Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Nigeria today, through an emigrant's eyes

Every Day Is for the Thief, Teju Cole

This is a short book, a novella, about a young man returning to his native Nigeria for a visit, his first after fifteen years in the United States.  We never learn his name, or much about him.  Arriving in Lagos, where he grew up, he finds that life has become much more complicated, and sometimes dangerous, in those years.  He negotiates his way between the familiar and the uneasily new, never quite at home.  He is determined to reconnect with the city and with the people.  He stays with his aunt and uncle, in their comfortable home in an upscale part of the city.  But even there, robbery and kidnapping are common.  His family tries to keep him in the relatively safe zone, but he goes out every day to roam around the city.  To their dismay, he even insists on riding the danfo, the local buses.

Everyone says I must not travel by danfo.  The danfo is a death trap.  It is a haven for practitioners of black magic, and is full of thieves.  This much is known  . . .   The degree to which my family members wish me to be separate from the life of the city is matched only by my desire to know that life.  The danfo, carrier of the masses, is the perfect symbol of our contest.  The energies of Lagos life - creative, malevolent, ambiguous - converge at the bus stops.  There is no better place to make an inquiry into what it was I longed for all those times I longed for home.

What he notices most obviously is the corruption and graft that run through every aspect of life in Nigeria, starting with the consular clerk in New York who charges him an "expediting fee" to renew his passport.  Everyone in Lagos asks for tips for any service, however small, or for handouts.  Sometimes the requests are aggressive and menacing, sometimes just the question, "Do you have anything for me?"  But the demand is always there, and the returning visitor soon learns that resistance is futile (and can be dangerous).  That corruption is mirrored in the internet cafes that have sprung up all over the city, filled with young men working on the notorious Nigerian email frauds, still drawing in people all over the world. A cousin tells him that the universities "are the nerve centers of this activity." (I still sometimes get these at work, usually now from a government official's wife, dying of breast cancer, who wants to leave her money to orphans and widows. "Dearly beloved," they always begin.)

Wherever the young man goes, he watches people, their interactions.  He is sometimes a little detached, observing, sometimes overwhelmed by sounds or colors or scents.  He meets old friends again, tracing the paths their lives have taken.  He notes the differences between the Nigeria of his childhood, and what he finds today.  These observations, with his explorations, made this novella seem more like non-fiction than fiction. I felt like I was traveling through the city with this unknown young man, seeing it through his eyes.  The present-tense narration adds to that effect, with a sense of immediacy, as do the photos scattered throughout the chapters (the work of the author).

I was particularly struck by the beauty and poignancy of one short chapter, where the young man meets a cousin, a young girl born in the years since he left Nigeria.  They take to each other immediately: "soon, I cannot even remember a time when I did not know her."

A month later, as I prepare to leave, she says she will miss me.  And I know I will miss her too, and I see with a pang that every good thing I wish for this country, I secretly wish on her behalf.  Any prayer I have that the future be a good one, that the place keep from breaking, is for her sake.

The aunt with whom he is staying supports a school in the city.  He goes with her one day to wait for supplies arriving by cargo container from the U.S.  Though he does not say who attends the school, it was impossible read this without thinking of the school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram.  The narrator mentions the unsettled conditions in the north of the country, with fundamentalism on the rise.  It has only grown stronger since this book was first published in Nigeria in 2007.  It was published for the first time this year in America and the UK, in a revised edition.  I learned from Teju Cole's website that he was born in the U.S. to Nigerian parents and raised in Nigeria.  I also see from the website that he is working on a non-fiction book about Lagos.  In the meantime, I will be looking for his seond book, Open City.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Inspiring blogs and bloggers, or the VIB Award

Even after three years, I sometimes feel like I'm still figuring this whole blogging thing out, and I wonder from time to time if I'm doing it right.  From the beginning, I have been inspired by and learned from many wonderful blogs and bloggers.  So it was a pleasant shock to learn I'd been nominated as a "Very Inspiring Blogger" myself.


My nomination comes from Barb of Leaves and Pages, who most recently inspired me to start collecting the books of Sara Jeannette Duncan.  Thank you very much!

