The Poisoned Table by Diane Michael Cantor

Slavery

The Poisoned Table by Diane Michael Cantor

The Poisoned Table by Diane Michael Cantor was published in 2015 and is 400+ pages long. I read this for my local book club in northeast Florida. I have a particular interest in slavery, so looked forward to this selection. The two slave plantations mentioned in the book are nearby, on islands off the coast of southeast Georgia. Most book club members have been to these islands, or near them.

I found the book to be confusing at first, as it switched back and forth between the two lead characters.  The fact that they were both actresses who performed Shakespeare and loved the same man added to the confusion. I had not read about the book in advance, so did not know how it was constructed. After a few chapters I found it less confusing. Yet I still found myself mixing up details pertaining to the lives of the two lead characters.

I found descriptions of the slaves on the plantations to be the most interesting part of this book.  These descriptions were influenced greatly by real journals written by the (real life) actress Fanny Kemble.  These were published in 1863 and titled “Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839.” These descriptions are appalling. Yet their detail about minutia leads me to I believe that they are horrendously accurate.

Perhaps the book would have been stronger with only one lead female character – Fanny Kemble. It certainly would have been less confusing. Instead of having two similar lead females, I think the book would have been stronger if it contrasted Fanny Kemble’s experiences in America with those in Britain. Then there would have been opportunity to explore the difference between British thought on slavery vs. American ideas.  In addition, more about female emancipation and laws restricting females could have been explored. Despite the confusing structure, I still found this book to be an informative and interesting read.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo     by Amy Schumer

I try to ignore popular culture.  Yet I am a compulsive reader, so can’t help but notice it. Thus the author’s name rang a bell when I saw her book on CD with a shiny “new” sticker on it at the local library. No skips!  I can’t resist a “new” sticker so borrowed it.  I expected to toss it into the back seat of my car before the first disk was done.  Then it took a surprising turn.  It was interesting.

Prior to reading this biography, I knew that Amy Schumer was a comedian.  I never saw her act.  I barely recall seeing her in pajamas (I think) on a commercial. I recall thinking that she has a great head of hair.  That’s it.  That’s all I knew about Amy Schumer.

I don’t go to comedy clubs or watch it often on TV.  Yet I enjoy comedy in a casual way — sometimes. When I do run into comedy acts, I enjoy 50% of the them and I’m annoyed by the other 50%. I’ve noticed that comedians, at least the ones I like best, have suffered personal hardships.  Their comedy is their catharsis and their way of dealing with the pain, and fighting back.  My holy grail of comedy consists of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Black.  Why would I, a middle-aged white woman, most enjoy three black comedians? Probably because they are the three best comedians ever.  Why? Because being Black in the USA must be full of pain and cognitive dissonance which gives them great inspiration and energy.  I think that Amy Schumer falls into the same category as my three favorites.

 This woman went through some serious personal adversities. She did not enjoy a princess upbringing. Her early life and coming of age experiences were full of pain and difficulties. Yet she overcame the hurts.  She also worked hard, very hard, at learning her craft. Amy Schumer has grit, discipline, and fortitude – in addition to being damned funny. It is not easy being a female in the USA, at least not one with ambition.  It is not easy dealing with poverty, or family tragedy, or a parent’s disability.  I also noticed that Amy Schumer, in her biography, is honest in the extreme. Many of the stories she tells, are stories of desperation. Somehow she turned her personal difficulties into comedy that transcends her own experience and speaks to the difficulties that women have in relationships, career advancement, and caretaking.

I particularly admire women who rise to the top of their professions.  For a woman to reach the top, they worked harder and longer than a man. That is easy to overlook when being regaled by interesting, poignant and often amusing stories.  Thank you Amy Schumer.  You made me laugh out loud.

Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy

lavender field

Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy

This is a fabulous southern gothic murder mystery with all the elements that make southern gothic so intriguing.  The book is infused with folklore, superstition, feuds, mystery, prescience, foreshadowing, and a murder mystery. The author’s voice is a treat. I couldn’t ask for more.

