Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Dirt on Clean, Katherine Ashenburg

Bill Bryson cited this book in At Home, in the chapter on bathrooms.  The author's name seemed familiar, and then I remembered she is the author of The Mourner's Dance, subtitled "What We Do When People Die."  It's a book written from personal experience: less than a month after becoming engaged, her daughter's fiancé was killed in a car accident.  In her own grief and loss, watching her daughter navigate the funeral and find mourning rituals made Ashenburg wonder about grief rituals in times past, and how modern society grieves.  I found it very moving, not in the least morbid, and full of interesting information.  It was my introduction to Japanese burial practices, so I was prepared when I visited the National Museum of Funeral History here in Houston ( - a must-see for visitors).

This book is much lighter (Bryson calls it "sparkling," no pun intended I'm sure).  Subtitled "An Unsanitized History," it looks at ideals and practices of cleanliness in Western Europe and America, moving chronologically.  She starts naturally with the Greeks and Romans.  I was familiar with the Roman baths, from two visits to Bath in England and Rome itself, as well as museums and historical novels.

I was less familiar with the rest of the story, though this book helped me put together pieces of information that I knew but wouldn't have connected. With the decline of Rome and of the baths, from many points of view, including that of cleanliness, things got pretty bleak.  Early Christians equating dirt with holiness; people's fear of open pores admitting diseases and germs; the mind-boggling idea that wearing clean linen cleaned the skin; the association of bath houses with prostitution - all contributing to filth and disease and bugs.  Though I've always loved the idea of time travel, I've now decided I'm not going unless I can get my nose cauterized like Kivrin in Connie Willis' Doomsday Book.
This is an entertaining, informative read - not quite as overwhelming as Bryson's book - and with sidebars that are not to be missed.  In the last chapters it also asks some provocative questions, about how our ideas of cleanliness (especially in America) are driven by advertising and consumerism; and how environmental changes, including water shortages, will affect us.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Abraham Lincoln's mail bag

Dear Mr. Lincoln, Harold Holzer, editor

I found this book back in January at Half-Price Books.  In any bookstore, I always check the Civil War and Lincoln sections, and this one caught my eye.  Its subtitle is "Letters to the President," and as an archivist I find collections of letters irresistible - it's what I do all day anyway, read other's people's letters and documents, so it's sort of a busman's honeymoon.  Lincoln is also a hero of mine, the greatest president the United States has had in its history, in no small part because he was president during the defining event in our history.

I had previously read Holzer's Lincoln at Cooper Union, which is a fascinating analysis of a key but little understood speech that was crucial to Lincoln's successful bid for nomination and then election to the presidency.  I also have Holzer's Lincoln President-Elect in the TBR pile.

Dear Mr. Lincoln is an earlier book.  It's an exploration of the mail Lincoln received over the course of his administration, with a focus on letters from ordinary people.  Much of the official correspondence of the administration has of course been studied, as have the military communications. But Holzer discovered that (in 1993 at least) no one had looked at the thousands of letters coming into the White House, at an unprecedented time of crisis that impelled people to reach out to their president.  Additionally, much as Lincoln's White House was crammed with visitors of all kinds, arriving without appointments and admitted with no screening or security, people who couldn't travel to Washington or gain actual access to Lincoln wrote letters.

As an introduction to the letters, Holzer looks at the men who handled Lincoln's mail, his secretaries.  I was familiar with John Nicolay, John Hay, and William Stoddard, though not with the literary career Stoddard later built on his association with Lincoln.  I didn't know about his other secretaries, nor how mail was handled on its arrival in their office, nor how Robert Lincoln prevented access to his father's papers for so many years. To maintain absolute control over them, he kept them packed in trunks that traveled with him between his summer and winter homes (an archivist's nightmare).  As with Cassandra Austen, we will never know how much was discarded by Robert Lincoln.  In fairness to him, though, Holzer points out that much of the weeding of Lincoln's correspondence was done as it arrived, by his secretaries.  Stoddard sat six days a week at a table with a paper-cutter and two wastebaskets, and much of the incoming letters went straight to the trash.

In selecting letters for his book, Holzer chose broad categories, such as "Advice and Instruction," "Gifts and Honors," and the chilling "Threats and Warnings."  He also chose to focus on letters from ordinary individuals for the most part, though he included some famous ones such as Horace Greeley's hectoring "The Prayer of Twenty Millions," and Edward Everett's complimentary letter on the Gettysburg Address.  Holzer also includes some of Lincoln's responses, ranging from humorous to wry to impatient.  One of my favorites is his best-known riposte to Gen. George McClellan: "Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?"

