Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945)

I'm reading The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945) and loving it. I'm not sure if knowing a bit about the Mitfords helps or hurts - it makes the jokes funnier, but I keep wondering which fictional characters are based on which actual Mitfords. "Jassy" is Jessica and "Louisa" is probably Pamela (minus the anti-Semitism) -- but that is kind of where my Mitford knowledge kind of stalls out.

I don't want to review the entire book yet - I'm almost but not quite done - but I wanted to get some ideas down before I forgot about them.

Fanny, the cousin of the Radletts, is the narrator, and she says something absolutely brilliant when talking about Lord Merlin, the Radletts uppercrust rather odd Bohemian riche neighbor. " I liked Lord Merlin very much," she says. "I admired him, I was predisposed in his favour, but I was by no means on such intimate terms with him as Linda was. To tell the real truth he frightened me. I felt that, in my own company, boredom was for him only just around the corner." Ouch! I always feel that exact way around most people! Does everyone? (probably not the Lord Merlins of the world).

"Thin edge of the wedge" is a fantastic phrase, and I want to use it all the time. (as are Hon and Counter-Hon, but I was already familiar with those phrases).

My favorite scene so far is "communist" Linda boarding the train, off to help Spanish refugees in French camps, dressed in her impeccable mink coat. What a funny, and probably typical, scene from the 1930s, when the world and classes were changing so much.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Vanderbilt Era by Louis Auchincloss (1989)

I read The Vanderbilt Era by Louis Auchincloss (1989), which is essentially short chapters on Vanderbilts of the 19th and early 20th century, and some other players during that same time. I guess you might call each a vignette or maybe even an amuse bouche - that delightful (or at least hopefully interesting) little hors d'Ĺ“uvre in a fancy schmancy restaurant served before the meal really begins. Each chapter on a Vanderbilt or Other Personage is an amuse bouche that may interest you in reading more about that particular person. Or perhaps the entire book is an amuse bouche, and the main meal is - what? Something by Edith Wharton or Henry James? A marathon session of Downton Abbey? Regardless, the book is a real treat. Especially as Louis Auchincloss name drops the entire way through, and with good reason - he's related to half of the people he's writing about. It's Roots for WASPs, or at least this particular WASP. In a chapter about Louis C. Tiffany and his famous costume balls: "I know an old French lady, a survivor of the era, who coined a term for such goings-on: silly-clever." Or, in the chapter on The Mrs. Astor: "I remember once, one a two-hour drive with her grandson... suggesting that we kill the time by trying to re-create her personality." This man knew of what he wrote and spoke, perhaps the last one to do so definitively and knowledgeably. You might say that what he writes is "hearsay" (or even gossip) but since 1989 hearsay has become history.

I usually find some side note of interest that has nothing to do with what the book is actually supposed to be about, and Vanderbilt Era was no exception. In this case, it was about Edmund C. Stanton, Managing Director of the Metropolitan Opera. The vignette about him was interesting (sad life) but the tidbit about the noisy audience was even more interesting to me. As someone who attends concerts on a regular basis, the cluelessly chattering audience sometimes drives me crazy. It's nothing new - the high society Met audiences of the 19th century were so noisy that the groundlings complained; the upper crust even wanted the lights turned up so that they could see one another better (Stanton refused).

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf (2008)

I read The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf (2008), a really fascinating book. I was afraid it might be dry and boring, but Wulf made what could have been a deadly dull topic into something interesting. I wasn't always exactly sure what the connecting point of the different parts of the book was - the enlightenment? gardening? English colonialism? All three? But that ended up not mattering all that much, because the individuals and their quests for new and different plants, the botanists striving to change the world through gardens, peace through the science of plants, was all really very divertingly interesting.

Several points or people in the book certainly stuck out for me. I knew next to nothing about Linnaeus, other than he was somehow responsible for the Latin classifications of plants and animals (I actually thought this was something everyone knew, but in discussing Linnaeus with a few other people, that proved to be untrue). Linnaeus was quite a character - self absorbed and completely full of himself. It was an interesting concept to me that classifying plants is actually where scientific classification comes to into being - animals always seem to be much more interesting to study, and you would have thought classification would have sprung up with animals.

That was actually another point about the book that I found fascinating - that history sometimes turned on trying to find new plants. Banks and his banksia, Botany Bay, Australia, Captain Cook and the Endeavor were all people, places and things I had heard of, but didn't know much about, particularly that it was plants and gardens that were the driving force behind these initial quests (plants for colonialism later). Wulf really makes a convincing argument that finding new plants - not just for commercial gain but just for the sake of bringing them back to England and seeing if they would grow - was a real factor in the some European adventures and conquests. I was surprised to learn that the famous Mutiny on the Bounty was a trip about plants - bringing breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica, but also bringing Tahitian garden plants back to England - and that part of the mutiny involved an assistant gardener.

