Sunday, March 31, 2013

The TBR Double Dog Dare comes to an end

We're in the final hours of the TBR Double Dog Dare (the last three, here in US Central Time), and at this point I think I can safely say I survived it!  The challenge, hosted by James at Ready When You Are, C.B. starting January 1st, was to read only from our own TBR stacks.  My one real temptation, as I'd previously confessed, was a copy of Les Misérables that I couldn't resist buying.  But I managed to put it down after only 32 pages, and read The Count of Monte Cristo from the TBR stacks instead.  I am looking forward to getting back to it, especially since the saintly Bishop Myriel, who trades his vast episcopal palace for a paupers' hospital, makes me think of the new Pope Francis.

This year's challenge felt much easier than last year's, but it turned out to be less productive.  I only cleared 35 books from the shelves (versus 61 last year).  Again this year I let a lot of books go that I hadn't read, recognizing that in reality I was not ever going to read them, I was just holding on to them out of a sense of obligation, because I'd spent money on them, or I felt I should read them.  Moving of course helped with this process.  I found that asking the question, "Do I want to pack and move this book?" made it easy to decide. (It is always interesting to see my former books on the library sale shelves; I hope they find good homes.)

I was sorry to see from James's post today that he won't be hosting a Triple Dog Dare in 2014.  The TBR Dares have challenged me to think about how I add to my TBR stacks.  I've had to recognize how often the new additions distract me from the books I already own but have never read.  I also have to recognize how often I'm swayed by an enthusiastic review into thinking, Oh, I want to read that too!  And how quickly that thought leads me to ABE or Amazon, with their seductive one-click buying.  I'm trying to step back a bit, and ask myself: Do I need to own this book, or do I just really want to read it?  That feels like an important question to ask, looking at my TBR shelves. In some way, whether it's a New Year's resolution, or a Lenten practice, I will need to challenge myself on my overflowing TBR shelves again.

Which isn't to say that I didn't add to the TBR shelves over these past few months, as I've admitted elsewhere.  The good news is that I shed more than I gained, though not by much.  And I can't help but be excited by the new ones.  I'm tempted to stay up til midnight, just for the fun of starting one (Miss Cayley or Miss Dickens?).  I'm also really looking forward to some re-reading.  Lately I've been thinking about the later books in the Anne of Green Gables series, the ones I hardly ever read, which I had to dig out from the back of the shelves this morning.  And Saturday afternoon I went to the county library and brought home five books; I have three more waiting at the city library.  I have missed the library, the fun of wandering the stacks or browsing the catalogue, and the complete lack of guilt over taking out too many books and returning them unread.

Thank you again to James for hosting and challenging us!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A disputed inheritance - among dragons

Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton

There may be some gushing in this post.  I have a new favorite book - the kind that inspires book evangelizing.

Honestly, books like this are the reason I started blogging.  For the last few days I've been carrying this around, just absolutely enchanted, brimming over with the fun of such a clever story and such endearing characters.  I kept wanting to hand it to people and say, "You should read this, it's marvelous, it's Framley Parsonage, with dragons." But I'd have met at best that all-too-familiar look of polite incomprehension (because while everyone knows Charles Dickens, or at least A Christmas Carol, nobody knows Anthony Trollope), or at worst, some version of "You read such, um, different books" (where "different" = "weird").

Actually I'm indebted to blogging for my introduction to Jo Walton in the first place.  I started with her "Small Change" series after reading Jenny's review of the first, Farthing.  I learned about this book from Claire's review, which included the magical words "Inspired by Anthony Trollope's works."  That was enough to add a copy to my TBR shelves.  I've mentioned before my fondness for dragons, and even casual readers of this blog have probably noticed my attachment to Trollope and his novels.

Initially, I admit, I didn't see a connection to Framley Parsonage.  As the story opens, the Dignified Bon Agornin is dying, and his family and heirs have gathered.  Bon has risen from genteel poverty to wealth and status, though the upper ranks of society cannot forget his wealth came from trade (including the new-fangled railroad that runs across his property), and that he essentially bought his title.  His eldest daughter Berend has married into the nobility, and her husband Illustrious Daverak will hold the estate after Bon, as part of the marriage settlements.  Bon's oldest son Penn is a parson, with a living held from his old friend the Exalted Sher Benandi.  His younger son Avan, making a career for himself in the capital city of Irieth, is not yet strong enough to hold the estate.  There are two unmarried daughters, Haner and Selendra, clutch-mates who dread a separation, for whom homes must be found.  They and Avan inherit their father's gold, but it is not enough to provide good dowries.

