Sunday, April 26, 2015

An unfortunate marriage into an unhappy family - or, The Brother's Wife

Heartsease, Charlotte M. Yonge

Reading this 1854 novel was a somewhat surreal experience, because I couldn't figure out the arc of the story, what it was really about.  It took me much longer than it should have to recognize this as a story of repentance and redemption.  The subtitle is "The Brother's Wife," and it begins with an unfortunate marriage. Arthur Martindale, the second son of Lord Martindale and an officer in the Coldstream Guards, has been maneuvered into marriage with the daughter of an unscrupulous country attorney, whom he met on holiday.  He stands to inherit little from his father, a fact he conceals from his father-in-law.  He marries his Violet on her sixteenth birthday, knowing that his family will disapprove of the match, but counting on his wife's sweetness and beauty to win them over.

There will be mild spoilers below.

At first I thought this was going to be a story of marriage and family life, particularly when Violet becomes pregnant almost immediately.  On one level it is, but the story spends nearly as much time on her sister-in-law Theodora, an independent and arrogant young woman, who blames Violet for the marriage and for stealing her brother's affection.  Violet has no idea what a strained family she has married into.  It is ruled by Lady Martindale's Aunt Nesbit, who holds her fortune over their heads.  She raised the orphaned Lady Martindale and and made her match with the cash-poor Lord Martindale.  She demands all of her adopted daughter's time and attention, leaving the rest of the family to fend for themselves.  She also vetoed the older son John's engagement to the curate's daughter Helen, forcing them into a long engagement.  Though they had little hope of marriage, Helen's early death was a shock to John, whose own health is not strong, and he has been absorbed in his grief and weakness ever since.

John finds himself drawn (in a perfectly brotherly way) to his teenaged sister-in-law, who nearly dies in childbirth, her son with her.  He even talks to her about Helen.  As she recovers they have many conversations about spiritual as well as practical matters.  Though Violet has good principles, she has no real religious feeling.  John encourages her to read the Bible and to think about prayer as more than just a formula of words.  Her maturing faith and confidence in God help her through the trials of life (including the births of three more children in quick succession).  They also guide her in dealing with her husband's family, particularly Theodora.  By her words and example, they are all eventually converted - not in the sense of accepting Christ - but in changing their lives, abandoning bad habits, loving and caring for one another.  As one character says, late in the story, "The history of these years is this. Every one has acted, more or less, idiotically. She has gone about softening, healing, guarding, stirring up the saving part of each one's disposition."

Of course Violet does all this in the proper womanly way, patiently enduring, her soft voice never scolding, her eyes often overflowing, her prayers unceasing.  She also raises a little saint in her oldest son Johnnie, who converts his wayward father by talking to him of the Good Shepherd.  I really came to appreciate the tempestuous Theodora, who erupts through the story like Jo March, even when I realized that she too would have to be tamed down.  But I also appreciated that everyone was in need of conversion, even the slightly saintly John.  He had to be shaken out of his own self-absorption in grief and illness, so that he could help Violet in her difficulties, so that she in turn could save the rest of the family.

I admit, I found this book tough going at times.  It was a relief to set it aside to read something more modern for a book group, though curiosity did draw me back to it afterwards.  In part, I was waiting to see who was going to die in the course of the story.  There were at least four candidates: the constantly pregnant Violet, the two brothers with bad hacking coughs, and the sickly but saintly Johnnie.  But really, the important death came before the story even began: Helen's - yet she still plays a crucial role in it.

This is the fourth of Charlotte Yonge's novels that I have read, and it was not my favorite.  I found The Clever Woman of the Family and The Heir of Redclyffe much more lively and interesting, though this story does have its dramatic moments (a house fire and two death-bed scenes, for a start).  I thought perhaps it was because this is an early book, that she learned to balance her moralizing better in later books.  But then I discovered that this was written the year after The Heir of Redclyffe, which seems to negate my theory.  I will say though that Charlotte Yonge knew how to create interesting three-dimensional characters, and that's what really kept me turning the pages of this long book.  I wanted to know what happened to these people, how their stories turned out.

