Saturday, July 26, 2014

THE GOOD PARENTS by Joan London (fic)

I wanted to like this book more than I did as it received good reviews when it was published. Joan London is a fine writer and her descriptions of rural Australia ring true.  My problem is with the story which though at times interesting, is scattered and delves into the lives of too many characters.  London begins the tale with Maya de Jong an 18 year old who leaves  her small Western Australian town and travels to Melbourne for a taste of the city life. There she finds secretarial work in a small business.  One day she goes off with her boss, Maynard Flynn, and that is the last we hear of her until the end of the story.

In Melbourne, Maya finds digs with an experimental film maker named Cecile.  Her parents Jacob and Toni arrive to visit her and find that she has disappeared.  Why they are called the good parents, baffles me.  Just like Maya, they are passive people.  They make some effort with half-hearted inquiries, but mostly they settle in Cecile's house, and try to find themselves.  Now the story turns to their backgrounds and their youth in the 70s takes center stage.  The story weaves back and forth between Toni's romance with a gangster and Jacob's hippie wanderings.  Thrown in the middle of this is Cecile's story as well as that of Jacob's sister.  Meanwhile these good parents have left Maya's young teenage brother, Magnus, alone to fend for himself in an empty house.  London moves back and forth with these stories.  When Jacob's sister arrives to take care of their Magnus, Toni and Jacob seem strangely uninvolved and thankless.  The reader learns the background of each new character who is introduced in the story.  I, for one, kept wondering what is going on with Maya.

The theme running through the book is that of young adults finding themselves and learning to express themselves and find a niche of acceptance.  This is where the backgrounds of the various characters come into play and allows the reader to compare and contrast the way the characters have handled themselves.  The problem for me is that with the exception of the Jacob's sister and Toni's racketeering boyfriend, the characters we meet are a lethargic bunch.

London's writing and descriptions are lyrical and Toni's story is interesting, though the ending of the book was lackluster, since I could not find myself engrossed or caring about the characters.  I was hoping for better.

Friday, July 11, 2014

MAKING MASTERPIECE by Rebecca Eaton (non-fic)

If you are a fan of Masterpiece (formerly Masterpiece Theatre) you are sure to enjoy Rebecca Eaton's account of her years as the Executive Producer of this long-lived and much loved Public Television production.  It tickles me that she has the same last name as Eaton Place which was the Knightsbridge home on the first big hit of Masterpiece Theatre, Upstairs Down Stairs in 1974.  The history of Masterpiece began with The Forsyte Saga and Joan Wilson who preceded Rebecca Eaton.  That was the start of the importation of British period piece dramas that is still going on with today's wildly popular Downton Abby.

Eaton begins her story by writing a memoir of her life, growing up in New England, after graduating from Vassar, and doing an internship for the BBC in London.  The stars were aligned for Eaton, a pronounced Anglophile, who brought her love of British costume drama home to Boston.  She was hired by WGBH and began working with Joan Wilson who taught Eaton the ins and outs of program production and how to make use of the contacts in Britain she had begun to forge.  When Wilson died, Eaton was a natural to take her place.

After Eaton snagged Alistair Cooke to host Masterpiece Theatre and the sponsorship of the Mobil Corporation, the program's golden age began.  And, so begins a series of stories which will bring back wonderful memories of the beloved series we watched through the 70s, 80s, 90s and into the new century.  Just reading the titles of the many programs and the actors and actresses who went on to become major stars brings back he pleasure of Sunday night viewing.  You can make your own list, but begin with Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Helen Mirren, Daniel Radcliffe, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, etc.  The golden age was during the tenure of Alistair Cooke and Vincent Price who hosted Masterpiece's cousin, Mystery.  After Cooke retired, there was a period, especially after Mobil withdrew its support, when things began to look grim for the program.  Then along came Downton and the rearranging of Masterpiece into three series a year: Masterpiece Classic; Mystery; and Masterpiece Contemporary.  This saved the program which is poised to begin another surge of popularity.  To think that Rebecca Eaton almost passed on Downton Abby because WGBH had  previously committed to a pre WWII version of Upstairs Downstairs. 

