'How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare that after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.' No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement. — from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

July 21, 2017

A House in Flanders

      Since I was invariably the first person about in the mornings I had appropriated the steps to the terrace as a vantage point from which both to command a view over the plain and to follow what was happening indoors.  Beneath my feet a swastika, roughly carved with a soldier's knife, was a relic of the not so distant German occupation of the house. I would sit, with the stout black labrador Mardi stretched out beside me, usually reading a book recommended to me by one of the aunts, or gazing at the view while, like Mardi, keeping an ear cocked for sounds indoors. A creaking followed by a crash of shutters meant that Tante Lise was opening the house on her morning round; a rattle of the glass panes in the front door heralded the departure of her niece Madeleine to shop in the village; while the shuffling feet on the stairs signalled the descent of Oncle Auguste, anxious to swallow his coffee and escape into the garden before his wife, Alice, could find some uncongenial task for him.
      Mornings were elalways somnolent at the house. The aunts were not early risers and Zoe the cook would already be cutting up the vegetables for lunch, as one by one, they appeared at the door of the cavernous kitchen in search of sustenance. Only Lise was down before the others had stirred, preparing the first of several meals during the day for her cocker spaniel, taking fresh grass to her rabbits who had over the years progressively taken possession of the old stables in the courtyard, and laying a tray for her elder sister, Yvonne, with which she would painfully make her way upstairs at nine o'clock precisely.
It's set in Flanders, not Paris, but when I needed, to be honest, a more cheerful book for Paris in July than the one I had planned to read, I was happy that this one was still in my library pile. {And Paris does make a cameo appearance...it's the place that you come from if you are not quite who you should be, or where you go when you need a fresh start, although it's inevitable that you will come back home.} It's a short book, only about 150 pages, and part of me wishes it was much longer, while part of me thinks that it's perfect just as it is.

Looking back to 1951, when he was fourteen, Michael Jenkins (who, as it turns it, is a British diplomat and author of many other books) is remembering the first summer he spent with the Aunts, three elderly ladies who live with other family members on a farm in Flanders. Before he arrives, he knows that they are not really his aunts, but old friends of his parents, who visited them decades ago when they were newly married; as the summer unfolds, he learns more about how they are connected, and more about the siblings who were lost in the world wars and the ones that remain. Each of the book's chapters focuses on one member of the family, and young Michael's connection with them, with the house, and its gardens, and the village nearby described in wonderful detail.  A family, and a house, that it was lovely to spend time with.

A House in Flanders, by Michael Jenkins
Souvenir Press, 1992
Borrowed from the Boston Athenaeum

July 18, 2017

Jane Austen at Home

Just wanted to remember spending this 200th anniversary at home, with our Jane, finishing this new book. Very readable, very enjoyable, very moving at the end.

Jane Austen at Home, by Lucy Worsley
St. Martin's Press, 2017

July 13, 2017

The Awkward Age

Philip liked James. James was likeable. He put Julia at ease and made her laugh. This year she had become beautiful again,  recalling the fragile, striking girl she had been when he'd first known her, where for years she had begun to look -- it was Iris''s uncharitable word, though he had had to admit the truth to it -- slightly haggard. Now she looked young again, and luminous. James exuded a kind of Viking strength and vigor, and searching for a description, Philip found his first true use for the term 'in rude health.'  He understood, choosing to steer his thoughts away from his own son's swift waning and diminishing, why Julia would be drawn to such a man. Now, under extraordinary circumstances,, James was proving himself over and over tested in his kindness, his generosity, his understanding. He had found a clinic, he''d spoken to the psychologist in his department, he'd been the one to source online videos for Gwen to watch, to help her understand the realities of teenage motherhood. Not once, Julia said, had he raised his voice. He was kind to Gwen, and liked her. He understood that gentle steadiness was their only hope for persuasion. He was taking care of all of them. Still, Daniel.

I enjoyed Francesca Segal's first novel, The Innocents -- a very close, modern-day retelling of The Age of Innocence, set in London -- very much, and of course, me being me, I hoped she would be giving Henry the same treatment this time. Alas not, but her story and characters still drew me in, there was the added pleasure of a little bit of Boston at the beginning. and in the end, this new novel will be one of my favorite books this year.

