Classics Club Challenge: The Worshipful Lucia, by E.F. Benson

Lamb House, Rye – credit to rightful owner

The Worshipful Lucia, the penultimate novel in the “Mapp and Lucia” series, finds Lucia facing down a fiftieth birthday and wondering what she is doing with her life. Yes, she’s the Queen – disputed, but Queen nonetheless – of Tilling society, and she has her books and her musical nights with her dear friend Georgie (usually, anyway; Georgie has vanished from Tilling’s sight and Lucia is vaguely concerned). But what legacy will she leave? Pondering these weighty matters, Lucia comes across an article about Dame Catherine Winterglass, who started investing at 45 (only five years younger than Lucia!) and died at 55, fabulously wealthy.

She let the paper drop, and fixed her gimlet eyes on the busy of Beethoven, for this conduced to concentration. She did not covet yachts and deer forests, but there were many things she would like to do for Tilling: a new organ was wanted at the church, a new operating theatre was wanted at the hospital and she herself wanted Mallards. She intended to pass the rest of her days here, and it would be wonderful to be a great benefactress to the town, a notable figure, a civic power and not only the Queen (she had no doubt about that) of its small social life. These benefactions and the ambitions for herself, which she had been unable to visualise before, outlined themselves with disctinctness and seemed wreathed together: the one twined round the other.

Inspired by Dame Catherine, Lucia decides to play the stock market – and where Lucia leads, Tilling follows. Lucia quickly makes a bundle (mostly just by following her broker’s advice, although she allows Tilling to form the impression that she is a financial genius) and the ladies and gentlemen of Tilling quickly follow suit – except for Lucia’s archrival, Elizabeth Mapp, of course.

Elizabeth rose. Lucia’s lecture was quite intolerable. Evidently she was constituting herself a central bureau for the dispensing of financial instruction. So characteristic of her: she must boss and direct everybody. There had been her musical parties at which all of Tilling was expected to sit in a dim light and listen to her and Georgie play endless sonatas. There had been her gymnastic class, now happily defunct, for the preservation of suppleness and slimness in middle-age, and when the contract bridge came in she had offered to hold classes in that. True, she had been the first cause of the enrichment of them all by the purchase of Siriami, but no none could go on being grateful for ever, and Elizabeth’s notable independence of character revolted against the monstrous airs she exhibited, and inwardly she determined that she would do exactly the opposite of anything Lucia recommended.

I don’t need to tell you how it goes. Lucia (at her broker’s advice, but she conveniently leaves off that detail) sells off the first stock she purchased – the aforementioned Siriami – at a tidy profit. The rest of Tilling follows along, and makes money themselves. Only Elizabeth and her besotted new husband, Major Benjy Mapp-Flint, hang onto the stock and lose money – with the result that they can no longer afford to live at Mallards, and have to sell it, finally, to Lucia. As you can imagine, this is a singularly painful pill for Elizabeth to swallow.

Eventually, Lucia’s investing bender fizzles out, as most of her crazes do – leaving her significantly richer than she was (and she was already quite rich). She sets about spending her newfound wealth, not only on Mallards for herself, but on the organ and operating theatre she contemplated for Tilling – and other projects too. Elizabeth has decided that Benjy should have a position in Tilling befitting his status as her husband and persuades him to run for Town Council (with an eye to keeping rates low; this is before they sell Mallards to Lucia) but Benjy, unwilling to sacrifice his golf afternoons to an arduous campaign, convinces Elizabeth to run instead. Naturally, this means Lucia has to run too, and both suffer humiliating defeats. But one thing about Lucia: she is never down and out for long, and she quickly finagles her way into first an informal role in the municipal government, then is co-opted onto the Town Council, and ends the book triumphantly as Mayor-elect. Of course.

There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned, no-holds-barred Tilling social brawl to lift the spirits. Lucia and Elizabeth are both snobs – it’s true – and there’s a cathartic delight in watching them occasionally taken down a peg, but there’s just as much delight in watching them (especially the crafty Lucia) rise above and triumph in the end. Each has her moments of humbling, and each has her moments of victory. That’s the real joy of the Mapp and Lucia books; the two combatants are so evenly matched that no one ever stays on top for long, and the fun of watching the battles rage goes on. The books are witty, they are sparkling, and they are surprisingly touching.

Are you a fan of Mapp and Lucia?

Reading Round-Up: January, 2022

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, 2022.

New Year’s Day, by Edith Wharton – This is something of a New Year’s tradition for me, although I don’t re-read it every year. But I love starting off the year with Wharton’s poignant and captivating (if tragic) novella.

Patsy, by Nicole Dennis-Benn – The story of a woman who leaves her native Jamaica for the United States – leaving a small daughter behind – not to guarantee a better life for her family but to put herself first, this came highly recommended. The writing was certainly enthralling, but I found the main character profoundly frustrating.

Welcome to Dunder Mifflin, by Brian Baumgartner and Ben Silverman – This very exciting Christmas present (thank you, Steve!) lived up to every bit of anticipation. Baumgartner (better known as Kevin Malone on The Office) and Silverman collect the recollections of cast, crew, studio executives and others to compile what really is the ultimate oral history of The Office. I loved the show on first-run and have watched it multiple times on re-run, and this was a magical read.

A Time to Keep Silence, by Patrick Leigh Fermor – This collection of three long-form essays about Fermor’s experiences staying in monasteries was a quiet, contemplative read – and beautifully written. I enjoyed the first essay the most, and would have loved more of the third.

A Countryman’s Winter Notebook, by Adrian Bell – Slightly Foxed has collected a wide range of samples from Adrian Bell’s newspaper columns about nature and country living, hinting at three more seasonal collections to come (I keep checking to see if the spring collection has been announced yet… not yet). I loved this.

Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare – Reading Twelfth Night on the actual Twelfth Night seemed like a good idea. It was a fun way to see out the Christmas season (twins! disguises! hijinks!) but probably not destined to become a January tradition for me.

Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars, by Francesca Wade – Fascinating – the author discovered that five very different women, writers and public intellectuals all, lived in the same small Bloomsbury square in the period between World War I and World War II. She takes readers on a spin through the lives and work of the modernist poet H.D.; detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers; classicist Jane Harrison; economist Eileen Power; and Virginia Woolf, who needs no introduction. It’s a fantastic concept and a wonderful book.

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village, by Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper – This is a slightly longer version of the absolutely hilarious essay (which originally appeared on CrimeReads) and I giggled my way through it in one sitting. So much fun, and I’ll revisit it many times.

Mrs. Tim Carries On (Mrs. Tim #2), by D.E. Stevenson – Can’t go wrong with D.E. Stevenson, and especially with Mrs. Tim! This volume of the eponymous lady’s diaries finds her carrying on through World War II. There are poignant moments (husband Tim is caught up in the Dunkirk evacuation and is missing for a time, but spoiler – he’s all right) and lots of laughs to break up the wartime gloom.

Call Us What We Carry, by Amanda Gorman – I devoured Gorman’s first poetry collection in a day; it was just what I needed to read – beautiful, cathartic, and galvanizing.

Through the Woods, by H.E. Bates – I love to open the year with some seasonal reading, and this journey through the months in an English wood was a lovely, contemplative read.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World, by Mark Aldridge – Another very exciting Christmas present (Steve nailed it!) – I was anxious to read this after seeing it recommended by Michael Dirda in The Washington Post. It’s a journey through Hercule Poirot’s life and career in books, film, television and popular culture – absolutely fascinating. Also, Poirot is definitely the greatest detective in the world. Move over, Holmes.

Jane’s Country Year, by Malcolm Saville – This was a wildly anticipated pre-order for me (reprinting a classic from the 1940s that I’d seen recommended on Miranda Mills’ YouTube channel more than once) and it absolutely lived up to the anticipation. Jane is a young girl, sent to live on a farm with her aunt and uncle while she convalesces from a long illness. She quickly falls in love with the farm and with country life, and her year of hiking around the countryside, birding and wildflower spotting with new friends, is a total delight.

Slightly Foxed No. 72: The Cat Who Was Cleopatra, ed. Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood – As usual, I enjoyed every essay in the latest issue of Slightly Foxed – although this was an odd one out for not adding to my to-read-immediately pile. There was a fresh perspective offered on some of my old favorites, as ever, but nothing that grabbed my attention or tempted me to add to my Amazon wishlist. But even when that happens, it’s 94 pages of bookish delight in and of itself, so a win all around.

Original Letters from India, by Eliza Fay – Fay was a contemporary of Jane Austen, accompanying her lawyer husband to take up practice in Calcutta. The letters she wrote home to her parents and sisters chronicle every step of her journey, from taking in theatrical performances in the presence of royalty to being captured and held prisoner by insurgents. Talk about an adventurous woman!

The Inimitable Jeeves (Jeeves #2), by P.G. Wodehouse – When you need to laugh, Jeeves always delivers. This early volume of Bertie and Jeeves’ adventures chronicles the romantic travails of Bingo Little; Bertie’s narrow escape from Honoria Glossop; and the alarming adventures of Claude and Eustace – and more. It was just what I needed during a very tense week in the news cycle here in Virginia.

Whew! Some month of reading, indeed. I think February will be a lighter month, so if you made it to the end of this post (well done!) there’s relief ahead. But I did read a LOT of good stuff in January. I’m not sure I can even choose highlights. There was Amanda Gorman; she has to headline any month that contains her poetry. But what I needed most this month was comfort and levity, and there’s not much better in that respect than Jeeves, or Dunder Mifflin – and I had both, which made such a difference in my state of mind during a long, stressful news month.

What did you read in January?

2021 Reading Tally – Top Ten

If last week’s data-driven post was challenging to write (so many numbers!) this one might be even harder (decisions!). Why do I do this to myself? According to Goodreads, I rated 25 books with five stars last year, so narrowing that down to the ten best reads of the year is – well, it’s going to be difficult. As always, this is a list of my favorites read in 2021, not necessarily published in 2021; I don’t think I even read ten books that were published in 2021, let alone rated them all five stars. I’m not making it any easier by continuing to ramble on, so I suppose I’d better just pick, huh? In no particular order:

My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell – This lightly fictionalized memoir of Gerald Durrell’s time on Corfu with his eccentric family had me in stitches. Between Gerry’s constantly rotating menagerie to the exploits of his siblings and the local characters, I think I laughed until I cried on at least every other page.

Few Eggs and No Oranges, by Vere Hodgson – One of Persephone Books’ “important” titles (although I’d argue that all books are important in their own ways), Vere Hodgson’s Blitz diary is a fascinating and compelling picture of London, and the indominable spirit of Londoners, during the darkest days of World War II.

A Winter Away, by Elizabeth Fair – This wasn’t the only Elizabeth Fair title I read this year, but it was my favorite. The story of a young woman who escapes to the countryside for a winter, lands a job as a private secretary and library organizer to a curmudgeonly old gentleman, and falls in love, was such fun. I couldn’t stop turning pages and I was genuinely sad that it had to end.

