Bloggy Book Club: The Brewer of Preston

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Ah, yes, I was talking about Luigi Ricci. Well, he studied music and started composing. The first crap he wrote – oh, I’m sorry, that just slipped out – anyway, his first compositions, for whatever reason, were very successful. Theatres all over Italy wanted him, from Rome to Naples to Parma to Turin to Milan. And, since he couldn’t manage to keep up with all the music they were asking him to write, he started copying stuff wherever he could find it, the way some of my pupils do. There’s one, in fact, who seems to take his lessons from the devil himself. You know wheat he does, when I give them Latin dictation? He goes… Where does he go? But what’s this got to do with anything? Ah, yes, Luigi Ricci.

Once again, I’m behind the schedule I’ve arbitrarily set for myself. But luckily for me, I’m the only one who notices.

So, The Brewer of Preston, by Andrea Camilleri, who also wrote the Inspector Montalbano series. This book is actually set in the same town of Vigata in Sicily, set in the 1870s. The unification of Italy and the difficulties in merging such disparate regions and cultures are overarching plot points in the story.

If you’ve seen a Wes Anderson film like The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, you’ve got a sense of what The Brewer of Preston is like. It is eccentric. It is determinedly, insistently eccentric. It is full of colors that are just slightly too bright, characters that are fiercely peculiar, and situations that are so odd that they’ve moved beyond implausible into a range that’s so unlikely that you find yourself taking each new revelation in stride.

There are two difficulties with this book. First, it’s a translation from the original Italian, and a lot of the humor is based on what I can only imagine is a detailed cultural knowledge of Italian regional differences. It’s not hard to see that a lot is lost in translation.

The second challenge is the presentation of the story. It’s as if each of chapters was put into a hat and then drawn out at random to create a chapter order.  To say it is not in chronological order is an understatement, and it’s not until a postscript at the end of the author’s note at the very end of the book – a postscript which is on its own page, I might add – that you find out it’s intentionally disjointed, and that Camilleri encourages you to read in whatever order you want. If you ask me, that should have been put as a disclaimer at the start.

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel a need to read this again, but it’s an amusing and short diversion, so if aggressively quirky stories are something you enjoy, look it up when it’s released this winter.

Next up is Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile but I’m taking a short break from book-blogging to read Randall Munroe‘s What If? book. Because science can be funny, but I don’t want to ruin it for you all.

By the way, that poll in my last post proved useless. It doesn’t help me if you choose “other” without offering a suggestion, people.

Soliciting Opinions!

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The Brewer of Preston is pretty short, and it looks like it’ll be an easy read, a week at most. I’m having trouble choosing one off my list to follow it, so here are some of the options. Help me pick, or suggest one to add to my list! Multiple voting is allowed:)

Bloggy Book Club: Vanity Fair, Part 4

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To part with money is a sacrifice beyond almost all men endowed with a sense of order. There is scarcely any man alive who does not think himself meritorious for giving his neighbour five pounds. Thriftless gives, not from a beneficent pleasure in giving, but from a lazy delight in spending. He would not deny himself one enjoyment; not his opera-stall, not his horse, not his dinner, not even the pleasure of giving Lazarus the five pounds. Thrifty, who is good, wise, just, and owes no man a penny, turns from a beggar, haggles with a hackney-coachman, or denies a poor relation, and I doubt which is the most selfish of the two. Money has a different value in the eyes of each.

I HAVE FINISHED THE BOOK. Huzzah! So yeah, I generally prefer to post at least once a week, and it’s been a week and a half, but I FINISHED THE BOOK so I waited. Because, frankly, I’m glad to be done. And it’s not like any of you tend to comment anyway, so I’m really the only one who cares how often I post!

Anyway. My dad suggested I start this post by saying that I’m having trouble coming up with something to say because Thackeray used up all the words… In a book that clocks in at 825 pages, that’s not so far off, but his vocabulary is not as extensive as Dickens’. His writing, though still distinctively 19th-century English, reads as far more simplistic in style. One of the fun things about Thackeray’s style, which heightens the satirical tendencies, is his habit of using obvious names that demonstrate a person’s character, like those in the quote above – but only for minor characters. He gives these one-or-two-scene characters names like Thriftless, Toady, Bareacres, Spoony, and Mr. Woolsey, the tailor. They are not subtle, but they inform a scene or a reference that may last no longer than a paragraph, and they are often an indicator that this section is satirical but we need not pay too much attention to remembering these characters for the whole course of the story.

