Saturday, December 31, 2011

A last post for 2011

The Heart of a Goof, P.G. Wodehouse

I finished out my reading year with P.G. Wodehouse, and who could ask for anything better?  This is the second of his collections of golf stories (I posted about the first, The Clicking of Cuthbert, back in July).  Here again the Oldest Member sits in the clubhouse or on the terrace overlooking the ninth hole, always glad to see a fellow member and always ready for a chat about golf, or love.  These chats end up being a bit one-sided, of course, since the Sage is inevitably reminded of a story, which he proceeds to tell, deaf to any protests, attempts to change to subject, or even snoring from his listener.

Most of the stories, as so often with Wodehouse, deal with lovers divided, though one is also about a magical pair of plus-fours. (Reading this, I realized I had no idea where the name "plus-fours" comes from, but thanks to Google I do now: they are four inches longer than the traditional knickerbockers. Honestly, the things you learn from reading!)  I enjoyed the stories, though none quite reaches the comic heights of "The Long Hole" in the first volume, which I still consider Wodehouse's funniest.  Much of the humor comes from watching the trap close on the Oldest Member's chosen victim, and the futile attempts at escape that follow:
     "The whole affair recalls irresistibly to my mind the story -"
     The secretary rose with a whirr like a rocketing pheasant.
     "- the story," continued the Sage, "of Jane Packard, William Bates, and Rodney Spelvin - which, as you have never heard it, I will now proceed to relate."
     "Can't stop now, much as I should like - "
     "It is a theory of mine," proceeded the Oldest Member, attaching himself to the other's coat-tails, and pulling him gently back into his seat . . .
He rather reminds me of Jane Austen's Miss Bates, another implacable conversationalist.  They are great fun to read about, though if I met either in real life, I would probably be trying to make my escape too, as quickly as possible.

It's still a few hours to midnight here, but I'll wish you a Happy New Year now.  Here's to another great year of reading and sharing books!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

My favorite books of 2011

Blogging is such a joy.  I've never had a place to post a list like this, nor have I ever had so many other interesting lists to peruse - a wonderful change from the big established lists full of books that don't interest me.

I know it's traditional to post 10 books, but I'm going for 12 - one for each month, and because I can't stop at 10.  And I can only manage 12 by posting lists for both fiction and non-fiction.

On the fiction list (and in order):
  1. Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson. I opened this book and fell in love.
  2. The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope. I had read this before, but reading it again was as enthralling as if it were the first time.
  3. The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim.  This was the year I discovered von Arnim, which explains #4
  4. The Caravaners, also by von Arnim. One of the funniest books I read all year.
  5. The King of Attoilia, by Megan Whalen Turner.  The third in her excellent "Thief" series, and my favorite so far.
  6. Mary Lavelle, by Kate O'Brien. Re-discovering O'Brien has been one of the highlights of my reading year.
  7. Farthing, by Jo Walton. I can already tell I will be looking for everything she has written.
  8. A Trick of the Light, by Louise Penny. I'd move to Three Pines if I could, despite the murder rate.
  9. Never No More, by Maura Laverty.  Another re-discovery, and a re-read of an enchanting book. 
  10. Cleopatra's Sister, by Penelope Lively.  I read several of Lively's books this year, and a memoir of her childhood, all which were great reads.
  11. I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett. The latest in the Tiffany Aching series - and hopefully not the last.
  12. The Masuda Affair, by I.J. Parker. A fascinating introduction to a mystery series set in medieval Japan.

On the non-fiction list (also in order):
  1. A World on Fire, Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War, by Amanda Foreman. As I said in my review, one of the best books I have ever read on the Civil War period.
  2. The Fiery Trial, by Eric Foner. Abraham Lincoln's gradual conversion to emancipation and equality for African Americans.
  3. Grant's Final Victory, by Charles Bracelen Flood. Ulysses Grant's last fight, to finish his epic memoirs in the face of economic ruin and terminal illness.
  4. The Diary of George Templeton Strong, The Civil War, 1860-1865, Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds. This diary is one of our national historical treasures.
  5. Queen Mary, by James Pope-Hennessy. A majestic but compulsively readable biography.
  6. Blue Latitudes, by Tony Horwitz. I learned so much history, and geography, from this book about Captain Cook and his voyages.
  7. Acedia & me, by Kathleen Norris. I read this spiritual autobiography and exploration of the ancient vice of acedia before I began blogging.  I'm not sure I could have done this book justice in a review. It's a cliché, but a true one, to say it changed my life.
  8. Family Circle, by Cornelia Otis Skinner. This warm and funny family biography set me off to find other books by and about the Skinners. I'm glad to find so many other fans of Our Hearts Were Light and Gay.
  9. No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, by Melissa Fay Greene. A heart-warming but never sentimental account of how her family has grown through foreign adoptions, including several AIDS orphans from Ethiopia.
  10. Jane Austen and the Clergy, by Irene Collins. I learned so much about the Anglican church in Austen's time, her own clerical connections, and her fictional clergymen.
  11. Sisters of Sinai, by Janet Soskice. How two Victorian women discovered one of the oldest known copies of the Gospels in the Egyptian desert - travel, archeology, and biblical scholarship.
  12. A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, by Isabella Bird. Another intrepid Victorian traveler, this one braving the American West in 1873.
What a rich year of reading it has been, and what fun it has been to share books through blogging.  I was introduced to several of these books, including Farthing, Sisters of Sinai, Mary Lavelle, and The Enchanted April, from reviews I read.  So as I'm reading through other people's end-of-the-year lists, I'm sure I'll be finding books for next year's list.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A foundling and her family