The copy I read is an 1897 reprint, from Macmillan and Company.  It has a small sticker inside the front cover from the D.B. Friend and Company bookstores, in Brighton and Hove.  It also has an inscription: "Violet D. Reeves, from Mother, September 13, 1897."  My copy of The Daisy Chain, in a similar Macmillan edition, also has an inscription from a mother to her daughter.  I can just imagine generations of women passing these novels along, sure of their moral and spiritual worth.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Howland place, and the family that lived there

The Keeper of the House, Shirley Ann Grau

I have to admit, I had never heard of Shirley Ann Grau when this book was chosen for one of my book groups.  It's the one at my work place, and we're choosing books by putting recommended titles into a random draw.  The person who suggested this one got the title from an Amazon recommendation but hadn't read it either.  None of us knew until we got copies in our hands that it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1965.  I shared the results of a quick internet search with the group, including this article from Deep South magazine, which even showed a Houston connection: Ms. Grau was part of the evacuation to Houston after Hurricane Katrina, though she has since returned to her home in Louisiana.

The house of the title is the Howland place, a big old rambling 19th-century home on the outskirts of Madison City, a small town founded by the first William Howland.  A veteran of the War of 1812, he wandered north from New Orleans after the war and finally settled to farm on the banks of a river he named after his mother, the Providence River.  (I do love multi-generational family sagas, centered in a home.)  But where exactly this town and river are located is a bit of mystery.  They seem to be in a state on the Gulf Coast, but despite frequent references to Mobile and New Orleans, it's not Alabama or Louisiana. (A room full of Texas readers agreed it wasn't Texas.) The landscape around Madison City and the Howland place itself are described in detail, and both play a big part in the story, but the specificity of that setting contrasts a bit oddly with the vagueness of the location.

The story opens with Abigail, the granddaughter of the last William Howland, on the porch at the home place.  She is telling her own story, and straight off we learn that there has been trouble:
     I pour carelessly [watering geraniums] and the water splashes across the porch boards. I am looking out at the yard, at the front yard. Even in this dim light you can see that the turf has been broken and torn. It looks a bit like a choppy sea. The paling fence is completely gone; all you see now is the gentle fountain-like rise of the branches of the cherokee rose that grown it once.
     I shall not replace that fence. I want to remember.
     As I stand there in the immaculate evening I do not find it strange to be fighting an entire town, a whole county. I am alone, yes, of course I am, but I am not particularly afraid. The house was empty and lonely before - I just did not realize it - it's no worse now.  I know that I shall hurt as much as I have been hurt.  I shall destroy as much as I have lost.
     It's a way to live, you know.  It's a way to keep your heart ticking under the sheltering arches of your ribs. And that's enough for now.
She goes on to remember the generations of her family that have lived in the house, and her own childhood there.
I stand in the pitch darkness and listen to the sounds of voices that roar around in my head and watch the parade of figures that come and jostle for attention before my eyes. My grandfather. My mother. Margaret. Margaret's children: Robert and Nina and Crissy.
I was sold on this book by the end of the first chapter.  I wanted to know what had happened, who those people were.  Why Robert has recently returned to the house, after many years, and why Abigail now wishes in her heart of hearts that he was dead.

The story then shifts to sections that tell the stories of William, her grandfather, left a widower with two babies; and Margaret, an African American woman who twenty years later comes to work as his housekeeper.  Thirty years younger than William, she has five children with him, three of whom grow up in the Howland home.  The family and the town simply ignore this (Abigail's mother, William's daughter, "always pretended to believe that Margaret's children had just come").  Margaret's story is an interesting one.  She comes from New Church, a tight-knit community of mixed-race African and Native American families, who are shunned by both blacks and whites.  She herself is the product of a brief encounter with a white man traveling through, and her mother left her with the family to try and find him (she is never heard from again).  Though accepted by the family, Margaret feels herself out of place.  She seems to accept William's initial offer of a job as a means of escape.

The third and longest section of the book shifts back to Abigail, returning with her mother to live with her grandfather on the eve of World War II (her English father has gone back to fight in the war; she never sees him again).  Abigail grows up with Margaret's children, goes off to college, and marries a very ambitious man, who uses her Howland name and money to build his political career.  He runs on an openly racist and segregationist platform, though like many other people he knows about Margaret and her children. Then suddenly a family secret comes to light, which brings everything crashing down. Abigail is left to face a mob out on the Howland place, determined to burn it down.

