You can find me on LibraryThing …

I’ve been scarce around these parts lately; in fact, I didn’t publish a single post in August.  And, to be honest, my blogging has been on a decline all year.  I tried to stay on top of reviews, and managed fairly well up to this month, but other content just hasn’t been forthcoming.  I’m still reading, but I’m doing other things, too: gardening (sort of, it’s really quite a mess out there at the moment), knitting (I finished my first sweater!), working (taking on new responsibilities), and enjoying time with my family.

So, I’m taking a break from blogging.  It may last a few months, or it may be permanent — time will tell.  I’m still active on LibraryThing, though. I’ve been a member there since late 2006, shortly before I began blogging, and I’ve made a lot of friends there.  These days I’m most active in the 75 Books Challenge group, the Virago Modern Classics group, and a private group called The Red Room.

If you visit my profile page, you can find information about my library and browse my books to your heart’s content.  You will also find links to my personal thread in the 75 Books Challenge group, where I keep track of my reading and chat with other members — it’s a lot like a blog, really.

I hope you’ll come visit me!

Review: Miss Mapp, by E.F. Benson

Miss Mapp is the second in E. F. Benson‘s Mapp & Lucia series, satirizing early 20th century provincial English village life.  In this volume we meet Elizabeth Mapp, a notable busybody in the town of Tilling, who spends an inordinate amount of time spying on and gossiping about her neighbors, and using the information she acquires to get the better of her fellow villagers and manipulate events to her advantage.  Miss Mapp’s house is ideally situated for this purpose; from her windows she can see nearly all comings and goings.  She enjoys her reputation as one who knows all, and skillfully covers up when she does not.

As in Queen Lucia, the first book in the series, Miss Mapp does not have an over-arching plot or conflict.  Rather, the novel is a collection of amusing, character-driven vignettes taking place over a period of months.  Miss Mapp is keenly interested in the activities of two mature single men in the town: Major Flint and Captain Puffin.  She has observed they both keep late hours.  The men claim to be hard at work on personal projects, but the reader knows better.  There’s also a running gag about two women wearing the same dress to a party, and their attempts to rectify the situation.  Sometimes Miss Mapp gets the upper hand, but she often makes mistakes — from poorly played bridge hands to more egregious errors in judgement — and must suffer the consequences.

I picked up this book because I was in the mood for something light and fun, and it did not disappoint.  E. F. Benson has a way with words that keeps me smiling from beginning to end.  I’m looking forward to future volumes in this series, and the inevitable meeting of Miss Mapp and Queen Lucia.

The Sunday Salon: My August Book Stack

July turned out to be a decent month for reading, better than expected, which is a good thing since I was in a bit of a funk a month ago.  I finished six books this month, five from my July book stack, and an impulse read: E.F. Benson’s Miss Mapp (review coming soon).  I’ve actually read six and a half books — as July draws to a close, I’m still reading The Stories of Edith Wharton, this month’s “short and sweet” bedtime reading.  As much as I love Wharton, I’ve found these stories hard going — they’re all rather depressing.  And maybe I’m getting a little burned out on short stories after reading them all year.  I haven’t given up on this book, I’m just taking it more slowly.

Now, what have I chosen to guide me through the dog days of August?

  • A Few Green Leaves, by Barbara Pym:  This is August’s group read over in the LibraryThing Virago Group, where we’re reading one Pym each month in honor of her centenary.
  • Chatterton Square, by E.H. Young:  Young always brightens my mood with her stories set in Radstowe (aka Bristol).  This Virago Modern Classic is also on my Classics Club list.
  • Chorus of Mushrooms, by Hiromi Goto:  BuriedinPrint recommended this book ages and ages ago, and I went off in search of a copy, only to allow it to languish on my shelves.  Time to remedy that!  Besides, I read so much American and English literature, it’s nice to mix it up sometimes.
  • Questions of Travel, by Michelle de Kretser: This novel won the Miles Franklin Prize at almost exactly the same time that I received it as a gift from a dear friend.  It’s been calling my name ever since, so this is the first book I’ll read in August.

