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. 

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro

Most people may know Plath as a poet, but how many people know she wrote a novel?  This was passed on to me by a friend and came highly recommended.  It is in fact semi-autobiographical, paralleling rather closely her own descent into madness and asylum.  As it was the 60s, the subject of mental illness, schizophrenia and depression, were not easy for people to discuss, nor were birth control and women’s rights.

Our main character is Esther Greenwood, a young woman on a scholarship to New York for a fashion magazine internship.  As a prize winner, she was showered with presents and bonuses, ballet tickets, fashion shows, salon treatments, and all expenses were paid.  Despite all this, she is cracking.  She begins to feel disillusioned, seeing the frivolity of the people around her who only care for appearances, their insensitivity towards a death penalty without evidence, their own self-involvement.  She does not even recognize herself at times.   “I noticed the big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me…” (18).   She feels smothered under the bell jar. Seeking some warmth in the people around her, she asked for a colleague’s opinion about the upcoming execution.   At last, she thought “I felt I had touched a human string in the cat’s cradle of her heart.”  Only to discover in fact that there was “a blind cave behind her face… and the dybbuk spoke out …” that she [the girl] was glad they were going to die.  (100)

One of the things that I most enjoyed about this book was this character’s appreciation of several things I hold dear.  Her love of a hot bath, for one,  and all the things that she thinks one can cure by lying in a hot bath up to your neck.  I relate also to her love of food.  Her favorite dishes are loaded with butter and cheese.  There are so many pearls of wisdom, which made me smile, so many things I have even heard myself say, in this novel.

This novel is beautifully written.  Plath’s prose reminds me of her poetry, heavy with description and metaphor.  As her character descends further and further into the abyss of madness, so too does her description start to feel more and more fractured.  At times even she did not know why she was going to cry.  The faces of people around her were “empty as plates” (105)  Then the words on the page begin to grow “barbs and ram’s horns…and jiggle up and down in a silly way..” (124)  She no longer slept, bathed and could no longer write or read, and it is then that she visits a doctor.  

It is an amazing journey through the experience of a mental breakdown, intensified even more by the fact that this is more or less how it happened for Sylvia.  It makes me wonder, had she not died so young, what more she could have written, what more she could have left us with, to savor and enjoy throughout the years.  A solid 5 stars for The Bell Jar, indeed. 

Ouragan, roman by Laurent Gaude’ (translation of title: Hurricane)

 From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro

I discovered this little gem at a second-hand bookstore down the street from my house. I looked at it for a while trying to decipher my feelings about reading another novel about Hurricane Katrina.  I held onto it while digging through the piles of other books that had recently arrived, and finally decided that I had to take it home.  The author is Parisian, yet somehow he managed to tap into the New Orleans spirit, capture the feel and rhythm of this place so perfectly that I almost felt as if he had been here.  It is a beautiful little book, full of heart and soul, anguish and survival, beauty and disaster.  It moved me in such a way as so few books manage to do.   

The book is uniquely narrated from the point of view of about 5 different characters, all with their own stories from their own starting points, and usually told in the first person.  This was one thing that I had to get used to because I did not immediately know who was narrating and that we had switched perspectives.  The five characters come from very different walks of life and amazingly the voice of the narrator reflects that.  We start with a 100 year-old black woman from the Lower 9th, then prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison, a former oil rig worker, a young single mother with a child, and a priest who opens up his church for refugees.  Mostly their stories and experiences are different although there is some crossing of paths here and there.  

This book is not a typical post-Katrina disaster story like so many others that have been written, many of which I have read. It is a deeply emotional look inside the the spirit of the people of this city. The main character, as I will call her, the first character we meet, Josephine Linc. Steelson, “negresse depuis presque cent ans” as she always says, delivers some of the most prophetic, spiritual and philosophical messages of the novel.  She explains how powerless we are against nature, how we have more or less abused it and outstayed our welcome.  “Le vent ne nous appartient pas.  Ni les bayous.  Ni la force du Mississippi.  Tout cela nous tolere le plus souvent, mais parfois… il faut faire face a la colere du monde qui eructe.  La nature n’en peut plus de notre presence, de sentir qu’on la perce, la fouille et la salit sans cesse.” (53) (My translation: The wind does not belong to us.  Nor the bayous.  Nor the force of the Mississippi.  More often than not all that tolerates us, but sometimes…  we have to face the anger of the world that erupts.  Nature can no longer handle our presence, feeling us pierce, dig and pollute it endlessly.)  She has to leave in the final evacuations, after being escorted to the Superdome, and it is the first time in her life leaving Louisiana.  She takes it with her, in spirit; “Je suis la Louisiane” ( I am Louisiana) she says.  (151)  But she will not be able to stay far from her home.  

Two other characters, whose story really touched me, were Rose and Keanu, reunited because of the storm, and absolutely the story that brought me to tears.  It is a constant reminder of how sometimes tragedy and disaster make people realize the things that really matter and bring people closer.  It is a reminder of the fact that when time runs out, it runs out forever, and we had better make the best of it.  Keanu had constantly thought of his life as useless, but at the very last moment he found what mattered and that was worth fighting for.  And sometimes just sometimes, a disaster washes away pain and suffering and gives us something new, and the rest is swept away.  There is still chaos in the city being overtaken by water; there is still fighting, both kinds, for survival and for no purpose whatsoever.  However in the midst of all that is love, and there are still those trying to look out for each other, helping, bonding. 

An unbelievable surprise.  It is cathartic, heart-felt, beautiful and sincere.  Gaude’ is an author I had never known before, but I hope to read more of his work in the future.  A strong 5 stars for Ouragan!!

