Archive for January, 2010

I just finished reading The Betrayal of the Blood Lily by Lauren Willig a frivolous choice for a long, lazy Sunday morning.  I suppose that is the great reward of waking so ridiculously early in the morning, that I have all those dark hours before the sun rises, before any shops open, in which to read and read and think of nothing else.  You always hear of people reading late into the night, but never waking to read early in the morning.  Surely, I am not the only one who does so?

This is the sixth book in the Pink Carnation series by Willig, historical novels of romance and espionage.  Think The Scarlet Pimpernel crossed with a harlequin romance.  Yes, high literature here.  They are fluffy but incredibly entertaining books, though some entries to the series, like this one, are stronger than others.

The story is split between the modern era and early 19th Century India (all the books are split between these periods, though the rest take place in Western Europe).  The modern narrator is Eloise, an American in England working on her thesis on aristocratic espionage during the Napoleonic wars.  Happily, as the series progress we see less and less of Eloise (though her chapters appear when least wanted, interrupting the most exciting passages).  Truth be told, when rereading these books I also skim over the Eloise chapters, caring little for her romance with the idealized Colin. 

Our other heroine (or would that be anti-heroine here?  Surely heroines would frown on adultery?) is Lady Freddy Staines, nee Penelope Deveraux, newly arrived in India after a hasty marriage.  Penelope had been introduced previously in the series and any appearance by her always offered high amusement.  Here, a book centered entirely on her, proves her to be even more entertaining than suspected.  Trapped in a difficult marriage, to a man more interested in gaming tables and other women, Penelope is nonetheless intrigued by her new life in India and, predictably, by the very handsome Captain Alex Reid.  Or, as the official summary would put it, somewhat more salaciously:

Everyone warned Miss Penelope Deveraux that her unruly behavior would land her in disgrace someday.  She never imagined she’d be whisked off to India to give the scandal of her hasty marriage time to die down. As Lady Frederick Staines, Penelope plunges into the treacherous waters of the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, where no one is quite what they seem—even her own husband.  In a strange country where elaborate court dress masks even more elaborate intrigues and a spy called the Marigold leaves cobras as his calling card, there is only one person Penelope can trust…. 

Captain Alex Reid has better things to do than play nursemaid to a pair of aristocrats.  He knows what their kind is like.  Or so he thinks– until Lady Frederick Staines out-shoots, out-rides, and out-swims every man in the camp.  She also has an uncanny ability to draw out the deadly plans of the Marigold and put herself in harm’s way.  With danger looming from local warlords, treacherous court officials, and French spies, Alex realizes that an alliance with Lady Frederick just might be the only thing standing in the way of a plot designed to rock the very foundations of the British Empire.

As always, the mystery isn’t terribly well-crafted and the focus and interest lies with the relationship between the romantic leads.  The dialogue is incredibly anachronistic (suspend all hopes for historical accuracy, please) but amusing.  More than anything, I loved that it was set in India.  I have a particular passion for books set in India, preferring above all things books about the British in India, prior to, during, and after the Raj. 

No great ideas here, nor brilliant writing, just good fun and a little literary escapism.  Not what I would choose (or want) to read every week, but very enjoyable every once in a while 

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Book Club

At work, several months back, we started a book club.  Ah the joys of being over-educated and under-stimulated.  There are really only five active members and there are absolutely no rules about what books we can pick.

February is my month to pick the book.  The last two picks (Shake Hands with the Devil and Wolf Hall) have both been abysmal failures that not enough people actually read.  We haven’t had a book club meeting since November because of that, so I am determined that my pick will not end the same way. 

I’ve been pondering my choice for months (I am nothing if not a planner).  Finally, I had it narrowed down to 3 choices: The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and Emma by Jane Austen. 

The View from Castle Rock, I hoped, would not only be a good read but would also promote discussion about family histories and immigrant pasts.  I have a soft spot for Alice Munro since she and my father share the same hometown and though I have not yet read the book, I know that one of the families in it shares my family’s uncommon last name.  I have heard it is not her best work but, all the same, I think it would be an interesting choice.

