Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Some favorite books and authors of 2014

I love this time of the blogging year, when the lists of "My favorite books of 2014" appear.  Even with blogs that I read regularly, I still find authors and titles to add to my TBR lists - just before the TBR Dare kicks in.  Usually I enjoy putting my own together, but I'm having trouble coming up with a list that satisfies me.  When I look back over the books I read this year, there were new-to-me authors, introduced via blog reviews or recommendations.  There were also authors I rediscovered on my own shelves, and other favorites whose books I am still exploring.

In the new-to-me category, Patricia Wentworth tops the list, with her detective stories featuring Miss Maud Silver.  I am not the only one asking how I missed her books all this time, particularly as I'm a fan of Golden Age mysteries.  I read five of her books this year, starting with The Clock Strikes Twelve, which was a perfect introduction.  However, my favorite was The Watersplash (featuring a quite reasonable cat lady and a fascinating old library to be catalogued).  If I had any talent for fan fiction, I'd write a story where Miss Silver and Dorothy L. Sayers' Miss Kitty Climpson join forces to solve crime.

Two years ago, tracking down a copy of E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross's The Irish R.M., I realized for the first time that they wrote many other books together.  I read two of their entertaining travel accounts and enjoyed them.  But it was finally reading Somerville's memoir Irish Memories this year, as well as a selection of their letters, that really sparked my interest in their other, more serious novels.  I have their first books written together, An Irish Cousin and The Real Charlotte, on the TBR stacks.

Finding a copy of Emily Kimbrough's Water, Water Everywhere at Half Price Books was something of a turning point in my reading year.  I had read another of her travel accounts, which didn't inspire me to read more.  But this one, about a trip to Greece, was so good that it made me think I had been too quick to set her aside.  Her memoir about finding a career in the 1920s, Through Charley's Door, was also a highlight. There will be more of Emily Kimbrough's travel books to come.

Last year I rediscovered Mary Stewart's books, and this year I read two that are now my favorites of her mysteries, The Ivy Tree and My Brother Michael.  Thanks to the Mary Stewart Reading Week hosted by Anbolyn, I have added a few more to the TBR shelves, including another set in Greece, The Moonspinners.

One of my best reading discoveries in 2013 was Margaret Kennedy.  The first of her books that I read, Lucy Carmichael, is still far and away my favorite, but I have enjoyed exploring her other books.  This year I read two very good ones, A Long Time Ago and The Wild Swan.  I owe my introduction to her books to Jane (Fleur), whose Margaret Kennedy Reading Week added even more titles to my TBR list.

I began my reading year with Jane Austen's Emma, and what could be better?  Our Houston JASNA chapter met to discuss Sanditon this fall, and I gained a new appreciation of Austen's last, unfinished story.  I know I'm not the only Janeite to have many more books about Austen than books by Austen on my shelves.  This year I particularly enjoyed Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends, by Constance Hill and Ellen G. Hill, an account of an Austen pilgrimage they took in 1901.

Over the past four years, the United States has been observing the sesquicentennial of our Civil War, which will end in 2015.  At one point I had the crazy idea that I could clear all the Civil War-related books off the TBR shelves by 2015.  That might have worked, if I had just stopped adding new ones.  This year I only managed to read two, Sarah Emma Edmonds's Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy (at least partly fictionalized), and Joshua Zeitz's study of Abraham Lincoln and his secretaries, Lincoln's Boys.  Marking the centennial of the Great War, I also read a fascinating compact history of it, Michael Howard's The First World War

Tomorrow begins the TBR Double Dog Dare, hosted by James of James Reads Books.  For the next three months, I plan to read only from my own TBR shelves (with a few exceptions like book club selections).  Even beyond the Dare, I would like to reduce the ridiculous number of unread books that I have accumulated.  I have made that resolution so many times that I feel a bit like the boy who cried wolf in saying it yet again.  But I am making it one of my reading goals for 2015.  If I stick with that, I will be checking the library catalogue for the enticing books that appear daily on my favorite blogs.  My other reading goal for the new year is to continue to read more diversely, in both fact and fiction, with at least twelve books by authors of color - one a month, or about 10% of my usual reading.

It has been such a good year of reading.  Thank you to everyone who has read along.  The conversation here and on your blogs has enriched my reading life so much, as well as adding books to the TBR stacks.  I wish you a very happy New Year, one that brings all good things, especially books to read and share.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Love and murder at the Priory

The Chinese Shawl, Patricia Wentworth

I waited out my turn in the library queue for a much-hyped new mystery, set at an English seaside hotel in the 1930s.  I lost interest in it about half-way through, though I did flip to the end to find out who the murderer was.  It left me in the mood for a real Golden Age detective story, so I turned to the Miss Silver section of the TBR shelves.  The Chinese Shawl, published in 1943, is one of the first that I found when I began looking for her books, earlier this year.

The story is set in motion when Laura Fane comes up to London just before her 21st birthday. There she meets some distant cousins for the first time, including Tanis Lyle, a femme fatale well-known for appropriating other women's fiancés and even husbands.  An orphan like Laura, she was raised by an older cousin, Agnes Fane, who lives on the family's country estate, the Priory.  Another umarried cousin, Lucy Adams, lives there as well. Laura's father was once engaged to Agnes, and when he jilted her for Laura's mother, it created a breach in the family.  Laura technically owns the Priory, which Agnes rents from her, but she has never seen it.  Now that she is coming of age, Agnes wants to buy it from her.  As part of her campaign, she invites Laura down to the Priory.  Tanis will be there with a party that includes her latest victim Alastair, his almost-fiancée Petra, and a young man who has just gotten over Tanis, Carey Desborough.  Agnes is convinced that Carey and Tanis are about to announce their engagement, when in fact he and Laura have fallen in love at first sight.  Fortunately for everyone in this tense situation, an old school-friend of Cousin Lucy's is also staying at the Priory: Miss Maud Silver.

In the Miss Silver books that I have read so far, it has been pretty easy to spot the future victim(s).  I have also noticed that sardonic young men, particularly if they are in love, are never the murderers, no matter how good a motive they may seem to have.  The household staff are usually in the clear as well.  But that can still leave a wide field of suspects, and here again I had no idea until the end who done it.  I will say that there is a passage in this book that gave me the cold shivers, and made me wish I wasn't reading it late at night.  While enjoyable as mysteries, none of her other stories has built to that level of suspense.  To balance that, this was  easily the most romantic of her books that I have read, with Laura and Carey's rather sweet courtship, carried out under difficult circumstances.  There are other couples as well, who must deal with the damage that Tanis has done to their relationships.

This was a tricky little story, and I enjoyed it very much.  I am glad to have a few more Miss Silver stories on the TBR shelves, to carry me through the Double Dog Dare.

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Christmas story set in Australia

Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, Anthony Trollope

I have been saving this short novel, subtitled "A Tale of Australian Bush Life," for Christmas, since it opens "Just a fortnight before Christmas, 1871. . ."  I learned from the Oxford Reader's Companion to Trollope that it was first serialized in the Melbourne Age starting in November of 1873, and then published "as the Christmas number of the Graphic" in London that December.  As I've noted before, Trollope had a bit of a "Bah humbug" attitude toward Christmas, and he wasn't enthusiastic about writing the Christmas stories that were so popular with magazine and journal editors at the time.

This story is based on a lengthy visit that Trollope and his wife Rose made to Australia and New Zealand in 1871-1872.  They stayed several times with their younger son Frederic on his sheep station in New South Wales.  Trollope drew directly on his son's experiences in this book, though he moved the action north to Queensland, to provide some cover.  Like the younger Trollope, Harry Heathcote was determined to emigrate to Australia and become a sheep-farmer.  Unlike Frederic, whose parents financed his venture, Harry was left an orphan with a substantial inheritance and his independence.

As the story opens, Harry has used his money to establish Gangoil, a station of 120,000 acres with 30,000 sheep.  He doesn't own the land but rents it from the government, which makes him a "squatter."  A recent new arrival, Giles Medlicot, has purchased some of the land of Gangoil, to set up a sugar cane plantation and mill. Those like Medlicot who buy their land were called "free selectors."  According to the Companion, in this story Trollope took on "the most vexed political issue in the Australian and New Zealand colonies at the time," the conflict between squatters and free selectors.  Frederic Trollope was a squatter, but again according to the Companion, his father supported the free selectors.  It reminded me of the clashes in the western United States between sheep and cattle ranchers, which led sometimes to violent attacks and ambushes by the cattlemen, who hated sheep and shepherds.

Harry resents Giles Medlicot and blames him for the loss of his land.  His wife Mary, whose unmarried sister Kate lives with them, sees Medlicot in a different light.  Harry faces a much bigger threat in the summer heat, when a carelessly-lit match can set off a fire that will sweep through Gangoil and ruin him.  A former station hand, now working at the mill, has a grudge against him; so does a family of ne'er-do-well squatters in the neighborhood who poach his sheep.  Harry suspects them of plotting arson.  Even with three loyal hands, he will need help protecting Gangoil's vast acres.

This is a fast-moving, exciting story.  It's not at all what I think of as a typical "Christmas" story, though it does end with a Christmas feast, complete with plum-pudding.  I don't know if it's an accurate portrait of life on a sheep station at the time.  I remember that one of Ada Cambridge's characters in The Three Miss Kings complained about "Trollope and those fellows," who "come here as utter strangers, and think they can learn all about us in two or three weeks."  Trollope also wrote a book about his travels, Australia and New Zealand (published in 1873).  I've never come across a copy, but I think it would be very interesting reading.

