Thursday, January 2, 2014

Mrs. Poe, by Lynn Cullen

I came to the conclusion in the last couple of years that I don’t like poetry.  When I was younger, I used to be able to slog through it and pretend to care, but my patience with the art-form seems to have been used up and is no longer present in my matrix.  When I see verses of poetry in the books that I read, I’ll often skip over them – if the author really wants to make an important point with it, they’ll usually reinforce what they’re getting at in the next paragraph.  There is, however, one major exception to this rule, and that’s Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.  There is just something so dynamic and enthralling about that poem that I can read it over and over again, and I usually do when I drag out my omnibus volume of Poe’s works around Halloween.  When I saw my latest read at the book store, Mrs. Poe, by Lynn Cullen, I was intrigued, and thought this would be an excellent opportunity to learn something about Poe’s private life.

 Mrs. Poe is actually the story of Frances Osgood, who was a poet in her own right in 1840s New York.  When Frances’ husband deserts her and their children, she is forced to find ways to support her family herself.  To do so, Frances tries to publish her poetry, but the market and public tastes have recently changed because of the wide-spread popularity of Poe’s The Raven.  In order to keep her foot in the door of the publishing world, Frances attends social events where the literati of New York are present, and it’s in these settings that she meets Edgar Allan Poe himself, and starts a love affair with him.  The rest of the story is about Frances’ attempts to spark her creativity, her love for Edgar, and her anxiety over how she is perceived within the Victorian world-view of those around her.

What I so enjoyed about this work was the world that Cullen created to base her story in.  It’s clear that Mrs. Poe is a highly-researched story; Cullen was able to craft her plot set in a world of Victorian values, within the increased growth and dynamism of New York, and it’s coupled with a veritable who’s who of the era’s luminaries.  Frances and Edgar rub shoulders with Mr. Bryant, the founder of New York’s Central Park, Dr. Graham, famous for his nutritional crackers, and Samuel Morse, creator of the famous code used for telegraph communications, amongst others.  Every social opportunity was a chance for Cullen to illustrate to her readers how dynamic the era was, and how important it was in the foundation of American culture.  It was incredibly well done, and really enjoyable to read.

The characters that Cullen created were also a treat to read about.  It can be hard when an author is working with characters based on real people to make them believable and engaging, but Cullen was able to do so.  Frances is presented as a middle-aged mother of two who is desperate to be self-sufficient but also self-fulfilled, something all women can empathize with.  Edgar is presented, not as his reputation has become over the years as a frightening maniac, but as a man living with the scars of a difficult childhood and an extremely sick wife; he’s been humanized by Cullen beyond just being the creator of some of the best ‘shivery’ tales in American literature.  While the other characters in the story fade into the background against these two main characters, it’s hard to miss having a vibrant secondary cast, given how dynamic Frances and Edgar are.

The problem with the story of Frances and Edgar is that the historical record leaves much to be desired.  As I mentioned, they were living in an era when Victorian values influenced daily life, but it’s known that they trade love poems back and forth, that Frances got pregnant around that time (while she was estranged from her husband), and that several poem after they would appear to have broke off their affair implies they had one.  But, because we can’t know for certain when, where or why they broke-up, Cullen has had to extrapolate and create a reason; I think one of the only flaws this book has is the reason why Frances broke off with Edgar – it seems way over the top and unbelievable, even for the master of the mysterious that Poe was.  However, this one plot point is minor (the writing was on the proverbial wall before it occurs), and doesn’t really detract for the larger whole of the book.

So, final verdict?  I would definitely recommend this book.  I found it to be engaging, interesting and dynamic in terms of the characters, the history, and (for the most part) the plot.  I think if you’re a fan of Poe, you’ll be a fan of this work which proposes a back-story for the man behind the stories.  If you’re new to Poe, I still think you’ll enjoy this book for the way that it’s written and its plot.  So, pull your chair up under your pallid bust of Pallas (which should be found just above your chamber door), and dive into this one – it’s a great read!

The Violin of Auschwitz, by Maria Angels Anglada

There is something about the literature the resulted from the Holocaust that is always a draw for me.  I think it’s a combination of the utter horror of the situation, and yet the need to find a redeeming scrap of humanity in it.  My latest read, The Violin of Auschwitz, by Maria Angels Anglada, was able to provide that balance in the situation, and the result is a wonderful little story about finding beauty in a horrible situation.

