Thursday, August 21, 2014



Aarti of Book Lust is once again hosting her More Diverse Universe reading challenge. I'm really looking forward to it! 

Previously this challenge was focused on science fiction & fantasy, as that is an area in which writers of colour are noticeably underrepresented. This year, however, Aarti has adapted the challenge to include ANY book written by a person of colour. Whatever you like to read, pick just ONE book and read along!

Aarti says:

  • Read and review one book
  • Written by a person of color
  • During the last two weeks of September (September 14th – 27th) 
Do you think you can do it? Sure you can! Sign up over at Aarti's blog and join the plethora of readers who will be celebrating the vast number of books that feature a more diverse universe.

I'm not sure what I'll be reading, but I have some great choices on my TBR right now, so I will probably pick up at least one of those. I've discovered some fabulous authors through this challenge, hope to find more this year!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Godden's Greengage Summer

Greengage Summer / Rumer Godden
New York: Viking, 1958, c1957.
218 p.

I've read many of Godden's books, though I hadn't got to this title, one of her most well-known ones, until now. I thought that a warm summer's day sitting in the backyard was the perfect environment for this read, and as it happens, I spent an entire day last week reading it (ending up with a little bit of a sunburn to go with it!) My copy is an old green clothbound edition, with a yellow imprint of plums on the front -- it feels vintage.

It's a interesting tale; partly a coming-of-age for our narrator, partly a story of children abroad sans parents, partly a thriller. The Grey family is being taken abroad by their mother, who feels they don't have an appreciation of life and need to tour the war cemeterie
s and battlefields of France to get some perspective. Their mother, who is a bit of a flibbertigibbet, has found a hotel on the recommendation of a local gentleman, Les Oiellets. Just before they leave England, she gets a horsefly bite, which rapidly turns into a serious illness thanks to blood poisoning.

The children manage to get her to the hotel, where a fellow Englishman recognizes how ill she is and pops her into the local hospital, after she has extracted his promise to look after the children. This is certainly one element that dates the story; letting a strange man look after all five of your children! And there is more to this man that is first apparent; his charm has a darker side.

Narrator Cecil, second oldest of five children, is the voice of the story. Her father is a botanist who regularly goes on 3 year expeditions -- he's now in Tibet -- which explains why all of the children are 3 years apart in age. The eldest, Joss, is 16 and blooming into a beautiful young woman, which has a large influence on the plot. She's also a painter. Cecil is 13, a natural observer, and a writer. Her analysis of their experience is clear and unsentimental. The middle child, Hester, is quiet and accepts anything that comes along, and she loves her camera. The only boy, William, known to the family as Willmouse, is 7 and he is fixated on fashion design, and loves Vogue magazine. He spends most of his time in his 'atelier' under a tree in the garden, mocking up dress designs with his sketchbooks and dolls. He definitely sees himself as a designer, scoffing at the idea that he would sew these dresses himself; "they'll be sewn in my workrooms". I hadn't expected this character -- just one more example of fashion playing a role in the fiction I've been reading. And youngest child Vicky, just about 5, is a charming little thing who loves food and captures the heart of the chef in their hotel. Each of these children has their own area of creative expression, something that I find very Rumer Godden-ish.

Also very Godden-ish is the way that all the other characters are cruel, selfish, or warped underneath their social facade. The hotel concierge and owner are both rather malevolent, and the kitchen boy Paul, befriended by the two middle girls, grabs Cecil's breasts at one point and threatens the eldest with sexual assault; and yet they don't speak up or seem to think they can do anything much about it. Rather, they feel sorry for him. The plot and some of the incidents, like these, do much to date this story; it's an example of what's taken for granted in mid-century by these children.

In any case, this story does have a dream-like summer idyll feel to it, a warm drowsiness which hides the danger beneath the calm. The children escape damage, but they do experience violence and threat, some psychological, some actual physical attack. They stick together as a unit, though, and are able to survive. The story comes to an action-filled, police-included conclusion that is traumatic, emotional and unexpected, in light of the slower moving first half of the book. But Cecil gets it all down, and we know from the moments in the story in which the adult Cecil comments on the past that they all move on from this experience.

It's a book that features many children, and yet is not for children. There are adult themes and it carries a sense of recording a lost world, in all its harshness, that might only be appreciated by adult readers. If you like Godden, or are interested in an unsentimental portrayal of the loss of innocence in the early teen years, told in wonderful style, this will be one for you. It's a great summer read.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tiger in the Smoke

The Tiger in the Smoke.jpgThe Tiger in the Smoke / Margery Allingham
Garden City, NY: Doubleday, c1952.
254 p.

This was a great book. Really, the most interesting of all the varied and interesting crime titles I've been reading lately.

