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LaurenBDavis

LAUREN B. DAVIS

Author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD, and others. Find out more at www.LaurenBDavis.com. I read as if my sanity depended upon it.. . . oh, wait, it does! Snort.

The Ballroom - Anna Hope

Who knew that Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw were proponents of eugenics? I didn't.

 

Here we have the story of three people in a mental institution in 1911 when forced sterilization was a popular topic among doctors and politicians; a story inspired by the experience of the author's great-great-grandfather.

 

It's a book about madness, yes, and eugenics, and the British class structure, and love in several forms... all that, but it's also about what happens when power is abused by those who wield it, and how it corrupts. A tale that is perhaps all too relevant today, particularly when it comes to the way women, the poor, and the marginalized are treated.

 

So, not only is it a damn good story -- I read it over the course of two delightful afternoons -- but it's also a beautifully written, and well-researched piece of fiction.

 

Highly recommended.

An Unkindness of Ravens - Ruth Rendell

From the back of the book: 

 

"Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, that unmanned drones fill the sky. And when her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she quickly begins to be shaped by her particular time and place until, finally, through the influence of a mysterious functionary, she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. Telling her story is her nephew, Benjamin Chestnut, born during war – part of the Miraculous Generation – now an old man confronting the dark secret of his past, his family’s role in the conflict and, in particular, that of his aunt, a woman who saved his life while destroying untold others."

 

Read this book. It's only too possible. 

Besides that, it's written with intelligence and empathy. 

Did I say... read this book!

The Essential Jennifer Johnston: The Captains and the Kings, The Railway Station Man, Fool's Sanctuary - Jennifer Johnston, Sebastian Barry

A quiet, thoughtful book by a writer who is much underappreciated. She deserves a wide audience, although I fear the sort of book she writes -- gentle, interior, full of the depth of ordinary lives -- is much out of fashion in favor of dystopian horrors, angry screeds, and extreme character portrayals. Pity.

 

This novel deals with aging and youth, scandalous talk, resentments, misunderstandings, foolishness, closemindedness and the pain of injustice. Set in Ireland in the mid-20th c, Mr. Pendergast is a man at the end of his life, a solitary man, of few passions. He is a Protestant and, much against his will, finds himself in an unlikely friendship with a Catholic boy. It's heartbreaking and beautifully drawn.

 

I highly recommend it and will be reading the rest of Johnston's work. A fine article about her appears here... https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/feb/11/fiction.rosiecowan

Excellent Women - Barbara Pym, Jayne Entwistle

Marvelous. Fabulous. Hilarious. Poignant. I now understand why friends of mine RAVE about Pym. I'm besotted. Her ability to keep the reader's interest, to mine the drama and the comedy from the smallest of moments, is matched only by her insight into the hearts and minds of her characters -- ordinary women living ordinary lives.

 

God, I wish more people wrote like this today. In a world where every writer seems obsessed with creating new forms and experimenting to the ragged ends of experimentation, what an oasis a book like this is. Murial Spark, Elizabeth Taylor (the writer, not the actress), Jane Gardam... Barbara Pym. I plan to read everything she wrote.

Enjoy.

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey

I love fairy tales, and this one is no exception. I also appreciate that the wild, snowy Alaskan landscape is as much a character as the 50-year-old husband and wife who are the protagonists. Inspired by a Russian fairy tale, Ivey has done a lovely job of balancing the magical world with the very real difficulties and savagery of life in the high north. The images Ivey chooses work perfectly and the characters are all well-drawn, even the somewhat unearthly presence of the 'snow child' herself.

 

Like the best of fairy tales, this one is equal parts light and dark, and the transformations are complicated and at times disturbing. Thank goodness for that.

 

My only issue with the book, and what stopped me from giving it five stars, is that it's a tad too long. Well, more than a tad. There is a good deal of detail that might have been removed in favor of pacing. Still, I recommend it for anyone who has a soft spot for magical tales. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Ruby: A Novel - Cynthia Bond

Well, that was quite a ride. Beautifully written -- Bond is a marvel at the sentence level -- and magical in more ways than one... and thank God for that, because the story itself is brutal. Small towns have never been portrayed more unflatteringly, nor has church life (if you can call it that).  I imagine the author might have taken some flack from some members of the Black community, as Alice Walker did with The Color Purple, and Walker's book is a stroll through the rose garden compared to this one. While I'm not sure it's for everyone, since the misogyny and violence is extreme, but it's an important book, less concerned with entertaining you than with forcing you to bear witness. Bond is one hell of a writer. 

