Sunday, July 5, 2015

I'm going to start buying lottery tickets again

Through Connemara in a Governess Cart, E.O. Somerville & Martin Ross

I didn't intend to pick up another book by Somerville and Ross so soon, but the two books I tried after finishing The Real Charlotte were completely unsatisfactory and went quickly into the library donation bag.  I've had this book in mind for a while, because several people have mentioned finding copies, and because I felt I didn't do it justice the first time I read it.  I didn't even write about it then, because I found it a bit flat.

I think I must have been having a bad reading day at the time, because reading it now was a delight.  I laughed out loud more than once, at the adventures of the cousins and also at the narrator's sly asides.
We crossed Cork on an outside-car; and here, no doubt, we should enter on a description of its perils which would convulse and alarm English readers in the old, old way; but we may as well own at once that we know all about outside-cars; we believe we went to be christened on an outside-car, and we did not hold on even then - we certainly have not done so since.

Like their book In the Vine Country, this began as a series of articles for The Ladies' Pictorial.  (It was published in book form in 1893.)  This time, rather than traveling to France, they would explore Violet Martin's home county of Connemara in the west of Ireland.  With some difficulty, they hired a governess cart (like the ones you can see here) and a contrary jennet called Sibbie to pull it.  Loaded up with Bath Oliver biscuits, cheese, and Borvil, they set off.

They spent their nights at small hotels, crowded with fishermen drawn to the many lakes and rivers running through Connemara.  One of their last stops was on the Renvyle Peninsula on the Atlantic coast, where they stayed at the Renvyle House.  Once part of a large estate, it was turned into a hotel by its owner, Caroline Blake, after the upheavals of the Land League movement (something I've just begun to learn about).  Mrs. Blake was still running the hotel when Somerville and Ross stayed there, and she joined them for an afternoon of tea and conversation.  I was following the cousins' trip via Google, looking at the different places where they stopped, and I couldn't help gasping when I found that Renvyle House is still open.  Some of the photos that I found on-line look like the sketches in this book (which are based on Somerville's artwork).  I am now going to start buying lottery tickets again, because I am determined that I too will drive through Connemara to stay at Renvyle House - just not in a governess cart.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Somerville and Ross's masterpiece: The Real Charlotte

The Real Charlotte, E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross

Published in 1894, this is the second novel written by cousins E.O. (Edith) Somerville and Martin Ross (née Violet Martin).  I enjoyed their first, An Irish Cousin, and love their "Irish R.M." stories and travel accounts.  But this book is something else.  It's hard to believe that this was only their second novel.  In style, plotting, characterization, it is far beyond An Irish Cousin.  Somerville and Ross seem to have sharpened their skills amazingly in the five years between the two books (I have read that this one took them two years to write).  It also feels surprisingly modern - not of the 21st century certainly, but the story could be from the first decades of the 20th.  Neither the lack of technology nor the occasional descriptions of clothing anchor this firmly in the Victorian era (though I did learn the name for a familiar article of Victorian women's clothing, the dolman).

The Charlotte of the title is Charlotte Mullen, but before we meet her we are introduced to Francie Fitzpatrick, living with her cousins in Dublin, and already a confirmed flirt.  Then the story moves to a small town called Lismoyle in the west of Ireland.  There Charlotte lives, in a house inherited from her aunt, which is overrun with cats and kittens, on whom she dotes.  On her death-bed, old Mrs. Mullen reminded Charlotte of her promise to take care of Francie, her great-niece and Charlotte's cousin, though she has left no legacy in her will.  Charlotte finds that promise as inconvenient as John Dashwood did his.  Eventually she invites Francie to stay with her at Tally Ho.  That summer Francie meets again Roddy Lambert, an old friend and flirt from Dublin, now an estate agent for the Dysart family.  He is an even older friend of Charlotte, who has befriended his wife in turn.  Francie is also introduced to the Dysarts, whose son and heir Christopher takes an interest in her, though she prefers the company of Gerald Hawkins, an officer of the regiment stationed in the neighborhood.  She is less popular with the ladies of Lismoyle, who deplore her vulgar Dublin accent and her flashy clothes as much as her flirtatious ways.  Charlotte, who hopes that Francie may make an advantageous marriage that will cement her own social position, lets her go her own way.

