RSS

Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

My Christmas wish list had one thing on it this year: a copy of Liz Gilbert’s The Signature of all Things (Penguin Group, 2013). Thankfully, I got it. Then it sat on my shelf for four months. FOUR MONTHS! Ostensibly, it was because I was in the middle of a few other books. Then I found other books to read, and then others. Eventually, I realized I was avoiding reading it. I knew why. Just before Christmas, I (unintentionally) read one negative review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book. The reviewer panned it, their biggest complaint being that it was really about masturbatory sex.

Well. Combine that with the fact that it was about moss, science, and history (I mean, come on, moss?), and it was almost enough for me to skip it. But I am a Liz Gilbert FAN (the capital letter kind), so I did read it. And loved it. Just exactly as much as I hoped I would.

I love Liz mostly because Eat Pray Love and Committed, as well as every essay, TED Talk, Facebook post and interview she has put out there are all consistent with who she is: a woman on a mission to understand how things work, and make her findings understandable to everyone else through her glorious authorial voice. I loved The Signature of all Things because it does this in a most ambitious way. It is a brave thing, given what many of her peers are writing about (time travel, dystopian futures, and manipulative modern characters like those that inhabit Gillian Flynn’s horrible book Gone Girl), that Gilbert would choose to write a quiet masterpiece about an ugly spinster who lived in the 1800’s and studied the evolutionary habits of mosses as her life work. What could be less sexy? What could be less compelling?

And yet, what could be more powerful?

By imagining a woman of 200 years ago, Gilbert strips her of the labels we paste on women today, and uncovers the timeless issues that face all women. The Signature of All Things is the story of Alma Whittacker, born in 1800 to a rich American botanist. Instead of being petite, beautiful, and smart (the current trend in female protagonists: Hello, Katniss!), Alma is large, unlovely, and smart. Yes, Alma explores her own sexuality, and it is a powerful part of her story, but The Signature of all Things is really about Alma’s quest to assimilate the sum of her experiences, which are profound, into an understandable theory of life. Not everyone, I understand, spends a good part of everyday pondering the very small (at times) or very large (at times) divide between science and spirituality, but I do, and Alma Whittacker certainly does and, thankfully, Liz Gilbert does.

What an ocean of story Gilbert has created for reader’s to immerse themselves in! I surfaced once in a while to marvel at the amount of research (and envy the amount of travel) that went into the book, and then ponder the size of the blender that mixed it in so seamlessly with the story. If you are on the fence about reading this book, just read it. If you love Liz Gilbert, you will likely love it. If you detest Liz Gilbert (maybe Eat Pray Love was a bit too whiney for you?) my guess is you will still find yourself enjoying this book.

Go, Liz!

Advertisements
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on May 7, 2014 in Fiction, Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

As a recently appointed middle school librarian, I’ve been reading quite a bit of middle school fiction, which is different than YA fiction and, it turns out, just as appealing to adults. I laughed so hard reading Dead End in Norvelt that my husband nearly had to begin CPR on me. I went that long without being able to breathe. Seriously.

Dead End in Norvelt (Farrar, Straus, and Geroux, September 2011) was awarded the 2012 Newbery Medal for the year’s best contribution to children’s literature and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and rightfully so: Jack Gantos is a fantastic writer. He can write a scene, drench it in history, spin it into action, and set in on a plate with a side of laughter. He can create believable, quirky characters that you root for with all your heart despite their oddities. Most of all, though, Gantos knows how to tell a good story, one that’s hard to put down, that keeps you up and night, and that makes you laugh.

Dead End in Norvelt is set in Norvelt, Pennsylvania in 1962. The book’s 12-year-old narrator (also coincidentally named Jack Gantos) has been grounded for the summer. There are only two reasons Jack can leave the house:

  1. to help his father dig a bomb shelter in the back yard (by hand) and
  2. to help his elderly, arthritic neighbor write obituaries for the town newspaper (which turns out to be an alarmingly busy task, as the older people in the bucolic town of Norvelt are dropping like flies.)

