Monday, May 26, 2014

Reveling in re-reading

I seem to have slipped into Hogwarts.  I was just intending to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, but three days later I am already deep into The Goblet of Fire.  And my favorite book is up next.  I do have to go to work tomorrow, which will slow the reading down a bit. 

It's been a long time since I've re-read these - long enough for them to seem fresh again, and to remind me just how magical I found them the first time (and many times after that).

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bertie tries his best

Jeeves in the Offing, P.G. Wodehouse

Last month I commented that the Jeeves stories are not my favorites among P.G. Wodehouse's many books.  But the other day I was browsing in Half Price Books [which has been dangerous for the TBR stacks lately], and I saw this one on the shelves, in a bright shiny new-looking Arrow edition.  I didn't recognize the title - I keep thinking I've finally seen them all, and then another one sneaks up on me.  This book opens with Bertie answering a call from his Aunt Dahlia, who is the only decent aunt I've ever come across in Wodehouse's world.  She is telephoning to invite her favorite nephew down to her country home, Brinkley Court in Market Snodsbury.  Brinkley Court is the setting for two of my favorite of the Bertie and Jeeves books, Right Ho, Jeeves, and The Code of the Woosters.  So that pretty much sold me from the first page.  To discover that this book also involves the famous sterling silver cow creamer, which plays such a prominent role in The Code of the Woosters, just proved how right I was to add it to my shelves.

Aunt Dahlia, also known as Mrs. Thomas Travers, hasn't invited Bertie just for the pleasure of his company.  She has a mission for him.  Staying at Brinkley Court are Aunt Dahlia's god-daughter Phyllis Mills and her stepfather Aubrey Upjohn, Bertie's old headmaster from prep school, a martinet with a heavy caning hand.  Also in residence are Mrs. Adela Cream and her son Willie, who are staying with Aunt Dahlia while the senior Mr. Cream works out a big business deal with Dahlia's husband Tom.  Dahlia is under strict instructions to make the Creams' visit a pleasant one, to sweeten the business deal.  Unfortunately, before Bertie arrives, she learns that Willie Cream is a New York playboy, and since he is spending a lot of time with Phyllis, she assigns Bertie to play third wheel.  However, Bertie arrives reeling from an announcement in the Times of his engagement to Bobbie Wickham, who also happens to be staying at Brinkley Court.  And while Bertie did once propose to Bobbie, who turned him down, he can't remember doing it again recently, and he isn't as keen on the idea now anyway.

Bertie arrives not only reeling but alone, since Jeeves is off on his annual holiday, shrimping in Herne Bay.  As usual, he tries to cope as best he can with his new fiancée, his aunt's expectations, the unusual butler he finds installed at Brinkley Court, and the sudden disappearance of the cow creamer.  Of course he gets into trouble.  Stephen Fry wrote that Bertie is "not intelligent within the meaning of the act," but "he is loyal, kind, chivalrous, resolute and magnificently sweet-natured."   That's what gets him into trouble, time and again.  He can't resist a friend in need or a damsel in distress - and they know it.  As usual, Jeeves is the only one who can find a way out of the coils that wind around poor Bertie.  Here he nobly cuts short his shrimping holiday to join Bertie at Brinkley Court.

I really enjoyed this book.  There was one plot twist that caught me by surprise - well, two, if you count the fate of the cow creamer.  I hereby retract any slighting comments I have made about the Jeeves and Wooster stories.  Actually, I think I'll start calling them the Bertie stories, since he's really the reason I read them.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Death comes to Library Week

The Silence of the Library, Miranda James

This is the fifth book in the "Cat in the Stacks" series.  I posted about the fourth, Out of Circulation, back in February, but I had to wait until the TBR Dare was over to read this latest.  As I have mentioned before, "Miranda" is actually Dean James, whom I've known for many years through Houston's Murder by the Book.  I just read recently that one reason he writes under noms de plume is because anyone searching on-line for information about "Dean James" is going to get pages and pages of "James Dean" first.

