Monday, August 29, 2011

A trip through America in 1960

Travels with Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck

When I read Jenny and Teresa's post about Travels with Charley over at Shelf Love, suddenly I had the strongest feeling of wanting to read this book again.  I had read it in high school, nearly 30 years ago now, and without remembering too much about it, I have always remembered that I liked it.  Never mind my TBR pile, I went Saturday to Barnes & Noble and found a copy.  (On a side note, it was a pleasant surprise to find a book I was looking for on the shelves, and even to see more than one copy.  That doesn't happen very often, though the staff are always willing to place orders on-line. There's just something very satisfying about walking out with the book you want, rather than waiting a week for Amazon to deliver.)

When I read this as a teen-ager, I was living in Washington State.  My family had also lived in Oregon, Michigan, and Georgia, with a lot of traveling back and forth, so I had some idea of where Steinbeck's travels take him.  But it was from a child's perspective, in the back seat, and probably with my nose stuck in a book.  As an adult, I've moved across the country from Washington to Massachusetts, then to Michigan, and most recently to Texas.  I've traveled the same roads that he did, even if sometimes I was moving in the opposite direction.  I had this constant feeling of recognition, even though 30-40 years separated our trips.

Naturally I had a particular interest in Steinbeck's chapter on Texas.  I didn't know much about the state before I moved down here.  I had a "Lonesome Dove" image in my mind, so I was very surprised by the Gulf Coast, and by Houston's crossroads-of-the-world diversity, not to mention its urban sprawl.  I would agree with Steinbeck's statements that "Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession" and "Texas has its own private history based on, but not limited by, facts."  Though occasionally I think the famous line about antebellum South Carolina being too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum might fit Texas as well.

After all these years, I had forgotten the humor of this book, or maybe I just didn't appreciate it at the time.  And I know I didn't appreciate Steinbeck's choice of reading materials: Joseph Addison's The Spectator, which Jane Austen would have read in her father's library.  Like Austen, Steinbeck wandered freely through his parents' books, and I would guess that like Austen his self-directed reading shaped his own writing and his unique voice.

Since I had no idea at the time I first read the book that poodles came in any size but small and smaller, I didn't fully appreciate the wonderful character of Charley, around whom much of the humor revolves.  The introduction to my Penguin Classics edition quotes Steinbeck's wife Elaine:
"I remember when he asked me to take Charley Dog. He said rather meekly, 'This is a big favor I'm going to ask, Elaine. Can I take Charley?' 'What a good idea,' I said, 'if you get into any kind of trouble, Charley can go for help.' John looked at me sternly and said, 'Elaine, Charley isn't Lassie.'"
My favorite Charley episode is the tour of Yellowstone Park that comes to such an abrupt end due to his sudden homicidal reaction to the famous bears (technically, it would be suicidal, though Charley would go down fighting).  His continuing medical problems also bring some anxiety and tension to the story.  I wonder if the hapless veterinarian in Spokane ever read the book. 

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the book's publication, and also of Steinbeck's Nobel Prize for Literature.  I wonder if we have anyone today who could take this kind of trip and write this kind of book.  Bill Bryson, maybe, or Tony Horwitz.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A third volume of royal letters

Your Dear Letter, Private Correspondence of Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess of Prussia 1865-1871, Roger Fulford, ed.

This is the third volume of letters between Queen Victoria and her daughter Victoria that I have read (the first covers the years 1858-1861 and the second 1861-1864).  The writing style and tone of both women have become familiar, and reading this book felt like meeting old friends again and picking up the stories of their lives.  This sense of intimacy is of course due to the frankness of these private letters between mother and daughter, which bridges the gap between their royal lives in the late 1800s and my American life in 2011.  I was again sometimes taken aback at the frankness.  Queen Victoria writes of the birth of one grandchild:
"The baby - a mere little red lump was all I saw; and I fear the seventh grand-daughter and fourteenth grand-child becomes a very uninteresting thing - for it seems to me to go on like the rabbits in Windsor Park!"  (July 10, 1868)
This book covers more years than the previous two, and those years are busy ones, including two Prussian wars, with Austria and France.  Because the scope of the book is wider, and the correspondence still voluminous, the letters are more heavily edited.  I doubt any letter is printed in its entirety; in many cases, only a paragraph, sometimes only a single line is included.  There are more letters, and more extensive excerpts, on some topics such as the two wars, the sudden death of the Crown Princess's baby son Sigismund, a domestic scandal in the Crown Princess's household, and the engagement of Princess Louise to the Marquis of Lorne.  The Crown Princess and the Prussian Royal Family take offense at Louise's engagement to a British subject, rather than the match with a Prussian prince that they had been promoting.

I was particularly interested in the discussion of Louise's marriage and the other references to her, having recently read Jehanne Wake's biography of her.  And after reading Amanda Foreman's book on Britain and the American Civil War, I noted the few references to that war, including the appearances of Lord Lyons, minister in Washington during the war, who was later rewarded for his service with the plum appointment as Ambassador to France).  On April 28, 1865, Queen Victoria refers to the letter of condolence she has sent Mary Lincoln, "whose husband was murdered by her side!"

