Monday, September 30, 2013

Traveling the Silk Road, in search of noodles and much more

On the Noodle Road, Jen Lin-Liu

The subtitle of this book is "From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta." It opens in Rome, where the author had traveled with her husband Craig from their home in Beijing.  In a pasta-making class that she attended, and in restaurants across Italy, she found surprising "parallels and similarities" between the Chinese food that she had spent many years cooking and studying, and the food of Italy that she was discovering.  She began to investigate the history of pasta, particularly the myth that Marco Polo brought noodles from China to Italy in the late 1300s.  (Lin-Liu also related a second myth I hadn't heard before, about a failed attempt to re-create China's meat-filled bao buns: "But he couldn't remember how to fold the dough, and Italy ended up with a second-rate mess-of-a-bun called pizza.")

Lin-Liu found that there are many conflicting theories about where pasta was first developed, and how it spread.  But most theories place its history in areas adjacent to "the seven-thousand-mile-long network of trade routes that connected Europe and Asia known as the Silk Road."  It wasn't a single road, of course, but "a tangle of overland paths that undulated through Central Asia and the Middle East before reaching Italy via the Mediterranean Sea."  Lin-Liu decided to travel the Silk Road herself:
I'd go to Rome again, but journeying overland this time, starting from my longtime residence of Beijing. In contrast to previous explorers, I would pursue a culinary mission: I'd investigate how noodles had made their way along the Silk Road; document and savor the changes in food and people as I moved from east to west; learn what remained constant, what tied together the disparate cultures of the Silk Road, and what links made up the chain connecting two of the world's greatest cuisines.  I would seek out home cooks, young and old, to see how recipes had been passed down and learn not only their culinary secrets but their stories as well.
There are two other elements to this story, personal ones, hinted at in the subtitle.  As Lin-Liu prepared for her travels, she was facing a question of identity.  Born in America to Chinese immigrant parents, she grew up in a Southern California community with few Asians, feeling always marked by differences.  She moved to China after college, working in journalism and studying the country's food before she opened a cooking school in Beijing.  In China, where she could blend in with the population, she still felt thoroughly American, yet when she returned to America, she "didn't quite fit in there, either."  She felt like she could not answer the simple question, "Where are you from?"
So as much as this was a sensory journey from East to West, I wanted also to explore what it meant to be "Eastern" or "Western" in a more conceptual way - I wanted to discover where the ideas converged and conflicted. Traveling through cultures that straddled the East and West, I figured, might reconcile what I'd felt were opposing forces in my life; maybe I would find others who could relate to my struggles.
At the same time, in the early days of marriage, she and her American (non-Asian) husband were working out their balance as husband and wife, and trying to decide if they wanted to stay in China. Craig had also worked there for years and was currently researching a book.  He couldn't drop his work to travel with her for several months, nor was he as interested in food and cooking as she was.  Friends questioned whether it was wise to spend so much time away from him, a concern her husband shared.  Despite some reservations, Lin-Liu decided that this trip was too important to her to give up.

Her carefully-planned route took her west from Beijing, traveling through communities of China's minority populations, like the Muslim Hui and Uighurs, and into Tibet.  Along the way, she found markets and restaurants, investigating local dishes, particularly the noodle-based ones.  She visited private homes whenever she could, finding a warm welcome in many kitchens with the cooks, and she also took classes in any cooking schools she came across. (In return, outside of China she was often asked to demonstrate Chinese cooking.) This was the pattern she would follow as she moved into Central Asia, crossing Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, before venturing into Iran.  (Her husband joined her on these legs of the trip.)  After a short break, she then picked up her trip again in Turkey, before moving on to Greece and ending in Italy.

I enjoyed this book very much, starting with Lin-Liu's description of life in Beijing, an increasingly cosmopolitan city where she and Craig lived in a small close-knit community.  Her book is divided into sections, covering the different parts of her travels, each of which includes recipes for some of the dishes she learned.  The section on her travels in Central Asia was particularly fascinating, since this is a part of the world I know very little about.  I was also very interested in her travels in Iran and Turkey, given the current situations in those countries. Wherever she went, she found that cooking was primarily the women's responsibility, outside of restaurants at least, and spending time with the cooks gave her a chance to assess the place of women in those societies and in Islam.  She found that cooking schools could be an important source of income, but also an opportunity for women to gather in a safe and private place.

Strange to say, the least appealing aspect of this book for me was the food itself.  I am not a complete vegetarian (due to a fatal weakness for bacon), but I do not eat beef or lamb (let alone mutton), the bases for most of the recipes included from China and the Muslim areas.  At least Lin-Liu skipped the recipe for the yak-filled dumplings she ate in Tibet and the lamb's brains in Tehran (of which she wrote that one bite was enough).  I did note the recipe for Turkish karniyarik, or split-belly eggplant.  I'm trying to figure out what could replace the ground beef in the stuffing.  I am a fan of Turkish food, which has some wonderful vegetarian options. After reading this book, I'm also determined finally to try a Persian restaurant that a friend has been recommending for some time.  And I'm looking forward to reading Jen Lin-Liu's previous book, Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China.

