Friday, July 20, 2018

Pomfret Towers: A Comfort Read Set in Downton Abbey (Plus a Bad Book Cover)

Nice cover on this Virago Modern Classic edition. It reminds me of a vintage travel poster. 

I started reading Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire series last fall, when I was in dire need of a comfort read. Beginning in 1933, Angela Mackail Thirkell (sister of Denis Mackail, who wrote the charming Greenery Street) wrote 29 novels set in the fictional county of Barsetshire, the same county as Trollope's novels. So far I've read five of the first six and have found all of them mostly delightful.  If the words "English country house party in the 1930s" pique your interest as they do mine, then this is quite possibly the book for you.

Pomfret Towers is #6 in the series and was published in 1938. The story begins with an invitation to a weekend house party. (I kept imagining it set in pre-war Highclere Castle AKA Downton Abbey, which I just visited in the UK; I'll post about it soon). The elderly Lord Pomfret is having a group for the weekend and is looking for some young people, so he invites Guy and Alice Barton, the young adult children of one of his tenants. Mr. Barton is a successful architect and his wife is a successful writer of historical novels. Guy works for his father and Alice, shy and delicate, is terrified of the idea of spending a weekend with a lot of smart and fashionable people. She warily accepts after Lord Pomfret tells her to bring along her friends Roddy and Sally Wicklow. Rowdy works for Lord Pomfret's agent, and Sally is a quintessential country girl who loves dogs and horses and is quite jolly. 

The house party gets under way and Alice is taken under the wing of the beautiful Phoebe Rivers, a sort of cousin to Lord Pomfret, who is visiting with her brother Julian, a rather spoiled artist-type, and their overbearing mother, Hermione, another novelist. Mrs. Rivers' primary purpose in the visit is to get Phoebe paired off with Lord Pomfret's heir apparent, Giles Foster. The house also party includes Mr. Johns, one of the partners of Mrs. Rivers' publishing firm, who is not convinced that the income from her books is worth the trouble of putting up with her. 

Most of the story is taken up with the possible pairings-off between the various young people and the chagrin of Mrs. Rivers when these silly youths don't follow her wishes. There are also some very funny bits about writers and publishers. Our omniscient narrator gives us some of Mr. Johns' more amusing thoughts, as well as Lady Pomfret's steadfast secretary Miss Merriman, in whom the unbearable Mrs. Rivers has met her match.

. . . [Mrs. Rivers] was forced to fall back on the interesting subject of herself and tell Miss Merriman how many signed photographs she gave away last year. If Miss Merriman had had real tact she would have asked whether Mrs. Rivers could possibly spare her one, but she merely remarked that she must get one of Mrs. Rivers' books from the library as soon as she had time to do some reading, and that Lady Pomfret had had Mrs. Rivers' last book on the [waiting] list ever since it came out but hadn't got it yet. Whether Miss Merriman knew how annoying this was to Mrs. Rivers, who have liked the libraries to buy enough copies for all the subscribers, we are not in a position to say. (p. 129)

I really enjoyed this book -- it was light and funny, if a bit predictable. It was pretty easy to guess who was going to end up with whom, though there were some amusing minor plot twists. Also, in previous Thirkell books there have been occasional racist remarks which made me uncomfortable (though I do realize anti-Semitism was pretty common among the middle and upper classes during that period); this book, thankfully, didn't have any that I remember. 

And now for some alternate book covers! 

This cover is from the 1980s. Is that supposed to be Deborah Kerr? Whoever she is, she looks far too old and glamorous unless she's supposed to be Mrs. Rivers. And what is that bizarre cord wrapped around her shoulder and bosom? is she being lassoed by the guy hiding in the bushes? It's all very strange.

I suppose this one is better, it's the Moyer-Bell edition from 2007. Their covers are generally good (though I have found some egregious typographical errors in the text). I don't know enough about fashion history to know if this dress is period-appropriate. I don't have this edition so I don't know the source of the cover image.

The original cover. I do love how it explains Thirkell is the "author of 'August Folly' and other delightful novels.' Even her own publisher thinks her books are delightful, so it must be true!

Anyway, of the five Thirkell novels I've read so far, this was definitely my favorite and I'm very much looking forward to the next 24 (!) books in the series. I already own about a dozen in Moyer-Bell editions that I picked up at Half-Price Books back in Texas, though there are a few volumes in the series which are difficult to find and can be pricey.

