Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Compulsive Storyteller: Wilkie Collins

The high Victorian age saw the rise of the novel as we know it. Taxes on paper had been abolished and advances in printing technology led to an increase in book production. Circulating libraries and monthly magazines offered affordable access to literature to the masses. "Shilling Shockers" were hawked for reading on the trains. Millions of working men and women were buying up cheap penny journals.

The new class of readers wanted a new kind of novel. Sensationalism, sentimentality, and melodrama were in demand, and stories about crime and murder. They wanted Genre fiction that took readers on a wild ride, with great plots to keep things moving along.

And Wilkie Collins was a genius at just this kind of novel.

Peter Ackroyd's short biography Wilkie Collins, A Brief Life succinctly covers the life and art of the author of The Women in White and The Moonstone

With a "painter's eye" and brilliant plotting he became the fourth greatest writer of his generation. He wrote the first English detective story and created the first female detective. A social liberal who disdained Victorian values, he tackled controversial issues, writing about the underclass, vivisection, illegitimacy, and 'fallen women'. His female characters were strong and self sufficient, the opposite of the idealized Victorian female.

He suffered from bad health and was in pain most of his life. He used laudanum in ever increasing doses, grateful for the relief it brought. Later he added calomel and colchicum and inhaled amyl nitrite. Wilkie Collins used a cane in his thirties and by his sixties his health was so deteriorated people thought he looked twenty years older. And yet when working on a book he kept up a diligent pace, even dictating from his sick bed.

Collins determined not to marry, but had a long term mistress Caroline Graves (who already had a child) and later a second mistress who bore him children. The two women never met although their children sometimes mingled at his home.
Caroline Graves, from The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William Clarke
At university I had a Victorian Studies course in which we read the important books published in 1859. That was the year in which Charles Dickens, in his magazine All the Year Round, published his serialized A Tale of Two Cities. The November issue saw the conclusion of Two Cities and the first installment of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. (This was also the year Origin of Species was published!)

I later read The Moonstone. I also read a lot about Charles Dickens and learned about his collaboration with Wilkie Collins to write The Frozen Deep, inspired by the lost Franklin expedition which never returned from the frozen north. Franklin's widow didn't give up hope and sent an expedition to find her husband. Collins and Dickens were great friends and collaborated in other plays as well, even acting.

But I knew nothing of the man Collins. And what an odd man he was! He was completely unconventional. He wore flashy clothes, was oddly proportioned, and loved French cooking. Medical science could only offer him remedies that today we shudder to consider, and likely ruined his health even more.

I am left wanting to explore his life in greater depth, to know him more vividly. I also an curious to re-read again Women in White, which spawned quite a fan club, and books I have not read especially Heart and Science which Ackroyd contends is one of Collin's "most unjustly neglected novels" with more characterization.

I thank the publisher and NetGalley for the free ebook in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Wilkie Collins, A Brief Life
by Peter Ackroyd
Doubleday Books
$12.99 ebook
Publication date: October 6, 2015
ISBN: 9780385537407

Friday, October 2, 2015

The First King of Hollywood: Douglas Fairbanks

He was a teenager when he left home to act in a traveling troupe and hit Broadway before he was 20. He shot to fame in film, reigned at the box office for fifteen years, and retired at age 51.

He was not a particularly handsome, but had a winning smile and a charismatic personality. In his closet were up to 70 suits and 35 overcoats, 50 pair of shoes and 300 neckties.

He signed a vow to not drink as a boy and kept it until the last ten years of his life. He avoided overt sexuality yet loved nude sunbathing in privacy.

He did his own amazing stunts, and even when a stunt man was requested by the producer (who knew that an accident would delay the filming), he would demonstrate the stunt to the stand-in.

He was the inspiration behind Batman and Superman.

He mythologized his own life with idealized, made up stories of his family and childhood. He downplayed his achievements, even listing his name last in the credits.

He supported charitable causes. President Wilson nixed his volunteering for service in WWI, saying he was more valuable on tour promoting Liberty Bonds.