It's set in post-WWII London -- the Big Smoke. Heavy fog plays a continuing role in this story, and Allingham's own description of weather in London reminded me of the opening lines to Dickens' Bleak House:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

But in this novel, the fog remains the same while the world has changed; it is now a world that includes damaged war vets, criminal gangs, and murderers, rather than skippers and pensioners. As the story begins, word comes to Albert Campion and Inspector Charles Luke that Jack Havoc, criminal mastermind and psychopath, has escaped from jail and is at large in London. They must try to puzzle out where he is and what his next move is going to be. They never quite catch on though, and that is what makes this book so intriguing.

The story is not a typical detective story, as it is much, much more about the psychology of Havoc, of others who enable him, of class conflict, of trust and betrayal, and the struggle between good and evil in the soul of every character. It's fascinating how each of the characters is drawn for the reader, how the saintliness of one character, Canon Avril, is counterbalanced by the cold-hearted criminal sociopath, Havoc, who has no compunction about killing violently as he feels like it. He is a thorough villain, and yet even he has some background that makes him more than an evil caricature.

There are wonderful side characters (including a gang of unstable misfits who have turned to crime in lieu of any other option) who add complexity to the tale. There is a love story at the heart of the book as well; fashion designer Meg Elginbrodde is about to marry Geoffrey Levett, but someone has been sending her current photos of her soldier husband, who had been presumed dead for the last five years. She enlists her friend Amanda -- and Amanda's husband Albert Campion -- to help her figure out what is going on. These two storylines converge, of course, and we follow the increasingly dangerous behaviour of Havoc as he tries to locate a fabled treasure that is linked to Meg (unbeknownst to her).

I loved the setting of this tale, and the way the characters are drawn. Meg, Geoffrey, Canon Avril, Jack Havoc, and even the new detective Charles Luke, are the strong nucleus of the book. Campion himself plays an important role in the progression of events, but isn't a focus of the story -- he is not the main character whom we follow to solve a mystery. I liked Meg, even with her rather helpless nature; she was one more example of someone involved with fashion and sewing, which I've been coming across a lot in my Century of Reading books, purely by chance but of great interest to me. Clothes actually play a bit of a role in the plot too, and it was entirely plausible that they would. 

I really don't want to say much about the plot; it's efficiently constructed and makes a kind of sense, but I'd like to leave it to you to discover. The style is fairly dry and intellectual, to counteract some of the more sensational elements, and I enjoyed that juxtaposition. But the star of this show is the setting, that foggy, dangerous London which reflects the confusion of the story, and which clears as the story does. Allingham's character exposition is also excellent here, and all these elements go together to create a very satisfying thriller. I recommend this one.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Shelf

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading / Phyllis Rose
New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, c2014.
271 p.

Bookish people unite! Phyllis Rose has written another tale of extreme reading -- in which she takes a random shelf (LEQ to LES) in her exclusive New York subscription library and reads all of the books on it, documenting her progress.

I both liked and disliked this one. While I see that Rose has a lot of critical skill to bring to bear on her experiment, I don't think that it's a unique effort. So many library patrons are doing this very thing every day -- but then, they're not reflecting on their habit or writing essays exploring each author's context and relevance.

While the plot summaries for each book might be dull going, Rose's commentary on each title is often funny, clever, or enlightening -- she's done her research on each book that came her way. It's a very modern look at the way we read; Rose uses Google, Wikipedia and more to investigate her titles. But this experiment also reveals her own reading gaps. When she reads Lermontov's classic A Hero of Our Time, she becomes infatuated with it, searching out other translations, rereading and researching extensively. But when she comes across Margaret Leroy's Yes, My Darling Daughter, she doesn't recognize that it is a modern novel in the gothic romance tradition until other readers enlighten her. It's illuminating to see the ways in which she responds to the varied books on this shelf; it makes me more conscious of my own reading choices and blind spots, too.

Many readers have commented that they enjoyed the chapter on women and privilege -- something that many bloggers discuss extensively -- Rose shares the VIDA numbers, she talks about false categorization, she discusses A Room of One's Own. It's an important chapter on a topic that can always use more discussion, and I found it engaging.

The other bit that many readers have noted as fascinating was a chapter of library de-accessioning. I guess it must be a glimpse inside for many readers, but as a librarian myself I was not interested in going over this thorny issue yet again and must admit I skimmed that chapter. I really didn't feel like getting into work issues while reading for pleasure!

The key message of this book, for me, was to take a chance at making your own unmediated choices -- in reading as well as other things. Other readers have noted the same element: an excerpt from Kerfe's Goodreads review:
"But if we want to open ourselves to the new, the uncomfortable, the exciting and strange, we need to be willing to look beyond the curated life."

And a long essay about moving beyond the filtered life which I just serendipitously found online is also right on target with the message of this book as well.

