September 2011

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

The Story Behind the Stories

At one point or another we all spend time with famous dead British poets and authors while in school. All too often these visits are presented with a lot of dull analysis and rote memorization that typically results in entire generations of Americans hating all things Shakespearean (not to mention Chaucerian). But there is no reason why readers should be bored with the Brits just because their teachers are boring. As authors Catherine Reef and Daisy Hay show in their recent titles Jane Austen: A Life Revealed and Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation, the more time you spend learning about the dead Brits, the more likely you will be compelled to read their work.

Hay has crafted a group biography that covers the interrelationships of Mary and Percy Shelley, John Keats, Lord Byron, and journalist Leigh Hunt. In the midst of writing everything from Frankenstein to "Don Juan", there were illicit relationships, family suicides, imprisonments, national scandals, and illegitimate children among this rather bawdy set of literati. In fact there is a point while reading Young Romantics where the reader will likely wonder how anything ever got written at all.

Hay is careful, even while recounting the most salacious bits, not to indulge a gossipy tone, and while the facts are certainly sensational, she keeps the serious emotions at the forefront. It is impossible, though, to leave her entertaining and endlessly interesting history without some firm conclusions about men and women and the all too often uneven distribution of power when it comes to work and family (especially when that work is of the creative sort and entire governments are out to get you). If anyone emerges as heroic from her text, it is surely Mary Shelley, whose story is impossible to forget, once you journey along each heartbreaking twist and turn. (Short version is that Percy was a brilliant narcissist who left desperate women and children in his wake, and Mary was the one who never stopped loving him, even when he dragged her and her ill children from one end of Italy to the other. And then buried the kids who didn't survive.)

Reef's biography of Jane Austen is no less stirring, although, like her novels, much more understated. Austen simply did not live the sort of scandalous life as Shelley and crew. In a straightforward manner the author leads readers through Austen's life, introducing her parents, brothers, and much beloved sister Cassandra. (Everything Austen wrote about the affection between sisters can be traced to this relationship.) Reef also weaves analysis of each of Austen's titles into the narrative, providing plot synopses, considering dramatic moments, and showing a direct connection between events in Austen's life and the social situations she wrote about. This goes a long way toward humanizing the author and making the lives of Elizabeth Bennet or the Dashwood sisters a lot more believable and easy to relate to.

What I like about what both Reef and Hay have done with these books is the way they leave you with a solid sense of who their subjects were. They no longer reside on great pedestals as British Authors but rather become individuals who struggled with their own dramas, and nothing about the masterpieces they created was preordained or easy. Reef and Hay do what all good biographers should: they make their subjects people their readers can relate to, and that's quite an accomplishment.

Likely outside of assigned reading, in many ways, Gavin Maxwell is still the most quintessential of UK writers. Born in Scotland during the World War I, he is most remembered for making otters an appealing pet in his Ring of Bright Water trilogy. Based on Maxwell's ongoing adventures with a series of otters he took into his home over the years, Bright Water and its sequels, The Rocks Reman and Raven Seek Thy Brother, manage to combine all the humor of Gerald Durrell with the heartrending truth of James Herriot. Yes, otters are very cute, but also otters die, sometimes quite horrifically. (No, I'm not happy about that, but knowing it going in helps a lot.) What's interesting about Maxwell's stories is that his is not a picture of domestic bliss; the wild animals might be domesticated, but the wild remains.