There is so much to enjoy in this book.  The authors make the settings so real, from Charlotte's house at Tally Ho to Bruff, the estate of the Dysarts, to Francie's cousins' overflowing cottage in Bray.  But while the landscape is beautifully described, the homes are frequently dirty and squalid (Bruff being a notable exception).  Some reviewers at the time complained that two young gentlewomen had written about a "seamy" side of Irish life, and family members commented as well.  Somerville and Ross were apparently unfazed.  They always considered this their best book, and I can see why.

What really makes the book is the strength of the characters.  I was particularly taken with the Dysarts, the Anglo-Irish squire's family.  Christopher, the heir, has just returned from a diplomatic post abroad.  He lives at home with a brother and sister and their parents, spending his time sailing on the nearby lake and taking photographs.  His mother adds a lot of humor to the story.
Lady Dysart had in her youth married, with a little judicious coercion, a man thirty years older than herself, and after a long, and on the whole, extremely unpleasant period of matrimony, she was now enjoying a species of Indian summer, dating  from six years back, when Christopher's coming of age and the tenants' rejoicings thereat, had caused such a paroxysm of apoplectic jealousy on the part of Christopher's father as, combining with the heat of the day, had brought on a 'stroke.'  Since then the bath-chair and James Canavan [his attendant] had mercifully intervened between him and the rest of the world, and his offspring were now able to fly before him with a frankness and success impossible in the old days.
But it is Francie and Charlotte who really dominate the story.  Francie may be young, and badly brought-up, but she has a kind heart and a "staunchness of soul that was her redeeming quality."  Charlotte - oh my.  Few people know the real Charlotte, "the weight of [her] will, and the terror of her personality" - luckily for them.**  Somerville and Ross claimed that she was one of the few characters drawn from real life in all their fiction.  She was based on a relation who had bilked Somerville out of an inheritance, as Charlotte did Francie.  (Ross wrote Somerville about meeting people who knew the actual "Charlotte," to whom they also were related.  She panicked initially, but "They were enchanted about it...").

My only quibble with the book is its rather abrupt ending, which leaves the fate of one character hanging.  I really want to know what happens next, to several of the characters.**

N.B. After a long hiatus, I can finally add another year to my Century of Books.


**Some spoilers follow:

Mostly, I'd like to know that Charlotte gets her just deserts.  She commits two crimes in particular that shocked me.  First, she encourages Roddy Lambert's wife to break into his desk, looking for compromising letters from Francie.  Mrs. Lambert, who has a weak heart, suffers a heart attack in the process and is unable to reach her medicine.  Charlotte lets her die while reading Roddy's letters herself.  Later she cold-bloodedly helps the bereaved husband sort through her clothes, taking a good portion for herself.  In her second crime, she steams open Roddy's mail, discovers that he has been misappropriating funds from the Dysart estate, and informs Christopher Dysart, who then moves to fire Roddy.  She blackmails, she manipulates, she lies - and she gets almost everything she wants.  It's the one thing she doesn't get that brings tragedy, but not to her. Such a wicked - and fascinating - character!  I think she is also the earliest example of a "crazy cat lady" that I have come across. The fate of one of her kittens still haunts me, though that at least was not her fault.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

An unplanned break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's good to be back.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Tracking a cast of characters

An Unsuitable Attachment, Barbara Pym

I didn't enjoy this late novel of Barbara Pym's as much as the others I have read.  It has two familiar settings, the north London parish of St. Basil, where Mark Ainger is the vicar; and a small specialized library where Ianthe Broome, one of his parishioners, works.  In a switch, at least from the other Pym novels that I have read, it includes a trip to Rome with most of the main characters.  There are seven of these, starting with Mark's wife Sophia.  Really, I think I'd have to include their cat Faustina on the list as well.  She is a source of tension in the vicarage and even with some of the parishioners.