Where Stands a Winged Sentry, by Margaret Kennedy – A compelling memoir, taken from the diaries of a writer at the absolute height of her powers, of the tense days of the “Bore War” before World War II got started in earnest. I read it in one day, because I couldn’t put it down.

Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, by D.E. Stevenson – I love D.E. Stevenson’s writing, and had Mrs. Tim on my list for ages, but it never seemed to cycle to the top. I’m glad it finally did in 2021, because I absolutely adored every word. Hester Christie is one of the truly delightful heroines of mid-century middlebrow literature.

Subpar Parks: America’s Most Extraordinary National Parks and their Least Impressed Visitors, by Amber Share – I’ve been a fan of Amber’s work for a couple of years now, since I first found her on Instagram. If you’ve not yet heard of Subpar Parks, it’s a hilariously tongue-in-cheek project in which Share, a graphic artist, plucks phrases out of one-star yelp reviews of the U.S. National Parks (and more – she finished America’s national parks a couple of years ago and moved on to state parks, other public lands, and the national parks of the U.K., Australia and New Zealand) and juxtaposes them against travel poster-style illustrations. It’s eye-rollingly funny (what are people thinking?!) and also a good reminder to not take criticism too personally, because some people are just never happy.

Business as Usual, by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford – You know I love an epistolary novel, and this is such a good one. A young woman in the 1930s gets the radical idea that she’ll spend the year of her engagement – gasp! – earning her living. She moves to London, gets a job in the book department of a thinly-disguised Selfridges, and details her exploits in pithy letters to her intended (who is unimpressed by her choice to be a working girl, to say the least). Ann Stafford’s delightful illustrations are the perfect pairing with Jane Oliver’s warm wit.

The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey – I’ve been meaning to read more Tey, and what better place to begin than with her best known book? Inspector Alan Grant, laid up in hospital after a serious injury while taking down a crook, occupies his mind by trying to solve the historical whodunit – did Richard III really murder the Princes in the Tower? And if not, who did? This was so much fun.

Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison – I’d read some of Morrison’s essays before, but never tried her novels. This is a family saga with a heavy dose of magical realism – and you know that I usually don’t like either of those things, but this beautiful book worked for me; I was entranced. If that’s not a testament to Morrison’s power as a writer, I don’t know what is.

A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr – This slim little novella is absolutely pitch perfect from the first word to the last. It’s gorgeous, and poignant, and… well, it’s just perfect.

2021 was a wonderful year of reading – although these are my ten favorites, they’re the tip of the iceberg. I read some really, really great stuff last year; may the trend continue.

Reading Round-Up: December 2021

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, 2021.

Romola, by George Eliot – I started the month with Romola on my kindle during a business trip out west. Not much to say now, because I’ll have a full review (for the Classics Club)… one of these days. I didn’t love it – partly because I was completely mistaken about what it was actually about, but mainly because it was no Middlemarch.

The Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to 2021, by Lia Leendertz – I love reading Leendertz’s seasonal guides month by month through the year, and I’m always a little sad to read the last chapter. This one was a delight, as were its predecessors. Focusing on the Romani people and on migration and movement, every chapter was wonderful.

A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier – I’ve never read any of Chevalier’s historical fiction novels before. This one – focusing on a “surplus woman” who leaves her mother’s house seeking freedom and a life of her own, and falls in with a group of Cathedral embroiderers – was fun, although I found the ending a little unsatisfying.

Orchard: A Year in England’s Eden, by Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates – Another month-by-month read through the year, I really enjoyed Macdonald’s and Gates’ vivid descriptions of the seasonal shifts, flora and fauna, in a traditional English orchard – one of only a few remaining. The authors make a beautifully written and compelling case for preserving these habitats.

No Holly for Miss Quinn, by Miss Read – I was feeling a bit grinchy this holiday season, so I kicked off Christmas reading with an old favorite. Miss Quinn is looking forward to a quiet Christmas of redecorating, when she is pressed into aunt service to look after her nieces and nephew while their mother is in the hospital. It’s just the shot of Christmas spirit Miss Quinn needs, and it was just what I needed, too.

Frost Fair, by Carol Ann Duffy – A new discovery this year: Carol Ann Duffy’s Christmas poems, which have been published one each year in tiny and beautifully illustrated volumes. I picked up a couple, and started with this poem about the Great Frost of 1683. It was gorgeous.

Tied Up in Tinsel (Roderick Alleyn #27), by Ngaio Marsh – I’ve been wanting to read more Ngaio Marsh, and this Christmas country house mystery, recently reissued in the Hatchards Library limited edition set, was just the bump I needed. It was fun – and a unique twist, with the entire household staff of “Halberds” made up of convicted murderers (!!!) but I found it slow going in places.

The King and the Christmas Tree, by A.N. Wilson – I was so excited to read this nonfiction account of the reason why the people of Oslo send a Norway spruce to the people of London every Christmas – and it didn’t disappoint. The story of the King of Norway’s daring escape from the Nazis and his welcome in England is as good as a thriller. A.N. Wilson’s book is written for YA audiences, but anyone would enjoy this.

The Christmas Chronicles: Notes, stories and essential recipes for midwinter, by Nigel Slater – I normally don’t sit down and read a cookbook cover-to-cover, but as the subtitle makes clear, this is far more than “just” a cookbook. Slater loves winter and Christmas, and his beautiful notes and gorgeous photographs amply demonstrate why. I would like to make a few of the recipes (which I skimmed) but the real value in this book was the evocative writing about a season so many people struggle to love.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday, by Carol Ann Duffy – Another of Carol Ann Duffy’s Christmas poems – this one features Dorothy Wordsworth, who walks through the snowy landscape, welcomes carolers, and hosts Samuel Taylor Coleridge for a birthday dinner at her brother’s table. Quiet and sweet.