The Women in the Castle - Jessica Shattuck

A terrific book told from the point of view of three German women and set throughout the Second World War through to 1991. Beautifully written, with fabulous imagery and a great sense of intimacy. I wasn't quite sure the world needed another book on this subject, especially not after reading Hans Fallada's astonishing ALL MEN DIE ALONE recently, but this feels surprisingly fresh. Powerlessness, conviction, fortitude, and guilt... all are explored with a clear-eyed (dare I say Germanic) sensibility. 

The end of the book dangles ever so slightly, which is understandable given that the peace-time aspect of the narrative can't possibly have the drama of the war-passages, and perhaps it is ever-so-slightly too neat, but overall the book is satisfying.

The Alienist - Caleb Carr

3.5 really. I enjoyed this novel, and will no doubt read the second in the series. The Victorian world of New York city is wonderfully imagined, and a mighty grim place it is too. Any idea one may have that murder, pornography, child abuse and general violence and mayhem are modern evils will have their illusions shattered.

 

The characters are good, particularly the alienist himself, Dr. Kreizler, and the narrator, John Moore, a newspaper reporter. The lone female character is less satisfying and rather stereotypical, as a plucky early feminist determined to be a police officer. Not quite believable.

 

The faults of the book lie in the dialogue's frequently droning pedantry. Every move of these 'detectives' is dissected and examined, much like the corpses that clutter so many autopsy tables. In spite of that, I found myself involved and intrigued and kept turning pages. If you feel like skipping some of the explanatory passages, go ahead. It won't affect your pleasure.

The Witches of New York - Ami McKay
I LOVED this book! It's magical, alluring, beautifully plotted and full of fabulous characters, both human, and not-so-human (Oh, Perdue, you lovely raven you!). Plus, let's not forget that Victorian setting. Think of the child Edith Wharton might have had with Charles Dickens. In fact, McKay has used many of the Victorian Penny Dreadful tropes to splendid effect. 

Three women -- witches all -- in their shop, "Tea and Sympathy", a marvelous confection of place, as full of fairies (Dearies) as herbs and potions (some for 'regulating the womb' if you know what I mean). The shop is a place of refuge and care for the women of the neighborhood. Frankly, I want one of these shops near me. Now, please. 

And of course, there must be a villain. For that, we have a group of religious fanatics who pluck the very worst from their teachings and apply them with murderous, misogynistic intent. (Shades of Jack the Ripper anyone?) 

At the heart of this novel is something deliciously subversive: These women, who have suffered terrible loss and heartbreak, and who struggle under the yoke of Victorian patriarchy and hysteria, live with a quiet resolve and autonomy; they assist other women, they stand tall in their truth, and never deny who they are. 

A joy to read from beginning to end and it kept me up at night reading far later than I'd planned. Enjoy.
The Heavy Bear - Tim Bowling
Really lovely. Bowling, who is a well-respected poet, brings his talent for writing beautiful sentences to the novel, with delightful results. The story of a man named Tim Bowling (yes, the author names the protagonist after himself) at the author's age (50), questioning meaning as he wanders the streets haunted by the ghosts of the past century, embodied by Buster Keaton and Delmore Schwartz. And a girl. And a monkey. 

You can see what sort of book this is, can't you? 

Now, I'm not entirely sure this book will be for everyone -- it helps to be as big a fan of Buster Keaton as I am since a good deal of the book is a sort of love song to the tragic-faced star of silent films. There is at least as much cultural-commentary as there is plot. Perhaps more. Not to mention Delmore Schwartz (the heavy bear). 

But, if you enjoy a thoughtful, meditative, melancholic and deeply intelligent read, this just might be the book for you.
 
 

 

The Meaning of Night - Michael Cox

Well, this was a great deal of fun! A BIG read. Set in mid-Victorian England it is a murder mystery, a character study, with the era being one of the characters, and a fascinating one as well. The research is impeccable, and if the pacing is a tad slow in parts I didn't mind a bit since I was enjoying the vision so much. The ending might not be entirely satisfying, but still... a fun read. 

King Rat - China Miéville

This urban grunge fantasy is Mieville's debut novel and the first of his works I've read. This is a riff on the Pied Piper of Hamlin and is imaginative and fast-paced. The language is delightful as is the imagery. The plot, however, is entirely predictable and there is one clear flaw in the plot, having to do with the protagonist's ability to resist the Rat Catcher's tune when no one else can. Still, it's a fun and fast read, and shows Mieville's developing talent. I'll read more of his work. 

