Mary's Library

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Moving to Typepad

Mary's Library is moving to Typepad. This move is not made lightly. I've thought about it for a long time.

I've had a Typepad account for months and have been trying to decide whether it was better to stay at Blogspot where my 10-month history is available, or to move to Typepad with its more musical bells and louder whistles.

Typepad won the day. Blogspot has been a fine host and has treated me to much pleasurable posting but it's time to move on.

Mary's Library's new address is:

Monday, November 20, 2006

Period Piece

My not-trollope group is reading an interesting book this month. It's called Period Piece and was written in 1952 by the artist Gwen Raverat, who was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin and who circled in the outer orbit of Bloomsbury.

The book has a quiet charm and is a great change from Emile Zola. It's not a memoir or a diary though it is autobiographical. Raverat drifts along drawing word pictures of the world of Cambridge in her youth. She was born in 1885 and died in 1957.

The book is illustrated with Raverat's line drawings, which are cheerful and droll, as is the English world in the 1990s that she describes. She enjoys poking fun at her mother, who was an American, with all the idiosyncracies that implies. (Think Daisy Miller.)

My opinion of the book hasn't jelled yet. I'll let you know what I think as I read along.

November Books - 15

One of the finest books about World War I is Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (1975.) Fussell describes his book perfectly in the first sentence of his preface:

This book is about the British experience on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918 and some of the literary means by which it has been remembered, conventionalized, and mythologized. . . . if the book had a subtitle, it would be something like 'An Inquiry into the Curious Literariness of Real Life.'

I have focused on places and situations where literary tradition and real life notably transect, and in doing so I have tried to understand something of the simultaneous and reciprocal process by which life feeds materials to literature returns the favor by conferring forms upon life.

. . . At the same time the war was relying on inherited myth, it was generating new myth, and that myth is part of the fiber of our own lives.

Fussell describes the course of the war and some of the battles, and he quotes extensively from the literature that was written during and after the war. Much of that literature, especially poetry, was very different from what had gone before.

Some of the conclusions about the effect of WW I on our world that Fussell reaches are significant:

. . . at the beginning of 1916, with the passing of the Military Service Act, England began to train her first conscript army, an event which could be said to mark the beginning of the modern world.

. . . one powerful legacy of [General Sir Douglas] Haig's performance is the conviction among the imaginative and intelligent today of the unredeemable defectiveness of all civil and military leaders.

I am saying that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.

For those of us who read "literary fiction" as well as those who read history, sociology, political science, current affairs - for all of us - this book is a revelation. It's one of the best books I've read in the last 20 years.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

My To-Be-Read-Immediately List

My reading list is swelling with new titles that I want to read now. Not tomorrow, not even later today. Now.

The new biography of Leonard Woolf has been piling them on. There's the novel, Reuben Sachs (1888), by Amy Levy, about the sort of middle-class English Jewish family that Woolf came from. There are half a dozen books by Compton Mackenzie including The East Wind of Love (1937) and Sinister Street (1914); E C Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913); and Ruth Dudley Edwards' Victor Gollancz (1987.) I'm ignoring my increasingly urgent need to read Woolf's autobiography and a couple of his other books.

I have Arnaldur Indridason's Jar City (2000), a Reykjavik thriller, which rose like cream to the top of the list on the recommendation from dovegreyreader. I have Aucassin and Nicolette, a 13th century French chantefable mentioned this morning by Rory in the Trollope group. The new biography, Mary Poppins She Wrote: The Life of P L Travers by Valerie Lawson awaits me at the library along with The Uses of Enchantment, by Heidi Julavits, which I read about in Publisher's Weekly.

Then there's Philip Roth, the early works of whom I've been reading with a surprising amount of pleasure. Letting Go is next. And Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris, which is due at the library on the 21st and can't be renewed.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Leonard Woolf

Victoria Glendinning's new biography of Leonard Woolf arrived yesterday and already I'm on page 110. (Brown's Zola is history. I didn't get to page 110 of that 888-page tome even after three weeks of reading.)

