Saturday, December 31, 2011

A last post for 2011

The Heart of a Goof, P.G. Wodehouse

I finished out my reading year with P.G. Wodehouse, and who could ask for anything better?  This is the second of his collections of golf stories (I posted about the first, The Clicking of Cuthbert, back in July).  Here again the Oldest Member sits in the clubhouse or on the terrace overlooking the ninth hole, always glad to see a fellow member and always ready for a chat about golf, or love.  These chats end up being a bit one-sided, of course, since the Sage is inevitably reminded of a story, which he proceeds to tell, deaf to any protests, attempts to change to subject, or even snoring from his listener.

Most of the stories, as so often with Wodehouse, deal with lovers divided, though one is also about a magical pair of plus-fours. (Reading this, I realized I had no idea where the name "plus-fours" comes from, but thanks to Google I do now: they are four inches longer than the traditional knickerbockers. Honestly, the things you learn from reading!)  I enjoyed the stories, though none quite reaches the comic heights of "The Long Hole" in the first volume, which I still consider Wodehouse's funniest.  Much of the humor comes from watching the trap close on the Oldest Member's chosen victim, and the futile attempts at escape that follow:
     "The whole affair recalls irresistibly to my mind the story -"
     The secretary rose with a whirr like a rocketing pheasant.
     "- the story," continued the Sage, "of Jane Packard, William Bates, and Rodney Spelvin - which, as you have never heard it, I will now proceed to relate."
     "Can't stop now, much as I should like - "
     "It is a theory of mine," proceeded the Oldest Member, attaching himself to the other's coat-tails, and pulling him gently back into his seat . . .
He rather reminds me of Jane Austen's Miss Bates, another implacable conversationalist.  They are great fun to read about, though if I met either in real life, I would probably be trying to make my escape too, as quickly as possible.

It's still a few hours to midnight here, but I'll wish you a Happy New Year now.  Here's to another great year of reading and sharing books!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

My favorite books of 2011

Blogging is such a joy.  I've never had a place to post a list like this, nor have I ever had so many other interesting lists to peruse - a wonderful change from the big established lists full of books that don't interest me.

I know it's traditional to post 10 books, but I'm going for 12 - one for each month, and because I can't stop at 10.  And I can only manage 12 by posting lists for both fiction and non-fiction.

On the fiction list (and in order):
  1. Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson. I opened this book and fell in love.
  2. The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope. I had read this before, but reading it again was as enthralling as if it were the first time.
  3. The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim.  This was the year I discovered von Arnim, which explains #4
  4. The Caravaners, also by von Arnim. One of the funniest books I read all year.
  5. The King of Attoilia, by Megan Whalen Turner.  The third in her excellent "Thief" series, and my favorite so far.
  6. Mary Lavelle, by Kate O'Brien. Re-discovering O'Brien has been one of the highlights of my reading year.
  7. Farthing, by Jo Walton. I can already tell I will be looking for everything she has written.
  8. A Trick of the Light, by Louise Penny. I'd move to Three Pines if I could, despite the murder rate.
  9. Never No More, by Maura Laverty.  Another re-discovery, and a re-read of an enchanting book. 
  10. Cleopatra's Sister, by Penelope Lively.  I read several of Lively's books this year, and a memoir of her childhood, all which were great reads.
  11. I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett. The latest in the Tiffany Aching series - and hopefully not the last.
  12. The Masuda Affair, by I.J. Parker. A fascinating introduction to a mystery series set in medieval Japan.

On the non-fiction list (also in order):
  1. A World on Fire, Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War, by Amanda Foreman. As I said in my review, one of the best books I have ever read on the Civil War period.
  2. The Fiery Trial, by Eric Foner. Abraham Lincoln's gradual conversion to emancipation and equality for African Americans.
  3. Grant's Final Victory, by Charles Bracelen Flood. Ulysses Grant's last fight, to finish his epic memoirs in the face of economic ruin and terminal illness.
  4. The Diary of George Templeton Strong, The Civil War, 1860-1865, Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds. This diary is one of our national historical treasures.
  5. Queen Mary, by James Pope-Hennessy. A majestic but compulsively readable biography.
  6. Blue Latitudes, by Tony Horwitz. I learned so much history, and geography, from this book about Captain Cook and his voyages.
  7. Acedia & me, by Kathleen Norris. I read this spiritual autobiography and exploration of the ancient vice of acedia before I began blogging.  I'm not sure I could have done this book justice in a review. It's a cliché, but a true one, to say it changed my life.
  8. Family Circle, by Cornelia Otis Skinner. This warm and funny family biography set me off to find other books by and about the Skinners. I'm glad to find so many other fans of Our Hearts Were Light and Gay.
  9. No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, by Melissa Fay Greene. A heart-warming but never sentimental account of how her family has grown through foreign adoptions, including several AIDS orphans from Ethiopia.
  10. Jane Austen and the Clergy, by Irene Collins. I learned so much about the Anglican church in Austen's time, her own clerical connections, and her fictional clergymen.
  11. Sisters of Sinai, by Janet Soskice. How two Victorian women discovered one of the oldest known copies of the Gospels in the Egyptian desert - travel, archeology, and biblical scholarship.
  12. A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, by Isabella Bird. Another intrepid Victorian traveler, this one braving the American West in 1873.
What a rich year of reading it has been, and what fun it has been to share books through blogging.  I was introduced to several of these books, including Farthing, Sisters of Sinai, Mary Lavelle, and The Enchanted April, from reviews I read.  So as I'm reading through other people's end-of-the-year lists, I'm sure I'll be finding books for next year's list.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A foundling and her family

The Star of Kazan, Eva Ibbotson

Claire of The Captive Reader recently posted about Eva Ibbotson's The Dragonfly Pool, and reading her review reminded me first, how much I love Ibbotson's books; and second, that I haven't read any of her young-adult books.  I happened to be in Half Price Books a day or so later and when I went looking for Ibbotson, I was lucky enough to find The Star of Kazan.  I was sold the minute I saw it takes place in pre-war Vienna, which is also the setting of my favorite of her novels, Madensky Square.

The Star of the Kazan is the story of Annika, a foundling discovered in a small country church by Ellie, who with her friend Sigrid keeps house for three professors in Vienna.  A note pinned to the infant's shawl asks whoever finds her to take her "to the nuns in Vienna."  But a typhus epidemic in the city's foundling homes means their doors are closed in quarantine, and Ellie takes the baby home instead, just for the night.  The three professors, Julius the geologist, Emil the art historian, and Gertrude the musician, are initially horrified at this intrusion into their lives.  But in the end they agree that the baby can stay, though as Julius says, "We shall of course expect her to be useful."

Usefulness seems to have been one of Ibbotson's cardinal virtues, one that all her heroines share in different ways.  Like Ellen Carr in A Song for Summer (another favorite of mine), Annika finds joy and purpose in keeping house, and especially in cooking, as she works alongside and learns from Sigrid and Ellie.  And oh the food, described in such luscious detail, from the everyday goodness of a vanilla kipfel straight out of the oven to the great feasts like Christmas Eve with its stuffed carp.

By the time she is twelve, the year that Ellie assigned the cooking of the Christmas Eve carp to her, Annika has made her home not just in the professors' house but in the community of the square in which they live.  She has the gift of friendship, like Ellen Carr or Anna Grazinsky in A Countess Below Stairs, and the gift of making a home wherever she finds herself.  But even in the loving, ordered world of Brenner Square, Annika still dreams of her mother, who will one day arrive, tall and beautiful and richly dressed:
    "She swept into the house, saying, 'Where is she? Where is my long-lost daughter? Oh, take me to her,' and then she gathered Annika into her arms.
    "'My darling, my beloved child,' she said, and she explained why she'd had to leave Annika in the church. The explanation was complicated and it varied as Annika told herself the story. . ."
And then one day, this dream comes true.  The tall and beautiful and richly dressed Edeltraut von Tannenberg arrives to claim Annika as her long-lost daughter, and to take her to Norrland, to her family's home in northeast Germany.  Annika has found her mother, but that means losing Ellie, Sigrid and the professors, her friends in the square, and the magical city of Vienna itself.  Her joy and her immediate love for her mother carry her through this painful separation, as Annika looks forward to her new life at the family's estate in Spittal.

To say anything more, about what she finds there, about what happens to those left behind in Vienna, would give away too much of this wonderful story.  I found myself completely caught up in it, following its twists and turns, wanting to know what happens next and how it would all work out.  It's the kind of book I want to share, to give to other people, with those familiar words, "Here, you need to read this."  And I can't wait to read more of Ibbotson's young adult books, though with the TBR Double-Dare just days away, that will have to wait.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A family Christmas

Ten Days of Christmas, G.B. Stern

I had never heard of G.B. Stern until I read a review of Ten Days of Christmas that Jane wrote on Fleur Fisher in her world.  I wanted to read something with a Christmas setting, to get me in the mood for the holiday after all the fuss of preparation.

