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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

Lots of reviews of Lauren Groff‘s new novel, Matrix, reference her previous work, Fates and Furies, but as I read it, I kept thinking of the first book of Groff’s that I read, Arcadia. Arcadia was about a man who grew up in a utopian compound, and Matrix revisits the idea of an ideal community, this time in a 12th century abbey in England. It’s not ideal when the book opens and Marie de France arrives, sent by Eleanor of Aquitaine at the age of seventeen to be prioress. The abbey is poor and run down and the nuns are ill, old, and poorly organized. Marie, a large, homely woman who has already proven herself capable and strong in her short life, quickly takes things in hand. Matrix follows her life’s story as she makes the abbey prosperous, comes to love the community of nuns she cares for, and develops a distinctly matriarchal faith.

Marie is interesting, and not just because Groff creates a backstory that includes warrior aunts, a fairy ancestor, and women lovers including Queen Eleanor herself. I also enjoyed that Marie is both a smart and worldly leader and a mystic who has visions and writes poetry (the only bit of the real Marie de France’s story that is known). When still young Marie becomes Abbess, she realizes that the church leader with jurisdiction over the abbey “seems to believe this abbey of virgins to be a source of personal wealth.” Her response? “She must draw up herself a dummy account ledger to show the abbey’s great debt, which is false, for, she considers, to counter corruption, a similar corruption is only logical and right.”

Her visions give her spiritual and theological guidance — including an image of Eve and Mary in which Marie comes to see that rather than being the source of mankind’s fall and sinful nature, Eve is the first step towards mankind’s salvation, because she is Mary’s ancestress. But the visions also give her building projects — a labyrinth the cleverly hides the abbey from the well traveled roads which make it vulnerable, a building to house not only the Abbess’s quarters but also well appointed apartments for the wealthy widows who retire to the abbey (with their money) and schoolrooms for the young girls sent to learn how to be fine ladies (who will someday support the abbey they remember fondly), and a lock to harness a nearby marsh’s water supply, to divert it to the Abbey year round.

Marie’s own ambitions get her into trouble from time to time, but she maintains her rule, runs a network of spies in the great world beyond the abbey who keep her one (or more) steps ahead of both the crown and Rome, and manages to value her own abilities and achievements and those of her nuns while also maintaining her belief. She’s an astute manager, trusting her own judgement but also understanding when she needs diplomacy, prayer, or even forgiveness. And when Groff writes of Marie’s visions and views of the world, her prose sings, which is another way this book reminds me of Arcadia.

For Marie, Groff writes, “Good and evil live together; dark and light. Contradictions can be true at once. The world holds a great and pulsing terror at its center. The world is ecstatic in its very deeps.”

That is both beautiful and as true today as it was in the 12th century. This world is both beautiful and scary, and we live with contradictions that are true (and many that, as Marie herself would also affirm, are not). If you’re looking to escape all this into a beautiful, strange, and in its way, uplifting book, Matrix is a great choice. My only quibble is that I’m still considering the ending; I think I understand what Groff intended but it was strangely deflating for me. Still, I very much enjoyed Matrix.

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I’ve been reading but not blogging lately, but I’ve read so many good things I want to share briefly about each of them. The Computer Scientist and I just enjoyed a week off from work, as well, so there was more time to read.

First, I’m taking a class over the next two years at EDS at Union on social justice in the Anglican tradition and I have been doing the required reading for our fall semester:

What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls by Kelly Brown Douglas — Douglas is Dean of EDS at Union. This book is her answer to a student at my alma mater (Goucher College) where she taught for many years, who asked why Douglas, a black woman, was a Christian when Christianity helped establish white supremacist, and in particular anti-black, ideas in American culture and upheld racist policies and practices? The student’s question is understandable. What are we to do when some Christians claim or have claimed that violence — slavery and lynching, but also discrimination and dehumanizing teachings — is in line with their beliefs? Douglas wrote this book of theology to respond fully. I learned about “platonized” Christianity, closed monotheism, and other theological notions I can’t say I am completely sure I understand. I look forward to more fully discussing these topics with the community of learners. But what I took away is that it is a distortion of Christianity — and Douglas is clear that means a heresy — to terrorize people. And yet, there are Christians historically and today who believe they are “right” with God and the world when they do so, arguing and even persuading others through interpretation of scripture and tradition that this is so. She examines not only white but also Black churches’ use of power and distorted theology to enact and/or uphold ideas that devalue anyone for any reason (gender, class, sexuality, race, culture or nationality, for example). Her conclusion is that “In effect, the troubling legacy of “Christianity” suggests that it is a religion in which imposing discriminatory power can find theological cover. Hence the truth of Christianity is that is has generated at least two prevailing legacies: one that terrorizes and oppresses and another that empowers and liberates; the first is most defined by whiteness and the second is most defined by blackness.”

The course is going to examine how we can ask questions and stay in relationship with God and each other in ways that help bring the world closer to “God’s just future,” or beloved community, as Dean Douglas told us in our orientation yesterday. It sounds pretty daunting. I’m anxious to learn more.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone — Another book of theology, as well as an examination of lynching in American culture and the responses to our legacy of violent racism in Black activism, music and literature. Cone covers theology, art, literature, and music, as well as the civil rights movement and the history of lynching in America. I’m still processing all the different angles, but for me this book was an affirmation that white Christianity has been timid at best (as Cone describes in critiquing Reinhold Niebuhr, who he admires but finds wanting when it comes to engaging with race) in confronting racism, and has colluded in violence either by silence or by endorsing it with racist theology. Another important takeaway is that there are plenty of Black (and a few white) theologians, writers, artists, and advocates to learn from, people who understand and express in their creativity and resistance what Cone writes of the cross: “A symbol of death and defeat, God turned it into a sign of liberation and new life . . . .” He goes on to note: “Jesus . . . was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black people in America. Because God was present with Jesus on the cross and thereby refused to let Satan and death have the last word about his meaning, God was also present at every lynching in the United States . . . . Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America.” It seems to me that the many ways that our “principalities and powers” continue to lynch, through mass incarceration, police brutality, biased and racist criminal justice policies and procedures, educational and health inequities, and the monitoring, regulation, and criminalization of people because of their race, class, immigration status, or sexual orientation are also the cross in America. It’s a lot to take in.

