Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The TBR Dare ends tonight

Though I gave up on this year's TBR Dare, exactly half-way through, in favor of re-reading, I did refrain from reading any of the new books I've acquired since January 1st.  My total of books cleared off the TBR stacks is 45.  But I added 23 more, so it's really only a decrease of 22 books.  Still, the TBR total is the lowest it's been in years, and I'm happy about that.

I have been donating the books cleared off to my branch of the county library system. (I was trading some of them on Paperback Swap, until I realized that the books I wanted were rarely available, so I was pretty much just giving my books away.  Which is fine, but if that's the case, I prefer to give them to the library.)  Last week at the annual library sale, I spotted at least six of my donations on the tables.  And I only bought two this time, so I think the balance is in my favor!

From the 23 new-to-me books, these are the ones I'm most looking forward to:

Bubbly on Your Budget, by Marjorie Hillis - thanks to Claire's review   (My version would be "Books on your budget")

A Thousand Miles up the Nile, by Amelia B. Edwards - while I wait for the last (sob) Amelia Peabody adventure

Cluny Brown, by Margery Sharp - from Jane's birthday party, and Simon's review

Girl in a Green Gown, by Carola Hicks - about one of my favorite painters, Jan van Eyck, and his "Arnolfini Portrait"

Miss Miles, by Mary Taylor - "A Tale of Yorkshire Life Sixty Years Ago," published in 1890

Together Tea, by Marjan Kamali - a mother & daughter, at odds over the mother's match-making, take a trip back to their native Iran

P.G. Wodehouse, by David Jasen - this will be my third attempt at a Wodehouse biography; the first two fell into the "throw across the room" category.

And I just know that someday my copy of the Laura Ingalls Wilder autobiography, originally ordered back in October, will actually arrive.  No thanks to Barnes & Noble, which canceled my order without notice.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A quiet holiday adventure in the Hebrides

Stormy Petrel, Mary Stewart

I knew from reading reviews (like Helen's here) that this late book is a very low-key story.  Rose Fenemore, an English tutor at a college in Cambridge, sees an ad in the Times: "Ivory tower for long or short let. Isolated cottage on small Hebridean island off the coast of Mull."  On an impulse, she rents it for her upcoming holidays and invites her brother, a doctor and an avid bird-watcher, to join her.  He is delayed by a train accident.  Alone one stormy night in the cottage, Rose wakes up to find that a man has left himself in with a twin to her own key.  Later, another man arrives, a camper whose tent was blown away, seeking shelter from the storm.  A braver woman than I am, Rose eventually goes back to bed and leaves the two men to sort themselves out.  A low-key mystery develops around who each is, and what he is doing on Moila.  It was obvious to me fairly early on who was the Good Guy and who the Bad.

This is a short book without much suspense, really, but it was a pleasant read.  As usual Mary Stewart wrote very vivid descriptions of the scenery, which made the small island and its neighbors come alive.  One of the nearby islands, Eilean na Roin, is home to a colony of seals, as well as a wealth of seabirds.  I am a sucker for any story with seals or otters (which doesn't involve hunting them).  Rose is equally entranced, as are other visitors.  I also enjoyed the stormy petrels of the title that sweep over the islands.  I recognized the name but had not realized they are "Mother Carey's chickens."  It was interesting trying to find more information about them on-line.  A Google search turned up pages of school mascots, as well as links to this book. I had better bird results searching for "storm petrel."