Overall, the story felt a bit diffuse to me, switching constantly between so many different characters and points of view.  The ending seemed even more ambiguous than usual.  I am not sure that the attachment of the title is really that unsuitable.  There is a five-year difference in age, on the woman's side, which doesn't seem like a big gap to me, but may have read differently when this story was originally written.  On the other hand, I felt like I didn't know the male part of the attachment all that well; we just aren't given enough information about him, to judge his suitability.

I saw from a brief forward that this book was published after Barbara Pym's death.  Her literary executor Hazel Holt edited the manuscript for publication.  Ms. Holt wrote that the edits included cuts made according to discussions  Pym had with her about the manuscript over the years.  She made other cuts in sections that "have dated in ways [Pym] would have found unacceptable..."  In looking over the other Pym novels that I still have unread, I discovered that three are also posthumous publications: A Few Green Leaves, Crampton Hodnet, and An Academic Question.  A note at the start of An Academic Question states that Ms. Holt combined two manuscript versions to produce the published work. I find the question of posthumous publication a bit troubling.  How can we be sure what the author would have wanted?  Shouldn't it be clear what is the author's work, and what her editor's?  I don't believe that Jane Austen would have published the versions of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion that her brother Henry did, though I am glad to have them.  I am looking forward with some trepidation to two posthumous novels by favorite authors, Elizabeth Peters and Terry Pratchett.

I found the multitude of characters in this book bewildering enough that I made a cast list.  Then when one, Rupert Stonebird, hosts a dinner party about half-way through, I knew I had met one of his guests before, in an earlier book - I just couldn't remember which one.  I went looking for a list or chart of the characters that appear across different books, but the only resource I found was an academic article that I can't access.  At least from the abstract I was able to identify the guest, Everard Bone, whom I first met in Excellent Women.  So I decided to start my own, non-spoilery version, because I can't resist that kind of literary puzzle, and honestly, trying to remember from book to book will drive me batty.  If the information is easily available elsewhere, please let me know in the comments or in an email (maylisa66@earthlink.net).  Please also feel free to add information on other characters not listed below - without major spoilers if possible.  I will update this list and also post it in the "Pages" section.  It's not a long list so far, because I haven't read all of her books yet.

Everard Bone: character in Excellent Women; appears in An Unsuitable Attachment

Julian Malory: character in Excellent Women; appears in A Glass of Blessings

Winifred Malory: character in Excellent Women; appears in A Glass of Blessings

Mildred Latham: central character in Excellent Women; mentioned in An Unsuitable Attachment; brief appearance in Jane and Prudence

Prudence Bates: central character in Jane and Prudence; mentioned in A Glass of Blessings

Rocky Napier: character in Excellent Women; mentioned in A Glass of Blessings

Wilf Bason: character in A Glass of Blessings; mentioned in An Unsuitable Attachment

Wilmet Forsyth: central character in A Glass of Blessings; cameo (with husband Rodney & friends) in Jane & Prudence

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiography

Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder
   Pamela Smith Hill, editor

This book was everything I hoped it would be, and I enjoyed every page of it (if not every footnote).

I've written before about the books that made the strongest impressions on me as a child.  Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books are the ones stamped most deeply into my literary DNA, before Louisa May Alcott or Nancy Drew or Anne of Green Gables.  As I've said elsewhere, my dad bought me a copy of Little House on the Prairie when I was six.  I still remember the trip to the store, walking back across the parking lot to the car, clutching that bright yellow cover.  It's the first book I can remember anyone buying me.  Of course I had other books, and I had already learned to read from them.  But I have no memory of them.  My reading life began with Laura and Mary and Jack the bulldog.

When I moved away from my home town to go to graduate school, I didn't take the Little House books with me.  But I bought new copies before too long, and they're on the shelves behind me right now.  As an adult, I find the books troubling in ways that I didn't as a child, particularly the treatment of Native Americans and the whole complicated history of westward expansion that underlies the stories.  I don't read Little House on the Prairie very often these days (nor On the Banks of Plum Creek, for different reasons).  But when I do sit down with Little House in the Big Woods, or The Long Winter, I am immediately back in a familiar world with characters that I have known and loved for more than 40 years now.