There are those who disparage Glendinning, especially some in the Trollope community who feel her work is not sufficiently serious. I on the other hand, find her treatment of Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Sitwell, Vita Sackville-West, Anthony Trollope, and now Woolf, to be approachable and the very opposite of tedious. So many biographers struggle to include in their books every detail they have dug up in their research. They may have needed to know the minutia of their subject's life but the reader does not. Anyone in need of that kind of detail should be reading primary sources and not biographies.

So here I am, sharing little Lennie's pleasure at a formal, written dinner invitation from his father, cycling to the Shetlands (I think there was a ferry ride involved), becoming an Apostle at Cambridge, and heading off as a Cadet to administer 10,000 square miles of Ceylon's hinterland.

PW’s Best Books of 2006 – Part IV

Among the books that PW has chosen as the best of 2006 are three cookbooks. Well, Julia’s book isn’t exactly a cookbook, but close enough.

Joy of Cooking: 75th Anniversary Edition, by Irma S Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker “The new narrative and compilation of Joy is one of, well, joy.” No kitchen should be without Joy.

My Life in France, by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. “This is a valuable record of gorgeous meals in bygone Parisian restaurants and the secret arts of a culinary genius.” I haven’t read this, but Sarah has and she raves.

The Bon Appetit Cookbook, by Barbara Fairchild. “Mirroring the magazine on which it is based, this collection of 1,200 accessible recipes is a pure pleasure.”

Thursday, November 16, 2006

PW's Best Books of 2006 – Part III

Here are three mysteries from PW’s list of those 2006 books that they identify as the best. About these three I agree entirely.

All Mortal Flesh, by Julia Spencer-Fleming. “Anthony-winner Spencer-Fleming’s fifth mystery to feature Clare Ferguson, a helicopter pilot turned Episcopal priest, is her most captivating to date.” Warning: You must read these mysteries in order. The first is In the Bleak Midwinter (2002.)

The Summer Snow, by Rebecca Pawel. “Set in fascist Spain shortly after WW II, Edgar-winner Pawel’s fourth mystery to feature Gardia lieutenant Carlos Tejada is a triumph of characterization, suspense and atmosphere.” Read the series in order. The first is Death of a Nationalist (2003) and takes place immediately after the Spanish Civil War.

Two Time, by Chris Knopf. “This superb mystery, set on the east end of Long Island, features strong plotting, solid characters and dialogue worthy of Elmore Leonard or John D McDonald.”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

PW's Best Books of 2006 – Part II

Publisher's Weekly has listed their Books of the Year, many of which I don’t find very interesting (Sci Fi / Fantasy / Horror) or enjoyable (comics.) But there are some fine books on the list. Here are a few more of them.

Theft by Peter Carey. “A fallen-from-grace Aussie artist and his mentally handicapped brother are drawn into a counterfeit art conspiracy in Carey’s heartbreaking novel.” Booker longlisted.

The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai. “Love, politics and revolution drive this evocative ensemble novel that moves swiftly between Himalayan India and New York – and between comedy and changing consciousness.” Booker winner.

The Night Gardener, by George Pelecanos. “Set in Washington, DC, Pelecanos’ dignified, character-driven thriller emphasizes the fallacy of ‘solving’ a murder and explores the ripple effects of violent crime on society.” I have been a fan of this author for a decade. Forget "West Wing"; Pelecanos captures the real DC.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

My Election Day Post (a week late)

We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate. -Thomas Jefferson, third US president, architect and author (1743-1826)

PW's Best Books of 2006

It’s a little early for this sort of thing, but PW, probably looking toward bookstore displays for the holidays, has announced their choices for the very best novovels, comics, cookbooks, poetry, children’s books, and more.

Here are a few of PW’s nonfiction choices that I heartily endorse. I’ll list more in future posts.

Flaubert: A Biography, by Frederick Brown. "A superb portrait of a literary master, full of passion and tragedy, overflows with keenly portrayed characters." I haven't read this book, but I've been mesmerized by Brown's Zola: A Life (1995.)

At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968, by Taylor Branch. “The final volume in Branch’s brilliant trilogy, this magisterial work is a fitting tribute to a magisterial man.” The other volumes are Parting the Waters: 1954-1963 (1988) and Pillar of Fire: 1963-1965 (1998.)

