Thursday, December 31, 2015

A young lady gets her way - a short episode from Orley Farm

I really thought that yesterday's post would be my last from 2015, but today I read the most delightful chapter in Orley Farm, and I just had to share it with someone. (I'm on p.188 of the second volume, with just over 200 pages to go.)

I will redact the names, so that this won't be a complete spoiler.

Trollope has not identified a heroine in this book, but he tells his readers early in the first volume that one character will "be the most interesting personage in this story." She has all the hallmarks of a Trollopian heroine. She has fallen in love with a young man but of course has not shown him any signs of her partiality. Her family has noticed, however, and she has been given to understand that she cannot marry this young man. Her mother in particular objects to him, because he is not well-off, not settled in life, and not handsome.

Our young woman accepts this. "She acknowledged from the very first that he was not the sort of man whom she ought to have loved, and therefore she was prepared to submit." But like Lily Dale, her heart has been given, and she will be no other man's wife. "As regarded herself, she must be content to rest by her mother's side as a flower ungathered." She isn't going to rest, literally, though. "Then she went away, and began to read a paper about sick people written by Florence Nightingale."  This is where it gets fun, and funny.
But it was by no means [her mother's] desire that her daughter should take to the Florence Nightingale line of was by no means matter of joy to her when she found that [her daughter] was laying out for herself little ways of life, tending in some slight degree to the monastic. Nothing was said about it, but she fancied that [daughter] had doffed a ribbon of two in her usual evening attire. That she read during certain fixed hours of the morning was very manifest. As to that daily afternoon service at four o'clock - she had very often attended that, and it was hardly worthy of remark that she now went to it every day. But there seemed at this time to be a monotonous regularity about her visits to the poor. . .All this made [her mother] uneasy; and then, by way of counterpoise, she talked of balls, and offered [daughter] carte blanche as to a new dress for the special one that would grace the assizes. 'I don't think I shall go, said [daughter]; and thus [her mother] became really unhappy. Would not [the unsuitable young man] be better than no son-in-law?
The final straw comes at dinner on Friday evening, when the young woman refuses the minced veal, eating "nothing but potatoes and sea-kale" [observing the Friday abstinence from meat]. "Then [the mother] resolved that she would tell [her husband] that [the unsuitable young man], bad as he might be, might come there if he pleased. Even [he] would be better than no son-in-law at all."

The daughter breaks her mother down in a mere two weeks. I can't decide how deliberate this is, though. As Trollope writes it, the young woman is genuinely good and truly means to be obedient. But like many of his heroines, she is stronger than her elders - or just too much for them.

However, neither the mother nor the daughter knows what we the readers know about the unsuitable young man, and a secret that he has been keeping.

One final point: this is the second reference to sea-kale in this book. Previously, it was fed to an invalid. I had to look it up, to see if it was the same as the super-food kale that turns up everywhere now. It's a different variety, from what I read once very popular and now making a bit of a come-back.

This will definitely be my last post for 2015, so once again I will say Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My favorite books of the year

It's the most wonderful time of the reading year, when the lists of favorite books appear. They remind me of authors I haven't met yet, and books that I want to read. I still have about 30 hours before the TBR Dare kicks in - so plenty of time to reserve or order a few more.

As always, I can't resist compiling my own list. In fact, I started it last week, and I've been mulling it over since then. Here are my favorite books of 2015, generally in the order in which I read them:

Live Alone and Like It, by Marjorie Hillis. Snappy and snarky, this "Classic Guide for the Single Woman" of 1936 is full of practical advice, some of it still applicable 79 years later. I also enjoyed her second book, Bubbly on Your Budget, from 1937.

The Nile, by Toby Wilkinson. I loved this mix of history, archaeology, and travelogue, as the author traced the Nile from its sources to the Delta.

Century of Struggle, by Eleanor Flexner. Another classic, this time a history of the women's rights movement in the United States, first published in 1959.

A Humble Enterprise, by Ada Cambridge. I collect stories set in tea shops, and this 1898 novel about a family struggling to support themselves after their father's tragic death is charming. Sadly, the recipe for the scones that draw the Melbourne crowds is not included.

There Was and There Was Not, by Meline Toumani. An exploration of the Armenian diaspora and the continuing influence of the early 20th-century genocide in Turkey. It is also an account of the time the author spent living in Turkey, to research the book. I learned so much about Armenia and Turkey and the genocide itself from this.

The Turning Season, by Sharon Shinn. I thought this story about shape-shifters was very clever and original (not that I've read that many stories about shifters). It is the third in a series, of which I enjoyed the first (The Shape of Desire) much more than the second (Still Life with Shape-Shifter).

Pioneer Girl, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Pamela Hill, ed). I thought my copy of Wilder's autobiography was never going to arrive. It was absolutely worth the wait. I was reading parts of The Long Winter the other night (as I frequently do), and remembering how excited I was to see a picture of Mrs. Boast.

Mr. Scarborough's Family, by Anthony Trollope. This bicentennial year of Anthony Trollope's birth inspired Audrey's #6Barsets project, to read through the Barchester chronicles. I loved re-reading Doctor Thorne, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset. But it was this late novel that really stood out for me. It is a darker story, of a father with an inheritance, and two sons. There were two twists in that story that left me gaping, unable to believe what Mr. Scarborough (and his creator) had pulled off. I am currently 500 pages into the 800-page Orley Farm, and I think it will be on my "Best of 2016" list.

Girl in a Green Gown, by Carola Hicks. This book is a history of a painting, the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck (one of my favorite painters). Carola Hicks explored different elements in the painting, while tracing not just its creation, but how it moved across Europe, to end in Britain's National Gallery.

The Real Charlotte, by E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross. I am slowly working my way through their collected works, and I can see why this 1894 novel is considered their masterpiece.

The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander. A poetic and heart-breaking memoir about marriage and family, shaped by the sudden death of the author's husband.

The Children of Pride, Robert Manson Myers, ed. I became a little obsessed with this collection of letters from a Georgia family, written during the Civil War. First I read the abridged 671-page edition (covering 1861-1868). Then I tackled the original, which opened in 1854. I didn't read all of its 1440 pages, but I appreciated the earlier letters, with more information about the family. The abridgement has some very touching letters on the death of a young mother and her child, which oddly aren't included in the longer book - so yes, I am keeping both of them for now.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin. This book, the first of an "inheritance trilogy," follows Yeine Darr, who has just been named an heiress to her grandfather's throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. But what that really means is that she is now fighting not just for the throne, but for her life, against the other two candidates, her cousins. N.K. Jemisin created a fascinating world, where the gods walk among their people - not always willingly. I need to look for more of her books.

The Deepening Stream, by Dorothy Canfield (Fisher). This author's books became another obsession this year. As much as I enjoyed Rough-Hewn and Her Son's Wife, this story of Matey Gilbert was my favorite.

Keeping Fires Night and Day, Mark J. Madigan, ed. A collection of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's letters. See obsession above.  (Also one of the most meticulously-edited collections I have ever read, a delight to my archivist self.)

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, by Vaseem Khan. A twisty thriller set in Mumbai, starring a reluctantly-retired police inspector and a baby elephant, the "unexpected inheritance" of the title. I am looking forward to the second book in this new series.

All on Fire, by Henry Mayer. This massive biography of the pioneering editor and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison launched my third obsession of the year. I've lined up some additional reading on the abolitionist movement, and on Garrison himself (including a biography written by his children).

I feel like I can't leave out Patricia Wentworth and Miss Silver, considering how many books of hers that I read this year. I thought Spotlight (AKA The Wicked Uncle) was great fun.

Looking over my reading journal, I read more books than usual this year, but I wrote about fewer. This was mainly due to internet issues and to illness at different times. I made a serious dent in my TBR stacks, though I didn't manage to get the number to 200 this month (it's currently at 232). My goal for 2016 is to get it to 100.  (Realistically, the only way I think I can make that is to not buy books. And I don't actually think that's realistic.)  My other goal for this year was to read more diverse authors, and I succeeded in that. I will keep that goal in 2016, aiming for at least 12 books (or 10%) by authors of color.

Happy New Year, a little early! Now I'm off to read some other people's lists, and add to mine. I hope 2016 brings us all even more great books. And a more peaceful world - as long as I'm hoping. And my replacement reading glasses - I am so tired of squinting.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sunday miscellany: Bookish connections, reading & baking, and a Christmas present

Good morning from a stormy Houston! Our ridiculous winter heat wave has finally broken, but the cold front is bringing us some treacherous weather. We're under a tornado watch, and with the terrible storms in the Dallas area, I'm keeping an ear out for the weather alerts. My sister in El Paso just sent a picture of her backyard deep in snow - not quite a white Christmas, but close.

I was amused by a couple of bookish connections in the last couple of days. First, in the Christmas chapters of Orley Farm, Anthony Trollope wrote about children "who could not hurry fast enough into the vortex of its dissipations." That made me laugh, not just with the eager children, but because it reminded me of Jane Austen. In gently critiquing the novel her niece Anna was writing, Austen wrote,
Devereaux Forester's being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a "vortex of Dissipation". I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression; - it is such thorough novel slang - and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened... (Letter, Sept. 28, 1814)
Trollope uses a similar phrase later in the book, "a vortex of ruin and misery."  He was a big fan of Austen's novels, but he died two years before the first edition of her letters was published, so he could not have seen this. I wonder what he would have thought of her advice to a fellow author.

