Madeira Mondays: Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens (book review)

A few weeks ago, a billionaire went to space in a rocket. I’m really not impressed. What does impress me is the work that scientists and actual astronauts have been doing for years to map the heavens and better understand our place in this vast, incomprehensible universe. On that note, I wanted to recommend a book which I read last summer that combines two interests of mine: history and outer space. It’s a non-fiction book about the first ever global scientific collaboration conducted on Earth, which actually happened in the 18th century!

The book is Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens by Andrea Wulf. It has adventure on the high seas, it has danger, it has rivalries, and best of all it has international cooperation (something that we could use a lot more of these days).

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Madeira Mondays: A Witch in Time by Constance Sayers (Book Review)

This book was such a pleasant surprise! I should say immediately that when I received it as part of my subscription to ‘How Novel’, which sends you a mystery book each month, I was a bit turned off by the ridiculous and goofy title: A Witch in Time.

The UK paperback version of it that I received had a lovely cover with intricate gold designs but the title…my initial reaction was to roll my eyes. I personally struggle with titles so – I get it. Titles are hard. And I know that titles should, ideally, from a marketing perspective, reveal something about the content of the book to those who haven’t read it. But to title a book about a time traveling witch…’A Witch in Time’? It’s actually a little bit insulting to this rather well written, well researched and overall interesting novel – to give it such a goofy title based on a bad pun! I am convinced the author did not pick this silly title!

That being said – I really enjoyed A Witch in Time (arg! I can barely write it!), which tells the story of a woman reincarnated in four different time periods (ranging from the 1890s through to the mid 2000s) and cursed to relive a doomed love affair in each. A lot of the book is about art (we meet several artists, painters, photographers, writers) and also about breaking the (sometime self-destructive) patterns of behavior that we find ourselves in – more on that in a second.

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Madeira Mondays: Ben Dorain: a conversation with a mountain (Book Review)

‘Imagine/you’ve spent hours walking the mountain/deeper and deeper in/until you’ve come to know its paths/its rocks and burns, its deer trails/as well as you know the surface of the leaf/held all day between finger and thumb’ – from Ben Dorain, ‘Part Five: Colour’

This is an immensely special book. It’s the sort of book where, as I was reading it, I kept putting little sticky notes next to phrases or words I liked – until the pages were too cluttered up with sticky notes and I had to force myself to stop.

Frequently I post on this blog about ‘historical fiction’ i.e. fictional works set in a previous era (usually the 18th century!). This book is not historical fiction per se but it certainly concerns history and approaches history in some pretty unique, challenging and ultimately really fascinating ways. It’s a book of poetry which is at once a loose translation of an 18th century Gaelic poem by Duncan Ban MacIntyre AND an entirely new poem by author Garry MacKenzie. Both poems explore a highland mountain called Ben Dorain, and specifically a herd of deer who live there. Both the old and the new poems are positioned next to each other – side by side – on each page. They intermingle, as past and present often do, into one new whole where, as MacKenzie writes in his introduction, ‘various voices and traditions speak alongside each other.’

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Madeira Mondays: ‘For I will consider my cat, Jeoffry’

‘(Christopher Smart’s) poem about his cat is to all other poems about cats what The Illiad is to all other poems on war.’ – TS Eliot

These days, lots of people post pictures of their pets online. We can see these pictures as little tributes, little celebrations of these animals – their cuteness, their ridiculous quirks, their personalities. Back in 18th century London, Christopher Smart, a ‘mad’ poet living in an insane asylum, wrote a tribute to his feline companion, an orange cat called Jeoffry, in the form a poem. The lines that he wrote about Jeoffry became some of the most famous words ever written about a cat in all of English literature, and over the ages, Jeoffry has become a bit of a literary celebrity.

Oliver Soden’s delightful little gem of a book Jeoffry, The Poet’s Cat: A Biography (2020) imagines the life of Jeoffry the cat himself and his misadventures in Georgian London.

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Writing Reflections: Thoughts on launching a book during lockdown

It’s officially been six months since my second poetry pamphlet, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, was released out into the world! And what an unusual six months it has been…

I wanted to take some time today to reflect on the unique challenges (and opportunities!) of launching a book at such a strange time and a couple of things I’ve learned along the way. I hope this will be helpful to fellow writers who are launching their own books or creative projects right now and interesting to those who want a bit of a peek into the process of releasing a poetry book.

