A Review of Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird (by Jill)

The Firebird cover

I might not have read The Firebird, the so-called companion novel to The Winter Sea, as quickly if I hadn’t been getting on a cross-country flight several days after finishing it, but I thought carrying a Kindle and a book would be easier than carrying two actual books with me. I’m trying to minimize weight, people. I got slammed with a $75 charge for my suitcase being over the free weight limit on the way home from Boston, and I’d prefer to never have that happen again. I probably should have planned to Kindle the book after The Firebird too, but I thought it was time for me to read All the Light We Cannot See. I was also starting to miss holding an actual book in my hands, much as I enjoy that my Kindle acts as its own light source.

The format of The Firebird is essentially identical to that of The Winter Sea. Two story lines; one is present day, one is in the past. Both stories have a female protagonist, and the modern-day protagonist has a supernatural ability to see the past. Nicola Marter’s ability is more direct than Carrie McClelland’s, however. Nicola is a true “psychic.” She can hold an item and see glimpses of its past. The heroine in the historical narrative is Anna Moray, daughter of Sophia and John Moray of The Winter Sea. How the stories of these two women intertwine is a bit different than that of Carrie McClelland and Sophia Paterson-Moray-McClelland in the first book. Here, Nicola is an art appraiser who works in England. She hides her “gift” from the world, which is silly to me because an art appraiser would easily be able to use an ability to learn about objects to her advantage. But one day, a woman named Margaret Ross comes into her office, and her story makes Nicola rethink the moratorium she has placed on using her power at work. She has an old family artifact, a plain carved wooden bird that they call the Firebird, and the family lore says that Empress Catherine I of Russia once owned it and gave it to an ancestor who was living in Russia. Nicola learns via the bird that Margaret is dying of cancer and she wants to sell the item in order to finance a trip around the world before she passes away. She also sees the moment Catherine I gives the bird to Anna, Margaret’s ancestor. After learning all of this, Nicola desperately wants to help Margaret establish provenance (the fancy term for proof or documentation that an item is what people say it is), but doesn’t think that she will be able to do so on her own. So she contacts an old “friend,” Rob McMorran, who is also psychic, and who actually uses his abilities to do some good in his community—he’s a police officer, and everyone knows of his abilities where he lives, and no one cares. Rob and Nicola dated for a while several years before, but broke up because Nicola wanted to keep her skills hidden, and Rob refused to live that way. It’s pretty obvious the two still have feelings for each other right from the start. So they begin to hunt down Margaret’s ancestor, first in Scotland, and then eventually in St. Petersburg, where, conveniently, Nicola needs to go for work, anyway.

Meanwhile, back in the eighteenth century, Anna Logan (really Moray but she’s hiding out, remember?) is living with friends of her mother’s in Scotland, near Slains, where all of the historical action took place in The Winter Sea. The path that leads Anna to St. Petersburg is fairly convoluted, and to relay all the details would be more plot summary than I feel like getting into right now, and besides, this is a book where not knowing is at least half the fun. We get to spend time with some friends from The Winter Sea (no, I’m not telling you who) as they help Anna on her adventures. Anna, of course, has a romantic story line as well as the story of the Firebird to deal with, and it is almost as heart-rending as the story of her parents. And the ending. Oh, the ending. I actually cried.

As far as Nicola and Rob, initially I didn’t like the psychic thing, I think just because I liked the ancestral memory idea from The Winter Sea so much, but ultimately it was fine, and it’s used as a metaphor for Nicola harnessing her inner strength and being comfortable with herself and that sort of thing. Her romance with Rob was a bit more exciting than Carrie and Graham’s. There are setbacks and cliffhangers and things here that Carrie and Graham don’t have, which I appreciated at the time, since John and Sophia had so much drama, but I really got into the “will-they-or-won’t-they” with Nicola and Rob. By the time they finally got together, after maybe four hundred pages of holding hands and accidentally reading each other’s thoughts, I was a bit twitterpated myself. I must say, however, that Rob and Graham and Graham’s brother Stuart all seem remarkably similar in appearance—tall, muscular, sort of longish sort of curly dark hair—I think Kearsley might have a type.

