Friday, September 28, 2012

Very slowly down the Ganges

Slowly Down the Ganges, Eric Newby

Earlier this year, when I finally got around to reading Eric Newby's Round Ireland in Low Gear, which had been on my TBR stacks for years, I was instantly smitten.  I went on quickly to his book of autobiographical essays, A Traveller's Life, and I started collecting and reading his other books.  I was especially interested in Slowly Down the Ganges, an account of a trip he took in 1963 with his wife and intrepid fellow adventurer Wanda.  While I knew their trip wouldn't be anything like the Governor-General's tour of 1837-1839 that Emily Eden chronicled in Up the Country, or even Lilah Wingfield's A Glimpse of Empire in 1911, I was looking forward to comparing their experiences of India.  But I was as unprepared as they were for the constant mishaps and the miserable travelling conditions that they suffered on their excruciatingly slow journey.  Things got so bad at one point that Wanda threatened to leave not just the trip, but their marriage as well.

Had I paid more attention to the title of this book, I would have realized that the Newbys' journey was a mirror image of Emily Eden's.  She started from Calcutta, heading up the Ganges on her way to the Punjab.  The Newbys started theirs in the far north, as close as they could get to the river's source in the Himalayas, to travel its length down to Calcutta.  Eric Newby admitted in the introduction that theirs would not be a great journey of exploration: "This was no uncharted river. Millions lived on its banks. . ."  He wanted to explore that river, which he had first seen twenty years before, as a young officer stationed in India during the early months of World War II.

I love rivers.  I was born on the banks of the Thames and, like my father before me, I had spent a great deal of time both on it and in it. I enjoy visiting their sources: Thames Head, in a green meadow in the Cotswolds; the river Po coming out from under a heap of boulders among the debris left by picnickers by Monte Viso . . . I like exploring them. I like the way in which they grow deeper and wider and dirtier but always, however dirty they become, managing to retain some of the beauty with which they were born. For me the most memorable river of all was the Ganges.

It took him more than twenty years, but he finally got back to the Ganges.  On his forty-fourth birthday, he and Wanda set off on their 1200-mile journey.  This was on December 6, 1963, and as with their first biking tour of Ireland, the main problem was one of timing.  In northern India, winter is the dry season.  When they set out, the water level in the river was falling an inch a day.  In the first six days, they ran aground 63 times; with their three boatmen they ended up dragging the boat for much of the first hundred miles of the trip.  The boat itself was on loan for only a few days, and there were none for sale, at least that they could afford.  The Newbys frequently had to abandon the river, taking trains between towns, at each stop searching for a boat to hire or borrow.  Those they did manage to find were small sailing or rowing boats, with little space for the native crews, let alone passengers and their gear.  The living conditions aboard were primitive and Wanda, as the only woman, must have found them particularly difficult.

The Newbys being who they were, they still found much to enjoy in the river and in India itself.  At one point, Newby described himself,

- a typical traveller in India, at one moment elevated by the splendour of the country; the next cast down by its miseries. The only thing that was constantly agreeable was the river; life on it was sometimes hard, but it was always supportable, and in some strange way it produced feelings that were a combination of elation and contentment which neither of us experienced anywhere else.

The Newbys followed their usual pattern of travel, talking to everyone they met and visiting every temple, fort, palace, and battlefield they could find (or Eric could drag Wanda to).  As in his book on Ireland, Newby quoted history and legend and religious epics.  Some of the names were familiar from a class on Indian history that I took long ago, though I had forgotten that there was a real Sher Khan, an Afghan invader in the late 1500s.  Newby was particularly interested in the holiest sites on the Ganges, the confluences where other rivers join the great mother.  He and Wanda were present at one of the major winter festivals, joining the millions who came to bathe in the icy sacred waters. 

In his introduction, Newby informed his readers that his book "is not a book about India today; neither is it concerned with politics or economics."  It is certainly not a travel guide, but a personal account of a particular voyage, very much off the normal tourist tracks.  Even more than Lilah Wingfield, the Newbys immersed themselves in India, in the life of the river and the people who lived along it.  I have no desire to follow in their footsteps, at least on those first miserable stages, but as always I am glad to travel in their company.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"The ill-starred folly of a few spring weeks"

Ankle Deep, Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell's novels are so hard to find these days that I did a classic double-take when I saw this on the library sale carts.  It's been a long time since I've had a new Thirkell novel to read - new to me, anyway.  Ankle Deep was published in 1933, the same year as High Rising, the first of the Barsetshire novels.  Though it isn't part of the series, it does share some familiar themes.

The story opens with a phone call, as Fanny Turner invites an older couple, Mr and Mrs Howard, to spend a weekend at her family's country cottage, Waterside.  Next she invites Valentine Ensor, a divorced man, one of her string of swains, for whom she is trying to find a rich second wife.  Mrs Howard then calls back to ask if they can bring their married daughter Aurea, home for a visit from Canada.  Fanny, who knows that her husband Arthur once hoped to marry Aurea, agrees to this, planning to pair the two off for a nostalgic flirtation while she occupies herself with Valentine.

