Monday, January 28, 2013

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia TateThe Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

That night, when SanJuanna had cleared the main course and brought dessert in, my mother called for quiet and said, "Boys, I have an announcement to make. Your sister made the apple pies tonight. I'm sure we will all enjoy them very much."

"Can I learn how, ma'am?" said Jim Bowie.

"No, J.B. Boys don't bake pies," Mother said.

"Why not?" he said.

"They have wives who make pies for them."

"But I don't have a wife."

"Darling, I'm sure you will have a very nice one someday when you're older, and she'll make you many pies. Calpurnia, would you care to serve?"

Was there any way I could have a wife, too? I wondered as I cut through the browned C and promptly shattered the entire crust.

Some readers were put off by Calpurnia's lack of enthusiasm for the domestic arts, but I have to say I can relate. There are days when I wish I had a wife. Thankfully, I have so many modern conveniences to hand that I can manage to feed and clothe my family and also spend time outdoors and reading for pleasure. Poor Callie had to knit socks and bake pies, instead of cataloging the plants and animals she found on rambles with her eccentric grandfather. I'd be grumpy, too.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler: A True Love Story RediscoveredSome Girls, Some Hats and Hitler: A True Love Story Rediscovered by Trudi Kanter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The title grabbed me and then the story sucked me in. This was compelling, lyrical writing and very hard to put down. In the 1980s Trudi Kanter self-published the story of her escape from WWII Vienna with her husband Walter. The book then fell into obscurity. Thankfully, it was rediscovered and published by Scribner. From the introduction by Linda Grant:

"...There instinctive shrinking away from accounts of the war that did not treat it with the seriousness and solemnity of historians. Trudi must have seemed too shallow, too preoccupied with hats and men to be a sympathetic narrator of the life of the refugee. After all, the emigres and exiles who flooded to England in the thirties, Sigmund Freud among them, were conductors, composers, poets, publishers, and cinematographers. Milliners were de trop. Her book went down into oblivion. Some readers believed it to be a novel."

I found Trudi's "shallowness" to be a testament to humanity. In the midst of horror, we still yearn for a world of red roses and romantic drives in the Vienna Woods, however distant they have become. Trudi was an artist who loved beautiful things. Is her story any more or less worthy of telling than that of the "serious" people? Her gift was to be able to mobilize her skills and energy, putting everything she had into surviving. She got some lucky breaks, to be sure, but she never stopped trying to escape.

One of the most powerful scenes is when she sees the Kohlmarkt area where she lives, blanketed with Nazi flags after the Germans march into Austria:

The shock slowly disappeared, but I feel gripped by a thick, sticky feeling. It paralyzes me. Sticking to my hands; I can't work. To my legs; I can't walk. To my brain; I can't think or sleep. Fear fills my black dreams, turning them round and round, sitting heavily on my chest. I can't breathe.

Few people know the real meaning of fear, its hopeless, crushing effect. Fear had been in me for a long time. This indescribable atmosphere. There was something hovering over me, urging me. What did I do? I carried on, stubbornly, pretending to be deaf. Stupid? Of course, but helpless, too. I was in love. No changes, please. No yesterdays, no tomorrows. I was a coward.

Not anymore. I scrutinize myself with critical eyes. Is it just a front? Is there a crushed face under the mask? No, I am strong now. I will do everything possible to make sure we escape.

And she did.

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Historical Tapestry Reading Challenge

It's like the Bluestocking Olympics around here: I just signed up for another reading challenge. This one is sponsored by the Historical Tapestry blog. Another thing I like about the challenge is its implied respect for longevity, hence the challenge categories:

- 20th century reader - 2 books
- Victorian reader - 5 books
- Renaissance Reader - 10 books
- Medieval - 15 books
- Ancient History - 25+ books

And while my kids consider me positively Medieval, I'm planning to become a Renaissance Woman this year, if all goes to plan.

If I manage to tackle Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolò series, I'll be a good way toward my goal.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Damnation of John Donellan

The Damnation Of John Donellan: A Mysterious Case Of Death And Scandal In Georgian EnglandThe Damnation Of John Donellan: A Mysterious Case Of Death And Scandal In Georgian England by Elizabeth Cooke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The sordid underbelly of Georgian England made for very interesting reading. The author's research and excellent storytelling kept me engrossed in the aftermath of the mysterious death of a debauched 20-year-old (!) aristocrat. Unlike most fictional mysteries, the players in this story acted in seemingly contradictory and confusing ways, as real people do. There was never a clear villain, but several people with motive and means to do away with Theodosius Boughton. The train wreck of a trial was painful to read, but confirms that there was and is "nothing new under the sun."

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Friday, January 4, 2013

The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge

This year marks the bicentenary of Jane Austen's second published novel, Pride and Prejudice. In honor of the occasion, the blog is sponsoring a Pride and Prejudice-inspired challenge.

As it happens, my daughter is reading P&P for the first time and she and I started watching the A&E 1995 adaptation yesterday, so we are well on our way to a Neophyte achievement (1 to 4 selections) in the challenge.

As she experiences the story for the first time, I'm struck by how much she responds to Jane Austen's satirical characterizations, especially Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She has no patience for Lydia and Kitty's silliness and mentioned to me this morning that she's thankful that her mother doesn't act like Mrs Bennet. Phew!

For the remainder of the challenge, I plan to re-read the original, watch another film or TV adaptation (haven't decided yet), and read The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, by Syrie James.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the WorldMauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World by Simon Garfield
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

British chemist William Perkin's life and discoveries detailed in the first half of the book were fascinating--I'd give the book 4.5 stars up to that point. Then I lost the thread of the narrative a bit and it meandered and finally petered out. Maybe the author was drawing a parallel to Perkin's life? As the book flap notes, "Perkin's discovery [synthetic dye] sparked new interest in industrial applications of chemistry research, which later brought about the development of explosives, perfume, photography, modern medicine, and today's plastics industry. Perkin is honored with the odd plaque and bust in colleges and chemistry clubs, but is otherwise a forgotten man."

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013


IndiscretionIndiscretion by Jude Morgan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm giving this one 5 stars for its fluid writing and the fact that it's one of the best modern "Austen"-inspired novels I've read, and let me add I've been reading lots of them in the last few years. Mainly, I think I read Austen adaptations to torture myself as I ultimately return to the original when I can no longer endure the heaving and throbbing body parts or lame dialog and narration without reaching for my sal volatile. Georgette Heyer is an exception to this allergic response -- she rarely fails to entertain, and having written many years ago, keeps things clean.

Jude Morgan has created such a sparkling tale! I enjoyed all of the characters, the good and the bad ones. Allusions to various Austen books were done in such a way as to give the reader a knowing wink without beating them over the head about it. Great narrative tone and many hilarious scenes of misapprehension, veiled meaning, or outright silliness.

“None of us like to think we are silly. But all must acknowledge that they are capable of silliness, from time to time.” Heaven forfend!

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