The Star of Kazan, Eva Ibbotson

Claire of The Captive Reader recently posted about Eva Ibbotson's The Dragonfly Pool, and reading her review reminded me first, how much I love Ibbotson's books; and second, that I haven't read any of her young-adult books.  I happened to be in Half Price Books a day or so later and when I went looking for Ibbotson, I was lucky enough to find The Star of Kazan.  I was sold the minute I saw it takes place in pre-war Vienna, which is also the setting of my favorite of her novels, Madensky Square.

The Star of the Kazan is the story of Annika, a foundling discovered in a small country church by Ellie, who with her friend Sigrid keeps house for three professors in Vienna.  A note pinned to the infant's shawl asks whoever finds her to take her "to the nuns in Vienna."  But a typhus epidemic in the city's foundling homes means their doors are closed in quarantine, and Ellie takes the baby home instead, just for the night.  The three professors, Julius the geologist, Emil the art historian, and Gertrude the musician, are initially horrified at this intrusion into their lives.  But in the end they agree that the baby can stay, though as Julius says, "We shall of course expect her to be useful."

Usefulness seems to have been one of Ibbotson's cardinal virtues, one that all her heroines share in different ways.  Like Ellen Carr in A Song for Summer (another favorite of mine), Annika finds joy and purpose in keeping house, and especially in cooking, as she works alongside and learns from Sigrid and Ellie.  And oh the food, described in such luscious detail, from the everyday goodness of a vanilla kipfel straight out of the oven to the great feasts like Christmas Eve with its stuffed carp.

By the time she is twelve, the year that Ellie assigned the cooking of the Christmas Eve carp to her, Annika has made her home not just in the professors' house but in the community of the square in which they live.  She has the gift of friendship, like Ellen Carr or Anna Grazinsky in A Countess Below Stairs, and the gift of making a home wherever she finds herself.  But even in the loving, ordered world of Brenner Square, Annika still dreams of her mother, who will one day arrive, tall and beautiful and richly dressed:
    "She swept into the house, saying, 'Where is she? Where is my long-lost daughter? Oh, take me to her,' and then she gathered Annika into her arms.
    "'My darling, my beloved child,' she said, and she explained why she'd had to leave Annika in the church. The explanation was complicated and it varied as Annika told herself the story. . ."
And then one day, this dream comes true.  The tall and beautiful and richly dressed Edeltraut von Tannenberg arrives to claim Annika as her long-lost daughter, and to take her to Norrland, to her family's home in northeast Germany.  Annika has found her mother, but that means losing Ellie, Sigrid and the professors, her friends in the square, and the magical city of Vienna itself.  Her joy and her immediate love for her mother carry her through this painful separation, as Annika looks forward to her new life at the family's estate in Spittal.

To say anything more, about what she finds there, about what happens to those left behind in Vienna, would give away too much of this wonderful story.  I found myself completely caught up in it, following its twists and turns, wanting to know what happens next and how it would all work out.  It's the kind of book I want to share, to give to other people, with those familiar words, "Here, you need to read this."  And I can't wait to read more of Ibbotson's young adult books, though with the TBR Double-Dare just days away, that will have to wait.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A family Christmas

Ten Days of Christmas, G.B. Stern

I had never heard of G.B. Stern until I read a review of Ten Days of Christmas that Jane wrote on Fleur Fisher in her world.  I wanted to read something with a Christmas setting, to get me in the mood for the holiday after all the fuss of preparation.

This is the story of the Maitland family, gathering to celebrate Christmas in 1946 at Anthony and Dorothy's home in the country.  For the grown-ups at least, it is the first "real" Christmas of the peace, when they can all be together again for the first time since 1938.  In addition to Dorothy (Doe) and Anthony's two children, Erica and Roddy, Doe has a daughter, Rosalind, from her first marriage.  Anthony's sister Tania, his sister-in-law Sorrel and niece Terry are joining them, with his father the senior Mr. Maitland, as well as Nicholas, the younger brother of Doe's first husband (fortunately there is a family tree to keep all these people sorted out at the start).  Honorary family members Ted Bartlett, a famous actor, his nephew Lal and niece Clare will also be spending the holidays with the Maitlands (I had to draw my own tree to keep this family straight).  Clare, whose mother is American, has spent the war years with her family in the United States; this is her first trip back to England since 1939.

