Friday, October 29, 2010

The Fort by Bernard Cornwell

How do you write 450 pages about a battle that didn't happen?

It isn't easy, but somehow Bernard Cornwell, NYT bestselling author of Agincourt, managed to make it fairly interesting. It's not exactly that the battle at Penobscot didn't happen; it's that, after much planning and the first assault by the American Rebel forces against British Fort George, bickering and lack of cooperation among the militia, the Navy and the Marines -- and a frustratingly haughty and prickly, Paul Revere--caused them not to follow through and destroy the fort while it was still vulnerable. 

I can't say I was hooked on this book from the beginning. There were too many characters introduced too quickly, and, outside of Peleg Wadsworth, none of them were treated with enough depth for me to really care. Cornwell ends with the destruction of the fleet, apparently considered the worst American naval disaster prior to Pearl Harbor. As a history, that's the proper ending point, but as a novel it felt as though it ended in midstream. Characters like John Fletcher and his sister Beth are introduced with great promise, but their stories go nowhere. 

Cornwell's battle scenes are well-done and riveting. Indeed, that's when my interest first piqued, after which point I decided to stick with it. Some historical novels focus on the individual acting within the event, and some focus on the event itself. The Fort leans toward the latter, which was interesting for me, but not beyond three stars.

This book was provided free of charge under the Amazon Vine program, in return for posting a review at

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Gilded: How Newport Became America's Richest Resort by Deborah Davis

This book was provided free of charge under the Amazon Vine program which provides free books in return for a review posted on

As someone who has read and re-read the novels of Edith Wharton and has done some research on the Gilded Age in the East as it contrasted to what was going on in many of the western states and territories at the time, I jumped at the chance to read and review Deborah Davis's Gilded. I wasn't disappointed. 

Davis takes us from Newport's colonial beginnings through the Gilded Age, the creation of the Newport Jazz Festival, and up to the present, ending with the death of society doyenne Eileen Slocum in 2008. I'm usually not much on "light" histories, but how else would you present the history of a resort where pedigree and income counted more than accomplishments. Even so, Davis deserves credit for a lengthy bibliography that reflects prodigious research when she could have easily gotten by with a gossipy tell-all instead.

Personally, my interest began to wane after the Kennedys, but that had nothing to do with the author's presentation that, I felt, struck just the right tone between awe-struck and deprecating. It is simply that the late 60s and early 70s is the time I grew into social awareness, and while I remember many names from that period, none, save for Patty Hearst, had much of a connection to the monied classes. Minnie Cushing and her "oh-so-sixties" beach wedding may have been a trendsetter in her own circle, but comes off more like a follower for those of us who lived through the era. And by the time Davis got to the IYRS 2008 fundraiser that raised over $600,000 for an association that restored classic yachts in a year when food pantries and other nonprofits that served the poor went begging, I felt I had eaten one too many courses of a sumptuously rich dinner.

Still this is an eminently readable history with short chapters and fascinating vignettes. I also appreciated the author's reminders, now and again, of who was related to which socialite who had thrown what lavish party back in the early chapters, as so many names were bandied about I would otherwise have lost track . 

All in all I highly recommend this book both for those interested in history, like me, or for those simply interested in a peek behind the iron gates at the lives of the rich and famous.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis

If you wonder why the sixties are characterized as such a volatile decade consider that 2009 marked the 40th anniversaries of such disparate events as the first moon landing, Woodstock, the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz––and another one that went less noticed by me since my kid is grown––the debut of Sesame Street. To mark that last one, Michael Davis's Street Gang gives us the entire history of the much-acclaimed children's program from its beginnings in 1965 as a dinner party discussion between Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd N. Morrisett through Elmo's surpassing of Big Bird as the show's biggest star.

This is not the kind of reading I normally purchase for myself, but as a Christmas present from a gal who was raised on the Street, as it were––my daughter––I found it quite enjoyable, kind of like reading People while getting my hair colored. As you can imagine, if all behind the scenes were as copacetic as on the set (Oscar the Grouch notwithstanding), it wouldn't make for a very interesting read. So Davis includes the disputes and envy, false starts and government intrusion, and the impossible to ignore tragic life and death of Northern Calloway (David). Thankfully, the author has the grace not to go into detail on things like the Hensons' divorce or other possible "juicy" but irrelevant tidbits.