In film versions and analyses of Vanity Fair, I understand the chapters at the conclusion of the first volume, dealing with the final days of the Napoleonic Wars near Brussels, including Waterloo, get a good deal of attention. And these chapters are indeed the most engrossing and exciting of the first half of the story. But in my opinion the book gets much more interesting in its second half.

Seeing the characters without the distorting lenses of early courtship or the outbreak of actual military battles helps to grab the interest, I think. Amelia’s still a vapid ninny and Becky’s still a manipulative social climber, but putting them each into the role of motherhood adds dimensions to their personalities. Amelia clearly has an obsessive, clingy nature with an absurd tolerance for handsome, selfish, bossy males. She’s indulgent with her boy, who has all his father’s qualities – those that are charming in the short term and incredibly unappealing in the long term. He is, in a word, spoiled.

Becky’s son, almost exactly the same age, is George Jr.’s opposite. Rawdon Jr. is neglected. His mother dislikes him, and he would be entirely forgotten if not for the pity of a housemaid and his own father, who is an idiot, but a genial idiot who is genuinely fond of his son. Moreover, Rawdons Sr. and Jr. are both bullied by Becky, who is fake at best, scornful on average, and downright hostile and insulting at worst. The best thing that happens to Rawdon Jr. is being sent to live with his uncle and aunt after the scandal about Becky erupts and his parents separate.

Vanity Fair lives up to its name. It references a section of John Bunyan’s decidedly un-subtle allegorical work, Pilgrim’s Progress. The town of Vanity hosts a never-ending fair, known appropriately as Vanity Fair. The whole section represents man’s sinful attachment to worldly things – luxuries and so on. Thackeray repeatedly points to the opportunism, cynicism, and hypocrisy of Vanity Fair, in which people create fictions about themselves to seem more pedigreed or more wealthy or more connected, and in which people choose selfish indulgence over moral righteousness. The difference between Bunyan and Thackeray, though, is Thackeray isn’t preaching a course of righteousness. Thackeray’s just pointing out the hypocrisy so we can all laugh in our sleeves at other people’s pretensions.

Nobody in the book is wholly good or wholly evil. Many are selfish, vain, melancholic, gullible, or just plain amoral. It’s all grey area. It is, as Thackeray intended, a novel without a hero.

Next Up: The Brewer of Preston, by Andrea Camilleri. Due to be released Dec. 30, 2014.

Bloggy Book Club: Vanity Fair, Part 3

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If some parts of his conduct made Captain Dobbin exceedingly grave and cool, of what use was it to tell George that though his whiskers were large, and his own opinion of his knowingness great, he was as green as a schoolboy? that Rawdon was making a victim of him as he had done of many before, and as soon as he had used him would fling him off with scorn? He would not listen: and so, as Dobbin, upon those days when he visited the Osborne house, seldom had the advantage of meeting his old friend, much painful and unavailing talk between them was spared. Our friend George was in the full career of the pleasures of Vanity Fair.

I keep intending to post once a week, but I also want to have made it through a certain amount of the book of the moment between my posts. 

I’m not liking Vanity Fair as much as I’d hoped to. Generally speaking, there are two reasons for continuing to read a book that wasn’t assigned in a class. You either like the characters and feel invested in their eventual successes, or you hate the characters and feel invested in witnessing their deserved downfall.

It’s hard to explain, but it’s almost as though we, the audience, aren’t spending enough time with the primary characters to know if we like them or hate them. Except we do spend a lot of time – it’s just through the narration, which has a very removed-from-the-scene feel to it. The narration reads like someone reporting second- or third-hand, rather than in the moment, which is weird, of course, given the text is delivered in the third person past tense. It naturally SHOULD feel removed from the moment, except it’s somehow more so than usual. It’s like he’s describing some other book he read, perhaps.

