Sunday, December 30, 2012

My favorite books of 2012

I love this time of the blogging year, when the "favorite books" lists start appearing.  For blogs that I've only recently discovered, it's a chance to see what I've missed in earlier postings, as well as get a better sense of the reader behind the blog.  For those I've been following all year, it's a great review and reminder of books I meant to add to my own lists (and quickly, before the TBR Double Dog Dare kicks in January 1st).  I also enjoy looking back over my own year of reading.  It's such fun mulling over the list, dithering over which books to include, wondering how many I can get away with listing.  As I mentioned last year, I've never had a place to do this before, or frankly anyone who was interested!  I'm still enjoying the novelty of that.

So here are my favorites of 2012, in the order in which I read them:

The Heir of Redclyffe, by Charlotte M. Yonge.  I'd already read Yonge's The Daisy Chain, but The Heir made me see why she was one of the most popular authors of her day (and why Jo March was crying over the book in her attic)

Love, by Elizabeth von Arnim.  I wasn't sure what to expect in this account of a May-December romance.  It turned out to be a touching and sympathetic if unsentimental story of love in many forms.

Up the Country, by Emily Eden.  Eden's letters chronicle a fantastic journey in the suite of her brother, the Governor General of India, on an official two-year tour of India, beginning in 1837.

Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin.  A harrowing story of a family dealing with the disappearance of their wife and mother, it is also the first book I've read set in South Korea, which for me added to the story's interest.

The Oaken Heart, by Margery Allingham.  This account of her small Essex village in the early years of World War II was written at her U.S. publisher's request, to tell American readers "exactly what life has been like down here for us ordinary country people during the war."

The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki.  I loved this saga of four sisters in 1930s Osaka, struggling to uphold their family's place in society and to find suitable husbands for two of them.  It reminded me of both Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope.

The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain.  His account of the first organized American tour of Europe and the Holy Land in 1867 is by turns satirical, cynical, sentimental, and xenophobic, but always entertaining.  I enjoyed it so much that I've added some of his other travel writings to the TBR stacks.

No More Than Human, by Maura Laverty.  This story of a naive but good-hearted Irish girl who travels to Spain in the 1920s as a "miss," a combined governess and chaperone, is (to borrow a phrase from Teresa's list over at Shelf Love) one of the books I most wanted to hand out on street corners, or at least buy for all the readers I know. If I had to pick a single favorite, it would probably be this one.

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.  This extraordinary story of how a family in the 1920s copes when the father is injured and the mother goes to work is the second of my "street corner" books (and only the second Persephone I've added to my shelves).  I also loved Fisher's Understood Betsy, and I know I'll be reading more of her work in 2013.

Jane Austen and Marriage, by Hazel Jones.  I so enjoy books like this, which explore a particular aspect of life in Austen's time through her writings, including her letters and the Juvenalia, as well as incorporating her own experiences (see also Jane Austen and Crime, by Susannah Fullerton).

Isabel and the Sea, by George Millar.  An account of a voyage by boat through the canals of France and along the Mediterranean coast to Greece just after the end of World War II, and an eye-witness account of the devastation and slow recovery.

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray.  Why did I wait so long to make the acquaintance of Becky Sharp and William Dobbin?  Probably because I don't know anyone outside the blogging world who has read this, so I had no one to tell me, "You need to read this."

Slowly Down the Ganges, by Eric Newby.  This was the year I discovered Newby's entertaining and idiosyncratic travel writings, and of course I immediately started collecting them (a couple of which are still on the TBR stacks).  I feel like I should mention Love and War in the Apennines, his account of life as a prisoner of war in World War II, but then I also have to include his wife Wanda Newby's parallel account, Peace and War.

Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley.  A Victorian pot-boiler, with wonderfully-drawn characters and  a lovely friendship at its heart.  Simon so aptly described it as "sensation fiction which is also very moving and also funny."

Seward, by Walter Stahr.  A brilliant biography of a master politician, who lost the 1860 presidential nomination to Abraham Lincoln but accepted a place in his Cabinet, and became arguably America's greatest Secretary of State.

I've read so many great books this year, and I've thoroughly enjoyed sharing them here and on your blogs.  Thank you again for reading along.  I hope that 2013 brings us all just as many wonderful books, and friends to share them with.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Civil war on the waters

War on the Waters, James M. McPherson

One of the Twitter feeds I've been following lately is Civil War Navy (@CivilWarNavy150), which is tweeting naval engagements and events as they happened 150 years ago.  On December 27, 1862, for example, "USS Roebuck captured British schooner Kate trying to run into St. Mark's River FL carrying salt, coffee, copper, and liquor."  I didn't know much about the naval side of the Civil War before I read Craig L. Symonds' Lincoln and His Admirals some years ago.  I was reminded of it reading Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, about Anglo-American relations during the war, since naval matters like the Confederate purchase of war ships from Liverpool shipyards, and the Union blockade of southern ports, had major diplomatic implications.  Reading the daily tweets made me wish for a good overview of the naval war, to tie all of this together.  My wish was promptly granted with this new book by the dean of Civil War historians, Dr. James McPherson.  It is one of the volumes in "The Littlefield History of the Civil War Era," published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Dr. McPherson argues in his introduction that "the Union navy deserves more credit for Northern victory than it has traditionally received."  The Navy made up only 5% of all the Federal forces, and the Confederate percentage was even lower, yet despite their small sizes, both had a major impact.  As he states in his conclusion, the Union Navy did not win the war, but the war couldn't have been won without it.  He notes that Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant were quick to praise the sailors as well as the soldiers.  Lincoln famously called them "Uncle Sam's Web-feet."  McPherson points out that the Confederate Navy too has been unfairly overlooked.  While the Rebels could not match Federal resources in ships, supplies or arms, they made good use of what they did have, and they developed new technologies like underwater mines (then called torpedoes) that sank many Union ships over the course of the war.  Their British-built raiders, like the CSS Alabama captained by the dare-devil Raphael Semmes, cost Northern merchants a fortune in ships captured or sunk.  In January of 1863 Semmes even lured a Federal warship, the USS Hatteras, out of Galveston harbor into the Gulf of Mexico, where he promptly sank her.  (This was shortly after Federal forces had been driven out of Galveston in a battle on New Year's Day.  I'm not sure how the city is planning to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle next week, but it may be a good excuse to drive the 50 miles down there.)

This book gives a good general overview of the naval war, from the operational side, and it was interesting to see the familiar events of the war from a very different perspective.  McPherson introduces Gideon Welles and Stephen Mallory, the Union and Confederate Secretaries of the Navy, respectively, both excellent and dedicated administrators, but he does not spend much time on departmental matters.  I would have liked to read more about Welles, who kept a famous diary of his time in the cabinet, written with a pen dipped in acid.  There are passing references to clashes with the volatile Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, but the focus here is on the sailors.  McPherson quotes frequently from letters and diaries, of both officers and crews, Union and Confederate, to give first-hand accounts of battles won and lost, and also of the daily toil of blockading, of convoy duty and of defense.

The Federal Navy's impact was felt early in the war, with the capture of forts on the Carolina and Florida coasts that shut down Confederate access to important ports.  In April of 1862, Flag Officer David Farragut took his fleet up the Mississippi River to force the surrender of New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy and an essential port.  Further north, Union gunboats captured river forts and even the city of Memphis.  Army-Navy cooperation was crucial in the Vicksburg campaigns of 1862-1863 and the occupation of Mobile Bay in 1864.  Perhaps the Federal Navy's greatest impact was in the blockade of the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.  A thin blue line, it was far from complete, and fast-sailing blockade runners continued to evade Union ships.  But McPherson argues for its vital role in discouraging many merchants from even trying to import or export goods, and thus crippling the Confederate war effort.  I was surprised to read that the South even imported its salt!  As stocks dwindled, southerners set up sea-water distilleries in coastal areas, which Union boat crews gleefully raided to destroy the stills and the salt so laboriously produced.

I enjoyed this book, which is well-written and informative, as Dr. McPherson's books always are.  I found his accounts of the battles generally easy to follow, though I appreciated the maps and diagrams.  The illustrations showing battle scenes as well as various ships, their commanders and crews, with the frequent quotations from first-hand accounts, are important reminders of the human beings who sailed the ships, many of whom gave their lives for their country.  In Lincoln's words, "Nor must Uncle Sam's Web-feet be forgotten."

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas mystery in Devon

The Twelve Clues of Christmas, Rhys Bowen

I was lucky enough to hear Rhys Bowen speak at Houston's Murder by the Book soon after this book was published in early November, and to get my copy signed, but I saved it to read closer to Christmas.  This year my holiday-themed reading has been mysteries and mayhem, and The Twelve Clues of Christmas fit right in perfectly.