Emma is, was, and most likely shall always be my favourite Austen novel (and Emma Woodhouse my favourite heroine by far).  Strange as it may seem, I have always wanted to read Austen in a coed book club, just so I could see the male response.  Most men I know refuse to read her, associating Austen with the costume dramas their mothers watch, ignorant of the comedy and artistry her novels contain.  In our work book club, there are actually more males than females (3 to 2) so this, I thought, was a perfect opportunity.  However, I then discussed my choices with the other female member who, it turned out, had been planning Austen for her pick in March.  As long as we get to it eventually, I’m happy.

In the end, I chose Bel Canto.  I thought it the safest choice, the one that would appeal to all members of the book club and would certainly promote discussion.  Most importantly, it is short enough and widely-available enough that there are no excuses for not reading it in time for our meeting.  They seemed pleased enough with the choice.  The member (male) who sends out the book club updates wrote a summary of it including the phrase “opera, love, and machine gun wielding terrorists!”  It’s a strange, fantastical book that I remember enjoying when it came out.  I’ll be interested to see what I think of it upon reading and what my coworker think.

Are any of you members of book clubs?  If so, when it comes time for you to choose a book, what things do you consider?  Any favourites that I should use for my next pick?

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There are many adoring reviews of The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett elsewhere on the internet.  If that is what you are looking for, please, go find them, for that is not what you will find here.

The Making of a Marchioness tells the Cinderella story of Emily Fox-Seton, a thirty four-year old spinster of good family but little means who makes her living by assisting wealthy women, doing everything from their errands to engaging their servants.  And she is oh so good and oh so thankful to be of such help.  Emily is not clever, certainly not witty or engaging, but she is good and that is her salvation.

I know that what makes this book different and special is that fact that Emily is good, that her goodness is her defining characteristic unlike so many popular heroines.  But I literally ached to throw the book across the room any time other characters gazed at her admiringly, in awe of her unselfish goodness and obvious moral superiority (of which she never shows any awareness – another sign of her estimable innocence).  I refrained from doing so only because it was a library book.  Oh Becky Sharp, I have never loved you as much as I did reading this book and for the contrast you provided.

I found this novel far too reminiscent of the fairy tales and books of ‘strong moral character’ that are pushed upon children (hardly surprising, given the author).  In those tales, the girls and women were always rewarded for their goodness (which, hopefully, goes some way towards making up for the flatness of their character).  If you were very good and very selfless, a comfort to your parents and a delight to those who met you, then a rich man would come and marry you and make all your troubles disappear.  That is exactly what happens here.  Another advertisement to women that men don’t want clever wives, no, they want ones who will adore them without question, who will give of themselves and ask nothing in return.  Far better to be the angel in the house than a true companion and equal. 

I like fairy tales.  I like when the prince rescues the princess and they go off to live happily ever after.  What I don’t like is when the prince has dozens of princesses throwing themselves at him and he chooses the dullest, quietest, most adoring one, because he knows his life will be easiest with her since she will never cause him any trouble.  I hate that intelligence is completely disregarded and that Emily is referred to several times, almost proudly, as “not clever”.  If she was clever, it is implied, she could not be as good as she is.  And it is only because she is good and innocent and selfless that her fairy tale comes true and, in the end, long after the wedding, her prince (or Marquis, as the case may be) comes to see her true value in his life.

Is this coming across as both angry and a bit jaded?  I apologize for the departure from my normal tone, but this book stirred feelings in me that I thought had been left behind.  Emily is very much the stereotype of what young women and girls are supposed to be, what we are constantly told we should be, and it’s a stereotype that I have been chaffing against since childhood.  I am sure others find it a delightful read but I find I no longer have the stomach for these characterless paragons of virtue.  I would not mind Emily half so much if it were difficult for her to be as good as she is, if she struggled even privately to maintain her aura of simple sweetness and purity.  But she does not and so I cannot find it in me to like her or to move beyond this prejudice to admire the charm of her story.

