The Heyer reread continues with a post about the wonderfully fluffy The Corinthian. (Try to ignore the cover image. Sourcebooks is attempting to save money by using what is more or less stock art, and usually it isn't too bad, although this is admittedly a miss.) Also over at Tor.com, Jo Walton has a fascinating post on the right age for reading books.

Some musings on the question and a small rant about Jane Eyre. )
Ok, first up, another Edith Nesbit post up at Tor.com, this one about The House of Arden. NOT a favorite of mine, but Gore Vidal liked it. Which, er. Yes. Onwards!

Meanwhile, just to confirm that every once in awhile I do poke my little head out to read something other than speculative fiction, children's fiction, and gossipy biographies about long dead people, a couple of recent non-genre reads I can strongly recommend:

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean, by journalist Susan Casey, is mostly the story of various extreme surfers who hop all over the world to chase down and ride giant waves all around the world, and by giant, I mean 70 feet/21 meters to 30 meters. These are the sorts of waves that destroy tanker ships.

Not surprisingly, surfing on these sorts of waves, even with highly specialized surfboards and people riding around on jet skies to pull surfers out of the water while helicopters hover above is, how shall we say this, risky. Even the author, no surfer, gets badly tossed around just trying to document this kind of thing from a boat. It's riveting stuff.

Slightly less riveting are the chapters that punctuate the surfing bit, where Casey, no scientist, follows wave scientists around and tries to understand both waves and global warming. This is not entirely successful, mostly because – as I learned to my great distress in a graduate-level physical oceanography class, waves caused by wind are COMPLICATED, and by complicated, I mean, they will drive you to literal tears when you are trying desperately to understand what your professor is talking about and how any of these damn equations work and why all of them seem to involve calculus and worse having to program calculus into a computer. Er. I digress. The second problem is that despite several PhDs patiently trying to tell her otherwise, Casey remains unable to understand that tsunami waves (caused by earthquakes) and other waves (caused by, in my opinion, far too many damn things) are not the same thing. (I actually got all of the questions about tsunami waves correct.) Which in turn means that although global warming is expected to impact the way wind wave works, and may, or may not, impact the damage caused by tsunami waves (this is debatable) and may possibly increase the number of undersea earthquakes causing tsunamis (this is VERY debatable and only in the "worth investigating" stage) it will not affect the way tsunami waves work.

This may not seem that important, but when a good half of your book is about the growing potential for wave damage from global warming, it's important to make sure that you have a clear understanding of the differences between tsunami waves, wave waves, and storm surge waves. Casey doesn't, and she also isn't good at translating scientific terminology to layman's chatter, which means that her chapters about global warming, waves and scientists are decidedly the weaker part of the book.

Which in the end is ok; I guarantee everyone will really be reading this for the extreme surfer stories, and if readers get a bit of "wow, waves are complicated" lessons from this, it's all good.

The other strongly recommended book is The Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears. Set in the reign of Charles II, this is a book about the murder of one Dr. Grove and the woman suspected of committing the crime, told from four different viewpoints – that of a charming Italian traveller, a young man obsessed with restoring his father's name and honor, a mathematical genius, and another young man who just loves books.

Naturally, all four of these narrators have something to hide – in some cases, quite a bit to hide – and their perspectives are quite, quite different.

Pears ladles his book with discussions of blood transfusions (this is pretty fascinating); a horrified and unintentionally hilarious description of a performance of King Lear (part of the fun is trying to figure out which Shakespearean play that particular narrator is reacting to); and appearances by most of the great academics and thinkers of the period: John Locke, the great Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren, and so on, all happily discussing philosophy and blood transfusions in between murder investigations. This is all pretty great, but what makes the book is the way Pears handles the four competing viewpoints of the murder and its events – and the way all four men, and it's very important that these are men, justify their various actions, which include unauthorized and questionable medical experiments and autopsies, attempts to purchase corpses, rapes, spying, betrayals, purchases of books and musical instruments that come close to bankrupting them, homosexual desires, and so on. (The rape section of the novel, while not graphic, may be triggery for some readers given that narrator's ability to justify the rape to himself – while making it perfectly clear to readers that this is rape, it is unacceptable, and that it most definitely harmed the woman involved.)

That most of the characters and two of the narrators are historical figures adds to the intrigue and the mystery (without being too spoilery I was fairly sure that John Locke wouldn't end up as the murderer, but then again, his role in the narration ended up surprising me).

Warning: this is a heavy book, and it's meant for rereading. Some of you will find the rape section and the sections narrated by the mathematician John Wallis (a historical figure) to be difficult going. But this was most definitely my kind of book.
Ok, since LJ seems to be back, let's try to celebrate with a long post that's been waiting on my computer for a bit. Sure, I know that most of you would rather celebrate with chocolate and booze, but this is what I have.

EditOk, LJ is NOT back. Not only is this not crossposting but when I tried to manually post this in LJ I kept getting an internal service error. THUNK. THUNK. Damn you, DDOS attack, go away. What did I ever do to you???

Chasing Aphrodite: the Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

Art museums generally fascinate me. Not just the collection of beauty, but the why behind it, with the explicit attempts of some modern art museums to stretch the definition of what most of us would call art and many of us would call seriously ugly, to the less explicit political agendas behind many museums and displays.

