Friday, August 30, 2013

Joining in R.I.P. VIII

 image credit here

I am excited to join the R.I.P. reading challenge this year, for the first time.  "R.I.P." of course stands for "Readers Imbibing Peril," and it is hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.  The challenge runs from September 1st to October 31st, with two main goals, according to Carl:  first, "Have fun reading (and watching)" mysteries, gothics, thrillers, supernatural stories; and second, "Share that fun with others."
I am signing up for Peril the First, to read four books that fit the R.I.P. theme.  Here's a list of potential reads:
  1. E.F. Benson's The Collected Ghost Stories - which I started reading two years ago
  2. I.J. Parker's The Hell Screen - I've been wanting to get back to this series
  3. Elizabeth Peters' Devil May Care - since learning of Peters' death, I've been thinking of my favorites among her books
  4. Georgette Heyer's The Quiet Gentleman - the Heyer discussion group I belong to is reading this in September (and it's my favorite)
  5. Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree, or Touch Not the Cat or Wildfire at Midnight
  6. Rhys Bowen's Heirs and Graces - just published
  7. Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
  8. Baroness Orczy, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard
  9. Anthony Hope's Rupert of Hentzau - I need some swashbuckling adventure in my life

In addition, I may join the "Peril on the Screen," since I'm always tempted to watch Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" around Halloween, and I'm working my way through "Ghost Whisperer" via Netflix.

September also brings the Mary Stewart Reading Week, hosted by Anbolyn at Gudrun's Tights.  I've been collecting her books in anticipation, and they neatly fit the R.I.P. theme.  According to the "Which Mary Stewart Novel Should You Read?" quiz on Anbolyn's site, Touch Not the Cat is the best match for me, but I've been thinking about her Merlin novels lately, the last two of which I still haven't read.

I hope to read some really great books in the next two months, and I look forward to seeing what others are reading and watching.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

1812: A turning point in the Napoleonic Wars, with dragons

Blood of Tyrants, Naomi Novik

This is the eighth (and penultimate) book in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, set during the Napoleonic Wars, but in an alternate world where dragons, domesticated for millennia, are used for aerial warfare. Temeraire is a Celestial, a rare Chinese breed that usually forms part of the Imperial household.  He was intended as a gift for Napoleon, but along the way the ship transporting his egg was captured by Captain Will Laurence of the Royal Navy.  When the egg hatched aboard the British ship, it became Laurence's duty to put the dragonet under harness, the first step in binding him to service in the Aerial Corps.  This also bound Laurence himself, ending his career in the Navy with a transfer to the much-maligned Corps, which in turn estranged him from his father and ended his informal engagement.  But in losing so much he gained even more in Temeraire, a dragon of rare abilities.  Neither fit neatly into the Corps, however, particularly as they came to question the treatment of dragons, sentient beings asked to fight but given no rights and few rewards.

At the end of the last book, Crucible of Gold (my review is here), Laurence and Temeraire received an invitation to visit the Imperial Court in China, one they could not refuse.  Since only members of the Imperial family are allowed to attach Celestial dragons, and Temeraire on a previous visit refused to be separated from Laurence, he was formally adopted by the Emperor.  When this book opens, Laurence has been washed ashore in Japan, alone.  He has no idea how he got there, or even who he is.  When finally memories begin to surface, he remembers his name, and his rank as a captain in the Navy, but he is shocked to learn it is 1812; eight years have passed for which he cannot account.  Then the story turns back to Temeraire, stranded on a disabled transport with the other dragons accompanying them.  Laurence was last seen in the height of the storm that almost wrecked them, and everyone assumes he was washed overboard and lost.  Refusing to believe that, Temeraire is frantic to start the search, but he cannot leave the crippled ship.

For the first few chapters, the story alternates between Laurence and the increasingly desperate dragon.  Laurence is alone in a country closed to foreigners, outside the port of Nagasaki, liable to arrest and trial as a spy.  When at last Temeraire locates him, just in time to rescue him, Laurence still has no memory of the dragon or their years together.  Nevertheless, he agrees to continue on to the Chinese court.  There he and Temeraire are caught up in imperial politics, with factions forming around heirs to the throne and a possible alliance with Britain, complicated by the illegal opium trade funded by British merchants.  An unwelcome diversion comes with the news that Napoleon has invaded Russia.  When the Chinese agree to send dragon divisions to help defend Russia, Temeraire and Laurence join them in flying west.

