Modern Lit: The Sugar Queen, by Sarah Addison Allen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bald Slope, North Carolina, was just another backwater until Marco Cirrini founded a ski resort and a family that would become local royalty. Josey, his only child, is 27 now, but her widowed mother’s a master at using guilt and disparagement to keep her under her thumb. Josey is attracted to the local mail carrier, Adam, but her  private life consists solely of gorging on sweets and romance novels, which she keeps well hidden in her closet. Until the day she opens the door to discover that Della Lee Baker, on the run from an abusive boyfriend, is hiding out in there. And Josey’s life will never be the same, for, little by little, Della pushes her out of her shell. And her mamma isn’t happy.

The Sugar Queen is a captivating confection of a novel. Bald Slope is populated by engaging characters whose quirks are attributable less to eccentricity than to a sort of everyday magic. It’s a place where books choose their readers, promises  cannot be broken, and the color red carries its own special power. That doesn’t mean that Josey can come of age without experiencing the pain of relinquishing her illusions. But this novel at heart is joyful, brimming with humor, warmth, and southern charm even when something bitter must be faced.  I enjoyed reading Sarah Addison Allen’s first two novels, Garden Spells and The Peach Keeper, and The Sugar Queen is the best yet.  5 stars.

 

 

Monday Morning Poem: March

By Celia Thaxter

 

THE keen north wind pipes loud;

Swift scuds the flying cloud; 
Light lies the new fallen snow;
The ice-clad eaves drip slow,
For glad Spring has begun,
And to the ardent sun
The earth, long times so bleak,
Turns a frost-bitten cheek.
Through the clear sky of March,
Blue to the topmost arch,
Swept by the New Year’s gales,
The crow, harsh-clamoring, sails.
By the swift river’s flood
The willow’s golden blood
Mounts to the highest spray,
More vivid day by day;
And fast the maples now
Crimson through every bough,
And from the alder’s crown
Swing the long catkins brown.
Gone is the winter’s pain;
Though sorrow still remain,
Though eyes with tears be wet,
The voice of our regret
We hush, to hear the sweet
Far fall of summer’s feet.
The Heavenly Father wise
Looks in the saddened eyes
Of our unworthiness,
Yet doth He cheer and bless.
Doubt and Despair are dead;
Hope dares to raise her head,
And whispers of delight
Fill the earth day and night.
The snowdrops by the door
Lift upward, sweet and pure,
Their delicate bells; and soon,
In the calm blaze of noon,
By lowly window-sills
Will laugh the daffodils!

Kid-Lit: Mary Poppins, by P. L. Travers

my rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having read Mary Poppins as a kid, and watched the movie version as a teen, I was recently inspired to read the classic again after seeing Saving Mr. Banks. For those who haven’t read this book, a caution before opening it: the literary Mary Poppins is nothing like her movie persona. Well, she does have the carpet bag and the famous umbrella with the parrot head (you can buy one of your own for a mere $40 from the Disney Stores), and she can do magical things. But, or perhaps I should say BUT, Mary Poppins is certainly not all sweetness and light. As for Bert, in the book he sells matches, makes chalk drawings, and appears only in one chapter. And nobody sings. Still charming after all these years,  P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers’ classic children’s novel, is an old-fashioned story that can be considered a sort of early Harry Potter story, in the English tradition. The Banks family is wealthy enough  that Mr. and Mrs. don’t have to do housework or pay much attention to their four young children, and it’s unclear what Mrs. does all day while her husband’s working at the bank, “making money”.   When their umpteenth nanny quits,  Mary Poppins blows in on the east wind, bringing with her a rather acerbic manner characterized by strictness, sarcasm, and never a hint of coddling. Though not pretty, she is vain and enjoys dressing well and admiring her reflection in shop windows. She settles right in, and proceeds to lead Michael and Jane on a series of amazing adventures, where people can sit up in the air, animals talk, and a trip around the world can be made in an hour or so. These adventures are meant to convey lessons about proper behavior and pro-social attitudes, but I think younger readers, unless particularly perspicacious, might need to have this pointed out to them. They might also miss some of the amusing, but subtle and dry humor scattered about. Whimsical and somewhat sophisticated for its place and time. Just as the book Mary Poppins is not the movie Mary Poppins, neither was the writer P. L. Travers the movie P. L. Travers. But that’s a different story indeed.

Monday Morning Poem: Dear March — Come in

by Emily Dickinson

Dear March — Come in –
How glad I am –
I hoped for you before –Put down your Hat –
You must have walked –
How out of Breath you are –
Dear March, Come right up the stairs with me –
I have so much to tell –

I got your Letter, and the Birds –
The Maples never knew that you were coming — till I called
I declare — how Red their Faces grew –
But March, forgive me — and
All those Hills you left for me to Hue –
There was no Purple suitable –
You took it all with you –

Who knocks? That April.
Lock the Door –
I will not be pursued –
He stayed away a Year to call
When I am occupied –
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come

That Blame is just as dear as Praise
And Praise as mere as Blame –

Modern Lit: The Gravity of Birds, by Tracy Guzeman

image

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Seventeen year old Natalie Kessler is beautiful, sullen, and determined to have things her own way. Her brainy younger sister,  Alice, plans to become an ornithologist.  While on vacation with their parents, they each develop crushes on the moody artist in the neighboring cabin, Thomas Bayber, who does some sketches of the family. Ten years later, Alice is forced to give up her graduate studies by the debilitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis. Wanting to be alone to come to terms with the death of her dream, Alice retreats to the same lakeside cabin, not knowing that Thomas, now well on his way to fame, will also be there.  An intense but brief liaison ensues, after which they go their separate ways.

