Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (Historical and Literary Fiction)

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 14th, 2020.

Plot:  4.5/5  Writing:  5/5  Characters:  5/5

The best kind of historical fiction — a deep, richly painted, description of life in East Texas at the end of the Civil War. It’s an everyday adventure story — not about mythical heroes but about people trying to reclaim their lives in the chaotic aftermath of a devastating war.

Simon Boudlin — the titular fiddler — has simple goals after the war: find a piece of land, marry a woman with similar desires, and make a living with his music. But life after the Civil War is anything but simple. The novel is gritty with detail painting the turmoil of that time with a full sensory experience. While some semblance of government is trying to establish itself and put the country back together again, displaced and ruined people are scrambling to survive and make new lives. From my modern perspective life then was impossibly hard — but in this book it isn’t described in an emotional, complaining way. It just is the way it is. This is the story of people getting on with it — making their way by whatever means necessary, while still not losing their way morally.

Included are beautiful descriptions of music at the time: Simon’s lusting for new sheet music that he can’t afford, the way music draws yearning and memory from the new mash of people from disparate backgrounds, and the business side — how to get gigs, what needs to be played, and how to handle the drunks and disorderlies who insist on disrupting.

If you liked The News of the World, you’ll be just as captivated by Simon the Fiddler (in which Captain Kidd makes a surprise, cameo appearance!)

Beautiful writing that gets to essences. Some quotes:

“His worrying kept him awake. The country was in chaos, there were no rules, law was a matter of speculation, nobody knew how to buy land or put savings in a bank since there were so few banks, how to get a loan, register a title to land, or legalize a marriage, everybody was dubious about the new federal paper money, there was little mail service, and nobody seemed to know where the roads led.”

“So he lived in the bright strains of mountain music and the reflective, running pool of the Irish light airs that brought peace to his mind and to his audiences; peace soon forgotten, always returned to.”

“Every song had a secret inside. When he was away from shouting drunks and bartenders and sergeants and armies, he could think his way into the secret, note by note.”

“He knew that he did not play music so much as walk into it, as if into a palace of great riches, with rooms opening into other rooms, which opened into still other rooms, and in these rooms were courtyards and fountains with passageways to yet more mysterious spaces of melody, peculiar intervals, unheard notes.”

“His first problem was to find a girl who would fall in love with him despite his diminutive stature and his present homelessness.”

“People always tired him, always had, always would.”

“He was ragged, a man of a defeated army and at the dinner he had played his heart out in a borrowed shirt. In short, very like the Irish.”

“So it’s dog eat dog and Devil take the hindmost. So it has been in human memory, wild places where the only law is the strength of your good right arm.” He lifted his arm and made a bony fist. “That’s how it is in all human memory. ‘Vastness and Age! and Memories of Eld!’”

“You expect the government and the diplomatic corps to proceed at some foolish breakneck pace! There are substatutes to argy over and rewrite! And meantime the politicians must be paid their stipends and their travel expenses. Become wise, young man, and cynical, and life will be far more understandable.”

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

A beautifully written book — a kind of delayed coming-of-age story about a naive young women from a privileged class. Shalini grows up in Bangalore with a successful businessman for a father and a manipulative depressive for a mother. After her mother dies during Shalini’s last year of college, she seeks to combat the ennui of a life without purpose by searching for a dimly remembered Kashmiri merchant — a frequent childhood visitor to her home.

As her search takes her deep into the Kashmiri conflict of the early 2000s, a parallel narrative unfolds the details of her childhood. Strong themes of cowardice and courage, misplaced love, friendship, injustice, and the impact of depression on a family weave through the story.

The writing is outstanding with deeply drawn characters and profound reflective insight dappled with (sometimes scathing) social commentary. While this ticks all my boxes, I did find the overall experience to be somewhat depressing, primarily because I didn’t like the main character. She is privileged and guilt-ridden but spends most of the book being too cowardly (her words) to really do anything about the injustice she sees. The story is her “memoir” — six years after the events — to go public about what happened. To me it felt more about her attempt to expiate guilt rather than actually draw attention to things that happened. If the purpose was to highlight atrocities that had been kept under wraps, there was far too much middle-class angst taking center stage; and if the story was about her own development, I wish she had managed to develop a little further.