I suppose it suffices to say that I’m finding it difficult to stay engaged in the story for more than very short bursts. The chapters about Brussels and the Battle of Waterloo were gripping, but then he dropped it suddenly, shifted forward by a year within the course of a paragraph, and started talking about the elderly Miss Crawley’s will. AGAIN.

I’m accustomed to the fact that nineteenth-century novels take a while to build their momentum, but even the notoriously verbose Dickens hooks you in by halfway through the book. I’m going to stick with it, because I’ve read that Vanity Fair is infamous for starting slowly, but I’m halfway through the book. It’s been 400 pages. Surely that’s a little too slow!

Bloggy Book Club: Vanity Fair, Part 2

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And who on earth, after the daily experience we have, can question the probability of a gentleman marrying anybody? How many of the wise and learned have married their cooks? Did not Lord Eldon himself, the most prudent of men, make a runaway match? Were not Achilles and Ajax both in love with their servant-maids? And are we to expect a heavy dragoon with strong desires and small brains, who had never controlled a passion in his life, to become prudent all of a sudden, and to refuse to pay any price for an indulgence to which he had a mind? If people only made prudent marriages, what a stop to population there would be!

OMG, you guys. Becky Sharp? Penniless, manipulative governess Becky Sharp?

MARRIED. Secretly married. And not just married, married to the son of her employer!

The chapters dealing with this revelation and its aftermath, which I’m still reading, are full of interesting witticisms and observations on social climbing, manipulation, and wounded pride in many different forms.

It’s a social structure problem, this marriage. First, she’s not just a governess. She’s the possibly illegitimate daughter of an eternally-poor painter and a woman who worked as an opera dancer, no matter what claims to impoverished French nobility her daughter may make. Second, she and Rawdon Crawley married without the permission of his family, who are her employers and social superiors.  Third, Rawdon’s a moron. Which isn’t really a social structure problem, but it probably made him much easier to manipulate and seduce. And I felt it was important to mention.

The other thing is how the secret comes out. Sir Pitt Crawley and Lady Crawley hired Becky as the governess for their daughters. Eventually Becky ends up back in London as unofficial companion to the elderly and very rich Miss Crawley, an aunt of her actual employer. Lady Crawley then dies, and Sir Pitt comes to see Becky to a) demand her return to Queen’s Crawley and her governessing duties and b) suggest she marry him and be Lady Crawley.

Which of course she can’t do, because she’s already married. And legally his daughter-in-law.

So yeah. The two of them are being ostracized by his family at the moment, and indeed, Miss Crawley took to her bed for some time, since Rawdon was her favorite and intended heir.

Meanwhile, the rather tediously sweet Amelia Sedley is going through challenges of her own. Her family has been financially ruined by the vagaries of the stock market during Napoleon’s brief return from Elba, and George Osborn, to whom she has been all-but-engaged since infancy, practically, has been ordered by his father to avoid her entirely and consider their engagement at an end.

Of course they end up married, but it’s a worrying marriage. Amelia adores George, but it’s clear that he is a weak-willed individual. He is overcome by the persuasiveness of his friend Captain Dobbins and the romance and sweetness of the situation, as well as the excitement of rebelling against his father’s direct orders. So they are married and he asserts himself with his family, but how will it end? They are happy during the honeymoon, but how long until George’s irresponsibility and fickleness poison the relationship?

Two risky marriages. Three individuals driven by romance, and the fourth, our anti-heroine Becky, taking a calculated risk. She’s gambling on Rawdon not being cut off by his family, and on her newly-elevated position allowing her greater opportunities for further social climbing.

And I’m still only up to page 250! How far will she manage to rise?

Bloggy Book Club: Vanity Fair, Part 1

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And oh, what a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them, if they do. Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once: old or ugly, it is all the same. And this I set down as a positive truth. A woman with fair opportunities, and without an absolute hump, may marry WHOM SHE LIKES. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts of the field, and don’t know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did.

I like to post at least once a week, but to be honest, I’m only 100 pages into Vanity Fair.  Which means I’m only about 1/8 of the way through – the length of many 19th century novels is part of the fun and part of the challenge!