Starting with the story recounted in Bright Water, where in the company of famous explorer Wilfred Thesiger, Maxwell brings an otter cub back to London from the Iraqi marshes (a previously unknown species that would later be named for him) in 1956, Maxwell chronicles his move to a remote house in the Scottish highlands and the personal chaos that seemed to envelope his every waking moment. There are otters that die and some whose lives are in near continuous peril. There are geese that must be taught to fly. There is a boat that seemed like a good idea at the time, but ends up needing a lot of work. There are dogs that come and go, befriending otters along the way. There is weather -- a lot of inclement weather. And more than anything, there is the sheer insanity of raising animals in a place hundreds of miles from the source of fresh eels they require. Maxwell doesn't even have a phone most of the time, let alone many modern conveniences. But he perseveres in his quest for animal utopia, makes many friends along the way, and travels and returns. Through it all, he cannot shake how very much he loves these endlessly curious animals. For a picture of one man's very complicated life in mid century Britain, Maxwell is certainly a must read. There is something endlessly endearing about how hard he tried to live a life only he could imagine possible. Plus, it's just nice to know that otters truly are as charismatic as many of us had always hoped. Kudos to David R. Godine for bringing Maxwell's stories to a new generation in one volume that includes the author's sweet pencil drawings as well.

Arguably the greatest story to ever come out Britain is that of King Arthur, and Tony Lee and Sam Hart have put together a wonderful graphic novel retelling of the classic with Excalibur: The Legend of King Arthur. In full color and a realistic style, this is Arthur at all his bloody, conflicted, lovesick best. There are plenty of enemies and plots and evil portents, but more importantly there is also a solid explanation of how the sword ended up in the stone, why Morgana Le Fey hated him so much (she had some pretty valid reasons), and just where the Lady of the Lake (the ultimate holder of Excalibur) fits into it all. Plus readers get to love Guinevere and understand Lancelot and just why all this magical mysterious stuff was going on in the first place, and, well, basically it is all a ton of smart medieval fun. 

Lee's Excalibur is the Arthur story you have been waiting for if you like action, adventure, romance, and intrigue in your myths and legends. The romance angle is one that really needs stressing, because for all that the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle has been touted in previous versions (both literary and screen), Arthur is almost always portrayed as the blind cuckolded husband. Lee jettisons that idea to show who the real love of the king's life was and just how sympathetic he could have been for Guinevere and Lancelot. Call me a sap, but I really liked this twist. I'm tired of the notion that Arthur could hold together a kingdom but lose track of his wife (she's right there in the damn castle after all). Lee insists that the characters in this story acted certain ways for a reason, not simply because they were stock footage in some long-running play about a sword and round table. It is this insistence on revealing every element of the story from Merlin to Mordred, that truly impressed me. I opened Excalibur expecting a visually appealing retelling of a very old tale, but I closed it with a new appreciation for what a good writer can do with a classic. (Reluctant high school readers will love this one especially -- both boys and girls.)

Michaela MacColl carves out a delightful notch in historical fiction with her look at the surprising life of future Queen Victoria in Prisoners in the Palace: How Princess Victoria became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a Scoundrel. I never thought much about teenaged Victoria, assuming her life was similar to anyone else destined to rule and filled with many dull moments of pomp and circumstance, but as MacColl explains in her lengthy (and valuable) afterword, Victoria was not actually supposed to be queen, and when her destiny became more apparent due to deaths in the line of succession, her weak mother and the machinations of a man seeking to be the power behind the throne left her with a childhood that was miserable. MacColl tells the tale through a fictional character, Liza, who is forced to be a lady's maid after the sudden deaths of her parents, instead of a debutante. With little knowledge of life "below the stairs" and a healthy amount of arrogance and righteous anger, Liza is the perfect foil for the frustrated Victoria and her retinue of servants (dedicated and not) and hangers-on (devious one and all). That there was a very real plot to wrest control of England going on in the background ups the stakes of what would otherwise still be a compelling read.

