Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas presents, for me

It's a good thing that my TBR resolution doesn't go into effect until New Year's. I went to Kaboom Books this evening in search of one book, and I came home with five. The book I wanted was Penelope Lively's Pack of Cards. I had somehow gotten the idea that I didn't like her short stories, but this year I read The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories and Beyond the Blue Mountains. I also re-read Making It Up, so I was clearly wrong about her stories. I had a feeling that Kaboom would have a copy of Pack of Cards, which they did.

While I was there, I thought I'd look for Eudora Welty's books. Some years ago I gave all my copies of her books to the library sale. I can't remember why now. I've been thinking lately that it might have been a mistake, and I'd like to try her books again. There was a copy of Delta Wedding on the shelves, which was the first book of hers that I read, and I thought it would be a good place to start again.

With the other three books, I feel like I hit the bookish jackpot.

The owner was chatting with the customers ahead of me when I went to check out, so I wandered back into the shelves. That's where I came across a Virago edition of A Very Great Profession, by Nicola Beauman. I couldn't believe my eyes. I've resisted ordering the new Persephone edition, because I know that this exploration of "The Woman's Novel 1914-1939" is going to add a lot of books to my "want to read" lists. So my discovery of it tucked away on a high back shelf was clearly Meant to Be.

I also found my way into a small back room for the first time. There I found Myrna Loy's autobiography, Being and Becoming. I had no idea she wrote her autobiography. She is one of my favorite actresses, particularly in the many films she made with William Powell. I think Libeled Lady is the best and funniest, and I watch The Thin Man every Christmas. I will read any memoir about the Golden Age of Hollywood, but I'm also interested in reading about her political and social activism.

And finally, The Drones Omnibus of stories by P.G. Wodehouse. I love the Drones Club, which counts Bertie Wooster as a member. I enjoy the adventures of the Eggs, Beans, and Crumpets, as the members style themselves. I don't think there are any Wooster stories in this collection, but it does include "Uncle Fred Flits By." I dote on the Earl of Ickenham. And I'm intrigued by one story, "Goodbye to All Cats." It begins, "As the club kitten sauntered into the smoking room of the Drones Club..." A club kitten - this makes me love the Drones Club even more.

Those three books are sitting on the last open shelf in the house. I do still have some space for double-shelving in some of the bookcases, but not much. So I either need to exercise some bookish restraint, or I need to look for another bookcase, and figure out where to put it. Hmmm, which is more likely...

Saturday, December 16, 2017

My Life in Books, 2017

I saw this meme over on Jane's Reading, Writing, Working, Playing - and it looked like such fun that I immediately started looking back over my year of reading.

In high school, I was: Stiff Upper Lip (Jeeves)  (P.G. Wodehouse)

People might be surprised (by): My Latest Grievance  (Elinor Lipman)

I will never be: The Young Stepmother  (Charlotte M. Yonge)

My fantasy job is: (in) The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop  (Lewis Buzbee)

At the end of a long day I need: Silence in Court  (Patricia Wentworth)

I hate it when: (I keep) Dreaming of the Bones  (Deborah Crombie)

I wish I had: Four Gardens  (Margery Sharp)

My family reunions are: Written in Blood  (Anne Bishop)

At a party you'd find me with: The Quiet Gentleman  (Georgette Heyer)

I've never been to: A Town Like Alice  (Nevil Shute)

A happy day includes: Circle of Friends  (Maeve Binchy)

Motto I live by: Eat Cake  (Jeanne Ray)

On my bucket list is: The Copenhagen Connection  (Elizabeth Peters)

In my next life, I want to have: Earth and High Heaven  (Gwethalyn Graham)

I didn't write about most of these books when I read them, but a couple at least are on my "favorite books of the year" list, so I'll have something to say about them there. I love all the end-of-the-reading-year recaps, lists and posts and everything in between. I often find something to add to my TBR lists, if not the stacks.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

An early New Year's resolution, maybe

I am reading and enjoying Lewis Buzbee's The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, which JoAnn recommended. As the subtitle says, it's "a memoir, a history" - a memoir of a life in books, both reading and selling, and a brief history of booksellers and bookstores. In the first chapter, he describes a very familiar feeling:
For the last several days I've had the sudden and general urge to buy a new book. . . It's not as if I don't have anything to read; there's a tower of perfectly good unread books next to my bed, not to mention the shelves of books in the living room I've been meaning to reread. I find myself, maddeningly, hungry for the next one, as yet unknown. I no longer try to analyze this hunger; I capitulated long ago to the book lust that's afflicted me most of my life. I know enough about the course of the disease to know I'll discover something soon.
I know that urge so well. I may resist it for a day or two, but eventually I find myself at Murder by the Book, or Half Price Books, or Barnes and Noble, browsing through the shelves, like Buzbee not quite sure what I'm looking for.

But Buzbee goes on to say, "I do know that I'll leave with some book and head home to spend hours, both lost and found, in the perfect solitude of my sagging green easy chair." That brought me up short. If I bring a book home, it's rarely to read it right off. No matter how excited I am to bring it home, or how much I anticipate reading it, there is usually something else I need to finish first, and then some other book pops up to distract me. So my acquisition gets added to the TBR stacks, where it sits unread, sometimes for years. In a later chapter, Buzbee quoted an unnamed Stoic philosopher: "Of what use are whole collections of books, when their owners barely find time in the course of their lives to read their titles?" I thought, yep, that's me.

I've watched Simon's Project 24 this year with both awe and envy. I don't honestly think I could do that, limit myself to buying only 24 books over an entire year. Though I haven't bought any books in December (yet), I've bought 116 books this year, and 42 of those books are still on the TBR stacks. I've been playing with ideas for something like Simon's project, but focused on the TBR shelves. At first I thought of only buying books that I've already read, that I want to add to my library. I don't know that I could stick to that, though. There would have to be exceptions for new books by favorite authors, because I'm not going to wait on a library copy of Deborah Crombie's latest before buying my own. And I do think there should be some room for serendipity, and the discovery of books you didn't even know you needed, or authors you've never met before. So I am thinking instead of a TBR limit: no more than 12 books added to the TBR stacks in 2018. That means reading the books I buy as I buy them, or not buying books I haven't read. This seems doable to me, at least today. It's something I want to try, anyway. So there's my first New Year's resolution, a little early.