We have a running joke in my family, when we get together at the holidays, over all the different ways that someone can "ruin Christmas."  If a dish doesn't turn out perfectly, or if someone forgets to bring something, a chorus goes up: "Lisa ruined Christmas!"  In Ten Days of Christmas, what should have been a joyous reunion falls spectacularly apart, and almost every character takes his or her turn at ruining the family's Christmas.

Trouble starts with the younger members, who are trying to stage a Nativity play with the help of a neighbor down from Oxford for the holiday.  It breaks out over two identical gifts, given to the same person, and spreads from there to the adults, whose quarrels and alliances mirror those of the younger set and can turn just as vicious.  Accusations fly, old grievances are resurrected, new injuries are proclaimed.  The elder Mr. Maitland, whose birthday is on Boxing Day, adds his mite to the tension with his demands of a proper birthday celebration and a completely separate set of lavish presents, under threat of sulks and tantrums (a welcome touch of humor among the more serious clashes).  His son Anthony, watching all of this with a detached eye, find a theme for his next book:
"The children started me off, gave me the germs for a new book, and a title . . . The Psychology of Quarrels . . . The whole world apparently wants peace and rest; the whole world declares itself glad the war's over.  Doesn't everyone in the thick of a quarrel always deny any wish on their part to have brought it about or to be keeping it up? . . . We're apt to keep children and adults in watertight compartments, but when we come to quarrelling, don't the adults also behave and talk and think in an utterly childish way?  Not all the time, of course, but off and on; relaxing too suddenly from some long mental strain."
It is only with the belated arrival of Ted Bartlett, who immediately becomes involved in the Nativity Play, that the younger members of the family can let go of their grievances, as the play brings them together again in peace and shared purpose. Some of the adults will take longer to forgive, to move on.

Ten Days of Christmas is not a cozy Christmas story.  Even after all that had come before, I found the last chapter a jolt, one which left me sad.  But it is a very good story, with people you come to care about.  It reminded me of Rumer Godden's books, and also of Penelope Lively's.  Though I'd never heard of G.B. Stern, I will be looking for her other books.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Day by day through the Civil War

The Diary of George Templeton Strong, The Civil War, 1860-1865  (Vol. 3).   Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds.

This is not exactly Christmas reading, though it does cover four very different Christmas.  I had read George Templeton Strong's Civil War diary a few years ago.  It is considered one of the most important contemporary accounts of the war years, with quotations and citations showing up in all kinds of books about the Civil War.  I originally read a stand-alone edition, but it is actually the third of four published volumes of Strong's diaries.  I read Volumes 1 and 2 of the diaries earlier this year (the first covers the years 1835-1849 and the second 1850-1859).  I wanted to re-read the Civil War volume in its proper place, before going on to the fourth and final volume (covering the years 1865-1875).  But I also wanted to re-read it in light of some of the other books on the Civil War that I have read this year, all of which cite the diaries, including Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial, Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, and Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising.

When 1860 opened, George Templeton Strong was living in New York City with his wife Ellie and two sons (and another on the way).  He was a lawyer with a busy practice in his Wall Street office, his free time devoted to the vestry at Trinity Church and the Board of Trustees of Columbia College, and a social life among the city's best families.  He was also a passionate musician, attending rehearsals and performances of the Philharmonic and local opera companies, as well as musical evenings with friends.  Like many Northerners, he believed slavery was wrong but held racist ideas about African Americans (generally referring to them by the n-word).  He felt abolitionists were the real danger, because their agitation about slavery was driving a wedge between the free north and the slave south.  If everyone just ignored slavery, it would not be an issue.  But the rising tension over whether new territories, like Kansas, would be slave or free put the issue of slavery front and center.  With the Republicans, Strong came to agree that slavery must be protected under the Constitution but confined to where it already existed, and he reluctantly voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, on a Republican platform of containment. 

