Review: The Lace Reader

Written by Brunonia Barry
Published by William Morrow

This review refers to an advance edition of the book.

“My name is Towner Whitney. No, that’s not exactly true. My real first name is Sophya. Never believe me. I lie all the time.”

These opening lines from Brunonia Barry’s debut novel, The Lace Reader, perfectly set the tone for the rest of the work. Nothing in the book is what it seems at first view – events and people constantly shift and turn and realign themselves, as the reader is drawn ever more deeply into the world of Towner Whitney.

The Lace Reader is an ingeniously plotted tale, nearly impossible to review without giving away too many details. Which would be a horrible thing to do because this a terrific read. The story twists and changes on almost every page. The ending is a stunning roller coaster ride that made me want to turn back to the beginning and read the whole thing over again. And the characters are so life-like and well-drawn, by the end of the book I was almost beginning (somewhat disturbingly) to compare them with members of my own family.

The book’s central character, Towner Whitney, is an emotionally damaged young woman in her thirties who is living in California – a self-exile from her home in Salem, Massachusetts, and her eccentric, troubled family. She’s recovering from recent surgery when she’s called home to Salem after the family matriarch, her beloved 85-year-old Great Aunt Eva, is reported missing. Towner returns home reluctantly, having left under traumatic circumstances fifteen years earlier. The search for Eva brings Towner back to Salem physically and also stirs up memories of past events and relationships – memories she’s been holding at bay for many years.

The women in Towner Whitney’s family have a unique gift – they’re able to “read lace.” Specifically Ipswich lace, the lace made by the women of Ipswich, Massachusetts, in the 1700s. And Towner’s Great Aunt Eva, who runs a ladies’ tearoom and holds etiquette classes for the “wealthy children of Boston’s North Shore,” is the most famous of the lace readers – she can “read” a person’s past, present and future “just by holding the lace in front of you and squinting her eyes.”

Towner’s mother May Whitney is also able to read lace, although over the years she has come to believe “that knowing what is in people’s minds or their futures is not always in anyone’s best interest.” On her small island retreat, a few miles beyond Salem’s harbor, May runs a shelter for abused women and children, and teaches the women to make lace. The relationship between mother and daughter has always been troubled, and May’s refusal to leave her island home makes Towner’s return to Salem necessary and even more troublesome.

As backdrop to the main story, Barry provides us with quite a lot of “atmosphere” material concerning the town of Salem and its history – known primarily for the infamous witch trials. But Salem was also an early center of this country’s shipping trade, and therefore a very prosperous place in the 18th and early 19th centuries. With Towner’s return, we get glimpses of the present city as well as flashbacks to Salem in the 1970s. And, of course, the Salem witches are a presence throughout the book – not just the unfortunate victims of the witch hunts of old, but modern “witches,” as well: the followers of the Wiccan religion.

Over and over again, I was impressed with Barry’s sure hand with detail. For instance, I loved the description of Eva’s labels for the tomatoes and eggplants in her garden – “TOM and EGG respectively, as if they were little people.” Or the way Detective Rafferty runs his cup under hot water before pouring in the coffee. And the book includes one of the best descriptions of the onset of a migraine that I’ve ever found in a novel.

In reading The Lace Reader, I did something I hardly ever do – that is, take a chance on a book I knew almost nothing about. Generally, I do quite a lot of research and review-reading before adding a book to my want-to-read list. In this case, I’m very glad I broke my pattern. The book is an exploration of many themes, including love and abandonment, truth and illusion; itself as intricate as a piece of lace – part psychological drama, part police procedural, part family saga. All very adroitly and skillfully handled by a terrific new author. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I have a feeling Brunonia Barry isn’t going to be an unknown novelist for very long. I’m already eagerly awaiting her next book!

Just one last thought. I usually try to restrict this sort of thing to mental exercise. But I have to say it. This book would make a wonderful movie – it would provide some really terrific roles for “mature” actresses. I’d love to see Marian Seldes as Eva. But if Meryl Streep or Anjelica Huston or Blythe Danner doesn’t buy up the film rights immediately, they’re missing a bet!

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I received this book as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I believe it’s scheduled for general release in July 2008.

Review: Twig

Written and illustrated by Elizabeth Orton Jones
60th Anniversary Edition, published by Purple House Press, 2002, 152 pp.
Originally published by The Macmillan Company, 1942

“Well, who ever heard of going to Fairyland with a plain ordinary old dress on? Just look at it, Your Majesty!” said Twig. “And just look at these old shoes!”