While all agree on the division of the gold, there is a dispute about Bon's other legacy: his body.  It is only by consuming their own that dragons grow in size and power.  The upper classes frequently eat dragonflesh, because they are charged with culling the weak and unfit, particularly among the new dragonets on their vast estates, which assures their continued dominance.  For most dragons though, the bodies of their parents may be their only chance of the magical dragonflesh.  Penn believes that his father meant his body, like his gold, to go to his younger children (except for his eyes, the traditional parson's perquisite).  Daverak disagrees, seizing a large part of the body for himself and his dragonets.  Deprived of his most important legacy, Avan decides his only recourse is to take his powerful brother-in-law to court, a decision with serious consequences for their entire family.  Haner is now living with Daverak and Berend, who are trying to arrange a suitable marriage.  Selendra has gone to live with Penn and his wife Felin on the Benandi estate, where the dowager Exalt' Benandi is not amused by her son Sher's growing attachment to the parson's beautiful but impecunious young sister.  (Unlike Mark Robarts, Penn disapproves of hunting and avoids signing his name to bills he can't afford.)

The story moves between the different branches of the family, and between the great city of Irieth and the country estates of the nobility.  This story absolutely stands on its own, but familiarity with the Victorian era definitely adds to its pleasures.  (I also thought there were a few Austenesque touches, like when Sher calls at the parsonage and finds Selendra with her two nephews, one of them clinging to her back, though unlike Captain Wentworth he doesn't have to drag them off.)  Jo Walton gives us a fully-realized world, with a complicated history that isn't fully explained, which I enjoyed piecing together.  She has a confidential narrative voice here that reminds me very much of Trollope.  And she creates vivid characters that drew me into the story right from the start.  It seemed clear from the first chapter that Daverak would not be the hero, and I grew increasingly concerned about Haner, living in his home, like so many women in the 19th century without resources or rights, dependent on male family members to care for her.  With the somewhat bleak endings of the "Small Change" books, I was a little apprehensive that my favorite characters would even survive uneaten, but in the end as it should, all comes right, love triumphs and virtue is rewarded.

Really, this is a marvelous book.  My only regret is that it doesn't form part of The Chronicles of Benandishire.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A tour of the Médoc

In the Vine Country, E.O. Somerville & Martin Ross

I had been looking for a copy of The Irish R.M., and when I found it at Houston's version of Powell's, the marvelous Kaboom Books, there on the shelf next to it was a familiar green Virago spine. At the time I knew nothing of E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross beyond The Irish R.M, and I hadn't read that in years.  But as I've mentioned before, I cannot pass up a Virago without reading at least the cover and the first few pages, so rarely do I find them in Houston.  The back cover blurb of In the Vine Country was enough to add it to the stack I was carting off to the cash register:
Another irresistible gem by the authors of Memoirs of an Irish R.M. and Through Connemara in a Governess Cart; this time they tour the Médoc country, where they discover the pleasures of harvest - a glass of moût, freshly trodden by the peasants and garlic kisses from their hostess.  Then to a grand chateau, where they establish themselves as 'Les Anglais pour rire' by their sorry attempts to speak French. Mistresses of ironic wit and precise observation, this is Somerville and Ross at their most genial and open.
After finishing a two-year tour with General Ulysses Grant, I was ready for something different - something a little more fun - and Somerville & Ross were the perfect choice.

The book opens in Ireland, where Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who were second cousins, lived with Somerville's family in County Cork.  They had begun collaborating on books in the late 1880s, with their first novel, An Irish Cousin, published in 1889. Soon afterwards, they proposed a series of travel sketches on Ireland to The Lady's Pictorial, an English weekly "Newspaper for the Home." The sketches were later published as Through Connemara in a Governess Cart.  A similar commission from the magazine sent the two off "to the vineyards of the Médoc," and the articles they wrote from France were published as In the Vine Country in 1893.  Here as in Through Connemara the narration moves between the first and second person, but it isn't immediately clear who is speaking.  Playing detective, I decided that the narrator is Edith Somerville, who studied art in Paris and Germany, since she refers to sketching various scenes; and the person usually referred to as "my second cousin" is Violet Martin.  (Both travel books include illustrations based on Somerville's sketches.)  The book makes it clear that the two travelers are women.  I haven't figured out yet why they adopted male pseudonyms, particularly when Somerville, part of a prominent Anglo-Irish family, was using her own last name.

I confess I had no idea where the Médoc was when I started reading this book, so my trusty atlas and Google maps came in handy again.  And though I grew up in a "vine country" myself, in Walla Walla in eastern Washington State, I know very little about wine-making.  Neither did the authors, who were relieved to learn that they were not expected "to improve other people's minds by figures and able disquisitions on viticulture and the treatment of the phylloxera," but "to enjoy ourselves. . ."  They certainly did that, despite the discomforts of travel and of provincial hotels.  From Bordeaux they traveled out into the wine country, watching the harvest and the first pressing of the grapes, overcoming the shock of seeing barefoot men actually stomping the grapes.  On their first visit to the pressoir they were presented with brimming glasses of moût fresh from the feet of the workers, which they could hardly choke down.  Later they toured the chateaux where great barrels lay maturing, including "one of the great fermenting houses of the Médoc," the Mouton Rothschild.  They also visited towns and villages in between, like Libourne, "a walled town in the heart of the vineyard country, with a saint and a shrine, and a history as gorgeous as an illuminated missal"  (I love that sentence).

Somerville and Ross's interest and enthusiasm reminded me of Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay - as did their frequent mishaps. They were older than the American tourists, more independent, and not as naive.  I'm not sure how unconventional it was at that time, the 1890s, for women to travel alone.  In France they were accepted as English eccentrics, though they took care to identify themselves as Irish when they felt it would smooth relations.  I agree with whoever wrote the back cover blurb that Somerville and Ross are "mistresses of ironic wit and precise observation."  They do play a bit to stereotypes, Irish, English and French, but the humor is never mean, and they are willing to laugh at themselves as much as others.  The book is just such fun, and now I'm looking forward even more to Connemara in that governess cart.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Around the world with General Grant

Around the World with General Grant, John Russell Young. Michael Fellman, editor.

Ulysses Grant's second term as President of the United States ended in March of 1877.  He couldn't return to his most successful job, in the Army, and there was no clear role for ex-presidents to play (which is true today).  Though he thought of running again for a third term, it was much too soon to start campaigning (which I wish were true today).  Grant and his wife Julia decided it was the perfect time to travel.  Three months later, they sailed from Philadelphia on the U.S. warship Indiana.  Travelling with them was their youngest son Jesse and a party of friends that included John Russell Young, a correspondent for the New York Herald.

The Grants set out to tour Great Britain and Europe, but they had no definite plans, and in the end they just kept going.  Over the next two and a half years, they circumnavigated the globe.  Their travels took them to Scandinavia, Egypt, Palestine, Russia, India, Burma, Singapore, Vietnam, China, and Japan, before they finally headed home, sailing east across the Pacific to California.  John Russell Young traveled with them for most of the tour.  He filed some stories with his paper during that time, which he later collected and expanded into a two-volume work, published in 1879, a year after the Grants and their party returned home.  The edition I read is a one-volume abridgement from the Johns Hopkins University Press, edited by Michael Fellman, a professor of history at Simon Fraser University.

The original two-volume edition is available through Google Books, and I may download it someday.  I'm curious about what was cut, and why, in abridging and editing.  Professor Fellman doesn't discuss this in his notes, which seems a strange omission, particularly in a work from a university press.  I'd like to know what criteria were used.  Based on what is included, I suspect a lot of descriptions of scenery got cut, but also observations on the people, individuals and societies, that the Grant party met.  Without knowing how the original was abridged and why, I prefer to see it for myself, even if it turns out to be as dense as Anthony Trollope's two-volume North America.

Abridgements aside, I found this book very interesting and informative.  As I've mentioned before, I enjoy travelogues, particularly from the 19th century, though this incredible tour is in a class of its own, at least among Americans.   In its pomp and circumstance, and in its sometimes leisurely pace, it reminded me of Emily Eden's Up the Country.  I had already read Julia Grant's account of the trip in her autobiography, and Young provided an interesting contrast.  At times I was also reminded of Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, which coincidentally General Grant read while traveling.  But the similarities are in the American expectations and reactions rather than in the humor, which can't match Twain's. Young seemed to have the ex-President's dignity constantly in mind.

