Pacific view

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue

The "heroine" (I use the term loosely) of this book is Mary Saunders, a teenage prostitute living in the slums of London, circa 18th century. Mary's defining characteristics are a fierce will to survive, a burning resentment of the miserable deadening poverty she was born to, and an unquenchable thirst for color and fine fabrics. While reading the book I was reminded of a cross between Moll Flanders and Sarah Waters' Fingersmith. Encountering a rough life on the streets, she becomes educated in how to survive, but the knowledge twists her in numerous ways, and her moral compass goes haywire. This is a compelling book, especially the first half; the descriptions are vivid and the plot pulls you in. It's well-written. At first you find yourself rooting for Mary, but eventually you feel pity for her and not much else. By the end I was simply hoping that somebody would stop her from victimizing others.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

"Miss Marjoribanks" is a big, thick, hilarious book about middle-class Victorian society. Margaret Oliphant is often compared to Jane Austen but her humor is more subversive and ironic. Lucilla Marjoribanks is only 18 when she returns home from boarding school, determined to forego marriage in order to devote her life to "being a comfort" to her widowed papa and a "leader" of her very tiny provincial community.  Lucilla is described as a  physically large and imposing young woman, possessed of singleminded will and formidable energy, and she is quite a comic marvel as she sets about making over Carlingford society in her image. She does this by redecorating the drawing room, hosting Thursday evening get-togethers, doing a bit of matchmaking, a smidgeon of charity, and "setting an example for the young people".  She's a legend in her own mind, a Napolean, a genius at micromanaging the lives of others, who figures that she has ten years to accomplish her goals before she "starts to go off", like an old piece of cheese. She never goes up against the stultifying social conventions of the time. Oh no, she embraces them wholeheartedly, because Lucilla is nothing if not conventional. She expects marriage proposals to come her way regularly, and sees them as as her just due, but at the same time she's careful to keep her emotions "unengaged". She "respects" religion and the clergy, but never actually believes in anything, because that would be so Low Church. She bosses and patronizes people so charmingly that she engenders only admiration, not resentment. Friends and neighbors get a tear in their eye, and think "dear girl", while she's walking all over them. Her strategizing and plotting are so complex that it sometimes was a challenge just keeping up with her... but never fear, Lucilla has it all figured out. Yet there is an underlying sadness and a threat, which becomes apparent  2/3 of the way through the book, when there is a sudden reversal of fortunes. And it is brought home that the position of an unmarried middle-class woman in Victorian society was precarious indeed, and there really is a gaping chasm below Lucilla's feet. The conclusion of the book is not as triumphant as you might wish, because the reality is not as rosy as Lucilla's determination to see it.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Hilary Mantel - Bring Up the Bodies

It was with a sigh of satisfaction that I finished the last pages of “Bring Up the Bodies”, the sequel to “Wolf Hall”, Hilary Mantel’s version of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. How anyone could breathe new life into this hoary old saga is a miracle, but Mantel (May I call you Hilary?) does it so powerfully and brilliantly that I want to kiss the hem of her gown.
To me, the difference between a good writer and a great writer is that a great writer makes you want to slowly reread whole sections again and again, so you can soak up the experience and make it last longer. She not only portrays the political and sexual intrigues of Henry’s court, the monstrous egos, subtle manipulations, and dangerous traps, but she does it in a way that makes it all seem as relevant as today’s headlines.
Like this:
“But Parliament cannot see how it is the state’s job to create work. Are not these matters in God’s hands, and is not poverty and dereliction part of His eternal order?...It is an outrage to the rich and enterprising to suggest that they should pay an income tax, only to put bread in the mouths of the work shy.”

Mantel’s insights in to the human condition are timeless, and that’s what she brings to life in this book. The historical details are there; in fact every page is steeped in them. But the inner monologue, the feelings and the thoughts are as familiar as the inside of your own brain. What do five hundred years signify when it comes to the real core of human motivation?
And how does she take Thomas Cromwell, one of the most feared and demonic figures of history, and turn him into the most sympathetic and decent one in the book, whose principles are no worse than they should be, given the bloodthirsty times he is living in? At the same time she gives us a sense of the terror he strikes in the hearts of those who are unlucky enough to come up before him in his role as agent and prosecutor on behalf of the King.  Mantel keeps the two sides of him in balance. He is a grief-stricken father mourning his wife and two little daughters, who died from the sweating sickness. He keeps a lockbox with their necklaces and Latin exercise books, and he remembers a Christmas costume made of peacock feathers that his daughter wore for a parish play. He misses his wife: “She is a blur now in his mind, a whisk of skirts around a corner. That last morning of her life, as he left the house he thought he saw her following him, caught a flash of her white cap….By the time he came home that night her jaw was bound and there candles at her head and feet.”
The other side of him is the ruthless pragmatist who knows what must be done: “Would Norris understand if he spelled it out? He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.” As he patiently, and wearily explains to his nephew, “Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.”
In “Wolf Hall” there is a scene where Thomas first sees the finished portrait of himself done by Hans Holbein, and he says, startled, “Christ, I look like a murderer”, and his son Gregory says to him, "Didn't you know?"
He’s a complex character and Mantel makes him a fascinating one.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Anya Seton

