The Madwoman Upstairs

By Catherine Lowell

Simon and Schuster | 338 pages | 2016

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Catherine Lowell

The Madwoman of Oxford

Back in the days my English Literature professors would chair debates like the ones that occupy the main characters of this novel: how much should what we know about the author’s life influence our reading and interpretation of her books? Is the truth of a book dependent upon the author’s intention, her real life experiences, or the individual reader’s “take” on the subject? Whose vision holds the trump card—the author’s, the critic’s, or the reader’s?

I distinctly remember a majority ruling to the effect that a book had to stand on its own merits, however interesting it might be to trace its origins back to its author’s actual experiences. However…

The Madwoman Upstairs stars the last surviving descendant of the Brontë family, Ms. Samantha Whipple, who is creating quite a stir on the campus of Oxford University where she is enrolled as a student.

Trying to remain under the radar proves futile when her every move is broadcast in the campus newspaper. She meets with her handsome, brooding tutor once a week and engages in obstinate, obstructive, obtuse banter, repeatedly insisting that she hates writing and writers and certainly does not want to talk about the Brontës.

Why is she there? Her eccentric father, whose educational theories echo those of patriarch Patrick Brontë, has died in a mysterious fire. The literary world is ablaze, searching frantically for the rumored caché of valuable Brontë artifacts. Anything will do: Charlotte’s scarf, Emily’s brooch, Anne’s diary.

Meanwhile, Samantha has always been told this caché is a fiction and non-existent. She has inherited nothing so far, but her father’s scribbled, nearly illegible will mentions a bequest of The Warnings of Experience. What is that, and, more critically, where is that? Samantha grudgingly admits she needs help if she’s to unravel the mystery and become an heiress. Who better to guide her in following the trail of her father’s clues than . . .her tutor?

Sticking close to her room in the Tower, interacting minimally with other students, not participating in any activities as far as the reader knows, Samantha lives a life most uncharacteristic of college freshmen.  She’s drawn out of her apathy and mourning by the sudden and mysterious materializing of the Brontë novels, the very worn editions owned by her much loved, late father.

He’s apparently constructed some sort of obtuse puzzle for her. She enlists the help of her tutor as she rereads each Brontë novel, searching for clues, and presenting them to him for validation.

What she finds: Well, she comes up with a possibly groundbreaking reading of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s lesser known Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which truly casts a new light on the talented sisters, their rivalries and secrets.

These favorite books of the English literary canon are dissected, torn apart and then put back together. The author had this reader wondering, Really? Could it be so?  What could easily be a dissertation exploration, and maybe (for all this reader knows) has been, Lowell turns into a novel with many overlapping layers.

Who is the madwoman upstairs? We think first of Rochester’s first wife locked in the attic (Jane Eyre), but this title could apply equally to our heroine in her dreary, unheated, nearly uninhabitable 21st Century Oxford tower. Was the best known and longest surviving sister, Charlotte, in real life a control freak who “stole” events from little sister Anne’s life for her own fiction? Was Anne meant to be the towering talent in the family? And brother Branwell: a drunk and wastrel? How about her father? What exactly caused her mother to flee when Samantha was a child? His mistress or his obsessions with his literary forebears?

The reader may delight as certain “truths” about the Brontës legacy are debunked or questioned. As a novel however, certain problems arise in The Madwoman Upstairs. One: the immature, off-putting behavior of the 20-something year old heroine. She’s hardly sympathetic. She reminded this reader of a recalcitrant teenager, a 15-year-old maybe, brooding, sarcastic, and obstructive.  Home schooled by her father, she admits she has close to no social graces. It is Impossible, therefore, to conceive of her as an intelligent, attractive young woman with normal desires and sexual longings.  She is wrapped up in resolving her feelings toward her father and begrudging her mother’s escape from an impossible marriage. She’s trapped in the legacy.

Most difficult to believe is that an older adult, a professor, would look upon her as an appropriate/suitable/desirable love object. Yet by the end of the novel, with a little help from her “friends,” the heroine has completed her mad quest, descended unscathed from the tower, and, if we are to trust the Epilogue, found love and happiness too.

My verdict: a fun and engaging premise, taking on the literary establishment as it were, forcing the reader to reexamine what she remembers of the pivotal novels of the 19th Century, a plot structure with well-executed twists and turns and characters who are enigmatic enough to sustain our interest.