Grant is pretty consistently ranked among the worst of American presidents, and even  some of his staunchest friends were relieved when his term of office ended.  But whatever the disappointments of his presidency at home, he was given a hero's welcome wherever he traveled, honored both as the great victorious Union general and as the former president.  For many of the countries, he was the first American president ever to visit.  Everywhere he went, people packed the streets, organized massive receptions, built arches of flags and flowers to display his picture, sent him addresses and gifts of all kinds.  They also organized military reviews for the General, which was the one thing he avoided whenever he could.  He and his party were the guests of Queen Victoria at Windsor and the Emperor of Japan in Tokyo.  (The accommodations and transportation offered by the U.S. government and their hosts around the world made this trip possible for the Grants, who were far from rich.)   The General played billiards with the Maharajah of Jeypore, whose polite determination to lose to his distinguished guest was defeated by Grant's poor skill with a cue.  There were long conversations with Otto von Bismarck and a private audience with the newly-elected Pope Leo XIII (Young assured his readers that the visit had nothing of a "religious character"; Grant was in no danger of conversion).

It was fascinating to read of the honors Grant received, and impossible not to feel a twinge of envy.  I did not know, for example, that when a VIP visited Pompeii, the officials would excavate one of the sites in his or her honor.  Union Generals William Sherman and Philip Sheridan, who had already visited, had their sites, and of course their commanding officer must have his as well.  Unfortunately, the "Grant house" yielded nothing more exciting than "two or three brass ornaments, [and] a loaf of bread..."  When the Grants traveled by boat up the Nile, their personal tour guide was the renowned Egyptologist Emile Brugsch (Radcliffe Emerson would have had something severe to say about the access he gave them to various sites).  In Athens, the Parthenon and the entire Acropolis were illuminated in Grant's honor, for a private night-time visit.

For me, the real fascination of the book came in the second half, as the Grants sailed east from India.  There are more descriptions of the Asian than the European countries.  And on the long boat trips, Grant talked over his Civil War experiences in great detail.  In the conversations Young recorded, he analyzed his fellow generals, fought over the campaigns of Shiloh and Vicksburg, and told the story of Lee's final defeat and surrender at Appomattox.  As Professor Fellman notes, Grant was "discursive and casual," not to mention "candid and even salty."  It's an interesting contrast to the more formal tone of his classic Personal Memoirs, published shortly after his death in 1885.

While he was dismissive of Robert E. Lee and George McClellan, General Grant had a great admiration and respect for Abraham Lincoln.  The Grants were scheduled to go to Ford's Theater with the Lincolns on April 14th, but they made their excuses after an unpleasantness with Mary Lincoln.   The Lincolns took a carriage ride together than afternoon, during which Lincoln spoke about his plans after his second term ended in 1868.  He wanted to travel to Europe with their sons, and he hoped to visit Jerusalem, hopes that were of course ended that night.  Perhaps only a visit from Abraham Lincoln could have outshone Ulysses Grant's.  But in the end, whatever his popularity abroad, Grant couldn't win the nomination for another term.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sunday miscellany

Just a few miscellaneous book-related thoughts:

We're two weeks out from the end of the TBR Double Dog Dare, and I can feel the lure of the newest books on my shelves.  Here are some of the most tempting:
  • Trollope, An Illustrated Biography, by C.P. Snow
  • Miss Cayley's Adventures, Grant Allen - everyone who has read these has loved them
  • One Pair of Hands, by Monica Dickens
  • The Newcomes, William Makepeace Thackeray  ("At its centre is Thomas Newcome, a retired Colonel in the Indian Army who finds the snobberies and hypocrisies of early Victorian England disconcerting.")
  • The Drowning House, Elizabeth Black - a mystery set in Galveston, involving an historic house, linking the present day and the terrible 1900 Storm
  • Raw Material, Dorothy Canfield Fisher - a 1923 collection of essays, which the author describes as an "unrelated, unorganized bundle of facts" (the edition I came across still has most of its pages uncut - I need to find a paper knife!)