I was reading on Kearlsey’s website that she doesn’t consider The Firebird to be a sequel to The Winter Sea, that they could be read in whichever order and maybe you don’t need to read both, but I really do think that this book would be more well appreciated by reading The Winter Sea first. Maybe that wouldn’t be true for everyone, but I’m glad that’s what I did. I recommend this book for the same readers who would like The Winter Sea! Next, I’m going to try a heavy-hitter: Pulitzer Prize winner All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. I’m sort of reluctant to read/review this before Bethany because it’s an Important Award Winner, and I always base my opinions of Important Awards Winners off what she says about them first. Except for The Goldfinch. I actually really liked that book.

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Reviews by Jill, Susanna Kearsley | Leave a comment

Yarn Along

Yarn Along Photo 7.29.15

The first personal website I ever saw (circa 1994) belonged to an Australian guy who lived in the basement of my dorm my freshman year in college. He had a rubber chicken named Keith, and he had traveled all over the world photographing Keith in dozens of countries (the phrase “every continent except Antarctica” comes to mind) and then publishing these photos on a website. I remember thinking it was hilarious but also extremely bizarre – not knowing that twenty years in the future I would spend about 35% of my waking hours looking at websites and creating my own websites and trying to figure out how to make things “go viral.” I thought this classmate was just weird because it was college, and people who live in the basements of college dorms are supposed to be eccentric. But it turns out that he was weird because he was living in the 21st century, seven years too early.

This is all a long way of saying that I have found yet another way to photograph the brown sweater that I’ve been knitting since before Daylight Savings Time. Yep, here it is – and yes I did work on it this weekend, quite a lot – on the coffee table in the kitchen with some evening sunlight slanting down in an Emily-Dickinson sort of way. I’m reading Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate and not liking it as much as I wish I were, but I’m only about a fifth of a way through it, so I’m giving it a chance.

And I promise I will not name the brown sweater Keith. Ralph maybe, but not Keith. And yes, I’ve started pricing fares to Antarctica.

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

Posted in Yarn Along | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

A Review of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (by Bethany)


Please note: This review deals frankly with all parts of this novel, including its ending. If you want to avoid “spoilers,” you should not read this review.

I like To Kill a Mockingbird, but I don’t love it. It’s not the quasi-religious text to me that it is to some. I agree with critics who say that it operates in a world of sharply delineated good and evil and is therefore morally simplistic. At the same time, I agree with defenders who say that this duality is not a flaw of the novel but a consequence of the fact that its narrator is eight years old. The recent release of Go Set a Watchman, in which Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch is twenty-six, ought to be a litmus test of this idea – and holy crap, is it ever. This novel takes the Manichean worldview of its predecessor, kills it, and then dances on its grave. This novel is so morally relativistic that its moral relativism is its primary flaw (Well, that and its lack of a true plot. But more on that later).

This novel opens on Jean Louise’s return to her childhood home of Maycomb, Alabama. While I was reading the (unnecessarily extensive) backstory on Maycomb, I thought of what a “type” this opening scene is. So many southern novels are structured around these sorts of departures (almost always to New York) and reluctant returns. This scene has parallels in Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and in Carson McCullers, and after marveling for a moment that these authors are all women I realized that it’s in Faulkner too, in the form of Quentin Compson and his refrain, “I don’t hate the South. I don’t hate the South. I don’t hate the south.” It’s in PAT CONROY!!!! too, come to think of it – in The Prince of Tides and Beach Music – and in his literary grandfather, Thomas Wolfe.

In Maycomb, Henry Clinton meets Scout’s train. Henry is Scout’s brother Jem’s childhood friend, Atticus Finch’s law partner, and – if he has anything to say about the matter – Scout’s fiancé. After some snogging, Henry takes Scout home, where her Aunt Alexandra (who wears a corset! In 1954!) has moved in with Atticus, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. Scout’s relationship with Aunt Alexandra has not changed a bit since Scout was eight, which is to say that she finds Alexandra maddening but loves to goad her on. The early chapters – while enjoyable enough – seem to exist only to review for the reader the principal characters, plot lines, and setting details of To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s even a lengthy flashback about Dill, who never appears and is only rarely mentioned elsewhere in this novel.

