Review: The Wolves of Andover, aka The Traitor’s Wife, Kathleen Kent

Kathleen Kent’s novel The Wolves of Andover, also known as The Traitor’s Wife, is something of a prequel to The Heretic’s Daughter, a novel told from the viewpoint of Sarah Carrier, daughter of Martha Carrier, who was executed in the Salem Witch Trials. The Wolves of Andover tells the story of the courtship Thomas Carrier and Martha Allen alternating with the story of several conspirators of Charles II bound for America to find and capture the man who cut off the head of Charles I in the English Civil War.

As the story begins, Martha is sent to her cousin Prudence Taylor’s house to serve as Prudence prepares to give birth to her third child. Her husband Daniel is often away on business, but two men, Thomas and John, work for Taylor household in the hopes of earning a piece of Taylor’s land. Whispers surround Thomas Carrier. Some claim that he was the regicide, the man who wielded the very axe that struck King Charles’s head from his shoulders. He is uncommonly tall and possessed of a quiet air of mystery. Martha soon finds herself in love with him. Meanwhile, several men in the employ of spy Tiernan Blood make their way across the Atlantic after a harrowing journey in an attempt to find the Welshman, known as Thomas Morgan, and capture him for execution in London. What they don’t realize is that Oliver Cromwell’s old followers have spies of their own, too.

One of the things I realized reading this book is that I have never really given a lot of thought to the ways in which the English Civil War created America, and (it could be argued) led to the American Revolution. Of course, I knew the early founders of Massachusetts were Puritans, and of course I knew Cromwell was a Puritan, too, but for some reason, perhaps because it’s the story we always tell, I always pictured the Puritans who settled New England as religious dissidents instead of political ones. I don’t think our own history plays up the role the Puritans played in the English Civil War very much, probably because the first group of Puritans to arrive in America came well before the English Civil War began; however, successive waves of Puritans arriving later must surely have included soldiers who fought with Cromwell, even if the greatest wave of Puritan migration occurred before the English Civil War. It certainly stands to reason that these early settlers had quarrels with the monarchy and that they passed their feelings down to their children and children’s children.

I was able to hear Kathleen Kent speak at an English teachers’ conference several years ago, so I know that she descends from the Carrier family, which is partly why the subject matter intrigues her. Though Martha Carrier’s notoriety is more established, as a documented victim of the Salem Witch Trials, Thomas Carrier’s is somewhat more speculative and based more on family and local legends.

The Wolves of AndoverThe violence in the book can be graphic, and I definitely was glad I was reading it instead of watching it, though nothing seemed so gratuitous that it strained credulity. The violence also offered an interesting contrast between the monarchists and the Puritans, who are painted as hardy survivalists, but ultimately peaceable and good people. To be fair, the monarchists presented are probably the worst sort of folks imaginable, but Charles II himself is not depicted in a good light (though I give props to the writer who does manage to make Charles II look like a fairly decent human being).

The stage for Martha Carrier’s later accusation is deftly set as Martha comes across as contentious and headstrong (which is why she’s not married at the book’s beginning). Another spoilery incident I won’t recount adds additional evidence to the pile.

Martha Carrier

I took this picture of Martha Carrier’s memorial on our trip to Salem.

Knowing how Martha Carrier’s story will ultimately end lends sadness to this book, but Thomas Carrier emerges as quite the character, and one of those folks family historians love to weave tales around—a Welshman who changed his name and has mysterious antecedents, who was nearly seven feet tall, who lived to be about 109. He’s a little hard to resist.

Upon its paperback release, the book’s title was changed, hence the two names. Since it appears to be more readily available in paperback form, I have linked to that version of the book. To my knowledge, the title and cover design are the only changes made.

