Sunday, February 27, 2011

At home in Candleford Green

Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson

I have just spent the last week going from Lark Rise to Candleford and back again. How did I miss this marvelous book for so many years. I ordered a copy from in 2009, after some mention on the Heyer list, and as usual added to the TBR pile.  Last Sunday, when I finished Penelope Lively's The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, which is set in Oxfordshire, I remembered Lark Rise is also set in Oxfordshire and pulled it off the pile.  By page three, I had fallen in love.  C.S. Lewis described the experience in An Experiment in Criticism: "the first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison."  This was one of those books for me.  And it was a book to be read slowly, and savored, and shared - well, recommended anyway. I'm not loaning out my copy!

The immediate plunge in daily life in Lark Rise, especially all the domestic details, reminded me very much of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, set in a very different world, but similar in poverty, self-reliance, and ingenuity in making do with very little.  I wonder if "Laura" being Thompson's stand-in character was part of that. There is no one in the Little House books like Miss Lane, though, to offer the American Laura an unconventional role, one that brings such freedom (especially with the postal route) and so many books.  Miss Lane is such an outsized character - a woman in the 1890s running a blacksmith's shop as well as the post office, and so well-placed through both to have her fingers on every pulse of her community.

A friend of mine is a great fan of the filmed version of Lark Rise.  As I was reading it, though, I kept wondering how on earth this could be filmed. Generally, as I have explained to far too many people, I subscribe to the Purist Principle: The Book Is Always Better. I have a t-shirt that proclaims "Never judge a book by its movie." I can trace my conversion to this dogma back to my crushing disappointment as child at the TV version of the Little House books (don't get me started on the adopted brother, and the very special episode about his detox in the barn from a morphine addiction).  I do admit that PBS introduced me to Jane Austen, Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion, and Vera Brittain, but again and always, the books were better (but oh, David Rintoul as Darcy).  I did see some mention that the film version of Lark Rise virtually ignores (oh such irony) the first book of the trilogy (yes, the one actually called Lark Rise) - but I can see the possibility of lots of dramatic or comedic stories around Candleford Green.

All in all, a book to be treasured - and a wonderful week of reading.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ghost Stories

The Small Hand, Susan Hill
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, Penelope Lively

One of the books that had the biggest impact on me last year was Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing, which had been recommended through a Dunnett group. Every page felt like part of a conversation about books and reading that I never wanted to end - even though we disagree about Jane Austen and Terry Pratchett, but at least she properly appreciates Trollope.  And Hill introduced me to two other authors, the Rev. Francis Kilvert with his amazing diaries from the 1870s; and Patrick Leigh Fermor and his travel narratives, possibly the best writer I have ever read.  She also reintroduced me to Nancy Mitford - and from there I've discovered Deborah Devonshire and her collaborations with Charlotte Mosely, especially a book of the "Mitford girls'" letters over 50 years.

Last week an email from MBTB announced that they had Hill's new book, The Small Hand, subtitled "A Ghost Story."  The main character, Adam Snow, is an antiquarian book dealer.  One evening, lost in country backroads, he stops at an overgrown garden, where he feels a small hand slip into his. Adam uncovers more about the garden and its designer, and the hand leads him into the past (literally, I think, though I was a bit confused by that bit).  His work as a book dealer leads him to a Trappist monastery in France that holds a First Folio - and that section reflects Hill's great admiration for PLF's A Time to Keep Silence.  This is well-written, a fast read with some chilling moments and a couple of major twists, the ending of which left me with some questions (was the old woman in the house real?).

The second ghost story is a children's book, one that won the 1973 Carnegie Medal - and I can see why.  I have loved Penelope Lively's books since I came across City of the Mind, which is my favorite book about London. I had recently read her autobiography Oleander, Jacaranda (too long on the TBR pile), and was reminded that her early books were children's books.  The Ghost of Thomas Kempe was the first one I could get from the library.  Like Hill's it is a ghost story rooted in history - and very much a Lively book, from the characters and the dialogue to the awareness of the layers of history, of other lives lived before us, which always hits me so clearly in England. I thought this was a marvelous book - without the grues of Hill's book, but a rich story.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Mysterious immigrants

Raisins and Almonds, Kerry Greenwood
Murphy's Law, Rhys Bowen

This weekend I read two mysteries centering on immigrants.  In Raisins and Almonds, it's Jewish immigrants to Australia in 1928. In Murphy's Law, it's all the mix of immigrants coming into New York City in 1901, with a focus on the Irish.

