Friday, February 26, 2016

Bibliotherapy at the end of a tough week

This was a full-moon week, for sure. Too many things to do, too many deadlines and appointments. I felt off-balance all week, like the Red Queen running as fast as I could just to stay in place. And to cap the week off, I had a meeting with my tax adviser this afternoon. (At least it looks like I'll owe less money this year.) Heading home afterwards, I felt I deserved a treat - or a prize for getting through the week. I started with a chai latte at Starbucks and then plotted a course for Kaboom Books. Though I had Willa Cather and Margery Sharp in mind, I wasn't looking for anything in particular. As usual, I found some irresistible books there.

I had not come across this 1935 novel before. The back cover has a quote from the Times Literary Supplement that sold me on it: "In Lucy Gayheart, Willa Cather seems to be writing the lightest and slightest of records of a short life: the obscure life of a young girl in an American village who goes to Chicago to study music . . . but the impression left on the reader is not slight . . . The unity of Miss Cather's design, the clarity and distinction of this book should put it beside her first great success, My Antonia."

Another book I knew nothing of, despite my years of collecting P.G. Wodehouse's books. The back-cover blurb says that this is "the nearest Wodehouse ever came to a serious story," but it also mentions "a series of of comic mishaps in a book which features a galaxy of vintage Wodehouse characters." I see it was published in the U.S. as Their Mutual Child. I just mentioned in a post on Indiscretions of Archie that I've never read a Wodehouse book with a pregnant character - and here apparently is another. Though if the woman on the cover is pregnant, she is carrying that child in a very odd place.

This book sold itself on the title and cover alone. I see that Isabella Bird and Amelia Edwards are included, and I'm looking forward to meeting more of their intrepid sisterhood. I also see many lovely illustrations  - and maps! Lots of maps, for the geographically-challenged!

I instantly thought of Jane of Beyond Eden Rock when I saw this book. I enjoyed reading the three volumes of Rev. Francis Kilvert's diaries from the 1870s, but I was frustrated by the editing, which (as often happens) cut out things that I wanted to read about in favor of things the editor wanted to talk about. (See also: the diaries of George Templeton Strong.) This small volume covers a holiday that Kilvert spent in Cornwall in 1870. "This is the first complete edition of Kilvert's Journal No. 4..." I love the words "complete edition," as well as "Copiously illustrated with contemporary photographs and engravings - some of which are published here for the first time..."

Some time ago, I came across Vol. II of Anthony Trollope's 1862 travelogue North America, in the edition above. Having already read an extremely condensed one-volume edition, I bought it, even though Vol. I was not on the shelf, because complete editions of these books are hard to find (in print). I felt sure that someday I would come across the first volume, and today I did. But it was on sale with the second volume, as a set. I can understand that the proprietor didn't want to be left with an odd Vol. II that was unlikely to sell (except to a hopeful reader like me). So I bought the set, which at least wasn't expensive. If anyone would like the orphaned Vol. II, I'd be happy to send it along. I think it may be the more interesting of the two anyway, since it covers Trollope's visit to Washington and to the western theatre of the Civil War and its armies.

More for the TBR stacks, but at least I think I can resist them for the remainder of the TBR Dare (I've resisted Vol. II of North America for quite a while now).

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Indiscretions of Archie, by P.G. Wodehouse

    Archie attached himself to the top button of Mr Brewster's coat, and was immediately dislodged by an irritable jerk of the other's substantial body.
    'Listen, old thing! I came over to this country to nose about in search of a job, because there doesn't seem what you might call a general demand for my services in England. Directly I was demobbed, the family started talking about the Land of Opportunity and shot me on to a liner. The idea was that I might get hold of something in America -'
    He got hold of Mr Brewster's coat-button, and was again shaken off.
    'Between ourselves, I've never done anything much in England, and I fancy the family were getting a bit fed. At any rate, they sent me over here -'
    Mr Brewster disentangled himself for the third time.
    'I would prefer to postpone the story of your life,' he said coldly; 'and be informed what is your specific complaint against the Hotel Cosmopolis.'
Mr Brewster loves his hotel, second only to his daughter Lucille. He doesn't react well to Archie's complaints, finally asking him to vacate his room. Archie does so willingly, since he has been invited to a house-party in Miami. Some time later, Mr Brewster gets a telegram from his daughter, who has been staying in Miami: "Returning New York today with darling Archie." Having no idea who this Archie might be, he is by no means pleased to find his daughter married to his complaining guest - one who moreover has no job and no prospects. He has no intention of supporting this unwelcome son-in-law, though he does reluctantly allow the couple a suite in the hotel (and meals in the restaurants).