We are also reading the 1619 project — which by the way is not about hating whiteness or white people, nor about saying that white people haven’t ever helped Black people in their struggle for equity; it is about offering information most of us have not been taught about the importance of Black Americans and their experiences in our history. And it’s about illuminating the legacy of slavery in contemporary America, as well as the painful truth that while some white people have joined the struggle for racial justice in this country, historically, many of us were unaware and/or silent. As historian Leslie M. Harris notes in an essay on the 1619 project, “It is easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history in order to present white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy.” At least two of the authors of the letter written by historians criticizing the project, Harris explains, Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz, gave relatively minimal coverage of slavery and Black experience in their early career, seminal works on American history, and even in more contemporary work, “have continued to fall prey to the same either/or interpretation of the nation’s history: Either the nation is a radical instigator of freedom and liberty, or it is not. (The truth, obviously, is somewhere in between.)”

Our reading list also includes two articles on reparations – one by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the other by Ta-Nahesi Coates. Both of which are terrific.

Which brings me to the next book, Reparations: a Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson. This book details the theological and scriptural case for reparations, and then in a clear and practical way lays out the steps needed, from “seeing” the existence and effects of white supremacy through “owning” the ethical response (from a Christian perspective, but anyone could find it useful), which they break into “restitution” and “restoration” through moving into the actual work of reparations: repair. I found this book inspiring as well as illuminating and it seems like a good next step for anyone who has been working on antiracism and wants to understand “what to do” now that you’ve learned about white supremacy. Spoiler: ask Black members of your community how you can support their priorities and efforts, rather than deciding for yourself what to do. Kwon and Thompson bring an ecumenical Christian viewpoint (whereas both Cone and Douglas write from the Episcopal tradition), which was interesting for me. I admit I sometimes take (false) refuge in the notion that I practice my faith in the “empowering and liberating” branch of the Jesus movement. It’s important, I realize, to acknowledge that no one denomination is that branch (not entirely, anyway) and that my own branch hasn’t always been either of those, and sometimes isn’t today.

Which leads nicely to another book I read for a discussion group earlier this summer, which is also on our course reading list, The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community by Stephanie Spellers. Spellers addresses many of the same issues Douglas and Cone do, but with a very current lens: given everything we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and the reckoning America is experiencing regarding systemic and intersectional inequities, what should the church do? This was a tough book to read and discuss. Spellers takes on the church as an institution aligned with empire and white supremacy. She imagines recent times as having cracked open the church, using the scriptural story of the woman with the alabaster jar of ointment that she cracks open to anoint Jesus with. Spellers asks readers to imagine that metaphor with her, and to think about how we now have to choose which way to go: patch it together or make something new? Do we go back to what we’ve been, without repenting for what we’ve learned? Or, borrowing Kwon’s and Thompson’s framework (seeing, owning, and repairing) and Douglas’s dual legacies (terrorizing/oppressing and empowering/liberating) do we figure out how to repair without just remaking the old structures that haven’t always been empowering and liberating? Spellers, like Kwon and Thompson, present examples and frameworks for thinking about how to move forward towards justice and beloved community.

The last book I read for the class is about another way to participate in the empowering and liberating work of faith: Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor by Liz Theoharris, co-founder of the current Poor People’s Campaign and longtime campaigner for justice with poor, unhoused, and low wealth people. I say campaigner with and not for, because the hallmark of Theoharris’s work and this book is that poverty does not preclude people from thinking, feeling, and acting on their own behalves. If you follow the Poor People’s Campaign at all you know that it is a coalition of people who are poor and their allies, exposing the structural inequities and the social mores that have created the false narrative that poverty is somehow poor people’s fault. Theoharris explains that but also really delves deeply into the famous biblical passage where Jesus says “the poor will always be with you” — which happens right after the woman with the alabaster jar anoints him with costly ointment and a man among his disciples scolds her, saying the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Through scriptural reflection and analysis, Theoharris explains how this passage has been distorted to defend economic inequality. She argues that in fact, Jesus was referring to Deuteronomy in noting that if people didn’t follow God’s call for justice, poverty would continue to exist. Again, this was eye opening and fascinating, and I am still digesting it.

My leisure reading also connects to the ideas in the course reading, especially that human beings (particularly those with power) have a tendency to interpret their way into defending viewpoints that harm others. I read Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens, a smart, thought provoking look at the many ways America does not afford the same freedoms and privileges to all citizens — only people who look “white,” speak unaccented English and dress in a way that does not reveal cultural difference can “pass” as American all the time, and anyone who doesn’t fit these conditions is likely to find themself having to defend their citizenship or face bias and inequity at some point. Lalami also examines sexism in a searing and personal chapter on the condition of women both in America and in Morocco, where she grew up. I found the book sobering, but also strangely hopeful. Lalami’s final chapter is “Do Not Despair of this Country,” taken from Frederick Douglass’s speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” Lalami describes what unconditional citizenship for all would entail, and explains how we get there.