N.B. This was serialized in 1873-1874 and published in book form in 1874.  I am using that date for my Mid-Century of Books.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bookish expectations

The Innocents from Indiana, Emily Kimbrough
...It Gives Me Great Pleasure, Emily Kimbrough
Bottoms Up!, Cornelia Otis Skinner

I'm working on a theory about book expectations: often it seems that the higher my expectations, the more disappointing the actual book.  But on the other hand, I am frequently surprised and delighted by books of which I know nothing going in, or those I think will just be a pleasant diversion.  I'm considering calling it "The Law of Inverse Bookish Expectations."  I've had this theory confirmed lately with books by Emily Kimbrough and Cornelia Otis Skinner.

My recent Emily Kimbrough read-athon was sparked by Water, Water Everywhere, an account of a trip she took to Greece in 1955, which I bought with extremely low expectations.  Instead, it became one of my favorite books of the year.  The one I read next, Through Charley's Door, was very different but just as compelling.  The emotional heart of both books for me was Emily Kimbrough's mother, who taught her daughter the Greek alphabet and raised her on the Greek myths, then later pushed her toward work and a career in the 1920s.  I had previously read EK's first memoir of her childhood in Muncie, Indiana, How Dear to My Heart. After reading these other two books, I was most anxious to get my hands on her second memoir of childhood, The Innocents from Indiana.  I knew that it was an account of the family's move to Chicago, one of my favorite cities.  I was looking forward to a tour of the city in the 1910s, and I was hoping for more about EK's mother.  On both counts, I found the book a disappointment.  The first half focuses on her younger brother (known to everyone as "Brother"), and his boyish escapades.  It's mildly amusing family comedy, along the lines of "Leave It to Beaver."  In the second half of the book, EK is enrolled in an exclusive girls' school, where she is mocked and bullied as a hayseed country girl.  The most interesting part of this book for me was the family's acquisition of a series of electric automobiles, which EK learned to drive at a young age.  I had never heard of models like the Ohio and the Waverly.  Nor did I know that in these cars, the driver sat in the back seat, with the passengers in the front - sometimes facing back toward the driver, but always I would imagine obstructing the view.

I did not have high expectations when I picked up ....It Gives Me Great Pleasure, a series of short pieces about her experiences on the American lecture circuit in the 1940s.  In part, that was because I've been less than impressed with similar books that her friend and co-author Cornelia Otis Skinner wrote, around the same time.  The book they wrote together, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, I first read thirty years ago or more, and it still delights me today.  It was reading COS's memoir Family Circle that sent me off in search of her other books.  In part I was hoping for more stories about her parents, particularly her father Otis Skinner, one of the most famous actors of his generation.  Instead, they're mostly observational pieces about American society, with some accounts of her tours as an actress and monologist, with some domestic pieces about her husband and young son - in the Jean Kerr vein, but with less children.  The only one that stands out at all in my memory is "In Quest of Tea," a rant about the poor quality of tea served in restaurants and hotels in the United States, which is sadly just as true today as it was in 1941. (It appears in Soap Behind the Ears.)

Once again, my expectations were confounded with ...It Gives Me Great Pleasure.  For many years, Emily Kimbrough spent several weeks each winter on a lecture circuit, crisscrossing the United States by train, speaking to women's clubs and organizations.  Her most requested talk was on her experiences in Hollywood, where she and Cornelia Otis Skinner worked on a screenplay for the film of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (which EK wrote about in We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood).  These essays, written between 1945 and 1948, recount her experiences (and frequent mishaps) in traveling and in public speaking, as well as sketches of the people she met along the way.  It's hard to picture now this web of women's groups, welcoming all sorts of speakers at their monthly teas and luncheons.  I suppose the closest equivalent today would be book clubs, though I think only those hosted by bookstores bring in speakers.

I enjoyed this book very much.  It's a quiet book, with some funny moments, but also some very touching ones.  EK seems to have been genuinely interested in the people she met, often in waiting rooms between trains (the subject of one chapter, "A Railway Station, Every Time").  I heard about another chapter, "The Evening Train," on an NPR podcast (you can listen to it here).  EK was due to speak in a small Pennsylvania town called Shamokin.  Her hostess rather rushed her through the program, to be sure she would finish on time.  Afterwards, she explained,
"I'll tell you now why we were so anxious about getting started on time.  I didn't want to say anything about it earlier for fear it might upset you.  We had to be sure you'd get through before the evening train comes in because they're bringing back on it to-night the bodies of the boys from overseas.  All the church bells in town are going to ring when the train comes in, and everybody has been asked to stand in silent prayer for three minutes."
EK joined the women outside, standing with them in silence, waiting for the bells to ring.  It's marvelously done, heart-felt but not mawkish.  It seemed a bit like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.  And after reading this, I felt like I understood a little more of America in the 1940s.

After finishing it, I decided it was time to read the one last book of Cornelia Otis Skinner's on the TBR stacks, Bottoms Up!  And of course, the first chapter is about a theatrical piece that she performed with her father.  I don't know if I was just in a more mellow mood, but I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would.  Like Emily Kimbrough's, it is partly about life on the road, in her case as an actress.  There are several chapters about living in Paris, including one on the "ugly American" abroad, and another about researching at the Bibliothèque Nationale (I kept wondering if she ever ran into Nancy Mitford there).  Others concern life in the United States, specifically in New York City and on Long Island.  The last really took me by surprise: an address that she gave to the American Gynecological Society at their annual convention in June of 1953.  It's a humorous hymn of praise to gynecologists, whose care she often needed, apparently.  It just reads really oddly to me, and the frequent reference to stirrups made me squirm a bit.  So did the illustration to the chapter, which shows a female patient (resembling COS) in a hat and garters (and nothing else) facing an older male doctor sitting at his desk.

Cornelia Otis Skinner wrote a biography of Sarah Bernhardt, as well as a book about Paris in the Belle Époque.  If I come across those books, I will probably read them, but I haven't been in a rush to find copies.  Emily Kimbrough's books seem more to my taste, because she writes about interesting people and places, though to my mind none of their books will ever measure up to Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  I wonder if they ever felt that themselves.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Discovering secrets in the silence

The Grace of Silence, Michele Norris

When I saw Aarti's review of this over on Book Lust, I immediately added it to my library queue.  Michele Norris is a journalist, for many years the host of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" show, to which I very occasionally listen while stuck in traffic. (I don't usually have the radio on while driving - I find silence more calming in Houston traffic.)  Her memoir, published in 2010, grew out of a project for NPR. As she explains in the Introduction,
I began this project in 2009 because I became convinced that an unprecedented, hidden, and robust conversation about race was taking place across the country in the wake of Barack Obama's historic presidential campaign and his ascension to office. Americans seemed to be spending more time talking about race, but even so I had the feeling that something was always left unsaid. Filters would automatically engage, preventing us from saying things that might cause us embarrassment or get us into trouble or, even worse, reveal us for who we really are.  We weren't so much talking about race as talking around it.
Reading this four years later, in the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, I want to believe that there is a "robust conversation about race" going on right now.  But the comments I read on news and opinion pieces make me think there are too many people trying to drown out this desperately-needed talk, saying there is no problem, stop talking about these things and they will go away.  Which, not coincidentally, is what a lot of northerners thought about slavery before the Civil War.  All they wanted was for the abolitionists to shut up and go away. "Not our problem," they said.  We know how that worked out.

Michele Norris learned in the course of her project that "The discussion about race within my own family was not completely honest."
I was shaped by the advice and admonitions that rained down on me.  I've always known that.  What I did not know until I began this project is that I was also shaped by the weight of my parents' silence. I originally wanted to write about how "other people" talked about race, but that presumption was swiftly disabused when I learned about secrets in my own family that had purposely been kept from me.
The first, and more devastating for her, is that "as a young man, my father had been shot by a white policeman" (in one of his legs). She learned of this more than twenty years after her father's death, when her uncle mentioned it casually in conversation.  It happened in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, just after her father, Belvin Norris, was discharged from the Navy in 1946.  Her uncle, her father's youngest brother, is an elderly man, and unclear on all the details.  Her mother had heard this only second-hand, in passing.  Ms. Norris began to investigate the circumstances, traveling to Birmingham to pore over arrest reports, trying to piece the story together.  In the process, she learned more about her father's service in the segregated Navy, where African Americans were relegated to menial jobs as cooks and stewards.  And she learned for the first time of the wave of violent attacks on African American veterans returning home.  I don't remember ever learning about this myself, and the violence of the attacks horrified me. I knew that President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, but I did not know that he was particularly moved to action by the brutal beating of Issac Woodward in February of 1946.  The day after he was discharged from the Army, and still in uniform, Woodward got into an altercation with the driver of the Greyhound bus he was riding home to his family.  When the bus stopped in a small South Carolina town, two policemen dragged him off and beat him so badly that he was left blind.  The attack on Ms. Norris's father may have been part of this larger attempt to intimidate and control African American veterans, protesting Jim Crow discrimination in the United States after fighting for freedom abroad.

