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Archive for the ‘Barry’s Picks’ Category

delderfieldOver the past few years, I have spent a lot of time reading both fiction and nonfiction set in the early 20th century, from just prior to WW I and the years immediately following the war up to the start of WW II. There is something about that time period that I find particularly compelling. Part of it is, no doubt, trying to comprehend the horrors of the war itself and the effect that it had on individuals and on the world. In R. F. Delderfield’s great academic novel, we see how a man, scarred by his service in the British Army in the fields of France, attempts to recover through his work as a teacher, just as his country attempts a similar recovery from its devastating losses.

We first meet David Powlett-Jones, shell-shocked and still recovering from injuries suffered when an explosion buried him alive, as he catches a train into the English countryside to apply for a position at Bamfylde School. Powlett-Jones has been brought back to a semblance of health, mental and physical, by a Scottish neurologist, who encourages him to consider becoming a schoolmaster, “imparting to successive generations of the young such knowledge as a man accumulated through books, experience, and contemplation.” Although the war interrupted his education, Powlett-Jones is taken on an instructor, and the novel chronicles his rise through the school to headmaster.

I love this book for the small portraits that Delderfield paints of the schoolmasters, students, and country folk in the neighborhood of Bamfylde. In a paragraph or two or three, each person is limned with compassion and a recognition that all of us have our strengths and weaknesses. Delderfield’s mastery is in building his lengthy story — 598 pages — with a multitude of smaller pieces. As with a mosaic, you can take as much delight in studying the tesserae as in looking at the whole.

Delderfield also excels at writing about the English countryside, for which he has a clear and deep affection. Here is a description of Powlett-Jones’s approach to Bamfylde:

Already the hedgerows were starred with campion and primrose, with dog violets showing among the thistles and higher up, where the rhododendrons tailed off on the edge of a little birch wood, the green spires of bluebell were pushing through a sea of rusty bracken.

Yes, I am easily won over by lists of flora, fauna, or geologic formations.

Delderfield does not shy away from difficult situations, and Powlett-Jones experiences triumphs and sorrows as he and the school navigate the turbulent years from 1918 to the beginning of the Second World War. But through all of these ups and downs Powlett-Jones emerges as a compassionate and thoughtful teacher, the sort we would all hope for at the beginning of a new school year.

Check the WRL catalog for To Serve Them All My Days

Read the ebook of To Serve Them All My Days

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trowIs reading in the summer any different than reading at other times of the year? So far, my summer reading has been a variety of old and new books ranging from fast-paced crime novels to history nonfiction to longer classics that require more attention (e.g. James Joyce’s Ulysses). In thinking about it, this is actually my usual mix of reading any time of year. Maybe it is just the idea of taking more time to read in the summer when the days are long and there is perhaps a summer vacation in store.

A good mystery series is always a welcome summer read. One of my favorite discoveries this summer has been M. J. Trow’s historical crime novels featuring playwright Christopher Marlowe. The series is a delightful blend of spy novel, Marlowe was involved in the shadowy world of Elizabethan espionage working for Sir Francis Walsingham, and mystery.

Trow has a great sense of place, capturing life in the Elizabethan period without overloading the reader with extraneous details. In particular, and of particular appeal to me, is setting of the stories in the world of the Elizabethan theater. As a fan of Edward Marston’s Nicholas Bracewell series, I found much to enjoy in Trow’s rendering of the competition between playwrights and in the daily lives of the actors, including a rather awkward young man named Shakespeare, just up from the country and finding his place in the London theater world.

The plots are well-crafted and the mystery will keep you reading, but it is the characters who seem the most interesting to me. The only hard part is knowing that Marlowe, who is an appealing if roguish and somewhat self-centered fellow, will meet his end in a tavern brawl (or so it is said) only a few years down the road.

If you like well-researched and carefully written historical fiction or are just looking for a good mystery series this summer, give M. J. Trow’s Marlowe series a try.

Check the WRL catalog for Dark Entry

Or try the series in ebook

 

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hamblySummer is a great time for a good mystery book. I always look for something with a bit of action, an interesting setting, and characters with whom you enjoy spending time. This is the sort of book I like to while away a lazy summer evening or weekend. Barbara Hambly’s  A Free Man of Color, the first in her Benjamin January series, certainly fits the bill here.

Hambly’s protagonist, Benjamin January, the free man of color of the title, lives in New Orleans, where he teaches music and performs with an ensemble of mixed races. January is also a doctor by training, having studied as a surgeon in Paris, where he lived prior to returning to New Orleans after the death of his wife. January is a fascinating character, thoughtful and ethical, but with an understandable anger beneath the surface. Much of the tension in the stories comes as January walks the precarious racial lines of the city in the years before the Civil War.

Hambly ably portrays life in 1830s New Orleans, showing interactions among all levels of society, especially pointing out the distinctions between white, black, and colored, and she clearly depicts how New Orleans society is changing with the arrival of increasing numbers of Americans. In this first book in a superb series, January is drawn into solving the mystery of the murder of the colored mistress of a recently deceased plantation owner.

With its mix of history, mystery, and social commentary, Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series is a great summer read.

Check the catalog for A Free Man of Color

Also available in ebook format

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lakeIn one of the first posts here at BFGB, I wrote about Bruce Alexander’s Sir John Fielding mystery series, set in 18th century London, and featuring the blind magistrate of the Bow Street Court, brother to novelist Henry Fielding. Alexander’s untimely death brought the series to an end in 2003, and so I was interested to recently come across a new series featuring Sir John in the library’s ebook collection.

Unlike the Alexander books, where Sir John Fielding is the primary character, Lake’s series focuses on John Rawlings, a young apothecary in London. In the first book in the series, Death in the Dark Walk, Rawlings initially comes under suspicion of murder when he comes across a body in the popular, and unruly, pleasure gardens at Vaux Hall. He is quickly cleared of wrongdoing though, and then assists Sir John Fielding in seeking out the actual murderer. Further titles in the series find Sir John calling on Rawlings’ assistance in a variety of cases across England.

Though lighter in tone than Bruce Alexander’s mysteries, Lake’s series is a pleasure to read, especially if you have an interest in 18th century England. The stories move easily from the upper ranks of society to the dark and seedy corners of London, and Lake has a good command of the language, social customs, and pastimes of the period. Lake introduces a number of fascinating secondary characters throughout the stories, both fictional and historical, including some romantic companions who complicate John Rawlings’ life, and make for fun reading. The characters are also developed in sometimes surprising ways over the course of the stories, which adds to the appeal of the series.

We have a number of the titles in the series in both our print and ebook collections, and you can get started here:

Check the WRL ebook collection for Deryn Lake’s John Rawlings series

Check the WRL catalog for the John Rawlings series

 

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???????????????????????????????????????????All readers know that there are times when it is hard to figure out what to read next. Authors and titles that appealed in the past have for some reason lost their sheen, and no longer seem of interest. These dry spells can be hard to break, and so we look for recommendations from friends, and we here at BFGB hope, from librarians. But there are also tools available to help readers find new authors and titles, based on what you have enjoyed in the past.

One set of tools that you can find at WRL is the Read On… series. In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I am the series editor, and have written one of the titles, Read On Crime Fiction, for the series. The idea of the Read On titles is to introduce readers to a broad sampling of the best titles and authors available in a given genre or subject area and to offer new directions to explore in those areas. The books are each arranged into five chapters, each covering a major area of appeal for readers–Character, Story, Setting, Mood/Tone, and Language. Within each chapter, there are lists of titles arranged around common interests. So if you are a fan of history about medieval lives or fantasy featuring epic quests, you will find a list of titles that you might enjoy. One way to use these books is to search the index for an author that you like and then see what lists that author appears in and look for other authors in that list that will appeal.

Titles in the Read On series cover most major genres as well as several nonfiction subject areas, and WRL has these titles in the circulating collection, so you can check them out to use at your leisure to develop some lists of new authors to try. If you are in a reading rut, take a look at some of the titles below, or stop by the reference desk and ask the librarian to help you find some new books, we are always happy to talk to readers.

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berryI have written a number of posts about collected letters, see here, here, here, here, and here. So I have an obvious affection for letter-writing, and particularly for reading letters by authors whose books I enjoy reading. I find that their letters often give insights into their fiction, even if at the same time those letters display their all too human natures.

For those reasons, among other, I have been enjoying Distant Neighbors, a collection of letters between a favorite writer of mine, Wendell Berry, and a writer with whom I am much less familiar, poet Gary Snyder. The two writers began corresponding in the 1970s, through shared connections with a San Fransisco publisher, Jack Shoemaker. Berry and Snyder shared many interests, among them poetry and language, and the early letters frequently discuss the pair’s work and the quotidian details of a writer’s life.

As the friendship quickly deepened, and Snyder came to visit the Berrys on their Kentucky farm and Berry made the trip to the Snyder family homestead in the Sierra foothills, the letters begin to expand, exploring themes that will resonate for readers of both Snyder and Berry. Community, and its central role in society, religion in its varied expressions, connections between people and the land, and the resulting sorrow with the loss of that connection are all central to the ongoing discussion that these “distant neighbors” shared.

There is some humor here and some sadness, but mostly what is delightful about this book is to see two people who share many, though by no means all, beliefs discuss their common work and thoughts in a charitable and fruitful fashion. In today’s world, where angry voices and name calling seem to have replaced discourse, this is a good reminder of how things can and should be.

Check the WRL catalog for Distant Neighbors

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beowulf_1So (or hwaet if you prefer), you may be asking how many versions of Beowulf does one person really need to read (or review)? My answer would be at least one more. As he has been doing since his father’s death, Christopher Tolkien has brought out another previously unpublished work by his father, J. R. R. Tolkien. This time it is a translation of the great Anglo Saxon poem that J. R. R. Tolkien completed in 1926 but never thought to publish.

Tolkien’s translation is, perhaps, not as easy to read as Seamus Heaney’s more poetic version that I reviewed here. For one thing, Tolkien chose to write a prose translation rather than a metered one. The translation is by no means dry though. A scholar of Anglo Saxon, Tolkien has a feel for and a delight in the rolling rhythms of the story, and even in prose he captures that rhythm. His language and sentence structures will seem familiar in some ways to readers of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There is a formal and almost archaic feel to some of the writing here that is mirrored in Tolkien’s own work, and he does not entirely abandon the alliterative approach that anchors Anglo Saxon poetry, viz. “great gobbets gorging down” as Grendel rends a Dane into dinner.

A welcome companion to the poem itself are excerpts from a series of lectures on Beowulf that J. R. R. Tolkien gave in the 1930s and that Christopher Tolkien has edited here as a commentary on the poem. In these lectures, the senior Tolkien discusses language, symbolism, and early poetry, helping to set his translation into time and place. Following the commentary are two short pieces that Tolkien wrote under the influence of the poem. “Sellic Spell” is a retelling of the possible mythical tale that would become Beowulf, and “The Lay of Beowulf” is Tolkien’s telling of the story in a rhymed ballad form.

Fans of Tolkien will definitely enjoy his translation of this classic poem, and readers interested in Anglo Saxon poetry will find Tolkien’s commentary of interest. While I prefer the poetic version of Beowulf created by Heaney, Tolkien’s translation is a worthy read and a fine addition to the Beowulf canon.

Check the WRL catalog for Beowulf

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