Tuesday, March 29, 2011



Definitely not light verse, but thoughtful, profound, and, as advertised on its back cover, quirky -- probably obvious from the title.  The poet's knowledge of archaeology and natural science informs her content. There is a series of poems on a fictional realm, Nab, with references both to its inhabitants in ancient times and its excavators in the present, as well as poems which include references to the spadefoot toad, the quagga, and, better known to most readers, sparrows and moths. Life and death are close in these poems, and love too makes an appearance with great poignancy. Usually I read poetry books intermittently, reading and putting aside, but this one I read straight through because of the story line of the Nab poems and because I wondered what she'd come up with next!

Virtual catalogue. Amazon


Thursday, March 24, 2011


THE STECHLIN - Theodore Fontane

One of the best known 19th century German novelists, Theodore Fontane was just brought to my attention by a review of some recent translations of his books. This novel is his last and according to William Zwiebel, the translator, Fontane "set out to write a serious political statement, a novel which gave full measure of respect to the finer qualities of the Prussian aristocratic heritage, but which also pointed out its provincialism and morbidity and the pressing need for a total restructuring of Prussian society."

All that Zweibel describes is encompassed in the novel, but in a story, which despite being peopled by many soldiers, is a gentle story of the elder Stechlin's humorous and serious meditations on Prussian society as he himself faces death and of his son's meditations on the same while falling in love and marrying. The world is that of Berlin and the Stechlin's country home thirty miles from Berlin on Lake Stechlin. It is a world I haven't read much about and the gentleness and integrity of the main characters made me wonder how from this society the tragedies of the next fifty years could have sprung.  What part would the children and grandchildren of these members of the Second Reich have played in the terrible Third Reich? Fontane died in 1898 in the hope that the Germany of the new century would be enlightened, that a and better order would be established. Zweibel comments "It is one of the small and ironic tragedies of the terrible age that followed, that this manifesto of a sage and humane Prussian, had its message been followed, might have led to a wiser Germany and one considerably less burdened with guilt."

Having just read Anthony Trollope's Dr. Thorne, I was intrigued by the way both authors presented a similar plot: a young man of property who does not want to acquiesce in his elders' wishes that he should marry a woman with money and status. In Trollope the family pushes the son to do so. In Fantone the family recommends but doesn't insist, and although a bit upset because the girl chosen had a mother who was half-Swiss are soon reconciled to her, helped of course by the fact that she does have  money. Trollope's elegant prose moves faster, but his characters do not seem as real as Fantone's, whose characters are revealed mostly through dialogue rather than description. Everyone talks a lot in this novel, about social mores, ethics, the past, the future. Fantone was a military historian as well as a novelist, so his soldiers are much more specific as to past battles than those found in most novels. There are also a multiplicity of minor characters, many extremely funny, such as the young attractive Hedvig, a servant girl who is constantly leaving jobs because of the amorous approaches of her employers. Hedvig is rendered not as a victim but as a spunky girl who allows no one to take advantage of her.

Virtual catalogue


THE OTTLEY'S - Ada Leverson
(A trilogy published together, separately titled: LOVE'S SHADOW, TENTERHOOKS, LOVE AT SECOND SIGHT)

 A friend of Oscar Wilde, Ada Leverson gave him a room in her home during his trial, Leverson shared Wilde's wit and gift for creating comedies of manners, although hers were novels, not plays. This trilogy tells the story of the happy unraveling of an unhappy marriage, that of Bruce and Edith Ottley. However, rather than feeling as angry at Bruce or as sorry for Edith, as I might with another author, Leverson made me admire Edith's skill at manipulating her husband while inwardly laughing at him, and Bruce was just such a booby that I laughed with Edith. Bruce is also a bully, or would have been with a less subtle wife, but Edith simply brushes off his bullying  In the first book, Edith is experiencing romance vicariously through her friend Hyacinth's love affairs, but in the second and third books, Edith herself falls in love and is faced with the decision of whether or not to leave Bruce.

The books are primarily dialogue, off set by the inner thoughts of the characters, a varied and entertaining mix of Edwardian England (the books start in 1906 and end in 1916).