The second secret Ms. Norris learned, from another uncle, was about her maternal grandmother, Ione Hopson Brown:
Grandma Ione had worked for Quaker Oats as a traveling Aunt Jemima. For years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she dressed up in a hoop skirt and apron, with a bandanna on her head, and traveled to small midwestern towns touting Aunt Jemima pancake mix to farmwives.
Her daughter Betty Brown Norris did not want to talk about her mother's work with her own daughter. "She hated the story as much as she hated my badgering her for details."  Talking about it helped her work through "the shame she felt about Grandma Ione's work . . ."  Michele Norris feels no shame, but she couldn't picture her stylish, polished grandmother in that role.  Betty Norris also told her daughter,  "If you write about this, you better get it right and make sure people know not just what that symbol means right now but what it used to mean when they first rolled out all that mammy mess."  Ms. Norris does just that, exploring the development of the "Aunt Jemima" character and the various ad campaigns over the years, as well as the role of the "Mammy" figure in American culture, in both the black and white experience.  I have read something of this, the quandary Quaker Oats faces with a best-selling brand based on a racist portrayal of a woman slave.  Presumably the makers of Mrs. Butterworth face the same issue, though the brand is I think less iconic.  A quick Google search shows that her bottle-shaped figure has evolved like the image of Aunt Jemima has.

Framing her investigation of these two secrets, Ms. Norris recounts her experiences growing up in Minneapolis.  She spent summers in Alabama with her father's family, where she experienced Jim Crow segregation first-hand.  But she and her family also faced racism in Minnesota and in other parts of the United States.  When her parents bought a house on an all-white block, panicked neighbors rushed to sell.  Others, further down the block, stayed put, and slowly the neighborhood became integrated.  Her parents held Ms. Norris and her older sisters to very high standards, as representing the African American community.  They were told,
"Keep your eye on the prize." Stay strong. Keep committed. Focus on the fight for justice and equality . . . Don't let up. Don't look back. Don't slow down. Ignore the slights and the slurs - and the laws - that try to keep you from achieving your goals.
In the end, she suggests, that's what lay behind her grandparents' and parents' silence: "So as not to allow us to be hindered by acrimony and rancor in our struggle to rise above 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' and achieve self-fulfillment no matter what."  Ms. Norris has a different take:
Our continuing national conversation on race will no doubt proceed by fits and starts and occasional spats and squabbles.  But all of us should be willing to remain at the table even when things get uncomfortable.  We need to be fearless while unburdening ourselves, even as we respect the same effort in others. There is often grace in silence. But there is always power in understanding.
I agree. But it has to be a conversation.  What I hear and read from a lot of white Americans right now is monologue, or else the equivalent of a child sticking fingers in her ears and closing her eyes.  (I am going to stop reading the comments sections, I really am, before I lose all hope.)  I'm also going to suggest this book to all three of my book groups, and see what kind of conversation develops.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Filming the Scottish play in Flanders

A Citizen of the Country, Sarah Smith

This is the third in Sarah Smith's trilogy of historical novels.  They aren't mysteries, at least of the "who done it" variety, but more novels of suspense.  The main character is Alexander von Reisden, whom I identified as a German baron in my post on the second book (The Knowledge of Water).  Mea culpa, he is Austrian - not that it makes a lot of difference, in Paris in 1911.

Like the previous books, this is a complex story, and it is definitely not the place to start with the series.  At the center of the story is a film production of a French version of Macbeth, here called Citizen Mabet.  Set during the French revolution, it culminates in the death by guillotine of Mabet and his wife.  The production, filming in Arras, stars a hero of the Franco-Prussian War, Maurice Cyron.  Retired from the army, he now stages patriotic theatrical spectacles in Paris, where every night with an evangelist's fervor he reminds his audiences of the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, ceded to Germany after France's humiliating defeat in that war.  The film's director is his adopted son André, the Comte de Montfort, whose crumbling chalk castle in Arras is the production's headquarters.  André also runs a theater in Paris, of a very different kind: the Necro, where Grand Guignol stories of bloody murder and madness play out nightly.  In an afterword, Ms. Smith acknowledged that he shares more than a name with Count André de Lorde, a co-founder of the Grand Guignol.   I wouldn't want to attend one of those performances, but I found the film production fascinating.  The author has clearly done her research in early motion pictures.

There are other stories woven around the film, in Paris and in Arras, which often interrupt the production.  Count André, recently married to Sabine, a local heiress, thinks his wife is poisoning him.  He is rather obsessed with poisoning, and gradually we learn why.  He has cast Sabine as one of the Three Witches, without realizing that she is a prominent member of the local coven.  Another member of the coven is found dead in her home, poisoned, and more deaths follow.  Meanwhile Reisden, whose company Jouvet Medical Analyses is financially stretched to the limits, is in the running for a lucrative contract to provide psychological testing on the French army's new conscripts.  Cyron is deeply suspicious of this Austrian, doubts he shares with his old allies in the army, but he enlists Reisden for a part in the film, and to keep an eye on André.  There are other, more personal elements to Reisden's story here, building on the previous two books - and that's all I will say, to avoid spoilers.

All of this takes place during the Agadir Crisis of 1911, which for a while looked like it might bring war between France and Germany.  (It was also my introduction to the Agadir Crisis.)  That, and the setting in French Flanders, with Vimy ridge looming in the distance, of course invoke the war that would follow just three years later.  Everyone in the story expects a war, and a German invasion.  The shadow of death seems to hang over the young soldiers recruited as extras, playing the troops in Mabet's army.

I have never given up hope that Sarah Smith will write another book in this series, perhaps set in Paris during the war.  In the meantime, I learned that she has written a young-adult novel, The Other Side of Dark, which I got from the library yesterday.  There is also her very different book Chasing Shakespeares, which I read when it came out in 2003.  It was the first thing I'd ever read that dealt seriously with the debates over his authorship of the plays; I remember I found the arguments compelling at the time.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A classic account of Galveston in the 1900 Storm

A Weekend in September, John Edward Weems

When a co-worker recently asked me to start a book club at work, I told her that I didn't think there would be much interest.  To my surprise, twelve people signed up, and we have our first discussion on Thursday.  I said at the initial meeting that I don't want to be the only one suggesting or choosing books, since my reading tastes are pretty eclectic.  As a case in point, I was then reading Nayantara Sahgal's memoir Prison and Chocolate Cake, and despite my enthusiastic recap, no one seemed interested in that one.  (Just as well, since it's out of print.)  After some discussion, someone mentioned this book, a classic of Texas history, and the group quickly agreed.  I've heard enough comments over the past couple of weeks to know that people are reading it, so I am hoping for good discussion.

A Weekend in September is an account of the great 1900 Storm.  The hurricane that hit Galveston on September 8th is still considered the worst natural disaster in United States history.  It left at least 6,000 dead on Galveston Island alone, and the city, then the fourth largest in the state, in ruins.  When I moved to Houston twenty-two years ago, I knew about hurricanes, but I thought they only happened in the tropics.  I had no idea Texas was ever at risk.  This book shattered that comfortable illusion, and I began keeping an eye on the Gulf of Mexico, fifty miles away, and paying close attention to the weather reports in the warm months.  We were spared for many years, until Hurricane Ike hit in September of 2008 - one of the longest nights of my life.

To tell the story of the 1900 Storm, John Edward Weems wove together the experiences of people in different parts of the city.  He drew on interviews with survivors as well as published sources.  When he was researching this book in the mid-1950s, there were still many survivors around, some of whom had been children at the time. (Even in the early 1990s, obituaries in the paper occasionally mentioned that the deceased had survived the 1900 Storm.)  The hurricane hit the city on a Saturday.  Taking his account chronologically through the weekend, Mr. Weems switched back and forth between several central characters, such as the police chief, as well as introducing others at particular points.  This approach reminds me of another classic disaster narrative, Walter Lord's A Night to Remember, which made me a Titanic buff in my teens.  As in his book, there is a large cast of characters here, and it can be a bit confusing trying to keep everyone straight.  It is also predominately a white cast, reflecting in part the times in which it was written.  Mr. Weems presumably could have found African Americans or Hispanics in Galveston who survived the storm.  However, both in 1900 and in 1957 they were much less likely to be represented in the historical documentation than today.

Despite occasional moments of lightness, such as a horse that took refuge in a family's second-story bedroom and refused to budge, this is a sombre story, of death and destruction. There are also instances of great courage and concern for others, and of tenderness as families faced the end.  The focus on individual experiences always draws me right in, while it breaks my heart.  Many of the individuals we meet were later lost in the storm; those that survived were often the only members of their families left. When the storm finally passed, the city was buried in slime and wreckage, with bodies lying everywhere.  In the last chapter, Mr. Weems recounted how Galveston began to re-build, an incredible effort that included not just the construction of a protective seawall, but also raising the grade of the entire island by more than five feet.  Though Galveston would be hit by several major storms later in the 20th century, none were as destructive as in 1900.  People continue to live there, and to build, though it will always be vulnerable to storms.  When I first thought about moving to Texas, I wanted to live in Galveston, near the beach.  Now I am content to live those fifty miles inland, though that made little difference in Ike.

I've promised to bring some lighter suggestions for next month's book.  People want something happier to read over Christmas.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Love & music & madness & painting in Paris

The Knowledge of Water, Sarah Smith

This is the middle book of a trilogy of historical novels, more stories of suspense than mysteries, set in the first decades of the 20th century.  The central character is Alexander von Reisden, a German baron who works as a researcher in chemistry.  I learned about these books from Laurie R. King.  At a book signing in Houston, she was asked what books she read, and Sarah Smith was the first author she named.  Fortunately, the signing was at my beloved Murder by the Book, and they had the first of the set, The Vanished Child.  By the next day, I had found copies of the other two, and I devoured them.