When Aurea arrives with her parents, however, she and Valentine upset Fanny's plans by their immediate attraction to each other, which develops quickly into love.  Both have suffered from unhappy marriages.  It is apparently no secret among Val's friends that his wife had a series of affairs, and after discovering this he allowed her to divorce him (he completed this noble sacrifice by paying her a handsome alimony, which he can hardly afford).  As he tells Aurea, "She was - rather promiscuous" - not the sort of blunt statement one finds in the Barsetshire books.  Now Val plays the man-about-town, moving from woman to woman while avoiding any real attachment.  On the other hand, Aurea has what seems on the surface a tranquil marriage to Ned, a kind husband and father to their two children.  She fell in love and married him at eighteen, but now she dislikes and despises him - not apparently because of anything he has done, but because she has fallen out of love with him.  She cannot even bear his touch, let alone sex with him.  She winces at the memory of repeated scenes with Ned "whimpering, actually whimpering, because she was not what he called 'kind,' of the utter contempt with which she finally gave in."  Even in allusive language, this caught me off-guard.  Thirkell presents Aurea as a woman married too young, and to the wrong man, who has reacted by withdrawing into herself, barricading herself physically and emotionally against everyone but her children and her parents.  Then she meets Val, and they fall into a physically chaste but emotionally torrid romance that plays out over her last remaining weeks in England.

The Barsetshire books are packed with engagements and marriages, in most of which the couples live happily ever after.  The problems they face are usually external, like finances, or for the older couples the complicated lives of their children.  There are exceptions, of course, like the hints we get that Francis Brandon is not a satisfactory husband.  But for the younger couples at least, the stories seem more concerned with courtship.  There is nothing in those books like the marriages here, or in O, These Men, These Men, published in 1935 and generally considered a roman a clef, the heroine of which escapes an abusive and drunken husband.  In Ankle Deep, Thirkell uses her six characters to explore both happy and unhappy marriages, and particularly to analyze the character of Aurea.  As in the Barsetshire books, she also considers parenthood, including the parenting of grown children (I was reminded especially of the Grantlys and the Beltons).  Aurea is the Howards' only child.  They are painfully aware of her misery but unable to help her, and they watch her growing intimacy with Val with great concern.  Aurea's children are one of the only ties holding her to her marriage.  At the same time, she can hardly bear the separation from her own aging parents (something Thirkell herself probably knew well, from her years living in Australia).  Fanny, on the other hand, is happy to turn her children over to her mother-in-law at every opportunity, freeing her time for her constant flirtations.

With Aurea staying in her parents' home, she and Val must meet elsewhere, in restaurants and clubs.  They spend one frustrating evening at the cinema, seeing a film about Benuto Cellini, "The Great Italian Medieval Lover and Craftsman of All Time."  Thirkell's parody of an epic historical film here adds a welcome lighter note, and a familiar one.  As far as I can tell, this film is the only one mentioned in her books that doesn't star Glamora Tudor.

In the end, I found Ankle Deep an interesting rather than an engaging read.  Aurea is a difficult character, child-like and on some levels immature, and I found her recurring emotional storms a bit wearying after a while.  I understand her isolation, and her inability to confide even in her own mother; in Thirkell's world outside help is apparently not an option, unfortunately.  I am glad to have read this, and to see how it fits into the arc of Thirkell's stories, but in the end I prefer her Barsetshire world.

The edition I read is from Moyer Bell, with the usual missing sentences, transposed names and misspelled words (I was puzzled for a moment by a "car thorse").  I'm very glad to see that Virago is republishing the Barsetshire books, though now I'll be tempted by the new editions.

Friday, September 21, 2012

On the bummel

Three Men on the Bummel, Jerome K. Jerome

I had already read and loved Three Men in a Boat when I came across a Penguin edition that combined it with Three Men on the Bummel, which I hadn't.  I immediately bought it, and then it sat on the TBR pile for too many years.  I always meant to re-read Boat before Bummel, and I never got around to it.  Helen's recent review on She Reads Novels made me move it up the stacks. I was also interested to compare Jerome's account of his German travels with Elizabeth von Arnim's picture of the country and its people in her novels (particularly her account of an English holiday in The Caravanerswhose Baron von Ottringel so despises the British).

I might as well confess straight off (and with a blush) that I initially thought "the Bummel" was a river, and that this would be Harris, George and J. off on another boating expedition.  Instead of course it is about what was meant to be a cycling tour of Germany, though the three of them spend much of their time, at least in J.'s telling, on trains or wandering around cities and towns.  Jeremy Lewis, the editor, points out that when this book was published in 1900, cycling was all the rage, and women particularly were finding in it a freedom they had never had.  This made Jerome's book very topical, and his typical digressions into the different kinds of bicycles, their equipment and repairs, and even the advertisements for them, provide some interesting social history.

Like the earlier book, this one starts off with the three men sitting around, complaining that they need a change, worn out with work and worry as they are.  But now Harris and J. are married men with families, and they can't just set off on a trip.  They hatch a cunning plan to get their wives to agree to a bachelor's holiday, to which the women just as cunningly agree.  So with a tandem bike and a single in tow, the three set off for Hamburg.  At that point, J. stops his narrative to explain that

There will be no useful information in this book.  Anyone who should think that with the aid of this book he would be able to make a tour through Germany and the Black Forest would probably lose himself before he got to the Nore. . . I do not regard the conveyance of useful information as my forte.

In one of my favorite digressions, he then goes on to recount his career in journalism, working on a paper that "combined instruction with amusement," such as how to make one's fortune keeping rabbits, or how to learn dance-steps by means of diagrams.  J. also wrote the advice column, "Straight Talks to Young Men," by "Uncle Henry," and his co-workers included a shabby little woman who wrote the cooking and fashion sections.  After an unfortunate article involving experiments with hydrogen gas, the editor advised him to avoid giving useful information in the future, and J. reluctantly came to accept that advice (though not before instructing a friend "about how to marry his deceased wife's sister at Stockholm" - I'd love to hear that story).

Returning to his main story, J. travels with his friends from Hamburg to Berlin and Dresden, and then to the Black Forest.  Along the way he has fun with the accidents of travel, and with the British abroad (especially their inability to speak foreign languages).  In turn he mocks the German passion for order, which in his telling leads them to "improve" nature out of all recognition, not to mention spoiling scenic areas with restaurants.  He also has great fun with German law and social rules, which the three are constantly if innocently breaking, running up quite a tally of fines. "This is the charm of German law: misdemeanour in Germany has its fixed price."

J. spends much more time discussing the German people and their society than his travels. On the one hand, he appreciates the good order and prosperity of the country, and he finds Germans themselves "an amiable, unselfish, kindly people."  He notes their proverbial kindness to children and animals, but he contrasts that with the universal habit of duelling among university students.  I was unprepared for his detailed account of a night spent watching young men slice each other to the bone, himself falling under the spell of the "curious hot odour of blood."  Jerome was troubled by what he saw as most people's overly-regimented life, under a paternal government. "In Germany you take no responsibility upon yourself whatever. Everything is done for you, and done well."  But all will be well, unless "by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine."  As the editor also points out, there was at this time great interest and some concern about the German Empire, staking out colonies and building its navy, and Jerome was one of many British writers trying to get a handle on the country and its people.

I enjoyed this, though it was not what I expected.  Like the first book, there is great fun in the misadventures of the Three Men, and I particularly enjoy their sometimes snappish exchanges, like the debate over who has to ride the tandem and who gets the single bike.  In Three Men in a Boat, J. sometimes pauses in his story to muse on Life and Faith and other big topics, which really took me aback the first time I read it; I kept waiting for the punchline.  Here he follows the same pattern, mixing the comic and the serious, with the more serious sections focused on Germany and its people.

I have Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad on the top of the TBR stack, an account of a European tour that also began in Hamburg, and it will be interesting to travel some of the same ground in his irreverent company.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Meeting old friends in Morocco

Garment of Shadows, Laurie R. King

After reading Pirate King back in January, which reminded me why I love Laurie King's books, I have been eagerly awaiting Garment of Shadows, published earlier this month. There is nothing quite like the anticipation of a new book by a favorite author, especially in a series whose characters feel like old friends met again. This is the twelfth in King's series featuring Mary Russell and her partner & husband Sherlock Holmes. Set in Morocco and following quickly on the events of the previous book, it opens with a brief preface, in which we learn that Holmes has returned from some adventure of his own, expecting to meet Russell, who had remained on location with the Fflytte film crew (after their adventures in Pirate King). Instead he learns that she has not been seen since she walked out into the desert one night in the company of a young boy, leaving behind a note saying only that she was going to the city of Fez.

The first chapter opens in what seems to be Russell's familiar voice:

I was in bed. A bed, at any rate. I had been flattened by a steam-roller, trampled under a stampede of bison. Beaten by a determined thug. I ached, head to toe, fingers and skin. Mostly head. My skull throbbed, one hot pulse for every beat of my heart.

I was immediately caught, drawn in, wondering where she is, what happened to her on the road to Fez. But those aren't even the most urgent questions: why is there blood on her hands, under her fingernails? And even more shocking, the question she asks herself: "Who the hell was I?" Before she can even start to answer these questions, she sees two French soldiers coming toward the building, and in a panic, she flees to the roof and over it, out into what proves to be a honeycombed old city in North Africa. For the first few chapters we follow Russell, as she explores the different quarters of the city, gradually regaining her strength, haunted by flashes of memory, trying to figure out who and where she is. I enjoyed watching her cope. She is such a resourceful young woman, with some unusual skills, like the picking of locks and an idiomatic command of Arabic. Using those skills, she manages to find food and shelter, and she also collects information about the fraught political situation, with Morocco divided between Spanish and French influence, though she doesn't understand all that she hears.

