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(Busted – that’s a picture from Chipping Camden, not from Rye, the village of E.F. Benson’s residence and, famously, his inspiration for “Tilling.”  But can’t you just imagine these windows right into a 1920s series about conniving social climbers in an English village?)

Prepare for social domination… domination… domination

E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels are classics of comedic British literature – such that it’s really appalling that it’s taken me this long to find my way to the series and read all the way through.  Benson famously resided in Rye (also home to literary luminary Henry James) in a stately city house much like the one where Elizabeth Mapp perches all-seeing in her sweet little bow window.  From that undeniably fertile ground, Benson has raised personalities such as Miss Mapp, unmatched in her conjectures and schemes; Lucia Lucas, cultural guru of neighboring Riseholme; and supporting characters such as Major “Benjy” Flint, Georgie Pillson, Godiva Plaistow, Daisy Quantock – and the list goes on.

Queen Lucia introduces us to Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas, her husband “Peppino,” best chum Georgie Pillson and frenemy Mrs. Quantock.  When the book opens Lucia is the undisputed Queen of her small village, Riseholme.  She is a benevolent ruler, treating her subjects to garden parties and evenings listening to Lucia play the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata – not the second or third, though, because they are really more “afternoon” and “midnight.”  She goes so far in thinking of their well-being that in the opening scene, she walks home from the train station after a visit to London, so that the villagers will have something to talk about when they see her luggage arrive home without her.  But there are revolutionary rumblings threatening Lucia’s throne – her frenemy Daisy Quantock has brought a “Guru” from London to teach her yoga and mindfulness.  Lucia quickly determines that she must “annex” the “Guru” before Daisy usurps her position as arbiter of all things cultural and/or interesting.  No sooner has Lucia carried off this feat than an opera prima donna arrives in town and begins hosting “romps,” and Lucia’s loyal lieutenant, Georgie, begins to harbor revolutionary feelings of his own.  What is a self-proclaimed village cultural ruler to do?

In Miss Mapp, we meet the denizens of Tilling for the first time.  Elizabeth Mapp reigns supreme over the high street – or at least, she’d like to think she does.  She certainly has a gift for seeing what her neighbors are up to and connecting the dots to ferret out all their disagreeable little secrets.  But Miss Mapp gets her comeuppance time and again – whether in the form of accidental twinning with her archrival “Diva” Plaistow, curtsying to a man she mistakenly believes to be the Prince of Wales, being threatened with false and defamatory rumors about drunkenness, or having nothing to do with a duel that comes to nothing.  Every time Mapp gets into a social scrap, the reader finds herself torn between rooting for her and hoping that she embarrasses herself – again.  Each of the characters surrounding Miss Mapp – from the ostentatious social climber Mrs. Poppit to the exhibitionist fishmonger – is a delight.

There are four more novels in the Mapp and Lucia series – and that’s just the originals, by E.F. Benson, not even counting the continuation of the series by Tom Holt.  I’m saving them for a future day – they’d make wonderful summer reading on the back patio, with a glass of lemonade.  The anticipation of the earth-shaking social tremors that are sure to happen when Mapp and Lucia encounter one another for the first time gives me the shivers.

A combined edition of Queen Lucia and Miss Mapp is available here (not an affiliate link).

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Old New York is a collection of four novellas, each telling a story of a different decade in New York society.  In False Dawn, Wharton explores the stormy relationship between a son and his domineering father, and the bittersweet consequences when the son attempts to stretch his wings.  The Old Maid portrays two cousins who share a heartbreaking secret, and The Spark is a portrait of a wealthy banker who is both admired and ridiculed.  New Year’s Day, the final novella in the collection, was – I thought – the best of the set.  It tells the story of a married woman who is engaged in an affair, and how her efforts to keep the affair secret after she and her lover are spotted fleeing a hotel fire – but there is a surprising twist I won’t tell you about, because I don’t want to spoil this wonderful book.

Wharton classes each of the novellas as a story of a different decade – the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s and 1870s.  By virtue of this march through time, certain characters and families reappear – Sillerton Jackson, for instance, is a minor character who first appears in The Old Maid (1850s) as a potential suitor to one of the three principal characters.  By New Year’s Day (1870s) he is a venerable and inscrutable old gentleman who spies the main character, Mrs. Hazeldean, in her guilty escape from the burning Fifth Avenue Hotel.  There are recurring references to the same old New York families in both False Dawn and The Old Maid, as well.

As I often do when reading a collection that is comprised of multiple stories, I had a range of reactions.  I didn’t really get the point of The Spark, the 1860s contribution.  The summary promised a tale of a young man whose moral retribution is “sparked” by a chance encounter with Walt Whitman, but that didn’t really happen.  One of the characters does encounter Whitman in an Army hospital during the Civil War, but it’s not a centerpiece of the narrative; most of the action takes place in the 1890s (confusingly, since The Spark is supposed to be a story of the 1860s) and centers upon the wealthy banker, Hayley Delane, taking in his ailing father-in-law.  There didn’t seem to be much of a plot and the characters didn’t engage me; The Spark was the shortest of the four novellas and the least developed.

