Friday, November 28, 2014

Signing on for another round of the TBR Dare

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

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My introduction to Maria Edgeworth

The Absentee, Maria Edgeworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 22, 2014

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

Irish Memories, E.O. Somerville & Martin Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A short book on a long war

The First World War, Michael Howard

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Death by drowning, in shallow water

The Watersplash, Patricia Wentworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A memoir of family and politics

Prison and Chocolate Cake, Nayantara Sahgal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A catering job turns deadly

Aunty Lee's Deadly Specials, Ovidia Yu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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