The story then turns back to Holmes' adventures. These books are ostensibly Russell's memoirs, which Laurie King is editing, and hers is the narrative voice. Russell and Holmes often separate during an investigation, to pursue different lines of inquiry, but the story always stays with Russell. Only once before, in Locked Rooms, did it shift to Holmes (and that story played an important part in another book, The Art of Detection, one of the books in King's modern series featuring Kate Martinelli). Other authors with first-person narrators, including Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody and Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott, have also found a way to bring in third-person narration, to widen the story beyond one character's experiences or point or view.

Here, the sections that follow Holmes provide much of the context for the story. Holmes too is in Fez, part of French Morocco, whose Resident General, Maréchal Lyautey, is a distant cousin. Morocco is in turmoil, with a rebellion against the Spanish control of the north, with its rich iron mines. There are rumors that Germany is funding the rebels, known as "Rifi" from the Rif mountains that divide the country. Just six years after the Great War ended, neither France nor England wants a German foothold in Tangier, just across the Straits from Gibraltar and Europe. Holmes is planning to travel south, away from the troubled areas of the rebellion. But when he returns, to find Russell gone, he meets instead an old comrade, Ali Hazr, whose connection with the Rifi will draw both Holmes and Russell into the country's troubles and into danger. Like an earlier book, The Game, which took them to India, this is a story of statecraft and espionage, of the "Great Game" of empire that Holmes' older brother Mycroft plays from his shadowy office in Whitehall.

There is so much to enjoy with this book. Laurie King marvelously evokes the settings, particularly Fez, as we wander its streets with Russell and Holmes. She weaves the history of Morocco into the story, and in an end note explains the fate of the Rif rebellion. Her shift in narrators gives us both the familiar pleasure of Russell's company, but also the unusual experience of Holmes' point of view. Generally we see him only through Russell's eyes, and I enjoyed the change of perspective, including seeing Russell through his eyes (and his heart) for a change. There also is the pleasure of meeting old friends, like Ali and his brother Mahmoud, and new ones like the Maréchal. Lyautey is an historic and heroic figure, respecting Islam and the Moroccan people, trying to guide his Protectorate into a modern nation. Laurie King, dedicating this book "to those who reach across boundaries with a hand of welcome," quotes Lyautey: "Let us learn their ways, just as they are learning ours."

This is an excellent addition to a great series, built on well-crafted plots, intriguing settings, and most of all on its endearing characters. I found Mary Russell's voice irresistible from the first page of The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and greedy reader that I am, I'm glad to see from "About the Author" that Laurie King "is at work on her next novel, City of Dark."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

BBAW: Underappreciated books

With today's BBAW theme of promoting a book that in my opinion needs more recognition, my first thought was to write about Anthony Trollope. Before I started blogging, I didn't know anyone else who read him, and I felt like I was alone in a world obsessed with Charles Dickens. But now I've found a wonderful community of fellow Trollopians, some long-time readers and others just falling under his spell.

Instead, I chose someone born almost a century later, Betty MacDonald. Many people know her as the author of the beloved Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories, which I read growing up and which are still on my shelves. Much less-well known are her four autobiographical works, the first of which is The Egg and I. Published in 1945, it became an immediate best-seller and the basis for a movie starring Fred MacMurry and Claudette Colbert. No film could possibly do justice to this book, because it couldn't capture MacDonald's unique voice:

Along with teaching us that lamb must be cooked with garlic and that a lady never scratches her head or spits, my mother taught my sisters and me that it is a wife's bounden duty to see that her husband is happy in his work . . . [This] philosophy worked out splendidly for Mother for she followed my mining engineer father all over the United States and led a fascinating life; but not so well for me, because although I did what she told me and let Bob choose the work in which he felt he would be happiest and then plunged wholeheartedly in with him, I wound up on the Pacific Coast in the most untamed corner of the United States, with a ten-gallon keg of good whiskey, some very dirty Indians, and hundreds and hundreds of most uninteresting chickens.

Unfortunately all of these books include unflattering stereotypes of drunken and dirty Native Americans.

Before she got to the chicken farm on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, MacDonald described her childhood in mining camps across the west and later in Seattle. In addition to her parents and her four siblings, the family included her paternal grandmother Gammy, "who wore her corsets upside down and her shoes on the wrong feet and married a gambler with yellow eyes." Each of the four books includes stories from her childhood, and it's a wonder she survived it. Her older sister Mary was constantly leading her into temptation, not to mention mortal danger, like the time she convinced Betty to slide down an old mining flume, which nearly dumped her headfirst into the mine itself.

When her marriage to Bob the chicken farmer ended, MacDonald took her two daughters back to the family home in Seattle. This was in 1931, in the deepening Depression, a bad time to be looking for work, but Mary convinced her that finding a job would be easy. In Anybody Can Do Anything, MacDonald related her adventures looking for, and then losing, job after job. Mary told her, "I'll always be able to find us jobs doing something, and whatever it is I'll show you how to do it." Mary's other motto was, "Just show me the job and I'll produce a sister to do it." MacDonald dedicated the book "To my sister Mary, who has always believed that I can do anything she puts her mind to." It's a fascinating picture of Seattle in the early 1930s, and of the working world. Like all four of her books, it's also a lovely portrait of a family:

It's a wonderful thing to know that you can come home any time from anywhere and just open the door and belong. That everybody will shift until you fit and that from that day on it's a matter of sharing everything. When you share your money, your clothes and your food with a mother, a brother and three sisters, your portion may be meagre, but by the same token when you share unhappiness, loneliness and anxiety about the future with a mother, a brother and three sisters, there isn't much left for you.

