May 29, 2010

A Summer of Hummingbirds

This is the start of our second summer with two giant hummingbird feeders hanging on the slatted roof over the patio. Each feeder holds a quart of sugar water, and the little whirling dervishes go through both in about 48 hours! At times there can be a dozen, or more, of these flying jewels, whirring about and queuing up at each feeder. I have had several species come to the feeders, but typically the two species most prominently represented are Anna's (Calypte anna) and Allen's (Selasphorus sasin). We have lots of hanging flowers and pots of flowers scattered about the patio, and I think this helps draw the little fellows in too. I think they are truly one of my favorite little birds.

Speaking of hummingbirds -- I found a book yesterday in the bargain rack at Barnes & Noble (my favorite new book bookstore) that I am quite excited to read. For $5.98, I purchased a copy of A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade, by Christopher Benfey. Dr. Benfey is a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. I am sure that most of you have heard of everyone in the title of the book but Martin Johnson Heade. Mr. Heade (1819-1904) was a painter of hummingbirds! 'Google' his name and treat yourself to some of the most exquisite paintings of plants and hummingbirds. He was also an artist of the "Hudson River School" (mid-19th century) with the likes of Thomas Moran, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt. I have posted one of Mr. Heade's beautiful paintings below, and you can 'click' on it to see it larger.

Finally, to conclude our little homage to our tiny energetic feathered friends, the hummingbirds; how about two poems from the 'Belle of Amherst' herself, Emily Dickinson --

Within my Garden, rides a Bird
Upon a single Wheel--
Whose spokes a dizzy Music make
As 'twere a traveling Mill--

He never stops, but slackens
Above the Ripest Rose--
Partakes without alighting
And praises as he goes,

Till every spice is tasted--
And then his Fairy Gig
Reels in remoter atmospheres--
And I rejoin my Dog,

And He and I, perplex us
If positive, 'twere we--
Or bore the Garden in the Brain
This Curiosity--

But He, the best Logician,
Refers my clumsy eye--
To just vibrating Blossoms!
An Exquisite Reply!

(No. 500, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Little, Brown and Co., 1960)

A Route of Evanescence
With a revolving Wheel--
A Resonance of Emerald--
A Rush of Cochineal--
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts its tumbled Head--
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy Morning's Ride--

(No. 1463, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Little, Brown and Co., 1960)

May 26, 2010

Reviews: Jean M. Auel's "Earth's Children" Series

If you are looking for something a little different in the way of historical fiction this summer, I have a suggestion. Check out Ms. Jean M. Auel's "Earth's Children" series of books. There are currently five volumes, with a sixth on the way (and potentially a seventh). These books are the bildungsroman of a young Cro-Magnon woman, named Ayla, who lives and travels across much of what is now eastern and western Europe some 30,000 years ago during the Ice Age.

In order, the series includes the following: The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Valley of the Horses, The Mammoth Hunters, The Plains of Passage, and The Shelters of Stone. Collectively, it is an enthralling tale that causes you, more than once, to lean back and spend some time reflecting on our own human origins. While this probably can't be considered great literature, Ms. Auel's books all have well thought out plots and are well written. I just finished reading the entire series for the second time; and I enjoyed it even more this time around.

The first novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear, is particularly fascinating as this tells the story of how the little four- or five-year old Ayla, an orphaned anatomically modern human, is found by a clan of Neandertals in what is now the Crimean Peninsula. She spends the next six or seven years with the clan and becomes one of the clan's medicine women. Ms. Auel does an excellent job of portraying the type of life these archaic humans may have; and it was a harsh one. Ms. Auel is known for meticulously reviewing the latest anthropological and archaeological data as she writes her novels, and this attention to detail is clearly evident. She has carefully crafted a very plausible account of what life may have been like for a group of Neandertals living in a cave on the Crimean Peninsula near the Black Sea. Not only in this first volume, but in all of them, Ms. Auel spends a great deal of time carefully, and quite accurately, describing the ecology and environment of the regions where her characters are living or passing through. There is loads of really interesting information about Ice Age flora and fauna.

The next book is The Valley of Horses, and this is really two novels in one. On the one hand, it documents Ayla's trip north into the frozen Ukrainian Ice Age steppe country as she leaves the clan and sets out to find others like her. The other story told in the novel is the description of the journey of two young men, Jondalar, and his brother, Thonolan, as they travel from what is now western France across Ice Age Europe and ultimately ending up in Ayla's little valley. Ms. Auel has the young men meeting, and interacting with other small groups of humans and Neandertals during the course of their long journey. In the meantime, young Ayla is making some extraordinary discoveries on her own. As you might well imagine, there is a convergence of the two plot lines in the novel with interesting results.

The Mammoth Hunters is the third book in the "Earth's Children" series. This book is largely the tale of Ayla's and Jondalar's time with the 'Mamutoi' peoples (Mammoth hunters) of the Upper Paleolithic Ice-Age steppes of the Ukraine. While the plotting of this novel, in my opinion, did bog down a bit with the amount of time spent on the romantic triangle between Ayla, Jondalar, and Ranec, the dark-skinned Mamutoi ivory carver; I was at the same time amazed at the amount of anthropological and archaeological detail that Ms. Auel interpreted and utilized throughout.