I started this 1921 novel just after I finished Margery Sharp's Harlequin House. Initially I found Archie a little too much like the feckless young man in that book, a little annoying, and I set this aside to read something else. I am very glad I came back to it, though, because Archie is a good egg. He has the kindly nature of a Wodehouse hero, he is always willing to help out a friend in trouble, he loves his wife and wants to make her happy. He does look for work in a desultory kind of way, finding all kind of adventures along the way. Eventually he finagles his way into a job. I admired his nerve, though I'm not sure he'll really be a success at it.

The scrapes that Archie gets himself into - and out of - follow a familiar Wodehouse pattern. I could imagine Bertie Wooster or the Eggs, Beans and Crumpets of the Drones Club landing themselves in similar situations. I did however notice some unusual elements in this story. I think this is the first Wodehouse book I have read that features a Great War veteran, who occasionally reminisces about his war-time experiences - in a light-hearted way, of course. Archie isn't haunted by the war. But at one point he meets an army acquaintance, down and out on the streets, who has lost his memory. Archie does everything he can to help this man, out of gratitude for food shared in the middle of a campaign (Archie calls him "The Sausage Chappie"), even though his friend has no memory of him (or the sausage). It felt a little odd to have the shadow of the Great War fall, however lightly, on a Wodehouse story. And this is the only book of his I have read so far that features a pregnant character. Children in Wodehouse's books are usually trouble, it seems to me - at least the younger ones.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is the 15th book in Lois Bujold's Vorkosigan saga. From the title, I had an idea of what might happen in this book - and it did. But alongside the expected plot development came a revelation, slipped quietly into the story, which knocked me sideways.** I don't think I have ever read a book, coming so late in a series, that changed so completely my understanding of what came before. It took me a little while to adjust, and to pick up the threads of the story again. In the end I enjoyed this book, though I definitely would not recommend it as an introduction to the series.

It is set on Sergyar, the third planet of Barrayar's empire (with the homeworld and Komarr). It opens three years after the death of Aral, Count Vorkosigan, for many years the regent of Sergyar. His wife Cordelia, now the Dowager Countess Vorkosigan, has carried on as Vicereine in her own right. Because I read the series in story order (rather than publication order), I met Cordelia first, when she was surveying what became Sergyar, for her home planet of Beta. There she met Aral Vorkosigan, serving in Barrayar's space fleet. After some adventures together, she went home to Beta but later came to Barrayar to marry him. They became the parents of Miles, who suffered severe physical damage in utero from a chemical -weapons attack while Cordelia was pregnant. Neither he nor his parents let his physical frailty define or limit him. After the first two books, the story shifted from Cordelia and Aral to follow Miles. I'm always sorry to see them exit center stage, and their cameo appearances in later books are never enough.

It was fascinating to be back on Sergyar, to see how the planet and the Barrayaran colony has developed since the first book. As Vicereine, Cordelia still faces formidable challenges governing what's known as "Chaos Colony." She works closely with Admiral Oliver Jole, Aral's former military secretary, who commands the troops and ships guarding the wormhole jumps around Sergyar that make inter-planetary travel possible. I was interested to see that these troops now include women, in the Imperial Service Women's Auxiliary, primarily it seems as support staff rather than as combat troops. Still, that's a huge step for Barrayar, whose military-based society kept women firmly in the home and denied them equal rights.

