Search

J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

Category

Review

Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) by Joan Lindsay

Description:

It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned. . . .

The first time I read Picnic at Hanging Rock, I was maybe 13 or 14 and had come straight off seeing of the movie of the same name (directed by Peter Weir) on TV.  Both the book and the film carry the narrative in a strangely quiet way, trusting the story to invite and beguile readers and viewers for years to come.  For me, with my love for all things unexplained and mysterious and slightly supernatural, that made it all the more haunting.

In my recent re-read of the book, I was reminded once again of how the quiet voice of the omnipresent narrator slips past one’s guard.  It insinuates itself into one’s thoughts as it tells the story of a women’s school in 1900 Australia.  Like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the subtleties at play require one’s full attention or you’ll miss the clues that paint the final picture.

There are a variety of characters that work against and play off of each other – from unpleasant and cruel (Mrs. Appleyard), to the ethereal (Miranda), to the lost and hopeless (Sara).  And while there are a few male characters one might think of as leads (Arthur and Mike), this is primarily a story about women.  It’s about how, in the aftermath of the events at Hanging Rock, their lives change from existing in the protective web of their expected roles in society to the uncertainty of life’s cruelties and uknowns.

Told in the frame-work of being based on actual events, Picnic at Hanging Rock has haunted many readers over the years.  It has also inspired many amateur detectives determined to solve the mystery of two missing schoolgirls and their teacher.

In essence, the book and the movie are to 1967 what The Blair Witch Project was to 1999.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

This haunting tale can be found at your local bookstore or online.
Advertisements

Review: The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova (2017)

From Amazon’s book description:

A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi—and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes.

As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shattered by political oppression—and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.

I picked this book up about a week ago, primarily because I’d read Kostova’s The Historian years earlier and fell in love with the world she evoked.  Also, Vlad Tsepes (inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and terrifying historical leader) was the driving focus of the story.  Kostova’s voice is rich, intelligent and literary, but she never talks down to her audience.  Rather, she invites us in with simple human concerns that we all share – letters, lost luggage, art. Upon accepting that invitation, we stumble into a world that is both familiar and alien.

The Shadow Land is another such invitation.  Set in Bulgaria, both during the aftermath of World War II and the (recent) present, I wasn’t sure what to expect, beyond the book description.  But I remembered The Historian and how much I loved that book, so I was more than willing to give this one a chance.

I.  Could.  Not.  Put.  It.  Down.

Every chance I could, when I wasn’t at work, or working on my own projects or learning French or being out with my horses or friends, I was curled up with this book.  I tuned out this world that I live in and poured myself into this story.  As a voracious reader with a habit of re-reading favorite titles, this one is definitely in for a re-read.  I’m sure there are details that I missed on the first go round.

That said, I do have a minor quibble – the romance between Alexandra Boyd and a character barely seen, but highly romanticized in daydreams by Alexandra, seems idealized.  It does not feel based on real feelings or real interactions – I actually found her relationship with Bobby, her taxi driver, to be far more interesting and intimate than what actually occurred.

Overall, however, it is a minor quibble, it is my quibble and I intend to push this book on anyone who will listen.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Shadow Land                        by Elizabeth Kostova

Review: The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

Description:
The stunning story of one of America’s great disasters, a preventable tragedy of Gilded Age America, brilliantly told by master historian David McCullough.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a booming coal-and-steel town filled with hardworking families striving for a piece of the nation’s burgeoning industrial prosperity.
In the mountains above Johnstown, an old earth dam had been hastily rebuilt to create a lake for an exclusive summer resort patronized by the tycoons of that same industrial prosperity, among them Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon. Despite repeated warnings of possible danger, nothing was done about the dam.
Then came May 31, 1889, when the dam burst, sending a wall of water thundering down the mountain, smashing thr
ough Johnstown, and killing more than 2,000 people. It was a tragedy that became a national scandal.

Graced by David McCullough’s remarkable gift for writing richly textured, sympathetic social history, The Johnstown Flood is an absorbing, classic portrait of life in nineteenth-century America, of overweening confidence, of energy, and of tragedy. It also offers a powerful historical lesson for our century and all times: the danger of assuming that because people are in positions of responsibility they are necessarily behaving responsibly.

My opinion:
There is not a spare word used in this brilliant and absorbing account of an American tragedy that resonates to this day – the breaking of a dam and a tidal wave of water destroying everything in its path, claiming over two thousand human lives of all ages and numerous animals – is still a legitimate concern in the 21st century.
We fear that the overpasses we drive under will collapse on top of us or that the bridges we drive over will fall out from under us. We go to sleep worrying that dams or levees will fail due to man-made or natural causes or both would lead up to such events. If we wait to take care of our infrastructure until it breaks, then we will continually repeat the Johnstown flood on grand and small scales.
The fear and uncertainty that is palpable throughout the pages of McCullough’s book isn’t just of those who survived the floods of May 31, 1889, but our own, as well. We are reminded every day that we are not in control of the environment around us, that we cannot bend it to our will, no matter what we do.
The lessons from the Johnstown tragedy are ones we still need to learn today – never underestimate the water level, don’t cut corners to accommodate your investors and always place human and animal welfare over the dollar.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

You can purchase David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood by clicking on the title.

Review: Desert Queen by Janet Wallach

From the back cover:
“Turning away from the privileged world of the ’eminent Victorians’, Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) explored, mapped, and excavated the world of the Arabs. Recruited by British intelligence during World War I, she played a crucial role in obtaining the loyalty of Arab leaders, and her connections and information provided the brains to match T.E. Lawrence’s brawn. After the war, she played a major role in creating the modern Middle East and was, at the time, considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire.”

I’ve been recommending this book right and left to friends, family and strangers. An excellent read about a strong, independent and intelligent woman who was ahead of her time, it’s also a timely book, given the current political climate in the Middle East in general and Iraq specifically. Interestingly, many of the obstacles Gertrude Bell faced with her British co-workers in relaying what she knew about the Arab tribes because of her gender are still being dealt with today.

I cannot stress how much I enjoyed this book. Although it takes place in the early part of the Twentieth Century, Bell’s experiences of others due to her gender still resonate today. Her sheer determination and an unwillingness to take ‘no’ for an answer lead her achievement in venturing into places no other person ever attempted. She not only learns the language, but takes the time to observe the hierarchy and customs, earning her the respect of the tribe leaders she meets.

Although much of Gertrude Bell’s work in the Middle East took place during World War I, it read as if it was happening in the here and now. Articulate, intelligent, educated and well-versed in the culture she chose to live in, Bell dealt with men in positions of power who chose not to listen to her opinions. She felt that the wisest course in giving the Middle East some stability was to put local tribal leaders in positions of power to run their own newly formed government, with British officers acting in supporting roles.

Instead of listening to her advice, Capt. Arnold T. Wilson, among others, followed his own agenda in holding power close to the vest. It would be too easy to dismiss it as being ‘of the time’, that women had no place in politics, either foreign or domestic. The personal conflict between Bell and Wilson reflected the external and volatile conflict between the natives of the Middle East and those who sought to control it.

Desert Queen is a powerful biography with an insightful look inside the Victorian age, the Great War and the Middle East of one hundred years ago. One is left with the personality of a strong and fiercely intelligent woman who defied convention and sought her destiny outside the narrow confines of what was expected of her.

Look for Desert Queen at your local bookshop or on-line.

This review is my personal opinion and mine alone.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