Book Review: Yellow Jack

Yellow Jack

Josh Russell

WW Norton & Company

250 pages

Today marks exactly two weeks until my wedding and since I am getting married in New Orleans, I decided to spend these two weeks focused on literature set in NO.  Yellow Jack was my first pick and boy was it a good one!

I chose Yellow Jack for one reason, besides the fact that it is based in NO. The reason is because it’s about a pestilence–for whatever reason that fascinates me.  In reality, “yellow jack” played a role in the book, but it involved so much more. 

Claude Marchand is studying under Daguerre in Europe when the two of them discover the daguerreotype–pretty much the first form of photography.  Because I am a novice to the process, I will quote my good friend Wikipedia:

The image in a Daguerreotype is formed by amalgam i.e. a combination of mercury and silver. Mercury vapor from a pool of heated mercury is used to develop the plate that consists of a copper plate with a thin coating of silver rolled in contact that has previously been sensitised to light with iodine vapour so as to form silver iodide crystals on the silver surface of the plate.

Exposure times were later reduced by using bromine to form silver bromide crystals.

The image is formed on the surface of the silver plate that looks like a mirror. It can easily be rubbed off with the fingers and will oxidise in the air, so from the outset daguerreotypes were mounted in sealed cases or frames with a glass cover.

The image in a Daguerreotype is formed by amalgam i.e. a combination of mercury and silver. Mercury vapor from a pool of heated mercury is used to develop the plate that consists of a copper plate with a thin coating of silver rolled in contact that has previously been sensitised to light with iodine vapour so as to form silver iodide crystals on the silver surface of the plate.

Exposure times were later reduced by using bromine to form silver bromide crystals.

The image is formed on the surface of the silver plate that looks like a mirror. It can easily be rubbed off with the fingers and will oxidise in the air, so from the outset daguerreotypes were mounted in sealed cases or frames with a glass cover.

When viewing the daguerreotype, a dark surface is reflected into the mirrored silver surface, and the reproduction of detail in sharp photographs is very good, partly because of the perfectly flat surface.

Marchand decides to flee Europe and when he travels to New Orleans, he introduces the dagguereotype, which he renames “soliotype”, and opens a studio.  Many of the soliotypes Marchand does are “memorials”, meaning that they are done after death.  I had heard a bit about that before reading Yellow Jack, but I hadn’t realized how popular it was! According to the book, many people didn’t even have their picture taken at all during their life–only after death.  I did a Google image search and apparently the prevalence of memorial dagguereotypes is true, because I found a TON. 

So anyway, obviously the city is being plagued, literally, and the morbidity of life back then is all too real to Marchand, but there is more to the book than that.  Marchand is caught in a love triagnle between Millicent, a gritty street girl, and Vivian, who was born into the lap of luxury.  Marchand seems to value them based on their social status–he treats Millicent like crap while he worships Vivian, yet he seems to be in love with both of them.  The novel is very erotic and the love triangle between Claude, Vivian and Millicent is intriguing.

Yellow Jack is full of so many intricacies, that I feel like I have only touched on a small part of the book.  The format was conducive to the novel and made it more readable.  It switched back and forth between Marchand and is point of view, Millicent’s diary entries and excerpts from a modern history book.  If you enjoy historical fiction but are looking for something different, check this book out!

Other Reviews:

None that I could fine!

I borrowed this book from my local library.

Book Review: The Gravedigger’s Daughter

The Gravedigger’s Daughter

Joyce Carol Oates

Harper Perennial

624 pages

The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a lengthy saga about the life of Rebecca Schwart Tignor aka Hazel Jones.  Rebecca’s family has come to the US from Europe as Jewish refugees and Rebecca’s father, Jacob, has gotten a job as a caretaker in Milburn , New York .  The five person family (parents Jacob and Ann, brothers Herschel and Gus, and Rebecca) live in the stone caretaker’s cottage on site.  Anna begins to lose it mentally and Jacob becomes more and more abusive towards his family as the shame of his life in the US eats away at him.  Eventually tragedy strikes the family, which starts Rebecca on a rollercoaster of despair. 

She meets and marries a young man names Niles Tignor as a teenager and she moves away with him and bears a son, Niley.  Despite warning signs, Rebecca has a romantic notion about Niles for the first few years of their marriage, but Niles is also an abusive man and Rebecca is forced to flee from him one night with Niley.  The fear of being on the run is forever present to Rebecca.  She is forced to change hers and Niley’s names and she chooses Zach and Hazel Jones.  The latter name was chosen because Rebecca was mistakenly believed to be a woman named Hazel Jones, and she adopts the moniker without ever knowing who the real Hazel Jones is. 