The Queen looked at them and smiled. “They’re only on the outside of you, Twig,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how plain or how ordinary or how old the things on the outside are, you know. It’s what is inside that matters.”

This book was first recommended to me by my friend Carol Sue when we were in second grade together. She absolutely loved it, and talked about it almost incessantly for about a week. And I was very attracted to it at first – the pictures were wonderful and I loved the idea of being able to shrink down to the size of a sparrow and sit on a dandelion leaf. However, as soon as CS told me that one of the characters in the book was a cockroach, I said “No way, José!” (or the mid-1950s, second-grade equivalent of “No way, José”), and that was that.

But I remembered Twig over the years, and as I grew up and became more liberal about reading-matter taboos, I always intended to try to find and read the book that had made my little girlfriend so happy all those many years ago. And thanks to the Young Readers Challenge, now I have.

Twig is a little girl who lives with her Mama and Papa in an apartment on the fourth floor of a “high sort of house” in the city. She doesn’t have other children around to play with, and her world is the back yard, “bounded by houses on three of its sides and by a high fence on its other. Outside the fence was an alley. Inside, was a garbage can.”

In the midst of this rather bleak little world, where no grass grows, Twig has discovered a dandelion plant with long leaves “that were bent over like the branches of a tiny tree.” And when she finds a discarded tomato can with a rip in its side that resembles a doorway, she washes it out and places it next to the dandelion plant, delighted to see that it looks just like a little house – “just the right size for a fairy.”

And eventually a fairy does come along – not just any fairy, but the Queen of Fairyland. But before she shows up, we’re introduced to a lot of other wonderful characters, along with Twig. There’s the Sparrow family – Sparrow and Mrs. Sparrow and their four children (who are just eggs at the beginning of the story). And there’s Old Boy, the ice-wagon horse. And Old Girl, the cat who gives concerts every night.

And then there’s Elf, a tiny little fellow dressed in a potato-skin suit, who shows up with a magic book and manages to shrink Twig down to his size – tiny enough to set up housekeeping in the upside-down tomato can. They use one of Twig’s Mama’s thimbles for a cook pot, and toothpaste tube caps for plates. And Twig sweeps the floor with an old feather from Mrs. Sparrow. And at one point Elf does come home with the aforementioned cockroach (called “Chummie”), but Twig shoos it away very quickly.

When they’re not tidying up their tomato-can abode, Twig and Elf visit Mrs. Sparrow in her nest, and sit on her eggs while she goes in search of food and her wandering spouse. The two tiny playmates climb up Old Boy’s tail and take a ride inside his ears. And Elf brings Twig a pair of butterfly wings that she attaches to her back and uses to take a little flight around the backyard – before the wings fly off on their own again.

Twig is a very appealing and resourceful little girl. And, of course, when she gets the chance to go live in Fairyland with Elf and the Fairy Queen, she decides she really would rather stay with her Mama and Papa. But during her adventures with Elf and all the other characters, she’s learned that she doesn’t need a magic book to perform magic – she can make magical things happen anytime she wants, just by using her imagination.

Twig would be a perfect book for reading aloud to preschoolers – most likely over a period of a few days. Since it’s aimed at the 4-8 age group, it would probably also work for kids who’ve learned to read on their own, although I’m not sure how well such an old-fashioned tale would hold their attention. It was first published in 1942, and definitely has a pre-war feel to it.

Elizabeth Orton Jones, in addition to winning the Caldecott medal for Prayer for a Child, also did the illustrations for the 1948 Little Golden Book edition of Little Red Riding Hood, which is one of the best-loved versions of that tale (and one of my childhood favorites). In Twig, the illustrations are a delight: small drawings throughout the book, as well as a number of full-page color pictures.

It’s a very cute story – it even has a bit of a “Wizard of Oz” twist at the end. I can see why Carol Sue liked it so much – cockroaches notwithstanding.

Review: The Flanders Panel

Written by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994, 295 pages

“Life is an uncertain adventure in a diffuse landscape, whose borders are continually shifting, where all frontiers are artificial, where at any moment everything can either end only to begin again or finish suddenly, for ever and ever, like an unexpected blow from an axe. Where the only absolute, coherent, indisputable and definitive reality is death. Where we are only a tiny lightning flash between two eternal nights, and where . . . we have very little time.” [Chapter XV: “Queen Ending,” p. 269]

Julia, a 20-something art expert in Madrid, is hired to restore a painting about to be auctioned off by Claymore’s, a prominent auction house. The Game of Chess, by fifteenth-century Flemish master Pieter Van Huys, depicts the Duke of Ostenburg and one of his knights seated at a chess board, engaged in a game, while in the background a lady in a black velvet dress sits reading by a window.

