Monday, October 14, 2019

Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield #1930Club

The 1930 Club is a meme started by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy's Book Ramblings that explores a specific year of published books.  This inspired me to chose a book I had always meant to read, set in one of my favorite fictional places, a small English village.

Title: Diary of a Provincial Lady
Author: E.M. Delafield (1890–1943)
Publication: Academy Chicago Publishers, trade paperback, 2002 (1930)
Genre: Fiction
Plot: The book is a somewhat autobiographical diary of the life of an upper-middle-class Englishwoman living mostly in a Devon village in the 1930s, with a grumpy husband, two young children (one of whom attends boarding school), a large awkward house, a number of servants, and many acquaintances (although only one real friend).

My library edition
My Impressions: This was amusing but not nearly so charming as any D.E. Stevenson in which the heroine is trying to make ends meet. Stevenson takes seriously the agonizing economies one must sometimes undertake while imbuing them with an appealing lightheartedness. The Provincial Lady is so understated that only the reader gets her jokes. She can be very funny, less about her writing ambitions than about her interaction with neighbors and her endlessly demanding and annoying family and servants. Her observations of village life are full of witty observations, although occasionally she remembers she does not approve of gossip at all! In addition, like all of us, she rarely thinks of a good comeback until it is too late (or is too polite to utter it) (this phenomenon inspired the name of my blog).

Still, some of the aspects of her life are not altogether humorous. Why must she agonize about every penny, including pawning her great-aunt’s ring frequently, when her husband seems oblivious to their precarious financial situation? Couldn’t she economize by reducing her household staff? I know the answer is no, but for example, couldn’t she teach her child herself or send her to the local primary instead of having a live-in French governess for an (I think) six-year-old? Is she self-deprecating about her finances because she is amused by the situation or because it is so dire she can only cope by joking about it? Usually, I greatly enjoy the social satire of a book like this, set in a gossipy English country town, but the heroine’s wryness seemed more exhausting to maintain than it would have been to learn how to cook! Not to mention, how disappointing it would be to have multiple servants, yet for them to be as disobliging as those in this household! I want Carson and Anna or no one!

Off the Blog: I have been laboring all day on a take-home cataloging midterm – torture!

Source: Library copy.  There have obviously been a lot of attractively packaged editions over the years.  My library copy included the original illustrations by Arthur Watts, an artist whose work also appeared in Punch.  He was known for his gently satirical observations of class distinctions and his black and white drawings add greatly to the book.
She is often writing letters

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Goldsmith’s Treasure by August Šenoa

Title: The Goldsmith’s Treasure
Author: August Šenoa (1838 – 1881)
Translator: Neven Divjakinja
Publication: Spiritoso (Zagreb), hardcover, English edition 2015 (1871)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Zagreb, 1574-79
August Šenoa
Plot: This is a story of forbidden love between Dora Krupiceva, the Goldsmith’s daughter, a beautiful and devout young woman, and Pavao Gregorijanec, willful son of Lord Stjephko. Grga Cokolin is a drunken barber (rumored to dabble in the dark arts) who yearns for Dora but her father does not approve of him and diplomatically says Dora is too young to marry. Rejected, Grga plans revenge on Dora, her father, and kind Magda who raised Dora after her mother died. At a public gathering to burn a Turkish priest, Dora is nearly trampled by the crowd but Pavao rescues her and immediately falls in love. His father is furious at a romantic entanglement with a commoner and sends Pavao to visit a rich widow he considers a more suitable match. Unfortunately, this means Dora is vulnerable and alone when the jealous barber spreads rumors about her. Her father is shamed, believes the calumny, and exiles her to Lomnica to work as a servant.

Jerko, an unfortunately named mute, follows Pavao to Samobor where the lovely widow Klara is trying to seduce him, and somehow manages to gasp out that Dora is in danger. He explains to Pavao that the barber is conspiring with Pavao’s father to kidnap and dishonor Dora on her way to Lomnica. Jerko also reveals that he is Pavao’s half-brother: he is the son of a serf who was raped by Lord Stjephko and was brought up pretending to be mute to protect himself from his vengeful father. Jerko was under an oath not to utter a human sound unless he found himself in mortal danger but he also loves Dora so is determined to help Pavao rescue her. Pavao is able to thwart the kidnapping and hangs the perpetrators although Grga escapes. Pavao confronts his father for plotting to abduct and rape Dora; his wretched mother Marta dies during the encounter.

The politics were hard to follow. Croatia in the 16th century is part of the Habsburg empire and are governed from Prague. The Croatian nobles dislike their overlords and hate the Turks, who, just as now, are menacing everyone in sight, especially my Hungarian ancestors. Lord Stjephko is made Vice Ban (Assistant Viceroy) of Croatia and uses his position to abuse Dora’s father. Grga appears in time to make trouble, helped by the rich widow Klara who marries the Ban, Baron Ungnad, but is so infatuated with Pavao that she vows to destroy Dora.

