Sunday, April 29, 2007

Piles Like This Are Never Stable

A teetering, tipping, toppling pile of books. (Essentially, this translates to a poker-like equivalent of "I'll see your Thursday Thirteen and raise you to a Sunday Sixteen!")

The official status of my TBR pile(s):


(1) Few Eggs and No Oranges
(2) A Woman's Place: 1910 -1975
(3) More Letters From Pemberley
(4) Middlemarch
(5) The Odyssey
(6) Armadale
(7) Heart of Darkness
(8) The Heir of Redclyffe
(9) The Ladies of Grace Adieu
(10) Weight
(11) Silent in the Grave


(12) How Novels Work


(13) The Lions of Al-Rassan
(14) Shardik
(15) Tooth and Claw
(16) Little Men

LibraryThing Tags: Fiction, non-fiction, mystery, fantasy, spirituality, history, poetry,

Posts like this are a form of procrastination (at least for me...)

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Tea Party Planner

I have entered my name into the ParTeaPlanner Goodies Giveaway. You should go click through and leave a comment there before Monday if you want to participate as well! The woman does have some lovely pictures on her regular ParTea Planner blog. (Yes, I know she's using this as a technique to increase the number of links to her blog and increase the likelihood that people will find her business. I don't mind helping a little bit.)


[ an ordinary review]

Title: Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary

Author: Ruby Ferguson (bio)

Copyright: Originally published 1937; Reissued in 2004 by Persephone Books, London, paperback, ISBN 1-903155-436

Length: 222 pages

Genre: Fiction

Summary: This book is so short that one hesitates to summarize it for fear of giving anything away. The tale's framework is three tourists being shown about one of the great houses of Scotland by its elderly caretaker. The owner can no longer maintain the property and is seeking a tenant; the tourists, a young English couple and an American friend, are simply looking for an afternoon's entertainment. In the space of an afternoon therefore we are allowed a glimpse into another era's social setting and practices, specifically into the life of Lady Rose Targenet over a span of some fifty or more years. She has perhaps a less eventful life than some women, but her story is both sweet and ultimately heartbreaking. You, the reader, like Lady Rose -- in the scenes with her governess, with her adult friends, with her children. You can't bear to think that misfortune may come, but of course, as in every lifetime, it does. No one (even in that period, even with all that wealth) ever had a perfect life.


Somewhere hidden away in the dusty portfolio of Time was a picture that fitted here. It was as though the Old Man with the forelock and the scythe was watching, with folded arms, that arrested moment when three tourists and an old caretaker stood in the silent and almost empty shell of Lochlule House, in the blue nursery which had belonged to Lady Rose as a child. So old Time seized his book and began to turn back the pages, ten, twenty at a time -- more than seventy years of yellow leaves. Through them all the great white house gleamed whiter, and soon the Greek girl at the fountain was laughing as the waters of a bygone day gushed over her reaching fingers.

Really, the whole book has that lilt and loveliness.

Also Relevant: I finished this book in an evening. The romantic in me emerged, it cast a spell and, despite the late hour, I didn't want to put it down. I don't think this is a book that an American could ever have written; we lack the history and the romance that Ferguson managed to bring into the tale - references to Mary, Queen of Scots, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Indeed, there is the sweetest scene of three young ladies gathered together who have just made their curtsey to the Queen, but pause briefly to view and sigh over a picture of the romantically-exiled prince. [ American teens sighing over Orlando Bloom just aren't quite in the same league. ]

Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary is, I suppose, best described as a character portrait but the author's rendering is light and deft.

There are lovely illustrations in the Persephone edition and an introduction by Candia McWilliam who writes, "It's a little book about dreams and the hard world of money and position and their relation to one another. It's also a love story and a love letter.."

I heartily recommend this one, from the bottom of my heart. Do get your hands on a copy and read it.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ross King's Ex Libris

[a review]

Title: Ex Libris

Author: Ross King

Copyright: 2001, Penguin Books, paperback (ISBN 0-14-200080-9)

Length: 392 pages

Genre: Historical fiction/mystery

Summary: In 1660, in the wake of the restoration to power of the monarchy in England, Isaac Inchbold is summoned to Pontifex Hall by Lady Alethea Marchamont. The hall is a crumbling wreck following the depredations of Cromwell's soldiers, but rather than focusing her strengths on rebuilding, Lady Alethea is more concerned with the recovery of a specific volume taken from her father's library. Isaac, an asthmatic, near-sighted, lame bookseller, may strike one as a disconcerting choice for a satisfying protagonist, but he is dogged in his pursuit of the trail to locate the mysterious volume. He leaves his bookshop for the London underworld.