This is the sixth book in the "Royal Spyness" series, set in the early 1930s.  The main character is Lady Georgiana Rannoch, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria who is 35th in line for the throne (a newly-born niece just bumped her down from 34th).  Her father the Duke of Rannoch left the family saddled with gambling debts and death duties, and Georgie has no income of her own.  Despite increasing pressure from her sister-in-law to marry, to get her off the family's hands, she has so far avoided the frequent fate of minor royals: marriage to an equally minor European prince, or service as lady in waiting to one of her elderly royal aunts.  Instead, Georgie has attempted to make an independent life for herself in London.  But she has discovered that her royal status, however minor, combined with her lack of qualifications, make finding work all but impossible.  Her attempts have come to the attention of Buckingham Palace, though, and her cousin Queen Mary has asked her to take on some small commissions, some of which have involved her in murder cases.  Yet in the end, Georgie usually has to return to the family home in Scotland and the complaints of her sister-in-law Fig.

As this book opens, she is contemplating the horrors of Christmas spent not just with Fig but also with Fig's even more unpleasant family.  Then she sees an advertisement in The Lady: "Young woman of impeccable background to assist hostess with the social duties of large Christmas house party."  Five days later, she is on her way to Devon, to Gorzley Hall in Tiddleton-under-Lovey.  She arrives to find there has been an incident, a neighbor shot and killed in the Hall's orchard.  The police believe it was an accident, though they can't explain why the man was up in a tree at the time.  But then there is another death the next day, an elderly woman, living quietly with her two sisters.  Georgie also learns that the house party is not exactly what is seems.  As other deaths follow, the police dismiss them as accidents too, but she believes there must be a connection, and she draws on her previous detective work to investigate.  At the same time, she joins her employer/hostess Lady Hawse-Gorzley in entertaining the house party with Christmas activities and games, in between sumptuous meals.  Despite her growing sense of danger, Georgie can't help enjoying herself, far from the austerities of Castle Rannoch.  To her delight, the guests include the Hon. Darcy O'Mara, the son of an equally impoverished Irish peer, who has shared several of her adventures and with whom she has fallen unsuitably in love.

I really enjoyed this book.  Georgie is a great character and a very sympathetic one, and you can't help hoping that she will find her way to independence and happiness with Darcy (let alone escape from the awful Fig).  The setting is such fun, combining a classic country-house murder in a small village with all the traditional holiday activities (there is an appendix that provides more information and even recipes).  I spent a much less eventful Christmas in Devon myself many years ago, when my father had a teaching exchange at the University of Exeter.  The story is also very clever, with quite an exciting denouement.  As usual I missed out completely on the clues, including the title itself, but as usual I was having too much fun to mind.  I look forward to seeing where Georgie's next adventure takes her - back to London, for a start.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Christmas mystery in Melbourne

Forbidden Fruit, Kerry Greenwood

Aunt Agatha over at Death in the Stacks recently posted a list of mysteries with a Christmas theme or setting.  That's the kind of thing that always sends me off to my own shelves, to see which of the books I have, or if I can add to the list.  Among the latter is Kerry Greenwood's Forbidden Fruit.  I took it off the shelf just to make sure I had the title right, but I ended up leafing through it.  After reading a page here and there, and realizing that I'd forgotten some of the story, I added it to my own personal Christmas mayhem reading list.

This is the fifth book in Greenwood's series featuring Corinna Chapman, who runs a bakery, Earthly Delights, in Melbourne (I posted about the sixth book, Cooking the Books, back in March).  A zaftig woman very comfortable with herself, Corinna lives above her bakery in a building that combines flats and shops, modeling an ancient Roman insula.  The other residents, some of whom also own businesses in the building, sometimes involve her in mysteries.  At other times she is drawn into helping her gorgeous boyfriend Daniel, a private investigator.  The cases often involve missing persons and generally fall on the cozy side of the spectrum - though one of the residents is a dominatrix who runs a very select dungeon, one which Corinna and Daniel have visited on occasion, and Corinna's Melbourne has the problems of many cities, including a large homeless population.

This book is set during the Christmas season, in the midst of a very hot summer.  The weather does not improve Corinna's slightly "bah humbug" approach to the holiday, particularly its commercialism and the endless carols playing everywhere (I complimented a bank employee today on the lack of carols in their branch).  Daniel's case here involves a high school student who has vanished from her parents' home, where she has been sequestered since her pregnancy was discovered.  Corinna also spends a lot of time in the bakery, where she and her apprentice Jason are turning out special holiday breads, cakes and muffins.  As usual, I was left wishing for a version of Earthly Delights here in Houston.

As always, Corinna works out a solution to the case, but for me the real pleasure is in the characters and their interactions.  I've said before that I'd love to sit down for a cup of tea with Corinna, to talk about favorite books and characters among other things.  In this book she quotes Stephen Maturin; later she and Daniel spend an afternoon reading Terry Pratchett aloud (given the season, I'm sure they were reading Hogfather).  I'm going to be very disappointed, when and if I ever get to Melbourne, not to find Earthly Delights in Calico Alley.

If you're looking for a little holiday mayhem in good company, to my mind you can't do better than Forbidden Fruit.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Happy Hogswatch!

Hogfather, Terry Pratchett

I find comfort in reading about other people's stressful holidays in the midst of my own.  Though mine cannot compare with that of the families in Connecticut, or with those who are losing their jobs in these months, I learned this week that the apartment complex where I live has been sold to a developer, who will tear it down.  We haven't heard officially, but we will probably have to move out in the next 30-45 days.  I've already started looking for a new place for me, two cats, and far too many books.  I'm lucky it's just me and the cats, that I don't have to worry about finding a place with good schools for kids, as some folks here do.  But it's still going to be an anxious Christmas, and I can feel myself turning toward comfort books even more than usual.

Terry Pratchett's Hogfather is one of my seasonal Christmas books.  If you aren't familiar with his work, he is probably best-known for a long series of books set on a world called the Disc, one with a lot of parallels to our own, which he uses to great satirical and comedic effect.  Each book can be read on its own, but each book also draws on and then builds on a complicated backstory, familiarity with which gives Pratchett's jokes and allusions a deeper meaning.  There are some stand-alone books, but also what I'd call subseries, centered on different characters. I particularly enjoy the books about Sam Vimes and the Watch, the police force in the great city of Ankh-Morpork; the two books about the reforming con man Moist van Lipwig; and those featuring the witches of the remote Ramtop mountains, including the apprentice witch Tiffany Aching.

One of my favorite characters shows up in almost every book: Death.  Pratchett's version of the Grim Reaper is a tall skeleton in a black hooded robe, with glowing blue eye sockets, the obligatory sickle and a white horse named Binky.  Death is an anthropomorphic personification and therefore he has (in Pratchett's words)
in some measure, human traits - like curiosity.  He'll want to see what makes humans tick, being well aware of what makes them stop.  It's a moot point if Death can have emotions, but he does appear to be sentimental.  Certainly he seems to be increasingly uneasy in his role and has been known to bend the rules very slightly . . .
In this book, the Hogfather, the Disc's version of Father Christmas, has gone missing, and Death is filling in temporarily for reasons of his own.  His granddaughter Susan (who has a lovely complicated backstory and has inherited certainly family traits) learns of this and sets off to find out why, though he expressly warns her to keep out of it.  The wizards of Ankh-Morpork's great Unseen University are also drawn into the mystery, which interrupts their usual Hogswatch program of feasting and academic squabbles.  As always, in an entertaining and often hilarious story Pratchett has some serious things to say, in this case about the real meaning of holidays and celebrations, about poverty and injustice, about faith and belief, and about what it means to be human.  And as always, it's as hard to stop after one Pratchett book as it is after one piece of Christmas candy.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Another visit to Bath

Persuasion, Jane Austen

One of the new books I'm most eagerly anticipating is What Really Matters in Jane Austen, by John Mullan.  I've been enviously following Audrey's posts on her reading of it.  I'd planned all year to re-read Persuasion for the Classics Challenge but never got around to it.  Then the Bath setting of Georgette Heyer's Black Sheep made me take Persuasion straight off the shelf as soon as I'd finished it.

As much as I compare Heyer to Austen, I've never read their books back to back, and I was a little concerned that Heyer might suffer by comparison. But while she is no Jane Austen, I don't think she ever tried to be, and her books are perfect in their own way.