Beside reading about my favorite programs and actors, I learned how difficult it is to produce a high quality program along with the backbiting and one-upmanship that goes on in t.v. land.  Eaton's job is made more difficult by the constant need to attract sponsors and raise money from the generous supporters of public television where major funding for many top notch programs still comes from "viewers like you."  If you recognize that phrase, you know how annoying and how necessary campaigns for public contributions are.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

TOBY'S ROOM by Pat Barker (fic)

Pat Barker has written another thoughtful and compelling novel about World War I and how it changed the life of  all who managed to survive.  In my opinion Barker is one of the most outstanding novelists who writes of this era.  This book lives up to her previous trilogy in which some of the same characters appear.  She has a masterful way of including both real and fictional characters that seems perfectly natural.  Beside the main characters, Virginia Woolf and some of the Bloomsberries appear as well as Henry Tonks the physician and war artist.  In fact, the title of this novel, Toby's Room is much like Woolf's Jacob's Room, in which  Woolf writes about her  dead brother Thoby, which is another connection.

Barker's story opens in London at the Slade School of Fine Arts where Elinor Brooke is enrolled as an art student studying anatomy and drawing under Henry Tonks.  At first we are given some background of Elinor's family, especially her intense relationship with her brother Toby. As in Barker's other novels of war, we see the sad effect it has both physically and psychologically on the characters in the book.  Elinor has a relationship with two soldiers who were art students in her class before they went off to France.  Both Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville play important roles in the novel.  Toby Brooke is equally important, but we only discover his story after his death.  Elinor is obsessed with finding out how and why Toby has died in France, and Kit Neville is the only one who knows. 

Neville is horribly disfigured when he returns to London to receive treatment at Queen Mary's Hospital which specializes in reconstructive facial surgery to repair war wounds.   Meanwhile, he is keeping secret Toby's death and what he know about it.  We begin to learn, through his morphine dreams and shell-shocked memories, what really happened on the battlefield.

Henry Tonks who in real life, worked at St. Mary's as a surgeon and artist, created a portfolio of drawings of his patients that he and other physicians used in their work. There is a web site devoted to these paintings that can be accessed today.  In the novel Tonks convinces the talented Elinor to assist him in his portraiture. 

The climax of the novel takes place in a violent storm on the Suffolk coast where Paul and Kit stay for the weekend.  After a bout of heavy drinking, Paul learns the truth from Kit and how his story is entwined with that of Toby's and how Toby met his end. 

I highly recommend this book to all. It is not necessary to have read Barker's previous novels to enjoy this book which stands alone.  It is a thought provoking and absorbing novel.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

LONGBOURN by Jo Baker (fic)

I immensely enjoyed this book.  What Jo Baker has done with this novel is to build on Jane Austin's great novel, Pride and Prejudice which suits as the background to the story of the everyday life of the servants in the Bennets home, Longbourne, in Hampshire.  Baker is not pretending to be Jane Austin or to copy her writing.  Instead she has written a thoroughly entertaining novel that shows us the unglamourous side of the Bennet household.  The downstairs action is simultaneous with that of the drama upstairs.  The four servants and later a footman have their own drama that is every bit as engrossing as that of the Bennet girls and perhaps a tad more realistic of life in the 1820s. 

As the novel opens, the overriding concern of the servants is the visit of Mr. Collins, a cousin, who is likely to inherit Longbourne when Mr. Bennet dies, as there is no male heir in the Bennet family.  This is worrying to the servants as Mr. Collins, without a by-your-leave, could turn them out and replace them with his own people.  As you read on in the novel, you are always aware of how the story turns out for the Bennet family (if you haven't read the Pride and Prejudice you have most likely have seen one of the many dramatizations).  What you don't know is how these events affect the family living downstairs.  They are not related, except for Mr. and Mrs. Hill, but they form a caring group, closer than many families of the age.  Besides the Hills, there are Sarah and Polly, both of whom come from the local poorhouse as young girls, and James who was hired as a footman/coachman.  All these characters are overworked.  Mrs. Bennet, the high-strong mother,  is reliant on Mrs. Hill who has some mysterious connection to Mr. Bennet.  The entire house, up and downstairs is full of secrets that will keep you reading.  And, those charming young ladies we all love in the original book, leave lots of dirty laundry around for Sarah to clean.  Tromping through the fields and mud and rain, is not romantic when you are the one responsible for the washing and ironing.  Jane Austin's characters move about on the periphery of the servants' lives.  We meet them all, but they play very small rolls in the book.

 Like its parent book, a love story makes this novel interesting.  Sarah is bright, charming, brave and every bit as independent and definite as Elizabeth Bennet. James's story is central to the plot and affects all the other characters in one way or another. His early life gives the reader a realistic look at the Spanish campaign and army life.  Lively little Polly is almost led astray, and old Mr. Hill is keeping his own secrets.

