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

Mid-March Reviews

I’m in spring break for school and catching up on some recent book reviews.

Mid-March ReviewsKeep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change by Maggie Smith
Published by Atria Books ISBN: 1982132078
on October 6, 2020
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 224
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-stars

Perfect for fans of Anne Lamott and Cheryl Strayed, this is an inspiring and uplifting collection of essays and quotes on creativity and resilience by the award-winning author of the viral poem Good Bones.

When award-winning poet Maggie Smith started writing daily Twitter posts under the title “Keep Moving” in the wake of her divorce, they unexpectedly caught fire. People around the world connected to her short, inspiring quotes which brilliantly captured the complexities of the human heart. Funny, wry, and profound, Maggie’s writing has been and continues to be a form of healing for herself and countless fans.

Now, you can experience her outstanding and healing prose with this powerful and evocative collection. Featuring some of her most popular posts and essays, Keep Moving also includes new and never before published writing. Gorgeously and lovingly wrought, this is the perfect gift for anyone looking for a daily dose of optimism and spiritual nourishment.

This book is mostly encouraging aphorisms and short meditations. I found some of it helpful, hence four stars, but I prefer Maggie Smith’s poetry.

Mid-March ReviewsDavid Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Narrator: Richard Armitage
Published by Audible Studios on February 9, 2016
Genres: Classic
Length: 36 hours 30 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

David Copperfield is the story of a young man's adventures on his journey from an unhappy and impoverished childhood to the discovery of his vocation as a successful novelist. Among the gloriously vivid cast of characters he encounters are his tyrannical stepfather, Mr Murdstone; his brilliant, but ultimately unworthy school-friend James Steerforth; his formidable aunt, Betsey Trotwood; the eternally humble, yet treacherous Uriah Heep; frivolous, enchanting Dora Spenlow; and the magnificently impecunious Wilkins Micawber, one of literature's great comic creations. In David Copperfield—the novel he described as his 'favourite child'—Dickens drew revealingly on his own experiences to create one of the most exuberant and enduringly popular works, filled with tragedy and comedy in equal measure.

My husband and I listened to this one. First, it’s completely easy to understand why this novel has always been popular and remains a classic. It’s a delight from start to finish. Betsey Trotwood has to be one of the most brilliant characters ever conceived, and David’s old nemesis Uriah Heep is horribly realistic (surely Charles Dickens knew a guy like this, right?). Richard Armitage’s narration is amazing. His acting talent is on full display in the various voices; his Uriah Heep is entirely unctuous. Every time he says “Uriah writhed,” you can feel it. Gross. To be fair, Dickens’s writing suffers a bit from the addition of an annoying-young-damsel-who-is-supposed-to-be-attractive-for-some-reason-no-one-can-figure-out. I noticed it in A Tale of Two Cities and to an extent in Great Expectations, but Dora takes the cake. I thought she was stupid and annoying and completely incompatible with David. What a cast of memorable characters. What a great book. I’m glad I finally read it.

Mid-March ReviewsSongs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie
Narrator: Kristen Sieh
Published by Random House Audio on June 22, 2021
Length: 10 hours 45 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
three-half-stars

A scintillating debut from a major new voice in fiction, Songs in Ursa Major is a love story set in 1969, alive with music, sex, and the trappings of fame.

Raised on an island off Massachusetts by a mother who wrote songs for famous musicians, Jane Quinn is singing in her own band before she's old enough to even read music. When folk legend Jesse Reid hears about Jane's performance at the island's music festival, a star is born—and so is a passionate love affair: they become inseparable when her band joins his on tour. Wary of being cast as his girlfriend—and haunted by her mother's shattered ambitions—Jane shields her relationship from the public eye, but Jesse's star power pulls her into his orbit of fame. Caught up in the thrill of the road and the profound and lustful connection she has with Jesse, Jane is blind-sided by the discovery she makes about the dark secret beneath his music. Heartbroken and blackballed by the industry, Jane is now truly on her own: to make the music she loves, and to make peace with her family. Shot through with the lyrics, the icons, the lore, the adrenaline of the early 70s music scene, Songs in Ursa Major pulses with romantic longing and asks the question so many female artists must face: What are we willing to sacrifice for our dreams?

I wanted to like this book more. It suffers from the fact that Daisy Jones & The Six and The Final Revival of Opal & Nev exist and it’s not as strong in comparison. This novel is sort of a thinly-veiled story of James Taylor and maybe Joni Mitchell set mostly on a fictionalized version of Martha’s Vineyard. I think there are some anachronisms to start with. For example, “What Would Jane Do” based on “What Would Jesus Do?” might be a bit out of time. While the WWJD saying goes back to the 1800s, its resurgence only dates to the 1990s. It felt out of place for Jane Quinn’s fans to pick it up. At one point, Jane’s record label guy (I forget what exactly his role was, but he discovered Jane) had an answering machine. I guess they existed prior to the 1980s, but they were not widely used. The fact that things DID exist doesn’t mean they were WIDELY USED, hence the feelings of anachronism. These were the two most glaring issues, but they were not the only ones. The other issue was a spoilery plot point. I won’t divulge it, but it felt like a cheat when it was revealed because the author used third-person limited and focused on Jane. It’s one thing for Jane to keep something from Jesse, but it’s another for her to keep it even from the reader. I understand why the author felt the need to save the secret, but I didn’t like the way it was handled, and it was at that point that the book lost me. If you’re going to have a protagonist lie to the reader, you need to pull it off with a bit more finesse. I finished it because I’d become invested, and I did enjoy part of the journey, which is why it ultimately landed on 3.5 stars.

Review: Possession, A. S. Byatt

Review: Possession, A. S. ByattPossession by A.S. Byatt
Narrator: Virginia Leishman
Published by Vintage ISBN: 0679735909
on October 1, 1991
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 555
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.

Man Booker Prize Winner (1990)

I first read this novel about 20 years ago on my husband’s recommendation, and I felt like revisiting it. It’s even better than I remembered. The blurb doesn’t do Byatt’s genius justice. Not only did she invent a fictional love story between two fictional Victorian poets, but she also managed to build a world of literary criticism around the poets, replete with territorial academics and tongue-in-cheek digs at some of the wild theories academics espouse about symbolism and meaning. On top of all that, she wrote poetry and critical excerpts purportedly the work of her characters. All of this serves to make this novel and its characters very real. You might swear, after reading the book, that you also had to read Randolph Henry Ash in school and also couldn’t make any sense of him (just as a few of the characters say).

Ash appears to be based on Robert Browning, and this supposition is strengthened by the fact that Byatt’s mother was a Browning scholar. She likely heard many of the things that later cropped up in her book around the dinner table at home. Christabel LaMotte seems to be a composite of writers like Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and Charlotte Brontë. The scholars studying their work seem pretty recognizable figures in academia. I think this book might potentially have a narrow appeal. I’m sure English literature nerds, poetry lovers, and anyone interested in Victorian literature would enjoy it, but beyond that, the poetry passages are purposefully dense and difficult, and I’m not sure the general reading public would find the plot thrilling. (I did.) If your interests lie within that narrow window, reading this book will provide great rewards.

Because a good chunk of this novel is set in the 1850s-1860s, I’m counting it as my first book in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge for 2022. I’m also counting as a book set in the United Kingdom (a small part is set in France) for the European Reading Challenge. See my reading challenges page for more.

five-stars

Review: In the Midst of Winter, Isabel Allende

Review: In the Midst of Winter, Isabel AllendeIn the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
Published by Atria Books ISBN: 150117813X
on October 31, 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-stars

New York Times and worldwide bestselling “dazzling storyteller” (Associated Press) Isabel Allende returns with a sweeping novel about three very different people who are brought together in a mesmerizing story that journeys from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala in the recent past to 1970s Chile and Brazil.

In the Midst of Winter begins with a minor traffic accident—which becomes the catalyst for an unexpected and moving love story between two people who thought they were deep into the winter of their lives. Richard Bowmaster—a 60-year-old human rights scholar—hits the car of Evelyn Ortega—a young, undocumented immigrant from Guatemala—in the middle of a snowstorm in Brooklyn. What at first seems just a small inconvenience takes an unforeseen and far more serious turn when Evelyn turns up at the professor’s house seeking help. At a loss, the professor asks his tenant Lucia Maraz—a 62-year-old lecturer from Chile—for her advice. These three very different people are brought together in a mesmerizing story that moves from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala in the recent past to 1970s Chile and Brazil, sparking the beginning of a long-overdue love story between Richard and Lucia.

Exploring the timely issues of human rights and the plight of immigrants and refugees, the book recalls Allende’s landmark novel The House of the Spirits in the way it embraces the cause of “humanity, and it does so with passion, humor, and wisdom that transcend politics” (Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post). In the Midst of Winter will stay with you long after you turn the final page.

In the Midst of Winter is my first Isabel Allende, and I enjoyed it. The story kept me turning pages, wondering what would happen next. It was a deceptive book in that it reads like a cozy mystery, to a certain degree, but it tackles some fairly important issues, such as the Disappeared in Chile in the 1970s and 1980s and the plight of Guatemalans living with violence in the present day. It also touches on depression, cancer, alcoholism, and human trafficking. There is a surprising amount of humor in the novel, but I never felt Allende wasn’t treating the subjects with seriousness. Some aspects of the ending will not surprise, but others might keep readers guessing.

I read this book because Twitter friends and founders of the hashtag #THEBOOKCHAT are planning to discuss the book on January 23, and I wanted to be able to participate in the chat—talking about books with other adults is always fun for this high school English teacher. Otherwise, I would likely never have read it, and I’m glad I did. It was a nice way to start off the reading year. It examined some serious social justice issues but included some dark humor and warmth. The characters were fully realized and well-drawn. I’m excited to participate in the chat with my Twitter friends in a couple of weeks.

four-stars

Review: Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro

Review: Klara and the Sun, Kazuo IshiguroKlara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, Sura Siu
Published by Random House Audio on March 2, 2021
Length: 10 hours 16 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

'KLARA AND THE SUN' IS A MAGNIFICENT NEW NOVEL FROM THE NOBEL LAUREATE KAZUO ISHIGURO - AUTHOR OF 'NEVER LET ME GO' AND THE BOOKER PRIZE-WINNING 'THE REMAINS OF THE DAY.'

'KLARA AND THE SUN,' the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her.

'KLARA AND THE SUN' is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: What does it mean to love?
In its award citation in 2017, the Nobel committee described Ishiguro's books as "novels of great emotional force" and said he has "uncovered the abyss of our illusory sense of connection with the world."

Kazuo Ishiguro seems to me, more than any other author living, to be writing to explore what it means to be human. Where does our humanity reside? How do we remember? How are we remembered? Or, as Josie’s father asks Klara in one of the most profoundly moving parts of the book, “Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you believe there is such a thing?” That passage was the first part of the book to cause me to burst into tears—it was not the last—and as I explained to my husband, it reminded me of this essay, “Joyas Voladores” by Brian Doyle, adding more dimension to the essay (which, honestly, didn’t make me cry the first time I read it but now makes me cry because I associate it with this passage). Ron Charles argues in his review of Klara and the Sun that ” the real subject, as always in Ishiguro’s dusk-lit fiction, is the moral quandary of the human heart.”

I have yet to finish an Ishiguro novel without bawling, and this book was no exception. As with his other novels, in Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro’s narrator has a compelling voice. Her childlike propensity to hope, her belief in the healing power of the sun, is simply heartbreaking. It’s hard not to draw parallels to both The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, and both of those novels also have memorable narrators who struggle to make sense of the mysteries of the human heart as well. There is something different in Klara’s struggle to please, to understand. She has the lack of agency of Kathy in Never Let Me Go and the outsider observational perspective of Stevens in The Remains of the Day, but she’s somehow more innocent. The ending of the book just wrecked me.

This book is one of the best I read this year. It has me thinking about what it means to be human and how much of our humanity we have lost over the last several years. Prepare the tissues if you read it. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Superb.

five-stars

Review: Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family, Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C. Denlinger

Review: Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family, Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C. DenlingerShelley's Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family by Stephen Hebron, Elizabeth C. Denlinger
Published by Bodleian Library ISBN: 1851243399
on January 15, 2011
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction, Poetry
Pages: 192
Format: Paperback
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Goodreads
five-stars

It is difficult to think of a family more endowed with literary genius than the Shelley family—from the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, novelist Mary Shelley, to Mary’s parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft—all were authors in their own right. Using extensive archival material Shelley’s Ghost explores the making of this remarkable literary family’s reputation.

Drawing on the Bodleian Library’s outstanding collection of letters, poetry manuscripts, rare printed books, portraits, and other personalia—including Shelley’s working notebooks, Keats’s letters to Shelley, William Godwin’s diary, and the original manuscript of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—Stephen Hebron charts the history of this talented yet troubled family. After Percy Bysshe Shelley’s drowning in 1822, Mary published various manuscripts relating to both her husband’s and her father’s lives, and passed this historical legacy to her son, Sir Percy Florence Shelley and his wife, Lady Jane Shelley. As guardians of the archive until they bequeathed it to the Bodleian in 1892, Sir Percy Florence and Lady Jane helped shape the posthumous reputations of these writers. An afterword by Elizabeth Denlinger of the New York Public Library offers an additional perspective, exploring material relating to the Shelley family that slipped beyond the family’s control.

An unparalleled look at one of the most significant families of British Romantic literature, Shelley’s Ghost will be welcomed by scholars and the many fans of this enduring literacy legacy.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was the poet who made me fall in love with poetry. I can’t claim I always understand what he says, but he captures something that really spoke to me as a high-school student with dreams of being a writer, too. Later, I took a course in college called Late Romantic Literature. My university was on the quarter system at that time, and each quarter was 10 weeks long. I recall we spent two weeks each on Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Mary Shelley. I don’t remember what the other two weeks’ focus was. The course only deepened my appreciation for the Romantic poets, especially Shelley. About ten years ago, I was given this book after entering a contest. The goal was to record yourself reciting a Shelley poem, and the best entry would win a signed edition of this book. I didn’t submit the best entry, but I submitted one of only three entries, so the Bodleian decided to give all of us a copy. It was rather nice of them to do, and I started to read the book, but one thing happened and then another, and I’m sad to say I let the book sit on my bookshelf. I finally read it over my winter break.

The images in the book are gorgeous. I wish I were better able to read the letters and manuscripts photographed for the book, or perhaps that full transcriptions had been provided in an appendix. Unfortunately, the Bodleian has taken down the exhibition website as the technologies used to build and maintain it are obsolete. You can see some of the exhibition in this video:

I am not sure to what extent this exhibition was permanent or that visitors to the Bodleian could see it today, but the exhibition book captures beautiful photographs of everything from artwork to manuscripts. The text of the exhibition book presents the history of the family from William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft through Percy Florence Shelley and his wife Jane, Lady Shelley. Percy Florence Shelley was the only child of Percy Bysshe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley to survive to adulthood. I found myself particularly interested in Lady Shelley as she turned out to be something of an eccentric, and her devotion to the memory of her late father- and mother-in-law may be one reason why we have so many of the family’s manuscripts and belongings. She seems to have adored her mother-in-law, Mary Shelley.

I really love seeing the handwriting of writers, and this book includes several images from journals, notebooks, and letters written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and her parents William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. I was particularly intrigued by the chapter on Shelley’s notebooks. Shelley drowned, along with his friend Edward Williams, when his boat the Don Juan capsized off the coast of Italy. How poignant and sad that Shelley had a tendency to draw boats in his journals. I was also struck by the work Mary Shelley did to secure her husband’s literary legacy while fighting her father-in-law’s wishes to bury all of his son’s work, especially as Mary needed her father-in-law’s support to ensure her son, Percy Florence Shelley, had a proper education and inherited the Shelley baronetcy. (I’m not sure she cared as much about the title as she did that her son was educated and had the support he needed.)

I was moved by William Godwin’s letter to his daughter in February 1823 (some months after Shelley’s death):

Do not, I intreat you, be cast down about your worldly circumstances. You certainly contain within yourself the means of your subsistence. Your talents are truly extraordinary. Frankenstein is universally known; &, though it can never be a book for vulgar reading, it is every where respected. It is the most wonderful work to have been written at twenty years of age that I ever heard of.

I wonder if she felt at all encouraged that her father, widely considered a great philosopher and writer in his time, felt this way about her work, and not because she was his daughter, but because she was good.

I think anyone with an interest in Romantic poets or Shelley, in particular, will enjoy the beautiful images in this book. The text may or may not illuminate the family history, depending on the reader’s familiarity with the broad strokes of their lives. It’s a beautiful book and one I’m happy to own (even if it took me a decade to finally read).

five-stars

Review: The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, Dave Grohl

Review: The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, Dave GrohlThe Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl
Published by HarperAudio on October 5, 2021
Genres: Memoir
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

So, I've written a book.

Having entertained the idea for years, and even offered a few questionable opportunities ("It's a piece of cake! Just do 4 hours of interviews, find someone else to write it, put your face on the cover, and voila!") I have decided to write these stories just as I have always done, in my own hand. The joy that I have felt from chronicling these tales is not unlike listening back to a song that I've recorded and can't wait to share with the world, or reading a primitive journal entry from a stained notebook, or even hearing my voice bounce between the Kiss posters on my wall as a child.

This certainly doesn't mean that I'm quitting my day job, but it does give me a place to shed a little light on what it's like to be a kid from Springfield, Virginia, walking through life while living out the crazy dreams I had as young musician. From hitting the road with Scream at 18 years old, to my time in Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, jamming with Iggy Pop or playing at the Academy Awards or dancing with AC/DC and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, drumming for Tom Petty or meeting Sir Paul McCartney at Royal Albert Hall, bedtime stories with Joan Jett or a chance meeting with Little Richard, to flying halfway around the world for one epic night with my daughters…the list goes on. I look forward to focusing the lens through which I see these memories a little sharper for you with much excitement.

I loved this book. It’s one of the best memoirs I’ve read; I’d rank it right up with Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run. I was exactly the right age when Nirvana broke. I was a sophomore in college. I turned 20 the month Nevermind was released. All these years later, I still think “Smells Like Teen Spirit” captures the Gen-X zeitgeist. In the immortal words of Kurt Cobain, “Oh well, whatever, never mind.”  I mean, that’s pretty much the Gen-X ethos.

My favorite stories from the book (in no particular order):

  • Dave Grohl rescheduled a show in Perth, Australia, necessitating a ridiculous trip from Australia to the US and back just so he could take his daughters to the Daddy/Daughter Dance and honor his tour obligations. On the flight back to Australia, he suffered from both food poisoning and turbulence.
  • Grohl played drums with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on Saturday Night Live. Tom Petty apparently gives looks that tell entire stories. Apparently, Grohl nearly became a permanent Heartbreaker.
  • Grohl’s Republican father disowned him when he dropped out of high school to pursue music (with his mother’s blessing). His father’s parting words were classic.
  • Grohl bought himself the Joan Jett Barbie on a shopping trip with his daughters. Later, Joan Jett stayed with the Grohls at their house and read bedtime stories to Violet Grohl, Dave’s daughter.
  • Grohl apparently lived in a haunted house and had an encounter with a medium who told him his dreams about UFOs were real.
  • After Kurt Cobain’s death, Grohl retreated to a remote part of Ireland. His encounter with a hitchhiker with take your breath away, but I don’t want to give it away.

Grohl handled some aspects of his story with class: he has plenty of reason to blast Courtney Love, but he never even mentioned her in the book. Likewise, he maintained the privacy of his ex-wife and ex-girlfriends. He lays all of his success at the feet of his mother, and truthfully, she sounds like a lovely person. I definitely want to read her book now that I’ve read his.

Grohl’s memoir is aptly titled, for he is a born storyteller. I was highly entertained for the entire ride, and if you pick up this book, too, I highly recommend you listen to Grohl read the audiobook (you will not be disappointed).

Grohl put together an epic playlist with all the songs and/or artists he mentioned (thanks to my sister for sending it to me; she’s the biggest Dave Grohl fan I know).

five-stars

Review: The Death of Vivek Oji, Akwaeke Emezi

Review: The Death of Vivek Oji, Akwaeke EmeziThe Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
Narrator: Yetide Badaki, Chukwudi Iwuji
Published by Penguin Audio ISBN: 0593211480
on August 4, 2020
Length: 7 hours 38 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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three-stars

Named one of the year’s most anticipated books by The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more. What does it mean for a family to lose a child they never really knew?

One afternoon, in a town in southeastern Nigeria, a mother opens her front door to discover her son’s body, wrapped in colorful fabric, at her feet. What follows is the tumultuous, heart-wrenching story of one family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious. Raised by a distant father and an understanding but overprotective mother, Vivek suffers disorienting blackouts, moments of disconnection between self and surroundings. As adolescence gives way to adulthood, Vivek finds solace in friendships with the warm, boisterous daughters of the Nigerwives, foreign-born women married to Nigerian men. But Vivek’s closest bond is with Osita, the worldly, high-spirited cousin whose teasing confidence masks a guarded private life. As their relationship deepens—and Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis—the mystery gives way to a heart-stopping act of violence in a moment of exhilarating freedom.

Propulsively readable, teeming with unforgettable characters, The Death of Vivek Oji is a novel of family and friendship that challenges expectations—a dramatic story of loss and transcendence that will move every reader.

I read this book as part of the Book Voyage: Read Around the World Challenge for September: read a book set in Africa. I had been wanting to read The Death of Vivek Oji for some time, and friends had recommended it. I also read it in the wake of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s attack on the author, Akwaeke Emezi, which made the rounds on Twitter and revealed Adichie has anti-trans sentiments, so I thought reading this book might be one way to support the author.

I’m not really sure why the story didn’t grab me. I think because Vivek/Nnemdi was an ancillary character in her own death, even though Emezi gave her a voice to narrate some of the chapters from her grave. Instead, this was the story of everyone else’s reactions to her death—yes, I get that this was the point—and especially due to the fact that no one was using her proper pronouns until the end, I was finding it hard to really follow her as a character. How did she identify? I felt like it mattered that the reader understand this important fact of her life. I felt like there was a bit too much going on to make the story gel for me. Osita’s conflict over his sexuality and relationship with his cousin, Juju’s conflict over her sexuality, the infidelity of Juju’s father, Juju being a girl instead of a boy, and the Niger wives’ experiences as ex-pats married to Nigerian husbands. Any one of those topics would have been ample material for a novel, but put together made the novel feel like it didn’t quite cohere for me.

On the other hand, the writing is very good, and the perspective Emezi offers is fresh. I understand that voice is paramount in Emezi’s work. Kavita’s grief over the loss of her child was palpable and very hard to read. For me, she is the character who emerges as most memorable, and I would have loved a focus entirely on her story as she wrestled with her grief and found out the truth about her child’s gender identity after that child’s death. The audiobook narrators were brilliant as well, and I highly recommend listening to this on audio with the caveat that it is hard to follow as the story shifts in time. In fact, that might be the reason it didn’t quite grab me. However, even though this book wasn’t for me, I recognize what Emezi is doing and look forward to reading other works they write.

three-stars

Review: A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

Review: A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill BrysonA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Richard Matthews
Published by Books on Tape on October 17, 2003
Genres: History, Nonfiction, Science
Length: 17 hours 47 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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four-half-stars

Bill Bryson has been an enormously popular author both for his travel books and for his books on the English language. Now, this beloved comic genius turns his attention to science. Although he doesn't know anything about the subject (at first), he is eager to learn and takes information that he gets from the world's leading experts and explains it to us in a way that makes it exciting and relevant. Even the most pointy-headed, obscure scientist succumbs to the affable Bryson's good nature and reveals how he or she figures things out. Showing us how scientists get from observations to ideas and theories is Bryson's aim, and he succeeds brilliantly. It is an adventure of the mind, as exciting as any of Bryson's terrestrial journeys.

I have read quite a few Bill Bryson books this year. I enjoy his comic voice, which is evident in this book, though not as strong as in the other books I read. Partly, it’s the subject matter. Still, he manages to explain some complex topics in an accessible way and be entertaining at the same time. I was reminded in particular of my courses in anthropology, astronomy, and weather and climate from college as I listened. I was surprised I remembered so much.

The book might be a little out of date. I think it was originally published in 2003, and I have a whole grown-up son living in my house who was published the same year. As such, given the scientific nature of the book’s topics, I believe some of the information to be out of date. For example, Bryson asserts in the books that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens did not breed and even argued that the results might be similar to a mule (!). Well, I’m not sure when scientists discovered that’s not true, but the current prevailing thought is that they did, and not only did they, but many people the world over carry Neanderthal DNA. That was one example that I caught. It’s tricky because what we understand and the science behind it changes all the time.

Still, this was an enjoyable read, and I highly recommend the audiobook. The narrator is not Bryson, but he’s great.

four-half-stars