After considering, I have decided to count this as my Classic by a Woman Author -- Thirkell wrote this book eighty years ago and it's still in print, so I'm calling that a classic. That makes ten books read for the Back to the Classics challenge, only two left to go!

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Another Trip to the UK: London and Windsor

I'd made two trips to London so far since we moved overseas, and I hadn't planned on going back to the UK for a while, but I'd been dying to see Hamilton and last November I found out more tickets to the West End production were going on sale. They are far, far easier and cheaper to get than tickets in New York (since scalping of tickets is strictly forbidden in the UK!). Seven months ago my husband and I  anxiously hovered over our laptops the minute the tickets went on sale and we scored four seats for June! Sadly, my oldest daughter had to miss it (she had an amazing internship opportunity that she just couldn't pass up), but my mother had been planning to visit so we combined a trip to London with a Jane Austen pilgrimage.

After a very early morning flight, we wandered around Hyde Park since our hotel room wasn't ready yet. I'd never been to any of the royal residences so I walked over to Kensington Palace. There was a nice display of some of Princess Diana's dresses, and you can tour the rooms where Queen Victoria lived when she was a girl. I think my favorite part was the Sunken Garden.

The gardens at Kensington are free to the public. 
As I walked back to my hotel, I found this statue of Queen Victoria:

We had tickets the first night to The Play That Goes Wrong which is HILARIOUS (it's also playing in New York and is touring the US starting in the fall). But first we had a pre-theater meal at a wonderful Italian restaurant near Covent Garden called Cicchetti. It's all small plates, similar to Italian tapas. Everything was wonderful but the desserts (for two) were the highlight:

The next day my Mother and I went to St. Paul's Cathedral, which is truly impressive. Sadly, no photos are allowed inside the cathedral, so I had to be satisfied with shots of the outside and from the top of the dome. 

I didn't ride any red London buses this trip but I do love them. So iconic.

I've gotten pretty good at climbing stairs since I moved to a four-story house on a hill. I feel justified in eating more gelato if I've climbed 47 flights of stairs. You can just see the London Eye near the bend of the Thames. 

After St. Paul's we walked through the City to Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, a historic pub that Charles Dickens frequented. I forgot to take a photo outside, but after lunch I decided to visit the Dickens House Museum which was just a short walk away at 48 Doughty Street. 

This is the home where Dickens moved in 1837, just before Queen Victoria acceded the throne. While he lived here, he wrote The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, and one of my favorites, Oliver Twist. 

Many of the original furnishings remain, including his desk:

One of the top floor bedrooms has a display of items relating to Dickens' childhood, including some bars from the window of the Marshalsea prison and a window from his childhood home. I was struck most by this display of blacking bottles. As a child, Dickens had to leave school and work in the blacking factory, pasting labels on the bottles of blacking. He worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, when he was only twelve years old. 

The Dickens house is only a five-minute walk from Lamb's Conduit Street so I couldn't resist popping into Persephone books for a quick look round! I visited two years ago and there was scaffolding covering the front, but now you can see how pretty it is. I especially love the boxes of geraniums. I could have happily bought a stack of books but I knew I'd be moving my suitcase around a lot for the next week, so I practiced self-restraint and bought just one dove-grey book, The Godwits Fly, and one from their table of "Books We Wish We'd Published" -- The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria by Annie Gray.

Then it was time to go home to eat and change before Hamilton !!!!

I really wish I'd taken a photo from the front of the theater. Once you go inside, you can't leave until the performance is over and by then it was dark. The theater inside is newly refurbished and absolutely beautiful. I did get this lovely photo of the ceiling interior. 

I'm no theater critic but Hamilton is probably the best musical I've ever seen, and I've seen quite a few in the past ten years. I'm not really a fan of rap but it's so much more than that -- it's got all types of music, dancing, drama, humor -- it has everything. All the performers were brilliant, but one of the stand-by performers did the role of Aaron Burr and he was absolutely mesmerizing. I cannot say enough great things about this play and I would love to see it again someday. 

The next day my mother and I checked out of the hotel and made our way to Slough where we picked up a rental car, then drove over to Windsor for lunch and to see the castle. 