Edited to add: In a later chapter, Buzbee talks about the purchase of a book, and what happens to it afterwards. "It can be devoured immediately on getting home. . . Maybe the reader will take a few peeks at the first couple of pages while waiting at the stoplight." I've done that many times - Houston traffic has a lot of stoplights.

Once home, the book may go on top of the pile of those still waiting to be read, or to the bottom, where it can stay for years. In my stack of unread books right now, I've got a history of the Danube River by Claudio Magris and a scientific study on the patterns of global migration, DNA, and languages. I would like to read these books, but they've become part of the furniture. Maybe next year, after I finally get to The Aeneid, a twenty-years-ago purchase that has been moved to my permanent shelves.
I always feel better reading about other people's TBR stacks. I've got at least a couple of books that have become part of the furniture as well.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Ayala's Angel, by Anthony Trollope

I have more books by Anthony Trollope on my shelves than any other author (though Patricia Wentworth is coming close). It has been a good while though since I picked up one of his books - looking at my reading diary, almost a year. The last one I tried to read shook my faith in one of my favorite authors. I had a bad feeling when the young heroine met the charming cad. I knew their marriage was a mistake, but I didn't expect a Trollope heroine to die of disappointed love  - and then to have her father die of grief in his turn was just a step too far. I am prepared for that with Charlotte M. Yonge, but not Mr. Trollope.

My negative reaction didn't stop me from adding a couple of Trollope books to the TBR shelves when I came across them (The Fixed Period and The Landleaguers). There are also far more Trollope books on the TBR shelves than any other author's. Finally deciding it was time to try another, I looked carefully over my stash, unwilling to risk another dreary tragedy. The back cover of my Oxford World's Classics edition of Ayala's Angel promised "A romantic comedy of implacable exuberance . . . the brightest and freshest of Trollope's novels." It more than lived up to that blurb, though I'm not sure I agree it's the brightest and freshest.

Ayala is one of two sisters left without a penny after their parents' death. Her rich aunt and uncle, the Tringles, take her into their home. The older sister Lucy makes her home with the poorer aunt and uncle, the Dossetts. But when the son and heir Tom Tringle falls madly in love with Ayala, she is banished to the Dossetts, while Lucy is welcomed to the Tringles' magnificence. I thought there was something of Sense and Sensibility about the two sisters.  Ayala certainly has all the romantic notions of Marianne, while Lucy has more of Elinor's sense and stability. But Trollope makes it clear that Ayala is the heroine of his story.

Much of the comedy in the story comes from the suffering of their rich uncle, the baronet and millionaire financier Sir Thomas Tringle. He has two daughters, as well as his son Tom. The elder daughter Augusta has just married the Hon. Septimus Traffic, a baron's son and Member of Parliament. Sir Thomas settled £120,000 on Augusta, which will give the couple a comfortable income. Mr. Traffic however has decided to save as much as possible by moving in with his new in-laws. I enjoyed Sir Thomas's increasingly irate efforts to turf the young man out, and his own daughter as well, while his son-in-law ignores his hints and even outright insults. Then there is the second daughter, Gertrude, who is determined to marry and expects her £120,000 in turn. However, her father is equally determined not to end up with another sponging son-in-law. At one point she is driven to elope to Ostend, under the mistaken idea that it's a continental Gretna Green where weddings are quickly and easily arranged. Poor Sir Thomas has to cope with the fallout of that escapade, after which he starts referring to Gertrude and her intended as "those two idiots." I sometimes thought he might have been happy to trade his daughters for his wards, who despite their own romantic tangles behave so much better.

This being a Trollope novel, there are of course several hunting scenes. The editor of this edition, Julian Thompson, notes that "The hunting-scenes in Ayala's Angel are as fresh as any, and, as R.C. Terry has pointed out, are remarkably free from nostalgia, despite the fact that Trollope had himself hunted for the last time." The notes also point out several connections in the hunts to The American Senator. It's been so long since I read that book that I didn't remember any of the cross-over characters.

I enjoyed this book very much. It reminded me of why Anthony Trollope is one of my favorite authors, even if every book of his isn't exactly to my taste. I am late for the Palliser Party that Jo Ann and Audrey have been hosting, but I am still in time for the next book, Phineas Redux. Though I'm thinking it's been too long since I last read The Eustace Diamonds.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Seasoned Timber, by Dorothy Canfield

This was Dorothy Canfield Fisher's last novel, published in 1939. I started it two or three times before I really settled into reading it, but once I did, I could hardly put it down. It is such a powerful story, one that resonates with what is happening in this country today, but it is also a deeply personal story of one man's life.

Set in the small town of Clifford, Vermont, in 1934-1935, its central character is Timothy Coulton Hulme, the Principal of the town's Academy. I was well into the book before I realized that Clifford is the setting of another of Dorothy Canfield's novels, Bonfire. I was disappointed that Anna Craft and her neighbors don't appear in this book, because I so enjoyed meeting them in Bonfire.

In that book, Anna devises a way for young people in outlying farm communities to attend the Academy by working for their board in Clifford. The Academy is the only high school in the region. It scrapes by with funding from the town, voted on at the annual town meeting, as well as a tiny endowment and fees from students coming from outside the area. Timothy (T.C.) Hulme works long hours in teaching and administrative work, worrying constantly over maintenance and trying to stretch the limited funds. He also takes care of his elderly Aunt Lavinia, who spends her days (and sometimes nights) listening to classical music. We gradually learn more about Aunt Lavinia, and about their family history, which I found very moving.