Seven years later, MacDonald was living in the family home with her daughters when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She spent the next ten months in a sanitarium, which she chronicled in The Plague and I.

By the time I had gone through my sixth cold, I noticed that I seemed much more nervous, that I slept badly and that I had a heavy feeling over my heart and occasional sharp pains in my lungs. I attributed the heavy feeling and the pains to my indigestion and my indigestion to my nervousness and my nervousness to my job . . . It never occurred to me that my complaints were symptoms of tuberculosis. (Actually they all were.) From Gammy's training, the movies I had seen and the books I had read, I thought that the only real symptoms of tuberculosis were a dry hacking cough and a clean white linen handkerchief delicately touched to pale lips and coming away blood-flecked.

She wrote in detail about the treatments she underwent and the condition of other patients, and this is not a book for the medically squeamish. I would not have thought there was anything funny about TB, but Betty MacDonald proved me wrong. Like her other books, it has truly laugh-out-loud moments, but it is also the most serious of her books. In the sanitarium she roomed with a young Japanese woman named Kimi. This was actually Monica Sone, who later wrote a book, Nisei Daughter, about her experiences with the Japanese internments during World War II. MacDonald apparently accepted Asian and African Americans without the prejudice that she showed toward Native Americans.

The final book of the four is Onions in the Stew, which tells of MacDonald's second marriage to Donald MacDonald and their life on Vashon Island. It is the most domestic of the books, and I think the quietest. Her daughters Joan and Anne were growing up, as were her nieces and nephews. Part of the fun of these books is seeing the connections with the later Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, which are dedicated to them, "who are perfect angels and couldn't possibly have been the inspiration for any of these stories."

These books are classics, with some of the funniest episodes I have ever read. They remind me of Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, and also of the Gilbreth family of Cheaper by the Dozen, but MacDonald's voice is uniquely her own. Unfortunately only the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories and The Egg & I are still in print, but it's well worth tracking down library or used copies. These are books to be re-read and treasured, and they deserve to be better known.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

R is for Rediscovering Sue Grafton

R is for Ricochet, Sue Grafton

I've been culling quite a few books from my overflowing shelves lately. I seem to be clearer about which ones I'm never going to read again (or in some cases for the first time). I've been pleasantly surprised at how easy it is let these books go, and how good it feels to clear them out. There are some, though, that I have waffled over. I just can't decide about Martha Grimes; I'll probably have to re-read one of them before I can make up my mind. I felt the same way about Sue Grafton. I've been reading her series featuring Kinsey Millhone, a PI in Santa Teresa, California, for many years, but somehow I got stuck at this book, her 18th. I bought it back when it was published in 2004 but never got around to reading it, nor any of the books that follow (the series is now up to V for Vengeance).

The first book, A is for Alibi, was published in 1982. Grafton has chosen to keep the books' internal timeline consistent, so while 30 years have passed in the real world, only five have in Kinsey's world. Grafton doesn't overwhelm her stories with what's now period detail, but you can catch something of the timing in passing, when Kinsey uses a pay phone instead of a cell phone, or when she mentions graduating from high school in 1966 - or when she enters a bar where "Eighty-seven per cent of those present were smoking, the air as gray as morning fog."

When this book opens, Kinsey is on her way to meet a new client, Nord Lafferty, wealthy and socially prominent. To her surprise, the job he offers involves his daughter Reba, who is being released on parole after serving twenty-two months in prison for embezzlement. She pleaded guilty to stealing $350,000 from her employer Alan Beckwith, a local real estate developer. The only child of an elderly father and an absent mother, Reba has been in trouble for much of her life, addicted to both drugs and gambling. Mr. Lafferty wants Kinsey to keep an eye on her for the first few days following her release, as she makes the transition to freedom again, and Kinsey agrees.

Spending time with Reba, Kinsey soon realizes that she and the married Beckwith were having an affair before she went to prison, which they are quick to resume. Then Kinsey is approached by a local police officer, Cheney Phillips, who tells her that the FBI and IRS are interested in Reba, because Beckwith's real estate business is just a front for some serious criminal activity. They are hoping to turn Reba, and they want Kinsey's help. Cheney is also interested in Kinsey, in a completely different way of course, and the two begin seeing each other. Reba, who has her own plans, manages to drag Kinsey along and into trouble with both the cops and the bad guys. For much of the book Kinsey plays an atypically passive role, following Cheney and Reba's leads. She acknowledges this in the last line of the book: "So here's what I've learned. In the passing drama of life, I'm usually the heroine, but occasionally I'm simply a minor character in someone else's play."

I did enjoy this book. It was interesting returning to this series after so many years. Much of it felt familiar: Kinsey's essentially solitary life, the dull routine of much of her work, her passion for junk food (she regularly eats two Quarter Pounders with Cheese at a time), and her Paul Newman-esque landlord, the sexy 87-year-old Henry. Other things I'd forgotten, like Kinsey's history with Cheney, but Grafton is good at dropping clues and details to fill in what's now a complicated backstory. Her story here is complex and twisty, with scams, betrayals and counter-plots. Beckwith's criminal activities include money laundering, which means Kinsey (and the reader) get lectures from the cops and the FBI not just about how the laundering is done but also about the laws meant to prevent it, and that did slow the story down in places. There is also a subplot involving Henry, his slightly annoying brothers and a woman he is interested in, which balances the Kinsey-Cheney pairing and the Reba-Beckwith. As Kinsey announces on the first page, "This is a story about romance - love gone right, love gone wrong, and matters somewhere in between."

So Sue Grafton is staying on the shelves (she'll be relieved, I'm sure), and I'll probably be looking to catch up on the books I've missed as well.

BBAW: What blogging means to me

When I asked myself what blogging means to me, the answer came immediately: finding my voice. Reading isn't something I do, it's part of who I am. I don't remember learning to read, I don't remember a time when I couldn't read, a time when reading hasn't been (in the words of Anna Quindlen) "my home, my sustenance, my great invincible companion." But I've found it frustrating to talk about reading and books, other than with a few book-minded friends. So many people just don't read, they're not interested in books, they may even find reading a bit suspect. And then I find it hard to talk about books, to verbalize how enthralling or amusing or unsettling I find the book I'm reading, let alone reading itself. And I swear, the more passionate I am about a book, the less I'm able to convey that. It's the Mr. Knightley syndrome: "If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more." So I stumble and stutter along, as people start to back politely toward the door, and I usually end lamely with "It's just such a good book!"

But when I sit down at the computer with a blank post, I am finally able to put into words why it's such a good book. I don't write easily, but as I wrestle with words I'm able to name what I think about a book, how I feel about it, how it relates to other books I've read, or to something in my life. I can muse on my history with the author, or on reading itself. I can identify what I see as a book's strengths or its weaknesses (though I am not the most critical of readers). There is a freedom in knowing that anyone reading my post who gets bored will simply move on. And I can talk about whatever I'm reading. I do tend to be an eclectic reader; often when I finish a book, I want to read something completely different next. Whatever I'm reading, though, I'm sure to find someone else who has read it too.

Which brings me to a most amazing thing about blogging: not just that I've found a voice, but that I am heard. While I don't want to sound like Sally Field at the Oscars, I'm still sort of amazed and grateful that with all the blogs out there, all those great voices, people spend time here reading and commenting (of all the gin joints...). Again, thank you all for that. As wonderful as it is to have found my voice, conversation is much more fun than monologue!

Monday, September 10, 2012

BBAW: Appreciation

I've so been looking forward to this, to joining in Book Blogger Appreciation Week, and particularly to expressing my own appreciation of some favorite blogs and bloggers. Reading your posts, I am entertained and informed and challenged and inspired - and reminded how many books are still out there waiting to be discovered.

Like the Oscars, I'm going for categories with my own Appies:

First of all, really the first blog I discovered (via a Google alert), and the one that inspired me to start my own, and as far as I'm concerned sets the standard for book blogs: Shelf Love. I am honored to be included on Jenny & Teresa's appreciation list today.

Blogs that expand my reading horizons: Both Shelf Love and Read, Ramble remind me of the world of literature and history beyond my comfortable American and English zones.

Blogs most likely to send me straight to the library catalogue, or to add to my TBR stacks, besides the two above: Books and Chocolate, books as food, The Captive Reader, Gudrun's Tights, Lakeside Musing, Pining for the West, and She Reads Novels. Thanks to all of you, there is very little chance of changing this blog's name to "TBR Less Than 100" anytime in the foreseeable future.

Blogs that challenge me: With the Classics Challenge, Katherine at November's Autumn encourages us each month to look at a particular aspect of a classic work; this month it's music. With the TBR Double Dare, James at Ready When You Are, C.B. really made me think about the stacks of unread books I already own and those I continue to acquire. Sign me up for the Double Dog Dare! Of course the challenges are only one part of their great blogs.

And finally, blogs that I have recently discovered: Tell Me a Story, Read Around the World, and Secluded Charm (I enjoy the reviews of classic films there as well).

A last word of appreciation, to all of you who read and who comment. Sharing books with you, here and on your blogs, is the best part of my day. Thank you!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Tutankhamen and his tomb

Tutankhamen, Joyce Tyldesley

In 1978, my parents took us to see "The Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibit in Seattle. It was overwhelming and exhilarating, pushing through the crowds of people all intent on the cases filled with artifacts more than 3000 years old. I must have learned about Egypt in school, but I think that's when ancient Egypt came alive for me, not just with the golden artifacts but also with the simpler ones, like a gameboard set with its pieces, or a chair whose back showed the king sitting with his queen. Several years later a friend introduced me to Elizabeth Peters' series featuring the Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody Emerson, who in the course of 19 books has excavated up and down the length of Egypt with her husband and extended family. I've learned a lot from these books, as well as the non-fiction the author has written under her own name, Barbara Mertz (Temples, Tombs and Heiroglyphs). I've been lucky enough to see three other exhibits of artifacts, including "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs," which stopped in Houston on its recent American tour.

