Books and Book Reviews: January 2009 Archives

Wordy Shipmates--Sarah Vowell


Let me start by unapologetically offering up what I hated about this book:

(1) The author couldn't seem to stay on task
(2) The author offered me opinions on everything from William McKinley and Andrew Jackson to George Bush, in no case making a substantive effort to document or supplement any of her at-odds opinions with substantiation.
(3) The author fails to distinguish between a still-born child and a "fetus." (Of course, we know the reason for that).
(4) And finally, the author is one of those feminists with a chip on her shoulder--shown in this case by the grievous hurt she suffers every time she looks at a magazine subscription card which has only one designation for a male, but three for a female--none of which can be viewed positively in her opinion. (So why not just refuse to designate a title? )

Okay, I've outlined the very worst features of this well-written, incisive, and often hysterically funny history of the early New England Colonies. Ms Vowell starts with the founding of Massachusetts Bay by non-separatists and takes us up through the banishing of Anne Hutchinson, with some asides that go a bit further into the 17th century.

What is charming about the book is the sincere respect and love Vowells has for her subject even as she deplores some of the horrors they were capable of committing. She is moved and comforted by the vision of John Winthrop in the wake of the fall of the towers.She is angered by the unjust treatment of Anne Hutchinson (although one could say that discretion is the better part of valor, and once her case was won before the court, a truly wise person would know enough to go back to midwifery and general discontent fomenting.)

Ms. Vowell takes us through the founding of Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island. She recounts the horrors of the Pequot war and King Phillip's War, and dissects some of the pressing theological issues of the day. I think she's a little off-track siting Ms. Hutchinson as spiritual founder of the new evangelical protestantism, as her antinomian stance is more akin to Quakerism, and actuality. (Ms. Hutchinson taught the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and apparently Calvinists of the time preferred the beside-dwelling of the Holy Ghost.)

Ms Vowell is a lively writer. I can't speak to her historical accuracy as I know relatively little about this time, so I defer to the scholars on the accuracy of her work. One point that is perhaps a little vexing is the annoying propensity to stray away from the subject. I suppose as a radio talk-show commentator, there is a bit of a tendency built in, but Ms. Vowell's subjects are so fascinating and what she is recounting so little known and understood, that it is more than a little annoying to see pages and paragraphs taken up in a diatribe about a "woman's healing garden" near a memorial to Anne Hutchinson. Such space were better devoted to Ms. Hutchinson herself.

So with the annoying little details noted above, this book still comes out very high on the must-read list for anyone interested in Early American History. I would have loved to have heard more about Anne Bradstreet and other Puritans of the time--but that too would have been beyond the scope of this little volume. A delightful work which one could peruse in an afternoon. Get it and enjoy it around the little annoyances.

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I finished the book a day or so ago, but have been distracted with many things.

For those of you who have been tempted to read Georgette Heyer, but feared becoming entangled in the sticky strands of Regency Romance, this may be the book for you. More mystery and comedy of manners with a romance tacked on around the edges, this book seems like a practice or a "light" version of some of Ms. Heyer's exquisitely plotted mysteries.

A young woman coming from London is met at the coach stop by the representative of a man she presumes is the husband of the woman who hired her as a governess for her children. As it turns out, this man wants something entirely different--he wants the young woman to marry his good-for-nothing cousin so as to remove from the highly suspicious minds of neighbors and friends any sense that he might be after the cousin's fortune. As it happens, the cousin is stabbed in a brawl that night and news comes that he lay on the point of death, which galvanizes the action of the story, for the young woman, Elinor, is persuaded to marry him.

The story zooms on from there with spies, papers, hidden passages, nocturnal visitors, murder, and one of the most obnoxious dandy's on record. Every turn of the slight plot is amusing and entertaining, and the resolution, while a trifle long-winded is most satisfactory. Ms. Heyer played her hand well enough and cleverly enough to have me guessing whodunit, even though to the casual reader it is perfectly obvious. (It's what happens when you apply the conventions of one genre to another.)

As I noted the romance is slight, referred to perhaps three times directly--the romantic leads having improbably few scenes together to uncover their mutual attraction. But again, this wasn't the main point of the novel, and as a result there is no disappointment or frustration with the denouement.

If you are not an inveterate romance reader and you'd like to find out why such critics as Michael Dirda and Margaret Atwood praise Ms. Heyer's work, this may be the chance for you. Not so sparkling and witty as Venetia or Powder and Patch but none the less a whirlwind of intrigue and a well-written historical novel The Reluctant Widow may provide insight as to why Georgette Heyer is sometimes compared with Jane Austen.

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On Adolescents and other things


from The Reluctant Widow
Georgette Heyer

Elinor had not consorted with adolescents for six years without learning when it was useless to perservere in the attempt to convey to them ideas that were wholly alien to their minds and she now made no further effort to bring Nicky to an appreciation of her own sentiments. She agreed that it would have been a shocking thing to have missed spending a week in almost continuous alarm; and was rewarded by his telling her with impulsive warmth that he had known all along that she was a right one. He then did what lay in his power to undermine whatever fortitude was left to her by recounting with embellishments, John's theories on the murder of de Castres.

Georgette Heyer conveys an utterly delight sense of place and time. For those of us not really part of the regency world or its contemporary counterpart in the regency romance, some of the words, ideas, and everyday articles are a bit confusing and may require research. I had to spend a minute or two discovering the true nature of a pelisse and what exactly hartshorn was (though I had guessed well enough by looking at the word.) at to this clocked stockings and any number of other appurtenances of a bygone world and you might have the formula for incomprehensibility. But not in the deft hand of Ms. Heyer, whose writing is lucid and, at times, lovely. It really is a pleasure to spend some time with her.

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Further the Deponent Need Not Say


from The Reluctant Widow
Georgette Heyer

'Again you relieve my mind. I brought my vinaigrette with me, of course, and Crawley knows how to revive me, but I confess I should have been excessively loth to have slept under the same roof with a coffin. My sensibilities have always been extremely acute, and I dare say I should have suffered a spasm. But now, unless I should have take a chill on the drive, I do trust we have nothing to dread. It is not to be, I collect, a lengthy cortège?"

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A View from the Future


For, I hope, your amusement, an observation I made last night:

I am in the process of reading The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer in paper and Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout on Kindle. As I write that last sentence I cannot be be amused at the thought that if these words survived into some future age, there would have to be a small annotation next to the word "kindle" which read, " a rather primitive device for electronic reading. Paper refers to the archaic practice of printing on processed tree pulp with inks of various composition. Leaves of this material were bound into the original volumes called 'books.' some of these can still be seen in repositories and museums around the world.

* * * * *

Thus we come to the end of the threat of Montag and his ilk. Not that we don't have enough internal threats to make literacy something of the past--already it too much trends that way; however, mere burning will no longer be sufficient to supress what becomes unpopular.

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Not a review at this point, merely a note to say that this is current reading material. And what more can you ask for from a book: mistaken identity, assault with deadly effect, a furtive wedding in the reaches of the night, a reluctant widow in a house filled with secret passages, secrets, and people she doesn't even know. In all, a delightful, unlikely, and very amiable mix to while away a few hours of pleasant reading.

I'll let you all know more when I've finished. But I have to hand it Sourcebooks--they're doing a superb job of bringing the Romances and historical novels of Georgette Heyer back into print, and it is most welcome to an audience that has lacked a consistent backcatalog for some time now. I look forward to each month's new offerings.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from January 2009.

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