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2nd-Jul-2015 04:48 pm(no subject)
tracks through time
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.
28th-Jun-2015 03:24 pm(no subject)
tracks through time
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 fiancé 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.
22nd-Jun-2015 03:14 pm(no subject)
Kwan Yin
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.
Very few historical subjects have inspired as many books as the fall of the Roman Empire. Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation is slightly different. Ward-Perkins has little interest in the reasons that Rome fell. What interests him is a slightly different topic - what were the results of Rome’s fall?

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21st-Jun-2015 02:30 pm(no subject)
Another Little Piece of My Heart, by Richard Goldstein. Bloomsbury 2015

In 1966, twenty-two year old Goldstein walked into the Village Voice and invented the job he wanted: rock critic. During his time doing this, he had some amazing adventures and met a lot of the great rock innovators. He became friends with Janis Joplin, was a passenger in a car driven by a completely stoned Dennis Wilson (who at one point in the trip said “Whoa! The road is doing these weird things.”), and had the Velvet Underground play at his wedding. But in this time of social upheaval, music came to seem less important than politics and protests. His beat changed to protests, he became friends with Abbie Hoffman, and hung with the Black Panthers. Later he became a chronicler of pop culture, and then a worker for gay rights.

The book really only spans a few years, but so much happened during that time- the core of the hippie subculture came and went. Music went from being all about the music to selling out to commercial interests. The drug scene went from happy, smiling potheads to bikers selling the hard, injectable stuff. The innocence was lost.

The book is a personal memoir, but Goldstein’s life is inextricably meshed with so much of the history of the time that you cannot tease them apart. He changed as the times did.

I loved reading this book; I was born in 1954 so I was too young to appreciate much of what was happening in the world even though I was aware of it. This was a nice trip back through time, viewed through a critical eye.
18th-Jun-2015 04:53 pm(no subject)
reading, books
The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman. Simon & Schuster, 2015

I have loved pretty much every book Alice Hoffman has written, so I was excited to receive this one for early review. For the most part, I was not disappointed.

In 1817, on the small Caribbean island of St. Thomas, teen aged Rachel Pomie, member of the small Jewish community, is told by her father that he has arranged a marriage for her. Her father and the prospective groom wish to merge their businesses, and the groom, thirty years older than Rachel, is a recent widower with three small children. Despite her dreams of going to Paris, Rachel enters the marriage with surprising dignity and maturity. Now she is trapped on St. Thomas.

Luckily Monsieur Isaac Petit is a man ahead of his time. He loved his first wife and is gentle and thoughtful with Rachel, viewing her as a partner in the job of raising a family. Rachel makes friends with the Petit’s maid, as well as with the ghost of the first Mrs. Petit. But when Isaac suddenly dies, she finds herself alone with seven children, and no money- in their community, women cannot inherit anything. Everything she has thought she owned is now the property of Isaac’s family in France. A nephew will be sent to sort things out and run the business. Rachel finds this infuriating.

When the nephew- several years Rachel’s junior- appears, they fall in love. According to their community’s laws, they are family even though there is no blood shared between them, and thus cannot marry. Shunned when they have an affair despite lack of blessing from a rabbi, Rachel moves heaven and earth to obtain the blessing of the rabbi and be married after several years of effort. Anything can be done for love.

Which is why it is so ironic that when their youngest son, Camille Pizarro who will be acclaimed as the father of Impressionism, falls in love with the cook’s daughter, Rachel refuses to give her blessing to the match. The girls is both working class and not Jewish.

This is not just the story of Rachel and her husbands. It’s also about the love between sisters- even when the sister cannot be acknowledged; parental love; love that must be kept hidden; the horror of slavery; the lack of women’s rights in the 19th century; the persecution of Jews; and magic. There is a lot going on in this story, on several levels. It’s told so beautifully that the story leapt into my mind in glowing color. St. Thomas is a place of incredible physical beauty and the sense of place, both there and in Paris, is very important to the story. I have to admit that while Rachel is a very sympathetic character in the first portion, she is much less so later on, and we have no way of knowing why she changes so. But people do change when the shoe is on the other foot. A wonderful story that held me totally.
11th-Jun-2015 04:30 pm(no subject)
The Righteous and the Wicked, by Derek Cavignano. 2014

This is a work of urban fantasy/science fiction that never stops moving. Widowed accountant Jacob Hanley is about to eat lunch at a restaurant when an old man collapses in front of him, warning him about Symbios and the Great Elder, and dies. When the EMTs take the body away, Jacob discovers that the old man left a business card on the table. Then the coroner finds that the old man was only 30 years old. Jacob not only becomes curious but feels the man’s family should be notified.. and the police can’t find anyone home to tell. When Jacob makes a trip to the man’s house himself, he finds himself trapped by two thugs who are ransacking the house. Suddenly his world is upended, in an adventure that will involve his policeman brother, a dirty policeman, an accountant at Symbios, a PI with mixed allegiances, and the Great Elder, a genius who may have gone too far. The whole world is at stake by the end.