In that first book, set in 1906, Reisden encounters an American man on a railway platform in Lausanne, who asks him, "Richard, do you know me?"  When Reisden says no, the other man says, "Then Jay really killed him," and collapses.  Curious despite himself, Reisden begins to ask questions.  He learns that the Richard in question was eight years old when he disappeared in 1887, the same night his grandfather and guardian William Knight was shot at the family's summer home in New Hampshire.  When an academic conference takes him to Boston, Reisden meets members of the Knight family and is drawn into the mystery of Richard's disappearance.

This book opens three years later. Reisden is now living and working in Paris.  A young woman he met in Boston, Perdita Halley, has joined him there, officially to study piano at the Conservatiore, where women students are barely tolerated.  Perdita, who is legally blind, hopes to make a career as a professional musician, but her relationship with Reisden is a constant distraction.  He has his own distractions, including the recent acquisition of a business, a medical facility that treats mental illnesses, the Analyses Medicales Jouvet.  Its main attraction for Reisden is its archives, generations of patient files, "the best multi-generational data on insanity in France."  His position as director of Jouvet may explain why he receives a letter one day, asking him to ensure the proper burial of a street performer and sometime prostitute, known as the Mona Lisa, who was recently stabbed to death by an unknown assailant.

The Mona Lisa, both the victim and Leonardo's masterpiece in the Louvre, is one theme running through this rich and complicated story.  There is also the upcoming Winter Salon, which will include a retrospective on the Impressionist painter Claude Mallais, who died three years ago.  His widow has been selling off a few of his remaining works, but suddenly questions have come up about some of these paintings.  Reisden's cousin Dottie, the Viscountess de Gresnière, owns one of those later works, and she wants him to investigate, to prove it genuine. Even more than that, she wants him to stop seeing Perdita and marry someone suitable, not an American woman of no family ten years his junior, who wants to go on tour.  Perdita herself is torn, trying to understand why women aren't taken seriously as artists, why they can't have both careers and families, not to mention love.  At one point, she asks herself,
What was wrong with the world, that a woman who saw pictures could not paint them?  There were the clothes to fold, the children to take care of; the men who expected the women to fold clothes and take care; the daughters who did not have music, the sons who did; the necessity of everything that women did, and its second-classness; but why could there not be more, for someone, who could there not be more?
In the course of the story, Perdita meets women whose unconventional lives underline her questions.  One is a thinly-veiled portrait of Colette, here called Millie de Xico; the other is I think Gertrude Stein.  Pablo Picasso is also here, under another name, and those more familiar with Belle Époque Paris may recognize other characters.

I won't say anything more about the book, to avoid spoilers, except to mention that the climax takes place during the great Paris floods of January 1910.  It has been a few years since I've re-read these books, in part because I read them so obsessively in the beginning.  In that, and in the relationship between Perdita and Reisden, with its Lymond and Philippa overtones, they remind me of Dorothy Dunnett's books.  I needed to read something for a book club meeting, or else I'd have gone straight on to the third, A Citizen of the Country.  It's up next.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A fascinating collection of letters

The Selected Letters of Somerville and Ross, Gifford Lewis, ed.

I wanted to read these letters while E.O. Somerville's combined memoir and biography Irish Memories was fresh in my mind, and they fit together beautifully.  Somerville's book gave me a basic outline of her life and Martin Ross's, as well as their work together.  She quoted often from Martin's letters, and I recognized them when I came across them here.  I found it interesting and more satisfying to read the letters themselves, rather than excerpts.  And where Somerville was looking backward over their lives, here the letters stand on their own, day to day accounts of experiences as they happened. They have an immediacy and an energy different from a memoir, particularly an elegiac one such as Somerville wrote.

I thought the editing of this selection of letters was very well done.  According to the Introduction, their letters, like Jane Austen's, had already been edited, physically, either by the authors themselves or by family members.  Pages were removed, presumably because they included private or embarrassing information.  For some letters, only fragments survive.  Often those fragments include notes in Somerville's hand, which show how she used them in her book.  That suggests to me that Somerville herself may have done the physical cutting in some cases.  The editor, Gifford Lewis, provides context and commentary for most of the letters, and I found the information very helpful.  I have been unable to find much about the editor, however.  I did learn that she is the author of a biography of Martin Ross (née Violet Martin), as well as two other books about the writing team of Somerville and Ross. I hope to get my hands soon on Two of a Trade: The Selected Writings of Somerville and Ross, probably through interlibrary loan.  I ordered a copy of Somerville and Ross: The World of the Irish R.M. as a Christmas present for myself (the only Christmas shopping I've done so far involves books for me).

The bulk of the letters included here date between 1886, when the cousins first met, and 1895.  Living in different corners of Ireland, they spent little time together in the early years, because they couldn't afford to travel, and because as unmarried daughters they had duties at home.  So they kept in constant contact by letter.  These were the years when they began writing together, first An Irish Cousin (known in their families as "The Shocker," which just tickles me).  In 1894, they published The Real Charlotte, which Gifford Lewis considers "the best Irish novel of the nineteenth century . . ."  In between they wrote articles for newspapers and journals, as well as three travel books.  But like Jane Austen, they had to squeeze their writing in between family duties, and the social obligations that fell on them as members of close-knit communities, all of which were discussed in their letters.  For both Somerville and Ross there was also the constant distraction of fox hunting, the love of which runs through the letters as it does through The Irish R.M. stories.  But despite the distractions they considered themselves professional writers, they honed their skills and critiqued each others' work, and they expected to be paid well for it.

Reading this also reminded me of the Mitford sisters' letters, which I read in the edition edited by Charlotte Mosley.  Like theirs and Jane Austen's too, Somerville and Ross's are filled with family and local gossip, and with shared in-jokes.  Both were descended from Charles Kendal and Anne Bushe, a point of great genealogical pride among all their descendants.  One of the cousins used the term "Buddha-like" to define them, which was adopted and shortened to "Buddh."  As did the Mitfords, the Buddhs developed their own coded language, derived from English and Irish words.  Apparently the first collaboration of Somerville and Ross was in compiling a "Buddh dictionary," which is included in this book.  It's very helpful, since they both used Buddh terms in their letters, and I flipped back to it constantly.  I was especially taken with "Minaudering," defined as "pres. p. of verb used to describe the transparent devices of hussies."  Presumably a hussy would not waste time minaudering a Segashuative, "A man who gives discreet and peaceful good company to women."  I also admire the elegance of "I must decant," used "to explain that one had to leave the scene in order to empty one's bladder" (editor's note).

I did note in reading these letters that most are from Martin to Somerville.  The Introduction explains that more of her letters survived than did Somerville's (139 to 97).  I wondered if writing a book on Violet Martin might also have influenced the editor in her choice of which letters to include. On the other hand, we have Somerville's account of their lives in her book.  Here Martin's letters provide a balance in giving us her point of view, and allowing her voice to be heard.  Together these books give us a fascinating window into Ireland in the late 1800s, through the lives of two women who played their expected roles as Victorian daughters, but by their writing managed to gain a level of independence and autonomy, and became best-selling authors as well.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Signing on for another round of the TBR Dare

I am thankful that James of James Reads Books is hosting another round of his annual TBR dare.  This year, it's the Double Dog Dare!  You may already know the dare: to read only from your TBR shelves from January 1st to April 1st of 2015.  Any books on hold at the library by Dec. 31st of this year are also eligible.  This will be my fourth year of participating, and it's not easy.  But I do feel a sense of accomplishment (and a bit of relief) in crossing books off the TBR list, while trying not to add too many new ones.  This year again I'll donate a dollar for every book (finished or not) to RIF (Reading Is Fundamental), a children's literacy non-profit.  As the (pretty flexible) rules allow, I am claiming exemptions for book club books, and also for the new book by Laurie R. King, a Sherlock Holmes & Mary Russell story to be released in February.  I am also mulling over allowing myself one comfort re-read each month if needed - because I'd still be reading from my own shelves.

I have an idea in the back of my mind that I might carry this on past April.  We'll see - that's easy to say now.  But for the last couple of years, I've had these little notes posted on my computers: "TBR Free in 2015."   They're on my computers because that's where I often learn about new (or new-to-me) books and authors, from blogs and email discussion lists.  And that's also where I all too easily click over to book-buying websites.  Realistically, there is no way I will make that goal now.  And there will be new books that I want to read, and some to add to my shelves.  I don't think I'll ever not have a TBR stack - but it would be nice to have a stack and not shelves of them.  Sometimes I feel like a book hoarder, sometimes I feel guilt over all these unread books, sometimes I'm almost paralyzed by so many choices of what to read next. So I have my eye on 2016 instead.  Maybe.  We'll see how the Dare goes first.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My introduction to Maria Edgeworth

The Absentee, Maria Edgeworth

A copy of Maria Edgeworth's 1801 novel Belinda has been sitting on my TBR stacks for years.  Only recently did I realize that I have had her confused with Frances Burney, who wrote several novels with single-word titles (including Evelina, which I've read).  I still haven't read Belinda, but when I came across this at Half Price Books, I was intrigued by the back-cover summary:
The Absentee centres around Lord and Lady Clonbury, a couple more concerned with London society than their duties and responsibilities to those who live and work on their Irish estates.  Recognizing this negligence, their son Lord Colambre goes incognito to Ireland to observe the situation and trace the origins of his beloved cousin Grace. To put matters straight he finds a solution that will bring prosperity and contentment to every level of society, including his own family.
Published in 1812, this is a fairly short book (256 pages in my Penguin edition), but it packs in a lot of story.  It opens in London, where Lady Clonbury is desperately trying to gain a foothold in Society.  Though she is oblivious, her son recognizes that she is failing, in part because she is trying too hard, with entertainments so ostentatious that people question her taste.  Even more damning in Society's eyes, Lady Clonbury goes to extremes to deny her Irish roots, speaking with an artificial accent that makes her sound more like a Cockney than a member of the Ton.  At the same time her lavish parties, with their expensive London way of life, have driven her husband Lord Clonbury to the moneylenders.  These include an unfortunately stereotypical Mr Mordicai.  According to the introduction, an American woman named Rachel Mordecai wrote politely but firmly to Marie Edgeworth to protest (in the editor's words) her "vicious portrayal of Jews in general and Mordicai the coachmaker in particular."