She cautions that despair “is a gift to the status quo” and that therefore, we have to do what we can and remain hopeful. She suggests informing ourselves, voting, and looking to “the people who do the unglamorous labor, day after day, of confronting inequality and exclusion at a local level.” And she leaves readers with this important last thought: “In any discussion of change, there comes a time to choose partners. In the last few years, many opinion writers have urged dialogue and compromise. Only by talking about differences of opinion, the argument goes, can we hope to reach resolution. Certainly, there are disagreements that can be resolved through debate: the size of the transportation budget, say, or the allocation to Job Corps training programs. But some disagreements are not bridgeable. Separating asylum-seeking children from their parents, for example, is not an issue on which I see a possible compromise.” I appreciate this point; I think there have to be certain things that are not negotiable, and among those are human rights. She also goes on to point out that we also have to remember the partners who are not right in front of us — people in other countries who are also affected by our dialogues and decisions. Lalami’s insightful writing should inspire people to hope, and to take part, in some small way, to being and allowing others to be equitable citizens. Or what Dean Douglas calls, bringing about God’s just future.

I also finally read The Book Thief which I’ve had on my to-read pile for several months. During the pandemic, my dad re-read it and send me a copy. It’s certainly also about the way humans will interpret their way into defending harmful beliefs and practices. Markus Zusak‘s famous novel is about a young German girl whose brother dies as they are on their way to live with a foster family. Liesel’s new father realizes she can’t read and helps her learn how, and she has a new best friend next door, Rudy. Life gets more complicated as the war begins and in addition to having to deal with “the Party” which her father is reluctant to join, being hungry, and having to go to Hitler Youth activities, where Rudy is regularly bullied, Liesel soon has to keep secret that her family is hiding a young Jewish man, Max, in their basement. The novel is uniquely narrated by death, who cobbles together different perspectives, muses on the difficulty of his work, and shares snippets of thoughts and even pages of a book that Max creates for Liesel. It’s a story about people who manage not to despair and who try to do their part for justice even if that means giving up some of their own meager comfort to help others. And it’s a beautiful tribute to books and reading and writing, and their power to lift us out of even the darkest moments.

Another vacation read for me was Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. Our elder offspring gave me this for Christmas, and I had been waiting for a chunk of time when I could dig into such a meaty read.The Computer Scientist said “Do you know how many times you’ve looked up from that book and exclaimed, ‘Did you know . . .’?” It’s an eye opening read for anyone who grew up schooled in the white dominant American culture that taught exactly what the 1619 project counters: a national history centered in white experience. I went through public schools, got a “good” liberal arts undergraduate education in college, and have attained two masters degrees. And yet, what I’ve learned about Black history (and what little I know about Asian history, and Native American history) I have had to learn on my own. Even then, when I first began to learn, I still had to wrap my head around all that I didn’t (and still don’t) know or understand, all that I’ve been socialized to believe or accept. Stamped From the Beginning continued that education for me. Even as someone who has been trying to understand systemic racism it is mind blowing.

So many little things we take for granted as positive if we are white — like scientific research into genetics — can be, have been, and are being used for racist means, like “proving” that intelligence is determined by genes (it’s not). Even the stories I already knew seem shockingly fresh when Kendi brings them into this lengthy overall story. For example, the racist implications of certain policies (like standardized testing) and the manufacture of false and illogical narratives about drugs (marijuana was not considered dangerous even by substance abuse specialists until Reagan pronounced it dangerous, more government money has been spent on the “war on drugs” and stricter sentencing laws on drug possession than on deadly drunk driving). Kendi doesn’t limit himself to government policy in this book; social, economic, and cultural racism is also laid bare: disdain for and/or appropriation of Black culture, double standards or dominant cultural standards in dress, behavior, and language in schools and workplaces, false narratives and claims made with no evidence about affirmative action, Black parents, city life, and welfare. Anyway, I learned a great deal, and as with the reading for the course I’m taking, I am still digesting it all.

A small but very powerful book I also read last week is How Can I Live Peacefully With Justice?: a Little Book of Guidance by Mike Angell. Angell is rector at a church in St. Louis, and wrote the book after living in that community these past few years; he moved there just a few months before Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson in August 2014. He frames his discussion of peace and what it is and how we can live peacefully in terms of what he has learned by living in St. Louis and also through his longtime partnership with a human rights organization in El Salvador, but his guidance absolutely applies to all of us, wherever we live. Angell notes, “Living with peace means being willing to become uncomfortably vulnerable, and working for justice requires building unlikely relationships of trust.” He goes on to provide a brief but clear theological explanation of the relationship between peace and justice (which protestors even more clearly elucidate: “No justice, no peace”). And he tells us his own story — because one other aspect of living peacefully that he explains is that “We all, all of us, need to work to reconcile our own sense of self, our own identity, if we are ever to be able to reconcile with others. Peace only exists in relationship.” Angell gently guides readers through what that might look like, by being vulnerable himself. One important message he shares is that peace and justice, like everything related to bringing the world closer to God’s just future, is complicated, takes practice, and requires us to engage with questions that may not have answers.

On a much lighter note, I listened to the audiobook version of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, after a friend recommended it when I recounted clearing out some closets and shelves for my mother to make her house more manageable recently. The idea is pretty straightforward — clear out your stuff now, so you can live better in your old age and so that your family won’t have to do it after you die. The book is somewhat instructional with dashes of memoir as Magnusson recalls memories evoked by her own death cleaning. It was enjoyable.