I came across Tutankhamen (the author's preferred spelling) recently at the library. I was not familiar with the author, Dr Joyce Tyldesley, but I've since learned that she is on the faculty at the JNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester, and that she has written extensively on ancient Egypt. Based on this book, I'll definitely be looking for more of her work.

In Tutankhamen, Dr Tyldesley takes the reader from the death of the King around 1327 BCE and his burial in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes (Luxor) through the search for his tomb in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Its eventual discovery in 1922 was a world-wide media event, creating a fascination with "King Tut" that continues today, a phenomenon Dr Tyldesley also explores. In addition, she explains how Howard Carter and his team of experts painstakingly emptied the tomb, inventorying its thousands of artifacts and doing the necessary conservation work to preserve them as they were moved for the first time in millenia. Later sections discuss the recovery of the King's body and the autopsies performed on it, as well as the contradictory conclusions that different experts have drawn from them. In the end, so many questions about this pharaoh remain unanswered, including the identity of his parents. Later kings altered the historical record, removing Tutankhamen and his predecessor/possible father Akhenaten from the list of pharaohs. Robbers and early archaeologists, intent only on treasure, stole and destroyed objects that might have provided vital information on the period.

I found this book informative, interesting, and very readable. Dr Tyldesley is clearly writing for the non-expert, taking care to explain and to give context, but she doesn't overwhelm with detail or condescend. I found the chapter on "Family," where she explores the different theories of Tutankhamen's parentage and place within the family, a little confusing, simply because of the number of individuals. I wish I had discovered the "Who Was Who in Ancient Egypt" section at the back of the book sooner. Dr Tyldesley doesn't hesitate to point out the mistakes made by earlier Egyptologists, or to mention points on which she herself disagrees with colleagues, but she is even-handed and fair, even pointing out extenuating circumstances. She has fun with the various "curses" that have been ascribed to Tutankhamen, and with popular culture's fascination with him, with ancient Egypt in general and mummies in particular, over the years. My favorite: a suggestion that "an extension to the London Underground, which passed through Tooting and Camden Town, should be named "Tootancamden." I will also take to heart her suggestion that "As a general rule of thumb, any book that refers to the king as 'Tut,' . . . and any book that includes the word 'truth' on its cover, is best avoided."

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The House in Norham Gardens

The House in Norham Gardens, Penelope Lively

I saw a review of this recently that intrigued me, reminding me that Penelope Lively wrote children's and young adult novels before turning to adult fiction. I have only read one of those early books, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, which I enjoyed. It's about a boy, James Harrison, living in an old cottage in an Oxfordshire village, who discovers that it is being haunted by the ghost of the title, accidentally released from a magical confinement and wreaking havoc. I was expecting something along the same lines with this book, but it is very different, closer I think to her adult fiction.

In this book, published in 1974, Clare Mayfield, aged fourteen, lives in an old Victorian house in Norham Gardens, in Oxford. An orphan, she has been raised by her great-aunts Anne (aged 78) and Susan (aged 80), in a warm, loving home. The aunts, born in the Victorian era, rejected the traditional roles of wife and mother to make independent lives for themselves as scholars and tutors, and they have high hopes for Clare. Retired now to quiet lives in Norham Gardens, they are growing frail, particularly Aunt Anne, who is often ill. At a young age, Clare has now become their caretaker. With the daily help, Mrs Hedges, she does the shopping and the cooking, and the two conspire to eke out the family's dwindling funds. One of their solutions was to take in a lodger, Maureen, an office worker. This is no Sarah Crewe story of drudgery and poverty, though, but one of loving care and service.

The house, which has been their family home since the 1890s, is constantly in need of repairs. Too many rooms are unused, full of now-antique furniture, and the attics are crammed with generations of clothes and books and family albums. The attics also contain artifacts brought back to England by Clare's great-grandfather, an anthropologist, who was among the first Europeans to travel deep into New Guinea and study its most isolated native peoples. One day, looking for an extra blanket for Maureen, Clare finds a piece of wood, carved and painted, an abstract-looking human figure. She learns that it is a tamburan, a stylized representation of the ancestors who guard a village in New Guinea, which her great-grandfather acquired in 1905.

That night, Clare dreams of a village and its people. The dreams continue, growing increasingly vivid and urgent. The figures in the village, who initially seemed to be waiting, now seem to be demanding something. Mixed in with these dreams are others, equally disturbing, where her home has changed or been abandoned. The aunts, Clare's friends and teachers, all notice that she seems tired, stressed, not her usual self; she loses interest in her school work.

