A few books I have Loved (or Liked) in 2014

hild

Synopsis: Set in seventh century Britain, essentially the backstory of Saint Hilda of Whitby, the niece of Kind Edwin of Northumbria, of which little is historically known. Hild’s cunning mother claims she had a dream while pregnant for Hild of a bright star entering her stomach. She tells the story to her daughter and anyone else who will listen, until it’s widely accepted that Hild is destined to be ‘the light of the world.’ This vision puts the girl in a position of power, respect, and authority as the King’s seer. But Hild is also in perpetual danger from the fear and disgust of the king’s superstitious enemies, his own people, even the king himself. Seventh century Britain was a time of political and religious flux. Small bands with allegiances to regional rulers clashed and the more powerful overseers sought to control larger areas and more people. Roman Catholicism made inroads into pagan territory and succeeded in overthrowing dominant polytheistic beliefs and practices. Note** This is not a middle reader/young adult book, don’t let the cover fool you. There’s a goodly portion of sex and language in this one.

My take: I give Hild 3.5 to 4 stars out of 5. It took me a good fourth of the book to get accustomed to the tone and style of the writing; there’s a lot of early English thrown around, Welsh sounding words that begin with a string of consonants: crywl (etc). The pronunciation guide is in the back of the book, which I discovered, at the back of the book when I’d finished reading. Consequently, I was pronouncing all the names and places wrong. A small thing, but ideally I would have liked the pronunciation key up front. This is a plot and character-driven novel, somewhat epic in scope, which takes its time building setting and plot. It’s similar to, but not quite as good as, Ursula Leguin’s Lavinia. The negative reviews for Hild on Amazon go something like this: “A clear imposition of the author on a historical figure of which precious little is known”, which is kind of the point. This looks set up to be a trilogy, so get reading!

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Synopsis: “After the Ninth Duke of Rutland, one of the wealthiest men in Britain, died alone in a cramped room in the servants’ quarters of Belvoir Castle on April 21, 1940, his son and heir ordered the room, which contained the Rutland family archives, sealed. Sixty years later, Catherine Bailey became the first historian given access. What she discovered was a mystery: The Duke had painstakingly erased three periods of his life from all family records—but why? As Bailey uncovers the answers, she also provides an intimate portrait of the very top of British society in the turbulent days leading up to World War I.”

My take: I give this 4 out of 5 stars. I was on the edge of my seat for the first half of the book. The reader accompanies Bailey into the secret rooms, previously sealed archives, discovering the missing records along with her. She spends days reading letters, diaries, etc. beside the tatty couch in the cold room where the Duke of Rutland died. There are three different gaps in the copious archive; entire years of correspondence missing, which, Bailey discovers, were intentional and  likely ‘created’ by the Duke of Rutland himself. Bailey attempts to fill in the gaps by more broadly researching those time periods and to learn why the Duke destroyed portions of his own archive. The first two ‘mysteries’ are fairly quickly dispatched with, the second one never wholly solved. The second half of the book delves into the third mystery, occurring during WWI. The writing in this part takes the story beyond historical mystery and deeply into the dynamics of WWI for the landed gentry of England. A great read.

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Synopsis: Just what it sounds like: a collection of essays by poet Donald Hall. If you’re at all familiar with Hall’s work and biography much of this material will be familiar: his younger years growing up in Connecticut and the ancestral farm he now lives on in New Hampshire, how he became a poet, the glory days of poetry and his acquaintance with the likes of Marianne Moore, his marriage to poet Jane Kenyon and her subsequent death from Leukemia, his hijinks and a lot of humor.

My take: I give this 3.5 out of 5 stars. For someone only acquainted with Hall’s work and biography this would be a more interesting read. I’ve been reading Donald Hall for about 20 years but was more a fan of his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. I attended Kenyon’s Harvard memorial service and listened to Hall, Tree Swenson, Liam Rector, and others read Kenyon’s poetry and remember her. She died at only 47. Hall touches on his life with Kenyon in the essays, as well as her death. He also writes about his own illnesses (cancer, stroke), aging, age-related infirmities and boredom, as well as relying on several women in their 50s on a daily basis. Though I was familiar with many of the stories, I still appreciate Hall’s sense of humor and ever-sharp sarcasm.

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Synopsis: I don’t want to give too much away about this one. It was published in german in 1962 by Austrian born Marlen Haushofer and is essentially a dystopian novel, but not in the style of Hunger Games. This dystopian world looks more like our cultural fantasies of escape to a kinder, gentler place. The novel is written as a retrospective journal, though not in journal entry style, of the protagonist’s first years as the only surviving human of an undefined cataclysmic event.

My take: This is the most recent book I’ve read and I’m inclined to give it 5 out of 5 stars. I read the novel too fast and advise savoring it. This novel is suspenseful with a constant sense of foreboding, but is not plot driven necessarily. The cast consists of the woman and her small collection of animals trying to survive day to day in a hunting lodge on a beautiful and bucolic mountaintop. The setting is so serene, so peaceful and lovely, but darkness and unease are always lurking, wrought not only by the knowledge that this woman is the only human left on earth, but because she’s the only one, completely alone with herself, her own darkness and precarious survival. This is a psychological thriller in the best sense. There are some truly insightful moments in the writing about the human condition, about being a woman and caretaker, about the collective numbness of society, and about how we choose to avoid those places in ourselves that contain too much truth, because often there’s nothing we can do with those truths but bear witness. Go buy this book now!

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