The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own. -- Adam Gopnik

October 19, 2014

Wishing I was here

Sigh. Not much reading this week {'the book(s) I'm reading now,' at left, should be 'the book I'm really, really looking forward to so I don't know why I haven't managed to start it yet'}. and there won't be too much today, because we're due for one sunny, crisp, perfect October day in between two weeks of not-so-much. I'll try to promise myself extra reading after work this week {we're supposed to have three days of cold, windy rain, so that's perfect.}

However, there have been lovely bookish things, if not books per se. One was that some fleeting thought (not sure what) prompted me to visit the Persephone Books website and while I was looking around I realized that for some reason I wasn't getting the wonderful Persephone Post in my afternoon email any more.  {When I looked back at the older posts, I realized I may not have been getting it since July.  I am adding unobservant to the list of faults which must be remedied. :) } I've resubscribed, and RSSed, and looked at everything I missed.  In one week, there was a series of posts about a woman who has not only collected all of the Persephones, but photographed them in her lovely home filled with Charleston and Emma Bridgewater. I want to be her.

This was another, a poem by Jeffrey Harrison from yesterday's The Writer's Almanac:

Commuter Buddhist

I'm learning to be a Buddhist in my car,
listening to a book on tape. One problem
is that, before I've gotten very far,

my mind gradually becomes aware
that it has stopped listening, straying from
the task of becoming a Buddhist in my car.

I'm also worried that listening will impair
my driving, as the package label cautions,
but I haven't noticed that, at least so far.

In fact, I may be driving with more care.
There's a sensation of attentive calm
that's part of becoming a Buddhist in your car.

A soothing voice drones on until the car
is transformed into a capsule of wisdom
traveling at high speed, and you feel far

from anywhere but where you really are ...
which is nowhere, really. The biggest problem
is getting the Buddhism out of your car
and into your life. I've failed at that so far.

It's going to be a good day, I think. Hope yours is, too. What are you doing/reading today?

October 12, 2014

Margaret Kennedy Reading Week: The Ladies of Lyndon

On his way to Chelsea Hubert's brain was busy with this new development of affairs. Ought he to tell anybody who inquired tonight that Agatha was now back in London? And what on earth was going to happen next? Of one thing he was certain, knowing the family; there would be scenes and indignant letters and diplomatic discussions. What a confounded nuisance it all was.

Oh! There's so much so say about this book, and the nicest thing is that I didn't expect that. As I mentioned, I bought three Margaret Kennedy novels many years ago, when a green Virago cover could be all the recommendation that a book needed, and left them lingering on the shelf.  With Margaret Kennedy Reading Week, not only did I finally get to know this writer, but I read a book that was wonderfully different from what I thought I'd be reading.  So, thank you so much, Fleur/Jane, especially for that!

On the surface, The Ladies of Lyndon is part family saga, part country house novel {two country houses!), and part social commentary.  Because of that, and since it is set before and after World War I, irresistibly Downton-Abbey-esque. {A more complicated family, and more upstairs than downstairs.}  There's a sudden, interesting and slightly jarring shift in time in the middle of the book; it took me a page or two to realize that it was suddenly a few years later and some of the characters were feeling the after-affects of the war which happens only in  hindsight.

Lyndon is the beautifully-appointed, comfortable, definitely wealthy ancestral home of the young Sir John Clewer and his beautiful and very young wife, Agatha, the daughter of the devastating Mrs. Varden Cocks from the opening sentence. The other ladies of Lyndon include (let me see if I can keep all of this straight) the proper, family-position-conscious dowager, Marian, who is actually John's stepmother, her prickly, not-as-beautiful daughter Lois, and her younger daughter, Cynthia, who is not yet 'out.'  When she was as young as Cynthia, Agatha had a brief flirtation with her cousin, Gerald Blair, an aloof young doctor, and their ongoing feelings for each other are central to the story. There is also Hubert, Lois' love interest and eventual husband, and Sir Thomas Bragge, Marian's cousin and a coarse, blundering war profiteer who is set in contrast with his classier neighbors. 

But the central figure among the men is James, John's younger brother, who is ugly, blunt and a little frightening; his family has always considered him to be mentally defective, but he is also, possibly, a brilliant artist. {In the introduction to my edition, Nicola Beauman wrote that M.K. expected this to be a book about James.} We're sometimes shown the true character of the rest of the family through their ways of coping with this 'inconvenient' relative:  Angela's acceptance, Marian's care tinged with shame, Lois' fear, John's dismissiveness, Hubert's anger over their inability to cope with him, Gerald's fascination.  James also impetuously proposes to, and then happily marries, Dolly, the family's solid, sensible housemaid {I did mention Downton Abbey... :) }

The very, very, very well-drawn characters are what make this book so wonderful. {I was thinking about this when I was still also reading a book which didn't quite accomplish that.} It's hard to resist a writer who tells us that one of her characters is someone who 'always strained at gnats and swallowed camels.' :)  The story line might be a little less successful. There's a wonderful bit about what happens when James is commissioned to paint frescoes in the baronial dining hall of Sir Thomas's newly built mansion {The Bragges merely proclaimed blatantly an ideal of life which, in [Angela's] own household, was discreetly and beautifully intimated.'} There's a family secret, and an 'abyss of irritation, suspicion, veiled criticism, secret conclaves, helpful hints and plain speaking,' and at the end, some melodrama. It wasn't as much what happens, but how the characters (especially Agatha and John} enact it, that seemed a little forced, or it's that the gap in time leaves things unexplained. But then again, the very ending was very well (if oddly) done.

When I read the wonderful opening sentence, I knew I was going to love this book. My second thought was that this could be Jane Austen, writing 100 years later.  But looking back, while there are some Jane-ish echoes here, there's much more snark and bite. I remember reading somewhere that even when J.A. drew characters who were meant to be comic {Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, the Palmers in Sense and Sensibility, etc.}, or even of her villains (Mrs. Norris, Wickham, the Crawfords, Willoughby} she was never vicious or entirely negative; there was a sort of kindly amusement in her view of them. M.K. seems to have a little more of a malicious gleam in her eye when she draws characters like Cynthia, who is 'plucked' from Lyndon by Sir Thomas Bragge.

      Later in the evening Sir Thomas sought his lady in her bower and testily began:
      'Now perhaps you'll be good enough to tell me what was the matter with your mother at lunch. You've been sitting with her long enough to find out, I should hope. Is there anything serious wrong with Clewer's heart?'
      Cynthia, who had been rubbing orange stick on her nails, replied:  'Yes. A good deal is wrong according to Mother. She seems to be quite upset about it. He may die at any moment, or something like that. Anyhow the specialist took a very gloomy view of him. But mind you don't talk about it, for nobody is supposed to know.'
      'Good God!' exclaimed Sir Thomas in deep concern. 'You don't say so!  Is it his heart?'
      'Yes, I think so. It leaks or does something. I've really forgotten what. But you'd better ask Mother, if you want to know. She's bursting with details. I never can remember that sort of thing.' ...
      'Perhaps it's just a scare,' said Sir Thomas hopefully.
      'It might be,' replied his wife without emotion. 'You  never know. But Mother seems to take it pretty seriously.'
      'You're a cold-blooded little woman, Cynthie! You don't seem a bit upset about it.'
      'I am very much upset. I think it's most harrowing and all that.'
 A little Lydia Bennet-ish, but Elizabeth's exasperation with her sister is tinged with acceptance. Once the contrast was on my  mind, it was just fun to think about as I read.

Definitely one of my favorite books for this year.  Thanks again, Jane, for introducing me properly to this author. I know I'll read more of her novels,  but I've already also noted that the college library has two other books that Jane listed for us:  M.K.'s book on Jane Austen, and a biography called The Constant Novelist.  Nothing could be nicer for me. :)

October 8, 2014

First Impressions


      So this was where it ended, she thought. Alone in a quiet, empty room. Soon enough, she imagined, this room would be filled with books again. The Richard Mansfield Library, she supposed they would call it. Some enterprising soul would buy up Busbury, rename it Pemberley, and wait for the tourists to pour in. For a moment she thought she might like to  work here. She could be the librarian. But then she thought of the looks on the faces of all those lovers of Jane Austen, parading around the site of their heroine's downfall. No, she preferred it like this -- quiet and empty.
    Just as she was replacing the paperback, her phone beeped and she saw that she had a text from Victoria. Only it wasn't from Victoria.
I have your sister. If you want to see her alive come to the gatehouse with my book. Smedley. 

Sigh.  Premise?  Excellent. A country house library  and a London flat stuffed with old books?  Yes, please!  Unexpected love?  Of course. Jane Austen?  Always.  A kindly bibliophiliac uncle? Lovely. Did Jane Austen plagiarize-Pride and Prejudice from the writings of an elderly clergyman? Stirring. Two love interests, the good one of whom will surely turn out to be no good?  So Darcy/Wickham, Edmund/Willoughby, Frank Churchill/Mr. Knightley, but that fits.

The kind of setting, telling details that make all of this come alive?  Not so much.  Well-drawn characters who leap off the page? Same. Wishing that something more could have been done with all this? Yearningly.  An evil villain named Smedley?  I rest my case. {But I think the author was winking at us with that one.}

Still, I'm thankful for having First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen, by Charlie Lovett, courtesy of NetGalley and Penguin Viking Books, with me on the bus and for an hour or two of restful weekend reading. I've put the audiobook of  his first  novel, The Bookman's Tale, on reserve at the library.  Has anyone read it?

First Impressions will be published next week.

October 6, 2014

Margaret Kennedy Reading Week

In the first decades of the twentieth century, London contained quite a number of distinguished, grey-headed bachelors who owed their celibacy to Mrs. Varden Cocks.
 from The Ladies of Lyndon, by Margaret Kennedy

Other than the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, which is a plot point in the other book I'm reading, this might be one of the best ever. {If Jane Austen had been writing 100 years later, couldn't she have written it?}

This is just to say I've been looking forward to Margaret Kennedy Reading Week, hosted by our friend Fleur, and now it's here. When I first moved to Boston, about 20 years ago, a new friend introduced me to a wonderful book warehouse, half new books and half remainders. There was a whole bookcase full of green Viragos, and I brought home a lot of them, and left too many of them unread, including several of hers.  This one isn't what I expected, but so far, sixty pages in, it's wonderful.

{Bachelors found here.}

October 5, 2014

Love, Nina: a nanny writes home

A funny, sweet, snarky, quirky, book, and my cup of tea, especially as an audiobook. (I consider that reading, in case there's a difference of opinion about that. :)  
After leaving school, the author came to London in the early 1980s to work as a nanny for Mary Kay Wilmers, the literary editor of the Times Review of Books, and the divorced mother of two young sons, Will and Sam.  The book is a compilation of Stibbe's letters to her sister, describing family life,  the boys' very funny conversations, and, later, her experiences at college, after she is encouraged to pursue a university degree she never thought would be possible.
Early on, she describes being a nanny as “not like a job really, just like living in someone else’s life," and that's part of the book's charm.  Anorher part, of course for me, is that their friends and neighbors include Alan Bennett, who comes over often for dinner, critiques the nanny's cooking, and fixes their bicycles, and Claire Tomalin. {Apparently, Bennett has complained that Stibbe 'misremembered' his prowess as a a handyman, which fits with the tone of the book.}  Sam has a rare genetic disorder, which makes him dangerously ill from time to time and affects or threatens his sight.  All of this is mentioned, but not explained or dwelled on.  You almost have to have found the book by reading about it to know all of this, because we see everything and everyone in it through the lens of a sometimes perceptive, sometimes unsophisticated writer. {The story is that the book came about when Stibbe read some of the letters, which her sister had kept, at a event in Wilmers' honor, 20 years after they were written.}
Especially good as an audiobook, because it had a sort of ordinary, everyday, sometimes deadpan, sometimes almost whiny delivery that seems to perfectly match what comes through in the writing. That might be because it was read by the author, something I totally missed until I went to Audible just now to look up the narrator's name.   :)

October 4, 2014

Armchair travels: 'A large, cheery, airy house...'

...quite out of Manchester smoke - a garden surrounds it, and in this hot weather, the windows were kept open - a whispering of leaves and perfume of flowers always pervaded the rooms".
From BBC News, a wonderful view of the house in Manchester, England, just restored and opening to the public, where Elizabeth Gaskell wrote Cranford, Ruth, North and South and Wives and Daughters, all of which I now desperately want to read again, just from thinking about them.