Category Archives: England

The books we’ve read

I subscribe to LitHub, which offers–in the way we read now–daily snippets of literary news and links to full articles. I scan the snippets and usually click through to one or two articles of moderate interest, but sometimes there’s a real winner and I keep that issue in my inbox because it’s too good to relegate to the trash. One recent keeper is a piece by Penelope Lively, one of my favorite novelists, about the books in her personal library. People who interview writers, often ask about what books the writer has on her nightstand or what books or authors are favorites. I must confess, that for the most part I’ve lost interest in the answers. The books on my nightstand are often pretty strange–the results of reviews that caught my eye–and often get returned to the library skimmed or unread. A large group of books I’ve bought with enthusiasm live under the nightstand in a sort of low priority limbo. Recently someone asked for the title of my favorite book and I froze, thinking that the only way I could answer that was to compile a list of all the books to which I’ve given 5 stars on Goodreads. I figure I’m not unique and writers answering those questions are not providing insightful information.

Then there’s Penelope Lively. Her article appeared in Granta and she titled it “Books Do Furnish a Room,” a nod to the 10th volume in Anthony Powell’s classic series A Dance to the Music of Time. Lively writes not about what’s on her nightstand, but about the books she’s bought and read over the years and that still live on her bookshelves. In her “mildly book-infested home…the shelves say something about the person who has stocked them.” What we read, of course, furnishes not just our rooms, but our minds. She writes about how the nonfiction shelves reflect her interest in Egypt, where she spent her childhood; English history and archaeology; and science among other subjects. Although her novels are set in contemporary times and plumb the depths of human relationships, they are literally and metaphorically informed by her wide-ranging reading in those areas.

My library doesn’t contain as many books as Lively’s. As a librarian I learned to weed vigorously. I do still have most of a shelf of Greek and Roman literature from college that I can’t part with as well as Pauline Kael’s complete reviews, but I tend to think of my local library as a convenient extension to my collection. And I do have a hand-written list of all the books I’ve read, going back to somewhere around ninth grade. That’s something I treasure as much as the books themselves. Here’s the link the Lively’s Granta article, worth reading for her lovely, graceful style. https://granta.com/books-do-furnish-a-room/

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A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre (Crown)

A Spy AmPhilbyong Friends is a great book to listen to (the reader is John Lee); it’s the story of the famous “third man,” Cold War era spy Kim Philby, who, along with Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess (and several others), were Soviet spies in the British intelligence system, working in MI5, MI6, or the foreign service. Philby, who became a Communist at Cambridge, never wavered in his faith in Communism from the 1930s to his death in Moscow in 1988 after his defection.

Philby served in high positions in MI6 and was for a while chief intelligence officer in the British Embassy in Washington, DC where he maintained a close friendship with James Angleton of the CIA. Although Maclean and Burgess defected in the 1951 and the British intelligence service knew there were additional double agents, Philby’s treachery wasn’t discovered until 1962. Philby had the right background, attended the right schools, had the right connections; everyone vouched for him automatically. For decades he passed details of British intelligence operations to his Soviet contacts. A huge black mark for the British intelligence community.

 

 

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown)

God in RuinsI was fortunate to get permission to download a copy of Kate Atkinson’s terrific forthcoming novel, A God in Ruins. I  began reading it immediately, ready for a treat. This new novel focuses on Teddy, a minor character from her previous novel, Life After Life; Atkinson calls this one a “companion piece” rather than a sequel. I read it over the course of 3 days, and now I’m sorry I’m finished; I should have made it last longer.

Teddy Todd is the younger brother of Ursula, the main character from Life After Life. The central event in Teddy’s life is his World War II service as an RAF bomber pilot. During the War, he was never sure if he’d return, if there would be an “after;,” his survival makes him determined to be kind and enjoy the life he’s been given after he’s been responsible for so much death. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Nancy; they have one child, Viola, and two grandchildren. Life isn’t always easy, but he takes it as it comes, reveling in the English countryside, doing his best to love the difficult people around him. This is the bare bones on which Atkinson hangs her absorbing story of how four generations deal with what life sent them.

Atkinson plays with time, deconstructing the narrative in many ways: by mixing up time periods in each chapter, by casually dropping information about the future, by repeating events from a different character’s point of view, and by foreshadowing. One event calls up another, filling in details, adding roundness and resonance to characters and events. Teddy’s grandson, exploring in the attic finds Teddy’s war medals and keepsakes. These objects return in later chapters when we learn more about Teddy’s war experiences; because we’ve already thought about the objects when Sunny found them, their meaning is more emotional and faceted.

Ursula makes tantalizing cameo appearances in this novel; she’s Teddy’s beloved sister, offering advice and support. For those of us who read Life After Life, when we hear about her death, we’re startled–didn’t she keep on living? Other characters, like Teddy’s cranky daughter Viola and her children Sunny and Bertie, step off the page, full of life and longing, shaped by the times they live in but very much their own people.

The novel is filled with wonderful humor. Teddy’s daughter, Viola, pushes him from his house to “independent living” then to a “care home.” In his nineties, Teddy reflects that “living in captivity” has “clearly prolonged his life.” The chapter describing Viola’s visit to Teddy in the care home is hilarious and sad, a perceptive set piece on how we treat the elderly.

