Maximum Shelf: The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on August 6, 2014.


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Kurt Gödel was a mathematician, logician and philosopher, best known for his incompleteness theorem, and often referred to as one of the greatest logicians since Aristotle. Born in Austria in 1906, he immigrated to the United States in 1940 to escape Hitler’s growing power and to pursue his scholarly work. Plagued by mental illness but also highly accomplished in his field, he would easily make an interesting subject to pursue. But Yannick Grannec’s first novel, The Goddess of Small Victories, is not about Kurt Gödel; it is about his wife, Adele.

Adele was six years older than Kurt, and was employed as a dancer at a cabaret when they met in 1927. They were a couple for more than a decade (during which time she nursed him through several rounds of institutionalization) before they married, with the continuing disapproval of his family. Adele would face rejection and isolation in the academic community as well, particularly when the couple finally settled at Princeton, where he worked at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study (IAS).

These details are a matter of historical record. Grannec’s foray into fiction begins with her other protagonist: it is 1980, Gödel has recently died of anorexia, and Anna Roth, an employee at the IAS, has been tasked with recovering Gödel’s archives from his widow. Adele lives in a nursing home, and continues to hold a grudge against the academic establishment that shunned her; she is known to be a prickly old woman, and at first lives up to her reputation. But she sees something she recognizes in Anna, the daughter of two egomaniacal Princeton professors, who never felt that she fit into that society, being a more timid sort. Gradually, as Anna makes regular visits to the nursing home, the two women begin to open up to one another. Adele calls it a trade: she’ll tell her story if Anna tells hers. Chapters of The Goddess of Small Victories alternate between a third-person view of Anna’s visits to Adele in 1980, and a first-person telling of Adele’s story as it happened chronologically, beginning in 1928.

In this way, “the younger woman” (as Anna is often labeled) gets to visit Adele’s past worlds: Vienna in the 1930’s, postwar Princeton, McCarthyism, the Cold War; the difficulties of being an immigrant with poor English, the thrill of close friendship with Einstein and other luminaries and, centrally, the challenge of marriage to a tortured genius. Gödel is concerned with the infinite, but unable to handle the minutiae of his life: he is a consistently and increasingly troubled man–gifted, but also cold and demanding. He suffers from depression and paranoia, starves himself, meticulously tracks his body temperature and bowel activity, and refuses to see anyone outside a small circle that includes Einstein, Oskar Morgenstern, Robert Oppenheimer and their wives. He harangues his friends with conspiracy theories and an insistent rehashing of his unpopular notions. These few individuals naturally compose Adele’s entire social world, as well. Gödel tests Adele mightily, but in the end her love persists, as does her belief in infinity (a popular topic in the Gödel marriage and within their intellectual circle).

In exchange, Adele enjoys hearing about Anna’s life, though it has been marked by broken relationships and fear. The elder woman is outspoken, where the younger is reticent; Adele is enlivened by the challenge of spicing up Anna’s professional and love lives. Anna, as it turns out, has had a gifted-but-troubled mathematician in her own life as well. As the book and the women’s relationship unfold, the reader’s perspective moves more deeply inside Adele’s head, hearing her more intimate thoughts and becoming privy to her fears and insecurities, which increase as she ages and her marriage disappoints her. Anna and Adele make a journey together, and soon Gödel’s archives are no longer the point (except for Anna’s employer).

In an author’s note at the end, Grannec succinctly outlines which parts of the story are historically confirmed, which are relatively safe conjectures, and which she has created. Sticklers for historical accuracy should be satisfied. The translation from French to English by Willard Wood is smooth, establishing appropriate voices for the two different protagonists, and creating the evolving atmospheres of nervousness, fear and, eventually, desperation that characterize the Gödel household.

