Yesterday Elaine and I read a book I gave her for her fifth birthday, Jan Brett's Mossy. This book is, as are all Jan Brett's books, marvelous both for the story and for the illustrations. It's about a turtle, Mossy, who grows moss on her shell and then flowers in the moss. She is without doubt the most beautiful tutle you have ever seen. In addition to the ever-changing garden on Mossy's back there are illustrations of birds and bugs and butterflies and minerals. Next time you're in a bookstore take a look at it.
More like The Lord of the Flies as written by P G Wodehouse with a bit of Flavia DeLuce thrown in, The Uninvited Guests, which takes place in 1912, is about a family that is deeply attached to their country house, despite having owned it for only one generation. But they are in danger of losing it because costly repairs need to be done and the family lives on the modest income of the step-father, a lawyer. He is patient under snarky attacks from the disgruntled step-children, aged 19, 20, and about 10. The mother is self-centered and focused on doing the done thing rather than doing the right thing. And the youngest, desperate for attention from her mother, attention that never comes, entertains herself in ways that don't always work out well.
It's Emerald's 20th birthday and there is a house party planned. But just as the guests are arriving word comes of a train wreck and they are asked to take in some survivors until the railroad can come for them. Of course the family says yes, not that they have a lot of choice, but this group seems to grow larger as the evening wears on, and more obstreperous, and cannot be ignored -- though the family does try to do so for a while.
One survivor, a sleazy, over-dressed, mustachioed charmer, insinuates himself into the dinner party and birthday celebration with truly appalling results. Much of the time the reader, at least this reader, does not know what's really going on or in which direction things are trending. The Uninvited Guests is described in reviews as a black comedy. I would say the emphasis is on the black and not the comedy.
Well, I do know why I waited. I wanted to buy the Persephone edition but the cost has made me hesitate. But now there is an affordable version for the Kindle and that is where I read it. I'd rather have a paper copy of this and perhaps one day I'll spring for the Persephone book (with bookmark!) Meanwhile I have also acquired Miss Buncle Married for my Kindle and have an interlibrary loan request in for The Two Mrs Abbotts, the third book in the Buncle trilogy.
This story is clever. The year is approximately 1930 and Miss Buncle, like so many others, has found her small income from investments declining until it is now nearly gone. She must acquire some money. Being a bit unsophisticated, Miss Buncle decides the best way is to write a novel, oblivious of the difficulty getting a novel published even in 1930.
In her book the characters based very closely on her neighbors. There is the retired army officer who likes the lady who lives across the way (who likes him very much in return), but whom he has not thought of in terms of marriage. There's the warm-hearted, competent doctor who doesn't put up with hypochondriacs.
And then there are the not-so-nice people in town. The lady of the manor who started out as a chorus girl and now is very much above the rest of the village and whose husband is henpecked. There is the author who is such a tyrant he makes his wife very unhappy and his children are afraid of him.
The publisher to whom Miss Buncle submits her book loves it. He is delighted with Miss Buncle herself also. She signs a contract and the book is issued -- and then the fun begins as the people of the little village of Silverstream recognize themselves and become irate as they attempt to discover who among them has written this book, which to them is horrible, libelous, scandalous.
D E Stevenson wrote more than 40 novels. She was a member of the Lighthouse Stevensons family in Scotland and married to an officer in the Ghurkha Rifles and traveled about the world with her husband and family. Her other famous book is Mrs Tim of the Regiment.
First novels are often very different and much less skillfully written than the later work of an author, and like Georgette Heyer's Helen, which she later preferred be unmentioned and certainly not reprinted, Ivy Compton-Burnett's Dolores, was later an embarrassment to the lady who became Dame Ivy. She disowned the novel. "I don't think anything in later life quite comes up to them [early writings], or makes one squirm as they did," says a character in one of her later novels.
Part of the reason for the heaviness of this first novel is the world in which she grew up. Leonard Woolf, who was born four years before Compton-Burnett, said of the influence of that time, "People who were born too late to experience in boyhood and adolescence the intellectual and moral pressure of Victorianism have no idea of the feeling of fog and fetters which weighed one down." Said Lytton Strachey, "It was not a question of unhappiness so much as of restriction and oppression -- the subtle unperceived weight of the circumambient air." It is remarkable that Compton-Burnett was able to break away from this girlhood into the witty and irreverent woman she was to become.
Richly autobiographical, Dolores tells the story of a young woman who having received a degree from a woman's college based on the Holloway School which Compton-Burnett attended, declines a job at the college to return home at her father's request to teach her younger siblings. The author made the same sacrifice when her mother pulled the other children out of school and insisted the new graduate teach them at home. This is only the first of many sacrifices Dolores makes, some of them verging on the ridiculous. How could anyone turn down a chance to live and work at the famously overdesigned Holloway School, based on the chateau of Chambord - Chambord in a series of mirrors.