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick. “Another masterpiece from Philbrick, a myth-breaking narrative of American origins and the first, tragic colonial-Native clash.”

Sunday, November 12, 2006

November Books - 6 - 14

Charles Todd is the pseudonym of mother-son writers who have just published the ninth in a provocative series of mysteries that take place in post-WW I England. So far so good.

But these books are unique. The protagonist, Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge, is suffering from shell shock. World War II called it combat fatigue and we now call it post traumatic stress syndrome. Rutledge’s problem manifests as a hallucination.

He hears the voice of one of his men whom he was ordered to shoot just before the end of the war. This Scotsman offers criticism and sometimes useful advice as Rutledge goes about his job, whether it’s finding a murderer, solving a disappearance, or defusing a hostage situation. Never does the author forget that it is actually Rutledge’s subconscious that is speaking to him. His unwanted companion never reveals information that Rutledge has not himself discovered or deduced from what he observes.

These are mysteries in that category I’ve called Crossovers. They are superb novels. The mystery part is simply a vehicle that helps carry the story along. Every one of these nine novels is worth reading. (I’m assuming the last is worthy as it is not yet published and I haven’t read it, but PW gives it the red star treatment and I am a believer.)

A Test of Wills (1996)
Wings of Fire (1998)
Search the Dark (1999)
Legacy of the Dead (2000)
Watchers of Time (2001)
A Fearsome Doubt (2002)
A Cold Treachery (2005)
A Long Shadow (2006)
A False Mirror (2007)

Books We Could Do Without

Norman Mailer has written a new novel, The Castle in the Forest, which will be on the shelves in late January. And I’ll be darned if PW hasn’t given it the coveted red star, meaning they think it’s a mighty good book. I have my doubts. Do we really need another parlor psychology of Hitler?

Says PW: “. . . he plumbs the psyche of history’s most demonic figure in this chilling fictional chronicle of Hitler’s boyhood. Mailer tells the story through the eyes of Dieter, a devil tasked by Satan (usually called the Maestro) with fostering Hitler’s nascent evil, but in this study of a dysfunctional 19th-century middle-class Austrian household, the real presiding spirit is Freud. . . . The novel sometimes feels like a psychoanalytic version of The Screwtape Letters . . .” (C S Lewis should sue.)

Judging from PW’s review, the source of Hitler’s personality was poor toilet training and a childhood fascination with burning beehives. The book sounds superficial and squalid, which it probably is, this being Mailer.

The Lion's Pride

As noted in my comment on my Veterans' Day post, the photo in that post is of the American Military Cemetery in Normandy, where two of Theodore Roosevelt's sons are buried. A very fine book on TR and family in war and peace is The Lion's Pride (1998) by Edward J. Renehan.

TR unsuccessfully lobbied President Wilson for permission to form a division and to lead it in France, as he did with the Rough Riders (First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment) during the Spanish-American War. The plan was unrealistic and, in any event, was likely doomed by the animosity between Roosevelt and Wilson caused by TR's ardent opposition to Wilson's neutrality policy before 1917. Nonetheless, TR took great pride in the military service of all four of his sons during WWI. In fact, TR's daughter Edith was the first of the family to arrive in France during WWI when she traveled there to serve as a nurse. Quentin, an aviator, was killed in action during WWI at the age of 20. Ted, Jr., died of a heart attack in France during World War II. This book sets out the remarkable story of a family's heroic service.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Veterans' Day 2006

"to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan"

Abraham Lincoln
Second Inaugural Address

Friday, November 10, 2006

Crossovers - 2

Mysteries that can make their way in the world without being relegated to the crime fiction category are proliferating. And among the crime books that have jumped the fence is the first in a series of mysteries by Susan Hill, The Various Haunts of Men (2004.)

The book is about an English detective, Simon Serrallier, a complex man who has trouble putting together the different parts of his personality. One of the primary mysteries in this book is the question of what makes Simon Serrallier tick and how the dynamics of his family has made him the man he is.

