Crossing To Safety by Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety was Wallace Stegner’™s last novel published when he was 78 years old. It’™s a beautiful, and thought provoking novel and I loved it. Unusually for me I read it straight through, on its own, abandoning the other books I’™m reading to concentrate on just this one book. It was well worth it. I was engrossed in the story and felt as though I was part of it ‘“ such is the power of Stegner’™s writing.
Crossing To Safety is a story about love, marriage, friendship, relationships, ambition, illness and death; in other words it’™s about life and death. I’™ve read a lot of good books recently, but without a doubt this is one of the best books I’™ve read this year. It has so much to say on many different themes that I’™m lost where to start in describing and considering its impact on me.

In essence, the novel recounts the lives of two couples who first met during the Depression in 1930s America and the joys and difficulties they encounter throughout their lives. Larry Morgan is the narrator and the events are seen through his eyes. Both he and Sid Lang have jobs in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin and their lives are intertwined from the moment they meet, when both their wives are pregnant. At the start of the novel we are told that Charity, Sid’™s wife is dying. Sally and Larry have travelled to Battell Pond in Vermont for a reunion with the Langs. Sally is in a wheelchair and from that point Larry looks back over their lives. Whereas in Angle of Repose Stegner depicts the American West, Crossing To Safety is set mainly in the landscape of northern New England, where the wilderness is seen as no less dangerous than in the West, particularly in the camping trip the Langs and the Morgans take. I had to get the atlas out to see where Wisconsin and Vermont are, as I had no idea of the distance between the two, nor the difference in the landscape.

Charity and Larry are the dominant characters. The Morgans’™ lives are changed by Sally’™s illness and at different stages in the book I thought, ‘œthis is what happened to Sally’, but it’™s not clear until about halfway through the book precisely why Sally is paralysed. Charity is the strong, ambitious, self-confident organiser, not only of her own life, but also those of her husband, children’™s and friends’™ lives. She take the direct ‘œcompass’ direction in whatever she does and her confidence is not undermined by others’™ doubts or different ideas. She knows what she wants and imposes her ambitions on Sid. However, she is also generous and wants her friends to share in their success and helps Larry and Sally both financially and socially.

As well as the low points of their lives the novel also recounts the happy and joyful experiences the couples encounter. The novel explores the complexity of human nature and meditates on the drama of everyday experience in quiet ‘œordinary’ situations ‘“ the stuff of life, how to live through the difficulties that life and death throw in all our paths. Most poignant, to me at least, are the descriptions of how the couples deal with ambition, the disappointments of failed ambition, illness and death.

Larry meditates: ‘œAmbition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’™s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can become something else ‘“ pathway to the stars, maybe.’

Larry also provides some interesting insights into writing itself. He loves writing but also writes to help boost his income, whereas Sid wants to write poetry and is held back and criticised by Charity as she does not think this will help to advance his career. Larry and Sid discuss why writers write. Larry thinks writing “has to be free, it has to flow from the gift, not from outside pressures. The gift is its own justification, and there is no way of telling for sure, short of the appeal to posterity, whether it’s really worth something or whether it’s only the ephemeral expression of a fad or tendency, the articulation of a steroptype.”

The scenes where Charity explores how to approach her death not just for herself, but also for Sid and her family are touchingly realistic and heart-rending. She seemingly pushes Sid away as she prepares for death because she cannot cope with his reaction to her death; she knows she is not only Sid’™s support – she is his life. One of the most difficult questions we face is how we deal with the facts of death and the fear of death. When Sid is faced with the inevitability of Charity’™s death he asks Larry ‘œCould you survive without Sally?’ Whether Sid can survive without Charity is left unanswered. Although Larry hopes he will I’™m not so sure.

My copy is a library book; maybe this is a book I should buy as I would like to read it again sometime.The painful honesty of this book in portraying life’™s happiness, joy, pathos and sorrow is what touched me the most and makes it a book to remember and treasure.

Oh, Horror! Booking Through Thursday

What with yesterday being Halloween, and all . . . do you read horror? Stories of things that go bump in the night and keep you from sleeping?

I thought about asking you about whether you were participating in NaNoWriMo, but I asked that last year. Although . . . if you want to answer that one, too, please feel free to go ahead and do both, or either, your choice!
It is easy for me to answer the first question in one word – “yes”. In a few more words – as I joined the R.I.P. Challenge I’ve been reading more “horror” stories than I normally do and I’ve written about them in several other posts in September and October. I think the one that I enjoyed for the Challenge the most was Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott which I wrote about here. Another book that sent shivers down my back was Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert – see my review here.
My answer to the second question is no, I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo. I didn’t know what that is so I checked Debbie’s link and found that this is yet another challenge’“where lots of marginally crazy people try to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. What do you think about that idea? Crazy? Inspired? Challenging?
Would you/Have you tried it yourself? In other years? (Or this one, in which case, shouldn’™t you be writing and not reading blogs?).
Mmm. An interesting idea – I don’t know if I have enough time to do this – maybe?

Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke and illustrated by Charles Vess

I started the R.I.P. Challenge II aiming to read just one book. It’s now nearly the end of the challenge and I have exceeded my target. I have read Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott, several short stories from Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, from the Great Ghost Stories collection published by the Chancellor Press and today I finished reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke. I’m glad I took this challenge as it has made me read Poe’s Tales after years of wondering what they are like, but I am a little disappointed that they are not as spooky as I imagined them to be and I don’t like the gory elements and Poe’s fascination with premature burials. I’m probably in a minority on this.

Ghostwalk was to my mind a much more satisfying read and I’m pleased that The Ladies of Grace and Adieu was as fantastical as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (also by Susanna Clarke), which I read about two years ago. I was entranced by Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is set in a parallel nineteenth century England and tells the story of two magicians, full of mystery, magic, fantasy and faerie tales and The Ladies, although much shorter, is another book full of fantasy stories.

As a child I read all the fairytale books I could find and The Ladies collection takes me back to the magical world of those stories. They are full of deep dark woods, paths leading to houses that seemingly move locations, ladies who are never what they appear to be, princesses, owls, and above all fairies, including the Raven King.

The stories are all captivating and strange and set up echoes in my mind of such fairytales, as Rumpelstiltskin (in On Lickerish Hill). My favourite stories are The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Mrs Mabb, and The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. The Ladies explains why Jonathan Strange prevented his clergyman brother-in-law from an engagement with Cassandra Parbringer as Strange discovers that his magic is no match for Cassandra and her two friends, the three bewitching ladies of Grace Adieu.

Mrs Mabb is a fascinating story in which the heroine, Venetia Moore contends with the mysterious Mrs Mabb who has stolen away Venetia’s fiancé. Whichever path she takes to get to Mrs Mabb’s house she cannot find it, although she catches sight of the house and wonders at the smallness of it. She is surprised to realise that she remembers little of what has happened to her after she is found in a state of confusion, with her clothes in tatters. On another occasion after trying to get to the house she dances all night until her feet are bleeding, and finally she is attacked by what seems to be a great crowd of people with glittering swords. This reminded me of a book my mother used to have full of strange and wonderful stories and poems, one of which was about Queen Mab. I wish I still had that book. I have tried to find what the poem could be – as I remember it, Queen Mab was a fairy queen, full of malice and mischief, who turned out to be not what she seems. I think the poem I read must have been from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Mercutio’s speech in Act 1 scene iv:

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

The story I enjoyed the most was The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. I have not read any of Neil Gaiman’s books, but I think I really should. The story of the Duke’s horse is set in Wall, a village in the world created by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, where there is an actual wall dividing our world and the world of Faerie, guarded by burly villagers with cudgels. The proud Duke, the Nation’s Hero, passes unchallenged by the intimidated villagers into Faerie, in pursuit of his horse. His fate is then seemingly set in stitches in a magnificent piece of embroidery in exquisite pictures. I wonder if the creator of Heroes has read this story – there are similarities with the painter, Isaac, who has the ability to paint the future? The Duke’s fate depends on whether he can alter the future shown in the embroidery. The ending has a satisfying twist.

I have enjoyed this Challenge and although it ends on 31 October I shall carry on reading “R.I.P.” books. I have Susan Hill’s The Man in the Picture and Raold Dahl’s Completely Unexpected Tales waiting in line.


Ghost Stories R.I.P.Challenge II

Great Ghost Stories

This is a collection of ghost stories by different authors including G.K. Chesterton, Walter De La Mare, O. Henry, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, R.L.Stevenson, and H.G. Wells. So far I have read just a few of them and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. It’s a good book to dip into from time to time.

Berenice by Edgar Allen Poe
Keeping His Promise by Algernon Blackwood
Honolulu by Somerset Maugham
The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant
The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett

Berenice is not included in Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. According to Wikipedia it was first published in the Southern Literary Messenger in March 1835 and due to public outcry an edited version was published in 1840.

The opening sentence sets the scene ‘Misery is manifold.’ From then on you know that this is another of Poe’s tales of unrelieved tragedy. There is no escaping it. The narrator is Egaeus, an obsessive intellectual who falls in love with his cousin, Berenice. She is his opposite, beautiful, agile, healthy and full of energy. His obsession is monomania; he is fixated on objects to the exclusion of everything else around him. Alas, disease befell Berenice and she wasted away until all that was unchanged were her teeth. Egaeus as you would expect is devastated, but is totally obsessed with her perfect teeth and he sees them everywhere. She dies. He comes to as though ‘awakened from a confused and exciting dream’ to an horrific discovery ‘.

This story is very much what I’ve come to expect from Poe and repeats a number of themes he uses in other stories – death, burial and mental illness. To me they lack suspense, maybe because they are so short. When he revised Berenice Poe wrote in a letter to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger on April 30, 1835: “I allow that it approaches the very verge of bad taste — but I will not sin quite so egregiously again.” I not sure that he succeeded.

Keeping His Promise by Algernon Blackwood is a story with a supernatural twist; he builds up a tale of gradually increasing tension. Marriott is a student at Edinburgh University studying for his exams. He is disturbed in his room by the arrival of Field, who appeared to be starving, thin as a skeleton, exhausted and under the influence of drugs. Marriott gave him a whisky and they had supper together before Field dropped with exhaustion on Marriott’s bed where he slept the night. Marriott could hear his heavy deep breathing in the next room as he resumed his studies. When morning came there was no sign of Field and Marriott feels a sensation of fear, his left arm throbs violently and he trembles from head to foot. There is the impress of a body on the bed and Marriott can still hear the breathing.

The pain in his arm is caused by a scar on his wrist and he realises that it is now bleeding. Then he remembers how the scar had been made and why, which leads him to discover the truth about his nightmare experience. Had Field really been there? Marriott had fed him and seen him eat and drink – but in the morning the food was untouched, although he could still hear the breathing…

In contrast Honolulu is an amusing but sinister tale of a little fat sea captain, who tells of the strange events that had overtaken him whilst sailing in the South Seas between Honolulu and various small islands. An enjoyable tale of love, betrayal and voodoo.

The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant is set in the High Alps in the depth of winter. The Schwarenbach Inn is left in the care of two mountain men as the family descend to the village below. De Maupassant’s description of the freezing conditions as the snow falls and the two men are isolated on the mountain sets the scene for the events that follow. When one of the men goes out hunting and doesn’t return the other is alone in the inn. He can’t get out because something is trying to get in!

The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett tells the story of a young wife with an unimaginative and controlling husband, set in one of the Pottery towns in Staffordshire. She wants a belt to enhance her ball dress, which leads her to a strange experience connected (or is it?) to the death of a mandarin in China. This is not a scary story. It’s a study of how an ordinary situation can become seemingly extraordinary through the power of imagination.

Me and My Blog (Or Who’s a Silly Blogger Then?)

I’™d been thinking about writing a blog for some time and when my husband set one up for me last year I felt I really should use it. So, feeling extremely nervous and self-conscious I wrote my very first post on 22 July 2006. I was still working full time then and didn’™t write anymore until April this year after I’™d retired.

Basically I am a shy person and at first I found it really difficult to write about what I thought. Who on earth would want to know what I think anyway and why should they? I go to a book group and another member usually asks when we’™re deciding which book to read next ‘œwho is this person and why should we read what they’™ve written?’ Thoughts like these were going through my mind and then I thought well no-one will know what I’™m writing unless I tell them about the blog and I’™ll just write for my own satisfaction and so I began.

Soon I thought this was a bit self-centred and as I got a bit more confident I very, very occasionally dared to add a comment on someone else’™s blog, using my blog name as the contact. I was amazed when someone actually added a comment to my blog and that person was an author ‘“ Linda Gillard, whose book Emotional Geology I’™d mentioned in the post! Brilliant. I didn’™t feel I was writing in isolation anymore and I realised I actually like people to read what I’™m writing and to add their comments.

Stuck In a Book asked in one of his posts what do you call people you only know through blogging? He suggested ‘œe-friends’. Like him I feel a bit embarrassed talking about FRIENDS when I’ve never met them, but what else can you call them? I feel I do know a bit about some of the people whose blogs I visit, well I know what books you like, what food some of you like to eat and to cook, which places you like to go on holiday, and what your other hobbies are apart from reading and writing. I do think of you as ‘œfriends’ and I am so pleased you visit my blog.

Through Site Meter or Google Analytics I have some idea of where you live and how you found me. It’™s broadened my horizons. I now have a much better idea of where countries are and where for example Connecticut is in America and that there is a town called Cheshire in Connecticut (of interest to me because I was born in Cheshire, a county in the north west of England). I am amazed when I see that people from Cyprus, Scandinavia, India, Italy, Australia, Iran, Singapore, Peru and so on have visited me. I feel so much more cosmopolitan.