This is particularly true at some of the world's great art museums, all of which were formed with the ostensible purpose of showcasing beauty and the development of art, but many of which also had the political purpose of showcasing just how great and wealthy the museum's host country was – the Lourve, in particular, had a theme for awhile that "all great art leads to France," (considerably softened these days), while the British Museum showcased, in the great phrase of someone else, "the spoils of empire," and the Metropolitan Museum of Art showcased "the spoils of money."

Cut for a lengthy discussion of the Getty Museum, classical art, Roman plunder, sexism and tax fraud. )

Seaward

Jul. 21st, 2011 09:59 am
Over at Tor.com, I chat about one more Susan Cooper book, Seaward.

The great Edwardian novelist Edith Nesbit, she of the radical ideas and open marriage and friendships with H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw is next.
Jehanne Wake, Sisters of Fortune: America's Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad

Edited for clarification after some helpful hints from [profile] tcherynobyelo.

Apparently I can't resist big gossipy biographies about American aristocrats, either. But this one is not only big and gossipy, but also a solid, engrossing read, and one of the few biographies that I've read recently where I have almost no complaints.

The four Caton sisters – Marianne, Bess, Louisa and Emily – were the granddaughters of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, known to you, if known at all, as the last signer of the Declaration of Independence to die. (He was not selected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention for whatever reason, but his cousin Daniel Carroll, not of Carrollton, was an active member and one of the signers of the Constitution.) But beyond that, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (he always used this full name to prevent confusion with the many other Charles Carrolls not of Carrollton) was also one of the wealthiest men in the thirteen colonies, with extensive tobacco and other estates; served as Maryland's first senator (where he crossed paths and met with one of my ancestors, in one of those oooh! six degrees of separation thing, except considerably more degrees here); and, along with his cousin Daniel Carroll, may have helped inspire the "no establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment, since, as Catholics, Charles and Daniel Carrollton had not been allowed to serve in colonial governments. (I originally heard that on a school field trip, and Wikipedia confirms the legend, but since it's not mentioned in this considerably better researched and heavily footnoted book it may not be true.) When Charles Carroll of Carrollton died, the nation went into official mourning on the orders of President Andrew Jackson, and his body lay in state in Baltimore for some days.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that three – three! – of the Caton sisters married titled nobility of England, one (Marianne) first becoming the sister-in-law of Napoleon's sister-in-law and then becoming the sister-in-law of the Duke of Wellington – yes, that Duke of Wellington – and later Lady Wellesley, Marchioness; one (Louisa) first marrying a nice baronet and then marrying the man who became the Duke of Leeds, eventually becoming a nice Duchess; and the third (Bess) settling for – it does feel like settling, after this – a mere baron.

The fourth sister, Emily, made it all to way to Montreal, hated it, and returned firmly to Maryland, to live out her life there and exercise just a leetle bit of undue influence on her grandfather to suddenly and unexpectedly become his major heiress. Lawsuits ensued. That is all very interesting, as is her social life in Washington's capital, but it kinda pales next to the story of the three sisters in England not to mention all of their investments and speculation in the stock market.

So how did three American women, granddaughters of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, end up in the British nobility? (Other American women, of course, were to marry into the British nobility – quite frequently in the later 19th and 20th centuries – but they were not related, or as directly related, to American revolutionaries.) Two separate factors, it seems. One, the oldest sister, Marianne, happened to marry the brother of one of America's most notorious women (at the time): Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, also known as Betsy Bonaparte, who had married Jerome Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, in 1803 at the height of Napoleon's power -- not, it must be said, with the approval of Napoleon.

The young and scandalous Betsy – well known for her habit of walking around with what shocked or delighted observers of the time claimed was excessively inadequate clothing leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination – according to just one quote, "I ought rather say, of her no dress, for if the reports are not much exaggerated, she goes to public assemblies nearly naked." The reports were apparently not much exaggerated. But this was enough to delight Jerome Bonaparte, at least, if not Napoleon, who declared the marriage null and illegal. Betsy, presumably with slightly more clothing, attempted to go to Napoleon to plead her case directly – but was not allowed to step ashore. Jerome married someone else, and Betsy lived in scandal – but the story was enough to gain her some sympathetic British equally unfond of Napoleon friends. Marianne became her sister-in-law, and thus, the sister-in-law of the shamefully mistreated (depending upon who told the story) sister-in-law of Napoleon. It opened doors.

The other factor, of course, money.

Wake does not conceal the unpleasant source of this money: the Carrolls were slaveowners, and the Caton girls grew up on a plantation and estates that made their money, and their inheritances, from slavery. The Caton girls were even given personal slaves who were supposed to be playmates who would grow into personal maids who could be trusted friends since they had grown up together – except, of course, that the slave playmates could be and were severely whipped for even minor offenses. Wake does note and detail that although the sisters lived in a household that supposedly distinguished household slaves from field slaves, supposedly because, as Wake notes, they were still slaves, and even if their status meant that their families would not be separated and sold off, they could still be whipped, lived in considerably lesser quarters, and were tied to the plantation. In a revealing aside that Wake does not explore, one of the white plantation Carrolls complains that the slaves can't be trusted not to drop expensive glass; I can't help but think that some of this breakage was not all that accidental. And in another revealing aside, Wake, who poured through extensive plantation documents, letters and account books, could not find out what happened to those personal slaves. They may have been "just like family," but they did not merit a recording of their deaths.