Of course I’ll keep working my way through The Stories of Edith Wharton, and I’m also looking forward to reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new novel, Americanah, which I’ve requested from my local library.

What books are you looking forward to reading in August?
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Review: Taking Chances, by Molly Keane

This is one of Molly Keane’s earlier novels, published in 1929 when the author was in her mid-20s.  She wrote about what she knew: the Irish landed class, with their propensity for dogs and hunting.  Taking Chances is based on a familiar construct, in which a stranger’s arrival upsets the order of daily living.  Roguey, Maeve, and Jer are young adult siblings living in Sorristown, their family home.  Maeve is about to be married to Rowley, and her bridesmaid Mary comes to visit just before the wedding.  Mary is beautiful and flirtatious, and has an immediate impact on the men:

At the lighted door of the bathroom she asked for a cigarette. Roguey produced his case and lit one for her clumsily.  In her bath Mary found that, along with the dampness round his eyes, subjects for consideration. Used to swift work, his early show of interest did not thrill her. She was, as a matter of fact, totally unaware of the unsafe propensities of a scanty kimono when its wearer, with a poorly drawing cigarette in one hand, and bathing apparatus in the other, stoops over an awkwardly held match. (p. 35)

Yes, Mary is memorable, if not especially likeable.  But the story itself is dreadfully cliche and boring.  The minute Mary arrives, you know she’s going to wreak havoc on the close-knit trio at Sorristown.  And it’s easy to predict the form this will take, as well as the consequences.  And then there are the endless hunting scenes, described in such detail I wondered if Keane was trying to pad her novel.  I skimmed the last third of this novel, simply to confirm it ended as I thought it would.

I’ve read several of Keane’s later books and enjoyed her characters and social satire immensely.  This is an author whose talent took time to develop and while it’s interesting to see “where it all began,” one experience like that was quite enough!

Review: One by One in the Darkness, by Deidre Madden

I am so grateful for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), for introducing me to Deirdre Madden.  I read her 2009 shortlisted novel, Molly Fox’s Birthday, two years ago (read my review),  and then discovered she’d been nominated once before, in 1997, for One by One in the Darkness.  It took ages for me to find this book — my library didn’t have it, and it was outrageously expensive through online retailers.  Finally, Paperbackswap granted my wish.  And I couldn’t be happier; this quiet, unassuming novel is a gem.

The story is set in 1994, just before the IRA ceasefire.  Three sisters converge on their family home for a week.  Middle sister Cate arrives on her annual visit, weeks earlier than usual, citing work as an excuse. Oldest sister Helen visits almost every weekend, and immediately spots inconsistencies in Cate’s story.  Sally, the youngest, is a teacher in the village and lives at home with her mother.  Not surprisingly, it turns out Cate has reasons for visiting early which create some conflict in the family.

The relationships between the sisters and their mother are fleshed out through flashbacks to their childhood:

For the pattern of their lives was as predictable as the seasons.  The regular round of necessity was broken by celebrations and feasts: Christmas, Easter, family birthdays. The scope of their lives was tiny but it was profound, and to them, it was immense. The physical bounds of their world were confined to little more than a few fields and houses, but they knew these places with the deep, unconscious knowledge that a bird or a fox might have for its habitat. The idea of home was something they lived so completely that they would be been at a loss to define it. But they would have  known to be inadequate such phrases as ‘It’s where you’re from,’ ‘It’s the place you live,’ ‘It’s where your family are.’

Sadly, this predictable, peaceful pattern was shattered in 1968-69 as civil rights protests became increasingly violent.  Living in a rural village, events seemed remote for a while.  But eventually they, too, were affected by senseless, tragic acts.

I loved the juxtaposition of past and present, which delivered a richly detailed story in just 180 pages.  This was the first time I had read such a personal account of this period in Irish history.   I felt like I knew these people.  Their history was new to me, but their contemporary struggles were not.  And the ending took my breath away, revealing details only alluded to before, while leaving so much open to interpretation.