False Dawn and The Old Maid presented more of a contrast and showcased Wharton’s masterful writing.  False Dawn was particularly evocative in its description of the Raycie family’s grand Long Island estate – I could see the house lights glittering on the Sound and feel the summer heat.  And The Old Maid presented a beautiful, bittersweet portrayal of two women’s desperate bargain in order to avoid scandal.

But New Year’s Day was the crown of the collection.  The novella opens with a young man being chastised by his mother for speaking the name of Lizzie Hazeldean in front of his impressionable sisters.  Because Lizzie Hazeldean was bad – she met men in the Fifth Avenue Hotel – or so the narrator’s mother claims.  The action then quickly jumps to a winter’s day on Fifth Avenue in the 1870s.  The Fifth Avenue Hotel is ablaze, and it seems that half of New York society is comfortably watching the conflagration from behind the draperies of a grand house across the street.  Out of the burning hotel, nearly but not quite lost in the crowds, run Lizzie Hazeldean and Henry Prest, and New York society is scandalized.  Over the course of the day, Mrs. Hazeldean agonizes over whether her acquaintances recognized her in the press of people and whether her invalid husband, who had dashed out to see the fire engines, had spotted her.  There is a twist, which I won’t reveal, but it takes the novella from a breathless tale of scandal, wonderful on its own, into truly poignant and tragic territory.  I loved it.

Old New Yorkby Edith Wharton, available here (not an affiliate link).

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Every time I read another Trollope, I wonder what took me so long to start with him, and why I let so much time go by in between visits to his world.  Doctor Thorne is the third installment in the six-novel Chronicles of Barsetshire series, which just keeps getting better and better.  This is also the first installment to take the reader outside the rarefied world of Barchester clerical leadership and into another part of the county and another echelon of society; although there is one brief shoutout to the Bishop of Barchester, the action lies elsewhere.

The novel opens with an evocative description of the Barsetshire village of Greshamsbury, the manor house of the same name, and the family of squire Gresham.  We learn all about the present squire’s failed stint in Parliament and his financial woes, driven by his avaricious and snobbish wife, Lady Arabella Gresham.  The action really begins with the twenty-first birthday celebration of Frank Gresham the younger, son of the current squire.  It’s a celebration, but a bit of a somber one, because the estate is in dire straits and the townspeople have lost a deal of respect for the squire.  It’s hard to keep a twenty-one-year-old’s spirits down, though, and young Frank is feeling pleasantly flirtatious.  His attentions are focused on his lovely neighbors Patience Oriel and Mary Thorne.

Frank, as the author explains, might be viewed by some as the hero of the story, and he is destined to play the romantic lead:

It is he who is to be our favorite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trials and his difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be.  I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart.

Trollope has his (misguided) detractors, and one of their frequent complaints is his tendency to insert the authorial voice into the storytelling.  The reader is never permitted to forget that there is an author behind the words.  I can understand the critique, but I personally enjoy Trollope’s little asides.  They feel conspiratorial, as though author and reader are sharing a cuppa and a little joke.

Anyway – back to the young people.  If Frank Gresham is our romantic hero, Mary Thorne is his leading lady.  Mary is the niece of one of the village doctors.  Her birth is something of a matter of mystery – her father was Doctor Thorne’s ne’er-do-well brother, and her mother, well, Mary doesn’t actually know.  The result of this mystery is that, even though Mary is loved and well-cared-for by her uncle, she is essentially without name or fortune.  She’s been brought up as a gentlewoman, but without the expectations of ever being able to marry a gentleman.  Mary is conscious of the precariousness of her own position, and is at pains to discourage young Frank in his attentions – as she believes, like everyone else, that a union with the squire’s son would be impossible.  There are two insurmountable obstacles to such a match: Mary’s utter lack of social position, and her utter lack of funds.

Because Frank – as his mother and her aristocratic relations keep reminding him – has a duty to the estate: “Frank must marry money.”  It’s the only way to solve the financial problems that have beset the estate in recent years.  Frank’s father inherited a robust property, but has run through the family fortune in less than one generation – financing repeated unsuccessful runs for Parliament and other demands of his wife.  Lady Arabella is at the root of all the Greshams’ problems, but naturally she doesn’t see it that way.

Frank has a stubborn streak, and the more he is told (by everyone in the book, Mary included) that he can’t have Mary, the more he is determined that she is the only one for him.  Lady Arabella and her relations conspire to drag him off to Courcy Castle, the family seat of Frank’s mother’s family, and throw him in the way of Martha Dunstable, a fabulously wealthy heiress nine years his senior.  Frank resists the entire time, but he is no match for his Aunt de Courcy – and a good thing, too, because Miss Dunstable is one of the best characters I’ve encountered so far in all of English literature.  Witty, a little acerbic, discerning enough to know when she’s being pursued for her money, Miss Dunstable spends most of her visit to Courcy Castle in rejecting suitors – gently or harshly, as the situation requires.  She sees immediately that Frank is being goaded into a proposal, and she also perceives that he’s no more interested in marrying her than she is in him – which she confirms after he finally proposes and immediately confesses that he’s in love with his pretty neighbor.  And with that, Miss Dunstable becomes Frank and Mary’s biggest cheerleader and, often, Frank’s only source of support in pursuing the match.