The central characters of the series are Charlie Harris and his Maine Coon cat Diesel.  Charlie is a librarian and archivist in the small town of Athena, Mississippi.  A widower, he lives in the family home he inherited, with his son and daughter, as well as two boarders who are part of the extended family.  Three of them have been suspects in the past cases that Charlie has investigated, and they're frequently drawn into the new ones.

Like the previous book, this one is set around the Athena Public Library, where Charlie volunteers one day a week.  For the annual Library Week celebrations, he and the director, Teresa Farmer, are planning an exhibit featuring the author Electra Barnes Cartwright.  Mrs. Cartwright is the creator of the Veronica Thane books, a series whose main character is a beautiful young orphan with a roadster.  She solves mysteries with the help of her best chum Lucy and her devoted swain, the athletic and handsome Artie Marsh.  (The book includes excerpts from the first Veronica Thane story, The Mystery at Spellwood Mansion, which Dean obviously had fun writing.)

Charlie and Teresa are surprised but delighted to learn that Mrs. Cartwright is still alive, at age 100, and living near Athena.  They are even happier when she agrees to appear at the library during the celebrations.  The news that she is alive and well, and will be appearing in public for the first time in decades, sets off a shock-wave among the devoted fans of Veronica Thane.  Readers and collectors of her books descend on Athena.  Rumors of unpublished manuscripts begin to circulate, which could set off a bidding war. And then one fan is murdered, and the extensive files this person kept on Mrs. Cartwright disappear.  When Charlie's phone number is found near the body, the police come calling.

This is another fun mystery, particularly for those like me who grew up with Nancy Drew and other young Sherlock Holmeses.  Charlie includes Cherry Ames on that list, since in the later books in her series, she spent as much time solving mysteries as she did nursing patients.  As a long-time member of internet fan groups, I also enjoyed Dean's knowing portrait of the Veronica Thane fans in action.  And I appreciated the fact that in this book, the victim's death came as something of a surprise.  In many books, it is all too clear who the future victim will be, either because he/she is the rudest and most abrasive person in the whole book; or because he/she keeps talking about holding some crucial piece of evidence.

This book includes an excerpt from another Dean is writing, which will feature the Ducote sisters from the previous story.  Dean told me that he is having fun writing it, and that he feels like he is in an episode of "Designing Women."  I'm looking forward to reading it, and the further adventures of Charlie and Diesel as well.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The autobiography of an engineer

Slide Rule, Nevil Shute

For the first chapter or so of this book, I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading Nevil Shute's autobiography rather than one of his novels.  The first-person narrative voice was instantly familiar:
A year or so ago I was driving on the coast road near Mornington, forty miles south of Melbourne in Australia.  I was going to see some friends to return an unwanted kitten that they had wished onto my children while my back was turned. Maybe the kitten had a malignance that I did not fully understand, because I was driving along between the red cliffs and the blue sea and thinking no evil when I was stabbed suddenly by an intense pain in my chest.  It was so sharp and so agonizing that I could not go on; I was alone in the car but for the kitten, so I pulled in to the roadside and parked to sweat it out.
As he goes on to say, "It wasn't the first time that I had had this thing."  But this time it was more serious, and the worst consequence was that it would restrict his flying.
Most of my adult life, perhaps all the worth-while part of it, has been spent messing about with aeroplanes. Kenneth Grahame once wrote that "there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."  With that I would agree, yet for a fleeting period in the world's history I think that aeroplanes ran boats very close for sheer enjoyment  . . .  the break was a great one, because aeroplanes have been my interest since I was a little boy and were my whole life's work between the two world wars.
That is the story that he went on to tell in this book: his childhood and his life's work, centered around aviation from a very young age.  Nevil Shute Norway, his full name, was born in 1899, and this book covers the years up to 1940.  I knew almost nothing about his life, other than that he worked in aviation and at some point moved to Australia.  Reading this, I had some "oh my gosh" moments that made me want to buttonhole someone and say, Listen to this. Consider yourself buttonholed.

Shute's father was a civil servant in the General Post Office.  In 1912 he was appointed Secretary to the Post Office in Ireland, "which means that he became King of the Post Office in that country."  (Of course I was reminded of Anthony Trollope's years with the Post Office in Ireland.).  His father was in his office at the General Post Office on Easter Monday in 1916.  Shute and his mother walked down to collect his father for lunch about ten minutes before the Post Office was occupied by the Sinn Fein forces.  In the days that followed, Shute drove an ambulance around Dublin, occasionally coming under fire.  He later wrote quite coolly about the "adventure that befell the boy of seventeen who was myself."

From 1924 to 1930, Shute worked on the development of a "rigid airship," what I think of as a zeppelin.  The little I know about aviation in this period I learned from reading about Charles and Anne Lindbergh, so I had no idea that "It was generally agreed in 1924 that the aeroplane would never be a suitable vehicle for carrying passengers across the oceans, and that airships would operate all the long-distance routes of the future."  The commercial firm that Shute was working for, Vickers Ltd., was in competition with the Air Ministry to develop a prototype airship for British production and use.  Vickers was building R.100, and the government R.101.  There was an early reference to the crash of R.101 in October of 1930, which killed most of its crew, including some of Shute's friends.  Shute probably expected that his readers would be familiar with the story.  I knew nothing about it, though of course I had at least heard of the Hindenburg disaster seven years later.  Somewhat to my surprise, I was drawn into the story of the competing designs, the trials and errors, despite complete lack of interest in the engineering Shute covered in some detail.  All the while in the back of my mind I kept thinking, "Really?  People were actually going to travel in zeppelins?"  I don't think I ever fully appreciated that the Hindenburg was a passenger ship.  The account of R.100's flight to Canada, and the rousing reception the crew received there, fascinated me.  All the way across the Atlantic and back, in a fabric-covered cylinder.

I also felt a jolt of recognition, reading that during the Second World War Shute worked in the Admiralty, "on the design of unconventional weapons," just like his characters in Most Secret.  With his narrator, Commander Martin, he got to make "occasional excursions to sea to attend trials of my toys."  If he shared Martin's ambivalence about those weapons, he didn't mention it here.

The subtitle of this book is very apt: "The Autobiography of an Engineer."  It is concerned mostly with his work in aviation, and as in his novels, the technical details can be a bit overwhelming for a non-engineer.  The last third of the book is an account of the airplane manufacturing firm he helped establish, Airspeed Limited.  He worked with the company as a managing director from its founding in 1930, until he was forced out over financial issues in 1938.  His account of the constant money crises echoes Henry Warren's struggles in Ruined City, as he struggles to re-open a shipyard in northern England.  Shute skated closed to the line that Warren crossed:
At this time I was acquiring a reputation with my co-directors and with my city associates for a reckless and unscrupulous optimism that came close to dishonesty.  I think this bad reputation was deserved, for having set my hand to Airspeed and brought it so far up the road towards success I was intolerant of obstacles that seemed to me to be based upon an ultra-conservative and pedantic view of business.
In addition to his first career, Shute also discussed his writing, though not in great detail.  He turned to writing novels in the evenings, as a relaxation from the hard mental work of running statistical calculations.  In this book he passed over his personal life, at least after childhood, in even less detail.  At some point he married, to a doctor, with whom he had two daughters.  Late in the book, he did mention cutting back on his hours at work, "to get back to a normal life  . . . and to try to behave more as a father and a husband should."  I was disappointed that the book ended in 1940.  I would like to read more about his life, particularly after the war.

This isn't one of those autobiographies that left me feeling that I really came to know its author.  It is more a closed book, compared with something like Monica Dickens' Open Book, or Rosemary Sutcliff's Blue Remembered Hills.  But it did make me want to read (and re-read) Nevil Shute's novels.  I still have his first two published, Mazaran and So Disdained, on the TBR stacks.  And I just ordered a copy of his third, Lonely Road.  That only leaves Vinland the Good, and I'll have all of his books - once my copy of this one arrives.  I read a library copy, and I'm disinclined to give it back.