He married the love of his life, and lost her, and neither ever really recovered.

Tracey Goessel's new biography The First King of Hollywood  contends that Douglas Fairbanks is relatively unknown today. His film career shot to the top and held its own for about 15 years. Then "talkies" changed everything and Fairbanks lost his heart for making movies. At 51 he was a "has-been". He wanted to enjoy life. Always on the move, he decided to travel around the world.

His second wife--and love of his life--Mary Pickford was a workaholic who didn't enjoy traveling. She wanted to continue her career as a talking actress. She was also a closet alcoholic.

Mary and Doug were the first Hollywood power couple, creating crowds and turmoil everywhere they went. She was "America's Sweetheart". Doug was not threatened by her success, but gloried in it.
Mary and Doug on Honeymoon
Fairbanks was complicated and interesting. He was a decent man. Yet his impetuous and impatient nature could cause difficulties and even harm to others. He befriended the common man and hobnobbed with royalty. Charlie Chaplin said Fairbanks was his only friend. Fairbanks was able to persuade his first wife to plead his case to his second wife Mary Pickford. And after ignoring his only child Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as he grew up, he forged a decent relationship with him in later years.

I was heartbroken over how Mary and Douglas lost each other. Differences in goals and temperament, coupled with jealousy, came between them. What if marriage counseling had been around, would they have understood before it was too late that they still loved each other? When Mary at the last minute offered to drop her divorce suit Doug was already on his way to marry another woman and Mary was waiting for her lover's divorce to finalize.

Neither found true happiness. Doug died ten years later of a heart attack, and Mary's drinking became toxic. She died in 1979, lonely and forgotten.

Mary and Doug in happier times
I so enjoyed reading this book. I already watched one Fairbanks movie online and plan to see more.

I thank the publisher and NetGalley for a free ebook in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks
by Tracey Goessel
Chicago Review Press
Publication October 1, 2015
ISBN: 9781613734049
At an antique mall many years ago I found a piece of silky fabric with a photograph of Mary Pickford. Using heirloom laces and pins, and vintage handkerchiefs and buttons, I made my first 'crazy quilt' collage wall hanging. It remains one of my favorite quilts.

made by Nancy A. Bekofske

detail of Mary Pickford quilt by Nancy A. Bekofse

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Thirteen Days in 1962: A Place We Knew Well by Susan Carol McCarthy

I am excited to be a part of my first Blog Tour! The publisher is hosting a Rafflecopter book giveaway. You can enter to receive one of five books here. 

I wanted to read A Place We Knew Well because it was a family drama set during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was just ten years old in 1962 and had little understanding of world politics. I only knew that the adults in my life were fixated on the small black and white television screen and I knew they were frightened and worried. So I was worried. It was years later that I associated those days of fear with the Crisis.

Author Susan Carol McCarthy had her own memories of those thirteen days which inspired her to write this book. In her own words,
Where do books come from? I can’t speak for anyone else but, I know for sure, each of my three books grew out of very specific, very personal life events.
Inspiration for my first book, Lay That Trumpet In My Hands, arrived in a manila envelope containing clippings from The Orlando Sentinel, about a series of shocking race crimes that occurred in my central Florida hometown the year I was born, and an 8-page letter from my father saying, “Everyone in town knew the local KKK was involved, but no one was willing to do anything about it. I want you to hear, from the horse’s mouth, what I did and why.”
My second book, True Fires, grew out of the first, when I discovered, with my father’s help, the one time that the powerful racist sheriff in the county north of ours, a minor character in Trumpet, was forced, by strong women in his community, to do the right thing. It may have been the only time during his 28-year reign that the love of power capitulated to the power of love. I was genuinely inspired and privileged to tell that story. 
My third and newest book, A Place We Knew Well, was, in all seriousness, a nightmare—a recurring nightmare which I began to have soon after the events of September 11, 2001. In that dream, I was desperately afraid and powerless because the end of the world was at hand; but oddly, I was back in Florida with my parents and only ten/eleven years old. It took me awhile to realize that my subconscious had somehow melded my childhood memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the attack on the Twin Towers. Nearly four decades apart, my response to 9/11—shock and outrage, anxiety and fear—sent me back to a place that I, and anyone who was in Florida in late October 1962, knew all too well.
So many books have been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis from the political, military, and historians’ perspective. My inspiration was to capture what it was like to be an ordinary family trapped in the swath of that extraordinary, uniquely terrifying time. This book began as a way of setting down my own vivid childhood memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it would never have been finished without the generosity of so many others, whose shared recollections helped me grasp the larger, communal story. I’m truly grateful to them for their insights; and to you, kind reader, for your interest in this seminal time.  

The novel starts in 2009 with a woman returning to what was her father's gas station, now closed after his death. She notes the "lingering smells of petroleum, cigarettes, and strong coffee that, as long as I can remember, meant "Dad's work." She sees the cash register and the red-and-green Texaco star, finds her father's work jacket which smells of Old Spice and oil. The woman is jolted to October 1962, her senior year in high school.

The description of the station jolted me back to the gas station my father ran until 1963 when he sold the business. I wrote about The Station in a post you can read here.

For my family the Cuban Missile Crisis passed and was never spoke of. McCarthy was older at the time and her novel is a cathartic work to organize and control the experience of the events of October 19, 1962 and the thirteen days that followed.

Wes Avery runs his gas station in Orlando, Florida, not far from McCoy AFB. Wes was a navy pilot in WWII; he understands that unusual things are going on. Such as the arrival of  top-secret U-2s at the field and an alert of DEFCON 2, meaning imminent war with the Strategic Air Command.

His wife is active in promoting fall out shelters. She is frustrated and depressed, popping pills to fight a nervous breakdown. Wes had flown over Japan after the atomic bomb attack and saw the destruction. He knows there is no surviving an atomic war.

Meantime, Wes's daughter is on the Homecoming Court at school. Her date is a Cuban refugee his once wealthy family remain in Cuba. He hates Castro but encounters prejudice because he is Cuban and poor.

On top of everything else Wes is visited by someone who is supposed to be 'dead' and who threatens to destroy his family just as surely as Fidel Castro threatens to destroy America.

I liked Wes Avery. He is a good man who sees things straight but is forced to prevaricate to protect his family. He wants to protect his daughter from knowledge that her world may be about to end, allowing her to enjoy the simple pleasures of being on the Homecoming Court. And he must protect his wife from knowing that a person from her past is returned, a person who could destroy his family.

The novel delivers a lot of history and background information on the political and social climate of the time. Wes's flashbacks do become intrusive and slow the momentum of the story. McCarthy has a lot she wants us to know, but not all of it fits seamlessly into the story. It is my main criticism of the novel.

For readers younger than we Boomers, the novel offers insight into a time when mainland America first felt the threat of war on their home turf, long before the attacks of 9-11. They will wonder at America's nativity. As Peter Pan told Wendy, "You see, children know such lot now." A sad wisdom indeed.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

A Place We Knew Well
Susan Carol McCarthy
Random House-Bantom Dell
Publication Date September 29, 2015
$27.95 hard cover
ISBN: 9780804176545

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Too Good To Be True: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

What are you willing to give up for security? Would you give up your free will?

Margaret Atwood's new novel The Heart Goes Last  is part of her Positron series, the first I have read. It has twists and turns that swept me into the plot line, and even when things got very icky I kept reading to discover what the heck was going on.

The novel is about Stan and Charmaine, a couple who have lost everything in an economic collapse. They are living in their car, fearful of night time attacks for theirs is a society were murder is common in the struggle for limited resources. Charmaine sees an advertisement for the Positron Project in the town of Consilience, offering full employment, a home, and work. They attend the marketing session. and are accepted. Charmaine buys into the dream world and Stan wants to let her have it.