Here's a sample of an exchange between husband and wife:
"'I think I shall have a rest," Bruce said presently, "I had a very bad night last night. I scarcely slept at all.'
:'Poor boy!' Edith said kindly. She was accustomed to the convention of Bruce's insomnia, and it would never have occurred to her to appear surprised when he said he hadn't closed his eyes though she happened to know there was no cause for anxiety. If he woke up ten minutes before he was called, he thought he had been awake all night; if he didn't he saw symptoms of the sleeping sickness."

The Ottley's two children are rendered with an authenticity and humor that made me wonder if Leverson wasn't simply recording the conversations of her own children. The boy, Archie, is particularly engaging, (a sad footnote is that Leverson's son died young).

Virtual catalogue.

Saturday, March 19, 2011



This book's opening sentence grabbed my attention: "It was thanks to Mr. Kandinsky that Joe knew a unicorn when he saw one."  I had to find out what was happening.  A lot, as it turns out, especially for such a slender book. This is one of those lovely books you read in a sitting and sigh in contentment as you close the covers.

Published in 1953, it is the tale of a six-year-old boy living in London's East End with his working mother in the home and shop of an elderly Jewish tailor who has befriended them while the boy's father is off to Africa to seek their fortune. The boy is being raised by mother, tailor, tailor's assistant (also a wrestler), and assorted East End neighbors, all interesting characters. He acquires a "unicorn" after all the one-day chicks he buys for pets die in rapid succession. It is important he has a unicorn because once the horn has grown rubbing it, he will be granted three wishes. How this happens is the story.

Virtual catalogue. Amazon


DR. THORNE - Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope was the originator of the English county of Barsetshire in the 19th century, which Angela Thirkell revisited in the 20th century. DR. THORNE is the third in the six book cycle, though they can all be read separately. I say this since I read the second, BARCHESTER TOWERS, so many years ago, I had forgotten most of it without detriment to my reading of this one. Trollope's wit, wisdom, and warmth are a winning combination (how's that for alliterative criticism!). Although his young lovers are not out of the ordinary,being sweet, loving, loyal, intelligent, virtuous, etc., the other characters are very much individuals, not literary types. Trollope's commentary on the mores, morales, and culture of his time is both biting and amusing. The joy of reading Trollope is also the facility, the ease and elegance of his writing. The copies I was reading were library copies that were one hundred years old and published in two volumes. I had only taken out Vol.1 and rushed to the library the next day to get Vol.2, so involved was I in Trollope's Barsetshire.  I'll be going back to read the next three books in the series soon.

Rockport library, Amazon

Monday, March 14, 2011


CLEOPATRA: A LIFE - Stacy Schiff

A fascinating biography of Cleopatra which brings ancient Rome and Alexandria to life. I read it together with  Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra andwith viewing the film of the Royal Shakespeare's 1974 production of the play with Janet Suzman, Richard Johnson, Patrick Stewart, and Corin Redgrave in the leads.  The biography fills in some of the gaps in the play, although it is amazing how closely Shakespeare kept to Plutarch's account, allowing for his shortening the time of the war to keep the play moving at a quick pace. In the biography Cleopatra's intelligence is highlighted  -- she was a linguist, speaking many languages, an able queen, with an amazing ability to survive as ruler for 22 years (starting at age 17) in a brutal world. Her brutality is also noted; she killed most of her siblings in order to keep her throne, but had she not, they would have killed her. The Egyptian royal family carried dysfunctionality to the nth degree!

Schiff sees Cleopatra's influence extending after her death in freeing up Roman women and making them more assertive in the political life of Rome. Schiff also points out there is much we can never know about Cleopatra - but what remains clear is that she was a powerful and charismatic woman, who lived life to the full.

Library, Amazon

Friday, March 11, 2011



First published in 1931 and republished in 2009 by The Bloomsbury Group, this utterly delightful novel presents us with a family of three young sisters and a mother who enliven their lives with shared fantasy to the bewilderment and disapproval of their conventional governess. When fantasy turns into reality, the Carne family spreads their joy to a childless judge and his wife. A merry romp, the book also suggests that there are many ways to being a "functional" rather than a "dysfunctional" family, and that a family that plays together is a good model for us all.

Virtual catalogue or Amazon


WHAT DID IT MEAN? - Angela Thirkell

This 1954 novel in the Barsetshire series revolves the village's preparations for the coronation of Elizabeth II. For anyone who has ever suffered through committee meetings (is there anyone who hasn't?), Thirkell presents a very funny, and all too real, committee as well as a humorous, poignant middle-aged romance.