The Murder by the Book folks have been recommending Kerry Greenwood's Phyrne Fisher series since Cocaine Blues came out in the US. I tried a couple but didn't click with the series. Then I found the Corinna Chapman series, though a Houston Public Library recommendation - and I was hooked in the first few pages. So eventually, having run out of Corinna books, I thought I'd try Phyrne again - starting with the most recently published, Dead Man's Chest.  From there, I went back to the start of the series, and now I'm reading them sort of in order.  Raisins and Almonds is about the murder of a young Jewish man, recently arrived in Australia, which stirs up the Jewish community with fear it may lead to persecutions. It's a mix of immigration concerns, Jewish history, Zionism, kabala, and alchemy - that last three of which I had a hard time following. I did enjoy the usual cast of characters, minus Lin Chung but with the addition of Molly the puppy.  And I envied Miss Sylvia Lee her idyllic life in her used bookstore. I think of Australia as a country of immigrants, like the US - and like the US, not everyone came voluntarily. And the struggle between generations of immigrants, from different parts of the world, may also look like our America history.  I have Bill Bryson's book on Australia; maybe I'll move it up the TBR pile. One small quibble with this series: Phyrne's father's title keeps changing.  In this book, he is a duke - which would make her Lady, not the Hon. Phyrne.

I also found Rhys Bowen through the library - in this case, the Harris County Public Libraries (which are wonderful).  I started with the Lady Georgie series, set in the 1930s.  A friend gave me some of the Evan Evans books (now sadly out of prints), which I liked.  But while I tried one of the Molly Murphy books, like Phyrne, we didn't immediately click.  The last time I was at a signing with Rhys Bowen, though, the MBTB staff were so enthusiastic that I bought the first Molly book - which sat on the TBR pile for five months.  I picked it up Saturday & read it straight through.  The main character, Molly,  flees Ireland after fighting off the landlord's son and leaving him on the kitchen floor. She ends up escorting two children to America, posing as their mother. When a fellow immigrant, also Irish, is murdered on Ellis Island, Molly becomes one of the suspects and becomes involved in the investigation - which is the last thing that a handsome Irish police captain wants.  The New York City setting is really well done, capturing the diversity of the population and the conflicts with and among immigrants.  My only quibble with Molly is that she is awfully familiar with terms like "fingerprints" and "alibi" that probably didn't come up a lot in a small village in Ireland in 1901 - though Molly has apparently read Sherlock Holmes.  I look forward to more of Molly's adventures.

America is a county of immigrants; everyone came here from somewhere else. One of my grandmothers came through Ellis Island in the 1920s. My dad's family moved back & forth to Canada in the early 1900s.  Immigrants built this country, and today they make up a huge if shadowy part of our economy.  I live in Houston, an immigration hub, 50 miles from Galveston, a 19th century immigration port to rival Ellis Island. We need a just immigration policy in this country, and we need to know our own history.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Piccadilly Jim

Piccadilly Jim, P.G. Wodehouse

For the longest time, all I knew of PG Wodehouse was Jeeves.  At some point I bought an omnibus edition of the Jeeves & Bertie stories - and that turned out to be too much of a good thing.  So I sort of mentally shelved PGW away, and though at some point I also picked up a used copy of Leave It To Psmith, I left it on the TBR pile.

Then one day on the Georgette Heyer listserv, someone quoted Psmith's favorite poem ("Of all sad words of tongue or pen...").  That intrigued me, and I remembered that I had a copy of a Psmith book sitting around.  I took it with me on a plane trip, and by the time the plane landed I was head over heels for Psmith.

When I got back to Houston after that trip, I immediately went looking for more Psmith.  It was depressing to find that the chain stores had only Jeeves, and the same few books at that (much like the Trollope sections, with only The Warden and Barchester Towers).  Still overstuffed with Bertie stories, I wasn't interested.  My last stop should have been my first: Murder by the Book, which had a small but varied selection, including the Psmith books.  And thus it was just a short step from Psmith to the rest of Blandings books, and then the discovery that there were Bertie novels (The Code of the Woosters being possibly my favorite).  And while I bought Uncle Fred in the Springtime because it was a Blandings book, I instantly lost my heart to Uncle Fred (though I keep a corner for Uncle Gally).  And then there were the stand-alones! Big Money, Summer Moonshine, A Damsel in Distress - and Mr Mulliner, and the Drones.

I think I discovered (or re-discovered) PGW just at the right time, with more & more books being reprinted, by Penguin, Vintage and Overlook.  And suddenly Arrow editions have been popping up in our local UBS chain, Half Price Books.  That's where I found Piccadilly Jim, originally published in 1918.