Second, have you ever had a quotation from a book niggling away in the back of your mind?  It drives me crazy, until I can pin it down. From the massive biography of William Lloyd Garrison, I learned that Louisa May Alcott's father Bronson was a supporter of Garrison's work, and that her maternal uncle Samuel May was one of his closest friends and allies. I knew that there was at least one reference to Garrison in Alcott's novels, but I could not for the life of me track it down in the nine I own. I came across one completely by accident in Rose in Bloom, while trying to find a different quote about obligatory Christmas presents.
[Rose's] heroes ceased to be the world's favorites; and became such as Garrison fighting for his chosen people; Howe, restoring lost senses to the deaf, the dumb, the blind; Sumner, unbribable, when other men were bought and sold; and many a large-hearted woman working as quietly as Abby Gibbons, who for thirty years has made Christmas merry for two hundred little paupers in a city almshouse, beside saving Magdalens and teaching convicts.
Oh, the satisfaction of tracking down an elusive quote!  (Being more of a print reader, it never occurred to me until just now that I could easily search the digital editions of her books.)

Third, Melanie posted something from Little House on the Prairie in her Christmas greetings. It mentions little heart-shaped cakes that Mary and Laura find in their Christmas stockings, along with a tin cup and a stick of striped candy each. Every time I read about the Ingalls' family Christmases, I am struck by how grateful they were, for so little. Anyway, the mention of the cakes sent me off to find my copy of The Little House Cookbook, which includes a recipe for the cakes.

My copy has the same style cover as the books themselves - the familiar yellow.
Leafing through this, with all the familiar Garth Williams illustrations, has made me want to pull the books off the shelf again - and also bake some little cakes. They're made with lard, though, and I'm wondering if I can substitute shortening.

Finally, I only received one book for Christmas (not counting the one I bought myself, which hasn't arrived yet). It's one I've been wanting to read for a while:

I hope you are all enjoying the holiday weekend. Going back to work tomorrow will be a bit of shock, I have to say.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

200 pages into Orley Farm: "Christmas at Noningsby" (Chapter XXII)

It was a surprise, reading this morning, to come across several chapters set at Christmas. "Christmas at Noningsby" is the second. I've read that Anthony Trollope found the holiday stressful and that he could be a bit of a grinch about it.  His "Christmas stories" that I have read are no match for Charles Dickens or Louisa May Alcott's. ("Catherine Carmichael" is downright grim.) This chapter is the closet thing I've read to a happy Christmas story.

Noningsby is a country estate near Orley Farm. It is the home of Judge and Lady Staveley, their son Augustus and daughter Madeline. Joining them for Christmas is their elder married daughter with her children, as well the London attorney Mr. Furnival and his daughter (the non-heroine) Sophia, Lucius Mason from Orley Farm and Peregrine Orme. Rounding out the party is a friend of Augustus, Felix Graham, an attorney who prefers to support himself by writing for the papers, and who has some rather unorthodox opinions.

I wonder if Felix is speaking for the author when he tells Madeline Staveley, on the way to church Christmas morning, "I cannot help thinking that this Christmas-day of ours is a great mistake." Of course she protests, and he goes on to say, "That part...which is made to be in any degree sacred is by no means a mistake." But, he continues, "I believe that the ceremony, as kept by us, is perpetuated by the butchers and beersellers, with a helping hand from the grocers. It is essentially a material festival; and I would not object to it even on that account if it were not so grievously overdone." He doesn't mention other kinds of shopping, the emphasis on presents (which play no part in the chapter).

The conversation between them ends with their arrival at the church, and here Trollope surprised me with his warmth:
I do not know of anything more pleasant to the eye than a pretty country church, decorated for Christmas-day. The effect in a city is altogether different. I will not say that churches there should not be decorated, but comparatively it is a matter of indifference. No one knows who does it. The peculiar munificence of the squire who has sacrificed his holly bushes is not appreciated. The work of the fingers that have been employed is not recognized. The efforts made for hanging the pendant wreaths to each capital have been of no special interest to any large number of the worshippers. It has been done by contract, probably, and even if well done has none of the grace of association. But here at Noningsby church, the winter flowers had been cut by Madeline and the gardener, and the red berries had been grouped by her own hands. She and the vicar's wife had stood together with perilous audacity on top of the clerk's desk while they fixed the branches beneath the cushion of the old-fashioned turret, from which the sermons were preached. And all of this had of course been talked about at the house; and some of the party had gone over to see, including Sophia Furnival, who had declared that nothing could be so delightful, though she had omitted to endanger her fingers by any participation in the work. And the children had regarded the operation as a triumph of all that was wonderful in decoration; and thus many of them had been made happy.
Later it is Madeline who leads off the first round of blindman's bluff, the final round of which draws in the staid Judge Staveley. Snap-dragon comes next. "To the game of snap-dragon, as played at Noningsby, a ghost was always necessary, and aunt Madeline had played the ghost ever since she had been an aunt..." This year her brother suggests that Sophia would make a lovely ghost, and for the first time, there are two carrying "two large dishes of raisins, and two blue fires blazing up from burnt brandy." Some members of the party think "Aunt Mad." makes the prettiest ghost, while others have eyes only for Sophia.

This makes for lovely reading on Christmas Eve. However, the chapter before is a troubling one, set at the Furnival home in London. Mrs. Furnival, who has not been invited to Noningsby, spends Christmas alone. And the chapter that follows is set at Groby Park, where I am sure that the only feasting will be done in private by the miserly Mrs. Mason.

Merry Christmas from Houston!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

100 pages into Orley Farm, by Anthony Trollope

I have had Orley Farm set aside to read this year, to round out Anthony Trollope's bicentennial, and because it is now the oldest book on my TBR shelves (there since 2002). After joining the end of the #Barsets read with The Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset, it feels a bit strange to be reading Trollope on my own - particularly with several people reading his Christmas stories.

I also thought of Trollope when I was considering comfort reading. His stories can draw me in so easily, with that familiar narrative voice. To me, the first pages of this book are vintage Trollope.
    It is not true that a rose by any other name will smell as sweet. Were it true, I should call this story 'The Great Orley Farm Case.' But who would ask for the ninth number of a serial work burthened with so very uncouth an appellation? Thence, and therefore, - Orley Farm.
     I say so much at commencing in order that I may have an opportunity of explaining that this book of mine will not be devoted in any special way to rural delights. The name might lead to the idea that new precepts were to be given, in the pleasant guise of a novel, as to cream-cheeses, pigs with small bones, wheat sown in drills, or artificial manure. No such aspirations are mine. I make no attempts in that line, and declare at once that agriculturalists will gain nothing from my present performance. Orley Farm, my readers, will be our scene during a portion of our present sojourn together, but the name has been chosen has having been intimately connected with certain legal questions which made a considerable stir in our courts of law.
A few pages later, he tells us, "as all the world knows, Hamworth church stands high, and is a landmark to the world for miles and miles around." That's one of Trollope's catch phrases, "all the world knows," and I smile now every time I see it.

That said, however, I am 100 pages into this 800-page book, and there are so many unTrollopian things going on. I don't think I've ever written a book-in-progress post before, but I am just so surprised at these atypical elements. I don't know where the story is going, and I don't think any of these qualify as spoilers.

Just to set the scene: Orley Farm is an estate, one of two owned by Sir Joseph Mason. At his death, he left the larger estate, Groby Park in Yorkshire, to his oldest son Joseph. By a codicil to his will, he left Orley Farm to his son from a late second marriage, Lucien. Joseph Mason had always understood that the two properties were to come to him, and after his father's death he took the widowed Lady Mason to court over the will (Lucien being an infant at the time). Mr. Mason lost the case, and Lady Mason has remained in possession of Orley Farm for the last 20 years, collecting its £800 a year in rents and income.

As the story opens, Lucien Mason has just turned 21 and taken over the farm. He and his mother are on friendly terms with the local squire, Sir Peregrine Orme. His grandson and heir Peregrine is a little younger than Lucien. Now normally, Trollope would tell us who the hero of his story is going to be. Not here. It may be Lucien, who is obsessed with scientific agriculture and is risking his capital on uncertain improvements, deaf to advice or caution. Perhaps Perry will be the hero - but he is obsessed with rat-catching, and he is a spendthrift in the bargain. Both of them are hobledehoys, and I have no idea what is to become of them.

Usually by the time we're well into the story, Trollope has also introduced his heroine, and told us she will be the heroine. There's no sign of one yet. I did think that it might be Sophia Furnival, the daughter of a London barrister involved in the Orley case. She is described as
a clever, attractive girl, handsome, well-read, able to hold her own with the old as well as with the young, capable of hiding her vanity if she had any, mild and gentle with girls less gifted, animated in conversation, and yet possessing an eye that could fall softly to the ground, as a woman's eyes always should fall upon occasion.
But Trollope immediately makes it clear that she isn't his heroine: "Nevertheless she was not altogether charming. 'I don't feel quite sure that she is real,' Mrs. Orme [Perry's mother] had said of her, when on a certain occasion Miss Furnival had spent a day and a night at The Cleeve."

If we don't have a heroine, though, we certainly have a female villain, in Mrs. Mason of Groby Park. I think she is the most evil woman I have come across in Trollope's books. She starves her family in the dining room, while devouring food served her own dressing room. Her three daughters live on short rations of bread and butter, while she is privately served roast fowl and bread sauce. Her husband had to insist that the servants receive board wages (food and lodging), because she was not giving them enough food to live and work on. Mrs. Mason spends the money that she saves on food (from everyone else) on luxurious clothes (for herself), while her daughters wear old thread-bare clothes. This is a serious matter, since all three are of marriageable age, and I'm sure they're hoping to escape their mother's abuse as quickly as possible. Trollope has surprisingly strong words for her: "Such a woman one can thoroughly despise, and even hate..."  I am already hoping that Mrs. Mason will get her come-upppance, and wondering if it will be as drastic as Mrs. Proudie's.

