One-Minute Book Reviews

November 30, 2009

Great Books About Scotland — A St. Andrew’s Day Celebration

Filed under: Biography,Fiction,Memoirs,News,Nonfiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:03 am
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The Scots — who gave us classics that range from Treasure Island to James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson — celebrate their heritage on St. Andrew’s Day, Nov. 30, the feast day of the patron saint of Scotland. Here, in its honor, are some of my favorite books about the land of my maternal ancestors:

The Crofter and the Laird (FSG, 1992), by John McPhee. More than three decades ago, McPhee moved with his wife and four young daughters to a small island in the inner Hebrides, just off the Scottish mainland, which had fewer than 200 residents. He tells the story of that visit to the land of his ancestors in The Crofter and the Laird, a fascinating of study of a place that refracts the history of Colonsay through his family’s experiences. The book is especially noteworthy for its portrait of changing relations between crofters or tenant farmers and their English laird (then, a glorified landlord who owned the island) long before the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. First published in 1969.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (HarperPerennial, 2009), by Muriel Spark. This great novella is a brilliant psychological study of female power as deployed by a teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school in the early 1930s. The 1969 movie version had a memorable star turn by Maggie Smith but didn’t capture the most remarkable aspect of the book: It is a masterpiece of tone. Spark neither sentimentalizes nor demonizes her heroine, but describes her with the kind of cool detachment rarely found in novels about the sexually overheated world of girls’ and boys’ schools.  First published in 1961.

The Thirty-Nine Steps (Oxford University Press, 2009),by John Buchan. This slender, classic spy thriller is the first of Buchan’s five novels about Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old Scottish-born engineer who became a prototype for generations of adventurous patriots. In The Thirty-Nine Steps Hannary shelters a spy who has learned of a secret German plan to invade England. When the man is murdered, Hannay flees to the Scotland, where he hopes to lie low amid remote glens and moors. He soon finds himself hunted both by the British police who consider him a suspect and by the Germans who have killed the spy. After being spotted from an airplane, Hannay tries to elude his pursuers by adopting disguises and traveling by foot, bicycle and train through Scotland. This story is better known today for its movie version by Alfred Hitchcock. But Hitchcock changed so much of the plot that no matter often you’ve seen the film, you can enjoy the book. First published in 1915.

Other good books about Scotland include Israel Shenker’s In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell : A Modern Day Journey through Scotland, a re-tracing of one of the most famous literary excursions in history, and the two books that inspired it: Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and James Boswell’s A Tour to the Hebrides. You can find them together in one edition.

A fine golf book for serious readers (as opposed to serious picture-gazers) is A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands, the journalist Lorne Rubenstein’s account of a summer of playing on the Royal Dornoch Golf Course. And Liza Campbell writes of her life as the daughter of a Thane of Cawdor in A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle, a memoir that offers a stars-without-makeup view of 20th-century Scottish aristocrats. Campbell’s book isn’t perfect, but the British class system is dissolving fast enough that her story may be one of the last of its kind.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.Twitter.com/janiceharayda, where you’ll find others’ favorite books on Scotland by reading her home page or searching Twitter for the hashtag #scots.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 13, 2008

John Buchan’s ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ Stands Up to Hitchcock

John Buchan’s classic suspense novel helped set the tone for nearly a century of spy fiction

The Thirty-Nine Steps. By John Buchan. Introduction by John Keegan. Penguin Classics, 144 pp., $9, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Anybody who knows The Thirty-Nine Steps only from Alfred Hitchock’s movie is missing a treat.

That film – good as it is — takes liberties with John Buchan’s plot that are as wild as the Scottish moors on which its hero finds himself hunted by his enemies. So no matter how many times you’ve seen Robert Donat handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, it won’t spoil a reading of the novel. With good reason, Buchan called the book one of his “shockers,” or stories that set personal dramas against tense political realities.

