Wednesday, October 30, 2013

We need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

NoViolet Bulawyo's debut novel landed her on the short list of finalists for the 2013 Man Booker prize.  It also landed on the list for consideration for the 2013 Maine Readers Choice award. We Need New Names is a fictional account that has large elements of autobiography.  Told in the first person of a young girl named  Darling whose wonderful assortment of family and friends in her native Zimbabwe include Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, and her grandma Mother of Bones.  The preacher, Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, proclaims from the top of a steep climb his flock must endure every sabbath before they can enjoy (or endure?) his prosyletizing posturing.  She paints a very realistic picture of life in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and the pain the birth pangs of revolution imparted to everyday citizens: the hunger, the lack of privacy, lack of sanitation and education opportunities, and the disappearance of male family members who leave to go to work in the gold mines, often to return bringing no money but "the sickness" instead.

In the second part of the story, Darling manages to go to America where an aunt has agreed to sponsor her for a student visa in Detroit.  Her description of her first experience of snow is just one example of her exquisite descriptive abilities.  A sample from the chapter DestroyedMichygen:
What you will see if you come here (America) the snow. Snow on the leafless trees, snow on the cars, snow on the roads, snow on the yards, snow on the roofs---snow, just snow covering everything like sand. It is as white as clean teeth, and is also, very, very cold.  It is a greedy monster too, the snow, because just look how it has swallowed everything;  where is the ground now? Where are the flowers? The grass? The stones?  The leaves? The ants?...As for the coldness, I have never seen it like this. I mean coldness that makes like it wants to kill you, like it's telling you, with its snow, that you should go back to where you came from. p.150
Is this one compelling enough to advance it to the next round? Maybe. It is certainly IMHO a compelling read, one that grabbed me and held me. In the end, it will depend on whether others are equally or more compelling. Ms. Bulawayo certainly deserves a good hard look.  I was grabbed, repulsed, horrified, entranced, amused and immersed from the beginning to the end. Did I like the subject matter? NO. Did I like the characters - not particularly, but neither did I dislike them.  Some are actually eccentric enough to be loveable.  This is a coming of age story that tells us not just the discouragements of her birthplace, but her disappointments when expectations of America don't quite fit her mind's picture.  As such, the brutality fits the realism of Darling's life.

Another note.  I also listened to large portions of this in audio format.  Narrator Robin Miles' melodic rendition of the dialect and names greatly enhanced my enjoyment of this story.  This is definitely an author to look for in the future. Many thanks to Reagan Arthur/Little Brown for making this review copy available.

Title: We Need New Names
Author: NoViolet Bulawayo (
Audio Version Narrator: Robin Miles 
Publisher: Little Brown & Company, New York, 292 pages
Genre: literary fiction
Subject: coming of age in Zimbabwe
Setting: Zimbabwe, Detroit Michigan
Source: review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? It's on the long-long list for the MRCA.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Reading Respite

My apologies to all of my loyal followers for my less than hectic reviewing pace lately. I've been reading many books, most of them nominees from the long long list of possibles for the Maine Readers Choice Award of books published this year. They are all meaty reads, and require a good deal of my mental energy. Sometimes, they also are books that are just not grabbing me, and I find myself putting them aside when they'll only half-finished, because I know they're not going to make my cut. There are too many good ones waiting for me to spend time reading one that isn't my cuppa tea.

Then too, after reading a 500-600 page chunkster, I find my brain needs to be treated to something more cozy and relaxing. So I've been turning to re-reads of some of my favorites from the past. In addition there are the book club reads from our adult discussion group at the library. This month we're reading American Nations by Colin Woodard. I read this one back in 2011, and loved it. But it's so meaty that I'm doing a re-read so I can intelligently (we hope) lead the discussion just before Thanksgiving. And finally, there's quite a bit of marketing work going on for Bob's book, Strike from the Deep. I'll be running a giveaway before Thanksgiving, so stay tuned.

I do have four to review sometime here in the next two weeks including

So dear followers I hope you'll continue to drop by. The rest of the year promises some excellent reads for me - as you can see - these are the review copies that have found their way to Tutu's bedside bookcase. I think even if we get snowed in for weeks, I won't be lacking for something to read. Eventually, I promise, I'll give you at least a snapshot review of any that I finish.  As you can see, the bedside bookstand is full....Happy reading!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review: Heretics and Thomas Cahill

The Hinges of History series has been one of my favorites since the first volume "How the Irish Saved Civilization" was given to me as a gift back in 1995. Since then, I've eagerly awaited a chance to dive into each new volume in the series. When Knopf Doubleday offered me a chance to review this one, I didn't hesitate to accept. I've had the galley since July, and have taken my time reading it, allowing Cahill's ideas and insights to bubble up, take form, and then slide into place in my world view of history.

