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.