Wednesday, May 17, 2017


In Canada in the 1860s, the Hudson Bay Company rules.  The fur trade is dwindling, but the murder of fur trader Laurent Jammet near the town of Caulfield gets the Company’s attention.  They send in three men:   the surly Mackinley, the greenhorn Donald Moody, and a native-American guide.  An inscrutable teenager, Francis Ross, has gone missing around the time of the murder and becomes a prime suspect.  Then two more men appear on the scene:  Thomas Sturrock and William Parker.  Both men were acquainted with the deceased, and Sturrock knows that he had a relic that could be quite valuable.  Sturrock is well-known in Caulfield, as he was hired to search for two girls who went missing and were never found.  Soon the Company men set out on a cold, snowy trek to find Francis Ross, followed a few days later by Parker and Francis’s mother.  In fact, almost every character becomes part of an expedition at one time or another, to or from Caulfield or a Norwegian settlement or a Company outpost.  More nasty characters turn up, but everyone has a different agenda and personal reasons for getting to the bottom of the Jammet murder.  This book has it all—adventure, suspense, and multi-layered characters, especially Mrs. Ross, the first-person narrator.  She will go to any length to disprove her son’s involvement in the murder, but first she has to find him.  She has a painful history herself, and her husband does not seem to share her certainty about Francis’s innocence.  The writing style somehow reflects the bleakness of the landscape and conveys so perfectly the terror and hardship that each of these journeys entails.  I needed an antidote for the unabsorbing stuff I’ve been reading lately, and this book did the trick.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

CLEOPATRA: A LIFE by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra may have been colorful and engaging, but this book is not.  I appreciate that historical sources are slim to none, but I think that the biography of a woman who reigned over a flourishing Egypt and seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony would be a little more lively.  Instead, I found this book to be crushingly dull.  The accounts of battles and murders just run together after a while, and it doesn’t help that the names are confusing and sometimes similar; I had particular difficulty with Arsinoe (Cleopatra’s sister) and Auletes (her father).  On the plus side, I learned a few things.  For example, Mauritania is now Algeria.  Also, the city of Alexandria in Cleopatra’s day was incredibly beautiful, cultured, and modern compared to Rome.  Cleopatra was very well educated, spoke nine or more languages, and charmed the Romans with her intellect more so than her questionable beauty.  Unless I dozed through that section, however, the author never mentions who the three triumvirs were.  (Actually, there was a first and second triumvirate, but I was mainly interested in the second, made up of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus.)  Since so little of Cleopatra’s life is documented, we can’t know if her missteps were inspired by love and loyalty or if she just miscalculated.  Certainly she was not a military strategist.  One particular episode in the book did not ring true to me.  The author claims that at one point Cleopatra wins over Mark Antony’s continued affection by crying and staging a hunger strike.  Really?  Since when have tears and histrionics ever swayed a man to a woman’s favor?

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders

I did not like the format of this novel at all.  I read several chapters before I realized that the dialog was taking place between dead people in a Washington, D.C., cemetery—Oak Hill, to be exact.  Interspersed among these conversations are excerpts from real and fake and sometimes radically conflicting historical documents recounting the days surrounding the death of Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie.  Willie, too has joined the wakeful dead, clinging to earth in a sort of a waystation before being spirited away to his appointed afterlife.   Willie’s mightily grieving father makes several visits to Willie’s coffin, known by the cemetery denizens as a sick-box, as they are all somewhat in denial of their own deaths.   Another annoying feature of this book is that the speaker’s identity always follows his monologue, which may be rather long, causing the reader to have to guess which dead person is speaking.  In some cases, I could make a reasonable assumption based on the speaker’s manner of speaking or choice of words, but not usually, and I think I would have preferred to have read this book on paper rather than in electronic form.  All that aside, this novel may revolve around Willie and his tormented father, but the backstories of the other characters are in some ways more human, particularly with regard to what might have been, especially in the case of Mr. Bevins and Mr. Vollman.  The author gives both men a “future story” that is beautiful but sad because it was unfulfilled and at the same time perhaps comforting to the two men as a sort of preview of the afterlife.   If all this sounds a little maudlin, take heart.  The not-necessarily-historical documents can’t agree on the weather, much less render a consistent opinion on whether Lincoln was handsome or exceedingly homely.  Alternative facts, anyone?