Here are the rules for this award:

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
  • List the rules and display the award.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated
  • Optional: display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you

Seven facts about myself:  Actually, I hate talking about myself or being the center of attention - but here goes.
  • I was born in Oregon, and I've since lived in Michigan (twice), Georgia, Washington State, England (very briefly), Massachusetts, and now Texas.
  • I am left-handed, which runs in my family.
  • I am an archivist, which I think is one of the coolest professions on the planet.
  • I am addicted to tea, particularly Tippy Yunan and Ti Kuan Yin.
  • I named my blog after the number of TBR books on my stacks that day. If I started it today, it would be TBR 293.
  • I am a complete U.S. Civil War geek, and Abraham Lincoln is my hero of heroes (not exactly a surprise to anyone who visits this blog).
  • No one in my family reads my blog. Not that that bothers me or anything.

Barb in her own award posting beat me to several of my inspirations, including not just herself, but Jane of Fleur in her World, Claire of The Captive Reader, vicki of bibliolathas, and Jenny of Reading the End.  There are many more though who inspire me, both in terms of what I want this blog to be, and also with that so-familiar feeling of "I need to read that book!"  [Usually followed by a spendy visit to ABE Books or Barnes & Noble.]

I am sure that these wonderful people have been nominated before (probably multiple times at that):

Jenny and Teresa of Shelf Love, one of the first blogs that I came across and started reading regularly.  They truly inspired the beginning of this blog, and they continue to inspire me with the diversity and excellence of their reading.

Karen of Books and Chocolate, whose TBR stacks include big Wodehouse and Trollope sections, just like mine.

Audrey of books as food, who has inspired me to add Edith Wharton to my TBR stacks, among many other books.

Anbolyn of Gundrun's Tights,who re-introduced me to Mary Stewart, among other authors.  I have my stack ready for this fall's Mary Stewart Reading Week.

James of James Reads Books (and previously Ready When You Are, C.B.), who inspires and challenges me to read mindfully, especially through the TBR dares he hosts - meanwhile adding books to those TBR stacks.

JoAnn of Lakeside Musing, who has introduced me books as diverse as The Makioka Sisters and 97 Orchard.

Thomas at My Porch, who re-introduced me to Barbara Pym, and whose eclectic reading inspires me.  I've also borrowed his idea of short reviews (aka the Bits and Bobs).

Katrina of Pining for the West, whose posts on vintage crime have added to my TBR stacks (most recently, Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver books).

Jane of Reading, Writing, Working, Playing, who shares my fascination with the Civil War, and my love of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott's books.

Helen of She Reads Novels, who reads an awesome array of historical fiction and classic novels, and who introduced me to The Count of Monte Cristo, for which I can't think her enough.

Simon of Stuck in a Book, who is an inspiration to all of us. His "My Life in Books" series has spotlighted many great blogs - I was honored to be included. And he's made me a "Great British Bake Off" addict!

Cat of Tell Me a Story, who is back posting regularly (yay!)

Alex of Thinking in Fragments, whose posts on reading itself are as interesting and thought-provoking as her varied reviews.

Pam of Travellin' Penguin, who loves sharing books, both on her blog and as The Book Phantom.

Audra of Unabridged Chick, a newer blogger to me, who also reviews a wide range of historical fiction, with many author interviews and posts.

Thank you all for inspiring me, for your blogs, and especially for commenting on my posts.  The conversations that we have about books here and on your sites is why I do this.  And my thanks again to Barb for nominating me for this award.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Jane Austen tour in 1901

Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends, Constance Hill and Ellen G. Hill

When I came across references to this book in G.E. Mitton's 1905 biography of Jane Austen, I immediately added it to my reading list.  Published in 1902, it is an account of a literary pilgrimage by two sisters, Constance Hill, who wrote the text; and Ellen Hill, who illustrated it with her drawings.  The two were major fans of Austen's books.  As Constance Hill wrote in a preface,
[Her] undefinable charm . . . has exercised a sway of ever-increasing power over the writer and illustrator of these pages; constraining them to follow the author to all of the places where she dwelt and inspiring them with a determination to find out all that could be known of her life and its surroundings.
I have made Austen pilgrimages myself, first to her grave in Winchester Cathedral, to Bath and Lyme Regis, and finally a few years ago to her last home, at Chawton Cottage in Hampshire.  I was very intrigued by the idea of such a trip in 1901, less than a century after her death, and before she became the global icon that she is today.  I had to remind myself that in 1901, there were only a handful of books written about Jane Austen, including family memoirs, and an early edition of her letters. The Hills weren't the first Austen pilgrims, but they may have been the first to write about it.