Two major bombshells fall into T.C.'s busy but quiet middle-aged life. The first is meeting again a former Academy student, Susan Barney, now a teacher herself. He is immediately drawn to this young woman, and soon overwhelmed by the intensity of the feelings he develops for her. Widowed shortly after his first marriage, he had never remarried, or even thought of it. He is intoxicated by this new love, and with the possibilities it brings.

His happiness carries him through his days, and the daily struggles with the Academy. The second bombshell comes with the death of one of its three trustees, a self-made New York millionaire named George Wheaton. Wheaton would probably get along very well with Donald Trump. He has only the most tenuous connections with Clifford, but he has invented a family history with deep Vermont roots. He was elected a trustee in the hope that he would give money to the Academy. He does, but it comes a cost. He wants control, he wants the Academy to be a proper New England boarding school, and he wants it to be exclusive and Anglo. He harangues T.C. constantly about the few Jewish students enrolled, demanding that the school stop accepting them. T.C. steadfastly resists, agonizing over the rise of fascism and antisemitism in Europe, and fearing their spread in the United States. He is so clearly speaking for his creator here, and I wondered if she came as near despair as T.C. did.

Thwarted over his years as trustee, Wheaton makes a will that leaves the Academy a million dollars for an endowment and $200,000 for buildings. They are conditional gifts however, and that condition is the exclusion of Jewish students. The school's name must also be changed to "Wheaton Preparatory School." An additional sum of money is offered if the school will exclude girls as well. The decision of whether to accept the bequests will be made by the trustees. With Wheaton dead, another trustee must be elected to fill his spot, before they can vote on the bequest. The trustee will be elected by the town, and every single person living there has a vote, and a choice to make. This sets off a furious campaign, which I found fascinating. Many in the town want that million dollars. They want the jobs that will come with a bigger, wealthier school. They see hotels full of rich parents, and students with money to spend in the town. They aren't concerned with the handful of Jewish students already enrolled. T.C. and his allies throw themselves into the fight, which for him at least has implications far beyond their small school. They also marshal very practical arguments, pointing out that a "Preparatory School" will not welcome farm boys and girls, even if they are Gentiles. The locals are much more likely to end up working for the school than attending it.

I read a modern reprint of this novel, from the University Press of New England. It's part of a series with the evocative title "Hardscrabble Classics." The editor is Mark J. Madigan, who also edited the excellent book of DCF's letters, Keeping Fires Night and Day. In addition he has put together a collection of her short stories, The Bedquilt and Other Stories. The only reason I haven't bought a copy yet is that I have most of the stories in different collections. I did however find a copy of a biography that he cited in his notes, Ida H. Washington's Dorothy Canfield Fisher: A Biography. Having read most of her fiction, as well as her letters, I'm curious to read more about her life, and to put her writing into its context. I did note that T.C., like DCF, attended Columbia University, and he shares his middle name with her father.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

To buy or not to buy: Connie Willis's A Lot Like Christmas

I was very happy to see that a new book by Connie Willis was coming out, just in time for the holidays. But then I found that A Lot Like Christmas is a reprint of a book I already own, Miracle and Other Christmas Stories, with several new stories added. (Miracle seems to still be in print.) One of the "new" stories is "All About Emily." I bought that one a few years ago in a special hardback edition, which I thought was a bit overpriced.

I was looking at a copy of A Lot Like Christmas in Murder by the Book the other day, and I waffled quite a bit before leaving it on the shelf. Some years ago I bought The Best of Connie Willis, a book of "award-winning stories," only to find that I already had most of the stories in other books. It makes sense to republish stories, if the original books they appeared in have gone out of print, but I don't need duplicates of her stories. (I do have second copies of Jane Austen and Dorothy Dunnett's books, and a couple of Dorothy L. Sayers and Georgette Heyer's, but I don't collect duplicates, I don't have the shelf space for them.)

I just checked, and our library has A Lot Like Christmas. I'm now next in line for it. I can read the "new" stories and see if I need a copy. I can always drop by Murder By the Book again - maybe for Small Business Saturday this weekend. If I need a Connie Willis fix, I can read Crosstalk, which is still on the TBR shelves.

Still, it felt odd - to pass up a new Connie Willis book, and to practice bookish restraint!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Re-reading in general, and Laurie R. King's books in particular

I've always been a re-reader - compulsively so as a child, with Laura Ingalls Wilder and Nancy Drew. I think a lot of kids are, they like the familiarity of stories heard again and again. (I remember one Christmas when I must have read a particular Berenstain Bears book to my niece at least twenty times.) One of the criteria I use in deciding whether to keep a book is if I think I'll re-read it. There are books I've kept, only to realize that years have passed and I've never looked at them again. Then there are the books that I re-read every year (if not more frequently).

The other day I was in Murder by the Book, looking for a particular author. They didn't have what I wanted, but wandering around the store I saw Mary Russell's War and Other Stories of Suspense, by Laurie R. King. The biggest section of the book is from the title, a journal that Mary Russell began keeping in August 1914. It covers not just the outbreak of the Great War but her last months with her family in San Francisco, before their deaths in a car crash and her voyage to England - where she met Sherlock Holmes, as she describes in The Beekeeper's Apprentice. I remember when the journal was appearing on Laurie King's website, but I didn't follow it at the time. Seeing this book reminded me of how long it's been since I've read any of the Russell and Holmes stories.

I enjoyed Russell's diary, learning more about her family and her background. Reading it made me think of Locked Rooms, one of my favorites in the Russell-Holmes series. In that book Russell returns ten years later to San Francisco, with Holmes, to finally face the loss of her family. Reading it again also reminded me of Laurie King's series set in San Francisco, police procedurals centered on Inspector Kate Martinelli. The last book in that series, The Art of Detection, has a link to Locked Rooms, and I wanted to read it again. But I couldn't just jump into the last of a five-book series, so I've been re-reading my way through that series as well. It's been about 10 years since I last read these books, and I only remembered some major plot points.

I also went back to Murder by the Book for the latest in the Russell-Holmes series, The Murder of Mary Russell, which I haven't yet read.