To further complicate the narrative thread, interwoven with Isaac's search, is a related series of events associated with the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1620. Running as a parallel subplot, the reader follows the journey of Vilem, a royal archivist, and lady-in-waiting Emilia in 1620 as they attempt to smuggle crates of material from the Emperor's library over land and sea to safety in England. The city of Prague has fallen and with the aid of Sir Ambrose Blessington (Lady Alethea's father), the books must be got safely out of the hands of the rebels for both state and religious reasons.

A trio of dark mysterious strangers, dressed in black and gold livery, emerge and recede in the story, further clouding the novel with a sense of espionage and subterfuge.

A recurring motif is a Latin phrase "Verba Volent; littera scripta manet". [Words fly away; the written letter abides] To my mind, the point of the story is indeed the preservation of human knowledge in the form of the written word, whether a book, a scroll, a palimpsest, etc. Another reference that frequently surfaced was Don Quixote -- a man who tries to operate in the real world according to what he has read of only in romances. Isaac must step beyond his safe world of books in order to find his way through a labyrinth of real-world schemes and plots.

The historical detail provided is extensive; what is missing is perhaps a guide to the early half of the seventeenth century. Reading this did prompt me to look up a variety of monarchs, events and subjects. Not since a freshman survey course in Western Civilization, have I had to rack my brain for specifics. Did Sir Walter Raleigh actually explore Guiana? What do I really know about Galileo? There was a revolution in Bohemia in 1620?


One of my earliest memories is of watching my father write. He was a scrivener, so writing was his profession., an affair governed by all sorts of precise and complex rituals. I can still picture him hunched as if in supplication over his battered escritoire, his hair hanging over his face, a turkey quill pivoting back and forth in his slender hand. In appearance, he was ,as I am, unimposing; a small man with dark garb and the morose worried eyes of a puffin. But to watch him at work was to marvel at the genius of the scribe's hand. I used to stand beside his desk, holding aloft a candle as he mixed his ink or trimmed his quills with a penknife as carefully as if performing the most delicate surgery.

Also Relevant
: As with so many books I have talked about on this blog, I find myself once again favoring one that is complex, requiring time and attention in order to fully savor the meaning. This book ought not to be approached as a casual read; King's story-telling skills aren't inclined to the simple and straightforward. Reviews of the book, when it was initially published, faulted him on that score. Characterization (except for the development of Isaac) is not particularly insightful or engaging. But King is writing more to make a point, rather than entertain. I believe his point is that cultures and history are shaped as much by what nations fail to preserve in libraries and books as by what is successfully archived and preserved. Time and again in this book, the recognition is that libraries represent arsenals of power.

Did I love this book as a "great read"? Nope. Nor would I offer this book to someone seeking a relaxing beach read. You probably ought not to approach Ex Libris, expecting "just" entertainment. The complexity serves a real purpose in discussing how we rip apart the fabric of human knowledge when we destroy libraries in wartime or burn books. If you give up at page 253, you won't engage with the author's intent. You have to make it to the very end to grasp the point King makes about the vulnerability of mankind's aggregated knowledge.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


I am currently about halfway through the book I need to discuss at the library this coming Thursday evening. It's Ex Libris by Ross King. There's real meat in this text and I hope the participants work through the plot to find it.

The ever artistic Cornflower offered up some lovely artwork relating to reading this past week and so prompted, I went rummaging about in the Bridgeman Art Library (UK) this morning to see what other works might have the word "reading" as a keyword. This is called TeaTime 1910. I selected it on the basis of the colors found in that lovely floral arrangement as well as the lighting. But it would be interesting if any one out there has any thoughts about the woman sitting there reading. There is that bare shoulder. And she's reading rather than attending to the teapot. Is this the first moment of peace she's had today?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

An Embarrassment of Riches

Bear with me, this really is about books...