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I have just finished reading Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman and I must say I was pleasantly surprised by it.  I had expected something extremely juvenile and written in a novel-ish style (as I remember such books being back in my day – when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth, you’ll recall).  But no, here we have a piece of excellent young adult non-fiction, a category of writing I had not truly been aware of until now.  I remember being frustrated when I was younger that the librarians wouldn’t let me check out adult biographies on my children’s card, even though there were no books in the children or young adult sections on John Wayne (I had a strange fascination with him when I was ten or eleven).  I am certain there was nothing about Charles Darwin either.  Now, happily, should librarians still enforce this cruel rule, the young library-going crowd will have an excellent read to satisfy them.

The focus here, as the title would suggest, is on the relationship between Charles Darwin and his wife (and cousin) Emma.  It is most definitely a romance and, being a real-life one, the best possible kind.  The book is littered with snippets from letters between the two or to friends and family members, extolling the other’s virtues and giving thanks for having their spouse by their side.  Charles Darwin, it turns out, wrote some terribly romantic letters to his “own dear Emma” during their engagement.  Young men, take note: “I positively can do nothing, & have done nothing this whole week, but think of you & our future life. – you may then, well imagine how I enjoy seeing your handwriting…It is a very high enjoyment to me, as I cannot talk to you, & feel your presence by having your own dear hand within mine.” (P. 65).

Theirs was a happy marriage, though not always a happy life.  They lost three of their ten children, two in infancy and their eldest daughter Annie when she was only ten (Charles had described her as his favourite child in letters to friends).  Illness was a common theme in the Darwin household; when Emma and Charles married, he was already suffering from the headaches and pains that would plague him all his life.  Their children would share this propensity for sickliness.  But despite the many illnesses, the Darwin household was by all reports a happy one, with loving, indulgent parents who enforced very few rules.

I found this to be a charming little book, which would serve as an enticing introduction both to the life and works of Charles Darwin (such a natural step for young children, most of whom are instinctive naturalists) and to the biography format.  I surely would have loved it, having tried (once I rid myself of the censorious librarian and convinced my nanny to sign my books out on her card) to read The Origin of the Species at a very, very, very young age (I have no clue where I got these ideas from).  It ended badly, of course, but it did show an admirable eagerness to learn, which would have been more happily suited to this book.  I was never much of a scientist anyways and was always far more interested in people’s lives, rather than their discoveries.  There’s not much science here but there is good insight into the social implications of Darwin’s works and the impact it would have on the Victorian world.  And from here what an easy leap into the world of fictional naturalists, such as the delightful Wives and Daughters, written by the Darwin’s friend and distant cousin Elizabeth Gaskell, or, for the more adventurous, the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian.

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Friday Potpourri

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While news of J.D. Salinger’s death and retrospectives on his works are dominating the book sections of most papers today, I bring you a slightly more eclectic offering:

Chinua Achebe has been mentioned everywhere the last few weeks.  Over at Salon.com, there is a thoughtful article  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie considering the legacy and impact of Achebe’s novels.  This article also serves as the introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of Achebe’s The African Trilogy: Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Arrow of God.  The Guardian has a piece by the man himself entitled “What Nigeria means to me” , describing his often conflicted feels towards his homeland but my favourite mention of Achebe comes from Yann Martel who, in his January 18th letter   to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, recommended Things Fall Apart as the book he should read next, praising it’s “even-handedness” and “acute mix of perception, understanding, and outrage.” 

Shelf Indulgence  has the Guardian’s Lee Rourke smugly bragging about his hand-crafted bookcases.  It will make you feel both terribly inadequate as a handyman (or –woman) and incredibly jealous as your own IKEA bookshelves sag under the tomes precariously piled upon them.