After a visit home, Marianne took one of these household slaves, a personal servant named Henny, back with her to England. Henny was not one of the original child slaves, but apparently became a friend of sorts; it's not clear if she was freed in United States, but once she reached England, she was free, and Marianne, who brought her to England, knew this quite well.

And yet, as Wake notes, none of the sisters mentioned slavery in their letters at all, even as the Civil War raged on. Marianne died before the start of the Civil War, but the other three lived through it or at least saw its beginnings, and one of them, Emily, still owned slaves. Many of them. They knew, but they stayed silent. And I can't help but wonder if the three older sisters stayed in England precisely because they knew – and did not want to face the truth on a daily basis. I don't know.

Equally fascinating is all of the gossipy stuff when the three sisters reached London and started to mingle with the elite. Parts of this book read exactly, and I do mean exactly, like a Regency novel, complete with trips to Almack's! the vouchers! the Duke of Wellington! Prinny! I had to check and see if Georgette Heyer had written the book, especially after every single one of the grand Patronesses of Almack's were name dropped. (Except that Heyer never really mentions slaves or indeed black people, apart from a couple of random black page boys in early books who were dropped from later books. And she rarely mentions Americans, although with her devotion to the Duke of Wellington, she must have known Marianne's story, at least. I am getting off topic again.)

Marianne arrived in London a married woman, so her flirtations had to be, shall we say, discreet. Nonetheless, the Duke of Wellington fell head over heels in love with her, which opened doors. (And then, after the death of her first husband, she married his brother.) The other two had a bit more freedom to flirt, thus allowing Louisa to marry one of Wellington's staff, an ADC who had lost his arm while fighting under Wellington and afterwards was at Wellington's side at Waterloo. (You can almost hear Georgette Heyer telling this story in a nice crisp British accent.) Louisa's first marriage, with her sister's connections, allowed her to marry the heir of the Duke of Leeds after the death of her first husband, eventually becoming the Duchess of Leeds. Bess enjoyed her freedom and the flirtations, deciding not to marry Lord Coke (another historical personage showing up in Heyer novels) and above all, playing in the stock market. Eventually she married a baron.

Which is another strength of this book: Wake details how these women continued to manage their own financial affairs and fortunes, often successfully (if, in Emily's case, by, er, putting a little pressure on her dying wealthy grandfather—just like something out of Jane Austen! [who is quoted in the book]), despite the belief that women in the 19th century did no such thing. (Unless they were the Brontes.) The sisters kept informed, and made careful, prudent and occasionally risky investments – often under assumed names, or under the name of a sister or a friend since, of course, married women lacked certain rights with these things. But Wake does an excellent job of showing just how the four sisters retained their independence, and how many of them became the financial support of their husbands. Which ends up explaining some of their marriages quite well, indeed.
The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, by Mary S. Lovell and and Wait for Me: Memoirs, by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire.

I can't resist big gossipy biographies about British aristocrats – an admitted weakness – and the bigger and more gossipier they are, the more irresistible they are. Thus, it was probably inevitable that I would pick up Deborah Mitford's Memoirs, and, after a moment, a volume covering the lives of her and her sisters, since between them the six Mitford sisters knew absolutely everybody. Not surprisingly, since one became an admired novelist, two diehard Nazis and intimates of Hitler, one a communist and American civil rights leader, and one a duchess and sister-in-law of one of the Kennedys. As their biographer notes, two of them were also among the very few people who could claim friendship with both Hitler and Winston Churchill; another had a torrid affair with Charles de Gaulle's second in command, a third was close friends with Maya Angelou, and so on. And on. And on. Even Scott Fitzgerald, Fred Astaire and Hillary Rodham Clinton sneak in here. It's like a roster of the 300 most influential people of the 20th century. (Lovell, clearly overwhelmed with the social schedule of three of the sisters, drops about 3/4 of the names, but the Duchess of Devonshire cheerfully includes every last one of them – I think it's about 800 people in total – perhaps feeling that even the dead would be hurt at getting left out. Frankly by page 400 I was reeling, and I freely admit that my eyes glazed over at the chatter about Charles and Diana's wedding because it was Just Too Much.)

Also, they inspired three Harry Potter characters: Narcissa Malfoy (loosely based on the third sister, Diana Mosley), Bellatrix Lestrange (less loosely based on the fourth sister, Unity Mitford), and Andromeda Tonks (loosely based on Decca Mitford.) This little tidbit is not in either book, and I'm not sure if anyone has informed Deborah Mitford that Helena Bonham Carter's performance was inspired by her sister's life. (The Bonham Carter family were acquainted with the Mitfords, although I don't know if Helena Bonham Carter ever met any of them. Quite possibly the Duchess of Devonshire since see above.)

As you might be guessing, the sisters were notorious. And as you might be guessing, both books turned out to be very problematic indeed, and not just because of the various royal weddings and presidential funerals and cheerful memories of Teddy Kennedy landing on the lawn.

Cut for length, Nazis, problematic dealings with racism, British novelists, and a lot else. )
....wow, March has turned out considerably busier than I planned. How is it that I can go through January and February with nothing to do, and then have a March like this? But anyway.

1. General reminder: I will be meandering around MegaCon this afternoon only, since various people had to cancel for tomorrow. I should be easy to spot - the blonde on the red scooter. Say hi.

