Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Morville Hours, by Katherine Swift

This is another one, like Mr. Rosenblum’s List, that’s on my local library’s sort-of-book-club list. Unlike Mr. Rosenblum’s List, I had heard of The Morville Hours before.  It had always sort of intrigued me, but other things always had my attention. Plus, I’m not really a gardener, so it never seemed like the kind of book that I just had to read right now.

But I am a medieval connections afficianado, and when it’s on a book club list, you’ve got to at least give it a try. And I liked it – not that I thought I wouldn’t. But I did find it a bit soporific – I could read a full section at a time, but that was about my limit, and after finishing it this morning I slept for two hours.

I’m not completely blaming my narcolepsy on the  book – I’ve been very mentally and physically busy in the last while, and it’s been hot (highs around 90F, lest any of my US readers think I’m exaggerating), and I’m on a sort of down time until my job starts. But reading a book that is so imbued with the rotation of the hours, months, and years added to my sense of placidity.

The book combines descriptions and history of the medieval “book of hours” – a prayer book detailing the prayers and readings for the times of day (Matins, Vespers, etc.) – with the liturgical year, the agricultural year, the building of a massive garden (really a series of gardens) in a stately home over twenty years, and some of her own personal and family history. It’s organised around the canonical hours, and each of the chapters fits the emotional theme of the part of the day –  Matins is about beginnings, childhood, newness, planning, and Christmas and early winter, for example.

In addition to giving the history of the garden, and herself somewhat, and the liturgical calendar, Swift gives us the history of the house and the area. The area has been settled since Celtic times, with a fortification from the Saxons and a castle and stately home since the Normans. It was important in the Civil War, saw the transition from farming to mills and factories to industrialised unemployment. The house itself shifted from family to family over the centuries, as these things often do, and those families are also touched on in some of the chapters.

It also, as it’s a book about a garden, has descriptions and histories of some of the plants. I have to admit, I’m not very good at botany. I always wish I were better at it, but I’m really not good. I’m an inside person primarily, who looks at flowers and plants and goes “how pretty!” but usually doesn’t know or remember the names (either common names or Latin names) beyond “tulip” or “rose” – and only those if they are blooming. That said, Katherine Swift’s descriptions helped me see the plants, even if I didn’t have a good cultural memory of what she was describing. She’s a very evocative writer; I found myself living in a Shropshire village through the seasons even though I’ve never been to Shropshire in any sort of weather.

It’s a good book; I don’t think I’d read it again except as a reference for some of the liturgical and monastic references, but I’m glad I’ve read it once. It flows very well, moving seamlessly between the garden and the history and the personal anecdotes. Especially if you like gardens, it’s one you should pick up.

 

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Ladies of Liberty, by Cokie Roberts

We hear a lot in the US about the Founding Fathers – the Revolutionary War heroes who wrote/signed the Declaration and the Constitution, who dedicated their lives to the country and shaped the nation we have today. We hear less about the Founding Mothers – the women who subsumed their relationships and sometimes their own preferences into the politics and struggles of the new country.  Oh, sure, we know a bit about Abigail Adams, maintaining a Massachusetts farm while her husband was creating a country, and Dolley Madison, who saved the portrait of George Washington during the War of 1812, and sometimes there might be a collection of biographical sketches of First Ladies – but there’s not even close to the depth of research given to the Presidents and other major male figures.

Cokie Roberts is trying to redress the balance with this book. It’s extensively researched and documented (as far as I can tell) without ever being dry and dusty (for more than a few sentences at least). Overall, she does an excellent job of bringing the women to life.

And it’s about more than just the First Ladies/White House hostesses. Obviously they make up a bulk of the book, being the female focal points of their respective administrations, and they are covered in detail during – and sometimes before and after – the relevant administrations (except for Elizabeth Monroe, who seemed to have been private and sick most of the time), but the book also covers the Ursuline nuns of New Orleans, the free black women societies who made huge strides in educational access, Theodosia Burr, and other wives, socialites, reformers, and writers of the first six administrations.

Structurally, it’s fairly straightforwardly chronological, with one chapter for each presidential term from John Adams until the election of John Quincy Adams. The women thread into and out of the book much as they would have in the national consciousness of the time – which can seem a bit chaotic but does give a sense of the real-time history. There were quite a few personalities that probably deserve their own biographies – and not just the obvious candidates like Abigail Adams, Louisa Adams, and Dolley Madison.

There were some timing coincidences for me during my reading. I’d just finished reading abut the War of 1812 in the book when one of my favourite podcast series had an episode about the Bombardment of Baltimore, and BBC History podcast had an episode about the War of 1812. And reading about Theodosia Burr made me want to reread Burr – and then I heard that Gore Vidal had died.