This meandering through Laurie King's books has gotten me thinking about why I re-read. With the Martinelli series, it's for the characters. Laurie King once said at a book signing that she thought Kate was a bit boring. That surprised me, because I like Kate a lot. I enjoy reading about her, her work, her life partner Lee and her work partner Al. I enjoy the cases she and Al solve, but for me they're secondary to the people. It's the same with Amelia and Emerson in Elizabeth Peters' long-running series. I enjoy the mysteries and the Egyptology, but I'm there for the Emersons and their extended clan (including the cats). It's also true of Deborah Crombie's police series with Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. I mean no disrespect to the stories themselves, but they're not the main reason I read and re-read them. I would also put Dorothy L. Sayers' Peter Wimsey, Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, Kerry Greenwood's Corinna Chapman, Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott, and Patricia Briggs's wolf-packs on that list.

There are many factors that make a book worth re-reading, to my mind. Dorothy Dunnett's are so rich and complex (and occasionally confounding) that even after multiple re-readings I feel like I still see things I missed before. With Anthony Trollope, there is that wonderful authorial voice weaving his intricate stories together. With some authors, it's the story itself - Agatha Christie, and I think J.K. Rowling.

I know there are many people who don't re-read books. I remember my mom telling me me once that she didn't understand how I could read the same story more than once. With limited time and other resources, some people prefer new books, new stories, new people. Reading as I do largely by whim, I read both old and new. Sometimes though, like now, I am drawn back to old literary friends. And I'm thinking I might re-read Folly next - I think it's Laurie King's best book.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Bookish conversations

Last Saturday I joined the celebrations of International Dorothy Dunnett Day. Around the world, people gathered at 1 PM (their local time) to celebrate Lady Dunnett, her books, and the unforgettable characters that she created. I had a celebratory lunch with two other Houston Dunnett readers, one of whom was the very first Dunnett reader I ever met, 20 years ago, when I had just discovered (and fallen into literary love with) Francis Crawford and the Lymond Chronicles. (The other was the generous friend who took me and my three cats in when we became Harvey refugees, also a fellow Janeite and Heyerite.)

It's been a good while since I had the chance to talk about Dorothy Dunnett - about her different series, the characters who feel so fully alive, about the friends I've made and the places I've visited because of her books, about meeting Dorothy Dunnett herself. I've missed that kind of immersive book talk. I've also missed the bookish conversations in blogging. Writing here can be a monologue, my chance to talk about what I'm reading, the books I'm discovering (or rediscovering), the ones I'm adding to the (still growing) TBR stacks. It's with the comments that it becomes a conversation, and I mean to get back to visiting and commenting. I've missed those discussions as well, and the suggestions that keep adding to the TBR shelves. I should check my blog roll as well, I think some people have moved house and I need to catch up with them.

I've missed this.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Another Marvelous Thing, by Laurie Colwin

I am late to discovering Laurie Colwin's books, though I have seen references to them on many of my favorite blogs. I'd even read one of her essays in an anthology on cooking. But it was only last year that I finally read Home Cooking. About half-way through my library copy, I ordered my own copy, one of her novels, and this book of interconnected short stories.

I knew that they were about a couple having an affair. The back cover blurb told me that the two are "a tough-minded and tenderhearted woman and an urbane, old-fashioned older man [who] fall in love despite their differences, get married, and give birth to a child." This is just not true. I don't think whoever wrote this blurb actually read the stories - or maybe just read the first story and made an assumption about what happened next. Not knowing that it wasn't true, I read the stories with certain expectations and assumptions of my own - so I was a bit puzzled by where they were actually going, and the last two took me completely by surprise. It was the oddest reading experience I've had a long time.

There will be spoilers - actually accurate ones - below.

The first story, narrated by Frank, is an account of his affair with Billy, whom he refers to as "my mistress." (Billy occasionally refers to him as "my mistress" as well.) I've only just realized that this first story is the only one told in the first person. While we get other stories and sections of stories from Billy's point of view, it is always in the third person. So it is Frank's voice, Frank's account, which we hear first, and (more than I realized at the time) I measured the stories that followed against his point of view. It's clearer to me now, thinking back, that Billy is unhappy in the affair, though she is strongly drawn to Frank. Since from the false blurb I was expecting a happy ending, I thought that her scruples, her real love for her husband Grey, her sadness and weariness, were merely obstacles along the way to a truer love. Billy tries to break things off with Frank several times. When she does so again, in the fifth story, "Swan Song," I figured as Frank does that they "would part and rejoin, over and over, into the future." So (with that false blurb in mind), it was quite a surprise two stories later to find Billy in the hospital, about to give birth to her child with Grey. I knew at that point that Billy wouldn't leave her husband. I had to check the back cover again, because I thought maybe I had mis-read the blurb.

Truly, I feel like I need to read the whole book again, now that I understand what really happens.

Which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it - I did, very much, even in my confusion. Laurie Colwin has such an elegant but easy narrative voice, and a wry sense of humor. I found Billy a very appealing character, one I appreciated more as my understanding of her changed, from seeing her through Frank's eyes to seeing her in herself. I took to Frank at once, seduced by that first story. But by the end of the book, I was glad to see the back of him.

I still have Happy All the Time on the TBR shelves, as well as More Home Cooking. I'm sure I'll be adding more of Laurie Colwin's books. I still have a Barnes & Noble gift card tucked away somewhere.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz

I knew Anthony Horowitz through his TV series long before I discovered he writes books as well. I fell in love with "Foyle's War" (and Michael Kitchen) at the very first episode. And I was a fan of "Midsomer Murders" without realizing he created that series as well. I began noticing references to his children's books, and then his mysteries, but it was Jane's review of this book over on Beyond Eden Rock that really caught my attention. I just had to wait for the US edition, which finally came out this month.

