Saturday, August 30, 2014

Fall reading

The calendar reminds me that the official First Day of Autumn is September 23rd, the weather is only a degree or two cooler, and we still have another 4-6 weeks of prime hurricane season here on the Gulf Coast. But still, it suddenly feels like we've turned the corner, that summer is coming to an end. And not just because the Halloween candy is already in the stores!

This year September 23rd also brings Deborah Crombie's newest book, To Dwell in Darkness, which I've been anticipating ever since the cliff-hanger that closed the last. The date is marked on my calendar, as is her signing here in Houston later the same week.

In addition, in the next couple of months there are four fall reading events that I'm really looking forward to participating in.  The first, which has already started, is the 9th season of R.I.P., or R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril IX, hosted by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings.  It runs (appropriately) through Halloween.  This year again I am signing up for "Peril the First," to "Read four books, any length, that you feel fit (the very broad definitions) of R.I.P. literature," defined as "Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, Supernatural."

Ms. Crombie's new book would qualify.  Here are some others I am considering, from my TBR stacks:
  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
  • Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (I'm currently stuck 1/3rd of the way through)
  • Monica Dickens, Closed at Dusk
  • I.J. Parker, The Convict's Sword
  • Mary Stewart, Touch Not the Cat
  • Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • Patricia Wentworth, The Chinese Shawl

Next up is Mary Stewart Reading Week, hosted by Anbolyn of Gudrun's Tights.  This will run September 14-21, and it is open to anything related to the author or her work.  I collected quite a few of her books last year, with the first reading week, and I still have several on the TBR shelves.  I am planning to read The Last Enchantment, to finish the Merlin trilogy.  I also have a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain, a source of many Arthurian legends, which Stewart recommended in an afterword to The Crystal Cave - not as history, but as entertaining fantasy disguised as history.  I'd like to read Touch Not the Cat, which a Mary Stewart quiz suggested as the best match for me.  My friend Susan also told me recently it's her favorite of Stewart's novels.  Reading it would overlap with the R.I.P. challenge, but I think that's allowed.  I am also tempted to re-read The Ivy Tree, just because it's so damn good!

The next event is A More Diverse Universe, hosted by Aarti of Book Lust.  It is a challenge to read and review one book by a person of color during the last two weeks of September (Sept. 14-27).   This year it's open to books in any genre.  From a recommendation I read on Book Riot this morning, I picked up a copy of Secret Daughter, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, at the library this afternoon.  I know I'm not going to be able to wait to read that one.  I am still making a list for this challenge, but again just from my own TBR shelves I have several possibilities:
  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower  [another challenge overlap!]
  • Amitav Ghosh, The Glass Palace
  • Susie King Taylor, A Black Woman's Civil War Memoirs
  • Gail Tsukiyama, The Samurai's Garden
  • Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy - I couldn't finish this in two weeks, but if I start if early, I might could finish it in time to qualify!

As well as the second month of R.I.P., October brings Margaret Kennedy Reading Week, hosted by Jane of Fleur in her World, running October 6-12.  I consider Jane the one who really introduced me to Margaret Kennedy, with her review of Lucy Carmichael, a book I loved almost beyond words (my review is here).  I already had a couple of Kennedy's books on the TBR stacks when Jane announced the reading week.  I took that as an excuse to find still more, so I have a ridiculously wide range to choose from for the week, including The Feast, Troy Chimneys, Act of God, Not in the Calendar, and The Wild Swan.  I also have a very battered second copy of Troy Chimneys that I'd be happy to share, if anyone is having trouble finding her books.  I will be resisting the urge to buy the new Virago editions, as I have (so far) with the new Angela Thirkell editions.

The next couple of months should be rich in reading!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cats in books

This is not really a bookish post.  I lost a cat this past weekend.  She was 17 years old, and in the first stages of kidney disease, but she'd just had a check-up and the tests showed that she was stable.  Then Saturday night she started having trouble breathing.  After hours at the emergency vet clinic, they told me it was probably a tumor in her chest, which was confirmed by tests the next day.  Apparently these often develop in older cats, which I never knew.  The tumor she had attached itself to her heart, and there was really nothing to do, except let them end her suffering.  It was so sudden that it has kind of left me in shock, reaching for comfort books (Georgette Heyer, P.G. Wodehouse) and comfort foods (malted milkshakes and chai latte).  My other cat refused to eat for a couple of days, but now she seems less stressed.

On that very long Sunday, waiting for the call about the second tests, I started thinking about cats in books. Making a list of my favorites proved a nice distraction, and later I went trolling through the bookshelves, looking for them.

The first literary cats I met might have been in the Little House books, Black Susan in the Big Woods and then Kitty in the Dakota territory, plus the barn cats in Farmer Boy that Almanzo feeds with warm new milk. These aren't really pets, they are working animals on the farms.  The Ingalls get Kitty after Pa wakes up in the middle of the night with a mouse chewing on his hair, and Susan is the best mouser in the Big Woods.  But the cats also help make their homes cozy, as in the Big Woods:
The sunshine came streaming through the windows into the house, and everything was so neat and pretty  . . .  The pantry door stood wide open, giving the sight and smell of goodies on the shelves, and Black Susan came purring down the stairs from the attic, where she had been taking a nap.

I think Elizabeth Peters has more cats in her books than any author I've read.  In the Amelia series, it begins with the matriarch Bastet, a large brindled Egyptian cat, who bonds with the young Ramses:
[John] followed Ramses' every step and scarcely took his eyes off the boy.  He attended to the needs of Bastet, such as they were; the cat required far less attendance than a human child. (Which is one of the reasons why spinster ladies prefer felines to babies.)  Ramses had not insisted on bringing the cat; he had simply taken it for granted that she would accompany him.  The few occasions on which they had been parted had proved so horrendous for all concerned that I gave in with scarcely a struggle.  (The Mummy Case)
When Bastet dies years later, the family keeps pushing kittens on Ramses, but it takes him a long time to connect with another cat.