It has everything you'd expect -- turrets, towers, and a moat which is now a beautiful garden. 

We also saw the church where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were recently married. It's really beautiful but the interior is different than I expected (naturally, no photos allowed.) 

I especially liked the lion and the unicorn guarding either side of the steps out front. The unicorn is on the right and the lion on the left. 

We had a little time to walk around in Windsor before heading out towards Bath. Outside a souvenir shop I was particularly amused to see this historic marker:

Several years ago I read H. G. Wells' Kipps, the story of a young draper's apprentice who unexpectedly inherits a fortune. It was also adapted into a musical called Half a Sixpence which I saw on my trip to London in 2017. 

And finally I couldn't resist taking photos of this massive hat display in a department store -- it was a few days before the Ascot races and the hats were gorgeous

Next stop: Bath and Lyme Regis!

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Paris in July 2018

Paris in July is back! Hosted by Thyme for Tea, it's a month long celebration of French culture -- books, movies, art, food, etc. This year I'm going to participate by:

Reading at least two of the following books:

  • Maman, What Are We Called Now? by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar, a diary of wartime occupied France in WWII, published by Persephone;
  • In Confidence by Irene Nemirovsky, a collection of short stories;
  • The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky, her first published novel;
  • A Good Place to Hide by Peter Grose, another nonfiction account of wartime France. This one is about a small village in the Loire that hid more than 3000 Jews during the occupation.
  • The Bright Side of Life by Emile Zola, the latest in the Rougon-Macquart series to be newly republished by Oxford University Press, with a new translation -- I'm quite excited about this one since the nice folks at OUP just sent me a review copy!

Watching French movies, some new to me and one I've seen years ago:

  • La Femme Nikita, because my daughter loves action movies and it would be fun to watch it together;
  • Les Choristes, because I've heard it's heartwarming; 
  • Un Secret, because it's been in my Netflix queue forever; 
  • Journey's End, because I'm nearly finished with Testament of Youth and want to learn more about WWI;
  • Suite Francaise, because I loved the book and was finally able to track down a DVD -- I'm not sure why it was never released in the U.S. but I was able to find a region 2 copy. 

Cooking French pastries:

  • I haven't made eclairs in years and I keep saying I want to make them again. Or profiteroles. 
  • I'd also like to try to make Tarte Tatin. It was also a Signature Challenge on the Great British Bake Off and though I've never made rough puff pastry, it can't possibly be that difficult, can it? 

I'd also like to take at least one day trip to France. The town of Bitche is just about an hour away. I have family visiting and that would be fun to cross the border into another country, and there's a citadel way up on a hill that you can climb -- a good activity for children with a lot of energy.

Bloggers, are you participating in Paris in July? What are your plans? 

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Testament of Youth: War is Hell and Women Are Still Fighting For Equality

It took me more than a month, but I've finally completed Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain's classic memoir of World War I. I'd been meaning to read this book since about 2014, when it started showing up on lists of WWI reads. I put it on my TBR Pile Challenge List last year, but I kept putting off reading it until Jillian suggested a June readalong on Twitter. Sadly, I wasn't able to finish on schedule due to some travels to the UK, but I persevered and I'm glad to say that I have completed the 661 pages and am slightly exhausted.

The background: Vera Brittain was a student at Oxford when WWI broke out. Her brother Edward, sweetheart Roland, and two of their best friends all enlisted, and after a few months, Vera could not sit idly by and joined up as a VAD [Volunteer Aid Detachment], a volunteer nurse, and worked in France, Malta, and England until the end of the war, when she returned to Oxford, completing a degree in History, and became a teacher and eventually a lecturer, speaking all over the UK about pacifism and the League of Nations. The book begins with Vera's childhood in Buxton but mostly covers 1913 until about 1924. Testament of Youth was published in 1933 and is considered one of the classic WWI memoirs. Brittain also wrote novels and two more memoirs, Testament of Friendship (1940), about her relationship with classmate and best friend Winifred Holtby; and Testament of Experience (1957) -- both of which are much shorter.

I really enjoyed this book but it is long, with tiny print. I really loved reading about Brittain's life in Oxford and her friendship with Holtby and other writers (Dorothy Sayers was also an Oxford classmate). She had to fight her parents to attend Oxford, and even after the war and the suffrage movement, she was a feminist and struggled to have a career as a woman. It's so discouraging that women are still fighting for the same issues nearly 100 years later. Also terribly discouraging to hear how badly the young nurses were treated when they were volunteers, and how how inefficient some of the staffing and medical methods were. 

