Monday at the Library

I’m not sure how consistent I will be, but I’m going to try to post my library check-outs every Monday. I’m a very heavy library user, and I am lucky enough to have access to two really great library systems. One of them belongs to the large library system adjacent to my home county  – I primarily use this system for ebooks, because their catalog is so much bigger than my home system. There is also a branch about 20 minutes from my home, so I do from time to time check out print books from that system as well, if my home system doesn’t have them. I use my home library system for almost exclusively print books because the wait times for ebooks tend to be double or triple the wait times for the other system.

I manage my library activity on-line, placing holds on the books I want to check out. This transports them to my selected branch, so I can pick them up easily.

Having said all of that, let’s get started. For some reason, right now, I have a completely excessive number of books checked out. I meant to go through them over the weekend and drop a bunch of them in the return bin, but I didn’t get to it. I actually have two that are overdue as of yesterday, and I can’t renew them because they have holds. I’ll get to the library tomorrow & return them, so I haven’t included them in the list.

Ebooks:

  1. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (due in 21 days)
  2. Small Angels by Lauren Owen (due in 21 days)
  3. A Libertarian Walks into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (due in 20 days)
  4. The Nightingale Before Christmas by Donna Andrews (due in 13 days)
  5. Death and the Dancing Footman by Ngaio Marsh (due in 12 days) (currently reading)
  6. Clariel by Garth Nix (due in 21 days)
  7. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears(due in 17 days)
  8. Desolation Mountain by William Kent Krueger (due in 15 days)

Print books:

  1. Maigret and the Judge by Georges Simenon (due 12.3)
  2. Maigret and the Ghost by Georges Simenon (due 12.3) (on deck)
  3. Maigret and the Killer by Georges Simenon (due 12.3)
  4. Maigret and the Reluctant Witness by Georges Simenon (due 12.3)
  5. Maigret Enjoys Himself by Georges Simenon (due 12.3)
  6. Murder After Christmas by Rupert Latimer (due 12.3)

Home library print books:

  1. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker (due 12.2) (on deck)
  2. Checkmate to Murder by E.C.R. Lorac (due 12.2)
  3. Miss Pinkerton by Mary Roberts Rinehart (due 12.13)
  4. The Mad Hatter Mystery by John Dickson Carr (due 12.13)
  5. The Unsuspected by Charlotte Armstrong (due 12.13)
  6. Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard (due 12.13)
  7. Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey (due 12.16)
  8. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (due 12.16)
  9. All the Horses of Iceland by Sarah Tolmie (due 12.16)
  10. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen (due 12.16)
  11. National Provincial by Lettice Cooper (due 12.19)
  12. Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon (due 12.19)

I have 26 books checked out (of which, I have read 3), all of which are books that I would like to read, but it is really unlikely that I will get to them all. I am currently reading Wuthering Heights, a copy from my personal library – this is a reread, and Death and the Dancing Footman by Ngaio Marsh. I do plan to get to all of the Maigrets and Murder after Christmas by Rupert Latimer finished before I have to return them.

A Pair of Maigret Mysteries

Maigret and the Reluctant WitnessMaigret and the Reluctant Witness
by Georges Simenon
Translated from: French
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Inspector Maigret #53
Publication Date: January 1, 1955
Genre: crime, mystery
Pages: 172
ReRead?: No

A once-wealthy family closes ranks when one of their own is shot, leaving Maigret - along with a troublesome new magistrate - to pick his way through their secrets.

It was as if suddenly, long ago, life had stopped here, not the life of the man lying on the bed but the life of the house, the life of its world, and even the factory chimney that could be seen through the curtains looked obsolete and absurd.


I haven’t posted in months. I don’t know what my blogging problem has been – like Maigret’s reluctant witnesses from this book, I have been the reluctant blogger. Every time I consider opening a new post window, I immediately reject the idea. Usually to return to doomscrolling on Twitter. About the only good thing that would come from the potential impending Twitter collapse would be my inability to waste so much time on it.

Anyway, from time to time I feel the need to binge on something, and this month, apparently, it is Maigret. I checked out a small pile of the new Penguin translations from my local library: Maigret and the Killer (#70, published in 1969), Maigret and the Reluctant Witness (#53, published in 1955), Maigret and the Ghost (#62, published in 1964), The Judges House (#21, published in 1940) and Maigret Enjoys Himself (#50, published in 1957).  These were selected for no rhyme nor reason, in no particular order, and without even really looking at the plot synopses. I just picked books that were available. That’s it.

