited love as he searches to define himself. However, I grew impatient with Mitchell and his angst (just as I had done with Werther), especially in contrast to the real demons that haunted Leonard (and by proxy Madeline) in the form of mental illness. As such, Eugenides really brought to life Leonard’s torment and his daily struggles.

Some readers have taken issue with this book’s conclusion which (spoiler alert) seems to suggest the “friends-with-benefits plot.” But, for me, the ending worked, both lyrically and literally. The last sentence seems to offer possibilities—especially for Madeleine. Unlike predecessors such as Sister Carrie or Lily Bart, she is not ruined by her associations with men. Nor is her fate sealed by marriage, like Dorothea Brooke or Isabel Archer. Madeleine escapes all of this despite the fact that she chooses to become a Victorianist (haha, good one Eugenides). Likewise, Mitchell escapes young Werther’s fate, though it is unclear whether Leonard does.

In the end, both Madeleine and Mitchell stand on equal, if uncertain, footing. While this may not serve as the postmodern solution to the marriage trope quandary, it is certainly a refreshing plot twist.

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

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TheNightCircus lgSome children are afraid of clowns, I was afraid of magicians.

For me, The Night Circus called up those dark, menacing aspects of magic. I thought I was in for a bit of whimsy—since the book was hyped as “the next Harry Potter”—but I found this book to be much darker than I expected.

From nearly the first page, I had a claustrophobic feeling of being trapped, which I think speaks to Erin Morgenstern’s talents as a writer because that sense of limitation certainly plays into the plot. I don’t want to give away the storyline, because I found it clever and original.

When she wants to, Morgenstern can create wonder with her sentences: “The building is as grey as the pavement below and the sky above, appearing as impermanent as the clouds, as though it could vanish into the air without notice.” But she also has descriptions like, “the air itself is magical,” which jarred and disappointed me because I knew she could do better.

I enjoyed the allusions to Prospero of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which like “Le Cirque des Rêves,” is set in an enchanted realm run by a sort of overlord, puppet master. (Shakespeare scholars, apologies for that simplification.) But, for me, this made for a bait-and-switch because The Tempest is ultimately a comedy.

I confess that I didn’t love this book, because it was so disquieting and put me on edge. (For similar reasons, I did not enjoy Gone Girl, so perhaps that’s not a good barometer.) Again, I’m creeped out by magicians. Many of the book bloggers I follow have gushed about this novel—it is truly beloved.

That, of course, is one of the best kinds of magic.

When You Don’t Like the “It” Book

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Very Long EngagementI greatly enjoyed A Very Long Engagement by Sébastien Japrisot, but for me it was a bit of a bait-and-switch book. It starts off very much like a suspense novel, with tension and mounting dread. I found myself completely riveted by the first chapter in which French soldiers are marching through one of the First World War’s infamous trenches.

“Watch out for the wire.”

Indeed, Japrisot is known for his crime writing and has been nicknamed the “Graham Greene of France.”

But then, the novel takes on a more quiet and reflective tone—somewhat the inverse of say, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which begins with more reserved prose and moves to breathless action at Dunkirk.

I had a little trouble shifting gears with Japrisot. I flew through the opening scene, and then it took me a while to get into the rhythm of the rest of the book. This is not a subway read but is best enjoyed if you can spend some time sinking into it.

Overall, I found A Very Long Engagement to be rewarding, moving, and thought-provoking—somewhat reminiscent of a Marcel Pagnol novel in the sense that it offers a glimpse into this fleeting, evolving moment in France. The characters are trying to put their lives back together while dealing with grief, hardship, and the aftershocks of the Great War. This novel feels especially resonant as we head into the 100th anniversary of the start of that conflict this July.

Now I am eager to see the film.

Now, I am eager to see the film.

A thread of mystery pulls us through the story, as the heroine Mathilde searches to find out what happened to her fiancé Manech, who has been reported “killed in the line of duty.” She goes on a scavenger hunt, sifting through a tangle of clues gleaned by word-of-mouth, letters from survivors, ads placed in newspapers, and the work of a private detective. I won’t offer any other plot details, except to say that the ending offered a satisfying resolution that was not predictable.

I went back to reread the first chapter and found that I had missed this lovely, layered transition from the trenches to Mathilde, which also somewhat encapsulates the essence of this book:

“There was still that wire, mended whenever it broke with whatever came to hand, a wire that snaked its way through all the trenches, through all the winters, now up at the top, now down at the bottom, across all the lines …

Mathilde has seized hold of it. She holds it still. It guides her into the labyrinth from which Manech has not returned.”

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