Friday, September 27, 2013

George Eliot's first book

Scenes of Clerical Life, George Eliot

The title of this caught my eye at Half Price Books, as did the lovely cover of the Penguin Classics edition. The editor, David Lodge, suggests that it is "not a title likely to set the pulse of a modern reader racing with anticipation. . . "  I can't say my pulse raced, exactly, but I was curious to read George Eliot's take on the clergymen who permeate so much Victorian literature, particularly in Anthony Trollope and Margaret Oliphant's books.  I have a list of favorites, starting with Mr Harding and Dean Arabin from the Barsetshire series, and Oliphant's Perpetual Curate, Frank Wentworth.  I've recently added Mary Cholmondeley's Bishop of Southminster, Charlotte Yonge's blind rector Mr Clare, and Rhoda Broughton's saintly James Stanley.

I did not know when I started it that this was George Eliot's first book, published in 1858.  The three novellas that comprise it were initially published a year earlier, in Blackwood's Magazine (Lodge, the editor, states that Adam Bede was originally intended as an additional "Scene").  Perhaps because this is an early work, I found it the most readable of her books, with a simpler, less convoluted language than in the others I've tried.

The title of the first story, "The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton," should prepare the reader.  Mr Barton is the curate of Shepperton, on a salary of £80 per year, with a wife and a constantly-increasing family living in a crumbling old vicarage.  He is a good conscientious clergyman, even a zealous one, but he is unpopular in the parish.  He can't quite seem to hit the right note with his parishioners, no matter how hard he tries.  And they resent his liturgical innovations, like hymns for worship replacing the familiar sung Psalms, and the fervor of his preaching.  Mrs Patten, a rich elderly widow, complains that "I don't understand these new sort o' doctrines.  When Mr Barton comes to see me, he talks about nothing but my sins and my need o' marcy.  Now, Mr Hackitt, I've never been a sinner."  (Mr Hackitt is at least "a little shocked by the heathenism of her speech").  Further trouble comes to the curate when an acquaintance, an attractive widow, invites herself for an extended stay at the vicarage, just as his wife is suffering through a difficult eighth pregnancy, and rumors begin to spread.

The second story, "Mr Gilfil's Love-Story," initially seems to be about a previous vicar of Shepperton, the incumbent for thirty years.  Unlike his successor Mr Barton, Maynard Gilfil was not a zealous active pastor, but he was loved and admired across the parish, and his influence was clear.  I wanted to know more about him, but the story jumps back forty years, and he becomes a supporting character.  As a young man, he was the chaplain to his relatives, Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel.  On a trip to Italy years ago, the couple rescued a young orphan, Christina, after her father's death, and brought her back to Cheverel Manor.  There the young Maynard fell irrevocably in love with her, while she fell unsuitably in love with Sir Christopher's heir Captain Wybrow, who flirted with her but could not marry her.  Since she is Italian, her love is of course violent and passionate, particularly after Wybrow becomes engaged to the very suitable Miss Assher.  I thought this story really dragged, and I found the romantic resolution improbable at best.  I was also irritated with the way Christina is constantly called "little monkey"!

The third story, "Janet's Repentance," was to me the most interesting.  It moves from Shepperton to the near-by market-town of Milby.  The town is divided over a new curate at a chapel near the manufacturing district.  The Rev. Mr Tryan is an Evangelical who is drawing large crowds to his services, from both the Anglican and the Dissenting congregations.  His proposal of a series of Sunday evening lectures in the parish church is the last straw for many, who think it an insult to their elderly curate Mr Crewe, beloved for his benevolence if not his preaching.  Eliot lays out the battle lines and introduces us to townspeople on both sides.  I found the politics fascinating (and rather Trollopian).  Robert Dempster, the town's leading lawyer, is organizing a formal protest and inciting the anti-Tryan feeling.  He relishes the fight, an outlet for the rage that builds up inside him, which he frequently takes out on his wife Janet, particularly when he has been drinking.  The whole town knows that Dempster mistreats his wife, though not all the sordid details, as they also know that Janet has taken to drink herself.  The scenes where he verbally and physically abuses her came as a shock.  I can't remember reading anything so explicit in a 19th-century novel.  Dempster of course expects Janet to support his anti-Tryan crusade, but when Janet meets the curate, she finds a good and holy minister, who will stand by her in her trials, particularly her struggles with alcoholism.

While the Introduction includes the usual spoilers, it also puts these three stories in the context of George Eliot's life, showing how she drew on her own experiences in creating her characters and plots.  Since I am still fairly new to Eliot, I found the background information both interesting and helpful.  The editor also uses Eliot's correspondence with the editor of Blackwood's Magazine to show how her stories developed, and how she resisted his efforts to tone them down, make them more conventional.  She was proved right as the book became a success.

This wasn't always an easy book, but I am glad that I read it, and now I'm looking forward to Adam Bede, to see how it fits in with George Eliot's first scenes of clerical life.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Merlin in his crystal cave

The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart

I decided to finish Anbolyn's Mary Stewart Reading Week with my favorite of her novels, the first that I read, probably 30 years ago now, and one I have re-read countless times.  It is also the first in her Merlin trilogy, which itself is part of a larger series of five books centered around King Arthur (the last two of which I still have to read).