The crimes are solved with the help of Serrallier's staff; his sister, who is a doctor; her colleagues; and her friend and patient who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. And interesting as are the various suspicious characters and the mystery of who murdered whom, it's the dying woman who most captured my attention. She is searching for something - anything - to help her cope with her situation and to give her peace and acceptance.

She doesn't find what she's looking for, but she does find what she needs and she is able to share her understanding of life and death with others. Her doctor, whose flexibility and open-mindedness have not extended to acceptance of the end of life as a natural part of it, begins to see the need for some people to avoid heroic medical interference in the course of a hopeless disease.

The most appealing character and the one through whose point of view we see the story is a colleague of Serrallier who has the makings of a first rate detective herself and whose understanding of herself and others Hill has developed carefully.

I'm not even touching on the woven themes of the story or the allusions and implications that are lying between the lines. And I'm avoiding the elephant in the room. The book has a dramatic and for me totally unexpected event at the end about which there is almost nothing I can say that isn't a spoiler.

You are going to have to struggle to get a copy of The Various Haunts of Men in the US. There are so few of them in libraries in this country that my copy had to be fetched from the other side of the continent. I was interested to see that it came from the College of William and Mary, whose academic library is not one devoted to the likes of Agatha Christie and Robert B Parker.

The book is scheduled to be released in this country next April. Meanwhile you can request it on Interlibrary Loan through your local public or university library. It might not hurt to rattle the cage of your library's acquisitions people and urge them to acquire all of the books in the four-book series, because you are going to want to read them all. You can purchase it, along with the others, from the English publisher, Long Barn Books.

Thanks to dovegreyreader for introducing me to this fine writer.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


In the music world a country and western song that becomes a rock favorite is called a crossover. The same sort of phenomenon is happening in the book world these days between the murder mystery and the "serious" novel genres.

I've read two mysteries in the last month that can hold their own as novels needing no mystery modifier before a reviewer can praise them. There have been more and more of these in recent years.

Meanwhile the novel - no modifier - has divided into two distinct sub-genres, unreadable and unrealistic trash and unreadable and disturbing "literary fiction." The middle ground of well-plotted, deftly written novels with at least marginally admirable characters who come alive on the page - books you enjoy reading and from which you learn something - is thinning.

Yesterday I finished a novel by Canadian author Louise Penny called Still Life (2005.) It's a story with a murder and a detective and a controlled group of suspects. It's also a story with characters whose view of the world and reaction to it are complex and understandable. There is some artificiality of course. The reader must be made to consider each major character as the possible killer and so a layer of distrust is laid over each in turn.

I mention Penny's nationality because this is a book about Canadians. You would not mistake any of these folks as British or Americans. They live in a Loyalist town, one of those villages just across the border from the US to which, during the American Revolution, Loyalists to the British Crown fled and settled. It may be this well-remembered history that gives the people their pronounced definition.

I recommend this novel to readers of popular page-turners, to mystery fans, and to the "serious" reader who is looking for "serious" fiction. It has it all.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

November Books - 5

Due to technical difficulties with uploading pictures to Blogger, Mary's Library has been running a little behind schedule this week. Nonetheless, here is a fifth book on our WWI/WWII topic for November: Fix Bayonets! (1926), John W. Thomason's account of his experiences as a United States Marine on the Western Front during World War I. The book is illustrated with the author's own sketches. This is a rousing read and will give you some idea why one historian (I forget who, I read this statement decades ago) expressed the opinion that notwithstanding all the horrific battles in the Pacific during World War II, the greatest battle ever fought by U.S. Marines was Belleau Wood during World War I. That conclusion certainly can be debated, but it is by no means unreasonable. And, you will see why, in the trenches of France in 1918, the United States Marines acquired from their German adversaries the nickname Devil Dogs.

Me and Jim Blandings, Part V

Yes, progress actually is being made on the great renovation project of 2006. With the ghastly deck and metal awning removed from the back of the house, we were able to put in a brick patio that is vastly more in keeping with the character of the house. We had planned to use as many of the bricks as possible from the original patio in the construction of the new patio. The theory was that the old bricks could be intermingled with new bricks in an attractive pattern. Alas, the old bricks were handmade and not of exactly uniform size. Using them in conjunction with new bricks just would not have worked. So, the old bricks were taken up and a new patio installed. We are keeping the old bricks. We will consult with our landscaper as to how we can incorporate the old bricks into the yard -- perhaps to construct a walkway.