This is certainly an action-packed book, moving from Japan to China to Russia.  Temeraire and Laurence are in constant danger, with attacks coming from all sides.  All this is complicated of course by Laurence's amnesia.  I've read complaints about this plot element, but I thought it made for an interesting story.  I could also relate to it.  In the old days, when a new book in a series I loved was coming out, I used re-read all the previous ones (which is why I can recite sections of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone).  I rarely do that any more, which means that I don't always remember the details of the earlier books in a long series like this.  I had no more idea than Will sometimes what Temeraire was talking about!  But that didn't keep me from enjoying their adventures here.  This is an exciting addition to a great series, perfect for fans of Patrick O'Brian (like Naomi Novik herself) and anyone who loves dragon stories.  Novik does take some liberties with the history of the Napoleonic Wars (besides adding dragons to them of course), but then these are fantasy novels.  This would not be a good place for a new reader to start the series, however, building as it does on a complex backstory and bringing in many characters from the previous books.  The first book is the series, His Majesty's Dragon, is still my favorite, and a wonderful introduction to Temeraire and Laurence, and their world.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Reading the Psalms

Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis

This was the first draw from my new book box (as I mentioned before, an idea borrowed from Alex in Leeds).  I was excited to start this reading plan, with its element of chance, but I have to admit, when I saw the title I sat staring blankly at it for a minute.  A book on the Bible would not have been my first choice just then; I wanted a story, a novel.  But it was too soon to start cheating on the new plan, so I hunted Reflections on the Psalms down on the shelves.

This was a give-away from work (one of the perks of working in a church office).  I chose it because I have enjoyed C.S. Lewis's apologetic writings, and because I love the Psalms.  In a largely self-directed reading life, I've never read much poetry beyond the obligatory high school studies (I can still recite the Shakespeare sonnet we each had to memorize, as well as "To be, or not to be").  The Psalms have been a constant and familiar poetry: they are the basis for many of my favorite hymns and the prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, part of the daily readings at Mass.  It's one of the books of the Bible that I turn to first, reading on my own (all too rarely these days).  But I've never read anything about the Psalms, other than the brief paragraphs of introduction in my New American Bible; nor can I remember any homilies on the Psalms.  So when I came across this book by C.S. Lewis, I thought his Reflections on the Psalms would be interesting and probably enlightening.

Lewis starts off with a straight-forward declaration:
This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself . . . The thoughts it contains are those to which I found myself driven in reading the Psalms, sometimes by my enjoyment of them, sometimes by meeting with what at first I could not enjoy.
That approach sounded pretty good to me, an amateur in biblical scholarship and an unlearned one at that. 

After a brief introduction, which includes a discussion of the Psalms as poetic literature, Lewis goes on to present several themes running constantly through them. He starts off with what he considers the problematic elements, such as the question of judgement, and particularly the violence of the cursing Psalms (which are rarely included in readings or liturgy).  He then moves on to "better things," like the delight in God expressed in the Psalms, the sweetness found in the Law, the glory found in His created world.  With each theme, he looks at how the ancient Hebrews understood it, sometimes contrasting their view with that of the Gentiles who surrounded them. He also looks at how a 20th-century Christian might understand and apply the insights of the Psalmists - even the curses.  Finally, Lewis turns to "second meanings," exploring the ways that many Christians have traditionally read the Psalms, with the other books of the Hebrew scriptures, backwards as it were, through the lens of the New Testament, finding in them prophecies and potentialities fulfilled in Jesus.

I can't speak to C.S. Lewis's scholarship here, but I found the book very interesting and thought-provoking.  I had to read it with the Bible open, in part because Lewis refers to many Psalms in passing only by their numbers, which I never remember.  He also quotes most frequently from the Coverdale translation that he knew from the Book of Common Prayer.  Since that is not one I know, I wanted to compare his texts with the familiar language of my New American Bible.  From there I found myself going on to read many of the Psalms he cites in their entirety, recognizing how they are condensed and edited for use in worship.