Unbeknownst to the young lovebirds, wheels are turning that could change everything.  Doctor Thorne’s richest patient, Sir Roger Scatcherd, is dying.  Sir Roger was once a humble tradesman, but his brilliance in engineering and business made him a fortune and saw his elevation to baronet – a hereditary title – but also contributed to his untimely demise from alcoholism.  Sir Roger calls Doctor Thorne to his bedside and divulges that he wishes to leave his fortune to his alcoholic son, Louis, but if Louis should die before attaining the age of 25, the fortune should pass to the eldest child of Sir Roger’s sister, Mary.  What Doctor Thorne knows, but Sir Roger does not, is that Mary Scatcherd’s eldest child is – Mary Thorne.  And this sets up the novel’s central ethical problem: Doctor Thorne is committed, by virtue of the norms of his profession and a promise to Sir Roger, to keeping Louis alive and healthy so he can inherit, but he knows that if Louis dies, Mary will inherit the fortune and could – if Lady Arabella doesn’t ruin everything – finally have a clear path to happiness with Frank.

I won’t tell you how it all plays out, but it’s Trollope – so you can probably guess.  He’s as committed to happy endings as his predecessor Jane Austen.  What I really want to talk about is how funny this book is.  Trollope’s excellent sense of humor might be one of the best and least known characteristics of his writing.  A series of 600+ page novels about Victorian clergy doesn’t sound like it would be a laugh-fest, but Trollope’s fans are well-supplied with jokes all the same.  There was one scene that made me laugh out loud just as Nugget was reaching the punch line of one of his toddler jokes, and he was delighted with his humor’s reception – until he realized that it was the book Mommy was laughing at, not him.  It’s a scene early on in the book, in which Frank has solicited the advice of his cousin, the Honorable George, on speech-giving.  The Honorable George advises Fred to fix his gaze on a bottle, but there are so many bottles on the table that Frank gets overwhelmed:

Up he got, however, and commenced his speech.  As he could not follow his preceptor’s advice as touching the bottle, he adopted his own crude plan of ‘making a mark of some old covey’s head,’ and therefore looked dead at the doctor.

‘Upon my word, I am very much obliged to you, gentlemen and ladies, ladies and gentlemen I should say, for drinking my health, and doing me so much honour, and all that sort of thing.  Upon my word I am.  Especially to Mr Baker.  I don’t mean you, Harry, you’re not Mr Baker.’

‘As much as you’re Mr Gresham, Master Frank.’

‘But I am not Mr Gresham, and I don’t mean to be for many a long year if I can help it; not at any rate till we have had another coming of age here.’

‘Bravo, Frank, and whose will that be?’

‘That will be my son, and a very fine lad he will be; and I hope he’ll make a better speech than his father.  Mr Baker said I was every inch a Gresham.  Well, I hope I am.’  Here the countess [de Courcy] began to look cold and angry.  ‘I hope the day will never come when my father won’t own me for one.’

‘There’s no fear, no fear,’ said the doctor, who was almost put out of countenance by the orator’s intense gaze.  The countess looked colder and more angry, and muttered something to herself about a bear-garden.

The image of Frank blundering through his speech with his gaze fixed intensely on poor Doctor Thorne, while the countess grumbles in the background, slayed me.  And it’s the beginning of many laugh-out-loud moments to come: Lady Scatcherd (another wonderful character) hiding in the pantry and squabbling with her housekeeper about who has to go upstairs to receive an unwanted guest; the sometimes scathingly witty marriage rejections doled out by the fabulous Miss Dunstable; and Sir Roger’s roaring “put him under the pump!” when visited by the odious Doctor Fillgrave – hilarious.

But between the funny moments, Doctor Thorne is a sweet story of a boy growing into a man, with a man’s constant love for the friend of his childhood; of a doctor struggling between his ethics and his desire to see his niece happy; of a father grieving the burdens his mismanagement has placed on his son; of an epic battle between an aristocratic snob and a young woman whose mild demeanor hides her spine of steel; of the pulls between money, social position, and love.  In short – it’s vintage Trollope.

Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope, available here (not an affiliate link).

 

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for January, 2019

  

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton – If there was one word to describe this murder mystery, it was this: BONKERS.  Every day, Aiden Bishop wakes up in a new body, but every day his mission is the same: Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m. tonight.  Find out who kills her.  Aiden has eight days to solve the mystery; if he figures out the answer, he’ll be released from this bizarre game.  If he fails, he’ll start all over again.  Evelyn Hardcastle was like nothing I’ve read before, and I’m still trying to decide if I liked it or not.  It gets major points for keeping me guessing and turning pages.  Bonus for the fun of discussing it with Katie, who read it a few days after I did.  (One question remains unanswered: the UK title is The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.  I still don’t understand why Evelyn had to die an extra half a time in ‘Murica.)

The Time in Between, by Maria Duenas – I’ve had this popular recent novel of a Spanish dressmaker who turns spy in World War II, on my TBR for awhile, and I enjoyed it.  It’s a lot of fun, very engaging, with a cast of complex, living characters who seem to leap off the page.  I loved the evocative Morocco scenes, and the spy parts were good fun – as World War II spy novels often are.  My one complaint: at 609 pages, it was too long.  There was more backstory than I needed or wanted, and I found myself wondering when we’d be getting to the espionage parts.  Once we finally did get there, the author had to rush to get through the plot; it did seem that the book could have benefited from a touch more editing and a more even pace.