There have been significant archaeological discoveries and research carried on associated with several very important Upper Paleolithic sites over the past thirty-years in this region of the Ukraine. Major early human ice-age settlements have been discovered and excavated at Sungir, Mezhirich, Mezin, and Kostenki. All of which indicate the presence of sophisticated peoples that lived in multi-family dwellings and actively hunted the large animals that occupied this incredibly harsh environment. Ms. Auel's novel really does provide a wonderful window into a time period so long past (approximately 30,000 years ago). Her careful attention to detail and historical accuracy is evident and impressive as one reads about how these peoples may have constructed their dwellings, hunted the large animals for meat, gathered plants for food and medicines, and exchanged goods and new ideas with other bands of humans. This novel gives us some valuable insights into a part of that vast rich human heritage during a period of time, so long ago, during the Ice Age in eastern Europe and western Russia.

The Plains of Passage is the fourth novel in the series, and is one of my favorites. This novel picks up with Ayla and Jondalar, Whinney, Racer, and Wolf all leaving the summer camp of the Mamutoi peoples and beginning the long journey back across the Ice Age steppes of the Ukraine to the delta of the 'Great Mother River' (Donau/Duna/Danube River), and thence across eastern Europe all the way back to Jondalar's Zelandonii peoples in what is now southwestern France. Along the way the travelers have all kinds of interesting adventures, with Ms. Auel doing a superb job of describing just how difficult a trip of this magnitude might have been some 30,000 years ago for two human beings.

As she always does, Ms. Auel brings significant archaeological and paleo-anthropological information into her narrative. For example, she has Jondalar being captured and held by a band of peoples known as the "S'Armunai." The fictional S'Armunai camp is actually based upon the Upper Paleolithic site, Dolni Vestonice, in what is now the Czech Republic. While a prisoner of the S'Armunai, Jondalar witnesses a bizarre and enigmatic burial of three young people in a single grave. This strange burial was actually excavated at Dolni Vestonice and archaeologists are still trying determine what the backstory might be. Ms. Auel offers a very plausible hypothesis. If you're interested, 'Google' "Dolni Vestonice triple burial," and you'll find lots of really fascinating information.

Along the trip Ayla and Jondalar have the opportunity to meet numerous bands of other Cro-Magnons, or anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) and also have several encounters with small bands of Neandertals (Homo sapiens neandertalensis). Ms. Auel uses these encounters to shed more light on the differences and similarities among these Ice Age inhabitants and their ways of life in different parts of prehistoric Europe and how they used the different natural resources in their regions. Interspersed throughout the novel is a very interesting portrayal of the mythologies and spiritual practices that may have been important to these peoples; at the apex of which is the notion that all life are considered to be the children of the "Earth Mother."

In some respects, this novel really reflects and represents the great journey of the human race 30,000 years ago during a period of profoundly difficult adversity because of the environmental conditions. Additionally, and somewhat sadly, it reflects the beginning of the end for the very long-lived archaic human species -- Neandertal -- as this amazing closely-related cousin of ours was destined to be completely extinct within the 5,000 years or so, after living on the planet for several hundred thousand years. It is worth reiterating that each of Ms. Auel's novels in the "Earth's Children" series are thought-provoking from the perspective of better understanding our own human origins; as well as just being wonderfully dramatic and entertaining historical fiction; and The Plains of Passage is no exception.

Well, we have now come up to the last book in the series, so far. The Shelters of Stone is entirely set in what is now southwestern France and the region occupied by Jondalar's peoples, the Zelandonii. Ayla and Jondalar have finally reached the end of their long journey, and can now become mated and finally settle down. In usual Jean Auel style, she has incorporated much of the state-of-the-art anthropological and archaeological data and evidence from the great cave dwellings that have been found in that area -- including the great Caves of Lasceaux, with the amazing art painted on the limestone walls inside the caverns. This book also goes into much greater detail about the potential social and cultural interactions that may have existed among the great number of human occupants of these huge cave dwellings. Just as it is today, it is difficult providing adequate food, water, and other necessities of life for a large number of people concentrated in a relatively small area. I really found her fictional depiction of spiritual awareness among these upper paleolithic peoples to be interesting. I can certainly see how Ice Age shamanism and spiritualism could have naturally evolved into the more organized religions that we see around us today. Frankly, I am not sure that there is a difference at all.

I think this series of books -- The Earth's Children series -- are important. This series has enabled all of us to enjoy a fictional, but fairly accurate, account of a small portion of the rich human heritage that we all share. Reading these books one cannot help but to stop and think about just what it was that allowed the human species to succeed and expand around the planet; whilst all of the other species in the genus Homo are now long extinct. Reading these books makes one ask the questions -- What is it that makes us uniquely human? When, why, and how were animals first domesticated? What role did modern humans play in the extinction of the Neandertals?

With recent advances in anthropology and genetics we are slowly beginning to answer some of these questions. For example, it is fairly certain that anatomically modern humans and Neandertals probably interacted. In fact, it was recently announced, upon the completion of the sequencing of the Neandertal genome, that humans from Europe and some parts of Asia have DNA of which 4-5% is unique to the DNA of the Neandertal genome. In other words, Neandertals still lives inside some of us today! So, it is quite likely that we did more than just sit around the fire and toast marshmallows. Geneticists are also looking at the mitochondrial DNA of dogs in an effort to determine approximately how long ago we began to domesticate them. Ms. Auel's books track right along with much of this research. Throughout the series, she has many Human-Neandertal encounters and interactions; she gives us some pretty reasonable hypotheses for how horses and dogs may have been domesticated and put to work; and she also does a wonderful job of developing scenarios associated with advances in tool-making and use, finding medicines and treating the sick or injured.

Read these books! First, they are fun. Second, I guarantee you'll learn a lot about yourself, your species, your planet, and the species that have lived before us. Finally, I think there are some important lessons for the future in here too. It is not entirely clear what the long-term ramifications of climate-change and global warming will be yet; but I am convinced that it may become a more difficult planet for humans to occupy and survive upon.