Here's how the publisher blurbs the book:
In Volume VI of his acclaimed Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill guides us through the thrilling period of Renaissance and Reformation (late fourteenth to early seventeenth centuries), so full of innovation and cultural change that the Western world would not experience its like again until the twentieth century. Beginning with the continent-wide disaster of the Black Plague, Cahill traces the many innovations in European thought and experience that served both the new humanism of the Renaissance and the seemingly abrupt religious alterations of the increasingly radical Reformation. This is an age of the most sublime artistic and scientific adventure, but also of newly powerful princes and armies, and of newly found courage, as many thousands refuse to bow their heads to the religious pieties of the past.  It is an era of newly discovered continents and previously unknown peoples.  More than anything, it is a time of individuality in which a whole culture must achieve a new balance, if the West is to continue.  
My impressions:

While he maintains a scholarly approach to the subject, Cahill writes in a conversational tone that immediately helps the reader settle into  the setting. We are simultaneously treated to a well-researched treatise on art, politics, and religion, their practices and motivations, ancient influences and contemporary thought  along with Cahill's insightful and often imaginative (dare I say sometimes even amusing?) interpretations. He examines poetry (and poets), drama (and playwrights), essayists (and writers), religious treatises (and the clergy and academics who wrote them), and military strategies and tactics (along with the popes, generals, and soldiers responsible), drawing out implications and conclusions I certainly would never have found on my own, no matter how much reading I did.

He uses his prelude entitled "Philosophical Tennis through the Ages," where he presents a very brief essay on the connections between the tag teams (my term not Cahill's) of Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, to set the stage for the enormous intellectual and cultural changes about to unfold in the world just emerging from the Middle Ages into the light of the Renaissance. He follows this with a discussion of Columbus, international trade, the growth of empires, and the budding of the Renaissance in Florence.

Next, he turns to the world of Renaissance artists expounding on the shift from Medieval piety to a more open appreciation of humanism. The finished book is planned to feature over 62 illustrative plates (I presume in color similar to the previous volume). However, my galley copy did not include these illustrations so it is difficult for me to comment on how well his explanations and descriptions confirm his conclusions. I have visited Florence and Rome, and had the opportunity to personally view about 10 of those works of art that I can specifically remember. I only wish I had had this book with me - I suspect I would have come away with a much deeper appreciation of what I was seeing! The book (and galley) also features 22 black and white illustrations that are well placed to demonstrate his points.

The final sections on the Reformation are my personal favorites. Having grown up in a household with one Roman Catholic and one Lutheran parent, I got a glimpse of religious belief, but my Catholic school background did not include any expanded discussion of Martin Luther other than to say that he was the blackguard who broke away from the church and founded the Lutherans. Cahill traces the beginnings of the reformation from before Luther beginning with a look at Erasmus and continues with a fairly developed picture of the condition of the politics of the day that drove the excesses Luther railed against. 

Then in a delightful  Intermission entitled "Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo" (the Good, the Bad and the Ugly) A Portfolio of Egos"   he reiterates the central theme:
“As we, the children of the West, look back across our history, we can only be dismayed by the violent clashes that occurred in the period we are now considering.  There is a scholarly theory (as well as a popular variant of it) that monotheism itself is responsible for the violence, because the worship of one God—by Jews from ancient times, by Christians from the time of Constantine forward when they gained political power, and by Muslims almost from their inception—necessarily encourages intolerance of other beliefs.” (p. 187)
He recounts from Columbus expanding the horizons of the known world with a vision of what could be, from the artists expanding the horizons of humanity's vision of itself and branches out to other aspects of the time with the ugliness of perverted religious ideas and power grabs in Holy Roman Empire and beyond.  Here we get a taste of additional players in the reformation arena, and the intertwining of politics and religion that have become the hallmark of cultural clashes that continue to this day.

Through the rest of the book, he highlights how the invention of moveable type and the spread of printed material, along with the increased education and literacy of the populace, and the translation of written texts (particularly the Bible) played a significant role in setting the stage for future changes to come at an ever increasing pace.

Cahill does not interrupt the flow of his conversation with endless footnotes.  References are discretely side-barred in an exceptionally eye-pleasing format. There are extensive bibliographic notes at the end of the book, but even these are in an informal format that is more likely to draw the reader to further exploring than an academically rigorous list of carefully formatted "mumbledy- jumble".