This is the story of the Maitland family, gathering to celebrate Christmas in 1946 at Anthony and Dorothy's home in the country.  For the grown-ups at least, it is the first "real" Christmas of the peace, when they can all be together again for the first time since 1938.  In addition to Dorothy (Doe) and Anthony's two children, Erica and Roddy, Doe has a daughter, Rosalind, from her first marriage.  Anthony's sister Tania, his sister-in-law Sorrel and niece Terry are joining them, with his father the senior Mr. Maitland, as well as Nicholas, the younger brother of Doe's first husband (fortunately there is a family tree to keep all these people sorted out at the start).  Honorary family members Ted Bartlett, a famous actor, his nephew Lal and niece Clare will also be spending the holidays with the Maitlands (I had to draw my own tree to keep this family straight).  Clare, whose mother is American, has spent the war years with her family in the United States; this is her first trip back to England since 1939.

We have a running joke in my family, when we get together at the holidays, over all the different ways that someone can "ruin Christmas."  If a dish doesn't turn out perfectly, or if someone forgets to bring something, a chorus goes up: "Lisa ruined Christmas!"  In Ten Days of Christmas, what should have been a joyous reunion falls spectacularly apart, and almost every character takes his or her turn at ruining the family's Christmas.

Trouble starts with the younger members, who are trying to stage a Nativity play with the help of a neighbor down from Oxford for the holiday.  It breaks out over two identical gifts, given to the same person, and spreads from there to the adults, whose quarrels and alliances mirror those of the younger set and can turn just as vicious.  Accusations fly, old grievances are resurrected, new injuries are proclaimed.  The elder Mr. Maitland, whose birthday is on Boxing Day, adds his mite to the tension with his demands of a proper birthday celebration and a completely separate set of lavish presents, under threat of sulks and tantrums (a welcome touch of humor among the more serious clashes).  His son Anthony, watching all of this with a detached eye, find a theme for his next book:
"The children started me off, gave me the germs for a new book, and a title . . . The Psychology of Quarrels . . . The whole world apparently wants peace and rest; the whole world declares itself glad the war's over.  Doesn't everyone in the thick of a quarrel always deny any wish on their part to have brought it about or to be keeping it up? . . . We're apt to keep children and adults in watertight compartments, but when we come to quarrelling, don't the adults also behave and talk and think in an utterly childish way?  Not all the time, of course, but off and on; relaxing too suddenly from some long mental strain."
It is only with the belated arrival of Ted Bartlett, who immediately becomes involved in the Nativity Play, that the younger members of the family can let go of their grievances, as the play brings them together again in peace and shared purpose. Some of the adults will take longer to forgive, to move on.

Ten Days of Christmas is not a cozy Christmas story.  Even after all that had come before, I found the last chapter a jolt, one which left me sad.  But it is a very good story, with people you come to care about.  It reminded me of Rumer Godden's books, and also of Penelope Lively's.  Though I'd never heard of G.B. Stern, I will be looking for her other books.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Day by day through the Civil War

The Diary of George Templeton Strong, The Civil War, 1860-1865  (Vol. 3).   Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds.

This is not exactly Christmas reading, though it does cover four very different Christmas.  I had read George Templeton Strong's Civil War diary a few years ago.  It is considered one of the most important contemporary accounts of the war years, with quotations and citations showing up in all kinds of books about the Civil War.  I originally read a stand-alone edition, but it is actually the third of four published volumes of Strong's diaries.  I read Volumes 1 and 2 of the diaries earlier this year (the first covers the years 1835-1849 and the second 1850-1859).  I wanted to re-read the Civil War volume in its proper place, before going on to the fourth and final volume (covering the years 1865-1875).  But I also wanted to re-read it in light of some of the other books on the Civil War that I have read this year, all of which cite the diaries, including Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial, Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, and Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising.

When 1860 opened, George Templeton Strong was living in New York City with his wife Ellie and two sons (and another on the way).  He was a lawyer with a busy practice in his Wall Street office, his free time devoted to the vestry at Trinity Church and the Board of Trustees of Columbia College, and a social life among the city's best families.  He was also a passionate musician, attending rehearsals and performances of the Philharmonic and local opera companies, as well as musical evenings with friends.  Like many Northerners, he believed slavery was wrong but held racist ideas about African Americans (generally referring to them by the n-word).  He felt abolitionists were the real danger, because their agitation about slavery was driving a wedge between the free north and the slave south.  If everyone just ignored slavery, it would not be an issue.  But the rising tension over whether new territories, like Kansas, would be slave or free put the issue of slavery front and center.  With the Republicans, Strong came to agree that slavery must be protected under the Constitution but confined to where it already existed, and he reluctantly voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, on a Republican platform of containment. 

Many Southerners were convinced that, whatever the Republicans said, Lincoln's election meant an attack on slavery. Before 1860 ended, South Carolina had seceded; by the time Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861, five other states had followed, forming a Southern Confederacy.  Like many others in the North, Strong reacted with passionate patriotism to the possible division and demise of the United States.  Over the next four years, he would devote himself to the Union cause.  His greatest work was with the United States Sanitary Commission, a private relief organization.  The army's medical bureau, dealing with a peace-time army of 15,000, was unable to cope with a volunteer force of more than a million, where a single battle might leave 30,000 casualties on the Union side alone.  These volunteer soldiers, many fresh off the farm, were also vulnerable to disease, and most had no idea how to lay out a camp or even dig a latrine.  The Commission raised funds for supplies, doctors, camp inspectors, hospitals, and convalescent homes.  Strong served as treasurer throughout the war, overseeing the collection and disbursement of more than $4 million dollars (an estimated $108 million in 2011 dollars).  As treasurer, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and generals from George McClellan to Ulysses Grant.  This access to the political and military centers, with his visits to army camps and hospitals, solidified Strong's devotion to the Union cause and particularly to the soldiers who fought for it.

At the same time, his attitude toward slavery changed completely, as he came to see it as the root cause of the war.  One of his main objections to slavery had been the forced separation of enslaved families by sale.  Now there were constant references to sale of children and the abuse of women, including sexual assaults.  Like the abolitionists he had previously despised, and with black Americans themselves, Strong argued for the enlistment of black soldiers long before the Lincoln administration made it federal policy, and he frequently reported the bravery of the black regiments in combat.  It is also notable that Strong began using the words "Negro" and "black" to refer to African Americans, though he continued to use the n-word as well.  Even more than the South, he would come to blame the North for the war, for its acquiescence in the evils of slavery.

Strong's place in society and his position with the Sanitary Commission meant that he met everyone of importance in New York and Washington, and he reported on it all.  He served on the committee organizing the visit of the Prince of Wales to the city in 1860, where he met the British ambassador Lord Lyons.  (His diary perfectly reflects the anti-British feeling in the North, charted in Amanda Foreman's book.)  In the last pages of this volume, he attended the funeral service of Abraham Lincoln at the White House: "I count it a great privilege to have been present. There will be thousands of people ten years hence who would pay any money to have been in my place" (April 19, 1865).

In the end, I feel almost as though I have lived through the four years of the Civil War, through this extraordinary diary and the man who kept it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas at Compton Bobbin

Christmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford

I have been saving this book for the holidays, though I knew with Nancy Mitford it wouldn't be a real "Christmas" book.  It was a perfect fit, a light and funny antidote to holiday stress, laced with her trademark cynicism.  As always with her books, I felt like I was missing some of the private jokes, but not enough to interrupt the fun.

The Prologue introduces us, at "Four o'clock on the First of November. A dark and foggy day," to "Sixteen characters in search of an author."  One of these, Paul Fotheringay, has just published his first novel, Crazy Capers, a searing portrait of a young man's tragic struggle with the mysteries of life.  The good news is that the book has become a runaway best-seller.  The bad news is that everyone considers it the comic masterpiece of the year.  Paul, his soul ravaged by this barbarity, resolves to write a serious book that must compel the world's respect.  He settles on literary biography as his genre, and Lady Maria Bobbin, a 19th century poet, as his subject.  Initially refused access to Lady Maria's papers, housed at the ancestral home of Compton Bobbin in Gloucestershire, he enlists the help of his friend Amabelle Fortescue.  She has taken a house near Compton Bobbin for several months, and she knows the Bobbin family.  She secures Paul a position as a holiday tutor to the heir, the frighteningly precocious Sir Roderick (Bobby) Bobbin, currently at Eton.  Amabelle herself is taking a party to the house she has leased, Mulberrie Farm.

Mitford has great fun with Mulberrie Farm, which has been renovated into an "olde worlde" showpiece, and with Bobby's mother Lady Bobbin, obsessed with hunting and the threat of socialism.  Lady Bobbin is also devoted to the proper celebration of Christmas in the true "Merrie Englande" style, gathering the far-flung Bobbin family to the old family home for the feast.  Of the two, I think I'd prefer to spend Christmas with Amabelle at Mulberrie Farm. 