In closing, if this series is something you are interested in and you read, you might also be interested in two quite fascinating, and well-written non-fiction books.

Desolate Landscapes: Ice-Age Settlement in Eastern Europe, by John Hoffecker, February 2002, The Rutgers Series in Human Evolution.

The Early Upper Paleolithic Beyond Western Europe, Edited by Kris Kerry, June 2004, University of California Press.

May 25, 2010

On-Line Book Groups & Group Reads

We are all becoming all too familiar with on-line social media or networking with sites like Facebook and MySpace, etc. Well, a couple of years ago I discovered that there are similar on-line sites for bibliophiles, and it struck me that it might be interesting to spend a couple of minutes describing the two that I use. I am currently a member of and They both allow me to organize and portray all of the books I own, that I'm reading, want to read, and the books that I want to acquire. Additionally, both sites have a plethora of special interest groups (e.g., books, authors, periods, subjects, etc.) that you can join and participate in. For example, on Goodreads, I am a member of a Jane Austen group, and a group that discusses and reads all things Victorian. On Shelfari, I am a member of a smaller group of about 60 participants that reads and discusses all things in the British literary world. This group is called Anglophiles Anonymous, and it is one of my most favorite places to 'visit' each day.

It used to be that if you really wanted to delve into an author, a book, or the entire canon of an author or time-period, you needed to enroll in a class at a university or community college, or go out and form a book-club with like-minded folks; or, you were simply on your own. This is not the case any longer. Now you can browse around these on-line "book-lover" sites and find the right group, or groups, for you. I can flat-out assert that I have read more wonderful books over the past couple of years because of my involvement and participation in these two sites. I have been, and continue to be, reading the best books of my life these days.

One particularly enjoyable facet of these groups is the ability to actively participate in "group-reads" and discussions of various books over a set period of time. For example, in my Shelfari Anglophiles Anonymous group over the past year we have done group reads of, to name just a few, the following:

The Forsyte Saga...John Galsworthy
Villette...Charlotte Bronte
Far From the Madding Crowd...Thomas Hardy
Persuasion...Jane Austen
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There...Lewis Carroll
Three Men in a Boat (Not to Mention the Dog)...Jerome K. Jerome

We've read many, many more too; but this gives you the general flavor. Similarly, in my Goodreads groups we have done many group reads of some really great books. In fact, on June 1st, I am getting set to start group reads of the following novels:

Vanity Fair...William Makepeace Thackeray (Goodreads, The Victorians group)
Master and Commander...Patrick O'Brian (Goodreads, Jane Austen group)
Daniel Deronda...George Eliot (Shelfari, Anglophiles Anonymous group)

In fact, with Daniel Deronda, we will be reading the novel in sections matching the original serialization schedule of the novel in "Blackwood's" from February through September 1876; but instead of taking eight months, we will be reading it and discussing it over an eight-week period.

Finally, I want to mention that Goodreads has another really cool feature for bibliophiles. They have a bookswap feature that is really easy to use; and with it you can give away books that you no longer want, and you can, in all likelihood, find books that you have been looking for; and all for the price of postage (U.S. Mail media rate). You pay for books shipped to you; and the receiver pays for books that you ship to them. Goodreads even allows you to print the pre-paid mailing label for any book you ship off. The bookswap feature allows you to create a 'wishlist,' identify the edition and condition of any books that you are looking for, and so forth. I have sent off about 25 of my own books to new homes over the past couple of months, and I've received about ten books that I have been looking for. A great deal for all concerned.

So, if you love books, and want to meet and make some new friends, and share some great discussions over your favorite books, and find some new favorites; I strongly suggest that you go visit Goodreads and/or Shelfari. Sign up, create an account, start filling your shelves, and discover a new way to satisfy your passion for books, and meet some new folks to boot! Happy Reading!

May 13, 2010

Reads & Reviews: November 2009 through May 2010

It has been a while since I had the opportunity to sit down and add some new books and reviews to my blog. I have been remiss, and very busy with work, etc. It has not, however, stopped my reading. Since my last update in October 2009, I have read some wonderful books, and I look forward to sharing some of the highlights with you! So, without further ado, let's get on with it.

1. Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography, by Jan Marsh -- Jan Marsh’s monumental biography of the Victorian poet, Christina Georgina Rossetti, entitled, Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography, while difficult to acquire, was a fascinating and eminently worthwhile read! This extremely well written biography leads the reader through Christina’s interesting and complicated family life, as well as providing significant insight into the development of her poetic craft, and the intellectual stimulus behind much of her work. Christina, born in 1830, was the youngest of four children, and wrote her first poem as a birthday present for her mother when she was eleven. Her elder siblings, Maria, Dante Gabriel, and William were also accomplished writers; and in Dante’s case, he was an incredibly talented artist as well.

I largely read Marsh’s biography of Christina concurrently, in a side-by-side fashion, with the Penguin Classics edition of Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems, and it made the experience ever so much richer. It would be easy to pigeon-hole Christina Rossetti as simply a religious poet, but that would be very short-sighted. Yes, she was very pious, and was incredibly devoted to her faith and the High Anglican church she was raised in. Her poetry though, while complex, lyrical, and imaginative, reflects the trials and tribulations of a young woman’s feelings whilst growing up in Victorian England. Over the course of her life, Christina wrote more than 1,000 poems that weave together her fantasies, experiences, feelings, moral upbringing, social conventions, and her deep and abiding faith together in a body of work that is virtually unparalleled among poets, including those that preceded or followed her.

