Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars really, but I’m rounding up. After reading all the controversy around this book’s publication, I was quite pleasantly surprised. I loved the stream of consciousness style back and forth between past and present. The humor of To Kill a Mockingbird is fully present here. And I thought the social commentary quite illuminating of that time and place in our history. While the ending was a bit weak (this story was not a finished novel), it made me think. About shedding childhood illusions and recognizing that the people we love aren’t perfect. About racism and bigotry, which are still big issues today. This book probably cannot stand on its own – if you haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird, I would read that first. You don’t have to, but I think having that context makes it more meaningful. I wish Harper Lee had gone on to write more. One could probably write a whole commentary on how her editors suppressed a voice for contemporary conscience in favor of the childhood fantasy. Not that To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t a gem, and a wake-up call for social justice – just that we all have to grow up and she had so much more to say.

Book Description: Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch—”Scout”—returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town, and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past—a journey that can only be guided by one’s own conscience.

The Great Gatsby

The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this in high school, but remembered virtually nothing about it except that it was about spoiled, rich people that I couldn’t identify with in any way and didn’t enjoy much. It’s probably over the heads of most high school students. Yes, the prose is lovely, but it’s still about spoiled, rich people that I can’t identify with. But now, at least, I do recognize its literary merit and I’ll give it a solid three stars. I have the feeling that if I were to read this a third or fourth time, that rating would most likely increase. Such is the nature of classics.

I started by listening to the recorded version of this and found it somewhat incomprehensible. I couldn’t follow the story, would lose some detail that informed me who was being spoken about, and felt I was missing too much of the storyline so I got a paperback copy from the library. Reading it, I almost wonder if the audio was abridged (it wasn’t), because there were sections that I did not remember listening to. Usually I love audiobooks, but this one I had to read.

I’ll be interested to watch the various film versions now.

Book description: The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island at a time when, The New York Times remarked, “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession,” it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s that resonates with the power of myth. A novel of lyrical beauty yet brutal realism, of magic, romance, and mysticism.

The Traitor’s Wife

The Traitor's Wife: The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold and the Plan to Betray AmericaThe Traitor’s Wife: The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold and the Plan to Betray America by Allison Pataki

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a bit torn in my review of this book. I enjoyed the historical background and the details of everyday life. The characters are well-done but a bit caricaturish. Peggy Shippen is portrayed as vain, shallow, and theatrical. I suspect the real Peggy Shippen had a lot more substance. Benedict Arnold is depicted as a besotted fool. Hard to believe this is the same man who was a true American hero, before his disillusionment and fall. Told from the point of view of Peggy’s maid, I enjoyed the upstairs/downstairs feel of the book, and the sweet love story that provides quite a contrast to the Arnold’s relationship. The plot points that make Clara into the heroine of the story were a bit contrived and unbelievable. But this is the kind of story I would have loved in high school or college. It would probably appeal to fans of Philippa Gregory. Great for period atmosphere and historical setting, but don’t mistake this for history. It celebrates modern patriotism, while glossing over the fact that the choices facing Benedict Arnold were not as black and white as they are portrayed.

Book Description: Socialite Peggy Shippen is half Benedict Arnold’s age when she seduces the war hero during his stint as military commander of Philadelphia. Blinded by his young bride’s beauty and wit, Arnold does not realize that she harbors a secret: loyalty to the British. Nor does he know that she hides a past romance with the handsome British spy John André. Peggy watches as her husband, crippled from battle wounds and in debt from years of service to the colonies, grows ever more disillusioned with his hero, Washington, and the American cause. Together with her former love and her disaffected husband, Peggy hatches the plot to deliver West Point to the British and, in exchange, win fame and fortune for herself and Arnold.