Having said that, I read the whole quickly, completely immersed in a masterfully depicted world.

A few quotes:
“His whole lanky body seemed to be one nervous tic: his knees bounced, his shoulders shook, his toes curled. But his hand, I noticed, rested quietly on the bulky, complicated-looking camera beside him, as if it were an infant that drew comfort from his touch.”

“I glanced at my mother, but she was unreachable now, offering no clue. It was the single most devastating habit she had, to withdraw, to take back the thrilling gift of her joy as casually as she bestowed it.”

“Was this what made her tilt her chin back and gaze down at you with contempt and say those unfeeling things? This terrible, ungovernable anger, which threatened to sizzle a hole through her veins unless she turned around and poured it into somebody else?”

“She was smiling, but I could sense the loneliness that lay behind her smile, and I could hear, too, the entreaty in her voice, for a woman’s understanding, a woman’s sympathy. And to my lasting shame, I denied her both.”

“I had not expected to like college. I wasn’t sure why. But from the minute my parents drove away, my mother’s hair snapping in the wind, I was armored, prepared to dismiss each of my lecturers, my fellow students, to look down on all of it. I suppose it was, like so many other things, a trick I’d learned from my mother. To keep approval in reserve, to lead with mockery and distrust, for to reveal affection was to reveal weakness.”

“A manic, holy gleam in my eye, as in the eyes of hose ragged, hippie Westerners I sometimes saw around Bangalore, with bare feet and billowy clothes, matted blond dreadlocks, consecrated by their first exposure to yoga and the poor? Prayer beads around my wrist, a curly Om tattooed on my shoulder, and a cache of photos in which I smiled next to a pair of gaunt village women, to whom I would later casually refer, at dinner parties or in bed with new lovers I wished to impress? They have so little, you know, but that just means they’re more connected to the things that really matter.”

The Astonishing Life of August March by Aaron Jackson (Fiction)

August March grew up in the theater — literally. Tossed in a laundry basket at birth by an empty-headed starlet, raised by the laundress who found him, but left him in the theater at night so she could sleep, and educated by a typically vain and pompous leading man (who was the only one to know he existed), August indeed had the titular astonishing life advertised.

A fast romp through New York from the 30s to the 60s, the best parts of the book are August’s classics inspired dialog and soliloquies. He was trained in the theater (never, in fact, leaving the physical building until he was in his teens), and he behaves like a character in the dramas he observed. While the tone is light, there is a serious thread throughout — August craves family and belonging as most of us do, but has never been in a position to find it. He adapts, he survives, but it’s often a lonely existence.

I wouldn’t call the plot realistic in any sense, but who cares? Lots of fun, well written, and featuring a character who, while understandably flawed, forges a strong path through his own life.

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 7th, 2020.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

A compelling story combining a fictionalized history of Sarah Grimke — one the first female abolition agents and among the earliest major American feminist thinkers — and a “thickly imagined” story about Hetty — the slave girl given to Sarah on her 11th birthday.

The interwoven stories are told in alternating chapters by the two first person narrators. The time period: 1804 – 1838. Sarah’s story takes us from the North Carolina plantation to Quaker country to public abolition speaking tours around the country. She and her sister, Nina, were the authors (along with Nina’s husband, the famous abolitionist Theodore Weld) of the pamphlet American Slavery as It Is which influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Hetty’s story — created from the barest of historical documents — tells a story full of the horrors of slavery, including a potential slave revolt (and harsh retribution) populated by figures drawn from historical rumor. Woven through the stories are the interactions between the two women. I loved this summary from Hetty when the two were around 18 and had a kind of friendship:

“People say love gets fouled by a difference big as ours. I didn’t know for sure whether Miss Sarah’s feelings came from love or guilt. I didn’t know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It never was a simple thing. That day, our hearts were pure as they ever would get.”