I‘ll Be There for You: The One About Friends, by Kelsey Miller – I think I saw this on Instagram first, and I knew I had to read it.  This new nonfiction release is a deep dive into the cultural phenomenon of Friends, a television show that I – like everyone else – love.  Miller explores the history behind the show, how it came to be made, the relationships between the cast members, and how the show came to represent a generation.  She doesn’t shy away from the more problematic aspects of Friends – the gay jokes, fat jokes, and lack of diversity that dismay the modern viewer for good reason – but even when she turns a critical eye on these elements, the reader can tell that it comes from a place of loving the show.  Seeing it for what it is, but loving it nonetheless.  Any fan of Friends will definitely want to pick this one up.

  

The Nine Tailors (Lord Peter Wimsey #11), by Dorothy L. Sayers – I loved the winter selection of the Tea & Tattle Book Club!  I’m always glad to visit with Lord Peter Wimsey, but I usually prefer the installments in which his lady friend, mystery novelist Harriet Vane, appears.  The Nine Tailors doesn’t feature Harriet, but I didn’t have time to miss her what with all the bell-ringing and corpse-finding.  The book opens on New Year’s Eve with Lord Peter, attended by his faithful valet Bunter, driving his car off the road near the parish of Fenchurch St. Paul.  The parish’s kindly rector, the Rev. Mr. Venables (OF COURSE) takes Lord Peter and Bunter in and conscripts Lord Peter into assisting with all-night bell-ringing, as one does.  Two months later, a disfigured corpse turns up in the churchyard (again: OF COURSE) and Lord Peter returns to solve the crime.  There are references to bell-ringing, secret identities, missing jewels (WHY NOT) and more fun.

The Go-Between, by L.P. Hartley – I’ve been meaning to read this classic bildungsroman for ages now, and finally made time for it this month.  The Go-Between is the story of young Leo Colson, who visits a school friend’s wealthy family for the summer and finds himself swept up in the adults’ machinations, with tragic results.  Ian McEwan was influenced by it while writing Atonement (which I love) and it’s easy to see why.  So – I liked, but didn’t love, The Go-Between.  The plot was engaging and the writing evocative, except that I found it hard to buy into the central relationship.  And Hartley did one of my pet peeves – he explained his use of symbolism.  I haaaaaate it when authors explain what they’re doing.  I’m a smart lady; have a little faith that I can put two and two together on my own without having it banged over my head repeatedly, thank you.  The best part of the book was Leo’s relationship with Marcus, which was so true to life and absolutely hilarious.

Fables, Vol. 10: The Good Prince, by Bill Willingham – The Fables series gets better and better, and The Good Prince was a delight.  The Fables are preparing for war against the Adversary, but before the hostilities begin, there’s a respite as the reader follows the adventures of Prince Ambrose, a/k/a The Frog Prince.  Ambrose’s memories have been buried for centuries, but he has begun to recall how the Adversary’s troops murdered his family, and he decides to get revenge.  But because Ambrose is possibly the sweetest character ever written, his method of getting revenge is… different.  Accompanied by the ghost of Lancelot of the Lake, and wielding Excalibur, Ambrose enters the Homelands at the head of a ghost army, builds a new kingdom called Haven, and promptly sends an envoy to needle the Emperor and proclaim that Haven’s doors are open to refugees from the Empire.  Throughout the adventure, Ambrose – now King Ambrose of Haven – remains as pure-hearted as ever, and the result is that it’s a really lovely read.

  

Fables, Vol. 11: War and Pieces, by Bill Willingham – Volume 11 picks up right where Volume 10 leaves off, and we see the war between Fabletown and the Empire.  Fabletown – in a surprise move – strikes first, catching the Empire off guard.  Prince Charming directs the war from the skies, the Big Bad Wolf commands the rear guard, and a secret weapon moves into the heart of the capital city.  It’s an exciting volume, full of lots of bravery and some sad moments as the Fables’ side experiences losses.  I am loving this incredibly imaginative comic.

Spying on Whales: the Past, Present and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures, by Nick Pyenson – This was a really interesting take on popular science around cetaceans.  Pyenson is a paleontologist and the head of marine mammal paleontology at the Smithsonian, and he approaches the subject of whales from that perspective.  Most of the literature I’ve consumed about cetaceans is written by conservationists and marine mammologists, and Pyenson’s focus on how whales evolved and where they came from sheds a fascinating new light on where they may be going.

How Long ’til Black Future Month?, by N.K. Jemisin – This one was spotty for me, which I think was mostly a function of short stories not being my jam.  I often find them hard to get into, and I can never bring myself to care as much about short story characters as I would care about characters in novel-length fiction (probably not surprising).  Some of the stories, I really enjoyed – L’AlchemistaThe Effluent Engine, and Cuisine des Memoires were my favorites.  Others made no sense at all, and one I couldn’t even get through – I have no ability to read about bad things happening to kids, and I could tell immediately that I was going to be upset by the story Walking Awake, so I skipped it.  Other stories, I think, suffered from not having enough pages for Jemisin to flex her world-building muscles.  The best stories in the collection were those that took place in a somewhat fantastical version of a real place – for instance, The City Born Great (New York), or The Effluent Engine and Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters (both New Orleans).

