1. Some Country Houses and Their Owners – James Lees-Milne
Penguin Classics has revived the diaries of James Lees-Milne as they pertained to his job with the fledgling National Trust – to assess houses for acceptance into the Trust and to negotiate the transfer of acceptable properties. As Penguin puts it in their writeup: “Here are sharply observed accounts of dinner with Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst; Winston Churchill’s bedroom at Chartwell; T. E. Lawrence’s dilapidated Dorset cottage; and war damage to a great house in Derby.” All true and all very interesting. However, my favorite bit was not a famous house or owner, but Lord Berwick. Once out of his wife’s hearing, he confided to Lees-Milne his interest in ghosts and other phenomenon, including ghosts that had been seen at his property by military personnel stationed there during World War II. As delightfully recounted by Lees-Milne:
He is not the least bit boring about his psychical beliefs but is perplexed by the strange habits of ghosts. He asked me, did I think it was possible that one could have been locked in the housemaid’s cupboard? And why should another want to disguise itself as a vacuum cleaner? Really, he is a delicious man.
2. Self Portrait with Friends: Selected Diaries of Cecil Beaton 1922-1974 – Cecil Beaton
This appears to be hard to find now, but I borrowed a copy from the library. Many “unedited” (and unauthorized?) editions of Beaton’s diaries were published later, but it is my understanding that this is the version that Beaton wanted presented to the world. I’m not sure whether the self-editing was out of consideration for his famous friends/subjects or due to the fear of libel lawsuits. Either way, there is enough wit and gossip in the authorized version to satisfy me. This edition is also enhanced with many black and white photos, both of his famous sitters and his beloved houses. I had no knowledge of Cecil Beaton before reading this, so was the most surprised by his relationship with Greta Garbo. His entries pertaining to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor are also very interesting. And his energy for working on several creative endeavors at once is inspiring. Overall, the diary/gossip style made this a mildly thrilling volume to dip in and out of – my only complaint is that I found it to be too long.
3. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer – Jonathan Howard
I encountered the sequel to this book on the NPR ‘Summer Reads’ list and was so intrigued that I wanted to read both. The original is fantastic – a tad steampunk, a bit of snobby and erudite humor, and just enough gruesome details to give you a shiver but not gross you out. Most of all, it’s funny – especially the opening bit about the anteroom of Hell, the endless forms, and the whole joke that bureaucracy is the Devil’s best invention. The underlying plot itself is not new (in order to get his own soul back, Johannes must collect x number of souls in a year, or else) but the characters are the focus here. Johannes, cold and ruthless in his scientific pursuit of a way to defeat death, and his humane brother Horst, who is now a vampire due to one of Johannes’ earlier experiments, make quite the duo. The other monsters which make up their travelling circus are also creatively drawn. Even if no one character is perfect, the overall book is dark, creative, and amusing. If you’ve ever read “Good Omens” (one of my favorites), you’ll find this has a similar feel.
What’s not to love in this guilty pleasure? British expats boozing it up, swapping spouses, and engaging in even more debauchery in colonial Kenya. At the heart of the story is the weak and troubled Alice Silverthorne, an American heiress who was brought to Kenya by her first husband. Perhaps the only thing she ever truly loved was Kenya itself, despite the exhausting amount of energy she spent pursuing various men. While the murder of one her lovers is the mystery of the title, her entire life is treated in this engaging biography (including her attempted murder of a different lover). “The Bolter” of Mitford fame also puts in an appearance. While the descriptions of the country made me want to see the beauty of Kenya, the emotional turmoil of Alice de Janze’s life made me glad to finish the book and put some distance between myself and her.