Mistress of the Art of Death

Once I started to read Mistress of the Art of Death I had to stop reading the others I had on the go, so that I could finish it. Then I was sorry that it was all over. So thank you Ann at Patternings for your recommendation. It’s one of those books that captures my imagination and makes me wish I was doing historical research and could write like Ariana Franklin does.

The book is a murder/mystery book set in Cambridge in 1170 during the reign of Henry II. A child has been murdered and others have disappeared (also found murdered). The Jews are suspected and have been held in the castle for their own safety. Henry is keen to find the culprit, as the Jewish community in Cambridge are major contributors to his exchequer. He enlists the help of investigators from his cousin, the King of Sicily to find the murderer. Thus Simon of Naples comes to England, accompanied by Adelia, a female doctor, who specialises in studying corpses, hence the title of the book. Running the risk of being accused of witchcraft, Adelia cannot openly carry out her investigations in England in the 12th century and has to pretend that Mansur, a Muslim eunuch (her bodyguard) is the doctor. Despite this, she manages to infiltrate into Cambridge life, making friends and finding romance as she does so, not to mention a dramatic episode when her own life is in danger.

This brief description makes the books sound trite, when it is anything but. I loved the start, which is reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, with sketches of the pilgrims returning to Cambridge from Canterbury – nuns, knights with their squires, a tax collector, a merchant and his wife, a minstrel and a prior and three monks, plus the investigators from Sicily.

Here they come. From down the road we can hear harness jingling and can see dust rising into the warm spring sky. Pilgrims returning after Easter in Canterbury. Tokens of the mitred, martyred St Thomas are pinned to cloaks and hats – the Canterbury monks must be raking it in.

Medieval life is vividly brought to life. There are accounts of medical practices and treatments, using reeds as a catheter as one example and of the post mortems of the murdered children carried out in the primitive conditions in medieval England; plus wonderful descriptions of the everyday life of the townspeople, the nuns and the aristocracy. Add to this, details of the religious conflict between Jews and Christians (and also the crusades) and the question of who has murdered the children and why.

All in all, I was enthralled throughout the book and can’t wait to read another one by Ariana Franklin. I see on Amazon that she has also written City of Shadows, a murder mystery set in Berlin in 1922.

June Books

I finished reading seven books this month. I’ve already written about Jenny Diski’s On Trying To Keep Still here, John Pollock’s Wilberforce here and Anne Tyler’s Digging To America here. The other books –

  • Death’s Jest-Book – Reginald Hill
  • The Poe Shadow –  Matthew Pearl
  • King of the Streets – John Baker
  • Theft  – Peter Carey

all deal with crime and death. It seems that murder has become somewhat of a theme in my reading, especially as the next book I’m reading is Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, a fascinating novel set in 12th century England concerning the investigation into the death of three children in Cambridge by a Adelia, a doctor from Salerno – more in a later post on this one.

However it may look, I don’t have a reading plan at all and pick up a book as it appeals to me. So, I am surprised to find connections between the books, even when it seems that they are widely different. For example, The Poe Shadow contains many references to slavery, one of the main topics in the Wilberforce biography and is set mainly in Baltimore, as is Digging To America, although more than a century later. The Poe Shadow is a long novel about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Edgar Allan Poe’s death in 1849. It is based on authentic details, combined with the results of research in various archives and libraries. It uses historical figures as well as fictional characters in the search to explain how Poe died in a hospital in Baltimore, after being found in an inn, dressed in dirty, shabby clothes. His visit to Baltimore was unexplained and over the years numerous theories have been put forward to explain how he died. The novel also explores who was the real ‘Dupin’ of Poe’s mystery tales. Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination was on my parents’ bookshelves and I dipped into them as a teenager. I’ve now dug out a copy and have started to read The Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring Dupin. I was surprised that the opening of this tale is a detailed analysis of analysis, using as comparison the games of draughts, chess and whist.

I have always found Poe fascinating and previously read The American Boy by Andrew Taylor, a novel about Poe’s childhood. The Poe Society has much more information on him.

Murder is of course a staple subject of the detective story, and Reginald Hill and John Baker are both experts in the field. Reginald Hill’s Death’s Jest-Book and John Baker’s King of the Streets cover violent murders in graphic detail, some of which I found hard to stomach, but as one of the characters in the Mistress of the Art of Death says: ‘To ignore his [ie man’s] capacity for evil is as obtuse as blinding oneself to the height to which he can soar.’

