book beginnings on Friday: The Lodger by Louisa Treger

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

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The Lodger is a novel about a woman – a true historical figure – who went again the conventions of her time, and about a famous author as well. Those are several elements likely to attract me; and then the cover features a woman in full gown and bonnet with a bicycle? Sold. And check out this opening paragraph:

Dorothy stepped off the train. She could feel the clammy sinking sensation beginning to creep round her, as though she was a ghost drifting through the world of the living. Taking a deep breath to anchor herself, she looked around. It was a small clean station, brightened by hanging baskets of ruffled mauve and white Sweet Peas, the sharp green of their leaves almost translucent in the May sunlight. She told herself there was nothing sinister; no one was going to find her guilty. It was just a visit to an old school friend, recently married.

I find this a fine beginning, designed to hook the reader in. The juxtaposition of clean, bright, ruffled, leafy, and sunny with sinister – and the idea that someone would find Dorothy guilty?? What on earth? Tell me more!

Stick around!

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

The Rathbones by Janice Clark (audio), first half

rathbonesI am not quite halfway through The Rathbones, and I am at no proper stopping point – nor am I stopping – but I do feel the need to pause and report back to you. I am intrigued and bemused by this book. I don’t love it, although I might in the end; but I don’t dislike it either. I’m just a little perplexed.

The Rathbones is told mostly from the perspective of 15-year-old Mercy Rathbone, the last of that clan. She lives in the large, old Rathbone mansion on the Connecticut coast with her rather crazy mother and her reclusive tutor & cousin Mordecai. She wonders about the fate of her father, gone to sea many years ago now, and her little brother, whose existence is denied by mother and cousin. An unpleasant visitor sends Mercy and Mordecai fleeing in a little boat… into strange seas. They light upon one island and then another, meeting strange people who reflect in different ways on the paired mysteries of Mercy’s missing father, and the Rathbone family legacy. As I pause to write this, we are mid-journey, and I don’t know appreciably more about these mysteries than I did at page 1; and in a way I am worse off, in terms of knowing where the heck we are going, because I still haven’t figured out which thread of this story is the lead.

The writing and language are lovely, and well read by four narrators in turn: Erin Spencer, Cassandra Campbell, Malcolm Campbell, and Gabrielle De Cuir (itself an unusual convention, though I approve). The imagery is impressive as well. Moment to moment, this book is engrossing – sentence to sentence, scene to scene. But as for the overall story, I’m still baffled. Are we concerned about finding Mercy’s father (who is not, by the way, a Rathbone)? Or about unraveling the sinister, and apparently supernatural, history of the Rathbone family? Are we going to deal with the worn-out wives again, or is their episode past? Where are we going??

I’ve chosen a somewhat random example of Clark’s descriptive stylings for you here. Perhaps you can hear the dreamy, fantastical, and outlandish tone that draws me in…

Though the man was not Oriental, he wore wide scarlet silken trousers beneath the jade robe and pointed slippers of embroidered silk whose long tips quivered at each step. Mordecai stood beside me as the man approached. They were of a similar size and bearing, and each boasted a pigtail, one pale, one dark. The man bowed first to Mordecai, pausing for a moment with a troubled look. They might have been two sides to a single coin. He then bowed to me, sweeping off his pointed hat. The pigtail came away with it. Beneath the hat curled a powdered wig. Beneath the wig, a face that made Mordecai seem the fairest of men. It was all sharp angles and harsh planes, the skin rough and pale and faintly gray, though he was a young man. I judged him to be near Mordecai’s true age. It was a face that might have been hewn from the granite on the islands that the Starks had worked so hard to smooth. I thought that if I touched his cheek I might slice my finger open.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not here to criticize. I think I am charmed by this work. But so far it is working on me more like a series of vaguely connected short stories than as a coherent novel. We’ll see; maybe she will pull it all together soon. Mystery and obscured connections seem to be a theme, so I am hopeful that this is the case.

I also want to note that there are clear influences here of the whale-obsessed culture of Moby-Dick, as well as the fantastic interconnected adventures-at-sea of the Odyssey. The latter is one of my all-time favorites (although Moby-Dick, not so much. maybe I just need another seminar course on it), so that’s a good thing.

I am having no doubts about sticking around for the second half of this odd novel, so stick around for the next review to come. I am (at least) as curious as you are.

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.
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