I won’t be talking too much here about what the book is about – for more on that, check out this blog post from July! But these are poems about lots of things I’m interested in: history, art, desire, the unexpected places where the personal meets the political. They’re mostly funny and lighthearted. Gutter Magazine’s Calum Rodger generously described it like this in a review:

Carly Brown’s Anastasia, Look in the Mirror (…) intersperses sharp and funny patriarchy take-downs with ekphrastic poems on the Scottish Colourists. It’s a brilliantly-crafted assemblage full of wit, warmth and panache, ‘a suitcase so full / it would not / shut’.

Thanks Gutter!

Ta da! Here she is! The cover is very fun to stare at, and it was designed by the very talented James T. Harding.

The book came out with Stewed Rhubarb in July 2020. Stewed Rhubarb are a Scotland based independent press which specializes in spoken word poetry. So a lot of their poets (myself included) have a strong performance background and either write for the stage or have performed extensively. It was published as part of a series of four pamphlets, all from emerging poets based in Scotland (like myself!), called The Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb. The whole project was the result of a successful crowd funding campaign in late 2019 and the books were all set to launch throughout 2020 and into early 2021. Mine was the second book in the series, the summer book.

Prior to the pandemic, Stewed Rhubarb had planned launches for my book in both Edinburgh and Glasgow in July 2020. AND there would have been launches for the other three books too AND there was meant to be a big party in December 2020 for all of the generous Fellowship subscribers who supported the whole project, as well as our friends and family. However, as you know, 2020…happened. All of those in-person celebrations had to be cancelled.

I was at a bit of a loss, quite honestly, about how I was going to be able to share this book with people – especially when a lot of the way that I’ve sold books (and found new readers) in the past has been at live performances. I’m a performance poet, after all!

Throw back to a live performance I did back in 2017, at the Quotidian Magazine Issue 3 Launch party.

So how the heck were we going to help people find this book?

First of all, luckily Stewed Rhubarb has an in-house publicist, the lovely Charlie Roy, who took the helm for the social media side of promoting the book (I am not the biggest fan of social media, quite honestly, although I do think it can be a useful tool. I’m not on Facebook, I’ve not updated my Instagram in about five years, and while I do have a Twitter profile, I often feel like that website drains my soul, distracts me from writing, makes me feel anxious and a whole host of other negative things. Basically, I use it sparingly!)

So what I set to work doing was finding online places where I could share poems from the book, and actually connect with and talk with readers live – which is what I love to do most of all! I reached out to organizations, universities, and festivals I’d performed with before, and to organizations that I saw were doing very cool online events. (This is something I’d recommend, if you’re launching your own project right now. Think about what resources/connections you already have and also spend some time researching online events/festivals/places you might want to be part of – there might be more than you think!)

Happily, there were many events popping up throughout the latter half of 2020, and I was able to share poems from the book quite often, perhaps more often than I would have if it had just been at local in-person events.

And, on the plus side, I got to share the book at international events and festivals that I probably would not have attended in-person, just out of logistical challenges, such as the readings that I gave at the American University of Dubai!

I’m grateful for the ingenuity of so many event organizers, who rapidly transitioned their events online. Here are some of the places where I’ve shared poetry from Anastasia in the last several months…

The Anastasia Virtual Book Tour

(Or, events where I’ve READ poems from the book, in the last six months)

  • ‘Meet the author with Carly Brown’, University of St Andrews’ Countdown to St Andrews online program for first years, a half-hour poetry performance and then Q and A with St Andrews university students, organized by the university library (August 28, 2020)
  • Sonnet Youth #13 (September 13, 2020), an online performance with the other three other poets in the Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb (You can watch this entire event online here!)
  • London Center for Interdisciplinary Research’s Poetry Conference at the University of Oxford, ‘International Poetry Reading’ (September 20, 2020)
  • The Stay-at-Home Fringe Festival, University of Glasgow’s Creative Writing department Open Mic night (October 9, 2020), invited to share poems from Anastasia alongside current members and alumni of the University of Glasgow
  • Inklight: The University of St Andrews’ Creative Writing Society (October 12, 2020), a half-hour performance and then Q and A with Inklight members
  • ‘A Poetry Evening with Dr Carly Brown’ at the American University of Dubai (November 24, 2020), an hour long poetry reading then discussion with the students

Aside from performances, another good thing that happened after the launch of the book was that a poem from it – ‘En Plein Air’ – was republished in Scotland’s national newspaper, The Scotsman, as their ‘Poem of the Week’ in July. The poem is an ekphrastic poem, responding to a work of visual art, and the publication was accompanied by a very good description of what ekphrastic poetry is.