The first one that I finished was Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses. This is set in Paris and is in the later half of the series; Maigret is seemingly getting accustomed to the idea of retirement – although now that I know that there 74 books total, which means there are 21 books that follow this one, the immediacy of his retirement seems quite exaggerated. Maigret is sent to investigate a murder that has occurred in the Lachaume family home, where they have lived for many generations, the owners of a biscuit factory. No one seems to actually buy, or eat, their biscuits, so how the factory keeps churning them out is a significant part of the mystery.

It is necessary to get into a bit of a groove with Simenon and Maigret. These books look slight, but they are really not. At a mere 183 pages, the book is full of character and social commentary. Like Agatha Christie’s England, Simenon’s France is a place both in and out of time. The “mystery” is almost beside the point, and I make very few efforts to “solve” the case; enjoying, rather, the sensation of slipping into a very distinct world. The mystery itself, here, is well rendered, as is the fading, insular upper class Parisian family at the center of it.

Maigret and the KillerMaigret and the Killer
by Georges Simenon
Translated from: French
Rating: ★★★★½
Series: Inspector Maigret #70
Publication Date: January 1, 1969
Genre: crime
Pages: 192
ReRead?: No

When a tape recorder is found on a murder victim, Inspector Maigret hopes this will be the clue he needs to track down the killer.


This entry was very late in the series, and Maigret still hasn’t retired, although he continues to mention that it is imminent. As someone who is – myself – planning to retire in less than a year, I find this vaguely hilarious. Do it, Maigret, and spend some delightful years in the company of Mrs. Maigret.

I really liked this one. First of all, I’m grooving on Simenon’s Paris here, but also, this is a psychopath mystery and it’s really intriguing. It’s proto-Criminal Minds.

In addition, Mrs. Maigret plays a significant role and shows bravery and resourcefulness. I always enjoy seeing functional marriages between the detective/inspector and spouse in crime fiction because they are the exception and not the norm. I grow weary of the fictional brilliant damaged detective who can’t maintain a healthy relationship with other human beings. At this point, it’s a trite stereotype.

I think that I will read The Judge’s House next, because I love the cover, and I love it when Maigret gets sent to coastal France. This is an early entry into the series, at #21, and was published in 1940.

I am also going to take a moment to talk about these new Penguin editions because I love them. I think that the book design is really appealing – the print is a big bigger than usual and they are a nice, slim size. All of the covers are details from photos by a photographer named Harry Gruyaert. I had never heard of him until I noticed that several covers credited his photographs so I went down a tiny internet rabbit hold and found this wonderful feature from the Guardian: Georges Simenon’s Maigret gets a new look – in pictures, which provides some context for the project.

Lucky for me, it seems that one of my two library systems has all of them. I’m not sure how long this binge will last, but so long as it does, I intend to indulge it.

Emily Fox-Seton by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Making of a MarchionessThe Making of a Marchioness
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Emily Fox-Seton #
Publication Date: January 1, 1901
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 308
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

First published in 1901 as The Making of a Marchioness followed by its sequel The Methods of Lady Walderhurst, the two novels were combined into Emily Fox-Seton who is the two works' primary character. The story follows thirty-something Emily who lives alone, humbly and happily, in a tiny apartment and on a meager income. She is the one that everyone counts on but no one goes out of their way to accommodate. Her fortune changes, however, and the second half chronicles her adaptation to her new life and the dangers that arise from those who stand to lose most from her new circumstances.


Let me begin by saying that A Little Princess, even more than The Secret Garden, is a beloved book of my childhood. I was surprised to find out, then, that Hodgson Burnett had actually also written adult fiction. A few years ago, I read The Shuttle, which I really enjoyed, and which is a novel about an American heiress who marries an English aristocrat, who turns out to be an abusive asshole. I may actually have to reread it, given how much I enjoyed this one.

I selected this book for my 1901 entry in A Century of Women for two reasons – my public library had the Persephone edition available for me to check out and those early years are the hardest ones for me to fill. I really love reading Persephone editions; the books are so well-constructed, the paper is a bit on the thicker and creamier side than the average paperback and the covers are sturdy. They fit so well in my hand.