In all honesty, I didn’t love this book. The writing is good and the story compelling, but I didn’t find any new insights. Hetty’s story smacked of modern sensibilities applied to a horrible situation that has already been described (and often better) many, many times. The Grimke story was more interesting as it was new to me — and the emotional tone was probably pretty accurate given the times and the lack of opportunity for women — but it took a long time and a lot of hand-wringing before anything could really happen.

I want to read books that have new insights or teach me about a period of history or new (to me) cultures. I’d like to move away from noxious concepts such as slavery and the idea that women are incapable of contributing outside the domestic sphere — these concepts are old (and well-documented) news.

The Boys Who Woke Up Early by A.D.Hopkins (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Great historical fiction — peppered with the kind of details that say someone actually lived this story (or something close to it). Most historical fiction can’t help but overlay modern sensibilities on the story, but this one feels completely embedded in the time — from action to dialogue to thoughts.

Thomas Jackson “Stony” Shelor is a high school junior in small town Early, Virginia. His first-person account describes his experiences from Sept. 1959 through Sept. 1960 — working “for free” in the sheriff’s office, getting into trouble with town bullies, hankering after a girl who knows her own mind, and befriending the somewhat crazy new kid in town. This is all amidst much bigger events: massive black voter registration and the resulting Klan rallies; the (very) slowly shifting attitudes of whites towards blacks; and the fine line a good sheriff has to tread to work with corrupt elected officials and still try to keep a town lawful and safe.

It reads like good journalism — no surprise as this is the debut novel of a 46-year veteran journalist. I had forgotten how much I like a real story — not overburdened by excess angst, overly bold characters, and well-defined narrative arcs that bear little resemblance to reality.

I love the way the clean writing describes both the action and our narrator’s perceptions, reactions, and evolving opinions. He does some (to me) stupid things but we are treated to a real understanding of how his worldview and principles led him to those actions. Billed as a YA novel (the main character is 17), for me it was much more a documentation of a particular time and place as experienced by someone growing up in that time period. A nice juxtaposition of history and personal development.

As an aside, lots of interesting details about things like learning to shoot and care for firearms, working at a sheriff’s office, a garage or an apple orchard. Just enough detail to be interesting to someone (like me) that isn’t actually interested in those topics, but never enough to be boring. Also, fascinating attitudes among the largely working class members of the town — they don’t map to any definitions of “liberal” or “conservative” today — just people using their own minds as to the right way to live and treat people.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5+/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5

Shockingly good — one of the best books I’ve read in years. The plot follows Washington Black — born a slave on a brutal Barbados plantation in 1818, he becomes a naturalist illustrator, scientist, and inventor via circumstance mingled with aptitude and fortitude. The book defies categorization — it is simultaneously a wild adventure story and a personal reflection on a life propelled by both trauma and serendipity.

The story careens from the Barbados plantation to the open seas to the Arctic to England and beyond. The Victorian pursuit of knowledge and invention permeates every page (especially pertaining to marine life). The relationships across race, sex, and status in a violent and yet rapidly evolving time period are examined in every possible way. I love the depth of that exploration and what feels (to me) like a fair portrayal of the complexities of every one of those relationships — the individuals, the culture, and the time period all coming to bear and the bald fact of each person interpreting behaviors of others in very personal ways — there is no absolute truth, only personal truth. Wash himself is aware that his perceptions are probably flawed and yet that does not change them in any way.

The writing is Pulitzer quality — absolutely stunning — one of the few books I’ve read without skimming a single sentence. I rarely read books about slavery or the Holocaust — I’ve read too many and just don’t want to go there anymore. I picked up this highly recommended book with the intention of reading a couple of pages and then giving it back. I didn’t put it down for 75 pages (and then only because I was called to dinner!).

Highly, highly, recommended.

Here are too many quotes — just know that I winnowed these down from many, many, more:

“Moistening my lips, I sat at a table in the soft, monstrous upholstered chair, across from a white man who possessed the power of life and death over me. I was but a child of the plantations, and as I met his gaze with my own, my mouth soured with dread.”

“The skin round his eyes tightened. He shook his head. ‘Negroes are God’s creatures also, with all due rights and freedoms. Slavery is a moral stain against us. If anything will keep white men from heaven, it is this.’ “

“Christopher Wilde had not your best interests at heart. You were a cause to him, not a person — however much he protested otherwise. You were something to be used to further his own crusade, his own sense of goodness.”