This book introduces us to Merlin Emrys, growing up in the household of his grandfather, the King of South Wales, in the mid-5th century. He tells us his own story, beginning with an uneasy and unhappy childhood.  He is a bastard, the child of the King's daughter Niniane.  For six years, facing her father's rage, she has steadfastly refused either to reveal the name of her child's father, or to marry anyone else to give him a name.  It doesn't help that Merlin is a strange child, black of hair and eye in a ruddy household, who sees more than he should, and not just with those dark eyes. His grandfather despises his awkwardness and seeming weakness as much as his bastard's place.  The King needs strong men in the uncertain times in which they live.  Vortigern, the High King, has called in Saxon mercenaries to help him hold his throne, but they are deeply resented for their brutality.  Meanwhile, there are constant rumors of troops massing in Brittany, across the Narrow Sea.  There Ambrosius and his brother Uther fled, after their brother King Constantius died, some say by Vortigern's hand.

When Merlin is 8 or so, he rides out one day on his pony, and in the hills that lie around his home, he finds a cave.  Inside that cave is a smaller one, lined with crystals, in the blinding light of which he sees visions.  The cave's guardian, Galapas, begins to teach him how to use the power that is in him, to put himself in the path of the god who sends the visions and who will guide him.  Four years later, his god takes him across the sea to Less Britain and drops him at the feet of Ambrosius.  There Merlin finds a place, and work to do, which will eventually bring him back to Britain, and to the crystal cave.

It is hard for me to write objectively about this book, I love it so much.  Reading it this time, I meant to compare it with Mary Stewart's more modern suspense novels that I have been discovering, but from the first page I was as always completely caught up in the story.  This is one of those books where simply turning to the first page opens up the world of the story, and I don't feel that I am reading it so much as falling into it, watching the people and events pass before my eyes - like Merlin in his cave.  Stepping back a little now that I have finished it, I can see that it shares with her other books a compelling and sympathetic narrator, one of those neglected small boys in peril who feature in books like Nine Coaches Waiting or Madam, Will You Talk? Here the story is his, and it is exciting to watch him cope, find his own his way, grow into the power that is within him.  He shares his story with some equally compelling characters, such as Ambrosius himself (on whom I have had a slight literary crush), and his servant Cadal, the unsung hero of this book.  Like all of Mary Stewart's books, this also has her vivid descriptions of place, especially Merlin's beloved Wales.

In an Author's Note at the end of the book, Mary Stewart makes it clear that this book "is not a work of scholarship, and can obviously make no claim to be serious history."  I think though that it works very well as alternative history, a vivid portrait of life as it might have been in post-Roman Britain.  After all, Vortigern did invite his Saxon allies into Britain, and Ambrosius Aurelius is mentioned in Venerable Bede's A History of the English Church and PeopleStewart says that one reason serious historians will dismiss her book is that its main source is Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, which from her description has gone straight on my reading list:
Geoffrey's name is, to serious historians, mud.  From his Oxford study n the twelfth century he produced a long, racy hotch-potch of "history" from the Trojan War (where Brutus "the King of the Britons" fought) to the seventh century A.D., arranging his facts to suit his story, and when he got short on facts (which was on every page), inventing them out of the whole cloth.  Historically speaking, the Historia Regum Brittaniae is appalling, but as a story it is tremendous stuff, and has been a source and inspiration for the great cycle of tales called the Matter of Britain, from Malory's Morte d'Arthur to Tennyson's Idylls of the King, from Parsifal to Camelot.
Spending time with Merlin was for me the perfect end to a week devoted to Mary Stewart's books.  Thanks again to Anbolyn for hosting this!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

An unwelcome visitor at the Villa Morandini

The Grey Beginning, Barbara Michaels

Oh, the irony.  After Wildfire at Midnight I wasn't quite ready for more Mary Stewart, so I thought I'd try a draw from the book box.  But I ended up with a book that is first cousin to a Stewart story, one with echoes of Nine Coaches Waiting.  Instead of a French château, there is an ancient Tuscan villa, where a young American woman meets a child count, recently orphaned and very lonely, with a cold and unloving guardian.

The young woman, who narrates the story, is Kathleen Malone Morandini.  Recently widowed when her husband Bart died in a car crash, she has come from her home in Massachusetts to Tuscany.  Against the advice of family and doctors, she feels that she must meet his grandmother, the Contessa Morandini, though the letters she has been sending for months have been ignored.  Kathy arrives at the villa, in the countryside outside Florence, to find the gates firmly shut against her, and she has to force her way into the grounds.  Along the way she meets the ten-year Pietro, playing by himself in the neglected gardens.  When she finally makes her way into the house, she is stunned to learn from the Contessa that Pietro is her only grandson; Bart was her nephew and did not even carry the Morandini name.

