Book Review//Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton

I have been saving this book for a long time. Everything I read indicated it would be a book I loved, a book I would want to read over and over. Many bloggers whose opinions I trust raved about it. So, as I do, it was set aside for just the right time. Last week I pulled it off my shelf and decided that time had come. I settled down prepared for a wonderful experience.

But I didn't love it.

I know, some of you are ready to click away right now so let me hasten to add that I didn't hate it. In many ways, I enjoyed it. It had lines and scenes that made me smile and laugh. But it also had lines and scenes and characters that frustrated me intensely.

Guard Your Daughters is the story of the Harvey family--five sisters, a father who is a famous author, and a fragile mother. They live a very isolated life with little contact with society around them. The oldest, Pandora, is married and has moved away but the others still live a very circumscribed life. The first paragraph of the book makes this clear.

I'm very fond of my new friends, but I do get angry when they tell me how dull my life must have been before I came to London. We were queer, I suppose, and restricted, and we used to fret and grumble, but the one thing our sort of family doesn't suffer from is boredom.

 The reader realizes quickly that there is more going on than just a slightly odd, introverted family and that much of this is because of the mother. The family does all they can to shelter and protect her and they react very strongly to any threat to her peace of mind. In turn, she reacts unreasonably to any opposition. Her oldest daughter, Pandora, suggests that the youngest might benefit from going to school but notice the way the mother responds.

Mother was breathing quickly. She looked at Pandora with naked hostility. Neither of them took any notice of me. Mother said:  "I have borne five children, Pandora, and by this time I know how to take care of them. No one else knows that as well as I do. But call Teresa, if you wish. Ask her what she would like to do. If she says she wants to go to school, I will let her go, even if it should"--she dropped her voice almost to a whisper--"break me."

From then on, the book feels a bit as if it is hurtling toward an inevitable crash. Unfortunately, I never really cared enough about any of the characters and sometimes I actively disliked them and their actions. Throughout the book, you are held at a distance. The characters, the girls, all seem a bit formulaic; each with their identifying talent that somehow does not prevent them from running together as a group. They were brittle and self-absorbed. At one point, a girl visits whom they do not know well.

To entertain her we made conversation amongst ourselves and she listened, looking slightly astonished, while we interrupted and contradicted each other and shouted each other down with bursts of laughter. Now and then we would pause to give her a chance and she would drop a cliche plop into the seething conversation, which at once died down and only started to bubble again after a struggle. Our common attempt to get to know each other was thus, on the whole, unsuccessful, and we were all glad when Patrick and Teresa brought in the tea and piping scones. 

That poor girl. Can you imagine the conversation?

I know many compare this to I Capture the Castle but other than the obvious surface similarities I don't think that holds up. I Capture the Castle pulls you in from the first sentence--"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink"--and from that first moment the reader is part of the Mortmain family. The reader is right there with Cassandra as she writes. Guard Your Daughters leaves the reader on the outside looking in at a fragile construct that will fall apart at any moment.

Was Diana Tutton trying to write a feel-good novel about a family? Probably not, in my opinion. Was she writing about the long-term effect of dysfunction on a family? Possibly. Either way, this book left me disturbed and slightly irritated. I felt it could have been so much more than it was.

Some Days Are Like That

It is snowing. Again. This is the fourth winter storm this month.

My car needed a brake job. Another expense.

The book I ordered got lost in the mail but the packaging arrived right on time. Yes, the post office delivered a completely empty plastic bag to my mailbox.

I ordered a shirt online. The company sent me the wrong one.

I made a new recipe and everyone, including me, hated it.

Our mailbox got knocked down by the snowplows.

I have a horribly drippy cold.

Did you ever read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? My son loved it when he was little and we read it over and over. Alexander went to sleep with gum in his mouth and woke up with gum in his hair and the day just went downhill from there. But, in the end, he concludes with his mother's help that "some days are like that."

Well, some days are.

Thankfully, new days dawn and I woke up to emails promising to send me a new shirt and a new book. The brake job wasn't as expensive as we feared. And horrible drippy colds do provide plenty of time to huddle on the couch and read. Since I am rarely sick, apart from migraines, my family has been charmingly helpful. They have offered me food and heating pads and willingly done chores I usually have to insist on. It has been strangely peaceful.

 I read an Agatha Christie today. Miss Marple and a few good murders were just what I was in the mood for. I also read Dear Mrs. Bird* by AJ Pearce. It was light and fluffy which was exactly what I needed. Emmeline has ambitions to be a wartime journalist but somehow ends up working on the advice column of a women's magazine instead. She gets herself into all kinds of scrapes while WWII rages around her in London.  The resolution was predictable but the book was cute. It is not high literature but I did enjoy it.

Right now, I am reading These Wonderful Rumours! by May Smith. My previous book put me in the mood for wartime reading so this will be perfect. I love wartime diaries and this comes highly recommended.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring. My cold is slightly less drippy. The snow started later than it was supposed to so now it is predicted to continue later into the morning tomorrow. That could totally mess up my schedule since tomorrow is one of my days in Boston. We shall see.

Another day on the couch surrounded by books is not a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.

*Provided by the publisher through NetGalley. All opinions of cuteness and fluffiness completely my own.

Book Review//Bound To Please by Michael Dirda

In Bound To Please Dirda speaks of the "soul-satisfying pleasure of testing one's own literary connoisseurship." If, in reading his collection of literary reviews and essays, I am testing my own literary connoisseurship, then that is a test I have failed. I think, or thought, of myself as a reasonably well-read individual but I have realized that is not the case. There are so many books mentioned in Bound To Please that I have never heard of, much less read. However, that in no way detracted from my enjoyment of this book.

Dirda does an excellent job of making even the most unfamiliar books interesting and accessible. I didn't finish each essay convinced I had to read that book but I did finish each one knowing a bit more about why it is an important work. His enthusiasm and love for literature are palpable. How can you not warm to a man who says this?

Were you to turn over any of Jane Austen's six novels, and shake it hard, nothing would fall out. Such books--The Great Gatsby and The Good Soldier are others--stay in our minds because of their calm and absolute rightness of design; they register less as transcriptions of sordid love affairs or hesitant courtships than as pieces of sustained verbal music, the melody of their witty or pitiless sentences supported by their closely harmonized plots. When a work of art seems without flaw, whether a lyric by A.E. Housman or a ballad like "The Way You Look Tonight," what we really mean is that every element contributes to the creation of aesthetic bliss within us, a readerly sense of  "luxe, calme et volupte."

I agree with Dirda when he says that "What I really enjoy in any kind of writing is simply a distinctive style, an idiosyncratic diction, the sound of a voice on the page." Dirda causes those voices on the page to come through clearly in his reviews; they come through so clearly that you are left wanting more. Now I need to read the letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald, biographies of Boswell and Vermeer, the autobiography of Anthony Trollope, the list goes on and on.

Throughout the book are those wonderful moments when Dirda discusses an author I already know and love. About P. G. Wodehouse he says:

Wodehouse intuitively realized that literature is simply a construct of language, there is naturally no relation between his books and any reality, historic or otherwise. For all the author's attention to plot and storyline, one hardly cares what happens to his young men in spats, whether newt-fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle marries Madeline Bassett or whether the Empress of Blandings wins a silver medal in the Fat Pig division of the Shropshire Agricultural Show. What finally matters are those delicious sentences, with their zingy mix of slang and learned allusion: Lord Ickenham, on his way to take a bath, goes "armed with is great sponge Joyeuse." J. B. Priestley, of all people, was right: Wodehouse "has raised speech into a kind of wild poetry of the absurd."

How can I not appreciate a literary critic who includes Georgette Heyer in his list of the twelve writers who "seem to me the most influential and distinctive prose stylists of the century, the founders of schools of writing, if you will."  Of her he says:

"her historical novels, largely set in the Regency, represent an entire literary duchy: that of romantic escape fiction, told with wit, an eye for period detail, and the requisite pull on the heartstrings...Heyer is a superb historical novelist--Jane Aiken Hodge's excellent biography reminds us how hard she worked to get the slang and fashions in her characters just right. She represents the deliberated recovery of an archaic style--roughly that of Jane Austen--and all those fictive acts of literary ventriloquism,  from John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor to A. S. Byatt's Possession to innumerable Regency romances, owe something to her virtuosity. 