2. In much sadder news, the brilliant fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones has just died. She was the sort of writer who demanded rereads to allow you to pick up all of the sly bits of humor that she slid in here and there. My hands down favorites of her novels were The Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin, which skewered travel agencies, sword and fantasy epics, and universities, but others recommend her more independent works, especially Fire and Hemlock, or the Howl's Moving Castle series.

More blogging forthcoming when I have a moment.
I indulge in yet another reread of a beloved childhood book, The Girl With the Silver Eyes, over at Tor.com.

The next posts may be a bit scrambled in order, I'm afraid, since some posts that I thought would be popping up next week won't be, but it should all get straightened out eventually.
So a couple of weeks ago I found myself in an email conversation about the Donner Party – I find myself in all kinds of conversations – and in the course of this, I realized that, outside of the cautionary tale told in some junior high class or other and ghost stories told at camp that claimed that if you spent the night in Donner Pass all of the ghosts of the cannibalized people would come out and EAT YOUR LIVER and your heart RIGHT THERE and then you'd be stuck in Donner Pass FOREVER until the next group of ignorant people came by to spend the night and you, or more specifically, your ghost, could eat them and yes YOU WOULD HAVE TO EAT HUMAN LIVERS DRIPPING WITH BLOOD. (Always shouted; thus my capital letters.) It was quite a story when combined with marshmallows.

(Writing it down now, as a writer of the occasional horror and ghost tale, I rather wonder why the story didn't go further –that the ghosts of the Donner Party were busy gobbling up the livers of wary travellers so that they could increase and increase their numbers until they had enough ghosts to sweep down from the California mountains and EAT US ALL. Actually, now that I've thought about it, let's add this to the ghost story.

I must also add that I have since then spoken to numerous people who have driven through Donner Pass and skied all over Lake Tahoe without seeing a single hint of a ghost, which is terribly disappointing.)

Ghost stories aside, however, my ignorance of the Donner Party was fairly profound, so I decided to change that and read through Ethan Rarick's Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West, which may be the most gruesomely compelling book I have read in some time.

Rarick doesn't address the ghost stories at all, but draws on the various and sometimes conflicting records of the survivors and their rescuers, as well as the few letters written by those that did not survive, additional information about the Mexican War, previous reports of naval cannibalism, and meteorological and statistical and psychological studies (the last to help answer the question of why, in the Donner Party, the women tended to survive when the younger able bodied men tended not to, except for the injured Lewis Keseberg, the last to leave the camp, his reputation as a cannibal permanently cemented.

What makes this particularly compelling, I think, is that the book and the reader both know that the Donner Party is mostly doomed: the question is how it ended up in this state. As Rarick shows, it began with a series of comparatively minor disasters that led to delays, and more delays, and then more delays, and then tension and fear, which led to abysmal decision making, which led to misunderstanding of weather patterns, which then led to death and eating one another. It has that compelling train wreck quality to it – although that's a poor metaphor; none of this would have happened if the Donner Party had been able to take a train to California.

Instead, what they took were wagons, pulled by very slow walking oxen. Rarick discusses this eventually disastrous decision (although, to be fair, hundreds of others chose oxen that year and survived the trip, mostly by not getting delayed by other things and by following directions) by noting the differences between oxen and the faster if less profitable at the end of the trip mules. Not only were their oxen slow, but they started a little late – not much, just a little – and they didn't have a chance to rest up for a couple of weeks before the trip, as other groups did. They spent more time burying one of their members, dealing with floods and mosquitoes, abandoning a beloved pony on the side of the road.

By the time they reached a literal folk in the road, a chance to choose between two paths, they were already exhausted and worried about running late. And so, they listened to people with excellent financial reasons to lie, unaware of the deception. If they had not been tired, if they had not known how time they needed to make up, they might not have tried the trail that led to the Great Salt Lake desert.

Rarick argues, fairly conclusively, that this choice, more than the weather, was what doomed so many of the Donner Party. The desert is difficult to cross even with modern vehicles; in oxen drawn wagons it's agonizing. The emigrants lost many of their animals and their possessions, and had to waste valuable time heading back to pull things out of the desert – and still ended up abandoning food. And once across, they could not go back.

This led to the next bad decision, to try to press on to California instead of wintering in the valley of what is now Reno. It wasn't, they argued, that late in the year yet; they would have to slaughter all of their animals if they wintered in what is now Reno; they would be safer wintering in California. And so they pressed on, only to find the snow falling and falling.

Even then, as Rarick notes, had they turned back about 35 miles or so, back to now-Reno, they might well have wintered more or less comfortably. Instead, deciding that they could not turn back, and realizing that most of the group could not continue immediately, they built makeshift cabins in the falling snow. (The Donner families, lingering a few miles behind, barely even had the makeshift cabins.) The snow fell, and fell, covering their animals.

And things got worse.

I couldn't put the book down in the next chapters, as again and again various groups and individuals tried to break away to find help, food, rescue, as they tried to eat boiled ox skins and slowly turned to the horror of eating their dead companions, to the point of murdering two of them (the Native Americans) for that purpose. (This is particularly awful since the two Native Americans had actually arrived to help rescue the party, and although some Native Americans stole some of the Donner group's animals, other Native Americans helped feed and succor the group along the way and were instrumental in saving some of them. The relationships between whites and Native Americans, at least in this book, were not particularly cut and dried.)