Julia, a widow, lives in London with her difficult 16-year-old daughter, Gwen.  She has found new love with James, an American obstetrician, who has moved in along with his teenaged son Nathan. Gwen 'loathes' James, and she and Nathan dig at each other.  As the story opens, James has taken the four of them to Boston for a long weekend, where they have Thanksgiving dinner with James' eccentric ex-wife. But during the trip, Nathan and Gwen come together. When they are all back in London, their parents are horrified to learn about their relationship, and then Gwen becomes pregnant. Julia and James struggle with guilt, and blame, and conflicting ideas on how the crisis should be handled, and the story turns on how their relationship changes, and ripples out to other family members, including Iris and Philip, Julia's in-laws, separated for years but still connected to each other. The characters are all wonderfully drawn, with so many details and traits; I found myself hopeful for all of them, and immersed in the sometimes funny, sometimes romantic, but realistic things that happen to them.

It's not exactly in the same style, but Segal's writing reminds me a little of other favorite authors {Laurie Colwin, Cathleen Schine}, which is another added pleasure.  I'm already hoping for another novel from  her soon.

The Awkward Age, by Francesca Segal
Riverhead Books, 2017
Borrowed from the library/purchased

July 1, 2017

The Lowells of Massachusetts

If you've been here before, you probably know that biographies are one of my favorite genres, and possibly that I have a soft spot (after reading them) for beautifully-written biographies of people who might not otherwise have caught my interest.  I've also mentioned that I don't browse in the library as much as I did before easy (not to mention multitudinous) reserves took over, but also that the recently renovated Boston Public Library is magnificent and much more inviting than it used to be.  And, of course, I'm drawn to books about my beloved city. All of this is just by way of saying that this book, unheard of and discovered by chance on the new biographies shelf, would have found its spot on my best-books-of-the-year list on its own merits, even if it hadn't ticked almost every single one of my boxes. :)

The point is made, early on, that the poet Robert Lowell is probably the most well-known descendant of this family,  so he's (deliberately, I think) only mentioned in passing.  Instead, the book recounts generations and generations of Lowells, from Percival Lowle, a successful merchant who emigrated to Massachusetts from England in 1639, with his wife and three of his eight children, when he was 68 (imagine!) to escape religious and economic persecution, to Amy Lowell, who was an incredibly famous and innovative poet in her day (although I don't remember reading much of her work, or anything about her, in my literature classes, though I have recently).  The Lowells in between them are merchants and farmers, politicians, lawyers and judges, beloved ministers, professors and a president of Harvard, poets and writers, abolitionists and philanthropists, and an astronomer (Pluto -- beginning with P.L. -- was named for Amy Lowell's brother Percy, whose work led to its discovery). And there are others who are there at the edges (Isabella Stewart Gardner's husband was a Lowell).

Other than just telling a long and fascinating story, I thought this book did two things exceptionally well.  First, it was organized around significant periods in history -- the early settlers, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the beginnings of manufacturing, etc. -- and the eras before and after them, and, skipping some generations, introduced us to Lowells who were engaged with what was happening at the time. {The Lowells were a close-knit family, often living together and in the habit of using family names, and combinations of names, over and over again, so there are tons of Charles and Johns and Annas and Marys and Hannahs and Rebeccas; it was hard to keep track of who was who, but in the end it didn't really matter. } The other thing, which made this book so readable, was that the historical details were interspersed with vignettes that read like fiction but rang very true.

