Friday, August 23, 2019

Tidelands, by Philippa Gregory. Atria Books, 2019

I really enjoyed “The Other Boleyn Girl”, so I was very happy to get a pre-release copy of ‘Tidelands’. I was disappointed I read it; I felt it wasn’t nearly as well written as TOBG was. It’s the first in a series, so there is a lot of stage setting to be done, and it was done well and in detail. But the pace is slow, although that may have been on purpose, to put the reader into the feeling of life for the poor in 1648.

In the Sussex tidelands, Alinor Reekie, a 27 year old herbalist and midwife lives in a shack right in the muck and mud. Her two children work for the biggest employer in the area, the farmer and owner of a tide-driven mill. Alinor has an odd status; her fisherman husband disappeared months ago, so she is not a widow but she has no man to support her. Her brother Ned runs the human powered ferry. They live in Dickensian poverty, but at least they have shelter and *some* food. This is during the time of the English Civil War, when Charles I was exiled on the Isle of Wight- nearby to where Alinor lives. Parliament was running the country, and Catholicism was outlawed. Royalists practiced their faith in secret, and plans were always afoot to restore Charles to the throne.

One night Alinor meets James as he flounders about in the tide flats. She leads him to the manor of Sir William. In thanks for that, he persuades Sir William to hire Alinor’s son, Rob, on as companion to his own son, to be educated by his side, giving him a chance to obtain a job inside. William also pays Alinor some money, in thanks for keeping some secrets. Alinor’s daughter, Alys, at 13 has turned into a beautiful young woman who is attracting the eye of the miller’s son. The family’s sudden good fortune- and Alinor’s profession- makes the area people jealous and suspicious that Alinor is a witch- a common fear in that time and place- the ruling Puritans really seem to have hated women. There are plots brewing and there are secrets that could lead to death.

For a book this long, there is a strange lack of character depth. Even Alinor is not really fleshed out. I felt sorry for her, but she never came to life for me. Alys comes off as just annoying, the son barely exists, and I ended up despising James in the end. My biggest complaint, however, was the ending. It all happens suddenly, after over 400 pages of slowness, and with a Deus ex machina appearing. It was very unsatisfying. I loved all the details of life on the tideflats- the setting itself came alive for me- but that didn’t make up for the other deficits. Only 4 stars.  

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, by Naomi Wolf. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019

It wasn’t until well after I read this book that I found out how controversial it is. In gathering her facts, she misread court records. Where she saw the words “Death recorded” she took it to mean that the accused was hanged. In reality, that shorthand meant that the death sentence had been commuted, and the accused allowed to live. She also missed that in those days, ‘sodomy’ did not just apply to anal sex between males, but also applied to child abuse. There were probably no executions for consensual sex- but there *was* hard labor, as Oscar Wilde discovered.

Wolf writes that 1857 was a year when being gay became a crime, or became more of a crime. The laws against homosexuality had been on the books for years. It was the year when the Obscene Publications Act was enacted; it allowed the courts to seize books on the mere suspicion of being obscene- without defining obscenity. The Contagious Diseases Act was put in place in 1864. This act allowed the police to seize any woman force her to submit to a vaginal exam; if they felt she was infected, she was imprisoned. The act also allowed them to examine male anuses; if dilated, the man must be gay. So it was a time of anti-sex legislation.

The author uses the lives of a few gay men to demonstrate what life was like them, and the book does give you a feel for the era.

The book has been withdrawn by the publisher; I have no idea if Wolf will rewrite it, if it will be published as is, or if its publication will be canceled.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, by Gordon H. Chang. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019

Most Americans learn in school that there were Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad project, but that’s usually where it stops. Chang, professor of humanities and of history at Stanford, the director of the Center for East Asian Studies and co-director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America project, has gone to primary sources to shine a light on the lives of the some 20,000 workers who came from China to work on the tracks.

When the Transcontinental Railroad project was put together, a competition arose between the Union Pacific railroad working from the east and the Central Pacific railroad working from the west. They started in 1864 and finished in 1869. Union Pacific had it fairly easy; they covered a lot of fairly flat states. Central Pacific, on the other hand, started at Sacramento and went right up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There were no machines to do any of the work; it was all done with shovels and picks, moving rocks and soil in buckets. Differences in elevations had to be smoothed into easy slopes, sharp curves had to be made wider. Once the rail beds were done, ties and steel rails had to be laid. They went right on up through the Donner Pass, working night and day, summer and winter. It was dangerous and horribly hard work. They were paid submarket wages and were treated badly by the whites, especially by the settlers they worked around- settlers afraid the Chinese would want to stay there once the railroad was down.

Not all the Chinese in the project were railroad workers; some were vendors, while some made livings farming and providing familiar foods to the RR workers. While there were very few Chinese women involved in the project, what there were tended to be enslaved as sex workers.

