Review: Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, narrated by Ell Potter

Review: Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, narrated by Ell PotterHamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
Narrator: Ell Potter
Published by Random House Audio on July 21, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

Drawing on Maggie O'Farrell's long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare's most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley Street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O'Farrell's new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

Oh, this book. I just loved it. Recently, I shared in my review of Never Caught that the author missed an opportunity to weave historical fiction out of the facts we know about Ona Judge. Anne Hathaway Shakespeare is another woman we know very little about. She was pregnant when she married William Shakespeare (who was quite a bit younger than she was), she raised their children practically alone while he worked as an actor and playwright in London, and Shakespeare left her his second-best bed in his will. From these scraps of information, many scholars have concluded that their marriage was not a happy one. O’Farrell takes a different tactic and imagines a love match for the couple that is nearly destroyed by the death of their son and William Shakespeare’s depression and lack of fulfillment.

O’Farrell chooses to call her Anne “Agnes,” as her father referred to her in his will. Agnes is something of an herbalist (and maybe a witch). She’s every bit as fascinating as Shakespeare (maybe more so, under O’Farrell’s pen). The story alternates between Agnes and Hamnet as narrators, for the most part, with tidbits from other characters such as Susanna and Judith. The story also shifts in time, beginning with Hamnet looking for someone, anyone (but particularly Agnes) to help him—his twin sister Judith is sick.

The historical details ring true. As a bread baker and soap maker, I especially appreciated O’Farrell’s references to Agnes’s talents in both areas. Agnes also keeps bees and is something of a bee charmer. However, my absolute favorite historical detail was O’Farrell’s chronicle of the journey of the flea that carried the bubonic plague to Stratford and, ultimately, to the Shakespeare household. It was utterly fascinating. As we are living in the midst of a pandemic right now, the details are also alarmingly present. How did the virus that infected my entire family with COVID-19 in January make its way to us? How does sickness travel like that? I think I appreciated O’Farrell’s exploration of the way the plague traveled even more for having a personal connection to another form of plague.

I couldn’t help but think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own when I read. In that book, Woolf imagines Shakespeare’s equally talented sister who is unable to do the things her brother can do because she is a woman, and those doors are closed to her. What if Shakespeare’s wife were even more talented than he? That is actually how I interpret Agnes’s character. Yet she sacrifices so that he can realize his dreams and their children can be cared for. She’s not different from talented women throughout history in this respect.

Ell Potter is a charming narrator. I’m glad the audiobook was read by a woman, as ultimately, I think this a woman’s story. That’s not to say men wouldn’t enjoy it; quite the contrary, and maybe men should read it. Ron Charles has a great review of the book at The Washington Post. I definitely recommend this book to any fans of Shakespeare, though I caution you that he’s relegated to the sidelines. This story is the story of his family.

five-stars

Review: The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel, narrated by Ben Miles

Review: The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel, narrated by Ben MilesThe Mirror & the Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3) by Hilary Mantel
Narrator: Ben Miles
Series: Thomas Cromwell #3
Published by Macmillan Audio on March 10, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

“If you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?”

England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.

Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?

With The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion, and courage.

What a fantastic close to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell saga. Mantel is a gifted storyteller, and in her hands, Cromwell emerges as a deeply complex man who rose from nothing—the son of a blacksmith in Putney—to one of Henry VIII’s chief counselors. This book covers Cromwell’s fall from grace, and though I knew how Cromwell’s story would end—it’s a matter of recorded history—I dreaded seeing it come to pass. He inspired love and loyalty among his family and servants, but jealousy and ire among Henry VIII’s circle.

One aspect of Mantel’s characterization that I appreciate most is the wry sense of humor she gives Cromwell. I listened to both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies prior to listening to this book, and it struck me that this book had more humor in it, though you might not expect that to be the case, given Cromwell’s well-documented end. As with other people who “crossed” Henry VIII, Cromwell’s downfall was swift. I won’t share any spoilers here, but let’s just say his ending was particularly sad—unfair blame and betrayal.

Ben Miles does a great job with the narration. Seems other reviewers didn’t like him (based on reviews left on Audible), and I’m puzzled as to why. The audiobook had a great interview between narrator Ben Miles and author Hilary Mantel.