Despite those limiting factors (or because of them), Jack manages to have an action-packed summer, one punctuated by dramatic events, each event triggering an uncontrollable nosebleed in our not-as-tough-as-he-wishes-he-was narrator.

This book is not for the faint hearted – I recommended it to reluctant reader, in hopes that the fast moving plot line and frequent hilarity would entice him to read it. He returned it two days later. “Mrs. Rutten, I could not read this book. I have a gag reflex problem, and every time the main character had a nose bleed, I had to vomit.” He shook his head sadly and dropped it into the return bin.

Okay, so maybe this book isn’t for everybody. But most people, kids and adults alike, will love it.

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Hild, by Nicola Griffith

The cover of Hild (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013) shows a woman in medieval chainmail, with large, serious eyes, painted with the same hues and patterns as the forest behind her.  The effect is of someone emerging from a landscape, or being camouflaged by it. Ironically, that’s a relatively accurate account of the reader’s experience with this book. It is not the landscape that conceals the intriguing 7th century character of Hild, a woman who held an powerful place in Britain and the Church at a tumultuous time in history, but the details.  Nicola Griffith, whose writing is absolutely luminous at times in this 560 page history lesson, dives too far into her treasure chest of research, filling the pages with so much information, it is hard to see the characters, let alone the plot. I was thankful Griffith included a glossary and pronunciation guide, but found myself wishing she had found a way to write Hild that didn’t necessitate the need for either of them.

With so little historical information surviving about her heroine, Griffith was free to make up the character of Hild, if not the facts.  She chose to paint her as a cold, cautious, calculating woman.  Unfortunately, as the main lens through which the story is told, the reader is left feeling that chill throughout the book. Hild was a long slog of a book that started slow, seemed to go nowhere, and ended with a whimper.

Truly, the cover may be the best part.

You may enjoy Hild if you are more a historian than reader of historical fiction.  If you are looking for great, engaging historical fiction though, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. The novels of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy are amazing, with real, warm blooded characters.  If you don’t mind a bit of fantasy with your fiction, try The Once and Future King, by T.H. White, or Mary Stewart’s Merlin Chronicles, both of which made me fall in love with the pre-Medieval days of Britain in the first place.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 4, 2014 in Fiction

 

Tags: , , , ,

The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman

The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman

Have you ever seen ‘Warhorse’, the acclaimed, Oscar nominated movie? The one that follows a single horse through World War II, telling the story of the war through the people that the horse touches? Despite the fact that it is a beautiful, epic story, with gorgeous scenery, compelling stories, and powerful acting, I found it to be strangely empty. Predictable. I found myself thinking, “Okay, the next shot will be a sunset,” or “Cue dramatic music!” because that’s what epic, blockbuster Hollywood movies would do, and therefore that’s what Warhorse should do. And it did. And therefore I was never enthralled in the story enough to be swept away by it.
The Dovekeepers is like that movie for me. It is an epic tale that is set in ancient Jerusalem, Egypt, and Moab and is told, in turn, through the memories and experiences of four different women. There are layers of, emotion, language, religion, culture, and history piled upon what seems, to me, to be a rather thin and predictable plot. I personally started to feel suffocated midway through the book. The narrative is told in four parts, one for each woman, and each part begins with that woman’s childhood and continues up to the ‘present’ plot moment. Perhaps it was this very chunky structure that broke any momentum the story gained during its more lyrical passages. I kept waiting, with great anticipation (because I really wanted to love this book), for my heart to leave my own chest and reside, for even a short while, in the fictional chests of one of these four women, to feel what it might have been like to be strong, determined female in a time in history when strong, determined females where labeled as witches or harlots, and shunned or murdered for even looking men in the eye. Unfortunately, like the movie ‘Warhorse’, this book has all the right ingredients, but never rose above the formula it was following.
Critics have acclaimed this book, much like ‘Warhorse’, and it deserves that praise for Hoffman’s beautiful writing. However, I feel the best books are those lift a reader out of their daily life and transport them elsewhere on the wings of a well told story. The Dovekeepers is too heavy to fly.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 6, 2012 in Fiction

 

Tags: , , , , , ,