It has been a couple of years since I read Persuasion.  Reading so much about the novels and Austen herself keeps the characters and stories fresh in my mind, as does the discussion on the Janeites listserv to which I belong.  But in the end I am always drawn back to the novels themselves, to Austen's wonderful words.  And, speaking for myself, I don't want adaptations, plays, films, or even audiobooks.  All of those are interpretations of Austen, someone else's vision and version - and in many cases, additions to Austen's stories (do not get me started on Colin Firth skinnydipping, which I haven't actually seen but have heard about many, many times).

Though I don't know if I could pick a single favorite among Austen's novels, Persuasion would be at the top, with Emma and Pride and Prejudice.  But Anne Elliot is easily my favorite of her heroines, "the elegant little woman of seven and twenty, with every beauty excepting bloom, with manners as consciously right as they were inevitably gentle. . ."  Though she is not a wit like Elizabeth Bennet, she has a good sense of humor.  Her principles are as strong as Fanny Price's, but she has the confidence and firmness Fanny lacks, while avoiding Emma Wodehouse's arrogance.  Like Elinor Dashwood, she bears with a suffering sister while concealing her own heartache, even though Mary's infirmities are mostly imaginary.  Of all Austen's heroines, she must be the greatest reader, of the greatest variety, or she could not recommend to Captain Benwick, on a moment's notice, "such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering," not to mention the poetry they have already been discussing in such detail.  In that, I think, she must mirror her creator.  Anne is a likeable character and a sympathetic one.  Her vain, spendthrift father Sir Walter and her condescending older sister Elizabeth have no use for her, and we judge them accordingly.  (But then which of Austen's heroines has a perfectly happy home life, except perhaps for Catherine Morland?  At least Anne does not have to suffer an Aunt Norris.)

I think her story is also the most romantic among Austen's heroines.  She and Frederick Wentworth were very much in love when she was persuaded to break their engagement, at the urging of her godmother and friend Lady Russell, who objected to
a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession [the Navy], and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in that profession . . .
So Anne gave him up, but she never forgot him.  Then chance brings the now-Captain Wentworth back into her circle, and she finds her feelings unchanged.  Initially he seems bent on showing her what she lost, flirting with young friends of hers and ready to marry one of them.  But as the story unfolds, she sees hints that perhaps he is not as indifferent as he seems, and she cannot help hoping that what she now sees as her mistake eight years ago can be rectified.

Elizabeth over at The Bamboo Bookcase has been posting about favorite Christmas scenes in books, which got me thinking about Austen, since several feature in her novels.  In Pride and Prejudice, the Gardiners come to spend the holidays at Longbourn, and they take Jane back to London with them when they return.  In Emma of course there is the Christmas Eve dinner at the Westons, after which Emma is trapped in a coach with Mr Elton and forced to listen to his proposal.  In Persuasion, we have a Christmas scene that could have come from Dickens or Alcott.  When Anne and Lady Russell visit the Musgroves, they find
On one side was a table, occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others.
Lady Russell finds it all a bit too much, telling Anne, "I hope I shall remember, in future, not to call at Uppercross in the Christmas holidays."

Persuasion was of course left unfinished at Jane Austen's death.  It was edited  by her brother Henry for publication with Northanger Abbey.  I don't believe that the story we have now, as much as I love it, is the story that Austen herself would have published, if she had lived to complete it.  She had already tightened up, and to my mind much improved, the story by editing out a scene where Captain Wentworth is sent to ask Anne if the rumors that she is to marry her cousin Mr Elliot are true.  This famous "cancelled chapter" seems awkward and forced.  Instead, we get the scene in the Musgroves' parlor at the inn, where Captain Wentworth leaves one of the world's greatest love letters for Anne.  I think that Austen must have originally intended something different with the Mrs Smith-Mr Elliot-Mrs Clay subplot, since she makes a point of Anne planning to consult Lady Russell about it, but putting it off for a day.  But that is all sheer speculation on my part of course, and it takes nothing away from my enjoyment of the wonderful book that we do have.

This Sunday I look forward to celebrating Jane Austen's 237th birthday with the Greater Houston JASNA chapter, and Janeites around the world!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Completing the Classics Challenge

December brings us to the end of the Classics Challenge, hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn.  I had never joined a challenge before when I signed up for this last November (along with the TBR Double Dare).  I have really enjoyed participating, in reading the books and then considering different aspects of them through the monthly prompts.  I've also enjoyed seeing what others have read, which has added some books to my TBR shelves.  Thanks again to Katherine for hosting us!

I didn't manage to read everything on the list that I originally drew up for the Challenge (which fortunately didn't disqualify me) :

  1. Jane Austen's Persuasion - which I'm currently re-reading.
  2. Anthony Trollope's The Three Clerks
  3. Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own - still on the TBR shelves.
  4. George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion
  5. Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women - also still languishing on the TBR shelves.
  6. Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men on the Bummel
  7. Henry Fielding's Tom Jones - I made it to page 452 (of 871) before giving up - but I will finish it.
Other classics I posted about for the Challenge include Charlotte M. Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe, Oscar Wilde's Salome and The Importance of Being Earnest, Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, and William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair.

Now I'm off to collect my cool "challenge completed" button!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Black sheep in Bath

Black Sheep, Georgette Heyer

After tracking a psychopathic killer through the streets of Lafferton in A Question of Identity, I wanted to read something calm and soothing.  Georgette Heyer has been on my mind lately after reading various reviews, like Katrina's of Detection Unlimited and Claire's of the recent Heyer biography by Jennifer Kloester.  The Heyer listserv I belong to just finished discussing one of my favorite books, The Talisman Ring, and is now looking at her wonderful minor characters, like Sir Hugh Thane.  I've also realized that I need to get any re-reading done this month, before the TBR Double Dog Dare kicks off on January 1st.

Black Sheep is a story set in Bath.  As it opens, Miss Abigail Wendover is returning home after several weeks spent caring for an older sister during her confinement and the illnesses of her other children.  Still unmarried at 28, she shares a home with her eldest sister, Selina, and their 17-year-old niece Fanny, who has lived with them since she was orphaned in infancy.  The only child of their eldest brother, Fanny is heiress to a considerable estate.  Abby returns to find that in her absence, and under Selina's laxer surveillance, Fanny has met and fallen head over heels in love with a recent arrival in Bath, a young man named Stacy Calverleigh.  Though of good family, he is known to be a gambler, and an unlucky one, whose family estate is mortgaged to the hilt.  It is a matter of common gossip that he is hanging out for a rich wife, having already attempted like George Wickham to elope with one heiress.  But Abby finds it impossible to break the spell that he seems to have cast not only over Fanny, but also over Selina, whose romantic heart yearns to see young love triumph.

Then a second Mr Calverleigh arrives in Bath, Stacy's uncle Miles, who was packed off to India twenty years ago after one too many scandals capped a disreputable career, one that saw him first expelled from Eton and then sent down from Oxford.  He has returned now having made his fortune in trade.  Careless in dress, casual in manner, he has none of his nephew's good looks or easy charm.  Yet Abby finds herself drawn to him, to his ready understanding and even more to his cynical sense of humor (for Heyer's couples, a shared sense of humor is the most important element in a successful relationship).  She hopes to enlist him in protecting her niece from his nephew, which becomes her excuse for spending so much time in his company.  Though Fanny, caught up in her own love affair, is oblivious to her aunt's, Selina watches their growing intimacy with the gravest apprehensions.  No well-brought-up young woman, and certainly not a Wendover, could possibly marry such a black sheep.

In the perennial discussions of which Heyer books are the best introductions for new readers, I would include this one.  The Bath setting evokes Jane Austen, as the Wendovers from their house in Sydney Place visit the Pump Room, shop on the South Parade, and attend concerts in the New Assembly Rooms.  It is not overloaded with Regency slang, as some of Heyer's books are, though I sometimes find the details on fashion equally confusing (Circassian or Cottage sleeves for a morning dress?).  Unusually for Heyer, the narrative shifts between the different characters' points of views, which gives the reader insight and information not shared with the other characters.  And this is one of Heyer's more romantic stories, centered around the two couples, Abby and Miles, Stacy and Fanny.  Often in her books, the hero and heroine fall in love over the course of shared adventures, but we get only hints of it before a declaration in the last pages, as in The Talisman Ring or The Quiet Gentleman.  I've actually read complaints about the lack of romance in Heyer's books!  Here the focus is on the developing relationships, particularly between Abby and Miles.  I much prefer the books where the hero and heroine genuinely like as well as love each other, in contrast to the books where they brangle and brawl their way to a happy ending, like Bath Tangle or Faro's Daughter.  Published in 1966, Black Sheep has some similarities to Lady of Quality, Heyer's last novel, from 1972, but the two are not carbon copies, and I enjoy each for its own story.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A killer's identity

A Question of Identity, Susan Hill

This is the seventh of Susan Hill's series of mysteries featuring DCS Simon Serrailler.  I'm always glad to see the newest book advertised, knowing that I'll soon be back in the small cathedral city of Lafferton, with its echoes of Salisbury and Exeter, but also of Barchester.  The story here, however, opens in Yorkshire in 2002, where Alan Keyes is on trial for the murders of three elderly women.  All were killed in their homes, bungalows in a senior-citizen housing area, where he had worked at times on construction.  To the shock of those in the courtroom, including the victims' relatives, he is acquitted on all three counts.  As word of the verdict spreads rapidly, angry crowds gather outside the court building, and the police are forced to take Keyes into protective custody.