Monday, May 12, 2014

We the readers

"With every allowance for the virtues of treating books as commodities like any other, the literary marketplace might still be made distinct from the community of readers.  This distinction is subtle, and hard to make cartographic, but it's one known to both book buyers and booksellers  . . .  [T]he community of readers has an existence outside the literary marketplace as well, and is responsible for the slow but irresistible rise and fall of reputations.  When you read the letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop today, you are startled to realize that, in their day, Lowell was a god and Bishop still very much an aspirant, a judgement that has been turned almost on its head now.  The forces that propelled the change come mostly from below. No one biography, no one critical text, no one 'reading,' and certainly no one publisher altered the view; readers altered it by reading and then talking to one another.  It was the suffrage of ordinary readers that rediscovered Barbara Pym and remade Trollope a classic alongside Dickens.  The literary marketplace turns profits; the community of readers makes reputations."  -- Adam Gopnik, "Go Giants," The New Yorker, 4/21/2014
I never realized Trollope's critical reputation had fallen so low until I read Susan Hill's Howards End Is on the Landing, though I've also had no success in convincing anyone else to read him.  I think it was readers who made Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder "classics."  And from my own experience, Georgette Heyer and Dorothy Dunnett as well - and maybe Patrick O'Brian.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Cooking and eating in China

Serve the People, Jen Lin-Liu

I put this book on my list after reading Jen Lin-Liu's On the Noodle Road, an account of traveling the Silk Road to research the history of pasta.  I learned from it that the author ran a cooking school in Beijing, and I expected that to be the focus of this book.  Instead, it is about how Ms. Lin-Liu learned to cook herself, and her travels around China exploring regional cuisines.  She interviewed the people she met, working and eating in restaurants, not just about their food but about their experiences in the major political events of the 20th century, including the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s.  In the process, she created a portrait of life in the China of today (or at least of 2008, when the book was published).

Jen Lin-Liu is Chinese herself, born in the United States to parents who immigrated from Taiwan.  After college, she moved to China, first to Shanghai and then to Beijing, working as a freelance journalist.  Living in China highlighted the tensions she had felt growing up Chinese and American. 
I straddled the expatriate bubble and the Chinese world outside it, not quite belonging to either. So it was in China, ironically, that for the first time I felt the urge to call myself a Chinese American.  It was the first time I had to seriously grapple with issues of race, identity, and where I fit in . . . It was the alienation I felt that led to my rabid obsession with Chinese food.  I imagine my subconscious thinking went something like this: if I can't connect with the people, at least I'm going to connect with the food.
But Ms. Lin-Liu also had to grapple initially with Chinese food as cooked and served in China, "menus [that] were full of items with beautiful, ornate names but arrived in the form of innards, claws and tongues," with "flavors that felt too chaotic, too intense."  As she began adjusting to (and then craving) the food, she also began to write about it, and to want to cook it herself.  This led her to a cooking school in Beijing.  Most of her fellow students were male, and they were studying for a certificate that would help get them work.  Cooking was seen as a low-status job.  For decades the authorities had assigned people to become cooks, who had no aptitude or interest.  Food shortages had made restaurant work even less appealing, both to cooks and customers.  This was slowly starting to change, with the relaxation of government controls and the development of private enterprise.  Beijing in particular was becoming a city of restaurants, many of them staffed by immigrants from rural areas.

After intense study, including sessions with a private tutor, Ms.Lin-Liu easily passed the cooking exam and earned her certificate.  But she found that it was not a passport to a good job. Instead, she began taking restaurant work wherever she could find it, overcoming resistance to hiring an unskilled foreigner, talking her way in by sheer persistence.  She worked at a noodle stand in an industrial food court that was open ten hours a day, seven days a week; and at a high-profile and expensive destination restaurant in Shanghai, serving a new type of fusion menu. Along the way she talked to cooks and customers, honed her skills, and collected recipes.  She also ate in a variety of restaurants, bringing both a cook's eye and a food critic's palate to the food she was served.

