Monday, May 8, 2017

Touch and Go, by Patricia Wentworth

When I first came across the recent Dean Street Press reprints of Patricia Wentworth's books, I had no idea where to start. I have been collecting and enjoying her "Miss Silver" books for a couple of years now, without realizing that she wrote so many others without Miss Silver. From the helpful list in the front of the DSP books, I discovered there are three mini-series with different detectives, and a raft of standalone books. I'd hoped to collect the three featuring Miss Silver's frequent collaborators from Scotland Yard, her favorite Frank Abbott and his boss Ernest Lamb. But Murder by Book doesn't have those yet. So I decided to look at the books were published in the 1930s and early 1940s, since so many of my favorite Miss Silvers fall in those years. The DSP books helpfully include the publication date on the back cover.

Touch and Go was published in 1934, in the UK as Devil in the Dark. It isn't a mystery so much as a novel of suspense. Sarah Trent, a young woman of good family and no money, gets a place as companion to 17-year-old Lucilla Hildred, who has just lost her mother and step-father in a car crash. Lucilla's father died in the Great War, as did his younger brother. The recent death of another uncle has left her the heiress to the Hildred property. Lucilla's guardians are worried about her, not least because she had to be taken away from her school, after mysteries fires kept breaking out in her room. Sarah meets her young charge when Lucilla falls down nearly under the wheels of Sarah's car. There have been other incidents - is Lucilla causing them? And why is a man named John Brown wandering around the grounds, supposedly painting the scenery - but what's his excuse in the middle of the night?

Sarah is one of Patricia Wentworth's independent and sassy heroines, and Lucilla is more than a match for her. I enjoyed watching them run rings around Lucilla's elderly guardian Aunt Marina Hildred - actually a cousin, as she will explain in great detail to anyone she can catch (I deal with enthusiastic family historians on a regular basis). And I knew that Patricia Wentworth is a fan of Charlotte M. Yonge's books, but I was still happily surprised when Lucilla of all people quoted from The Pillars of the House.

I had a pretty good idea of where the story was going, but I still peeked ahead to see if I was right. I was in the essentials but not in the details, which had a couple of nice twists I didn't see coming. I toss the term "favorite" around a lot with Patricia Wentworth's books, but this one went straight to the top of my list.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Earthsea books, by Ursula K. Le Guin

I feel the same disbelief and anger and anxiety tonight that I felt on Election Night. Tonight I am staying away from the news, and from Twitter. I went for a long walk in the breezy evening, I have eaten some Cadbury mini-eggs, I have petted cats. I am going to write about some of my favorite books, and then I'm going to take a quick turn around the blogging world and see what other people have been reading.

Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books are deep in my literary DNA. One of my dad's colleagues gave me the original "Earthsea Trilogy," small Bantam paperback editions in a grey box. This was on the front cover of both the box and the first book.


I still have the books she gave me, nearly 40 years later. I read them over and over again as a teenager. The first is the story of the young boy Ged, sent to study wizardry at the academy on Roke Island, struggling to balance his power and his ambition. (I still grieve for his otek.) In the second book, a young priestess serving dark powers in a far distant land meets a traveler from the west, who seeks an ancient artifact. The third book, which was always my least favorite, concerns a break in the world and a perversion of its magic.

I love so much about Earthsea. Ursula Le Guin created a rich world of islands scattered across the seas. This world has a fascinating history and mythology. We learn parts of it through the stories that her people tell, the songs and the poetry they share. I love the dragons that wind through her stories, which have always seemed the perfect dragons of fantasy - wickedly intelligent, sharp-tongued, speaking the Old Speech of Making, the language the wizards use in their spells. In the first book Ged becomes a dragon-lord; as he learns, this is simply someone the dragons will speak to, but it becomes part of his own legend.

I thought the story of Earthsea was neatly contained in those three books, in their little box. It was only years after its publication that I came across a fourth book, Tehanu. It is subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea," and it instantly became my favorite (and one of my desert-island books). It takes up the story of Tenar, the young priestess of the second book (The Tombs of Atuan). Now a widowed mother of two, she takes in a child, burned and left for dead (presumably by her parents). It is a book about the lives of women, the power of women, the magic of women. There are no female wizards in Earthsea, though there are witches and healing women. But something is broken in the great magic, and Tenar with her ward may have part of the solution.

