Monday, January 9, 2017

The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein, by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro
May contain spoilers!


I began this book over a year ago, and for some reason I had put it down until recently. Whether it was the long and complex way in which the writers begin with Mary’s family tree, where all women are also named Mary, or whether it just was not able to grab me until that fateful moment when Mary meets Percy, I just could not pick it up again until a few weeks ago.  A friend and fellow book lover suggested a reread of Frankenstein in honor of the Halloween season (and coincidentally the 200th anniversary of said novel) for a book club.  I decided it was a good time to go back to this book and simultaneously read Frankenstein.  I also highly recommend the reading of these two together. It vastly enhanced my experience, deepened my understanding, and made the novel all the more fascinating to see the parallels to her own life experiences.

Once past the evolution of her family tree, from her mother’s liberated lifestyle and her upbringing, the book quickly takes shape. The parallels between Mary and the creature she creates in Frankenstein start to become abundantly clear.  She, like the creature, are motherless, as her mother died in childbirth.  So much of her life, in fact, finds its way into her novel to such a degree that I am amazed that I was never aware of it.  I first read Frankenstein more than twenty years ago.  I am not sure whether I was able to read this deeply into it as I could do now that I was reading Hoobler’s book.  Percy, an admirer of Mary’s father William Godwin and his work, had become friends with Godwin.  Therefore, Mary meets Percy, and they take off together, Percy abandoning his wife and two children to run off with her.  I was completely taken by surprise to learn that Percy was something of a hippie, believing in free love and very much an activist.  Along the way, they meet Byron, already an international celebrity and known as much for his looks as for his writing.  Byron brings Polidori, his personal physician, and Mary brought her half-sister, Clare.  

All throughout their journeys, they discussed some of the newest scientific developments, many of these ideas will find themselves in her future novel.  She heard about capturing lightning in Leyden jars, reanimating dead frogs with electricity and many such things as she would never forget.  She gave birth to two children with Percy, in these early days, neither of whom would survive,  which raised questions for Mary, “Could she create life and not death in those she loved? Was she a monster?” (93).  She dreamed of her baby coming to life again, rubbing it before the fire to make it live again.  Were these early experiences inspiration for her novel?

My favorite chapter by far was “The Most Dangerous Man in Europe”, of course about Byron.  I did not know so much about Byron before reading this, and I really appreciated the background because it explains a lot,  for example, why Polidori would basically describe Byron in characterizing his vampyre for his short story.  Byron was already the best known poet of his time and enjoyed international fame.  Even Percy was in awe of him, and said that he could not write in Byron’s presence, afraid of never writing another line of poetry so long as he was around him.  (Byron, a psychic vampire?)

Soon after the publication of her novel, which received good reviews and was quickly adapted for stage, a series of unfortunate deaths begins to plague Mary’s life, hence the subtitle of this book.  It starts with her half-sister Fanny and Percy’s first wife.  However, it does not stop there, and by the end of the book we realize that Mary finds herself alone, not so unlike her monster.  She tries to find her place in society, but alas is shunned by most due to her unconventional life choices.  Here the eerie part is how much like her nameless monster she really is, shut out  by society and mostly only known for her father’s, her mother’s or her husband’s name.  

Mary’s novel poses some very real questions about blind ambition and the potential dangers and fear of modern science.  How far should one go in prolonging or creating life?   Yet, it does not stop there, as she has also broached a psychological or sociological question of nature versus nurture, what was responsible for the monster’s evil ways?  Was it neglect or was it his nature?  

A brilliant biography and history of the birth of one of the greatest Gothic (maybe even the first science fiction) novels ever written.  Well worth every bit of 5 stars!!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Le Cas Eduard Einstein, by Laurent Seksik (in French, Trans. The Eduard Einstein Case)

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro

This was the November selection of the Alliance Francaise book club, and I had been waiting for this one impatiently from the time it was announced.  It is an absolutely fascinating historical novel on the life of Eduard Einstein, the youngest son of Albert Einstein.  It has a unique format, in that it is told from three points of view, from Eduard, his father Albert, and his mother Mileva, Albert’s first wife, alternating chapter by chapter.