I would just have wished for fewer pauses and silences in the dialogue, livelier reparteé, and an altogether more engaging and evolved protagonist. But she’s a Brontë, not an Austen, and brooding suits her well.

I could see my entourage of books—Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, and Tenant—stacked neatly in the corner to my left. They had won, it seemed. I had let go of myself and become one of them: strange, antisocial, obsessed, uncontrollable, and artistic. I was not anticipating the inexplicable fondness that washed over me. I looked at those books and finally understood what it must feel like to be part of a loving, dysfunctional family, the kind everyone else seemed to have. Here was a group of people that I was beginning to love, if only because they were crazy and mine.

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Kookooland, a Memoir

By Gloria Norris

Regan Arts | 2016 | 351 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Gloria Norris

Daddy’s Home!

On the one hand Jimmy likes having his nine-year-old daughter around, treats her more like a sidekick, partner in crime, a son. When he’s not putting her down by calling her “dummkopf” (she gets straight A’s) or “Dracula” (she has crooked teeth) he’s dragging her along to duck shoots, afternoons of using rats for rifle practice, hours of hanging out in the car while he’s fencing stolen air conditioners and TV’s.

When push comes to shove, he finagles things to his advantage and occasionally to his family’s. He helps Gloria’s half-sister, who’s 16, obtain an illegal abortion, thereby saving her from a doomed marriage. He teaches Gloria to shoot straight and to fight for herself. What else is there on the plus side? He’s obviously bright and street smart, and we sense he really does care about his daughters, especially Gloria.

On the other hand, the balancing bar is hitting the ground. Jimmy is a bully, a bigot, a racetrack gambler, a con man, a macho pig with violent tendencies, and someone who steals from his own family. He may also be a wife beater. While his wife works the night shift at an eyeglass factory, cleans houses, and takes care of all household matters, he does occasional landscape work.

He’s lazy. He’s a big drinker, so is his wife, and we can’t blame her for that. In later years, he’s on and off prescription Librium, dealing drugs and smoking pot. He calls women, including those in his family, “whores,” while he sleeps around, and terrifies them regularly by driving recklessly while drunk, waving guns around and firing them in the house. He defends his best friend who just happened to 86 his ex-wife and a guy she picked up in the bar. He’s quite a fellow and there’s even a hint he may have abused his older daughter when she was four.

Yet. . .Gloria Norris has written a terrific, compelling, captivating story about her childhood, with Jimmy at the center of all the drama. And, what a voice! Growing up in his household, she was always afraid, always “managing” her father, forever vigilant. She spends countless hours “outthinking” him.

 Inspired by a friend, she fights to get out. She wins a scholarship to Bennington, transfers to Sarah Lawrence and becomes a producer and scriptwriter (and now author), who rubs shoulders with the likes of Brian de Palma, Marty Scorsese, Robert de Niro and Woody Allen.

Your father is your father, Norris seems to say, and she works her darndest to prove that she’s come to terms with hers. Jimmy endured a strict Greek upbringing, knowing that his parents did not really care for him. We see the intergenerational trail of dysfunction. Families: they’re complicated! Norris says, here’s mine; here’s what I had to live with; and look how I turned out.

She’s done an admirable job in presenting the characters of her childhood in such a vibrant fashion, and taking us along on her journey as she escapes From the Projects of New Hampshire to forge a new life for herself in the big time.

We cannot help but laud her generosity of spirit. She refrains from blaming her father or her mother, who is but a weak pawn in the family drama, incapable of protecting her children, and a determined enabler. We pity this woman, wrenched from a quiet sheltered life on a farm in Nova Scotia and married to the first man she met, who happened to be a madman. She never rebels, never manages to separate from Jimmy, because, she knows, he needs her and she’s the only one who will stand by him.

Buried in Acknowledgments at the back of the book, third from the bottom, is Norris’ last tribute: “And last, but most definitely not least, I am indebted to: . . . .My father, Jimmy, who taught me to appreciate books and movies, who sat for hours of interviews and who said, ‘Crucify me, if you have to, to get the goddamn story right.’”

Readers, she got it right.