Their account opens with their arrival by pony-chaise in Austen's native Hampshire, or as they prefer to call it, "Austen-Land."  They follow her life chronologically, moving from Steventon, where she was born, to Bath and Southampton, then to Chawton.  They include chapters on her time in London, usually staying with her brother Henry; and at Godmersham, the Kent estate of another brother, Edward Austen Knight.  Along the way, they seek out the exact spots where Austen lived, or visited, or some cases, danced.  They are quite bold in knocking on doors and inviting themselves in for a tour.  Constance Hill quotes constantly from Austen's letters (in the 1884 Brabourne edition), as well as the memoir written by her nephew J.E. Austen-Leigh in 1870.  There are also frequent quotations from the novels, as the sisters look for sites of the events in the books.  Like them, I have walked along the Cobb in Lyme Regis, looking for the spot where Louisa Musgrove fell.  In addition, Constance Hill often cites a near-contemporary of Jane Austen, Mary Russell Mitford, whose family knew the Austens (I already have an e-version of her 1824 book Our Village - reading always begets more books).

In addition to these sources, the Hills must also have had the cooperation of some members of the Austen family.  They were given access to Austen's letters in manuscript, as well as unpublished family memoirs.  In addition, Constance Hill read one of the three notebooks in Austen's handwriting, which contain what are now called the "Minor Works," then unpublished. They were also allowed to handle Austen artifacts at Chawton, including her writing desk with the manuscript of The Watsons in a drawer.

I enjoyed - and envied - the sisters' travels in Austen-land.  More than a century later, I could relate to their enthusiasm for Austen's books, and their excitement at visiting the places associated with her life and her stories.  I was a little surprised to see her books described more than once as "racy," which made me wonder if the Hills had ever read Henry Fielding's Tom Jones or other books of that era.  For me their book works best as an appreciation of Austen, and a travelogue, rather than as biography.  I will take this book with me if I am lucky enough to make another Austen trip, particularly for the information they give on Bath in Austen's time.

I started off with an e-version of this book, but I was lucky enough to find a reprint by Kessinger Publishing.  It includes Ellen Hill's charming drawings, as well as other illustrations.  For the book's readers in 1902, this may have been their first look at Austen family portraits, or at Chawton Cottage itself.  We 21st-century Janeites are lucky to have so many photos available, in books and on-line - such a wealth of information, so easily accessible, unknown to earlier readers.

N.B. I have sadly neglected my Mid-Century of Books project, so I am glad that I can fill another year with this entertaining book.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Another round-up of reviews

I read four very different books over the past week.  I can't seem to settle down to write, so I thought I'd try another round of quick reviews.

Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay

This is the fourth of his books that I've read, and it's really excellent - as good as the two Sarantium books that bowled me over earlier this year.  Based on my admittedly-small sample so far, I think I'll prefer his later books to his earlier.  This one was published in 2010, and that year it won the ALA award for Best Fantasy Novel.  It is set in a world that mirrors the T'ang Dynasty in China.  I know very little about the actual Dynasty, even its dates (according to Google, 618-906 CE).  In this world, Shen Tai, the son of a famous general, has spent the two years of formal mourning for his father on a battlefield.  He hasn't been fighting, but burying the thousands of bones that remain, which releases their spirits.  To honor this work of mercy, a princess from his native Kitai, now exiled in marriage to a foreign ruler, bestows on him a gift: 250 Sardian horses, Heavenly Horses, the best in the world.  In Kitai, where horses of any kind are all too rare, Tai is suddenly wealthy beyond compare. Even more importantly, his horses could shift the balance of power in the empire.  After two years of solitude among the dead, he must leave his isolated valley for the intrigues of court.  There are those who would kill him for his horses, and the first attack comes in the valley itself. Tai must find his way not just on the roads to Xinan, the capital, but also through the competing claims for his loyalty, and for those horses.  This is a great story, and I am glad that Mr. Kay included some suggested reading in an afterword.  I'm curious now about China in this period.  I'm also looking forward to his newest book, River of Stars, which is set in the same world.

