Saturday, May 26, 2012

Holy fools & missing children

To Play the Fool and With Child, Laurie R. King

It's been a while since I've read three books in a row by the same author.  This used to be a regular pattern in my reading, particularly when I discovered new authors, and especially if their backlists were serial novels.  I read Patrick O'Brian, Dorothy Dunnett, Angela Thirkell, and Deborah Crombie, among others, in big chunks, with hardly a breath in between, and I tended to re-read them in the same way.  I'm not sure when that changed.  There was something intoxicating about immersing myself in a fictional world for weeks at a time, watching people's lives change with the world around them.

Laurie R. King was another author that I read in chunks, starting with the Mary Russell novels (there were five published at the time) and moving on to the Kate Martinelli books (then a four-book series).  As I mentioned in my post this week about the first Kate novel, A Grave Talent, when I finished re-reading it I found myself in a familiar pattern, picking up the second, To Play the Fool.

As I also mentioned in the post, in the first book King makes something of a mystery of the identity of Kate's housemate Lee.  For anyone who wants to solve that mystery on her own, Lee's identity (on several levels) plays a major role in these books, and I can't manage King's level of caginess in discussing the later books, so you might consider this a spoiler warning.

To Play the Fool opens with a cremation, as the homeless people living in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park gather around a pyre holding the remains of Theophilus, a dog belonging to one of the group.  Three weeks later, there is another fire, but this time the corpse is his owner, John, who has been murdered.  Al Hawkin and his partner Kate are assigned the case.  At the conclusion of the Vaun Adams case, the killer shot Lee, and the bullet damaged her spine.  Kate was on leave for months, while Lee fought for her life and then struggled to recover the use of her legs.  Though Kate had been firmly in the closet, a source of tension in their relationship, she came out in a blaze of publicity now, demanding health care coverage for Lee as a domestic partner.  Her new and unwelcome role as the face of gays in law enforcement landed her in the middle of a high-profile case involving the murder of a lesbian activist.  When it ended badly, the poster child took the fall.  The murder of John marks Kate's return to active duty.

As they question the homeless, Kate and Al soon hear about Brother Erasmus, who spends Sundays holding services and ministering to the homeless in the park.  They learn that he spends weekdays across the bay in Berkeley, at the Graduate Theological Union.  When Kate tracks him down there, she discovers that Erasmus is a Holy Fool, part of a long tradition as an individual who in the words of one authority "feigns insanity, pretends to be silly, or who provokes shock or outrage by . . . deliberate unruliness" (a modern branch of the Fools movement has a website here).   Erasmus will speak only in quotations or will mime his meaning, which frustrates the investigators seeking clear answers.  Kate delves deep into the Fools movement (which seems to fascinate Laurie King), and she welcomes Lee's interest and assistance as a sign of further healing.  In addition to investigating the Fools, she and Hawkin must discover who John was and why someone wanted him dead.  Though King sometimes seems more interested in Erasmus and his fellow Fools, she brings the mystery to a neat and satisfying conclusion.

At the end of To Play the Fool, both Kate and Lee appear to be healing, moving forward, coping with Lee's care and finding a balance in their changed relationship.  As With Child opens, eight months later, their lives have changed completely.  Kate is alone in their house one morning when the door-bell rings.  It is Jules Cameron, the 12-year-old daughter of Al Hawkin's girlfriend Jani (whom we met briefly in the first book).  Jules asks Kate's help.  She has befriended a homeless boy living in a park near her home in Palo Alto.  The boy, Dio, has disappeared, and she wants Kate to find him.  In between her other cases, Kate keeps an eye out for him, partly as a favor to her partner and partly for Jules herself.  Kate lost her younger sister to a drunk driver, and she finds Jules sliding into that role.  Gradually we learn that Kate is alone because Lee has gone to stay with her aunt up in Washington State.  Lee's Aunt Agatha, living in the San Juan Islands, reminds me of Rae Newborn, the central character in King's Folly, perhaps her best book.  Like Rae, Lee flees to the islands to recover, to find her independence again in hard work and primitive living conditions.  But she leaves Kate behind, uncomprehending, deeply hurt and furious, terrified of losing Lee.

