Tag Archives: history

Rudyard Kipling’s The Gardner

Geoff Dyer in his interview in “By the Book” for the New York Times identifies his favorite short story – Rudyard Kipling’s The Gardner.  Dyer summarizes the story as he remember it:

“A mother goes to a large war cemetery on the Western Front in the aftermath of the First World Was, looking for the grave of her son. She meets the gardner who is taking care of the cemetery. The sense of vast and unendurable grief is all the more powerful for being expressed with such restraint and economy.”

images      I found Kipling’s short story online but connected with different aspects – we all interpret what we read with what we know and what we need.

  • “Then she took her place in the dreary procession that was impelled to go through an inevitable series of unprofitable emotions. The Rector, of course, preached hope… “
  • Michael had died and her world had stood still and she had been one with the full shock of that arrest. Now she was standing still and the world was going forward, but it did not concern her — in no way or relation did it touch her. She knew this by the ease with which she could slip Michael’s name into talk and incline her head to the proper angle, at the proper murmur of sympathy…

‘My nephew,’ said Helen. ‘But I was very fond of him.’
‘Ah, yes! I sometimes wonder whether they know after death! What do you think?’
‘Oh, I don’t — I haven’t dared to think much about that sort of thing,’ said Helen…
‘Perhaps that’s better,’ the woman answered. ‘The sense of loss must be enough, I expect. Well, I won’t worry you any more.’”

Link to Kipling’s “The Gardner” here

First Women

9780062439659_p0_v3_s192x300Who doesn’t indulge in a little gossip now and then?  Kate Andersen Brower reveals the secrets of “The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies” in  First Women.  When I heard about this book on a morning news show, I downloaded the ebook, read the sample, and was hooked.

Not a biography like Jean Baker’s Mary Todd Lincoln or a soulful memoir like Laura Bush’s Spoken From the Heart, Brower’s book focuses on a small group of first ladies of a generation, from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama, and connects them by making comparisons on their experiences, backgrounds, husbands, and personalities. Not one to avoid the snide comment, Brower throws in a few from staffers, but most of her “reporting” is respectful, as she offers an inside look to their lives as political wives and mothers.  Whether the conclusions she draws in her commentary are accurate or not seems irrelevant.

When you read a People magazine story, you expect exaggeration and a little nudging of the truth, none of which takes away from the fun of reading it, so my expectations for First Women were low. Yet, despite the gossipy tone, Brower manages to tap into the real person behind each persona, as she recalls poignant moments in their lives – some public, some private.  Although Brower cites pages of references and primary sources for each chapter, including White House staffers, most of her conclusions are drawn from observation and letters.

Chapter titles add to the trade fiction feel: “The Good Wife,” Keep Calm and Carry on,” “Supporting Actors,” “The Political Wife.”  Citing the dislike of one woman for another (Michelle Obama for Hillary Clinton), or the unlikely bonding of two women (Laura Bush and Michelle Obama) in the chapter titled “Bad Blood,” seems petty  – but has caught the attention of the media more than other parts of the book.

The book is long, going through chapters with titles carrying each woman through the beginnings of her husband’s political career to the ultimate “prize” – the White House. Most of the information is public, as Brower recounts important moments in each presidency, but the private revelations offer new perspectives on each woman.  And the album of pictures at the back of the book is worth a look, if only to see them in their forgotten younger days.

Rosalynn Carter, who comes across well in Brower’s dissection, noted:

“First ladies are bound together by having had the experience of living in the White House and all that involves, but I’m not sure we would call the relationship among first ladies a sisterhood.  About the only time we are ever together is when a new presidential library is established or for a funeral.”

 

Related Reviews:

The Truth According to Us

9780385342940If you loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, you probably are also a fan of Downton Abbey and maybe Jane Austen,  so when Annie Barrows, co-author of Guernsey wrote her first adult book alone, The Truth According to Us, the bar was set high in anticipation.

My first foray into the book left me lacking and I put it aside, until a friend encouraged me to try again – and glad I did.  The writing echoes some of the aspects I enjoyed in Guernsey with smatterings of letters between characters and the historical facts – this time about the a New Deal program called the Federal Writer’s Project before World War II.  The style is the same yet different; Annie Barrows wrote Guernsey with her Aunt Mary Ann Shaffer, she wrote The Truth According to Us alone.

The plot is not a page turner but easy to follow: 

“In the summer of 1938, Layla Beck’s father, a United States senator, cuts off her allowance and demands that she find employment on the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal jobs program. Within days, Layla finds herself far from her accustomed social whirl, assigned to cover the history of the remote mill town of Macedonia, West Virginia, and destined, in her opinion, to go completely mad with boredom. But once she secures a room in the home of the unconventional Romeyn family, she is drawn into their complex world and soon discovers that the truth of the town is entangled in the thorny past of the Romeyn dynasty.” Penguin Random House Publishers

But I am a sucker for child narrators – Flavia de Luce from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Jack from Room, Susie in The Lovely Bones, Rosie in The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake.  Eleven year old Willa’s voice, until she loses it, in The Truth According to Us reminds me of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Willa’s perspectives shares the spotlight with Layla, a young fallen debutante who has been banished from the country club set to earn her own living in West Virginia and Jottie, the bright local woman who knows about “fierceness and devotion,” the town motto and the underlying theme of the story.  