I think this is the only book of Mary Stewart's that I have read where the heroine has a brother (even if he is absent for much of the book).  I learned that she herself had a brother (but no sisters).  Like Rose, she was also a teacher and lecturer for a time. And while Rose is a published poet, she also writes very successful science-fiction under the name "Hugh Templar."  Part of the reason for choosing this "ivory tower" for her vacation is to have a quiet space to write.  The scenes where Rose sits down to her work, both prose and poetry, made me wonder if they came straight from Mary Stewart's own experiences:
     I got back to work, by which I mean that I got my papers and notes out, and then sat looking at them for what seemed like a dreary lifetime, and was really probably only twenty minutes.  The words I had written - and had almost, in the interval, forgotten - mocked me and were meaningless.  My notes told me what was to happen next, but my brain no longer knew how to move plot and and people forward.  Block. Complete block. I sat and stared at the paper in front of me and tried to blank out the present and get back into my story - forward, that is, into my invented future, and out of the world of queries and vague apprehensions.
     From experience, I knew what to do. Write. Write anything.  Bad sentences, meaningless sentences, anything to get the mind fixed again to that sheet of paper and oblivious of the 'real' world.  Write until the words begin to make sense, the cogs mesh, the wheels start to turn, the creaking movement quickens and becomes a smooth, oiled run, and then, with luck, exhaustion will be forgotten, and the real writing will begin.  But look up once from that paper, get up from the table to make coffee or stir the fire, even just raise your head to look at the view outside the window, and you may as well give up until tomorrow.  Or for ever.
     It was the rain that saved me. . . And in another light-year or two I was through the word-barrier, and the book had suddenly reached the stage - the wonderful moment to get to - where I could walk right into my imaginary country and see things that I had not consciously created, and listen to people talking and watch them moving, all apparently independent of me.
I have read advice from writers that sounds just like that second paragraph.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A trio of travel books

So Near and Yet So Far
And a Right Good Crew
Pleasure by the Busload
  -  Emily Kimbrough

Emily Kimbrough's account of a trip to Greece, Water, Water Everywhere, was one of my favorite discoveries last year, and it inspired me to collect more of her books.  I have definitely found them a mixed bag, and the three I'm going to talk about here are no exception.  Book Riot has a feature with book recommendations called "Buy Borrow Bypass."  I am borrowing that, except that my version is more "Buy Borrow Throw Across the Room."

The "throw across the room" book for me is So Near and Yet So Far, published in 1955.  It describes a tour of south Louisiana, with several of the friends from the 1954 book Forty Plus and Fancy Free, some of whom would also join the trip to Greece the next year.  Chief among them was Sophy (Sophia Yarnell Jacobs), a friend of Emily Kimbrough's from their days at Bryn Mawr.  Sophy was usually the navigator, the driver, and the voice of reason on their trips.  She was also the head of the Greater New York Chapter of the Urban League at the time of this trip, fighting for the desegregation of schools and an end to discriminatory housing practices.  Emily Kimbrough joined her in this work.  She was well aware of the racism in American society.  She wrote about its presence in Hollywood and in her hometown of Chicago.  So I don't quite see how she could write a book about Louisiana that includes just three African Americans, two maids and a shoeshine boy.  Or how she could mention in passing, with apparently no irony, that the unnamed shoeshine boy "was longing to come North and get an education there," in a book written the year after the Brown vs. Board of Education case ended segregation in schools (in law though not in practice).  The last straw for me was when she wrote about the romance of staying in a guest house converted from the slave quarters of a plantation.  All she apparently saw were the pretty rose-colored bricks, not the reality of the lives lived there in suffering.  I understand that this was not an investigative report about life in the South, or about its history.  Maybe she didn't want to upset her Southern friends or fans, including her hosts in Louisiana.  But I wish she had skipped writing about this trip, or I had skipped reading about it.