And on the last evening of our week’s vacation at a little cottage by a small lake here in NH, I read a book that was on the bookshelf there: The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett, a mystery featuring a ninety year old sleuth, Queen Elizabeth II. My offspring gave me a ribbing last night for reading all this stuff about equity and justice and then indulging in a mystery featuring the ultimate symbol of wealth and empire. While the Queen solves the mystery, she relies on her Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi, a British Nigerian army officer, for help. Rozie learns that she is the latest in a long line of women who have helped Her Majesty solve crimes for decades. Okay, I get it, the Commonwealth is a vestige of colonialism. Seen another way (or am I interpreting away harm? I’m not sure) it is empire cracked open, an organization rebuilt in a post colonial world to acknowledge the relationality required for countries to collaborate globally. Anyway, while I do understand the controversies of monarchy I find the Queen interesting and this book made me laugh out loud (disturbing the Computer Scientist, who was trying to take notes on Always With Us? at the time) and I found it entertaining and enjoyable.

I promise not to go so long between posts or to mention so many books at once next time.

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I downloaded The Gate of Angels, by Penelope Fitzgerald, when I went on an unexpected trip recently. I didn’t read it on the trip, but I enjoyed it this week. A short novel, set in 1912, it takes place over a brief time in the lives of Fred Fairly, a fellow of the fictional St. Angelicus College at Cambridge who studies physics, and Daisy Saunders, a young woman whose parents have died who has recently been forced out of nurse training when she tried to help a patient in a way that violated the hospital’s rules. Daisy, trying to make her way to a private mental hospital in Cambridge run by a doctor she knows in hopes he’ll hire her, and Fred are both hit by a farm cart while bicycling, along with another bicyclist who disappears after the accident.

When they each wake from the accident they are in a bed together; the well meaning lady whose house they are in thought they were married. Fred is entranced and sets out to convince Daisy they should be. Fitzgerald tells us a little about each of them, how they grew up, what their families are like, how they’ve tried to make their ways in the world. Daisy’s story illustrates how difficult it was to be a woman in the early 20th century, particularly a woman who is alone. She navigates a dangerous world where she survives by working hard, keeping alert, and staying one step ahead of those (mainly men) who would prey on her.

Fred’s had an easier life, but early in the book he goes home to tell his family he has lost his faith — and his father is a parish priest. When he arrives his mother and sisters are busy making a banner for a suffragette march and no one much cares about this faith. His college, St. Angelicus, doesn’t allow fellows to marry and he spends much of his time following arcane traditions and rules. When he meets Daisy, and more importantly when the truth about the night of the accident comes to light, his questioning takes a different turn, and he realizes, and tells his undergraduate students, that “there is no difference whatever between rational thought and ordinary thought.” He goes on to say that what they are there to study — “energy and matter” — are part of their own selves, too, and that “scientists are not dispassionate. Your judgement and your ability to do good work will be in part dependent on your digestion, your prejudices, and above all, your emotional life.”

In addition to this emotional awakening by a man previously devoted entirely to science, there’s an element of mystery as the pieces of the story come together, there’s a sort of gothic ghost tale told by an elderly don as he considers the strange accident, and there’s a ridiculous scene where Fred, who has accidentally knocked out someone who has done Daisy wrong, carries the unconscious man through the streets of Cambridge with a fellow scholar, who chats away about other things and then suggests they leave him in a pile of grass clippings. And the writing is so delightful — descriptive, pointed, and wise. There’s a passage where Fred has asked for Daisy at the mental hospital, and the receptionist imperiously replies that there is no nurse named Saunders; technically true, since Daisy’s job is to iron linens. The doctor overhears and comes out of his office and scolds:

“Don’t, in your ignorance, amuse yourself by turning away my callers. You are the receptionist. Receive!”

And here’s a description of Daisy, towards the end of the novel, carrying a bag on her way to the station:

“Out in the road, carrying the overfull Jemima, she felt she looked like someone taking kittens out to drown and changing her mind at the last moment. The rain threatened to get worse. At one point, she had had a good, strong umbrella, but not now. She had lent it to one of the two cooks at Dr. Sage’s, and she hated asking for anything back. It took all the good out of it.”

The Gate of Angels is described as a historical novel, but is also very funny, and warm in its way. The ending is ambiguous but hopeful. A really delightful read.

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You may get deja vu reading this post, because I just recently reviewed another book about the packhorse librarians of Kentucky, The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. I was telling a friend about reading that book, because she lives in Kentucky and I wanted to know her thoughts about it. She suggested I read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Robinson. They both tell the stories of women delivering books in the mountains of Kentucky during the Depression. Apparently there has been some controversy, with Robinson feeling that Moyes may have taken material from her book. Honestly, it seems to me Facebook’s fault as much as anything — after Smithsonian ran an article about the horse riding librarians, stories have circulated regularly on social media, which keeps obscure but quirky stories circulating for a long time.

Having read both, I have to say that I didn’t think they were that similar, and that the things they both talked about — a woman being attacked by a drunken man, a black packhorse librarian, weddings, babies, certain books and magazines being delivered, religious intolerance, prejudice — seem common enough ideas that someone with an interest in the topic, the region, and the time period would have come across those ideas in their research. Anyone writing about women who were pioneering in some way would consider the ways they were kept in their place, including through assault. Anyone writing about the early 1930s (in Kentucky and many other places) would need to include racism, religious intolerance, bootlegging, and patriarchy.