This news overwhelms Kathy, who is already feeling ill.  The Contessa leaps to the conclusion that she is suffering from morning sickness, which Kathy is in no state to discuss.  Suddenly she finds herself transformed into a welcome guest, coddled with every luxury.  At first she lacks the resolution to explain the mistake.  Each day she spends at the villa makes that explanation more difficult, and increases the risk that she will be exposed as an impostor.  But meanwhile she is getting to know Pietro, and to feel increasing concern over his isolated, lonely life in a crumbling villa.  She begins to wonder why he is locked in his room every night, and why the Contessa's maid is carrying trays into a wing that is supposedly deserted.  She also wonders about a young American, David Brown, whom the Contessa has hired to search the villa's extensive and overstuffed attics for antiques that she can discretely sell.  He admits that is a bit of a smokescreen; he is really hunting for family papers that he can use for his doctoral dissertation on 19th-century tourism in Italy.  But is that admission just a double-bluff?

I really enjoyed this book, with its modern take on the Gothic novel. It is vintage Barbara Michaels.  The story kept me guessing, surprising me with at least three major plot twists that I never saw coming.  The settings are vividly evoked, particularly the decaying villa set amidst its neglected gardens, but also Florence itself, where Kathy escapes to play tourist.  On one of her trips, she picks up a second-hand copy of The Innocents Abroad, which proves a welcome distraction from the strains of life at the villa. She also buys one called Bride of the Madman, which gives Barbara Michaels a chance to play with some of the conventions of the Gothic novel - even as her character reading the book is herself caught up in a Gothic story.  Does that count as meta-fiction?

This book is the second I've read for the Peril the First, with the R.I.P. VIII challenge.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Murder in the mountains

Wildfire at Midnight, Mary Stewart

After a lot of waffling, this was the book I chose first for Mary Stewart Reading Week, hosted by Anbolyn of Gudrun's Tights.  What finally decided me was the setting: the Isle of Skye.  Right now cool mists and rain sound wonderful to me in hot drought-locked Houston.  And then the brief back-cover blurb on my Hodder edition was very intriguing:
Gianetta is hoping for a tranquil interlude on the Isle of Skye. Bruised by divorce from her writer husband, she seeks solace in the island's savage beauty. But a vicious murder throws the community into confusion - and then her ex-husband arrives . . .

The blurb isn't quite accurate, but at least it doesn't give too much of the plot away.  Gianetta Drury doesn't go to Skye to recover from the divorce, but as a holiday from her demanding job as a mannequin with a major fashion house, and to escape London in the frenzy of the Coronation festivities.  When she arrives at the Camas Fhionnnaridh Hotel on the south side of the island, she finds her ex-husband Nicholas already in residence, along with other guests who spend their time fishing and climbing.

I liked Gianetta from the start, and this book has many familiar Mary Stewart elements (like a brooding sarcastic hero).  But I have to admit that I didn't really enjoy it, though it kept me reading to the end, to find the solution to the murder.  Mary Stewart clearly knows and loves Skye.  Like Dorothy L. Sayers in Gaudy Night, she includes a note of apology for altering some of the terrain in aid of her plot.  Her descriptions of the scenery, the mountains that ring the horizon, the river winding down to the sea loch - as always they are lyrical.  The mountains in particular play an important part in her plot, one that I found really difficult to follow.  There were too many mountains, too many names, and quite a lot of time was spent going up and down them.  There were too many people staying at the hotel.  I probably should have made a list, but I gave up trying to keep them straight.  I found the murders in this book very unpleasant, and when the motive was finally revealed, I had a hard time taking it seriously.  In the end there was a major plot element left unexplained (how one intended victim escaped), which annoyed me.  I also had some reservations about the romantic resolution and feel strongly that both parties need some serious counseling.

I see that other people have chosen this book, including my hostess (eep), and I'm looking forward to reading other reviews, which may help me appreciate it more.  In the meantime, I think I'm off to the Crystal Cave.

Friday, September 13, 2013

At the Ravonsbridge Arts Institute

Lucy Carmichael, Margaret Kennedy

I first learned about Margaret Kennedy's books from blog reviews.  I didn't get very far with the first of her novels that I tried, The Ladies of Lyndon, but reading Jane's review of this book on Fleur in Her World, I had that immediate feeling of "I need to read that too."  Neither of our libraries has it, but I was able to get a copy through interlibrary loan.  I enjoyed it so much that I found a copy for myself, which arrived today, so I can give the library theirs back (that's the only drawback to libraries: they do want their books back, often all too soon).