I found this a really absorbing read, and I finished in it two days.  Some of the other readers found it rather slow, in part because there are frequent descriptions of scenery, flora and fauna (with lots of snakes).  I mentioned in the discussions that the careful scene-setting and leisurely narrative are less common in books today. I think that is one reason people sometimes have trouble connecting with older books.  Here the details were important both for the characters and the plot, if sometimes only in hindsight.  It is a deeply unsettling story, though, and my feelings toward the characters changed greatly over the course of the story, particularly in the last chapters.  When I read the final page, I immediately went back to the introductory chapter, which I then understood in a whole new light.

I am very glad to have been introduced to Shirley Ann Grau, and I plan to recommend this book to another of my book groups.  I see that Ms. Grau has written several others, also recently reprinted, and I am curious now about those as well.  The Keepers of the House is generally considered the best, from what I have read, though The House on Coliseum Street is frequently mentioned as well.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Questions of identity and community, in the aftermath of genocide

There Was and There Was Not, Meline Toumani

A few weeks ago I read an article in The New Yorker by Raffi Khatchadourian, "A Century of Silence."  The subtitle is "A family survives the Armenian genocide and its long aftermath."  I knew of the Armenian genocide, but I knew little beyond that, and I found this an excellent introduction, and a very moving personal story (unfortunately now behind a paywall).  I had not known that the genocide began 100 years ago this month, on April 24, 1915, with the arrest of 200 prominent Armenian men in Istanbul, most of whom were later killed.  Mr. Khatchadourian wrote about traveling to Turkey, to the town of Diyarbakir where his father was born.  There city officials have rebuilt an Armenian church, left in ruins in 1915, where the Easter services were held last year for the first time in almost a century.

Shortly after reading the article, I saw a blurb about this book and added it immediately to my library list.  I can't find the blurb now, but here is the cover synopsis:
     Meline Toumani grew up in a close-knit Armenian community in New Jersey where Turkish restaurants were shunned and anything made in Turkey boycotted.  Diaspora life revolved around commemorating the 1915 genocide of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish government, a history Turkey still works hard to cover up and minimize.
     Frustrated by the all-consuming nature of her community's quest for genocide recognition, Toumani decided to do the unthinkable: pick up and move to Istanbul.  Instead of demonizing Turks, she set out to understand them, finding her way over four years into a series of extraordinary conversations that were taboo and sometimes illegal.  There Was and There Was Not offers a vivid picture of Turkish society in the throes of change, and an intimate portrait of a writer coming to terms with the issues that drove her halfway across the world.
     Told with eloquence and power, Toumani's far-reaching quest probes universal questions: how to belong to a community without conforming to it, how to acknowledge a tragedy without exploiting it, and, most important, how to remember a genocide without perpetuating the kind of hatred that gave rise to it in the first place.
This turned out to be very timely reading indeed, since on Sunday Pope Francis celebrated a Mass commemorating the genocide, with Armenian church leaders.  He used the word "genocide," and the Turkish government responded by immediately recalling its ambassador to the Vatican.  Commentators have suggested that the Pope's actions may cause problems for the Vatican's relations with the Arab world.

Meline Toumani's book is not about the genocide itself.  In fact, I was glad to have read The New Yorker article first, for the background information it gave me.  Nor does it focus on her family's experiences in it, because her immediate family, living in Iran, had no direct connection with it.  She came with her parents and two sisters to the United States in 1979, just before the Islamic Revolution.  Her parents quickly sought out the local Armenian community, which Ms. Toumani describes as divided on many points, such as Armenia's relations with Russia and a confusing theological split over the murder of an Armenian archbishop in Chicago in 1933 (assassinated in church on Christmas Eve by fellow Armenians).  However, they unite in hatred of Turkey, and insistence on the recognition of the genocide.