A light breeze skimmed over the front steps of St. Paul's Church in Brookline, Massachusetts, stirring the lace-trimmed hem of Elizabeth Lowell's dress. She stood at the open doorway but turned for just a moment to look back at the coachman. Patrick Burns had been with the family for years and had taught Bessie all she knew of horses, and more. Burns nodded at her now and she took her father's arm. The two of them, father and daughter, proceeded forward through the door and into the church.
      Inside, William Lowell Putnam waited for Bessie. Will was her cousin, and as such, she had been aware of him most of her life. But awareness had grown to something more over the past few years, to interest, then affection, then love. All her family trusted Will, but no one trusted him more than Bessie. For Will, she would give up her role as stand-in mother for her little sister and manager of the family home, called Sevenels. For him, she would start a family of her own, manage a house of her own. With him, she would create a new branch of the Lowells and the Putnams, adding to an already outstretched family tree.
      She was twenty-six years old, sturdy and sober and sure of herself. Her hair was thick and brown, and her eyes were hazel. She had the soft Lawrence chin of her mother and the broad forehead of a Lowell. ... Will, twenty-seven years old, had been named for Will Putnam, who died in the Civil War just a month before he was born. It was Will's smile...that had saved his grandparents, his aunts and uncles, and his mother, Harriet, from all-consuming grief after the deaths of  Willy, then Jimmy, then Charles. ...
      Even as a grown man, Will laughed and smiled easily, and his friendliness was infectious; it was returned. He was not a handsome man, for he looked like a walrus, with his bristling whiskers and bulging eyes. But he had that smile, and he was kind and smart. Across the lines of Brahmin families, he was trusted not only with money, for he invested for many of them, but with their confidences. He kept secrets well, and money grew under his care.
      Fourteen-year-old Amy, Bessie's younger sister, had prepared for days for the wedding. How to greet guests, how to sit still in church how to eat daintily, and not too much. At an engagement party for her elder sister Katie, Amy had eaten so many plates of rice that at the end of the evening she could not button her coat. She never wore that coat again.  In a self-portrait she drew just days before Bessie's wedding, she'd sketched herself in profile:  sweet smile, straight nose, hair worn in a single braided plait down her back -- and a belly that looked as if she carried a large parcel beneath her dress, bound across her middle. ...
I had understood this a little, beforehand, but it was very interesting to read about how incredibly intertwined Boston Brahmin society and culture was during most of the years covered by this story.  Lowells married cousins, and some marriages cemented business alliances, but it was shocking when family members began to marry outside this very restrictive circle. And there were so many stories of great loves and terrible tragedies, so I had a real feeling of who they were as individuals, not just historical figures.

I also loved discovering that the author graduated from the law school where I work, but probably spent some (or a lot) of her time in the depths of the university libraries.  If I had gone to law school, I hope that I would have ended up doing that too. :)

The Lowells of Massachusetts:  an American family, by Nina Sankovitch
St. Martin's Press, 2017

Borrowed from the Boston Public Library

June 30, 2017

Only connect: Amy Lowell and Henry James

... Having discovered a new kind of poetry called Imagism, Amy wanted to find out more. The new movement was promoted by Ezra Pound and included a number of poets living in London, including some expat Americans. When Pound published an essay listing the essentials of Imagism in the March 1913 issue of Poetry magazine, Amy read it with avid interest. But there was a secret at the heart of Imagism, Pound wrote ... a mystery that would not be revealed to the general public.
      Amy was intrigued, and then more than intrigued:  She was angry. How dare such a secret be kept from aspiring poets? Who was this Pound,so arrogant and sure of himself, and so determined to bar the gates to the garden in which he himself frolicked?  Amy decided she would hunt down Pound and demand from him the hidden ingredient that might open up her poetry. In the spring of 1913, Amy loaded herself onto a steamer bound for England and went in search of Pound and his circle of poets.
      When Amy finally met Pound and his band of writers in London, it became clear that there were no secrets to be revealed. Imagism was a movement, but it was also a scheme devised by Pound as a way to get noticed. Amy tucked that bit of news away — publicity would become one of her strong suits — and went out to visit Henry James in East Sussex. James was an old friend of her cousin James Russell Lowell. Henry and Amy talked a long while about books and writing and the literary life. When Amy left James' house, she cut a sprig of lavender from his garden. She would keep that sprig always, saved between the pages of a book. It would be a reminder of what she now understood. There was no secret ingredient to writing, whether it was fiction or essays or poetry.  The formula was simple:  hard work, matched by inspiration.  Hard work, she was capable of, she knew, and inspiration was everywhere — in her garden, in conversations, in travels, in love and in friendship. All would serve to guide her in the years to come.

from The Lowells of Massachusetts:  an American family,
by Nina Sankovitch

June 20, 2017

Together and Apart, for Margaret Kennedy Day

Dearest Mother,
I'm sorry the Engadine isn't being a success, but I'm not surprised. Why on earth did you trust the Gordons to choose a hotel?  You might have known better. How is father's lumbago? For heaven's sake don't go on sleeping in damp beds till you both have pneumonia. Move to somewhere more comfortable. You are both too old to go camp out in mouldy little inns. ...
      Well now, Mother, listen. I have something to tell you that you won't like at all. In fact, I'm afraid that it will be a terrible shock and you will hate it at first. But do try to get used to the idea and bring father round to it.
      Alec and I are parting company. We are going to get a divorce. ...

