Saturday, October 12, 2019

A Single Thread

I'm a long time fan of Tracy Chevalier, and have read about half of her books, beginning with Girl With a Pearl Earring, and I just finished A Single Thread. One of the things I like about Chevalier is that the subjects (settings, premise) of her novels vary widely. She really can never be accused of repeating herself.

A Single Thread is about Violet Speedwell, a thirty-something spinster who lost her fiance in the Great War and has just moved out of her mother's house in Southampton and is trying to build a life for herself in the cathedral town of Winchester.

The novel explored and examined a number of activities that I am absolutely fascinated by. Violet joins the cathedral embroidery society whose mission is to make kneelers and cushions for the cathedral, and she learns to embroider. It's been years since I did any embroidery or cross-stitch because I want to save my eyesight for reading, but hearing Violet's meditations on the relaxed focus that embroidery can impart made me want to pull out my floss and start a new project!

Violet meets a very nice older man with whom she develops a deep friendship, and he happens to be a bell-ringer, not only at Winchester Cathedral but also in his own village's parish church. Again, I loved hearing about the intricacies of bell ringing--from the mathematical construction of the patterns, to what a peal of bells actually involves, to the physical strength it takes to ring and well, to  the community and social structure of the bell-ringers themselves.

And then there's the cathedral itself. I love medieval architecture and reading about someone who is able to spend hours in the cathedral was wonderful. She finds Tudor era graffiti, goes up to the bell tower, and learns some of its secret passageways. Seriously good stuff!

In many ways, A Single Thread is a coming of age story. Despite Violet being 38, WWI essentially froze her in time and stunted her development as an adult. By breaking away from her domineering mother, supporting herself, finding friends, and building a life for herself that has meaning and purpose, she is finally able to shuffle out from under the oppressive weight of WWI and live fully.

Sadly, WWII is looming on the horizon--the story takes place in the early thirties, when Hitler was coming to power, and many people couldn't really believe he would survive long politically.

I really enjoyed A Single Thread and watching Violet grow into herself. There were suspenseful sections--Chevalier does a great job of introducing a physical threat to Violet that provides an undercurrent of unease that undercuts the seemingly mild life that Violet leads. I also really enjoyed the extended family that Violet creates for herself out of a medley of friends that are themselves on the fringes of society.

Oh, and yes, Violet does visit Jane Austen's grave at one point :)

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Picnic at Hanging Rock

What a perfect first book for RIPXIV!

Picnic at Hanging Rock has been on my TBR list for decades, and I decided to make it my "Classic from Africa, Asia, or Oceania " for the Back to the Classics challenge this year.  Set outside Melbourne, Australia in 1900, written by Joan Lindsay (she was 70 years old) and published in 1967, it is an intriguing story about the disappearance of three school girls and their teacher on February 14, 1900 at the picnic grounds at Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia.

Hanging Rock is a real place (although actually lots of places carry this name).

The girls attend the Appleyard College for Young Ladies, and the four girls who disappear are senior girls, about 16 years old, who get bored and decide to go have a look at the rock formation up close.  They are followed by one of the teachers who is chaperoning the picnic.

Mrs. Appleyard, the proprietress of the school for girls, has stayed behind at the school and is, of course, distraught when the party of picnickers return and she learns that some are missing.

The rest of the novel focuses on the efforts to find the girls and teacher--first by the police, and then by a young Englishman visiting relatives in the area who glimpsed the girls when they walked by his own picnicking party. He and the local groom take it upon themselves to search for the girls, with some luck.

The story of the novel is really about the effects of the stress that the disappearance of the girls and teacher have on the other girls and teachers and staff of the school, the two young men who were the last to see them, and Mrs. Appleyard, who must not only inform the parents of the missing girls but also face the prospect of closing the school due to negative publicity.

Be forewarned, the novel ends without any explanation of what happened to the girls and teacher. According to the foreword to the edition I read by Maile Meloy (who suggesting reading the novel before reading her foreword!), Lindsay did write a chapter that explained the disappearance but her "publisher told her to cut it, so she did." She did give the chapter to her agent with instructions to allow its publication after her death.

I agree with the publisher--the book is really good in setting the reader up to be engaged in wondering what could possibly have happened to the girls and teacher. Reading what the missing chapter contained was a bit of a letdown, so my advice is to read the book cold and then read about it after finishing it.