Like Dorothy L. Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon, this is a love story with detective interludes - the love in different relationships, between couples, parents and children, friends, working partners.  Left alone, Kate must find her own way, find her balance again, and it is very satisfying to watch this happen.  Her work is an important part of that, as is her friendship with Jules.  When Al and Jani become engaged and plan their wedding, Jules asks to stay with Kate while they go on their honeymoon.  After consultation with Al, Kate agrees.  She suggests that they take a trip of their own, drive north, perhaps visit Lee.  On that road trip, Jules disappears and incredibly, Kate becomes a person of interest in the case.  The search for Jules dominates the second half of the book, but where Kate was on her own looking for Dio, all the power of law enforcement is on the case here, in part because of fears that she might be the victim of a notorious serial killer. Though Kate can play no official role, she follows her own lines of investigation, refusing to give up on Jules. Both Dio and Lee are drawn back to help, and Kate believes the boy may have some crucial information, perhaps something from Jani and Jules' past.

This is my favorite in the series. It is the darkest, with its web of complicated relationships and raw emotions, and also with its depiction of violence against children (though never explicit).  The ending isn't a tidy one with everything all better, but it does bring closure and the possibilities of healing.

There are two more books in this series, though for now I'm ready to read something else.  But one thing I remember from the block reading hasn't changed: after spending a week with Kate and Lee, I'm finding it hard to settle down to something else.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The art of revenge

A Grave Talent, Laurie R. King

This is the first in the series of Laurie King's Kate Martinelli novels.  Unlike the Mary Russell books, they are set in the present day (well, the 1990s), in San Francisco, and they are police procedurals.  When we meet Kate, she is a detective with the city police force, newly transferred from San Jose.  It's been several years since I've re-read these, but recently a couple of things brought them to mind.  The first was a discussion on a blog (I can't remember whose) about books set in San Francisco, and these are always the first that I recommend. 

The second was re-reading King's Califia's Daughters.  Much of the story in A Grave Talent takes place in a self-contained community, out of step with the world around it, which resembles the Valley of the other book.  And Kate, like Dian, a figure of authority and protection, is set on a journey not just to solve a mystery or to rescue someone, though both of those things happen, but one that will also change her understanding of who she is and her place in the community.  Her journey, though, unlike Dian's, will play out across several books.

A Grave Talent opens with the discovery of a child's body along Tyler's Road, where seventy people, adults and children, live in a community "part Amish, part Woodstock, part pioneer."  Over the next few months, two more bodies appear, also young girls and like the first, not from the Road.  The discovery of the third victim, the child of well-connected parents, suddenly focuses more attention on the case.  Inspector Al Hawken and his new partner, Kate Martinelli, are sent to investigate.  When they discover that one of the community's residents, Vaun Adams, was convicted at age 18 of the murder of a young girl she was baby-sitting, she becomes their prime suspect.  They learn that Vaun Adams is also Eva Vaughn, an immensely talented artist whose work divides critics yet sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars.  As Al and Kate work through the case, they come to suspect that the present murders are in fact connected to Vaun's past, to the first murder almost twenty years ago, and even to her paintings.

Kate and Al find that they work well together, and they start to build a friendship with their partnership.  Kate is an intensely private person.  Laurie King highlights that by keeping the reader in the dark about her personal life for the first half of the book.  From the opening chapter we know that she lives with someone, Lee, with whom she shares a bed, and who makes good coffee - and that's about it.  Perhaps we are meant to get to know Kate, and Lee, in the same way that Al Hawken does, over time.  The gradual revelation of Kate's background and private life weaves through the case, as does an exploration of Vaun's development as a painter and the impact of her work on her life and those around her.  Anyone interested solely in the solution to the crimes might find the meandering story frustrating, but I find King's characters and plots compelling, and I happily follow them through their convolutions.

The detectives succeed in solving this case, but the explosive ending brings tremendous changes to Kate and Lee's lives.  As I came to end of the book, I realized that I wasn't ready to say good-bye to these characters, and I'm reading the next book in the series, To Play the Fool.  I've twice heard Laurie King say, at book signings, that she doesn't find Kate a very interesting character - both times in answer to questions about whether there will be more Kate novels in the future.  Clearly I'm not the only reader to enjoy Kate and Al and Lee, and these police procedurals, however different from Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A kitchen maid and cook between the wars

Below Stairs, Margaret Powell

I learned about this book from JoAnn's posts over on Lakeside Musing.  There is quite a line for it at the library, no doubt due to the subtitle: "The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey."  I am one of those strange people immune to Downton Abbey, but I do like Gosford Park, which Julian Fellowes wrote with Robert Altmann, a 1930s murder mystery with a  similar "upstairs/downstairs" split in perspective.  I'm also interested in food history, and I thought a memoir from the kitchen's point of view would be interesting reading.