I don't know how I would have read this book at Clare's age. Even then, I think I would have loved the setting, the old family home with its history and its treasures, and even more the family itself, Clare and her wonderful aunts. I might have read the story of the tamburan simply as a magical one, of a tribe that lost its ancestor and reached across time to seek for it. Maybe that is what's happening; in the end Penelope Lively doesn't tell us one way or another, though she suggests that there is something eerie about the tamburan. But maybe Clare's dreams are less about the native peoples than about herself, maybe this is the only way that she can face the changes, the profound losses that are coming. She is only fourteen, with a tiny inheritance from her parents. Her aunts will not live forever. What will happen to her, what will happen to their home, to the family treasures that she loves? Again, we are given no answer. But Clare, who copes so capably with so much, will cope with that too when it comes.

I think this is an amazing book, with the multiple layers of stories that Penelope Lively weaves together. I want to be adopted by the Aunts, free to wander around that amazing house. But I would take care what trunks I opened.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Three clerks & three sisters

The Three Clerks, Anthony Trollope

As thrilled as I am with my recent trove of Trollope novels, I do want to read them, not just collect them. I picked The Three Clerks for my next read, after I saw a reference to it as a young man's novel, which piqued my interest. The sixth of Trollope's novels, it was published in 1857, the same year as Barchester Towers, when he was 42. It is a fast-moving story, set in London, where the three clerks of the title work in Civil Service offices. Harry Norman and Alaric Tudor are in the prestigious but staid Weights and Measures, while Alaric's scapegrace cousin Charley is in the rackety Internal Navigation (he fits right in with the rambunctious young men who have earned the nickname of "Infernal Navigation"). Trollope draws on his own career in the Post Office to show both inter- and intra-office rivalries, and the effects of the newly-instituted reforms, like examinations for candidates that were replacing a patronage system (he owed his own place to family connections).

The work of the Civil Service is tied to parliamentary politics, and it is fascinating to see here themes that Trollope would develop on a much grander scale in the later Palliser novels, and to compare them with the church politics of Barchester Towers. While there is not a single clergyman in this novel, which may make it unique in the Trollope canon, he actually wrote more about faith and practice in this book than in some of the "church" books of the Barchester series. The Civil Service and parliamentary settings also allow Trollope to bring in elements of finance and industry, such as when one of the clerks is sent to Devon to investigate a tin mine whose production might fall to the Crown. While there, he is maneuvered into secretly buying stock in the mine, the first step on a path of insider trading, which will lead to ever-greater fraud and eventually to his downfall.

But the three clerks and their work are only half of the story. There are also three sisters, Gertrude, Linda and Katie Woodward, who live with their widowed mother in a river-side cottage at Hampton. (I had never thought of "Linda" as a Victorian name.) Soon after the story opens, their mother's uncle, Captain Bartholomew Cuttwater, retires from the Royal Navy to live with them. This Uncle Bat introduces a naval element that I don't remember in any of Trollope's other books. His grumblings over the sins of the Admiralty reminded me of Patrick O'Brian.

The Woodwards are related to Harry Norman, who introduces them first to Alaric and then to Charley Tudor. "To a habitual novel reader," as Trollope says at one point, it will hardly come as a surprise to find that the three young men match up with the three young women, but it is still fun watching how it happens. The youngest daughter, Katie is only thirteen when the story opens, still a child who likes messing about with boats, with drawers longer than her skirts (I didn't know respectable Victorian novelists were allowed to talk about young ladies' drawers). She grows up into a delightful young woman, who dances her slippers to pieces one night, and I suspect that Trollope had a bit of tendre for her, as he did for Glencora Palliser.

I can see in this book some unevenness, some rough edges that I think show Trollope still perfecting his skills as a writer. His narrative voice becomes quite sentimental at times, addressing his reader as "thee" and "thou" (and at least once as "dear lady"), and admonishing, even scolding his characters. The illness of one character skirts the edges of bathos, complete with a death-bed farewell, though he has already told us that the illness isn't that serious. And the last chapter of the book, which brings some serious family news, ends in broad, almost farcial comedy, with most of the characters chasing around a garden. Then there are the names, some of the worst puns I've found in any of his books: Mr Gitemthruet, a defense lawyer; Jabesh M'Ruen, a predatory moneylender; and Victoire Jaquêtanàpe, a French fortune-hunter. I can't forget Thomas Snape, the chief clerk of Charley's office and his perpetual victim.

This book was originally published in the traditional three-volume format. When it was reprinted two years later, the publisher insisted on major cuts to bring it down to a single volume. The edition I read, an Oxford World's Classics, included the most substantial cuts in an appendix, keyed to their original place in the remaining text. Reading the excised material in some cases changed my understanding of a scene or a character. I learned from the introduction that Trollope fought to keep one of my favorite chapters, where one of the young clerks, who hopes to make some extra money from journalism, brings a story he has written to the Woodwards. Mrs. Woodward reads it aloud to the group, who interrupt her constantly with a hilarious running commentary. The story, whose heroine is named "Crinoline," is ridiculously funny, though its young author is very proud of it.

I really enjoyed this book. As always, Trollope made me care about his characters, and their stories, clearly grounded in his own world, and even drawing from his own life.