I will probably be saying this all too often, but I am glad for the nudge to read this book, finally.  And I'm curious to see what the book box will bring me next.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A story of friendship

Circle of Friends, Maeve Binchy

It has a been a good while since I've read anything by Maeve Binchy, though I've loved her books for many years.  I first heard about her from my mother, who was a steady reader but unlike me didn't talk much about her reading.  So it really caught my attention when she told me that she loved a book she had just read, Light a Penny Candle, and that alone made me want to read it too.  From there I went on to read many more of Maeve Binchy's books, some just as they were published (when buying a hardback book was still a novelty). The other day, flipping through TV channels, I came across the 1995 film version of Circle of Friends, my favorite of her books.  I have never seen it, on my long-standing principle of avoiding films made from books I love.  The ten minutes or so that I watched both confirmed that principle and made me pick up the book again.

There are so many things I love about this book.  As the title suggests, it is above all a story of friendship, set in the late 1950s.  It starts with an unlikely pair: Benny Hogan and Eve Malone.  Benny is the only daughter of older and very protective parents.  Her father owns the menswear shop in their small town of Knockglen.  Eve is an orphan, the child of a hasty marriage between a rebellious daughter of the Westwards, the local Anglo-Irish gentry family, and a handyman in the town.  When her parents died soon after her birth, Eve's grandfather refused to have anything to do with her, and she was taken in by the sisters who staff a school in the town.  Both Benny and Eve are outsiders, Benny in part because she is a big girl, tall and heavy, Eve because she lives at the convent and is never quite dressed right.  In their friendship they find love and support, standing up for each other in school squabbles and in the larger community.  Even after they move on to university in Dublin, meeting new people and expanding their circle of friends, their friendship remains at the heart of the story.

But there are lots of other things going on in this book as well.  First Binchy introduces us to Knockglen and the people who live there.  She excels at creating this kind of community, with different characters whose stories twist around the main one.  A major subplot involves Benny's father Mr Hogan, who takes on a new worker, Sean Walsh, who has his eye on both the business and his boss's daughter.  Peggy Pine, who runs the town's dress shop, also gets a new employee, Clodagh, a niece from Dublin, who brings some very modern clothes and attitudes to a town that isn't quite ready for them.  Peggy has a great ally in town, her old school friend Bunty, now Mother Francis, the superior of the convent and Eve's surrogate mother (one of my favorite characters).  Meanwhile Clodagh finds an ally in Fonsie, also newly-arrived from the big city, to help his uncle Mario in his chip shop.  Like her he has big plans for the family business, visions of a café with bright lights and a jukebox to liven up the quiet evenings in Knockglen.

From there, Binchy takes us to Dublin, as Benny and Eve head off to university.  But the story returns frequently to Knockglen, as Benny returns there every night.  Her protective parents refuse to let her live in the city when she can catch a bus home and sleep in her own bed.  In Dublin, they make new friends, including the charismatic Jack Foley, with whom Benny falls deeply in love; Aidan Lynch who pursues Eve despite her lack of encouragement; and Nan Mahon, whose Grace Kelly-esque good looks and poise hide a difficult home life and calculating ambition.

To me, this is one of Binchy's best books. She creates such wonderful characters, who feel like real people, with lives that carry on after the story has ended.  As one reviewer noted, this book "begs for a sequel,"  and I so wish she had written one.  Though there are as many subplots as in a Trollope novel, like Trollope Binchy keeps them all in balance and keeps her story moving forward.  And like Maura Laverty, another Irish author she admired, she writes evocatively of place and community.  There are still a couple of her last books that I haven't read yet, and I'm looking forward now to more reading and re-reading of Maeve Binchy.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Three Miss Kings

The Three Miss Kings, Ada Cambridge

I have made some of my happiest book discoveries browsing through bookstores, libraries, and other people's shelves.  I owe my introduction to Anthony Trollope, Margaret Oliphant, Georgette Heyer, Deborah Crombie, Rhys Bowen, and so many other favorite authors to this serendipity, to chance.  Now I can add Ada Cambridge to that list, though I can't help wondering why it took the book fates so long to introduce us.

I found The Three Miss Kings on my recent trip to Powell's in Portland.  It was the green Virago spine that first caught my eye, and the back-cover blurb that added it to my stack:
The three Miss Kings - Elizabeth, Eleanor and Patty - were brought up in a remote seaside settlement in Victoria, Australia, their father a mysterious man of "preposterous eccentricity", their late mother a dignified, accomplished woman who instilled in the girls an appreciation of "spiritual and intellectual aspirations" which compensates for their lack of worldly experience.  Such virtues serve the sisters well when, on the death of their father, they begin a new life in Melbourne.  Under the watchful eye of one of society's more respectable patrons, they learn quickly about "life, and love, and trouble, and etiquette among city folks" . . . 