There is also the cat-filled mansion of Aunt Kate, in Devil-May-Care, one of my favorite of her books:
       The room was enormous - thirty by fifty feet at the least  . . .  The furniture consisted mainly of chairs and tables; the flat surfaces of both types were covered with objects, many of them cats.
      Henry had never seen so many cats.  Fat cats and lean cats. Short-haired cats and cats that looked like animated mops.  Blue cats, White cats, tabby cats, grey cats. Siamese cats, Persian cats, and cats of no determinate species. Kittens. Cats with long tails, cats with no tails at all.
I bet nobody called Aunt Kate a crazy cat lady!  At least not more than once.

Rumer Godden's Benedictine abbey, in In This House of Brede, has cats as well as nuns.  The young postulant Sister Cecily wanted her convent to have box hedges.  Me, I'd pick mine based on the cats.  There is Wimple, "a Benedictine in her black and white, the white running under her chin, which explained her name."
Wimple too had the nuns on a string, as Sister Priscilla would say.  There was a custom in the community for the nuns, on their way to breakfast after Prime, to stop at the statue of our Lady with the Holy Child in the long cloister, to say three Hail Mary's there.  Wimple was impatient for her breakfast, and she would walk among the kneeling figures, giving them small pushings with her head; one hand after another would come out, not to push her away but to stroke her.  Wimple was perverse; she would come into the refectory through the ever-opening service door and walk through the room to the other, demanding to be let out.  Unlike Grock's, Wimple's miaow was piercing and could, at dinner and supper, interrupt the read, so that Sister Xaviera, who doted on Wimple, would get up and let her out.  In a moment or two the little cat would walk in the service door again.
Philippa Talbot says that in coming to the abbey, she gave up "a cat and a clock and some dear little sins."  The cat is a Siamese called Griffon, and after leaving him in his new home, as she prepares to enter the community, "It was better, Philippa found in the the train, not to let herself think about Griffon."

Kerry Greenwood's mysteries featuring Corinna Chapman are also full of cats.  Corinna herself has three: "Horatio, a tabby and white gentleman with impeccable manners and grooming," and the two in the Mouse Police who keep her bakery rodent-free at night.  Her friend Meroe the witch has the night-black Belladona. When a litter of kittens turns up on the doorstep, their neighbors in the building adopt them all, and the mother as well too. One of the kittens was lost for days and discovered shut into an apartment.  When the door is opened,
       [A] very small, very thin black kitten tottered out, climbed the Professor as if every movement hurt, and nestled in his bosom as though she had been looking for him all her short life.  He cradled her in his beautiful long hands.
       'Hello,' he said to the kitten. She put out a little pink tongue and licked his thumb. Then she closed her eyes and gave a short purr.
       From that point on, of course, the Professor was lost.  He was one of the Chosen Ones.  (Heavenly Pleasures)
And then there is J.K. Rowling, who gives us the evil Mrs Norris, prowling the corridors of Hogwarts at night, just looking for students she can squeal on.  But there is also Crookshanks, Hermione's big ginger cat, on whom she dotes.  He's the only one to sense danger in Scabbers the rat.  But my favorite cat in J.K. Rowling's world is the first one we meet, the tabby cat on the corner of Privet Drive, whom Mr Dursley sees reading a map.  How perfect that Professor McGonagall's Animagus form is a cat, when "This animal form is not chosen by the wizard, but determined by their personality and inner traits."

I actually have a few more fictional cats on my list, but I think I'll stop here, and go sit with my real-life furball for a while, and just be grateful for the wonderful cats who've shared my life, especially my Cassie.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A stubbon school-master

Dr Wortle's School, Anthony Trollope

As much as I love Anthony Trollope, reading Castle Richmond earlier this year shook my faith in him a little.  But all the wonderful recent posts from people discovering Trollope - and falling under his spell - have made me want to pull the Palliser and Barchester novels off the shelves again.  Instead, last week I read a book with a child psychopath, a serial killer who tortures animals, a perfect trifecta of ick factors for me.  I abandoned the book, but not before reading enough to feel like I needed a mental palate-cleanser.  Some time in an ordered Victorian world suddenly seemed very appealing.  I decided on Dr Wortle's School not quite at random: it's one of his shorter, later novels.  I wasn't sure I had the stamina for a door-stop (I recently lost interest in The Woman in White about a third of the way through).

Oh, this book was such fun from start to finish.  Let me start with the title character, Dr Jeffrey Wortle.  He may be the Rector of Boswick, a town in the Midlands, but his heart and soul are in his school, an exclusive establishment that prepares boys for Eton (of course I was reminded of the schools that play such a big part in Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire).  His school is a great success, packed with noblemen's sons, despite the stiff fees.  He has carried on his school over the objections of three different bishops, with whom he has waged the kind of clerical war so familiar in Barsetshire.  He also has a running feud with the Hon Mrs Stantiloup, the parent of a former pupil withdrawn in a quarrel over the fees (technically over extra charges incurred).  The editor of my Penguin Classics edition, Mick Imlah, suggests that Dr Wortle is the closest Trollope ever came to creating a literary döppelganger.  Trollope's own son and his first biographer thought so, nothing that they shared a "blustering amiability, an imperious manner, and a good heart."

