Monday, October 31, 2011

Mary Katherine Blackwood in her castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

One of my favorite books growing up was Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages.  It is the story of her family's life after they moved from New York City to a small town in Vermont.
"Our house is old, and noisy, and full.  When we moved into it we had two children and five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books; we also own assorted beds and tables and chairs and rocking horses and lamps and doll dresses and ship models and paint brushes and literally thousands of socks.  This is the way of life my husband and I have fallen into, inadvertently, as though we had fallen into a well and decided that since there was no way out we might as well stay there and set up a chair and a desk and a light of some kind."
Without ever falling into sentimentality, Jackson writes with warmth and humor about her husband and her children, the travails of keeping a house and making a home, their neighbors and the small-town life.  Everyone in my family must have read this book, since we've all been known to call someone a "bad bad webbis."  But at some point I made off with my parents' copy, which has my name and our telephone number from almost 40 years ago written inside (in blue crayon, in what looks like my handwriting, as long as I'm confessing).

Which is all to say that when I think of Shirley Jackson, it's always Life Among the Savages that comes to mind first.  Of course I've read her masterpiece "The Lottery," which takes the same New England small-town setting and then twists it into something shocking.  Over the years I've also collected two of her short novels, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but never got around to reading them. I just read Life again, or its sequel, Raising Demons.

I recently read an intriguing review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle that reminded me of my TBR copy (I wish I could remember where I read it!).  I was at a loose end yesterday afternoon, so I sat down with it and ended up reading it straight through (my copy is a Penguin edition of  214 pages, but with lots of blank spaces between chapters).  I didn't know anything about the story going in, but I was expecting something more along the lines of "The Lottery" than Life.  The first page confirmed that:
"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.  I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise.  I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Aminta phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead."
Mary Katherine, or Merricat for short, is a most unusual narrator.  I can't say much about her or the plot without giving too much away.  It is the story of a family, and of a town, a community.  It reminded me in some ways of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle - a mirror-image, opposite version, including the narrator - and I wondered if the echo in the title was just coincidence.  I also wondered about the main event in the family's life, which happened before the story opens but that still shapes their lives.  Though frequently discussed, it is never explained, and the discussions with their conflicting versions just add to mystery and to the tension at the heart of the story.

I'm so glad that I finally read this.  And it is a perfect story for this time of year, with ghost stories in the air, with darkness falling early and the season closing in.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A family's bitter truths

A Bitter Truth, Charles Todd

This is the most recent in a series of mysteries featuring Bess Crawford, a nurse serving in France during the Great War.  Over the past couple of months, I've read and posted about the two earlier books, A Duty to the Dead and An Impartial Witness.

As this book opens in mid-December 1917, Bess has arrived in London on leave, planning to spend Christmas with her family at their Somerset home.  In the doorway of the house where she shares a flat, she finds a woman taking shelter from the wind and cold.  Her voice and clothing are those of a woman of means.  Bess insists that she come inside, out of the weather, which she reluctantly does.  The cause of her reluctance is written on her face; she has clearly been hit, leaving a black eye and other bruising.

The woman, who says her name is Lydia, eventually relaxes enough to tell Bess that it was her husband, a serving officer, who is on compassionate leave following his brother's death.  After he struck her, she walked out of their home in Sussex and went to London, with no clear plan in mind, simply to get away.  She begs Bess to come with her back to Sussex, where they live with his widowed grandmother and mother, so that she doesn't have to face him alone.  Bess agrees, though it means her visit home will be cut short.

At Lydia's home, Vixen Hall, the family has gathered with friends for the ceremony of placing her brother-in-law's tombstone.  The problems between Lydia and her husband Roger, with her bruises still clearly visible, add to an already complicated family situation.  Then, on the day Bess is to leave for her home, one of the guests is found murdered.  Initially considered one of the suspects, Bess eventually returns to duty in France, but she remains connected to the case.  At Lydia's request, she is searching for what may be the key to it: the child of an English officer and a French mother, abandoned to an orphanage after her mother's death, who is said to bear a striking resemblance to a member of the Ellis family.

As in An Impartial Witness, Bess moves back and forth between France and England.  In France, her nursing duties leave her little spare time.  But she talks to the soldiers coming into her field hospital, using her connections and the network of the army to gather information about the Ellis family and to try to track the child.  In England, she again relies on Simon Brandon, an NCO in her father's regiment, retired now from the army, who has become part of their family.  I'm still confused about their relationship, though it seems less intense in this book than in An Impartial Witness.  On the other hand, in France Bess meets an Australian soldier, Sergeant Larimore, who helps her search for the child but makes it clear that he has a more personal interest, in Bess herself.  Is a colonial sergeant a better match for a colonel's daughter than her father's former regimental sergeant major?  I'll be interested to see what Simon, and the Colonel, make of the sergeant.  In the meantime, after reading about Bess's work, as well as Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth and Helen Dore Boylston's "Sister," I want to read more about nursing in the Great War.

Friday, October 28, 2011

An American family in 1930s Berlin

In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson

For his latest book, Erik Larson wanted to explore
"what it would have been like for an outsider to have witnessed firsthand the gathering dark of Hitler's rule. How did the city look, what did one hear, see, and smell, and how did diplomats and other visitors interpret the events occurring around them?  Hindsight tells us that during that fragile time the course of history could so easily have been changed.  Why, then, did no one change it?  Why did it take so long to recognize the real danger posed by Hitler and his regime?"
He attempts to answer these questions by looking at the lives of an American family, the Dodds, who arrived in Germany in July 1933 for a stay of several years.  This wasn't just any American family.  William Dodd was the new American ambassador in Germany.  The chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, he had been offered the job after President Franklin Roosevelt's first choices all declined.  Dodd had only an academic understanding of diplomacy, which made him an odd choice for such an important post, and his lack of experience almost immediately put him at odds with the State Department and its career diplomats.  It would also create problems with the embassy staff in Berlin.

