Review: The Orphan of Cemetery Hill, Hester Fox

Review: The Orphan of Cemetery Hill, Hester FoxThe Orphan of Cemetery Hill by Hester Fox
Published by Graydon House ISBN: 1525804571
on September 15, 2020
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 337
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
three-half-stars

The dead won’t bother you if you don’t give them permission.

Boston, 1844.

Tabby has a peculiar gift: she can communicate with the recently departed. It makes her special, but it also makes her dangerous.

As an orphaned child, she fled with her sister, Alice, from their charlatan aunt Bellefonte, who wanted only to exploit Tabby’s gift so she could profit from the recent craze for seances.

Now a young woman and tragically separated from Alice, Tabby works with her adopted father, Eli, the kind caretaker of a large Boston cemetery. When a series of macabre grave robberies begins to plague the city, Tabby is ensnared in a deadly plot by the perpetrators, known only as the “Resurrection Men.”

In the end, Tabby’s gift will either save both her and the cemetery—or bring about her own destruction.

I wanted to read this book for two reasons:

  1. I had just finished Hester Fox’s newest book, A Lullaby for Witches, and there was an excerpt of this book at the end. I liked the first chapter.
  2. It is set in Boston, one of my favorite places.

After reading two of Hester Fox’s books (and having started a third), I feel secure in saying Fox is at her best in setting the scene. She evokes gothic New England settings with the practiced hand of the historian she is. The inspiration for Cemetery Hill is the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston’s North End. The North End is one of my favorite areas of Boston. Fox brings 19th-century Boston to life, but in my case, she didn’t have to work too hard since I had seen many of the places in the novel.

Characterization is more of a challenge. I found Tabby to be naive—especially for someone who has had to live by her wits for so long. I didn’t understand why she was so interested in Caleb. I didn’t like him at all, and it didn’t say much about her taste in men that she was that interested in him. He never seemed able to make up his mind what he wanted, and I suppose that’s realistic enough—real people have that problem. More problematic was that Fox didn’t seem to know if he was a decent guy or not, so he just came off to me as confusing. The lead characters just didn’t strike me as real in the way the characters in A Lullaby for Witches did. I don’t have to like characters in order to enjoy a book. Wuthering Heights is my favorite book, and I hate all the characters. I suppose something I have discovered about myself is that if a writer can take me to a place, I enjoy the reading experience, and Hester Fox can certainly take a reader to a place.

This paragraph contains a slightly spoilery detail. The sinister plot at the heart of the book didn’t ring true. I found it easier to believe Tabby was clairvoyant than that the villains in this novel were interested in using her ability to reanimate the dead. Why? What were they hoping to accomplish? That question was never clearly answered. I get why people would want to contact the dead, but I didn’t understand their Frankenstein-like pursuit of reanimation.

Those quibbles aside, I still believe the book is worth 3.5 stars. Why? I really enjoyed the setting, and I found Fox’s evocation of 1850s Boston fascinating. Though the lead characters didn’t interest me, I did like Eli and Tabby’s sister Alice. The book is escapist fun for any reader who likes gothic stories in a New England setting.

three-half-stars

Review: Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation, Hannah Gadsby

Review: Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation, Hannah GadsbyTen Steps to Nanette by Hannah Gadsby
Published by Allen & Unwin ISBN: 1742374034
on March 29, 2022
Genres: Memoir
Pages: 400
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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five-stars

Multi-awardwinning Hannah Gadsby transformed comedy with her show Nanette, even as she declared that she was quitting stand-up. Now, she takes us through the defining moments in her life that led to the creation of Nanette and her powerful decision to tell the truth-no matter the cost.

"There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself."—Hannah Gadsby, Nanette

Gadsby's unique stand-up special Nanette was a viral success that left audiences captivated by her blistering honesty and her ability to create both tension and laughter in a single moment. But while her worldwide fame might have looked like an overnight sensation, her path from open mic to the global stage was hard-fought and anything but linear. Ten Steps to Nanette traces Gadsby's growth as a queer person from Tasmania—where homosexuality was illegal until 1997—to her ever-evolving relationship with comedy, to her struggle with late-in-life diagnoses of autism and ADHD, and finally to the backbone of Nanette—the renouncement of self-deprecation, the rejection of misogyny, and the moral significance of truth-telling. Equal parts harrowing and hilarious, Ten Steps to Nanette continues Gadsby's tradition of confounding expectations and norms, properly introducing us to one of the most explosive, formative voices of our time.