The society is based on people willing to work one month in 'prison' for one month of normalcy.

The reader knows something is not right here and we want to find out what is behind this ideal society. It involves a complete loss of personal control, smarmy and immoral business practices, and scientific marvels that benefit the rich and powerful.

I warn you that there are very seedy things going on. Sex is used for control, and sexual desire and addiction is the motivation for some amazing technological developments.

Our couple learn they are pawns in a convoluted and bizarre scheme that will impact the future of Positron. Murder, threat of 'termination', loss of will, posing at robots--what these poor people endure!

In the end Charmaine and Stan get their just rewards, find peace, and learn how to love each other and enjoy what the heart has to offer.

I thank the publisher and NetGalley for a free ebook in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Heart Goes Last
Margaret Atwood
Penguin Random House
Publication Date Sept. 29, 2015
Hardcover $29.95

Monday, September 28, 2015

Cafe Curtains for my Retro Kitchen!

It took months for me to find the right fabric or curtains for my new kitchen. When I saw High Tea by Michael Miller I ran and got my hubby, who was reading on the quilt shop's husband chair. Was I crazy, or was this 'the one'? I found the fabric at Sew Elegant in Port Huron on our trip 'up the St Clair River' last month. I bought a yard of the fabric, took it home, loved it, and the shop shipped me more yardage.

I had determined to made old fashioned tiered cafe curtains on rings. Finding the hardware was another long search. I wanted the rings, and I wanted a white or silver colored rod. And the rod holder had to extend out past the sunshades already on the windows. The windows are 70" wide and I wanted two long rods. Who'd a thought it would be that hard? Well, I could have bought something right away...for over $70. And I couldn't bring myself to buy the set, it was too much money and too fancy.

Two nights ago we dined at a local Greek Street Food restaurant (I had a hankering for Spinach Pie). We went to W*****t, a store I never shop at, and they had the rods I needed. For under $35. Sold.

I had wanted to do scallop topped, lined curtains but gave up and just did simple, lined cafe curtains. I like the ability to close or open the top and bottom as this is a west facing window and also faces the neighbor's deck.

We finally have the final touch to the kitchen!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Seven Women and the Secret of their Greatness by Erick Metaxas

As a girl I read biographies of women such as  Joan of Arc, Jane Addams, and Florence Nightingale. These women's lives made a difference in their world and I wanted to be like them. But, I thought, someone had to write their stories so people like me could be inspired by their example. And I decided that being a writer was the more powerful.

Eric Metaxas writes about people whose faith sustained them as they battled powers which should have overwhelmed and defeated them. His book on Wilbur Wilberforce, Amazing Grace, was awe-inspiring. I loved it, and I loved the movie based on it which starred Ioan Gruffudd. I have his book on Bonhoeffer waiting patiently for attention.

His latest book Seven Women examines how women of faith changed the world: Joan of Arc, Susanna Wesley, Hannah More, Saint Maria of Paris, Corrie Ten Boom, Rosa Parks, and Mother Teresa. Metaxes believes there is a hunger for heroes today. He chose these women because of their compelling stories, and because their strength were their womanly virtues of love, compassion, feminine dignity, and motherly care-giving.

Most of these women I was familiar with. Some I knew quite well; I had read Ten Boom's books long ago and more recently read David Brinkley's book on Rosa Parks. Last year I read Joan of Arc by Kathleen Harrison. I knew a little about Susanna Wesley, whose sons founded the movement that became the Methodist church in which my husband spent 38 years pastoring. St. Teresa's work and demise was so recent we all know the basics.

Saint Maria of Paris was new to me, and very interesting to learn about. In some ways Saint Maria reminded me of Joy Davidson, whose biography by Abigail Santamaria I read earlier this year; they both had messy faith journeys including atheism and Socialism.  Metaxes said she reminded him of Bonhoeffer--brilliant, intellectual, eschewing pietism, and 'enamored of the idea that Jesus was fully incarnate."

