Friday, October 31, 2014

Book Review: Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians by Justin Martin

Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians by Justin Martin
Published by: Da Capo Press
Published on: September 2, 2014
Page Count: 368
Genre: Biography
My Reading Format: ARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Available Formats: Hardcover, Kindle, Audible

My Review:

Pfaff's Saloon in Manhattan was for years where an eclectic but now well-known group of artists and writers gathered to share their ideas with each other. At the center of this group was young poet Walt Whitman. Those who drifted in an out of this group over the next years are others who were making names for themselves: actors Edwin Booth and his brother John Wilkes Booth, comedian Artemus Ward, drug experimenter Fitz Hugh Ludlow and a scandalous actress named Adah Menken. The group was widely traveled but kept Pfaff's Saloon as a home base, gathering nearly every evening at the same table in the bar.

I read this book shortly before teaching Whitman's poetry to my American literature* class and found Martin's book to be meticulously researched and absolutely fascinating. This book featuring this quirky cast of characters with Whitman at the center really brings the bohemian group of American romantic artists to life. As the book progresses, Martin reveals, layer by layer, the connections this group formed with other notable people of the time. In particular, Martin tells of the very short degree of separation between Whitman and the assassination of the man he admired perhaps more than anyone else:  President Abraham Lincoln (and, this connection isn't through John Wilkes Booth but someone else).

Martin's book is no stuffy biography but a book that reads more like a novel and painting a picture in my head of the smoky basement bar and all the debauchery that must have ensued night after night.
It's a fascinating look into a world I knew next to nothing about before reading Rebel Souls, and I'm glad I did.

Four out of five stars

If you liked this book, you’ll like Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen, Mrs. Lincoln: A Life by Catherine Clinton, John Wilkes Booth: Beyond the Grave by W. C. Jameson, and any of Walt Whitman's poetry.

**Here's what else I included in my syllabus for American literature.
John Wilkes Booth: Beyond the Grave by W. C. Jameson - See more at:
John Wilkes Booth: Beyond the Grave by W. C. Jameson - See more at:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Thoreau's Walking and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

This is my second year I'm teaching American literature to high school sophomores and juniors at a homeschool co-op in Atlanta. We started with Puritan poetry and moved into Transcendentalism, focused on Emerson and Thoreau. Instead of having them read "Walden," to cover Thoreau I chose another essay to read and discuss in class: "Walking."

On the day of our class discussion we took a walk through the community garden outside the community center where our classes are held and had a pretty good discussion about how to enjoy solitude in nature amidst the urban sprawl of Metro Atlanta. 

At the same time the book I was reading for fun was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. I didn't choose to read the two at the same time on purpose but I liked that it happened that way.

In Joyce's book, Harold Fry is a retired man living in a small town in the southwest corner of England. He and his wife are going through a bit of a tough time in their marriage and Harold is searching for new purpose for his life. Then, a postcard arrives from a former coworker from two decades before. Queenie is in her final days of a battle with cancer and writes Harold to tell him goodbye. Harold struggles to write her back an adequate letter, dashes something off and leaves the house to go mail it. Except he doesn't mail it. He decides to hand-deliver the letter 600 miles away and starts walking.

On his journey Harold meets memorable characters who want to share in the journey with him, receives the support he desires from his wife who's still waiting for him back at home and sorts out things from his past that have been bothering him.

It tied in nicely with Thoreau's ideas that walking to experience nature is how you sort through the tough things in life and figure out how to live your life as an individual. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review: Ruth's Journey: the Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind by Daniel McCaig

Published by: Atria Books
Published on: October 14, 2014
Page Count: 384
Genre: Historical fiction
My Reading Format: ARC ebook for Kindle provided by NetGalley
Available Formats: Hardcover, Kindle ebook, Audible book

My Review:

This is the life story of Ruth, better known as Mammy, in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. We are first introduced to Ruth when she is a small child in Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti) during the unrest of the 1820s. Ruth is owned by Solange Escarlette Fornier, the wife of a weathly planter and army captain named Augustin. Like her granddaughter Scarlett is described, Solange is not beautiful but is green-eyed and striking. She longs for the exciting life she left behind in Normandy. Ruth comes into Solange's possession and is an agreeable and self-sufficient child. The three leave for Savannah and Augustin joins the American army. Soon they are immersed in the social life of this busy, diverse city, and Solange is determined to improve the family's social status. 

I liked all the similarities between Solange and Scarlett. It was fun to get to know Scarlett's grandmother and much more about her past. I liked learning about Ruth's life outside of her time with the three generations of Scarlett's family. Getting a window in on her own personal journeys and heartaches was interesting and made her a more well-rounded character to me across both novels. I also particularly liked getting the back story on on how Scarlett's parents, Gerald and Ellen end up together. 