The most poignant letter to my mind is from the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, dated March 16, 1865,  He asks Lincoln to declare Good Friday, April 14th that year, a national day of fasting and prayer.  No record of a response from Lincoln has been found, but he didn't issue that declaration.  If he had, he wouldn't have been at Ford's Theatre that night.  Maybe John Wilkes Booth would have found another occasion to attack Lincoln.  But it has to be one of the greatest "what ifs" in American history: what would our country look like now, where would our racial relations stand, if Abraham Lincoln had guided America through Reconstruction, rather than the disaster that was Andrew Johnson.  If only.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Rediscovering books

A Civil Contract, Georgette Heyer

I originally read A Civil Contract with the Georgette Heyer listserv back in 1998.  It was my first time reading it, and it was through the list that I had found it and so many other Heyer books.  I've been reading Heyer's books for almost 30 years now, but before I got my first computer and internet connection back in 1996, my sister was the only other Heyer fan I knew.  Back then, her books could be hard to find, especially in a small Washington State town with only two bookstores.  In trying out my new computer, one of the first terms I put into an internet search engine was "Georgette Heyer."  That led me to the Heyer listserv (now on YahooGroups) and also opened up resources for finding Heyer's books.

Back in 1998, I didn't like A Civil Contract.  I remember finding it depressing, and I deliberately chose to give it away, thinking "I'll never want to read that one again."  And when it came up again for discussion on the list over the years, I didn't even follow the postings.  But this time was different.  We're coming to the end of a multi-year read of all Heyer's books, in the order of publication (which has brought some surprises, seeing where books fall in that order.  I knew ACC was a later book, but not that it was from 1962).  This read-through has changed my opinion of some books for the better, including The Foundling and Sprig Muslin.

The enthusiastic discussion this time made me think I needed to give ACC another try. After all, I've given Regency Buck at least three tries (and detested it each time, so that one has gone).  I had to order a new copy of ACC,because with all the new Sourcebook editions in bookstores, I couldn't find this one locally.  I'm glad I did.  This is one of Heyer's more unusual books, and as a portrait of a marriage it could be called "Austenesque," though the humor and the characters are much broader than in Austen's novels (maybe in the Juvenalia).  I remembered Mr Chawleigh, but I had forgotten the Dowager Countess, who is not as vulgar as Jenny's papa but in fact behaves just as badly.  If I had any sympathy for Julia at first reading, I certainly had none now, but Lydia is a delight, in contrast to other young sisters-in-law (Lettie in April Lady) who just add complications.  Yet despite the humor, it's a serious book - more along the lines of her suppressed moderns in some ways.  Yet it's set firmly in the Regency: as the book opens Adam has returned reluctantly from the Peninsula Campaign and the Battle of Waterloo plays a central role.  This is also, like The Foundling, one of Heyer's reverse books, with the male character impoverished and seeking his fortune through marriage.

Thirteen years later, I appreciate this book much more, and this copy will stay on my shelves.

The Heyer list on Yahoo Groups:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Not as much advent as expected

A Rare Benedictine, Ellis Peters

I found this a couple of weeks ago on the library book sale shelves.  Its subtitle is "The Advent of Brother Cadfael," and in the introduction Ellis Peters talks about how Cadfael "sprang to life suddenly and unexpectedly, when he was already approaching sixty, mature, experienced, fully armed and seventeen years tonsured."  That's in A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first in the series (and probably my favorite, though it doesn't have my favorite characters Hugh and Abbot Ranulfus).  Peters says later that "when I had the opportunity to cast a glance behind by way of a short story, to shed light on his vocation, I was glad to use it."

I should have read that sentence more carefully: "a short story."  This book consists of three stories, and I was expecting them all to be about Cadfael's early days.  The first, "A Light on the Road to Woodstock," is set in 1120, with Cadfael returning to England after service with a Norman lord. He's at the end of his service and looking for what comes next.  In the course of the story, we learn that Cadfael spent time in Shrewsbury as a young man, including a year of education at the Abbey of Sts. Peter & Paul, and the story ends with his decision to return there.  As Peters writes in the introduction, this isn't a conversion, because Cadfael was always a man of faith, it's just a recognition of a new call.

