Monday, March 2, 2015

New book joy

The past week or so has been very good for books (and bad for my TBR stacks).

First, I finally got to pick up my copy of the new Laurie R. King book, Dreaming Spies.  While I was at Murder by the Book, I couldn't help checking for Helen MacInnes's books.  They had a whole shelf of the lovely Titan Books editions, and I brought home I and My True Love.

Then at Half Price Books on Saturday I found half a shelf of Barbara Pym's novels. There were multiple copies of titles I already have, but I still found three to add to my collection: An Academic Question, A Few Green Leaves, and The Sweet Dove Died.  As I mentioned elsewhere, I think I will end up collecting all of her books.  Most of those I have now are lucky finds in used-book stores, though I've searched for a couple of specific titles on-line.  At some point I will probably sit down with a list of those I don't have and start looking.

Today I finally got to a favorite Houston bookstore, Kaboom Books.  I had hoped to go last Thursday, when I had half a day off from work, but they were unexpectedly closed when I got there. (I said bad words.)  I made up for it today.  I was pretty sure they had some of Margery Sharp's books, and I was right: Cluny Brown, which went straight up my reading list after Simon's review; and The Sun in Scorpio (about which I know nothing).  They also had a 1909 edition of Some Experiences of an Irish R.M., illustrated by E.O. Somerville.  I've resisted it for two years; today it came home with me.  But the real find was Miss Miles, by Mary Taylor.  The close friend of Charlotte Bronte, and a feminist author, Mary Taylor wrote just one novel, this 1890 story that "depicts women's friendships as sustaining life and sanity through all the vicissitudes of Victorian womanhood."  I almost bought a copy at another store a year or so ago.  I put it back on the shelf and have regretted it ever since.  I didn't note down the title or author, so I had no idea how to find it again.  And today, there it was, sitting on a shelf - even angled forward, to catch my eye.  Book serendipity!

Though I have disqualified myself from the TBR Dare by re-reading, I'm still keeping to the spirit of the Dare by not reading the new books I'm acquiring.  So these will have to wait until April 1st - except for the Laurie King.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

This book really is better: Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Winifred Watson

I take a lot of grief sometimes from bookish friends for holding to the Purist Principle that "The Book Is Always Better" than the film version.  I've seen it put another way: "Don't judge a book by its movie."  I do admit there are exceptions.  I think the TV version of Lonesome Dove really captures the essence of the book, and in that case I appreciate the less-graphic violence on-screen.  The Walter Matthau spy caper "Hopscotch" is one of my favorite films of all time.  I recently tried to read the novel on which it's based and gave up after a chapter of turgid prose.  But they are the exceptions that proverbially prove the rule.

The other night, I found Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day on Netflix streaming.  I'd seen it once, before I read the book, and I watched half an hour or so of it again that night.  Then, after a bad day at work, I came home needing something more soothing to read than the siege of Famagusta on Cyprus in Dorothy Dunnett's Race of Scorpions.  So I sat down with Miss Pettigrew, and within just a few pages I was reminded of how much I love this book, and why it in particular is so much better than the film version.

For anyone who hasn't read the book or seen the film, there will be spoilers below.

In the absence of extended narration, films have to show what books can tell, and they often exaggerate to highlight.  The book's story opens with Miss Pettigrew arriving at Miss Holt's employment agency.  She needs a job, and she is on the verge of desperation. She is behind on her rent, her landlady is threatening eviction, and we learn later in the book that the toast and coffee she has around 11 AM is the first she has eaten all day.  The film opens with Miss Pettigrew being dismissed from a live-in situation, carrying a suitcase trailing clothes out of the house while her former employer watches from an upstairs window. She then loses her clothes (including her hat), in a collision with a man on the street, spends all night in a train station, and stands in a soup line only to lose her food in another collision.  At Miss Holt's, she is told there is no situation for her, but she argues with Miss Holt and then steals the address of one that is open.  I understand that all of this is meant to show how desperate her situation is. But it makes the film's Miss Pettigrew (f) almost a figure of fun, caught in slapstick, and yet also more aggressive and I think less sympathetic. With the book's Miss Pettigrew (b) we're constantly inside her thoughts, watching her struggle with her conscience and the shades of her parents.  When Miss Pettigrew (f) proclaims, "I am the daughter of a vicar," there isn't the context that there is for her bookish version, so it doesn't carry much weight.  I imagine that line got laughs in the theaters.