All three characteristics, along with the stubbornness of so many of Trollope's characters, are soon on display.  Dr Wortle has hired a new curate and usher for his school, a Rev. Henry Peacocke.  Like the Doctor an Oxford man, he has just returned to England after several years working at a university in St. Louis, Missouri.  There he married his wife Ella, a beautiful American woman, who will serve as the school's matron.  The Peacockes do not fit neatly into the parish, however.  They refuse all social invitations, including some very flattering ones from the students' parents, and Mr Peacocke is strangely reluctant to take up his curate's duties.  People begin to talk, especially the Hon Mrs Stantiloup.

At this point, in Chapter III, "The Mystery," Trollope breaks into the story, in that familiar confidential tone:
And now, O kind-hearted reader, I feel myself constrained, in the telling of this little story, to depart altogether from those principles of story telling to which you have probably become accustomed, and to put the horse of my romance before the cart.  There is a mystery respecting Mr and Mrs Peacocke which, according to all laws recognized in such matters, ought not to be elucidated till, let us say, the last chapter but two, so that your interest should be maintained almost to the end, - so near the end that there should be left only space for those little arrangements which are necessary for the well-being, or perhaps for the evil-being, of our personages.  It is my purpose to disclose the mystery at once, and to ask you to look for your interest, - should you choose to go on with my chronicle, - simply in the conduct of my persons, during this disclosure, to others.  You are to know it all before the Doctor or the Bishop, - before Mrs Wortle or the Hon Mrs Stantiloup, or Lady De Lawle.  You are to know it all before the Peacockes became aware that it must necessarily be disclosed.  It may be that when I shall have once told the mystery there will no longer be any room for interest in the tale to you.  That there are many such readers of novels I know  . . .   Therefore, put the book down if the revelation of some future secret be necessary for your enjoyment.  Our mystery is going to be revealed in the next paragraph, - in the next half-dozen words.

How cool is that?  A Victorian spoiler warning!  And one that the Penguin editors might take to heart, as it happens.  Also, Trollope is considering how stories are constructed, and why people read them.  Is it just for the sense of discovery, of unraveling secrets?  If so, he says, he is "far from saying  . . .  [that] is not the most natural and the most efficacious" kind of interest, but if so, he is going to deprive his story of it.

Well, like the author, I am going to discuss the mystery and its effects, so here is my spoiler warning!

In the author's words: "Mr and Mrs Peacocke were not man and wife." It isn't their fault.  Mrs Peacocke was previously married to a ne'er-do-well, a former Rebel in the Civil War, Colonel Ferdinand Lefroy.  After making his wife's life a misery for several years, he went off with his brother Robert to the Texas border lands, where he was reportedly killed.  Henry Peacocke traveled all the way down to the border and spoke with Robert, who confirmed his brother's death.  Mr Peacocke then returned to St. Louis and married the widow.  One day Col. Lefroy showed up at their house, very much alive, drunk and demanding money.  The Peacockes could think of nothing to do but flee the country.  Mr Peacocke refused to abandon his wife, and she accepted his decision.  They continued to live together and present themselves as husband and wife.  But knowing how society would see them - particularly Mrs Peacocke - they avoid society.  Now with questions coming up, Henry Peacocke had just decided to tell the Doctor everything, when Robert Lefroy shows up, demanding money in his turn.  When he is refused, he begins telling the story to everyone he meets.

Of course the reaction is instantaneous: the Peacockes are living in sin, and their presence is contaminating the school and corrupting the boys.  Mr Peacocke is of course completely unfit for a curate's place.  The Hon Mrs Stantiloup is loud in expressing these opinions.  As the news spreads, parents begin making excuses to withdraw their sons.  The Doctor, however, takes a different view.  He refuses to condemn the couple, because what else could they do in such a terrible situation?  How could a husband abandon his wife under those circumstances, even if she wasn't technically his wife?  And if he clings to her, naturally she must cling to him (as women do).  With quite progressive and heterodox ideas for a Church of England minister in the 1880s, Dr Wortle prepares to defend the Peacockes.  Here the editor suggests that Trollope had in mind his good friends George Eliot and her partner George Lewes, who could not marry because Lewes was unable to obtain a divorce.  The editor notes that Trollope's wife Rose refused to receive the couple in her home, but Trollope visited them in theirs.

Through Dr Wortle, Trollope points out again and again that in transgressions against sexual morality, it is the woman who pays the higher price and is judged more harshly, especially by other women.  The man in the case can usually walk away with little damage to his reputation.  This double-standard is a frequent theme in Trollope's novels, such as The Vicar of Bullhampton and He Knew He Was Right.  Bigamy is also a common theme in the Victorian literature I have read, and it must have represented a real anxiety in people's minds about having to take strangers at face value.  It plays a major part in two other Trollope novels,  Castle Richmond and John Caldigate.

At the Doctor's suggestion, Peacocke sets off for America again, dragging Robert Lefroy along, to look for definite proof about the fate of Ferdinand.  Meanwhile, Dr Wortle insists on Mrs Peacocke remaining in the school, though in seclusion.  Mrs Wortle is not best pleased about this, especially since the other woman is so beautiful.  Gossip again goes to work, eventually reaching the Bishop's ear, setting off another battle.  Dr Wortle is of course convinced that he is right and everyone else is wrong - one of Trollope's stubborn men, like Plantagenet Palliser and Mr Crawley, and even quiet Dr Harding.  But to his own surprise he finds himself riding over to consult the vicar of the next parish.  Each time he gets Job's comfort and plain words.  Mr Puddicombe actually tells him that he is wrong about several things, including his war with the Bishop.  The Doctor resents this, and disagrees, but can't ignore Mr Puddicombe's words. Meanwhile the story alternates between Boswick and the southwestern United States, where Henry Peacocke is on the hunt.  At one point he even has a photograph made of a crucial piece of evidence!

To lighten the story a little, there is a also a quiet romance between Dr Wortle's only daughter and a former pupil.  Like Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, he falls in love with his tutor's daughter.  His parents are not thrilled, but at least Mary is no Lucy Steele.  One reason her father is so attached to his school is that he is determined to give his daughter a dowry of £20,000.

N.B.  I am finding that the publication dates of some Victorian novels can be a bit confusing.  This one was published as a serial in 1880 (the publisher originally objecting to the Peacockes' situation), and then as a book in 1881.  I am using the later date for the Mid-Century of Books.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A dying woman's dangerous secrets

Designated Daughters, Margaret Maron

The publication of this, the 19th book in the Deborah Knott series of mysteries, caught me by surprise.  I've gotten so used to authors announcing their upcoming books, usually months in advance.  But the first I knew of this one was an email from the author on its release day last week.  I immediately made plans to stop for a copy on my way home from work - a prospect that made my day brighter right from the start.

This is a series I really enjoy.  It is set in North Carolina, in the farm country of the fictional Colleton County, where Deborah Knott is a district court judge married to a deputy sheriff, Dwight Bryant.  They are raising his son by a previous marriage, Cal, whom Deborah recently adopted.  Both of their families have roots deep in the area.  Deborah is the youngest of twelve children (and the only daughter).  Most of her brothers have settled around the family farm, raising their own families, as have some of their children in turn.  At the head of the family is the patriarch Kezzie Knott, once the most famous moonshiner in the county, if not the state.  He has supposedly retired, finally.  His son-in-law the deputy sheriff certainly doesn't want to know otherwise.

This story is set in the heart of the Knott family.  Kezzie's youngest sister Rachel is dying, lying silent and still in hospice care at the local hospital.  But one afternoon, she suddenly begins to speak again.  As the news spreads through the family, they gather at her bedside with longtime friends.  Rachel's words are clear, but they don't always make sense, as she moves back and forth in time, with threads of story switching from person to person.  Sometimes she speaks of her brother Jacob, who died more than sixty years ago in a swimming accident.  Jacob's twin Jedidiah was so distraught that he ran off to join the army, only to be killed himself in a training accident.  The twin tragedies have always weighed on the family, particularly their youngest sister.  Rachel also speaks in fragments of an abusive husband, a terrible flirt, someone who didn't pay his debts, and a father unknowingly raising another man's child.  She gives no names to these people, leaving the family to try and puzzle out their identities.

But her words have already threatened someone.  While the family is taking a break out of the room, Rachel is killed, suffocated with a pillow.  As Dwight and the police begin to investigate, they uncover the secrets behind Rachel's words.  They also learn that Jacob Knott's death in a creek all those years ago may not have been the accident everyone assumed.  While I have finally gotten Deborah's family sorted out (with the help of the family tree printed in the front of every book), I found all the secrets and the suspects a little hard to follow at times.  But the two cases are brought to neat and logical conclusions in the end, though the family may not feel that justice has been done.

There is a third element to this story, which is reflected in the title.  One of the cases that comes before Deborah's court is that of a brother suing a sister over their mother's estate.  The sister was the caregiver for the mother, while the brother now shows more interest in the estate than he ever did in his mother's care.  Through the case, Deborah meets a group that calls itself the "Designated Daughters."  Its members have become the caregivers for aging parents or ill siblings or even aunts and uncles, the ones who accept that responsibility for the rest of the family.  Some of the "Designated Daughters" are actually men, but the majority are women.  One of the members has been defrauded by the agent who handled an estate sale, and they want Deborah's help.  I know many people who are in the position of "Dedicated Daughters" (and sons).  My sisters took on that role with my mother; I was too far away in Texas to do more than visit and provide long-distance support.  Though the "Daughters" and through the Knotts, Margaret Maron explores the stresses on modern families, particularly with aging and illness, but also the fluid boundaries of what makes a family.  As Deborah notes of her son Cal, "Maybe not the child of my body, but damned if he's not the child of my heart." 

I always enjoy spending time with the Knotts, particularly Mr. Kezzie, and I sure wish Colleton weren't a fictional place.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Returning to Ruritania

Rupert of Hentzau, Anthony Hope

I enjoyed The Prisoner of Zenda from start to finish, so when I learned there was a sequel, I immediately added it to my reading list.  Where the first book is narrated by Rudolf Rassendyll, this book is "From the Memoirs of Fritz von Tarlenheim."  Fritz, a count and an army officer, together with Colonel Sapt, helped Rassendyll impersonate the King of Ruritania while the real king was held prisoner by his wicked cousin, Duke Michael of Streslau.  In the course of their adventures, Rassendyll fell in love with the king's beautiful fiancée Flavia, and she with him, but they nobly renounced their love for the country's good.

I was very frustrated when the introduction to my Oxford World's Classic edition of The Prisoner included a major spoiler about this book - though as it turns out, the information wasn't quite accurate.  This post will also have some spoilers, but at least I am warning you ahead of time!

Michael's right-hand man in all his schemes was Rupert of Hentzau, young, handsome, wicked and impudent. In one of my favorite lines, Rassendyll told him at one point, "Surely, while you're above ground, hell wants its master!" Rupert escaped the failure of Michael's plots, fleeing Ruritania.  For the past three years, he has been roaming Europe, his lands and income attainted, "making a living by his wits."  But now he wants to return home.  Thanks to Queen Flavia, he thinks he has found the means.  Every year, the Queen sends Rudolf Rassendyll a single red rose and a message of three words.  Fritz von Tarlenheim carries these to him, and carries back his three-word response.  If Rupert can intercept the messenger and seize the evidence, he can use the Queen's indiscretion to force the King to allow his return.  Unbeknownst to him, this year Fritz is carrying something even more dangerous: a love letter from the Queen, which also tells her lover that this is the last message she will send.

