Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Exploring the Great Circle Route

North to the Orient, Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I've just realized that my TBR tor has several definite strata: books about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, books about Jane Austen, books by P.G. Wodehouse and Anthony Trollope, and travel books.  I don't enjoy traveling all that much, except the arm-chair kind, but apparently I like collecting books about travel.

At the end of last week, I had several books waiting at the library, which I couldn't pick up til Saturday.  So I was looking for a short book to bridge that time, and I settled on North to the Orient.  I read Anne Morrow Lindbergh's first volume of diaries and letters, Bring Me a Unicorn, back in college, and in the years since I've collected the other volumes (two languishing on the TBR pile), as well as North to the Orient.  I went through a period of fascination with Charles Lindbergh, but I've come to see Anne Lindbergh as the more interesting of the two, and to enjoy her writing very much.

North to the Orient isn't a full-on travelogue, or even a complete account of their exploration of the Great Circle Route in 1931, looking at air routes between America and the Pacific.  After an overview of previous voyages dating back to 1508, and an account of the preparations for their 20th century voyage, the book becomes a series almost of vignettes.  AML narrates stops in Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Japan: encounters with locals (who may or may not be natives), descriptions of scenery, discussions of the practical details of flying.  The weather and her responsibility for the radio are constant preoccupations.  The last stop was in China, which was suffering disastrous flooding along the Yangtze River.  The Lindberghs volunteered for survey flights to determine the scope of the disaster. A trip to one city to deliver a doctor and medicine turned suddenly dangerous as frantic people, desperate for food, stormed the fragile plane.

AML writes in her introduction that at the time of their visits in 1931, the kind of travel, of contact, made possible by flight was on the point of changing the world.  She thought it important to record these points of contact, as these changes were just beginning, to leave a record not just of the changes but of what came before.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A hum-drum mystery

Scales of Justice, Ngaio Marsh

I went through a Ngaio Marsh phase a few years ago.  After seeing some of the TV adaptations, I tried the books and as usual liked them much better.  So I collected quite a few of the books, and read some of them, and then lost interest - and the unread books have languished on the TBR pile ever since.

I recently read P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction, which gives high marks to Marsh.  So I thought I'd try another one off the TBR pile and see how it compared.   I chose Scales of Justice because it seemed like a typical "cozy" mystery, set in a small village with a squire, a district nurse, a trout stream, and a pub called The Boy and Donkey.  By chance, I chose one that James mentions specifically in her book, since it includes a line ("In the circumstances I prefer to deal with a gent") that illustrates Marsh's class consciousness.

I found this book dull and hard to follow, and if it hadn't been so short I might have abandoned it unfinished.  Marsh sets up the local community in the chapters before the murder, defining the various cast members and drawing up the lines of conflict between them. She also details the layout of the village, which I found confusing. The main conflict centers around a manuscript of memoirs that the dying Sir Harold Lacklander entrusts for publication to Col. Cartarette, one chapter of which apparently reveals a devastating family secret.  A murder ensues, and the Dowager Lady Lacklander calls in Roderick Alleyn and his team; she is the one who prefers to deal with a gent. The investigation centers around trout, and a complicated time-table of suspects that I was unable to follow. I found the characters rather wooden, and I wonder if that's the contrast with Deborah Crombie, Louise Penny and Susan Hill's characters, all of whom seem much more real and human.  I realized at one point I was wondering where Tom Tring was - and then remembered he's from the Daisy Dalrymple books by Carola Dunn.

I don't see in this book the talents that P.D. James ascribes to Ngaio Marsh. I suppose I'll try the others at some point, if only to clear them off the TBR pile.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A history of mystery

Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James

I saw this on the counter at Murder by the Book a couple of weeks ago, and the back-cover copy sold me: "Examining mystery from top to bottom...Here is P.D. James discussing detective fiction as social history, explaining its stylistic components, revealing her own writing process, and commenting on the recent resurgence of detective fiction in modern culture."  I was also reminded of a discussion last month over at Stuck In A Book, about P.D. James and Jill Paton Walsh debating Christie v. Sayers (where I was one of the few championing Sayers and Lord Peter over Christie).