There is a similar problem with the character of Delysia LaFosse.  I think Amy Adams is a wonderful actress.  But she plays Delysia as a coquette, all wiggles and sashays.  The book version is more serious about her career as an actress - not just a singer - and she takes Miss Pettigrew more seriously, in their talks.  There's a warmth to their developing relationship in the book, which I didn't feel in the film.  And by making the film Delysia an American, who is whisked home in the final scenes, I think the film ruined a perfectly happy ending.  At the end of the book, Miss Pettigrew is going to live with Delysia and Michael, keeping house for them.  She has gained friendship, security, work she is suited for, the prospect of which fills her with joy.  And she has a beau in the offing.  Miss Pettigrew (f) does get Ciarán Hinds - I mean Joe Blomfield - and presumably love and security.  But it's with someone she has just met, and it's King Coheptua and the beggar maid.  I think the book's Delysia and Guinevere both get the better deal (with all due respect to Lee Pace's Michael).

By introducing Joe into the story so early, the film re-shapes it into a more conventional romance.  And making him the fiancé of Edythe Dubarry undermines the friendship between her and Delysia, as well as the hilarious episode of the cocktail party, where Miss Pettigrew reunites Edythe with Tony while under the influence of the Snake's Venom he serves her.  In the book, Miss Pettigrew has all these adventures before she meets Joe.  She has already been transformed.  Joe is only part of her happy ending.  The friendship of Delysia is just as important, as is the new life she is entering into.  In the film, when Joe and Miss Pettigrew meet, she is still in her dowdy governess clothes, and she promptly drops a pastry on his immaculate shoe and then flees - a typical rom-com "meet cute" that makes her look ridiculous.  They meet again and again through the course of the film, which keeps the focus on romance at the expense of Miss Pettigrew's other adventures.

Of course I don't think any film could do justice to the fast-moving dialogue of the book.  I admit, I was sometimes as lost as Miss Pettigrew, even without the influence of sherry and Snake's Venom.  This is just such a delightful book.  I agree with Henrietta Twycross-Martin, who wrote the introduction to the recent Persephone reprint: "what astonishes is the sheer fun, the lightheartedness and enchanting fantasy of an hour-by-hour plot that feels closer to a Fred Astaire film than anything else I can think of."  I was also reminded of the screwball comedies of William Powell, Myrna Loy and Carole Lombard, not to mention Cary Grant and Babara Stanwyck.

Has anyone read any of Winifred Watson's other books?  Hop, Step and Jump sounds the most appealing to me.

Monday, February 16, 2015

A memoir of life in Australia

Thirty Years in Australia, Ada Cambridge

Reading Ada Cambridge's 1891 novel The Three Miss Kings sent me off in search of her other books.  The biographical note and the introduction to my Virago edition left me particularly interested in this memoir, published in 1903.  As with so much of her work, it has long been out of print, but I downloaded a copy to my e-reader (where it sat).  After I read another of her novels, A Marked Man, I was checking ABE Books, to see what else of hers I could find in paper.  It was perfect timing, because a copy of this book was available for a reasonable price.  It's an ex-library copy, and I don't usually buy those, because they tend to be beat up and marked up, but this one is in lovely shape for its 112 years.  It even has that delicious old-book smell.

I took to the three Miss Kings pretty much from the first page, and I had the same reaction to their author in her turn:
I knew nothing whatever of Australia when I rashly consented to marry a young man who had irrevocably bound himself to go and live there, and moreover, to go within three months of the day on which the wild idea occurred to me.  During the seven weeks or thereabouts of a bewildering engagement, the while I got together my modest trousseau, we hunted for information in local libraries, and from more of less instructed friends.  The books were mostly old ones, the tales the same.  Geoffrey Hamlyn was my sheet anchor, but did not seem to be supported by the scraps of prosaic history obtainable; we could not verify those charming homes and social customs.  On the other hand, cannibal blacks and convict bushrangers appeared to be grim facts. . . When we had assimilated all the information available, our theory of the life before us was still shapeless.  However, we were young and trusting, and prepared to take things as they came.
She married her husband, George Cross, in 1870, when she was twenty-six.  (She refers to him as "G." throughout the memoir, which reminded me of Vera Brittain's "G" in hers.)  A month after their wedding, they sailed from Plymouth for Australia.  They were bound for Melbourne, where her husband would serve for the next forty-two years as a priest in that diocese.  Her memoir is structured around the eight parishes that he was assigned to, seven in the bush and the last in Melbourne itself.  With each move, they had to re-establish a home and adapt themselves to the new community, which Cambridge usually enjoyed.  In these years, she gave birth to five children, losing two to disease before they were five (another son died at seventeen soon after she wrote this book).