I read Hill’s Death’s Jest-Book quickly, even given that I had to look up the meaning of several words and the long, rambling letters from Roote, an ex-convict, which troubled Pascoe so much that he became obsessed with finding Roote guilty again. There are a number of sub-plots running through this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, particularly exploring the psychology of the criminal mind.

Baker’s King of the Streets is also a quick read, although the subject matter of the abuse and murder of children is neither easy nor pleasant to contemplate. This is the third book I’ve read by Baker, all featuring the private detective, Sam Turner and his assistant Geordie (naive, but street-wise). It’s well written, giving insight into the minds of both the detective and the criminal characters. I particularly liked the nickname ‘Gog’ for one of the ‘minders’, who trashes Sam’s office. Gog is, as the name suggests, a huge giant of a man, with little reasoning power, but plenty of brawn, looked after (not very successfully) by his brother, Ben. Gog and Magog, hills near Cambridge, crop again in Franklin’s book, ‘British giants as pagan as their name’. Baker also refers to Gulliver’s Travels in describing Gog as ‘Brobdingnagian’. All, very appropriate.

Theft, by Peter Carey, ends this month’s list of books. This is a very different book from the others, but is still on the theme of crime, although the sub-title is ‘A Love Story’, which it is as well. This time it is in the art world, with forgeries and details of the international art scene. The book ranges from Australia to Japan and America, split between alternating accounts from the two Boone brothers, Michael the artist, and Hugh his ‘Broken’ brother, who he is ‘looking after’. Another shared theme in the King of the Streets and Theft, is that both books feature brothers, one of whom is ‘damaged’ and cared for by the other. Hugh’s sections of the books counter-balance Michael’s, giving additional insight into the action of the book. I found it hard to read in parts, not knowing anything of the technicalities of the art world, but feel I’ve learned quite a lot. This is only the second book by Carey that I’ve read, and whilst I prefer Oscar and Lucinda I think Theft is still worth reading.

Digging to America – Anne Tyler

I’m so glad I’ve read Digging to America. I’d been resisting reading it because when I first heard about I just didn’t like the sound of it; I think what put me off were the names of some of the characters, particularly Bitsy who came over to me as a know-it-all bossy woman. It just shows you shouldn’ make snap judgements like that.

This book had me captivated right from the start, with the description of two contrasting families waiting at Baltimore Airport for the arrival of two Korean babies they have adopted. The story develops as the two girls, Jo-Hin and Susan (originally Sooki) are integrated into their families – one American, the Donaldsons, outgoing and confident and the other the Yazdans, American/Iranian, reserved and restrained. Each year they have a party on ‘Arrival Day’- and it is through these parties as well as in their everyday lives that the contrast between the two families is revealed and how they are gradually brought to a greater understanding and appreciation.

There are a number of themes running through the book as well as the cultural differences between the families – what it means to be American, being one. But it’s not just specific to America. There are universal issues such as not being able to have a child; being an outsider or a foreigner, or being different; illness and death; growing old; family relationships between the generations, in-laws and the extended family; traditions, pride and independence; and in particular friendship. Even though it was a quick read, there is so much in this brilliant book, giving insight into human nature that I think it will stay with me for a long time. I shall certainly be looking for more books by Anne Tyler.

By the way, Baltimore is also, coincidentally, the setting for The Poe Shadow, which I had to stop reading once I started to read Digging to America.

Wilberforce by John Pollock

D and I finished reading Wilberforce by John Pollock with only a couple of hours to go before the book group meeting last Thursday. As D said it was like climbing a mountain, ‘a hard slog at first and when you get half way you wonder why you are reading it and whether you should give up but as you’ve got so far decide to carry on. When you reach the top you see that it was all worthwhile.’

It’s an achievement and also somewhat of a relief to complete the book. We both found it hard to get into and probably wouldn’t have read it if it wasn’t for the book group. Part of the difficulty is that there are so many references to the people of the time, both in politics and society in general, that without some background in the period you begin to flounder and the eyes glaze over. Other members of the group had found the same. But if you like reading historical and biographical books don’t let this put you off. There are fascinating insights into family life in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, references to the French Revolution and its effect in England, visits to Yorkshire, the Lake District, Buxton (to take the water and endure the ‘horrible treatment of Skin Rotations‘ – a massage bath lying on a flat dish of copper), and to Bath, to mention but a few.

The main cause and aim of Wilberforce’s life was the abolition of the slave trade and the end of slavery itself. He also wanted to remake England by reforming the morals, attitudes and fashions of the nation. The majority of the book is made up of the account of the twenty years struggle to end the slave trade through legislation, culminating in the passing of the Act of Abolition in March 1807. This made the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire. In America also an Act of Congress outlawed the slave trade.

Wilberforce’s character gradually reveals itself throughout the book in extracts from his letters, diary entries, and contemporary accounts of him by friends, supporters and opponents. I particularly liked Marianne Thornton’s memory of him:

He was as restless and volatile as a child himself and during the long and grave discussions that went on between him and my father and others, he was most thankful to refresh himself by throwing a ball or a bunch of flowers at me, or opening the glass door and going off with me for a race on the lawn ‘˜to warm his feet’. I knew one of my first lessons was that I must never disturb Papa when he was talking or reading, but no such prohibition existed with Mr Wilberforce. His love for, and enjoyment in, all children was remarkable.

The Wilberforce household at Broomfield in Clapham was ‘a rather eccentric home‘, with its unkempt shrubberies and domestic servants who ‘were deserving rather than efficient, nor would he cast off the useless or infirm until they found suitable berths.‘ The servants adored Wilberforce. Guests had to fend for themselves in ‘Yorkshire‘ way at dinner -Barbara (Wilberforce’s wife) would

see that Wilberforce’s plate had plenty and he was too short-sighted to notice the others; then Dean Milner’s stentorian voice (so Marianne Thornton recalls) would be heard roaring ‘There was nothing on earth to eat‘; and desiring the servants to bring some bread and butter, he would add ‘and bring plenty without limit’, while Mr W would join in with ‘Thank you, thank you kindly, Milner, for seeing to these things. Mrs Wilberforce is not strong enough to meddle much in domestic matters.’

Wilberforce was an excellent orator, good company, and irresistibly happy according to his friends’ accounts. He was involved in so many other causes, including agricultural improvements, medical aid for the poor, education in charity and Sunday Schools, improving living conditions for the poor, campaigning against the use of boys as chimney sweeps, distributing Bibles through the British and Foreign Bible Society, improving conditions for prisoners, education for the deaf and training for young men who would make good clergymen, etc, etc. As Pollock says ‘Good causes attached themselves to Wilberforce like pins to a magnet.’

Wilberforce was converted to Christianity in 1785. At first he felt he was not ‘in the true sense of the word a Christian‘, because he was still behaving as a man of the world. Pollack writes that Wilberforce ‘began to sicken of the profligacy and selfish luxury of the rich, of the hours they wasted in eating.’ He thought he must withdraw from the world, but after correspondence and talks with Pitt and later with John Newton (author of ‘Amazing Grace‘ and many other hymns) he remained in politics. He introduced family prayers in his household, and took ‘the Sacrament regularly. On Sundays he went to church twice, and would neither travel nor discuss politics except in gravest emergency.’ He tried to introduce a new spirit of tolerance ‘ it was his ‘endeavour to promote the essentials of Christianity, softening prejudices, healing divisions, and striving to substitute a rational and honest zeal for fundamentals, in place of a hot party spirit.’

He was buried on 3 August 1833 in Westminster Abbey. Thousands of Londoners mourned.

Two royal dukes, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker and four peers supported the Pall. Members of both Houses walked in the procession.

‘The attendance was very great’, recorded a Member in his diary that night. ‘The funeral itself with the exception of the Choir of the Abbey perfectly plain. The noblest and most fitting testimony to the estimation of the man.

May – Books of the Month Part 2

Time to continue my thoughts on the books I finished reading in May. But first I thought I’d write about today’s Alphapuzzle. This is rated 5 (which is out of 10, so an easy one) and the target time for completing it is 18 minutes. The clue is ‘Sane wanderer’, which I didn’t get – so no extra letters to help with the puzzle, but I was really pleased (I’m easily pleased!) that I finished it in 20 minutes, still with no idea about the answer to the clue. It was only when I read all the words that I realised – it was so easy really. Can you guess?

