Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear

We meet Maisie Dobbs as she steps out of the Warren Street tube station, a woman in a navy blue jacket and skirt, with “a way of walking, with her shoulders back and head held high”. It is 1929, ten years after the end of the Great War, but London and all of England have not recovered, indeed perhaps have never entirely recovered. For the British Empire as whole “908,371 ‘soldiers' [were] killed in action, died of wounds, died as prisoners of war and were missing in action from 4 August 1914 to 31 December 1920.” Of these 702,410 were from the British Isles while the rest were from its colonies.Ref

Even ten years later many survivors require medical and psychiatric care. They struggle to find a place in a society rocked by changes in the long-standing social order and staggered by widespread unemployment and shortages. Men who came back from the trenches cannot talk about their experiences. They carry their wounds, visible and invisible, as they try to adjust to a world that wants to forget the war.

Maisie herself walks between worlds. The daughter of a costermonger and a former maid, she nursed at the front before graduating from Girton College. As the story begins she is opening her own business as a personal investigator. Her first case, following a woman whose husband suspects that she is unfaithful to him, instead takes her to a cemetery whose war dead lead her into memories of the war and darkness set in the midst of England's green fields.

I'm grateful to have been reminded of this series. I investigated when this first book came out in 2003 and always meant to get back to it. I enjoy Maisie a lot. She's smart and practical, cool and caring. Her loyal and efficient nature has attracted lifelong friends and mentors. Even her name is perfect: Dodds reflects her humble background and Maisie is a perfect period name.

One of the things I like about this series is that Maisie's adventures force her to look into herself. Through the series we get to follow the trajectory of one woman coming to terms with the events of her tumultuous times. I like the psychological element that spices the mystery.

Gift from the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I hadn't read this book since my teens. Then, I enjoyed it so much I went on to read her poems, diaries and letters. Anne Morrow Lindbergh became the core of one of my first extra-curricular reading projects. For a long time they centered on authors, where I would read the author's entire oeuvre, one or two biographies, and some critical writing. I went on to projects about some particular interest of mine, like World War I poetry and journals, Canadian literary theory, and English ritual traditions.

During a two-week vacation on an island, Lindbergh walks the beach, collects shells, and considers the trajectory of her life. She values being on the island not only because it separates her from the world's demands, but because the simplicity of its way of life enables her to examine each item in isolation, a single shell on a plain wooden table, not buried in the jumble of possessions back home. She also describes such vacations as “Islands in time . . . The past and future are cut off; only the present remains.” I hear the echo of Rousseau's island idyll.

Gift from the Sea is a short book, exploring “my own particular pattern of living, my own individual balance of life, work, and human relationships.” This is an ongoing concern of mine, and I expect of most people. My life constantly falls off-balance, work taking over for a few weeks, or too many social engagements leaving me cranky and needing some alone-time. A few tweaks can put it right if I catch it in time.

Each chapter uses the image of a particular shell—moon shell, double-sunrise, etc.—to focus her thoughts and also, almost imperceptibly, making it seem as though you are walking along a beach with her, casually chatting. And for those of you who have been to my home, no, I started obsessing about shells long before reading this book.

Rereading favorite books can be a dangerous activity. Some of it does seem like a time capsule to me, in terms of society and myself. Men's and women's roles have changed since 1955, when the book was first written, though much remains the same. I, too, am not the same person I was so many decades ago, when most of the sentences I underlined had to with love and marriage.

Also, much of it has become embedded within our collective consciousness, such as her call to simplify our lives, revolutionary in the 1950s, or her discussion of the importance of finding our own inner stillness. I found familiar sentences here that I'd forgotten came from her. I also found sentences that resonate for me now that I am older, such as “Perhaps middle age is, or should be, a period of shedding shells; the shell of ambition, the shell of material accumulations and possessions, the shell of the ego.” I like her appreciation of the oyster shell, “humble and awkward and ugly” but admirable for “its tireless adaptability and tenacity”. I laughed at her use of Zerrissenheit, which William James described as “torn-to-pieces-hood”.

I recommend this lovely book, full of gentle wisdom and questions that make you look at your life in a new way.