The plot meanders for a while – I have almost no bookmarks in the first half of this book; the second half is full of them. We learn many predicable things, including the fact that Scout does not enjoy Junior League-style women’s organizations and the fact that the house she grew up in has been torn down and an ice cream parlor has been built in its place, and we are treated to the deeply-clichéd story of Scout’s first period and subsequent pregnancy scare. Scout swims in the river with Henry, and – you’ll be shocked – Alexandra disapproves. Part of the background chatter of the first half of this novel is a lot of grumbling about “the Supreme Court,” and it doesn’t take a lot of American history to put the pieces together and recognize that the court case in question is Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Some of the backstory of the first several chapters is necessary here, because it is important for readers to know that while Scout grew up in a tolerant home where people of all races were respected, she also grew up in segregated schools. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout and Jem go to church with their housekeeper, Calpurnia; in Go Set a Watchman, Scout visits Calpurnia in “the Quarters” after her grandson is arrested for drunk driving and is infuriated to find that Calpurnia, who is well-spoken in To Kill a Mockingbird, has reverted to the heavily-accented of others in “the Quarters” and that she responds to Scout with the platitudes one speaks to a stranger. When Atticus agrees to defend Calpurnia’s grandson, I thought we were set up for Tom Robinson, Part Deux, and I was ready to throw the book at the wall. But I do give Harper Lee some credit – this case does not become central to the plot in any way. It was just an excuse to bring Scout back to “the Quarters,” to see them again with adult eyes.

This novel contains a number of rants, and the first time this novel forced me to sit up and pay attention was during a rant on – of all things – the Doxology. Apparently, in Maycomb, Methodists have one specific way of singing the Doxology: slowly and with measured emphasis given to each syllable, in a manner that makes Jean Louise comment that “if the Archbishop of Canterbury had materialized in full regalia, [she] would not have been in the least surprised” (94). However, when a new minister arrives, one who is “suspected of liberal tendencies” (95), the Doxology is played somewhat faster and everyone freaks out, and I had a brief but vivid epiphany to the effect that the Civil War and its ongoing aftermath is to the United States what the Protestant Reformation was to England.

Like I said, it was a brief epiphany. If Harper Lee had had the chance to really polish this novel into final form while she was at the height of her powers, this scene could have been quite wonderful. As it is, I can barely reconstruct the thread of my thoughts when I read this section originally, but I’ll try my best. Here goes: when the congregation is reeling over the slightly-faster Doxology, someone comments that “they’ll be having incense next,” which is why my mind traveled to the infinitesimal theological quibbles that characterized the Protestant Reformation. To the mix I added my outside knowledge about the fact that the American south was colonized almost entirely by English Protestants and has long been aggressively Protestant. Historically, one of the complaints Protestants have always made against Catholics is the fact that Catholics obey a distant, infallible authority; in England, it was a rebellion against the Pope, not any kind of theological conviction, that led to the break from the Catholic church. In the English Civil War, fought at the height of the Reformation, Cromwell and his followers equated the monarchy with the papacy; having already split from the latter (though at this time England’s long-term identity as a Protestant nation was far from assured), they fought to overthrow the power of the monarchy as well. They saw the monarchy as yet another example of one man exalted above all others. What I had never considered before, however, is that the American Civil War included a similar struggle. The Confederacy was not as extreme as Cromwell and his Roundheads in this sense, but ultimately the south was fighting for the rights of states to manage their own economic, political, and social systems without input from the president in Washington. Of course, the settlement of North America by the English (and by others) was a direct consequence of the English Civil War, and our Bill of Rights is written the way it is specifically because its framers remembered the abuses of both King George III (in their own lifetimes) and of previous kings and Cromwell himself (in the lifetimes of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers). We have the First Amendment that we have because the framers knew that freedom of speech, religion, and the press are far from assured under a monarchy, and while today’s discussions of the second amendment tend to be petty and vile, we have that amendment for a good reason, too – because no government should be allowed to run roughshod over its defenseless people. No one mentions the third amendment much these days, but if the government were still in the habit of forcing citizens to convert their private homes into country inns for a bunch of smelly soldiers, this amendment would be on the front page of every newspaper.