Of course, the sections about the war are absolutely heartbreaking. It's devastating to realize how many lives were destroyed on both sides, and how quickly Europe went back to an even bigger war just 20 years later. I cannot imagine living through a war like that as a civilian, much less as a nurse treating patients near a battlefield. 

Though there were a few sections that I did skim over (particularly some of the politics which I'm not as familiar with, especially at the end) the writing in this book is just wonderful and insightful. I copied at least ten passages that I would love to quote, but I've narrowed it to just a couple: 

What exhausts women in wartime is not the strenuous and unfamiliar tasks that fall upon them, nor even the hourly dread of death for husbands or lovers or brothers or sons; it is the incessant conflict between personal and national claims which wears out their energy and breaks their spirit. (p. 422- 423).

One had to go on living because it was less trouble than finding a way out, but the early ideals of the War were all shattered, trampled into the mud which covered the bodies of those with them I had shared them. What was the use of hypocritically seeking out exalted consolations for death, when I knew so well that there were none? (p. 446).

Only gradually did I realize that the War had condemned me to live to the end of my days in a world without confidence or security, a world in which every dear relationship would be fearfully cherished under the shadow of apprehension; in which love would seem threatened perpetually by death, and happiness appear a house without duration, built upon the shifting sands of chance. I might, perhaps, have it again, but never again should I hold it. (p. 470).

It did not seem, perhaps, as though we, the War generation, would be able to do all that we had once hoped for the actual rebuilding of civilisation. I understood now that the results of the War would last longer than ourselves; it was obvious, in Central Europe, that its consequences were deeper rooted, and farther reaching, than any of us, with our lack of experience, had believed just after it was over. . . . . Perhaps, after all, the best that we who were left could do was refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came, would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation. (pp 645-646.)

I had been rather dreading this because of the length and subject, but I'm really glad I read it, so thanks to Jillian for suggesting it! I'm also inspired to read Testament of Friendship which I must track down, and to read the remaining Winifred Holtby novels that are on my TBR shelves (Poor Caroline and Mandoa, Mandoa!). I also have the TV adaptation saved on the DVR, but I might have to wait a bit to watch it -- I can't imagine how this has been adapted to film. Bloggers, have any of you seen it? Is it worth watching or should I just delete it? 

This is book #9 for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge: Mid-Year Check-in and Giveaway!

2018 is already halfway over! How's everyone doing with the Back to the Classics Challenge?

I'm happy to report that I've already finished nine of of the twelve categories.  Here's what I've read so far:

That leaves me with only three categories left: Classic by a Woman Author; Classic Crime Novel; and (naturally) Classic That Scares You. So far I think my favorite was The Jewel in the Crown (except for Wives and Daughters, of course!) I'm hoping to start the next book in the series this summer, though I won't be able to count it for this challenge since it doesn't really fit any of the remaining categories. 

I'm also planning on reading Crime and Punishment this summer, which I will probably count as the Classic that Scares Me (unless I count it for Classic Crime). I'm also hoping to read something by Irene Nemirovsky which I can count as my Classic by a Woman Author.

I'm very pleased with my progress. And how is everyone else doing? As a little incentive, I'm having a giveaway! One lucky winner will receive a beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic of their choice (value up to US $20).  

Here are the rules for the Giveaway:

1.  To enter, you must already have been signed up for the challenge (sorry, the cutoff date was back in March.) If you have not already on the list, YOU ARE NOT ELIGIBLE.

2.  Challenge participants must have already linked at least one review to one of the twelve categories in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. If you've signed up but haven't posted any reviews, the cutoff date to post is July 31.

3.  Any new links to the Challenge must follow the original parameters for the Challenge.

4.  Challenge participants must leave a comment below, letting me know which book they've most enjoyed reading for the challenge. If you like, you can also tell me which Penguin Clothbound Classic you would choose if you won (you can change your mind if you're the winner). Include an link or an email address so I can let you know if you've won. 