(I also wanted to reread The President’s Lady when Rachel Jackson came up, but she never played a big role in society and the book ends at John Quincy Adams’s election.)

This book definitely gave me a new/different perspective on key, well-known figures. I think of Thomas Jefferson, for example, as a man of refinement and education, so to see him derided as a sort of hick with no manners was a bit startling. (Not Cokie Roberts’s derision, I should point out, but public opinion at the time.) I also lost a bit of respect for Abigail Adams for her vehement support of the Alien and Sedition Act, the PATRIOT Act of its day, if not worse. I also found Louisa Adams incredibly fascinating and contradictory, and want to read more about her  (when I’m next in an early-America mood).

It’s not a book for American history beginners, and it was easy to put down – but it was also easy to come back to, and I definitely learned a lot.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)

Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine

Mockingbird is probably most compared to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, if for no other reason that it features a child protagonist with Asperger’s. It’s a valid comparison: both books do an excellent job of portraying the inner thoughts of a person on the spectrum struggling to make sense of an emotionally charged situation. (At least, I assume they do. I’m further on the neurotypical side than the characters, so I can’t say exactly how accurate it is. Although I do have my moments……)

In Mockingbird, the main character’s teenage brother has died, and her single father has to deal with both the circumstances of his son’s death and his daughter’s reactions. Caitlin is faced with all sorts of uncomfortable-for-her situations, including group projects at school and the community’s grief that she can’t fully comprehend.

I have to say, though, it was heartening to see how much support Caitlin was getting at school. She had daily sessions with a counselor who did an excellent job explaining social conventions and other people’s reactions. Most of the teachers presented in the book seem to have at least some understanding of how to deal with her, and how far they can push her limits. The P.E. teacher is horrible, but some of Caitlin’s classmates step up and genuinely help. On balance, it’s a good school situation for Caitlin to be in.

And she definitely makes social progress through the book. She makes some friends by the end, as well as helping her father (and the community) work through their grief. She even helps the school bully deal with some of his issues, in a way.

It’s a fantastic book – I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who deals with Asperger’s kids or even with tragedy victims.

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Mr. Rosenblum’s List, by Natasha Solomons

My local library is doing a sort of book club. There’s no schedule, no meetings – just a list of books and an end date. You can read whichever of the books you want, at your own pace, and write a tiny review on the enclosed paper. And at the end of a certain time, the library will collect and collate all the reviews and there will be a voluntary discussion session.

This was the first book on the list so I gave it a try. It tells the story of a German refugee couple in the mid-20th century. Jack, the husband, wants desperately to belong in England and uses a list of instructions given to refugees as his guide, adding to it as he discovers more “typically English” things. Sadie, his wife, wants desperately not to forget their life and family in Germany. As you can imagine, this causes problems. Jack runs into problems fulfilling the list’s edicts – anti-Semitism is subtle but rife in post-war Britain, so he can’t become a member of a golf club, for instance. Sadie, on the other hand, sees her husband’s attempts to belong in Britain as a betrayal of their life “before” and an abandonment of their religion, heritage, and family. Jack is nothing if not persistent, though, and moves to Dorset in order to build his own golf course so that he can become a “real” Englishman.

The main thing that I took away from this book – apart from anger at the attacks and vandalism that come with casual racism, and anger at Jack when he ignores or dismisses Sadie – is a deeper though about “how to belong”. I think everyone can agree that simply following a set of rules isn’t enough to make you “belong” – especially when the rules are slightly different for different social groups. There isn’t one overarching set of rules to say “this is an Englishman” or “this is an American” or “this is a German.” The rules are different for Dorset and London, for upper-class and middle-class and working-class, for impoverished gentry and emigrants, for farm laborers and factory workers.

But the most important thing about “belonging” is not what rules to follow, but when to make up your own rules and when to go beyond the rules. Any group is made up of individuals, often similar but never identical. Jack does a lot better at his quest to belong when he stops trying so hard to get all the details right and just acts normally (for him). Sadie finds her “belonging” by doing what she does best (baking and cooking) but also because she never pretends to be something she’s not.

The other thing that helps with “belonging” is when you yourself are inclusive. Jack never turns anyone away, and makes an effort with everyone he meets to bring them into his project and his life. Sir William, on the other hand, makes an effort to exclude and is, in the end, excluded himself. Exclusion can limit belonging – Jack excludes Sadie who in turn excludes him: it’s not until they both make an effort to include the other in their lives that they come together again.

I would recommend this book – I gave it four stars on the library review sheet. It’s not a must-read, a “why haven’t you read this yet” or anything, but it’s nice, and well-crafted, and well-written. If you happen to pick it up, you won’t be sorry.

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