Monday, December 30, 2013

My favorite books of 2013

For the last couple of years, the end-of-the-year posts about the best books and the reading year in review have been one of my favorite things about blogging. I've seen some wonderful lists in the last week, which have added to my TBR lists and reminded me of books I already own (too many still unread).  Such an amazingly rich variety of books and blogs and readers!

Of course I can't resist adding my own.  So here is my list of favorite books for the year, in the order in which I read them:

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas.  Dumas' masterpiece, the story of Edmund Dantès' escape from the notorious Chateau d'Ilf, to claim a fortune and seek retribution from those who imprisoned him unjustly and stole more than his freedom.

Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton. A story of dragons, in a setting that evokes Anthony Trollope's novels - who could ask for anything better?  I've enjoyed Jo Walton's "Small Change" series, but this is far & away my favorite of her books.

Miss Cayley's Adventures, Grant Allen. A recent graduate of Girton, but with no money and no prospects, Lois Cayley decides on a whim to travel around the world.  She shows great skill and determination in making her way, with each successful adventure funding the next.  A charming and surprising novel from 1899.

Hot Water, P.G. Wodehouse.  I still think this 1932 story, set mainly in a seaside town in Brittany, is the quintessential Wodehouse - without a doubt one of his best.

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson.  I am not surprised that this book has shown up on so many people's lists.  It's an amazing book, a chronicle of a series of lives - of a single person - that take many different courses, all of which end in death and then a return to the moment of birth, setting in train another life.  Hard to describe, impossible to put down.

An Open Book, Monica Dickens.  This was the year I discovered her books, thanks to blog reviews.  My favorite so far is her autobiography, which has at its heart her loving, eccentric family and their home in Bayswater.

The Clever Woman, Charlotte M. Yonge.  This novel addresses the issue of "surplus women" in Victorian society, and while presenting traditional ideas about woman's place, it is surprisingly progressive in other ways, particularly in the inclusion of characters with physical disabilities.

Eighty Days, Matthew Goodman.  Bucking traditional ideas about women's place, not to mention their capabilities, two women set out in 1889, in a race to be the first to circumnavigate the globe.  Goodman's book is not just an account of their different travels, but also a social history of the America they left, and an overview of the world they rushed through.  It inspired me to read Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, and I'm also looking forward to reading the books the travelers themselves published after their race ended.

The Three Miss Kings, Ada Cambridge.  Three sisters in 1880, orphaned at their father's death, use their scant inheritance to travel from their small seaside town to Melbourne.  There they meet a fairy godmother who brings them into society, and each finds love.  I have more of Ada Cambridge's many books lined up for 2014.

Lucy Carmichael, Margaret Kennedy.  A young woman left at the altar finds work and solace for her heart-break at an eccentric art institute.  There is a loving friendship at the heart of this story, and a happy romance at the end.  I also have more of Kennedy's books lined up for the new year.

Raw Material, Dorothy Canfield (Fisher).  A series of vignettes, an interesting and entertaining mixture, from her own life and those of friends and family, set mainly in Vermont and France.  Canfield Fisher wanted to give her readers "a score of instances out of human life, which have long served me as pegs on which to hang the meditations of many different moods."

Book of Ages, Jill Lepore.  This biography of Jane Franklin Mecom, the sister of the great Benjamin, is also a social history of colonial and revolutionary America, particularly the place and roles of women.  And it's an exploration of how fragmentary the historical record - the archives - can be for women, children, people of color, the poor, the uneducated, the marginalized, whose stories are all too easily lost to history.

The Vicar of Bullhampton, Anthony Trollope.  In this under-appreciated novel, Trollope takes on the question of "fallen" women, in a typically complicated plot that also involves a murder trial, a clash over a new Methodist chapel, and a woman who doesn't want to marry the man everyone else keeps telling her she should.

Right now I am reading (for approximately the 43rd time) Jane Austen's Emma, which I probably won't finish this year (Frank Churchill has just oozed into Highbury), but I am going to include it as one of my favorite books, not just of 2013 but of all time.

This has been a rich year of reading, and of sharing books here and on the excellent blogs listed over on the right.  I wish you a Happy New Year - one filled with wonderful books and friends to share them with.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Returning to Thornyhold

Thornyhold, Mary Stewart

We had a holiday from work on the day after Christmas, and I spent much of it reading this book.  Technically, I was re-reading it, though it felt like a new book.  I had no memory of the story, which I first read 20 years ago.  At the time, all I knew of Mary Stewart was her Merlin books.  I have a vague memory of coming across this at the library and deciding to try something different.  I also vaguely remember thinking "Meh" and reading nothing further.  Over the last couple of years, inspired by blog reviews, I have finally tried her suspense novels again, and enjoyed them very much.  Though I already have several on the TBR stacks, the posts I read about Thornyhold moved it to the top of the list.  I was lucky enough to find a copy through Paperback Swap, which arrived on Christmas Eve - perfect timing.

Reading this book now, I can't imagine why I was originally so unimpressed with it.  Maybe it's just that reading tastes change over the years.  It is certainly a quieter story than her earlier books.  But then it has so many things I like in a story.  There is white magic, practical magic, based partly in herbals.  There is a lovely old house, full of books (though few biographies), to be explored and claimed.  There is a black cat with a white chest and paws, to be called home, and a collie to be rescued.  There is even a touch of Merlin, not just in the quiet magic, but in a visit to Stonehenge, the monument raised to Ambrosius (not his brother Uther, as someone says here).  And as soon as I met William, a young motherless boy, I had a good idea where this story was going to go.  But as always, the fun was in getting there.

The narrator here is Geillis Ramsey, whose mother's family has witching lines."I suppose that my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to. But she met my father, who was a rather saintly clergyman, and he cancelled her out."  Gilly is named for her godmother, Geillis Saxon, her mother's cousin.  Her childhood is bleak, growing up with a cold, reserved mother in a dreary coal-mining village.  Gilly is hungry for love, for beauty, for friends.  Only rarely does she see the elder Geillis, who brings her all that.  When her mother dies, Gilly gives up her place at university, returning to the village to care for her father.  It is only after his death, facing a life with no money and few prospects, that she learns of her cousin's death, and of her will.  Geillis has left Gilly her home in the Wiltshire countryside, Thornyhold, and all its contents.

When she arrives at her new home, Gilly finds that her cousin was well-known in the community as an herbalist, even some say a witch.  Exploring the house, she finds a locked room, the stillroom, with plants, medicines, and even poisons (carefully labeled and locked away).  A neighbor, Agnes Trapp, asks urgently about a recipe book that Miss Saxon promised her.  She is equally urgent in pressing her company and her cooking on Gilly, who begins to resist both.  A more welcome visitor is William, who helped the older Geillis with her gardens in exchange for medical care of his ferrets.  His visits become daily, and Gilly learns that he is usually left to his own devices while his father, a novelist, is working.

As Gilly spends her days exploring and then organizing her new home, there are unsettling events - vivid dreams, surprising messages, unexpected encounters, flashes of knowledge - that seem to be leading her toward something (even at times, driving her).  I found myself trying as she was to put the pieces together, to figure out what was happening, wondering what was real, what might be illusion.  This is a gentle story, with a quiet romance, winding to a very satisfying resolution (with even a touch of farce at the end).  It's one I know I'll be reading again - I think it is a perfect example of "comfort reading."

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Two volumes of Christmas stories

Angela Thirkell, Christmas at High Rising
Anthony Trollope, The Christmas Stories

I had my heart set on the new Virago collection of Angela Thirkell's short stories as soon as I first read about it.  I was lucky enough to get my copy last month, and I've been saving it for Christmas reading.  The volume of Anthony Trollope's Christmas stories was part of a trove of Trollopes I found last year at a used-book store.  I had set it aside for holiday reading as well, but though I did read some of the stories, in the hustle and bustle of packing for the unexpected move a year ago, I never finished it.  Given the overlap in their stories of Barsetshire, it seemed right to be reading these two together for Christmas this year.

The Thirkell stories were not, contrary to my expectations, all Christmas stories.  Nor are they all set in High Rising, the village that gives its name to the first of Thirkell's Barsetshire novels.  Those that are set there feature Laura Morland, one of my favorite characters in the series.  With Laura comes her school-boy son Tony.  I know he is a favorite of many Thirkell fans, but I find him really exhausting - much as his mother and her friends do.  At least here he comes in smaller doses than in the novels.  Among the stories, I particularly enjoyed "Christmas at Mulberry Lodge," an account of a late-Victorian Christmas, which is probably autobiographical. It reminded me of Thirkell's memoir Three Houses.  I also enjoyed the last, "A Nice Day in Town," published in 1942, which describes a day Laura Morland spends in war-time London, coping with crowds and the shortages of practically everything she hopes to buy.

The Trollope stories are one volume of five published by The Trollope Society, collecting all his short stories.  This volume includes a forward by Joanna Trollope, and an Introduction by Betty Breyer.  Both make it clear that Trollope was ambivalent about the kind of Christmas stories that came out every year in special holiday editions of magazines and papers. He refused to write "humbug" stories with just "a relish of Christmas."  As he wrote in his Autobiography (which I seem to quote a lot), he wanted his stories "to instil others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities - or, better still, Christmas charity."  But there would be no Ghosts of Christmas, nor any Tiny Tims, in his stories.  Actually, sometimes there isn't all that much of Christmas itself in his "Christmas" stories.  "Catherine Carmichael: or, Three Years Running" is a very bleak story set in New Zealand, where the holiday marks the years a miserable, mistreated wife passes in what really amounts to a forced marriage.  "Christmas at Thompson Hall" is about a wife dragging her husband home from France for a good old-fashioned family Christmas with her family at the Hall, but it's set mostly in a Paris hotel, where the wife is trying to get a mustard-plaster for her hypochondriac husband.  "Not If I Know It:" concerns a brother spending the holiday with his sister and her husband; a casual question sets off a tiff that threatens to ruin Christmas for everyone. I could think of a couple of similar scenarios in past family Christmases.  This volume also includes Trollope's only short story set in Barsetshire, "The Two Heroines of Plumplington."