Those of us who know the show only from the years spent watching with our children (which for me included the marriage of Luis and Maria and Gabby's birth) will enjoy the history of early children's programming, particularly Captain Kangaroo, the show that nurtured much of Sesame's seminal staff, much to Bob Keeshan's chagrin as he watched them all jump ship. It will also bring you back to an earlier time when the education of inner-city kids with programs like Head Start was a national priority. Indeed, Sesame Street that eventually became the program of choice for so many suburban moms like myself, was originally meant to serve as a sort of on-air Head Start program. Changes in national priorities in the mid-ninties were reflected in the temporary addition of "Around the Corner" "...a new array of spaces that seemed less like Harlem and more like any gentrified up-and-coming neighborhood in America." (p.321)

The thoroughness of this history is both its plus and minus. While Davis attempts to cover everyone who worked a puppet or wrote a word or a note of music for the show, there are far too many people to keep track of, and most of us reading are interested mainly in the big behind-the-scenes names like Jim Hensen and Carroll Spinney, or those actors who played the humans. Also, he insists on telling the entire life story––literally from birth––of every participant. After a while that got a little old.

Overall the book was a pleasant surprise and one I'm glad I had the chance to read.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton completed by Marion Mainwaring

Penguin Books, 1993

This is not a new book, having been published in 1993 and serialized for a dazzling PBS Masterpiece Theatre in 1995. However,I came to it only recently after renting the DVD for a second viewing and learning the novel on which it was based, about a group of Nouveau Riches Americans in the 1870s who take England by storm, was by one of my favorite authors Edith Wharton, though it remained incomplete at Wharton's death in 1937 and was finished by Marion Mainwaring–-a Wharton scholar and writer––and published posthumously.

The ethical question of posthumous publication has long been debated among writers and scholars, and is all the more significant when the work is not just in first draft, but incomplete. According to the "Afterword" Wharton's literary executor, Gaillard Lapsley, first published the incomplete (through Chapter XXIX) work in 1938 with only "'certain verbal emendations required by sense or consistency'." Mainwaring added another 27(!) chapters and made "a few other... changes" in the Lapsley version "when it seemed that Wharton would have revised to avoid repetitiousness, and when she referred to a race in terms repellent to modern readers." Wharton had drawn up a synopsis and outlined the novel, though the written chapters apparently "departed from it in significant respects almost as soon as she began work."

Despite the high praise in the blurbs, mostly saying how Mainwaring maintained the Wharton voice or transitioned seamlessly, I would respectfully disagree. Missing in Mainwaring's style are the ornate, almost Baroque, sentences, and, oddly, for a work with a more upbeat ending, it lacks the tongue-in-cheek observations on society that characterize Wharton's more tragic novels. In addition, many of the chapters added by Mainwaring comprise multiple scenes written in small chunks, many no more than a paragraph long. Before reading the "Afterword" I assumed these had been a part Wharton's original draft that Mainwaring chose not to "fill in." But apparently that was not the case. Mainwaring also departs from the great beauty of Wharton's understated love scenes, with the one major love scene reading like something more suited to a Harlequin Romance.

The Buccaneers is one of those rare cases where I found the TV rendition actually better than the novel it was based on. The three-part Masterpiece series focuses on all the American girls who, due to a lack of pedigree, are scorned by New York's Gilded Age society and make up for it by marrying into aristocratic but impoverished English families. The novel as completed by Mainwaring focuses almost exclusively on Annabelle Tintagel (nee St. George)––whom I found, in many ways, the least interesting character––and seems out of sync with the plural title.

As novels go, in general, this wasn't a bad read. As Edith Wharton novels go, I found it lacking and disappointing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow by Donald McRae

This book was provided free of charge through Amazon Vine

I knew more about Clarence Darrow's famous cases––defending Leopold and Loeb, The Scopes Trial, and the Sweets––than I did about the man. Though growing up in a family that was pro-union with an immigrant grandfather who supported the Communist party, was an atheist, and nearly arrested during the Palmer Raids , I had a vague sense of who Darrow was and what he stood for. Still, I probably wouldn't have considered this book had it not been available to me through the Amazon Vine program.

Overall I'm glad I did decide to try it. While I generally prefer my biographies (though this is really only a partial biography dealing with the end of Darrow's life) a little more straight forward and less inclined toward the dramatic, when dealing with an individual I might not normally read about, a slightly lighter treatment makes for an easier read. Former South African Donald McRae did an excellent job of researching, and his dramatic touch perhaps was necessary when dealing with a figure who depended so much on drama to win his cases.

At first I wasn't too keen on references to Darrow's love life with Mary Field Parton, his almost life-long mistress, mostly through her diary entries, especially as she wasn't present for any of the main events. Yet they did serve to provide insights into Darrow's character. On the other hand, telling so much from her point of view left me wondering whether she was his "one and only" or as Darrow's wife Ruby obviously thought, one of many or someone who insinuated herself into his life for personal gain. A little more about Ruby Darrow––who, after all, was there for most of the trials––other than how she appeared through his mistress's eyes, might have provided more balance.

