Keeping the World Away, by Margaret Forster

This is one of those books that follows an object through time, in this case a painting by Gwen John. The first section of the book is about Gwen herself and her attempts to establish herself as a painter, struggling not just with the poverty and dearth of recognition that most artists experience, but also with the shadow of her more-famous brother Augustus and, of course, with the role restrictions for women in the late 19th and early 20th century. She early recognises the conflict between the demands of her art and those imposed by marriage and children. Her response is to shutter her passionate nature and keep to herself, hence the book’s title which is from a quote from John’s own writings.

These conflicts—between home and work/art, between solitude and society—have dominated my life, as well. I am constantly trying out new ways to balance my time and energy. In order to write, more so than for other kinds of work that I do, I need fairly large blocks of time alone. By “alone” in this context, I mean not interacting with others. I actually write best in a public space, such as a pub or coffeehouse, where there are people around me, but no one distracting my attention from the work. In order to have sufficient alone-time, I have, after much experimentation, developed a routine that consists of substantial periods of solitude interspersed with short, but intense social times.

Of course, when I had small children at home, such a routine was impossible. In those days, I dreamt constantly of a white room. An empty, white room with a plain wooden table and chair under a window hung with sheer white curtains that lifted and belled in the breeze. Perhaps a cot, but nothing else. Plain as a nun’s cell. I longed for that room.

So I was captivated by the particular painting in this book: a still life of a corner of John’s attic room in Paris, a chair with a parasol, a table under a window, a glass of yellow primroses. We follow the painting as it changes hands, going from one woman to another. It means different things to different women, but also changes its meaning for each woman over time.

I was a little disappointed every time the story moved away from a particular woman, as I wanted to know more about her and how the insights she gained from the painting changed her life. Also, I found the idea that all the women who owned the painting wanted to live solitary lives a bit surprising, as I know few people of either gender who would choose to “keep the world away” to that extent. I suppose it could be said that the painting’s owners were self-selected, by their attraction to the painting.

What I liked best about this book were the descriptions of how the painting affected different people, how it echoed their lives and emotions, how it shifted its meaning for each viewer. I once read a mystery by Jane Langton, one of my favorite authors, where one of the characters was an eccentric old woman who wrote letters to God, crushed them into a ball, and threw them up into the air. That illustrates how I feel as a writer, laboring over a story or a poem, tossing it out into the air, never knowing what it will mean to a reader, often surprised by the comments that do come back to me. Here, the section written from the point of view of the artist, Gwen John, is fascinating, but the sections from the point of view of the recipients, those who look at the painting, are brilliant.

Stand Proud, by Elmer Kelton

I like westerns and Kelton’s books in particular. I’ve written before in this blog about his books. His stories are often coming-of-age stories where a young man is finding his place in the world and coming to grips with the complexity of the people around him, learning to appreciate their qualities and accept their faults. Kelton’s books also have a strong sense of place: Texas during and after the Civil War.

This story is set a bit later, around the turn of the century, when a wealthy rancher named Frank Claymore is on trial for murder. Crippled with rheumatism and bursting with cantankerous crotchets, he is helped into the courtroom by his lifelong friend, Homer Whitcomb.

Almost immediately, we flash back to his youth, when he and Homer and another friend, George Valentine, ride out to search for cattle on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River and run into a Comanche hunting party. With the Civil War going on back east, the Confederacy cannot send troops to Texas to fight the Indians, so families from Clear Fork, including Frank’s sweetheart Rachal, have taken refuge in Fort Davis.

Each succeeding chapter starts with Frank’s trial and then takes up the story of the past again, until finally we understand the twists and turns of the path that led Frank to this moment in the courthouse, where the town seems to be against him, all but Homer and the two Native Americans under the Chinaberry tree outside.

Kelton handles the time changes deftly never leaving me in any doubt as to where and when we are. And I found the descriptions of the land stunning, particularly those of the early years, before the buffalo had been slaughtered and the prairie grasses plowed under. The valley that Frank stumbles upon and swears to return to is vividly drawn, not just the look of the hills and stream, but the feel of the place, the awe that it inspires.

Frank is well aware that his actions have brought about, or at least contributed to the changes he so deplores, not that he would admit that out loud to anyone. I, too, have been ruefully surprised when I look back at the unintended consequences of so many of my decisions and actions. My poor record at predicting outcomes, both good and bad, leaves me humble and repentant.

Initially, Frank seems like the worst kind of bad-tempered, controlling old man, certain that he is always right, never hesitating to criticise those around him. But as his past unfurls, marked by grief and loss and unlooked-for responsibilities, he begins to make sense and inspire more sympathy. How could he be otherwise—this taciturn man who understands cattle but not people—given the trail he has followed? Through him, I came to understand and appreciate several of my acquaintances.

Frank’s story moved me, at first to rage and frustration, sometimes to nostalgia, occasionally to amazement and respect. It left me thinking about friendship, the bonds of the past, and—finally—forgiveness.

Outwitting Ants, by Cheryl Kimball

Yes, I have ants in my cabin. At 5:30 the sun—already fierce—slams against the side of the cabin and pours through the window, scattering rainbows from Kate’s prisms across the walls. Within seconds, the ants begin to trickle from the corner of the roofline over my desk. Carpenter ants, as I know by the pile of debris and the swarm of flying ants on that really hot day, their lacy wings such a contrast to their hard black bodies. No matter how interesting, though, they are destructive and will have to go.

Mostly they don’t interfere with me as they scatter across the roof ledge and down the wall, though watching them take over the space is a little disturbing, and of course I have to brush them off the desk before they get to the laptop with its warm, inviting hum. I try to adopt Thoreau’s let’s-live-together philosophy towards them till the exterminator comes. It helps that they disappear at night, withdrawing with the sun’s warmth, bustling back to their nest. Some things that don’t bother me during the day really creep me out at night.

I figure that being in a cabin means welcoming the wildlife. I’ve gotten used to my 3 a.m. caller: some large animal that comes crashing down the hill, rustling leaves and breaking branches, to drink noisily from the pond. Not sure what my nocturnal visitor is, a raccoon perhaps or a fisher cat. I encourage spiders because they help to keep the ant population down.

I pulled this book from the library hoping it would also help. It’s very short, less than 150 pages even including multiple appendices, and the acknowledgement to Orkin right up front made me a bit wary. But the prose is just what I want from this kind of book: simple and straightforward. One of the things I learned is that ants are predators of other insects such as bedbugs and the chiggers that made my childhood a misery. I wondered why they seemed to have disappeared. Now if only the ants would eat all the deer ticks . . .

Some of the introductory material about different types of ants and their habits was interesting, but unfortunately was repeated several times throughout the book, as was other information and advice. I assume the repetition was included because readers are expected to dip into the book here and there, not read it straight through as I did.

I enjoyed reading more about the way they organise their colonies. I knew about ants being a superorganism, but there were details here about the ways different kinds of ants choose their queens and how some actually enslave other ants. Thoreau used ants in a fable about war, but there are certainly other comparisons to be drawn or pondered.

In the end, I didn’t learn any new tricks to discourage ants—the advice boiled down to keep the place clean and call an exterminator—but I was left thinking about different forms of social organisation.

The Body Farm, by Patricia Cornwell

Cornwell seems to be a popular mystery author with a long-running series featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a forensic pathologist who also has a law degree. I like a good mystery, so I thought I’d check her out. I first tried Isle of Dogs which is not one of her Kay Scarpetta books. I guess it was supposed to be humorous, but I found it boring and abandoned it after a couple of chapters.

Then I tried this book. Here, Dr. Scarpetta (she’s not the kind of character you call Kay) goes to Black Mountain, North Carolina, to investigate the sexual assault and murder of Emily Steiner, an 11-year-old girl. Black Mountain is said to be near Asheville, touted by Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss and ABC’s 20/20 as the happiest place in the U.S. Cornwell does not do much with this contrast other than occasionally mentioning that people in a small town believe the crimes they see on tv happen elsewhere and will never affect their town.