With a Christmas gift card in hand, I was browsing Barnes & Noble's website when I noticed that they have Angela Thirkell's Wild Strawberries listed, one of the few of her Barsetshire series that I don't own.  It has been reprinted by in a lovely Virago edition, which isn't available in North America yet.  This was the older Moyer & Bell edition, but since I had a gift card, I went ahead and ordered it.  Quite a few of the copies I have are M&B editions, and while I've heard complaints about them, I've never noticed anything but minor printing errors.  But this book is something else, I've never seen anything like it.  The final straw for me came at the end of a chapter, when half the concluding sentence was printed on the next page under the new chapter heading.  I can't in good conscience even give this book to the library sale.  A waste of a good gift card!

Unless I've got a reading twin, I think my blog is one of those listed on Jane & Briar's most recent round of That Book Game, over on Fleur Fisher Reads - which is great fun!

We had a lovely meeting of the Greater Houston JASNA chapter yesterday.  In addition to our usual sumptuous tea, we discussed an article from the JASNA journal Persuasions, called  "George and Georgiana: Symmetries and Antitheses in Pride and Prejudice" (which you can read here if you're interested).   The author describes George Wickham as "this snakiest of snakes," and we spent some times discussing if he is in fact the snakiest of Austen's characters.  I'm torn between Mrs Clay, slithering into the heart of the Elliot family, and Henry Crawford, who wreaks such havoc in Mansfield Park (though Mrs Norris is an equally adept slitherer).  We decided that Austen's novels are crawling with snakes.  Who is your favorite?

Thanks to my new Netflix streaming, I finally got around to watching the recent Sherlock.  I was so happy to hear this week that production is starting on the third series.  In the meantime, I may need someone to stage an intervention and pry the DVDs out of my hands.  I'm also looking forward to re-reading both the Conan Doyle stories and the Mary Russell books.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A con artist and his victims

An African Millionaire, Grant Allen

I added a copy of this to my TBR stacks after reading a review on Desperate Reader last year.  I wanted to meet "literature's first gentleman rogue."  Actually, I thought I already had, since I'd recently read E.W. Hornung's Raffles stories for the first time.  But I learned that Grant Allen's stories were published before Hornung's, in The Strand Magazine in 1896-1897 (and later in book form).  Hayley recently posted about another of Allen's books, Miss Cayley's Adventures, which sounds even more intriguing, and has also taken its place on the shelves.  It is one of the books that has most tempted my Double Dog Dare resolve, until I remembered that the whole point of the Dare is to read the books already on the shelves before starting new ones.

The linked stories in An African Millionaire are narrated by Seymour Wentworth, the brother-in-law and confidential secretary to the millionaire of the title, Sir Charles Vandrift, a native of South Africa.  His fortune is built on diamond mines on his estate near the famous Kimberley mines, and he has increased it substantially through a successful career as a financier.  In addition to his South African properties, he has a house in London and an estate in Scotland.  Seymour and his wife Isabel, Sir Charles's sister, live with him and his wife Amelia, joining them on their frequent travels.

As the first story opens, the two men are on their own for a little vacation in Monte Carlo.  They're actually staying in Nice though, since "Sir Charles thinks Monte Carlo is not a sound address for a financier's letters."  I enjoyed Seymour's sly side comments.  It's clear that he doesn't always enjoy working for his brother-in-law, and despite the perks, it certainly doesn't pay as well as he'd like.  It is in Nice that they first encounter the con artist and thief known across Europe as "Colonel Clay."  That meeting leaves Sir Charles £5,000 poorer and hardly any wiser. In the stories that follow he falls again and again for elaborate cons, despite everything he and Seymour can do to protect themselves.  They become increasingly paranoid, suspecting all kinds of people of being Colonel Clay or his assistants in disguise.  And when their precautions fail, as they regularly do, Sir Charles is apt to receive a snarky letter from Clay, exulting over his victim.  At the end of one adventure, where the Colonel has revealed himself, he tells Sir Charles that he isn't just in it for the money:
'Regard me, my dear sir, as a microbe of millionaires, a parasite upon capitalists . . . You possess, like a mosquito, a beautiful instrument of suction - Founders' Shares - with which you absorb the surplus wealth of the community. In my smaller way, again, I relieve you in turn of a portion of the plunder.  I am a Robin Hood of my age; and, looking upon you as an exceptionally bad form of millionaire - as well as an exceptionally easy form of pigeon for a man of my type and talents to pluck - I have, so to speak, taken up my abode upon you.'
According to the introduction, Clay reflects Grant Allen's own socialist beliefs, as "an emblem of the oppressed working class, [who] triumphs time and again against his idiotic counterpart . . . emblematic of the obtuse capitalist exploiter..."  He is also a great character, reveling in his pranks and tricks, a master of disguise, a convincing actor, a quick thinker who can talk his way out of almost any awkward situation - rather Lymondesque at times.

