Review: 13 Rue Thérèse, Elena Mauli Shapiro

I found a copy of Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel 13 Rue Thérèse at a used bookstore in Northampton, MA, where we spent my birthday weekend last year. As such, I suppose this book was a birthday present for myself. I loved the cover, and in flipping through the book, I was intrigued by the premise.

An American historian named Trevor Stratton is given a box of artifacts belonging to a woman named Louise Brunet, who lived at 13 Rue Thérèse in Paris with her husband Henri after World War I. He discovers through piecing together her story that she lost a cousin with whom she was in love and whom she wanted to marry in World War I. She married a man who worked in her father’s shop, and she was desperate for a child. She embarks on a flirtation with a new neighbor, a teacher, who surprises Louise by taking her up on her suggestions. Meanwhile, Trevor can’t explain why he knows things about Louise’s life that don’t appear in the artifacts. How can he know, for example, so intimately how Louise feels and what she does as she goes about her life in Paris in November 1928?

This book is based on an interesting idea. Shapiro apparently has a box of relics belonging to a real-life Louise Brunet who died alone. The landlord of 13 Rue Thérèse allowed the residents to claim her belongings, and Shapiro’s mother selected this box. From the artifacts in the box, Shapiro constructed this story. I’m not sure how I feel about her taking that kind of license with a real person’s life, especially when so much of the story is speculation and doesn’t necessarily cast Louise in a positive light. She is a likable character, but I wonder what her descendants, had she had any, would have thought about her fictional treatment. There is a time-travel element that is not quite gracefully handled as well. One wonders about the necessity of including Trevor Stratton at all. His story seems somewhat superfluous, perhaps because it isn’t woven into Louise’s story as seamlessly as it might be. I love a good time travel story, but I wonder if this book might not have been better as strictly historical fiction. In addition, I would have liked to have seen the plot hang together a bit more tightly.

Despite some flaws, I didn’t give up on it, and it was a very quick read, if not a gripping one. I think in the case of this particular book, I am probably just not the right audience because many reviewers seem to have liked it more than I did. The QR codes in the back of the book are a nice touch; they allow the reader to see higher resolution photos of the artifacts. I found the color images in the book sufficient. The book is a beautiful book, as well, with a gorgeous cover and thick creamy pages and a pleasant font. It isn’t quite like any other book I’ve read before. You might enjoy it if you like quirky French films.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book for several reading challenges. It’s Paris setting makes it my French book for the European Reading Challenge. I’ve had it on my backlist at least since September when I bought it, so I’m also counting it for the Beat the Backlist Reading Challenge. Finally, it is set mainly in 1928, so I’m also counting it for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

European Reading Challenge 2017 Beat the Backlist

Related posts:

Review: White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Brenda Wineapple

Emily Dickinson declared, “Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied.” Brenda Wineapple not only takes on the monumental task in White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson of writing a biography of the enigmatic Belle of Amherst, but also of her friend, now (unfortunately) mostly unknown except for his connection to Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Dickinson sent her poetry to Higginson along with her query:

Mr. Higginson,

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask—

Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude—

So began a friendship and correspondence that would last until Emily Dickinson’s death, after which, Higginson, along with the mistress of Dickinson’s brother Austin, Mabel Loomis Todd, would edit and assist in the publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems after her death. Dickinson personally sent Higginson over 100 of her nearly 1800 poems.

After the introduction describing Emily Dickinson’s first letter, Wineapple’s biography is divided into three major parts, titled “Before,” “During,” and “After,” which describe the lives of Dickinson and Higginson in alternating chapters before they began their correspondence, during their correspondence and friendship, and after Emily Dickinson’s death, respectively.

Emily Dickinson first wrote to Higginson while he was living in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is my home. I had to look him up on the 1860 US Census, and I was not disappointed.

1860 Census

Take a look at his occupation: “Literary Man.”