Ada Cambridge was a hard-working wife and mother.  She was particularly proud of sewing her own and her children's clothes.  However, she was frequently in such poor health that she was confined to the sofa, and she often spent time recuperating with friends in Melbourne.  At one point she was left behind in a nursing home while her husband and children went off to a new parish, having been told by the doctors that she was going to die (of what, she never said).  In part because of her health, she refused to play the usual role of the vicar's wife, or what she called the "female-curate's post."  She was quite clear in her opinion that clergy wives were overworked, both by their husbands and the parish.  She included one story of a model wife and mother, who ended up in an asylum after her husband told her one Sunday that she would have to play the organ for the morning services; it was the proverbial last straw.  Cambridge for her part simply exempted herself from parish work, though not just because of her health. She also needed time for her writing, which she began "to add something to the family resources when they threatened to give out."  She wrote first for the Australasian, and her stories brought recognition and praise, as well as excusing what she called her "desertion" from parish work.  It also brought her friends, about whom she was very discreet, particularly those in high places.  I've been trying to figure out the identity of the young woman, "now on the roll of the grandees of England, by her marriage an aunt to Royalty." This grandee kept up their friendship over the years, "none of the usual arguments of the world against it having any effect upon that faithful heart."

I very much enjoyed this window into Australia in the late 19th century.  It was a completely new world to me, and while I know this is a limited view - and not just because the author hardly ventured out of Victoria - it is still a fascinating one.  On the subject of travel, I did note for the Travellin' Penguin that Cambridge took a cruise to Tasmania, fell in love with the place in just a few hours, and decided to retire there (her husband chose England instead).  After reading two of her novels, I was not surprised to find discussions of social and political issues, including a real estate boom and bust in 1886, and the Great Strike of 1889.  The Virago biographical note states that Cambridge "accepted her cultivated friends' views on Australian issues of which she had little firsthand knowledge."  It does concede that "Her interest in social reform, however, was often advanced for the Australia of her time."  She was not very concerned with the indigenous people, who appear only in the margins of her story.  But she very clearly condemned anti-Chinese prejudice, as well as government policies that treated "our coloured brothers as vermin unfit to live."

I've been fortunate enough to find paper copies of two more of Ada Cambridge's books, Sisters (in a very odd format) and A Woman's Friendship (recently reprinted from the original 1889 newspaper serial).  I am resigning myself to reading e-versions of the books that haven't been reprinted.  I do think though that Ada Cambridge would be a good fit for more Virago editions, or for Persephone.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The lure of re-reading & the end of the TBR Dare for me

I should have known better. I jinxed myself - saying that the TBR Dare was going well.  And here I am, giving up on it exactly half-way through.  Not because I want to read new books, but because I want to re-read. Specifically, Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolò series.  I technically gave myself an exemption to re-read one book each month, but I've finished the first in the series, Niccolò Rising, and I'm not waiting two weeks for March, to start the second, The Spring of the Ram.  As James always says, the Dare is just for fun, and it should be fun - though I tend to get a bit competitive about it.

I know exactly how this happened.  It's all Toby Wilkinson's fault.  Reading the chapters on Cairo in his book The Nile reminded me of the fifth Nicholas book, The Unicorn Hunt, crucial scenes of which take place in Cairo.  I took that book down to re-read those parts, and then ended up looking for other favorites in the different books.  And I haven't been able to get the characters out of my mind since.

I thought about giving up the TBR Dare for Lent, but that definitely felt like cheating.  I'm still going to focus on reducing the TBR stacks, and I'm sticking with my "one in/one out" policy.  In the meantime, I am off to Trebizond.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A unique book of Civil War memoirs

A Black Woman's Civil War Memoirs, Susie King Taylor
 Patricia W. Romero & Willie Lee Rose, eds.

