Monthly Archives: October 2012

Devotion, by Dani Shapiro

As you may know by now, memoirs by women about their spiritual journeys are fairly irresistible to me. In all my reading in that genre I’ve always been looking with interest for stories from women writing outside the Christian perspective. I’ve particularly looked for Jewish women’s stories and the only good one I’ve found so far is Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Erlich, so when I stumbled across Dani Shapiro’s Devotion I knew this was something I’d been waiting for.

Shapiro writes about a spiritual quest that began for her in midlife. She’d been through a lot by that time — an Orthodox upbringing that she’d left behind, the sudden death of her father, estrangement from her mother, her son’s near-fatal illness in the first year of his life, and unsuccessful attempts to have a second child. She and her husband and son moved out of New York City to rural Connecticut in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and it’s in this time of transition that Shapiro begins to explore her own spirituality. This begins with yoga and meditation retreats but inevitably, it seems, leads her back to her Jewish heritage. She realizes that she can be a Jew who practices Buddhist meditation and learns from gurus; she can be a Jew who doubts the existence of a personal God yet still prays, but she can’t not be a Jew.

The chapters are short, the writing vivid, and the organization non-linear — Shapiro jumps back and forth, in her short pieces, from past to present in no discernible pattern, the way the mind does when remembering, when trying to make sense of experience. Which is what she’s trying to: attempting to find or create some meaning that will make sense of who she is and all that’s happened to her. If that process fascinates you as it does me, you will enjoy this memoir.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir

A Spectacle of Corruption, by David Liss

Last year a friend loaned me David Liss’s A Conspiracy of Paper, an eighteenth-century mystery novel starring a quirky hero, Benjamin Weaver, a Jewish ex-boxer turned “thieftaker.” Despite an unfortunate mix-up in which I assumed that the the book was a gift rather than a loan and I subsequently passed it on to someone else, the original owner was still nice enough to lend me the sequel, A Spectacle of Corruption, without my having even asked for it.

I liked A Conspiracy of Paper but found the details about the early stock exchange and the South Sea Bubble hard to follow because I simply don’t do very well with understanding anything financial. This book was much better since it turned, not on the details of eighteen-century finance, but on the details of eighteenth-century politics. Weaver, falsely accused of murder, has to clear his name and finds himself thrust into the middle of an election campaign, complete with Whigs, Tories, and scheming Jacobites. Along the way he encounters Miriam, his love interest from the last novel who has since married would-be Member of Parliament Griffin Melbury, and Weaver is in the uncomfortable position of having to befriend his beloved’s husband in order to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the murder. It’s a great ride all the way, Weaver is a truly fascinating though not always admirable hero, and if, like me, you find historical politics more interesting than historical finance, you will like this novel even better than its prequel. I did.

 

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Filed under Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- mystery

Garment of Shadows, by Laurie R. King

I think it’s telling that when I posted the title and author’s name for this entry, I originally typed “Garment of Shadows, by Mary Russell” and had to correct it to put in the name of the author not that of the character. Throughout this entire series of books King has done such a good job of making Mary Russell a believable character with a strong voice that it’s almost possible to be drawn into the fiction that these really are the memoirs of Sherlock Holmes’ wife.

This book finds Russell waking up in an unfamiliar room in Morocco, where she was working with the movie crew from the last novel, Pirate King. She has no idea where she is or how she got there, and her amnesia gives a unique twist to this novel as it leaves our heroine bereft of her usual impressive memory. She still has her deductive skills but has to apply them to figure out her own situation. Matters are helped somewhat when Sherlock Holmes appears but Russell at first has no memory of him or their marriage. Once again, an enjoyable outing with these two favourite characters.

