Monday, June 22, 2015

By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1939)

The most interesting character  in By the Shores of Silver Lake  (besides, of course, Laura herself) is Laura’s cousin Lena.  Lena is no Nellie Olson, but in some ways she’s lot more interesting.  She’s a wild child.  She drives the black ponies with wild abandonment across the prairie, a pretty sure indication she’s “fast.”  She knows bad songs that Laura heartily joins in (and Laura knows they are bad!).    It’s the lure of the older, bad girl; Laura is just shy of 13, and Lena is fascinating in ways that her family isn’t.  Silver Lake is about Laura leaving childhood behind and becoming a teenager (and hence a woman).  Jack dies.  Stockings aren’t hung up at Christmas (poor Carrie and Grace though).   And there is this heartbreaking scene  when Laura and Lena go to pick up the washing that Aunt Docia had sent out from the homesteading woman, who apologizes for the way she looks that day – her 13 year old daughter had been married the day before.  This leaves Laura and Lena discomforted.  Lena finally cries out:  “I don’t want to settle down… I’m not ever going to get married, or if I do, I’m to marry a railroader and keep on moving west as long as I live.”   Lena represents another kind of growing up; a sexualized kind, a stronger-minded kind too.  Railroad men – I  would hazard a guess that men in general – are of high interest to Lena; later on she tries to cajole Laura into going to see the railroad men working on the railroad.  (Unlike me, Ma isn’t a fan of Lena:  “Lena is a good, capable girl, but she is boisterous, and Docia has not curbed her as much as she ought.”  Ma, always curbing). 

Like everything in Wilder world, the fictional characters are distorted in the mirror of reality.  It sounds like real Lena had a very tough life.  Her mother was Docia Ingalls, Pa’s sister, the beautiful Aunt Docia from Little House in the Big Woods; Uncle Hi is actually her stepfather.  Her real father was August Waldvogel, who was (wrongly?) imprisoned after shooting a man who he believed as trying to rob him.  Docia divorced August Waldvogel and married Hiram Forbes.   According to some of the stuff I’ve read online, Hiram Forbes was an alcoholic ( and a thief:  I don’t care what Pa said about the railroad owing Hi – he still embezzled all that stuff).  An article about Gene Waldvogel (Cousin Jean) from the "find a grave" website had this to say about the family:  “Mother and stepfather attempted to abandon young Gene and his older sister Lena at orphanages and poorhouses at least twice, in 1874 and in 1877, so they could have sole use of the children's child support money from their biological father. The family drifted from place to place for years, mostly following railroad work for Hi.”  Not a pretty life.  Docia must have been sort of a wild girl herself, and certainly wasn’t a very good mother; it’s no wonder Lena was wild. 

The story of Docia Ingalls Waldvogel Forbes is fascinating.  You can find it here: , by her granddaughter Lola Flack (Lena’s daughter).  She writes:  “Grandma was a thin, bent little woman who never smiled.”  

Hard lives all.

Lola writes of her own mother, Lena:  “My mother, Lena, had somehow acquired an education sufficient to pass examinations for a teaching certificate. She taught school near Homer, Nebraska, where she met my father, a young farmer who also taught school after harvest was over for three months in the wintertime. They married and bought a farm near Dakota City, Nebraska, where they lived out their lives.”  So Lena never did marry her railroader, but it sounds like she had a happy life all the same.  Happier than her own mother’s.  And maybe happier than that of  Laura Ingalls Wilder herself.

Lola again:  “Hiram tried to whip Lena. She said she'd kill him if he tried.”   This when Lena was about 10 years old.

Edit: August Eugene 'Gene' Waldvogel (1868 - 1945) - Find A Grave Memorial

By the Shores of Silver Lake (Little House, #5)By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are some things about Wilder's twelve year old Laura Ingalls that could easily place her in the 21st century.  She perfectly captures the allure of a older teen girl (the fast and wild cousin Lena), the insufferable trials of a having an older sister (and this one is blind on top of it), petty rebellion against mother, and always feeling cooped up and bored, wanting to explore the world and be away from family and familiar. This is the book in the series that leaves childhood behind, when Laura blossoms into womanhood.  The entire series has universality are its core; hence its longevity and popularity.  

View all my reviews

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Small Pig by Arnold Lobel (1969)

I took a creative writing course in college in about 1992.  Dr. Brown was the professor of the course.  Looking back, I loved Dr. Brown – I had him for other classes as well, including Linguistics, two literature classes (one in which we read some Dickens (I think Hard Times) and Melville (I think Bartleby the Scrivener), other we read The Light In August by Faulkner).  I also took French from him for two years (very little of which now remains). 

The past becomes more misty and dim, and I don’t recall much about my creative writing class.  I’ve (bitterly?  Although to be honest, I’m rarely bitter about anything) blamed the class for making me hate writing fiction and poetry, and since that time I’ve done very little of either.  Every once in a while, a poem will come bubbling forth and I’m compelled to write it down.  As for fiction, I don’t think I’ve written a single piece of fiction since that class.  (I’m not sure how I feel about that; I also don’t blame Dr. Brown; he was as a good teacher, and I think looking back, I think I was probably a very awful student, selfish and self-absorbed, completely lost, and full of myself; I would have hated to be my teacher back then, and I imagine he was alternately bemused and infuriated by me). 

So whatever I learned in creative writing is gone with the wind.  Except I have always remembered one strange little detail, just the one:  Dr. Brown said one of the best pieces of written prose? Poetry? was this one by Arnold Lobel from Small Pig:  “But most of all / the small pig likes to sit down / and sink down / in good, soft mud.”

I’m sure he had his reasons, and I wish I could remember them now.  I want to be a little mouse in the pocket of that long ago Shawn Thrasher, age 22, worried about coming out and relationships and finding a boyfriend and everything else that was stewing in my 22 year old brain, a little mouse that was taking notes that he could share with the older, more wiser Shawn.  I can’t though.  We can never go back.  So the wisdom of Dr. Brown vis a vis Small Pig is digested into one little tidbit:  Arnold Lobel wrote one brilliant line of poetry/prose.

Grown up Shawn knows this is good writing.  Arnold Lobel is a genius (a gay genius, I’ve recently learned).  All the books I’ve read by him are classics in children’s literature, beloved.  In their simplicity lies brilliance.  I like simple, I guess.  Flowery language is easy; all you need is a thesaurus (it’s also easily done badly).  Choosing simple words (back to “American plain style” perhaps) isn’t so easy.  When your page can only hold at most about 20 words, you have to choose them carefully. And since Arnold Lobel was telling stories that had to read by children who were just learning how to read, those 20 words or less had to be simple enough to be understood by a six year old, but still tell an engaging story.  Lobel pretty much succeeded at that every single time.  Dr. Seuss gets all the laud, but all that laud should go to Lobel.  I’ve called Mo Willems the new Dr. Seuss, but perhaps I should call him the new Arnold Lobel.  

Small PigSmall Pig by Arnold Lobel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is there ever better mud than the mud in your very own barnyard?  Big city mud is obviously the worst among various types of mud; you can get stuck in the big city, and forget what it was like to wallow in the good, soft mud you once knew and loved.  Also, change is bad.

All snark aside, Arnold Lobel is a writer of the utmost skill.  If you think for a moment that on each page, he's only allowed so much text - maybe 20 words.  And then considering his audience of six year old new readers, these twenty have to be the simplest of words.  Lobel's mastery at choosing just the write words and then creating complex and emotional stories about of simplicity is really quite amazing.  Easy readers aren't so easy to write well.  Add to this that often Lobel's plain prose reads like the most beautiful of poetry too.  I hope in a thousand years, our descendants are reading Small Pig, Frog and Toad, and Mouse Soup like we read Chaucer.

View all my reviews

Mustard Seed Life

30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

This is Mark 4: 30-32.  This was one of the scripture readings from church last Sunday (the other being something from Samuel, about David, in which David was described as “ruddy”, which as a ginger made my day). 

Sometimes, scriptures really sink into my heart with meaning, and this was one.  This is one of those wonderful life lessons that the Bible (among other great works) is full of.  “The kingdom of God” is open for interpretation – but being a kind person is like planting a mustard seed.  You say something nice to someone, smile at them, help them in some small way, help a stranger or a friend, be a Good Samaritan…  random acts of kindness, a trite phrase now but still packed with meaning.  You plant this, walk along your merry way, but behind you a garden grows.  And in some beautiful imagery, birds perch in the shade.  Kindness can grow and become infectious. 