5. One lucky winner, drawn at random, will receive his or her choice of Penguin Clothbound Classic valued up to $20 (US) from either OR The Book Depository. The winner must live in a country where they can receive delivery from or The Book Depository. If you're not sure, click here to see if The Book Depository delivers to your country. 

6.  Comments and links must be posted no later than July 31, 2018 at 11:59 p.m., U.S. Pacific Standard Time. On July 1, I'll post the name of the winner. 

7.  The winner must contact me with a good address by August 8, 2018, at 11:59 p.m., or I'll choose another winner. 

So what are you waiting for?  Post some reviews, tell me which books you liked best, and let me know which Penguin Classic you'd pick if you won! 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Obscure: A New Podcast about Jude the Obscure

I think the universe is telling me to read more Thomas Hardy. I just finished two of his early works, Under the Greenwood Tree and A Pair of Blue Eyes, and I had planned to take a break from Hardy until maybe next year. And then I saw this tweet about a new podcast called Obscure with Michael Ian Black :

Comedian Michael Ian Black is tackling a great work of literature. Actually, Tackling might be too strong a word. More like “light caressing” plus a lot of complaining. He's reading the Thomas Hardy classic, Jude the Obscure, out loud and commenting as he goes. Join Michael, some of his famous (and non-famous) friends and experts as he discovers Jude’s world and a few things about his own. Is it a terrible idea? Probably. But it’s a terrible idea he wants to do with you.

A read-along podcast of a work of classic literature? Sign me up! I've listened to the first episode, which is about half an hour long and is an introduction with Black explaining how the podcast came about, and his reading and commenting on the first chapter (which is very short). I'm also wondering if he's only going to read one chapter a week, which might take almost a year -- by my count, there are 50 chapters in this book. I'm pretty sure I can't stretch out an audiobook of only 400 pages for an entire year -- I tend to get impatient towards the end and just read a print or digital copy. 

But I'm definitely interested in listening to a comedian's thoughts and comments on a great work of literature. 

So, I've already downloaded a digital audio copy of Jude from library (only a three-week checkout), and listened to the first chapter -- you can definitely tell the difference with a professional reader. Coincidentally, it's the same narrator, Frederick Davidson, who read my previous audiobook (An Old Man's Love). He's an excellent narrator and does all different voices and accents -- it's always a little weird for me to hear an American narrating a British book, so I definitely prefer listening to the book narrated by Davidson. I really enjoyed the first podcast -- Michael Ian Black is a little snarky, but now I'm imagining a whole series of comedians reading and commenting classic literature. Comedians in Cars Discussing Literature, if you will. 

You can subscribe for automatic downloads or just listen online. It looks like it's going to be an entire summer of Thomas Hardy for me after all. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

An Old Man's Love by Anthony Trollope: Not Actually As Creepy As the Cover Images

I'm not into the May-December romance thing but he looks much older than 50.

My recent track record with Trollope's shorter novels hasn't been great (I haven't forgotten Linda Tressel) but my library had a free digital download of An Old Man's Love on audio and I needed something to listen to, so I decided to give him another shot. This is Trollope's last completed novel; it's listed as published in 1884, though he died in 1882. (I'm not sure if the 1884 date is a serialization or posthumous publication of the complete novel). It's another of his short works, about 250 pages, and it didn't take long to listen to the entire book on audio.

Basically, this is a love triangle between young Mary Lawrie, an orphan (naturally) of about 25; her benefactor, the 50ish Mr. Whittlestaff; and her absent lover, John Gordon. As the novel begins, Mr. Whittlestaff is informed that the wife of his late friend Mr. Lawrie has died, leaving young Mary (her stepdaughter) penniless. He takes it upon himself to give Mary a home at his small Hampshire estate, Croker's Hall. Mr. Whittlestaff isn't wealthy but he has a quiet and comfortable life and is happy to have Mary in the household, rather than force her to make her way in the world as a governess. 

Eventually, he begins to develop romantic feelings for Mary, though he's old enough to be her father. Mr. Whittlestaff, proposes marriage, and Mary is fond of him and grateful for all he has done for her. She confesses that she was in love with a dashing young man named John Gordon, but her stepmother sent him packing because he had no money, though he was well-born and hardworking. It's been three years and she hasn't heard from John, so after struggling with her feelings, she accepts Whittlestaff's proposal. Wouldn't you know it, John Gordon, having made a fortune in the diamond mines of South Africa, shows up looking for her the very next day after she accepts. Who could imagine the coincidence??

