Thursday, 28 June 2007

Shroud for a Nightingale - P D James

Shroud for a Nightingale is my favourite P D James murder mystery that I've read to date. Set in a residential teaching hospital, appropriately named Nightingale House, one of the student nurses is dies horribly when she is fed corrosive poison in a teaching demonstration that goes wrong. The police and her fellow students are left to ponder the equally unlikely options of accident, suicide or murder. But then a second student dies an unnatural death and although the connection between the two is far from clear, Superintendent Dalgliesh from Scotland Yard has to discover the killer(s).

Like all of P D James' novels, this was an easy and engaging read, perfect for passing away a few dull hours on the tram. In addition to the mystery, James paints a fascinating picture of nursing as a profession in transition in the late 1960s - aided by her extensive personal knowledge and experience (P D James worked in hospital administration from 1940-early 1960s and then in the criminal section of the Department of Home Affairs). While some of the older nurses regarded nursing as a vocation and some of the students saw it as a stepping stone before marriage, others were fighting to professionalise the career and ensure the next generation received proper formal instruction as well as on-the-job training.

As always, there is a satisfying range of motives and personalities to confuse and mislead the reader, as well as the highly intelligent but ultimately human Superintendent Dalgliesh. Definitely worth reading.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

A Slipping-Down Life - Anne Tyler

A Slipping Down Life is one of Anne Tyler's earlier books (written in 1969) but she has already found her voice, portraying the quirky lives of the most ordinary people.

The story centres on Evie Decker, a reclusive, dowdy, almost invisible teenager living with her widowed father in small town America. Teenage life has almost passed her by when one night she listens to an interview with a prickly beatnik musician, Drumstrings Casey, on the local radio station. Fascinated she begins attending his performances, where she is as invisible as ever. One night, to the perplexity of everyone who knows her, Evie spontaneously carves his name on her forehead, thus ensuring she will never be invisible again.

For a time Evie acts as a publicity magnet for Drumstrings' fledgling music career. Despite his initial revulsion towards the ordinary dowdy girl who has become part of his life, Drumstrings develops his own fascination for Evie. Impulsively they marry, to the shock of both their families, and try and settle into a life together. But in many ways Drumstrings is even less mature than Evie and they face a challenging life ahead.

Fans of Anne Tyler will easily recognise her warm and sympathetic portrayal of two troubled people whose lives intersect. While set in the unique surrounds of small town America of the 1960s, Tyler's characters are both universal and timeless. This book is a great example of Tyler's talents, even early in her writing career.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

The Virgin Blue - Tracy Chevalier

The Virgin Blue is Tracy Chevalier's first novel. It tells the twin stories of Isabella and Ella, two women living 400 years apart in the same French village.

Isabella, living in 16th century France, is the daughter of a poor farmer, obliged to marry a bullying neighbour after she becomes pregnant to him. In her childhood, the villagers had driven out the Catholic priest and begin to follow the 'Truth' (new Protestant religion) of John Calvin. Isabella, however, is always regarded with suspicion by her husband and neighbours due to her red hair which is associated with the Virgin Mary. When their protector is murdered by Catholic nobles, they are forced to flee to Geneva. But her husband brings his mistrust and suspicions with him.

Four hundred years later Ella, an American, comes to live in France with her architect husband. While trying to settle into village life and learn the language and local customs, she decides to try and trace the history of her family. For reasons that never really become clear she emotionally disengages from her husband and becomes entangled with the arrogant librarian assisting her in her family research. She runs away from her baffled husband to distant relatives living in Geneva and discovers the horrific truth of the life and death of her ancestors.

I had really mixed feelings when I was reading this book. On the one hand, Chevalier's skill in evoking a time long-gone by and drawing the reader into an understanding of the everyday life and options of a 16th century farm girl is undeniably magnificent.

On the other hand modern-day Ella totally irritated and infuriated me. I had no understanding or empathy for what she felt or why she acted the way she did, and could only feel sympathy for her suffering husband.

It is perhaps telling that Chevalier's later books are almost totally set in historic times, where her rare gift of bringing history to life is showcased in all its glory.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer - Philip K Dick

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is the last book written by Philip Dick, and was published after his death. While Dick is most famous for his science fiction, he also wrote significant amounts of non-sci-fi, most of which is very good (The Man in the High Castle, In Milton Lumky Territory).

The character of Timothy Archer is based on James Pike, the late Episcopalian Bishop of California and a close friend of Dick's. A charismatic and highly successful church leader, Timothy Archer is also an intellectual, who finds his faith in Jesus shattered with the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in Israel. Following the suicide of his son, he begins to believe as fervently in the occult as he once did in Jesus and feels as obliged to spread the message of his new faith as passionately as he once preached Christianity.

The story is told through the eyes of Angel Archer, Timothy's daughter-in-law, an atheist and product of 1960s Berkley, California. In addition to their family ties, Timothy and Angel respect one another as intellectuals and have many conversations touching on philosophy, literature and history. Angel charts the downfall of Timothy Archer which eventually leads to the death of three people: his son (and Angel's husband) Jeff, his mistress (and Angel's best friend) Kirsten and finally Timothy himself.

In addition to being a well-written tragedy, Dick also paints a picture of Californian culture in the 1960s - including the intellectual community, destructive drug use and more liberal attitudes towards relationships. I found it a fascinating, absorbing and accessible read.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Grl With A Pearl Earring - Tracey Chevalier

This is one of my cousin's favourite books, and one which I had been meaning to read for over a year. I borrowed a copy from my wonderful local library but it is a book I would very much like for my permanent reading collection.

Set in Holland in the 1660s, Tracey Chevalier creates the character of Griet, a 16-year-old girl sent to work as a servant in the house of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer after her father loses his eyesight in an industrial accident and is unable to continue to earn a living.

Griet has to navigate a difficult household including an eternally pregnant and temperamental mistress, a domineering mother-in-law, a sly and trouble-making daughter, a fractious long-serving cook and a demanding and exacting master. One of her tasks is to clean her master's art studio but she soon graduates to preparing his paints and posing for a painting. This causes tension within the household and threatens a scandal in the town but Vermeer appears to remain oblivious or indifferent to the position he is putting his young servant in.

While running errands in the market place, Griet catches the eye of the son of the local butcher, and soon his father and her family are actively encouraging a marriage they see as advantageous to both.

This book paints a particularly effective picture of the severity of life in 17th century Europe, the long hours and hard work required by all - even the more privileged - to survive, the capricious nature of life, where death or poverty can strike at any time, and the limited choices and options for most women. Yet out of this harshness, a gentle and effective story emerges.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

A Mind to Murder - P D James

This is one of those books that I would never have bought from a shop and will probably never read again - but found an enjoyable, easy and engaging read, perfect for distracting me from the boredom of long tram journeys.

Written in the 1960s, it is a classic "locked room" or at least locked building scenario. The virtuous but unpopular administrator of a upmarket psychiatric clinic is murdered and the police need to work out which of her colleagues did it. There is a satisfying range of motives and personalities which are revealed in a well-ordered and logical manner.

As in an Agatha Christie mystery, P D James avoids an excess of blood and gore description - ultimately this is a puzzle for the reader to enjoy and unwind.

The only thing that irked me about this book was the author's introduction of a possible love interest for the protagonist (Superintendent Dalgliesh) that is referred to couple of times but never developed - it sticks out like a sore thumb and would have been better edited out completely (I was irritated by a similar thing in another PD James novel, The Murder Room).

Nonetheless, I did enjoy this novel. While I won't be racing out to purchase any P D James' mysteries for my permanent collection, I will be keeping my eye out for them on the library bookshelves.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

True History of the Kelly Gang - Peter Carey

True History of the Kelly Gang is a fictionalised first-person account of the life of Ned Kelly, Australia's most notorious bushranger.

It purports to be an autobiography transcribed from original documents currently stored at the Melbourne Public Library.

In it, author Peter Carey portrays how Ned Kelly, born into a criminal family and brought up in unremitting poverty, inevitably falls into a life of crime. He humanises Kelly and portrays him as a loving son and brother but does not romanticise him; the crimes he committed and the impact they had are described in unflinching detail, but the reader is left with the impression of a boy brought up with poor role models in a harsh and often unfair society who due to a defiant personality made poor life choices set out on a path that inexorably ended in the hangman's noose.

Peter Carey is a masterful storyteller whose greatest talent lies in spinning an enthralling yarn that is both fantastic and believable - at least while you are reading it. The moment you step out of his world you realise that the tale is impossible - but while you are there is grips you by your soul. There are many such stories within the overall story of this book.

True History of the Kelly Gang deservedly won the Booker Prize in 2001. It is great literature that is also very easy to read and get into. Just remember that despite its title and style, the book is a work of fiction.

And so it begins - a tribute to public libraries

I have been inspired to start this blog by Juli who is knitting a scarf for me as part of ISE4. Juli's set herself a reading challenge; I'm already doing a lot of reading because I spend 2 1/2 hours a day on public transport and it is getting too crowded to knit en route - I can read standing up with one hand holding onto a seat back using the book as a barrier between me and my fellow commuter's armpit. Plus I love reading anyway.

When we moved into our house the removalists called us back twice to confirm the number of bookcases we had (10). We have since acquired more. Both my husband and I have stacks of books on either side of our bed - he heavy philosophical and Judaic tonnes (with the occasional fantasy fiction), me a stack of sci-fi, murder mystery and literary novels. We have most of my parents' book collection as well. Bookstores are our weakness. We really do not have either the finances or space to continue our indulgence. I've tried to cull some of my books; those that I either never will read or never will read again. It's a painful process that barely makes a dint on the piles. It is only half-jokingly that we have discussed getting accreditation as a library.

I recently rediscovered the local library after a 10 year's absence and have found it a wonderful way to indulge in my book materialism without losing control of my finances or personal space. If I make a wrong choice, it can be returned the next week, no questions asked. I can indulge guilt-free in books I would never want as part of my permanent collection. I can catch-up on literature that despite my voracious reading habit I somehow never read.

And modern technology just makes the process even easier - I can search the catalogue online, I receive reminders by email to return books 3 days before they are due and can even renew most of my borrowings online without leaving home.

But most weeks I find an excuse to visit the library and never leave empty-handed. I can reserve the latest releases for a mere $1.70 - far cheaper than purchasing a new book - but have yet to do so; there are so many great older ones to catch up on.

In short, I love the library. I want this blog to be a tribute to one of the last bastions of free entertainment and education remaining in society.