Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Falling in love with Italy

Fenny, Lettice Cooper

One of the things I look for first in a used-book store is how many green Viragos they have on the shelves.  Though my TBR stacks are full of wonderful books that I've found in Houston's stores, I haven't had much luck with Viragos here, until now.  I recently discovered a new-to-me store on the north side, Kaboom Books, which reminds me of the great Powells in the range of its stock.  I think that on my two visits so far I've looked at every single Virago they have on the shelves.  Last Friday I found Fenny, by Lettice Cooper.  I knew nothing of the author, but after reading the back-cover blurb, I had to buy it (and the next day, I had to buy another bookcase, but that's a topic for another day).
The offer of a summer post as governess to the granddaughter of a famous actress seems a dazzling prospect for Ellen Fenwick, far removed from the fireside teas and prize-giving of her Yorkshire high school.  And the Villa Meridiana, surveying the Tuscan hills, with their vines and rows of silvery olives, provides a dreamlike setting for the new life she anticipates . . . Moving from 1933 to 1949, this is a stirring account of Fenny's development and of the experiences which shape the resilient woman she becomes.
I was immediately reminded of a favorite book I read earlier this year, Maura Laverty's No More Than Human, about the adventures of a young Irish governess in 1920s Spain, as well as Kate O'Brien's novel Mary Lavelle, with her very different heroine in a similar situation.  And I also thought it would be interesting to compare a fictional account of those years with Wanda Newby's Peace and War, her memoir of growing up in Fascist Italy.

When the story opens, Ellen Fenwick is just arriving in Florence on an April evening.  I took an instant liking to her:
Long before the train ran into the station at Florence she had been sitting on the edge of the seat, a starter poised for a race, handbag, overcoat and umbrella disposed on one arm . . .
She has spent the last seven years "desperately homebound," caring for her widowed mother and teaching in the local high school.  After her mother's final illness and death, she feels the need of a change, and she cannot resist the offer of a summer job in Italy, particularly when it involves teaching the granddaughter of an actress she has long admired.  Her pupil, eight-year-old Juliet Rivers, was very ill earlier in the year, and her parents have brought her to the Villa Meridiana outside Florence to recuperate in the sunshine of the Tuscan summer.

The Rivers warmly welcome Ellen, who is soon re-christened "Fenny."  But as she and Juliet settle into their routine, she becomes aware of undercurrents in the family.  There are frequent visits to their neighbors the Warners, a blended Italian-American family with deep tensions of its own.  Though Fenny dislikes Mrs. Warner, she accepts a position with them after Juliet returns to England.  She forms a special bond with Shand, the son of Mr. Warner's first marriage, who wants desperately to get away from his step-mother and return to America.  When her employment with the Warners ends abruptly, Fenny is determined to remain in Florence.  She supports herself with office work and with tutoring in English.  She enjoys her independence, the circle of friends she has made, and the city of Florence that she has come to love so much.  Reluctant to leave even as war begins to seem inevitable, she decides against the advice of family and friends to stay, knowing that she risks internment as an enemy alien.

Fenny's story is divided into four sections (and one Interlude), each covering a period of time ranging from a few weeks to several months.  At the end of each section, the story jumps ahead some months or years, in one case six years.  The story then simply picks up and carries on from that point.  There is no attempt to bridge the gap with backstory or explanation, though as the story continues there are references to past events that help fill in the details.  The gap of six years, for example, covers the war, so we get no first-hand information about Fenny's experiences, though we learn in the brief chapter of the Interlude that she was indeed interned.  I found the shifts a little disconcerting, but I came to enjoy the sense of catching up with Fenny and figuring out what had happened in the intervals.

I suppose in some ways this is a familiar story.  Fenny is hardly the first character to fall in love with Italy and make her home there.  But that never crossed my mind while I was reading it, because Lettice Cooper created such a sympathetic character in Fenny, with a story that drew me in from the first page.  Fenny's  delight in her Italian summer is contagious.  She revels in the beauty of the Tuscan country around the villa, as well as in the ancient streets and buildings of Florence.  Unlike the Irish governesses in Spain, she falls more in love with the country than with the people, though she finds an equally warm welcome.  It's that love, as well as a more personal attachment, which shapes her decision to remain in Italy in 1939, despite the risks.  It sustains her under the many challenges that she faces.  I understood her decision but knew it was a mistake.  She feels a great responsibility for each of the children entrusted to her care, and she makes decisions based on their best interests, even when it comes at a cost to herself (in one case, the loss of her position).

This book was not quite what I expected.  Fenny spends much of the 1930s in the school-room or in an office, untouched by the rising tensions in Italy and more than a little naive when it comes to politics.  But I enjoyed it very much, and I am looking forward to reading more of Lettice Cooper's books.  I see from the introduction that she wrote quite a few novels, in addition to biographies of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson and several children's books.  Any recommendations about what to read next?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The story of a marriage

Two-Part Invention, Madeleine L'Engle

This is the fourth of Madeleine L'Engle's "Crosswicks Journals," named for the 200-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut that her family has owned since 1946.  Though I have all four of the journals, I am reading them out of order (I first read the second, The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, back in October).  Claire's luminous review of this book inspired me to move it up the reading list.  According to the subtitle, it is "The Story of a Marriage."  From the earlier book, I knew something of L'Engle's marriage to Hugh Franklin, and after two books about troubled marriages, I was ready to read about a good strong one.