**Okay, major spoilers follow from here.

I figured that Cordelia, three years after losing Aral, would have recovered enough to be open to a new relationship. From the title, I considered Jole the likely candidate. I thought this book would be about the development of that relationship, and I expected that her son Miles would have some issues with it. Yes, and yes - but oh is that only the top level of complications. I've read most of the books in this series two or three times. Granted, they focus mostly on Miles, but I can't remember Oliver Jole playing a part in any of the books. For obvious reasons, people are now trawling the books looking for him. I'd noted that he is one of Aral's pallbearers (in Cryoburn), and there are apparently some references to him in the last book before this one, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance. Nothing of that prepared me for the revelation that Oliver and Aral were lovers, in a long-term relationship for more than twenty years. Cordelia, from liberal Beta, accepted this as she had always accepted Aral's bisexuality (which we the readers did know about from the beginning). She more than accepted it: when Oliver joined them on Sergyar, their marriage became three-sided - in every way. Cordelia is one of my favorite characters, a ship's captain who leaves her world behind for love, and then proceeds - with Aral's willing help - to subvert the limited "female" role available to her on Barrayar, and encourage other women and men to do the same. She and Aral make such a great team, partners in every way, as lovers, then parents, and as political figures. Again, the main saga shifted from them to their older son Miles, but it was still a shock to find out that their story was so very different than what their appearances over the years suggested. It is some consolation that Miles is just as blindsided by this revelation as I was. I did feel for poor Oliver, who got to explain it all to him.

The story opens with Cordelia returning to Sergyar from a visit to Barrayar. She brings with her another bombshell. Cordelia always wanted more children, but for medical and family reasons, Miles was their only child (until Mark showed up, a clone of Miles created in a byzantine political plot against the Empire, but deflected from that and absorbed into the clan). She and Aral had prepared for more children by storing eggs and sperm. More than forty years later, Cordelia is ready to use these to create six daughters for herself. (Barrayar has long used uterine replicators, which free women from carrying children, and it's catching up on more advanced reproductive technology.) She offers some genetic material to Oliver, to create his own children, who would share some of Aral's genes. In the course deciding whether to accept this offer, and working out the complications, Oliver and Cordelia resume their relationship, or rather build a new one around their mutual loss. Cordelia is 76, and though as a Betan she can expect to live to 120 or more, it is still an unexpected age to start a family. And when her relationship becomes public, people can't help but note that Oliver is twenty-five years her junior. Nor can her son Miles, arriving unexpectedly with his wife and six children in tow, to find out what the hell his mother is up to. Now that's a fraught reunion - something the Vorkosigans specialize in. I was sorry that his clone-brother Mark didn't get to visit as well, but I was happy to see that he gets to shine for a change, by getting his mother what she really needs: an industrial construction company for her growing colony.

Once I caught my breath from these bombshells, I did enjoy this book, particularly its focus on Cordelia and its exploration of Sergyar. I'm wondering now if we can expect stories of the next generation of Vorkosigans - Cordelia's daughters or Miles's children. Cordelia carefully gives her daughters her own name of Naismith, though; she wants Barrayar to have no claim on them.

Friday, February 19, 2016

BBAW: Blogger burnout

Today's topic is one I've given some thought to: avoiding blogger burnout.  For me, the answer is easy: I keep reading. I get those blogger blues, when I wonder why I am spending so much time writing about books - time that I could be spending reading books - when the whole thing starts to seem a little pointless at best (and egotistical at worst). But then I read something that reminds me of why I started my blog in the first place, to share that "I just read this really great book!" feeling. I refer to this as "book evangelism," though I wouldn't disagree with "book pusher" either.

And it's not just reading books, but reading blogs as well, since that's where I find so many irresistible recommendations. I just ordered a copy of Crossriggs, by Jane and Mary Findlater, after Heavenali wrote about it. As I mentioned yesterday, the conversation in the comments on blogs is inspiring too - and sometimes leads to even more book recommendations.

For myself, I also find it's important not to commit to too much. I rarely join reading events these days, because I've found that I can't read to a schedule, and they can start to feel like work - both the reading and the blogging.

That said, though, I'm so glad to have joined in this Appreciation Week. Thank you to the moderators for reviving and organizing it!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

BBAW: Staying connected

(Blogger is refusing to insert pictures this morning - or to center this one.)

Today's theme for BBAW is "Community connection." As the organizers point out, "We all know that the book blogging community is BIG, and it’s growing every day. It’s really easy to feel overwhelmed or totally lost. We want to know how you feel connected."

My first introduction to on-line book discussions - lord, going on twenty years ago now - was through listservs. I joined a Georgette Heyer group first, which led me to a Jane Austen group, and first to reading and then obsessing over discussing Dorothy Dunnett (and from there to so many other authors and books). Talking about books through emails and listserv posts became the norm for me, particularly when I had few readers around me in real life. Eventually I got to meet some on-line group members in person, when the book talk can move faster and more freely than our fingers can type. (Our Houston Heyer group is meeting for tea over the weekend, and several of us are also members of the local chapter of the Jane Austen society.)