We meet the young women of the title shortly after the death of their father:
On the second day of January, in the year 1880, three newly-orphaned sisters, finding themselves left to their own devices, with an income of exactly one hundred pounds a year a-piece, sat down to consult together as to the use they should make of their independence.
Patty, the middle sister, feeling all the wealth and independence of those £300, wants to "make a dash - a straight-out plunge into the world," to sail immediately for London or Europe.  Eleanor, the youngest, doesn't care where, "as long as we go somewhere, and do something."  It is the eldest sister, Elizabeth, who must be the voice of prudence, pointing out that they don't know how far their income will carry them, and they don't actually know much of the world outside their small coastal village, so perhaps they had better start with Melbourne.  Patty finally agrees, reluctantly, "to begin with. Not for a permanence."

By the end of the first chapter, I was already captivated by the sisters and wondering where their story would take them.  Their situation reminded me of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, with a wise elder sister trying to restrain a more impetuous younger one.  Unlike the Dashwoods, though, these sisters are left without a mother's guidance (or a brother's interference).  The close relationship between the sisters also brought to mind Louisa May Alcott, as did their cheerful habit of making the best of their situation, making do with the little they had, and creating a comfortable home from their limited means.

So off the sisters sail for Melbourne, taking with them two family heirlooms, their mother's piano and an antique bureau, containing family papers as well as their small stock of finery and jewelry, inherited from their mother.  They intend to spend their time in the city's libraries and museums, filling in the gaps left by their education at home under their mother's care.  All three are talented musicians, and they want to hear the music they have studied on their own.  They also hope to make friends, the lack of which they have felt keenly, growing up in their isolated village.  They have one contact in the city, Paul Brion, a well-known journalist and the son of the family lawyer.  From the start, Patty scorns his help, wanting them to make their own way.  However, the sisters quickly learn how unprepared they are for life in the city, for the very different ways of its society, and how the £300 that seemed such a fortune will hardly cover all their new expenses.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, but this book was such a delight, a Cinderella fairy-tale and a romance (three romances, actually, each as different as the sisters themselves).  I found the Melbourne setting fascinating.  A large part of the book revolves around the Melbourne Exhibition of 1880, which according to the introduction "put [the city] on the world map."  I also learned from the introduction that Ada Cambridge came from England to Australia with her husband shortly after their marriage in 1870.  He worked as a missionary priest in Victoria for many years.  While raising their family, she began writing stories and articles for Australian journals, many of which were also published in Britain and North America.  The books she wrote about her adopted country were popular at home and abroad, in part because so many people knew little about Australia beyond its gold mines and kangaroos.  I had to laugh when one character in this book complained about people like "Trollope and those fellows," who "come here as utter strangers, and think they can learn all about us in two or three weeks."  (Ada Cambridge, settled in the country for more than 20 years when this book was published in 1891, was presumably exempt from that criticism.)

It is not surprising that a book by a clergyman's wife would deal with faith and religious practice. What was surprising to me, though, is the way she handled these.  One of the central characters, the real hero of the book, is a free-thinker, most unorthodox when judged by the traditional piety in which the sisters were raised (like one of Charlotte Yonge's characters, reading "'Thomas à Kempis' and the Christian Year daily").  There is no question that this is a good man, of real and practical - even heroic - charity.  But can a woman of faith trust herself to someone who rejects the established Church and most religious practices, who believes there is good in all faiths, in all people seeking God under whatever name or face?  This is one of the elements, with the societal questions that drive the hero's work, which give this book a depth beyond its Cinderella elements (while never weighing it down).

Regular readers of this blog will probably not be surprised to hear that I have already found more of Ada Cambridge's books, some as free downloads from Gutenberg, and a couple of others still available in print.  Unfortunately, as with so many Victorian women writers, the larger number of her books are no longer available.  Hopefully we will continue to see these rescued and published again at least as ebooks. Ada Cambridge would be a good fit for Girlebooks in particular, it seems to me.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The limits of human endurance

Endurance, Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing

Whenever the little ups and downs of life started to get to me last week, I kept thinking, "Well, at least I'm not stranded in the Antarctic, on an ice flow that's breaking up under me, chewing seal blubber and being chased by sea leopards."  It certainly did put things into perspective.