Lest we feel conflicted about rooting for the thief and con man, Sir Charles isn't a completely innocent victim.  We see him act dishonestly in the course of the cons, and greed draws him into others.  He thinks he is up to all the tricks, but he comes across as a bit dull-witted.  He is also fatally susceptible to flirtations with personable young women.  Seymour has his own weakness: as confidential secretary and advisor, he has opportunities to make money on the side, one of which gives the Colonel a hold over him that he doesn't hesitate to use.

These stories really are great fun, and they're available free on line, thanks to Project Gutenberg, as well as in a Penguin edition.  I'm looking forward more than ever now to Miss Cayley's adventures.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë

I could not wait to be done with this book.  It has been on my mental TBR list for several years, and on my TBR shelves for six months or so.  I had only a vague idea of the plot as the story of a wife fleeing an abusive, alcoholic husband.  I was prepared for bleakness, so initially I was surprised and intrigued when the story opened with Gilbert Markham and his family, including his irrepressible younger brother Fergus and his little dumpling of a sister Rose. The first chapters play out almost like domestic and social comedy, as the quiet lives of the Markhams and their neighbors are upset by a mysterious new arrival in their small Yorkshire town.  Helen Graham, a widow, has arrived with her son and one servant to live in the old dilapidated Wildfell Hall.  Everyone makes it their business to discover who she is, where she came from, what her circumstances are.  Gilbert is drawn to her from the first time he sees her, and he falls rapidly and rather tiresomely in love.

All of this is recounted to his brother-in-law Halford, twenty years after the events took place - in two letters, the longer of which covers 52 of the 53 chapters.  As much as I love epistolary novels, that strains belief.  According to the introduction, "the novel has been referred to as the longest letter in the English language."  But it gets worse.  Gilbert in love haunts Wildfell Hall, wildly jealous of Helen's young landlord Frederick Lawrence.  Though Helen has all but confessed to Gilbert that she loves him, he can neither  believe it nor trust her completely.  She finally tears out pages from her diary to give to him, hoping to stop his accusations and clear her name.  Gilbert suppsedly copies these entries into his letter, and those 30 chapters become the heart of the book.

I found them intensely frustrating to read.  At the start, Helen is a young woman preparing for her first London season under the chaperonage of her aunt and uncle, who have raised her since her mother's death.  Her aunt is a woman of strong religious and moral principles, a very serious person focused more on the things of Heaven than of earth.  She wants Helen to marry a moral, upright man, one with a good chance of making it to Heaven in the end.  Helen agrees in principle, but in practice she is drawn to Arthur Huntingdon, a charming young man with a rakish reputation.  She is drawn to him in part because he is a sinner, and she wants to help reform him.  That has to be one of the most dangerous delusions for a young person considering marriage: I can be the good influence who changes this person's life, who brings him to life and faith, who saves her and makes her whole.  Helen convinces herself that it is almost her duty to marry Huntingdon and save him.  I could see where this was headed right from the start, and Anne Brontë spares us little.  Helen begins to realize her mistake on her honeymoon, as the reality of her husband's character begins to sink in.  She clings to the hope that she can still change and save him, until his affair with a mutual friend shocks her into realizing that her marriage is terminally broken.  Her one concern then becomes to protect her young son Arthur.

All of this makes for dreary reading.  Huntingdon leaves her alone for months at a time, to carouse with friends and his mistress, then returns home bringing them all with him, to torment his wife and corrupt his son.  He has become an alcoholic and a binge drinker.  Helen has few friends of her own, and she is cut off from her aunt and uncle.  She has no money of her own, no resources.  Her diary is her one outlet.  (Though she finds solace in prayer and Scripture, there is no mention of attending church or turning to the local vicar for help, even spiritual help, which I thought was curious.)  When her husband brings a young woman into the house, supposedly as a governess for Arthur, Helen decides enough is enough.  She plans out an escape, writing all the details into her diary, right in front of her husband.  He naturally enough takes the diary to read it, discovering her plans just in time to foil them - though he misses the crucial detail of where she will hide herself, another point where I felt my willing suspension of disbelief (WSOD) straining at the edges.  I also found it hard to accept that Helen can support herself and her son by selling her paintings, especially since she is entirely self-taught, and she seems to paint mostly pictures of Wildfell Hall.  But then what other careers are open to her?  She can't be a governess herself, with a young son.  Perhaps a writer?

