Eclectic Reading & the Need for a Good Costume Drama

I savored every minute in June, but July is rushing by.  I need to sit tranquilly in the garden like Elizabeth in Elizabeth and Her German Garden… except I didn’t plant a garden this year.   

Well, at least I’ve been reading a lot.

Here’s what I’ve been reading.

Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon.  This beautifully-written historical novel (kudos to both Ulitskaya and the translator Polly Gannon) covers more than a century in Russia and interweaves two timelines.  Ulitskaya alternates the story of Nora, a theater set designer in the late 20th century who is  the mother of a son with Aspergers; and the letters and diaries of her Jewish grandfather Jacob and her grandmother  Marusya, a dancer who studied  with one of Isadora Duncan’s acolytes.

Censorship is endemic in the theater.  Nora and her lover, Tengiz, a famous director, are too creative for their political time.  They stage a radical production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters which is shut down after one performance.  Tengiz is in and out of Nora’s life, but he has a huge influence on her decidedly odd son Yurik, who becomes obsessed with the Beatles after Tengiz gives him old records.

As the years go by, Nora works in the theater but also must care for her parents on their deathbeds.  And she is very anxious about her son Yurik, whom she sends him to America to live with his father to save him from military service.

I find Nora’s story more interesting than that of her grandparents–let’s hear it for traditional narratives!  Jacob’s letters and diary entries sometimes drag, but they capture the history of the first half of the twentieth century  This is more than a family story, of course:  it is also an ambitious story of Russia. And I am  impressed with the graceful style.  Translator Polly Gannon served Ulitskaya well!

If you like Janet Fitch’s wonderful historical novel set in Russia, The Revolution of Marina M., you will probably enjoy Jacob’s Ladder.

Ulitskaya  has won numerous awards and was a Booker International Prize  nominee in 2009.

Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively’s Spiderweb, an elegant but dark novel. Sixty-five-year old Stella Bentwood retires to a charming cottage in Somerset, England.  But it’s not easy for an anthropologist to give up her trade and connect with people.  She buys a dog, and occasionally sees two old friends, who are more attached to her than she is to them.  But even when she thinks she’s settled she isn’t because–two words– the neighbors. As always, Lively’s writing is superb, but this is one of her most unsettling books.

Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair.  In this  classic mystery,  a successful lawyer, Robert Blair of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet, wonders, Is this all to life?   His secretary Miss Tuff brings him tea on a lacquer tray with a white tablecloth at 3:50 every day.  He returns home every day at the same time.  But that afternoon Marion Sharpe, whom he knows only by sight, telephones him and begs him to come to the house because an inspector from Scotland Yard is there.  He has accused Marion and her mother of kidnapping a teenage girl, Betty Kane, and holding her hostage for three weeks in their attic.

Although the girl’s story is credible—she uncannily describes the layout of the house—the Sharpes say they’ve never seen her, and Robert investigates. This case is based on the eighteenth-century case of Elizabeth CannIng, according to James Sandoe in the introduction.  

I’m “synth-identified” npw!

And now on a different subject:  Please recommend a costume drama!  After being spellbound by three seasons of the BBC science fiction series, Humans, I became almost “synth-identified”(synths are human-looking robots who are more more humane than most humans).  Now I need something calming, even a little boring, preferably a costume drama.  Any recommendations?

11 thoughts on “Eclectic Reading & the Need for a Good Costume Drama”

  1. Thank you for reference to Spiderweb. Recommendations: Chernobyl for a series, for one time pleasure on Amazon Prime: Ghost Light (appropriation of Macbeth) and Hampstead. Ellen

    1. Thank you, Ellen. Your recommendations are always excellent, and I don’t know any of these shows.

      On Fri, Jul 12, 2019 at 6:10 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:


    1. Now THAT would be comforting! I love the Victorians.

      On Fri, Jul 12, 2019 at 6:18 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:


  2. Oh, I loved what I’ve seen of “Humans” (the first season and a bit of the second – it was temporarily unavailable on the platform we use at home, so we stalled temporarily but will resume). Have you seen The Crown? Bletchley Circle? Jamaica Inn? Masters of S*x?

    1. How can I have missed these shows? I’m adding them to my list right now. Oh, and you’ll love the rest of Humans if you can find it.

      On Fri, Jul 12, 2019 at 9:31 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:


  3. Spiderweb sounds good. I’ll look for it.

    In addition to the shows others have recommended, I love the BBC adaptation of Wives and Daughters, and Foyle’s War is my go-to comfort viewing.

    1. I added them to my list! Thank you. I did see one season of Foyle’s War, but I’m sure there have been more.

  4. I have read some of Ulitskaya’s novels, but not yet this one. Thanks for reminding me of her. I saw her in person a few years ago at the Helsinki book fair, and she has such a great personality.

    1. How lucky that you got to see her! This book is gorgeous, rambling, uneven…I don’t know how to describe it, but it is a good read.

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