Even as a child, I was aware of them as characters.  Though I couldn't have put it this way, I knew that these books were fictionalized accounts of the lives of the Ingalls and Wilder families.  It was only recently, when I began reading biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder, that I began to understand where the lines between fiction and autobiography were drawn, and why.  I found Pamela Smith Hill's Laura Ingalls Wilder, A Writer's Life, very informative and interesting.  She drew extensively from Wilder's unpublished autobiography, which piqued my curiosity to read Wilder's own words.

When I finally got my copy of this massive book, I was not prepared for a 45-page introduction, which explains how Laura Ingalls Wilder came to write the manuscript of Pioneer Girl, and how it was then extensively re-written.  The end result was four different versions, all aimed at an adult market.  This book publishes Wilder's own work, her handwritten account, while sometimes noting (in the footnotes) where the other editions revised or changed the story.  Another brief introductory section explains the different versions, and a final section outlines the editorial decisions made in preparing the manuscript for publication.  As someone who works with historical manuscripts, I found this context informative and interesting.  Less obsessive readers might only need to know that this edition consists of Wilder's original version, as written on a series of ruled notepads in 1929-1930.

The explanatory notes in this book are legion, sometimes taking up two pages between the actual text.  They consist mainly of background information, on people, places and things.  Every neighbor mentioned in the text, every animal and bird Pa hunts, every type of prairie grass known to humanity, is identified and explained as accurately as possible.  The sheer level of detail can be overwhelming.  I soon started skimming the animal and vegetable information, as well as the notes on every single song the family ever sang, including author and copyright if known.  I did appreciate though learning that Pa's favorite song was "In the Sweet By and By," which was sung as his funeral.  I always get a lump in my throat listening to that song.

The notes that point out where the later versions diverge from Laura Ingalls Wilder's original also cite letters showing how Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane wrestled with reshaping the material into children's books.  For me, knowing those children's books almost by heart, reading this autobiography was like an x-ray into those familiar stories.  I could see through them to the bones, the historical facts.  I could recognize where Wilder turned the events of her own life into her fictional Laura's.  The explanatory notes helped me see where and what she decided to cut - sometimes with Lane's advice, sometimes against.  What struck me particularly was how Wilder's real-life mother was a much stronger presence in her daughter's life, how Wilder re-shaped the stories to make Pa the greater influence, Laura's ally and refuge.  I remember from my earlier reading that Wilder rushed to her father's bedside in his final illness, yet twenty years later when her mother died, she was not even present for the funeral.  But it was just a year after her mother's death that she wrote to an aunt, asking about "the little everyday happenings and what you and mother and Aunt Eliza and Uncle Tom and Uncle Henry did as children and young folks..."

I would have loved this book for the illustrations alone.  There are maps of each place where the real-life Ingalls family lived, along with pictures both period and modern of the towns and smaller communities.  There are numerous pictures of the family, including aunts, uncles and cousins.  It was interesting to compare two of Laura's parents Caroline and Charles, one from around the time of their marriage in 1860, the other from De Smet days in the 1880s.  I was also impressed at how many pictures of friends and neighbors appear.  The photo researchers for this book really did an excellent job.  And it was interesting to see the original illustrations by Helen Sewell in the 1930s editions, next to the familiar Garth Williams ones that I grew up with.  The Williams illustrations are so much more realistic and life-like, and having seen pictures of the real-life Ingalls clan, I can recognize some of them in his work (like the wild Uncle George of the Big Woods).  The extensive bibliography is impressive as well, and I've already requested a couple of the books cited from the library.

I had mentioned elsewhere one of the surprises in this book: that the Ingalls family had to skip out of town one night, owing back rent (which Charles Ingalls insisted he had already paid).  This took place in Burr Oak, Iowa, a chapter in the family's life that was completely omitted from the Little House books.  My other shocking revelation was that the real-life Laura hoped to dump Almanzo for Cap Garland, even after he brought her home from her remote school on the bitterly cold drive that could have killed them both.  By the time that Cap got around to asking her out for a sleigh ride, though, she had already changed her mind in "Manley's" favor.  And I did have to laugh at one anecdote, which for me brought Caroline Ingalls to greater life than in all her daughter's novels:
We played up stairs in the big loft while Aunt Martha and Ma got supper.  We fought a little and made lots of noise so that Ma opened the stair door to tell us to be still.  Nannie was crying because Will had pulled her hair; Joe was chasing me around the room threatening me because I had scratched his face and Mary and Letty were trying to catch Joe.  I heard Aunt Martha say to Ma "You go up Caroline and spank them all.  I'll go next time."  Ma came up and spanked Will and Joe for being rough, Nannie for crying and me for scratching and Mary and Letty for helping make such a noise.  Then she went down and we were quiet.  Aunt Martha didn't have to come up.