We first meet the title character at second hand, through her friend Melissa Hallam.  I liked Melissa immediately, and for a while I thought she might be the central character.  She is newly-engaged to John Beauclerc, a rather serious young man, a research chemist, very different from her usual escorts.  There are hints of an unhappy family situation, but she assures John there are two people she loves very much: her brother Hump, currently studying cattle diseases in Africa, and her college friend Lucy.  Melissa gives John a vivid description of Lucy:
"Lucy's nose is aquiline, not retroussé, and her eyes are grey.  She has a very delicate skin, too pale, but that's easily remedied.  I wouldn't call her pretty.  When she is well and happy she is extremely beautiful.  When she is out of sorts or depressed she is all nose, and dashes about like an intelligent greyhound after an electric hare.  She has a natural tendency to vehemence which is unbecoming to one so tall, but under my influence she occasionally restrains it.  She believes me to be very sophisticated - a perfect woman of the world.  She admires my taste beyond anything and does her best to imitate me.  She is incautious and intrepid.  She will go to several wrong places, and arrive at the right one, while I am still making up my mind to cross the road.  She is my opposite in character.  She is cheerful and confident and expects to be happy.  She taught me how to enjoy myself.  Until I knew her I had always been convinced that I must be destined for misery.  I thought it safest to expect the worst.  I suppose it was because everything in my home has always been so stormy and insecure; I was brought up never to expect anything to go right.  Lucy forced me to believe that I might be happy.  I don't expect I'd have had the courage to marry you, to marry anybody, if it hadn't been for Lucy."
John says in reply, "I shall have no difficulty in loving her," and I felt exactly the same.  I was half in love with Lucy before I ever met her, just from that wonderful description.

But Melissa is not happy about Lucy just at the moment.  Lucy is also engaged, to Patrick Reilly, a practiced charmer with more than a touch of the blarney, an explorer who writes best-selling books about his adventures abroad.  Melissa distrusts him, not least because he has been seen around town with his former lover, and people are talking.  When she travels down to Lucy's home in Surrey, the day before the wedding, she has decided to say nothing about it.  She finds Lucy waiting feverishly for a call from Patrick, which never comes.  And the next day, Lucy waits, again in vain, for the groom to arrive.  She is left at the church, with no word.

Lucy is naturally devastated, by her private grief and by the public humiliation.  Trying to put her life back together, on a visit to Melissa she hears of a job at the Ravonsbridge Arts Institute. On impulse she applies for it, and gets it.  It takes her to the town of Ravonsbridge, in the Severn valley (I never quite worked out where that was meant to be).  The Institute was founded by Matthew Millwood, a local industrialist who made a fortune with his auto factory.  He wanted the people of the town, particularly the working people, to have "the best of everything in art and culture."  The Institute offers classes in art, music and theater, with regular performances and exhibits.  Millwood died soon after his project opened, and his wife Lady Frances and their children now lead the council that oversees its work.  When Lucy arrives, she finds the work a welcome distraction.  Equally distracting are the conflicts she soon discovers between faculty members and with the council.  Then there are those in the town who feel the Institute is too much under the control of the Millwoods, a drain on the town rather than a benefit.

There is so much to enjoy in this story.  Though my heart broke for Lucy, and it was difficult to watch her struggling with despair and loneliness, it was lovely to see her take the first steps back to life.  Even if they lead her sometimes to those wrong places that Melissa mentions, they bring her right in the end.  The Institute with its artists and actors is a fascinating place, even as factions and intrigues threaten to tear it apart.  I wouldn't want to work there, but I loved reading about it.  And there are such wonderful characters, particularly Lady Frances Millwood, whom Lucy expects to be a modern Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but instead turns out to be much more like Mrs. Croft and Lady Russell.  The book is full of Austen allusions, by the way, which made me love it even more (I learned from Simon's blog that Margaret Kennedy wrote a biography of Austen)..  At one point, on a visit to Ravonsbridge, Melissa asks, "Where are we? At Rosings? In the shades of Pemberly?"  The part of Fitzwilliam Darcy is played by Lady Frances's son Charles, handsome, rich, and inclined to sulkiness, who is drawn to Lucy in spite of himself.  But Melissa has other plans for her friend.

This is such a lovely book, which kept me wondering til the end where Lucy's life would take her.  I really hated to see it end, having grown very attached to Lucy and Melissa.  Any suggestions on which of Margaret Kennedy's books I should look for next?  I do plan to try The Ladies of Lyndon again.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

There and Back Again

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

It's been a long time since I've read any Tolkien.  But I've had The Hobbit on my mind ever since the first of the films came out.  I have no interest in seeing it, though Martin Freeman is one of my favorite actors, but I've been curious about how it could be stretched over three films.  And then Anbolyn mentioned that she was planning to read it soon. The third crow for me was a book I didn't get on with at all, about the Roman Catholic elements in Tolkien's work. Although I didn't finish it, it brought his stories vividly to mind, particularly The Hobbit.

As far as I can remember, I first came across Tolkien on the bookshelves of my cousins.  My aunt said I was welcome to borrow The Hobbit and all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings.  It was years before I appreciated how generous my cousins were in letting them go without a word, or felt any shame over the fact that I not only took them but never gave them back!  (Larry and Chris, if you ever read this, I can bring them next time I come to Portland!)

Whew - confession of book burglary over.  Which is very appropriate, of course, in discussing a book about a burglar.  It was such fun meeting Bilbo Baggins again, and Gandalf, who seem like old friends.  That first chapter is wonderful, with Bilbo so settled into his comfortable life, only to be upset first by Gandalf's conversation and then by the overlapping arrivals of so many dwarfs for that most unexpected party.  But from that very first chapter, he rises to the occasion, nudged by that Tookish streak in him, which sets him off on his adventures with the wizard and the Twelve Dwarfs.  It was lovely to watch him grow from that rather comic figure, sunning himself complacently on his front steps, into the hero of their quest, while still remaining true to his own hobbit self - and not without some grumbling here and there, and some definitely unheroic moments.  It was also lovely to see Gandalf in a more light-hearted adventure, not yet burdened with the cares and responsibilities of the Fellowship.