The original title of this book, privately published in 1902, is Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, Late 1st South Carolina Volunteers.  I can see why it was re-named for the edited edition I read, published in 1988.  As with Sarah Emma Edmonds' memoirs, the new title highlights what makes this book so special. Willie Lee Rose writes in her introduction,
There is nothing even vaguely resembling Susie King Taylor's small volume of random recollections in the entire literature of the Civil War, or in that of any other American conflict insofar as I am aware.  These are the memoirs of a black woman who was born a slave, who had the good fortune to gain her freedom early in the war, with the education and ability to observe and the will to recall in later years, the significance of the events in which she was a vigorous participant.
In an introduction to the original edition, the colonel of the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops wrote along similar lines:
Actual military life is rarely described by a woman, and this is especially true of a woman whose place is in the ranks, as the wife of a solider and herself a regimental laundress. No such description has ever been given, I am sure, by one thus connected with a colored regiment; so that the nearly 200,000 black soldiers (178,975) of our Civil War have never before been delineated from the woman's point of view.
Susie King Taylor was born in Georgia in 1848.  She was raised in Savannah by her grandmother, who defied the laws against educating slaves to send both the young Susie and her brother to an underground school.  This early education would prove crucial in her later life.  In early 1862, she was sent back to her owners' country plantation.  There her uncle took her with his own family as they escaped toward the Union soldiers then occupying the Georgia coast.  The coastal Sea Islands were full of cotton plantations, and as white southerners fled from the Yankees, the slaves stayed behind.  Though there was some controversy over their exact status, these African Americans were effectively free of slavery from that point on.  Susie King Taylor immediately found work in teaching both children and adults, though she was only 14 herself.

The small communities of newly free people were vulnerable to raids by Confederate forces, who took anyone they captured back into slavery.  The men gathered together what defenses they could.  Eventually they were recruited into the Federal army, as one of the first regiments of black soldiers.  Susie King Taylor married a sergeant in the regiment, Edward King, which led to her enrollment as a laundress.  But she did much more than that, in teaching the men to read and write, and in nursing them.  She traveled with the regiment on a campaign down to Florida, and she was with them when they marched in to occupy Charleston in February of 1865.  There, where the war began, black troops were among the first to enter the surrendered city, where they helped fight a raging fire set by the retreating Confederates.

After the war, Susie King Taylor settled with her husband in Savannah, where she opened a school for black children.  After her husband died, she supported herself and a child by teaching, but also by working as a cook and a laundress. Eventually she moved to Boston, where she lived the rest of her life.  She continued to devote herself to the soldiers of the war, both black and white.  She helped organize a branch of the Women's Relief Corps, the sister organization of the veterans' Grand Army of the Republic, which assisted vets in need.  She wrote quite scathingly about people who had forgotten the soldiers' sacrifices in the war.

This is a short book, certainly not an in-depth account of the author's experiences in slavery or in the Civil War.  I agree with the editors, though, that it is fascinating.  It is full of wonderful details, like Confederate attempts to frighten slaves away from the Yankees with posters in the streets, showing them as rattlesnakes and wildcats, too dangerous to approach. ("Certainly not!" her grandmother told her.)  I appreciated the editors' careful notes, which provide a lot of context for her account.  The last sections of the book deal with the state of race relations at the time, and I found those chapters very moving.  She wrote of the horrors of lynching (the editors note that at least 85 African Americans were lynched in 1902, the year her book was published).  Susie King Taylor also reported a trip she took to Louisiana, after learning her son was gravely ill there.  Living in Massachusetts for twenty years left her unprepared for the racism that she faced every moment in the south.  She was unable to bring her dying son home with her, because blacks could not travel on the sleeping cars and he was too weak to sit up in the regular seats.  "It seemed very hard," she wrote, "when his father fought to protect the Union and our flag, and yet this boy was denied, under this same flag, a berth to carry him home to die, because he was a negro."

Susie King Taylor ended her book with a plea:
[B]ut now, despite all the hindrances and "race problems," my people are striving to attain the full standard of all other races born free in the sight of God, and in a number of instances have succeeded.  Justice we ask - to be citizens of these United States, where so many of our people have shed their blood with their white comrades, that the stars and stripes shall never be polluted.

