Sunday, April 29, 2012

An Essex village in 1940

The Oaken Heart, Margery Allingham

After I read Margery Allingham's Tether's End a few weeks ago, I went looking for a list of the Albert Campion books.  I found a bibliography on the Allingham Society's website, but in the middle of the list was a title I didn't recognize, The Oaken Heart.  The summary of it was so intriguing that I immediately put in a request to interlibrary loan.  In the first pages of her book, Allingham explained its purpose and how it came to be written in a letter to the residents of her village near the Essex coast:
"Last November an American whom some of you know [her published at Doubleday] asked me to put it down so that he and his wife and his village in America could gather exactly what life has been like down here for us ordinary country people during the war. It was a business request, and I have made an ultra-careful job of it, as you will see, because I believe that he and his friends are sufficiently (but by no means exactly) like us for it to be possible for me to convey to him much more of the actual truth than is usual on these occasions . . . Also, the war is getting very close to them over there . . . It is not a private attempt at propaganda, nor yet a disinterested gesture on my part. I have been employed as a professional writer by the American to tell him what he wants to know." 
The village where Allingham and her husband Philip Youngman Carter lived is Tolleshunt D'Arcy (renamed "Auburn" in the book).  She began the book by introducing her readers to the village, its geography and its residents.  The Carters' home was in the center of it, and though they had only moved into it in 1934, they seem to have quickly found their place, probably in part because Allingham had lived in Essex from childhood.  She took a sociologist's interest in the community, analyzing their state of mind and heart starting in late 1938, through the fraught events of 1939, and then into the first two years of the war.  She described the evolution of the community's thinking on the war and Britain's place in it:
"In those weeks in May and June [1940] I think ninety-nine per cent of English folk, country and town, found their souls . . . [in] the bald discovery that you would honestly and in cold blood rather die when it came to it than be bossed about by a Nazi . . . They said things like 'Looks like we'll have to stand up to 'em then,' . . . or merely and most firmly, 'We can't have they here, no, no.'"
The greatest upheaval at the start of the war was the unexpected arrival of five hundred mothers and their young children, evacuees from London, most of whom were not well-suited to country life.  Allingham took a leading role in managing their placement with village families; meanwhile her husband had become the head of the local air raid wardens, and their home the village headquarters.  Though her focus remained on the countryside, in the later part of the book Allingham wrote about two trips to London in the midst of the Blitz.  Despite the continual air raids on her part of Essex, the damage was limited, at least up to the time the book was published in 1941.

As one might expect in a book written for an American audience, Allingham spent some time analyzing both the differences and the similarities between the British and the Americans, like she was trying to explain each to the other.  In her telling, the people of Auburn initially thought it only natural that America might not rush to Britain's aid again, though self-interest and the ties between the two countries would eventually have their effect.

In addition to coping with the upheaval of the war, Allingham was on a deadline to complete a Campion novel, published in 1941 as Traitor's Purse and set in the early years of the war. 
"On my part, the completion of my thriller was a vital necessity; no question about that. My part in the family war effort was to keep the home going and pay the taxes, and there were times when I wished I had been prenticed to a different trade. My tale was about a man with amnesia and required a mental contortionist with uninterrupted leisure to write the blessed thing . . . I was always hoping that the end of one thriller would not overtake me before I finished the other."
As I read The Oaken Heart, I was mentally comparing it with Vera Brittain's England's Hour, also published in 1941 and also written for an American audience.  The books, though very different, complement each other.  Brittain's focus was urban: "to present, from several different angles, this wartime life as it has appeared to the ordinary London civilian day by day."  Perhaps in a natural reaction to the months of bombing that she endured, the devastation that she witnessed, Brittain's book feels more urgent, almost impatient at times.  Yet though she also analyzed actions and reactions, feelings and thoughts, it was from more of a distance than Allingham, embedded in the middle of her small rural community.  As I read I was also comparing The Oaken Heart with the war-time novels in Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire series and her fictional portrayal of the home front.  One of the major differences I noted is that Allingham's village seems to have had less class division or class consciousness than Thirkell's.  Most of the Auburn residents that Allingham described and quoted would have been minor characters in a Barsetshire novel.

The Allingham Society's site described The Oaken Heart as "one of the great books to come out of the Second World War," and though I'm not an expert on the literature of the war, I'd agree with that.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A missing ring and a banished heir

The Talisman Ring, Georgette Heyer

Just the other day the Georgette Heyer listserv that I belong to was discussing which is the best book for a new Heyer reader to start with.  This topic comes up frequently, in part I think because people want to share the joy that they find in her books, and they want the book they choose to make a good impression (and possibly a convert).  Among my own favorites, I recommend The Unknown Ajax, Venetia, and The Talisman Ring as perfect places to start, and the discussion reminded me that it's been too long since I've re-read them myself.

The Talisman Ring is one of Heyer's early works, published in 1937, and it is set in the Georgian period rather than the Regency.  It opens in the winter of 1793, as Sir Tristram Shield arrives at the home of his great-uncle Sylvester, Lord Lavenham, who is dying.   Sylvester has a granddaughter, Eustacie, an orphan whom he brought back from France just before the Revolution.  He also has a grandson, Ludovic, who fled the country amid accusations that he murdered a local man in a dispute over an heirloom, the ring of the title, which he pledged in gaming.  Sylvester wants to see Eustacie married before he dies, and he has chosen Tristram to be her husband.  He ruthlessly rejects another cousin, Basil Lavenham, the next heir after the absent Ludovic, because he is a beau "who wears a green coat and yellow pantaloons, and a damned absurd sugar-loaf on his head!"