 

Recent Reads: Barbara Pym’s “Sweet Dove,” and Maria Semple’s “Bernadette”

My summer reading continues apace, as I work through my July book stack.  I finished two books in the past week, which is unusual for me. But one was really short and the other made for quick reading.  Here’s a run-down…

The Sweet Dove Died, by Barbara Pym
This novel centers on three friends: Humphrey, James, and Leonora. James is Humphrey’s nephew, and an assistant in his antique shop. Leonora is a middle-aged woman — younger than Humphrey and older than James — and enjoys flirtatious relationships with both men. She expects their attention, and enjoys receiving little gifts, without having to give much in return. She arranges for James to rent a flat in her house, and enjoys their “platonic living together” arrangement. But when James’ attentions stray to younger and possibly more compatible partners, she becomes jealous and tries to manipulate events in her favor. All the while poor Humphrey sits on the sidelines, a steady reliable friend with desires to take the relationship further, but Leonora is oblivious to this opportunity.

As you might expect, the story is bittersweet. Pym lightens the mood with supporting characters like Leonora’s “crazy cat lady” friend Liz, and Ned, a young American with designs on James.  Although the novel was published in 1978, the characters and story seemed more “vintage 1950s” with the odd references to sex and cannabis thrown in to modernize. Still, I always enjoy Pym’s work and found this a pleasurable comfort read.

The title comes from a poem by John Keats:

I HAD a dove and the sweet dove died;
And I have thought it died of grieving:
O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied,
With a silken thread of my own hand’s weaving;
Sweet little red feet! why should you die -
Why should you leave me, sweet bird! why?
You liv’d alone in the forest-tree,
Why, pretty thing! would you not live with me?
I kiss’d you oft and gave you white peas;
Why not live sweetly, as in the green trees?

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple

Bernadette Fox was once an award-winning architect, and now lives in Seattle with her husband Elgin Branch and their daughter, Bee. Bernadette gave up her work when Elgin took a position with Microsoft; he is widely recognized as a genius. Bernadette has become a recluse, leaving her house only when absolutely necessary and relying on an India-based “personal assistant” to handle most of her administrative responsibilities. She has an antagonistic relationship with other school parents, who she refers to as “gnats.” Bee started life with a serious heart condition and is now a precocious eight-grader at a second-tier private school. To celebrate Bee’s upcoming graduation, the family plans a trip to Antarctica over the Christmas holiday. But as the date approaches, Bernadette disappears, and a more complex story emerges.

The story is told through a series of emails, letters, and other documents. Bernadette initially comes across as just quirky, but deeper issues are soon revealed that challenge the family’s overall stability. The “gnats” also prove to be more complex characters than they seem, showing there is always more than one side to any story. The central conflict and its resolution bordered on the preposterous at times, but the light writing style was misleading. Beneath the surface is a novel with surprising emotional impact.

 

Review: May we be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes

In the first 15 pages of May we be Forgiven, the Silver family falls completely apart.  George Silver, a television executive, is involved in a car accident with fatalities, which he may have caused.  His older brother Harold, a professor, sleeps with George’s wife and then witnesses a horrific act of violence.  Harry is a mess, and yet is the only one who can pick up the pieces in the wake of such trauma.  He is appointed guardian for George’s children, Nate and Ashley, but it’s a good thing they are at boarding school because Harry has some pretty serious issues to work through.  He engages in a variety of self-destructive behaviors, while trying to keep up appearances as a successful academic.  But as his personal life unravels, the children’s needs take on greater importance, and together the family begins their long healing process.

This book drew me in at the start with its high-action opening, and immediate sympathy for a family struck by tragedy.  And for a while, it was hard to put down.  But about halfway through, the family’s path to recovery became less believable.  Harry became involved with two different women, both under circumstances that would not normally result in healthy relationships.  The children sometimes behaved in ways that seemed more advanced than a typical 11- or 12-year-old.  And then Harry staged an elaborate trip for Nate’s Bar Mitzvah, which was crucial to their healing process, but really over the top. At this point my attention began to wane — I generally prefer more realistic plots.  But on the other hand, I think much of this story is metaphorical, and the fantastic situations are carefully crafted to illustrate a point.

A few days after finishing this book, I’m still thinking about the Silver family and the way Homes told this story.  And I guess that says something.