Also at the Guardian, my favourite article of the week: Lunch hour literature.  Toby Lichtig considers where to do your lunchtime reading and what not to read during that precious break.

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I have just finished reading The Household Guide to Dying by Debra Adelaide and, while I usually enjoy reporting back on my likes and dislikes of each book, I’m not sure I can for this one.  I read through to the end, I definitely cried at certain points but never did I form any kind of attachment to it.  Sometimes you read books simply to get to the end of them, the pleasure coming from finishing the volume and knowing how it ended rather than from any sense of emotional entanglement.  That’s perfectly fine and that’s absolutely what happened here. 

I think it is a likeable book, just not for me.  There are allusions to Jane Austen, witty domestic-help columns (guided, at times, by a preoccupation with Mrs. Beeton) and, of course, the pathos of a dying mother, preparing herself and her family as much as is possible for her inevitable passing.  It is never mawkish or sentimental, which I did somewhat fear it would be.  It’s been described as “life-affirming” (by Wally Lamb), which might be overstating things, but it is satisfying.  It’s a strangely inadequate description, but it’s all I have right now – I didn’t feel cheated or exploited (feelings that books dealing with the subject have certainly been known to elicit) but rather sated, content with conclusion and the route by which we reached it.  My greatest pleasure in this book came from its descriptions of laundry – I assure you, this seems a perfectly appropriate take-away once you’ve read the book.  You too will share my longing (and the heroine’s longing) for laundry dried on the line, out in the sun, laundered properly first and then hung with exquisite care. 

A brief summary (from the publisher), for those who may be interested:

Delia has made a living writing a series of hugely successful modern household guides. As the book opens, she is not yet forty, but has only a short time to live.

She is preoccupied with how to prepare herself and her family for her death, from writing lists to teaching her young daughters how to make the perfect cup of tea. What she needs is a manual – exactly the kind she is the expert at writing. Realizing this could be her greatest achievement she sets to work. But, in the writing, she is forced to confront the ghosts of her past and she realizes that there is a journey she needs to make and one last vital thing she needs to do.

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At two-thirds of the way through The Enchanted Places by Christopher Milne, I was incredibly frustrated.  I was not enjoying the book.  I had wanted to, I had heard good things from friends and had seen positive reviews on other blogs, but I was having trouble with it.  Was it the format perhaps?  The short chapters, mini-essays really?  The lack of narrative structure?  These things don’t usually bother me but I think I had gone into the book expecting it to be more of a traditional biography and less…episodic? 

Finally, I realised the main problem: it had been too long since I had read any of A.A. Milne’s works.  As a child, my father read me the Winnie-the-Pooh books but we were far greater fans of Milne’s poetry and, while I can still recite “Disobedience” and “The Dormouse and the Doctor”, I cannot tell you where Eeyore lived.  The first portion of the books is very much Christopher Milne’s life in contrast to Christopher Robin’s and, when you can’t remember much about Christopher Robin, you rather miss the point.

Eventually though, the book settled into a more cohesive, focused style that I found far easier to read and enjoy.  It also concentrated on Christopher’s relationship with his father which, honestly, is what I wanted to read about.  Despite being one of the most beloved children’s authors, A.A. Milne was not greatly involved in his son’s early years.  He may have written about his son (or some alternative version of his son) but he did not necessarily need to be involved with Christopher to take inspiration from him:

There are two sorts of writer.  There is the writer who is basically a reporter and there is the creative writer.  The one draws on his experiences, the other on his dreams.  My father was a creative writer and so it was precisely because he was not able to play with his small son that his longings sought and found satisfaction in another direction.  He wrote about him instead. (P. 36)

By adolescence, the two had formed close bonds, despite their earlier distance, becoming not just father and son but friends.  A.A. may have spoiled Christopher a little, allowing his son to rely on him more than was probably good for his development, but it created a bond between them that was abnormally close, particularly for father-son relationships of that era.  Even as Christopher continued to age, through school and, from the quick glimpse we see, his time in the army during WWII, the friendship between them held.

