I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith


I must have been ten or eleven when I first read this novel of an eccentric English family living in a house attached to and using a corner of a partially ruined castle. I didn’t remember anything except that I’d loved it despite my initial disappointment that it wasn’t about King Arthur or magical doings—I’d come to it from The Once and Future King and somehow thought it was going to be similar.

Yet I only had to read the first sentence for the whole story to come flooding back to me, plus a precise memory of where I was when reading it. The voice of Cassandra, who tells the story, is that strong.

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her family love their dilapidated home. It would be better, though, if they had some money for little things like, oh, having more candles so they can read at night, fixing the leaks in the roof, actually getting enough to eat, and paying the rent.

Her father, a writer, had a very successful book many years ago but hasn’t written since. Her stepmother, Topaz, is a model for whom there aren’t many work opportunities in the depths of the country and London is too expensive. Although a bit drifty, Topaz is even-tempered and has turned out to be adept at fashioning meals out of almost nothing. There’s a brother, Thomas, two years younger, and Stephen, a year older than Cassandra, the son of their maid who stayed on with the Mortmains after her death even though they can’t pay him.

Of her older sister, Cassandra says: “Although I am rather used to her I know she is a beauty. She is nearly twenty-one and very bitter with life.”

See what I mean about the voice? Wanting to be a writer, Cassandra has decided to keep a journal, the book we are reading. She intersperses her record of the oddities of their daily life with her own quite original thoughts and interpretations. I say original, but I remember reading them and thinking Oh yes, that’s EXACTLY the way I feel. And she’s hilarious, sometimes without meaning to be.

I was too young then to recognise the inciting incident, the happening that upends their odd but stable lives. On a rainy night, while Cassandra is taking a bath in front of the kitchen fire, a young man knocks at the door and enters. He and his brother are moving into nearby Scoatney Hall, empty since the death of their uncle who is also the landlord for the Mortmains’ home. The sisters actually joke about Austen’s novel.

In trying to decide what most delights me in this story, I have to give credit to the setting: the peculiar house/castle with its moat and nearby ancient tower. I love the room over the gate where Father retires to “write” every day, but actually reads mystery novels. And Cassandra’s descriptions of their life at home, their jaunts in the English countryside, etc. are quite distinctive. Here’s a bit from her first visit to Scoatney Hall:

We left our wraps in the hall—Topaz had lent us things to save us the shame of wearing our winter coats. There was a wonderful atmosphere of gentle age, a smell of flowers and beeswax, sweet yet faintly sour and musty; a smell that makes you feel very tender towards the past.

I love their hijinks. Not just the imaginative way they live—calling the room between the girls’ room and the adults’ bedroom the “buffer state”, using a dressmaker’s dummy as a confidante and mentor—but the accidental mischief they fall into, like Rose being mistaken for a bear.

Most of all, though, it’s Cassandra’s storytelling, her humor, her peculiar turns of phrase, her odd outlook. Every page holds delightful surprises. If you’ve never read this book, you have a treat in store for you. If you have, try reading it again.

Have you reread a book that you loved when young? Was it as good as you remembered?

Professor Harriman’s Steam Air-Ship, by Terese Svoboda


The poems in this new collection by Terese Svoboda get to the heart of what it means to be human. I wrote a woman at first, but I think their truths transcend gender. Allusive, often playful, they are deeply moving.

Take the first poem, “Whose Little Airplane Are You?” With light but deft touches, she conjures a mother speaking of apricots and clouds and planes, as though in answer to the question What was it like when I was a baby? She apologises for all she had not apprehended then. Yet the immense love comes through, together with the hint of threat that the image of planes coming out of clouds now holds for us.

In “The Talking Tea-Kettle” an enchanting and amusing discussion of spiritualists and their debunkers is sprinkled with calls from a daughter trying to connect with her mother.

Other poems take us into different territory, such as “Orlando is Us” which imagines what it must have been like to be in that nightclub on the night of the attack. “Airport News” uses Dante’s Purgatorio to describe a flight, and will have any frequent flyer nodding and chuckling. Another intensely imagined piece has a father trying to find his son in a parking garage in “Boy on Crutches”. Others, such as “Baghdad Calls” and “Hope Wanted Alive”, speak to our fractured world.

The long poem that makes up Part III and provides the book’s title, looks at our race pell-mell into the future. With allusions, puns and other word-play, Svoboda takes us on a balloon ride of a marriage. She invites us to look at the space between concepts such as “Transportation as transport:/Court-ship.” With references to Spock, DNA, and the Jetsons, she circles around the idea of invention, the future, and the stories we imagine about them.

It is the last section that keeps bringing me back. She begins with the lines “No one imagines/night at noon.” With compelling imagery and concrete details, like gingko trees and the triangle on the Play button, these poems of a loss conjure in us, not just the memory, but the experience of our own losses and help to heal them.