Rarick also takes a moment to discuss how the Donner Party story has been told and retold, as a tale of inspiration and heroism, as a cautionary tale, as a tale of laziness and poor choices (this last often for financial reasons by people desperate to get people to head out to California and convince prospective emigrants that really, the trip wasn't that bad and no, most people heading to California did not end up getting eaten.)

But it's not in the end the cannibalism that leaves the greatest impression, but rather the other tragic details: the death of the boy who, offered food again, could not understand that a starving body must eat only limited amounts at first, and killed himself through overeating; the image of a woman who, probably disoriented from her ordeal and near starvation, sent her children off in the care of strangers while she returned to sit by her dying husband, a decision that cost her life, and more. It is grim, it is gripping, and I can't exactly recommend it to anyone, but if you are mesmerized by tales of utter disaster, this is absolutely the book for you.
Happy Dancing Day!

One of my favorite books is a long time forgotten work by Jenny Overton called The Thirteen Days of Christmas, which details, merrily enough, what might have happened had some wealthy man in some English historical past decided to prove that he was truly the romantic sort by, well, giving the gifts of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." (The conceit of the book: his actions inspired the song.) I love the book because it is silly and fun and filled with irritated geese, hens, swans and far, far too much milk. But I also love it because not so incidentally the author takes care to describe some of the traditions of the other days of Christmas, those running merrily from Christmas to Epiphany.

As she notes, not all of these customs were celebrated everywhere and not always on the day she noted. And some she simply made up for the convenience of this particular tale. Including, I am fairly certain, Dancing Day – I know a couple of old Christmas carols reference a dancing day, or say "tomorrow will be my dancing day" and so on, but given that this day in the book just happens to appear, suspiciously and conveniently enough, on the ninth day when the nine ladies dancing show up, I sense a bit of authorial intervention and creativity here.

On the other hand, some churches still celebrate John the Evangelist's Day (December 27th) by blessing the Gospels; the BBC informs us that some people are still observing Holy Innocents Day in a very white and powdery manner, and so on. (Confusingly enough, Holy Innocents is put in the liturgical calendar before Epiphany; I always felt it should be the other way around.) And in the main, she is right: the truly old fashioned Christmases were once twelve (or thirteen) full days of celebration from Christmas to Epiphany. Of course, these days, in the U.S., at least, we seem to start with the Christmas holidaying on Thanksgiving and continue right up through New Year's, if we are counting holiday parties, decorations, food, pleas to shop more, and so on. (Overton fails to mention any tradition of people leaping from their houses to find shopping bargains on the 26th; she has a snowball fight for St. Stephen's Day instead.)

Each year, I keep meaning to blog the various days, based on the book, and each year, I either haven't had the book readily available or I've just forgotten. So, this is kinda like your quasi blog of the celebrations. Mostly, I just like the idea of extending winter celebrations just a little longer, to start the New Year off with not just one (or, on a weekend like this, two) recovery days from New Year's celebrations, but with a few more festivities to start the year on a brighter light. So, Happy Dancing Day to all! Even if the celebration is entirely made up. Those of you quite celebrated out (including the cats, who were distressed to realize that many of our neighbors had leftover fireworks that they merrily shot off last night) feel free to consume chocolate from the sidelines.
So in the unquestionably awesome news of the week, Winter Garden finally, but finally, has a used bookstore: Here Be Dragons. It's not that the Orlando area doesn't have used bookstores - it does - but until now, they haven't been in easy reach. And this store is: within both trike and scooter distance, conveniently across the street from a non-profit coffee enterprise place and that French bakery I have dragged so many of you to and need to drag more of you to, because, let's face it: cookie addictions should be shared. As should eclair addictions and tart addictions and pie addictions and so on. Also, this is the proper sort of used bookstore, with nice heavy squishy chairs, extra space in the back, and, well, little dragons everywhere. (For those of you who remember the late and lamented Archives in Fort Lauderdale, it has a similar sort of feel, although with fewer weird antiques so far.) The owner and I spent some time chatting, and I sense more good books to come.

Just walking into a bookstore of any kind generally gives me a warm, cuddly feeling - after all, I'm surrounded by my comfort food: books. (Libraries can give me the same feeling, but alas our local library branch has turned more to computers and DVDs and CDs and computer and language classes and the occasional yoga class and such, which is all quite within its serve the public framework, but doesn't quite give me the same books, books, books feeling.) And used bookstores give me the chance to find something half forgotten, half lost, almost gone. I can get lost in them for hours. So, if I vanish from time to time...well, this might be one explanation.
I've had an odd yen for Georgette Heyer's mystery novels lately.

Georgette Heyer is not well known as a mystery writer, for good reason. She wrote about 12 mysteries (15 if The Quiet Gentleman, The Talisman Ring and The Reluctant Widow, more usually classified under her Regency romances, are included.) Of these, only three are any good as pure mysteries: A Blunt Instrument, Death in the Stocks and Envious Casca. (And possibly – this is debatable - Behold, Here's Poison.) The others are either deeply unpleasant (Penhallow, which I'm not rereading on this reread, because it makes for itchy, rather depressing reading, even leaving aside the homophobia), highly unfair (in the sense of not revealing critical clues until the last few pages), filled with ludicrous motives (particularly in They Found Him Dead) or otherwise flawed. And even in the novels with unfair clues and ludicrous motives, the murderer is far too easy to identify; the real question, which Heyer never answers, is "Huh?"

