Thursday, July 2, 2015

Malevolent Muse: The Life of Alma Mahler, by Oliver Hilmes. Northeastern University Press, 2015

Born in 1879 and living until 1964, Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel lived a long life. She lived through two world wars, outlasted two husbands (Mahler and Werfel), divorced another one (Gropius), was constantly unfaithful, drank too much, was a virulent anti-Semite despite marrying two Jewish men and having affairs with many more, was emotionally abusive to pretty much every one around her- especially her husbands, lovers, and children-, thought Hitler had kind eyes, was self-deluded and self-aggrandizing, was a great fan of the arts, and was greedy. Yet men of genius flocked to her. Painters, writers, composers, architects, sculptors, conductors, politicians, and more all became lovers or friends. And to be either of those things, you had to be a vocal admirer. Any criticism of her and she was an enemy. So what did this woman have that other women didn’t? I confess that I am no closer to understanding that I was before reading the book.

She was physically attractive, but not exceptionally so. She knew how to decorate a house and to throw a party. She had composed a few songs described as ‘slight’ before meeting Mahler, who put an end to her composing  Apparently she must have been a good conversationalist, to have interested so many people. A number of her lovers remained attracted to her long after their affairs were over- was she that good in bed?

Was she a muse? Mahler, Gropius and Werfel were all pretty well along in their careers when she met them, so they didn’t need to her create. Werfel wrote a large number of plays and books after becoming Alma’s husband, but part of that is because she demanded that he support her in the style to which she was accustomed. To do most of his writing, he most often fled to another city until he was finished with the project- those long separations may possibly be why their marriage lasted so long.

It’s a mystery. I was rather revolted by the picture of Alma that emerged from the book. Hilmes’s research is impeccable; he waded through boxes of correspondence and diaries. Alma kept a rather thorough record of her life and relationships, although she self-censored it at some point. That she destroyed some diaries and letters is probably a good thing; as it was, her memoir, ‘En Leben’ was so full of sex that it was sold from under bookstore counters like pornography (bearing in mind that this was 1959). Her story is interesting-Alma and Werfel’s escape from Europe as Hitler’s armies took over was enough to make me hold my breath- but most of the book moves very slowly. Because of her character, I can’t say I really enjoyed the book. Just as I thought she couldn’t get any worse, she’d do or say something unforgivable. And yet, so many in her life forgave her constantly. 

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I received this book free from the Library Thing Early Reviewers program. 

Neither of these things influenced my review. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Second Street Station: A Mary Handley Mystery, by Lawrence H. Levy. Broadway Books, 2015

In 1888, in New York City, Mary Handley gets fired from her sweatshop job just in time to get appointed as a detective on the New York police force- the first woman to be on the force. Given the attitudes of the time, she is harassed by the men on the force and hounded by the press. But she’s determined to solve the murder of Charles Goodrich, barely retired accountant for Thomas Edison and fiancĂ© of her friend. Through the course of Mary’s investigation, she meets Edison, J.P. Morgan, Nikola Tesla, a hired assassin, and a young man who woos her but turns out not to be as he seems. She finds herself followed, beaten, drugged, and lied to. But Mary is not your typical girl of this era; she knows jujitsu and is not afraid to fight. Although there are numerous people that look to have a reason for murder, the actual murderer turns out to be a complete surprise.

This is Levy’s first novel, and I have to say it shows in places. Mary is a, well, Mary Sue despite being authored by a man. She thinks a little too modernly to be totally believable, and speaks a little too modern era, too. I enjoyed the story, and feel the era was pretty well depicted, as well as the historical figures although I’m sure many readers will be upset by Edison’s portrayal. The story is based on a real event; Mary Handley was real and indeed helped to solve the murder. There was just a little too much explaining things to readers instead of just showing them; this looks to be the first of series so I’m hoping the author gets better with time as there is promise here. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. 

I received this book free from Library Thing's Early Reviewers program.

Neither of these things influenced my review.  

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Courtesan, by Alexandra Curry. Dutton, 2015

In 1881, a Chinese mandarin is beheaded for speaking the truth to the Emperor, leaving his 7 year old daughter, Jinhua,  orphaned, as her mother died giving birth to her. His First Wife promptly sells her, and she, the pampered child who has unbound feet and the ability to read, ends up in a low class brothel and forced into being  a ‘money tree’ at just shy of twelve years old. The only person who is kind to her through this is the brothel maid, Suyin. Her career is cut mercifully short, however, when a high government official, Subchancellor Hong, visits and decides she is the reincarnation of his old love. Jinhua’s life takes her not just to the upper class again, but to Vienna, and to Peking during the Boxer Rebellion.

Sai Jinhua was a real woman, and through the years much of the detail of her life has been lost, altered, and made legendary. The author has done her research, not just into Jinhua’s life but the lives of those who knew (or might have known) her, and into the conditions in China during the period, but of course, given all the varying ‘histories’ she has had to make choices about which ones to use and breathe life into the story. The story comes off as (mostly) real feeling, but drags at times. The last part of the book drags- which is odd, considering what violent events take place in it. I came away with great sympathy for Jinhua- and even more of Suyin. In this book, Jinhua is totally human, with both good and bad aspects to her character. Not the best example of this type of novel, but this is a first effort and the author has great promise. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. 

Neither of these things affected my review.