I’m counting this book for my February read set in Western Europe in the Book Voyage: Read Around the World Challenge.

five-stars

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren ZanesPetty: The Biography by Warren Zanes
Narrator: Warren Zanes
Published by Audible Studios on December 15, 2015
Genres: Nonfiction, Biography
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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five-stars

An exhilarating and intimate account of the life of music legend Tom Petty, by an accomplished writer and musician who toured with Petty

No one other than Warren Zanes, rocker and writer and friend, could author a book about Tom Petty that is as honest and evocative of Petty’s music and the remarkable rock and roll history he and his band helped to write.

Born in Gainesville, Florida, with more than a little hillbilly in his blood, Tom Petty was a Southern shit kicker, a kid without a whole lot of promise. Rock and roll made it otherwise. From meeting Elvis, to seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, to producing Del Shannon, backing Bob Dylan, putting together a band with George Harrison, Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne, making records with Johnny Cash, and sending well more than a dozen of his own celebrated recordings high onto the charts, Tom Petty’s story has all the drama of a rock and roll epic. Petty, known for his reclusive style, has shared with Warren Zanes his insights and arguments, his regrets and lasting ambitions, and the details of his life on and off the stage.

This is a book for those who know and love the songs, from "American Girl" and "Refugee" to "Free Fallin’" and "Mary Jane’s Last Dance," and for those who want to see the classic rock and roll era embodied in one man’s remarkable story. Dark and mysterious, Petty manages to come back, again and again, showing us what the music can do and where it can take us.

What a great loss to rock and roll. I think I might first have become aware of Tom Petty because my copy of Chipmunk Punk, featuring Alvin and Chipmunks squeaking out songs that were decidedly not punk music, had “Refugee” on it. Later, the video for “You Got Lucky” seemed to be on heavy rotation on MTV, and I admit it was interesting. You couldn’t get away from “Don’t Come Around Here No More” later. Rewatching that video recently, I was struck by how good Tom Petty’s acting is in the video.

However, I’m not sure I appreciated Tom Petty, truly became a fan, until college. I bought his back catalog and listened to the albums on repeat. I listened to them all again as I was reading this book, and I still remember each note. The first four albums, Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersYou’re Gonna Get It, Damn the Torpedoes, and Hard Promises, were on particularly high rotation, along with Southern Accents.

What I appreciated most about this biography was that Warren Zanes is an insider of sorts. In the 1980s, he was in the Del Fuegos and opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on tour. He spoke to many of Petty’s friends and associates, and the biography is unflinching in its honesty. Petty seemed like a reflective type of person, and he owned his mistakes. I particularly appreciated the reflections of fellow Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and Stan Lynch as well as Petty’s long-time friend Stevie Nicks.

The part of the biography I found most compelling was Zanes’s account of Petty’s youth and adolescence, followed by his early days in Florida bands, such as Mudcrutch. His incredible work ethic was another interesting thread that ran through the book. It struck me that Petty enjoyed his English classes and didn’t consider them to be “studying” in the same way that his other classes were; you can hear that in his song lyrics. However, as a teacher, I couldn’t help but feel sad about how school crushes the spirits of so many creative people like Tom Petty. I think it was Benmont Tench who said in the book that Tom Petty was really good at convincing people to quit school and join his band.

When I heard Tom Petty died, I was crushed. He’s one of my favorite musicians of all time, and I’m grateful I was able to see him in concert once in 1992, for his Into the Great Wide Open tour. It was a great show. He was a consummate performer.

I put together a highly subjective list of my favorite Tom Petty tunes, more or less in order of preference. Some are deep cuts. I hope you enjoy it.

five-stars

Review: If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin, narrated by Bahni Turpin

Review: If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin, narrated by Bahni TurpinIf Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, Bahni Turpin
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Published by Blackstone Audio on February 1, 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 8
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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four-stars

In this honest and stunning novel, James Baldwin has given America a moving story of love in the face of injustice. Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin's story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions—affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

There aren’t many writers like James Baldwin. He wrote with facility whether fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. I mean, just listen to him speak.

Much of what Baldwin says here is centered in his novel, as his characters wrestle with being cut out of their opportunities to find happiness and achieve their dreams. In fact, one in the novel struck me particularly hard. Fonny refers to a man who assaults Tish as a “white American,” implying that the police officer who wanted to arrest Fonny for beating the man did not see Fonny as an American. He saw a Black man, and his guilt or innocence did not matter. I realize that police brutality against Black people has a long history, but it’s hard not to see Baldwin as prescient in writing this novel in the early 1970s. He is not speaking only to the moment in which he wrote the novel, but also to our current moment.