The possibly little known fact is that Eduard Einstein started exhibiting signs of schizophrenia from about 18 years old, ended up in a clinic for the rest of his life and went through a series of horrible treatments during that time.  The novel starts here, the day his mother drops him off at Burgholzli psychiatric hospital.  The reader is not immediately aware of the reasons why, but very aware of the woman’s anguish, suffering and worry. She says that one might say that the “devil took possession of the soul” of her child. Through hints and suggestions, in Eduard’s chapter, the reader becomes slowly aware of the significance of the events that led to his visit to the hospital.  There is the possibility that he attacked his mother, and he says that objects seem to him to move and take strange forms, that nothing is solid and that there are also voices that murmur. (23).  There are moments when he sounds quite lucid, then others where he seems to have trouble discerning what is real, or has trouble remembering things.  

Of course, there is a lot more happening here than simply Eduard’s commitment to a hospital.  Albert and Mileva having separated after their move to Berlin for Albert’s work, she returned to Zurich with her two children, and he moved on and eventually remarried.  This caused a gulf of distance between Albert and his sons, a feeling of abandonment, even stronger for the younger one.  He rarely returned to visit. The 1930s also meant Albert has become enemy of the state number one and will soon be forced to flee to America.  One of the biggest questions as to the cause of Eduard’s illness was whether the breakup of his parents and abandonment of his father caused a break in Eduard.  He felt it more acutely than his older brother.  Or was it more a question of living in the immense shadow of his genius father, his world-famous father?  There is the other possibility that it was a genetic trait in the family of Mileva, for her sister also spent time in Burgholzli.   For Albert it was the one problem he could not solve.  He fled to America, never to return, not for the death of his first wife, even when it was safe for him to return.  He could not face his failure, because it meant facing his son. 

Eduard will undergo devastating treatments, like insulin shock therapy, and subsequent comas that follow it, a dozen or so times, and electroshock therapy, to name a few, causing huge gaps in his memory.  By the end, this young  man who used to love to play the piano, and was apparently quite good at it, could no longer remember how. Throughout all of this, he only has his mother. She lived for him alone and sacrificed her whole life for him, for both of her sons, even for Albert, giving up a brilliant career and huge talent for family.  Albert went to America and had his oldest son and his family follow him.  This admirable and strong woman, who had given up so much for Albert, suffers through this alone, with Eduard’s ups and downs, suicide attempts and delusions.  Eduard ends his days at the hospital a little like the end of Voltaire’s Candide, cultivating his garden, a proud moment for him to be given a little plot of land at the hospital to cultivate.  

The reader feels right in the middle of all of this.  It is touching, sincere, moving.  While it may be listed as a novel, there are three pages at the back of the book listing letters and other works and biographies from which dialogue and details are cited.  Seksik had written a biography on Einstein in 2008, so he has done immense research.  
This novel lived up to all my hopes and expectations.  It is brilliant and fascinating, and led to a fabulous discussion at the Alliance Francaise.  A very enthusiastic 5 stars!!

(Einstein and Mileva)

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Haunted House, by Charles Dickens (and others)

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro


Having read recently The Invisible Woman (October 2, 2016), a biography on Dickens, I was then curious to read more of his work.  I had always been familiar with A Christmas Carol and read excerpts of some of his work, but never a complete work, and never had I heard of his writing anything of a haunted house.  This work is not completely his own.  It was a serialized collection of stories for the holiday edition of his literary journal All The Year Round.  It was a collaboration of friends and contemporaries, like Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, and others.

As introduced by Wesley Stace in my edition, the premise of the story is that the narrator and several friends move into a reportedly haunted house.  They are asked to keep to themselves the events that unfold, and at the end of their stay (a period of some weeks) to recount the story of any haunted activity that they experienced.  However, this is not the haunted story you might expect to get if A Christmas Carol is what you are after.  They are fascinating stories, indeed, but not scary.  The “ghosts” here are the haunting memories of the guests’ pasts, their childhood, fears, insecurities, memories.  It is not the house that is “haunted” but the guests.  Each guest occupies a different room in the house, and these rooms are chosen by lottery. Dickens himself directed his contributors to choose the plot but gave them the premise of the house haunted by memories.

To be quite honest, I really liked just three of the eight stories, one by Dickens (he did three in total), one Collins (a very Poe-like feel to it), and one by Hesba Stretton.  There was a strange story by George Augustus Sala that I mildly enjoyed until the end which I found utterly confusing.  The story by Elizabeth Gaskell, while long, was interesting towards the end, but I felt that it took too long to get moving.  It also was so hard to read the dialogue which she did in English dialect.  I must admit, I skipped a lot of the dialogue, but still managed to follow the story.  

It was an entertaining read, as there is a lot of humor to it, especially in Dickens’ first story which serves as a kind of introduction to the situation.  I was, however, hoping for more suspense and intrigue.  It did not live up, but I am not wholly disappointed either.  2.5 stars.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Pluie et Vent sur Telumee Miracle, by Simone Schwarz-Bart (Translated from French: Rain and Wind on Telumee Miracle, English title: The Bridge of Beyond)

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro

This is one of the most memorable novels of my college program, and that is quite a thing to say considering the number of books that I had to read during my many years of language study.  I read it first in 1994 for a course on the literature of the Antilles. Its effect and power held me all these years so that when given the chance to make recommendations for the book club at Alliance Francaise, this one came to mind.  The significance of the title evokes the power and importance of nature in their lives, symbolic of the hardships they suffer.  Many references to rain and wind are made throughout the book.  

The first two paragraphs are stunningly beautiful and pull me in completely. It starts with a woman reminiscing on her life and even the hardships, yet given the chance, she would not change a thing and would choose to be born, live, suffer, and die in this land of hers “on this island of volcanoes, cyclones and mosquitoes”.  Her prose is lush and rich like the nature of the island she inhabits.  Set in her native Guadeloupe, Schwarz-Bart describes a strong woman, from a strong line of powerful women, who upheld the community often without the support of the men of the village. Her main character, Telumee, is retelling the saga of her life, starting with her great grandmother, Minerva.    

It is a saga, an epic novel, retracing the numerous generations of the characters.  It is simply about the daily lives of these characters, and their struggle to survive, their community, the way they support each other, depend on each other.  What I found so beautiful is the relationship between Telumee and her grandmother Toussine, who early in life was given the name of Reine Sans Nom (queen without name).  There was a very tragic event that brought about terrible hardships, which she overcame.  When she finally “came back into life” in a way that was transformative, the villagers gave her this new name.  She is forever more called by this name.  Telumee will also receive the new name of Miracle, late in her life.
 
Telumee, at a young age, was sent to live with her grandmother, about whom she had heard so much from her mother, who venerated her. This woman, Toussine, became for Telumee “a mythical being, living elsewhere than on earth; … she had entered .. into legend.”  She would eventually learn from her all about the healing properties of magical herbs. This kind of white magic or sorcery does not seem out of place, or taboo, but is rather a part of everyday life.  Reine Sans Nom’s friend Man Cia is a spiritual and powerful woman who lives in the forest and interprets dreams, transforms herself, and makes special herb baths and drinks to help her and Telumee, and later teaches Telumee everything she knows, passing on the knowledge and responsibility.

The names of the women in this book, I think chosen deliberately, evoke the power of women in her culture, Minerve, Victoire, Regina, Olympe.  The words of wisdom and fables passed down from Reine Sans Nom are deep and meaningful.  It is impossible to mention here everything that I found so beautiful;  it would take pages.  It is enough to say that there are pearls to be found within these pages.  Ones that you will underline to find and read over and over again as I do.  It is a book about life, transformation, endurance, growth, the importance of community, forgiving, starting over even when you think your life is over. It is difficult not to love the characters, nor to keep a dry eye when one of them passes away. Even though we are sure, because Schwarz-Bart tells us, that they will remain by the side of their loved ones watching over them, we hate to see them depart.