I had this book on hold in the library for so long that I forgot I’d done so. I was eager to read it because I found Nanette profoundly moving.  If you’ve seen Nanette or Gadsby’s newer show Douglas, some of the material in the memoir will be familiar to you. There are some traumatic details in the memoir that Gadsby elides, while other events are given more context than she has previously given in her show. We are all in charge of our stories and tell them the way we need to tell them, so I was unbothered—this is a memoir after all. I was fascinated by Gadsby’s stories about learning she had ADHD and autism. Her descriptions of how she struggled with tasks and frustrated others felt so familiar to me as I have watched my own children struggle in similar ways. Some parts of the memoir are much longer—Gadsby’s formative years take up the longest chapter—but I understand why the book was broken up the way it was. She is grouping parts of her life together in ways that explain where Nanette came from, so some parts just have to be longer. Gadsby sprinkles footnotes throughout, and they reminded me of Gadsby’s asides during her shows. I’m not sure how they’d impact the audiobook, but I didn’t find them distracting in the hardcover. I’d definitely recommend this memoir to anyone who has appreciated Hannah Gadsby’s shows and wants to know more about her creative process and inspiration.

five-stars

Review: A Lullaby for Witches, Hester Fox

Review: A Lullaby for Witches, Hester FoxA Lullaby for Witches by Hester Fox
Published by Graydon House on February 1, 2022
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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four-half-stars


Two women. A history of witchcraft. And a deep-rooted female power that sings out across the centuries.

Once there was a young woman from a well-to-do New England family who never quite fit with the drawing rooms and parlors of her kin. Called instead to the tangled woods and wild cliffs surrounding her family’s estate, Margaret Harlowe grew both stranger and more beautiful as she cultivated her uncanny power. Soon, whispers of “witch” dogged her footsteps, and Margaret’s power began to wind itself with the tendrils of something darker.

One hundred and fifty years later, Augusta Podos takes a dream job at Harlowe House, the historic home of a wealthy New England family that has been turned into a small museum in Tynemouth, Massachusetts. When Augusta stumbles across an oblique reference to a daughter of the Harlowes who has nearly been expunged from the historical record, the mystery is too intriguing to ignore. But as she digs deeper, something sinister unfurls from its sleep, a dark power that binds one woman to the other across lines of blood and time. If Augusta can’t resist its allure, everything she knows and loves—including her very life—could be lost forever.

I enjoy a good witch book, and this was a pretty good witch book. As a bonus, it’s set in my current home state of Massachusetts in the fictional town of Tynemouth, somewhere on the North Shore (my best guess, based on its proximity to the real cities of Salem and Boston). Parts of Margaret’s story seemed stilted, I think in part because of the author’s choice to bring her into the present to reflect on her growing power in several italicized sections. The Margaret sections set entirely in the past rang true. I am not sure how else Fox might have accomplished her storyline, but those passages always took me out of the story for a minute. However, I kept turning the pages, wanting to know what would happen. Some of my questions remained unsatisfied, but I’m afraid they’re spoilers. If you highlight the text that follows this paragraph, you’ll see my spoiler questions, but if you don’t want the story spoiled, you can keep reading the paragraph that follows the spoilers section.

Spoilers!

  1. I never found out exactly how Augusta and Margaret were related. I worked on the assumption that she’d be a direct descendant until Margaret was killed before her child could be born. After that, I didn’t know how Augusta could be related to Margaret. 
  2. I also wanted to know more about Augusta’s family history. Fox teased several times that there were some big reveals buried in the boxes of mementos of her father, and Augusta sifts through them a few times, even finding Margaret’s comb and a family tree with the name Montrose, the maiden name of Margaret’s mother. “Bishop” was also on the family tree, and Bridget Bishop was executed during the Salem Witch Trials. Fox wouldn’t be the first writer to use Bridget Bishop as a real witch, if that’s the case—Deborah Harkness makes her protagonist in A Discovery of Witches a descendant of Bridget Bishop and a real witch.
  3. What exactly happened to Margaret? Did she vanish? Is she still out there, lurking? 

I understand some character names from Fox’s other books appear in this book as well, but this was my first book by Hester Fox. I liked it enough that it will not be my last. She reminds me a bit of Brunonia Barry in how she captures Massachusetts’s witchy history, and I really liked the idea that Augusta worked in a museum—the former home of a prominent family. There is a hint of Barry’s characterization from The Lace Reader and A Map of True Places in this book. I will always have a soft spot for Brunonia Barry because I won a trip to Salem, MA in connection with her book A Map of True Places, and I’m convinced it was a sort of beginning that led to our moving to MA two years later. I will also always have a soft spot for Salem, and truthfully, I’d love to live on the North Shore one day.