The novel was well reviewed when it was published in 1911 when its author was only 17 years old. Its solid reception can be attributed to its similarity to the Victorian novels written by the authors Compton-Burnett read and loved: Charlotte Yonge, Margaret Oliphant, Mrs Humphrey War, and Mary Cholmondeley. Later critics, like Hilary Spurling, found it jejune and distasteful:
The book's tone is repellently extreme. Its moral doctrines are inhuman and its language the exalted terminology of religious passion and self-mortification. . . . Nervous uncertainty is marked on almost every page of a work pieced together from a ragbag of styles, varying from epigrams . . . [to] phrases like 'this oft-lived heart-throb', 'a generous dower of brunette comeliness' or 'the prime knit with a nobler soul'.
And yet, the novel is worth reading for the light it sheds on Compton-Burnett's growth and increasing skill and sophistication. Her second novel, Pastors and Masters (1925), shows dramatic changes in the author's language and style and her opinions on self-sacrifice and religion. What does not change is her use of autobiography and her use of scenes of family difficulties and just-under-the-surface conflict.
Ivy Compton-Burnett is undeservedly overlooked among early 20th century writers. Her novels are brilliant and brittle, her characters remarkably well developed with the use of very few adjectives and a great deal of dialog. The author wrote 20 more thin novels that have titles in the style of her second book: Brothers and Sisters (1929), Men and Wives (1931), Elders and Betters (1944), Darkness and Day (1951), and A God and His Gifts (1963). I've read half a dozen of them over the years but now I'm undertaking to read them all, in order.
While reading Killing Kennedy I was reminded of how corrupt J Edgar Hoover was and how Bobby Kennedy hated him. And this made me realize I have read very little about the famed G-Man. So I requested a biography from the library. Two actually with the idea that I'd choose the one I liked better and send the other back. I chose Richard Hack's Puppetmaster and I don't think I could have done better.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is a book I first read about in the NY Times Book Review. When I discovered it had a starred review from Publisher's Weekly (I'm deeply impressed by stars from the major reviewing press) I borrowed it from the library. A reading of the blurb revealed it's about suffering in Africa of which there is altogether too much in the real world for me to want to read about it in fiction so it was on its way back to the library.
Then my Facebook friend Kilian Metcalf called it a five-star masterpiece (those stars again) and I decided to give it another try, reading enough pages to meet the requirements of Nancy Pearl's Rule of 50. We'll see how it fares this time.
I've just finished re-re-re . . . reading Anthony Trollope's Phineas Finn. And I'm about to re-re-read The Eustace Diamonds. My online Trollope group, to which I've belonged for about a decade and with which I've read and re-read many of AT's novels, is currently going through the six Palliser novels, the Parliamentary novels. I'd be willing to read almost anything with this witty and perceptive crowd.
For example, a spinoff of the Trollope group, otherlit, is reading the novels of Barbara Pym. Which is why I've recently read A Glass of Blessings and Less Than Angels. We are currently reading No Fond Return of Love. To learn more about the author, I'm slowly reading A Very Private Eye, a collection of Pym's letters and journals. All of this is very rewarding.
And the book I picked up the other day, Quiet as a Nun by Antonia Fraser was a book I happened on while straightening the utility room. I have had the first five of the Jemima Shore mystery series for 20 years but I haven't gotten around to reading them. No time like the present.
Miss Buncle's Book is by D E Stevenson. I've read thirteen of her novels and for years I've been hearing about how wonderful this book is from many of the people whose blogs I follow closely. I was planning to buy the Persephone edition, but they are very expensive to buy from here in the US so the book has drifted into and back out of my plans over the years. I finally bought an affordable Kindle version and whipped right through it. It's a wonderful book, full of humor and satire and gentleness and charm. Now I need to find copies of the other two Buncle books.
Without freedom of speech we have no freedom of anything else. And yet, again and again we see people who want to take it away from us intimidating those people who purportedly believe in it. So books get pulled from the shelves, or their publication doesn't happen as scheduled, or the author has to fight to get out a paperback version of his book. And worse, the people who translate, publish, and sell books are attacked and sometimes killed. Which leads those purported believers in free speech to waffle and ultimately to take the hypocritical position that of course they believe in free speech but they cannot publishing because of the threat of danger. Or worse, they blame the author of the book for causing all the trouble.
Which is a little like blaming an abused wife for upsetting her husband. So you can understand why he beat her up, right? And she ought to be very careful not to disturb him again, right? The author was asking for it. He insulted these people on purpose.
Few people these days know more about this complex hypocrisy than Salman Rushdie, who was the subject of an Iranian mullah's fatwa urging all Muslims to kill Rushdie for his perceived blasphemy in his novel, The Satanic Verses. From 14 February 1989 until more than 13 years later Rushdie lost the best years of his life to Muslim threats to kill him and the resulting fears and constraints. The British police administration were heavy-handed in protecting him, making him move from place to place, not allowing him to appear in public, severly limiting who could visit him, disturbing his life and that of his family. For which, in some ways he is grateful. He and his family became close friends with many of the men who risked their own lives to protect his. They almost undoubtedly saved his life.
