Monthly Archives: March 2013

Red Brick Black Mountain White Clay by Christopher Benfey

This is not a book I would have selected to read, but then I have named this blog “All Books Considered.” And I was kind of assigned this book for the Artful Reading book club at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum. (Actually, I didn’t realize it was a book club; I thought the authors or some other experts were going to come and lecture – there are two more books in this series.) Anyway, that’s what reading is for – to open your mind to new experiences, not just entertain or inform.

The director of this long-standing book club asked us what we would say to persuade someone else to read this book. I’m still thinking about that.

Christopher Benfey is literary critic and Emily Dickinson scholar. He is the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. Benfey holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Benfey is a specialist in 19th and 20th century American literature. He is also an established essayist and critic who has been published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement.

 He also seems to be related or acquainted with everyone who mattered in the second half of the 20th century. More about that later… He seems to have been everywhere and what he doesn’t know, doesn’t matter.

The title comes from the three parts of the book, although the book’s organization is very free flowing. One of Annie Albers’, his aunt, painting is titled “Red Meander,” and that is exactly what this book does – meander throughout the world, the arts, history, people, and Benfey’s thoughts. The subtitle for the book is Reflections on Art, Family, & Survival.

As I said, there are three parts to the book. The first part concentrates on the origin of his mother’s family. Rachel Elizabeth Thomas descended from colonial explorers and Quaker craftsmen. Her family settled in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, famous for its red clay, and was a brick layer. Seagrove is in the area, which I learned, is notable for its many folk potteries reaching back more than two hundred years, and is sometimes referred to as the “pottery capital of North Carolina”, or pottery capital of the world. Jugtown, one of the premier potteries, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  I had never heard of this place; I seemed to be one of the few in the book club who hadn’t. Benfey explores the geology, history, economy, art, and family background concentrated on this area of the country.

However, he also traces his father’s family’s history in this first part. His father, Otto Theodor Benfey, had left Germany before the war. His aunt and uncle, Josef and Anni Albers, left Germany when the Nazis closed the Bauhaus school in 1933. The Bauhaus had a major impact on art and architecture trends in Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Israel in the decades following its demise, as many of the artists involved fled, or were exiled, by the Nazi regime. The Benfeys have a distinguished, prominent family history, including Christopher’s father, a chemist, who conceived the spiral design of the period table of the elements, and Theodor Benfey, a German philologist who taught Sanskrit and made a major scholarly contribution to the study of fairy tales at the same time the Brothers Grimm were collected their tales.

If any of this seems linear, I am misleading you. This information is scattered throughout the book. Thank heavens for the index!

In the second part of the book, Denfey relates the Alberses’ careers in this country. After Josef and Anni Albers reached the United States, the architect Philip Johnson, then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, arranged for Albers to be offered a job as head of a new art school, Black Mountain College in North Carolina.  In November 1933, he joined the faculty of the college where he ran the painting program until 1949. Black Mountain College was a new kind of college in the United States in which the study of art was seen to be central to a liberal arts education. Many of the school’s students and faculty were influential in the arts or other fields, or went on to become influential. This connection is responsible for Christopher Benfey’s acquaintance with so many well-known later 20th century artists and writers. Although notable even during its short life, the school closed in 1957 after only 24 years. In 1950, Albers left Black Mountain to head the Department of Design at Yale University.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a lover of Albers’ work. Her office walls boast works on loan from the Smithsonian, including two original Rothkos, a painting by Max Weber, and one by Josef Albers. (Another Albers painting, which usually hangs in her chambers, is currently part of a traveling exhibit. Ginsburg vows that she won’t retire until it returns.)

After digressions to Mexico, Japan, Italy, Germany, Chile, Cuba, Greece, China, France, and nearly every state in America (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few), we come to part three in which we travel to England to trace the development of Wedgwood china. Josiah Wedgwood became fixated on the white Cherokee clay in North Carolina. Several attempts were made to possess this unique material; in the end, John and William Bartram, father and son, Quakers, manage to take back five tons of the white Cherokee clay to Wedgwood, resulting in the superb china that resulted in Wedgwood being named Potter to Her Majesty.

So we come back to pottery, North Carolina, clay, and Quakers. Everything in this book is connected. I can only imagine a graphic depiction of names, places, and materials.

Back to the director’s question: What could I say to persuade someone to read this book? Many in the club were most interested in pottery. If you collect or create pottery, you must read this book. Otherwise, if you are interested in American history, from colonial times to the 20th century, this will provide you with much you may not be aware of (as I was). However, you must not expect a linear narrative; you must be ready for that meandering, I mentioned. I became very frustrated during less than interesting sections, was confused trying to make the connection between all the elements, and wished that Benfey would just get on with it. Nevertheless, I’m glad I made it through the entire book. One lesson may be that everything is connected in this world, in one way or the other. Another lesson may be that one should not close one’s mind to a book – one never knows what one may learn.


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The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl

No aspect of his life has so fascinated Poe’s readers as his death. Unfortunately, what is known is confusing and  baffling. Shrouded in opinion and contradiction, the essential details of Poe’s final days present more questions than answers. The facts surrounding Poe’s death must, probably, after more than 160 years, remain a mystery — but it is a puzzle that still teases and entices those who find Poe’s writings and life enigmatic and incomprehensible. The Poe Shadow is a terrific depiction of this mystery and of Poe’s fate.

 Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849 at the Washington College Hospital in Baltimore. The events surrounding his death have remained an enigma. In the early morning hours of October 7, Poe calmly breathed a simple prayer, “Lord, help my poor soul,” and died. His cause of death was ascribed to “congestion of the brain.” No autopsy was performed, and the author was buried two days later. In dying under such mysterious circumstances, the father of the detective story has left us with a real-life mystery which Poe scholars, medical professionals, and others have been trying to solve for over 150 years. The Poe Shadow constructs “an intriguing chain of theories” (The New York Times) using new and definitive evidence in a rational, convincing, and enthusiastic theory of Poe’s last days.

 The Poe Shadow reveals, deliberates, and evaluates existing circumstances and evidence as well as new information that has not been known until this books. In the weeks before his death, Poe asked his aunt Maria Clemm to send him a letter to Philadelphia addressed to “E. S. T. Grey,” precisely at the same time a letter from Maria Clemm addressed to Poe under that name would have arrived at the post office. This was likely the last letter sent to Poe in his lifetime. The existence of this waiting letter has never before been known, and this list is reprinted for the first time  in The Poe Shadow, where its implications are explored and the reasons why Poe used this alias in this final days are finally revealed.

 Poe had plans to Philadelphia to edit a book of poems by a writer named Maurgerite St. Leon Loud. Poe died, but Loud ultimately did publish her poetry book in 1851, two years after Poe’s death. Identified for the first time in The Poe Shadow, “The Stranger’s Doom” may be the first poem ever written about Poe’s funeral. What it reveals about Poe’s death is uncovered in The Poe Shadow.

 All we know is that on October 3, Poe was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore , “in great distress, and … in need of immediate assistance”, according to the man who found him, Joseph W. Walker. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died at 5 a.m. on Sunday, October 7. Poe was never coherent enough to explain how he came to be in this condition.

 Much of the  information that we have had about the last few days of Poe’s life came from the doctor who tended him during his last days, Dr. John Joseph Moran, though his credibility is questionable. Theories as to what caused Poe’s death include suicide, murder, cholera, rabies, syphilis, influenza, and that Poe was a victim of cooping,  a practice in which unwilling participants were forced to vote, often several times over, for a particular candidate in an election. given alcohol or drugs in order for them to comply. If they refused to cooperate, they would be beaten or even killed.

 What is known is that on September 27, 1849, Poe left Richmond, Virginia, on his way home to New York. His whereabouts between that day until a week later on October 3 are unknown, when he was found delirious in Baltimore. He was cared for by Dr. Moran at the Washington College Hospital.  He was denied any visitors and was confined in a prison-like room with barred windows in a section of the building reserved for drunk people. Moran claimed he attempted to cheer Poe up during one of the few times Poe was awake. When Moran told his patient that he would soon be enjoying the company of friends, Poe allegedly replied that “the best thing his friend could do would be to blow out his brains with a pistol.”

 Shortly after his death, an obituary which disparaged Poe’s reputation appeared in the New York Tribune signed “Ludwig,” and was soon published throughout the country. The piece began, “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” The author was Rufus Wilmot Griswold, an editor and critic who had borne a grudge against Poe since 1842. Griswold somehow became Poe’s literary executor and, in a campaign to destroy his  reputation after his death, Griswold depicted Poe as a depraved, drunk, drug-addled madman. Much of the evidence for this image of Poe is believed to have been forged by Griswold, and though friends of Poe denounced it, this interpretation had lasting impact.

 One theory as to the cause of Poe’s death was reached through an analysis almost 147 years after his death. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center believe that Edgar Allan Poe may have died as a result of rabies, not from complications of alcoholism. Poe’s medical case was reviewed by R. Michael Benitez, M. D., a cardiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center. His review is published in the September 1996 issue of Maryland Medical Journal.

 “No one can say conclusively that Poe died of rabies, since there was no autopsy after his death,” says Dr. Benitez, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “But the historical accounts of Poe’s condition in the hospital a few days before his death point to a strong possibility that he had rabies.” “Poe’s death is one of the most mysterious deaths in literary history, and it provided us with an interesting case in which to discuss many principles of medicine,” says Dr. Mackowiak of the weekly Clinical Pathologic Conference at the medical center.

 The Poe Shadow is a novel written by Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club. It tells the story of the quest of Quentin Hobson Clark, a Baltimore young lawyer, to solve the mystery of Edgar Allan Poe’s death.  It is a work of historical and literary fiction, in which some previously unpublished details about the last days of Poe, as mentioned.

 Quentin, a Poe admirer, witnesses a somber, simple funeral on October 8, 1849. When he learns it Edgar Allan Poe’s, with whom he had previously exchanged letters about providing legal support for a new journal, The Stylus, Clark feels obliged to look into the circumstances leading to Poe’s death, despite protests from his fiancée Hattie Blum and his friend Peter Stuart.

 Quentin’s search for the truth takes him to Paris to find the real-life inspiration for Poe’s character C. August Dupin, a man of intellect who could help unravel the mystery, just as he did The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, and The Purloined Letter. If the situation weren’t already complicated, Quentin meets Baron C.A. Dupin, a famed lawyer in Paris, and a lone detective with a similar name: Auguste Duponte. After a confrontational encounter with the Baron Dupin and his companion, Bonjour, Quentin realizes that the Baron is not quite what he claims to be and that Auguste Duponte, with his approach to problem-solving through ratiocination, was the real inspired character in the stories.

 The two go back to Baltimore to investigate the final days of Poe before his death, only to find that the Baron and Bonjour have been on the same track, if not ahead, of solving the same investigation. The two pairs interview  the funeral attendants, witnesses, and secretly rummage Henry Reynolds, a funeral attendant, who obtained a written letter from Poe the day he was found in the streets of Baltimore. Other mysteries unfold through Clark’s mission to clear Poe’s name from disgrace continue on to a surprising judgment on the death of Poe, possibly the most important Gothic fiction writer of American literature.

 Auguste Duponte and Baron Claude Dupin can be seen as doubles or doppelgangers, and the book discusses Poe’s use of doubles in works such as “William Wilson,” a tale that features two identical characters with the same names. The word “shadow” is used in many different ways in the novel. Clark tells us, “Poe once wrote in a tale about the conflict between the substance and the shadow inside of us. The substance, what we know we should do, and the shadow, the dangerous and giggling Imp of the Perverse, the dark knowledge of what we must or will do or secretly want. The shadow always prevails.”

 Back in Baltimore, Quentin finds that the Baron and Bonjour have followed Auguste and himself from Paris and are promoting the Baron as the true Dupin. Quentin finds himself entangled in ominous intrigues involving political agents,  the corrupt Baltimore slave trade, and the lost secrets of Poe’s final hours. With his own life in danger, Quentin Clark must turn master detective to uncover the threat against his now jeopardized destiny.

Following his phenomenal debut novel, The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl has once again crossed created a literary history with inventive mystery to create a cunningly plotted tale of suspense. Pearl’s pioneering research which uncovered documented material never published before opens a new window on the truth behind Poe’s demise. The resulting novel does honor to Poe himself through Pearl’s skillful craftsmanship, sly humor, and crafty plot zigzags.

 A final note on Poe – His funeral was a simple one with few people attending the ceremony. Poe’s uncle, Henry Herring, provided a simple mahogany coffin, and a cousin, Neilson Poe, supplied the hearse. Moran’s wife made his shroud. The funeral was presided over by the Reverend W. T. D. Clemm, cousin of Poe’s wife, Virginia. The entire ceremony lasted only three minutes in the cold, damp weather. Reverend Clemm decided not to bother with a sermon because the crowd was too small. One attendee  wrote of the weather: “It was a dark and gloomy day, not raining but just kind of raw and threatening.” Poe was buried in a cheap coffin that lacked handles, a nameplate, cloth lining, or a cushion for his head.

 Poe was reburied on October 1, 1875, at a new location close to the front of the church. A celebration was held at the dedication of the new tomb on November 17. His original burial spot was marked with a large stone donated by Orin C. Painter, though it was originally placed in the wrong spot. Walt Whitman was the only poet to attend. Alfred Lord Tennyson contributed a poem which was read at the ceremony:

Fate that once denied him,
And envy that once decried him,
And malice that belied him,
Now cenotaph his fame.

Death Theories

The following is an annotated  list of some of the theories of Poe’s cause of death that have been published over the years:

  • Beating (1857)
    The United States Magazine Vol.II (1857): 268.
  • Epilepsy (1875)
    Scribner’s Monthly Vo1. 10 (1875): 691.
  • Dipsomania (1921)
    Robertson, John W. Edgar A. Poe A Study. Brough, 1921: 134, 379.
  • Heart (1926)
    Allan, Hervey. Israfel. Doubleday, 1926: Chapt. XXVII, 670.
  • Toxic Disorder (1970)
    Studia Philo1ogica Vol. 16 (1970): 41-42.
  • Hypoglycemia (1979)
    Artes Literatus (1979) Vol. 5: 7-19.
  • Diabetes (1977)
    Sinclair, David. Edgar Allan Poe. Roman & Litt1efield, 1977: 151-152.
  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase (1984)
    Arno Karlen. Napo1eon’s Glands. Little Brown, 1984: 92.
  • Porphryia (1989)
    JMAMA Feb. 10, 1989: 863-864.
  • Delerium Tremens (1992)
    Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar A1lan Poe. Charles Scribner, 1992: 255.
  • Rabies (1996)
    Maryland Medical Journal Sept. 1996: 765-769.
  • Heart (1997)
    Scientific Sleuthing Review Summer 1997: 1-4.
  • Murder (1998)
    Walsh, John E., Midnight Dreary. Rutgers Univ. Press, 1998: 119-120.
  • Epilepsy (1999)
    Archives of Neurology June 1999: 646, 740.
  • Carbon Monoxide Poisoning (1999)
    Albert Donnay



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The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

How was I to know when I was reading this book that I would be teaching a class on American Literature from the Beginning til the Civil War. The literary celebrities of that era appear in this fascinating novel. Maybe I could sneak this in as required, except it takes place in Boston in 1865; so, unfortunately, it just slips over the limit. However, coincidences are crucial: “Coincidences mean you’re on the right path.” ~ Simon Van Booy, Love Begins in Winter: Five Stories

In this excellent novel, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J. T. Fields, members of the Dante Club, solve a series of murders, all inspired by Dante’s Inferno. The Dante Club is a great book not just because of the mystery, but because it is solved by this group of immortal literary luminaries.

(For those unfamiliar with him, as I was, J. T. Fields was an American  publisher, editor, and poet. In 1839, he joined William Ticknor in the publishing and bookselling firm which became in 1846 as Ticknor and Fields  (which is very important in the book). Ticknor oversaw the business side of the firm, while Fields was its literary expert. He became known for being likeable, for his ability to find creative talent, and for his ability to promote authors and win their loyalty. Fields became the publisher of leading contemporary American writers, with whom he was on terms of close personal friendship. He was also the publisher of some of the best-known British writers of his time, some of whom he also knew intimately. The company paid royalties to these British authors, including Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, at a time when other American publishers pirated the works of those authors. Ticknor and Fields had such a substantial influence in the literary scene that writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis acknowledged in a letter to Fields: “Your press is the announcing-room of the country’s Court of Poetry.”In 1859 Ticknor and Fields purchased The Atlantic Monthly for $10,000.

His second wife aided Mr. Fields in establishing literary salons at their home in Boston, where they entertained many well-known writers. One such writer was Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne said he owed his success as a writer to him: “I care more for your good opinion than for that of a host of critics, and have excellent reason for so doing; inasmuch as my literary success, whatever it has been or may be, is the result of my connection with you”.

At Hawthorne’s death in 1864, Fields served as a pallbearer for his funeral alongside Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.,  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edwin Percy Whipple.

Fields was particularly successful as a publisher because of his ability to build close relationships with writers. As author Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), a pioneer of literary realism in American literature, said, he was “the shrewdest of publishers and kindest of men. He was the wire that conducted the lightning so that it never struck amiss.” He knew the tastes of the reading public. Fields was reputedly able to ascertain what book a visitor to his Old Corner Bookstore would purchase within 10 minutes of arrival(Wikipedia).

As can be discerned, J. T. Fields may not be known today, but he during the nineteenth century was the most influential publisher in America. Ticknor and Fields  was later bought by H. O. Houghton, and became part of Houghton Mifflin.

Please forget my very lengthy digression. I find these people fascinating. For example, why have we never heard of Rebecca Harding Davis? Perhaps because she was a woman? Once more I digress.

On to the story:

In 1865 Boston, a small group of literary geniuses are working on the finishing touches on America’s first translation of The Divine Comedy and prepare to reveal the marvelous visions of Dante to otherwise ignorant United States. The powerful, reactionary members of Harvard College want to prevent Dante out of this country. They believe that the infiltration of such foreign superstitions into our libraries would be morally corrupting as the foreign immigrants landing in Boston harbor. The members of the Dante Club, poets and Harvard professors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and publisher J. T. Fields, suffer the harassment of these intransigent Boston Brahmins for, what is to them, a sacred literary cause.

However the plans of the Dante Club are cut short when a there are a series of murders in Boston and Cambridge. With their familiarity with Dante, only Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell, and Fields realize that the mode and manner of the killings duplicate Dante’s Inferno and its distinctive descriptions of Hell’s punishments. With the police baffled, lives endangered and Dante’s literary future at stake, the Dante Club must emerge from its isolated literary quest and find a way to stop the killer.

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes carries the major burden of the investigation due to his unique literacy in both poetry and medicine. A noteworthy policeman, Nicholas Rey, the first and only black member of the Boston police department, risks his career after discovering the secrets of the Dante Club. Together, they find the key to the murders where they least expect it.

This is a fantastic book. You don’t have to know anything about these historical, literary gentlemen (although it helps). The mystery is engaging, clever, and unforeseen. I just wish I had learned about the book when it was published. Just look at the list below; many others have recognized its quality.

US News & World Report: Best Books.
NYPL: Books to Remember.
A Booksense 76 Selection.
Booklist: Top 10 Historical Fiction.
Library Journ.: season’s Best 1st Novels.
A People Magazine Page-Turner.
A Borders Original Voices Selection.
Borders: Best Mysteries/Thrillers of the Year.

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The Golden Calf by Helene Tursten

In my review of Night Rounds, I commented on the deficiency  of the sado-masochism,  intense violence, and sexual degeneracy  in that book compared to the first three books by Tursten. Please understand, I’m not a fan of s&m, at all, but somehow the more moral presentations of similar situations in these causes them to lack the atmosphere of the first three books. One feels, somehow, that Stieg Larsson or Henning Mankell (confining my comparison to other Swedish authors) would have handled this material in a more hard-boiled fashion. Helene can do; she just hasn’t done it in this book and Night Rounds.

In his opulent ocean-view home near Goteborg, Sweden, wealthy restaurant magnate Kjell B:son Ceder is discovered dead by his wife Sanna. When Detective Inspector Irene Huss and her partner Tommy Persson start investigating, their suspicions keep turning to Sanna. After news of a double homicide in a nearby town, in which both victims died in the same way as Kjell- two shots to the head- what once looked like an isolated domestic crime now looks like deliberate execution. Not only that, one of the victims was once business partners with Sanna in a high-stakes investment scheme worth millions. Tensions rise when Irene and Tommy realize the third founder of the company has been missing for three years, presumed dead. Is Sanna the center of a web of murders or the last target of a shadowy killer?

Despite the lack of intensity of the first three books makes The Golden Calf, Tursten creates a well constructed police procedural with the engaging DI Huss at the center. Huss has a great balance of intelligence and determination combined with a keen humor and a natural empathy with others. The rapport with herself and her police partner Tommy adds a nice touch to the book, as this investigation proves to be a thorny and emotional one with more than one damaged victim along the way.

The plot is quite convoluted with the overlapping murder investigations and becomes a little tedious with the intricacies of the financial world. (Stieg did a much better job.) However, the plot moves along at a steady pace with the story pivoting between Europe and America.

Bottom line, however, I don’t enjoy reading the Irene Huss books as much as I do the Estleman, Camilleri, Fowler, Mankell, or Bradley series. The last two books just haven’t been that much fun. After giving Tursten a second chance, I may have to cross her off my go-to list.

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The Dance Of The Seagull by Andrea Camilleri

Awakening from a fitful sleep Inspector Salvo Montalbano witnesses the bizarre death of a seagull. Placing it in a bin bag he gives it a respectful burial at sea.