More than sixty years later, that round of spankings remained vivid in her daughter's memory.  And a wicked part of me was glad that the angelic Mary got spanked too.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The other autobiography I was reading

The Autobiography and Other Writings, Benjamin Franklin
   Kenneth Silverman, ed.

Having emerg'd from the Poverty & Obscurity in which I was born & bred, to a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World, and having gone so far thro' Life with a considerable Share of Felicity, the conducing Means I made use of, which, with the Blessing of God, so well succeeded, my Posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them suitable to their own Situations, & therefore fit to be imitated.

I might have bought this book after visiting Benjamin Franklin's house and printing shop in Philadelphia, back in 2000.  It is an amazing historic site, which I'd love to visit again someday.  I know it inspired me to buy a biography of him, which I never read.  Or I might have bought this several years later, when the Museum of Natural Science here in Houston hosted a really cool exhibit on him. Jill Lepore's book on his sister Jane Franklin Mecom, Book of Ages, which is almost a dual biography of the sister and brother, reminded me that I had this still to read.  But it was really my plan to read the books that have been longest on my TBR shelves that finally led me to pick this up.  Once I started, I found it and its author so fascinating that I am making lists for further reading.  I even put off reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder autobiography that finally arrived!

Benjamin Franklin had such an amazing life.  I knew the outline of it already.  He was born in Boston in 1706, the youngest son of seventeen children.  He had only a year of formal schooling but managed to educate himself, in large part by borrowing books, which he studied at night.  Apprenticed to an older brother as a printer, he learned not just to compose type but also words and arguments.  He ran away at seventeen to Philadelphia, where he found work as a printer, eventually opening his own shop and starting a newspaper.  His business did so well that he could retire in his early 40s, to focus on scientific experiments, reading and writing.  His scientific work brought him international acclaim, honorary doctorates and court honors.  He was instrumental in founding the first library, hospital, fire company, militia, and university in Philadelphia, which was becoming the most important city in the colonies.  Franklin also was appointed or elected to a variety of public offices.  This led to a post as Pennsylvania's agent in Britain, where he also represented three other colonies.  Fiercely loyal to the British Crown, his conversion to the cause of independence made him a key figure in the struggle.  When he was named "minister plenipotentiary" to France, he became the darling of French society, with his face appearing on all kinds of china.  He helped frame the Declaration of Independence, and his was the closing speech at the Constitutional Convention.  There is simply no one else like him in the whole of American history.

Franklin began his autobiography in 1771, writing it for his son William.  He was later angered and grieved by his son's decision to remain loyal to Britain in the war for independence, which left them estranged for the rest of his life.  The final two sections of the autobiography are more impersonal but just as interesting.  It is not a full account of his life, however.  It breaks off in 1757, when Franklin was in London representing the Pennsylvania assembly in a dispute with its "proprietaries," the descendants of its founder William Penn.

As I said elsewhere, reading this book felt like opening a door and stepping into 18th-century America, traveling with Franklin from Boston through New York to Pennsylvania, and eventually to England.  I found his style very readable, once I got used to the Capital Letters that always Look so Strange at first in documents from that time.  Franklin had a great story to tell, full of ups and downs, successes and even a few failures.  As the editor points out, it is a carefully curated story, but isn't that true of most autobiographies? And clearly it only skims the surface of a very complicated and sophisticated man, but again, that isn't uncommon in autobiography, and even biography.

The Penguin edition that I read includes a brief miscellaneous collection of short pieces and excerpts from his letters.  Of course it features a selection from his famous "Poor Richard" almanacs.  In introducing this section, the editor writes that they "are included here to show aspects of his character and career that the Autobiography muffles or ignores."  The Autobiography does not mention for example that Franklin owned slaves, but later in life he became an abolitionist. I wasn't surprised to find a document he signed as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.  He probably ended up the president of every group he joined.

