Rumer Godden’s Cromartie vs the God Shiva

virago godden Cromartie vs the God Shiva $T2eC16ZHJF0E9nmFSs4-BRGQFVpQKQ~~_35Rumer Godden’s Cromartie vs the God Shiva is a miniature classic with an over-long title.  It is Godden’s last novel, written at age 89.

Based on a court case resolved in 1994 about a stolen 12th-century bronze statue of the god Shiva that turned up at the British Museum, it explores the issue of whether museums and dealers have a right to art treasures.

In Godden’s novel, a stolen statue of Shiva turns up in London in the possession of a Canadian antique dealer, Mr. Cromartie.  The government of India wants it returned.

After the dense opening pages, which present information in the form of dialogue, this gracefully-written book proceeds at a fast clip.   Sir George Fothergill, QC, and his head clerk, Walter Johnson, debate whether to take on the case representing Shiva acting through the government of India.

Sir George has his doubts.

I don’t want to oppose you, Walter–when have I ever?” he asked.  “But this is too fantastical–a Hindu god going to war.”

“Acting through the government of India, Sir, which seems solid enough to me.”

“It can’t be solid if it’s a spirit, which I don’t believe is active.  No, I can’t bring myself to do it.  We should be a laughing stock.”

Cromartie v shiva godden Jacket.aspxBut his colleague, Honor Wyatt, Q.C., thinks the case is “poignant,” and the firm takes it on, assigning it to Michael Dean, the senior of the junior barristers, who was raised in India. In an interview, Mr. Cromartie tells Michael that he won’t return Shiva to India unless properly paid, and claims he has recently been told the hotel was in financial difficulties and the hotel owner only pretended to steal it.

Michael travels to Coromandel to investigate the case.  He admires the beauty of Patna Hall, an old-fashioned luxury hotel built  by the beach and hills by an English businessman in the early 20th century.  The Englishman’s granddaughter, known as Auntie Sanni, now runs it, but it was Professor Webster, an archaeologist who comes every year with a group of tourists, who discovered that the original Shiva had been replaced by a fake sometime in the last year.

Who stole and sold it ?  A guest?  An inhabitant of the village? An archaeologist?   And who made the perfect replica?

And then Artemis arrives, a young beautiful American archaeologist, who is intellectual, vital, and volatile.  She is intensely competitive at everything she does and swims like a mermaid.  And yet there is something lost about her.

Michael falls in love with her.

The  intense  danger of the hotel’s magically colorful private beach is stressed throughout:  the waves are so strong that one cannot swim without wearing a wicker helmet.  Michael goes for an early-morning swim.

Crabs scurried across it, there was an occasional starfish and blue jellyfish.  All along was the barrier of tossing white, higher than his head, as the waves swept in, rearing up before crashing down; he had not realized till last night how gigantic they were.  Beyond them the open sea was calm and azure blue….

“Ours is not a gentle sea,” Auntie Sanni had told Michael, as she told all her guests, when she saw him in his bathrobe.  She always said, “Please remember it is dangerous to go in alone to bathe, even for strong swimmers.  You must take a guard.”

The solution to the mystery is sad,  moving, and complicated.  In some ways it reflects the qualities of Shiva Nataraja, who Godden tells us represents creation, preservation, destruction, concealment, favour.

A lovely book.  Godden wrote another book set in Patna Hall, Coromandel Sea Change.  It’s on the TBR.

The Folio Society Pushkin Notebook

My free Folio Society gift:  a Pushkin's Queen of Spades notebook.
My free Folio Society gift: a Pushkin’s Queen of Spades notebook.

Last week my Folio Society copy of the complete edition of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children arrived.

I photographed it, blogged about it, and then hid it from my husband.

Lovely book, but I had mixed emotions.

I was:

1.  Excited, because to have a new edition of The Duke’s Children with an additional volume (Trollope wrote a four-volume novel which was published in three volumes) makes it a new book.

2.  Depressed, because paperback reading copies are fine for me and I could have bought a plane ticket to Florida instead.

Trollope's The Duke's Children, with bedraggled geranium .
Trollope’s The Duke’s Children, with bedraggled geranium .

Then I shook the box.  Where was my gift? Weren’t we supposed to get a free journal or stationery?

Well, it’s not Amazon Prime, I reminded myself.  Chill.  They’re British.  It’s like the TLS app.  Good luck with that.

When another box from the Folio Society arrived today, I wasn’t surprised.  It contained my “free gift,” a notebook with the cover art from the Folio Society edition of  Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades and Other Stories.

I love it!  In fact, I want more notebooks, if there are any others.

So now I feel at peace.  I got my book and the toy gifty book (the notebook). And since I have spent my full allotment and more for Folio Society membership, I can now sit back–whew–and enjoy the book.

Coffee at the Borgias’ and Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk

"Flora" (sitter thought to be Lucrezia Borgia) by Bartolomeo Veneeto
“Flora” (sitter thought to be Lucrezia Borgia) by Bartolomeo Veneeto

When I take the bus in my small city, I sense that I immediately rise from middle-class matron to upper-class termagent.  It is not like the tube; it is not like the Metro.

Everybody has a cold, everybody is poor, some are just out of prison and talking at the top of their voice about Jesus, and the majority are distracted by the panem et circenses of their phones.

Thank God for electronics, I think.

I jump off the bus and walk two miles from the mall to the bookstore.

I love to spend a day browsing at the bookstore.  I usually buy a book or two (when I have not spent my book budget at the Folio Society).  And I always buy a coffee, because it is nice to sit and sip and read.  I  know who makes a good latte.   Today, however, the barista is unfamiliar, older than most, a shifty blonde, and  averts her eyes throughout the transaction.

I speculate: On drugs? That is uncharitable, right? Even if I’m right, which I probably am, I should be thinking of this with concern and instead I am thinking in bus terms:  who is this person sitting next to me?

I decide to have just coffee.

She takes a long time getting the coffee.

I sip the coffee, immediately get cramps, throw out the coffee, and manage to walk back to the bus stop.

I hold it together until I get home. Thank God my husband can go out to get 7-Up and crackers.

So do you think the barista was a Borgia?

Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk

H Is For Hawk macdonald 1406742829457Few books have been so lauded in the last year as Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk, a memoir of her grief for her dead father, her training of a goshawk to fend off depression, and a short, creative biography of T. H. White, whose memoir The Goshawk was her inspiration and nemesis. MacDonald’s popular book won the Costa Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2014.

To prepare for this book, which was published this month here, I read The Goshawk.  White, best-known for his novel The Once and Future King, decided to train a goshawk, the wildest of hawks, after he left his job as an unhappy teacher at a public school. MacDonald first read The Goshawk  when she was a child, and was upset, as I was,  by many passages about Gos’s training.

Although White’s writing is extraordinarily graceful, I was nauseated by his account of the cruel training of Gos. He learned about falconry from a book published in the Renaissance, and the methods were unnecessarily rigid:  we learn all about White’s sado-mashochism. He kept the bird awake for three to nine days until Gos finally took food from his hand.  The bird was terrified.  Both man and bird were deadened with exhaustion.  And the training went on.

MacDonald, a researcher at Cambridge, is an expert falconer. When her father died in 2007, she  spiraled into a deep depression.  Finally she  decided to train a goshawk for the first time.   She had ordered the hawk from an aviary, and when she met the man with the bird at the quay, he was carrying two boxes with birds, the younger for another falconer.  He opened the boxes to check the  identity, and Helen fell in love with the first one, which happened to be the wrong one..

Although she tries to be poetic, her prose is overwritten and flowery.  Too many adjectives, and too many fragments.

Infinite caution.  Daylight irrigating the box.  Scratching talons, another thump.  ‘And another.  The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust.

And I ask myself:  syrupy and dusty?

She continues:

The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clattering of wings and feet and talons and high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury . . . . She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.

Sadly, I had a picture of myself at a reading feeling uncomfortable because the book is over-dramatic and the prose is blowsy.

She asked if she could have the bird she liked, and he agreed to it.

MacDonald’s training of her bird, Mabel, is much more humane than White’s.  She and the bird have a relationship:  Mabel even likes to play.  But there are problems.  MacDonald is still depressed.  Her job at Cambridge is coming to an end.  And then there are some stresses with training Mabel.

Sometimes she retells White’s The Goshawk creatively from a third person point of view, and that does not work for me. She also writes a kind of psychoanalytic biography of him.

I gave up on the book halfway through.

I’m just not interested in falconry, and her writing is too florid for my taste.  I know that many have loved this, and I hope the quotes will encourage those of you who like such prose to seek it out.  I would give you my copy, but it’s an e-book!

Literary Figures & Painters: New Novels About Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Emily Dickinson, & Dorothy Richardson

Vanessa and Her Sister Parmar 22238372Some novels about  literary figures are stunning, others are trashy.

Anybody can cash in on our favorite writers.  Novels about Virginia Woolf are especially copious.

Two novels about Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf have recently been published, one about, Emily Dickinson, and another about Dorothy Richardson.

1.   Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister has been well-reviewed:  this novel is written in the form of the diary of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s painter sister.  It is said to be “an intimate glimpse” into the lives of Vanessa and Virginia and the Bloomsbury group.

Why haven’t I read it yet?   Novels about the Stephens sisters, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, can be dicey, because the members of the Bloomsbury group are so much more talented than most writers. What if I’m disappointed?

A gracefully-written 2009 novel.
A gracefully-written 2009 novel.

But  I did admire  Susan Sellers’s Vanessa & Virginia, a novel published in 2009. written from the point of view of Vanessa Bell. Broken into a series of short, beautifully written sketches, this is a poetic account of Vanessa’s painting, her ambivalent relationship with her difficult diva of a younger sister, Virginia Woolf, and her long, somewhat shocking love affair with Duncan Grant, an artist who prefers men and has a series of homosexual affairs.

2.  Norah Vincent’s Adeline:  A Novel of Virginia Woolf will be published April 7. I’m not sure how many novels about Virginia Woolf I can digest in a year, but it is the kind of thing I read.

Adeline norah vincent 51Hl4tlzUcL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Here is the description:

On April 18, 1941, twenty-two days after Virginia Woolf went for a walk near her weekend house in Sussex and never returned, her body was reclaimed from the River Ouse. Norah Vincent’s Adeline reimagines the events that brought Woolf to the riverbank, offering us a denouement worthy of its protagonist.

With poetic precision and psychological acuity, Vincent channels Virginia and Leonard Woolf, T. S. and Vivienne Eliot, Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington, laying bare their genius and their blind spots, their achievements and their failings, from the inside out. And haunting every page is Adeline, the name given to Virginia Stephen at birth, which becomes the source of Virginia’s greatest consolation, and her greatest torment.

Perhaps it will be good.  They like it at Goodreads.

3.  William Nicholson’s Amherst, a new novel about Emily Dickinson, would be a wonderful excuse to reread her poems.  Nicholson is a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter.  He is best-known for Shadowlands.

william nicholson amherst-9781476740409_hrHere is an excerpt from the description:

Alice Dickinson, a young advertising executive in London, decides to take time off work to research her idea for a screenplay: the true story of the scandalous, adulterous love affair that took place between a young, Amherst college faculty wife, Mabel Loomis Todd, and the college’s treasurer, Austin Dickinson, in the 1880s. Austin, twenty-four years Mabel’s senior and married, was the brother of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, whose house provided the setting for Austin and Mabel’s trysts.

It, too, has been well-received.

The lodger louisa treger 206135624.  Louisa Treger’s The Lodger is a novel about Dorothy Richardson, the author of Pilgrimage and the creator of stream-of-consciousness.  (No, Joyce did not invent stram-of-consciousness.  It’s the  boys who  think so!)

I have been a fan of Richardson for decades.

The description:

Dorothy exists just above the poverty line, doing secretarial work at a dentist’s office and living in a seedy boarding house in Bloomsbury, when she is invited to spend the weekend with a childhood friend. Jane recently married a writer, who is hovering on the brink of fame. His name is H.G. Wells, or Bertie, as he is known to friends.

Was there any woman writer in those days  who did not have an affair with H. G. Wells?  Rebecca West, Violet Hunt, and Elizabeth Von Arnim.  So many women writers.

If you have any favorite novels about literary figures, let me know.  There are so many!

Arrival of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children!

Trollope's The Duke's Children, with bedraggled geranium .
Trollope’s The Duke’s Children, with bedraggled geranium s.

I was glued to a tea-drinking scene in a 19th-century novel.

I didn’t hear the mail arrive.

I went to get tea and saw a box on the stoop.

I opened the door.

I picked it up.

The sticker said “Royal Mail” (much more awe-inspiring than USPS), and the return address sticker said The Folio Society.

Yes, my gorgeous copy of the Folio Society’s complete edition of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children arrived.

It is bound in Indian goatskin leather, with hand-marbled endpapers.

IMG_3060
Hand-marbled endpapers, and Line counter bookmark.

And it comes with an adorable “Line counter” bookmark. Most of the pages have exactly 39 lines.  When I blog about it, I will be able to cite the line number.   Fun, fun.

The copy number is written in by hand.  It is 7__ of 1980.  And it says that:

The first complete edition of The Duke’s Children has been typeset in Miller by The Folio Society, printed on Caxton Cream Wove… It is limited to 1980 numbered copies, and 20 lettered copies hors de commerce.

IMG_3063
At work with my Line counter bookmark.

It has an introduction by Joanna Trollope.

And there is a second volume, a commentary on the book.

My misgivings:  I  have never had a leather book before.

I am a paperback person.

My cousin the librarian is laughing at me.  “You’re not a f—ing collector and what about tea stains?”

IMG_3066
The commentary.

Trollope write The Duke’s Children as a four-volume novel and it was  cut to three volumes. The complete edition is only available from the Folio Society.

I retort, “It’s not a collectible.  It’s mine now.”

I am a bit worried.  I read my books HARD.  I throw my paperbacks down on the couch.  I write in them.

Wish me luck!  It is no longer a collectible…  It is a reading copy!

Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Anna Quindlen Still Live with Bread Crumbs Cover Image - Bread CrumbsWe read the good, the bad, and the good-bad.

Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs is one of those good-bad novels that could have been brilliant with some tweaking.  It was longlisted for the Bailey Women’s Prize last year.

Qundlen, a much-beloved former New York Times and Newsweek columnist, has written seven novels.  I read  Blessings, a sentimental novel about the finding of a foundling and the rejuvenation of a community,  for a book group.  I cannot recommend it.

With the Bailey Women’s Prize nomination, I decided it was time to reevaluate her fiction.

There is much to admire about this smart book. In Still Life with Bread Crumbs, Quindlen’s terse style reflects the heroine’s merciless honesty and minimalist style.  Rebecca Winter, an award-winning sixty-year-old photographer, can no longer afford her New York apartment.  She has moved into a dark, uncomfortable cottage in the country and is unhappy.  There is a raccoon in her attic.  She doesn’t know how to spend her time in the country.

Quindlen still life with bread crumbs 18070754How can she earn money?  The well has run dry.  Rebecca’s  art has been accidental.  She photographs what she sees and afterwards sees what she has photographed.  Her famous “Kitchen Counter” series was unplanned:  she photographed the remains of a dinner party.  The most famous of this series, “Still Life with Bread Crumbs,” has been reproduced as a poster.  But people are no longer interested in her work.  And she has bills:  her mother is in a nursing home, she can barely afford her rent, and her royalties are diminishing.

Gradually, life in the small town revitalizes her energy.  When she discovers crosses in the woods decorated with old family photos, trophies, and yearbooks, she begins to photograph them.  The “White Cross” series renews her career.

She meets wonderful people:  almost too wonderful..  There is Jim Bates, the hunky fortysomething roofer who also works for the State Wildlife Service tracking birds.  There is Sarah, the Anglophile owner the Tea for Two (And More).  There is Tad, a clown.  And Rebecca begins to work part-time with Jim photographing birds for the Stae Wildlife Service.

But the last third of the book goes to hell.  Rebecca has an affair with JIm.  Yes, okay.  Maybe this could happen.  But probably as a one-night stand, right?  Even beautiful women in their thirties and forties have trouble finding a man, because men tend to go younger.  And Rebecca hasn’t even had plastic surgery!

Not only does Rebecca find love:  almost everybody in the book couples.

Does every person in the world find love?  In this book they do.

Still, the structure is surprisingly experimental and satisfying:  chapters have titles like “How She Wound Up There–The Inspirational Version” and “How She Wound Up There–The Money Version.”  There is a minimalist feeling about the book. A few of the chapters are very short.   In “The White Cross Series–The Present,” there are two short paragraphs about her new photographs.  In “The White Cross series–Much Later,” a short announcement tells us of the future of the photographs.

And I loved the descriptions of Rebecca’s photography.

She went back to the other cross, put down her camera on a flat rock, and circled the area, squinting at the ground.  A yearbook often had the owner’s name embossed on the cover in gold leaf, but this one didn’t.  The two pieces of the cross were held together with a short nail, and the centering wasn’t exact, so that one side of the crossbar extended farther than the other.  The first time she’d just taken the photographs, but now she studied the tableau.  It was a bit like one of those roadside shrines that appeared along the roadside when some teenager–it was always a teenager–crashed his car into a tree and died behind the wheel.

But the last third of the book turns saccharine.  Why does Quindlen have to get sentimental?  What is it about too, too happy endings?  Did m-o-n-e-y dictate?

I found much of this delightful, but it could have been a really good book.

Henry James’s The Ambassadors

The beautiful Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in Jane Campion's film "The Portrait of a Lady."
Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in Jane Campion’s film “The Portrait of a Lady.”

Years ago I was convinced I was a Henry James heroine.  Was I an innocent American?   Check.  Was I an Anglophile?  Check.  Would I err in marrying an Italian prince who wanted my money?  No money, no check.  I was devoted to Isabel Archer of The Portrait of a Lady,  Maggie Verver of The Golden Bowl,  and Milly Theale of The Wings of the Dove.

James, born in New York City, spent much of his life in England.  In 1907  he  expressed regrets.  In Colm Toibin’s introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Ambassadors, we learn that James told the novelist Hamlin Garlan:

If I were to live my life over again, I would be an American.  I would steep myself in America, I would know no other land, I would study its beautiful side.  The mixture of Europe and America in me has proved disastrous.  It has made of me a man who is neither American nor European.  I have lost touch with my own people and I live here alone.  My neighbors are friendly but they are not of my blood, except remotely.

His American heroes are similarly torn.  They fall in love with the beauty of Europe, but too often discover that sophisticated Europeans are debauchees or preying on them for money. He perfects this theme in the early twentieth century during his “Golden period” in his three masterpieces, The Golden Bowl, The Ambassadors, and The Wings of the Dove.

the ambassadors henry james 51nqQRC3gmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Of these three stunning novels, The Ambassadors is my least favorite. Nonetheless, it is a very great book.   I recently reread it and admired it very much.

The hero, Lewis Lambert Strether, in his mid-fifties, travels to Europe for the first time on an errand for his fiancee, Mrs. Newsome, a rich widow who funds the journal he edits.  Her son, Chad, is entangled with an “undesirable” French woman:  Strether is to lure him home with the offer of a lucrative job in the family factory.

Just off the boat in Chester, England, at the hotel where he is to meet his fussy, gloomy American friend, Waymarsh,  he becomes acquainted with Maria Gostrey, an American who lives in Paris.  These two  have similar senses of humor.

When she hears his name, she recognizes it as the title of a Balzac novel, Louis Lambert.

Oh I know that!” said Strether.

“But the novel’s an awfully bad one.”

“I know that, too,” Strether smiled.  To which he added with an irrelevance that was only superficial:  “I come from Woollett, Massachusetts.”  It made her for some reason–the irrelevance or whatever–laugh..

Balzac Louis Lambert $_35James was a Balzac freak, though the connection between Louis Lambert and Strether is “woolly” to me.  Louis Lambert is one of Balzac’s philosophical novels:  when Louis, a philosopher and a former child prodigy,  goes to Paris, he has trouble balancing his despair over materialism with love for a beautiful woman. In some ways, Strether has the same problem balancing what he sees in Paris with actual human relationships.

In Paris, Maria is his touchstone: she  interprets the city for him.  And it is complicated.  Chad’s relationship with a beautiful married French woman, Madame de Vionnet, is perplexing.  She is separated from her husband, who will not divorce her.  And at first Chad is confused: he  thinks her lovely daughter has bewitched Chad.  It doesn’t occur to him that Chad and Madame de Vionnet are committing adultery.

The brilliant Madame de Vionnet sets out to charm him.  He sees how much she has “improved” Chad.  Gradually Strether decides Chad is better off in Paris, and writes to Mrs. Newsome praising Madame de Vionne.  Mrs. Newsome is furious:  she sends her daughter and son-in-law to Paris as ambassadors, along with her son-in-law’s sister, a charming American girl who is also meant to lure Chad.

Paul Scofield and Lee Remick In The Ambassadors (BBC)
Paul Scofield and Lee Remick In The Ambassadors (BBC)

Strether fights for Chad’s Parisian life. Later,  Strether discovers that his romantic view of the relationship between Chad and Madame de Vionnet is not quite accurate.

James takes us into his multilayered world and we are inside the head of a hero from Woollett.

We forget what it’s like to be 21st-century Americans.

And that’s why I love James.