Rose's love for libraries comes through strongly over the course of the book, which is nice. And her exhortation to read independently is a wonderful one -- worth reading this book just to discover it, as follows:
Only libraries promote random reading through their open stacks and that ultimately random system of organization, alphabetical order. Otherwise, in all realms, literary and literal, the guided tour prevails... That is one of the conclusions I have reached, one of my recommendations: explore something, even if it's just a bookshelf. Make a stab in the dark. Read off the beaten path. Your attention is precious. Be careful of other people trying to direct how you dispense it. Confront your own values. Decide what it is you are looking for and then look for it. Perform connoisseurship. We all need to create our own vocabulary of appreciation, or we are trapped by the vocabulary of others.... What do you value? Why? Does reading have more merit than any other way of passing time? Is it useful to read randomly? alone? in discussion groups? bad books? old books? new? I wish that literary criticism could be built back up on the grounds of experience, closer to book reviewing than to academic theory, with a bias toward enthusiasm.......
Well, my fellow enthusiastic book bloggers, that's our call to arms. Keep reading, and keep reviewing, randomly. Let's keep reading off the beaten path!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Woman of Independent Means

A Woman of Independent Means / Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey
New York: Viking Penguin, 1995, c1978.
256 p.

This is an epistolary novel that I'd first heard of thanks to Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot, a few years ago now. But I found a copy at a library sale this week so finally got a chance to read it.

It tells the life story of Bess Steed through her letters, from 1899 when she's in 4th grade, until her death in her 70s. The letters are written to various people, so they reveal different aspects of Bess -- her voice and her subject matter changes with each correspondent. She comes across as restless, bossy, self-interested, a large character who is trying to stretch the boundaries of the social expectations which constrain her, but is also not willing to totally throw them over -- society means too much to her.

Bess has three children with her first husband, her childhood sweetheart. She is intensely involved in their lives, leading to estrangement when they are grown, which fortunately isn't total; they do return to relationship. But Bess is a very strong personality, and her opinions aren't always comfortable ones. She likes to travel and explore, but at the same time she is bound by her decision to marry again, a decision she feels is forced upon her by her children's longing for a father and the persistence of her suitor, Sam Garner, an unimaginative engineer who lacks her travel gene, at least for anywhere outside the USA.

At the beginning of the book, Bess feels as if her life is charmed; in one early letter she describes how her night train rushed through a forest fire, without being harmed, and she is like that, travelling untouched through tragedy. But this doesn't last long -- she loses her first husband to the Spanish Flu after WWI, she loses others and has various tragedies following on. It began to feel a wee bit contrived, especially as Bess doesn't seem to change very much through all of this.

I did find that this book captured my interest -- the years that Bess lives through are years of enormous change, socially, politically, technologically. She is avid to know what is happening and changing, and stays informed and interested in life until the end. But she is also complex and despite being so vital, she has blind spots of selfishness and privilege that are unchecked. I don't think she'd be a very comfortable person to be around for long!

The epistolary format worked well for this story, as the focus is entirely on Bess. She reveals the changing nature of her inner thoughts through her writing, saying to her daughter at one point that "only in a letter do I dare express my feelings openly." She is someone who is compelled to write things down, which explains the wealth of letters. Of course, people did write many more letters in the past, and the number of letters gathered into this story would not be unusual to find in many lives of an earlier era. The changing tone of the letters and telegrams, depending on whom they were written to, also adds depth to Bess' character.

However, the intent of the book, in the foreword to my edition, was stated as describing how a woman could be independent within a domestic setting. The author decided in the 1970s that she wanted to write a novel called "Letters from a Runaway Wife"; ironically, her husband told her that runaway wives were a passing fad and that she should write about "a woman who didn't have to leave home to be independent", like her grandmother. The author thought about this and decided he was right (quelle surprise) thus wrote this book.

I don't think that this intent is carried out very effectively. It is as if Hailey is at war between her original impulse and the one she feels obliged to carry out on her husband's instruction. Bess is indeed a woman who doesn't leave home, if by that it is meant that she remains a wife. But her second marriage is one that she takes on partly out of duty and compromise; it's not a satisfying partnership. She doesn't stop travelling alone to Europe, or stop having passionate interest in other men. There are at least two, perhaps three, affairs in the story, revealed obliquely. Bess likes men, she doesn't like being tied down or restricted in her independent choice of actions. As she says:
It seems unreasonable to expect—or indeed even to want—to share every experience in life with the same person.... Why does society restrict a man and a woman to only one such pledge per lifetime? I hope I will never break any promise once made, but if I were free and clear at this moment, I would never again promise my exclusive devotion to anyone.
That doesn't sound to me like someone happily independent in a domestic setting. So while I found this book very readable, I felt that Bess' character was restrained both by her social setting and era, and by the author herself. I'd love to see this redone with the author free to write whatever she truly wanted to in the first place.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading about Bess and the numerous pithy things she comes out with in her letters. If you are are interested in a glimpse of the 20th century through the eyes of a strong willed woman ahead of her time, do give this a try. As an epistolary novel it succeeds in its structure, and there is much to enjoy in it despite the feeling I had that it didn't go quite far enough.

I'll close with a couple of favourite excerpts:
How wise we would be to multiply all our pleasures in life through the simple act of reflection, allowing memory to serve as the mirror in which the original moment can be recreated at will. I feel with Wordsworth that an event “recollected in tranquillity” has an intensity it often lacks in the present. My stay in Europe is at an end but I expect to make the trip many times in memory, unencumbered by children and baggage.
We all have the power -- at least for a moment -- to shape our environment, and how wrong of us to ignore this privilege just because it is fleeting. We must accept the fact that nothing we create belongs to us forever and let the act of creation be its own reward. 
But do not count on others to convince you your life matters. All of us are finally alone with only a single opinion to sustain us -- our own.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Address Unknown: a rediscovered classic

Address Unknown / Kathrine Kressman Taylor
Washington Square Press, 2001, c1938.
64 p.

I picked up this book in a recent used book store shopping trip; it was a tiny volume slid onto the shelf and I'm just lucky that this title was one I'd lately put on my "to-read" list, so it caught my eye, squished in there.

It was first published in 1938 as a short story, in Story magazine. It was a huge phenomenon then, and I can see why, even as I read it now. It was sparked by Taylor's curiosity as to the effect that Nazism had on otherwise nice, normal Germans; how did it take hold?

The story is told through the exchange of letters between two business partners, Max Eisenstein and Martin Schulse, who are art dealers in San Francisco. As the story begins, in 1932, Martin has just moved his family back to Germany, where they are very well to do compared with those who've been living in a depressed economy since the end of WWI. At first, Martin mentions some hesitation about this new leader of theirs, Adolf Hitler; although he seems to have a lot of energy Martin hopes that it will lead Germans in the right direction. But his letters quickly change tenor.

His old friend Max, a Jewish American, becomes more and more alarmed at the change. Max also has a sister, Griselle, who is an actress in Europe, and who had a brief romance with the married Martin in the past. Things come to a head when Griselle takes a job in Berlin, against Max's advice, and then one of her letters is returned to him, marked "Address Unknown". In a panic he appeals to Martin to investigate, not being able to believe that Martin has been wholly changed. Things get pretty ugly from there.

Within these 64 pages, Taylor is able to illuminate the atmosphere in a newly Nazi state -- the paranoia, the conformity, the pure hatred and self-interest that prevails. The story is relentless, with Taylor not backing away from the horrific realities of Jewish-German life at this time.

It was a shocking read, a perfectly constructed story, an unblinking condemnation of Nazism, and a must read in every sense of the word. I don't know what I was expecting, but this is a powerful story, one that makes clear how much everyone knew about what was going on in Germany by the early 30's. It's one I can't stop thinking about.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Letters to Anyone and Everyone

Letters to Anyone and Everyone / Toon Tellegen
Boxer Books, 2010, c1996.
156 p.

And now for a break from all the mystery reading...I picked up this little book on a recommendation from Stefanie at So Many Books, who thought it was charming. I must agree! This was a delightful, funny, lovely book. I read it via Interlibrary Loan, but know that I'm going to have to buy myself a copy soon, so I can reread all these tiny epistolary stories over and over.

It's a collection of children's stories by Dutch author Toon Tellegen (who is new to me). They feature Ant, Squirrel, Elephant, Bear, Sparrow, and occasionally Snail or Carp or Crow, among others. These animals are always sending letters back and forth, letters who wear hats and scarves and trudge between homes, or fly through the air. The stories are odd and quirky in the way of childhood games, or dreams, with everything being sentient, and strange happenings taken for granted.

Between Elephant swinging on lampshades or falling out of trees, or Squirrel writing a letter to the letter, or Cricket making things real by writing them down, there are numerous moments of laughter and charm. Some of the stories made me laugh a lot, some were rather melancholy. Each of them was worth rereading more than once. I regretted that I had to return this one; it's one to keep and dip into regularly.

The small "pocket" size of the book and the accompanying tiny illustrations by Jessica Ahlberg make this a perfect package. All these elements work together to create a wonderful reading experience, one I highly recommend. It's perfect for those who like charming children's stories, or epistolary fiction, or just discovering things that are slightly different.

This book, and a second, are examples of the few Tellegen books translated into English. Do search them out; they are a delight. You might also want to pop on over to Boxer Books and watch the brief interview with Tellegen and Ahlberg, and enjoy him reading excerpts from his book!