Part of the allure of The Thirty-Nine Steps is that by the standards of today’s spy novels and movies, it is as sleek as a stiletto. It has none of the bloviating of John le Carré’s most recent books or the logic-defying plot twists of Mission Impossible. Buchan is a storyteller in the tradition of his fellow Scot and contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle – he tells you exactly what you need to know to understand his tale and nothing more.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is the first of his five novels about Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old Scottish-born engineer and patriot and with a thirst for adventure. Hannay has returned from years in Rhodesia and found himself bored with England. (“It struck me that Albania was the sort of place that might keep a man from yawning.”) His boredom evaporates when he agrees to shelter a spy who has learned of a secret German plan to invade England.

When the man is murdered, Hannay flees to the Scotland, where he hopes to lie low for a while amid the remote glens and moors. There he is hunted both by the British police who consider him a suspect and the Germans who have killed the spy. After being spotted from an airplane, Hannay tries to elude his pursuers by donning a series of disguises and traveling by foot, bicycle and train through Scotland. To save himself, he must find a way to warn the British government what he has learned from the murdered spy.

First published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps was one of the first novels to include many of the elements of the modern thriller, such as car chases and aerial surveillance. And along with all the action, the novel has astute psychological insights. For all of his reliance on outer disguises, Hannay knows that they are nowhere near as important to crime as the inner ability to play a role. “A fool tries to look different: a clever man looks the same but is different,” he observes. He adds, “If you are playing a part, you will never keep it up unless you convince yourself that you are it.” Much of The Thirty-Nine Steps turns on this observation, and it suggests a psychological truth that has shaped suspense novels ever since: The dangers posed by people who are hiding in plain sight — and playing their part well enough to need no disguises — can be far more terrifying than those raised by criminals who wear ski masks on the deserted streets we know enough to avoid.

Best line: “My guest was lying sprawled on his back. There was a long knife through his heart which skewered him to the floor.”

Worst line: “ Mors janua vitae,’ he smiled.” The problem isn’t the use of the Latin for “death is the gate of life” – it’s the “he smiled.”

Movie Links: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll www.imdb.com/title/tt0026029/; Ralph Thomas’s 1959 version www.imdb.com/title/tt0053354/; Don Sharp’s 1978 version www.imdb.com/title/tt0078389//

Published: 1915 (first edition) and May 2008 (latest Penguin Classics edition). The 2008 Penguin edition has an introduction by the distinguished military historian John Keegan (which should be interesting, given that such prefaces are typically written by scholars of literature instead of history, but I haven’t seen it).

Furthermore: The Thirty-Nine Steps is typically described as a novel but is short enough that it might be more properly called a novella.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 9, 2008

Out, Damn’d Ferrari! Father Doesn’t Know Best in Liza Campbell’s ‘A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle’

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:16 am
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Hail falls on the family of a modern Thane of Cawdor

A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle. By Liza Campbell. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, 323 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

A Charmed Life is a high-class version of that deathless series in the Star, “Stars Without Make-up.” Instead of mascara-free actresses, this memoir gives us sobriety-free Scottish aristocrats.

At the age of 30, Hugh Campbell inherited the title of Thane of Cawdor and vast wealth that included two stately homes, four ruined castles and a hundred thousand acres of land. He promptly moved his wife and children from their estate in Wales to the family seat, Cawdor Castle, in the Scottish Highlands. The new home became his Dunsinane, or so it appears from A Charmed Life.

Hugh Campbell seems to have had a self-destructive romantic streak long before the move to Cawdor threw it into ionospheric relief. As the idea of free love had spread in the 1960s, he went “haywire with the frontrunners,” his daughter Liza writes:

“He dressed like a Restoration buck, wearing scarlet velvet jackets with black frogging, floppy cuffs and outsize buckles on his belts and shoes, the heels of which were covered in red patent leather to match the jacket.”

At Cawdor, the new thane devolved into an alcoholic, cocaine-addicted, serial adulterer who drove away his sainted first wife and deprived his son his birthright, his daughter says. He also smashed up a fleet of Jaguars and, insisting that the cause of his accidents lay in their faulty design, took to driving a lime-green Ferrari. His widow, his second wife, has disputed some of this in the British media. And Campbell sinks into pop-psychological goop when she tries to explain her father’s pathology: She says that when her paternal grandfather broke his wife’s toe, “he showed his son that physical abuse was an option” – as though there weren’t men who have seen such force without resorting to it or who resort to it without having seen it.