As the above quote suggests, James is looking at (mainly English) detective fiction in the context of literary history, including the mysteries in "mainstream" fiction like Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope; but also for what it tells us about social history.  She traces the development of the mystery novel from William Godwin's Caleb Williams and Edgar Allan Poe, to Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, stopping to acknowledge the influence of Jonathan Whicher and the Constance Kent case (Kate Summerscale's book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a must-read for anyone interested in the Victorian England or the history of detection).  Of course the most famous literary detective remains Sherlock Holmes, reimagined today through novels like Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series, and film and TV versions.

James devotes a chapter to the four best-known writers of "Golden Age" mysteries of the 1930s, all women: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh.  I would include Josephine Tey, whom James does discuss elsewhere in the book.  Of the four, James argues that only Marsh "could have left a more impressive legacy as a novelist."

I found this book to be entertaining and informative, and a good companion to her autobiography Time To Be In Earnest (which also includes a discussion of Dorothy L. Sayers).  It also reminded me that, as much detective fiction as I read, there are still so many authors to be discovered, including G.K. Chesterton (currently in the TBR pile) and Georges Simeon.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Another visit to Lafferton

The Vows of Silence, Susan Hill

Since I discovered Susan Hill's mystery series featuring Simon Serrailler back in March, I've been reading my way through the books- slowly, because it's only five books so far, and probably a long wait for the next one.

The Vows of Silence is the fourth in the series.  It is as enthralling as the others, with the police on the hunt for a gunman targeting primarily young women.  As in the other books, the POV shifts between characters, including the gunman, who naturally isn't named.  Because of his POV sections, we understand his motivation and actions much sooner than the police do. I was actually a little surprised that it took them so long to see the pattern of his victims.

For me, though, this story was overshadowed by the parallel story of Simon's sister Cat and her family. Cat has been my favorite character in the series, a loving daughter, wife, mother and sister, as well as a gifted doctor, and a woman of faith.  At the end of the last book, they were setting off for an extended stay in Australia, leaving Simon on his own soon after the death of their mother.  As this book opens, Cat and Simon are both rejoicing in their return home. Their joy is quickly interrupted by a medical crisis that threatens Cat's family, and by Simon's anger over their father's new relationship.

By the end of the book, Simon has lost another family member, one of the few close to him.  In each book, Hill has stripped away his connections, leaving him more isolated.  Aware of his isolation, and somewhat troubled by it, he decides to reach out to someone, a woman who initially rejected him. The book ends without telling us how she responded.  (I immediately picked up the next book to see What Happens Next, but there was no mention in the first couple of chapters that I paged through, so I virtuously put it down again).

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A cat in the stacks

Classified As Murder, Miranda James

Miranda James is actually Dean James, a former manager at Houston's outstanding Murder by the Book.  This is the second book in his "A Cat in the Stacks" series, following last year's Murder Past Due.

There are two main characters in the series.  The first, Charlie Harris, is a librarian who recently moved from Houston to Athena, Mississippi.  There he works part-time at the local library, and part time in the archives and rare book collection of Athena College.  The second main character is Diesel, a Maine Coon cat.  Like most Maine Coons, Diesel has an outsized personality, exceptional intelligence, and overflowing charm. Diesel goes everywhere with Charlie, including the libraries (except to church on Sundays), and he seems to be Charlie's main emotional connection.

The story centers around an elderly eccentric, James Delacorte, who has amassed an amazing collection of rare books, which he hires Charlie to inventory for him, in part because he believes someone may be stealing from it.  The prime suspects are his extended family of Southern gothics, which includes a hoop-skirted belle with a tenuous hold on reality but also includes a perfectly Jeevish butler.  Charlie has his own family issues to deal with when his son Sean arrives unexpectedly, with a poodle in tow.  At first morose and withdrawn, Sean gives his dad a personal mystery to unravel, one whose denouement and conclusion are very satisfying.  I hope Sean will stick around.

The mystery, which revolves around a body in the library, kept me turning the pages.  But I was also fascinated by the (fictitious) collection, which includes a first edition of Pride and Prejudice.  By the terms of Delacorte's will, the collection goes to Athena College, where Charlie will get to pore over every volume.  If he wasn't firmly established as a good guy from the first book, he have a heckuva motive for murder!

