Mar. 30th, 2016

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Uh oh, I'm way behind, so here's what I've been reading:

The Patrick Melrose Novels Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, Edward St Aubyn. Five stars. I'm not one of those people who can't enjoy books where the characters are un-likeable, luckily, because so far nearly everybody in the first book of this omnibus is horrible. But they're all interesting and entertaining so I'm really enjoying it.
Mother's Milk started out a bit too twee but is getting more interesting as it goes along. Right now I'm feeling like the theme is how everybody is trying to recover from their parents.

Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. Five stars. Breq continues to kick butt and take names in her quest to exact revenge and promote justice in the universe, and does a great job of it. By the end of the book I was pretty much in love with her because of her intelligence, bravery, and sense of justice. What I also liked in this one was the emotional bonds and conflicts among the characters, and I was genuinely worried about a character I'd come to love who isn't human. That was part of the point of the book, I think.
The ending felt just a bit rushed and tidy, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment of the series as a whole.
Although apparently in the other books it was made clear that there are two genders in the Radchaai universe, though "she" is used for both of them, and other reviewers felt it was clear that Seivarden is male, I continued to think of everyone as female and got a kick out of that.

A Slight Trick of the Mind, Mitch Cullin. Two stars. Either I'm missing something, or this went nowhere. Probably the former. It was also one of the saddest books I've ever read. I knew it wasn't an actual mystery, but I guess I expected more. It was very atmospheric and I couldn't put it down but ultimately no answers, no resolution. Very disappointing.

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, Steve Luxenberg. Three stars. One of those book length magazine articles, though it kept me reading.
His mother always described herself as an only child, but in her last years her kids discovered she’d had a sister who spent most of her life in a county hospital for the insane. Since this son is an investigative reporter he researched the family secret.
He got his aunt’s medical records and learned she was diagnosed as both retarded and schizophrenic. Professionals he consulted agreed she was certainly low IQ and clearly was paranoid and unstable, though “schizophrenic – undifferentiated” isn’t a category used today.
Other documents led him to a cousin who knew both sisters. He’d never known her because she and his mother had a falling out. This woman survived the Holocaust, the only one in her family, with false papers and worked as a translator for the Nazis. After the war she came to the US and got to know his mother. They fell out because she didn’t approve of how his mother treated the sister.
There are a lot of twists and turns, some more interesting than others. He’s shocked by some things that seem mundane, like his grandparents being first cousins. At the end he tries to tie Annie’s fate to the Holocaust somehow, which didn’t really work.
Despite medical records describing how difficult his aunt was, he sometimes seems ashamed and judgmental of his mother’s choice to keep Annie a secret. As the daughter of someone with two siblings who caused a lot of family grief and who distanced herself from them, I'm not shocked by this story or by the mother’s decision.

A Quiet Life, Beryl Bainbridge. Five stars. Stunningly great depiction of a dysfunctional family in grim post war Britain, from the point of view of the repressed and awkward teenage son.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Dava Sobel. Four stars. Another book length magazine article, but one I enjoyed very much. This traces the history of "the longitude problem", the need for sailors to know their location as they traveled across the globe. Calculations could be made using the moon and stars but they weren't accurate and this method was useless under cloudy skies. In 1714 England's Parliament offered a huge prize to anyone who could devise a device to measure longitude. So many useless ideas were proposed that the board managing the reward didn't even meet for 23 years. Then John Harrison, an uneducated clock maker, submitted his invention. Although championed by Edmund Halley and other astronomers and scientists, it took years for him to be recognized.
This book is about that process, which had more twists and turns than you'd imagine, rather than about clock mechanics. I would have enjoyed learning about that but I can see it's outside the scope of this book. One thing I enjoyed was mentions of the longitude problem in popular culture - Gulliver's Travels mentions various impossibilities such as the discovery of perpetual motion and of the longitude, and one of the plates of Hogarth's The Rake's Progress shows a lunatic in an asylum writing a solution to longitude on a wall.

Daphne du Maurier, Margaret Forster. Five stars. I enjoyed this very much - Forster is a writer whose other work I've liked, and De Maurier was an interesting, complex person who Forster does a great job of interpreting. du Maurier's family cooperated fully and she lived in the era when letters flourished.
She grew up in an artistic family. Her grandfather was the writer and Punch cartoonist George du Maurier, best known for the novel Trilby. Her father was the actor-manager Gerald du Maurier who happened to be brother of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies whose sons were the models for Peter Pan. Her parents had a happy marriage and her mother tolerated Gerald's dalliances with actresses; when Daphne became aware of this at the same time her father was becoming strict with his adolescent daughters, her hatred of this hypocrisy helped to drive a wedge between them.
All her life she felt she was a boy but consciously put that aside and referred to the "boy in a box" in letters. Later in life she became interested in Jungian psychology and the idea that we all have a shadow personality that drives us and must come out some way, which she found meaningful to explain the "boy in a box" and how it helped her writing. She made real people into fantasies, then wrote stories about them. At the end of her life when her creative muse left her, she became deeply depressed until her death.
She deeply loved her husband, who she married after they'd known each other three months, yet craved solitude and their happiest years were during and after the war when he was overseas or working in London and she was nearly alone in Cornwall. When he retired, tensions flared. After writing Rebecca she became obsessed with a house there and was able to get a long term lease on it, though she never owned it, and eventually had to move, which was a blow.
She had passionate feelings for several of women, most notably the actress Gertrude Lawrence, and Ellen Doubleday the wife of her publisher, and although letters make cleaer that the relationship with Lawrence was physical, she was vehement in letters that she was not a lesbian. This makes me think that if she'd lived in a later time she would not have come out as trans or bisexual. In some ways she was very straight laced - shocked at her son feeding and doing diaper changes for his kids, very disapproving that her daughters both divorced and remarried. She had stuck it out through her difficult marriage so why couldn't they?
She and her family have all kinds of special slang, like the Mitfords, so that's fun. Lesbians are Venetians, sex is waxing, and the act of intercourse is Cairo - she writes a friend that Cairo is now over between her and her husband and she never liked it anyway (but later seems to be trying, in her writings, to figure out how important sex is in relationships.)

At Last, Edward St. Aubyn. The last of the Patrick Melrose novels, in which we find our hero at his mother's funeral. Finally. He's come through some more self inflicted damage, this time alcohol related, and spent a while in rehab. We see the action from the point of view of various characters and there's more action than you'd expect at a funeral, but it's all satisfying and a lot of it's funny. Underlying it all is seems to be the point that a parent's cruelty, or love, is the thing that lasts forever.

Instead of a Letter: A Memoir, Diana Athill. I'm starting a project to read down my many unread biographies and memoirs. I'm not familiar with Athill but will read just about any memoir that looks interesting and am enjoying it a lot. She writes about her family and the privilege in which she grew up with an awareness of how lucky she was both to be unaware of poverty till her family's fortunes changed (and it was genteel poverty at that) and to have had the memories of time spent at her grandparent's estate.

May 2016

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