Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Loving a legend: Lynn Cullen's Twain's End

Where I'm from, Samuel Clemens – aka Mark Twain – is a greatly admired local figure. I grew up in central Connecticut, five miles from the flamboyant, multi-gabled Mark Twain House in Hartford, and visited there often on school trips. When I interned at a local planetarium in high school, at the time of Halley’s Comet’s return in 1986, we had a Twain interpreter introduce and close the weekly shows. (Clemens had been born with the comet’s arrival in 1835 and died after its subsequent visit in 1910, as he’d predicted.)

So I was familiar with the basics of his life: his storied childhood in Hannibal, Missouri; his literary and speaking career, and related travels; his marriage to his intelligent wife, Olivia, and their raising of three daughters; and the tragedies and loss that marked his final years.

His late-in-life relationship with his social secretary, Isabel Lyon, isn’t something I ever learned about then, even though her closeness to him was fodder for gossip during his lifetime. Several recent biographers have dug into primary sources to reveal her impact on his life, but it took considerable effort. History has downplayed her importance, an act which was initiated deliberately. A year before he died, Clemens and his daughter, Clara, set out to blacken her name, but Lyon never defended herself against their outrageous charges. Why?

This is where Lynn Cullen’s Twain’s End comes in. It’s an affecting interpretation of their emotional connection, from their initial meeting in 1889, when she worked as a governess for a neighboring family, through her many years of loyal service, her surprising marriage to Clemens’ business manager, her expulsion from Clemens' household, and his death shortly after.

Although born into wealth, Isabel is a woman of limited means, while under his pen name, Mark Twain, Clemens has become a beloved, world-famous icon. Through her insightful narrative, Cullen demonstrates how his maintenance of this persona affects him and everyone he draws close. The combination of his fame, immense charisma, and the unexpected personal attention he shows her proves intoxicating for Isabel, and he knows it. It’s a reaction he’s come to rely on.

A charming but self-centered man who thrives on praise, Clemens has many personal failings, ones well known to his invalid wife, Livy. And so while Isabel is the novel’s sympathetic heart, the supporting female characters are, well, not always so supporting of her. Nonetheless, they’re beautifully crafted, one and all: frail but wise Livy, whose death crushes him; their daughter Clara, whose repressed demands for independence spill out in dangerous directions; and even the Clemens’ older Irish maid, Katy, who makes it clear she hates Isabel. She has her reasons.

Isabel is one of the rare few who sees how trapped her employer is by the role that ensures his livelihood – as his publicity motto goes, he’s “known to everyone, liked by all” – and aims to lessen his burdens. Cullen doles out the romantic tension between them by degrees, shifting it with every shared conversation.

At the center of Isabel’s existence, always, is Clemens. He’s irascible and controlling, yet also tenderly vulnerable and consistently magnetic. Isabel can’t help being drawn to him, and the novel pulls us into her experiences so deeply that his final betrayal of her and their relationship comes as a shock to the system, even though we're expecting it. In the end, Clemens was less than kind to Isabel Lyon, a woman who was devoted to him, but Twain’s End convincingly shows us why history should be much kinder to her.

Twain's End was published in paperback by Gallery this June ($16, 369pp)  I read it from an ARC received at BEA in 2015.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Guest post by Susan Signe Morrison, author of Grendel's Mother: A Writer's Story

Susan Signe Morrison's guest post today is written as a Q&A that provides details on her writing life and on her debut novel, Grendel's Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife (John Hunt, 2015), which tells the story of Beowulf from a feminine viewpoint.  She is Professor of English at Texas State University.  For more information, please visit her websites at http://www.susansignemorrison.com and www.grendelsmotherthenovel.com.

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A Writer's Story
Susan Signe Morrison

1. What inspired you to write about Grendel's Mother?

For years I have taught the Old English poem, Beowulf. It’s a heroic tale from a manuscript written about the year 1000, filled with monsters, dragons, and heroic warriors. There are also women: peace-weaving brides in doomed unions, victims of slavery, and even a monstrous mother. That mother really intrigued me. Why should she be condemned for avenging her son’s death, when the so-called heroic warriors do the same thing and are celebrated for it? Although I’ve written many scholarly articles and books, something about Grendel’s Mother drew my imagination. I wanted to fill in her backstory, feel her emotions, and ponder her interior landscape. That meant I had to write a historical novel. And I’m so glad I have! It’s been a long but satisfying journey.