To my mind, Below Stairs reads more like an oral history than a traditional autobiography or memoir.  It has a warm and immediate feel, like sitting down with Margaret Powell over a cup of tea and listening to her reminisce.  Her voice draws you right into her story and carries you along.  Powell was born in Hove in England in 1907, the second child and oldest daughter.  Her mother worked as a char and her father as a painter, struggling to support their growing family.  In the first chapters, Powell described her childhood in Hove, the fun they managed despite their poverty and the constant hunger of growing children.  At a very young age, she became aware of the wide gaps between the classes, both socially and economically, which had a tremendous impact on her.  Yet she clearly considered that in some ways they were better off then than in the England of the late 1960s. 

At age thirteen, she won a scholarship that she hoped would lead to a teaching career.  But her parents couldn't afford to support her for the five years that would take, with five other siblings at home.  So Margaret went out to work, trying a variety of places, including companion to a harridan in a bath chair.  None of these ended well, and finally her mother told her it would have to be domestic service.  Since Margaret couldn't sew, she wouldn't qualify as a housemaid or nursery maid, so that left the kitchen.  She would have to start as a kitchen maid, one of the lowest rungs on the service ladder, but if she could learn enough, she could eventually become a cook herself.

A kitchen maid's lot was a miserable one of back-breaking labor that included serving dinner to her fellow servants.  Always at the cook's beck and call, she was given the hardest and dullest tasks. The work was bad enough, but the attitude of most employers made it even worse.  The servants' quarters were spartan, the usual basements and attics, their food plain (except for leftovers from the elaborate upstairs meals), their clothing drab, and their free time strictly controlled.  The servants also had to listen to constant complaints about the "servant problem" from their employers and visitors. As in Gosford Park, the "upstairs" folk were generally oblivious to the presence of servants and certainly had no idea how they were dissected and found wanting by those "downstairs."  Powell and her fellow servants often felt great contempt for their employers, again like Gosford Park.  She resented the contrast between their easy lives and hers, feeling that there had to be a better balance, that the poor deserved better (while never advocating violent change or revolution).  As she moved from kitchen maid to cook, Powell did observe a change for the better in the working conditions of domestic servants over the years, with more concern for their comfort and a practical recognition that treating workers well paid off in better service.

Like many of the women that she worked with, Powell's goal was to escape domestic service by marriage.  She was frank about the difficulties of achieving that goal, in the years following the Great War that left so many "surplus women."  She was equally frank (though not explicit) about sex, "the only pleasure poor people could afford."  I had no idea that even in non-religious homes like hers the children were regularly sent off to church on Sunday afternoons for Sunday School, because that gave parents their only private time in the week.  She discussed sexual politics in detail as well, within her own socio-ecomonic group as well as between the upper and lower classes.

Powell achieved her "lifelong ambition" by marrying a milkman. "I wasn't madly in love, but I cared about him."  She had no inclination to work outside the home then, and she was kept busy with the three sons that arrived in short order.  But after her husband was drafted during the Second World War, she was forced to work, this time as a cleaner.  As her sons grew up, though, she found the time and space to return to school, to learn just for the sake of learning.
    "People say to me, 'I can't understand you doing it.'
    "I think it springs from the beginnings. All life is bound together, isn't it? I liked school. I won a scholarship which I couldn't afford to take; I went into domestic service. I was dissatisfied and all this dissatisfaction was worked out in my attitudes to the environments of domestic service.  If I'd been something else I should have been militant against that life, I expect . . .
    "So despite what it may sound like, I'm not embittered about having had to go into domestic service. I do often wonder what would have happened if I could have realized my ambition and have been a teacher, but I'm happy now, and as my knowledge increases and my reading widens, I look forward to a happy future."
I enjoyed this very readable book, a clear-eyed look back at a vanished world.  When it was published in 1968, the study of history was moving away from the "Great Men" focus.  Historians were just beginning to recognize the importance of what we call "social history," of previously-ignored topics like domestic life and the role of women.  Powell gives a voice to those who were often overlooked and undervalued (not to mention overworked and underpaid).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A wonderful Wodehouse sampler

Lord Emsworth and Others, P.G. Wodehouse

When I finished P.G. Wodehouse's The Heart of a Goof last New Year's Eve, I thought I'd read the last of the golf stories.  So I was delighted to find that the "others" in the title to this book include three more, with the Oldest Member in fine form.  This gives me hope that there may be yet more golf stories to be discovered.

There are nine stories in this book.  None of them features Bertie and Jeeves, or Uncle Fred, but otherwise they are a perfect sampler of Wodehouse characters, and this might be a good introduction for a new reader.  The first story is set at Blandings, with its "ancient battlements, the smooth green lawns, the rolling parkland, the majestic trees, the well-bred bees and the gentlemanly birds . . ."  Into this Eden slithers the inevitable serpent, in this case the detestable Rupert Baxter, Lord Emsworth's former secretary and constant bête noire.

The three golf stories are bookended by a Mulliner story on one end and a Drones Club story on the other.  I was lucky enough to find Mr Mulliner Speaking recently at Half Price Books, one of the three books in that mini-series, and I also have the second volume of Drones stories, Eggs Beans & Crumpets, still to read.  Mr Mulliner reminds me a bit of the Oldest Member, with a story for every occasion, except that his audience never grows restless or tries to make their escape when they sense a story coming on.  And the Drones Club is at the heart of so many Wodehouse stories.  It is there that we first meet Uncle Fred, Bertie Wooster is frequently to be found there, and it is from the smoking-room window that Psmith first sees Eve Halliday and sets forth to rescue her with a purloined umbrella.

But the real surprise for me was in the last three stories, which feature Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge.  I found a Penguin edition of the Ukridge stories after reading about them in a marvelous essay that Stephen Fry wrote on Wodehouse (which you can find here).  But I didn't take to Ukridge, and that book is still on the TBR pile.  The three Ukridge stories here, though, are a delight, particularly the first one, "Ukridge and the Home from Home," in which he recounts to his long-suffering friend Corky how he turned his aunt's Wimbledon home into a residential hotel in her absence.  When he learns that she is returning three months earlier than he expected, he has to figure out how to evict six comfortably-settled lodgers, all of them with watertight rental agreements that still have three months to run.  Some of his dodges are spectacularly successful, and others are complete disasters, and the fun is in watching it play out.  I've moved Ukridge up the TBR stack (the Wodehouse section of the stack is surpassed only by the Trollope).

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Setting sail for Australia in 1938

The Last Grain Race, Eric Newby

I have been reading Eric Newby's books a bit randomly.  I started with Round Ireland in Low Gear, about a trip in 1985.  Then I read A Traveller's Life, an autobiography that takes him from his birth in 1919 up to 1973.  The third book I read was Love and War in the Apennines, an account of his experiences as a POW in Italy in the Second World War.  I've decided to read the other books that I've collected in order following the chronology of his life, which also means reading them more or less in order of publication.  The first of these, chronicling his first great travel adventure, is The Last Grain Race (published in 1956).

When Newby was 16, his father took him out of school and found him a position at a London advertising agency, Wurzel's, which could have served as a model for Pym's, where Peter Wimsey works in Murder Must Advertise.  Two years later, in August 1938, Wurzel's lost a major account and large sections of the agency were laid off.  Newby found to his mortification that his job was safe, in part because his salary was so insignificant.
"I was furious . . . I was perhaps the only member of the staff who would have actively welcomed the sack. Wurzel's was a prison to me. All the way home in the Underground I seethed ... too unimportant to be sacked ..."
He left the next day for two weeks' holiday, and he never went back to Wurzel's.  Instead, he applied for an apprenticeship with a Finnish shipowner.  Gustav Eriksson owned a fleet of sailing ships that ran the "Grain Race," carrying ballast out to Australia and bringing back tons of grain to Europe.  Newby was accepted as an apprentice, on payment of a £50 premium, and ordered to report to the Moshulu in Belfast harbor on September 26th. There he began his education as a sailor on a four-masted ship, an education hampered by the fact that he was the only English-speaker sailing with a crew of Finns and Swedes.  He had been on the ship less than two hours when the Second Mate sent him "Op the rigging!" to the very top of the mainmast, 160 feet above the deck.

In the two weeks before the ship sailed, Newby struggled to learn the parts of the ship, the sails and rigging, translated into the mix of languages the polyglot crew used.  Writing twenty years later, he went into great detail in describing these, perhaps because ships like the Moshulu, rare in 1938, were disappearing completely.  He did helpfully identify one "Technical interlude," with the note, "Surface on page 47."  Reading these sections reminded me so strongly of Patrick O'Brian that I started to wonder if O'Brian had himself read Newby.  My copy even includes a very familiar-looking ship's diagram identifying the masts and sails.  Newby, like Stephen Maturin, was a complete landlubber when he first stepped on board, but unlike Maturin he sailed before the mast.  He was lucky to find an ally, his own Barrett Bonden, in Jansson, one of the "donkeymen" who ran the small diesel engines.