A deeply emotional and moving story.  She really had a great life, and while it was not what she expected, it was not wasted.  It was not lost time.  She can find beauty even in those who hurt her, if she looks at it a certain way.  As she says, “Life is really, really surprising..”  We never know what is in store for us.  A heart-warming 5 stars!!!

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan, by Claire Tomalin

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro


Several times a week a friend of mine hosts a film and discussion group at his house.  On one of these rare occasions when I was able to attend, he showed the film based on this book. It was during the credits that I noticed that it was based on a book, and it piqued my interest.  The film was exceptionally well done, and I knew that the book would probably answer many of my questions, filling in the gaps that inevitably a 2-hour movie would leave from a 280-page book.
 
This is a biography, a history of not only Charles Dickens’ life, but also of Victorian England and the life of actresses and writers in this time period.  It does not read like a novel or even a historical novel. It is very heavy on facts and dates and very specific details of the lives of these characters and their families.  It is not for the faint of heart!  However, I found it fascinating.  
Charles Dickens was at the peak of his career when he met Nelly, and the relationship between them, due to its nature, could have ruined them both.  The fact that they managed to keep it under wraps for the most part was pure magic.  It may seem commonplace now, but in Victorian England, having a relationship with an actress was cause for scandal and could ruin a reputation and a career. This being said, actresses found themselves in possession of an enormous amount of freedom as compared to the women of their time.  Nevertheless, going from actress to almost any other form of employment was rarely done, but Nelly and her sister Fanny seemed to manage to escape that fate, likely because of Dickens’ help.

What I was hoping the book would answer but cannot was whether they were truly in love, especially Nelly.  The fact is, we do not get any of the story from her.  There is no letter from her to him or from him to her left.  Dickens had a regular habit of destroying letters and journals and went to great lengths to destroy any trace of their relationship in the hopes of saving her reputation and his.  They did, and we know this from bits and pieces recovered after many years of research, have a relationship for 13 years until his death.  From these bits, it seems that he was madly in love with her. For her part, was it admiration?  Was it the life she believed he could offer her, to escape the strain and rigors of acting life, especially considering it was not really her talent?  Was it a surrogate father she sought, since hers died when she was still quite young?  Or could it in fact be love that kept them together for so long?  I think we will never know.  The film tends to suggest either that she loved him or maybe admired him, a kind of intellectual relationship. We know he showed her many of his manuscripts for her approval and feedback.  There was a connection there, at least that is what I choose to believe.

In any event, the book is a fascinating peek into Victorian England and a great introduction to Charles Dickens.  I must say that it has made me interested in reading his work, which I am currently doing now.  I do not want to think of him in a negative light, just simply because he had a relationship outside of marriage.  The fact is that he dissolved his marriage of many years before starting a relationship with Nelly.  He said he and his wife were not made for each other and that he did not love her.  It may have been cold, but it was the truth.  Dickens was not a cruel man.  He was very supportive of women’s rights, helping many women of his time to pull their lives together, put an end to their lives walking the streets, their lives of prostitution, and help them find ways to support themselves and their children in a healthier way, even helping some to make their way to America or France for a better life. That does not sound like the behavior of a cruel man.  
All in all, a brilliant work of research and a great history and biography.  Perfect for anyone interested in this time period, or Dickens and his contemporaries in particular.  A very enthusiastic 5 stars!!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars, by Paul Collins