It was also interesting to learn just how involved she was with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s creation, in 1848, with his friends, of the avant-garde artistic movement that became the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). This initial group included William Holman Hunt, James Collinson, John Everett Millais, and Christina’s other brother William Michael Rossetti. Several of the artists, including Dante, also wrote and published poetry, and Christina was invited to publish her early poetry in the PRB periodical, “The Germ.” The young Christina also sat as a studio model in several of Dante’s beautiful paintings. More importantly, while Christina did not always approve of the life-styles and activities of many of the members of the PRB, she was intellectually challenged and stimulated by the round-the-clock philosophical and artistic discussions that the members engaged in. Both of her brothers, especially Dante Gabriel, were fully committed and active supporters and promoters of her poetry and provided extensive literary and critical advice over the course of her career.

I found it fascinating to learn that during Christina’s lifetime, because of her own talents, and the literary connections of her family, Christina met and spent time with Robert Browning, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Jean Ingelow, Adelaide Proctor, Charles Dodgson (“Lewis Carroll”), and a whole host of other poets and writers. The biography also includes several photographic family portraits taken by Charles Dodgson, as well as numerous sketches and paintings of Christina and other family members by her brother, Dante. She was known to be a prolific reader and letter writer, and wrote scores of short stories and essays, both secular and religious; and Ms. Marsh has drawn upon much of this prose and correspondence in fleshing out the details of Christina’s life.

Ms. Marsh’s biography provides one of the most detailed looks into the day-to-day life of women in Victorian London, and the dependence that many single or widowed women had on the men in their family for their support. After the death of Christina’s father in 1854, her brother William essentially became responsible for the care of his mother and his two unmarried sisters. Christina, over the course of her life, rejected two serious proposals of marriage; the first from James Collinson, of the PRB; and the second from Charles Bagout Cayley. It appears that the reasons for these rejections were that neither man shared the same religious beliefs that she adhered to. While both of her brothers had complicated relationships with women and did eventually marry; neither Christina, nor her older sister, Maria, ever married. That lack of a long-term romantic love is a topic that Christina’s poetry returns to time and time again.

As Christina’s poetic voice matured, she began to submit her works for publication. Her first substantial book-length publication was “Goblin Market and Other Poems” in 1862. Goblin Market was immensely popular and well-received by the critics, and seems to have established her as a poet of some note in both Britain and the United States. This brought her wide-spread fame and allowed her to contribute to the Rossetti household income and support her charity work. In fact, upon the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1861, Christina became the natural successor to the informal title of 'female laureate.' Over the course of Christina’s literary career she was able to have published several books of collected poems; including “Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book” for children, a delightful collection of short poems and riddles that recalled her days as a little girl in the rambunctious Rossetti family.

Ms. Marsh’s biography does a terrific job of illuminating the personality and character traits of this woman, her interactions with her immediate family, and the wide network of friends that she had. Marsh also sheds insight on Christina’s many years of charity work at the St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary in Highgate. While it was not a prison, but a ‘home’ with a fairly structured routine, she worked with women who had had children out of wedlock, or had been abandoned, or were active prostitutes coming off of the streets of London. Again, much of her poetry seems to reflect many of the life experiences that she would have become aware of during the course of her work with these women. Finally, in middle-age her declining health became much more of an issue for her. For years she battled ‘Graves Disease’ (a thyroid condition); and later, the breast cancer that ultimately claimed her life in 1894 at the age of 64.

The most important aspect of Jan Marsh’s biography is that the reader comes away with an understanding behind Christina’s most powerful works -- the muse behind the words. The reader has a better sense of the role that her life experiences and her faith played in the development of her major poetic works. In that vein, I really want to recommend some of my very favorite poems of Christina’s that really illustrate what a technically and lyrically accomplished poet she was, including the following: Goblin Market, The Convent Threshold, The Prince’s Progress, The Ghost’s Petition, The Months/A Pageant, Monna Innominata (a sequence of 14 sonnets), An Echo from Willowwood, The Dead City, Ruin, and In an Artist’s Studio.

In conclusion, Jan Marsh’s many years of researching and writing about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the women associated with that movement (she also wrote a book entitled, “Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood”) has eminently prepared her to write this superb biography of one of the greatest poets of the Victorian Era – Christina Georgina Rossetti. In many respects, the book reads like a novel, is well illustrated, and includes a prodigious amount of Christina’s eloquent poetry that reinforces the connections, and relationships that Ms. Marsh believes motivated Christina’s poetic muse. This was an important book for me, and has caused me to appreciate Miss Rossetti’s poetry all the more, and I truly urge you to find a volume of this remarkable woman's beautiful poetry.

2. The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt -- Well, A.S. Byatt has done it yet again. She has written a novel, in The Children's Book, that rivals her earlier Booker award winner, Possession. The Children's Book made the shortlist for the 2009 Booker award, and I certainly can understand why. This is the sweeping saga of a cast of characters from several families, and follows them through the late-Victorian period, through the Edwardian, and through the horrors of the First World War.

In Possession, Byatt leads her reader through the world of Victorian poetry, folk tales and mythology, academic research, competition, and the complexities of romance. Similarly, in The Children's Book the reader is swept up into the world of folk tales, mythology, children's stories, pottery making, puppetry; all of which revolve around the lives and loves of the book's main characters. There are literary nods to the Grimm Brothers, Rudyard Kipling, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Rossettis and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the arts and crafts movement, and so forth.

This world, though while dreamy and imaginative, borders on the macabre at times; almost as though it were, in fact, something out of the Grimm Brothers. Allegories abound in the pottery-making, the porcelain glazes, the dance of the marionettes and hand puppets, the writing of of the children's fairy tales - there are dark and light threads that follow all of the main protagonists through the course of the novel. The novel reflects, through the eyes of the Wellwoods and Fludds, the tremendous political and social changes that occurred in Britain and Europe at the close of the Victorian Era and into the early years of the 20th Century culminating with the loss of nearly an entire generation in the trenches on the battlefields in Europe.

