Tuesday, October 26, 2010

George Eliot in Love

Many years ago when I first became aware of George Eliot as a Victorian woman who openly lived with a man without benefit of marriage, I eagerly sought out her novels thinking they would be as scandalous as her life. Imagine my disappointment upon discovering that the books were conventional Victorian novels, no different from the books of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope or Henry James, all of whom she knew and with whom she socialized.

The mystery of how a woman who flouted Victorian conventions while writing stories observing those conventions has finally been solved for me by Brenda Maddox’s excellent biography, George Eliot in Love. This small volume, which the author calls a "…short life of the great Victorian author…." is a sympathetic treatment of Eliot’s life and career.

It is in some ways, a typical Victorian love story. A woman, Mary Anne Evans, too ugly for marriage has several brief love affairs before finally finding a man, George Henry Lewes, who can ignore her looks and love her for herself. But there the story becomes more modern. They are unable to marry because he is already married and has acknowledged his wife’s children by her lover as his own thereby depriving himself of grounds for divorce. Nevertheless, George and Mary Anne live as man and wife, she taking his name.

She had been a journalist and editor but with his encouragement, turned to writing novels using the pseudonym George Eliot. He nurtured her talent, shielded her from critical reviews and managed all of her business affairs. Her fame grew and people began to "forget" that she was not married to the man she was living with. Their love also grew. This book is as much a love story as a biography.

Unlike most modern biographies, this one does not dwell on its subject’s flaws. The author mentions the possible physical relationships Eliot had before meeting Lewes, but doesn’t speculate. She also mentions but dismisses rumors that Lewes was unfaithful to Eliot. She doesn’t make a big deal of Eliot’s marriage after Lewes' death to a much younger man. There is no titillation here, only the story of two soulmates who defied society to be together.

Having gained a better understanding of George Eliot as a person as well as an author, I am keen to re-read her novels.

Review copy courtesy of Palgrave MacMillan

Friday, October 22, 2010

Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables

I was a little put off when this book landed, unsolicited, in my mailbox. I don’t like being reminded that I am growing older. Reading the blurbs on the back cover, I was intrigued by the fact that the author was a widow who had lost her husband of forty years quite suddenly and didn’t miss him. That alone was enough to encourage me to read the book.

It turns out that after his death, she realized that her marriage hadn’t been as happy and fulfilling as she thought. Now her life was her own, unencumbered by a husband who had been an emotional burden, and she could finally live her life on her own terms.

Joan Gussow is a nutrition educator, activist and passionate organic gardener. Her garden feeds her body and her spirit. She uses it in this book as a springboard to discuss nutrition, the environment, life in general and her life in particular. She is a talented writer who can start off writing about potatoes, veer off on a discussion of travel leading to the plight of Magellanic Penguins and end up back in her potato patch without losing the reader’s interest or attention.

She had written a previous book about her garden, This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader, which I have never read because I don’t grow food, only flowers, and didn’t think that it would interest me. I know better now and will pick a copy knowing that it will be a wonderful read and not just about veggies.

Review copy courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Dark Game: True Spy Stories

I haven’t read a Young Adult book since, well, since I was a young adult. After a lifetime of reading “adult” books, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book, meant for a young audience, readily held my attention.

What was particularly satisfying was the amount of historical background provided for each spy. Their life and times are described in enough detail to give a well-rounded view without overdoing it and perhaps losing the interest of someone who is not familiar with the historical eras described.

The author covers the whole of American history, from the Revolutionary War to the end of the twentieth century. I was also pleased to note that both men and women, good guys and bad guys are the subjects of the book.

This is a great book to introduce young people to the history of espionage in the United States. It is also a quick and fascinating read for adults who can use it as a jumping off point for more in depth research into this intriguing subject.

Review copy courtesy of Candlewick Press

Friday, October 8, 2010

Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future

Many years ago when I was in college (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), there were no required courses other than the ones for your major. You better believe I didn’t crack a math or science text for four years. But, once I graduated and entered the real world, I discovered that there is a reason why those courses are taught. Contrary to what many disgruntled students will tell you, that knowledge is relevant to everyday life.

Take economics, for instance. I didn’t take it in school, but I started reading up on it afterwards. It was the era of WIN (Whip Inflation Now) and the Laffer Curve and waiting breathlessly for the money supply number. What did all of this mean? I slogged through economics tomes written for a popular audience, reading and re-reading the dense prose only to come away with a vague notion of the concepts that the authors were trying to convey.

I don’t know if some of that knowledge finally began to sink in or if economists are dumbing down their books but lately I seem to be able to finally grasp economic theories. And they are all theories. Back in the Reagan years, Keynesian economics was declared dead. In the aftermath of The Great Recession, Keynes is looking pretty prescient.

In his book, Aftershock, Robert B. Reich offers his own theory as to the cause of the Great Recession. He lays out the evidence that the concentration of wealth in the hands of the top one percent of the population, leaving the middle class with stagnant or falling incomes forcing Americans to pile on debt just to stay even, was the root cause of the debacle that is still affecting our economy today. He points out that the same conditions existed prior to the Great Depression.

Everyone seems to be able to agree that the only way to get the economy moving again is if the middle class starts borrowing and spending again. The only way that that is going to happen is if we can put everyone back to work. Reich disagrees, pointing out that full employment didn’t help the middle class before the Great Recession because the jobs that were available didn’t pay as much as the jobs that had been outsourced. The same is true today. Many people who have found work, are working part-time or working at jobs that pay significantly less than the jobs they lost. He devotes his last chapter of Aftershock to his suggestions for fixing the structural problems of our economy.

Like the old Chinese curse, we live in interesting times. As we struggle to find a way to kick-start our economy, we would do well to remember that the Great Depression dragged on for years until the government was willing to go deeply into debt to fund the wartime economy which offered many good paying middle class jobs and launched decades of prosperity.