Sadly, no first-hand account has ever been found. Chang has had to resort to ship manifests, immigration lists, business records of the Chinese community, old newspapers, family stories, and oral histories. He’s put together a solid history that, while dry, is good and fairly easy to read. There were sections that I found slow and boring, but most held my interest well. Four stars.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Neuro Fitness: The Real Science of Peak Performance From a College Dropout Turned Brain Surgeon, by Rahul Jandial, MD, Phd. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2019

Dr. Jandial is a brain surgeon who was originally a drop-out. But he is no Nick Riviera; he is a highly esteemed doctor with a PhD in neurobiology, with 20 years of post-high school education. So he knows what he’s talking about when he talks about the brain.

This book covers a lot of territory: memory, intelligence, language, creativity, smart drugs (and others), sleep, head injuries (a constantly changing field at the moment), diet for the brain, implants, stem cells, how the brain differs in youth and old age. Turns out the real science of peak performance is pretty much the same as the prescription for general good health: get enough sleep, eat healthy, do what you can to reduce stress, avoid head injuries, and don’t take street drugs or the ones touted on line as ‘smart drugs’. And hope that new treatments for dementia come down the pipeline before you get it. Neurologists and neurosurgeons are doing some amazing things, but there is still so much that can’t be fixed. Hedge your bets by following his prescription.

Pretty easy to read and very interesting. I love reading about medical cases, especially neurology ones, and he does this very well. Of great interest to me was his use of deep brain stimulation (DBS) to abate a case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder-as a life time sufferer of OCD, the thought that there might actually be a non-chemical cure is exciting! This is a book for any fan of Oliver Sacks or of medical tales in general, and for anyone looking to get the best out of their brain.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Burn the Place: A Memoir, by Iliana Regan. Midway Books, 2019

Iliana Regan is the owner of the Michelin Star restaurant “Elizabeth”, named for her sister who died in a jail holding cell. She was exposed to food a lot as a child- they lived on a farm and grew, foraged, baked, and preserved most of their food, but until the point her mother rebelled at having to do all that and they moved to a city. Oh, and they also helped out in Regan’s grandmother’s restaurant, too. Little wonder her mother got exhausted! But Regan loved working with food. When she grew up, she worked for other restaurant and worked in every station, learning the ropes inside and out. For a while, she ran a small restaurant out of her home, foraging the daily ingredients right in the city.

But the book isn’t all about her incredible food talent. As a child she struggled with gender identity. She also had a problem with alcoholism and addiction. She could not sustain a relationship. She was working in a male dominated profession. Being a lesbian didn’t make her any more acceptable. She battled all these things and came out a winner. She’s been married to Anna for several years now, and running a restaurant and a Japanese inspired pub.

The book was a little hard to read. While divided into four parts, the story is all over the place, in the present at one point and then skewing into the past. The writing is raw and blunt- descriptions of slaughtering animals, rampant drug taking, and alcohol binges. But it has something that held me. I do wish I’d learned some about her process of recipe creation; one of the most compelling things is that even as a small child she had a connection with food- when it was ripe, how to combine it, how to serve it up. She has an almost mystical connection with the earth and its edibles. Four stars.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Gertrude Stein Has Arrived: The Homecoming of a Literary Legend, by Roy Morris Jr. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019

I tend to be interested in biographies of artists and writers of the early parts of the last century, so even though I’ve never managed to read one of her poems I requested this book. I may now attempt to read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (written by Stein, not her life partner Toklas, she of the infamous brownies), after finding out that it’s a lot more readable than her earlier works. The fact that she was a self-declared genius seems, well, scary, but people really did find her talks and advice brilliant and interesting.

Although both were from the Bay Area, Stein and Toklas left America and lived in France- which was more welcoming to lesbian couples- for most of their lives. Here she collected art, wrote, and held salons for writers and artists. Many came to her for advice about their art or writing. It was when Stein published The Autobiography that she suddenly became known in America, and was asked to come over for a speaking tour. For over six months the duo went all over the US, to 37 cities. They had tea with Eleanor Roosevelt, met Charlie Chaplain and Mary Pickford (who wasn’t impressed with her), had a ride-along in a police car with a homicide detective, met with the Raven Society in Edger Allen Poe’s old room, visited several Civil War battlefields, had their first airplane ride, had Oysters Rockefeller in New Orleans- suddenly everyone loved this couple. She gave both literary and social issue speeches. The title comes from the “Gertrude Stein Has Arrived” message that was put on the New York Times reader sign.

If you know nothing about Stein, this is a great little biography. They don’t leave France until halfway through the book, so we get a good picture of their lives pre-lecture tour. Then we find out the things that she and Toklas saw, and the things that they said, while in the US. Stein came away with new admiration for the country she had so long disdained, stating that she was in love with the US now. I found the book a very interesting and fairly quick read; it’s full of celebrities like Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and even Walter Cronkite interviewing her while in college! Five stars.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The Song of the Jade Lily, by Kirsty Manning. William Morrow, 2019

In 1938, on the day that will live in history as Kristallnacht, 12 year old Romy, her brothers, and her parents try to flee Austria as Nazi troops start rounding up Jews. One brother is shot for standing up for himself; the other is captured and taken away. Romy and her parents manage to make their way to a train station; they find they cannot flee into any European countries. Their only hope of escape is a boat to Shanghai, as China is still taking in refugees. On the boat, Romy becomes friends with Nina, whose parents die on board ship. The Bernfelds want to take Nina into their own shattered family, but her uncle, who cares nothing for her, takes her away. In Shanghai, the Bernfelds become friends with the Ho family, with Romy and Li becoming fast friends. Li becomes a beautiful singer, while Romy is intellectually gifted.