The Hell Screen, I.J. Parker

This is the fifth in a series of mysteries set in 11th-century Japan, featuring a court official named Sugawara Akitada.  In the course of his duties, he is often drawn into investigating crimes, particularly murder.  As this book opens, he is returning to the capital of Heian Kyo (modern-day Kyoto), after four years as the governor of a remote province in the north.  He is hurrying home because his mother is dying.  I have enjoyed all of the books in this series, but for a while after my mother died, I found that I didn't want to read about other people's mothers dying, so I set this book aside.  (And I couldn't just skip over it because of my OCD need to read series in order.)  The book actually begins with a gruesome murder of a young woman.  Then we jump back to Akitada, traveling by horse, who is forced to seek shelter for the night at a Buddhist monastery.  Later he learns that that the murder took place there, that same night, and he can't help asking questions, as much as it irritates Kobe, the superintendent of police.  With no official assignment, waiting out his mother's illness, he is also recruited to help his brother-in-law, an official of the royal treasury, who has discovered some items are missing and fears he will be blamed.  At the same time he must figure out how to help his youngest sister, their mother's care-giver for many years, who will now be free to marry and start her own family.  In all of these difficulties, he is assisted as usual - when he will accept help - by his patient wife Tamako, his secretary Semei, and his retainers Genba and Toro.  I like Akitada, a man of honor who always tries his best to do the right thing, though he can be awfully cranky at times.  Actually, I think he and Shen Tai would find they have a lot in common.  I also enjoy the setting in medieval Japan, which Ms. Parker skillfully evokes.  In each book, she includes an afterword that explains something of the history and the culture of the time, and in this case suggests a couple of books for further reading.  I already have the next book in this series waiting to be read.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast

I know Roz Chast primarily from her cartoons in The New Yorker.  Last year the magazine carried an excerpt from this book.  The style of the drawings was immediately familiar, but the subject matter was far from her usual.  It is a memoir of caring for her parents in their last years - or trying to care for them.  This isn't a happy story of peaceful golden years. Her parents were in denial for many years about their increasing frailty, her father's mental confusion.  Ms. Chast lived in Connecticut, her parents in Brooklyn, in the apartment where she had grown up, to which she returned reluctantly.  She had a difficult relationship with her mother, a domineering woman given to angry outbursts she called "Blasts from Chast."  I couldn't help noticing that in the family photos interspersed with Ms. Chast's drawings, she is never smiling in any taken with her mother - only with her father.  In December of 2005, her mother had a bad fall and ended up hospitalized twice.  Her father came to stay with her, which is when Ms. Chast realized how far his mental state had deteriorated.  Though her mother came back to their apartment, it finally became clear that they could no longer live alone, even together.  Ms. Chast found them a place at a retirement community near her home.  She then began clearing out the apartment where they had lived for almost fifty years.  At the same time, she had to deal with their declining physical health, and with the worry of how to pay for their care - with all the day-to-day anxieties and difficulties, which she discusses in vivid detail.  Though I was not involved in the day-to-day care of my mother, much of this book felt familiar, including the guilty feeling that you are never doing enough.  In the end, I think Ms. Chast finds a balance in remembering her life as their daughter, and the terrible ordeals of their last years.  It is a hard book to read, but with moments of grace, especially at the end.

Rose Cottage, Mary Stewart

After three rather intense books, I was in the mood for something lighter, particularly while recovering from a migraine.  I know that Anbolyn is planning a Mary Stewart reading week for September, but Jane's recent review of Stormy Petrel made me disinclined to wait.  Rose Cottage is one of her last books, published in1997, and certainly one of her quietest.  Set in 1947, it is narrated by Kate Herrick, returning to the Sunderland village of Todhall where she grew up, and where she was known as Kathy.  Born to an unmarried mother, she was raised by her loving grandparents after her mother left home, to escape an aunt who hated the sinner as well as the sin.  Both Kate's grandparents worked for the local squire's family at "the Hall," their Sunderland house, and in the summers on their Scottish estate.  The family is now planning to covert the Hall to a hotel and to sell off Rose Cottage, where Kate's family lived.  Her grandmother, comfortably settled on the Scottish estate, wants Kate to go down to the cottage to retrieve some things left behind.  The most important of these are stored in a small locked box, concealed in one of the walls.  Kate, widowed in the war and a bit at loose ends, is glad to do so.  When she returns to Todhall, after seven years' absence, she meets old friends again and revisits familiar scenes.  Not much really happens in this book, as Kate becomes Kathy again.  There is a little mystery about the box and its contents, a lot of reminiscing, and a little bit of romance.  It was perfect for a quiet day at home.