Excited me with The Scotsman

Two poems from Anastasia have also been re-printed in the American University of Dubai’s Poetry Journal, Indelible, in their issue on the theme of ‘Escapism’ (god knows, we all need a bit of escapism right now!). You can read the whole journal here. AND I’ve recently been approached by another writer about translating one of the poems from Anastasia into Spanish – so I’ll share more about that when I can!

It’s also gotten some very positive (and beautifully written) reviews, such as the one I mentioned earlier from Gutter, as well as this lovely piece in Sphinx Review.

Another delight, aside from these publications, reviews, and meeting people through the online performances, was seeing pictures and hearing stories of people reading the book in locations all over the world. While I’m not able to travel myself right now, Scotland is in serious lockdown, it made me so happy to hear friends from all over reaching out and telling me that they were reading the book. They sent me pictures of the book in their homes, with them at the park or on vacation, and told me stories of how they read it aloud to one another on camping trips. One friend shared that she had read a poem each morning with her morning coffee.

These stories were a joy and made me feel like I was connecting with people at a time when that’s what we all so desperately needed! It also made me happy that the poems could travel – even though I could not.

Anastasia hanging at the beach in Massachusetts, USA with my friend Emma

Anastasia chilling in my friend Miranda’s cozy window seat in rainy Glasgow, Scotland!

Anastasia travels to Bahrain! My friend Laala generously took this photo in front of the Bahrain World Trade Centre (which, fun fact, is apparently the first skyscraper in the world to integrate wind turbines. So cool!)

 

I don’t have any overarching take-away from this, except to say that I’m grateful to everyone who has bought and read the book, and everyone who has invited me to perform at their events.  While it is not the same performing over Zoom, it has opened up a whole new world of possibilities and I’ve certainly met new people, from all over the world, that I would not have encountered otherwise. And, in such a dark year, that was a beautiful and surprising thing.

I hope that Anastasia has brought some joy, entertainment, and even companionship to those who have read it. While most of our worlds are physically small right now, books can open up our intellectual worlds infinitely and remind us that we’re not alone.

Have you read ‘Anastasia, Look in the Mirror’ and, if so, which poem was your favorite?

Fellow writers and artists, do you have any tips for me on how you’ve been sharing work with audiences during this unusual time? 

If you’d like to grab a copy of Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, the easiest way to do so is to order it online on the publisher’s website here (they ship internationally!!)

Further links:

  • My blog post from July 2020 about launching the book
  • A blog post where I explore the historical research behind one of the poems, which is about the Salem Witch Trials (this one is perfect if you want more of the nitty gritty of writing one of the poems!)
  • Lots more general info about the book and what it’s about here
  • My editor Dr. Katie Ailes wrote a really fascinating post about the processes of editing the pamphlet together, you can find that on her website here
  • Stewed Rhubarb’s website, where you can find lots of excellent poetry pamphlets and full-length collections (if you enjoyed mine, you’ll probably find many others there that are right up your alley!)

Stay tuned for more ‘Writing Reflections’ this year, my friends, as well as more of my ‘Madeira Mondays’ series about 18th century history and historical fiction reviews. Please do subscribe to the blog so that you don’t miss any of that – as well as for news of upcoming performances and publications. Hope you’re having a good day!

 

Madeira Mondays: The Yellow Wallpaper (Book Review)

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity – but that would be asking too much of fate. Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it. – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper

I wanted to share with you a ghost story this week!

It is almost Halloween, after all. I went back and forth about which story to pick, and ended up settling on a story that was written in the 19th century, not the 18th, although it’s set in an old 18th century home. It’s about a woman who has been feeling unwell (a ‘temporary nervous depression’, she calls it) and travels with her husband to a fading ‘colonial mansion’ one summer, a space where she can (presumably) recuperate. Her husband, John, is a physician and forbids her from writing, or doing work of any kind, until she feels better. But the woman begins a series of secret journal entries, chronicling her growing obsession with the ‘yellow wallpaper’ which surrounds her, in the room where she’s being held.

At first the wallpaper is just an eyesore, ‘one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin’, but slowly it seems as though the pattern comes to life. It watches her. It moves. It is like the bars of a cage and, behind it, she sees a woman held prisoner, desperate to escape.

I’m talking, of course, about The Yellow Wallpaper written by celebrated American writer and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). 

The book cover from 1901. Stetson was Gilman’s first married name, which she sometimes went by.