Lady Clonbury has high hopes that her son will make a match with the heiress Miss Broadhurst, but he has fallen in love with his cousin Grace, whom his mother took in after she was orphaned.  Lady Clonbury disapproves of cousins marrying, "because they form no new connexions to strengthen the family's interest, or raise its consequence."  Her son will not marry against her wishes, but neither will he marry just to please her.  In part to escape those expectations, and in part to find a way out of the family's financial quagmire, he decides to travel over to Ireland.  It will be his first visit since he left as a child, to be educated in England.

In Ireland, Lord Colambre rediscovers his native country, meeting both the best and the worst of Irish society.  Through his experiences the reader is also introduced to Ireland and its people.  The editor notes that Maria Edgeworth is considered a pioneer in the "regional" novel and in the new realistic mode of fiction.  Her books, which she preferred to call "tales" because "novels" were morally suspect, also "portray[ed] the Irish differently than the traditional, comic Irish stage persona."  In Dublin, Lord Colambre meets people of education and culture, whose society is much more congenial than he found in London.  He also meets social-climbers, and a rapacious mother on the hunt for a new son-in-law.  Irish titles count for less than English, but they are still titles, and Colambre is a viscount.

The real heart of Edgeworth's story, though, lies in the countryside, on the Clonbury estates.  There Lord Colambre finds waste and ruin, under agents who are cheating both the tenants and their employer.  The lands at Colambre, under an honest and enlightened agent, are prospering.  In fact, they are a kind of Eden, where the Catholic and Protestant children attend school together, the Catholic priest and Protestant minister work together.  The wicked Clonbury agents are scheming to take over this district and run it like their own.  Lord Clonbury over in England is oblivious to all of this, concerned only that regular payments arrive.  His son comes to see that it is the family's moral duty to return to Ireland and take their place as the landlords.  This will also allow them to live within their means, freeing them from crippling debt and the possible loss of their estates.  In Edgeworth's view, the absence of the hereditary ruling class across Ireland threatens the stability of the entire country.

I knew that Jane Austen was a fan of Maria Edgeworth's books.  She famously wrote to her niece Anna, "I have made up my mind to like no Novels really, but Miss Edgeworth's, Yours & my own."  I was reminded of Austen as I read this book.  Its scope is of course larger, moving from England to Ireland and back again, and including different levels of Irish society.  Unlike Austen, Maria Edgeworth felt comfortable writing scenes between men, with no women present, and with the lower social classes.  She also wrote about a higher level of society than Austen's country families, but with the same sharp eye for pretension and snobbery, as well as the quiet cruelties masked by politeness.  Edgeworth's story felt a little contrived, in part I think because it is a book with a message.  It is probably not fair to judge just by one book, but Edgeworth's characters also felt a little contrived.  I think Austen's speak more naturally, even if their language sounds stilted to our ears today.  Lord Colambre in particular tends to moralize a bit, and occasionally breaks into a minor soliloquy, though that may also be due to this story's origins as a play.

As I mentioned in the previous post, reading E.O. Somerville's Irish Memories finally nudged me to pick this up, and I'm glad it did.  I'm looking forward to reading more of Maria Edgeworth's books.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A tribute to a beloved partner, and a memoir of life in Victorian Ireland

Irish Memories, E.O. Somerville & Martin Ross

I am glad to see the back of two very stressful weeks, particularly at work.  I am even gladder to have the coming week off from work.  I don't have any particular plans, except that I will not be shopping on Thanksgiving or the Day After (all emails with "Black Friday" in the subject line are immediately deleted).  The best part of the entire week will probably be the relaxed mornings, not rushing off to work, chronically late (usually because I've been reading when I should be getting ready).  I doubt I'll be able to sleep in, since the cats take a dim view of any delay to their breakfast service.

I did get some reading done this week, but I had no time or energy to write about it until now.  I had chosen this book off the TBR stacks on a whim, wanting something different after the Great War.  (Overflowing TBR shelves offer a lot of options for whimsical choices.)  Two years ago, when I went looking for a replacement copy of E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross's The Irish R.M. (after foolishly giving away my copy), I found next to it on the shelf another of their books. In the Vine Country is a charming account of a tour they took of the Médoc region of France in 1891.  At that point I knew very little of Somerville and Ross themselves, and nothing of the other books they had written.  Re-reading The Irish R.M. and then touring the Médoc with them made me want to learn more, and to read more of their work.

Irish Memories is a memoir written by E.O. (Edith) Somerville and published in 1917.  As with their other books, Martin Ross (née Violet Martin) is listed as the co-author, though she had died in 1915.  Somerville continued to write after Ross's death, and she continued to credit her as co-author, claiming Ross was collaborating from beyond the grave.  When I read that, I decided to focus on their pre-1915 work, though I made an exception for this book.

Edith Somerville and Violet Martin were second cousins on their mothers' side.  They were raised in different parts of Ireland, Somerville in Cork and Martin in Galway.  Their mutual great-grandparents, Charles Kendal Bushe, the Chief Justice of Ireland from the 1790s, with his wife Anne counted among their friends Maria Edgeworth and her family.  Both the Somerville and Martin branches were Anglo-Irish landed gentry, who lost land and much of their livelihood over the course of the 19th century.  I knew little of the context, as I know little of Irish history during this period, between the Famine and the Easter Rising of 1916.  Somerville clearly assumed her readers were better informed, if not in the same situation themselves.  However, it was enough to know that the changes left both branches of the family in difficult circumstances, particularly with children to provide for.

In the introduction to this book, Somerville wrote, "These vagrant memories do not pretend to regard themselves as biography, autobiography, as anything serious or valuable."  She thought they would be valuable as "a record, however unworthy, of so rare and sunny a spirit as [Martin's], and also, perhaps, in the preservation of a phase of Irish life that is fast disappearing."  Those are two of the main themes of the book, a tribute to Violet Martin, and an account of life in rural Ireland from the 1860s to 1917 (but not including the Rising the previous year).  Somerville wrote about the collaboration with Martin in their books, starting with their first, An Irish Cousin, published in 1889. (Their families disapproved of this gothic story, which they referred to as "The Shocker.")  As "Martin Ross," Violet Martin wrote for journals and newspapers long before she began working with her cousin.  Edith Somerville, who studied art in Dusseldorf and Paris, found occasional work as an illustrator.  As unmarried daughters, both also spent a lot of time at home, where riding and hunting were shared passions.  There is a good deal about hunting in this book, and an entire chapter devoted to Somerville's favorite dogs.  She took Anthony Trollope to task for writing with William Thackeray so many "odious women" in their books. I couldn't help wondering what she thought of his many hunting scenes (not to mention his Irish novels).

I have read quite a few books set in Ireland, mostly 20th-century fiction.  Reading this, I was immersed in a very different world.  It felt more akin to the Ireland described in the journals of Elizabeth Grant, published as The Highland Lady in Ireland and The Highland Lady in Dublin, though Grant was writing in the 1840s and 1850s.  I already have on the TBR stacks The Selected Letters of Somerville and Ross, as well as their second novel, The Real Charlotte.  I learned from this book that they wrote two more travel accounts, one about a riding tour of Wales.  I also discovered that both Somerville and Ross were ardent supporters of women's suffrage, as were their mothers.  I hope to learn more about that work.

As much as anything, this book is a tribute to Violet Martin. Edith Somerville greatly admired and loved her cousin, whose death left her bereft.  I found her descriptions, her attempts to capture Martin's personality and spirit, very poignant, and occasionally over the top.  There is more than a hint of hagiography here, but she never really brought Martin to life for me.  Perhaps she was too close, or the loss was still too recent.  I expect the letters to give me a clearer picture of Violet Martin, in her own words.

Reading about their family's friendship with Maria Edgeworth has inspired me finally to try one of her novels.  (I will confess that for the longest time I had her confused with Fanny Burney).  It has also solved an enduring, nagging mystery.  In Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins, Rose and Dr. Alec discuss Rosamund and her mother, "in that little affair of the purple jar."  Rose tells her uncle, "I always want to shake that hateful woman, though she was a moral mamma."  I've always wondered who the "moral mamma" was, so I jumped when I came across this line in the chapter called "Mainly Maria Edgeworth," about a book the author presented to the Chief Justice: the one "in which the unfortunate Rosamond is victimised by the dastardly fraud of the Purple Jar."  E.O. Somerville and Louisa May Alcott clearly agreed on this particular story of Miss Edgeworth's.  I will have to find a copy, now that I know where to look.