More than ten years later, I was surprised to find a new book, Tales from Earthsea. Ursula Le Guin wrote in the introduction that she was rather surprised herself.
     Seven or eight years after Tehanu was published, I was asked to write a story set in Earthsea. A mere glimpse at the place told me that things had been happening there while I wasn't looking. It was high time to go back and find out what was going on now.
     I also wanted information on various things that had happened back then, before Ged and Tenar were born. A good deal about Earthsea, about wizards, about Roke Island, about dragons, had begun to puzzle me. In order to understand current events, I needed to do some historical research, to spend some time in the Archives of the Archipelago.
As an archivist, I find the idea of research in fictional archives enchanting. I'd love to rummage through the Wimsey papers at Duke's Denver, or the Culter/St. Pol papers in Scotland, or the Emerson archives that I'm sure have been donated to the British Museum.

This book of stories was followed shortly by The Other Wind, set fifteen years after Tehanu. I bought it as soon as it came out, and I read it immediately - and I disliked it intensely. I have no idea why now, except a vague memory of finding it confusing. I kept it on the shelves, but I have never re-read it (or Tales from Earthsea). When I read Tehanu again the other day, though, I found myself wanting more stories of Earthsea. I read The Other Wind again, and it was like reading it for the first time - and I loved it. It continues the story of Ged, Tenar, Tehanu, and the dragons. It takes us to different parts of the Archipelago, and eventually back to Roke itself, on a quest. A wonderful story of adventure, it also fills in some of the history of this world, and deepens its mythology. I must have been having a bad book day, the first time I read this. I'm so glad to have re-discovered it, and on my own shelves.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Sunday miscellany

Good morning from Houston, where a cool front has brought us from the low 90s to the middle 60s. I wasn't ready for summer heat, so I will savor this cool spell while it lasts.
 
It was such fun to see everyone enjoying the Readathon yesterday. Once again, though, I had no desire to take part. The thought of "having" to read, even for a completely voluntary event like that, makes me oddly anxious. So I will continue to cheer from the sidelines. I did however join in the other main bookish event of the day, Independent Bookstore Day. I celebrated as usual at Murder by the Book, where I picked up more of the Dean Street Press reprints of Patricia Wentworth's books. I had six in a stack at one point, but I winnowed that down to two: Touch and Go (from 1934) and Hole and Corner (from 1936). Murder by the Book doesn't have the three starring Ernest Lamb and Frank Abbott, who appear frequently in the Miss Silver stories, but I'm sure the staff will be happy to order them for me.

On another bookish topic: I have decided to give the Book Jar another try. (Mine will actually be a Book Tin this time.) I'm putting the titles of all my TBR books on small slips of paper into the tin, and I'll draw one out at random from time to time, when I'm between books - and particularly when I'm having trouble settling on a book to read. So far this year I've done fairly well at reading the most recent book acquisitions. But there are so many on the TBR shelves, those that I rushed to order or to buy, and then was distracted from reading by the next shiny new book or enticing review. When I tried a Book Box before, I ended up reading books I had almost forgotten about - and wouldn't have chosen for my next book. Some I enjoyed, others I didn't finish - but I got them off the TBR shelves. And I like the randomness of letting chance choose.

Buying my first house has brought a lot of changes, and quite a few challenges. For the first time I have a garden - just a small one. But I've only had balconies or patios outside apartments before, and this is the first time I've really gotten my hands into the dirt. Part of my small front yard is paving stones, and the previous owner put down gravel on another part (I hope to get rid of that soon). The little pocket-square of actual dirt was an overgrown mess when I moved in, with a massive fire ant mound in the middle of it. After I dealt with that, on the advice of my friend Lynn (a master gardener) I put mulch down. I now have lots of different pots in plants, including two eggplants, both of which are blooming! The thought of cooking and eating my own eggplant this summer enchants me. All of this is to say: are there gardening books or books about gardens that are essential, even to the small-space gardener? Of course I have Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and The Secret Garden (which Jennifer of Holds Upon Happiness reminded me of in a recent post). I bought a copy of Beverly Nichols' Merry Hall from the library sale shelves some weeks ago.