I really enjoyed Fox’s comment in her acknowledgments, offering “thanks and admiration” to “the many museum workers and volunteers who are actively decolonizing the field and making museums more equitable places, both for the audiences they serve and in the stories they tell.” This idea plays out in the novel in how Augusta and her co-workers work to remember the stories of the women of Tynemouth. For far too long, the stories of so many people have been forgotten, and this is especially true of women and people of color. Fox tried to include both in this novel. She was more successful in capturing the women, but I appreciated watching Augusta try to uncover forgotten stories for her exhibit.

four-half-stars

Review: The Bookshop on the Corner, Jenny Colgan

Review: The Bookshop on the Corner, Jenny ColganThe Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan
Published by HarperCollins Publishers on September 20, 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 368
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-half-stars

Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.

Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile—a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling.

From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending.

If you’ve read my previous post, you know my cat doesn’t have long to live, and it’s been difficult to read anything. I haven’t listened to audiobooks like I usually do on my walks because I find it hard to concentrate. I thought if I found a sort of cozy read, something of a love letter to books, I might do all right, and I was right. This book was just what the doctor ordered. It’s not great literature. It’s not going to change the world. It’s even pretty corny and twee. It’s like a Hallmark Channel movie made into a book. But it was kind of nice to disappear into Nina’s world in Kirrinfief, a place I desperately wanted to be real as much as I wanted the lovely children’s book Up on the Rooftops to be real.

I really enjoyed Jenny Colgan’s characters, especially the ancillary ones. Fair warning: this is the kind of book where the minor characters sort of steal the show whenever they’re on the page and the main characters are more of a vehicle for the story than anyone you fall in love with.

The one thing I didn’t like about this book was the title. I read somewhere that the book’s title only appears in the American edition, but I’m not sure that’s true. The title is misleading because Nina buys an old van and converts it into a mobile bookshop, so it’s not on any corner. The cover art makes no sense, given the novel’s story. I read that the original title was The Little Shop of Happy Ever After, which makes more sense as it’s the name of Nina’s mobile bookshop.

I’ll probably read more of Jenny Colgan’s books. This book isn’t for everyone, and I suspect some people would hate it for being so twee, but if twee is what you need, it’s perfect. It was perfect for me, at this moment.

four-half-stars

Mid-April Reading Update

I finished a couple of books this week and decided to roll the reviews together.

Mid-April Reading UpdateA Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders
Published by Random House on January 12, 2021
Length: 14 hours 44 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

For the last twenty years, George Saunders has been teaching a class on the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he shares a version of that class with us, offering some of what he and his students have discovered together over the years. Paired with iconic short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, the seven essays in this book are intended for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times.

In his introduction, Saunders writes, “We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions, questions like, How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” He approaches the stories technically yet accessibly, and through them explains how narrative functions; why we stay immersed in a story and why we resist it; and the bedrock virtues a writer must foster. The process of writing, Saunders reminds us, is a technical craft, but also a way of training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiosity. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a deep exploration not just of how great writing works but of how the mind itself works while reading, and of how the reading and writing of stories make genuine connection possible.

My husband and I listened to this on audiobook. He has been trying to get me to read George Saunders since an aborted attempt at Lincoln in the Bardo. I just couldn’t follow that one on audio, but I do want to try to read it in print. I see this book as a companion to Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Essentially, it’s a master class in how literature works using short stories by several Russian authors as a focus for analysis. If I had to pick a favorite short story, it would probably be “The Nose” (Chekov) or perhaps “Alyosha the Pot.” The book has a wonderful cast of narrators, including Rainn Wilson, B. D. Wong, Glenn Close, Phylicia Rashad, and Nick Offerman. Saunders narrates the analytical parts. I bought a print copy for use in my classroom. I’m not yet sure how I might use it, but I can see the potential.

Mid-April Reading UpdateThe Familiars by Stacey Halls
Published by MIRA on February 19, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 335
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
three-stars

Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit, and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Then Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Gray, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft.

Is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Fleetwood must risk everything to prove her innocence. As the two women’s lives become intertwined, the Witch Trials of 1612 loom. Time is running out; both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.

Rich and compelling, set against the frenzy of the real Pendle Hill Witch Trials, this novel explores the rights of 17th-century women and raises the question: Was witch-hunting really women-hunting? Fleetwood Shuttleworth, Alice Gray and the other characters are actual historical figures. King James I was obsessed with asserting power over the lawless countryside (even woodland creatures, or “familiars,” were suspected of dark magic) by capturing “witches”—in reality mostly poor and illiterate women.