For one reason or another, I’ve found myself discussing 19th-century English literature a lot recently. Dickens, Austen, Gaskell, Trollope, Thackeray…

I enjoy them all for different reasons, and I think a lot of the difference has to do with the distinctive tones of the authors.

Dickens is the impassioned social activist, bluntly depicting the miseries of poverty and the inadequacies of bureaucracy in the middle of the 19th century. That said, his characters tend to be stock character types, as if taken from the traveling theatricals depicted in Nicholas Nickleby. To some extent, these stock types are the source of his humor and pathos, but it also explains the remarkable two-dimensionality of many of his female characters.

Austen, who’s chronologically the earliest of the group I’ve named, is quintessential romantic comedy. Her writing style is still heavily influenced by the 18th century, which is most evident in some of the stilted phrasing in my favorite of her works, Sense and Sensibility.

Gaskell, a contemporary of Dickens, is somewhere in between him and Austen in her style. Many of her novels deal with the impact of the new industrial world upon rural England, such as the introduction of railroads in Cranford and the reaction of country-bred Margaret to the cotton mills of northern England in North and South. Her tone is less impassioned than Dickens’, and takes the role of observer and recorder more than that of activist.

If Dickens is the impassioned social activist, Trollope is the inside-the-Beltway gossip columnist. His novels about politics and the political world of London in the second half of the 19th century are funny, wryly observant of human nature, and can be easily imagined as read in that posh London drawl that sometimes borders on speech impediment.  His characters, especially the women, are startlingly realistic. Laura Kennedy’s ambitious marriage and self-destructive love for Phineas Finn, Glencora Palliser’s struggle to choose duty and honor over love, Alice Vavasor’s difficulties in knowing her own mind and heart, and Marie Goesler’s self-sacrifice and deep-seated desire to love and be loved, are all situations that crop up all the time in the 19th century as well as the 21st. They are real women, prone to faults and mistakes as well as well-intentioned efforts, deep love, and extraordinary generosity of spirit.

Thackeray is an author I’m still getting to know. At 100 pages into Vanity Fair, he already comes across as far more cynical than any I’ve encountered up until now. Trollope may seem cynical at first glance, but he’s more prone to straight-faced explanations than true cynicism. In Becky Sharp, Thackeray has created an unabashedly self-serving and consciously manipulative anti-heroine. She digs her nails into every rung of every ladder she can find and hauls herself up, inch by inch. She flatters and simpers and pretends to whatever emotion is needed in order to do so. She performs demeaning tasks, gossips, flirts, and aims for advancement through marriage and connections. Anything to get ahead.

I’ve still got a long way to travel with Miss Sharp. I look forward to seeing where she’ll take me.

Bloggy Book Club: The Scenic Route

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She wanted Austin to feel better and come back to school. She missed seeing him on the bus. She missed Mandy too. But she missed Austin more. The first time she ever saw him was at the bus stop, and she thought he was the cutest boy she had ever seen. She thought he was even cuter than Ricky Schroder. Mandy said she needed new glasses.

But Mandy had still given her one of Austin’s school pictures. Naomi had taped it on the face of her Ken doll, and she put on a poolside wedding for Barbie and Austin/Ken. But the photo kept falling off, and Naomi was worried it was going to fall into the pool. So Naomi had taped the photo above the fireplace in her Barbie Dreamhouse.

I picked an uncorrected proof of The Scenic Route at ALA a few weeks ago. I should start by saying that this is not a deep book. It is fluffy fun. It has “rom-com film” written all over it.

That said, it has more depth, more sorrow, than I had anticipated.

The basic premise is this: Naomi Bloom had a crush on her friend Mandy Gittleman’s elder brother Austin in elementary school. When Austin and Mandy’s father died suddenly in a surfing accident and their family moved away, Naomi lost touch with them both.  Naomi and Austin reconnect years later at the wedding of mutual friends. At first they bicker. In an argument clearly staged by author Devan Sipher to Set Things Up, the two characters argue over philosophical differences about whether or not wrong turns exist. Naomi and Austin end up hooking up that night.

Then there follow years of missed connections and missed opportunities. I haven’t done the math on how much time the book actually covers, but it has to be at least four years, if not more.