As in the previous books of letters, the letters frequently talk about books read and recommended.  The Queen often mentions Margaret Oliphant's books, which she enjoys for their Scottish settings.  She sends several to the Crown Princess, and in one letter she mentions meeting the author.  In 1868 Queen Victoria becomes a published author herself, when Leaves From the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands is published.  She is clearly very proud of her book, sending copies to the different members of the Prussian Court, collecting reviews, noting sales figures, and above all reporting the praise she hears from all sides.  The Crown Princess occasionally acknowledges receipt of the book or offers some brief comment on it, and the Queen is hurt by her lack of response.  The editor Roger Fulford suggests in his introduction that Victoria's children were embarrassed by the personal nature of the book, with incidents from their childhoods, and that the Crown Princess chose to ignore what she could not praise with honesty.

The most significant events in these years are of course the Prussian wars.  As this volume ends, Prussia has become an Empire, and the Crown Princess's father-in-law the Emperor.  His new empire has annexed the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine from France, an action whose consequences would reach far into the 20th century. With the hindsight of history, it is uncomfortable to read the younger Victoria's letters celebrating Prussia's military might yet insisting on her peaceful intentions toward the rest of Europe. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Cecil family and Hatfield House

The Cecils of Hatfield House, David Cecil

When I found this on the book sale shelves at the library last week, I pounced on it.  I was lucky enough to visit Hatfield on my last trip to England, and it was one of the highlights of the visit (second only to Chawton).  I knew Lord David Cecil from his biography of Jane Austen, but I didn't know exactly who he was, or the history of the Cecil family, though I had bought and read the guidebook, much of which is taken from this book.  A quick glance through the book also reminded me of Deborah Devonshire's The House, which I posted about back in April.  That was before I realized the family connection: David Cecil's sister Mary Alice married Edward Cavendish, who succeeded as the 10th Duke of Devonshire in 1938.  She was "Moucher," Deborah Devonshire's mother-in-law, and David Cecil was her uncle by marriage.

Like her book on Chatsworth, The Cecils of Hatfield House centers on one of England's great historic houses and the family that has lived there over the centuries, but there are important differences.  Deborah Devonshire married into the family she is writing about, and she came to the house as an adult.  David Cecil is writing about his home and his family, with a lifetime of memories and the stories he heard from parents and aunts and uncles.  To him, Hatfield House has a life of its own:
"Like the plays of Shakespeare, this massive architectural monument of Shakespeare's age somehow still manages to speak to us with a living voice. Who should recognize this voice better than I? I spent my childhood there and, because I was the youngest of my family by seven years, my relation to the house was close and private . . . Thus, in company or in solitude, gradually I was penetrated by the spirit of the place; thus I grew intimate with its changing moods and the varied aspects of its complex personality."
After a brief tour through the house, David Cecil begins his story with Queen Elizabeth I, because after all she lived at Hatfield before the Cecil family came there.  He has a great admiration for her, and it was under the Tudors that the Cecil family rose to power and prominence.  He has the same admiration, almost reverence, for William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and his son Robert Cecil, First Earl of Salisbury, who faithfully served Elizabeth and England throughout her reign.  He points out several times that he is not a historian and this is not a scholarly work.  It has been a long time since I studied the Tudors, but I'm sure there are differing views on the Cecils, just as contemporaries envied their influence and power.

The Cecils of the Jacobean and early Georgian periods were undistinguished, and David Cecil covers the years between Robert Cecil's death in 1612 and the succession of the seventh earl (and first Marquess) in 1780 in a single chapter titled "Decline."  With the seventh earl begins the family's recovery, in his view.  This rise reaches its zenith in his grandfather Robert, the third Marquess of Salisbury, a great statesman, Queen Victoria's favorite minister, who served as Prime Minister for almost seventeen years.  The subtitle of the book, "An English Ruling Family," applies to him as much as to William and Robert Cecil in Elizabeth's reign. He was also a loving husband and father, a devout Christian, who with his wife raised seven intelligent and active children, for whom Hatfield was a loving home above all else.  David Cecil never knew his grandfather, who died the year after he was born.  But from his parents and his aunts and uncles, he absorbed stories and ideas and principles, the Cecil family legacy.

David Cecil admits that, unlike other great houses, Hatfield isn't a treasure-house of art or architecture.  Its greatest riches are in its archives, particularly the papers of the Tudor period.  I remember standing in front of the glass cases, stunned with the wonder of seeing a letter from Queen Elizabeth, a draft of the order for Mary Queen of Scots' execution, and Robert Cecil's memorandum of the death of Elizabeth and the succession of James I.  David Cecil perfectly captures that awe, the allure of archives:
"There is something strange and ghostly in looking at these papers and still more in handling them. As nothing else does, they seem to put us in direct, almost physical touch with their long-dead authors. Portraits show them to us at second hand and through the eyes of the painter . . . But these sallow pages have been touched by their actual hands; they are creased where their fingers have folded them; those same fingers have traced the writing, now faded to a faint brown, by which they uttered their thoughts and feelings at the very instant these passed through their minds; so that as we read we become for a moment their contemporaries, and find ourselves assisting at the drama of their lives while it is still in the process of happening."
He makes the life of the Cecil family, in both large and small events, equally real to the reader.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Murder in the folly

Sheer Folly, Carola Dunn

As I've mentioned before, I've fallen behind on the Daisy Dalrymple mysteries, as well as the Lady Julia Grey mysteries, and I'm trying to catch up.  I read Black Ship back in June, and I have the newest, Anthem For Doomed Youth, from the library.

