18 August 2014

The danger of waiting too long

 

Six Days of the Condor by James Grady
Loved, loved, loved, loved this CIA novel. Earlier this ear I watched the 1975 film Three Days of the Condor starring Robert Redford and loved it. When I saw the book Six Days of the Condor at a charity shop for $1, I thought it might be fun to compare. What I didn't expect was to be totally drawn into the book. I loved every minute of it. Couldn't put it down. This is the kind of spy thriller I like. Fits well into my recent fascination with Eric Ambler. I am going to have to see if I find Grady's other books as interesting.

Now that I have finished the book (in record time) I need to go back and watch the film again. I know for sure there are a few things that are different. I think the film may have taken place in New York. The book takes place in DC and is full of familiar locations without seeming name-droppy.

The Good House by Ann Leary
I've seen some lukewarm reviews for this book since it was published in 2012. I liked it way more than lukewarm. Story of a real estate agent in a small community on the Massachusetts coast. I almost thought I wasn't going to like the book. Her life is kind of unravelling. Business isn't doing so well, she had been to rehab but was backsliding. As I do, I wanted her to be getting her crap together and being successful. But I am glad I got over that because I really enjoy the story, the characters, the setting. It felt a bit like Marge Piercy meets Claire Messud.


Oh dear. I may have waited too long to write about some of these books. And I rarely keep notes. You know what that means? Bullet point reviews.

According to Mark by Penelope Lively
  • Biographer Mark gets involved with granddaughter of the (dead) subject of his latest project.
  • He's married already.
  • I love a Lively and I found I loved this Lively more than usual.
  • There were moments when I felt the book was very much akin with Barbara Pym's novels.

Hotel of the Saints by Ursula Hegi
  • A collection of short stories that was much better than my bad memory would have you believe. (I think.)
  • I liked the various settings (Europe, Mexico, the United States)
  • One or two stories were quite moving.

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones
  • Given to me by Frances at Nonsuch Book.
  • Down on their luck but genteel family in 1912 England waits for house guests arrive for the weekend.
  • Then some other guests arrive.
  • I found the book pretty enjoyable, but I think it would have been more effective without the metaphysical aspect. (Big surprise for me, I know.)
  • I'm interested to read the other Sadie Jones novel Frances gave me.
Scarred by Monica Dickens
  • A Monica Dickens published in the 1990s thankfully feels a little old fashioned.
  • About a brilliant and caring plastic surgeon who is stalked by an unbalanced patient.
  • The patness of the story line has a bit of a Nevil Shute or DE Stevenson quality to it. But the tragic bits don't.




13 August 2014

Picture of the Week

 
I don't actually do a "Picture of the Week" feature, but I couldn't resist when I came across this photo. It shows a sadly decaying house in Detroit made over into to something fabulous by Tyree Guyton. The picture is taken from a great feature on best places for creative types in their 20s and 30s to live that aren't NYC and LA. As with all lists I don't agree with everything but it does make me want to be in my 20s and creative...


07 August 2014

A few moments in time

 
Bucks County, Pennsylvania (more pictures below)

We have been unlucky in the fact that our temporary apartment building is undergoing countless  different loud construction projects. Rather ironic that the place we are renting while our own home is under renovation should be almost uninhabitable during work hours. There have been moments when I have been at the end of my rope and have uselessly screamed at the top of my lungs for the noise to stop. My temporary insanity is known only to myself because the noise is so loud no one can hear me scream.

We have been extremely lucky in the fact that we have good friends who have a lovely farm house in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Lucy gets to run around, chase cats, stare at bunnies, and chickens and horses. John gets to talk gardening and sit by the pool with a glass of cold rosé. I get to chat, and eat and read. And believe it or not, I get to help mow the lawn. I love to mow lawn. We play bocce, watch birds, try to figure out the species of all the trees.

----------

This summer has been wonderfully mild. I've lost count of the number of nights, and even many days, that we have been able to turn off the air conditioning and open the windows. For DC in the summer this is unusual indeed. Even as the temperature has climbed occasionally into the 90s and the humidity ticked up a bit, we have yet to have a typical DC summer day. The kind that leave you sweating like a pig at 7:00 AM on your walk to the Metro.