My tiny little garden space

 And finally: a new cat has joined the household. I had no plans for another cat. I feel two cats are more than a sufficiency. However, back in February a co-worker texted me a picture of a kitten in the storm drain outside our building. I went out and collected him, a miserable shivering bundle of matted fur, and took him to my vet's office. I was planning to foster him, but he turned out to have the most virulent case of ringworm that the staff there has ever seen. He has infected most of the staff, all of the clinic cats, some clients who were thinking of adopting him - and as I learned to my shame yesterday, even my vet. They told me early on that I couldn't take him home, because my two here would catch it. But look, they said, we have this adorable kitten who needs a good home - take her instead. And I was feeling so guilty about what I had unleashed on the office that I said yes in a moment of weakness. (I've also been saying no to their offered kittens for years by claiming that my apartment wouldn't allow three cats. Now they know I've moved into a house, so they weren't accepting that as an excuse any more.) I've named her Amelia Peabody, because she is an intrepid explorer. She is the first cat I've ever had to lurk on top of the refrigerator, to climb the bookcases, and to learn to open the kitchen cabinets. She has also left chew marks on both sets of my glasses, broken a lamp, and forced me to relocate several houseplants. I am thinking of renaming her "Lucifer." She probably thinks her name is "NO - GET OFF THAT" - she hears it so often. And the little rescue kitty, whom I've been calling "Ringworm Randy," is finally close to being cured, and the staff assures me they can find him a home. He really is a sweet boy, and so handsome now.

Amelia, in a rare moment of quiet

Monday, April 24, 2017

Capital Crimes, edited by Martin Edwards

As I've written before, I am enjoying the collections of short stories edited for the "British Library Crime Classics" series by Martin Edwards. I've read Murder at the Manor (country house crime), Serpents in Eden (crime in the country), and Silent Nights (Christmas crime). This volume, subtitled "London Mysteries," may be my favorite.

It has a very interesting variety, with some familiar authors but several who were new to me. One story concerns a serial killer preying on people riding the Underground. It was "originally serialized in To-Day, a weekly magazine edited by Jerome K. Jerome." (I didn't know that Jerome was an editor as well as a writer.) According to the introductory notes - which are always informative - the serial kept people from riding the trains, and eventually "the Underground authorities wrote a letter of protest to Jerome." Richard Marsh's story "The Finchley Puzzle" features one of the earlier women detectives, Judith Lee. Another, by Ernest Bramah, has Max Carrados, whom the editor calls "perhaps the genre's most effectively realized blind detective." Anthony Berkeley had a story, "The Avenging Chance" (included here), which he later reworked as The Poisoned Chocolates Case (with a completely different ending). I was happy to discover one of H.C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune stories as well. I found several of the stories quite suspenseful, and one (about a older spinster who does a good deed that goes horribly wrong) deeply unsettling.

The stories in most of the collections are placed in roughly chronological order, with Arthur Conan Doyle usually leading off. The women authors appear toward the end, sometimes under their male nom de plume. This collection has stories by E.M. Delafield, Margery Allingham, Lina White, and Lucy Malleson (writing as "Anthony Gilbert"). The Delafield story, "They Don't Wear Labels," has an ambiguous ending - and it's not the only one.

I still have two collections, Resorting to Murder and Crimson Snow, on the TBR shelves. I check for new ones every time I go into Murder by the Book. They are a lovely introduction to classic and Golden Age mystery authors, and I hope that Martin Edwards will keep finding and re-printing these stories.

Isn't the cover gorgeous? I would almost buy these books just for the covers. I'd love to have this one as a poster!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Home Port, by Olive Higgins Prouty

I really only picked up this fourth book in Olive Higgins Prouty's series of novels about the Vale family of Boston because a copy of the fifth book (Fabia) arrived through inter-library loan, with a short check-out time, and I wanted to read them in order. I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did - much more than I'm enjoying Fabia at the moment, to be honest.

