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It appears that I haven’t posted in almost exactly a month! Well, as I’ve said before, life happens. I had a wonderful Christmas with family even though it was colder than the Arctic up in the north country where they live. Then I came back down south, where we’ve been stuck in a deep freeze for the better part of the New Year. We even got a freak winter storm, which resulted in the first three days of classes being canceled. I’m excited to get back to my program, but who doesn’t love a snow day now and then? Tomorrow I’ll actually have to go to class. It will be a little strange to be a student again.

Anyway, I’m long overdue on several  book reviews, and I’m starting with T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville. This is one of those books that first caught my eye a few years ago, but I didn’t pick up, then it caught my eye again, but I didn’t pick it up again for whatever reason. Then I finally decided to just read it. I hadn’t read any of Boyle’s works before, but a colleague recommended one of his other books to me a couple years back- in fact, she said she stayed up all night to finish it because she couldn’t put it down. I didn’t go that far with The Road to Wellville, but it definitely kept my attention.

Originally, I picked up two Boyle books from the library: this one and Water Music. Despite the fact that it was Wellville that kept catching my eye, I decided to start with Water Music. And then I put it right back down about 4 pages in when the assumed main character began to be tortured. I’m pretty squeamish as it is, but perhaps especially so when it’s sprung on me at the very beginning of a new book. And it had such a pretty name…  I may attempt this one at a later time, but right now my reading schedule is full.

Anyhow. The Road to Wellville takes place in Battle Creek, Michigan, and mostly at the Sanitarium of Dr. Kellogg (yes, the Dr. Kellogg of Corn Flake fame). The story follows a plethora of delicious characters, including the somewhat epicurean Will Lightbody and his hypochondriac wife, who are a rich couple spending a few months at “the San” on the wife’s recommendation; Charlie Ossining, a young entrepreneur eager to cash in on the breakfast health food craze; the sordid, adopted son of Dr. Kellogg, George; and of course the luminous Dr. K. himself. These are the main players, set against a field of “patients” at the San- all of whom seem to have far too much time and money on their hands, constantly inventing maladies which the Doctor happily dispenses diagnoses and prognoses for, and the cast of business partners and investors Charlie is keen to convince. Little by little, the lives of the characters unravel, ironically set against what is supposed to be the healthiest place in the world. Boyle lambasts the place and the philosophies of Kellogg and his contemporaries. And yet, while the flaws are so apparent to the reader, it is easy to see how a privileged group of people could get sucked in to such a place in search of a cure-all for the slight imperfections that idleness has blown out of proportion. The book reads almost as a juicy tell-all of Kellogg and as each skeleton is revealed and quickly covered up again, you can’t help but cringe as you devour more.

Bottom line: Loved it. Totally grossed me out at times, but definitely a solid pick.

By the way, there’s a movie of this I want to see now that stars Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg. Anyone seen it?

Philippa Gregory’s books are something of a guilty pleasure for me. The Other Boleyn Girl was a real page-turner that was so juicy I couldn’t put it down. I know there is quite a bit of controversy surrounding the historical accuracy, but in my opinion Gregory’s rendition of the events is perfectly plausible. Who is to say otherwise, really? There’s no way to really know.

So I was excited to read The Red Queen, a novel set even earlier, during the War of the Roses in England. It’s pretty obvious that I’m a big fan of historical fiction, and those that are set in times this far removed from our own intrigue me. Is it possible to write accurately about daily life? I’m sure it is, but it would require an enormous amount of research- at least for me it would. This book, like most of Gregory’s, features families of the English aristocracy who have ties to the throne.