N.B. The edition I read is an American one, published by Longmans in 1918.  It has a sticker from "The Old Corner Book Store, Boston, Mass." inside the front cover, as well as an inscription, "Oliver Wolcott from S.W. June 1918."  However, I'll be using the original 1917 publication date for my sadly-neglected Century of Books.

Addendum:  The Easter Rising was in 1916, not 1917 - I've corrected those dates.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A short book on a long war

The First World War, Michael Howard

My branch library has a small exhibit up on the First World War, and there is a cart of "suggested reading" books next to the case.  Reading Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth several years ago made me realize how much I have forgotten - or never learned in the first place - about the Great War.  As is my wont, I quickly bought a couple of books to remedy that: Barbara Tuchman's classic The Guns of August and John Keegan's The First World War.  As is also my wont, I added them to the TBR stacks and left them there, though I did get a few chapters into the Keegan book at some point.

When I saw this short book of 154 pages, and read in the Foreword that it is "intended simply to introduce the vast subject of the First World War to those who know little or nothing about it," I decided it would be a better start for me.  However short, I knew this wouldn't just be "WWI for Dummies," since it is from the Oxford University Press, the work of Sir Michael Howard, a professor at both Oxford and Yale. And I was right.  The first chapter sets out the background of "Europe in 1914," covering the major powers, their alliances and continuing conflicts.  The second explains "The Coming of War."  The chapters that follow are divided by year, focusing on the major campaigns and briefly touching on the home-fronts of the major powers.  The last chapters cover the Armistice and the 1919 peace conference.  I found the narrative generally easy to follow, helped by the excellent maps showing both the Western and Eastern fronts.  The sheer number of generals and other leaders was sometimes a bit confusing, though I only had to resort to the index once or twice.There are just a few illustrations, but they are well-chosen, particularly of the devastation of the battlefields.

I learned a lot from this book, brief as it is, and I have ordered a copy for myself.  It reminded me of things I had learned and forgotten, and it helped me make connections with things I already knew, from Vera Brittain and Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Helen Dore Boylston.  I loved how it stretched my mind and made me think.  I took as many notes on this book as I have on books three times its size.  After reading it, I feel more ready to tackle those two books already on my shelves, as well as another (an unread book club choice) on the Paris peace conference.  There is also a brief section on "Further Reading" to consider.  

It felt appropriate to be reading this on November 11th.  I was also reminded as I read of how big a part the Great War plays in books I love, starting with Peter Wimsey.  I took down The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club last night, which opens on Remembrance Day, as Peter arrives for a quiet dinner hosted by Colonel Marchbanks for friends of his son, killed at Hill 60.  The war shapes the story in Laurie King's Folly, in my opinion her best book, as well as the first two books of the Holmes-Russell series.  And I am still discovering its place in Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Elizabeth von Arnim's books.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Death by drowning, in shallow water

The Watersplash, Patricia Wentworth

I have to be careful, or I will find myself binging on Patricia Wentworth's books - perhaps alternating with Emily Kimbrough's (if I were only doing the 20th Century of Books, I could knock out of couple of decades with their books alone).  I've read several of the Miss Silver mysteries now, and I've enjoyed each of them, though not all to the same degree.  I think this is my favorite so far. It was a recommendation from vicki at bibliolathas, in a comment on a post about cats in books.  Her words "there is a wonderfully funny Crazy Cat Lady" were enough to send me searching for a copy of this book, and I'm so glad they did!

This story, published in 1951, is set in the small village of Greenings.  The residents there are pleasantly scandalized by the unexpected return of Edward Random, who has been missing for five years.  His widowed stepmother Emmeline never gave up hope, but his uncle James did, making a will that left everything to his brother Arnold rather than his nephew.  Now James is dead, Arnold has taken possession of the estate and the family home, the Hall, and he shows no signs of sharing the inheritance with his suddenly-resurrected nephew.  Edward doesn't help matters by refusing to say where he has been for the past five years.  Many in the village assume he was in prison for unspecified but obviously dark crimes.  Edward's own father had nothing to leave his son or second wife.  Emmeline lives in the estate's lodge, courtesy of James and now Arnold.  She has filled it with cats and kittens, though "She would rather have been making believe that Edward's children were her own grandchildren . . ."

Two newcomers arrive in the village shortly after Edward's return.  Susan Wayne, whose Aunt Lucy lived in the village for many years, has been hired to catalogue the library at the Hall.  She met Edward on her previous visits and is very glad to see him home again.  Clarice Dean, a nurse who cared for James Random in his last illness, is even gladder.  She had contacted the local doctor to ask if there are any patients who might need her services, as she would like to return to the area.  Dr Croft recommended her to Miss Ora Blake, who "enjoyed ill health, and her nurses never stayed."  As soon as Clarice meets Edward again, she begins a blatant pursuit.  She is distracted from that, however, when a man is found is found drowned in the watersplash outside the village.  On a visit to London, she meets Maud Silver, whom she knows by reputation, in a tea shop and confides her uneasiness over the man's death.  Later Miss Silver decides to pay a visit to an old friend's daughter, now the wife of the Vicar of Greenings.

I won't say anything more about the plot, to avoid spoilers, except to say that Patricia Wentworth led me down the garden path with this one.  In the last of her books that I read, The Traveller Returns, Miss Silver had a rather passive role, consulting and advising.  Here she takes a much more active role, and in fact she drives the denoeument of the mystery, over the objections of the police. I couldn't help thinking what a formidable team she and Miss Climpson would make.  She also helps both Edward and his Uncle Arnold in moments of crisis, in part simply by listening to them and then giving them her advice.  I've noticed throughout these books that people who ignore her advice usually come to regret it (if they survive to regret it).

The cats and kittens in this book are great fun, though they are never allowed to take over the story as they have Emmeline's house.  She and Susan are both lovely characters.**  I couldn't help envying Susan her job, working through a library of old books.  Well-read herself, she can't resist dipping into some of them.
Susan spent a dusty morning finishing up the Victorian novelists. There seemed to be an incredible number of them. An entire set of Mrs. Henry Wood, including no less than three copies of the famous East Lynne. A notorious tear-jerker - but three copies!  There were also sets of Charlotte M. Yonge, an author beloved by Susan's Aunt Lucy, and whose descriptions of vast Victorian families she herself had always found enthralling.  There they were in their original editions, and obviously well-read. . . There was something tranquilizing about the ebb and flow of of these family histories, even when they dealt with such tragedies as this.

I need to find a copy of East Lynne!  And I am glad that I have built up some credits at Paperback Swap, because Patricia Wentworth's books are hard to find around here.  I came across a copy of Spotlight at Half Price Books, and when the clerk scanned it, she told me that the aged paperback was $60.  Fortunately, she was able to correct the price by 95%.  I've requested a copy of The Ivory Dagger, because that case is mentioned several times in this book.

**Possible mild spoiler:  I can just picture how happy Emmeline will be with the ending of the story.  I found it very satisfying myself.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A memoir of family and politics

Prison and Chocolate Cake, Nayantara Sahgal

    There are three of us - Lekha, older, myself, and Rita, younger than I. We grew up at a time when India was the stage for a great political drama, and we shall always remain a little dazzled by the performance we have seen.  This is the story of its influence on our lives, and as such it may interest people whose childhood was different from ours.
    Our lives were as normal as our parents could make them, but because they themselves had chosen to play a part in that drama, we could never live in quite the same way other children did.  We had a somewhat unusual background and, perhaps as the result of it, we have had some unusual opportunities.
    . . . Much of the atmosphere we knew as children is fast vanishing, for already Gandhiji's name is history and Anand Bhawan, our home in Allahabad, is a deserted house.

I read about this book in Emily Kimbrough's Water, Water Everywhere. She described it as "one of the most delightful and sensitive books of the year before" [1954], an account of the author's "childhood in India and girlhood in America."  She met Nayantara Sahgal in London, while staying at the Indian Embassy as the guest of her mother, the High Commissioner Vijaya Pandit.  The book sounded interesting even before I learned that Mme. Pandit was the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru.  Many years ago I studied Indian history in college, and while much of what I learned has faded, not the struggle for independence.  As the niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, and the daughter of equally active parents, Nayantara Sahgal was at the center of that movement.

Mrs. Sahgal began her account in 1943, when she and her older sister Lekha were preparing to sail on their own from India to the United States.  Their younger sister Rita would remain in India.  Her parents made the difficult decision to send them to America because "apart from the fact that the political situation was tense and not conducive to study, education at that time was surrounded by restrictions."  They had to send their daughters alone because they were jailed for their part in the Congress Party's non-cooperation campaign during the Second World War (her father would die in prison the next year).  The two older sisters sailed from Bombay on an American troop ship.  Due to war-time security, the passengers were told nothing of the route.  The sisters were surprised to learn they were sailing east, when "the only person whom our parents knew personally, and who was awaiting our arrival, lived in New York City..."  They landed in California "without the slightest idea of what to do or where to go."