Rating: ★★★★½


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Review: Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies (Wolf Hall, Book 2)Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies is the second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. This book and its predecessor, Wolf Hall, were awarded the Man Booker Prize—a rare achievement. Wolf Hall is more sweeping—it introduces Thomas Cromwell and traces the beginning of his career with Thomas Wolsey up through Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Bring Up the Bodies is more condensed. Its narrow focus concerns five months from January to May of 1536.

As the novel begins, Henry has grown tired of Anne Boleyn. She is pregnant, and everything hinges on whether or not she will deliver the long-awaited male heir. Meanwhile, Henry’s first queen Katherine dies, and Henry is grievously wounded in a joust (some historians argue the injuries he incurred in this joust are responsible for Henry’s transformation into a tyrant). Shortly after Henry’s accident, Anne miscarries her child—a son. Five months later, she is dead.

As much as I loved Wolf Hall, and I did, I have to say I enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies even more. Thomas Cromwell emerges as a complex individual. He has been cast in history as a notorious villain, but these books also display his love for his family and his eagerness to become a surrogate father and teacher to several young men in his household. He has a dry wit. But he has a long memory. The scenes in which he interrogates the men accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn are chilling, and no less so because it is clear Cromwell remembers their role in ridiculing Cardinal Wolsey.

The books tread a careful line: Were Anne Boleyn, Harry Norris, George Boleyn, Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton guilty of the crimes for which they were executed? Thomas Cromwell himself is not sure, but they are guilty of other things. Cromwell observes that “He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged” (328). Cromwell has a slow fuse. He never forgets when he is wronged, even slightly, and when the moment comes to strike, he’s as swift as a snake. Or a lawyer.

The book also contains some exquisite sentences. It’s not just good storytelling—this novel in particular reads almost like a play, and you can see all the action on the stage—it’s also just good writing. Perhaps my favorite quote:

He once thought it himself, that he might die with grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone. (329)

I can hardly wait for the third installment in the series. No matter what you think of Cromwell, you can hardly deny he left a mark on history, and he is perhaps more interesting and complicated than the larger figures of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, at least in Hilary Mantel’s capable hands. Mantel sets a high bar. I’m not sure I’ve read any writer who does historical fiction quite so well. I’m really looking forward to the production of Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies on PBS in April. If you like historical fiction, even if you think you are so over the Tudors already, do yourself a favor and read these books.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book is set largely in London, with the most memorable passages at the Tower of London, located in Middlesex County. I will count this book as my London book for the Reading England Challenge.

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Review: The Lais of Marie de France

When I was in college, I took a course in medieval literature. One of our texts was the Penguin translation of The Lais of Marie de France by Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby. I don’t recall that we read all of the lais. I actually don’t remember which ones I did read. I only really recall that I liked them. That’s what twenty years will do, especially when you didn’t keep a reading journal.

I re-read The Lais of Marie de France mainly for the Literary Movement Reading Challenge. I had wanted to re-read the book after visiting one of our AP Literature classes at school and listening to the students engage in fishbowl discussions about the lays. They had some fascinating ideas about the stories. I walked away thinking I had to find my copy of this book and take it off the shelf because I had no memory of my medieval literature professor interpreting and discussing the lays the way these students did.

The Lais of Marie de France is an interesting text because Marie is one of the first woman poets, and according to the book’s introduction, she’s the “first woman of her times to have written successfully in the vernacular” (17). Yet, we don’t know exactly who she was. Scholars speculate that she was known in the court of Henry II, and several candidates have been put forward as Marie. The Lais of Marie de France is a collection of twelve Breton lays, two of which have Arthurian connections—”Lanval,” the story of a knight in Arthur’s court, and “Chevrefoil,” a short lay about Tristan and Iseult (characters sometimes connected with Arthurian legends). Most of the lays concern love, particularly courtly love between a worthy knight and a lady. Rather than discuss each of the lays, I’ll share some thoughts about a couple of my favorites.

