Friday, July 29, 2011

The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson

The Lantern: A Novel The best word I can think of to describe The Lantern is dreamy. It moves slowly but with dark mysterious undercurrents. The story of Les Genevriers (The Junipers), an 1887 farmhouse in Provence, is told alternately by Benedicte, a woman who lived there her whole life (and perhaps continues to live there after death) and Eve, who has come to live there with her lover, Dom. Both Eve and Dom are British; Dom buys Les Genevriers after Benedicte's death.

My one complaint about The Lantern is that the point of view changes abruptly without any indication. Many times I read several paragraphs before I realized it was Eve rather than Benedicte, or vice versa. Perhaps Lawrenson thought that was clever; I found it annoying.

Benedicte's story is heart wrenching. Her older sister gradually goes blind so Benedicte becomes her eyes. She goes to work in the lavender fields during the German occupation of France. Her blind sister is working at a perfume company developing new scents and wants to know everything about lavender and its distillation. But this idyllic story is underscored by the danger of living with their evil brother, as well as the nagging fear of the Nazi occupiers to the north.

The other story shows Eve arriving at the house in the early throes of deep passionate love, but there are always doubts in the back of her mind. She doesn't know much about Dom, who seems to be in the grip of a mysterious memory. He isn't in touch with his family and there is the question of what became of his wife. Why won't he talk about her? Why is he so moody? They remain isolated in the house as Eve's questions and Dom's torment grow.

Lawrenson's depiction of the house and gardens as well as the people of the nearby village is masterful. I could feel the atmosphere and see the house. There are sealed up rooms, strange sounds, a stain on the kitchen floor that Eve can't scrub away, and haunting scents that seem to come from the very walls of the house.

I had trouble getting into this book but once I did, I was hooked. I recommend The Lantern, which is coming out in September.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Quick Sharon McCone Mystery for a Hot Day

Wild & Lonely Place (A Sharon McCone mystery) This book in the Sharon McCone series by Marsha Muller is an old one; I have a book club edition from 1995. However, it was perfect for reading during a heat wave. I love Sharon McCone. She's gutsy, but worries about her courage, is down to earth, and really cares about people. Muller's stories are tight yet detailed, full of wonderfully described scenery yet stays on point, and she lets Sharon accept help when necessary but also lets her solve things on her own when she can. In other words, McCone is one smart cookie but not to proud to accept help.

This story involves the issue of diplomatic immunity and how it is abused by some countries. Of course, Muller makes up a country for an embassy, but it all sounds very real. In this case, McCone reluctantly signs on for a contract job with RKI, the company Hy, her lover, partially owns and works for. She doesn't really approve of RKI's way of doing things, but she needs the information only they can get, so when Hy's partner offers to work with her on locating a character based on the Unibomber, she takes him up on it. Her motive for continuing in a dangerous mission is to protect an innocent but clever nine-year-old girl.

The story goes from California to the Caribbean and back again. The book is a page turner and although I suspected who the bad guy was, I wasn't real sure until nearly the end. If you've missed this one, I highly recommend it. Good beach reading!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Literature of Their Own by Elaine Showalter

A Literature of Their Own During a heat wave you would think I'd be reading something light and "beachy" but no, I've been reading this serious critical look at British women novelists from Bronte to Lessing from a feminist point of view. This is a revised and expanded edition of her original book published in 1977 I believe.

Those early women novelists were admirable, strong women. With all the restrictions on their education and lifestyle, they still managed to write novels that are widely read even today. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and all the other beloved novels they wrote have much of value to say to we modern women with all our freedoms. Just think, they had little or no education, were only trained to catch a man, hopefully a rich one, and had no knowledge of the life of anyone other than people just like themselves. Most of us would go stark raving mad with all their confining rules. Their fathers and then husbands had total control over them, even over what they were allowed to read.

We get a slight taste of this kind of life watching series on Masterpiece Theater, but the girls in those families are sly enough to find ways around the men in their lives. I doubt most women in 19th century English upper classes could get away with such things.

Showalter, a Princeton professor, wrote this book as a result of an academic study of all the women novelists in England and this is a book that could easily be used as a textbook. That is not to say that it is dry and boring, anything but. I found it very readable and fascinating, enough so to read it through a week of terrible heat and humidity. Now I'm going on to something very light, but this book told me not only about the writing these women did, but nearly every aspect of their lives. The addition of novelists of the modern day through Doris Lessing is a small part of the overall book.

The feminist aspects of the book are enlightening as well, and Showalter includes much about the suffragists' struggle for the vote and against war. I confess this was the least interesting part to me, but I must admit that it would be impossible to separate the feminist movement from English women's literature since each was influenced greatly by the other.

I recommend this book but not to everyone. If you are interested in women's history or the early English women novelists, you will enjoy this study. Otherwise, you'll do better to stick with the actual novels, but don't let yourself be misguided in the thought that 19th century novels will be boring. You'll miss some excellent reads.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The First Nevada Barr Novel About Anna Pigeon

Track of the Cat (An Anna Pigeon Novel) I've been reading the Anna Pigeon series forever it seems, but in no particular order. Then I picked up a paperback copy of one I hadn't read at a book sale and just realized it was the very first Anna Pigeon mystery. I can't believe I had never read it before.

In Track of the Cat Anna is a fairly new National Park Ranger stationed at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas. She had become a ranger after her husband died in an accident in New York. Being far from that city and living in a beautiful natural setting helps, but of course doesn't bring her husband back. She still mourns.

As the story begins, Anna is completing a transect of the park looking for signs of mountain lions. Ranchers just outside the park are always complaining that lions from the park are killing their livestock, and the ranchers want to be able to hunt them. Anna loves the animals, and the park periodically does these transects to see if and where the cats are; they also have banded some of them. Anna comes to McKittrick Canyon and finds the body of another female ranger, apparently killed by a mountain lion.

Those of us who know Anna well know that she is a loner. When she needs to talk, she calls her sister, a psychiatrist in New York City. In this book though she makes a friend, which causes difficulty because the friend is also a suspect in the killing. You see, the ranger wasn't killed by a mountain lion. She was murdered.

That's all I'm going to tell you because this is every bit as good a story as the rest of the series. Once you read that first page, you're hooked and won't put the book down until the end. I always recommend Nevada Barr for readers who like strong women protagonists and masterful descriptions of nature, as well as witty internal dialogue. If you aren't an Anna Pigeon follower, please look for Nevada Barr in your local library or bookstore.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks

Teach Us to Sit Still: A Skeptic's Search for Health and Healing Tim Parks is a successful writer who has written novels, nonfiction, and various magazine articles. Now he has written a unique memoir in which he is searching for a diagnosis or solution to mysterious pains and other physical symptoms no one can figure out.

Rather than a sad, whiny, poor-ol'-me sort of memoir, this is honest, factual, and often funny. At first he thinks his terrible pain, urinary frequency and other symptoms are simply physical. Prostate is the first body part to come under suspicion of course, but when he finally sees a doctor and has tests, that suspicion doesn't pan out. He is very funny about the indignity of his symptoms and more so the tests.

Then he fears he has cancer but that doesn't seem to be the case either. There is no physical diagnosis. He buys a book that helps some, but mostly convinces him that his lifelong constant tension and anxiety could be the problem. He tries therapy, massage, and finally retreats. What happens to his mind and his physical symptoms along the way is surprising but entirely believable. This guy doesn't just launch into possible solutions with enthusiasm; rather he drags himself into them with a hearty dose of skepticism. He would be the first to detect quackery and denounce it.

I loved his humor and the fact that the best thing he learned in this process was to be honest with himself. His wife was at first supportive, then bored with the whole thing, and then very happy with the new Tim Parks. I hadn't read anything by him previously, but I imagine his writing became much better, and took a whole new direction during his long search for a cure. Memoir lovers, this is for you. I think you'll find it unique among the other memoirs you've read.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Finally Finished Watching Downton Abbey

Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey (Original UK Unedited Edition)

I never got to see all of "Downton Abbey" on television so I ordered it from Netflix and we finally watched the last episode. I love this type of series. All those years ago when "Upstairs, Downstairs" was on I didn't miss an episode.

Just as with "Upstairs, Downstairs," I was more caught up with the downstairs people than I was with the upstairs family and their guests. However, my favorite character was the Dowager Countess. The actress must have had a blast playing that role. She was outrageous to the point of being hysterically funny. Every time she walked into a room I chuckled because I just knew what was coming. When she said something uncharacteristically charitable, I said, "Whoa! Did she just say what I thought she said?"

The two conspirators downstairs, O'Brien and Thomas, are characters you love to hate. Unfortunately, O'Brien's heartlessness had a tragic outcome. I can't say much more without ruining the series for those who haven't seen it yet, but the period (just prior to WW I), the clothes, the manners, the confining restrictions on young women, the entail that required the nearest male relative to inherit everything, the architecture are all fascinating and sometimes maddening. The series ends as England declares war on Germany.

I read yesterday that there will be new episodes of "Downton Abbey" next year. Since that will take them into the war years, I'm sure the new ones will be just as engrossing as the last. I can hardly wait.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Some New Pictures

These photos show the new stone wall which is finished at long last. As you can see, we'll have a strip of grass below the wall, then stone in the gutter for drainage. Our next door neighbors decided to extend the wall to their driveway and they have planted flowers on their end. We're keeping things easy by just having grass. I can't stand weeding.