"Green Darkness" by Anya Seton: This is the fourth of Seton's books I've read and I had very mixed feelings about it. I really loved her other books, "Katherine" and "The Winthrop Woman", which were true historical novels. The historical detail and the behavior and interior life of the characters seemed faithful to the era they lived in. The novels were "all of a piece" and nothing rang false. Whereas "Green Darkness" and "Dragonwyck" fall more into the category of the English or American Gothic romance/thriller, centered around a beautiful, seductively innocent heroine who is enraptured with a dark & glamorous "hero" who later turns out to be psychotic.  You know, a bit of a bodice-ripper. "Green Darkness" is actually a hybrid creature that combines elements of both styles--gothic romance and historical fiction. The book is divided into three parts, with a time travel / reincarnation plot device that allows the characters to simultaneously inhabit the 16th century Tudor era and the 20th century.
Nope, just didn't work for me.
So many of the reviews I read (later on, after I'd finished the book) mentioned that they'd first encountered this book as a teenager. That explains a lot. I can definitely see how this book would thrill an adolescent with a romantic turn of mind.  I will never forget discovering "Wuthering Heights" as a 15-year old and being absolutely blown away... I'd never encountered anything so romantic as poor Cathy and her mad Heathcliff on the moors. But being 57 and a little jaded, it's not quite my thing.

I'm looking forward to reading "Bring Up the Bodies", the sequel to Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall". Now there is a writer who can capture the past and interpret the mindsets of people who lived five centuries ago, so skillfully that you feel as if they are whispering their story directly into your ear. I can't wait.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Gaskell, Maugham, and The Time Traveler's Wife

Finished reading Elizabeth Gaskell's "North and South" and W. Somerset Maugham's "The Painted Veil".  Promptly followed that up by viewing the 2004 BBC mini-series of "North and South", which Netflix tagged as "dark and romantic". Indeed it is, what with Richard Armitage casting dark, smoldering looks at Daniela Denby-Ashe, who at first responds by acting snippy and offended, letting her prejudiced attitudes toward brash Northerners and men of trade overtake her well-bred British manners. The early sparks between them lead to mutual misunderstandings and later, to longing and unrequited passions. I make it sound drippier than it is; actually, I think, the developing romance between them is actually handled quite nicely, with both of them moving gradually and subtly from their initially disastrous first impressions to a deeper understanding and appreciation for one another. I loved the way the older generation is portrayed in this series, which is due to sensitive directing and great acting. Tim Pigott-Smith and Lesley Manville as Margaret's parents are lovely and warm-hearted, and not the rigid and limited characters of the novel.  Sinead Cusack as Mrs. Thornton adds tremendous layers of depth to her character, making her much more complex and appealing than she comes across in Gaskell's book. Overall, a good example of how the filmed version can sometimes be an improvement on the original source material.
I'm waiting for my DVD of "The Painted Veil" (2006, with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton) to arrive in the mail. If nothing else, it should be a feast for the eyes in its depiction of 1920's colonial China.

In the meantime I am in the middle of "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger, a best-seller, apparently, although I don't quite get why. It starts out with a science fiction premise which is promising...Henry, the main character has a "chrono-displacement disorder" that causes him to time travel unexpectedly and without warning. Despite this malady he falls in love with and eventually marries Clare, who he first meets when they are both in their 20's. She is able to stick with him and to accept the fact that he's liable to drop out of her life at any given moment and vanish into another time and place, because she remembers meeting him at various stages of her childhood & adolescence, when he time-traveled back to her past. Never mind-- it isn't supposed to make sense. It's a good premise that it entirely wasted in my opinion. The love story just isn't that interesting, and neither are Clare and Henry. Much is made of her long, red hair, and his interest in punk rock bands of the 70's. They have a lot of sex, to indicate how strong their bond is.  They have trouble making their relationship work because of Henry's tendency to  disappear at critical moments, but you're meant to believe that their love is strong enough to withstand the stress. Please. This was also made into a movie version in 2009 but I don't think I can bear to watch it. The reviews were uniformly devastating. On to better material, hopefully.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Time slips