“Bisclavret” is about a baron who turns into a werewolf. His wife tricks him into telling her where he hides his clothes when he transforms, and she takes them away. Without his clothes, he is not able to transform back into a man. He comes upon the king, out hunting, and the king realizes that he is not a true wolf and takes him back to his court. Eventually, the baron’s wife and her lover come to the court, and Bisclavret attacks them, after which all is revealed and the wife’s treachery is laid bare. It’s an interesting early werewolf story. Bisclavret is not necessarily dangerous in his wolf form, as most werewolves are usually depicted, though he does attack those whom he feels have wronged him.

“Lanval” reminded me a little bit of some of the similar medieval stories about a knight who falls in love with a woman who will be beautiful in his presence at night, but ugly in the day. All his peers will think he is in love with a hag. In fact, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales is a version of this story. Typically, the woman gives the knight the opportunity to select which way she will remain: beautiful, but not true to him alone, or ugly but faithful. Another version of this story concerns Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle. In “Lanval,” Lanval falls in love with a beautiful, otherworldly lady, but he alone is allowed to know about her existence, or she will desert him. When Guinevere sidles over to Lanval one day and tries to convince him to engage in some hanky panky, he resists, saying he cannot betray his king. Guinevere pulls a variation on the “well, then, I bet you’re gay,” and Lanval retorts, “no, I’m not, and the lady I love is fairer than you; heck, even her maids are fairer than you.” And of course he can’t prove it because he wasn’t supposed to talk about her, so she won’t come back. Then, Lanval is put on trial for insulting Guinevere, and finally Lanval’s lady shows up to rescue him and takes him away to Avalon. She’s obviously a fairy or something like. Guinevere comes off terrible no matter which way you look at it.

I enjoyed reading most of the lays, though I didn’t like the last, “Eliduc,” as much as the others. I realize we’re talking about a different time and place, but I felt Eliduc’s wife sort of rolled over for him. I guess spoiler alerts are over for literature written nearly 1,000 years ago, but I’d rather just leave it at that and let you read it if you will. The lays don’t send consistent messages. “Bisclavret” condemns the adulterous relationship of Bisclavret’s wife, while in several of the others, the adulterers are rewarded for their faithful love to one another, particularly if the husband or wife was unreasonable. I would say the exception is “Eliduc,” but perhaps that’s because in that story, it’s the husband who falls in love with another woman, whereas in most of the stories, a wronged wife falls in love with another man. There are also obvious strands of female power that run through the stories. In some cases, women who “overreach” are put in their places, while in others, they are rewarded.

The Lais of Marie de France is an excellent example of medieval literature, and refreshing, too, in being an early example of women’s writing. The stories are charming, and the book is a quick (though not a light) read. This translation is accessible without a lot of interfering notes, too. I like notes sometimes, but most books like this one have way too many, and you never know until you flip to the back and read the note whether it will be a helpful gloss or something far deeper in the weeds than you felt like going. The book also includes a helpful index of proper names and a selected bibliography.

I am also counting this book as my selection for a classic read in translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge. The Lais of Marie de France were originally composed in Anglo-Norman French, and the book includes a selection of the lay “Laüstic” in the original language.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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Review: Wonder, R. J. Palacio

WonderI read R. J. Palacio’s novel Wonder with my thirteen-year-old daughter, Maggie. Strictly speaking, both of us might be a little older than the target age-range for this book, but I don’t believe in such nonsense, and it’s a good thing I don’t, or I might have missed out on a true treasure of a book.

Wonder is the story of a ten-year-old boy named August Pullman. He loves Star Wars and his dog, Daisy. He loves his sister Via. He’s worried about starting middle school, just like most kids starting middle school. The difference is that Auggie, as he is called by family and friends, has Treacher Collins Syndrome, a craniofacial deformity about which Auggie says, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” (3). But Auggie also says, “The only reason I’m not ordinary is no one else sees me that way” (3).