When I started my blog, it was in part to talk about what I was reading outside of the group discussions. I had already begun following some blogs, and commenting on the posts - very nervously, because unlike the familiar listserv discussions, I wasn't sure about blog etiquette. On blogs like Shelf Love and Stuck in a Book, I could see a back-and-forth conversation about the books, which was really what I wanted (craved). I began to recognize bloggers in their comments on other people's posts, and I began to see connections in the community.

For me, those conversations, primarily through comments, are still the main way that I feel connected to the community. When I discover a new-to-me blog, it can feel a little intimidating to post a comment, particularly in a lively discussion where everyone obviously knows each other. I've found that bloggers are generally welcoming, and those I follow regularly make an effort to respond to comments and keep the conversation going - I do on mine. If a blogger never responds, or doesn't respond to my comments, after a while it starts to feel like I'm intruding on a conversation, and I usually stop commenting.

I don't use a lot of social media, but I joined Twitter, first to follow bloggers and book-related accounts (though I'm easily distracted). I've joined in some book discussions there, like last year's #6Barsets read of Trollope's Barchester series. The character limit does require creativity!  And I use Library Thing, but while I have found bloggers through it and now have "friends," I haven't really figured out that side of it yet.

I have yet to meet any bloggers in person, though I would love to. There's talk of a meet-up at the national Jane Austen society meeting in Washington later this year. And I have a standing invitation for anyone visiting the Houston area, for coffee/tea/adult beverages and a bookstore crawl.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

BBAW: Book recommendations


Today's topic for Book Blogger Appreciation Week is one I think of often, particularly as I look at my overloaded TBR shelves: "What have you read and loved because of a fellow blogger?"

Anyone who visits my blog knows that I can be a slightly obsessive reader. Once I discover an author I love, I tend to collect all of her books that I can get my hands on. Fellow bloggers have introduced me to several of my new obsessions favorites. I had not come across Jo Walton's books before I read Jenny's reviews of her "Small Change" series on Shelf Love, which immediately added them to my reading list (along with many others she and Teresa have read). I think it was Claire of The Captive Reader who introduced me to Dorothy Canfield's The Home-Maker, though it's a favorite with many of my favorite bloggers and readers. I've been collecting Canfield's novels (and memoirs and letters and...) ever since. I believe I first read about Patricia Wentworth on Katrina's Pining for the West - and finally got clear in my mind the (huge) difference between Patricia Wentworth and Patricia Highsmith. I'm still tracking all of her many Miss Silver books down. I have an entire shelf of "Where Jane led me" books, thanks to Jane of Beyond Eden Rock, starting with Margaret Kennedy (Lucy Carmichael is superb) and Margery Sharp. I owe my introduction to Persephone Books to my fellow bloggers as well. I know I'll be discovering still more new authors and books to love inside those grey spines (and regularly blowing my book allowance on overseas shipping).

In addition to new authors, bloggers have re-introduced me to authors that I had read before but not really appreciated, or whose books I had read so long ago that I'd almost forgotten them. Thomas of Hogglestock hosted a reading week for Barbara Pym's novels that gave me a new appreciation for books I'd dismissed years ago. Anbolyn of Gudrun's Tights reminded me how good Mary Stewart's suspense novels can be. I had read Elizabeth von Arnim's Enchanted April years ago, but it was reading reviews of her other books on my favorite blogs that led me to re-read it with a new appreciation, and then to look for her many other excellent books. The same thing has just happened with Willa Cather. It was reading reviews by Anbolyn and Karen of Books and Chocolate that finally led me to read Death Comes for the Archbishop - and to start collecting Cather's other books. And while I have long been a keen Trollopian, I have loved reading Trollope's books with Audrey of Books as Food and JoAnn of Lakeside Musing, among others - "Trolloping with friends," as we like to call it.

Fellow bloggers have inspired and challenged me to read more diversely, through events like Aarti's Diversiverse, on Book Lust, and also through their own commitments, like Reading the End's Jenny.

Thanks to my fellow bloggers, I know that I'll never run out of great books to read - and my TBR shelves will never be empty!