This is quite a famous short story but one that I hadn’t actually read until a couple of weeks ago. Quite simply: I loved it. I loved everything about it, really. I loved the themes in it: the repression and infantilization of women at the time in both marriage and in medicine (she’s treated like a child by her husband, who is also her doctor, and her own beliefs about her own health are ignored), the importance of creativity and self-expression.

It is full of vivid and unsettling imagery and I could see this wallpaper so clearly through the narrator’s eyes, as she slowly descends further towards insanity:

…when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smoldering unclean yellow…

The story is on one level a critique of a specific psychological practice of the time to treat ‘nervous’ women, known as the ‘rest cure’. Gilman herself had suffered from postpartum depression, and was prescribed the ‘rest cure’. She wasn’t allowed to write or have any kind of mental stimulation – all she could do was ‘rest’ (which meant enforced seclusion and bed rest). Her doctor told her to:

Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time…Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.

(As quoted in the ‘Introduction’ to Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh)

The ‘rest cure’ was a treatment advocated by Silas Weir Mitchell, who is actually mentioned by name in The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman eventually rebelled against the ‘rest cure’, which had only worsened her condition, and began writing again. When she finished The Yellow Wallpaper, she sent a copy to Mitchell, but never received a response.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman c. 1900, photo via Wikipedia

Interestingly, according to this article I found from the American Psychological Association, the cure that Mitchell prescribed to women was very different to the one he suggested for men:

While Mitchell put worried women to bed, he sent anxious men out West to engage in prolonged periods of cattle roping, hunting, roughriding and male bonding.

So…women had to shut themselves away inside, and stop engaging in any sort of self-expression. Men should get out there and…ride some horses! It was called the ‘West cure’. I laughed so much when I learned about this, because it so clearly illustrates the misogyny and the cultural stereotypes of the time. Women were told to go back into the home, into the domestic sphere, while men experiencing what we might think of now as depression and/or anxiety were encouraged to just get out there, go outside and do some ‘manly’ activities (like hunting or herding cattle).

In any case, Gilman’s story is inspired by her experiences with the ‘rest cure’ and its negative effects, but it’s also a timeless story about how important it is for everyone to be able to express themselves. The narrator finds it a ‘relief’ to write. There is a great irony that everyone around the narrator wants her to stop writing (‘I verily believe (John’s sister) thinks it is the writing which made me sick’), but in reality it is the writing which is keeping her alive.

But is this a ghost story, Carly, you might ask? Well…I think so! And not just because I read it in the ghost story anthology, Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh. It’s quite a gothic tale (spooky old house, a woman in captivity, heightened emotions) for one. But it’s also a ghost story because the narrator is haunted by the yellow wallpaper. More broadly, she’s haunted and tormented by the confines put upon her by her husband and the male-dominated medical establishment of the time.

I know I’ve made it sound quite heavy, but it’s a brilliant story, very readable, and free to read online (it’s available here on Project Gutenberg).

Happy reading and happy halloween, my friends!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Is A Tale of Two Cities worth reading?

Charles Dickens was very much a man of his time.  Much of his fiction (almost all) was inspired by the world around him: specifically, the plight of the London poor. One of his most famous works (which happens to be a favorite of mine!), A Christmas Carol, was partly inspired by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several homes for London’s destitute children. He famously used to take long walks alone, all around London, and observe the world around him, getting inspiration for his books. Dickens and his characters – Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge, David Copperfield etc. – are basically synonymous with 19th century London. Which is why I think it’s so interesting that one of his most famous novels – A Tale of Two Cities – isn’t set in Dickens’ familiar stomping ground, but rather in the late 18th century, during the French Revolution and The Terror.

A Tale of Two Cities is a work of historical fiction, and it takes place between London and Paris (those are the titular ‘two cities’) in the 1780’s and 90’s. I was drawn to it because I love A Christmas Carol (the book) and also because I was curious to see what Dickens, a man writing in the 1850’s, had to say about the late 18th century. The equivalent would be someone now writing about the 1960’s. There’s still a removal of time, but a much smaller one than if it were me or you writing about the 18th century.

A Tale of Two Cities is also considered a ‘classic’ and while I think that one shouldn’t feel any pressure to read any book simply because it’s well-known and famous – that goes for ‘classic’ as well as contemporary lit – I do think Dickens (like Shakespeare) is an author whose work has endured for a reason. Or several. One reason, I think, is that Dickens (again, like Shakespeare) can be read on two levels – for entertainment value (if you purely want a rollicking good read!) and also on a more analytical, thematic level. His books are amusing but also rich and thought-provoking. He’s a bit over-the-top sometimes, but he also writes with so much empathy and with close observation of humor behavior. And his outage at societal inequalities is sadly still quite relevant, just as it was in the 19th century.

