Here is what I read in May:
Mr. Mac and Me by Esther Freud. Real life Scottish architect Charles Rennie MacIntosh and his artist wife Margaret MacDonald have retreated to a village on the Suffolk coast to recuperate and paint. An unlikely friendship arises between them and a local (fictional) boy named Thomas Maggs, son of an alcoholic pub keeper. When World War I breaks out, life changes for the village and strangers are viewed with suspicion. Even Mr. Mac. A lovely portrait of a coastal village at war, Freud also vividly portrays the artistic process as Mr. Mac and Margaret work on their studies of local plant life. This novel sent me to Google to look at some of their work and once again despair that I arrived in Glasgow the day after the School of Art (MacIntosh's masterpiece) burned and, thus, never had a chance to see it.
Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Gluck. The latest collection of poetry by Louise Gluck is concerned with death, aging and the act of dying. Parents die in a sudden collision with a tree, leaving two children to be brought up by an Aunt. A painter is dying and can no longer use his arm to paint - it seems the painter is one of the children all grown up. At some point the Aunt dies. But each poem could also stand on its own. Is the voice female or male? Is the voice the poet's or her creation's? Sometimes it is hard to tell - and really, what does it matter? Time itself seems mutable - the present and the past confused in the way that they often are for old people. Is the poem representing reality or a dream? Again, hard to say.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. With the end of World War I many formerly upper middle class women found themselves in straightened circumstances. The men in the family were dead, money was often tight and good help was hard to find. The Wrays are just such a family of women, living in a fine old house in a genteel suburb of London - a house that they can no longer afford. They are forced to take in lodgers, or "paying guests" as Mrs. Wray would prefer to call them. In the first third of this novel, Sarah Waters creates the world of 1922 in great detail with appropriate atmosphere. If you, like I, have little interest in novels about obsessive love or criminal trials you might find the last two-thirds of the novel somewhat hard going. The twist here is that the love affair is between two women, but otherwise it reads something like an early Alfred Hitchcock thriller. I truly love the way that Sarah Waters strings together her sentences, but the plot of this novel just did not grab me.
The Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley. Flavia de Luce has been shipped off to boarding school in Toronto, Canada, a foreign land that uses dimes and nickels rather than good old English money. Of course the first night she arrives a body is discovered in the bedroom to which she has been assigned. In addition, the school is not all that it seems. More strange is the fact that she misses Feely and Daffy back at home. This particular mystery suffered from the need to introduce a new country, a new school and an entirely new cast of characters. This is a story that seems meant to take Flavia to the next level. Flavia is as enjoyable as ever but I hope she can return to Buckshaw and her friends in England.
St. Louis Rising: The French Regime of Louis de St. Ange de Bellerive, by Carl J. Ekberg and Sharon K. Person. A book about the founding of St. Louis that focuses on the first Commandant of Upper Louisiana to live here. Louis de St. Ange de Bellerive lived a fascinating life. Born in Canada, he came from a military family and followed his father and brother to the new colony of Louisiana. They were the first French to try to permanently settle the Missouri River Valley. After the death of his brother, Louis was put in charge of the post at Vincennes. After the end of the French and Indian War he was moved to Fort de Chartres and made Commandant of Upper Louisiana where one of his principal jobs was to hand over the fort to the British. After the handover he moved his command to the west side of the river to the new settlement of St. Louis. I reviewed this book here.