The story then jumps ahead ten years, to Lafferton, where we soon meet Rosemary Poole, who phones her daughter and son-in-law with the news that she has just qualified for a bungalow in a senior-citizen housing area.  At that point, I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen, which didn't keep me from falling for a couple of Hill's red herrings.  I don't want to say too much about the plot, to avoid spoilers.  I've commented in previous reviews that Lafferton has had an unusually high number of serial killers in recent years, considering its small size.  I was initially a bit disappointed that this book seemed to feature yet another one.  But Susan Hill does something very intriguing with the protagonist of this story, which set my concerns at rest.

As much as I enjoy the mysteries in these stories, which Hill always brings to neat and logical conclusions, it is her characters that draw me back each time. Though this book like the others is listed as "A Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler Mystery," he is one of the usual large cast, each with his or her own story, and the narrative shifts constantly among their points of view, allowing us to see events through different eyes.  I really admire the way Hill manages this, keeping each story distinct, weaving some in with the main case that Simon is investigating, leaving others to run their own course.  It's interesting that though these are mysteries, with the nominal central character a police officer, we don't learn much about his colleagues and subordinates; only a few are even identified by name.  In that sense, I don't think of these stories as typical police procedurals - which is not at all a complaint.

Throughout the series, my favorite character has been Simon's sister Cat Deerbon, a doctor like their parents, now widowed and raising her three children.  She has often been involved in his cases, and in fact she was almost a victim in the first book in the series.  Here her story focuses on her work in the Imogen House hospice, facing serious budget crises, and on her family, where the conflicts between 14-year-old Sam and 12-year-old Hannah are escalating.  She and Simon are both worried about their stepmother, Judith, who has become withdrawn and distant.  They sense trouble in her marriage to their difficult father Richard, but she will not talk to either of them about it.  Simon is involved in a difficult relationship of his own, and when Cat brings it up, he in turn shuts down.  I was pleased to see that he is actually still in a relationship, given his history with women, but sorry to see that Hill again pulls the emotional rug out from under him.  I did find myself wondering if Cat will ever consider dating again.

Another member of Cat's household (family, really) is Molly, a medical student who helps with the children and the house in exchange for room and board.  In the last book, The Betrayal of Trust, she was brutally attacked and almost killed.  Here she is still suffering from the aftereffects, struggling with depression and panic attacks, unable to cope with school.  As sad as it was to see her suffering, it was refreshing to see a realistic portrayal of the trauma of violence.  Too often, in books and television shows, characters who have been kidnapped, held at gunpoint, or who witness a murder seem completely unaffected, moving on to the next plot point, usually with a joke.  I was also glad to meet Jocelyn Forbes again, who played such a key part in the last book, and to see where her story has taken her.

I really enjoyed this book.  My only quibble is how long we'll have to wait for the next one.  Now I'm off to read Jane's review on Fleur Fisher in her world, and Audrey's on books as food, which I had avoided for fear I'd inadvertently plagiarize their always-excellent posts.

I've just noticed that this is my 250th post, which doesn't quite seem possible.  Thank you again for reading along.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Daughter, wife, muse

The Pastor's Wife, Elizabeth von Arnim

When I started this book, I had only the vaguest idea of the plot: that the title character leaves her home in England to marry a German pastor.  I expected it would draw on Elizabeth von Arnim's own experiences in meeting and marrying Count Henning von Arnim-Schlagenthin, and moving with him to Germany in 1890.  As I read it, I kept thinking that I knew where the story was going, only to find myself mistaken, as the plot twisted off into a new direction.  In the end, all my expectations were wrong - or perhaps I should say my presumptions.  I was constantly re-evaluating the book as I was reading, which left me feeling off-balance.  It was the oddest reading experience I've had in a long time.

Just a warning, there will be spoilers ahead.

I don't mean to give the impression that I didn't enjoy this book, because I did, very much.  This is Elizabeth von Arnim at her sharpest and most satirical, and wickedly funny.  The humor here reminded me of The Caravaners, one of my favorites among her books.  But the central character of The Pastor's Wife is much more sympathetic than Baron Otto von Ottringel, who narrates The Caravaners and is neatly skewered throughout.  I was drawn to Ingeborg Bullivant from the first page, walking down Regent Street on an April morning, delightfully alone.  The elder daughter of the Bishop of Redchester in the west country, 22 years old, she lives a busy life in the Palace, acting as her father's secretary, representing her sofa-bound mother on social occasions, and chaperoning her sister Judith to parties and dances.  She owes her unprecedented freedom to dental problems that required a specialist's care.  Her family wanted her restored to health and activity as soon as possible, so her father sent her off to London with £10 and instructions not return until she was better, even if it took a week or ten days.

It took the dentist no time at all to extract the problem tooth, leaving Ingeborg free for the day in London.  She is considering how to spend her 24 hours before catching the train home when she sees a poster outside an office: "A Week In Lovely Lucerne, Seven Days For Seven Guineas."  Hardly stopping to think, she walks into the office and pays her fee, for a tour leaving the next day.  Good for her, I thought.  Here is her declaration of independence, from father and Palace.  She will find a new life opening up for her in Lucerne.

Well, yes and no.  On the train to Dover, she is seated across a person who is obviously a foreigner.  When they fall into conversation, she learns that he is Robert Dremmel, a Lutheran pastor who proclaims that his real vocation is manure (to the shock of their neighbors).  He has devoted himself to scientific agriculture, to improve the poor soil of eastern Prussia, where he lives.  As the tour continues, Herr Dremmel finds himself falling in love with Ingeborg, in part because (trained by her father) she is an excellent listener, "intelligent without argument, a most comfortable compound..."  Though he has never seriously contemplated marriage before, he soon decides that he will marry her.  She is taken aback by his proposal, she dislikes what she terms his "clutchings," and she is not in love with him.  Robert simply talks over all her objections and arranges a formal betrothal ceremony.  In one of my favorite scenes, he slips a note under Ingeborg's door to inform her that the ceremony will take place the next morning: "Since no man can be betrothed alone, it will be necessary that you should be there."  However, not knowing which is her room, he put identical notes under eight doors, and seven women find their way to the room before Ingeborg.  She arrives determined to say no, but she is overwhelmed by the witnesses and Robert's calm assumption of their engagement.

She returns to Redchester to break the news of her betrothal to a Lutheran pastor from east Prussia, and all hell breaks loose in the Palace.  As painful as the events are for Ingeborg, they are great fun to read.  Von Arnim saves some of her sharpest knives for the Bishop, "handsome as an archangel, silvery of head and gaitered of leg," who is furious over her rebellious and undutiful behavior, which will deprive him of his unpaid secretary.  (The separation from a daughter goes unremarked.)  Her mother will not help her.  Though perfectly well, she spends her days on the sofa.  Early in her married life she "discovered in it a refuge and a very present help in all the troubles and turmoils of life, and in especial a shield and a buckler when it came to dealing with the Bishop."  Ingeborg's younger sister Judith has just become engaged to the Master of an Oxford college, a man her father's age, who will soon (in the Bishop's mind) leave her "the most magnificent of widows."  If Judith seems unenthusiastic about her own coming marriage, she joins her father in disdaining Ingeborg's. To show their displeasure, her parents and Judith effectively shun Ingeborg.  After a week of such treatment, it is hardly surprising that she welcomes Robert's arrival in Redchester.  His ardent courtship seems to offer her love, a life outside the narrow confines of the Palace, and in response her feelings toward him grow warmer (though she still dislikes the clutching).