This story really held my interest. The characters are well done (especially Frank, the PI), the threat is complex and seemingly unstoppable, the action nonstop. My only beef with the story is the ending- there are a whole lot of loose ends. This is obviously the first book in a series- but you’re not told that until you get to the end and suddenly there is a big lack of explanations. I certainly want to read the sequel, but was annoyed to be left dangling abruptly.
11th-Jun-2015 03:09 pm(no subject)
tracks through time
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk: 30 Extraordinary Tales, edited by Sean Wallace. Running Press, 2012

I find myself torn, as I so frequently am with anthologies, between great enthusiasm and complete boredom concerning this book. Some of the stories I found excellent; some were little more than scenes or prose poems. Most are not what I’ve come to expect from standard steampunk; while there are airships and robotics and alternate histories, there is not the perky heroine and handy, well dressed hero racing through an Indiana Jones type adventure. Many of these stories tackle racism, colonialism, sexism, and class stratification. Many also desert the usual Victorian London or American wild West settings so common in steampunk; we find ourselves in Haiti and Meso-America as well as other places. I applaud the inclusion of these tales that stretch the usual boundaries of steampunk, but some of them could have been a lot more interesting.
7th-Jun-2015 06:33 pm(no subject)
Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat, by John McQuaid. Scribner, 2015

“Tasty” claims itself to be a “brief biography of flavor” and indeed it is. McQuaid shows how taste was possibly the first sense to develop in life- 500 million years ago, sea anemones, who are restricted to eating whatever the water brings them, needed a way to tell food particles from non-food particles. Whoever evolved a method of doing this first had a distinct advantage over critters that didn’t have that ability. The sense of taste is not just confined to our tongues we have taste receptors in other parts of our bodies- including in our intestines. That wasn’t an image I wanted to dwell on. Speaking of tongues, that diagram they show everyone in science class, with the tongue divided into bitter, sweet, salty, and sour? It’s bogus, and they knew it was almost as soon as it was made up, but somehow it just won’t die. Also, there is a fifth flavor- umami- which is meaty and yummy and the epitome of it is monosodium glutamate. Fat *may* be a sixth flavor.

Different people have different taste sensitivities. Some people are very sensitive to bitter-the author posits that they might have been able to detect poisonous foods back when humans were first learning what was safe to eat. Other people enjoy a touch of bitter, and revel in broccoli, coffee, and dark chocolate. Some have a much higher tolerance for capsaicin than others. Everyone is born liking sugar, but other food preferences are learned, like being able to tolerate that revolting (to most of us) rotten shark that is eaten in Iceland. Flavors can be perceived differently depending on things like the color of the plate the food is eaten off of. When a recipe is put together, different flavors build together to create a sensation of deliciousness that is greater than the sum of the parts.

This is a very good book that covers the subject well. It’s well researched and well written. It’s written in terms that the average reader can understand but isn’t dumbed down. It touches on both the science and history of food and flavors. Interesting for both the foodie and the science buff.
2nd-Jun-2015 04:56 pm(no subject)
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton. Candlewick Press, 2014

Ava Lavender’s family had a history of heartbreaking love. Men who ran away, men who died, a father who married another and left her mother pregnant, an aunt who turned into a bird; it’s just not a cheerful family. To add to it, the dead haunt the living. So when unmarried Viviane gives birth to a baby girl with wings and an autistic boy, it’s just another heartbreak looking for a place to happen. Viviane keeps Ava penned up in the house, fearing what the outside world might do to Ava because of her wings. But she’s an open secret; the delivery room nurses told all.

Despite her mother’s plan to keep Ava away from others, she meets a girl her own age when she is playing in the backyard. The girl is unimpressed with Ava’s condition; she can’t fly, so she is just a girl. As they get older, Ava begins to escape at night and meet other teens, stretching her wings so to speak. But she doesn’t know that someone has developed a dangerous obsession with her. You can’t protect those you love from life or love. Penning them up only makes them try harder to escape. And it’s only after escaping that they can truly spread their wings and fly.

The prose is so perfectly wrought it’s like fine goldwork, tastefully ornamented and shiny. It was a joy to read; very good magical realism. Some readers have complained that it’s not just about Ava; no, it’s about her whole family, a generational novel. In some ways it reminded me of a less weird ‘Bellefleur’ (note: I love that book). This is Walton’s first novel; I can’t wait to see what she does next.
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