I’ve written before about Svoboda’s earlier collection, When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley, and Anything That Burns You, her incredible biography of the influential but now mostly forgotten Modernist poet Lola Ridge. This new collection builds on the strengths of those earlier works. If you enjoy word-play and are ready to be moved, I encourage you to explore these poems.

What poem have you read recently that moved you?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky


I remember this book from my childhood. It was on a top shelf in the study, a small room lined with bookcases. Aside from the many-volumed encyclopedia and my grandfather’s law books, most of the shelves were filled with my father’s medical books. We children would pull them down when we wanted to scare ourselves and each other with the photos of rare diseases. So when I saw this book with the title in large letters on the spine, above my reach, I assumed it was another medical book, describing some form of mental disability.

I must have been curious, though, because it is the only title I remember from those walls.

Although I read a lot, I’ve only recently begun to catch up with the classic Russian authors. The Idiot begins with young Prince Muishkin, 26 or 27 years old, traveling by train to St. Petersburg from Switzerland where he’d spent several years being treated for severe epilepsy. He meets two men: Parfen Rogojin, a pale man of about the same age with fiery eyes, and Lebedeff, a social-climbing clerk of about 40.

The two are amused by the prince, who is inappropriately dressed for the cold and who answers their questions with a naive honesty and openness that makes them think him simple-minded. The prince reveals that he has no other plan but to look up a distant relative, Mrs. General Epanchin (Elizabetha Prokofievna). The two take him in hand.

I won’t try to summarise the complicated plot and large cast, but the heart of the book is the prince, whose artless innocence wins over everyone he meets. Dostoevsky said that he wanted to write a novel about a completely good and moral man. Of course, like others the prince has been compared to since, such as Don Quixote and Jesus himself, he brings trouble on himself and those around him. Most people, including the prince himself, call him an idiot, thinking his innocence and epilepsy symptoms of a feeble brain. Gradually, though, they come to appreciate his wisdom and deep insight into those around him.

The prince falls in love with two women who—to their own surprise—both love him back: Nastasia Philipovna, a woman who has been used as a concubine by a man who adopted her as his ward and whom Rogojin also loves, and Aglaya, the youngest and most beloved Epanchin daughter. As A.S. Byatt astutely observes in her review of a recent translation:

The women think they are in a story about seduction, rape, proposals, money and marriage, like most novels in the realm of the passions and economic forces. The prince is in some absolute moral world in which he can instinctively gauge who is being cruel to whom, who is in need and who is tormenting or tormented, without having in him any genuine sexual response of his own to help him to judge his own effect on people.

I found this novel compelling, though I certainly understand the complaints of critics who find the plot contrived and the characters flat. What most impressed and unsettled me was Dostoevsky’s technique of presenting some incident or fact as though we already know all about it, whereas in fact he only explains it some pages or chapters later. At first I was annoyed, but then I realised this was how the prince must feel, adrift in a world where everyone seems to know the rules except him. At the same time, he is utterly sure of his own understanding.

As writers, we are taught that to make characters seem real they must be neither entirely good nor entirely bad, but some mixture. Dostoevsky’s challenge here is to make the purely good prince seem real. He makes the other characters complex enough, like Mrs. General Epanchin berating those whom she most cares for and worries about, or Rogojin who is alternately selfless and grasping.

I think Dostoevsky succeeds in making the prince real. Perhaps that is because I have known a few such people, not perfect certainly, but so innocently good that your heart aches for them, knowing the hurts they will encounter. I’m glad I waited to read this novel. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it so much if as a child I had pulled it down from that top shelf.

What Russian classic have you read that impressed you?

The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende


Allende’s new novel takes place primarily in Lark House, a fictional nursing home in California, where strong-willed Alma Belasco has established herself. She’s left the family mansion where she has lived ever since being sent out of Poland at the beginning of World War II, first with her aunt and uncle and then with her husband. Now she has entrusted it along with her philanthropic organisation to her bewildered son and daughter-in-law, who cannot fathom why a healthy woman would abandon her privileged life in favor of a modest room in a nursing home.

Irina Bazili, a care worker at Lark House, catches Alma’s eye and allows Alma to persuade her to work part-time as her personal assistant. However much she enjoys working with Alma and the other residents, Irina refuses to share anything of her own past or her private life, and resists the overtures of Alma’s grandson Stephen. Eventually, though, Irina and Stephen become intrigued by Alma’s past and the mysterious letters and bouquets that arrive for her and decide to find out the truth.

Along with the two young people we explore Alma’s past and her connection with Ichimei Fukuda, a calm and sensitive Japanese gardener who worked at her aunt and uncle‘s estate. Alma’s personal journey, as an artist and as a woman, takes place within the framework of late 20th century events, such as the French Resistance, the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war, and the AIDS epidemic.