The other two stories, though, are set in later years, like the novels. One has Heribert as prior, the other Ranulfus.  I was expecting more about Cadfael's early years, his adjustment to abbey life, how he became the abbey's master herbalist and de facto healer.  I'd bet his first encounters with Robert and Jerome would have made a good story!  The two stories are typical Cadfael and interesting enough, if a bit thin as mystery shorts often are - but not what I was expecting, which was more of a 12th century In This House of Brede. Ah well, at least the book was only fifty cents!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Back to Lafferton

The Pure in Heart, Susan Hill

This is the second in Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler series. As I posted before, I was immediately drawn into the first, The Various Haunts of Men, immersed in the characters and the world of Lafferton.  As I'd also posted, though, I found it odd that the book was labeled "A Simon Serrailler Mystery" when the book seemed to be about so many people other than Simon.

The Pure in Heart, on the other hand, is a Simon book.  It opens in Venice, where he is on one of his regular drawing tours.  The story shifts quickly back to Lafferton, and to Simon's family and colleagues, as a child-snatching case unfolds.  Cat and Chris, Richard and Meriel, Nathan and Emma, Karin, are all there - and one character's absence weighs heavily.  Among the new characters is Andy Gunton, just coming out of prison and trying to find his place again.  I wanted him to find it and to be safe, I hope we see more of him.  Though the story shifts between their POVs, and introduces even more characters, this book seems rooted in Simon.

Though the title may refer to the kidnapped child, David, it also refers to Simon and Cat's sister Martha, profoundly disabled from birth.  At the end of this book, we know a family secret involving Martha -  a secret only two other people know - and not knowing when or even if this secret will be revealed should add an interesting level of tension to the next book.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The last Tiffany adventure?

I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett

If this is the last book in Tiffany Aching series - well, I just hope it's not.  But if it is, Terry Pratchett has taken it to a wonderful end.  Of all his "series" that I've read (the Guards books, the DEATH books, the witches books), this is the strongest and best.  Each book builds on the last, and each sets the bar higher.  If I had to choose just one TP book, it would probably being Going Postal - but it might be one of the Tiffany books.

In this book, Tiffany is finally back on the Chalk, as the witch of her own village, her own people.  She is 16, on her own, with people's lives in her hands, including the Baron's, who is dying.  Suddenly there are hints of witch fever, talk of curses and evil spells, from people who have known Tiffany all her life but who now see her as different, and maybe dangerous.  The Cunning Man is abroad.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Tiffany story without the Nac Mac Feegle there to protect their Hag o'the Hills, and in the end their kelda and their hill.  Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg make their appearance late in the story, but they leave Tiffany to find her own solutions (they're just there as insurance), though she does get help from the legendary woman wizard Eskarina Smith. Tiffany even gets to travel to Ankh-Morpok, where she meets not just Mrs. Proust of Boffo fame, but also Carrot, Vimes, and Angua [apparently I missed her promotion to Captain]. I'm sure the Patrician was fully briefed on the affair of the King's Head; sadly he was absent from the story, though Death has a walk-on role. Which did make me wonder, what would Tiffany and Susan Sto Helit make of each other?

It was interesting to see connections with Lark Rise to Candleford, of all things, as in the "rough music" and the fair that opens the book.  It's explained partly by the author note at the end, where TP talks about growing up in a Lark Rise-ish cottage.

I hear there is a new Vimes book coming this year. I'm so thankful that Terry Pratchett is well enough to continue writing, and writing so well.

Monday, March 14, 2011

My favorite cat sitter

Raining Cat Sitters and Dogs, Blaize Clement

Sitting down with the fifth in Blaize Clement's mystery series was like catching up with old friends, and I was captivated from the first pages.  I have enjoyed every book in this series so much.  The main character, Dixie Hemingway ("no relation to you-know-who"), is an ex-police officer, recovering from devastating loss who has rebuilt her life around a new career as a pet-sitter.  Like all my favorite series, this has a lively cast of continuing characters, including Dixie's Greek-god brother Michael and his equally stunning partner Paco, and a wide range of the pets Dixie cares for.  Those pets play major roles in the stories, and they are true characters as much as the humans, described in loving detail but never with sentimentality.

This book has a corker of a plot, involving a hilarious African Grey parrot, a kidnapping, drugs and gangs, and a teenager named Jaz in need of serious help.  The denouement caught me completely off guard, a real "oh wait, how did I miss that" moment.

