Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Gritty Side of 19th Century England

gen·teel : \jen-ˈtēl\ : of or relating to people who have high social status; pretending or trying to have the qualities and manners of people who have high social status ; having a quietly appealing or polite quality
In my book, there’s no better way to leave behind modern life’s troubles than escaping to the genteel society of Jane Austen’s England. But even the most devout Austen fans know, in our hearts, that life then was not all tea and crumpets. Among the gentry class, women had few choices outside of marriage. Meanwhile, only the long hours and hard toil of domestic servants made the leisurely life of the upper classes possible. Life for the urban poor was not exactly a picnic in Hyde Park either. The collapse of traditional rural manufacturing during the industrial revolution led to an unprecedented influx of people into England’s cities. Low wages, scarce jobs, slum housing, alcoholism, prostitution and disease marked life for the poor in areas such as London’s East side.

Historical fiction dealing with the less fortunate of this era can make for grim reading at times. It may not be genteel, but it gives a fuller sense of the times than can be gained from Regency romances. So, take a dip into the grittier side of 19th century England. Because sometimes it’s good to remember how much better we really do have it after all.

Visit life below stairs at Elizabeth Bennett’s home from Pride and Prejudice in Jo Baker’s Longbourn. Sarah, an orphaned housemaid, dreams of a life beyond laundry and chores. She soon finds her head turned in two directions by a troubled veteran of the Napoleonic wars and Mr. Bingley’s more urbane footman.

In A Memory of Violets: A Novel of London's Flower Sellers, author Hazel Gaynor slowly reveals the fate of two orphaned Irish sisters, tragically separated while struggling to earn a living selling posies in London’s Convent Gardens. A young woman in 1912 finds one of the sister’s notebooks and sets out to uncover the mystery of their fate.

Sarah Waters, author of last year’s lauded novel The Paying Guests, tells the story of a young orphan raised by a family of thieves in her earlier work Fingersmith. Multiple layers of secrets and deceit are revealed when Sue becomes embroiled in her family’s plot to rob an heiress of her fortune.

Slammerkin is based on the true story of Mary Saunders, a serving girl who murdered her mistress in 1763. Emma Donague, author of the bestseller Room, depicts Mary as a young girl tricked into prostitution at an early age by the lure of a single red ribbon. She struggles to become a seamstress, yearning for freedom from drudgery while still desiring the finer things of life.

Ruth Downes, deemed too unattractive to work in her mother’s Bristol brothel, finds a new life as a bare-knuckle boxer in The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman. A twist in her career brings her into contact with reclusive yet genteel Charlotte Sinclair. Charlotte, scarred by smallpox, fears the outside world, yet longs to escape her debauched brother’s control.

-Rebecca Wolff, CE Regional Library

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Black Dove, White Raven: Powerful Writing, Compelling History

Wow. Once again Elizabeth Wein illuminates history I knew nothing about in her young adult book Black Dove, White Raven. In some ways, this novel combines themes from her two series, The Mark of Solomon and Young Pilots. We’re back in Aksum (Ethiopia), but this is not ancient Aksum. Instead, it’s the 20th century shortly before World War II when Italy invaded Ethiopia. (Did you know about that? I sure didn’t.)

At the start of the book, Black Dove and White Raven are the airshow names for the mothers of Emilia Menotti and Teodros Dupré. Black Dove is Teo’s mother, Delia Dupré, and White Raven is Em’s momma, Rhoda Menotti. They met in France after World War I and traveled around performing at airshows together in 1930's America doing aerobatics and wing-walking. They dream of moving to Ethiopia, where Teo’s father was from, where people won’t be shocked by a black woman and a white woman living and working together.

But then there’s an accident and Delia is killed. The family still makes it to Ethiopia, where Rhoda teaches them to fly. Teo and Em work on becoming the new Black Dove and White Raven. They grow up in Ethiopia, coming of age as Italy invades Ethiopia in 1936.

This book is filled with historical details I knew nothing about, but mostly it’s the compelling story of two children with strong family ties living in another culture. They’re learning to find their place in the world and dealing with all manner of people while coming of age in wartime, a war involving the use of mustard gas against spearmen and the need to protect ancient treasures, including the Ark of the Covenant.

As always, Elizabeth Wein’s writing is powerful and evocative. I’ll admit this is slower, atmospheric reading most of the way through, but these are distinctive characters you will remember long after you finish.

-Sondra Eklund, City of Fairfax Regional Library

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

What David Sedaris Is Reading

I’ve long been a fan of David Sedaris. Years ago, I saw him perform as part of a This American Life tour with Ira Glass. So, I was happy earlier this month to see him perform again when his tour passed through town.

If you regularly read his books or his essays in the New Yorker, you really should try to see him in person. As good as he is on the page, his stories are even better when he reads them in person. A close second would be the audiobook recordings of any of his books. And if you haven’t read his books, you should start. Naked or Me Talk Pretty One Day are both good places to begin. 

Something that struck me the second time around is how well-read Sedaris is. Maybe this says more about me as a twenty-something the first time I saw him than it does him or his earlier writing. But in the question and answer period at Wolf Trap this time, Sedaris had a thoughtful answer to “what books are you recommending these days?”

He answered that on his book tour last spring, he recommended Blake Bailey’s The Splendid Things We Had Planned: A Family Portrait. Bailey is most well-known for his award-winning biography of American author John Cheever. He also wrote a poignant set of articles for Slate magazine about moving back to post-Katrina New Orleans. Bailey and Sedaris share similar family histories, and Splendid Things will ring true for those familiar with Sedaris’s essays about his sister Tiffany, who committed suicide two years ago. Bailey’s interview with Sedaris in Vice magazine is a moving description of the toll that a sibling’s mental illness takes on a family. The article is aptly titled "David Sedaris Talks About Surviving the Suicide of a Sibling."

For his fall tour, Sedaris said he plans to recommend the audio recording of True Grit by Charles Portis read by Donna Tartt – no slouch in the literary world herself and most recently author of The Goldfinch. He commented cheekily that we all knew her writing was pretty good, but after hearing this, he thought it was like she was meant to read audiobooks. That’s pretty high praise. I immediately placed it on hold.

Interested in seeing what else Sedaris has recommended in the past? Then check here, here, or in My Ideal Bookshelf, a fun volume of colorful illustrations based on literary picks of famous artists, authors and other cultural figures. But really, you ought to see him in person and hear it for yourself.

-Ginger Hawkins, Patrick Henry Library 

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

A Man Called Ove

When you think of Swedish fiction, most minds immediately turn to well-known crime authors like Stieg Larsson, Camilla Läckberg or Henning Mankell. But as fans of Pippi Longstocking have always known, great Swedish fiction doesn’t have to be gritty. Take a look at Sweden’s lighter side with this intriguing debut novel.

I was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying the audio recording of A Man Called Ove, by Swedish author Fredrik Backman. The narrator does a wonderful job of vocalizing both the gruffness and the humor of the main character. Ove (whose name the narrator also let me know is pronounced Oo-vah) is not a person I initially thought I would sympathize with based on his self-imposed position as the enforcer of all rules, no matter how insignificant. It takes time to realize how life molded Ove into a rigid, rule-following and yet ultimately extremely thoughtful person. Through flashbacks and encounters with his new neighbor Parvaneh and her young family, the listener comes to realize the value of a man who many might initially want to write off due to his abrasiveness. He may not be pleasant, but he is someone you would want in your corner.

-Amy Conerly, Centreville Regional Library