It takes place in rural Kentucky. There are two intertwining story lines, one in 1936 and one in 1952.  Thus one story line takes place in the past and one in the present. One story line is told in Aunt Juna’s point-of-view and one in Anne’s point-of-view.  Some of the characters are in both story lines. The structure of this story is very interesting.  It works. The novel structure makes for interesting twists. Kudos to the author for pulling it off.

I hesitate to say more for fear of spoilers. In short, I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys gothic or mysteries. It is an Edgar award winner.

Kick: The True Story of Kick Kennedy, JFK’s Forgotten Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth

Two bright lights gone

Kick: The True Story of Kick Kennedy, JFK’s Forgotten Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth

By Paula Byrne

The author used newly released documents to relate the amazing story of Kick Kennedy, JFK’s favorite sister. She accurately portrays the strict Catholicism of mother Rose Kennedy and the effect it had on Kick, contributing largely to her initially repressed sexuality.  At the same time, she illustrates the licentious sexuality of father Joe Kennedy how he encouraged his sons (only) to follow in his predatory footsteps. The family dynamic of high achievement, competition, power-seeking, and athleticism was also described.

Kick’s romance and marriage to William Cavendish, heir to Chatsworth, was described in detail. Her education, career, and family ties were also highlighted.

The story of Kick is entertaining, particularly due to the role the Kennedy family has played in the American psyche and politics.  Yet, at the same time her life was largely tragic.  If history could be changed, I would wish her more time with her husband, children, and happiness.

“Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy arrived in London on St Patrick’s Day 1938. Ripe at 18, and as yet unplucked, Kick was no stranger to European high society. She had already spent a year at convent school in Neuilly-sur-Seine, on the edge of Paris, where her generous allowance afforded her the best of holidays: skiing at Gstaad, opera in the French capital and a private tour of the Vatican before moving on to Venice and a fascist demonstration at the Palais des Doges, presided over by Il Duce himself.”     … Paula Byrne

The Orphan’s Tale In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente

an orphan's take in the night garden

The Orphan’s Tale In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente

This is one of my all-time most favorite books on my personal list of books I love most. I recommended it to my local book club, thinking everyone would love it as much as I.  The reaction was decidedly “meh.” Some of the members dismissed it as “weird.”  No one else liked it.  The overwhelming verdict was “too strange and weird.”

I see that it is rated very high on Goodreads and it has won numerous awards.  So I stick with my initial opinion – this is a fabulous, wondrous, magical book.  It is beautifully written. It is light and poignant at the same time.  I love the author’s voice and vision.  I love her use of imagery.  I love the clever way she constructed the story as a tale within a tale.

This is a marvel of a book and I highly recommend it.  I’m not going to describe the plot or characters.  This is one of those books that is a total experience.  Thus my yapping about it at length will not enhance a reader’s experience.  You must dive in and read it….if you dare.

“Stories,’ the green-eyed Sigrid said, unperturbed, ‘are like prayers. It does not matter when you begin, or when you end, only that you bend a knee and say the words.”      …Catherynne M. Valente

“She who invented words, and yet does not speak; she who brings dreams and visions, yet does not sleep; she who swallows the storm, yet knows nothing of rain or wind. I speak for her; I am her own.” “You’ll forgive the flowery talk, won’t you? Our family does so love to be told they are beautiful. Vanity is an old and venerable habit.”      …Catherynne M. Valente

“The boy stared. He looked closely and he could see wavering lines in the solid black of her eyelid, hints of alphabets and letters he could not imagine. The closer he looked, the more the shapes seemed to leap at him, clutch at him, until he was quite dizzy.”     …Catherynne M. Valente

Crystal Gardens by Amanda Quick (aka Jayne Ann Krentz aka Jayne Castle)

Reading a cozy mystery

Crystal Gardens by Amanda Quick (aka Jayne Ann Krentz aka Jayne Castle)

Is it a romance? Is it a cozy mystery? Is it a Victorian love story? Is it a paranormal romance? Maybe it is a combination of all three! I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The combination of elements keeps the plot going. This is a light, entertaining book – the perfect fiction to listen to while driving. It is part of the author’s “Ladies of Lantern Street” series, so I look forward to more. Amanda Quick is an experienced romance author who really knows her craft.

“In my experience there are only a handful of reasons for murder….Jealousy, vengeance, greed, fear and pleasure….Some killers enjoy the kill….For them it is a great game, and for the most part they are the ones I hunt.”     … Amanda Quick, Crystal Gardens

“You have no idea of what you are doing to me,” he warned.
She smiled. “Are you trying to frighten me? Because it is not working.”
“No, I can see that. Just as well because it is too late.”
“For you or for me?”
“For me,” he said. “I am lost.”
“That makes two of us.”
“Then I am not lost, after all. You have found me.”     … Amanda Quick, Crystal Gardens

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (September 27, 2016)

I try mainly to ignore popular culture.  Yet, this Bruce Springsteen biography is more than that because Bruce Springsteen is more than a pop culture figure.  He is an artist, a bard, a raconteur of folklore following the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. His songs tell the story of the working poor, the outcasts, and how an unfair socio-economic system keeps them down.  I can relate to that.

Bruce tells the story, in gripping prose, of how an artist rose up from a most unlikely place.  There was nothing in his favor and many things against him: low socio-economic status; minimal education; difficult family life; poverty; mental illness in the family; plus the alcoholism, mental illness and abusive nature of his father. He had no support system; no one who believed in him; a family that abandoned him. How could he rise up to be the greatest poet bard since Bob Dylan?

There’s something in him…  This biography gives a glimpse into the creative life of an artist.  Springsteen’s painful search for recording perfection is described.  His trials with legal and marketing forces are laid bare. He wrestles with his own personal demons and open wounds. I note that he has no hostility about the failings of his family.  He is past all that.  Instead, he appreciates the gift of their grit and great quirkiness. All this is described vibrantly.  The man has a way with words.  It also is apparent that he is a bright guy, who has studied, accumulated, and integrated into his being a great deal of knowledge about literature, cultures, politics, and economics. (I was surprised to read that he is a fan of Flannery O’Connor and American Gothic – like me.) The man has insight into his failings and admits to them. I was pleased to read that he came to terms with his demons, married a brilliant and lovely woman, and is surrounded by the joy family and children bring. Around the time I read this book, Springsteen was honored by President Obama and awarded the Medal of Freedom. I was pleased.  Great job sneaking that in Obama! 

On a personal note, I first became aware of Bruce Springsteen around 1975-1976, when I started college in Syracuse, NY – near my rural hometown.  College brought with it cruel barbs from downstate kids who considered upstate New Yorkers to be ignorant farmers etc.  (It always surprised me that people who pride themselves on being worldly and sophisticated, are so quick to make judgements about folks who live nearby in their same state.)  Thus by the time I heard the anthem Born to Run, I was suspicious of anything that came from downstate NY environs (including New Jersey). I could not deny that Springsteen had a good song and album.  Yet, I had my suspicions about anything downstate and Born To Run was so overplayed that I became sick of it.  Springsteen, bleh. Time passed. I did like his album, The River.  Many did not like The River, since it was dark, moody, and solitary.  I eat that stuff up.  Thanks to The River, I looked into Springsteen’s other albums, bought a few of them, and liked them a lot. I play them in my car to this day.

I wanted to see Bruce in concert at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, around 1984.  By then I had finished graduate school and was working a job. I tried to give my graduate school boyfriend, who was working on his PH.D. some cash to walk over to the Dome and buy us tickets.  He refused, since he was even worse (or better?) then I at hating anything pop culture.  I was disappointed and took his refusal as a bad omen.  I knew what Jane Austen would think…  If a suitor will not even walk a few yards from SUNY Forestry to the Carrier Dome to buy a gal concert tickets when she is providing the money, well….   You can guess the rest. I missed the concert and was very disappointed. Thanks (?) to Bruce I had the first inkling that my relationship was doomed.