Monday, May 23, 2011

A last testament

Testament of Experience, Vera Brittain

I can just remember watching some part of Testament of Youth on PBS, probably in the early 1980s.  Though I didn't watch the whole series, I always remembered Vera Brittain, and in the back of my mind was the idea that someday I would read Testament of Youth.  Then, last year, I found her book England's Hour, about the Battle of Britain, at Half-Price Books.  That prompted me to check Youth out from the library, because of course I had to read her books in order; but I didn't get much past the first chapter.  That didn't stop me from buying my own copy of Youth a few days later, again at HPB. 

On starting Youth a second time, I was immediately swept up into the story.  And when I learned there were two other testaments, of Friendship and Experience, I went on-line to find copies before I'd even finished the first. I read both Testament of Friendship and England's Hour and then put the last book aside for the moment to read other things.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I finally read E.M. Delafield's I Visit the Soviets, and that reminded me that I still had Testament of Experience on the TBR pile.  Experience picks up just where Youth ended, with Vera Brittain's marriage to "G" (political scientist George Caitlin). Marriage is one of the main themes of Experience, as she struggles to balance her work, the demands of her aging parents, her husband's career first in America, and later their two children.  Their unconventional solution was to spend part of each year apart. Vera remained in England, sharing a home with her closest friend and fellow writer Winifred Holtby (the subject of Testament of Friendship), which made all three the focus of gossip ("Too, too Chelsea," Winifred would say).  I found it incredibly poignant that "G" believed for so many years that Vera's love was buried with her first fiancĂ© Roland Leighton, killed in France in 1915; and that Vera, who had mourned Roland but moved on in life, was unaware of this chasm in their marriage.

A second major theme is Vera Brittain's writing career. A poet and a journalist, she became famous with the publication of Testament of Youth in 1933.  But her conversion to pacifism, and her increasing prominence in the cause, meant a loss of reputation even before World War II began. Thus pacifism is a third major theme of her book, and I found those parts sometimes difficult reading.  I kept wanting to argue with her that Hitler had to be stopped, that pacifism could not be an option in the face of Nazi evil.  But I have to concede her point that statesmanship failed in the 1920s and 1930s, that the League of Nations on which she pinned such hopes was betrayed by politicians who might have prevented what came later.

I have a suspicion that Vera Brittain would have found me frivolous and light-minded.  I find her inspiring, energizing, and very good company.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

North To Freedom

I Am David, Anne Holm

I read this book for one of the RL book groups I belong to.  I'm a bad book group member, because I can't read on a schedule and I can't make myself read a book I don't like.  It's even worse when I'm reading something that I really don't want to put down.  In this case, I'm enthralled with Vera Brittain's Testament of Experience.  But I'd actually bought a used copy, so I thought I should at least make the effort.

I reluctantly sat down with it last night, planning to read the first chapter (and all but planning not to like it and just skim the rest).  But by the end of the first chapter, I was intrigued enough to keep reading, and I ended up reading straight through, curious to find out what happened to David, the title character.  That could be a golden rule for books: it has to make me care enough about what happens next to keep reading.

This book, first published in 1963, in Danish, won some major awards.  It has been made into an English-language movie and my copy of the book is a movie tie-in.  It is the story of David, a twelve-year old boy who has lived his whole life in a concentration camp (we never learn where exactly the camp is located, even in what country, but the book is set in the 1950s).  As the book opens, the camp commandant offers him a chance to escape, telling him to make his way to Italy and then to Denmark, where he will be safe.  David believes the offer to be a trap, but he finds himself taking the first step to freedom, and where that leads him makes up the rest of the book.  Eventually we learn more about David, as he learns more about the world outside the camp, and the mystery of his past is revealed.

I had to keep reminding myself that this is a book for children, because the language and some of the plot elements strained my willing suspension of disbelief, but a child or teenager would probably not even notice.  The first part of the book, with David on his own, relying on his intelligence and his hard-won survival skills, reminded me of Jean George's My Side of the Mountain, which I read over & over again when I was younger - a less fraught story about survival.

Now back to Vera Brittain.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Provincial Lady in Russia

I Visit the Soviets, E.M. Delafield

As I understand it, the official title of this book is I Visit the Soviets.  My copy, a Cassandra Editions paperback, has that title in small letters above The Provincial Lady in Russia in much larger letters.  Given the popularity of the Provincial Lady, this seems an obvious marketing idea, but it gave me a rather misleading idea about the book.

