Recommended Reading: Free Men, by Katy Simpson Smith

IMG_6219“Three men, none alike, asking to see each other, to be seen. Each pursuing a wild fancy that only this country, with all its contradictions, can permit”: these are the characters in Katy Simpson Smith’s Free Men*, her second novel after the acclaimed The Story of Land and Sea (my review here).

In Free Men, which is based on a 1788 historical incident, Ms. Smith returns to the American South in the eighteenth century, weaving a tale of three men—Bob, Cat, and Istillicha—who form an unlikely bond in the muggy woods of what is now Alabama. Bob has escaped from enslavement at a sugar plantation, though he’s left behind his wife and two daughters; Cat is a troubled white man from the Carolinas, an orphan whose behavior is as unpredicatable as his origins are inscrutable; Istillicha is a Muskogee (Creek) man who’s been forced out of his town’s leadership, and who now seeks revenge.

All three are pursued by Le Clerc, a Frenchman employed by the Muskogee as a tracker. Le Clerc, who is a sort of proto-anthropologist, is sent to punish them after report reaches his chief that the trio has murdered a trading party under the chief’s protection.

The unusual grouping fascinates Le Clerc, and he delays capturing them in order to better understand them, and the new country in which he finds himself, through observation:

There is a desperation about these men that suggests they do not reside on the rung of the criminal but, like all men here, are pursuing what might be called advancement, or hope. Their success or failure will, I can’t help but believe, be a reflection on the project of this country. And yet I am the only man on their trail, the only man who may behold their fates. This strikes me as peculiarly lonely.

Free Men brought to mind Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, in that both novels hone in on a small set of diverse characters to explore major historical shifts. By telling the stories of Bob, Cat, Istillicha, Le Clerc, and Winna (Bob’s wife) in turn, Ms. Smith paints a compelling portrait of the varied experiences of people living in this small corner of North America. Each of the three pursued men narrates his personal history in the past tense, which shifts to the present when they describe their roles in the murders and their attempt to disappear westward.

This shift in tense highlights how what we may perceive as the concerns of a history long passed are still with us today: the fluidity and stubborn intractability of race (“Down here,” says Bob, “color all depends on who you know, what people you can call your kin.”), how people come together or split away to make a country, the meaning of freedom itself. And Le Clerc’s framing narration reminds us that histories we read in school are written by those who claim victory, the privileged few, even when they cannot encompass the whole of the tale.

The pacing of Free Men is slow, allowing readers to experience the detailed richness of Ms. Smith’s prose; I think the pacing also gives one the sense of accompanying Istillicha, Bob, and Cat on their long walk into the wilderness, overhearing their conversations. As Bob says early in the novel, “talking is how to cross over all the big holes in the world.” Free Men takes part in that long conversation, thoughtfully and with assured grace.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Writer to Watch: Nuala O’Connor

IMG_4252Nuala O’Connor’s Miss Emily* is an upstairs/downstairs novel about Emily Dickinson and an imagined Irish maid-of-all-work. While it is Ms. O’Connor’s first novel published in the United States, she has published two novels, short stories, and poetry in the U.K. and Ireland, where she often writes under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir.

Miss Emily takes place over the course of a year or so, when 18-year-old Ada Concannon leaves Ireland for America, where she finds work in Amherst with the odd but locally esteemed Dickinson family. Chapters alternate between Ada’s voice and that of Emily Dickinson, who in her mid-30s is headed toward the seclusion she’s well known for. Despite the gaps in age, class, education, and origins, Ada and Emily form a friendship, trading recipes and observations about goings-on in the natural world.

The novel’s strongest aspects include its descriptions, particularly Ada’s recollections of Dublin and her grandmother’s cottage, and Ms. O’Connor’s rendering of Emily’s facility with language and adept way with peculiar images. Readers fond of realistic renderings of everyday life in historical fiction will find much to please them here.

Miss Emily moves very fast, thanks to its short chapters that change perspective, but I would have preferred a longer version with more expansion on the Dickinson family’s relationships and those within Ada’s family. Readers conversant with Emily Dickinson’s biography will pick up on the family dynamics, but those who don’t know much about the poet may find themselves lost at times.

Without giving too much away, I’d also add that I found the novel’s ending disappointing, shifting agency away from the main characters we’ve spent so much time with in favor of male characters who aren’t as fully drawn. In the last quarter of the novel, Emily and Ada react to events, rather than choosing their own paths, which is unfortunate and not in keeping with the tone of the novel’s first half.