It was a bit slow going at first, because so much reminded me of the later books, and I kept pulling The Fellowship of the Ring off the shelf to read different parts, like Frodo and Company's encounter with the trolls, or their arrival at Rivendell. (And then I went around for days with "Gil-galad was an Elven king..." running through my head). I had also confused some parts of this book with the later stories, like expecting Shelob to show up in Mirkwood.  Then there was much that I had forgotten, like the bearish Beorn, to whom Gandalf introduces his companions so adroitly.  And while I remembered that Bilbo bravely ventured into Smaug's lair, I had forgotten he went more than once, and the adventures he had there. (I have to say, Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of Smaug almost tempts me to see the third film after all.)  Nor did I remember the Arkenstone and the crucial part it plays in the story.

Reading this reminded me of how much I love Tolkien's books, and hobbits in particular.  I think I'll be setting off again with the Fellowship of the Ring before too long.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A scandalous Victorian heroine, who kisses and tells

Cometh Up As a Flower, Rhoda Broughton

This is the first novel that Rhoda Broughton wrote, though it was the second she published, after Not Wisely But Too Well, both in 1867.  She had started it five years earlier, while living with her widower father and older sisters, a situation she shared with the heroine of this book, Nell Le Strange.  Nell, who narrates her own story, is 19 when the book opens.  Her father Sir Adrian Le Strange is the last heir of a family that traces its line back to the Conquest.
But, alack! in these latter days we had been but too well known at Epsom and Newmarket; we had been very much at home at Crockford's when Crockford's was; we had wasted our young affections and substance on operatic Phyrnes; we had run away with our neighbours' wives, and had generally misbehaved ourselves; and, in consequence, our many thousands had dwindled to very few hundreds, and our fair acres passed into the hands of Manchester gents with fat, smug faces  . . .
From the start, Nell's voice is frank, outspoken even, lively and entertaining.  She is an unconventional young women, having grown up under her father's care, with no one to teach her the usual "womanly arts."  As she says, "If I had had a mother, I should have had to mend my gloves, and keep my hair tidy, and practise on the piano, and be initiated into the mysteries of stitching."  Instead she has rambled around the house and the estate, with her father.  The close, loving relationship with her "dear old dad," as she calls him, is the center of her life.  But he is elderly, in failing health, worn down with worry over his mortgaged estates, their old house falling into ruin, their old clothes wearing thin. Nell does all she can to shield him, but bills arrive by every post, and local tradesmen demand something on account. 

There is a third member of this family, Nell's sister Dolly, four years older.  When the story opens, she is away on a visit.  Though neither Nell nor her father says it, both feel freer and more comfortable in her absence.  Dolly is a beauty, and despite the family's poverty, she is always elegantly dressed.  She has a small graceful figure, a classic profile, melting brown eyes, and luxuriant black hair.  Nell tells us, "she looked as if her life must be one long prayer," but "if it was it was a prayer said backwards."  Dolly has done all she could to keep Nell at home, out of sight and out of society.  Nell doesn't suspect that Dolly may fear competition, since Dolly has convinced her that her red hair and strong features are unattractive, even ugly.  I was fully convinced of Dolly's wickedness even before I learned that Nell "had no jewels, Dolly having appropriated all our mother's ornaments, before I was of an age to care much . . ."

But while Dolly is away, Nell is invited to her very first dinner party, at the home of the nouveau riche Coxe family (much as Emma Wodehouse is to the Coles).  Despite her very shabby and outmoded dress, she makes quite an impression on the gentlemen present, who include Sir Hugh Lancaster, a rich baronet and great matrimonial prize.  For Nell the real happiness of the evening is meeting again a gentleman - tall, blond and handsome - whom she encountered while out rambling late one evening.  It is only at the dinner that she learns that he is Richard McGregor, a major in the Army.  In the days that follow, Sir Hugh makes his intentions plain, but Nell has already fallen in love with her soldier, and he with her.  Neither cares that he is as poor as the Le Stranges.  Nell's father does, and so does her sister.  When Dolly returns, she immediately sets out to break off Nell's romance and compel her to marry the wealthy Sir Hugh.  The means that she uses take a terrible toll.

This book caused a sensation when it was published, mainly because Nell speaks frankly of her love for Dick.  She sneaks out of the house late in the evening to meet him, to spend the time kissing and cuddling in secluded nooks, and she is quite open about how much she enjoys this.  She is equally frank about how much she dislikes the idea of Sir Hugh kissing her, let alone marrying her. In fact, she tells him repeatedly that she doesn't like him, even that she hates him.  I couldn't quite figure out why he keeps pursuing her, but I decided that he is the stolid type who never changes his mind once he has decided on something, and in his position he is used to getting his own way in the end.

