Simon the Fiddler

Reading Paulette Jiles’ Simon the Fiddler was like a quiet meditation at first, which is probably just what I needed.  I read slowly, taking in the author’s poetic style, the bits of song interspersed in the narrative, her all encompassing descriptions of the wild land from Ohio to Texas in post Civil War America.   If life seems difficult now, imagining those old times with yellow fever and impossible living conditions, had the unexpected side effect of an appreciation for today’s modern progress, such as it is.

Despite the pull of Confederate  conscription, the misery of military camps, and later the task of making a living as a musician, Simon is an optimist and a realist.  Coming from hardscrabble beginnings in Kentucky, he is determined to use his talent to make a good life for himself.  After the war is over, he manages to pull together a quartet, who with borrowed clean white shirts, follow the music from his violin to entertain – for money.

When Simon meets Doris, an Irish immigrant and indentured servant to a Union officer, he falls in love.  Through years of secret but limited correspondence, as she travels to San Antonio with the officer’s family, and he makes his way through Galveston playing his fiddle to save money for land and a wife, they form a bond until they finally meet again.  During this sojourn, Jiles slowly reveals the beauty of the land and its challenges.  Simon’s confrontation with an alligator is a highlight.

Finally, the action begins with Simon and Doris reunited in San Antonio, with romance sizzling as Doris plays the piano and Simon his fiddle. The story takes on a thrilling pace – intrigue, secret meetings, threats – culminating in a confrontation in a bar, ending badly.  All seems lost at the end – Simon in jail accused of murdering a man, the violin destroyed, and Simon beaten and wounded – from slashes to his gut to crushed knuckles.  And Doris?  Could she escape the Colonel’s sexual advances?

All ends well, thank goodness, because by this time I had invested a lot of time in Simon.  But the ending is not all sunsets and roses.  Jiles’ last notes are:

He saw all the hard road before them unrolling like a scroll and their names there,  for better or for worse, written in the Book of Life.

And so, life goes on …

After reading and enjoying Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, I had some expectations for her new book.  But this book is longer and slower moving; for a while I wondered if anything would happen, but the descriptions, the language. and the music kept me going.  And, it was worth it; Jiles delivers a moving tribute to pioneers’ determination and grit.  Not all were farmers and ranchers – some were fiddlers.

Review: News of the World

Gothic Thrillers: The Guest List and The Sea of Lost Girls

For now, I am content with easy mysteries and psychological thrillers; I just finished reading The Guest List by Lucy Foley and The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman.  Both reminded me of Lianne Moriarty’s Big Little Lies with a cast of women betrayed by a male villain, who satisfyingly  gets his at the end – with a surprise twist.

The Sea of Lost Girls

Goodman’s tales are old friends; I’ve read The Lake of Dead Languages (2001) through to The Widow’s House (2017).  The Sea of Lost Girls has her usual Gothic flavor, set in an academic setting, this time in an old boarding school in Maine, with a haunting past of dead girls and ghosts.  Tess, the heroine and former student, returns as a teacher with a past.  A young girl is murdered near the beach with suspects ranging from the heroine’s son to her former lover and her husband.  Goodman weaves the psychological thriller around the lives of past abuses and present day secrets.  A fun and quick read.

The Guest List

Foley’s The Guest List has a wedding fueling its thrills and a remote Irish island provides the chills. The horror on the night of the wedding jolts the opening, and the rest of the story backtracks to lead the reader to the big reveal.

The groom is a handsome TV star, but slowly his chiseled looks take on the aura of a Dorian Gray.  His college buddies confirm his background and lurid past, as they party as the guests from hell.  Five narrators, each marking separate chapters, slowly weave the story to its surprise ending: the wedding planner and owner of the island, the bride, her young half sister and bridesmaid, the best man and old college buddy of the groom, and Hannah, the wife of Charlie, former lover of the bride.  The story evolves slowly, giving the reader time to assimilate the characters and try to guess the victim as well as the murderer, but it was a surprise to me.  Fun and satisfying.