I bought this book on impulse at least ten years ago, knowing nothing about Sir Ernest Shackleton or his famous expedition in 1914.  It has sat on the TBR stacks ever since, until it was chosen as this month's selection for a book group I belong to.  I am so glad that I was nudged to read this, finally.  It is an extraordinary story of exploration, of leadership, and of human endurance under the most trying and dangerous circumstances.  Several of our members had trouble with it, because it is a bleak story, month after month enduring primitive conditions and constant threats.  Though I usually avoid spoilers, in this case I was glad that the back cover gave a brief overview of the expedition and its end, so that while the tension of events built, I didn't have to race ahead to find out what happened.

Alfred Lansing begins his story at a most dramatic moment: on October 27, 1915, orders came to abandon ship.  For three days the crew had been fighting to save the Endurance, caught in an enormous ice pack.  "She was being crushed.  Not all at once, but slowly, a little at a time.  The pressure of ten million tons of ice was driving in against her sides.  And dying as she was, she cried in agony."  All twenty-seven men of the crew, and Shackleton their leader, made it safely off the ship, with the expedition's sledding dogs and a good amount of the supplies they would need just to survive.  But their situation was desperate:

They were for all practical purposes alone in the frozen Antarctic seas.  It had been very nearly a year since they had last been in contact with civilization.  Nobody in the outside world knew they were in trouble, much less where they were.  They had no radio transmitter with which to notify any would-be rescuers, and it is doubtful that any rescuers could have reached them even if they have been able to broadcast an SOS.  It was 1915, and there were no helicopters, no Weasels, no Sno-Cats, no suitable planes.  Thus their plight was naked and terrifying in its simplicity.  If they were to get out - they had to get themselves out.

To get themselves out, they first had to travel 350 miles northwest, to a speck of an island.  But their way was blocked by the same ice that had crushed their ship.  And if and when they came to open water, they had only three small boats in which to brave the arctic seas.

Leaving the men on their ice floe, Lansing then takes his story back to the start of the ill-fated expedition.  Shackleton's goal was the first crossing of the Antarctic continent.  It took him more than four years to find sponsors, buy equipment, assemble a crew.  And then just before they were to sail, the Great War broke out.  The crew unanimously agreed to offer their services in the war effort, but they were ordered (in a laconic telegram from the Admiralty), "Proceed." After a brief stop in Buenos Aires, the Endurance headed further south.  They entered the treacherous Weddell Sea on the north side of the continent in early December, threading their way through floes and bergs.  Shackleton planned to land on the south coast of that sea, but by January 1915 his ship was caught fast in the pack, unable to push forward.  For the next ten months, they were trapped, carried along as the ice rotated to the northwest.

After the relentless ice broke up their ship, the crew spent an incredible five months camping on the surface of the ice, as it continued to move north.  Finally, in April, they were able to take to the boats, finding refuge on a little island.  From there, Shackleton with a small hand-picked crew set sail in an open boat across 650 miles of the most dangerous seas in the world, in a desperate effort to reach South Georgia Island, a whaling station with ships that he hoped could rescue the 22 men left behind.

This is an incredible story, of adventure and endurance, and Alfred Lansing does it full justice.  It was his first book, which makes his achievement even more amazing.  It was written in 1959, when members of Shackleton's expedition were still alive, and he was able to interview them.  (Does that count as a spoiler?)  He was also granted access to Shackleton's archives, as well as the papers of other crew members.  Amazingly, many of the crew kept journals throughout their ordeal, and Lansing quotes frequently from them, giving his story a life and an immediacy that made it easy to forget I was reading about events that occurred a century ago.  I wish though that he had included more information about what happened after his story ends.

One of the things that disturbed my reading group was the constant slaughter of animals for food.  Eventually the sledding dogs had to be killed, because there was no food to spare for them, and they were in turn eaten.  Not even the ship's cat was spared (though not eaten).  I was browsing in Half Price Books Saturday night, when I came across a book purporting to be the journal of the ship's cat, with a cover showing him perched on a crew member's shoulders.  I think that's awful, and I was sorely tempted to write a note warning whoever purchases it about the cat's fate.