Saint Maria's journey took her through marriage and divorce, children in and out of wedlock, Socialism, finally fully giving herself to her Christian faith. Born Elizaveta Pilenko in Latvia, the tragic loss of her father created an anger and rejection of a God who was not just. Her passion for social justice returned her to the faith, with a deep belief that the Christian is called to work for social justice. Metaxes writes, "she had the heart of a mother" with an all embracing love and respect. Later in life she became a nun and a supporter of the French Resistance. Incarcerated at Ravensbruck she lead prayer groups, her buoyant spirit  hiding her failing health.

These women are all Christians although their living out of their faith vary. Rosa Parks was a life time member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church but her leadership in Civil Rights is not shown as a direct outcome of her faith. Susanna Wesley's faith helped her to surmount difficulties of poverty, illness, and heartache, inspiring her sons who founded the world changing Methodist revival. The brilliant, intellectual Hannah More hobnobbed with the great minds of her time while remaining true to her faith and commitment to social justice. She was a close friend of Wilberforce.

Metaxes has written a book that would be a good introduction to the lives of these amazing women. The biographies are succinct without losing power. I was glad to visit again the lives of women like Corrie Ten Boom, whose example still moves me.

I thank the publisher and NetGalley for the free ebook in exchange for a fair and unbiased review,

Seven Women and the Secret of their Greatness
Eric Metaxes
Thomas Nelson
$24.99 hard cover

Saturday, September 26, 2015

American Export: Contemporary Quilts in Japan

Japanese Contemporary Quilts and Quilters: The Story of an American Import by Teresa Duryea Wong shows how the American quilt revival sparked a revolution in Japanese fabric arts, and presents contemporary Japanese Quilt Artists who transformed the quilt world.

American quilters well know that quilts from Japan display remarkable technical and creative skills. Wong explains the rigorous and exacting Iemoto system of education. Students learn in a classroom setting under a master teacher. A long term commitment is required as students master the craft, progressing from basic to instructor level. Emphasis is on hand workmanship, a highly valued skill with a long tradition in Japan.

The result of this traditional form of apprenticeship is evident by the many awards taken by Japanese quilters at international venues.

Alternately, some quilt instructors, not certified in the Iemoto system, teach in the 'American' way, allowing students to work at their own pace, acting as a mentor. Long-arm quilting is more prevalent in these schools.

Part One of the book covers:
  • Japan's Quilting History: A Heavy Dose of American Influence, including the Whitney Museum pivotal quilt show in 1971 to the American television show "Little House on the Prairie" which showed quilt-making and quilts
  • Learning to Quilt in Japan: Two Schools of Thought, the Iemoto system and quilters like Noriko Endo who are 'outsider' artists
  • 1990: The Year of the Quilt, the year of Quilt Nihon and the first All-Japanese quilt show
  • Japan's Gross National Cool and the J-Quilt
Kabuki by Katagiri, winner of 1st Quilt Nihon Show
Part Two presents eight contemporary Japanese quilters representing various styles:

  • Yoko Saito and her Japanese Taupe color theory
  • Yoshiko Katagiri who uses kimono silks in her appliqué quilts; see her quilts at Quilt Inspiration
  • Noriko Endo who uses 'confetti' fabric scraps to make amazing quilts like those seen here
  • Chiaki Dosho whose fiber art pushes the boundary of 'quilt' as seen here
  • Yoshiko Kurihara, anime artist turned quilter uses the iconography of Harlequin clowns as seen here
  • Keiko Goke whose colorful interpretations of traditional blocks are delightfully 'off kilter.' See her DoubleWedding Ring here

The book is oversized with 200 full color photographs on every page. It is an elegant book, down to the type font and layout.

Altogether, it is an informative and inspirational book that quilters and art lovers will enjoy.

Visit Wong's blog here.

I received a free book from Schiffer Publishing in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Japanese Contemporary Quilts and Quilters: The Story of an American Import
Teresa Duryea Wong
Schiffer Publishing
$34.99 hard cover
ISBN13: 9780764348747