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SassyLassy finds one thing leads to another in 2012

This topic was continued by SassyLassy still meandering through 2012.

Club Read 2012

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Feb 8, 2012, 11:26am Top

Today is my first anniversary with LT, so to celebrate, I'm joining the party at Club Read. My thread name comes from my lack of restraint in following my carefully organized 12 in 12 categories. After all, reading one book has a way of leading you off in totally unexpected and unplanned directions, so I'll be tracing those paths -- otherwise known as rationalizing.

Since almost all my 12 in 12 selections are from Mount TBR, I obviously need the TBR discipline this group has just to keep that acquisition tendency in line.

Just realized restraint and discipline aren't much of a party, but reading all the Club Read reviews is: all those new books!

Feb 8, 2012, 1:30pm Top

Welcome, what are you reading?

Feb 8, 2012, 3:12pm Top

Thanks for the welcome. I'm currently reading two completely unrelated books: The Oatmeal Ark about a journey across Canada retracing the route of the original Highland settlers and Rodinsky's Room. I need a novel for balance, so may start William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms by the weekend. How about you?

Feb 8, 2012, 6:31pm Top

The Oatmeal Ark sounds vaguely familiar. A couple of weeks ago at my local French bookclub there was a reading about travelling down through Canada by canoe. Now my French isn't that wonderful and so I didn't catch the author, title of the book or all of the extract. I am usually about three sentences behind everyone else.

I am just finishing Moby-Dick which has been a long read and so something shorter next. I have The sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes to read

Feb 10, 2012, 11:13am Top

I have been reading the Club Read reviews for the Barnes book and fear I will have to add it to my wish list. Unfortunately the Ark was a disappointment. Keep up the French club. I loved your experience with Villon/villain. Is there a connection with medieval villein?

Feb 10, 2012, 11:29am Top

Here goes with my first LT review. Very scary.

1. Blue Nights by Joan Didion 2011

Christmas present 2011 read January 2, 2012

Blue nights are those magical evenings at the peak of summer when the intensity of light makes it seem as if they could go on forever. As summer wanes, the blue nights fade and in no time summer is gone. The notion that blue nights cannot last forever is one we tend to ignore until events force us into the realization that our own blue nights have passed forever.

Photographs, ephemera, memorabilia, all the back drop of our lives show us what happened but the explanations of how and why are left to us. Joan Didion confronts these totems and explanations on the seventh anniversary of her daughter Quintana's wedding, almost five years after that daughter's death. When Didion's husband died five months after Quintana's wedding, Didion promised herself she would "maintain momentum". Now, on this July night, she realizes she has all but missed this year's blue nights in that effort; that blue nights are over for her and momentum is all but lost.

Didion has always had a rapier like mind and pen, so her confrontation with the end of life is brutally honest; an examination of what has been and what might have been, and most devastatingly of all, of the time yet to come. A doctor suggests she is not adjusting properly to ageing. Friends suggest it may be time to move from her apartment. Out on the street she has become invisible to a world attuned to youth and action. She herself realizes she will no longer "continue to wear the red suede sandals with the four inch heels that I always preferred".

Reading this book was a long good bye to a favourite author and a melancholy realization that there will likely be no more new encounters. At least there was the opportunity for farewell.

Feb 10, 2012, 11:45am Top

Nice review! I've never read anything by Joan Didion, but I think I heard an interview with her about this book on NPR and thought it sounded really interesting. Sounds like you've read a lot of her works. Any favorites you'd recommend?

Edited: Feb 11, 2012, 5:07am Top

Lovely heartfelt review of Blue Nights

If you add your review to your library page we could give it a thumb(recommendation) as it is the best review posted for this book.

Feb 11, 2012, 10:12am Top

Ditto what Barry said. Yours is the best review posted and the first that has enticed me to read the book!

Feb 11, 2012, 5:02pm Top

>7 japaul22:, 8, 9
Thanks for dropping by and for the encouragement.

>7 japaul22: Slouching toward Bethlehem is an early non fiction book (1968) that definitely shows where she is going and was probably her first best seller.. Miami, also non fiction, is one of her best. For fiction, i would go with After Henry

>8 baswood: and 9 I think I have added the review!

Feb 11, 2012, 5:24pm Top

You have, and I have thumbed it.

Feb 11, 2012, 7:08pm Top

me too

Feb 14, 2012, 3:40pm Top

Thanks again.

Feb 14, 2012, 4:04pm Top

2. Mawrdew Czgowchwz by James McCourt

Santa Thing 2011 finished January 10, 2012

On Twelfth Night I sat down to start the 12 in 12 read with my NYRB category. When I first made the list, I only had ten selections in my TBR pile, but an inspired SantaThing Santa completed the dozen. This is how I discovered Mawrdew Czgowchwz, the latest diva to hit Gotham.

According to the introduction, this impossible (for an English as first language person) consonant combination is pronounced Mardu Gorogeous, which I always hear in what I imagine as a New York accent, as Gawjus. I digress, however, something you too will do after reading this book. Oh, and this MC has nothing at all to do with Maria Callas.

The hopefuls, has beens and hangers on who populate this novel create a wonderfully silly portrayal of the tails trailing behind this operatic comet. To tell the story of Czgowchwz' 1948 arrival in New York and the subsequent social turmoil, McCourt makes use of dialogue, asides, phone calls, newspaper reviews, snippets of music scores, radio broadcasts and plain old gossip. The result is that like opera itself, you can both read and hear this fable.. The constant switching from one medium to another sets the pace of the novel, which can be exhausting. Even the cast (full list provided as with any opera) has to stop and recuperate from time to time. Mawrdew herself collapses and must take a break, during which her true self is revealed.

There is truly no way to describe this book as it defies classification. In his introduction, Wayne Koestenbaum calls it "the great novel of the gay virtuoso gabber" and while this is apt, there is too much happening to categorize it.

I enjoyed this novel a great deal. It was the right book at the right time, but on another day it could easily have been the exact opposite. I would like to know how others found it.

Feb 14, 2012, 6:49pm Top

Intriguing review of the James McCourt novel. I am not going to attempt to write down the title of his book.

Feb 14, 2012, 7:44pm Top

Hi Sassy...please explain the 12 in 12 thing for those of who no longer stray deeply into the LT forest.

Happy belated thingaversary!

Feb 15, 2012, 3:19am Top

>14 SassyLassy: - Great review! I loved that book. Maybe more fun and frothy than deep and thoughtful, but I loved the fragmented, cinematic, gossipy style and (being an opera addict) the deliriously over-the-top descriptions of various performances.

Feb 15, 2012, 5:35am Top

Enjoyed reading your reviews, particularly of the Joan Didion. I've been aware of her for some time but still haven't read anything of hers, so I appreciate your suggestions of where to start.

Feb 15, 2012, 10:52am Top

>15 baswood: It was terrifying every time I had to use the name --- had to check the spelling again and again!

>16 avaland: For the 12 in 12 challenge, you select 12 different categories for reading, like my NYRB classics above, and then you fill each category with 12 books. The ridiculous goal is to read them all in 12 months, although there are no hard and fast rules around this. I gave myself the additional challenge of creating these categories from my TBR shelves and was horrified and mortified to discover that I could almost fill all 12 categories this way and some I could fill twice! I guess at least it shows I am reasonably consistent in my interests!. Apparently there were earlier versions of this challenge (10 in 10 and so on) but since I wasn't on LT then, I didn't participate and so didn't enter this challenge with any thought to strategy. Otherwise, I would never have come up with a category for 19th century novels, 12 of which could take up a full year. My next problem is that I keep wandering from this list as one thing on it so often leads to another thing not on it. So even if I magically read 144 books this year, I will be lucky if 12 are from the challenge.

>17 DieFledermaus: Thanks. How did I guess you were an opera addict? I see you are reading Summer will Show which is also on my NYRB list, so I will be interested in hearing how you find it.

>18 rachbxl: I suspect Didion is one of those authors people have strong feelings about one way or another. On a completely different note, how are you finding Gary Shteyngart?

Feb 15, 2012, 12:47pm Top

>19 SassyLassy: Meh...don't really know what to say about Gary Shteyngart. I got a long way through The Russian Debutante's Handbook last year - so far, in fact, that it's silly not to finish it, but I hit a wall. I really enjoyed the first part, set in New York, the immigrant trying to fit it and so on; some of it was very funny, but it was touching, too. Then when the scene set to the fictional Eastern European capital which is THE current destination for US and Western European gap-year students, English teachers and arty drop-outs, I lost interest. I think I felt he was trying too hard. I should just finish the thing to give it a fair chance, but there's so much else to read!

What about you - have you read any of his books?

Feb 15, 2012, 5:10pm Top

>19 SassyLassy: re: 12 in 12. Fascinating. But 144 books! I'm not attracted at all to challenges; I must be missing the gene for it. I have never needed a challenge to get me to read, although I do sometimes find it challenging to settle down and do it!

Feb 16, 2012, 11:47am Top

>20 rachbxl: The Handbook made it into the house over the holidays but I have not yet read it. I did thing Absurdistan was quite funny in a laugh out loud way. I have heard Shteyngart interviewed on the radio a couple of times and was taken with his very quick and funny rejoinders. Not sure the interviewers were so taken with them though!

>21 avaland: I think I have an love/hate relation to challenges. My reasoning behind this one was that it would keep me reading through several books in a row on the same topic, instead of all over the place as I have been doing lately. In that sense it seems to be working, but as you can see below, not from the list.

Feb 16, 2012, 12:16pm Top

3. Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi

finished January 15, 2012

I chose this book from my Real Spies, Real Crime category. After all, who better to start a category like this than the Mossad?

In 1957, when the Israeli secret service received credible information about Eichmann's whereabouts from a German prosecutor, it was not involved in pursuing Nazi war criminals. It was far more concerned with getting information about its Arab neighbours and about changes in the Soviet Union. However, Isser Harel, the Mossad chief, thought this particular lead was worth following up.

This is a fascinating story that starts with the chaos of post WWII Europe that allowed Eichmann to evade detection and leave Europe as late as 1950. During the next seven years, various agencies and Nazi hunters tried to track him down without success. Incredibly, although Eichmann himself had changed his name when he left Europe, his sons maintained the family name. So, when a young girl in Argentina introduced her new boyfriend Nick Eichmann to her father, who had spent time in Dachau before the war, the real hunt began. The father in Argentina sent the tip to the prosecutor in Germany, who felt he had to pass it on to the Israeli liason officer, as his own country would not follow up.

Today it is commonplace for Mossad to launch actions in foreign countries. but this was to be their first major one. Without any precedents, details had to worked out not only for the mission itself, but also to cover failure or exposure. Getting Eichmann out of Argentina was a huge part of the planning effort and involved El Al being sent on its first flight to Argentina: a whole project in itself.

Bascomb describes the building of the Mossad team that worked out all these details and that would be sent to Argentina. Many members had personal connections to the Holocaust and while desperately wanting to capture Eichmann, had to overcome strong revulsion to dealing with the man himself.

Even though I knew the mission succeeded, Bascomb's descriptions of the actual kidnapping and the flight from Argentina were page turners. His description of Eichmann in captivity is one of a man still wanting to please his superiors, in this case his captors. His portrayal of Eichmann is a man who remained convinced that he had committed no crimes and who went to the gallows still believing this.

Feb 16, 2012, 12:52pm Top

4. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

finished January 19, 2012

At the end of Hunting Eichmann, Bascomb describes Eichmann's trial, captivity and execution, with the emphasis on Eichmann's responses. This lead me to want to find out more, so I dusted off my old copy of Eichmann in Jerusalem, started years ago but never finished.

Hannah Arendt was commissioned to write a series of articles on Eichmann's 1961 trial by The New Yorker magazine. These were published in book form in 1963. The book was highly controversial at the time as many considered Arendt's treatment of the events as criticism not only of the trial, but of Israel itself.

Reading this book almost fifty years later is a validation of her criticisms, which still hold but no longer seem unwarranted. In 1961, Israel was still a new nation, trying to establish itself in the eyes of other nations. The trial was a vehicle for that, but it was also instrumental in establishing the national founding myth. All countries have these; they are an essential part of nationalism and identity. To this end, days were spent in listening to testimony from survivors of the horrors of the Holocaust, what the court call "background witnesses". However, as Arendt pointed out, Eichmann was being tried on only those crimes he could have been responsible for and testimony should have been limited to those crimes in particular. It is her contention that David ben Gurion wanted these testimonies, both for publication in the world press and for younger Israelis to learn their history.

While Bascomb discussed the fallout from the kidnapping of a person in one country by a foreign power, which then puts that person on trial, he did not discuss the matter directly. Arendt does at length and it clearly disturbed her. Once again, this would not have been a popular position at the time the book was written, but it is much more pertinent today when many countries engage in covert actions abroad.

Despite chapters of discussion on the deportations and killing, perhaps it was her refusal to portray Eichmann as a monster, consistent with the monstrosity of the Holocaust that most infuriated readers. She was there to report on and discuss the trial and what was what she did. In her words:

...the question of individual guilt or innocence, the act of meting out justice to both the defendant and the victim are the only things at stake in a criminal court...The present report deals with nothing but the extent to which the court in Jerusalem succeeded in fulfilling the demands of justice.

Feb 16, 2012, 3:38pm Top

Hunting Eichmann sounds very interesting. Now you are adding to my already toppling wish list! Can you imagine being that father who spent time in Dachau and realizing that your daughter is dating Eichmann's son? Quite the potential father-in-law. My skin crawls at the thought.

Feb 16, 2012, 6:58pm Top

Good reviews of The Eichmann books. I did not know how ground breaking the capture of Eichmann was. fascinating stuff.

Feb 17, 2012, 7:53pm Top

Great reviews of the two Eichmann books. Adding Hunting Eichmann to the wishlist.

Good luck with the 12/12 Challenge. I did the 9/9, 10/10 and 11/11 and found them a good way to extend the scope of my reading i.e. to read something other than crime novels.

Feb 21, 2012, 3:17pm Top

>25 Linda92007:, 26, 27 Thanks. These books have taken me into some fiction which I will be adding here later.

>27 pamelad: I should have been here in 2009, that looks like something I could manage. You're right, it does extend the reading. I keep seeing categories on other people's threads and thinking how interesting they look. However, as a huge James Ellroy fan, I have to ask (rhetorically), what's wrong with crime novels?

Feb 21, 2012, 3:51pm Top

5. The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

finished January 27, 2012

This was one of those books that every reader encounters once in a while; a highly praised book, considered a classic, but one that just doesn't come across to that reader. It is the travel diary of Robert Byron, who set out to cross from Baghdad to Kabul in 1933. His purpose was to study the classical architecture of the area, then know as Oxiana.

I first started reading it about two years ago, after reading Rory Stewart's The Places in Between. This described Stewart's 2002 walk from Herat to Kabul; the walk that completed his earlier interrupted walk from Iran to Nepal. I had thoroughly enjoyed Stewart's book, but made slow progress with Byron. Then, when I joined LT, his book kept showing up in the "What Should You Borrow?" feature. It was time to tackle it again.

While writers in the 1930s were far more reticent about their personal lives, Byron revealed so little that I kept asking myself "Who is this man and why is he doing this?" Byron had an occasional travelling companion on this trip, Christopher Sykes, who would accompany him for awhile, disappear and then turn up later. Once again, apart from references to difficulties with his travel papers, there is no reason given for his presence or absence.

Were they spies? This seemed a likely explanation, but the historical record does not bear this out. Byron, in contrast to Stewart, had very little curiosity about the local people accompanying him and supporting his travels. They appear almost as scenery.

The most lasting information I took from this book was that the people who were fleeing across the Oxus River into Persia and Afghanistan from Stalin's forced resettlements, were disrupting the local balance of trade in Persian lambskins. Perhaps I can find out more about their travels and where they wound up.

If you like travel writing, do read The Places in Between. If you want to know more about some of this architecture, I see that Byron published a book titled The Byzantine Achievement: An Historical Perspective AD 330-1454. What I would like to read as a followup to both Byron and Stewart is The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor 1483-1530 with an introduction by Salman Rushdie. This tell the story of the first Mughal emperor's travels across the same region. Rushdie often uses these tales in his writing.

Feb 21, 2012, 5:36pm Top

I have travelled that road from Herat to Kabul, but not on foot, way back in 1976 before all the invasions. I have The Places in Between on my shelf to read this year and you have reminded me I must get to it soon. I have read The Road to Oxiana but such a long time ago that I cannot remember it.