What enthralled me the most about this book, though, was the history.  Amazing that back in the 1920s this avowed atheist, Clarence Darrow, could have so much support in the press defending two obvious sociopaths and the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. In our more "modern" times hiring an atheist as your defense lawyer would be tantamount to flipping your own switch on the electric chair. I also remember learning about the Scopes trial in high school and thinking how lucky I was to be living in a time when Evolution could be taught freely. That was 1969.  We could definitely use more Clarence Darrows today––men and women not afraid to claim the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution.

All in all, a book worth reading.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Shades of Luz by John Gorman

This book was provided as a free review copy by the author.

John Gorman's first novel Shades of Luz is a fun read, though I must admit I'm a little surprised it found a publisher. That's not criticism. It's just that the book is hard to classify, and classification––or genre––seems to carry far too much weight with agents and publishers these day. Happily All Things That Matter Press must be somewhat more flexible.

Shades of Luz is part coming-of-age novel and part love story and even a bit surreal at times. Benny Fluke is a 29-year-old still living at home and working on his Master's thesis, the subject of which he keeps changing. He meets the elusive Luz while selling stuffed animals for a fake charity, and from then on she threads through the story, popping in and out of his life, encouraging him to move out of his parents' house, eventually sharing his apartment, but always hovering between friend and lover. The story is enlivened still more by some oddball and humorous minor characters and Benny's unusual workplace where he goes from overseeing the monkeys who pick stocks on a dartboard to championship thumb wrestling within the same company. And then there's that strange secret about Benny's Mom.

As a Baby Boomer I'm used to thinking of coming-of-age novels dealing with teens, but 29 is probably on target for the current coming-of-age generation. One thing that did confuse me a bit about the novel was the time period in which it was set. While much of it seemed current, Benny's workplace seemed a little futuristic, though maybe it was just meant to be fantastic. Whatever, it added interest and humor.

I "met" John Gorman when I accepted and edited Boba Fett Blues, my last official job with The Rose & Thorn. So I wasn't surprised that Gorman is at his best in those scenes that reminisce on childhood and adolescence.

Here's wishing John Gorman success with Luz and all future endeavors.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

A review copy was provided free under the Amazon Vine program

This is the first novel I've read by Lorrie Moore, though I'm a big fan of her short fiction, particularly "People Like That..." the story that deservedly seems to get mentioned in every workshop I attend. So I was looking forward to this, but I ended up very disappointed.

The novel is loosely about a young woman, Tassie, in her sophomore year at a college in a small Wisconsin town. The time is 2001, beginning just after September 11, which I imagine was supposed to have some significance, but I don't know what, as the story could have taken place any time in the last eight years. Tassie goes to classes––though seemingly not very often for someone who is a good student––works as caregiver to an adopted biracial child, visits her boyfriend––sometimes alone, sometimes with said child––and spends a lot of time alone in her apartment playing her base guitar. If that doesn't sound very interesting, well, it really isn't.

Moore's snarky observations and internal dialogue work great in small doses, but when they take up the majority of 321 pages, the style becomes very waring. The characters she interacts with––though interact is not really the right word, because most of the dialogue is inside Tassie's head––are far from cliche. So far, in fact, that they are all enigmas, including Tassie herself, and not one is developed fully enough. The few events are only tenuously connected, if at all (see my zine writer post on soap opera writing), and, frankly, unbelievable. Since they all clump at the end of the book, I'll give only one away. That's when Tassie works with her farmer dad over the summer, dressing in a bird costume and running ahead of his combine to scare the mice out of the fields. She does this willingly and even drives into town on her motor scooter one day, still wearing the costume. And what happened when she arrived? We don't know. It isn't part of the story. From this you might get the idea there is something surreal or symbolic about this work, but the style just doesn't fit with that.

I read a recent interview where Moore said she enjoys studying the way people talk. That's obvious here when she writes about the support group her employer, Sarah Brink, holds every Wednesday for adoptive parents of black and biracial children. Bits of their conversation are overheard by Tassie as she babysits the kids on the third floor. Yes, they are self-congratulatory, self-absorbed, and totally clueless. Those points come across in the first few lines, but not only does it continue for pages––including those typical inside jokes that realistically get repeated ad infinitum––but Moore covers several of these gatherings.

I'd like to end on a positive note, but I honestly didn't find one good thing about this book . At the same time, during the entire reading I was very sympathetic toward Moore as an author. The lay reader who doesn't follow the publishing business often thinks known writers "get away" with bad books because of their name recognition. But writers who excel at the short story are often pressured into producing novels for both financial and career reasons. Short stories sold separately don't pay very well, and big publishers won't accept collections without the promise of a novel. I always keep that in mind when one of my favorite short story writers produces another novel. In this case, I'm guessing Moore's heart wasn't in it. So she did the best she could.