(In one novel, for instance, we are expected to believe that a husband would not recognize that his ex wife has been living in the area – and coming to have dinner with him every few works and joining him in other social events – for years. Heyer attempts to explain this away by a feeble, well, they were separated for about twenty years, and, yes, the husband is the self-centered sort, but, well.)

Most of the novels follow similar formats (even the somewhat innovative Penhallow): an unpleasant patriarch hated by everyone; a weak, fluffy, ineffectual wife, or a wife who has decidedly married above herself; an attractive young woman who is never, ever the real suspect and her romantic hero, who is occasionally suspected by police but of course never did it (this is not a spoiler); and various Entertaining Suspects, who provide witty dialogue and most of the jokes. The servants are generally stupid, unhelpful and untrustworthy. (This is true in Agatha Christie as well; it seems to reflect typical upper class attitudes of the time.) The snobbery can be breathtaking, even for aristocratic-adoring Heyer, although Heyer also has a wonderful scene where she describes the way a social climbing woman will be greasing her way up the social ladder, by providing a large check to a hospital patronized by a semi-noble patron; the patron will in turn invite the social climbing woman's daughter to all the best parties so she can meet the right kind of man.

Heyer generally treats murder as some sort of game; the victim (or victims) are rarely mourned, and in a couple of novels the characters reflect that it's all really wonderful that this happened because now they all have something to do, which may be the most unintentionally nasty criticism of upper middle and upper class British society ever. Even the more kindly patriarchs (most of the time, the patriarchs are the first victims – providing an easy financial motive) are rarely mourned. Everyone gets merrily into the detection game, happily guessing away at who might have done the crime and how. Only a few novels show any lingering stress from murder (Penhallow, Envious Casca, and, debatedly, The Unfinished Clue); most of the time the murder is regarded as a rather good thing for everybody, really. And that's a problem: if Heyer isn't taking the murder particularly seriously, why should her readers care, either? And Heyer seems to have no concept, like her contemporaries, that murder is an evil act, and that murderers can strike again; one reason to read an Agatha Christie intently is to see if Poirot or Marple will be able to stop the body count from climbing. In a Heyer novel – even one with multiple victims – the distinct sense is that once the murderer gets the money, that'll be it.

I suspect another problem is that Heyer was temperamentally unable to conceive of a motive for murder other than money or sudden rage; it never seems to occur to her, for instance (as it does to Christie and Sayers) that love and revenge are equally good, if not better motives. This is perhaps because, unlike Christie and Sayers, and for all of Heyer's reputation as a romance novelist, Heyer rarely seems to understand passion. Love, yes, infatuation, yes, but fierce passion for anything other than putting on a play or finishing a painting, no, and even then, not really. (This is true in her romances as well, and is one reason they feature little sex and should not be shelved in the romance section of U.S. bookstores, but I'll rant about that if I get around to chatting about her romance novels.) With limited motives, picking the murderer tends to become much easier.

So, now that I've ripped most of these novels apart, why do I continue to read them? Because, for all their flaws, they are (except Penhallow) highly entertaining, laugh out loud books with brilliant, snappy dialogue. If you ignore that everyone is speaking merrily about murder – and Heyer frequently does – these are marvelous comedies of manners, set in a world where the deserving get nice hot chocolate in bed and (usually) marvelous meals cooked for them by the less deserving. (I may have mentioned the snobbery, although it tends to be – this is difficult to explain – a sort of comforting sort of snobbery. It's always fun to imagine being one of those aristocrats, even while knowing that chances are excellent that you actually would have been one of the working servant class.) Everything (except in Penhallow) is wrapped up merrily and nicely, with delightful romantic banter. It's fun, and I have to admit to enjoying that sort of thing.
I'm about to start my annual (at least) reread of The Count of Monte Cristo.

Now, I reread a lot – often to the point of memorization, to where my mind is just reviewing words I already know, taking comfort in their familiarity. Oddly enough, very few scenes in the Count of Monte Cristo have ever reached that memorization point (the scene where Abbe Faria reveals the truth to Edmond Dantes, the overly dramatic scene where Mercedes begs the count for her son's life, the astonishing scene where the Count has everyone over for dinner and a chat about a dead baby in a garden, the scene where Eugenie Danglars finally decides that she's absolutely had it with France and men, and possibly a few others) possibly because I've read a few different translations, so it's not precisely the same reading experience each time. Or possibly something else.

But anyway.

Why a book about some generally despicable social climbers in post Napoleonic France has this sort of fascination for me is perhaps a bit harder to explain. The Count of Monte Cristo is, of course, a kind of ultimate revenge fantasy: not only does Dantes become far, far wealthier and more successful than his rivals, but also he gets to watch them suffer – destroyed by their own hubris. It's the great satisfaction of watching people actually get the bad karma they've earned. And, once past the improbably staggering wealth and the equally improbable situation that nearly all of Dantes' enemies just happened to end up in prominent, shakily wealthy positions in Paris years later (this makes some sense with the ambitious Danglars and the well-connected Villefort, but I must admit that the rise of the fisherman Fernand Mondego to the nobility is a little….how shall I say this? Fishy?

(Er. Forgive me.)