I ended up just loving this book, and will be on the lookout for a copy to add to my personal library. It reminded me of something that Elizabeth Von Arnim might have written, although Hodgson Burnett doesn’t have the bite that von Arnim often adds to her books. Emily Fox-Seton is a lovely character, and spending time with her was soothing. The book contains both of the Emily Fox-Seton books: the first book, that is really more of a novella, called The Making of the Marchioness, and then the sequel, which is longer, called The Methods of Lady Walderhurst. I liked Part I, the Cinderella story, a bit more than Part II, which is what happened after Cinderella marries her prince, if her prince had been 50 years old and quite set in his ways. Part II is a bit on the gothic melodramatic side, but I’m not opposed to a little melodrama between friends.

 

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

FatherFather
by Elizabeth von Arnim
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1931
Genre: fiction
Pages: 304
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

There came a moment, she imagined, in the lives of most unmarried daughters, and perhaps in other people's too, when they must either bolt or go permanently under.'

Since her mother's death Jennifer has devoted years of her life to her father, managing the family home and acting as his secretary. After the sudden announcement that he has taken a new wife, Jennifer, at 33, seizes the opportunity to lead an independent life. Quickly she secures the lease of Rose Cottage and turns her attention to her own needs and interests.

Published in 1931, Father explores the concept of spinsterhood in a time when the financial and social status of single women were often dependent on male family members. While Jennifer is desperate to experience life on her own terms within her reduced financial means, her neighbour Alice is pre-occupied with ensuring her position as head of her brother's household is never challenged.


I have read several books by von Armin since I fortuitously picked up old green-cover Virago edition of The Enchanted April many years ago and fell in love with it. I read Elizabeth and her German Garden and The Solitary Summer several years later and loved them, too – albeit not quite so much as The Enchanted April, which has made it into that quite limited pantheon of books I have read more than 3 times.

I had never heard of this book until I saw it was reissued by the British Library in their British Library Women Writers series. Since I love their BLCC series, and since it was completely free through the Kindle Unlimited Library, I decided to read it on a whim.

I am even more convinced that The Enchanted April, written in 1922 is her fictional masterpiece. This one was written in 1931, and it was delightful in a lot of the same ways. I could hear echoes of Lottie in the character of Jennifer, and her rapid evolution from indenture to freedom.

I’ve realized that there are few tropes that are as immediately appealing to me as “unmarried/spinster woman who has sublimated her entire existence to caregiving for other people breaks free.” This was what I loved about All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, and, as well, Persuasion, by Jane Austen. Women whose entire lives have been dominated by other people because they are surplus, they don’t have husbands or homes of their own (or they do have husbands or homes, but because of social pressures are still expected not to possess a shred of individuality or personal ambition), suddenly decides that they just aren’t going to put up with that anymore – this is something I love to read about. And if they can annoy the shit out of the people who have taken them for granted and expected them to forgo all freedom or individuality, all the better from my perspective.

So, the first 3/4 of the book really revolved around this theme. But the ending, whoa? I couldn’t decide if I should laugh or be completely appalled by what happened to the titular father. Von Arnim has a dark side, for sure.

Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning

Fortunes of War: The Balkan TrilogyFortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy
by Olivia Manning
Rating: ★★★★★
Series: Fortunes of War #1
Publication Date: January 1, 1960
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Pages: 924
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

The Balkan Trilogy is the story of a marriage and of a war, a vast, teeming, and complex masterpiece in which Olivia Manning brings the uncertainty and adventure of civilian existence under political and military siege to vibrant life. Manning’s focus is not the battlefield but the café and kitchen, the bedroom and street, the fabric of the everyday world that has been irrevocably changed by war, yet remains unchanged.

At the heart of the trilogy are newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle, who arrive in Bucharest—the so-called Paris of the East—in the fall of 1939, just weeks after the German invasion of Poland. Guy, an Englishman teaching at the university, is as wantonly gregarious as his wife is introverted, and Harriet is shocked to discover that she must share her adored husband with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Other surprises follow: Romania joins the Axis, and before long German soldiers overrun the capital. The Pringles flee south to Greece, part of a group of refugees made up of White Russians, journalists, con artists, and dignitaries. In Athens, however, the couple will face a new challenge of their own, as great in its way as the still-expanding theater of war.


