HOW TO BE A VICTORIAN — THE REAL DEAL

Recently parts of the internet buzzed about an article about Victorian living, written by a woman who, with her husband, decided to live as Victorians, eschewing all the accouterments of modern life (or so she claimed).  There were all kinds of problems with this article, starting with the irony of writing self-righteously about not using modern technology and then publishing the article on the internet, of all things, but if nothing else, it might spark people’s interest in what the Victorian era (roughly from 1837 through 1901) was REALLY like.

HOW TO BE A VICTORIAN COVER

If you are one of those people who wonders why everybody was so annoyed at that article by the would-be Victorians, or who wonders whether the “good old days” were really that good, or who just wants to know more about how people actually lived in the 19th century, I cannot recommend the book How to be a Victorian: a Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Life, by Ruth Goodman, highly enough.  Not only is it exhaustive and researched to an awe-inspiring degree, built not only on official sources but also on actual artifacts and diaries of people who lived in the period, but it is enthrallingly well-written, funny and fascinating.  Reading this book is like taking a real trip through the Victorian era in England (with occasional brief side trips to Scotland and Ireland), without the privilege and snootiness of the offensive article.

Even if you are already knowledgeable about British history (as I considered myself to be), there are revelations in this book that will startle you and intrigue you.  She states that “Drug abuse was widespread among Victorian babies,” and then launches into a fascinating discussion of the use of opiates like laudanum (made with alcohol and morphine) and Godfrey’s Cordial (pure opium) to keep babies and very young children quiet so their mothers could work.  The author describes the amount of heavy work involved in doing laundry for a Victorian family (not even a rich family with vast amounts of clothing, either, just an ordinary working class or middle class family) and by the time you’re finished reading that section, you agree with the author that the invention of powered washing machines were a major factor in women’s liberation.  Not only do you come to realize that the worst thing you could do in the Victorian era was to get sick or injured (medicine was fairly primitive and painkillers were all but nonexistent), but you also learn how pervasive hunger was throughout the era, how terrible Victorian diets were in general (scurvy and rickets, both deprivation diseases, were rife), and how the lack of protein and vitamins affected people in all ranges of society.  You will learn how children were schooled (and if your idea of Victorian education comes from Jane Eyre or movies of that sort, you will be surprised at the variety of educational experiences), how people got to work (riding on a horse-drawn omnibus, for instance, sounds like riding on a very unsafe and shaky carnival ride), what they did at work, what people did for recreation (the gradual shift from participation in sports to spectating at sporting events), and a thousand and one details about every aspect of Victorian life, all brought to vivid life with primary sources and numerous illustrations.

Travel through time to Victorian England and see what it was REALLY like.  You’ll be entertained and enthralled.

ANOTHER LOOK AT H IS FOR HAWK

h is for hawk cover

As my regular readers may remember, I gave a rave review to the book H Is for Hawk when I first read it some months ago, and the good news is that, with the passage of time, more copies of the book are available to be taken out by eager readers.

If you’re still waiting for a good reason to read this excellent book, or if you’ve already read it and would enjoy discussing it with other bibliophiles, you’re in luck!  The second meeting of the Field Notes Book Club, scheduled for October 24 from 11:00 to 12:30, will focus on H Is for Hawk.  That means there are a number of copies of the book available behind the circulation desk at the Field for eager readers, so come on in, take out a copy and sign up for the next meeting, complete with coffee and donuts.  Those who came to the last meeting can attest that we had great discussions and a wonderful time, so don’t miss your opportunity to join us in October!

CAPTAIN IN CALICO: GEORGE MACDONALD FRASER’S GIFT TO READERS FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE

CAPTAIN IN CALICO COVER

Every so often you come upon an author who does it all: plots brilliantly, creates fascinating characters, takes the reader to distant (well-researched) places, and demonstrates a great sense of humor in the process. The late great George Macdonald Fraser was such a writer, and his death in 2008 deprived us all of the delights of more of his terrific historical novels.  