Complicating Scarpetta’s investigation are her relations with two co-workers: Pete Marino, a detective from Richmond, VA, and FBI Unit Chief Benton Wesley. Emotional undercurrents that had apparently been explored more fully in earlier books made the opening chapters of this book somewhat baffling for me. Scarpetta’s niece Lucy also complicates the story. Taking her aunt as a role model, Lucy has been working on a classified project at Quantico but lands in emotional and professional problems which may or may not be related to the case in North Carolina.

The investigation initially focuses on Temple Gault, a serial murderer whom Scarpetta has encountered in the past. Apparently assuming that readers would be familiar with the earlier books, Cornwell provides only the briefest outline of their earlier interaction. Similarly, Marino and Wesley are barely sketched in and did not come alive for me. Lucy is characterized a little better, as are Lucy’s mother and grandmother. I would have said that Scarpetta’s sister and mother are drawn too broadly to be realistic had I not had similar conversations with my own mother and one of my sisters. Still, there is little subtlety or shading in any of these characters.

The hardest part of writing a series must be deciding how much to explain what has happened in past books and when to present it. Here, not enough information was given at the right time, for me anyway. Yet, such explanations can be overdone. I had to give up reading Martha Grimes’s books because I got tired of the arm sticking out of the rubble memory. The best examples of weaving in earlier information that I’ve read are the Harry Potter books. One could also choose to make the books of a series stand alone a bit more, keeping the amount of necessary earlier information to a minimum, as P. D. James does. Another difficult factor in writing a series is the progression of the characters’ lives. I have sometimes found that reading books out of order has meant that I already know important plot points in the earlier books when I get to them.

Back to Cornwell’s book, if the setting and characterization are not detailed enough, the plot is almost too complex, with many different subplots and much traveling back and forth between more than half a dozen East Coast towns and cities. Some promising plot threads are dropped with perhaps only a sentence to tie them off at the end. The identity and motivation of the murderer seemed obvious to me early on but I was willing to play along with the red herrings. The forensic detail is interesting, as are the descriptions of the FBI research projects. As always, these are only my opinions, and while I probably will not seek out any more of Cornwell’s books, I’m sure many others will.

The Lighthouse, by P.D. James

James has said that ideas for her books begin with a setting. Here the setting is a small (fictional) island off the coast of Cornwall that has been turned into a resort for people of distinction—politicians, writers, diplomats—who need a break from the stresses of their lives. Combe Island offers a secure environment—visitors do not bring their bodyguards—and options for solitude or society.

The island calmed and enchanted me as well, with its crashing tides and cliff walks, its rustic chapel and stone cottages. And of course its lighthouse, no longer in service but maintained as an historical site. James deftly brushes in allusions and connotations, not only of lighthouses but of small islands: treasure islands, self-contained paradises, embattled outposts threatened by the sea.

Commander Dalgleish, in his role as leader of the Special Investigation Squad, is asked to look into a suspicious death on Combe Island. Abandoning his plans for a weekend with Emma Laverham, Dalgleish rounds up his team—DI Kate Miskin and Sergeant Benton-Smith—and heads out.

James is one of my favorite authors. She understands how government works and Scotland Yard. Her stories are well-plotted, with the right amounts of suspense and baffling turns. Her writing is simply amazing: intelligent, forthright, engaging, and at times profoundly moving. Best of all, she has created characters with subtle shadings who grow even more complex in each installment of her long-running series. She gives us just enough of their personal lives to make them interesting, but never so much that it interferes with the story. Here, the denizens of the island are fully drawn as well, their fears and routines, their needs and desires, their histories and dreams.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of The Book of Ebenezer LePage with its Guernsey setting and memorable depiction of daily life on the island. As he described, World War II brought the end of Guernsey’s centuries-long isolation and the loss of their unique culture, overwhelmed by tourism and television. Isolation, though, is not always a good thing. I wondered if the isolation of Combe Island in James’s book made it easier for the people there to slip the bonds of society’s rules and expectations, if perhaps something taboo like murder could there come to seem a natural solution.

It is hard to believe James is 88. She has lost none of her power as a writer, her confident prose contrasting sharply with Elizabeth Smart’s struggles (described in the last entry). I was first attracted to her books by their intelligence, but have come to treasure every aspect of them. This is a worthy addition to the series.