Wings: Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France–Erin Byrne


I was drawn to this book by several factors:  1) the image of the Winged Victory of Samothrace on the cover and 2) the escapist promise of travel essays.   The fact that my colleague, Roaminghistorian (@travelhistory1) is drafting a similar set of essays about her travels in Italy also piqued my interest in looking at a current model for this genre.

Byrne says in her introduction that she is not writing to amuse, but to “call forth responses.”  She hopes that something in her experience calls out something in the reader’s heart or experiences.  Her essays are not chronological, which I found disorienting at first.  I wanted a narrative.  She was delivering experiences.  The essays are organized thematically into triads.  As I progressed through them I understood better what she was trying to accomplish and went along with her and gave up my resistance and resentment over the lack of chronological narrative.

At first I could not read Byrne without hearing a privileged somewhat spoiled voice.  As I read on, I heard a woman seeking.  Seeking answers, seeking questions, seeking connection.  Byrne is highly imaginative and empathetic.  When she is in a historic location, she feels the history, she imagines herself as the characters.  She invents characters in order to feel the historic moment.

Because the stories are drawn from a decade of travel, Byrne is able to reflect and tell the story and then analyze the way in which the experience helped her understand a later life event.  Whether it was her becoming more patient as she matured in her travels or my becoming more patient as I acquiesced to her organization, the book seemed to mellow, particularly in the last third.

Near the end, Byrne’s muse, the Winged Victory, tells her to go to Spain, to open her wings.  I hope Byrne’s next work relates that experience.  This time I plan to be fully on board from page one.

Thanks to NetGalley and Solas House for providing an advance copy for this review.

Finished 4/17/16



The Rhetoric of Death–Judith Rock


Jesuits, Huguenots, Paris of Louis XIV—-the stage is set for state-sponsored murder and religious intrigue.  Enter Charles du Luc, a Jesuit master whose family is split between Catholics, one of whom is Bishop of Marseilles, and Huguenots, one of whom he has just helped escape to Switzerland to escape persecution and another of whom rots in a cell at the king’s pleasure.

Charles’ well-placed bishop relative secures him a place as rhetoric (and dancing, seen as connected at this time) master at the school of Louis le Grand, which enjoys the patronage of the king.  Charles is there mere days when a student leaps out a window during dance practice and disappears, following which the student’s younger brother is run down in the street, seemingly on purpose.  Charles’ curiosity and keen skills of observation lead him to investigate both incidents and explore the potential connections, even when he is warned off by his superior.  Soon he finds himself questioning events as well as his own vocation and the policies of Louis XIV in persecuting the Huguenots.  His path is made difficult by a fellow Jesuit, the last male member of the Guise family, hardcore partisans of the ultraconservative Catholic party in France.  Charles manages to solve the mystery, resolve his doubts about his vocation, and remove the obstreperous fellow Jesuit from his path.  He cannot resolve Louis’ troubled policies, but, through the course of the murder investigation, discovers that the situation is not as grim as the surface would indicate.

Rock sets us up for more mysteries involving Charles.  She creates such an interesting set of characters and beautifully draws the reader into the world of Louis XIV’s Paris that a bit more fictional murder seems in order.

Finished 7/21/13