The Anatomist’s Wife

The Anatomist's Wife (Lady Darby, #1)The Anatomist’s Wife by Anna Lee Huber

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a period romance wrapped up as an okay country-house-type murder mystery, and the background of Lady Darby is intriguing. The author does work in some interesting historical details (Burke and Hare, jigsaw puzzles), but the setting in the Scottish highlands, near Inverness, just doesn’t work. I couldn’t figure out the social background of these people, and what they were doing in Scotland. There was nothing Scottish about any of it, certainly none of the names given to the characters. Kiera is decidedly a late 20th-century Irish name, Alana and Greer are also 20th-century names. There are other anachronisms (summer squash soup?, raccoons in 19th-century Scotland?, comparisons of eyebrows to cotton blooming?) and the dialog is far too modern. On the whole, I found the characters to be very flat — even the future love interest, Mr. Gage. The romance angle is very cliche. Maybe it is a notch above the usual Harlequin’s judging by the number of 4 and 5-star reviews on Amazon, but I prefer more realistic meat to my historical reading. I read this for my “Wife books” challenge, and I won’t be reading any more of the series.

Book Description: Scotland, 1830. Following the death of her husband, Lady Darby has taken refuge at her sister’s estate, finding solace in her passion for painting. But when her hosts throw a house party for the cream of London society, Kiera is unable to hide from the ire of those who believe her to be as unnatural as her husband, an anatomist who used her artistic talents to suit his own macabre purposes. Kiera wants to put her past aside, but when one of the house guests is murdered, her brother-in-law asks her to utilize her knowledge of human anatomy to aid the insufferable Sebastian Gage–a fellow guest with some experience as an inquiry agent. While Gage is clearly more competent than she first assumed, Kiera isn’t about to let her guard down as accusations and rumors swirl. When Kiera and Gage’s search leads them to even more gruesome discoveries, a series of disturbing notes urges Lady Darby to give up the inquiry. But Kiera is determined to both protect her family and prove her innocence, even as she risks becoming the next victim…

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Story of Edgar SawtelleThe Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don’t quite know what to make of this book. It has some nice literary prose. The author can certainly paint pictures with words. But plotwise I thought it was tedious in the extreme. For a book that is supposed to be a retelling of Hamlet, it had nothing of Shakespeare’s eloquent examination of what it means to be human. Too much was said in the way of endless details about dog training, and sign language, and what Edgar stole when he was surviving in the woods, and how he chose names for the dogs, but too little was said about what drove the characters to do what they did. And after paralleling Shakespeare for the first two thirds of the book, it kind of fell apart at the end. Retellings of classics should, in my mind, provide insights into the original story. This just wrapped it up in so much murkiness I really could not discern the point behind the story.

Book description: Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar’s lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar’s paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles’ once peaceful home. When Edgar’s father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm–and into Edgar’s mother’s affections.

Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father’s death, but his plan backfires–spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father’s murderer and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs turn Edgar ever homeward.

Primrose Day

Primrose Day title pagePrimrose Day by Carolyn Haywood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my favorite book in 1st or 2nd grade. I read it over and over. It must have made a big impression. All these years later I have to wonder did my interest in England start with this book or are we drawn to things because of past lives? Did I identify with Merry because we both had flowers for middle names? Or because I had moved from New England to Minnesota when I was 5? I’m sure the language differences weren’t as great, but there were some. I loved that the British word for truck was lorry, pronounced the same as my nickname – Laurie. I’ve always loved learning about other countries and cultures and am still enamored of the British Isles.

I could not find a cover photo of the original edition, and I do not like the modern covers on reprints of this book, so I’ve scanned the title page above. I remember the cover as being orange and it probably had the heavy duty “library binding.” I requested the original 1942 edition from Interlibrary Loan. It came from the Twin Cities Anderson Library Children’s Literature Collection. It is a plain yellow cloth cover and still has the old pocket in the back with the date due card. I have to admit that just thumbing through it and reading a few words here and there and looking at the original drawings (by Carolyn Haywood) brought tears to my eyes.

Primrose Day
Carolyn Haywood wrote stories about real children doing ordinary things. And even though it was first published in 1942, these are things that children still do today – playing with pets, dealing with homesickness, being teased at school, making presents, going on picnics, going fishing, making friends. I remember the chapter on going to an American school and being teased for using different words for things. And I remember the chapter about Merry’s birthday, and learning that primroses don’t grow wild in America. Merry would always go and pick primroses with her mother on her birthday and now she can’t even pick primroses with her aunt. But never fear – her aunt has a wonderful surprise in store.

