Tuesday 25 February 2014

"My Dear Cassandra" Jane Austen, Letters to her sister

 My Dear Cassandra by Jane Austen , Letters to her sister, edited by Penelope Hughes-Hallett.  This book came to my attention because of Geranium Cat's post back in December, here. As soon as I read up on the book and saw that it included illustrations, paintings, little facts about the time in which Austen lived, I was hooked.  I had to have this book.  And I am happy to report that it doesn't disappoint.

On the contrary, the letters that Penelope Hughes-Hallett selected show off Jane's wit,  her kindness, her love for her family, her joy in simple things.  The book starts slowly as Jane only started writing letters when her sister Cassandra left the family home when Jane was 20.  Cassandra was the elder, and went to live with various people over the course of her life, seldom returning home except for visits.  In 1796, then, is Jane's first letter to her sister.  She was 20 years old.  The letters then follow Jane from Steventon Rectory, to Bath, to Portsmouth, to the final years back near Chawton where her elder brother had his family home.  We see Jane mature through her own eyes, in the lightness of the first letters, then the seriousness as her father's ill health and death changes her family circumstances, to the eventual home they find in Chawton, back in the countryside she loved.  The novels she was writing make little appearances, in comments she makes, or dialogues between letters about the progress of such.  Her family were very involved in her writing, supporting her, and participating when she read them allowed to her family as they progressed.

Interspersed are paintings from artists and sketches of the day, that show the areas in which Jane lived, clothing, transportation, social expectations, food.  It is a delightful way of recreating the world in which Jane lived, and a glimpse of how she as a writer took what was around her and created her books from.

I came to feel as if I had a glimpse of Jane herself - just a tiny glimpse, a trace of her, in her letters.  When  I would take a break from reading it, so I could savour what I was learning in the periods of letters about her relationships with the people around her, I felt - civilized.  There is so much gentleness in these letters. She could be very cutting, and if she had been a different kind of person, very cruel, but she wasn't.  Jane Austen was - or chose to be - overall, kind.  There is a gentleness to this book that made me realize that it is a tone that is lost for the most part in our world today.  Jane doesn't gloss over death, or sadness, nor does she dwell on it.  Most of her letters were like conversations she was continuing with people she had just spent time with, or that were from letters she had just received.  It would seem all one-sided if not for the fact that Jane doesn't dwell on herself,either.  She is interested in the world around her, in the life and running of her home, in how her relatives are doing, and in her writing, her novels. We get to see how she made fun of many things, turning what could be serious or pedantic thoughts, to wit and humour, to make her point.  She enjoyed outings, but began to find social gatherings tiring as she got older.  She offers advise to her nieces on marriage, and likes to go shopping for cloth for dresses.  She takes lots of walks when she can, which in those days was the main form of exercise for women. 

There are a few letters from other people at the end, when Jane dies.  I didn't think I was so deeply involved in the letters and following them, and seeing the glimpse of Jane in them, until I read Cassandra's letter to her niece Fanny Knight, telling her of the day Jane died.  I ended up crying at my kitchen table, in the middle of the afternoon, feeling the loss of Jane Austen from 200 years ago. 

These letters give a poignant glimpse of her and her family. This book is like a window opening into Jane and the world in which she lived, and it is a treasure.  I loved this book and I highly recommend it.  A must read for Jane fans, definitely.  

Emily of New Moon trilogy book covers and book cover art

      Ana at Things Mean Alot book blog has a fantastic post up today about the Emily of New Moon trilogy by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery: Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily's Quest.  Ana gives a in-depth review of the three books that I want to share with you all because Ana shows just why these books were ahead of their time, in how Emily is portrayed, and the choices she makes.  When I read the books as a child - they are among my favourite books growing up - I loved them because Emily stays with her dream of writing.  Ana shows how this still makes the books strong reading for girls today, almost 100 years later. The cultural values versus art and the freedom to choose one's destiny, a powerful message even today.  Maybe always, for women, and for artists and creative endeavors.  Her post also shows why some day I expect to see all her posts collected in a book  - and which I will buy, to go back over and reread and learn something every time.  