Emily Dickinson Letter

Letter from Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson via Wikipedia

What Wineapple so expertly brings to light in this extraordinary biography is just how important Higginson’s contribution not only to preserving for posterity the poetry of one of the greatest American poets but also to history. Over time, he’s been accused of heavy-handed editing and of not understanding Dickinson’s genius. Both accusations may be true. One can hardly blame him for not understanding her. She was unlike any poet he had read before. Higginson himself claimed that “The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me; and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy” in an essay he wrote about Dickinson for The Atlantic, a magazine to which he was a frequent contributor. As to whether he was too heavy-handed an editor, Wineapple claims that it’s almost impossible to tell today whether it was Higginson or Mabel Loomis Todd who is more responsible for the edits. Thankfully, after the scholarship of Thomas H. Johnson and Ralph W. Franklin, we have editions of her poetry that more likely capture Emily Dickinson’s intentions. However, Wineapple does note that Higginson implored Todd on several occasions to “alter as little as possible, now that the public’s ear is opened.” Wineapple claims Todd “did not listen” (292).

In any case, Higginson’s reputation foundered with the advent of Modernism in the twentieth century, and while appreciation for Dickinson soared, Higginson was nearly forgotten. It’s a shame, too, because he was an admirable man. He was an abolitionist whose house was always on the Underground Railroad. He was an advocate for women’s rights and suffrage. It was he, not Robert Gould Shaw (now memorialized in the movie Glory) who led the first black regiment in the Civil War, the First South Carolina Volunteers. He suffered an injury that would leave a scar he carried all his life in an attempt to free fugitive slave Anthony Burns and prevent his return to the South.

Wineapple’s triumph in this biography is not only that she is able in some way to offer a peek into the lives of the Dickinson family, but also that she resurrected Higginson from “the dustbin of literary history” (12). As she explains in her introduction,

Sometimes we see better through a single window after all: this book is not a biography of Emily Dickinson, of whom biography gets us nowhere, even though her poems seem to cry out for one. Nor is it a biography of Colonel Higginson. It is not conventional literary criticism. Rather, here Dickinson’s poetry speaks largely for itself, as it did to Higginson. And by providing a context for particular poems, this book attempts to throw a small, considered beam onto the lifework of these two unusual, seemingly incomparable friends. It also suggests, however lightly, how this recluse and this activist bear a fraught, collaborative, unbalanced, and impossible relation to each other, a relation as symbolic and real in our culture as it was special to them. (13)

Wineapple’s book is not only one of the most interesting books about Dickinson to be found, but it is also one of the most well-written. I have rarely read a biography that swept me up in quite the same way this one did. I found myself both eager to pick it up to read, and reluctant to read too fast so that I could savor it and stretch out my experience of reading it. I came away with renewed appreciation for Dickinson and a newly acquired appreciation for Higginson. It’s definitely worth the read for anyone curious about Emily Dickinson, but I imagine even those who aren’t sure about Dickinson would enjoy this book.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I bought this book in September 2015, I think right after I visited the Emily Dickinson Homestead the first time. I just now finally picked it up. It was published in 2008. I’m counting it for the Backlist Reader Challenge.

Related posts:

Review: Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, Chrissie Hynde

Before I discuss the contents of Chrissie Hynde’s memoir, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, I need to get two things out of the way: 1) I am kind of a sucker for rock memoirs, which is something that started in my teens when I checked several books on the subject out of the library, and 2) I really like the Pretenders. I started really listening to them in college. I especially liked earlier records—their first two eponymously titled albums and Learning to Crawl. I once got a haircut I really hated, but then someone told it made me look like Chrissie Hynde, and I didn’t hate it anymore. Enjoying Chrissie Hynde’s music, however, didn’t mean I thought she walked on water. Quite the contrary. Before I picked up this book, I had certainly read enough about her and read enough of her interviews to know she isn’t someone I’d necessarily like very much. I don’t need to like someone’s personality to enjoy their art. I read an interview with Martin Freeman, for example, that left me scratching my head and wondering if he is truly a jerk or was just in bad mood. But I love him on film.