The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Correspondence, by John Julius Norwich – This is a Christmas Eve tradition for me – ten minutes’ worth of laughing, which I can always use by this point in the season. There’s no antidote to holiday stress quiet like Norwich’s hilarious letters from frazzled “Emily” to her overbearing fiance on the occasion of his gifting her a partridge in a pear tree and… you get the picture. Unless, that is, it’s Quentin Blake’s absolutely perfect illustrations.

A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book, by Philip Rhys Evans – Another Christmas tradition – I have read this on Christmas Day every year since 2018, always taking a break amid the detritus of Christmas morning, before it’s time to get up and cook (or at least help with) dinner. The “There’ll Always Be an England” segments are my favorite, but really it’s all gold.

The Country Child, by Alison Uttley – I have had a lovely Folio Society edition of this book for years, and finally picked it up for the Comfort Book Club’s December readalong. Having loved A Traveller in Time, I had high hopes for Uttley’s semi-autobiographical The Country Child. It was gorgeously written and evocative, but not as tightly plotted or drawn as A Traveller in Time, and while I loved it, I did bog down in spots.

The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, by Andrew Gant – This was under the Christmas tree (thank you, Steve!) and I excitedly opened it on the day after Christmas to get in one last holiday themed read for the season. It was really fascinating, although I expect I’d get more out of it if I knew more about music history… or music theory… or music, at all, really.

A Year of Scottish Poems, ed. Gaby Morgan – I’ve been reading this pretty volume all year, one poem a day more or less (I’ve gotten behind a few times and had to plough through several weeks’ worth to catch up). It’s a lovely way to end my day, and I really enjoyed this selection – which was a good mix of classic and new poetry, all from Scotland.

Whew! What a way to end the year, right? Fifteen books, many of them absolutely wonderful! The highlight of the month was definitely “The King and the Christmas Tree,” although I also really loved the Nigel Slater, and it was fun to revisit Miss Quinn, of course. For January, I already have a stack of wintry reads awaiting – just need some snow, now.

What were your reading highlights for December ’21?

Classics Club Challenge: Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope

It has been too long since my last visit to Barsetshire – either Anthony Trollope’s version or Angela Thirkell’s, for that matter. Time to check in with the Grantlys, Proudies, Arabins, and Thornes – and to meet some new friends: Lady Lufton of Framley Court, her slightly wayward son Lord Lufton, and the Vicar of Framley, Mark Robarts and his family.

Framley Parsonage opens with a description of Mark’s history and his rise to his own parsonage – thanks to his college friendship with Lord Lufton, and Lady Lufton’s patronage, at a young age. At first, I was a little concerned that Lady Lufton might be a Victorian version of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but I needn’t have worried. Mark Robarts is no Mr Collins, and Lady Lufton – while she is certainly a bit bossy – has everyone’s best interests at heart. Of course, this is Trollope.

After Mark befriended her son, Lady Lufton took him warmly to her heart, installed him with a living at Framley Parsonage, and provided him with a wife – her daughter’s good friend Fanny. Having had a home and family heaped upon him before he was old enough to fully appreciate his good fortune, Mark convinces himself that he needs to continue climbing the ladder and meet more and more illustrious characters. In so doing, he falls in with a group of county luminaries of whom Lady Lufton heartily disapproves – the “immoral” Duke of Omnium, hard-charging government minister Harold Smith, and county MP Nathaniel Sowerby. Sowerby is a reckless spendthrift who has already convinced Lord Lufton to co-sign some bills for him, costing Lady Lufton some 5,000 pounds – and now he charms Mark into putting his name to two bills totaling 900 pounds, Mark’s entire annual income. Mark’s struggles to come to terms with this moment of foolishness make up the main plot of the book.

Mark Robarts’ mistake had been mainly this, – he had thought to touch pitch and not to be defiled. He, looking out from his pleasant parsonage into the pleasant upper ranks of the world around him, had seen that men and things in those quarters were very engaging. His own parsonage, with his sweet wife, were exceedingly dear to him, and Lady Lufton’s affectionate friendship had its value; but were not these things rather dull for one who had lived in the best sets at Harrow and Oxford; – unless, indeed, he could supplement them with some occasional bursts of more lively life?

Mark may be the main character – the flawed hero of the book, perhaps – but as is often the case with Trollope, the female characters are made of stronger fibers and possessed of more vibrant spirits, and they are by far the best part of the book.

First and foremost, there is Lucy Robarts. The Vicar’s younger sister, she comes to live at Framley Parsonage after her father’s death. Although at first a shy and “insignificant” (Lady Lufton’s word) presence, there is something about her – and young Lord Lufton is smitten. They become friends and, soon, they’re in love. But Lady Lufton disapproves of Lucy as a match for her son, and she sets Fanny Robarts, the Vicar’s wife, the task of putting Lucy on her guard. Lucy’s efforts to avoid Lord Lufton – a painful sacrifice on her part, because she is already in love – are poignant. But this is Trollope, so you can be sure the force of her character will win the day.

She’s helped along the way by her sister-in-law, Fanny Robarts. And while Lucy is the romantic heroine, I loved Fanny even more. Fanny feels the same affection and debt of gratitude to Lady Lufton that her husband does – she comes from a middle-class background, raised up to socializing with the squire’s family due to her school friendship with Lady Justinia Meredith, Lord Lufton’s sister. Lady Lufton embraces her daughter’s friend and installs her comfortably in the parsonage with Mark – who Fanny truly loves. Fanny believes that she owes her sunny, comfortable life to Lady Lufton’s kindhearted interference, but the fact of the matter is that she is ideally suited to be a Vicar’s wife. Both gentle at heart and strong at core, Fanny will do anything for Mark and Lucy. Although loving Lady Lufton dearly (and naturally conflict-avoidant) Fanny is willing to go to bat for her husband and sister-in-law, even though intimidated, at various points in the book – and Lady Lufton loves and respects her more for it.