In the end, The Goddess of Small Victories delicately evokes both Adele’s varied experiences, in historical context, and also Anna’s more circumscribed life, which leaves room for future decision-making. While light is shed on the life and work of Kurt Gödel, he takes a backseat to his dynamic wife in Grannec’s compassionate telling. The finer technical details of Gödel’s work are outlined in narrative form, as Gödel reluctantly tries to tutor Adele, or discusses theories of philosophy with Einstein and the others. (Grannec also inserts footnotes regularly to offer further explanation, or to attribute quotations.) These mathematical and philosophical dialogues, the reader is reminded, are oversimplified; but they are enough to either whet the appetite, or impress upon one the magnitude of Gödel’s genius. The stars of this story, however, are two strong and intriguing women, who are stronger together.


Rating: 8 chocolates.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Grannec!

Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

Like Vreeland’s previous novels about women in history and art, Lisette’s List is heartfelt, loving and lovely, and asks difficult questions beautifully.

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In Lisette’s List, Susan Vreeland (Clara and Mr. Tiffany; Girl in Hyacinth Blue) lovingly portrays Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist French art by way of a modest fictional character in Provence.

In 1937, newlyweds Andre and Lisette Roux move from France’s vibrant capital to the pastoral southeastern town of Roussillon to care for his grandfather, Pascal, who has written that he is dying. A passionate Parisian, Lisette is at first miserable in the backwater town, and infuriated when Pascal turns out to be healthier than he let on: he simply wanted their company, and to share what he remembers about the famous French artists he has known.

But Lisette is as fervent about art as she is about Paris, and Andre has trained in his grandfather’s trade of carving fine frames for fine paintings. She is captivated by Pascal’s collection of seven paintings: by Cézanne and Pissarro, and one possibly by Picasso. As a miner in the nearby ochre mines and later a pigment salesman, Pascal made the most of his access to these men, and now shares his recollections with the rapt Lisette–as well as his wisdom about life and love.

By the time Pascal eventually dies, Lisette has made a home of sorts in Roussillon; her love for the paintings further compels her to stay in Provence when Andre hides them (for fear of their destruction or seizure by German troops), not telling even Lisette where they’re stowed. Andre then enlists to fight for France, and Lisette is left alone, waiting for both the safe return of her husband and a reunion with the artwork.

Over the next decade and more, Lisette keeps a list of “Lisette’s Hungers and Vows.” Inspired by Pascal and his paintings, Andre’s love and the quiet strength and beauty of the Provençal surroundings, she pledges to “learn what makes a painting great,” “learn how to be self-sufficient” and “love without reservation.” She meets Marc Chagall and his wife, Bella, who are hiding in a nearby town. Upon receiving a gift painted specially for her by Chagall, she begins her own art collection and narrative. But war necessarily brings tragedy as well as new beginnings. Lisette will experience love and loss, joy and deep pain; learn animal husbandry as well as art history; and parse the moral questions raised under Vichy French rule, as the years go by. She finds new friends, undertakes small favors and large sacrifices, all in times of war and recovery, amid the paintings she loves so. Readers will likely rush through the lovely Lisette’s List, only to be bereaved when the final stroke is painted and the portrait is complete.


This review originally ran in the August 4, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 pieces of marzipan.

Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

Shirley Jackson is brought back to life in a quietly disturbing tale worthy of its subject.

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Author Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”; The Haunting of Hill House; We Have Always Lived in the Castle) casts a long and chilling shadow. The psychological thriller Shirley, from Susan Scarf Merrell (A Member of the Family), follows in its namesake’s tradition.

Jackson and her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, lived in small-town Vermont while she wrote and he taught at Bennington College in the 1960s. In this book, Fred and Rose Nemser, Merrell’s inventions, are newlyweds and move into the Hyman-Jackson home when Fred becomes a graduate student and teaching assistant. Rose, our 19-year-old narrator, is pregnant, recently rescued from a childhood of poverty and family dysfunction by her new husband; she is staggered by Shirley’s big house, big family and art. Stan takes Fred under his wing, tutoring him in both their profession and in marriage. Shirley’s mentorship of the malleable Rose is more complex.

Rose wants to write about Shirley; she wants to replace Shirley’s children in their mother’s heart; she wants to be Shirley. In her devotion, she can’t help wondering about the phone calls that go unanswered every night, and the female student who went missing so many years ago (whom Shirley and Stan so emphatically did not know). Naturally, not all of Rose’s overtures are welcome.