We rise early on the weekends; we do the grocery shopping between 8 and 9am and then run out to do any other errands as close to 9:30 or 10am as may be possible. This way we avoid the crowds, and the sales people are rested and friendly. This morning's mission was to obtain new cushions for the living room rocker. (Thank heaven for the Web because, without a rapid search of the Internet, I would never have known that the retailers now refer to these as "chair pads" rather than cushions. As an aside, why would we change the terminology? They were cushions! Calling them anything else merely adds to the shopping population's general bewilderment and slows down the rapidity with which retailers make a sale. You'd think they could work it out. But I digress.)

Some forty-five minutes later, we came home with four white towels for the bathroom, found in the clearance bin, but no cushions. I was bummed out. (Even more bummed out when I realized that shipping and tax added $10.00 to the cost of the "chair pads" when ordered over the Web...But again, I digress.)

But then it was time to bring in the mail. Such an embarrassment of riches! Four packages *all* addressed to me! The three books from Persephone, ordered only last Saturday, which to my mind represents a good enough reason to order directly from Persephone in future rather than the roundabout method of Amazon. And Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear came, as a prize from the drawing over at A Reader's Journal. I can now "swank" about with everyone over at Mary's because I too own some of the lovely Persephone titles. And I got the added bonus of winning something (always a nice break from the routine).

SO my mood this Saturday afternoon is as bright as the sun outside. Spring is here and there is a reason to read and to blog! Many thanks to everyone at home (that's you, Cheya) and abroad whose efforts perked up my day today!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Death at the Priory - James Ruddick

Title: Death at the Priory: Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England

Author: James Ruddick (author's official web site)

Copyright: 2001, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York.; link to work at LibraryThing

Length: 209 pages, including endnotes, bibliography and index.

Genre: Non-fiction, history

Summary: The book provides an in-depth examination of the murder of Charles DeLauney Turner Bravo at his home in April 1876. Death was due to the ingestion of antimony, a caustic poison having a particularly ugly impact on the body's vital organs. The range of suspects includes the gentleman's wife, her former lover, her paid companion, an employee recently discharged from service and even the victim himself (as an intentional suicide). The question of who-dun-it has never been definitively answered, although various scholars and mystery writers have proposed solutions to the mystery. Ruddick claims to have come closest to the final answer. The book is a surprisingly enthralling read, less lurid than many true-crime accounts, offering lively story-telling with a certain whiff of distant historical scandal.

Also Relevant: I had written briefly last month about watching a BBC production, A Most Mysterious Murder, hosted by Julian Fellowes, the Oscar winning script writer of Gosford Park. The pilot for that series told the story of the Priory murder and, watching it, I recalled this book as an Amazon recommendation for me and sought out a copy. I sped through it, perhaps because I'd seen the episode on DVD, but Ruddick (a) comes to a conclusion that differs from the one offered up by Fellowes and (b) offers more specific details than the television episode. Watching Julian Fellowes' rendition, it was as sensational as the book's subtitle "Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England" promised. Ruddick's book, of course, is written in a slightly more conservative tone, but there is still close examination of each individual -- Florence, the abused wife, Mrs. Cox, the competent paid companion, Dr. Gully, the rejected former lover, etc.

Were the victim just a fictional character, one might cheer the expeditious manner in which he was got rid of. He was, after all, more than a little autocratic in his manner, a petty tyrant who exercised what he thought were the God-given rights of an adult male with regard to sex, money and order. Even Florence suspected he was mostly after her money. Ruddick is however careful to indicate that Bravo seemed to have had his charming aspects:

He traveled widely, read voraciously and had many diverse interests. He loved literature, particularly Shakespeare, and had a faultless knowledge of English poetry. He played chess with a passion, relishing the twists and turns of the game. He could talk confidently about politics, business, nature, and history.

Noting the knowledge of poetry, I thought to myself while reading that he must have known his Tennyson and that must have had some bearing on his ideas of world and domestic order. Florence was a naive young woman in her twenties when she married him, but as Ruddick's book makes clear, her ideas of domestic order clashed dramatically with those of Bravo. But he offered married respectability, something Dr. Gully was unable to do since Gully had a living wife (locked in an insane asylum). With details like that, you can start to understand the Victorian fascination with the two inquests that were unable to clear anyone's name of suspicion. It might indeed have been any of the various parties noted above; some motives are weaker than others but Charles Bravo gave ample reason that he might be added to that Gilbert and Sullivan list of those who "never would be missed".

Still there is some part of me that is a little abashed at having enjoyed so much this whole salacious affair. It bore more than a little relation to gossiping with Mary Anne, the upstairs maid in the story, who listened at doors and tattled below-stairs.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Peculiarity of the System

For reasons known best to system programmers, the entry on Tennyson's Idylls of the King is showing as being posted prior to the Persephone Books event write-up. I don't know why and it doesn't reflect an accurate time-line.

However, I must now fix dinner and thus, The Machine is permitted to have its way...

Persephone Event, New York CIty

So I made my way yesterday to the Church of the Incarnation in Manhattan (NYC) for the Persephone Books Tea. First of all, the venue for this event was absolutely appropriate in terms of the time frame of the title being launched, Burnett's The Shuttle. (My review of that title is here while my review of the Persephone edition of The Making of a Marchioness is here.) The church itself is located at Madison and 35th which is just one block below the Morgan Library (as in J. Pierpont Morgan, noted robber baron of incredible wealth). The Church of the Incarnation reflects all the fabulous wealth of New York during that period with Tiffany stained glass windows, sculpture by Saint-Gaudens and art by Edward Burne-Jones. The image in this entry, for example, is a stained glass window featuring Florence Nightingale and was created in England and shipped over to the States for incorporation into the church. The building and its furnishings are an officially-designated historical landmark. As I walked through the church, some part of me was thinking what it must be like to be a participant at worship at Christmas and Easter. The pews, the chancel, the music. Oh, my! (I had to remind myself that we had good reason to leave New York City when we did.)

Once through the church, we climbed the stairs to the Assembly Hall which was rapidly filling with eager Persephone readers. The crowd was largely affluent upper East- and West-side ladies, but there were on the fringes some like myself -- traipsing in from the West Village, from Brooklyn and even a few British ex-pats. All in all though, as the colleague who went with me commented, not exactly the most diverse crowd. The Hall had large urns of tea on tables along with trays of brownies and scones ("hands across the water"-style refreshments as Nicola Beaumann, the Persephone representative/publisher herself commented). All of the Persephone representatives were charming, amidst the bustle of the American book-buyers.

While I'd expected more of a lecture approach, expecting to get something of an introduction to the author and the cultural milieu surrounding the novel, the talks themselves were actually quite brief. Nicola gave a quite modest marketing spiel and then Anna Sebbe who had written the introduction to The Shuttle spoke a little on the topic of the "Dollar Princesses" -- the wealthy American heiresses who married into a financially-depleted English aristocracy. Indeed, a large portion of The Shuttle is given over to Betty's and Mount Dunstan's efforts to revitalize the family estates and dependent village economies. Sebbe herself is author of a forthcoming biography of Jenny Jerome, a dollar princess who married Lord Randolph Churchill and later, became Winston Churchill's mother. She noted, as an interesting tidbit, the fact that Jennie Jerome before her marriage and later Frances Hodgson Burnett inhabited the same house, just off Berkeley Square. The house and in some ways, Jennie herself, came through in both Shuttle and Marchioness.

Persephone Books saw this event more in the light of facilitating the creation of social networks among existing readers and suggested that reading groups might evolve from the meeting. People did appear to mingle for the most part. It was a lovely way to spend an hour and a half or so; I did connect with some participants from LibraryThing and I had pulled the aforementioned professional colleague into attending.

It was, however, a most expensive jaunt. Besides the cost of a rail ticket to and fro, I robbed the piggy bank in order to purchase the following Persephone titles:

  1. Few Eggs and No Oranges
  2. Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary
  3. A Woman's Place, 1910 - 1975
Given that I am not myself a dollar princess or robber baron, the outrageous self-indulgence will have to be paid for by eating numerous peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and skipping expenditures at Starbucks and/or Borders. The books, I was told, may arrive in a week's time if the airmail post meets expectations....

I'll be posting my review of Idylls of the King later this afternoon. Really, reading Tennyson amidst all the luxury and wealth of a previous century was quite apt.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Tennyson and the Idylls of the King

Title: The Idylls of the King

Author: Alfred, Lord Tennyson (some background information). The image shown to the right is a painting of his wife.

Copyright: This work is in the public domain; I used both the Signet Classic Edition and the lovely Heritage Press collector's edition. (Links go to LibraryThing records).