This one has been on the TBR pile for a long time.  I discovered the Provincial Lady through an article in the New Yorker back in 2005, and I managed to track down all the "Provincial Lady" books, including this one.  I read the others straight through - as fast as I could turn the pages, laughing all the way.  Even though I ended with the more somber The Provincial Lady in Wartime, I wasn't prepared for the seriousness of I Visit the Soviets.  I set it aside, meaning to come back to it after I'd recovered from the high of the first books.

So there it sat on the TBR shelves until last year, when I read Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth and Testament of Friendship.  I knew E.M. Delafield only in the context of the Provincial Lady; I didn't know about her work on Time and Tide as part of the circle around the 2nd Lady Rhondda, nor about the many other books she wrote.  Learning more about her inspired me finally to read this last book, and I'm glad I did.

In the opening chapter of I Visit the Soviets, Delafield described her (American) publisher's suggestion that she visit Russia and then write a funny book about it.  From the first page, she expressed her doubts that she could be funny about Russia.  She was persuaded to make the trip, and the book that results is funny. The humor, though, comes from Delafield herself, the irritations of travel, and her fellow travelers (including the godawful American Mrs Pansy Baker).  As she predicted, she found little funny about Russia itself, or its citizens.

The book starts with an account of an extended stay on a communal farm named the Seattle Commune.  The story then loops back to her ocean voyage to Russia and her visits to St. Petersburg, Moscow, Rostov, and Odessa.  All foreign visitors were of course under close supervision, assigned to guides who ensured they saw only what the government wanted them to see.  Unlike some of her fellow tourists, Delafield was not a Communist sympathizer or an admirer of Lenin and Stalin.  While admitting the major problems that Russia faced under imperial control, she could regret the violent overthrow of that society, and the deadening, depersonalizing, dehumanizing effects of the Soviet state.  The economic and social improvements, such as they were, carried a heavy price.

I think it's time for a re-read of the other Provincial Ladies.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Cousin Henry's will

Cousin Henry, Anthony Trollope

This shorter novel (shorter for Trollope anyway at only 280 pages) centers on a will.  It is a psychological study of the title character, Henry Jones, the nephew and male heir of his uncle Indefer, who has no children of his own. There is another heir, however, his cousin Isabel Broderick, who has lived with their uncle since her mother's death and her father's remarriage.  Uncle Indefer is torn between love and duty.  Out of love for Isabel, he wishes to make her the heir of his estate, Llanfeare in South Wales, but he believes it his duty to leave it to his nephew, the male heir.  This conflict has led him in the past to make different wills, some according to love and others according to duty.  After his death, the last will discovered names Henry the heir.  But the day before Uncle Indefer died, he summoned two tenants to witness yet another will.  Isabel believes that will made her the heir.  Almost immediately, Henry falls under general suspicion of having destroyed that last will.  He has not done so, but he knows where his uncle put it and where it remains concealed.  As the weeks pass, he is paralyzed with fear and guilt, at times planning to destroy it, at times wishing for its discovery.  A local newspaper picks up the story and torments Henry with accusations of theft and fraud.  Most of the story focuses on Henry's paralysis, his lack of will, his inablility either to destroy or reveal the document, even to end his own torment.

Isabel, meanwhile, has returned to her father's house, where her vulgar stepmother complains constantly that she is a drain on her father's resources, already stretched by his second family.  I was reminded of Mary Masters in The American Senator, also afflicted with a wicked stepmother.  I also thought of Trollope's own niece, Beatrice ("Bice"), who found life with her own stepmother difficult and who spent a good deal of time with her uncle and aunt.

Though this story is concerned, like others of Trollope's, with inheritance, it is unusual in its focus on Henry, and its psychological insights are astute.  But it is very much a typical Trollope novel in the richness of its characters, including the lawyer Nicholas Apjohn, who solves the puzzle of the missing will and brings the story to a triumphant conclusion.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The real Tevye

Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories, Sholem Aleichem

Last year I read a book called Outwitting History, by Aaron Lansky, about rescuing Yiddish books and building a library, a special collection to ensure the preservation of Yiddish literature.  That's where I first learned about Sholem Aleichem and his stories about Tevye, which of course became the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof.  (Due in large part to lack of talent, I was always relegated to the chorus of my high school musicals, but I had my one and only line ever in Fiddler, so I always remember it.)