Now I am off to tour Hampshire by pony-carriage, with two enthusiastic Janeites in 1902.  I'm also watching the 1970s drama "Emergency!" on Netflix.  I used to have such a crush on Dr. Brackett!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A marriage, a family & a business falling apart

Soy Sauce for Beginners, Kirstin Chen

The outlines of this story felt familiar: an adult child returns home after a personal trauma, to care for an aging parent while coping with family issues.  Those issues sometimes relate to property, or as in this case, a family business.  What I particularly enjoyed about this story was its unfamiliar aspects.  It is set mainly in Singapore, the hometown of the narrator Gretchen Lin.  Just turned thirty, Gretchen has left her home and a graduate program in San Francisco, after her husband left her for his young graduate assistant.  Living again with her parents, at her father's insistence she has returned to work - at least temporarily - in the family business, Lin's Soy Sauce.  She is also helping her father care for her mother, weakened by kidney disease, brought on in part by her alcoholism.

Like Gretchen, her author Kirstin Chen is a native of Singapore (Ms. Chen now lives in San Francisco).  Though I have read various newspaper and magazine articles about the city, this is the first novel that I have read set there.  I felt like I was being given an insider's tour.  At least in this telling, food plays a big part in the city's life, with a diverse cuisine reflecting its different ethnic communities.  Reading about the food reminded me of Jen Lin-Lu's books on Chinese cooking (though I can't remember if she wrote about Singapore).

Of course a major ingredient in that cooking is soy sauce, and the family company is a major part of Gretchen's story.  Lin's was founded by her grandfather Lin Ming Tek, who despised mass-produced "murky, stagnant pond-water brew" and wanted to create "naturally fermented soy sauce, made from the highest-quality ingredients."   Using traditional methods that were already becoming obsolete, he built a successful company with sauces that have won prestigious awards.  These sauces are sold across Asia, and the company is poised to break into the European and American markets.  But now, years after its founder's death, his two sons disagree over its future.  Gretchen's father wants to keep the old techniques, even the old equipment.  Her uncle Robert and his son Cal, the heir apparent, are intent on modernizing production.  They have brought in fiberglass vats, to replace the traditional clay jars and wooden barrels.  To Gretchen and her father, the sauce they produce is unworthy of the Lin name, but Robert and Cal press on. Gretchen can't help worrying about her father, and the company, which is also their family.  But then she is only there for a short time, she will be returning to San Francisco soon.  She is not a part of Lin's.

I had a pretty good idea where the story was going to go, but I enjoyed watching it unfold.  Gretchen is an interesting character, and quite a mess for most of the book - understandably, given everything that is going on.  Family and business are a volatile mix, particularly with her mother's health and the alcoholism that they have all tacitly ignored for so many years.  I liked Gretchen despite her rough edges.  But her coping mechanisms often just make things worse for her, and it was hard watching her make bad decisions.  

I always enjoy stories about family businesses, but I was surprised at how interesting I found the discussion of soy sauce.  This book was originally chosen for one of my monthly book groups, but I couldn't find a copy at the time.  Our hostess that month arranged a soy sauce tasting party, collecting twelve or so different brands.  None of them measured up to Gretchen's descriptions of Lin's, "as complex as a fine wine," with "the citrus top notes and round caramel base that distinguished our trademark brew."  Some of them tasted as awful as Robert and Cal's fiberglass version.   I know that next time I'm shopping in the local Asian supermarket, I'll be checking out the soy sauces, looking for something artisanal.  I'll also be looking for whatever Kirstin Chen writes next.  It's hard to believe that this is her first novel.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

An unusual cure for a broken heart

No Fond Return of Love, Barbara Pym

There are various ways of mending a broken heart, but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual.

