Monday, October 20, 2008

Stories your high school English teacher never told you

Did you know that Ernest Hemingway's transsexual son Gloria died of a heart attack at the Miami-Dade Women's Detention Center? Or that Louisa May Alcott was an opium addict? Or that Charles Dickens horribly dissed his house guest Hans Christen Andersen? These are just some of the startling facts presented in the book Secret Lives of Great Authors by Robert Schnakenberg. Aside from Dickens, there are plenty of interesting tidbits about other British authors, too, including J.R.R. Tolkien's aggressive driving style ("Charge 'em and they scatter!") and Arthur Conan Doyle's deadly serious devotion to ghosts, magic and fairies. While the book provides lots of interesting insights and facts about well-known authors, the veracity of the entire work was thrown into question for me when the author claimed (both in the text and in a highlighted blurb), "Mark Twain once delivered an entire speech on breaking wind to an audience that included Queen Elizabeth I." Now, as QEI had been dead for over 230 years before Twain was even born, that would have been quite a feat -- although I suppose dear old Bess wouldn't have been too upset at that point by subject matter of any speech! I know that Twain dealt with the subject of time travel in at least one of his books, but I had no idea that he was speaking from experience! Poor editing and fact-checking like that make me question how much of the rest of the book can be taken as truth. On the bright side, I did learn a new word from this book: inimical, meaning hostile. Of course, whether or not I will remember it tomorrow is another question . . .

In other news, my name finally floated to the top of the library holds list, and I have recently made a return visit to the Scottish village of Lochdubh in the audio book version of Death of a Gentle Lady by M.C. Beaton. In this episode, Hamish Macbeth narrowly escapes a wedding, is kidnapped, and of course, single-handedly solves the most current of a series of murders that have a way of plaguing the small fishing village. Some reviewers have remarked upon the fact that some recurring characters are suddenly displaying new personality traits. I was startled by the assertion in this book that Hamish had broken off his engagement to Priscilla Halburton-Smythe because of "her coldness." For some reason, I had a hazy thought that it was Priscilla who did the breaking off, but I could be mistaken. She, of course, makes a return appearance in the book, and both she and Hamish are as jealous as ever of each other even speaking to a member of the opposite sex. A strange part of this book was that Hamish's cat, Sonsie, is forever startling people who see it. They always remark that "it looks like a wild cat." That rather begs the question, what exactly does a wild cat look like? Most feral cats I've ever seen look like your basic pet, although usually a bit skinnier -- certainly nothing to be frightened of. Is it supposed to be bigger than a domestic cat?? Maybe this was explained in an earlier novel, but I never did really work out what made the cat "wild." One problem with this version of the audio book was that I didn't enjoy the narrator, Graeme Malcolm, nearly as much as Davina Porter, who read some of the earlier ones I'd heard. She seemed to make each character more distinct, and I would forget that it was one person doing all the voices!

Final Verdict on Secret Lives of Great Authors: Two Gherkins, for enjoyable reading, but questionable facts

Final Verdict on Death of a Gentle Lady: Two Gherkins, for being an enjoyable visit with old friends

1 comments:

Anonymous said...

There is actually a species of wild cat native to the British Isles. They tend to be larger than house cats, are tabby striped, and have a large, feathery furred tail (or so I've read). Unlike Sonsie, I understand they are usually quite wary of humans.

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