Hynde quite literally begins her memoir at the beginning, with her early years living in Akron. She loved listening to music, and living near Cleveland, which has always been a big rock and roll city, gave her easy access to the music she loved. She describes her misadventures attempting to please her parents and matriculate at Kent State—she knew one of the young men who was killed in 1970. She left Ohio for London just as the punk scene was starting and knew many of the major players, including Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood (she worked in their shop), the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned, among others. She seems to have spent most of her twenties focused on getting into a band and taking drugs. She does mention that the memoir would focus on her drug abuse, and it does. Caveat emptor for those looking to learn more about the Pretenders. Aside from the first two albums and the early years of the band, she does not tell that story in these pages. One wonders if something of her passion for the band and its music died with James Honeyman-Scott, the Pretenders’ first guitarist, in 1982. Neither of her spouses even gets a mention, and her relationship with Ray Davies rates only a few pages. Hynde waxes most lyrical at the end, when she discusses how “Jimmy’s” death affected her.

I can’t say I really disliked this book, but I didn’t like it, really, either. Hynde’s cast of characters was hard for me to keep straight, and I could have used a glossary of names or something. Hynde has certainly had some interesting experiences, and she is unflinching in her description, even if her story puts her in a bad light. She has said a couple of controversial things about possible rape (and certainly some kind of sexual assault) she experienced, namely, that she blames herself for getting into the situations in which she has been abused.

Now, let me assure you that, technically speaking, however you want to look at it, this was my doing and I take full responsibility. You can’t fuck around with people, especially people who wear “I Heart Rape” and “On Your Knees” badges. (119)

Hynde may indeed have been under the influence of drugs, and she may have made some poor decisions, but it makes me sad that she comes across as feeling like she somehow deserved to be assaulted because of these decisions. She was raised in an era when women were often blamed for their own rapes (Just how short was your skirt?), but she would, one hopes, be more enlightened now. Or maybe not. It would be nice if we lived in a world in which instead of minding ourselves and doing what we can to avoid being raped, men just didn’t, you know, rape people. Victim-blaming seems to be worst when it comes to these kinds of cases, though, and sometimes even the victims blame themselves. I have ready Hynde’s interviews on this topic, and she is quite heated, even insisting people don’t buy her book if they don’t want to read her story as she wants to tell it.

I can’t really figure her out. She comes off in interviews as brittle, and her frequent digs at people who choose not to be vegetarians are also off-putting. But I can’t deny she has swagger, and she did create some good music. I am glad she was able to stop taking drugs. I’m sad it took the deaths of two bandmates to determine she needed to get clean. I wish she had talked more about her experiences after 1982 as well. I also wish she didn’t feel the need to insult teachers every time it’s necessary to her memoir to mention teachers or education. I have read reviews calling this memoir “well-written.” I wouldn’t go that far. It’s not badly written. The prose is passable, with the exception of Hynde’s fondness for exclamation points. It’s also really not well organized. She flits around in time in a way that’s not easy to follow, and individual chapters can be anything from focused on a single event to wildly chaotic romps through years of time. If only she had paid a bit more attention to those teachers she finds it necessary to denigrate. Ah well. She didn’t need to, in the end, because she had a brilliant career in rock. I just wish I’d been able to read more about it. Unless you’re a big fan, I’d recommend skipping this book and listening to the Pretenders’ music instead. Even if you are a big fan, it’s still not too bad of an idea to skip this one in favor of of the music.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Beat the BacklistI no longer remember how long this book’s been on my backlist, but it’s been a while. Maybe even when it first came out. I decided to count to for the Beat the Backlist Challenge.

I am also counting this one toward the Wild Goose Chase Challenge for the category of a book with a word or phrase relating to “wildness” in the title. You can’t pass up pairing “wild” with “reckless,” and one thing I can say for sure: Chrissie Hynde is wild.

Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge 2017

Related posts:

Review: The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson, Rosanna Bruno

I ordered this book on a whim after coming across it in an article posted on Facebook (which is appropriate, given the subject matter of the book). The article, entitled “Why Moody Teenagers Love Emily Dickinson” (BBC), quotes the author of The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson, Rosanna Bruno:

“We were taught that she was this reclusive spinster who lived with her family, dressed all in white, and wrote in her room all day”, recalls artist Rosanna Bruno of her high school introduction to the poet in the 1980s. Even then, Bruno felt that the mythology of the poet didn’t really mesh with the poems. “It seemed so incongruous to what she wrote”, she says. “Have you ever heard Helen Mirren reading Wild Nights!? You really have to rethink Dickinson as a reclusive spinster after that rendition.”

Indeed, Bruno has hit on something here. Dickinson is one of those writers, like Poe or the Brontës, whose lives—or should I say whose “images”—come dangerously close to eclipsing their work. I, too, have been guilty of trying to sell Emily Dickinson to teenagers by telling them intrigues about her life. But as I have learned more about her, I have learned more about her humorous side, her playful side, her wicked side, for lack of a better word. And she is way more interesting than our portrait of her as the recluse in a white dress. Rosanna Bruno captures in cartoons what Emily Dickinson’s life might have been like with some of our twenty-first century concerns (and social media accounts). The result is a funny graphic novel that I think Emily Dickinson herself might have enjoyed.

You might need to click on this for the full image to enjoy the effect, but anyone whose tried out writing up classic literature with emojis (that is a thing), will enjoy this:

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of one of my favorite books and my favorite poet:

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

But my favorite might be her OK Cupid profile, though the Yelp reviews were pretty awesome, too.

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

Bruno has clearly researched Dickinson’s life, and there are plenty of Easter eggs for those who know a lot about the poet’s life. The artistic renderings of Dickinson’s home and environment are done with a careful eye as well. What shines through most clearly is that Bruno is a fan of Emily Dickinson’s and she had a lot of fun with Dickinson’s poetry as she wrote this book.

Anyone who is a fan of Emily Dickinson’s will probably enjoy this book, and it also has an audience with folks who enjoy Roz Chast’s cartoons (both Chast and Alison Bechdel get fan shout-outs in this book).

Check out Bruno’s website for more images from the book.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Related posts:

Review: The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui

Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do was just released last week. Bui was born in Vietnam in the waning days of the Vietnam War. She was only a few months old on April 30, 1975 when Saigon fell. She begins her narrative with the difficult birth of her son, then flashes back to her own mother’s difficult birth of her younger brother in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Bui’s family eventually settled in California, and with beautiful artwork on every page, Bui movingly details her family’s story, starting with her parents’ childhoods contrasted with her own. Unflinchingly honest, Bui’s memoir is a must-read.

I grew up hearing what Bui calls the “oversimplification and stereotypes in American versions of the Vietnam War.” My father was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay when I was born, but he was in the Air Force, and as far as I know (and I think he’d have told me), he didn’t engage in combat. It was some time before a body of literature about this war started to published, and I think most people are guilty of listening to and perhaps even believing what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story”—that incomplete story of a people based on few examples in literature.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

But at Bui says, we tend to forget—to our peril—that “[e]very casualty in war is someone’s grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, brother, sister, child, lover.” Many times in history, as we know too well, the voices of the casualties have been silenced. Their narrative has not been heard.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

And I think one big thing we forget is that the Vietnam War continued after America decided to stop fighting. America’s involvement was on the wane when my father served in 1971. America withdrew from the war in 1973, a full two years before the war ended.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

Bui is at her best in this memoir when she puzzles over contradictions and tries to make sense of her past and her family’s past, which is also how she explains why she needed to write this book.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

The Best We Could Do will surely draw comparisons to Maus and Persepolis. I also recently read Vietnamerica, and while GB Tran’s story is entirely different from Bui’s, reading both of them gave me more stories about what Vietnam and the Vietnam War were like through the eyes of a family who were just doing the best they could do. The arresting images coupled with the narrative make for a gut-wrenching read. The book is gorgeous, as well. The paper is high quality, and the dust cover is thick, heavy paper. I didn’t try to read the electronic version, but my gut tells me this book needs to be experienced in print to be enjoyed fully. A remarkable read.

Rating: ★★★★★

Related posts:

Review: The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland, released in 2013 and a finalist for the National Book Award, begins in the neighborhood of Tollygunge in Calcutta (now Kolkata) with two brothers, Udayan and Subhash, born 15 months apart, sneaking into the Tolly Golf Club. Subhash is beaten by a police officer when the boys are caught, and the incident seems to change their personalities as they grow up. Subhash becomes cautious, careful. Udayan’s anger at the police officer blooms into an interest in the Indian communist Naxalite movement by the time he is in college. The boys drift apart as Subhash becomes increasingly concerned by Udayan’s politics. Subhash decides to go to graduate school in Rhode Island. His brother writes him letters about his activities, including his marriage to Gauri. When Udayan is killed, Subhash travels back to Calcutta and meets Gauri, living in his parents’ home. They ignore her, and he begins to feel sympathy for her, especially after learning she is carrying Udayan’s child. He offers to marry her, and she agrees, traveling with him to Rhode Island in an attempt to escape her past. However, the terrible secret she keeps, which is not revealed until near the novel’s end, and the specter of Udayan cast a pall over the marriage.

While I can’t exactly say that I struggled through the first half of this novel, I will say it didn’t truly grab me until the second half. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it. Early in my reading, I might put it down for days at a time before picking it up again. I managed to pick up and finish two other books in the course of reading The Lowland. However, after Gauri became interested in education and started attending philosophy classes, I found myself fully engaged. Gauri emerged as the most fascinating character for me. I was actually surprised in the end when her secret was revealed, and the two most moving parts of the book for me were her final confrontation with both her daughter, Bela, and her trip back to Kolkata to see the Lowland where Udayan was killed. Gauri emerged for me as a fully realized character, a real person with a great deal of depth. I know that whenever Gauri was on the page, I sat up straight and pulled the book a little closer. Michiko Kakutani feels that Lahiri did not give Gauri enough psychological complexity for the reader to understand why she left the way she did, but I disagree. I feel that her actions are difficult to understand until she reveals her truth. In some way, Gauri feels like a bomb, I think, and removing herself from those who love her is her way of saving them and protecting them in the way she could not save two men who died—who she feels she plays some part in killing. What Gauri has done, both in Calcutta and after she arrives in America, is unforgivable. However, I think it was also very human. If one character doesn’t emerge as fully realized for me, it’s the adult Bela.To me, it’s her adult choices and actions that don’t make sense.

By the time Subhash and Gauri settled in Rhode Island and Bela was born, I found this book captivating and difficult to put down. Lahiri is at her best when she is describing the ways immigrant families navigate living in the United States, which is what made The Namesake such a success. This book is described as more ambitious than her earlier work, and it is perhaps that ambition that makes the novel a bit unwieldy. Michael Cunningham says in “First Love,” an essay he writes about discovering the novel Mrs. Dalloway, that “Woolf understood that every character, no matter how minor in a novel she wrote was visiting the novel, from a novel of his or her own.” Where this novel struggles, if it does, is that it tries to be the novel for all the characters—Udayan, Subhash, Gauri, Bela, and even Udayan and Subhash’s mother. Would it have been more even if Lahiri focused on one character? Maybe. But the result is a rich tapestry of a beautiful and moving book.

Rating: ★★★★½

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I can’t remember how long ago I put this on my to-read list, but it was a long time ago, and I have had the book for a while as well, so I am counting it as my second book for the Backlist Reader Challenge. Though this novel begins in the 1950’s, I am not counting it for the Historical Fiction Challenge because it does go to the present and is not completely set in the past.

Related posts:

Review: Vietnamerica, GB Tran

As I mentioned in my review of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I am interested in the Vietnam War for very personal reasons. My dad was in Vietnam when I was born and missed the first six months of my life. I can’t remember that, of course, but I can remember the looming presence that war had on my childhood. In the last couple of years, I have been wanting to learn as much about it as I can. I think one reason is that I became very close to a few of my students from Vietnam.