Many Southerners were convinced that, whatever the Republicans said, Lincoln's election meant an attack on slavery. Before 1860 ended, South Carolina had seceded; by the time Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861, five other states had followed, forming a Southern Confederacy.  Like many others in the North, Strong reacted with passionate patriotism to the possible division and demise of the United States.  Over the next four years, he would devote himself to the Union cause.  His greatest work was with the United States Sanitary Commission, a private relief organization.  The army's medical bureau, dealing with a peace-time army of 15,000, was unable to cope with a volunteer force of more than a million, where a single battle might leave 30,000 casualties on the Union side alone.  These volunteer soldiers, many fresh off the farm, were also vulnerable to disease, and most had no idea how to lay out a camp or even dig a latrine.  The Commission raised funds for supplies, doctors, camp inspectors, hospitals, and convalescent homes.  Strong served as treasurer throughout the war, overseeing the collection and disbursement of more than $4 million dollars (an estimated $108 million in 2011 dollars).  As treasurer, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and generals from George McClellan to Ulysses Grant.  This access to the political and military centers, with his visits to army camps and hospitals, solidified Strong's devotion to the Union cause and particularly to the soldiers who fought for it.

At the same time, his attitude toward slavery changed completely, as he came to see it as the root cause of the war.  One of his main objections to slavery had been the forced separation of enslaved families by sale.  Now there were constant references to sale of children and the abuse of women, including sexual assaults.  Like the abolitionists he had previously despised, and with black Americans themselves, Strong argued for the enlistment of black soldiers long before the Lincoln administration made it federal policy, and he frequently reported the bravery of the black regiments in combat.  It is also notable that Strong began using the words "Negro" and "black" to refer to African Americans, though he continued to use the n-word as well.  Even more than the South, he would come to blame the North for the war, for its acquiescence in the evils of slavery.

Strong's place in society and his position with the Sanitary Commission meant that he met everyone of importance in New York and Washington, and he reported on it all.  He served on the committee organizing the visit of the Prince of Wales to the city in 1860, where he met the British ambassador Lord Lyons.  (His diary perfectly reflects the anti-British feeling in the North, charted in Amanda Foreman's book.)  In the last pages of this volume, he attended the funeral service of Abraham Lincoln at the White House: "I count it a great privilege to have been present. There will be thousands of people ten years hence who would pay any money to have been in my place" (April 19, 1865).

In the end, I feel almost as though I have lived through the four years of the Civil War, through this extraordinary diary and the man who kept it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas at Compton Bobbin

Christmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford

I have been saving this book for the holidays, though I knew with Nancy Mitford it wouldn't be a real "Christmas" book.  It was a perfect fit, a light and funny antidote to holiday stress, laced with her trademark cynicism.  As always with her books, I felt like I was missing some of the private jokes, but not enough to interrupt the fun.

The Prologue introduces us, at "Four o'clock on the First of November. A dark and foggy day," to "Sixteen characters in search of an author."  One of these, Paul Fotheringay, has just published his first novel, Crazy Capers, a searing portrait of a young man's tragic struggle with the mysteries of life.  The good news is that the book has become a runaway best-seller.  The bad news is that everyone considers it the comic masterpiece of the year.  Paul, his soul ravaged by this barbarity, resolves to write a serious book that must compel the world's respect.  He settles on literary biography as his genre, and Lady Maria Bobbin, a 19th century poet, as his subject.  Initially refused access to Lady Maria's papers, housed at the ancestral home of Compton Bobbin in Gloucestershire, he enlists the help of his friend Amabelle Fortescue.  She has taken a house near Compton Bobbin for several months, and she knows the Bobbin family.  She secures Paul a position as a holiday tutor to the heir, the frighteningly precocious Sir Roderick (Bobby) Bobbin, currently at Eton.  Amabelle herself is taking a party to the house she has leased, Mulberrie Farm.

Mitford has great fun with Mulberrie Farm, which has been renovated into an "olde worlde" showpiece, and with Bobby's mother Lady Bobbin, obsessed with hunting and the threat of socialism.  Lady Bobbin is also devoted to the proper celebration of Christmas in the true "Merrie Englande" style, gathering the far-flung Bobbin family to the old family home for the feast.  Of the two, I think I'd prefer to spend Christmas with Amabelle at Mulberrie Farm. 

At Compton Bobbin, Paul finds fourteen volumes of Lady Maria's journals, a wealth of resources for his biography.  Mitford includes some extensive quotes from the diaries, which sound amazingly like Queen Victoria's, down to the death of Lady Maria's husband Sir Josiah.  Bobby, who prefers to spend his holiday in gossip and bridge with Amabelle and her friends, is more than happy to leave Paul to his research.  But Paul is somewhat distracted from his poetess by Bobby's lovely sister Philadelphia.  He has a rival in the rich and eligible (but ponderous and prosing) Marquis of Lewes.  Philadelphia, marooned in the country with her trying mother and bored to distraction, ready to fall in love with the first man who offers her a more exciting life, here has two.  Another romance is also blooming, in a quieter way - one that shocks the circle of friends.  The discussion of marriage, of love and of more practical motives, makes up a major theme of the book.  I'm not sure I agree with Philadelphia's final choice, but I do see why she makes it.  I'd love to know how it works out in the end for her.