This fat satisfying book is actually two in one cover (and over 450pp long). It begins with an unnamed woman sitting down to read a manuscript, "number nine in the much-loved and world-bestselling Atticus Pünd series." She is the editor for its author, Alex Conway. We learn a little about this woman's life, about her boyfriend, where she lives, what books she likes, that she smokes. Then suddenly her narrative takes a dramatic turn:
     This book changed my life. . .
     But Magpie Murders really did change everything for me. I no longer live in Crouch End. I no longer have my job. I've managed to lose a great many friends. That evening, as I reached out and turned the first page of the typescript, I had no idea of the journey I was about to begin and, quite frankly, I wish I'd never allowed myself to get pulled on board. It was all down to that bastard Alan Conway. I hadn't liked him from the day I'd met him although the strange thing is that I've always loved his books. As far as I'm concerned, you can't beat a good whodunnit: the twists and turns, the clues and the red herrings and then, finally, the satisfaction of having everything explained to you in a way that makes you kick yourself because you hadn't seen it from the start.
     That was what I was expecting when I began. But Magpie Murders wasn't like that. It wasn't like that at all.
     I hope I don't need to spell it out any more. Unlike me, you have been warned.
Well, that certainly got my attention. I immediately agreed with our narrator about the joys of reading mysteries. And I couldn't resist that last sentence: I wanted to know what happened next.

The story then shifts to the manuscript she is reading. Magpie Murders is a mystery in the classic Golden Age style. Set in a small village, it opens with a funeral. The deceased seems to have died an in an accident, but then another death follows that is clearly murder, and a particularly gruesome one. The famous private detective Atticus Pünd comes down to assist the police with their inquiries.

I was quite caught up in that story, and like our narrator I was taken aback when it came to an abrupt end. She realizes that part of the manuscript is missing. While she is mulling over that, and over the story, she hears on the news that Alan Conway has died. At this point she introduces herself as Susan Ryeland. She then begins to try and track down the missing chapters. Along the way, she begins to wonder about the author's death, which has been classified a suicide.

I enjoyed this book very much, and I am amazed at Anthony Horowitz's cleverness. He must love mystery stories as much as Susan does. There are references and citations from Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and more modern authors as well (not to mention Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders). I was tickled to see that Ian Rankin blurbed Alan Conway's books! Actually, I found the Atticus Pünd story even more interesting that Susan's investigations. It felt like a real book, not just something cobbled together to hang the larger story on. And there are references to, and even quotations from, the earlier books in the series, which really piqued my interest. If Mr. Horowitz ever wanted to write a Pünd story, I would certainly read it. In the meantime, I will be looking for his other books.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Thunder at the Gates, by Douglas R. Egerton

Several years ago, I read One Gallant Rush, the book that inspired the film "Glory." It is an account of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first regiment of African American soldiers organized in the North to fight in the Civil War. Written in 1965, it focused primarily on the regiment's first commander, Robert Gould Shaw, a "Boston Brahmin"; and on the regiment's doomed attack on Fort Wagner, outside Charleston Harbor, which left Shaw and 34 of his men dead. There was little information on the soldiers themselves, even their names. This book, subtitled "The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America," gives them their due and more.

It is actually the story of three black regiments raised in Massachusetts: the 54th and 55th Infantry, and the 5th Calvary. There is still some debate about which exactly was the first regiment of infantry, but the war-time governor of Massachusetts, John Andrew, was determined the first cavalry regiment would be from his state. African Americans had tried to enlist from the very beginning of the war, but Abraham Lincoln's army wouldn't accept them (though the navy did). Union General Benjamin Butler began recruiting blacks as laborers in the areas he commanded. Many of them were slaves escaping to Union lines, and he declared them "contraband of war." Federal commanders in the South, occupying the Confederate states, followed suit. Eventually some began arming these groups of men. John Andrew lobbied the administration for months to allow him to raise a regiment of "persons of African descent, organized into special corps." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the administration finally agreed. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry would be the first. Other black regiments followed, organized into the "United States Colored Troops," under white officers for most of the war. Only after intense lobbying by the soldiers, their officers, and allies across the North were African Americans commissioned as regular officers. The first came from the Massachusetts regiments.

In this account, Douglas Egerton writes the history of these regiments through its soldiers and officers. He focuses on fourteen individuals, black and white. In the first chapter, "The Travelers," he introduces the soldiers, detailing their varied backgrounds. The 54h was made up primarily of men from the North, while the 55th and 5th Cavalry included more from the South, including escaped slaves. Among the enlisted men were two sons of Frederick Douglass. The second chapter, "The Brahmins," introduces the white officers. These included Charles Francis Adams, who commanded the 5th Cavalry; two Quaker brothers from Pennsylvania, Pen and Ned Hallowell, who would command the 54th and 55th; and two sons of William Lloyd Garrison.

Professor Egerton recounts the work organizing and training the troops. Many in the North doubted that African Americans could make good soldiers, and the soldiers faced racism in the Army itself. The Confederate government announced that all black soldiers captured would be "returned to slavery," regardless of their actual status. The officers leading the black regiments, if captured, faced execution for inciting "servile rebellion," or more accurately for the crime of leading black soldiers against the white south. Both the soldiers and the officers of the regiments knew that they were facing more than the usual hazards of war, and they took those risks willingly. There was no draft for the African American regiments, as there was for white soldiers. Every one of the more than 170,000 who served enlisted voluntarily. In the end they made up more than 10% of the total Union forces, a crucial boost to the manpower needed to win the long and brutal war.

I learned a lot from this book, which I found very moving as well as very informative. It places the story of these regiments in the larger context of the war, while still focusing on the individuals who fought. It takes their stories beyond the war, as the soldiers returned to civilian life. Many of them struggled, not just with the effects of the war, but also with the racism that still shaped (shapes) the United States. Professor Egerton also discusses the work of preserving the history of the regiments, which began soon after the war ended. At the same time, a movement to commemorate Robert Shaw, the 54th's original commander, led eventually to a bronze marker, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It shows Shaw on horseback among his men, and the back of the monument lists those who fell in battle with him. I've visited that monument in Boston several times (you can see it here). Reading this book has made me want to go back, and also to visit the site of Fort Wagner outside Charleston.