The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects - Barbara G. Walker

A wonderful work on the study of symbols and sacred objects as they relate to the female. It's an excellent companion to the marvelous "The Book Of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images" offering insight on the feminine roots of many of our symbols.

 

Just as an example, one such symbol is the fish, widely accepted to be the symbol of Christianity, but which is actually FAR older. Ichthys was the offspring of the ancient Sea goddess Atargatis, and was known in various mythic systems as Tirgata, Aphrodite, Pelagia, or Delphine. The word also meant "womb" and "dolphin" in some tongues, and representations of this appeared in the depiction of mermaids. The fish is also a central element in other stories, including the Goddess of Ephesus, as well as the tale of the fish of the Nile that swallowed part of Osiris' body (the penis), and was also considered a symbol of the sexuality of Isis for she had sexual intercourse with Osiris after his death which resulted in the conception and birth of his posthumous son, Harpocrates, Horus-the-child. So, in pagan beliefs, the fish is a symbol of birth and fertility.

 

Before Christianity adopted the fish symbol, it was known by pagans as "the Great Mother", and "womb". Its link to fertility, birth, and the natural force of women was acknowledged also by the Celts, as well as pagan cultures throughout northern Europe.

The Romans called the goddess of sexual fertility by the name of Venus. And thus it is from the name of the goddess Venus that our modern words "venereal" and "venereal disease" have come. Friday was regarded as her sacred day, because it was believed that the planet Venus ruled the first hour of Friday and thus it was called dies Veneris. And to make the significance complete, the fish was also regarded as being sacred to her. The similarities between the two, would indicate that Venus and Freya were originally one and the same goddess and that original being the mother-goddess of Babylon.

 

The same association of the mother goddess with the fish-fertility symbol is evidenced among the symbols of the goddess in other forms also. The fish was regarded as sacred to Ashtoreth, the name under which the Israelites worshiped the pagan goddess. And in ancient Egypt, Isis is represented with a fish on her head.

Great stuff. Wonderful for those of us who do dream work, and who look for the deep plumb line of the Sacred that runs through all time, all people, and all place. More evidence the world is full of wonder, magic, and miracle.

People of the Whale - Linda Hogan

This is one of those books I'm going to re-read. It's just so RICH. The writing is astounding, and the story is compelling. Such wisdom and healing - wide and deep as the sea, and the whales and the people who live in profound harmony with their environment. 

 

A couple of quotes: "

 

“He wakes up and he is not a halfhearted man and he can’t remember why he wakes this way, except that he hears the sound of birds and it is as if behind the human world something else is taking place. "

 

and: 

 

“Like the water, the earth, the universe, a story is forever unfolding. It floods and erupts. It births new worlds. It is circular as our planet and fluid as the words of the first people who came out from the ocean or out of the cave or down from the sky. Or those who came from a garden where rivers meet and whose god was a tempter to their fall, planning it into their creation along with all the rest.”

 

Marvelous. Hogan is a literary priestess. 

Every Man Dies Alone Publisher: Melville House; Reprint edition - Hans Fallada

An extraordinary novel I am embarrassed to say I was not aware of until Melville Books (bless them) sent me a notice about it. Where the hell have I been?

 

Primo Levi called EVERY MAN DIES ALONE "The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis."

 

The Montreal Gazette said, "It is no wonder the work's reception in the English-speaking world has been the journalistic equivalent of a collective dropped jaw."

 

It is not only politically important (dare I say, especially in these times?), but it extraordinarily readable. Riveting, in fact. Every character crackles with vibrancy, every decision is perfectly credible. There isn't a speck of cliche. It is heartbreaking, sometimes very funny, thrilling, exhausting, beautiful and ironically life-affirming. The small man/woman, going about life. Being brave beyond measure, even in the face of . . . well, you know.

 

You may be thinking you've read quite enough books about WWI. May I humbly suggest that unless you've read EVERY MAN DIES ALONE you need to read just one more.

I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Penguin Essentials) - Patrick Süskind , John E. Woods

How I loved this book! The writing is magical and so inspiring, and the story's pretty damn good as well. When I first read it, years ago, I remember thinking I had never read anything quite like it. What a tour de forces. I suggest my students read it to understand what can be done when writing deeply from the senses.