Tristram and Eustacie both accept the match, only to realize quickly that they are not well-suited for each other.  A romantic young girl, who dreams of adventure, not marriage to an older country gentleman, Eustacie develops an interest in her outlaw cousin Ludovic.  When she decides to run away to London to be a governess, rather than marry Tristram, she falls in with a gang of free-traders, and almost more adventure than she could have hoped for.  A handsome young smuggler takes her with him as they try to evade the Excisemen.  He is shot, and they end up at a nearby inn, The Red Lion.  Staying there are Sarah Thane and her brother Sir Hugh.  Sarah is quickly drawn into their adventure, appointing herself Eustacie's chaperone and helping to fend off Excisemen and Bow Street Runners, not to mention the Beau, pursuing Eustacie and curious about the identity of her smuggler.  When Sir Tristram arrives in search of his lost fiancée, much against his will he finds himself embroiled as well, protecting the young smuggler and searching for the lost talisman ring, the discovery of which could prove Ludovic's innocence.

He also finds himself drawn to Sarah, one of Heyer's most delightful heroines.  Not a young chit but a woman of twenty-eight, she has kept house for Sir Hugh when not jaunting around Europe with him.  She has wit and charm and a lovely sense of humor, and while Eustacie thinks her as romantic as herself, we know that Sarah also has a foundation of solid commonsense, which stands her in good stead in coping with the adventures she finds herself in.  Her brother Hugh is one of Heyer's great minor characters, a large man who reminds me of The Unknown Ajax's Hugo, though he is far more indolent.  A Justice of the Peace, he has strong views on smuggling, as strong as his taste for the brandy and other untaxed liquors in the Red Lion's cellars.  He ambles through the story, never quite sure what is going on but adding greatly to the fun of one of Heyer's best books.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A women's world

Califia's Daughters, Leigh Richards

I'm not interested in dystopian fiction.  I think there is enough present suffering and tragedy in the world without reading about what the next generations might have to endure.  But I make an exception for Califia's Daughters, because the author Leigh Richards is really Laurie R. King, and I will read and re-read anything and everything she writes (even Touchstone, one of these days).  When the LRK virtual book club over on Goodreads chose it for discussion this month, I decided it was time to read it again, though I have yet to join the discussions.

The story opens with a rush, with two wagons and outriders approaching an isolated valley somewhere south of San Francisco.  The Valley's security forces are keeping the travellers under close surveillance. Meanwhile Judith, her grandmother Kirsten and her sister Dian, leaders of the community of 285 people, have sent the oldest and the youngest to safety in the nearby caves.  Among those hidden away are the Valley's 27 males.  We are not told precisely what has happened to this world, but in the time Before, there were armed uprisings, riots, violence aimed at those perceived as privileged, including attacks on universities and other centers of learning.  In one such attack, the bombing of a research facility released deadly chemicals and biological agents into the air.  One strain of chemical attack has infected human males, decimating the world's men while leaving women unaffected.  There is currently one male to every ten or twelve females. Male infants and small children are especially vulnerable; many do not survive their first year.

When the wagons finally arrive at the entrance to the Valley, far from a threat they bring people seeking asylum.  They have travelled a long way from their home in the Oregon Territories. A violent and ruthless ruler, Queen Bess, with her headquarters in Portland, is pushing the borders of her regime further and further south, threatening their village.  They want to join forces with the Valley, behind the buffer of Meijing, once known as San Francisco and now under the benevolent if strict control of the Chinese community.  Before the Valley community can accept these newcomers, though, they agree among themselves to send Dian north on a secret reconnaissance mission, to make sure the supplicants aren't a Trojan horse, that they aren't hiding anything that could threaten the Valley.

So Dian sets off on an epic journey that will take her to Meijing and then beyond its safe borders into the wilderness that Oregon [Oregon!] has become, and finally into the hellish city of Ashtown, which has traded freedom for security under a police-led regime.  Both in the Valley and on the road, we see the different ways that women had adapted to this new world, what they are making of it, what their daily lives are like, and the terrible choices that some make.  And it is a women's world.  The few males that survive to adolescence are closely guarded, precious assets to be preserved at all cost.  It is only a short step from there to treating men as possessions.  Laurie King has said that she wrote Califia's Daughters in part out of her strong negative reaction to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (you can read her thoughts here).

This book works on so many levels for me.  King builds a fascinating world, with characters that feel real and true, that I came to care about.  The Valley itself is an appealing little self-contained world, like a futuristic Little Town on the Prairie.  And then Dian leaves that safe world, on a dangerous journey that takes heart-breaking turns.  Even though I had read this before, I was completely caught up in the story again, on the edge of my seat and reading straight through the evening.

Laurie King has also said that she sees this as part of a trilogy (and the middle book at that), but she hasn't yet found the time to write the other two books.  As much as I love her Mary Russell books, and hope for another Kate Martinelli story, I also hope that she does find the time and space that she needs to return to the Valley.  I want to know what happens next to these people, and I want to know for sure that Tomas came home safely.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The clash of the Titans in Tilling

Mapp & Lucia, E.F. Benson

I've been reading my way through The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson for several weeks now.  I only read one or two at a time, rather than through the whole book as I would a novel.  I read a lot of multi-book sagas, and I sometimes find short stories too short, like I hardly get to know the characters before the story ends.  Fay over at Read, Ramble posted about a different approach, with a quote from Mavis Gallant: "Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait."