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Writing My Wrongs—Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison

By Shaka Senghor

Convergent Books | 2016

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

Shaka Senghor

Shaka Senghor’s story of redemption

A couple of generations ago, black male writers were firmly ensconced on the literary roost.  Noted authors such as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Amiri Baraka (nee LeRoi Jones), Ishmael Reed, and John A. Williams were being reviewed, summoned to the book circuit, and lauded by the award committees.

Then Terry McMillan and notable others—Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Ntozake Shange, Bebe Moore Campbell, Bell Hooks, et. al.—broke the ice and marked the arrival of a coterie of highly informed, assertive and talented black female writers.

Now comes a fresh wave of younger African-American men, several of them richly-anointed with the top prizes. Leading the way is Ta-Nehisi Coates, a proud recipient of a bundle of awards, none more lucrative than the MacArthur Genius salute.

Hot on his heels is Marlon James, who took home the esteemed Man Booker Prize. Darryl Pinckney, perhaps not as young, and Hilton Als, the New Yorker magazine’s resident guru as well as the redoubtable Stanley Crouch and Paul Beatty among those returning to the plateau of acclaim.

Most of these black men of the pen have commanded media space one way or another, but they better save some room for Shaka Senghor. His book, Writing My Wrongs—Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison (Convergent Books, 2016) is gathering considerable praise from a plethora of respected critics. In many ways his book is a cautionary tale in the tradition of The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler, or even Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, but with substantial more grit, grief, and grist.

It is also a book about Detroit, a city that has endured its share of bad news.  Senghor counter balances the terrible press and provides at least a few sprigs of hope and promise.

Senghor’s story of a resident’s emergence from squalor and depredation should give the city’s residents, even its aspiring writers, a solid example of a person’s recovery, a man’s determination to do the right thing no matter how far he has fallen into the pit of depravity and dysfunctionality.

Senghor’s rise from a crucible of crime, long periods of solitary confinement in prison, and finding the strength to forgive, drives his narrative and reveals a skillful storyteller. While his story of redemption is by no means unique, Senghor has his own special way of recounting an experience that never seems to veer away from absolute hopelessness.

It stands to reason that most of the book takes place in practically every correctional institution in the state of Michigan. As he relates in the first of the book’s three parts, “The slamming of the steel doors was a signal that the iron monster had once again been fed. My journey begins.”

That journey would last nineteen years before he was released in 2010. He had spent half his life in reformatories or prisons, and his impressions of those nights and days are delivered with a stark realism that is only occasionally relieved by humor and the bizarre characters he encounters.

Bracketing his cautionary tale are two letters. At the beginning of the book Senghor recalls a letter he wrote to the man he killed. “It wasn’t until I was ten years into serving my sentence [he had been sentenced to forty years] that I began seeing things differently. My healing started when I learned to begin forgiving myself for the wrongs I had committed,” he wrote. “However the real change started a year later when my eleven-year-old son sent me a letter that said he had found out the real reason I was in prison.”

In the book’s Afterword, he discloses a letter he received from the mother of the man he murdered, another more horrifying way he stands apart from the previously mentioned writers. “What I want you to know, other than these painful things that you have brought upon my family, is that I love you, and I forgive you,” she wrote. The letter is as moving as his own self-abasement, and he concludes by asking us to envision “a world where men and women aren’t held hostage to their pasts, where misdeeds and mistakes don’t define you and the rest of your life.

“In an era of record incarceration and a culture of violence, we can learn to love those who no longer love themselves,” he continues. “Together, we can begin to make things right.”

Senghor has clearly made some phenomenal leaps to make things right, and none are more heartfelt than the relationship he developed with Ebony, a woman who without reservation helped him toward the better angels of his nature. The letters they shared, though we get only a tantalizing peak at them, are reminiscent of those exchanges between Angela Davis and George Jackson.

Throughout the book we see Senghor’s gradual transformation, a steady growth and political development that is enhanced by the books of such Afro-Centric scholars as Amos Wilson, J.A. Rogers, Chancellor Williams, and Maya Angelou. Of course, there’s Malcolm’s autobiography, and there may come a time when Senghor’s book will be embraced with the same resolve as he gave to his mentors.