Reading this has also added to my TBR lists. Among the sources cited is the diary of Esther Hill Hawks, "a physician, a Northerner, a teacher, a school administrator, a suffragist, and an abolitionist . . . [who] went south to minister to black Union troops and newly freed slaves as both a teacher and a doctor" with her husband, also a physician. I don't know why I've never come across this amazing woman before. I'm fascinated by Victorian women who overcame all the obstacles to become doctors. I'm really looking forward to reading her diary.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A belated but very welcome arrival

Last year, a very generous friend gave me a Persephone book token for my birthday. I didn't redeem it right away, I wanted to gloat over it for a while, and to plan very carefully which books I would order. My mother used to say that money burned a hole in my pockets, and usually book gift cards do as well. But I hoarded this one for ages. Then suddenly, a couple of months ago, I decided it was time. After paging through The Persephone Biannually for two days, and changing my mind several times, I put my order in by email and settled down to wait. I waited and waited and waited. Every day (except Sunday) I came home thinking this would be the day that I'd find a package in my mail box, or outside my front door. But nothing. Finally, after about six weeks, I sent another email, asking if by chance my package had been returned. I heard nothing back - and still no package. I was just resigning myself to the loss of my books, when I opened the mailbox today to find three packages (and a pouch - more about that in a minute). There is no date on the packages, so I can't tell if they have just been lost somewhere in the British or United States mail systems. I am so very happy that they finally arrived safely.

If you can't tell from the picture, the books are first, Hostages to Fortune, by Elizabeth Cambridge, which I've been most anxious to read. Second is Because of the Lockwoods, by Dorothy Whipple. I had an awful time deciding between that one and the two volumes of her short stories, or They Knew Mr Knight. The third is A Lady and Her Husband, by Amber Reeves. That one went on my list as soon as I read about in the Biannually, because I collect stories about tea shops (the kind that serve tea).

I was so sad over the non-appearance of these books that I haven't had the heart to look at the most recent Biannually. Now I can sit down with it and start thinking about my next order.

As if the Persephones weren't enough riches for today, I also received another addition to my Patricia Wentworth addiction collection.

ABE Books managed to find me a fairly reasonable copy of this rare title. Ever since I read Jane's review on Beyond Eden Rock, I've been hoping to get my hands on a copy.

I just read one of the non-Silver books, Nothing Venture from 1932. (I have to trust Dean Street Press that it isn't really supposed to be Nothing Ventured.) The very masterful hero is named Jervis, and the whole time I was reading it I kept thinking of "Master Jervie," the very masterful hero of Jean Webster's classic Daddy-Long-Legs. I haven't read it in years, and after I finished it I went on to the sequel, Dear Enemy. It's been even longer since I read that one, and I had forgotten the frequent and approving references to eugenics.

I'm finding older books a welcome distraction these days. Last week I got a copy of Denis Mackail's Tales from Greenery Street through inter-library loan. Even ABE hasn't been able to find me a copy of that book, though they did find Ian and Felicity. All his stories of young married couples and their cooks-general made me think of Monica Dickens. I ended up re-reading One Pair of Hands, and then I went on to read The Winds of Heaven off the TBR shelves. It's been an interesting week of reading by association. Now though I think I'm going to sit down with Hostages to Fortune. And for the moment I can stop envying all the travelers back from London with their stacks of books, like Jenny of Reading the End and Jennifer from Holds Upon Happiness.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Touch and Go, by Patricia Wentworth

When I first came across the recent Dean Street Press reprints of Patricia Wentworth's books, I had no idea where to start. I have been collecting and enjoying her "Miss Silver" books for a couple of years now, without realizing that she wrote so many others without Miss Silver. From the helpful list in the front of the DSP books, I discovered there are three mini-series with different detectives, and a raft of standalone books. I'd hoped to collect the three featuring Miss Silver's frequent collaborators from Scotland Yard, her favorite Frank Abbott and his boss Ernest Lamb. But Murder by Book doesn't have those yet. So I decided to look at the books were published in the 1930s and early 1940s, since so many of my favorite Miss Silvers fall in those years. The DSP books helpfully include the publication date on the back cover.

Touch and Go was published in 1934, in the UK as Devil in the Dark. It isn't a mystery so much as a novel of suspense. Sarah Trent, a young woman of good family and no money, gets a place as companion to 17-year-old Lucilla Hildred, who has just lost her mother and step-father in a car crash. Lucilla's father died in the Great War, as did his younger brother. The recent death of another uncle has left her the heiress to the Hildred property. Lucilla's guardians are worried about her, not least because she had to be taken away from her school, after mysteries fires kept breaking out in her room. Sarah meets her young charge when Lucilla falls down nearly under the wheels of Sarah's car. There have been other incidents - is Lucilla causing them? And why is a man named John Brown wandering around the grounds, supposedly painting the scenery - but what's his excuse in the middle of the night?

Sarah is one of Patricia Wentworth's independent and sassy heroines, and Lucilla is more than a match for her. I enjoyed watching them run rings around Lucilla's elderly guardian Aunt Marina Hildred - actually a cousin, as she will explain in great detail to anyone she can catch (I deal with enthusiastic family historians on a regular basis). And I knew that Patricia Wentworth is a fan of Charlotte M. Yonge's books, but I was still happily surprised when Lucilla of all people quoted from The Pillars of the House.

I had a pretty good idea of where the story was going, but I still peeked ahead to see if I was right. I was in the essentials but not in the details, which had a couple of nice twists I didn't see coming. I toss the term "favorite" around a lot with Patricia Wentworth's books, but this one went straight to the top of my list.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Earthsea books, by Ursula K. Le Guin

I feel the same disbelief and anger and anxiety tonight that I felt on Election Night. Tonight I am staying away from the news, and from Twitter. I went for a long walk in the breezy evening, I have eaten some Cadbury mini-eggs, I have petted cats. I am going to write about some of my favorite books, and then I'm going to take a quick turn around the blogging world and see what other people have been reading.

Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books are deep in my literary DNA. One of my dad's colleagues gave me the original "Earthsea Trilogy," small Bantam paperback editions in a grey box. This was on the front cover of both the box and the first book.

I still have the books she gave me, nearly 40 years later. I read them over and over again as a teenager. The first is the story of the young boy Ged, sent to study wizardry at the academy on Roke Island, struggling to balance his power and his ambition. (I still grieve for his otek.) In the second book, a young priestess serving dark powers in a far distant land meets a traveler from the west, who seeks an ancient artifact. The third book, which was always my least favorite, concerns a break in the world and a perversion of its magic.

I love so much about Earthsea. Ursula Le Guin created a rich world of islands scattered across the seas. This world has a fascinating history and mythology. We learn parts of it through the stories that her people tell, the songs and the poetry they share. I love the dragons that wind through her stories, which have always seemed the perfect dragons of fantasy - wickedly intelligent, sharp-tongued, speaking the Old Speech of Making, the language the wizards use in their spells. In the first book Ged becomes a dragon-lord; as he learns, this is simply someone the dragons will speak to, but it becomes part of his own legend.

I thought the story of Earthsea was neatly contained in those three books, in their little box. It was only years after its publication that I came across a fourth book, Tehanu. It is subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea," and it instantly became my favorite (and one of my desert-island books). It takes up the story of Tenar, the young priestess of the second book (The Tombs of Atuan). Now a widowed mother of two, she takes in a child, burned and left for dead (presumably by her parents). It is a book about the lives of women, the power of women, the magic of women. There are no female wizards in Earthsea, though there are witches and healing women. But something is broken in the great magic, and Tenar with her ward may have part of the solution.

More than ten years later, I was surprised to find a new book, Tales from Earthsea. Ursula Le Guin wrote in the introduction that she was rather surprised herself.
     Seven or eight years after Tehanu was published, I was asked to write a story set in Earthsea. A mere glimpse at the place told me that things had been happening there while I wasn't looking. It was high time to go back and find out what was going on now.
     I also wanted information on various things that had happened back then, before Ged and Tenar were born. A good deal about Earthsea, about wizards, about Roke Island, about dragons, had begun to puzzle me. In order to understand current events, I needed to do some historical research, to spend some time in the Archives of the Archipelago.
As an archivist, I find the idea of research in fictional archives enchanting. I'd love to rummage through the Wimsey papers at Duke's Denver, or the Culter/St. Pol papers in Scotland, or the Emerson archives that I'm sure have been donated to the British Museum.

This book of stories was followed shortly by The Other Wind, set fifteen years after Tehanu. I bought it as soon as it came out, and I read it immediately - and I disliked it intensely. I have no idea why now, except a vague memory of finding it confusing. I kept it on the shelves, but I have never re-read it (or Tales from Earthsea). When I read Tehanu again the other day, though, I found myself wanting more stories of Earthsea. I read The Other Wind again, and it was like reading it for the first time - and I loved it. It continues the story of Ged, Tenar, Tehanu, and the dragons. It takes us to different parts of the Archipelago, and eventually back to Roke itself, on a quest. A wonderful story of adventure, it also fills in some of the history of this world, and deepens its mythology. I must have been having a bad book day, the first time I read this. I'm so glad to have re-discovered it, and on my own shelves.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Sunday miscellany

Good morning from Houston, where a cool front has brought us from the low 90s to the middle 60s. I wasn't ready for summer heat, so I will savor this cool spell while it lasts.
It was such fun to see everyone enjoying the Readathon yesterday. Once again, though, I had no desire to take part. The thought of "having" to read, even for a completely voluntary event like that, makes me oddly anxious. So I will continue to cheer from the sidelines. I did however join in the other main bookish event of the day, Independent Bookstore Day. I celebrated as usual at Murder by the Book, where I picked up more of the Dean Street Press reprints of Patricia Wentworth's books. I had six in a stack at one point, but I winnowed that down to two: Touch and Go (from 1934) and Hole and Corner (from 1936). Murder by the Book doesn't have the three starring Ernest Lamb and Frank Abbott, who appear frequently in the Miss Silver stories, but I'm sure the staff will be happy to order them for me.

On another bookish topic: I have decided to give the Book Jar another try. (Mine will actually be a Book Tin this time.) I'm putting the titles of all my TBR books on small slips of paper into the tin, and I'll draw one out at random from time to time, when I'm between books - and particularly when I'm having trouble settling on a book to read. So far this year I've done fairly well at reading the most recent book acquisitions. But there are so many on the TBR shelves, those that I rushed to order or to buy, and then was distracted from reading by the next shiny new book or enticing review. When I tried a Book Box before, I ended up reading books I had almost forgotten about - and wouldn't have chosen for my next book. Some I enjoyed, others I didn't finish - but I got them off the TBR shelves. And I like the randomness of letting chance choose.

Buying my first house has brought a lot of changes, and quite a few challenges. For the first time I have a garden - just a small one. But I've only had balconies or patios outside apartments before, and this is the first time I've really gotten my hands into the dirt. Part of my small front yard is paving stones, and the previous owner put down gravel on another part (I hope to get rid of that soon). The little pocket-square of actual dirt was an overgrown mess when I moved in, with a massive fire ant mound in the middle of it. After I dealt with that, on the advice of my friend Lynn (a master gardener) I put mulch down. I now have lots of different pots in plants, including two eggplants, both of which are blooming! The thought of cooking and eating my own eggplant this summer enchants me. All of this is to say: are there gardening books or books about gardens that are essential, even to the small-space gardener? Of course I have Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and The Secret Garden (which Jennifer of Holds Upon Happiness reminded me of in a recent post). I bought a copy of Beverly Nichols' Merry Hall from the library sale shelves some weeks ago.