I'll be honest that I'm also reading slowly because some of them are scaring me silly.  I made the mistake of picking up the book late one night and starting the first story, "The Room in the Tower" (which you can read here).  I had to give up half-way through, and I hesitated a moment before turning off the light afterwards.  My favorite so far, and one of the best ghost stories I have ever read, is "How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery" (which you can read here).

I was reading "Machoan" the other day, and I noticed with pleasure that not only does the narrator live in Tilling, but his house with its garden room and big bow windows reminded me of Mallards, the home first of Elizabeth Mapp and then the immortal Emmeline Lucas.  I got down my copy of Mapp & Lucia to compare the descriptions, and suddenly like Lucia herself I felt "a leading," the irresistible temptation to spend a few days in Tilling.

I think Mapp & Lucia is my favorite of the series.  It opens in the village of Riseholme, scene of so many of Lucia's triumphs and disasters in the early books.  Her first year of widowhood is drawing to an end, and she is ready to emerge from seclusion and take her place in society again.  We meet old friends like Daisy Quantock, who in the absence of Lucia has taken on organizing an Elizabethan pageant, with herself in the starring role. She offers Lucia the supremely insignificant role of Sir Francis Drake's wife.  But Lucia is making other, grander plans.  In the Times, she has seen an advertisement for Mallards, a house to let in Tilling for the summer months.  Though she cannot resist rescuing the pageant from Daisy's inept management, with her faithful courtier Georgie Pillson, she moves on to "fresh woods and pastures new."

Elizabeth Mapp is thrilled to have such an eligible tenant for her house (not to mention one willing to pay her exorbitant charges).  She plans to take Lucia under her wing, to introduce her protegée to Tilling society, to "run her."  Lucia has plans of her own, with skills honed and tactics perfected in the drawing rooms of Riseholme.  The clash of these two Titans is epic, though it may be fought only over Lobster à la Riseholme or the selection of pictures for the Art Society Exhibition.  Part of the great satisfaction of this book is that Mapp proves such a worthy opponent.  No one in Riseholme was really a match for Lucia.

Another great part of the fun is of course the society of Tilling, with Major Benjy, Diva Plaistow, the Wyses with their Rolls-Royce, the "quaint" painter Irene, and the Birmingham-born Scots-speaking Padre and his "wee wifie," all introduced in the earlier book Miss Mapp.  Like us, they take a keen interest in the battle for supremacy, but they can also take an active part and their allegiances constantly shift between the two.  Only Georgie, installed in his own small house, remains consistently loyal to Lucia.

This is such a perfect gem of a book, and now Rye, the model for Tilling, is on my list to visit on my next (someday) visit to England.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A life in politics

Climbing the Bookshelves, Shirley Williams

I can't remember where I came across mention of this book, but when I realized Shirley Williams is Vera Brittain and George Caitlin's daughter, I immediately went looking for a copy.  Over the past two years, I have read all three of Vera Brittain's "Testaments" (Youth, Friendship and Experience) as well as England's Hour, her 1941 book about the Battle of Britain.  I admit, I thought of this book primarily in terms of Vera Brittain.  From the first pages, though, I found Shirley Williams interesting and engaging in her own right.  Now Baroness Williams of Crosby, she has spent much of her life in politics and in public service, with a particular focus on social justice issues.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I'm not giving it back to interlibrary loan and the Grinnell College Libraries until I get my own copy.

Born in 1930, Shirley Williams spent her first years in the unusual family unit described in her mother's books, comprising her parents, her brother John, the household staff Amy and Charles Burnett, and her mother's closest friend Winifred Holtby.  John uncannily resembled their uncle Edward Brittain, Vera's dearly-beloved only sibling, killed in the Great War, and she doted on him.  The young Shirley in turn shared a special bond with her father, George Caitlin, an intellectual who longed to play an active role in politics but was completely unsuited for its rough-and-tumble reality.  The bookshelves of the title were his, which he encouraged her to climb, unbeknownst to her mother.
"My father gave me the single greatest gift with which a child can be endowed, self-confidence . . . That I was a girl was irrelevant to his ambitions for me. I could be anything I wanted to be. His feminism was not an intellectual construct. Quite simply, he saw no reason to think that women were lesser beings than men. Until I was sixteen or so, it never occurred to me that this was a rare attitude for a man born in the nineteenth century to take."
Caitlin also passed on to his daughter his Catholic faith, shared by the Burnetts, who took her to church with them and who also provided much of the warmth and human contact of her childhood.  I wondered if her commitment to social justice issues was shaped at all by her Catholic faith.  She does note that she became aware of and disturbed by inequality as a young child.  She was particularly struck by one family of children attending her elementary school, who had to take turns coming to school, because they had only two pairs of boots shared among them all.

When the Second World War broke out, her parents made the difficult decision to send the children to friends in the United States, not because of the bombing but because they feared arrest if the Nazis invaded England.  John and Shirley spent four years of the war in Minnesota, in a Midwest strongly isolationist until the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Both children would return to England in 1943.  After taking a degree at Oxford Shirley came back to America in 1952, as a Fulbright scholar studying at Columbia University.  She would return to the United States again in the 1970s, as a Fellow and later professor in he John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard University.   Her American experiences are interesting in themselves, and they also give her something of an insider's perspective.