August has been homeschooled due to the many surgeries he has endured as a result of his condition. His parents discuss whether it might be time to send Auggie to school when fifth grade begins. Ultimately, the family decides to send Auggie to Beecher Prep, and Auggie has a difficult year, but in his quiet and ordinary way, he powers through the adversity and manages to earn the admiration of his teachers and his classmates.

Actually, it’s impossible to do this book justice in a review. So, I asked Maggie for some help. I interviewed her after we finished. Before I go on, I should explain she received the new publication of the book that includes “Julian’s Chapter,” which was originally published as an e-book, for Christmas. Palacio had said at one point that Julian didn’t get a chapter initially but she eventually changed her mind for reasons she explains in this interview with Slate. I think it was a good decision.

Me: What did you think [after finishing the book]?

Maggie: I think that book might be my favorite book of all time. I’m dead serious.

Me: What was your favorite part?

Maggie: SLIGHTLY SPOILERY ANSWER. YOU WERE WARNED! At the end of August’s last chapter where he received the award and got a standing ovation.

Me: Who were your favorite characters?

Maggie: My favorite characters were August, Via, and Summer. I also liked Miranda. The way August and Via got along is sweet and touching. And Summer, it was nice to find out she was a genuinely nice gal. It was nice that she wasn’t being friends with August because someone forced her or dared her.

Me: What else do you want to share?

Maggie: I was surprised when we read Julian’s chapter because I didn’t expect to feel sympathy or empathy for him after reading the rest of the book. I also really liked how the book was told in different points of views. You get to hear all sides of the story so you know what happened. It’s a creative way to tell a story. I really didn’t like Julian’s mother. I thought she was overprotective and mean about the whole situation and how she handed the whole August situation. She completely overreacted.

Maggie and I loved the book. We highly recommend it to everyone. We had a lot of good conversations that involved some soul searching. I told Maggie about being unkind to a girl when I was in sixth grade because the “cool” kids didn’t like the girl—for no good reason, really. I still feel bad about how I acted, and truthfully, I wasn’t terrible. I just wasn’t my normal self, and I didn’t treat her the way I wanted to treat her. I was unkind because of other kids. This book is probably the best book on the issue of bullying that I’ve ever read, and it’s the only one that includes the bully’s perspective. The end of Julian’s chapter is quite a tearjerker, and the window into the bully’s perspective was interesting. In fact, some people will say it goes a step too far perhaps, but Maggie and I happened to love it. You read it. You’ll see.

I don’t often say this about a book, but this is one I feel like everyone ought to read, whatever their age. When we were trying to figure out if Palacio had written other books so we could read them as well, we discovered Wonder is her first novel. As Maggie said, “That was her first try at a book?!” For what it is worth, we read maybe 20-30 pages at a time when we started, but the night we finished, we read the whole Julian chapter of 80+ pages in a gulp. Maggie has never read a book she couldn’t put down like that. If you have a middle schooler in your life, you should share this book.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Wolf HallI rounded out 2014 by finishing Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the first book in a planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the second book of which is Bring Up the Bodies. Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies were awarded the Man Booker Prize (2009 and 2012, respectively).

Wolf Hall introduces Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, who rises to become one of Henry VIII’s chief ministers as well as an architect of the Protestant Reformation in England. The book begins with Thomas Cromwell’s decision to make his way across the sea in Europe after a particularly vicious beating from his father. The story continues after Cromwell has returned to England and entered the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the king’s chancellor. The rest of the novel chronicles Wolsey’s fall and Cromwell’s subsequent rise through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, ending with Thomas More’s execution.

The Tudors are well-trodden ground at this point. Mantel manages to breathe fresh life into their story by telling it through the point of view of Cromwell, who has not fared well in history and whose point of view has been somewhat neglected as a result. In many ways, this book reminded me a bit of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, in that Bradley’s retelling of the story of King Arthur by the women in his life—Igraine, his mother; Morgan le Faye (or Morgaine), his sister; and Gwenwhyfar (or Guinevere), his wife—was perhaps the freshest version of the Matter of Britain I’ve read in the last twenty years largely because Bradley chose to tell the story with voices often silenced. This formula works wonders for making old hat like the Tudors interesting again, just when I thought I was a little sick of them.