The secondary story follows Austin’s sister Mandy, who starts the book as a doctoral candidate in anthropology studying sexual coercion in primates. She struggles academically and wanders in and out of what I think could be described as dysfunctional codependent romantic relationships, and ends in a crisis that spreads to her brother and many other characters. I can’t say more without giving away crucial plot points.

Author Devan Sipher is apparently also the author of the New York Times “Vows” wedding column, so the world of romance and marriage is clearly not strange to him.

So it’s like I said earlier. This is not Great Literature, but rather a fun and easy read that still provokes some thought about wrong turns, the road not travelled, and the consquences of choices we make. Impulse control – the danger of having too much or not having enough – is also a recurring theme.

Sipher has a gift for clear, visual writing. His descriptions are easy to imagine, such as a funny scene in which Austin, impulsively deciding he ought to follow Naomi back to Miami instead of flying back home to Detroit after their one night together, cannot do so because the door of the airport men’s room stall jams. He tries climbing over, and he tries crawling under, only to get stuck halfway through.

Sipher writes romance without being sappy, speckled with appealing glints of humor like a quick wink across a banquet table. I appreciate any story I can’t predict – I knew that the genre meant a certain end for Austin and Naomi, but the twists and turns along the way took me by surprise.

The Scenic Route is a new release, and for a fun read, I thoroughly recommend it.

Next up: Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Bloggy Book Club: The Flame Trees of Thika, Part 2

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I thanked him, and looked for something to give in return, but my pockets yielded only a crumpled handkerchief, a knife, a few beans, and bits of string. I thought perhaps the knife would do and offered it to Kupanya, but he shook his head.

‘The traveller does not give a present to those who stay, it is those who remain who give presents to the traveller to help him on his journey, and bring about his safe return.’

So, remember how I remarked up on the dreamy quality of childhood memories recounted in Elspeth Huxley’s memoir The Flame Trees of Thika?

That covered the first 80 pages or so. The remaining 200 maintained much of that, but also had an element that completely took me by surprise.

I suppose it shouldn’t be so surprising that a child alone among adults in a colonial, rural situation, would be exposed to subjects that we might not consider appropriate for a five or six-year-old.

Like, for example, the rather obvious inclusion of not one but TWO extramarital affairs in The Flame Trees of Thika. I’m pretty sure Huxley used fake names for the people in her story – indeed I know she did for her parents – but the characters of Mrs. Nimmo and Lettice Palmer are both shown to have engaged in extramarital relationships. With Mrs. Nimmo, it’s unclear how much it extends beyond physical. Her husband is almost always gone, and when he does show up, he is gruff and almost scornful of his wife.  For all that I disapprove of the cheating, I can understand how she might be drawn to the earnest chivalry of Alec Wilson, at least for a night.

Lettice Palmer, however, is another story, and much of that story is shadowed in mystery.  It would appear that Huxley’s mother knew more, and was indeed the confidante of the real ‘Lettice Palmer.’ Many scenes in which Lettice confides in Tilly include Elspeth being sent from the room on some pretext.

One of the reviewer blurbs on the back of the book says, “There is no smartness, no hindsight, no false sophistication. We get the magic strangeness, with a child’s unerring instinct for essentials.”

I think that about sums up the appeal of The Flame Trees of Thika. Huxley makes no apology for being a white colonist on African land. She is neither defensive nor revisionist nor self-flagellating.

It’s simply the memories of a child who observed and enjoyed her childhood surroundings. She thought about what she encountered, and pondered the stories and traditions of the odd assortment of people around her, both European and African.

I’d write more, but it’s late and I’m very tired.

Next up: The Scenic Route, by Devan Sipher

Bloggy Book Club: The Flame Trees of Thika, part 1

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The gramophone had been suggested to Robin as a convenient way of breaking the ice with the natives. It enticed them, as a light attracts insects; once, as it were, captured, the advantages of signing on for work could be explained, and some would feel bold enough to try the experiment. So Robin took the gramophone and, when we were installed in tents, hopefully played ‘The Bluebells of Scotland’ and ‘The Lost Chord’ over and over again. As the records were scratched and the gramophone an old one, extraordinary sounds emerged from its trumpet to be lost very quickly in the surrounding bush and long grass. Its only effect was to deflect Juma from his labours; he listened entranced; and one of the mules was found gazing pensively down the trumpet.

