Library Director’s Notebook
April, 2014

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Somerville and Ross were two women writers and cousins who wrote rollicking stories about the Anglo-Irish and their trials and tribulations in Ireland during the late Victorian period.  Their best known work, which was dramatized by the BBC is Some Experiences of an Irish RM.  Yet Somerville and Ross considered The Real Charlotte to be their best work.

Part farce, part drama and in the end, part tragedy, The Real Charlotte might be said to be a combination of the deep seated vengeance found  in Balzac’s Cousin Bette, the sad fate of the heroine in  Hardy’s Tess of the Durbervilles,  a good dash of the broad silliness of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and the vivacious candor of Fieldings’ Tom Jones!

Pretty, inexperienced, yet ultimately manipulative Francie Fitzpatrick has lived a life of genteel poverty in her small Irish town, and so is happy to take up refuge with her older, seemingly sedate cousin Charlotte.  Within weeks of her establishment in the rustic town of Lismoyle,  Francie has conquered the male population pretty completely, including Christopher Dysart,  the son of the local squire, Gerald Hawkins, a dashing English army officer and  Roddy Lambert the estate land agent, with whom Francie was acquainted as a child.

Charlotte watches these goings on with increasing displeasure, particularly since she has herself been enamored of Lambert, the land agent for years , who is himself married to a dull, nervous, semi-invalid wife. Francie, unaware of Charlotte’s passion for Lambert, keeps him dangling with her other suitors as she sets out to have the best time possible before making any permanent choice of her own.

The  passionate rivalries, overt or unspoken continue to heat up, with Francie flaming the fire with her dazzling loveliness and headlong pursuit of amusement.   Charlotte, thwarted and bitter and neglected one time too many, begins to concoct her own schemes, with tragic results.  Meanwhile a motley crew of locals, replete with thick layers of ignorance, superstition, and age-old resentments comment on the unfolding drama like a kind of Irish chorus, discoursing on the action with censorious tongues.

The Real Charlotte is not as well known at it ought to be.  Although written more than a hundred years ago, it raises questions of morality, psychology, and social interaction that are entirely relevant today. Its humor, at times broad, at times subtle, stands the test of time. Lastly, the lovingly detailed descriptions of the Irish countryside elevate the spirit, as all carefully observed writing of the natural world inevitably does.

Library Director’s Notebook
March, 2014

For the past few weeks I have been enjoying the novels of Anthony Trollope, who although a contemporary of Dickens and a more prolific author, is not as well known and not usually as highly  regarded as Dickens by modern readers.  Trollope has written nothing, for example, as loved and universally lauded as  A Christmas Carol, yet in his own way, Trollope had as keen an eye for both the sublime and the ridiculous as Dickens.

If you like long, complicated descriptions, lively dialogue, dry, sardonic wit, and romantic entanglements, you will love reading Anthony Trollope, especially his six volume series of novels known collectively as the Chronicles of Barsetshire.  These novels, written between 1855 and 1867 feature  a cast of characters living in the fictional county known as Barsetshire, including the cathedral town of Barchester.  Featured in the impressive cast of Victorian characters are clergy, bishops, dukes, earls, landed  gentry, lawyers and farmers, numerous  lovely ladies, with or without fortunes to attract numberless well- or ill-meaning suitors, anxious mothers, clueless fathers, eager daughters and feckless sons.

It is a delight to read Trollope, but perhaps it is an even greater delight to hear his work read by a gifted  actor.  My long commute back and forth to work has been wonderfully enlivened by listening to superb actors read  Barchester Towers and Dr. Thorne, two of the chronicles of Barcestshire.  In the first novel, a new bishop comes to Barchester with his overbearing wife and scheming chaplain and soon throws the self-complacent clergy and their families into an uproar.  In Dr. Thorne a lovely, self assured young woman of no fortune and very dubious birth is wooed by the heir of the local squire, much to the despair of his relatives who keep intoning “Frank, you MUST marry money!”

