Friday, June 28, 2013

Miss Fuller

Finished Miss Fuller by April Bernard. The novel imagines the last days of Margaret Fuller's life through a long journalistic letter written to Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife Sophie. When Fuller's friends learn that she, her young son, and Italian husband have perished in a shipwreck off the coast of Fire Island, they send Henry David Thoreau to the site of the wreck in search of Fuller's long awaited manuscript about the Italian revolution. Thoreau learns that a wooden lap desk has been scavenged from the wreck. Hoping the manuscript is inside he purchases the desk and returns to Concord. Inside he finds Fuller's letter to Sophie. He is troubled by the very existence of the letter and refuses to read it. He alerts Hawthorne to the fact of the letter, but he tells Thoreau to destroy it, that he and Sophie want nothing to do with it

Although they see her as strong, forceful, intelligent and determined, Fuller's friends among the Transcendentalists feel awkward about her death. Some were not that fond of her in life. While they admired her genius, they turned prudish and puritanical when they heard of her baby and Italian marriage. In doubting Fuller's goodness and virtue they are hypocrites. Emerson and others refused her monetary assistance, thus she and her small family had to return from Italy as the only passengers on a merchant ship. Had her friends sent her the aid she requested they would probably not have lost her.

Fuller's letter is rich, honest and true. She explains her choices to Sophie, already suspecting that her friends disapprove of the path she has chosen. When the letter is finally read, it is by Thoreau's younger sister Anne, nearly forty years later. This book examines the awkwardness and frailties of human relations. How fear, jealousy, rumor, gossip and sheer misunderstanding can undermine even the most altruistic of societies.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Johnny Tremain

Finished Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. It won the Newbery Medal in 1944. Set in Boston on the brink of the American Revolution, the book is about Johnny, an orphan who is a gifted apprentice to a silversmith. When Johnny's hand is badly burned and scarred after a prank gone wrong, played on him by one of his fellow apprentices, Johnny must give up his his work as silversmith. He becomes bitter and disillusioned until he meets Rab, a boy just a bit older than him who sets type at The Boston Observer, a newspaper run by the rebels. Rab takes an interest in Johnny, helps him get work and shares his accommodations with him. Johnny soon becomes embroiled in the Patriots' plans to defy King George. This leads to The Boston Tea Party and the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Figures such as Sam Adams, John Hancock and Paul Revere are among those that Johnny rubs elbows with and even works with in the quest for America's freedom from England. I found this book of particular interest because Johnny makes acquaintance with, and even sympathizes with, several British soldiers who he does not see as enemies. So in some ways, both sides of the story are told to an extent.

Buttered Side Down

Finished Buttered Side Down by Edna Ferber. This is her first collection of short stories, published in 1912. As with Dawn O'Hara, Ferber's voice is glib. The stories focus on characters living in Chicago who have left small town homes and feel at odds with city life. The mood varies from humorous to tragic. I was reminded just a bit of Katherine Mansfield's stories of single girls working in shops, living lonely lives in small rooms, but Ferber's stories have a distinctly American feel. I'm starting to enjoy short stories again. For a long time I did not because I preferred the long, narrative thread of a novel. But the tasty morsels of these stories are pretty satisfying.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Finished Shirley by Charlotte Bronte. I'm a dope. I put off reading this book for YEARS because it looked and sounded boring. It was wonderful. Once again I was pleasantly surprised by Bronte's sense of humor. The story was suspenseful as well. It takes a local look at the Luddite movement and some early feminism.

The title character, Shirley, does not appear until the novel is well on it's way. She is rich, beautiful, intelligent, lively, arch, bossy, generous, mischievous and delightful, but I didn't consider her the heroine. Caroline Helstone, introduced early on, was the heroine to me. Caroline is gentle, mild, loving, compassionate, eager for knowledge and quite beautiful in her own right. The two young women become the best of friends and it appears that they are both in love with the same man.

The story featured a lovely tie-in with Bronte's sister Anne's novel Agnes Grey, but what that is you'll have to find out for yourself.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold

Finished The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold by Francesca Lia Block. Although set in edgy, contemporary Los Angeles, these stories lose nothing of the mystery or magic of the original texts. They scintillate with tension. They are jewel encrusted re-visions. Stories include retellings of Snow White, Thumbelina, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Rose Red, Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, and The Snow Queen. I loved this book.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Horse and His Boy

Finished The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis. It was the fifth book published in the series, but the third one when reading in chronological order. I listened to an audiobook recording read by Alex Jennings. He has a wonderful voice and really brought out all the humor in the novel. This book takes place entirely beyond the back of the wardrobe. New characters include Shasta, a slave boy running away with a talking Narnian horse and Aravis, a girl running away from an nasty arranged marriage. As always, adventure, excitement, battles and Aslan all play a large part in the fun of the book. Have I mentioned how much I love Aslan? I simply adore him.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Lavender and Old Lace

Finished Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed. Published in 1902, it is part romance, part mystery. The book is quaint, humorous, lush, and edgy, all at the same time. The prose reminded me very much of the later books in Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series: small town, modern young people befriending old fashioned spinsters, lots of flowers, with the scent of the blooms floating through the pages. A charming read.

Reed published seventeen novels and a number of cookbooks between 1899 and 1911 when she died of an overdose of sleeping draft. As an insomniac, she must have been writing all night long. What a shame we lost her so soon.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Finished Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Published in 1980, it won the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel. This book is very cerebral. The narrator Ruth describes her surroundings and her thoughts and reactions to them with sparkling prose. Ruth and her younger sister Lucille live with their grandmother after their mother commits suicide. After their grandmother dies two spinster great aunts arrive to fuss and worry over them and themselves. They are woefully unfit for the task of raising children and enlist the help of their niece Sylvie, aunt to the two girls. Sylvie is a most unconventional aunt. She is a transient who rides the rails, from town to town, job to job, free from ties and restrictions. As soon as Sylvie arrives from Montana, the two great aunts decamp, leaving her in charge of housekeeping.

Sylvie does her best to look after Ruth and Lucille and the house that they live in, but it's just not what she's used to. Their schedule becomes quirky and their lives offbeat. As Lucille begins to mature she rejects Sylvie's eccentricities and leaves to go live with the Home Economics teacher from school, whose home in undoubtedly the exact opposite of Sylvie's household. Ruth loves Sylvie and sees a lot of her mother in her. The more time she spends with Sylvie the more like her she becomes. The various ladies of the the town begin to take notice of all this and voice their concern. They bring casseroles and the sheriff. When it becomes clear that Sylvie will lose guardianship of Ruth the two take desperate measures.

Oh how I love a good coming of age novel. Why is that I wonder? This one was excellent.