I don’t think you have to a Christian to plant mustard seeds.  All religions can do this.  Atheists can do this.  It’s called being nice to one another in small ways.  And forgiving people when they aren’t so nice to you.

I must plant mustard seeds every day.  We all must do that.  We must do that for the people who don’t have any seeds to plant; we can give them seeds too.  A beautiful garden can grow, where everyone can perch in the branches and sing their songs.  

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston (1954)

This is another book that I really loved as a young reader.  I don't remember reading it very often though.  I know I never actually owned it; I probably stumbled across it at the public library every once in a while, checked it out, and re-read it.  Actually, it may have been part of my elementary school library, which would explain why I never read it as much as some other books (off the top of my head:  Winnie the Pooh, Mary Poppins, the Oz books, Trixie Belden, the Little House series, Encounter Near Venus were all books that were in the public library; I discovered Narnia at my school library).  I've written previously about "stealing" The Secret Garden from the classroom of Mrs. Stoppel, the fifth grade teacher (and spilling pizza on it).  I may have checked this book out from her classroom (once I admitted to stealing the book to read, spilling the pizza on it, and then being able to check out the books instead of stealing them).

The magic in The Children of Green Knowe is the quiet build up.  It's this quietness that could also be described by some lesser readers as "boring."  Admittedly, the action is slow; Boston layers and colors the novel with description and hints.  The lines between imagination and reality are blurred; a child reader would take everything happening to Tolly and his grandmother Mrs. Oldknowe at face value; the adult reader wonders if the two are sharing a game (or perhaps even mental illness; I hate to even write this, because it makes me feel like a deconstructing adult asshat).

The book definitely has a gothic flavor - Wikipedia describes gothic literature as a combination of fiction, horror and Romanticism, and that really does describe The Children of Green Knowe.  It's a ghost story for sure.  The curse of the gypsy woman and Green Noah certainly add a delicious sense of horror at the end.  The book is infected with Romanticism as well - laden with emotion, the intertwining and importance of nature (the woodland creatures, the rain).  These features are what I enjoyed as an adult; Boston made you want to be there by the fire with the grandmother, or exploring the snow, or trying to catch up with the elusive ghost children.  I imagine this was the attraction as a child.  I'm still a romantic at heart I think (Miniver Cheevy...).

Slow is not boring.  A book doesn't need to smack you in the head with action all the time to be good and grand.

I was wondering if the book could be described as magical realism - "magical or unreal elements as a natural part in an otherwise realistic or mundane environment" ?  I would guess there are elements of this throughout the book, and while I wouldn't necessarily call Green Knowe mundane, the place exists in a mundane world (albeit separated by water).  Perhaps gothic literature and magical realism sometimes hold hands and walk down the path together?

I wonder what I thought of the end as a young reader?  As a grown up, I was sad.  The mundane world suddenly invade Green Knowe, and it wasn't nearly as romantic or interesting.  It was a similar feeling to when Mary Lennox finds the key and opens the garden - it's just a garden at the end.  Tolly just becomes a regular boy.

I've never read any other books in this "series" (I'm not sure they called them series back in the fifties, but that is what it is).

The Children of Green KnoweThe Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a re-read for me of a beloved childhood classic.  I don't know if this is pure gothic literature or not (is it magical realism?), but it definitely has gothic flavor.  Boston is a writer of romanticism; Green Knoweis laden with emotion and the intertwining of nature,  has more than a touch of nostalgia, and ends with a delicious sense of horror. It's a slow, dreamy book; Boston uses quiet description and color to build up to an exciting climax.  The wonder of a lonely child, welcomed into a world of the past, ghosts, and magic.  She leaves you wanting more of this ghost world; I know there are others in this "series" but I get the impression they aren't as gothicly inclined?

View all my reviews

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett (1983)

For as much as I love Terry Prachett - I really do consider him one the best writers of the 20th/21st century, a satirist on the level of Jonathan Swift - I haven't read all of his books.  Wikipedia says that he has "about 40 Discworld novels" - read: about, meaning those experts don't even know quite how many books he's written.  It's a bunch, of which I've read a large chunk.  All the Witches books for sure.  Many of the Watch books.  I decided when Pratchett died a few months ago, I would read all of his books in order.  The Color (aka Colour) of Magic is his first Discworld book, and it was my first time to read it.  (I think I've read book 2, The Light Fantastic, because I am vaguely familiar with Rincewind, the failed wizard.  Maybe I did read Color/Colour, but if I did, I only remember Rincewind.

Color/Colour is (surprisingly, which is why I don't think I've read it before) four short stories / novellas.  They are also more parody than the sharp satire  that comes in later Discworld novels (although there is always parody as well).  His later books are more fun, but Color/Colour is still great fun.

The Luggage is pure Pratchett.  I hope it makes more appearances.  It really comes into its own in the last story, where it's one part King Kong and two parts Godzilla, and all fun and funny.

I love that the innkeeper of the Broken Drum is named Broadman, which is obviously a nod to Tolkien's innkeeper Barleyman Butterbur.

The Color of Magic (Discworld, #1; Rincewind #1)The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The sparkling satire of later Discword is in its infancy here in the first book in the series;  The Color of Magic (or  Colour) is still great fun. although more parody than satire.  Four novellas really, jammed delightfully together in one book.   I would hate for someone to read this first and think that the rest of Discworld was based merely on these four books; Pratchett is just sharpening his baby kitten claws here; the true and hilarious skewering of society and culture and everything else comes soon enough.  The parody and broad humor found in this first novel are a gateway drug to something more addictive and wonderful.

View all my reviews

Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)

I missed Matilda growing up.  Published in 1988, the year I graduated high school, I was too old to read anything new by Roald Dahl (although perhaps I re-read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I do not remember).  I don't recall, actually, reading any other Roald Dahl other than Charlie as a child.  A new friend and I were discussing childhood books we loved, and he mentioned Matilda as one of his favorites; I decided I would give it a try. I  discussed the book with some other people approximately his age (20somethings).  I don't think Matilda is the cultural touchstone that Harry Potter is for a generation of readers, but I think it definitely has a warm place in many reader's hearts of a certain age.

It is not the best written book of Roald Dahl's books.  The following is all supposition, but I have  feeling that after writing 13 previous best selling books, many of which were made into films, some of them beloved, that Mr. Roald Dahl didn't want an editor.  And Matilda suffers from it.  Someone should have given it the once over, and had Dahl suture some of it together; the plot is a bit loose and wild.  It's still pure Dahl though - the language and characters are hypnotically larger than life.

Another thing to always, always remember about Dahl, something I need to remind myself every time I pick up one of his books, is that they aren't written for adults.  Some books (Mo Willems, anyone?) can be read both as a child and as adult; I don't think Roald Dahl works in quite the same way.  His themes of revenge, of children's  often violent power over adults, of the cloddity and stupidity of grown ups, of how grown ups can screw children up and how children are always aware of this - these can be disturbing.   Child Protective Services would have been called on the Wormwoods long ago in another book, Miss Trunchbull would be jailed; in Matilda, though, the encounters with the awful and almost evil grown up world are what make children strong and smart (or conversely, do them in; read:  Augustus Gloop and company).  Dahl sees and writes about the world through a child's eyes; in the real world, children lack power. In Dahl's world, they gain it and use it effectively.

Matilda in particular has some interesting things to say about education.  Miss Trunchbull, a classic Dahl-ish villainess, seems to represent the "old school" (and dare I saw "conservatism" in the classic sense) and Miss Honey the "new school."  Clearly, Trunchbull is an exaggeration.  But take for example the scene where she chastises Miss Honey for teaching the children how to spell "difficulty."  Miss Honey uses a new technique, which works; but because it's new and different, Trunchbull tells hers to stop doing it, even though it works.  Later, Trunchbull tells Miss Honey:  "My idea of a perfect school... is one that has no children in it at all. One of these days I shall start up a school like that. I think it will be very successful."  That describes some kinds of education, in which children aren't children, they are expected to be robots, parrots, miniature adults --  no creative thought or thinking outside the box, nothing but learning by rote (and teaching to tests?).

Very, very Dahlish of books though.  The Dahl-ist-est of the Dahls, like all Dahl was leading up to Matilda.