Over the years, Ms. Toumani came to question that single-minded focus: "I began to wonder whether our obsession with genocide recognition was worth its emotional and psychological price."  She "could no longer stand to attend any Armenian gathering, because it seemed that whether it was a poetry reading, a concert, or even a sporting match, it was always, ultimately, about the genocide."  That feeling led to her first visit to Turkey, in 2005:
I could no longer live with the idea that I was supposed to hate, fear, and fight against an entire nation and people . . . I came because being Armenian had come to feel like a choke hold, a call to conformity, and I could find no greater way to act against this and to claim a sense of myself as an individual than to come here, the last and most forbidden place.
But it wasn't until she came to Turkey, both on that first visit and later to stay, researching this book, that she began to understand just how deep the denial of the genocide runs in Turkey, not just as its official policy but among its citizens.  In Istanbul, and in her travels around Turkey, she met a wide range of people from the country's three main ethnic groups, Turks, Armenians and Kurds.  She also traveled into Armenia, a country about which I knew absolutely nothing before reading this book.  In Turkey, she tried to start conversations about Armenians and the genocide, but as she admits, soon "I was doing the very opposite of what I set out to do: not listening but trying to persuade."  Eventually, facing that denial, as well as the negative portrayals of Armenians in the media, the constant unthinking prejudice that she encountered every day, became too much for her, and she returned to the United States.  She came back still wrestling with questions of identity and of the place of the genocide in the Armenian consciousness.

I found this book fascinating, on so many levels: as an introduction to the Armenian diaspora, as a window into Turkey and Armenia, as a meditation on identity (both individual and collective). It feels like a brave book, when writing or speaking about the genocide can bring the wrath of Turkish officials, or even murder by extremists.  On her first visit to Istanbul, Ms. Toumani met Hrant Dink, the editor of an Armenian newspaper in the city, whose murder two years later on the street outside his office led to "Je Suis Charlie"- style protests.  But Ms. Toumani also risked alienating friends and family by moving to Istanbul, associating with Turks, and questioning the focus on the genocide.  And there are extremists among the Armenian community as well, which led to bombing campaigns against Turkish targets in the 1980s.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A classic history of the women's rights movement in the United States

Century of Struggle, Eleanor Flexner

When I was an undergraduate, majoring in history, I had a part-time job working for my faculty adviser, Dr. G. Thomas Edwards.  One of my projects was helping him research what became his 1990 book, Sowing Good Seeds, The Northwest Suffrage Campaigns of Susan B. Anthony.  Reading microfilm copies of 19th century newspapers really brought home to me for the first time the struggles that women in the United States faced in trying to gain access to education and the vote, among many other issues.  I still vividly remember the shock of reading for the first time the frequent argument that women should not be allowed to attend colleges or universities, because long hours of study and the competitive atmosphere would damage their reproductive systems and make them unfit mothers - or worse, infertile.  I sat at that machine, reading those words, and thinking, "No one could take this seriously, right?"  Oh, those innocent days.

I came across similar arguments in this book, subtitled "The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States."  The author, Eleanor Flexner, was a pioneer in the area of "women's studies."  First published in 1959, her book has been reprinted with additional information many times since, and it is now considered a classic history.  I don't know why I didn't read it in graduate school, when U.S. women's history was one of my areas of concentration.

Despite its subtitle, this book focused on the period from 1800 to 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote, was ratified.  Eleanor Flexner began with an overview, a chapter on "The Position of American Women up to 1800."  Here she laid out the themes that would run through her history, including education available to women (and the lack thereof); their legal place in American society (varying from state to state); and the work open to and undertaken by women.  She then moved on to the first stirrings of the women's rights movement, which was sparked by women's involvement in the anti-slavery campaigns of the mid-1800s.  The push for women's suffrage has sometimes gotten most of the attention, but Flexner repeatedly highlighted other concerns, including access to education and labor issues, such as fair pay and safe working conditions.  I really admire how Flexner gave equal weight to the experiences and concerns of African American women, facing racism from white women's groups; and working women, often overlooked both by male-dominated labor unions and middle-class women's rights groups.  It is the most inclusive account I have read, which is particularly impressive in a general history like this.  I was not surprised to read via Wikipedia that it began as a history of women's labor issues, nor that Flexner herself had worked for the Communist Party in the 1930s.

Throughout the book, Flexner also highlighted specific women, pioneers in the different arenas of the movement.  While I knew the big names, from Anne Hutchinson to Harriet Tubman to Susan B. Anthony, many were completely new to me, and now I want to read more about them.  Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a free black woman in Delaware, taught in a school there until hostility to the abolition movement convinced her it was safer to move to Canada. Living in Windsor, Ontario, "There for three years she published her own newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, and made periodic trips into the states to give anti-slavery lectures," facing down pro-abolition mobs.  Myrtilla Miner, a white woman from a tiny New York village, went south to teach in a school for planters' children in Mississippi.  She also tried to teach the slaves on the plantation but was prohibited from doing so.  Coming back north, she decided to open a school for black girls, in Washington, DC, where it was technically legal but very risky to teach blacks.  She and her students faced constant harassment, including evictions, mobs throwing stones, and destruction of one building by arson.  Josephine Shaw Lowell, also of New York, was one of the founders of the Consumers League, which "made itself the militant and highly articulate conscience of the buying public."  It began with reports on conditions for workers in stores, and then expanded to "the conditions under which apparel was manufactured," and then turned to legislative action to correct abuses.

As well as outstanding characters, Flexner's account included some incidents that made my jaw drop.  I knew that women first gained the right to vote in Wyoming in 1869, in its territorial days.  I did not know that the U.S. Congress tried to force Wyoming to drop women's suffrage, as a condition of its admittance as a state.  The Wyoming legislature telegraphed back, "We will remain out of the Union a hundred years rather than come in without the women."  I actually choked up a little, reading that.  (Flexner consistently gave due credit to male allies who helped women gain their victories over the century.)  I was stunned to learn that while the Utah Territory also gave women the vote, the very next year, Congress stripped them of that right seven years later, with some specious argument about plural marriages.  The disconnect between the two was never explained, and women didn't get the vote back until 1896 - though that still put them ahead of 80% of American women.  And my final "what the hell" moment: as late as 1919, some members of Congress openly opposed women's suffrage because it would allow African American women to vote.

Flexner ended her account as she began it, with a summary chapter, which looked at the position of women in the late 1950s.  Advances have clearly been made, in employment and education for example, from 1800 to 1959 to today.  But some of the points she made, like the continuing disparity in pay, the lack of equal representation in government, and the double discrimination faced by African American women, sound eerily familiar.

I am so glad that I finally read this classic history, and I have made notes for some additional reading.  I am particularly interested in Elizabeth Cady Stanton's daughter Harriet Stanton Blatch, who brought the tactics of the British suffrage movement to the United States, and I already have a collection of the writings of Ida B. Wells on the TBR shelves.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Romance in a tea shop

A Humble Enterprise, Ada Cambridge

Earlier this week I learned that "tea shop" in American (US) English has an alternative meaning, apparently a naughty one.  I know nothing of that, and I don't want to.  A tea shop is a place that serves tea and scones, possibly with a sideline in small sandwiches and cakes.  One of my favorite genres involves people opening or running tea shops (the kind with tea and scones), and I am always on the lookout for them.  If I won the lottery, I would love to open a tea shop, with tea and scones, comfortable chairs, and a shelf of books to read (maybe a Little Free Library).

So I was delighted when this 1896 book by Ada Cambridge turned out to be a story of a plucky family opening a tea shop in Melbourne, after their father is killed in an accident.  I found a reasonably-priced copy  on ABE Books, but before buying it I looked at the first few paragraphs via Project Gutenberg. It certainly opens with a bang:
Joseph Liddon was deaf, and one day, when he was having a holiday in the country, he crossed a curving railway line, and a train, sweeping round the corner when he was looking the other way, swept him out of existence. On his shoulder he was carrying the infrequent and delightful gun - reminiscent of happy days in English coverts and stubble fields - and in his hand he held a dangling hare, about the cooking of which he was dreaming pleasantly, wondering whether his wife would have it jugged or baked. When they stopped the train and gathered him up, he was dead as the hare, dissolved into mere formless tatters, and his women-folk were not allowed to see him afterwards.  They came up from town to the inquest and funeral - wife and two daughters, escorted by a downy-lipped son - all dazed and bewildered in their suddenly transformed world; and a gun and a broken watch and a few studs, that had been carefully washed and polished, were the only "remains" on which they could expend their valedictory kiss and tear.
I was equally horrified and intrigued by that opening.  But I read on, to the family council where, in best Louisa May Alcott fashion, the mother and two sisters sit down "to consult together as to how they might invest their [£500] capital to the best advantage, so as to make it the foundation of their livelihood." By then, I was sold.  And when my copy arrived, I started it that night.