I love reading books about witches, “real” or not, and I wanted to like this book more. It was compelling enough for me to finish; however, some of the author’s choices were perplexing. I didn’t find the protagonist, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, to be all that engaging, and I kept thinking about how much more interesting the story might have been if the protagonist had been one of the accused witches. It seems like a missed opportunity to me to have a relatively privileged outsider tell the story of the Pendle Witch Trials. Also, Fleetwood rides a horse all over Creation while hugely pregnant. I’m not sure how she got on the horse, never mind rode it, in that condition. Granted, I’m not a horsewoman, so what do I know. Another issue I had was that Fleetwood discovers early in the book, within the first few pages, that her husband is secretive, and she finds he’s hiding even more important information. They have a falling out, and it seems implausible when they reconcile. The author didn’t really lay the groundwork for that reconciliation to make sense. Still, I did learn some things about this interesting historical event.

Review: The Good Lord Bird, James McBride

Review: The Good Lord Bird, James McBrideThe Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Narrator: Michael Boatman
Published by Penguin Audio on August 20, 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 14 hours 35 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857; the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town with Brown, who believes he is a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry, whom Brown nicknames Little Onion, conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually, Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, which was one of the major catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride s meticulous eye for detail and character, THE GOOD LORD BIRD is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

I absolutely loved this book, and I think listening to the audiobook was a major reason why. Michael Boatman’s narration is excellent. I loved his characterization of John Brown and Owen Brown in particular. In style, this book reminded me a great deal of Mark Twain, particularly Huckleberry Finn. McBride’s portrayal of John Brown is sympathetic yet realistic. Through the voice of his narrator, Henry, we have a full picture of a complicated man: a religious zealot called by God to end slavery and a man who truly believed all people are equal. I honestly haven’t read enough about the real John Brown to know if the characterization is completely accurate, but it definitely rings true.

I love it when historical fiction asks me to research, too, and this book had me checking out other sources so I could learn about John Brown. Confederate President Jefferson Davis once said that what he feared was “thousands of John Browns.” It’s interesting to ask what might have happened had John Brown not conducted his raid on Harper’s Ferry or engaged in the skirmishes in Bleeding Kansas. Would the war have happened later? Would the South have organized in the face of ardent abolitionism? In any case, it’s difficult for me not to admire his dedication to the cause of freedom for African Americans at a time when that was not just unpopular but illegal. His tactics were violent, but it’s probably true that nonviolent protest would have accomplished nothing. After all, it took a bloody war to resolve the question of slavery, and the question of racism is still open.

I appreciated McBride’s invention of Henry as a narrator. He offered an opportunity to interpret John Brown’s actions through the lens of one of the enslaved people Brown was attempting to free and also to offer an outside perspective that is both sympathetic and critical of Brown. This balance makes it easier for McBride to draw a more complex picture of Brown and his followers than if he had chosen a narrator from among them or even a further outsider.

There is a chunk of the story in the middle when Henry is separated from Brown that I didn’t find as enjoyable. During this section, Henry is working in a hotel/whorehouse and falls in love with one of the prostitutes. However, he is disguising himself as a girl, so it’s complicated. I’m wondering now, as I finished the book, if that section added to the story or not. I suppose it depends on whether the reader sees this as a story of John Brown or a story of Henry Shackleford. I tend toward the former, and I will admit that part of the book slowed down the story’s momentum a bit for me, but not enough for me to dock any stars.

One literary aspect I appreciated was McBride’s clever use of motifs. For example, on several occasions, Brown wants to stop and pray when the group is in danger, and his son Owen is often the one to tell him to wrap it up so they can get out of danger. Another example is Brown’s directive to Henry to “hive the bees,” or try to rouse support for Brown’s cause among the Black population. He brings both motifs back touchingly at the end of the novel. We know how John Brown’s story ends, but McBride managed to make it satisfying and true to the characters he created. The first thing I did upon finishing this book is to check out Deacon King Kong, another of McBride’s novels. I wanted more. I can’t wait to watch the film!

five-stars

Review: We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, Fintan O’Toole

Review: We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, Fintan O’TooleWe Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole
Published by Liveright ISBN: 1631496530
on March 15, 2022
Genres: History, Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 624
Format: E-Book, eBook
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five-stars

A quarter-century after Frank McCourt’s extraordinary bestseller, Angela’s Ashes, Fintan O’Toole, one of the Anglophone world’s most consummate stylists, continues the narrative of modern Ireland into our own time. O’Toole was born in the year the revolution began. It was 1958, and the Irish government—in despair, because all the young people were leaving—opened the country to foreign investment. So began a decades-long, ongoing experiment with Irish national identity. Weaving his own experiences into this account of Irish social, cultural, and economic change, O’Toole shows how Ireland, in just one lifetime, has gone from a Catholic “backwater” to an almost totally open society. A sympathetic-yet-exacting observer, O’Toole shrewdly weighs more than sixty years of globalization, delving into the violence of the Troubles and depicting, in biting detail, the astonishing collapse of the once-supreme Irish Catholic Church. The result is a stunning work of memoir and national history that reveals how the two modes are inextricable for all of us.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learned a great deal. As O’Toole argues in the Acknowledgments (and also in speaking engagements), his “life is too boring for a memoir and there is no shortage of modern Irish history” (587). So he combined the two and described the changes Ireland has undergone while sharing his personal stories and anecdotes as well as connections to and recollections of those events. The result is a thoroughly engaging read.

I appreciated O’Toole’s facility with a turn of phrase as much as his skill with organizing his ideas. I was glad I read the book on Kindle, as it’s a hefty tome at more than 600 pages, but I also felt freer to highlight and otherwise markup the text. O’Toole’s central argument is that Ireland has attempted to operate under a “doubleness… [a] permanent state of contradiction” (33) that O’Toole describes throughout the book as “a society that had developed an extraordinary capacity for cognitive disjunction, a genius for knowing and not knowing at the same time” (168). This capacity, O’Toole argues, prevented Ireland from progressing socially until the 1990s and from progressing economically until roughly the same time. The abuses of the Irish Catholic Church came to light in the 1990s, and O’Toole sees this as no coincidence. As I read, I kept thinking of how Sinéad O’Connor tried to cast light on these abuses and was ostracized and criticized for telling the truth. Ireland’s capacity to both know abuses were happening and pretend they were not resulted in mass emigration and trauma, but O’Toole believes Ireland may have “reached the point of accepting that half-knowledge—the ability to see clearly what is, while also acknowledging what is dark—is better than the swinging between the pretence of knowing everything and the denial of what you really do know” (569).

O’Toole thoroughly covers many major events in Irish history over the last 60 or so years, and I was especially interested in reading about the Troubles. One of my earliest memories of a news story that captured my attention was the hunger strikes in the early 1980s. I just couldn’t fathom how someone might stop eating to protest. I had a very simplistic understanding of the Troubles until recently. O’Toole argues that at least in part, admiration for martyrdom prolonged the Troubles. O’Toole explains that the hunger strikes were a part of this mindset: “We sacrifice ourselves. By doing so we show that life itself—including your life—is not the ultimate value” (325).  Thatcher’s Britain doesn’t get a pass. O’Toole criticizes the UK’s lack of understanding and treatment of the prisoners during the hunger strike. O’Toole says if the British government had allowed the IRA prisoners to wear their own clothes “a year earlier, dozens of people, inside and outside the prison, would not have died” (335).

I first heard about this book from a book review by Cullen Murphy in The Atlantic. The review intrigued me, so I purchased the book for my Kindle. I had a feeling I’d want to own this one and mark it up well. I have been on spring break for the last two weeks, and I wanted to go into Boston and get a library card from the Boston Public Library, so I visited their website to find out the requirements. The website advertised that Fintan O’Toole would be giving a talk about his new book at the library on Friday, March 18. It seemed like kismet. My son and I rode the train into Boston and enjoyed a great day wandering around the city, culminating our visit with a library visit to hear O’Toole speak. I was fascinated to hear him discuss his frustration with Brexit. He said that no consideration had been given to Northern Ireland in Brexit at all, but as he explained it, citizens of Northern Ireland are free to define themselves as Irish, English, or both. I didn’t know that. I also didn’t know that they can rejoin the Republic of Ireland any time a majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland decide they want to. I think it will be very interesting to watch how Ireland’s future unfolds, especially now that Brexit means the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is an EU border as well.

five-stars

Two Books You Should Read by Indigenous Authors

This week, I finished two books, both by indigenous authors. Postcolonial Love Poem is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz believes her mother was Native American but assimilated when she married Dunbar-Ortiz’s father. I highly recommend both books, which take on America’s history as a colonizing country—something the U.S. frequently pretends not to be.

Two Books You Should Read by Indigenous AuthorsPostcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Díaz
Published by Graywolf Press ISBN: 1644450143
on March 3, 2020
Genres: Poetry
Pages: 107
Format: Paperback
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Goodreads
five-stars

Natalie Diaz’s highly anticipated follow-up to When My Brother Was an Aztec, winner of an American Book Award. Postcolonial Love Poem is an anthem of desire against erasure. Natalie Diaz’s brilliant second collection demands that every body carried in its pages—bodies of language, land, rivers, suffering brothers, enemies, and lovers—be touched and held as beloveds. Through these poems, the wounds inflicted by America onto an indigenous people are allowed to bloom pleasure and tenderness: “Let me call my anxiety, desire, then. / Let me call it, a garden.” In this new lyrical landscape, the bodies of indigenous, Latinx, black, and brown women are simultaneously the body politic and the body ecstatic. In claiming this autonomy of desire, language is pushed to its dark edges, the astonishing dunefields and forests where pleasure and love are both grief and joy, violence and sensuality.

Diaz defies three conditions from which she writes, a nation whose creation predicated the diminishment and ultimate erasure of bodies like hers and the people she loves: “I am doing my best to not become a museum / of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out. // I am begging: Let me be lonely but not invisible.” Postcolonial Love Poem unravels notions of American goodness and creates something more powerful than hope—a future is built, future being a matrix of the choices we make now, and in these poems, Diaz chooses love.

My favorite poems in this collection were “American Arithmetic,” “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You,” “The First Water is the Body,” and “exhibits from The American Water Museum.” I liked them all for different reasons. I was familiar with “American Arithmetic” already. I think someone on Twitter pointed me in that poem’s direction a few years ago. It’s a clever use of statistics to make a point. “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You” plays with lyrics from “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I wanted to teach that poem this year, but we had a snow day, and I had to move some things around. I liked the two water poems for the messages about water and life. This collection was an excellent read on the train to and from Boston yesterday.

Two Books You Should Read by Indigenous AuthorsAn Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (ReVisioning American History, #3) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Published by Beacon Press ISBN: 080700040X
on September 16, 2014
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 296
Format: E-Book, eBook
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five-stars

The first history of the United States told from the perspective of indigenous peoples.
Today in the United States, there are more than five hundred federally recognized Indigenous nations comprising nearly three million people, descendants of the fifteen million Native people who once inhabited this land. The centuries-long genocidal program of the US settler-colonial regimen has largely been omitted from history. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz offers a history of the United States told from the perspective of Indigenous peoples and reveals how Native Americans, for centuries, actively resisted expansion of the US empire. Spanning more than four hundred years, this classic bottom-up peoples’ history radically reframes US history and explodes the silences that have haunted our national narrative.

I read this book in fits in starts. I first started to read it some time back, I forget how long ago, but I had to set it aside for reasons I no longer remember (probably grad school). I picked it up again recently as I was teaching a unit in my Social Justice class on Native history and literature. As advertised, this book examines the history of America through the eyes of indigenous people. I was looking for a bit more about more recent history, including activism on the part of the American Indian Movement and more recent strides such as the Indian Child Welfare Act (which is under threat) and cultural revival efforts. Still, this book was an interesting introduction to the many ways the United States’ genocide and war against indigenous people have impacted today’s events. For instance, I happened to note a politician on TV using the term “Indian Country” to refer to a country/territory hostile to Americans, and it was right after I had read in Dunbar-Ortiz’s book that the military still uses this term. The legacy of the horrible racism and greed perpetrated against indigenous people is still very much a part of our country today.

February Reviews

I fell a little behind in reviewing books. It seems like January and February are always the busiest months at my school. I finished three books in February and early March, some of which I counted for reading challenges.

February ReviewsCaste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Published by Random House ISBN: 0593230256
on August 4, 2020
Pages: 496
Source: Audible
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five-stars

The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.

“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”

In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.

Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.

While Wilkerson’s analogy between caste and race has been criticized, I found this book very interesting and illuminating. I agree with some of Charisse Burden-Stelly’s arguments in the article I linked. I don’t know enough to argue either for or against thinking of the U.S. as a race-based caste system, but it was interesting to see the ways in which the Indian caste system, the Nazi regime, and America’s racism were similar in construction. I will also add that it’s important to be cautious about comparing any system to Nazi Germany. The Nazis killed 11 million people. I would never argue that American racism or India’s caste system haven’t been deadly. Of course they have. As Sunil Khilnani argues in an article for The New Yorker, “Applying a single abstraction to multiple realities inevitably creates friction—sometimes productive, sometimes not. In the book’s comparison of the Third Reich to India and America, for example, a rather jarring distinction is set aside: the final objective of Nazi ideology was to eliminate Jewish people, not just to subordinate them.” In spite of these valid critiques, I found the book interesting, and I recommend it to people who want to understand racism.

February ReviewsJohn Keats: A New Life by Nicholas Roe
Published by Yale University Press ISBN: 0300124651
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
Pages: 446
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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five-stars

This landmark biography of celebrated Romantic poet John Keats explodes entrenched conceptions of him as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure. Instead, Nicholas Roe reveals the real flesh-and-blood poet: a passionate man driven by ambition but prey to doubt, suspicion, and jealousy; sure of his vocation while bitterly resentful of the obstacles that blighted his career; devoured by sexual desire and frustration; and in thrall to alcohol and opium. Through unparalleled original research, Roe arrives at a fascinating reassessment of Keats's entire life, from his early years at Keats's Livery Stables through his harrowing battle with tuberculosis and death at age 25. Zeroing in on crucial turning points, Roe finds in the locations of Keats's poems new keys to the nature of his imaginative quest.

Roe is the first biographer to provide a full and fresh account of Keats's childhood in the City of London and how it shaped the would-be poet. The mysterious early death of Keats's father, his mother's too-swift remarriage, living in the shadow of the notorious madhouse Bedlam—all these affected Keats far more than has been previously understood. The author also sheds light on Keats's doomed passion for Fanny Brawne, his circle of brilliant friends, hitherto unknown City relatives, and much more. Filled with revelations and daring to ask new questions, this book now stands as the definitive volume on one of the most beloved poets of the English language.

I checked this book out of my local library, and as I was writing this post, I discovered I must have purchased it about nine years ago. At any rate, Amazon says I did. I have no memory of buying it, and I could not tell you where it might be. However, I’m glad to learn that I have a copy of this book somewhere because I really enjoyed it. Nicholas Roe is extremely thorough. I have to admit I was really waiting to get to the part when Keats met Fanny Brawne. I have a girl crush on Fanny Brawne. However, I enjoyed meeting the Keats who emerges from the pages of Roe’s biography. The biggest scandal stirred up by this particular book was Roe’s speculation that Keats was an opium addict, or at least that he dosed himself with laudanum. I didn’t find that particularly shocking. If it’s true, Keats joined a great number of other people living in his era (and for that matter, our own, as we’re in the midst of an opioid epidemic). One aspect of Keats’s story that really struck me was that he knew immediately that he was dying when he contracted tuberculosis because of his medical training. He identified the blood sputum as “arterial blood.” How horrible it must have been to be a young man, just discovering his genius as a writer, only to understand he would not live. No wonder he wrote this remarkable poem:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

I’d love to read more literary biographies like this one. My one quibble with the book is that it had two image collections, including pictures of many people and places important to Keats, but no pictures of Keats. I mentioned this complaint on Twitter, and a writer acquaintance of mine said it might be true that Roe couldn’t afford pictures of Keats. When I asked if his press couldn’t have helped with that, she said maybe not. I find that to be puzzling, if true, especially as Roe describes some of the more famous images of Keats. I would think he’d want to have copies of those images, at least, in the book.

February ReviewsIreland by Frank Delaney
Narrator: Frank Delaney
Published by HarperAudio ISBN: 0060838833
on February 1, 2005
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 19 hours and 29 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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five-stars

From a land famous for storytelling comes an epic novel of Ireland that captures the intimate, passionate texture of the Irish spirit.

One evening in 1951, an itinerant storyteller arrives unannounced at a house in the Irish countryside. In exchange for a bed and a warm meal, he invites his hosts and their neighbors to join him by the wintry fireside, and begins to tell formative stories of Ireland’s history. Ronan, a nine-year-old boy, grows so entranced by the storytelling that, when the old man leaves abruptly under mysterious circumstances, the boy devotes himself to finding him again.

Ronan’s search for the Storyteller becomes both a journey of self-discovery, long unspoken family secrets, and an immersion into the sometimes conflicting histories of his native land. A sweeping novel of huge ambition, Ireland is the beautifully told story of a remarkable nation. It rings with the truth of a writer passionate about his country and in full command of his craft.

This book was utterly charming! I put out a call on Twitter for books set in Ireland, and everyone was recommending Tana French. I am not opposed to mystery or thrillers. I read them sometimes. But I was looking for this book, which no one was recommending—I found it on my own. I wanted to read something that captured the place and its people. Delaney was a fantastic narrator, and the book was shot through with humor. When I initially saw how long the audiobook was, I was nervous about finishing it before it was due to the library. I was only able to borrow it for 14 days, and it’s over 19 hours long! But I needn’t have worried. I was looking for excuses to listen to it. Part travelogue, part history, part myth, and all story, Ireland is highly recommended for anyone who wants to travel to Ireland through a book. It’s one of the most delightful books I have read in a long time. I won’t give away the ending, but I appreciated the direction Delaney took it.

I’m going to make an effort to finish writing reviews a bit more quickly, but we’re all caught up for now.

Review: Led Zeppelin: The Biography, Bob Spitz

Review: Led Zeppelin: The Biography, Bob SpitzLed Zeppelin: The Biography by Bob Spitz
Narrator: Rob Shapiro
Published by Penguin Audio on November 9, 2021
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
Length: 21 hours 35 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

From the author of the definitive New York Times bestselling history of the Beatles comes the authoritative account of the group Jack Black and many others call the greatest rock band of all time, arguably the most successful, and certainly one of the most notorious. Rock stars. Whatever those words mean to you, chances are, they owe a debt to Led Zeppelin. No one before or since has lived the dream quite like Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. In Led Zeppelin, Bob Spitz takes their full measure, for good and sometimes for ill, separating the myth from the reality with the connoisseurship and storytelling flair that are his trademarks.

From the opening notes of their first album, the band announced itself as something different, a collision of grand artistic ambition and brute primal force, of delicate English folk music and hard-driving African-American blues. That record sold over 10 million copies, and it was the merest beginning; Led Zeppelin's albums have sold over 300 million certified copies worldwide, and the dust has never settled. Taken together, Led Zeppelin's discography has spent an almost incomprehensible ten-plus years on the album charts. The band is notoriously guarded, and previous books shine more heat than light. But Bob Spitz's authority is undeniable and irresistible. His feel for the atmosphere, the context—the music, the business, the recording studios, the touring life, the radio stations, the fans, the whole ecosystem of popular music—is unparalleled. His account of the melding of Page and Jones, the virtuosic London sophisticates, with Plant and Bonham, the wild men from the Midlands, into a band out of the ashes of the Yardbirds, in a scene dominated by the Beatles and the Stones but changing fast, is in itself a revelation.

Spitz takes the music seriously, and brings the band's artistic journey to full and vivid life. The music is only part of the legend, however: Led Zeppelin is also the story of how the 60's became the 70's, of how playing in clubs became playing in stadiums and flying your own jet, of how innocence became decadence. Led Zeppelin may not have invented the groupie, and they weren't the first rock band to let loose on the road, but they took it to an entirely new level, as with everything else. Not all the legends are true, but in Bob Spitz's careful accounting, what is true is astonishing, and sometimes disturbing. Led Zeppelin gave no quarter, and neither has Bob Spitz. Led Zeppelin is the full and honest reckoning the band has long awaited, and richly deserves.

Oof. Okay, this book. I will start with the caveat that when I was in high school, Led Zeppelin was my favorite band. This was post-breakup, several years beyond John Bonham’s death, when Robert Plant had a flourishing solo career. I was 15, I think, when I first heard them on the radio, and I started buying up cassette tapes of their back catalog. I listened to them so much that when I put on one of their albums today, I still know them note-for-note. Over the years, I admit my interest waned, and I did not seek out many of the posthumous releases that have come out over the last 20 years or so. I don’t even own all of their albums in iTunes (something my 17-year-old self probably would have thought unthinkable). I haven’t read some of the books and memoirs, but I had read enough of them to know they’re generally hagiographic and fawning in nature. I had heard good things about this biography, so I decided to listen to the audio version.

This is a great biography. Spitz wasn’t able to interview the band, who (probably wisely) opted not to talk with him in the wake of #MeToo. However, he did interview many people I’d never heard from before. As a result, I learned many things about the band that I didn’t previously know, especially about Jimmy Page’s childhood, adolescence, and early music career. Even as a big fan of their music, I wasn’t aware of the extent to which the group was really Jimmy’s band with some hired musicians (essentially), or that they really weren’t friends with each other, or that their drug problems were that bad. On a surface level, I knew some of these things, but Spitz helped me understand these things and how they impacted the band. I had a pretty thorough knowledge of some of the groupie stories, but they were disturbing in the extreme in Spitz’s telling. I think other books tend to gloss over the stories or cast them in a different light, but Spitz shines a great big spotlight on them. These men did not believe women were fully-fledged human beings worthy of any sort of respect. That’s it. Led Zeppelin definitely suffers under the microscope. In particular, their manager Peter Grant, tour manager Richard Cole, and drummer John Bonham were thugs and should probably have done prison time—all three of them—for the violence they committed. Multiple assaults, rape, arguably attempted murder. The only shocking aspect of John Bonham’s death is that it didn’t happen sooner. In fact, it’s pretty shocking Jimmy Page didn’t die, too. I didn’t realize how close the band was to breaking up anyway when John Bonham died, either.

Spitz’s background in music is also handy when he’s describing their performances and recorded output. He takes a fresh look at their music, as he was not a fan prior to writing the book, and as such, he avoids some of the fanboy flattery that so many other books and articles engage in when discussing Led Zeppelin. In his hands, the music feels fresh and new. I consider it remarkable restraint that he didn’t excoriate “Hot Dog,” arguably the worst song they recorded. He mentioned the song just once. The last two albums were definitely a letdown after Physical Graffiti, which is probably my favorite of their albums. I caution Led Zeppelin fans about reading this one. Spitz is unflinching, and he may take them down a few notches in your estimation (he certainly did in mine). It’s hard to look away from the worst of their excesses with your respect for the band intact. Still, I thought it was a fascinating examination of the group’s stories and music.

five-stars