Meanwhile, Zack has issues of his own.  He slowly developes a hatred for his mother over the loss of his father.   He also turns out to be a prodigy on the piano.  Much of the book revolves around Zack’s growth both as a person and as a pianist.  His anger became more and more present throughout the book and was discouraging.   He became this brooding, sullen, hateful person and I felt that while some of his anger towards his mother was deserved, he also held her responsible for circumstances that were beyond her control.

One thing I definitely did not appreciate about The Gravedigger’s Daughter was the epilogue.  I don’t think I am giving anything away at all by discussing the epilogue, so hopefully no one else feels differently. It is an epistolary format between Rebecca and her long lost cousin.  My grievance is that it has nothing to do with the book.  I felt that it added absolutely nothing.  Has anyone else read the book and, if so, do you agree?  It’s twenty-five years later and Hazel is now back to being Rebecca.  Why? How?  What did the intervening years hold?  I felt no connect with the actual text.  Instead the epilogue just seemed slapped on. 

I had a problem with the ending too.  Sometimes I get sick of people bemoaning ambiguous ending.  Generally, I have no problem when an author leaves things open-ended/.  In fact, I would prefer that rather than trying too hard to come up with the perfect ending because sometimes it just doesn’t work.  But I am telling you, the ending in this book was bizarre.  To me, it was like JCO just stopped in the middle of a chapter or even the middle of a scene.  I can’t make heads or tales out of what I should have gotten from.  Maybe that’s the point?  I don’t know—I finished it before bed last night and was frustrated to the core because of the ending AND the epilogue. 

I am a big JCO fan.  Her writing style is unique and refreshing, and  I am rarely disappointed by her books.  The one exception is We Were the Mulvaneys, which I struglled to get through in high school.  I was young at the time and my taste in literature was a lot less refined than it is now, so I plan on giving We Were another chance in the hopes that my maturity will have changed my viewpoint of the book.  Unfortunately, I feel like The Gravedigger’s Daughter let me down a bit.  It was just dry and not very engaging at all.  I hope it was just a small blip in my appreciation of JCO’s work. 

Other Reviews:

Passion for the Pages

Books Please

Ace and Hoser Blook

Sophisticated Dorkiness

I borrowed this book from my local library.

This book counts towards the Chunkster challenge.

Sunday Salon

Unfortunately this SS post will be short and sweet.  I am frantically typing as fiance is showering because as soon as he’s done, we need to go run errands and I am not even dressed yet!

This week I have been going back and forth between two lengthy tomes–Wolf Hall and The Gravedigger’s Daughter.  Both are around 600 pages and I am getting pretty far in both but I was not able to finish either of them this week.  However, I am usually very off put by books this long, so I am proud of myself for picking up both and forging through.  I have two hundred pages left in TGD so hopefully I can finish that one by tomorrow night.  WH will be slower going.

What I will read next, I am not entirely sure, but my wedding in New Orleans is coming up in two and a half weeks so I will probably start up on some NOLA based fiction.  I have quite a few books based on the city in my collection, so I will have to look through those.

I hope everyone has a great Sunday!

Book Review: Before I Fall

Before I Fall

Lauren Oliver


480 pages

Sam Kingston has it all.  She’s one of the most popular senior girls in school and she is constantly making memories with her three best friends Elody, Ally and Lindsay.  It all changes one night when Sam is killed in a car accident on the way home from a party with all of her friends.  At this point, Before I Fall takes an interesting turn.

Sam is forced to relive her last day alive.  Not once, not twice, but multiple times.  At first, I got a little bored.  I was thinking ‘One day . . . over and over again?  How boring!”  Rest assured, it was anything but.  Sam doesn’t know why she is trapped in some time of purgatory–she has no idea why she keeps reliving the same day over and over and over, but during that repeating day, she keeps learning what mistakes she made in life and what a powerful influence she can have on others.

A big part of the lessons Sam learns is that her attitude and treatment of others matters.  Before her death, she had a devil may care attitude.  She joined in on teasing some peers with her friends.  She rarely showed any affection towards her parents.  She really embodied the negative attitude some people have of “popular girls”.  She behaved as if she was better than everyone and, in the end, she eventually realized that her behavior had a negative impact on some, including herself.

It was unfortunate that Sam didn’t have these revalations before her death.  It took life and death for Sam to realize the mistakes she made and to mend the relationships she had with the ones she loved.  It was almost like too little, too late.

This book came at a really weird time for me.  The wife of one of the attorneys in my office died shortly after childbirth.  Such a tragic and unexpected death resonated a lot more because the parallels were significant.  It made Sam’s plight more personal and realistic, and I empathized with her even more.

