Monday, April 17, 2017

The Last Days of Leda Grey, by Essie Fox. Orion Books, 2016

In 1976, journalist Ed Peters finds himself transfixed by an old photograph in a junk shop- a picture of a young Edwardian girl with dark hair and eyes. When it turns out she’s the sister of the proprietor, and that she was an actress in very early silent films, Peters figures he’s got a story in the making if he can find out more. Leda Grey is still alive, a recluse in the ramshackle mansion White Cliff House. When he hikes up there, he finds the house literally falling apart, and sees Leda sleeping in a chair inside. He leaves a note that he will return, and so he does.

Leda is willing to tell the story of how she got involved with film making and with the film maker himself: Charles Beauvois. She became mistress and muse. Through both talking and her written memoirs, the story of his genius, his sickness and his brutality come out. But the story isn’t just told to Peters; he finds himself experiencing some of it.

I found this story un-put-downable. The descriptions of the making of the movies, of the house in its prime, of the passion between Leda and Beauvois, are lush, with a near photographic quality, as if they themselves are movies. It’s a story of dark and light contrasts; the darkness of Beauvois, the lightness of young Leda interacting with the other actors her own age. Multiple lives go wrong in this story, and I found myself caring a lot about them. 

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

This in no way influenced my review. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, by Bill Schutt. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2017

People tend to think of cannibalism as something rare and weird and horrible. In fact, it’s pretty common. Pretty much every part of the animal world has cannibal species in it. We all know about the praying mantis female eating her mate, but lots of insects, spiders, fish, amphibians, and even mammals dine on either their spouse or their children. Sometimes the children eat the parents. Those mouth breeding fish? The ones where the male holds the brood of babies in their mouth while they mature? Yeah. Sometimes they get hungry and have a little snack. Mice eat their young in overcrowded conditions. Higher on the family tree, chimps and polar bears do it. Some sharks eat their siblings while they are still in the womb. Some creatures eat each other when there is food scarcity. Some creatures only eat parts of each other- there is one species that eats the lining of the mother’s uterus while still inside.

But it’s not just critters. Humans perform cannibalism, too, and it’s not just the Donner party and Hannibal Lector. Sometimes it is a matter of survival, like the Donner party and the survivors of the airplane crash in the Andes. The people are already dead; they aren’t killing them for food; they are just taking advantage of what is there so they can survive. That’s not the only time humans eat each other, though. Sometimes it’s done to honor the beloved dead- sort of grokking their loved ones. Most often, though, people eat only parts of each other. In the past in Europe, there were many ‘cures’ that involved things like powdered skulls and the blood from a hanged man being ingested. These days, some women eat their own placenta after giving birth. Most don’t tend to think of these cast off bits of humanity as being parts of people, but they are.

Then there is the issue of false accusations of cannibalism. It seems like an awful lot of indigenous people have been accused of this habit when they are inconvenient for conquerors. Want the tribe’s land? Just call them cannibals and it’s okay to kill them off; you’re just saving yourself from danger! It happened all over in the tropical American areas when the Spanish first came into the area.

Biologist Schutt takes a fairly light hearted look at cannibalism. He deals in both data and anecdote; the prose is a fast and easy read. His style of dealing with taboo subject matter reminded me of Mary Roach (“Stiff” and others); a very readable overview of something with big squick value. 

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

I received this book free in return for an unbiased review from the Library Thing Early Reviewers program. 

Neither of these things influenced my review.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Foxlowe, by Eleanor Wasserberg. Penguin, 2017


 “Foxlowe” is a seriously creepy book. You wouldn’t think so; Green, our narrator, thinks Foxlowe is the best place possible for a kid to grow up. Not that she has anything to compare it to; she was born there. It’s a commune, where everyone is equal, things are shared, they live off the land as much as possible, and there are many celebrations. She knows kids Outside have to go to school while she gets to learn from the land. But while the book starts on a major festival day- Summer Solstice- the very first scene is one of punishment. Green is taking the Spike Walk, where the child is forced to drag her bare arm along exposed nail points. Punishments are meted out by Freya, one of the Founders, and her list of punishable offenses is long. Freya claims these punishments keep the Family protected; it is keeping The Bad out. The Bad can be invited in in many ways; talking to Outsiders, going outside their limited territory (the moor, the Standing Stones), seeming to prefer the company of Libby (fellow founder and rival for the affections of Richard, who is owner of the decaying, ramshackle mansion they live in), disagreeing with Freya. But Green loves Freya (probably her bio mom) and will do whatever it takes to make her happy.

But while Green can see no other life, she has a playmate- a boy (Toby) a few years older than her, brought to Foxlowe when was 6 or so, who remembers Outside and aspires to other things. But it’s a status quo until one day Freya brings home a baby, Blue, and puts Green – about 5 at the time- in charge of her. Needless to say, between jealousy and ineptitude, things don’t go well.

The kids are neglected. Food is sporadic. They are given wine and moonshine from the time they are babies. They can barely read, and Green doesn’t know her numbers even as an adult. They get stoned with the adults a lot of the time. Blue is a challenge to Freya from the time she’s little, dealing with her punishments stoically. Toby’s tales of Outside fascinate Blue. Blue is the balance to Green; despite being brought up from birth in Foxlowe, she doesn’t accept things as they are.

Green’s story bounces around in time; in one installment she’s a child, in the next an adult, in the next, a young teen. Her calm take on things like the Spike Walk is eerie. Even as an adult, long out of the Family, her take on life is still shaped by her childhood and Freya’s jealous urge for power over people. This badly damaged person still sees things the way she did as a child. It’s a very compelling story- I read it in two sittings- and despite the horror we can see that in some ways, Green’s childhood as she saw it was very beautiful and filled with magic. But family dynamics can be just as ugly in an intentional community as in the wild Outside, and that’s what rules Foxlowe. 

The above is an affiliate account. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they 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 influenced my review.