And a Right Good Crew, published in 1958, isn't a great book, but it came as something of relief after the previous one.  It recounts two trips by canal boat through Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Oxfordshire.  Emily and Sophy were on their own for the first.  For the second, they were joined by three friends, a married couple (the wife a Broadway actress) and a single man (a well-known playwright).  This book felt a bit repetitive to me, because it describes two similar trips, and I had already read about a boating trip Emily and Sophy took, in Water, Water Everywhere.  It also seemed more about Emily and her friends than their travels.  Wacky incidents like almost falling into the canals get full play, but the humor felt a bit stretched at times. There were a few too many visits to villages along the banks, where Emily would try in vain to buy some familiar item like potholders, or a thermos to hold the ice for their cocktails, to the confusion of the local shopkeepers (some of whom must have thought she was bonkers). At least she didn't play the Ugly American, except for lecturing one poor visitor to the boat about how "British housewives . . . waste time and energy in daily shopping" because of "poor or no refrigeration."  She assured her readers that the visitor "was not offended."  I found this a pleasant enough read for an afternoon, but it would definitely be in the "borrow" category.

The best of the books was the last I read, Pleasure by the Busload, which was recommended to me in a comment on my post about the Greece book.  Published in 1961, it is an account of a month-long tour of Portugal in a VW microbus, with Sophy at the wheel.  Joining them this time were Gina Bachauer, a Greek classical pianist; her husband, the English conductor Alec Sherman; and Alec's brother Theodore.  Looking these people up reminded me how well-connected Emily was to the world of theater and music, as well as to writing and publishing.  Reading this book made me aware of how little I know of Portugal.  I couldn't have named any of its cities, beyond Lisbon and Fatima, and I couldn't have found either of those on a map.  Though I knew a little of Portugal's Age of Exploration, I know nothing of its ancient or more modern history.  Emily wasn't much better off, and it felt like I was exploring this new country with her.   She was excited and interested by what she saw, which gives this book a different kind of energy.  Though she included the usual wacky incidents among her companions, her focus was more on the sights and sounds around her, and that made the book more interesting to me.  I did note though that the tour (and her narrative) really picked up after Alec and Gina Sherman left the group.  I am sure that Portugal has changed greatly in that last fifty years, but if I am ever lucky enough to visit, I might take this book with me.  It's definitely a keeper.

I still have four more of Emily Kimbrough's books on the TBR stacks.  I am most curious about Floating Island, which covers another canal boat tour, this time through France.  I only realized last week that the crew for this trip includes Cornelia Otis Skinner, as well as Emily's brother and his wife.  I don't expect it will live up to Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, but I don't think anything could.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Three bookish things

First, I was so very excited about the announcement that Lois McMaster Bujold will publish a new book in her Vorkosigan saga next year.  That it will focus on Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan is just the icing on that particular piece of three-layer devil's food delight.  And I hope that the rumors are true that it's set on Sergyar, the planet where she has served as Vicereine for so many years.  Since the stories have never taken us there, it will be a new world to explore, with one of my favorite characters.  She was my introduction to the series, since I started with Cordelia's Honor - the first book in the series though not the first published.  I can't wait to meet her again, and in the meantime, I will probably need to re-read some of the earlier books. Or all of them.

Second, I was so very, very sad to read of Terry Pratchett's death.  I owe my introduction to his books to my friend Susan, who picked out Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards! for me at Murder by the Book one evening a few years ago.  But I still hadn't read them when I came across Monstrous Regiment on the new-book shelves at the library.  I started paging through it, and though I was intrigued I left it on the shelf.  But as I drove home I kept thinking, no, I want to read that book.  So I turned the car around, suddenly anxious that it would be gone before I could get back.  I was ridiculously relieved to see it still there.  I took it home and read it nearly straight through, and then starting collecting his other books as quickly as I could.  I could never pick a favorite, among all his wonderful stories.  I am reading The Truth right now, which would be high on the list, and I may go on to the Tiffany books.  I am also very happy to hear that he left a final Tiffany book completed, to be published this fall.  There were two lovely tributes that say what I feel about Mr. Pratchett and his books better than I can, Aarti's at Book Lust, and this posted on The Toast (and all the comments).