Being musically illiterate, I had no idea what the title meant, until I was searching for an image of the book's cover.  That's when I learned that it refers to a series of two-part compositions by J.S. Bach.  He described them as
[an] Honest method, by which the amateurs of the keyboard – especially, however, those desirous of learning – are shown a clear way not only (1) to learn to play cleanly in two parts, but also, after further progress, (2) . . . not only to obtain good inventions (ideas) but to develop the same well;
which seems a very apt metaphor for the marriage Madeleine L'Engle is writing about.

As in The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, L'Engle here weaves together several strands of story.  In that book, she wrote about her parents' marriage and her childhood, with the focus on her mother.  Here she continues her own story into adulthood.  She briefly recounts her childhood in New York City and then Europe, and Hugh's very different experiences in a small Oklahoma town.  Both came to New York after college, hoping for a career in the theater, though Madeleine was also working on her first novel.  At the time she arrived, three prominent actors were offering auditions to aspiring actors, and Madeleine soon found herself in an understudy's role.  From there she went on to play small parts on Broadway and in touring companies.  She met Hugh when both were cast in a war-time production of The Cherry Orchard (Hugh had been rejected for military service in World War II for medical reasons). 

I loved this first part of the book, with its setting in 1940s New York, its cast of famous theatrical names.  One of Madeleine's mentors was the actor Joseph Schildkraut, who attempted to seduce her but cheerfully accepted her firm "No!" and remained a friend.  (He plays the delightfully sly and smarmy Ferencz in The Shop Around the Corner, one of my favorite Christmas movies).  I kept hoping that Madeleine or Hugh would be cast in a play with Cornelia Otis Skinner.  This part of Madeleine's story also reminded me of Helene Hanff's Underfoot in Show Business, an account of a much different, less successful career in the theater.

Madeleine and Hugh's courtship did not always run smoothly, but it ended happily with their marriage in 1946, while both were on tour with Ethel Barrymore.  The wedding was on a Saturday morning, after which they played a matinée and evening performance, both rather on autopilot.  Madeleine then jumps ahead forty years to explain that Hugh is ill, recently diagnosed with bladder cancer.  From that point, her story moves between past and present, as she tells the story of their marriage, the birth of their children, Hugh's career in the theater and her own in writing.  Her first two books were well-received, but she later collected a lot of rejection slips until A Wrinkle in Time became an immediate best-seller in 1963.  Hugh was a successful and respected actor, but he was never guaranteed work until he was cast in a soap opera, All My Children in 1970.  At one point, after the birth of their second child, he gave up acting and the family moved full-time to Crosswicks.  He and Madeleine ran the general store in the village, which brought financial challenges of its own but allowed them to build a strong family life.  Madeleine writes with honesty and insight about their marriage and about their roles as parents.  I found myself thinking that this book might be helpful both for couples preparing for marriage, and for those facing trouble in their marriages.

This story of marriage and family alternates with that of Hugh's medical care, as complications develop and his condition deteriorates.  Though they initially hoped for a cure, a cascade of complications gradually leaches that hope away.  As with her mother's illness, Madeleine draws on her faith to sustain her.  She grounds herself in the details of daily life, trying to accept each day as a gift and to be fully present to it, because God is found there.
I do not want ever to be indifferent to the joys and beauties of this life. For through these, as through pain, we are enabled to see purpose in randomness, pattern in chaos. We do not have to understand in order to believe that behind the mystery and the fascination there is love.
She affirms her belief that
any God worth believing in is the God not only of the immensities of the galaxies I rejoice in at night when I walk the dogs, but also the God of love who cares about the sufferings of us human beings and is here, with us, for us, in our pain and in our joy. . . God comes where there is pain and brokenness, waiting to heal, even if the healing is not the physical one we hope for. . . I will have nothing to do with a God who cares only occasionally. I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights.
She reminds herself and her readers that is OK to question God, though we must accept that answers may be elusive.  She writes about the strength she finds in prayer, and in knowing that she and Hugh are held in prayer.
A friend wrote to me in genuine concern about Hugh, saying that she didn't understand much about intercessory prayer. I don't, either. Perhaps the greatest saints do. Most of us don't, and that is all right. We don't have to understand to know that prayer is love, and love is never wasted. . . Hugh has been surrounded by literally hundreds of prayers, good prayers of light and love. . . Surely the prayers have sustained me, are sustaining me. Perhaps there will be unexpected answers to those prayers, answers I may not even be aware of for years. But they are not wasted. They are not lost. I do not know where they have gone, but I believe that God holds them, hand outstretched to receive them like precious pearls.
Their love of forty years also sustains Madeleine through Hugh's final illness and death, as does her conviction that "That love has not and does not end, and that is good."  This book is a deeply moving account of that love, their shared life, the family they created, with joy and faith and trust.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Classics Challenge: November and the Victorians

For the November segment of her Classics Challenge, Katherine at November's Autumn posted a series of questions about the classics we've read over the past months.  We're free to answer any or all of the questions, the first of which is, "Of all the Classics you've read this year is there an author or movement that has become your new favorite?"

It isn't really a movement, but I have had a wonderful year of reading Victorian writers, in such a rich variety.  I started this challenge with Charlotte M. Yonge, whose The Heir of Redclyffe is still one of my favorite books of the year.  And then I just read Mary Cholmondeley's Red Pottage, which is completely different from The Heir but an equally engrossing read.  It's a shame that these authors' other works are so hard to find, at least in print.  I also have to include Emily Eden's Up the Country, a collection of letters from a trip up the Ganges starting in 1837, which provide a fascinating and unique perspective on India under British rule.  Reading The Mill on the Floss helped me understand why George Eliot is considered such a great writer, and it gave me confidence that I will try Middlemarch again one day.