The new ambassador arrived in Germany with his wife Mattie, his son Bill, and his daughter Martha.  In 1939 Martha published an account of her years in Berlin, which Larson relies on heavily in this book, along with her father's diaries, which were published after his death.  Larson also uses other primary sources, including State Department records and the papers of other diplomats such as George Messersmith, the American Consul General in Germany.  But the story he tells focuses on the senior Dodd and Martha.

As Larson shows, the Dodds were initially very impressed with Germany. They thought Berlin a charming and cosmopolitan city, and they were mesmerized by the energy of the people, the enthusiasm for Hitler and his party.  They saw a country in the midst of rebirth, moving beyond the Great War and its aftermath.  In their initial infatuation, they found it easy to dismiss the darker side of life in Germany: the campaign of "Coordination" designed to bring everyone into line with National Socialist ideas, the concentration camps and prisons holding those insufficiently "coordinated," the omnipresent anti-semitism made concrete in the growing restrictions on Jews.  Storm Troopers and Gestapo officers were everywhere, unrestrained in their violent attacks on anyone suspected of resistance.  American citizens were among those arrested, beaten, and tortured.  Despite official complaints from the Embassy and the American government, the attacks continued.

The Dodds gradually came to see the reality of the Nazi regime, especially after the violent purge known as "The Night of the Long Knives" in June 1934. After hundreds of Hitler's perceived enemies were executed without trial, Ambassador Dodd could not disguise his hostility to the Nazis, and he began to speak about the clear evidence of German rearmament and military training, and the mistreatment particularly of Jews.  His views made him increasingly unpopular in the State Department, as did his attempts to reform the diplomatic service.  Dodd deliberately lived a frugal and homespun life as Ambassador, even shipping his used family Chevrolet to Germany rather than using the expected limousine, and he wanted Embassy staff to follow his example.  His unpopularity with Hitler's government, and with his own, led to his removal as Ambassador in December 1937.  After his recall, he worked hard to open America's eyes to the Nazi menace, giving frequent lectures and founding the American Council Against Nazi Propaganda.

This is not just William Dodd's story, though.  At least half of the book focuses on Martha, and unfortunately I think this undermines the dramatic story that Larson has to tell.  When she arrived in Germany in 1933, Martha was in the process of divorcing her husband.  The marriage was troubled from the start, in part because of her frequent affairs, a pattern she would repeat in Germany.  She seems to have slept with anyone who caught her eye, including prominent Nazi officials like Rudolf Diels, the chief of the Gestapo.  She formed a serious connection with a diplomat from the Russian embassy, an intelligence officer, who would help recruit her to spy on the Nazis.  Larson spends a lot of time on Martha's affairs, with very detailed descriptions of dates and other romantic encounters drawn from her 1939 memoir.  After a while, those scenes started to seem voyeuristic and rather like reading a bad romance novel.  Perhaps in an attempt to create addition suspense, Larson frequently uses foreshadowing ("In light of what was to happen a few years hence, Dodd's crowing about his own driving prowess can only raise a chill"), but he takes so long to get to the denouement that the effect is lost.

I think in the end Erik Larson succeeds in giving the reader a sense of what it was like to be a foreign resident in Berlin in the early 1930s.  It was interesting to compare his book with Patrick Leigh Fermor's perception of Germany in 1933, in A Time of Gifts, and with the Mitford family's experiences of Germany, from the letters in Charlotte Mosely's Letters Between Six Sisters.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An edible history of immigration

97 Orchard, Jane Ziegelman

I learned about this book from a post over on Lakeside Musing.  As soon as I read the subtitle, "An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement," I knew I wanted to read it.  It combines two of my favorite historical topics: food and immigration.

97 Orchard Street is the address of the tenement in which Ziegelman's five families lived between 1863 and 1935.  It currently houses the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which if I ever get to New York City again will be on my itinerary.  The families she traces were German, Irish, German Jewish, Russian Jewish, and Italian.

In telling the stories of these families and their food Ziegelman weaves together many different threads.  One is a history of how and why different immigrant groups came to America.  A second is a survey of the work they found (or didn't find), and how the work changed over time.  A third is an overview of shifts in the neighborhood, which were linked to the shifting immigrant population.  A fourth is an examination of what food meant to the immigrants, how it linked them to their homeland and culture even as they were becoming acculturated in other ways; how they managed to recreate the foods of their home, including where they shopped; and how and where they ate.  A fifth is how these "foreign" foods were initially rejected or mocked by the established population, but how they then became entrenched in our present-day American food culture.  Once upon a time, Americans didn't know what a bagel was, or how to eat spaghetti, and they thought lager beers were too bitter compared with the ales they were used to.  This process of course continues today. To take just one example, hummus is becoming almost as ubiquitous as ketchup, at least in this part of Texas.  With Galveston a major immigration port in the 19th century, and Houston in the 20th and 21st, you can see that history in the restaurant and grocery scene around, which resembles the United Nations and always impresses out-of-town visitors.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the fourth family, the Rogarshevskies, who came through Ellis Island in 1901.  Ziegelman uses their story to explore the history of Ellis Island, in part through the food that was served to the immigrants there.  For many, it was the first taste, literally, of America's abundance, more food at one meal perhaps than they were used to in a day.  It was unfamiliar food, though, and it posed problems especially for Jews trying to keep kosher.  My maternal grandmother came through Ellis Island in the 1920s, and I wish now I had asked her to tell me about it.