In fact, nearly all of Trollope’s novels have to do with money;  what  the pursuit of it, or the want of it, does to people of all classes.   Trollope himself knew what it was to be born into a family that experienced more than its share of stressful financial difficulties.  All his life Trollope worked very hard to keep such difficulties from blighting his adult life, and his astounding outpouring of novels and short stories certainly was effective at keeping the wolf from the door!

One habit of Trollope’s as a writer that some modern readers might find disconcerting, if not actually annoying, is his habit of intruding his opinions and reflections directly into the novel, sometimes slowing the pace of the story down to a crawl.  Like some other novelists of his time, he had no scruples about suddenly addressing “the reader” directly; commenting on characters and their motivations or suddenly going off on a flight of discourse about modern politics or social commentary!  He has been criticized for this, and while understanding the criticism, I usually find these comments and musings of his  to be quite enjoyable.

In fact, I think that if Trollope had lived in modern times, he would probably have loved having his own blog, where he could have nattered on and on about everything under the sun!  But being a Victorian, with only his novels to feed his passion for commenting about all and sundry, including his remarkable knowledge and insight about each and every one of his hundreds of  characters, he had to be content with the fiction he left behind for us to enjoy!  And although my Director’s Notebooks are usually reserved for reviews of books, including recorded books, I want to also urge readers to view a wonderful adaptation of one of Trollope’s last novels The Way We Live Now.  The multi-part  series, broadcast a few years ago on Masterpiece Theater features performances by an outstanding cast of British actors, led by the inimitable David Suchet, of Hercule Poirot fame.  Although written more than 130 years ago, it shows an insight into financial chicanery and rapaciousness that is very modern indeed!

Library Director’s Notebook
February, 2014

A new novel by Lee Smith is always a much-anticipated event by thosel of us who love her work.   Known to some of a “southern writer”,  Lee Smith both fulfills the finer expectations of  that label and extends far beyond its boundaries.  It is hard to find a writer from the South, the North, or any place betwixt or between who has a greater capacity to spin a tale, craft a sentence,  provoke a startled laugh, or evoke a searing memory better than Smith.

In her latest novel Guests On Earth, Smith introduces the character of Evalina Toussaint, a young girl whose early childhood in New Orleans in the 1920’s at first seems ideal, at least from a child’s innocent point of view.  Unaware of the struggles of her highly overwrought, beautiful mother whose sustenance and comfort depend on the pleasure of her male protectors, Evalina knows only that her mother is an exotic, fascinating creature.  When her mother commits suicide and dies in Evalina’s arms, the distraught and now orphaned Evalina is eventually brought to Highland Hospital, an actual hospital that existed and thrived for many years in Asheville, North Carolina, where it was known for its unconventional approach to the treatment of mental disorders, including various forms of shock therapy.

In fact, Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of Scott Fitzgerald was a frequent patient at Highland Hospital. In Smith’s fictionalized account ,Evalina and Zelda meet each other and get to interact many times over the years.   Yet Guests on Earth, although narrated by Evalina, is not only Evalina’ s story, nor is it primarily Zelda’s story.  Instead, through Evalina’s eyes the reader has a close up view of several of the inmates whose lives were shaped and changed during their time at Highland Hospital, sometimes for the better, and sometimes with less enduring success.

Ominously looming over the story is the fact that Highland Hospital was the scene of a horrific fire in 1948 that took the lives of nine women, locked in one of the wards on the top floor.  Evalina as a survivor of that fire leads us along  a circuitous but inevitable path towards that day of horrible reckoning.  Along the way we come to know and care about Evalina’s friends and loves including Dixie, a vivacious Southern Belle, Ella Jean,  a warm-hearted and extraordinarily gifted musician,  Jinx,   an amoral  young woman with a mysterious past, and Pan, a near mute but seductive young man, abused as a child in horrific ways, yet able to connect with Evalina in a way that no one else can.

With Guests on Earth Lee Smith once again creates a work of fiction that resonates and lives on, well past the last page.