So now you know what I think of Dickens generally, but how was A Tale of Two Cities specificially? A ‘classic’ worth checking out, or one to skip?

Overall, I really liked this novel. No surprise, because I like Dickens’ writing and I like the 18th century (as you know!). But there’s a lot to like here even if you aren’t crazy about either of those things.

It tells the story of one family that is caught up in the events of the French Revolution, and it asks a lot of questions about justice and guilt. One man is basically asked to pay for the crimes committed by his cruel, aristocratic family on the Parisian poor. He has rejected his family long ago and deplores their actions, but the revolution is imminent and the oppressed want blood. How do we make amends, when our ancestors and sometimes even our close relatives, have committed atrocities or acts of oppression? And how far is ‘too far’ when it comes to gaining justice and retribution for the crimes of the past?

My copy had brilliant black and white illustrations – like this one.

These questions are always interesting and I think they’re especially interesting in Dickens’ hands because this is a man who really fought for the rights of the London poor and has a clear empathy for the oppressed French poor and makes it clear why they revolted. We see that, to certain aristocratic nobles, these poor people’s lives are meaningless and expendable  A boy is crushed to death under a nobleman’s cart wheel and the noble doesn’t bat an eye. A noble looks down at one of his tenant farmers, on the verge of death, ‘as if he were a wounded bird, or hare, or rabbit; not at all as if he were a fellow creature.’

Yet Dickens also condemns the violence of the Revolution fairly explicitly. The primary antagonist of the story, the sinister Madame Defarge, is an embodiment of the Revolutionaries’ desire for revenge and for heads to roll (quite literally). She is a ‘ruthless woman’ with an ‘inveterate hated of a class’ which has turned her into a ‘tigeress.’ She’s violent, excessive and without mercy, but we do see why she’s this way and how she personally has been abused by members of the upper class. So her behavior is, at least, understandable. It’s this keen sense of specifically class-based oppression throughout that makes Dickens a good writer for this subject, because he’s quite ambivalent – the violence is reprehensible, but he gets why it happened. And he’s aware that it could happen again.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.

One of my favorite things about the book was Dickens’ descriptions of people. No surprise, the characters were super vivid and easy to visualize, down to the smallest player. A random jailer is described as: ‘so unwholesomely bloated, both in face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water.’ And all of the main characters are vivid, and relatively complex, except one: Lucie Manette. She’s worse than Mina in Dracula. She has no personality or life outside of her self-sacrificing devotion to her husband and father. Dickens seems to have no interest in either her bodily or intellectual reality – she has a child and it grows to the age of a toddler in the space of about a paragraph or two. (How do these events change her?!) She’s gorgeous, everyone loves her and would do anything for her – in short, she’s a very silly and unexamined character. With another author I’d let it slide but there’s no excuse for it when Dickens can create a character like Sydney Carton – the sarcastic, drunken, intelligent, self-loathing, spiteful yet surprisingly tender character who plays a central role in the novel’s climax.

Sydney Carton is great and, quite frankly, the whole book is pretty great too. It asks if a man, a family, even a society, can be redeemed. It isn’t spoiling much to say that, for Dickens, the answer is yes. I’m a bit more cynical, but even so, it’s nice to hope.

It would be perfect reading if you enjoy things like Poldark, or other dramas set in this period revolving around one family. I cried a lot at the end of the book, actually. Dickens can be a bit melodramatic, but his earnestness gets me every time.

Let me know what you think of A Tale of Two Cities: have you read it before? Did you read it in school? Do you plan on reading it in the future? I’d love to have any reading recommendations from you as well, particularly any spookier books as autumn approaches!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Bonaparte aux Tuileries – 10 August 1792’, a painting depicting Napoleon (who would later become Emperor of France) witnessing a mob attack on the Tuileries Palace.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: The Unbinding of Mary Reade (Book Review)

Let’s talk about pirates!

I was super excited when I checked out The Unbinding of Mary Reade from my local library a couple of weeks ago. This historical fiction novel by Miriam McNamara came out in 2018 and it’s inspired by the life of a real 18th century (female!) pirate by the name of Mary Read. I knew nothing about Mary Read going into the book, but I’ve since learned a little bit about her and her status as one of the legendary English pirates of the early 18th century, the so-called ‘Golden Age of Piracy’.