The novel is relentless, like a river, it pulls the reader along; following the currents and flow of each of the children as they move from their fairy-tale childhoods into the colder, sobering realities of becoming adults and parents themselves. Once started, I simply could not put this book down; and I know that I will read this again and again. This is another masterpiece from the pen of one of our greatest living authors. Bravo, Ms. Byatt, Bravo!

3. The Aubrey-Maturin Series, by Patrick O'Brian -- This is a magnificent series of historical novels set during the Napoleonic wars of the mid-1790s through 1815. These novels revolve around Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, naval surgeon, and doctor, Stephen Maturin. The twenty completed novels in the canon encompass nearly 7,000 pages; and are, in my humble opinion, some of the finest historical fiction ever written in the English language. At first blush, a lot of folks might be tempted to write this series off as just a more modern 'Hornblower' series. It is anything but! Patrick O'Brian's favorite author was Jane Austen, and her influence upon his writing is omnipresent. While this series has searingly exciting naval combat action, it is really a long narrative encompassing a great friendship, the lives and loves of all involved, the natural science of the world that they travel, the politics of the day, and a great amount of espionage and intrigue. These books offer it all; and have the benefit of completely and totally engaging the reader in the world of the Age of Sail when 'Britannia Ruled the Waves.' I thought that I would include my reviews of the first three novels in the series in order to give you a taste of what these novels are about.

Master and Commander is the first, the very first, novel in Patrick O'Brian's magnificent magnum opus, the Aubrey-Maturin series. As I said above, in my opinion, there is no finer historical fiction written in the English language; made even more special with Patrick O'Brian's use of the vernacular and careful attention to details and historical accuracy. This book introduces the reader to Jack Aubrey and his 'tie-mate' Dr. Stephen Maturin. It is in this novel that Lt. Jack Aubrey is appointed 'Commander' of His Majesty's Sloop Sophie and begins wreaking havoc amongst French and Spanish merchant shipping in the western Mediterranean Sea. This book is the foundation upon which 19 more complete volumes follow featuring these two men, their loves, their adventures, their ships and shipmates as they take every conceivable measure possible to defeat Napoleon and his minions around the world. A word of caution -- to truly and fully appreciate this immense saga, it is my opinion that each novel be read in order as there are several great connected story arcs. If you feel particularly 'lubberly' whilst reading, I strongly encourage you to add Dean King's wonderful and comprehensive lexicon, A Sea of Words that provides detailed definitions and descriptions of all-things nautical, medical, and natural sciences-related. This lexicon is virtually indispensable if you are a new reader of O'Brian. In conclusion, Master and Commander is a fantastic read, as is each of the succeeding novels in the series.

The second novel in the series is Post Captain and is one of the best too. While Master and Commander kicked off the series with terrific writing and action, this volume really develops the characters in a most Austenesque fashion (and has its fair share of action and adventure too). In Post Captain we truly come to know and care for Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin, Sophie Williams, Diana Villiers, Barret Bonden, and Preserved Killick. Jack Aubrey has his ups and downs during the course of the novel, but the good-hearted fellow makes well in the end. O'Brian does a masterful job of placing the reader in the age and the minds of these marvelous characters; and one simply finds oneself turning page after page after page as one voyages on with Captain Aubrey and his shipmates!

H.M.S. Surprise will always be one of my favorites too; and the reason is that it is in this volume where we first meet the "bluff, weatherly, and stout" little 28-gun frigate H.M.S. Surprise. Surprise, her crew, Captain Jack Aubrey, and the ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin embark on a long voyage to delivery His Majesty's Envoy, the elderly and frail Mr. Stanhope, to the East Indies, with stops in India, and interspersed with some terrific naval actions at sea.

One of the most riveting examples of combat/tactical sailing maneuvers I've ever encountered is superbly described by Patrick O'Brian on pp. 288-298. The naval action that follows, to a large degree, mirrors the real-life naval battle of Pulo Aura of 15 February 1804; which pitted French Admiral Linois's squadron's attack upon the East India Company's annual China Fleet convoy. Somehow O'Brian, in this passage, has made hundreds of square miles of open ocean and the tactical movements of the French squadron and Jack's Surprise unfold like a new leaf for all to see and easily understand. I found myself almost holding my breath as I read it. Very exciting stuff!

Also, throughout the novel we are again treated to O'Brian's brilliant writing associated with the growing love-relationships between Jack and Sophie, and that between Stephen and Diana Villiers. H.M.S. Surprise is a most worthy addition to this grand historical fiction series!


Okay, now maybe you are beginning to get the flavor of these beautiful books. This is a series of books you'll want acquire, read thoroughly, guard zealously, and re-read every few years. They really are that good!

4. The War for All the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo, by Roy and Lesley Adkins -- Staying with the Napoleonic wars, I acquired and read a copy of the Adkins' non-fiction historical account of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. While I enjoyed this book quite a lot, it was not nearly as good as I had hoped. The Adkins have done a terrific job of collecting and organizing all of the personal vignettes and anecdotes associated with the Royal Navy's 20+ years of naval warfare with France and its allies during the Napoleonic wars. I think I might have liked a bit more of the strategy and tactics (and maps) associated with the major fleet actions; and I think the book was badly served by leaving out a more detailed description of the Battle of Trafalgar. The Adkins literally spent about a page and a half on Trafalgar, and then had the chutzpah to include a footnote reference to their book on Trafalgar. All in all though, I am glad that I read The War for All of the Oceans as it gave me a firmer historical foundation and a context in which to place some of the activities and adventures described by Patrick O'Brian in his brilliant Aubrey-Maturin series of historical naval fiction.