One of the surprises with PGW is how many of his books are set outside England.  Piccadilly Jim moves from New York to London and back again.  The settings are entertaining, there is a big and varied cast, the hero is funny and quick-witted and sympathetic - as is the heroine.  There are two imperious, overbearing aunts, and a butler of the Beach school.  But somehow it didn't quite gel for me.   It's not bad, it's just not one of his best, imo.  And these days my Wodehouse bar is pretty high.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bury Your Dead

Bury Your Dead, Louise Penny

I first heard about Louise Penny in 2009.  I was at Houston's marvelous Murder by the Book [which has been enabling my book habit for almost 20 years now] waiting for a book signing to start, when I overhead staff members repeatedly recommending Louise Penny's books. The recommendations were clearly genuine, coming from a real knowledge & appreciation of Penny's books.  I headed over to where they were displayed for an upcoming signing, and ended up buying the first one, Still Life.  It came home to the TBR pile, where of course it languished for far too long.

Fast forward to this past December, when I had a day off from work and picked it up.  I'm sure I must have set it down again at some point during the day, but I wouldn't swear to it. I was completely caught up with the characters, and with the life of Three Pines, and with the art at the heart of the mystery.  All too soon, it ended, and I was left with just the teaser chapter at the back of the book for A Fatal Grace.  After work the next day, I virtuously headed to the library to collect the rest of the series - but there were none on the shelves, and a waiting list.  I had no patience for a long reserve list, so I rushed off to MBTB, where everyone nodded knowingly as I picked up the four then in paperback.  One helpful staffer even found me a used copy of Bury Your Dead.

Though I rushed to get the books, I didn't rush through the series (for once).  They are such rich experiences that I wanted to savor them, not just gobble to find what happens next.  Thus it's two months later and I have just finished the last (so far) of the series.  In the meantime, I've given the first to three people for Christmas, and recommended them with the same fervor as the MBTB staff to others.

Bury Your Dead has several story lines woven together, one set in Quebec City and one in Three Pines - some set in the present and some in the past - one in the recent past and some much further back.  The book opens with aching loss, and I was anxious about who had been lost - in fact I peeked ahead to be sure it wasn't Jean-Guy Beauvoir.  Unfortunately, it did turn out to be a character from The Brutal Telling whom I had mentally labeled "the red shirt guy."  But Jean-Guy and Isabel and Reine-Marie and Clara and Ruth and Gabri and Henri are all safe - and Armand Gamache is healing. 

I love the quote from Kirkus Reviews, "If you don't give your heart to Gamache, you may have no heart to give."  I have given my heart.  He joins Peter Wimsey, and Francis Crawford, and Aral Vorkosigan, in my pantheon of perfect literary men - and the recap of the video from the raid reminded me very much of the Dendarii raid at the start of Lois McMaster Bujold's Mirror Dance - down to the headset video and the fall of the leader.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Witches & queens & elections

The Queen of Attolia, Megan Whalen Turner

I have had the latest Tiffany Aching book (I Shall Wear Midnight) on the TBR pile since last year.  It has been so long since I read one of the Tiffany books, though, that I thought I'd re-read Wintersmith, just to sort of set the stage.  I'd only read it once, when it came out in 2007 - so other than the dance with the Wintersmith, I remembered nothing.  It's such a perfect book, one of Pratchett's best - one of those that blend the humor with the more serious elements, and really make you think - and it has not only Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, but my favorite minor character/goddess Anoia.  It was such a good read that when I sat down with I Shall, it was a disconnect.  I wanted more of the Wintersmith/Lancre story.

So I set it aside for the moment, and picked up The Queen of Attolia. Turner has been highly, enthusiastically & repeatedly recommended on the Dorothy Dunnett lists to which I belong. I bough The Thief  last year and enjoyed it - and after getting the other three books from the library & not reading them, I of course bought them & added them to the TBR pile.  The Queen is very different from The Thief - in the 3rd person, with the story shifting away from Gen for much of the book. I found some of the politics confusing, and I think a map would be a great  help.  I'm interested to see where this marriage goes, since I'm not totally convinced it's a love match.  But I do love Gen (and Eddis) - who has some Lymondish qualities.  And that's one more off the recent TBR pile.

When I got tired of Attolian politics, I read Rebecca Traister's Big Girls Don't Cry, about "The [2008] Election That Changed Everything For American Women."  I found it inspirational, informative, and even infuriating in spots (not Traister herself, but the instances of blatant sexism that Hillary Clinton faced every day of that campaign).  And proving that all roads lead to Jane Austen, she pops up in the chapter on "Pop Culture Warriors."  This was a library book, but I may need a copy, just to remind myself.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Isabella Bird and America

The Englishwoman in America, Isabella Bird (1856)

I found this a couple of weeks ago at Half-Price Books.  I learned about Isabella Bird last year, from a wonderful book on food history (Pickled, Potter and Canned, by Sue Shepherd). I ordered two of her books on-line, and when they arrived, I added them to the TBR pile.  I did read one, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan - and I found it a bit of a slog.  So I moved the other (Six Months in the Sandwich Islands) further down the pile, next to A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, which I think I've had unread since at least 1990.