This was an unsettling reading experience for me, in a good way.  I had only a vague idea of the story when I started, and it kept taking turns that I didn't expect.  The ending took me by surprise, both with the events of the last chapters and the rather inconclusive conclusion.  I think I know what happened, but I'm not sure - nor am I sure that what might seem like "happily-ever-after" endings will actually turn out that way, for more than one of the characters.  I'm still mulling over that, and working out different scenarios in my mind.

In case I'm not the last to read this, there may be minor spoilers below.

The story opens at a conference for people who work in editing, of journals and scholarly books.  Dulcie Mainwaring is there partly to distract herself from a broken engagement.  "[It] seemed to be just the kind of thing that was recommended for women in her position - an opportunity to meet new people and to amuse herself by observing the lives of others . . ."  The first new person that she meets is Viola Dace (née Violet), who hints to Dulcie that she is there mainly because of Aylwin Forbes, one of the speakers.  "He and I were once...." she says.  Dulcie doesn't press her for details, but she can't help noticing how very handsome Aylwin is.  By the end of the conference, she's rather taken with him herself.

Dulcie lives in west London, in a large house she inherited from her parents.  She does free-lance work, researching and indexing, but she must have money of her own, because she doesn't seem to work much.  As soon as she gets back from the conference, she throws herself into a research project of her own: Aylwin Forbes.  She spends much of the book first investigating him and his family, including the wife from whom he is separated, and then stalking them all over London. When Viola moves into a room in Dulcie's house, she joins Dulcie on her expeditions, including visits to the church where Aylwin's brother is the vicar, and the small town in Somerset where his mother owns a hotel.

I liked Dulcie from the start.  She reminded me of Jane, in Jane and Prudence, both kind people, rather at loose ends, without enough to do, and lonely.  Dulcie finds it "so much safer and more comfortable to live in the lives of other people - to observe their joys and sorrows with detachment as if one were watching a film or a play."  She makes some tentative attempts to reach out, to move out of that safe detachment, with Viola, and with her niece Laurel, who comes to live with her while enrolling in secretarial school.  Both maintain their own detachment.  I was uncomfortable watching Dulcie's growing obsession with Aylwin, and even a little embarrassed at how far she would go, mixed with dread of her getting caught.  I kept wishing she could make a real friend, or find a different interest.  Though I was impressed with her research skills, Aylwin hardly seems worth all that effort.

While Dulcie is pursuing her research, the story briefly shifts to follow other characters, including Aylwin himself, as well as Viola and Laurel.  But their stories are all intertwined, and in the end, Barbara Pym brings them together.  It felt like the jumbled pieces of a puzzle each fitting neatly into place, or the way Dorothy L. Sayers describes the bells of Fenchurch St Paul coming to their places at the end of a complicated peal.  I'd like to know more about how those different stories turned out, particularly Dulcie's.

Of course, I may find out in other books.  Barbara Pym seems to enjoy having her characters make cameo appearances in other people's stories.  This one features characters from A Glass of Blessings, which I still haven't read.  I was also amused to see Some Tame Gazelle among the books that Dulcie keeps in her bathroom, "their covers now faded and buckled by steam."  I did note that both she and Aylwin grew up reading odd volumes of Every Woman's Encyclopedia ("circa 1911").

Dulcie's daily cleaner, Miss Lord, tells her, "You read too much, that's your trouble."  Men don't like it, she says. "'No, I don't think they do,' said Dulcie, but absently, as the world of the book began to seem the real one."  I very much enjoyed my time in her world.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The adventures of Mamie Wick

An American Girl in London, Sara Jeannette Duncan

I was first introduced to Sara Jeannette Duncan by Barb of Leaves & Pages.  Reading her review of An American Girl in London, I had a familiar feeling of "I want this book - right now."  I was frustrated to find no copies available, even through inter-library loan.  As I mentioned before, I downloaded an e-version, but on my Nook it was too garbled to read.  When I discovered last week that the text was unscrambled and easily readable on my new phone and tablet, I moved this book to the top of my reading list.

