'How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare that after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.' No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement. — from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

June 20, 2017

Together and Apart, for Margaret Kennedy Day

Dearest Mother,
I'm sorry the Engadine isn't being a success, but I'm not surprised. Why on earth did you trust the Gordons to choose a hotel?  You might have known better. How is father's lumbago? For heaven's sake don't go on sleeping in damp beds till you both have pneumonia. Move to somewhere more comfortable. You are both too old to go camp out in mouldy little inns. ...
      Well now, Mother, listen. I have something to tell you that you won't like at all. In fact, I'm afraid that it will be a terrible shock and you will hate it at first. But do try to get used to the idea and bring father round to it.
      Alec and I are parting company. We are going to get a divorce. ...

We are so lucky that we have friends like Jane who introduce us to new writers and help us celebrate them...it's thanks to her that today is Margaret Kennedy Day, and that I've now read and enjoyed four of this lovely writer's books. Although I'd forgotten, again, that I read this one before, years ago, which is not surprising since this Virago edition has been on my shelves forever.

Together and Apart is the story of a marriage that falls apart, and of how a family falls apart along with it. Betsy Canning {who is wonderfully horrible} is disappointed with her husband, Alec, who has given up a respectable civil service job to write lyrics for popular operettas; his work brings them money, but it also brings a circle of friends and a position in society that (to Betsy) are not quite respectable, and Alex has also had an affair.  The Cannings have agreed on a plan for Alex to 'abandon' Betsy and give her the evidence she needs for the divorce, but their plans come undone when Alex is asked to work on a new production about Lord Byron, and stays at home instead. The rest of the novel tells us what happens to them, to their teenage children, to their mothers, to lovelorn, eccentric Lord St. Mullins (my favorite character), and to a beautiful young poor relation who they've made beholden to them, as they all spend the next few months together and apart.

Reading Together and Apart reminded me that one of M.K.'s greatest strengths, in my view, is in how she draws her characters. From the very first page, when Betsy tells her mother in a letter that she is planning to divorce Alec, we have a strong sense of who she is, and M.K. stays true to this for the rest of the book. Whether we like them or not, or think they're sympathetic or worthy or not, they definitely come to life.

M.K.  has a similar gift for setting the scene with short but vivid descriptions of landscapes and houses. I wish I had noted down more passages, because her writing is often lovely, and sometimes heart-catching.

      Alec waiting at the top of the path for Eliza, who was some way behind. He had noticed, or thought he had noticed, that she had dropped back on purpose. Probably the boys had been snubbing her.
      On former holidays she and Kenneth had been allies, and Daphne had had to play second fiddle. But, since the arrival of Mark, Eliza had been cast off. Her days were full of small rebuffis and disappointments, so that Alec, who saw it all, was often sorry for her. She had still a child's trustful unawareness of situation. ... Every morning, she would prepare to enjoy herself, undeterred by the fact that she had not done so on any previous day. Later she would be tagging along a little behind the others, bewildered and glum, but quite prepared to be happy if only they would allow it. ...
      Fat, earnest, hopeful Eliza would change, inevitably, into a woman whom he did not know. He was sorry, for he liked her very well as she was. Of the three she was the only one who meant very much to him. The other two belonged to their mother entirely. But she had caught at his heart when she was but an hour old; they put her into his arms, and she stared up at him as if expecting him to tell her what on earth had been happening. She still looked at him like that sometimes, giving him a spasm of tenderness and compassion. ... This sentiment assailed him now as he watched her toiling up the slope in pursuit of a brother who did not want her. When she reached the top he told her to wait and rest for a little, while he lighted his pipe. They flung themselves down upon the warm turf, and gazed at the chain of lakes below. The mountains, dappled with cloud shadows, swept back from this high valley. Their own lake, Llyn Alyn, had a small island floating on its silvery breast. Neither of them could view this prospect often enough. ... Little was left for all their greedy gazing -- a mere memory of light and airy space, of colour so soft that it escaped the inward eye as does an image seen in a dream.
      They were both thinking this, and presently Eliza said:
      'Do you think that it's true that Nature never did betray the heart that loved her?'
      'Lord, I don't know!' said Alec. 'Who says so?'
      'Wordsworth.  We did him last term. It's his philosophy of life, you know. One of those quotations you have to work into an essay. ...'

All of this, and her gentle humor, are the things I often hope for in a book, and am so happy to find in hers.

Together and Apart, by Margaret Kennedy
Virago Modern Classics, 1982 {first published in 1936}

From my shelves

June 9, 2017

Anticipation (mysterious edition)






May 28, 2017

My Life with Bob

Because what people read says so much about them, I can't help wanting to know what other people are reading. Most of us do this. We crane our necks into our neighbor's personal space on the subway and pretend to tie our shoes so we can see the title that person is holding while standing in line. We try to decipher what's happening on someone else's tablet and iPhone. E-readers are especially noxious in their opacity. You want to blurt out, 'Can you please just show me the cover? I need to know.'
      ... The moment someone lets me into his or her home, my gaze veers to the bookshelves, forming impressions of people I don't know and discovering unknown aspects of people I thought I knew well. Is the person an alphabetizer?  Do the books appear suspiciously on display for show -- distinguished spines and ornamental jackets, artfully selected for the color of the binding, nary a bad movie guide in their midst?
      It's hard not to wish that everyone -- my friends, my family members, writers I know and don't know -- would keep a Book of Books. What better way to get to know them? You could find out so much if you could get a read on where other people's curiosities lie and where their knowledge is found. What are you  reading? And what have you read? And what do you want to read next? Not knowing the answers to these questions means you miss a vital part of a person, the real story, the other stories  -- not the ones in their books, but the stories that lie between book and reader, the connections that bind the two together..

Do you  keep a Book of Books, that is, a book list/journal/notebook of some kind? I do. I have for a long time, since just after college.  These days, it's mostly just a running list of the books I've read (and audiobooks I've listened to), with the title, author, date finished, and a word or two (literally) about what I thought ('Wonderful.' Enjoyed very much.' 'Disappointing..')  If I don't finish a book, I don't list it, and if I'm re-reading one, it has to have been a long time between readings for it to be listed again. When I went back just now to look at my old ones, to see when I started doing this, I noticed that I used to fill them with lists of books I wanted to read, lists in order of the books in a mysteries series or all of the Barbara Pyms or Angela Thirkells, quotes from books I was reading, and even sometimes words I had never come across before. Much more interesting to leaf through ... maybe I'll start doing some of these things again.  I know I'm not the only person who likes to look back at her lists to see what she was reading at some point in the past.

So I was naturally drawn to this memoir, by the editor of the New York Times Book Review, who started keeping her Book of Books (a.k.a. Bob) -- one notebook all this time, not yet filled, and beginning to fall apart -- in high school, and looks back at moments in her life -- high school angst, college, first jobs, first (very short) marriage, second (happier) one, parenthood, work, and family -- by connecting them to books she was reading at the time.  I enjoyed her voice, and her stories, and it's the kind of book that's easy to dip into, a chapter here and there.  But what I liked about it most of all, I think, is that the author and I don't have all that many experiences, or reading interests, in common, but I still enjoyed spending time with her, just because she'a a reader;  that's how I feel about reading with all of you.

My life with Bob:  flawed heroine keeps book of  books, plot ensues, by Pamela Paul
Henry Holt and Company, 2017
Borrowed from the library