I found one of the stories particularly interesting, because of its setting and its theme.  In "The Widow's Mite," published in 1863, Nora Field is preparing for her marriage to a young American, Frederic Frew, who will take her home with him to Philadelphia and an America torn by the Civil War. (Frederic is apparently exempt from the Army.)  Nora sees the effects of war daily, from her uncle's rectory in Cheshire, where mills are standing empty because no cotton is coming from the southern states.  Her aunt and uncle are absorbed in relief work, raising funds simply to keep the mill hands in food and clothing.  Nora has done what she can to help, out of her limited means, but she feels that she must do more, before she can leave her home for a new life in America.  It is a serious consideration of true charity, of obeying the Scriptural commands to be generous in caring for those in need, particularly at Christmas.  I liked and admired Nora for what she was trying to do.  The story also of course allowed Trollope a few digs at America and Americans.  He set another story in Civil War America, "The Two Generals," about a family in Kentucky divided over the war.  This undoubtedly drew on his experiences touring the United States in 1861, which he chronicled in North America.

These two books made perfect Christmas reading, and I know I'll come back to them again, particularly to Trollope, for his slightly acidic perspective on the holidays.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The bells of Fenchurch St. Paul

The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers

I have had a re-reading of this book in mind for a while, and when I remembered that it opens on New Year's Eve, I added to my Christmas reading list.  I had forgotten, though, that it ends in the Christmas season, a year later, so it fits in even better than I expected.  I don't know that I could ever pick a single favorite among the Peter Wimsey novels, but this would definitely be at the top of the list, with Strong Poison and Gaudy Night.

I expect that this is a familiar story to many people, so I won't say too much about the plot, which revolves around a stolen emerald necklace and a body that turns up in someone else's grave.  The story takes Peter to the Fen Country - which is actually familiar territory not just to Peter, raised in Norfolk, but also to his creator.  Catherine Kenney in her book The Remarkable Case of Dorothy L. Sayers argues that this is one of the books where Sayers drew on her own background, as she did in Murder Must Advertise and Gaudy Night. Sayers grew up in the East Anglia village of Bluntisham, where her father was the rector of a church much like Fenchurch St. Paul, in this book. Kenney notes that buried in the churchyard there are members of the Thoday family, a name Sayers borrowed for important characters in her story.

One reason I enjoy this book so much is that it's the last of Peter's adventures on his own, with Bunter.  It takes place presumably while Peter is involved with Harriet Vane, but she doesn't play any part in the story (even in a throwaway line, as in Murder Must Advertise).  Nor does it have the other familiar characters from the series, except Peter's brother-in-law Charles Parker, Chief Superintendent at Scotland Yard, who appears later to help on the London end.  (I always miss Peter's wifty mother the Dowager Duchess).   Instead we get a vivid cast of local characters and criminal outsiders.  I am particularly fond of the Venables, the Rector and his wife, who offer Peter hospitality at the Rectory after an accident to his car leaves him stranded with Bunter late on a snowy afternoon.  While the Rector is a true shepherd to his small country flock, if a rather woolly-minded one at times, Mrs. Venables plays an equally important part in parish affairs and in their marriage.  It's a lovely partnership,

This book also shows Peter at his best.  On the very evening of his arrival, after a long and tiring day, he agrees to spend all night helping to ring in the New Year with the parish ringers, who have been left short-handed, rather than see the Rector disappointed.  He is a perfect guest, polite, unobtrusive, undemanding.  When a body is discovered improperly buried in the churchyard, he happily returns to the village to help investigate.  He is equally at home in the Rectory and the village.  He makes friends with Hilary Thorpe, recently orphaned and left impoverished after a magnificent emerald necklace was stolen many years ago from a guest at her family's home.  (She wants to be a writer, and I did wonder if perhaps later Peter introduced her to Harriet.)  When floods overwhelm the Fens, he and Bunter stay to help care for the villages taking refuge in the church, for more than two weeks.  Peter even tries to go to the rescue of a man caught in the flood waters; he has to be restrained at the water's edge.  True, he does spend a couple of days that Christmas home at Duke's Denver, irritating his sister-in-law the Duchess and her guests, but given how annoying Helen Denver is, I can hardly blame him for that.  We also get glimpses into the lighter side of the ever-correct Jeevesish Bunter, whose music-hall impersonations are popular in the Rectory kitchen, and who helps Peter defraud the Royal Mail to acquire a vital letter.

This story takes place over the course of a year, with crucial events occurring at New Year's, Easter, and Christmas. I think that makes it unique among the Wimsey stories, which generally cover a shorter period.  It is also unique of course because of the role the church bells play in the story.  Like many readers, I knew nothing about change-ringing before reading this book.  I had no idea that there are people who believe "the proper use of bells is to work out mathematical permutations and combinations."  I have to admit that I don't fully understand all the details of the bell-ringing, and as many times as I've read this book, I am still sometimes as lost as Wally Pratt.  But in the end Dorothy L. Sayers makes their role in the central mystery as clear as the proverbial bell.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Murder in Colleton County

Christmas Mourning, Margaret Maron

I always enjoy picking out some Christmas-themed reading around this time of year.  Somehow I often end up reading mysteries, whose violent themes might seem a bit at odds with the season.  Many of my favorite mystery authors have set books around the holidays.  Is there a connection, I wonder, with the old tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas?  Or maybe it's a recognition of the stresses that can come with the holidays, among family and friends as well as complete strangers.  I hope it's not just to market the books as Christmas presents.

Margaret Maron has set two of her books featuring Deborah Knott, a district court judge in North Carolina, at Christmas.  The first, Rituals of the Season, takes place in the weeks leading up to Christmas, as Deborah is preparing for her wedding to Major Dwight Bryant, the chief deputy in the Colleton County Sheriff's Department.  This second book is set a year later, just before their first wedding anniversary.   As the book opens, word spreads through the community that Mallory Johnson, a high school senior, has been killed in a car wreck.  She is the latest of several teens to die in such accidents, some caused by underage drinking. But Mallory's death hits especially hard: she was a cheerleader, beautiful and popular, the Homecoming Queen, heading off to college and a bright future after graduation.  Mallory was on her way home from a party when she died, and the autopsy shows alcohol and drugs in her system,  No one can believe it; her grief-stricken father insists that someone must have spiked her drink.  Then two young men are found shot outside their trailer home, one a fellow student of Mallory's at the high school.  Is there a connection between these deaths?

Deborah is a lower-court judge who does not handle serious crimes like murder, but she usually finds a way into Dwight's investigations.  In this case, her entrée is her family.  She is the youngest of twelve children, and the only daughter.  Several of her nieces and nephews attend the local high schools and knew Mallory.  Through them she learns more about the girl, her family and friends, and about the accident itself.  Meanwhile Dwight and his team are investigating the two shooting victims.

Woven through the investigations are the family's preparations to celebrate not just Christmas but also the couple's first wedding anniversary.  Deborah initially collects much of her information during a morning spent baking Christmas cookies with her nieces, a long-standing family tradition.  The Knott family, headed by the 81-year-old patriarch Kezzie, is a close-knit one, with farms and homes clustered together on family-held land.  Dwight's family also lives nearby, and there is a lovely sense of family in these stories.  Though the murder cases (and the victims) are never completely forgotten, they are balanced with the fun of choosing presents, bringing in a tree and mistletoe, watching Christmas movies with the nieces and nephews, and eating fruitcake soaked in the moonshine that Mr. Kezzie has supposedly stopping bootlegging.  There is also a touch of romance, with the anniversary coming up.  To borrow a phrase from Dorothy L. Sayers, this might qualify as a Christmas story with detective interruptions, one I thoroughly enjoy.  I like the settings of these stories so much, both the fictional Colleton County and the Knott and Bryant families.  I was hoping for a new one this year, which, yes, would have made a wonderful Christmas present, but it looks like I'll have to wait.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Vicar of Bullhampton

The Vicar of Bullhampton, Anthony Trollope

Somehow in a year rich with reading the Victorians, I nearly missed my favorite.  I've read his friends (William Thackeray and George Eliot), a fellow author he commended (Rhoda Broughton), one who admired his books (Henry James), and other contemporaries (Charlotte Yonge, Ada Cambridge and Mary Elizabeth Braddon), not to mention modern authors whom he inspired (Jo Walton and Angela Thirkell).   And I've managed this year to collect a biography of him and several of his books, including two titles that I didn't immediately recognize: The West Indies and the Spanish Main, which Paul Theroux calls "one of the ten essential travel books," and Marion Fay.

I have been keeping an eye out for this book ever since I read Trollope's autobiography.  He devoted several pages to it, first to a complaint that its publication as a serial was transferred to a second-rate magazine because Victor Hugo was behind on a serial that he was writing, which took precedence.  Trollope was not happy to be displaced, because he considered Hugo's later works "pretentious and untrue to nature," and because "I should be asked to give way to a Frenchman."  He also spent several pages explaining - defending really - his story, which has as a central character a fallen woman, a "castaway," to use his term.  He even reprinted his preface to the novel, where he excused bringing "the condition of such unfortunates" to the attention of "the sweet young hearts of those whose delicacy and cleanliness of thought is a matter of pride to so many of us."  But then he went on to write, "For the rest of the book I have little to say.  It is not very bad and it certainly is not very good."  He even claimed to have forgotten much of the plot!  All of this made me curious to read it, and I was happy to finally come across a copy this summer.

I am so glad that I chose this one off the Trollope section of the TBR stacks.  I completely disagree with his assessment of it  - it's actually really good.  He sets his story very precisely in Wiltshire, in a small town "seventeen miles from Salisbury, eleven from Marlborough, nine from Westbury, seven from Haylesbury, and five from the nearest railroad station . . ."  The Vicar of the title is Frank Fenwick, and he's a peach.  So is his wife Janet, the mother of their four children, "gay, good-looking, fond of the society around her, with a little dash of fun, knowing in blankets and corduroys and coals and tea . . ."  The Fenwicks have as their nearest neighbor the local squire, Harry Gilmore, the Vicar's dearest friend from college days.  Neither the Vicar nor the Squire is popular with the Marquis of Trowbridge, who owns most of the parish.  He considers Gilmore a mere squatter, and the Vicar next door to an infidel who preaches Divine forgiveness rather than wrath (and lacks proper respect for the aristocracy).  It is a matter of grief to the Marquis and his daughters that the living in their town is not in their hands, but belongs to Mr. Fenwick's Oxford college.  They have turned their faces away from the Vicar and his church, to favor the local Methodist minister, Mr. Puddleham, with whom the Vicar is carrying on polite clerical war.