The voyage out, which took almost three months, was south and around the Horn of Africa, in the great Roaring 40s (below the 40th parallel of south latitude).
"At midnight on [December] 4th, the wind was north-north-east, force 7 [30 mph]. Down to topsails now, her upper and lower yards naked, gleaming yellow like great bones in the moonlight, she was a terrible wild stranger to us.  At the wheel a Swede and a Dane were fighting to hold her as she ran 13 and 14 knots in the gusts. I knew then that I would never seen sailing like this again. When such ships as this went it would be the finish. The windbelts of the world would be deserted and the great West Wind and the Trades would never blow on steel rigging and flax canvas again."
The Moshulu made landfall at Port Lincoln in South Australia on January 8, 1939.  On March 11th she set sail on the return voyage with almost 5000 tons of grain in her holds.  Her homeward course was eastward along the 40s, to pass the tip of South America and then turn north.  This part of the trip was even more dangerous, with gale-force winds and wild seas:
"Moshulu was running ten knots in the biggest seas I had ever seen. As I watched, the poop began to sink before my eyes and the horizon astern was blotted out by a high polished wall, solid and impenetrable like marble. The poop went on dropping until the whole ship seemed to be toppling backwards into the deep moat below the wall of water that loomed over her, down and down to the bottom of the sea itself. At the moment when it seem that this impregnable mass must engulf us, a rift appeared in its face and it collapsed, burrowing beneath the ship . . ."
Newby was nearly washed overboard twice, as the crew struggled to set sails.  I cringed every time the captain sent them aloft in the storms, out along the icy yardarms to wrestle with the tons of heavy sodden canvas.  Miraculously, none of the crew was lost at sea.  The ship returned to Belfast on June 27th, having won what would turn out to be the last Grain Race.

In between these frantic hours of danger were days of boredom, with routine chores around the ship, some familiar from O'Brian's novels like polishing brass and chipping rust.  The crew, many of them younger men, were chronically short on sleep and constantly hungry.  I don't know how they survived on a diet based on pickled beef and pork. Just reading about it made me a little nauseous, as did the bathroom arrangements.

Newby struggled to learn his way around the ship, and to fit in with a crew who did not welcome an Englishman.  On this voyage he set a pattern for his future travels: making connections, finding friends, opening himself to new experiences, observing and learning all he could, never hesitating to ask questions, and keeping his sense of humor about it all.  I have enjoyed every trip I've taken with him, and I'm glad to have several more ahead.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A final volume of diaries

The Diary of George Templeton Strong, Post-War Years, 1865-1875  (Vol. 4).   Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds.

This is the final volume of the edited and published diaries of George Templeton Strong, a lawyer and social figure in New York City.  Last year I read the first three volumes, covering the years 1835-1865. But I put off reading this last one, in part because I was distracted by other books and in part because I didn't want to read the end of the story.

If the third volume (1860-1865) is naturally the "Civil War" diary, this is the "Reconstruction" diary, and it covers some very grim years in American history.  When the war ended, Strong was exhausted and ill after four years of intense effort as the treasurer of the Sanitary Commission.  The "Sanitary" was a private organization that in effect managed the health and medical care of Union soldiers.  Strong had all but given up his legal practice to devote himself to this work and to other patriotic causes.  His work with the Commission did not end with the war, since there were still soldiers to be cared for.  The Commission also had to prepare a report on its work, the completion of which dragged on for years, a continuing worry and aggravation.

Strong's entries trace the course of "Reconstruction" from the point of view of a Northerner and a loyal Unionist.  "Reconstruction" meant the political process by which the former Confederate states were readmitted to full participation in the Union, the social and political process by which the newly-freed slaves were admitted (or not) as citizens of the southern states and of America, and the rebuilding of the devastated South.  It was a complex situation that would have taxed the leadership even of Abraham Lincoln.  His hapless successor Andrew Johnson could not cope with the demands of Radical Republicans for social and political equality for the freed people of the South, while some former Confederates tried to force former slaves into quasi-slavery or serfdom.  The clash with Radicals led to Johnson's impeachment in 1868 and assured the election of General Ulysses Grant as president that year.  Like many others in the North, Strong enthusiastically supported Grant, the great Union war hero, only to watch in dismay as his administration became mired in corruption.  That corruption was mirrored in New York City itself, where the notorious "Tweed Ring" and Tammany Hall stole millions, assisted by notoriously corrupt judges and city officials.  The legendary greed and corruption of these years, dubbed "The Gilded Age" by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, fed a mania for stock speculation that crashed in the Panic of 1873, setting off a six-year depression.