I've been wanting to read the stories, but I've had a hard time tracking them down.  I kept checking Half-Price Books, and suddenly the other night there was a copy on the shelves. (It was a good book night, I also found a Trollope biography I had been wanting, and one of the women soldiers' diaries quoted in They Fought Like Demons, which I posted about a few days ago.)  After several books on the Civil War, I was ready for something completely different.

The Tevye stories were indeed familiar from the musical, though of course changed in the adaptation - and as usual, the book is better!  The stories are monologues, tales told to the fictional Reb Sholem Aleichem (the nom de plume of Sholem Rabinovich).  I didn't discover until I was almost at the end of the stories that there was a glossary of Yiddish & Hebrew phrases in the back of the book, which probably would have made the points of the jokes funnier.  Some of the stories are straight-out hilarious, like the first, "Tevye Strikes It Rich," but others are serious, even somber. I was completely unprepared for the story of one daughter, Shprintze, and also of the later stories, after his wife Golde's death.  Though the film of course shows the anti-semitism of the Russian society, and the constant threat of violence against Jews, these stories show also the daily pressure and stress of living under laws that restricted and harassed Jews as much as the laws of Nazi Germany would forty years later.

I had never heard of the stories that make up the second part of the book, the "railroad" stories.  I found them even more fascinating than the Tevye stories.  They are all set on trains, in third class compartments filled with Jews.  The narrator sometimes interacts with his fellow travelers, sometimes simply records their narratives (monologues like Tevye's).  Like the Tevye stories, they move from high comedy to tragedy, and even in their lighter moments the shadow of anti-semitism hangs over them.

I loved this book.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Turbulent Fifties - the 1850s, that is

The Diary of George Templeton Strong, The Turbulent Fifties, 1850-1859  (Vol. 2).   Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds.

This, as you will have deduced, is the second volume in the series of George Templeton Strong's diaries, published in 1952. I posted about the first volume back on April 27th, and I was very excited to get the next volume.  I was much less excited by the time I finished it.

I expected "The Turbulent Fifties" to focus on the rising political tensions in the United States over slavery, as the old Whig party fell apart, as the new Republican party formed to oppose the extension of slavery into the new territories being formed.  Strong did record these events, including his own conversion to the Republican Party.  Though there is not one single mention of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, we do get the furious debate over Kansas, the attack on Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate, John C. Fremont's selection as the first Republican presidential candidate, and John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.  We also get detailed entries on the Panic of 1857, which make uncomfortable reading in these uncertain economic times.

On the increasingly dominant issue on the decade, Strong parsed slavery more than once: he didn't believe slave-owning a sin; like Anthony Trollope he believed the slaves might not be capable of life as freed peoples; he believed the Constitution and the laws protected slavery where it existed.  But on the other hand he believed that slavery was evil in its effects on both master and slave, especially in the separation of slave families, and that it should be prohibited from expansion into the territories.

However, much of the volume is focused on different kinds of conflict: in the Episcopal Church, particularly the Diocese of New York; and in Columbia College.  Strong served on the vestry of Trinity Church in New York, and the vestry meetings were very well-documented.  Strong was also a Trustee of Columbia, a position he valued greatly, and he documented countless board and committee meetings, as well as fights over curriculum and faculty appointments. Nevins and Halsey, both on the faculty at Columbia University at the time they were editing the diary, were clearly very interested in the history of the proto-university.

The diary also includes many entries on music.  Strong, who had an organ built for his home, was passionate about music, and he attended every opera, concert and musical performance he could.  He had strong opinions, consistently praising Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms but dismissing other composers such as Verdi.  It was a bit startling to realize that Strong could only have heard music performed live, and unplugged (unamplified).  No wonder he attended some performances three nights in a row, hearing the same music each time.

The endpapers of this volume include a facsimile copy of one page of the diary.  It is clear from that how much was excised in the editing.  I can just decipher one charming entry about his wedding anniversary and the "Sevres china tea set" he got at Tiffany's that afternoon. He was waiting for a chance to sneak it onto Ellen's dressing table to surprise her.  That didn't make it into the published diary - who knows what else was sacrificed, so that we could know more about the fight over a chemistry professor at Columbia?  At least the birth of two sons and his parents' deaths - all in that decade - made the cut.