Here we are in September, but I'm still thinking about August reads. I highlighted The Reef by Edith Wharton, American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever, Spectacles by Sue Perkins, and the Mary Stewart novels. I also wanted to share some other books that I had the pleasure to read in August. I love reading about the literary scene in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s, and I enjoyed learning more about Sylvia Beach and her famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris in the Letters of Sylvia Beach, edited by Keri Walsh (2010). This volume of letters includes Beach's letters from her early life. She was fearless and adventurous, and I particularly enjoyed the accounts of her time during World War I as a volunteer farm laborer in France and then as a volunteer for the Balkan Commission of the Red Cross in Serbia. Many of the letters after World War I deal with the day to day running of Shakespeare and Company. Beach was a dynamo with her bookshop and lending library as well as maintaining all her connections in the literary world and the daunting task of publishing James Joyce's Ulysees (1922). These letters also show how temperamental Joyce could be and how he much he relied on Beach, often treating her as a secretary. With the changes in the world after World War II, it was sad how much Beach's life also changed, and Shakespeare and Company lost its luster. These were fascinating letters, and I look forward to reading more about Sylvia Beach and her contemporaries. Undue Influence by Anita Brookner (2001) is the first novel I've read by Brookner. Undue Influence tells the story of Claire Pitt, a young woman living in London in a flat with her mother who has recently died. Claire's lonely and begins a part time job at a bookstore. Here, she meets Martin Gibson. When Martin's wife dies, Claire wants to become more than just a friend. I liked Brookner's writing style but not the structure of the book. Claire gets caught up in so much introspection about what's happening and what might happen that it brings the plot to a standstill. If you've read any of Anita Brookner's novels, I'd be interested to know ones you recommend. A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith (1965) is a fabulous page turner. Sydney Bartleby, an American screenwriter, lives with his British wife, Alicia, in a farmhouse in Suffolk. Their marriage has its problems, and with his temper, Sydney's not very likable. When Alicia leaves to take a break from the marriage, Sydney starts to fantasize in great detail about how he'd kill Alicia. When she doesn't come back, their friends and family start to wonder what's happened to Alicia, and that's when fact and fiction start to mingle. A great read that I highly recommend. A Mind to Murder by P.D. James (1963) is an early Adam Dagliesh murder mystery that takes place in a psychiatric clinic for the rich in London. The clinic offers such treatment as psychoanalysis, electroshock therapy, and LSD therapy. The clinic's administrator, Enid Bolam, has been found in the records room dead with a stake through her heart. In life, Miss Bolam was no nonsense and managed to anger most everyone on the clinic's staff. It's up to Dagliesh to figure out the relationships among staff and determine the motive. This is a quick read at around 200 pages that I recommend. The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald (1945) is good fun. It's comedy from beginning to end about MacDonald's life with her first husband. Once they're married, MacDonald thinks that they're headed for an idyllic life only to discover that her husband's idea of heaven is a broken down chicken farm in an isolated part of Oregon. The story takes place in the 1920s and has an impressive array of characters and funny situations. While her chapters on running the house had their fair share of amusing moments, MacDonald's story made me feel grateful for modern conveniences of running water and electricity. I've seen the film adapted from the novel with Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert, and I found it to be true to the book. I hope that your August reading went well. What are you reading?
Happy Tuesday! I hope that you had a nice holiday weekend. I'm taking part in First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea where bloggers share a bit about what they're reading or planning to read soon. In my life, my husband and I have moved our belongings from our home in Maryland to our new home in Texas. We're back in Maryland for awhile this month to wrap up loose ends. It feels strange to be apart from my books, and I really miss them. I did leave a box of books here and found Lancelot by Walker Percy among them. Last year, I read The Moviegoer by Percy, and I really enjoyed it. I've read the first 25 pages of Lancelot and have to say that I'm intrigued. The opening: "Come into my cell. Make yourself at home. Take the chair; I'll sit on the cot. No? You prefer to stand by the window? I understand. You like my little view. Have you noticed that the narrower the view the more you can see? For the first time I understand how old ladies can sit on their porches for years. Don't I know you? You look very familiar. I've been feeling rather depressed and I don't remember things very well. I think that I am here because of that or because I committed a crime. Perhaps both. Is this a prison or a hospital or a prison hospital? A Center for Aberrant Behavior? So that's it. I have behaved aberrantly. In short, I'm in the nuthouse." What do you think? Would you keep reading?