My favorite character was Tish’s mother, Sharon. I absolutely loved Tish’s family. They were so supportive of Tish and Fonny, and Sharon set the tone when she told Tish that she would tell the family about her pregnancy. So many families have not supported their daughters when they became pregnant, let alone when the baby’s father is in jail awaiting a trial for a crime he didn’t commit. Even before I watched the movie, I understood why Regina King’s performance was lauded. Sharon is a gift of a character.

I found the ending a bit confusing, so I listened to it again, and then I still had to read a summary online because I couldn’t figure out if what I thought happened at the end was what happened. Ambiguous endings do not trouble me, but this book didn’t feel like it ended. It felt like it stopped. I suppose a good comparison would be the fade to black at the end of the last episode of The Sopranos. The book also moves backward and forward in time, and it was sometimes a bit difficult to follow. Admittedly, this could have been my fault for listening to it rather than reading it. However, there are some beautiful moments in the book as well, and Baldwin’s characterization is realistic and engaging. His characters just seem like people you might know—they are intensely human.

I was able to find the film on Hulu and watched it so I could add my thoughts about the film to this review. The acting is incredible. Stephan Jones and Kiki Layne are perfect as Fonny and Tish. As I mentioned before, Regina King deserves all the praise for her performance, too. The entire ensemble cast was great. The film’s ending is a bit different, and I might argue that the film’s ending is an improvement. For one thing, it was a bit clearer, and it also ended on a note of hope. I understand Baldwin wanted to communicate something with the ending he wrote, and it’s such a beautiful love story that as a reader, I really wanted to have a little bit of hope at the end for the characters. One touch I really appreciated was a simple dedication to “Jimmy”—James Baldwin’s nickname among friends. The movie also helped me understand the book’s title. My audiobook didn’t have the explanation, but the film had some text at the beginning, and since I don’t have a paper copy of the book, I can’t verify this, but I think it was James Baldwin’s introduction to the story, explaining the name. I expected it to be set in Memphis rather than New York and was initially confused. I also loved the film’s score. It’s haunting and perfect. I definitely want to see other films by this director after watching If Beale Street Could Talk.

Bahni Turpin is an excellent narrator. I have listened to her read other books, and I appreciate her approach to the material. I highly recommend the audio version of this book, but you might want to read along to better keep track of the story.

One last treat before I close: Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, a Hammer Museum curator, created the ultimate James Baldwin playlist. You just might find some blues in there.

 

four-stars

Review: The Arctic Fury, Greer Macallister

Review: The Arctic Fury, Greer MacallisterThe Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark ISBN: 1728215692
on December 1, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 300
Format: E-Book
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four-half-stars

In early 1853, experienced California Trail guide Virginia Reeve is summoned to Boston by a mysterious benefactor who offers her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: lead a party of 12 women into the wild, hazardous Arctic to search for the lost Franklin Expedition. It’s an extraordinary request, but the party is made up of extraordinary women. Each brings her own strengths and skills to the expedition- and her own unsettling secrets. A year and a half later, back in Boston, Virginia is on trial when not all of the women return. Told in alternating timelines that follow both the sensational murder trial in Boston and the dangerous, deadly progress of the women’s expedition into the frozen North, this heart-pounding story will hold readers rapt as a chorus of voices answer the trial’s all-consuming question: what happened out there on the ice?

My first book of 2021! I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if not for the Book Voyage: Read Around the World Challenge. Before I share some thoughts about the book, I’d like to thank the challenge hosts for two things: 1) offering a list of recommended books for each region in the challenge, and 2) recommending this particular book, which brought me out of a reading funk and kept me up late wanting to find out what would happen next. I love participating in challenges, but I find it difficult sometimes because I don’t know what to read for the challenge, and it is refreshing to have a list of books to consider at least. I probably wouldn’t have heard about The Arctic Fury if not for this challenge, either, or at least I wouldn’t have heard of it for some months.

This book is just the kind of historical fiction I love. It puts women at the forefront of a plausible, well-researched story. I admit I struggled a bit with the notion that Lady Franklin would sink her hopes into an all-female expedition to the Arctic in search of her missing husband, but I was willing to go with the premise. However, without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that Lady Franklin’s actions make much more sense by the end, and I wound up finding the premise more plausible.