The Violin of Auschwitz is the story of Daniel, a Polish Jew who was sent to one of the Auschwitz satellite camps during the Second World War.  Though he was a violin maker, when the camp guards asked him what his profession was, he told them he was a carpenter.  This lie found him working in the camp Commander’s home and, when he repaired a violin that was being used at a party for the Commander he was given the task of building a new violin for the Commander’s collection.  Daniel’s story is about the struggles to create something beautiful in the ugly world he finds himself in.

Maria Angels Anglada is a Catalan author of note, and so the version of The Violin of Auschwitz that I read was a translation by Martha Tennent.  Like a lot of translations of literature I’ve read, I found the language and sentence structure that was used to be a bit distracting from the story as it didn’t flow as naturally as it could have.  Because of this, I find it hard to comment on Anglada’s writing style; I’m not sure what’s her and what’s the translator, or who created the problem(s).

As for commenting on the characters, I don’t feel I can really do that either.  This book is short – it’s just over 100 pages, and it jumps between various people in modern-day Europe and the camp.  Because it’s so short, there’s no real chance for character development; Daniel seems nice enough, as does his friend Bronislaw, but we know nothing of who they were before the war, and very little of who they are after.  As for the other characters, they are even less known to the reader.

All in all, I think the purpose of this book was two fold; first, to give the reader an idea of what the daily life of the prisoners in the concentration camps was like in it’s repetitive nature and the all-encompassing terror the inmate experiences, and second, to show that humanity didn’t desert everyone when those camps were founded – it may have been the goal of the Nazis to destroy the humanity of their victims, but the desire for beauty is an intrinsic human element that can’t be destroyed until the very end of a life.

So, final verdict?  I would say read this book.  It’s a quick read, but it’s important that we are constantly reminding ourselves the horrors of the past to ensure they are never repeated.  More, The Violin of Auschwitz is a beautiful story of human endurance in the face of unimaginable cruelty.  

The Second Empress, by Michelle Moran

Of all the things that Napoleon Bonaparte did during his reign, the one thing that has always pissed me off the most was the way he dropped his wife, Josephine, when she couldn’t give him an heir.  This irrational dislike of the man began in my earlier teens, before I knew a whole lot about this career, and yet, even after learning about his uses and abuses of power (especially in Egypt and Russia), what I’ve always kept coming back to is his cold-hearted, cruel setting aside of his wife.  I know, I know – hundreds of thousands dead, and I focus on the guy’s private life.  But what can I say?  I am an obstinate historian and feminist….  However, as I’m always eager to learn more about history, when I saw my latest read at the book store, The Second Empress, by Michelle Moran, I felt it intrigued and wanted to learn more about the situation.

Here’s a potted history of the situation which gave Moran the inspiration for her book: after almost 15 years of marriage, and without the presence of an heir, Napoleon, feeling his vulnerability as an emperor without a true claim to his throne, put aside his first wife Josephine and married the daughter of the Austrian Emperor in hopes of having children to be the founder of a dynasty.  Marie-Louise was married off to Napoleon when she was 18 years old, and gave him his much-desired son within the year.  However, within a year of the birth, Napoleon declared war on Russia, which was the beginning of his end; by 1815, Napoleon was defeated, and Marie-Louise returned to Austria with her son.

Moran’s book tells the story of three people during the period of 1809-1815; Marie-Louise, Pauline Borghese (Napoleon’s sister), and Paul Moreau (Pauline’s chamberlain – or personal butler – and a survivor of the Haitian revolution against the French).  It’s an interesting way to split up the story to provide additional context and insight into the situation.  Marie-Louise is the focus of the story (she is the ‘second empress’ – this was her official title, as Napoleon allowed Josephine to keep her title) and provides context on Napoleon as a husband and emperor; Pauline provides the context and background information on the politics of the era and Napoleon as a person; and Paul provides the reader with information about court life Pauline’s life.  Each character is well-developed, engaging, and provides enough of a presence to move the story forward.

The one flaw I found with this book was the way Moran implied there was a sexual relationship between Napoleon and his sister.  I don’t know if this was the case, but it seemed like an author taking license with long-dead historical figures.  But other than that, it’s clear that Moran’s work is well researched, and she doesn’t feel the need to make that fact obvious; a lot of historical fiction authors will find primary sources and use them in a ham-fisted way so that readers feel like they’re sitting through a history lecture.  While Moran clearly used a multitude of sources, she either included them as letters in the text, or used a deft hand at incorporating them into the flow of her story.  It was very well done.

Moran’s writing style is one that I really enjoy.  It wasn’t until I was halfway through the book that I realized that she was the author of Madame Tussaud, which I had also read and enjoyed.  In both books, Moran found the balance between history and humanity in order to engage her readers.