The England of the War of the Roses is war-torn and chaotic, still deep in feudalism, which makes the tone of this book quite different from her Tudor books. Gregory has done vast amounts of research as usual and it really shows. However, at some points I felt that the research overpowered the plot- after all, this is supposed to be a novel, not a history paper. The main character and narrator, Margaret, was pretty unbelievable for me. This is a woman who betrayed many people and stopped at nothing to make sure that her son had a chance at the throne, yet Gregory portrays her as a religious zealot who wants nothing more than to be a nun. I don’t buy it. I know religion in those times was quite different from the idea of Christianity today, but I don’t believe for one second that a woman so fixated on putting her son on the throne and being obsessed with restoring her family to power would have so deep an interest in religion. A little, sure, no problem. But one of the resonating traits of this character is that she is always going to pray about something and feels betrayed by her mother for forcing her to get married rather than letting her be a nun. This is also problematic for me: I find it highly unlikely that a young girl in those days, raised in a noble family and in such a society, would beg her mother to become something she is obviously not cut out for socially.  I felt that portraying her as a willful, stubborn young girl inflicted too many 21st century values on her. Anyway, back to the religion point. As the book goes on, I suspect that Gregory was showing the splinters in Margaret’s love of religion in that no matter what happened or what she did, she was always firmly convinced that God was on her side- even when her side was defeated in battle. No matter what underhanded plot she developed, it was always “God’s will.”

The other character trait that constantly shows up is Margaret’s desire to “sign her name Margaret R.” as a queen would (or, in her circumstances, mother of the king).  I get the significance of this and how it shows the conflict with her religious side and that it’s foreshadowing and all, but really, I don’t need to be beat over the head with it quite so hard. And very predictably, the book ends with this statement.

Though Margaret’s sentiments about her marriages and her son probably ring true for many female readers, I found her to be much too one-dimensional and repetitive for my taste. But who’s to say she wasn’t? I wasn’t very impressed with this book but I do want to read the companion book, The White Queen for comparison’s sake.

Bottom line: Ho-hum.

Lately I had the good fortune to check out the book Thirteen Moons, by Charles Frazier, from the library. I originally picked the book up for the title, which made me think of Native American lore, and the beautiful cover. Then I noticed the writer’s name, which seemed to ring a bell– I remembered having enjoyed reading Cold Mountain years ago, so I thought I would try this book as well. I’m so glad I did.

Thirteen Moons was better than I expected it to be. The premise is simple, and I thought I would enjoy it for its historical genre as well as the setting in the mountains of North Carolina, but Frazier well exceeded my expectations. The writing is lyrical and patient, and the tale is told in a winding way that reminds me so much of how old Southern men tell stories: somewhat linear but with each anecdote igniting the memory of a related anecdote.

The story is told through a long flashback that begins when the main character and narrator, Will, is sold as a kind of indentured servant by his parents. He is a “bound boy,” obligated through a contract signed by his parents and an old gentleman, to run a mountain trading post which conducts business primarily with the Cherokee who live throughout the woods. This is where he meets Bear, a Cherokee man who becomes his adopted father. Will subsequently finds himself straddling the two cultures and living a colorful life, working as a lawyer, a businessman, and a senator, up into his twilight years. The story unwinds slowly, with a plethora of both lovable and love-to-hate-able characters. A quiet, painful love story is the thread that runs through most of Will’s life, but the book is far from being a romance novel. It is a blend of historical fiction and fictional memoir. The book is not a quick read and it is not meant to be that way– though it lingers, you want it to last even longer, like a glass of good wine.

The language is mesmerizing, and the setting is vividly brought to life, taking on a character of its own. I think it takes a truly gifted writer who can balance setting with character, dialogue, and plot. Equal attention is given to these elements, and while it is indeed long, it is not for the writer simply padding the story with unnecessary details or rambling on. Set in the early through late nineteenth century, the writing skillfully mirrors the pace of a slower world that was not technology-obsessed. Reading it reminded me of the many camping trips I’ve had in the Appalachian Mountains, and it also sparked that blind nostalgia that we sometimes get when reading historical fiction that takes place when our country was “simpler.” Of course I say “simpler” with gritted teeth; issues back then were certainly just we weighty and complicated as they are today, but without modern threats such as nuclear war, suicide bombers, heavy drugs, and the incessant obligation to be connected at every second. I don’t relish the thought of being without some modern conveniences (particularly medicine) but a part of me longs for those days. The narrator makes an excellent point late in the book about how, for hundreds of years, human life was basically the same: you lived your life in pretty much the same way your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and etc. did. However, beginning around the time of Will’s lifetime, individuals’ lives were radically different from generation to generation, and this thought still resonates today.

Bottom line: the best book I have read this year. Frazier is a master.