It opens with a young man recovering consciousness on a beach. Gradually he remembers that he is Murray Vale (Lisa Vale's youngest child), spending his vacation from Harvard Law School as a counselor at a camp in Maine, Tamarack. He and a new counselor, Briggs, had taken a canoe out on a trip across the lake. When a storm blew up, the canoe capsized. Though Murray tried desperately to hold on to Briggs and keep him afloat, he finally lost him in the rough waters. He blames himself for the accident, and he is prepared to take full responsibility. It's pretty clear to the reader that he isn't thinking clearly, partly from the trauma of the accident. He learns that the canoe has been found, and a full-out search is on for him. But when he also learns that his older brother Windy has arrived to join the search, his guilt overwhelms him. He can't face his brother with the responsibility for Briggs's death on him. So he takes to the road, with no clear plan other than escape, leaving his family to think him dead, lost in the storm.

This is a really interesting and engaging story of guilt and redemption. Being an Olive Higgins Prouty novel, it is also a psychological study. Murray has a huge inferiority complex about Windy. He has always been overshadowed by his older brother, tall and handsome, a natural athlete and charismatic leader, who contracted polio but fought his way back to mobility and an active life. Murray began to find his own path, particularly through nature studies, but he was laughed and teased out of them (by Windy, among others). He has been following the path of least resistance ever since, including enrolling in Harvard and then Harvard Law against his own wishes. Unfortunately for Murray, he has resisted all his mother's attempts to get him to talk with Dr. Jacquith, the psychologist who did so much for his Aunt Charlotte and for Lisa herself. Dr. Jacquith at least recognizes his "brother complex," and he also says that the family has been "trying to shape a copper urn out of a silver vase."

I particularly enjoyed Murray's adventures once he fled from the camp and his old life. He travels by bus and by hitch-hiking, staying in small boarding houses, eating in diners (not at all the types of places a Boston Vale would feel at home). I kept seeing Norman Rockwell images in my mind - though Murray's travels are far from comfortable, and always overshadowed by his own misery and guilt. I liked his grit and his determination to make his own way, and I enjoyed his adventures (a lot more than he did). The story (published in 1947) covers several years of his life, moving into the Second World War. Prouty doesn't tell us what happens to him at the end of the book - she leaves his story hanging. I am hoping to find out in Fabia - and it better be a happy ending.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Looking for Betty MacDonald, by Paula Becker

The subtitle of this new biography is "The Egg, The Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I." I first learned about it from Constance Martin, who blogs at Staircase Wit. I immediately broke out a Barnes & Noble gift card that I had been hoarding, to order a copy.

The author, Paula Becker, is a staff historian at HistoryLink.org, an on-line encyclopedia of Washington State history. (I lived in Washington State for many years, and I wish we'd had this resource when I was in school.) As I did, she first met Betty MacDonald as a child, through her "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books." As I did too, she came to MacDonald's books for grown-ups as an adult herself, and was quickly captivated. Living in Seattle, MacDonald's home for many years, Ms. Becker began, in the words of the title, looking for Betty MacDonald. She traced the homes she lived in, she met people who knew her. And when she realized there was no biography of this author, she wrote one.
At the beginning of this treasure hunt, I wanted to find Betty. By journey's end, I wanted others to find her, this young woman whose face was as familiar during the 1940s and 1950s as any movie star's, whose voice was the first - male or female - to entrance readers around the planet with a story deeply rooted in the great Pacific Northwest. I wanted none of her story lost. And I wanted modern readers - who knew her for the Piggle-Wiggles, if they knew her at all - to understand how richly Betty MacDonald deserved to be found.
I have read all four of Betty MacDonald's memoirs, more than once (and written briefly about them). I felt that I had the basic outline of her life straight in my mind. For me, much of the interest in this book was learning about the real life lived, and how MacDonald transmuted that into her stories, what she changed or deleted, and why. Her last memoir, Onions in the Stew, was published in 1955. Ms. Becker carries the story of MacDonald's life through the difficult years that followed, to her death from ovarian cancer in 1958. She was only 50. I can't help wondering what she might have written, given time and health.

The book has wonderful illustrations, of Betty's family (I felt I knew them already, from her books), and also of the homes where she lived. Ms. Becker's research took her all over the west and to New York as well. I envied her access to MacDonald's family members, and above all to MacDonald's archives. From the chapter describing her research, it sounds like she might have been the first to open the boxes and file folders in fifty years or more. It also sounds like Betty MacDonald was as funny and snarky in her letters as in her books, and I'd love to read a collection of them. I hope that her heirs will consider donating the collection to a library or archives, so they can be preserved and protected.