It’s easy to be charmed with the romance, some adventure, a lot of soul-searching, and a good dose of humor.

Reviews:

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

9780544639683_p0_v3_s192x300After reading Laura Holson’s New York Times article (..Beefcake Sells…), describing the motivation behind the covers of romance novels, the cover of Antonia Hodgson’s latest book – The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins – didn’t seem right.  Noted, the book is historical fiction as Hodgson goes to great lengths to document in her afterword, but the hero, Tom, is clearly ripped and lusty.  His bare chest on the cover might attract more readers, and the ripping bodice shenanigans in this story rival those in Catherine Coulter’s Regency romances.

Tom Hawkins returns from his debut in The Devil in the Marshalsea (see my review below) with a few familiar characters introduced in Hodgson’s first swashbuckling romance thriller.  This story has Tom on his way to be hanged for killing his neighbor, Joseph Burden, a horrible bully who tortures his children and rapes his housekeeper, while he is posing as a member of the “Society for the Reformation of Manners,” an eighteenth century group set up as a watchdog for English morals.  Who really killed Joseph Burden becomes a subplot in a tale of intrigue involving Queen Caroline and her husband’s mistress, Henrietta Howard.

According to Hodgson’s research, Howard’s husband was blackmailing the king to keep his mistress a secret.  When the king refused to pay, Howard threatened the queen, and eventually, struck a bargain.  Hodgson uses this obscure historical fact to weave a story around our hero, the rakish Tom Hawkins.  Asked to perform a favor for James Fleet, the “captain of the most powerful gang of thieves in St Giles,” Hawkins finds himself involved with Queen Caroline, who hires him to dispose of the troublesome husband of her lady-in-waiting, Henrietta Howard.   Things do not go according to plan, and Hawkins is telling his tale in his cell before he goes to the gallows – hoping for a last minute pardon from the Queen.  

The adventure is fast and furious, with historically correct descriptions of court intrigue, cock-fighting, brothels, executions, and female gladiators.

Review: The Devil in the Marshalsea 

The Summer Before the War

9780812993103_p0_v3_s192x300The cover of Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War evokes a breezy romantic tale, but if you’ve read her last novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, you’ll know to expect more.  The key figure in the tale is Beatrice, aptly named for her Shakespearean qualities of intellect and strength, with her ability to manage her own life despite the hurdles thrown at women who dare to aspire to be financially independent.  Do I hear the ghost of Jane Austen whispering between the lines?

Beatrice, the daughter of an acclaimed professor, speaks several languages and has a formidable education, thanks to her father’s upbringing.  When he dies, she is forced to live with his family until she escapes to the position of Latin master at an East Sussex  country school in Rye outside of London.  Simonson sets the scene in the first part of the book with bucolic descriptions and a hint of a romance with the local medical student, Hugh, whose wealthy aunt is sponsoring Beatrice as the first woman Latin master in the school.  Beatrice secretly aspires to writing a novel to create an independent income; her inheritance can only be released when she marries but she is determined to make a life on her own.  The plot seems sublimely formulaic, as it did in the beginning of Pettigrew, until the war threatens normalcy and the refugees from Belgium appear – a switch reminiscent of Downton Abbey from the first season to the realities of World War I.

The shift to the war and its effects is abrupt, but the principal characters carry the story through the bloody front lines as well as the stark changes in the little town of Rye.  Lives are changed by the war.  Hugh enlists to use his medical training at the front, and rejects his ambition for a rich medical practice.   Simonson creates a nod to poet soldiers in her depiction of the Rupert Brooke like character of Daniel, Hugh’s best friend and cousin, and Snout, the bright student from the wrong side of the tracks, holds the promise of success, yet his life is not romanticized into a happy ending.

Simonson carefully addresses unpopular topics through her minor characters: Celeste, the beautiful Belgian refugee, whose father has more regard for preserving the culture than caring for his daughter; the mayor’s wife, who almost reverts to stereotypical prejudice and sadly leads others to her way of thinking; Agatha, the free thinking aunt of Hugh and Daniel, who quietly rebels against narrow mindedness, yet manages to preserve her place as the wife of Mr. Kent, the esteemed foreign officer.

Although the war overcomes the story in most of the book, the varied minor plot lines offer relief in romance, adventure, even some mystery.  And, in the end, The Summer Before the War is really about the people in this small town – representative of many who survived through the war to understand what is really important in their lives, and mourn missed opportunities for those who did not survive.

If you enjoyed Simonson’s first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and her Austen-like style of writing, you will find The Summer Before the War to be a satisfying read.

Review: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand