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."

Monday, January 04, 2016

2015 in pictures

Since nobody wants to deal with actual words on this Mondayist of Mondays, here's a little photo re-cap of my 2015. (Chronological, more or less and many stolen from my instagram feed.)
Grace and I visited my sister Margaret and her husband in Washington.
(Picture taken from the bar at the top of the W hotel.)
Phoebe the Terrible.  (And Sancho creepin')
I discovered this amazing "batch bread" recipe in My Irish Table by Cathal Armstrong
I amused myself by taking selfies during conference calls
I knit this wrap, to wear in my chilly office. (And made those pajama pants.)
Our neighborhood now shares these chickens
I sewed this blouse and had bangs cut in my hair.
I sent two of my children to Europe for the summer--
Brigid to a summer job in Switzerland, and Seamus to a German exchange program

My office moved to a new location and I became a bicycle commuter
I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin for work
We moved Grace, Brigid, and their best friend into an apartment in Richmond
Jon and I went to Ireland.  (This is the village of Castletownbere,
where we stayed for two nights and visited a Buddhist retreat center.)
Ian and I hiked nine miles through the Blue Ridge mountains
I started The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
I finished this needlepoint project, which I started in 2007.
Jon and I got a free weekend in Norfolk, where he did a talk for the Virginia EMS association
I got a new job (and new work space with a standing desk)
I knit these socks for Seamus. If they look funny and old-fashioned, it's because
the pattern was adapted from a Victorian gentleman's sock pattern.

I'd much rather look at pretty pictures than deal with my life today, so if you have put similar recaps on your own blogs, let me know in the comments!

Sunday, January 03, 2016

2015 in books

I will remember 2015 as the year I read all the hard books.  It was not the most fun reading year of my life, but now I'm feeling very satisfied, perhaps a bit smug even, at what I read last year.  I wrote blog posts about some of these, but there are quite a few I didn't write about.

My bedroom bookcase is my favorite thing in our whole house.

The Cranford Chronicles by Elizabeth Gaskell (1851)  Delightful collection of three novellas about an English village.  The BBC movie adaptation is superb.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
Drood by Dan Simmons (2009) Horror fiction about Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.
Tarry Awhile by Lenora Mattingly Weber (1962)  Beany Malone wants to hurry up and get married.
Desiree by Annemarie Selinko (1958) Fictional biography of Napoleon's first love, who later became queen of Sweden.
Pioneer Girl, the Annotated Autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Pamela Smith Hill (2014)
March by Geraldine Brooks (2005)  Ridiculous novel told from the perspective of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March's father.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (2000)  Funny essays.
Jackson's Dilemma by Iris Murdoch (1995)  Murdoch's final novel, written as she was succumbing to Alzheimer's disease.
The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure (2011)  One woman's obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O'Brien (1993)  One of the excellent Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series.
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)  Man cooks breakfast, attends a funeral, and visits several pubs.
Three Men Out by Rex Stout (1954)  Nero Wolfe mystery.
The Commodore by Patrick O'Brian (1995)  More Captain Jack.
The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O'Brian (1996)  Captain Jack Aubrey again.
Swan in the Evening by Rosamund Lehmann (1967)  A memoir.
The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats (1936)
Mr. Wrong by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1975)  Collection of short stories, some rather creepy or gruesome.
Green Mansions by W. H. Hudson (1904)  Improbable romantic fiction set in a jungle in South America.
And Even Now by Max Beerbohm (1920) Essays
The Middle of my Tether by Joseph Epstein (1983) Essays
Wry Martinis by Christopher Buckley (1997) Essays
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West (1941)  Stunning travel log through the countries of the former Yugoslavia, on the eve of WW II.
The Diary of John Evelyn (1640-1706)
Before Midnight by Rex Stout (1955)  Mystery
Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1972) A young girl visits her step brother and his wife and turns their lives upside down.
The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (1791)
Minnow on the Say by Phillipa Pearce (1955) Children's book about two boys searching for a long-lost treasure.
Trooper to the Southern Cross by Angela Thirkell (1934)  Not her usual garden-party novel.  Story of a somewhat ribald ocean voyage from England to Australia, carrying troops home from WWII.
The Hundred Days by Patrick O'Brian (1998)  More Jack and Stephen!
The Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington (1748)
Blue at the Mizzen by Patrick O'Brian (1999) Again with the nautical fiction.
A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne (1768)  Epistolary novel about a journey through France and Italy.
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940)  Grim novel set in a soviet-style prison in the 1930s.
Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore (1869)  Swashbuckling romantic fiction.
The Reminiscences of Lady Dorothy Nevill (1907) Memoir of an aristocrat.  Lady Dorothy was one of the great Walpole family.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (2011)
21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey by Patrick O'Brian (2000) I finally read every Jack Aubry novel!
Something Borrowed, Something Blue by Lenora Mattingly Weber (1963)  Beany Malone gets married.
The Education of Henry Adams (1907)
Utz by Bruce Chatwin (1988) Charming little novel about a man and his porcelain collection.
The Golden Spiders by Rex Stout (1953)  Mystery novel--a cut above Stout's usual caliber.
The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery (1926)  Young woman rebels against her suffocating family.
Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century's Most Enjoyable Books by John Carey (2000)
A Reader's Delight by Noel Perrin (1988)  Essays about books.
A Woman's Work is Never Done: A History of Housework in the British Isles by Caroline Davidson (1982)
Eating in America by Waverly Root (1976)  An entertaining history of how Americans eat, starting with native Americans, moving through colonial times, and on up through the 1970s.
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (1977)  Travel through Argentina in search of legend, in the days before airbnb and translation apps.
Assorted Prose by John Updike (1965)  Essays
Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana jr. (1840)  Account of being a member of the crew on a sailing voyage from Boston to California in the 1830s.
I. Claudius by Robert Graves (1934)  Blog post coming.
All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard (2012) Blog post coming.
Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara (1934) Blog post coming.
A Child's Delight by Noel Perrin (1997)  Delightful essays about children's books.
The Bucolic Plague by Josh Kilmer-Purcell (2010) Blog post coming.

That's fifty-six books, although I have to admit that I read a big chunk of War & Peace in CY 2014, and I didn't finish The Bucolic Plague until January 2nd, and I finished A Child's Delight yesterday. Obviously, not all of these were hard, but I needed the Rex Stouts and the Patrick O'Brians and the Beany Malones to rest my brain while I read the difficult books.  I am looking forward to a more restful reading year in 2016.  How was your reading year in 2015?