‘I do not at all impute any blame to Miss Robarts for what has occurred since,’ continued her ladyship. ‘I wish you distinctly to understand that.’

‘I do not see how any one could blame her. She has behaved so nobly.’

‘It is of no use inquiring whether any one can. It is sufficient that I do not.’

‘But I think that is hardly sufficient,’ said Mrs Robarts, pertinaciously.

‘Is it not?’ asked her ladyship, raising her eyebrows.

‘No. Only think what Lucy has done and is doing. If she had chosen to say that she would accept your son I really do not know how you could have justly blamed her. I do not by any means say that I would have advised such a thing.’

‘I am glad of that, Fanny.’

‘I have not given any advice; nor is it needed. I know no one more able than Lucy to see clearly, by her own judgment, what course she ought to pursue. I should be afraid to advise one whose mind is so strong, and who, of her own nature, is so self-denying as she is. She is sacrificing herself now, because she will not be the means of bringing trouble and dissension between you and your son. If you ask me, Lady Lufton, I think you owe her a deep debt of gratitude. I do indeed. And as for blaming her – what has she done that you could possibly blame?’

Really! Despite loving her patroness dearly, and feeling more than a little intimidated – Fanny Robarts will beard the lion in its den for the sake of the people she loves, and that is hardcore. Indeed, there is no one like Trollope for sparking dialogue and strong female characters – except for Jane Austen. Mark Robarts’ story is engaging (and you do root for him to work his way through the tangled mess his social climbing creates) but as always with Trollope, it’s the women who steal the show, from the briefer appearances of the tough-as-nails Mrs Grantly and the fabulous Miss Dunstable (I adore Miss Dunstable!) to a worthy heroine, Lucy, and the absolutely wonderful Fanny.

What is your favorite Trollope novel?

Reading Round-Up: November 2021

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, 2021.

Paper Girls Vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughn – The first volume of this new-to-me comic by Brian K. Vaughn (of Saga fame) opens early in the morning on the day after Halloween, in 1988 – so, naturally, I was saving it to read on November 1st. There are aliens, time travel, and a kick@$$ paper-delivery girl gang – good stuff all around. I can’t wait to read the next volume.

Murder by Matchlight, by E.C.R. Lorac – It’s a dark night during the Blitz. Bruce Mallaig, disappointed by his fiancee’s inability to meet him for dinner, strolls through Regents Park in the dark and witnesses the moment before a murder. Chief Inspector Macdonald doesn’t have much to go on – the briefest flare of light during the striking of a match, and an unidentified corpse – but it’s enough. This was my first E.C.R. Lorac (I’d read Crossed Skis, by the same author but written under a different pseudonym, and loved it) and it was a delight. I’ll definitely be working my way through all of the Loracs that the BL Crime Classics imprint has brought out – quite a few of which are already on my shelves, waiting.

Slightly Foxed No. 71: Jocelin’s Folly (Autumn 2021), ed. Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood – A new issue of Slightly Foxed is always a treat, and this one was no different. Rachel Kelly’s beautiful essay about working through grief and depression with the help of poetry was by far the best item in the journal this season, but I also loved Clarissa Burden on Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant – really, it was all wonderful, as always.

Meet Mr Mulliner, by P.G. Wodehouse – I listened to this standalone collection of linked short stories over Audible, and it was a delight from the first word to the last. I’m not sure I’ve ever departed from Wodehouse’s two famous series – the Jeeves books and the Blandings Castle series – and it was such fun. I particularly enjoyed the two stories featuring Augustine Mulliner, but they were all great. If my family was as fascinating as Mr Mulliner’s family, you can bet I’d take up residence in a pub and spin tales about them too.

Blitz Writing, by Inez Holden – This volume collects two different works: a novella (Night Shift) and a memoir (It Was Different at the Time) by Inez Holden. The gorgeous writing reminded me a bit of Virginia Woolf, although it feels like a disservice to Holden to compare her to anyone (even the greats). The vivid description of a night of bombardment, toward the end of Night Shift, was particularly breathtaking.

The Sittaford Mystery, by Agatha Christie – Another Audible listen, and another standalone from an author better known for series – on a snowy December night, a group of acquaintances gathers around a table for a seance. The table reports that another of their acquaintances, Captain Trevelyan, is dead – murdered. Captain Narracott, tasked with ferreting out the criminal, promptly arrests the dead man’s eldest nephew, James Pearson – but Jim’s intrepid fiancee, Emily Trefusis, is convinced that Jim had nothing to do with the crime and is determined to catch the real killer and clear her beloved’s name. It took me a bit to get into this one – unusual for Christie. Everyone involved seemed completely inept and idiotic, Inspector Narracott most of all. It wasn’t until Emily appeared that things got good. (Her first appearance on the page takes place when she walks in on Jim’s arrest. He wails that he didn’t kill his uncle. “Of course you didn’t, darling,” Emily reassures him. “You haven’t got the guts.” And then I thought – thank goodness! Finally, someone with some sense.) Emily is a fabulous character and I only wish that Christie had written more mysteries featuring her as the sleuth.