Williams gave up the last few months of her Fulbright to return to England to stand as a parliamentary candidate.  She lost that election, but in 1964 won a seat representing a district in Hertfordshire, as a Labour candidate.  Most of the book focuses on her career in the Labour Party, in Parliament, and as a minister in successive Labour governments.  As she discovered in 1964, Parliament was very much an "old boys' club," and changes were slow in coming.  Gender equality and women's rights would be important issues for her, both in and out of government.  In 1981, she joined other prominent Labor politicians in forming the new Social Democratic Party, which later merged with the Liberal Party to form today's Liberal Democrats.  Williams was raised to the peerage in 1993.  In her later years, she has focused on nuclear non-proliferation and on international cooperation, particularly in crises like the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

As an American, I don't feel that I could fully appreciate (or understand) Williams' analysis of British politics.  Many of the politicians she mentions were unfamiliar to me.  I did resort to google for some terms, like "quango" and "shadow cabinet."   Much of her work as a minister involved education, and though I briefly attended school in England in the early 1980s, I sometimes found her analysis there difficult to follow as well.  Her observations on American society and politics, on the other hand, are both pertinent and interesting.  I found her discussion of the state of modern both depressing and inspiring.
"Several things attracted me to politics when I was young  . . .  I wanted to make the world a better place . . . Dedication, idealism, enthusiasm, excitement; these are not words most people today associate with politics. The loss of trust in politicians has been as dramatic as the more recent loss of trust in bankers . . . "
It is good to be reminded that there are still those striving to make their community, their country, their world a better place - Shirley Williams among them.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A mother lost

Please Look After Mom, Kyung-Sook Shin

In the United States, we sometimes use "lost" as an indirect euphemism for death.  We say, "He lost his wife last year."  There are also frequent stories in the media of someone lost, an individual (often with dementia) who has wandered away from home, or who has run away.  Sometimes the person is quickly found safe and brought home again.  In other cases, there is no happy ending.  In Please Look After Mom, a family faces the heart-breaking possibility that their mother So-nyo, who is missing, may be dead, and may never be found.  She was traveling with their father from their home in a small rural village to Seoul.  Usually one of their four adult children would meet their elderly parents at the train station, but this time their father said he could negotiate the subway on his own.  On their way to the subway cars, the husband and wife became separated.  In the crowd, he did not even realize for some time that she wasn't on the train.  When he went back to the station to look for her, she had disappeared. 

The book opens with the single line, "It's been one week since Mom went missing."  As the children search, frantically and fruitlessly, the story moves back and forth between the present day and the past.  They grew up in the small village, where their mother supported the family by farming and also by turning her hand to any kind of craft that could save money or make money, like brewing malt for sale to a local brewery.  Herself uneducated and illiterate, she was determined to send her children, including her daughters, to school.  Most of this work, and that of caring for the children, fell on her alone.  Her husband was often absent, simply walking out of the house and disappearing for long periods.  It is never clear what exactly he did during these absences, which usually ended with him quietly returning home and picking up his place in the family's life.

As the children search for their mother, they remember, and their memories spark questions, shake assumptions, change their understanding of their mother and of themselves.  The narration for most of the book is in the second person ("The family is gathered at your eldest brother Hyong-chol's house . . . You decide to make flyers . . . ").  It moves between the children and the parents, in five sections that each focuses on a different character (though we hear almost nothing from the second son, not even his name).  The story is linear, as it follows the search, but within that frame-work it moves back and forth in time, in people's memories.  With the shifts in narrative, we as readers learn things about the different characters, secrets never revealed, which change how we understand the family and especially the mother, So-nyo.  I found my picture of her constantly changing as I learned more about her, even in the final chapters.

There is so much going on in this deep, absorbing story.  This is the first novel set in South Korea that I have read, and I was fascinated with the setting, with all the details of daily life, both on the farm and in the city. The parents were born in the 1930s, so their lives span the terrifying years of the Korean War, as well as the changes in South Korea after the war, including urbanization and the decline of rural life, as people moved from the farms to jobs in the cities.  The father's restless wanderings are a reaction to the stresses of the war, during which he lost both his parents and two brothers, and of the unsettled peace (as well as the challenges of raising four children).  One by one, as the children finished their education in the village schools, they followed their eldest brother to Seoul.  With jobs and families, their lives were centered in the city, and they returned home less and less often.  The younger daughter even moved with her husband to the United States, where they lived for several years before returning home to Seoul.

This story, though, also speaks to universal themes of parents and children: of the shifts in relationship as children become adults and parents themselves; of parents who feel they are losing children to independence and their own lives; of children struggling for that independence yet still reverting to childhood at times;  and of the moment when children (sometimes very belatedly and with a sense of shock) realize their parents are individuals with an identity beyond "mother" or "father," with their own stories, their own lives.

This is also a story of profound loss and grief.  We are never told directly what has happened to So-nyo, and though we can guess, the family may never know.  As hard as the finality of death is, I cannot imagine how one copes with the grief of uncertainty, the fading of hope.  The heart-breaking last line, a prayer, gives the book its title: "Please, please look after Mom."  I think that might be what many of us feel in the face of death; we crave the certainty that our lost loved one is safe.