The Constitutional amendment that becomes forefront as this novel progresses is, of course, the tenth. The tenth amendment states that any powers not explicitly given to the federal government are by default reserved for the states. Later in the novel, Scout delivers several rants about the tenth amendment, and when her neighbors in Maycomb decry the Supreme Court, they cite the tenth amendment at every turn. And it’s true, of course, that the court violated the tenth amendment when it decreed that public schools must be integrated. Nowhere else in the Constitution are the racial demographics of schools specifically assigned to the oversight of the federal government; therefore, according to the tenth amendment, the federal government must cede control of this matter to the states. In this situation, the Supreme Court takes on the role of king, issuing proclamations from on high that must be universally obeyed. In some ways, the framers of the Constitution set their descendants up for failure in this sense. The Constitution is a federal document, meant to apply to all states equally. Its original 1791 Bill of Rights ends with the tenth amendment – with its own pressure-relief valve, in other words, meant to prevent the federal government from growing too powerful. At the same time, the Constitution establishes a system for drafting and ratifying new amendments, since its framers knew that the nation’s needs would change as the world changed. By including both the tenth amendment and the procedure for creating future amendments, the framers made the sorts of conflict in this novel (and elsewhere) inevitable.

(A side note: during many debates about same-sex marriage, I have wondered why people in favor of marriage equality do not often cite the Fourteenth Amendment – “no citizen may be denied equal protection under the law” – more often. I think I get it now. Those in favor of marriage equality don’t cite the Fourteenth Amendment because they know their opponents will counter with the Tenth; those opposed to marriage equality don’t cite the Tenth because they know their opponents will counter with the Fourteenth. Tricky, tricky. The Fourteenth Amendment has the advantage of being more recent – but I digress.)

All this is a long way of saying that Go Set a Watchman is more political and philosophical tract than novel, but that’s okay. The usual drawback of political tracts is general their unreadability, but Go Set a Watchman is highly readable, marked on every page with Lee’s light, ironic style. But let’s get back down to basics for a moment.

Midway through this novel, Scout discovers some offensive reading materials – a pamphlet called “The Black Plague” – in her father’s house after Atticus and Henry have left for a meeting. After she reads it and delivers a rant to Alexandra, Scout reads the back of the pamphlet and discovers that it was published by the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council – an organization that, until this moment, she had never heard of. Scout deduces that the meeting Atticus and Henry have just left for is a meeting of this very council, and Alexandra confirms this hunch. In a scene that mirrors – though not in a heavy-handed way – Scout’s observation of Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout drives to the meeting and observes it from a crowd in the back of the room, without Atticus’ and Henry’s knowledge.

There’s almost something “Young Goodman Brown”-ish about the scene that follows. Scout recognizes that all the men of Maycomb are present, even the two closest to her, and, to make matters worse, she sees her father stand and introduce someone named Grady O’Hanlon, who begins a racist rant that makes her sick. Harper Lee uses an interesting technique to abridge O’Hanlon’s rant somewhat: she includes only phrases, separated by ellipses – e.g. “It’s whether Christian civilization will continue to be or whether we will be slaves of the Communists… nigger lawyers… stomped on the Constitution… our Jewish friends… killed Jesus…” (110), and so forth. I’m assuming that this is Harper Lee’s way of acknowledging that in order to be truly frightening this man must be allowed to speak at length but not wanting to waste too much valuable paper and ink on truly letting him do so – though it’s also possible that she meant to come back and write O’Hanlon’s speech in full but never did so (I have heard that Go Set a Watchman is a first draft that she never revised, but I don’t know if that is true; if so, we should all write such first drafts). It’s also worth noting that Lee uses the same technique for the inane babble of the young Junior League mothers that Alexandra recruits to help convert Scout to their ways – this juxtaposition is just the understated comic touch that Lee likes to craft – so maybe this novel is less of a first draft than I’m giving it credit for.

From here the novel consists of two parts rant to one part flashbacks – all compelling, though I wouldn’t mind a little present-time dramatic action to fill in the gaps. Scout vomits, then “takes to her bed” (the irony is Lee’s). We follow her through cycles of denial and anger and self-blame – not exactly as written by Kübler-Ross but close enough – through silent rants like this one: “Why doesn’t their flash creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what. Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me – these same, these very people. So it’s me, not them. Something has happened to me” (167).