 

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Library Director’s Notebook

January, 2014

The Collector of Lost Things by Jeremy Page is a book about rare, priceless, irreplaceable things, lost forever, not due to some cataclysmic eruption of the universe, but through the banal brutality, and senseless acquisitiveness of mankind.  It is very difficult to read the detailed, bloody descriptions of the slaughter of animals by sailors, explorers, and even by scientists.  Paradise is not always to be found in a lushly appealing tropical setting. Sadly, there is no paradise so frozen, so remote, or so self sufficient that it cannot be discovered, claimed, and exploited by man. 

The Collector of Lost Things is not merely a condemnation against animal exploitation.   The story is told through the point of view and memories of a young collector, Eliot Saxby, commissioned by several wealthy patrons to see if he can locate, while on an Arctic voyage, any remnants of the extinct Great Auk.  The story, set in 1845 at the height of the Victorian passion for scientific collecting and classifying, also brings to life the social, spiritual, and psychological milieu of the age, through the eyes and impressions of the rather naïve Saxby.

In the crowded microcosm of the sailing ship, Saxby interacts closely, if at times uncomfortably, with the various officers and crew, along with two civilian passengers including Clara, a beautiful young woman accompanying her male cousin on the ship.  Clara mystifies and excites Saxby who cannot understand why such a frail woman in obvious distress and ill health should attempt such a dangerous voyage.  To make matters more disturbing and mysterious, Saxby is certain that Clara is hiding her true identity and is in fact another unhappy young woman named Celeste whom Saxby had tried unsuccessfully to rescue from her domineering father nearly a decade earlier.

As the weeks go by, Saxby and Clara form a passionate bond and friendship.  Together they attempt to hide on ship a creature of incalculable value, unique in all the world.  They are forced to confide in others about their hidden treasure in order to keep it alive; although they know betrayal and failure are probably inevitable, as their dread of discovery grows with every hour.

 Yet nothing is a given when there is passion enough to defy all odds.  The Collector of Lost Things is astonishing and deeply moving, up to and through the very last remarkable pages.

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Library Director’s Notebook
December, 2013

I have just finished reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love).  I have spoken with a few people who finished reading The Signature of All Things, and I find it interesting that there appears to be a wide range of opinions about the book.  One reviewer said she  loved it and found it endlessly fascinating, while another reader said it was boring and not worth finishing.  I think the reason for the disparity of opinion about this book is that in some ways it is a book with a split personality!

On the one hand , The  Signature of All Things is a story about love in all its forms, love between men and women, love between children and their parents, love among siblings, and love for dearly held principals or passions.  The book’s protagonist  Alma Whittaker participates with varying degrees of success in all these love relationships.  Her intense search for love drives the story and generates our  alternating  feelings of  compassion or impatience for her.

On the other hand, Alma’s primary passion, for science, observation, and classification brings an entirely different  slant and depth to the book.  Anyone interested in the history of science, or in botany, evolution, natural science, or the accomplishments of women in science would find this aspect of the story equally as compelling as Alma’s emotional struggles, if not more so.  I am interested in all the subjects I just mentioned, so I loved reading about Alma’s painstaking, scientific observations and theories which eventually led her to a revolutionary insight.  However,  I can understand that not all readers would be willing to plow though pages of Alma’s close, not to say obsessive, observation of mosses, a study she devotes most of her life to and which occupies a major portion of her  time, thought, and intelligence.

Yet  it is Alma’s lifelong  passion for mosses that defines her personality and determines her place in the world.  It is her obsessive, perfectionist need to understand  the natural world and her ability to extrapolate her findings to include the world of humans  that leads to her astounding insights and ultimately prevents her from sharing her theories with the world.

The Signature of All Things is not an easy read; it is long and complex and at times too full of coincidences to be entirely believable.  However, it is also quite thought-provoking. The  character of Alma is fully developed and  entirely believable in her many errors, misunderstandings, passions,  and regrets.  Throughout her long life ( a period  that encompasses 1800 up through the early 1880’s),  Alma never fails to be her own worst enemy; but she is also a woman of extraordinary ability, determination,  courage, and ultimately, compassion and  wisdom.