They are married by the Bishop in the Cathedral at Redchester and set off for Robert's Prussian home, a small village called Kökensee.  At this point, I expected perhaps a story of adjustment, both to marriage and to Germany.  I wondered how a daughter of an Anglican palace would learn to be a Lutheran pastor's wife.  I thought that this might become the story of how Ingeborg, like Elizabeth von Arnim, eventually found her way to her own German garden.  Well, yes and no.  Ingeborg is not the first to find a great difference between a courting suitor and a husband.  Once back on his home soil, Robert reverts to his vocation of scientific agriculture, locking himself into his study to to carry out his experiments with grain and manure.  He is kind to Ingeborg when he notices her.  He alternates Sunday services between the two churches in his parish, preaching one of the 26 sermons that he keeps on hand, rotating them through each year (the parish particularly enjoys the annual Advent sermon on the slaughter of pigs, anticipating their Christmas sausages).  His parishioners are quite satisfied with their disengaged shepherd, and they make it clear to Ingeborg that they don't need "Frau Pastor" trying to practice good works among them.

Ingeborg finds herself with few responsibilities, and her first summer in her new home is one of glorious freedom.  She wanders through the woods and the fields, she luxuriates in flowers and birds and berries, she takes a punt along the shore of a neighboring lake.  As the winter closes in, curtailing her expeditions, she learns that after many false starts, she is pregnant with her first child.  The news brings Robert to tears of joy.  Aha, I thought, a new chapter of her life opening up.  Deprived of her parents' love and care, with a husband mentally and physically absent, she will find joy in motherhood, in her children, perhaps her own "April, May and June babies."  Wrong again. 

After a difficult pregnancy, as Robert grows impatient with her illness and her increasing size, she almost dies during a botched delivery.  She suffers an injury nursing the child, a boy named for his father, and she struggles for months with postpartum depression.  When she finally recovers enough to notice the baby again, she is dismayed not to feel the love that everyone tells her is a mother's highest and best feeling.  She is equally dismayed to find that, just as she is feeling herself again, making plans to return to her walks, her punt, to introduce the baby to the wonders of the world, she is pregnant again.  The cycle repeats itself five more times in the next six years, though only her second child, a daughter, survives with Robertlet.  This section makes for grim reading.  Von Arnim herself had five children, and she writes plainly of the difficulties and dangers of pregnancy and childbirth.  Though not explicit in today's terms, it is franker than I expected of a book published in 1914.  I would not recommend this book to a woman in her first pregnancy.

Ingeborg's doctor intervenes after the sixth pregnancy ends with a second still-born child, sending her off with a nurse to a sea-side resort.  She returns after four months, recovering in mind and body.  But she knows that her complete recovery requires more.  She steels her courage to ask the astounded Robert if "this wild career of - of unbridled motherhood" might end?  Immured in his laboratory, Robert might not have much use for a wife, but he does have one, and he absolutely rejects the idea that Ingeborg could refuse to "live with her husband as his wife."  At one point he goes up to their bedroom
to end the matter by the shortest possible route to reason. He would have it out even to the extent of severity and have done with it.  He was the master, and if she forced him to emphasize the fact he would.
Ingeborg escapes the threat of marital rape by having taken refuge in the children's room.  Again, I wondered how this would have read in 1914.  Some must have taken Robert's side, in his traditional view of marriage and wifely duties, but surely there must have been women who saw themselves in Ingeborg's situation.  Again, it is the doctor who intervenes, speaking plain truths to Robert, and telling Ingeborg,
"Your one duty now is to keep well in body and mind, provide your two children with a capable mother and your husband with a companion possessed of the intelligent amiability that springs from good health . . . I will not allow you to turn him, who deserves so well of fate, into that unhappy object a widower."
Unfortunately for Ingeborg, Robert shows no interest in an amiable companion who will not perform her wifely duties.  He ignores her even more persistently than before.  Her two surviving children are round phlegmatic things that show no interest in games or outdoor activities.  They patiently endure their mother's kisses and hugs but give no affection in return.  They much prefer going to school, which means they can board with their German grandmother, who has never approved of her English daughter-in-law.  Neither wife nor mother, Ingeborg must make a life for herself.  Feeling uneducated and provincial, she embarks on a regimen of reading, and she also immerses herself again in nature.

One day, paddling down the lake in the punt, she meets a celebrated English artist, Edward Ingram, who is staying with the local count's family.  Finally, I thought.  Here is someone who will love Ingeborg as she deserves, and rescue her from her small Prussian life.  Wrong again.  Ingram is instantly attracted to her, or to an idea of her, as "a perfect little seething vessel of independent happiness, bubbling over with your own contentments."  Despite his fame, he is restless, driven by his art yet fearing that he is wasting his talents on society portraits.  Separated from his wife, he is a notorious womanizer who soon tires of his conquests.  Ingeborg knows nothing of the seedier side of his life.  She admires his work and relishes the chance to talk with someone so cosmopolitan.  As they continue to meet and to talk, she does not realize that he is falling in love with her, taking his extravagant compliments as teasing.  His compliments go on and on and on, as he proclaims her his soul-mate, his life-force, his muse.  He sketches her constantly, with growing power, and he repeatedly declares that he must paint her.  But he can only paint her in his studio, in Venice, and he begins a campaign to convince her to come with him to Italy.  It is her duty, he tells her, to help him create the masterpiece that her portrait will be.

This is where I began to have trouble with the story.  I could accept that Ingeborg, having lived a constrained life both in Redchester and Kökensee, might not be able to see through the flattery, to see Ingram for what he really is.  I can certainly understand how much she has wanted someone to talk to all those years, and how strongly she feels the lure of travel itself, particularly to Italy.  But I had a hard time accepting that a bishop's daughter and a pastor's wife would agree to travel to Italy with another man, convincing herself that it is just a trip with a friend, while at the same time deceiving her husband to think she is only going on a shopping trip to Berlin.  Yet this self-delusion has quite entertaining consequences: Ingeborg has no idea she is running away with Ingram.  He keeps trying to seduce her, but she is completely distracted with the novelty of travel, with the new scenes opening before her.  To his disgust, she even tries to send Robert postcards along the way, to share her joy with him.  When Ingram finally makes the situation clear, Ingeborg is horrified,  Staying with Ingram never ever crosses her mind.  Her one thought is to get safely back to Robert.  But will he welcome her back, or will he rather punish her for her great sin?

I think that Elizabeth von Arnim meant Ingeborg to be a sympathetic character, through whom she explores the limited roles available to women at the time.  Ingeborg tries to be faithful to her roles as daughter, wife and mother, despite the difficulties that she faces, and to do her duty cheerfully.  Ingram offers what might seem like wider horizons, but eventually she realizes that they come at a steep price, the end of her marriage.  The reader knows, as she doesn't, that she also risks finding herself abandoned when his infatuation wears off.  Though it is unclear when this story is set, by the time it was published in 1914, women in Britain and North America were finding more opportunities for education and careers, as they would in even greater numbers after the Great War ended.  Will those years bring change to Kökensee, to Ingeborg's life?  Will she still be able to find happiness in her essentially solitary life in a small backwards Prussian village?  I want to think so, but she deserves so much more.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Falling in love with Italy

Fenny, Lettice Cooper

One of the things I look for first in a used-book store is how many green Viragos they have on the shelves.  Though my TBR stacks are full of wonderful books that I've found in Houston's stores, I haven't had much luck with Viragos here, until now.  I recently discovered a new-to-me store on the north side, Kaboom Books, which reminds me of the great Powells in the range of its stock.  I think that on my two visits so far I've looked at every single Virago they have on the shelves.  Last Friday I found Fenny, by Lettice Cooper.  I knew nothing of the author, but after reading the back-cover blurb, I had to buy it (and the next day, I had to buy another bookcase, but that's a topic for another day).
The offer of a summer post as governess to the granddaughter of a famous actress seems a dazzling prospect for Ellen Fenwick, far removed from the fireside teas and prize-giving of her Yorkshire high school.  And the Villa Meridiana, surveying the Tuscan hills, with their vines and rows of silvery olives, provides a dreamlike setting for the new life she anticipates . . . Moving from 1933 to 1949, this is a stirring account of Fenny's development and of the experiences which shape the resilient woman she becomes.
I was immediately reminded of a favorite book I read earlier this year, Maura Laverty's No More Than Human, about the adventures of a young Irish governess in 1920s Spain, as well as Kate O'Brien's novel Mary Lavelle, with her very different heroine in a similar situation.  And I also thought it would be interesting to compare a fictional account of those years with Wanda Newby's Peace and War, her memoir of growing up in Fascist Italy.

When the story opens, Ellen Fenwick is just arriving in Florence on an April evening.  I took an instant liking to her:
Long before the train ran into the station at Florence she had been sitting on the edge of the seat, a starter poised for a race, handbag, overcoat and umbrella disposed on one arm . . .
She has spent the last seven years "desperately homebound," caring for her widowed mother and teaching in the local high school.  After her mother's final illness and death, she feels the need of a change, and she cannot resist the offer of a summer job in Italy, particularly when it involves teaching the granddaughter of an actress she has long admired.  Her pupil, eight-year-old Juliet Rivers, was very ill earlier in the year, and her parents have brought her to the Villa Meridiana outside Florence to recuperate in the sunshine of the Tuscan summer.