Other thoughts - I really liked how Lindsay showed how insignificant humans are in the world. Throughout, she talked about all the creatures who inhabit the landscape of Hanging Rock (the snakes, the insects, the animals, the vegetation), and how their worlds and ours coexist with little real interaction. I think Lindsay's vision is that sometimes these separate worlds collide and those collisions rip holes that cannot be mended.

A great spooky thriller with a grimness to it, set over 100 years ago in a mysterious, exotic setting.

With regards to adaptation...Peter Weir did a classic version in 1975 (which I have yet to watch), and then there is a 6 episode series from 2018 (also haven't seen).

Finally, here is a fascinating article about the writing of the novel and the making of the Weir movie.  Lindsay said many of the scenes came to her in dreams, she wrote the whole thing in a few weeks, and was inspired by this painting, "At the Hanging Rock," by William Ford.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Happy Equinox - To Autumn (Keats)

To Autumn

By John Keats (1795-1821)

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Mid-Month Update

I am loving September - the days are warm, the nights are cool, the tomatoes are ripe, and the raspberries are abundant!

Travel - we did a quick weekend trip to Port Townsend, WA for the 43rd annual Wooden Boat Festival. It was wonderful. Flew into Seattle--drove to Gig Harbor for lunch at NetShed #9, then drove up to Port Townsend. Checked into the lovely Palace Hotel (I think we got the last hotel room in town--must have been a cancellation because it was only 3 blocks from the festival dock), and then enjoyed the afternoon and evening. Had a great day on Saturday attending events, walking the docks, talking pictures, and enjoying the beautiful day. Drove back to Gig Harbor--had a fabulous dinner at Brix 25. Flew home to Colorado Sunday morning.  So much fun!

Here's what I've been reading...

Lavinia - my first Ursula Le Guin, very similar to Circe by Madeline Miller in that Le Guin tells the story of Lavinia, last wife of Aeneas, and a creation of Virgil who merely mentioned her in his story of Aeneas fleeing the aftermath of Troy and founding Rome. I enjoy seeing the women who are tangential to the mythic stories finally getting their day. I loved the relationship between Lavinia and the poet, and found her story of pre-Roman life on the Italian peninsula to be fascinating. I'm not a sci-fi fan, so I don't anticipate reading much of Le Guin, but this one was good.

Educated - memoir by Tara Westover, who told the story of her life growing up in a uber conservative Mormon home in Idaho with an abusive older brother, controlling parents, and a mountain on which she could roam at will. It was compelling and inspiring. Westover ended up educating herself with the help of BYU, Oxford, and Harvard. She is also a talented singer and I really enjoyed listening to her sing in a YouTube video that I found.

Fall of Giants - book one of Ken Follett's Century Trilogy, covering WWI through the experiences of a Welsh mining family, German and British aristocrats, Russian peasants, American politicians and journalists and gangsters. I enjoyed it immensely. It helped me wrap my head around the places and battles as well as the politics and societal stresses the marked the beginning of the 20th century. Follett is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors. First rate storytelling against a huge backdrop. Definitely my kind of book. I fully intend to read the rest of the trilogy.

Hope you are enjoying this bridge month - as we shift to fall in the northern hemisphere and spring in the southern.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

RIP14 - Readers Imbibing Peril - getting my books together

For the past couple of years, I have devoted the month of October to reading mysteries and the RIP (Readers Imbibing Peril) Challenge is always fun. I'm not really into horror, although I think I might join a Dr Sleep (Stephen King) read-along.

Here is my lineup, so far, for October and for RIPXIV. I know I won't get through them all, but I'll have fun trying.

In no particular order...

A Siege of Bitterns, by Steve Burrows - birder murder series #1
Death at La Fenice, by Donna Leon - #1 set in Venice, I want to reread the series as I love it so much
Dying in the Wool by Frances Brody - a Kate Shackleton mystery I picked up at a JASNA book exchange
A Monstrous Regiment of Women, by Laurie King - #2 in the Sherlock Holmes, Mary Russell series
Where Serpents Sleep, by C.S. Harris - #4 in the Sebastian St Cyr series, although I also have #3 on order, so will probably read that one first
Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey - a slender book, I may count this as my novella for Back to the Classics challenge
Anna's Book, by Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine) - set in London, 1905; really enjoyed her Brimstone Wedding, which I read a few years ago
Murder on Astor Place, by Victoria Thompson - this has been on my TBR shelf  for ages; I need to read it or recycle it!
The Key to Rebecca, by Ken Follett - Nazis and Egypt - I'm intrigued - also, I have this notion it ties into Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, but the back cover is not confirming that...