GB Tran’s graphic memoir Vietnamerica caught my attention through a post on Literary Hub about Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American literature. The list was compiled by Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose book The Sympathizer made such a splash in literary circles last year. I found the cover arresting, and I am trying to read more graphic novels, mainly because my students like them, and I want to be able to recommend good ones to them. Tran’s memoir is about his family, who left Vietnam five days before the fall of Saigon. He was born the following year. He felt, in many ways, separated entirely from his Vietnamese heritage and culture, and this book explores that feeling of being the first generation American in a family of immigrants. Tran initially has no interest in his family’s history, but as he notes in the book, quoting Confucius, “A man without history is a tree without roots.” This book is Tran’s journey of discovering his family’s history. As he says in his afterword, “Making this book broke my heart.”

VietnamericaTran’s artwork is captivating. He captures the chaotic scenes of Saigon and the evacuation of refugees particularly well. His use of color is deliberate and thoughtful. Scenes in the past are often muted shades of sepia and gray, while the present is generally drawn in brighter colors. I found it a little hard to keep track of the cast of characters at first, but by the end of the book, I had it figured out. Tran also captures well the feeling of the first generation American in a family of immigrants who have different histories, cultural ideals, and personal beliefs. I liked, for instance, his motif of his family’s celebration of Tet, a small way he shows the cultural gap he feels between his parents and himself.

Vietnamerica

One interesting thing I learned from this book, and it is something I have wondered about for many years, is why America (and before America, France and Japan) did not achieve their goals in Vietnam. Tran’s answer, given through his family members, makes a great deal of sense to me. I won’t spoil it for you if you want to read it, too, but it underscores the importance of being exposed to multiple narratives. As Chimimanda Ngoze Adichie says, the problem with stereotypes is not that they are “wrong” but that they are “incomplete,” and when we are only only exposed to a single story about an event—and war often lends itself to “right sides” and “wrong sides” when reality is more complicated—we naturally have a limited understanding of the event.

Vietnamerica

Vietnamerica is not so much a personal memoir as a memoir of a family and Tran’s journey to learning who his parents and grandparents were. It is not a linear story, and it took me a little while to figure out the storylines, but it was worth it. If you enjoyed Art Spiegelman’s Maus, you would probably like Vietnamerica.

Vietnamerica

Rating: ★★★★★

Images © GB Tran and used for the purposes of criticism.

Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge 2017I am counting Vietnamerica as my first book for the Wild Goose Chase Challenge as my “book with an exotic or far-flung location in the title.”

Related posts:

Review: The House Between Tides, Sarah Maine

Sarah Maine’s novel The House Between Tides begins with a mystery. Hetty Deveraux (which feels too much like a name only a novel character would have) travels to a remote manse belonging to her ancestors and discovers a body has been found under the floorboards. Hetty soon finds herself untangling a century-old murder as she tries to determine what to do about Muirlan House—tear it down and try to preserve the island’s unique character, as the inhabitants of Muirlan Island think best, or renovate it into a resort hotel as her partner Giles urges her to do. Meanwhile, Hetty becomes curious about her ancestors. The island had once been the inspiration and refuge of her great-grandmother Emily’s brother Theo Blake, a famed painter. Hetty discovers that Theo’s wife deserted him under mysterious circumstances, and she begins to fear she knows whose bones were found underneath the floorboards of Muirlan House. Meanwhile Beatrice Blake, Theo’s wife, tells her story in flashbacks. The the stories of two women, living a century apart, link inextricably with family secrets and a crumbling ancestral home in the space between them.