Anyone with an interest in 19th century British history should turn to Fraser’s wonderful Flashman series, starring Harry Flashman, a minor character in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, in which Flashman was a bully the righteous hero had to overcome.  As an adult, Flashman is still a bully and a coward, as well as a rake and a liar and a born cynic, and because of these traits, he is a great guide to the rise of the British Empire, which he serves (sort of) as an army officer. Somehow Flashman manages to be involved in most of the major wars (and some of the minor ones) of the century, starting with the first Afghan war in Flashman, continuing with participation in the Charge of the Light Brigade in Flash at the Charge, the Sepoy Rebellion in Flashman in the Great Game, the first Sikh war in Flash and the Mountain of Light, and traveling from Madagascar to Borneo to China to Ethiopia in the service of the Queen, usually reluctantly and usually due to complicated circumstances.  In between his British adventures, Flashman also manages to witness and become involuntarily involved with a certain amount of 19th century American history, including the run up to the Civil War (Flash for Freedom!), John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry (Flashman and the Angel of the Lord), and the Battle of Little Bighorn (Flashman and the Redskins).  All sorts of real historical people show up in these books (from Abraham Lincoln to George Armstrong Custer to Otto von Bismarck to Oscar Wilde, among many others) and either manipulate Flashman or are manipulated by him in turn. There is a great deal of violence (most of which is historically accurate), sex (I did mention that Flashman’s a rake, right?), and intrigue, both political and personal, and there is probably no more enjoyable way of absorbing a lot of British history than by reading these novels (the footnotes alone are worth the read, containing both detailed historical background for the people and events Flashman is describing and editorial comments on his supposed recollections).

Not content with the Flashman series (which would be enough to cement the reputation of many a writer), Fraser also wrote a number of extremely funny short stories based, somewhat loosely, on his experiences with the Gordon Highlander regiment after World War II, starring “the dirtiest soldier in the world,” Private McAuslan.  The General Danced at Dawn and McAuslan in the Rough are unappreciated gems, well worth seeking out if you want a good laugh out loud read.

Why am I writing about George Macdonald Fraser now, years after his death? Because one of his early novels has just been posthumously published, and that’s worthy of celebration.  The book is called Captain in Calico, and it features another rogue, perhaps even less respectable than Flashman, a pirate captain by the name of John Rackham, also known as Calico Jack, roving the 18th century Caribbean, seeking treasure, beautiful women, and revenge against the man who stole his fiancee. With the classic Fraser touches — excellent historical research, convoluted plots and cameos by real historical figures, vivid characters, a slightly warped sense of humor — Captain in Calico is a book to point to when people claim “they don’t write ‘em like that anymore.”  

Unfortunately there probably won’t be any more books by George Macdonald Fraser (unless someone unearths another treasure from his vaults, like this one), but at least we still have all his wonderful and entertaining historical novels to binge on. Start anywhere, and enjoy!

NEW MYSTERIES AT THE FIELD

As the days get shorter and the nights cooler and longer, it’s time to turn to thoughts of dark deeds, murder and guilt.  Not that I’m suggesting any of my readers actually go out and commit murders, but this is a great season to read mysteries and thrillers, and we have some excellent new ones at the Field Library.

the drowning cover

Let’s start with Camilla Lackberg’s The Drowning, a twisted story of secrets and blackmail.  The main characters are Erica, a successful mystery writer and her husband, Patrick, a homicide detective. Christian Thydell, a protege of Erica’s, has just published a very successful book, but his newfound fame is shadowed by the anonymous threats he’s been receiving.  As Erica tries to discover who’s behind those threats and whether they should be taken seriously (as any mystery reader could guess, of course they’re serious), her husband is investigating the disappearance of Magnus, one of Christian’s friends, who turns out to have been murdered after receiving similar threats.  Erica and Patrick start delving deeper into the tangled pasts of Christian and his other friends, none of whom is very forthcoming.  What are the secrets so deeply buried that these people would rather die than reveal?

those we left behind cover

Moving from Sweden to Belfast, Those We Left Behind, by Stuart Neville, turns on an especially disturbing murder: a man killed, apparently by his two foster sons, one twelve years old and the other fourteen.  The younger one confesses to the murder, insisting his older brother wasn’t responsible, but Serena Flanagan, the detective who investigated the case, never felt entirely confident that justice was done. When Ciaran, the younger brother, is released from prison and placed on parole, the once closed case comes back to life, and the unsettling questions of guilt and innocence, of family ties gone bad, all return to haunt Serena and lead to a shattering and surprising conclusion.

the child garden cover

The past haunts the present in The Child Garden, by Catriona McPherson. Years ago, there was an alternative school for unhappy children called Eden in a remote part of Scotland. It closed down after one of the students committed suicide, and now the place is being used as a nursing home, neglected and falling to pieces. Gloria lives next door to the building, because her extremely ill son resides there. She’s isolated and focused only on her son’s condition, until an old classmate from her childhood appears on her doorstep, claiming that a girl from Eden is stalking him and goading him into meeting her at the former school.  When Gloria accompanies him, they discover the person he was supposed to meet is dead.  Suicide? Murder? Was the classmate being set up as a murderer?  Gloria is drawn into the mystery of Eden, the student who died and the students who survived, and how all that relates to the nursing home where her deeply disabled son is living (barely). The book is creepy and atmospheric, and Gloria, while not your usual main character in a mystery, is the sort of woman you’d want at your side if there were a possibility the devil were interfering in the affairs of people.

MYCROFT HOLMES : A NEW BOOK ABOUT SHERLOCK’S OLDER, SMARTER BROTHER

MYCROFT HOLMES COVER

Many of us mystery fans came to the genre by way of Sherlock Holmes. While there’s a lot of dispute about who actually “invented” the mystery story (Wilkie Collins? Edgar Allan Poe?), nearly everybody acknowledges that Arthur Conan Doyle is one of the earliest leading lights in the writing of mysteries. Not only are there the original stories and novels (the canon), but in the century since Sherlock Holmes hung up his deerstalker cap and meerschaum pipe, many people have taken it on themselves to add to the collection, either writing new Sherlock Holmes stories themselves (The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz, is an especially good recent one), or writing about the great detective from other perspectives (Laurie King’s series featuring Mary Russell, who marries Holmes after the end of the original series and continues to work with him to solve mysteries, is very popular).  Some people have even looked at Holmes through the eyes of the villains (and here I have to give a plug to the wonderful and offbeat The Hound of the D’Urbervilles by Kim Newman, whose main character and narrator, the anti-Watson, is Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s chief henchman).

And now the newest addition to the genre comes to the library this week.  Mycroft Holmes, written by Kareem Abdul Jabbar (yes, that Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and Anna Waterhouse, features Sherlock Holmes’ older and smarter brother, Mycroft. Mycroft appears in a few of the stories, his skills and powers alluded to and sometimes demonstrated, sparking the plots and sometimes helping point Sherlock in the direction of a solution, but he’s in the background, never a main character, until now.

The book opens with Mycroft, fresh out of university and already recognized as an up and coming man in the Department of War.  He’s engaged to be married (a detail that’s already intriguing, given that our introduction to Mycroft in the canon was Holmes and Watson’s joining him at the Diogenes Club, for the most solitary and unclubbable men in London) to a young woman brought up in Trinidad, and his close friend, Cyrus Douglas, also came originally from Trinidad. Reports arise of disturbing events on Trinidad: children enticed to their deaths, allegedly by evil spirits, mysterious disappearances, strange footprints in the sand. Cyrus heads out to investigate, and, to Mycroft’s surprise, his fiancee tells him she has to leave him to return to Trinidad and right things.  Naturally, Mycroft himself has to follow, joining up with Cyrus to try to unravel the mystery, which (also naturally) turns out to be much less supernatural and more appalling than either one had originally suspected.

Along the way, there’s a wealth of historical detail, including insights into race and class in the 1870’s, a glimpse of a young Sherlock Holmes getting ready for university, and good old fashioned rousing adventure and danger.  By the end of the book, Mycroft’s later and more famous character is set up, and we can only hope this is the beginning of a series, with this intelligent and very different pair of sleuths and this different slant on the late Victorian era and the British Empire.  

If you’re a Sherlock fan, be sure to pick this up.  And if you’re just a fan of historical mysteries, give Mycroft Holmes a try as well.  

CORRIDORS OF THE NIGHT: A NEW ANNE PERRY EXPLORATION OF VICTORIAN LONDON’S UNDERBELLY

CORRIDORS OF THE NIGHT COVEROne of my favorite mystery authors is Anne Perry.  If you have any interest in Victorian London, you’ve probably read her books, and if you haven’t read her, you have such a treat in store.  I personally prefer her William Monk novels to the ones starring Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, but this is only a matter of degree, because she’s a great creator of characters, a clever plotter (one of the things I especially appreciate in mysteries is a solution that I can’t guess beforehand but that, when you look back over the book, is clearly set up and fits with all the facts we have; I don’t know which is worse, guessing the outcome of the mystery before the story’s characters do, or reaching the solution and realizing that it’s a pure deus ex machina, the result of the author’s withholding critical information or panicking and throwing together any solution at the last minute, but I digress), and possessed of a wealth of detailed information about Victorian society, not just the way the upper crust lives but also the lives and circumstances of poor and lower class people as well. Reading Anne Perry’s works is like taking a college level history course, but with a lot more suspense and murder.

All of which is a long way of getting around to her latest book starring William Monk and his wife, Hester, Corridors of the Night, which just came out September 12.  This book focuses more on Hester, a wonderful character in her own right, and could be used as an antidote for those people who think they’d like to live in Victorian times (as long as they’d be upper class and healthy).  

Hester started out as a nurse in the Crimean War, learning her trade under Florence Nightingale, before the beginning of this series, and she still (21 books on) continues to work as a nurse.  While she’s working at the Royal Naval Hospital, Hester discovers, to her horror, that three children have been purchased by a pair of (somewhat demented) scientists to serve as involuntary blood donors for people suffering from “white blood disease” (leukemia), which these two scientists are studying in an (extremely unethical) effort to find a cure. The pair kidnap Hester, partly because she knows too much about what they’re doing, and partly because they need her expertise in caring for patients.  

Her husband, William Monk, is the Commander of the River Police, and has years of investigatory experience, private and as a police officer, to help him in his desperate search for his beloved wife. He has connections, not only to top-notch barrister Oliver Rathbone (another long-term character in this series), but to other people with less savory pasts, and he’s willing to use anyone and anything that might lead him to Hester before it’s too late.

One of the attractions of the Monk series is the way Anne Perry uses the mysteries to explore some serious issues in Victorian society (while still delivering suspenseful and exciting mysteries).  This book explores medical research, what medical ethics are and should be, and how far a person or a society should go in order to cure a deadly disease.  

While William Monk is not at the center of this book, even long time fans of the series will not feel deprived, because Hester, feisty and caring, deeply principled without being moralistic or shrill, is someone you enjoy spending time with, and her fate, and the fate of the children she’s trying to protect, carries readers along on a wild and powerful ride.

THE UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA: A MUMBAI MYSTERY, WITH ELEPHANTS

UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE COVER

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, by Vaseem Khan, begins with some classic elements of noir mysteries: a police inspector, on the last day before his retirement, comes across a case that looks straightforward, probably just an accidental death. He senses there is more to the death than first appears, and, despite his retirement and the complete lack of support from the officer who replaced him and the higher-ups in the force, he begins to dig into the circumstances of the death.  As he does, he starts uncovering some pretty shady characters, crime bosses supposed to be dead, goons trying to kill him, corruption leading to the highest levels of society.  Despite the dangers to himself, despite his lack of official authority, the retired inspector cannot let go of the case or the investigation until he learns the truth.

Pretty standard, right?  Except that in this book, the city in question is not New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, but Mumbai, India.  And on the last day of Inspector Chopra’s tenure as an official police officer, he receives the oddest gift from his now deceased uncle: a live baby elephant whom he names Ganesha, after the Hindu deity.  Nor, as it turns out, is Inspector Chopra your standard noir hero: he is neither an alcoholic nor cynical (perhaps he is a little less cynical than he should be, given the situation in which he finds himself), he is happily married and a well-connected member of his community.  

Not to mention the elephant.  Ganesha, while still only a baby elephant, is a character in his own right, and Chopra has to figure out, first, why his uncle sent him this particular present when Chopra lives in a city and has no experience with elephants, and second, what he’s supposed to do with Ganesha. The little elephant doesn’t make matters easier at first, seeming almost depressed, refusing to eat, reluctant to move, and Chopra considers sending him to an elephant sanctuary on the other side of the country.  However, Ganesha comes into his own and turns out to be quite a help to Chopra, in ways that are both mysterious and emotionally satisfying (you’ll root for Ganesha).

The milieu of the book comes to brilliant life. You could almost smell the aromas of the different areas of Mumbai, feel the oppressive heat, from the author’s description, and you could hardly find a better, more patient and understanding guide to the intricacies of Indian policing and local politics than Inspector Chopra.  His immediate environment, his issues with the landlady of the apartment complex in which he lives, his relationship with his wife (whom he loves but from whom he keeps some secrets) and his mother-in-law (who lives with them), all add dimensions to Chopra’s life and his investigation.

This is not your ordinary mystery, though it has many of the classic elements (including serious danger to the protagonist, opposition from the powers that be, and a solution that reveals what actually happened to the victim, along with a form of justice done to the perpetrators).  In style, it’s like an Indian version of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books (and there’s every reason to believe there will be sequels for Inspector Chopra and Ganesha, to which I say hooray!).  The characters are well-developed and believable, the setting richly developed, and the plot very satisfying.  Come and meet Chopra and his baby elephant, and settle in for a fun read.

IT’S NOT TOO LATE! FIELD NOTES BOOK CLUB SEPTEMBER MEETING

Just wanted to remind you that the Field Notes Book Club is having its first meeting on September 19 (that’s a Saturday) from 11:00 till 12:30.  We will be discussing the wonderful book Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, and there is still plenty of time to come in, get a copy of the book from the library (just ask at the desk) and read it before the 19th.

The book itself is a fascinating read, a multifaceted portrait of a now-gone New York (the 1970’s now seem as far in the past as the Civil War sometimes) with characters from all walks of life interacting in surprising and satisfying ways.

There will be lively discussion (I’ll be leading it), and refreshments as well.  It’s a great way to spend a Saturday morning, getting to know your fellow readers and library patrons while talking about interesting literature.  Come in and sign up!  There’s still time!