Oh, and the Goodreads True Book Talk group will be doing a spooky read in October--the voting indicates one of two sets of short stories. Both look great--Twice Told Tales, by Nathaniel Hawthorne or Black Spirits and White, by Ralph Adams Cram.

And, I have Melmoth audio waiting in my library queue...same with Louise Penny's latest A Better Man, but who knows when my turn will be!

Friday, August 23, 2019

Summer reading review

My posting schedule has definitely gotten derailed! I've been reading but not posting much. So, here's a quickie review of my reading life.

The River, by Peter Heller - I really liked this outdoorsy thriller, which pleased me because I  want to like his books, but was disappointed with Celine. Anyway, this is a novel about two college-age best friends on a wilderness canoe trip that goes horribly awry. I tend to like adventure/survival stories and both of the main characters were believable and likable and Heller told their story in clean, elegant prose that was enjoyable to read.

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver - I tend to read her books when they come out, and I found this one particularly good. It's really two stories in one--a contemporary family is on the edge of poverty and trying to hold their lives together while living in the same house in New Jersey that the family in the second story occupied in the 19th century. In both cases, the house is a liability, falling apart over their heads, metaphorically leaving them unsheltered in an unforgiving, harsh world. Again, I really liked both main characters, Willa of the 21st century and Thatcher of the 19th. I loved the mixture of science and social responsibility, the intersection of politics and daily dilemmas, and the exploration of the issues of freedom, identity, and family ties and obligations.

The Book of Tomorrow, by Cecelia Ahern - a lovely fantasy novel set in Ireland with a very interesting teen narrator. Tamara, who started out annoying me to no end and ended up endearing herself to me. There's a good bit of magical realism with the book being a journal that writes the entries in advance for Tamara, giving her the opportunity to change her future. There's some shades of Harry Potter, with a muggleish aunt and uncle, that coupled with the magical elements make it a pretty fun book.

The Crowded Grave, by Martin Walker - the 4th in Walker's Bruno series, set in the Dordogne region of France. Absolutely wonderful mystery with archaeology (the Lascaux caves are nearby), radical vegans, and separatists Basques along with some WWII references thrown in. I absolutely love to read about Bruno cooking and the whole French semi-rural lifestyle makes these books enormously appealing.

The Taming of the Queen, by Philippa Gregory - I watched The Spanish Princess early in the summer and really enjoyed it, putting me in the mood for some more Tudor escapades. This was a first-person story from about Katherine Parr, the one who survived, and was really pretty good. As usual, Gregory changes up historical fact to suit the story she wants to tell, but it was a fun read...especially knowing the outcome!

Spying on the South: Travels with Frederick Law Olmsted in a Fractured Land, by Tony Horwitz - I was on the waitlist for this book when Horwitz sadly passed away at the end of May, so reading it was really heartbreaking knowing that this was the last book this marvelous writer would ever write. Horwitz basically traveled the same route that Olmsted did while he was a young journalist reporting on the South in the 1850s. It was fascinating to hear about both Olmstead's impressions as well as Horwitz's as they covered the same territory, 150 years apart. I absolutely love books like this, which combine history, geography, social history, politics, and perspective with incredibly good writing. I can only mourn the books Horwitz still had in him when he passed away.

A Shimmer of Hummingbirds, by Steve Burrows - #4 in this author's Birder Murder mystery series. Definitely a keeper--I've been wanting to sample one of these for awhile and so took the first one I could find locally. The detective is a Canadian living in England, and in this one he goes off to Columbia on a birding trip. Another great combination of science, geography, travel all tied up in a murder mystery that was well-paced and fun to read.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Can You Forgive Her?

I have started on the great Palliser novels by Anthony Trollope, reading the first in the series, Can You Forgive Her?, over the past month.  I think I'm going to like this series. I really enjoyed the Barset series, and was a bit skeptical that the Palliser series could top it, but I enjoyed delving into the political world of Great Britain in the 1860s, which I didn't find as arcane as the ecclesiastical world of the Barset novels.