On these cool evenings, with lovely breezes making Lucy's last walk of the night feel like a childhood summer idyll, it is hard not to feel a bit cozy. As I contemplated what to read on one of these nights, I trundled down the hall to the closet that is serving as my main book storage while we are displaced from our home. When I opened the doors it was like the smell of a hundred used bookstores had been concentrated into that 4' x 4' space. If it wasn't for the rather precarious stacks of books I would have crawled inside with a blanket and pillow and taken a little snooze.

A blurry picture of one of my temporary book closets.

----------

One of the books I am reading at the moment is Gladys Taber's My Own Cape Cod. It's been a few summers since we have been to Maine, and while I know that Massachusetts and Maine are not the same place, there are enough similarities that I'm letting the two places mix in my mind. Published in 1971, the memoir of Taber's life on the Cape reminds me a bit of some of May Sarton's journals. The book is arranged by season. I've gotten through spring and started summer. I love the way the book chronicles every day life and shows how the year unfolds through flora and fauna and weather. I've often wanted to keep that kind of journal. Taber seems a little obsessed with Vietnam and the arms race, but those are only minor, if frequent blips in the otherwise cozy and look at a seemingly simpler, quieter, less plugged-in time.





Lucy wants to help me mow the paddock.

Bocce ball


 












27 July 2014

Stephen Colbert told me to read this book

  
Such a cool cover.
I know most of you in the book reading world are aware of Amazon's crappy treatment of Hachette's imprints recently. They just happen to publish Stephen Colbert's books, so he decided to make Amazon's dickishness the subject of an on-air rant. He picked California, a first novel by Edan Lepucki as an example of who Amazon was really hurting and he encouraged his viewers to go to Powells.com and pre-order Lepucki's books since Amazon wasn't allowing people to preorder it. Within a week about 6,400 people had pre-ordered the book from Powells so Colbert decided he wanted to make it a NYT bestseller and encouraged us to order from an indie bookstore and listed some on the screen including Ann Patchett's Parnassus books in Memphis and my very own neighborhood Politics and Prose. So I dutifully went into PandP the next day and ordered my copy. Last time I looked the book was number three on the NYT list.

I probably never would have even heard of this book, let alone order it, let alone read it. But I am so glad I did. I loved it. Story of Cal and Frida, a husband and wife living on their own in the middle of nowhere after economic conditions and weather calamities have turned most of the country into a kid of Mad Max scenario. Then they become pregnant and the decide to try and live among others. This has shades of MaddAddam to it but it isn't half as futuristic and has nothing, sentient or otherwise, that doesn't already exist today. I could quibble with a few little details or plot points, but overall the writing is good enough and the story is good enough that those things are easily set aside. Although those who read a lot of speculative fiction might disagree with me (as well as any number of professional reviewers).

A real page turner and definitely worth picking up. Not only did Lepucki get lucky that Colbert chose her book to champion but we got lucky that California is such a good read.

22 July 2014

Wreview Wrap-up (Review Rap-up?)

  
The Levanter by Eric Ambler
My love affair with suspense writer Ambler continues apace. I wasn't sure I would like this one as much because it was written in 1970 and wouldn't have any of that pre-war patina. But I was wrong. Being born in 1969, 1970 feels a bit historic these days so I still enjoyed the period drama aspect of this novel. Syria, Palestine, Israel, bombs, espionage, it all seems a little too current. Loved it.

They Knew Mr. Knight by Dorothy Whipple
I love me some Dorothy Whipple. I particularly like The Priory and her book of short stories. But this one I thought was only so-so. I liked it plenty, but it left me somewhat ambivalent.  One of my issues was that Whipple's early foreshadowing of the crises to come was a little ham-handed and unnecessary. I could see the train wreck coming about 300 pages before it finally showed up. Another issue is that none of the characters was particularly sympathetic. I thought I loved Celia until she acted a bit uncharacteristically shallow when they moved into Field House. Still, worth your time if you like you some Whipple.