Having enjoyed the concluding portion of the book so much, I must try to track down the remaining two-thirds of this autobiographical trilogy: The Path Through the Trees and The Hollow on the Hill.  They both appear to be rather obscure but that just means more time spent combing through used bookstores.  How I suffer.

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Like most plays, Easy Virtue by Noel Coward was a quick and easy read, which served its purpose admirably.  I had seen the recent film version of “Easy Virtue” a few weeks ago and, while parts of it seemed familiar, much of it had me sitting there going “I have absolutely no memory of any of this.”  So I decided to reread the play, just to make sure I wasn’t losing my mind and forgetting some of the rather more sensational scenes presented in the movie.

Happily I wasn’t.  Less happily, “Easy Virtue” is just as lackluster as I remembered it being the first time I read it.  I’m usually a Noel Coward fan, but mostly of his later, more comedic plays (with the exception of the vastly enjoyable “Hay Fever”, which came out before “Easy Virtue”). 

I can’t help but see “Easy Virtue” as a piece very much of its time.  John, the son of the house marries and brings home his new wife Larita, a glamourous older woman (a divorcee no less), and, to no ones shock considering how the play opens, she and the family do not get along.  Honestly, there’s not much more to it.  The father is a philanderer, the mother a shrew, and the sisters both odious (for different reasons).  It progresses (and ends) exactly as you’d expect it to with no real surprises. 

The only truly interesting character, the only one with seemingly any depth, is Sarah, the discarded childhood love of John who everyone, even she, expected he would one day marry.  My favourite scene is in Act II between Sarah and John, several months after he has returned home.  By this point, he already seems to have realised that he and Larita are a poor match and that he’s made “rather a mess of things.”  Sarah, who has tried so hard to put on a good show for everyone, who has befriended the bride and laughed off everyone’s sympathetic apologies, is clearly miserable during this interchange.  The man she loves ran off and married another woman yet here he is telling her that he wishes he had married her, that she could have been the one to make him happy.  It’s a nicely constructed scene – lots of back and forth, no long speeches, and you can sense as the dialogue continues the tension is growing in Sarah as she tries to deflect John’s comments, tries to steer the conversation away from the personal and to position herself as the strong, grown-up one, above all these fickle emotions.  It doesn’t quite work and she ends the scene furious with him, thankfully saved by the arrival of Larita. 

The play ends with Larita leaving, but before she does she has a little tête-à-tête with Sarah, basically giving her John.  It’s a slightly awkward scene with stilted, unnatural dialogue, but it does wrap things up nicely.  Sarah, the only character who behaved well during the entire play, putting aside her pain and trying to embrace the positives of the situation, gets just what she wanted all along.  That may not have been the intentional moral of the play, but it’s the only one that held my interest long enough to stick.

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Library Loot

I shouldn’t have, I know. It was only last week that I revealed my massive library haul of 16 books. But some of those were done and needed to be returned and it just so happened that two more of my holds had come in, so, really, how could I not go? Also, I must admit, even when I have nothing to pick up and nothing to return, it’s almost impossible for me to go more than one week without visiting the library (unless I’m travelling). Honestly, the weeks when I limit myself to one visit only are a bit of a victory.

This week’s books are both quite short and look like fun, easy reads (one of them is even a YA book, something that hasn’t been on my reading lists for a long time):

Extraordinary Canadians: Lucy Maud Montgomery by Jane Urquhart

Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman

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Teaser Tuesday (Jan. 26)

Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page.  Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

From the moment Trudeau appeared on Parliament Hill in his Mercedes roadster it was clear something had changed: here was a man who seemed afraid of nothing, who went his own way, who had none of the cultural cringe that was the Canadian norm.  It has always been an open question, of course, how much of that style flowed naturally from him and how much of it was strategic.

~Extraordinary Canadians: Pierre Elliott Trudeau by Nino Ricci (p.12)

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