Kyung-Sook Shin won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize for Please Look After Mom, the first woman to do so.  I didn't read any of the other other nominees (though Fay over at Read, Ramble posted about the books and the award itself).  I think this is an amazing book, and I am glad to see its excellence recognized in the award, and in reviews both on blogs and in print media.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Napoleonic Wars, with dragons

Crucible of Gold, Naomi Novik

This is the seventh book in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, which could be described as "the Napoleonic Wars with dragons."  Though I have loved books about dragons ever since I discovered Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books and Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels (at least the early ones), I was somewhat hesitant to try Novik's books, which I'd also seen described as "Patrick O'Brian with dragons."  But I was instantly hooked from the first pages of the first book, His Majesty's Dragon

In her alternate history, dragons were domesticated millenia ago, by the Romans, the Chinese, and the Japanese, among others.  There are many different breeds, with different capabilities, but most of the domestic breeds are intelligent and capable of human speech.  At least among the European breeds, a dragonet put "under harness" and formally named at hatching bonds with a human partner, who trains the young dragon, especially for war.  In this world, the dragons are aerial weapons, both for offense and defense, with the British dragons organized into an Aerial Corps under their own officers, up to admirals.  Despite the importance of the dragons, though, neither they nor the Corps are popular; ancient fears of dragons run too deep.  In one of my favorite twists, one breed will accept only female captains, so women serve in the Corps on active duty and with equal rank, though this is a closely-guarded secret.

Naomi Novik is a big fan of both Jane Austen and Patrick O'Brian, and it shows.  In His Majesty's Dragon, which I think the best of the series, we are introduced to Captain Will Laurence of the Royal Navy just as his ship is capturing the French ship Amitié.  In its hold the crew discovers a large dragon's egg, close to hatching.  Laurence realizes that one of his officers must attempt to harness the dragonet, since England needs every dragon she can muster in the fight against Napoleon and France.  To his dismay, the baby dragon turns to him.  Realizing that this means the end of his naval career, Laurence accepts his duty and harnesses him, naming him "Temeraire" after a famous dreadnought.  It costs him even more when his father Lord Allendale all but disowns him and the woman he loves breaks their informal engagement.  The later discovery that Temeraire is a rare Chinese Celestial  dragon, intended as a gift for Napoleon, proves some consolation, but Laurence finds more in Temeraire himself, a dragon of rare ability and a warm heart, and the two form a strong partnership.

They have had many adventures over land and sea in these seven books, which have taken them to China, Africa, and in the sixth book to Australia.  At times they have taken their part in the wars against Napoleon, as part of a fighting wing.  At others they have gone their own way, facing dismissal from the service and even charges of treason.  Both Laurence and Temeraire (who has studied political and economic theory, among other topics) are stubborn, refusing to act against their conscience or to allow the ends to justify the means.  They are classic square pegs, unable to fit easily into the round holes of the service that desperately needs them.  The narration alternates between Laurence's and Temeraire's points of view, and Novik gives each his distinct voice and personality, as indeed she does with all the major characters, dragon and human alike.  Laurence is especially interesting to me.  Among the rough and ready Corps, he tries to maintain naval-style discipline (without resorting of course to the cat); he tries always to act as a gentleman, with an endearing formality that brings to mind Jane Austen's Captain Wentworth and Mr. Knightley.

In Crucible of Gold, Laurence and Temeraire, who had been exiled to Australia, are asked to join an embassy to Brazil.  Napoleon is bringing in fierce dragons to attack the Portuguese interests there, which may force their government to divert resources from Europe, where Wellington is preparing for the Peninsula campaign.  But their embassy is diverted in turn to the western side of the vast continent, where the Incan empire still holds sway.  In this world, the Incan dragons proved more than a match for the Spanish conquistadors, though European diseases still decimated the population.

I enjoyed this book so much.  It is fast-paced and full of action, with shipwrecks and mutinies and dragon battles and naval actions, and even pirates.  And it brings together old friends and comrades in arms (or in the air) from previous books.  This would not be a good introduction to the series, though, building as it does on the complex backstory of the six previous books, as well as the large cast of continuing characters (including Napoleon himself).  It is the penultimate book in the series; Novik has announced that the eighth book will be the last, and I will be so sorry to see it published, while already anxious to read it and see where it takes Laurence and Temeraire next.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Death of a playwright

File M for Murder, Miranda James

This is the third in a series, the "Cat in the Stacks" mysteries (the first is Murder Past Due and the second Classified as Murder, which I posted about back last May).  "Miranda James" is a nom de plume of Dean James, whom I have known for many years through my beloved Murder by the Book here in Houston, where he was previously a manager.

The series focuses on Charlie Harris and his Maine Coon cat Diesel, the cat in the stacks of the title.  At the death of his aunt Dottie, Charlie inherited her house in the small town of Athena, Mississippi, and he moved there from Houston following the death of his wife.  He volunteers at the local public library, as well as working two days a week as the special collections librarian and archivist at Athena College.  Charlie is presently cataloging a fantastic collection of rare and early books that the college recently received through a  bequest, which includes a first edition of Pride and Prejudice.  Dean is himself a librarian, and it's a pleasure to note the details about work in archives and special collections, which many books and TV shows get so wrong.

Not all archives and libraries, though, would allow Charlie to bring in Diesel, though he is a perfectly-behaved cat.  In the first book, he seemed to be Charlie's main emotional connection.  But now his home includes two boarders, who each played a part in the earlier cases, as well as his son Sean, who has also moved back to Athena from Houston, and who helped his father solve the mystery in the second book.

In File M for Murder, Charlie's daughter Laura arrives in her turn to surprise her father.  A rising young actress, she has accepted a temporary teaching position in the college's drama department.  Connor Lawton, an Athena native and a successful playwright who is the college's new writer in residence, will be directing his own play featuring Laura's students.  Abrasive and arrogant, trailing a string of affairs, he quickly stirs up trouble, and Charlie is dismayed to learn that he and Laura were once involved.  When Laura finds Connor dead in his apartment, she becomes a suspect in his murder, and she herself the target of mysterious attacks.  At the same time, she is hiding something, from her father and the police.  Charlie and Sean, with Diesel, set out to protect Laura, clear her name, and find the real killer.