The Rivers warmly welcome Ellen, who is soon re-christened "Fenny."  But as she and Juliet settle into their routine, she becomes aware of undercurrents in the family.  There are frequent visits to their neighbors the Warners, a blended Italian-American family with deep tensions of its own.  Though Fenny dislikes Mrs. Warner, she accepts a position with them after Juliet returns to England.  She forms a special bond with Shand, the son of Mr. Warner's first marriage, who wants desperately to get away from his step-mother and return to America.  When her employment with the Warners ends abruptly, Fenny is determined to remain in Florence.  She supports herself with office work and with tutoring in English.  She enjoys her independence, the circle of friends she has made, and the city of Florence that she has come to love so much.  Reluctant to leave even as war begins to seem inevitable, she decides against the advice of family and friends to stay, knowing that she risks internment as an enemy alien.

Fenny's story is divided into four sections (and one Interlude), each covering a period of time ranging from a few weeks to several months.  At the end of each section, the story jumps ahead some months or years, in one case six years.  The story then simply picks up and carries on from that point.  There is no attempt to bridge the gap with backstory or explanation, though as the story continues there are references to past events that help fill in the details.  The gap of six years, for example, covers the war, so we get no first-hand information about Fenny's experiences, though we learn in the brief chapter of the Interlude that she was indeed interned.  I found the shifts a little disconcerting, but I came to enjoy the sense of catching up with Fenny and figuring out what had happened in the intervals.

I suppose in some ways this is a familiar story.  Fenny is hardly the first character to fall in love with Italy and make her home there.  But that never crossed my mind while I was reading it, because Lettice Cooper created such a sympathetic character in Fenny, with a story that drew me in from the first page.  Fenny's  delight in her Italian summer is contagious.  She revels in the beauty of the Tuscan country around the villa, as well as in the ancient streets and buildings of Florence.  Unlike the Irish governesses in Spain, she falls more in love with the country than with the people, though she finds an equally warm welcome.  It's that love, as well as a more personal attachment, which shapes her decision to remain in Italy in 1939, despite the risks.  It sustains her under the many challenges that she faces.  I understood her decision but knew it was a mistake.  She feels a great responsibility for each of the children entrusted to her care, and she makes decisions based on their best interests, even when it comes at a cost to herself (in one case, the loss of her position).

This book was not quite what I expected.  Fenny spends much of the 1930s in the school-room or in an office, untouched by the rising tensions in Italy and more than a little naive when it comes to politics.  But I enjoyed it very much, and I am looking forward to reading more of Lettice Cooper's books.  I see from the introduction that she wrote quite a few novels, in addition to biographies of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson and several children's books.  Any recommendations about what to read next?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The story of a marriage

Two-Part Invention, Madeleine L'Engle

This is the fourth of Madeleine L'Engle's "Crosswicks Journals," named for the 200-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut that her family has owned since 1946.  Though I have all four of the journals, I am reading them out of order (I first read the second, The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, back in October).  Claire's luminous review of this book inspired me to move it up the reading list.  According to the subtitle, it is "The Story of a Marriage."  From the earlier book, I knew something of L'Engle's marriage to Hugh Franklin, and after two books about troubled marriages, I was ready to read about a good strong one.

Being musically illiterate, I had no idea what the title meant, until I was searching for an image of the book's cover.  That's when I learned that it refers to a series of two-part compositions by J.S. Bach.  He described them as
[an] Honest method, by which the amateurs of the keyboard – especially, however, those desirous of learning – are shown a clear way not only (1) to learn to play cleanly in two parts, but also, after further progress, (2) . . . not only to obtain good inventions (ideas) but to develop the same well;
which seems a very apt metaphor for the marriage Madeleine L'Engle is writing about.

As in The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, L'Engle here weaves together several strands of story.  In that book, she wrote about her parents' marriage and her childhood, with the focus on her mother.  Here she continues her own story into adulthood.  She briefly recounts her childhood in New York City and then Europe, and Hugh's very different experiences in a small Oklahoma town.  Both came to New York after college, hoping for a career in the theater, though Madeleine was also working on her first novel.  At the time she arrived, three prominent actors were offering auditions to aspiring actors, and Madeleine soon found herself in an understudy's role.  From there she went on to play small parts on Broadway and in touring companies.  She met Hugh when both were cast in a war-time production of The Cherry Orchard (Hugh had been rejected for military service in World War II for medical reasons). 

I loved this first part of the book, with its setting in 1940s New York, its cast of famous theatrical names.  One of Madeleine's mentors was the actor Joseph Schildkraut, who attempted to seduce her but cheerfully accepted her firm "No!" and remained a friend.  (He plays the delightfully sly and smarmy Ferencz in The Shop Around the Corner, one of my favorite Christmas movies).  I kept hoping that Madeleine or Hugh would be cast in a play with Cornelia Otis Skinner.  This part of Madeleine's story also reminded me of Helene Hanff's Underfoot in Show Business, an account of a much different, less successful career in the theater.

Madeleine and Hugh's courtship did not always run smoothly, but it ended happily with their marriage in 1946, while both were on tour with Ethel Barrymore.  The wedding was on a Saturday morning, after which they played a matinée and evening performance, both rather on autopilot.  Madeleine then jumps ahead forty years to explain that Hugh is ill, recently diagnosed with bladder cancer.  From that point, her story moves between past and present, as she tells the story of their marriage, the birth of their children, Hugh's career in the theater and her own in writing.  Her first two books were well-received, but she later collected a lot of rejection slips until A Wrinkle in Time became an immediate best-seller in 1963.  Hugh was a successful and respected actor, but he was never guaranteed work until he was cast in a soap opera, All My Children in 1970.  At one point, after the birth of their second child, he gave up acting and the family moved full-time to Crosswicks.  He and Madeleine ran the general store in the village, which brought financial challenges of its own but allowed them to build a strong family life.  Madeleine writes with honesty and insight about their marriage and about their roles as parents.  I found myself thinking that this book might be helpful both for couples preparing for marriage, and for those facing trouble in their marriages.

This story of marriage and family alternates with that of Hugh's medical care, as complications develop and his condition deteriorates.  Though they initially hoped for a cure, a cascade of complications gradually leaches that hope away.  As with her mother's illness, Madeleine draws on her faith to sustain her.  She grounds herself in the details of daily life, trying to accept each day as a gift and to be fully present to it, because God is found there.
I do not want ever to be indifferent to the joys and beauties of this life. For through these, as through pain, we are enabled to see purpose in randomness, pattern in chaos. We do not have to understand in order to believe that behind the mystery and the fascination there is love.
She affirms her belief that
any God worth believing in is the God not only of the immensities of the galaxies I rejoice in at night when I walk the dogs, but also the God of love who cares about the sufferings of us human beings and is here, with us, for us, in our pain and in our joy. . . God comes where there is pain and brokenness, waiting to heal, even if the healing is not the physical one we hope for. . . I will have nothing to do with a God who cares only occasionally. I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights.
She reminds herself and her readers that is OK to question God, though we must accept that answers may be elusive.  She writes about the strength she finds in prayer, and in knowing that she and Hugh are held in prayer.
A friend wrote to me in genuine concern about Hugh, saying that she didn't understand much about intercessory prayer. I don't, either. Perhaps the greatest saints do. Most of us don't, and that is all right. We don't have to understand to know that prayer is love, and love is never wasted. . . Hugh has been surrounded by literally hundreds of prayers, good prayers of light and love. . . Surely the prayers have sustained me, are sustaining me. Perhaps there will be unexpected answers to those prayers, answers I may not even be aware of for years. But they are not wasted. They are not lost. I do not know where they have gone, but I believe that God holds them, hand outstretched to receive them like precious pearls.
Their love of forty years also sustains Madeleine through Hugh's final illness and death, as does her conviction that "That love has not and does not end, and that is good."  This book is a deeply moving account of that love, their shared life, the family they created, with joy and faith and trust.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Classics Challenge: November and the Victorians

For the November segment of her Classics Challenge, Katherine at November's Autumn posted a series of questions about the classics we've read over the past months.  We're free to answer any or all of the questions, the first of which is, "Of all the Classics you've read this year is there an author or movement that has become your new favorite?"