Twenty years later I did see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert.  This was approximately 2003 at Darien Lake, NY.  I brought my ten-year- old son.  The concert was fabulous.  It took me nearly twenty years to see the Boss in person, but it was worth the wait. Still I am no one’s FAN, but I am a fan of Bruce Springsteen.

America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray & Laurie Kamoie

 America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laurie Kamoie

This book is about Martha “Patsy” Jefferson. She was the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, who was the 3rd President of the United States.  The book is historical fiction. The authors did a great deal of research, combing over old letters and records.  Then they wrote a book around the facts, producing an intriguing portrait of America’s First Daughter.

The resulting novel is fascinating.  It depicts the life of Martha Jefferson, revealing her early years when our nations was being created. It goes into great detail about her experiences in France, and the political milieu. Her troubled marriage is examined.  Finally, her close relationship with her father and the support she gave him are made public.  Of particular interest is plantation culture and Thomas Jefferson’s love affair with his slave, Sallie Hemmings.

All is written against a background of politics and historical facts.  This is accomplished without the book being dry or boring, even though it is highly educational.  This book is now one of my all-time favorites.  Kudos to the authors for pulling this off!

“When the heart finds its one true desire, any separation and delay is unbearable.”     …Stephanie Dray, America’s First Daughter

“I’m not only my father’s daughter, but also a daughter of the nation he founded. And protecting both is what I’ve always done.”     … Laura Kamoie, America’s First Daughter

“From tattered flags and uniforms to friendships strained to the brink, the women of my country had always been the menders to all the things torn asunder. But now we’d do more than patch with needle and thread. We’d have to weave together a whole tapestry of American life with nothing but our own hands, our own crops, and our own ingenuity. And I would prove myself able to the task. There”     … Stephanie Dray, America’s First Daughter

Dion Fortune

Who were the earliest women paranormal writers? Most people would say Charlaine Harris, but if you include Gothic books, that brings in the Bronte sisters and Mary Shelley. Then there’s Ann Rice, and I’ve enjoyed many of her books. Don’t forget Dion Fortune!

Dion Fortune (aka Violet Mary Firth Evans) was a great occultist, psychic, and magus and contributed enormously to the Western Mystery Tradition. She founded a group called “The Society of the Inner Light.” Her group was similar to the Golden Dawn. I read and reread some of her books on occultism, like The Mystical Qabalah, nearly twenty years ago. Dion Fortune is venerated for her Magical Philosophy series. Her fiction works I didn’t read until much later.

I particularly like her books Moon Magic and The Secrets of Dr. Taverner, because I think they give the best insights into the making of a Magus. There are passages that describe the magical personality, use of a magic mirror, astral projection, etc. that are among the best I’ve ever read.

Her fiction books have the usual faults of beginning writers (too much backstory in the front, slumping middles etc.) but they pioneer a new genre, that of paranormal and paranormal romance fiction. Also, her depictions of women are ahead of their time.

Dion Fortune’s main character in Moon Magic, Vivian Le Fay Morgan, inspired Marion Zimmer Bradley to create the character Morgaine in the hugely successful and important book The Mists of Avalon. From Wikipedia: “Diana L. Paxson, author, sister-in-law and long-time collaborator of Marion Zimmer Bradley, credits Dion Fortune’s work on the mystical aspects of the Arthurian legend as being the inspiration for The Mists of Avalon. She stated in a letter which was included on the Random House author bio page for Zimmer Bradley, that Dion Fortune’s Vivian Le Fay Morgan was both the progenitor and descendant of the Morgaine that came to life in the Mists novel.”

Dion Fortune explored paganism, celtic myth, and Arthurian myth in several of her books, particularly in Glastonbury Avalon of the Heart. I was also impressed by how far ahead of her time Dion Fortune was in regard to her female characters. Vivian Le Fay Morgan in Moon Magic enjoyed sexual freedom, which was unheard of back when the books were published. She was a strong, independent woman who did not need a husband or children to be a whole person. Also, she was an accomplished magus and priestess.

I have found that exploring Dion Fortune’s fiction has given me a greater appreciation of her accomplishments. I find that her fiction is well worth reading today.