But Campbell is better reporter than analyst of her family’s woes, and she describes an offbeat cast of friends and relatives with a flair that occasionally resembles Nancy Mitford’s in Love in a Cold Climate. A friend of her grandfather’s preferred ferns to toilet paper and, when he traveled south from his Scottish palace, “took along a suitcase packed with bracken fronds, since London hotels were unable to cater for this particular requirement.” An aunt met her husband at Oxford “where he would wander through the quads in a top hat with a pet mouse that ran round the brim.”

Such vivid glimpses of a vanishing world help to make this book more than another memoir of an imploding family. So do Campbell’s wit, sharp observations on life and refusal to tack on the artificially upbeat ending of so many American memoirs of family turbulence. Her chilling comment on a hunting accident that left a farmer’s teenage son with terrible groin injuries sums up a theme of this book:

“It was my first realization that something profound and permanent can happen in an instant and, worse, never be undone. It took a while to realize that life doesn’t deliver a single such instance, but an endless series of them.”

Best line: “Of all the things drummed into us, the only ones with any application to the modern world were the importance of being polite to strangers, and a sketchy knowledge of trees.”

Worst line: “Something that is seldom acknowledged is how incredibly common addiction is – maybe as high as one in three.” Don’t they get Oprah in the U.K.?

Published: October 2007 www.thomasdunnebooks.com

Read an excerpt at www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/03/23/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 23, 2008

Easter at Cawdor Kirk – Quote of the Day From Liza Campbell’s ‘A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle’

Filed under: Memoirs,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:23 pm
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Liza Campbell, daughter of the 25th Thane of Cawdor, writes of living with the ghosts of Banquo and others in her engaging memoir A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, $24.95) www.thomasdunnebooks.com. In this passage she describes attending Sunday services at Cawdor Kirk, a stone church built by the 12th Thane, with her family:

“The minister’s sermon was as unedited as it was stern, typically commencing, ‘This week I was inspired to put pen to paper on the subject of babbling fools …’ followed by a pause as he glowered at us all over the top of his spectacles. A reading would follow that was most likely about Lot’s wife, or Job and his malignant ulcers. The Presbyterian God was a dour one who must have thought up the rainbows while he had a temperature and was not feeling quite himself. The songs we sang were all willfully obscure works from forgotten backwaters of the hymn book….

“In keeping with Presbyterian tradition, communion was taken once a year only, at Easter, when we could look forward to a hunk of real bread and some port. The service would finish off with the congregation stumbling through that cheery foot-tapper ‘By the Light of burrrning Martyrs, Christ thy bloody steps we trace’, with my father singing it in a basso profundo that sounded like heavy furniture being dragged across the floor. In a pew at right angles to ours, Mrs. King from the laundry at Cawdor would make no effort to sing. Ever. She would wave to us gaily while popping a succession of hard-boiled sweets into her mouth and spend the rest of her time flattening out and folding up the cellophane wrappers – as if she could never fully relax from her laundress’s habits.”

Some of my ancestors are buried in the kirkyard of Cawdor Kirk, shown in a picture that does not come from A Charmed Life. Campbell was the last person born at Cawdor Castle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda (text and church photo). All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 1, 2007

Highland Games Set the Stage for Murder in Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Mystery With a Scottish Accent, ‘Kilt Dead’

Kilt Dead: A Liss MacCrimmon Mystery. By Kaitlyn Dunnett. Kensington, 282 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

These are chilly times for amateur sleuths, those busybodies who solve crimes when they aren’t running bookstores or hair salons or catering services. Their efforts typically depend on a combination of legwork, intuition and the incompetence of the local police, who are too lazy or corrupt to find a killer who has turned up in a picturesque spot like the Ozarks or Cotswolds. And it’s getting harder to make their low-tech successes credible in an age of DNA testing, magnetic resonance imaging and other high-tech aids to crime-solving.