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Lost Souls of Angelkov, by Linda Holeman

This is a modern work of historical fiction, set during the nineteenth-century emancipation of the Russian serfs with all the social upheaval that involved. It does a good job of capturing the mood and tone of a Russian novel as tragedy piles on tragedy and the “lost souls” who inhabit the estate of Angelkov are lost indeed. Every major character in the novel — the unhappy wife Antonina, her maid and friend Lilya, lord and master Konstantin and the estate steward Grishka — is a complex bundle of thwarted desires and mixed motives, and the larger forces of Russian society press in turmoil press in upon them all, making happy endings seem impossible.

The story is set in motion when Antonina and Konstatin’s young son is kidnapped by recently freed serfs who hold him for ransom. The crisis puts an unbearable strain on an already unhappy marriage and on a mother who is just at the brink of falling apart. It’s quickly followed by a near-fatal injury and illness for Konstantin, who is wounded in an attempt to rescue his son, and in crushing financial disaster that seems it will result in the loss of the estate. But as the story moves forward it also moves backward, exploring the lives these characters have led before the kidnapping, showing what shaped them into the people they are today. It’s a very readable, compelling story set in a well-delineated historical period, and should be both interesting and informative for lovers of historical fiction.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

Francis of Assisi, by Augustine Thompson

I have been reading this book forever. Well, for about six months. I picked it up because I’m kind of intrigued by St. Francis, but I didn’t find this gripping. It’s a well-researched biography with all the caution that’s required if you’re going to write a reliable biography about someone who lived in the twelfth century. There are so many gaps and so little we can know for sure, which is realistic, but doesn’t always make gripping reading. It certainly made it clear that a lot of things we associate with St. Francis (including the well-loved “Prayer of St. Francis”) are based more in mythology than in the man’s actual biography, and that, like so many historical characters, the real Francis (insofar as we can know him) doesn’t fit as well with our modern sensibilities as we’d like him to. This was a competent and moderately interesting biography but it was a slow read and not one that completely engaged me. Still, it is thorough and probably an important book if you’re interested in Francis of Assisi.

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The Night of the Gun, by David Carr

OK, so we all know I’m a sucker for a good addiction-and-recovery memoir, and this is a good one — journalist David Carr’s story of his disastrous slide into drug addiction, his difficult recovery, and his effort to raise his twin daughters alone while in recovery and also having a brush with cancer. But what raised this far above the run of the mill addiction memoir for me is the way the story is told.

The “night of the gun” referenced in the title is a story from the worst depths of Carr’s drug-using years when, as he recalls it, a good friend of his ended up pulling a gun on him. Except that when he went back years later and talked to his friend about it, his friend remembered the story the other way around — it was Carr who pointed a gun at him. Realizing that his own memory of such a crucial moment in his life could be flawed shook Carr — and made him question the whole project of writing a memoir. Instead of writing his memories, he chose to approach his own past — events now twenty years behind him — like he would a news story he was covering. He used his journalistic skills — interviewing, seeking out primary documents — to uncover his own story. The result was, to me, a fascinating book that said as much about the flaws and limitations of memory and  the way we construct our stories, as it did about addiction and recovery.

I’ve ranted a bit this year about memoirs that were written too soon, too close to the experiences they portray. The passage of time allows you to see events in perspective, but of course, it also blurs memory. Carr doesn’t mention James Frey by name in this but he makes it pretty clear that he thinks A Million Little Pieces and similar memoirs are flat-out lying about the author’s ability to remember events and conversations that not only happened years earlier but happened while they were drunk, high, or in withdrawal. Taking the exact opposite approach, Carr lays out for his readers the fallibility of his own memory and, when his investigative work uncovered conflicting versions of a story, simply places them side by side and admits he can’t be sure exactly how things happened. His portrayal of his own younger self is unflinching, including not just  the “cool” details about using and recovering but also his abuse of his girlfriends during his drug use, and the reasons why the mother of his children still believes that he stole them from her. It’s not always a pretty picture, but it does have the feel of unflinching honesty. For a reader like me who finds memory and storytelling even more fascinating than addiction and recovery, this was a book I found impossible to put down.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir