Sunday, May 24, 2015

BOOK OF AGES BY Jill Lepore (non-fic)

"Book of Ages: the Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin" is an interesting and informational read.  We all are acquainted with the mighty Ben Franklin and the important and pivotal role he played in the creation of the American nation.  Most people have used or heard the aphorisms of "Poor Richard's Almanac."  We know Franklin was a printer, scientist, diplomat and statesman as well as a philosopher.  He was an important voice in the Second Continental Congress and helped draft the American Constitution.  But, who knows of Jane Franklin, his beloved sister?  Jill Lepore enlightens us on this by contrasting the lives of the brother and sister.

Benjamin Franklin was born in 1706, the youngest son in a family of 17 children.  Jane Franklin Mecom was born in 1712, the youngest daughter.  These two siblings shared a special bond that continued throughout their lives. Their faithful correspondence continued throughout their lives.  Both were autodidacts filled with curiosity and a love of learning.  Benjamin was expected to make his way in the world; Jane was expected to marry, and she did.  At 15 years of age she married Edward Mecom, and she raised 12 children and outlived them all except for one.  She loved her children; they and her grandchildren consumed her days.

Life in colonial America was harsh and difficult.  Money was scarce, and Edward Mecom spend a good deal of time in debtors prison.  Jane soldiered on working from light to dusk.  Besides the full time job of raising 12 children, she made and sold a popular soap called Crown Soap; she sewed fine silks and hats for ladies.  But, she never was able to lift herself out of poverty.  She had no help except for the children when they became old enough to work.  Jane had no formal education.  With the help of Ben, she taught herself to read and write, and she became a voracious reader.  Through her letters, we learn of Jane's everyday trials and tribulations.  Her husband was mentally ill, and two of her sons were unable to hold jobs being similarly afflicted.  We learn of the occupation of Boston by the British, and how the citizens coped with food shortages.  We witness the start of the Revolution though her eyes.  Ben cared deeply for his sister and made sure she had money, housing and plenty of books. 

Jane died in 1794.  Lepore did a tremendous amount of research into Jane's life and what it was like to be female in colonial days.  There are thorough notes and appendices at the end of the book that are helpful and add to the interest of the book.  As she completes her research, Lepore tells us:

"Sorrows rolled upon Jane Franklin like waves of the sea.  She left in their wake these gifts, her remains: needles and pens, letters and books, politics and opinions, this history this archive, a quiet story of a quiet life of quiet sorrow and quieter beauty."

I highly recommend this book to all who love history; it is an excellent book for a reading group.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St.John Mandel (fic)

Normally I avoid dystopian novels. I read a review of "Station Eleven," and saw that it was one of the NY Times 10 best books of the year, so I thought I would give it a try.  Well, I loved this gripping and brilliant book.  I was completely enthralled and pretty much read it straight through.  What made it interesting for me was the realization that a catastrophe as that described in the book could actually happen; maybe not in such a quick dramatic way, but a similar event is possible.

The story opens on stage in Toronto where "King Lear" is being performed.  Arthur Leander, a well-known star of stage and screen dies of a heart attack in the middle of the show.  Leander is the catalyst around which all the characters and events revolve.  The story keeps circling back to Leader, his life and wives.  His first wife, Miranda, has created a series of comic books with the character, Dr. Eleven, a physicist living on a space station, thus the title of the novel.

What happens shortly after Leander's death is horrifying.  A world wide pandemic wipes out 99% of mankind.   Soon there are no planes, no fuel, no phones, computers or electricity.  Isolated pockets of survivors have gathered in small villages and settlements for safety and companionship.

The story fast-forwards twenty years, and the reader keeps company with a traveling symphony of about 20 members who perform remembered pieces of music and the plays of Shakespeare.  They wander among settlements along Lakes Huron and Michigan entertaining villagers and occasionally picking up a member or two.  We are reintroduced to Kirsten Raymonde who was 8 years old when the story opened, and who was a cast member in "Lear" with Leander.  Being fond of young Kirsten, Leander gives her two copies of Station Eleven which are treasured by her, though tattered and worn.

Our traveling company arrives at the settlement of St. Deborah by the Water looking for two former cast members who had temporarily settled there to await the birth of their child.  The town is mysterious and under the sway of a religious fanatic called "The Prophet." After a series of disturbing and sinister events, the symphony quickly breaks camp and moves on, hoping to reach a larger settlement at a former airport. Here there is a famous landmark called the Museum of Civilization run by an old friend of Leander. Another character who reappears at this time is a paramedic named Jeevan who was in the audience on the night of Leander's death and tried to revive him.

The small band of actors and musicians find themselves targeted, and several members become separated from the main troupe.  Tension mounts as the story works to a climax and ending, connecting the characters once again.

In the end this is a story of survival in unusual circumstances along with mankind's yearning to keep the past present and memories alive.  I highly recommend "Station Eleven" as an entertaining and interesting novel with a plausible premise.

Friday, May 15, 2015


This is the third volume of the Neapolitan series of books by Ferrante.  There is one more to be written.  Like its predecessors this book is a beautifully written account of the continuing relationship between Elena and Lila who are now entering middle age.  Elena is married and Lila is  living in reduced circumstances in the old neighborhood in Naples.  Although they rarely see each other, the influence each exerts on the other is as strong as ever, continuing Lila's dominance.  You can find a review of the first and second books in earlier postings.  So as not to repeat myself, the superlatives I assigned to the first two volumes apply here as well.  This third book is as strongly arresting and fascinating as the first book.  Again, I highly recommend all three books which should be read in sequence.  I am looking forward to the publishing of the next book in the series.