And, it is certainly exciting to learn that a writer is being celebrated in his hometown with a flurry of events now underway in recognition of his redemptive rise. Among the most publicized is one at the Charles Wright Museum of African American Culture, the city’s nationally heralded institution. It’s a perfect place to let a native son know how much they cherish his recovery.

Even if that day never arrives, we can take pride in Senghor’s ongoing evolution, his devotion to teaching and his leadership as the Director of Strategy and Innovation with #cut50, and his work to end the pipeline of young Black men to the nation’s prisons.

His presence, his redemption is a sufficient reward.

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Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar

By Tom Holland

Doubleday | 2015 | 419 pages | $30.00

Reviewed by Michael Carey

Tom Holland

Tom Holland is a uniquely gifted author. He has been recognized time and again for his work, and not just for the Historical books he has written. The subject matter of his non-fiction seems to be centered around the Mediterranean Sea and the progress of Western Civilization.

To date he has covered from the Greek-Persian Wars through the founding of the Global Arab Empire. Recently Holland once again set his sights on the Roman Empire. In Rubicon, he told the story of Julius Caesar’s rise to power, and now in Dynasty, Holland continues the story of the house that Caesar built.

The descendants of Julius Caesar produced five rulers of Rome. The transition from the Republic (whose supporters cut down their would be leader on the ides of March rather than see him rule) to the Empire we all know it became is a subtle, but powerful, tale of ambitious, intelligent, and ruthless men and women. It is also a story of death, loss, and fear.

In the wake of civil war, a war that brutalized and shook the foundation of Rome to its core, the citizens desired any alternative to the shadows of their immediate past.

Octavius, now known better as Augustus, was young, but he dared to give the people what they wanted. The methods of his rise, as disreputable as they are rumored to be, led way to peace, a peace the Romans would give almost anything to keep.

Augustus put away his childish games when his power was solidified and became first man of the republic. His genius to play the system saw his rise to divine status and his chosen successor’s rise to leadership of the Senate and the whole of the Roman Empire.

The following four rulers of Rome were as diverse as they were eccentric. Each had peculiar characteristics that define their legacy. Tiberius, son of Livia, Augustus’ second wife, and the height of the ancient Claudian line, succeeded his stepfather. As a staunch and methodical general, he committed himself to Roman virtue, but Rome was not what it had once been, or what it was meant to be.

He strived to live the Rome ideal, but lived long enough to make a mockery of his ruling class with epic and mythical perversions.

Caligula was an expert at playing the game. Learning from Tiberius and being born a great-grand son of Augustus, the emperor, whose name means “little bootkins”, bided his time. When he was clear of Tiberius, his true nature became apparent. He was a playful ruler, but his games, his pleasure, lay in cruelty.

Claudius, a son of Tiberius and uncle to Caligula, was written off at a young age due to his disabilities, but out of the spotlight, he was a dedicated historian. When his opportunity came, he was quickly moved into power and he sought to use his knowledge do great things in Rome. As with others in the dynasty of Caesar, he grew suspicious and rightly so.

Nero was ever the actor. He loved to make a show of everything he did, from the murder of his mother to competing in the Olympic games. He secured himself as the end of the Dynasty with his actions.

Great ambition and strong character saw the Caesar Dynasty installed. Strong character and self-interest led to its downfall. Tom Holland carries along this history with great affection. At times you see the great admiration with which he holds these leaders of the world, perverted as they might be. But this enthusiasm fortifies the book. It is seen in his efforts to streamline and make narrative of the thematic and historic points he wishes to make.

The book is more or less written in consecutive order in regards to the time passing, but within any section there may be time lapses, Holland uses to ground the points he wishes to touch on. Tom Holland does a spectacular job of bringing the various avenues of his research into a pointed story. The substance of Dynasty, is historical, and dense by nature, but the author dances through the period, informing the reader of all the interesting and intriguing details, the back stories, and even making note of the rumors and unknowable details that comprise this awe-inspiring time in history.

Holland has received praise for his translation of Herodotus’ The Histories, and Herodotus was known as the Father of History. It seems relevant that Holland continues to strive to bring history to the world in an interesting and narrative way. It seems as if he fathering a present age movement of exploring history through narrative.