We’ll come back to the real historical Mary’s life in a moment, but I went into this book without any of that knowledge and I’m reviewing it now as a novel. And, unfortunately, as a novel, I don’t think that it wholly succeeded, despite the super exciting premise of a queer lady pirate going on an adventure in the Caribbean (cue Pirates of the Caribbean theme music…).

I’ll start with some of what works about the book. At its core this book is really a romance, between Mary Reade and another female pirate called Anne Bonny (also a real person). And some of the sensual scenes are really well written without being explicit – it’s a Young Adult book, so it’s still appropriate for that audience. Bodies melt into each other like ‘candle wax’ and the characters are always covered in gritty sand (okay, so maybe that’s not sensual, but it is specific and probably realistic). In general, the setting was well described – colorful parrots fly overhead, the sea is shining under the hot sun etc.

I also liked the character of Anne Bonny, the female pirate who our protagonist Mary becomes enamored with. Anne was an excellent combination of manipulative and vulnerable, capable and helpless, totally over-confident at times and totally self-pitying the next. She’s gorgeous and bold and brash. As a poor woman in the 18th century, the odds were not in her favor and she has learned to manipulate the men around her and play the system, using her sexuality to gain safety and favors, but we see her coming up against the pervasive lack of fairness and unequal treatment of women at that time, which all works great.

Unfortunately though, the cons outweighed the pros for me with this book. My main issue is that there wasn’t a lot of pirate stuff in it. No buried treasure? Maps? Sword fighting? None of that? These are things we expect from the genre. I wanted a queer pirate treasure island, I guess – whether or not that’s historically accurate is another matter (it probably wasn’t) but you come to expect some of those trappings from pirate stories. A lot of pirate life probably was waiting around for opportunities to arise, as the characters do in this book, but that’s not as fun to read about.

Also I wasn’t a fan of the book’s structure. It flashes back from past to present, in alternating chapters, which was often confusing and didn’t add much. I think those flashbacks would have been better if they had simply been woven into the main body of text, not set off in separate chapters.

Additionally, the dialogue was often a little clunky and on-the-nose (there’s a bit when two characters scream at each other: ‘You don’t understand what it’s like to be me!’ ‘Well you don’t understand what it’s like to be me!’). And throughout the text there didn’t seem to be much of an attempt at taking on an 18th century manner of speaking. Often I prefer a lighter hand when it comes to adopting a historical voice, but I didn’t feel like McNamara was enjoying or reveling in any of the amazing language of this time period, which was full of very distinctive and colorful phrases.

Overall though I think my main criticism was quite simply the lack of adventure. I think buried treasure is mentioned but then it’s dropped. I would have preferred the primary driver of the plot to be something non-romantic (Mary wants to find treasure and get rich, for instance) and then have the romance with Anne Bonny growing slowly throughout their adventure together. But that’s also an entirely different book. 

When I went to read a bit about the real Mary Read after finishing this book, I was also a bit taken aback by all the changes McNamara made to her life. Not because the author doesn’t have license to change whatever she wants (of course she does!), but because I just don’t understand why some of these changes were made. Why change so much? The real Mary was married before she became a pirate, for instance, which I think could have made for quite an interesting backstory (although possibly not as appropriate for YA?).

Also, as a side note, I’m unclear why the character’s name is spelled with an ‘e’ in this book (Reade) but most sources I’ve found online refer to her as Mary Read (without the ‘e’). I’m guessing these are just variations of the spelling of her name (it was fairly common in the early modern period, especially when many people still couldn’t write, to have multiple spellings of your name). But I’m just curious!

To sum it all up, in the end I’d still recommend this book if you’re after an unconventional love story between two women, but not if you’re looking for a pirate story. It was a disappointing read because I just have this writerly feeling (I could be wrong!) that McNamara was one or two drafts away from this book being really great, but that what we’re reading just isn’t quite finished yet. Which is sad because it’s such a fascinating story about a really unique historical person. I’d certainly pick up another book by her in the future.

What have you been reading recently? Any suggestions?