Sheer Folly takes place in that ideal Golden Age setting for murder, a country-house weekend.  Daisy and her friend Lucy Bincombe travel to Appsworth Hall in Wiltshire, which has a famous grotto that Lucy will photograph and Daisy describe for an upcoming book.  Brin Pritchard, the Hall's owner, made his fortune in plumbing supplies and is now wealthy enough to maintain a country home.  His widowed sister-in-law also lives at Appsworth Hall with her son, who works in his uncle's business.  Other guests for the weekend include Lucy and Daisy's old schoolmate Julia Beaufort and her mother, Lady Beaufort; an appallingly rude and insensitive Earl, Lord Rydal, generally known as "Rhino"; and Sir Desmond and Lady Ottoline Wandersley.  Sir Desmond, a civil servant, has business with Pritchard, Lady Ottoline with Rhino.

Daisy's husband Alec Fletcher is a Detective Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard, and over the course of the series she has become involved in many of his cases.  That's even how they met, in the midst of a murder investigation.  Unlike Lady Julia, though, Daisy doesn't set out deliberately to involve herself in Alec's work.  Generally she just finds herself in the middle, when she doesn't stumble across the body herself.  Once she is in the case, though, she sticks like glue, and Alec ends up allowing her to play an unofficial role.  Daisy doesn't quite play fair in that role, though, because she often decides herself what is important, and she will withhold evidence from him, particularly when it seems to implicate someone she has decided is innocent. Fortunately for Daisy, and for justice, she has never been wrong, at least so far, while the police of course initially focus on the wrong person.

In this case, it is Alec who plays an unofficial role, since he and Lucy's husband Lord Gerald Bincombe are staying at Appsworth Hall as guests.  The local police have no reason to call in Scotland Yard, but the officer in charge, DI Boyle, accepts his offer of help, though Boyle isn't pleased when he realizes that means including Daisy as well.  This is also one of the rare books without Alec's Yard team of Tom Tring and Ernie Piper.

I found the mystery plot a bit confusing, and the idea that the case could be proved by a flashlight (torch) with incriminating fingerprints unconvincing.  The fun of the book for me was the heterogeneous cast of characters and the setting, which reminded me a bit of Gosford Park.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Murder in the tea garden

Dark Road to Darjeeling, Deanna Raybourn

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Deanna Raybourn speak at Murder by the Book.  She was on tour for her new book, The Dark Enquiry, the fifth in the Lady Julia Grey series.  I stood in line to get my copy signed and told her how much I enjoy her books.  I didn't mention that I hadn't actually read the previous one, Dark Road to Darjeeling.  I had started it, intrigued by the setting, a tea plantation.  Ever since I read Helen Gustafson's The Agony of the Leaves I've been on the lookout for books about tea.  As it happens, another of my favorite authors, Deborah Crombie, also wrote a mystery with a tea setting, Kissed A Sad Goodbye.  Once I'd started Dark Road to Darjeeling, though, I got distracted, set it aside, and never went back to it.  Hearing Deanna Raybourn's talk gave me a push to pick it up again.

If I was reading it primarily to learn about tea plantations, which I wasn't, then I'd have been disappointed, which I definitely wasn't.  The real heart of the Julia Grey novels is the relationship between Julia and her now-husband, Nicholas Brisbane.  They were married at the end of the last book, Silent on the Moor, and this book opens toward the end of their extended honeymoon abroad.  Their relationship is complicated, to say the least, and marriage hasn't resolved all the issues.  Julia is not content to play the conventional wifely role of her late 19th-century world, she expects their marriage to be a partnership, and she wants to work with Brisbane as a partner.  He does not want her exposed to the dangers of his work as a private enquiry agent.  I am reminded of similar debates between Laurie R. King's Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes; Elizabeth Peters' Amelia and Emerson; and Dorothy L. Sayers' Harriet and Peter.  Brisbane is by far the most resistant to an equal partnership.

The mystery they are called to investigate on the tea plantation involves the possible murder of its owner, Freddy Cavendish, a distant family connection and the husband of Jane, the former partner of Julia's sister Portia (one of my favorite characters).  Portia and another sibling, their brother Plum, accompany Julia and Brisbane.  I adore Julia's family, I think they add greatly to the humor and whimsy of the series, and while I know readers swoon over Brisbane, I dote on her father, the Earl March.

Though the plantation is set in a small valley, Julia and Brisbane find quite a collection of suspects, and the plot twists and turns through their investigation.  The solution took me by surprise, but then I hardly ever guess the murderer, since I'm more interested in the characters than in the clues.  I found one of the characters morally repellent and liable to arrest for child abuse, and generally the parts of the story involving children were disturbing.  But as with all of Deanna Raybourn's books, she brings a complicated story to a neat and satisfying conclusion.  I'm glad I have The Dark Enquiry still ahead, especially since from what she says it will be the last Julia Grey story for quite some time.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A family and a house

Family Album, Penelope Lively

I bought a copy of Family Album back in January of last year, and I read the first couple of chapters before I got distracted by something else and set it aside.  I don't know why it took me so long to pick it up again, when I've read and enjoyed so many of her other books this year (Perfect Happiness, Oleander, Jacaranda, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, The Road to Lichfield, and Cleopatra's Sister).