______  Later _______

I wrote the above  before I had actually finished Matilda.  I have now finished it.

Miss Honey and Trunchbull have the most interesting exchange, one that matches what I think about Dahl's take on education, and also his take on life in general, and probably his poltical stance as well.  "There is little point in teaching anything backwards.  The whole object of life," says Miss Honey.  "Is to go forwards. "   That certainly says something again about his take on education, and aslo, isn't that liberalism in a nutshell?

So if I'd had this book as a kid of 10 or 11, I would have loved it.  I can totally see why it's beloved and and maybe even approaches touchstone status.  If you were a little alien child, stuck in a family of non-readers, then knowing that somewhere out there, Matilda existed, then that must have seemed wonderful.

MatildaMatilda by Roald Dahl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Is this the Dahl-iest of all the Dahls?  It's certainly the most Dahlish I've read of his books (and that's not all of them by any means).  I came to Matilda as a jaded old grown up fuddy-duddy reader, and my eyes were clouded with the bitterness of thousands and thousands of books, some of them quite brilliant.  Matilda is a fun book, and I could see if I were a ten year old reader, this would have been an amazingly fun read.  As the aforesaid grown up, I was more interested in Dahl's take on education (contrast the old fashioned Trunchbull who would rather teach in a school with no children) and groovy Miss Honey, who definitely teaches in a new, progressive way.  I think one could even stretch this out to Dahl's whole worldview - that a lifetime spent meandering and repeating the past but not aiming towards the future is a boring life at best, and a dangerous way to think at worst.  The world is full of Trunchbulls, but luckily the world also has plenty of Matildas to battle them.

View all my reviews

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport (2014)

What Rappaport did for Victoria and Albert, she didn't do (at least for me) in the Romanov Sisters.  After nearly 100 pages, I'm giving up on this one.  No one was brought to life, and everything seems to be a re-hash.

Monday, June 8, 2015

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1937)

There are moments in On the Banks of Plum Creek when I remembered vividly being a child; it's something great writers for children have a gift of doing, bringing the adult reader back in time, and capturing the hearts and minds and motivations of children so they, reading the book, can see themselves in the characters.  Laura Ingalls Wilder makes "Laura" (herself but not herself) into something real and beloved by doing this. She continually shows us Laura's flaws and frustrations, her joys and sorrow, her sense of guilt and jealousy and her not feeling like she belongs.  The footbridge scene, when Laura lowers herself in to the flood, is one of these.  It's wonderfully written, scary and beautiful (Wilder is a great writer, her prose is simple but powerful).  But one of the scenes that stands out the most is when the Nelsons come over, and Ma forces Laura to give away her beloved doll Charlotte.  "For shame, Laura," says Ma.  "Anna's little and she's company.  You are too big to play with dolls, anyway.  Let her have it... a great girl like you sulking about a rag doll... you don't want that doll, you hardly ever played with it. You must not be so selfish."  Oh Ma, can't you ever remember being a child yourself (obviously she does a few paragraphs later, but it's too late then).  Laura may not play with Charlotte, but she represents childhood.  Once Charlotte is gone, it's like finding out Santa Claus isn't real - you transition from one stage of childhood to another.  That scene cuts to my heart every time; you remember realizing that you're growing up, you don't want things to change; you want to save "Charlotte" and hold her and keep her close.  "Charlotte" means so much to Laura, and we all have "Charlotte"s - riding in the back seat of the car at night, Christmas mornings, sitting in grandma's lap, favorite toys and books, childhood.  Oh Ma, how can  YOU be so selfish?

Plum Creek has all the elements of a good disaster movie, to be honest:  the flood, the awful winter weather at the end, the grasshoppers.  Wilder's prose captures the grasshoppers perfectly; she must have had nightmares about them over the years.  They are truly awful, the way she describes them. Great writers can make deadly and scary things beautiful too through choice and strong writing.  If you've read this book before, go back and read "The Glittering Cloud" and imagine how scary that must have been to see and live through.  Here is just a bit of it:  "Laura tried to beat them off.  Their claws clung to her skin and her dress.  They looked at her with bulging eyes, tuyrning their heads this way and that.  Mary ran screaming into the house. "   That's deliciously scary.  Grasshoppers are pretty damn alien looking; they invade and eat everything.  This entire chaper is  perfectly written.

Plum Creek does one other wonderful thing for literature.  Wilder introduces one of the best
villianesses of all time:  Nellie Oleson.   She ranks up there with the best villianesses:  Cruella De Vil.  Cinderella's stepmother.  The Wicked Witch of the West.  Veruca Salt.  The TV version of Nellie Oleson actually burns in the heads of anyone of a certain age far brighter and more glittery than her literary counterpart.  But Laura Ingalls Wilder shares something with almost all of us:  we remember those mean girls (and boys) long after they don't have power to hurt us anymore.  "Laura" got even with Nellie Oleson (leeches!) and Laura Ingalls Wilder sort of did too.
On the Banks of Plum Creek (Little House, #4)On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On the Banks of Plum Creek is sort of a disaster movie, told through the eyes of a child.  Fires, floods, snow storms - and the grand high poobah of disasters, a plague of locusts.  Wilder's descriptions of those grasshoppers is one of the most vivid and scary in all of literature too - she only needs to add some blood and gore, and she's entering in Stephen King territory (I exaggerate only slightly - those grasshoppers are terrifying).

Laura Ingalls remains such a real, living and breathing character to us because Laura Ingalls Wilder blew life into her through her plain but beautiful writing.  Wilder remembered what it was like to be a child, the frustrations and joys of being littler than everyone else, of getting even with bullies and being daring (that footbridge scene!  so terrifying and so true), of having a mother who doesn't understand you, being scared of going to school, having a goody two shoes older sister.  It might be 1870-something, but the reason we still identify with Laura is because all those feelings still exist today.  We see ourselves in Laura.  And probably in Nellie Oleson too.  When haven't we also been Nellie?  The TV Nellie is what we remember, but the seeds that wickeder than wicked character are found right here.  Like all villainesses, you want to see more of her - she makes all too brief an appearance!

View all my reviews

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett; illustrated by Chris Van Dusen (2014)

About a century ago, our fattest (to-date) president, William Howard Taft, may or may not have gotten stuck in a bathtub.  I'm starting to really dig Mac Barnett's books, and this one is no exception - he takes the premise that he was stuck in the bath, and one by one calls in the First Lady, the VP, and all the cabinet to help him out.  Each have a unique solution to get him out; the end result is cute as a button.   Plenty of repetition and a nearly sing-song quality and near rhymes would make this fun to read aloud too - how about for President's Day? The last pages tell the "real" story.  Strong illustrations throughout.

President Taft Is Stuck in the BathPresident Taft Is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm a sucker for books about presidents and first ladies -  (So You Want to Be President? is a favorite of mine), so I opened this book up with a happy heart.  Mac Barnett and Chris Van Dusen did not disappoint.  About a hundred years ago, our largest (to-date) president may (or may not: see the end pages) have gotten stuck in his bathtub.  Barnett, who is once again a hoot of a storyteller - has Taft calling to the First Lady, VP, and every cabinet member (it's a civics lesson too!) who each have a unique solution to the president's soapy dilemma.  The strong illustrations and almost sing-songy, near-rhyme prose would make this a great President's Day read aloud too.

View all my reviews

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie (1929)

The second outing of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford has them running a detective agency - but it's a ruse; the government wants them to also be on the lookout for one of the nefarious interational rings of conspiracy that Christie was so fond of in her earlier years as a writer - a writing trend that probably culminated with James Bond, and was deflated by Austin Powers.  This is a book of short stories, connected by this premise, but in which Tommy and Tuppence solve some actual mysteries.  The book is pretty weak - let's be honest, Nancy Drew would have felt right at home in some of these stories -  but is (once again!) saved from doom by Tommy and Tuppence, who are bright young detectives, funny, frank, and (seemingly?) modern (for 1929 at least).  Tommy decides that in each story he will take on the persona of some well known - at least in 1929 - fictional detective.  I only recognized two - Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown - although the types he portrays were all very familiar.    Still, that's one of the problems with this book - it would have been far better, I think, if I had the same familiarity with the fictional detectives as I imagine the readers of 1929 did.  Dame Agatha throws in several knowing and cute nods to Hercule Poirot though - some Poirot French, some little grey cells.  She can be a humorous writer; one of the tales - "The Case of the Missing Lady" is particularly funny - dare I say farcical without giving too much away?

(I was going to annotate this, but most of my annotations had to do with the various fictional detectives mentioned in the stories, and upon starting to do research, quickly discovered Wikipedia had a page that did this already).

Partners in Crime (Tommy and Tuppence #2)Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let's be completely honest - these are mostly Nancy Drew-worthy mysteries with bright young Mitford-esque The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family detectives at the helm.  None of the stories are among Christie's strongest.   The best thing about the book is definitely Tommy and Tuppence, and Christie's witty dialogue she gives them again and again.  The literary conceit of the book, in which each story is a homage to or parody of a famous fictional detective of time period was probably quite engaging in 1929; being unfamiliar with most of the detectives made it more challenging in 2015. That said, she gently makes fun of her own detective, Hercule Poirot, as well as her own book, The Big Four, which was cute.  If you are reading Agatha Christie for the first time, don't start here.

View all my reviews

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014)

I don't think I've ever read a tortured lesbian romance before, and I can't really say I've read one now.  According to my Kindle, I made it about 35% of the way through before my eyes started glazing over and I didn't really care anymore.  Other people clearly like reading long passages full of building longing and unrequited love (although the love was eventually "quited" because that's where I stopped reading; I hope it comes to no surprise from reading my blog, but lesbian sex scenes do nothing for me).  The book was promisingly Forster-esque at the beginning, but I just became so bored with it all.  I really cared so little that I couldn't keep the character's names straight.  The book seemed to old fashioned too - which I assume is on purpose.  I would have much, much rather read about two minor characters - Christina and Stevie - who are living successful (for the time at least) lesbian lives rather than the tortured existence of Frances and Lillian.

I know Lillian kills her husband - which turns adds melodrama to the torture. I know this because I read ahead, hoping the book would get more interesting.  


The Paying GuestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Other people clearly like reading passages and passages full of building languished yearning.  I'm firmly in the "this book was too damn long" camp. The book was promisingly Forster-esque E.M. Forster at the beginning, but I just became so bored with it all.  I really cared so little that I couldn't keep the character's names straight.

Meh to the nth degree on this one.

View all my reviews

Magnificent Obsession : Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed theBritish Monarchy by Helen Rappaport (2011)

I have read so many books about Queen Victoria and her family at this point, that it's become difficult over the years to find any new information.  For example, this book about Prince Albert's death read as so familiar that I thought I'd read the book before.  I hadn't; but I'd read about Albert's death so often that I thought I had.  I still like reading biographies and histories about Queen Victoria and her family; I like seeing what different takes different authors make, their writing style and so on.  I will say they have to be quite good in order to catch my attention now and make me want to continue reading.

I just finished reading a small section on Queen Victoria's dressers - Marianne Skerrett and Annie MacDonald - and thought that information about Victortia's servants, other than John Brown, was few and far between.  That would make an interesting book, perhaps, although certainly not written by me. Rappaport implied that Skerrett, and then MacDonald, had power in Victoria's life, particularly in keeping her in perpetual mourning.  They were part of the walls against the world that Victoria built in the early parts of her mourning. " They formed a human barrier, used by Victoria to protect herself from what she saw as the unkind onslaughts of demanding ministers, and carried messages back and forth to male members of her entourage when she did not feel up to dealing with them."   I'm not anywhere close to being finished with this book; it will be interesting to see if servants continue to make appearances and what their roles were.


Later.  I'm an idiot.   I have read a book about her servants - and recently too.  I'm a maroon. Or really, just becoming more and more forgetful.  I suppose after a certain age, your brain is compeltely full.


"It's my business," Rappaport quotes Prince Albert to Dr Clark.  "to watch that mind every hour and minute - to watch as a cat watches at a mousehole."   This was how Albert handled Victoria's "mental irritation."  We shouldn't lay aside the fact that giving birth to eight children in about 17 years, and being inclined to postnatal depression of the severest kind, probably contributed greatly to Victoria's mental irritation.  She was also somewhat spoiled, self absorbed, petulant.  She was also the kind of intellect that used the power of her mind as manipulative tool - she always, always knew exactly how to get her way.  The effect of having to try to control this, and also lead the country to the liberal Germanic philisophical ideal weakened Albert's health considerably over the years; he was stressed and deeply depressed the last years of his life; in modern parlance, he was probably going through a midlife crisis.  Nothing had quite turned out like he had planned as an idealized scholar prince.  His son was a sexual miscreant and buffoon; his wife petulant and incredibly needy; the people of England openly mistrustful.  