Don't know what happened to my blogging. February went by in a rush of making travel plans to go to Israel, and travel is what we did. Then spring seemed to seep into everyone's bones and people woke up and started calling me to do garden work. So that took up all of March and April. I did do some reading during this time but very little writing (other than emails and Facebook posts!) and no blogging.
Books I read: Toni Morrison, "A Mercy"; Sylvia Townsend Warner, "The Flint Anchor"; F.M. Mayor, "The Rector's Daughter" and "The Third Miss Symons"; Julian Gloag, "Our Mother's House". My book club is reading "Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China" by Jung Chang, and I'm trying so damn hard to finish it but it's long and repetitive, and although it's inherently a gripping story, it is recounted in the driest possible manner.  Of everything that I've read, only the Toni Morrison stands out as a brilliant piece of literature. I'm going to finish Eliz. Gaskell's "North and South" and move on from there to Maugham's "The Painted Veil" and maybe next to Elizabeth Bowen. I'm curious about Bowen, don't know how I'll like her.
I've decided to only keep the books I love and give away the ones I feel lukewarm or ambivalent about. That should thin out the bookshelves. I got rid of so much when I moved, creating loads of space at the time. But that was two years ago, and by this point I've accumulated as much as I ever had, if not more.
I need to exert some willpower and be ruthless about weeding out the chaff.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Time, Seasons, and the Making of Lists

Yesterday the winds were so fierce; they tore off the last remaining dead foliage clinging to the sycamores and liquidambers. I no longer have those spiky little balls carpeting my lawn, and I'm grateful for that because I kept stepping on them. The birches, crape myrtles and valley oaks have been stripped bare for weeks, and even the koelreuterias have dropped their beautiful seed pods.  It's Jan 22 and the landscape finally has that wintery look. Except that at this very moment the pear trees are bursting into full blossom, o I suppose that means spring is on the way. The seasons in SoCal sure are weird. Are we coming or going? I'm never quite sure.

I'm going to keep track of my reading this year, not just the books I post about, but all of it. Even the embarrassing stuff. Here's the list for 2012 so far:  The Sisters by Mary Lovell (see post); Neil Gaiman's The Sandman; Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes; Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton (also posted); Jo Walton--Farthing and also Ha'Penny; Mark Vonnegut--Just Like Mental Illness Only More So.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Sisters:Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell

The Sisters: Saga of the Mitford Family – Mary S. Lovell

I rarely read biographies. I find myself getting so bogged down in extraneous detail that my eyes glaze over. That’s why “The Sisters” is so unusual.  It’s certainly the first time I’ve come across a biography that I had to read compulsively without stopping. In the midst of a Downton Abbey binge, I picked this up because of the topic of British aristocratic families between the wars adjusting to upheaval of the early 20th century, etcetera. Being American, I didn’t know much about the Mitford sisters when I started, although I’d heard of Nancy Mitford’s novels “Pursuit of Love” and “Love in a Cold Climate”. And I was vaguely familiar with Jessica Mitford, and knew she had written “The American Way of Death”.  But this was merely the tip of the iceberg. Once I discovered the entire family—six sisters, one brother, and their parents, cousins, spouses, etc. –well, it was too, too fascinating, as the Bright Young Things would have said.  While reading the book I was continually thinking, “What? I-don’t-believe-it-this-can’t-be-for-real!” as the bizarre eccentricities and absurdities piled up. There is enough material here for at least two or three mini-series on the BBC.  How is it possible that no one has yet done a biopic or even a spoof of a biopic? Maybe it’s because the last of the sisters, Deborah, is still alive.

I have no way of knowing how closely she adheres to the factual record, but Mary Lovell has a good reputation, having written other fine biographies (Amelia Earhart, Richard Burton, Beryl Markham) before this. My understanding is that she built upon the work of others, but she also made ample use of her access to Diana and Deborah, who both granted extensive interviews.

The Mitford girls were the ultimate in tabloid fodder in Britain during the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. The public couldn’t get enough of them, and it’s not hard to see why. They were famous for being aristocratic, good-looking, fashionable, witty, charming, etc. In addition they were also wildly eccentric, outrageous, na├»ve, impolitic and controversial. They inspired admiration as well as hatred.