5. Vienna 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna, by David King -- If you're at all interested in modern European history, and looking for a bit of a racy tale too, then this book is for you. David King is to be commended for crafting such an elegant and engaging work that really does read like a novel. Vienna 1814 details the doings of the Congress of Vienna, held in Vienna, Austria, in late-1814 and early-1815, its expressed purpose to restore Europe following the abdication of Napoleon to Elba and the end of nearly 20 years of war across Europe. Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses, and diplomats from all across Europe gathered together to try and bring order from the chaos and advance a long period of peace. The problem was that every nation came with its own hidden agenda and only looked to further its own national interests.

This very well-written book focuses on the efforts and activities of Austria's Prince Metternich, Russia's Tsar Alexander, England's Lord Castlereagh and Duke of Wellington, Prussia's Chancellor Hardenberg, France's Talleyrand, and a whole host of papal legates, minor plenipotentiaries and ministers. These men also brought their wives and mistresses to Vienna. There are also numerous cameo appearances of many of Europe's wealthy, artistic, and intellectual elite; like Beethoven, Antonio Salieri, Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm fame), and so forth. Throw into the mix that the conference also attracted every scoundrel, rogue, courtesan, and spy and you have the perfect recipe for political intrigue, espionage, and sexual seduction on a scale never before seen.

While the diplomats struggled and schemed in their negotiating sessions during the day, in the evening they attended great parties and balls hosted by the various embassies, or salons, scattered across the Viennese landscape; with each country trying to outdo the other in cuisine and grandiose entertainment. Flirtations, secret liaisons and seductions, and even flagrant affairs were common among the participants. Mr. King includes a tremendous amount of background material on each of these fascinating men and women that makes it very easy for the reader to see that they were just like the "A-List" celebrities of our time. It is also easy to see where authors like William Makepeace Thackeray, Georgette Heyer, and so many others, got their inspiration. Personally, I think that this book would provide terrific fodder for a script for a very entertaining (and slightly smutty) period drama miniseries on one of the cable channels -- an early 19th century "Peyton Place."

Even with the diversions of all of the fancy balls and entertainment held during the several months of the Congress of Vienna, the European nations did reach some important multi-national agreements and milestones. They restored or recognized, in large part, many of the small kingdoms and countries that existed prior to Napoleon's conquests. They also redrew borders, and added or took away land and resources from one nation and gave it to another. In a fashion they endeavored to ensure that the rule of "public law" (international law) would be implemented and applied across the continent. An enlightened and consensus position was also adopted that condemned and prohibited the institution of slavery among the signatory states.

Russia and Prussia were probably the big winners, with much of Poland falling into the hands of the Tsar, and much of the Rhineland being taken from France and added to Prussia. Creation of this large 'German' confederation was thought by the diplomats to be a moderating influence on future European affairs; a decision that would haunt the continent in less than 100 years in the future with the horrors of World Wars I and II.

David King's book climaxes with the escape of Napoleon from his exile on the island of Elba, his return to Paris, and his marshaling of hundreds of thousands of Frenchman to his flag. In response, the book describes the rapid mobilization and militarization of the Allies in their fierce determination to defeat Napoleon and the French Army for the last time. The Duke of Wellington rides to Brussels, assumes command of the Allied Army, and meets Napoleon on the battlefield of Waterloo. Napoleon is defeated and this time he is exiled to the island of St. Helena, an isolated chuck of rock in the middle of the desolate South Atlantic Ocean.

This book is important for anyone looking to better understand the Europe of the 20th and 21st centuries; but unlike many histories, this book is anything but dusty, musty, or dry as it has the added benefit of being incredibly engaging and loads of fun to read too. My only gripe? I wish it were longer -- I wanted more! I highly recommend David King's Vienna 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna.

6. Lucia In London, by E.F. Benson -- Fabulous! Funny! A very witty and entertaining read. This slim volume is all about a zany cast of characters from a little town in the English countryside and the adventures they share. Gossipy, slightly snarky, light, and just laugh-out-loud hysterical! There are five or six novels by E.F. Benson featuring the 'Great' Lucia and the doings about Riseholme, and I want to find them all! This was a wonderfully written little novel, and not a 'tarsome' moment in it!

7. Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte -- Charlotte Bronte's Shirley is one of the most beautiful, enriching, and satisfying novels that I've read in 2010. A novel borne from tragedy, Charlotte published Shirley in 1849; and while writing the novel, her brother Branwell died in 1848; followed shortly thereafter by the death of her sister Emily also in 1848; and then, horrifyingly, by her remaining sister, Anne, in 1849. In fact, it is believed that the characters of her two primary female protagonists in the novel, Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar are modeled after her sisters Anne and Emily, respectively. Shirley was Charlotte Bronte's second published novel, following Jane Eyre which was published in 1847.

Shirley is not the 'bildungsroman' of a Jane Eyre; nor is it the description of the unrequited feelings of a Lucy Snowe in Charlotte's novel, Villette. Shirley, in my opinion, is a 'romance' (and more than one) within a detailed and descriptive portrayal of Yorkshire society and culture in 1811 and 1812 near the end of the Napoleonic wars and during the period of the Luddite riots in portions of the newly industrialized United Kingdom. This novel is gritty, earthy, hardy and hearty, and fully representative of the Yorkshire men and women of the moor country of northern England.