And, the contuining adventures of the new downstairs bath go on, along with a side trip to do some repair work on the bath that is on the main floor. It turns out that all was not well with the toilet in the main bath. This became obvious once the downstairs bath had been ripped out and wetness was discovered where dryness would have been much preferable. It turns out that the culprit was a broken wax ring caused by the improper installation (why am I not surprised?) of the toilet in the main bath some years ago. Fortunately, that could be repaired relatively quickly and easily by the plumber. While that repair was going on, however, there were exactly zero operational toilets in the house. Of course, since the main water valve was turned off, the toilets would not have worked anyway (at least not more than once). (This is getting to be a bit more indelicate than the usual post on Mary's Library. But, we have had to live with it, so buckle down and be willing to read about it at least.) This whole episode did give Mary the opportunity, when the gang at the yarn shop asked how things were going with the remodeling, to deliver the priceless line "when I got home from my walk, my toilet was in the bath tub." Fortunately, we have first rate plumbers who are doing everything right and doing it quickly.

In the meantime, Jason poured a new cement floor for the downstairs bath and has framed in the room. It's actually beginning to look like something. The plumbing has been roughed in and the electricians will be here this week to work on the wiring. Then, the shower, toilet, and sink will be installed, the plumbing finish-work done, the wall board put in, the tile laid, everything painted, and, voila, we will be ready to receive guests.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

November Books - 4

My favorite popular history of the origins of WW I is Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. She introduces the political figures whose mistakes and machinations led to the situation that made war almost inevitable. She outlines the political and economic situation in each of the major countries of Europe, and shows how, slowly and inexorably, the situation deteriorated.

Also of great interest is Tuchman's The Proud Tower, which is a history of Europe from 1881 to 1914, and which goes into much more detail about the world in the 30 years before the war than does The Guns of August. I have recently re-read The Proud Tower and it's just as fascinating as it was the first time I read it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

November Books

Over at Lesley’s Book Nook there’s one of those challenges so popular with book bloggers. This started in Canada and required those accepting the challenge, in honor of Remembrance Day, to read three books this month that are set during WW I or WW II.

I’ve decided not to accept the challenge to read three books. Instead I’m going to post each day this month about a book, fiction or nonfiction, with some connection to one of the two wars or written or set in the period between the beginning of WW I and the end of WW II.

I’m going to give you three titles today: The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker, which is comprised of Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995.)

These are far and away my favorite works of fiction about World War I and are, collectively, a masterpiece. They are about Dr W H R Rivers, an anthropologist with a medical degree who returned to practicing medicine during the war.

Regeneration takes place at Craiglockhart War Hospital, which is where Rivers treated soldiers with shell shock, what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. The characters who, like Rivers, are based on real-life counterparts, include Sigfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves.

The book is about conflicting duties: the duty to fight for one’s country and the duty to protest a war that is needlessly killing millions of young men. The duty to help soldiers regain their mental health and the anguish of sending them back into the war as soon as they are well.

The Eye in the Door is about the stress that the war inflicts on society. From the cover: “It is the spring of 1918, and Britain is faced with the possibility of defeat by Germany. A beleaguered government and a vengeful public target two groups as scapegoats: pacifists and homosexuals. Many are jailed, others lead dangerous double lives and the ‘eye in the door’ becomes a symbol of the paranoia that threatens to destroy the very fabric of British society.”

The Ghost Road takes place during the last weeks of the war. From the cover: “In France, millions of men engaged in brutal trench warfare are all ‘ghosts in the making.’ In England, psychologist William Rivers, with severe pangs of conscience, treats the mental casualties of the war to make them whole enough to fight again. . . . Rivers, enfeavered by influenza, returns in memory to his experience studying a South Pacific tribe whose ethos amounted to a culture of death. Across the gulf between his society and theirs, Rivers begins to form connections that cast new light on his – and our – understanding of war.”