Wolf Hall is meticulously researched, but I never felt as if Mantel was trying to impress me by proving she’d dug up some interesting historical fact. She often sent me to research myself, so I could find out more about something or other that happened in the novel. As such, I learned some interesting things. For instance, I had not realized that Cromwell was such a protege of Cardinal Wolsey, and it struck me as odd, given the way in which Cromwell championed the Protestant Reformation.

I loved Cromwell’s dry wit. He comes across as compassionate to his loved ones, but no one to mess with to his enemies. And he has a long, long memory, as Thomas More discovered. Cromwell leaps from the page as a shrewd businessman and judge of the prevailing winds—it will be interesting to see how Mantel depicts his downfall given how lethally sharp he has come across in this first book.

I know how Cromwell’s story ends, and I have to say, I am a little sad at the prospect of reaching the end of his story in the third planned novel in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, rumored to be due out in the coming year.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Prince Lestat, Anne Rice

Prince Lestat: The Vampire ChroniclesAnne Rice returns to her Vampire Chronicles with Prince Lestat. Rice had said she was not going to write more vampire books, but Prince Lestat is the first in a new planned series.

As the book begins, a strange voice is speaking to many of the vampires, mostly the oldest vampires, begging them to immolate the younger vampires and “thin the herd.” Lestat hears the voice, too, and tries to shut it out. He is dragged out of seclusion by his fellow vampires, who want his help in fighting the voice.

I hesitate to summarize too much because if you’re planning to read this book, you’ll not want too much to be given away. Anne Rice is back in typical form. I have to say this line from the New York Times review of the novel captures the book well (and made me laugh): “Although this is a dreadful novel, it has to be said that the earnestness with which Rice continues to toil at her brand of pop sorcery has an odd, retro sort of charm, an aura redolent of the desperate, decadent silliness of the disco era.”

I am not sure I’d go quite so far as to call it dreadful (and keep in mind that Memnoch the Devil is the only book I have ever thrown across the room), but it’s not up to the heights of Interview with the Vampire or The Vampire Lestat. You will most likely wonder if Apple is paying Rice for product placement. All of the vampires seem to have iPhones, and they seem to use them and talk about them a lot. They also have Mac computers. Thus, I’d agree with the second part of the Times‘s description.

Lestat is his usual self in this one. You’re going to wonder about the sanity of the vampire collective at the end, if you were not already wondering. All of the oldest vampires make a reappearance here, and if you’re into world-building, you’ll learn quite a lot more about vampire origins and some of the oldest vampires, and you’ll also find out how the Talamasca came to be. As such, I had thought while reading the book that perhaps Rice was trying to answer all the open questions and call it a day. However, it’s fairly clear at the end that she’s getting her second wind. God help us all.

I kid, but not much. These books have a weird sort of charm. I sort of enjoy them at the same time as I’m rolling my eyes at Rice’s lavish description and strange tangents (Rose’s story in this one). I am not sure if I have the fortitude to brave another one, but this one wasn’t bad as far as her books go. I listened to it on audio, and the narrator, Simon Vance, was an excellent reader. I kept wondering what he thought about what he was reading, and I wondered if he were thinking the same things as I was. I do think it will appeal to anyone who wanted to know more after The Queen of the Damned.

These two reviews were pretty fair and even-handed:

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: This Song Will Save Your Life, Leila Sales

This Song Will Save Your LifeI picked up Leila Sales’s novel This Song Will Save Your Life because it was recommended to folks who liked Eleanor & Park. It was a great little book, and I think especially music lovers would enjoy it.

This Song Will Save Your Life is the story of fifteen-year-old Elise Dembowski, a misfit who has never fit in at school. Her parents have been divorced for a long time, and she divides her time between her single father and her re-married mother and blended family. At the beginning of the school year, she cuts herself, not completely sure if she wants to commit suicide or not, and calls one of her classmates, who calls 911. After she returns to school, she finds it hard to sleep some nights, so she sneaks out of her house and walks the streets. By happenstance, one Thursday night she comes across a house party called Start. She becomes interested in learning to DJ (and in the DJ himself), and discovers a talent she didn’t know she had.

I found Elise’s character charming and winsome. I had a hard time understanding why it was hard for her to make friends. I’d have wanted to be her friend in a heartbeat. High school is really rough for some folks, however, and I don’t exclude myself from that description. In some ways, this book tackles bullying in high school almost as well as Judy Blume’s Blubber does for elementary school. Nowadays, kids cannot escape it even at home, and Elise becomes the target of a cyberbully who creates a blog using Elise’s name. However, when she goes to Start, she can be herself, and she makes friends who like her for who she is.

I enjoyed Elise’s voice in this story. She reminds me a bit of Holden Caulfield in the way in which her voice is captured, but I would say she has a higher probability of turning out all right, especially given she has a caring family. As a bonus, the book has a recommended listening list. However, not everything on the list appears in the story and not everything in the story is on the list, so you might want to take notes as you go. I have the beginnings of a Spotify playlist with all the songs and/or bands mentioned in the book.

Rating: ★★★★½

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Review: Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

Into the Wild

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Henry David Thoreau

My sister gave me a copy of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild for Christmas so many years ago now that I can’t remember, and I’m a little embarrassed that it has taken me so long to finally read it. I think what finally convinced me to read it at last was the recent publication of Carine McCandless’s own memoir, The Wild Truth. I had previously read Jon Krakauer’s article, “How Chris McCandless Died” in The New Yorker.

I am a funny reader. I don’t highlight or underline much in paper books, unless they are professional reading or books I’m teaching in my English classes. I didn’t make any marks in my paper copy of Into the Wild until I was more than a third, perhaps even close to halfway through the book, and I realized I needed to mark it up. I went back and found passages I liked in the parts I read before I had picked up my pencil.

For those (like me) who may not have read the book yet, it is the story of Christopher McCandless, who graduated from Emory University and disappeared on a quest to find himself in the wild. A devotee of Jack London, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau, McCandless was drawn eventually to Alaska, where, it was supposed, he died of starvation. Jon Krakauer was asked to write about the tragedy for Outside magazine. However, Krakauer appears to have been unable to leave the story alone after the article, and this book is the result. In fact, as evidenced by the fact that Krakauer wrote the foreword to Carine McCandless’s book and is still contributing to discussion of Chris McCandless’s death, it seems plausible that he is still unable to let the story go. Once I started reading it, I also had a hard time putting the story down.

I was speaking with colleagues about the importance of narrative non-fiction. One important thing I have come to believe this year is that all of us, each and every one of us, has a story. In fact, many important stories. McCandless didn’t live to tell his story, in a sense, but in another sense, he actually did live to tell his story. Or perhaps, more accurately, he lived his story and Krakauer told it. Who was Chris McCandless, really? Just an arrogant, woefully unprepared, thoughtless slacker, as some people believe? The second coming of Thoreau? On the one hand, I understand those who are frustrated by the veneration of someone they see as foolhardy, and McCandless devotees have caused some real problems when they’ve tried to retrace his steps and find for themselves the old Fairbanks City Transit bus where he died. On the other hand, what I love about this book is that Krakauer elevated McCandless, a man who might otherwise have been forgotten by all but his family and friends, simply by telling his story, and by telling it so well.

