Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Light froth

I love the song (I've known it since my childhood) but the images in the video don't really add much. Still, it's cute. The real objective was to see whether the embedded code would work.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Tales of Another Time

Over the course of the past month or two, I have been dipping in and out of four non-fiction books:

1. The Titled Americans - Elisabeth Kehoe
2. The Perfect Summer - Juliet Nicholson
3. The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman - Mark Girouard
3. A Woman's Place, 1910-1975 - Ruth Adams

The commonality of the four is a glimpse of life as it was lived in another time and another place. All pertain to British history during the latter half of the 19th century and into the earliest decades of the 20th century; I was reading of life roughly a hundred 100 years ago.

The first book, The Titled Americans, is a family biography of the three Jerome sisters. Prompted by the Persephone tea back in April, I decided to learn a little more about Jennie Jerome, later Lady Randolph Churchill and mother of Winston Churchill. Anna Sebba had indicated that Frances Hodgson Burnett had used the experiences of the American-born Lady Churchill as fodder for her story, The Shuttle. Having only the shallowest of knowledge of the woman, I picked up this biography of Jennie Jerome and her two sisters, Clara and Leonie, to see what parallels I might encounter.

The three sisters, daughters of a wealthy American financier, had the misfortune of picking three British aristocrats as husbands who were not their equals -- not in terms of intelligence, backbone, or talent. Of the three males, one died of syphilis, another had a positive gift for picking bad investments, and the third was emotionally distant. By contrast, the three sisters were known as "The Good, the Witty, and the Beautiful". The sisters were close (even to the point of owning houses on the same street) and supported each other through their adult lives, both financially and emotionally. They hobnobbed with the rich, the famous, and the royal (two became royal companions, perhaps even mistresses). Their lifestyles offered the appearance of fabulous wealth and yet all were frequently fighting to make ends meet and fend off the bill collectors. One example was the sister who had to hastily dress to go to the bank on the day of her daughter's society wedding in order to withdraw cash to pay for the girl's wedding gown. The seamstress wouldn't leave the dress without payment and had instructions not to accept the family's check. The history of the three American women touches on most of the major issues of British life at the time (Irish home rule, land reform, wartime efforts, etc.) The Titled Americans is substantive biography and interesting reading for the educated layperson.

The second title above, The Perfect Summer, focuses on the summer of 1911. This volume takes a magnifying glass to the behaviors of the aristocratic class in Britain on the eve of the First World War. Nichols picks a few personalities -- the season's leading debutante, a butler, leaders in art, ballet, and literature, the prime minister, and the newly crowned Queen -- and follows their lives over the course of four months (May - September). It's the most readable form of social history, weaving together society news and details of daily life taken from diaries and letters, set against the broader concerns of the day. Imagine the temperature being 95 degrees (Farenheit) but being constrained by tight fitting and cumbersome clothing, even when trying to cool off down at the seaside. There were strikes all over England as workers rebelled against the conditions under which they labored. A threat of war was present.

The Titled Americans is a serious work of history that omits some of the social tidbits that might engage us in the interest of sustaining an objective tone; The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before The Storm is a lighter, entertaining book that brings a vanished lifestyle to life.

The Return to Camelot and A Woman's Place are more general in tone. Camelot (Yale University Press, 1981) is written by Mark Girouard, an architectural historian who offers a descriptive time-line regarding the period fascination with legends of Arthur and ideals of knighthood. From the 1830s up to 1914, the volume presents the waves of artistic, literary and architectural efforts, demonstrating how that myth fueled social expectations and behaviors to such disastrous ends during World War I. The text is accompanied by wonderful photographs.

A Woman's Place, published by Persephone Books, is perhaps the least detailed of any of these books but offers a specific perspective on the issues faced by women in this period; Adams touches on the problems of superfluous women (like Susan in Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary) during this period and the appalling treatment of women fighting with Prime Minister Asquith over the issue of the vote for women. (I confess that while this is a good educational overview, I did find it the dullest of the four titles.)

So having read romantic works such as The Shuttle (March) and Lady Rose (April), I have spent May wandering off into works that offered more of a reality check. It was not a simpler time; it frequently was an unforgiving social environment. We're better off where we are and would do well to remind younger women that they ought not to forget that our status quo is another generation's hard-won progress.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Running in Place like the White Queen

It was the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, wasn't it? The untidy one who had to run hard with Alice beside her, just to stay put? That is what this week has been like for me.