I have enjoyed all three books in this series, especially the small-town Southern setting, and the characters.  Charlie is a good guy, a loving and protective father, and he has great taste in books (at a particularly stressful moment, he settles down with Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy).  I'm already looking forward to his and Diesel's next adventure.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A prisoner of war in Italy

Love and War in the Apennines, Eric Newby

This book is an account of seventeen months that Eric Newby spent in Italy during World War II, first as a prisoner of war, and then after the Italian Armistice in September 1943, a fugitive from both the invading Germans and the remaining Italian fascists.  Like many of his fellow British soldiers, he was hidden and helped by the people of the countryside.  Among them was a young Slovenian woman named Wanda, whom he married after the war.

I have read some military history on the Second World War, but that was years ago.  More recently my reading on the war has focused on the Holocaust, and on the home front in both Britain and the United States.  I don't know much about the war in Italy, or about life for army POWs, so what Newby was writing about was new to me.

He was captured with four other British soldiers off the coast of Sicily on August 12, 1942.  All members of the "Special Boat Section", they formed a unit sent ashore to blow up German bombers to prevent their attacking a convoy then approaching Malta with critically-needed supplies.  The operation, code-named "Whynot," which Newby recounts in detail, was a complete failure.  The men missed their rendezvous with the submarine that was to evacuate them, and they spent hours in the water before being rescued by fishermen, who turned them over to the Italian forces.

The next section of the book covers the year he spent as a POW.  He focuses on the last six months, after he was transferred to a camp located in a village near Parma in northern Italy, in what had previously been an orphanage.  It was attached to a convent of cloistered nuns, who did the prisoners' laundry and sometimes hid encouraging notes in their clothes.  Newby approaches this section as something of a sociologist.  He looks at how the men spent their time, explains the devastating effects of flocks of girls parading past the camp, and describes its social organization.  There was a definite hierarchy in the camp, headed by the "O.K." people, who ran everything.  Newby had a "marginally O.K." friend, who was his entrée into the fringes of society.  He tells us,
"I wanted the opportunity to observe the O.K. people at close quarters and some inner voice told me, quite correctly for once, that this was going to be my last chance ever to do so in the whole of my life.  Before the war I had rarely spoken to O.K. people, let alone known any well enough to talk to."
This period, marked above all by boredom, ended with the Italian Armistice on September 8, 1943.  At the time, Newby was in the infirmary with a broken ankle.  Since there was no plaster in the camp, he was confined to his bed.  The British troops, anticipating the arrival of Allied forces in the next day or so, prepared to leave the camp.  When it became clear that the Allied advance would be slow and difficult, the escaped prisoners had to decide whether to head south, which meant crossing the German and Italian lines, or north, hoping to reach Switzerland.  With his broken ankle making travel impossible, Newby had no immediate choice in the matter.  As Italian civilians gathered with clothing and food for the British soldiers, he finally saw a doctor, who whisked him away to a hospital.  Newby discovered later that he was hidden in the maternity wing, where the agonies of women in labor terrified him.  Here Wanda visited him, as she did other hidden refugees.  She taught Newby Italian and practiced her English with him, and as they became better acquainted they fell in love.

Wanda helped arrange his escape from the hospital just before he was to be arrested.  He spent the next four months hiding with country folk in small mountain villages, moving from place to place.  For several weeks he worked on a farm, backbreaking labor moving stones out of a field.  Later a group of villagers built him a concealed shelter in a forest and kept him supplied with food, and he was joined there by a friend from the orphanage camp.  More than once he had to leave a refuge because his hosts feared discovery, or because they learned that troops on their way to arrest him.  Twice he was denounced to the authorities by fascist sympathizers, and the second led to his final capture in December of 1944.  Newby wants to pay tribute to all the people who helped and hid him and his fellow soldiers for so many months.
"I finally decided to write the book because I felt that comparatively little had been written about the ordinary Italian people who helped prisoners of war at great personal risk and without thought of personal gain, purely out of kindness of heart."
He is clear about the risks.   Both the doctor who got Newby into the hospital and Wanda's father were arrested, as were scores of others; some of them were sent north to Nazi concentration camps.  These civilians were already suffering the deprivations of the war.  Food was scarce, and other necessities, some as basic as salt, were in short supply.  Some found the strain of helping was too great.  Newby was refused refuge in one house because the family "had fear."  The word paura (fear) was constantly in the air.  Yet people moved beyond that fear, to do what they could, to help.  Many who had sons fighting on the Russian front offered help hoping that their sons would in turn find help, not knowing that few would ever return.  It was humbling and inspiring to read about their generosity, like the "righteous" who at the same time were risking their lives to save Jews, and to wonder how I would meet that challenge.  This book is a wonderful tribute to them.

Newby has no intention of presenting himself as a hero, however.  He is completely and disarmingly candid about his own incompetencies.  He freely admits his fear of horses and his general wimpiness:
"I invariably faint away during performances of King Lear, Coriolanus, any Greek tragedy worthy of the name, and in any film in the course of which operating theatres and torture chambers form part of the mise en scène . . ." 
More seriously, he was not immune to paura, not just for himself but also for Wanda.  At times it was only the sense that he owed something to the people risking their lives to protect him that kept him going.  But he did keep going, and that persistence, that stubborn unwillingness to give in, is itself heroic.