I found the newest, Cat Sitter Among the Pigeons, just out in hb at the library - so I've got more Dixie (and Guidry! I peeked!) ahead.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Russ-and-Clare show

I Shall Not Want, Julia Spencer-Fleming

Like so many other good books, Julia Spencer-Fleming's came recommended by a Dorothy Dunnett listserv - in this case, the Dunnett/Bujold list.  When I finally went to put them on hold at the library, I wasn't surprised to find a waiting list.  But when I saw a note in Louise Penny's first book thanking JSF for her encouragement, I decided just to head to Murder by the Book.

Over the next couple of weeks, I read five of the six in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series.  And I got caught up in the mysteries, but also in their story, in the development of their relationship - to the point that when I finished the emotional whipsaw of All Mortal Flesh, I thought I might be a bit too caught up in these fictional lives.  I decided to wait a bit before reading I Shall Not Want - though I couldn't resist flipping through the book to see how things were between Russ and Clare (and Hugh).  Now, with the impending release of One Was a Soldier, I wanted to catch up to be ready for the new book.

It's an outstanding book, maybe my favorite in the series.  The over-arching story, about drugs and undocumented workers, is intricate and chilling.  The usual cast of characters is there, and there's a great new character in Hadley Knox, Russ's most recent hire.  She adds a jolt of energy to the story, with her outsider's perspective, as well as her family complications and her on-the-job learning curve.  The Russ/Clare story, as it develops over the months, is compelling and real and deeply affecting.  And more than I remember from the other books, this one has some truly LOL moments - the Russ-&Clare-show in the ER, Clare's vestry meeting, the Aztec sing-along.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Where The Small Hand led me

The Various Haunts of Men, Susan Hill

I had a post last month about Susan Hill's ghost story The Small Hand, which ended up being more about Howards End is on the Landing and where that book led me.  And now The Small Hand has led me to more of Hill's books.  When I was in Murder by the Book looking for it, I found one of her Simon Serrailler series.  I hadn't realized that she wrote mysteries. I flipped through the book and thought it looked like something I'd want to read, but because I was buying other books I virtuously put it back on the shelf.  That virtue didn't last long (book restraint rarely does), because I kept thinking that I should have gotten it.  And the next time I was in, I did.  The one I found on the shelf was actually the second in the series (The Pure in Heart), but due to my OCD book habits I have to read series in order. So I started with The Various Haunts of Men.  And within the first few pages, I knew I was right.  There's nothing like the feeling of discovering a new author, a new character - especially when it's a series and you can get to know the characters over time, watching them develop.

Like the St. Cyr series I posted about yesterday, these have a compelling main character, but also a wonderful supporting cast, especially his sister Cat and mother Meriel.  It's interesting that though this first book is labeled "A Simon Serrailler Mystery," Simon is absent for much of the book, and we only see him through other characters.  Though he is constantly discussed and described by other characters, there is nothing from his POV until very late in the book - so I don't feel I knew him as well as I do some of the other characters.

I love the setting of Lafferton, particularly the cathedral close.  Just the words "cathedral close" bring Trollope to mind, and knowing that Hill is a Trollope aficionado make me wonder if she chose that setting deliberately.  I saw on her website that she says to think of Lafferton in terms of Salisbury or Exeter - I added Barchester to the list.  Trollope quotes a review in his autobiography to the effect that his novels are like a part of England mined out and put under a glass dome, so the readers can watch the people of the book going about their daily lives.  I think Hill has something of the same gift.

I mentioned Hill on the Marzipan/Dorothy Dunnett list, because I thought there was something a bit Lymondish about Simon.  A couple of people responded that they really like this five-book series.  Reading that, I thought, wait, I only have four!  but I have to have the whole series!  Since I'm giving up bookstores for Lent, it was providential that this happened on Tuesday, Mardi Gras, so that I could squeeze a last ABE order in under the wire.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Where Shadows Dance

Where Shadows Dance, C.S. Harris

It's been a long wait for the latest in C.S. Harris' series of Regency mysteries with Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin - especially with the cliff-hanger she left us with in What Remains of Heaven.

I have been reading Georgette Heyer for more than 30 years.  She set the standard for me with Regencies, and it's a pretty high standard.  I'm also pretty picky about mysteries.  I want real people, not cardboard characters moving around a plot, no matter how intricate or marvellous the plot.  I used to read a lot of Agatha Christie, but once I discovered Dorothy L. Sayers, I found Christie's books boring or worse (the same thing happened with Dickens and Trollope).