This was a fun, diverting read, with its sixteen amusing characters, and I really enjoyed it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Two innocents in Hollywood

We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood, Emily Kimbrough

Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough published Our Hearts Were Young and Gay late in 1942.  It is a hilarious and endearing account of a trip they took to England and France in the early 1920s, when they were both 19.  Shortly after its publication, they received a call from Hollywood.  The book had been optioned for a film, and Cornelia and Emily were invited to come to California to write the dialogue.  Though neither had any experience in writing for films, they said yes - and then immediately regretted it.  As Emily wrote,
"And why should I think that I could go to Hollywood and run up a scenario - I must have been out of my mind - I would back out - Cornelia could do it.  I heard her voice, slightly hysterical in pitch, and apprehensive. 'Oh Lord, Emily, you and I are going to take another trip together.'  And I knew that nothing would induce me to back out."
We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood is the story of that trip.  Where the first book was a collaboration, told in Cornelia's voice, this second book was written by Emily alone, and she is the narrator.  It is the story not so much the physical journey, but of the five weeks they spent at Paramount Studios working on dialogue.  When they went through the gates onto that famous lot, they entered a completely new and alien world.  Though Cornelia once had a small part in a film her father the actor Otis Skinner made (a story she told in her memoir Family Circle), that was in 1920.  They knew nothing about the business of making films in 1943, but at Paramount they had a front-row view of the business. Cornelia and Emily could poke into every corner of the sets and watch every step of the process, including a visit to Edith Head's costume department - and they did.  And then there were the stars.  On their first day at work, they saw Bob Hope riding by on a bicycle and Ginger Rogers strolling past in a mink skirt, and they met Ray Milland over lunch.  But Emily observed that to film actors, Cornelia was theater royalty, and they could be just as star-struck to meet her as she was with them.  Being Cornelia and Emily, they also managed to wreak a bit of havoc from time to time.  Emily's account of her unexpected appearance as a Godzilla-like figure in So Proudly We Hail is particularly memorable - and hilarious.

I love classic films.  My television stays set to the Turner Classic Movies station, and I will watch almost anything with William Powell and Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck, Ronald Coleman, Claude Rains, or Dana Andrews.  I loved this tour of 1943 Hollywood, which includes a description of the Academy Awards complete with paparazzi (all of whom ignored Cornelia and Emily) and long boring speeches.

But this book is not just a travelogue or an account of their adventures in Hollywood; it has a serious side that I did not expect but found very interesting.  Emily used her experience as a magazine writer and editor to analyze the motion picture industry and to identify problems that she saw.  She also looked at the diversity of population in California, finding at least in Hollywood an "indifference to any race or nationality or color" that contrasted with the racist attitudes towards particularly Jews and African Americans that she found more prevalent in the east.  (I am not sure that the film industry was all that color-blind, or actresses like Butterfly McQueen would have had more roles available to them than maids and nannies.)  Emily also looked at Hollywood's role in World War II, in making patriotic films, in touring with the USO and selling war bonds.  She and Cordelia made time to visit the celebrated Hollywood Canteen, where Cordelia performed some of her famous monologues for the soldiers.

One day on the Paramount lot, Emily and Cornelia met a fellow writer who was struggling with a plot point: why a young man would want to buy a particular house.  Cornelia came up with a reason, and she went on to play a part in the film that resulted, The Uninvited (which I just recently watched, in part to see her).  Emily would also return to Hollywood, as a technical advisor on the film of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  I've never seen that film, but I really enjoyed reading about it and about the further adventures of Emily and Cordelia.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Murder on a honeymoon

Three-Day Town, Margaret Maron

This is the 17th book in Margaret Maron's series of mysteries featuring North Carolina judge Deborah Knott.  I was introduced to the books by my friend Margaret (not the author) while we were browsing in my beloved Murder by the Book one day.  She handed me the first, Bootlegger's Daughter, with those magical words: "You have to read this."  And she was right.  I wasn't even half-way through it before I was off looking for the rest of the series.

Most of it is set in North Carolina, in the fictional Colleton County where Deborah lives with her husband Dwight Bryant (a deputy sheriff) and his son, as well as their extended families.  Deborah has eleven brothers, who with their wives, ex-wives, and children play a large part in most of the books, as does her father Kezzie, who may or may have retired as a bootlegger (Dwight sure hopes he has, so he doesn't have to arrest his father-in-law one day).  Over the course of the series we've come to know them as well as other relations, colleagues and friends, in the complex and detailed world that Margaret Maron has created.  I wouldn't be surprised if literary tourists show up in North Carolina looking for Colleton the way they do in Louise Penny's Quebec.  I know I'd love to visit.