This was also the year I read William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair for the first time.  I'm only sorry I waited so long to meet the immortal Becky Sharp.  And then there is my continuing love affair with Anthony Trollope's novels.  Of the three I read this year, The Three Clerks is easily my favorite and one of the liveliest of his wonderful stories.

In another of her questions, Katherine asks, "From reading other participants' posts which book do you plan to read and are most intrigued by?"  I was very intrigued by posts on Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, which as I've mentioned is already on my TBR stacks (and weighing them down at 1243 pages, not counting notes & introduction).  I also look forward to reading more of all the authors that I've included here. They have so enriched my reading this year, as have these discussions around the Challenge.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Taking the Double Dog Dare

James of Ready When You Are, C.B., is once again hosting a TBR reading dare - and he's upping the ante with the Double Dog Dare for 2013.  Accepting the dare means agreeing to read only from your own TBR stacks from January 1st to April 1st.  I've signed up again; I need to.  This is the first year that I'll have e-books in the mix, as well as the actual volumes on the shelves (though my Nook is pretty well stocked with out-of-print 19th century novels, I still haven't managed to read an entire e-book since I got it).

I did pretty well with the 2012 Double Dare, clearing 71 books off the stacks by April 1st.  At that point, I felt like I'd easily meet the one reading goal I'd set myself for this year: to read all the books I bought within the year.  Then came my trove of Trollope discovery, all those lovely fat Oxford World's Classics, the same night that I found William Thackeray's Pendennis (all 1000 pages of it).  Adding The Count of Monte Cristo (1128 pages) and Mary Chestnut's Civil War (836 pages) to the TBR shelves pretty much nixed any chance I had of meeting my goal, never mind the other, shorter books that keep arriving.

As James's rules allow, I am making an exception for three new books coming out in those months, from favorite authors Dean James, Deborah Crombie, and C.S. Harris.  In theory I should also make an exception for book club books, but then I hardly ever manage to read along with either of the groups to which I belong.

I think this Dare will dovetail nicely with the Reading Presently project that Simon is organizing over at Stuck in a Book, to focus on books received as gifts.  I haven't been counting those in the TBR totals, but as I said elsewhere, I haven't been reading them either.  And just this month I won a lovely copy of Graham Greene's Stamboul Train from Falaise at 2606 Books and Counting... 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Keeping secrets

Kept in the Dark, Anthony Trollope

I've had my eye on this book ever since I saw it described as a mirror-image of He Knew He Was Right, which may be my favorite of the books set outside the Barsetshire-Palliser worlds.  (Though it might also be Is He Popenjoy?, but that's another post.)

He Knew He Was Right is a sprawling book, stuffed full of Trollopian sub-plots, but the main story centers on the He of the title, Louis Trevelyan, who marries Emily Rowley.  An old friend of her father's, Col. Frederick Osborne, then insinuates himself into her life, and rumors begin to fly about their friendship.  Though Emily's relationship with him is completely innocent, she resents the gossip and refuses to give weight to it by giving up a family friend.  Her husband takes this amiss, to say the least.

Kept in the Dark was published in 1882, shortly before Trollope's death.  Written almost fifteen years after He Knew He Was Right, it is also a story of the damage that gossip and jealousy wreak in a marriage.  In the first chapter we're introduced to Cecilia Holt, a young woman of twenty-two, living comfortably with her widowed mother in Exeter.  Though it's clear she will be the central character, she isn't presented as one of Trollope's endearing heroines.  In fact, she comes off as a bit of a prig:
No doubt there was present in Cecilia's manner a certain looking down upon her mother, - of which all the world was aware, unless it was her mother and herself. The mother was not blessed with literary tastes, whereas Cecilia was great among French and German poets. And Cecilia was aesthetic, whereas the mother thought more of the delicate providing of the table. Cecilia had two or three female friends, who were not quite her equals in literature, but nearly so.
And then Cecilia has a lover, a baronet of small means, Sir Francis Geraldine, who has proposed and been accepted.  Though the match is considered a good one, she has begun to have doubts.  She can't help but see that her fiancé has a bad temper, that he speaks to her almost with contempt, that he spends as little time with her as possible, breaking their appointments and standing her up.  She does not feel she can consult her mother, and she is embarrassed to talk to her friends, but after much soul-searching she decides to break the engagement.  Sir Francis can hardly believe that she is jilting him.  While he is not in love with Cecilia, seeking a wife mainly for financial reasons and to to keep his cousin from inheriting the title, he reacts with angry pride when she ends their engagement.

Cecilia and her mother then take an extended tour of Europe, to provide some distractions and to escape the gossip in Exeter, where Sir Francis has let it be known that he was the one who broke the engagement.  On their travels, they meet George Western, a quiet older man, who gave up a seat in Parliament because he found politics a waste of time.  He eventually confides in Cecilia that he has recently been jilted, by a woman who married a Captain Geraldine instead.  Cecilia feels some delicacy in telling him that she recently broke off an engagement, to the cousin of the same Captain.  They spend much of their time together, falling in love, but Cecilia never finds the right moment to tell him.  When he proposes and is accepted, he is still in the dark, and at that point she feels it's best to keep him there.