To get back to my other obsession – books – still to write about are The Woodlanders and Body Surfing. In what follows I do indicate what happens at the end of The Woodlanders, so if you don’t want to know, be wary.

I started reading The Woodlanders (a library book) a few weeks ago and at first I only read it in small chunks and it was only when I was well into it that I read it at more length. It certainly grew on me; so much so that I’ve now bought my own copy. The library book is a Penguin Classic publication (1981) with an introduction by Ian Gregor, a professor in English Literature. I’ve found before that it’s not a good idea to read an introduction before reading a book, as it often gives the plot away, which spoils it for me. So I don’t read it until I’ve finished the book itself. I think this intro is really good, I suppose because I agree with his analysis. My copy is an Oxford World’s Classic (2005 edition) with an introduction by Penny Boumelha, from the University of Adelaide, who has written widely on nineteenth century fiction. I look forward to reading her introduction to see how it compares.

What I particularly like about The Woodlanders is the way Hardy describes the landscape (the whole book is full of trees!) of Little Hintock in his fictional county of Wessex and integrates them with the characters. An example is his description of Giles Winterbourne as:

He looked and smelt like Autumn’s very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-colour, his eyes blue as corn-flowers, his sleeves and leggings dyed with fruit stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips, and everywhere about him that atmospheres of cider which at its first return each season has such an indescribable fascination for those who have been born and bred among the orchards.

There are so many beautiful descriptions of the woods I could quote them all day. Here are some extracts:

… trees, in jackets of lichen and stockings of moss … At their roots were stemless yellow fungi like lemons and apricots … Next were more trees close together struggling for existence, their branches disfigured with wounds resulting from their mutual rubbings and blows … Beneath them were the rotting stumps of those of the group that had been vanquished long ago, rising from their mossy setting like black teeth from green gums.

And:

It was an exceptionally soft, balmy evening for the time of year, which was just that transient period in the May month when beech trees have suddenly unfolded large limp young leaves of the softness of butterflies’ wings. Boughs bearing such leaves hung low around and completely inclosed them, so that it was if they were in a great green vase, which had moss for its bottom and leaf sides. Here they sat down.

At the heart of the book is the story of Grace, who has been educated out of her social class, returning to the woodlands and the interaction between her, her family and the two male characters, Giles, the woodman and Fitzpiers, the doctor, from an aristocratic background. Also interesting, are the details of the matrimonial law of the time and the portrayal of Victorian conventions of emotional and sexual relationships, so different from today. As Ian Gregor writes, ‘Grace’s concern for her reputation as a married woman, Giles’s self-effacing loyalty, literally to the point of death, strains credulity to the point of irritation.’ I didn’t find it irritating but I did find myself thinking during the section where Grace and Giles keep apart that this was not realistic – but maybe it was.

In complete contrast I was also reading Anita Shreve’s Body Surfing. I like Shreve’s books, but I didn’t think this was one of her best books. Interspersed with my reading of The Woodlanders, it provided a good illustration of how society has changed, both in attitudes to women and to social conventions. Sydney is a 29-year-old woman, who has been once widowed and once divorced. She spends a summer tutoring Julie, a teenage girl, in an ocean front cottage in New Hampshire. This location is the same setting as other Shreve novels – I feel now as though I know this house and its previous owners.

This is a book full of emotion as Julie’s brothers compete for Sydney’s affections and the tangle that follows, eventually unravels. Part of the reason I found this less satisfying than other books by Shreve is that it is written in the present tense, which I assume is supposed to make it more immediate and stream-of-consciousness stuff, as though you’re inside Julie’s thoughts maybe, but it just doesn’t work for me. Still, I do like the descriptions of the landscape in this book, so different from the Hardy landscape, for example:

On the porch, red geraniums are artfully arranged against the lime-green of the dune grass, the blue of the water. Not quite primary colours, hues only seen in nature.

Knife blades of grass pierce the wooden slats of the boardwalk. Sweet pea overtakes the thatch. Unwanted fists of thistle push upward from the sand. On the small deck at the end of the boardwalk are two white Adirondack chairs, difficult to get out of, and a faded umbrella lying behind them.

And finally, this is a book that kept my interest to the end and like The Woodlanders is a book that I’ll re-read one day.