Robinson’s book is about a “blue” woman, Cussy Mary, named after the town in France where her great-grandfather came from. Her skin is blue because of a genetic disorder called methemoglobinemia — her blood lacks an enzyme that is needed for oxygenation, so her skin has a blueish tint. I didn’t know until my friend told me about them that there was a community of so-called Blues in Kentucky. The entire book revolves around Cussy and her experience as a young woman who people fear, harass, and abuse because of her skin. Her love of books, dedication to her patrons and her sweet nature in spite of all the hardship, pain and grief in her life make her a lovely character. The brutality of the mining company, meanness of the prejudiced people who believe she is a heathen or worse, and extreme poverty of the Troublesome Creek area are vivid parts of the book. I appreciated that when the black librarian in town, Queenie, moves to Philadelphia and writes to Cussy about it, it’s not portrayed as a paradise.

There are some strange scenes that to me didn’t fit: for one, the town doctor who is later portrayed as kindly and well intentioned allows some horrifying mistreatment of Cussy at the hands of nuns in a hospital where he takes her to have some tests to determine why her skin is blue, but he later has an altercation with a doctor who wants to keep her overnight. And a sheriff also seems to act rather erratically and goes from being someone Cussy trusts to a maniac who beats someone up (ok, that’s pretty believable, actually). I suppose it keeps the characters from being one dimensional, but in both of these cases the out-of-character behavior gave me pause. I suppose the point was supposed to be that when it comes to skin color prejudice, even otherwise “nice” people act horribly.

I don’t see how anyone who reads the two books could think Moyes copied anything significant.The books have entirely different plots. Some details overlap, but again I think that is a matter of writing about something about which there are limited sources of information. Moyes writes about the librarians, two in particular, and focuses on their romantic lives, and the main source of conflict in the book is the idea that women living in a patriarchal, judgemental, and conservative society would want to have control over and enjoy sex. The characters who don’t want to marry in the two books have different reasons for that, and the babies in each book come from very different circumstances and storylines. Moyes also includes a murder trial that causes a fair bit of suspense and focuses on the extreme differences in circumstance between the rich and poor in her story. And as noted already, her main character observes things with an outsider’s view of Kentucky. Robinson focuses on Cussy, her reasons for serving as a librarian, her struggle with being physically marked as an outsider even though her “kin” go back generations in the area, and her developing sense of herself as more than a Blue person. Even though Cussy’s father is a miner and is organizing, there is almost no mention of the mine ownership, whereas Moyes makes the mine owner a major character who interferes with the women’s lives. Robinson describes the poverty of Cussy’s patrons very graphically, but we don’t hear much about the wealthy residents of Troublesome Creek and their cruel indifference to poverty is mostly implied, as the focus is on their colorism.

Both are good reads. As for why Jojo Moyes’s book is being made into a film? Well, the sex, I would think. Plus, she’s had a book adapted for film before. But Robinson is a bestselling author who has won awards, both of which are big accomplishments for a writer, so it seems to me both books did well.

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First a quick shout out for the most recent Maisie Dobbs mystery, The Consequences of Fear, by Jacqueline Winspear. I usually don’t review a series book (especially not book 16), and I just wrote about Winspear’s memoir, but I wanted to mention that this series continues to be very entertaining and intriguing.

As was The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I was thinking today that it’s a perfect example of fiction that deals with tragic events but manages to leave the reader hopeful. Actually, it left me deeply curious. I wished mightily that the main character, Esme Nicoll, was one of the real people Williams wove into her story. Unfortunately she’s entirely fictional but it’s a testament to debut novelist (and already accomplished scholar and writer) Williams that I believed she could be real, right up until I read the author’s note.

Williams was inspired by real stories about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and several of the characters Esme grows up knowing, and later working with, are actual people. I read a book about the making of the dictionary many years ago (by Simon Winchester, and so had Williams, and she noticed the lack of women. But she knew women were involved, notably editor James Murray’s daughters, and some of the volunteer contributors who sent in words or definitions. The OUP blog notes that Murray also hired a woman academic, which was uncommon at the time.

Esme is the daughter of one of Murray’s assistants, and as a small child she sits under the sorting table where the slips with words on them are organized. She develops a habit of taking slips from the floor. As she grows up she begins gathering words of her own, because she realizes that many of the words her friend, the Murray’s maid Lizzie, uses are never going to be in the dictionary because there aren’t published quotes to support them. She tells Lizzie that women sometimes use words differently, and those meanings are not reflected in the dictionary. Esme gathers those, too, writing up and stashing slips in a trunk under Lizzie’s bed.

Esme is a wonderful character, whose human imperfections make her very believable. Williams weaves in the story of Edith Thompson, real life OED contributor, sub-editor, and proofreader, by making her Esme’s aunt, a fascinating woman who has a big influence on Esme’s life. And she works in some astute observations about gender roles and class differences, as well as two key historical events that impact Esme and the other characters, and the making of the dictionary: the women’s suffrage movement and WWI. Williams includes lovely details about the workings of the Oxford University Press where the dictionary was printed, as well as other locations around Oxford, and the famous Scriptorium — a glorified shed — in the Murray’s garden where much of the work proceeded until Murray’s death.

But mainly she makes it entirely believable that a woman working on the dictionary might start a side project to recognize all the left out words. Gareth, a compositor at the press, finds Esme picking up slips of some of her collected words off the floor of the Scriptorium after a male assistant has dismissed her work as unimportant. Gareth asks her why words that are in common use aren’t in the dictionary. She explains where she gets her words. From “The poor. People who work at the Covered Market. Women. Which is why they’re not written down and why they’ve been excluded. Though sometimes they have been written down, but they’re still left out because they are not used in polite society. . . . They’re important.”

A delightful read. Entertaining, interesting, and full of heart and truth.

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A couple of summers ago I read and loved Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. My mom gave me Kimmerer’s first book, Gathering Moss, for my birthday last fall but I hadn’t read it yet. It’s the time of year when I admire the wildflowers (which some people call weeds) and mosses in our lawn (the less grass the better as far as I am concerned), so I pulled it out of the teetering pile beside my chair a couple of weeks ago.