Most visitors to my blog are from the US and the UK, but surprisingly after that comes Romania. How did they find me? I noticed that the number of visitors rose quite steeply after I wrote about Lewis Carroll and his interest in photography and all the people from Romania had arrived at my blog to read this post, directed from a site called Fototarget, but how did Fototarget find it? Anyway if you’™re reading this in Romania, welcome and I hope you weren’™t too disappointed. I knew very little about photography before but now I’™ve realised that I am very interested in it and its history. If you can get BBC Four a new series started last night called The Genius of Photography. It’™s brilliant and well worth watching.

Another intriguing question is related to some of my posts that have been translated into German and posted on other blogs ‘“ why on earth do they want to do that? My post on Astrid and Veronika is in German on ‘œTravel’ blog, I can’™t imagine why, the book has nothing to do with travel. My last post on the Verneys of Claydon has been translated and put on ‘œHugh Health’ blog. It’™s called ‘œDas Verneys von Claydon’ and this has such a nice ring to it that the book may become called that in my mind from now on. But I think people reading it hoping to find out about health will be surprised to read about the medical practices in seventeenth century England that are described in the post.

So to all my e-friends thank you for visiting and I do hope you’™ll come again and I really like to read your comments.

The Verneys of Claydon

I became very fond of the Verneys as I read Adrian Tinniswood’s book The Verneys, shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2007. If you’re interested in seventeenth century England you simply must read this book, or if you like reading biographies and family histories read this book. I think it would make a fantastic film or TV series.

It is a tour de force, a mammoth of a book. It is huge, both in its scope, its extraordinary detail and its length. It is also heavy, but only in weight. It is impressive in its coverage of not only the lives of the Verney family but also of the seventeenth century itself.

Of course every century is a time of change and none more so than the seventeenth century in England. If we disregard the last years of Elizabeth I reign it was the time when the Stuarts ruled England, violently interrupted by the Civil War and the Interregnum, which was in essence the reign of Cromwell. It was a time of political and social upheaval, revolution, war, plague, famine and fire. This book covers the lot. What makes it so very good is that the Verney family correspondence has survived – tens of thousands of their letters and Adrian Tinniswood has made a superlative job of weaving together their family story from the family archives and placing it within the national context.

The sub-title is a summary in itself: ‘A true story of love, war and madness in seventeenth century England.’ The Verney family has lived at Claydon in Buckinghamshire since the 1460s. The book starts with the death of Sir Francis Verney at Messina in 1615 and moves through the seventeenth century to the death of Sir Ralph Verney at Claydon House in 1696. There are many Verneys, fortunately their family tree is given at the beginning of the book and I found it invaluable in keeping track of who was who.

Sir Edmund Verney, the half-brother of Sir Francis, was Charles I’s Standard Bearer at the battle of Edgehill. His body was never found and the story goes that he died still clutching the standard. His oldest son, Ralph was at odds with his father, supporting the Parliamentary cause, but during the Cromwellian period he was suspected of royalist connections and went into exile in France. Ralph’s brothers were very different – Mun was a professional soldier, Henry a gambler and obsessed with horse racing, and Tom was a villain, a crook and a sponger. Ralph’s son Jack, who eventually succeeded Sir Ralph after the deaths of the his elder brother, Edmund (another Mun) and his sons, was different again. He went into commerce and spent eleven years as a trader in Aleppo with the Levant Company, before returning to England.

There is so much in The Verneys – the horrors and atrocities of war, the ordinary day-to-day life of the landed gentry, the London social scene, Parliamentary elections, the cultural scene on the continent in Italy and in particular in France, where Sir Ralph and his family lived for a while in voluntary exile; life in the plantations of Barbados, in the forests of Virginia, in North Africa; and trading in the souks of the Levant. When Jack returned to England in 1674 it was to a London he didn’t recognise; all the landmarks he had known, including St Paul’s Cathedral, the Guildhall, the Custom House by London Bridge, warehouses, churches and many houses had all disappeared, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and a new city was being built. I could imagine Jack’s shock at seeing this new London as the devastation was being cleared and new and renovated buildings rose from the ashes.