We are so lucky that we have friends like Jane who introduce us to new writers and help us celebrate them...it's thanks to her that today is Margaret Kennedy Day, and that I've now read and enjoyed four of this lovely writer's books. Although I'd forgotten, again, that I read this one before, years ago, which is not surprising since this Virago edition has been on my shelves forever.

Together and Apart is the story of a marriage that falls apart, and of how a family falls apart along with it. Betsy Canning {who is wonderfully horrible} is disappointed with her husband, Alec, who has given up a respectable civil service job to write lyrics for popular operettas; his work brings them money, but it also brings a circle of friends and a position in society that (to Betsy) are not quite respectable, and Alex has also had an affair.  The Cannings have agreed on a plan for Alex to 'abandon' Betsy and give her the evidence she needs for the divorce, but their plans come undone when Alex is asked to work on a new production about Lord Byron, and stays at home instead. The rest of the novel tells us what happens to them, to their teenage children, to their mothers, to lovelorn, eccentric Lord St. Mullins (my favorite character), and to a beautiful young poor relation who they've made beholden to them, as they all spend the next few months together and apart.

Reading Together and Apart reminded me that one of M.K.'s greatest strengths, in my view, is in how she draws her characters. From the very first page, when Betsy tells her mother in a letter that she is planning to divorce Alec, we have a strong sense of who she is, and M.K. stays true to this for the rest of the book. Whether we like them or not, or think they're sympathetic or worthy or not, they definitely come to life.

M.K.  has a similar gift for setting the scene with short but vivid descriptions of landscapes and houses. I wish I had noted down more passages, because her writing is often lovely, and sometimes heart-catching.

      Alec waiting at the top of the path for Eliza, who was some way behind. He had noticed, or thought he had noticed, that she had dropped back on purpose. Probably the boys had been snubbing her.
      On former holidays she and Kenneth had been allies, and Daphne had had to play second fiddle. But, since the arrival of Mark, Eliza had been cast off. Her days were full of small rebuffis and disappointments, so that Alec, who saw it all, was often sorry for her. She had still a child's trustful unawareness of situation. ... Every morning, she would prepare to enjoy herself, undeterred by the fact that she had not done so on any previous day. Later she would be tagging along a little behind the others, bewildered and glum, but quite prepared to be happy if only they would allow it. ...
      Fat, earnest, hopeful Eliza would change, inevitably, into a woman whom he did not know. He was sorry, for he liked her very well as she was. Of the three she was the only one who meant very much to him. The other two belonged to their mother entirely. But she had caught at his heart when she was but an hour old; they put her into his arms, and she stared up at him as if expecting him to tell her what on earth had been happening. She still looked at him like that sometimes, giving him a spasm of tenderness and compassion. ... This sentiment assailed him now as he watched her toiling up the slope in pursuit of a brother who did not want her. When she reached the top he told her to wait and rest for a little, while he lighted his pipe. They flung themselves down upon the warm turf, and gazed at the chain of lakes below. The mountains, dappled with cloud shadows, swept back from this high valley. Their own lake, Llyn Alyn, had a small island floating on its silvery breast. Neither of them could view this prospect often enough. ... Little was left for all their greedy gazing -- a mere memory of light and airy space, of colour so soft that it escaped the inward eye as does an image seen in a dream.
      They were both thinking this, and presently Eliza said:
      'Do you think that it's true that Nature never did betray the heart that loved her?'
      'Lord, I don't know!' said Alec. 'Who says so?'
      'Wordsworth.  We did him last term. It's his philosophy of life, you know. One of those quotations you have to work into an essay. ...'

All of this, and her gentle humor, are the things I often hope for in a book, and am so happy to find in hers.

Together and Apart, by Margaret Kennedy
Virago Modern Classics, 1982 {first published in 1936}

From my shelves

June 9, 2017

Anticipation (mysterious edition)






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