My Impressions: When my classmate Lidija told us that The Goldsmith’s Treasure was legendary as the first historical novel published in Croatia and only recently translated into English, our book group was intrigued. The editor explains that Šenoa was extremely influenced by Dickens. The translation is poor and very melodramatic, but the reader is still able to appreciate the (albeit over-the-top) characters and appeal.  The descriptions of Zagreb are vivid and perhaps the best part: "By telling a story about its citizens, Šenoa also told a story about Zagreb itself (10)."  Several of the key landmarks in the story are still there and just waiting for a visit.

Favorite Quotes:  There have always been forbidden loves, but there has never been one that could be stopped (9).

It is well known that all women who are neighbors share a sincere affection toward one another. That is, if they do not gouge each other’s eyes out over the years (99).

"My heart got the better of me. My heart, Dora dearest – which holds a precious treasure inside – your name (114)."

"You’ve already saved my only daughter twice . . . [c]ome as you please, enjoy Dora’s company, but only in my presence, because, as you, noble gentleman, protect your lineage like a precious flower, so must we townspeople protect the health trees of our families from burrowing worms (205)."

The empire is in a terrible state! Rivers of Christian blood flow throughout Hungary; a crescent moon flies over Budapest. Bosnia suffocates under Turkish rule. Eastern Slavonija slaves away, torn away from its motherland (235).

“Oh Pavao, why were we born as we were? You a lord and I a common girl. Why was I not born a lady and you a pauper? Why did we ever meet? . . . I would not give you up for all the gold in the world.”

“Enough, my lady!” The young man got to his feet, his face red with anger. “You are not quite well. You seem feverish. But to break your fever, I shall tell you this: Pavao Gregorijanec is a noble, a soldier, and is betrothed to another! . . . These three things prevent me, my lady, to fall victim to your lust.”

Source:   Lidija brought six copies of this book from Croatia on her last visit for our book group to read, and has promised traditional food when we meet at her home to discuss it next month. I hope she produces some paprenjaci, the traditional Croatian cookies made by Dora’s godmother!

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation - from The Women in the Castle to Shadow Castle

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo was Kate’s starting book this month.  Unusually, I hadn’t heard of it and when I took a look it was definitely not my thing.   However, it made me think of my first book, which is about three women living in close quarters after WWII:
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck was published in 2017.   This is a historical novel written by a Boston-based author, set primarily in post-World War II Germany.   Heroine (albeit flawed) Marianne takes in widowed survivors of resistors and their children, trying to preserve a new generation for the country in a castle that is barely functional.  I think I liked this because it showed a very different perspective on WWII historical fiction I have long enjoyed (I tend to read books set in England or France).   I realized I could have a castle theme, and that brought me to my second book with another falling-apart castle full of women:
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1949).   Aspiring writer Cassandra and her family live in a dilapidated castle and are living in genteel poverty because their father cannot write a successor to his long-ago bestseller and obviously can’t do anything as plebeian as get a job.  But everything changes for Cassandra and her sister Rose when two attractive young men come to town.    Somehow I missed this coming of age story when I was growing up and although I enjoyed it as an adult, I think I would have liked it more as a teen.   I do enjoy the famous first line and I really enjoyed the movie.   Did you see it?   Here is a link to the trailer.   My third book involves a castle that is not falling down but is constantly moving:
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1996).  A mysterious castle appears in town, which belongs to the Wizard Howl, who is rumored to suck the souls of young girls. Surprise! He is actually young and handsome, although very annoying.  Sophie Hatter, the intrepid oldest sister, is under a spell for most of the book, but that barely slows her down, even though believes.  A real gem!  The movie is a 2004 Japanese animated, fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
The Maze in the Heart of the Castle by Dorothy Gilman (1983).  Gilman, known for her teen novels before she reinvented herself as the author of the Mrs. Pollifax (1966 and on), middle-aged housewife turned CIA agent, and other mysteries, first mentioned this book in an adult standalone, The Tightrope Walker, a really unusual and appealing novel.  Clearly, she fell in love with the description of Maze and then wrote it! It works by itself but I highly recommend The Tightrope Walker too, in which shy heroine Amelia Jones searches her past for clues to a mystery that terrifies her . . . The Maze in the Heart of the Castle is a middle school fantasy about an orphan on a quest to understand the loss of his parents.   This is a sad castle so I picked a more humorous one for my fifth book:

Knight’s Castle by Edward Eager (1956), Illustrated by a favorite, N. M. Bodecker.  This follows Magic by the Lake and is about the offspring of the children in Half Magic.   Roger and Ann, visiting their cousins in Baltimore, are taken to see the Elizabeth Taylor movie of Ivanhoe and are enthralled.   They start playing with the castle Aunt Katharine gives Roger and new soldiers from their Uncle Mark, and then the soldiers come to life and they find themselves back in the days of Ivanhoe and Bad King John . . . English friends: this is better than The Return of the Twelves.  Knight's Castle led me to my sixth book, another favorite:

Shadow Castle by Marian Cockrell (1945). In the middle of a deep forest is an enchanted valley and a castle where only shadows live, shadows of kings and queens who have waited for hundreds of years for the spell cast upon them to be broken.   One day, a girl named Lucy follows a little dog through a tunnel into the valley and meets the mysterious red-haired Michael, who takes her into the shadow world to meet Prince Mika and his mortal wife Gloria, their children and their children's children, and learn the magic that will lift the spell.   I return often to this gem of a book, and cherish my mother’s copy, which was published during WWII on very-thin paper.   Happily, an expanded version was made available not long ago by the author’s daughter, also a writer.
So we started off *in* WWII and concluded with a book written *during* WWII.  Next month, Kate says the launch book will be Alice in Wonderland.  I have very pleasant memories, not only of reading it but my grandmother gave me LP versions of Alice and Through the Looking Glass I listened to often as a child.

To my surprise, I read today that Jojo Moyes is in the middle of Three Women, so *someone* is reading it!  I was also startled to read her new book is set in Depression-era Kentucky, which seems a very odd setting for her to choose.

Happy Birthday to my dear friend, KDC!
Knight's Castle images copyright to HBJ Publishers

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Dog is Love by Clive Wynne

I have not read this new book about dogs, “Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You,” which argues that they are special because of their ability to form affectionate relationships with other species (as seems obvious), but I really enjoyed the Washington Post review.
I am currently studying Aesop’s Fables and anthropomorphism in a History of Children’s Literature class so it caught my eye that the author emphasized evidence that dogs can form loving relationships, rejecting feel good anthropomorphism about one’s pet.   After all, I love my brother’s dog Chloe and I know she is always pleased to see me, but surely it is because she recognizes I will feed or walk or make a fuss over her?   Author Clive Wynne states:
I’m not saying human and dog love are identical. I’m just saying there’s enough similarity between how dogs form strong emotional bonds and how people form strong emotional bonds that it’s fair enough to use the love word.
Wynne describes an awesome experiment intended to gauge dogs’ active affection for their people.   They put the pets’ people into a box and had them call out in distress.   All the dogs seemed upset about this but only 1/3 could figure out how to open the box to rescue her owner.    But then they fine-tuned the experiment by starting with the same box but putting food in it and training the dogs to open the box to get the food out.   Subsequently, nearly every dog was able to use its skills to open the box to free its person.   Not sure that is love but it certainly intelligence!
My furry niece Chloe
Not every dog is Lassie or Timmy, capable of daring rescues, but we sure want them to be!   Do you love your dog?  Does your dog love you?

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Murder at Brightwell by Ashley Weaver

Title: Murder at Brightwell
Author: Ashley Weaver
Publication: St. Martin’s/Minotaur Books, Hardcover, 2014
Genre: Historical mystery/series
Setting: 1932 England
Plot: Amory Ames is a confident member of society who is unhappy in her marriage, although she doesn’t know what changed after she fell in love with dashing Milo.   When her former fiancé Gilmore Trent asks her help to prevent his sister from marrying a similar marriage to a charming but unreliable man, Amory feels it is her duty to help Gil discourage Emmeline’s relationship with Rupert Howe.   Amory does not realize that joining a group at the Brightwell Hotel on England’s south coast without her husband may damage her reputation.  Even worse, when Howe is murdered, Gil is suspected, Milo appears, Emmeline is devastated, and Amory feels she must help the police find the killer.

My Impressions: This is an entertaining mystery set in a seaside hotel, a variation of the English manor house where everyone is a suspect after a mysterious death and forbidden to leave.  If the reader initially roots for Gil to rescue Amory from her lonely marriage, it is soon clear that Milo is hiding some secret that has forced him to keep Amory at distance.  The murder itself was less interesting than the cause of their estrangement, which has not been revealed.  It is painful to see their flawed relationship but author Weaver does a great job keeping their interaction sparkling and unpredictable.  They aren’t as charming as Tommy and Tuppence but it will be interesting to how Amory and Milo develop in the series.   Amory also develops an odd rapport with the detective investigating the murder, although her investigative efforts often go awry:
In the novels, it always seemed best to keep the suspect talking.  Inevitably, help would arrive.  I really held out no hope for such an opportune occurrence, but it seemed the best course of action would be to distract [] until I could determine what to do. 
Loreen and I explored Warwick's Bookstore in La Jolla
Off the Blog: Just returned from a fun weekend in San Diego, to visit my college roommate and to cheer on Harvard Football in its first game of the season (we lost).   On Friday, I asked to visit Warwick's, the oldest family-owned bookstore in the country.  I could have spent hours there!