I have to admit this book was a slow starter for me, even with the discovery of a body under the floorboards. Maine does a great job of creating the atmosphere of Muirlan Island in the Outer Hebrides, a remote and unforgiving landscape that nonetheless lures both Hetty and Beatrice with its fierce beauty. Once the story gets going, however, it’s pretty good. Some aspects of the plot were a little easier to guess than others, and the unraveling of the mysteries that lay buried for so many years made for a satisfying ending. However, I was a good third of the way through the book and contemplating giving up on it before it started to capture my interest. I enjoyed the rest of the book. The parallels between Hetty and Beatrice were interesting, and the family secrets intrigued me enough to persevere through some of the parts that dragged. I have seen some reviewers claim not to have enjoyed the parts set in 2010 with Hetty, but I actually found them more interesting because the discovery of the body as well as Hetty’s conflicted feelings about her partner and his plans for her ancestral home were intriguing to me. I love historical fiction, and at first, I found Beatrice’s story the less interesting of the two. However, as I kept reading, Beatrice grew on me. The book is compared to Daphne Du Maurier’s atmospheric writing, which is a shame because few writers can create a brooding setting like Du Maurier, and anyone suffers by comparison. I think I need to stop having such high expectations of anyone whose work is compared to Du Maurier’s. Still, it was a good read, and the setting was well drawn, if perhaps the characters were not always—I found the minor characters very difficult to keep straight, and the family trees impossible. I also found parts of the story frustrating as I hoped Maine was going somewhere with a thread that was never quite woven in well enough.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I am counting this book toward the following reading challenges:

Beat the BacklistI am counting this book for the Beat the Backlist Challenge. This book has been on my Kindle since last September, but I didn’t start reading it until recently. It was published in 2016, and therefore meets the challenge’s qualification of being released before 2017. I read this on my Kindle, but Goodreads says the paperback version has 400 pages, which is the equivalent of 40 points for Ravenclaw, and posting this review should net 50 more points for a total of 90.

Because about half the book takes place in 1910, I’m also counting it for the Historical Fiction Challenge. In addition, Sarah Maine is a British writer, so this book counts towards the British Books Challenge.

British Books Challenge

Finally, as the book is set in Scotland, part of the UK, it also counts as part of the European Reading Challenge, though this is the only UK book that will count toward the challenge.

European Reading Challenge 2017

Related posts:

Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge invites challenge participants to read all 60 Sherlock Holmes stories—four novels and 56 short stories—in the order in which they were published. The first Sherlock Holmes story published was the novel A Study in Scarlet, written in 1886 and published the following year in 1887. The novel introduces two of the most iconic characters in British literature—detective Sherlock Holmes and his friend and companion, Dr. John Watson.

In the event you are unfamiliar with the events of the novel, Dr. John Watson has returned from service in Afghanistan and looking for affordable lodgings when he happens upon an old friend who tells Watson that he knows someone else looking for lodgings, and if Watson doesn’t mind a few eccentricities, he might have himself a roommate. Watson consents to meet the gentlemen, who turns out to be Sherlock Holmes. The two agree to share lodgings at 221B Baker Street. Before Watson knows what is happening, he is involved in a case with Holmes. A body has been found in an abandoned house on Brixton Road, and the German word rache has been written over the body in blood—blood that does not belong to the victim. Watson follows Sherlock Holmes as he works with Scotland Yard inspectors Gregson and Lestrade. Sherlock Holmes unravels the mystery and determines the man, along with another victim found later in the story, was murdered in an act of revenge.

The first half of the novel involves Watson’s meeting with Holmes and Holmes’s subsequent involvement and deduction of the case, while the second half is a flashback taking place mostly in Utah, where the principles involved in the case—the two murdered men and their murderer—met and where the murderer developed the enmity that would drive him to chase the two men across two continents to kill them. In all honesty, the first half is charming, while the second half suffers (perhaps a bit comically) from Doyle’s lack of knowledge about America, Americans, the American West, and Mormons. It’s a fairly ridiculous story in some ways—rache, the German word for revenge, looks like a clue, but is really an afterthought of the killer’s (even though revenge was, in fact, his motive). I have to give the novel four stars for a great first half, but I can’t give it five after the mess of the second half.

Right after I finished reading the novel, I decided to watch the episode “A Study in Pink” of the BBC series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as John Watson, mainly because as I read A Study in Scarlet, it struck me that of all the iterations of I have seen of Sherlock Holmes stories, the current BBC series seems to capture Sherlock’s personality better than most—perhaps all—other adaptations. There is a quirky eccentricity that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock has that few other actors have managed to bring out in the same way. “A Study in Pink” pulls many elements from the plot of A Study in Scarlet, though thankfully not the second act set in Utah. It also does a masterful job of pulling the story forward to the 21st century while still adhering to many of the elements, including the identity of the murderer.