Before I Fall is an example of the great YA literature that is becoming more and more prevalent these days. 

Other Reviews:

Presenting Lenore

S Krishna’s Books

Jenn’s Bookshelves


I borrowed this book from my local library.

Book Review: Mudbound


Hilary Jordan

Algonquin Books

340 pages

Mudbound is truly a story of prejudice and hatred.  Laura McAllen has been dragged onto a Mississippi farm by her older husband Henry, who is living out his dream by becoming a farmer.  Laura, however, is less than pleased at the prospect of living on a farm.  She and her two young daughters immediately christen their home “Mudbound”.  Laura is forced to bide her time in the home while her husband continuously makes empty promises to move her into a house in town.  To add insult to injury, Laura is forced to deal with her racist, mean-spirited father-in-law.  While Laura is initially the main character of Mudbound, the story eventually evolves to the relationship between Henry’s younger brother Jamie and a young man named Ronsel Jackson.

Ronsel’s family is black and they are sharecroppers on the McAllen farm.  The two families get along well at first, although all of the people involved are aware of the racial divide that separates them.  Ronsel changes all that when he comes home after fighting in WWII midway through the book.  Ronsel has just put his life on the line on behalf of the US , so he is deeply aggrieved to come back to Mississippi and find that his valor is unappreciated.  Instead, he is faced with the same prejudice that he had left behind years ago.  The only person that comes to ignore his color is Jamie McAllen.  Jamie had also been in combat, and both men are deeply wounded by the time they spent fighting for their country.  Both Jamie and Ronsel are able to understand what the other has gone through, which forms between them an unbreakable bond.  Unfortunately, that bond is not appreciated by either of their families or the town in which they live.  Jamie is white, Ronsel is black.  Therefore, they are not supposed to associate with one another in a friendly manner.  Eventually, Ronsel’s inability to behave in a way dictated by the white population at the time leads to the horrifying culmination of Mudbound.

This book left me heartbroken.  It was so realistic and the sentiments of the characters so true.  Pappy’s extreme racism and overall snottiness added an evil force to the mix.  I will say, I think Mudbound would have been even better if Pappy had been included as one of the narrators.  Jamie was charming and lovable, despite the brooding quality he became immersed in after returning from war.  Ronsel’s willingness to stand up for himself no matter what was endearing.  I found Laura to be too weak willed.  She was so unhappy with where she was living but yet she allowed her husband to make those decisions without standing up for herself.  I have seen some reviews that rebuke Henry for forcing Laura to live his dream—in fact, some of the reviewers have really loathed Henry.  This shocked me, actually.  I just didn’t find him all that reprehensible.  I think he was surprised at how closed off his wife was.  I think he understood completely the type of feelings she had for Jamie.  I don’t think he really understood how much Laura really hated living at Mudbound.  That doesn’t mean I don’t think Henry was without fault.  The way he reacted to Laura’s “issue” midway through the book (referred to that way to prevent spoilers!) was awful.  But overall, I think Henry was just misguided and lonely.

I enjoyed the narration of the story immensely: Henry, Jamie, Laura, Ronsel, Florence and her husband Hap (Ronsel’s parents) all switched between one another in narrating the story.  I really enjoy when narration switches back and forth between characters, for the most part.  It can really add a lot to the story by offering the reader different views and inputs.  I think Jordan did a good job in weaving the story through the incorporation of six of the characters. 

Overall, Mudbound is not to be missed.

Other Reviews:

 Boston Bibliophile

Medieval Bookworm

Fyrefly’s Book Blog

Lesley’s Book Nook

The Literate Housewife Review

1 More Chapter

I borrowed this book from my local library.

The Sunday Salon

Happy Sunday everyone!  As you all have noticed, it has been slow going over here.  I have been moving and I am not. even. done.  It seems neverending!  There is still some stuff left at the old house, plus some unpacking to do.  The good news is, I am getting back into my reading.

This week I finished Mudbound, by Hilary Jordan, as well as reading A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick and Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver.  All three were good reads, so I am gaining some momentum after my reading funk!  I have no just started The Gravedigger’s Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates.  It’s a little on the long side, so I hope I don’t get bogged down.  I will also need to get back to Wolf Hall for the read-a-long I posted about earlier this week.  I had kind of thought I was putting it down for good last time, so I am glad I have some motivation now.

Fiance is golfing today, so I slept late!  Now I have to get moving and start getting everything organized.  Needless to say, I am not looking forward to it!  I hope everyone else has a chance to enjoy their Sunday!