The plot for Prisoners is fairly straightforward: through family connections, Liza is able to apply for a job with Princess Victoria's staff. She obtains the position largely because of her ability to speak more than one language and thus serve as a spy for the princess and those loyal to her (not including her mother). Stuck between the royal bedrooms above and the gossipy center of the house below, Liza is woman without a country in many respects and quickly decides to throw her loyalty in with those who side with the princess -- on the hopes that when she becomes queen she will gain a reward and thus alleviate her severe financial position. Soon enough she is swept along by history, however, and while MacColl had plenty there to keep the narrative going, she expands the story to include a fascinating peek at the powerless lives of women during the mid-nineteenth century, a view that includes everyone from maids to royalty. (The portrayal of the sitting queen, Victoria's aunt, is particularly heartbreaking.) While I am never interested in limiting a book's audience to any one gender, I have to say that Prisoners will especially appeal to young women because it shows so effectively how much times have changed. While we all chafed under parental rules as teens, our complaints were nothing compared to what the women in this novel have to go through. The stark difference between opportunities for men and women is staggering, and while MacColl firmly keeps Prisoners of the Palace a book of household intrigue (and spying) with a sweet touch of romance, it was the social history that gave me pause. In many ways, this is a consciousness-raising read; the fact that it is does so in such a subtle manner just makes it that much more of a winner.

For a more unusual title, pick up Sarah McMenemy's London: A 3D Keepsake Cityscape. The size of a large deck of cards and in its own artful slipcover, London is just as advertised: a fold out 3D cityscape that includes a dozen major spots (Tower of London, Globe Theater, Royal Observatory, etc.) with a brief description and pastel drawing. McMenemy's work is purely fun but not silly, a travel novelty that is sure to put a smile on the face of London's fans. (I kept thinking stocking stuffer when I looked this over and encourage you to check out her New York cityscape for that purpose as well.) (Is it too early for stocking-stuffer buying? Never!)

Finally, I have not been able to read all of The Story of Britain: From the Norman Conquest to the European Union by Patrick Dillon (and wonderfully illustrated by P.J. Lynch), but it is so perfect for this column that I have to mention it. When I was twelve or so, I went through a passionate period of needing to know absolutely everything about the British royals. I can remember surrounding myself with our set of encyclopedias (!), tracing the antics of one king or queen to the next, and delighting in sharing with my mother the more obnoxious moments. (We had quite the conversation about Henry VIII, as I'm sure you can imagine.)

Dillon hits all those high points and major players -- you will find the Stuarts, Tudors, and Victorians here, as well Robin Hood and Shakespeare and, well, everyone else. The completeness of the volume is quite impressive as is its very sumptuous nature, with a rich gold cover, heavy pages, and Lynch's truly royal-worthy illustrations. (My only complaint would be that I wish there could be more of Lynch's work here.) The Story of Britain would certainly find be of good use for all manner of scholarly pursuits, but it is a brilliant choice for young Anglophiles who want to sink into the history of their favorite subject. My younger self would have adored it.

COOL READ: The thing about September is that there is the ever-present nervousness felt by many freshman girls about their physical appearance. We know you are supposed to like yourself, you should embrace your individual character and get past the fashion magazines and reality TV and ignore the mean girl clique dominating your school hallways. (I don't think I'm revealing a top secret adult truth when I say these girls will sadly be peaking early and end up on the back side of thirty with bad skin, bad hair, and one too many bad choices, making them the sad story of every high school reunion you will ever attend. I promise.) But it's hard to think sanely when you are staring at someone who seems to have it all together in glam department while you, sadly, don't know where to begin.

Never fear, nervous girls, because Bobbi Brown has come to your rescue with Bobbi Brown Beauty Rules: Fabulous Looks, Beauty Essentials, and Life Lessons. This extremely well organized title has big full color pictures, sensible advice on everything from makeup brushes to lipstick shades (there are actually color charts for all kinds of products), interviews with models and stylists, and all with a friendly attitude that permeates the text and makes the book both a fun and informative read. I was most impressed by its wide appeal -- every skin tone and type you can imagine is included in Beauty Rules and many ethnicities are represented in the examples and discussions. The cover is really not representative of the book itself; I wish Chronicle had gone with a group shot that showed some of the non-Caucasian teens featured in the pages. (I'd also say that having a foreword by Hilary Duff dates the book a bit and further limits the audience.) What matters, though, is the overall content, and on that score Brown more than exceeds expectations. Beauty Rules shares a ton of solid beauty info, gives you lots things to try from subtle to formal to wild, and is exactly what it claims to be: a text of beauty essentials that will carry any young girl well into her twenties.