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeAs I work my way through the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, I plan to watch episodes of Sherlock that include elements of or allusions to the canon of 60 stories. I purchased a Kindle edition of the complete adventures, so I am not planning on counting the book as “completed” until I finish  the entire collection, though I will track my progress reading the stories on my Reading Challenges page. The second story, also a novel, is The Sign of the Four. I will review each novel and short story here on the blog as I finish them.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Addendum: It looks like I misunderstood the challenge chronology. The stories follow perhaps a different chronology from their publication date, which is something I vaguely recall from reading them many years ago. I am going to try to catch up with the short stories for weeks one and two and post reviews here. Meanwhile, I’m a little ahead on the first novel, so probably no harm done.

Related posts:

Review: Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

My first book of 2017 was Jon Krakauer’s harrowing account of his ascent of Mt. Everest in May 1996. There are several accounts of the disaster surrounding the May 10, 1996 Everest expeditions, but Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is arguably the most famous.

Krakauer climbed Everest at the behest of Outside magazine, mainly to cover the guided expeditions that were gaining popularity at that time. These expeditions were controversial because many in the climbing community felt that inexperienced and possibly unfit people were attempting the dangerous climb and putting their lives (and those of their guides and sherpas) in jeopardy. In addition, concerns had been raised about the commercialization of Everest. For instance, the mountain became littered with the debris of climbers, from discarded oxygen canisters to other belongings, and frankly, even the bodies of those who did not make it back. It’s an absolutely riveting book about the dangers of hubris in the face of what is still one of the most dangerous places in the world. Krakauer describes the events leading up to a storm that approached as the expedition teams led by Scott Fischer and Rob Hall summited the mountain, and before all the members of the expeditions were able to descend, they were embroiled in a dangerous blizzard and a fight for their lives.

Krakauer has been criticized for parts of his account, and he has included a postscript to address some of this criticism. I found he was remarkably fair, though I freely admit this is the only account I’ve read. The reason I think he is fair is that he admits he feels partly responsible for the deaths of two the members of his team, Adventure Consultants, which was led by Rob Hall. He is fairly open and critical of his own lapses in judgment. He might even be hard on himself, given he was suffering from the effects of the altitude and the storm. He states he wishes he had never climbed Everest, but he admits in his introduction that “attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument” (xvii). He wrote the book in part to attempt to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that resulted from his experience on the mountain. Whatever culpability he ultimately has (which is debatable), it’s clear he has examined the events from as many angles as he could, including interviewing other survivors about their memories. He has done as good a job as it is probably possible to do, given the way the altitude, which made clear thinking virtually impossible, as well as the trauma of the event. Establishing the truth was difficult.

If I had the slightest notion I ever wanted to try anything like climb Mount Everest (and I assure you I didn’t—I am nowhere near fit enough to try climbing any mountain, let alone that one), this book would have cured me of the desire. Once the mountain had been conquered in the 1950’s, perhaps it was easy to forget the dangers it still held. Over 280 people have died trying to climb the mountain. In fact, 1996 was not even the deadliest year. English Mountaineer George Mallory has famously been quoted as saying, after being asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, “Because it’s there.” He perished in his attempt in 1924. His remains were found about three years after Jon Krakauer’s ill-fated summit of Everest.

This book has been on TBR list for a while. I actually accidentally bought two copies of it in my zeal to make sure I read it. I thought it was even better than Into the Wild, perhaps because of the personal nature of the story and very real anguish that Krakauer clearly feels. This book is personal. Krakauer is an excellent writer of narrative nonfiction.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017This book is my first selection for the Backlist Reader Challenge 2017. I can’t recall how long I’ve wanted to read it, but I put it on my Goodreads to-read list on December 14; I’m pretty sure I bought both copies I own before then (I am sending one back!). I know I had plans to read it sometime last year after a conversation with a fellow teacher who had read it, but I was being lazy about adding more books to Goodreads for a while. It was originally published in 1997.

Related posts: