Going home again

dickinson homeI have written previously about my hesitation in reading books about places I consider home, fiction or non. Yet they do have a strong appeal — which is why my husband and I have for the last three years led a group at The Studios of Key West called Reading Key West. So when I stopped by the Key West Library a couple months ago and saw a novel in the new books section called Amherst, I grabbed it.* Then I circled around it for a week or two.

I had another reason to worry about this book. Besides the familiar territory thing, I’m wary of novels about real people, especially writers. These seem to be having a moment, with the works of Paula McLain, Erika Roebuck and the like. I’m not dead set against them. But I worry, because the fictional representation of any real person’s life feels even more fraught when that person is a writer.

Eventually, though, I picked it up. And wound up loving it – especially the historical sections, which recount the infamous love affair of Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin, with a young neighbor, Mabel Loomis Todd.

Their story is interspersed with a contemporary story, a young British screenwriter wants to write a movie about the love affair and is visiting Amherst for research. Oddly, the contemporary part felt less authentic to me though I appreciated it as the story of a young woman coming to grips with love and what it may mean in her life. But the entire book was propulsive, even if I kind of knew the broad outlines of the Todd-Dickinson affair and the role Mabel Todd played in getting Emily Dickinson’s poems out to the world. I’d like to read more of William Nicholson’s books – and since he’s a screenwriter, too, I’d really like to see him take a shot at the movie about that passionate, a little bit tragic, ultimately Victorian couple. With Emily lurking around upstairs in her white dress, of course.

Reading and enjoying Amherst gave me the courage to finally pick up another Emily Dickinson book  I’ve had around for awhile – Nobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl. I don’t want to give this book a bad review, because I think it was well-done. But I am definitely not the right reader. It’s YA, for one thing, and though I do read some YA it’s almost all in the fantasy/dystopia area. More problematic is it’s in the genre corner I have a real problem with, which I usually refer to as Jane Austen Solves Crimes. Only in this case it’s Emily Dickinson. And she’s a teenager! Some of it just didn’t make sense to me, for how people in 19th century small town New England would behave. I wonder what I would have thought of this book as a younger reader. I might have liked it a lot – and it might have led me to get really into Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

 

* Here I would like to offer some props — and thanks — to the good people at the Key West Library who are responsible for ordering new books. Twice recently I have come across books that I hadn’t previously heard of in the New Books section and in both cases, Amherst and The Fair Fight, they were books I really enjoyed. I appreciate a serendipitous discovery via browsing more than I can say in this age where everything is linked and recommended. So thank you, Key West Library staff! As a reader I appreciate your discernment and your commitment to bringing us books. So do many other readers, even if they don’t realize what you’re doing for them.

 

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New books by writers I have met in real life and interviewed

Olivia, subject of From The Notebooks of a Middle School Princess. Illustration by Meg Cabot.

Olivia, subject of From The Notebooks of a Middle School Princess. Illustration by Meg Cabot.

Meg Cabot has recently returned to the world of the Princess Diaries with two new books, one for adults and one for middle schoolers. As an (alleged) adult, I can attest that Royal Wedding is a fun read. Princess Mia is all grown up and facing some regular grown-up issues as well as some only-royalty-of-a-small-European-principality issues. And interesting fact about From The Notebooks of a Middle School Princess: Meg illustrated the book — which is copiously illustrated — herself. I talked to Meg about the books, as well as about why she lives in and sometimes writes about Key West. The interview ran in one form on WLRN and in another in The Miami Herald.

I can’t help, while I’m talking about Meg Cabot, to give a shout-out to a couple other series by her that don’t get anywhere near the attention of the Princess Diaries or some of her other books but that I think are worthwhile reads. The first is Insatiable and its sequel, Overbite. They’re vampire books for adults that both riff on and gently satirize Bram Stoker’s original. They’re fun and funny, without being outright satire. The other is the Abandon trilogy, which is a YA series of books based on the Greek myth of Persephone — and set in Key West!

And I recently read the The Fatal Flame, the final volume in Lyndsay Faye’s excellent trilogy about Timothy Wilde, an early New York policeman or copper star. I interviewed Lyndsay for Littoral, the Key West Literary Seminar’s blog, before she came to the 2014 Seminar about crime fiction. When I got hold of this final volume, The Fatal Flame, I read it as slowly as possible, savoring my first immersion. I almost never do that, especially with crime fiction. If you’re interested in historical fiction, historical crime fiction, 19th century New York or any of the above, give these books a try. Can’t wait to see what Lyndsay gets up to next.

 

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Meh-Reading

Photo by Stuart Miles via freedigitalphotos.net

Photo by Stuart Miles via freedigitalphotos.net

One of my favorite terms to come out of Internet TV criticism is hate-watching — which obviously describes the syndrome of compulsively watching a TV show that annoys you. I’ve found a similar syndrome with books: hate-reading. I don’t do it much, because why would you, especially when you no longer work at a library where you may be called on for your assessment of Fifty Shades of Grey or the latest Dan Brown? Though I recently had an unhappy experience with an audiobook on a road trip that could be called hate-listening. That’s particularly bad because you can’t skim, which is what I’ve done when hate-reading titles like Angels & Demons or Fifty Shades of Grey. With an audiobook, in a car, your choices are to give up or to keep suffering so you can find out what happens in this crappy book that you’ve already given your attention for way too many hours.*

Lately, though, I’ve been trying to just quit reading books that annoy me. Like The Marriage Game by Alison Weir. (Dear Alison Weir, you are such a good writer of history. Please stick with nonfiction.) The Nancy Pearl rule is a good one — give every book 50 pages and then you can quit. If you’re over 50, subtract your age from 100 and that’s the number of pages you have to give it. I aspire to the Nancy Pearl rule.

Except … it doesn’t really help in the situation I recently found myself in, which can only be described as meh-reading. It was especially uncomfortable since it was a digital advanced review copy that I had requested. I gave it an honest and not malicious review on the site that gave me access to it, which I think is your primary obligation. And I don’t think it was a bad book. It wasn’t one of those cases where it may well be a good book just not to my taste. It was an OK book, just good enough to keep me going but with enough drawbacks that I was kind of annoyed with myself for devoting the time to it.

I suppose this is no worse, and possibly better, than spending the time watching sports or TV re-runs or whatever other ways we waste our time these days.

The book, in case you’re wondering, is Newport by Jill Morrow. Historical fiction, which is my most-read genre these days. But it just didn’t pass the plausibility test for me, and I’m a pretty generous suspender of disbelief in fiction.

*The audiobook that tortured me on my recent road trip was The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler. Don’t do it! There is so much better-written crime fiction, even specifically Scandinavian crime fiction, out there. This one was just ridiculous. Stieg Larsson, if you weren’t dead you’d have a lot to answer for …

 

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Two for the road (or the couch, or the deck chair)

williams_charles_theboxingbaronessI hadn’t heard or read anything about The Fair Fight before I saw it on the new books shelf at the Key West Library. But I’m a sucker for historical fiction so I checked it out. And you know what? It was great. Really great. After a recent disappointment reading a book set in the same era, it was especially nice — and because the book is the first from this writer, Anna Freeman. Here’s hoping for many more. And here’s to my local library (and yours, I imagine), which not only keeps providing all kinds of services to people who really need them but also, because someone decided to order an interesting book, provided me with an excellent reading experience that I didn’t even know I was looking for.

The story is told from three different points of view, which has something of that Rashomon effect — the same events from different angles — and also provides a rich understanding of the time as it would be lived by a poor young woman, a wealthy young woman who has been orphaned and afflicted by smallpox, and a younger son who links his destiny to his feckless, alcoholic school friend (who also happens to be the brother of the wealthy young woman).

Ruth, the poor young woman, is making her way as a prizefighter. Apparently this did happen — women boxed. She is born into a brothel without many prospects but her fighting does bring her to the attention of a large and strong young man.

I don’t want to go too far into the plot … rather I recommend this book to anyone who read and enjoyed Blindspot, Jane Kamensky and Jill Krementz’s homage to 18th century romps. That has a very different setting and plot but is also told through the points of view of two characters. And it shares the appreciation of the era but with a contemporary enough sensibility to allow us to access it without feeling like we’re inhabiting a museum piece.

papadobleI mentioned in my last post that I really liked another book I checked out from the library — The Trip to Echo Spring. But as long as I’m wholeheartedly recommending books … This examines the lives of six writers through the lens of alcoholism. Which would be easy enough to do reductively, but Olivia Laing manages to do it expansively, to see her subjects as tragic figures, true, but also as gifted, inspired and at times heroic. For Key Westers, there’s the connection with Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. But for anyone interested in 20th century American literature, it’s a thoughtful survey and investigation into the lives of six of our greatest writers — besides Williams and Hemingway, she writes about F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and John Berryman. Even though I’d already read a lot about most of those guys (all except Berryman), I found it an interesting and enlightening book — the best kind of literary biography where the writer and the work are connected without assuming that all writing is autobiographical or some kind of psychological puzzle to be deciphered. I also liked following Laing’s travels around the U.S., much of it by rail, as she visited the places that the writers lived. It sounds like she wandered through my neighborhood (Tennessee Williams’ house is about three blocks from mine). I wish I’d known — I would have invited her in for a drink.

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Hits, misses and a couple that went out of the park

FullSizeRender-4Some recent reading that exceeded my expectations The novel I really want other people to read so we can talk about it is Euphoria by Lily King. It’s historical fiction, though set in the early 20th century in New Guinea, not my usual time and place. It’s based on a period from the life of Margaret Mead though heavily fictionalized. And it’s mesmerizing. Also short enough that you can, essentially, read it at one sitting. It was one of those books where I was intentionally making myself slow down so it would last longer. The Trip to Echo Spring is about writers and drinking. It’s a portrait of six alcoholic writers, two of whom are Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway, so it features a Key West visit. But it’s not a clinical or sociological dissection – more of a literary meditation and travelogue as the author travels around the country visiting some of their homes. I first heard about The Mechanical from this NPR review, the good people at the FKCC Library were nice enough to order it at my suggestion and I read it in less than two days. It more than lived up to my admittedly unformed but moderately high expectations. I’m not a huge reader in this genre but I do occasionally enjoy it and this was a good one. Books that lived up to my expectations: I finally got around to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which got a lot of praise last year and deserves it. Kind of like The Passage (which it even references) but without such a large cast of characters … or the wait for two more installments. I picked it up looking for distraction during a period of high anxiety over a work project. I’m not recommending dystopian stories as a remedy for anxiety but it did take my attention away from my own silly worries. Because why get all consumed with anxiety about a work project when other people are trying to survive a pandemic and its aftermath? C.J. Sansom’s new book in his excellent Shardlake series, Lamentation, is both a classic crime fiction procedural and a fine helping of Tudor intrigue, all in one nice big book. It’s nice to have him back, even if he goes through the usual trials. Maybe even more so. I tried out another historical series, this one set in Anglo-Saxon Britain, with Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell – that was good enough that I’ve got the second volume on request. And I liked The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn, which I found browsing the library’s new books shelf – it’s not exactly Tudor intrigue though it’s told from Jane Seymour’s point of view. It’s about her sister-in-law, her brother Edward’s first wife, who is shipped off to a convent after a sexual scandal. It’s not for everyone though I’d say more for the Hilary Mantel interior psychology fans than those who favor the Philippa Gregory court/sexual power plays. I finally finished The Plantagenets by Dan Jones, a nice meaty nonfiction tome that covers the dynasty from Henry II to Richard II. I am even hopeful I will remember my Edwards and Henrys, at least for a little while. I got through my next work of nonfiction a lot quicker. After a disappointing spy thriller last month, I took a flyer on a thriller based on an ad in Entertainment Weekly. Maybe not the best basis for selecting books but you know what? White Plague was just fine. I was glad the library had it in the collection — I might have regretted spending my own money on it. But I didn’t regret the few hours it took me to read it. Books that didn’t live up to my expectations: I bought The Skull and the Nightingale in hardcover and have had it on my shelf for a couple years. Why? I don’t really remember and when I finally read it — meh. Set in the 18th century but not the sort of romp that, say, Blindspot was. Interred With Their Bones  should have been right in my wheelhouse – a lost Shakespeare play McGuffin! Some scenes set in Shakespearean London. But this one strayed over the Dan Brown line of disbelief suspension. The Marriage Game by Alison Weir. Why does Alison Weir keep writing fiction? And why do I keep trying to read it? She’s such a good popular historian – but her fiction reads like some of the most wooden romance writing ever. Ugh. I didn’t finish this one. And you know I don’t do that very often.

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It’s Tudor Time!

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, the primary subject of Hilary Mantel's books. Damien Lewis is Henry VIII.

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, the primary subject of Hilary Mantel’s books. Damien Lewis is Henry VIII.

If you have any interest whatsoever in Tudor history and/or historical fiction about the Tudors then you already know that Wolf Hall, the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s two Booker Prize-winning novels, has finally reached the U.S. It’s on the PBS show Masterpiece and even if you don’t have cable you can still watch it, online at PBS.org or via the PBS app on your television-watching device.

I will be curious to talk to friends who are watching the show but have not read the books. Mantel’s books are masterful in their immersion into the worlds of their subjects but you really do need to immerse yourself. And there are some potentially confusing jumps around in time.

Mantel’s gotten a lot of press recently, but the best I’ve seen (OK, heard) is her interview with Kurt Anderson on Studio 360, the arts radio show out of WNYC. On the bottom of the page linked there is an extended version of the interview and it was worth it for me. I love hearing her talk about her relationship with these characters, and how she approaches historical fiction (or fictional history, as Anderson proposed she call her work). Especially fun is their discussion of Thomas More, hero of “A Man For All Seasons” but not exactly the best figurehead for religious liberty or freedom of expression, as Mantel points out. There’s also a nice, if short, interview with Damien Lewis, who plays Henry VIII, on the PBS site.

If any of this is making you crave some reading about Tudor times, specifically the reign of Henry VIII, I have some fiction recommendations. If you haven’t done so, and you like the TV series, you should read Mantel’s books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. The mini-series encompasses the events from both books, up to the execution of Anne Boleyn. Oh, sorry! Should I have included a spoiler alert?

I am a big fan of C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake novels — and hey, there’s a new one out after a long gap! They are mysteries but they stand on their own as satisfying novels and portraits of the period, from the point of view of a lawyer who once worked for Cromwell and keeps getting roped into the increasingly scary orbit around Henry’s court. Apparently the TV adaptation never happened but there’s a radio serial from BBC 4  . . . that is not available online. Rats.

The appearances of Mary Boleyn, Anne’s older sister and Henry’s former mistress, in Wolf Hall made me want to re-read Philippa Gregory’s best known book, The Other Boleyn Girl. Sometimes I like Gregory’s books and sometimes I don’t but I think this is one of the better ones. So is The Constant Princess, which tells the well-known tale from Katharine of Aragon’s point of view.

A couple others from writers who are less well-known: Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle is the story of Katherine Parr, Henry’s sixth and last wife and stepmother to Elizabeth. And Portrait of An Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett is about Hans Holbein’s introduction to the Tudor court, under the sponsorship of the family of Sir Thomas More.

There are tons more and lots on the nonfiction side, too, but these are the stories that have stuck with me.

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In praise of library ebooks

ebook image KWLNow that I no longer work at the library, I think I appreciate it even more. (Be nice to the librarians, people! Especially during season!) I especially appreciate the ebook collection — especially now that I no longer have to coach people through using it when the people who need the coaching inevitably don’t know their Amazon password, or insist they don’t have one, even though they own a Kindle. Or are understandably frustrated and confused at having to register with Adobe AGAIN to download an epub book. Or have some hand-me-down five-year-old off-brand e-reader …

But seriously, it’s getting easier! And once you get it down, it’s almost as easy as buying an ebook from Amazon or Apple, only without that part where your credit card gets charged. And it has the great benefit common to ebooks — instant gratification (as long as no one else has requested that title). I am currently #23 on a wait list for one of the library’s two ebook copies of The Girl On The Train. I’m #56 for one of the five print copies. Which will show up first?

But I digress. The point of this post is that I recently learned of two works of historical fiction, I suggested them to the library as ebook purchases and wham, there they were within a couple days. And besides appreciating the excellent responsiveness of my particular library (which I know from talking to other patrons is not just to me), this is to say that wherever you are, the chances are pretty good that your library welcomes your suggestions — that way they know that somebody wants the book. So check your library website, or ask next time you’re there. And if they don’t have or can’t get what you’re looking for, just browse around. Ebook collections are growing astonishingly fast so if it’s been a couple months, you might be surprised at what — and how much — you’ll find.

The books, by the way, were The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman, and The Tapestry by Nancy Bilyeau. Ariana Franklin was the author of the excellent Mistress of the Art of Death series, set during the reign of Henry II. Franklin, whose real name was Diana Norman, died in 2011. I was upset to hear that both because I really liked that series so I was saddened to hear of her passing — and because the last volume left things in a kind of precarious place. So selfishly, I was glad to see that her final book was taken up by her daughter, Samantha Norman — and even more delighted when I read on Goodreads that the daughter intends to take up the Mistress of the Art of Death series. The Siege Winter is not part of that series — it’s set earlier, during the civil war between the Empress Matilda, Henry II’s mother, and her cousin Stephen. But it’s a really good book that stands on its own. It’s not as much of a historical crime or mystery book as the others, but a piece of historical fiction. And it was nicely done. I’m only about halfway through The Tapestry and unfortunately am liking it less, even though it’s set in the Tudor court. Joanna is just a difficult heroine to inhabit sometimes, and some of her feelings and actions and motivations don’t seem to make sense. But I like it enough to stick with it to the end and recommend it for others who are hooked on the Tudor era for historical crime (C.J. Sansom, S.J. Parris, P.F. Chisholm, etc.). Hell, if nothing else, Bilyeau should get extra points for using her full first name and not initials, right?

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