Photo Credit
A Man and Two Women by Doris Lessing
I started reading this collection of short stories way back in May. I really liked the first story--although even after going back and reading bits of it, I have no recollection what it was about--and I really liked the last story. But all of the others in between didn't thrill me too much. I may have tried to read them too fast. For well over a month the book sat almost forgotten in my nightstand with all but the final story read. And I wasn't really looking forward to finishing it. But since I only had one story to go, when I did pick it up, my mind was pretty focused and I loved it. And if you think abut it, my mind was pretty focused when I read the first story as well and I liked that one. It may be that I would like more of the middle stories if I read them again without feeling the pressure to read fast. The stories are largely relationship based and definitely fit into what you would expect for late 1950s early 1960s Britain. Think Iris Murdoch.

Fin and Lady by Cathleen Schine
Nancy Pearl told me to read Cathleen Schine. Nancy Pearl has never steered me wrong. (Repeat as necessary.) This is perfect summer reading and there were things about it that I kind of enjoyed, but I got pretty bored pretty early. Young boy goes to live with his largely unknown half sister in Greenwich Village after his mother dies. His sister, Lady, is about 24 and is intent on finding a husband but she also doesn't want to be tied down. Nobody puts Lady in a corner. A big fat so what from me.

Charlotte Fairlie by D.E Stevenson
Another chaste Scottish romance where everything turns out great. Stevenson clearly likes Scotland, well-behaved children, tidy houses, and God. But don't let any of that turn you off. I really enjoyed the first part of this book which takes place at a girls school where our heroine, Charlotte Fairlie, one of the schools "old girls", is the young, new headmistress. Not surprisingly there is an evil, petty, maths instructor who was passed over for the top job. Miss Pinkerton is right out of central casting for the mean school marm. I kept picturing the woman who played the awful Miss Treadwell in a few episodes of the original Upstairs, Downstairs. For me the book faltered when the action moved up to Scotland. Too much focus on the children and all their wide-eyed adventures. I found the main child character, Tessa, to be a precocious brat. See what Cath from Read Warbler has to say about it here.

Days From Seventy-Five to Ninety by Edward R. Hewitt
A slim memoir of a rather industrious, farmer/engineer/chemist, grandson of Peter Cooper who founded Cooper Union in New York, and son of Abram Hewitt "New York's notable reform mayor". Published in 1957 when Hewitt was 90 years old, I loved Part I which focused on his daily life including a list of all the magazines he reads on a regular basis (he never looks at TV). In Part II he opines on everything from hay yield to book mending to Japanese Saki deer. It would be interesting to see how much of his health/wellness related musings in Part III stack up to current scientific knowledge. Part IV is Hewitt's view of modern economics and his philosophy of life. Somewhere in one of these parts he writes about being invited by General Franco to improve something in Spain, but now I don't remember what. Was it hay yield? In any event he seems to think Franco is the bee's knees and just what Spain needs. (Later in the book he denounces Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, apparently Franco is the softer side of fascism.)  Part I is probably the only bit I found truly worth reading, but I think I will keep this book because I like the time capsule quality of it.

21 July 2014

Morbidly fascinating

   
Yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of the first landing of humans on the Moon. Of all the various stories and photos I have seen to commemorate this historic event over the past few days, none has fascinated me more than a photo of a document that historian Michael Beschloss Tweeted a few days ago. Beschloss is one of the more fascinating Tweeters I follow. With regularity he posts really amazing photos that usually have to do with some aspect of U.S. history and usually from the depths of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. If you are on Twitter and even remotely interested in U.S. history I strongly encourage you to follow @BeschlossDC.

The picture that has so fascinated me is this image of a document that President Nixon's speechwriter Bill Safire produced in the event of a disaster on that first manned landing on the moon. Although that mission was a success, it is an interesting reminder not only of what could have happened, but also of the sacrifice of space explorers who weren't so lucky.

A few things to think about as you read the document:
  • Bill Safire's writing and imagery are profoundly beautiful. Is it only in times of tragedy that politicians are allowed to sound poetic?
  • If you read the final two instructions, you realize that contingency plans of which this speech is a part, imagine that this particular tragedy is one where the astronauts are unable to leave the moon and return to Earth. Not an explosion, but something that keeps Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to knowingly face their demise.
  • I wonder if "wives of the astronauts" would have been a better term than "widows-to-be"?
  • I find it interesting and fitting that they refer to instructions for burial at sea.
  • To me, the single most chilling thing about this document is the notation "AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN". That there would be some point when NASA would decide to stop communicating with the astronauts and that the astronauts would be left with nothing but each other and silence. Surreal.

