Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
shadow
Margaret Ann Spence > BLOG > What I'm Reading Now

Sophie and the Sibyl


By Patricia Duncker

Bloomsbury, 2015

It is a bit daunting to start a novel about a famous novelist by an academic who specializes in teaching the Great Works of the famous novelist to generations of undergraduates.

Will it be tendentious, pedantic, or insist on a post-modern reading of a world view shared by the famous novelist and her readers a hundred and fifty years ago? These were my thoughts as I began Sophie and the Sibyl. The Sibyl is George Eliot. Sophie is a fictional countess, young, beautiful, energetic, the eldest daughter of loving, lenient and wealthy parents.

Well aware of her potential reader’s apprehension, Duncker addresses them in her book, taking little omniscient pauses throughout the narrative to explain, like a Greek chorus. The tone is playful, amused, learned. Despite this, her flawed characters are fully realized and original.

Like the Bronte sisters, George Eliot took a male pen-name in order to get published. She also “lived in sin” with a married man, G.H Lewes, and took his name. Yet her identity was well known to the English intelligentsia, which nevertheless snubbed the great author and her lover for this sexual crime. The Lewes found a better reception in Germany, where her German publisher, Duncker und Duncker (no relation of the author) was reaping handsome profits from her work.

In the story, Wolfgang Duncker, heir and now manager of the publishing house, has been asked by his father’s oldest friend, Count von Hahn, to persuade Wolfgang’s younger brother, Max, to seek the hand of the count’s rambunctious daughter, Sophie. Max and Sophie had been childhood friends, but Max’s army training has kept them apart for a couple of years. In the meantime, Sophie has blossomed from child to spirited and beautiful young woman. Meeting her again, Max is captivated and a little afraid.

Max is also captivated and a little afraid of the Sibyl. Her astonishing intellect, coupled with her “wonderful” eyes, pair with a remarkably unattractive face, her jaw “massive”, her teeth like “tusks. Sophie, too, is a huge fan of George Eliot, desperate to meet “Mrs. Lewes” and forbidden to do so for the conventional reasons.

So begins a strange menage a trois, with the Sibyl at the center. Duncker, who knows Eliot’s novels inside out, is at pains to point out that Lewes was a hypocrite. Her novels punish wayward women who want their own way. As a counterpoint Duncker has created Sophie, who not only gets what she wants, but berates Lewes for never letting women win in her books.

But we can only write what we know, and we cannot anticipate the world-view of future generations. Eliot was ostracized for her unconventional love life. She made a fortune, yet was not able to parlay that into anything other than being able to afford a nice house and to travel with Lewes when things got too difficult for them in England. She could not vote, she could even use her real name to make her voice heard on the social issues she appeared to care about.

For all that, in this novel, the character of Lewes/Eliot is the least understandable. Perhaps that is because she was a real person, and real people behave inconsistently at times. The others characters, the befuddled and adorable Max and the extraordinary and delightful Sophie are wonderful fictional creations.

Interestingly, I read a review of this book which stated that it was hard to empathize with Sophie, an “immensely privileged heroine.”

Really? Perhaps this remark proves Duncker’s not-so-subtle point. In our own day, as in Eliot’s, women are still punished for acting as freely, and with entitlement, as men do.

Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling and Preserving

By Kevin West
Alfred Knopf, 2013

I’m one of those people who read cookbooks for pleasure. I picked this one up from our local library because I was seeking directions for making jam, and had misplaced my Ball’s Blue Book.

Little did I realize until I opened the book that it would be a visual treat with gorgeous photographs, written by someone who knows his way around the keyboard, and with apt poetic snippets to start each chapter.

Kevin West alludes to his Southern heritage in this book, but he now lives in Los Angeles. Blessed with a temperate climate, denizens of his city could find fresh food any time of the season, but West’s aim is to teach us how to use up all that excess. Even if the weather is mild all year, seasons still turn; warm and foggy, hot and dry, damp and even frosty in the winter.
Produce there may be, but fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ markets and home gardens must be picked and preserved at their freshest to allow the full flavor to be savored at a later time.

Like me, West has taken his state’s university cooperative extension course on how to garden in his particular climate. In true master gardener fashion, he has included a very helpful guide to the peak seasons for fruits and vegetables in various regions of the United States. He’s also a certified Master Food Preserver. The recipes are beautiful. They work.

I kept thinking about time as I read this book. The practice of “putting up” food safely in sterilized jars is about three hundred years old. Under West’s guidance, it takes a leisurely hour or two to preserve a flat of strawberries. Time seems so short in our crowded lives, and time taken to home canning could be considered wasteful to some. Yet it keeps rhythm with our ancient need to honor the earth and what comes from it to sustain us. West begins his book with a quotation from the Roman poet Virgil, translated by the American poet David Ferry. In our querulous twenty-first century, it speaks to us still.

0 greatly fortunate farmers, if only they knew
How lucky they are! Far from the battlefield,
Earth brings forth from herself in ample justice
The simple means of life, simply enjoyed.

The Summer Guest

By Alison Anderson
Harper Perennial, 2017

“I’m very nostalgic for the nineteenth century,” says Katya, a character in this absolutely marvelous novel by Alison Anderson.

What she means is she’s nostalgic for the world of the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. Charming, brilliant, and a physician as well as a writer, Chekhov darts in and out of the pages of The Summer Guest, candid and yet inaccessible through the barrier of time and language. Not only that. Through these pages he comes across as immensely attractive, and classically unavailable to the women who love him. This story is told in the voices of three women who are obsessed with him. They are Katya, a Russian-born partner with her husband Peter in a failing London publishing firm, Ana, whom they’ve hired to translate a Russian diary Katya and Peter say they have discovered, and the writer of the diary itself. It is by a nineteenth century Russian doctor, Zinaida Mikhailovna Lintvaryov, The Lintvaryov family – real people – rented the guesthouse of their peaceful and prosperous Ukrainian farm to the Chekhov family in the summers of 1888 and 1889. The sisters were unusual for the time. Their widowed mother, recognizing that the girls were not pretty, encouraged them to become economically self-sufficient. One daughter, Natasha, is a teacher. Elena and Zinaida (Zina) are doctors. Zinaida however, is stricken with a brain tumor. This has rendered her blind, though still able to write. Perhaps it is her blindness and vulnerability that draws Anton Pavlovich Chekhov to her. The two chat daily during the summers. Through their talk the reader understands the meaning of literature, the economic imperative that caused Chekhov to write short stories and plays rather than a novel, the loyalty to family that each of them feels.

Through the diary we get a picture of Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, where educated people exchanged ideas that were forward thinking. It’s an idyllic picture of family life and mutual responsibility. It is heartbreaking to think that Russia once had a chance at democracy. This theme is echoed through the book in the voice of Katya, who recalls meeting her husband Peter when he was a student visiting Moscow in the nineteen eighties. He did not understand, she recalls, the constant fear. And Ana, translating the Russian text in 2014, wants to visit the Ukraine and the site of Chekhov’s summer with the Lintevaryovs, but is frightened because of the unrest unfolding in the Crimea.

The contrast between Zinaida’s life as she faces death comforted and surrounded by a loving family, and Ana’s twenty-first century life, untethered by family or romantic attachments, and Katya, trapped by the false promise of capitalism as her business fails during the lingering economic crisis, is thought-provoking. In each case, love is thwarted, too. For Zina, death is on the horizon, for Ana, a divorce has left her rudderless, for Katya a troubled marriage drags her down. For all of them, Chekhov’s words provide a bridge to understanding. In Zina’s case, this is more than metaphor as the writer vividly describes scenes Zina can no longer see.

Fundamentally, this is an elegy for a moment in history, for a slower, more natural world, for the need for connection, for literature as the pathway to understanding our fellow human beings. Ana, the translator, exemplifies the difficulty of trying to get across in another language what someone from another century felt and said. Katya, the publisher, understands the importance of getting across the author’s words, but faces the practical difficulty of doing so. Zinaida, facing death, mourns her short time on earth. Chekhov, amiable, popular, funny, loyal, speaks of the problem of finding time to write. But all try, so that we, despite our moments of suffering alone, have through literacy, the possibility of empathy. As Ana says toward the end of the book, Was not that the beauty of fiction, that it aimed closer at the bitter heart of truth than any biography could, that it could search out the spirit of those who may or may not have lived, and tell their story not as it had unfolded, as a series of objective facts recorded by an indifferent world, but as they had lived it, and above all, felt it?

I really loved this book.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles; The Captured by Scott Zesch

News of the World
By Paulette Jiles
Harper Collins 2016

The Captured
By Scott Zesch
St. Martin’s Press, 2004

“The news of the world” is what Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd reads to ranchers and cowboys gathered in the saloons and public halls of the Texas frontier in 1870.

A former Army officer and retired printer, Kidd now collects coins in a paint can to bring tidings from distant lands to the frontiersmen. His readings are selective, as he realizes that people want “not only information, but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information.”

And then Kidd is confronted with someone truly mysterious. He is asked to return to her family a ten-year old white girl who had been captured by the Kiowa from her parents’ log cabin some time before. Now she has forgotten her parents, thinks of herself as Native American, and does not want to go home. Kidd accepts this job out of compassion for the girl, and over the 400-mile journey from Wichita Falls to San Antonio he earns her trust as he teaches her English and defends her against predators (human, not animal).

In News of the World, Paulette Jiles gives us a beautifully written elegy on the Texas landscape before it was paved over and developed. She offers us a fascinating story, but also a psychological mystery. How was it that so many of the child captives of the Kiowa, the Comanche and the Apache peoples adapted so fully into their adopted Native American families that they did not want to return?

In her end notes Jiles recommends a book that she used in her research. Published in 2004, Scott Zesch’s book, The Captured, gives us some insights. Zesch is a great nephew of Adolph Korn, who was captured by the Comanche in 1870, eventually returned to his family and never fully adjusted. Zesch considers the psychological condition “the Stockholm Syndrome” in which captives adopt the values of their captors in order to stay alive, later to stay sane. But the most convincing explanation is that for children of frontier settlers, Indian (Zesch uses this term) tribal life was simply more fun. White families at this time in Texas lived in scattered log cabins, with many people crammed into one uncomfortable room. Schools did not exist. Life consisted of one day after the other of work, work, work. And fear of raids on horses and people by the roaming Comanche.

Traumatic as their capture was (because the children taken by the native raiders usually saw their adult relatives and infant siblings killed) the captives were fully adopted into tribal life. The Comanche seemed to have no other purpose in capturing children except to build up the tribe. Boys were trained to be warriors, girls to do work like cleaning the killed buffalo, drying their meat and tanning their hides, and other domestic chores. Compared to white frontier life, though, the freedom experienced by both boys and girls in the Indian camps was considerable. Unlike the unremitting labor they were used to, the children had time to swim and ride horses, to learn to hunt and to fight. For boys this was the fantasy life of the novels they’d never been taught to read. For girls, their adoptive mothers were very loving.

I read The Captured in order to better understand Johanna, the fictional child captive in News of the World. I came to realize the irony of Jiles’ title. The people of the frontier in the 1870s were far from home, trying to tame an unforgiving land. For them, “the news of the world” was the trumpet call of civilization. Globalization was coming to the American West. The news of the world had been hidden from the Native Americans, who were content with the way things were and always had been. The news of the world had enticed settlers to come far from everything they knew. Now they longed for an imagined or concocted world of “civilization” and its comforts. One way or another, the news of the world conquered everything in its path, causing the destruction of a thriving, healthy, thousands-years old way of life. Paulette Jiles’ novel leaves one pondering these thoughts long after the last page is read.

The Secret Wife

By Gill Paul
Harper Collins Publishing UK 2016

One of the mantras of writing classes is that a story should have a singular topic. “What is this about?” some critique partners cry when faced with a manuscript that struggles to identify its theme.

So when I read on the cover of the Secret Wife that this novel was about the love affair of army captain Dmitri Malama and Grand Duchess Tatiana, a daughter of Nicholas II, last Tsar of Russia, and was also about Dmitri’s great-grand- daughter and a crisis in her marriage, I worried a
bit.

I needn’t have. British writer Gill Paul blends these threads together well. If the beginning of the book, an unexpected legacy bequeathed to a protagonist by an unknown great-grandfather, is somewhat clichéd, this story moves quickly to become quite original. A contemporary narrator, Kitty, furious by the discovery of her husband’s infidelity, flies to upstate New York to consider what to do next. She’s learned she’s the sole beneficiary of her great-grandfather’s estate and uncovers, literally, his cabin by a lake. Her ancestor was a Russian immigrant and also, she learns, a writer. The second thread of the book is narrated by Dmitri Malama, a Russian nobleman and army officer. Wounded in World War I, he is nursed by Tatiana, the Tsar’s daughter. By 1914, the chaos of war had led the sheltered royal princesses to help in the bloody field hospitals. Despite this, they were imprisoned in 1917 and murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. That’s not a spoiler, it is history. Gill Paul heard that Tatiana had fallen in love with one of her patients, Malama. Her book is a fictionalized version of their relationship.

By the end of the book this reader had deep sympathy for the Romanovs, blinded by their own belief in the divine right of kings to the dire situation of their subjects, and a more nuanced understanding of the book’s contemporary narrator, Kitty. Human frailty, the impossibility for people always to do the right thing or to foresee consequences, and the possibility of enduring love are the underlying themes of both parts of this book. I found it a page-turner. Paul’s descriptions of the royal family’s captivity, the horrors of war, and more benignly, the pleasures of restoring an old cabin by the lake are very well done.

The book makes a timely appearance since next year marks one hundred years since the
Romanovs’ were killed and the Soviet era began.

Beneath the Apple Leaves

By Harmony Verna
Kensington, 2017

As in her previous historical novel, Daughter of Australia, the landscape becomes a character in Harmony Verna’s Beneath the Apple Leaves.

This time the landscape is as it was in the early twentieth century in the Eastern United States, and in most of the novel, in farmland around Pittsburgh.

Harmony Verna’s book tells a story of Andrew Houghton, a coal-miner’s son, who believed he was destined to be a veterinarian until his father died, his mother left the country, and he was badly injured in an accident. Andrew goes to live with his young aunt Eveline and her husband, Willhelm Kiser. Misfortune follows the family as anti-German sentiment intensifies when America enters World War I.

The author displays compassion for her characters, giving them all too-human faults and complicated emotions. One of her skills is to convey her characters’ negative traits and behaviors while showing us how these coexist with the good, keeping us invested in their fates.

As Harmony Verna tells it, life was hard for simple people in the early years of last century. Her research must have been prodigious as she tells a story of physical discomfort, cold, hard labor, dreadful medical practices, domestic abuse. Yet her descriptions of the landscape are lyrical. Her characters draw strength from it, trying to make things better. Her empathy for the people who lived before us is remarkable.

For warmth of characterization, some truly gorgeous prose and hard-to- put-down action, Harmony Verna’s writing excels. A lovely book.

Lipstick Launches!

Lipstick on the StrawberryI am so excited that my book, Lipstick on the Strawberry, will be officially launched by The Wild Rose Press on July 5! Its been wonderful to work with this small publisher, which has consistently been named best book publisher by author websites.

People always ask me about what my title means. Photographers do weird things to make food more visually appetizing. They spritz a cake with hairspray, decorate a pie with shaving cream, and swipe a pale strawberry with lipstick to make it glisten. When I learned that, I knew I had my book title. My caterer protagonist, Camilla, always felt unable to live up to her family’s expectations. After returning to England for her father’s funeral, she finds that beneath the veneer of respectability lie imperfection and secrets.

Here’s an excerpt, to give you the flavor:

My fingers searched the back of the drawer and felt something glossy. I pulled, and saw in my hand a colored photograph of a woman who looked to be about the age I was now. She had hair the color of fallen leaves. Only the woman’s shoulders were visible below the head, she was wearing a scarf of blue and green, which reflected the color of her laughing eyes. In the background was the blurred green of a field. I flicked the photo over. The penciled initials N.B. were the only notation.

A cold prickle ran down my back as I stared at it. I tucked the photo into my pocket. How peculiar was it to find this woman’s image stuffed in the back of a drawer? Daddy had gone to pains to hide the picture. In one hand, I lifted the plastic bags of trash, picked up the passport in the other, and went to find Tilda.

“Would you mind if I went home and rested?” I asked. “I feel a headache coming on.”

“Yes, of course. What did you find in there? Oh, good, Daddy’s passport. I’d like to keep that. How thoughtful of you. Anything else of interest?”

I turned so Tilda couldn’t see and fingered the pocketed photo. The letters N.B. intrigued me. Was this just the acronym to remind our father of something important? Or did it mean something else?

Lipstick on the Strawberry, by Margaret Ann Spence, available at The Wild Rose Press, Amazon, nook, bookstrand, kobo and itunes.

The Two Family House

By Lynda Cohen Loigman
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016


This debut novel captures a time, a place and a culture – a Jewish community in New York in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. Two brothers settle their families in one two-family house in Brooklyn. The brothers work together, and as their fortunes improve, one family after the other moves out of the house and to the suburbs of Long Island.

But this is not the plot. Without being a spoiler, I can say that this story revolves around the sisters-in- law, Rose, wife of Mort, and Helen, wife of Abe. Helen has four boys and wants a girl, and Rose has three girls and longs for a boy to satisfy her unhappy husband.

This novel is remarkable in that Loigman so deeply and honestly probes the emotions of the female characters. The story aroused all sorts of complicated feelings in me.

Many cultures have and do still value the birth of boys over girls. Yet parents of girls consistently say they feel closer to girls. This is true of both fathers and mothers.

For me, being the only girl in a big family of brothers, and growing up to have sons but not daughters, family life involved a certain rough and tumble, noise and mayhem. Dainty it was not. On the plus side, being an only girl carried with it a sense of specialness. And I’ve always felt I understood men and forgave them for their lapses. All men, to me, are at their core vulnerable little boys and I’ve never felt that they were the enemy.

Yet I always wanted a sister and a daughter and envied my mother’s own close relationship with her sisters. I also remember an acquaintance who had two sons and a daughter. She lost her daughter to cancer and said the loss was so enormous because with the boys “it was not the same.”

Loigman raises several questions: One is how far should a woman go to give her husband a son if that is the only thing that will please him? And are all sisters really good friends and confidantes? Do all mothers like their daughters? What if neither mother nor father cares for them deeply, since none satisfies the desperate need for a boy? Or conversely, will a mother who gets a girl be happier in the long term than the one who gets a boy?

This story is told in several viewpoints, those of the two brothers and their wives, and that of two of the girls. The four boys of Abe and Helen who are already born by the start of the book are distinguishable only by name. Whether Loigman is making a point about gender – that girls are more complicated and interesting – or simply letting the story tell itself from the point of view of those most affected by the plot’s premise is unspoken. This is a book that will linger for me, with its layers of questions and emotions.

Feast of Sorrow

By Crystal King
Touchstone, 2017

Marcus Gavius Apicius was a wealthy patrician who lived in Rome in the time of the Emperor Augustus. Stories about this extravagant epicure have come down to us, and he is said to have published the very first printed cookbook.

Crystal King has taken the love of luxury, the obsession with fine dining and the notion of the chef as a star – themes we recognize in our own time – and mixed them up with history in a fine concoction of a novel.

Since it is a stretch to imagine that a patrician would actually do his own cooking, King has imagined Thrasius, a slave who turned Apicius’ dinner parties into the most sought-after in Rome. In the book, Apicius founds the first-ever cooking school, with Thrasius as its manager.

King shows for us the frescoed halls, the fountains and gardens, the markets, the fine architecture and the slums of ancient Rome. The brutality of this world is made clear in the very first sentence when Thrasius is shown on the auction block awaiting purchase as a slave.

Absolute power being as corrosive as it is known to be, King shows us what happens to slaves and to women who disobey or who are forced to marry men they loathe. Intricate to the plot too, is what happens when the power of Caesar forces men to curry favor with him.

This book was a compulsive page turner for me. I loved the recipes that preceded each chapter, tried to imagine eating them, and realized that Roman tastes differed greatly from our own.

Still, I’m going to try some of them. Although I draw a line at snails cooked in milk.

The Blazing World

By Siri Hustvedt
Simon & Schuster, 2014


To set the world ablaze is what ambitious artists want to do. Looking back over her life, how could Harriet Burden have failed? The artist in this story has ticked all the boxes; luck, hard work, a sense of where the market is going. What she lacks is the right gender.

That’s the premise that starts this satire about the New York art world. Short listed for the Booker Prize, it is at times laugh-out- loud funny, and at times so sad it makes you want to cry.

Gathered together by an “editor” who is writing about the artist, the novel’s chapters consist of parts of Harriet’s diary, the words of her critics, notes by her collaborators, and comments by her children and her friend Rachel.

To the outside world, Harriet has lived the good life. Born to an upper middle class family, she married a wealthy art dealer, had the requisite boy and girl, loved being a mother, has a grandchild and a delightful best friend. When the book begins, both her parents and her beloved husband, Felix Lord, have recently died. After a period of almost demented mourning, Harriet opens her large New York apartment to needy individuals. One is a young man called Phineas Q. Eldridge. Perhaps the Q stands for quirky. He is a sympathetic character. Harriet also attracts an admirer in Bruno, a man her own age who truly loves her.

But Harriet rages inside. She’s created art for years, in solitude. She’s had exhibitions but her work has been dismissed. Rather than giving her a helping hand, her husband’s position as a powerful art dealer delegitimized her work. Critics implied that she only received any notice at all because of his influence.

Harriet plans revenge. She negotiates with three males to pose as her alter ego, to claim as their own work three exhibitions of art she created on her own. Only with Eldridge is this a true collaboration and meeting of the minds. The other two men are basically frauds.

Hustvedt persuades us that the three pieces Harriet attributed to others are by far her best work. But like many women artists before her, Harriet made her point at the cost of her own identity.

Since we know from the beginning that this masked work was lauded and the pretend artists feted, I wondered at times where this story could possibly go.

Still, the climax came as a surprise to me and was as powerful as a sock to the gut. Yet like all good writers, Hustvedt had laid the clues like breadcrumbs throughout the story.

This is extremely skilled writing. I liked Harriet and responded to the other characters as I believe the author intended. I enjoyed the irony of a main character who always lived at the heart of New York cultural life, yet never felt accepted. But I did not quite get “Harry” as she refers to herself. Her behavior to her husband, parents and children is much too sweet and undemanding to convince me that she is really a smoldering volcano of resentment and self-hatred. The portrayal of Harriet’s relationship with her father is an attempt explain her self-defeating actions, her fury at not being truly seen or understood.

Still, Harriet’s vengeful scheme does not quite mesh with the personality her author created for her. Harriet is a cipher rather than a truly convincing literary character.

Could she be a vehicle through which Hustvedt has expressed her own rage? Has she created Harriet as a metaphor for women and for their treatment at the hands of a male-dominated cultural world?