Third, for the last weeks of the TBR Dare, I decided to look at the books I've had the longest on the TBR stacks.  The ones that date from before 2005, when I began tracking my book acquisitions.  I started with The Canterbury Tales, which has a bookmark from a store in my hometown, where I haven't lived since 1988 (or visited since 1994).  My copy is a Penguin edition, in a "more modern idiom," first published in 1951.  I didn't read a lot of poetry or verse growing up, apart from the obligatory Shakespeare in high school, and my own reading has always been pretty prose-centered.  I think that's one reason this book has been sitting around so long.  When I finally started reading it, I found Chaucer's verse much easier than I expected, and I sailed through the Prologue.  But I don't actually find it all that interesting.  I think I'd like to hear more about the pilgrims themselves, their lives and their journeys, however fictional, rather than the stories they are telling each other.  I also think this may be one of those books I want to have read, rather than to actually read.  I think I'll let it go for now.  The good thing is that it will always be around, if and when I want to try again.

For now, it's back to Ankh-Morpork.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My new favorite book

The Brontës Went to Woolworths, Rachel Ferguson

I don't remember where I first read about this book, but I do remember thinking that I'd never find a copy in Houston.  So when I saw it on the shelves at Half Price Books - just one copy - I lunged, quite prepared to elbow out anyone else reaching for it.  I have had good luck lately finding Persephones and Bloomsbury editions, or maybe it's just that I'm looking for them now.

This book was such a joy.  I'm not even sure how to talk about it, because it is a very unusual story, full of unexpected turns.  If there is anyone else who hasn't yet discovered it, I don't want to ruin any of the fun with spoilers.  The bare bones of the story revolve around the Carne family, three sisters who live with their widowed mother in London between the wars (the book was published in 1931).  Deirdre, the middle sister, who narrates most of the story, works as a journalist, writing "women's features."  The eldest, Katrine, is studying drama when the story opens; and the youngest, Sheil, is still in the schoolroom.  I don't think the two older sisters are working because they need the money, since they live comfortably with servants and a series of unsympathetic governesses.  With their mother, they create detailed, intricate stories that weave in people they know or read about. Sheil believes in them whole-heartedly, which concerns the governesses quite a bit.  Her mother and sisters have to work harder sometimes to keep their belief going.  And then one day Deirdre gets to meet one of the real people whom they have turned into a character.  What happens when the rich world of their imaginations meets its real-life counterparts?

I confess, I didn't take to this book the first time I tried it.  Like poor Miss Martin the governess, I was confused, and rather irritated. I couldn't sort out the real people in the book from the characters in the Carnes' sagas.  This time it all made sense, and I found myself wanting to join in the fun.  I can see why Charlotte and Emily do!  I think this book will be one of those I turn to on grey days.  I was making a list of them last night, after I finished this. They're not just comfort reads, they're also guaranteed to make the day seem a bit brighter - like the song says, "sunshine on a cloudy day."  Here are a few of mine:


What books would be on your list? I'm always looking for more for mine!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Illustrating Trollope's life

Trollope, C.P. Snow

The subtitle of this book is "An Illustrated Biography," and I am always a sucker for period illustrations.  A couple of years ago, I saw copies of this at every Half Price Books I visited.  I finally succumbed, but I put off reading it, I think in part because it feels like Victoria Glendinning's Anthony Trollope is the only biography I really need.  With that, Trollope's Autobiography, and the Oxford reader's companion, I feel that I have a richness of resources on his life and works.  Unlike Jane Austen, I will never own more books about him than books by him!  And not just because he wrote so many more than she did.  However, I did fall for the illustrations in Trollope, and for the title of R.H. Super's The Chronicler of Barsetshire (still unread).

I knew nothing about C.P. Snow when I bought the book, or indeed when I started reading it.  From a quick internet search I've learned that he had quite a life, as a chemist and college professor, a novelist, and a politician and civil servant. He wrote about science, including biographies of fellow scientists, as well as literary criticism. Trollope was published in 1975, five years before his death. The edition I read, a paperback, has a 1991 date.  At first I thought nothing of it, just that this was a reprint.  But there were a couple of references in the text to 1991, which I found jarring.  Obviously someone other than the author revised the text, but there is no mention that I can find of those revisions.  It's impossible to know what was revised or added, and by whom.  That makes this version of the book a little suspect in my mind.  If I ever find a 1975 edition, I will be tempted to replace this one.

