Monthly Archives: December 2012

Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Insipired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” by Margaret Powell

Upstairs Downstairs cover

Do you watch Downton Abbey?

If you answered yes, congratulations, we can continue being friends. I’m currently obsessed with that show, and so when I was in Barnes and Noble last week browsing through the biography/memoir section (like I do) this caught my eye, and I was about to put it back when I noticed that the title was blaring MEMOIR THAT INSPIRED “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” AND “DOWNTON ABBEY” and the next thing I knew I bought it. So kudos to the marketing team behind this book, because they know exactly what they’re doing.

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The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Dauther of Time cover

I want to give this book a higher rating based purely on the inventiveness of the plot: a detective for Scotland Yard, immobilized in the hospital by an injury, decides to occupy himself with a historical mystery – Cold Case, Hospital Edition, essentially. The mystery he eventually lands on is one that everyone has at least a passing knowledge of: Is Richard III the hunchbacked monster who stole his brother’s throne and murdered his nephews, or was someone else responsible for the deaths of the infamous Princes in the Tower? (At this point, everyone who has read at least one non-fiction book about Richard will be rolling their eyes at my question and muttering, “well, duh, isn’t it obvious?” You may be excused.)

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The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Slender Means cover

A stirring, beautiful novel that’s deceptively short and light, and starts with what is now one of my favorite opening paragraphs in all literature:

“Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.”

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Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island cover

“Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars of Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17- and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.”

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Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin #1) by Patrick O’Brian

Master Commander cover

I’ll be totally honest here: I read this book because I saw the movie version first. There were other reasons, of course – this book (and the entire series) is generally well-reviewed, and my dad is a huge fan of the series. But mostly I picked this up because I freaking love the movie and wanted to see how the book matched up.

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The Odyssey by Homer (translated by Richard Lattimore)

Odyssey cover

Before buying a copy of this in a secondhand bookstore, I had a passing familiarity with The Odyssey. My introduction to the story, as was the case with a lot of classic literature, was provided by the PBS show Wishbone (you have not lived until you’ve seen a Jack Russell terrier in a toga firing an arrow through twelve axe heads, trust me on this). Then in high school, one of my English classes read some selections from the poem – I remember reading the Cyclops part, and the stuff about Scylla and Charybdis, and I think also the stuff with Circe. But I had never read the entire story as a whole before now, and a couple things surprised me:

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Vienna 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made War, Peace, and Love at the Congress of Vienna by David King

Vienna 1814

“Kings, queens, princes, and diplomats would all pour into the city of Vienna in the autumn of 1814 for the highly anticipated peace conference. More than 200 states and princely houses would send delegates to settle the many unresolved issues. How were the victors to reconstruct the war-torn continent? How were they going to make restitution to the millions who had lost family members or suffered the horrors of Napoleonic domination? The Vienna Congress offered a chance to correct the wrongs of the past and, many hoped, create the ‘best of all possible worlds.’
Reasoned opinion predicted that all negotiations would be wrapped up in three or four weeks. Even the most seasoned diplomats expected no more than six. But the delegates, thrilled by the prospects of a lasting peace, indulged in unrestrained celebrations. The Vienna peace conference soon degenerated into a glittering vanity fair: masked balls, medieval-style jousts, and grand formal banquets – a ‘sparkling chaos’ that would light up the banks of the Danube.”

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