The Cheese and the Worms, by Carlo Ginzburg

The subtitle to this book is “The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller”. Many of us who are tired of hearing about the parade of wars and failed conquests that make up traditional histories are eager to hear about the lives of ordinary people in centuries long past. The problem, of course, is that there is little in the way of written records about peasants who could not read or write. Ronald Hutton, author of The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700, makes use of churchwarden's accounts and household accounts to determine English seasonal rituals and pastimes, looking for example at the time when churches paid for minstrels or morris dancers. Similarly, Ginzburg here examines trial records to bring to life Domenico Scandella, also know as Menocchio, a miller who was brought to trial by the Inquisition.

He was born in 1532 in Montereale, a small hill town in what is now Italy. Although only a peasant, Menocchio could read and write. He was given or loaned books by friends among the upper classes and priesthood: the Bible, Boccaccio's Decameron, Mandeville's Travels, etc. Not only did he read them carefully, but he thought long and hard about them, developing his own philosophy and his own interpretation of Christianity. “God is nothing but a little breath,” he told his neighbors. Priests and monks are like the Devil, who “want to become gods on earth.” Christ was only a man, and the only law that should be followed is to “Love God and your neighbor”. He denounced the way the rich treated the poor and talked of the need for “a new world and a new way of life.”

He also came up with his own creation story, using the elements of his daily life: “all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed—just as cheese is made out of milk—and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels . . . there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time.”

Naturally once these deviations from the church's dogma came to the attention of the Inquisition, they had Menocchio arrested. The records of his two trials are curious because he seems almost grateful for the opportunity to express his views to men learned enough to follow them. The judges pushed him to explain further and treated him with respect. Initially he was sentenced to prison instead of the stake. Released after two years due to ill health and good behavior, however, he soon slipped back into his old ways and found himself on trial again. The pope himself intervened, so there was no leniency at the second trial.

Ginzburg traces Menocchio's philosophy to “ a common store of traditions, myths, and aspirations handed down orally over generations.” As a writer, what I found most interesting was the way Menocchio interpreted what he read. Ginzburg speaks of “a screen that he unconsciously placed between himself and the printed page: a filter that emphasized certain words while obscuring others, that stretched the meaning of a word, taking it out of its context, that acted on Menocchio's memory and distorted the very words of the text.”

All readers do this, filter what we read through our own prejudices and knowledge, placing it in relation to what we already know. I am often tempted when I write to tell the reader everything. See? I want to say. This connects to that! But I know that it is far more effective to put the pieces out there and let readers make the connections themselves. That active work of imagination is the true reward of reading.

This very readable book of the history of one man in sixteenth-century Italy has given me much to think about. I want to learn more about this oral tradition that informed Menocchio's thinking, and have already acquired another of Ginzburg's books.

Purity of Blood, by Arturo Pérez- Reverte

I was delighted to find this Captain Alatriste adventure at the annual library booksale. Pérez-Reverte is one of my favorite authors. I've blogged previously about The Sun Over Breda which actually follows this one in the series. I've also enjoyed his mysteries, like The Flanders Panel but two of his other novels are my favorites: The Painter of Battles and The Fencing Master.

The Captain Alatriste series at first seemed to me a departure from his other novels. These swashbuckling adventures about a hard-bitten swordsman during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century are narrated by íñigo Balboa—only thirteen in this story—who has been plucked from the streets of Madrid by Alatriste. The Captain may not say very much, but when danger looms, he is quick to pull his dagger and wrap his cloak around his arm. Although accustomed to killing, Alatriste has his own code. He is another Shane, a Jack Reacher, though perhaps with a harder heart.

In this book, while between campaigns, Alatriste's assistance is sought by the poet Quevedo, a friend of long-standing who is engaged to help a man who served under another of Quevedo's friends; obligations are important in this world and life cheap. Don Vicente de la Cruz needs to rescue his daughter from the convent where she serves as a novice because the priest treats the place as his private harem. The family's position is further complicated because they are conversos; Don Vicente's great-grandfather was a Jew who converted to Christianity when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews in. Anyone who is not an Ancient Christian runs the risk of being swept up by the increasingly brazen arms of the Inquisition.

Attacking a convent is a risky prospect, even for the experienced Alatriste. When things go sideways, he must employ every means to save íñigo's and his own skins, not just swordplay but delicate diplomacy. Pérez-Reverte is especially adept at conveying the politics of the time without disrupting or delaying the action. However, these stories are more than just popcorn. Bits of information are buried like golden nuggets in the fast-paced action.

We are in the Spain of Philip IV, the young emperor. íñigo says of him, “Elegant, chivalrous, affable, and weak, he was the plaything of his advisors.” Indeed, Philip dithers while the once-great Spanish empire self-destructs. In íñigo's words, “the monarchy had become an insatiable machine for devouring taxes, while a drained populace received nothing in exchange but the political blunders and the disasters of war.” If this is not enough to make us look around us with new eyes, íñigo mentions later that “Spain (is) always disposed to overlook bad governance, the loss of the fleet of the Indies, or a defeat in Europe, with merriment—a boisterous festival, a Te Deum, or a few good bonfires.”

I remember hearing controversy in my youth about Gibbons's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The notion that empire have lifetimes just as you and I do shocked many who didn't want to believe that the apparently indestructible American empire of the 1950s and 1960s was only the latest in a wave of empires and would go the way of the others. When I first visited Rome and walked among the ruins of the Forum right there in the middle of the bustling city, I wondered how Roman natives were affected by this reminder of their former glory. In their place, would I be saddened by the loss of glory or resent those who replaced us? Would I feel perennially inadequate compared to my forebears?

So this diverting adventure story took me down dark and haunted paths. I believe, along with Gibbons, that the loss of civic virtue can bring down an empire. I believe that unnecessary wars can drain empires as diverse as 17th century Spain and 20th century Britain. I believe that we can learn from the past, and that Pérez-Reverte's depiction of how religious intolerance prevented Spain from recovering its strength is a lesson we need to hear, once—that is—we get our breath back from the exciting, action-packed race to the story's end. Pérez-Reverte may have set out to write a light entertainment, but his intelligence and heart add nuance and depth without detracting from the thrilling ride.

Dear Life, by Alice Munro

A new collection of stories from Alice Munro is always an occasion for celebration. Her wry, conversational tales give us a slice of life, the life of someone previously unimagined by us but immediately welcome. Her women, men, children and teens mostly live in small towns or other semi-isolated places. Even when they venture into the city, as Ray does in “Leaving Maverley” to get care for his seriously ill wife, they remain within themselves.

I remember working on a dairy farm one year, when my friend's father died and she had to leave college in our last semester to run the farm. When my classes were done, I went to join her, partly to help out and partly to learn about this way of life so different from my life in the city. What I discovered was the reason she sometimes went quiet, withdrawing into an impenetrable inner space. Once I learned to drive the tractor and use the milking machines, I spent hours in my own head, gazing out over the wide rolling fields or moving cows in and out of the stalls. My thoughts slowed to the pace of the rumbling tractor, and I found I could effortlessly turn off the chatter that used to interrupt my attempts at meditation. I learned to move through emptiness with the cool confidence born of habit.

Munro challenges her characters' self-sufficiency with forays into emotional connections. In “To Reach Japan” Greta hires a sitter for her young daughter and attends a cocktail party for writers to meet an editor visiting Vancouver. She is uncertain how to talk to the strangers at the party, so indulges in a couple of unexpectedly strong drinks. Quickly finding herself too tipsy to do more than sit on the floor, she is rescued and driven home by a writer in town from Toronto. Afterwards, she does not know what to make of this experience. The plot continues to twist in its quiet way and delivers an unexpected ending. In “Amundsen” Vivien Hyde goes to work as a teacher in a sanatarium far out in the Canadian woods, where she begins to develop relationships with a young girl and the director. Both relationships stutter along, jumping about, keeping Vivien and us wondering how they will turn out. Again and again in these stories, Munro looks at that first moment of contact and what intimacy may or may not evolve as a result.

The real bonus in this collection, which I received as an advance review copy from the publisher, are the last four pieces. Munro says in a note that they are “autobiographical in feeling, though not, entirely so in fact.” Yet they form a consistent picture of a girl growing up on a farm in rural Ontario during the 1930s and 40s. These are a child's perceptions filtered through an adult mind. At first they seem haphazardly thrown together, and the author denies employing fiction's structural tricks, saying of a man mentioned once that “he does not have any further part in what I'm writing now, in spite of his troll's name, because this is not a story, only life.” Yet they do function as stories, each building to a quiet revelation that the author—a trickster under her quiet demeanor—might turn around and deny in the last paragraph.

Like the best fiction, Munro's stories take us into the heads of the people our lives brush up against and help us better understand and appreciate them. What is your favorite Munro story?