That caveat aside, I found much to enjoy in this book.  The illustrations are lovely.  They include photographs and paintings, of Trollope himself, as well as the people and places in his life.  Some of the photos are period, including at least one by Julia Margaret Cameron (not of Trollope unfortunately).  There are also illustrations, some from his books, and caricatures of Trollope.  There are some gorgeous Victorian genre paintings, which Snow refers to in discussing scenes or characters from the novels.  They include a two-page spread of a James Tissot painting Too Early (which you can see here).  I always associate Tissot now with Trollope's novels, since his work has been used on so many of the covers of the Oxford World Classics editions.

The book itself is short, only 177 pages.  Though it covers the essential facts of Trollope's life, it felt less like a traditional biography than an extended essay.  There is a personal tone sometimes.  Snow clearly admired Trollope as a writer, and to me it was clear he liked him as a person, but he avoided sentimentality and over-familiarity with his subject.  In the endnotes, he wrote,
Anthony Trollope, novelist, 1815-82, is referred to as Trollope, tout court, throughout.  His family and friends called him Anthony (a very few, Tony): but we don't know him well enough for that, and it gives the impression of heartiness and simplicity which it is one of the intentions of this book to dispel.
However, C.P. Snow was not a completely detached observer.  Like Victoria Glendinning, he took a dislike to Trollope's older brother Thomas.  Glendinning wrote that she had "conceived a hostility [toward him] which I have made every effort to temper with fairness."  Snow made less of an effort, but he reserved his real bitterness for Trollope's mother Frances.  I had forgotten some of the grim events of Trollope's childhood, including the fact that at age 14, he was left alone in England when his father and older brother sailed to America, to join his mother (in what Snow calls "perhaps the scattiest of all Mrs. Trollope's plans").  I think that must have been the lowest point of a truly miserable childhood - abandoned, with no money, for more than six months.  It was the most extreme example of the neglect that Trollope endured throughout his childhood.  Both Snow and Glendinning point out that as an adult, Trollope had a great capacity for and need of love, and it doesn't take a psychologist to see the roots of that in his neglected, unloved childhood.

Snow was also a great advocate for Trollope's work, making a case for his place among the great writers.  Trollope has been dismissed as a hack, writing to a schedule just for money; and as a photographer, recording what he saw without imagination.  Susan Hill discusses those negative views of Trollope in her book, Howards End is on the Landing, where she also defends his work.  For Snow, one of his greatest strengths was as a great "natural psychologist":
He could see each human being he was attending to from the outside as well as the inside, which is an essential part of the total gift. That is, he could see a person as others saw him: he could also see him as he saw himself.  He had both insight and empathy, working together in exceptional harmony.
Two chapters of the book focus on Trollope's art. The writers Snow compared him to most frequently are Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  Trollope probably never knew that Tolstoy was a major fan of The Prime Minister.  Snow spent one chapter analyzing Trollope's narrative voice, which he considered another of his strengths as a writer, as well as his characters' very natural speech patterns.  As usual, I found some of the literary criticism difficult to follow, but I enjoyed what I understood of his analyses.  I didn't always agree.  I don't think Trollope fell in love with Lily Dale, but I think he did with Glencora Palliser. I'm not sure if I agree that Johnny Eames in The Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire is a "true portrait" of Trollope.  I'll be re-reading those with Audrey's #6Barsets project, and I'll be keeping Snow's point in mind.

