Friday, July 25, 2014

The 1914 Memoirs of Evelyn Nesbit...

Young. Beautiful. Charles Dana Gibson's favorite Gibson Girl.
Innocent. Intriguing. Scandalous. Sensational. Notorious.

Each of these adjectives describe Evelyn Nesbit and her life. She became an artist's model at fourteen, a chorus girl on the stage in New York at fifteen. Then she met Stanford White, New York's most famous architect. He wined and dined her; invited her to parties; bought her gifts. And then he drugged and raped her.
"White is to me a memory as of a great experience. One remembers an earthquake without blaming or condemning the seismic forces that produced the phenomena. White was an earthquake that shattered to the foundations the fabric of innocence."
A few years later, a rich playboy, Henry Thaw, pursued and married her. Then, on June 25, 1906, he shot Stanford White in cold blood and Evelyn Nesbit found herself involved in the murder trial of the century. She wrote this memoir in 1914. It's her story, told in her voice, but it feels a bit removed and impersonal. She's candid at times, but more often she's evasive and glosses over the most interesting events in her life. Which was frustrating. I wanted to know more about her and her life than she chose to reveal. Bits of her personality did come through, however, especially in her "Philosophy of Life" listed at the end of this short memoir. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Happy is the woman who can say, "I know the worst that can happen to me--I've had it."
  • Plain women often have plain sailing; pretty women find the sea of life pretty rough.
  • The way out of life is trouble; the way out of trouble is work.
  • Women's steps are hell ward, because men are the road makers.
  • Beware of the disinterested man who wants to help you; pay cash--it will come cheaper in the long run.
  • It is much easier to be rich than strong, and much better to be strong than rich.
  • Regrets are useless. You can't repair the foundations from the roof.

While this book fits nicely in with my summer of Reading 1914 books, what it did most of all is make me want to read American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford white, The Birth of the "It" Girl and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu. Maybe then I'd get the real story.

Happy Reading!

Monday, July 21, 2014

A bookish thriller...

"Books. I've never heard of anyone who killed because of books."

It begins with a gruesome murder in the Edgar Allen Poe Museum--the victim's torso is flayed, his head cut off. Felicia Stone, the lead detective on the case, discovers something else strange: a book bound in centuries-old parchment made from human skin. Then there's another murder. This time the victim is discovered in the rare book vault of the Gunnerus Library in Trondheim, Norway. She, too, has been flayed, her head cut off. Trondheim police inspector Odd Singsaker (Isn't that a great name?) is assigned the case. It looks like the two murders have something to do with the Johannes Book, a mysterious manuscript written by a sixteenth century monk. A book that is rumored to be cursed. A book written on parchment made from skin.

What I loved most about Where Monsters Dwell  is how skillfully Jorgen Brekke weaves together the different characters, the puzzling murders, the enigmatic Johannes Book and the past with the present. This mystery is so well-written you move seamlessly from Richmond to Trondheim, from Felicia to Odd, and from the present to the sixteenth century and back again without ever getting lost. All of Brekke's characters are flawed and complicated, yet likeable, too, especially Odd Singsaker and his main murder suspect, Jon Vatten. I also really enjoyed the Norwegian setting. Having never been to Norway it was fun getting a glimpse of that distant, northern land. And, after all the murders are solved, there's one last unexpected twist at the end that I liked best of all. This is a well-crafted, engrossing and suspenseful thriller! A definite must-read for fans of this genre.

Happy Reading!

Similar reads:
     The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Seventh Classic of 2014....

The Odyssey: A Graphic Novel by Gareth Hinds

--Based on Homer's Epic Poem

I know what you're can a graphic novel version of The Odyssey count as a classic read? It can't. But when I went to the library a few weeks ago every copy of the original version was already checked out. Can you believe that? So, I was debating whether to go buy a cheap copy, or choose a different classic to read this month when I spotted this graphic novel and thought, "Why not? Might be fun."

And it was. Gareth Hinds stays true to the original story, even quoting a few passages from some of his favorite translations. And the illustrations really speed the story along, especially through some of the less exciting parts of the story. I've read The Odyssey once before (in high school), and I still intend to read the real version again (once my hold comes in at the library), but I'm not sure I like Odysseus very much. Sure he has some cool adventures--escaping the cave of Polyphemus is probably my favorite--but he's also arrogant and a little vengeful, and he ends up causing a lot of his own problems, either through his own actions, or his own inaction. And then, while his wife, Penelope, is stuck at home for seventeen years faithfully fending off suitors, he's off hooking up with Calypso and Circe. What a guy. So, I'm not a huge fan of Odysseus at the moment. But maybe he just comes across that way in this particular version. I guess I'll have to wait for the original read to decide for sure. So until my hold comes in at the library...

Happy Reading!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Art of Reading...

Michael Ancher -- A Young Girl Reading, Maren Sofie Olsen, 1885
"To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself 
a refuge from almost all the miseries of life."
--W. Somerset Maugham

Monday, July 14, 2014

Got Mail?

"I've made a friend through paper and pens and envelopes and postage. 
A true friend!"

I love epistolary fiction. There's something about handwritten letters and the conversations you can have when you put pen to paper, seal it in an envelope, and send it off with a stamp. I'll Be Seeing You by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan is a lovely and heartwarming epistolary novel set during World War II.

Glory and Rita, the two correspondents, couldn't be more different: Glory is a young bride with two small children living in Rockport, Massachusetts; her husband, Robert, is serving somewhere in Europe. When she gets lonely, she turns to her childhood friend, Levi, and to Rita.

Rita is in her forties and lives in Iowa City, Iowa. Her worries and fears are on two fronts because both her husband, Sal, and her son, Toby, are overseas; Sal is a medic in North Africa and Toby is somewhere in the Pacific. How can they both survive?

Through their letters, Glory and Rita become more than friends. They support and encourage one another, share stories and recipes, and help each other to hold on to hope when all seems hopeless.
"Loneliness is built into the fabric of this war, isn't it? When it gets bad I say a little prayer before I stick my hand in the mailbox, hoping against hope for something glorious. The 'Rockport, Massachusetts' stamp on the front of an envelope means the clouds will part, revealing a brilliant sun. The funny thing is, I don't really need the letters anymore to talk to you--we have whole conversations in my head. Do you hear me there by the sea? Someday after this crazy war is over, we will meet. I look forward to that day..."

Such beautiful writing! Such beautiful letters! The friendship between these two women made me laugh, and cry. It also made me want to open my mailbox and find a letter from Rita or Glory inside addressed to me. The most amazing thing of all about this book? The two authors have never met. They wrote this enitre book through email, one writing Rita's letters, one Glory's. Which makes this a true epistolary novel! I hope they write many more.

Happy Reading!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Reading 1914...

See if the plot of Josephine Chase's novel, Grace Harlowe's First Year at Overton College, sounds familiar. Grace is a brand new student at a well-respected institution. In her first weeks at Overton, she makes some new friends, and some new enemies. She gets into some scrapes; experiences several successes as well as a number of setbacks. Persisting through it all, she ultimately triumphs. It could be the plot of the first Harry Potter book. (Minus the magic, of course.) Instead of playing Quidditch, Grace excels at basketball and helps her Freshman team defeat the dreaded Sophomores. She may not be perfect, but she's earnest, kind, and eager to do well. Here's an example of her youthful idealism:
"Being a freshman is like beginning a garden. One plants what one considers the best seeds, and when the little green shoots come up, it's terribly hard to make them live at all. It is only by constant care that they are made to thrive and all sorts of storms are likely to rise out of a clear sky and blight them. Some of the seeds one thought would surely grow the fastest are total disappointments, while others that one just planted to fill in, fairly astonish one by their growth, but if at the end of the freshman year the garden looks green and well cared for, it's safe to say it will keep on growing through the sophomore and junior years and bloom at the end of four years. That's the peculiarity about college gardens. One has to begin to plant the very first day of the freshman year to be sure of flowers when the four years are over."
I thought Grace's adventures at Overton college were light-hearted and funny. You know how it well end when you begin it, but it's still an enjoyable read. The next book from 1914 on my list is Angela Brazil's The Youngest Girl in the Fifth. I have a feeling that it's going to have a similar plot and end up being a VERY similar read to this one. What do you think?

You can jump back to my other Reading 1914 posts here and here.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Rose for the Anzac Boys...

"It's hard to be a girl sometimes, stuck at school when there is such a great cause to fight for. We do first aid training here every Saturday and Wednesday, and bandage rolling Tuesdays, and making baby clothes for refugees on Friday afternoons. But it isn't like DOING something; it isn't glory or adventure." --Midge Macpherson

 With both of her brothers fighting in World War I, Midge wants to do more than study French verbs and embroidery in school. So when her two friends, Anne and Ethel, decide to start a canteen in France to serve cocoa and bread to the soldiers shipping out there, she goes with them. Together they offer a few comforts of home, and a smile, to tens of thousands of English, Australian, and French soldiers. It's not much. And, as Midge soon discovers, it's not an exciting adventure like she thought it would be. It's hard work, heartbreak, and loss. (And also love.)

Jackie French offers a view of World War I from the perspective of the girls who volunteered and fought and served alongside the men. There wasn't much glory in this war, but there were plenty of brave young men and women, each with a story to tell. This book is a tribute to them. As French writes in her author's notes: "This is not a true book, but it is made of true things...Every episode and character in this book is based on the words of those who were there, taken from their letters, diaries, the oral history collected years later...Midge's, Anne's and Ethel's stories are based on the tale of four schoolgirls who really did open a canteen in France."

This book doesn't take place on the front lines; it focuses on the aftermath. It's heartbreaking. And sad. But somehow still hopeful. Ethel, Anne, and Midge are great characters. It's mostly Midge's story, full of the letters she receives from her brothers, from her aunt who's working as a nurse tending to the wounded, and from the young Australian soldiers she meets at the canteen. I loved the way this story was told, even when it made me cry. (And it did make me cry--several times.) This novel is an excellent complement to all the other books written about this stupid and senseless war.

(Special thanks to Brona's Books for recommending this book. I'm so glad I read it!)