What hit home to me too, other than Ana's powerful, thoughtful review  were the covers of the new Vintage editions of the books on her post.  They are delightful.  I wouldn't mind getting a copy of these to have on my shelf.  But as I was looking at them, I very much wanted to show to Ana the editions of the books that I read when I was a girl, growing up.  These covers made such a strong imprint on me that to me, they are the covers of Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily's Quest.  So, here they are:


 I'm sorry for the covers, they are the best I can find online.   I do not have copies now to take pictures myself for you.  Looks like I will be buying some now, these have evoked such a strong memory in me today.
What I wanted to say was how powerful the memory is with these covers associated with these books for me.  I read these books when I was young, about 12 and 13 years old.  I loved them fiercely, and Emily was  a role model for me in my own struggles to believe in myself as a writer and to not give up. Her struggles were my struggles, though ironically Emily Starr had much for belief in herself which I am only now recovering for myself.

 In today's world, with kobo and e-readers, I wonder how much we will remember of books we read online, in 10 or 20 years' time because of the lack of presence of the book, including especially the cover.  For me, a book is associated with smell, texture, colour, the cover, the art on the cover,  the pages, the feel of the pages, the print size - everything that goes into making that book, touches all five of my senses.  It is a real physical experience for me to read.

 I have a kindle e-reader finally installed on my computer, and have 4 books on it now to read,  that aren't available in any other form.  I am learning how to read on my e-reader, though I have to remember that I have books on my computer, which I still don't often do.   I do have to say though, that I think I am realizing because of the e reader that I need that physical presence of the book, the feel of it, the weight of it, in my hands, to make it become a part of me.

 I really want to talk about book covers, and book art, and how much they matter in how a book impacts on us as readers.  I have to admit here that a book cover does affect if I will buy a book or not.  I have bought books in spite of the cover, because I desperately wanted to read them, but an element of pleasure is missing because I don't enjoy the cover.  I am always relieved when I can find the book in a cover I like and can replace the ugly one!  It might be me, but that's how I am with books.  There is an intense pleasure I have with them, and these striking 1970's art covers from McLelland and Stewart are covers that are indelibly imprinted on my mind.  They and Emily go together for me.

So the cover, the art on the front cover, is a part of the book experience.  I wonder what the changes in the covers mean over the years?  Just googling Emily of New Moon book covers was eye-opening.  There have been so many different editions of the Emily books, and each cover reveals something of what the publisher thought would appeal to readers of that day.  It is quite eye-opening to see the changes.  One day I might do a post about the cultural changes revealed, but it's late already, and I think I want to do a better post when I am not so late at night.  Or maybe Ana could do another brilliant post on such a topic.....

Do you have book art that affects you this way?  Do you respond to the covers of books?  Does it matter which edition you read?  And do you have childhood favourites, or favourite books in general, that you must have in a certain edition?  I'm really curious how the experience of reading and books and cover art affects you, so please let me know in the comments, or better yet, write a post, and let me know.  I'd love to know if I am the only one who gets pleasure out of looking at the covers of books as well as reading them. 

PS If anyone knows who the artist is who did these covers, I'd love to know.  I've tried looking and no information is available. 

A very long time ago on this blog, I posted about the first book in the series, Emily of New Moon, here, when I reread for the Canadian Book Challenge.

Friday 21 February 2014

problems leaving comments on wordpress blogs

    I have been trying to leave comments on several book blogs that I love visiting, but wordpress is not letting me leaving comments.  I can write them, but they don't end up on the post.  Does anyone have any suggestion for what I can do?  Is anyone else having this problem?

Monday 17 February 2014

Arnaldur Indridason - the last three mystery novels in the Erlendur series

   Detective Erlendur is a morose, quiet, determined detective in Iceland.  Over the series of novels featuring him, we have learned about the blizzard when he was a child that he and his brother got lost in.  Erlendur comes home, his brother never does.  From Jar City through to Hypothermia, we have watched the slow uncovering of Erlendur's grief and how this event shaped him.  He is unable to connect with anyone, though he is able to function enough to have relationships for a time - long enough to be married and produce two children before divorce, and later eventually another love affair with a woman in the later novels.  He is not overtly depressed, he is chronically depressed and withdrawn.   Every so often, goes back east on his own to see if he can find out what happened to his brother.  My review of Hypothermia is here.

In the last three novels, something different happens.  At the end of Hypothermia, Erlendur sets out to discover what happened to a woman who disappeared in a town very close to where he grew up.  It was decades before the blizzard that trapped him and his brother.  Disappearances haunt Erlendur, so when he goes, he doesn't really leave any message behind. His detectives know this is normal for him, so they don't think much of it, though as the second week progresses, they start to get worried.