In the end, I found this book interesting and enjoyable, with the caveat on the 1991 editing, and not just for the illustrations.  But I think I'd still recommend Victoria Glendinning's book first, in conjunction with the Autobiography.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Signing on for a short cruise with Patrick O'Brian

The Yellow Admiral, Patrick O'Brian

As it happens, Helen and I have been reading from exactly the opposite ends of Patrick O'Brian's twenty-book series. She has just posted about the third book (probably my favorite), HMS Surprise (the dear Surprise, bless her).  The Yellow Admiral is Book 17, the third from the end.

I was recently invited to join a Patrick O'Brian reading group, an off-shoot of a Dorothy Dunnett listserv to which I belong.  The group, reading through the series, has just started this one.  I signed on not just for the fun of discussing O'Brian, probably with sidelights into Dorothy Dunnett's books.  But I am hoping that reading along with this book and the next, The Hundred Days, will finally get me to the last book, Blue at the Mizzen.  I bought it when it was published in 1999, and it has sat unread ever since.  Before I read the final book, I wanted to read again through the series, which sometimes feels like one (very long) story.  But I never made it to the end (I kept re-reading the early books).  So here I am, jumping in with one of the last, The Yellow Admiral.

Though I may have forgotten some of the details in the previous books, the characters feel like old friends met again.  I have just been reading C.P. Snow's biography of Anthony Trollope, where he discusses Trollope's gift in creating characters who feel real and alive.  I think Patrick O'Brian had that same gift.  And this book brings together so many old friends: not just Jack and Stephen, but Sir Joseph Blaine, Barrett Bonden (the Archie of the series), Clarissa Oakes, Heneage Dundas, and Jack's young brother Philip, as well as the other members of Jack and Stephen's families.

The term "yellow admiral" makes me think of butterflies.  Here it refers to Jack's greatest fear: being passed over for promotion.  In the Royal Navy at the time, promotion to the rank of admiral went very much like clock-work, based on seniority in the service.  There were three sets of admirals (red, white and blue), and three ranks within each set (rear-admiral, vice-admiral, and admiral).  Thus Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park talks of the vices and rears in her uncle the Admiral's home, and Anne Elliot in Persuasion knows that Admiral Crofts is "rear admiral of the white," half-way up the ranks.  He would have started as rear admiral of the blue, before promotion to vice and then admiral of the blue, with the next step to the white (as rear admiral again).  When a vacancy occurred, each man moved up in strict order, and the most senior captain on the list became the new rear-admiral of the blue.  Once a captain made it to admiral, as long as he stayed alive he would rise through the list.  The ultimate prize was the rank of Admiral of the Fleet, which Jane Austen's brother Frank held.  But captains who made too many enemies in the service, particularly at the Admiralty, risk being "yellowed," effectively retired by a meaningless promotion to rear-admiral (unattached to a squadron).  And with the end of the Napoleonic Wars in sight, a lot of sailors are going to find themselves turned on shore.

I won't say too much about the plot of this book, except to note that it is equally divided between sea and land adventures (not to mention misadventures).  Jack has a tendency to get himself into trouble on shore.  Here he is resisting a fellow landowner's plan to enclose a village common.  Unfortunately for him, his opponent is his admiral's nephew.  That creates an awkward situation when Jack returns to his ship, part of the blockade off Brest.  I can't help thinking that Patrick O'Brian must have had strong feelings about enclosure himself, almost two hundred years later, to make it so central to his story.  Stephen meanwhile continues his intelligence work, meeting this time with Chileans hoping to gain their independence from Spain.  As I remember, it is rare to follow Stephen on his missions ashore.  Usually, as here, we only learn the results after he has returned safely to the ship - or in this case, to Sir Joseph in London.

I am glad that I jumped back into this series, even so far into it, and though I can feel the temptation to go back to earlier books, I have set my sights firmly on The Hundred Days.  Of course, if the O'Brian list finishes Blue at the Mizzen and then starts the series over again, I may be right there with them again, at that fateful concert in Port Mahon.