Miss Austen

Just as an unedited email or fast tweet might came back to bite you today, letters in the nineteenth century (snail mail) could be documents of dread for the writer.  Famously protective of her sister, Cassandra Austen burned all of Jane Austen’s correspondence after her death, spinning her own legacy for future Janeites, without contradictory proof available in writing.  In Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen, the author offers a fictional spin on how those letters might have changed future generations’ perspective on a beloved author.

Cleverly combining well known facts of Jane Austen’s life with imagined secrets and opinions conveyed through private letters, the author offers an undocumented but very possible view of Jane Austen’s personal life.  Alternating between Cassandra and Jane’s lives as young adults, secure in the family parsonage, and their later trials after their father dies, as unmarried women dependent on their brothers’ goodwill to house and support them, Hornby reveals women’s dependence on marriage to sustain them in that era. Jane, of course, became the exception, bringing in her own income as a writer and dying in her forties, but what fears and insecurities really haunted her?

Cassandra lost her opportunity for the good life when her fiancée Tom Fowles died before they could be married.  Unlike her sister, she lives on into her sixties and in this story, she is visiting Tom’s family, in search of Jane’s old letters.  She knows the letters reveal private details of both their lives as well as her sister’s moodiness; she remembers how scathingly critical of others Jane could be.  In the wrong hands, Cassandra is convinced the letters will change the legacy of Jane Austen, and not for the better.  Eventually, she finds the letters tied in blue ribbon.  As Cassandra rereads the letters, she relives past moments of both their lives, wondering if she made the right choices, and finally revealing Jane behind the public facade.

The imagined lives are entertaining and charming, and Horby writes in the Jane Austen style of Regency era literary England, carefully giving the dialogue intelligence as well as wit.  Fans of Jane Austen novels will appreciate the slow-moving narrative, with references to her novels as she wrote them.

Austen’s Persuasion has a special place in Hornby’s story, motivating me to reread this tale of renewed love after all seemed lost.  In Miss Austen, Isabella finally finds happiness with a Doctor, only after her father, who thought him socially inferior, dies.  Isabella is the niece of Cassandra’s late fiancé Tom Fowle. Isabella’s brother, a local clergyman has recently died, and she has to vacate the home she shared with him. Suddenly, Isabella seems without prospects or a place to live, and the correspondence hidden away for years will be unearthed with packing for the move out of the parsonage. Cassandra is visiting supposedly to help with the packing, but her real motivation is to find those letters.  All ends well with Isabella marrying her secret love, and Cassandra finding the letters.

If rereading Jane Austen’s novels gives you some comfort these days, you might try Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen.  The story can gently carry you back to Jane Austen’s time with a realistic twist and a few bon mots to sustain you.

And if you cannot get enough of speculating about Jane Austen, try:

My Favorite Books of 2019

What did you read this year?  Did you keep a list?  Do you remember the good ones?

It’s almost Christmas Eve, and I have a few books on my shelf I may finish before the end of the year, but I decided to stop to look back on the books I read in 2019, I found a few with stories still resonating with me, and others with plots I could not remember.

When this Sunday’s New York Times ran an article on the front page on Where the Crawdads Sing, i was reminded how much I liked that book.  Although I read the book in 2018, it is still at the top of the best seller list, and worth mentioning this year.  Alexandra Alter in her New York Times article details the book’s unlikely success, selling more print copies “than any other adult title this year – fiction or nonfiction…blowing away the combined print sales of new novels by John Grisham, Margaret Atwood, and Stephen King.”

The book has it all – a murder mystery, a survival story, romance, a little useful information, and a recommendation from a famous movie star – but it also has a page-turning compelling narrative mixed with beautiful explanations of nature.  The author, after all, spent years in the wild herself studying lions and tigers and elephants.  Like many writers, Delia Owens is a loner and an observer.  She wrote this – her first work of fiction – approaching seventy years old and after divorcing her husband of forty years.  It’s never too late.

I reviewed the book when it was first published and immediately starting recommending it.  Here is my review:

https://nochargebookbunch.com/2018/08/22/book-club-bait-compare-a-novel-and-a-nonfiction-study-by-the-same-author/

If you haven’t read the book, it’s never too late.

Favorite books from 2019 I remember:

January:   The Overstory by Richard Power – I read this twice to not embarrass myself in a new book club, but I could probably read it again and find more I missed.  I hesitated to recommend the book because it was dense and difficult, but if you want a challenge on a cold winter night, give it a try.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/01/12/the-overstory/

February:  The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash – If you are a fan of John Lennon, you will enjoy this and possibly find it a good book club pick. Here is my review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/02/28/the-dakota-winters/

March:  The Friend by Sigrid Nunez – A Story for dog lovers.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/03/09/early-spring-fever/

April:  Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley – It’s complicated, but the characters are finely drawn with unexpected consequences in the Tessa Hadley style.  My review:https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/04/18/late-in-the-day/

In May and June, life got in the way, and I did not feel like reading or writing, but finally books lured me back.

July:   The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware – a friend gave me a preview copy of this thriller and it was just what I needed to get me back into reading. My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/07/28/the-turn-of-the-key-by-ruth-ware/

August:    Lady in the Lake by Laura Lipman – a thriller with a surprise ending. My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/08/22/lady-in-the-lake-by-laura-lippman/

September:   The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – Patchett says she writes the same story each time she writes a book, but this one resonated with me because I grew up in her setting.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/09/25/the-dutch-girl/

October:  This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger – I agree with my friend about Krueger’s style being close to Kent Haruf.  An easy book and a promising book club pick.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/10/15/this-tender-land/

November: The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett – An old peaceful treasure set in Maine.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/11/08/historical-diversions-chevalier-and-orne/

December: The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper and Carlson Ellis – A picture book with a perennial message.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/12/21/the-shortest-day/

 

Please share your favorite books.  I am always looking for another good book to read.  

Happy Holidays – here’s hoping Santa brings lots of good books under your tree.

The Secrets We Kept

Dr. Zhivago is at the heart of Lara Prescott’s debut novel – The Secrets We Kept, as the action flips back and forth from Boris Pasternak and his lover Olga Ivinskaya in Russia to secretaries who are really American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives in Washington, D.C.  How could a romantic epic raise the ire of the Russian government, especially Kruschev, and tempt the CIA to smuggle copies into Russia to prompt its citizens to question their government?

Although Pasternak’s novel is a love story, but with political undertones, Prescott uses historical research to reveal the constraints the Russian author and others in the country endured.  When the book is banned in Russia but published in Italy, and eventually everywhere in the world but in Russia, Olga, who is not only Pasternak’s muse and mistress but also his literary agent is sent to a Russian prison and he is under constant surveillance. Although I knew the story drawn from Pasternak’s life experience – the main character who does not leave his wife, while passionately connected to his beautiful mistress, I did not know the intrigue behind publishing the book in Italy and smuggling it back into Russia for “soft propaganda warfare – using art, music, and literature . . . to emphasize how the Soviet system did not allow free thought.”   The Secrets We Kept proved educational as well as informative.

I found the East section of the book describing the lives and loves in Russia more compelling than the West with its secret missions and nebulous relationships, but the idea “that literature could change the course of history” was enticing and prompted me to find the book once banned in Russia – not that long ago.  Like many famous Russian novels, Dr. Zhivago has been adapted to film, and I vaguely remember watching the snowy scenes with beautiful Julie Christie and handsome Omar Sheriff, but I had never read the book. In fact, I may have only experienced great Russian novels late at night through the classic movie channel – War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Sea Gull. Pasternak was a poet first and his words were acclaimed as powerful as well as expressive when the Nobel Prize Committee cited him “for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.” This book is available for free from the Gutenberg Press, and it seems a good place to initiate my reading of Russian literature.

As the book flips back and forth from East (Russia) and West (CIA), the narrator shifts to different characters and it’s not always clear who is talking.  The Western section focuses on two secretary/agents and their intersecting personal lives, leading to an ambiguous ending, but the historical facts shine in the Eastern section.  Of course, like its Russian counterpart – the Secrets We Kept has been optioned for a movie but the book would make for an interesting book club discussion.