Like the third volume of the diaries, this final volume also focuses on war, but in this case foreign wars.  While Strong wrote about the war between Austria and Prussia in 1866, he spent much more time discussing the Franco-Prussian War.  It dominates the entries for 1870-1871 (at least those selected by the editors for publication).  According to the editors, Americans tended to favor the Prussians, due in part to the large German immigrant presence and also to dislike of Napoleon III.  It was interesting to read Strong's writings on the war and the American viewpoint, after the very different perspective in the letters of Prussia's Crown Princess Frederick (Princess Victoria of England), which I read last year. Strong also chronicled the Italian unification movement, rejoicing at its success and Pope Pius IX's loss of Rome and the Papal States.  As an Anglican, Strong was unimpressed with the Vatican Council of 1869-1870 that proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility, as the pope's temporal power in Italy was crumbling.

In addition to domestic and foreign politics, the editors highlighted three themes in Strong's life in these years.  The first is his work as a trustee of Columbia College.  As an alumnus, Strong wanted passionately to see the college prosper and expand, but other more conservative trustees blocked progressive moves.  Nevins and Thomas, the editors, were themselves on the faculty of Columbia, and this was clearly a topic that fascinated them.  It is less interesting to general readers, or at least to me.  A second theme is Strong's involvement with the Anglican Church.  He served for many years as a trustee of Trinity Church, and in 1870 he was elected a warden.  Two years later he accepted a position as Comptroller of the parish, a salaried post for which he gave up his place in the family law firm.  With the long hours given to trustee work for both the college and the church, I'm not sure how much time he had for his law practice anyway.  But he found time for yet more volunteer work in his passion for music, one of the constant themes through the forty years of his diaries. Strong was a founding member of the "Church Music Association," which aimed to introduce New York audiences to the masterpieces of sacred music, and he later accepted the chair of the Philharmonic Society.

I appreciate how important all these aspects were in Strong's life.  I also appreciate the monumental task that the editors faced, in editing Strong's voluminous writings for publication.  But I have to take issue again with some of their editorial choices.  They write in their introduction,  "Many interesting personal entries, dealing with the diarist's family circle, have been left out; but these would make another kind of story."   It is not just that they have excised entries dealing with personal matters in favor of college or church politics (as I noted in my review of the second volume).  Prioritizing the public over the personal means that the men in Strong's life would get more attention, appear more frequently, than the women.  The editors have exacerbated that situation by themselves ignoring or sidelining the women that do appear.  To take one example, Strong's niece Lucy came to live with his family, becoming it seems almost a surrogate daughter (the Strongs' first child, their only daughter, was stillborn).  "Lucy" is never identified or given a last name, even in a footnote, unlike Strong's nephew Richard Henry Derby, an opthamologist who settled in New York City, who is introduced in the "Dramatis Personae" yet also rates several footnotes.  Finally, in the "Genealogical Note" that closes this volume, I learned that Lucy was Richard's sister, the daughter of Strong's sister Eloise.  It was only in the same genealogy that I learned that Strong's wife Ellen Ruggles Strong died in Paris in 1891 (she is listed under her parents, by the way).   The editors provide no information about her life after her husband's death, while outlining the careers of her three sons.  How did she end up in Paris?  Still, Ellen and Lucy fare better than "Miss Rosalie Ruggles," who appears constantly in three of the four volumes yet is never identified (she may have been Ellen's aunt or cousin).  If I ever win the lottery, I intend to offer Columbia University a substantial grant for a new edition of Strong's diaries, one that will better balance his personal life and public career.