Family Album is, as the name suggests, the story of a family, the Harpers, Charles and Alison, their six children, and Ingrid, originally an au pair and now engrafted into the family.  It is also the story of their home, Allersmead, a large and rather shabby Edwardian house.  As the story opens, Gina, the second child and eldest daughter, is returning for a weekend visit with her partner Philip.  This is Philip's introduction to both the family and the home, and he is curious about both.  Though Alison, who chatters like Miss Bates, is happy to tell him all about their years in the home and their large happy family, Gina is more evasive.  The narrator takes us on a tour through the house, sketching out relationships and hinting at complexities, before the story returns to Gina and Philip.

This pattern is repeated through the book, as we are introduced to the family members in sections that alternate between the omniscient narrator and the different characters' points of view.  The story moves back and forth in time, as people remember and reminisce, and their discussion reshapes our understanding of what happened and of the characters themselves.  In both the present of the story and in the remembering, we return always to Allersmead and to Charles, Alison and Ingrid.  Two family secrets are revealed, with varying effects on the people involved.  Gradually we come to see each person, in his or her own right, which may differ greatly from the self-perception of each; but also how they fit together into the family.

I enjoyed this book, though I think it lacks the emotional weight of Lively's best books.  With the constant shifts in perspective, there is no central character to follow, though we spend the most time with Gina.  Some of the POV sections are shorter than others, which is understandable when there are nine characters to follow, ten if you count the house itself.  The title is apt; this book does seem like an album, with snapshots of the family members at different times in their lives, pictures that tell a story of their lives, of the family's life, but can never completely capture its complexity.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Caught in a new kind of war

What Happened to the Corbetts, Nevil Shute

My branch library has some shelves and carts in the lobby with books for sale, the proceeds of which benefit the library.  I can never resist stopping to browse, and it's always interesting to see what people have donated.  (I've given them quite a few myself.)  One week there were several shelves of film and TV screenplays, another week a complete set of the Hornblower series.  Last week, there was a whole row of Nevil Shute novels.  Other than A Town Like Alice or On the Beach, I rarely come across his books  in the used book stores, and here were four that I had never read.  I love that kind of lagniappe.

The Corbetts of the title are Peter, his wife Joan, and their three children. The family lives in Southampton, where Peter works as a solicitor.  As the story opens, they have taken shelter in their garage after a night of what one of the children describes as "loud bangs."  These were actually bombs, at least 1,000 of them, dropped in a night raid, part of a coordinated surprise attack across England.  Later that day, Peter learns that England is now at war, though we the readers are never told with whom or exactly how the war started.  The massive bombing raids continue, destroying the infrastructure of the city, leaving residents without water or power, halting the delivery of food and other necessities, making homes uninhabitable.  This part reminded me very much of life in Houston after Hurricane Ike.  Though the damage was less extensive than what Shute describes, we were left without power and in some areas water for weeks.  Even the simplest tasks of daily life were unbelievably complicated, and we learned very quickly how spoiled we had become.

What Happened to the Corbetts follows Peter and Joan through the first days of the new war, as they cope with the daily difficulties of life, faced with life and death decisions about their family's future, as the bombs continue to fall.

Nevil Shute wrote this book in 1938, and it was published in April of 1939.  As he explains in a Preface to later editions, part of his aim in writing the book was to make people aware of the dangers England would face from bombing, if the war that he saw looming became a reality.  A pilot and aeronautical engineer, he understood the role that aerial warfare would play.  He was therefore writing his expectations about what kind of war it would be.  He wrote a similar kind of speculative book with In the Wet, published in 1953, where much of the story takes place in the 1980s.  But with What Happened to the Corbetts, the real war would come only a matter of months later.  It took a different form than Shute predicted, but he believed that his book had still done something toward preparing the people of England.  His publishers must have thought so as well; they had donated a thousand copies to air raid workers.

Besides all that, though, What Happened to the Corbetts is just a good story, full of action and suspense.  I've enjoyed most of the Shute novels that I have read, especially the World War II novels such as A Town Like Alice and Pied Piper (though not Requiem for a Wren).  Now I still have the three other new ones to look forward to.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Writing the Little House books

Laura Ingalls Wilder, A Writer's Life, Pamela Smith Hill

After I finished A World on Fire, I had trouble settling down to read something else.  The novels I tried seemed almost inconsequential.  Reading this biography turned out to be a good transition.

I found Laura Ingalls Wilder in the library catalogue while I was waiting in the long queue for Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life.  There was no line for it, so I put in a request, thinking it would tide me over the wait.  But the single copy in the county library system, at a distant branch, took so long to get to me that The Wilder Life arrived at almost the same time, and I read it first.  As I mentioned in my post about The Wilder Life, I saw several references in it to Hill's book, which made me eager to read it as well.

The main thesis of Hill's book is set out in the subtitle: "A Writer's Life."  In the division between those who believe Laura Ingalls Wilder was the author of the Little House books (with editorial assistance from her daughter Rose Wilder Lane) and those who believe Lane the ghostwriter for her less-talented mother, Hill is planting her flag in the Wilder camp.  I had taken that side myself ever since reading some of Lane's fiction, which seemed pretty flat and derivative, and I found Hill's argument convincing.

The first line of the book is a quotation from Laura Ingalls Wilder: "All I have told is true but it is not the whole truth."  Hill presents Wilder as an artist who took the raw materials of her life and deliberately, carefully reworked them in ways that "altered the truth to create a better story."  In the first part of the book, as Hill narrates Wilder's early years, she uses Wilder's unpublished autobiographical manuscript, "Pioneer Girl," as well as the Little House novels covering these years, to show where these alterations were made, and in some cases to suggest why. 

