Five Book Friday!

And a very happy Free For All birthday to Anna Margaret Ross,  who is alleged by some to be the worst poet in the world.


McKittrick was born on this day in 1860, in Drumaness, County Down,  Ireland, where her father was the principal of Drumaness High School.  She herself became a teacher, securing a position at a school in Larne, County Antrim.  During her first visit to Larne, she struck up a friendship with the station master, and they married in August, 1887.

It was Anna’s husband who financed the publication of her first novel,  Irene Iddesleigh, as a tenth anniversary present, launching her notorious, if not quite illustrious literary career.  She went on to write three novels and dozens of poems under the pen name Amanda McKittrick Ros.  In a biographical essay, McKittrick wrote She wrote: “My chief object of writing is and always has been, to write if possible in a strain all my own. This I find is why my writings are so much sought after.”  She also predicted that she would “be talked about at the end of a thousand years.”…Well, she was, but perhaps not in the way she might have wished.  Mark Twain read her novel, and called it “one of the greatest unintentionally humorous novels of all time.”  An 1898 review called it “the book of the century”. ..again, not in a complementary way.  But she very well may have had the last laugh–according to McKittrick, she earned enough money from her writing to build herself a house, which she named Iddesleigh.  

Ros believed that her critics lacked sufficient intellect to appreciate her talent, so we’ll let you read them for yourself and judge.  This is the opening sentence of her novel Delina Delaney:

Have you ever visited that portion of Erin’s plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?

If you’d like some more, McKittrick’s last novel, Helen Huddleson, features characters who are all all the named after fruits, including Lord Raspberry, Cherry Raspberry, Sir Peter Plum, Christopher Currant, the Earl of Grape, and Madame Pear. Of Pear, Ros wrote:

…she had a swell staff of sweet-faced helpers swathed in stratagem, whose members and garments glowed with the lust of the loose, sparkled with the tears of the tortured, shone with the sunlight of bribery, dangled with the diamonds of distrust, slashed with sapphires of scandals….

And finally, here is her poem about Westminster Abbey.  C.S. Lewis and his writing group, the Inkblots, used to have a competition to see who could get through McKittrick’s poetry without laughing.  See how you fare:

On Visiting Westminster Abbey

Holy Moses! Have a look!
Flesh decayed in every nook!
Some rare bits of brain lie here,
Mortal loads of beef and beer,
Some of whom are turned to dust,
Every one bids lost to lust;
Royal flesh so tinged with ‘blue’
Undergoes the same as you.

Famous some were–yet they died;
Poets–Statesmen–Rogues beside,
Kings–Queens, all of them do rot,
What about them? Now–they’re not!

And now, on to our books, which are, we think it’s safe to say, of an entirely different class than Mrs. McKittrick’s…

No Time To SpareUrsula K. Le Guin has taken readers to imaginary worlds for decades, creating and re-creating the science fiction genre. Now she’s in the last great frontier of life, old age, and exploring new literary territory: the blog, a forum where her voice—sharp, witty, as compassionate as it is critical—shines. No Time to Spare collects the best of Ursula’s online writing, presenting perfectly crystallized dispatches on what matters to her now, her concerns with this world, and her unceasing wonder at it: “How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires, all of us.”  This is a book that any reader, from sci-fi fans to literature devotees, will be able to adore.  Le Guin’s commentaries on life, feminism, race, and the world at large are precious and insightful and wonderfully accessible, even though they contain huge, big, beautiful ideas.  Critics are over the moon about this collection, with The New Republic noting that this book “feels like the surprising and satisfying culmination to a career in other literary forms…Even in the familiar relationship of an old woman and her cat, Le Guin finds an ambit for challenging moral insight and matter for an inquisitiveness that probes the deep time of evolution…Blogs may not be novels, but a blog by Le Guin is no ordinary blog, either. It is a comfort to know, as reality seems to grow more claustrophobic and inescapable, that she remains at her desk, busily subverting our world.”