That rant aside (and I do feel better for saying it), I still enjoyed this volume and Strong's company even in these difficult years, so crucial in American and European history.  Strong was a man of his times, with conservative views of women; as a trustee of Columbia, he opposed the admission of women students and he derided the "strong-minded women" of the suffrage movement.  He continued to refer to African Americans by the n-word, and he despised the Irish immigrants who flooded New York City (in part of course because of their support for the Democrats and Tammany Hall).  To balance that, he showed great concern for the poor, Irish immigrants included, and for the freedmen and women of the South.  He had a reputation for honesty, for public service, and for scholarship, particularly in music.  He loved his family, taking great pride in Ellen and their sons.  The last months of his life were haunted by a break with the middle son, Templeton.  The editors claim that they cannot explain what happened "because the pertinent passages have been obliterated from the diary."  This may be editorial discretion, since they presumably could have asked the family members who helped in the editing of the diary.

Strong's entries always make entertaining reading.  He had an acid and a witty turn of phrase. Reporting a new enthusiasm among New York Anglicans for building a cathedral, he noted that his father-in-law Samuel Ruggles was "cathedral-mad, as though bitten by a rabid transept" (October 1872).  He left one concert early "for nobody offered me fifty dollars to stay and listen to Berlioz's "Dramatic Symphony," Romeo and Juliet, and I would not undergo that majestic work for a cent less" (May 1868).  Though not a fan of the later books of Charles Dickens, he noted the author's death in June of 1870: "I feel [his] death as that of a personal friend, though I never even saw him . . ."  I felt the same way after reading the last page of diary entries, and the note that George Templeton Strong died on July 21, 1875.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Meeting Anthony Trollope

I am working my way through the fourth and final volume of the diary of George Templeton Strong, covering the years 1865-1875.  There are frequent references to what he is reading, and I was happy to come across praise of Anthony Trollope and Charlotte M. Yonge (I actually discovered Yonge through a reference in the third volume of the diaries).

In July of 1868, Strong accepted an invitation to join his brother-in-law on a two-months' tour of Britain and Europe.  They sailed out of New York on a Cunard steamer, and among the fifty passengers was Anthony Trollope!  I remember from Trollope's Autobiography that he visited America after the Civil War, to negotiate a postal treaty and to address copyright issues. Strong, who met him returning at the end of the visit, described him as a "dogmatic noisy John Bull whom I got to like afterwards," which seems to have been a pretty common reaction to him.  Trollope apparently could be a bit overwhelming, until people discovered his warm heart.

The ship landed in Liverpool, and Trollope travelled with Strong and his brother-in-law to London, and even recommended a restaurant there, the "Blue Posts."  At this time he was writing Phineas Finn, according to the Autobiography, one of my favorite of the Palliser novels.

I was delighted at this unexpected convergence - and almost envious of Strong.  It's not enough that he got to meet Abraham Lincoln several times, he also got to spend quality time with one of my favorite authors at the peak of his writing career.  Literary serendipity, and such fun to read about.

In London, Strong stayed at the Golden Cross Hotel at Charing Cross, "vide David Copperfield," but he was unimpressed with Dickens' American tour in 1867.  He was still holding a grudge for the "abuse and sarcasm" of the American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit, and for Dickens' silence during the Civil War, when support for the Union "from the most popular living writer of prose fiction would have been so welcome, and though it would have come so fitly from a professional 'humanitarian.'"  Strong did admit, though, that he "should like to hear him read the Christmas Carol . . ."

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Makioka Sisters

The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki

I requested this book from the library after reading JoAnn's posts about it over on Lakeside Musing.  I was disappointed when I saw the library copy, a small hardback with minuscule print and a boring cover.  In addition to judging it by its cover, I have to confess that I was initially put off by discovering the author was a man.  It was my own prejudice that assumed a book not just about four women but four sisters would be written by a woman; as a fan of Anthony Trollope, I should have known better.  I set the book aside, but I picked it up again a couple of days later, when I was having trouble settling on a book, and soon found myself completely engrossed in the sisters' lives and their complicated relationships.

Set in Japan in the 1930s, The Makioka Sisters is the story of the four sisters of the title, members of an illustrious Osaka family now sliding down the social scale.  The sisters work hard to uphold their position and the honor of their name, as their financial situations tighten amidst Japan's involvement in "the China incident," foreshadowing World War II.  As I read, I found myself constantly reminded of Jane Austen, despite the obvious differences between her world and theirs.  The oldest sister, Tsuruko, is the head of the "main" house.  Her husband Tatsuo took the family's name at their marriage and after their father's death became the head of the family.  Tatsuo sold the business on which much of their family's prestige was based.  He works in a bank, and to support his large family he accepts a position in Tokyo.  Like Sir Walter Elliot, he and Tsuruko leave behind the family home and their place in the local society, to move to a cramped and flimsy house in the capital.  They continue, however, to assert their authority as the "senior" house and to insist on recognition of the family name and position.