I also have to mention the oddest chapters, where Samuel Dockwrath, a lawyer in the Orley Farm neighborhood, travels up to Groby Park in connection with the disputed will. He spends one night at a hotel in Leeds, in the company of some commercial travelers. Trollope goes into great detail about these men and their interactions. This seems so far outside his usual milieu, but he lays out their community with its rules and hierarchy as he does Barsetshire society. One of the salesmen, Mr. Kantwise, represents the Patent Steel Furniture Company. with a line of folding iron furniture. It isn't selling all that well in Yorkshire. Unwilling to let any opportunity for a sale pass, he insists on unpacking and assembling for Mr. Dockwrath "three tables, eight chairs, easy rocking-chair, music stand, stool to match, and pair of stand-up screens, all gilt in real Louey catorse; and it goes in three boxes [when taken apart]." That "Louey catorse" cracked me up every time I read it.

This story keeps surprising me. I'm looking forward seeing what the next 100 pages brings - maybe a hero or heroine. And there may be additional updates, with the long Christmas weekend for reading.

Edited to add: I got the younger Mr. Mason's name wrong, it's Lucius (not Lucien).

Friday, December 18, 2015

This is not a cheerful Christmas post

Just the opposite. This week I got mugged while shopping for Christmas presents.

I sometimes struggle with the social side of the holidays. I don't enjoy shopping - outside of bookstores - and I get anxious about buying the right presents. The bookish people are easy, there are just too few of them on my list. But with my list resolutely in hand, I headed out Wednesday evening. Walking from the parking lot to the store, I was hit from behind by a man who then grabbed my purse. I felt this disbelief that it was really happening, and also outrage that he was trying to take my purse. I held on as hard as I could, yelling at him, but he managed to rip the bag from its straps and run off. A woman who had seen the whole thing led me into the store and found the manager for me, even though her young son was upset by what had happened.

I only had a few dollars in my wallet, but of course the thief got my credit cards and driver's license (not my car or house keys, thankfully). He also got my phone, and my reading glasses - which leaves me half-blind. I've done everything I can to protect myself against identity theft and access to my bank accounts. Tomorrow I have to figure out what to do about my phone. And get a new library card. At least he probably hasn't been checking out books in my name.

After the police came to file a report, I drove home to make all the necessary calls. I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep for hours, if at all, so I made a big mug of hot cocoa and climbed under the covers with Jeanne Ray's Eat Cake. I had been thinking of this book all night (it's high on my list of comforting books). The narrator Ruth's mother Hollis came to live with her after a day-time robbery.
I wish I could find the person, the people, who kicked in her door. I have never gotten over my need to tell them that they took too much. The television, the stereo, largely worthless jewelry, six pieces of family silver which included her mother's butter dish that had come over with the family on the boat from Denmark, they could have all of that, but they shouldn't have kicked in the door. That was the thing that changed my mother for good. Divorce and hard work and single motherhood - she was up for all of those challenges. But to be seventy-three years old and know that someone can just kick in your door, that they don't even have enough finesse to force the lock, really destroyed her sense of how the world was ordered. It scared her, my mother, who had always been such a brave person. Even after it was long over it left her unsure of things.
One of the threads in this lovely story is watching Hollis find her way out of that fear and into a new independence.

Usually I line up some seasonal mysteries to read at Christmas, and I've been saving two of the British Library Crime Classics (Mystery in White and The Santa Klaus Murder). But even fictional crime seems less appealing right now. I want the literary equivalent of hot cocoa and flannel sheets and a cat sleeping nearby. In the meantime, I will put up Christmas lights and make the family's traditional candy. And I'll be thankful that the man didn't have a gun (and neither did anyone else), grateful for everyone who helped me, and mindful of how many people are suffering much worse violence and mourning much greater losses.

Monday, December 14, 2015

William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery, William E. Cain, editor

After reading a 700-page biography of William Lloyd Garrison, which chronicled his part in the struggle to end slavery in the United States, I was curious to read Garrison's own words. I was not however ready to commit to the entire 35 years of his pioneering weekly newspaper The Liberator, especially since it's only available on microfilm or in distant archives; or even to the six volumes of his published letters (yet). I was happy to find this book of "Selections from The Liberator," drawn from the first issue in 1831 to the last at the end of 1865. It begins with a biographical essay on Garrison by the editor William Cain and an overview of slavery in the United States, which accounts for almost a third of the book. Dr. Cain also wrote a brief introduction to each selection from the paper, giving some background on the topic being covered and noting related articles in other issues of the paper, for further reading.

Naturally the main focus of the selections here is Garrison's own: his call for immediate emancipation of all enslaved people, and the full acceptance of African Americans as citizens with all the rights enjoyed by white Americans. There were frequent explanations of why slavery was wrong, why human beings could not be held in bondage or denied their rights just because they were black. The language used was simple and clear:
No man has a right to enslave or embrute his brother - to hold or acknowledge him, for one moment, as a piece of merchandise - to keep back his hire by fraud - or to brutalize his mind by denying him the means of intellectual, social and moral improvement. . . Every man has a right to his own body - to the products of his own labor - to the protection of law - and to the common advantages of society. ("Declaration of the National Anti-Slavery Convention," 1833).
That these points were repeated so frequently made me realize how hard it must have been to get even these basic ideas heard, let alone accepted. The selections also show Garrison's commitment to social and political equality for African Americans, and to pacifism and non-resistance. And as early as 1838, Garrison was writing in favor of equal rights for women. This issue would lead to schism among the abolitionists, but Garrison never wavered. He introduced a resolution at the Fourth Annual National Woman's Rights Convention, in 1853, which is amazingly broad in scope for its time:
Resolved, that woman, as well as man, has a right to the highest mental and physical development - to the most ample educational development - to the occupancy of whatever position she can reach in Church and State, in science and art, in poetry and music, in painting and sculpture, in civil jurisprudence and political economy, and in the varied departments of human industry, enterprise and skill - to the elective franchise - and to a voice in the administration of justice and the passage of laws for the general welfare.
I found the selections informative and interesting. I enjoyed reading Garrison's own words, which convey the passion he felt in the fight against slavery.  His language was sometimes violent, particularly when calling people north and south to account for their sins. I appreciated the background information that Dr. Cain provided, especially on slavery itself. It was chilling to read that in the 1850s, slave owners in the eastern states were selling 25,000 slaves each year to the western slave states. That really underlined the abolitionist argument that slavery destroyed families - so many families torn apart in those years.

However, after reading the Meyer biography, I took issue a couple of points in the biographical essay. First, Dr. Cain stated that whatever Garrison said about women's rights, he expected his wife Helen to play the traditional home-bound role of wife and mother. Henry Meyer quoted a letter from Helen to Garrison before their marriage, where she wrote that she did not want to play a public role in abolition or other reform works. Garrison respected her decision, and in fact she did sometimes join in the work (for example helping to organize an annual antislavery fundraising fair). As their children grew up, she also took on a more active role - again, her own decision. Second, I disagree with Dr. Cain's dismissal of Garrison's role after the Civil War: his "main activity in the postwar years was performing the role of abolitionist hero." Yes, he took his share of the honors belatedly given to the abolitionists. But he wasn't just sitting around waiting to be given awards or promoting himself. He was out working on behalf of the freed people, women's rights, immigrants and Native Americans. In a biographical essay of 57 pages, of course there isn't the scope for a full biography. But I think these two points are important. I would never argue that Garrison was a saint, but on the evidence he was at least innocent of these two sins.

Next up in my abolitionist reading course is the second autobiography of Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom. I understand it covers his break with Garrison over tactics and strategy, as well as Douglass's decision to start his own abolitionist newspaper, in competition with The Liberator.  As a bonus, published in 1855, it will fill another year in my Mid-Century of Books.

Friday, December 11, 2015

This Rough Magic, by Mary Stewart

Still in search of books with happy endings, I turned next to Mary Stewart. I had started This Rough Magic a couple of times before, knowing it's a favorite with many people, but the story didn't hold my attention past the first chapter. I find that happening a lot with books lately - I end up starting some of them at least three times before I really settle in with the story. I know some first chapters almost by heart at this point.

From my false starts with this book, I remembered that it is set on the Greek island of Corfu. Lucy Marling, a young actress whose first London play just folded, has escaped grey rainy England to stay with her sister Phyllida Forli in a seaside villa. Phyllida is married to a Roman banker whose family owns not just the villa, but the original estate, including a castello of fantastic design. Lucy is astonished to learn that the castello is presently leased to Sir Julian Gale, "one of the more brilliant lights of the London theatre for more years than [she] can remember." She has wonderful memories of seeing him play Prospero, in a production of The Tempest at Stratford. He has developed a novel theory that Corfu is actually Prospero's island of exile, and allusions to the play run through the story. Staying with Sir Julian is his son Max, a composer. The Forlis have another tenant and neighbor, Godfrey Manning, a writer and photographer. Godfrey has hired a young man, Spiro, to help with the photography and running his boat. Spiro's mother and sister Miranda work for Phyllida. After an accident at sea, Godfrey turns to her to help him break the news that Spiro was lost overboard. His body has not been found when another young man's washes up in their secluded bay. What looks like an accident may be disguising a murder - and perhaps not the only one.