 Outrage is the next book in the series, taking place during the week after he has left.  One of his detectives, Detective Elinborg, handles this case in his absence.

Outrage is a story about a dead man found in a pool of blood, in his own apartment.  Clues suggest he had had a woman over shortly before his death.  Elinborg is handed the case when her co-worker Sigurdur Oli says he is working on another case, and can't help her.  In Outrage we get to see Iceland, and the detectives, and the case, through Elinborg's eyes.  I really enjoyed getting to know her, and her family: her husband who is quiet, her two sons, and her brilliant young daughter.  Near the end of the book Valgedur, the woman Erlendur is involved with, calls her to ask if she has heard from Erlendur.  It's been almost two weeks, and she is worried.  Elinborg tells her not to worry, but of course they both do.

The mystery itself is good, though a little convoluted.  The killer is not easily apparent, and it is only due to Elinborg's instincts that the real killer is uncovered.  The best part of the mystery is Elinborg herself, and her family.  She loves to cook, and has written a cookbook about desserts that is successful.  Her children are interesting, as is her marriage.  I'd like to know more about her!  So I ended up really enjoying the book as a whole.
Black Skies, the next book, features Sigurdur Oli, the other detective in the pair that work under Erlendur.  He is working on a big case when Elinborg is handed the rape and death case, so he is unable and mostly unwilling to help her. It takes place during the same two week time period Outrage does.  Sigurdur Oli is very ambitious, very aware of his appearance, and as we discover in Black Skies, somewhat crooked.  I say somewhat because he makes a mistake and spends much of the book praying it won't be uncovered, because he knows the people involved in the crime, and should have recused himself from solving it.  They are in important positions, banking etc, and don't want the police involved.  Of course it is much more complicated than that, and before too long, Sigurdur Oli realizes he is trapped, and has been set up.  He can't tell anyone, without revealing his complicity in the investigation.   It's an interesting portrayal of one of the main characters, and makes for gripping reading.  Sigurdur Oli also has a partner he has broken up with, who  he comes to realize he still loves, but it is too late for them.  Black Skies is about errors of judgement, and the policeman who makes some of the worst ones.  The other principal crime is a horrific story of a murder with a leather mask with a spike in the middle of it.  Why it happened, falls in Sigurdur Oli to solve, and the story of what happens to the main character of this investigation has direct links to what is about to happen to Erlendur in the final book in the series.  Again, in Black Skies, there are a few references to Erlendur's mysterious trip to the east Fjords and whatever he is investigating there.

As with Elinborg in the previous book, we discover more about Sigurdur Oli and what his history is.  His parents are divorced, and in the book he learns his father is dying of cancer.   Even though Sigurdur Oli is vain, and self-centered, he has an appealing quality - he is smart, and he does learn from his mistakes ,though he learns the very hard way.  I really enjoyed Black Skies, as dark as the crimes are, it is gritty and realistic as it portrays the betrayal of innocents and all the costs to society when it can't protect the most innocent.
The final book in the series, Strange Shores, was published late last fall.  It features Erlendur, during the two weeks that the previous books take place.  This is what Erlendur was doing out east......he goes out there ostensibly to uncover what happened to a woman in January 1942.  Supposedly Mattildur had set out to visit her family over the mountain pass....only a blizzard came up, and she never made it.  At the same time, a troop of British soldiers had gone out for a walk, and gotten lost on the same moors.  Not all of the soldiers survive, but the ones who do, claim they never met Mattildur, though they would have been walking during the same time and should have crossed paths.  This is Erlendur's cover story, even to himself, about why he is there.  Because the little village he is visiting, is close by his old family home, that his family left after a few years after the blizzard and his brother's death.  They can't bear the memories, and abandon the house and farm.

