Tuesday, October 29, 2013

My life in books

I've never been a guest star before, but when Simon kindly invited me to take part in his marvelous series of "My Life in Books" over at Stuck in a Book, of course I said yes immediately.  I've enjoyed the previous series so much, learning more about the readers behind my favorite blogs and finding some new ones to follow.  Reading each series, I also found myself thinking how I'd answer his questions - and now my answers are here.

Thank you again to Simon for organizing these & inviting me to join in the fun.  Thanks also to Jane (Fleur) for nominating me.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

An unwelcome heir

Heirs and Graces, Rhys Bowen

This is the seventh book in Rhys Bowen's "Royal Spyness" series of mysteries, featuring Lady Georgiana Rannoch.  Lady Georgie is a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, 35th in line for the throne.  The family estate has been crippled by her late father's gambling debts and death duties, and her allowance was cut off when she turned twenty-one.  As a member of the Royal Family, however distant, she was not of course educated to earn a living, but she has resisted the family's attempts to marry her off to suitable foreign princes.  She has also resisted the only other acceptable option, serving as a companion and lady-in-waiting to one of the elderly royal aunts.  In the course of trying to support herself, Georgie has taken on several small assignments from her cousin, Queen Mary, which have brought her into danger and left her with mysteries to solve.

When the last book ended, Georgie was headed to London to stay with her mother, a glamorous actress who found life on the Rannoch estate in Scotland, not to mention marriage to the Duke, unendurable. After divorcing Georgie's father, she had a string of lovers and husbands, none of whom lasted long.  As this book opens, in April of 1934, she is working on a memoir of her life on-stage and off, with Georgie as her secretary.  However, when her latest lover, a German industrialist, writes to announce that he has bought her a villa in Switzerland, she immediately abandons book and daughter.  Georgie has nowhere to go and no money.  In desperation, she writes a note to Queen Mary, asking for any assistance or introductions that her Majesty could give.

In return, Georgie receives an invitation to tea at Buckingham Palace.  There the Queen introduces her to the Dowager Duchess of Eynsford [and my brain immediately started singing, "I can see her now, Mrs. Freddie Einsford-Hill, in a wretched little flat above a store...."].  The Duchess has a problem: her older son, the current Duke, refuses flat out to marry and provide an her, and her younger son John was killed in the Great War.  If the Duke dies without a heir, the estate reverts to the Crown.  However, the family has recently learned that John married in Australia just before the war and fathered a child, whom he never met.  This son, Jack, is now on his way to England.  The Queen and the Dowager Duchess want Georgie to stay at the family's estate in Kent, to welcome the newly-discovered heir and to help him adjust to life in England and to his new position. Georgie, with no other options and thinking of spring-time in the country, is happy to accept.

When she arrives with the Duchess at Kingsdowne Place, she finds a tense atmosphere and a divided family.  In addition to the Duke, the dowager's two dotty sisters are in residence, both widowed and with little money.  The Duke's sister Irene is also staying with her three children, the eldest of whom suffered a riding accident that has left her in a wheelchair.  Irene would like to take her to Switzerland for treatment, but since her husband, the Russian Count Streletzki, abandoned the family, she is dependent on her brother's charity, and he refuses to pay for it.  Cedric, the duke, is spending his money instead on becoming a patron of the arts, supporting playwrights, dancers and composers, whom he invites to stay.  When Georgie sees these handsome, willowy young men, she understands why the Duke refuses to make a dynastic marriage.  He is  planning to build an amphitheatre on the estate grounds, though that will mean tearing down some elderly tenants' cottages.  Both Cedric and Irene are angry at the news of their Australian nephew, and both openly doubt that he is the true heir.  Irene thinks that the title and estate should go to her son Nicholas rather than some colonial outsider.

When Jack arrives, he confirms all the family's worst fears.  He is straight off a sheep station, and in fact he would prefer to be back there. Georgie has her hands full trying to smooth some of his rough edges and explain the ways of his noble family to him.  But Cedric refuses to accept Jack, and one evening he stuns his family with the announcement that he plans to adopt his handsome young French valet and make him the heir.  The next morning, the Duke's body is discovered on the grounds, with Jack's distinctive knife stuck in his back, and Georgie finds herself in the middle of another murder investigation.

This is an interesting country-house murder mystery combined with a Downton-esque family saga.  Initially I thought we might be in for a version of Georgette Heyer's The Unknown Ajax, with a unwelcome heir who plays with his family's low expectations.  But Jack is the epitome of a brash young Colonial, complete with a stock of colorfully inappropriate phrases (Ms. Bowen herself lived in Australia for several years).  I particularly enjoyed the two dotty aunts, one of whom organizes séances where the Ouija board gives Georgie the clue to the duke's murder.