19 July 2014

Libraries are popping up everywhere

  
No doubt many of you have come across wildcat mini-libraries popping up in peoples' yards, in old callboxes, and any number of other places. Until recently, I had only seen these online. But then one day, walking with Lucy about six blocks from our temporary apartment, I ran into one in real life. A few weeks later I saw another one. And then a few days ago I saw a third one. And all within walk distance of our digs.

Of course each time I pass one I have to see what books lurk inside. For the most part I don't see much that interests me. And being here in DC, I also come across more non-fiction than I think is healthy. :) But the other day I saw a book I really wanted and so I took it. And not just "oh, that might be interesting", but rather "oh, I've been looking for this book, hooray". So this morning when I took Lucy out for her walk I filled up my messenger bag with books so I could leave some items in the two mini-libraries we would pass by.

This is the first little library I came across.

This was the situation when I arrived. Now I realize I missed that Vonnegut and it is one that I haven't read. Shoot.

My four additions (starting with Dissident Gardens and ending with A Cup of Tea). Is it wrong I only added books I didn't like? I do know, however, that each of those four have an audience and will be enjoyed by those who enjoy that kind of thing.

I was told by the keeper of the first mini-library, that this one, just a few blocks further down the road is an old medicine cabinet. And the owner apparently loves herbs.

The situation when I arrived. This is the place I found the Ambler pictured below.

The situation when I left. Normally I like Rose Macaulay, but this one not so much, plus I have a HC edition at home. Fin & Lady was just okay, the Messud is a duplicate, and Beautiful Ruins I didn't like.
 
This was the book I was so giddy to find. I've become a big Ambler fan this year and I haven't read this one yet.

Lucy helped.


 










07 July 2014

Ugh!

 
Many of you will know that one of my biggest pet peeves in fiction is inaccuracy in factual details. So far in my experience, the author Julia Glass seems to piss me off the most. Some of you have pointed out that if the writing is good enough one is less likely to notice such things.

And then came Michael Cunningham's latest novel The Snow Queen. I've liked every Cunningham novel I have read (and I have read them all). Granted, it took me a second try to warm up to Specimen Days, but, overall I like his work. After over 100 pages of TSQ, I just don't think I care enough to go on. I think I may be having trouble because it has a kind of searching, what's it all about, kind of vibe and I am just not in the mood for that right now.

But more than anything the thing I can't get over is that much of the imagery of the book is based on snow. Snow that supposedly happened on November 1, 2004 in New York City. Well, guess what?

It didn't freaking snow on November 1, 2004 in New York City.

I'm not a total nut job, I didn't go look that fact up just to look it up. I looked it up because it was the night before the Bush-Kerry election--which is also part of the story--and I remember distinctly what the weather was that day because I was knocking on doors in Cleveland trying to get out the vote for John Kerry. I know Cleveland and NYC can have different weather, but based on how the weather was that day in Ohio, I had a hard time believing there was snow in NYC. Not to mention the fact that snow that early in November is a rarity.

It just feels like Cunningham had a metaphor he was just dying to play out and couldn't be bothered to make it plausible.

Well, I can't be bothered to finish it.




22 June 2014

Bits and Bobs (the holy moly you are lazy edition)

With house guests, being busy with the house project, and having to deal with insane jackhammer noise in our temp quarters, I haven't been much of a blogger lately. Lots of clean-up to do.

Went to get a copy of The Night Guest for the summer read along (see below) and ended up walking out with a Messud-she isn't my favorite, but good enough to keep trying; A Cathleen Schine novel which is turning to be perfect summer reading; and the latest from Kathleen Tessaro who does wonders incorporating fashion into wonderfully readable, smartish, rom-coms.

A funny thing happened at the dry cleaners (or The Ark by Margot Benary Isbert)
Some of you may recall me blogging about this book in 2011. It was a favorite from my childhood. It's about a WWII-era refugee family in Europe who make their home in an old railroad car and includes a pet goat named Rachel.  I love this book. The other day I was in our neighborhood dry cleaners and I saw three books on the window ledge that looked like they were some sort of lost and found pile. It just so happened that this hard to find book, one of my favorites, was sitting right there and free for the taking. The dry cleaner was more than happy to let me have it.