Source: Library.  There are now five books in the series so I had to read this before I got gammoned!  One quibble: Amory’s name bothered me as it did not seem authentic for the era but I can’t believe an author who is also a librarian would not have researched usage.

Friday, September 20, 2019

American Heiress by ?

Quelle coïncidence!   I found myself reading three books with the same title!
The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin has been on my TBR pile for quite a while.  In fact, it is part of my Roof Beam Reader Challenge and I plan to read it in the next several weeks.  It is about a Newport heiress (think Consuelo Vanderbilt or Lady Grantham) brought to England by her mother to marry into the aristocracy at the end of the 19th century.

The other two came from the library.  The American Heiress by Dorothy Eden, set slightly later, is also about a rich young American woman destined to marry an English lord - until she sets sail on the Lusitania in 1916.  Clemency does not survive but her maid does, and begins an impersonation that will change her life - if she survives.    I may have read this in my teens but that didn't stop me from devouring the entire book in an evening earlier this week!

Finally, my classmate Jeff Toobin's book, American Heiress, about Patty Hearst was chosen by my book group this month.  I will have to hustle to finish this before the Reading Group meets on October 2nd!

By the way, you cannot copyright a title. . .

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Title: Those Who Save Us 
Author: Jenna Blum
Publication: Harcourt, Trade Paperback, 2004
Genre: Historical Fiction
This is the seventh of twelve books that are part of my 2019 TBR Challenge, inspired by Roof Beam Reader, to prioritize some of my unread books.

Plot: In this dual time frame novel, the author moves back and forth from 1993 Minnesota where Trudy Swenson is a tenured professor of German History, who just lost her stepfather, and World War II Germany where Trudy’s mother, lovely Anna Brandt, grew up in an atmosphere of fear and repression, forced to desperate measures to stay alive and protect her small daughter.  Trudy has always had difficulty communicating with her mother, who refuses to discuss her life in Germany, and in midlife Trudy becomes involved in an oral history Holocaust project, hoping that by investigating the past she may be able to reveal some of her mother’s secrets. 

My Impressions: I am a big fan of books set during World War II, and this is a dark but compelling story with an unusual depiction of women in war-torn Germany.  Anna grows up in a traditional German home, with a father who yearns to be accepted by the Nazis, and would have bartered her for a little prestige if she had not run away.   She is a tragic character: a motherless teen yearning for affection, who becomes involved with someone very unsuitable.  Although she cares about him, his depth of affection is unclear as he is even more alone than she is, needs her but is very rough with her.   Later, she is forced to be the mistress of a Nazi officer for years.  It is no wonder she has a hard time coping with the intimacies of married life later on in Minnesota, not to mention establishing a relationship with the daughter who has dim recollections of the degradation of their life in Weimar.  Anna is so haunted by the past it seems as if she has spent her married life doing nothing but cleaning her home obsessively.
* Map of Germany from MOMA

I liked the sections set in Weimar better than those set in Minnesota, although both were extremely readable.   It not hard to admire Anna, who is spirited and determined to save her child.   However, Trudy was not a very appealing character, although I was initially sympathetic to her desire to untangle the mysteries of her past.  Ultimately, I changed my mind and decided that Anna had gone through horrors Trudy could not comprehend, even after interviewing Holocaust survivors, and deserved her privacy.  I got annoyed at Trudy for being so needy, especially when she threw herself into a very implausible relationship. 

The title refers to the devastating effect of memory; in particular, Anna’s ability to survive but not to forget or move past the individuals who shaped her life.

Off the Blog: Last night I attended a Forum at the Kennedy School of Government, featuring Clark Kellogg of CBS Sports and co-hosted by the Harvard Men’s and Women’s Basketball teams entitled “The Growing Empowerment and Activism of the Modern Athlete.”  It was entertaining to see Kellogg in real life and he discussed the role that race, gender, and socioeconomic identity play in sports, as well as his commitment to give back to the community, although stressed that it is a personal choice he does not impose on others.  One of the students asked pointedly about how to handle activism without repercussions that damage one’s career.  Kellogg knew there was no real answer except to say people can only do what they feel able to do or to risk doing.
Source: Personal copy.  I bought this book at the Brookline Booksmith in 2015 at an event where Jenna Blum was interviewing author Sarah McCoy.  It took me a while to get to it but it was a very good, if harrowing, read!

* Map from MOMA's German Expressionism Collection