I'm glad that I had already read Eric Newby's A Traveller's Life, which I posted about back in February.  Though not a full-scale biography, it gave me an overview of his life (at least up to 1982), so that I could put this book into context.  It continues this story with two chapters on his experiences as a POW in Germany, after his re-capture.  What neither book tells me is how he was able to keep in contact with Wanda during those years, and what they were like for her, before he returned to Italy in December of 1945 to propose.  The romantic in me hopes maybe that story will be told in one of his other books.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Classics Challenge: April with Oscar Wilde

The Plays of Oscar Wilde

This is the fourth month of The Classics Challenge, hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn, who posts questions each month around a central theme.  The focus this month is the cover of the book.  Here is mine:

This is a Vintage edition, published in 1988.  Unfortunately the colors on this image aren't right.  My copy is a warm yellow rather than peach, and the border designs are in olive green and purple. The picture of Oscar Wilde is also crisper.

Our questions for this month:
What are your first impressions as you look at the cover?    What I notice first is the image of Wilde.  I think it dominates the cover, though John Lahr's name is almost as prominent as The Plays of Oscar Wilde.

Does the book cover have an aspect that reflects the character, setting, or plot of the novel?    I don't think so, in this case.  I think it is more about the author than the plays.

If you could have designed the book cover what would you have chosen?    With all due respect to John Lahr, whose reviews in The New Yorker I always enjoy, his name would be much less prominent.  I would like to have something from the plays themselves.  Not from any of the film versions, to avoid the look of a movie tie-in (as tempting as it would be to have Colin Firth and Rupert Everett from The Importance of Being Earnest, or Jeremy Northam from An Ideal Husband).  But perhaps something like this, from the very first production of The Importance of Being Earnest, in February of 1895:

Source: Wikipedia

I have seen film versions of An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, which made me want to read the original plays.  But the first one I read from this volume was Salomé, because a production of this play is central to the plot of my favorite Robert Altman film, Cookie's Fortune.  The film takes place over the Easter weekend, so I usually watch it around this time.  I quickly discovered that the actual play is very different than the one presented in the film, and much stranger.  Salomé is a one-act play about the execution of John the Baptist.  As recounted in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Herod Antipas (the Tetrarch) had John arrested after he denounced Herod's marriage to his brother's wife Herodias.  At a banquet, Herodias's daughter (who is never named) performed a dance that delighted Herod so much that he promised her anything she wanted as a reward.  Her mother suggested the head of John the Baptist on a platter, and Herod was forced to keep his word.  In the play, John (called Jokanaan) is present but invisible, imprisoned in a cistern from which he booms denunciations and prophecies.  Salomé becomes enthralled with him (as Herod is with her, to her mother's disgust), but John rejects her as evil and loathsome.  After Herod repeatedly begs Salomé to dance, leering at her all the while, she agrees, and then claims her prize, to his dismay. (Spoiler alert) The play ends with Herod's soldiers executing Salomé in turn, crushing her with their shields.

Even with its serious subject, I was surprised at the complete lack of humor in this play, which is played for laughs in Cookie's Fortune.  I can't imagine anyone producing this seriously, with its "historic" dialogue, portentous foreshadowing, and over-the-top descriptions.  In the first lines, the moon is compared to "a woman rising from the tomb. She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things," and then as a princess "who has little white doves for feet. One might fancy she was dancing."  Salomé is "the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver."  She tells John, "I am amorous of thy body, Jokanaan! Thy body is white like the lilies of the field that the mower hath never mowed."  It's tempting to go on quoting the lines from this play, because they just get worse and worse.

What a relief to turn from this to The Importance of Being Earnest, which just gets better and better as the action moves from Algy's flat in London to Jack's house in Hertfordshire.  It's one of the funniest plays I have ever read, and I hope someday to see a really good stage production.  Here again I am tempted to extensive quotation, but I will restrain myself to just one, the inimitable Lady Bracknell's inspection of Cecily, who has just become engaged to Algy:
"Yes, quite as I expected. There are distinct social possibilities in your profile. The two weak points in our age are its want of principle and its want of profile. The chin a little higher, dear. Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, just at present."
I understand from the Introduction that the other plays can't match this one, but I'm still looking forward to reading them.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Four cold cases

Tether's End, Margery Allingham

I was introduced to Margery Allingham through the 1989-1990 TV series "Campion," with Peter Davison as Albert Campion.  I went  looking for the books on which it was based, and as often happens, I enjoyed the books even more than the TV episodes, another proof of the Purist Principle ("The book is always better").   I collected all of the 18 Campion mysteries over the years, but I've never gotten around to reading the last three, until now.

Albert Campion first appeared in The Black Dudley Mystery in 1929, where he wasn't even the main character.  Like Peter Wimsey, he evolved into a complex character over the course of the series, the last of which was published in 1965.  At least in the early books, he is a Bertie Woosterish type, sporting huge horn-rimmed glasses that hide much of his face.  When he isn't piffling or pulling stunts, he can fade into the background (he is often described as unobtrusive), and people tend to overlook him, often to their cost.  He is the scion of  an aristocratic family that has apparently washed their hands of him, except for a sister who later joins him in exile.  An amateur detective with a strong streak of insatiable curiosity, he sometimes has a crisis of conscience about his work or finds his own "meddling" intolerable.  He has several Charles Parker figures, police officers with whom he works closely, who become friends.  His manservant, the Cockney ex-burglar Magersfontein Lugg, is the polar opposite of the very Jeevish Bunter, but his rough manner hides a real affection and concern for his employer, and his arcane skills come in very handy at times.

