Sunday, June 18, 2017

Another Marvelous Thing, by Laurie Colwin

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

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

There will be spoilers - actually accurate ones - below.

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 16, 2017

Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

Thunder at the Gates, by Douglas R. Egerton

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A belated but very welcome arrival

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

Monday, May 8, 2017

Touch and Go, by Patricia Wentworth

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Earthsea books, by Ursula K. Le Guin

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Sunday miscellany

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

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

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

My tiny little garden space

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

Amelia, in a rare moment of quiet