At Compton Bobbin, Paul finds fourteen volumes of Lady Maria's journals, a wealth of resources for his biography.  Mitford includes some extensive quotes from the diaries, which sound amazingly like Queen Victoria's, down to the death of Lady Maria's husband Sir Josiah.  Bobby, who prefers to spend his holiday in gossip and bridge with Amabelle and her friends, is more than happy to leave Paul to his research.  But Paul is somewhat distracted from his poetess by Bobby's lovely sister Philadelphia.  He has a rival in the rich and eligible (but ponderous and prosing) Marquis of Lewes.  Philadelphia, marooned in the country with her trying mother and bored to distraction, ready to fall in love with the first man who offers her a more exciting life, here has two.  Another romance is also blooming, in a quieter way - one that shocks the circle of friends.  The discussion of marriage, of love and of more practical motives, makes up a major theme of the book.  I'm not sure I agree with Philadelphia's final choice, but I do see why she makes it.  I'd love to know how it works out in the end for her.

This was a fun, diverting read, with its sixteen amusing characters, and I really enjoyed it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Two innocents in Hollywood

We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood, Emily Kimbrough

Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough published Our Hearts Were Young and Gay late in 1942.  It is a hilarious and endearing account of a trip they took to England and France in the early 1920s, when they were both 19.  Shortly after its publication, they received a call from Hollywood.  The book had been optioned for a film, and Cornelia and Emily were invited to come to California to write the dialogue.  Though neither had any experience in writing for films, they said yes - and then immediately regretted it.  As Emily wrote,
"And why should I think that I could go to Hollywood and run up a scenario - I must have been out of my mind - I would back out - Cornelia could do it.  I heard her voice, slightly hysterical in pitch, and apprehensive. 'Oh Lord, Emily, you and I are going to take another trip together.'  And I knew that nothing would induce me to back out."
We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood is the story of that trip.  Where the first book was a collaboration, told in Cornelia's voice, this second book was written by Emily alone, and she is the narrator.  It is the story not so much the physical journey, but of the five weeks they spent at Paramount Studios working on dialogue.  When they went through the gates onto that famous lot, they entered a completely new and alien world.  Though Cornelia once had a small part in a film her father the actor Otis Skinner made (a story she told in her memoir Family Circle), that was in 1920.  They knew nothing about the business of making films in 1943, but at Paramount they had a front-row view of the business. Cornelia and Emily could poke into every corner of the sets and watch every step of the process, including a visit to Edith Head's costume department - and they did.  And then there were the stars.  On their first day at work, they saw Bob Hope riding by on a bicycle and Ginger Rogers strolling past in a mink skirt, and they met Ray Milland over lunch.  But Emily observed that to film actors, Cornelia was theater royalty, and they could be just as star-struck to meet her as she was with them.  Being Cornelia and Emily, they also managed to wreak a bit of havoc from time to time.  Emily's account of her unexpected appearance as a Godzilla-like figure in So Proudly We Hail is particularly memorable - and hilarious.

I love classic films.  My television stays set to the Turner Classic Movies station, and I will watch almost anything with William Powell and Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck, Ronald Coleman, Claude Rains, or Dana Andrews.  I loved this tour of 1943 Hollywood, which includes a description of the Academy Awards complete with paparazzi (all of whom ignored Cornelia and Emily) and long boring speeches.

But this book is not just a travelogue or an account of their adventures in Hollywood; it has a serious side that I did not expect but found very interesting.  Emily used her experience as a magazine writer and editor to analyze the motion picture industry and to identify problems that she saw.  She also looked at the diversity of population in California, finding at least in Hollywood an "indifference to any race or nationality or color" that contrasted with the racist attitudes towards particularly Jews and African Americans that she found more prevalent in the east.  (I am not sure that the film industry was all that color-blind, or actresses like Butterfly McQueen would have had more roles available to them than maids and nannies.)  Emily also looked at Hollywood's role in World War II, in making patriotic films, in touring with the USO and selling war bonds.  She and Cordelia made time to visit the celebrated Hollywood Canteen, where Cordelia performed some of her famous monologues for the soldiers.

One day on the Paramount lot, Emily and Cornelia met a fellow writer who was struggling with a plot point: why a young man would want to buy a particular house.  Cornelia came up with a reason, and she went on to play a part in the film that resulted, The Uninvited (which I just recently watched, in part to see her).  Emily would also return to Hollywood, as a technical advisor on the film of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  I've never seen that film, but I really enjoyed reading about it and about the further adventures of Emily and Cordelia.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Murder on a honeymoon

Three-Day Town, Margaret Maron

This is the 17th book in Margaret Maron's series of mysteries featuring North Carolina judge Deborah Knott.  I was introduced to the books by my friend Margaret (not the author) while we were browsing in my beloved Murder by the Book one day.  She handed me the first, Bootlegger's Daughter, with those magical words: "You have to read this."  And she was right.  I wasn't even half-way through it before I was off looking for the rest of the series.

Most of it is set in North Carolina, in the fictional Colleton County where Deborah lives with her husband Dwight Bryant (a deputy sheriff) and his son, as well as their extended families.  Deborah has eleven brothers, who with their wives, ex-wives, and children play a large part in most of the books, as does her father Kezzie, who may or may have retired as a bootlegger (Dwight sure hopes he has, so he doesn't have to arrest his father-in-law one day).  Over the course of the series we've come to know them as well as other relations, colleagues and friends, in the complex and detailed world that Margaret Maron has created.  I wouldn't be surprised if literary tourists show up in North Carolina looking for Colleton the way they do in Louise Penny's Quebec.  I know I'd love to visit.

This book takes Deborah and Dwight out of that familiar setting, to New York City, for a belated honeymoon stay in an apartment owned by Dwight's sister-in-law Kate.  One of Kate's relations, the elderly Mrs. Lattimore, has asked them to deliver a small package to her daughter Anne Harald in New York.  When they arrive in New York, they discover that Anne is out of the country, but they make contact in turn with her daughter Sigrid, a lieutenant with the New York police.  Deborah arranges a meeting with Sigrid to deliver the package, which turns out to be a bronze art object.  She and Dwight are at a neighbor's party when Sigrid arrives, and when Deborah takes her back to their apartment to collect the item, they find the building's super dead in the living room and the bronze object missing.  At that point, Sigrid calls in her team and takes over the case.

The first few books in the series are all told in first-person narration, in Deborah's voice.  Ir's an appealing voice, frank and funny and honest, which draws you right into the story.  As Laurie R. King and Elizabeth Peters did with their first-person characters, though, Margaret Maron began alternating Deborah's chapters with third-person narration, often following Dwight and his team through their part of the mystery.  In this book, the alternate chapters follow Sigrid and her team.  She is the central character in a separate series of eight mysteries, none of which I have read.  There is clearly a lot of history between these characters, and I found it a challenge to keep them all straight.  I also missed Deborah and Dwight who, naturally sidelined from much of the investigation, spend their time playing tourists and honeymooners, though by the end of the case they play a big part in its resolution.  Up to that point, much of the investigation focuses on the residents and employees of the apartment building, and I found it a little difficult to keep track of all of them as well.

As usual, I had no idea who-done-it, but I enjoyed the story and the New York setting, which made me want to play tourist myself.  In the end, Dwight and Deborah cut short their honeymoon to return to Colleton County, and I'm looking forward to returning there again myself.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

An Irish Eden

Never No More, Maura Laverty

I discovered Maura Laverty around the same time as Kate O'Brien, a fellow Irish writer.  But the only book of Laverty's that I ever read was Never No More.  That was back in the infancy of the internet, before I could browse bookstore inventories around the world, and also before interlibrary loan was available to regular library users as it is today.  It's hard to remember when I had to wait patiently for books to come to me, rather than going out to find them.  (On the other hand, in those days I had a minuscule TBR pile.)

As it happens, I also re-discovered Maura Laverty as I did Kate O'Brien, though Verity's Virago Venture.  That's where I was reminded that there is a sequel to Never No More, in which Delia, the narrator, goes off to Spain as a "miss," a chaperone/governess, just as Mary Lavelle does in Kate O'Brien's book of that name, which I read last month.  Laverty's sequel, No More Than Human, immediately went on my TBR pile.  But since it has been so long since I've read Never No More, I wanted to read it again first, to get re-acquainted with Delia before following her off on further adventures.

Never No More opens in October of 1920, as Delia and her family return from her father's funeral, in the small town of Ballyderrig in County Kildare.  Delia's mother has decided to move the family to the near-by town of Kilkenny, where she will open a dressmaking business.  Delia's distress over leaving Ballyderrig turns to joy when her beloved grandmother offers to give her a home and even fund her education to become a teacher. While Delia and her mother have a difficult relationship, her grandmother provides the love and security she needs.  Her mother is more than happy to leave her behind, and Delia moves that night to her grandmother's farm, Derrymore House.

There Delia settles into an idyllic life, one of hard work but also of home comforts described in loving detail, especially Gran's cooking.  In the introduction to my Virago edition, Maeve Binchy writes that
"Maura Laverty was a food pornographer, her pages are full of spicy vapours which would cajole a dying man to eat, luscious pools of butter on speckled surfaces of seed cake, potato apple cakes oozing with sugar and butter.  She is sensual and specific and utterly convincing, and she is not even writing a cookery book."
Binchy points out later that Laverty did write two very successful cookbooks, "which are still a legend in Ireland."  And oh this book is full of food - definitely not a book to read on an empty stomach.  It is country cooking with farm ingredients, and it would probably horrify a vegetarian.  But as much as food, this book is full of love.  Delia says of her Gran,
"You were the purple bog and ripe wheat-field and a crab tree in May. You were good food, and songs in the firelight and the rosary at night.  You were a welcome for my coming and a prayer for my going out.  You were Gran." 
Her Gran is a wonderful character, a perfect surrogate mother, a woman of great faith, wisdom and charity, always willing to lend a hand to those in need.  Living at Derrymore House, Delia also remains part of the close-knit community of Ballyderrig, and she weaves in stories from the town and outlying farms, many of which deal with the dark side of life, with illness, violence, and death.  Yet under Gran's influence Derrymore House remains an Eden.  When Delia reluctantly leaves it for a convent boarding school, she proves to be an unsuccessful student and returns with relief to Gran.  In the end, however, she must leave Ballyderrig forever, for this new post in Spain.

Never No More is a lovely book, and I can see its influences in Maeve Binchy's books.  I am looking forward to Delia's adventures in Spain, though like her I was sad to leave Ballyderrig, and Gran.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The last chronicle of Barsetshire

The Last Chronicle of Barset, Anthony Trollope

I have spent the last week in Barsetshire.  I had been wanting to re-read The Last Chronicle for a while now, ever since I re-read Framley Parsonage.  Once I realized that the TBR Double Dare means only new books, no re-reads, I had an extra incentive to fit it in this month.  And then the whole time I was reading The Turn of the Screw, especially when I was trying to puzzle out one of Henry James' abstruse sentence constructions, I kept thinking of Trollope's easy flowing narration.

In his autobiography, Trollope wrote of The Last Chronicle of Barset: "Taking it as a whole, I regard this as the best novel I have written."  It is certainly one of his most ambitious, bringing together a large cast of characters from the previous five novels in the series, as well as adding new ones.  I count at least seven major plotlines, developed in alternating chapters, which intersect as characters become involved in the different stories and as the action shifts around Barsetshire and to London and back.

The central story involves Rev. Josiah Crawley and his family, who play an important part in Framley Parsonage.  Mr. Crawley is the Perpetual Curate of Hogglestock, a poor parish encompassing the brick yards and industrial area of Hogglestock (future home of Angela Thirkell's Sam Adams).  He is accused of stealing a £20 cheque from Lord Lufton's man of business.  He cannot account for how he acquired the check, thinking that it came as a reluctantly-accepted gift from the Dean of Barchester, a friend of many years.  He doesn't know how he got it, but he insists he did not steal it.  Since he cashed the cheque, however, he is bound over for trial at the next assizes in Barchester.  Mr. Crawley is a sympathetic character, a true shepherd to his rough flock, a tireless worker, clearly a man of honor and honesty.  But he is also a repellent character at times, drowning in self-pity for his poverty, resenting others' success, and stubbornly refusing all assistance.  He can be harsh to his long-suffering wife, who actually seems the more heroic character, and in some ways the stronger.

Mr. Crawley's predicament weighs heavily on his eldest daughter Grace, a teacher in nearby Silverbridge, in the second major plotline.  It is common knowledge in Silverbridge that Major Henry Grantly has fallen in love with her, and she has also formed an attachment.  Major Grantly is the son of the formidable Archdeacon Grantly of Plumstead, and also the grandson of Mr. Harding, the Warden of the first Barsetshire story.  Though he is a widower with a small child, he is, in vulgar terms, a great catch for Grace in her Cinderella state.  But though she does not mind her poverty, she does mind the thought that her father might be found guilty of theft.  Believing him innocent, she still cannot bring alliance with a felon's family to the Grantlys.  That is exactly the idea of the Archdeacon, who threatens to disinherit Henry if he marries Grace.  Henry resents this interference, threatening in his turn to marry Grace and go live on a pittance at Pau in France.

While this family struggle is raging, war breaks out on another front.  The Bishop of Barchester - or rather, the Bishop's wife Mrs. Proudie - declares that a thieving clergyman cannot retain his pulpit.  She calls on Mr. Crawley to resign his curacy, planning to install one of her pet clergymen.  In Barsetshire, of course, that alone is enough to make some people throw their support to Mr. Crawley.  The battle between Mr. Crawley and Mrs. Proudie, with the miserable bishop caught in between, eventually draws in other clergy from around the diocese.  Dean Arabin and his wife are unfortunately out of the country; many believe the Dean could solve the mystery of the cheque.  Mr. Harding, Mrs. Arabin's father, lives with them at the Deanery; he is an elderly man whose health is beginning to fail.  He is one of my favorite characters in all of Trollope, a lovely gentle man, and his story here is like himself, quiet and poignant.

I had forgotten that there are three other plots woven into this story, centered in London.  One concerns Lily Dale, the heroine of The Small House at Allington, and my least-favorite character in all of Trollope. Having been jilted by her first love, she resolves never to marry, because she will never again love with the first love of a woman's heart - very noble but to my mind very silly.  In The Last Chronicle, she is being pressured to marry an old friend, John Eames, who is also cousin to Mrs. Crawley.  Johnny, while faithfully in love with Lily, is like many young men in Trollope also a flirt. He becomes involved with the mysterious Madelina Demolines.  His friend Conway Dalrymple, a rising Society painter, tries to warn him away from Miss Demolines, but he himself is involved in a similar situation with the married Maria Broughton.  None of their stories were as interesting to me as Mr. Crawley's or Grace's, and at times I almost resented their interruption.

I loved reading this book again, and as always with re-reading I saw new things.  I noticed for example that Lord Lufton holds the great tithes of Hogglestock, which from reading Jane Austen and the Clergy I knew means that he has impropriated them.  Last year I read A Highland Lady in France, a journal Elizabeth Grant kept during her family's "retrenchment" in Pau in 1844-1845, so I had some idea of what Major Grantly's life there would have been like, if he carried his threat against his father into action.  And I was also reminded very strongly of the later books in Angela Thirkell's 20th century Barsetshire series, where Grace and Tom Crawley, Silverbridge and Hogglestock, play such parts.

In the final pages of The Last Chronicle of Barset, Trollope writes,
    "For myself I can only say that I shall always be happy to sit, when allowed to do so, at the table of Archdeacon Grantly, to walk through the High Street of Barchester arm in arm with Mr. Robarts of Framley, and to stand alone and shed a tear beneath the modest black stone in the north transept of the cathedral on which is inscribed the name of Septimus Harding.
      "And now, if the reader will allow me to seize him affectionately by the arm, we will together take our last farewell of Barset and the towers of Barchester."
"To seize him affectionately by the arm" - what a wonderfully apt description of the almost irresistible pull of  Trollope's stories.  Like the creator of Barsetshire, I too will always be glad to return to its country lanes and city streets, and most of all to its marvellous people.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My introduction to Henry James

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

I have never read Henry James before.  I knew his books, but I was a little intimidated by his reputation for dark, complex stories, told in baroque language.  As with George Eliot, though, several things lately have pointed me toward his books.  The first was Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which connected The Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew to the Constance Kent case.  (Fortunately I'd forgotten that it gives away the ending of The Turn of the Screw.)   The second was seeing James' books on various blogs this year, particularly Audrey's posts on The American at books as food.  The last was reading Penelope Lively's How It All Began, in which What Maisie Knew plays an important part.  I decided it was time to try one of his books, but I also decided to start with one of the shorter works.

I have been putting together a mental list of holiday-themed books to read in December, but I realized pretty quickly that while this story opens on Christmas Eve, it would not be a holiday story.  I was just as quickly drawn into the story, the familiar scene of people sitting around a fire late at night, telling ghost stories.  According to a note in my copy, this is a traditional Christmas eve pastime, which explains A Christmas Carol's ghosts.  After a story involving a child and a ghost, one of the group, Douglas, claims to have the ultimate ghost story, one with two children.  "It's beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it," he says, "For dreadful - dreadfulness."  But he can't tell the story that night.  He has to send to town for a manuscript.  And like the people gathered around the fire, we have to wait a little, anticipating the story.

In this story within a story, Douglas is reading an account of the experiences of a young woman, never named, the daughter of a clergyman, who accepts a position as governess to two young children.  Their parents are dead, and their guardian, an uncle who does not wish to be bothered with them, has sent the boy, Miles, to school; and the girl, Flora, to a country home.  He makes it a condition of employment that the governess have no further contact with him, only his solicitor, that she take complete responsibility for the children.

And so she arrives at her isolated post, this new and inexperienced governess.  There she finds a pastoral scene and an angelic young girl, a dark old gothic house and an ally in the housekeeper, Mrs Grose.  But then a letter arrives, saying that the boy Miles has been dismissed from his school, for unstated reasons.  The governess's question, "Is he really bad?" becomes one of the central questions of the story.  Like his sister, Miles has an almost unearthly beauty.  But with his return come other, eerie arrivals, and the governess learns about two former members of the household, one the previous governess.  Both are now dead, but are they gone?  Are they the mysterious figures that the governess sees?  More importantly, what do the children see?

The image of a tightening screw is a perfect metaphor for this story, with its heightening tension. The governess's first-person narration adds to this, though as with George Eliot, I found that James's verbose language and confusing constructions sometimes took me out of the story.  Yet the final chapter builds to one of the most unexpected, shattering conclusions I have ever read, and I turned the last page unable to believe that the story had ended.

The ending left me with so many questions unanswered (and I'm moving into spoiler territory here): what happens to Flora?  Removing her from the house doesn't seem to be the answer, or at least it didn't work in Miles' case, given what happened at school.  And what happens to the governess?  How on earth does she explain what happened, particularly after Flora's accusations?  What does the children's uncle do now? Presumably the governess doesn't stay with Flora; is she dismissed without a reference?  We know from the first that she did go on to other situations, since Douglas himself met her when she was governess to his sister.

It turns out that I read this under a major misapprehension, which colored my reading and confused me.  I thought I remembered from The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher that the Kent case had inspired The Turn of the Screw, so I went into the story expecting the children to be guilty of something, even murder.  Still confused as I am by the ending, I think now that they were themselves innocent, but possessed by evil spirits.  I will need to read this again.  My copy includes a second novella, The Aspern Papers, which seems to be about a family archives, always an intriguing setting to an archivist, and I plan to read that as well as What Maisie Knew.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kingship and friendship

A Conspiracy of Kings, Megan Whalen Turner

This is the fourth book in Megan Whalen Turner's excellent "Thief" series, and the last published so far.  I was almost reluctant to read this book, because when I finished it I would have none left to look forward to.

There will be spoilers here for the earlier books, and possibly for this one as well.

The series is set in three kingdoms, Attolia, Sounis and Eddis, in a land that combines ancient Greece with elements of Byzantium.  Conflict is constantly breaking out between the three countries, and sometimes within each, often at the instigation of an outside power, the Medes, who would like to absorb the kingdoms into their empire.  The central character of the stories is Eugenides, the cousin of the Queen of Eddis, who holds the almost mythical position of "Thief of Eddis" at her court, but he gives that up to marry the Queen of Attolia and rule as her king.  Who Eugenides is, his true character, his capabilities, his heart and mind, are revealed gradually over the course of the stories.  As I mentioned in my review of the third book, The King of Attolia, he reminds me of Dorothy Dunnett's great heroes, Francis Crawford of Lymond and Nicholas de Fleury.

I had forgotten that, at the end of The King of Attolia, someone says of Eugenides: "That one will rule more than just Attolia before he is done. He is an Annux, a king of kings."  In this book, we see this prophecy begin to come to fulfilment.  At the center is Sounis, torn by civil war and rebellion against its king.  Rebel barons kidnap the king's nephew and heir Sophos (whom we met in the first book) to use him as a pawn.  Through the adventures that follow, Sophos constantly accuses himself of weakness and cowardice, but as with Eugenides we see his true character, his strength and courage, revealed.  When the king dies unexpectedly, Sophos suddenly finds himself the new Sounis.  He must secure his throne not just against his barons but also the Medes, who are angling to seize the country from a new, weak king caught in the chaos of civil war.  Sounis turns for help to his friend Eugenides.  His friend is now Attolis, though, and his help has a price: Sounis will become a vassal state.  There is also a different kind of alliance under discussion, with Eddis and its Queen (one of my favorite characters).

Though some readers have complained this book has too much Sophos and too little Eugenides, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I like Sophos, and I hope to see him again in the later books (and I hope we don't have to wait too long for the next one). I dote on Eugenides though. I want to see him vanquish his enemies,  particularly those evil Medes, and triumph as Annux.  And I can't wait to see him as a father.

Monday, November 28, 2011

In the parlour with the aunts

Presentation Parlour, Kate O'Brien

With my rediscovery of Kate O'Brien, I started looking at the books of hers that I haven't read yet.  Presentation Parlour immediately caught my eye, because it was described as an autobiography and because the title reminded me of the convent setting of The Land of Spices, my favorite of her books.  Presentation Parlour was originally published in 1963, when Kate O'Brien was 66 years old.  When the book arrived, I was surprised to find it so short, less than 120 pages, which suggested a very brief account of her life.  As it turns out, this isn't really an autobiography, more a biography of a family.

One of nine children, Kate O'Brien was 5 years old when her mother died.  Her characters are often orphaned at a young age, or separated from their mothers.  Her five aunts, from both sides of the family, helped her father raise his large family.  This book tells the stories of their lives and their place in the children's lives. O'Brien writes in her Introduction that "our father, and we with him, became more than is usual dependent upon the five - for authority, fun, advice, or affection. And we would have been a lost and queer bundle of orphans without them. Anyway, they were there."

Three of the aunts were her mother's sisters.  O'Brien uses the first chapter, on her Aunt Annie, to explore the history of her mother's family, and I could see how she drew on that history in her first published novel, Without My Cloak.  The other two maternal aunts were nuns, members of a strictly enclosed order whose convent was in Limerick, where the family lived.  Visits to their convent were a regular part of the children's life, and the convent's parlours became a center of family life.  Holidays like Christmas were celebrated in the parlours, so the aunts could join in.  These visits kept the aunts in touch with the family's life, so they could advise and interfere.  They also gave the family a front row seat to watch the community's life unfold.  O'Brien herself was educated in a convent boarding school, and this with the experience that she had of her aunts' vocations must have shaped the setting and story of The Land of Spices.

The chapters on Aunt Fan (Sister Clare) and Aunt Mary (Mother Margaret Mary) brought back my own memories of parlor visits.  When we stayed with my grandmother in the small Idaho town where my mother grew up, just up the road was the Benedictine monastery where her sister, my great-aunt, was a nun.  We never missed a visit, sitting in the visitors' parlor until we kids got restless and went out (or were sent out) to play in the grounds.

O'Brien spends less time on her last two aunts, her father's sister and sister-in-law, who joined in the family celebrations in the convent but were otherwise less involved in their lives.  It was her father's sister-in-law, Auntie Mick, who was the first of the five to die, and in a final chapter O'Brien brings each of the aunts' stories to its end.  She writes, "So there they pass, my aunts. No one but I will care about their 'short and simple annals,'" yet short as the annals are, she made these women real to me, though she herself says, "And for all my searching back, for all my will to reach them, I have not found the very heart of any one of them."

This book was not what I expected, yet I enjoyed its portrait of life in Ireland in the late 1800s and early 1900s, its exploration of religious life and vocation, and its affectionate pictures of five very different women, as well as the glimpses it gives into the roots of Kate O'Brien's novels.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My first challenges

I've never done a challenge before, though I tagged along on the reading of The House of the Seven Gables, which some people were doing for the RIP challenge.  But here I am signing up for two in 2012.

The first is the TBR Double Dare, hosted by C.B. James over at Ready When You Are, C.B.

I'm accepting the dare (the double-dare!) to read only from my own shelves from January 1st -April 1st next year, with the goal of whittling down my TBR pile.  That means no library books, no buying books.  Which I need to do - let's just say the name of this blog isn't strictly accurate at this point.  I know it is going to be tough, because reading blogs has introduced me to some great authors (I just posted about one, Jo Walton, earlier today).  But I've also added too many books to the TBR pile as well.  It should be good for me and for my bookshelves (and maybe even for the book sale at the library - oh lord, something else I'll have to avoid).

The second challenge I've seen popping up all over is A Classics Challenge, hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn.

This one involves reading seven classic novels over the course of 2012, with some directed discussion on the 4th of each month.  This will dovetail nicely with the TBR challenge, since I have these books on the TBR pile:
  1. Persuasion, Jane Austen (a re-read)
  2. Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
  3. Three Men in a Boat and Three Men on the Bummel, Jerome K. Jerome (I've never read the Bummel part)
  4. A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf
  5. The Three Clerks, Anthony Trollope (though I may change this for another Trollope)
  6. A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft
  7. Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw
Thanks to C.B. and Katherine for hosting these and letting me join in.

A far from cozy mystery

Farthing, Jo Walton

While reading a review of Farthing over on Shelf Love, I had the immediate and oh-so-familiar feeling of "I need to read that," which sent me looking for a copy.  I'm very glad that I did, because this is a seriously good book.  It is a country-house mystery, set in England in the spring of 1949, but it is far from the traditional "cozy."  In this England, a peace treaty with Germany in 1941 ended the Battle of Britain, bringing the country "Peace with Honour."  Hitler rules the Continent, though the Reich is mired in a seemingly-endless war with Russia.  The United States, under President Lindbergh, holds to its isolationist line (after reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh's diaries, I think she would have been an invisible and personally miserable First Lady).  In Britain, despite the peace, economic conditions are precarious, and anti-semitism is rampant, as are xenophobia and homophobia.