There was so much to enjoy in this book, starting with the setting. I have been googling pictures of Corfu and wondering how I can manage a trip there. (I confess with some embarrassment that, as many times as I've read My Family and Other Animals, this was the first time I have looked Corfu up in maps and pictures, and really understood where it is.)  Lucy is an engaging narrator, and I liked her comfortable sisterly relationship with Phyllida. I think this is the first of Mary Stewart's heroines that I have met with a sister; so many of them are on their own, with only distant relations. I was fairly sure from the start who the hero of the story was going to be, and who the villain, and I enjoyed watching that play out. And of course there is the dolphin, a regular visitor to the bay who features in Manning's photographs. He is the means of introducing Lucy to the Gales, and when she finds him mysteriously beached in the bay, Max helps her rescue him. What is it about dolphins? Like baby elephants, they are just irresistible.

The story here is certainly an exciting one, with the tension building right up to the last pages and an explosive conclusion. I don't know that I could pick just one favorite about Mary Stewart's books, but this would certainly be in top three or four (with The Ivy Tree, My Brother Michael and Nine Coaches Waiting).

The constant references to The Tempest intrigued me. I was fortunate to see a production in Stratford myself, with the great John Wood playing Prospero. But that was almost thirty years ago now, and I remembered very little from the play. I had never read it, so when I had a day off from work on Tuesday, I stopped in at Half Price Books and found a good used copy. I started reading it that afternoon. I sometimes struggle with Shakespeare's language and with the twists of the plot (Twelfth Night is a complete mystery to me). I found The Tempest very easy to read, so much that I was surprised to find myself in the final scenes almost before I knew it. I can't help thinking that Prospero should prudently hold off on breaking his staff and drowning his book. After all, he is leaving his island with the men who engineered his exile in the first place, not to mention another one who had just agreed to assassinate his own brother.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Through the Wall, by Patricia Wentworth

Like many of Miss Maud Silver's clients, I have begun to find her company restful and calming. When I was left a little shaken by the end of Margaret Kennedy's Troy Chimneys, I headed for that section of the TBR stacks. I wanted a story with a tidy neat ending, where virtue is rewarded and lives happily ever after. I was glad to find exactly that in this later book in the series, published in 1950.

Like the last two Miss Silver stories that I have read, the central character here inherits the family fortune. Marian Brand and her sister Ina grew up never knowing their father's family, whom he disowned as a young man. So Marian is shocked to learn that her uncle Martin has left his entire estate to her. This cuts out his brother's widow and son, who have lived with Martin for years in his home. Marian even inherits that house, which Florence and Felix Brand share with Florence's sister Cassy and a young cousin, Penny Halliday. The household also includes the resident cook, Eliza Cotton, and a very superior cat named Mactavish.

Marian has been supporting herself and her sister Ina (who "isn't strong"), as well as Ina's feckless actor husband Cyril, on the £5 a week she earns working at an estate agency. She puts up with Cyril, but she has no intention of supporting him in luxury. He soon learns though, as the other Brands do, that by the terms of the will the money goes to Felix, Florence, and Cassy in the event of Marian's death.

The house that Marian has inherited, with its inhabitants, is in the seaside town of Farne. Cove House was once two houses, now thrown together, and connected by doors on each floor. Marian decides to take Ina to live there, with the houses divided once again. The other side is a bit crowded at the moment, because Felix has invited the singer Helen Adrian to stay. A pianist, he often plays for her shows, which leaves him with little time for his own composition work. Before she travels down to Farne, Helen visits Miss Silver, to consult her about a little matter of blackmail. However, she chooses not to take Miss Silver's advice. She doesn't mention that she is going to stay in Farne, so Miss Silver has no reason to say that she is as well, to join her niece Ethel Burkett, whose small daughter Josephine is being sent for the sea air. (In this book Miss Silver is constantly knitting socks for Ethel's three school-boy sons.)

It's a nice little set-up for a mystery story. I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen, but I very much enjoyed the way it all developed. I took an instant liking to Marian, and to Penny, Eliza and Mactavish. Ina is also an interesting character: not physically or emotionally strong, but loyal to her sister, and trying to deal with her difficult husband. There is a romance for one character, begun rather dramatically in a railroad accident, which proceeds quietly and comfortably, in contrast to more lurid and unhappy events that draw Miss Silver to Cove House. In the end, it is she who sets in train the denouement that solves the case - at one point even moving through the house in her stocking feet, though she makes sure to resume her shoes before the police arrive.

Nor is this the only incident of disrobing. Thanks to Vicki, I knew that this book features a strip-search of the female inhabitants. There has been a murder, and a female officer is checking for bloodstains. Miss Silver, staying in the house at that point, volunteers to be searched along with everyone else, which sets a good example. The officer, Mrs. Larkin,
being passionately addicted to crochet, became quite warm in her admiration of the edging which decorated Miss Silver's high-necked spencer and serviceable flannelette knickers, which had three rows on each leg, each row being a little wider than the last. On being informed that the design was original she was emboldened to ask for the pattern, which Miss Silver promised to write down for her. After which they parted on very friendly terms.
They soon meet again however, when Eliza Cotton asks Miss Silver to be present during her turn.
After which she stalked up to her room and gave Mrs. Larkin and even Miss Silver the surprise of their lives when the removal of her black afternoon dress displayed pink silk cami-knickers with French legs. Nothing more compromising than this came to light.
This book was featured on the Clothes in Books blog, with some great pictures of cami-knickers and underwear knitted and crocheted (including a bra, the thought of which gives me hives). I'm sorry that Moira didn't enjoy this book as much as I did - it's definitely one of my favorite Miss Silver adventures.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Troy Chimneys, by Margaret Kennedy

If Margaret Kennedy were still with us, I would be strongly tempted to write her a letter about this book, to complain about how she pulled the wool over my eyes, and then the rug from under my feet. Only in the last couple of chapters did I begin to suspect where the story was heading. Still, the ending came as a painful shock, and I finished the book with a heavy heart. I wish that I'd thought to pick up Lucy Carmichael as a restorative. I badly needed a story with a happy ending, so I turned to Miss Silver instead (and she came through, as I knew she would).

All I knew about this book when I started reading it was that it involved a collection of family papers, centered around a Regency gentleman. I have noticed that Margaret Kennedy often used fictional letters or other documents in her stories. In those I have read, they serve to contrast how something happens with how it is remembered later - and to show how it is frequently mis-remembered and misunderstood. The documents also show that even those close to an event don't always know the full story. This tension is at the heart of two of my favorites, The Wild Swan and A Long Time Ago. She must have enjoyed creating her fictional documents, her stories within stories.

In Troy Chimneys, we have the reminiscences of Miles Lufton, written while he is recovering from a hunting accident, in the country rectory where he grew up. A Prologue dated 1879 tell us
     In letters and journals of the Regency occasional reference is made to a person called Pronto who is generally mentioned as a fellow guest in a country house.
     Conscientious researchers have identified him with a certain Miles Lufton, M.P.; he sat for West Malling, a borough in the pocket of the Earl of Amersham, and he held an important post at the Exchequer during the years 1809-1817. He spoke frequently and well in the House, in support of Vansittart's financial policy. Nothing else is known of him save that he could sing...

In the 1879 framing story, Miles's manuscript has been sent to someone who is researching a friend of his, Lord Chalfont, the heir to the Earl of Amersham. There are letters back and forth with the researcher, which give some information not found in the manuscript. It is an interesting device, to be reading about people reading about the main character. It would put him at a distance, except that we have his own words in his reminiscences, which bring him to life. We learn about his early life, how he came to a career in politics, and how his "Pronto" persona developed. I didn't like Pronto much. He does everything with calculation and an eye to its effect. He is an apple-polisher and brown-noser par excellence. Miles doesn't really like him either, and in fact he almost seems to have developed a split personality. Pronto is in charge most of the time, while Miles watches (and disapproves). Only with his accident and long recovery does Miles emerge. In writing his memoirs, Miles seems to be struggling toward an integration of the Miles-side of himself and the Pronto-side. It is very interesting to watch, and I thought Margaret Kennedy handled that story really well.

But how she chose to end the story is another matter. It's well done, but it's just wrong. It's her story of course, and she was free to end it as she pleased, as she felt it should end. But it's still wrong. And I just need to accept that, and let it go. Or maybe try writing my own ending. Meanwhile, I'm off to read Mary Stewart, because I still need happy endings (a dolphin has just been rescued, and that dolphin better live happily ever after).

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Bubbly on Your Budget, by Marjorie Hillis

Earlier this year I read Marjorie Hillis's first book, Live Alone and Like It from 1936, and loved it. When Claire wrote about this second book, I rushed to order a copy. It was originally published in 1937 as Orchids on Your Budget. In the last few years it has been reprinted a couple of times. The edition I read is from Chronicle Books in 2011. I suppose somewhere along the line, someone decided that bubbly in the title would appeal more to 21st-century readers than orchids. The subtitle was also changed, from "Live Smartly on What You Have" to "Live Luxuriously With What You Have."

That was an unfortunate change, because this book is not really about living luxuriously. It's about living within your means, and managing to have your bubbly on those terms. As with the first book, some of what Marjorie Hillis wrote now seems dated, but much of her advice is just as applicable today as in 1937. She was writing in the later years of the Great Depression, which by her account had begun to lift. Sometimes this book felt like it could have been written yesterday, given the economic roller-coaster that we have been riding lately (and not just in the United States).