In 2016, Alexandra is returning to the Australian home of her grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm. She has a broken heart, and it is about to be broken more: Wilhelm is dying. He and Romy feel it’s time for Alexandra to know something of the family history, which has been kept from her so far. She knows that her mother was adopted by Wilhelm and Romy, and that she died in a car accident when Alexandra was very young. But she knows nothing of her mother’s origins, and Romy isn’t telling her that. So she sets out on an information gathering mission…in Shanghai.

I loved reading this book. The author paints pictures of Shanghai complete with scents and flavors. It’s rich in details. Shanghai is painted as an amazing place- the Paris of the East. And it’s not just the pretty side of it; this takes place during the horrors of the Japanese Occupation. I didn’t find Alexandra’s story completely absorbing, but Romy’s story sucked me in. Told in the now common format of duel timelines and narrators, the stories fill each other in. I was able to figure out what happened before the end, but not very far before. I had never heard about Jewish refugees in China before and that fascinated me. I loved the details of life; the food, the healing methods, the grim conditions in the town and especially in the hospital where Romy works with her father in Shanghai. Diary entries and letters from the war add dimension to the tale. Manning did a lot of research to write this novel, and it shows. Five stars.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Death of a New American, by Mariah Fredericks. Minotaur Books, 2019

In Fredericks second in this historical mystery series, it’s 1912, and ladies maid Jane Prescott is accompanying her charge, Louise, to the Long Island mansion of the Bentleys. Louise is marrying William Tyler at his aunt and uncle’s home, and they are going early to get everything set up properly. Uncle Charles is the prosecutor notorious for going after the Black Hand, the Italian organized crime ring of the time. Because of this, and also because of the recent death of one of their children, his wife Alva is intensely worried about the children’s safety. She doesn’t want them outside, even with the armed guards patrolling the property, and the windows are shut and locked most of the time (although it is odd that, for all her worries about their safety, Alva spends very little time with the kids!). When the nanny, Sofia Bernardi, is murdered one night in the nursery, with the window left open and baby Freddy out of his crib, everyone’s minds assume it was an attempted kidnapping, or an attempt to kill the baby.

Jane sets out to solve the crime. Once again, she encounters journalist Michael Behan and her Marxist friend, Anna. She also has the assistance of 6 year old Mabel Tyler, who is precocious and smart. Along with the mystery, the author touches of woman’s suffrage, racism, and classism. Even Behan, who is supposed to be a good guy, shows a nasty bigoted side to himself. The sinking of the Titanic, and the loss of life, hangs as a shadow over the proceedings. Not to mention pre-wedding jitters on the part of Louise and William.

Despite the classism of the day, Jane is pretty much accepted as an equal by her employers and the other high class folks, and she seems to have an awful lot of spare time for a ladies maid, which made it hard to see this as taking place more than a hundred years ago. The story is very slow. The story is full of great historical detail, but, sadly, the characters never really come to life. Three and a half stars, if I could give that.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Mistress of the Ritz, by Melanie Benjamin. Delacorte Press, 2019

Based on a real couple, Mistress of the Ritz tells the story of Blanche and Claude Auzello. In the early 1920, they meet in Paris, have a brief affair, and marry very quickly. Blanche is American, a brash, talkative, foul mouthed American flapper. Claude is French, and the manager of the greatest hotel in the world, the Ritz in Paris. Their impulsive marriage has lots of problems; Claude takes the traditional view that he should be able to have a mistress, while Blanche has, shall we say, a huge problem with that. She comforts herself with lots of alcohol, down in the hotel bar, spending her time there talking with the celebrities, like Hemingway, the Windsors, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. She frequently passes out down in the bar, where they sit her in a corner, hopefully out of view of the guests. Claude’s days at the Ritz involve long hours and intense work, meaning he just doesn’t have time for a wife (especially when he has a mistress).

Things get worse when the Germans invade France, and Hermann Goering sets up headquarters in the Ritz. Now everyone must really mind their manners, never letting on what they think of the Nazis. Meanwhile, the French Resistance is active in Paris, which Blanche finds out about from her ragtag friend, Lily, a misfit in the bar but interesting. Soon Blanche is risking her freedom and life…. And Claude has secrets of his own.

The story is as much about a troubled marriage as it is about World War 2. Almost the first half of the book is about this, and, frankly, I did not like it; it is all about arguments. I found it boring, and I did not like either Blanche or Claude. It got better when the Nazi’s moved into Paris, and the French Resistance gets active. Told in the first person, with three different points of view and told in the present tense, it allows a lot of tension. The writing itself is beautiful most of the time. It is based on a real couple, about which very little is known, so the ‘historical fiction’ is very heavy on the ‘fiction’. One thing I liked is that the Germans were portrayed as real people, some sympathetic, even though what they are doing is evil. Three stars.