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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Elia MacNeal’

On Friday I got home from a week of travel to see each of my parents. And I did something radical, for me — I only took eBooks with me on my iPad. I borrowed some from the library and others from Amazon with my Prime membership. I still don’t love eBooks, but I wanted to take just one small roller bag  and a shoulder bag for the week and I wasn’t sure about the weather so I packed what turned out to be too many clothes and shoes.

Before I left I had nearly finished a book a friend lent me, which I didn’t want to take on the trip since it wasn’t mine to lose or damage (and it turned out I had to gate check my bag on 3 of the 4 legs of the trip, so that was definitely a possibility).  I had posted on Facebook about attending a very interesting talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on one of their paintings, Piermatteo D’Amelia’s Annunciation. A friend saw my post and lent me his copy of The Chapel by Michael Downing. Quick aside: this lecture was the first in a new series at the museum called Close Up, where one item from the collection is temporarily displayed by itself in the special exhibit gallery, with accompanying programming that helps visitors learn more about it. I bought the Close Up guide written for Annunciation by Nathaniel Silver and it’s a wonderful little book. I’m looking forward to future Close Ups.

The Chapel features one of my favorite pieces in the Gardner, which one of the guards told me is also the oldest painting in the collection, Giotto’s The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple. The book is about E., recent widow of a Harvard administrator named Mitchell, who is on a trip to Italy that her husband planned for them. He was working on a book about Dante, and part of the trip included a visit to the Scrovegni chapel in Padua, home to Giotto’s famous fresco cycle. One of the panels is the precursor to Giotto’s later painting of the presentation of Jesus, hence the connection to the Gardner. The chapel sounds fascinating and beautiful and I hope to visit it one day.

The novel The Chapel was a good read — it’s a book which tells a story and also sets out to examine “Big T” truths, about love and truth and art and loss and grief and belief and being human. E. doesn’t want to be on this trip, but once in Padua she meets T., who seems as lost as she is in some ways, and utterly competent in others, and she also meets a very kind woman named Shelby who is at home in her own soul. Between these encounters and several other minor ones, E. begins to feel her way towards herself again, and to see that she hasn’t been herself not since Mitchell died, but in decades. Readers are treated to gorgeous descriptions of art, food, and drink in Padua (I wanted an Aperol spritz badly as I read) and even more gorgeous discussions of Dante, Giotto, Scrovegni, and the world of art history, preservation, and criticism. I finished it this morning, and enjoyed it very much.

On the planes at the start of my trip I read most of an issue of The Nation. You should stop whatever you’re doing and read What’s Killing America’s Black Babies by Zoe Carpenter right now, and then spend the next weeks processing it. I still am. The article is about the causes of disproportionately high infant mortality rates among black babies — all of which derive from institutionalized racism. And about the heroic work of some people in Milwaukee, where the problem is worse than anywhere else in America, especially, as Carpenter explains, “. . .  Julia Means, a nurse with a striking track record with Milwaukee’s infants. By her own count, Means has worked with 360 families in the last 12 years, through a program called Blanket of Love. Every single baby whose parents came to her group meetings lived to its first birthday, she told me. Her method is to “wrap the pregnant woman up in love.” Read it. Digest it. Talk about it with someone. Or several someones.

I also read a “Kindle Single” by Andy Borowitz, which also appears to be a story on The Moth, An Unexpected TwistIt’s the story of a freak medical condition and a harrowing series of unfortunate events in the treatment/recovery of said condition, but really, it’s a love story. I’d recommend it, even if you usually feel squeamish or uninterested in medical stories.

My mom is really into HGTV and also I’ve been interested in Tiny Houses (and before that, Not So Big Houses) and more intentional owning of things for awhile, so I also borrowed Tiny House Living  by Ryan Mitchell in the Prime reading section of the Kindle store. I didn’t read every word — some of it is similar to other things I’ve read that discuss paring down your stuff, deciding what you value, living more lightly, etc. I enjoyed the stories of people who went Tiny and the pictures. It was good vacation reading. Inspiring.

And I read two novels that I checked out from the NH Downloadable Books. First, I got caught up with Maggie Hope, the heroine of Susan Elia MacNeal‘s series about a young American woman working for Britain’s government during WWII. As I wrote in my last Book Bingo post I figured out I’d missed The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent. I wrestled with some historical liberties MacNeal takes in this outing in the service of her story, but I read through to the end and the author’s note I see why she did it. Still, I prefer the parts about Maggie, her work, and her friendships more than the historical speculation.

Finally, I read My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman, the Swedish author who also wrote A Man Called Ove. I finished this evening, and I really liked it. It’s about Elsa and eight year old who is very smart and also very miserable at school because she’s different, and her formidable granny, who encourages her to fight back against bullies with the exhortation, “kick them in the fusebox.” Granny has told Elsa fairytales all her life, and as her last act, she sends Elsa on a quest to deliver a series of letters. Hence the title. Elsa is amazing, and felt very true to me, smart and precocious but still very much an eight year old girl. That’s hard to write. If the story seems unlikely, well, the other characters in the book are very well formed and I thought it was a good read. Some might call it a tear jerker, perhaps, but as the story unfolds readers understand why this cast of characters were all in Granny’s life, and it seems if slightly improbable at least not so contrived. And I think a book that examines bullies and the bullied, difference, imperfection, and above all the long lasting damage that human violence — physical, psychological, and emotional — causes has a right to evoke some tears.