“I understood. He meant that I had been a slave, and that the savagery of that past left me a ruined being, like some wretched thing pulled smoking from a fire. It did not matter that he accepted me as a thinking man, that he respected my mind, or even that he was in the midst of taking a favour from me. I was black-skinned and burnt, as disfigured inside as without…”

“I had long seen science as the great equalizer. No matter one’s race, or sex, or faith — there were facts in the world waiting to be discovered. How little thought I’d given to the ways in which it might be corrupted.”

“He was a wretched man, a pox, but I did not rejoice at the brutality of his end, however well deserved. He too had been a boy once, desirous of understanding the world. And how he had wasted all his talents, all his obvious facility for learning, twisting every new fact and arranging it into senselessness and cruelty. He had spent years trying to cultivate an ethos, and despite possessing a clear intelligence, he had lived his whole life in avoidable savagery.”

“…her silence was marked by a held-in rage that I have only now, several years later, come to understand as the suppression of will. For she was a ferociously intelligent woman, and it strained her to have to conceal it.”

“The sky was still black where we were, but the wind was already hurling us seaward. I watched the half-cut cane fields in the faint light, the white scars of harvest glistening like the part in a woman’s hair.”

“He was sixty years old at least, with pulsing red hands and extravagant wrinkles.”

“And despite all, his dark eyes seemed to me soft, restless, thoughtful, with a kindness so rarely granted to one like me that, meeting his eyes, I shivered.”

“How was it possible, thought I, that we lived in such nightmare and all the while a world of men continued just over the horizon, men such as these, in ships moving in any direction the wind might lead them? I thought how Titch had risked everything for me. I knew he had preserved my person despite the death of his own flesh and blood, and I knew, too, how strange it felt to be alive, and whole, and astonishingly worth saving.”

“After a long moment of trying to muster my courage to speak, I remained silent.”

“He had a thick black mustache and a very pale, grey mouth, as if his lips suffered for sunlight.”

“I saw him, and I kneeled dripping in the low entrance, staring. For he was short, fat, and under his scraggly whiskers was a face very much alive and quite brutally ugly.”

“For there could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere: a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from he dimmest of shadows.”

“Staring into her sharp face, her brown front teeth edging over her lower lip, I felt a kind of despair, sensing the solitary mornings of the world fade from me, and grow dim.”

“Sometimes when I spoke she’d stare on with quiet ferocity — but it was not pity I sensed there, nor morbid fascination, but something like a greed to fully enter my consciousness.”

“What an agony it was, to see them together: old Goff, earnest and probing and high-minded and utterly oblivious; Tanna, sharp-tongued and brilliant and stifled and yet somehow devoted to that self-absorbed man. It was clear to me that both were intelligent, kind people, but careless with each other’s feelings, and poles apart in temperament. I liked both immensely; I hated their way together.”

Westering Women by Sandra Dallas (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 3.5/5

Another great novel of the Historical West by Sandra Dallas.

This story brings to life a “wagon train of spinsters” as they make their way from Chicago to California ostensibly seeking good, Christian men to marry. Under the leadership of two preachers, the motley crew of women tackle a five-month trip across prairies, mountain ranges, and deserts in a race to cross the Sierras before winter sets in.

Dallas excels at writing women — their lives, thoughts, and relationships with each other. Starting the journey as a disparate set of individuals — each with something they are anxious to escape — they become more of a family than most have ever had: a real “band of sisters.” The story is set in beautifully described natural scenes and is suffused with well-researched details of life in that time and place: what they ate, how they cooked, what they wore, how they washed clothes, and what they valued. Topics are introduced from multiple perspectives: Mormon polygamy, engagement with Indians, racial injustice, and even different “models” of Christianity. A lot of fairly horrifying men populate the stories, but quite a few wonderful men as well. While I find her action scenes a little terse, I was instantly absorbed by her characters and their journeys — both physically across the country and internally to become a tight community of strong, self-reliant, confident women.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 7th, 2020.