Length: 286 pages

Genre: Poetry

Summary: One doesn't "summarize" poetry but for those unfamiliar with this particular work, told in twelve segments, it encompasses the rise and fall of Arthur's Round Table, largely due to the failure of Guenevere and Lancelot to live up to the ideals of the kingdom. The earliest segments of the work centered around four female characters (Enid, Guenevere, Elaine and Vivien) but these were later set into context with the other narratives of various knights. The Idylls, as currently published, reach a high point with the quest for the Holy Grail but as we see Lancelot admit obliquely his unfitness to continue in that quest because of his love for Guenevere and the subsequent confession of guilt by the Queen as she hides in an abbey, the ideal falters, ending in war and the passing of Arthur.

Based on the most cursory of background research, it appears that Tennyson was worried about the decline of cultural values in his society when he created the Idylls. His message therefore was that men should strive always to achieve the highest possible ideal. Women, by extension, should strive to prevent any occasion for failure by constantly living virtuously and always in the highest interests of the man who honors her with his love. Time and again, the stories illustrate the difficulty men have meeting this obligation and how a woman (even the ideal of a particular woman) may contribute to that failure or success. It is unmistakably laid at Guenevere's door that Lancelot fails in his quest and that Arthur's kingdom is destroyed. The stories selected in this work constantly underscore the need to control selfish desires in order to gain the higher good. The pity is that none are adequate to the task; even Arthur cannot entirely live up to the ideal as we see when he and Guenevere meet for the last time. And so the vision of harmonious dominion fails.

Also relevant: Poetry is an inefficient means for telling a story, even if it is a pure form through which to deliver the essential meaning. Whether due to the language or the form, it takes time to read and mentally process poetic narrative. If the language does not pick you up and carry you forward, it is laborious to work your way through.

There are magical images that stick in the mind, such as the delivery of Arthur as a baby to the wizard, Merlin.

It seemed in heaven, a ship, the shape thereof
A dragon winged, and all from stem to stern
Bright with a shining people on the decks,
And gone as soon as seen. And then the two
Dropt to the cove, and watched the great sea fall,
Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame:
And down the wave and in the flame was borne
A naked babe, and rode to Merlin's feet,
Who stoopt and caught the babe, and cried, 'The King!

There are moments of clarity when you suddenly grasp that Gareth and Lynette is really about the ordinary battles of life that all individuals must face, the knights called Morning Star, Noon, Evening Star, and ultimately Night (or Death) being the stages of life with which a young man must engage and conquer. But Gareth's cry is constantly "Lead and I follow!" as he draws upon personal strength and courteous forbearance in making his way. He's a splendid example of knighthood, as Tennyson intended him to be, composing the segment for his son before he was sent to school as a young man.

There are moments of eye-rolling (as in the story of the Marriage of Geraint) when the knight imposes all sorts of tests on his lady-love, the poor young noblewoman being raised up to new status if he marries her. How can one possibly forgive a Prince who forbids his young bride, Enid, to be married in the gown that her poor mother has brought to her as a surprise so that she need not be ashamed when meeting the Queen for the first time? Enid is, of course, perfect in her love for Geraint; Tennyson has deliberately provided her as literary contrast with Guenevere. (It's unfair as neither character is a particularly realistic portrayal of the female.)

Each segment, as I read it, seemed to provoke different reactions. One can't help rooting for Sir Balin who is making an honest attempt to conquer his personal flaw of intemperate anger by thinking of the goodness of Guenevere. Unfortunately that falls flat when he discovers that she's been untrue to the King by falling in love with Lancelot. He loses his temper and tragedy results.

Everyone is irritating in the instance of Lancelot and Elaine. Guenevere is a wretched and uncaring woman in her scenes. It is she who is shown to be the cause of Elaine's unhappiness and languid death over Sir Lancelot's indifference. He ultimately comes to understand that Elaine might have loved him and had his best interests at heart more truly than the Queen.

Finally, there is the guilt ultimately carried by Guinevere in her abbey; she sobs piteously at the window, seeing Arthur leave her to go to his Last Battle. (I suspect one is expected to weep at Tennyson's account of his passing.)