Framley Parsonage (Chronicles of Barsetshire #4), by Anthony Trollope – I won’t say much here, because I’m going to write up a full review for The Classics Club, but – of course – I loved this installment in the Chronicles of Barsetshire. There’s so much going on – the novel mainly revolves around the social-climbing Vicar of Framley and the distressing scrape he finds himself in, but there’s a major side plot involving a love story between the Vicar’s sister Lucy and the young squire, which is a delight to watch unfold. And our friends Dr Thorne, Frank and Mary Gresham, and the fabulous Miss Dunstable all pop in for a hello, too. Framley Parsonage isn’t my favorite Barset novel so far (Dr Thorne still holds the top spot on the pedestal) but it was, of course, wonderful.

Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto – This poignant, heart-wrenching novella tells the story of Mikage and Yuichi, two lost souls trying to navigate loss and grief – both needing each other, but each unwilling to drag the other into their own despair. Both have lost their entire families and are alone in the world, but for one another; Mikage cooks her way out of grief and into an understanding of her deeper feelings for Yuichi. The translation from the original Japanese text is gorgeous, and I wanted to gather them both up for hugs.

Not bad for a month that included a weeklong trip to Colorado (and no reading at all, other than on the plane). Everything I read this month was wonderful, lucky me – it’s almost impossible to pick a highlight. Still, if I have to (I know I don’t have to) Trollope always takes top spot anytime he appears in a monthly booklist. But there was also P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, so good company. And “Kitchen” was a marvelous, if devastating, read on which to end the month. For December, I have big holiday reading plans, as usual, and another trip – plenty of reading time in the car.

Themed Reads: A Little Blitzy

It’s no secret that I love a good World War II book – home front, travel, memoir, history, contemporaneous or historical fiction – I’ll take it all, and more, please. There’s a whole subset of World War II books set in London during the Blitz, of course, and it makes sense: when and where else was the indominable spirit of a nation more courageously on display? The material for writers is endless, and exemplified by Vere Hodgson’s diaries, in which she would downplay a night of heavy, horrific bombardment as “a little blitzy.” Here are three different examples.

First, the aforementioned Vere Hodgson, whose Blitz diary was published (and republished by Persephone Books) as Few Eggs and No Oranges. This is a doorstopper, but well worth the time. Hodgson records daily life in London, with all its challenges, from the early years through the end of the war. The office cat in the charity where she worked gets plenty of coverage, to bring some levity to the pages describing incendiary bombs and tragic destruction.

Handheld Classics brings us two Blitz books for the price of one – a novella, Night Shift, about factory workers in wartime London, and It Was Different At The Time, Holden’s Blitz memoir – combined into one volume, Blitz Writing. Holden’s very modern voice reminded me of Virginia Woolf a little bit, and the characters in both the novella and the memoir are so very lifelike. The description of a night’s bombing at the end of Night Shift is absolutely terrifying.

Finally, for something a little bit fun, E.C.R. Lorac brings us a mystery with a strong sense of time and place. Murder by Matchlight begins with a young man strolling through Regents Park on a deeply black night in London during the Blitz. All of the lights are out – it’s blackout, after all – and the only light is the momentary flare of a match. In that moment, a terrifying face looms up, and seconds later, a murder is committed. That is all Inspector Macdonald has to go on, and it’s not much. The mystery and characters are engaging, and there is a firefighting scene so vivid that you can hear the bombs whistling and feel the heat of the flames.

Of course, there’s more to World War II literature than the Blitz, and when I was considering the books I’ve read so far, most of them actually don’t focus on this particular horror. But there are quite a few Blitz books, for all that, and many of them are now classics for good reason.

Have you read any books set during the Blitz? Any recommendations for me?

Reading Round-Up: October 2021

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 October, 2021.

The Murder on the Links (Hercule Poirot #2), by Agatha Christie – At this point I think I’ve probably read half or more of Agatha Christie’s prolific output, but this was one I’d not yet tried out. I enjoyed the second installment of Poirot and Hastings, in which the friends travel to France after they are summoned by a desperate letter, only to find they have arrived too late to prevent a murder. But the murder itself is not quite what it seems – fortunately Poirot is on the scene to unravel the knotty threads. I listened to this on Audible, and it was such fun.

O, the Brave Music, by Dorothy Evelyn Smith – The new British Library Women Writers series has been on my radar since it was announced, and I am trying to stay current on releases (I am getting in near the ground floor, which helps – by the time I started buying BL Crime Classics there were too many to stay up-to-date on). O, the Brave Music was a good place to start in both buying and reading: the coming-of-age story of Ruan, an ugly duckling who suffers great losses but is sustained by friendships. I adored it.

The Stubborn Light of Things: A Nature Diary, by Melissa Harrison – I’ve been a fan of Melissa Harrison’s seasonal anthologies (read on) and have been gradually reading them all year. The Stubborn Light of Things is a collection of Harrison’s Nature Notes for The Times, and is a restful and rejuvenating read.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker – Although I normally don’t enjoy Jane Austen adaptations, I’d heard such good things about Longbourn that I decided to give it a try – and it did live up to the hype. “Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants” is the most common descriptor, and that’s technically correct, but there’s much more to it than that. Longbourn housemaid Sarah is the primary character, and she has a story and romance all her own; her life and interests definitely do not revolve around who the Miss Bennets will marry. I loved the different perspective and the new take on one of my very favorite books.

Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archeological Memoir, by Agatha Christie Mallowan – After divorcing her first husband, Archie Christie, Dame Agatha found love again with Sir Max Mallowan, a renowned archaeologist. Come, Tell Me How You Live is her fascinating memoir of the months she spent traveling in Syria and Iraq with Max, accompanying him on his lengthy archaeological digs. It was both hilarious – I literally LOLed many times – and fascinating.