The two books are very similar in approach, and in the tone of the writing. They tackle serious topics, offering practical advice mixed with snarky commentary. As with Live Alone and Like It, one of the main points here is that proper living takes attention and planning.
    As a matter of fact, most of the people who think they're poor are right. For the feeling of poverty isn't a matter of how little money you have - it's a matter of being behind on your bills at the end of the month or not making your income stretch over the things that you want. . . What most people don't concede is that, with a little planning and a dash of ingenuity, they might have what they want. They hate to plan (planning about possibilities and daydreaming about improbabilities are not the same things), they detest the Problem anyway, and they don't want to make the effort needed to Do Anything About It. They want bubbly on their budgets - but that's about as far as they get.
    This isn't very intelligent, because almost anyone with spirit can wangle a bottle of bubbly or two, and have a lot of fun besides. We are all for fun and bubbly. . . 

As Hillis wrote in a later chapter, though, "The point, nowadays, is not merely to know the cost of a thing and whether you have money to pay for it, but to know whether it's worth its price to you." That is a question that I need to ask myself more often.

The chapters that follow deal with practical matters: housing, food, budgeting, savings, and clothes. That last one is a very detailed guide to choosing clothes wisely and dressing well, in 1937, which makes it feel the most dated. I kept trying to think of films from the mid-1930s, to picture the clothes. I was sometimes a bit lost among all the requirements and the rules on color (don't buy a blue dress, brown coat, and black hat to wear together, but you can wear a canary-yellow gilet with a navy-blue suit). At least the "Little Black Dress" sounded familiar, however much its length and lines may have changed in the last 80 years.

I found two chapters particularly entertaining. "Things You Can't Afford" covers the wrong kind of economies, and ends with a quiz, "Are you thrifty or stingy?" (Apparently I am occasionally stingy.) The other is "Can You Afford a Husband?"
Well, can you? A lot of women do, and support them nicely on a small salary at that. And why not, if they want to? It may be an extravagance, but even periods of strict economy should include some extravagances if possible.
Hillis admitted that a husband might be nice to have around, but she did not consider one indispensable. (Which makes me wonder a little about her own marriage.) And with all due respect to Love, a woman still had to consider the practicalities - particularly since, in the author's experience, "the most delightful people are seldom big money-makers." A woman who chooses a "non-money maker" must be prepared to support him as well as herself. In any case, for Hillis marriage didn't automatically mean the wife stayed home. Even if the husband was working, they might need two salaries - particularly if they wanted bubbly in their budget.

I am not that fond of bubbly myself, nor of orchids. I think that books are my bubbly, and this was certainly a fizzy read!

Monday, November 30, 2015

All On Fire, by Henry Mayer

I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject [slavery] I do not wish to think or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm . . . but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - AND I WILL BE HEARD.  - William Lloyd Garrison, in the first issue of The Liberator (January 1, 1831)
The subtitle of this book is "William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery." I knew something of Garrison from studying the Civil War. I knew that his newspaper, The Liberator, was one of the first in the United States to call for the abolition of slavery, and the most influential. I knew that he was hated and feared in the South, where he and his radical ideas, published in his paper, were blamed for the Nat Turner slave insurrection, which came just months after his first issue in 1831. (The State of Georgia put a price of $5000 on his head.) I knew that he refused to vote in elections, because it would mean participating in a government that condoned slavery. I thought of him as a John Brown figure, a man of violent words (if not deeds), fueled by deep anger at the injustice of slavery.

From this massive biography, I discovered that what I knew about William Lloyd Garrison just skimmed the surface of a complex and compelling man. I came to agree with what the author wrote of him in his Preface:
William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) is an authentic American hero who, with a biblical prophet's power and a propagandist's skill, forced the nation to confront the most crucial moral issue in its history. . .He inspired two generations of activists, female and male, black and white - and together they built a social movement which, like the civil rights movement of our own day, was a collaboration of ordinary people, stirred by injustice and committed to each other, who achieved a social change [abolition of slavery] that conventional wisdom first condemned as wrong and then ridiculed as impossible. . . Garrison did not shrink from the realization that the assault upon slavery would require a direct confrontation with American assumptions of white supremacy. He boldly coupled his demand for immediate emancipation with an insistence upon equal rights for black people, a principled stand that eluded every prominent political figure of his era.

The people of his own time understood his role in ending slavery - some loved and honored him, others continued to despise him. He was a polarizing figure, even in the northern states. But somehow in the 20th century, Garrison got pushed to the sidelines of history. Henry Mayer, an independent historian, wanted to right that, to put him back at the center of the story where he belongs, while recognizing the activists who worked alongside him in the decades of struggle.

I found this book mesmerizing (to the point that I was dreaming about it). Garrison himself is such an interesting character, with a childhood miserable enough to rival Anthony Trollope's. He was apprenticed in a printing shop, where like Benjamin Franklin he began writing as well as setting type. Despite a pugnacious personality in print, he was a sweet-tempered man, a little shy, a loving husband and father to seven children (two of whom died young). And he was a cat person. As a young man, he met in Boston Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker working to free individual slaves, and to open people's eyes to the evils of slavery. Lundy found a ready convert in Garrison. The disciple went forward faster and farther than the teacher, however. He saw clearly, and preached tirelessly, against the virulent racial prejudice in the northern states. Unlike many, he believed that African Americans were citizens, entitled to the same rights and privileges as whites (and therefore he opposed attempts to remove free and freed persons of color by "colonization" in Africa or Central America). He had close ties to the black community, who supported The Liberator in the first difficult year of publishing. African Americans also frequently wrote for the paper, as did women (black and white).

I don't think I ever understood before how deeply the abolitionists were hated in the beginning, in the north. White Americans did not want to hear about the wrongs of slavery - they didn't want to hear about it at all - and they did not want to hear that they were to blame in any way for it. That abolitionists held mixed-race meetings was another strike against them. In 1835, a crowd in Boston gathered to harass a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. When they found out that the hated Garrison was in the building, they tracked him down, with calls to lynch him, and he had to be jailed for his own protection. Another anti-slavery editor, Elijah Lovejoy, was murdered in Illinois, in 1837, and his printing press destroyed. The next year, a white mob in Philadelphia burned a hall in Philadelphia where black and white abolitionists had been meeting, while firemen stood by. Yet through all this, Garrison kept publishing, and the abolitionists kept organizing, handing out tracts and copies of The Liberator, speaking out on the sufferings of the enslaved people - and slowly, a consensus began to develop in the northern states that slavery was wrong. I also feel like I never fully appreciated the role that the abolitionists played in rousing the conscience of the north against slavery, and in advocating for equal rights. Once this consensus grew strong enough, politicians began to act on it.

I did not know, or had forgotten, that Garrison was also an early supporter of women's rights. Women in the United States first found their voice in reform movements like temperance and abolition. Garrison welcomed them to abolition work from the start. His concept of natural rights wasn't limited to one race or one sex. Others in the movement were less tolerant, and the movement would split into two groups over the participation of women. After the Civil War, with emancipation and black suffrage guaranteed by constitutional amendments, Garrison would turn to the fight for women's suffrage. He joined the American Women's Suffrage Association, headed by Lucy Stone, an old colleague from the anti-slavery campaigns.  Drawing on his decades of experience, he helped them edit and publish a journal. (Susan B. Anthony was another anti-slavery campaigner, who was close friends with Garrison's wife Helen and "Aunt Susan" to their children.)

The fight over women's participation in the movement was not the only one, and Mayer covers the issues in great detail. He also spends considerable time exploring Garrison's very unorthodox spiritual life. He grew up in the evangelical Baptist faith of his mother, which shaped his language and in many ways his vision. But he moved away from organized religion, in part because the churches condoned slavery. I didn't know that in the 19th century, "coming out" meant leaving the institutional church, and the "come-outer" was a recognized religious identity. I was sometimes a bit lost among all the details of the different religious movements, and with the conflicts that frequently broke out among the abolitionists - leading to schisms in both groups. Mayer tracks them in exhaustive detail, in relation to Garrison. That detail accounts in part for the bulk of the book (over 700 pages with notes and index).

This book has inspired me to some additional reading, including a Penguin edition of essential abolitionist writings (from Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott and other leaders). I also have my eye on a six-volume biography of Garrison, written by two of his sons in 1885. Mayer used it extensively in writing this book, and he says that "the personal reminiscences that dot the pages are invaluable." Perhaps that is what gives this book such life, despite its bulk. Henry Mayer manages (in the words of  historian Paul Murray Kendall) "to elicit, from the coldness of paper, the warmth of a life being lived." And what a life.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

My Sue Barton collection is finally complete


The other day, after I finished Dorothy Canfield's Her Son's Wife, I was trying to make a list of other books set in Vermont, the home of so many of her characters. Of course I thought of Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, and the American adventures of the Von Trapp family. I was also thinking of the later books in this series. But when I sat down with Sue Barton, Rural Nurse and Sue Barton, Staff Nurse, I was reminded that they take place in rural New Hampshire instead. In Staff Nurse, Sue goes back to work while her husband Bill is in a sanitarium for TB treatment. There was a little summary in the first chapter, Sue "transporting herself back a year in order to enjoy the feeling of having second sight..." That made me realize that I was missing the book where what she remembers take place.

I was lucky enough to find a copy of the book, Sue Barton, Neighborhood Nurse, on-line. When I first started looking for these books, some of the titles were very hard to find. I remember when the only copies of Sue Barton, Visiting Nurse were going for hundreds of dollars. There certainly seem to be more copies available now, at much more reasonable prices. There have also been some modern reprints, from Image Cascade Publishing, with nicely retro covers.