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Library Director’s Notebook
November, 2013

While I am certainly a strong proponent of the belief that the book is always better than the movie , I have many times been pleasantly surprised by watching the movie first, and then following up by reading the book.  This would seem counter-intuitive to some—if the book is always better, why not read the book first?  Well, for one thing,  I  often will see a movie and not realize it is based on a book (rather than being an original screenplay) until after I have read the movie credits at the end! For another, all too often we are disappointed when we have loved a book only to find the movie adaptation leaves out our favorite characters, or our favorite scene, or the general flavor of the book. When you start with the movie, however, reading the book afterwards cannot help but be a richer, more complex, ultimately more satisfying experience.

While I’m really not trying to make any converts here; I will just give an example in this month’s column where reading the book after seeing the movie made for a very satisfying experience with both forms of media.  Recently I read the book The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach.  I had thoroughly enjoyed the movie starring some of Britain’s best actors (Maggie Smith, Judy Dench,  Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson) nearly a year ago.  To me the movie flowed very smoothly, with the proper balance of sweetness and sadness and a definite dash of good humor as well.  I was completely satisfied with the movie, with no sense of dissatisfaction that any element was missing or had not been thoroughly explored.

What a surprise then to realize after reading the book that many of the characters had been changed, including their age, motivation, problems,  and relationships from the book to the movie. There were many more characters in the book than in the movie (not surprising at all), and the relationships in the book were more complex and at the same time  the various  characters not always as engaging or likeable as in the movie (again not a surprise).  However, because I saw the movie first, I was able to love it as it stands on its own and not consider it a pale shadow of the original book.

For those of you not familiar with the story The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel it is a tale of several  retired  men and women who for one reason or the other (poor health ,lack of money, or lack of loving family) are finding it untenable to continue living a comfortable life in the England of the 21st century. The in-law of one of them decides to go into business with his dubious,  entrepreneurial relative to start a community for just such cash-strapped elders in Banglore, India.  With the low cost of living in India and an abundance of supposedly well-trained staff, the English seniors hope to live a life of ease and luxury at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  But the best laid plans of mice, pensioners, or over-reaching entrepreneurs often go astray!

Yet despite musty rooms, leaking plumbing, over-worked staff, ubiquitous beggars, and questionable food, the residents of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel find friendship, personal growth, and even love in unexpected places.  As several people remark in the book, no one who visits India for any length of time can remain unchanged. Whether you choose the book, movie, or both, I think you will discover an engrossing and satisfying experience.

Library Director’s Notebook
October, 2013

I’ve written in my notebooks a few times about the Number 1 Ladies Detective Series by Alexander McCall Smith.  I enjoy that series not just for its unusual setting in modern day  Botswana, and its likeable cast of characters, including Precious Ramotswe, the lady detective of the title, but also for the strong values and the humanity that inform the stories.

Those values and that humanity are also at the center of Alexander McCall Smith’s recent book Trains and Lovers.  In format, Trains and Lovers is a series of linked conversations, confessions, and inner reflections between four strangers who meet for the first time on a train ride from Edinburgh to London.  At first glance the four passengers would not seem to have much in common.  Andrew and  Hugh are two lively young men. David is a sedate middle aged man, and Kay is a kindly woman in late middle age. Andrew is a Scot, Hugh is English, David is American and Kay is Australian.

Andrew and Kay break the ice by commenting politely on the scenery racing past the train window.  Soon Andrew is telling Kay the story of his recent and difficult love and work life, while Hugh and David listen, first politely and then intently.  As Andrew’s story unfolds in the unexpected proximity of a railway carriage, each listener comments or reflects silently about his or her own life histories, choosing to share, or not, their successes or failures with love.

The nature of love, the importance of trust, the durability of affection, the unpredictability of fate, the well or ill meaning interference of others are all touched upon, as each of the train passengers recalls their various experiences.  The love of parents for their children, of a husband for his wife, of a sister for a brother, or of  unacknowledged love between young  friends ; in short, love in its many forms  is represented with tenderness and insight in the different stories.