May 18, 2017

Town, country

{Spoiler alert! -- but I know I'll have forgotten, long before we get there. :) }
Reading Trollope's two great series of novels, one set largely in town, the other in the country, it is manifest that the folks of the Barsetshire chronicles are less hard, old and calculating than those we meet in London, in the company of the Pallisers. ...  SirAlured Wharton may be a baronet, but one 'not pretending to the luxury of a season in London, for which his modest three or four thousand a year did not suffice.' Trollope adds, 'Once a year, he came up to London for a week, to see his lawyers, and get measured for a coat, and go to the dentist.' Why venture into the city more? In The Prime Minister, every fashionable street is populated by those whose very names are meant to suggest their venality and dissolution:  Sir Damask and Lady Monogram, Mr/ Hartlepod, Lord Mongrober, the Marguise of Mount Fidgett. ('Now the late Marquis had been, as was the custom with the Fichy Fidgett, a man of pleasures. If the truth may be spoken openly, it should be admitted that he had been a man of sin.') These are manifestly not nice people, and predictably, when his daughter is enmeshed in an unacceptable love affair, the upright Mr. Wharton's first thought is that he 'must take her away from London.'  A reader knows at the finale of the novel that Emily Wharton is finally safe because she will spend the rest of her life with the good folks of Herefordshire, of whom her first husband, sophisticated and dishonest, had been so dismissive.
from Imagined London, by Anna Quindlen

I just finished Imagined London, after 1) being reminded about it by Darlene; (2) borrowing it from the library, in hardcover; (3) borrowing it from the library, for my Kindle, because the hardcover was due back before I read it; (4) deciding that I wanted a copy for my very own, in hardcover if possible, and ... sigh, hangs head ... (5) going on Amazon to look for it.

{Although it would have been more suprising if I hadn't bought it.} In any event, it was wonderful, and worth the wait, and has given me a list of books to look forward to. JoAnn and I have only gotten to the first Palliser novel (The Prime Minister is the fifth), but we (and you, if you'd like) will be starting again soon, next month we think. 

Imagined London:  a tour of the world's greatest fictional city, by Anna Qindlen
National Geographic, 2004
Borrowed from the library, and so on

May 15, 2017

There Is No Good Card for This

I don't have a lot of patience with self-help books, usually -- and I might not admit it if I read one -- but this one drew me in after I heard this interview with the authors on NPR.  One of them is a breast cancer survivor who started a new line of non-traditional greeting cards (like this one) ...

...all of which are making me smile right now. :)  Her co-author runs empathy workshops (and offers ideas about exercises you can do, yourself or with friends).

The general idea is that none of us are very good at saying the right thing, and there are very simple things we can do -- like listening more than talking, or waiting (I liked this one!) a full three seconds before responding to something a friend in difficulty has said.  What I liked about this book, most, is that it's down-to-earth and very reassuring -- and it has resonance both for people who are trying to offer comfort and for people who might be needing it. Aren't we all, sometimes, both?

I ended up listening to the audiobook, because that's how it came in first from the library -- it's not very long, and this was a great way to read it; the narrator, XE Sands, has  the perfect style for it -- but apparently it has lovely visuals (as you  might guess from its origins) so I'm going in search of the print version.  

There is no good card for this:  what to say and do when life is scary, awful, and unfair to people you love, by Kelsey Crowe, Ph.D. and Emily McDowell
Harper Collins, print and audiobook, 2017
Borrowed from the library

May 3, 2017

Murder on the Serpentine

This is the 32nd (!) book in Anne Perry's series about Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, and I always look forward to them.  I think it was this series that got me started with enjoying mysteries with historical settings. The relationship between Thomas and Charlotte has always been heartwarming, and there are very thoughtful musings about the morality of what has happened and the methods that Thomas (especially in his murky new role as Commander of Special Branch) and Charlotte use to solve the crime.  For me, there was an added pleasure in this book: as has happened before, Thomas is working directly, and secretly, for Queen Victoria, who has summoned him to Buckingham Palace after Sir John Halberd, one of her friends and advisors is founded drowned in the Serpentine, a usually peaceful waterway that runs through Hyde Park.

The moral questions in this book focus on secrets.  Halberd had been investigating Alan Kendrick, a new friend and adviser to the Prince of Wales, and the Queen, who knows that she is at the end of her reign, is concerned about his influence over the son who will succeed her.  When she asks Pitt to continue the investigation, he is also drawn in to how Halberd died, and the implications for Kendrick's wife, who is known to have been the Prince's mistress, and thought to be Halberd's.  The suspects keep secrets, and use them against their opponents.  For their part, Thomas and Charlotte fear that Victor Narraway, Pitt's mentor who is now married to their beloved Aunt Vespasia, has played a part in what has happened.  Narraway has also given Pitt some secret files on men in high places, and Pitt struggles with the need to use what is in them to stop not only the crimes that follow but the very real possibility of a second Boer war.

