Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman ****

I was raised on Edith Hamilton's Mythology which will release its 75th anniversary edition in September 2017.  Mythology can be presented extensively (short descriptions of as many characters and stories as possible) or intensively (a few topics in depth). Edith Hamilton tended towards the former, while Neil Gaiman tends toward the latter.

While Greek Mythology has a vast pantheon, Norse Mythology tends to revolve around Odin, Thor, and Loki with an emphasis on tall tales, reminiscent of Paul Bunyon. The stories are full of huge appetites, powerful weapons, and supernatural ship and animals.

My biggest surprise was Loki. Loki is a shapeshifter and a trickster. I thought him to be similar to Coyote in the mythology of the American Southwest, and Fox is many other traditions. However, I discovered Loki to be much darker. It starts with Thor. When something goes wrong, his first thought is that it's Loki's fault. However, Loki is more sinister than just stealing Thor's hammer. Loki causes so much death and destruction that the gods ultimately punish him with eternal bondage and torture.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman makes a nice companion, as Edith Hamilton's classic emphasizes Greek and Roman mythology with the briefest coverage of Norse mythology. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin ****

A novel about the gossip and scandal surrounding a short story of gossip and scandal recounting the original gossip and scandal. A non-fiction novel about the popularizer of the non-fiction novel. The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin is a Russian nesting doll of Truman Capote and New York City high society in the 60s and 70s.

The main characters, Truman Capote and his glamorous swans, are people raised in modest circumstances who moved to New York City and hit it big with the attitude
"I'm different. I'm special. I'm more."
Truman Capote coupled this arrogance with a disdain for his roots.
"No one else in that dusty Alabama town knew what a writer was."
This success is shown to be coupled with a private desperation.
"It's not easy, you know, trying so hard to-to act as if everything is just fine."
The women subscribe to pre-feminist doctrines.
"Men, the dear boys, did need to be taken care of, and American women were particularly bad at that, so intent on having their own fun."
The story presents an almost humorous view of the super-rich. Babe Paley was served on her own private china in hotels which stocked it just for her, and her newspapers were ironed.

In the end, this is a cautionary tale of fame and fortune.
"Because being rich, she'd found out, wasn't really that much fun."
Like a Greek tragedy all the proud fall into an abyss of death, despair, and loneliness.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Death in the Dales by Frances Brody ****

It's 1926 and Kate Shackleton has taken her niece Harriet for a holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. A Death in the Dales by Frances Brody mixes the idyllic small village atmosphere with murder. Murders actually.

They stay are a deceased aunt's house. Ten years previous the owner of a public house had been murdered in front of his establishment. Someone was tried and hung for the murder, but the aunt went to her grave believing that the wrong man was convicted.

In addition, a local farmer was poisoned. Reminiscent of the previous murder, everyone agrees on the suspect, motive, and means.

As the astute reader of mysteries will expect, neither turns out to be the true culprit.

A delight cozy mystery with enough delight in the British countryside and surprising plot twists.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning ****

Imagine that your mother has died and your father has an affair with your mother's illegitimate half-sister, who is the same age as you. This is the story of Martha Jefferson told in the historical novel: Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning. The half-sister is Sally Hemings, an enslaved person, given to Thomas Jefferson by his father-in-law. This is the same Thomas Jefferson that authored the Declaration of Independence and was the third president of the United States, but this book is about his daughter Martha. The "affair" lasted until Thomas Jefferson died.

Beyond this strained family situation, the time period is the 18th century. Women vow to obey and serve their husbands. Pregnancy brings the risk of either mother or child dying. Martha lost several children and her mother and sister in childbirth. Regardless, she had eleven children. As Thomas Jefferson appears to have understood, a doctor's treatment ould bring death as well as cure. This describes a life of privilege. The situation for enslaved people is unspeakably worse.

The book with its undertones of emancipation for enslaved people and rights for women often seems quite modern.  When faced with a public scandal, Thomas Jefferson realizes that any response would just fan the flames and increases the bad publicity.

Martha would be comfortable in the 21st century. She notices the asymmetry of marriage vows, the many explicit and subtle ways enslaved people are disenfranchised. She is concerned about families being broken up, enslaved women being raped, the arbitrary punishment meted out to satisfy the psychological needs of the white people and independent of any action be the enslaved people.

The author reconciles Martha's "woke" understandings and the historical record by presenting her a powerless, frustrated victim.

In the author's note at the end, she asks,
"Were there happy endings for anyone? You decide."
For me, I found the story to be a tragedy, an underserved tragedy without catharsis. The lesson I took away was not to be born in the 18th century.