I've only spent a single day in New York, so I am not at all familiar with the city.  A real New Yorker would have no trouble following Ziegelman as she follows her families through the city, but a map might have been helpful.  The book does have great illustrations, most of them contemporary, giving us a glimpse of people's lives in the way that only historic photographs can do.   In each of the sections, Ziegelman also includes recipes, drawn from contemporary sources whenever possible.  I will probably pass on the herring salad, but I'm tempted to try the Kranzkuchen and the roasted eggplant recipes.

This is a fascinating book, and it brings out the book evangelist in me: "Here, you have to read this!"

Sunday, October 23, 2011

John Caldigate's marriage

John Caldigate, Anthony Trollope

One of the pleasant surprises in blogging has been discovering so many fellow Trollope readers.  I don't have a single one among my real-life book friends, nor have I convinced anyone even to try one of his books, but then I haven't gone looking for a Trollope discussion group as I did with Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, and Dorothy Dunnett.  In blog after blog, though, I find Trollope books discussed.  Just this week, I prefer reading posted a great review of his Autobiography.

As I've mentioned before, I tend to pick up any Trollope novels that I see in the used bookstores, because stores likes Barnes & Noble generally carry only a couple of titles, usually The Warden and perhaps The Way We Live Now.  That is my rationalization, at least, and it means a definite Trollope section in the TBR pile.

John Caldigate is vintage Trollope, with a complex but fast-moving story and very sympathetic characters, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Written in 1877 and published in 1879, the same year as Cousin Henry (which I posted about back in May), it was published the year after Is He Popenjoy?, one of my favorite of his novels.  In some ways, John Caldigate is a mirror-image of the earlier book.

The John of the title is the only surviving child of Daniel Caldigate, the squire of Folking in the parishes of Utterden and Netherden in Cambridgeshire.  Daniel lost his wife and John his mother at an early age, along with John's two young sisters, and father and son have had a difficult relationship.  John much prefers to stay with his aunt and uncle Babington and his lively girl cousins, which displeases his father.  Their relationship only grows worse when John goes to college in Cambridge, where he runs up debts, borrows money, and loses it at Newmarket.  To his father's horror, he ends up owing well over £1,000.  In his anger, Daniel determines that if he is to pay this money, then the family entail must be broken.  John will receive a fair share of the estate, like the Prodigal Son, and Daniel will look for another heir.  John has his own plans: to go to Australia to mine for gold with a college friend, Dick Shand.  Needing capital for his venture, he agrees to his father's plan.

John Caldigate has to be one of Trollope's most susceptible heroes.  Before he leaves for Australia, his aunt Babington has talked him into an engagement with his cousin Julia; though John never actually says yes to it, he doesn't say no.  Then on a visit to the Shand family, he shows signs of attachment to Dick's sister Maria, including a stolen kiss.  At the same time, he has fallen in love-at-first-sight with Hester Bolton, the young daughter of his father's financial advisor.  Though he only meets her once, he decides on the spot that he will return with his Australian gold and marry her.

These three romantic entanglements do not prevent John from falling into a shipboard romance with Euphemia Smith, a widow, formerly an actress, going out to Australia for a new start.  In a variation on what Victoria Glendinning calls Trollope's "Ur-story," this younger country-bred gentleman falls under the spell of an older, more experienced and sophisticated woman.  Over the six weeks of the voyage, John's fellow passengers, and even the Captain himself, warn him not to become involved with Mrs. Smith.  By the time the ship arrives in Melbourne, however, he has proposed and been accepted.

John and Dick set off immediately for the gold fields in New South Wales.  They end up in a wide spot in the road called Ahalala, where after weeks of backbreaking labor they find gold.  Trollope's descriptions here reminded me of the California and Colorado gold rushes (Isabella Bird describes Colorado mining towns in A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains).  He was of course writing from his own experiences on two trips to Australia, visiting his son Frederic (who with his brother Henry may also be the source of Trollope's familiar theme of father-son conflict).

Four years later, John Caldigate returns to England a wealthy man, having sold his claim to his former partners.  He and his father, corresponding regularly, have rebuilt their relationship. Daniel has repented of disinheriting his son, who has worked so hard and succeeded so well.  Back in Cambridgeshire, John takes up the life of an English squire.  Meeting Hester Bolton again, he is determined to marry her as he planned all those years ago, a dream he never forgot.  Hester is the only child of her father's second marriage.  Her mother is an evangelical Christian of the lowest of Low Church beliefs.  She believes John Caldigate to be an unredeemed sinner, unworthy of her daughter, whom she would prefer to keep safe, pure, and unmarried at home.  Hester's brothers and sisters-in-law intervene, arguing that Hester cannot be kept locked away from her woman's destiny of marriage.  Much against her mother's will she meets John, falls in love with him, and marries him.

A year later, shortly after the birth of his son, John is deluged with telegrams and letters  from his former partner in the mine, telling him that it turned out to be worthless and demanding restitution from him.  John ignores these, but he cannot ignore a letter from another former partner, signed Euphemia Caldigate, threatening to disclose their marriage if payment is not made.  When John again refuses, accusations of bigamy are made.  John is forced to admit that he lived with Euphemia as his wife, but denies absolutely that they were married. 

When Hester's family learns the sordid story, they immediately believe that John is a bigamist, that he has ruined Hester and sired a bastard.  So here we have the mirror-image of Is He Popenjoy?, which also involves a possibly bigamous marriage and the status of the child of that marriage.  The Boltons insist that Hester must separate from her wicked seducer.  She believes in her husband with an absolute, unshakable faith.  When she refuses to leave him, her family even attempts to hold her by force.  In the Boltons, Trollope paints a very unflattering picture of evangelical Christians, especially in Hester's mother, who loves her daughter dearly but is concerned only with her immortal soul, despising the world and its joys as snares of the devil.  But there are interesting nuances to her character and its beliefs:
"Mrs. Bolton was certainly not addicted to papistical observances, nor was she at all likely to recommend the seclusion of her daughter in a convent.  All her religious doctrines were those of the Low Church. But she had a tendency to arrive at similar results by other means. She was so afraid of the world, the flesh, and the devil, that she would fain shut up her child so as to keep her from the reach of all evil.  Vowed celibacy was abominable to her . . . But yet, on behalf of her child, she desired seclusion from the world . . . Superstition was as strong with her as with any self-flagellated nun. Fasting, under that name, she held in abhorrence. But all sensual gratifications were wicked in her sight."
There is also an officious clergyman, the perfectly named Mr. Smirkie, a spiritual brother of Mr. Collins, of whom Mrs. Proudie would undoubtedly approve.  But to balance the clerical scales, there is Mr. Bromley, the rector of Utterden, a humane and liberal man, who believes John innocent and whose support becomes very important especially to Hester.

Euphemia Smith (or Caldigate) arrives in England with the other former partner, and with witnesses to the marriage.  On their testimony, John will be brought to trial for bigamy.  The second part of the book then becomes a detective story.  One of the crucial pieces of evidence is an envelope from John addressed to "Mrs. Caldigate" at Alahala.  Analyzing this evidence lets Trollope include another favorite theme, the postal service.  Here an enterprising postal clerk, Samuel Bagwax, one of Trollope's great minor characters, delves deep into crucial evidence on postal marks and stamps.  (This section reminded me very much of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal.)

I don't know that I would recommend this book as an introduction to Anthony Trollope, but it's one that any confirmed Trollopian won't want to miss, and I'm very glad to read it and to have it on my shelves.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The heroism of Ulysses Grant

Grant's Final Victory, Charles Bracelen Flood

Ulysses Grant has become something of a hero of mine, second only to Abraham Lincoln.  Not because of his presidency, which is generally considered one of the worst in American history, with the corruption that was so rampant in the Gilded Age.  A man of honor, Grant himself had no part in the corruption, but it was his administration and ultimately his responsibility.  Yet whatever the failings of his presidency, it was his part in winning the Civil War and preserving the Union that made him a hero, his military genius a perfect match for Lincoln's political genius.  Grant understood his duty as a soldier: to prosecute the war to the best of his abilities, under the direction of the Commander in Chief.  Unlike Lincoln's other generals, he didn't spend time complaining, shirking, or bragging.  He just got the job done.  In the middle of the war, when rumors began to circulate that Grant was drinking heavily, Lincoln reportedly said, "I can't spare this man. He fights."  To Lincoln's great relief, Grant also repeatedly refused to meddle in politics, rejecting any suggestion that he run for president in 1864 to replace the increasingly unpopular incumbent.

Earlier this year, I read Grant's Personal Memoirs, an account of his life up to the end of the Civil War.  I knew something of the background of the book, which was completed only days before his death in 1885.  In Grant's Final Victory, Charles Bracelen Flood tells the dramatic story of how the Memoirs came to be written, and by the end of his book I had an even greater admiration for Ulysses Grant.

In 1884, Grant and his son Ulysses Junior were partners in the New York investment bank of Grant and Ward.  The senior Grant, who understood little about banking, contributed mainly the prestige of his name.  This lack of knowledge would cost him deeply, both in money and reputation, when it was discovered that the firm's other partners were running what was basically a Ponzi scheme.  The firm crashed in early May, and the Grant family lost everything.  There was no pension for former presidents in those days, and Grant had no source of income.  Influential friends like William Vanderbilt began trying to raise funds, and ordinary people sent contributions, but Grant's pride made him unwilling to accept charity.

At this opportune moment came an offer from the Century Magazine for a series of articles on his war-time experiences.  To his surprise, Grant found that he enjoyed writing, and that he had a gift for clear, concise prose.  Writing could be a source of income, and a distraction from his difficult situation.  Even more than his financial worries, Grant's health had become a concern, with continuous pain in his mouth and throat.  In October of 1884, he was diagnosed with cancer of the throat and tongue. Realizing he was facing death, Grant decided to write his memoirs, hoping to make enough money from them to repay his debts and leave his wife, Julia, in comfort.

He was considering a contract with the Century Magazine publishers when Mark Twain came to visit him.  Twain, who had briefly served in a Confederate militia unit before deserting, had a great admiration for Grant.  Already a popular writer, Twain had recently established his own publishing firm to put out his books.  When he heard the terms that the magazine was offering Grant, Twain found them almost insulting.  He knew the book would be a best-seller, and he wanted it for his own house, but he also wanted Grant to have the best terms possible.  He eventually talked Grant into signing with him, on generous terms.  At the time, he did not know about Grant's illness.  When he learned of it, he did not withdraw his offer, though there was some doubt that Grant would live long enough to finish the manuscript.  Twain's confidence was more than repaid when he read the first sections of the manuscript and knew it would be a masterpiece.

As his illness progressed, Grant was now in a race with death.  With the same courage and iron will he had shown during the war, he worked on, at times refusing medications that might cloud his mind.  Eating and drinking were so painful that he frequently went without even water, which weakened him.  Often unable to speak, he was reduced to writing notes, some deeply revealing: "The fact is that I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is any thing that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three."

On July 20th, Ulysses Grant put down his pencil; his book was finished.  That afternoon, his condition suddenly worsened, and three days later he died.  His state funeral in New York drew more than a million people, with both Union and Confederate generals serving as honorary pallbearers.  Royalties from his book eventually brought Julia Grant over half a million dollars, and the Memoirs are still in print.

This a compelling story, and Charles Bracelen Flood tells it well.  In the sections that cover Grant's writing of the Memoirs, he weaves in anecdotes from Grant's past, including a description of Lee's surrender at Appomattox, so the reader learns something of Grant's life.  I greatly enjoyed Charles Bracelen Flood's earlier book about Grant, Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War, as well as his 1864  Lincoln at the Gates of History.  I have also read Julia Dent Grant's memoirs, which she began writing two years after her husband's death, but which were only published until 1975.  They are of course very different from her husband's.  For one thing, she writes about their life after the war, including his terms as president, and describes a world tour they took in 1877 when they were treated like royalty everywhere they went.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Death and taxes in medieval Japan

The Dragon Scroll, I.J. Parker

This is the first book in a mystery series set in 11th century Japan.  I recently read the seventh book in the series, The Masuda Affair, and liked it so much that I wanted to go back to the start of the series.  It's always interesting to do this, even after just one book, because then you start the series in a sense knowing the end of the story (at least to that point).  But the characters you meet at the beginning are likely to be different, not yet changed by the events of the intervening books.

As this book opens, we meet Sugawara Akitada on the road to a distant province.  A minor official in the imperial Ministry of Justice, he has been sent to investigate missing tax payments.  It is his first major assignment, and he dreams of glory.  Since the governor of the province has completed his term of office, a routine audit would normally be conducted as part of the transition of authority.  In this case, though, there are also those missing taxes, three years' worth as he discovers, and the governor is a likely suspect.

On the road to Kazusa Province, Akitada and his old family retainer Seimei are attacked by two bandits.  A third man arrives out of nowhere to help fight them off.  In gratitude, Akitada hires the young man, Tora, as servant and escort.  Tora ignores much of the protocol of their formal and hierarchical society, to Seimei's dismay, even coaching Akitada in stave-fighting.

Akitada and his men arrive in the provincial capital to begin their investigation.  He soon realizes that the missing funds may be part of a bigger problem, involving a local Buddhist temple whose abbot is drawing large crowds of pilgrims, but whose monks are making trouble in the city.  The former governor of the province hints to Akitada that he may have important information, and the next day he is found dead.  Akitada cannot accept the official ruling of accidental death, though the investigation of murder is far beyond his official remit.  In this, he reminded me of a very different hero, Miles Vorkosigan, from Lois Bujold's Vorkosigan series.  As an Imperial Auditor, Miles can follow any lead or idea, however nebulous, which draws his attention, and he can command all the necessary resources as well as compliance with his investigation.  Akitada lacks that kind of authority, and his resources are limited, but he makes the best use of what he has.  With Tora's help, and that of local residents, he moves through the city, collecting evidence.  He, Tora, Seimei, and the outgoing governor join forces to build their case and uncover the truth.

As with The Masuda Affair, the author includes a brief historical note at the end of the book, with some general information about life in Japan during this period.  I learned that much of the culture was based on China's, as was the government structure.  Officials like Akitada had to read and write both Chinese and Japanese.  I was surprised to learn that rice wine was then a more popular drink than tea, which had been introduced from China but hadn't really caught on yet.

I enjoyed this introduction to Akitada, and I'm looking forward to his further adventures.  There are hints that his mother is quite a Tartar; her first meeting with Tora should be interesting.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The House of Pyncheon

The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne

I have read The House of the Seven Gables before, but I didn't remember much about it.  Reading Audrey's recent posts about the book on books as food got me thinking about it again, and I decided to join the group read she has helped coordinate.  Now, though, I feel a bit like a dinner guest who announces as the roast beef is served that she is a vegan.

The story of the House of the Seven Gables concerns both a physical building and the family that has inhabited it for almost two hundred years.  A leading citizen of Salem, Colonel Jaffrey Pyncheon built his house on theft and judicial murder.  When the original owner of the house site, Matthew Maule, refused to sell it to the Colonel, he acquired it after Maule was accused of witchcraft and executed in the infamous trials.  Maule went to the gallows with a curse on his persecutor: "God will give him blood to drink!"  Disdaining a dead man's curse, the Colonel erected his house, with its seven extravagant gables, only to die himself, mysteriously choked in blood, on the day it was to be blessed.  With the Colonel died the family's claim to even greater riches and power, in a vast grant of territory in Maine; no documentation of the grant could ever be found.  (The back cover of my Bantam Classics edition gives away the secret of that part of the story.)

From the day of the Colonel's death, the family's fortunes have declined, its decay mirrored in the decrepit house.  As the story opens, only five members remain: Hepzibah, an aging spinster who lives in the house itself, on the knife edge of poverty.  In addition to taking in a lodger, Holgrave, she has opened a "cent" shop, with a small store of cheap goods.  The great sorrow of her life is her brother Clifford, who has spent thirty years in prison for the murder of their uncle.  At their uncle's death, the property descended to his heir, their cousin Jaffrey, a judge and prominent local citizen, who has one son.  Hester inherited a life-interest in the house but refuses any financial assistance from the Judge.  The last member of the family is a young cousin Phoebe, who arrives unexpectedly to stay with Hepzibah, after her mother's re-marriage.  She is followed by another unexpected arrival: Clifford, newly freed from prison.

I enjoyed the first chapters of this book, as Hawthorne carefully sets his stage, lays out his backstory, and introduces his characters.  The only thing I really remembered from previous readings was Hepzibah and her struggles with the shop.  Poor woman, a lady and a Pyncheon, reduced to keeping a cent shop, and not even very good at it, between her abrupt manners and her near-blindness.  She is a very sympathetic character, as is Phoebe, who rather reminded me of a Louisa May Alcott heroine, Polly in An Old-Fashioned Girl or Phebe in Eight Cousins.  Like them, Phoebe is the proverbial ray of sunshine in the dark house, a loving, cheerful, hard-working young girl, devoted to her aged cousins.

It was with Clifford's arrival that the story became problematic for me.  I found him an annoying character, and I was supposed to sympathize with him, not just because of his long imprisonment, but because his destiny has been thwarted:
"Not to speak of it harshly or scornfully, it seemed Clifford's nature was to a sybarite . . . it is always selfish in its essence; and we must give it leave to be so, and heap up our heroic and disinterested love upon it so much the more, without a recompense.  Poor Hepzibah knew this truth . . ."
Hawthorne tells us more than once that we are to pity Clifford, not because he may after all be innocent of murder, but because he has been denied a life of beauty and ease.  I felt much more pity for Hepzibah, sacrificing herself to support her brother, who can hardly stand to look at her plain features and worn-out clothing.

I struggled with other aspects of this book, such as the language, which is ponderous and verbose, and tends sometimes toward sweeping generalizations.  There is also the conversation of Hepzibah's lodger, Holgrave, which become so opaque that Phoebe finally tells him at one point, "I hardly think I understand you."  He reads her a story he has written about her Pyncheon ancestors, and this most New England of settings actually has a black character speaking in Gone with the Wind dialect.  While there were certainly slaves in the region even after the Revolution, I thought this an unfortunate choice of language.

The story itself seems stretched rather thin - perhaps it would have made a better novella - and in the end not all that interesting.  And while the story was drawn out, particularly in the chapter "Governor Pyncheon," which seems to last nearly as long as the night it describes, the ending felt rather rushed to me.  Just on a practical level, I wondered how Clifford and Hepzibah, last seen miles from home, at a deserted railway stop, in cold and rain, made their way home again.  I thought Clifford's sudden exoneration for the murder of his uncle more convenient than credible, especially after their sudden flight.  And while the destiny of the family is settled, in its new home, what will become of the House?  Is it simply to be stand empty, left to wind and weather and eventual ruin?

My copy of the book includes a quote from Henry James, saying that it is "the closest approach we are likely to have to the Great American Novel!" (which seems faint praise).  I can appreciate this book as a classic, with an important place in American literature, but in the end it's not one I'm likely to read again.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An Egyptological mystery

The Jackal's Head, Elizabeth Peters

As I've mentioned before, I really enjoy Elizabeth Peters' books, especially the series with Egyptologists Amelia Peabody Emerson and her husband Radcliffe (not that anyone calls him that).  The stories in that series run from the late 1880s up into the 1920s.  When I sat down with The Jackal's Head, I had no idea what it was about, other than that it was set in Egypt.  It was quite a surprise, and a pleasant one, to find it very much like an Amelia story, one set in the late 20th century.  Published in 1968, this book does not feel dated at all, but it does feel like a precursor to the later books, as if Peters took the elements of the story and the characters and put them together in a new way for the first Amelia book, Crocodile on the Sandbank (published in 1975).

As The Jackal's Head opens, Althea (Tommy) Tomlinson arrives in Luxor with Dee Bloch, a 17-year-old girl meeting her businessman father in Egypt.  Tommy grew up in Luxor with her widowed father Jake, an archaeologist on the staff of the Luxor Institute.  When she was 16, Jake lost his position after accusations that he tried to sell a faked antique.  Father and daughter returned to America, and Jake died soon after in a car wreck that might have been suicide.  In the ten years since his death, Tommy has become obsessed with clearing his name.  Then one day, she gets a letter from the Egyptian headman of the workers, now an old man, with a cryptic message that he has information about her father for her.  Soon she is on the hunt not just for evidence to clear her father, but also for a previously-undiscovered tomb, even richer and more important than Tutankhamen's, joined by Jake's former colleagues at the Institute and the Blochs.

Anyone familiar with the Amelia books will recognize in this cast of characters a proto-Emerson (complete with pipe and roar), a proto-Abdullah, and a proto-Cyrus (complete with twang).  Tommy herself is not an Amelia prototype, though there are similarities.  Both are strong, determined characters.  In an extended section, Tommy rescues herself from imprisonment by the villains.  Lacking Amelia's knowledge and resources (especially that famous tool belt), she nevertheless analyzes her position and works her way to a solution.  Like Amelia she also finds herself in love over the course of her adventures, and the relationship that ensues will be a partnership:
"He was paying me an unusual but immense compliment by treating me as a partner, engaged in a job that was as meaningful to me as it was to him.  In that seemingly casual assumption I could dimly see the seeds of something too important to risk."
Amelia expected to be treated as an equal partner, in marriage and in Egyptology.  That is a new idea for Tommy, but it promises a pretty happy ending, and perhaps still an unusual one in 1968.

This was a fun read, not just because of the Emerson echoes, and it reminds me how much I would love to travel to Egypt.  In the meantime, there is an "King Tut" exhibit just opening here in Houston, and I can play Egyptologist there.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Murder on the Riviera

Naughty in Nice, Rhys Bowen

This is the fifth book in Rhys Bowen's series of mysteries set in the early 1930s and featuring Lady Georgiana Rannoch.  Lady Georgie is a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria and 34th in line to the throne.  Her father, the late Duke of Rannoch, blew the family fortunes in gambling losses, and her brother Binky inherited little besides crushing death duties and the family castle in Scotland.  Georgie has so far resisted the usual fate of minor royals, either marriage to an equally minor foreign prince, or service as lady in waiting to one of her agèd royal aunts.  But she hasn't found it easy to support herself, restricted as she is by her royal status, however far she actually stands from the throne.  She has, however, been drawn into several murder cases, and she has also taken on commissions for her cousin, Queen Mary.

It is the Queen this time who sends Georgie to the Riviera.  A valuable snuffbox, with a portrait of Marie Antoinette framed in diamonds inside the lid, has been stolen from Buckingham Palace.  Her Majesty suspects a wealthy industrialist, Sir Toby Groper, well-known for his obsessive collecting.  The Queen wants Georgie to retrieve the snuffbox from his villa in Nice.  Not steal - "Retrieve it, Georgiana. Sir Toby is the one who has stolen it."  Georgie also agrees to keep an eye on her cousin David, the Prince of Wales, who is in Nice as well, with Wallis Simpson.

Even before Georgie arrives in Nice, complications ensue.  There is a second theft, of a much more serious nature, and then a murder, for which Georgie becomes the main suspect.  The officer in charge of the investigations, Inspector Lafite, would fit right into one of the Pink Panther films.  A large and diverse cast of characters keeps the story moving.  It includes Georgie's brother Binky and his unpleasant wife Fig, who is pregnant; the birth of her child will move Georgie one step further from the throne.  Fig is a combination of the worst of Helen, Duchess of Denver, and Eugenia Wraxton, and I keep waiting for her to get her comeuppance. 

I have enjoyed each book in this series.  Though the difficulties of life in the early 1930s are clear, even for the upper class, the stories are fun and funny, and the settings are well done.  Georgie is a very appealing character, determined to make her own way, and I'm already looking forward to her next adventure.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Jane Austen's letters

Jane Austen's Letters, Deirdre Le Faye, ed.

Reading Irene Collins' book Jane Austen and the Clergy made me want to re-read Jane Austen's letters.  As I mentioned in my post about the book, Collins quotes frequently from the letters.  Many of the quotes were familiar, and brief as they were, they still seemed to speak in Austen's voice.

I've read Deirdre Le Faye's edition of the letters several times over the past few years.  The first time was rather frustrating, especially reading Jane's letters to her sister Cassandra, which make up the bulk of the book.  They are almost telegraphic in style, and I felt they were in a code to which I had no key.  I was also concerned with checking every reference note, trying to keep track of the many, many people mentioned in the letters, as well as the locations.  As I have read more about Austen and her family, and have figured out the more important people in her world, I can read the letters with less effort and more enjoyment.

I have now accepted that I will never fully decode the letters to Cassandra.  In that telegraphic style, Jane's brief sentences and one-liners conveyed a world of meaning to her sister, based on their shared lives.  In these letters especially is a world of context that is lost to us, and perhaps more importantly, a continuing conversation, of which we catch only snatches.  Jane noted this herself:
"I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth; I have been talking to you as fast as I could the whole of this letter" (L.29, 1801).
I also have a strong feeling that Jane, the younger sister, was constantly trying to make Cassandra laugh, or to spark a reaction out of her.  To my mind, this accounts for some of the lines that seem heartless or in questionable taste, the ones that are always quoted to show that Jane Austen wasn't a meek little spinster, like "Mrs Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child . . . I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband" (L.10, 1798).  These particularly waspish comments appear more in the early letters, and they are more in keeping with the broad humor of some of the Early Works.

I noted this time the very different tones in the letters to her brother Frank, to their family friend and adopted sister Martha Lloyd, and to her nieces and nephew.  Though there are of course family references and jokes, they seem almost formal in comparison to the letters to Cassandra.  Letters to her niece Anna, regarding a novel that Anna was writing, amount to almost a tutorial on writing fiction, giving us Jane's views on characterization, location, and plot:
"You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life; - 3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on" (L.107, 1814).
I love the references to Jane's own work:
"I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. -She is very cunning, but I see through her design; -she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do so" (L.21, 1799).
"My greatest anxiety at present is that this 4th work [Emma] shd not disgrace what was good in the others. But on this point I will do myself the justice to declare that whatever may be my wishes for its' success, I am very strongly haunted by the idea that to those Readers who have preferred P&P. it will appear inferior in Wit, & to those who have preferred MP. very inferior in good Sense"  (L132(D), 1815).
Le Faye includes at the end of the book the letters that Cassandra Austen wrote to her niece Fanny Austen Knight, describing Jane's last days and her death, sharing her grief at the loss of "a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed."  Cassandra was the first editor of her sister's letters, physically removing parts of letters and apparently destroying others entirely, possibly because they contained frank discussions of family members.  Though we can regret what Cassandra destroyed, in reading these letters I am so grateful for what she retained, and for this marvelous view into Jane Austen's mind and heart.

On a side note, this is my 100th post.  Somehow that doesn't seem possible, and then somehow it feels like I've been doing this forever.  Thank you for reading along.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Jane Austen and the clergy

Jane Austen and the Clergy, Irene Collins

As I've mentioned before, my TBR pile has several strata, one of which is books about Jane Austen.  Like many Janeites, I now own far more books about her than by her.  I really enjoy the ones that focus on an aspect of her life or of her novels, and Jane Austen and the Clergy does both.  It is not a biography of Austen, though it covers the facts of her life.  It places her life in what Irene Collins argues is its most basic context:
"The life in which [Austen] felt thoroughly at home was that of the country clergy. Biographers usually mention as important the fact that her father, two of her brothers and four of her cousins were clergymen, but none so far has demonstrated the extent to which she was involved in their situation and way of thinking."
The book is organized topically, with chapters on Austen's clerical connections, the training of clergymen, their parishes, rectories, and income.  I particularly enjoyed the chapters on patronage and on the parson's wife.  During Austen's lifetime, landowners like Colonel Brandon and Lady Catherine de Bourgh controlled the appointments to at least 5,500 churches.  Most of Jane's clerical connections, starting with her father, received appointments from family and friends.  Jane's sister Cassandra could not marry her clergyman fiancé, Tom Fowle, until he got a good parish from his family's patron.  While waiting, Tom accepted a position as a chaplain on a military expedition to the West Indies from the same patron; he died there of yellow fever.  Cassandra never married, though she would have made an excellent clergyman's wife, in Collins' view.

Collins argues that there has been little serious study of the Church of England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in part because of a lack of primary sources.  In exploring her topics, she draws from the few contemporary sources as well as later historical works.  But she also draws from Austen's life, letters, and novels:
"Parsons' daughters were thick on the ground at the time, but few have left as many of their own writings or been honoured with as many reminiscences by friends and relatives as she has. The evidence provided by this material is worthy of at least as much attention as the journals of the handful of contemporary parsons . . .  much quoted by historians."
It was interesting to see how Collins weaves these different sources into her history.  I really enjoyed seeing Austen's clergymen used as examples, and also put into the context of the real Church of England at the time.  Characters like Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton are so memorable, and stand in such contrast to Henry Tilney or Charles Hayter.  Though Austen may have made the occasional error in her writing, like having apple trees bloom out of season, she made none in the clerical parts of her books.

The last chapter, "Worship and Belief," considers Austen's own faith and religious practices.  An appendix includes three prayers written by Austen and probably used for family worship on Sunday evenings.  I have read these before in other books, and I find them touching in their pleas for forgiveness and anxiety to do better tomorrow.

My only quibble with this book is that Collins seems to assume a familiarity with the Church of England, using terms like "rector" and "vicar" without explaining the difference, as she does also with "living" and "benefice."  In a discussion of tithes, Collins explains that
"In almost half the parishes of England the 'great tithes' (levied on cereal crops such as wheat and oats) had been 'impropriated' by a layman, leaving only the 'small tithes' (on produce such as lamb, chickens, fruit and eggs) for the parish priest . . .  Whoever held the great tithes was technically the rector of the parish. He might himself be a clergyman, willing to carry out the spiritual duties of the benefice; if not, he must appoint a vicar or a curate."
I had not known this, I'd never heard the word "impropriation" before, and now I want to know more: how did one go about impropriating the great tithes, and how did that practice develop?  Was it passed on in families as an inheritance, or did each new generation have to impropriate for itself?

This was a very interesting and informative read, and when I meet Edmund Bertram or Edward Ferrars again, I will better understand them and their place in Jane Austen's world.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A conviction that justice must be done

An Impartial Witness, Charles Todd

This is the second book in a mystery series set in World War I, featuring Bess Crawford, a nurse serving on the front lines in France.  I posted about the first, A Duty to the Dead, a couple of weeks ago.  A Bitter Truth, the third book in the series, has just been published.

As An Impartial Witness opens, it is early summer, 1917.  Bess has returned to England with a convoy of wounded soldiers.  Among them is Lt. Meriwether Evanson, a severely burned flyer whose will to live is sustained by the thought of his wife Marjorie; her photo is pinned to his uniform.  After settling her patients at their hospital in Hampshire, Bess travels on to London.  Leaving the train station, she recognizes Lt. Evanson's wife, standing with an army officer, clearly in distress and openly sobbing.  The man makes no move to comfort her and eventually leaves her to catch a train. Bess tries to follow her out of the station but loses her in the crowds.

Weeks later, back in France, Bess comes across an old newspaper article asking the public's help in solving the murder of Marjorie Evanson, who was killed later that same day.  Bess immediately writes to Scotland Yard to offer her information, and from there she is drawn into the case, especially when she learns that Lt. Evanson killed himself on learning of his wife's death.  As in A Duty to the Dead, Bess feels a responsibility for "her" patients that goes far beyond their physical care, and a conviction that justice must be done. When an old friend of Marjorie's is accused of her murder, Bess believes him to be innocent and immerses herself in investigation, over the wishes of both her family and the lead investigator.

Unlike the first book, which was set mainly in England, the story in this book moves between France and England.  We see Bess on duty in the field hospitals, with all the difficulties and dangers of life on the front lines.  She can only pursue her investigations during her leaves, and though she manages more time than most of her fellow nurses, she is still caught in the discipline of the service.  When she does make it to England, her family naturally expects her to spend time at home with them.  Her parents did not play a large part in the first book, though we met her father, a retired army officer whom Bess and her mother refer to as "Colonel Sahib."  Here they are an important part of the story, as is another member of their family, Simon Brandon. 

I don't quite know what to make of Simon.  Originally the Colonel's batman, through long years of service he became the regimental sergeant-major and a friend of the family.  Retired from the army like the Colonel, he lives in a house close to Bess's parents, and he and the Colonel are involved in confidential war work.  Bess describes him as "Half confessor, half godfather, half friend, half elder brother," someone she has known all her life and dearly loves.  For much of the book, he is at her side, arguing with her, trying to get her to drop her investigation, but in the end using his contacts to find information, as well as offering comfort and advice.  Since Bess narrates these stories, we have only her point of view, and I can't decide if I'm reading too much into their interactions, or if Bess does not understand her own feelings.  I am also not sure how the social code of the time would see a relationship between a colonel's daughter and her father's former batman. Perhaps the next book will make things clearer.  I'm looking forward to it, because I like these characters and these well-told stories.