A happy story for sure, but it turns a little bittersweet. The book is a discard from the Chevy Chase Library just across the street from the cleaners. I wondered if maybe it was the same one I checked out in 2011. When I went back and looked at my post from that re-read, I realized that the copy that I now have in my possession was the same exact copy I checked out in 2011. It was the only one in the DCPL system, and now, sadly, it has been discarded. Never to be read by another young mind. Big sad face. On the other hand, the book found its way to me, one of its biggest fans.

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine
Is an unreliable narrator the same thing as a crazy narrator? I think in the case of this novel the answer is probably yes. One of those situations where you find yourself rooting for the main character and then you begin to realize she may not be worth rooting for. A twenty-something woman who decides to start living her life boldly like the characters in Treasure Island which she has just read for the first time. Turns out she is a bit of a misguided, mixed-up, lazy, nutter. It's funny and frustrating. Reminded be a tad bit of After Claude by Iris Owens.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
I am a big fan of Patchett and there were moments in this collection of mostly previously published essays that I enjoyed. I particularly liked the essay about opening her bookstore. But overall I often find collections like these a tad boring because I feel like they aren't quite as topical as when they were written. Many essays don't age very well, or they seem less interesting or important because the heat of a particular issue has long since faded. This is really no knock on Patchett, there are many authors and essayists of grander stature who have bored me in this way. But I guess if this compilation gives her more time to work on her next novel I surely won't complain.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
After I read and loved Americanah I went out and bought all of Adichie's other books. Half of a Yellow Sun takes place in the years leading up to and during the Nigeran-Biafran civil war. It is a brilliant novel that definitely takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster. This is not melodrama, however, it is just really good writing about a really civil war where millions of civilians died. Adichie is good with plot, characterization, pacing, language, and believe-ability. She deserves to be a superstar.

I might be giving up on...
Joshua Ferris' most recent novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. His first novel Then We Came to the End is one of my favorites of all time. His second novel I found rather conventional but still enjoyed it very much. This one? I'm about half way through and I really am not very interested in going back to it. And I even bought it in hardcover.

Summer Read Along
Some listeners to the podcast The Readers were on Goodreads clamoring for a summer read along. Somehow Simon Savidge said yes, a consensus was formed, and I had to go find myself a copy of The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. On page 56, I am glad I forced into reading this one. It is pretty fascinating and enjoyable. And it is nice to read something that takes place in Australia. If you want to join in pick up a copy and read it by August 20th. Then send any questions or comments for the discussion to me here or check out the topic on The Reader's Goodreads message boards. Simon is going to be in DC at the end of August so we may end up recording it in the same room.
The much more interesting UK edition of The Night Guest from Simon's blog.

Background to Danger by Eric Ambler
I could give you an outline of the plot, but if I haven't convinced you yet to pick up the highly enjoyable Eric Ambler, I probably never will.

07 June 2014

Is it wrong to read everything you like all at once?

  
The other day my friend Ron and I were in Barnes and Noble killing a bit of time. Since I loved Americanah so much, I looked to see what other Adichie titles they had (only one Purple Hibiscus), and then I noticed the new novels by Michael Cunningham and Joshua Ferris. I had all of these in my hand and was ready to go to the cashier when I realized that I should be buying them at my local independent instead. This may not seem like such a revelation to most of you, but I buy so few new books I often forget the fact that Politics and Prose, probably the best indie bookstore in the DC area, is in my neighborhood. And it just so happened that we had plans for that night to go out to dinner just a few doors down from the store. So while we waited for our table at Comet Pizza I made a beeline for Adichie, the new Cunnigham and Ferris novels, and for good measure, I looked to see if they had any Eric Ambler on their shelves.


It isn't often that every single book I buy in one trip is a book I can't wait to sink my teeth into. Usually I pick up a few thing that I feel I might get to at some distant point in time. My dilemma is: is it wrong to just go ahead and plow throw these seven books? Have a bit of an orgy of enjoyable reading. I've already started the Ferris and am having a great time with it? Should I ration these or should I make up time that I lost earlier in the year to less than enjoyable books that I forced myself to read and others I gave up on?  If I toss in the three D.E. Stevensons I bought a month or so back I could really go on a fun book binge.

Hmm. It is summer after all. Why not? It is possible I will want to throw something else into the mix along the way. I have about two stories yet to finish in a Doris Lessing collection, and I still have 3/4ths of the 800-page Forsyte Saga to go. And it would be nice to read and review a novel or two that are still in hardcover. I know a few of you couldn't believe that I got to Americanah so soon after publication.

What would you do?

01 June 2014

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Several months ago I was browsing at a local independent bookstore with Frances (Nonsuch Book) when I decided I needed to inject my reading with some new, recentish, books. So I went a little crazy. I think I bought about five new hardcovers and about as many paperbacks, knowing almost nothing about any of them save what was written on their covers. My success with the books I bought that day has been less than stellar. Beautiful Ruins: Did Not Finish. Dissident Gardens: DNF. At The Bottom of Everything: Really Disliked. And there might be one or two others that faced similar fates.

And then I picked up Americanah. What a fantastic book. The main character's voice and Adichie's easy, smart prose drew me in from the get go. When I was in the middle of enjoying this novel I saw someone Tweet about how she was struggling with getting into the book. It was one of those moments when you think that a person must be crazy. I suppose I could give that Tweeter a pass if there were things about the book that weren't her cup of tea, but to struggle with it? Some people.

Although it is both a relationship book and a coming of age story, Americanah is so much more. As Ifemelu navigates through her school days, her relationships, and becoming an independent person, she does it all while transitioning from the life she has known in Nigeria to a new and very different life in America. And Adichie does it so well. There is lots of humor, there is much that one can identify with on a personal level, there are observations about US and UK culture that I found highly insightful, and there is a fascinating look at life in Nigeria.

It is too easy to reduce Africa to that single word 'Africa' and call it a day. As with many things that I am not actively studying, I have had a murky understanding of most aspects of life on that enormous continent. I have a good friend from college days whose family emigrated to America from the west African country of Liberia, I spent a week on safari in Kenya, and I have another good friend who is a white South African, but all of my other notions about Africa were highly jumbled and taken from little bits and pieces of history and news headlines. My recent time-killing exercise of learning how to name all 196 countries in the world in less than 12 minutes actually turned out to be quite a good thing. Being able to place the countries in Africa on a map has been immensely helpful in understanding the continent and how the different countries that make up that jigsaw puzzle relate to each other. Reading Americanah was a wonderful way to help fill in one of the many gaps in my database.

But as the title suggests, Americanah is also a book about America. I was astonished how frequently I found myself chuckling and agreeing with Adichie's insight into American culture. And not just in an "oh, look at how different things are between Nigeria and America" kind of way. Adichie certainly offers that kind of commentary, but just as often it takes America on its own terms.

Easily one of my favorite books for the year.


25 May 2014

"...an award-winning author." - Simon Savidge, The Readers, Episode 100

   


I listened to the fantastic 100th episode of The Readers the other day. It was a supersize episode with three hosts, not two, and it seemed to go on and on forever covered so many interesting topics. One of the things host Simon Savidge talked about was a fascinating history of a Victorian mental asylum. Apparently, like the amazing novel Stoner or the fabulous works of Barbara Pym, this history has been out for a while, but it is only now garnering the attention it so rightly deserves.

 
 

Published about a year ago, St. Elizabeths Hospital: A History, was recently fêted at an awards ceremony at Constitution Hall here in Washington, DC. In front of an audience of thousands about 500, author Thomas Otto accepted the Mayor's Award for Historic Preservation Excellence in Public Education. At the awards ceremony a image-rich video was played describing both the history of the hospital and Otto's process. If you're impatient (or an inpatient), you can fast forward to 1'22".



The best part about this history is that because it only exists in PDF format, it is available for free online, and, with no printing budget limitations, the book is chock-a-block with historic photos that can be enlarged to show otherwise hidden details.  If you want to read the book or just look at the pictures, you can follow this link.



For much of its history, St. Elizabeths was as much village as it was hospital. Sitting on a hill overlooking Washington, DC, it was home to patients and staff for over 150 years. Opened in 1855, the hospital was the first federal facility for the mentally ill and was often at the forefront of the field of psychiatry. Hundreds of boxes of archived documents, photos, and plans tell the story of this hospital where staff lived among patients, patients helped maintain the hospital farm, and the hospital farm kept them both fed. Now that history comes to life in this full-length history of St. Elizabeths Hospital.

You can read the history here. (15MB pdf file)





16 May 2014

Three British women and one rogue male

 
I have been very lucky in my reading choices lately, loving eleven of the twelve most recent books that I have read. This is particularly gratifying since I have had such a difficult time getting out of my reading slump this year.

This is not how I pictured the characters.
Linden Rise by Richmal Crompton
I know that Crompton has written about 4,000 William books, but that is not how I know her. Never having read any of those, my only experience with Crompton has been with her fantastic novel Family Roundabout republished by Persephone. Recently when I was about to make a purchase of three vintage D.E. Stevenson books from an independent online bookseller based in the UK, I noticed he also had a Crompton for sale. Impossible to find in the US, I snapped it up without hesitation.

Like Family Roundabout, I loved, loved, loved, Linden Rise. Although it isn't as nuanced or complex as Family Roundabout, both novels focus on families of adult children headed by widowed (or eventually widowed) matriarchs. In this case, the action centers around young Matilda Pound a 15-year old who enters service for the first time at a country cottage called Linden Rise. When she first arrives the house is about to be leased by the Culvertons looking to escape London for the summer. (Or was it some other city? One forgets.) Tilly, as Matilda is known, is one kick-ass housemaid who eventually becomes cook and housekeeper. Tilly knows her place for sure, but that doesn't keep her from intervening with one or two family members when they are being pills. And she does it fabulously in ways that make you want to cheer. She is like an action hero without the super powers or violence. In fact, she deserves to be made into an action figure. That would be awesome.

I finished Linden Rise about ten days ago, but I could sit down right now and read it all over again. It was such an enjoyable read. If only some publisher would reissue all of Crompton's adult fiction. Prices for some of her books are really crazy expensive. If you are ever out book shopping and see one of Crompton's adult novels for less than 20 pounds, just buy it.

The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens
Dickens is another Persephone author, but unlike Crompton, my first experience with Dickens, her novel Mariana, left me somewhat ambivalent.  I enjoyed it, but couldn't muster much enthusiasm. My "review" was only one sentence followed by some visual analysis of the fantastic Persephone cover.  Having now read another of Dickens' novel, I am inclined to go back and re-read Mariana to see if I would like it more now.

In The Happy Prisoner, the center of attention is on Oliver North (no Americans, not the Iran-Contra felon), a wounded WWII soldier convalescing at his family's country home. And it literally centers around him in the ground floor study that has been turned into his hospital room. The entire novel is set in those four walls with action outside of it being described by the family and friends who come in and out of the room. There could be a little more omniscience that I am forgetting at the moment, but this could easily be dramatized on stage without the need for any set changes.

I liked The Happy Prisoner only slightly less than Linden Rise. It also had shades of D.E. Stevenson as multiple marriages ensue and everyone comes up smelling like roses in the end.

Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym
Typical Pym, this. Which means it's bloody brilliant. Unlike the two wonderful novels already mentioned in this post, Pym's work is easily a cut or two above. They are deep, and clever, and humorous in ways that push her from mere author into the genius category. The novel is full of the usual cast of Pym characters, academics, and clergy, and librarians, and so many excellent women. Catherine Oliphant is a writer living with her anthropologist boyfriend. He begins an affair with another woman, an anthropology student and eventually Catherine begins to move on, developing an interest in an older anthropologist. One can imagine Pym sitting in the corner with a pad and paper taking notes on the mating rituals of this tribe of British anthropologists.

As enjoyable as it was, Less Than Angels, is not my favorite Pym. But that is a pretty high bar.

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household
I have a giant stack of NYRB Classics that I bought just because they are such beautiful books. When it comes to this publisher I tend to err on the side of buying every one of them unless the blurb makes it absolutely clear it isn't going to interest me. It was wonderful then to pick this one out of my TBR and realize how perfectly it fit with my recent interest in mid-century spy/crime fiction. In this case an Englishman in the 1930s attempts to assassinate an unnamed European despot (it's really Hitler) and finds himself fleeing back to England where he continues to be hunted by the multiple parties who want him captured. This book is pure adrenalin and suspense. Published in 1939, it is fascinating to see how hard it is for someone to disappear in 1930s England. One would think it would have been easier to disappear back then, but apparently not. This book is one part Ambler and one part Shute. A fantastic book.