All in all, the story moves apace, and the reader will find the book hard to put down.  I highly recommend this book to all who love Jane Austin and would like a different take on life in the Bennet home.  It is also a good choice for book groups, who may like to compare and contrast it with Austin's novel. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A TRAIN IN WINTER by Caroline Moorehead (non-fic)

In January 1943, 230 Frenchwomen were deported from occupied France to Birkenau, the women's section of Auchwitz.  The youngest was 16, a schoolgirl who was accused of writing Vive les Anglais on the walls of her lycee.  She was put on the only train, during the entire four years of German occupation, to take women from the French Resistance to the Nazi death camps.  Most of these women were professionals and intellectuals who put their lives on hold to play important roles in the resistance movement.  They were mothers, grandmothers, dentists, doctors and teachers. While many of the women arrested were members of the communist party, they were not alone in resisting the occupation and Petain's so called  "free zone."  Acts of rebellion were being carried out by Catholics, Jews and Gaullists all over France.  There was a war within the war going on daily with the French police who were diligent in tracking down and imprisoning the resisters.

Of the 230 French women, thirty-four of them communists, who had left Paris twenty-nine months earlier on the death train, had lived to see the end of the war.  a hundred and eighty-one of their friends and companions had died, of typhus, brutality, starvation, gassing;  some had been beaten to death, others had simply given up.  Not one who had been over the age of 44, and very few of the younges, were still alive.

In 2008, Caroline Moorhead decided to go in search of the women who had left Paris on that train 65 years earlier and see if any might have survived and be alive to tell the tale.  She discovered seven of the women still alive who were in their 90s.  Three were too frail to be interviewed, but Moorehead was able to meet and talk with their families.  Four of the women were able to tell their stories.  And what tales they tell, of the French prisons called chateaux de la morte lente (slow death), of the hunger they felt, of the ways they found to keep spirits up, the sharing and the caring for each other.  The reader learns how the friendship and compassion these women had for each other, helped them survive the tortures and death that they faced every day, up until the final horror of arriving at the death camp. 

The first part of the book describes the resistance movement and the ways they were able to evade detection.  Many characters are introduced and it is a little difficult to keep them straight.  The second part of the book, tells much of their suffering in prison and the friendships that were forged there.  This is where the reader gets to know the character and strength of these women.  Throughout the book, Moorhead has inserted many photos of happy families and women smiling during the good times between the two world wars.  This allows the reader to feel closer to the women as their stories unfold.  There is also an appendix that lists all the women deported and brief facts about each.

It is not easy to read of these brave women and know that most did not survive to return to their children and families.  It is a sad book in the end, admiring these brave people and knowing how they suffered and met their end. It is a valuable record of a valiant group dedicated to freedom and decency in the face of the insurmountable difficulties of an occupied nation.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

HARVEST by Jim Crace (fic)

Jim Crace is an interesting author.  He writes of the everyday lives of people who lived long ago and far away with such skill, that the reader becomes immersed in a time that seems as real as today.  In Harvest he takes a microscope to life in an isolated medieval village with all its poverty and superstitions.  We don't find out why this village is so isolated or why it is losing prosperity, nor do we know for certain what century or year this story takes place. 

When we enter the village, it is on a downward spiral, perhaps the Black Death has been there before us, perhaps there were not enough young people left.  We meet our guide, Walter Thirsk, an outsider, who has been living in the village since he was a young man.  He is a widower and had been married to one of the village women. We learn that he came to the village with Master Kent, also a widower, to the manor which he had inherited.  Now with no issue, the manor is soon to be passed on to a thoughtless nephew who has newfangled ideas about enclosing the land and raising sheep rather than farming.  There was a huge world-wide demand for wool at this time, and farms were being broken up to accommodate sheep farming.

As the story opens, three strangers two men and a woman, are camped at the outskirts of the village.  Their presence coincides with the burning of the Master's storage barn and stable.  The strangers were blamed, though blameless, and pilloried in a torturous manner.  The townspeople, already full of anxiety about the looming loss of their land, exact their vengeance on the hapless trio.  Walter Thirsk suffers bouts of conscience as he witnesses the punishment of the trio and witnesses the breakdown of the the social order that has kept the townspeople in check up to this time. What follows shows the reader how readily a tight little society, which has existed and been productive for years, can crumble and fall apart when facing a threat that it has no power to control. 

I found this book interesting, though the ending doesn't resolve all the questions the reader might have.  It leaves one with more questions than answers.  It is an unusual book that will appeal to readers who appreciate what seems an accurate depiction of an old village lost to time.