I had one quibble, with regard to titles and address.  When Jack arrives, the Dowager insists on presenting him as the Viscount Farningham.  Since he is the nephew of the current Duke, not his son, and is only the heir presumptive, he does not take the heir's courtesy title.  The Dowager would have known that, unless she is pressing a point to have him accepted.  Georgie also addresses the Dowager and the Duke constantly as "Your Grace."  As their social equal, if not outranking them as a minor Royal, she would address them as Duke and Duchess (as Dorothy Sayers and Angela Thirkell's characters do in books set in the same period).  Georgie would know that only social inferiors and servants use "Your Grace."

I had a bigger problem with the solution to the murder, though (spoilers follow, so I'll leave a bit of space).

I don't like mysteries where children commit murder.  Here it is accidental, but the children seem to show no remorse, no awareness that their actions killed their uncle.  They take what happened very lightly, and in fact they are almost rewarded, by being sent off to boarding school as they have long wished.  It's not that I want them sent to prison, or severely punished, but seeing them scampering off to play in the end left a bad taste in my mouth.  Even in a cozy or light-hearted mystery like this, no matter how unpleasant the victim, Justice is due to the dead.

This completes the Peril the First I undertook for the RIP VIII Challenge.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mark Twain abroad

A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain

I enjoyed The Innocents Abroad so much last year that I soon lined up more of Mark Twain's travel writing.  Though I started this book a couple of times, I never got too far with it.  This time I drew it from the book box, and when I finally settled down with it, I enjoyed it even more than the first.  Written eleven years later, it is more pure comedy, often at Twain's own expense, frequently at his fellow travelers', especially young Americans.  But in other ways, he has mellowed.  He doesn't have the chip on his shoulder, the constant need to assert the superiority of the United States, to compare everything unfavorably with "back home."  The all-American attitude creeps in every once in a while, but he is far from the typically "ugly American" tourist of his 1867 travels.

Twain announces at the start of the book,
One day it occurred to me that it had been many years since the world had been afforded the spectacle of a man adventurous enough to undertake a journey through Europe on foot.  After much thought I decided that I was a person fitted to furnish mankind this spectacle. So I determined to do it.  This was in March, 1878.

He hires an agent to accompany him, a Mr. Harris, and they set out with three goals: to take a walking tour, to study German, and to study art.  As well as a traveling companion, Harris is there as Twain's proxy.  He sends Harris off to do anything that he doesn't want to do himself, or is too lazy to do, but still plans to write about (and claim the credit for).  The editors of the Penguin Classics edition that I read point out that in fact Twain traveled to Europe in the spring of 1878 with his family, and they label this book "autobiographical fantasy."  They add, "Twain's travel narratives are as 'fictional' as his novels are 'autobiographical.'"  However you want to classify this book, fact or fiction, it is great fun.

In Twain's account, their travels begin in Germany.  From the start, this book reminded me of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men on the Bummel.  Despite constant protestations that his is meant to be a walking tour, he jumps on every train, horse, wagon, or boat that passes by, with transparent excuses like the roads are uphill, or the sun is up.  There is a hilarious account of a trip down the Neckar River to Heidelberg on a raft of very small poles, which sometimes seems to foreshadow Huck Finn and other times reads like a perilous ocean voyage, complete with storms and near-shipwreck (or raft-wreck, to be technical).  Any time Twain and his agent set out to actually walk somewhere, they mosey along, often losing their way and frequently quarreling.  Like Jerome, Twain also becomes fascinated with the custom of dueling among university students.  He gives a detailed account (over three chapters) of an afternoon spent watching the duelists in action. He follows that with a burlesque of a French duel at which he claims to have stood a second.

From Germany the account moves to Switzerland, where Twain becomes equally fascinated with the Alps and mountaineering.  These chapters are an interesting mix.  Twain recounts various expeditions, discussing seriously the dangers and the frequent loss of life.  He writes lyrically about the scenery, the majesty of the different mountains, particularly Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.  In between, he tells a ridiculous story of a expedition he organizes, consisting of 198 people (including 15 bartenders and a Latin scholar), to ascend a minor point that didn't even need a guide.  When he and Harris arrive at the village near Mont Blanc, on the other hand, he just tries to buy the certificate awarded to those who made the ascent, claiming it's for a sick friend.