Primroses

English primroses (Primula vulgaris)

I love gardening and I have planted primroses in my garden. The English variety are not hardy here. I had some very pretty pink Japanese primroses for a couple years, but even those are really Zone 5 and they didn’t come back last year. I must get some more, because I really do love them! I don’t think I have any pictures of them blooming, but here are some beaded primroses that I made:

Primroses_rabbit-vi

I did not remember the Scottie dog in the story, although I have always liked Scottie dogs. There were a couple of typos and things in the book that I wouldn’t have noticed as a child probably – the cook says she is “pealing” onions. And there is a reference to Mr. Ramsey being a “Scotchman” which made me cringe.

I also don’t remember the knitting, but I suppose it was around this age that I expressed an interest in learning. My grandmother tried to teach me. At first she thought she needed to reverse everything because I am left handed. I protested that she really didn’t need to do that. Us lefties are quite used to mentally reversing things for ourselves, having done it all our lives. It wouldn’t have been a problem for me at age 7 or 8, but my grandmother insisted that she had to do it for me and got herself hopelessly confused. I finally convinced her that I would be fine knitting right handed – it didn’t matter to me since knitting uses both hands equally!

Book Description: Merry Primrose Ramsey lives in England with her parents and her imaginary friend, Molly. At the outbreak of World War II, she is sent to live with her relatives in America, in a small town called Rose Valley. On the way over she meets a real best friend named Molly, who eventually moves to Rose Valley, too. Merry and her American cousin Jerry take to each other immediately and find all kinds of adventures, including rescuing a carrier pigeon and going fishing alone. Merry’s new life is not without trials. She misses her parents. She gets teased at school for the way she talks. Her puppy unravels the scarf she has spent weeks knitting for her daddy far away in England. And her birthday just won’t be the same without primroses to pick and make into a primrose chain like she always did in England…

I have been doing a bit of “Googling” and decided that Rose Valley in the story must be Rose Valley, PA, which is near Philadelphia (where Carolyn Haywood lived). It is a very small town, but would be within a couple hours train ride of NYC. It was settled by Quakers and has a very interesting history, which you can read about here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_Valley,_Pennsylvania.

Exit Actors, Dying

Exit Actors, DyingExit Actors, Dying by Margot Arnold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First published in 1979, the first of the Penny Spring and Toby Glendower mysteries is showing its age a bit. Still good fun – reminds me a bit of Jane Langton, or Alisa Craig. Middle aged amateur sleuths, academia, witty, good plotting, interesting settings. I picked this up because the name Glendower is Welsh. Indeed, we are told that Tobias Merlin Glendower was born in Swansea, and that his father had been a “wild-eyed fanatic on the subject of Welsh nationalism and, for that matter, all things Welsh and wonderful. No wonder the word ‘Celt’ to Toby was like a red flag to a bull! As a compensation for the thorough brainwashing of his childhood, Toby had become almost an equal fanatic in other directions” namely Greek antiquities. He is a near genius with a photographic memory and a particular gift for languages. But it is Penny who seems to be the star of the show – described as “forty-eight years old, five-foot-one, and a dumpy five-foot-one at that.” She has her own brand of maternal instincts, the curiosity to get herself into trouble, and the ingenuity to get herself out of it again. They make a good pair.

The “who done it” was a bit convoluted, but it kept me guessing, and all the pieces fit together in the end. My only quibble was with some of the language seeming a bit racist – a black man and a Native American man described as “bucks”, for example. But it was written over thirty years ago. I definitely plan to continue with the series, and will hope that we might see something of Toby’s Welsh roots.

Book Description: American anthropologist Penelope Spring and British archaeologist Tobias Glendower are traveling in the Mediterranean. One day in a Greek amphitheatre, Penny comes upon the corpse of a beautiful young movie actress. And Toby discovers a body there too, that of a black actor decked out as a Roman gladiator. Investigating among the cast and crew filming “The Travels of Telemachus,” they encounter enough plausible suspects to confound themselves and the Turkish police. At steadily increasing risk to their lives, to be sure.