When Helen finally does escape with young Arthur to the Hall, the story then circles back to Gilbert's narration.  Now that he knows Helen's secret, they declare their love for each other, and then she decides she must leave the area for another hiding place.  Since she is tied to Huntingdon, she and Gilbert must part and never see each other again, though "We shall meet in Heaven," Helen tells him (at which point I couldn't suppress an eye roll and a slight gagging catch in the throat).  Thanks to an injudicious endnote early in the book that revealed a major plot point, I knew how this would all end, but I wasn't sure I had the stamina to get there, and I planned to send this book to the library sale as soon as I finished it.

But now, a couple of days after finishing it, I can appreciate it more.  I can see how Anne Brontë used her story to explore marriage, particularly women's experiences at a time when they had no rights in law to their property, their children, or even their own bodies (one of Helen's friends suffers physical abuse from her husband).  Helen's story is a cautionary tale for women tempted to marry too quickly, caught up in infatuation, without a real knowledge of the other person.  It condemns in the clearest terms the dangerous romantic ideal that saintly women who marry sinful men can save them.  It's too bad, though, that her aunt's more practical ideas seem so dry and unpleasantly evangelical.  I can also appreciate Anne Brontë's treatment of alcoholism here.  According to the introduction to my Oxford World's Classics edition, she was ahead of her time in writing about it realistically, showing its effects and even suggesting treatments, and in treating it as a disease.  I was also interested to learn from the introduction that Anne Brontë wrote her Universalist beliefs into this story, particularly the doctrine that all people, even great sinners like Arthur Huntingdon, will eventually be redeemed through God's grace, that no one will be condemned to Hell eternally.

In the end, I enjoyed Gilbert's story much more than Helen's, but I found much to think about in hers, as I did in Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey.  And I'm glad that I stuck with this book after all.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Death in Crystal Palace

The Sound of Broken Glass, Deborah Crombie

Two weeks ago, I got to go to the launch party for Deborah Crombie's new book, held at my beloved Murder by the Book here in Houston.  It was exciting!  We don't get many launch parties in Houston - this was my first.  I've had the pleasure of meeting Deborah Crombie at other signings, and she is always so gracious, entertaining, and funny.  Since the book was just released that day, she was very careful in what she said about it, to avoid any spoilers.  I imagine later audiences, who have had a chance to read the book, might have something to say about the incredible cliff-hanger that she springs on us in literally the last line of the book.  Even though that line comes in the middle of the page, followed by half a page of blank space, I couldn't help turning the page, just in case there was some coda, some afterword, some resolution.

And then I remembered Deborah Crombie telling us that she has just signed a new contract, under which the publication of the next book will be pushed back further into next year.  There was a distinct murmur of disappointment from the audience at that news, greedy readers that we are.  But I think it would have been a lot more vehement had we realized what is left unanswered in this one.

The Sound of Broken Glass is the 15th book in her series featuring London police officers Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James.  When the series started, Duncan was a newly-minted Detective Superintendent at Scotland Yard and Gemma his sergeant.  Their professional relationship slipped over the line into a personal one, which they had to keep hidden until Gemma earned a promotion and transfer to the Metropolitan Police.  They are now married, with a blended family, each having brought a son from previous relationships, and together they are fostering a little girl, orphaned in an earlier case they worked.  They have extended family and friends who move through their lives, and sometimes their cases.  There are also work colleagues, like Duncan's sergeant Doug and Gemma's Melody, who have become part of their family.