So, final verdict?  I would say read this book.  It did nothing to rehabilitate Napoleon in my eyes (if he can ever be), but it was a wonderfully written, well researched, and incredibly interesting historical fiction on the life of the women in Napoleon’s court, and the people around him.  I don’t think you have to be a history buff to enjoy this book.

A Year of Reviews in Review - 2013

At the start of 2013, inspired by author Joe Hill (@joe_hill) and Harper Collins’ #50BookPledge, I decided to start keeping a list of the books that I was reading to see how many I really read throughout the year.  My final count of books for 2013 was 115!  I might have read more this year, inspired by the fact that I was keeping count, but there’s really no point in keeping a list if I don’t go back and do some sort of review/summary as well.  So, here’s some thoughts on the books that I read this year.

To start off with, I didn’t blog about all the books that I read.  When I really need to decompress, I read a lot of romance novels.  I don’t blog about these, because they’re pretty much the same story told over and over again, with enough variations to make them palatable.  

But of the books that I did read and blog about, I’d say there are a few distinct categories: popular fiction, fiction, non-fiction, series, and classics.  I consider ‘popular fiction’ to be the books that have gotten a lot of attention either in the media or the blogosphere and that have a big following.  Here are my thoughts about some of the best (and worst) reads in each category.

Popular Fiction
I’d have to say that my favourites in this category were Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker, and Seven for a Secret, by Lyndsay Faye.  While I was a little late to the party on it, I would also include Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan.  I think what each of these books have in common are engaging characters, a unique perspective on story telling, and authors with an incredibly readable writing style.  If you’re looking for a good read, I’d highly recommend these works.

The one book that really fell flat for me, however, was The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion.  Regardless of all the positive hype around it, I found I didn’t enjoy it, and would only recommend it if rom-com films are your be-all, end-all go-to entertainment.

While these works of popular fiction are eye catching at the bookstores, there were a whole host of other works of fiction that I read this year that are worth mentioning.  Some of the best include Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, and Longbourn, by Jo Baker.  Again, these are all books that I would highly recommend for their plots, characters and readability.

By far, I think the best non-fiction book that I read this year was John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which is his account of one of the busiest and deadliest climbing seasons on Mount Everest.  The topic, coupled with Krakauer’s writing style, created an amazingly compelling account of life and death, and the hubris that human fall victim to.

Other non-fiction that I enjoyed reading this year were Antonia Fraser’s Love and Louis XIV, Alison Weir’s Children of England, Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, and Trudy Duienvoorden Mitic and J.P. LeBlanc’s account of Halifax’s role as an entry-point for immigration into Canada, Pier 21.  Each author managed to address their topic material with a humanity and accessibility that made learning about different aspects of history enjoyable to me.

There were also some non-fiction works that were more fun to read than necessarily educational, and I would highly recommend anything by A.J. Jacobs, such as Drop Dead Healthy, and any of the essay collections by David Sedaris, such as Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

In reviewing my list, I see that I got through a lot of book series this year!  I think the ones that I enjoyed most were the Thursday Next Series by Jasper Fforde and the Lilly Bard Mysteries Series by Charlaine Harris.  Honourable mention also goes out to Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer Series.

Like all series that I read, these were ones that inspired me to rush out and buy up all the books in the run, so that I could stay immersed in the works of the authors.  I think it’s the best praise a reader can give an author when they’re will to spend more time and money on them!

I generally have to remind myself to read literary classics that have withstood the test of time and fickle publishers.  This year, I added Roxana, by Daniel Defoe, The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen, and Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell to my ‘read’ column.  Truth to tell, I didn’t really enjoy them as much as some of my other reads, but I’ll keep pushing forward on this quest of mine to be well-versed in the classics if for no other reason than to say that I am…

News about Eight Bookcases
This year was a busy year for my blog too!  I introduced a new look over the summer to celebrate the blog’s second anniversary, and I started a new feather called Choose Your Own Adventure Interview, where authors are sent a series of questions about their creative background and habits; a big thank you to Lyndsay Faye, Robin Sloan, A.J. Jacobs, and Eva Stachniack for humouring me and participating!

Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit to having added two extra bookcases to my collection.  There’s no way I’m re-branding though, so the name stays!

Well, that’s my year in review!  I hope you enjoyed reading about my own reads as much as I enjoyed them and writing about them!  I’d encourage everyone to check out some of the books mentioned above, and to tell me about your favourite reads of the year in the comments below.  Now, go curl up with a good book!