While Shirley is full of the romance and passion of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte serves up her heroines and heroes in a much more realistic and prosaic fashion. Perhaps not so witty, or lyrical, as Austen's, Charlotte's characters are so well described as to be very full of life and passion that I began to palpably experience their fears, anxieties, joys, desires, and sadness. One quickly becomes taken up with the lives and feelings of young Caroline Helstone, her uncle, the Reverend Helstone; Miss Shirley Keeldar, and her mysterious older friend, Mrs. Pryor; the mill-owner, Robert Moore, his sister Hortense, and his older brother, the tutor, Louis Moore. We also meet a collection of somewhat roguish curates, a pair of matronly 'saints,' and some wonderful examples of the hard-working Yorkshire working class folk. This is an equal-opportunity' novel when it comes to characters.

As a reader, one might be inclined to feel that the novel starts slowly, and maybe it does; yet, it is necessary. Charlotte Bronte starts setting the scene by carefully and descriptively introducing her characters: the men and women of her imaginary Yorkshire County of Stillborough (or, 'Still'bro'), the clergy, the mill-owners and businessmen, the workers and their families, and the landed gentry all begin to take their proper place as the novel unfolds. After a chapter or two, the novel's plot begins to build, like a storm at sea, with periodic 'rogue waves' containing great drama and pathos combined with the 'lulls' of Ms. Bronte's beautiful descriptions of her character's interactions and experiences with the Yorkshire pastoral, i.e., Caroline's and Shirley's flower gardens; the dells, oak forests, and runs; and the ruins of the abbey in Nunnwood (a great name for a forest with a ruined abbey!). I loved and was intrigued with the novel's contrasting of the darkness or bleakness of the perceived impacts associated with the mechanization of the mills on the Yorkshire business and working class, and the emotional strength, tranquility and serenity gained by the characters in their frequent forays into the countryside and interludes with Nature.

The story is told through the use of different literary devices and voices too. Sometimes Charlotte Bronte uses the omniscient third-person narrator; sometimes the first-person introspective or reflective voice is used; and she even uses the journal entries and written word of her characters to tell the story. Knowledge about events and things said, or seen, are sometimes withheld or not shared with the reader. This tends to give the novel a sense of mystery and imparts a very realistic feel, and reflects how information was actually shared and acted upon by men and women during this period. So, in some sense, while Shirley can be perhaps construed as a novel about the different levels of society in a culture, it is clearly also about differences between the sexes, and the men and women living and loving in that same society and culture.

In the main, however, the novel really swings back and forth from the perspective of two of fiction's finest female protagonists -- the shy and sensitive Caroline Helstone; and her close friend, the bold and fearless Shirley Keeldar. We watch, with satisfaction, as Caroline becomes more confident and assertive, and as Shirley becomes more settled and less impetuous. The reader is treated to the experience of the growth of their sophisticated relationship and friendship with one another; and we begin to realize the real effect and meaning of their relationship and its impact upon those within their sphere of influence. Conflicts and misunderstandings are made right, and intentions and true feelings are made clear and acted upon.

The novel is really about change -- changes in the individuals, changes in relationships, changes in how men and women perceive themselves, and changes in the way of life in a community. It is also about linkages -- linkages of people via relationship and friendship, linkages of couples in love and marriage, even the re-establishment of a relationship long thought lost, and the linkage of the working class with new ways of manufacturing and production.

In conclusion though, this novel -- Shirley -- is about love. It is about the power of love, a steadfast love, and an unrepenting love. This is a powerful proto-feminist statement too; unrelenting in its patronage of the value of women in society and in the basic human relationship between a woman and a man. These are women you can admire and respect -- and love. I loved this novel and rank it very high in the pantheon of all of the great books I have read.

8. North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell -- I immediately preceded my read of Gaskell's North and South by reading Charlotte Bronte's Shirley (reviewed above); as they both tend to address the issues of life and love in the north of England and the interactions and differences between the gentry, the manufacturers, and the working class. Both novels involve quite serious romantic themes between gentlewomen and generally self-made Middle-class men struggling to forge prosperous businesses in the age of industrialization. Shirley is set somewhat earlier; near the end of the Napoleonic wars and the Luddite Riots; while North and South is probably set some 20 years later.

In comparing the two novels, I believe that Ms. Gaskell has painted the more complete portrait of the class and social issues of life in an industrial town in northern England. I think it is fascinating that Gaskell chose to use the eyes of the young, well-educated, Miss Margaret Hale to illuminate, for the reader, the initial strangeness of the fabric and peoples of industrial Milton; a landscape as foreign to Miss Hale as it is to the reader.

Margaret, her mother and father, and their house-keeper relocate from a quiet little rural village in southern England to the smoky and bustling northern town of Milton; a veritable beehive of factories, business and commerce, and extreme conditions endured by the workers and families that man the factories. As one reads the first quarter of the book it is almost as though the reader must shift their viewpoint from that of 'living' technicolor of the pastoral south to an almost noir-ish and starkly black and white of the industrial brick and mortar north. It is almost jarring and unsettling; but I quite imagine that it was a quite realistic portrait of the differences between these two disparate regions.

Another important reason that I wanted to read North and South is that I have heard that this novel is also Austenesque; and not having read the novel until now, I simply took it as a truism. In my opinion, I think nothing could be further from the truth. Let me explain my thinking.

First, the overall tone of the novel is darker, by far, than anything Austen wrote, including Mansfield Park. North and South is realistically bleak and mainly addresses social conditions across all walks of life in northern England. Austen rarely delves into the social and cultural conditions associated with people running businesses or working for a living. Austen tends to focus on the inter-personal relationships between her characters; and, to my knowledge, does not spend many words on the backstory of any of the servants, laborers, or farmers that briefly appear in her novels. The Mrs and Miss Bates (Emma) and Fanny Price's family in Portsmouth (Mansfield Park) is about as lower class as Austen goes in her novels. In comparison, in North and South Ms. Gaskell brings us, front-and-center, into the gritty and very difficult lives of the Higgins family and the orphaned Boucher children. Elizabeth Gaskell spends a lot of time in the novel describing the horrific working and living conditions of the working class in Milton, and it is not a pretty sight. Austen never does this.