As the novel progresses, its moral terrain gets murkier and murkier. Scout leaves the citizen’s council meeting indignant, but the honest soul searching that she does next leads to some cringe-worthy places; for example, on the black people of her youth: “They were poor, they were diseased and dirty, some were lazy and shiftless, but never in my life was I given the idea that I should despise one, should fear one, should be discourteous to one, or think that I could mistreat one and get away with it. They as a people did not enter my world, nor did I enter theirs: when I went hunting I did not trespass on a Negro’s land, not because it was a Negro’s but because I was not supposed to trespass on anybody’s land. I was taught never to take advantage of someone who was less fortunate than myself, whether he be less fortunate in brains, wealth, or social position; it meant anybody, not just Negroes. I was given to understand that the reverse was to be despised. That is the way I was raised, by a black woman and a white man” (179). I struggle most of all with the pronouns in this passage. The substance is honest and decent, but the pronouns – the “theys” and the “ones” – those are the killers. Do you agree, or do I just have stronger feelings about pronouns than most people?

Do you remember Uncle Jack, who has a small but memorable role in To Kill a Mockingbird? Well, in Go Set a Watchman he’s a crotchety libertarian hoarder who retired from practicing medicine in order to be a recluse and study Victorian literature. Yes, really. If book blogs existed in 1954 he would definitely have had one. He’s more Boo Radley than Boo Radley, who isn’t mentioned in this novel – not even once. Scout goes to Uncle Jack for help with her make sense of what she’s witnessed, and he tells her that “all over the South your father and men like your father are fighting a sort of rearguard, delaying action to preserve a certain kind of philosophy that’s almost down the drain” (188). Jack also adds fuel to my earlier fire about the Protestant Reformation, telling Scout that “there are to this day in Maycomb County the living counterparts of every butt-headed Celt, Angle, and Saxon who ever drew breath” (190), making a point that the rural South has been driven by tribal thinking from the time it was settled by Europeans until the present day. The history lesson that follows is compelling but not at all coherent, and if I start quoting from it I may never stop. At one point, Scout tells Jack, “You sound like one of the minor prophets” (202). Before Scout departs, Jack tells her to come back “when [she] can’t stand it any longer, when [her] heart is in two” (202), and she promises him that she will.

Scout and Atticus have their great confrontation on a street corner outside the courthouse, which happens to be the exact spot on which Scout’s brother Jem died – an odd detail that seems superfluous. They discuss Brown vs. the Board of Education directly, with Scout admitting that her first reaction at hearing of the Supreme Court’s decision was to be furious at what she saw as a violation of (Lee’s words are “breezily canceling” [240]) the Tenth amendment, and Atticus describes black people as “backward” way too many times for my taste, though it is clear that he means it not as a pejorative but as a statement of a difficult truth, a consequence of the ravages of history. But then Atticus makes other statements that are harder to defend, like “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?” (245) and “Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?” (246) and “Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people… They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways…” (246), and as the pages pass it becomes harder and harder to defend anything that Atticus says. Have the intervening years between To Kill a Mockingbird and this novel made him a reactionary? Atticus had a cynical streak even back in that earlier novel – he sighed a lot and always seemed tired. And even here amid so many indefensible statements, he still shows a willingness to point out difficult truths, such as the fact that he (and, presumably, many other southern whites) feared the end of segregation not because they feared black people per se but because they knew that they were outnumbered by blacks (as the higher strata are always outnumbered by the lower strata in any kind of caste system) and feared a world in which blacks could vote. In both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, Atticus’ great virtues are honesty and patience. In this novel, he comes across as a bigot when he lays his own fears out on the table for his daughter to examine, and as a patient man himself he asks Scout to be patient too – he asks her to understand that he thinks that desegregation should happen very, very slowly. In other words, he preaches the same message against which Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Uncle Jack appears again after this confrontation and explains everything that Scout needs to know about Atticus – that by standing beside Grady O’Hanlon and letting him say his piece, Atticus also installed himself in a place where he can keep an eye on O’Hanlon and the rest of his ilk. “The law is what he lives by” (268), Jack says, adding that “the white supremacists fear reason, because they know cold reason beats them” (270). And he says more things – more grand, sweeping historical things – and then Scout leaves, perhaps for good, perhaps not. This novel is a little like Franny and Zooey in this sense – it’s orchestrated around various family members screaming at one another for a while, and then finding other family members to talk to about the screaming, and eventually one family member talks the other in off his/her figurative ledge, away from panic but directly into the path of sad, unwanted wisdom. Franny and Zooey convinces me – when Buddy calls Zooey pretending to be Seymour, I’m in tears. Go Set a Watchman doesn’t convince me as well. I find myself wishing that this novel had been published decades ago, when it was written, and that by the time I discovered it and read it, it had been processed and distilled into palatable form. I wish someone were here to tell me what it means.