I had also mentioned that a huge spruce tree next to the shed had fallen in a storm a few weeks ago.

And finally, ta-da!, here is Scaredy Cat, the stray I tried for so long to make friends with. In return she presented us with four kittens who I fell in love with, but can't keep. Actually I haven't seen Scaredy Cat for a couple days and I can't catch the kittens so our plans to take everybody to the shelter have hit a speed bump. Ah well . . .

Not bad for not having a digital camera, eh? Hopefully I'll have one before long so I can publish pictures regularly. I'm still not too good at putting everything where it belongs, but I'll learn eventually.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Finally Read a Maisie Dobbs' Novel

Messenger of Truth: A Maisie Dobbs Novel (Maisie Dobbs Mysteries) For months now I've been reading other bloggers' reviews of Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs mysteries. Everyone likes them. So, I looked in the box of books given to me a while ago and found Messenger of Truth. This isn't the first in the series, but I don't usually have the opportunity to read a series in order so I plunged right in.

This story is set in London in 1931. The setting is of a changed city after World War I where some women have taken on new types of jobs but the poor are still almost Dickensian in their lives and the rich are oblivious to their plight. Maisie has, after a breakdown, set herself up as a psychologist and inquiry agent (Private Eye) with an assistant, Billy Beale, who is a poor man with a large family to support. He feels fortunate to have a job and is immensely loyal to Maisie. She has also rented her own apartment, though the heat is iffy in this very cold winter.

Her client in the story is Georgina Bassington-Hope (love the name) whose brother, Nick, an artist, has died in an apparent accident. He fell from large scaffolding erected to mount his latest work, what everyone suspects is a triptych. There is a younger brother, Harry, who plays the trumpet and is eternally in debt to dubious people, and an older sister, Noelle, who is the practical member of an artistic, creative family. She is also a war widow. The parents, both artists, are still alive, living in the old family home.

All of these characters are splendidly drawn. I must admit I've been catching myself talking like a Londoner in the 1930s. Along with the immediate mystery of whether Nick fell or was murdered, there is a pervasive, lurking suspicion involving the rise of Hitler's Nazi Party in Germany. What does it all mean for Europe and particularly England?

We are introduced to Nick's best friends, also artists, Billy's family, Maisie's father, and her beau. Lots of characters, but reading the book is something like sitting in a comfortable room beside a roaring fire on a cold winter day as a good storyteller weaves a magical tale. I thought it started out slowly but the characters were interesting enough to draw me in until I was deeply involved. I want to read the older books now, but not having done so didn't dampen my enthusiasm about Messenger of Truth at all. No wonder my book blogging friends rave about Winspear's books.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

All Night Party at Our Pond

We have frogs of every sort and size in our lower pond near Dave's machine shop. One sounds like he's laughing, "Yuk, yuk, yuk." Another must be the straight man, "Croooak, croooak." The rest just make crowd noise, "Ribbit, ribbit, ribbit."

Last night they were all loudly voicing their opinions when I went to bed, and they were still at it this morning when I got up. We used to have one that sounded like a guitar with a broken string, "Poink, poink," very deep. He's been among the missing lately; hopefully he just doesn't feel like partying.

Yesterday I mowed a lane up through the hayfield to our upper pond which is gorgeous this year. I don't see as many cattails. A great blue heron took off as I rounded the corner to the pond. They are so beautiful in flight.

We haven't mowed around that pond this year and didn't do much last year, so it's gone back to nature. Must take the DR up to clear some of the brush away. We have bushes with sharp thorns taking over everywhere I don't mow now. They had pretty white flowers, but I've got to get rid of them.

At least part of our holiday weekend will be taken up with beginning to clear away the giant spruce tree that fell in a storm several weeks ago. We had to wait until the ground dried so we could drive the tractor across the yard to load branches on and take them to the burn pile. After a super wet spring, everything is finally dry, so time to get busy.

Our stone wall is completely finished, grass planted, and piles of crushed stone and earth gone! Hurray. I'll get a picture on as soon as possible. Still haven't bought a digital camera - things like auto insurance, homeowners insurance, school taxes, etc. seem to keep getting in the way. :( Such is life.

I hope everyone has a fantastic 4th of July weekend. We'll be attending the big parade in Montrose Monday morning and maybe go down to the Green for some food. Now that we have a wheelchair for Dave, we can wander around to our heart's content. Our old flag was a wreck so we even have a brand new one just in time for the 4th. Happy times everybody!