On the way to meet Rassendyll at Wintenberg, Fritz is decoyed and attacked.  Rupert robs him of the letter and the rose, and then sets off for Ruritania.  Rassendyll, who was waiting for Fritz in Wintenberg, learns of this and sets off himself, in pursuit.  He arrives at Zenda, where the King and Queen are staying, to ask wise old Colonel Sapt for help.  Meanwhile, Rupert goes to ground in the capital city of Streslau, waiting for his chance.

I have to say, I did not enjoy this book as much as The Prisoner.  I know I was supposed to sympathize with Queen Flavia, trapped in marriage to a weak and petulant King, consoling herself with her love for Rudolf Rassendyll.  Everyone around her who is in on her secret indulges her in this emotional wallowing, even though, as she admits more than once, she knows it is wrong.  She also has to know how dangerous it is to write that letter, but she does it anyway, and all the trouble flows from that.  I thought she was a much stronger character in the first book.  Here she is a weak woman, at the mercy of feelings she cannot control, who has to be rescued from the consequences of her actions, at considerable cost.**  And she weeps, a lot.

On the other hand, for a book called Rupert of Hentzau, we don't see much of the villain.  People talk about him constantly, and his actions are reported in detail, but he is absent for much of the book.  I think the story could have used more of his wicked energy.  And I must say that the Rudolf Rassendyll of this book, as seen through Fritz's eyes, while noble and heroic and manly, is a bit flat compared to the Rudolf who tells his own story in The Prisoner.  He has become The Hero, but he has a lot less fun doing it - probably because he has to keep consoling Queen Flavia.

I was lucky enough to find a 1916 edition of this book on-line.  It has the original Charles Dana Gibson illustrations, which are charming.  He certainly makes Rudolf Rassendyll look the hero!  I have also downloaded two of Anthony Hope's other books, not set in Ruritania: The Heart of Princess Osra, and Sophy of Kravonia.  From the titles alone, I am anticipating more High Romance - hopefully with less weeping.

**Final, major spoilers:
The death toll includes the King, Rudolf Rassendyll, Rupert, and a servant.  With the King's death, Flavia becomes Queen in her own right, as the King's cousin and next heir (they had no children).  She then apparently turns into Queen Victoria after Prince Albert's death: "[Her] only joy is to talk of Mr. Rassendyll with those few who knew him, her only hope that she may some day be with him again."  At that point I really wanted to Cher-smack her.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Factory work in wartime

The Fancy, Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens wrote a book, One Pair of Feet, about working as a nurse in the Second World War.  In her autobiography, published many years later, she says that she had to quit nursing to find the time to write about it.  "The Ministry of Labour still allowed you to move from job to job, as long as it was war work."  She decided on factory work and trained to be a fitter. 
Through a Kensington friend, I got myself a job in the inspection department at Sunbeam Talbot, up near Little Wormwood Scrubs and the railway sheds.  They were repairing Rolls-Royce Spitfire engines for fighter planes, which had failed on test, or been damaged in a crash.
A year later, she was back working as a nurse.  In her spare time,
I used to lug my typewriter back to the hospital after supper and put it on the emergency operating table in the basement and sit on the anaesthetist's stool and try to write bits of a novel about a foreman in an aircraft factory before I was disturbed.

Though she didn't mention it by name, The Fancy is that book.  Her foreman's name is Edward Ledward.  The cover of my Penguin paperback shows him cradling a rabbit, one of the Flemish Giant breed that he raises in his back garden.  I don't know if I've been reading too many mysteries lately, or if it was the effect of the Super Moon, but I was convinced that something bad was going to happen to those bunnies.  Not just rabbit meat for dinner - something worse.  Maybe a direct hit on the hutches from a stray bomb in the Blitz, or even a preview of Fatal Attraction.  I spent half the book anticipating the worst - about rabbits, for pete's sake, never mind the human characters. There is some unkindness in this book, even cruelty and a couple of deaths off-stage.  But (spoiler alert) the bunnies live happily ever after.

As the story opens, Edward has just been promoted to a charge hand in the Inspection Shop at Canning Kyles, "which serviced aero engines."  He will supervise ten women on his bench, each of whom is responsible for checking a particular piece of the engines.  We get to know his crew as he does, following first one and then another in their work and in their personal life outside the factory.  I found them a bit confusing at first - Edward does too - so I made a list.  There's Dinah, "wildly, ecstatically happy" with her husband Bill; Kitty, smothered by her mother's loving care; Sheila, losing herself in love for the first time; and Wendy, whom Edward can't help comparing to a rabbit, quietly hiding a difficult home situation.  Edward has his own problems at home.  His wife Connie is often impatient and abrupt with him, uninterested in his work or the rabbits that he is successfully breeding.  Her mother and sister, who spend a lot of time with Connie, take an equally dim view of him.

The factory work itself is pretty dull, as Monica Dickens found out.  "In the relentless monotony of the work, any sense of purpose gradually dwindled in focus down to the weekly pay packet."  This isn't a grandly patriotic story of the war, despite the management's efforts to stress the importance of the factory work.  Though the war is always there, in the rations and the clothing coupons and the blackout, it is in the background for much of the story.  It's just the way things are to some of the characters, who hardly seem to notice it, while to others it brings tragedy and grief.