This isn't perhaps poetry that I would ever memorize and quote at will and the philosophical approach of the author is --at best-- dated. But the myth of Arthur has passed into Western civilization with both positive and negative effects. This is just one of its manifestations and one has to know Idylls of the King in order to understand some of our culture's twists and turns historically.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Seen at Moleskinerie

Yes, the notebooks are expensive but the delight of visiting the Moleskinerie web site is based on encountering images such as this one. I'd have copied the picture on to my own blog but inadvertent piracy is always an issue and frankly, they deserve the traffic.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Feelings, Faculties, and Flounces

George Eliot on a tear about bad female novelists..."they write in elegant boudoirs, with violet-coloured ink, and a ruby pen"...Wonderfully snide commentary. Really, it's all about Mary Sue.

I very nearly spewed out my tea while reading, so do take care.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Burnett's The Making of A Marchioness

[ Just an ordinary review; not for any challenge]

Title: The Making of a Marchioness

Author: Frances Hodgson Burnett

Copyright: 1901 (this work is in the public domain); I read the Persephone Books edition of the text, ISBN: 978-1-903155-14-1.

Length: 297 pages

Genre: Fiction

Summary: The Making of a Marchioness features Emily Fox-Seton, about whom I wrote in March here. The important thing to remember about Emily is that she is not clever; indeed a truly unkind soul might suggest that, for a woman of thirty-four, she's really not the sharpest knife in the drawer. She's somewhat unworldly, but very willing, very accommodating and very kind. Those of better birth and means, such as Lady Maria Bayne, depend on Emily to do for them those mundane boring tasks (writing notes, running errands, hiring of staff, etc.) that they don't choose to do for themselves. Consequently, Emily is invited to Lady Maria's country house, Mallowe Court, to manage the handling of her house party. Among the guests is the eligible Lord Walderhurst and three females (charming and otherwise) who spend time angling for his attention. There are two love stories that emerge in the first part of this novel and it is comforting to know that Frances Hodgson Burnett is skilled enough to bring both sets of lovers together without boring us with the obvious.

It is the second and longer segment of the novel, published originally as The Methods of Lady Walderhurst, that is somewhat more sensationalistic. Emily is placed in mortal danger and the question is whether her great love will return to her in time to ensure her safety and complete recovery. Burnett provides glimpses into two marriages (not the same two couples as presented in the first part of the book) and contrasts the spousal behaviors and attitudes.

I tend to characterize books like this as charming; you can trust the author's intent and narrative as completely as your own mother's cooking. There's a reassuring coziness to the novel. The modicum of suspense is just enough to make it interesting but it's a text ideal to read just before bedtime.

Also Relevant: The virtue of the Persephone edition is the inclusion of both a preface by Isabel Raphael and an Afterword by Burnett biographer Gretchen Gerzina. The bits of biography supplied indicate that Burnett wrote to support herself and her sons in the wake of two unhappy marriages. She was wildly popular as a storyteller in her lifetime, her works read by statesmen as well as the general public.

It's the very gentleness of the narrative that I find endearing, but the note on which the novel closes is actually quite harsh for the time period. Murder has been committed, but the nature of the crime is hidden until the final paragraphs. At the same time, during the second segment of the novel, the women we've come to know each move center stage so that we see the strength and depth of Hester, Emily, Jane, Ameerah.

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this and was able to completely identify when Emily resorts to coping with stress by reading the Book of Common Prayer, while sitting at the sunny desk in her library as the church bells in Berkeley Square ring out. It's just so indicative of a belief in an ordered universe. That belief, I think, is a big part of the book's charm for me.

Note: The Persephone edition is lovely. (I really wish the exchange rate was better...)

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

An Infinity of Little Hours - Maguire

[ just an ordinary review ]

Title: An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and their Trial of Faith

Author: Nancy Klein Maguire (see author's web site; her bio)

Copyright: 2006; Published in the U.S. by Public Affairs (tm), a member of the Perseus Books Group.

Length: 264 pages, including a number of appendices

Genre: Non-fiction

Summary: A surprisingly intimate look at the formation process during the early 1960's of five young men who arrive at St. Hugh's Charterhouse in Parkminister (UK) to try to pursue their respective vocations as Carthusian monks. Because the author is married to one of the five individuals in the book, she sought and was granted access (to an unprecedented level) to both current and former members of the order.