And then he died.  Although it wasn't just like that, and Rappaport's premise is that it took Albert a long time to die; it was something he'd been worried about for quite some time; he knew something was dreadfully wrong.  

Rappaport's title says everything about Queen Victoria both before and after Albert's death.  She was obssessively in love with him, and only him; slavish devotion.  He was her idol.  After his death, for a while he became even more of the object of her obsession; then that switched into obsession over grief itself, and finally the stage were grief was used as a buffer, a weapon, a shield and protector, and also, always, a chance to turn the attention to herself.  She had always been and would always be completely and stubbornly self absorbed.  This manifested itself even more after the few people who could tell her no passed from the scene, Albert himself being the one would could do this the most.

I think if this was Rappaport's theme, her point of the book, then she succeeded greatly.  She goes into great detail showing these different aspects of Victoria's obsessions, how they manifested themselves and changed over the years.  She quotes from many reputable sources, both primary and secondary, to back this up.  She also does so in a sympathetic way; Victoria could have emerged from Rappaport's book some sort of crazy, wild eyed harridan - which I imagine very occasionally she was.  But she also has created a tender portrait of a woman deeply in love and then deeply wounded by a profound grief.  There isn't one way to mourn; the stages of grief aren't the same for us all; death and dying weren't a neat little package back then and still aren't today; Rappaport tells of one woman, albeit a very, very famous woman's, struggle with coming back from dilapidating grief.  

I think if the book has a failure, it may be in the subtitle:  "the death that changed the British monarchy."  I do think Albert's death and Victoria's shutting herself away for so long had an affect on the monarchy;  it probably weakened the power of the monarch considerably.  Rappaport, though, doesn't really go there in any great detail.  There is lots of hemming and hawing and grasping of hands and exasperation by Gladstone and ministers about the Queen spending so much time in Balmoral and Osborne and not enough time in London; there were calls for her abdication and the doing away with of the monarchy itself.  But I've read elsewhere that this constitutionally eroded the power of the monarchy; and I think that's the path Rappaport could have explored, at least somewhat.  She did elude to the current monarch's sense of duty bearing the hallmarks of "a tradition set by Prince Albert" and also a snide aside about whether this tradition would survive beyond her reign (wait and see).  Rappaport did a tremendous job on showing how the death changed a monarch without delving too deeply in how the monarchy was changed for the better or for the worse.

A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British MonarchyA Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy by Helen Rappaport
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The meat of this book is in the title:  Queen Victoria was obsessed with her husband Prince Albert when he was alive, and then became obsessed by and with his death.  The subtitle though - "the death that changed the British monarchy" - that's where this book gets tricky (or I suppose if I'm following idiom here, vegetarian).  I have no doubt that the queen's longest of mournings changed the British monarchy, but I'm not sure Rappaport proved that anywhere in her book.   I do think the prince consort's death and Victoria's shutting herself away for so long had an affect on the monarchy;  it probably weakened the power of the monarch considerably.  Rappaport, though, doesn't really go there in any great detail.  There is lots of hemming and hawing and grasping of hands and exasperation by Gladstone and ministers about the Queen spending so much time in Balmoral and Osborne and not enough time in London; there were calls for her abdication and the doing away with of the monarchy itself.  I've read elsewhere that her behavior constitutionally eroded the power of the monarchy; and I think that's the path Rappaport could have explored.    She did elude to the current monarch's sense of duty bearing the hallmarks of "a tradition set by Prince Albert" and also a snide aside about whether this tradition would survive beyond her reign (wait and see).  Rappaport did a tremendous job on showing how the death changed a monarch without delving too deeply in how the monarchy was changed for the better or for the worse. I don't think this is a mere quibble, but I also don't think this should stop you from reading what is still a very good, well written book.

View all my reviews

Blog Archive