The Holts return to England, to prepare for the wedding, and George eventually joins them in Exeter.  Cecilia's mother and her friends realize that he is still in the dark, but no one chooses to tell him what Cecilia hasn't, until Sir Francis learns of the marriage.  Still holding a grudge against Cecilia, he calls on her at their new home, where he in turn realizes that she has kept a secret from her husband.  In a spirit of revenge, he then writes George a letter to enlighten him.  As if the news of the engagement weren't enough, George assumes from the social call that Cecilia has been carrying on some kind of intrigue with Sir Francis, whom he considers a reprobate of the worst sort, one who once defaulted on a debt of honor.  It stretches credulity a little that George would immediately jump to the conclusion that Cecilia has never been true to her marriage vows or to his love for her, based on such flimsy evidence, particularly from a man he despises.  Unlike Louis Trevelyan, he really has no grounds for his suspicions, except that Cecilia did not tell him of her first engagement.  But in his wrath he immediately leaves her, with only a letter promising her financial support though he can no longer live with her.  Cecilia rejects his money without his love, returning to her mother's house in Exeter while he travels the Continent.

This is not one of Trollope's greatest novels, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it to a new reader, but I thought it an interesting story.  Though marriage is an important element in most if not all of Trollope's novels, I think this short, late book has some of his most explicit discussion of it.  Cecilia is offered two marriages, and she has to consider what she expects from marriage, which is the better choice, which will make her happy. Two of her friends in Exeter are married, and she has their example, but another friend, Francesca Altifiorla, is a great advocate of women remaining single and independent.  However, in a rather solemn novel, Miss Altifiorla is the one comical character.  She instantly abandons her principles to jump at marriage when she gets the chance, so clearly her ideas aren't meant to be taken seriously.  Sir Francis has his own ideas about marriage, primarily that the husband should retain all his freedom, all his own interests and friends, and his wife should interfere as little as possible with them.  George Western has his as well, which move Cecilia deeply but which I found rather disturbing:
"I have believed you to be sweet, and pure, and innocent, and true; - one in whom my spirit might refresh itself as a man bathes his heated limbs in the cool water. You were to have been to me the joy of my life, - my great treasure kept at home, open to no eyes but my own; a thing perfect in beauty, to think of when absent and conscious of when present..."
This is also a story of pride, or at least of vanity.  Sir Francis is still brooding over being jilted when he sends his poisonous letter.  Part of George's over-reaction to it is his wounded pride, that his wife preferred another suitor first, that she was open to other eyes than his.  It is also pride that keeps him from admitting that Cecilia is innocent of all the sins he accused her of, on no evidence.  She in her turn is too proud to beg for forgiveness, though she will forgive.  Nor will she remain in his house and live on his money, yet it is also pride that carries her through returning to Exeter, a wife abandoned. 

I really felt for her poor mother.  Mrs. Holt is kept in the dark almost as much as George, but she is always there to care for and support her daughter.  She is one of Trollope's unwise but loving mothers, like Mrs. Woodward in The Three Clerks, and I think she deserves a better daughter.  Perhaps once Cecilia becomes a mother herself, she will come to appreciate her own more.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A marriage in its last days

Some Prefer Nettles, Junichiro Tanizaki

I read Junichiro Tanizaki's masterpiece The Makioka Sisters back in May, and it's one of the best books I've read all year (I'm already working on my "Best of 2012" lists).  Since then, I've been keeping an eye out for more of his work.  When I came across Some Prefer Nettles at Half Price Books, I remembered that several people had mentioned it and decided I would try it next.

I said in my review of The Makioka Sisters that I'm sure I missed some (many) of the subtler points in the story, reading it from my American perspective and with only a shallow understanding of Japan's culture and people in the 1930s.  With Some Prefer Nettles, I apparently missed the entire point of the novel.  On the surface, it is the story of a marriage in its last days.  Kaname and Misako live with their ten-year-old son Hiroshi, but their life together is a façade.  They had been married only two years when Kaname began to withdraw, physically and emotionally, from his wife.  He doesn't hate her, there are no quarrels, he just doesn't want to be married to her.  Depressed and lonely, unable to cope with his coldness, Misako eventually found a lover, Aso, whom she visits regularly.  Kaname has tacitly approved her affair, as Tanizaki did in a similar situation in his own life.  Kaname and Misako have discussed divorce, but neither will act.  They are concerned about the effect it will have on their son, but the main reason for their inertia is that neither one will take the lead.  Both want to be the one left, not the one leaving.

The book opens on a classic scene of passive-aggressive behavior.  Misako's father has invited them to a theatrical performance of classical puppetry.  Misako had planned to spend the day with her lover.  She does not want to go, she does not want to keep up the pretence of their marriage before her father, she does not want to spend time around his much-younger mistress O-hisa, but she will not say so.  Kaname is inclined to go, but even more inclined to maneuver her into going.  By the end of the first chapter, it is clear why this couple is considering divorce.

At the theater, Kaname finds himself unexpectedly engrossed in the performance.  Before reading this, I knew nothing about Japanese theater puppetry, which involves large puppets manipulated by two or three persons.  Misako's father (whose name we never learn; he is referred to as "the old man" throughout the book) has developed a passion for this art.  His tastes are antique, full of nostalgia for what he sees as the golden age of Japan, before western and "modern" influences took hold in the mid-1800s.  He treats O-hisa like a puppet, dressing her in old-fashioned clothes and insisting that she learn arcane music.  Later, Kaname joins them on a short trip to the island of Awaji, home to puppet masters, where performances of the classic stories can last an entire day.  After he returns home, he finally takes a decisive step, writing to Misako's father to inform him that the marriage is ending.  When the old man learns this, he promises to talk Misako into leaving her lover and remaining in the marriage.  The book ends before we learn whether he succeded.  Tanizaki apparently preferred ambiguous endings, and this one certainly qualifies.