Joe, the son, who works for the same business as his late father, isn't much help in the family council, and he objects to their final decision: to open a tea shop.  Jenny, the oldest daughter and the moving force, has it all clear in her mind's eye:
"But it will be a woman's place, that men would not think of coming to except to bring women. Just a quiet room, mother; not all rows of chairs and tables, like a common restaurant - the best of our own furniture, with some wicker chairs added, and a few small tables, like a comfortable private sitting-room, only not so crowded; and floored with linoleum, so that we can wash it easily. Then just tea and coffee and scones - perhaps some little cakes - nothing perishable or messy; perhaps some delicate sandwiches, so that ladies can make a lunch. Only these simple things, but they as perfectly good as it is possible to make them. Mother, your scones ---"
A few weeks later, their father's old boss Nicholas Churchill sees the advertisement of their opening, and he decides to visit them, to see if he can be of any assistance.  He asks his married daughter Mary and his much-younger second wife Maude to give the Liddons their patronage.  That, and Mrs. Liddon's exceptional scones, quickly bring the shop into fashion, despite its inelegant location, over a basket-maker's shop.  It is Maude who brings another member of the family there in turn: her stepson Anthony, just returned to Australia from an extended trip abroad.  Maude, who "before she was his step-mother, had badly wanted to be his wife," is looking forward to a cozy chat with her handsome, red-bearded stepson.  But he has eyes only for Jenny, calmly and competently making her way through the tables with trays that he immediately decides are too heavy for her.

What follows is a nice little romance.  Jenny's sister Sarah, whose bent spine confines her to the cash desk, plays Cupid as much as she can.  Mrs. Liddon, focused only on her scones, doesn't seem to notice what is going on.  But when Anthony's sister Mary discovers him in the tea room instead of the office, she tries to warn him off. Even though Jenny's father was "an Eton boy," her mother was a cook, and the heir of the Churchills cannot marry a waitress in a tea room.  Never mind that the Churchills made their fortune in trade, nor that the "waitress" is actually the owner and manager of a flourishing business.

I was thoroughly enjoying this story, particularly Maude's continuing pursuit of Anthony, until Ada Cambridge began to discourse on marriage.  Addressing her readers directly, particularly the "dear girls - to whom this modest tale is more particularly addressed," she explains what men are really looking for in a future wife ("they really are not the heedless idiots that they appear - at any rate, not all of them").  They want good, comfortable home-bodies, who will care for them and their children.  And because so many women in these days of 1896 are empty-headed social butterflies, who don't appeal to the men in the end, "the army of old maids waxes ever bigger and bigger..."  As someone currently enjoying a State of Single Blessedness, I was mildly taken  aback to read that "an unmarried woman is not a woman, but merely a more or less old child..."  I didn't expect that from Ada Cambridge.

In the last paragraph of the book, she says that while an "unlucky" marriage is a "living martyrdom," a good marriage is "the nearest approach to happiness that has been discovered at present."  Yet the final lines are much more ambiguous: "Yes - although, without beating her or keeping her short of pocket-money, the husband necessarily makes his wife feel that the earth is her habitation and the clouds of heaven many miles away."  The real sting there is that, just a page earlier, Anthony had answered Jenny's declaration of her happiness with just those words, which though said "gravely" were clearly meant as a joke, that he would have to be cruel to her, "to make you realize that your little feet are standing on the earth, Jenny, and not on the clouds of heaven."  Apparently in Ada Cambridge's view, husbands don't have to take any trouble to make their wives unhappy, they succeed in it all unawares.  That last line seems to change a  Happily Ever After ending into a (hopefully) Happy Enough one.

Those caveats aside, I enjoyed this book.  It's a lighter story than the others of Ada Cambridge's that I have read.  I do wish that the recipes for Mrs. Liddon's scones had been included!  And please let me know about any other tea shop books (the kind with tea and scones) that you would recommend.  I already have Elizabeth von Arnim's Christopher and Columbus. But please don't tell me about any alternative meanings for "tea shop."  I really don't want to know.