2. What is your typical writing routine? 

I usually teach two or three days a week. So, when I’m not teaching or preparing for class, I like to be at home to write creatively. My husband is at work and my children are at school. I’m there alone—except for a company of battle-hardened Danes and gold-studded peace-weavers. They mill about my mind, almost as present as real-life people. Oh, and last but not least, there is Gwen, our cheerful little corgi. She gets me up and out of my chair many times a day to let her in and out so she can bark at the evil cats that seem to plague her in our neighborhood!

I might add that when I first started this book, I would repair to a local university library to write. My daughter was 2 at the time (now she’s in college) and, though she had a babysitter, she wanted to watch me write. As anyone who tries to write with a two-year-old looking on, the writing never gets done! Here’s a photo of my Roget’s Thesaurus, well-thumbed since I used it frequently while crafting my text.

3. Who are your favorite authors and books? 

A key book for me is A. S. Byatt’s Possession—as it is for so many writers and readers, I imagine. It’s got romance, history, and mystery—who could ask for anything more? I’ve loved Charles Dickens and Jane Austen—writers of novels you just lose yourself in and become more real than so-called “reality.” And I love mysteries by Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, and Patricia Wentworth. As for medieval books, after Beowulf, I highly recommend two books by medieval women. First, the 12th century Marie de France whose short romances called lais are indispensable for anyone who loves romance today. She even has a werewolf story. And Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies is as revolutionary for women’s rights today as when it was written—in 1405-1405. You can read about these medieval women in another book of mine, A Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women Lives in the European Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2016). Finally, Geoffrey Chaucer, whose irony and humor continually astound me, even on the twentieth reading.

4. What do you think of Grendel's mother in the original Beowulf?

In the original poem, Grendel's Mother only appears well into the action. Her son, Grendel, is depicted as a cannibal and monster, wrecking havoc in the mead hall where the warriors gather. After he is killed by Beowulf, Grendel's Mother steals into the hall at night to retrieve her slaughtered son's severed arm and to kill in return. She takes his body back to her cave under the water, where Beowulf shows up. They have a violent battle, and she dies. For well over a century, she has been viewed as monstrous and beyond compassion. But more recently feminist views have seen her actions as understandable. Who wouldn't have sympathy for a distraught mother? There has been a popular novel by John Gardner telling Grendel's point of view called Grendel. This is where I come in. Why couldn't we see, I thought, the story from her perspective? As a feminist, I am used to seeing stories and culture from alternative points of view. So how might we see her tale with compassion and empathy? I built a backstory for her and even gave her a name, emotions, and past. By doing so, I hope I have shown how even the most rejected need to be seen from their own perspective.

5. What things do you like to do outside of reading and writing?

I love to travel. My family and I lived in London for two years and that was a fabulous experience for the children and my husband and me, especially going to the theatre and museums. I have lived in Germany off and on for about four years. Turner Classic Movies has a great fan in me--I love black and white films, including silent films. And I am a lap swimmer--any kind of swimming really. I love to walk and chat and cook with my family. The solitary nature of writing is appealing, but only if I can offset it with social conviviality.


6. Any advice or suggestions for future writers?

Stick to it! I started Grendel's Mother in 1998 and it was published in 2015. I worked on it off and off, sometimes abandoning it for years while other projects interrupted it. I also recommend writing down immediately whatever scrap of prose or verse that enters your mind. If you wake up in the middle of the night with the perfect line, you really won't remember it in the morning. It's worth jotting it down right away. And keep plugging away! It took my book almost twenty years to go from initial conception to publication. Like a plant, it took root, managed to hang on, and finally has born fruit--a novel I am proud of.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

An Undisturbed Peace by Mary Glickman, a new retelling of the Trail of Tears

Set in the mountains and backwoods regions of the southeastern United States in the 1820s and ‘30s, this novel centers on intercultural prejudice, a great injustice, and compassion. It offers a poignant retelling of the lead-up to the Trail of Tears while also evoking a little-known aspect of Jewish-American history.

When Abrahan Sassaporta, an itinerant peddler, falls in love with Marian of the foothills, a beautiful, defiantly independent Cherokee woman living alone in a cabin on his trading route, he becomes personally entangled in a tragic tale set in motion twenty years earlier. Marian’s parents, believing that alliances with white settlers would secure the Cherokees’ future, had sent her to London for a year and sought her marriage to a white neighbor, but Marian had other plans. Her shared past with a black slave named Jacob – one involving forbidden love, murder, and betrayal – is revealed bit by bit.

Abe inspires empathy for his open-minded nature, and because he’s trapped in debt to his uncle Isadore, but he’s naïve in several ways. He believes his passion for Marian will eventually be returned in full, and that the freedom he finds in his new country will be granted to her people as well. Both the Jews and Cherokee have faced persecution, and Abe sees parallels between their cultures. Not surprisingly, given the federal government’s greed for Cherokee land, the future turns out differently than he hopes.

