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review 2017-06-26 11:01
Multi-award winner historical fiction in pre-revolution New York with a fabulous narrator and an intriguing main character
Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York - Francis Spufford

Thanks to Net Galley and to Faber & Faber for offering me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I had an interesting experience with this novel. In the last few weeks, every time I reviewed a novel that was nominated for an award and checked out what novel had won it, it was Golden Hill (among them, the Costa First Novel Award, The Desmond Elliott Prize, the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2017…) and I thought I had to read it and find out what the fuss what about.

It is not difficult to see why people are fascinated by this novel. It is a historical fiction novel by an author who has written non-fiction extensively and has chosen a very interesting narrative style. (I must confess to being very intrigued by his book called The Child that Books Built. A Life in Reading, especially in view of a recent discussion we had on my blog about books on reading). The story is set in the New York of the late 1740s and is narrated by an anonymous narrator (or so it seems as we read) who tells the story of a man, Richard Smith, who arrives in the New World with a money order for 1000 pounds and acts quite mysteriously. The story is told in the third person, but the narrator breaks the third wall barrier often, at times to despair at being unable to describe a card game, or a fight, at others to decide where we can or cannot enter. Although the book’s language and style are word-perfect (and will enchant those who love accuracy), it appears more sensitive to certain aspects of the society of the time than perhaps a novel of the period would have been (slavery, gender, and race issues…) but the narrating style reminds us of Henry and Sarah Fielding, and in a nod to metafiction, in the book itself there are discussions of novels that include Joseph Andrews or David Simple. I have talked often about my fascination for narrators and this is one of those novels that will keep it alive for a long time.

The book transports the reader to the New York of 1747, a provincial and small place, with only a few streets and a mixture of inhabitants mostly from Dutch and English origins, with a jumble of different coins and bank notes in circulation, what appear to be the equivalent of small-town politics and an interesting judicial system, and dependent on ships from London for news and entertainment. Although I have read historical tracts and fiction from the era, I don’t think any of them managed to give me as good an understanding and a feel for what colonial New York was like.

The story itself is built around the mystery of Smith’s character. Who is he? Is the money order real, or is he a con-man? Is he a magician, an actor, a seducer, a trouble-maker, all of the above? Everybody wants him, or better, his money, for their own goals (political, financial…) and he allows himself to be courted by all, although he is only really interested in the daughter of one of the Dutch businessmen who is holding his money order until they receive confirmation of its true value, Tabitha. Tabitha is my favourite character, a shrew, sharp and witty, and somebody I wouldn’t mind learning much more about.

Smith is a good stand-in for the reader because although he is from the era, he is naïve as to the colonies and the different social mores, politics, and customs there, and keeps getting into trouble. Although his adventures are interesting, and the mystery that surrounds him seemingly propels the story (although half-way through the novel we get a clue as to what might be behind the intrigue), I found it difficult to fully empathise with him, perhaps because of the style of narration (although the story is told by a narrator, and in the third person, at times we get a clear look at what Smith is thinking, but, for me, the hidden information somehow hindered my full investment in the character). There are many other interesting characters, although we do not get to know any of them in a lot of detail. For a great insight into the book and all that it contains, I recommend you read the About the author note I have included above. The man can write, for sure.

The ending… Well, there is an ending to the story and then there is a final twist. If you picked up the clues, the ending will not be such a big surprise. The twist… Yes, it makes one look at the book in a completely different way, although it makes perfect sense.

I highlighted many fragments that I particularly liked, but on checking them again I was worried they might, either give too much away or confuse somebody who is not following the story. So I’d advise you to check the book sample available on your favourite online bookstore and see if you enjoy the style. If you do, it only gets better.

I recommend this book to anybody curious about its reputation, to lovers of historical fiction, in particular, those set up in the colonies prior to the revolution, and to readers and writers who enjoy narrators and look for something a bit different.

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text 2017-06-19 17:58
U.S. Kindle Sale: Miscellaneous
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club - Dorothy L. Sayers
The Golden Compass - Philip Pullman
All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, and All Things Wise and Wonderful: Three James Herriot Classics - James Herriot
Jack of Shadows - Roger Zelazny
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic - Randy Shilts,William Greider
Silent Spring - Rachel Carson,Linda Lear,Edward O. Wilson
Cheaper by the Dozen - Frank B. Gilbreth Jr.,Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

Currently $1.99: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, by Dorothy L. Sayers.  The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, by Phillip Pullman.  Jack of Shadows, by Roger Zelazny.  Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey.

 

Currently $2.99: Three James Herriot Classics (All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, and All Things Wise and Wonderful), by James Herriot.  Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh.

 

Currently $3.99: And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts.  Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-06-15 20:09
The House of God by Samuel Shem
The House of God - Samuel Shem

Around here the postgraduate system of education in medicine is quite different than the American one, but still I could detect quite a few similarities - because I guess, whereever you are, patients, the medical hierarchy (the ice-cream cone) and what it does to you as intern, is quite the same.

 

So I could relate to the terror of the first rotation, to the thrill of the Emergency Ward, the horror of Gomer City, the internal detachment, the need to hide inside yourself, to witness colleagues being crushed by the system... and also the realization of what's going on and trying to get ahead of it. Unfortunately, I had more Jo's and Leggos than Fats during my internship... because his rules, even though they sound funny and callous at first are hard-learned lessons and much more important than always doing whatever medical science is able to offer.

 

Of course, this novel is also a product of its time, a male-dominated environment where sex is kind of the only relief of stress and pressure - not to say that it's much different nowadays, especially if you work hours that only allow you to go home to sleep but otherwise you pretty much spend your day in the hospital -, but I could have done without the various sexual experiences of the interns. Then again, it's a symptom of this system.

 

Overall, certainly a novel an intern, no matter where he or she works, should read.

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review 2017-06-03 02:57
JFK's EPOCHAL 5-YEAR QUEST FOR THE PRESIDENCY
The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign - Thomas Oliphant,Curtis Wilkie

This magisterial, ambitious book traces, in considerable detail, the path John F. Kennedy undertook in his quest for the Presidency between 1955 and 1960.

From the time Kennedy first ran for Congress in 1946, he faced many challenges - both professionally and personally (given the periodic precariousness of his health, which remained largely a secret during his lifetime) - in forging a career in public service. "THE ROAD TO CAMELOT" shows the reader how it was that Kennedy in 1955 (by then a freshman Senator) with the assistance of one of his top aides (Ted Sorenson), a dedicated 'band of brothers' who had played a significant and invaluable role in helping Kennedy further his career (i.e. the 'Irish Mafia', which consisted of Kenny O'Donnell, Lawrence O'Brien, Dave Powers, and Dick Donahue), his brother Robert, and several key Democrats (many of them on the state level) who recognized Kennedy's potential and devoted themselves to him - began the long and laborious task of capitalizing on the national prominence he received from his failed attempt to win the vice presidential slot on the Adlai Stevenson ticket at the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

What is significant is that Kennedy started campaigning across the country in a rather understated way considerably earlier than any of his potential rivals in the Democratic Party. Indeed, the party leadership underestimated Kennedy as did many others. His youth, Catholicism, and his lack of any significant, legislative achievements were regarded as factors that would discount him as a viable presidential candidate. What also struck me as truly remarkable and incredible is the organization that Kennedy and his supporters were able to develop in many of the states (often as a way of bypassing some of the state Democratic Party machines that were either mildly non-receptive or openly opposed to his candidacy) between 1957 and 1960. In the process, future presidential campaigns would never be the same again. For that reason, "THE ROAD TO CAMELOT" is a book that everyone should read who wants to learn how it was that John F. Kennedy overcame many obstacles and defied the odds to secure the Democratic presidential nomination and be elected President in 1960.

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review 2017-05-31 14:26
Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World - Sarah Vowell  
Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World - Sarah Vowell

I can already tell I'm going to want to read this again. Essays, I love them. Plus, in my mind, I can hear Vowell as she must have sounded on This American Life, which is where most of these began. There's a few bits of growing-up interspersed throughout, a lot of history, the blackest of humor. Great stuff, perhaps especially on the Trail of Tears and how many different emotions that trip spawned.

So much humor, though.

On the one hand, I think Vowell would be an awesome friend to hang with, laughing at Choo-Choo and working it into every comment because of the way it sounds ("spleen" is a personal fave) on the other, she would someday drag me along on the least appealing road trip ever. Hotspots of the Teapot Dome scandal? Tippecanoe? Some other phrase I only dimly recall from American history, but can't actually place in time or space? She's already done The Hall of Presidents, so I'd be clear of that one. Yet no matter how little the idea would appeal to me, she'd make it fascinating: full of humor and humanity. Maybe we can just get her and Kate Beaton and Bill Bryson to filter all of history for us?

Library copy

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