So there you go. I promised myself I wasn’t going to spend serious time on the question of Atticus’ racism, but I couldn’t help myself, I guess. While I can’t say that Harper Lee meant me to take this thread quite as far as I’ve taken it, I am quite happy with the idea that the American Civil War and its aftermath – Reconstruction, the Jim Crow south, the Civil Rights Movement, and our recent (and, undoubtedly, future) failures to live in a way that is fair and equitable – are nothing but a series of final battles in the Protestant Reformation, when Europe fractured over the question of what constituted legitimate authority, and some of its pieces boarded ships and crossed the Atlantic and became us.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Harper Lee, Reviews by Bethany | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Review of Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea (by Jill)

The Winter Sea cover

I’m happily ensconced in my suite at the Royal Caribe Hotel in Orlando, Florida. I both love and hate traveling alone. While I like to think of myself as a person who would enjoy nothing more than to spend six solid days surrounded by no one I know, alone in a hotel room, with nothing to do but read and play on the internet (oh and go to continuing education lectures about feline medicine for eight hours a day), the actuality of it is a little scary for me. I feel like I should be out being social or something, but no, why should I do that? I have peace and quiet to read and blog and shop online and maybe exercise in the lovely fitness center at this hotel, or even do a Jillian Michaels DVD (I still need to figure out if I can borrow weights from said fitness center).  And then I remember that The Magic Kingdom and Universal Studios Orlando are less than two miles away and I think, “Maybe I should try to make that happen while I’m here….” But I know how that would go down. I’d forget all about school and spend every day sweating at Disney World. And that would be really bad, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that my work is paying for this conference. But I digress.

The Winter Sea first came to my attention a few years ago, and I thought it sounded really interesting. It’s one of those historical fiction with a present-day frame novels, and this one came out right when those sorts of books were first starting to saturate the market. I didn’t read it at the time because 2011 was when I was trying to read exclusively high-end fiction and The Winter Sea came off as too pedestrian and stinking too much of the dreaded chick lit. Since then I’ve come off my high horse a bit, and have learned that sometimes one needs to actually read books that are fun. The interesting thing about this book is that the historical fiction part takes place in early eighteenth century Scotland, and focuses on a group of Jacobites who are trying to reinstate James Stewart to the throne. Does this sound anything like a series of books we here on Postcards from Purgatory really like to talk about? The Jacobite Uprising of interest in this book is not the ’45, but the ’15, and events leading up to it. And the uprising is much more secondary to the plot than in the first two Outlander novels. It’s more a love story than anything else. But it’s a love story with an interesting premise.

The story starts in the present day, with Carrie McClelland, an author of historical fiction. She is working on her latest novel, which is to focus on a minor player in the Jacobite uprising of 1715. She’s having a hard time getting things to flow, and her editor and good friend suggests she add a character along the lines of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby to frame the narrative for her. She remembers that an ancestor of hers, Sophia McClelland, was in Scotland at around the same time (Carrie’s dad is a genealogy buff and has traced their family back many generations), and decides to use her. Part of Carrie’s process is to write in the locations where her books take place, so she goes to the coast of Scotland, to Slains, where there was once a castle where the major character of her book was said to have spent time. But once she’s there, the story flows a little too well. And when she does some digging, some of the details she has invented end up being historical facts. Carrie takes this all in stride, and decides that she has some kind of ancestral memory, descended down the generations from her ancestor Sophia. The improbability of this isn’t really addressed, and I didn’t let it bother me at the time, and I’m not going to let it bother me now, much as I want to fuss about it. I enjoyed this plot device enough to want to believe it. Gradually, Sophia’s story takes over the narrative. She is a girl of sixteen or seventeen or so, come to Slains to live with distant relatives. Her aunt, the Duchess of Erroll, is the mistress of Slains castle, and an ardent Jacobite. There are always people of historical importance coming and going. One of them is John Moray, who actually did exist. Here, he and Sophia fall in love and are secretly married. Because of his position as a spy for the Jacobite cause, no one can know of their relationship because he fears that his enemies will use Sophia against him. They also have a child, a daughter named Anna, who Sophia must give up in order to protect her from Moray’s enemies. I only mention this because Anna is a key character in the next book I’m going to review, The Firebird, and I thought I should probably introduce her. In this day and age, this fact seems more than a bit ridiculous, but back in the eighteenth century women of the noble class were barely allowed out of the house without some sort of escort, and as far as anyone knows, Sophia is an unmarried woman. The way Kearsley works out the end of their story to make it a satisfying conclusion is fairly predictable, but that didn’t make me enjoy it any less.