Frenchman’s Creek, by Daphne du Maurier – Daphne du Maurier is best known for her suspense novels, so I figured Frenchman’s Creek, which I’d not yet read, would make a good chilling choice for the lead-up to Halloween. Joke’s on me, because the action took place over a sultry midsummer; it’s a classic example of hot weather making people behave badly. Bored, restless Lady Dona St. Columb flees her wine- and mischief-soaked life in Restoration London, taking her two children and their nanny to her husband’s country seat in Cornwall. There, Dona is titillated by her stuffy neighbors’ stories of French pirates ravaging the coastline. Soon enough, she finds herself face to face with the pirates’ swashbuckling captain – and obviously, she is immediately and deeply attracted. Dona falls head-over-heels in love with the Frenchman, but when the local gentry mounts a determined effort to capture him, she will have to choose between her desire for a footloose life of romance and adventure, and her equally deep attachment to her young children. I loved this, and will revisit it over and over again – but next time, in summer.

Ghostways: Two Journeys in Unquiet Places, by Robert MacFarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards – As a fan of Robert MacFarlane’s poetry, I am always looking out for his work and I picked this up in Old Town Books this month. The title seemed appropriately eerie for Halloween, and it was that indeed. Ghostways includes two short pieces: Ness, about a weapons-testing wasteland, and Holloway, about a hidden half-underground world. I loved Holloway, but was underwhelmed by Ness. (Also, note that Ness includes two completely unnecessary swears. Demerits were issued.)

Autumn: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons, ed. Melissa Harrison – It’s a Melissa Harrison month! I enjoyed the last of her seasonal anthologies I’d not yet read, Autumn, very much – although I think Winter is still my favorite.

The Daughter of Time (Inspector Alan Grant #5), by Josephine Tey – Here’s one I’d been meaning to get to for ages, and it didn’t disappoint. The Daughter of Time finds Inspector Alan Grant laid up in hospital, recovering from a leg injury sustained while in hot pursuit of a criminal. Faced with weeks of endless boredom, Inspector Grant is unexpectedly captivated by a portrait of Richard III, one of England’s most notorious kings (he supposedly murdered, or commissioned the murder of, his two young nephews – the Princes in the Tower – to secure his claim to the throne). Inspector Grant finds it hard to believe that Richard III, with a face more suited to the bench than the dock, could be a murderer – or at least that he could have been responsible for this particular murder. He enlists the help of a young researcher and applies his formidable brain to answering the questions: was Richard III responsible for the Princes’ murder? And if not, whodunit? I was glued to every page and my only complaint was that it was all over too soon; I’d have wandered through the sixteenth century with Inspector Grant for hundreds more pages.

The Story of the Country House, by Clive Aslet – A book I unashamedly bought for the cover alone (look how gorgeous!), The Story of the Country House was a fun and fascinating read. Exploring the architectural history of English country houses from the Roman villa to the suburban sprawl of present day, Aslet goes into detail about building materials, architectural trends, and the like. I was expecting a little more diversified subject matter: there was some upstairs-downstairs, some food, some entertaining, etc., but not as much as I thought there’d be. So if you read this, don’t go into it expecting Downton Abbey. But it was incredibly interesting and a beautifully produced book – definitely one to keep on the shelves and refer back to time and again.

The Manningtree Witches, by A. K. Blakemore – I preordered The Manningtree Witches after hearing about it on the Slightly Foxed podcast; the author, A. K. Blakemore, is a celebrated poet so I figured the writing would be gorgeous, and it was. Plus, I can’t get enough historical witch material; you know me. Of course, it gave me nightmares. But as Halloween reading – perfect. (And I did finish it on Halloween.)

Pumpkinheads, by Rainbow Rowell – My annual tradition for three years running now has been to pull out Pumpkinheads as soon as I turn off my lights, blow out the jack-o-lanterns, and bring in the candy. I love this sweet story of friendship, succotash, and hayrides – and the art is the perfect accompaniment. If you’re looking for a Halloween read for next year and you can’t handle anything too scary (connection!) put this on your list.

Whew! Busy bookish October, indeed. My summer reading slump-ish thing is definitely over – even with a weeklong business trip to Seattle (during which I was too busy to read much at all) I managed to knock back twelve books, and enjoyed them thoroughly. The du Maurier and the Tey were definitely my highlights of the month, and any month that includes Melissa Harrison is good with me. I’m looking forward to long cozy nights with my book and my candle into November, too – it’s reading season, friends.

What were your bookish highlights of October?

The Classics Club Challenge: The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves

I was really looking forward to reading The Greek Myths. First of all, I was acquainted with Robert Graves’ writing through his classic I, Claudius, which I had loved – and how can you beat that edition, with an introduction from Rick Riordan? So I was definitely excited.

Athene invented the flute, the trumpet, the earthenware pot, the plough, the rake, the ox-yoke, the horse-bridle, the chariot, and the ship. She first taught the science of numbers, and all women’s arts, such as cooking, weaving, and spinning. Although a goddess of war, she gets no pleasure from battle, as Ares and Eris do, but rather from settling disputes, and upholding the law by pacific means. She bears no arms in time of peace and, if ever she needs any, will usually borrow a set from Zeus. Her mercy is great: when the judges’ votes are equal in a criminal trial at the Areiopagus, she always gives a casting vote to liberate the accused. Yet, once engaged in battle, she never loses the day, even against Ares himself, being better grounded in tactics and strategy than he; and wise captains always approach her for advice.