Where the Wild Coffee GrowsCoffee is one of the largest and most valuable commodities in the world. This is the story of its origins, its history, and the threat to its future, as told by Jeff Koehler, who wrote the fascinating history of Darjeeling tea.  Deftly blending in the long, fascinating history of our favorite drink, award-winning author Jeff Koehler takes readers from the forests of Ethiopia on  the spectacular journey of its spread around the globe. With cafés on virtually every corner of every town in the world, coffee has never been so popular–nor tasted so good.  But diseases and climate change are battering production in Latin America, where 85 percent of Arabica grows. As the industry tries to safeguard the species’ future, breeders are returning to the original coffee forests, which are under threat and swiftly shrinking.  This book, at once a fascinating history and an environmental warning, will captivate foodies, armchair travelers, and science-minded readers alike.  In fact, the Smithsonian rated it as one of the ten best books about food in 2017, calling the book “A deep dive into the fascinating history of coffee that meanders from the once-isolated, deep forests of Ethiopia’s Kafa region to the warm embrace of your local bodega. Coffee’s path to world domination is anything but straightforward and this story might be unwieldy in the hands of a lesser talent, but Koehler is more than up to the task. A must-read for coffee enthusiasts.”

Bryant and May: Wild ChamberFans of Christopher Fowler’s delightful Peculiar Crimes Unit Mysteries–wait no longer!  Detectives Arthur Bryant and John May are back on the case in a wonderfully quirky locked-room mystery.  Helen Forester’s day starts like any other: Around seven in the morning, she takes her West Highland terrier for a walk in her street’s private garden. But by 7:20 she is dead, strangled yet peacefully laid out on the path, her dog nowhere to be found. The only other person in the locked space is the gardener, who finds the body and calls the police. He expects proper cops to arrive, but what he gets are Bryant, May, and the wily members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit.  Before the detectives can make any headway on the case, a second woman is discovered in a public park, murdered in nearly identical fashion. Bryant delves into the arcane history of London’s cherished green spaces, rife with class drama, violence, and illicit passions. But as a devious killer continues to strike, Bryant and May struggle to connect the clues, not quite seeing the forest for the trees, putting innocent lives, the fate of the city’s parks, and the very existence of the PCU in peril.  This series is a treat from start to finish, and if you haven’t started it yet, it’s definitely a recommendation, from us and from The Guardian, who gushed “[Fowler] takes delight in stuffing his books with esoteric facts; together with a cast of splendidly eccentric characters [and] corkscrew plots, wit, verve and some apposite social commentary, they make for unbeatable fun.”

Hiddensee: Gregory Maguire gives us another alternative version of the classic tales we’re grown up hearing–this time, the tale of the man who would become Dr. Drosselmeier, who crafts the Nutcracker in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story (that became Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet).  This is a story rooted in, and told like a Bavarian fairy tale, mixing stories about elfin folk and forest creatures with deep questions about death and life, disadvantage and power, and the hope that remains even when everything else seems destroyed.  It’s a wonder-full, intriguing tale, unlike others that Maguire has told, but still full of his trademark whimsy and insight, and earned a starred review from Kirkus, who described it as “A delightful, mystical, mythical confection by zeitgeist whisperer Maguire… A splendid revisitation of folklore that takes us to and from familiar cultural touchstones into realms to make Freud blanch. Wonderful.”

The Girl in the Tower: Katherine Arden continues her tale, rooted firmly in Russian folklore, but featuring a marvelous unique heroine, who grew up hearing the tales of her people and family.  Vasilisa’s gift for seeing what others do not won her the attention of Morozko—Frost, the winter demon from the stories—and together they saved her people from destruction. But Frost’s aid comes at a cost, and her people have condemned her as a witch.  Now Vasilisa faces an impossible choice. Driven from her home by frightened villagers, the only options left for her are marriage or the convent. She cannot bring herself to accept either fate and instead chooses adventure, dressing herself as a boy and setting off astride her magnificent stallion Solovey.  But when the Grand Prince of Moscow anoints her a hero for her exploits, Vasilisa realizes she cannot reveal to the court that she is a girl, for if her deception were discovered it would have terrible consequences for herself and her family.  This is a glorious fantasy/fairy tale, full of heart, hope, emotion, daring, action, and adventure that is winning rave reviews from readers and critics alike.  Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review, cheering it as a “sensual, beautifully written, and emotionally stirring fantasy . . . Fairy tales don’t get better than this.”


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!