Virtual catalogue

Monday, March 7, 2011



Angela Thirkell is best known for her Barsetshire comedy of manners novels, but these two books are diversions from that form.  THREE HOUSES, published in 1931, precedes her other books, and is not a novel but a memoir of her childhood. As such it is charming, and especially interesting as her grandfather was the artist Edward Burne-Jones, her cousin Rudyard Kipling. Her family spent Sunday afternoons at her Burne-Jones grandparents' home in Fulham, London (now West Kensington) and extended visits in the summer and holidays at their home in Rottingdean, opposite which Rudyard Kipling lived with his three young children, one of them Angela's playmate. Her stories of the family and the times (she was born in 1890) create an era already disappeared by the time of her writing in the 1930. There is much humor, both eccentricities of character (she describes one of the family, a Mrs. Ridsdale as: "A person of immense character. Was it not she who invented and carried out the questionnaire for Kipling-hunters? 'Can you tell me where Rudyard Kipling lives?' the tourist would ask. Mrs. Ridsdale would stop and fix him, or her, with her shrewd eye, saying 'Have you read anything of his?' Very often the answer was No, when Mrs. Ridsdale would remark, 'Then I won't tell you.'} and of machines (the Kiplings had a motor car which "didn't like starting and when it had started it didn't want to stop, except halfway up a hill, and it perpetually ran dry on the tops of lovely downs miles away from even a dew-pond.")

CORONATION SUMMER written in 1937 is a comedy of manners novel in Jane Austen mode set at the time of Queen Victoria's coronation, complete with lithographs from the era. It is a short novel, 169 pages, but creates a lively picture of the times. Two romances come to happy fruition despite the follies of parents. As the young lady narrator expresses it: "...parents are created to distress us..." Truly light reading, but with some education on British history thrown in.

Virtual catalogue


A WINTER SERPENT - Aileen Armitage

This time out, Armitage tells the story of Rasputin, the mad Russian unholy holy man, who became the confidant of the Tsar and Tsarina, an association which resulted in his death. Armitage sticks to the historical facts and leaves it up to us to judge. This is not a scholarly biography, but a historical novel with fictional and nonfictional characters. Armitage manages to present Rasputin's colorful life in under 200 pages (large print pages at that). I was captivated by the story, and once I finished went on-line to find out more about Rasputin.

Amazon or me



A few weeks ago I was down with my second cold of the season, fortunately I was not without books, but I didn't want high brow books. I was flat on the couch, sneezing, snuffling, and in general feeling, about a thousand years old. Now is the time I decided to break out Jilly Cooper. I had ordered three Jilly Cooper books because two of my favorite male authors from Yorkshire both wrote about her favorably. Having never heard of her, I was curious. I looked her up and learned she is regarded as the creator of  "chick lit", although from the evidence of my reading I'd say her books would still qualify as bodice rippers, except that there is nowadays so little bodice to rip, rendering that genre obsolete, now replaced by "chick lit" in which lingerie (if there is any) is willing flung off. So all high brows stop here, these are not the books for you, even in a cold-remedy induced haze. However, for those who occasionally dip into the low brow,{I don't say trash, since Jilly has been awarded some kind of order of the British Empire by the queen for her contributions to English literature.) Jilly is a fun diversion. What the guys mentioned, and the reviewers even, is that Jilly has a sense of humor. Are her books trashy romances or satires of trashy romances? That is the question, but whatever the answer, she tells a good story, often many good stories, with brio, elan, and all those other exuberant words. I was so interested in finding out what would happen that I kept spooning in the chicken soup to make sure I'd survive to the end of the book - and since the books I had were a trilogy, each over 500 pages - Jilly kept me diverted from the ravages of my cold, until finished with her sexy saga, I realized I could breath freely again. The novels all take place in the mythical English county of Rutshire (satire, anyone?) with love affairs, wickedness, horses (these are English novels, and perhaps the horses explain the Queen's award), and in this series, music as the leading villain is a symphony orchestra conductor, Maestro Rannaldini. 

These novels are from the late 1990's. Cooper wrote less convoluted romances before that, and has since written more of the Rutshire series.

Not available in Rockport library or the virtual catalogue. Can be purchased at Amazon or you can borrow from me.