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718’, accessed via Wikipedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Astray by Emma Donoghue (Book Review)

‘Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways – they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they’re out of their place, out of their depth.’ – Emma Donoghue, ‘Afterword’ in Astray

I’ve read several books by Emma Donoghue. She writes about lots of things I’m interested in: American history, sexuality, fairy tales, travel and migration. It’s this last theme that she takes up in her 2012 short story collection – Astray – about travelers of all sorts: those who, by choice or by necessity, have to leave their homes and arrive at a new place where, more often than not, new difficulties await them.

cover Astray

It’s not my favorite book of Donoghue’s that I’ve read (that would probably be her 2010 bestseller Room) and it’s not my least favorite (that would sadly be her 18th century historical novel Slammerkin). Astray sits somewhere in the middle. There are some excellent stories, and some disappointing ones. Overall it’s a very mixed bag.

I’ll start with the positives. I think Donoghue’s #1 strength, whether she’s writing stuff set in the past or the present, about children or adults, about men or women or people whose gender identity is beyond the binary, is voice. She’s brilliant with voice. Her writing is strongest, I think, when it’s in first person and she has this amazing ability to create a unique rhythm for the way each character speaks, and to use distinct and period/age appropriate expressions. It’s no surprise she lists in the Afterword that Charles Dickens in her ‘favorite novelist’. Say what you want about Dickens (who also had his strengths and his weaknesses) but the guy was amazing at writing dialogue and his characters’ voices really jump off the page. Donoghue is the same.

My two favorite stories in Astray, ’The Lost Seed’ and ‘Vanitas’, are told in two very distinctive voices by two totally vivid characters. In ‘The Lost Seed’ that’s a man in Puritan New England who starts accusing his neighbors of sex crimes and, in ‘Vanitas’ a bored and spoiled Creole teenager on a plantation, whose thoughtless actions have unintended, disastrous consequences for an enslaved maid. The main character in ‘Vanitas‘ comes across immediately: she’s a bored teenager with a flare for drama.

What both of these excellent stories share too, is that they put you into the minds of people who (not maliciously but certainly carelessly) did terrible things to others. Both characters are based on real people and I think these stories are stronger than many of the others because Donoghue has to work harder as a writer here to dig into these people’s motives, to guess why they behaved the way they did. The really tragic conclusion that she seems to have come to is that both of these people were deeply isolated and lonely. The reader feels for them, as well as condemning their actions, and this makes these stories have more tension and resonance than the sad but more straightforward stories like ‘Onwards’ about a London mother who has to resort to prostitution, or ‘Counting the Days’, about a marriage between two Irish migrants fleeing to Canada.

My main critique of the collection though, other than the hit-and-miss nature of the stories, is to do with the way it was put together (which may or may not have been Donoghue’s idea). After each story, there’s a brief historical note, where Donoghue explains what real books/newspaper articles/biographies inspired these fictional stories, and often she elaborates on how the ‘real’ people’s lives ended. For me, this information was interesting but should have been left to the end of the book. The stories are strong enough to stand on their own and often this research context was distracting.

In the case of the first story ‘Man and Boy’, about a circus elephant and his trainer, something that she mentioned in the historical note was a lot more interesting, in my opinion, than what she chose to write the story itself about, which got me thinking too much about that historical fact, rather than her story. Maybe it’s just because I’m conditioned to expect these sort of notes at the back of books, but they felt out of place in the midst of the collection and almost like she was justifying why she wrote what she wrote: I’d have liked for the collection to just let the stories breathe and include that at the back, for people who are curious about what inspired them.

All in all, if these are themes (travel, migration, American and Canadian history) that you’re curious about – this is a good book to pick up, especially considering how few historical fiction short stories are published these days (more on that in my post from earlier this year about my favorite author Karen Russell). Donoghue isn’t a didactic writer but of course these stories have a political resonance to reading them now (but, then, when does migration not have a political dimension to it? Has there ever been a time when societies didn’t try to shut their borders, demonizing the foreign ‘other’?). Donoghue clearly knows this and mentions in the ‘Afterword’ when discussing the story of the Johnsons, ‘economic migrants’ fleeing the Irish famine that: ‘Whenever I read headlines about human traffic gunned down crossing a border (…) I think of the Johnsons.’ So it’s an important time to think about and reflect on these topics of migration and immigrant experiences, which are always relevant, but perhaps especially so now.

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘The entrance to a harbor with a ship firing a salute’, by Joseph Vernet in 1761 and accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

Madeira Mondays: 90’s TV and Rip Van Winkle

This is a blog post about the past.

Yes, you could say that pretty much all of my posts are about the past, but, this one, in particular, is really about the past.

You see, recently I’ve been rewatching a favorite childhood show called Wishbone. Fellow children of the 90’s might also remember this show: about a cute Jack Russell Terrier called ‘Wishbone’ who imagines himself in great works of literature and then acts them out, with himself as the main character. It’s an adorable concept for a show, having a dog acting out classic stories (he wears so many cute outfits!!), and the show creator Rick Duffield explicitly said that he wanted to get kids excited about books and reading:

We believe this show can cultivate a new appetite for reading by making kids think it’s fun to get to know these books (…) it’s intended to be fun, action packed, clever and a way to get their first taste of great stories that can become a valuable educational stepping stone in their lives.

It definitely worked for me. It was one of the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) shows, alongside Reading Rainbow with LeVar Burton, that helped me fall in love with books.

There are always two plots in every episode of Wishbone. One plot is always about something happening in real-life (perhaps with Wishbone’s owner, a boy called Joe (Jordan Wall) or one of Joe’s friends, his mom Ellen (Mary Chris Wall) who is a librarian, or his wacky neighbor Wanda (Angee Hughes)). Then one plot is always a retelling of a classic story. These two plots are intercut with each other, and there are always parallel themes. For instance, the episode about Robin Hood has Joe helping a cafeteria lady in real-life sneaking food away to give to a homeless shelter etc.

It’s an extremely wholesome show, but not cringe-worthy. It’s sweet. And apparently the show was also known for not shying away from the darker elements of the retold stories (the Joan of Arc episode, for instance, has Joan being burned alive at the stake and the Jekyll and Hyde episode is quite spooky. The episode about West African folktales also talks pretty openly about the cruelties of slavery). A uniting theme across many of the episodes is the power and importance of stories.

Another cool element is that they often have behind-the-scenes footage at the end of each episode where the lighting or sound technicians, or the director etc. explain how they made that episode – which adds another educational layer, as well.

The episode that I wanted to talk about for Madeira Mondays is called ‘Digging up the Past’ from Season 1. In it, Wishbone imagines himself in Rip Van Winkle the famous short story written by American writer Washington Irving in 1819. It’s about a Dutch-American man in Colonial America called Rip Van Winkle who falls asleep in New York’s Catskill Mountains and then wakes up twenty years later…having missed the whole American Revolution. Basically, he wakes up in a new country!

I’ll admit that I’ve never read the original Rip Van Winkle story (although Wishbone has succeeded in making me want to read it!). In the episode, the way that Wishbone addresses the themes of Rip Van Winkle in the present day storyline is by introducing the idea of Joe, the main character, having to do a report for school about something from his grandparents’ childhood that he wishes were still around today. He helpfully runs into an older woman, Dr. Brown (great name, if I do say so myself!), at the library. She is back in town after several decades away and Joe ends up figuring out that she used to live at his house, fifty years ago. Together they try to find a time capsule that she buried in the yard. So all of these intersecting plot lines parallel the story of Rip Van Winkle: a person who, like Dr. Brown, returns to his old village after decades to see that much has changed.

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The Talbot family and friends unearth a time capsule left behind by Dr. Brown. Characters from left to right: Ellen Talbot (Mary Chris Wall), Dr. Thelma Brown (Irma P. Hall), Joe Talbot (Jordan Wall), Wishbone (an adorable Jack Russell Terrier called ‘Soccer’ and voiced by Larry Brantley), Wanda Gilmore (Angee Hughes), Sam Kepler (Christine Abbott) and David Barnes (Adam Springfield).

The character of Rip Van Winkle is obviously played by Wishbone and to see him emerging from a bed of autumn leaves with an enormous fake beard was, obviously, very cute.

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Wishbone emerges as Rip Van Winkle from his long slumber

This episode, and indeed this entire series, is lovely. And, in a way, this episode itself is a time capsule for me personally, because I remember watching it as a kid. Looking at it now, it’s a bit like traveling back in time. Like unearthing something long buried that kind of looks familiar but also isn’t exactly how you recall it. But it also reminds me that while so much has changed about my life (from eight-years-old to twenty-eight – two decades, just like Rip Van Winkle!) there are some things that haven’t: I still love stories generally, especially ones about Colonial America, and I still love Wishbone.

Many of us are Rip Van Winkles right now, I think, because time is passing but we’re hibernating in our homes. And, when we emerge, the world will be different. It might be strange and a bit alien to us, like it was for Rip after his very long nap. But I think, like Rip, we’ll be able to adjust to it. Humans, and dogs, are quite resilient and adaptable. Or at least that’s what Wishbone seems to suggest.

PS Today’s Featured Image is Wishbone as Sherlock Holmes, from Mental Floss

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!