The second sister, Sachiko, is mistress of the "junior" house in Ashiya, a suburb of Osaka.  She has also married a man who has taken the Makioka name.  Her husband Teinosuke works as an accountant, and they have one daughter, Etsuko.  Also living in the "junior" house are the two remaining sisters, both of whom are unmarried. Yukiko, the elder, is a quiet, shy woman, a traditional Japanese beauty.  There have been many formal proposals for her marriage, but the senior house and Yukiko herself have turned them down for a variety of reasons.  Tanizaki explores the whole process in great detail, beginning with inquiries and perhaps the exchange of photos.  Inquiries might come through family connections, or through semi-professional matchmakers like Mrs. Itani, who runs a local beauty parlor.  If there is sufficient interest on both sides, then a formal meeting called a miai is arranged, involving not just the couple but other interested parties (in Yukiko's case her sisters and brothers-in-law).  At the same time both sides are conducting detailed investigations, often with the help of private detectives.   The match may break down over the discovery of health or family issues.  With the Makiokas, the senior house often objects that a prospective match's status does not merit marriage to their family.  Yukiko sometimes has more personal and idiosyncratic reasons.  Whatever the reason, the family now has a reputation for being difficult and overly picky, and there are fewer and fewer proposals.  All of this take place in public, with many parties involved in the negotiations, and constant discussions of Yukiko's prospects, the results of the investigations, the progression of the negotiations, and the ultimate failure of them all.  I was reminded again of Austen, with the frank evaluation of suitors, the lack of privacy for courtship, and the essentially passive role that Yukiko plays.  She has the right of refusal, up to a certain point.  If the senior house insisted, however, she would marry as they directed.  While affection plays a part in these marriages, certainly with Sachiko and Teinosuke, that affection seems to follow (or not) from marriage, the matches themselves being made on practical grounds.

The fourth sister is a classic "problem child."  Taeko cannot marry before Yukiko does, but impatience with that convention led her to elope at age 19.  Both families opposed the hasty marriage and it was broken up, but Taeko continues to see the man, a spoiled and dissolute younger son, in hopes that their elders may reconsider after Yukiko's marriage clears the way.  Meanwhile, the most modern of the sisters, she keeps busy making traditional dolls for sale, even opening a studio and studying sewing.  Both she and Yukiko prefer to live with Sachiko, though convention demands that as unmarried women they live with the senior family.  They find Sachiko's family much more congenial, and they prefer Osaka to Tokyo.  However, the senior family frequently orders Yukiko at least back to Tokyo, while tacitly ignoring Taeko and her growing independence.  Unlike Austen's heroines, the sisters can at least travel by themselves, but they are bound just as tightly by other social conventions and in Yukiko's case by her economic dependence.

The story focuses on the Osaka family, on Sachiko, Yukiko and Taeko.  We spend very little time in Tokyo with Tsuruko and her family, and I feel like I only saw her through others' eyes, and she remains something of a stranger, compared with our immersion in the junior family.  We follow the family's lives, the constant anxiety over Yukiko's prospects (particularly as she moves into her 30s) and Taeko's increasingly unconventional life.  There are frequent reminders of the global conflicts that are building.  The next-door neighbors are Germans, and the families discuss the crises of the 1930s, from the German perspective as potential allies (which made disconcerting reading after my last book, The Oaken Heart).  Japan is arming itself, funneling troops into the war in Manchuria.  As in Austen's novels, though, these conflicts are in the background.  The only direct impacts are in austerity edicts, and a reference toward the end of the book to rationing.

After 529 pages, the book ends in April 1941, and I turned the last page unable to believe that the author chose to end the story when and where he did.  I want to know what happened to these people, in the war and in the peace.  One character (not a family member) had just sailed for Los Angeles, and I am convinced she must have spent the war interned in America as a hostile alien  If Junichiro Tanizaki were still alive, I would be writing him to beg for information about the family's fate.

This is one of the best books I have read this year, and I already have my own copy.  I couldn't wait for lunch or for the end of the work day to return to it and see what happened next with the sisters.  I'm sure that as an American I missed much of the context and the nuances of the story, in both the family's relationships and the larger society.  The edition I read, and the modern Vintage reprint, have some notes, but I regret that there is no introduction.  This is apparently considered Tanizaki's masterpiece; I will be looking for more of his work.