From Switzerland, he travels on to Italy. Here he himself admits that he has come to appreciate art much more than when he traveled with the Innocents.  Of course, his tongue is firmly in his cheek.  This book is illustrated with Twain's own "art," which can only charitably be called primitive.  In one of the last chapters, he discusses why Art can be indecent and Literature cannot.  He is rather indignant that the statues in Florence have been "fig-leaved."  But that is nothing compared to his anger over Titian's Venus of Urbino, which he considers the most pornographic picture ever painted, hanging in the Uffizi "for anybody to gloat over that wants to..."  Yet, he says, if he tried to describe what the picture shows, his work would be banned as obscene.  It's a weirdly serious chapter in the midst of this crazy book.

Twain's German studies seem to go about as well as his art studies.  Fortunately for him, he finds English-speakers almost everywhere in Germany.  This book includes his famous essay on "The Awful German Language," one of several appendices.  The title page of the "Appendix" section has a quote from Herodotus, "Nothing gives such weight and dignity to a book as an Appendix."  This book has six!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Murder in the country

Snuff, Terry Pratchett

I managed to catch one of those miserable colds that are going around, which left me with no energy or brain cells for reading (that's how I know when I'm really sick: I can't read).  I spent an awful lot of time watching TV, though now I can't even remember what was on - and not just because I kept falling asleep.  When I finally started to emerge from the brain fog and could concentrate again, I decided a visit to Terry Pratchett's Discworld was just what I needed.  He has a new book coming out later this year, and I've had this one on the TBR shelves for too long.

If you're not familiar with Pratchett's books, he is probably best-known for the Discworld series, which are set on a world with a lot of parallels to our own, except that in addition to humans it includes dwarfs, trolls, vampires, werewolves, golems, witches and wizards, and a few talking animals.  Pratchett uses the parallels and the divergences between our world and the Disc to great satirical and comedic effect.  The Discworld books can be read as stand-alones, but they draw on and then add to a detailed, complex backstory, full of in-jokes and references to past events.  Snuff is part of the subseries of stories focused on Sam Vimes and the Watch, the police force in the great city of Ankh-Morpork.  The Watchmen (and women, these days, not to mention dwarfs, trolls, vampires, and werewolves) make an appearance in most of the books, but sometimes only as cameos.  The Watch stories were my introduction to Ankh-Morpork and really to the series, and they've always been a favorite.

In this book, Sam Vimes reluctantly leaves the city behind for a holiday with his wife and son on the family's country estate.  Once a street kid in Ankh-Morpork's slums and later the alcoholic captain of the despised Night Watch, Vimes has made over the police force and himself, rising to become Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork and (most importantly to him) Commander of the Watch.  He met Lady Sybil, the last heiress of the noble Ramkin family, in the course of an investigation, and two lost souls found each other.  Vimes has never quite adjusted to being a Duke, though.  At heart he remains Sam Vimes, the city Watchman. He is the proverbial fish out of water in the country, both as a city man and as the lord of the manor.  But then his Watchman's eye tells him that there is something wrong, possibly criminal, going on in the local village.  Being Vimes, he can't help poking around and asking questions, any more than he can help upsetting people in the process.  He has a run-in with the local blacksmith, who then goes missing, and Vimes finds himself accused of his murder.  But the real victim is a young goblin girl.  Goblins are a despised minority, whom many consider animals rather than a sentient species.  Vimes's insistence that the girl's death was murder and she deserves justice will draw him into the goblin world and into a dangerous investigation that reaches far beyond the quiet village.

Pratchett's books are great fun and often laugh-out-loud funny, but he usually has a serious point to make. Here he is addressing prejudice and discrimination, as well as the question of how much an outside group has to change or adapt to be accepted in the dominant society (a question of particular interest to Captain Angua, the Watch's sole werewolf).  Goblins are not attractive: their language is difficult to learn, they are scavengers, they live in caves, they smell bad.  For some on the Disc, that justifies enslaving or even killing them. Vimes and Sybil set out to change that, starting with the search for the killer.

I enjoyed this book, with its familiar characters in a different setting.  Though the Ramkin estate is miles from Ankh-Morpork, the investigation eventually draws in the City Watch as well, bringing in old friends from the earlier books.  (It does not however feature DEATH himself, a very popular character with his own marvelous subseries of stories.)  Sometimes, particularly in the later books, it feels to me like the message  rather overwhelms the story, as with the previous Disc book, Unseen Academicals.  Here I thought the balance was perfect.  I enjoyed Vimes's investigation, which includes a wild ride on a riverboat caught in a flood tide.  There is also the more peaceful chapter, earlier in the book, where Sam and Sybil are paying calls in the neighborhood.  One visit is to the widowed Lady Gordon and her five unmarried daughters, one named Jane, who is writing "a novel about the complexities of personal relationships, with all their hopes and dreams and misunderstandings."  She doesn't actually say it's called "First Impressions," but then she hardly needs to.