Once I got over my paranoia about the rabbits, I enjoyed this book very much.  It is of its time in casually racist references, but on the other hand Edward is quite at home in the "the Jewish colony" near where he lives, its residents kind and sympathetic.  I liked following the different characters, seeing how their lives intersect.  I had a pretty good idea where Edward's story was going to end up, though I had no idea how it was going to get there.  I thought the ending of two of the stories in particular were very cleverly and neatly done.  As with Monica Dickens' other books, I also enjoyed seeing how she used the events of her own life in her stories.  She is a good example of that adage, "Write what you know."  Now I'm wondering what to read next.

N.B. This book, published in 1943, completes the first quarter of my Mid-Century of Books reading project.  Honestly, I thought I'd be a lot further along by this point, and I expected to have more of the Victorian years accounted for.  I should have 1897 covered in a couple of days, thanks to Rudolf Rassendyll.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A father's absence, a child's fall

A Hundred Flowers, Gail Tsukiyama

This book is up for discussion at one of my book groups tomorrow night.  As I have admitted before, I am a lousy book group member, because I can't read on a schedule.  I think it's the first time this year that I have actually A) finished the book  B) before the actual discussion.  I was happy to see A Hundred Flowers chosen, in fact, because I have had my eye on Gail Tsukiyama's books since the discussion earlier this year about reading diversely (centered around BookCon 2014).  Speaking of which, I've just signed up for the #Diversiverse Reading Week (A More Diverse Universe 2014), organized by Aarti of Book Lust.

A Hundred Flowers is set in Mao Tse-Tung's China, on the eve of the Great Leap Forward.  In the spring of 1956, Mao announced the "Hundred Flowers Campaign," asking intellectuals and artists to suggest ways to improve China.  The book's title comes from one of Mao's statements: "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend."  Despite the official encouragement, after a decade of persecution under the Communists many were afraid to speak out, to draw attention to themselves.  It was almost a year before people felt safe enough to write or speak publicly.  In the end, their initial fears were justified.  As criticisms of the Communist Party and its leaders began to appear, the government started arresting those who had spoken out, charging them with subversion and sentencing them to long terms of "re-education" at labor camps.

I know very little of this period in China's history.  Gail Tsukiyama explores it through a family, the Lees, living in Guangzhou in the south, near Hong Kong  (Ms. Tsukiyama's mother is from Hong Kong, and growing up she often visited family there).  Her story opens in July of 1958, a year after Lee Sheng, a high school history teacher, was arrested for writing a letter criticizing Mao and the Party.  His seven-year-old son Tao doesn't understand why his father was taken away and why he hasn't come home.  One day he climbs a tree in the family's courtyard, hoping that from the top he can see the White Cloud Mountain his father often told him about.  Instead, he falls, breaking his leg so badly that it may leave permanent damage.  His accident upsets the fragile balance of a family under great stress.  His mother Kai Ying has had only two letters from Sheng in the past year.  She avoids her son's questions, and her own, while supporting the family with her work as an herbalist.  Tao spends much of his time with his grandfather Wei, a retired professor of art history, who buries grief and guilt over his son's arrest in caring for his grandson.  Their family also includes a neighbor, Song, whose apartment was carved out of the family mansion in the Communists' redistribution of wealth (another family occupies the ground floor of the house).  The household grows to two more with the arrival of Suyin, a teen-ager who has been living on the streets, pregnant and alone, whose baby Kai Ying delivers one stormy night. 

The story shifts between the different characters as they cope with Tao's recovery, Sheng's continuing absence, and the strains of daily life under the Communist regime.  (In reading about this period, I learned that things were about to get much worse in China, as Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, with its forced industrialization.)  There are other strains within the family, which eventually lead Wei on an impulsive and difficult journey to find his son.  I enjoyed this book both for the family story and for its setting, a window into China in the late 1950s.  I was particularly interested in Kai Ying's work as an herbalist, treating her patients with traditional remedies to keep their qi, their life-force, in balance.  She finds a willing student in Suyin, who needs more than physical healing from childbirth.  I can't help wondering what will happen to this family in the years to come, and whether Sheng will ever return to them.

I already have a second of Gail Tsukiyama's books on the TBR stacks, The Samurai's Garden, set in Japan just before the Second World War.  I am looking forward to discovering her other books.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Crimes Circle takes on a case

The Poisoned Chocolates Case, Anthony Berkeley

Last month my favorite bookstore, Murder by the Book, was highlighting Golden Age mysteries.  I was in the mood for a classic, and when I saw in their newsletter that the staff highly recommended this one, I stopped in to get a copy.  The jazzy cover alone might have sold me:

The story opens at a meeting of the Crime Circle, with its founder and president Roger Sheringham in the chair.  He is an author, as are three of the other five members: Alicia Dammers, the modern novelist;  Mrs. Fielder-Flemming, who writes naughty plays; and the well-known writer of detective stories, Morton Harrogate Bradley.  The Circle also includes Sir Charles Wildman, a prominent barrister, and Ambrose Chitterwick, "a mild little man . . . who had been even more surprised at being admitted this company of personages than they had been at finding him amongst them."

Their guest for the evening is Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard, who has been invited in the expectation that he could be lulled into professional indiscretions by a good dinner and lots of wine.  But instead, Sheringham proposes that the members pool their experience and wisdom to solve a recent crime, whose victims are known to them: the poisoning of Graham and Joan Bendix, by means of a box of chocolates laced with nitrobenzene.  The box had originally been sent to Sir Eustace Pennefather, a baronet with a rather unsavory reputation.  It supposedly came from a well-known candy company, as a promotion for a new variety.  Sir Eustace received the box at his club, where Bendix was also a member.  Having no use for the candy, he offered it to Bendix, who took it home to his wife.  Both tried the chocolates, which had a strange taste, and both later became violently ill.  Graham Bendix, who had only eaten two pieces, survived, but his wife died.  The police who have been investigating are baffled, in the best tradition of detective stories.  Clearly the poison was meant for Sir Eustace, but despite his rather sordid private life they cannot identify a suspect.  The few clues they have don't offer any leads.  The best they can suggest is a homicidal maniac, perhaps one with a grudge against playboys like Sir Eustace.