Mary Glickman paints a resplendent portrait of the unspoiled wilderness of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, and her prose has a crystalline purity that echoes the cadence of fiction written at that time. One minor mistake was noted (a $20 bill), but overall, this is historical fiction well told. The well-rounded characters exude strength and grace, and the story brings history alive with powerful impact.

An Undisturbed Peace was published by Open Road in 2016 ($16.99, trade pb, 378pp, or $7.99 ebook).  This review first appeared in May's Historical Novels Review.  I've since bought another of Mary Glickman's novels.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Elizabeth Fremantle's The Girl in the Glass Tower: Arbella Stuart's courageous and tragic story

“It was the sheer size of the windows that made the rooms at Hardwick so impossible to heat… Grandmother seemed impervious to the chill and could not hide her delight at her vast shimmering rectangles of glass, fit for a cathedral, the talk of all Derbyshire.”

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (photo by Mark Johnson)

Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall: so went a common saying about this large Elizabethan country house. Built at a time when glass was exceptionally expensive, it was the pride of Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, the richest woman in England after the Queen herself. If you look carefully in the photo above, you can see her initials ("ES," for Elizabeth Shrewsbury) atop many of the towers; she knew how to stake her claim. It's now a National Trust property, and Mark and I paid a visit to Hardwick Hall and its grounds on our trip to England in 2014. Portraits of its former residents, the country's monarchs, and other English notables grace the interior walls. If you get the opportunity to see it in person, go!

Elizabeth Fremantle’s The Girl in the Glass Tower delves into the life story of another Elizabethan woman who resided there, but whose story was more tragedy than triumph: Lady Arbella Stuart, granddaughter of both Bess of Hardwick and Margaret Douglas (Henry VIII’s niece). Though she's a minor figure now, for much of her lifetime Arbella was considered a likely successor to Elizabeth I. Her royal lineage proved to be a terrible burden. Other parties wrought conspiracies around her for their own ends, and her long-lived grandmother, Bess, kept her under tight control, ostensibly for her own protection. While some of Arbella’s decisions cost her dearly, Fremantle shows in no uncertain terms how her behavior was a natural result of the restrictive environment she endured.

Half of the novel comprises Arbella’s memoir, written in Jacobean times while incarcerated in the Tower of London, where she looks out on the courtyard from above, recollecting her too-short life, which comprises constant reminders of “the impossibility of freedom.” Her mother died when she was a child, and her female role models are few. Her aunt, Mary Queen of Scots, is executed as a traitor.  An earlier potential successor to Elizabeth’s throne, the late Katherine Grey, had married against the Queen’s wishes and paid a great price.

Hardwick Hall and gardens (photo by Mark Johnson)

The stories of these women are threaded through the novel’s melancholy atmosphere; they haunt Arbella and remind her of their fate, which could also be hers.

Raised by Bess of Hardwick to be a future queen, Arbella grows up too aware of her position, leading to missteps that make her appear haughty. In this world of plots and counterplots political and religious, she does have loyal servants and loving relatives, but not everyone family included has her best interests at heart.

Arbella Stuart, later in life
(public domain)
Alternating sections introduce Aemilia Lanyer, called Ami, a talented poet banished from court because King James didn’t approve of her feminist writing. Left impoverished after her spendthrift husband’s death, and determined to conceal the identity of her son Hal’s true father, Ami contends with a treacherously nosy neighbor and unwanted advances from her landlord (I particularly enjoyed how the subplot involving these characters turned out). The two women's tales are nicely harmonized. Their lives intersect at a few critical moments, and it’s only after Arbella’s death, and she reads her memoir, that Ami truly knows the person who Arbella was.

The Girl in the Glass Tower is a deep, intimate exploration of a royal woman’s life. It was published by Michael Joseph (Penguin Random House UK) on June 2nd in hardback (£14.99, 453pp) and ebook.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

A woman's Klondike adventure: Ashley E. Sweeney's Eliza Waite

The prologue of Ashley E. Sweeney’s debut novel shows her heroine embarking on a major life change. In Seattle of 1898, Eliza Waite finds an unused ticket in the street and boards a stern-wheeler bound for the Klondike, dressed in her late husband’s threadbare clothing and with $45 in her purse.

It’s no ordinary woman who would travel alone to Alaska, a place where men reportedly outnumber women a hundred to one, but the circumstances that Eliza previously endured give her the courage to take this unusual step. What’s more, they convince her that she can succeed in her goal: to run a bakery.