The Vicar is the link between three different stories that Trollope weaves together in this novel.  The first concerns Harry Gilmore, who has fallen in love with Mary Lowther, a friend of Mrs. Fenwick staying at the vicarage.  Mary doesn't love him, but she is being pressured to marry him not just by the Fenwicks but also by her Aunt Sarah, back home in Loring.  Trollope is at pains to point out many, many times that women are made for marriage, it is their only possible career, and a spinster like Aunt Sarah has a "starved, thin, poor life," compared with married women like Mrs. Fenwick.  Mary finds this concerted pressure very difficult to resist, but she does not love Harry Gilmore.

The second story concerns the Fenwicks' neighbor, a farmer named Trumbull, who is murdered in the course of a robbery.  Sam Brattle, the son of the local miller, comes under suspicion, because he has been hanging around with two trouble-makers, strangers in the parish, one ominously nicknamed "The Grinder."  The Brattle family is already under a cloud, because their daughter Carry was seduced by a soldier and now, cast off by her furious father, is generally known to be a prostitute.  Trollope writes about this in rather veiled terms, never saying that she actually works the streets.  As the murder investigation proceeds, a bit like "CSI: Bullhampton," the Vicar discovers that Carrie has returned to the area.  She has even become engaged, unfortunately to the second suspect in the murder.  Mr. Fenwick takes it upon himself to rescue Carry from her life of shame, even as she is implicated in the murder.  Still, he  hopes to reconcile her with her family.  Both he and his creator argue that her sin is small in comparison to other sins, committed more frequently and more openly, which are easily passed over.  They also note that the shame and guilt fall on the woman in such cases, not on her partner.  There are frequent allusions to Mary Magdalene and other sinful women in the Bible.  Both Trollope and his Vicar express their concern about "How is the woman to return to decency to whom no decent door is opened?"  Mr. Fenwick struggles to open that door for Carry, as the murder case plays out.

The third story is the most fun, to my mind.  The Marquis is so disgusted with the Vicar, particularly after he takes up Carrie Brattle's cause, that he gives the Methodist minister a plot of land on which to build a new chapel.  And that plot of land is smack in front of the Vicarage gates.  Mr. and Mrs. Fenwick are horrified and outraged as the new brick Salem rises practically in their garden.  They have no recourse, though, until Mrs. Fenwick's brother-in-law, a brilliant London barrister, takes a hand.  The solution is found through research in the bishop's chancery archives, which delighted me!

Trollope as usual balances these three interweaving stories perfectly.  In fact, sometimes the change between them caught me off-guard, when I wanted to stay with Mary, or with Carry, to find out what happened next.  On the whole, though, this isn't one of Trollope's sunniest books.  There is a lot of unhappiness and suffering, with Harry Gilmore's pursuit of Mary Lowther dragging on and on, and with the Brattle family, not to mention poor Farmer Trumbull murdered.  But there is also much to like here, starting with the Vicar.  His preaching so offends the Marquis by proclaiming that since all are sinners - even marquises, not to mention vicars - all stand in need of grace and forgiveness.  There is much consideration of faith and observance in this book, as well as what I think is Trollope's only depiction of Holy Week services.  The Vicar practices what he preaches, but he isn't a plaster saint.  His interest in Carry is not in fact completely pastoral, he is very aware of her physically, though he doesn't admit that to himself.  His wife points out that he enjoys picking fights a little too much, and he is as much to blame as the Marquis for their conflict.  I admire what Trollope was trying to do through him, to address a real problem in society, by emphasizing the humanity of the outcasts, and asking what in practical terms could be done to help them.

The edition I read is a Dover reprint of the 1870 first edition, with lovely engravings but no notes or supplementary materials.  I learned from the Oxford Reader's Companion to Trollope that this was one of his least-successful books.  The Saturday Review actually called it "third-rate"!  According to the editor of the Companion, this book has "never been much read or appreciated."  That's a shame.  In my opinion, this isn't one to miss.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A family together & apart

Together and Apart, Margaret Kennedy

As I was finishing the second of two fantasy novels that I read recently, I had a sudden craving for a story about regular people, something mid-20th century, rooted in everyday life.  I have that kind of book on the TBR shelves, but then we had an early Christmas holiday on Friday afternoon, and what better way to celebrate it than with a visit to a bookstore?   After reading and loving Lucy Carmichael earlier this year, I have been meaning to look for more of Margaret Kennedy's books.  This Dial Press edition caught my eye, and the back-cover blurb intrigued me:
It is 1936, and in British society the decision to divorce still constitutes a major disgrace - an alternative to be considered only in cases of scandalous adultery. But Betsy Canning decides almost unconsciously to leave her husband . . . Together and Apart is a love story of a most unusual kind.  It reflects Margaret Kennedy's greatest talents as a novelist: an accurate yet humorous eye for the minutiae of daily living and a sympathetic understanding of its oddities and complexities.
A brief introduction by Kennedy's daughter Julia Birley notes that when her mother wrote the book, "she and my father were puzzled and distressed by what amounted to an epidemic of divorce among their acquaintance."

The story begins with a letter from Betsy to her mother, announcing her impending divorce from her husband Alec.  She gives several reasons, such as Alec's surprising success writing lyrics for musicals, and her discovery that he has been having an affair.  Betsy insists that their minds are made up, that the divorce is the best thing for everyone, including their three children.  In return she receives a telegram: "horrified letter am returning england immediately do nothing irrevocable till I see you . . ."  But it isn't her mother who arrives at their summer home in Wales. It is someone else, with a decided agenda, and this person's actions will set off a chain of reactions that have completely unintended - and ultimately unfortunate - consequences.

As the chain of events unfolds, the story shifts between Betsy and Alec, their three children, and Joy, a family friend acting as a mother's helper over the summer.  Sometimes we see events directly through their eyes, other times at second-hand, through news (or gossip).  One section consists of letters, in which we see reports of the Cannings' situation spreading through their friends and acquaintances, with stories shaded to favor one side or the other, and we watch people choose sides - and even switch allegiances.  As time passes, we also see the effects particularly on the children, who must make their own difficult choices.

For me this book lacked the warm heart of Lucy Carmichael, but I liked it very much.  I could understand each of the characters, why they spoke and acted as they did, and sympathize with most of them - in the end, even with the person whose self-righteous meddling was the catalyst.  It was painful watching them make choices that clearly would not lead to their happiness or good, but they acted and reacted in very human ways.  On the other hand, sometimes what seemed like a bad decision came right in the end, against my expectations.  Actually, much of the story took me by surprise, because I assumed too much from the back-cover description of a "love story."  (I'm still not sure whose love story that refers to.)  The opening also reminded me of the 1939 film The Women, a wonderful melodrama about a wife who forces a divorce from her husband over his affair, against the advice of her mother.  I think that set up some other expectations in my mind.  Instead, I found a very different story, of a family torn apart and re-made, of the different faces of love.  I wish there was a sequel, to see where these people are in ten years, but then those years from 1936 will bring even greater changes and challenges to them all.

The introduction also describes the book Margaret Kennedy wrote before this one, A Long Time Ago, as "a hilarious evocation of an Edwardian houseparty invaded by an amorous prima donna."  I've already put in an inter-library loan request for it!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Sharing knives and lives

The Sharing Knife, Passage (Vol. 3) and Horizon (Vol. 4), Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois Bujold may be best known for her multi-book Vorkosigan saga, but she has also written several alternate-universe fantasy novels.  There are the Chalion novels, two of which are set in a series of small kingdoms reminiscent of Spain in the 15th century, and the third in a version of the Holy Roman Empire.  These books have a very interesting theology, centered in an unusual Holy Family that includes the Mother's Bastard.  Interactions with the five gods drive the plots of these books, particularly the Bastard, a trickster with a wicked sense of humor.

The Sharing Knife series, on the other hand, is set in an AU North America.  In that world, the land erupts from time to time in malices, entities that suck the life-force from everything around them to create themselves and armies of creatures like them.  Humans who come in contact with the malices, also known as blights and bogles, end up etther as food or mind-controlled slaves.  For generations the Lakewalker people have dedicated themselves to fighting malices.  Lakewalkers can sense the life-force in everything, which they call ground, and this "ground-sense" enables them to detect malices.  They spend their time patrolling the land for emerging malices, who can only be killed with a special sharing knife.  Lakewalkers facing death can "share" that death through ritual means, binding it to the knife, their last contribution to the war on these evils.

This constant struggle is made more complicated by "farmers," non-Lakewalkers who are constantly pushing the boundaries of their settlements in search of new lands (the parallels between Native Americans and European settlers are obvious, malices aside).  Farmers don't have ground-sense, which makes them vulnerable to malices.  Those who have never experienced a malice directly, or seen the blight they leave behind, resent the Lakewalkers.  They also tell strange stories about Lakewalker sorcery, particularly the creation of the sharing knives, which are made of human bone.

(Spoilers for all the Sharing Knife books follow.)

In the first book of this series, we meet Fawn, a young woman running away from home, pregnant by a neighboring farmer who won't marry her and unwilling to face her family.  She is caught by a new malice's creatures (called mud-men), and rescued by Dag, an older Lakewalker.  In the course of this, she kills the malice with his sharing knife and miscarries her child.  She and Dag quickly fall into mutual lust and later into bed, despite the strong prohibitions against such liaisons in both farmer and Lakewalker societies.  Eventually they return to Fawn's home, where over the objections of her family they are married ("string-bound" in Lakewalker terms).  In the second book, they travel up to Dag's family encampment, where his relatives refuse to accept his farmer bride (and where we learn more about Lakewalker life).

I think Lois Bujold has created an interesting world with this series.  There is something of "Little House on the Prairie" about the farmer sections, and the parallels with Native Americans in the Lakewalker sections are intriguing.  The malices are fascinating villains, in a nauseating way, and Bujold manages to evoke sympathy for their creatures, particularly animals caught in their making spells.  But with all due respect to one of my favorite authors, the first two books really don't work for me, in large part because of the two main characters. I like them in and of themselves, but I find their romance tiresome and not particularly credible.  Fawn is eighteen, a small-town girl, very bright and adventurous, who makes friends easily.  Dag is a morose fifty-five, a veteran of many years fighting malices, who lost his first wife in battle.  Though we are told constantly that Lakewalkers don't look their age, we are also reminded constantly of the big gap in age between these two, and I find it a bit creepy (like Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon).  I certainly get why Dag is attracted to Fawn, but I can't quite figure out what she sees in him.  I have something of the same problem with the age gap between Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell in Laurie King's series, but those stories build up a relationship before the romance, and then build on their partnership, professional and romantic.  With this series, the couple fall into lust hardly knowing each other, and while Fawn is still recovering from her miscarriage.  In the later books, we're frequently told they are deeply in love with each other, and I have to take the author's word on that.

This was my second time reading the last two books in the series, Passage and Horizon, and I do enjoy them, because they are less focused on Dag and Fawn's relationship, more on exploring the world Bujold has created here.  In the third book, Passage, they have left Dag's camp because the Lakewalkers won't accept his marriage to Fawn.  Nor is his farmer marriage his only renegade idea.  He is coming to see that farmers can be allies in the fight against the malices, particularly as they push new settlements into malice-ridden territories, but they must be trained, and that means sharing Lakewalker knowledge with them.  And he is learning that he may have undiscovered talents as a healer, but he wants to use those talents on farmers as well as his own people. Lakewalkers use their ground-sense in healing, which can seem like more sorcery to farmers - reason enough for Lakewalkers to refuse to treat them.

Dag and Fawn decide to take a delayed wedding trip to the southern coast, in part because Fawn like Emma Woodhouse has never seen the sea.  Traveling with one of Fawn's brothers, they earn their passage on a flatboat heading down a series of rivers leading to the great Gray (standing in for the Mississippi), ending up in Greymouth (not quite colorful enough to be New Orleans).  On their journey, they collect around them an unlikely surrogate family - or perhaps a Lakewalker patrol - including the boat's young boss Berry, two equally young Lakewalkers in need of training, and Hod, a lost soul whom Dag heals in more than body,   They meet other boat crews, and a fearsome set of river bandits.  Through it all, Dag tries to bridge the gap between Lakewalker and farmer (or boater), translating each to the other and learning how to heal farmers.  The fourth book, Horizon, covers their return journey north, by horseback along a great trail called the Trace, traveling with much of the company from the previous book, as well as more farmers and Lakewalkers encountered along the way.

These two stories are fun adventures, with danger in the form of bandits and malices balanced with the excitement of seeing new places and encountering new people. Dag and Fawn create an extended family, drawn to their very different personalities, despite the uneasiness that farmers feel around Lakewalkers and vice versa.  This aren't my favorite among Lois Bujold's books, but I do enjoy these last two.  Anyone interested in the series, though, should probably start with the first two, just for the background on Lakewalkers, farmers and malices - and may well enjoy them more than I do.  Lots of other readers have.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Eight cousins and how they grew

Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, Louisa May Alcott

The box-set of Louisa May Alcott books that my mother gave me for my eighth birthday included Eight Cousins, so I feel like I grew up with Rose Campbell and her aunts, uncles, and especially those cousins.  I still have my worn-out copy with its broken spine, though years later I discovered it had been bowdlerized, like the set's edition of Little Women, so now I also own an unedited edition.  It was some time before I learned there was a sequel, Rose in Bloom, which I then checked out of the library on a regular basis.  It was even longer before I finally had my own copy.  (Oh, those pre-internet days, when I couldn't just click on a website and buy books from across the centuries and around the world.)  I usually read both these books together now, since as I have mentioned before, I love sequels and series.

Eight Cousins introduces us to thirteen-year-old Rose Campbell, recently orphaned after the death of her father.  She has been brought to live with her great-aunts while she awaits the arrival of her new guardian, her uncle Alec.  Living close on the "Aunt-Hill" are the families of four other Campbell brothers, who between them have produced seven sons, who rather overwhelm Rose at first.  Aunt Myra, a croaking old hypochondriac, produced the only other girl in the family, who died at a young age, possibly from her mother's constant doses of medicine.  Rose also finds a friend, later an adopted sister, in Phebe, a foundling who works as a maid for the great-aunts Plenty and Peace (who perfectly fit their names).

Rose in Bloom opens some five years after the first book.  Rose, Uncle Alec and Phebe are returning from three years in Europe.  Rose is about to turn twenty-one, when she will inherit a fortune from her late father.  As she settles back into the tight-knit web of family, she must decide what course her life will take, and what use she will make of her riches.  Phebe, trained as a singer in Europe, is determined to make her own way, especially after she falls in love with a young man whose family doesn't welcome a daughter-in-law out of the poor-house.  Meanwhile, the other cousins are also finding their own way into adulthood, careers, love and marriage.

I have read these books so often that they have really imprinted themselves on my literary DNA, so I am not the most objective reader.  I absolutely dote on Uncle Alec, one of the best foster-fathers in literary history.  Actually, I think he is something of a stand-in for Alcott herself, who raised one sister's daughter Lulu and adopted another's two sons.  As she wrote in Eight Cousins,
in this queer world of ours, fatherly and motherly hearts often beat warm and wise, in the breasts of bachelor uncles and maiden aunts; and it is my private opinion that these worthy creatures are a beautiful provision of nature for the cherishing of other people's children.  They certainly get great comfort out of it, and receive much innocent affection that otherwise would be lost.
She goes on to say, "Dr. Alec was one of these, and his big heart had room for every one of the eight cousins, especially orphaned Rose and afflicted Mac."  Mac is afflicted with eye problems threatening blindness, but also with a stern disciplinarian of a mother, Aunt Jane.  Uncle Alec's unconventional parenting is contrasted not just with Aunt Jane's, but also with Aunt Clara, who spoils her only son, the handsome but lazy Charlie.  Aunt Jessie, on the other hand, matches Uncle Alec in her warm heart and motherly wisdom, and the two often join forces not just with Rose but with the boys as well, and with Phebe.  They both want to raise strong, healthy, pure, and happy children.  They advocate rational dress especially for Rose.  In a very funny chapter, Aunt Clara tries to convert Rose over to the current fashions, while Dr. Alec stops just short of advocating Bloomerism.  His worst horror is reserved for the corsets Clara has smuggled in.  He wants Rose to romp and play, he forbids her to drink coffee or take Aunt Myra's tonics.  And his training continues even after she grows up.  In Rose in Bloom, he frets that she spends too much time in Society, and he all but censors her reading, warning her away from those dangerous yellow-backed French novels.  If he wasn't such a love, he might stray over into Aunt Jane territory.  These books are definitely on the moralizing end of the Alcott scale, with lessons in every chapter, usually coming from "Uncle Doctor."

They are unusual though in that Rose is Alcott's only wealthy heroine, at least in the young adult books.  The Campbells are one of the leading families in Boston society, descended from Scottish gentry (much play is made at one point of "our blessed ancestress Lady Margret" when one of the cousins wants to marry unsuitably).  Their riches come from generations of sea trading, which still employs three of the uncles (and in the end Archie, the eldest of the cousins).  Among Alcott's other heroines, Amy in Little Women marries money, but only after bravely facing poverty as a child.  Fanny in An Old-Fashioned Girl is rich, though she is not the heroine, and in the second half of the book her father loses the family fortune, and she has to learn from Polly how to be happy in poverty (as she wasn't in wealth).  Here Rose has to learn to manage her money, from the first book where Dr. Alec teaches her to balance accounts, to the second where she inherits her fortune.  She decides to make philanthropy her life's work, bravely facing not just society's ridicule but even the teasing of her own family.  One of her projects, two houses of rent-controlled apartments "for poor but respectable women" might have benefited Alcott's other heroines - both Jo and Polly live in boarding or rooming houses.  At the same time, Rose learns that her wealth, combined with her beauty, draws fortune-hunters and acquaintances hanging out for rich presents. She also has to face three aunts, hoping to win her for a daughter-in-law.  Today we tend to be squeamish about first cousins marrying, but it doesn't seem to worry Alcott or her characters here.

In contrast to Rose and her fortune, we have Phebe the foundling.  Her story is typical for an Alcott heroine.  She is hard-working, determined to get an education, grateful for favors, always cheerful, and gifted with music.  When her education and training as a singer are complete, she insists on making her own way, and trying to pay Uncle Alec and Rose back in some way for all they have given her.  She is too proud to accept her lover against his family's wishes, but of course in the end she proves her worth and is welcomed with open arms.

I also have to mention an even more unconventional match.  The Campbells' ships trade with China, and in the first book Rose visits the warehouses full of teas, porcelain, and other exotic merchandise.  There she meets Fun See, a young Chinese merchant who has come to the United States to learn English with the trade.  Alcott presents him in stereotypical terms, "from his junk-like shoes to the button on his pagoda hat . . . altogether a highly satisfactory Chinaman."  Rose keeps expecting him to present her with "a roasted rat, [or] a stewed puppy..."  However, in the second book, See falls in love with Rose's friend Annabel Bliss, and she with him.  Rose, still obsessed with the Chinese diet, points out that when they move to China, Annabel will have "to order rats, puppies, and bird'-nest soup for dinner."  Everyone accepts the match, which as a younger reader I simply took in stride. Now, however, knowing about the virulent anti-Chinese sentiment in America at the time Alcott was writing, I am struck by her audacity in having a young American woman, from a good Boston family, marry a member of a despised minority, a man of another race.  I do wonder how Alcott's readers, or their parents, reacted to this in 1876.  Perhaps the comical way she presents Fun See - and Annabel, who like her intended is short and plump - made the match palatable.  I don't think she could have gotten away with a young merchant from Africa.

There is so much more to say about these books - Cousin Mac's love for Emerson, Cousin Charlie's sad fate, Rose's lessons in housekeeping, the visits to "Cosey Corner" in Maine - but this post is long enough already.  They are just such fun, and I expect I will be reading them still when I am as old as Aunt Plenty.