Kimmerer opens the book by describing how we humans “contrive remarkable ways to observe the world.” We make powerful telescopes and microscopes, but, she goes on, we “are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust the unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.”

Among the things we don’t see? Moss. Gathering Moss is all about what Kimmerer has seen and learned of and from mosses as a biologist, professor, and mother. She writes with expertise but also with vulnerability. As in Braiding Sweetgrass, she combines indigenous and scientific knowledge about plants with stories about being human, and this book opens eyes, minds, and hearts to all that we could know if we paid attention, particularly to the natural world.

Jacqueline Winspear writes about her father teaching her to pay attention to the natural world in her memoir This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing. When I placed a hold on the new Maisie Dobbs book recently, I saw that Winspear had written a memoir. Since she’s written about how the Maisie books are based in part on the impact the two world wars had on her own family, I was intrigued. Readers of the series will notice people, events or places that are familiar, and in some cases Winspear points them out. I enjoyed hearing more about the hops harvest.

It is an interesting book, and very personal. Winspear writes lovingly but also with a frankness that reveals the difficulties she had as a child (including eye surgeries) and the challenging relationship she had with her mother. It’s a book infused with gratitude and appreciation for the many people in her life who were kind or generous or loyal, including her parents. This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing is also about being true to your ambitions — Winspear wanted to be a writer from early childhood but a test indicated she should be a teacher, a far more practical career in her parents’ view, and she spent many years working in education. But she did not forget her ambition, and eventually worked to realize it.

And that theme of being true to who you are and what you want to do also appears in a book I read last weekend, Jojo Moyes‘ most recent novel, The Giver of Stars. A departure from her other books, this one is historical fiction set mostly in a Kentucky coal mining town. It’s the story of a young English woman, Alice, who marries an American, son of a coal mine owner, and moves to Baileyville. She is lonely, tired of her overbearing father in law, uninterested in trying to fit into the gossipy local society, and confused about why her husband seems unattracted to her after a romantic courtship. When she attends a town meeting about a new mobile library service, a WPA project that is part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to improve literacy, Alice sees an opportunity to get out of her house.

She meets the other librarians — Margery, orphaned daughter of a notoriously violent moonshiner, Beth, only girl in a houseful of men, Izzy, carefully protected survivor of polio, and eventually Sophia, the only real librarian among them, a black woman who worked in Louisville but has come home to the mountains to care for her brother, who was injured in a mining accident. Alice finally has friends, purpose, and eventually, intrigue. I really enjoyed the story, even if it was bit dramatic. Moyes says in an author interview at the end of the book that she wrote it to highlight the real life horseback librarians, and that she traveled to Kentucky three times to research the book. She also noted that it made sense to her, an English woman, to tell the story from the point of view of an English main character, rather than try to make all the characters American, and I think that works well in the story.

Three excellent reads!

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We had 50 mile an hour winds overnight Monday night into Tuesday, and the cat and I were restless, listening to branches knocking into things. I finally decided I may as well read since I wasn’t falling back to sleep; also reading often helps me drift off. But not this time. Between the things that went bump in the night and the fact that The Cold Millions is hard to put down, I never really got back to sleep until early morning.

When I was describing this book to the Computer Scientist I explained that it’s set mostly in Spokane in the early 1900s and that I found the history interesting. He joked that he didn’t know there was anything interesting about Spokane. We lived in Seattle for five years, and Eastern Washington seemed like far off frontier. Jess Walter lives there, and through the stories of several different characters he shares bits of the city’s story, from occupation and murder of the indigenous people to the building up of the town into a place with glaring disparity between the very rich, who got that way exploiting the area’s natural resources (timber, mines, land) and the people who worked to extract that wealth for them.

The Cold Millions is mostly Ryan Barton’s story. Rye is a sixteen year old orphan when the book opens, but that doesn’t do justice to his situation. He’s had a whole spectrum of adverse experiences in his short life. The only person he has left is his older brother Gregory, or Gig. Rye goes to find him, and they stow away on train cars looking for work together, and eventually end up staying on the porch at a boarding house in Spokane run by a widow with an orchard in her backyard, who has promised them she’ll sell them the orchard so they can build a house among the trees. Gig is a self-taught man of ideas who joins the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, also known as the Wobblies. Among his few possessions are a few volumes of a five volume edition of War and Peace.

The IWW is planning a day of street speeches to protest the exploitative system of employment agencies, wealthy business owners, poverty wages, and abusive police. The city has banned speeches, so one by one people are arrested, and a riot breaks out. Eventually over 500 people are stuffed into the jails. That is all based on true events. As is the arrival of socialist speaker and writer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who arrives to protest the mistreatment of the prisoners, raise money for the IWW, and bring national press attention to the plight of the workers.

The trajectory of Rye’s life is altered by the riot, his (short) and Gig’s (longer) imprisonments, and the friends (and enemies) who circle around as he is freed from prison, helps Gurley, takes care of himself, and struggles to understand who he can trust or not. He is surprised that he, “Ryan J. Dolan of Nothing, Nowhere, having neither house nor bed, nothing a person might call a possession, somehow had a lawyer. Rye wondered if that, more than waking on a ball field or eagles, or George Washington’s hair, was what it really meant to be an American.”