Following the introduction, the book is evenly split into two sections – before and after – which illustrate different aspects of women’s pioneering experiences in the Pacific Northwest. The contemplative, slower-moving first half chronicles the year and more that Eliza, solidly built and bookish, had spent in an isolated cabin on Cypress Island, in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, after losing her son (much beloved) and minister husband (not so much) in an epidemic.

Eliza establishes a rhythm for the daily chores while remembering her earlier life and enduring a burden of heavy grief. Kate Chopin, a Missourian like herself, gives her inspiration through her writing and actions. Abundant with details on life on a remote island – fishing, canning, plant-gathering, even recipes – the writing sometimes falls into repetitive patterns (of the form “she did this, she did that”) while is beautifully lyrical in others:

“She stares through the uncurtained window above the chipped enamel sink and cannot see through the dense fog that descends over Cypress. Every shade of grey colors the landscape, from steely clouds that conceal the daylight to the vague cinereous mound or Orcas rising out of the dusky sea.”

In the second half, Eliza establishes her shop in Skagway, a Gold Rush base camp barely a year old, forms a close friendship with a local madam (one of the novel’s most enjoyable aspects), and gets reacquainted with her feminine nature while avoiding romance – at least until she’s ready to approach it on her own terms. Sweeney avoids artificial drama, instead focusing on Eliza’s blossoming self-image and how she finds a home in the energetic, rough-hewn mining town, which gives those with a painful past a place to make their fortunes or die trying.

Most of the novel is written in third person; the story also dips occasionally into Eliza’s first-person viewpoint, via her thoughts and short diary-style notes that begin each chapter. This further illustrates her practical mindset. This is a satisfying read, one which brings to life a short-lived time in American history, and which acknowledges and celebrates the many facets of womanhood.

Ashley E. Sweeney's Eliza Waite was published by She Writes Press in May ($16.95 trade pb/$9.95 ebook, 329pp, including period recipes.)

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Giveaway for Amy Snow by Tracy Rees, the new US edition

Last August, I reviewed Tracy Rees' debut novel, Amy Snow, a delightful Victorian-era quest-adventure about an heiress who dies young, her orphaned protégée, and a mysterious trail of letters.  At the end, I'd written:  "For now you'll have to get it from the UK, but I hope a US publisher will pick it up."  

Well, that has happened.  The American edition is published by Simon & Schuster today.  They sent a copy to me in the mail, and since I've already read it from the UK edition and can recommend it, this one is up for grabs to another US reader.

For a chance to win, please fill out the form below; deadline this Saturday, June 11th.  One entry per US household; void where prohibited.  Good luck!

Update, 6/12/16: This giveaway has concluded. Thanks to everyone who entered - this was a popular one. Congrats to Katharine O!

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Belonging by Umi Sinha, a saga of British India and family secrets

In this touching and lithely written debut novel, the gaps separating the generations are wide, but their shared roots in the British Raj and desire for understanding pull them back together. The form it takes is unusual for a family saga – three separate narratives, related in alternating chapters – and this works to heighten immediacy.

The opening scene hits with tremendous impact. In Peshawar, India, in 1907, 12-year-old Lila Langdon secretly observes her mother’s unveiling of an exquisitely embroidered tablecloth at a large gathering for her father Henry’s 50th birthday. The night ends in tragedy; Lila is shipped to her great-aunt Mina’s house on the Sussex Downs, where she grows up in self-enforced silence, alienated from the lively voices and comforting smells of her Indian homeland. She forms a connection with her neighbor’s schoolmate, a Sikh boy named Jagjit, although they’re discouraged from growing too close.

Her voice interweaves with that of Henry, writing in his diary as a motherless boy growing up in Bengal under his distant father’s care, and of Cecily, her grandmother, who neither she nor Henry knew. In letters to her twin sister, Mina, Cecily describes her excitement and uncertainty about traveling to India in 1855 to wed an older man, Major Arthur Langdon. Her later notes reveal her discomfort with marriage and the increasing danger she and Arthur find themselves in, as anti-British sentiment rises.

The legacy of long-hidden mysteries lingers throughout: did Cecily die in childbirth, as Henry grows up believing? What devastating image did the tablecloth depict? The answers are skillfully revealed in time, yet this is much more than a tale of family secrets. Belonging illustrates the complexity of Anglo-Indian relationships in colonial India and England, Indian soldiers’ valiant WWI service, and the pain of dislocation and unattainable love. Reading it is a deeply felt, mesmerizing experience.

Belonging, published by Myriad Editions in trade paperback (£8.99), is distributed in North America by Trafalgar Square ($14.95/C$17.95).  It's well worth seeing out. This review first appeared in May's Historical Novels Review