15 March 2019

A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen

If you've never read anything by Elizabeth Bowen,  A World of Love will fit the bill quite nicely as your introduction.  It's very accessible, has a limited number of characters and the setting of a country manor alone will tick a box for many a reader.  If you are a fan of Bowen's writing but, like me, skirted around this book...and goodness knows why....go and find a copy! 

It's the early 1950s in County Cork, Ireland.  A small mansion dots the rolling fields....

'The door no longer knew hospitality; moss obliterated the sweep for the turning carriage; the avenue lived on as a rutted track, and a poor fence, close up to the house, served to keep back wandering grazing cattle.'

Montefort belonged to Guy Danby until he was killed while serving in WWI.  In the absence of a Will, the house was turned turned over to his cousin, Antonia.  Being disinclined to benefit from Guy's death, as well as a bit of a slattern, Antonia proposes a plan.  By suggesting a marriage between Lilia (Guy's fiancé) and Fred (an illegitimate cousin), Antonia brings Montefort to life once again.  

With beautiful prose and keen observation, Bowen portrays a marriage in which a ghost from the past is ever present.  Guy's presence even permeates their daughter Jane's first dalliance with romance when she finds a bundle of love letters in the attic.  The letters were written by Guy causing Jane to assume that the recipient is her mother, but there's room for speculation.  In her somewhat isolated surroundings, Jane steals away to luxuriate in the letter's romantic phrases.  It's not long before her younger sister Maud catches her out.

Maud is the comic relief in Montefort's tension-filled surroundings.  Lilia is suspicious of Antonia's close relationship with Jane, Fred feels as though he will never be enough for Lilia, Antonia feels like the odd one out in her own home.  Lilia wonders if Fred married her as a way of accessing Montefort.

At the village fete, it's Maud who wins the bottle of whiskey (she's 12 years old), she has an imaginary friend called Gay David and she quotes passages from the Bible which drives Antonia mad.  Maud is brutally frank and says exactly what's on her mind....

'If I'm to have a father, I don't choose to have a father who's not thought of highly, at any rate by me.  I've been to a lot of trouble, honouring him.  But in spite of it all, there he went about, this last day or two looking small.  Why should I put up with that?'

And then there's Lady Latterly from the neighbouring manor house.  She sends her driver over in the Daimler to collect Jane, now that she's of an age to be entertaining (or an accessory).  Jane is learning the nuances of etiquette at her ladyship's elbow, and Jane recognizes the difference between Antonia's boudoir and that of her more polished contemporary.

'Here it was true, the scene was differently set - no smears, no ash, no feathers on the floor; instead, who areas of undinted  satin, no trace of anything having been touched or used.  Here and there only, footprints like tracks in dew disturbed the bloom of the silver carpet.  Here, supposed Jane, courteously looking round, must be a replica, priceless these days, of a Mayfair décor back in the 1930s - apparently still lived in without a tremor.'

I loved the moment when I realized the family were turning a corner and everything would be alright.  With patience and maturity, Fred and Lilia finally understand that living in the past will only prevent them from moving forward with their own lives.  It's a simple story without much of a plot, but in the hands of Elizabeth Bowen it's cinematic and exquisite.

 Winifred Radford by Meredith Frampton
(1921)

10 March 2019

A Wintery Walk on the Weekend


Our favourite way to start the weekend is by walking on a nearby trail.  During warmer weather, there's a steady stream of joggers, people riding their bikes and lots of dog walkers.  When it's -14C there's considerably less traffic.


A sliver of stream in the ravine hasn't frozen over.  We're always on the lookout for any roaming deer or coyotes that we know are in the area but, so far, there's only been a very friendly fox who trotted up to say 'hello'. 


Kip let's us know he's ready to head back to the car by refusing to go any farther.  Makes perfect sense to me!


During the cold weather I've been placing peanuts on top of the rail posts.  The blue jays must be on the lookout because there's barely a nut left by the time we walk back.  By this time all I can think about is shedding layers of winter clothes and a very hot cup of tea.

7 March 2019

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

One of the best things about working in public service is the interaction with people from differing backgrounds, ages, and numerous interests.  It's rewarding, fascinating, character-building and at times even a bit nerve-wracking.  You never know what each shift will bring and I admit to slightly  dreading the Full Moon.  Working in a library blends two of my favourite things: people and books.  So I can relate to some of Bythell's encounters and experiences at his bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland.  A small divide would be his customer service skills and mine....he owns the shop and therefore gets away with saying things I would be in a lot of hot water for.

Shaun Bythell took ownership of The Bookshop just as he had turned thirty-one.  Growing up on his family's small farm just outside town, he was familiar with the bookshop but didn't rate its chances of success very highly.  A serendipitous visit to the shop for a specific book, Shaun started talking with the owner about his struggle to find a job he would really enjoy.  His university days were behind him and it was time to firmly establish himself somewhere.  The owner mentioned he was ready to retire and with a few encouraging words about financing, Bythell was on the path to being his own boss.

Bythell noted Jen Campbell's success with her book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops (it's very entertaining, by the way).  He started a diary of noteworthy incidents, odd requests, acquisitions arising from people downsizing or estate sales due to death, and the frequently humourous antics of Nicky, a member of staff.  The topics that interest people are vast, and sometimes oddly unique, such as when a customer asked for a book on the history of level crossings.

At the end of each entry, Bythell noted the total in the till and number of customers that day.  There were times when a customer would buy an antiquarian item for £100 or a whole family would take home an armful of books, but there were also very lean days.  Or constant haggling from customers looking for a deeper discount.  Fulfilling orders for AbeBooks or Amazon helps to increase the shop's income but also cuts into any profit Bythell would have made from an in-store sale.