Throughout the book, each chapter opens with a little bit about a man who is losing consciousness.  Near the end, I realized it was Erlendur.  How, and why?  Strange Shores is about the grief left behind for the survivors, and about how losing his brother in the blizzard shaped Erlendur.  We discover the truth he has hidden from himself, that he blames himself for his brother's death.  His brother wouldn't have been there if not for Erlendur.......and his parents are so caught up in grief, that he is never able to tell them, and be relieved of his guilt. He comes to see that his whole life, this is why he can't connect with people, why he is a loner, and why he is drawn to solving mysteries.  He has always hoped his brother somehow survived, or would be found.  Strange Shores is heart-breaking in the end. Erlendur can't escape his past, either, and he finally realizes that he doesn't want to.  There is a deep melancholy in this book, as Erlendur after painstaking detective work uncovers what happens to Matthildur. This mystery novel examines the grief that people carry after losing someone they love, and what happens when the loss is compounded by the unknowable:  when the loved one disappears, how can anyone move on?  That mystery means the loss can never be closed, it lingers on as days, months, years pass, waiting to find out what happened, to have a resolution of some kind.  In the end, the resolution that Erlendur finds might not be to every reader's taste, and indeed he does something before the ending that shocked me so much that I put the book down and exclaimed, "no way!" out loud!  What he does is so shocking to me, though I realized this shows his slow unravelling as he faces the memories of that blizzard that he has buried deeply in himself.  I went back to the book, prepared for what I knew was going to come, and hoping anyway it wouldn't.  It is an ending that fits Erlendur and his character, and leaves me so sad for him.

This is a mystery series with a character not like anyone out there.  I love the setting, Iceland with its long dark hours and history that shapes the island and people making a living on it.  The darkness of human character, emphasized because of the long winters, and bleakness of much of the landscape.  Erlendur is unforgettable, and thanks to Black Skies and Outrage, his detectives are much more clearly delineated for me now.  I highly recommend the whole series to mystery readers. 

Interviews with Arnaldur Indridason:
Telegraph (UK)

Other reviews
Kerry at Mysteries in Paradise

Black Skies
Kerry at Mysteries in Paradise

Strange Shores
Crime Fiction Lover
Raidergirl3 at An Adventure in Reading

Thursday 13 February 2014

The Bees - Carol Ann Duffy and some mountaineering book reviews

       I did not mean to be away for the past few weeks, but a bout of bronchitis and recurring flu in the house has kept me busy.  Last week was our first full week of health in the house since before Christmas.  I just took my son's temperature - he is very warm and flushed, but no fever yet - so we'll see how long the good health holds out for.

I have been reading mountaineering books since the beginning of February.  Especially Mt Everest and K2 have intrigued me, the terrible tragedies on them.  Here is a link to Ed Viesturs describing the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy.   Another link is to the K2 tragedy of 2008.
  I am enjoying my time in the mountains, reading about climbers and their dramas on the mountains.  Not enjoying in that so many have died, but enjoying reading their stories, and why they climb, and what happened to them.  It's real life on the mountain, where a mistake can be final. I've read three so far:

 A Day to Die For by Graham Ratcliffe.  About the 1996 Everest disaster.  Graham was on Everest, part of another team that was at the highest camp on the night the disaster took place.  They were supposed to summit the next day, and  arrived after dark, and no one from the teams caught on the mountain knew that they had arrived before the storm.  So when the lost group of climbers got down to the tents but couldn't find them, no one thought to check Graham's teams tent for volunteers to go out into the storm to help bring the survivors back.  In the end only one climber went out again and again, Anatoli Boukreev, who saved three climbers that night.  For a long time Graham tried to not remember that night, repressing many of his emotions and grief, feeling guilty and haunted by the deaths of the climbers.  He knew the two guides who died, and met many of the others who died or who survived the storm, while they were all acclimatising at base camp before the climb began.   Graham learns something about that night - the claim that the storm was 'rogue', bothers him, when he digs deep and learns that one if not both teams, as well as the IMAX team (who were shooting the first IMAX movie, Everest, one of it's highest grossing films, during the climb), were using weather forecasts to help determine the best clear days to go up the mountain.  No one will admit it to him, so the story ends on an unresolved note.  Aside from that, it is gripping as he goes back into his memories, and recounts what happened that night.  It is well-written, and it offers another view of what happened that night.  In contrast, Jon Krakauer wrote his book Into Thin Air as a way to recount immediately what happened, and to ask why and how it happened, within a year of the tragedy.  He was climbing with one of the groups involved, but did not get stuck on the mountain.  I have just begun this book, so I am very curious to compare it to Graham's account.
Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald.  This is written by a Canadian author who has written 7 books on mountaineers.  This one won the Boardman Trasker Prize, one of the main prizes awarded in mountaineering literature circles, every year.  It traces the history of Polish climbers in the Karkoram range, where Everest and K2 and many of the other 8,000 meter mountains are found.  The Poles started climbing in High Tatras as a way to escape the confines of the Russian rule over their lives after World War 2.  Why were so many Poles such good climbers?  They were desperate for freedom, and climbing was one way that they could leave Poland and be free, even if only for a month or two.  Many were excellent climbers, among the world's best. They were proponents of alpine climbing in the Himalayas, which means climbing solo or with a partner, carrying only what you need to climb and to survive in a tent with, as light as possible.  No sherpas to carry up supplies and lay lines and tents.  Man against mountain, and they set the standard for climbing with style, and finding and ascending many of the most difficult routes up a mountain. I had no idea that Poland had produced so many of the world climbers of the 1970's through the 1990's, when they climbed every mountain there was to climb, especially in the Himalayas.  The woman considered one of the best female climbers ever, Wanda Rutkiewicz, was Polish.  Many of them died on the mountains.   I really enjoyed this history, and meeting the amazing world of Polish climbers.  It makes me proud of my heritage (my grandfather was born in Poland).
No Way Down by Graham Bowley. Written about the K2 2008 tragedy, when 11 people died after climbing K2.  What happened?  How could this happen 12 years after the disaster on Mount Everest?  The circumstances are different - no snow storm, no guide leaders dying - but there are too many similarities, too.   Staying too long on the summit, a bottleneck of climbers at a crucial passage early in the day, and plans gone awry when ropes aren't laid before the climbers arrive to begin the climb to the summit, and more than one avalanche, which trap so many on the slopes after sweeping away the ropes that lead down past a difficult section on the mountain,  set the scene for an escalating tragedy.  Only one person was carrying extra rope, which is extraordinary when all of the climbers were experienced mountaineers.  This was a well-written story of what happened, with as much eye-witness accounts as possible included. Gripping, fast-paced, I couldn't put it down.  K2 is the second highest mountain in the world, and as I have learned, is more deadly that Mount Everest.  More people die who summit on K2 in ratio than on Mount Everest. 