I think Wulf also did a great job showing how quickly plants from all over the world centered themselves in England and then spread out to America and elsewhere. Familiar garden plants like zinnias were once wild plants in North and South America, Asia, Africa and Australia, most of the time not so carefully stowed in the bottom of a leaky wind driven ship, without the benefit of modern packaging and refrigeration, subject to bugs and rats - and often hungry sailors. It's a wonder anything made it back to England at all! But persistence paid off - a persistence certainly based on this brotherhood of gardeners, botanists, and scientists. That was another point I liked - this idea of science transcending borders, which started at this time, based on gardens. The science of two Nations may be at peace while their politics are at war was how Joseph Banks explained it, that idea of doctors without borders except in this case about plants.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)

I am listening to The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954) read by the indomitably best narrator Rob Inglis. I just finished listening to the Tom Bombadil chapters, and I wondered several times (like Frodo himself) who Tom Bombadil was, and what was his point in the entire story. I've read The Lord of the Rings too many times to count at this point, and I have always come away with the impression that Tom Bombadil was the spirit of nature or Middle Earth itself. That seems to be the common thought among literary critics of LOTR (and readers have questioned Tom's place in the book since the very beginning). One of the books I hate is The Wind in the Willows, but I distinctly remember a scene from The Wind in the Willows in which Pan appears as a representation of nature; Tom Bombadil seems to play that same role in LOTR.

In reading some literary criticism specifically applied to Tom Bombadil, it seems that some scholars think of him as Tolkien's enigma; Tolkien himself said that some things just are, with no explanation needed and a mystery contained. But some scholars think of Bombadil as an anomaly, a character who is "discordant" and "out of place." I think I fall in that latter camp. When I listen to a work, as opposed to reading it, I "get" much more out of it - I make more connections, hear all the words and have them sink in. Thinking more about Tom Bombadil, he didn't make much sense, other than an extra adventure the hobbits could have, similar to Bilbo' adventure with the trolls. Even that adventure tied in to later events (Sting); Bombadil and the barrow wight adventure don't tie into anything later on; there's not real purpose to them in the story. Although perhaps it could be argued that if we were really going on a quest, some things might happen along the way that don't necessarily tie in later; they just are.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

From Cover to Cover: Evaluating And Reviewing Children's Books by Kathleen T. Horning (1997, revised 2010)

I'm giving up on From Cover to Cover: Evaluating And Reviewing Children's Books by Kathleen T. Horning (1997, revised 2010). It feels like a textbook (if only I were in a class). It feels like something I should read (which always makes me want to not read). I feel like I should be getting something out of the book to help me write better reviews right hear, and over on Goodreads - except my reviews right here are just random musings, and not sure I always want everything here to be upright and professional sounding and perfectly structured and right (Goodreads might be a different story, but I usually keep those reviews a tad general). And, if I can be excused for a moment of hubris, I felt like I knew everything Horning was talking about; that maybe I'm beyond the book, and it would be better suited for a little baby librarian. If only I'd been forced to read this before! Maybe I'll require all new librarians to at least skim this book.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper (2008

I read A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper (2008) and came away with mixed feelings. I finished the entire book with little to no skimming (or least no skimming that was out of the usual), so for my reading habits that says something important. But for the first half or so of the book, I was under impressed; the second half, though, was definitely worth the first half. It's about a time period I love (1930s) and a subject I love to read about (royalty, vaguely English). It's also really weird. I've been told that it's a total rip off of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, but for me that can only be conjecture - I've never read it. It reminded me much more of my sweet favorite The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall or The Exiles by Hilary McKay, quirky family drama (only in A Brief History of Montmaray it turns into real drama involving Nazis and murder). Speaking of murder, a bit of the book reminded me a classic murder mystery, from the other side of the looking glass so to speak. I am definitely going to read the next book, the just published The FitzOsbornes In Exile because I want to see what happens, particularly as they are all in London.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Venus Throw by Steven Saylor (1995)

I read The Venus Throw by Steven Saylor (1995), the fourth book in his Roma Sub Rosa series set in the violent latter days of the Roman Republic. Although not as profound at Catilina's Riddle, The Venus Throw is still a juicy mystery with a helluva whodunnit. The very best mysteries are believable but difficult to figure out, with plausible victims and villains who make choices based on reality, and a writer who doesn't spring details at the very end to make the mystery make sense. The Venus Throw does none of these things. The Roman Republic was a crazy, crazy time, and with the cruelty towards others, (particularly slaves), it's no wonder Christianity took over. The torture scene was particularly creepy (but not graphic!).

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Boys War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk About the Civil War by Jim Murphy (1990)

I read The Boys War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk About the Civil War by Jim Murphy (1990), and I was not impressed. I have read some of Jim Murphy's works of nonfiction in the past, and have enjoyed them. Murphy never talks down to his reader or assumes they won't be interested in certain aspects. My main complaint is that for a book that was supposed to be about boys in the civil war, I felt that the book was primarily just about soldier's lives. I didn't really get a feeling that a boy's life in the war was different from any other soldiers. The many great photographs did the best job of distinguishing between adults and teenagers; the actually narrative did not do as good of a job.

I did mark one passage of interest: "The one problem neither side quite solved was how to supply their troops with enough food. A Few statistics will show the immense size of the problem faced by each side. An army of 100,000 soldiers required 2,500 supply wagons and at least 35,000 horses and mules (for use by the cavalry and to haul the wagons and artillery). Men and horses consumed 600 tons of supplies every day!" Those statistics were staggering to my mind - in a time when it was extremely difficult to travel easily or quickly, all of those horses and men must have been a big, slow, noisy, smelly mess!

I think if maybe Murphy had done some contrasts - what was a boy's life like before the war, and then how was that different during the war - perhaps then I would have given him more credit to sticking with the theme of the book.

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