   

The House of Special Purpose, by John Boyne – Georgy Jachmenev and his wife Zoya have lived in London since they fled Russia (by way of Paris) after the Bolshevik Revolution.  Now it is 1981, and Zoya lies dying in hospice, while Georgy reflects back on their life together.  Georgy was in service to the last Tsar of Russia – as a companion and bodyguard to the Tsarevich Alexei – and his memories of his life with the Imperial Family, and their demise, still haunt him.  So – this was a fun book to read, if you didn’t squint too hard at the details.  It was engagingly written, and both Georgy and Zoya are sympathetic characters.  But you really have to suspend disbelief at Georgy’s knack for being present at pivotal historical moments (he helped dispose of Rasputin’s body and was the witness to the Tsar’s abdication papers?!) and if you know much about the Romanovs, you’ll spot a lot of historical inaccuracies.  From what they ate (Georgy describes the family at one of their “typically sumptuous meals” but in reality, they were big on the traditional food of Russian peasants – lots of brown bread) to the way things transpired at the Ipatiev House, it was really farfetched.  (I’ve read a fair amount about the Romanovs, so maybe I’m a poor example.)  The inaccuracies notwithstanding, this book was a page-turner and a lot of fun to read.

Lagom (Not Too Little, Not Too Much), by Niki Brantmark – I think Lagom is supposed to be the next hygge?  I’ve seen this and a couple of other books on the topic on #bookstagram, so I grabbed it from the library.  It was a really, really pretty book – lots of lovely and restful pictures.  But it was kind of also a lot of common sense.  Did you know that you should take breaks from work, use your vacation time, eat reasonable portion sizes, and spend time in nature?  Not exactly earth-shattering stuff.  But a nice restful way to spend a day’s reading.

The Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to 2018, by Lia Leendertz – I know you’re thinking that’s a typo, but it isn’t.  Jac, why would you read a 2018 almanac in 2019?  Excellent question.  The answer is: I am still waiting for my 2019 edition to arrive, but in the meantime, the 2018 edition was on Amazon Prime and packed with lovely nature writing, delicious-looking recipes, and sweet line drawings of garden treats, fauna, and more.  I read it in a day and I’m not even a little bit sorry I gave the time to a 2018 almanac in 2019.

Swimming With Giants: My Encounters With Whales, Dolphins and Seals, by Anne Collet – I’ve had my eye on this one for some time now.  Anne Collet is a famous marine mammologist and cetacean specialist, and Swimming With Giants is her memoir of a fascinating career.  The translation is a bit shaky in parts, but Collet’s voice comes through charmingly, and her career is so interesting and envy-inspiring.  Obviously swimming with whales and dolphins is frowned upon now, so I’m glad to have gotten to live vicariously through Collet’s 1970s experiences.

Well, that escalated quickly.  Thirteen books to start off 2019!  And a bit of a mixed bag.  The highlights were definitely The Nine TailorsI’ll Be There For You, and The Almanac 2018, but there were other fun ones mixed in as well.  Not as many classics as I’d have liked to see at the beginning of a new year, but I’m not worried.  I have eleven more months to read all the classics my heart desires.

 

 

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for December, 2018

  

Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson – I love Wilson’s work on Ms. Marvel, but hadn’t picked up Alif the Unseen because I didn’t think I could adore any of her characters as much as I adore Kamala Khan.  But this story – of a young hacker in a fictional Middle Eastern city, his pious next door neighbor, and their encounters with thugs and djinn, was so much fun.  I was completely entranced by the world, laughed with and cried for the characters, and was thoroughly delighted with every page and sad to see it end.

The Lost City of Z, by David Grann – This nonfiction story of exploration and obsession in the Amazon has been on my to-read list since I first heard Liberty pitch it on the All the Books! podcast, so I was delighted when my book club chose it for the December read (pushed to January, since no one could make the December meeting, and we’ll finally get to talk about it TONIGHT!).  The author skillfully interweaves the histories of the Amazon and of the intrepid British explorers who mapped the world with his own quest to find out what happened to the most daring of them all, and whether there was any truth to the rumors of a vast civilization hidden deep in the Amazonian jungle.  It was a fascinating book – I’d have liked a bit more discussion on colonialism and its effects, but all in all, a great read.

The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende – Another one off the deep TBR, and my first Allende.  Magical realism is not my genre (to paraphrase my friend Susan, it doesn’t follow the rules, everything seems normal except that someone lives to be 500 years old for no reason) but I’ve wanted to read some Allende, and I thought I’d begin with her best-known classic.  I did enjoy the book, although it took me awhile to get into it and then it took me awhile to get through it.  As I told a couple of friends, it was what I’d have liked One Hundred Years of Solitude to be.

  

Maus I: My Father Bleeds History, by Art Spiegelman – Ever since I started reading comics and graphic novels a few years ago, I’ve heard about Maus – how powerful and wrenching it is, and how it’s a classic of the form.  I finally decided that December was the time to read the first volume (of two) and picked it up from the library.  I can definitely see why it’s a classic.  It was an incredibly compelling – and very upsetting – book.  I think I’m going to need a long break before I can pick up the second volume, but it’s a classic for very good reason.