Although at that, Mondego does serve to illustrate one point of the novel: this is a picture of a society under great tension and flux, with a desperate ancien regime still trying to restore and cling to its wealth and power against those that used the Revolution, Napoleon and the aftermath to flourish. It's an age still working with the newness of rapid communications – manipulating telegraph messages becomes a major plot point, and I sense that Dantes could have had a successful career today as a hedge fund manager. (Maybe we could hire him and sic him on Wall Street executives. Now THERE'S an important revenge. But I digress.) For a revenge book, the novel is remarkably filled with sharp observations and critiques of social situations.

But then again, this is the novel with everything: pirates, Mob guys, duels, lesbians, revenge, a few pairs of young lovers, courtroom dramas, infanticides, runaway horses, stock manipulations, murder, adultery, wildly improbable wealth and delightfully chilled eels. If for some reason, you haven't yet read it, you must, with the caveat that the full version does contain an odd and rather lengthy scene smack dab between the Chateau d'If bits and the Italian mob bits, but once the narrative joins the mob, it never lets go. I love this book.

Excuse me while I go get lost in it again.

Courtesans!

Sep. 7th, 2010 09:29 pm
My Lady Scandalous: the Amazing Life and Outrageous Times of Grace Dalrymple Eliot, by Jo Manning.

Grace Dalrymple (1754?-1823) married young, to John Elliott, a doctor many years her senior. The marriage was a disaster; Eliot produced quite convincing and extensive evidence that his wife had cheated on him (and he himself seems to have not been a particularly faithful sort; his will lists several illegitimate children), and received a very public and flamboyant divorce through Parliament – the only way to get a divorce in those good old 18th century days. (Lesser, poorer families simply separated, with less legal justification; divorce was expensive.)

Left to her own devices, Grace Elliott became, in one of the delightful terms of the time, a Bird of Paradise – trading in her beauty and sexual favors for money, housing and some quite luxurious extras. The word prostitute was never quite used, but she could certainly be termed – as her biographer does – a courtesan, taking some high class lovers indeed. (Although Jo Manning doesn't mention it, I have a sense that the story of Grace Elliott's liaison with Lord Cholmondeley, especially his family connection with Horace Walpole, may have formed part of the inspiration for Georgette Heyer's The Convenient Marriage.) And so, she might have passed into a footnote of history, only studied by social historians interested in the history of marriage and divorce, except for one small note: one of her lovers was Philippe, Duc de Orleans, also known as Egalite, one of the central figures of the French Revolution.

Grace Elliott spent the French Revolution in Belgium and France, occasionally passing messages back and forth between English politicians and French noblemen (despite her unconventional status, she knew Marie Antoinette personally), hiding the occasional French refugee, and spending, by her account, months in a revolutionary jail, awaiting execution, saved at the last minute, like the future Empress Josephine only by the death of Robespierre and the end of the Terror. She later wrote a dramatic memoir of the Revolution, the accuracy of which has been severely disputed.

Outside of this memoir, however, very little is known of her life, other than what can be gleaned from the scandal sheets of the day – which is sort of equivalent to attempting to create a serious, thorough and unbiased biography about Angelina Jolie from the pages of US Weekly, except, harder. Unknown things include: when Grace Elliott was born (she had a tendency to lie about her age), how many children she had, who fathered her children, who she actually slept with, what her eye color was, how many siblings she had, what she was doing at multiple times, and so on. Her letters have mostly vanished; her few descendants – a daughter and a granddaughter who was by all appearances a pillar of Victorian respectability - were not exactly eager to preserve mementoes of the family disgrace.

Jo Manning is not attempting to write a serious scholarly biography here: she admits that she was inspired to investigate Grace Elliott's life after seeing a movie about her, and the lavishly illustrated, frequently chatty book is aimed at a general, not scholarly audience. And even there, the book more than occasionally slips up.

Given the sketchiness of the available information, even the most scholarly biographer would be compelled to fill in the gaps with information about "the times." This Jo Manning does here with a vengeance, giving us highly opinionated tidbits about such things as Hamlet ("the pig"), the various other people in Grace Elliott's life, condoms, Horace Walpole, balloons, Camilla Parker-Bowles, Prince Harry and Prince William, portraits, divorce laws, pornographic art and so on. Most of this is wildly entertaining if (especially the parts about Prince Harry and Prince William) wildly off topic and occasionally (especially the parts about Prince Harry and Hamlet) mildly libelous. Manning also frequently and cheerfully quotes extensively from various fictional sources, most notably 20th century historical novels, but sometimes Dickens, to, as she explains, give the atmosphere, which is all nice, if it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in her research.

Errors abound. At one point, Russell blithely tells us that younger sons of Earls are termed Honorables, not Lords, a particularly strange error given that she correctly titles, on that same page, a younger son of an Earl as Lord. The Duchess of Devonshire was a Georgiana Spencer, not a Diana Spencer; the two earlier Diana Spencers were Lady Diana Spencer Russell, Duchess of Portland (not Devonshire), not mentioned in this book, and the considerably more notorious Lady Diana Spencer, later Lady Diana Beauclerk, an artist and illustrator better known for her own scandalous divorce. Marie Antoinette was almost certainly suffering from tuberculosis and probable untreated uterine cancer, not menstruation, when she made her way to the guillotine. And so on.