I read this as a story of a failing marriage, held together mainly by the inertia of the husband and wife.  Both want to be freed but both refuse to take the final step.  I thought that Kaname's increasing interest in the puppetry was partly simply the novelty.  He has an income from a family business but apparently no responsibilities and not much to do.  I also thought Kaname was attracted to O-hisa as much as to the puppets, though he is also the regular client of Louise, a Eurasian prostitute, who would like to become his mistress with a house of her own.  According to the novel's editor and translator, Edward Seidensticker, Kaname is in fact retreating like the old man into nostalgia for Japan's Golden Age, turning away from the confusion and tumult of the modern world, represented by his marriage and also by Louise.  Seidensticker writes,
The real theme of Some Prefer Nettles is the clash between the new and the old, the imported and the domestic.  The marital conflict and the cultural conflict are in a very general way coextensive. Misako, the wife, is drawn toward the new and foreign, and Kaname more and more strongly toward the traditional. And yet each is pulled by conflicting forces.
I have to admit, I simply did not see that in the story.  Perhaps I just lack the right cultural filters.  For me this story is a satisfying psychological exploration of a marriage, and an introduction to an aspect of Japanese culture I knew nothing about.  It was interesting to read, but to my mind it cannot compare with the richness and complexity of The Makioka Sisters.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Growing up in Fascist Italy

Peace and War, Wanda Newby

This is the year that I discovered Eric Newby on my own TBR shelves, and so far I've read six of his memoirs and travel books.  In five of the six, his wife Wanda joined him in the adventures that he chronicles.  In the first I read, Round Ireland in Low Gear, Eric briefly told the story of how they met, while he was a prisoner of war in Italy during the Second World War, which of course was the subject of another of his books, Love and War in the Apennines.  I read a great review of this (under its more evocative British title) over on Leaves & Pages, which is also where I learned that Wanda Newby had written her own account of those years.  As soon as I read that, I immediately started looking for a copy.

Her book, subtitled "Growing Up in Fascist Italy," is divided into four sections.  The first, "My Country and My People," covers the first ten years of her life.  Wanda Skof was born in 1922, in an area of Slovenia called the Kras, which had been annexed to Italy at the end of the First World War.  She was the youngest of eleven children born to her parents, with her brother the only two to survive infancy. Both her parents were Slovenian, with deep roots in the Kras, and Wanda grew up among its fields and mountains.  She describes the villages, the people, their way of life, with affection and an eye for detail.  This is an area of the world I know very little about, and I found this section really interesting.

The people of the Kras felt themselves removed from the Italy to which they technically belonged.  Those who spoke Italian at all spoke a local dialect.  Benito Mussolini, who had risen to power with his Fascist party, suspecting the Slovenes in northeast Italy of disloyalty, determined to keep them under tight control.  As the Fascist presence in the area grew, Wanda's brother Slavko, eleven years her senior, joined many other Slovenes emigrating to Argentina.  Her father, a schoolmaster, was considered a potential subversive who might incite his students to revolt against the Fascists.  The government began a program of transferring teachers, sending Slovenes south to Italy proper, and bringing in properly-indoctrinated Italians into Slovenian schools.  Two years after her brother's departure, when Wanda was ten, her parents learned that they were being sent to a village called Fontanellato near Parma, in the central plains.  Like many of the transplanted families they found some difficulty in adjusting to a new community, a new way of life, and a new language.  For Wanda's family, their Catholicism gave them one point of continuity in the town, particularly for her mother, who was slower to learn Italian.  All three of the family already spoke German, which would soon prove an advantage.

The second section of the book, "First Steps in Italy," covers the family's move and explores their new community.  Here again Wanda describes their neighbors and the life of the community.  She made friends among the local children, and later her fellow students at the high school in Parma, a city she came to love.  She was still in school when Mussolini began to prepare the country for war in Africa.  Her father strongly opposed war and Fascism, and much of the surrounding country was Communist in sympathy (a unique Italian version of Communism).  In the third section, "Rumours of War," Wanda describes the lead-up to the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the events that followed, which seemed quite remote to the people of Fontanellato.  Despite rationing and other restrictions, war remained remote until the first troops from the area were drafted and sent to Russia in 1941; most disappeared without a trace, never to return.

There was great excitement in the village in 1943, when residents learned that a POW camp would be built there.  Wanda and the other young women often found excuses to walk or ride by, exchanging smiles and waves with the hundreds of young British prisoners.  The camp had been open only a few months when the news came that Italy, following the Allied invasions in the south, had asked for an armistice.  Before the Nazis moved in to re-establish Fascist control, the commandant of the camp allowed all of the POWs to leave.  Some would head south, hoping to reach the Allied force; some north, heading for Switzerland.  Eric Newby, with a newly broken ankle, was unable to travel.  With the village doctor, Wanda and her father risked their lives to help him evade the authorities.  In the process, as he and Wanda got to know each other, they fell in love.  The last section of Wanda's book parallels his, though it continues her story after he was recaptured and sent north.  The book ends with their reunion and marriage in April of 1946.