Although I am a huge fan of audio books, this is one book that I don't think would work in that format.  It is a visual delight (and I'm sure will be even more so with the addition of the color plates).  As an e-book, it would really only work on a color reader, tablet, or screen.

Cahill's words are thought-provoking.  The entire work is a feast for the brain and the senses.  I can't wait until it comes out on October 29th because this is one I'm ordering for my personal library. And then...I'm going to start the whole series again from the beginning.  It's been too long between volumes.  A final volume is planned, but no title or pub date has been announced.  Let's hope it doesn't take as long as this one.

About the Author

Cahill is the author of five previous volumes in the Hinges of History series: How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, and Mysteries of the Middle Ages. They have been bestsellers not only in the United States, but also in countries ranging from Italy to Brazil. His last book was A Saint on Death Row. His last book was A Saint on Death Row.

Title: Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World
Author: Thomas Cahill
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Nan A. Talese imprint) 2013
Genre: History
Subject: Art, religion, politics, history of 13th through the mid 17th centuries
Setting: Europe 1282-1669
Series: Hinges of History, volume VI
Source: Bound galley from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? It's a series I enjoy and the publisher asked me to do a review.

Many thanks to Doubleday Knopf for providing the review copy. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Review: Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

In the historical epilogue to this lush novel author Sarah Dunant says
"More than many in history, the Borgias have suffered from an excess of bad press. While their behavior--personal and political--was often brutal and corrupt, they lived in brutal and corrupt times; and the thirst for diplomatic gossip and scandal, along with undoubted prejudice against their Spanish nationality, played its part in embellishing what was already a colorful story. Once the slander was abroad, much of it was incorporated into the historical record without being challenged. Spin, it seems, was a political art long before the modern word was introduced.
Subtitled, The Borgias, A Novel, this book is part of my reading list for consideration for the Maine Readers Choice Award.  It certainly is a worthy entry into the ring. While I had heard of the Borgias and their corruption over the years, I don't think I'd ever read anything that presented the story of this infamous family in such detail.  Certainly authors have leeway when writing fiction, and Dunant makes no claim to have us see this as a biography.  She has steeped herself in the history of the era, becoming as familiar as possible with source material, both fictional and archival.  Her previous books, such as Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan, and Sacred Hearts, have shown her mastery of the language, the customs, the politics and the scenery of the era but with fictional characters.  In this one, she tackles historical characters, treading carefully among the information available to present us with a plausible rendition of this well-known and oft-villified family.

Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo Borgia, ascends the throne of Peter after some intense backstage maneuvering.  He promptly makes his illegitimate son Cesare a cardinal at the age of 19, and begins marrying off his other children to various royal partners to form alliances to bolster his political ambitions.  This is a time when Italy was still not a unified country, existing instead as series of city-states, when the Holy Roman Empire was gradually disintegrating, when Spain's power was on the rise.  A Spaniard by birth, Alexander had to tread carefully through the politics of Italy, using the power of his office, as well as his love for his family to enhance his power, his wealth, and his ego.

His son Cesare, is a power hungry young man, well loved by all the ladies, unscrupulous in his relations with both church and state.  The world has been fed stories about Cesare's relationship with his sister Lucrezia, the Pope's only and very beloved daughter.  Dunant treats this relationship carefully, never allowing the undocumented rumors to overtake other possibilities.  Certainly the two were close, but here they are portrayed as being very politically astute siblings who are under the tight rein of their father the Pope. While they may have been pawns and playthings, the author is careful to also let us see the power these women held in the male dominated arena.

Dunant gives us a richly drawn portrait of the Pope, his off-spring, his enemies, his mistresses and relations, his offspring, his warts, his dealings with foreign countries, all the while showing us possibilities of humanity not often attributed to this family.  In addition, the customs, the fashions, and the history of the period are intricately described, taking the reader back to a time of rich but vile corruption, political perfidy, and horrifying treachery.

Historical fiction doesn't get much better than this. This is definitely Dunant's best work.  I read somewhere that there may be a sequel in the offing.  Let's hope so.  There's much more to this story that deserves a well-researched, objective, and humane look.

I also sampled a significant part of this one in audio.  Narrator Edoardo Ballerini does a stellar job of giving us the characters in different voices, accents, and attitudes.  The print copy includes an excellent family tree and map of the different political entities of the era, a definite plus for those of us needing a history refresher.
My thanks to Random House for making this copy available for review.

Title: Blood and Beauty:The Borgias, A Novel
Author: Sarah Dunant
Publisher: Random House (2013), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 528 pages Genre: Historical fiction
Subject: The Borgia Family
Setting: Italy at the turn of the 15th century
Source: review copy from the publisher