I found the book a pleasant read, though rather flat, an opinion echoed by several members of my book club. What made it seem superficial was the lack of dramatic scenes; the story was almost entirely told as a narrative. One person who loved it had listened to an audio version, which would have been particularly appropriate for this story. Others found it a soothing, easy read, something sweet just before bed.

Not too sweet, though. The stories of the two couples—Alma and Ichimei, Irina and Stephen—are well-balanced and play against each other. Past losses and traumas come to light, shading the romantic and nostalgic elements.

It seemed to me that we skipped over large dramas, such as the war and the internment camps, too lightly. Having recently read Gretel Ehrlich’s Heart Mountain which beautifully explored the experience within and without such a camp, I felt let down by the brief nod to the experience.

Some of us had trouble keeping the characters straight. Although pleased to see an elderly woman as the protagonist and portrayed realistically, I had little interest in the characters. I was most curious about Ichimei’s wife, but she has only a miniscule role.

One person was offended by the romantic depiction of infidelity, calling Alma and Ichimei’s bond merely a fairy tale to mask what was only a sexual relationship. I confess I was a little put off by the infidelity being presented as a purely gorgeous and wonderful gift (hence my interest in the betrayed wife), but joined with the rest of us in appreciating the unusual love story. I wondered how many of my friends had ever felt a profound connection—some even referred to Alma and Ichimei’s bond as mystical—to someone aside from their spousesbut was afraid to ask. I have. I would not call such a bond a fairy tale, but I am also aware of the costs.

I did not think my book club would have much to talk about with this book, but was delighted to find that I was wrong.

However, our meeting was not the place for the deeper discussion that could have followed. I found myself wanting to ask questions like: What would you do if your spouse had this kind of deep connection with someone else? Would you insist that they never see the person again? Or would you be happy for them as long as it didn’t interfere with your own marriage? Would you rather not know?

Have you read any of Isabel Allende’s books? Which one is your favorite?

The Dogs of Riga, by Henning Mankell


I came to the corporate world from teaching where even the most cynical and disillusioned co-worker started from a place of caring about the children. When I started working in the corporate world, however, I quickly realised that there were two sorts of people there: those who cared only about getting ahead and those who cared about the work itself. Inspector Kurt Wallander is one of the latter.

Here, Wallander investigates the case of two dead men washed ashore in a life raft. Apparently in their mid-30s, dressed in expensive clothes with their arms wrapped around each other, both men have been shot through the heart. The previous day, one of Wallander’s younger colleagues had taken an anonymous call that a raft with two dead bodies would be washing ashore. At the time, Wallander decided to alert the coast guards and then wait and see what happened.

Wallander is not averse to waiting. He can act and does, but he takes a measured and intelligent approach to his job. Unfortunately for him, the ramifications of the case take him out of his comfort zone, out of his city and even out of his country. He must take action in an atmosphere of uncertainty, guesswork, and peril for both himself and others.

Once it is determined that the two men probably came from Latvia, Wallander is relieved to turn over the investigation to his Latvian counterpart, Major Liepa, whom he recognises as a policeman after his own heart. When the two talk late into the night over a bottle of whiskey, Liepa explains that he is a man of faith, though he does not belong to a religion. He cares about “the fight for survival”, which to him includes “the fight for freedom and independence.”

Another murder drags Wallander back into the case and sends him to Latvia, where he has to negotiate places, people and power structures that are foreign to him.

This is the third book in the Wallander series, first published in Sweden in 1992. The date is significant because, as Mankell describes in his Afterword, “Just a few months after this book was finished, in the spring of 1991, the coup took place in the Soviet Union—the key incident that accelerated declarations of independence in the Baltic countries.”

While the story is intricately plotted, with many unexpected twists and turns, the real joy of the book for me is Wallander as a character. We see much of his life outside of work: oppressed by the intense cold, navigating a difficult relationship with his elderly father, thinking of his daughter Linda who is away at college, and often missing his friend and mentor Rydberg who has died of cancer only a month previously.

Such scenes, which seem irrelevant to the puzzle of the two men in the life raft, help us with the puzzle that is Wallander himself. And each scene echoes through the story, adding context and color to Wallander’s thoughts and choices and actions.

I love the realism of this portrayal. Wallander gets discouraged; he needs to stop and rest sometimes or eat or use the washroom. He questions himself, at one point describing himself as “a Swedish police officer in early middle age, one who has completely lost his sense of judgment and gone out of his mind.”

But he goes on. Offered opportunities to leave and return to his safe desk in Ystad, Wallander is tempted but plows ahead, driven by the core of integrity that I most appreciate in those around me and in the protagonists with whom I choose to spend my time. These are my heroes, whether sitting at a desk near me or in the pages of a book: however flawed, they labor for something larger than themselves.

Who are some memorable characters from novels you’ve read?