I have to admit that one of these alterations came as a real shock to me (and this might constitute a spoiler): Pa traded Jack away, with Pet and Patty, the ponies from Little House on the Prairie.  Jack! the faithful bulldog, companion and guard for so many years, whose death at the start of By the Shores of Silver Lake is one of the most moving scenes in the entire series!  Traded for farm horses - and never mind that Wilder says he wanted to stay with the ponies.  My Little House world rocked on its foundations, for a moment.

Hill notes that in childhood and young adulthood, Wilder was a voracious reader who began composing poetry soon after the family settled in DeSmet. This is naturally part of the case that she is building about Wilder as writer.  As the events of Wilder's life move beyond the Little House books, Hill's narrative turns more on her writing, first for newspapers and magazines, and then in fiction.  It is here that the question of Rose Wilder Lane's role in her mother's work arises.  Lane was an established writer long before her mother, she encouraged Wilder to write, and she edited her writing.  Hill presents evidence to suggest that in editing Lane imposed her own ideas and style on her mother's work, but that Wilder gained the experience and confidence to insist on her vision for the books and to make her own voice heard.  In Hill's view, Lane was a talented editor, but she did not know how to encourage and nurture her mother's unique gifts as a writer.  Their working relationship was of course complicated by their personal relationship, which seems to have been a volatile one.  I found myself wondering what Almanzo Wilder thought of all this, and of his appearance in Laura's books.  Unlike his wife and daughter, he was apparently a man of few words.

This was an interesting and informative read, and a good companion to The Wilder Life.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Britain and the American Civil War

A World on Fire, Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War, Amanda Foreman

I have spent the last week immersed in A World on Fire. It was that cliché, a book I couldn't put down, snatching every chance I could to read a few more pages, and resenting the necessary interruption of work.  It is one of the best books I have read on the Civil War, and I've read a lot of books on the Civil War.  It works as both an historical overview, of Anglo-American relations and how they affected and were affected by the war; and as the story of individuals, primarily British, some of whom observed and others who fought in the war.

The Civil War was one of my areas of focus as a history major, both in college and grad school.  My fascination with the period continues, especially with regard to Abraham Lincoln and his presidency.  Neither in school nor in my own reading since did I learn much about the role of international diplomacy in the war.  A World on Fire is not the first book to explore this topic, in fact it's the latest in a long line, but it does take a new and fascinating approach.  I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to this complex, crucial aspect of the war.

Foreman's original intent was to write a book on British volunteers in the Civil War, to look at how public opinion on the war shaped their decision to fight for North or South.  In course of her research, she became fascinated with the way "progressive" elements in England adopted the Southern cause, given Britain's strong anti-slavery feelings.  She also discovered that the world of Anglo-American relations was far more complex than she had realized.  In a Preface, Foreman describes her book as "a biography of a relationship, or more accurately, of the many relationships that together formed the British-American experience during the Civil War."  Her narrative has several threads, which she weaves together with consummate skill.  There is a general history of the war, including crucial battles.  There is the story of the diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Britain, already complicated even before the Confederacy began demanding diplomatic recognition.  There are also the individual stories, including British citizens resident in the United States as well as those drawn to the conflict.  Foreman compares her approach to the theatrical production of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, a "theater in the round" with constant shifts of scenery and characters.  I was a stagehand in a local production, so I understand her metaphor, though I thought more of an Anthony Trollope novel, The Last Chronicle of Barset or He Knew He Was Right.

I learned something about England attitudes about America in the 1850s from reading the travel accounts of Isabella Bird and Anthony Trollope.  But I did not understand the anti-British feeling in the United States, nor the tension generated by America's attempts to annexe Canada.  One of the heroic figures in the book is Lord Lyons, the British minister in Washington, who worked himself into illness and exhaustion trying to maintain diplomatic relations in the midst of war, while also protecting British citizens caught in the conflict, in an atmosphere of almost constant hostility to Britain.  I had never considered the role of European consulates, scattered across the country; here in Texas, the British consul in Galveston apparently remained in residence throughout the war.  Foreman highlights both their witness and their struggles to assist English citizens.  In both North and South, foreign residents were subject to "crimping," forced enlistment in the army or navy, despite frequent investigations and formal complaints from local consuls and the legation in Washington.  Foreman includes both their stories and the stories of those who volunteered, the original point of her research, to illumine the larger story.

I knew that the Confederates counted on diplomatic recognition of their new nation, and they desperately needed supplies from Europe.  Britain would not associate herself with slavery, yet I did not know that many in England managed to convince themselves that slavery would be abolished in an independent South, perhaps even faster than under the Union.  Confederate agents in England were careful not to dispel this illusion, instead presenting the war as one for independence.  Like Bird and Trollope, many in England assumed that America was simply too big for one nation, that its eventual split into smaller entities was inevitable, particularly given the differences between north and south.  The Liberal government under Lord Palmerston, with Lord John Russell as foreign secretary, adopted a policy of neutrality that included both recognition of the Federal blockade of the southern states and granting the Confederacy belligerent status.  This last allowed the Confederacy to raise foreign loans and buy supplies from neutral counties.  Confederate agents used British shipyards to build blockade runners and gunboats, which became a point of increasing conflict with the Federal government.

While I knew that Confederate agents were active in Canada, I had no idea of the range of their activities, nor of the cooperation between Canadian and Federal authorities to rein them in.  England came to view their activities on Canadian soil as a violation of British neutrality, and a threat to Anglo-American relations.  I don't remember learning much about Canadian-American history in school either, come to think of it.

This is a massive book, over 1000 pages including notes.  There are 13 pages of "Dramatis Personae" alone.  Foreman's control of the long and complex story, its dozens of characters, is masterful.  Individuals move in and out of narrative, as the focus shifts, and with just a few words Foreman places each back in context.  There were only a few times where I lost track of someone and had to check the "cast list" or index.  Foreman is also good on battles, which in the Civil War were sometimes complex and as confusing to the participants as they are to us today.  The book is lavishly illustrated with photos, maps, and contemporary drawings by Frank Viztelly, a pro-Southern correspondent for the Illustrated London News.

I feel that I can hardly do justice to this amazing, compelling, compulsively readable book.  I can only hope that it will be as widely read and appreciated as it deserves.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Long live the king!

The King of Attolia, Megan Whalen Turner

This is the third book in Megan Whalen Turner's excellent "Thief" series.  I posted about the second, The Queen of Attolia, back in February (only my third post and wow, just one paragraph on the book - I was still stretching my blogging wings at that point).  Fair warning, there will be spoilers here for anyone who hasn't read the earlier books.

The series is set in a land that bears some resemblance to ancient Greece, though Turner has added elements of Byzantium as well.  The stories move between three kingdoms, Sounis, Attolia, and Eddis. The rulers face not only threats from each other, but also from the powerhouse Medes, who constantly threaten invasion.  I thought that the first two books were really good, primarily because the central character, Eugenides, is such a fascinating, twisty one, and I could see why they came so highly recommended, especially from members of the Dorothy Dunnett listservs I belong to.  But this is the book where I really fell for him.

At the end of The Queen of Attolia, Eugenides the former Thief of Eddis has won the heart and hand of the Queen of the title, a rather unlikely match given that, well, he is The Thief and Eddisian (though a member of the royal house), and she had his right hand cut off, for thieving among other things.  I had my doubts about this couple.  In this book, we get glimpses of their marriage, hints of their relationship, which we initially have to put together and puzzle out.

By this point in the stories, we know who Eugenides is and just what he is capable of. The Attolians have no idea; they disdain their new king as the "goatfoot" whom they believe forced their Queen into marriage.  Part of the great fun of this book is watching them completely and utterly underestimate Eugenides.  He plays to their ignorance, giving them plenty of rope.  In this he reminds me very much of Dorothy Dunnett's Nicholas, hilariously playing the knave while putting his elaborate, byzantine schemes into play.  We watch, waiting for him to strike, and to triumph.

This isn't just for Eugenides' entertainment, and it isn't just a game.  There is a very serious issue at stake.  Due to internal divisions, Attolia needs a king to unite the barons and lesser lords.  Eugenides doesn't want to rule, but he must, or the country could fall to civil war or invasion.  Here, the struggle is with himself, to accept his destiny.  In this (and in his sometimes lashing tongue), he reminds me also of Dunnett's Francis Crawford.  At the same time, he must force the court, and especially the Queen's Guard, to accept him, and respect him, if he is to rule.

There is one further book in this series (so far), but I'm going to save it for a while.  This one was so completely satisfying, and I don't want to rush on to the next one, especially since it's the last one!  (so far.)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"Delightfully gay little sketches"

Excuse It, Please!  Cornelia Otis Skinner

And now for something completely different.  After struggling through War Within and Without, which I posted about yesterday, I feel very much in need, not of mindless reading, but of something that isn't quite such a depressing slog.  Excuse It, Please! certainly qualifies.

Back in July, I read Family Circle, a family biography that Cornelia Otis Skinner published in 1948.  I enjoyed it so much that I started looking to see what else she had written, as I tend to do when I discover a new author (or in this case, re-discover).  I found a biography of Sarah Bernhardt and a book about Paris in the Belle Epoque.  I also learned that she wrote short articles for magazines like The New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and The Ladies' Home Journal.  These articles were collected into books that apparently sold very well.  The first, Excuse It, Please!, was published in 1936 and went through eleven printings by 1937. 

I thought the essays would be a good place to start, and I can see why they sold so well.  The jacket copy praises the "delightfully gay little sketches."  They are indeed brief and funny, and they cover a variety of topics.  If you can't relate to "The Paintable Type," about having one's portrait painted, there's "Med to Mum," about the joys of wandering through the miscellany of the encyclopedia (lost to us now in the days of Wikipedia).  One of the funniest, "Wednesday Matinee," about "the actor's Day of Atonement," when attendance is heavily weighted to the "members of a nation-wide secret sorority of American coughers - The Daughters of St. Larynx," obviously came from her own career on the stage.  But she's not just laughing at people; many of the jokes are at her own expense, as in "Ground-Minded," about her fear of flying.

Small slices of American life in the 1930s, maybe, and definitely a pleasant diversion.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A difficult journal of World War II

War Within and Without, Anne Morrow Lindbergh

This is the fifth and final volume of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's published diaries and letters, covering the years 1939-1944.  This has been on my TBR pile for years, along with the fourth volume, The Flower and the Nettle, which I read and posted about back in June.  This volume opens as the Lindberghs return to the United States following several years' residence in England and France.

I really struggled with this book and almost gave up on it more than once.  All her books have been challenging reads for me.  Each covers dark times in her life, especially Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead, with the death of her father and the kidnapping and murder of her first child.  But this was a different type of challenge.

The first part of the book is consumed, as her life was at the time, with her involvement in the isolationist movement, aimed at keeping America out of the war in Europe.  Charles Lindbergh of course became one of the most prominent spokesmen for the isolationists, through his involvement in America First.  Anne insists in her letters and diary entries that she is not just following in his wake, that her beliefs are her own and differ at times from his.  One of my problems was that I couldn't figure out exactly what her beliefs were, what lay behind her isolationism.  In 1940, she published a book, Wave to the Future, an attempt to to explain her position, which led many people to label her a fascist or Nazi sympathizer.  Perhaps in preparing her diaries and letters for publication, she felt it unnecessary to explain herself again, but I found the lack of context very frustrating (and I have no interest in reading Wave of the Future).  In the Introduction, she says that she was converted to pacifism in college, after reading Erich Maria Remarque.  From the earlier diaries, pacifism didn't seem to play much of a part in her life in those years, compared to someone like Vera Brittain (whose Testament of Experience I read back in May). 

This first part of the book is difficult to read, with the Lindberghs divided by their opinions from most of their friends and even family.  Anne attempts to tone down some of Charles' more extreme statements, particularly his disastrous speech claiming that "Jewish elements" were one of the main influences dragging America into war.  Yet she writes constantly of her belief in Charles, his essential rightness and integrity.  As in the earlier volume, she is clearly concerned to defend them both against charges of anti-semitism and fascism.  In the Introduction she says, "Rereading the diaries almost forty years later, I am appalled at my innocence of politics and the violence of my indignation," a reaction the reader is likely to share.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the war, Charles goes to work for the Ford company as a consultant at a bomber plant near Detroit, Michigan.  The second part of the book is the chronicle of their lives there.  It includes the birth of two more children, a daughter and a son; their writing careers, as Charles begins work on The Spirit of St. Louis; and Anne's sudden decision to take courses in art at nearby Cranbook Academy, where she immerses herself in clay modeling.  Though Anne constantly discusses war news in her diaries, at least of the European theater (there is almost no mention of the Pacific theater), this is not the account of the home front that I expected, unlike again Vera Brittain's book.  It chronicles Anne's struggle to care for home, husband, children, while finding the time and mental space to write.  As she says, "One writes not to be read, but to breathe." 

A constant theme in this book is Anne's search for "her" kind of people, artists, writers, thinkers, as opposed to Charles' people, who are practical men of action.  Anne's kind is exemplified by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, whom she meets in 1939, and who is the first person to discuss her writing as "craft."  It is almost like love at first sight for her, and though she never meets him again (due in part to her politics), she mentions him frequently in her diaries.  This book ends in 1944, soon after his death.   Though it comes also at a turning point for the family, as they move to Connecticut, it feels like the real end of the book is his death, and the end of her hopes that the conversation begun in 1939 might continue some time in the future.

There is no explanation for why this volume ends in October 1944, and none for why it was the last such volume that she published.  It seems an odd place to stop, leaving the story of her life half-told, but perhaps that is a fitting end to this odd, uncomfortable, often difficult book.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A second volume of royal letters

Dearest Mama, Letters Between Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess of Prussia, Roger Fulford, ed.

This is the second of five volumes of letters between the Queen and her eldest daughter Victoria that Roger Fulford edited and published. I posted about the first book, Dearest Child, back on July 29th.  The letters in this volume date from late 1861 to mid-1864, starting with those written in the immediate aftermath of Prince Albert's death on December 14th.  As with the first book, most of the letters were previously unpublished. 

Dearest Mama is an interesting contrast to the first book.  The title suggests one of most important differences, to my mind: at least half the letters are from the Crown Princess.  In Dearest Child, probably 80% of the letters were from Queen Victoria, and her voice dominated.  Here we get clearly the voice of the younger Victoria, a wife and mother of three children, a veteran of the complexities of the Prussian Court, moving out the shadows of her formidable parents.

Grief over the death of Prince Albert of course dominates the letters of 1861 and 1862.  The Queen dwells on her sorrow, her agonized sense of abandonment, her shattered nerves and inability to cope without Prince Albert.  She makes elaborate plans for his monuments and marks every anniversary.  In the early months, the Crown Princess's letters focus on her own grief and on attempts to comfort her mother.  By the middle of 1862, though, when she sets off on an extended trip through Italy, her letters are full of the excitement of travel, to the Queen's distress.  The Princess is traveling on the first anniversary of her father's death, and the Queen is horrified at what she rates almost as sacrilege.

Two important themes carry over from the first book.  One is the marriages of Queen Victoria's children, first Princess Alice to Prince Louis of Hesse, and even more importantly, the Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Schelswig-Holstein.  The Crown Princess and her husband had worked behind the scenes to further both matches.  However, in both cases the weddings are overshadowed by the Queen's grief.  Though the Queen deplores the early and frequent pregnancies of Victoria and Alice, both she and Victoria express disappointment and concern when Alexandra does not immediately conceive.  Mother and daughter are also busy over possible spouses for Prince Alfred (there are constant refrains that "he ought to marry early" due to immoral tendencies) and for Princess Helen (the Queen insisting on a spouse who will remain in England after marriage).