The second half of  the novel takes place decades later.  The Kessler sisters are now living secluded lives in Tennessee, and Alice is completely dependent upon Natalie and their housekeeper. Thomas has succumbed to alcoholism, squandered his fortune,  and become a recluse. He has long since been supported by Dennis Finch, the art historian who wrote the catalog on Bayber’s work. Now he summons Finch and disgraced authenticator Stephen  Jameson to locate a heretofore unseen triptych that he painted from the Kessler sketches.

The Gravity of Birds has a complicated plot, told in a series of  alternating flashbacks and present-day scenarios. There are two mysteries to unravel: why did the sisters leave New England so precipitously, and why did Thomas send Finch and Jameson on this close to impossible quest?  There are poetic and fairy tale elements in the narrative that create an almost gothic,  other worldly atmosphere.  It is easy to empathize with each character, so much so that the  revelation of the novel’s central mystery comes as a blow.  If the novel has faults, they lie in the resolution, which relies too heavily on serendipity to be entirely credible.  Nevertheless, it’s an impressive debut by an accomplished writer. I finished it last week, and it’s been staying with me;  I look forward to Ms. Guzeman’s  future work.

History News: Two New Portraits of Shakespeare

Discovery News writer Rosella Lorenzi has posted an exciting article about the two portraits shown above. According to Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, a professor of English at Mainz University, Germany, the one on the left shows Shakespeare as he was experiencing his first successes on the London stage, around 1594. The one on the right depicts him around the age of 50,  relaxing at home in Stratford. These two newly authenticated discoveries increase the number of known likenesses of the Bard to six. For more information, see the original article here, where you can also find images of the other known portraits.

 

Monday Morning Poem: The Snow Storm

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

No hawk hangs over in this air:
The urgent snow is everywhere.image
The wing adroiter than a sail
Must lean away from such a gale,
Abandoning its straight intent,
Or else expose tough ligament
And tender flesh to what before
Meant dampened feathers, nothing more.
Forceless upon our backs there fall
Infrequent flakes hexagonal,
Devised in many a curious style
To charm our safety for a while,
Where close to earth like mice we go
Under the horizontal snow.

Monday Morning Poem: Tree at My Window

by Robert Frost

Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.
Vague dream-head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.
But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.
That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.

Monday Morning Poem: Winter Trees

by William Carlos Williams

photo by katknit

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

Modern Lit: Survival of the Fittest, by Robin Hawdon

Survival of the Fittest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books defy classification within a single genre, and that is true of Survival of the Fittest, a new novel by British playwright and actor Robin Hawdon. Part historical fiction, part mystery, and part spiritual/philosophical  journey, it’s based upon the private, unpublished papers of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma. Following the recent trend of splitting plots into two or three subplots, Survival opens with depressed widower and London book dealer Maurice Aldridge, who after four years has yet to emerge from his grief over the death of his wife. Maurice relies upon his work and frequent dips into the whiskey stash in his desk to get him through the day. His routine is interrupted one morning by a visit from an American collector of rare books, who want Maurice, for a princely sum, to track down copies of the private journal of Emma Darwin, and the addendum in which the great scientist himself spells out his own beliefs about the existence of God. Both of these prizes have been the topic of rumors for 150 years, but to date, no one has managed to locate either. Maurice is in for the adventure of his life.

Interspersed between Maurice’s chapters are segments from the journals of Mrs. Darwin, in which she details her deepest concerns about the spiritual well being of her husband, whom she fears (and many believe today) has imperiled his soul by daring to denying God’s role in creation. She paints a vivid picture of family life, which was full of love, loss, the raising of ten children, and some very odorous scientific research, and these passages vividly portray Darwin as man rather than icon.

The third major character in Survival is writing from prison in 1951. Klaus Fuchs is a physicist who worked at Los Alamos on the development of the atomic bomb that put an end to the Second World War. During that period, he was working as a secret agent, providing the Russians with the project details, and following the war was convicted of treason and espionage. With so much time on his hands, Fuchs sets himself to describing the many reasons, most quite moral, profound and philosophical, which guided his actions.

Judging by this novel, Robin Hawdon is a fine author, his writing intelligent, clear, and engaging. His characters nearly step out of the pages, all three protagonists struggling with serious, life altering questions. Their emotions and experiences become those of the reader, and linger in the mind after the book has been closed. This is a work of fiction that could be taken as biography, and has prompted me to look more deeply into Darwin’s life and work. It’s also a first rate detective story, with its full share of surprises and turnabouts.

Enjoyable, thought provoking, and wholly worthwhile.

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