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Barefoot Dogs

By Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

Self published, Antonio Ruiz-Camacho | 138 pages | 2015 | $14.00

Reviewed by Michael Carey

book jacket

Ruiz-Camacho is an educated and gifted writer. His debut story collection, Barefoot Dogs, is receiving a great deal of attention. I have to say, it is well earned, indeed. Born in Mexico and receiving a higher education in the United States, Antonio tackles the subject of a Mexican family ripped at the seams by the kidnapping of its patriarch and the dispersion of its members.

Barefoot Dogs tells eight stories of people connected to the Arteaga family after the disappearance of Jose Victoriano Arteaga. Ruiz-Camacho takes a unique approach to the tragedy in the characters he chooses to explore. We are presented with personal, unflinching accounts of how those affected by the disappearance struggle and even effect the lives of those they encounter.

We read the story of grandchildren: some old enough to feel the implications and others not yet able to truly understand what is going on, only feeling the flux life has become. Lovers and mistresses, servants and sons, all feel the shockwave of the horrors occurring in Mexico City at the time. There is a love for the city, life, and family they knew, but there is fear too.Antonio Ruiz-Camacho paints a vague picture of the story below the surface, the story of Jose Victoriano’s disappearance. The responses and experiences of the same tragedy vary so wildly, the reader looses focus at times on the catalyst that set the worlds of Ruiz-Camacho’s characters into their current states. Therefore it is important to remember that Barefoot Dogs is a collection of stories, each an exploration of the human condition navigating the emotions and motivations of each character.

Barefoot Dogs takes a refreshing approach to such a heavy subject that it encourages the reader through, page after page, story after story; each story told from different characters’ points of view. Even the grammar choices offer qualities to the characters.

Ruiz-Camacho, in his collection of stories, gives us a glimpse into a world that is, most likely, far different from our own. Though fictional, he presents it with a realistic touch brought to life by his characters. I enjoyed the book and liked the author’s method of portraying this story and applaud the way his brings his characters to life.

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Book Cover Designs

Edited by Matthew Goodman

Schiffer Publishing | 224 pages | 2016

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

Matthew Goodman

When I received an email from Schiffer Publishing, a book publishing company I was not familiar with, I knew immediately that the book they were pitching to me, Book Cover Designs, was one I had to personally review.

I have done much with book covers at Neworld Review, as you well know. I learned years ago, as a print magazine Editor-in-Chief, that print and visual art compliment each other in so many ways.

But now what?  What about this brand new online world? This is not the large, wonderful space you have with an 8 1/2 by 11 format, or a “double truck,” as the case may be.

So, how do you marry the best of both worlds?

One day, as I was sitting in my office in New York City (the barstool at The Garage in the Village), I was thinking about all the wonderful books that had started pouring into Neworld Review, my first venture into this new world.

It hit me: those great looking book covers would make better art than author’s photos. Most writers are not noted for their good looks, anyway.

It was clearly an impolite thought on my part about my good, faithful friends, the writers; but nevertheless, I immediately took them off of the home page, and started using the book covers as art; and here we are, almost ten years later, and those great covers certainly did help to put us on the map.

In fact, I spotted at least four of them in Goodman’s book that I have used for art. It was also good to see the faces of the artists that produced those covers.

Matthew Goodman does a great job in his selections, as he looked at the work of countless dozens of book cover designers, both individuals and design companies. In the end, out of this, he selected 51. He also had all of his selections to write a brief reason for their many successes in their field.

Most of Goodman’s selections in Book Cover Designs worked very well as both art and as a selling tool. Because, in the end, and I don’t have to tell you this, book readers, if the buyers don’t know in a few seconds just what this book could be about, the design means nothing, a total failure, no matter how great the art is.

One of the major jobs of the Editor-in-Chief, as I well know, is to keep a sharp eye on the art directors, especially if they are brilliant, and don’t let them get carried away. In Goodman’s book, a few of his subjects did just that, and made me go, “Now what is this all about?”

But they were few.

It is also interesting to note just how evenly this most compelling, yet quiet branch of art directing is spilt so evenly between male and female artists. Maybe this just Goodman being politically correct, or maybe this is just the case. Let’s hope so.

This book would make a nice present on any occasion for that bookworm friend or relative. Race, color or creed, we all are grateful that we all have at least one of them. This bookworm certainly found Book Cover Designs quite interesting.

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