The Bell, by Iris Murdoch

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro

*** May contain spoilers*** I just could not stop myself.  I had too much to say about this book.

A few weeks ago this book was selected for a book discussion group. The author and the novel were entirely unknown to me, yet the description was intriguing.  I therefore decided to give it a try.  It was a truly fascinating read, a novel  filled with symbolism, mystery and myth.  

There are quite a number of characters, all of them with their own stories, most of them with their own dark secrets, and they are all at Imber Court, it seems to me, in the hopes of escaping something or even of finding salvation.  The truth is that they are starting a community, a lay religious community.  This community, however, is bound for failure, it seems, because they all have hidden demons.  One cannot outrun one’s demons, or even hide away in the forest from them. Interestingly or should I say conveniently enough, they are sworn never to discuss their pasts.  In any case, there is a new bell that is going to be installed at the Abbey and a ceremony taking place to which several visitors will be in attendance, including the estranged wife of a historian residing there temporarily to research an old manuscript.  Which of these visitors will act as catalyst to destabilize the entire community?  Or is it in fact someone from within who cannot continue to hold back, to continue to conceal the truth?  And what about the legend of the old bell?

I found this book fascinating on several levels.  There is the distinct play of light and shadow at the Court of Imber, the play of good and evil, one cannot see the forest for the trees here.  “The setting sun could not penetrate the trees, which seemed to generate their own darkness”(154).  There is evil in the forest where the night-jar lives, a bird which has a bat-like flight, symbolic of demons or vampires. The night-jar, a nocturnal bird, is said to be bad luck, reinforcing the symbolism of the evil, darkness and a bad omen of events to come.  There is also the murky water of the lake under which who knows what lies.  Still waters do indeed run deep.  There is the illusion of peace and calm at Imber symbolized by the glassy look of the surface of the lake, but there are secrets under the facade of calm that cannot be revealed without stirring up the muck underneath.  There are vines and plants growing under the surface that will pull even a good swimmer down.  Young Toby was advised against swimming in the lake, but he does anyway.  What are they worried about him finding?  In fact, young, innocent Toby is the only one apart from one of the nuns who can successfully swim in the lake.  
Whatever their good intentions, the lay community was never meant to be.  It will come crumbling down, and scattered to the four winds.  Except for naive Dora, the estranged wife, who comes out transformed, all the others seem damaged in some way, tainted, scarred.  It is a fascinating and brilliantly woven tale which right from the top dropped hints and signs of what was to come if you look carefully. The writer’s choice of vocabulary is deliberate, her choice of animals was symbolic, even the setting.  Enthusiastically 5 stars!!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Madame Lalaurie: Mistress of the Haunted House, by Carolyn Morrow Long

From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro

Did you ever live in a town with one house known as the haunted house? Well, I do.  Really.  It is one of the most famous houses in the city, and hundreds of times a month tour groups go by there to tell the story.  Once in awhile something strange happens there in front of the house which convinces people that maybe the stories are true.  I know because I am someone who has witnessed it. I have told the story hundreds of times.  Yet, I always wondered what the truth really was.  Could this story be as bad as everyone says?  Like the game “telephone”, did the story get bigger and bigger and take on a life of its own, coming out the other end completely unrecognizable?  These questions would be satisfied by the reading of Madame Lalaurie: Mistress of the Haunted House.

With 52 pages of detailed notes accounting for every source and 14 pages of works cited, Long has more than sufficiently done her homework.  It is a very meticulously researched book, using letters, court records, journals and newspaper accounts both in the US and in France to piece together the story to the best of her ability as it happened.  For those who do not know the legend, she starts with that in her introduction.  Then she traces the lineage of Delpine Macarty all the way up through her first two marriages to the time she married Dr. Louis Lalaurie, the fateful fire which launched her into infamy, and her subsequent exile to France until her demise.  

What I was hoping for, that the crimes attributed to Mme Lalaurie were not as heinous as they were so often described, would not come to pass.  Truth sometimes is in fact stranger than fiction, and sometimes the truth is just as bad as the fiction told and retold again. The truth was that Delphine, coming from a wealthy, respected and powerful family, did not have a happy marriage with Louis. She was 40 years old at the time, Louis only 25.  They were fighting, living apart for some of the time. This is where we first find mention of her cruelty to her slaves.  Never before, and never after, but only during the time of her marriage to Louis and living in New Orleans.  What was it about their relationship that set her off?  Did she have a mental breakdown?  Was her unhappiness or frustration too much that she had to take it out on others? How could this woman, so often described as charming, graceful, hospitable, become so cruel and vicious?  These unfortunately are the questions that remain unanswered.  We do know though that her wealth and status “allowed her to evade the accusations of cruelty brought by her fellow” citizens.  (86).  But Long does not put all the responsibility on Madame, since Louis was cognizant and passively complicit in her affairs, thus just as guilty as she is by his doing nothing about it.  

There were several really stunning facts found in the chapter entitled Exile discovered in her research that just amazed me.  These are involving persons of quite some status and fame who helped Delphine escape and witnessed her on the boat fleeing America.  What this book does not substantiate are the reports of hauntings.  She does, however, say that some people have had strange experiences, strange sensations standing in front of the property and reported capturing photographs with unusual lights or streaks in them.  The book is mostly about the families involved and not the legend of the haunting.  Thus for anyone who is a fan of biographies or history, and wants to know the true story of this famous (read: infamous) lady, this is the book for you. A whopping 5 stars from me!!
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