This is not a happy story, with the family's poverty, Dolly's wicked ways, and Nell's difficult romance.  Nell is a loquacious narrator, with frequent digressions to moralize and philosophize that weigh the story down.  But she speaks very movingly about her father's failing health, and her inability to accept the loss that is coming. (Broughton lost her own father soon after this book was written, so this may be from her own experience.) At his death, what's left of the estate will fall to his creditors, and there is a very ugly strain of anti-semitism in the description of the Jewish agents handling that business.  The ending is pure tragedy, for everyone except that wretched Dolly.**

It may not be a happy story, but it is certainly an interesting one.  Rhoda Broughton had a gift for creating vivid characters and embroiling them in compelling stories.  If you're interested in this story, I have an extra copy of the book that I'd be happy to share.

**Spoilerish comment:
At the end, Nell is supposedly dying of consumption, but if so, it's that lovely picturesque version, with hectic color in the cheeks and a gradual fading away - not the actual horrible suffocation of coughing up blood and lungs collapsing.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

House-sitting with ghosts

Devil-May-Care, Elizabeth Peters

This is one of my favorites among Elizabeth Peters' many books, and I've been wanting to read it again ever since I learned of her death last month.  It is also one of the books on my list for the R.I.P. challenge, where I'm taking on Peril the First.

As the story opens, Henry and Ellie are driving through Virginia to the home of her Aunt Kate, where Ellie will house-sit for a couple of weeks.  Henry, a rising young lawyer in Washington, is thrilled to find that his fiancée, while not yet fully trained to be the wife of a Great Man, has a rich aunt with no children of her own.  He is determined to impress his new-found future aunt, but things don't go quite according to plan.  Ellie waves him good-bye the next morning with a sense of relief, before settling down to enjoy her solitude (by that point, the reader is equally happy to see the back of him).  She spends a peaceful, relaxing rainy day pottering the house.  But that night, on her way upstairs to bed, she encounters a young man:
     . . . a pleasant-looking person, with an attractive smile.  His hair fell in long, wavy locks to his shoulders.  He wore a brown coat with lace at his throat, knee breeches, and white stockings; and, at knee level, a low table with a vase of flowers on it.  The table was the one that normally stood in that part of the hall.  The man was, in a word, transparent.
     As Ellie stood transfixed, he went out - disappeared, vanished, like a light when a lamp is switched off.
His appearance marks the start of a series of increasingly eerie events.  Ellie suspects at first that someone is playing tricks on her, but she is forced to consider that there may be another explanation.  Could there be a connection with an old book that Ellie brought as a present for Kate, a history of the oldest families in the county?  She begins to hear stories, the kind that proud old families try to keep out of the history books.  After she meets her neighbors, Dr. Frank Gold and his son Donald, they join her in trying to figure out what exactly is going on in the house, and who - or what - is behind it.

This is a fun, adventurous story, mixing romance and mystery, with some genuinely creepy moments.  Like all Elizabeth Peters' books, it has some laugh-out-loud moments as well, particularly at the pompous Henry's expense.  Aunt Kate is a great character, outspoken, opinionated and eccentric, given to sudden enthusiasms like Scottish dancing and homeopathic medicine.  She also collects animals, many of them rescues.  Fortunately her house is large enough to accommodate the twelve cats (at least) and six dogs, not to mention a rat named Roger.  And oh that house!  I'd love a chance to house-sit there, ghosts or no.  "The house was originally eighteenth century, but its red brick central core had spread out into innumerable wings."  There is a medieval entry hall complete with refectory table, an 18th-century drawing room with its Aubusson carpet and rosewood piano, a library with three walls and a gallery overflowing with books, a "small cozy parlor in the east wing" with American colonial furniture and framed samplers on the walls.  But most of all I want to move into Kate's workroom, an enormous room cluttered not just with cats, but with craft materials and musical instruments, the walls hung with pictures and posters, "as in an overcrowded and bizarre art gallery," including a map of Middle Earth.  I couldn't live in that kind of chaos, but I'd love to visit.

One of the things that cracks me up about this book is that it is really a "Barbara Michaels" book, disguised as an "Elizabeth Peters" book.  I'm not the first to point this out.  The front cover of my TOR paperback has a quote from Marion Zimmer Bradley: "Barbara Michaels is a wonderful writer, even if she calls herself Elizabeth Peters."  I've always wondered if Barbara Mertz (the author's real name) did that deliberately.  She thought noms de plume were a little silly but accepted the convention.  The most obvious "Michaels" element is the paranormal activity, whatever its source, which occurs in almost all of her books, but rarely if at all in the "Peters" books.  The plot here reminded me very strongly of Barbara Michaels' House of Many Shadows (also a favorite), where a young woman goes to stay at a relative's isolated house in the country (in Pennsylvania rather than Virginia), and ghostly events follow, including an apparition on a staircase.  Aunt Kate reminded me of a younger Mrs. Jackson MacDougal, from Michaels' Ammie, Come Home, as did the romantic pairings here, with a younger couple matching an older.  The book also includes some jabs at Christians, particularly Southern evangelicals, a frequent element in the later Michaels books (and one that makes me uncomfortable).  Religion plays little part in the Peters books, though Amelia Peabody Emerson is a staunch Anglican who attends church regularly, but really I suspect she and her entire family expect to meet Osiris and his judgement in the next life.