It isn't really a movement, but I have had a wonderful year of reading Victorian writers, in such a rich variety.  I started this challenge with Charlotte M. Yonge, whose The Heir of Redclyffe is still one of my favorite books of the year.  And then I just read Mary Cholmondeley's Red Pottage, which is completely different from The Heir but an equally engrossing read.  It's a shame that these authors' other works are so hard to find, at least in print.  I also have to include Emily Eden's Up the Country, a collection of letters from a trip up the Ganges starting in 1837, which provide a fascinating and unique perspective on India under British rule.  Reading The Mill on the Floss helped me understand why George Eliot is considered such a great writer, and it gave me confidence that I will try Middlemarch again one day.

This was also the year I read William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair for the first time.  I'm only sorry I waited so long to meet the immortal Becky Sharp.  And then there is my continuing love affair with Anthony Trollope's novels.  Of the three I read this year, The Three Clerks is easily my favorite and one of the liveliest of his wonderful stories.

In another of her questions, Katherine asks, "From reading other participants' posts which book do you plan to read and are most intrigued by?"  I was very intrigued by posts on Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, which as I've mentioned is already on my TBR stacks (and weighing them down at 1243 pages, not counting notes & introduction).  I also look forward to reading more of all the authors that I've included here. They have so enriched my reading this year, as have these discussions around the Challenge.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Taking the Double Dog Dare

James of Ready When You Are, C.B., is once again hosting a TBR reading dare - and he's upping the ante with the Double Dog Dare for 2013.  Accepting the dare means agreeing to read only from your own TBR stacks from January 1st to April 1st.  I've signed up again; I need to.  This is the first year that I'll have e-books in the mix, as well as the actual volumes on the shelves (though my Nook is pretty well stocked with out-of-print 19th century novels, I still haven't managed to read an entire e-book since I got it).

I did pretty well with the 2012 Double Dare, clearing 71 books off the stacks by April 1st.  At that point, I felt like I'd easily meet the one reading goal I'd set myself for this year: to read all the books I bought within the year.  Then came my trove of Trollope discovery, all those lovely fat Oxford World's Classics, the same night that I found William Thackeray's Pendennis (all 1000 pages of it).  Adding The Count of Monte Cristo (1128 pages) and Mary Chestnut's Civil War (836 pages) to the TBR shelves pretty much nixed any chance I had of meeting my goal, never mind the other, shorter books that keep arriving.

As James's rules allow, I am making an exception for three new books coming out in those months, from favorite authors Dean James, Deborah Crombie, and C.S. Harris.  In theory I should also make an exception for book club books, but then I hardly ever manage to read along with either of the groups to which I belong.

I think this Dare will dovetail nicely with the Reading Presently project that Simon is organizing over at Stuck in a Book, to focus on books received as gifts.  I haven't been counting those in the TBR totals, but as I said elsewhere, I haven't been reading them either.  And just this month I won a lovely copy of Graham Greene's Stamboul Train from Falaise at 2606 Books and Counting... 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Keeping secrets

Kept in the Dark, Anthony Trollope

I've had my eye on this book ever since I saw it described as a mirror-image of He Knew He Was Right, which may be my favorite of the books set outside the Barsetshire-Palliser worlds.  (Though it might also be Is He Popenjoy?, but that's another post.)

He Knew He Was Right is a sprawling book, stuffed full of Trollopian sub-plots, but the main story centers on the He of the title, Louis Trevelyan, who marries Emily Rowley.  An old friend of her father's, Col. Frederick Osborne, then insinuates himself into her life, and rumors begin to fly about their friendship.  Though Emily's relationship with him is completely innocent, she resents the gossip and refuses to give weight to it by giving up a family friend.  Her husband takes this amiss, to say the least.

Kept in the Dark was published in 1882, shortly before Trollope's death.  Written almost fifteen years after He Knew He Was Right, it is also a story of the damage that gossip and jealousy wreak in a marriage.  In the first chapter we're introduced to Cecilia Holt, a young woman of twenty-two, living comfortably with her widowed mother in Exeter.  Though it's clear she will be the central character, she isn't presented as one of Trollope's endearing heroines.  In fact, she comes off as a bit of a prig:
No doubt there was present in Cecilia's manner a certain looking down upon her mother, - of which all the world was aware, unless it was her mother and herself. The mother was not blessed with literary tastes, whereas Cecilia was great among French and German poets. And Cecilia was aesthetic, whereas the mother thought more of the delicate providing of the table. Cecilia had two or three female friends, who were not quite her equals in literature, but nearly so.
And then Cecilia has a lover, a baronet of small means, Sir Francis Geraldine, who has proposed and been accepted.  Though the match is considered a good one, she has begun to have doubts.  She can't help but see that her fiancé has a bad temper, that he speaks to her almost with contempt, that he spends as little time with her as possible, breaking their appointments and standing her up.  She does not feel she can consult her mother, and she is embarrassed to talk to her friends, but after much soul-searching she decides to break the engagement.  Sir Francis can hardly believe that she is jilting him.  While he is not in love with Cecilia, seeking a wife mainly for financial reasons and to to keep his cousin from inheriting the title, he reacts with angry pride when she ends their engagement.

Cecilia and her mother then take an extended tour of Europe, to provide some distractions and to escape the gossip in Exeter, where Sir Francis has let it be known that he was the one who broke the engagement.  On their travels, they meet George Western, a quiet older man, who gave up a seat in Parliament because he found politics a waste of time.  He eventually confides in Cecilia that he has recently been jilted, by a woman who married a Captain Geraldine instead.  Cecilia feels some delicacy in telling him that she recently broke off an engagement, to the cousin of the same Captain.  They spend much of their time together, falling in love, but Cecilia never finds the right moment to tell him.  When he proposes and is accepted, he is still in the dark, and at that point she feels it's best to keep him there.

The Holts return to England, to prepare for the wedding, and George eventually joins them in Exeter.  Cecilia's mother and her friends realize that he is still in the dark, but no one chooses to tell him what Cecilia hasn't, until Sir Francis learns of the marriage.  Still holding a grudge against Cecilia, he calls on her at their new home, where he in turn realizes that she has kept a secret from her husband.  In a spirit of revenge, he then writes George a letter to enlighten him.  As if the news of the engagement weren't enough, George assumes from the social call that Cecilia has been carrying on some kind of intrigue with Sir Francis, whom he considers a reprobate of the worst sort, one who once defaulted on a debt of honor.  It stretches credulity a little that George would immediately jump to the conclusion that Cecilia has never been true to her marriage vows or to his love for her, based on such flimsy evidence, particularly from a man he despises.  Unlike Louis Trevelyan, he really has no grounds for his suspicions, except that Cecilia did not tell him of her first engagement.  But in his wrath he immediately leaves her, with only a letter promising her financial support though he can no longer live with her.  Cecilia rejects his money without his love, returning to her mother's house in Exeter while he travels the Continent.

This is not one of Trollope's greatest novels, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it to a new reader, but I thought it an interesting story.  Though marriage is an important element in most if not all of Trollope's novels, I think this short, late book has some of his most explicit discussion of it.  Cecilia is offered two marriages, and she has to consider what she expects from marriage, which is the better choice, which will make her happy. Two of her friends in Exeter are married, and she has their example, but another friend, Francesca Altifiorla, is a great advocate of women remaining single and independent.  However, in a rather solemn novel, Miss Altifiorla is the one comical character.  She instantly abandons her principles to jump at marriage when she gets the chance, so clearly her ideas aren't meant to be taken seriously.  Sir Francis has his own ideas about marriage, primarily that the husband should retain all his freedom, all his own interests and friends, and his wife should interfere as little as possible with them.  George Western has his as well, which move Cecilia deeply but which I found rather disturbing:
"I have believed you to be sweet, and pure, and innocent, and true; - one in whom my spirit might refresh itself as a man bathes his heated limbs in the cool water. You were to have been to me the joy of my life, - my great treasure kept at home, open to no eyes but my own; a thing perfect in beauty, to think of when absent and conscious of when present..."
This is also a story of pride, or at least of vanity.  Sir Francis is still brooding over being jilted when he sends his poisonous letter.  Part of George's over-reaction to it is his wounded pride, that his wife preferred another suitor first, that she was open to other eyes than his.  It is also pride that keeps him from admitting that Cecilia is innocent of all the sins he accused her of, on no evidence.  She in her turn is too proud to beg for forgiveness, though she will forgive.  Nor will she remain in his house and live on his money, yet it is also pride that carries her through returning to Exeter, a wife abandoned. 