I’m starting a graduate course tomorrow so I don’t know how much time I’ll have to read. I can take classes at the university where I’m a librarian, and I’ve been there almost a year now, so I figured, why not? it’s on Adolescent Development. Hopefully I won’t learn all the things I did wrong parenting Teens the Elder & Younger. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

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winter-book-bingo

I finished my book bingo card this week. For an old favorite, I chose Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins. And for a book I haven’t read by an author I like, I chose Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska, and interestingly enough, Billy Collins wrote the introduction. They are both incredible and it was nice to return to poetry after not reading any for a long time.

For a biography or memoir, I listened to Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl  by Stacy O’Brien. O’Brien’s story would be incredible if she only wrote about Wesley, the barn owl she adopted when he was only four days old, loved, raised, observed, lived with for nineteen years. But her own story is also incredible, from her musical childhood to her incredible fight against a mysterious, debilitating illness. I didn’t love the narration, honestly. I also don’t think audiobooks on my commute are the best idea — I’m probably going back to podcasts.

And for any book in a series, I read Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidant by Susan Elia MacNeal, which is a Maggie Hope novel. MacNeal gets into several interesting side plots, including an intriguing nod to Roald Dahl‘s life, as well as the continuing saga of plucky Maggie Hope, this time visiting the U.S. as part of Churchill’s team for the famous meeting with Roosevelt just weeks after Pearl Harbor. I enjoyed it, but realized when I was finished that I don’t think I read the previous title in the series so I’m going to have to go back.

It was fun to finish my card, but I’m looking forward to just reading things because the mood strikes, or someone recommends something, or a book catches my eye.

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I read Susan Elia MacNeal‘s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary in two sittings (it could have been one if I’d started earlier the first evening), anticipating an enjoyable read. The book is set at the beginning of Winston Churchill’s first term as Prime Minister. Having visited the Cabinet War Rooms years ago, and the Imperial War Museum and Bletchley Park last May, I was excited to revisit the time period in fiction.

I really admire how the British dealt with the war, a topic that has been covered in many of my favorite books (Andrea Levy’s Small IslandThe 1940’s House book and television show, Lynne Olson‘s Citizens of London, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, Robert Harris’s Enigma, just off the top of my head). MacNeal has written a fun, fast-moving spy/mystery/thriller that takes readers into the wartime lives of some young Londoners. It’s the first in a planned series (there is even a preview of the 2nd book at the end of this one).

MacNeal’s heroine, Maggie Hope, is British, but was raised in America by her aunt, a lesbian college professor who left England to escape her judgmental mother. Maggie’s parents were in a car crash when she was an infant. After she’s graduated from college and been accepted into M.I.T.’s PhD program in math, Maggie learns her grandmother has died in London and left her a large Victorian home. According to the will, she herself has to go to London or the house can’t be sold.

We meet her about a year later. The house hasn’t sold, and she’s decided to stay and join the war effort. MacNeal quickly establishes that Maggie is smart, has had an unusual upbringing, is sketchy on her own family history, and prone to strong opinions about equality for women and gays. We also learn that one of Mr. Churchill’s secretaries has been murdered and Maggie is about to get her job through a friend who works at No. 10 Downing Street.

I read some online reviews critical of MacNeal’s plotting; some of the parts fit more (or less) neatly than some readers would like. I’m less inclined to criticize, because although the book may not be perfect, it did what a spy thriller should: kept me on edge, wanting to know what would happen next.  I imagine it’s hard to write historical fiction well, and to plot a thriller, so I am willing to cut MacNeal some slack.

Maggie is a unique and delightful character. She’s outspoken, brilliant, a loyal friend and sensible woman who seems perfectly suited to daring war work. Her friends are interesting characters as well, including a ballerina from working class Liverpool and a gay man who discusses the need to keep a low profile (one reviewer thought it unlikely a gay man could have worked for Churchill in wartime; Alan Turing certainly engaged in top secret war work and was only arrested years later when he mentioned his boyfriend while reporting a theft). I got a kick out of MacNeal’s portrayal of Churchill and his interactions with his staff.

The IRA presence in London plays an important part in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. I hadn’t read much about IRA/Nazi collaborations. MacNeal draws chilling portraits of an English fascist and two IRA agents, including the atrocities perpetrated on the agents’ families by the British military that led them both to the Republican cause. It was interesting to consider how MI5 had to deal with both domestic espionage and terrorism.

In her afterword, MacNeal talks about her research, including corresponding with one of Churchill’s woman secretaries, and her visit to the Cabinet War Rooms. I enjoyed the way she wove historical fact into her fictional world, and admired her lively and vivid characters. The book has a clever (I’ll concede occasionally far-fetched) plot and was an interesting and fun read. My interest in Maggie Hope is piqued enough that I’ve placed a hold on the Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, the 2nd book, due out later this fall.

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