This was a chunkster of a book – an omnibus of the first three books of Olivia Manning’s cycle of WWII books based upon her own war experiences: The Great Fortune, published in 1960, The Spoilt City, published in 1962, and Friends and Heroes, published in 1965. I’m assigning it to the year 1960 in my A Century of Women project, but it was a massive and impressive undertaking. The remaining six books, which are collected as Fortunes of War: The Levant Trilogy, also published by NYRB, consists of: The Danger Tree, published in 1977, The Battle Lost and Won, published in 1978 and The Sum of Things, published 1981. I’m going to assign The Levant Trilogy, once I finish it, to year 1981.

I have a pronounced affection for books set on huge stages but involving ordinary people – such as Doctor Zhivago or the series I just finished, the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. Reading of sweeping events through the perspective of completely unimportant characters is, for me, the most enjoyable way for me to dig into history. WWII literature is having a moment – it seems like every other new release I see is a piece of historical fiction about WWII, often with a woman as the central character, and usually with a gorgeous cover but a plot description that leaves me cold.

Initially, I was on the fence about this group of books – I hesitate to call them a “series” because what they really seem to be is a single sustained narrative that has been broken, for convenience, into multiple books. Each book does have a narrative structure, and the last two books end with a flight or evacuation. I think that the first book, for me, was the most difficult because I hadn’t yet become engaged. Over the course of the three books, that changed completely. By the end of the third book, Guy and Harriet are in desperate flight from Athens, barely ahead of the Germans (apparently) and I was reading as fast as I could, even knowing that (obviously, given that there are three more books) they survived.

There are elements of this story that I simply do not understand. I do not understand why England is sending English teachers to war torn countries and then leaving them there. I do not understand the point of people putting on lectures about literature and philosophy while the citizens of Greece are literally starving. I do not understand why so many able-bodied young men (and women, for that matter) were, apparently, paid to engage in what certainly appears to be, in retrospect, self-indulgent colonial nonsense rather than useful work to support the war effort, even if they weren’t going to be fighting on the front lines.

I especially loved the last book. Harriet and Guy are absurdly young, and the events through which they are living are immense and sweeping. Their marriage is struggling under the weight of their immaturity and the extraordinariness of their war experience. War is also clarifying the characters of the various other  individuals – the brave are demonstrating even greater bravery, and the weak and venal, well let’s just say that they have utterly surpassed even the least charitable expectations that I had of them. Not everyone behaves heroically during times of great danger, and those who are entitled and self-centered and craven don’t even bother to hide those qualities when their comfort is on the line.

I had enough foresight to pick up The Levant Trilogy as part of a recent NYRB purchase – it’s sitting on my bookshelf at home, waiting for me to crack it open this evening after work.

 

West With The Night by Beryl Markham

West With the NightWest With the Night
by Beryl Markham
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1942
Genre: memoir
Pages: 306
ReRead?: Yes
Project: a century of women

The classic memoir of Africa, aviation, and adventure—the inspiration for Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun and “a bloody wonderful book” (Ernest Hemingway).

Beryl Markham’s life story is a true epic. Not only did she set records and break barriers as a pilot, she shattered societal expectations, threw herself into torrid love affairs, survived desperate crash landings—and chronicled everything. A contemporary of Karen Blixen (better known as Isak Dinesen, the author of Out of Africa), Markham left an enduring memoir that soars with astounding candor and shimmering insights.

A rebel from a young age, the British-born Markham was raised in Kenya’s unforgiving farmlands. She trained as a bush pilot at a time when most Africans had never seen a plane. In 1936, she accepted the ultimate challenge: to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from east to west, a feat that fellow female aviator Amelia Earhart had completed in reverse just a few years before. Markham’s successes and her failures—and her deep, lifelong love of the “soul of Africa”—are all told here with wrenching honesty and agile wit.


I read this book many years ago, and remember really enjoying it. When I decided (recently) to buckle down and try to finish my A Century of Women project, I started working on a potential book list for my remaining years. When I searched for books written in 1942, this one popped up (along with Five Little Pigs, which is my favorite Christie mystery) – it’s #12 on the Goodreads list of “Most Popular Books Published in 1942.”

It was even better the second time because Beryl Markham was an incredibly interesting woman, and a magnificent writer.

So there are many Africas. There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa — and as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime.

Markham was born in England as Beryl Clutterbuck – I don’t actually know how she became Markham, probably she married – this memoir doesn’t talk at all about husbands (although there were three of them), and it is clear that she has three great loves: Africa, horses and flight. Men don’t seem to figure much in her emotional life, except as companions, friends, and equals. Women figure even less. While this makes the memoir, possibly, less complete, it really feels to me like those are things that she didn’t feel mattered enough to include here. She wanted to write about adventure, she wanted to write about Africa, and she wanted to write about flying. Who she slept with was orders of magnitude less interesting to her, and ultimately, to me as well.

Markham was raised in Kenya, on a farm where she lived with her father after her mother died. She lived one of those lives that is filled with adventure – she feels bigger than life. After her father lost the farm in Njoro, she is forced to leave it and goes to Nairobi to train racehorses.

I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep — leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late. I left the farm at Njoro almost the slowest way, and I never saw it again.

She gets some success as a trainer, but ultimately abandons horses for flight.

Three hundred and fifty miles can be no distance in a plane, or it can be from where you are to the end of the earth. It depends on so many things. If it is night, it depends on the depth of the darkness and the height of the clouds, the speed of the wind, the stars, the fullness of the moon. It depends on you, if you fly alone — not only on your ability to steer your course or to keep your altitude, but upon the things that live in your mind while you swing suspended between the earth and the silent sky. Some of those things take root and are with you long after the flight itself is a memory, but, if your course was over any part of Africa, even the memory will remain strong.

I haven’t read Paula McLain’s historical fiction treatment of her life, Circling the Sun, which has a lovely cover, but doesn’t really appeal to me. The Mary Lovell biography, Straight on Till Morning, on the other hand, does appeal to me and I have put a library hold on it.

I’ll close with Hemingway’s words about the memoir:

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

I find myself agreeing with him here. It really is a bloody wonderful book.

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Breathing LessonsBreathing Lessons
by Anne Tyler
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: August 12, 1988
Genre: fiction
Pages: 338
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

Breathing Lessons is the wonderfully moving and surprising story of Ira and Maggie Moran. She's impetuous, harum-scarum, easygoing; he's competent, patient, seemingly infallible. They've been married for 28 years. Now, as they drive from their home in Baltimore to the funeral of Maggie's best friend's husband, Anne Tyler shows us all there is to know about a marriage - the expectations, the disappointments, the way children can create storms in a family, the way a wife and husband can fall in love all over again, the way nothing really changes. Anne Tyler's funny, unpredictable and endearing characterizations make Breathing Lessons truly entertaining.


It took me a long time to read this rather quick book, and I’m still on the fence about it. I started it, read the first section (from Maggie’s perspective) and then started the second section (from Ira’s perspective) and then quit for about a week, and then picked it back up against because I was running out of time and finished it quickly. I think that I have previously read Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, although I’m not entirely sure that I’m right about that. I’ll be finding out soon, as I checked it out of the library as well.

I mostly picked this up because Liz from Adventures in reading . . . is a fan – so much so that she reread all of Tyler’s books last year. Anne Tyler won the Pulitzer for this book.

Breathing Lessons is set all in one day, but takes place over the entire 28 years that Maggie and Ira have been married, with the story of their marriage and lives told through discursions from each of their perspectives, and flashbacks to earlier events. At the beginning of the book, Maggie and Ira are getting ready to set off in their car for the funeral of a friend from when they were young. Maggie is picking up the car from having some work done on it, and, tuned to a call-in radio show she hears a caller she believes to be her former daughter-in-law calling in to talk about her decision to marry again, this time for security, as her first marriage, for love, has not worked out.

These two events take up the entire book – first, the funeral, which turns out to be one of the oddest funerals in the history of fiction, and then Maggie attempting, and ultimately persuading, Ira to stop by Fiona’s house (the ex-daughter-in-law) to attempt to effectuate a hail-Mary reconciliation between Fiona and Jesse, their son, and to see the 7 year old granddaughter from whom they are estranged. Maggie and Ira have two children: the feckless musician, Jesse, and the organized, capable Daisy. Maggie and Ira are driving Daisy to college the day after the funeral, and this fact, while not overplayed by Tyler, is the central piece of background information that, I think, informs the entire book.

As I said above, I’m on the fence about this book. On the one hand, Maggie and Ira both drove me completely bonkers, Maggie more than Ira. And, viewed as a piece of ethnography on the American marriage in the 20th century, I would not say that we are doing well at all. On the other hand, as a nearly empty-nester myself, I related to Maggie. While she is incredibly annoying, with her seeming incapacity to tell the truth to herself, much less the other people around her, she is also warm, caring and shit-scared of being alone with her marriage, without her kids to focus on. I don’t mean that she’s afraid of Ira – it’s clear that there is no abuse in their marriage, although I’m not sure how well suited they are one to one another. But Maggie is the sort of person who requires the role of caregiver, and she’s just about run out of time on that front – her oldest, her son, has moved out and her youngest, her daughter, is leaving her behind as well. Ira is capable and grounded and does not need Maggie to try to fix his life.

I know something about what this feels like, and my heart went out to Maggie as she scrambled around desperately, trying to get her granddaughter back into her life so that she could take on a caregiving role for that little girl. This all goes completely awry, because of Maggie’s habit of, to put it charitably, stretching the truth about other people to try to smooth over the rough spots in their relationships. She’s completely delusional about it in her desperation – she tries to convince Ira that they should propose having Leroy live with them so she can attend school in their neighborhood; Ira, befuddled by all of this tries to bring her back to reality. Reality is not a place that Maggie particularly enjoys, although it is coming for her hard.

By the end of the book, she’s left with only her marriage, and Ira. I can’t help but wonder what will happen next.

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

The Towers of TrebizondThe Towers of Trebizond
by Rose Macaulay
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1956
Genre: fiction
Pages: 296
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, Mt. TBR 2022

"'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." So begins The Towers of Trebizond, the greatest novel by Rose Macaulay, one of the eccentric geniuses of English literature. In this fine and funny adventure set in the backlands of modern Turkey, a group of highly unusual travel companions makes its way from Istanbul to legendary Trebizond, encountering potion-dealing sorcerers, recalcitrant policemen, and Billy Graham on tour with a busload of Southern evangelists. But though the dominant note of the novel is humorous, its pages are shadowed by heartbreak as the narrator confronts the specters of ancient empires, religious turmoil, and painful memories of lost love.


What a very strange book this was, although I liked it. Rose Macaulay is a third quarter author-in-residence in one of my Goodreads groups (along with Elizabeth Gaskell), and the NYRB edition of this title had been sitting on my TBR cart since the beginning of 2022. I was saving it up to read as part of that project.

“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”

Now that’s a heck of a first line, isn’t it?

Narrated by aunt Dot’s niece, Laurie, the book tells the story of a trip to Turkey undertaken by the two women, with a priest as companion. Aunt Dot and the priest are, more or less, united in their zeal to convert Muslim women to Christianity, although for entirely different reasons. Aunt Dot wants to liberate them from the oppression of their current culture and religion, whether they want to be liberated or not, while the priest just wants to turn them into Anglicans, the higher the better. I got the impression that aunt Dot was largely unconcerned with immortal souls – her primary focus was on the experience of being a woman in a Muslim country.

Published in 1956, the world is decidedly post WWII. The Iron Curtain (which is usually referred to just as the “Curtain,” – it took me a bit to figure out this reference) has come down to separate the Soviet Union from the rest of the world, including Turkey.

So, the very British Laurie and Dot take a priest and a camel to Turkey. High jinks and tomfoolery ensue as they make their way across Turkey by camel. Eventually Dot and the priest, Father Chantry-Pigg (OMG, that name) seem to disappear behind the Curtain, into the Soviet Union, leaving Laurie and the camel behind, but taking most, if not all, of the money with them. From that point on, Laurie travels on her own, into Syria and Israel, and then ultimately meeting up with her married lover, Vere which solves her financial problems. There is a side plot about finding a notebook from an English friend who has been killed in a shark attack and then realizing that his former writing partner is plagiarizing the deceased writer’s material, now that he is dead.

There is a lot of Laurie’s near stream of consciousness rambling about religion, Turkey, ancient history, what she is seeing and experiencing, love, England, and other topics. There is one very funny, in my opinion, bit about her difficulty with the language and a misunderstanding from the phrase book she has brought along. She takes the fact that she has no money more or less in stride, and is resourceful enough to solve her problems by selling pretty much everything that they brought on their trip, and riding the camel across Asia.

“…when the years have all passed, there will gape the uncomfortable and unpredictable dark void of death, and into this I shall at last fall headlong, down and down and down, and the prospect of that fall, that uprooting, that rending apart of body and spirit, that taking off into so blank an unknown, drowns me in mortal fear and mortal grief. After all, life, for all its agonies of despair and loss and guilt, is exciting and beautiful, amusing and artful and endearing, full of liking and of love, at times a poem and a high adventure, at times noble and at times very gay; and whatever (if anything) is to come after it, we shall not have this life again.”

The book takes quite a turn into darkness at the end, but it was eccentric, charming and strange, nonetheless.

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

The FeastThe Feast
by Margaret Kennedy
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1949
Genre: fiction
Pages: 448
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

Cornwall, Midsummer 1947. Pendizack Manor Hotel is buried in the rubble of a collapsed cliff. Seven guests have perished, but what brought this strange assembly together for a moonlit feast before this Act of God -- or Man? Over the week before the landslide, we meet the hotel guests in all their eccentric glory: and as friendships form and romances blossom, sins are revealed, and the cracks widen ...


Originally published in 1947, The Feast is one of those books that periodically has a resurgence when a publisher picks it up to reissue, and all of the sudden it seems like everyone I follow on GR and Twitter is reading it (A Fortnight in September, by R.C. Sherriff is another such book, and it is also sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read). Margaret Kennedy is best known for her novel The Constant Nymph, which was reissued by Virago in the 1980’s. This is my first book by her, and, I suspect, is likely to be the one I like the best, since nothing else by her appeals to me nearly so much.

To begin, this is a perfect book for the summer. I’m going through a summertime phase, where I’m looking for books that scratch that particular itch – not so much books set during summer, but books that feel like summer to me; house parties and long, hot days and warm nights and lethargy and nostalgia. This book feels like summer.

The set up is really intriguing – immediately upon beginning the book, the reader learns that an entire cliff face has collapsed on a Cornwall boarding house/small hotel and that everyone in the hotel at the time has been buried under tons upon tons of rock, where they will remain. The identity of one of the victims is shared in this section; the numbers/names of additional victims are not shared. Then the book moves backwards, to the week before the collapse, as the guests begin arriving. The remainder of the story is told day by day, through diary entries, letters and dialogue. We meet all of the characters: seven children in two families, the owners of the hotel, their children and employees; the adults guests, and some of the local inhabitants of the village.

There are only a few characters who are even remotely likeable, most of them are on a spectrum between meh and irredeemably horrible. Secrets, especially among the adults, abound. Nonetheless, the book is extremely engaging, and the pace of my reading increased as I got closer to the end, waiting for the disaster and for the identity of the dead to be revealed.

There is an element of parable going on in the book, that I’m not going to talk about in detail because I don’t want to spoil, but which has to do with various characters representing each of the seven deadly sins. It’s quite a neat little concept.

The ending is abrupt, but I suppose that an entire cliff falling on a hotel and crushing a bunch of people beneath tons of rubble is also abrupt.

The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott

The Jewel in the CrownThe Jewel in the Crown
by Paul Scott
Rating: ★★★★
Series: The Raj Quartet #1
Publication Date: January 1, 1996
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Pages: 472
ReRead?: No
Project: Mt. TBR 2022

India 1942: everything is in flux. World War II has shown that the British are not invincible and the self-rule lobby is gaining many supporters. Against this background, Daphne Manners, a young English girl, is brutally raped in the Bibighat Gardens. The racism, brutality and hatred launched upon the head of her young Indian lover echo the dreadful violence perpetrated on Daphne and reveal the desperate state of Anglo-Indian relations.

The rift that will eventually prise India - the jewel in the Imperial Crown - from colonial rule is beginning to gape wide.


The Day of the ScorpionThe Day of the Scorpion
by Paul Scott
Rating: ★★★★
Series: The Raj Quartet #2
Publication Date: January 1, 1968
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Pages: 493
ReRead?: No
Project: Mt. TBR 2022

In "The Day of the Scorpion," Scott draws us deeper in to his epic of India at the close of World War II. With force and subtlety, he recreates both private ambition and perversity, and the politics of an entire subcontinent at a turning point in history.

As the scorpion, encircled by a ring of fire, will sting itself to death, so does the British raj hasten its own destruction when threatened by the flames of Indian independence. Brutal repression and imprisonment of India's leaders cannot still the cry for home rule. And in the midst of chaos, the English Laytons withdraw from a world they no longer know to seek solace in denial, drink, and madness.


The Towers of SilenceThe Towers of Silence
by Paul Scott
Rating: ★★★★
Series: The Raj Quartet #3
Publication Date: January 1, 1971
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Pages: 399
ReRead?: No
Project: Mt. TBR 2022

India, 1943: In a regimental hill station, the ladies of Pankot struggle to preserve the genteel façade of British society amid the debris of a vanishing empire and World War II. A retired missionary, Barbara Batchelor, bears witness to the connections between many human dramas; the love between Daphne Manner and Hari Kumar; the desperate grief an old teacher feels for an India she cannot rescue; and the cruelty of Captain Ronald Merrick.


A Division of the SpoilsA Division of the Spoils
by Paul Scott
Rating: ★★★★★
Series: The Raj Quartet #4
Publication Date: January 1, 1975
Genre: historical fiction
Pages: 623
ReRead?: No
Project: Mt. TBR 2022

After exploiting India's divisions for years, the British depart in such haste that no one is prepared for the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1947. The twilight of the raj turns bloody. Against the backdrop of the violent partition of India and Pakistan, A Division of the Spoils illuminates one last bittersweet romance, revealing the divided loyalties of the British as they flee, retreat from, or cling to India.


I started this quartet of books on May 9 and finished the fourth book, A Division of the Spoils, two months later on July 9. When I pulled the first book, A Jewel in the Crown, off of my TBR cart to begin reading, I found the receipt from my purchase of the quartet. I bought the four matching fat paperbacks (not the editions I used for the review information – mine all have the same cover and they are pretty ugly, actually. I think they may be a tie-in for the 1984 BBC television series which I have not seen) from a UBS in 2013. The total length of the quartet is in the neighborhood of 2000 pages. There is also, actually, a Booker Prize winning 5th novel, which isn’t part of the quartet, but which is nominally attached to the first four books and which focuses on a married couple who stay in India after independence, called Staying On.

The series starts, in the first book, with the triangular relationship between a British woman, Daphne Mannering, an Indian man who was educated in England, Hari Kumar, and a British police officer, Ronald Merrick. This relationship doesn’t just inform the first book, it provides a thread, a through-line, for the entire series. Daphne falls in love with Hari Kumar (or Harry Coomer, as his name is Anglicized during the years of his education). They embark on a relationship which proves the downfall of both of them, both at the hands of their culture(s), generally, and, more directly in the case of Hari, at the hands of Ronald Merrick.

Scott may have been taking his cues from E.M. Forster, because in this first book, like in A Passage to India, the rape of an English woman, Daphne, provides the central event of the book. And, ultimately, of the quartet itself, which becomes, in a way, a forensic examination of the crime, as a way of explaining the end of colonialism in India. Multiple POV’s are employed by Scott, both first person and third person. The Jewel in the Crown deals with Edwina Crane, a missionary/educator; Daphne herself, Hari himself, and Ronald Merrick, who becomes the central antagonist of the entire quarter.

In the second book, The Day of the Scorpion, the analysis transfers from Daphne and Hari to the Layton family, and especially Sarah Layton, as well as Nigel Rowan, a British Army Captain, and Mohammed Ali Kasim, a principled Indian politician and Muslim man. The book continues to analyze the Bibighar Affair (as the rape is called), and Hari Kumar is allowed to tell his own story, through an interview with Nigel Rowan, that is one of the great elements of the entire series. The Bibighar Affair has far reaching implications, but those implications treat Daphne and Hari, the individuals at the center of it, as almost beside the point. We hear little from Daphne once the rape investigation concludes; Hari remains the object of the controversy, and neither of them have more than nominal opportunities to speak for themselves.

In the third book, The Towers of Silence, the POV changes again, and most of the time is spent with an elderly spinster, Barbara Batchelor, who makes her home with Sarah Layton’s aunt Mabel, until Mabel’s death. Scott continues to depict the crumbling of the British raj, through the characters through whom he has chosen to tell his story. The final book, A Division of the Spoils, is the end of the Raj. The characters are, finally, making their arrangements for what the future of India will look like, after the partition, and where they will live out their days. Some characters are planning to return to England, a place that is more foreign to them than India in many ways, the Indian characters, variously Hindu and Muslim, are trying to figure out what their future looks like under self-rule. This is the longest of the books, and provides a satisfying and compelling end to Scott’s story.

I have not yet read Staying On, although it’s on its way to me from the library. It was not part of my set of books, and is quite short in comparison to the others.

Overall, this is a remarkable work of scope and power. It is not a quick read – it took me 2 months to finish, and I needed, during that time, to empty my brain with a fair number of lightweight and fluffy thrillers as I read the 2,000 pages. I am, at this point, making space on my bookshelves for these four books forever. I am not yet ready to dive back in, but I feel that these are the types of books that are even better the second time around, because knowing where Scott is going will help me better understand the journey to get there.

Highly recommended.