Kaitlyn Dunnett gets part way there in her first mystery about 27-year-old Liss MacCrimmon, who returns to her hometown in western Maine after suffering a career-ending injury while performing with a Riverdance-like Scottish dance company. Back in Moosetookalook, Liss becomes entangled in a murder committed at her aunt’s kilt-and-souvenir shop while the annual Highland Games are going on nearby.

Dunnett lacks a distinctive voice and draws her characters so broadly that most seem to wear hats as white or black as those in the “Spy vs. Spy” series in Mad. But she has staked out a part of New England that has few, if any, other takers in the mystery subgenre known as the cozy. And she has tapped into an enduring American romance with Scottish traditions, from bagpipes to single malts, that the infatuation with Tuscany and Provence hasn’t extinguished. Braveheart may have been ludicrouly unfaithful to the historical record, but it got one thing right: Scottish murders have a ghastliness all their own.

Best line: Dunnett sprinkles her story with bits of Scottish history or tradition, such as this one about a sgian dubh, the small dagger traditionally worn with a kilt: “Sgian dubh translates as ‘black dagger’ and in the old days warriors believed it should never be drawn and returned to its scabbard without spilling blood.”

Worst line: “Dan felt the back of his neck turn red.” He might have felt it getting warm, but could he feel it turning red? And some of Dunnett’s Scottish lore is misleading. One scene involves a man at the Highland Games who wears swimming trunks under his kilt while throwing the clachneart, similar to a shot put. Dunnett explains the bathing suit by saying, “A traditional Scot wasn’t supposed to wear anything at all beneath the kilt, but this was an American version of the Highland Games …” Men also wear trunks under their kilts during field events at Highland Games in Scotland and elsewhere. Even the British Army — which has much stricter rules than others about the wearing of the kilt — exempts from the “nothing underneath” rule any soldiers who are participating in these events and certain others, including parades.

Published: August 2007 www.kaitlyndunnett.com and www.kensingtonbooks.com

Furthermore: Dunnett is a former drummer with a bagpipe band. “Kaitlyn Dunnett” is an apparent pseudonym for Kathy Lynn Emerson, who holds the copyright to Kilt Dead, and plays off the “dunnit” in “whodunnit.” Emerson has written more than 30 books, including the Lady Appleton mystery series, set in 16th-century Scotland. The name of Liss MacCrimmon recalls Scotland’s most famous family of bagpipers, the MacCrimmons. In Scotland a great piper in sometimes called “a real MacCrimmon” in the way that a great musician in 18th century German was called “a real Bach.”

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic and former member of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society who has danced with Scottish dance groups throughout the U.S. and Scotland.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 5, 2007

Lorne Rubenstein’s ‘A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands’

A memoir of playing on the best golf course you’ve never heard of

Sports books sell in inverse proportion to the size of the ball, publishing lore says. Golf books sell better than baseball books, which sell better football books. And apart from athletes’ memoirs, the best-selling golf-books tend to be instructional manuals (like Golf for Dummies) or coffee table–toppers (like the opulent Where Golf Is Great: The Finest Courses of Scotland and Ireland).

A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands (Citadel, $14.95, paperback) transcends those categories. Globe and Mail golf columnist Lorne Rubenstein offers a beautifully written account of a summer that he spent living in the Scottish Highlands and playing golf at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club www.royaldornoch.com, a place with a cult following instead of the superstardom of spots like St. Andrews and Gleneagles.

But Rubenstein’s book is about more than the mystique of this remote and storied course. A Season in Dornoch is about Scottish history, Highland music and the allure of playing on links (“a landscape of blown sand created by the action of the wind on the seashore”). Sean Connery, the world’s best-known Scottish nationalist, wrote the foreword. And five-time British Open champion Tom Watson rightly says in a blurb: “Rubenstein gives the reader a feel for what makes the appeal of the Highlands so enduring. He brings the place and its people to life.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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