The most vivid and to me the most interesting parts of this book are those dealing with the family and their personal relationships and the light that throws on the society in which they lived. The Verney women show that the accepted view of how the ideal woman should behave was not the norm, but was just that – an ideal. Whereas it was accepted that men would be unfaithful and their wives’ reaction was to be a dignified silence, women were supposed to be faithful, meek, modest and pious. With the exceptions of Mary, Sir Ralph’s wife and his mother, Margaret who were in successful relationships and held positions of power within the family, the Verney women just didn’t conform to this ideal. Some eloped, one slept with her sister’s unsuitable boyfriend, one separated from her violent husband, and some became pregnant before they were married. They were spirited, passionate women who refused to do as they were told.

Tinniswood recounts the terrifying details of medical practices and treatment. As doctors began to discover the circulation of the blood, not everyone accepted it and still treated patients by blood letting under the tongue, for example, to relieve a fever and restore the balance of fluids in the body. The treatment of hysteria and madness is also fascinating, if somewhat extreme. The treatment included bleeding, purges and emetics – cures such as taking pimpernel juice through the nostrils and using suppositories of Castilian soap were recommended. Even more extreme was the practice of ducking the patient, stripped naked and bound, backwards suspended by the feet into a big tub of water, an ‘advancement’ on the medieval practice of ducking witches.

Mun’s wife, Mary suffered from depression and eventually was diagnosed as mad, but fortunately her treatment was much more humane, although she did have to suffer having the head of a hare bandaged to her forehead for a few days, the idea being that the ‘melancholy hare’s brain would draw off the melancholy from hare-brained Mary, after which it must be ‘put into the feathers of a pillow whereon the party grieved must lie as long as they live.’ This was not prescribed by her doctors but was suggested by a local ‘wise woman’. She was looked after at home, although the doctors really had no idea of how to treat her and she spent most of her married life in fear and misery.

A panacea much more to my liking is chocolate. It was a rarity in Western Europe at that time but was considered to be a cure for all sorts of illnesses such as consumption and the ‘cough of the lungs’. Sir Ralph thought that his wife, Mary should try it when she was terminally ill and he ‘began to fret over the right dose, the best time of day to take it, the length of time to wait after one meal and before the next.‘ The family doctor advised that she could drink chocolate whenever she liked, as he knew it would make no difference whatsoever. Mary’s death devastated Sir Ralph; he had her body embalmed which then remained in the house for six months whilst he was arranging for it to be transported back from France to Claydon for burial in the family vault.

The Verney family monument still dominates the interior of Middle Claydon church. It contains portrait busts of Sir Edmund and his wife Lady Margaret with those of Sir Ralph and his wife Mary below them, flanking a drapery with an inscription to Sir Edmund and Lady Margaret, whilst below that is a black marble panel commemorating the life of Mary and announcing that this is also where Sir Ralph ‘intends to be buried’, as indeed he was in October 1696.

When I visited Claydon House recently I saw the portraits of Sir Edmund, Lady Margaret, Sir Ralph and his wife Mary, Thomas, Edmund (Mun) Henry and Jack who became Viscount Fermanagh in 1703. The present house is not the house they lived in, as it was almost entirely rebuilt in the eighteenth century, with major alterations in the nineteenth century. The portraits and of course their correspondence and family records are probably all that remains of the seventeenth century Verneys. I like to imagine what it was like when they were there.

Booking Through Thursday – Read with Abandon?

Today’™s suggestion is from Cereal Box Reader

I would enjoy reading a meme about people’™s abandoned books. The books that you start but don’™t finish say as much about you as the ones you actually read, sometimes because of the books themselves or because of the circumstances that prevent you from finishing. So . . . what books have you abandoned and why?

There are only a few books that I’ve abandoned recently, although there have been quite a few that I’ve taken back to the library unread. That’s not because I’ve abandoned them, but because they’ve been due back and I haven’t even started them. My eyes are always optimistic in the library, or greedy may be a better description and I nearly always come home with more books than I can possibly read during the loan period.

There was one library book I did completely abandon completely and that was Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates, a book of short stories that I just couldn’t read as the first couple were too nasty.

Another book I’ve started but not finished is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, because I kept starting it and putting it down; frankly I found it just a bit boring. Maybe I’ll have another go sometime as I know that other people think it’s a good book, but it’s not on my radar right now.

Mostly the books that I’ve started but not finished are those that are long and detailed, like Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy. I don’t consider that I’ve abandoned it because I do intend finishing it, but not just yet because I want to read more of Hardy’s own books first. I’ll go back to it and probably have to start it again.

I’ve also started to read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie and although I’ve stopped I certainly haven’t abandoned it – it looks just the sort of book that I enjoy – it’s because I’ve been reading other books, in particular The Verneys by Adrian Tinniswood, which is a library copy and was due back a few days ago. I can’t renew it as lots of people have reserved it. It’s a great book – a post on it is in progress.