I can empathize with Bythell's interactions with people of differing personality types, standing his ground when someone is being rude or unreasonable or being supportive when it's necessary, but I had my eyes opened to the pressure that comes from being in bed with Amazon.  Thankfully the humour that comes from Bythell's witty writing and slant on life in general far outbalanced any negativity. 

My husband and I were at a library book sale last weekend, the day before I read.....

'To realise a good price for a book, it has to be in decent condition, and there is nothing librarians like more than taking a perfectly good book and covering it with stamps and stickers before - and with no sense of irony - putting a plastic sleeve over the dust jacket to protect it from the public.  The final ignominy for a book that has been in the dubious care of a public library is for the front free endpaper to be ripped out and a 'DISCARD' stamp whacked firmly onto the title page, before it is finally made available for member of the public to buy in a sale.'

Not only did one of my books have the obligatory WITHDRAWN stamp, but it had been stamped upside down.  Ugh.

I wasn't in more than thirty pages when I began to dread the end of this book.  From the regulars who always bought something, the cranky who usually do not, the one man living in hope of a date with Nicky, the festivals, the road trips, and nights crashing on the Festival Bed...it's pages full of bookish voyeurism.  This book especially highlights the courage it takes to run such a business.  A couple of years ago I ever so casually looked into the cost of a rental unit at our local plaza; the foot traffic would be excellent for a second-hand bookshop.  The rent was $3,000 per month and that's just the start.

For anyone who looks forward to spending their spare time luxuriating in the aroma of ink and browsing row upon row of book titles, The Diary of a Bookseller is a must read.  I only wish it were twice as long.

Captain (The Shop Cat) at The Bookshop, Wigtown

28 February 2019

The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann

The Printed Word is a small but well-curated second-hand bookshop in Dundas so I always make a bee-line for it whenever we're out that way.  During a visit last year, I bought this book, a first edition published in 1944, for its charming first paragraph....

'One day my mother told me that Mrs. Jardine had asked us to pick primroses on her hill, and then, when we had picked as many as we wanted, to come in and have tea with her.'

It was just the sort of read I was in the mood for so I pulled it from my shelves a couple of weeks ago.  There was no blurb on the back, or leaf on the front cover.  A simple warning to fasten your seat belt would have gone a long way to prepare someone they're in store for much more than gardens and tea parties.

Mrs. Jardine has returned from France to stay at The Priory, a country house inherited through her husband's family.  She would love to meet Rebecca, Jess and little Sylvia, her dear friend Laura's grandchildren.  After their mother's careful reflection, the two older girls are sent with their governess across the field and through a sigh-inducing blue garden door.  The era is Edwardian and the Great War looms.  We meet Mrs. Jardine....

'There was something about her lips and about her whole face - something dramatic, a sensuality so noble and generous it made her look austere, almost saint-like.  Experience had signed her face with a secret, a promise whose meaning people would still watch, still desire to explore and to possess.'

After shaking some rose geranium essence into a sink of water for the girls to wash their hands, Mrs. Jardine leads the way to her spacious bedroom.  She immediately directs their gaze to the large portrait of her daughter, Ianthe.  The girls ask questions and are shocked to learn that Ianthe has three children (Malcolm, Maisie and Charity), none of whom has ever met Mrs. Jardine.  It's been years since she's seen Ianthe.

After thoroughly charming Rebecca during a few visits, Mrs. Jardine sits on a bench in the garden and pours out the story of her family's troubled past.  The subject matter is not at all appropriate for the ears of an 11 year-old, the first sign that Mrs. Jardine is either 'troubled' or a narcissist.  In the way of prepubescent children, Rebecca is keen to be enveloped into an adult world while considering the order in which she'll eat the scones, sponge and biscuits.

To the delight of Mrs. Jardine, her grandchildren arrive at The Priory.  Their father is terminally ill and with Ianthe off goodness knows where, there is little choice.  Maisie and Rebecca form a friendship but Rebecca is thrown when Maisie shares something her father said about Mrs. Jardine which explains why there's been an estrangement...

'He told me she's a liar.  And she made my mother a liar.  He said if ever he caught any of us lying he'd whip us to within an inch of our lives.'

Rosamond Lehmann has woven a story of high drama involving mental illness, abandonment, death, a secret pregnancy, marital and familial discord, suicide, revenge, and more psychological tactics than I can put a name to.  Also, part of the story is set during the Great War and considering that Lehmann was born in 1901, this passage may very well have been from memory....

'My father had set out without complaint upon his slow heart-rending journey into the shadows.  Here, there, on every hand, inchmeal, the view beyond the windows of our home contracted, clouded.  Our friend's brothers, the big boys who had partnered us in the polka, Sire Roger, the Lancers at pre-war Christmas parties, were being killed in Flanders, at Gallipoli; were being torpedoed and drowned at sea.  An unrelenting diet of maize and lentils brought us out in spots, chilblains caused us to limp, the bath water stopped being hot at night.' 

The Ballad and the Source begins with a secret garden and then slides into the gothic with a woman driven by madness to smash windows with her bare hands.  It's an incredible piece of writing, both beautiful and unsettling.  One teensy niggle is the story is told from the viewpoint of three characters, Mrs. Jardine, a maid called Tilly, and Rebecca which made for a slight excess of 'he' and 'she' at times.  But once you've nailed down the characters it's fine.  Highly recommended!

Lily Elsie by James Jebusa Shannon 
1916