Another major theme is Prussian politics.  The Crown Prince and Princess have liberal political ideas, which put them at odds not just with the Prussian royal family, but with powerful conservative politicians, including the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismark.  As the heir to the throne, though, the Crown Prince has no real power.  The situation is complicated by the 1864 war between Germany and Denmark over the Duchies of Schelswig and Holstein, which also creates complications within the English Royal Family. The Crown Princess writes at length about politics, at times in almost a hectoring tone.  The Queen is quick to point that out: "I forbear answering your letter the tone of which was not quite the thing to your own Mama."  Yet the Queen's letters often have a sharp tone of their own, especially at any perceived neglect.

As in the first book, the two also discuss books, music, and family gossip.  To my surprise, religion is a frequent topic, particularly church politics.  Mother and daughter also discuss the Prussian grandchildren in detail, especially the treatment for Prince Willy's arm, damaged at birth and never to heal.  No small part of the fascination of reading these letters is the historical foresight, knowing now where this story is going, what will happen to these people, whose future is hidden from them.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Laura's world

The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure

When I was six years old or so, my dad took me one evening to the store (Meijer's in Lansing, Michigan) and bought me Little House on the Prairie.  Almost forty years later, I can still remember walking across the parking lot, holding that bright yellow book.  It is the first book I remember anyone giving me.  In my baby book, under "Books" on the "Year Seven" page, my mom wrote just one word, "Wilder."  My parents at one point became concerned that I was re-reading the books so often and actually took them away from me.  I don't remember how long the ban lasted, but I remember calling home from a friend's house to break the news that I'd checked one out of the school library, in defiance of the ban.

But I don't meet too many fellow Wilder fans, and I haven't gone looking for them on the internet, the way I did with Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen.  So I was very interested to read Wendy McClure's book, which has been popping up in reveiws all over the place.  It is the first book about Laura Ingalls Wilder that I've seen written from a reader's perspective (rather than an academic's).

I read The Wilder Life in a couple of days and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I appreciated McClure's investigation of the Ingalls family's life, and I learned things I didn't know, like where the chronology of the actual life is out of sync with the books' narrative.  I didn't know that the family lived in the Little House in the Big Woods twice!  And I was unreasonably saddened at the news that Ma's china shepherdess has been lost (lost! how could they lose that!).  I also appreciated her discussion of the various books about Laura Ingalls Wilder, some of which I already have on my shelves.  As with Jane Austen and Dorothy L. Sayers, when I ran out of books by Wilder, I began looking for books about her.

From the beginning, though, I realized that McClure connected with the books on a very different level, what she calls "Laura World":
"I was born in 1867 in a log cabin in Wisconsin . . . I mean I don't believe in reincarnation . . . It's just how reading the Little House books was for me as a kid.  They gave me the uncanny sense that I'd experienced everything she had . . . And, oh my God: I wanted to live in one room with my whole family and have a pathetic corncob doll all my own.  I wanted to wear a calico sunbonnet. . . " 
She projected herself into the books, and she also imagined Laura visiting her world, being able to show her the wonders of the 20th century.  At the same time, she was greatly disappointed in the books like On the Way Home, which carry the Wilders' story beyond the end of even The First Four Years.  She didn't want to think of Laura "disappearing into clumsy ordinariness and ignominy."  McClure left the books behind for many years, rediscovering them almost thirty years later.

I can't quite imagine that kind of connection to the books, as much as I loved them.  I was content to read about Laura's world, but I didn't need to be a part of it, though I did have a sunbonnet.  And a couple of years after Dad gave me the first book, he brought back from a business trip a thin spiral-bound booklet, The Ingalls Family Album, with a sticker showing it was from the actual Little Town on the Prairie, in De Smet, South Dakota!  It's an odd compilation of photos and somewhat random documents, like a check Carrie Ingalls wrote in 1910.  It has the first photos I ever saw of the family, and of course it made them more real than even the Garth Williams illustrations in the book.  They also showed the family aging over the years.  So though I wouldn't have thought of it at the time, for me this booklet grounded the family in the progression of their lives beyond the stories.

I did literally leave the books behind, when I moved away to graduate school, but I replaced them before too long, and I still read them regularly.  As Hurricane Ike roared around me in September 2008, I sat on the couch reading The Long Winter by flashlight, distracting myself with the roaring winds of the blizzards.

Unlike McClure, I have never visited any of the Ingalls/Wilder sites, though I did buy a copy of The Little House Guidebook several years ago. When I was visiting my sister last year, I saw a copy of The Little House Cookbook on her shelves, and I immediately went looking for my own copy.  I've marked some of the recipes, like rye'n'injun, but I haven't gotten around to trying any of them yet.  And I feel no need to churn my own butter.

We learn fairly early in the book that McClure's mother recently died of cancer.  As I got further into the book, I began to wonder what role her loss played in this journey back to Laura's world, or this attempt to recapture Laura's world.  McClure finally addresses that in the last chapter.  If I understand her right, there is no immediate connection; she doesn't especially associate her mother with Wilder or the books, her mother wasn't a fan.  But the effort she put into this journey allowed her to "unremember," not to forget, but to displace the loss, to replace it with these memories and present experiences of Laura's world.  I don't think I fully understand this concept, but it seems to have brought McClure comfort and peace.

As I said, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I already have from the library one of the books McClure cites, Pamela Smith Hill's Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life.