I have written before about how important these books were to me, growing up. My mother was a nurse, as were two of my aunts and several glamorous older cousins. I wanted to go to nursing school, to earn my cap and wear my crisp white uniform (with the white nylons). I devoured books about nursing schools the way others did boarding school stories. (I wish now I could remember the title or author of the book where a young African American woman desegregates a nursing school.) I didn't question why there were no women doctors in these books, nor did I ask myself if my extreme reaction to blood might perhaps disqualify me from nursing. Eventually, I fell in love with studying French and decided to become a translator at the United Nations instead - but I never lost my love for nursing school stories. I checked the Sue Barton books out of libraries well into adulthood, until they disappeared from the shelves. I was so happy when I was able to find copies on-line.

They do of course read a little differently to me now, at my advanced age. I still enjoy the two books about Sue's training, Student Nurse (1936) and Senior Nurse (1937), though the second book is as much about her romance with Bill as it is with nursing (the course of true love can't run too smoothly). It's interesting that Sue asks Bill to delay their marriage, because she wants to work as a visiting nurse in the Henry Street Settlement program (Visiting Nurse, 1938). In the next book, Rural Nurse (1939), Bill has to postpone their marriage after his father dies, but Sue joins him as a community nurse in New Hampshire. After their marriage, they work together at a new local hospital, donated by a rich neighbor (Superintendent of Nurses, 1940). Sue is the director of the tiny nursing school that they open, but with this book, the stories become as much about their marriage and (later) family.

I hadn't re-read Neighborhood Nurse (1947) in years, but from the title I was expecting something about community nursing. Instead, though Sue spends one day filling in for the district visiting nurse, this story is about marriage, family, and motherhood. Sue does wonder at the beginning if she is wasting her nursing education and experience, but in the end she has come to realize that her children are her most important work. This might fit in with the times in which Helen Dore Boylston was writing it, when women had been encouraged to return to the home after the war-work of the Second World War (which plays no part whatsoever in these books). Boylston herself never married, however, nor did she have children. (She lived for several years with Rose Wilder Lane, in Albania and at the home of Lane's parents, Almanzo and Laura [Ingalls] Wilder, but everything I've read dodges the question of their relationship, whether partners or friends.) In the last of the series, Staff Nurse (1952), Sue escapes back to the hospital work she loves, partly to cope with her anxiety, though she doesn't neglect her motherly duties.  It's interesting that Boylston wrote another series of books about a career woman, the actress Carol Page. I wonder if they end with Carol retiring from the stage for the domestic life.

These are by no means great books, but they're part of my literary DNA, and still comfort reads for me. I'm probably likely to re-read Neighborhood Nurse least often, because I don't find Sue's kids that interesting, and it has almost no nursing in it, but I'm still glad to have a copy. And maybe I will re-read Visiting Nurse for next year's 1938 Club!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday miscellany: progress in bookish projects, and the TBR Triple Dog Dare

I don't want to jinx anything, but when I took a look recently at two book-related projects I've been working on, I was pleasantly surprised to see some real progress.

First, my TBR number has shrunk to 237. That is the lowest it has been since I started tracking it back in 2008. Considering I started this year at 305, I am pretty happy with that number. I'd like to get it down to 200 by the end of the year, and then under 100 in 2016. (My ultimate goal is around 25.) I just need to stick to my "one in, one out" rule for unread books. I've also been focusing on the oldest books in the stacks. I'm currently looking at those I've had unread since 2002. Teresa of Shelf Love just wrote about her TBR pile, and she mentioned that she has a 5-year expiration date for unread books. I'm tempted to try that sometimes, a clean sweep of the old books, but there are still some I want to read - including a lot of Anthony Trollope. Next up from the 2002 section: his Orley Farm.

Second, I have finally hit the half-way mark in my "Mid-Century of Books." This is a project to read one book from each year between 1850 and 1949. I knew I'd never been able to complete this in a year, as others have done. I'm now in my second year, and it could well take me another two to finish. Jane from Beyond Eden Rock, who started the "Mid-Century" project, has made hers more challenging by limiting herself to one book per each author. I on the other hand have included multiple books by Anthony Trollope on my list, as well as Dorothy Canfield Fisher, E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross. I need to write something about (re)reading The Last Chronicle of Barset, and then I can cross 1867 off the list as well - and Orley Farm will take care of 1862. I was thinking the other day that it would be interesting to read through the years in order, rather than randomly as I have done, but I'm not sure that would have been practical, particularly given how many years are still blanks on my list. I need to start looking for books from the 1850s, to start with.

Speaking of book-related projects, James of James Reads Books has just announced the final round of his TBR Dare - a Triple Dog Dare. This is a dare to read only from your TBR shelves for the first three months of the new year. Last year, my fourth time taking the Dare, I gave up half-way through - not to read new books, but because of an irresistible temptation to re-read (Dorothy Dunnett in particular). Still, I managed to clear quite a few books off the TBR shelves. So I am signing on again, but this time with a goal: three months or 35 books, whichever comes first. I'm also going to claim my usual exemptions, one for Lois Bujold's latest Vorkosigan novel, and one in case Deborah Crombie publishes her new book in those months. I think the last Elizabeth Peters book is scheduled for posthumous publication in April, but just in case I'm putting that on the exemption list as well. I'm glad that James is hosting this again - hopefully it won't really be the last round.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Her Son's Wife, by Dorothy Canfield

I think it will be a story which women will be interested in, (I hope which they will feel deeply) but I don't believe it can interest any man. They have for too many generations had the possibility and the habit, of putting on their hats and melting away out of the house, when family relations got too uncomfortably tense. I rather imagine they will put on their hats and melt from the book at about the third chapter. But I hope that women who have had, for generations, to stick it out with no escape, may have a certain horrified interest in the story. (Dorothy Canfield Fisher to Paul Reynolds, 3/28/1925)
Reading this book made me realize that I was starting to think of Dorothy Canfield as a "cozy" writer. Not that she didn't write about difficult themes, such as unhappy marriages and the damage that parents can inflict on their children. But the last three books of hers that I read have been about young people finding their way, growing into themselves, through the challenges of their families and backgrounds. They haven't been fairy stories, but the characters have struggled through to happy endings (which are themselves new beginnings). I knew before I started this book that it was about a family in conflict, as the title certainly suggests. I just wasn't prepared for the way that the story twists and turns - and my sympathies with it. I certainly read the last third or so with the "horrified interest" that the author hoped to invoke.

In the first chapter, we meet Mary Bascomb, holding court after school in her fifth-grade classroom. The mothers of her students wait their turns, to appeal, even to beg. She grants their requests - or doesn't - with a full appreciation of her power, and something of disdain for her subjects. We learn that she was widowed young, left with a son to support through teaching. Her son Ralph is about to graduate from college, and Mrs. Bascomb is ready to support him through law school. But she is tired, already looking forward to the day he will be established in his law office, independent. He has been in a nearby town, looking for summer work, and probably (his mother thinks) wasting time watching baseball games. Instead, a letter arrives, telling her that he has gotten married. "Just went before a justice of the peace with no fuss about it at all." In a scrawled postscript, Ralph adds, "Mother, Lottie's not your kind, but she's all right."

After a sleepless night, Mrs. Bascomb steels herself to walk out of the house and send a telegram: "Mother's home always yours. Bring Charlotte home and we will talk things over and make plans for the future..."  Then she steels herself to go to work, where people will have seen the announcement of the marriage in the paper. Ralph and Lottie arrive that afternoon, and from the first moment Mrs. Bascomb knows that her new daughter is most definitely "not your kind." But Ralph is completely under his wife's spell, physically in thrall to her. When Mrs. Bascomb can bring him down to earth enough to talk of practicalities, they agree that Ralph will return to college, finish his degree, and then look for work. Meanwhile, Lottie will live with Mrs. Bascomb.

Mrs. Bascomb now has two to support, and it soon becomes clear that another member will be added to the family. Lottie does no work, even to keep her own things in order. She and her mother-in-law are the proverbial oil and water, both quick to anger and to hard words. They try to wage their campaigns through Ralph, who when he cannot melt away out of the house tends to take his wife's side, to his mother's disgust. But everything changes for Mrs. Bascomb the night her granddaughter is born.
The baby girl was lying on her back, her face as calm as that of a Buddha, her eyes wide open, gazing up fixedly. As their gaze met, John Bascomb's widow woke from her long nightmare. The eyes were the eyes of John Bascomb, set under John Bascomb's brow.
From that moment, her grandmother's life begins to revolve around the baby, named (to her despair) Gladys and nicknamed Dids. Mrs. Bascomb wants desperately "to protect her darling, to work for her as she is doing now, to fight for her." She wants Dids to have opportunities and choices, more than her mother or even her grandmother did. Lottie resents her mother-in-law's "interference" with her child, asserting her place as Dids' mother as much as Ralph's wife.

Their struggle plays out over the years, as Dids grows up, and it is not a happy story. In the later years, Mrs. Bascomb figures out a strategy that made my jaw drop, and I read on in horrified fascination, to an unsettling ending. As I was reading, I was thinking that in different hands, Mary Bascomb would have been insufferable. In the beginning, she is a petty tyrant with a martyr complex, who would have fit right in with Margaret Oliphant's self-sacrificing mothers - though Mrs. Bascomb does not suffer in silence. We learn more about her in the course of the story, and we also see how her love for her granddaughter transforms her life, not in an instant, happily-ever-after fairy tale way. There is still conflict and anger and pain. But there is also satisfaction particularly in her work. Mrs. Bascomb is a good teacher, and inside her classroom she is the Teacher, free from the tension and anxiety of her life as Mother and Grandmother. And while I didn't like Lottie much more than Mrs. Bascomb does, she is not just a caricature or a monster either. Eventually we learn something of her life before Ralph, of what shaped her, and in the end I found her a genuinely sympathetic character, particularly in the turn her life takes. I would love to meet these characters again, say four or five years after the book's ending.