I will be looking for a biography of Benjamin Franklin on my next trip to the library, and recommendations would be very welcome. (I wish I could remember which one I bought and abandoned.)  It's a little daunting to see that the published Papers of Benjamin Franklin have now reached 40 volumes.  Reading this book has also reminded me how much I have forgotten about early American history.  I have the letters of Abigail and John Adams already on the TBR shelves, which may help fill in some gaps.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday miscellany: two bookish points and a mini-rewiew

I thought I would be spending this weekend with Pioneer Girl, the annotated edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder's unpublished autobiography, which finally (finally) arrived on Friday.  But instead I am reading another autobiography, Benjamin Franklin's.  I was already in the middle of it, and I found that I didn't want to put it aside, even for Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Though every time I look at Pioneer Girl I am sorely tempted.  No one told me there is a picture of Mrs. Boast!  Mrs. Boast!!  For some reason that made me giddier than anything else I've seen in my quick glances.  But I keep going back to Dr. Franklin, because his story is just so interesting. I feel like I've stepped through a door into 18th-century Philadelphia, with a side-trip to London.  Of course, his is a little Penguin paperback, while Pioneer Girl is a massive square hardback, which I will be toting around this week to the detriment of my back.

I nearly took both of them with me to our JASNA Houston meeting yesterday, just to have someone to gloat over Pioneer Girl with me.  The tea was delicious, as always.  It was disappointing that in the end, we didn't have enough people to play whist.  We played a Pride and Prejudice trivia game instead, which is always fun.  However, though the moderator was completely impartial, something was obviously favoring the opposite team.  Actual questions for them: Who did Mr. Collins ask to marry him after Elizabeth Bennet turned him down, and What was one reason that Mr. Collins gave for seeking a wife?  Actual questions for our team: Who did Lydia and Kitty dress up in women's clothes to fool visitors, and How many were supposed to be in Mr. Bingley's party for the assembly ball?   Needless to say, we lost.  (We also missed "How many dances did Bingley dance with Jane at the ball?" and "Who married 'a man of more fashion than fortune'?")  However, we successfully contested one point.  On the question, What was Jane Austen's father's name, after we tried "Mr. Austen," we decided on "George."  The card said "William," which I knew was wrong!  We weren't using our phones, just our wits, but I did have to look that one up.  I should have petitioned for a forfeit at that point.

And finally, a mini-review: after reading and loving Sharon Shinn's The Turning Season, I was very excited to get the first two books in the "Shifting Circle" series.  I had some pretty high expectations for the first, The Shape of Desire, and at first I was disappointed.  Told in the first-person present as well, it is narrated by Maria Devane.  She met shape-shifter Dante Romano in college, and they have been together ever since.  She has adapted her life completely around him, but his time in human form is steadily decreasing, and now she sees him only a few days every month.  This is a darker story than Kara's in the later book.  Maria is more isolated, by choice in order to keep Dante's secrets and her own.  I felt initially like she had lost herself in the relationship, like she was paying too high a price for a few days of manic happiness and sex with her lover, followed by weeks of isolation and depression.  But the story turns out to be more complicated than that, as does their relationship, and I found it increasingly absorbing.  Here again there was a surprise at the end that I did not see coming (though I can see in hindsight that hints were planted), and I found the ending very intriguing.  I would like to check back in on the characters - maybe they will appear in later books?  I don't know if Sharon Shinn will be writing more of this series, but I hope so. I still have one more to read, Still Life with Shape-Shifter, which is connected to the third book.  After I read that, I'm looking forward to exploring her other books, and would welcome any recommendations (Reading the End Jenny already mentioned one that is a take-off from Jane Eyre).

I hope everyone has a good week!  We are supposed to have some terribly wet and stormy weather starting tonight, which will be a great excuse to curl up with tea and cats and autobiographies.  Mrs. Boast, y'all!  And I just opened it randomly, to a picture of the Farmer Boy family!  Back to Ben, and then on to Laura!