As the story opens, Lucy Kahn and her husband David are spending the weekend at Farthing, the country home of her parents, Lord and Lady Eversley.  The house has given its name to the Farthing set, a group within the Conservative Party, one of whom, Sir James Thirkie, negotiated the "Peace with Honour."  The set, while influential, has moved to the fringes of power but hopes to return to the center.  Lucy, however, has taken a step almost unthinkable for one of her class and position by marrying David Kahn, a Jew, over the objections of parents, friends, the press and even the general public.

The first chapter is in Lucy's voice, and she is an immediately appealing character.  Her voice draws the reader into the story from the first page. She describes herself as "scatterbrained and not really very bright," but the reader sees her as clear-sighted, loyal, loving - and brave.  She is also plain-spoken, to a fault sometimes, and her attempts to catch her own words back are touching and revealing.  Lucy's chapters alternate with those focused on a second character, Inspector Peter Carmichael.  His chapters are in the third-person, which creates a distance from the character, in contrast to Lucy's.  Carmichael is a complex character whose background is gradually revealed.  It is only at the end of the story that the reader learns why he was assigned to this case.  He is sent from Scotland Yard to investigate the murder of Sir James, found in his bedroom with a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest by an antique dagger.  On that evidence alone, David Kahn immediately becomes a suspect, such is the prevailing anti-semitism and the fear of anarchists (many of them Jews, in the public mind).

To say more about this book risks spoilers.  And while the mystery itself is interesting, it is Jo Walton's  alternate history and the England it produced that are so fascinating, as are the characters, particularly Lucy.  My only quibble is a factual one: Sir James, a baronet, would not sit in the House of Lords.  Since much of the story turns on his career in politics, it seems a strange error.

This is a three-book series, and I am very much looking forward to the next one, Ha'penny.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

John Brown's raid

Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz

The subtitle of this book is "John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War."  When I saw it announced, I wanted to read it because I enjoy Tony Horwitz's writing, and because of the importance of Brown's raid in American history.  On October 16, 1859, he led eighteen men, including two of his sons and five African Americans, on a raid of the Federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia.  One of his stated objectives was to spark an uprising of Southern slaves, to overthrow the slave system.  Brown had taken no steps to alert the slaves in the area, however, and he inexplicably waited in the town while enraged white Virginians armed themselves and federal troops, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, moved in.  Brown was captured with four of his men; ten others were killed in fighting or trying to escape. His two sons were among the dead, as were four townspeople and one of the soldiers. 

Within a week, Brown was on trial for treason and conspiring to incite a slave revolt, and by November 2nd he had been condemned to hang.  After his sentance had been pronounced, he told the court,
"Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the end of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country, whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I submit. So let it be done!"
Though the trial was rushed, authorities in Virginia delayed his execution for a month, time that Brown spent writing letters and giving interviews to the press, expanding on his words in the courtroom and explaining what had led him to Harper's Ferry.  In that month, Northerners who had originally seen him as a deluded and dangerous fanatic came to see him as a martyr, dying in the cause of abolition of slavery.  Abolition wasn't popular in the North.  While many northerners shared Abraham Lincoln's view that slavery was wrong, like him they also held racist views of African Americans and didn't want freed slaves moving north, competing for jobs or living next door to them.  At the same time, tensions were rising as America expanded westward.  With each new territory and state added, the same question came up: would it be slave or free?  While many northerners, again like Lincoln, believed that the Constitution protected slavery where it already existed, they did not want it expanded into new territory.  There were various tense compromises worked out over the years, admitting slave and free states in exact balance. But the tension exploded in the 1850s over Kansas, as pro- and anti-slavery forces fought for control of the new territory.  There were armed battles, and even murder.  John Brown and his large family had been at the center of this fight, implicated in the murder of at least four settlers in 1856, one a sixteen year old boy (one of Brown's many sons was in turn murdered by pro-slavery forces).

John Brown's execution galvanized anti-slavery feeling in the north.  New York diarist George Templeton Strong, unsympathetic to abolitionists and African Americans, wrote,
"Slavery has received no such blow in my time as his strangulation. There must be a revolution in feeling, even in the terrified State of Virginia. . . So did the first Christian martyrs wake up senators and landed gentlemen and patrician ladies, tempore Nero and Diocletian, and so on. One's faith in anything is terribly shaken by anybody who is ready to go to the gallows condemning and denouncing it."
At the same time, Southerners were outraged by Northern support of Brown. Just days after his execution, Jefferson Davis in a speech on the Senate floor threatened secession.  Less than a year later, the election of Abraham Lincoln as President made that threat a reality.

I was a little reluctant to read this book, though, just because it is about John Brown.  I first came across his name in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, where Reverend Brown, the Little Town on the Prairie's Congregational minister, is said to be a cousin of "old John Brown of Kansas." Laura doesn't like him, and neither do Ma and Pa. "What he said did not make sense to [Laura], but he looked like that picture of John Brown in her history book, come alive. His eyes glared, his white mustache and his whiskers bobbed, and his big hands waved and clawed and clenched into fists pounding the pulpit and shaking in air."  I didn't know who John Brown of Kansas was then, but I was left with an image of a fanatic Old Testament figure.  What I learned about him later made him seem a 19th century domestic terrorist.

Tony Horwitz addresses this in his Prologue:
     "Viewed through the lends of 9/11, Harpers Ferry seems an al-Queda prequel: a long-bearded fundamentalist, consumed by hatred of the U.S. government, launches nineteen men in a suicidal strike on a symbol of American power. A shocked nation plunges into war. We are still grappling with the consequences.
     "But John Brown wasn't a charismatic foreigner crusading from half a world away. He descended from Puritan and Revolutionary soldiers and believed he was fulfilling their struggle for freedom. Nor was he an alienated loner in the mold of recent homegrown terrorists such as Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh. Brown plotted while raising an enormous family; he also drew support from leading thinkers and activists of his day, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Henry David Thoreau. The covert group that funneled him money and guns, the so-called Secret Six, was composed of northern magnates and prominent Harvard men, two of them ministers.
     "Those who followed Brown into battle represented a cross section of mid-nineteenth-century America."
In this book, he traces John Brown's life, before Kansas and before Harper's Ferry, to explain his extraordinary commitment not just to abolition of slavery, but to equality for African Americans, and to place those events in context of his life and of the larger American story.  Brown's character and his beliefs were strongly influenced by the stern Calvinism of his parents, and he was inspired by Old Testament heroes like Gideon and Samson.  Horwitz argues that despite what Brown told his supporters and followers about his plans for the raid, he may have seen himself as a Samson, who in failing would bring down the institution of slavery.  In this, he succeeded.

Thanks to Tony Horwitz, I now have a better understanding of John Brown himself, of his motives and his mind, and of the role he played in American history.  As a popular Civil War song had it, "John Brown's body is a-mouldering in his grave, but his soul is marching on."  Yet he is still a disturbing figure, and understanding his motives still leaves me uncomfortable with the means he chose.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Murder in academia

Rashomon Gate, I.J. Parker

Maybe it's from growing up and working in college towns, but I love stories set in academia.  Gaudy Night is probably my favorite of Dorothy L. Sayers' novels, and I also enjoy Jill Paton Walsh's series set in Cambridge, with college nurse Imogen Quy, as well as Connie Willis' 21st century Oxford.  Rashomon Gate takes place in and around a university in 11th century Japan, but despite the very different setting, some things sound very familiar: budget cuts, declining enrollments, faculty squabbles, accusations of cheating, and student pranks.  And then there is murder.

This is the second in a series of mystery novels featuring Sugawara Akitada, an official at the Ministry of Justice, in the imperial capital of Heian-Kyo (modern Kyoto).  The first I read, The Masuda Affair, turned out to be the seventh in the series, and now I'm reading the earlier books.  As this book opens Akitada, bored with the endless paperwork of his job, receives a dinner invitation from one of his former professors at the Imperial University.  Professor Hirata is more than a teacher to Akitada, who lived in his home while attending the university, after a breach with his own father.  He feels a responsibility for the older man, and for his daughter Tamako, now a lovely young woman.

Hirata shows Akitada a note that had been left in his academic gown: "While men like you enjoy life, others do not have enough to fill their bellies. If you wish to keep your culpability a secret, pay your debts! I suggest an initial sum of 1000 cash."  He assures Akitada that it cannot be meant for him and asks his help in investigating it.  For the sake of the university, he wants it handled discretely, so he suggests that Akitada take a temporary position with the law faculty, as a cover for his investigations.  Accepting this charge offers Akitada a break from the dull office routine, leading him into three separate mysteries involving theft and murder.  These cases bring him into contact with Kobe, the captain of the Metropolitan Police, who like many professionals in law enforcement resents this amateur detective, especially when Akitada solves the cases for him.  They also bring him into frequent contact with Tamako, with whom he falls in love.  Her father suggests marriage to a very willing Akitada, but she refuses him, and his emotional turmoil makes it difficult to concentrate on his teaching or his investigations.