But the life they saved was so circumscribed that it took him years to be able to again write a novel and the strain of having large, armed men in the house all the time was not good for his mental health or his relationships with friends, his family, and publishers. Early on he was presented in the British press as arrogant, self-centered, and not a very good novelist. His many and loyal friends tried to counter this image but Rushdie himself was strongly discouraged from defending himself.
Rushdie tells the story of this miscarriage of justice wherein he, the innocent victim, is tightly restrained while the men who are trying to murder him are free. He speaks of his heartbreaking realization that the British government wasn't going to stand up to Iran on his behalf. He is infuriated by fellow writers who wrote chastizing him for costing the British taxpayer so much money for his protection. (The cost was enormously exaggerated.) He was moved to tears by the people whom he didn't know well, or whom he didn't know at all, who went way out of their way to help and support him.
So who is Joseph Anton and what does he have to do with all this? Scotland Yard urged Rushdie to choose for himself a pseudonym, a name his police protectors could use in private so that they didn't slip and call him Salman in public risking his security. He floundered around a while but ultimately came up with the first names of two of his favorite writers: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. He was amused to discover how annoyed he became when the police guarding him shortened Joseph to Joe. He hated being called Joe. Irrational, of course, since this was really just a name on a checkbook and a few contracts, but his very life was often irrational during those years.
He learned a lot about himself and other people during those years. He learned the difference between risk and threat. He learned the names of secret, classified Iranian security organizations. He discovered what it was like to travel everywhere in a heavily armored Jaguar and to stay away from the windows of whatever house he was temporarily living in. He learned how precious his son was to him and he grieved at being forbidden to spend time with him.
I don't really know what made me buy this book. Maybe it was the handsome cover. Or the fact that Christopher Hitchens, whom I have admired and respected for many years, was one of Rushdie's best and most loyal friends. Or the rage that swept over me when I realized what was happening, how craven and self-serving the world of publishing turned out to be, refusing to stand up for fre speech. The publishing industry!
In any case, I'm glad I own the book. It is 636 pages long and I put it on my nightstand assuming it would put me to sleep every night as I tried to read a few pages. It did not. Rushdie keeps the reader with him through it all, hoping and being disappointed, frightened and overcoming fear, yearning for freedom. This is easily a five-star memoir, one unlike any other you have read.
Kate Morton's books are like a jigsaw puzzle. She gives you a piece from the upper right corner, then one from the middle, then one from the lower left. She skips around in The Secret Keeper from 2011 to 1941, to 1961, to 1938, and back to 2011. With each vignette she helps you piece together another part of the life story of Dorothy, the nearly perfect mother of four girls and a boy, including Laurel, who is a well-known British actress.
In 1961 Laurel witnesses a shocking scene, a inexplicable scene that has been in the back of her mind ever since. Now, in 2011, she and her sisters and brother are preparing for their mother's 90th birthday and as one of the girls says, she will never have another. Laurel realizes if she is ever to solve the puzzle of her mother's life, to find out what really happened on that 1961 day, she needs to do it now.
I thought I had this book figured out. I knew who was responsible for what, why the characters did what they did, what effect the war had on them, how they managed to escape from their uncomfortable or dangerous circumstances. I was wrong. A reader paying closer attention than I did would probably have figured out many of the plot twists and been able to predict some of what ultimately happened.
But I think any reader will be startled by the denouement. The ending of this book has not just one or two surprises. It has three or four, one of them a whopper that made the whole story, for me, extremely satisfying, something like snapping that last piece into the jigsaw puzzle and seeing the whole picture as it really is.
A wonderful book. Better even than her three previous novels, if you can believe that.
Houses were different from ours today, and were used differently in the late 18th and early 19th centuy. Life was very different then (and not just dentistry and transportation.) In Behind Jane Austen's Door Jennifer Forest introduces the reader to the typical layout of a Georgian house and tells us what various rooms were used for. The breakfast room, for example, was often used all day as a place for the ladies of the family to sit by the fire (which might be the only one in the house) and do needlework. If there were no breakfast room the dining room would probably be used as a sitting room.
"Morning" was defined differently then: it was the time between noon and 3 PM. Time before noon did no exist socially as the women of the family would be busy clearing up after breakfast, tidying rooms, and talking with the cook about the day's meals. In a more affluent family the ladies might still be in bed at 10 AM and the rest of their time before noon would be spent dressing, which was a time-consuming affair in the days of elaborate hair styles, stays, and dresses that occasionally had to be sewn onto a woman (no zippers).
This little book, which is available only on Kindle ($2.99), and would be only 54 pages long in paper copy, is crammed with information. The seasoned Jane Austen reader will know much of what is found here but it's perfect for the new reader of Sense and Sensibility, for example, and explains why their lives change so dramatically when the Dashwood women move from a large estate to a small, cramped cottage.