I always enjoy the mysteries in these books, which are well-written, carefully-plotted and crafty.  They play out partly as police procedurals.  In the later books, after Gemma left the Yard, she and Duncan rarely work cases together, at least not officially.  But if the case is Gemma's, then Duncan usually finds his way into it, and vice versa.  In this new book, Duncan has been on family leave, caring for their foster daughter.  When her earlier turn ended, Gemma accepted a promotion and transfer to a murder team in South London.  Here she is investigating the death of a barrister, found naked and hog-tied in a seedy hotel in Crystal Palace.  Setting out to discover how he ended up there, she and Melody discover a connection with a local musician, who played a gig at a nearby pub the night of the murder.  Andy, the guitarist, was a witness in one of Duncan's previous cases, which gives him an opening into the case (and a break from child-minding).

I was interested in the setting for this book.  Of course I was familiar with the historic Crystal Palace, but not with its namesake area of South London, where much of the action takes place.  Previous books have been set in Cheshire and Yorkshire, Glastonbury and Henley, and the Scottish Highlands, as well as the Isle of Dogs and Southwark in London.  The American editions include wonderful illustrated maps by Laura Hartman Maestro that help bring the settings to life. 

Even more than the plots and the settings, it is the characters who draw me back to these books.  A new book does feel like meeting old friends again, particularly Duncan and Gemma.  From the start, they made a good team, and I've enjoyed watching their relationship develop over the course of the series.  It's because Deborah Crombie has made me care about these people over the course of fifteen books that the last line of this one left me so gobsmacked.  And when the TBR challenge is over, I think I'll be reading through the series again.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Meeting The Irish R.M. again

The Irish R.M., E.O. Somerville & Martin Ross

I bought a copy of this many years ago, under the influence of the TV series starring Peter Bowles that ran on Masterpiece Theater (actually I was rather taken with the actor playing Flurry Knox).  As often happens, I discovered that the book is quite different from the TV version, and I'm not sure I ever actually read the whole thing.  At some point in clearing out the bookshelves, I decided it wasn't a book I needed to keep, so off it went to the library book sale.  But I recently read a post about Somerville & Ross that made me want to read this again, and I was lucky enough to come across a used copy (along with another of their books, In the Vine Country).

If I ever read this book, I had forgotten most of it, and what I did remember was more from the TV series than the book itself.  Re-discovering it was an complete delight, and a perfect antidote to the stress of packing and moving. The Irish Resident Magistrate in question is Major Sinclair Yeates.  I had not remembered that the familiar Penguin edition reprints three volumes of stories, all narrated by Major Yeates. Originally published between 1899 and 1915, the stories are loosely connected, with a familiar cast of characters, rather than novels with an overarching plot.  In the first story, Major Yeates has just arrived in the small town of Skebawn, in the west of Ireland, to take up his post as Resident Magistrate, which he hopes will eventually allow him to marry his fiancée Philippa.  He rents a rather ramshackle house from the local Master of Hounds, Florence McCarthy Knox, "a fair, spare young man, who looked like a stableboy among gentlemen, and a gentleman among stableboys."  Flurry is also a consummate horse dealer, and something of a con artist and a trickster, and I found him just as alluring in print.

Many of the stories recount the Major's adventures with Flurry and later with Philippa, and they reminded me of P.G. Wodehouse in their energy and hilarity, though Somerville & Ross don't have his sublime gift of language.  Major Yeates is often the victim, of mishaps and of practical jokes, and sometimes of his own kind heart, but like Bertie Wooster he seems incapable of holding a grudge or resisting a friend's plea for help. Quite a few of the stories take place on the hunting field, with breathless chases that at times take the hunt to cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  I know that I appreciated the hunting stories more from having read Anthony Trollope, who I think would have enjoyed them and their Irish setting.  When Flurry goes off to fight in the Boer War, the Major take his place as Deputy M.F.H., where he and the hounds almost come to grief more than once.  There are also domestic dramas and farces set in Shreelane, the house he rents from Flurry, and in visits he and Philippa pay around the countryside.  A few stories are set at the magistrates' court, where Flurry sits on the Bench as well and occasionally makes mischief.

The final volume of these stories was published in 1915, a year before the Easter Rising brought the start of great changes to Ireland, but no shadow of trouble hangs over these stories.  They are are not political - I noted only one reference to Home Rule - nor are they sectarian.  Like Wodehouse, they are almost outside of time, though the constantly cold wet weather adds a touch of reality.  I will not be sending this copy to the library sale, and I've already added another of Somerville & Ross's books to the TBR stacks.  I was sold on Through Connemara in a Governess Cart by the title alone.