Now I'm looking forward even more to the new book, Raising Steam, which will take us back to Ankh-Morpork.  It features another favorite character, the reformed (or recovering) con man, Moist von Lipwig.

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

From Hollywood to the cloister

The Ear of the Heart, Mother Dolores Hart, OSB & Richard DeNeut

This is the October choice for one of my book groups, and a friend was kind enough to give me a copy.  I'm not sure I would have bought it for myself, I'd probably have waited out the library queue. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't quite what I expected, and I'll be interested to see what the group makes of it.

Dolores Hart was a rising young star in Hollywood in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  She became an instant celebrity with her first film, Loving You in 1957, where she kissed Elvis Presley - his first on-screen kiss (and hers as well, of course, though nobody paid much attention to that).  She had a successful and prestigious stage debut in 1958, in a play that ran for a year on Broadway, which earned her a Tony nomination.  She returned to a range of film roles, and an engagement.  But in June of 1963, she shocked people across the country by entering a small cloistered Benedictine monastery in rural Connecticut.  There she would spend her days as "Mother Dolores," in manual labor and chanted Latin prayers, beginning with Matins at 1:50 AM.  Public interest remained high over the years, and the media continued to cover her life as a nun, particularly at major celebrations like her reception of the nun's habit.  She was the subject of a 2011 HBO documentary that was nominated for an Oscar (she attended the awards and was naturally the only one on the red carpet in a full religious habit, wimple and all). 

Finally Mother Dolores decided that the time had come to tell her own story, after years of requests.  She chose to write it with an old friend, a former boyfriend in fact, Richard DeNeut.  They had met in Hollywood, where he worked in a photo agency, and she was one of the stars he handled. They have collaborated on other projects, including the autobiography of actress Patricia Neal, much of which was written at Mother Dolores' abbey.  When I saw "and Richard DeNeut" on the cover, I figured he was the ghostwriter.  Instead, the story alternates between his narration, generally third-person, and Mother Dolores' first-person.  His is in plain type, hers in italic, so it's always easy to tell who is talking, and the switch back and forth between narrators seemed to me to work well.  There are also frequent brief interjections, quotes from taped interviews inserted into the narratives, which liven up the stories.

I am a big fan of classic films, particularly those of the 1930s and 1940s, and I was fascinated reading about Dolores Hart's film career and her life as a young actress in Hollywood.  As a student at Marymount College in Los Angeles, she was drawn to the drama department.  While acting in a play about Joan of Arc, she came to the attention of the great producer Hal Wallis, then at Paramount, who had won his first Oscar for Casablanca.  He put her under contract, casting her first in the Elvis film.  I don't know much about the films of the 1950s, but I recognized plenty of names and titles.  Dolores was a favorite of costume designer Edith Head, who called her "Junior."  She worked with George Cukor and Michael Curtiz, with Myrna Loy and Maureen Stapleton.  Maria Cooper Janis, the daughter of Gary Cooper, is one of her closest friends, and Dolores stood as Gary's godmother when he was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church.  When she made her theater debut, it was in a Broadway play with Cornelia Otis Skinner.  Throughout her career, her Roman Catholic faith remained at the center of her life and her work.  With fellow Catholics like Rosalind Russell, Loretta Young, and Irene Dunne, she was active in church groups and charities.

The year that Dolores spent in New York with the play would be the catalyst for the great change in her life.  A friend suggested that she visit the Regina Laudis monastery, where she could relax away from the theater.  At first she resisted, thinking it was a bit too conservative for her.  But she was drawn there in spite of herself, and she kept finding her way back, even from Hollywood.  She had no intention of becoming a nun.  She was sure that her vocation was acting, and marriage - she was sure that was what she wanted.  Until she became engaged - and then suddenly she wasn't sure at all. Even after she decided that she was called to the monastic, contemplative life, she wasn't sure, but she went.  This chapters on her first years in the abbey, her formation as a Benedictine nun, reminded me so much of Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede, also about a cloistered Benedictine abbey.  The main character, Philippa, a successful career woman, has a very difficult adjustment to life as a nun - as did Dolores Hart, who cried herself to sleep every night for three years.  Yet she stayed, convinced that this was her call, her vocation, despite opposition and sometimes cruelty from her religious sisters.  On the day of her First Vows, as the traditional Kiss of Peace was exchanged, one of the older nuns whispered, "Why don't you leave?"  I cannot imagine how devastating that must have been.