I was particularly moved by McCandless’s friendship with and impact on a man Krakauer calls Ron Franz. I almost hesitate to share a quote here because part of me wants anyone reading this review to discover the book as I did, without having read a single line from it anywhere. On the other hand, anyone reading this review is likely not too worried about exposure, or they wouldn’t read a review (I know I avoid reviews of books I haven’t read unless I don’t mind some spoilers). So all that being said, this is the first part of the book that moved me:

“When Alex [McCandless’s pseudonym] left for Alaska,” Franz remembers, “I prayed. I asked God to keep his finger on the shoulder of that one; I told him that boy was special. But he let Alex die. So on December 26, when I learned what happened, I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist. I decided I couldn’t believe in a God who would let something that terrible happen to a boy like Alex.” (60)

Some criticism I’ve read of the book faults Krakauer for inserting himself a bit too much into the narrative, but I actually liked it that he became close to the story. I think sometimes in telling a story about someone else, you need to identify how it’s also about you, and it is clear that Krakauer saw himself in McCandless and even indicates all that really separates the two of them is luck.

Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, in many ways the father of Transcendentalism in America, criticized his friend Thoreau, whom he felt frittered away his life: “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition… Instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.”

Of course Thoreau was more than the captain of a huckleberry party. In fact, I’d argue he actually did engineer for all America. Emerson just didn’t realize it because so much of the change in thinking that Thoreau put in motion didn’t bear fruit until a century and more after Thoreau’s death.

I can easily see how one might criticize McCandless for making the mistakes he did, but as Krakauer points out,

McCandless wasn’t some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair. To the contrary: His life hummed with meaning and purpose. But the meaning he wrested from existence lay beyond the comfortable path: McCandless distrusted the value of things that came easily. He demanded much of himself—more, in the end, than he could deliver. (184)

Am I arguing that Chris McCandless may one day have the impact that Thoreau has had? Maybe. I don’t know. But I do know his story is not only gripping and beautiful, in its way, but it is also important because he was one of us, and that alone makes it worthy to be told.

No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, it is more elastic, more starry, more immortal—that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality… The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as in intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

Henry David Thoreau

Rating: ★★★★★

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Jane Austen’s First Love: Review and Giveaway

Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James 2014 x 350In a letter to her sister Cassandra in 1796, Jane Austen wrote, “We went by Bifrons and I contemplated with a melancholy pleasure the abode of Him, on whom I once fondly doated.”

Who was this mysterious man? This question intrigued Syrie James, author of Jane Austen’s First Love. For the first time, thanks to Syrie James’s research, Jane Austen fans are treated to a glimpse of Jane Austen as a teenager experiencing all the pangs of first love.

The novel begins with a family trip to Kent. Jane, Cassandra, and their mother are invited to summer festivities in celebration of Jane’s eldest brother Edward Austen’s engagement to Elizabeth Bridges. The Bridges family is also celebrating their daughter Fanny’s engagement to Lewis Cage. On the way to the Bridges home at Goodnestone Park, Jane and Cassandra’s carriage suffers a mishap, and they are rescued by the Bridgeses’ neighbor Edward Taylor, a distant relation of the Bridges family.

Over the course of the festivities at Goodnestone Park, in which Jane convinces her reluctant mother to allow her to participate, Jane grows closer to Edward Taylor. He brings out her adventurous side, and she is captivated by his interesting life. Jane also decides perhaps mounting a theatrical of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be the perfect way to play matchmaker for the Bridges girls.

Edward Taylor comes alive in the pages of this book—is it possible he inspired some of Jane Austen’s most memorable characters? He reminded me a bit more of George Wickham and John Willoughby than Austen heroes such as Fitzwilliam Darcy and George Knightley. He is not nearly as much of a rake as Wickham and Willoughby, but he flouts convention and is a bit on the reckless side.

Jane Austen fans will enjoy the image of her portraying Puck in the theatrical as well as the casual allusions to Austen’s own works. Certainly aspects of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park can be glimpsed in Jane’s experiences at Goodnestone Park.

