Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Some favorite books and authors of 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Love and murder at the Priory

The Chinese Shawl, Patricia Wentworth

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Christmas story set in Australia

Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, Anthony Trollope

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bookish expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Discovering secrets in the silence

The Grace of Silence, Michele Norris

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Filming the Scottish play in Flanders

A Citizen of the Country, Sarah Smith

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A classic account of Galveston in the 1900 Storm

A Weekend in September, John Edward Weems

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 8, 2014

Love & music & madness & painting in Paris

The Knowledge of Water, Sarah Smith

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 5, 2014

A fascinating collection of letters

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

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

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

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

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

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