An apt tribute to Shirley Jackson herself, Merrell’s novel recalls Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Edgar Allan Poe. Jackson’s fans are the clear winners here; Shirley, Stan, Fred and Rose may not be so lucky.


This review originally ran in the July 29, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 letters.

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

Ghosts, curses, blessings, loves, births, deaths and family in a lush Caribbean setting.

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Tiphanie Yanique (How to Escape from a Leper Colony) constructs a wide and magical world spanning three generations on the island of St. Thomas in Land of Love and Drowning. In the early 1900s, as the Danish Virgin Islands are poised to transfer to U.S. rule, Owen Arthur Bradshaw divides his love between his wife, Antoinette, who is beautiful but a reluctant mother; his daughter Eeona, still more lovely and also inveterately jealous; and Rebekah, an obeah (sorceress) married to another man. Antoinette gives Owen one more daughter, Annette, just as Rebekah gives him a son, Jacob Esau. The three children grow up relating to one another in unusual ways. War and American influence broaden their world somewhat, and the forces of nature and island magic both influence and are influenced by the disparate forces that are Eeona, Annette and Jacob Esau.

The story begins with Owen Arthur and his women, then follows his children’s and his grandchildren’s lives. Perspective shifts among the voices of the three children, but Annette, who grows up to be a historian, speaks the loudest. Her island patois persists even as Eeona nags her to “use proper English.” As she writes, “is just a story I telling, but put it in your glass and drink it.”

The compelling history of the U.S. Virgin Islands as told through this family’s intimacies is multiethnic, colorful and vital. Yanique’s diverse characters become doctors, architects, teachers, parents, lovers and fighters; their collective story is haunting and exquisite, told with grace, vibrancy and magic.


This review originally ran in the July 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 red dresses.

did not finish: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin (audio)

aviatorI was determined to give Melanie Benjamin another try (following Alice I Have Been), and had hopes for this novel of the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I was hoping for something like Loving Frank or The Paris Wife, I suppose – both wonderful books about historical wives. But I was disappointed.

I gave this novel a more than fair chance: I did not give up until partway through track 144 of 209, which is unusual. Generally I will recognize a book that I’m not going to like much earlier than this, and give up on it; if I have made it well over halfway through, then, it’s generally worth finishing. This one was different.

Early on, I was intrigued by Anne’s story, told here in first person, and wanted to know what would happen to her. (I mean, other than the obvious historical points: marry the guy, have the baby, who is then kidnapped.) I did observe to myself that she was awfully boring, but assumed that part would get better. But it didn’t: the Anne Spencer Morrow, later Anne Morrow Lindbergh, that Benjamin presents is hopelessly boring. She has no personality of her own, being first consumed by admiration for her older sister Elisabeth and international hero Lucky Lindbergh himself, and later resigned to serving her famous husband selflessly, if unhappily. She whines about the harassment of the press; she whines about Charles’s heavy-handed, cool approach to marriage; she laments that she is bound to follow him everywhere like a puppy. But she never begins to have a personality of her own.

This unlikeable and uninteresting protagonist is unfortunately accompanied by no one more interesting or likeable than herself. Charles is stiff, and sympathetic toward Hitler and the eugenics movement. The beautiful Elisabeth is unable to accept herself. There was no character in this story that I was able to feel remotely warm towards. And then Charles’s sinister remarks about genetic purity in the Morrow family (Anne feels the need to hide from him her brother’s mental illness and her sister’s sexual identity) escalate to praise of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, and I became downright disgusted. As the Lindberghs consider moving to Germany in the late 1930’s, Anne acknowledges that something (she can’t quite put her finger on it – !) is wrong, but feels that the protection from the media is worth whatever less-than-wholesome business Hitler might be up to, alongside his repression of the press that so disturbed her family in the States.

These people were so unlikeable, and their politics (Lindbergh’s politics, and Anne’s contented acceptance of those politics when she found herself well served) so repellent, that I suddenly found I couldn’t go any further, and hit the “stop” button midway through a Lindbergh rant about Hitler’s righteousness and the wrongs committed by the Jews. Now, I would like to point out that I am capable of reading about horrible ideas, thoughts, arguments, and actions, when there is something to be gained: a point to be made, or history to be learned. But I didn’t see any of these benefits looming. I felt no redemptive value imminent. If Benjamin accomplished something salutary in the final quarter (or so) of this novel, then it came too late for me.

This also means that I missed the final, juicy bits about Lindbergh’s other women and children born out of wedlock. Ho hum. If you’re interested in the gossip, I’d wager you could read about that stuff without suffering through the rest of this novel.

Sadly, another DNF for me from Melanie Benjamin; I can now feel safe in not trying any more of her work. Generally, I don’t rate books I’ve not finished, but having made it over halfway, I’ll go ahead and make a call on this one.


Rating: 3 nurses.

Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert

The vivid jazz scene in ’60s Chicago, an unconventional family and an utterly heart-stealing child.

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In early 1960s Chicago, 10-year-old Sophia has no friends her own age. Her society is Jim, a photographer in love with her mother; Rita and Sister Eye, her mother’s former roommates; and, occasionally, her mother, Naomi, a lounge singer aspiring to fame. “Mother’s feelings are the curb I walk, trying to keep my balance… when she notices me, all the times she doesn’t notice me get erased.” Rebecca Rotert’s debut novel, Last Night at the Blue Angel, alternates between Sophia’s perspective and that of a younger Naomi, discovering herself and escaping Kansas.

The city’s colorful ’60s jazz scene is a playground for a woman as beautiful and talented as Naomi, and its architecture provides focus for Jim’s photography (when he’s not focused on Naomi), set against the background of segregation and the Cold War. Sophia is precocious, wise beyond her years and profoundly nervous. She keeps lists: of her mother’s conquests, of the many practicalities she’ll need to reinvent after the bomb is dropped. But routine is disrupted when a man resurfaces from Naomi’s past just as she gets her shot at stardom after 10 years of hope and effort. Her final performance at the once-proud jazz club the Blue Angel holds promise, but will come at immense cost for both mother and daughter.

Rotert, an accomplished singer herself, beautifully evokes the vibrancy of this setting. But her true artistry lies in the complex mother-daughter relationship at the center of this story, and the deeply sympathetic, nuanced, heartbreaking character of Sophia, a child in an adult world on the brink of enormous change.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 radios.

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier (audio)

runawayFrom the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring (which I read pre-blog, and loved), another historical novel of women’s lives. I recently tried reading Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, but I found I couldn’t appreciate it. No such problem with The Last Runaway.

Honor Bright is a small-town British Quaker in 1850, a young woman recently abandoned by her fiance, her future uncertain. Her sister Grace will soon be departing for the New World to marry; Honor decides, somewhat impetuously, to accompany her and find a different life. She can always come back home, right? But the sea voyage – heralded as the shortest and easiest passage possible – nearly kills her, she is so seasick. When she finally sets foot in America, she knows that, no, she can never go home.

On the overland trip to Ohio (by coach – their plan to take riverboats being prevented by Honor’s seasickness), where Grace’s fiance awaits, Grace falls sick and dies. Honor will arrive alone, and ahead of the letter announcing her coming, so that the fiance, Adam, expects one sister but finds another. His brother has likewise died, leaving him now with a widowed sister-in-law as well as this almost-sister-in-law. Honor’s place is decidedly uncertain, and uncomfortable. The new Ohio Quaker community of Faithwell does not look approvingly upon Adam’s strange household. The pressure is on, therefore, for Honor to find herself a husband; but she is without even a friend in her new hometown.

She does have a friend a day trip away, however, in Wellington: Belle Mills, of Mills Millinery, who nursed Honor through an illness and sheltered her, and gave her work. Honor is a gifted seamstress and quilter, and her skills were appreciated in Belle’s shop. Quakers can’t wear colorful or decorative hats, but Honor enjoyed making them for others; and Honor got along with Belle, although the non-Quaker’s coarse speech and whiskey drinking were new to Honor. (Honor’s sewing and quilting are a strong framing element throughout the story: quilts in the English and the new American styles are described, and provide examples of Honor’s homesickness, and her new community’s intolerance of her English traditions. I thought of my mother, the quilter, who I think would appreciate these details.) Also simultaneously fascinating and disturbing is Belle’s brother, Donovan, a slave-hunter; and this is where the conflict of the novel begins.

As a Quaker and as a moral being, Honor is naturally repelled by slavery; but it is easier to abhor the peculiar institution from England, where it is distant and (forgive the phrase) black-and-white. In Ohio, Honor sees black people for almost the first time, and encounters runaway slaves who she is naturally inclined to help; she also sees Donovan working to re-enslave them. When she does marry local dairy farmer Jack Haymaker, Honor finds not a soulmate or even companion; but she does find a nasty mother-in-law and sister-in-law. When they discover that Honor has been offering minor assistance to runaways – food, water, directions to the next stop on the Underground Railroad, in Oberlin – they forbid her to help further.

The issue, then, is between obedience to her new (if unlikeable) family, versus her feelings about slavery. Honor will grow as she has to form new relationships, and not always easy ones: alliances with a black woman in Oberlin named Mrs. Reed, and with the colorful Belle Mills; and she has to find a way to relate to her new husband and in-laws that will work for each of them.

I noticed I was approaching the end of this audiobook and things felt so up in the air I couldn’t believe they’d be wrapped up in time. And indeed, the reader would appreciate a sequel to find out what finally becomes of Honor’s new family; but they are sent on their way in good time, with no loose ends, at least. Honor’s character sees a satisfactory arc: she grows, expands, speaks up for herself, considers different positions and stakes her own. And her new life is indeed established in the end.

I thought the Underground Railroad was ably portrayed, if only simplistically; the runaway slaves have some personality, and Belle Mills is a great hit. The quilting element, as I said, was an added appeal as well. But it’s Honor herself who stars, rightfully. I think Tracy Chevalier still has it here, and would recommend this novel. It’s somewhat lightweight in the issues it addresses, perhaps, but it makes its points, and is more accessible than novels on this subject sometimes are, so it will appeal to the popular reader.

The audio performance by Kate Reading (great name, that!) is fine as well. I liked the different accents she used; they provided real color and personality. I would happily recommend this format.


Rating: 7 tin cups.

Teaser Tuesdays: Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

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This lovely novel set in Chicago’s jazz scene in the 1960’s stars a heartbreaking ten-year-old girl, backed up by her mother, a self-absorbed but sympathetic aspiring singer. Their relationship is rendered perfectly.

Mother’s feelings are the curb I walk, trying to keep my balance, and I get tired of it, being careful, and mad at her at the same time. But then she takes my hand and smiles at me.

And on the next page,

When she notices me, all the times she doesn’t notice me get erased.

We learn a great deal there, don’t we? The rest of the book is written with equal skill, and the mother is far more complex than these lines might indicate. Do check it out.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt (audio)

illuminationsHildegard von Bingen was a real-life woman; a brief glance at the Wikipedia page under her name indicates that this novel is faithful to the general shape of the historical figure’s life. (Consulting Wikipedia is not a high standard, but it’s all I felt necessary to my review of this book. And really, we can’t ask for much accuracy when dealing with a mystic from the 1000’s, can we we?)

First question: what led me to a book about a religious figurehead? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t have a great deal of patience for Christian subjects of books in general; but this woman was a writer and something of a rebel, and I decided to give it a try. I could always put it down. My whim was rewarded: I enjoyed Hildegard’s story.

The book is narrated by Hildegard herself (and to reduce confusion, I’ll also say that this audio edition was narrated by Tavia Gilbert, on whom more in a moment), beginning in her old age and then quickly flashing back to her childhood. We spend the vast majority in this lengthy flashback, and thus see her life chronologically.

Hildegard was very young when she began seeing the visions she would be famous for; she saw a lady of light that she came to believe was god, or the church, and her mother disapproved. Partly for this reason, and partly because there were so many children to provide for, her mother gave her to the church – or specifically, to a wealthy young woman from a good family who devoted her own life to god and needed an attendant. Hildegard was only eight when she and Jutta were bricked into the monastery at Disibodenberg to serve as anchorites; and this is the first, but not the last, time I exclaimed at the cruelty of the church.

Hildegard spends a number of years bricked in with Jutta, who is strict, joyless and loveless. She does make a friend in a monk named Volmar, however, who speaks with the women through a little window, and brings gifts of potted plants and books. Eventually the walls will be torn down so that two more young girls can be bricked in, as well, enlarging their tiny convent somewhat; the newcomers are Adelheid and Guda, the latter of whom is even younger than Hildegard was when she was imprisoned. Hildegard had been planning an escape when the two children were brought; but she can’t leave them to her fate, and she stays.

When Jutta dies (after starving herself), years later, Hildegard and her two younger proteges make a plea to be allowed to live in the monastery in relative freedom – they will retain their rooms as before but not be bricked back in. Due to Hildegard’s political maneuverings and performance before important visitors, this request is granted, but grudgingly. She has continued to cause trouble. She still has her visions, although she has learned to keep them to herself; but she is less obedient and more questioning than the monks appreciate. She has also, however, come to serve as a mother or leader to the younger women, who are now joined by a newcomer named Richardis, daughter of Hildegard’s powerful sometimes-ally. Richardis will become Hildegard’s special friend. Such a relationship is actually forbidden by the Benedictine order, but the two women can’t help loving each other. (To be clear, there is no sexual relationship here, and only the slimmest of hints about sexual attraction.)

The novel follows Hildegard’s growth, and her continuing efforts to live beyond the monastery. Her flock of “daughters” grows, and she will finally petition the Archbishop of Mainz, and successfully establish her own monastery at Rupertsberg, accompanied by her nuns and her old friend, Volmar. One of her greatest controversies is her writing: it takes ten years, but she will write a book of her visions, illustrated (or “illuminated”) by Richardis and transcribed by Volmar; the Pope himself confirms that her visions are holy rather than evil, although the abbot at Disibodenberg will never be entirely satisfied on that point. She also composes music, grows herbs and mixes remedies (and writes medical texts), and studies plants in the natural world; she is in fact a Renaissance woman, in an age when women were supposed to be silent nuns or wives. Again, the particulars of her life represented in this fictionalization may not be perfectly accurate. But the broader strokes are true: Hildegard was an author, an abbess, a composer, an outspoken leader.

In other words, Hildegard von Bingen was bigger than her world normally allowed women to be; and this after being buried alive in childhood as an anchorite. This novel of her life tells that story beautifully. It goes pretty light on the parts about god and religion, which was a major plus for this reader; those more interested in the religious side of her life might be disappointed, but I enjoyed being able to read about her accomplishments, her struggles, and her personality without being subjected to too much preaching. The Hildegard in this book loved people, and wanted the best for her daughters; god was almost incidental to her, and that worked well for me. Although it is her visions of that that made her famous in the first place, the god she sees in them is both notably female, and a god of love and freedom rather than rules.

Her story is compelling, and I appreciated her frustrations and enjoyed her personality. The narration by Tavia Gilbert felt right; I liked the old woman’s voice she uses at the very end, but her characterization was mostly invisible, just felt like Hildegard herself were speaking, and that is as it should be.

For a historical story of women’s rights in the church and in society in the 1000’s and 1100’s, I do recommend Illuminations.


Rating: 7 beautiful women.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

animal farmOn my way out the door headed for the airport, I realized at the last minute that I might not have enough reading material for a medium-long flight to Seattle. I’m so glad I grabbed this slim volume – the closest appropriately-sized book to hand, off my TBR shelf. I did indeed finish the one book and start and finish this one on that flight; and I enjoyed it very much and found it thought-provoking.

Animal Farm is a classic, chilling allegory from the author of 1984, whose voice I most definitely recognized in this earlier novel. My 50th anniversary edition, from Signet Classic in 1996 (pictured), includes a preface by Russell Baker (new in 1996) and a 1954 introduction by C. M. Woodhouse of The Times Literary Supplement. I found these starting pieces noteworthy. I know a little about Orwell, have read 1984 several times, and am familiar with other early dystopian novels like Brave New World, which Baker refers to (he calls these authors pessimists), so I had a little background. Interestingly, Baker makes the very optimistic statement that the pessimists were wrong, that our current leaders (in 1996) did not resemble dictators, that technology has been a liberating force. I think there is some validity to the last argument; but there is plenty of room to criticize the power of the state today, and I find Baker a trifle breezy in his reassurances. To be fair, he is right to point out that the state has turned out to be less efficient than Orwell feared: drones and wiretaps today do not approach the effectiveness of Big Brother in 1984. At least, that’s what we think… I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist, but I’m not particularly optimistic about the virtues of our government leaders.

Woodhouse’s introduction is more straightforwardly academic in its analysis of Animal Farm as literature and in culture and politics, and of Orwell as an artist. He considers him a prose poet, in fact. This article was informative and critical but still accessible, and I recommend it. (I recommend Baker’s preface, too, but with salt.) The most useful part, for me, was the specific placement of Animal Farm in time: it was published in August of 1945, the same month as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Orwell had begun writing it in 1943, following his disquieting experience in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930’s. As a criticism of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Animal Farm was not particularly welcome in the Britain of the early 1940’s.

And now the novel itself. Orwell (or rather Eric Blair, who used a pen name) calls it a fairy story; but I find the allegory blaring through loud and clear. Mr. Jones is a drunken farmer who does not always treat his farm animals with great respect or tenderness. An elder statesman of a pig (no, literally) makes a speech shortly before his death in which he predicts to his fellow four-legged residents an uprising of the animals against the people. This prediction will be carried out by the animals of Manor Farm: they kick Mr. Jones off, rename their property Animal Farm, and begin working for themselves, cooperatively. Aside from the anthropomorphism of the animals, it’s a straightforward and absolutely real tale. The pigs are the smartest – are in charge – assisted by the dogs; horses & a donkey are thinkers as well, while the birds and the sheep are followers. They come up with a list of Seven Commandments: no animal shall wear clothes, no animal shall sleep in a bed, etc. and finishing with “All animals are equal.” They make committees and call one another “comrade.” Two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, struggle for power; Snowball is a better speaker, but Napoleon marshals the power of a few big, strong, brainwashed dogs, and eventually runs Snowball off the farm. The pigs begin to relish their power and to take advantage. Gradually, the rules of Animal Farm change; the Seven Commandments are amended (“no animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets”), but because very few of the subjects are literate, the pigs in charge have little trouble changing history too. Thus, it’s not that the state has changed its policies; these have always been the policies of the state. This is precisely the case in 1984 as well, where

Oceania was at war with Eurasias: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past of future agreement with him was impossible.

Chilling, I say!

Also, credit Animal Farm with the oft-quoted amendment to the final Commandment: “All Animals Are Equal. But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.”

This is a short book, just over 100 pages, and easily read in just a part of my flight. And in the “fairy story” about the animals on the farm, it’s fairly straightforward, too. But the underlying message, which doesn’t lie so far beneath the surface at all, is terrifying – and also fairly straightforward, in fact. From a historical perspective, that almost makes it that much more frightening, that these things really happened, right under people’s eyes, and not so long ago either. It’s disconcerting how easily people can be convinced to disbelieve their own minds and memories.

I continue to be a fan of Orwell, of both 1984 and Animal Farm, and despite Baker’s characterization of Orwell and Huxley as “pessimists”, I think these are important books to read today. (To be fair, he agrees: “Orwell left us a lesson about the human contribution to political terror that will always be as up-to-date as next year’s election.”) Also, the writing is pretty wonderful.

Shivers! And go read!


Rating: 9 readjusted rations.
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