I knew going in to this book that the "Chinese" food I grew up with is very Americanized.  One of my college roommates was born in China, and she was pretty blunt about the "Chinese" food available in our small college town.  I learned a lot about food in China from this book, though I find hard to keep all the regional cuisines straight (or the regions themselves).  Personally, I found some of the food described rather disturbing, particularly the visit Ms.Lin-Liu made with friends to restaurants serving animal genitalia and dog meat, not to mention the discussion of cooking a civet cat. The recipes included are much less exotic, but since most are meat-based I don't plan to try them.

In addition to its food, I learned more about China itself in this book, including its geography.  I am embarrassed to admit that I needed an atlas to find Shanghai and Hong Kong.  (On my mental map, I had Hong Kong up near Taiwan.)  In the acknowledgements, Ms. Lin-Liu mentioned Peter Hessler and Evan Osnos, who for many years wrote on China for The New Yorker.  In fact, I have Peter Hessler's book River Town, about his stint in the Peace Corps, on the TBR stacks; I should move it up.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A hero named Waldo

The Nonesuch, Georgette Heyer

This has never been one of my top Heyer favorites, and not just because the hero's name is Waldo.  But the other night at Half Price Books, when I found a first edition, with the original Barbosa dust-jacket, for only $7.50, there was no question of leaving it on the shelves.  As I was gloating over it at home later, I started leafing through it, as you do, reading bits here and there, and of course I ended up turning to the first chapter to start it properly.  It has been at least ten years since I last read this.  As often happens with Heyer's books now, I found that I enjoyed it more than I remembered.

The story opens as the Nonesuch of the title, Sir Waldo Hawkridge, has just inherited a ramshackle estate in Yorkshire from a cousin.  Already wealthy in his own right, he doesn't need the estate or its rents, but he plans to turn the house into an orphanage and school.  The neighborhood around Broom Hall is electrified to learn that this rich, handsome sportsman and leader of fashion is coming into their midst, particularly since he is a bachelor.  They are just as happy to welcome his young cousin Julian, Lord Lindeth, equally handsome and eligible.  There is something here of Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley arriving at Netherfield, except that unlike Darcy Sir Waldo is sociable and civil to everyone.  (I think he might even be richer than Darcy.)  Lindeth quickly falls under the spell of Tiffany Wield, a beautiful but spoiled girl of seventeen.  She is the orphaned niece of Mrs Underhill, a kindly woman with wealth but no pretense to gentility.  Sir Waldo, on the other hand, is drawn to Miss Wield's governess-companion, Ancilla Trent, a young woman of birth and breeding, who determined to earn her own living after her father's death left the family in straitened circumstances.  However good her family, by becoming a governess she has lost her place in society.  When Sir Waldo begins to single her out, the neighbors, even those without marriageable daughters, are not pleased.

Ancilla is one of Heyer's strong, competent female characters, like Sarah Thane in The Talisman Ring, not a chit just out of the schoolroom but a woman who has seen something of the world.  She needs all her strength and her wits to keep her charge in line.  Tiffany is one of the most annoying characters in all the Heyer canon, and she regularly tops the poll of "Which Heyer character is most in need of a good smack?"  She has to be the center of attention, particularly the men's, and she has to have her way in everything, or she throws fits (and the occasional clock).  She can't be controlled, she can only be manipulated or bribed, and I do find her tiresome.

My other objection to this book has been that the romantic plot involves a Big Misunderstanding, where the heroine hears something about the hero, which she misinterprets.  What she thinks she has discovered makes him seem such a bad person that she has no choice but to reject him.  We the readers know that it isn't true.  Honestly, I have always had a hard time accepting that she could even believe it herself.  And of course she doesn't ask him about it, she just stews in her misery and makes him unhappy in turn.  This plot element loomed large in my memory of the story, but reading it this time I was surprised to find how late it came in the book, and how quickly it was resolved.  I still think it's silly and unnecessary, not to mention a bit unworthy of Georgette Heyer, but it's a minor quibble now.