Second, politics is another relatively taboo subject for Austen in her novels; but not so for Gaskell. Elizabeth Gaskell weighs in with a gusto in describing the politics of the time that lead to, in her opinion, many of these gross social injustices that she is writing about. She is concerned about working conditions in the factory (Bessy Higgins and the 'fluff' disease), the use of child labor, the role of unions, strikes, and strike-breaking, etc. The closest that Austen comes to addressing anything political are some very subtle and oblique references to the abomination of slavery (Sir Thomas Bertram's properties in Antigua in Mansfield Park), and the occasional, also oblique, references to the inability of women to obtain an education and employment and inheritance issues. Austen never dwells, in any detail, on these social injustices or inequities though; while Gaskell takes 'em on, one after the other.

Finally, Gaskell's portrayal of the growing romance and relationship between Mr John Thornton and Margaret Hale is handled completely differently than any romantic entanglement described by Jane Austen. Gaskell's portrayal can be sentimental, maybe a little maudlin, sometimes raw, abrasive, and almost uncomfortable at times as Mr. Thornton and Margaret interact day-by-day in Milton and come to know each other. Austen's relationships, even those doomed with 'bad' men, are orchestrated more like a graceful and elegant pas-de-deux. Style, grace, manners, and gentility mean everything to Austen. While gentility and manners are also clearly important to Gaskell (and Margaret and John Thornton!), honesty and unrefined emotion are always apparent. Disgust and hurt are easily portrayed on Gaskell's character's faces, and sharp words can easily follow. In some respects, Gaskell's relationships of Margaret and Mr Lennox, and Margaret and Mr Thornton felt maybe more accurate and realistic; whilst Austen's feel more idealistic. One is not better than the other, they are just different approaches to describing the deep-felt emotions associated with courtship and establishing a romantic relationship between a woman and a man.

In summation, the main observation I make in comparing North and South to the work of Austen is that Gaskell uses the relationship between Margaret and John Thornton to help guide the reader through an emotional and moral evaluation of the social and cultural issues that she is addressing in the novel. Austen, in contrast, uses her romantic relationships to address the natural and normal interpersonal communication issues of the people around her that she knew so much about. Austen's is a much more narrowly focused and personal novelistic point-of-view. Gaskell's point-of-view is much more Dickensian, broad and panoramic.

In closing, I enjoyed reading North and South! It was wonderful companion to Charlotte Bronte's Shirley, and it was loads of fun to think through my own comparisons of Gaskell's romances to those of Jane Austen's. In my opinion, this novel is well worth reading and is an important brick in the wall of literary Victoriana.

9. Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell -- What a sweet, elegant, witty, and gentle little book this is. Cranford is really a series of quasi-connected vignettes involving a group of spinster women in a quiet little town in the south of England. Each of the tales is full of little details about the little things, even bordering on minutiae, that are so important to a group of very close friends. There are laugh-out-loud funny moments, and there are poignant, even sad, moments too.

Having now read Cranford I now know why people are eager to see a similarity in some of Elizabeth Gaskell's writing to that of the earlier Jane Austen. I saw touches of this in Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, but it is much, much more evident in this book. Also, for those interested in the fashions and dressing habits of women in the 1830s through the 1850s, this is the book for you. One of the appendices in the back is wholly devoted to the women's fashions of the time of Cranford with wonderful illustrations.

When you are looking for some peace and quiet, and the ability to sit back and smile and chuckle to yourself, pick up a copy of Cranford. I think this would make a terrific book for a bookclub to jointly read and discuss. I highly recommend this book!

10. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen -- This book is one that I try and read every couple of years; and it probably couldn't hurt to read it even more frequently! All I can say is that this is just a marvelous 'laugh-out-loud' book that deserves to be read umpteen times. If you have a friend in low spirits, give 'em a copy; it'll be sure to bring 'em around!

Every time I read it I can only marvel at the wit and craft that Austen has applied to this fabulous novel; it is nothing short of brilliant! During this most recent read I really concentrated on the thought-processes and maturation of Lizzy's feelings as she works through her relationship with Mr. Darcy from start to finish. Also, it seems that with the exception of Catherine Morland's mother and father in Northanger Abbey, that Austen created in her novels, in the main, some truly abominable and inept parents. While Mr. Bennet is clever-tongued, he is an atrocious father and indifferent husband; and Mrs. Bennet -- well, what can be said there that hasn't been said? Ughh!

I know that this may seem heretical to ardent Janeites, but I don't think that Pride and Prejudice is Austen's very best effort. Don't get me wrong, this novel is certainly in my top-twenty; but I believe that Austen honed her craft over time and delivered her real literary masterpieces in Emma and Persuasion. I surmise that if we polled Austen on this issue, she'd agree. Is Pride and Prejudice the novel to introduce a new reader to Austen for the first time? You betcha! They'd be hooked from the first sentence; just as I was! It is a wonderfully clever romantic novel that happens to be very funny, and provides these terrific character studies of people of whom we all know in our own lives today.


Well, we have reached the end of the more memorable books that I've enjoyed reading over the past few months. I'd love to hear from you too, if you have any comments or thoughts on the books I've read and the reviews I've written. Your feedback is important to me! I'll see all of you soon! Cheers!