I had forgotten the details of Barb's post, but from the title alone I was expecting a story about an American girl discovering London, perhaps a late-Victorian take on 84, Charing Cross Road, or Amy's travels in Little Women. Knowing that Sara Jeannette Duncan was Canadian, I was half-expecting a Canadian heroine, so I was a little surprised when the narrator introduced herself as Mamie Wick, of Chicago, writing in 1890 (the book was published a year later).  Mamie explains her reasons for writing in the first chapter, addressing her potential British readers:
     I have noticed that you are pleased, over here, to bestow rather more attention upon the American Girl than upon any other kind of American that we produce. You have taken the trouble to form opinions about her - I have heard quantities of them.  Her behaviour and her bringing-up, her idioms and her 'accent' - above all her 'accent' - have made themes for you, and you have been good enough to discuss them - Mr. James, in your midst, correcting and modifying your impressions - with a good deal of animation, for you. I observe that she is almost the only frivolous subject that ever gets into your newspapers . . .
     Privately, I should think that the number of us that come over here every summer to see the Tower of London and the National Gallery, and visit Stratford-upon-Avon, to say nothing of those who marry and stay in England, would have made you familiar with the kind of young women we are long ago; and to me it is very curious that you should go on talking about us . . . But it has occurred to me that, since so much is to be said about the American Girl, it might be permissible for her to say some it herself.
I liked Mamie from the start, and I looked forward to her adventures, and to seeing London through her eyes.  Initially she was to travel with her parents, but her father (a United States Congressman with an eye on a Senate seat) was detained on business.  Instead, her parents agreed that she should go on alone, which also surprised me a little.  I don't know how usual that would really have been in 1890.  But then her author set off on a round-the-world trip herself as a young woman, traveling with a friend.  And at least the Wicks had relatives in London, her father's aunt Mrs. Portheris, on whom Mamie could call.

Sailing from New York, Mamie at first found herself somewhat isolated among the ship's company, with even her dinner companions ignoring her.  But finally the English lady sitting next to her at meals began to talk to her, eventually drawing in the gentleman on the other side, and a shipboard friendship developed.  Mamie would meet both of them again in London, and she would come to share a flat with the lady when her aunt proved less than welcoming.  Her two new friends took her on outings around the city, to see the sights and to attend the parties and the theatre.  With them and others that she met, she traveled outside London, to the Boat Races, Ascot, and a military review.

Along the way, Mamie was quick to correct what she saw as the misconceptions about American girls, and she was equally quick to note the foibles that she saw in British society - perhaps her Canadian author seeing both sides from the middle.  Mamie was never rude about it, keeping many of her observations for her book.  At the same time she recognized that as a young woman from the midwestern United States, she had much to learn from the history and culture of Great Britain.  She did not have the chip on her shoulder, the need to trumpet American superiority, which Louisa May Alcott's heroines for example often have (I wonder again if this is because her author was Canadian).  But she wasn't just a country mouse or a rube, lost in the big city, either.  She knew that she didn't know everything, and she was open to learning and guidance.  I liked her mix of confidence and inexperience.  I think she could actually have coped perfectly well on her own, though she wouldn't have had the entrée into society that her new friends gave her.

In one area, though, Mamie was more than a little naive.  In the first chapter, we learn that her father made his fortune in Chicago, manufacturing baking powder.  It was obviously a substantial fortune, funding his political career and even a Senate race.  Mamie was sent off apparently with a blank check, or at least permission to draw on her father's bankers in London as needed.  She spent freely, though not extravagantly.  So while she might not be a "dollar princess" like Consuelo Vanderbilt, she was clearly a well-off, unmarried young American woman.  And judging by the charming period illustrations, she was a Gibson-girl type - though she seems to be a blonde in some of them, and a brunette in others (but that may be from her hats).  Her money and her appearance created expectations in the people that she met.  Mamie took the attentions of the young men for granted, seeing them simply as friends, when it is clear to the reader that they had other intentions.  Had she been traveling with her mother or a chaperone, things would have gone differently.

This book was great fun, and I did enjoy Mamie's adventures and her descriptions of late-Victorian London. As I was reading, I kept thinking how much I'd like to have a copy of this, so much that I finally resigned myself to the idea of a print-on-demand version (I generally loathe their format and sometimes careless editing).  Instead, I was surprised and delighted to find a reasonably-priced copy on ABE - the 1891 edition, no less.  I'll be very happy to have this on my real as well as digital shelves.