As different as this book felt, I did note some familiar Dorothy Canfield touches. For several years Mary Bascomb attends a summer teaching institute at Columbia University, which both Canfield and her husband John Fisher attended, as do many of her characters. The Great War plays no part in this book, though key events take place in 1914. But at one point Mrs. Bascomb is likened to "the driver of a war-ambulance over a shell-swept road." I think John Fisher's experiences as an ambulance driver in France must have gone into the description of "peering blindly ahead into a darkness which was lighted only by terrifying explosions; and from one alarming moment to the next [she] could only try to hold out yet a little longer..." Like many of Dorothy Canfield's characters, at least in the books I have read, Mary Bascomb realizes "How long it took her to understand anything." It seems to me that her central characters always have more to learn. Their lives and their characters are not static. However, none of those I have met so far has faced the bleak sentence of one in this book: "leisure and self-respect she was never to know again..."

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Together Tea, by Marjan Kamali

Iran is on my list of places to visit one day. I am fascinated by its ancient history as well as its more recent. But I am pretty much an arm-chair traveler these days, making my visits via books and films. I'm always on the lookout for stories about Iran, fiction and non-fiction. A description of this book mentioned a mother and daughter returning to to Iran for a visit, which was enough to add it to my reading list.

The story opens in New York in 1996. Mina gets a call from her mother Darya announcing that she has found the perfect gift for her daughter's twenty-fifth birthday: a very eligible Iranian American bachelor (the latest in a long line). Mina, who is studying for her M.B.A., doesn't want to sit through another awkward introduction, she doesn't want to get married, she doesn't even want to be in business school. She wants to be an artist, but her parents expect her to follow her older brothers into a successful career. Mina finally agrees to meet the perfect-on-paper Mr. Dashti. But later she surprises her parents by announcing that she is going back to Iran, to the country they fled eighteen years ago.
Part of her had always been hovering in midair over the place that she had left. What if the country and history her parents loved was still buried there? What if she could find it? Could Mina go back and see what Darya meant when she said she wanted Mina to have "everything she had"? Mina had always wished that she could have known the Iran Darya had grown up in, instead of the Iran that she herself had escaped from. Could she find it and piece it together if she went back there as an adult?
Her father Parviz tells her no, absolutely not. "What you are suggesting is ludicrous," he tells her, turning to Darya for support. Instead, her mother not only agrees, but tells her daughter, "The answer is yes . . . of course I will come with you." Mina, who had no idea of inviting her, is left as speechless as Parviz. She doesn't know that her mother has her own reasons, her own restlessness.

The story then shifts back to 1978, in the months before the Revolution began. We meet the Rezayi family in their Tehran life, the children in school, Parviz in his medical practice, rooted in their extended family. We see the events of the Revolution mainly through Mina's eyes, as her life becomes more and more bound by rules, and by the constant fear of police raids. Soon after Mina's tenth birthday, tragedy strikes their family, and her parents make the difficult decision to leave. We then follow the family to New York City, as they make a new life in America - only to face hostility from Americans who know Iran only through hostages and war. The story then shifts back to Mina and Dayra's visit in 1996, and their eventual return home.

I am drawn to stories of emigration, of the courage that it takes to leave one's home and family for a new world. It was interesting to read one from the perspective of an Iranian family. It was even more interesting to read about immigrants returning home, finding their place again in the world they left behind, observing the changes. I enjoyed seeing Iran through Mina and Dayra's eyes, particularly Tehran. It was fascinating to watch the transformation in Daryra, coming back to her home and extended family after so many years. She seems to find her place so much more easily than her daughter, who had the idea in the first place. The relationship between mother and daughter is complicated, in ways any mother or daughter would find familiar.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Dispatches from the chaise-longue - some quick reviews

I've had bronchitis for over a week now, and it has really knocked me out. I can't remember the last time I felt this enervated and exhausted. Though I managed to stagger back to work at the end of the week, I generally feel like an overcooked strand of spaghetti. I do have quite an impressive cough, which causes some germ-conscious co-workers to back out of the room. On the positive side, I have had lots of time for reading, though I haven't been able to focus on anything really challenging. I've built up a little stack of books to talk about, so I thought I'd write a quick post before I need to go lie down and watch more "N.C.I.S." episodes (Netflix isn't quite as good as cable for mindless sick-bed TV, I've found).

Keeping the Feast, Paula Butturini

I found this on the library sale shelves and was intrigued by the back cover blurb:
When Paula Butturini's husband was shot and nearly killed twenty-three days after their wedding, it marked the beginning of a phase of life neither had planned. John would recover from his injuries, but the psychological toll lingered long after his physical wounds had healed. . . [This book] is a gorgeously crafted portrait of a marriage and partnership touched by depression, but even more, it is a testament to the extraordinary sustaining power of food and love, to the healing that can come from simple rituals of life, and to the stubborn belief that there is always an afterward, always hope.
The author met her husband John Tagliabue in Rome, where both were working as journalists (she for UPI, he for the New York Times). Two years later, in 1987, he was named the bureau chief in Warsaw, and Ms. Butturini went with him, working then for the Chicago Tribune. Both were injured covering the 1989 uprisings in eastern Europe. Ms. Butturini was savagely beaten by police in Czechoslovakia, while Mr. Tagliabue was shot while traveling in a car with other journalists in Romania. His injuries brought him into a deep depression that left him unable to work for many months. The couple, only recently married, returned to Rome to live, hoping the familiar place would help.  I expected this book to be a memoir of coping through cooking, with recipes, like Adrienne Kane's Cooking and Screaming. Though it is very much about food, it is not a cookbook, a choice the author deliberately made. It is a family memoir, of growing up in Italian immigrant families, of carrying food traditions forward, and of coping with depression (the author's mother also suffered from it). I found it a moving story.  I also found the couple's work and travels interesting, particularly the adjustment of transferring from Rome to Warsaw.

The Blotting Book, E.F. Benson

The author's name caught my eye one day at Murder by the Book. I've never read any of E.F. Benson's work beyond the Mapp and Lucia series, apart from some of his ghost stories. This short book from 1908 is a mystery, set in Brighton. Morris Assheton, just turned twenty-two, has fallen in love. Under his father's will, his marriage will end the trust that has tied up his inheritance. His trustee, old family friend Edward Taynton, has been making some rash investments, and he needs time to set things right. He gets his partner Godfrey Mills to tell the young lady's father some lies about Morris, hoping to break off the match. In return, Mills demands a very substantial amount of money, to cover his own gambling habit. Learning of Mills's lies, Morris sets out to confront him. When Mills disappears, Morris becomes the prime suspect.

This was an interesting little story. It isn't a mystery in the "who-done-it" sense, because the villains are clear from the start. I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen, but the fun was in watching it unfold, and in the Brighton setting. I also enjoyed the smiling villain at the center. However, this doesn't have the fun of the Mapp and Lucia stories. It reminded me more of Benson's ghost stories, without the macabre.

Time Enough, Emily Kimbrough

This book from 1974 is an account of a cruise the author took with several friends along the Shannon River in Ireland. By this point, she was in her 70s, so she was content to leave the work of the trip to the crew of the boat. As in her other travel accounts, she and her friends spent their time squabbling a bit, watching the scenery, touring local sights of interest, and buying souvenirs. I've found that I enjoy her books more when they focus on the places she is visiting, and less on the "wacky" adventures or quirks of her fellow travelers. This was a pleasant-enough read, and I learned something about the geography of Ireland, particularly the Shannon, which stretches through the center of the country. Kimbrough took particular note of the small town of Banagher.
I found that [single wide main street] very poorly lit, but even in the darkness, interspersed among the shops, I saw several houses that seemed to me to have both substance and style. I doubt he lived in one of those, the young man of twenty-six who came in 1841 to fill the post of clerk to the district surveyor. His name was Anthony Trollope. He lived ten years in Banagher and began his writing there.
If I ever get to Ireland, I want to visit Banagher as well.

Greenery Street, Denis Mackail

Lyn at I prefer reading recently mentioned the acronym "HIU," or "Have it unread." Many of my TBR books are "RTO," or "rushed to order" - usually after reading a blog review. I'm not sure where I first read about this 1925 novel, but I remember the excitement of learning that Angela Thirkell's brother was also a writer. I knew from reading reviews that this book was about the first year of a young couple's marriage. Unlike his sister's Barsetshire books, it is set in London, in an idyllic street "of thirty-six narrow little houses." Ian and Felicity Hamilton move into No. 23 Greenery Street after their marriage. Ian goes off to his work at an insurance office, while Felicity tries to cope with servants and a budget. It is a domestic story, based according to the editor of my Persephone edition on Denis Mackail's own early married life. There are some dramatic elements involving Felicity's older sister Daphne, and a venial trustee, as well as a plot twist that echoes "The Gifts of the Magi." And speaking of echoes, Greenery Street has "little gods" who lurk in rooms and sometimes provide commentary on the action. I wondered if Angela Thirkell borrowed that idea for her angels that do the same, particularly around Mrs. Brandon. (The editor says that Mackail was bullied by his older sister, their parents' favorite!)  I see there are two sequels to this book, which are long out of print and apparently impossible to find. I will have to try inter-library loan, I'd like to read more about the adventures of Ian and Felicity. I also learned from the introduction that Denis Mackail was a close friend of P.G. Wodehouse's, and I found a picture of them in a biography of PGW that is still "HIU" on my shelves.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Touched by the Thorn, by Maura Laverty

The other day, while I was browsing on-line for copies of more of Kate O'Brien's books, I thought to check for Maura Laverty as well. And it was serendipitous, because that day there were two I didn't have: this one (published in the UK as Alone We Embark), and Liffey Lane (Lift Up Your Gates in the UK). I knew that Liffey Lane is set in Dublin (in the slums no less), so when I saw that Touched by the Thorn is set in the country-side, I decided to read it first.