The later chapters of the book deal with the changes that have come to the abbey in the past 40 years.  Mother Dolores entered a community founded from France (though by an American), based in a thousand years of Benedictine spirituality and a deep-rooted tradition of forming nuns.  From the beginning, she found things she thought could and should be changed, adapted, to better suit women of the late 20th century, while remaining faithful to the Benedictine Rule.  Changes came slowly and with great difficulty, but in the end they transformed the abbey and the community.  I found this section less interesting, in part because it becomes more the story of the abbey and less of Mother Dolores.  There is a lot of discussion of the governance of the abbey.  At least fifteen nuns are introduced, who entered after Mother Dolores did, with little biographies of each of them, which I found really distracting.

In the end, as I said, I did enjoy this book, and I admire the courage and determination of Mother Dolores, in following what she believed then and knows now was God's will for her life.  It is an interesting spiritual autobiography.  I'd also recommend the first half to anyone interested in film history, and the second half to those interested in Benedictine spirituality or the contemplative life.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A walk through Wales

A Walk Through Wales, Anthony Bailey

I am really starting to wonder about this book box of mine, from which I draw supposedly random titles from the TBR stacks.  It's starting to seem a bit less than random.  I mean, I just read a book about Merlin in his Welsh cave, and I end up with a book about a walking tour of Wales, which mentions Merlin and Arthur frequently, starting on page 2.  I also just finished a book about a long journey, none of it on foot admittedly, but the box apparently thought another travelogue would be good for me.

I am not complaining, however.  I've had this book on the TBR shelves for at least 10 years, I'd read the first page a couple of times, but I always put it back on the shelves for later.  This time I read it straight through with great pleasure.  It is an account, as the title suggests, of a walking tour through Wales, from Cardiff in the south to Bangor in the north, some 180 miles.  The adventure was partly inspired by spring fever:
I felt my annual restlessness.  It came with a desire to give it searoom or - more likely - landroom: it is a restlessness which can generally be appeased by a long walk.  This time, I told myself, it should be a really long walk.  I harboured deeply sequestered thoughts of a particular country that I wanted to survey and absorb something of, if only through the soles of my boots . . . I took from a cupboard a tubular-framed backpack purchased at a south-east London Greenpeace jumble-sale and crammed it as concisely as I could . . . then made a few phone calls to friends of friends who might be helpful, patted the dog, kissed my wife, and with a cheerful 'Who knows? - I may be at least three weeks,' set off.  I was departing for the closest-to-hand foreign country: Wales.
I knew nothing about Anthony Bailey when I started the book, but by the end of the first page I was quite happy to set off with him for Wales.  He reminds me of a slightly less antic Eric Newby.  He has the same interest in people, with the knack of drawing them into conversation, as well as the same determination to climb mountains and follow his own path. Unlike Newby, he travels alone here.  Perhaps his wife doesn't have Wanda Newby's taste for adventure (or toleration for miserable traveling conditions).  He has a relaxed colloquial narrative style, and he doesn't take himself too seriously.  Like Newby, he is also interested in local history, including the legends of the past, and its literature.  He often cites early accounts of Wales, two in particular:
At some points I expected to cross the routes of two distinguished earlier travellers - the archdeacon Gerald, who in 1188 made an extensive Welsh journey on horseback in company with Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the course of a trip to gain support and recruits for the Third Crusade; and George Borrow, the determined traveller, linguist, gypsy enthusiast, and Bible proselytiser, who traversed North Wales from east to west and then the whole country from north to south in 1854.
Bailey later notes that when Gerald and Baldwin got to Bangor, they badgered the Bishop of Bangor so persistently that "in the end, there was nothing for it but that he himself should take the cross."  I'm very tempted now to read Gerald's account!

I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Wales many years ago, visiting Caenafon and Conwy.  But I admit I know very little about the country, its history or geography.  This book was a perfect introduction.  It was published in 1992, so some of its information may be a bit out of date, but I would still take it along if I am lucky enough to visit again.  As he meanders north, Bailey describes the landscape he is moving through and the people he meets along the way, while also considering the history of the places in the wider context of Welsh history.  (There is a very good map at the start of the book, which I consulted constantly.)  He is particularly interested in the survival of spoken Welsh, the part the language has played and continues to play in Welsh identity, and the politics surrounding it.

I didn't know when I started the book that Anthony Bailey wrote for The New Yorker for many years, though I could have guessed it from his writing style.  I don't remember ever reading anything of his in the magazine, but he has an impressive list of books published, including art history, more travel, and two volumes of autobiography, as well as novels.  I will definitely be reading more of his work in the near future.