Edited to add: I can finally fill in another year of my Century of Books!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Reading out of loyalty to a favorite author

Guardian of the Horizon, Elizabeth Peters

Elizabeth Peters was the first author whose books I bought regularly in hardcover, as they came out.  It seemed like a marker of adulthood, to pay more than $20 for a book, rather than waiting for a copy at the library or haunting used-book stores.  And I faithfully bought "the new Amelia" each year.  Actually, a friend and I bought them for each other - the friend who introduced me to her books in the first place.  So in 2004, when Guardian of the Horizon came out, I drove over to Murder by the Book for a lovely first edition, signed by the author.  However, for the first time, and deliberately, I set this book aside.  I wanted to buy it to support Ms. Peters, but I was reluctant to read it.  It's been on the TBR shelves ever since.

I had two concerns about the book.  For those who haven't read the series, spoilers will follow.

First, it is a "gap" story, written to retroactively fill in the missing years in the Emerson family history.  Set in 1907-1908, it falls smack in the middle of what I call the "Ramses and Nefret" drama, when Ramses is agonizingly in love with Nefret, who is completely oblivious.  I think Ramses is a wonderfully romantic hero, but paradoxically I get so very, very tired of his romantic agony.  He is lucky to have David willing to listen to him go on about it.  Second, in this book the Emersons return to the "Lost Oasis," also known as "The City of the Holy Mountain."  There, like tomb paintings come to life, the world of ancient Egypt survives in a hilltop community deep in the Sudan, frozen in time since its ancestors fled south.  The Emersons first visited this world in The Last Camel Died at Noon, which is an explicit homage to H. Rider Haggard's stories.  It's never been my favorite in the series, and I wasn't anxious to revisit the place.

Last week I learned that Elizabeth Peters left the manuscript for a final Amelia book when she died.  It will be published in 2016, as The Painted Queen.  I have mixed emotions about that, as I do with Terry Pratchett's posthumous Tiffany Aching book.  But I enjoyed the last late Amelia book that I read, A River in the Sky, more than I expected, which gives me hope.  Thinking about the new book finally motivated me to read this one, as did my project to read from the back end of my TBR list (the books that have been on it the longest).

I did not love this book, though there were things I enjoyed.  It opens with the Emersons at their English home in Kent, somewhat at loose ends.  Emerson has gotten them banned from excavating in the Valley of the Kings, after picking a fight with Theodore Davis, the American who holds the excavating rights there.  They are all increasingly bored and frustrated when a young man arrives, bringing a message from Tarek, the ruler of the City, asking them to come to his aid.  Agreeing to help means a lot of work, and also a lot of plotting, to protect the secret of the City.  This part was fun, with all the familiar work of organization and travel to Egypt, meeting familiar faces along the way.  They included Sethos, the "Master Criminal," one of my favorite supporting characters.  I think I enjoyed the group's travel in Egypt more, having read Toby Wilkerson's wonderful book about the Nile earlier this year.

Once they all arrived in the City, though, my interest quickly waned.  In the first story, The Last Camel, there is an energy in discovering the city, Egypt's past brought to life, but this time it felt a bit repetitive.  The story revolves around a usurper to the throne, and his psychopathic son, as well as a plot to force Nefret back into her role as the High Priestess of Isis.  I know I was supposed to root for Tarek, but I got tired of the plotting, and all the rushing around, and particularly of the residents' tendency to worship the Emersons as "holy ones."  I love their sang-froid and overwhelming self-confidence, not to mention their supposed magical powers, but turning them into little gods was too much for me.  One of the plotters is a fellow Briton, who followed rumors of their earlier adventures to find the Lost City.  At the end of the book, he is left there as a "British agent" - appointed presumably by the Emersons - to protect the city against "the next invaders," which was also too much for me.  I would like to think that Elizabeth Peters had her tongue firmly in her cheek when she came up with that idea, but it didn't read that way to me.  I feel queasy over the rifles that the Emersons bring with them to the city, and presumably leave behind, to fuel the next civil war (while the ammunition lasts).