Despite these issues, I’d still recommend Miss Emily for a quick summer read, and I’d be happy to read more of Ms. O’Connor’s writing, particularly her poetry. And I suspect that after you read this book, you’ll be curious to see, as I am, the Homestead, the Dickinson family home. I’ve lived about two hours from it for years, and I’m sorry to say I haven’t been to see it—but I hope to get out to Amherst later this summer, Emily Dickinson’s own words in hand.

You can read more about Nuala O’Connor here. And if you’re interested in visiting the Emily Dickinson Museum, you can read more about it here. 

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.


Recommended Reading: A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger

photo (59)A Burnable Book*, the first novel from noted medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger, is enjoyable on so many levels that it’s difficult to decide where to begin. It’s historical fiction, a mystery, a book about books, and a character study, all rolled into one.

London in 1385 is dangerous and dirty, still reeling after a revolt by the commons several years earlier. Nobles jostle each other for favor at court, bishops visit the stews without charity in mind, and everyone from the butcher’s boy to a duke’s mistress tries to navigate through precarious games and ploys.

John Gower, the English poet now better known primarily for his appearance in Shakespeare’s Pericles than for his writing (Mirroir de l’OmmeVox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis are his major works)  is in Professor Holsinger’s novel a man of secrets, a dealer in information with his own shadows that he’d prefer stay hidden. When his friend Chaucer comes to him for help finding a missing book whose cryptic verses are already spreading through London, Gower, the “subterranean man,” is drawn into a web of conspiracy, murder, and lies that reaches from England’s highest nobles to the maudlyns (prostitutes) in London’s stews. The book is a “burnable book” — treasonous — and those who possess it are hunted by forces that even Gower can’t identify. As the novel approaches its climax, unraveling metaphor and mystery begin to amount to the same thing.

The cast of characters in A Burnable Book is so long that Professor Holsinger includes a listing before the action begins. Gower and Chaucer are delightful to watch from this distance, especially in terms of their combative friendship. Katherine Swynford, John of Gaunt’s mistress, and Isabel Syward, prioress of St. Leonard’s Bromely are drawn with a fine brush, calculating and calm, working for their own ends. And then there are the maudlyns — so very many of them! By far the most interesting of these is Eleanor/Edgar Rykener, who switches gender presentation depending on clients’ preferences and the relative safety of different parts of London and its environs. Eleanor/Edgar is deeply caring and mightily resourceful, easily my favorite of all the author’s inventions.

A Burnable Book’s meticulous attention to period detail reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, while King Richard’s cameo appearances are notable for the combination of political non-acumen and lyrical speech that characterize Shakespeare’s own Richard II. The narrative is just as earthy as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s speech, though considerably (and understandably) less funny. And for its literary/action combination, The Name of the Rose comes to mind. In other words, there’s a little something for all kinds of readers to be found in A Burnable Book, and I hope Professor Holsinger will sally forth into the fictional fourteenth century again soon.

*My thanks to the publisher for sending a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Recommended Reading: TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos

The Wives of Los Alamos

The Wives of Los Alamos

If you’re looking for refreshing, stylistically bold historical fiction, look no further. The Wives of Los Alamos*, TaraShea Nesbit’s debut novel, is the book for you.

[Full disclosure: Ms. Nesbit and I share friends in common, but we have never met.]

Written from the unconventional first-person plural perspective, The Wives of Los Alamos explores the difficult transition from the ordinary world to the extremely secretive world of the Los Alamos site of the Manhattan Project. Leaving behind their families, friends, and often careers of their own, the women married to the scientists who created the atomic bomb gradually form a community in the desert.

At first the choice of the first-person plural threw me; I was expecting a standard interconnected-threads type of novel, following maybe three or four women through their time at Los Alamos. Instead, I found Ms. Nesbit’s approach simultaneously universal and intimate, emphasizing both the common struggle to adapt to new living conditions and the idiosyncrasies of particular women.

At first, the women focus on the physical isolation and practical problems of life in New Mexico: no automatic washing machines or bathtubs, often inadequate supplies at the commissary — and the inability to visit with parents or even children old enough to attend college. And of course their husbands are sequestered in the labs, unable to discuss anything about their work. As time goes on, strain mounts as the wives negotiate the complex web of relationships they’ve developed — with each other, with their husbands, with the men guarding them, with the women hired to help them around the house, with their own children — and, finally, as they come to understand the awesome destructive force their husbands have constructed.

In addition to the well-articulated historical detail, I loved the roundness of the portraiture in The Wives of Los Alamos. While attesting to the scenic grandeur of the surroundings and the occasional pleasures of solitude, Ms. Nesbit doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of the women’s isolated lives, or their own blindness when it comes to the lives of their maids, often women of color. The women’s reactions to the revelation of the atomic bomb are mixed in tone, and treated thoughtfully. There are no easy answers, no neat endings — but that’s part of what makes this such a fascinating novel.

*My thanks to Bloomsbury for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Literary Wives: The Inquisitor’s Wife, by Jeanne Kalogridis

literarywives2If you missed the Literary Wives introductory post, here’s the summary:  I’ll be joining bloggers Ariel, Audra, Cecilia, Kay, and Lynn  as we post every other month about a different book with the word “wife” in the title. When we read these books, we have two questions in mind:

1. What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

This month, we’re talking about Jeanne Kalogridis’s novel The Inquisitor’s Wife, which was published in 2013. We invite you to join the discussion by commenting on our blogs (links below) or posting your own review on our shiny new Facebook page, which you can find here.

Readers take note: Although I usually refrain from spoilers, what follows is a consideration of one aspect of the novel, and so I shall be spoiling away. Beware!

The Inquisitor's WifeHere’s part of the Goodreads summary of The Inquisitor’s Wife:

In 1480 Seville, Marisol, a fearful young conversa (descendant of Spanish Jews forced to convert to Christianity), is ashamed of her Jewish blood. Forced into a sham marriage with a prosecutor for the new Inquisition, Marisol soon discovers that her childhood sweetheart, Antonio, has just returned to Seville and is also working for the inquisitors. When Marisol’s father is arrested and tortured during Spain’s first auto da fe, Marisol comes to value her Jewish heritage and vows to fight the Inquisition.

What I liked best about this novel: the period details (a family’s palace fallen on hard times, the bearing and sartorial choices of Isabella of Castile, the gruesome ritual of public penance) and its attempt to correct misconceptions about the Spanish Inquisition. Ms. Kalogridis focuses on the plight of conversos — those who converted to Catholicism from Judaism, as well as their descendants — in the city of Seville, and I liked the specificity of the city’s history and geography.

Contemporary scholarship suggests several different motivations behind the Inquisition, and Ms. Kalogridis comes down solidly on the side of Isabella’s desire to acquire the wealth and property of convicted conversos. It’s a convincing performance; Isabella is the most charismatic and dangerous character in the novel.

However, the book suffers when it comes to the “fiction” half of historical fiction. Marisol, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, is thoroughly unlikable, despite her family’s suffering. Now, I don’t mind an unlikable narrator or main character in the right circumstances (Gone Girl, for example, or Shakespeare’s Coriolanus), but we are supposed to empathize with Marisol, and for most of the book, it’s nearly impossible to do so. She’s sullen, selfish, and insensible to her mother’s feelings and heritage and her father’s delicate political position.

When she suddenly stops receiving letters from her childhood sweetheart and devoted fiance, Antonio, does she seek him out or ask her parents to find out what’s going on? No. She sends letters for months and then gives up on him. Clearly she hasn’t read enough novels. When her father subsequently arranges her marriage to their hulking, creepy (and stooge of the Inquisition) neighbor, Gabriel, Marisol doesn’t do what any self-respecting heroine would do (run away, or at least attempt escape) — she merely fumes in silence and refuses to kiss her father goodbye.

This sulky teenager performance is all the worse when we learn that Marisol’s mother is indeed a crypto-Jew, attempting to keep her faith alive after a horrific incident of savagery took her family from her when she was a young child. Marisol’s arranged marriage is obviously an attempt to protect her from the offices of the Inquisition, and the price for that protection turns out to be her father’s life, freely given in exchange for hers. Marisol only finds her courage (and accepts her heritage) when it’s much too late to save her father.

Instead, the novel closes with the revelation of Marisol’s mother’s identity a half-hearted resumption of Marisol’s romance with Antonio (who, obviously to the reader, if not to Marisol, has been working to subvert the Inquisition from within and never stopped loving her.).  I think I understand why Ms. Kalogridis chose to write the novel from the perspective of a conversa who must discover her own heritage, but the secondary characters — particularly Marisol’s mother and Mariam, her friend and servant — have far more interesting stories and perspectives.

And now on to our discussion questions:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

The book considers the very specific position of wives in fifteenth-century Seville. Women are expected to be obedient to their fathers and husbands, accepting orders, chastisement, and arranged marriages without complaint. Even Marisol’s father, generally portrayed as sympathetic, does not hesitate to strike Marisol’s mother or command her to obey him.

A notable contrast with the wives of Seville is the queen, Isabella, who never appears with her husband in the novel. Powerful, wily, and ruthless, Isabella changes her outward appearance to conform to the expectations of her audience (rich adornment for a private court party, simple black with a crucifix for public occasions or audiences with monks). It’s politically useful for her to appear as a dutiful wife, and so she takes on that appearance — all the while remaining completely independent.

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

As Gabriel’s wife, Marisol expects to follow her mother’s example and submit to her husband’s wishes. Gabriel repulses her, not only because of his creepy fixation on her since childhood, but because he’s cruel and brutal (he beat a defenseless elderly man as a teenager, and as an adult he works for the Inquisition and shows no compunction about having people tortured — including Marisol, late in the book).

However, thanks to Gabriel’s brother’s machinations (and later, Gabriel’s apparent unfamiliarity with female anatomy), the marriage goes unconsummated. According to church doctrine, consummation is required to make the marriage complete; perhaps this is yet another reason why Marisol feels no loyalty to Gabriel. Conveniently, it also makes possible annulment and remarriage to Antonio feasible.

Still, because Marisol is Gabriel’s wife — and a conversa —  Gabriel manipulates her for his own political and personal purposes, and Marisol only thwarts him with subterfuge and help from Mariam. She is obliged by circumstance to fear Gabriel, even though she does not respect him.

Please visit the other Literary Wives bloggers to get their takes on the book! 

Audra at Unabridged Chick

Ariel at One Little Library

Cecilia at Only You

Kay at WhatMeRead

Lynn at Smoke and Mirrors

(Emily’s on hiatus for awhile.)

We’ll be reading The Zookeeper’s Wife next, so we hope you’ll stop by again for the next Literary Wives discussion on the first Monday in April.

Recommended Reading: The Red Queen, by Margaret Drabble

Since I’ve read two books by A.S. Byatt so far this year, I thought it would be only fair to give one of her sister’s novels a try. Sister, you say? You haven’t heard of another novelist with the last name of Byatt?

The Red Queen

Well, that’s because A.S. Byatt’s non-pen name is Dame Antonia Duffy (she was born Antonia Susan Drabble), and her sister’s name is Margaret Drabble.

Both writers have been laureled and lauded many times over, but they do not see each other often and do not read each other’s novels, the result, apparently, of their rivalry as writers and their disagreement over the portrayal of their mother and the use of the family tea-set in a novel.  It’s a real shame, not only because their novels are so good, but because in all the interviews I’ve read, both women seem like lovely people.

Enough about that. Let’s talk about the book.

The back jacket of The Red Queen claims that it’s “a rich and playful novel about love, about personal and public history, and what it means to be remembered.” Readers may recall my feelings about unattributed jacket copy, and I do think that this is better than most, with one slight problem. “Playful” implies that the novel is funny, or piquant. It is not.

It is, however, excellent. What’s playful about the novel is its structure. In the first part, our narrator is the woman known, inaccurately, she tells us, as Lady Hong, a Korean princess of the eighteenth century. The Korean Crown Princess is known in Korea (less so in the rest of the world) for her memoirs, written for different audiences over a period of some time. The version of the princess that Ms. Drabble presents is an unreliable narrator, to be sure, sometimes blinded by her own interests or those of her family. She drifts into long digressions, circles around issues, leaves out salient details. She’s also dead, knows she’s dead, and has the advantage, with some limitations, of looking over history to fill out her own story. What she wants is to be remembered, to reach a wider audience (she won me over — I have to find those memoirs!).

In the second part of the novel, she succeeds. We switch gears entirely to follow Dr Barbara Halliwell in the present day as she attends an academic conference, makes a friend, and embarks on an affair in Seoul. Throughout her time in Korea, she’s drawn to the tale of the Crown Princess, unsure who gave her the memoirs and what she should be taking away from her visit, her affair, her very life. I’ll stop here, because you know I never offer spoilers. Let’s just say that the story keeps spiraling outward and inward, and the last few pages are a treat, so very clever. It’s a novel I’d be pleased to have on my shelf, and I hope you and A.S. Byatt will read it too.