The sections set during the war, especially Teddy’s experiences as a pilot and wing commander are painfully vivid, capturing Teddy’s inchoate fears, his relationship with his crew, and the emotions he feels as he sees the destruction they’ve brought down on German cities.  These sections fill out Teddy’s character in a most rewarding way.

Atkinson has complete control over her narrative and characters;  it’s such a pleasure to surrender to her stories. I’ve read all of Atkinson’s novels, starting with Behind the Scenes at the Museum; sorry I can’t read them again for the first time.

 

 

Heir Apparent

Heir ApparentI’m hoping to read more European history this  year and have just finished The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley, the new bio of  Queen Victoria’s philandering son, who gave his name to the Edwardian era, the first decade of the 1900s.

It’s a huge book, and my thought was that I’d start reading and maybe not finish it, but I was riveted. Ridley has the wonderful facility of making masses of detail fascinating. She’s also managed to let you know that she’s there with you as you’re reading without really interposing herself.

There’s a cast of hundreds, since Bertie had a wildly active social life, and the reader can only turn the pages in disbelief as “Wales” (as he’s often known) gets into one scrape after another, rescued and shielded by his loyal staff. Even the Prime Ministers protected Bertie from disgrace. I was unaware how much anti-royal sentiment there was in Britain of the late 1800s; Queen Victoria wasn’t sure that the monarchy would survive her and it’s not clear that she cared. She didn’t believe that Bertie would make a suitable king and he never received the appropriate education and training. She was unwilling to relinquish an iota of power or monarchical privilege to him and was jealous of any success he had with the British public or overseas.

But when Victoria died in 1901  he rose to the occasion, although he regretted that the great opportunity came so late in life. Part of the fun of the book is re-visiting the convoluted relationships among the royals in Europe and Russia–so many were Victoria’s descendants and it affected late 19th and early 20th century politics in very interesting ways. For more about those relationships, I recommend reading King, Kaiser, Tsar by Catrine Clay.

Another great memoir quote…

I was reading The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer, and found this quote from John Updike: “Memory has a spottiness as if the film was sprinkled with developer instead of immersed in it.” A great image, although how long will it be before  the darkroom reference becomes obscure?

There’s a great exhibit of Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits currently at the Metropolitan Museum in NY. Her daughter and son-in-law gave her a camera for her birthday in 1863, when she was 48 years old, and she became entranced with the medium, then, of course, in its infancy and a labor-intensive process for photographer and sitter. Her photographs capture her sitters’ small shifts in movement as they tried to hold still for the long exposures. The resulting out-of-focus portraits have a wonderful feeling of intimacy and and life as a result. Tennyson was a neighbor and there were several portraits of him in the exhibit; it was hard for me to connect the author of the poem Ulysses with the portrait of that rather staid Victorian gentleman. In traditional Victorian fashion, she staged and photographed scenes from literature, using her family and friends. Many of the full face portraits are riveting; I saw the exhibit twice the day I was there and will be back to see it again before it closes on January 5, 2014.

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller

With this book I struck gold–an absorbing historical mystery in the English country house genre with great characters and atmosphere. It takes place just after World War I in Wiltshire, at a crumbling old manor house with the spooky name of Easton Deadall. The story is told from the point of view of Laurence Bartram, a World War I veteran and architectural  historian whose specialty is church architecture. Bartram’s been called in by an architect friend to consult on the creation of a maze to honor the village men who died in the Great War  and on the restoration of the old church on the property.

Right away Bartram’s drawn into the family tragedy: the disappearance, 13 years earlier, of 5-year old Kitty Easton, daughter of  Lydia, widowed owner of the manor. Kitty’s unsolved disappearance is still fresh and wounding; the Easton family is riven with subterranean anger and jealousies. Bartram’s own life is haunted by the loss of his wife and unborn child and he’s suffering from the aftereffects of his horrific trench warfare experiences in France. The spectre of the war hangs over the novel–almost all the village men were killed in a single battle in France, leaving the village in the hands of grief-stricken women and men too old or unable to fight.

In good country house mystery tradition, there’s plenty of intrigue, gossip, and secrets (personal and architectural) revealed, as well as dead bodies. I found that  many of the characters stepped off the page: besides Bartram, the architect William Bolitho and his wife Eleanor were especially compelling. Speller has all the elements right. If you’re not entirely clear on the outlines of the country house mystery, there’s a good explanation here. This is the second Laurence Bartram mystery–I’m eager now to read the first one, The Return of Captain John Emmett.

Penelope Lively

Family Album by Penelope Lively
Lively has been one of my favorite authors through the years; she never disappoints me with her stories of the emotional turmoil  at the heart of her characters’ relationships. The family in question here is the Harpers, 6 children, two parents, and the au pair who stays on after the children are grown. Their large Edwardian house, Allersmead, is meant to be the gracious center of a warm and loving family, but harbors a shocking secret and painful heartaches. Lively shifts the point of view from one character to another and we get to know them all quite well. There’s no plot to speak of, just the rubbing together of a set of complex personalities,  which is quite engrossing enough.