Some of my August reading included three novels by Mary Stewart. She's on my list of favorite authors, and I want to read everything she's written. From what I've read about Mary Stewart, she didn't care to pigeonhole her books as romantic suspense. She only wanted to tell a good story. These three novels don't disappoint. They're all a little different but include the common elements of a good mystery, a likable and independent heroine, and a bit of romance. I wanted to read Madam, Will You Talk? (1954) because it's Mary Stewart's first novel. The setting is the south of France. The story begins in Avignon in Provence where war widow Charity Selborne and her friend Louise are vacationing. Staying at their hotel is thirteen year old David and his step-mother, Lorraine. Charity befriends David but soon finds herself pursued by David's father and supposed murderer, Richard Byron, who is trying to get his son back. A cat and mouse game takes place throughout the south of France. But things are not all they seem as Charity has to figure out who the real villains are. This story is full of tension and at times reminded me of a Hitchcock thriller. I loved Madam, Will You Talk? Touch Not the Cat (1976) is the story of Bryony Ashley who comes back to her home, Ashley Court, after her father dies. There is some talk of the entail in the will which, thanks to Downton Abbey, I understood. For this novel, I had to suspend my disbelief a bit since Bryony communicates telepathic messages with members of her family, such as her twin cousins, Emory and James. When it appears that Bryony's father has found a way from the grave to prevent Emory and James from getting their hands on Ashley Court, she has to use her wits to keep herself alive. Family secrets, lies, unexpected love, attempted murder and the setting of a crumbling estate with its own secrets kept me reading late into the night. Of these three novels, Stormy Petrel (1991) is most like a cosy mystery. I loved the setting of a sparsely populated island off the coast of Scotland. The title has to do with a species of bird on the island, but it's also the name of a boat that features prominently in the story. Cambridge teacher and writer Rose Fenemore takes a vacation to the island of Moila where she's rented a cottage. Her brother, Crispin, who has an interest in birds and amateur photography, plans to join Rose on her vacation but has been delayed when he injures his ankle. On a dark and stormy night, an intruder comes into the cottage in the form of the handsome and charming Ewen MacKay who tells Rose he grew up in the cottage. Another stranger drops by that same night looking for shelter who tells Rose that he's John Parsons, a geologist. Or is he? The mystery involves who these men really are and why they're on the island. The novel is full of vivid descriptions of the island and its wildlife. I also loved reading about Rose's day-to-day life at the cottage. A subplot about a developer that comes to the island makes the book drag a bit toward the end, but it didn't stop me from enjoying Stormy Petrel. I recommend all these novels, especially if you're a Mary Stewart fan. What is your favorite Mary Stewart novel?
One of my favorite television shows has become the The Great British Bake Off, a competition among amateur bakers taking on challenges posed by the judges, the lovely Mary Berry and the serious Paul Hollywood. It's a nice hour of television that focuses on baking and the contestants without everyone turning on one another. I resisted watching the show for the longest time, but the thing that drew me to The Great British Bake Off was the humor of the presenters. Presenting the show is the comedy team of Sue Perkins and Mel Gierdoyc. I love the wit these women bring with the play on words and often naughty innuendo and the way they bring such a spirit of fun to the proceedings. When I heard about Sue Perkins' recent autobiography, Spectacles, I wanted to read it. The book doesn't disappoint. I can't recall when I've laughed so hard while reading a book. Perkins writes with a distinctive voice and has the gift of telling a story in a hilarious way. Honestly, several times I had to put the book down and laugh. I enjoyed reading about Perkins' childhood as well as her time at Cambridge and how she became part of the illustrious comedy group, the Cambridge Footlights. It was also fun to read about how she met her comedy partner, Mel, and their beginnings as a comedy team. There's also a chapter about the Great British Bake Off that sheds a bit of light about what goes on behind the scenes. Spectacles isn't all laughs, though, and the book has its poignant moments. Several of those moments brought tears to my eyes. Perkins' writing style is fantastic. I hope she'll try her hand at fiction one day. Most of all, I appreciate the fact that Spectacles made me laugh. Laughter is a gift in this time when the news is so dreadful.