Let the people say, Amen.

Monday, February 9, 2015

4th anniversary & the TBR Dare


Well, I missed my 4th blogging anniversary.  I have some kind of blind spot about the date, I always think it's February 11th.  It's actually the 4th (ironically, this year).  Even though it's almost a week late, I'm still celebrating.  Last month I had one of those blogging crises that I've seen others go through.  Suddenly it all felt a bit pointless, and I began to wonder if it wasn't taking too much time away from actually reading.  But as I thought about shutting TBR 313 down, I kept coming back to why I started it in the first place: I needed a place to talk about what I was reading.  And I still do.  As much as I love visiting other people's blogs, collecting new titles & authors, joining the discussions through the comments, I still want a place for my books.  Just in time for the anniversary, I have a renewed appreciation for what this space means to me.

A belated happy anniversary to Katrina, hers is the day before mine.

On another topic, we are into the second month of the TBR Dare, and though I don't want to jinx myself, I think it's going pretty well.  I've read a couple of chunkster books, so the total number of books cleared so far (23) isn't as high as I'd like. (Some of those were abandoned unfinished.)  And I have been buying books as well.  But even before Christmas I started making myself discard one TBR book for every new one that comes in (most go to the library sale).  "One in/one out" is a classic technique for clearing out and organizing, and it is certainly making me think twice about buying more books.  Last year I weeded the TBR shelves pretty thoroughly, getting rid of books that no longer appealed, or what I think of as "aspirational" books ("I know I should read this book").  Those on the shelves now are books I want to read, or at least try.  So bringing home a new book makes for some tough choices.  I'll see how this goes, but I am encouraged.  Of course I did just order two more of Anthony Trollope's novels, because the 12 I already have unread just aren't enough.  At least I have some time before they arrive to decide who gets the chop in their favor.  Hopefully writing about this will keep me on track - and honest!

I do however get a free pass on the new Laurie R. King book this month, the latest Mary Russell adventure, and I cannot wait.  She will be the speaker at a luncheon hosted by Murder by the Book, as well as an evening signing.  I may well be at both.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

My introduction to Helen MacInnes

Pray for a Brave Heart, Helen MacInnes

I have rather lost my taste for John Le Carré's books lately, so I am glad to find another author of espionage and suspense.  I knew Helen MacInnes's name, but I thought she wrote neo-Gothics along the lines of Victoria Holt.  It was vicki who set me straight.  I found several of her books at Murder by the Book, in nice Titan Book paperbacks, and I chose this one based on the back cover summary:
     William Denning is determined to leave the army and his work with the Restitution of Property division in 1953 Berlin to return home to the United States, but his terminal leave in Switzerland could turn out to be true in more than just name when he is asked to close one last file during his trip. American Intelligence has learned that the Herz diamonds, which disappeared during the war, are being smuggled out of Europe, and they want him to intercept and recover them.
     Denning soon finds himself fighting for survival in a ruthless world of espionage and international conspiracy where loyalty can be bought and sold.
I won't say anything more about the plot, to avoid spoilers, except that the story also involves people being smuggled out of Europe, which was much more interesting to me than the diamonds.

I enjoyed this book, particularly its Swiss setting, though I wasn't always sure exactly what was going on.  I read a lot of mysteries, which I am not bright at solving, but spy stories can leave me even more confused.  I have to concentrate to keep the different groups straight, let alone who is working with whom, before the alliances and the double-crosses start. At the end of this one, I still wasn't sure who the villains actually were. It was clear what they were trying to do, though, and maybe that's all that matters.

Two things surprised me, in a good way.  First, most of the characters are amateurs, caught up in trying to help old friends or even new acquaintances.  Though the civilians may give the professionals heart palpitations, they aren't content just to sit on the sidelines, they want to do their part.  Second, I kept expecting a romantic development that never happened. There were undercurrents of attraction, and a very nice happily married couple, but I actually found the lack of romantic tension in the story refreshing.  It was certainly tense enough in other ways!

I see that Helen MacInnes has a long list of books written.  I was interested to learn that in writing them she undoubtedly drew on her husband's work in MI6 - which apparently continued even after they emigrated to the United States in 1937.  I will be looking for more of her books after the TBR Dare ends, though I think I will be just as happy to borrow them.