The narrative falls apart right after discussing Grace Elliott's divorce, meandering here and there and everywhere, never telling us (and perhaps trying to conceal ignorance of) the timeline of just what happened after that traumatic event. A couple of the illustrations are just baffling – what, for instance, is a nice Holbein painting of some unknown Tudor lady doing in this book? Is it meant to illustrate the extent of someone's art collection? Or just thrown in to fill up space?

And the biography inexplicably spends comparatively little time on the one well documented (and most interesting) period of Grace Elliott's life: her participation in the French Revolution. This was the bit that the 2001 film L'Anglaise et le Duc (which [profile] coldecho and I found moderately boring) chose to focus on, and rightly: however coloured her memoirs, this was the center event of Elliott's life and that of many others, and an examination of her memoirs, and the political motivations behind them (Elliott did not pretend to be penning an unbiased account, and frankly stated that she was attempting to defend various figures of the Revolution, particularly the Duc d'Orleans/Egalite, while letting people know that Lafayette, whatever Americans might think of him, royally sucked) could have been fascinating.

As it is, this is an amusing, light read; I just wish someone had fact checked it, reconsidered some of the illustrations, and asked the biographer to do a bit more research on Elliott's tales of the French Revolution.

(Elliott's own memoirs are available here for free. Warning: much of it is probably not true, but it's a fairly fast read.
I waited until after Flashforward the show was over before picking up the novel – I didn’t want to get spoiled for either the novel or the show. And then I waited a bit more, since apparently half of Orange County had the same idea, and getting a library copy into my little hands took a bit more time.

It will probably surprise no one to hear that the book is considerably better than the television show, and in retrospect, I should have just watched the first episode, and turned to the book.

Mild spoilers for the book and television show. )
They gleamed at me, the titles, teasing, mocking, from the end papers of the Oz books I could check out from the library. Missing books that our library didn't have, that the bookstore said were out of print. Ebay and Amazon weren't even gleams in anyone's eye back then, and used bookstores – well, they had many things, but not the titles I was looking for.

Still, I told myself. Someday. Someday I would read every single one of the Famous Forty Oz books.

In order.

It took some time...considerably longer than I could have anticipated...but I finally did it.

The last of the Oz posts, Merry Go Round of Oz, up now.

That was quite a trip. Thanks to everyone who joined me on it.
Mother who refused to return the Gossip Girl books back to the library suddenly does; library refuses to waive/forgive fines.

Supposedly, the mother's turnaround happened because she feels she did her part to focus attention on the Gossip Girl books (no mention if the author is cutting the woman a check) and not because she came to the belated realization that engaging in public theft from an underfunded library might just be a worse moral example to her kids than anything in a Gossip Girl book.
Local mother refuses to return Gossip Girl books to the library to prevent minors from reading them.

No. No. No.

On the bright side, though, this should encourage plenty of young teenagers to read the Gossip Girl books.

Well. At least they'll be reading.
Helpfully label them as "mature content" and put them on a special shelf so that everyone knows exactly what they are.

Once again, I haven't read either of the two books objected to here (The Bermuda Triangle and one of the Gossip Girl books) although they both sound like exactly the sort of book that I would have been delighted to search for and check out and read at an inappropriate age if someone had been kind enough to point them out to me, as here.
Usually, when I finish a book, I know whether or not I liked it. I may not have made my final judgement on it – for some books that takes another couple of readings – but at least I know that much.

Not so with Skin Hunger, by Kathleen Duey.

Skin Hunger (2007) appears to be Duey's artistic response to the Harry Potter and assorted "wizard school/learning magic" novels, where the young wizards are trained in the wonders and dangers of magic. In those schools, magic has its dangers – think of Ged confronting his shadow and lying, broken, for days, or Harry et.al. finding a troll in a bathroom in their first year (not to mention later events) but also its wonders: the glowing illusions, the transformations, the occasional flying. And above all, the sense that the wizardly teachers are, for the most part, concerned for the welfare and success of their students – even those authority-flaunting ones like Harry.

In Skin Hunger, the young wizards in training are systematically tortured, starved, encouraged to betray each other, and subject to various psychological horrors – told, for instance, that their parents brought them to the school fully knowing that most would die, and that they would never see their children again. (This does not go over well.)

This part of the book is terribly, deadly convincing. (The other half of the book, about a young girl joining two wizards who are undergoing similar issues and obsessions, is less convincing for any number of reasons.) It makes a vicious sort of sense that magic should be painful and dangerous to learn; if power corrupts (a frequent theme in contemporary fantasy) it makes sense that these powerful, inherently corrupted wizards would, indeed, use pain and torture as part of the training process. And although I did find myself thinking that the young wizards might be learning faster if they were not so obviously suffering from severe calorie restriction and dehydration – Hogwarts' system of abundant food does have something to recommend it – these weakened students, focused on thoughts of food, are in no position to rebel against their well fed, fully alert teachers, or, for that matter, invade magical bureaucracies and wantonly destroy perfectly decent furniture, statues and fountains. Ahem. And I expect I'll be picking up the sequels, if only to see where Duey is going with all this.

But somehow, I still find myself wanting that wonder, that power, that – that magic – in my wizard stories. That, for the lack of a better word, joy. A story where magic has no wonder, no - magic - seems to me, in some ways, to be missing the entire point. Why escape – or create – a fantasy world that lacks that wonder?

Note: the presence of "wonder" does not necessarily exclude darkness and grimness – indeed, my favorite fantasy works tie and bind them together, though it's a very tricky thing to do.

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