With this book I enjoyed learning more about Akitada's family and background.  His retainers Seimei and  Tora (a former bandit) uncover key information during the investigations, in the course of which Akitada adds two more reformed outlaws to his household. There is another and much more important addition to the family: a wife.  It was also interesting to read about the city of Heian-Kyo and the university.  As well as a "Historical Note" at the end of the book, my edition included a map of the city and illustrations, which helped me picture a world so very different from my own.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates

Between the Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor

As I have mentioned before, it was Susan Hill's Howards End Is On the Landing that introduced me to Patrick Leigh Fermor.  I had never heard of him, but her description of his books was enough to send me in search of them.  I found A Time of Gifts enchanting, in the spell-binding sense of the word, from his account of a very non-traditional education, to his sudden decision to set off an adventure like walking across Europe to Constantinople, with the descriptions of the people and places he encountered, the sidebar excursions into history and geography and ethnography and linguistics; all written in such lyrical, limpid prose.  It is one of the most beautifully-written books I have ever read.  When I finished it, leaving Leigh Fermor standing on the bridge between Slovakia and Hungary in April of 1934, I didn't immediately pick up the sequel, Between the Woods and the Water.  I needed time to digest the first book, and I didn't want to rush into the next one.

Far from rushing, as usually happens one book led to another, and it was more than a year later that I came back to this book.  I sat down with high expectations, remembering A Time of Gifts, but to my surprise and disappointment I struggled with this book, at least initially.  I think that is due in part to the lag between reading the two books, so that I have forgotten much of the detail of the first book.  Also, A Time of Gifts covered familiar territory, as Leigh Fermor journeyed from Holland through Germany and Austria to Slovakia.  I have read about these countries, and with the exception of the Czech Republic, I have traveled in them, giving me at least some context for his wide-ranging discussions of the history and the peoples of the different areas.  As Between the Woods and the Water opened, he entered Hungary, and the book covers the months he spent in Hungary and in Roumania, according to the subtitle from "the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates."  To my shame, I know very little about the history or even the geography of this region, so I lack the basic context that Leigh Fermor seemed to assume his readers would have; I was soon lost, not even sure what or where the Iron Gates were.  I ended up reading with an atlas open on my lap, allowing me to track at least his physical route.  My Penguin edition of A Time of Gifts has a basic map showing his route, but the NYRB edition of Between the Woods and the Water doesn't have one, an unfortunate omission to my mind.

Once I figured out the physical setting of the book, I stopped trying to keep all of the history and ethnography and linguistics straight.  I settled down to enjoy Leigh Fermor's beautiful prose, as he described his visits to Hungarian and Roumanian and Transylvanian manors, as well as his encounters with shepherds and Gypsies and woodsmen - and of course with animals and the natural world.  He frankly admitted that his frequent stays in the manor houses, with their libraries and games and dances, distracted him from the original purpose of his travels, and he was sometimes tempted just to settle in.  There is a shadow of melancholy to this book, because the author and the reader are very much aware that so much of what he wrote about in 1934, the people and the places, would vanish just a few years later.  Of course at the time his 19-year-old self had no idea of this, despite his recent tour through Hitler's Germany.

At the end of this book, Leigh Fermor decided to spend more time in Roumania rather than continuing east toward Constantinople, the original goal of his journey.  The last chapter ends with the words, "To be concluded."  At the time of his death in June of this year, the final volume remained uncompleted.  But at least there is a manuscript, and we can hope for a final volume that will indeed bring us to Constantinople.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

An Irish "miss" in Spain

Mary Lavelle, Kate O'Brien

I discovered Kate O'Brien's books over twenty years ago.  The first that I read, The Land of Spices, is still one of my favorite books, and it was also the first Virago edition I ever bought.  As I usually do, I then collected every book of hers I could find.  But I never got around to reading Mary Lavelle, which I vaguely thought was a sequel of sorts to The Land of Spices.  Reading the reviews of Kate O'Brien over at Verity's Virago Venture sent me to the TBR shelves in search of it, and I have spent the past several days lost in the story.

I very quickly realized my mistake: this isn't a sequel to The Land of Spices.  As the book opens, it is 1922 and the title character, Mary Lavelle, is traveling from her home in Ireland to take up a position in Spain as a "miss," a combination of governess and chaperone.  Like Mary, most of the "misses" in Catholic Spain are Irish Catholics.  Unlike the other "misses" she meets, though, Mary has not come to Spain to make a career.  She is engaged to a young man in her home town, John, but they cannot afford to marry yet.  Rather than simply living in her father's house, waiting for her wedding, she seizes a chance to do something different:
"To go to Spain. To be alone for a little space, a tiny hiatus between her life's two accepted phases. To cease being a daughter without immediately becoming a wife. To be a free lance, to belong to no one place or family or person - to achieve that silly longing of childhood, only for one year, before she flung it with all other childish things upon the scrapheap. Spain!"

Determined not to let this opportunity slip from her hands, Mary overcomes John's opposition and her father's indifference.  She takes her place as "miss" to the three daughters of the Areagava family, prominent citizens of the town of Cabantes on Spain's northern coast.  At 21, she is only a few years older than the eldest, Pilár, but it is the youngest, 14-year-old Milagros, with whom she bonds most deeply.  In addition to their parents, the family also includes a son, Juanito, who lives in Madrid with his wife and baby son.  When Mary meets this second "John" they are immediately and irresistably drawn to each other.  Mary also meets her fellow "misses," most of whom are loud in their complaints about Spain itself and their employers, but they lack the resources, financial or mental, to find other work or to return home.  They cannot understand Mary's contentment, her growing attachment to Spain and to the people she meets.

Mary is a very sympathetic character, and it is fascinating to watch her metamorphosis in this coming-of-age story.  O'Brien delves deep into the hearts and minds of her characters, switching her point of view between Mary and other characters, particularly Juanito and his father Don Pablo.  Her language is elegant and yet easy, it never strains for effect.  The story is so rich in emotion and character that I found myself putting it down at the end of almost every chapter, to savor it and to consider what had happened before reading on.  This was not a book to be rushed through.

Like The Land of Spices, this book was banned in Ireland at publication, in part because of its frank sexuality (though not explict in today's terms), including sympathetic treatment of a gay character.  And while all of the characters are practicing Catholics and people of faith, they struggle with their own beliefs, with living their faith, and even with the Church itself, which may also have been a factor in the ban.  The strongly Catholic setting, richly evoked, was a pleasant change from the constant, almost reflexive anti-Catholicism that I have come across lately in so many 19th century English novels and letters.

I also have on the TBR pile O'Brien's Farewell Spain, about her own experiences of the country, including a year's stint herself as a "miss."  Looking at the author's note in this book, I see several other of her books that I haven't read, including an autobiography and a book about Ireland.  I am so glad to have re-discovered Kate O'Brien - on my own shelves, no less!

Friday, November 11, 2011

A country curate and his family

The Curate in Charge, Margaret Oliphant

I knew nothing about Margaret Oliphant, and very little about Victorian women writers in general, when I came across a used copy of Miss Marjoribanks several years ago.  When I sat down to read it, I was instantly enthralled with Miss Marjoribanks herself, with the fictional setting of Carlingford, and with Oliphant's writing.  She reminds me of Anthony Trollope, in the easy accessibility of her stories, the sense of real life that she gives to her characters, and her narrative voice.  I immediately set out to find the other books in the "Chronicles of Carlingford" series, and I was lucky enough to find copies of the recent Virago reprints.  I also found a copy of her autobiography, which I read only last year, a heart-breaking and incredibly moving account of loss and grief.  And I came across a copy of The Curate in Charge, which years later I have finally gotten around to reading.

Again like Trollope, Oliphant writes frequently about clergymen and their families.  The title character of this book is the Rev. Cecil St John, who has been the curate of Brentburn, a country parish in Berkshire, for twenty years.  Brentburn is a college living, and the holder of the living, the Rev. Mr Chester, made his health an excuse to retire to Italy.  (My recent reading of Irene Collins' book Jane Austen and Clergy gave me a better understanding of the circumstances of the living and the curate's position.)  In his twenty years in the village, Mr St John has married and lost two wives, leaving him with two families to support on his curate's salary.  The first family consists of two daughters, Cicely and Mab.  When they leave Brentburn to go to school, their father marries their former governess.  After their stepmother's death, the girls return home to help care for the twin boys she leaves behind.  Just as they are trying to adjust to their new life, word arrives that Mr Chester has died in Italy.  A new rector will now be appointed, their father will lose his home and income, and at age sixty-five, must look for a new place.  After twenty years in a quiet country curacy, Mr St John is completely unprepared to face this upheaval in his life, and to Cicely's despair, he will make no provision nor take any action.  He welcomes the new rector, Mr Mildmay, without even a hint of the family's precarious position.  Cicely must do everything herself, even searching for a new situation for her father, while trying to run the household and care for her brothers.  Her younger sister Mab, a talented artist, is much more likely to pose the children, barefoot and in rags, than to care for them.