Syrie James headshot 2012 x 250About the Author

Syrie James, hailed as “the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings” by Los Angeles Magazine, is the bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed novels that have been translated into 18 languages. Her books have been awarded the Audio Book Association Audie, designated as Editor’s Picks by Library Journal, named a Discover Great New Writer’s Selection by Barnes and Noble, a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association, and Best Book of the Year by The Romance Reviews and Suspense Magazine. Syrie is the author of The Lost Memoirs of Jane AustenThe Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, and Dracula, My Love, among other popular novels Syrie is a member of the WGA and lives in Los Angeles. Please visit her at syriejames.com, Facebook or say hello on Twitter @SyrieJames.

Giveaway Details

JAFL Grand Prize x 420Win One of Five Fabulous Jane Austen-inspired Prize Packages

To celebrate the holidays and the release of Jane Austen’s First Love, Syrie is giving away five prize packages filled with an amazing selection of Jane Austen-inspired gifts and books!

To enter the giveaway contest, simply leave a comment on any of the blog stops on the Jane Austen’s First Love Holiday Blog Tour.

Increase your chances of winning by visiting multiple stops along the tour! Syrie’s unique guest posts will be featured on a variety of subjects, along with fun interviews, spotlights, excerpts, and reviews of the novel. Contest closes at 11:59pm PT, December 21, 2014. Five lucky winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments on the tour, and announced on Syrie’s website on December 22, 2014. The giveaway contest is open to everyone, including international residents. Good luck to all!

Be sure to check out Syrie James’s guest posts and other reviews in the Jane Austen’s First Love Holiday Book Tour.

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Review: Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell

I just spent a weekend at an English teachers’ conference, and it made me remember how much I love reading YA fiction (which I haven’t done for a while), and also that Eleanor & Park was on my Kindle, and I hadn’t read it yet.

I feel a little inadequate to the task of describing this book because there is a lot that a summary can’t capture. Eleanor & Park is the story of two tenth graders who meet on the school bus on Eleanor’s first day at North High School in Omaha, NE. Slowly, the two start to realize they have some things in common, and by Christmas, they’ve fallen hard for each other. Eleanor has a difficult home life, but she tells no one, not even Park. Her stepfather is an abusive alcoholic, and her father has almost no involvement in her life. Her mother is trapped. When Park asks Eleanor “Why doesn’t she leave?”, Eleanor can only reply “I don’t think she can… I don’t there’s enough of her left” (196). Eleanor had been kicked out of her mother and stepfather’s home for a year previously, and she knows her position in the house is precarious. Honestly, Eleanor will break your heart.

I knew I was going to connect to this book when I opened it and saw it began in August, 1986. I suppose that means this book is historical fiction, but to be honest, I can’t look at it that way, even if its intended audience includes people who were born more than a decade after 1986. August, 1986 was the year I started high school myself—coincidentally at a school named North High School (actually, Parkway North, to be more precise). I had just moved, and I was really nervous about school. I can recall the bus politics of worrying over where to sit quite well. I actually wonder if this book isn’t more appropriate for someone like me than for a teenager. I gulped it down in one evening, only putting it down to make up the dough for our Thanksgiving rolls. It’s a little hard not to fall in love with both Eleanor and Park.

One of the best things about the book is the music references. Rainbow Rowell made playlists, which you can find on her blog. Eleanor and Park connect over comic books and the music mix tapes Park shares with Eleanor. Remember mix tapes? They were magical. They took a long time to make, and there was hardly anything more you that you could give someone than a mix tape. I used to have quite a talent for making them, too. Spotify is awesome in many ways, one of which is that it takes the mix tape to the next level. It’s actually my favorite thing about Spotify. I feel like I make tons of “mix tapes.” But there is something about the dedication it used to take to sit down in front of the stereo, select the songs, and try to get them to fit without too much blank space on either side of the tape.

Actually, I pretty much loved everything about this book, and I can’t really do better than what YA author John Green had to say about the book: “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.”

Updated to add that Forever Young Adult made an excellent mix tape for the book:

Rating: ★★★★★

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