I will try to quickly run through the highlights. The family consisted of Farve -- David Freeman-Mitford, the 2nd Baron Redesdale -- and Muv -- Sydney Bowles, whose grandfather “Tap” Bowles founded two successful magazines, “Vanity Fair” and “The Lady”-- and their offspring. The seven children were raised in a highly protected, isolated, rural atmosphere of genteel poverty. They were sheltered if not exactly cosseted. Forbidden to go to school, they were taught at home (at least the girls were) so their education was spotty, but the necessities were not neglected: riding, French, the concept of noblesse oblige, and of course, manners and deportment. The children relied on one another for company, and they were a very close and loving family that also quarreled violently and existed for years on what they referred to as “non-speakers” with one another.

Nancy was the eldest. She dabbled in socialism, and authored several witty books based on fictionalized accounts of her family and friends, but she mainly dressed beautifully, partied lavishly, and hung out with the right crowd of funny, glittering people –the ones who were immortalized by Evelyn Waugh in “Vile Bodies” and “Brideshead Revisited”. Later in life she moved to Paris and carried on a long-term affair with Charles de Gaulle’s right hand man, Col. Gaston Palewski.
Pam, the second-born, was apparently the most domesticated and the least outrageous of the sisters. She did not care about politics or parties, but was content to be a gentlewoman farmer and breeder of animals. She married Derek Jackson, a world-renowned physicist who was one of a set of identical twins. On the day of their wedding (or the day after, I’m not sure), Derek's twin brother was killed in a motoring accident and he never got over the loss. After they divorced she entered into a lesbian relationship that lasted for the remainder of her life.

Diana was the most stunningly gorgeous of the sisters, although they were all unbelievably beautiful. Married at a young age to Bryan Guinness (heir to the Guinness brewing fortune) she left her husband to embark upon a scandalous affair with Sir Oswald Mosley, principally known as founder of the BUF, i.e., British Union of Fascists.  Mosley was perhaps the most reviled man in Britain during WW2 and the post-war years.  Diana and Mosley eventually married, but the marriage was kept secret for over a year so as not to upset his other mistress, who was his first wife’s sister. Diana herself was an ardent supporter of Fascism and a great admirer of Adolph Hitler, as was her mother and several of her siblings. She attended rallies at Nuremberg, as well as the 1936 Olympics, as Hitler’s personal guest. Her close connection to him as well as to Winston Churchill (who was a cousin) made her a person of interest to the British secret police, who regularly tapped her phone and monitored her whereabouts. Diana and Oswald both spent three years interned in a British prison as enemy sympathizers under the infamous Regulation 18B, which suspended habeas corpus during wartime. Her sister Nancy was one of those who informed on her. There were protest demonstrations in the streets upon the Mosley’s release from prison in 1943.

Next in line was Unity, who also became obsessed with Hitler when she was a teenager, and worshipped him as if he were a god or a rock star. Unity took this hero worship to extremes that nobody could have anticipated. She became part of Hitler’s inner circle, and moved to Germany to be near him. It was long suspected that they had an affair but this was never proven. Unity was vilified in the British press as a rabid Fascist and anti-Semite. Wherever she went in England, crowds gathered and sometimes erupted in violence. She came to believe that it was her destiny to broker an alliance between Britain and Germany in order to prevent war between the two countries. When despite her best efforts, war was declared, her reaction was to take a pistol and shoot herself in the head. She survived, with significant brain damage, but was never the same. Hitler paid her hospital bills in full.

Whew, I need to catch my breath. Okay, onward we go…

The next youngest sister was Jessica (Decca) who rebelled against the rest of the family by became a noted Communist. She quarreled endlessly with her family over politics and it ultimately led to a schism. As a youngster Decca kept a bust of Lenin in the room she shared with her sister, while Unity decorated her side of the room with Nazi flags and swastikas on the wall. At age 18 Decca ran away from home and eloped to Spain with her second cousin Esmond, a nephew of Winston Churchill. (Decca was also related to Winston through her aunt Clementine.) The young couple dreamed of fighting with the Loyalists against Franco, but they later moved to America, which caused a total breach with the family. When WW2 broke out Edmond enlisted in the Canadian RAF and was shot down over the North Sea. Decca subsequently married a Jewish lawyer from Oakland, CA, joined the American Communist Party, and became a civil right activist.