Roger Sheringham thinks that the members of his Circle can do better.  He suggests that they take a week to consider the evidence, and to follow up any leads they discover.  Then they will convene again over a week, allowing each member one evening to present his or her case.  The members enthusiastically agree, except for Mr. Chitterwick, who "was still wondering, quite unhappily, how, if it ever became necessary to go a-detecting, one went."  I quickly came to dote on Mr. Chitterwick.

In the chapters that follow, each member takes a turn explaining how he or she has solved the crime.  With one exception, we don't get to follow them on their investigations, only to hear about the results with the other members of the Circle.  The exception is Roger Sheringham, whom we do get to see in action, but the narrator is careful to give nothing away.  We are told for example that he shows a picture to various people, but not whose picture it is.  I am on record as completely clueless when it comes to figuring out the mysteries I read, but here it didn't matter, since we aren't given any of the clues anyway.  In that sense, I don't think of this as a typical mystery.  The dedication is to "S.H.J. Cox, Because for once he did not guess it."  I'm not sure how anyone could guess it.

It was a lot of fun to read, though.  It reminded me of the Detection Club that Dorothy L. Sayers belonged to.  I don't know if Anthony Berkeley was also a member.  I found a reference to him in her letters, under his nom de plume Francis Iles (I also learned his real name, Anthony Berkeley Cox).  I see he has written other books featuring Roger Sheringham, and I'll be looking for those, as well as his Iles books.  The story was clever, but I really enjoyed his arch and snarky narrative voice.  The author of detective stories, Morton Harrogate Bradley, was born Percy Robinson and started out as a motor salesman.  "Now he manufactured detective stories, and found his former experience of the public's gullibility not unhelpful."  The author's skewering of Sir Charles Wildman is particularly sharp:
There was no one at the Bar who could so convincingly distort an honest but awkward fact into carrying an entirely different interpretation from that which any ordinary person (counsel for the prosecution, for instance) would have put upon it.  He could take that fact, look it boldly in the face, twist it round, read a message from the back of its neck, turn it inside out and detect auguries from its entrails, dance triumphantly on its corpse, pulverise it completely, re-mould it if necessary into an utterly different shape, and finally, if the fact still had the temerity to retain any vestige of its primary aspect, bellow at it in the most terrifying manner.  If that failed he was quite prepared to weep at it in open court.
That last sentence makes me giggle every time - and picture Sir Impey Biggs.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

My introduction to Miss Silver

The Clock Strikes Twelve, Patricia Wentworth

As I have confessed elsewhere, for many years now I have had Patricia Wentworth confused with Patricia Highsmith.  It was Katrina of Pining for the West who set me straight, with posts about Wentworth's books.  I am a big fan of mysteries from the Golden Age, and I don't know how I missed these.  When I started looking for Wentworth's books, I discovered that she wrote over 60, with 32 featuring the detective Maud Silver.  There is a handy list of all her books here.  I chose a couple from the 1940s to start with, pretty much at random.  This one, published in 1944, proved to be a perfect introduction to her books.

The Clock Strikes Twelve centers on a family, the Paradines.  Their firm, the Paradine-Moffat Works, is involved in war work, and as the story opens, a crucial set of blueprints has gone missing.  The head of the family and the firm, James Paradine, tells the designer that he knows who took them.  "This is a family matter," he says, "and I propose to deal with it in my own way."  When his extended family gathers that evening, for a New Year's Eve dinner, he announces that someone in the family has been disloyal, has betrayed the family interests.  As he know who it is, he is offering that person a chance to confess privately and take the consequences.  James tells the group that he will wait in his study until midnight.

After that announcement, I was not in the least surprised when the New Year dawns and James's body is found lying below the terrace outside his room.  The family wants to believe that he fell, but the police find evidence that he was pushed. After learning of his accusation, the police naturally focus on the family.  One of the family, learning that Maud Silver is staying with relatives in the town, asks her help with the investigation. As usual I spent most of the book suspecting the wrong people, so I was in the dark until the end.  I thought the solution was very clever and well-plotted, with a couple of twists that took me by surprise.  I enjoyed the family drama as well, which reminded me of some of Georgette Heyer's mysteries.

I couldn't help comparing Miss Silver with Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, another amateur detective who assists the police in investigating crimes.  Both are single women, not bright young things.  I don't remember whether we learn much about Miss Marple's background (the recent TV series with Geraldine McEwan added some non-canonical details).  Miss Silver is described as a "gentlewoman," a former governess, with an Edwardian air about her. There is no mention of a fee, but she seems more of a professional than Miss Marple.  She has built up quite a reputation as a detective, both with the police and the general public.  Her cases seem to come by referral, with those she has helped in the past recommending her to those who might need her services.  She is quiet but confident.  She doesn't dither, though her constant coughs for attention reminded me irresistibly of Dolores Umbridge and her "Hem! Hem!"  Miss Silver's strengths seem to be in her listening and her attention to details.  She can deal easily with servants and their employers, and her background as a governess comes in handy in getting people to talk.  At least in this book she doesn't gather everyone together for a dramatic revelation of The Murderer, but she works with the police to solve the case.

