Saturday, November 30, 2013

364 (2013 #48). Guests on Earth

by Lee Smith

I requested this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program because I'd read another of Lee Smith's books (On Agate Hill), and the premise of this one sounded interesting.  Smith did a lot of research for this psychological fiction set in the past, and she notes her sources at the end of the book.

The protagonist and first-person narrator is the fictional Evalina Touissant, who is a 13-year-old orphan in 1936 when she is sent to the (real) Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, a mental institution, due to some self-destructive behavior after her mother's death.

Although Zelda Fitzgerald is mentioned in the blurbs, she is not a major character.  Besides Zelda, the other real people in the book are psychiatrist Dr. Robert S. Carroll, who established Highland, and his wife Grace Potter Carroll, a concert pianist who takes Evalina under her wing and provides the one constant (piano playing) in her life. 

Initially, Evalina gets "well" rapidly and becomes a favorite of  the Carrolls.  They send her to the (real) Peabody Institute, and the years from 1940 through 1946 are rapidly covered in a series of postcards from Evalina to Mrs. Carroll.  Evalina suffers a major loss and setback, and finds herself back at Highland, initially a patient again but rapidly moving into a halfway house and a staff position serving primarily as an accompanist.   The story culminates with the (real) 1948 fire that destroyed the main hospital building and killed nine women, including Zelda.

The reader isn't really sure if there is anything really wrong with Evalina, until the end of the book.  Evalina seems oddly disassociated from the tragedies in her life, and perhaps that is intentional of Smith; a mark of Evalina's unrevealed illness. 

The most interesting parts of the book for me were when Smith described the treatments and life at Highland Hospital, and real features of Asheville (such as the Grove Park Inn) and surrounding areas (like the Blue Ridge Parkway and Lake Lure).  Some of the treatments Highland used, apparently innovative for the day, included music, art, drama, shopwork, and "hortitherapy" (gardening), as well as more invasive and dangerous treatments like electroshock and insulin coma therapies.

I felt a bit let down by the end of this book.  Although the hospital and its patients strove mightily to be "normal," ultimately there was sadness and tragedy.  Smith says in the acknowledgments at the end of the story that "I always knew I would write this book," perhaps because of her personal experiences with Highland (her father and son were patients there) and her fascination with Zelda.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[I received a hardbound copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be donated to my university library.] 

Ironic that the 1912 Report of the North Carolina Board of Public Charities (page 49) described the sanitarium as having "excellent fire protection."

Friday, November 29, 2013

363 (2013 #47). The Memoirs of Cleopatra

by Margaret George

Written in much the same style as her Autobiography of Henry VIII, The Memoirs of Cleopatra is a biographical novel told in first person narrative format.  Like Margaret George's other similar works, it's huge - 964 pages in the library's trade paperback format.

This book also uses a similar device to that of Henry VIII - another narrator, her personal physician Olympos (a real person, although his name is usually spelled Olympus), writes an "eleventh scroll" to follow Cleopatra VII's ten "scrolls" (a device for dividing the book into sections), that tells of her death and what happened afterwards. 

The illustration on the cover is from a portion of an 1887 painting of Cleopatra depicting her the way most of us picture her, especially from the movie starring Elizabeth Taylor.  The novel, like the nonfiction Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, presents the Egyptian queen as a highly intelligent woman and powerful leader.  Much of its length comes from details about the beautiful city of Alexandria in Egypt, its famous library and lighthouse, temples throughout Egypt, and life in that time and place, as well as similar details for Rome. 

There's a map at the beginning of the book which is extremely useful, as all the countries referred to in the novel either no longer exist today or have different names and boundaries.  George has an author's note at the end that tells who is and isn't real, what's factual, and enumerates many of her sources.

George makes Cleopatra into a character I cared about, despite some minor anachronisms and bringing some more modern ideas into this Egyptian time period.  In the author's note, she said she has "a fascination and commitment to Cleopatra that goes back to ...childhood," and the rich details she provides make that obvious.

I've added a label/tag for Margaret George, as I now know I'll be reading all of her biographical novels.  Who should be next - Helen of Troy, Mary Magdalene, Elizabeth I, or Mary, Queen of Scots?

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Saturday, November 23, 2013

362 (2013 #46). Wolf Hall

by Hilary Mantel,
read by Simon Slater

This 2009 winner of the Man Booker Prize (for "the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland") was also, in audio format, winner of the 2010 Audie Award for Literary Fiction.  It is a novelization of the life of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII of England from 1532 to 1540.  This book is the first in a trilogy. Bring Up the Bodies (2012 Booker winner and 2013 Audie for Literary Fiction) is next, followed by The Mirror and the Light, in progress.

Written in the third person, present tense, everything is seen through the eyes of Cromwell.  The first chapter is set in 1500, when Cromwell is about 15, and briefly covers his background and youth.  Then the book jumps ahead to 1527, shortly before the death of his beloved wife "Liz," Elizabeth Wykys.

This book ends with the beheading of Thomas More in July, 1535, and with the words, "Wolf Hall," which was the Seymour family home.  In the novel, Cromwell takes notice of the young Jane Seymour, a lady in attendance to Henry VIII's first two wives, and later Henry's third wife.  In a December 7, 2012 interview in The Guardian, Author Hilary Mantel said, "The title arrived before a word was written: Wolf Hall, besides being the home of the Seymour family, seemed an apt name for wherever Henry's court resided."

Perhaps Austin Friars, the name of Cromwell's home, would have been a more appropriate name for the book, given its focus on Cromwell and his family.  This novel really "humanizes" Cromwell - it makes him seem to be more than the "Prince of Darkness" I'd always thought him to be.  Conversely, the novel - especially the audio version, with the voice narrator Simon Slater used for him - demonized Thomas More, who Roman Catholics canonized as a saint.  But, everyone has two sides, and I appreciated getting to see the other ones of these two historical figures.  In addition, Mantel's research has resulted in her novel painting a vivid picture of Tudor England in the early 1500s.

Slater, an actor and composer, does an outstanding job as the narrator.  He creates distinct voices for major characters (Cromwell, Wolsey, More, Henry VIII, etc.) and minor characters as well.  As mentioned, his More sounds particularly snobbish.

There were some times when I wasn't sure who was speaking.  Slater's narrating voice was similar to his Thomas Cromwell voice, and it does not help that Mantel sometimes uses "he" and other pronouns vaguely.  In the same Guardian interview, Mantel explains this device:

The events were happening now, in the present tense, unfolding as I watched, and what followed would be filtered through the main character's sensibility. He seemed to be occupying the same physical space as me, with a slight ghostly overlap. It didn't make sense to call him "Cromwell", as if he were somewhere across the room. I called him "he". This device, though hardly of Joycean complexity, was not universally popular. Most readers caught on quickly. Those who didn't, complained.

I think it might have been easier to follow this device in print.  The print version has the advantage of a table of contents, list of characters, and family trees for the Tudors and the Yorkist claimants to the throne.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[I purchased the audiobook and will be donating it to my university library.  I borrowed and returned a print copy belonging to my local public library.]