First, the Medical Library Association meeting was this week (the first half) and then, the latter half of the week is taken up with preparations for the American Society of Indexers meeting.

Reading has been light...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Coffee Mugs and Crockery

Just in passing --

In the comments for this entry, Elaine at Random Jottings had somewhat lightly mocked her own habit of photographing various coffee/tea mugs in her cupboard at home and telling readers about the provenance of such crockery. In the same comments section, I noted that I hadn't thought it in the least boring and indeed, found another set of bloggers over at ScienceBlogs.com who were doing the same thing (see Dave's entry at The World's Fair). Indeed, Dave even asks his readers to complete a set of questions about their mug of choice.

So, really, Elaine has started a trend...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sansom's Dissolution

I have to talk about Dissolution by CJ Sansom on Thursday night at the Township Library.

I've read it already, but I'm fairly sure that this group will have questions regarding historical details and be interested in reviews. This is just a quick (informal) organization of links I've found about the book, for purposes of reference.

Historical background:

The Suppression of the English Monasteries Just what it says; source authority not verified.
From the University of Wisconsin, Henry VIII, monasteries and the Bible. (Note the maps)
The Old English Cathedrals (aimed at tourists, but perhaps useful)

About the book itself:

Interview with CJ Sansom (questions pertain to first and second titles in the series).
Interview with CJ Sansom (marketing the third title in the series).
Penguin Reading Group Guide (bio somewhat dated; I don't use reading group guides as a basis for discussion, but they can stimulate thinking about the book in different ways)


From "Reviewing the Evidence" site, Fellowes review
From "Reviewing the Evidence" site, Wheeler review
Grumpy Old Bookman (blog), Review of Dissolution
From the Blog Critics site, C. Michael Bailey review (somewhat problematic on a few points)
The Mystery Reader site, Review of Dissolution (note take on Shardlake as a character)
The Best Reviews site, Review of Dissolution (includes blurb by Harriet Klausner)

It's a well-done mystery, as others (including PD James) have pointed out. From those on my personal blogroll, Mary of Marys Library liked it and moved on to the second title in the series, Dark Fire. Ann of Patternings liked Dissolution and then read Sovereign.

Even on the second read for this upcoming discussion, I consistently picked out the wrong suspect as the murderer. (I think I first read this back in 2004.)

Friday, May 18, 2007

Ladies of Grace Adieu

Title: The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

Author: Susanna Clarke

Copyright: 2006, Bloomsbury US, New York. (ISBN: 1596912510)

Length: 235 pages

Genre: Fantasy

Summary: This is a collection of eight short stories by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. As might be expected by those who have read that lengthy novel, the stories are a curious mix of dark magic and light froth, alternately offering stories that remind one of robust Guiness stout and the best dry champagne. There is the same mix of historical figures with a history that never was with the same ability to disconcert. Faery folk are recognized as a dangerous and perhaps duplicitous population.

The story from which the anthology takes its name is an amplification of a minor incident in the Jonathan Strange narrative, but is itself fairly memorable as a literary fairy tale on the basis of the final twist. According to this interview, the tale of Ladies of Grace Adieu was intended as a way of encouraging publisher interest in the final novel. On Lickerish Hill is the story I wrote about earlier this month. The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse, the title character of which is also a figure encountered in Jonathan Strange, appears in the collection; the full text of that story has been on the Strange website for some time. (Each of these tales has been previously published elsewhere.) Antickes and Frets appeared in the New York Times as a Halloween story and features the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, in a rather macabre way. Mrs. Mabb tells of a jilted female who insists on eliciting the truth of her lover's disappearance. I thoroughly enjoyed the story of Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower although the ending was somewhat mystifiying. Conversely, I did not find the story of the Tom Brightwind to be very interesting, although it uses the same approach to story telling as Strange in terms of voluminous footnotes. The final story of John Uskglass and the Umbrian Charcoal Burner is actually very, very funny.

Brief Quote:

Mr. Hawkins said nothing; the Hawkins' domestic affairs were arranged upon the principle that Fanny supplied the talk and he the silence.

Now don't you just love that line?

Also Relevant: We had read and discussed these tales at Didi's this past week. Given that the form was short stories, there wasn't as much discussion as perhaps normal with regard to the narrative. We all found the stories enjoyable but not necessarily outstanding or something we'd remember vividly twelve months hence.

What we did spend some time on were the illustrations by Charles Vess, an award-winning graphic artist (his blog is here). I believe it was Pat C. who noted that, based on the illustrations, the artist had a particular difficulty with rendering feet. In almost every instance, the feet were hidden by other objects, but when these particular extremities were shown, they didn't look right. They didn't look as if they were bearing any weight. Didi conversely was quite taken with his backgrounds; for example, the tapestry behind Mary, Queen of Scots, in Antickes and Frets. She's posted her thoughts. We assumed Mr. Vess was responsible as well for the cover art of the book which none of us cared much for.

(Pat P.'s beloved green suitcase with miraculous pockets was the other lengthy discussion that evening, but the specifics of that have no place here. Suffice it to say that she was forced to replace the incredibly useful green suitcase with inferior luggage in cobalt blue. Baggage handlers have no idea of the heart burnings that their work may cause.)

All in all, I think this volume of short stories would be the ideal for your 2007 beach reading. Nothing too challenging, but enjoyable and unconventional ideas.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Currently Reading (or Contemplating) This Pile

The Titled Americans
- Elisabeth Kehoe
Dissolution - CJ Sansom
The Odyssey - Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
Few Eggs and No Oranges - Vere Hodgson

Just so that you don't think I'm dawdling. These are somewhat hefty.

Random Eight Items (Meme)

8 random things:

(1) Sense and Sensibility is my favorite of Jane Austen’s novels, but Mansfield Park runs a close second.

(2) During college, I was at various times an English major, a history major and an art history major. (I *am* above all else a generalist.)

(3) Also in college, I played Viola in Twelfth Night. “She never told her love, But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud, feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought, And with a green and yellow melancholy, she sat like patience on a monument”

(4) I love Katherine Hepburn movies, even the so-called bad ones, like Quality Street.

(5) I make good Irish soda bread.

(6) The highest number of books I’ve ever read in a single year (that I can document) is 56.

(7) The smallest airport through which I have ever flown was the airport in Monterey, California. They had exactly *one* luggage carousel at the time.

(8) I have lived in or visited the following cities, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Washington (DC), Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, New York, Amsterdam (Netherlands), Bangkok (Thailand) and Oxford (UK). This likely sounds more glamorous than it really was.

Following the Rules:

The rules -
1: Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves.
2: People who are tagged, write a blog post about their own 8 random things, and post these rules.
3: At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people and include their names.
4: Don't forget to leave them a comment and tell them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

I was tagged by both JenClair and Tara for this one so I need to rapidly tag the following with the understanding that everyone’s busy and may not have time for this:

Didi at Minute Marginalia
Melanie of Indextrious Reader
Sandra of Book World
Sylvia of Classical Bookworm
Ann of Patternings
Melody of Redeeming Qualities
Karen of Cornflower
Mary *and* Wilhelm of Mary’s Library

I know the rules say I'm supposed to drop by everyone's blogs and leave a comment, but I think I may have used up my available time (so I hope those tagged actually will read this entry and forgive my haste). And remember that it's not a formal obligation of any sort...

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother's Day

My son graduated yesterday magna cum laude from a Jesuit university with a degree in computer science and a math minor.

Unlike high school graduation which consists largely of parents and society congratulating themselves on the successful inculcation of the basics of life as well as the fundamentals of learning in our children, the four years of college are the culmination of one person's achievement in a setting where he/she has to demonstrate his/her capacity to operate independently, amidst temptations, snares, and plain old-fashioned wickedness.

Mothers Day (this year, at least) isn't about anyone patting me on the back and telling me about the good job I've done. Watching my son graduate yesterday suggests to me that Mothers Day is really about being glad in your child and knowing that, for all the failures and mistakes made over the course of twenty-one years, the things you said and the things you failed to say, the evils that you didn't adequately protect him against, the good that you inadvertently kept from him, the human being before you that calls you "mom" deserves celebration and so much pride.

I teared up last night when he asked me, his mother, to dance as part of the graduation gala, but laughed with joy watching him with friends out on the dance floor. I am his mother and I think he's adorable. He's a young man now and he goes out to do battle with so much in an unfriendly world. But I am incredibly proud to be his mom today.