The Flame Trees of Thika, chapter 3

In 1912, Nellie and Major Josceline Grant moved with their five-year-old daughter Elspeth to a patch of land in Thika, in what was then British East Africa, with the intention of creating a coffee plantation. In 1959, Elspeth Grant, by then Elspeth Huxley, published a book called The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood about the early years of her family’s life in Thika, recording her memories and illustrating how unprepared most of the European settlers were for colonial life in Africa.

In 1981, the BBC adapted The Flame Trees of Thika for television, starring Hayley Mills as Elspeth’s mother (called “Tillie” in the story while her father is called “Robin”), and a child actress named Holly Aird as Elspeth herself. And in 1982, my parents watched it on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater” while expecting their first child, and decided to add the name “Elspeth” to their list of possible girl’s names.

As it turned out, their first child was a boy, but they held onto the name as a choice until I came along four years later.

I’m beginning my book blogging with The Flame Trees of Thika because I’m nearly 28 and I’ve never read it. I tried, back in high school, but lost interest after about twenty pages. I’ve never seen the television adaptation. I tried that, as well, but after a scene in which a newly hatched clutch of chicks is discovered to have been killed and partially devoured overnight by some particularly vicious type of ants, I couldn’t manage to continue.

I’m nearly a third of the way through now, so I thought I’d do an “initial impressions” sort of post.

One of my favorite books is My Family and Other Animals, a memoir of childhood years spent on the Greek island of Corfu before WWII, written by British naturalist Gerald Durrell. It’s a rib-crackingly funny series of anecdotes about his unabashedly eccentric family and the equally eccentric characters (human as well as other animals) encountered on the island. I recommend it to anyone and everyone as often as I can.

The Flame Trees of Thika is nowhere near as funny. It has moments that prompt a smile, but mostly there’s a quietly dreamy quality to it that is partially the nostalgic nature of the piece and partly the fact that it’s primarily drawn from the memories of a child. That said, there are some stylistic similarities between the two books that have to do with their historical context.

Thika may be set some twenty or so years earlier than My Family, but both are written from the point of view of the final decades of British colonialism. The way they discuss the native inhabitants they find is certainly patronizing and tinged with an assumption of British (or at least European) superiority in education, practicality, and values. It’s more clearly stated in Thika because of the nature of the Grant family endeavor there, as well as the fact that it’s Europeans dealing with African tribespeople instead of Britons dealing with Greek peasant farmers.

I hope I’m explaining this well. I hesitate to use the word “racist” because that has connotations of violence and hatred, but in Thika especially I can see (at the distance of a hundred years later) a sort of soft racism that manifests in ways such as the European settlers calling the African men “boys” or commenting on how no ruins or relics of structures must mean there is no civilization, no culture. I think it could possibly be described as a benign sort of racism – not in the sense of harmless, but in the sense of nonviolent and not knowing any better. Perhaps it’s clearest to say that Thika is dated. It is a relic of a very different time and different set of values, and I think it’s important that it be read as such. Context gives depth, but if one blames people dead and gone for behaving the best way they knew how simply because it doesn’t mesh with our current values, one risks missing the forest for the trees.

One of the things that strikes me about the book is Elspeth’s age. From the bits I’ve seen of the show and the descriptions of Elspeth’s activities, I had estimated her at somewhere around 8-10 years old. Learning that she was five when they arrived in Thika makes the story all the more remarkable.

She seems to have been one of those quiet, observant children who manage to hear a lot of what might not be appropriate for their age. Adults confide in her when they have nobody else to whom they may express frustration or fear. She is able to fade into the background and listen to the grown-ups talking, or listen to them after they think she’s asleep. It’s not a sneaky thing, just a natural behavior of some personality types. And to be so young and an only child in that situation – she must have had to grow up quickly.

Anyone out there reading along? Still time to catch up – there are about 200 pages left in the book to go!

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