Oliphant often found herself in Cicely's position, caring for husband, children, brothers, nieces and nephews, many of whom were just as impractical and passive as Mr St John.  Her writing supported her extended family for decades, with more than 100 books, as well as articles and reviews.   Again like Trollope, she was sometimes criticized for writing too much, or too commercially.  There seems to be general agreement that the quality of her books varies widely, which is understandable given that she wrote at speed and under pressure.  The Carlingford books are considered among the best of her work, and I enjoyed them all, particularly The Perpetual Curate, my favorite of her novels.  I think The Curate in Charge, while a slighter novel, should be ranked with them.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A chain of cause and effect

How It All Began, Penelope Lively

This has been a year of reading Penelope Lively - books I'd had unread for years, and other books (new to me) that I came across.  And now there is her latest, which I've been anticipating ever since I saw it announced earlier in the year.  How It All Began is vintage Lively.  It is a story of cause and effect, of chance and choice, of the connections between people, and how a person's actions can affect more than just his or her own life.  The book opens with a quotation from James Gleick's Chaos: "The Butterfly Effect was the reason . . . Errors and uncertainties multiply, cascading upward through a chain of turbulent features . . ."

As the story begins, Charlotte, an elderly woman, has been mugged.  The attack leaves her with a broken hip, and she must move in with her daughter Rose and son-in-law Henry while it heals.  Rose has to cancel a business trip with her employer, Lord Peters, a retired but still busy historian, and he recruits his niece Marion to accompany him instead.  To go with him, Marion has to break a date with her married lover; the text she sends him goes to his wife instead, who immediately throws him out.  This isn't one story, it's a chain of stories, and the characters move in and out of the different chapters, continuing to affect each other's lives.

In addition to the Butterfly Effect, Lively also uses the stories to explore the nature of history, one of her frequent themes.  Lord Peters belongs to the Great Man school of history (which features few women), arguing "that events are governed entirely by politics and persons," not by impersonal forces or by chance and choice.  We come to see how out of touch and in fact marginalized he has become, and there is a pathos in his attempts to reconnect and reinvent himself, though there is a satiric edge to Lively's portrait of him.  He stands in contrast to Charlotte, who is for me the heart of the stories.  She has been forced into dependence and the uncomfortable intimacy of living with her daughter.  Reading is her natural refuge:
"For ever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pas the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction, even. She has read to find out how sex works, how babies are born; she has read to discover what it is to be good, or bad; she has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her - then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what is it that other people experience that she is missing."
I can't remember another Lively character with such a passion for reading.  And Charlotte has always shared her love of books.  A gifted teacher of English before her retirement, she now volunteers as a literacy tutor.  Her own reading and her sessions with one student, Anton, allow Lively to explore different books as well as the idea of reading itself, while also bringing Anton into the chain of cause and effect.  I was amused at the nods to P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, among others, and I think I now know a little about what Lively herself likes to read.

I really enjoyed this book.  It may not have the emotional weight of some of her books, like The Photograph or Perfect Happiness, but it is an engaging story (or set of stories), told with Lively's style and wit, with a cast of characters that draw you in.  I have to wonder, though, at Lively's American publishers.  The UK version (left, rather blurry) has the most attractive cover, one that I just want to sink down into, and it's a teaser for things that happen in the book. To my mind, the American cover is garish, and the uneven lettering looks silly.  Maybe they thought Americans would buy a book with a picture of London on it, but not one with books and flowers and tea.  I decided to splurge on the UK edition, and I'm so glad I did, however shallow that makes me.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A majestic biography

Queen Mary, James Pope-Hennessy

Several things in my recent reading got me interested in reading more about Queen Mary.  The first was the volumes of letters between Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess of Prussia that I read over the summer.  There were frequent references to "Aunt Cambridge" and her family, particularly the difficulties of marrying off her daughter Mary Adelaide.  It took me a while to figure out that Princess Mary Adelaide was Victoria's cousin and the future mother of the future Queen Mary.  Then I came across Princess Mary Adelaide, now the Duchess of Teck, in Mistress of Charlecote, The Memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy, where she completely captivated Mrs. Lucy with her friendliness and charm.  Finally, Queen Mary also plays a fictional role in Rhys Bowen's Lady Georgie mystery series, now in its fifth book.  I already had this book on my shelves, a gift from a friend years ago, which I never got around to reading, until now.

I do not think I have ever read a biography that embodies its subject so completely.  Queen Mary is majestic, intelligent, discrete, obsessed with family relations and genealogy, and fascinated with furniture and objets d'art.  Two years after Queen Mary's death in 1953, Queen Elizabeth II asked James Pope-Hennessy to write the biography of her grandmother.  He was given access to the Royal Archives at Windsor, which include Queen Mary's diaries and letters, as well as family archives in Europe, including the personal papers of the Duke of Windsor.

In a book of 620 pages, Pope-Hennessy devotes more than a third of it to the future queen's childhood and adolescence, and to her remarkable parents.  Like Mrs. Lucy, he seems captivated with her mother, Queen Victoria's cousin and one of the most visible, and popular, members of the Royal Family (he even analyzes her astrological sign).  She was what we today call "plus-sized," and though she was a Princess of the Blood Royal, it took quite some time to find her a husband.  She married at what was then the advanced age of 32.  Her new husband, Prince Franz of Teck, was the child of a morganantic marriage, which in the view of many in Europe, particularly at the Prussian Court, should have disqualified him to marry into the British Royal Family.  Like Prince Albert, Franz moved to his wife's country, but unlike Albert he found very little to do, and his frustration created tension in the family.  So did the massive debts from the extravagant life he and his wife led. 

In this atmosphere, their eldest child and only daughter Victoria Mary, called "May" in the family, grew into a quiet, studious, compassionate young woman, known for her good sense and for her blonde good looks.  All of these qualities combined led Queen Victoria and the Prince and Princess of Wales to choose her as the bride of Prince Albert Victor of Wales.  Pope-Hennessy is rather discrete about Prince Albert Victor, whom he calls "Dear and good . . . pliable and obedient" - or perhaps it is that more information about the Prince has come to light since this book was published in 1960.  I don't think anyone can take seriously the theory that he was Jack the Ripper, but he seems to have led a pretty unsavoury life.  It is clear from Queen Victoria's letters that she thought the best reform for a rake was marriage to a good woman (which didn't work in her own sons' cases).  Pope-Hennessy devotes several chapters to Prince Albert Victor, their engagement, his death soon after, and the pressure that built on May to then marry his brother the Duke of York, the new heir-presumptive.  He writes with sympathy and insight of her grief, and her embarrassment at the situation she found herself in, explaining how affection for her cousin George and her sense of duty to the Royal Family led to her second engagement.

Her marriage to the Duke of York and then her nine years as Princess of Wales take up a scant third of the book, and then her twenty-five years as Queen Consort and seventeen as Dowager Queen take up the last third.  Pope-Hennessy spends so much time and attention on the first twenty-six years of her life that it almost seems like the last sixty get short shrift, in comparison.  He makes the argument that in marrying the Duke of York, May devoted herself to the service of the British Crown, and that when her husband became King in 1910, she focused her life on supporting him.  Pope-Hennessy is very candid in discussing her failures as a parent, including her exclusive focus on her husband, though he points out in her defense that she gave the same devotion to her sons Edward VIII and George VI in their turns as King.  What spare time she had was devoted to collecting artifacts of the Royal Family, a hobby that became something of an obsession (and may have shaded into kleptomania in her last years, which Pope-Hennessy naturally doesn't mention).  When I visited Windsor Castle a few years ago, I got to see Queen Mary's Dolls' House, part of her fascination with miniatures.

I found Pope-Hennessy to be an entertaining narrator, but an unusual one for a biographer, particularly of a royal subject.  He is not above sarcasm.  Writing about the Duchess of Teck's training her children in charitable work, he quotes an account of one occasion when "Her Royal Highness sent a dinner to a destitute family, and gave instructions that the children were to stop and see the poor people eat it, showing at once her practical mind and her goodness of heart."  Pope-Hennessy adds, "Such golden opportunities to observe the Poor at feeding time in their natural surroundings were supplemented by hearsay. . ."  While researching the book, he traveled extensively in Europe, staying in the former homes of Teck and Cambridge relations.  At times his story becomes more an account of his own travels, and I lost patience a little with his intrusions into the story:
"The valley lies silent in the sunset. No puff of wind stirs the sentinel trees. Wafting slowly upwards from a hidden chimney, a curl of wood-smoke hovers above the old house's purple roofs.  Somewhere in the walled garden of the Schloss, with its frozen pool and its black box hedges, a dog is baying."
In the end, I enjoyed this book very much and learned a lot from it.  If I had been reading a library copy, I would already have been out searching for my own.