I don't know when I would have ever gotten around to reading this book, if it hadn't been chosen by my book group.  It has finally inspired me to try a book jar, something I first read about on Alex in Leeds' blog.  I've put in the names of all of my 313+ TBR books, and I'll try drawing them out to see what I should read next (while still allowing for impulse reads, and re-reading).  I don't seem to do well with book lists or plans, so I'll try chance or fate for a change.  I'm not using a jar, though, but one of those boxes disguised to look like a book that someone gave me recently.  It seems appropriate.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Elizabeth Peters & Barbara Michaels

Though I knew that Barbara Mertz was in her 80s, and not in the best health, I was still so surprised and dismayed to learn of her death last week.  I never met her in person, though I once had a very kind note in answer to a fan letter.  It is a strange feeling when a beloved author dies.  Mixed in with grief for the individual is a feeling of loss for the characters and worlds that she created.  I was introduced to the books that Barbara Mertz wrote as Elizabeth Peters by one of my college roommates (we are still sharing books, which reminds me her birthday is coming up).  I've been reading her books for almost 25 years now, and I have more of them on my shelves than of any other author except Anthony Trollope and P.G. Wodehouse.

On my friend's recommendation, I started with the Amelia Peabody books.  I was living in Michigan at the time, working at my first job, with a salary that after the austerities of grad school still amazed me, in a town with real bookstores.  Though I had always managed to acquire books, that was when I really started collecting the books that are with me still.  I was on my own, in a new city, with a new career, and her books came at just the right time for me.  (Two years later they came with me to Houston, to another new job in a bigger city with even more bookstores).  The women in her stories are strong, intelligent, active, adventurous, blessed with the gifts of friendship and humor.  In the course of their adventures they usually find love, but that doesn't define them or their stories.  I think Amelia Peabody Emerson is her best-known and probably most popular character, with the long series of books about her adventures in professional and marital partnership with Radcliffe Emerson, the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other age.  I am also a big fan of acerbic Jacqueline Kirby, a librarian turned romance writer turned sleuth.  While I enjoy the books with Vicky Bliss, an American working as a museum curator in Munich, the real fun of that series for me is the master criminal John Smythe and his cornflower-blue eyes, created as an homage to Dorothy Dunnett's great Francis Crawford of Lymond.  And there are many wonderful stand-alone books, written both as Elizabeth Peters and as Barbara Michaels.  I came a little later to the Michaels books, most of them mysteries with a supernatural element.  I slept with the light on for a night or two after finishing Ammie, Come Home for the first time.  As much as I love Ruth and Pat, and enjoy their appearance in later books, I still keep that one for daytime reading. I found another, The Crying Child, so unnerving that I gave my copy away.  I have also read and admired the books that Dr. Mertz wrote on Egypt and Egyptology, under her own name.

In the end, the books remain, a literary legacy, with her many wonderful characters, and those vividly-evoked settings, from tidewater Virginia to the Valley of the Kings, Copenhagen to the Arizona desert.  I wish I drank whiskey, so I could raise a glass of Amelia's favorite to her marvelous creator.  Instead, I'll have a cup of tea, her other favorite beverage, and look forward to many more years of reading Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Rushed off her feet

One Pair of Feet, Monica Dickens

My introduction to Monica Dickens came from Barb's review of this over on Leaves & Pages earlier this year, which really piqued my interest.  As I know I've mentioned before, I've loved stories about nursing schools for as long as I can remember.  With my mother, two of my aunts, and several glamorous older cousins who were all nurses, I read every book I could find about student nurses while I waited my turn.  I thought I knew all about the hard work on the wards and the even harder classroom studies, the dorm and ward pranks, the handsome doctors, the variety of patients and fellow students (always one know-it-all, one loner, one madcap life of the dorm).  An account of nurse's training would have been enough for me, but add in the excitement of training near London in the early days of World War II, and I had found a copy on-line before I even finished Barb's post.

Because I have this need to read stories in order, though, I started with Dickens' first volume of memoirs, One Pair of Hands, and then went on to read her marvelous autobiography, An Open Book.  So when I sat down with this one, finally, I already knew quite a bit about her nursing career, both before and after the book was published (she was blackballed from nursing for a year or so after it came out; when she finally found another hospital to accept her, she had to begin again as a probationer).  Maybe that's why I liked it, rather than loved it - because it felt almost like re-reading?  Perhaps it was also because it wasn't quite what I expected.  Though the book opens with Dickens trying to decide among the many options that war work suddenly offered to women, once she settles into the Queen Adelaide Hospital [standing in for the King Edward VII], the war doesn't play much of a part in Dickens' story.  It seems very much the background, with the soldiers at dances, the passing references to air raids in London and to rationing.  But maybe that was deliberate on Dickens' part, to provide some distraction and a bit of comic relief.