Mrs. Sahgal then turned back to India, to write about her childhood and the events that had brought her with her sister to America.  It seems like she was also trying to explain India to Americans.  Many of the people she met had only the vaguest ideas of where India was, or what life was like there.  Perhaps this was still true in 1954.  She also wanted to explain the struggle for independence, and the role played by her family.
We did not see Gandhiji often.  To us, India's fight for freedom and all that it symbolized in the way of valor and idealism was represented by our uncle, Jawaharlal Nehru (whom we called Mamu), who had guided the political destiny of our family toward Gandhiji.  It was Mamu, among the first to respond to Gandhiji's call when he came to India from South Africa in 1916, who influenced our grandfather, Motilal, to join his ranks.
Their father, who came from the same area of western India as Gandhi himself, was another early member of his movement.  Mrs. Sahgal wrote about their family's involvement, which meant frequent separations as her parents were arrested and imprisoned.   But she also wrote about the life that went on around these interruptions, in the family's home in Allahabad, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and on their country estate of Khali, in the northern mountains.  Her parents were determined to make their daughters' childhood as happy and carefree as possible, despite the difficulties of their position.  As Mrs. Sahgal admitted, "Certainly we were in no sense average, if one took the word to mean representative of the whole of India."  Theirs was a life of privilege, and not just in a material sense.  But on the other hand they grew up in the "Swadeshi movement" that encouraged simplicity of life and the rejection of foreign goods. They "grew up believing that ostentation in any form was out of keeping with the times and with our patriotism."  There were also victories, as when her parents stood as Congress Party candidates in the 1936 elections, and both won seats in the state legislature.  Her mother was then appointed Minister of Health for the state, "the first Indian woman to become a Cabinet minister. . ."

Mrs. Sahgal wrote with admiration and love of the courage her parents showed, in sending their daughters to the United States.  She and her sister also showed great courage, I thought, in coping not just with leaving their family behind, but also with the culture shock of life in the U.S.  Describing their new experiences, she compared and contrasted them with her life in India.  I enjoyed seeing America in the 1940s through her eyes.  After graduating from Wellesley College, she returned to India, where she lived with her uncle while her mother was serving as Ambassador to the Soviet Union.  The book ends with the assassination of Gandhi in 1948.  "The curtain had rung down over a great drama, but another one was about to begin. Gandhi was dead, but his India would live on his children."

This is the first memoir I have read by an Indian writer, let alone one so close to center of the independence movement.  Mrs. Sahgal wrote that she "had not worked with Gandhiji, gone to prison at his call, or made any sacrifice for my country's sake."  She was however involved in the movement, and very much aware of its impact on her family and on India.  She suffered from the losses it brought.  I saw some comments dismissing this book as a story of privilege, and overly-nostalgic.  It is certainly not a hard-hitting political history of the independence movement, or the Congress Party, but I still found it insightful and informative. It does feel a bit disorganized, as the author moved back and forth in time, but she anticipated that criticism.  In the Preface, she wrote, "If I write haphazardly, it is because I describe events as I remember them and not necessarily in the order in which they occurred. It is like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle." My other quibble is that large parts of the book consist of conversations.  While Mrs. Sahgal was only 26 when she wrote it (and this does feel like a young person's book), I still question whether she could remember discussions from years past in such detail.

In looking for information on the author and her family, I learned that she is also an award-winning novelist.  I am hoping that her other books are available in the United States, at least through the libraries.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Giving up on Pendennis - and maybe W.M. Thackeray, except for Vanity Fair

I knew the title of Pendennis before I ever heard of William Makepeace Thackeray, because characters from other books read and talk about it.  In Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl, "One snowy Sunday afternoon Tom lay on the sofa in his favorite attitude, reading 'Pendennis' for the fourth time, and smoking like a chimney as he did so."  I don't remember Alcott ever mentioning Thackeray by name, but at this point in the story Tom is an idle, expensive young man who is "sky-larking" his way through college.  And he sits selfishly snug at home with book and cigar, rather than taking his little sister Maud to visit Polly.  There is a parallel in his other sister Fanny, who stays indoors on a snowy day to curl up with Lady Audley's Secret.  Given the context, I don't think Alcott approves of Pendennis or Lady Audley's Secret, but at least they aren't those dangerous "yellow-backed French novels" that tempt Rose Campbell and others.  The book is also mentioned in Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night, where Miss Martin, the Dean, complains that the students "go about looking all bits and pieces, like illustrations out of Pendennis - so out of date of them!  But their idea of modern is to imitate what male undergraduates were like half a century ago."  There is a second, sly reference to the book in the old Professor Boniface, "ninety-seven and practically gaga," whom the Dean shepherds around one afternoon - Boniface being the college that the title character in Pendennis attends.

The first book of Thackeray's that I read was Vanity Fair, and it just bowled me over.  I assumed that it was the start of a literary love affair, and I began collecting his other books.  I read The History of Henry Esmond first, partly to discover why Anthony Trollope thought it was "the best novel in the English language."  I found it a bit of a slog, but I kept reading even after I accepted it was no Vanity Fair.  It would never make my "Best" of anything list.  Last week I started Pendennis, a chunkster of 977 pages in my Oxford World's Classics edition. It begins well, with the young man of the title, Arthur Pendennis, in love at age eighteen with an actress ten years his senior, and determined to marry her.  His uncle and guardian Major Pendennis posts down to the west country to break up the affair, though it means leaving a social London life for weeks of rural boredom.  The Major is a friend of wicked Lord Steyne, who also appears in Vanity Fair, and I found them both a lot more interesting than young Arthur.

I persevered to page 412, but today I decided I didn't want to spend any more time on this book, even if it is a classic.  I've never written a post before about a book I didn't finish, but I have been trying to figure out why these two books do not appeal to me, and whether Vanity Fair is an outlier among Thackeray's work.  It is certainly not the length of his books that is the problem.  I enjoy meandering Victorian narratives, with Trollope's at the head of the list.  But there is an energy in his books, as in Dickens and Dumas, where these two books of Thackeray's just seem to drag.  In part I think that's because the heroes are rather glum.  They're active, getting into trouble, but boring.  They don't seem to have much fun even in their scrapes.  I finally admitted to myself today that I don't care enough about Pendennis to read any further.

I think the bigger problem for me - in these two books - is the women characters.  In both they are angels of the home, who sit passively by the fireside, waiting for their adored sons or brothers to come home, so they can coddle and worship them.  When the heroes are absent, out getting into trouble, the mothers and sisters cry over them and pray for them.  And they pinch pennies so the boys can have their horses and drinks and fine clothes.  The narrator of Pendennis tells us at one point that women like these "were made for our comfort and delectation, gentlemen, - with the rest of the minor animals."  With hindsight, that sentence was probably the beginning of the end for me.  Trollope's women characters are generally bound by the social conventions, but they have so much more life, not simply as adjuncts of the male characters.  And then there are the women who break the rules, in Rhoda Broughton and Margaret Oliphant's books, who may not always get a happy ending but who come to vivid life.  So does Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, for that matter.

Other than Vanity Fair, I don't see much about Thackeray's novels in discussions or on blogs, compared to Trollope, Dickens or Wilkie Collins.  Do people still read his other novels, I wonder? I have two more on the TBR shelves. Barry Lyndon is a shorter novel, about "an accomplished rogue - a liar, a gambler, a libertine."  The Newcomes is another 1000-page doorstop, about "the fortunes and misfortunes of a 'most respectable' extended middle-class family."  I will probably give them the 50-page test.  Meanwhile, I'll be passing Pendennis and Henry Esmond on to the library sale.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A catering job turns deadly

Aunty Lee's Deadly Specials, Ovidia Yu

This is the second mystery to feature Rosie "Aunty" Lee, a lady of a certain age who owns a café in Singapore, Aunty Lee's Delights.  There she cooks traditional Peranakan dishes, while also experimenting with new foods and techniques.  She is nearly as interested in crime as she in cooking.  I read the first book, named for her café, earlier this year and enjoyed it very much (my review is here).  When I saw that a sequel was coming out in the fall, I put my order in.  I had hoped to review this for the R.I.P. Challenge, but a streaming cold last week left me too exhausted in the evenings to write coherently.

The "deadly specials" of the title are a traditional dish called buah keluak, made from the seeds of kepayang tree, which I learned is a type of mangrove.  The golf ball-sized seeds contain cyanide, as does the entire plant.  But the seeds can be treated to removed the poison, in a complicated process that involves boiling and burying and digging up and soaking - essentially fermenting them.  Once treated, they can be added whole to recipes, or made into a paste that is cooked within the seed's shell.  Both the seeds and the dishes that use them take a lot of preparation, and there can be an element of risk if the seeds aren't properly treated.

As the story opens, Aunty Lee has been hired to cater a brunch for the Sung family, to celebrate their daughter Sharon's new partnership in her mother's law firm.  Mabel Sung has specifically ordered buah keluak, which Aunty Lee serves in a chicken curry.  Mabel prepares a plate of food to take to her son Leonard, who has returned from the United States seriously ill, some say dying.  She is clearly distracted, as are her daughter Sharon and husband Henry, a doctor.  Aunty Lee overhears some interesting conversations among the guests, including another doctor, Edmond Yong, and a prayer group whose members have had special surgeries, cosmetic and rejuvenating, in private clinics.