Detectives and former detectives, the aforementioned lawyer, a pair of showgirls who perform with a mountain lion, a clothing salesman, a millionaire, machine shop workers, a librarian, the family of his Rye’s friend Jules who died after contracting pneumonia in prison, union members, police, all figure into the complex plot and what was, for me, a surprising climax to the story. Satisfyingly, there are some wins for the good guy (Rye) but Walter doesn’t make it all neat and tidy. And while this novel magnifies the brutality of its time, it also reflects some of the shameful inequities of our own times: racism, misogyny, classism, a nearly unfathomable wealth gap, blind spots and holes in public and private social safety nets and services for minors, abuse of power, policing, and prisons, bias in the justice system, the need for living wages and exploitation of workers.

The Cold Millions deals with all of this, but Walter spins it into a yarn – a well told tale that kept me reading through the wild windstorm. It’s in some ways a tender book. And I really love the way Rye decides to go to the library and get War and Peace so he can read what was important to Gig while he’s in prison, and how he learns from it and begins to form his own views. (Regular bookconscious readers will recall, I read War and Peace last spring with people around the world as the pandemic began.) Often when I read a book that deals with so many harsh realities I feel as if I’m glad I read it but I didn’t enjoy it. I can’t say that this time. The Cold Millions is both a good read and an enjoyable one.

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I just finished the third in the Kingsbridge novels by Ken Follett, A Column of Fire. It’s another thick historical novel (although not as thick as the previous two, The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End). This one starts in fictional Kingsbridge again, and follows the lives of the descendents of some of the families from the earlier books. But it follows the great drama of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (actually, beginning when she is still a princess), and the religious strife as Protestants and Catholics struggled over “true” religion tolerance in 1500s Europe.

It’s a tough thing to read right now, in a time when the world is polarized and we’ve had an election in the US where the religious right believes that they are the keepers of true faith and patriotism in this country. Throughout A Column of Fire, characters who are zealous plot against those who favor religious tolerance. Follett highlights the role of the French queen mother, Caterina ( a Medici), and Elizabeth in keeping things calm and tolerant. While there are a few hypocritical Puritans, he really illuminates the incredible greed and hypocrisy of the Catholic church, from the cruel (even bloodthirsty) Spanish inquisitors, to the traitorous (and also bloodthirsty) English nobles and their collaborators.

Our hero is a Kingsbridge man, Ned Willard. He becomes a secretary to Elizabeth’s trusted counselor, Sir William Cecil. Eventually he develops into a spyrunner, quietly observing the people who are fighting each other and noticing their weaknesses. He falls for not one but two women, each kind and utterly dedicated to her cause (one Catholic and one Protestant) and brave.

I admit I skimmed over some of the fighting. Now that I’ve read the trilogy, I think The Pillars of the Earth was the best, for me, because of the building details, but I liked that about World Without End as well. While A Column of Fire is true to its time — people venture farther afield, even to the New World, and there is a long list of historical figures who appear as characters — for me, it wasn’t as much about Kingsbridge, so I didn’t enjoy it as much. But Follett is a compelling writer, and I again couldn’t get to sleep while reading this, because I wanted to know what would happen. I also admire how he addresses modern concerns, like systemic racism, with historic examples.

A decent read, and very distracting during a very stressful time (COVID, politics, semester starting at work). But sad. At least, I guess, we no longer burn people at the stake and run each other through with swords but still, we haven’t moved on all that much.

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I haven’t read Maggie O’Farrell before, even though her books have been recommended by various book friends. When I looked at the “best books of the year” lists, Hamnet struck me as one of the least depressing. Which is ironic since it’s about Shakespeare’s only son, who, we are all well aware, died. No spoiler — every review talks about how this book is about grief, and that is one of the few certain facts of Shakespeare’s life, that his son died as a child.

O’Farrell presents Shakespeare as misunderstood and mistreated by his family, a teenager who meets Agnes (also called Anne) Hathaway, similarly misunderstood, harangued by her stepmother, both suspect and sought out because of her talent with herbal remedies and her gift of being able to predict or sense what people are thinking or will do. O’Farrell presents their marriage as a sanctuary for both of them.

But as much as the book is about Agnes and her relationship with her mostly absent husband, it’s also about the loss of Hamnet and his presence in the family’s lives after. The scenes where Hamnet and his twin sister Judith are playing and suddenly she feels “unwell” and Hamnet realizes something is seriously wrong are harrowing. He goes around the family’s apartment, his grandparents’ adjoining house, even around Stratford, trying to get help. He can’t find any grownups.

Despite the fact that we all know it’s going to be Hamnet who dies, O’Farrell makes it suspenseful as the family gather around the twins — Hamnet has come and wrapped himself up with Judith — and one gets better as the other gets worse. Shakespeare’s sister has this thought: “Anyone, Eliza is thinking, who describes dying as ‘slipping away’ or ‘peaceful’ has never witnessed it happen. Death is violent, death is a struggle. The body clings to life, as ivy to a wall, and will not easily let go, will not surrender its grip without a fight.”

Chilling to read as we approach 400,000 COVID-19 deaths in the US and 2 million worldwide. And the twins have the plague — something that is entirely plausible but which O’Farrell points out in her afterword is her own invention. The historical record doesn’t tell us what Hamnet died of. But she noticed that even though the plague closed the playhouses in London numerous times, Shakespeare never wrote about it. What if it was too painful to write about?

The rest of the book moves back and forth between the backstory of how Agnes and Shakespeare met and married, how she sensed his greatness and his need to escape his family, how their family grows and their lives expand. And how Hamnet’s death and their subsequent grief undoes them, each in their own way. This description of Agnes in the months following Hamnet’s death illustrates O’Farrell’s poetic language and vivid imagery:

“Summer is an assault. The long evenings, the warm air wafting through the windows, the slow progress of the river through the town, the shouts of children playing late in the street, the horses flicking flies from their flanks, the hedgerows heavy with flowers and berries. Agnes would like to tear it all down, rip it up, hurl it to the wind.”

Slowly, Agnes begins to live with the grief, returns to healing people, to keeping bees, to growing herbs. The tension that has developed between she and her husband eases a bit. He becomes prosperous, realizes that she may need a change of scenery, buys the largest house in town. Agnes and Judith and her older sister, Susannah, make a new life there. Shakespeare returns from London a few times a year.

But none of them every stop trying to “find” Hamnet . . . Agnes frequently wonders this. Shakespeare admits to looking for him in the audiences who come to see his plays. When the midwife who helped bring the twins into the world tells Judith she sometimes senses Hamnet at night, Judith takes to roaming the streets, trying to sense him. Then, during one of her father’s prolonged absences, her step-grandmother comes by with a playbill: in London, people are talking about a new Shakespeare play, Hamlet.

Agnes hasn’t been to London but is outraged that he could make their grief public and decides she must go see for herself what her husband has done. Her brother travels with her, and she makes her way inside the Globe, up near the stage. While at first disappointed that the play is, to her ears, just speeches, she grows mesmerized:

“When the King addresses him as ‘Hamlet, my son,’ the words carry no surprise for her. Of course this is who he is. Of course. Who else would it be? She has looked for her son everywhere, ceaselessly, these past four years, and here he is. It is him. It is not him. It is him. It is not him. The thought swings like a hammer through her. Her son, her Hamnet or Hamlet, is dead, buried in the churchyard. He died while he was still a child. He is now only white, stripped bones in a grave. Yet this is him, grown into a near-man, as he would be now, had he lived, on the stage, walking with her son’s gait, talking in her son’s voice, speaking words written for him by her son’s father.”

It’s a haunting idea, even though O’Farrell notes that it’s unclear whether Shakespeare’s son was the inspiration for the play. In fact, in an interview for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast, O’Farrell and Barbara Bogaev discuss that it’s unclear exactly when some of the plays were written, including Hamlet.

Regardless, this is a lovely book. It brings to fictional life a woman who is often only remembered for being left a “second best bed” and makes her a really interesting, strong woman with a mind equal to Shakespeare’s. It brings a little color to Hamnet’s brief life and brings the rest of the family alive. The only thing that struck me as a little off, after reading World Without End, where the plague ravaged whole villages, was that only two people got sick in the family, and there was no outbreak around town, but that’s not what the book would focus on, anyway.

A lovely, heartfelt read. And despite the grief, it’s not depressing.

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I don’t often blog about sequels, but Ken Follett’s World Without End is not really a sequel. I was telling a coworker today that you can read it without having read The Pillars of the Earth, because while it takes place in fictional Kingsbridge, it starts a couple hundred years later. So while there are a few references to the history of the town and the people who lived there in the time of The Pillars of the Earth, you can easily follow the story without having read the earlier book.

In the 1300s, Kingsbridge now has both a prior and a prioress, and whereas Prior Philip in the first book was a savvy leader who could handle political maneuvering, but was basically basically benevolent, the Priors in the second book are decidedly not (the men anyway — the Prioresses are much more like Philip). They are deeply conservative theologically and socially, they make no attempt to understand the town they control and the lives they impact, and the worst two scheme, plot, spy, blackmail, manipulate, undermine, lie, and even steal. One of the characters sits thinking about this: “Godwyn’s influence was malign, but all the same his power never ceased to grow. Why was that? Perhaps because he was an ambitious man with no conscience — a potent combination.” This week, that really resonates, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile in similar struggles ensue among secular leaders in the guild, where some greedy and selfish folks try to hold back those who would innovate our of concern for their own power and prestige, and petty grudges trump what’s best for the common good. The heroes of the book, a builder named Merthin and a wool merchant turned nun/healer named Caris, struggle against these difficulties in the town and the priory. Caris also fights misogyny and clericism: while her experience tending the sick leads her to discover what works best and how to actually help people get better, the priests are the ones who go to college, studying ancient medical texts. They order bloodletting and goat dung poultices while Caris determines that cleaning wounds with wine, hand washing, separating the seriously ill from other patients, and even, yes, mask wearing, are more effective.

It was strange to read about a sermon denouncing the wearing of cloth masks as heretical (the prior has heard this is a muslim practice) during a plague outbreak given the world’s present circumstances, and a plot twist predicated on one faction of hospital workers refusing to wear masks and the unfortunate outcome (no spoiler, I’m sure — more mask refusers than wearers got plague, which was more or less a death sentence). Follett writes about the temptations of power and greed and how these temptations lead to cruelty and violence., and undermine community and the common good. Maybe because I was expecting it this time, it didn’t bother me quite as much. Or maybe because the horrors of right now — COVID and white supremacists and Trump apologists and the willingness of so many elected leaders to lie and mislead and for so many Americans to believe lies and be misled — are so much more tangibly awful than the fictional violence of the middle ages. Anyway, I skimmed the more violent details.

Follett published this book in 2007, a time when the Anglican communion was in turmoil about LGBTQ clergy, so I appreciated that he makes it clear in World Without End that we’ve always had LQBTQ clergy. It’s an especially nice touch that Follett makes these characters among the more likeable and responsible people in the book. I also enjoyed the parts of the story that describe the various innovations and social changes that impact his characters’ lives. And he makes an interesting narrative choice by opening the book with a group of children witnessing a mysterious event in the forest and then following the paths of those children through adulthood.

Again, I enjoyed this very much, although I ended up staying up too late reading to find out what happened. I’m looking forward to starting A Column of Fire.

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