Through it all, McCall Smith’s distinctive philosophy radiates in every story, every character, and every outcome.  The belief in the power of generosity, kindness, compassion, and honesty and how such values and the actions help shape our fate and our world is what makes this book such a pleasing and resonating  experience.  A touch of mystery, a dash of humor, a tug at the heart, and the smile that comes  whenever lovers overcome obstacles  to find the courage to embrace—all these elements come together  to make Trains and Lovers  a  wonderful ride!

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Library Director’s Notebook
September, 2013

As someone who has been passionate about reading since she was a little girl, I do quite a bit of reading every day; yet it seems no matter how much I read, I still miss some important books along the way.  The pleasure of finally “catching up” with those  excellent books is similar to the enjoyment of finding money in your coat pocket that you hadn’t realized was there—in other words, the  startled excitement of finding a small treasure!

This feeling of pleasurable discovery is what I experienced from the very first sentences of this 1986 novel An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro.  The narrator of this slender novel, is Masujo Ono a once famous and honored artist who seems to have lost his position in the world of post-World War II Japan. Little by little, in a series of wandering memories and  imperfect recollections, we follow Ono’s early  artistic struggles, his courageous decisions, his wartime honors, and his post-war fall from grace. Through all these reminiscences the reader has the sense that Ono has only a very imperfect understanding of the seismic social changes his own country is undergoing.  He also does not seem to fully grasp why his own countrymen have turned against him and his fellow artists, who dedicated their careers to propagandist, chauvinist-inspired art.  Indeed some of Ono’s colleagues in the arts and in politics have made the supreme decision to kill themselves for their part in stoking the Japanese war machine, as a way of offering appeasement to the survivors of catastrophes like Nagasaki.

Yet Ono is not in any way a militaristic or insensitive man.  In nearly every sentence his compassion, his  artistic sensitivity, and  his love of the natural world shine through.  It seems he can do nothing, whether sitting on a bench, or crossing a bridge, or walking in a park that leaves him unmoved in  a quiet yet intense appreciation of the moment.  His conversations with his daughters, his memories of his son and wife, both killed during the war, his encounters with old colleagues show him to be not bitter but bemused by the changes in his country.

Ono’s surviving daughters are more aware then he of his fall from grace.  One daughter gently and the other impatiently tries to make her father understand that Japan has changed and that his place in the new Japan is no longer a place of honor. Barely heeding the words of his daughters, Ono instead lets his mind drift back to his youth and his encounters in “the floating world”, that world of bars, nightclubs, geishas,  and merriment that served as a backdrop to his artistic youth and an inspiration for his early work.

By the end of the novel, Ono seems to have come some distance in his understanding of the war, his country’s shame and defeat, and his part in it.  Yet, he does not feel guilty about his actions, believing that he at least took an authentic stand  in what he believed.  Nonetheless, despite his fall from grace, he has the innate generosity to look with a kind of tolerance and appreciation upon the younger generation who no longer venerate him, including his own grandson.  The floating world, his dreams, and his achievements, like so much of Japan has drifted past  Ono; but the elusive ,delicate memories still linger like a sweet, but faded perfume.

Library Director’s Notebook
August, 2013

Recently there has been a spate of imaginative writing about Queen Elizabeth II.  The film The Queen with Helen Mirren as well as the book The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett come to mind, as does the recent telecast of the successful London production of The Audience, also staring Helen Mirren as the Queen. Remarkably, for such a very public and therefore possibly divisive figure, all of these fictional takes on the Queen have been for the most part positive, and at times even affectionate.

The recent novel by William Kuhn entitled Mrs. Queen Takes the Train is no exception to this trend.  In this novel Queen Elizabeth, well in her ‘80’s, appears, as do many of her contemporaries , to be suffering from a mild bout of depression, perhaps even the forerunner of mild dementia.  She reflects on her life and her role in British society, wondering if she is indeed a useless antiquity and if the whole idea of monarchy is a waste of time and money.

With these thoughts roiling around in her brain, the Queen takes an unprecedented, certainly unplanned step.  She takes off from Buckingham Palace disguised in a borrowed “hoodie” to try to make her way to The Britannia, the royal yacht she once loved, that has been decommissioned and turned into a tourist attraction. In her flight she seems to be channeling Audrey Hepburn in the movie Roman Holiday when Audrey, as the frustrated princess, runs away for a night from her royal life to see what “real” people are like.

The Queen is often confused and startled by the life going on around her.  Yet she does not falter or fail and instead comes to form several brief but touching friendships with the people she meets, all of whom fail to recognize her.  Meanwhile her personal staff at the palace, discovering her disappearance, are in a total frenzy trying to find her.  Her trusted dresser, lady-in-waiting, equerry,   butler, and even a young girl from her stables try to find the Queen before the rest of the nation knows she is missing.  Along the way the Queen reflects on her own life and her own prejudices and lack of knowledge about the problems of others; while those who pursue her come to their own life changing conclusions about forgiveness, duty, and love.

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train is a delightful book and one that brings real pleasure while perhaps raising a few tentative theories about the role of royalty and the importance of compassion and self-acceptance.  Although a work of fiction, I imagine even the Queen herself if she read this book would not be displeased.

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Library Director’s Notebook
July, 2013 

Maeve Binchy, one of modern day Ireland’s most beloved writers died in 2012, leaving behind countless readers and friends to mourn her passing.  Her last novel A Week in Winter was published posthumously and will no doubt be read with a certain bitter sweetness by her fans, who have come to rely on a new Binchy to read with pleasurable regularity.

Maeve Binchy was a storyteller who loved people, wanted them to be happy and fulfilled, and tried whenever she could to find a happy ending for her characters.  Most of the people in Binchy novels are good people with good intentions who might blunder and sometimes bluster but who are nearly always responsive to kindness and compassion.  Binchy knew people could be cruel, vengeful, abusive, manipulative, and destructive, but she gave short shrift to theories of absolute evil, nihilism, or existentialism.  Her characters are imperfect but perfectible; when offered a solution or shown the way to live a happier life, most of Binchy’s people go for it.

In A Week In Winter we have the familiar and endearing Binchy elements of a warm, loving description of a small Irish town, peopled with a cast of characters who are eccentric, eager, and wise in their own ways.  The novel centers around the early life and misadventures of Chicky who leaves Ireland and her family at a very young age to take off with a good looking American hippie, despite her parents’ warnings.  Abandoned by her handsome hippy, Chicky decides to face life alone in America, and more importantly, to build a better, independent life before returning to Ireland.  Telling her surviving relatives that her “husband” was killed in a car accident, Chicky builds another life for herself, resurrecting a beautiful but decaying manor house, turning it into a charming, one-of-a -kind Inn for travelers looking for respite from their own demanding and damaging lives.

One by one her visitors arrive, each with his tale to share.  There is an American movie star, jaded with his life of empty fame and fortune, a young Swedish accountant wearied by having to follow his imperious father in the family business, a librarian recovering from a disastrous love affair, a prospective daughter-in-law who must try to overcome the jealous machinations of her soon-to-be mother-in-law, and several other guests, each with their secrets, their worries, and their fears.

Little by little, with the combination of tentative but honest exchanges between strangers that quickly blossom into trusting friendships, the good food, the wild beautiful scenery, and the all encompassing compassion of Chicky, their host, each guest learns something of great value to take back with them to their “real” lives.  All except one guest, who resists every attempt to find joy in her life or be open to life’s blessings.  Well, I guess there’s always one in every crowd!

Reading Maeve Binchy is a dependable delight.  There is an absence of malice towards her characters and towards the world that makes her books feel as refreshing as a cool, crisp salad on a hot and humid day.  Yes, we need more than salad in our lives, and we need more than Binchy on our reading lists; but it feels great to find a writer who can make you believe, even for just a little while, that nearly all of life’s problems can be solved, with patience, compassion, love … and perhaps a trip to Ireland!