Becoming, by Michelle Obama – After Maus, I needed something powerfully uplifting and joyful, and clearly that meant I needed Michelle.  I preordered Becoming months ago, knowing that the wait for a library hold would be painfully long and that it was going to be something I’d want on my permanent shelf anyway.  And WOW, was it incredible.  Michelle’s voice is so fresh and real, and I was immediately swept up in her life.  I read the scene in which she and Barack got ice cream, early in their dating life, on a cold night’s commute on the DC metro – and I remember looking up from the book and being surprised to find myself (1) at my metro stop, and (2) in suburban DC, in the dark, on a cold night in December.  I really thought I was in Chicago, walking down the sidewalk on a sweltering summer’s day with Miche and Barack, trying not to let my ice cream drip on the pavement.

In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, by Alice Walker – A quick, but powerful and beautifully written, collection of short stories about the experience of being a black woman in twentieth century America.  I haven’t read any other Alice Walker books, although I’ve been meaning to.  Her stories were so evocative and compelling – I can’t wait to seek out more.

  

Lumberjanes: Unicorn Power!, by Mariko Tamaki – I needed something light and fun to get me through the last busy days before going out of town for Christmas, and the first Lumberjanes novel – which I had sitting on my shelf – fit the bill perfectly.  I knew the characters already, from reading the comic, and so it was easy to plunge right back into their magical summer camp adventures.  In this first novel installment, April discovers a mountain that is sometimes there and sometimes not, and she convinces Jo, Mal, Molly and Ripley to climb it with her in pursuit of their Extraordinary Explorer pins.  Of course, when they get to the summit, things aren’t quite as they seemed.  Also, there are unicorns!

Amelia Elkins Elkins, by A.M. Blair – Full disclosure: the author is a cherished friend of mine, and I’m already disposed to like anything she writes.  But Amelia Elkins Elkins would be a delight even if I didn’t know and like her creator.  This is a retelling of Persuasion from a modern vantage point, centered around a wrongful death lawsuit after the main character’s mother takes her own life following a medical implant gone wrong.  Blair’s take on Anne Elliot feels very true to life, and her twist on the familiar story is fascinating.  Highly recommended.

Christmas Pudding, by Nancy Mitford – I’d been saving Christmas Pudding for holiday reading, and it was exactly what I was looking for.  Christmas in the true Mitford style is witty, a little dramatic, with lots of Merrie England-ing and a good deal of booze.  And it was GREAT.  I don’t think anyone would argue that Christmas Pudding is up to the standard of Nancy’s classic The Pursuit of Love, but it was a rollicking good read.  The Christmas Day chapter was one of my favorite reads of 2018, and I laughed at it until I cried.

 

Christmas Poems, ed. John Hollander – I just love everything about the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets collection – the size, the design, the curation, everything – and Christmas Poems was a delight to dip in and out of all season long.  I particularly loved the poems on Advent and the Nativity – Dorothy Parker’s take on a maidservant at the Inn where Mary and Joseph were turned away was especially poignant – and the carols, of course.

A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book, by Philip Rhys Evans – As I mentioned in my Christmas book haul post, this was one of the books I found under the tree.  It’s a slim little book and I read it in a day, but I LOVED EVERY SECOND.  Steve could tell, too, because I kept interrupting whatever he was doing to read snippets of it to him, and we were both howling at some of the selections.  (The parish newsletter notices – oh. my. goodness.)  This is going to become a favorite, and I know I’ll be going back to it whenever I need a little lift after a long, tough day.

And so ends another year of reading!  2018 was a good one, and December was a particularly good month.  There was holiday hilarity, thanks to Nancy Mitford and Philip Rhys Evans, there was excellent fantasy in Alif the Unseen, and the Lumberjanes book was a joy.  I finally made time to read my dear friend A.M.B.’s book and it was just as wonderful as I knew it would be, and I was riveted by Becoming.  There wasn’t a single dud this month, and I just had a lovely, joyful end to the reading year.  And now – on to 2019!

 

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for November, 2018

  

Hallowe’en Party, by Agatha Christie – A fun one to read on Halloween (and for a day or so after, as it turned out).  Ariadne Oliver, the celebrated mystery writer, is at a children’s Hallowe’en party when one of the party guests is found murdered.  Mrs. Oliver knows that her friend Hercule Poirot can unravel the mystery – but will he solve it in time to prevent the murderer striking again?  Agatha Christie always delivers, and this was a blast.

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes and Other Dauntless Girls (A Tyranny of Petticoats #2), ed. Jessica Spotswood – I loved the first entry into this series, and The Radical Element delivered exactly the same joys.  There were stories of a young Mexican-American woman using magic to pass as white in 1920s Hollywood, a Jewish girl willing to risk everything to learn about her faith, a gay teenager who runs away with the circus, and more.  Every story was heartfelt and beautiful.

I Should Have Honor: A Memoir of Hope and Pride in Pakistan, by Khalida Brohi – This was a stirring and powerful memoir by a still-young woman who has risked her life over and over again to empower women and girls and to fight the custom of honor killing in Pakistan.  I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

  

The Shooting Party, by Isabel Colegate – I read this for the fall Tea and Tattle book club – to be honest, I was sold when Miranda explained that it inspired Julian Fellowes in creating Downton Abbey and Gosford Park.  I could see it, too: the same upstairs/downstairs dramas and complex characters.  The Shooting Party was a slim but lovely read, about an eventful gathering of a group of aristocrats for a shooting party at a great house on the eve of World War I.

Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay, by Phoebe Robinson – Meh.  So, I really enjoyed Robinson’s first collection of essays, You Can’t Touch My Hair (And Other Things I Still Have To Explain), but Everything’s Trash felt like more of the same.  I kept thinking to myself: I feel like I’ve already read this.  And there was a weird braggy interlude in the middle about how she met Bono twice and he made her a piece of original artwork.

My So-Called Bollywood Life, by Nisha Sharma – I was excited to read this YA novel about a young girl navigating high school with the help of her favorite Bollywood movies, but it was kind of a let-down.  The central storyline revolved around a prophecy that the main character had received as a baby, about marrying someone with a name that starts with “R” who would give her a silver bracelet, so her entire family was super committed to making sure she married her boyfriend Raj, who gave her a silver bracelet because he felt like he had to after hearing so much about the prophecy. And then there was a love triangle, which is my least favorite YA trope ever.  It just wasn’t for me.

  

The House By The Lake: One House, Five Families, and A Hundred Years of German History, by Thomas Harding – I loved this.  I can never pass up a history told through an interesting lens or with an unusual hook, and The House by the Lake sure delivered.  The book begins with Harding visiting a ramshackle, falling-down cottage on the shores of Gross Glienecke Lake – just outside of Berlin – that once belonged to his great-grandparents.  Seeking to save the cottage from being razed by the government, he weaves together the house’s fascinating history, from his Jewish great-grandparents, who were forced to leave the house and its contents behind when they fled for England at the beginning of World War II, through the families who either summered or lived there year-round under the brutal East German regime until the fall of the Berlin Wall, and all the way to present day.  Harding’s quest to prove the cottage’s historic significance seems quixotic at first, even to his family, but his zest for the mission eventually wins him the support of the local historical society – but will it be enough?  You’ll have to read it and find out.

Four Seasons in Rome, by Anthony Doerr – Several years ago, Anthony Doerr received a fellowship to live in Rome and work at an American writers’ collective in the city for a year.  He moved his wife and their six-month-old twin boys to the ancient city and they attempted to learn Italian and live as Romans while he worked on a novel about World War II.  Unsurprisingly, the book writing does not go well – Doerr spends most of the year nauseatingly exhausted from parenting (been there) and disoriented from the foreignness of Rome – which is fascinating when you know with 20-20 hindsight that the book that was going so badly at the time eventually turned out to be the stunningly beautiful All The Light We Cannot See.  This memoir was beautiful too – Doerr is an incredibly evocative writer.

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner – I’ve been meaning to read this since about 2007, when a friend with excellent literary taste told me that Stegner was her favorite writer.  (This friend was from Utah originally and had made it her mission to read all the literature of the American West.)  Angle of Repose is widely regarded as Stegner’s masterpiece, although it’s not without controversy – part of the book includes letters from the main character, who was inspired by a real historical figure, and Stegner lifted whole letters from that actual figure after her family was kind enough to share them with him for research purposes, and published them in the book.  (Whoops.)  Anyway, if you’re reading between the lines, you’ve probably guessed that I didn’t love this.  Liked it, but didn’t love it.  I found the central plot – the marriage of the narrator’s grandparents – to be hard to believe; they were just too different and I understand that divorce wasn’t a “thing” in Victorian times, but meh.  I just couldn’t buy into the central relationship because I didn’t find it believable that they were in love in the first place. I was disappointed, because I loved Crossing to Safety (another Stegner) so much – but Angle of Repose fell a little flat for me.

Autumn (Seasonal Quartet #1) by Ali Smith – I wanted to read this book (hailed as the “first Brexit novel”) after seeing it all over my Instagram feed.  It makes for gorgeous photographs, but I didn’t love the book.  Ali Smith is a genius, no doubt, and I was suitably impressed by the things she did with language.  The problem was that I couldn’t lose myself in the story (of an elderly man and his devoted young neighbor) because I was constantly aware that Ali Smith was Doing Impressive Things With Language.

Belonging: A German Reckons With Home and History, by Nora Krug – Soooooooo so so so so good.  I absolutely loved this graphic and pictorial family history.  Nora Krug, like many Germans of the younger generation, has grown up under the shadow of World War II.  Finally, after moving to America and marrying a Jewish man, Krug feels brave enough to confront her family history and ask the question about her grandparents that she’s never been able to get satisfactorily answered: were they Nazis?  Krug delves into her family history, and the history of the towns in which they lived, and the result is half-scrapbook, half-graphic memoir – and totally fascinating.

Slightly Foxed No. 59: Manhattan Moments, ed. Gail Pirkis – Just in time for the special 60th issue to arrive on my doorstep, I finished this fall’s Slightly Foxed.  It was full of literary delights, as usual.