The Carthusian Order retains a monastic tradition that has not changed in 900 years, one oriented entirely to the fostering of a unity between a single human soul and the Deity. The two most important buildings in a Carthusian enclosure are the Church itself and the library; the monk spends most of his time in his own cell alone [see this photographic tour of a monk's cell]. The intellectual stimulation of study is one of the attractions of the contemplative life. The monks' daily practices are particularly austere, reflecting those known in 1084 when the order was founded. The eremetical, contemplative life depends on strict solitude, prayer, and silence (aside from the scheduled gathering of the community to say the Divine Office). We follow Paddy, Hans, Chuck, Dave and Bernie through a transformation of their personalities and mental processes; the extreme nature of this particular monastic tradition requires such a complete conversion of life that most modern Christians would challenge the theological and the psychological foundation. Can such isolation and denial possibly be the best way to find God? The book is testimony that it may be the best path for some individuals, certainly not for all.

The writing and the flow of the text are marvellous. Maguire devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 11) to the tension created by some percentage of the community who are casual in their singing of the solemn Night Office and Midnight Mass of Christmas. For two of the monks, musical by training and/or talent, this is a significant challenge to holiness and Maguire conveys their frustration and agony. She describes a battle of sorts between those monks struggling to maintain the correct pacing and pitch of the Chant and those for whom the importance of the Office resides in articulating the words rather than the perfection of the sound. While I recognize that for some readers that the inclusion of such a chapter may sound incredibly dull, I thought Maguire pulled it off. The chapter accurately reflects the magnification of small irritations that strict enclosure would naturally tend to fuel.

Also Relevant: I confess to a fascination with the monastic life. On some level, it appeals to me, although whether that is due to a true desire for God or simply for personal calm in a chaotic society may be up for discussion. Having said that, I am quite sure that the Carthusian Order would never have been compatible with my mental, emotional or spiritual constructs. Such an introspective exploration of human spirituality as described in Infinity of Little Hours is both intellectually and physically challenging for even the healthiest soul.

A brief extract from the narrative at the point of one novice contemplating the final solemn profession of vows: ...he knew how difficult it was to get up in the middle of every night, he knew how hard it was to fast on dry bread and water on the coldest winter days. Above all, he knew the hardness of a life that never changed, that would never change, when every day looked like every other day. (pg. 214)

Another quote: The noonday demon tormented Dom Philip with the unchanging routine to which he was committed--today, tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow: to bed at 7:00 pm, up at 11:00 pm to pray, then to church for night office, back to pray, to bed again around 2:30 am, up again at 6:00 am for Prime, then to church for the conventual and private Masses, then back to the cell for Sext and reading, dinner at 11:00 am, manual labor and reading, back to church at 2:45 pm for Vespers, back to the cell for Compline and then to bed at 7:00 pm.

Why would someone embrace this rigorous marathon? Unless you have the psychological strength as well as the depth of faith to believe that this is an effective means for achieving closeness with a living God, you must surely question, even condemn, the process. And yet the men who Maguire follows in the book, even those who fail in the attempt to pursue it for a lifetime, value the time spent in the enclosure. This is a thoughtful exploration of how *some* few human beings pursue union with their God, neither dismissive nor bitter in tone. I loved it.

Update: Sylvia over at Classical Bookworm has also reviewed this book.

Monday, April 02, 2007


My husband woke first to see that we were some 30 minutes late this morning and was immediately disturbed by this appalling disruption of routine; I reassured him I could catch the 8:09 train into work without it being an issue so he wouldn't race around and thereby further disrupt the routine. (Puh-leeze, dear, just bring the coffee and stop bellowing. Snooze.)

But, oh, if I'm going to have to wake up on a Monday morning, how I want this clock! The exchange rate, be damned!

(First seen at Mental Multivitamin)

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Books I'm Slowly Getting To (or Through) In April

1. Idylls of the King - Because I love Arthurian myth and because I really don't read enough poetry.
2. The Water Room - Because Didi's book group meets in ten days and I had intended to take this with me on the plane to Arizona (but didn't).
3. An Infinity of Little Hours - Because books about monastic practice and deeply held faith fascinate me; for the record, this is both riveting and readable. Right at the moment, it has my full attention.
4. Ex Libris - because I have to talk about it at the end of the month at the township library. Of course, my husband moved my paperback copy from the dining room to somewhere in the living room and now I have to actually *find* it.

I had thought to participate in the "Once Upon a Time" challenge proposed by Carl, but I seem to be drawn elsewhere at the moment.