But whether this is a "Michaels" or a "Peters" book doesn't matter in the end, it's a great read either way.  I may end up with more of both authors' books on my RIP list.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Women in the Civil War

Women in the Civil War, Mary Elizabeth Massey

This title caught my eye at Half Price Books the other day, and I knew as I took it off the shelf that I'd be adding to the stack I was carrying to the register.  But I didn't realize until later that the edition I bought is a re-issue of a classic work, originally entitled Bonnet Brigades.  Published in 1966, it was the first comprehensive survey of how the Civil War affected American women, looking at their contributions and activities during the conflict, and the changes that came during and after the war, particularly to accepted "women's roles."  This book was part of a series marking the centennial of the war.  The author, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Massey, a professor of history at Winthrop College in South Carolina, was the only woman invited to contribute to the series.

Massey begins with an exploration of women's lives in the 1840s and 1850s, as the tensions leading to the Civil War were building up.  She uses archival sources, including letters, diaries and newspaper articles, as well as secondary sources like community histories.  As the introduction by Jean V. Berlin notes, while the use of primary sources allows the women to speak for themselves, it also limits Massey to primarily educated, middle- and upper-income white women, who had time and leisure to write, and this skews her narrative.  There were resources available for lower-income and African American women (north and south), but these were not as readily accessible in the 1960s, when history still tended to focus on the Great Men.  The idea of studying (let alone writing about) every-day people, the experiences of women, people of color, the poor - all this was still developing.  To Massey's credit, she includes these groups in her narrative, though not with the same depth.  I noticed this particularly in sections about African American women, who are presented mainly through the words of white women.  Massey adds to the unevenness by focusing more on the South than the North, arguing that the war's impact fell most heavily on southern women, who had to deal with invasion and then with Reconstruction, while northern women experienced the war at a distance.  This approach reflects Massey's own research interests.

Massey suggests that before the Civil War, women north and south were focused primarily on the home, following what a later historian has termed the "cult of domesticity."  In the North, women sometimes worked outside the home, particularly in the factories of the northeast.  This was much rarer in the South, at least for women of the middle class and planter society.  Generally, there were only a few occupations open to respectable women.  Teaching was one of them, though men were preferred and better-paid.  Women could be domestic servants, sempstresses and writers (but not reporters), and in the North they were just beginning to be accepted as store clerks.  They were generally barred from nursing (considered too rough for delicate women), and from public speaking.  Only a handful of women had succeeded in earning medical degrees, against great opposition, and exactly one woman was an ordained minister.  Among the least respectable professions was acting, and of course prostitution flourished, particularly in the cities, often a last refuge for women who could find no other work.

From the moment that Fort Sumter fell in April of 1861, women north and south determined to do their part and especially to support their soldiers.  Massey documents the different ways that women became involved, and how their involvement brought lasting changes.  They started forming aid societies, collecting food, clothing and medical supplies.  They insisted on nursing, despite the armies on both sides trying to discourage them, and the popular perception that they were only there to meet men (which some of the more frivolous were).  As men went off to war, in the North at least, women moved into schools, factories, shops, and even into government work.  Northern women came south with the Federal armies to work with the newly-freed slaves, and they began to write about their work, and even to lecture about it.  In the less-developed South, women had fewer economic opportunities, but they still moved into factory work and into teaching, as well as nursing and government work.

In one chapter, Massey considers the women who fought in the war, a particular interest of mine since reading DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook's They Fought Like Demons.  As they noted, Massey was the first modern historian to discuss women soldiers in the Civil War.  Unfortunately, she dismissed most of them as "prostitutes or concubines," as did the historians who followed her.  Here again, more recent research in primary sources has provided a richer and more accurate account of the women who served. 

When the war ended after four long years, there was pressure on women to give up the jobs they held in favor of returning veterans.  Yet many professions were now permanently open to women, including teaching, sales, nursing, and the civil service, though women received less pay than men (which made them even more attractive to some employers).  The first women's colleges were founded in the post-war years, as were industrial and nursing schools, and "normal schools" to train teachers.  Women joined reform movements as never before, started social and service clubs, and pressed for woman suffrage, As Julia Ward Howe wrote, "Woman refused to return to her chimney-corner life of the fifties."  Reading this, I was reminded that in the 20th century, the two world wars would bring the same kinds of changes - and advances - to American women.

Despite its limitations, I enjoyed this book very much.  The frequent quotations from letters and diaries - and from newspaper accounts - personalize and enliven Massey's account, so that we see the impact of events on the lives of individual women.  There is unfortunately no bibliography, but from the notes I have found several diaries and reminiscences that look promising.

On a side-note, this was another draw from my book box.  This project is making it very clear how many books I buy thinking, "Oh, I'll want to read that someday."  I'm like a squirrel, storing books away for later (sometimes years later, and I am trying to convince myself there is a difference between that and hoarding).  Here again, as with the C.S. Lewis book, I just wasn't ready to read it now, and I obviously need to keep that in mind when buying books.  I'm also starting to eye that book box a bit askance.  It seems to feel that I need to read more non-fiction!