I really felt for her poor mother.  Mrs. Holt is kept in the dark almost as much as George, but she is always there to care for and support her daughter.  She is one of Trollope's unwise but loving mothers, like Mrs. Woodward in The Three Clerks, and I think she deserves a better daughter.  Perhaps once Cecilia becomes a mother herself, she will come to appreciate her own more.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A marriage in its last days

Some Prefer Nettles, Junichiro Tanizaki

I read Junichiro Tanizaki's masterpiece The Makioka Sisters back in May, and it's one of the best books I've read all year (I'm already working on my "Best of 2012" lists).  Since then, I've been keeping an eye out for more of his work.  When I came across Some Prefer Nettles at Half Price Books, I remembered that several people had mentioned it and decided I would try it next.

I said in my review of The Makioka Sisters that I'm sure I missed some (many) of the subtler points in the story, reading it from my American perspective and with only a shallow understanding of Japan's culture and people in the 1930s.  With Some Prefer Nettles, I apparently missed the entire point of the novel.  On the surface, it is the story of a marriage in its last days.  Kaname and Misako live with their ten-year-old son Hiroshi, but their life together is a façade.  They had been married only two years when Kaname began to withdraw, physically and emotionally, from his wife.  He doesn't hate her, there are no quarrels, he just doesn't want to be married to her.  Depressed and lonely, unable to cope with his coldness, Misako eventually found a lover, Aso, whom she visits regularly.  Kaname has tacitly approved her affair, as Tanizaki did in a similar situation in his own life.  Kaname and Misako have discussed divorce, but neither will act.  They are concerned about the effect it will have on their son, but the main reason for their inertia is that neither one will take the lead.  Both want to be the one left, not the one leaving.

The book opens on a classic scene of passive-aggressive behavior.  Misako's father has invited them to a theatrical performance of classical puppetry.  Misako had planned to spend the day with her lover.  She does not want to go, she does not want to keep up the pretence of their marriage before her father, she does not want to spend time around his much-younger mistress O-hisa, but she will not say so.  Kaname is inclined to go, but even more inclined to maneuver her into going.  By the end of the first chapter, it is clear why this couple is considering divorce.

At the theater, Kaname finds himself unexpectedly engrossed in the performance.  Before reading this, I knew nothing about Japanese theater puppetry, which involves large puppets manipulated by two or three persons.  Misako's father (whose name we never learn; he is referred to as "the old man" throughout the book) has developed a passion for this art.  His tastes are antique, full of nostalgia for what he sees as the golden age of Japan, before western and "modern" influences took hold in the mid-1800s.  He treats O-hisa like a puppet, dressing her in old-fashioned clothes and insisting that she learn arcane music.  Later, Kaname joins them on a short trip to the island of Awaji, home to puppet masters, where performances of the classic stories can last an entire day.  After he returns home, he finally takes a decisive step, writing to Misako's father to inform him that the marriage is ending.  When the old man learns this, he promises to talk Misako into leaving her lover and remaining in the marriage.  The book ends before we learn whether he succeded.  Tanizaki apparently preferred ambiguous endings, and this one certainly qualifies.

I read this as a story of a failing marriage, held together mainly by the inertia of the husband and wife.  Both want to be freed but both refuse to take the final step.  I thought that Kaname's increasing interest in the puppetry was partly simply the novelty.  He has an income from a family business but apparently no responsibilities and not much to do.  I also thought Kaname was attracted to O-hisa as much as to the puppets, though he is also the regular client of Louise, a Eurasian prostitute, who would like to become his mistress with a house of her own.  According to the novel's editor and translator, Edward Seidensticker, Kaname is in fact retreating like the old man into nostalgia for Japan's Golden Age, turning away from the confusion and tumult of the modern world, represented by his marriage and also by Louise.  Seidensticker writes,
The real theme of Some Prefer Nettles is the clash between the new and the old, the imported and the domestic.  The marital conflict and the cultural conflict are in a very general way coextensive. Misako, the wife, is drawn toward the new and foreign, and Kaname more and more strongly toward the traditional. And yet each is pulled by conflicting forces.
I have to admit, I simply did not see that in the story.  Perhaps I just lack the right cultural filters.  For me this story is a satisfying psychological exploration of a marriage, and an introduction to an aspect of Japanese culture I knew nothing about.  It was interesting to read, but to my mind it cannot compare with the richness and complexity of The Makioka Sisters.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Growing up in Fascist Italy

Peace and War, Wanda Newby

This is the year that I discovered Eric Newby on my own TBR shelves, and so far I've read six of his memoirs and travel books.  In five of the six, his wife Wanda joined him in the adventures that he chronicles.  In the first I read, Round Ireland in Low Gear, Eric briefly told the story of how they met, while he was a prisoner of war in Italy during the Second World War, which of course was the subject of another of his books, Love and War in the Apennines.  I read a great review of this (under its more evocative British title) over on Leaves & Pages, which is also where I learned that Wanda Newby had written her own account of those years.  As soon as I read that, I immediately started looking for a copy.

Her book, subtitled "Growing Up in Fascist Italy," is divided into four sections.  The first, "My Country and My People," covers the first ten years of her life.  Wanda Skof was born in 1922, in an area of Slovenia called the Kras, which had been annexed to Italy at the end of the First World War.  She was the youngest of eleven children born to her parents, with her brother the only two to survive infancy. Both her parents were Slovenian, with deep roots in the Kras, and Wanda grew up among its fields and mountains.  She describes the villages, the people, their way of life, with affection and an eye for detail.  This is an area of the world I know very little about, and I found this section really interesting.

The people of the Kras felt themselves removed from the Italy to which they technically belonged.  Those who spoke Italian at all spoke a local dialect.  Benito Mussolini, who had risen to power with his Fascist party, suspecting the Slovenes in northeast Italy of disloyalty, determined to keep them under tight control.  As the Fascist presence in the area grew, Wanda's brother Slavko, eleven years her senior, joined many other Slovenes emigrating to Argentina.  Her father, a schoolmaster, was considered a potential subversive who might incite his students to revolt against the Fascists.  The government began a program of transferring teachers, sending Slovenes south to Italy proper, and bringing in properly-indoctrinated Italians into Slovenian schools.  Two years after her brother's departure, when Wanda was ten, her parents learned that they were being sent to a village called Fontanellato near Parma, in the central plains.  Like many of the transplanted families they found some difficulty in adjusting to a new community, a new way of life, and a new language.  For Wanda's family, their Catholicism gave them one point of continuity in the town, particularly for her mother, who was slower to learn Italian.  All three of the family already spoke German, which would soon prove an advantage.

The second section of the book, "First Steps in Italy," covers the family's move and explores their new community.  Here again Wanda describes their neighbors and the life of the community.  She made friends among the local children, and later her fellow students at the high school in Parma, a city she came to love.  She was still in school when Mussolini began to prepare the country for war in Africa.  Her father strongly opposed war and Fascism, and much of the surrounding country was Communist in sympathy (a unique Italian version of Communism).  In the third section, "Rumours of War," Wanda describes the lead-up to the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the events that followed, which seemed quite remote to the people of Fontanellato.  Despite rationing and other restrictions, war remained remote until the first troops from the area were drafted and sent to Russia in 1941; most disappeared without a trace, never to return.

There was great excitement in the village in 1943, when residents learned that a POW camp would be built there.  Wanda and the other young women often found excuses to walk or ride by, exchanging smiles and waves with the hundreds of young British prisoners.  The camp had been open only a few months when the news came that Italy, following the Allied invasions in the south, had asked for an armistice.  Before the Nazis moved in to re-establish Fascist control, the commandant of the camp allowed all of the POWs to leave.  Some would head south, hoping to reach the Allied force; some north, heading for Switzerland.  Eric Newby, with a newly broken ankle, was unable to travel.  With the village doctor, Wanda and her father risked their lives to help him evade the authorities.  In the process, as he and Wanda got to know each other, they fell in love.  The last section of Wanda's book parallels his, though it continues her story after he was recaptured and sent north.  The book ends with their reunion and marriage in April of 1946.

Though Wanda Newby's writing does not have the same verve as her husband's, I enjoyed this book.  It was interesting to see the events of Love and War in the Apennines from her point of view, and to learn more about the local people's efforts to help the escaped prisoners and to resist the Fascists, German and Italian alike.  In addition to introducing me to the Kras and its Slovenian people, it is also the first memoir I have read of life in Italy before, during and immediately after World War II.  It is of course one person's account, from the unique perspective of an individual "Slovenian by birth, Italian by education and English by adoption" (as the author's note states).  It is also written from the perspective of a young girl in a country village, and it does not discuss the political or military situation in great detail.  And then it ends too soon for me.  As I've mentioned before, I would love to read Wanda's account of her experiences as a war bride in England.  We get only a few glimpses in Eric's book covering those years, Something Wholesale.