There are three main female characters, all trying to figure out how to navigate the great institution of marriage. Alice Vavosor is the primary character whose primary character flaw is indecision based on an overdeveloped sense of honor. She is the one about whom Trollope, the narrator, asks the question in the title--I found her maddening, naive, and a bit wooden.

Thank goodness Trollope gave us her friend and cousin Lady Glencora Palliser to shake things up and make the story much more interesting than if Alice held center stage all alone. Lady Glencora is married to Plantagenet Palliser, an up and coming politician and heir of the Duke of Omnium , self-absorbed, but tender-hearted in a stiff upper lip way. Lady Glencora is desperate for some romance in her life, and manages to get her emotionally-impaired husband to pay some attention to her.

Speaking of romance, I think my favorite character is the widow Mrs. Greenow, one of Alice's aunts, and a terrible flirt but also a consummate manager of people. She unashamedly orchestrates a manly man to be her devoted second husband and arranges the love lives of nearly all her circle of friends and relatives. She is truly a force to be reckoned with.

With all this love and marriage, angst and drama going on, it's easy to see why the parliamentary proceedings, which are supposed to be the focus of the story, merely provide the backdrop or context for the marital proceedings. I am eager to find out how Trollope handles the interplay of domestic and national issues in the subsequent novels, but I found Can You Forgive Her? to be perfectly balanced and immensely satisfying to read.

One final note, I found George Vavasor, another of Alice's cousins and one of men she cannot make up her mind to marry, to be quite an original villain. For roughly the first third of the book, I almost liked him and then came to utterly detest him as his true nature emerged--good thing he had that scar on his face to signal his villainy! Likewise, it wasn't until halfway through the novel that I had any level of appreciation for John Grey, George's opposite in virtually every respect. I thought Trollope did an excellent job of not letting the reader get too much insight into either man too early in the story but let us discover, along with Alice, the relative worth of each.

This is the 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 and one of the final four classics I need to read to complete the Classics Club Challenge. It's also the first Big Book I've finished for the Big Book Summer Challenge 2019.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Before I Grow Too Old - A walk from John O'Groats to Land's End

For years I have been talking about wanting to walk the length of Great Britain, from the tip of Cornwall to the top of Scotland. Knowing this, my daughter Sarah lent me a book she read by Pat Jilks, who did just that, except the reverse, taking a couple of months to walk from John O'Groats in Scotland to Land's End in Cornwall.

Before I Grow Too Old - A walk from John O'Groats to Land's End is not your typical book--no chapters but rather a collection of diary entries, without dates, in which Pat chronicles the path she took, where she slept, ate, had tea, took refuge from the rain.

I couldn't do what Pat did--I don't mean the actual walk, that I can and will do--but the lack of structure to her journey. She did map out her route, with alternatives, but she wanted maximum flexibility and so didn't book any B&Bs or hostels ahead of time, which meant that on occasion she was forced to sleep rough or find shelter in barns, hay lofts, woods, parking lots, etc. Many of her days were spent trying to figure out where to rest that night, where to eat, and where she was. She did get lost a fair amount, and at one point her precious maps blew away. She often relied on her compass to get her back on track.

One of the things I learned about the north-south trek, unlike the Hadrian's Wall Path trek that I started exactly two years ago tomorrow, is that there isn't a set or preferred or marked or even suggested route. Pat ended up walking along fairly major roads more than I would  feel comfortable doing, and it's easy to see how she got turned around and missed critical turnoffs.

Apart from reading about her experience with the actual walk, I really enjoyed Pat's offbeat sense of humor. She has a light, bright way of looking at obstacles, and she often mentions chatting with people she met along the road as well as having friends join her for portions of the walk. She seems to have a gift for making friends, and much as she loves and depends on solitude to regain her energy (true introvert), she is such a social, interesting person.

I took my time reading this memoir--probably reading it at the same pace she walked it--and found it a very pleasant way to end my day, reading a few pages before I went to sleep at night.

For my own Land's End to John O'Groats walk, I need to do more research and planning but this memoir was a lovely way to start my really thinking about the walk.


BTW, I had to employ the hated approval on comments because I was hit on July 4 with some idiot who added a viagra comment to virtually every post on my blog. It took a fair amount of time to cleanse my site and I don't want to have to do that again. Please let me know at janetgs05-at-gmail-dot-com, if you are unable to post comments now.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Springing to Summer - hodge podge of books read

My blogging has gotten very sporadic, so I thought I should catch up on all the wonderful, and so-so, books I've read recently that somehow didn't get their own post.