Though Wanda Newby's writing does not have the same verve as her husband's, I enjoyed this book.  It was interesting to see the events of Love and War in the Apennines from her point of view, and to learn more about the local people's efforts to help the escaped prisoners and to resist the Fascists, German and Italian alike.  In addition to introducing me to the Kras and its Slovenian people, it is also the first memoir I have read of life in Italy before, during and immediately after World War II.  It is of course one person's account, from the unique perspective of an individual "Slovenian by birth, Italian by education and English by adoption" (as the author's note states).  It is also written from the perspective of a young girl in a country village, and it does not discuss the political or military situation in great detail.  And then it ends too soon for me.  As I've mentioned before, I would love to read Wanda's account of her experiences as a war bride in England.  We get only a few glimpses in Eric's book covering those years, Something Wholesale.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Becoming Betsy

Understood Betsy, Dorothy Canfield Fisher

After I read Dorothy Canfield Fisher's The Home-Maker, I knew that I would be reading more of her work.  I just had no idea where to start.  Then, a few weeks ago, Jenny of Shelf Love wrote a lovely post about "children’s books that are about ordinary lives: no magic, no amulets, no spells, just children going about their everyday business."  And that reminded me of Understood Betsy.  I can remember as a child seeing this many times in the children's section of the library, but I don't think I ever even took it off the shelf.  As wonderful as it was to wander around the library making my own discoveries and choices, I do wish someone had pointed me toward this book years ago.

The Betsy of the title is introduced to us as Elizabeth Ann, nine years old and an orphan.  She lives with her Great-Aunt Harriet and Harriet's daughter, whom Elizabeth Ann calls Aunt Frances, somewhere in a city in middle America.  The aunts, who took her in as a baby, have devoted their lives to her, particularly the unmarried Aunt Frances.  She is determined to understand Elizabeth Ann by spending every minute with her and sharing every experience.  The aunts wrap her up in a loving, smothering cocoon that has left her a spindly pale peaked little girl, full of fears and anxieties, with no friends her own age (rather like Rose Campbell before Uncle Alec arrives). 

But when Great-Aunt Harriet develops a worrisome cough, and the doctor orders her away to a warm climate, suddenly all Aunt Frances's attention turns to her mother.  And they cannot take Elizabeth Ann with them.  When this book was published in 1917, perhaps its first readers would have understood Harriet's cough as tuberculosis; Elizabeth Ann has no idea and naturally feels completely abandoned.  Even worse, the cousins who were to take her in have their own medical crises, and instead they have to send her on to her Putney cousins in far-away Vermont.  There she is welcomed by Great-Uncle Henry, Great-Aunt Abigail, and their daughter Cousin Ann.

I had a confused idea that the title of this book was actually "Misunderstood Betsy," and that it was a Green Gables-esque adventure in which Betsy meets Vermont versions of Marilla Cuthbert and melts their cold hearts with her winning ways.  Maybe that's why I never got around to reading it.  What Elizabeth Ann finds instead is a warm loving home, one in which she is not coddled but encouraged to learn, to think for herself, to grow.  It is easy to see in both the Putney home and the small country school she attends the Montessori ideals that Dorothy Canfield Fisher supported so strongly, which also underlie Lester Knapp's loving careful parenting in The Home-Maker.

Elizabeth Ann is at first overwhelmed with grief, with a sense of abandonment and the loss of the only life she had known.  But from the moment Aunt Abigail puts a kitten in her arms, I knew she was going to be all right.
Elizabeth Ann bent her thin face over the warm furry, friendly little animal. She could not speak. She had always wanted a kitten, but Aunt Frances and Aunt Harriet and Grace had always been sure that cats brought diphtheria and tonsillitis and all sorts of dreadful diseases to delicate little girls.
Watching this unnaturally delicate little Elizabeth Ann grow and blossom into Betsy is a delight.  Like Maria in Penelope Lively's A Stitch in Time, though in a very different setting, she has to learn to be a child, to play, to make friends, but also to take her part in the family's life and work.  There are plenty of stumbles along the way, but joys and triumphs as well, and quite an adventurous 10th birthday at a local country fair.  I was reminded at times of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, in the small school house, the stories of frontier Vermont, and especially in the maple sugar candy Betsy makes in the snow (when I lived in western Massachusetts, I loved the sugaring season and quickly became addicted to the candy I'd read about for so many years).  I'll have to see if my nieces have read this wonderful book.  I hope they haven't outgrown its quiet magic; I certainly haven't.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Friendship & love

Red Pottage, Mary Cholmondeley

I had never heard of Mary Cholmondeley before reading a review of this book last year over at Desperate Reader, which didn't stop me from tracking down a copy.  As usual, though, once it arrived it got added to and then lost in the TBR stacks.  Now, a year later, I am kicking myself for leaving it on the shelf so long, and wondering which of her other books I can get my hands on next.  I loved this book.  It was such a temptation to rush through it, to find out what happened next, but I resisted, wanting to savor it rather than gobble.

From the introduction to my Virago edition, I learned that Mary Cholmondeley is considered one of the "New Woman" writers of the late 19th century, who explored the changing roles of women in society.  George Eliot was one of her favorite authors and a major influence on her work.  Red Pottage, published in 1899, was her fourth novel and her greatest success, selling thousands of copies in both Britain and the United States.  I can certainly see why.  The first chapters introduce us to Hugh Scarlett, who has tired of his affair with the married Lady Newhaven.  On his way to an evening party at her house, he resolves to break with her.  Soon after his arrival, he sees a young woman in a pale green gown, not beautiful, but with something of strength and determination and dignity in her face.  Hugh instantly decides that this unknown woman must be his wife, though she leaves before he even learns her name.  As he himself is leaving, Lord Newhaven takes him into his study for a moment.  There he gives Hugh to understand that he knows about the affair.  Rather than challenging Hugh to a duel, he offers him a very serious game of drawing straws.