Thus begins the latest and fifteenth thriller from the admired, popular Sicilian novelist Andrea Camilleri. I am proud to say that I have read each of them. I’m already looking forward to the next. Do you ever wonder what the characters are doing when they aren’t in the book?

Seasoned with sunshine, fabulous food and humor, the Montalbano novels are character studies masquerading as crime novels. It could also double as a cookbook; I would love to visit Sicily just for the food. Always the lightness of touch and humour is balanced by the deeply unpleasant crimes and slippery characters.

Set in the fictional town of Vigata, the books contain a dramatis personae of memorable characters: Montalbano, the ageing police chief whose loyal, incredibly patient girlfriend Livia is a plane ride away; his two lieutenants, Mimi Augello, whose success with women comes in handy in investigations, the Salvo’s favorite Fazio, whose forensic approach to procedure drives Montalbano to distraction, and the station receptionist Catarella, who reminds me of Chico Marx (anyone else out there old enough to remember the Marx brothers?) .

When Fazio disappears when he was secretly working on a case, mild concern gradually turns to sickening panic. The investigation leads to a chiarchiaro, a Mafia cemetery consisting of sinkholes where the Mafia would leave people, living or dead. Salvo and his team discover several bodies are discovered in the wells, although none of them are Fazio. Added to this situation, there are complications with some dodgy business with trawlers at the docks and Livia who has come for a romantic visit. Salvo manages to juggle all the aspects of this case with his skill and cunning, including Livia.

Camilleri smuggles in comments on the state of Italy through Montalbano’s mistrust of authority figures, whom he regards as either incompetent or corrupt.

Salvo thinks of himself as old (although he really isn’t). As he wrestles with his age and perceived failing powers, his occasional loneliness, and moments of forgetfulness and nightmares, he is increasingly aware of the world continuing on its unpredictable way without him. The Inspector’s cure for incipient melancholia is a plateful of caponata or grilled mullet, followed by a walk and a cigarette. Mine would be the next Montalbano novel.

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My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

You can’t tell a book by its cover. I received an ARC from the publisher; I’m glad they changed it. I only wish I hadn’t procrastinated reading this book. Unusually, I find the manner in which the family’s separation is resolved to be trite and cheap. In this case, it was necessary. The family members might not have found themselves back to each other. It was very sad, but often you don’t appreciate what you have until you lose something else very important to you.

Pitcher’s first novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, deals with the tragedy of a family torn apart by a terrorist attack. Jamie has ginger hair and a wonderful cat called Roger. What Jamie doesn’t have is his older sister, Rose, who was killed by a bomb which exploded in London when Jamie was just five years old. Although everyone in the family tries to live with what’s happened, it’s impossible. Jamie’s dad starts to drink too much, Rose’s twin sister, Jas, dyes her hair pink and Jamie’s mum moves out to live with another man called Nigel.

The story begins when, just before Jamie’s 10th birthday, he, Jas, their dad and Roger move to the Lake District. Jamie has to cope with starting at a new school and making new friends as best as he can without the help of either of his parents. His dad’s too sad and too drunk and his mum’s not there. Throughout the book, all he wants is to have a happy family again.

This book tackles interesting subjects in a realistic, honest way. At school, Jamie has to worry about friendships and bullying. At home, he has to worry about death, divorce and change. The issues of racism, religious differences and injustice also feature in the story. The aftermath of the terrorist attack is handled sensitively and the characters discover a way to live together in peace.

Also, the book tackles the idea that even when dreams come true, there’s always a risk that you’ll end up feeling terribly disappointed.

The way the book is written, Jamie seems like a real person. I think this is because the author explains the many controversial subjects through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy who obviously doesn’t think about them in the same way as an adult would.

Even though his sister had been killed, his parents are getting divorced and he feels terribly sad and lonely, he still has to carry on and try to stay positive. It’s a great reminder that we often don’t always know what’s happening in our friends’ lives and sometimes they might be feeling sad at school because of what’s going on at home.

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece has become a bestseller and has been translated into many languages. It was shortlisted for the Red House Children’s Book Award, The Galaxy milk chocolate Children’s Book of the Year, the 2012 Carnegie Medal in Literature, and the 2011 Dylan Thomas Prize. It won a Royal Society of Authors’ Betty Trask Award, the Hull Children’s Book of the Year and the prestigious 2012 Branford Boase Award for most outstanding debut novel.

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