If this book suffers from anything, it’s a little bit of a kitchen-sink approach—the author tackled just about every aspect of being a woman in the 1850s, from race to gender to pregnancy to sexuality to limited options to the threat of violence from men. Some of the aspects included didn’t feel strictly necessary to the story but rather an effort to be inclusive. I appreciated this about the book, but I think including the spectrum of experiences should be purposeful, and it didn’t always strike me that way in this book. Some pretty serious liberties were also taken with the protagonist’s (a known historical figure) story. Even though I understood the rationale for doing so, it bothered me, and I think the only other solution would have been to invent a person who didn’t actually exist to have a similar past. Once I figured out who she really was, I was able to find out what happened to her after what she calls the Very Bad Thing after about a minute’s search.

However, the other aspects of the novel are well-researched and feel authentic, which Macallister attributes to ensuring that “each woman [on the journey] had a real-life counterpart, an inspiration from the mid-nineteenth century [she] could point to and draw from” (401). As a result, each woman was believable. I particularly appreciated that the women each had their own strengths and flaws. They seemed much more human for being well-rounded. Each woman was also given at least one chapter in her own voice, which gave them even more depth and humanity.

I also appreciated the way the story alternated between Virginia’s murder trial and the voyage in the Arctic. The alternating timelines added more suspense to the story. I actually tagged this as a mystery in addition to historical fiction, even though it’s not a traditional mystery per sé. Like some of the best mysteries, neither what truly happened nor how it will all turn out was revealed until the climactic ending.

Bottom line: I definitely recommend this one to anyone who likes historical fiction, particularly with strong women characters. The Arctic Fury is well-written and researched, but most of all, the characters are memorable, intriguing, and real. 

four-half-stars

2021 Reading Challenges

The good news is that I am in the dissertation writing phase of my doctoral studies, and I anticipate finishing by June. Obviously, writing the dissertation will take time, but I have already made good progress, and I will have a little bit more time, I hope, to dedicate to reading, particularly reflecting on my reading here on the blog. In any case, I will certainly have more time by June.

On December 31, I’ll post my reading recap for the year, including my progress on 2020 Reading Challenges. I’m excited to try some new challenges and also to engage in some challenges that have been a part of my reading habits for years.

The Book Voyage: Read Around the World challenge is new to me. I have kept a Google Map for several years now with pins for the settings of each book I read. A challenge I used to do (seems to be defunct) involved tracking locations for reading, but this challenge is unique in that it encourages reading in different regions of the world rather than simply raising awareness of setting. I also like that the challenge author, the Book Girl’s Guide, provides reading suggestions for each region, which may make it easier for me to find books set in each region. Each month is focused on a different region, so the goal is to read a total of twelve books set in each region.

It has been a little while since I focused my reading deliberately on the South. I lived in several Southern states for many years (1989-2012), and my family origins are Southern. I have a really complicated relationship with the South, however. A family history of racial violence and slavery and a great deal of political and historical ignorance clouds my appreciation for a beautiful region with some rich history and cuisine—which I credit largely to African Americans. I don’t think I’d ever want to live there again, but I also cannot deny that it’s a part of me. I have always felt the South produced some of the best literature, and I might argue we are living through a Southern literature renaissance, especially with Black authors and cookbooks, so I am hoping to focus my reading for the Southern Literature Reading Challenge on reading BIPOC authors and cookbooks. I’m planning to participate at the “Level 2—Pull up a seat and stay a while! (Read 3-4 books)” level. However, it’s possible I might read more. It depends on what I discover this year.

I participate in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge pretty much every year. This year, the challenge has a new host—the Adventures of an Intrepid Reader. Historical fiction is my favorite genre of fiction. I love history, and I find reading historical fiction to be a satisfying way to learn about the past in a way that feels immediate. I am setting my goal at Victorian Reader (5 books), though it’s possible I’ll read more, which is what happened this year. For the purposes of this challenge, I’ll define any book set 20 or more years before the year of publication as “historical fiction.”

The final reading challenge is also not new to me, but I’ve never actually completed it before: the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge. It seems like each year I sort of come close, but I never manage to read all twelve books and complete each monthly motif. Hope springs eternal! We’ll see what happens this year. I do like the challenge of finding books that fit each month’s motif.

If I come across additional challenges I want to try, I’ll update this post rather than add a new one.