Feb 22, 2012, 3:51am Top

Coming late to your party. Enjoyed your review of Blue Nights. I'm a big Joan Didion fan but have not read that one — yet!

Feb 25, 2012, 6:27pm Top

Just found your thread, SassyLassy!

#20, 22 I felt the same way you did, Rachel, about The Russian Debutante's Handbook -- liked the NYC parts and thought he went overboard with the return to Russia part. Then having read parts of Absurdistan in the New Yorker, I realized I didn't have to keep reading Shteyngart.

#23, 24 I read Eichmann in Jerusalem decades ago, and was fascinated by a book that came out last year, The Eichmann Trial by Deborah E. Lipstadt that describes the trial and puts both it and the Arendt book into a historical context. You might find it interesting too.

Feb 26, 2012, 1:41pm Top

>32 rebeccanyc: The Lipstadt looks like an excellent book. Thanks for the reference. One of the things Arendt mentioned in a sort of aside, but that really interested me about the trial, was the idea of a defender, prosecutor, judges and defendant, all of whom spoke German as a first language, listening to the proceedings in that language and then dutifully waiting for the Hebrew translations. I realize this was completely necessary in view of establishing this as a trial by the state of Israel, but it does paint a somewhat surreal picture.

Feb 27, 2012, 9:15am Top

>30 baswood: I am supremely envious.

>31 Poquette: Glad to meet another big Didion fan. I have been happily exploring your bibliomonde.

Feb 27, 2012, 9:54am Top

As I have been out of town without a computer for most of the past week I am falling ever further behind, so here is one catchup. I needed something completely different while reading the Eichmann books and this certainly filled the bill, while also being in my Never at a Loss for Words: Nineteenth Century Fiction 12 in 12 category.

6. Rob Roy by Walter Scott

finished February 2. 2012

When Rob Roy was first published in 1817, it sold all ten thousand copies within two weeks -- a truly remarkable feat for that time and place. This was a tribute not only to Scott's story telling abilities, but perhaps even more to the legend of Rob Roy himself. Many of Scott's readers would have heard tales and ballads of the MacGregor. All would have had a strong opinion about his exploits.

The story emerges as the elderly Frank Osbaldistone recounts an adventure from his youth to a young man. At the beginning of his tale, Frank has just had any connection to his father's extremely profitable London trading house severed, since he would rather be a poet than engage in trade. He has been sent to the English border country to recruit one of his cousins to be trained in his stead. The contrast of the rude and callow country cousins to all that Frank has known to date is harsh enough, but when he has to flee across the border into Scotland, due to the machinations of his one intelligent cousin, the feckless Frank is at a complete loss. The story line itself presages Dickens (not a bad thing!) with its stock characters, including a beautiful and seemingly unattainable female, but as in Dickens, each of these characters works to build the story.

Rob himself is first encountered just before the flight to Scotland, but Frank does not connect him to the famous brigand. As the story moves north into lowland Glasgow and from there to the highland regions around Loch Lomond, Frank discovers a world he had never imagined, peopled by characters as alien as his picture of an "American Indian", many of whom speak a language he cannot understand.

Scott portrays a Scotland recently politically united with England, but still so torn apart internally by civil war and religious strife that many are unable to come to terms with each other, let alone with England. Jacobites and Hanoverians, Papists and Covenanters, highlanders and lowlanders, all are at odds in a world of shifting identities and loyalties. Rob Roy moves through this world like a wraith, dealing with all sides despite his outlaw status and surviving all to die in his bed years after Frank's adventure. Since we only see Rob through Frank's eyes, we only see his actions as they relate to Frank. When Frank must once more make his escape across the border and back to England, it is Rob and his Jacobite connections who clear the way.

I first read this novel when I was about ten, and was completely caught up in the danger and adventure, all of which I have left out here for fear of spoilers. While I had grasped the general idea of the political and religious divides, this reading added the whole new dimension of an economically divided country and the economic consequences of union with England, especially interesting with today's devolution debate.

It was wonderful to reread Rob Roy. My only regret was that I couldn't do it in the hundred page plus chunks of my childhood and had to settle instead for brief episodes. This had the effect of somewhat breaking up the narrative tension. I will be reading more Scott in the time to come.

Feb 27, 2012, 11:32am Top

Very interesting review of Rob Roy, a book I've been meaning to read forever. My grandmother was Scottish and I heard many stories surrounding him when I was younger. If it is as good as Ivanhoe, I know I'm missing something.

Feb 27, 2012, 4:11pm Top

Even better! I think Scott felt more comfortable with this material.

The Oxford edition has an introduction by Scott and another one by the editor, but don't read them before you read the story itself. There are also appendices with documentation, a glossary and two sets of footnotes.

Feb 27, 2012, 7:09pm Top

Excellent review of Rob Roy. I hope to get to Walter Scott one day, but probably not anytime soon. I read a couple of his novels as a teenager and really enjoyed them and so your re-read interested me.

Feb 29, 2012, 3:55pm Top

> 38 Thanks and I hope you do get to him someday.

I have been doing a fair amount of rereading in the last couple of years and find that most of it seems to involve the nineteenth century. It's a real dilemma though, as it means that much less time for new works.

Mar 1, 2012, 11:46am Top

This was my first read from my 12 in 12 category Around the World in Twelve Novels, although it is actually a collection of short stories.

7. October Eight O'Clock by Norman Manea
first published 1981 in Romanian as Octombrie, ora opt
published in English 1993, translations by Cornelia Golna and others
finished February 5, 2012

A nameless boy in a nameless country is in the midst of a nameless cataclysm. Hunger, sickness and death are the defining features of his world. In this collection of short stories, some in the beginning so brief as to be only impressions, Manea traces the life of his protagonist from a small boy during the Holocaust, through a Stalinist youth, to middle age in Ceausescu's Romania. None of these periods is ever identified overtly. No person is named unless they were part of a larger group not directly affected by these eras.

The lack of defined markers gives the impression that life is something imposed and controlled from outside. Thus, the little girl Mara, a visitor to the family who was "...caught up in the catastrophe, mixed up with us and taken away" with them, should never have been detained. The group feels she must survive no matter what or they will bear the blame. Her death makes her one of them, and is the first indication for the boy that nothing can prevent what is going to happen. He becomes ill, feeling he is drowning.

Time in the camp is not marked other than by death; there are no other significant events. Eventually the boy and his family are able to return "...to the places from which we had been driven". Along the way, men and healthy women are temporarily separated from the children and remaining women in a railway station. It is a horrifying scene where the women and children do not realize that it is only for medical aid and food; the nurses are indeed real and these trains will help them in their journey back.

With the return to village life comes a whole new world of sensation: colour, noise, taste. Lessons must be learned. When the boy is twelve, an old man appears, instructed by the boy's family to prepare him for a nameless ceremony. The boy has no interest. His parents have already paraded him through a succession of weddings and other events to tell his story and keep it in people's memories. He bargains with them for a summer at a Soviet Pioneer Scout Camp if he goes through with the ceremony. Caught on film at camp in a propaganda feature, the boy is once more paraded as an example in cinemas throughout the country.

Later, at university, the protagonist finds himself in a voluntary work brigade for the summer. A Sunday excursion to the sea, which he sees for the first time, fills him with astonishment. He finally feels that he "...had been given something that could not be taken away". He will return to the sea in the years to come, years during which he descends into a form of madness; an isolation built to preserve him. The language shifts as the man ages. The clarity of language and events used with the younger boy is lost. Is he now confessing to an interrogator or a doctor? Is this affair in the past or in the present?

His reflections on a near drowning in one visit to the sea tempt him back to the desolate shore once again. His reflection: "If only the trains carrying them reached here...Had they experienced this felling of pointlessness, endlessness, they might not have chased after time so greedily", sums up the meaningless years of his existence.

Norman Manea was sent to Transnistria in Ukraine in 1941 at the age of five. Incredibly he survived the camp and the war to return to Romania, leaving for the US in 1986. This was a haunting collection of stories, to which I keep returning. I will look for other books by this author.

Mar 1, 2012, 12:14pm Top

After reading October Eight O'Clock, I wanted to read some fiction from Eastern Europe written just before the Holocaust, to see if there was any presentiment of what was to come. On the TBR shelves, I found Satan in Goray. This book was written while Singer still lived in Poland, but was published after he arrived in the US. Another deviation from my 12 in 12.

8. Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer
first published in 1935 in Yiddish in Warsaw
published in English in 1955, my edition 1996, translation by Jacob Sloan
finished February 6, 2012

This book starts with its own cataclysm. In 1648, the town of Goray is decimated by Bogdan Chmelnicki and his Cossacks. Anyone who survived, fled. Over the years, the townspeople returned to Goray; "...the town that lay in the midst of the hills at the end of the world". They tried to resume their former lives under the guidance of Rabbi Benish Ashkenazi, their old rabbi, but nothing is the same. Into this well of uncertainty came news of a new messiah, the historic figure Sabbetai Zevi. Reb Gedalya the Slaughterer comes to prepare the way for the messiah, and Rabbi Ashkenzai loses control or his community.

Certain that the Days of Awe are imminent, the inhabitants of Goray stop making any preparation for the future, spending their days in singing, dancing and depravity. Rechele the orphan girl receives the gift of prophecy, only to be impregnated by Satan and die a terrible death as Goray implodes in hysteria. Once more the town has been destroyed, but this time from within. Not only does the Messiah fail to come, the Sabbetai converts to Islam. Satan has triumphed.

Singer's prose is wonderfully vivid, approaching magical realism in some scenes. However, he is not explicit in a modern sense; that would have offended his reading audience. He is a true story teller in the old tradition, with humor, repetition, instruction and legend all mixed together. While I usually prefer to read books, this would be an excellent one to listen to, especially if read by someone like the late Mordechai Richler, with his rich voice and cadences.

However, with reference to my original purpose in reading this particular book, there was no hint of what was to happen to the Jews of Poland. Any fear about their immediate situation at that time was over the chaos resulting from the split between religious and secular groups within the community. Fear of outsiders was limited to the still very real fear of intermittent pogroms, but there was no hint of peril from outside Poland's borders. That was not part of Singer's world.

Mar 1, 2012, 1:38pm Top

Very interesting reviews, Sassy Lassy. I haven't read any Manea either and his life story sounds harrowing enough, and that sounds like a fascinating book. I did read Satan in Goray decades ago as part of a Yiddish literature in translation course, and also read quite a bit more of Singer around that time, but I haven't read him in years. Your review makes me interested in going back to him.

Mar 1, 2012, 1:56pm Top

Excellent review of October Eight O'Clock.

Mar 1, 2012, 2:00pm Top

Excellent review of October Eight O'Clock, Sassy Lassy. The author's use of a series of short stories to trace the protagonist's life sounds like an interesting approach. I will be looking for this one.

Mar 2, 2012, 10:59am Top

Thanks people. My edition of Manea was published by Quartet Encounters, in the UK, originally part of Granada. There was a list of its publications in the back. Many of these seem to be shared with NYRB classics, but there were other interesting authors as well. The original purpose seems to have been to bring fiction in translation to English speaking readers. More recent titles include non fiction and seem to include titles designed for revenue generation.

A quick check on Chapters' Canadian website shows it will have two novels by Manea in April: The Black Envelope and The Lair, as well as essays in May, The Fifth Impossibility: Essays on Exile and Language. I will be checking back with them then.

Mar 2, 2012, 11:25am Top

Nice review of Satan in Goray; I would like to read it on the strength of your review.

I think Singer is a great story-teller. So far, I have only read one of his books, but subsequently bought a few more, which I hope to read some day soon.

Mar 5, 2012, 3:04pm Top

My first time stopping by here. I love your comment in post #6, "Here goes with my first LT review. Very scary", which comes just before a wonderful review. A lot of great books and review here.

I have read Didion's Year of Magical Thinking which was a very strange book for me to read, as I haven't encountered anything like what she went through. I would like to read some of her earlier work, as her writing is excellent. Perhaps I could try Miami...which I hadn't heard of before.

Fascinated by your review of Hunting Eichmann, and that you read Arendt's book...something I should do sometime.

And an interesting parallel of Manea and Singer. That Singer is one I would really like to read after your review.

I will try to keep up from here on.

Mar 5, 2012, 4:13pm Top

>46 edwinbcn: and >47 dchaikin: Thanks for the comments. I have not read much Singer myself, but those who have tell me that the longer he lived in the US, the more commercial his writing became. I would like to hear from others if they feel this is the case. If so, Satan would certainly be the one to read.

Daniel, Miami would be a great place to start, particularly if you follow politics.

Mar 6, 2012, 11:38am Top

Back to the 12 in 12, this time with the category Coast to Coast to Coast

9. The Oatmeal Ark: Across Canada by Water by Rory MacLean

finished February 9, 2012

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data lists this book as 1. Canada -- Description and Travel, 2. Inland Navagation -- Canada. The Observer blurb on the back cover says "...one of the most original and innovative travel books for years..." The book was in the travel section of one of my favourite bookstores. I am a fan of travel writing. All this convinced me that this looked like just the thing.

That was in 1997. When I finally I picked the book up last month, I was somewhat thrown off track by the first sentence: "We met, my great grandson and I, more than a century after my death". Not what I expected from a travel book, but enough of a hook to keep me going. Briefly, this is the story of Beagan Gillean, the fictional Rory MacLean, recreating the travels of his great grandfather, grandfather and father, all now dead, from an island off the coast of Scotland, to a rural Cape Breton farm in the early nineteenth century, to the prosperity of Ontario, and on to the future in Vancouver.

Beagan travels the route by water in a variety of craft, from modern container ship to canoe. Interspersed with Beagan's adventures, is the story of his deceased relatives as they accompany him on his trip. Their story is told in a different font, just in case you can't pick up the change in voice. Their commentary is often quite entertaining. As each successive generation is added, they quarrel, tell stories, reminisce, and take time out to advise or admonish Beagan, who is completely unaware of their presence. The story of Beagan himself fell flat, more and more so as he moved further west.

Often I felt that MacLean had picked up the Canadian citizenship guide and was trying to throw in every positive attribute it contained. Multiculturalism, bilingualism, wise First Nations people, the Quebec referendum, friendly folk...check, check, check. On the other hand, his treatment of the man from Newfoundland was on the level of offensive caricature. On a few occasions I found his geography somewhat hazy.

The inside front cover informed me that Rory MacLean is the grandson of the cofounder of MacLean's magazine, a Canadian weekly newsmagazine that has played a large part in bringing news, politics and culture to English speaking Canadians. This disconnect on the author's part from what I would have expected from this information, sent me looking for an explanation. MacLean appears to have left Canada after university and spent some twenty or twenty-five years abroad before returning in the nineties in search of family roots. Canada changed profoundly in those years. MacLean does not seem to be at ease with these changes or to understand them. It seemed as if he had lost the country he thought he knew, and could not come to terms with or feel part of the country he found in its place.

This book was republished in 2008, still as a travel book, with the slightly altered title The Oatmeal Ark: From the Scottish Isles to a Promised Land. The introduction for this edition is by Jan Morris, who says "If while you read it you are ever tempted to skip, as I sometimes was, resist the temptation" I thought the admission she was tempted to skip was quite revealing. I would say, skip the book and do the trip. You will learn far more.

Mar 7, 2012, 11:46am Top

I'm sorry this one fell flat, Sassy Lassy, as I do love good travel narratives and for a moment was so hopeful...

Mar 8, 2012, 10:55am Top

>50 Linda92007: Sometimes I wonder if Canada is just too big and diverse to be a subject for travel narratives. The best ones I have read usually focus on just a portion of the country, like The Iambics of Newfoundland.

Mar 8, 2012, 11:44am Top

I heard James Palmer interviewed on the radio last month and ordered this book immediately.

10. Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao's China by James Palmer

finished February 14, 2012

On July 28, 1976, a 7.8 Richter scale earthquake hit Tangshan, a coal mining city of over one million people. Although there have been larger earthquakes, Palmer cites this one as "probably the most concentrated instant of destruction humanity has ever known", equivalent to four hundred Hiroshimas. At least half a million people were killed.

Ironically, Chinese earthquake experts were gathered at a conference in Tangshan. The Chinese had been working on the process of earthquake warning signs for some time. Some of the experts at the conference felt an earthquake was imminent in the area. However, the Party head for seismology had just been criticized as a revisionist capitalist roader of the same ilk as Deng Xiaoping and the purged Liu Shaoqi. Whether or not to warn the authorities was the difficult question the scientists faced. According to an official document released the previous year:

earthquake work has to focus on taking preventative measures. Kailuan mine has taken this doctrine and criticised the theory that 'earthquakes are a mystery and anti-earthquake measures are useless' and set up a doctrine that 'earthquakes can be prevented and can be detected'

How did things get to the stage where scientists faced such dilemmas? Palmer uses the Mandate of Heaven as his touchstone in his discussion of the year 1976 in China. The mandate only allows an emperor to rule as long as his deeds are pleasing to Heaven and good for his people. Should Heaven become unhappy with the emperor, displeasure would by manifested in natural disasters and other turmoil on earth. The people would recognize these signals and know that the emperor was about to pay the price.

In 1976, it was clear that Heaven was unhappy. The year began with the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, viewed by the people as a moderate with their interests at heart. Zhou was a true survivor of the civil war, the Anti-Japanese war, the machinations of the Chinese Communist party and Mao's paranoia, who unlike almost everyone else at his level, managed to die in his bed.

The man asked to deliver Zhou's funeral oration was none other than Deng Xiaoping. He had a fine line to walk with this task. While Zhou had viewed him as his logical successor, the man most likely to keep China from the chaos espoused by the Gang of Four, the dying Mao saw Deng as once again a threat to his power. In fact, only the month before, Mao had launched the "Counterattack the Right Deviationist Reversal of Verdict" campaign, targeted directly at Deng. With Zhou dead and Mao dying, the Gang also saw an opportunity and they too targeted Deng.

When over a million people came out for Zhou's funeral procession, followed by spontaneous demonstrations of grief across the country, Mao blamed Deng. Hua Guofeng was appointed as Zhou's successor instead of Deng. Deng wisely stepped back from his Politiburo activites, but remained a member.

In March, public protests started in Shanghai and Nanjing over perceived slights to Zhou Enlai's memory. The annual tomb sweeping festival in April saw people arrive in Beijing by the trainload to lay wreaths for Zhou at the Monument to the People's Heroes in Tiananmen Square. It has been estimated that two million people visited in one day. Character posters appeared, attacking not only the Gang of Four but Mao himself. Hua Guofeng suggested these were counter revolutionary activities organized by Deng. The memorials were removed overnight and any remaining supporters were cleared from the square.

Tens of thousands were interrogated after this crackdown, thousands were arrested and some were executed. Things did not look promising for Deng.

Mao's health deteriorated significantly during May and June, to the extent that even the peasants knew the end was near. Early July saw the death of Zhu De, another link to the revolution and the founding of the Republic. The old order was indeed passing.

When the earthquake hit, the authorities were unable to deal with the scale of the catastrophe, however, they refused outside aid. Meanwhile, they tried to suppress news of the event within China and closed off the city. They stated the citizens were not in distress. Significantly, they tried to squelch any linking of the earthquake to Mao's health.

Mao died on September ninth. The final struggle for what Palmer calls "the legacy of the Cultural Revolution" began. The Gang of Four attacked Deng once more, accusing him of using the earthquake as a distraction while he attempted to seize power. Hua Guofeng moved to consolidate his own power at the upcoming National Day in October. The members of the Gang were arrested on the fifth of October, with no one speaking in their defense. Deng was invited back into the fold as vice chair of the party. The ground was set for him to stage his final comeback and to change China as much as Mao himself had done.

This book is an excellent review or overview of this tumultuous year, which set China on its current course through the final return of Deng Xiaoping.

Mar 8, 2012, 2:23pm Top

Sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks.

Edited: Mar 8, 2012, 5:24pm Top

Thank you for your excellent article on James Palmer's book. Lots of stuff there that I had only a vague knowledge about. Your knowledge of recent Chinese history looks awe-inspiring from the books in your library.

Mar 9, 2012, 1:55pm Top

I'm making a note of Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes. Sounds like a good place to get an overview of China in modern times.

Mar 9, 2012, 3:43pm Top

Excellent review, and it does sound like a fascinating book. Much of Mao's era seems tied to anachronistic traditions and superstitions.

Mar 9, 2012, 3:59pm Top

Thanks for the interesting and informative review, SassyLassy. Destruction equivalent to four hundred Hiroshimas is nearly unimaginable.

Mar 12, 2012, 4:42pm Top

>53 rebeccanyc: to >57 Linda92007:
It's hard to not be fascinated by China when you look at the cast of characters. If people wrote fiction like this no one would credit it. So much is being discovered lately with more recent access to primary documentation in China, that there is an amazing amount of work being published. There are some great titles I am missing as they are very expensive, but I try to keep up as much as I can.

There is a lot of linkage to old traditions and superstitions, but looking at the condition of the country in 1949, it makes a certain amount of sense. It would be interesting to know more about the extent to which Mao and company encouraged these beliefs.

More coming later when I finish Mao's Great Famine, a reminder of the people who bore the brunt of all this.

Mar 12, 2012, 4:48pm Top

This next book is almost the reading equivalent of the sublime to the ridiculous, so I will just go ahead and get it over with.

11.The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

finished February 17, 2012

This was a selection by my book club. Don't leave your happy, stable home to go off and be displayed in a travelling palace of "curiosities". Enough said.

Mar 12, 2012, 5:53pm Top

Oh, the books we have to read for our book clubs.

Mar 12, 2012, 6:03pm Top

A little late, but great reviews of October Eight O'Clock and Satan in Goray. I enjoy the Quartet Encounters books also - such interesting selections.

Mar 14, 2012, 11:42am Top

>60 baswood: and >61 DieFledermaus: These are both problems with very small town living. So few readers in this one and no book stores, so off to the internet. While it has made things like Quartet books much more available, it has also made things you might not care to read that much more available too!

Edited: Mar 16, 2012, 10:53am Top

Last fall the Victoriana group was discussing unconventional Victorian women and Lady Audley's name kept popping up, so when I was in a city last month and found a copy of Lady Audley's Secret, I didn't hesitate to buy it. Since it also fits into my Never at a Loss for Words category in 12 in 12, I had double incentive for reading this novel. No spoilers follow.

12. Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Victorian novels were my first introduction to "grown-up" books once I had mastered reading works by the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne. However, Lady Audley's Secret was not among the titles suggested to me by teachers, parents or librarians, for this novel, along with The Woman in White, was one of the first in a sub genre of Victorian fiction that became known as sensation fiction.

Natalie Houston's introduction to this edition describes sensation fiction as building "...suspense by focusing on questions of identity, and on the kinds of personal information that could be forged, hidden, blackmailed, or sold in the newly technological Victorian world" Sensation novels were directed at middle class readers who were used to characters and settings which bore a resemblance to the real world as they knew it. Introducing a character as depraved as Lady Audley caused a true sensation.

The novel starts with fairly stock Victorian characters: the young motherless Alicia, her upstanding father Sir Michael Audley, and his lovely young second wife, the Lady Audley of the title. Add in the young Robert Audley, Sir Michael's nephew, who is a lawyer but too wealthy to bother working, and things look like a straightforward parlour novel. However, when Robert's old friend George Talboys reads an obituary notice in The Times, propelling Robert out of his comfortable routine, everything changes.

Unlike many Victorian novels, most of the plot is revealed to the reader within the first ten chapters. Robert, however, does not share in this knowledge. It is his unravelling of the mystery that constitutes the remainder of the book. To accomplish this, he must deal with many themes which troubled the Victorian reader.

Changes in technology and transport meant that the speed of both travel and information created new forms of content which society had to learn to interpret for both message and relevancy.

The role of women within and across classes was changing rapidly. The rising popularity of the theatre among respectable Victorians is deftly incorporated into female character development with the suggestion that many women are acting their way through life, changing wardrobes and makeup as they go. Their true selves may be totally different.

Madness and its consequences were perhaps the most frightening aspects of the novel to a society which craved respectability. Braddon's suggestion
Who has not been, or is not to be, mad in some lonely hour of life? Who is quite safe from the trembling of the balance?
tackles this fear directly. If the balance tilts the wrong way, who is safe from the fate of insanity? How does one deal with the insane?

These are the issues faced by Robert as he works his way through to the final secret, developing maturity and growing into his role as an adult along the way, ready to take his place in the Victorian world, but aware of its dangerous undercurrents.

Braddon faced much criticism when she wrote this novel in 1862, but it is a book which still holds up today. If Victorian fiction has been a gap in your reading, this is a good place to start.

**** Ooops! edited to include title and author

Edited again for plurals.

Mar 15, 2012, 9:06pm Top

Excellent review of Lady Audley's Secret

Mar 16, 2012, 3:14am Top

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Lady Audley's Secret. I read it in the first flush of Kindle enthusiasm.

Mar 16, 2012, 8:21am Top

I find Victorian fiction to be like "comfort reading". I'm not familiar with this author or title, but it sounds enjoyable and it is free for Kindle. Finally one I can add to the TBR pile guilt-free.

Mar 16, 2012, 8:40am Top

Lady Audley's Secret has been on my kindle for quite a while now. Hoping to get to it this year, especially after your review!

Mar 16, 2012, 9:06am Top

Thackeray once said that if could plot like Braddon he would be the best writer in English.

I didn't realise the novel was based on the same case as the non-fiction The Suspicions of Mr Whicher until I heard someone talking about it recently.

Mar 16, 2012, 4:02pm Top

>64 baswood: to >68 Jargoneer:

Victorian fiction has always been like comfort reading for me too.

Great quote from Thackeray. Maybe he was doing some comfort reading himself in between his writing binges. I didn't know about the non fiction book, so thanks for mentioning it. Social history from that era is really interesting, especially the fixation with crime and the unease it caused. There is a great quick read about this: Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead.

This edition was from broadview, which I was not familiar with. I will look for them again, though, as this book had so much supplementary material. The original version of the novel was serialized by different magazines, so that different readers had different points for the cliff hangers, which must have made for some interesting spoiler conversations. This edition gave a table of the different versions, as well as contemporary illustrations. Apparently the novel was also made into plays and many spoofs, so there were also examples of these. There was a biographical sketch of Braddon, linking the work to her real life situation. Other material included an introduction, which I naturally saved till after I had read the book.

Mar 16, 2012, 4:18pm Top

>68 Jargoneer:, Oooh, now I'm going to move it up even higher on the TBR pile. I loved The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher but didn't know that Lady Audley's Secret was based on it!

Mar 20, 2012, 6:57pm Top

Catching up, fascinated by your review of Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes. Zhou Enlai was one of the most interesting characters of the 20th century. Excellent review of Lady Audley's Secret.

Mar 27, 2012, 1:12pm Top

I'm waiting for the biographies on Zhou once more archival material is released and more books are translated. It will be fascinating to see what is out there for primary documentation. I agree, he really was one of the most interesting and skilled characters of the last century.

Mar 27, 2012, 1:52pm Top

This was not a book I would normally read, in fact, I would normally run from it. However, it came to me through an odd set of circumstances, so I felt I had to read it. A friend of mine had been receiving chemotherapy for hepato-biliary disease and someone thrust this book at her. She recoiled, did not read it, asked me to read it instead, and so I did.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
finished March 7, 2012

Giving a last lecture is becoming an academic tradition for renowned professors. The topic usually deals with what the lecturer would like the audience to consider as the lecturer's intellectual legacy. Randy Pausch was dying of pancreatic cancer at the age of forty-seven when Carnegie Mellon University asked him to deliver such a lecture. Several months later, when he was scheduled to give it, the cancer had metastasized to his liver. He had months to live. Pausch, however, termed his diagnosis "an engineering problem", reducing it to something mere tinkering and perseverance could fix, now that the situation had been defined.

This lecture would require a significant time and energy commitment. It would require Pausch to be out of town on his wife's birthday, the last one he would be alive for. She asked him to cancel the lecture and instead devote the time remaining to as much family activity as possible with herself and their three children, ages five, two and one. Pausch countered that giving the lecture would ensure a recorded legacy for his children, one where they could see him get some "external validation" from his audience, rather than merely recording his own thoughts and feelings in a more private fashion, the way other people might.

Counselling ensued, with a psychotherapist specializing in families with someone facing a terminal illness. The therapist told them they would have to work this out for themselves. Naturally Pausch gave the lecture, with his wife in the audience. The book is basically a distillation of his lecture, "Really Achieving your Childhood Dreams". What came across to me though was a portrait of a driven, workaholic, type A personality, for whom recognition was everything. While he paid lip service to the fact that he was dying, he seemed to actually believe that if he just continued with things as normal, getting a vasectomy, buying a new car, life would continue as usual.

Pausch gave much paternalistic instruction to his wife in a theoretical fashion, on how she should go on the way he would have, but never seemed to grasp the idea that she would actually need to rely on her own resources. He seemed to feel that if only he provided enough instruction and direction, things would continue on his way. Speaking of his wife Jai, he said; I've also reminded her that she's going to make mistakes. Reminded her?!

Hope and a positive outlook are certainly important to the progress of disease, as is living life as well as possible. I don't think he should have just climbed into bed and waited to die. However, I do think that someone who prided himself on his scientific abilities as much as Pausch did, should have paid more attention to the less than five per cent survival rate after five years for this disease, and so allow his family to face and discuss the strong probability of his death.

One of Pausch's cardinal questions was Are you spending your time on the right things? To me, the answer for Pausch was a resounding "no".

Mar 27, 2012, 3:39pm Top

73 - Thank you so much for this review. People have been trying to force this book on me (and the youtube of his lecture), saying how inspiring, yada yada. I've so far avoided because I was pretty sure I would not find it as sweet as they did which makes me feel a bit like a bad person but not enough to actually read it.

Mar 27, 2012, 6:45pm Top

Great review of The Last Lecture and I think I would agree with your comments, but who knows what ones reaction would be when diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Mar 30, 2012, 9:12am Top

Wow. Every other review I've read is about how moving and inspiring and emotional read this was. But, you have gone underneath it, and come up with a very interesting critique. Good stuff.

Apr 12, 2012, 1:26pm Top

> 74, 75, 76 I'm so relieved by your comments---thanks! I was afraid of backlash with a capital B.

Apr 12, 2012, 1:48pm Top

I've been out of the country for two weeks and away from all computers and since I was seriously behind when I left, it's time to catch up.

This next book was another book club selection.

14. White Heat by M J McGrath

finished March 8, 2012

A contemporary mystery story set in the very high Arctic, White Heat had such convincing descriptions of life in Ellesmere Island that I was sure it must have been written by a Canadian with years in the north. However, to my surprise, M J McGrath grew up and went to university in the temperate locales of Essex, Kent and Buckinghamshire, although she has spent time in the Arctic.

While the complex protagonist Edie Kiglatuk is well drawn, the mystery part of the novel unfortunately wasn't quite as convincing. The villains become apparent early on and there was little left to solve. What kept me reading was the portrayal of the problems facing not just the Canadian Arctic, but the whole circumpolar region: determining who owns the resources and land, cultural bias from the south, the rapidly changing climate and the change from traditional life to an uncertain future with all the attendant social problems. All these concerns were skilfully incorporated into the novel without obvious preaching.

Although McGrath has written non fiction in the past, this is her first novel. Edie is set to appear in another novel in an Alaskan setting, so I think it will be worth trying another of her books to see if the author can develop more tension in the plot.

Apr 12, 2012, 2:07pm Top

78 - I find the polar regions fascinating. And the land rights issues in the Arctic are particularly interesting. I'm not a big mystery fan though so I think I'll pass on this for now.

Apr 12, 2012, 3:55pm Top

Having recently read Thomas Wharton's Icefields, I found your review of White Heat interesting. Maybe she should skip the mystery format altogether...

Apr 13, 2012, 11:04am Top

There's only one more book club selection for this year, although as yet unannounced, so the rest of my reading time is my own.

I would like to read more nonfiction about the Arctic though. I see she has a book on the effects over three generations of the Canadian government's resettlement of a group from Hudson's Bay to Ellesmere Island, The Long Exile. That might be interesting.

Apr 13, 2012, 12:28pm Top

The second book chronologically (1826) in my Never at a Loss for Words category was The Last of the Mohicans. I first read this book as a child and had memories of it as an adventure story, which it certainly was, but on this reading it was so much more.

15. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

finished March 22, 2012

When James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Last of the Mohicans in 1826, the America he was describing had already long since vanished. The period he wrote of was the third year of the Seven Years' War, also known as the French and Indian War and The War of Conquest, depending on who taught you your history. France and England were fighting over North America and it was still uncertain what allegiance the territory in the novel would eventually have. As Cooper put it, '...it was the war which England and France last waged for the possession of a country that neither was destined to retain"; a hint at the themes of futility and loss which permeate the novel.

The action takes place in the Lake George area just south of Lake Champlain. Cooper writes about the natural geography so well that it becomes a character in its own right, one with which all other characters must struggle. It is so important that it is introduced in the very first paragraph:
It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet. A wide and apparently an impervious boundary of forests severed the possessions of the hostile provinces of France and England. The hardy colonist, and the trained European who fought at his side, frequently expended months in struggling against the rapids of the streams or in effecting the rugged passes of the mountains, in quest of an opportunity to exhibit their courage in a more martial conflict

At the outset, the British officer Major Heyward is escorting the two daughters of his commander through the woods to their father at Fort William Henry, with the help of the Huron guide Magua. Magua deliberately leads them off track, but luckily they meet up with the colonial scout Natty Bumpo and the Mohican father and son, Chingachgook and Uncas. What follows is the tale of the efforts of this unlikely party to join Lieutenant Commander Munro. Along the way, they are ambushed by a party of Magua's Hurons, forced to retreat from Fort William Henry amid a massacre of the retreating British by the Indians after the fort's peaceful surrender to Montcalm, and finally they have to escape from a friendly Delaware village after it is attacked by Hurons.

Adventure indeed, but through it all Cooper never fails to take note of the small details of character and landscape, so that both are developed to the point where the little party in the vast wilderness is credible to the reader. The details also serve to pace the action, giving the reader time to assimilate the last crisis and anticipate the next:
An instant of calm observation served to assure Duncan that he was unobserved. The native, like himself, seemed occupied in considering the low dwellings of the village, and the stolen movements of its inhabitants. It was impossible to discover the expression of his features, through the grotesque mask under which they were concealed, though Duncan fancied it was rather melancholy than savage.

Cooper seems to have made a thorough study of the customs and allegiances of the various Indian nations. He describes their rituals and governance with a respect I found surprising for the era. He writes elegiacally of the loss of what at that time was the American frontier. He shows a world in which colonist and colonized could have worked and lived together, although he retained the belief of his time in European superiority.

It is the decent scout Natty Bumpo, also known as Hawkeye and La Longue Carabine, who expresses these beliefs most clearly. Bumpo is the idealized representative of the frontier American, at peace with himself and the land, suspicious of its competing conquerors and the changes they bring.

What I didn't know until I read the brief introduction, was that Bumpo had first appeared in another Cooper book, The Pioneers. He was so popular with readers that Cooper wrote five novels around him, The Leatherstocking Tales. This leaves me with more adventures to come, always a good thing when finishing a memorable book.

Apr 13, 2012, 6:59pm Top

I join Jane and Lois in being interested in the polar regions. Meant to respond on your thread, Lois, to Icefields, but I guess I'm doing it here. I haven't read as much about the Arctic as the Antarctic, so this might be an interesting place to start.

Apr 14, 2012, 9:35am Top

>83 rebeccanyc: I haven't written on it yet, but the book's gift to the reader is the wonderful descriptions of the Canadian Rockies and the glacial icefields.

Apr 14, 2012, 10:29am Top

After The Last of the Mohicans you may enjoy this short essay by Mark Twain on Cooper's prose style:


Apr 14, 2012, 10:49am Top

Enjoyed your excellent review of The last of the Mohicans

Apr 14, 2012, 3:08pm Top

I read The Last of the Mohicans about forty years ago. Your review leads me to think that if I were to read it again today it would be like reading a wholly new and different book. One's understanding and perspective change so much over time, and of course, one's memory. Very nice review!

Apr 16, 2012, 2:33pm Top

Chiming in, terrific review of The Last of the Mohicans. I really enjoyed your observations.

Apr 16, 2012, 5:20pm Top

Great review of The Last of the Mohicans, SassyLassy. I'm with Suzanne on this one - time for a reread!

Apr 19, 2012, 11:17am Top

>79 janemarieprice:, >80 avaland: and >83 rebeccanyc: Maybe the polar regions could be included in Reading Globally. I will have to read Icefields, it sounds gripping.

>85 StevenTX: to >89 Linda92007:. Glad you enjoyed the review. I realized as I was reading this book how little nineteenth century American fiction I had read, and I would be happy to get suggestions. Most of my nineteenth century seems to have been spent in Europe and Russia. Henry James always strikes me as European.

Poquette and Linda, I agree; rereading is great, especially after a long period. I think next year I might make it a category.

Steven, the essay was hilarious, thanks for the link. I should now read more Twain. I also have you to thank for this next book.

Apr 19, 2012, 11:49am Top

I read the Steven03tx review of this book and ordered it that day, breaking my most recent attempt at a self imposed ban on new purchases. Since Steven and others have discussed it already, I will only add a few thoughts. The translation flows superbly and I have given several excerpts to show how much it contributes to the sense of the book.
You will remember that as the book opens, Gjorg avenges his brother's murder.

16. Broken April by Ismail Kadare, translated from the Albanian, translator not credited
first published 1982

finished March 23, 2012

This is one of those rare books that draws you in from the start, so that you devour it in one sitting and then immediately start all over again right back at the beginning.

The land, the characters and the code of conduct or Kanun, which governs all aspects of life, are timeless, yet the thirty day grace period Gjorg is allowed by the rules of the never ending blood feud cycle gives an immediacy to his life that would otherwise be completely lacking. Gjorg, though, does not share this sense of immediacy. To him
at first it seemed a brief time, too brief, a handful of days too few for anything. But a few minutes later this same respite seemed horribly long and absolutely useless.
Despite the weight of centuries of tradition, however, there are indications that some people question this way of life, but none can see an end. Gjorg himself tries to imagine life "outside the whirlpool of blood" and concludes that although it
might perhaps be more peaceful, by the same token it would be even more dull and meaningless. He tried to call to mind families that were not involved in the blood feud, and he found no special signs of happiness in them. It even seemed to him that, sheltered from that danger, they hardly knew the value of life, and were only the more unhappy for that.

While Gjorg does not overtly rebel, the young urban woman to whom the code does not apply, commits a stunning transgression against it while visiting the High Plateau where it is in force, thus demonstrating that its dictates are not universal. Despite this exemption from it, her actions will have an effect on her forever, and so she too has fallen victim to the Kanun.

Lastly, Mark Ukacierra, the steward of the blood, who keeps the district records of blood feuds and collects the blood tax, notes that the day Gjorg committed the murder, was a day with only one killing. What if a day came without a murder?
All of that mill of death, its wheels, its heavy millstones, its many springs and gears, would make an ominous grating sound, would shake from top to bottom, and break and smash into a thousand pieces.

Mark prays that such a day will never come, yet the reader know that it will. It is as inevitable as the fate of Gjorg.

Apr 19, 2012, 12:04pm Top

Yet another recommendation and some great excepts that give a feel for the book

Apr 19, 2012, 3:38pm Top

>90 SassyLassy: I would not describe Icefields as gripping, but I'm not quite sure how I would describe it (which is probably why I haven't written comments on it yet!)

Apr 20, 2012, 12:27pm Top

I first read this book in 1992, but a query about it from LT member berthirsch sent me back to it for a second reading, so thanks, Bert!

17. Triste's History by Horacio Vazquez Rial

first published as Historia del Triste in Spanish in Barcelona where the author was in exile from Argentina
translated by Jo Labanyi, 1990
finished March 27, 2012

Cristobal Artola, known by all as Triste, loved by none except his washerwoman mother, was doomed to a Darwinian existence from birth:
...from the start Triste knew he was up against a stone wall whose polished surface made it impossible even to sink his teeth and claws into it, to cut himself on it while hauling himself up just a few inches, to clutch at the trouser legs of those immediately above: from the start he knew he had to adjust to the demands of the mire and learn to live in it with no hope of reward for his pains...

When Triste's mother dies, he is left in a Buenos Aires slum, completely reliant on himself. An initial attempt at life as an underage pool shark ends painfully. However, the attention it garnered provides a new line of work. Triste finds himself working under the direction of Chaves the priest. The work is infrequent, but pays a handsome retainer, well beyond anything he could earn elsewhere.

Slowly but surely the pair are drawn into the world of Peron's Argentina. Over time, as their work becomes more serious, the roles are reversed and Triste finds himself leading the now lapsed Chaves. Their work remains episodic and random, always directed from above. Neither has the knowledge or skills to progress to planning work in an increasingly fragmented and factional world.

Eventually the day comes when the pair must face up to the extent of their involvement and what it has meant for themselves and others. They make plans to leave both their work and Argentina, but if their lives have taught them anything, it is that life does not go as planned.

Vazquez Rial writes in a style that flows one minute and is staccato the the next, perfectly mirroring the rhythm of Triste's life. Conversations are few, brief and direct. The writing is stark and to the point, wasting no emotion on a character who lived free of emotional entanglement himself.

In his introduction, the author says that in writing this book from exile, he learned the history of "the other", who played such a role in his life in Argentina. Triste is a character we do not often see in literature, but an important one in so much of history. This was well worth the second read.

Edited: Apr 21, 2012, 4:33am Top

Excellent review of Triste's History. Have you thought about posting it on the books review pages of LT.

Apr 21, 2012, 7:04am Top

>95 baswood: I completely agree with Barry. Great review, and one that other LTers would appreciate.

Apr 23, 2012, 9:52am Top

Great review of Triste's History, Sassy. Please do post it on the book page. There's nothing there at all!

Apr 24, 2012, 1:40pm Top

Baswood, doc and Linda: Thanks for the comments. I have posted it.

Apr 24, 2012, 2:13pm Top

I ordered this book following Rebecca's review, as it intrigued me.

18. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

finished April 3, 2012

Rebecca has written an excellent review here: www.librarything.com/work/70989/reviews

I will only add that this book should be read in a quiet place, reflecting the contemplative feel of the novel. I initially made the mistake of trying to read it in an airport, on a plane, another airport, another plane and it seemed disturbingly disjointed. Once I settled down in one spot, however, it read beautifully. I did find myself drawn to the character of Sir Ralph, the priest who wasn't really a priest, who seemed to endure forever. The hints at the world moving on after the Black Death were a reminder that nothing stays the same, which fitted in remarkably with what I was doing on my trip.

An excellent evocation of time and place.

Apr 24, 2012, 4:39pm Top

Thanks, SassyLassy, for the compliment; I'm glad you enjoyed it too.

Apr 24, 2012, 7:50pm Top

Another vote for The Corner That Held Them That's good news it is sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read.

May 6, 2012, 2:49pm Top

My cousin lent me these books while I was away last month.

19. The Scent of the Night by Andrea Camilleri finished April 5

20. August Heat by Andrea Camilleri finished April 7

I had previously read two of the Inspector Montalbano series, so knew who and what to expect. Although these were out of order, that did not seem to make any difference to the reading. Montalbano's world is a very different one from the world I was immersed in at the time and they made a delightful distraction. I think, however, that for detective fiction, I veer more towards the like of Rebus, Wallander and Bernie Gunther. August Heat had a bit more of their melancholy thoughts of times gone by and that was an interesting twist. It will be interesting to see if it is developed in later novels.

Coincidentally, I saw the film Baaria, set in Sicily, when I came home, and there were the villagers expressing the same sentiments about the authorities as Camilleri's characters. Although beautifully filmed and well acted, this was what I would call a light political film; 1900 had far more punch.

May 6, 2012, 4:57pm Top

Have not read any of Andrea Camilleri's novels, but I have seen several of the Inspector Montalbano series on TV. I only wish I understood Italian. The English subtitles are annoying. It would be interesting to see how the novels and the TV movies compare.

May 6, 2012, 6:52pm Top

I've just started reading Camilleri, with the first Montalbano, The Shape of Water, based on LT recommendations. I found it delightful, and a nice light break from the heavy stuff I usually read, and I've ordered a few more.

May 7, 2012, 4:43am Top

I like Montalbano's disdain for authority and work politics and cheer him on.

May 10, 2012, 2:47pm Top

>103 Poquette:, 104, 105

Montalbano's disdain is wonderful and the world might work a lot better if more people had that disdain for officialdom.

I didn't know there was a TV series and will have to look for it on DVD. Italian and Chinese are the two languages I would most like to learn. I'm sure many nuances and puns are missing in the TV translations.

There are two books in the series in the house and I am saving them for summer.

May 10, 2012, 3:25pm Top

This is another book I discovered through one of Rebecca's threads. Please read her review about the melancholy that pervades this book. Sometimes there is nothing like tristesse to make you feel better.

21. The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krudy translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes

finished April 10, 2012

Sindbad wanders through three centuries, sometimes alive, sometimes dead. Alive or dead is immaterial as he dwells in the past, which is indeed dead. The sense of the past is emphasized at the start of almost every episode: "Once upon...", "Sindbad once...", "Once...", "It happened once..."

The past is filled with women whom Sindbad loved, or who loved Sindbad, or sometimes both.
He had been loved by blondes, brunettes, slim girls and fat ones, and each time he believed he had found his one true love, just as they believed they had found theirs and never forgot him.

Sindbad is incapable of living without women. He know the workings of their minds, enjoys their preparations for assignations, revels in the games lovers play, is devastated at being left and is perfectly capable of walking away without a backward glance.

The dead Sindbad visits his women, insinuating himself into their dreams and daydreams so that he is able to reminisce with them. Some have died and he visits their old meeting places, the cemeteries where they are buried and even the bridge where some have killed themselves for love. Men and women have not changed through these centuries and so neither have their rituals of love. Yet the entire book is suffused with melancholy for a languid past which feels very like whatever present Sindbad currently inhabits.
The people changed but they were replaced by others precisely like them...The weathercock spins, the wind and rain beat at the roof precisely as before, and neither the cloud approaching from the west nor the meadow stretching far into the distance appears to acknowledge the fact that the man sitting at the window is of this century not the last.

In his excellent introduction, the translator George Szirtes gives context to this nostalgia. The Budapest the eighteen year old Krudy discovered in 1896 was celebrating its millennium. Yet while it looked back, it was the fastest growing city in Europe, with Europe's largest stock exchange and the world's second underground. Change was definitely on its way. By the time Krudy wrote these stories between 1911 and 1917, that life was gone. Hungary was broken literally and metaphorically and Sindbad's world was truly dead.

May 10, 2012, 6:39pm Top

Excellent review. What a change for Budapest over a generation!

May 12, 2012, 3:54pm Top

>108 dchaikin: Thanks d.

I would be interested in learning more about modern Hungary if anyone out there can suggest something.

May 12, 2012, 4:08pm Top

April was a terrible reading month for me. I seemed unable to glom on to any book I picked up. Not even the Victorians could help. I don't think I have had such a reading slump in my life.

However, in another part of the forest, the Short Stories group was having an April challenge. The version I chose was 30 short stories in 30 days. I didn't start till the 15th of the month, which gave it a bit more pressure. Since there doesn't seem to be much overlap between this group and the Short Stories one, I am posting stories from there here. Since these were short stories, the idea was to give just a brief synopsis. It was amazing to see the range of stories read by members for this challenge, with almost no overlap.

1. The Fisherman an his Gweedwife in Selected Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, translated from Low German to Scots by Gilbert McKay

The traditional story of the fisherman who throws a fish back into the water, and of his greedy wife who forces him to make ever escalating requests of the fish, until the fish in exasperation returns them to their original state of penury. This version was in Scots, a language neither English nor Gaelic. A sample:
Syne the gweedman gaed hame, and his wife wiznae sittin in the chantiepot noo, but there was a wee chaumer stannin there...

2. Out of the War in The Complete Fiction by Francis Wyndham

Written when Wyndham was in his late teens, this tells the story of a young man who spends a week in an orthopaedic ward during WWII. The man in the bed beside him repeats the same story morning and night, but only on the young man's last day on the ward is the story finished.

3. "Where is the Voice Coming From?" by Eudora Welty in The Portable Sixties Reader, editor Ann Charters

A chilling fictional account of the murder of Medgar Evers, told in the voice of his killer, for whom it was a completely rational act. I hadn't read anything by this author before, but will look for her now.

4. The Gentleman from San Francisco by Ivan Bunin, translated from Russian by David Richards, in The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories by Ivan Bunin

A self important but nameless gentleman has prospered from the work of his Chinese coolies enough that he can take his wife and daughter on a two year European tour "purely for entertainment". Nothing is as advertised, however, especially the return voyage. This was written in 1915 and the coincidence of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic made the shipboard scenes that much more vivid.

5. The Wives of the Dead by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates

Two young sisters in law, sharing the same house, are widowed on two successive days. One husband is lost at sea, the other in battle. Exhausted by a long day of receiving mourners, they retire to their respective rooms for the night. During the night, each independently receives news of her spouse, but is reluctant to wake the other. Dream, fantasy, ghosts, or reality? The reader is left to decide.

6. In the Town of Berdichev by Vasily Grossman, translated from Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, in The Road: Stories, Journalism and Essays by Vasily Grossman

Comrade Vavilova, a Soviet commissar in the war against Poland, is granted forty days pregnancy leave from her battalion and is billeted with local townspeople. She had desperately tried to terminate her pregnancy without success and had hidden all signs of it until the last possible moment. However, once the child was born, Vavilova became a doting mother. When the Red Army is forced to retreat from the town by a Polish advance, Vavilova has a flashback to a rally in Red Square and makes her choice between child and country.

May 12, 2012, 5:30pm Top

Some very interesting short story choices, SassyLassy. Sounds like you've got some great collections. Was the Scots in the Grimm difficult to follow? I had a hard time just with your quote!

May 12, 2012, 6:08pm Top

Nothing like melancholy when you are feeling blue, The Adventures of Sindbad, Gyula Krudy sounds intriguing

May 13, 2012, 3:08pm Top

Krudy's version of Sindbad sounds like a kind of Don Juan. Or is that the wrong message to take away? One way or another, the book sounds interesting, along with the snapshot of Hungary.

May 13, 2012, 3:45pm Top

Very nice review of The Adventures of Sindbad - I quite liked that one also. Krudy's Sunflower is also very good - it's published by NYRB and has some of the same dreamy weirdness.

May 13, 2012, 4:24pm Top

I am SO glad to find someone else who feels that way about The Last Lecture! I read it this year and reviewed it very similarly to the way you did. I feel that we are in the minority of people who feel this way, though!

May 13, 2012, 8:01pm Top

I liked Sunflower better than The Adventures of Sindbad. Poquette, you could look at Sindbad as a Don Juan but really I think of him as someone who is not only in love with love and in love with women, but also in love with the past, and the book is in many ways a mournful elegy for a lost world.

May 15, 2012, 2:02pm Top

Thanks, Rebecca. I'm adding it to my wish list.

May 22, 2012, 1:07pm Top

Ten days away from a computer: one week actually away and then three days self imposed when I came back, as it was a long weekend in this part of the world. If it wasn't for LT, I could probably make it a habit. Now for the catching up:

>111 Linda92007: I've always admired short story writers as I think this must be one of the most difficult forms of writing. A short story well told is gem indeed, so I find it difficult to resist collections. Thanks for your comments on them.

Scots is not difficult to follow and most books that use it have a glossary in the back. However, I think it is best appreciated in the spoken form, so that even when reading you can hear the sounds of it. If you have not heard it, one suggestion might be to find an audio version of a book that uses a lot of it, and then sit down with the text as you listen. The poetry of Robert Burns is probably the easiest to find. Current books often only use it for the speech of particular characters, earlier Scottish writing used it more often. There is also a version of the New Testament in Scots, which gives a great feel for both the language and the pulpit from which so many heard it thundering down.

>112 baswood:, >113 Poquette:, >114 DieFledermaus:, >116 rebeccanyc:, >117 Poquette: I agree with Rebecca about the melancholy that pervades Sindbad. Please read her excellent review for that side of it.

I didn't find Sindbad to be a Don Juan character. He didn't have that sense of the chase or the tally, he just seemed to fall into his affairs, which were part of that past he is mourning. I will look for Sunflower now for later in the summer, when "dreamy weirdness" feels just right, so, along with Poquette, I have something to look forward to.

>115 The_Hibernator: Hello Rachel. I'm always relieved to find someone else going the same way when I going upstream, so thanks.

May 22, 2012, 1:13pm Top

Another half dozen stories while I catch up, this time all translations into English.These writers have all not only managed to reduce a story to its essence, but also to maintain that essence in another language and culture.

The Great Wall by Ismail Kadare, translated from Albanian to French by Jusuf Vrioni, then to English by David Bellos in Granta 91:Wish You Were Here

A Chinese inspector posted to the northern section of the Great Wall contemplates directives from the capital to repair the wall yet again in preparation for a possible barbarian invasion. On the other side, the Nomad Kutluk is scouting the wall on the orders of his commander, whom we learn is actually Tamerlane. A meditation on fear, the walls that divide and enclose us, and the ultimate wall between life and death, sprinkled with a few good barbs at officialdom, this story was also interesting given the ties that existed between Albania and the People's Republic.

An Injustice Revealed an Anonymous Chinese story, translated from French by Alberto Manguel in Black Water: The Anthology of Fantastic Literature edited by Alberto Manguel

In another story of Chinese officialdom, two honest civil servants are great friends. One dies far from home. When his friend is sent to that same town, the dead man appears to tell his tale. His spirit had been detained by the Court of Hell, where in a bureaucratic mixup, his name appeared in the Book of Complaints and Punishments. This meant his spirit was unable to travel home for burial with his body. He has come to his friend for help.

The Bloody Countess by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated from Spanish by Alberto Manguel in Other Fires: Short Fiction by Latin American Women edited by Alberto Manguel

At first I found this story of the Countess Erzebet Bathory too awful and put it down. I picked it up again the next day and was intrigued by the idea of the Countess resembling Melancholia in old engravings and that in her time a melancholic person was a person possessed by the Devil. This was not forgiveness on the author's part. She strongly condemns Bathory, while at the same time being completely immersed in her story.

The Conjuror Made Off with the Dish by Naguib Mahfouz translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davis in The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories edited by Daniel Halpern

A simple errand for his mother leads to a world of questions for a small boy. Decisions, distractions, dilemmas, and death fill the boy's day as they reveal the ways of the world to him.

An Epitaph in Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov translated from Russian by John Glad

They all died said the narrator. Starvation, cold, madness, typhoid, casual execution were the forms of death that came to each inmate in the labour camp. Geologist, party member, officer, or economist, each man is given his only epitaph by the narrator who has survived and can remember them. What would the remaining inmates do if they were released from such an environment? Each gives his idea and one his own epitaph.

I'm Your Horse in the Night by Luisa Valenzuela translated from Spanish by Deborah Bonner in The Art of the Tale

A young Argentinian woman is tricked by the police into revealing her association with her lover. Was her last night with him a dream or reality?

May 22, 2012, 9:50pm Top

Enjoyed your comments on what sounds like a great selection of stories.

Edited: May 23, 2012, 7:32am Top

Another great selection of stories. You must have quite the collection of short story anthologies!

I love Granta and have saved my issues going back a number of years. The latest looks very interesting, with stories by Mario Vargas Llosa, Jim Crace, Edith Grossman, Adam Foulds, and others less familiar to me. I am anxious to dive in to these. The short stories are great on their own and it is also a nice way to be introduced to new authors.

Edited to correct/clarify: Grossman is translator for the Llosa story. She does not have one of her own in this issue.

May 29, 2012, 12:06pm Top

120, 121 Glad you liked them! I too am a big fan of Granta, however, I never seem to see it in a regular bookstore and usually stumble across it in a used bookstore. Maybe I should think about a subscription. The latest one you mention sounds like another winner.

May 29, 2012, 1:06pm Top

As mentioned above, I had a real reading slump in April, with nothing quite fitting the bill. This is the book that finally got me going again.

22. The Missionaries by Robin Jenkins

first published 1957
finished May 6, 2012

On an island off an island off the coast of Scotland, a group of families from the island of Mula has arrived to live on the site where Sollas, the mystic saint they revere, lived and prayed centuries before. The owner of the island, Henry Vontin, is not happy about these squatters. He offers them housing and work on other property he owns, but the sectarians, led by their patriarch Donald McInver, are adamant that they will stay. The case goes to court and it is decided they must leave.

Echoing this struggle between religion and law is twenty-two year old Andrew Doig. He has just finished university and must now choose between kirk and court. Academically gifted and a star debater, law is a good choice for one as ambitious as Andrew. The fact that his uncle is a head Sheriff (senior legal authority for one of six districts in Scotland) would only help his career. His minister father is encouraging him toward the church and Andrew suspects he would do well there too, although he is astute enough to recognize the inner call for a more comfortable existence. All in all, he is poised for success.

Like most people of his age and class, he has no difficulty fitting himself to whatever persona is required at the moment. Like most too, however, he has a flair for self delusion and likes to see himself as a modern day Jason, the intrepid seeker of the Golden Fleece, the ward of the gods in the Golden Age. His uncle sees him more realistically as a typical product of his generation, prepared to use the diving board of idealism for a plunge into the profits of materialism.

When we meet Andrew, to his uncle's horror he has just debated against a motion upholding the removal of the squatters. This effort earns him an invitation to Sollas out of the blue from Marguerite Vontin, the owner's daughter. Since there is no public transport to the privately owned domain, Andrew is forced to travel with his uncle, who is going in his role as representative of the law, together with two clerks and a small band of policemen being sent to oversee the eviction.

Even on this idyllic island, class distinctions are enforced. The group is divided. Andrew and the Sheriff are guests in the Vontin house, the clerks are lodged in the home of Vontin's grieve and the men in various other cottages.

These men, led by Speer their sergeant, are an odd group. Volunteers all, they have nothing else in common and have failed to reach any degree of cohesion on their voyage out. Bull, Andrew's contemporary from another world altogether is brash, brawny and boastful, ready for excitement and action. Despite his youth, the other men have a strange fear of him. His superiors, reluctant to squash a beetle under their polished shoes, praised him. He was sure of promotion. Creepe, disliked by all, is a zealot whose religion in Bull's opinion "banned sex except on Sundays, with enjoyment omitted". Gentle Mr Nigg, the civil servant, believes youth like Andrew should challenge authority, but at the same time believes that man's law must prevail to keep civilization from passing into anarchy. Quorr is full of class resentment which is only magnified by the arrangements on Sollas. An unlikely group to carry out a joint endeavour.

Sollas and the encounter with the McInver group will alter these missionaries from the State in ways they could not have imagined. Each confronts the question of faith and its possible place in everyday life. Some will develop answers, others will merely be made uneasy. Andrew will glimpse Jason's witch. He will lose the nails by which he had been fastened to his rigid place in society.

Robin Jenkins (1912-2005) is a celebrated Scottish author, yet he is virtually unknown outside his country. A conscientious objector in World War II, who at one time declared himself an atheist, his novels examine the relationship between the state and its citizens and the relationship of both with God. His writing style and themes may be somewhat old fashioned, but his quiet tales remain with the reader long after more bombastic stories have faded away.

May 29, 2012, 7:08pm Top

Excellent review of The Missionaries, Robin Jenkins I am sure I will not be the only one who has not heard of this book. Intriguing.

May 29, 2012, 7:42pm Top

This kind of older literature 30s-60s is just what I like; nice review of an author unknown to me.

May 30, 2012, 9:10am Top

What Barry said in #124!

May 30, 2012, 12:43pm Top

I've not heard of this book or this author but your review got me googling. Intriguing indeed. For a first time read, which of his books would you recommend?

May 30, 2012, 2:03pm Top

Just adding my agreement on the excellence of your review and the attraction of literature from that era.

May 31, 2012, 9:18am Top

>124 baswood: to >128 Linda92007:. Thanks all. It's always great to find a new author. Literature from that period does seem to be enjoying somewhat of a comeback, especially with publishers such as NYRB, who has authors such as Richard Hughes, Ford Madox Ford and Geoffrey Household. Nevil Shute also comes to mind. Although more recent, I would also think of Robert Edric and J G Farrell in the same vein.

deebee, I think for a first book I would read The Cone Gatherers. With any luck, I'm going to read Fergus Lamont as my next Jenkins book next year, as part of a Scottish reading binge I'm planning.

Edited: Jun 6, 2012, 1:56pm Top

Back in April, avaland's thread was hijacked by a discussion of Canadian books originally written in French. This led me to Juliette which was already in one of my sadly neglected 12 in 12 categories.

23. Juliette by Yves Beauchemin
first published in French in 1989 as Juliette Pomerleau
translated from French by Sheila Fischman in 1993

finished May 11, 2012

Juliette Pomerleau is dying. But wait - she doesn't have time to be ill - she is far too busy. This is not a tearjerker novel. Juliette is too organized and competent for that. She has a good job as an accountant, she owns and manages a small apartment building and she bakes like a fiend. This last talent has made her enormously fat; she is described as being of "rhinocerotic girth". What prods her off her deathbed is the memory of an unfulfilled promise she had made to her aunt when that lady died twelve years ago - look after Adele.

Juliette has not seen her niece Adele in over nine years. Despite this, she is raising Adele's fatherless ten year old son Denis, abandoned to her care. If Juliette were to die, who would look after Denis? She must find Adele. First however, she must explain all this to Denis, who believed his parents were dead and is not happy with this upheaval in his happy life.

So far, so good. However, Adele will not be found for another four hundred pages, filled with two parallel stories: one the search for Adele, the other that of the community Juliette has created within her apartment block. While these tales intertwine in places as various residents help out, I found the story of the search far too long. Although Beauchemin writes humour well, at times it bordered on slapstick farce, which interfered with the story of the apartment folk.

It was this latter story that kept me reading. Beauchemin is a master of place. Juliette's apartment block is in Longueuil, across the river from Montreal. As Beauchemin describes it, you can see streets and streets of these bland U shaped three story walkups with two apartments to a floor. In this particular block
there were two apartments on the main floor, one occupied by Juliette Pomerleau and her grandnephew, the other by her sister Elvina, an unmarried retired customs clerk. Upstairs, Adrien Menard, an eccentric dentist who was stuffy but exquisitely polite, had both apartments. On the third floor lived, on the south side, the composer Bohuslav Martinek and, on the north, a photographer, Clement Fisette. He was the most recent arrival.
. With the exception of Elvina, no one locks their doors. The boy Denis comes and goes among apartments, raised by all. Juliette reigns supreme.

As the novel develops, we learn the individual stories of the tenants. The composer has fled the former Czechoslovakia and never really picked up his new life in Montreal, despite the efforts of his violinist girl friend Rachel. Juliette credits his music in part for her recovery and works with Rachel for recognition of his work. The dentist keeps his second apartment for storage and mysteriously disappears for long periods. Elvina is rude to all. Fisette, with his "vaguely slippery manner" is always in danger of losing his job due to the time he takes from work to help with the search.

Beauchemin details the lives of these ordinary people, juggling them in turn and weaving them into a group of interest. He then adds the twist of Juliette's unexpected sale of the apartment block and purchase of her aunt's tired old mansion in Montreal, now a rooming house. Adele is eventually found. Most of the characters move to the new house with Juliette, but Beauchemin is astute enough just to reunite them, not to reconcile them.

Overall, although I read right through to the last page, page 714, I was disappointed in this book, his third novel. I had read his previous novel, The Alley Cat/Le Matou and thought it very well done. Perhaps this book needed more editing, perhaps Beauchemin was trying to do too many things, but unfortunately it didn't measure up.

Edited to correct date, see >132

Jun 1, 2012, 6:40am Top

Coming to your thread shamefully late, but some nice reviews and some excellent books.

Reminds me that I still haven't read any Arendt although she is on my wishlist.

Byron is one of my favourites - his style (copied by a young Chatwin) and his 'of its time' englishness made his story enjoyable.

I treat travel writing like jazz music, i love it when it is good, but 95% of it is bad (in my view)... I read Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches at the same time as The Road to Oxiana and they both impressed me very much.

Jun 1, 2012, 8:53pm Top

I am totally unfamiliar with Beauchemin and may just leave it at that. But your review was great, even if the book wasn't.

finished May 11, 2006

I'm sure you're not that far behind on your reviews!

Jun 6, 2012, 2:04pm Top

>131 zenomax: Welcome! Your jazz approach is a great comparison for travel writing. I love so called "literary" travel writing as it can tell you almost as much about the place someone has left, as the place where they have arrived.

>132 Linda92007: Thanks Linda, that is too funny.I have no idea where 2006 came from. I didn't buy the book then, it wasn't published in that year, and there is no way it could be a typo. It's the sort of thing I would do as I tried to impress upon someone my great attention to detail.

In someone else's post, I just discovered the fact that there is a Czech composer called Bohuslav Martinu. I don't know if that is relevant to Beauchemin's composer character, but at this stage it won't make any difference to my reading of the book.

Jun 9, 2012, 1:43pm Top

In mid May, I spent a week in a college residence. Two years ago when I went to this event, I didn't know anyone and read four books. Last year it was three books. Since I couldn't decide what to take to read this year, I went armed with five books, ranging from the good and improving to this one a friend lent to me. I only managed this book and part of one other, as it seems I now know far more people at this event, so lots more reading interruptions and not so much good and improving.

24. The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

first published as Snomannen in Norway in 2007
translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett 2010

Norway has a great social system and government, but lacks serial killers. This leads to a decided lack of resource material for training police officers in how to deal with a serial killer, should the need arise. It also leads to a certain complacency about the topic, since no one believes such things could actually happen in Norway.

Enter Harry Hole, just back from training in the US, where he has learned all kinds of things about these murderers. An unusual killing sets him to tracking others with similar characteristics from earlier years. Naturally others in the police deny these similarities, but Harry is determined. He is assigned a partner, Katrine Bratt, who seems to be channelling Lisbet Salander in a socially acceptable role.

While I guessed the identity of the murderer fairly early, there was enough here to keep reading. Like books by Larsson, Mankell, Indridason and other other Scandinavian writers, with a bit of Rankin thrown in, there was a lot of social commentary about the author's country and how the citizens interact. However, Nesbo seemed to lack the conviction or ease of writing of these other authors. It's difficult to say if this was a translation problem or not, as Mankell books can differ based on the translator.

The ending for The Snowman was excellent for this genre and I could definitely see it as big screen material.

I would read more books about Harry in similar circumstances to this reading to give him another try, but I don't think I would seek them out. However, I hear there is a new Rebus book out there.

Jun 9, 2012, 2:48pm Top

When I returned from my week away, there was an excellent new selection of books waiting for me. Naturally I dove right into this one and finished it that weekend. I have been careful not to read any other reviews or discussions of it so that they wouldn't influence me. Now I can look forward to reading them.

25. Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

first published 2012

finished May 20, 2012

"Bring up the bodies" was the order given to the Tower when four accused men were brought to trial, a trial designed to create corpses by due process of law. These unfortunates were brought before the Duke of Norfolk without recourse to legal representation, since the charge was treason.

This trial was the preamble to Thomas Cromwell's prosecution of Anne Boleyn for committing the same offence together with these four men. Once more, Henry VIII had entrusted Cromwell to rid him of a wife who did not produce sons; a wife who had flaunted her transgressions against Henry. The Queen's brother, George Lord Rochford, will be tried separately before his peers once Anne is convicted. Then the king's marriage can be annulled before the executions take place, so that he will not actually be executing his own wife.

Cromwell again conducts himself with skill and finesse in arranging this gruesome end for the ambitious Boleyns. While George was realistic enough to know this was how the games of Henry's Court were conducted, Anne managed to deceive herself to the end, never quite giving up the belief that Henry would relent, despite her public confession that "she would never love the king in her heart".

It is a different Cromwell who paves the way for Henry to wed Jane Seymour than the Cromwell who stage managed Anne's rise. Although that was very recent and Cromwell has gained even more power, offices and wealth in the meantime, he seems to sense a change in the wind, be it ever so small a puff, before the tempest that will claim him. While he still has plans for the country - an English bible, standard coinage, standard language and civic peace - he now has the sense of time running out. Henry's health is failing and his behaviour is becoming increasingly erratic and dangerous for those around him. Anne's trial and sentence have alienated powerful groups who would be happy to see Cromwell's end. Once Jane Seymour is on the throne, he will have no guarantees of continued support from her faction.

The next generation of his household: Rafe, Wriothesley, Richard and Gregory are reaching adulthood and assuming its responsibilities. His own dead are catching up with him.
He once thought... that he might die of grief...You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh and gives you a heart of stone.

Yet the unrelenting struggle for personal survival in Henry's world still takes priority over all. Ever the realistic chessmaster he sums up the fight brilliantly:
Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.

Cromwell can only prepare for the day when his own judgement comes. Already he is distancing himself from his persona. Whereas in the Wolf Hall days his use of the third person in writing about himself was done in a discursive fashion, allowing him to debate, discuss with and challenge himself, in this second volume he seems at times to use this third person as if reporting the actions of someone who no longer exists. The man Cromwell is left behind to once more pick up the debris and organize the story, even though the real battle is yet to come. For now he is just another body, waiting.

Jun 9, 2012, 2:56pm Top

For now he is just another body, waiting.

Ooooo. Great review of Bring Up the Bodies, Sassy. I haven't read it yet, but have no problem with reading all of the reviews. They just make it all the more tantalizing to know it is waiting on my Kindle for just the right moment!

Jun 9, 2012, 3:45pm Top

After reading your review, Sassy, for the first time I am interested to read Wolf Hall and now Bring Up the Bodies. I saw an interview with Mantel some time ago and they were talking about everything but the books so I never got a sense of what they were all about. Your review has certainly put flesh on the bones of those titles! Onto the wish list!

Jun 9, 2012, 10:36pm Top

Great review of Bring up the Bodies indeed. I have started reading Wolf Hall and am enjoying it a lot. I will want to read Bring up the Bodies as well.

Jun 10, 2012, 10:26am Top

Oh I enjoyed your review of Bring up the Bodies. This is going to be a must read for me. It was a good idea to read it before you read any reviews, unfortunately I can't do that now.

Jun 11, 2012, 9:59am Top

>136 Linda92007: to >139 baswood:. Thanks all.

Linda, at first the idea of Cromwell on a Kindle struck me as odd, but then I thought if he was with us today, he would be working that Blackberry like crazy. Now I will have to work all day at getting that image out of my mind!

Poquette, I sometimes think writers are willing to talk about anything except the book they are promoting during their tours. It must be incredibly tedious to do these. Here is a link I posted earlier on Reading Globally with a recent Mantel interview. This programme is usually excellent and together with LT and my odd foray into big city newspapers, is my usual source for new titles and authors: http://www.cbc.ca/writersandcompany/episode/

Hope your reading is going well edwin. I would be tempted to read them back to back. From what I have seen of your reviews, I look forward to your comments.

Bas, I have always had an ambivalent relationship with reviews; to read or not to read? I have stacks of newspaper clippings with reviews of new books by authors I know I like, and of new authors who look interesting after reading a bit of the review, which I then stop reading. This behaviour is probably completely contrary to that anticipated by reviewers. I have a list of the books reviewed and once I have read the book, I dig out the review, read it, and leave it in the book. I am looking forward to doing this with my four year old Montreal newspaper review of Matterhorn. My alternate strategy is to read the review, make a note that I would like the book and then let enough time pass before reading it so that I have forgotten the details. Lastly, reviews of fiction which hint at or tell you the ending are definitely verboten.

Jun 11, 2012, 10:29am Top

Following Linda92007's suggestion to post this list on our own threads. here is my alphabetic list from the 2000s. (Is there a term for this decade?). My cranky pedantic self says that the decade is 2001 to 2010, but here I have started in 2000 to conform with other lists:)

Beijing Coma by Ma Jian, 2008
Blackstrap Hawco by Kenneth J Harvey, 2008, turned down by Canadian publishers, only to be published in London, and the only book I have ever seen a reviewer apologize for not including
Day by A L Kennedy, 2008
Due Preparations for the Plague by Janette Turner Hospital, 2004
Galore by Michael Crummey, 2009
No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod, my book is from 1999, but since this won the Impac Dublin Award for 2001, I have included it in this list as it is such a great book. That means I can also double count it by putting it on any list for the 1990s.
The People's Act of Love by James Meek, 2005
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson, 2007
War Trash by Ha Jin, 2005
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, 2009

Jun 11, 2012, 11:19am Top

Thanks for that link, Sassy.

Jun 11, 2012, 7:27pm Top

Some interesting books on your list, Sassy, and ones I have not seen turn up on other lists. In fact, a few I have never heard of! That's what I love about LT. I will need to do some exploring...

Jun 11, 2012, 9:03pm Top

Good to see War Trash on your list. I also thought it was excellent. Adding Due Preparations for the Plague to the library wishlist.

Jun 13, 2012, 9:09am Top

Terrific review of Bring up the Bodies! I've read Wolf Hall, but unsure whether I will read this sequel. You're review is so enticing though, and those excerpts bring me straight into the mentality of the book.

Jun 13, 2012, 11:55am Top

Poquette, hope you have some time to sit down and listen to some of these great authors.

Linda , I have really enjoyed looking at other people's lists for the same reason.

Pamelad, I think I would consider War Trash for a top whatever number for any list. Good to find not just another reader, but another admirer of it. I try to space his books out in my reading, as I never know when I will find another. I do the same thing with Janette Turner Hospital, but living in Australia, you might not find it as difficult to track down her books.

D, thanks. My vote would be read it, but then I am not without bias.!

Jun 13, 2012, 12:38pm Top

This was another wonderful book that was waiting for me when I got home. Although it was written by a Canadian author, I don't think I would have heard of it if not for LT. Thanks again avaland.

26. Icefields by Thomas Wharton

first published 1995

finished May 25, 2012

Edward Byrne, trapped upside down in a glacial crevasse, had his rucksack jettisoned by his rescuers so that they could pull him free. Byrne had come to the Arcturus glacier in 1898 as physician for an English expedition from the Royal Geographic Society looking for the "lost" Mount Brown, an elusive peak found on all maps but viewed only once. His rucksack had contained seeds and cuttings collected for his dream of having a collection worthy of planting at Kew Gardens.

Left behind in a mountain cabin after his rescue until he had recovered enough to travel home to London, he learned the stories of earlier settlements and of travellers in the valley, of a time when one precious substance ...remained here: the gold of solitude and silence.

Back in London, he started a journal to allay his growing doubts and fears:
moments of unaccountable dread and long hours of deep, harrowing sadness... Writing alone seemed to keep my terror at bay, and so I recorded everything.
While his physical rescue had been a success, spiritually Byrne will remain trapped by the glacier in what he called the meditation of ice and rock until the end of his life. He was haunted by an image glimpsed in the ice of the crevasse, an angel with a spreading welcoming wing.

By 1911, Byrne was back in the changed valley. Alberta had been made a province, the settlement of Jasper was now surrounded by a national game preserve, and Trask, his former guide and his rescuer, was now an enterprising chalet owner, intent on creating a resort. Trask's notion is that Some of the townspeople believe Sleeping Beauty is their myth. They have been awakened from a frozen slumber into the warm embrace of the twentieth century.

Attached to the chalet is a glasshouse enclosing a fabulous garden, heated by a hot spring, sealed off from the glacial winds, full of blossoms and scents from exotic lands. It is the contrasting imagery of glass and ice, heat and cold, liquid and ice, fossils and flowers that defines this book. Yet most of all, it is a book of loss. Opportunities and youth are lost as characters fossilize into their fears. Lives are lost through carelessness, by accident and in war. The frontier and the pristine wilderness are under seige.

The glacier itself is being lost. Byrne's obsession when he returned to the ice field had been to find his crevasse and the hidden angel wing. Over the years he plotted the rate of glacial melt so that he could determine the date the recession would reach his angel. The glacier consumed and possessed him, for it was the glacier which was truly alive
ceaselessly changing, and yet always the same, like the seashore. Ice streams becoming rivers, mountains, wearing down into valleys. The transition zone between two worlds.

Byrne will find the seeds of his dreams, but by then both worlds will be lost to him.

Jun 13, 2012, 1:22pm Top

I'm glad you liked Icefields. And I'm moving up No Great Mischief up my TBR, based on you inclusion in your "best of" list. I keep eying it.

Jun 13, 2012, 4:55pm Top

Excellent review of Icefields

Jun 13, 2012, 5:50pm Top

I'm looking forward to reading Icefields, which I also bought after Lois recommended it.

Jun 15, 2012, 1:20pm Top

>148 RidgewayGirl:, I was glad to see No Great Mischief was also on linda92007's list. It is one of those books that keeps sneaking up on you long after you have read it. I have heard Alistair MacLeod on the radio several times and as I read the book, I could hear his beautiful voice and Cape Breton accent in my mind.

Thanks Bas. Rebecca, I hope you find a quiet period to read it.

Jun 15, 2012, 2:16pm Top

Yet another excellent book from the May collection. Gruesomely grim in places, there is also enough sly humour supplied by the narrator to move the book along.

27. Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

first published 1977

read May 26, 2012

In 1947, the nameless fourteen year old narrator is sent to her Great Granny Webster for a summer by the sea, to give her fresh air and provide relief for her mother, widowed in WWII. Great Granny Webster, her father's grandmother, is a Victorian relic. Immensely rich, steeped in ideas of sacrifice and duty, appearances and class, she runs a magnificent house with a miser's clutch. Food is rationed well beyond the government standards of the day, no fires warn the hearth, no drapes are opened for fear of ruining the fine furniture, and no help is provided for lame one eyed Richards, the housekeeper. Yet Great Granny is immensely proud of the fact that she still endures, true to her upbringing and standards. All she wanted from each new day that broke was the knowledge that she was still defiantly there - that against all odds she had still managed to survive in that lonely loveless vacuum she had created for herself.

The only entertainment provided for the girl was a daily one hour drive in a Rolls Royce, windows sealed, down the main street of Brighton, and a weekly stop at the library. The rest of the time, she was expected to sit quietly until spoken to, and read. As young girls will, the narrator speculates wildly about her odd paternal family. Over the next fifteen years she tries to learn all she can.

Mrs Webster had taken great pains to ensure that her only child, a daughter, married well, that is married so that Mrs Webster could not be reproached for the choice of husband. Her daughter dutifully married and as the new Lady Dunmartin was whisked off to a disaster of a house in the Ulster countryside. Unable to run this appalling Edwardian household, she quietly went mad, seeking solace from fairies and elves in the garden, which was always more hospitable than the house. She was ultimately committed to an institution after attempting to murder her grandson, the narrator's brother, at his christening. Great Granny Webster herself had signed the committal papers, much to the horror of her son-in-law. Not a picture of this daughter existed at Great Granny's, not a word was spoken of her although she was still alive. She had not measured up.

This unfortunate woman had had two children of her own: Ivor, the narrator's father and Lavinia. The narrator managed to track down a friend of her father's who had often visited Dunmartin Hall with him. This man captured the essence of the inter world war generation,
a period where one had a sense that the whole of society was about to erupt like a pus-swollen boil. We still felt much too close to all the carnage and the mess of the First World War. In the 'twenties and 'thirties everything seemed to be in a continuous state of uncertainty and turmoil. And there was something about the way our group like to destroy themselves with drink...that had some funny kind of violence...It was as if we were infected with a horrible feeling of fatalistic foreboding- as if we knew that nothing could ever stop us sliding towards all the pointless bloody upheaval of yet another war.

This foreboding rang true for Ivor, who was killed in Burma. His friend lost a leg. Lavinia survived the war but maintained the same frenetic activity level. The post war world was not kind to women like Lavinia though. Lovers, husbands, pills, alchohol; nothing worked and after one failed suicide attempt, Lavinia managed to kill herself after a night at the opera. She had doggedly refused to share her inner turmoil with anyone, believing it poor form and rude to one's friends.

Awful as Great Granny Webster would appear to a young person like the narrator, I don't believe she was the monster many critics have made her out to be. I believe she was instead another victim of time, class and rigid ideas, who like her descendants, each in turn, found the best escape she could from the horror of her life.

Honor Moore's excellent introduction to this NYRB edition of Great Granny Webster describes the circumstances under which it was written:
Blackwood drank and drank, and {Robert} Lowell drank with her, his hallucinatory manic episodes exacerbating her anxiety and fear, her tirades frightening, provoking and finally enervating him.

These desperate circumstances reflect the content of the novel, a fictional account of part of Blackwood's own youth. While this is definitely a novel, not the lurid confession "memoir" someone would write today for the bestseller list, Moore says that it lost out for the Booker prize when Philip Larkin decided that it was not fiction.

Jun 15, 2012, 8:06pm Top

Excellent review of Great Granny Webster.

Jun 16, 2012, 9:01am Top

Great review of Great Granny Webster, Sassy. It's headed straight to my wishlist.

Jun 16, 2012, 11:48am Top

Sounds intriguing. I have another Blackwood on my TBR, Corrigan. Have you read it?

Jun 18, 2012, 7:02am Top

Interesting review of GGW, which I had never heard of before.

Jun 18, 2012, 9:40am Top

>153 baswood: to >156 dchaikin: This was a book I picked up almost entirely on the basis of the title. I don't know why, maybe because great grannies intrigue me (the old fashioned kind who wear black and have whatever accent it is that you most identify with). The thing that sealed the deal was that it was an NYRB book, so it had to be of some merit! I was relieved to see that the gamble paid off.

Rebecca, I haven't read Corrigan, but will now be ordering it with my summer order (maybe a Camilleri or two as well?!).

Jun 18, 2012, 9:47am Top

Sassy, I've had Corrigan on the TBR for years and I'm afraid it has never really called to me when I'm thinking about what to read next.

Jun 19, 2012, 5:06am Top

Excellent review of Great Granny Webster. I really liked that one - the writing and characters were so vivid. Corrigan was quite different and while I thought it was well-done, I didn't enjoy it because I found the title character to be repulsive.

Randomly - referring to your review of Beauchemin's Juliette - Bohuslav Martinu has an opera called Julietta and he did flee Czechoslovakia - though he went to Paris, then the U.S. From what I can tell though the opera doesn't sound like your description of the plot - it's a surreal story of love and loss.

Jun 19, 2012, 11:26am Top

Thanks for the info about Corrigan, DieF.

Jun 21, 2012, 3:07pm Top

Thanks for the information on Martinu, DieF. That helps fill in a bit. In the book, Martinu does write a score for Juliette and is able to play it for Charles Dutoit, who then helps him produce it. The book is a story of love and loss, but surreal, not at all. Maybe Beauchemin opted for a semi happy ending with only a partial loss, but I suspect it would have been a better story if the loss had been complete.

Rebecca and DieF, I think I will try Corrigan as I don't like restricting my reading of an author to only one book, just in case I start with a dud, but given what I have seen of your reviews, I suspect you are both right and that I will be somewhat disappointed.

Jun 21, 2012, 4:10pm Top

Every few months or so, I do a search for new biographies of "Chinese" Wilson. My search is never rewarded but last month I did find this title, which I immediately ordered.

28. Wilson's China: A Century On by Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham

first published 2010
finished May 30, 2012

Ernest Wilson was in the top rank of the highly competitive world of the plant explorers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If you are a gardener, horticulturalist or botanist, you will recognize many of his introductions to the west, among them the ethereal blue poppy, the amazingly floriferous Chinese dogwood, the paperback maple, countless rhododendrons and the kiwi plant. These are just a few of the twelve hundred plus species, four hundred of them known only in their country of origin, that he brought back from his travels through China, Japan, Korea and other Asian countries.

Wilson made four trips to China between 1900 and 1911. China during that time was in the last days of imperial rule. The Boxer Rebellion and its aftermath made life extremely dangerous for westerners. There were still tribal rebellions in the west. Local officials had the power to prohibit travel in their domains, brigands roamed the countryside and accommodation usually ranged from bad to non existent.

Wilson's travels took him right across China from east to west. Once past Chengdu, most of his journeys were on foot along mountain trails bordered by sheer drops, over gorges crossed by bamboo pole bridges, through mountain passes as high as four thousand metres. A sedan chair went along with his group to aid in convincing recalcitrant officials that he had status, but it was usually completely impractical for use. Wilson had a group of about a dozen Chinese who acted as guides, p orter, fixers, cooks and whatever else was needed. He used the same group on each trip and when he left for the last time spoke of them as "Faithful, intelligent, reliable, cheerful under adverse circumstances and always willing to give their best, no men could have rendered better service". High praise indeed from a time when most Europeans felt a definite superiority to any Asian.

Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham had made several trips to Sichuan as seed collectors. Flanagan is now Keeper of the Gardens in Windsor Great Park and Kirkham is head of the arboretum at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Avid Wilson devotees. they had been to China and Korea in search of many of his plants. However, in 2006, they made a different trip to China. This time they were determined to track down and follow Wilson's actual routes, rather than just going to the general area. Lacking maps of these trips they relied on journals, diaries and plant specimen tags. One difficulty was a change in place names. Part of it could be worked through using the change from Wade-Giles transliteration of Chinese to Pinyin. Thus, Wilson's Hsaochin is now Xiao Jin. Other changes were more problematic, for instance Kuan Hsien to Dujiangyan, and had to be detected through other supporting information. Perhaps the greatest resource they had however was photographs. Wilson had also been a dogged photographer, producing hundreds of images on glass plate, all meticulously documented. This book is a record of that trip.

Flanagan and Kirkham sought out the sites of the Wilson photographs and captured them anew. Their version and Wilson's are shown side by side in this book, showing a China still largely unknown to westerners. Some duos show the ravages of time, in others very little has changed. The authors also took photographs of present day life. One of the most amazing of these shows two slate splitters, one in sandals, one without gloves, neither with eye protection, doing their work as it has always been done.

Incredibly, the authors were able to find almost all their targeted sites. One ornate monument had been smashed during the Cultural Revolution. In another case, the authors theorize that a beautiful covered bridge was submerged in the great 7.5 earthquake of 1933, which created a whole new lake. This area was devastated once more in 2008 by a 7.9 Richter earthquake. In their epilogue, the authors write of their return to the area three months after this earthquake. Flanagan and Kirkham are scientists, not writers, and the books reads like a journal. However, for anyone with an interest in ornamental horticulture, China, or photographs, it is a beautiful document.

The Arnold Arboretum at Harvard, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh have a wealth of further information on Wilson as well as many of his plants. Here are two of his photographs:

Tea brick carriers at 500 feet, one with 317 pounds, the other with 298

Monument to a virtuous widow

Jun 21, 2012, 5:23pm Top

Great stuff on Wilson's China: a century on. That is a brilliant photograph of the tea brick carriers.

Jun 21, 2012, 6:18pm Top

Agreed. Fascinating review and great photo.

Jun 22, 2012, 10:27am Top

Yes, fascinating.

Jun 26, 2012, 11:43am Top

This book had been on my TBR pile since April 7, 2000. I had listed it in my Gothic category for 12 in 12, but gone no further. When I saw it as a suggestion in the Reading Globally closed societies theme, I decided it was time to read it. Once started, I was at a loss as to why I had waited so long. Maybe it was the cover.

29. The Monk by Matthew Lewis

first published 1795
finished June 5, 2012

In an era when confessors were super stars, Ambrosio was the most sought after cleric in Madrid. Whenever he preached, it was standing room only, but not because of any excess of devotion on the part of the faithful. Rather
The women came to show themselves, the men to see the women: some were attracted by curiosity to see an orator so celebrated; some came, because they had no better means of employing their time till the play began; some, from being assured it would be impossible to find places in the church; and one half of Madrid was brought hither by expecting to meet the other half.

At thirty, Ambrosio was already abbot of the Capuchin monastery where he had lived since being left there as an infant foundling. His reputation was that of a pure and saintly scholar. However, on the day we first meet Ambrosio, it is obvious that his status and ability were a source of unholy pride to him. Sitting in his room after that day's sermon, he congratulates himself on the impact he has made on his audience. Contemplating an image of the Madonna, his mind drifts from future ambitions to "impure" thoughts about her beauty, which he deflects by congratulating himself on being able to resist temptation.

This initial glimpse of the monk and his congregation is the first in a series of signals to the reader, but not to the characters themselves, that things are not what they appear to be. Although there are hints to the reader about connections between characters, these will only be revealed slowly through to the last horrifying discovery.

Ambrosio is joined in his room by the young acolyte Rosario, later revealed to be Matilda, the model for the painting of the Madonna. Matilda successfully seduces Ambrosio, who then keeps her identity secret in order to continue their affair. Once Matilda realizes he is tiring of her, she leads him still further astray, helping him fulfill his desires with the aid of black magic. Rape and murder ensue as Matilda ensnares the monk tighter and tighter.

Interwoven with Ambrosio's story is that of Raymond, whose adventures in the German forest act as an antidote to the horror of Madrid's ecclesiastic institutions. While still maintaining the Gothic elements of paranoia, barbarism and taboo, Raymond's tale is much more of this world, one ordinary mortals can understand. Raymond's fiancee Agnes discovers she is pregnant while he is away and joins the convent of St Clare. When the prioress discovers Agnes' condition, she sentences her to a life of imprisonment in the catacombs.

When it was first published in 1795, this book created a scandal due to the racy content, imagery, and the attack on organized religion and the Bible itself; "no reading more improper could be permitted a young woman... the annals of a brothel would scarcely furnish a greater choice of indecent expressions", a description that would have fitted Lewis' own book in the minds of a good part of the reading public. The uproar was such that Lewis reworked some of these views in later editions.

Ludicrous as the plot might sound to a modern reader and lurid as the writing might seem, The Monk is a superb psychological study of a man driven beyond all societal constraints, an educated man who recognized and agonized over each step in his descent into utter depravity, yet took it all the same.

In the last chapter, Ambrosio and Matilda must face the Grand Inquisitor. The final scenes revealing Ambrosio's fate show Lewis as a master of the Gothic tale, as with one final plot twist, the victimizer ultimately is victimized.

Jun 26, 2012, 1:05pm Top

Excellent review of The Monk, Sassy! You have definitely made me want to read this.

Jun 26, 2012, 4:03pm Top

I never heard of this book or this author, but you've made me want to read it too!

Jun 26, 2012, 5:07pm Top

Yes I am going to sign up to this one too - great review

Jun 27, 2012, 4:30am Top

It's a freebie that's been languishing on my Kindle for quite while. Your review encourages me to read it.

Jun 27, 2012, 9:22am Top

Fabulous review of The Monk! I hadn't heard of it either, so I'll add it to my wish list.

Jul 3, 2012, 11:37am Top

Linda, Rebecca, bas, pamelad and doc: Hope you all enjoy this book. I suspect you have to be in the right frame of mind for it, that is, have a need for real escape.

The author was only twenty-two when he wrote this and was a member of Parliament, which added to the book's and the author's notoriety.

Edited: Jul 4, 2012, 10:45am Top

Like most LT people, I am somewhat addicted to lists, so when I saw people making up lists of their favourites for the 2000s, I put together a list of the lists. I only found seven: dchaikin, japaul22, linda92007, pamelad, rebeccanyc, mine and steven03x, so not a scientific sample at all and subject to change if I find more. Here are the books with more than one vote each:

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the winner with five votes
The Known World by Edward P Jones with three votes
Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa'Thiong'o three votes
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood two votes
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson two votes
Great House by Nicole Krauss
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes two votes
No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod two votes
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson two votes

I'm not sure whether this shows a surprising amount of agreement in such a small sample, or with 62 books named, shows an amazing diversity of opinion. Either way, great reading.

edited to incorporate kidzdoc's list

Jul 3, 2012, 11:56am Top

Interesting! I love lists too. Thanks for doing that!

Edited: Jul 3, 2012, 12:08pm Top

I somehow missed the review of The Monk. I had no idea the English were writing like this then. Very curious.

ETA - cool list (in #173). It makes me want to read the ones I've missed.

Jul 3, 2012, 4:14pm Top

I need to get post my lists on my thread; I'll do that now. Wolf Hall and Wizard of the Crow made my top 10 list, but the others didn't.

Jul 3, 2012, 6:51pm Top

Very interesting list, with a high proportion of historical themes and two books about the Vietnam War.

Wolf Hall was probably in 11th place on my list, so it was close to having 5 votes. I've also read Gilead, but didn't care that much for it.

A belated comment about The Monk: I was surprised at its explicit sex and violence, and even more so to learn that it was widely read in polite society by persons such as Jane Austen. We tend to project Victorian prudery onto an earlier age that wasn't that way at all.

One aspect of the Gothic genre is that it was pretty consistently anti-Catholic, with books like this being written in Protestant countries but set in Catholic countries and painting a dark portrait of monasticism in particular.

Jul 4, 2012, 8:42am Top

Tom Jones is also rather sexy. Though it was written about 50 years earlier.... :)

Jul 4, 2012, 11:08am Top

>174 japaul22: and >175 dchaikin: It was fun doing it and I now have to read The Wizard of the Crow based on its ranking.

>176 kidzdoc: doc, I have added in your votes for Wolf Hall and Wizard of the Crow and added your other books to the list in case others mention them later. I especially liked your 1980s list. Those titles have really stood up.

>177 StevenTX: Steven, I hadn't picked up on the historical theme, although the Vietnam one popped out, so thanks for that.
At the other end of the Jane Austen spectrum, the Marquis de Sade thought The Monk was an excellent novel written in response to the upheavals and moral uncertainty of the times. That may be a very franco centric view given their recent revolution, but interesting all the same.
The anti-Catholicism aspect of Gothic novels is interesting: English chauvinism or lingering fears after the interminable religious upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?

>178 The_Hibernator: Rachel, absolutely right about Tom Jones, although the style is more that of a bawdy comic novel, where ribaldry would be allowed and expected. My version quotes Dr Johnson as saying to a correspondent "I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book. I am sorry to hear you have read it...". Fielding's era was certainly more free. You've made me consider reading it once more.

Jul 4, 2012, 4:46pm Top

Back in January, I found this book at the closing out sale of one of two "local" bookstores (each 37km away, but in completely opposite directions). Although originally published in 1994, it seems to have sunk out of sight, only to be reissued to show "Author of Wolf Hall" on the cover in 2010.

30. A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

first published 1994
finished June 11, 2012

A Change of Climate is filled with disagreeable albeit completely believable characters. Disagreeable, not necessarily bad, just the worst products of narrow provincial living, they are devastatingly portrayed by Mantel, who lives in the English countryside herself and knows whereof she writes.

Ralph Eldred was brought up in this world, where homes were temples of right thinking, of inky scholarship, sabbatarian dullness:...religion was active, proselytizing, strenuous and commonsensical...Small meals were sanctified by a lengthy grace.. His father made a comfortable living printing ration books.

The summer Ralph was fifteen, he discovered geology thanks to a chance find on a Yorkshire beach. He developed this interest until he was ready to go to university. His parents, however, felt that belief in evolution was akin to atheism and could not be tolerated. In one of the most devious and controlling of parental acts, they forced Ralph into giving up any thought of such studies with the threat that his sister Emma would not be allowed to go to medical school if he did not conform.

Defeated before his life had truly begun. Ralph married Anna and the two fo them went to rural Botswana to run a missionary station. Anna, a product of the same constrained world as Ralph, found it difficult to adjust to the perceived excesses of her new world, even after twins were born to the couple. In a savage act of betrayal, one of the twins disappeared, with no hope of being found. Anna, Ralph and the remaining twin retreated to England.

While the lost child remained unburied, Anna buried his existence and herself in a world of secrecy and withdrawal. In the years to come, he is never mentioned; her other children and friends have no knowledge of him, only a vague impression that something terrible had happened out in Africa.

Twenty years later, Anna and Ralph are still ministering to those whom their children call "Sad Cases and Good Souls". Their ramshackle country home sees a stream of transients. Anna is a paragon of service. The more likeable Ralph is involved in committees and good works all over the county. Then he has his own crisis, discovering that while he knows a lot about people, he does not know the people themselves.As he put it, it was more than a failure of knowledge, it was a failure of self knowledge.

The inevitable affair ensues. Ralph learns more about himself. Anna is unrelenting. Things are pretty dismal all around. I have never found Mantel's books set in modern times to be as convincing as her work set in other eras. What saves this book is Mantel's always keen sense of character and place, and the relationship between the two. It is steady reliable Emma who gives the reader a fitting ending to this tale. There seems to be little hope for the rest in this story of never ending betrayals.

Jul 4, 2012, 5:00pm Top

Very nice review, Sassy! A Change of Climate is already on my wishlist, as is practically everything Mantel has written.

Jul 4, 2012, 5:00pm Top

Excellent review of A Change of Climate It is one of those books that I can't remember if I have read or not. It does seem familiar from your review.

Jul 4, 2012, 6:23pm Top

A Change of Climate was one of my favorite Mantels, and I've read most of her work. It's definitely variable, but I admire her willingness to try different themes, settings, and plots.

Jul 4, 2012, 7:38pm Top

Fabulous review of A Change of Climate. I've pretty much decided to read everything by Mantel, as I've enjoyed everything I've read by her so far (including the superb Bring Up the Bodies, which I finished last night).

Jul 11, 2012, 10:00am Top

Thanks all.

Linda and doc, I am slowly working my way through Mantel's books and can say that to date I have read eight, of which I have six. I fully intend to read them all. So far there is only one I disliked: Beyond Black. Having said that, it was well written and well reviewed; I think it was the characters who bothered me.

I agree Rebecca, it is her willingness to try different themes, settings, and plots and that fact that she succeeds each time that makes her such a good writer. One of the interesting things about A Change of Climate is that it is a fairly early Mantel book, but really shows the writer she will become.

Bas, very annoying when you think "Did I or didn't I read it?" Maybe it was a case of reading lots of reviews?

Jul 11, 2012, 10:18am Top

I liked Beyond Black, SL, but I admit it isn't for everyone. The one I really didn't like was Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, and I wasn't wild about An Experiment in Love or Every Day Is Mother's Day (although I loved its sequel, Vacant Possession, and it helps to have read EDIMD first).

Jul 11, 2012, 11:25am Top

Given the truly superbly written reviews in Club Read from the group read of The Master and Margarita, I'm quite reluctant to write anything at all about it, so instead of a review, I'll just go with a few ideas that I don't think I've seen elsewhere. Maybe they're way off base.

31. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov translated from Russian by Michael Glenny 1967

first published 1966
finished June 29, 2012

There are two covers here since I had read about three quarters of the Glenny translation when I found myself in a city in a heat wave with a couple of hours to kill until my urban book buying expedition. I retreated to the air conditioned library and finished the book with their Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. The Glenny version is quite flat and has neither an introduction nor notes, so the P and V translation resulted in an odd shift in the narrative, but a much more interesting read. Here is a link to a translation discussion that I had posted on the M and M thread: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/618738-mikhail-bulgakov-s-the-master-and-mar...

One of the things that struck me in reading this book was the preponderance of composers' names such as Stravinsky, Strauss, Rimsky, Schubert and of course Berlioz. Not being a musician or musicologist, I am curious about their relevance. I know that Schubert composed Scenes from Faust and Rimsky Korsakov composed the Russian Easter Festival Overture as well as Scheherazade, the epitome of story telling. I discovered that David Strauss wrote several books on Christ, but I am at a loss for a connection for the others.

Woland, Azazello and the cat struck me as the Devil's counterpart to the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. They work together as a trinity and seem to have similar functions to the Christian one, only as instruments of the dark side. Elsewhere, threes appear frequently throughout the book, possibly to keep the idea of the Trinity in the reader's mind.

Margarita's liberation as a witch was a wonderful piece of writing. While I thought Margarita herself was well portrayed, I was somewhat at a loss as to why she devoted herself to the Master, with all his deficiencies. That may have been a translation problem; their relationship came across as lacklustre.

It was the story of Pontius Pilate, the leitmotif of the novel, which I found to be the highlight. I have always wondered why such a strong prefect, an imperial representative, is portrayed so often with doubt over his sentencing of Jesus of Nazareth. This time I wondered if it was a parallel with Christ's own doubts and agony in the Garden of Gethsamane. Two men at a critical juncture, each doubting his mission and his master.

Pilate's idea that he was dammed for all time must have occurred to some of Stalin's judges as they passed sentence. Some of them must also have had doubts and seen themselves as sentenced to damnation by history.

Here is another view of a powerful man reviled by history: Vlad the Impaler as Pontius Pilate, 1463, from the National Gallery in Ljubljana"

Jul 11, 2012, 11:34am Top

Hello Rebecca, you must have posted while I was agonizing over TMAM. Interesting about Eight Months; I originally thought it was an okay read and was slightly disappointed considering the author, but as it has lingered in my mind, popping up at odd times, I now give it more credit. I haven't read the others you mention, but it's good to know there is an sequence when I get to them. What Mantel will you be reading next?

Jul 11, 2012, 4:59pm Top

I enjoyed your comments about M&M, as I had noticed the musicians' names, but had not thought about Woland's entourage as a counterpart to the Trinity. Nor do I know enough about the Pontius Pilate story to understand the Christian aspects of the book.

As for Mantel, I think I've now read almost everything by her except the newest, Bring Up the Bodies, so that's the next on my list. I must confess though, I haven't given a moment's thought to Eight Months since I first read it, so you're ahead of me in giving it more credit!

Jul 13, 2012, 7:40am Top

Another interesting review of The Master and Margarita and nice to see the comparison between the multiple translations in the link. I read the Glenny and O'Connor and don't remember the Glenny being horrible, but I read that one first and it was awhile back.

About composer names - some possible connections?

Berlioz has the hybrid opera La Damnation de Faust, though that had other sources besides the Goethe.

Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat has the title soldier making a deal with the devil. (His opera The Rake's Progress has a devil character but that was composed after Bulgakov would have worked on M&M and was based on some Hogarth illustrations.)

Richard Strauss is well-known for his tones poems - not sure if he had any involving devil deals - and he did his own take on a Biblical story, the notorious opera Salome. The J Strausses seem unlikely as influences - they were best-known for catchy waltzes though Johann Strauss II had a popular operetta of mixed identities - Die Fledermaus (also waltzy).

Rimsky-Korsakov reorchestrated pieces by other composers including Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, about a Witches' Sabbath, but he also composed a number of wonderful operas which had all sorts of fantastic, magical events.

Jul 13, 2012, 9:17am Top

Thanks for the composer info, DieF!

Jul 13, 2012, 9:56am Top

Thanks for the info DieF -- I was hoping you would chime in! I didn't know the piece about the re orchestration of Night on Bald Mountain. I will look for it.

Jul 13, 2012, 10:40am Top

There are certain publishers and series that always draw me: Harvill, Canongate, Europa and the old standbys Penguin Classics and Oxford World Classics. When I saw this book right after finishing The Master and Margarita, it called out "Victorian fiction...comfort reading" and I had to buy it. The title looked familiar but the author did not. As I read, I discovered that I had read it once upon a time as a child, but it held up beautifully for my adult self.

32.Moonfleet by John Meade Falkner

first published 1898
finished July 2, 2012

This is a tale from the days when master storytellers reigned. Robert Louis Stevenson, R M Ballantyne , Rudyard Kipling, all wrote stories to be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Best of all, they allowed children to read tales of adventure and escape on their own, never suspecting they were being guided into the adult world.

Fifteen year old John Trenchard, orphaned and living with his maiden aunt, was a solitary child, roaming the cliffs and shores of Moonfleet, his Cornish village. Moonfleet, from the corruption of the family name Mohune, was first and foremost a smuggling centre, working under the guise of a fishing village. John grew up on tales of smugglers and excisemen. These stories and The Arabian Nights Entertainments gave him a longing for something more than the confines of church, school and home.

Then on November 3, 1757, a tempest arose over Moonfleet Bay (Chesil Beach). The next day the churchyard was flooded, the church sitting like an island in the midst of a lake. A few weeks later, sitting on his favourite perch in the graveyard, John discovered a huge crack in the earth, caused by the drying up of the flood. It led right into the tomb beneath him. Sneaking back later that night, John found a well worn path leading from the tomb to the church vault. Suddenly he heard voices and was forced to hide behind a rotting coffin. The voices belonged to the smugglers, bringing kegs of wine and spirits to hide. Once the men had left, John followed, but not before taking a locket from the casket he had been hiding behind. To his horror, he discovered he had been trapped in the vaults, the entrance sealed tight by the smugglers.

After two terrifying nights, he was rescued and brought to the inn run by Elzevir Block, whose own son had been murdered by the Magistrate in another smuggling operation. John joined the smugglers, a risky business at a time when it was a capital offence. When the dastardly magistrate bought the lease on the inn. Elzevir and John decided to leave Moonfleet after one last haul, in which John was seriously injured by the revenuers. Rescued by Elzevir in an extraordinary feat of daring and strength, Elzevir once more brings John back to health through a long convalescence spent hiding in cliffside cave.

Told as a first person narrative by John looking back on his life, the story is full of adventure. However, in true Victorian fashion, it is one of the twin values of trust and loyalty, paired against the opposing traits of deceit and treachery. The relationship between John and Elzevir deepens over time as each helps the other through all the escapades to come. The pair must leave England as each had a price on his head. John however must first work out the secret of the locket, for "since man first walked upon this earth, a tale of buried treasure must have had a master power to stir his blood." Ultimately their adventures lead to imprisonment in Holland, deportation on a Dutch galley and their climatic escape.

When John first discovered the vaults he was right on the cusp of manhood, but still regarded himself as a child. He view was summed up beautifully in the Shakespearean epigraph to the book:
We thought there was no more behind
But such a day tomorrow as to-day
And to be boy eternal

Much older and wiser when he tells his tale, his narrative reflects not only on the child he was, but also on the world of the child before innocence is lost. Falkner's elegaic descriptions of that physical world give context to the child reader. To the adult reader, they provide an escape back into a world that has passed along with childhood.

Jul 13, 2012, 11:28am Top

Sounds like a great read!

Jul 13, 2012, 7:37pm Top

Great review of Moonfleet Is it as good as those other master storytellers you mention in your review?

Jul 15, 2012, 8:05pm Top

Rebecca and Bas, I think we all need these sort of reads from time to time, given our other reading, to give us a world where things always turn out for the best, no matter what you have to do to get there.

Bas, no one can ever surpass Robert Louis Stevenson for this kind of writing! Of course that's my thinking, but Davey Balfour on the staircase still gives me chills.
Falkner is more reflective I would say, giving Moonfleet a less hectic pace, but the adventure is certainly still there. Unfortunately, he seems to have written very little in this genre, with only two other novels which I haven't read, so it is hard to judge his work.
In real life he rose through the ranks to become an armaments and ship building magnate, yet wrote a book on The Statutes of the Cathedral Church of Durham and guide books, so writing seems to have been a sideline, perhaps his preferred career if things had worked out differently.

I now have to read Kidnapped again!

Jul 16, 2012, 10:36am Top

I'm not sure what random event led me to this book, but after reading Broken April, it looked like a good followup.

33. High Albania by M Edith Durham

first published 1909
finished July 9, 2012

Edith Durham was the model daughter in a model Victorian family. Unmarried, she lived at home with her invalid widowed mother. When Edith was thirty-seven, her doctor recommended travel to help her melancholy. Travel she did. Life changed by several orders of magnitude.

Her first trip was to the Dalmatian coast and Montenegro. Then, on a second trip in 1903, she arrived in Albania, the country she would always be associated with, as a life long advocate for its independence. High Albania describes her third trip to that country. It was 1908. The region known as High Albania encompassed not only the northern part of Albania, but also the current Kosovo. At that time, Albania was part of the rapidly crumbling Ottoman Empire, whose territories were coveted by both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia. Italy, too, felt there was a claim to be made. The people of Albania themselves had independence notions of their own, following the successful independence of Bulgaria.

Durham believed the only way to get to know a people was to live among them in their own language. Ignoring official warnings from both the British and Turkish authorities, she travelled with only her constant guide, Marko Shantoya, and a local guide for each region. They relied on the Albanian custom of hospitality to the stranger. Sleeping in women's quarters, monasteries, hans (a sort of bothy), stables and outdoors when necessary, Durham lived as the local people did, making voluminous notes and illustrations of her surroundings and companions, so detailed that her published works earned her the honour of Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

That said, this book reads very like journals published in a hurry, which may have been the case given the European situation at the time. There are sketches made by Durham, but not a single map. Sadly, my only previous knowledge of Albania was that it was a former client of China. Despite the wealth of detail Durham provides, I would have been completely at a loss had I not read Broken April with its description of the Kanun or Code of Law. This code was what allowed Durham to travel in safety as a single woman and what provided her with food, shelter and guides.

One of the accepted roles in this region was that of the sworn virgin. These were women who, betrothed at birth, had rejected their fiances when the time came for marriage. They could instead swear to a life of virginity, allowing them to adopt men's clothes, own property, and in some cases take part in tribal councils. The trousered and booted Durham was easily viewed in this tradition, even though she was an outsider.

Durham, Marko and the succession of local guides were protected by besa, a sort of truce of tribal rivalries that allowed them passage through a particular region, although in several instances a guide would avoid certain areas for fear of ongoing blood feuds. To Durham, this was "the land of the living past". In common with many northern Europeans of that time, she viewed the Albanians as somewhat impulsive and childlike, but that did not stop her sympathizing with their struggle for independence, nor did I find her patronizing.

During this 1908 trip, the constitution of 1876 was reintroduced. Railways, schools, hospitals and roads were promised, but taxes, prisons and national laws would be the price. Durham is at her most interesting writing of the local discussions around adopting "Konstitutzioon" and the various beliefs as to what it was thought it could do; basically all things for all peoples. She wrote
It is hard to be hurled from somewhere about the fourth century, at latest, into the twentieth, without one breathing-space. I asked myself doubtfully whether Konstitutzioon understood them any better than they did it. Above all, I was anxious that by no futile and ill timed revolt they should damn themselves in the eyes of Western politicians, to whom the blessed word Constitution seems to be a sort of Morison pill to cure all evils.

I would like to read more by and about this fascinating woman. This book has also convinced me to do more that just dabble in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon to see what Rebecca West, one of her major contemporary critics, had to say. In the meantime here is a link to how she was viewed by her contemporaries: http://www.illyrians.org/edurham.html

Edith as a Victorian: Edith as a free woman:

Edited: Jul 16, 2012, 5:30pm Top

Fascinating, Sassy! Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has been on my TRB for years; its length is daunting.

Jul 16, 2012, 5:07pm Top

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon reads very fluently. Don't be daunted.


Jul 16, 2012, 5:34pm Top

Intriguing review of High Albania, Sassy. Now I am tempted by both that and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I did very much enjoy the one book by Rebecca West that I have read.

Jul 16, 2012, 5:35pm Top

M Edith Durham one of those intrepid Victorian women travellers, who have not as yet been 'discovered'. Perhaps this is because she has been deemed as 'difficult'. I have enjoyed reading about her on your link.

Jul 17, 2012, 7:34am Top

I like both Edith Durham and Rebecca West very much, having read High Albania & BLGF within a few months of each other.

BLGF is both similar to HA - written by a strong, independent woman with strong views - but different (very subjective, pandering to West's biases in the region). But it is a book you have to read - a great experience in my view.

Jul 17, 2012, 11:35am Top

I will get to it, just don't know when! But, that's the story of my (reading) life.

Jul 18, 2012, 8:45am Top

>198 rebeccanyc: - >203 rebeccanyc:

Thanks for all the encouragement to properly read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I suspect I may save it for the winter storm season when there is nothing like curling up with a good book about far away places and other times.

Bas, maybe there is an opportunity here for a biography?

Zenomax, what led you to these two books? By the way, I have added Weeds; In Defense of Nature's Most Loved Plants to my wish list after seeing your addition in Connection News.

Rebecca, I will get to it, just don't know when!. That seems to be the story of my entire life!

Jul 18, 2012, 4:23pm Top

Terrific review. Apparently I live in a parallel universe where the titles High Albania and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon have never crossed my path before. Anyway, taking note.

Jul 19, 2012, 7:55am Top

204 - Goes back to university days - I became interested in reading everything on the Balkans, but particularly Yugoslavia, after reading Eastern Approaches. The Geography dept was running some lunchtime seminars and one was on Edith Durham (at which Rebecca West's book was mentioned in passing as being well worth getting hold of). So I read both. ED's book is still a favourite, but minor key piece, whilst RW's is one I hold in high esteem, despite - or because of - its flaws...

I like the fact that you pick up my new purchases via connection news! Makes me feel important...

Jul 19, 2012, 7:56am Top

dan - if you haven't read these, your universe is the lesser one...

Jul 19, 2012, 11:11am Top

Noting Z - they are going on the wishlist, with anticipation.

Jul 23, 2012, 3:42pm Top

Moving on...

This topic was continued by SassyLassy still meandering through 2012.

Group: Club Read 2012

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