Sunday, February 26, 2012

You Can't Win Them All

Shortly after I finished my previous post, I came across a new book by an author whose previous book was critically acclaimed.  Of course, I immediately took it out and began reading it.  Alas, it's difficult to churn out magnum opus after magnum opus, as City of Fortune:  How Venice Ruled the Seas proved.  By Roger Crowley, the author of Empires of the Sea, this new book seems to be merely a magazine article plumped out by arcane factoids.  Empires of the Sea was a masterwork illustrating the lever on which the fate of the western world turned; City of Fortune is a biography of a city (a beautiful and important city, but just a city).

I had a similar experience with one of my favorite mystery authors, P.D. James.  She recently published Death Comes to Pemberly, presented as a murder mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and I was very anxious to sample it.  Well, after a long wait, it became available and I read it in one sitting.  What a disappointment.  Not only is it mostly a rehash of Austen's original work, with little original material, the mystery is not terribly mysterious.  I'm not in the habit of trying to figure out the endings, but I had the culprit, the situation, and the deadly secret all figured out halfway through the book.  Stick to Adam Dalgliesh, P.D. James.

I did manage to find some decent reading material, however.  Turn Right at Macchu Picchu, by Mark Adams, is a nonfiction account of his travels in Peru, combined with a history of the discovery of several hidden Inca cities.  The Inca still inspire fascination; a mountaintop people, rich in gold, who fought bravely and to no avail against the Spanish conquistadores.  Adams includes the story of Hiram Bingham, whose (pigheaded) determination led him to the discovery (and, possibly, pillaging) of these beautiful and mysterious empty cities. The writing is readable and comfortable, and Adams is even humorous at times, calling to mind Bill Bryson's brand of travel writing.

Last of all, I'll come to this week's fiction selection.  It gets more difficult to find decent fiction every week; if any of you have recommendations I'll be thrilled to try them.  This book, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, is by Margot Livesey, and I started reading it without looking at the blurb at all.  I think it actually made the reading experience more interesting, because it wasn't until chapter two that I realized that this is a book written exactly in the pattern of Jane Eyre -- and it's meant to be a "homage and modern variation" of it.

Jane Eyre's story lends itself well to parts of Gemma's life tale, but other parts make less sense.  This story takes place in the modern era, and situations in Bronte's book that were obviously morally problematic seem less so here.  Nevertheless, it's a good read.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

For Downton Abbey Watchers

The latest new series, now being shown on PBS, is a series called Downton Abbey, set in the years leading up to and including the Great War.  With a screenplay written by Julian Fellowes, it features a very Upstairs, Downstairs-like storyline, focusing on both the upper crust characters and the people who live to iron their shoelaces and bring up their tea.  Although it is a bit ridiculously soapy, it has become extremely popular watching for those who love gorgeous costumes, divine interiors, and the wonderful Dame Maggie Smith.  When it's over, one immediately goes into withdrawal, so here I am with a proposed antidote.

For watchers who want more of the atmosphere of the times of the Great War, take a look at the Loss of Eden series by John Masters.  This may be hard to find, as it's out of print, but your local library should have it.  It begins with Now, G-d Be Thanked, and it is a trilogy featuring a series of families in Kent, their servants, and their experiences throughout the war.  It reads an awful lot like Downton Abbey, and some of the situations are just as ridiculous.

Love the servants' hall?  Try Below Stairs, a memoir by Margaret Powell, a woman who spent most of her life "in service."  Unusually articulate, Powell paints a vivid picture of life belowstairs, and does it with a great deal of charm and humor.  The Remains of the Day, a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, also paints a vivid picture of the life of a butler whose life has been dedicated to the service of a somewhat delusional master, but it's a much darker picture.  (This has also been adapted as a movie, which is not bad).

If you want the laughs, P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves novels are the way to go.  Bertie Wooster, Jeeves's master in name only, is ridiculously simpleminded, and his silly escapades always lead to a conclusion where Jeeves, the perfect servant, saves the day.

Oh, and if you want something else to watch:  Julian Fellowes wrote the screenplay for Gosford Park as well. Also the Upstairs, Downstairs type theme, also Dame Maggie Smith, but it's a murder mystery.  Great fun!