The youngest sister, Deborah (Debo) married Lord Andrew Cavendish, later Duke of Devonshire. Lord Andrew’s brother, Billy Hartington, married Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy (yes, those Kennedy’s). They had to marry against their families’ wishes, (particularly those of Rose Kennedy. Her objection was due to the time-honored quarrel between Catholics and Protestants.)  This couple’s happiness was doomed from the start. As soon as they returned from their honeymoon, Kathleen received word that her brother Joe Jr.’s fighter plane had been shot down. One month later they got the news that Hartington had also been killed in action. It was as a result of Billy’s death that Debo’s husband Andrew inherited the dukedom.  Debo is still alive and breeds fancy chickens on the ancestral Chatsworth estate.

Somewhere in the middle there was Tom, the only brother, who went to Eton, served with distinction in the war, and was killed in a skirmish with Japanese forces in Burma in 1945. Tom also had a fling with British Fascism, and was an admirer of Hitler, but he later fought on England’s side against Germany.  He never married but had male and female lovers.

Have you followed me so far? And this is all one family!  It’s not only mind-boggling to consider what they themselves did to attract attention, but also to contemplate the others they either knew intimately or rubbed elbows with. Which turned out to be everybody of importance in the 20th century on both sides of the Atlantic, and I do mean everybody. This included their relations, the Winston Churchills, as well as their friends and close acquaintances, including Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, Kay Graham, Cecil Beaton, the Kennedy’s (Jack, Ted, Bobby, etc.), Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson (who Muv amusingly tried to look up in the Peerage and was puzzled at not finding her there), Lucien Freud, Harold Macmillan, and various Queens of the Realm.

How fascinating can you get? I mean, really!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Edith Wharton - Fruit of the Tree

I really do love Edith Wharton; I’ve read a lot of her fiction over the years, ever since I first fell in love with House of Mirth. Not everything is flawless, but she certainly comes close to perfection most of the time. Just got around to reading this lesser-known novel, published in 1907. For some reason it has been largely out of print for years. Not considered one of her best efforts, some people find it heavy-handed, a little preachy and melodramatic. I don’t care to quibble; in my opinion, a “lesser” Wharton fiction is still better than many contemporary works, even some that achieve best-seller status.

“Fruit of the Tree” has all of what many consider the hallmarks of her better known work. These are 1) detailed, biting depiction of American upper-class society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; 2) deep understanding and empathy for her characters as they struggle to reconcile individual happiness and well-being with the implacably cruel moral judgments and requirements of society; 3) examination of the insufficiencies of communication between people, of how difficult it is for two people to truly understand one another.

Wharton is great as usual in her skewering of the wealthier class--that privileged 1% who’ve always been with us, the ones whose luxuries and comfort are purchased at great cost to others. There are three main characters—Bessy Langhope, a pampered young widow who has inherited a bustling, profitable textile mill; John Amherst, who is himself a gentleman to the manor born, but has thrown aside convention and taken a job as an assistant manager in the mill; and Justine Brent, a sensitive and intelligent young nurse who befriends them both.  Bessy is a tender-hearted young woman who has always taken her wealth for granted. She’s given very little thought to the fact that her dresses and vacations would not be possible if not for the sweat and toil of the underfed and uneducated mill workers who must accept dangerous substandard working conditions if they want to feed their families.
Upon meeting Bessy for the first time, John sees an opening, a glimmer of hope, and he seizes his opportunity to awaken Bessy’s social conscience and possibly enlist her help in reforming the deplorable conditions at the mill. She in turn is equally drawn by his personal magnetism and his compassionate ideals. This quickly leads to their falling in love and marrying. While Bessy starts out enthusiastically supportive of John’s plans, she soon begins to feel unhappy and neglected. Their marriage starts to founder, and Justine steps in as go-between and peacemaker. It gets much more complicated than this, as the novel draws on other themes and subplots, including euthanasia, industrialization, worker’s rights, modern medicine, drug addiction, blackmail, capitalism run amok, conspicuous consumption, and income redistribution.  That’s a lot of meat to cram into one book, especially when the majority of the plot centers on a romantic love triangle.
I can see how Wharton could be accused of heavy-handedness in places. The millworkers come across as caricatures, like the twin waifs in Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”, intended to convey the abstract concepts of ignorance and want. They are unimportant except as they illustrate the larger problem of income inequality and social justice. Of course, this attitude exactly mirrors that of John Amherst, and constitutes his primary failing as a human being and a husband—he, too, is blinded by his zeal for the larger moral question, and doesn’t see how his behavior causes harm every bit as great as that which he’s trying to alleviate.

Every novel by Wharton focuses on the way people often suffer from the moral tangles they get themselves into, and the terrible choices they are forced to make.  Few authors have her ability to delve as deeply and to portray the human cost in such heartbreaking terms.