The St. Cyr books work for me both as mysteries and as Regencies.  He's an interesting character, like Francis Crawford of Lymond with secrets and family issues and hidden fault lines.  And as in all my favorite stories, there is a large cast of equally interesting and human characters, from his father the Earl of Hendon to his implacable enemy Charles, Lord Jarvis.  It includes an aunt, the Dowager Duchess of Claiborne, who could have walked out of a Heyer novel, as could his devoted tiger Tom.

And then there's Hero. Gelis van Borselen mixed with Harriet Vane and Drusilla Morville and Cordelia Naismith.  Oh, I do hope she is going to be happy.

This book, set in 1812, had a healthy dose of international politics and a high body count.  I found the twists and turns of the plot a little difficult to follow, even though the body count reduced the number of suspects each time.  But that's a minor quibble about a great read.

C.S. Harris will be signing next week at MBTB, and I can't wait to hear her talk.  There's another book due in 2012, I hear.  It's a long time to wait.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Quick Service

Quick Service, P.G. Wodehouse

I don't know that I could pick a single favorite Wodehouse character, but Psmith would have to be one of the top four or five.  After all, it was Psmith that really put me under PGW's spell, as I mentioned before.  So when I saw a reference to Joss Weatherby, the hero of Quick Service, as "Psmith with the volume turned up three or four notches" (by a favorite book blogger, Will Duquette, I thought I needed to meet Joss.

Quick Service has quite a cast of characters, familiar Wodehouse types, including two imperious American women who aren't technically aunts but should be; Joss's fussbudget boss, J.B. Duff the ham king; and Lord Holbeton, who sings Trees in a reedy tenor and seems too wet for the Drones Club.  There is also an ex-boxer, married to one of the ladies, which worried me a bit at first, because PGW seems to find boxing fascinating.  Books like The Adventures of Sally can get a bit bogged down in boxing detail and language.  Perhaps because Howard Steptoe is retired from the ring, PGW restrained himself here.  But just to shake up the cast, the butler is a young man, engaged to a local barmaid, and the hero takes a post as a valet.

Joss is a painter scraping a living doing ad posters who ends up taking the job as valet, to be near Sally Fairmile (the ladies' poor relation and fiancée of the wet Lord Holbeton).  He's no Jeeves, though he does manage Steptoe pretty firmly, but he is a great character who can piffle with the best. He is quick-witted, resourceful and chivalrous, and he can charm anyone from the cook up to the lady of the house.  But pace Mr. Duquette, he's no Psmith!

Still, this one is great fun and a keeper.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

At home, room by room

I spent a good part of last week reading Bill Bryson's At Home, subtitled "A Short History of Private Life."  I guess it qualifies as a short history if it ranges over 10,000 years in only 452 pages. 

I thought this would be a good segue from Lark Rise to Candleford, with its domestic details of Victorian life, despite its very different setting.  I've never read any of Bryson's other books, though I know people who are major fans (a friend has given me his book on Australia, which sits on the TBR pile).  At Home got great reviews when it came out late last year, and it ended up on the NYT best-seller lists.  I found the idea behind it really intriguing: building a history of domestic life through exploring each room in a house, looking at its history and function. As the base, Bryson takes his own home, a Victorian rectory in Norfolk, England.

The cover list another one of Bryson's titles is A Short History of Nearly Everything, and at times I felt like I had picked up that book instead.  The amount of information in this book, the level of detail, can be a bit overwhelming (as reviewers had noted).  As an archivist, I know how impossible it can be not to share the exciting research discoveries.  It's so fascinating that I can't keep it to myself - surely everyone else will be just as fascinated.  Sometimes they are, and sometimes their eyes glaze over.  Some of the lists, of which Bryson is so fond, had a slight glazing effect.  To take one example, from p.260: "All across the country rich landowners packed their grounds with grottoes, temples, prospect towers, artificial ruins, obelisks, castellated follies, menageries, orangeries, pantheons, amphitheaters, exedra (curved walls with niches for busts of heroic figures), the odd nymphaeum, and whatever other architectural caprices came to mind."  There are other caprices left unmentioned?!

I had to make a conscious effort to relax, not to worry about remembering all the details, all the names.  I did make some notes, particularly of my favorite details or anecdotes, like the Newfoundland display at the 1851 Great Exhibition, on "the history and manufacture of cod liver oil," which was so boring that it "became an oasis of tranquility, much appreciated by those who sought relief from the pressing throngs."  Or that "In the 1780s, just to show that creative ridiculousness really knew no bounds, it became briefly fashionable to wear fake eyebrows made of mouse skin."

This book is more than just a collection of fascinating details or anecdotes, and I think it's one to re-read, perhaps in smaller doses.