(Oh, and the younger one looks fair to be doing as well in his turn...)

Friday, May 11, 2007

Short Update

I had my coffee in bed this morning (a day off to attend graduation functions) and polished off another Campion mystery, The Gyrth Chalice Mystery (published in the US as Look to the Lady). It's again one of the earlier Allingham novels; the plot is closely tied to the story of the Holy Grail and the Matter of Britain which is why I suppose someone felt that the American version had to have a different title. (They assumed we wouldn't get it.) While the basic premise of the book is just as flakey as that of The Da Vinci Code, I love properly reverent Arthuriana and thus was willing to cut Gyrth Chalice more slack.

Here's a lovely article on Albert Campion.

Update: Here's a 2006 essay on Allingham and her detective from the Guardian.

Further Update: From my very own archive.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


(Image shows Peter Davison playing Albert Campion for the BBC).

I have spent the past week or so with Albert Campion, specifically re-reading Mystery Mile (the second mystery in which he appeared, but the first with him in a starring role) and reading for the first time, The Case of the Late Pig and More Work for the Undertaker. At this point, I have read about a dozen of the Campion mysteries, written by Margery Allingham between 1929 and 1949.

I enjoy classic British mysteries anyway, but I admit to finding this series to be particularly charming. There’s a soothing aspect to opening Pig and finding Campion in bed with his breakfast with Lugg reading obituaries from the Times to him. Campion’s noble birth makes this type of coddling to be expected, but Lugg is a delightful eccentric. A gentleman's gentleman with something of a clouded past, Lugg is generally gloomy but particularly put out when his charge (of noble -- perhaps even royal -- birth) refuses to behave according to the appropriate norms of society as Lugg has determined those norms to be. It is important to understand that peculiarity of their relationship, that Campion wants to break free and do something useful even as Lugg wants him to settle down and not be an embarrassment to his family. Lugg is too melancholy to be warm and fuzzy in tone, but he does prefer predictability now that he's gone straight in life.

Actually *most* of the characters in the Campion mysteries have a certain element of eccentricity about them. There are artists and theatrical types, faintly criminal sorts from Lugg's past (no murderers, mind you), wealthy, elderly ladies, vicars, saintly and otherwise, each and everyone a pure delight in their battiness. There is such innocence in the world that Allingham offers to us.

Albert Campion is an unlikely sort of fairy godmother to the people who engage him to solve their problems. As his card reads, he works on nothing vulgar, sordid or plebian and prefers deserving cases, which explains all the sweet young things that he puts on the road to love and happiness. I particularly enjoy the fact that for the first ten cases or so, Albert Campion is rather a wash-out with girls himself. Some one else always is engaged to the sweet young thing by the end of the book.

So that is what I have been reading this week. The good news is that the publisher at Felony & Mayhem has e-mailed me reassurances that they will be continuing to reprint Allingham's novels so I will be able to replace my badly aging paperbacks that are falling to pieces.

Reassuring, soothing books are required as I adjust to the idea that Offspring #1 graduates in two days from college (Phi Beta Kappa, the proud mother notes, and off to grad school in two months...). Offspring #2 (having made Dean's List) is also done with his first year of higher ed, in residence here for the summer. It was only when they both left for college last fall that I actually managed to find time to blog with any regularity....

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Personal Reminder

I really enjoyed Diana Butler Bass' 2002 work, Strength for the Journey. I'm linking to her short article here on the topic of biblical translations so that I can find it a second time.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Peace Offering

Apologies for the earlier crankiness...To make up for it, let me point you now to a wonderful interview with Sarah Weinman of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. If you follow the world of publishing and the mystery genre to any extent, you'll become a devotee of Sarah's reporting. She's a wonderful resource.

Update: As luck would have it, JenClair, being the utterly brilliant woman she is, linked to exactly these same two items today.

Maybe the right answer is to avoid blogging on a Monday...

Oh, for the love of Pete,

I try to be polite towards strangers, but I really want to ask this woman if she'd stop reading a newspaper on the basis of inclusion of the same quote. For heaven's sake, it's a coffee cup -- a disposable one at that. (Had she kept the recyclable sleeve on the cup to protect her fingers from the heat, she'd never have known the quote was there.)

Perhaps she falls into the 79% of Americans referenced in this 1999 article from The Onion.

Sorry, folks, it isn't yet 9 am and I haven't had my own Starbucks. The patience hasn't kicked in.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Wandering Somewhat Off The Subject

This is why I love Episcopalian bloggers -- you get wonderful posts like this one from Grandmere Mimi and then you get the flippant response from the Mad Priest. (Note: I love the Mad Priest and have lurked over at his blog for several years, but *true* conservatives should take notice that his British sense of humor may not suit them in all instances. Personally, I snort into my coffee cup and cheer him on.)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Choosing What to Read Next

I note that this conversation has been going on all week with entries supplied by JenClair and Dani among others (see Cam and Quixotic Miss, for instance). How do you decide what to read next from that intimidating TBR pile? What seduces you into reading a particular title?

I suppose the influences that have the greatest impact on me are in order of importance (1) the personal voices of others who read and who seem to have similar tastes or standards as I have; (2) my mood in the bookstore when I'm looking for something to read, and (3) a peculiar brew of Web review outlets, ranging across a spectrum that includes Amazon as well as Green Man Review (sci-fi) and Cluelass (mysteries). Author web sites are also something I check (more on that below).

Like so many of you, I pay an increasing amount of attention to the bloggers on my blogroll. Indeed, one of my recent purchases, Silent in the Grave, was made strictly because three of you had read and praised it. In that instance, I had picked up the book myself in a bookstore and read the first sentence, considered the price of the hardcover and my mood and put the title back. But when JenClair and Mary both passed positive comments on it, closely followed by a third blogger, I felt that I should follow my first instinct that the book would appeal to both me and my husband.

That said, I won't rely on just one voice. I wait and listen for multiple opinions to be expressed, because each of you is apt to pick up on a different aspect of the book. I'll glean just enough information from the combination to be able to make a judgment as to whether or not the book is likely to interest me. (You all are good that way.)

Reading challenges have pointed me to many titles that I might otherwise have passed over as well. Sometimes my book group drags me into reading something new and foreign to my mindset.

My mood in the bookstore is another barometer ; what topic catches my interest? Am I in a mood to read fiction or non-fiction? Do I want something to challenge me? Or am I looking to be soothed?

Then there is the physical examination of the text. How long is it? How big is the print? How much of a strain would it create physically and mentally to read the book? Unlike JenClair and Dani, I don't much care about the cover art or the blurbs on the book itself. Having said that, however, I admit that I prefer to read from a quality archival paper stock rather than the coarse newsprint that many publishers are resorting to. (How's that for an elitist attitude?)

Canned reviews in newspapers and magazines don't influence me to any discernible extent. Frequently, they are just too short to be useful or too objective in tone. For example, Library Journal keeps its reviews to under 150 words due to space consideration. I do think such reviews are useful for making me aware of the availability of a title, but in most cases, I just assume the vast majority of magazine and newspaper reviews are largely marketing twaddle. If you read Scott McLemee's alarmed op-ed in InsideHigherEd last week, you know that my thinking reflects that of a large percentage of the current population; newspaper book review sections are folding at a record rate.

That said, a well-written marketing newsletter from a publisher can do an effective sales job on me. I picked up Few Eggs and No Oranges because the Persephone newsletter had included a paragraph summarizing the book discussion held that month in the shop. That write up was just enough to persuade me that it might be a worthwhile read. Again, though I think it has to do with being able to hear an individual's voice behind the marketing.

I find author interviews to be useful in making a decision. I even like author web sites (as long as I find they are personally evocative of the writer and not just a corporate billboard for sales).

Maybe the real message here is that Jill hates marketing...

This entry probably contains too much detail to be interesting reading, but I must confess that I am too tired to be both intelligent and brief this evening.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


I've been reading the short stories that make up The Ladies of Grace Adieu, one of which is an interesting rendition of the old folktale of Tom-Tit-Tot. As with so much in middle age, the irritating thing was that the narrative details were just enough to niggle at the back of my brain without actually triggering the memory, causing me to struggle to remember where I had encountered the bit about spinning five skeins. Poking idly around on the Web, I discovered another version of the folktale, one that has the running motif of naming the thing that threatens you (just as in Rumplestiltskin), but the Norwegian version features a master builder motif rather than the spinning motif of the others.

Thought it might be of interest to those of you participating in Carl's Once Upon a Time challenge.