In her autobiography, Dickens quotes a nurse who wrote that "either the book was fiction, and therefore lies, or the hospital should immediately be 'struck off the lists of approved hospital training centres.'"  I don't know if it was the war conditions, or differences in training, or just the way that Dickens told her story, but I didn't see much actual training going on.  She and her fellow probationers were sent on the wards their very first day, and they were put immediately to work doing the most menial tasks.  None of the senior nurses seemed to have any time for them, and it's a wonder to me that the probationers, run off their feet, learned anything of nursing.  Eventually they began taking classes, with an eye toward the exams they would have to pass, but these get barely a mention.  Most of her story focuses on the wards, as the students are transferred around the hospital in rotation, in and out of night duty.  Dickens turns those oh-so-observant eyes on her fellow students, the senior nurses and the Sisters who rule the wards, and the patients who occupy them.  That's where her interests lie, those are the stories she tells, with wit and irony - and often with empathy.  I didn't learn much about her training as a nurse, but I did come to know the people who made up the world of the hospital, down to the maids on the wards and the porters in the halls.  And as with her account of life as a cook-general, Dickens doesn't hesitate to share her own screw-ups and failings.  My favorite came from her very stressful turns in the operating room:

I personally was terrified of all surgeons and hated having to go near enough to do up their sterile gowns or to wipe sweat from their brows.  Once or twice I had touched them and made them unsterile and I wished myself dead as I received their reaction at having to go through the whole scrubbing-up business again.  My greatest shame, however, was when one of them suddenly shot at me through his mask: 'Fetch me the proctoscope!' and never having heard of the instrument before, I heard it as something else and came trotting faithfully back with the white coat of the night porter which I had dragged off his indignant back.

Dickens writes in her autobiography that, when she began her training, she thought that perhaps she was done with writing, that nursing would be her new profession - one she experienced almost as a vocation.  In the end, it would of course be writing that she chose.  I'm glad that I still have her third volume of work memoirs, My Turn to Make the Tea, as well as so many of her novels to look forward to.

Friday, August 2, 2013

A race around the world

Eighty Days, Matthew Goodman

The subtitle of this book is "Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World."  It went on my reading list as soon as I saw it on Audrey's blog.  As a student of American history, and of women in America, I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I only recently learned about Nellie Bly (from an episode of The West Wing, of all things), and her attempt in 1889 to become not just the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, but to do so in less than eighty days.  Had the book just been about her famous trip, it would have been enough to pique my interest.  But I had never heard of Elizabeth Bisland; I thought that Bly was simply racing the clock.  When I realized that there was another competitor, like Bly a journalist, a Victorian-era woman traveling alone, I was even more anxious to read it.  I waited out the long slow queue at the library and finally picked up a copy last Saturday.  By Sunday afternoon, I had my own.  This book will definitely be on my "best of 2013" list.

The magic number of 80 days comes of course from Jules Verne's novel, Around the World in Eighty Days.  The English hero, Phileas Fogg, accepts a wager that he can complete such a trip in that time.  The story of his adventures was serialized first in newspapers and then published in book form in 1873.  Almost immediately speculation arose over whether such a trip really was possible. Lots of people - men - talked about trying it.  No one expected a women would actually do it.

Matthew Goodman opens his story on November 14, 1889 - the day that Nellie Bly sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey, on the first leg of her journey.  The paper she worked for, the New York World, was counting on her trip to boost circulation, so this start was covered in a big article on the front page.  One of the many who read it was John Brisben Walker, the editor of a monthly magazine called The Cosmopolitan.  He immediately decided that the magazine should sponsor its own competitor, who would circumnavigate the globe from the opposite direction, heading west first.  He chose Elizabeth Bisland, the literary editor of the magazine.  Responding to an urgent summons, she arrived in the office at 11 AM to hear Walker's suggestion that she join the race, leaving that evening by train for San Francisco to catch a ship across the Pacific Ocean.  She tried to get out of going: she told him she had a tea party scheduled for the next day, she told him that she had nothing to wear for a trip around the world.  He refused to take no for an answer.  "At six o'clock that evening, Elizabeth Bisland was on a New York Central Railroad train bound for Chicago.  She was eight and a half hours behind Nellie Bly."  And I was completely hooked!