I complained above about Ramses' romantic wallowing, so it's inconsistent to complain about what happens in this book, but I'm going to do it anyway.  Along the way the Emersons pick up a young Egyptian woman, Daria, who is the companion of a Great White Hunter type.  She tries to seduce Ramses one night, he nobly resists.  She ends up traveling to the City with them, where she and Ramses do fall into bed - and improbably, into love.  He is actually thinking of marrying her by the end, wondering how to present his parents with a courtesan as a daughter-in-law, before she decides to stay in the City and marry Tarek  (she does sob bitterly over this decision).  The one-night stand made sense, but I just couldn't buy a love affair, even if Ramses hadn't spent so much time mooning over his Grand Passion for Nefret.  I can't remember if there are any references to this affair in the later books (paradoxically written earlier).  Maybe Elizabeth Peters just wanted a break from the Ramses/Nefret drama.

I gave this book three stars on LibraryThing, mostly out of loyalty to Elizabeth Peters (a one- or two-star book goes to the library sale).  Of her books, this only leaves The Night of the Four Hundred Rabbits on the TBR shelves.

Do you buy books out of loyalty to favorite authors?  Have you found some of them disappointing?

Monday, April 6, 2015

Spotlight on murder

Spotlight, Patricia Wentworth

An alternate title for this book is The Wicked Uncle, which I learned the hard way (i.e., buying two copies).

I am reading a really excellent history of the women's rights movement in the United States, on which I am taking pages of notes and about which I expect to write a gushing review.  But as the long holiday weekend dawned, I suddenly wanted to read something a bit less demanding, something with story and characters (though the history is full of wonderful characters and some unbelievable stories).  Reading Jenny's review of Grey Mask and Jane's of The Case is Closed put Miss Silver in my mind, and I chose this one pretty much at random.  I have enjoyed all of them that I've read so far, but this is my new favorite.

The story begins with Dorinda Brown returning to the Heather Club, the dreary private hotel in London where she has a slip of a room.  She has just gotten a job as secretary to the fragile and fluttery Linnet Oakley, and the salary of £3 a week will keep the proverbial wolf from her door.  In her relief and joy, she rings up her cousin Justin Leigh.
Dorinda flicked the dial, put her pennies in, and waited. If anyone had been passing they might have thought she made a pleasant picture.  There are so many sad faces, so many tired, lined, cross, difficult, irritable faces that it is pleasant to see a cheerful one.  Dorinda nearly always looked cheerful.  Even on her solitary visit to a dentist, when she had secretly been a good deal daunted by the unknown and rather terrifying apparatus which appeared to be lying in wait for her, she had contrived to smile.  She went through life smiling, sometimes resolutely, but for the most part in a pleasantly spontaneous manner, and when she smiled her eyes smiled too.
I think it was the "sometimes resolutely" that made me like her so much straight off.  That, and her composed way of dealing with her cousin, who feels free to comment on any and all aspects of her life, including her appearance.  His comments aren't compliments.  But it is clear from the start that he takes a close personal interest in Dorinda, watching out for her, more carefully than she may realize.  He reminded me more than a little of the "amiable snake" Randall Matthews, from Georgette Heyer's Behold, Here's Poison.

The next chapter introduces us to Gregory Porlock, a businessman with a country house near the Oakleys' Mill House.  He is telephoning various people to invite them for the weekend.  Most of them refuse initially, but as they talk it becomes clear that he has some hold over them, and in the end everyone reluctantly accepts.  Later he calls Mrs. Oakley with an invitation to join the party for dinner one evening, and Dorinda is included in the invitation.  Since she has nothing suitable to wear, she is sent back up to London to buy an evening dress, in the process of which she meets Miss Maud Silver (luckily for her).

I won't say anything more about the story, to avoid spoilers.  As usual, while I spotted the future victim straight off, I had no idea who the murderer would turn out to be. I enjoyed this one very much, both for the mystery and for the sweet romance at its heart.  I had ordered a copy of The Case is Closed, which arrived over the weekend, and I also came across a copy of Eternity Ring at Murder by the Book, keeping the Miss Silver section of the TBR stacks well-stocked.

A possible spoiler follows:


In all but one of the other Patricia Wentworth books I have read, the killer has always been a woman, so I was a little surprised that it was a man here.  The only other exception so far was more of an execution than a murder, with no personal motive.  I have actually wondered if she preferred women as murderers.  I will say, she is good on motive - no falling back on serial killers or homicidal maniacs, which as Harriet Vane pointed out is "dull, and not really fair to the reader."