In the present day, Carrie has her own romance afoot, and her love story is also enjoyable, though much less dramatic and suspenseful and angsty than that of John Moray and Sophia. And that’s fine, because how many modern women get married in secret? Interestingly, both John Moray and Carrie’s suitor Graham Keith, a Slains local who is also a history professor at a nearby university and whose family has been in the area for generations, have the same gray green eyes that are the color of the winter sea (hence the name of the novel). Kearsley never lets on what that could mean as far as possible common ancestry for Carrie and Graham, but she hints at it. I’m hoping that mystery gets solved in The Firebird, but I haven’t finished that book yet, so I don’t know for sure.  The “anestral memory” plot device fascinated me, and I do wish Kearsley had spent a little more time delving into this theory and its origins, etcetera, but then this isn’t really that kind of book, so maybe I’ll just do some research of my own.

Overall, The Winter Sea is an enjoyable novel. I couldn’t really find fault with Kearsley’s writing or her story other than it was occasionally predictable. But she builds suspense well and I did find myself doubting that what I thought was going to happen would actually happen not infrequently as we headed towards the conclusion. I cared about the characters; they seemed real to me, though the men were a bit too idealized, both in the present as well as the past. Carrie and Sophia were more completely drawn, though not as well as they could have been. This book is definitely plot-driven, but that’s fine with me. It was easy reading, and a good choice for reading on a plane. I forgot to mention that I read this one on my Kindle, a reading platform I’m really beginning to enjoy for its portableness and the ability to read in dark places without a light!

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Reviews by Jill, Susanna Kearsley | Leave a comment

A Review of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (by Jill)

the blazing world coverI acquired The Blazing World thanks to Powell’s Indiespensible book club. It’s been sitting around for a while, over year, though I’ve been looking forward to reading it vaguely, with some concern for complicatedness and reading time. After my Orfeo experience a few months ago Indiespensible books have worried me a bit, and I was pleasantly surprised that The Blazing World (which was on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize in 2014) was of the same vein as Orfeo but held my attention better, and I actually found myself wanting to read it, rather than finding things to do rather than read it. It took me about three weeks to finish, but that was mostly because work has been busy and I wasn’t having as much time in the evenings to read. I ended up reading about half of this book while I was on my trip out to Boston for a conference last week, and it actually kept me awake on the plane for the most part, which is nice. I hate sleeping on planes because it is a waste of valuable reading time for me.

I’ve been wondering how I was going to introduce The Blazing World in my review for a few days now. I think I’ll keep in simple. The conceit is that it is a biography of sorts of an artist (fictional) named Harriet Burden, composed of excerpts from her many journals, as well as transcribed interviews of friends and family, as well as written statements by the same, and some magazine articles about her and her work. Harriet, or Harry, as her close friends call her, was a minor artist who married a very prominent art dealer named Felix Lord who was about twenty years her senior and gave up her career to be a wife and mother. Felix died suddenly and after a period of mourning that involved a lot of projectile vomiting on Harry’s part, she decided to leave her fancy Manhattan life behind and bought a warehouse in Brooklyn. The bulk of the story revolves around her work and life after the death of Felix. She begins to work again, and ultimately decides to test the modern art world, or totally fuck with the status quo, depending on how you look at it, by arranging to have three shows, all containing her work, with three different male artists as her “beards,” in order to see how differently her art is received when the public thinks that a male artist is responsible for it. The art in each show is completely different, except that it all sounds very interesting and also very strange, and received variably. The most controversy is generated in the third and final show, which has as Harry’s “mask,” an artist known only as Rune. He’s the most famous of the three artists Harry chooses, and also the most unstable one. When Harry reveals the truth of her Maskings project to the world, things don’t go over quite as she hoped. Rune insists that she is lying, that the work in “his” show was only his work, that Harry was a benefactor to him only. The truth is never truly known about Harry and Rune’s collaboration, though I sided with Harry, because, well, she is the heroine, and Rune turned out to be a compulsive liar in all aspects of his life, so why would he tell the truth about the art that Harry invested so many years into? Granted, I don’t know how stable Harry herself was and how reliable her words themselves are; artists are creative, dramatic souls who live a life apart from people like me, but I tend to believe her.