"I am sure we perfectly understand each other. No name need be mentioned. All scandal is avoided. I feel confident you will not hesitate to make me the only reparation one man can make another in the somewhat hackneyed circumstances in which we find ourselves . . . I am sorry the idea is not my own. I read it in a magazine. Though comparatively modern it promises soon to become as customary as the much to be regretted pistols for two and coffee for four. I hold the lighters thus, and you draw. Whoever draws or keeps the short one is pledged to leave this world within four months, or shall we say five, on account of the pheasant shooting? Five be it. Is it agreed? Just so. Will you draw?"

I couldn't help liking Lord Newhaven, even more than Hugh, and wanting to know what those five months would bring, whether the bargain made that night would be kept.

The next day, Hugh goes to dinner at the home of Sybell Loftus, an ambitious hostess.  There he meets Rachel again, and though his instant obsession with marrying her has faded, he is still interested and attracted.  They find common cause in defending Rachel's friend Hester Gresley, whose novel of London's East End is a critical and popular success.  Rachel and Hester's friendship is the central relationship in the story, and it's an interesting one.  Both characters are so vividly drawn, and I came to care about them very much.  They met as children, when Hester captivated Rachel with marvelous tales and games.  Hester lived with her aunt, Lady Susan, who took a dim view of Rachel's wealthy but socially inferior parents, tolerating their daughter only for her niece's sake.  Then Rachel's parents died, and her fortune was lost to her father's partner's mismanagement.  Determined to be independent and to earn her own way, she ended up living in the East End, eking out a living as a copyist.  After years of struggle and poverty, she inherited a vast fortune, reparation from her father's partner, which she is spending on charitable works. 

Meanwhile, Hester's gift for stories has grown into a vocation, a compulsion even, to write.  Though her first book was a success, her fortunes fell with the death of Lady Susan.  Left with only a small income, she decided to make her home with her brother, a vicar with a growing family in a country town.  Her brother James Gresley is a spiritual son of Trollope's Mrs Proudie, narrow-minded, self-righteous, and judgemental; his adoring wife will never challenge or change that.   He cannot understand his sister, he thinks her writing nothing in comparison with his own great works exposing the errors of Dissenters and other enemies of the True Faith.  In his blindness, at one point he attacks his sister's work in an appalling act, one I found so devastating that I put the book aside for a time, unwilling to face its effect on Hester.  Fortunately for the Church, Mr Gresley more than meets his match in his Bishop, Dr Keane, wise and loving, who proves a true friend to both Hester and Rachel, and whose episcopal palace becomes their refuge.  (His sister, who lives with him but lives for "a perpetual orgy of mothers' meetings and G.F.S. gatherings," thinks them superficial.)

Making Hester and Rachel's the strongest relationship in the story, Mary Cholmondeley uses it to explore women's friendship.  She returns to it again and again, writing about it in moving terms:

But nevertheless here and there among its numberless counterfeits a friendship rises up between two women which sustains the life of both, which is still young when life is waning, which man's love and motherhood cannot displace nor death annihilate; a friendship which is not the solitary affection of an empty heart nor the deepest affection of a full one, but which nevertheless lightens the burdens of this world and lays its pure hand upon the next.

Cholmondeley's story moves between Rachel and Hester, Hugh, Lord and Lady Newhaven, Dr Keane, the Gresleys, their neighbors in London and in the country.  Rachel and Hugh meet often, their mutual attraction growing into love.  But the fatal five months are passing quickly; what will happen on the 29th of November?  I thought I knew, but Mary Cholmondeley is a very tricky writer, and her story turned and turned again, leaving me more than once with mouth agape.  Even more than her twisty plotting, it was her people that kept me reading on, caught up in their lives, hoping for a happy ending to their stories (and a little retribution for wicked brother James).

As the introduction points out, we should know that James is "an absolute oaf" because he proclaims George Eliot a coarse writer.  Even worse, he has no saving grace of humor, despite his ponderous jokes. Mary Chomondeley writes rather scathingly of those who, "conscious of a genius for adding to the hilarity of our sad planet," play silly pranks like putting a woman's hat on a man, or who say "au reservoir" instead of "au revoir."  Oh dear, poor Lucia - the clever phrase that sweeps through Riseholme and Tilling is really just outdated Victorian humor!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A life cut short

The Cutting Season, Attica Locke

In the first chapter of The Cutting Season, maintenance workers discover the body of a young woman on the grounds of Belle Vie, a historic plantation on the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge.  Caren Grey, the manager of the site, calls the police, whose investigation quickly centers on one of her employees, a young black man named Donovan Isaacs, who has already had some brushes with the law.  The victim is identified as Inés Avalo, one of migrants working in the sugarcane fields that border Belle Vie, part of the Groveland Corporation, an expanding agribusiness.  For centuries, cane has been the major crop on this land.  Before the Civil War, slaves from Belle Vie cultivated and cut the cane.  Few of Caren's staff know that her ancestors were among them, including a man named Jason who remained after emancipation to work for wages.  Nor do they know that Caren herself grew up at Belle Vie, where her mother Helen cooked the food for the weddings and parties held on the grounds.  Like her mother, Caren is a single mother with a daughter, living on the site.

I initially put this book on my library list after reading Teresa's review on Shelf Love.  I had to wait a while for my turn, and when I finally got to reading it I wasn't even half-way through before I went looking for my own copy.  I found this book compelling on several levels.  I can't remember when I've read a book with such a vivid setting, so richly evoked.  Belle Vie itself is practically a character in the story.  Over the course of the book, we follow Caren into every corner of it (on the endpapers is a lovely map by Laura Hartman Maestro, who also does the fantastic maps in Deborah Crombie's novels).  I could see Belle Vie so clearly, hear the Mississippi flowing past the levee on the north front, feel the humidity pressing down, smell the magnolias that line the winding paths between the old buildings.  When I was a child my family lived in Georgia, and whenever relatives came to visit we toured them around every historic site within driving distance, which meant we saw a lot of places like Belle Vie.  That vivid sense of place might also come partly from geography, since Houston, with its transplanted Cajuns and Creole populations, is just a short drive from the Louisiana border, and I have spent time there as well. 