For anyone who doesn't know Betty MacDonald, or only knows Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (as wonderful as she is) this would be a wonderful introduction. Well-written and engaging, it conveys Ms. Becker's enthusiasm for Betty MacDonald and her books. It gives a real sense of the person behind the books. I can almost guarantee it will send people off in search of the books they haven't read yet. It certainly makes me want to pull them all off the shelf again. The meticulous bibliography also added a book to my reading list, Much Laughter, a Few Tears: Memoirs of a Woman's Friendship with Betty MacDonald and Her Family, by Blanche Caffiere. Thanks again to Constance, I have also added one of MacDonald's children's books, Nancy and Plum, which I somehow missed growing up.

As it happens, I have an extra copy of Betty MacDonald's third memoir, Anybody Can Do Anything. I came across a U.S. first edition recently, and I couldn't resist buying it. I would be happy to share the British edition that I found first. If you'd like it, just send me an email (maylisa66 at earthlink dot net). If I get more than one interested reader, I'll draw names.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Lisa Vale, by Olive Higgins Prouty

This is the second in the series of novels that Olive Higgins Prouty wrote about the Boston Brahmin family the Vales. The titular character, Lisa Vale, is married to the oldest Vale son Rupert, and the sister-in-law of Charlotte (of Now, Voyager, the third in the series). I haven't come across too many heroines named Lisa!

Like Now, Voyager, this story opens on board a ship. Lisa is returning from an extended stay in Europe with her two daughters, Fabia and June. Fabia is secretly engaged to a young doctor, Dan Regan, who is socially and economically far beneath one of the "Boston Vales." Lisa has a secret of her own (this isn't a spoiler, it's explained in the first chapter - and it's not quite so secret as Lisa thinks it is). Her marriage to Rupert has never been a happy one, and she has been in love for years with Barry Firth, a partner in her husband's firm. Though their affair is an emotional one, not a physical one, Lisa is careful to keep everything in the proper bounds. She recently helped get Barry promoted to the Chicago office and away from Boston, but they still write to each other.

As if worry for her daughter and about Barry weren't enough, Lisa receives word that her elder son Rupert Junior (known as Windy in the family) has been arrested for drunk driving. There was a young woman in the car with him (like Dan Regan, she is not of their class). His father is apoplectic, particularly since Windy has just failed to get into Harvard. She is also worried about her second son, Murray, a frail boy who is struggling in school. At least her daughter June, about to make her debut, is enjoying it all and causing her mother no qualms.

Someone commented on my post about Dorothy Whipple's Greenbanks that it is "A very satisfying, a bit old-fashioned family story." I think the same could be said of this book. I had met most of these characters already in Now, Voyager. I already liked Lisa, who was such a good friend to her sister-in-law Charlotte. Here she is trying to balance her role as wife and mother with her own needs. I think she is a good mother, who loves her children and tries to support and help them, even when she disagrees with the choices they are making. While she plays her expected part as a wife, she stands up both to Rupert and his overbearing mother, Grandmother Vale. And she is very resourceful, in helping Windy out in his situation and in handling a financial setback with an unexpected pragmatism that I found charming. She deals with what is, rather than wasting time worrying or whining about what can't be helped.

As much as I liked Lisa, I found this book less satisfying than Now, Voyager. It didn't have the same impact as Charlotte's re-birth and growth into her own life. The story spends quite a bit of time with Fabia's romance, which I thought rather boring despite the drama (and then I knew from the later book how it turned out). I did enjoy this book though. Charlotte made several cameos - at one point Fabia declares that she won't be another Charlotte. I was glad to know how much happiness is ahead for her.

The fourth book in the series, Home Port, focuses on Lisa's younger son Murray (who seems to be the proverbial ninety-eight pound weakling). The library has already found me an inter-library loan of the fifth and last book, the elusive and expensive Fabia. I want to read them in order, and the ILL period is short, so I will be spending more time with the Vales in the near future.