In some ways, this was a little bit of a quieter book than some have been, as Thomas struggles with keeping secrets, and using them, and Charlotte worries about losing her ability to contribute to his work. But I liked that thoughtfulness, and as always enjoyed the time I spent in their (very) late-Victorian world.  (I've read that this is the 'last' book in the series, but that Anne Perry will be creating a new one that begins about ten years later.  There's a change in the Pitts' lives at the end of the book, and the idea of re-launching a series like this, with some new characters along with the old, is very appealing.)

Murder on the Serpentine is being published this month.  Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for the treat of being able to read it a little early. :)

April 25, 2017

Persephone no. 88: Still Missing

      In her inner life, there were two things she had rules about. One was If Only. If Only I had walked with him that morning. If Only he'd left a minute earlier, or later. If Only I'd called him back for his jacket. ... She could bear to imagine almost any of the possible fates that Alex had met. She could not bear It Might Not Have Happened.
      The other thing was imagining how he would come back, if ever. At first she had thought the phone would ring, one of the tens of thousands of calls, but each one maybe the one.  She would pick up the phone and there would be his voice. 'Hello...Mommy?' Perhaps she still believed that, for a millisecond, each time the phone rang, even now. Perhaps she would for the rest of her life. ... But the phone rang so often, and dreams replayed too many times lose their power to move. ...
      But there were still ways it would happen. She allowed herself to develop one one at a time and she allowed herself to think of it only in the hour before sleep, when she turned out the light. For instance:  someone would see an an old picture in an article at the hairdresser's and recognize the little 'grandchild' of the couple down the block. Or:  someone from the neighborhood would pass a schoolyard one day and see a little boy playing alone. They would see the face on the poster, although his hair would be dyed and his missing tooth grown in, and they would recognize him anyway, because no one, no one,could mistake that brilliant smile. They would call the police or they would call her -- or they would simply drive up Fremont Street to her door one day and ring the bell. ...

It might be that I read it so very long ago, or that I wasn't a Bostonian then, or that the movie (which I remember better) was set in New York, but I didn't realize until recently that this novel is set in Boston.  Not only in Boston, but just a few streets away from where I live. Of course, me being me, that made me long to read it again, with the extra treat of finding the Persephone edition.

The plot that umderpins the story is simple:  Alex Selky, a bright, happy, earnestly responsible almost-seven-year-old, has begged his mother Susan, a professor of literature at Harvard, to let him walk to school by himself. Every morning, she watches him walk to the corner, turn and wave, and turn out of sight for the last two blocks -- until one day in May, when he doesn't come home after school.  Lieutenant Al Minetti, a father of seven, leads the police investigation that follows, there's intense media attention, and friends and neighbors join the hunt and paper all of Boston with posters of the missing child.  In the crisis, Susan is also reunited with her unfaithful husband Graham, who can't be found immediately when Alex disappears because he is cheating on his new girlfriend.

But for most of the novel, the focus is on 'still,' because despite Minetti's concern, and Susan's perseverance, Alex has disappeared without a trace (that was the movie's title, now that I remember), and the novel turns its attention to what happens in the months that follow.  There are a few false leads, and an unexpected twist, but mostly, there is quiet day-to-day despair that makes the novel a little hard to bear but perfectly captures what would happen:  some friends drop away, others emerge, the police investigation quiets down, and Susan and Graham waver between hope and knowing that Alex is most likely lost to them.

Still Missing is definitely a novel of its day, but it is also beautifully written, and even though I remembered all along how it would end, I still found it very moving to reach that moment.

Still Missing, by Beth Gutcheon
Persephone Books, 2010 (originally published in 1981)
Borrowed from the Boston Athenaeum

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