I have a decent background in Greek mythology from reading relatively widely over the years, and I’m fairly well grounded in the personalities and main myths of the Olympian gods and the principal heroes – Odysseus, Heracles/Hercules, Jason, Achilles, and to a lesser extent Theseus and Perseus (who I tend to mix up). I figured this classic compilation, which covers the entire Greek mythologic landscape, would be riveting.

It… wasn’t.

I hung in fairly well through the beginning sections, which focused more on the gods. Quickly, I gave up on my plan of reading all the footnotes, and just stuck to the main text – which was plenty dense enough without all the extra scholarly bits. Graves really started to lose me by the time he introduced the heroes, and after diligently ploughing through a quarter of the book, I started aggressively skimming. Call me unsophisticated, but I do like to have at least one character to root for, and everyone in The Greek Myths – gods, heroes, and other mortals alike – was capricious, jealous, and downright homicidal. Even my longtime favorite Olympian, Artemis, was murdering people left and right until the words started swimming on the page.

Take, for instance, the story of the marriage between King Peleus and Thetis the sea-goddess (a union which produced Achilles). Zeus had the hots for Thetis (and everyone else, too!) but prophecy held that she would give birth to a son who was greater and more powerful than his father. No one can be greater or more powerful than Zeus, so obviously he had to be hands-off with Thetis, and she was married off, much to her chagrin, to a mortal. Trigger warning:

Now Cheiron foresaw that Thetis, being immortal, would at first resent the marriage; and, acting on his instructions, Peleus concealed himself behind a bush of parti-colored myrtle-berries on the shores of a Thessalian islet, where Thetis often came, riding naked on a harnessed dolphin, to enjoy her midday sleep in the cave which this bush half screened. No sooner had she entered the cave and fallen asleep than Peleus seized hold of her. The struggle was silent and fierce. Thetis turned successively into fire, water, a lion, and a serpent; but Peleus had been warned what to expect, and clung to her resolutely, even when she became an enormous slippery cuttle-fish and squirted ink and him–a change which accounts for the name of Cape Sepias, the near-by promontory, now sacred to the Nereids. Though burned, drenched, mauled, stung, and covered with sticky sepia ink, Peleus would not let her go and, in the end, she yielded and they lay locked in a passionate embrace.

(It’s almost impossible to choose a passage to quote, there’s so much “ravishing” in this book. I missed my nice sanitized-for-children version that I grew up reading.) Anyway, Thetis’ marriage starts off inauspicious and gets worse: all of the Olympians attend the wedding, and Hera, Athene and Aphrodite get embroiled in a dispute over a golden ball, which leads directly to the Trojan War. Hate when that happens, don’t you? At least no one gets murdered at the wedding.

If you couldn’t tell, I was decidedly ambivalent about this book. I can see myself returning to it over and over as a reference – Greek mythology is so ubiquitous in popular culture that it’s nice to have a comprehensive guide, for sure – but I didn’t enjoy the reading experience nearly enough to re-read it from cover to cover. Rick Riordan’s introduction was the best part.

Have you read The Greek Myths?

Themed Reads: Charming Correspondents

It’s no secret that I love a good epistolary novel. I often think that if I ever wrote a book myself, I’d choose to write in the novel-in-letters form. There’s something so cozy about curling up with a volume of letters – fictional or not, really – and so much the better when the letter-writer grabs your heart. In my years of seeking out epistolary novels, I’ve come across a few truly charming correspondents.

There may be no correspondent more charming than Rose-Marie Schmidt of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s classic Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther. When the novel opens, Rose-Marie, the daughter of an impoverished teacher in a German hillside hamlet, is falling in love with one Roger Anstruther, an English student of her father’s. When Roger goes home to England, Rose-Marie writes him long and effusive love-filled letters. Sadly, Roger is by no means worthy of the wonderful Rose-Marie, and the engagement is short-lived. But a few months later, lonely and in need of an outlet, Rose-Marie renews the correspondence – now with her friend “Mr Anstruther” (demoted from Roger). With the love affair over, the good letters begin, and Rose-Marie writes of her love for books – she’s a particular fan of Jane Austen – of the turn of the seasons in her beautiful mountain home, and of the local denizens of the hamlet. We don’t get Mr Anstruther’s side of the correspondence, which is just fine – Rose-Marie is the star, and rightfully so.

If there’s anyone who can rival Rose-Marie Schmidt as a correspondent, it’s Hilary Fane of the absolutely delightful Business as Usual by Jane Oliver (with fabulous line drawings by Ann Stafford). Hilary is the daughter of an Edinburgh professor, recently engaged to an up-and-coming obstetric surgeon, and she gets the novel idea to support herself with a job (the thought of it!) in the year before her marriage. Her well-meaning middle-class parents are astonished and her fiancé is, frankly, horrified. But Hilary decamps for London with a month’s worth of savings and lands herself a temp gig in the book department of “Everyman’s” (a thinly disguised Selfridge’s). Through a combination of luck and pluck she works her way up, and her letters charmingly depict the drudgery of a “nine-to-six” with cheer and humor. I laughed out loud on almost every page.

Lastly, I can’t leave out one of my favorite literary letter-writers: Anne Shirley. Anne of Windy Poplars (or Windy Willows as it’s known in Canada and abroad – obviously that’s the correct title but I grew up with the American version so what can you do?) is not an entirely epistolary novel, but Anne’s letters figure prominently in the text, and major segments of the story are told in her voice, writing to sweet, dashing Gilbert Blythe. Anne describes her trials and tribulations as the principal of a rural school while she waits out her engagement – she gets off to a bumpy start but, characteristically, charms everyone in the end. It’s always a joy to dive back into her letters with their lively chatter of cats, and Rebecca Dew, and Katherine-with-a-K.

What are your favorite epistolary novels?