What I hadn't realized is that it is set in Ballyderring, the small town in County Kildare that is also the setting for Laverty's Never No More. This story takes place later, so to my disappointment we don't meet Delia Scully or her loving Gran again. But at the heart of the story is someone a bit like Gran. Julia Dempsey had gone away from Ballyderrig to become a cook in Dublin, but she came home to care for her parents, and to inherit their little shop. She sells home-baked treats as well as sweets and cigarettes, and she makes a bit of money keeping lodgers. She "was the only landlady in the place who would board Balties," traveling show people. It is the arrival of "The Bohemian Concert Party, fresh from their successes in all the principal towns in Ireland," which sets the story in motion. "Julia Dempsey said afterwards that it was an unlucky day for a great many people when the Balties came to Ballyderrig in 1928." The most unlucky is a young woman who falls in love with one of the performers and breaks her engagement to a local farmer. That step sets off a chain of misfortune and pain for three families that stretches over many years.

The second section of the book jumps forward almost a decade, into the early years of World War II (the book was published in 1943). I don't think that I have ever read an Irish novel set in this period. It was an interesting contrast with what I've read of Great Britain and the U.S. There are shortages, particularly of food, and what they have is of poor quality - a problem for Julia's baking. No one seems to be queuing for rations, however. There is an exodus of workers over to Britain, for jobs in the defense industries. The more nationalistic citizens of Ballyderrig strongly object to this. Unlike Never No More, there is a political element to this book. One character is an active member of the IRA, which at least in this area is busy drilling and recruiting rather than carrying out any kind of actions. However, the young man argues frequently with Julia about the group. He and Julia disagree about patriotism, and about Irish workers helping the British war effort. "Do you want Hitler to win then?" Julia asks him. "We mightn't be so much better off if we had him over here. I didn't hear that the people in the countries he took are delighted with him." A page later the authorial voice speaks of "two classes of Irish patriots."
In the first class are men who find it possible to love their own country without hating another. Their dreams are too full of gladness for what is good in Ireland and of sorrow for what is bad to have room for the ghosts of past wrongs. And their days are too busy with doing what they can to better their own small corner of the land to leave them time for gunning. In the other class are those whose love for Ireland is deep and sincere, and whose hatred for England is equally so. They are the fighters, and many men think that hatred is necessary to a soldier. . . A blow when he is sore, an injustice when his heart is raw, and the hatred comes suddenly to him, changing him from a mild, fairly contented being into a gunman.
Maura Laverty understood both groups, but she made it clear which she thought was right.

But the heart of her story is people, not politics. As with Delia's Gran, Julia Dempsey's neighbors come to her for her listening ear and her advice. Some of their stories are dark ones, full of pain and anger, and Julia does what she can to help. She is a lovely character. "Perhaps it was because Julia never married that she gathered loves and friendships as Johnny Dunne gathered pound notes." She is particularly concerned about Mary, her goddaughter, and Molly, her young shop-assistant. There is also Teedy, the daughter of her friend Nora in Dublin, who comes to live with Julia after her mother dies and her father remarries. In another echo of Never No More, Julia finds her way to the girl's heart through cooking. When Julia tells her about a "golden web" of spun sugar, to put over a "flummery when you want it to look extra fancy," which her mother used to make for birthdays and Christmas, Teedy begs her for one. Julia can't make it with the beet sugar that is then available, but fortunately someone shares some loaf sugar. The adventure that Maura Laverty spins out with Julia's sugar! Then too, Ballyderrig itself is at the heart of her story, and she writes movingly of its beauties in the different seasons.

Maeve Binchy wrote an introduction to the Virago edition of Never No More, which made it clear how much she admired Maura Laverty's work (including her iconic cookbooks). This book in turn reminded me of Binchy's novels, set in small Irish towns. I know that Liffey Lane, set in Dublin's slums, will be a very different book, but I know it will be written with the same clear-eyed affection and empathy for the people living there.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Long Upon the Land, by Margaret Maron

When Margaret Maron announced the publication of this, the 20th in her series of "Deborah Knott novels," she also announced that it would be the last. She said she felt that all the Knott stories have been told. Deborah Knott, the main character of the series, is a district court judge living in North Carolina, in the fictional Colleton County. She grew up on a farm, the youngest of twelve children, the only daughter. Her father Kezzie Knott was once the best-known moonshiner in the county, if not the state. An elderly man of almost 90 years, he now farms the family land, as do many of Deborah's brothers and their families. She is married to Dwight Bryant, a deputy sheriff, whose cases sometimes overlap with those she hears on the bench.

In this book, Margaret Maron has two stories to tell. The first involves a dying man, whom Kezzie Knott finds lying on a back road through their property. It takes the police a while to identify him as Vick Earp, a local man with a history of domestic violence. He had a grudge against the Knotts, because he blamed them for the loss of his family's property. Kezzie Knott bought it from his shiftless father years ago, but Earp believes it was stolen away from him. He also had some run-ins with Deborah's brothers over the years. So the local paper, looking to stir up scandal, all but accuses Kezzie Knott of murder, and Dwight of covering it up to protect his father-in-law.

Deborah suspects that her father and her brother Haywood know more than they're saying. She keeps an eye on the investigation, but she is also following a mystery of her own. Her brother Will gives her an early birthday present: their mother's brass Zippo lighter. Sue Knott died many years ago, when Deborah was 18. She was their father's second wife. Against her mother's wishes, she married someone far out of her social class: a high-school drop-out, a convicted felon and a moonshiner, a widower left with eight sons. The marriage was a happy one, and so was their family life. Now Deborah wonders about the initials engraved on the lighter, "W.R.M." and the inscription on the inside, signed "Leslie." She knows that her mother met Walter McIntyre during the war, while she was volunteering at the U.S.O. And Sue told her daughter that though she wasn't in love with him, Mac "changed her life." It's too late to ask her mother, but Deborah hopes to discover more about Mac and Leslie, and about her parents. As she asks questions, the narrative shifts to flashbacks where we meet Sue and Mac, and then Kezzie.

As always, reading this book felt like meeting old friends again. I feel like I could almost drive through Colleton County without a map. I'd stop at the BBQ house one of the cousins owns, where the family gathers to eat, and then to play and sing together. The two mysteries in this story are both interesting ones. I knew Mr. Kezzie hadn't killed Vick Earp, but there were several other suspects with various motives. I did spot one clue before the detectives, which made me feel smart for a few pages, but as usual I was on the wrong track in the end. I enjoyed meeting the younger Kezzie Knott, and Sue, who has been a large presence in the books through her children's memories. And the final chapter is an interesting one. The younger generation of Knotts has been looking to diversify the family farms, once based on tobacco. Here they have hit on what I think is a brilliant idea, and I'd love to know how it works out.

I did have two quibbles with Kezzie and Sue's story, however, at least as told here. First, it doesn't seem to fit the framework of the series. Kezzie Knott is nearly 90 in this book, which is clearly set in the present day (up to the minute, based on some of Deborah's political comments).  If he was born in 1925, he simply cannot be a widower with eight sons in 1945, when we first meet him - even that includes a set of twins. He married his first wife Annie Ruth as a young man, but he wasn't 12-13 years old. I think Margaret Maron wanted to use World War II for Mac's story, so she shoehorned Kezzie and Sue's story into it.

Edited to add: I withdraw this quibble, and I apologize to Ms. Maron for suggesting that she is guilty of sloppy plotting. In fact, just the opposite: I've been re-reading some of the earlier books in this series, and it's clear how very carefully she plotted out the family story. In the second book, Southern Discomfort (published in 1993), Deborah and her father visit the family graveyard where Annie Ruth is buried. Deborah takes notice of her grave marker, which states that she died in 1944. In the third book, Shooting at Loons (published in 1994), Deborah meets an elderly man who knew her mother Sue and Aunt Zell where they were working in the USO. Deborah remembers the man in this last book, and he is one of the people she tries to track down for more information. What I did not take into account was that the first book in this series (Bootlegger's Daughter) was published in 1992. Though these books were published over a 23-year span, only a few years have passed in the characters' world. I've read other authors' comments on this challenge, in writing a long series. Sue Grafton, for example, chose to keep Kinsey Milhone in the world of the 1980s, though the books span 30-plus years. Margaret Maron took a different approach, in moving her characters forward in time, but not tying their lives to the real timeline outside of the books, if that makes sense. As I mentioned above, it is clearly the 2010s in this last book, but Deborah and her family are only a few years older than in Bootlegger's Daughter. I also noted that in Southern Discomfort, no one even has a cell phone, and running up to a convenience store to use their pay phone is taken for granted, while in the later books they have all the latest technology.

I think she rushed Kezzie and Sue's story at the end, in a way that felt out of character (even though I only met Sue in this book).  *I stand by this quibble though!

But this just a quibble. I really did enjoy this return to the Knott family. Even if Margaret Maron feels now that all of their stories have been told, I hope that like Ursula Le Guin with the Earthsea books, she will discover that there are still some after all.