This book takes Deborah and Dwight out of that familiar setting, to New York City, for a belated honeymoon stay in an apartment owned by Dwight's sister-in-law Kate.  One of Kate's relations, the elderly Mrs. Lattimore, has asked them to deliver a small package to her daughter Anne Harald in New York.  When they arrive in New York, they discover that Anne is out of the country, but they make contact in turn with her daughter Sigrid, a lieutenant with the New York police.  Deborah arranges a meeting with Sigrid to deliver the package, which turns out to be a bronze art object.  She and Dwight are at a neighbor's party when Sigrid arrives, and when Deborah takes her back to their apartment to collect the item, they find the building's super dead in the living room and the bronze object missing.  At that point, Sigrid calls in her team and takes over the case.

The first few books in the series are all told in first-person narration, in Deborah's voice.  Ir's an appealing voice, frank and funny and honest, which draws you right into the story.  As Laurie R. King and Elizabeth Peters did with their first-person characters, though, Margaret Maron began alternating Deborah's chapters with third-person narration, often following Dwight and his team through their part of the mystery.  In this book, the alternate chapters follow Sigrid and her team.  She is the central character in a separate series of eight mysteries, none of which I have read.  There is clearly a lot of history between these characters, and I found it a challenge to keep them all straight.  I also missed Deborah and Dwight who, naturally sidelined from much of the investigation, spend their time playing tourists and honeymooners, though by the end of the case they play a big part in its resolution.  Up to that point, much of the investigation focuses on the residents and employees of the apartment building, and I found it a little difficult to keep track of all of them as well.

As usual, I had no idea who-done-it, but I enjoyed the story and the New York setting, which made me want to play tourist myself.  In the end, Dwight and Deborah cut short their honeymoon to return to Colleton County, and I'm looking forward to returning there again myself.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

An Irish Eden

Never No More, Maura Laverty

I discovered Maura Laverty around the same time as Kate O'Brien, a fellow Irish writer.  But the only book of Laverty's that I ever read was Never No More.  That was back in the infancy of the internet, before I could browse bookstore inventories around the world, and also before interlibrary loan was available to regular library users as it is today.  It's hard to remember when I had to wait patiently for books to come to me, rather than going out to find them.  (On the other hand, in those days I had a minuscule TBR pile.)

As it happens, I also re-discovered Maura Laverty as I did Kate O'Brien, though Verity's Virago Venture.  That's where I was reminded that there is a sequel to Never No More, in which Delia, the narrator, goes off to Spain as a "miss," a chaperone/governess, just as Mary Lavelle does in Kate O'Brien's book of that name, which I read last month.  Laverty's sequel, No More Than Human, immediately went on my TBR pile.  But since it has been so long since I've read Never No More, I wanted to read it again first, to get re-acquainted with Delia before following her off on further adventures.

Never No More opens in October of 1920, as Delia and her family return from her father's funeral, in the small town of Ballyderrig in County Kildare.  Delia's mother has decided to move the family to the near-by town of Kilkenny, where she will open a dressmaking business.  Delia's distress over leaving Ballyderrig turns to joy when her beloved grandmother offers to give her a home and even fund her education to become a teacher. While Delia and her mother have a difficult relationship, her grandmother provides the love and security she needs.  Her mother is more than happy to leave her behind, and Delia moves that night to her grandmother's farm, Derrymore House.

There Delia settles into an idyllic life, one of hard work but also of home comforts described in loving detail, especially Gran's cooking.  In the introduction to my Virago edition, Maeve Binchy writes that
"Maura Laverty was a food pornographer, her pages are full of spicy vapours which would cajole a dying man to eat, luscious pools of butter on speckled surfaces of seed cake, potato apple cakes oozing with sugar and butter.  She is sensual and specific and utterly convincing, and she is not even writing a cookery book."
Binchy points out later that Laverty did write two very successful cookbooks, "which are still a legend in Ireland."  And oh this book is full of food - definitely not a book to read on an empty stomach.  It is country cooking with farm ingredients, and it would probably horrify a vegetarian.  But as much as food, this book is full of love.  Delia says of her Gran,
"You were the purple bog and ripe wheat-field and a crab tree in May. You were good food, and songs in the firelight and the rosary at night.  You were a welcome for my coming and a prayer for my going out.  You were Gran." 
Her Gran is a wonderful character, a perfect surrogate mother, a woman of great faith, wisdom and charity, always willing to lend a hand to those in need.  Living at Derrymore House, Delia also remains part of the close-knit community of Ballyderrig, and she weaves in stories from the town and outlying farms, many of which deal with the dark side of life, with illness, violence, and death.  Yet under Gran's influence Derrymore House remains an Eden.  When Delia reluctantly leaves it for a convent boarding school, she proves to be an unsuccessful student and returns with relief to Gran.  In the end, however, she must leave Ballyderrig forever, for this new post in Spain.