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, by Florence Williams – Another one I’ve had on my TBR for awhile; I liked, but didn’t love, The Nature Fix.  It was interesting, if a bit more focused on neuroscience than I was expecting – I’d have liked a little psychology or nature writing to mix it up.  The one thing that really bothered me was the author’s near-constant ragging on DC.  I get it: DC isn’t for everyone, and she moved from Colorado, which is just a different world for someone who likes outdoor adventure (I know, my brother lives there).  But one or two complaints about DC (the noise, the air quality, the lack of access to trails, blah, blah, blah – it’s not actually that bad here) would have sufficed to make her point.  Complaints in every chapter got tiresome.

WOW, what a busy reading month November was!  Part of that was because I changed jobs – I had three days of “funemployment” between gigs, plus ramp-down and ramp-up time on either side of that, when work wasn’t keeping me crazy busy.  That time coincided with some disgustingly awful weather, so instead of hiking as I had planned to do with my “funemployment” I spent two entire days on the couch, reading.  It was pretty blissful.  As for enjoyment, I was all over the place.  Belonging was the clear highlight, but I also loved The House By the LakeThe Shooting Party, and Four Seasons in Rome, and a new Slightly Foxed quarterly is never unwelcome.  There were some duds, too, but even with those I was enjoying the act of reading, itself, so no regrets.  Here’s hoping for a strong finish to the year!

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In his introduction to The Floating Admiral, Simon Brett describes the book as a sort of parlour game – as all the best detective novels are, really.  But even amongst golden age crime novels, The Floating Admiral is unique, having been team-written by a collection of mystery-spinning luminaries the likes of which the literary world never saw before and likely will never see again: the original Detection Club.

A word about the Detection Club, for those who are unfamiliar: it was a sort of booze-soaked writing society, made up of everyone who was anyone in the golden age crime-writing world.  Agatha Christie was a member; so were Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, G.K. Chesterton and John Rhode, among others.  They met on a regular but infrequent basis and their main purpose was to eat good food, drink, and talk about writing.  (How do I join?)  Eventually, it became clear that they needed to make some money to continue funding the eating of good food and the drinking of booze, so – bunch of writers that they are – they hit on the idea of writing a book together.  The result was The Floating Admiral.

The concept is simple: each club member (at least, each member who was involved in the project) wrote one chapter, then passed the whole packet of papers on to the next victim… errrr… writer.  Canon Victor L. Whitechurch started them off, laying the basic premises for the crime in a chapter entitled “Corpse Ahoy!” – in which we meet the corpse, one late Admiral Penistone; the sleuth, Inspector Rudge; and a few other cast members.  Tidal soothsayer and local grouch Neddy Ware discovers the body of the Admiral, a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, stabbed to death in the Vicar’s boat (because why not?) and bobbing around in Neddy’s favorite secret fishing spot, and we’re off to the races.  Each member of the club contributes some clues and some red herrings, every chapter ends on a cliffhanger (no one could resist, it seems), at least five suspects flee to London, and it’s all good fun.

None of the writers knows what they’re getting before they receive the sheaf of papers for their turn at the tiller, and once they turn the story over to the next writer it’s out of their hands.  Anthony Berkeley – whose name will be familiar to fellow devotees of the British Library Crime Classics series; I know you’re out there – writes the aptly titled final chapter, “Clearing Up the Mess” and G.K. Chesterton contributes a prologue that ties everything together after the murder is puzzled out in full; Chesterton was the only contributor who had the full solved puzzle to work from before he started writing.  John Rhode – another BL Crime Classics frequent flyer – Sayers, and Christie all contribute chapters, and I like to think that I could have attributed Christie’s chapter, in particular, to the author – I’ve read enough of her work to be fairly familiar with her writing style.

For instance, Christie relies heavily on dialogue to introduce new clues and plot points, and it’s apt that her chapter is entitled “Mainly Conversation.”  Because Aggie’s gotta Ag, she introduces the Inspector to the local busybody, who gives him some useful information in the midst of telling him all the neighborhood gossip and her own theories about the crime:

‘A train to catch,’ mused the Inspector.

‘That would be the 11.25 I expect,’ said Mrs Davis.  ‘The up train for London.  Six in the morning it gets there.  But he didn’t go by it.  What I mean is, he couldn’t have gone by it, because if he had, he wouldn’t have been lying murdered in the Vicar’s boat.’

And she looked at Inspector Rudge triumphantly.

Anthony Berkeley gets the fun job of unraveling all the clues, discarding the red herrings, and revealing the solution to the mystery.  But once Berkeley has revealed the official solution, everyone else gets in on the fun in the appendix, as each writer contributes their own scheme for solving the puzzle and ending the novel.  And if the novel itself was absurd, the appendices are straight-up loony tunes.  Various people are in disguise, there is tomfoolery with an inheritance and a hurried marriage, the Vicar is an accessory before the fact, the Vicar is an accessory after the fact, it’s a team effort, it’s a crime of passion!

Here’s the thing: as a piece of writing goes, The Floating Admiral isn’t awesome.  As is to be expected when thirteen (!!!) people are involved, it’s weirdly disjointed, nothing makes much sense, the plot is all over the place and the whole experience is disorienting.  But as a game or a puzzle, it’s a darned fun experiment and a delightfully silly way to spend a few hours.  I knew there was no way I’d be able to solve the puzzle, since none of the writers even knew how it was going to work out, so I just buckled in and enjoyed the silliness – and what enjoyable silliness it was.

The Floating Admiral, by the Members of the Detection Club, available here (not an affiliate link).

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