Tuesday, January 26, 2016

All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Several times, I've written about Elizabeth Jane Howard's novels, particularly her wonderful Cazalet series.  The first four books, about a British extended family during the World War II years were published in the 1990s.  Howard's final installment in the series, All Change, came out in late 2013, shortly before her death at age 90.

Of course I was ecstatic to learn of a fifth Cazalet novel, and yet it took me two years to get around to reading it.  Even after I'd finally procured a copy, I let it sit on my nightstand for weeks, reading everything else on my short list first and feeling curiously reluctant to read this book that I'd longed for.

I realized that I was actually afraid to read it; afraid that it wouldn't be as good as the first four books in the series and afraid that I'd end up grieving that Elizabeth Jane Howard had lost her writing skill at the end of her life.  This fear was bolstered by a bad customer review on amazon which claimed that All Change was a disappointment, that there was little new material, and was just a re-hashing of the original books.

Finally, shortly before Christmas, I started to read it and after the first few pages I realized that all my fears were groundless.  All Change is just as satisfying and wonderful as the rest of the Cazalet series. Whoever wrote the amazon review must be a real curmudgeon.

It's 1956, or roughly eleven years since the end of Casting Off, the previous book in the series.  The story opens with the death of the family matriarch.  Clary, Polly, and Louise are in their early thirties.  Clary and Polly are married with children and Louise is a fashion model, having an affair with a married man.  Rachel, while grieving the loss of her mother, is now finally free to openly live with her longtime female partner, Sid.  Edward is somewhat estranged from the family, due to his marriage to the poisonous Diana.  Hugh, also remarried to a widow with twin sons, struggles to carry on the family business, and Rupert and Zoe live in a fantastic-sounding old house with their children. We also get to see Villy and even the much-beloved governess, Miss Millament, is featured for a bit. Nearly all the characters from the first parts of the series get at least a mention and now there are several new characters, Polly, Clary, and Zoe's children.  Elizabeth Jane Howard has a delightful, unsentimental way of portraying children and she doesn't flinch from showing the nastier aspects of some children's characters, without making this behavior seem like a precursor to being a sociopath.

So there's lots of new material in this new book, and at the end, the Cazalets are at another crossroads in their story.  Some lose ends are tied up, but there's a lot that isn't resolved.  I wonder if EJH had considered writing a sixth book?  At any rate, All Change turned out to be the sort of book you can't wait to get back to at the end of a long day at work, and it was also a good Christmastime book, as there are several really good Christmas sections.

I know that many of the books I write about here don't have much appeal, but I can't imagine anyone not loving this series.  If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend adding it to your list.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

I Claudius

Good reviews of Robert Graves' books have been turning up everywhere in the blogs that I read, and his classic novel I, Claudius was included on Modern Library's list of the top 100 books in English, so I added it to my own list.  I was expecting it to be a bit of a bore, but it turned out to be engrossing.

Claudius was the grandson of Livia, the wife of Caesar Augustus.  He was partially deaf, stuttered, and walked with a limp, which led his family to believe he was half-witted.  Thus, he was either ignored or jeered at by many of those who knew him, which probably prevented him from being executed or murdered.  "No one murders the butt," he's told.  Claudius became emperor of Rome in A.D. 41, following the assassination of his nephew, Caligula.  Most other members of the family were already dead.

I Claudius is his fictionalized autobiography, and it is a fascinating look at Roman history, starting with the time of Caesar Augustus, who was Claudius' step-grandfather on his father's side, and his great-uncle on his mother's side.  The Romans were so casual about divorcing and remarrying and adopting each other's children, that I found it very difficult to keep track of the family tree.

Robert Graves is a really good writer and his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, is also in my list. I enjoyed the perspective from inside Claudius' head, who is intelligent and quirky.  I have to say, this is probably one of the bloodiest books I have ever read.  If they gave out awards for the book with the most murders and executions, I. Claudius would win for sure.  It starts small, with just the poisonous Livia murdering anyone who gets in her way, but by the time Caligula becomes emperor, whenever a new character is introduced, I found myself wondering how long before this one was murdered or executed, which was the inevitable outcome for all.  I, Claudius really highlights how brutal and savage the Romans really were, underneath their veneer of civilization.

Monday, January 11, 2016

In Which One Can't Argue with a Man in a Kilt

Chance encounters with strangers provide color and drama to our otherwise humdrum lives, wouldn't you say? Saturday, Jon and I went to the Tin Whistle, our favorite Irish pub in Charlottesville to listen to some Irish music. It was a 5:00 pm event, so we planned to just have a beer or two and then walk home for dinner.  We were very lucky and got two seats at the bar, in a cozy corner by the window; the perfect vantage point for people watching.  I soon became aware of a lot of energy a few seats down the bar, where a man with a Scottish accent was holding court with a couple of locals.  He was wearing an unusual shirt with an old-fashioned laced closure. When he got up, I noticed he was wearing a kilt.  Stewart plaid, in case you're interested.

We were contentedly silent, enjoying the music, until Jon ordered his second beer and impulsively asked the bartender to buy a beer for the Scotsman, since it was his birthday, a fact he had overheard. That is just like Jon, by the way.  Myself, I am so introverted I can barely handle day-to-day interactions with shopkeepers and bus drivers.  Jon, on the other hand, is extroverted and has made friends with perfect strangers all over the world.

Conversation ensued. First, he and Jon engaged in a comparisons of their tattoos.  This was followed by competition about who had eaten meat from the least appealing type of animal and then a debate about which tastes worse, seagull or bear.  Seagull, obviously, which the scotsman had eaten and described with a Scottish word that means tough and chewy.  "It smells a bit rotten," he admitted.

As amusing as all this was, I was starting to get hungry and to long to return home to cook our dinner of mushroom burgers  and the gingerbread I'd made for dessert, and to settle in to a quiet evening with my books and knitting.  Jon paid the bill, we slid off our stools and waved good-bye to the Scotsman, who uttered an expression of dismay.  How could we leave before he had had a chance to return Jon's hospitality?  "What are you drinking?  What are you drinking?" he demanded.  Jon chose a shot of Jameson's.  He asked what I was drinking and when I demurred, he bellowed down the bar, "IF YOU'RE DRINKING WITH A SCOTSMAN, YOU'RE DRINKING WITH A SCOTSMAN."

I realized, faintly horrified, that I was expected to order a shot. You can't exactly ask for a nice glass of Sauvignon Blanc in a situation like this.  I have done a shot once in my life, when I was 18 and attended a party at my college.  Someone handed me a shot of Jack Daniels, and in my innocence, I knocked it back like a practiced barroom floozy.  Well.  That was a shock, let me tell you.  Once I recovered from the burning throat and not being able to breathe, I promised myself then and there that I would never, ever do a shot again.  I have this irrational need to be able to breathe at all times.

Whenever I've been out and someone suggests a round of shots, I quietly make myself invisible, and so have managed to avoid shots without losing face, all this time. And now, here was a man in a kilt, looking me straight in the face and asking me to order a shot.  I couldn't do it. I told the bartender that I'd like a small Harp's lager and she kindly gave me a half pint glass, not quite full.  The Scotsman looked surprised, but only for a second.  He and Jon downed their whiskeys and I gulped as much of the lager as I could and then we left.

All this banter and drinking happened across the middle-aged couple from Williamsburg, having a weekend vacation in Charlottesville, who sat between us.  They were included in the conversation and sometimes even participated, but mostly I think they wanted to eat their bangers and mash.  Oh well, as the Scotsman probably would say, "If you're eating at the bar, you're eating at the bar."