Then Mabel Sung and her son are found in his room, both dead, surrounded by buah keluak shells. As the caterer, Aunty Lee immediately comes under suspicion, though everyone else who ate her food is fine. The police close her café to look for evidence, even before a series of complaints are filed against her food by the Sungs and their prayer-group friends.  Aunty Lee doesn't need the money from the café, but she does need the work and the busyness.  With her assistant Nina, she begins to investigate the Sungs, asking questions about both the law firm and the prayer groups that Mabel ran.  She wonders too about another death, that of a young man from China, who came to Singapore to sell one of his kidneys, part of a busy black market in organ trafficking.

I thought this was a very interesting mystery, both for its setting and its story.  In an interview I read, Ovidia Yu compared Aunty Lee to Lucy Eyelesbarrow, from Agatha Christie's 4.50 from Paddington.  Here I thought she was more in the Miss Marple mode, deliberately playing a slightly-addled older lady who wanders around, asking questions and poking into things with Nina.  Despite the accusations against her, she still has the police on her side, including Police Commissioner Raja and an officer from her local station, Senior Staff Sergeant Salim. They follow the letter of the law in shutting down her business, and then do everything they can on the side to help her.

I have not yet been to any of Houston's Indonesian restaurants.  I am tempted to see if they have buah keluak on their menus.  According to one website I found, it is an acquired taste, "a rich, earthy, botanically bitter-yet-nutty flavour that’s almost reminiscent of a good single origin dark chocolate."  (You can read more here, including a recipe.)  Ovidia Yu includes a simpler version at the back of the book, a curry using candlenuts or macadamias.

I have certainly acquired a taste for these books, and not to sound greedy, but I hope there will be more stories of Aunty Lee, Nina and the café to come.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Finding a job, and a career, in 1923

Through Charley's Door, Emily Kimbrough

In addition to her travel books, Emily Kimbrough wrote several volumes of memoirs.  I had already read and enjoyed her account of a small-town childhood, How Dear to My Heart.  Discovering that one was about getting a job in advertising at Chicago's iconic Marshall Field's department store in 1923, following her graduation from college, I added it straight to my reading list.  When my copy arrived, I found that it picks up just after she and Cornelia Otis Skinner returned from Europe, and their adventures chronicled in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  That moved it to the top of my reading stack.  Seeing Cornelia's name on the first page only made me more anxious to read it.
Late in the winter of 1923, I acknowledged to her, and - what was harder - to myself, that my chum, Cornelia Otis Skinner, was an actress. . . I faced the future with a cold, clear acceptance that Cornelia and I had come to a parting of careers, and that there was one other sizable difference between us.  I had no career at all.
Cornelia disappears from the story after page 2, but any disappointment I felt passed quickly.  Emily noted that "Cornelia was the only one of my friends who had stepped out on her own."  Her other friends were living happily at home "or getting ready to leave by the conventional exit, marriage."
One or two of them had experienced an urge to stand on her own by holding down a job, but this urge had been quickly stamped out by family disapproval. This inclination on the part of daughters was a favorite topic of conversation among parents in 1923. When the subject was broached at any social gathering in our house, I had invariably an impulse to clap my hand over my mother's mouth or in some way distract her from voicing the sentiments I knew were hers and hers alone. . . "Ignorant, benighted, sentimental" comprised a few of the epithets she applied to her friends, and their opinions. . . "Every girl," this was one of her favorite outbursts and frequently repeated, "should have the capacity to earn her own living. To be economically independent is the only way I know for a woman to become mentally independent" . . . In private she expanded her theme with the information that though I would be fed, housed and clothed, whatever I wanted or needed above the bare necessities - and very bare, she invariably stressed - would have to come of my own providing, particularly because of the principle of the thing, and partly because the family could not afford any more.
Through a family friend, Emily managed to get an interview in the advertising department at Marshall Field's. (Fellow fans of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay may be as delighted as I was to read that she wore her "Paris" dress, the one she made of heavy velour, to the interview; and for reasons best known to herself, she took along the Brussels griffon dog that she also acquired in Paris, smuggling both dress and dog past her mother.)  Though she knew nothing about advertising, she was hired to work on the store's in-house magazine, Fashions of the Hour.  The editor was another independent young woman, Achsah Gardner, who became a mentor and friend.  Emily and her mother were long-time customers of the store, part of the "carriage trade" that came daily through "Charley's door," welcomed by the doorman who had presided there since 1890.  But as an employee, she had to learn the store in a whole new way, not just the layout and the merchandise but also the hierarchy of staff.  Meanwhile, she was also learning how to write, edit and produce the magazine, including long nights at the printing works.  She made mistakes, sometimes big ones, but she learned quickly enough to be named the editor a couple of years later.  Her account ends with an even bigger promotion, when she was offered the position of fashion editor at the Ladies' Home Journal, then one of America's premier women's magazines.

There was so much to enjoy in this book.  It was fascinating to see young women like her choosing careers, often against family and social opposition.  (It was a choice for these middle-class young women.)  According to Emily's account, Marshall Field's was one of the first companies to hire them, and it was considered a respectable place for them to work.  This element, and the department store itself, reminded me of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's The Home-Maker.  The craziness of the advertising department also brought to mind Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, though here the work was done in-house rather than through an outside firm. But the battles between the departments and the advertising staff felt very familiar.

There are more serious elements to the story as well.  Emily's job eventually cost her some friendships.  Working long hours, including Saturdays, she couldn't attend the dances and house-parties that regularly drew her group together.  And when she did join them, she wanted to share her fascination with her work and with the world of the store, but her friends weren't interested.  She in turn came to find them a little frivolous.  Fortunately she made friends at the store, including Achsah (I cannot figure out how that name is pronounced).  In fact, the book is dedicated "To Achsah Gardner Kimbrough With Love."  I thought, how nice, she married one of Emily's cousins and became family as well as friend.  Achsah was there when Emily's beloved mother died suddenly.  I already knew from her other books how devastating that loss was to her daughter.  I was stunned to read just a few pages later that her father then married Achsah.  Without saying a word against it, Emily made it clear that was a major factor in accepting the offer from the Ladies' Home Journal, which meant moving from Chicago to Philadelphia.  She went on to become its editor, and I hope she wrote about that work in a later book.

Monday, October 27, 2014

On the road to Delphi

My Brother Michael, Mary Stewart

When I finished Water, Water Everywhere, I wasn't ready to leave Greece.  Then I remembered that Mary Stewart set several of her books amongst the Greek Islands, and I chose this one for its setting in Delphi.  What a lucky choice!  Though I think The Ivy Tree will always be my favorite of her mysteries, this one runs it a very close second.  And since I was a little disappointed in the last two of her books that I read, I was glad to be reminded of just how very good her books can be.

The story opens in Athens, where Camilla Haven is sitting in a café, finishing a letter to a friend back home.  She is running short on funds, and she is afraid that she won't have enough to really see Delphi. "Nothing ever happens to me," she writes. "If only I could afford a car.  Do you suppose that if I prayed to all the gods at once -?"  Perhaps no one ever told her, "Be careful what you wish for."  She has just finished writing the last word when a man comes up to her table, saying, "It's about the car for Delphi."  He had been told to bring the car to the café, for Monsieur Simon in Delphi, on a matter of life and death.  He offers Camilla the key, and though she protests that she did not order the car, and knows nothing of Monsieur Simon, over her better judgement she accepts it and sets off on the road to Delphi.

Without much experience driving, Camilla manages to navigate her way out of Athens and through the villages that line the route.  It is in one of those villages that she comes to grief, facing a truck on a narrow street, where she must back up to let him by.  As a crowd gathers, she completely loses her confidence, telling them that she can't risk damaging Monsieur Simon's car on the steep, twisting road.  They point out to her a man walking down into the village.  He turns out to be a fellow Briton, who not only moves the car for her but accepts her offer of a ride to Delphi, if he will drive.  She is not completely surprised to learn that his name is Simon, but he is, to learn that she is bringing the car to him.  He disclaims all knowledge of it, insisting that he is not the Simon in question, but he offers to help her deliver the car in Delphi.  Camilla soon learns that he is in Greece seeking information on his brother Michael, a Liaison Officer with the Greek Resistance, killed during the war.  Simon quickly draws Camilla into his quest, which may in turn be connected to the mystery of who hired a car in his name.

There is so much I loved about this book.  Mary Stewart excelled at creating vivid settings for her stories, and here she brings Delphi and the small villages around it to life.  It is a little different from the Greece that Emily Kimbrough traveled through, more crowded and chaotic.  Naturally, in a mystery, it is also a more dangerous place.  But Camilla and Simon, like the real-life Kimbrough and her friends, are students of the classics, equally caught up in the history and legends they see coming to life in the ancient sites.  Stewart also weaves more recent history into her story, and I learned something of Greece in the Second World War and the civil war that followed it.  I found the characters very engaging as well.  Camilla I liked from the start.  She is a quiet heroine, a little on the passive side and lacking confidence in herself, but stronger than she realizes.  At one point I realized that she was never going to transform into Amelia Peabody Emerson, and that was OK.  Simon on the other hand is a perfect hero, kind, patient, bookish, interested in people, and handsome to boot.  At first sight, Camilla compares him to a Jane Austen character, which removed any doubts I might have had about him.  With all due respect to Simon at Stuck in a Book, I usually associate that name in books with villains, such as Simon St Pol in Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo books, or Simon Doyle in Death on the Nile, so it's nice to find an exception. And this may be a (mild) spoiler, but I also love books about finding buried treasure!

N.B. This is the third book I have read for the Peril the First in the R.I.P. IX Challenge.