The narrative point of view changes mid-way through the novel. It begins in the third person, giving us an objective perspective on Solange, Augustin and Ruth. However, Ruth becomes first person narrator later in the book. I enjoyed the well-written, authentic voice of Ruth as an adult and all her opinions on the bustling O'Hara household. I wish McCaig would have told the story in Ruth's voice all along. I think I would have enjoyed Ruth's childlike observations of Solange and the events of her life. The first part of the book would have seemed more personal, and readers would feel, I think, closer to her innermost thoughts and feelings by hearing them from her first-hand. The two points of view are a little jarring. Ruth's first person account is authentic while the third person feels aloof and removed from the action. However, the first time Ruth sounds like the Mammy from Gone With the Wind is more than halfway through the novel. I wish she would have found her voice earlier. 

Also, this isn't just the story of Mammy. Much of the book turns away from Mammy in favor of Solange, enough to make me wonder when we were going to get back on track. In fact, Ruth disappears from the story for a time and we know not as much as I'd like to about where she is and what she's doing. It's during this time that Solange takes center stage. When Ruth comes back, her dialect is different, perhaps because she is an older, more self-assured woman, but it was hard to make sense of.

Don't go into this with false expectations, but do enjoy it for its perspective from one of the novel's most powerful characters. Authorized or not, Gone With the Wind is a tough act to follow. I'm not sure any writer, no matter how talented, will ever be able to write the perfect sequel or prequel to this book. That said, I liked some parts of McCaig's book, while other parts of it didn't quite come together.

Two and a half stars out of five
If you liked this book, you’ll like Rhett Butler's People by Daniel McCaig and (obviously!) Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Monday, October 6, 2014

It's Monday. What are you reading?


Here's what I'm reading this week:

In the car on audiobook:
11/22/63 by Stephen King

For review (coming soon): 

Ruth's Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind by Daniel McCaig (in time for its publication date October 14)

Reading for work:

The Leadership Challenge, 4th Edition by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner
"Young Goodman Brown" and "Rappaccini's Daughter," both short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne

And reading for fun:

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar: A Novel by Suzanne Joinson

What are you reading?

This event is hosted by Sheila from Book Journey

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Book Review: Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal Edited by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite

Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal Edited by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite
Published by: New York University Press
Published on: August 1, 2014
Page Count: 384
Genre: Nonfiction, food (what else?)
My Reading Format: ARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Available Formats: Kindle ebook and hardcover

My Review: 

Books That Cook is set up like a cooking anthology: a collection of writings bound by one theme, food, and specifically, American food. The book is grouped by sections, and each section is titled the way one would work his or her way through a meal: invocation; starters; bread, polenta, and pasta; eggs; main dishes; side dishes; and desserts. Then, within each section a writer has included a personal anecdote that is focused around food and in most cases a recipe follows.    

I like the idea of the book. I am interested in food memories and the stories about family and friends sitting around a table together to enjoy a particular dish. When I think of my maternal grandmother’s delicious cakes, it makes me think of all the family dinners and birthday celebrations we had that ended with a slice of caramel cake or pound cake (made from scratch of course) on our plates. When I think of my paternal grandmother, I think of how she’d put mint springs from her yard in our iced tea glasses and that there was often gelatin or tomato aspic as part of a meal. At those big meals there were always a lot of good conversation and a lot of laughs. 

I liked that even though I’m not a food studies scholar, I recognized many of the names of people who had contributed a chapter. I found, though, that I didn’t care for all of the works, particularly by the people I don’t know. Some stories and poems were jarring and it was difficult sometimes to find the food that I thought I was supposed to be reading about. It didn’t always take center stage in each chapter. There were some writers that I was unsure had the credibility to write about food when I couldn’t quite connect the dots between their prose and a food memory. Some chapters didn’t have a recipe included, which would have given some structure and consistency to the work. 

Some of the chapters I thought were very well done and fun to read. For instance, Chapter 21 “American Liver Mush” by Ravi Shankar was a recipe that wasn’t for food but listed ingredients such as “3 cowboys from PRCA rodeos,” “8 Lynyrd Skynyrd fans, packed into 1 minivan” and “1 demographic pie chart from a meeting of Board of Trustees” with add-ins like “an election year, hurricane season” and a clothesline. It was funny and enjoyable to read but I was still left feeling unsure about how it really related to the rest of the collection. In Chapter 26 “The Poet in the Kitchen and The Poem of Chicken Breast with Fettuccine,” no recipe is included but a poem at the end of the chapter makes it feel wrapped up and finished. 

Overall, I like the concept for this book but the structure of the book fell short for me. While I liked all the different voices and perspectives on food, the book lacked cohesiveness. The string that tied each chapter to the next wasn’t strong enough for me. I wanted consistency for each chapter, something like an introduction to the author of that chapter (a short bio establishing their credentials, however formal or informal, for writing about their specific food topic), the writer’s personal connection to the food about which they are writing and then the recipe that corresponds to their story. At one point as I read this book, I made a note in my Kindle file that the whole book is like a vegetable stew: everything is just thrown in, and I like the taste of some of it but not all. 

Two and a half out of five stars