Thus the dilemma ensues. Should Mr. Whittlestaff hold Mary to her promise to accept his proposal? What does Mary owe Mr. Whittlestaff? And will his housekeeper Mrs. Baggett ever shut up? 

As one of the shorter novels, the plot isn't very complex, but the writing was good and there were some amusing side characters. The housekeeper Mrs. Baggett has a parallel plot with an estranged drunkard husband who shows up after years in absentia, demanding financial support to continue his gin habit. She moans and wails and rolls her eyes and doesn't think Mary is good enough for Mr. Whittlestaff, yet can't abide the thought of Mary turning him down. She wants Mary to accept him to make him happy, but at the same time Mrs. Baguette doesn't want Mary to become mistress of the household and threatens to leave. It's enough to make your head spin.

There's also a delightful and garrulous vicar, the newly engaged Mr. Montagu Blake, an old schoolmate of John Gordon who decides to play cupid and encourage the match between Gordon and Mary Lawrie. This leads to the world's most awkward dinner party ever. 

Some of the characters in this book made me guffaw, snort, and yell out loud in response. I've heard that the quality of Trollope's writing declined in his later years but I really enjoyed this book, with one small quibble -- there are several racist comments about the workers in the South African diamond mines which made me really uncomfortable. I realize this was written well over 100 years ago, but it does make me disappointed in Trollope.

And now on to the bad book covers! I do realize that age 50 in the 1880s was considered old, but the image on the paperback version looks like a man in this 70s, at the very least. 

And what about this cover? It's pretty bad. 

This one isn't much better:

And while I was searching for the original Overdrive image I found this one, 
which left me speechless:

I literally have no words for this. I don't even want to imagine what they were thinking.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Lacquer Lady: Victorian Intrigue in Mandalay

A few years ago I was spending a weekend in Austin, Texas, just about a 90 minute drive from our home in San Antonio. It was a rainy Friday night, and my idea of fun is poking around bookstores. Just a short drive from my hotel was a massive Half-Price Books. If you are not familiar with HPB, it is a family-owned chain of used bookstores that started in Dallas, and it's all over Texas and quite a few other states. There are several locations in San Antonio but this one in Austin was the biggest I've ever seen, with an amazing selection. There were really nice collectible books and classics, and the fiction section had a whole bunch of Viragos, some in green covers, some in the original black. That's where I found The Lacquer Lady by F. Tennyson Jesse, first published in 1929.

Set in the late 1800s, the story begins with a young woman named Fanny Moroni, who is at a boarding school in Brighton. Having made a reputation for herself at school as being a teller of tall-tales, she leaves school to return to Upper Burma, where her family live. Her mother is half English and half Burmese, and her father is Italian and has a weaving business. He had once been a favorite of the king but had recently fall out of the circle. Fanny takes the long boat ride back to Mandalay with her schoolmate Agatha, who is also going to Burma to live with her missionary father. (At the time, Lower Burma was a British colony, and Upper Burma was still under royal control). 

While Agatha joins her father and his curate saving souls, Fanny's social circle moves among the community of foreigners who are occasionally allowed into the inner circle of the Burmese royals in Mandalay, and becomes close to one of the princesses, Supaya-lat, eventually becoming one of the ladies-in-waiting. Fanny isn't a terribly likable heroine -- she's very selfish and self-serving, and has been compared to Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair. 

Fanny was very aware of what people were like; she couldn't read through a book of Dickens, she couldn't have picked up newspaper and understood was anything about except the police-court cases, she couldn't have held an impersonal conversation on any subject whatsoever, but she had a sensitiveness, within her limitations, to human beings, that amounted to a talent, whenever her judgement was not obscured by her personal wishes. She was aware that she knew what the three men in the room were like far better than did Agatha, who had been seeing them for several days past. (Ch. V)

The royal court is thrown into turmoil when King Mindoon dies, leaving many sons by various wives and no definite heir to the throne. Fanny is sometimes in and sometimes out, but her fate is intwined with her friend Supaya-lat, and eventually, she unwittingly becomes a key player of the British invasion and takeover of Upper Burma. 