Goodman takes us through the following weeks, alternating between Bly and Bisland.  But first he goes back to introduce us to them in more detail, telling us how they came to journalism, a profession considered unsuitable for women (and one women were considered unsuited for as well).  Both experienced poverty as children, Bly in Pennsylvania and Bisland in Louisiana, and both supported their families by their work.  The few women hired by newspapers were usually confined to the "women's pages," covering fashion and social events.  Bly wasn't content with that narrow focus.  She made a name for herself with undercover investigative reporting, most famously by getting herself committed to the Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum, where female patients were reportedly abused (she later wrote a book about her experiences).  Bisland began her career in New Orleans, on the usual women's page, but after a few years she moved to New York, where she found work writing book reviews for newspapers and magazines.  Though she lacked Bly's rough and tumble experience, and her notoriety, she was well-established in her career when she was hired at The Cosmopolitan (the name alone suggests the gap between her work and Bly's).

Goodman's story draws on the books that Bly and Bisland later published about their trips.  As his story moves back and forth between them, he weaves in a wealth of information about the two women, their modes of transportation, where they were stopping, what they were seeing.  He neatly balances their individual experiences within the larger context that he provides.  We learn for example about the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the United States, and its impact on trade and travel, as well as the Chinese workers who built the western section, and the rabid prejudice against them that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The ship that Bisland took from San Francisco carried Chinese emigrants returning home.  Both she and Bly had stopovers in Hong Kong. Their experiences, and their very different reactions, are fascinating, repeated on each leg of their parallel journeys.

One of the main arguments made against women even completing a trip like this is that they would be weighed down by too much luggage.  Nellie Bly countered those arguments by setting off with one single bag, a grip the size of an old-fashioned doctor's bag.  She wore a sturdy traveling dress, but she didn't even take a second. Elizabeth Bisland managed it with a steamer trunk and a valise - which allowed her to bring three dresses in addition to the one she wore.  Bisland also took books (always the first thing I pack), but Bly didn't have room.  Both packed underwear, stockings and toiletries.  The "toiletries" must have included supplies for their monthly cycles, though there is naturally no mention of this. It may not have occurred to Matthew Goodman, but of all the inconveniences they faced on such a trip, the usual rags secured with pins, which had to be washed and reused, had to have been high on the list.

I have to admit that I started this book rooting for Nellie Bly on her quest to set a record and prove women's capabilities.  Elizabeth Bisland seemed like a dilettante, a cynical attempt on her editor's part to horn in on Bly's trip.  While Bly was committed to taking only the existing means of transportation, Walker did not hesitate to pull strings and to offer financial incentives to speed Bisland's trip, for example trying to arrange ships' itineraries (including the sacrosanct mail packets) around her schedule, and that felt like cheating. (In the end, Bly's paper did some string-pulling of its own.)  I did sympathize with Bisland though, in the face of such an outlandish demand, to turn her life upside down and set out on a journey around the world, with only a few hours' notice.  As I followed her westward, I came to appreciate her more and to enjoy her company.  She was technically engaged in the race, but while Bly rushed, Bisland snatched time to savor, to observe, to appreciate.  Bly, on the other hand, developed into the worst kind of "ugly American."  She had a strongly-rooted prejudice against the British and complained constantly about them, as Goodman notes while riding on their ships and trains, traveling across their empire.  She also saw only the worst particularly in the Asian countries she visited.  Perhaps this was due to the pressure she felt to win the race, which doesn't seem to have affected Bisland as strongly.

The end of the race is not the end of Goodman's story, and the chapters that follow as just as fascinating.  He takes us through the two women's lives in the aftermath of the contest, as they went their separate ways.  I was particularly interested in the year that Bisland spent in England, living with friends she made on her voyage.  There she met Rhoda Broughton, and the two later collaborated on a novel (which was not well-received).  I love these kinds of historical and literary overlaps!

This book has already added to my TBR lists.  I've downloaded Elizabeth Bisland's account of her trip, A Flying Trip Around the World, which I found through Google Books.  I'm also looking forward to exploring her other writing. In addition, I've ordered a copy of Nellie Bly's account, though I'm less excited about reading it now.  And I decided that I need to read the book that inspired these trips in the first place, the adventures of Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days.  This seems to be my year for circumnavigating the globe, at least by book, first with the historical Ulysses Grant and then the fictional Miss Cayley, who I think would have got on very well with Elizabeth Bisland at least.