Never No More is a lovely book, and I can see its influences in Maeve Binchy's books.  I am looking forward to Delia's adventures in Spain, though like her I was sad to leave Ballyderrig, and Gran.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The last chronicle of Barsetshire

The Last Chronicle of Barset, Anthony Trollope

I have spent the last week in Barsetshire.  I had been wanting to re-read The Last Chronicle for a while now, ever since I re-read Framley Parsonage.  Once I realized that the TBR Double Dare means only new books, no re-reads, I had an extra incentive to fit it in this month.  And then the whole time I was reading The Turn of the Screw, especially when I was trying to puzzle out one of Henry James' abstruse sentence constructions, I kept thinking of Trollope's easy flowing narration.

In his autobiography, Trollope wrote of The Last Chronicle of Barset: "Taking it as a whole, I regard this as the best novel I have written."  It is certainly one of his most ambitious, bringing together a large cast of characters from the previous five novels in the series, as well as adding new ones.  I count at least seven major plotlines, developed in alternating chapters, which intersect as characters become involved in the different stories and as the action shifts around Barsetshire and to London and back.

The central story involves Rev. Josiah Crawley and his family, who play an important part in Framley Parsonage.  Mr. Crawley is the Perpetual Curate of Hogglestock, a poor parish encompassing the brick yards and industrial area of Hogglestock (future home of Angela Thirkell's Sam Adams).  He is accused of stealing a £20 cheque from Lord Lufton's man of business.  He cannot account for how he acquired the check, thinking that it came as a reluctantly-accepted gift from the Dean of Barchester, a friend of many years.  He doesn't know how he got it, but he insists he did not steal it.  Since he cashed the cheque, however, he is bound over for trial at the next assizes in Barchester.  Mr. Crawley is a sympathetic character, a true shepherd to his rough flock, a tireless worker, clearly a man of honor and honesty.  But he is also a repellent character at times, drowning in self-pity for his poverty, resenting others' success, and stubbornly refusing all assistance.  He can be harsh to his long-suffering wife, who actually seems the more heroic character, and in some ways the stronger.

Mr. Crawley's predicament weighs heavily on his eldest daughter Grace, a teacher in nearby Silverbridge, in the second major plotline.  It is common knowledge in Silverbridge that Major Henry Grantly has fallen in love with her, and she has also formed an attachment.  Major Grantly is the son of the formidable Archdeacon Grantly of Plumstead, and also the grandson of Mr. Harding, the Warden of the first Barsetshire story.  Though he is a widower with a small child, he is, in vulgar terms, a great catch for Grace in her Cinderella state.  But though she does not mind her poverty, she does mind the thought that her father might be found guilty of theft.  Believing him innocent, she still cannot bring alliance with a felon's family to the Grantlys.  That is exactly the idea of the Archdeacon, who threatens to disinherit Henry if he marries Grace.  Henry resents this interference, threatening in his turn to marry Grace and go live on a pittance at Pau in France.

While this family struggle is raging, war breaks out on another front.  The Bishop of Barchester - or rather, the Bishop's wife Mrs. Proudie - declares that a thieving clergyman cannot retain his pulpit.  She calls on Mr. Crawley to resign his curacy, planning to install one of her pet clergymen.  In Barsetshire, of course, that alone is enough to make some people throw their support to Mr. Crawley.  The battle between Mr. Crawley and Mrs. Proudie, with the miserable bishop caught in between, eventually draws in other clergy from around the diocese.  Dean Arabin and his wife are unfortunately out of the country; many believe the Dean could solve the mystery of the cheque.  Mr. Harding, Mrs. Arabin's father, lives with them at the Deanery; he is an elderly man whose health is beginning to fail.  He is one of my favorite characters in all of Trollope, a lovely gentle man, and his story here is like himself, quiet and poignant.

I had forgotten that there are three other plots woven into this story, centered in London.  One concerns Lily Dale, the heroine of The Small House at Allington, and my least-favorite character in all of Trollope. Having been jilted by her first love, she resolves never to marry, because she will never again love with the first love of a woman's heart - very noble but to my mind very silly.  In The Last Chronicle, she is being pressured to marry an old friend, John Eames, who is also cousin to Mrs. Crawley.  Johnny, while faithfully in love with Lily, is like many young men in Trollope also a flirt. He becomes involved with the mysterious Madelina Demolines.  His friend Conway Dalrymple, a rising Society painter, tries to warn him away from Miss Demolines, but he himself is involved in a similar situation with the married Maria Broughton.  None of their stories were as interesting to me as Mr. Crawley's or Grace's, and at times I almost resented their interruption.

I loved reading this book again, and as always with re-reading I saw new things.  I noticed for example that Lord Lufton holds the great tithes of Hogglestock, which from reading Jane Austen and the Clergy I knew means that he has impropriated them.  Last year I read A Highland Lady in France, a journal Elizabeth Grant kept during her family's "retrenchment" in Pau in 1844-1845, so I had some idea of what Major Grantly's life there would have been like, if he carried his threat against his father into action.  And I was also reminded very strongly of the later books in Angela Thirkell's 20th century Barsetshire series, where Grace and Tom Crawley, Silverbridge and Hogglestock, play such parts.

In the final pages of The Last Chronicle of Barset, Trollope writes,
    "For myself I can only say that I shall always be happy to sit, when allowed to do so, at the table of Archdeacon Grantly, to walk through the High Street of Barchester arm in arm with Mr. Robarts of Framley, and to stand alone and shed a tear beneath the modest black stone in the north transept of the cathedral on which is inscribed the name of Septimus Harding.
      "And now, if the reader will allow me to seize him affectionately by the arm, we will together take our last farewell of Barset and the towers of Barchester."
"To seize him affectionately by the arm" - what a wonderfully apt description of the almost irresistible pull of  Trollope's stories.  Like the creator of Barsetshire, I too will always be glad to return to its country lanes and city streets, and most of all to its marvellous people.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My introduction to Henry James

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

I have never read Henry James before.  I knew his books, but I was a little intimidated by his reputation for dark, complex stories, told in baroque language.  As with George Eliot, though, several things lately have pointed me toward his books.  The first was Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which connected The Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew to the Constance Kent case.  (Fortunately I'd forgotten that it gives away the ending of The Turn of the Screw.)   The second was seeing James' books on various blogs this year, particularly Audrey's posts on The American at books as food.  The last was reading Penelope Lively's How It All Began, in which What Maisie Knew plays an important part.  I decided it was time to try one of his books, but I also decided to start with one of the shorter works.

I have been putting together a mental list of holiday-themed books to read in December, but I realized pretty quickly that while this story opens on Christmas Eve, it would not be a holiday story.  I was just as quickly drawn into the story, the familiar scene of people sitting around a fire late at night, telling ghost stories.  According to a note in my copy, this is a traditional Christmas eve pastime, which explains A Christmas Carol's ghosts.  After a story involving a child and a ghost, one of the group, Douglas, claims to have the ultimate ghost story, one with two children.  "It's beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it," he says, "For dreadful - dreadfulness."  But he can't tell the story that night.  He has to send to town for a manuscript.  And like the people gathered around the fire, we have to wait a little, anticipating the story.

In this story within a story, Douglas is reading an account of the experiences of a young woman, never named, the daughter of a clergyman, who accepts a position as governess to two young children.  Their parents are dead, and their guardian, an uncle who does not wish to be bothered with them, has sent the boy, Miles, to school; and the girl, Flora, to a country home.  He makes it a condition of employment that the governess have no further contact with him, only his solicitor, that she take complete responsibility for the children.

And so she arrives at her isolated post, this new and inexperienced governess.  There she finds a pastoral scene and an angelic young girl, a dark old gothic house and an ally in the housekeeper, Mrs Grose.  But then a letter arrives, saying that the boy Miles has been dismissed from his school, for unstated reasons.  The governess's question, "Is he really bad?" becomes one of the central questions of the story.  Like his sister, Miles has an almost unearthly beauty.  But with his return come other, eerie arrivals, and the governess learns about two former members of the household, one the previous governess.  Both are now dead, but are they gone?  Are they the mysterious figures that the governess sees?  More importantly, what do the children see?

The image of a tightening screw is a perfect metaphor for this story, with its heightening tension. The governess's first-person narration adds to this, though as with George Eliot, I found that James's verbose language and confusing constructions sometimes took me out of the story.  Yet the final chapter builds to one of the most unexpected, shattering conclusions I have ever read, and I turned the last page unable to believe that the story had ended.

The ending left me with so many questions unanswered (and I'm moving into spoiler territory here): what happens to Flora?  Removing her from the house doesn't seem to be the answer, or at least it didn't work in Miles' case, given what happened at school.  And what happens to the governess?  How on earth does she explain what happened, particularly after Flora's accusations?  What does the children's uncle do now? Presumably the governess doesn't stay with Flora; is she dismissed without a reference?  We know from the first that she did go on to other situations, since Douglas himself met her when she was governess to his sister.

It turns out that I read this under a major misapprehension, which colored my reading and confused me.  I thought I remembered from The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher that the Kent case had inspired The Turn of the Screw, so I went into the story expecting the children to be guilty of something, even murder.  Still confused as I am by the ending, I think now that they were themselves innocent, but possessed by evil spirits.  I will need to read this again.  My copy includes a second novella, The Aspern Papers, which seems to be about a family archives, always an intriguing setting to an archivist, and I plan to read that as well as What Maisie Knew.