This book started out rather slowly, but it really picked up about a third of the way after the king died and there were a lot of palace intrigues, some of them quite bloody and horrifying. This book is loosely based on actual events, and I didn't realize until I read the afterword Fanny isn't just a made-up character -- she's actually based on a real person, though the circumstances are not exactly the same. I'm also really intrigued by the writer -- F. Tennyson Jesse was not only a great-niece of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, she was a criminologist and journalist and was one of the few women to report on WWI. Her most famous novel is A Pin to See the Peepshow, which is based the notorious 1920s murder case of Edith Thompson and Frederic Bywaters. (I bought of copy after listening to Simon and Rachel's Tea or Books? podcast from last year; naturally, I still haven't read it!)

I was particularly interested in this novel because I've actually been to Burma, albeit very briefly. Years ago we were stationed in Japan and I met a friend in Bangkok who was visiting her son who worked at the consulate. After a few days in the city, we drove with her son and his friend up to Chiang Rai, where the friend had bought a retirement home. It's near the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, and we were actually able to walk over the bridge to Myanmar and shop in the market. We couldn't stay very long because the border crossing closed at 5 p.m., but I can say that I've actually been there. 

This is my eighth book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018! I'm making great progress on my list. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Mini Persephone Readathon: Heat Lightning by Helen Hull

In theory I should sit down instantly and record my thoughts about a novel as soon as I've finished it, but sometimes I really need to take a day or two to mull over and absorb first. I had hoped to write this post yesterday in time for the Mini Persephone Readathon hosted by Jessie at Dwell in Possibility but as is often the case, I'm a day or two behind. I did zoom through my selection, Heat Lightning, in just over two days, which isn't bad considering I had three other books in the rotation.

Nevertheless. Helen Hull's Heat Lightning, published in 1932, is one of the few American Persephone novels, and like many books about domestic life, it is about nothing in particular and everything at the same time. Set in the hot, airless summer of 1930 in a fictional small town in Michigan, it's the story of thirtyish Amy Norton, who has left New York City for a family visit. Her husband is off fishing in Canada (as my own father used to do); and her two children are away at camp.

Amy is the prodigal daughter, the only one to move Far Far Away from her hometown, where her extended family still live. Her late grandfather was a successful businessman, and her family are the prominent Westovers, who own a plough factory and like so many of the period, are facing hard times after the financial crisis of 1929. Amy's visit coincides with the early delivery of her younger sister's baby (her fourth or fifth daughter), plus a number of other family crises in which quite a few family secrets, prejudices, and scandals are revealed. The center of this story is the matriarch, Amy's grandmother, who lives next door to her parents and pretty much still rules the family with a firm but loving hand. 
An early edition of Heat Lightning

This novel started out a little slowly with Amy's arrival into town, but picked up pretty quickly with the reveal of a pretty big family secret, and kept on rolling from there. There are a lot of family members -- sisters, brothers, cousins, in-laws -- and I was happy to see a list of the characters and their relationships listed in the front. I'm sure I would have gotten the story quite confused without it. I'm not sure if it's the sign of good or bad writing if the author has to list it up front, but I was glad to have it.

Ostensibly this is a domestic novel, but it was really a sort of microcosm about life in that time period. It's rather timely with some talk about immigration and "foreign invasion" -- which include Italian immigrants (with a few slurs); a French sister-in-law who I can only assume is a war bride; a cousin's wife who is the child of German immigrants; and a Lithuanian domestic, who had been referred to as being of "a different race." I can only imagine how the Westovers would have reacted to  my mother's family of Polish/Germans, who were farmers in Alpena which is northern Michigan.

Heat Lightning also has some really good and insightful writing about family life and marriage, as Amy begins to reconcile her family's history and relationships, and the struggles within her own marriage are revealed. I really enjoyed this book and I'm glad that Persephone chose to reprint it as one of their American selections.

Finally, I have to make a comment about the endpapers, which are one of the nicest features of Persephone books. I imagine that the publishers tried to find an American fabric from the period to use, and I was delighted to see on the website that the name is "Memories of the Alamo" -- not quite the Midwestern setting of the book, but I love that this book set my home state of Michigan also incorporates a little bit of San Antonio, where I spent eleven years. If you look closely you can see that iconic Texas building in the print.

This is my seventh book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018. And thanks again to Jessie at Dwell in Possibility for hosting the Mini Persephone Readathon which inspired me to read this book.