But when I saw The Englishwoman in America was about a trip in the 1850s, I wanted it more for my Civil War collection.  I had found an abridged edition of Anthony Trollope's North America, and I also thought they would be interesting book-end views of America & the Civil War from England.

I didn't realize until I started reading that Bird defined "America" as North America, and that the book is as much about Canada as the US.  In fact, she lands first in Canada, and the book includes a wonderful description of Prince Edward Island (I wondered if she might have met Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, or Mrs. Rachel Lynde).

The book is fascinating reading.  Bird addresses slavery head-on, challenging biblical justifications and the inherent contradiction in the American ideal that "all men are created equal."  She sees clearly that slavery will lead to a great struggle, even open conflict.  Bird can appreciate what America had achieved by 1854, but she sees Canada's future as brighter.  In part, this is because America is weighed down with Romish priests and Irish immigrants - in the last half of the book, there are almost constant references to the baleful influences of these two groups.  Bird actually sees the Know-Nothings as the great hope of America! because the KNs want to exclude immigrants and rein in foreign influences.

Though I found her anti-catholicism grating in the end, I enjoyed this book and Bird's view of the US - and I learned quite a bit about Canada!  So this one is a keeper (and one off the current TBR).

Friday, February 4, 2011

TBR true confessions and Anthony Trollope

In August of 2009, I finally faced the fact that my "to be read pile" was not a pile, it was a tor, an alp.  I have a bad habit of buying books that sound good, which I fully intend to read at some point - as soon as I finish what I'm reading right now.  And by the time I finish the current book, something else has caught my eye or my credit card.  So the TBR books pile up.

One day on an impulse I sat down and made a list of the books I had on hand, waiting to be read.  I was shocked to come up with a total of 283.  And that wasn't counting books I'd received as gifts, or books I had to buy for work.  I'd known there were a lot.  I just had no idea it was that many.  Or that I'd had some of them for so long. 

So I made a resolution to reduce that number. I started off with the best of intentions, and in the first month I cleared five off the list - four of which were keepers, the other I finished and promptly gave away (Houston's libraries have benefited from my impulsive book buying habit).

But, in that same month that I crossed five books off the list, I added eight other books.  Net result: a gain of three to the TBR total.  Eighteen months after I started this project, my TBR total stands at 313.  I've crossed 140 books off the list, but I've added 183.  Clearly, I have a problem.

I had a short-lived strategy of setting a TBR/new book ratio, originally at 7:1.  That is, I'd read seven books off the TBR list for every new book I added to it.  That lasted probably about a month.  In December, I discovered two new to me authors, Louise Penny and Julia Spencer-Fleming, both of whom have written marvelous multi-book mystery series (literary catnip to me, I love following characters through different books, watching their lives evolve).  Well, TBR confession: I had the first Louise Penny book, Still Life, on the TBR pile for over a year.  I finally read it, and headed out the next day for the next book - and brought home all five (but hey, I only have one of *those* left), followed by all six of JS-F's books.

With the new year, a new resolution/strategy: if I buy a book, I have to read it before I can buy another new/unread book.  As of today, I have 18 books to read before I can buy another new book (that's 18 purchased since Jan. 1st).  And since Julia Spencer-Fleming, CS Harris, and Miranda James have new books coming out soon, I need to read.

So this blog is going to be a combination of therapy for my book habits, accountability (just to myself) for my resolution, and my meandering thoughts on my meandering reading.  For me, one of the best things about the net has been connecting me with others who really read, who have introduced me to fantastic authors like Dorothy Dunnett, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Connie Willis - though it's also connected me with booksellers and made indulging my book habit oh so easy.

What did I spend today reading? Later Short Stories, by Anthony Trollope.  Trollope is one of my favorite authors, but because his books can be hard to find (except The Warden and Barchester Towers, which I see everywhere), I tend to buy any book of his I find in the used bookstores (yep, that's a rationalization, I know).  I've only read a few of his short stories, but I'm enjoying them very much.  Unlike many other authors, he seems to be able to condense the essence of his style into the story format - but in 20 pages, rather than his usual 500.   And as the editor pointed out, there are a couple of real LOL moments - including an analysis of towel draping in The Turkish Bath that seems far too risqué for a Victorian story.