Category Archives: literary

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

Secrets of Mary Bowser

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen is a based on the life of Mary Bowser, a black woman who spied on the Confederates during the Civil War while working in Jefferson Davis’s home.

I loved reading about her journey from being a slave to becoming an educated woman and then pretending to be a slave so she could help end slavery. Unfortunately despite Mary Bowser being a real person due to her gender and race nothing is really known about her, so the historical accuracy of this book isn’t the highest. I enjoyed reading about her struggle to be an educated black woman in a time when neither of those things were appreciated. I also appreciated that this is a book that is trying to glorify a woman who was an integral part of the Civil War. Finally I enjoyed Mary as a character and the relationships she made with people.

Another good part of the book was how it described the Confederate government and how she managed to evade suspicion by relying on their belief that a black woman wouldn’t be smart or brave enough to spy on them.

However, as much as I loved reading about Ms. Bowser, there is a part of this book I can’t ignore. The woman who freed Mary was named Elizabeth Van Lew (she was a slave to her family and she freed her when she received her inheritance from her father’s death). She was an abolitionist and feminist and became the first female Post Master of Richmond. She was a real historical figure who actually ran the Richmond spy ring that Mary was apart of and that included more than 300 people. I mention this because the book treats her as a self-righteous fool who at first fights for abolition more to spite her family than out of genuine compassion for slaves. She ran a spy ring in real life and yet the book treats her as an idiot whose greatest achievements were actually Mary’s. The reason this bothers me is that it seems almost disrespectful to a woman who fought for the things she believed in and was later ostracized by society because of her differences. An unfortunate truth is that there isn’t a lot of knowledge on what Mary Bowser’s life was like due to her status as a black woman and no one knows what happened to her after the war. Thus it is almost hypocritical for the author to portray Elizabeth in a way that discredits and denies her contributions to the war effort in order to shed light on a woman whose own contributions to the war effort were forgotten about.
I would recommend this book.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Madeline Rivard
Rating:   Recommended

Large Animals by Jess Arndt

Large AnimalsLarge Animals is Arndt’s first book of short stories, fresh off the presses for this summer (published May 2017). There are 12 stories, all narrated in the first person (which is, objectively, the best voice for short stories). As with any collection of short fiction, it’s hard to make sweeping characterizations about all of them together— there’s a lot of variation. But overall, I found Arndt’s narrators meditative, sad, acerbic, and intelligent. The titular “Large Animals” is a good example, of a writer self-secluded in the desert of the Southwest, drowning in alcohol and confronted by bizarre, sexually-charged dreams of walruses. As that description implies, the stories often blend the character’s imagined or hallucinated visions with the materiality of bodies in the 21st century.

There’s a lot of plant and animals interacting with human bodies– from weeds and parasites to impenetrable, concealing hedges, to jelly fish and walruses. Like the narrators, these more-than-human participants in the stories are not your “charismatic megafauna”– the cute, cuddly, poster-children of a sleek marketing campaign. Everyone– human or non-human– speaks from a position outside the mainstream, outside of clear and accepted labeling and identity. There is a indeterminacy that hangs over the prose that makes one focus on the exact words of the narrators. And this is where I think Arndt excels– the narrators’ voices are each unique but exquisitely crafted. I wouldn’t mistake any of the narrators from each other, each is so well developed in short order through their particular voices.

Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2017 by a small press.

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

VilletteI’d gone too long without reading a big old English novel, and Villette fit the bill perfectly. I enjoyed this story of the narrator’s coming of age and her quest for a kind of independence and self-sufficiency working as a teacher in Belgium at a time when the necessity for a woman to earn her own living often met with scorn and/or pity (as initially shown even by her closest friend, Polly, when she realizes her position). We watch Lucy Snowe learn the ropes at Madame Beck’s school for girls and root her on as she shares her insights into human nature as derived from the behavior of her students, fellow faculty, and small group of friends. Lucy challenges herself academically and is an acute observer of character. At the same time, she is also passive/repressed in many frustrating ways, while we get a clear picture of the people around her striving for what they want in life, sometimes nobly but more often greedily. We see the self-interest of others displayed in an unflattering light but then have to take into account the narrator’s own failures to act on (and at times even to acknowledge) her own interests. The novel ends on a somewhat inconclusive note, though it’s clear that not all of Lucy’s dreams will come true.

The British versus Continental and Protestant versus Catholic conflicts throughout are interesting at first, though I eventually felt bogged down by them. Still, it might be helpful to trace some of them forward into the Brexit era. This felt like a relatively light read but with a lot of wisdom in its pages.

Availability:  SMCM, COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Eric Blomquist
Rating: Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book with a one word title.

South of Broad by Pat Conroy

South of Broad

I picked up this book while on vacation at the beach in South Carolina. It seemed like an appropriate read, given that it’s about a twenty-year period in the lives of a group of mostly well-heeled Charlestonians. The book’s strength is in its evocations of the beauty of the city — the architecture, the rivers, the skies, the history. Conroy captures a certain time and place with great specificity.

The book lost me, however, along the way. The characters were paper-thin, the dialogue was usually ludicrous, and many of the portrayals of women, black people, and gay people were cringe-inducing in their reliance on stereotypes and lack of humanity. The book leaned hard into melodrama, almost to the point of camp, so that a seemingly innocent story about paper routes and first kisses could climax with acts of terror and decadent violence. What kind of book is this?

And yet I read every page. By the time I reached the final chapters I was frustrated with the book and contemptuous of the characters, yet I also wanted to see how it all ended. Score one for Conroy’s plotting skills — he kept me reading, even as I told myself I didn’t like the book at all.

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Michael Dunn
Rating: Recommended with reservations

Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles

Sophocles !

Earlier this year I looked at one of those “100 best novels” lists, and I learned that Oedipus Rex was part of a trilogy. I wanted to see what other wackily tragic events could happen to Oedipus, so I read “Sophocles I” by Sophocles (translated by David Grene, Robert Fitzgerald, and Elizabeth Wyckoff). The book contained three plays: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. At times, I thought that I might as well be reading the play in ancient Greek for all that I understood the details, but luckily, I think I understood enough to follow the basic story.

Without giving anything away …. Oedipus the King had the most interesting (bizarre) story; although, the key activities took place before the play starts and the action in the play is discovery. Oedipus at Colonus seemed transitional vice tragic in that it: provided a little closure to Oedipus the King and introduced the curse (or maybe it was prophecy) that “set the stage” for Antigone. Antigone, named after one of Oedipus’ daughters, is about conflict between Antigone and Creon and the resulting tragic actions.

I can only recommend this if you: (1) wonder “what happened to Oedipus” after reading the first play in high school, (2) enjoy theater or Greek literature, or (3) enjoy thinking about symbolism/meaning.

Availability:  COSMOS, SMCM, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Andy Ashenfelter
Rating: Recommended with Reservations
Challenge: A translated book

My Name is Red by Orhan Parmuk

My Name is Red

Orhan Parmuk introduces us to the culturally rich yet turbulent period of 16th century Istanbul in his murder-mystery novel My Name is Red translated by Erdag Goknar. While the Ottoman Empire has reached its zenith of artistic sophistication under the fervent patronage of Sultan Murat III, there emerges a dire conflict between preservation of traditional Islamic painting and the adoption of European-style illustrations. When the Sultan commissions a guild of miniaturists to illuminate a book in the realist style of the Europeans, the miniaturists must either obey their ruler’s wishes by depicting the universe as the human eye perceives it, or illustrate it as envisioned by Allah. One of the commissioned miniaturists, afraid of his peers violating Islamic artistic traditions, sets out on a killing spree and it is up to us, the readers, to figure out his identity.

Parmuk’s novel transcends the suspenseful nature of our typical mystery thriller through complex philosophical arguments concerning artistic signature and style, blindness and memory. Each chapter is narrated from the perspective of one of the four miniaturists commissioned to create the Sultan’s controversial book or from the perspectives of other individuals who know of the book’s existence and are connected to the miniaturists in some way. Each character talks with a distinct voice, just as each paints with a distinct style. Embedded within each of their narratives are intricate parables that frame their unique personalities and contribute to the unconventional development of this murder mystery.

Availability: SMCM, USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Xuejie Kimball
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: translated book, book with a color in the title


The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian

This was a story, originally three interconnected stories, about obsession and renunciation, I think. It was tough going. This begins as the story of Yeong-hye from the viewpoint of her almost comically unsympathetic husband, Mr. Cheong. Her life (and, in his view, his life) is transformed by a traumatic dream that causes her to not eat meat anymore. This leads to separation from her husband and alienation from her family with the exception of her sister, In-hye, who looks in on her while her health declines until her own no-good husband becomes enamored of Yeong-hye and incorporates her into a bizarre video performance art piece that leads to the two of them sleeping together, which is immediately discovered by In-hye. Then Yeong-hye is institutionalized and In-hye cares for her till the end. In-hye was the only character I felt much interest in–she’s followed her own more conventional/socially acceptable dream of owning a cosmetics store. But it was a quick read, and there was little temptation to slow down.

Availability:  SMCM, COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Eric Blomquist
Rating: Not Recommended
Challenge: A book from the 2017 Tournament of Books and a translated book.