I had never heard of Siri Hustvedt prior to receiving this book from the lovely folks at Powell’s, but she is one of those genius types. She has a PhD in English from Columbia University. She writes fiction and non-fiction, and lectures on neuropsychoanalysis, neuroethics, and neurophysiology around the world. See what I mean about being a genius type? The major questions The Blazing World asks are those I would imagine students of those disciplines asking and debating and discussing. What makes art “belong” to one person or another? Why would gender matter when it comes to art? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and maybe there are none. I do know that this book made me think about them, and I’m glad I had the chance to. I think that this book would be enjoyed by many—it’s definitely a “thinking book,” and it has moments of being above my level, but it wasn’t an unreachable distance. There were lots of quotations from obscure philosophers in the sections that are excerpts from Harriet Burden’s journals, but the “author” of the “biography” puts in excellent footnotes to make sense of them all. I would have loved to have actually seen Harry’s work. Hustvedt describes everything in exquisite detail, but it just isn’t the same. This is modern art, sculptures and mazes and multimedia things, not just paint on canvas, mind you. And some of it sounds more than a little bit strange to me, but also extremely interesting to look at. I suppose one of the jobs of a good author is to expose the reader to ideas and lifestyles that he or she wouldn’t normally experience. Siri Hustvedt definitely did that for me with The Blazing World. I will definitely be tracking down her older novels in the used bookstores, though I’ll probably skip her nonfiction for the time being.

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Jill, Siri Hustvedt | Leave a comment

Yarn Along


This is less a Yarn Along post and more of a knitting and reading wish list. Knitting and reading have not been big parts of my life these days, especially since I’m at the tail end of twelve full work days in a row. I really do enjoy my job – but I haven’t been coming home with a lot of oomph, if you know what I mean. This weekend I will work on my brown sweater some more, finish Go Set a Watchman (which I’m enjoying, by the way – I’m a little worried that Harper Lee won’t be able to end it with the subtlety its plot and characters deserve, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless), and start The House of Mirth, which is part of the Numbers Challenge. Remember the Numbers Challenge? No? Most of the time I don’t either, but I really do want to get going on some of the books I promised myself I would read.

And if the universe is kind, it will be foggy and I will be able to do all of the above in sweatpants.

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

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Yarn Along

Yarn Along photo 7.15.15

I’m reading Go Set a Watchman right now, just like the rest of the sheep. BAAAA.

Actually, as I write this, I haven’t really started it, but I’ve flipped through the pages a bit. I happened upon a debate between Scout and Atticus over the real nature of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of democracy, which looked so far so good. I’m not upset with the fact that Scout sleeps without pants on or that Jem turns out to be mortal. Along with these two complaints, the internet as a whole seemed most upset with the fact that Atticus is not the saint he seems to be in To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’ve always felt that he needs a vice of some kind: porn or cockfighting, a gambling addiction or Danielle Steel novels. Why not a hidden vein of racism – a vein that didn’t show itself in To Kill a Mockingbird because a) Scout was only eight, and the novel is told from her point of view, and b) in To Kill a Mockingbird, we mostly saw Atticus doing his job, and when we do our jobs we tend to tuck away our vices as best we can. I think a racist streak may be exactly what’s needed to push his character into some semblance of plausibility.

On the knitting front, I’m still working on the brown sweater. Nothing new to report there.

Note the photobomb by my dad’s cat, Helen. I think today is her first appearance on this blog.

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

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