Tangerine by Christine Mangan - I listened to the audio version and had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I thought the premise was creative and appealing - a young woman is stalked by her best friend, circa 1950s, after she has married and moved to Morocco. It is a psychological thriller with alternating narratives--the young wife, Alice Shipley, and her college roommate and best friend, Lucy Mason. In the end, I gave it 3 stars and I absolutely hated the ending and found the characters fairly unbelievable.

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier - another audio and a reread for me. Listened to this on a road trip in May and fell in love with this book all over again. About female fossil hunters in Dorset in early 1800s--Mary Anning and her friend, rival, mentor Elizabeth Philpot. Absolutely fascinating, well-written, and compelling.

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon - 5 stars all the way. Loved this book and learned so much about both of the Marys and their really extraordinary lives and the impact they had on philosophy, art, and feminism.

Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes - I have been wanting to read this for awhile and finally just got the audio from the library and was so caught up in the story that I grabbed an ebook version to read when I couldn't listen. I'm currently listening to the sequel, After You, and loving it just as much.

In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great: A Journey from Greece to Asia, by Michael Wood - a really good history/travel/adventure book about not only Alexander but also Michael Wood as he and his camera crew traced Alexander's campaign from Greece to India. I had read a bio of Alexander decades ago so this was a good refresher as to the man and the world that he conquered. I started watching the TV series that this book was a companion to but didn't care for it as I felt it skimmed the facts and details that I found so interesting in the book.

The American Agent (Maisie Dobbs #15), by Jacqueline Winspear - oh, how I love this series. We are now in 1940 during the London Blitz and Maisie is juggling family issues while trying to solve a murder mystery and stay alive during the bombing. I am so glad that Winspear has slowed down her timeline and we get to see Maisie during various stages of the war.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal - another book that I've been meaning to read for ages. I read mixed reviews of this book, but ended up really liking what others didn't, namely the structure, which takes us through the life of ultra-foodie Eva Thorvald from Minnesota in chapters that are really stand-alone short stories from various points in her life, sometimes told from her pov and sometimes in which she is not much more than a bit player. I was hungry through most of the book, eager to try the recipes, and swept away by Eva's story from babyhood to entrepreneur chef.

Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder, by Kenn Kaufman - totally loved this book, spent most of it looking up birds and locations on my ipad while I read, and felt totally nostalgic for the 1970s, when Kenn hitchhiked around the country as a teenager, racking up birds, meeting the birding community royalty, and living life with passion.

I think after reading War and Peace pretty much straight through in the early part of the year, I was eager for shorter books with lots of variation. Now, I am engulfed in another chunkster, Can You Forgive Her?, so I expect my number of books read, versus pages read, to take another nosedive this summer.

Hope you all have a wonderful reading summer!

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh, is one of those books I thought I had read in my late teen years but having just finished it now I'm not sure whether I ever did read it or just thought I did.

At any rate, it was an excellent foray into the dark side of the Downtown Abbey world. Taking place in the years between WWI and WWII, the story recounts the cracking and fragmentation of a gentry family, which parallels the cracking and fragmentation of the British Empire and the established order. The narrator, Charles Ryder, encounters the family home of the Flyte family, Brideshead, in 1945 when the army has requisitioned the home for its own use and the novel is his reminiscences about his involvement with the family and his many visits to Brideshead when he was young.

Charles met Sebastian, a younger son and charming madcap, at Oxford, where they quickly became devoted friends. The novel was published in 1945, and so their sexual relationship is not spelled out but is strongly implied. Sebastian drinks to excess to escape the straitjacket of family life and the Catholicism that permeates the family, and over the course of the book retreats from family, friends, England, and the world into a permanent state of self-loathing and abnegation.

Later Charles has a relationship with Sebastian's sister Julia with whom he tries to fill the void that Sebastian has left in his life.

The whole novel is quite depressing, delving into a few of my least favorite subjects to read about: self-loathing, self-destruction, and adultery. That said, it is beautifully written, poignant, and a testament to the fact that the world I live in is more open and accepting of those who do not fit into the established grooves. Much as I love the clothes, I would never want to return to the world of Brideshead.