When she has the painting X-rayed before cleaning, Julia discovers a hidden message in a corner of the work, presumably written and then deliberately painted over by the artist himself. The message is written in Latin: “Quis Necavit Equitem” (“Who Killed the Knight?”), and Julia’s obsession with finding out more about the inscription, the picture and the historical events surrounding its creation are the basis of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s sophisticated mystery novel, The Flanders Panel.

As she turns up more information about the painting and the characters involved, Julia begins to realize she’s uncovered a Renaissance murder mystery that seems to have ramifications in the present century. But even as violence and danger begin to erupt, her fascination with the painting and its story increases until it threatens her own life and the lives of her friends and loved ones.

As the book’s advertising claims, The Flanders Panel is truly a “mystery for the connoisseur.” The writing is sophisticated and elegant, the plot twists and turns, and the story shifts easily back and forth among many attractive (and yet somehow sinister) settings – auction houses and museums, antique shops and chess clubs, nightclubs and the streets of Madrid. The chess motif is well-researched, and runs through the whole book, but readers who know little about chess (and I’m one) can still enjoy the story.

Images of Alice and her looking-glass are sprinkled through the book – another heroine caught up in a story based on a game of chess. The author throws in several paradoxes and puzzles along the way, and many references to Edgar Allan Poe and Dupin, and to Sherlock Holmes and Watson, I suppose to emphasize the fact that the story is a mystery. And there are surprises (almost literally) around every corner.

This is the second Perez-Reverte novel I’ve read – the first was The Club Dumas; and I don’t think “Flanders” quite comes up to that level. Still, it kept me turning pages into the wee hours, several nights running, and whetted my appetite for more of his work – and I consider that a pretty good recommendation.

Review: Betsy-Tacy

Written by Maud Hart Lovelace
Illustrated by Lois Lenski
Published by Harper Collins
First published by Thomas Y. Crowell, 1940

First there was just Betsy Ray, a four-year-old girl with plump legs and brown braids, living with her mother and father and her eight-year-old sister Julia in a small yellow cottage, “the last house on her side of Hill Street,” in a town named Deep Valley. But even though there are plenty of other children on Hill Street, there are no other little girls just her age, so when a new family moves in across the street, Betsy is thrilled to find that one of the many children in the family is another little four-year-old girl, named Tacy (short for Anastacia).

Tacy is as thin as Betsy is plump, and her hair is red and curly. At first, the two girls don’t hit it off – Tacy is painfully shy (“bashful,” as Tacy’s older sister Katie always tells people) and it takes a while for the two to get to know each other. But after they do, they become inseparable: “It was difficult, later, to think of a time when Betsy and Tacy had not been friends. Hill Street came to regard them almost as one person.” So they became Betsy-Tacy.

Maud Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy is the story of the first year of friendship between the two little girls, with Betsy taking the lead in most of their adventures. Along the way, the girls start school, explore their village, and meet their neighbors. They play paper dolls and dress-up, and help their older sisters color Easter eggs. They climb trees, make snow angels, and turn a piano box into a playhouse – one of my favorite episodes because I had a similar playhouse when I was about that age, made from a box that a refrigerator came in.

Lovelace combines the reality of their situation with a liberal sprinkling of fantasy, mostly in the form of really magical stories made up by Betsy. In one of their early meetings, the two ride through the sky on feathers and look down on their houses and neighbors below. Well, not really. But Betsy and Lovelace have a way of enveloping both Tacy and their readers in the magic.

Not all of the book is charming fantasy. There’s a bit of real-life trauma thrown in. When Mrs. Ray has a baby, Betsy has a little trouble adjusting to not being the youngest member of the family anymore. And there’s a death in one of the families, that’s very surprising and sad.

Betsy-Tacy is the first of a series of books Maud Lovelace wrote about the two girls and their friend Tib, who makes her first appearance at the very end of this book. According to most histories of the books, Lovelace based the character of Betsy on herself and used incidents in her own life for story lines. The books are set in the very late 19th and early 20th centuries, and are appealingly slow-paced and nostalgic. For many years, it was hard to find the books outside libraries; but the huge cult following that’s recently developed has led to new editions being issued.

I’m not sure how this book would go over with youngsters today – it’s very old-fashioned and, I suppose, quaint. I’ve been meaning to read it for years. And now that I have, I’m very happy I finally met Betsy and Tacy, and I’m looking forward to getting to know Tib. But I certainly wish I’d discovered their books as a child – I would have loved them.

Review: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Written and Illustrated by E. L. Konigsburg
Published by Simon & Schuster / Aladdin Paperbacks, 2002, 172 pp.

Winner of the Newbery Medal in 1968, E. (for Elaine) L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is the story of Claudia Kincaid and her younger brother Jamie, and their adventures in New York City when they decide to run away from their Greenwich, Connecticut home and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Well, actually it’s 12-year-old Claudia who decides to run away – she takes 9-year-old brother Jamie along because “he was good for a laugh” and because he has the amazing sum of twenty-four dollars and forty-three cents saved up, mostly his winnings from gambling on card games.

The two escapees pack their clean undies in their violin and trumpet cases, take the train to New York City, and spend a week living in the Met. They hide from museum guards and workmen, bathe in a museum fountain, sleep in antique beds complete with antique bedding and antique dust. They also manage to solve a mystery involving a statue of an angel that may or may not have been sculpted by Michelangelo.

Their story is narrated by the wealthy and aged Mrs. Frankweiler of the title, and she’s part of the mystery. She was also my favorite character. Well, how could I not like a woman who keeps a lifetime of newspaper clippings and personal items in “rows and rows of filing cabinets that line the walls” of her private office? She has the soul of a librarian.

She also hates beauty parlors and has her butler cut her hair. Now who couldn’t fall in love with that?

I’m not going to give away much more of the plot, except to say that Claudia and Jamie eventually go home, and the ending has a couple of very neat surprise twists. And along the way, Claudia learns something very valuable about what you can and can’t run away from.

This book is very definitely a modern children’s classic. It’s been around for over 35 years now, and it still delights new readers every year – children and adults alike. There have been two film versions, and it’s referenced in several other films and TV shows. So it’s stood the test of time and taken a firm place in popular culture.

I enjoyed the book and would recommend it whole-heartedly to readers of all ages, but I think I missed a lot of the charm it would have held for me if I’d first read it as a child. As an adult, I kept having trouble suspending my disbelief – even in the Olden Days of 1967, two children hiding out in the Metropolitan Museum for a week would have been far-fetched stuff. And I also kept wondering about the poor parents of the runaways: What must they have been going through back in Greenwich while Claudia and Jamie were harvesting coins from the fountain, and eating breakfast every morning at the automat? OK, I know it’s fantasy and not to be taken too seriously. But a lot of it felt very real, too, and I think it was that mixture of the real and the decidedly non-real that kept tripping me up.

I also couldn’t help noticing how dated a lot of the book seemed. Things have really changed since 1967. How many kids today will know what an automat is? Or a transistor radio? Or an Olivetti typewriter?

But in the edition I read, the author herself addresses this problem in an afterword. And she rightly points out that “the events of September 11, 2001, that have changed forever both the conscience and configuration of New York would not have changed Claudia and Jamie. The skyline that they would have seen when they arrived in Manhattan would not have been very different from that which we now (sadly) see.”

And though she admits that many things have changed since 1967 (including the author herself), one thing Konigsburg says is still true: “the greatest adventure lies not in running away but in looking inside, and the greatest discovery is not in finding out who made a statue but in finding out what makes you.”

Review: Civil To Strangers

Written by Barbara Pym
Published by E.P. Dutton, 1987
Edited by Hazel Holt

I first learned about Barbara Pym back in the early 1980s, probably not long after she died. In those days, it was still rather difficult to find her books in this country. But M. and I spent the summer of 1982 in England, and I picked up a couple of her novels at Blackwell’s in Oxford – I believe they were Some Tame Gazelle and Jane and Prudence. And from the opening sentence of that first book (“The new curate seemed quite a nice young man, but what a pity it was that his combinations showed, tucked carelessly into his socks, when he sat down.”), I was hooked.

As rapidly as possible, I acquired and devoured all the novels then in print. I became a Pym fanatic, even going so far as to execute my own Pym pilgrimage on a later England trip – visiting places she’d lived and her old college in Oxford (St. Hilda’s). It helped that M. had become almost equally enthusiastic about her books, and indulged my whim. In fact, we liked the books so much, we started forcing them on friends and colleagues – sort of forming our own little Barbara Pym fan club for a time.

While I was reading the novels, I discovered A Very Private Eye, the “Autobiography in Diaries and Letters,” edited by her sister Hilary Pym and Barbara’s friend and literary executor, Hazel Holt. It was a wonderful, fascinating look at the woman behind the novels – I read it quickly and have re-read it many times since.

And after that, the darkness. Or so it appeared for a time, anyway. I’d read all the novels and the autobiography, and it seemed like that was all there was to be. Barbara Pym had died in 1980 – I would just have to content myself with re-reading her ten wonderful books (sniff).

Well, I needn’t have felt so bereft – there were more works to appear, posthumously: the novels Crampton Hodnet and An Academic Question, and then a collection of pieces, including the novel Civil to Strangers. And of course, I gobbled them all up immediately – all of them, that is, except Civil To Strangers. For some reason, I was keeping that one in reserve. Saving it up – like a fine wine or the last bon-bon in the box. Just knowing that there was one more Pym out there to be discovered gave me a nice comforting, hopeful feeling.

And then the Winter Reading Challenge came along, and I said, “why not?” and pulled out my last Pym. Dear Barbara.

Although not published until after her death, Civil To Strangers was actually the second novel Barbara Pym wrote – in 1936 when she was twenty-three, after the first version of Some Tame Gazelle was rejected by several publishers. And as Hazel Holt says in her introduction, it has “all the confidence of youth.”

The novel is the story of Cassandra Marsh-Gibbon and her novelist husband Adam who live in the Shropshire village of Up Callow; and as the dust jacket says, “both the village and Cassandra’s marriage are thrown into upheaval when a mysterious Hungarian moves into town.” And I’m not going to give away much more than that. But the story of Cassandra and Stefan Tilos, and whether they will or won’t (or have or haven’t) run off to Budapest together, is just the central narrative around which a number of other tales are woven. And all the familiar Pym character types are represented – the Rector and his family; Mr. Paladin the very eligible young curate; the aging bachelor Mr. Gay and his spinster niece Angela, who are “still hoping that there was a rich woman or an eligible husband in the town whom they had somehow missed in their search.”

Barbara Pym has often been compared to Jane Austen (unfair, I think, to both authors), and this is probably the most Austen-like of all her books. In fact, I was a little surprised at first at how little it seemed to resemble the later novels. But after a few chapters, the familiar Pym voice started to emerge and I realized that it’s actually one of her most comic works. Only Barbara Pym could have written lines like these:

“Holmwood is let,” said Mrs Gower in tones of satisfaction, “and to a foreigner!”
Oh!” Mrs Wilmot gasped. “Are you sure it’s true?”
“Oh yes,” Mrs Gower replied. “I saw him coming down the drive. Quite dark and wearing a black hat.”
“Really . . . ” mused Mrs Wilmot, a smile stealing over her eager little face. After the black hat there could of course be no doubt.
[Chapter 5, p. 43]

or,

“I daresay he is going to Birmingham,” said Mrs Gower, still on the subject of Mr Tilos.
“Yes, perhaps he is,” said Mr Gay lazily. “Let us be thankful that we are not going there.”
[Chapter 18, p. 121]

or,

“Science is weaker than Nature,” said Adam positively. He looked as if he were about to quote Wordsworth, but Cassandra stopped him in time. [Chapter 25, p. 169]

And the whole of Chapter 14, where all the characters come together for a bridge party and get to know their newly arrived foreign neighbor for the first time, is absolutely perfect Pym. Hardly anything happens, but it’s quietly hilarious just the same.

The novel is included in a collection (under the title Civil To Strangers and Other Writings) along with several more works also unpublished at the time of Pym’s death. They’re all worth reading, of course; and the final piece, “Finding a Voice,” is especially interesting to those of us who are under the Pym-ish spell. It’s a transcription of a radio program she did for the BBC in 1978, part of a series by well-known writers speaking about how they found their own personal writing styles.

In her introduction to the collection, Hazel Holt says Pym was “pleased to be asked to contribute [to the program], since it was a confirmation at last of her position as a professional writer.” In the BBC talk, Pym asks if it’s enough just to write for oneself if nobody else is going to read it. And she comes to the conclusion that, though she might not go on writing if absolutely no one were reading, so long as a few people are there “to spur me on,” she’ll go on: “So I try to write what pleases and amuses me in the hope that a few others will like it, too.”

And I’m so glad she did go on. But what am I going to do now that I’ve read my last Pym? Start at the beginning and read them all again, I suppose. Because there’s no one quite like her.

Dear Barbara.