Reading this also made me consider how few of the Golden Age mysteries that I have read feature women detectives, Miss Marple aside.  Miss Climpson, a favorite of mine, assists Lord Peter Wimsey, but as his employee, under his direction.  Harriet Vane initially takes the lead in Gaudy Night, but it's left to Peter to solve the case.  In Margery Allingham's books, Amanda is on the periphery of some of Albert Campion's cases, but aside from Fear Sign (aka Sweet Danger) I don't remember her taking an active role.  Heyer's mysteries generally involve Scotland Yard, not private detectives.  Josephine Tey has Miss Pym, but that's a private investigation and a one-off book - and then Miss Pym gets everything completely wrong.  With Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Troy is sometimes involved in the cases of her husband Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard, but as I remember he like Peter Wimsey takes the lead and solves the case in the end.  I haven't read enough about detective fiction to know when this began to change, or whether I am missing other female detectives, particularly from the Golden Age.  My favorite modern series have women detectives as the central characters, including Deborah Crombie, Rhys Bowen, Elizabeth Peters, Margaret Maron and Laurie R. King.  Recommendations for earlier books are always welcome!  In the meantime, I will be collecting more of Patricia Wentworth's books - and probably filling a few more years in my Mid-Century of Books.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Aunty Lee investigates

Aunty Lee's Delights, Ovidia Yu

The subtitle of this book is "A Singaporean Mystery."  It was recommended to me in the comments on a post I wrote about another book set in Singapore, Kirstin Chen's Soy Sauce for Beginners, and now I'm passing the recommendation on.  Ovidia Yu is a new author to me, though according to the author's note she is one of Singapore's most prominent writers, with thirty plays produced, as well as fiction and non-fiction books.  These include other mysteries, but this seems to be the first published in America.  It is the start of a series, with a second book coming out later this month (I have already my pre-order in).

The Aunty of the title is Rosie Lee, who runs a small café called Aunty Lee's Delights.
It was well-known for good traditional Peranakan food and famous for the achar and sambals Aunty Lee had been selling out of her house for years. Aunty Lee's Delights was also equipped with the latest modern equipment.  Though she was revered for cooking the traditional standards, strange dishes occasionally popped up because Aunty Lee loved experimenting.  In her view, anything cooked with local ingredients was local food.  In fact the shop was very like Aunty Lee herself.  Another passion of hers was reverse engineering dishes (and occasionally people) to figure out how they had come about and how they might be better adjusted.  She called her kitchen her laboratory for DIY-CSI, the television in there testifying to her two passions, for food and news.

Though I had no idea what Peranakan food was, let alone achar, I took to Aunty Lee right off.  She is "of certain age and even more certain girth."  Recently widowed after marrying later in life, with no children of her own but two adult step-children, she has focused on the café as a distraction from her grief.  But as much as she enjoys the work, she is starting to get a little bored.  When the body of a young woman is discovered on the beach near a prominent tourist hotel and casino, Aunty Lee quickly becomes obsessed with the victim.

While she and her assistant Nina discuss the case, they are also preparing for a dinner to be held at the café that night.  Her step-son Mark is trying to start a wine-importing business, and the dinners pairing his wine with Aunty Lee's food are designed to draw business.  That night one of the guests never shows up, a young woman named Laura Kwee.  Instead, another young woman arrives, asking for Laura.  And then still another young woman goes missing.  Aunty Lee suspects that they are all connected.  She begins asking questions, drawing on her connections in Singapore society, which include Police Commissioner Raja.  He assigns a young police officer, Senior Staff Sergeant Salim, both to assist and guard her.

In an interview with fellow mystery author Louise Penny, printed in the back of the book, Ms. Yu says that "I owe my existence as it is to Agatha Christie's books," because "It was through her books that I first fell in love with reading..."  She goes on to say that Miss Marple is less the inspiration for Aunty Lee than Lucy Eyelesbarrow of 4.50 from Paddington.  Aunty Lee is such fun to read about, though some of the characters find her a bit exhausting at times.  She has enormous energy and insatiable curiosity, but also a great kindness for people.  She feeds everyone, with exactly what they need - and not just with the food that she prepares.  As she tells one young woman,
"I feel responsible for the people I feed.  Once my food has gone into them and become part of them and their lives, I become part of their lives.  In a way I love them  . . .   You say it's not my business, but all hungry people are my business."
A major thread in this story is the treatment of gays and lesbians, in public and private.  In a country that is notoriously homophobic, with anti-gay laws, Aunty Lee is open and accepting.  When people repeat anti-gay slurs to her, she challenges them, often with some version of "Who are we to judge?"  Reading this, I did wonder what the authorities in Singapore might think of a prominent author subverting their social policies through her books.  There are other suggestions of darker edges to life in Singapore.  Nina, Aunty Lee's assistant, is originally from the Philippines.  Selina, Aunty Lee's snippy daughter-in-law, is very rude to her (and she isn't all that polite to her step-mother either).  Nina knows "only too well that most employers in Singapore regarded their live-in domestic help with great suspicion."  There are hints that she was mistreated by her previous employers, perhaps even held in domestic slavery.  Aunty Lee is actually breaking the law by having Nina work in the café, since foreign workers are forbidden to work except as "Domestic Helpers" in the home.

For a while I wondered if the annoying Selina might become a victim (or the killer, for that matter), but that was really wishful thinking.  The mystery plot in this story fits neatly together - though I admit I lost track of the investigation.  I was caught up more in the characters, in their different lives and the way their stories intersected, revolving around the café where Aunty Lee and Nina spend so much of their time.  I am looking forward to their next adventure.  I'm sure we'll be seeing more of SSS Salim as well.  And I need to re-read 4.50 from Paddington.