My copy of Bound To Please is full of sticky notes marking passages I enjoyed and books I want to read. I finished this collection of essays feeling a little less well-read but a little more educated. Dirda wrote several other books. I will be reading them if only for the joy of sitting down with a fellow book-lover.

In My Grandmother's Attic

It was dusty and hot in the summer and it was freezing cold in the winter. The attic had a certain smell, not unpleasant, composed of old books, wooden floorboards, and something else I can't identify. Mothballs, maybe? I wish I could smell it again. The attic was actually the unfinished upstairs of a Cape style home but that is what we always called it, "the attic", and we loved to go up there. Every time we spent the night at our grandparent's house we were sure to end up prowling around.

There were a few toys stored up there. I remember a plastic tea set and a Fisher Price Main Street but sometimes those were down cellar. Once, I remember my grandmother showing me her wedding gown with a row of little buttons up the back. In the same trunk was my grandfather's army coat. I think when I saw it was the first time I ever fully realized that he had fought in World War II. There were bits and pieces of my mom's and my aunt's lives up there as well. My sister and I played with the dolls and I spent several visits when I was small carrying around an old school lunch box. But mainly what I remember are the books. There were boxes of them, many children's books but some adult novels as well. I rarely brought books to my grandparent's house even though I brought books just about everywhere  I went because I knew all I had to do was go up in the attic and rummage through the boxes and I would have plenty of books to keep me busy.

I still remember the old hard-covers, dusty blues and oranges and greens, full of stories about girls in dresses who all seemed to have doctor fathers and big families. Girls whose problems seemed small but enthralling because it was like looking through a telescope at a time gone by. I would look at the names in the front, Marilyn and Beverly, and think of my mom and my aunt reading these same books in this same house. Maybe sitting in the same spot on the attic floor or under the apple tree. Or no, would the apple tree have been tiny then? I didn't know. The years seemed to combine and I was them as well as me.

One book I read over and over. It was about a girl who went to summer camp. She went canoeing and took swimming tests and sat around campfires. Those were all the things my mom had told me stories about, things she had done when she went to summer camp. Once again, I wasn't completely sure who was who. In my memory, my mother's stories and the stories in the book blended into one idealized version of childhood and camp. It was an experience I yearned for and yet felt I already knew.

When the heat or the cold of the attic got to be too much I would wander down to the cool of the basement. It was a finished room where we had family parties. I remember one that my aunt made into an indoor picnic complete with cutouts of ants on the checked tablecloths.  There were stacks of records we could play on the record player if we were careful; Tennessee Ernie Ford and Mitch Miller and Peter, Paul & Mary. It was old and unfamiliar music that exerted the same fascination as the books. They belonged to a life and a time I was somehow connected to even though I hadn't lived it.

There were shelves of Readers Digest Condensed Books. Even at that age, I disapproved of condensed books but I read them anyway because they were there and I read everything. I read stories about kidnapped children and the strong, silent men who rescued them. Stories about women with fatal diseases who somehow rallied just long enough to give their blessing to a new romance for their husband. Stories about medical miracles and gunslingers on stagecoaches and romantic dilemmas. I gulped it all down indiscriminately.

Then I moved on to the short stories printed in the back of Good Housekeeping magazine. I knew my mom thought I was too young for them but I read them anyway. Beautiful girls in impossible situations rescued by tall, handsome men. Totally ridiculous and totally impossible to resist.

I would wander upstairs again and listen to my parents and grandparents chatting. Eventually, I would go outside to climb the apple tree or look for garter snakes in the stone wall. I wasn't sure I liked them but if we found one my grandfather would pick it up and let it wrap around his arm. That was horrifyingly enthralling. There was a little fountain built into one section of the stone wall and my grandfather would turn it on for us. The bottom of it was cool and mossy and I loved the sound of the running water. If we went up to the top of the yard there was a shed with an old-fashioned tricycle and an old pedal car.

But somehow I always ended up back in the attic sitting on the floor by the boxes of books. Eventually, I knew them all. I had read them over and over. They were part of me and part of my memories.

So is my grandmother's attic.