My tiny little garden space

 And finally: a new cat has joined the household. I had no plans for another cat. I feel two cats are more than a sufficiency. However, back in February a co-worker texted me a picture of a kitten in the storm drain outside our building. I went out and collected him, a miserable shivering bundle of matted fur, and took him to my vet's office. I was planning to foster him, but he turned out to have the most virulent case of ringworm that the staff there has ever seen. He has infected most of the staff, all of the clinic cats, some clients who were thinking of adopting him - and as I learned to my shame yesterday, even my vet. They told me early on that I couldn't take him home, because my two here would catch it. But look, they said, we have this adorable kitten who needs a good home - take her instead. And I was feeling so guilty about what I had unleashed on the office that I said yes in a moment of weakness. (I've also been saying no to their offered kittens for years by claiming that my apartment wouldn't allow three cats. Now they know I've moved into a house, so they weren't accepting that as an excuse any more.) I've named her Amelia Peabody, because she is an intrepid explorer. She is the first cat I've ever had to lurk on top of the refrigerator, to climb the bookcases, and to learn to open the kitchen cabinets. She has also left chew marks on both sets of my glasses, broken a lamp, and forced me to relocate several houseplants. I am thinking of renaming her "Lucifer." She probably thinks her name is "NO - GET OFF THAT" - she hears it so often. And the little rescue kitty, whom I've been calling "Ringworm Randy," is finally close to being cured, and the staff assures me they can find him a home. He really is a sweet boy, and so handsome now.

Amelia, in a rare moment of quiet

Monday, April 24, 2017

Capital Crimes, edited by Martin Edwards

As I've written before, I am enjoying the collections of short stories edited for the "British Library Crime Classics" series by Martin Edwards. I've read Murder at the Manor (country house crime), Serpents in Eden (crime in the country), and Silent Nights (Christmas crime). This volume, subtitled "London Mysteries," may be my favorite.

It has a very interesting variety, with some familiar authors but several who were new to me. One story concerns a serial killer preying on people riding the Underground. It was "originally serialized in To-Day, a weekly magazine edited by Jerome K. Jerome." (I didn't know that Jerome was an editor as well as a writer.) According to the introductory notes - which are always informative - the serial kept people from riding the trains, and eventually "the Underground authorities wrote a letter of protest to Jerome." Richard Marsh's story "The Finchley Puzzle" features one of the earlier women detectives, Judith Lee. Another, by Ernest Bramah, has Max Carrados, whom the editor calls "perhaps the genre's most effectively realized blind detective." Anthony Berkeley had a story, "The Avenging Chance" (included here), which he later reworked as The Poisoned Chocolates Case (with a completely different ending). I was happy to discover one of H.C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune stories as well. I found several of the stories quite suspenseful, and one (about a older spinster who does a good deed that goes horribly wrong) deeply unsettling.

The stories in most of the collections are placed in roughly chronological order, with Arthur Conan Doyle usually leading off. The women authors appear toward the end, sometimes under their male nom de plume. This collection has stories by E.M. Delafield, Margery Allingham, Lina White, and Lucy Malleson (writing as "Anthony Gilbert"). The Delafield story, "They Don't Wear Labels," has an ambiguous ending - and it's not the only one.

I still have two collections, Resorting to Murder and Crimson Snow, on the TBR shelves. I check for new ones every time I go into Murder by the Book. They are a lovely introduction to classic and Golden Age mystery authors, and I hope that Martin Edwards will keep finding and re-printing these stories.

Isn't the cover gorgeous? I would almost buy these books just for the covers. I'd love to have this one as a poster!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Home Port, by Olive Higgins Prouty

I really only picked up this fourth book in Olive Higgins Prouty's series of novels about the Vale family of Boston because a copy of the fifth book (Fabia) arrived through inter-library loan, with a short check-out time, and I wanted to read them in order. I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did - much more than I'm enjoying Fabia at the moment, to be honest.

It opens with a young man recovering consciousness on a beach. Gradually he remembers that he is Murray Vale (Lisa Vale's youngest child), spending his vacation from Harvard Law School as a counselor at a camp in Maine, Tamarack. He and a new counselor, Briggs, had taken a canoe out on a trip across the lake. When a storm blew up, the canoe capsized. Though Murray tried desperately to hold on to Briggs and keep him afloat, he finally lost him in the rough waters. He blames himself for the accident, and he is prepared to take full responsibility. It's pretty clear to the reader that he isn't thinking clearly, partly from the trauma of the accident. He learns that the canoe has been found, and a full-out search is on for him. But when he also learns that his older brother Windy has arrived to join the search, his guilt overwhelms him. He can't face his brother with the responsibility for Briggs's death on him. So he takes to the road, with no clear plan other than escape, leaving his family to think him dead, lost in the storm.

This is a really interesting and engaging story of guilt and redemption. Being an Olive Higgins Prouty novel, it is also a psychological study. Murray has a huge inferiority complex about Windy. He has always been overshadowed by his older brother, tall and handsome, a natural athlete and charismatic leader, who contracted polio but fought his way back to mobility and an active life. Murray began to find his own path, particularly through nature studies, but he was laughed and teased out of them (by Windy, among others). He has been following the path of least resistance ever since, including enrolling in Harvard and then Harvard Law against his own wishes. Unfortunately for Murray, he has resisted all his mother's attempts to get him to talk with Dr. Jacquith, the psychologist who did so much for his Aunt Charlotte and for Lisa herself. Dr. Jacquith at least recognizes his "brother complex," and he also says that the family has been "trying to shape a copper urn out of a silver vase."

I particularly enjoyed Murray's adventures once he fled from the camp and his old life. He travels by bus and by hitch-hiking, staying in small boarding houses, eating in diners (not at all the types of places a Boston Vale would feel at home). I kept seeing Norman Rockwell images in my mind - though Murray's travels are far from comfortable, and always overshadowed by his own misery and guilt. I liked his grit and his determination to make his own way, and I enjoyed his adventures (a lot more than he did). The story (published in 1947) covers several years of his life, moving into the Second World War. Prouty doesn't tell us what happens to him at the end of the book - she leaves his story hanging. I am hoping to find out in Fabia - and it better be a happy ending.