There is a such a variety in the Campion stories.  Some of the early books, like The Gyrth Chalice Mystery (Look to the Lady) and The Fear Sign (Sweet Danger) are high-flying adventure stories, with an element of the supernatural.  Some center on the self-contained world of art or the theater, publishing or fashion.  Two are set during the Second World War.  There are several that seem almost somber, and some I find just confusing, like More Work for the Undertaker or The Beckoning LadyThe Tiger in the Smoke, published in 1952, is generally considered Allingham's best and one of the best mysteries of the 20th century.  It is a psychological thriller centered around the hunt for a killer, the "tiger" of the title.

Tether's End was published in 1958, and it too is a psychological thriller.  The first chapter of the book tells a strange little story of a country bus, with two elderly people seated inside, parked in a London alley one rainy night.  The driver leaves to make a phone call about money he owes and an appointment to repay it.  He leaves for that appointment carrying a gun.  Then the story moves ahead eight months and turns to Albert Campion and his friend Superintendent Charlie Luke.  Luke is trying to tie together four unsolved murders in an area of west London, one of which involved a country bus parked in an alley.  He believes the four cases are connected, though the little physical evidence they have from the crime scenes tells them almost nothing.  His superiors think he is wasting his time, but from the first chapter, we know that he is right.  Throughout the story, we know more than the characters.  The story moves back and forth between Campion and Luke's investigation, the driver of the bus, and Polly Tassie, his close friend and surrogate mother.  Polly's young niece Annabelle, who has just arrived for a visit, is quickly drawn into the story, as is her friend Richard.  They each go their own way, intent on their own purposes, but we can see the connections between them and watch the elements of case come together.  It gave me the feeling of omniscience that authors must often have.  In contrast, the characters don't just lack crucial pieces of information; they are also blinded, by overconfidence, and most dangerously, by love.  The British title, Hide My Eyes, is very much to the point.

This is a very tightly-plotted story.  After the first chapter, all the action takes place over the course of a single day and night.  And while it is brought to a neat resolution, we don't see how the resolution affects all of the characters.  I wish Allingham had told us something of their fates.  But that is a small point in an excellent book, one of her best I think, and now I'm moving the last two books up the TBR pile.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

I survived the TBR Double Dare!

Here it is April 1st, and the end of the TBR Double Dare, hosted by James over at Ready When You Are, C.B., and I made it all the way!  Thus ends three months of reading only from my own TBR stacks (with a few library books checked out before January 1st).  I have been trying for three years to reduce the ridiculous number of unread books that I own, but since I add to the piles faster than I read from them, the total TBR number never really goes down.  Claire over at The Captive Reader had a wonderful post yesterday about her new e-reader, and one of the reasons I am still hesitating about getting one myself is knowing just how fast I would fill it up, and how high the TBR count will skyrocket then.  On the other hand, that TBR stack would all be tucked neatly away in the e-reader, rather than sitting there in silent reproach on the shelves.

The first month of the challenge went by pretty quickly, and I was feeling a little smug about how easy it was.  So I was surprised when suddenly in February, it wasn't fun any more.  All those shelves of books, and I didn't want to read any of them.  I wanted something new - or I wanted something old.  Initially I hadn't really taken in the fact that reading from the TBR stack meant no re-reading.  I didn't know how much I would miss it, the comfort of returning to old friends, even before posts about favorite books started popping up.  All the reviews of The Nine Tailors, like Audrey's over on books as food, sorely tempted me in the very last week!

I managed to clear 71 books off the TBR pile, but I didn't read all of those.  Some I tried and gave up on, others I gave away unread.  This challenge helped me figure out that clearly, I need to be more mindful about the books I acquire.  I need to stop buying books that I may want to read someday, like a literary squirrel hoarding books instead of nuts.  I currently have a nine-volume set of Samuel Pepys's diaries, which I bought two years ago, and if I don't get to at least the first volume this year, they're going to a new home.  That leads to a second point, which is that I need to be more realistic about letting go of books that I am not going to read.  Those 71 books had been on the shelves for an average of 5 years and included a couple I'd had for 20 years.  True, with some books it's a question of timing.  I'm currently reading Tethers End, which I've started at least twice before in the six years I've owned it; for some reason, it's clicking now.  But there were and still are books that I really know I won't read, or re-read.  I'm trying to keep in mind Susan Hill's line in Howards End is on the Landing: "You don't have to pay its rent just because it is a book."

I also have to resist the "I want to read that right now" feeling that comes from print and blog reviews, or from a new literary crush - or at least I can resist heading off immediately to Amazon or ABE.  That's what libraries are for, particularly when no matter how glowing a review, there is no accounting for tastes, and in the end I might not like the book.  I've certainly had the experience of enthusiastically recommending something that another reader found disappointing or worse.  That said, I already have waiting for me Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw (Captive Reader - seriously, who could resist "Trollope with dragons"?), Katherine Anne Porter's Pale horse, Pale Rider (Read, Ramble), Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree (so many enthusiastic reviews of her books at Gudrun's Tights, Pining for the West and She Reads Novels), Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water (which serendipitously turned up at a library sale just after I read about it on Desperate Reader), and Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies (Shelf Love and Read, Ramble) - but at least one of those is from the library.  And as long as I'm confessing: I do have a small pile of books from my latest literary crushes, Eric Newby and Charlotte M. Yonge.

All in all, I'm very glad I took on the Double Dare, and I thank James for organizing it again and letting me join.  Hopefully I can keep some of these resolutions moving forward, and continue to whittle down the TBR stacks - so the Triple Dare next year will find me in better TBR shape.