Saturday, June 27, 2015

An unplanned break

I lost my phone and internet service in the major storm that hit Houston a month ago (thankfully, though, not power and air conditioning).  A phone service box was submerged in the flooding, and it took AT&T three long weeks to repair it.  One of the storm's electrical surges also fried my modem, adding insult to injury.  During the three weeks, I was able to buy a week's worth of WiFi service at a time, from a different provider, but I could only use it on my phone.

With the phone, I had basic communication, including texts and emails.  But I knew from the start that I wouldn't be able to write anything of length.  I'm very clumsy on those tiny keyboards - I think I came too late to cell and smart phones.  So that meant nothing on the blog, which I found very frustrating.  I have gotten too used to writing about what I am reading, to sharing books that excite or entertain me, the ones that bring out the book evangelist. At one point I joked about tweeting reviews, and JoAnn found an example of someone experimenting with that, but I knew it wasn't really feasible.

I've read 18 books over the past month.  I'll never manage posts on all of them, but I did want to mention (briefly) a few that really stood out for me.  The first is Naomi Novik's Uprooted, a tale of magic set in an AU version of medieval Poland. Teresa and Helen both wrote great reviews of this, to which I will refer you.  As I mentioned elsewhere, I was initially disappointed when I found out her new book wasn't a Temeraire novel, but I am now completely reconciled and hoping for more stories from this world.

I admit that I bought my copy of Sir Alastair Dunnett's The Canoe Boys because he was the husband of Dorothy Dunnett, though I am on record as a fan of books about boat travel.  This book, originally published in 1950, chronicles a trip that he and a friend took by canoe in the early 1930s "From the Clyde Past the Cuillins," as the subtitle says - or for those of us less familiar with Scotland, from Glasgow through the Hebrides to Skye.  They set off in late August, though everyone warned them it was much too late in the year for such a trip.  Their attempt to publish a "weekly adventure paper for Scottish boys" called Claymore had just folded.  They saw this trip, and the articles they would write about it, as an opportunity to reach an adult audience with their ideas about the future of Scotland, and their own strong nationalism.  Dorothy Dunnett said that her husband was her inspiration for Francis Crawford of Lymond, and reading this I was reminded why.  It also made me wonder if the Dunnetts knew Patrick Leigh Fermor.  And it made me want to immediately book a holiday in the Hebrides - though not by canoe.

The last of Anthony Trollope's published novels, Mr Scarborough's Family was running as a serial when he died.  From the title I was expecting a family saga along the lines of the Gresham or Palliser families.  I had forgotten that the later Trollope stories are much darker.  On the first page, John Scarborough announces that his son Mountjoy is a bastard and that his second son Augustus is the true heir to the vast estate of Tretton Park.  This neatly outfoxes the moneylenders, to whom Mountjoy owes such vast sums that the estate will be lost the moment his father dies.  And Mr Scarborough has more secrets up his sleeve.  Meanwhile, there is an uncle who contemplates a late marriage, to cut out his own unsatisfactory heir.  The two stories play out against each other, tragedy and comedy, tied together by a young woman who wants to choose her own husband.  I found her story the least interesting, and a bit too drawn-out.  That aside, this is an amazingly powerful story, and Mr Scarborough such a fascinating character, even an heroic one.

It wasn't all reading joy, though.  Patricia Wentworth's The Alington Inheritance from 1960 was dull.  Characters had conversations, which they then repeated to others who hadn't been present, almost word for word. I kept wanting to say yes, you told us that already!  And I found the ending really unpleasant.  This is the first of hers that I really haven't enjoyed.  I'm passing it along to the library sale.  In other mystery news, though, I was glad to finally find the British Library Crime Classics at Murder by the Book.  I enjoyed Murder Underground, by Mavis Doriel Hay, and I have her Death on the Cherwell, as well as the book that started it all, J.Jefferson Farjeon's Mystery in White.

Finally, Girl in a Green Gown, by Carola Hicks, is an exploration of one of my favorite paintings, the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck (now in the National Gallery, which has an amazing on-line catalogue here). Carola Hicks writes about the creation of the work and its transfer to different owners, as well as exploring the various elements in the picture. I learned so much from this book, about a painting that I thought I knew well.  I knew nothing of its provenance, and in fact I have never read anything tracking a particular work from its creation.  How it ended up in the hands of a veteran of Wellington's army is a wonderful story in itself.  And I appreciated Carola Hicks' portrait of Bruges and the Lowlands in the 15th century, also brought so clearly to life by Dorothy Dunnett in her House of Niccolo series (which Hicks mentions).  I was tempted to re-read the first book in the series, Niccolo Rising, which I'd just read back in February.  Instead, I read a book on the 15th century Paston family, briefly mentioned in Hicks, which had been on my shelves for more than ten years.  Then I ordered an edition of the Paston Letters.  I also ordered a copy of The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade, which no one ever told me is set in the Lowlands at the same time (and features Jan van Eyck's sister Margaret).  Thus books beget books.

It's good to be back.