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro

I have up to now thoroughly enjoyed historical fiction, yet sometimes they have a tendency to drag just a bit.  While I had been excited to discover this book, and even while the beginning did hook me, I found about midway that I was losing interest and simply wanted to finish the book so as to see how it would end, the whodunit, as it were. To be quite honest, I am still a little dismayed at the verdict.  
The book begins even before the contents page with a reproduction of an ad from the newspaper seeking information on missing persons.  The murder of the century (the 19th to be exact) begins with the discovery of body parts found along the East River, and then a frantic search for the identity of the body.  All possible identifying marks have been removed from the torso.  There were no witnesses and dozens of false identifications.  What I found most interesting is the way in which the police have to go about identifying the body and piecing together this mystery going on almost no evidence, and no head.  It’s 1897, so there is no fingerprint database; forensics was in its infancy, and without a figurative smoking gun, they have almost no leads.  
Besides the murder, there is also the story of the newspaper wars.  While we may think that the sensationalization of murder and crime and the subsequent fame of the perpetrators by the media of our society are relatively new phenomena, in fact these are things that have been happening for some time now.  The warring newspapers knocked each other over to get at this story.  In fact, most times it was the help of the journalists that moved the investigation along. They were often first to discover some new lead or evidence.  They were trying everything and anything to be first at the scoop, including using carrier pigeons during trial and wiring the courtroom to the printing press to instantly relay stories to get them out first.  The trial took place every day to a full house, with even more curious onlookers waiting outside.  People were fascinated with it, with the defendants, curious about them to the point of admiration.  They literally had fans!  The people could not get enough and the newspapers were catering to it.

One of the things that the reader may have to do, as I did, is to make a list of characters.  There are so many detectives, captains, journalists, and their respective newspapers, and other characters to keep up with.  It was a lot to remember.
While the trial comes down to two defendants, both pointing the finger at the other, we are left to wonder, “So who did do it?”  I felt that by the end of the book that justice was in fact not done.  I still had questions.  Was it in fact the lover of Augusta Nack?  Did they do it together?  Or was Mrs. Nack herself alone the murderess?  Was the right person punished?  
Not a bad book overall, though it did not get great critical reviews, just not the best I have read in the true crime genre.  3.5/ 5

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Devil’s Company, by David Liss

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro


To be quite honest, this one took me a while to hook me.   I am not sure why that was so,  since it is a very exciting and interesting book.  The first few pages did in fact grab me, and then somewhere in the next few chapters I just found myself wanting the story to get moving.  After several attempts to get back into it and putting it down again, somewhere towards the middle I finally got hooked again and cruised through the rest of it.  It is a rather complicated story, with so many characters not seeming to be who they say they are, lots of shadowy figures running through the night, a lot of lies, deception, espionage, eavesdropping, and one is never quite sure who is on whose side, who is working for whom and whom to trust.  With that in mind, never assume you know where this story is going.  Never assume you know who the bad guys are, even the good guys may appear to be double agents, too.  

The story is set in 1722 London, with a man the other characters call the “thieftaker”, Benjamin Weaver.  He is a master of disguise, and often hired by others to settle scores, reclaim debts  and such.  He is forced by trickery into serving a man by the name of Jerome Cobb, to some mysterious ends for purposes which remain throughout the book quite suspicious to Weaver.  He is left with no option to serve and fulfill the orders of Cobb because his friends and uncle are threatened with prison by Cobb, and yet Weaver’s doubts and suspicions push him to withhold information until he is sure of the man he is serving.  This is a delicate balance when considering the great power Cobb is wielding.  This intrigue centers around the British East India company (the devil’s company as it is so called within the story), and plans to expand making it eventually a very powerful company.  There is some resistance among the silk weavers of the country who felt their trade was being undercut by the imported cloth from India.  Their fears were about  the enrichment of a company costing the country in native British cloth.  

With the twisting and turning of the plot, the necessity to keep track of what is being told and what is hidden, aliases and secret identities, it is a complex story and requires a careful read. Overall it is enjoyable, but for me it was a bit political and focused heavily on the business side of the Company and the consequences it will have on the economy of the country, not really a topic that holds my attention.  Also It is not a book you can read at the same time as others, like I usually do, and because I put it down several times, there were details I had forgotten.  It does appear that this may be one of a series, but it does not seem necessary to read them all or even in order.  
I will only be able to give this 3.5 stars, as it was too slow to start and too heavy on business.  Not a bad book, just not maybe my book. 
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