It's interesting to me how my opinions of Heyer's books change over time.  Not for my top favorites - those stay pretty much the same (The Quiet Gentleman, Cotillion, The Talisman Ring, and The Unknown Ajax).  But in re-reading what I think of as the second-rank books, like this one, I find myself enjoying and appreciating them more.  I'm glad I found this on the shelves, and not just because it's such a lovely old book.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The wartime stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

This was my first book-box draw of 2014, and as usual, the box gave me something that I didn't think I wanted to read.  Given the choice, I'd have said that I'd read enough about World War II for a while, between Nevil Shute's secret mission and Agatha Christie's spies on the homefront, not to mention the quiet heroism of real-life war work in Jambusters. But once again the book box chose wisely, and I enjoyed this selection of Mollie Panter-Downes' stories, reprinted in a Persephone edition.  I have to mention again that this is the only Persephone that I have ever found in the Houston bookstores. I'd almost have bought it just for that.

These stories were originally published, like her celebrated "Letters from London" column, in The New Yorker.  Here the fiction is book-ended by two "Letters," the first dated October 14, 1939; and the second, June 11, 1944.  I was struck by a detail in the 1939 column:
Posting a letter has acquired a new interest, too, since His Majesty's tubby scarlet pillar boxes have been done up in squares of yellow detector paint, which changes colour if there is poison gas in the air and is said to be as sensitive as a chameleon.
In all that I have read about the Second World War in Britain, I had never come across that before.  Somehow that little detail - squares of gas-detecting paint - brought the war very close for a moment, perhaps because I could picture those red pillars so clearly, and myself dropping a note or card into them.

The stories that follow also date from the fall of 1939, through the winter of  1944.  But they are not a chronicle of the war - that was for her columns, I suppose.  And they are free from any sensationalism - no Fifth Columnists here.  Most are set in the country, outside the bombing zones and day-to-day danger.  On the surface they are quiet stories - an account of a sewing party, where members debate donating their clothing to Greek refugees; a couple who have nerved themselves to ask guests to leave; a mother worried about her children, evacuated to California, in the wake of Pearl Harbor.  Through her stories, Mollie Panter-Downes explores the war's effects on ordinary people going about their daily lives.  And their reactions seems very human, very psychologically and emotionally right.  I could see a connection between these stories and her later book, One Fine Day, set in 1946, which feels like a natural sequel, where she considers one family's adjustment to peace.

With this book, I particularly enjoyed Helen Ramsay, who appears in several of the stories (the editor, Gregory LeStage, suggests that she is a stand-in for Panter-Downes).  She copes in part through an acerbic interior monologue.  In "Mrs. Ramsay's War," she is living in a small country cottage with her daughter Susan, as well as a friend's two children, their nurse and their grandmother, evacuées from London.  The grandmother, Mrs. Parmenter, has also brought her two darling Pekinese with her.
That evening Susan, saying good night, remarked that she didn't want Camilla and Alan to go, ever.  Mrs. Ramsay felt impelled to hit her smartly over the head but instead went downstairs to the living room, where Mrs. Parmenter was knitting under the good light and listening to the wireless  . . .  Mrs. Ramsay, picking her way among suspiciously growling Pekinese, remembered with a good deal of wistfulness the poet's assurance that the grave was a fine and private place.
It doesn't take a war to make me feel like that - just a vacation with too much "family time" can do it.

Given how prolific a writer Mollie Panter-Downes was, with five novels and all those New Yorker pieces, fact and fiction, it is surprising how little of her work is available today.  The editor of my Persephone edition says that she "disowned" four of her five published novels. I haven't been able to discover yet if that means she suppressed them, as Georgette Heyer did her early books.  I suppose I could use my New Yorker subscription to access their archives and track down her pieces - all 852 of them.  That could be a long-term project.  Maybe I'll look for Minnie's Room: The Peacetime Stories... first.