 I also have another 5 mountain climbing books out from the library.  And all because of Dan Simmons' The Abominable!  I am enjoying discovering about this world that I knew so little about before.  It is also helpful that when I step out in the morning and it's -20c, I can console myself that on Mount Everest, that is the temperature it is above 28,000 feet, as the climbers start to make their way up the final climb to the summit.  I know how they feel in the cold, and why waiting an hour or two for passages to clear, is a bad idea for a climber up there. 

And now for something different:
   In the meantime, it is February.  I am looking for any sign of spring, which so far is in the lengthening of days.  I've found some poetry that brings back spring for me:  for Christmas, I bought myself The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy, England's Poet Laureate.  The Bees is one of her newest poetry books.  I fell in love with two poems in it:

 Virgil's Bees

Bless air’s gift of sweetness, honey
from the bees, inspired by clover,
marigold, eucalyptus, thyme,
the hundred perfumes of the wind.
Bless the beekeeper
who chooses for her hives
a site near water, violet beds, no yew,
no echo. Let the light lilt, leak, green
or gold, pigment for queens,
and joy be inexplicable but there
in harmony of willowherb and stream,
of summer heat and breeze,
each bee’s body
at its brilliant flower, lover-stunned,
strumming on fragrance, smitten.
For this,
let gardens grow, where beelines end,
sighing in roses, saffron blooms, buddleia;
where bees pray on their knees, sing, praise
in pear trees, plum trees; bees
are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them.

 And my one of my new favourites, this delightful poem comparing writing with bees:


Here are my bees,
brazen, blurs on paper,
besotted; buzzwords, dancing
their flawless, airy maps.

Been deep, my poet bees,
in the parts of flowers,
in daffodil, thistle, rose, even
the golden lotus; so glide,
gilded ,glad, golden, thus -

wise - and know of us:
how your scent pervades
my shadowed, busy heart,
and honey is art.

In our cold and snow - it was -23c this morning when I left for work in the pre-dawn darkness, so cold that just waiting for the bus my toes started to get that cold seeping through my boots - in the cold and snow of this long and very cold winter we are having, these two poems remind me that spring is coming.   The bees and butterflies will come, and colours, flowers, fragrance, leaves, scents (and oh how miss smells in the air!), all the wonders of spring, summer and fall.  I want to watch bees dip into my flowers and hide in some of the blossoms, content, drunk. 

I love that last line of  "Bees" - honey is art - poetry is art, too.  Our world needs both, bees for everything to live, and poetry to let us see the world with new eyes.