I listened to the fantastic 100th episode of The Readers the other day. It was a supersize episode with three hosts, not two, and it seemed to go on and on forever covered so many interesting topics. One of the things host Simon Savidge talked about was a fascinating history of a Victorian mental asylum. Apparently, like the amazing novel Stoner or the fabulous works of Barbara Pym, this history has been out for a while, but it is only now garnering the attention it so rightly deserves.
Published about a year ago, St. Elizabeths Hospital: A History, was recently fêted at an awards ceremony at Constitution Hall here in Washington, DC. In front of an audience of thousands about 500, author Thomas Otto accepted the Mayor's Award for Historic Preservation Excellence in Public Education. At the awards ceremony a image-rich video was played describing both the history of the hospital and Otto's process. If you're impatient (or an inpatient), you can fast forward to 1'22".
The best part about this history is that because it only exists in PDF format, it is available for free online, and, with no printing budget limitations, the book is chock-a-block with historic photos that can be enlarged to show otherwise hidden details. If you want to read the book or just look at the pictures, you can follow this link.
For much of its history, St. Elizabeths was as much village as it was hospital. Sitting on a hill overlooking Washington, DC, it was home to patients and staff for over 150 years. Opened in 1855, the hospital was the first federal facility for the mentally ill and was often at the forefront of the field of psychiatry. Hundreds of boxes of archived documents, photos, and plans tell the story of this hospital where staff lived among patients, patients helped maintain the hospital farm, and the hospital farm kept them both fed. Now that history comes to life in this full-length history of St. Elizabeths Hospital.
I have been very lucky in my reading choices lately, loving eleven of the twelve most recent books that I have read. This is particularly gratifying since I have had such a difficult time getting out of my reading slump this year.
This is not how I pictured the characters.
Linden Rise by Richmal Crompton
I know that Crompton has written about 4,000 William books, but that is not how I know her. Never having read any of those, my only experience with Crompton has been with her fantastic novel Family Roundaboutrepublished by Persephone. Recently when I was about to make a purchase of three vintage D.E. Stevenson books from an independent online bookseller based in the UK, I noticed he also had a Crompton for sale. Impossible to find in the US, I snapped it up without hesitation.
Like Family Roundabout, I loved, loved, loved, Linden Rise. Although it isn't as nuanced or complex as Family Roundabout, both novels focus on families of adult children headed by widowed (or eventually widowed) matriarchs. In this case, the action centers around young Matilda Pound a 15-year old who enters service for the first time at a country cottage called Linden Rise. When she first arrives the house is about to be leased by the Culvertons looking to escape London for the summer. (Or was it some other city? One forgets.) Tilly, as Matilda is known, is one kick-ass housemaid who eventually becomes cook and housekeeper. Tilly knows her place for sure, but that doesn't keep her from intervening with one or two family members when they are being pills. And she does it fabulously in ways that make you want to cheer. She is like an action hero without the super powers or violence. In fact, she deserves to be made into an action figure. That would be awesome.
I finished Linden Rise about ten days ago, but I could sit down right now and read it all over again. It was such an enjoyable read. If only some publisher would reissue all of Crompton's adult fiction. Prices for some of her books are really crazy expensive. If you are ever out book shopping and see one of Crompton's adult novels for less than 20 pounds, just buy it.
The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens
Dickens is another Persephone author, but unlike Crompton, my first experience with Dickens, her novel Mariana, left me somewhat ambivalent. I enjoyed it, but couldn't muster much enthusiasm. My "review" was only one sentence followed by some visual analysis of the fantastic Persephone cover. Having now read another of Dickens' novel, I am inclined to go back and re-read Mariana to see if I would like it more now.
In The Happy Prisoner, the center of attention is on Oliver North (no Americans, not the Iran-Contra felon), a wounded WWII soldier convalescing at his family's country home. And it literally centers around him in the ground floor study that has been turned into his hospital room. The entire novel is set in those four walls with action outside of it being described by the family and friends who come in and out of the room. There could be a little more omniscience that I am forgetting at the moment, but this could easily be dramatized on stage without the need for any set changes.
I liked The Happy Prisoner only slightly less than Linden Rise. It also had shades of D.E. Stevenson as multiple marriages ensue and everyone comes up smelling like roses in the end.
Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym
Typical Pym, this. Which means it's bloody brilliant. Unlike the two wonderful novels already mentioned in this post, Pym's work is easily a cut or two above. They are deep, and clever, and humorous in ways that push her from mere author into the genius category. The novel is full of the usual cast of Pym characters, academics, and clergy, and librarians, and so many excellent women. Catherine Oliphant is a writer living with her anthropologist boyfriend. He begins an affair with another woman, an anthropology student and eventually Catherine begins to move on, developing an interest in an older anthropologist. One can imagine Pym sitting in the corner with a pad and paper taking notes on the mating rituals of this tribe of British anthropologists.
As enjoyable as it was, Less Than Angels, is not my favorite Pym. But that is a pretty high bar.
Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household
I have a giant stack of NYRB Classics that I bought just because they are such beautiful books. When it comes to this publisher I tend to err on the side of buying every one of them unless the blurb makes it absolutely clear it isn't going to interest me. It was wonderful then to pick this one out of my TBR and realize how perfectly it fit with my recent interest in mid-century spy/crime fiction. In this case an Englishman in the 1930s attempts to assassinate an unnamed European despot (it's really Hitler) and finds himself fleeing back to England where he continues to be hunted by the multiple parties who want him captured. This book is pure adrenalin and suspense. Published in 1939, it is fascinating to see how hard it is for someone to disappear in 1930s England. One would think it would have been easier to disappear back then, but apparently not. This book is one part Ambler and one part Shute. A fantastic book.
Remember a few week ago when Simon Savidge threw down the gauntlet and challenged us all to be a part of a Reading Revolution? In a quest to find novels that were under the radar and relatively undiscovered, he suggested we go to the library and take out a stack of recent-ish titles that didn't get much in the way of popular notice. I dutifully went off my local library and checked out nine novels that fit the bill. I found it all very exciting at first. And then I started to read them.
Niccolo Amaniti's I'm Not Scared may have gotten praise from some of my readers, and I recognized it was well-written, but when the kid didn't tell his parents he found the body of a dead boy, I was just annoyed and didn't feel like reading it. I had better success with Miss Fuller, an historical novel by April Bernard that explores the life and early death of the writer Margaret Fuller who was part of the Transcendentalist movement. But then I moved on to Remembrance of Things I Forgot by Bob Smith and things really started to go bad. I only read about the first five pages. It is such a piece of crap. I was prepared for the fact that it was science fiction--a (gay) man, working for the government, builds a time machine--but I wasn't prepared for how bad it wold be. I was willing to suspend my disbelief for the time travel bit, but I was unwilling to suspend my disbelief for how clueless Smith is when he writes about the world of top secret government projects or even the scientific process. If he was so sloppy with reality, how lame would his fantasy be? Ugh. It really pissed me off. I dipped into other books, and well, I found them all to be trying a little too hard and I decided to abandon the rest of them.
You may be thinking I gave up too soon. I probably did. But, at the same time I was trying to read through that stack, I was also reading two books by Eric Ambler that I picked up on that same trip to the library. The difference is that Ambler's work has not been under the radar and I didn't pick him up randomly, but rather he had been recommended to me. This just reinforced for me that the best way to find something good to read, under the radar or otherwise, is from personal recommendations. The interesting thing about this recommendation is that I didn't get it from someone I actually know. I got it from a knowledgeable book seller.
Several weeks ago, contrary to type, I was in the mood for some old fashioned crime or spy novels and had this exchange on Twitter.
So when I made my trip to the library for the Reading Revolution I couldn't help looking to see if they had any Ambler on the shelf. They had two of his novels at my local branch and I checked them both out. The first I read was State of Siege which is not so much a spy novel as, hmm, maybe just suspenseful. An Englishman who is about to return home is caught in the middle of a coup attempt somewhere in Southeast Asia. It was written in 1962 and had a exactly the kind of old fashioned vibe I was looking for. I loved it.
And then I moved on to Kind of Anger which I loved even more. Written in 1964 it is a tale of confidence tricks and international espionage. An Iraqi exile gets murdered in his Swiss home, a magazine journalist is under huge pressure to find a story on the case which the police have all but given up on, and he ends up getting caught in the middle of way more than he bargained for. But he also goes rogue on the assignment and hopes to make some serious cash by getting a little too involved with his subject. Not only does it take place in the south of France but there are land record offices involved, land lines, messages at hotels...just the kind of thing I was looking for.
I can't wait to read more Ambler. The curious thing is, I don't really know the man who recommended him. I somehow follow John (aka @johnnie_cakes) on Twitter, but I don't have a clue why I first decided to follow him. I certainly don't know enough about his reading tastes to know if I should trust him. But, being the good indie bookseller that he is, he sure knows how to recommend books. He is a the publicity manager for Murder by the Book in Houston, (@murderbooks) and I must say he does his store proud. (Hmm, I wonder if they have any Ambler on their shelves...) My only trips to Texas are to visit my brother-in-law in Austin, but if I ever do make it to Houston I am putting Murder by the Book on my itinerary. I am intrigued by the possibility that I may like mysteries more than I have always thought--at least as long as they are the right kind.