Saturday, June 29, 2013

LADIES IN WAITING by Anne Somerset (non-fic)

I love library sales and remainders' tables in bookstores.  You never know what will turn up.  Ladies in Waiting was written back in the 80s and it might be out of print by now.  I checked on Amazon and it is still listed at the very low bargain price of $1.98, and if you are interested in British history from a different perspective, you may want to pick this book up.  It ranges in time from the Tutors through the modern era.

In her introduction the author writes: "Until the present century the court was one of the few British institutions where women had a role to play, and one moreover that was not purely ornamental.  At a time when virtually every profession was an exclusively masculine preserve, the position of lady-in-waiting to the Queen was almost the only occupation that and upperclass Englishwoman could with propriety pursue."

The most interesting eras were those where court intrigue was rife and morals were loose.  During the reigns of the Tutors and the Stuarts one could be sure that it was the rare young woman who left the service of a Queen still a virgin.  Because the monarchs were still powerful, the many woman who surrounded the Queen wielded influence far in excess of their position.  Often the waiting ladies became mistresses of either the King or one of the powerful men who surrounded him.  Money and bribes followed influence.  This situation led as one might expect to petty jealousies and jockeying for power.  Lies, sex, envy and duplicity became the name of the game.  For this many a high born female was willing to take on the arduous duties of waiting on the Queen in a menial capacity such as food taster, mistress of the wardrobe and other duties that chambermaids performed in highborn households.  The more things change, the more they remain the same.  All through the ages the same greed and shallowness occurred.  Even the great Queen Elizabeth I was unable to control the women who came to court.  Many a noble-born female retired to obscurity in the countryside, disgraced by a scandal.  Many a husband turned a blind eye to his wife's indiscretions in order to further his own ambitions.

If you want a peek at the hidden side of royal history, you will find this book interesting and may even find that some events in history were born of events behind the closed doors of the royal palaces. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

THE FORGETTING TREE by Tatjana Soli (fic)

Tatjana Soli's previous book, her first, called The Lotus Eaters was one of my favorite reads a few years ago.  It is about a female war photographer who becomes addicted to life on the edge in the war zone of Vietnam.  It is realistic and masterfully written.  While I didn't enjoy The Forgetting Tree as much as the Soli's first book, it is still a powerful and interesting story about how human lives become intertwined and interdependent.

The story takes place on a citrus ranch in Southern California where the arid landscape makes farming difficult and at times precarious with the threat of summer wildfires.  Soli does a wonderful job of appealing to our senses with her descriptions of the smell and taste of the earth.  One can feel the mist in the morning along the rows of trees, the vastness of the evening skies, the constant need of nurture in both flora and the people who inhabit the story. Like most of America, the suburbs are threatening to destroy a way of life that had existed since early days in California.

This is the story of Claire and Minna and their relationship.  Claire marries into a ranching family and comes to love the farm more than her husband does who was born there.  Claire is the only one who resists selling to developers after a horrible tragedy takes the life of her son.  Her husband Forster eventually moves on after they divorce, and her two daughters grow up and leave the home that only held painful memories for them.  It is at this point in the story that Claire, after years of isolation, develops breast cancer. She does not tell the girls, who are involved in their own lives, how seriously she is ill.  This is when Minna, a beautiful black girl from the Caribbean enters the story, brought to Claire by her younger daughter.  Minna is at loose ends and cheerfully takes on the duties of caretaker.  Claire is by turns defiant, proud, irritable, depressed and a difficult patient.  Minna through her patient persistence wins her over.

Then the story becomes dark.  The reader knows something is wrong with Minna as she gradually gains ascendancy over Claire and isolates her from friends and family.  Minna is mysterious and strong and becomes overbearing.  Eventually she scares off all the farmhands and Octavio, Claire's faithful overseer.   The story begins to move toward a climax that does not bode well.  Now we learn Minna's story which is most interesting, as she is a more developed character than Claire.  This is the best part of the book.  As the reader has suspected all along, Minna is not who or what she seems. 

The end comes quickly after Minna's story and Soli does a good job of tying up all the story threads.  I can confidently recommend this book as an interesting and gripping read.  If you like the writing, read Soli's first book which is most excellent.  Both are good choices for reading groups.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

ALL THAT IS by James Salter (fic)

When I pick up a book written by James Salter, I lose myself in the impeccably written story with its concise sentences that tell you all you need to know about each character you meet. Salter has the gift of being able to write a perfect sentence with such poetic cadence, that each sentence leads to the next until it become impossible to put the book down. 

It has been 35 years since Salter's last novel, and at age 87 he has written a brilliant story.  It is an elegant and easy read, like a slow waltz that you want to go on forever.  Set in the years after World War II, the reader can feel the pace slow down as he/she enters a time devoid of our frantic electronic gadgets, a time when we can mull over the characters motives, even as we know the world they are leaving as they move through the decade of the 50s and enter the 1960s. This is a quiet book of gentle rhythm.  It is about a veteran named Philip Bowman who joins a New York Publishing House as an editor.  Post-war was an interesting and exciting time to be in publishing.  We are reminded that it was still possible to enter this field without the type of competition that we face in today's world. 

The characters Bowman meets as we move through the novel with him are each presented as only Salter can, fully characterized in such a way, that you know these people.  You like them or dislike them.  Salter doesn't make the decision for you.  You wonder about them; you meander with them; you find yourself thinking of them hours later, the same way you think about people you really know.

The book is romantic and certainly in one instance, disturbing.  You think you know Bowman, but do we really know people, or are they what we want them to be?

Anyone who has lived through these decades will certainly feel the familiar tug of the past.  Those who haven't but think they know the years of Mad Men, may want to broaden their knowledge with this piece of the past. You can't find a better guide than James Salter.   I give this novel my highest recommendation.  It is the best novel I have read this year. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

THE CHURCHILLS by Mary Lovell (non-fic)

Mary Lovell writes delightfully readable biographies.  She has published a number of well-received and widely read books.  Two of her previous books that I greatly enjoyed are: "Straight on Till Morning," a biography of Beryl Markham and "The Mitford Girls," who can never be less than fascinating.  Now her book on the Churchill Family is a rich and mesmerizing saga.  It feels as if the reader is sitting down for afternoon tea with a close friend and hearing the latest dish on the ducal family in the palace up the road.

We meet the first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, in 1704 after his famous victory at Blenheim (thus the name of the great house built to rival Versailles).  He and his wife, Sarah were in the center of palace intrigue during the reign of Charles II and later Queen Anne.  The story picks up again with the 7th and 8th Dukes in the reign of Queen Victoria.  By this time family wealth was depleted, as were many of the fortunes of the great houses of Britain.  The best solution to replenishing these old family coffers was to bring in the wealthy American heiresses. 

Among the first to marry into the Churchill family was Jennie Jerome, an American beauty who married Randolph the younger brother of the 8th Duke whose son married Consuelo Vanderbilt, another famous beauty.  Both of these marriages were disasters.  The men were bolters, and the women stood by their men until it became too emotionally damaging.  They found consolation elsewhere. Jennie married three times, each partner increasingly younger, until her last husband was younger than her sons, Winston and Jack.  Consuelo also found the love of her life in France along with well-deserved happiness.  Both women produced the requisite heirs and a spare.  This group of 19th century Churchills provide plenty of juicy scandals to keep the reader turning pages as if it were a novel.  One can't help imagining a nice long series that Masterpiece Theater could make of this family story.

When we reach the 20th century and the era of Winston Churchill, we find the story equally enthralling.  As Winston shaped the early history of the 20th century through both world wars, his children provided drama reflecting that of their earlier ancestors.  The Mitford family who are cousins also enter the picture.  All this is fueled by the dysfunction brought on by depression and alcoholism that runs through the family from the earliest members to the generation who grew up between the World Wars.  Luckily for Winston, he had a loving relationship with Clementine who remained devoted to him through thick and thin.  Winston proved to be a full time job for Clementine, and their children suffered by being neglected, as Winston was often absent and Clementine was busy shoring up Winston and didn't seem terribly interested in the children. 

While Lovell is sketchy in filling in the background history that shaped the Churchills, as they in turn shaped English history, her focus on the family dynamics is engrossing.  I highly recommend this biography of a great though flawed family to any reader interested in the Upstairs residents of Blenheim Palace.  It also has plenty of discussion material for reading groups.