I found Caren a very interesting character, complex in ways that felt real and authentic.  She is introduced on the first page, and the story is told solely from her point of view, but only gradually is her own story revealed.  In her first interview with the police, uncomfortable with the two detectives, she chooses not to tell them her connection with Belle Vie.  In the days that follow, she hears things, makes discoveries, one involving her daughter.  Most of what she learns she also withholds from the police, frustrated by their easy assumption of Donovan's guilt and afraid for her daughter.  Through Attica Locke's skillful characterization, I understood why Caren makes the choices she does, while disagreeing with some of them (I also understand how my perspective differs from hers).

Though the discovery of Inés Avalo's body sets the story in motion, and much of it focuses on finding her killer, this is not simply about her death.  Nor is hers the only mystery.  While the police investigation drags on, Caren learns more about her ancestor Jason, whose disappeared from the plantation in 1872 drew the attention of the parish's new sheriff, an African American elected during Reconstruction.  Do Belle Vie's archives hold the answer to that mystery?  (Any story involving realistic research in an archives gets bonus points from me.)  I have to admit, I completely fell for the large red herrings that Locke introduces into the story, so that the solution to the mysteries caught me off-guard, as usual.

In addition to the police investigation, Caren must deal with rumors that the plantation will be sold to Groveland, its historic sites razed and the land turned into yet more cane fields.  (Belle Vie is apparently not a listed historic site, which seems a bit odd but is necessary for the plot.)  Locals are already concerned about Groveland's impact, as it buys up family farms, and there are rising tensions over the migrants, largely Mexican, working its fields.  There is also a political angle, as Raymond Clancy, the older son of the plantation's owner, considers running for office.  A murder on the grounds isn't just a tragedy, it's bad publicity.  But supporting an important industry like sugar could help his campaign, broaden his appeal across the state, attract funding.  And though the Clancys only acquired Belle Vie after the Civil War, and therefore never owned the slaves that worked its fields, it is still a legacy and a liability that Raymond would like to escape.

This story is a story very much of our times, and it drew me in deep.  Long after I turned the last page, I am still wondering about what happened to Caren and the other characters, and hoping that somewhere Belle Vie still stands.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

At home in Berlin

My Berlin Kitchen, Luisa Weiss

This book is a memoir, a travelogue, and as the subtitle says, "A love story (with recipes)."  Luisa Weiss was born in Berlin, the child of an American father and an Italian mother.  When she was three, her parents' marriage broke up, and her father took her back to the United States.  She lived with him in Boston, making frequent trips to visit her mother, who remained in Berlin.  When she was ten, her father reluctantly allowed her to move back to Berlin, initially for one year.  To his dismay, she did not return to America (except on visits) until her college years, after which she found a career in publishing in New York.

Rather than a straight narrative, Weiss gives us a series of short scenes or vignettes, many centered around a favorite food and ending with a recipe.  The first part of the book focuses on her childhood and early adulthood, divided between Boston, Berlin, her mother's family in Italy, and a year spent in Paris for graduate studies. The early years in particular left Weiss

all mishmashed . . . You're this strange little hybrid of a person, easily adaptable, fluent in many languages, an outsider everywhere.  It's the perfect background for becoming a spy, really . . . you struggle with alienation, with commitment issues, and with a constant sense of isolation.

This is one of the major themes of her book: "We mishmashy folk can't pinpoint exactly where home is or even what it is, yet we're constantly longing for it."   For Weiss, cooking provides one home. 

Busying myself in the kitchen was how I conjured the people and places I loved most in the steam rising off the pots on the stove. And when I came down with a rare and chronic illness known as perpetual homesickness, I knew the kitchen would be my remedy.

Settling in New York and into her career in publishing, Weiss found herself perpetually homesick for Berlin.  As always she turned to cooking, and then to blogging about cooking, and her blog became the basis for this book.  But she still longed for Berlin.  It would take her many years and much anguish before she made her home there again.  A major part of the love story of the title is with Berlin itself (though there is a sweet love-at-first-sight romance as well).  But the urban romance was a bumpy one at times, as she adjusted to a very different way of life.

Weiss writes in one chapter about the Eat, Pray, Love type of book, the authors of which rarely end up in Germany, which

with its overcast skies and its inescapable history, often gets the short end of the stick when it comes to capturing the imagination of food lovers and romantics. 

Her book may do something to change that.  I found it just charming, and it has me seriously considering flights to Berlin (not to mention copying recipes).  It felt like an idiosyncratic introduction to the city, focused of course on food. This is not a book to be read on an empty stomach.  It also felt like listening to a friend's stories.  However mishmashed the effects of her childhood, she was surrounded with love from her extended family on both sides of the Atlantic.  I loved her account of reading with her father, with books providing another anchor, to different worlds, "from Narnia to the Wisconsin woods, from a small town in Sweden to the red earth of Prince Edward Island."  If sometimes the dissection of relationships and the constant self-analysis became a little too much, there was always another recipe to consider.  Though some may quibble, I didn't mind that some of the recipes are copied from other chefs (among them Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters).  I certainly appreciate the variety, even if I will never roast my own goose for Christmas Eve.  On the other hand, there is an apple tart recipe that will be perfect for Thanksgiving.