8 December 2016

London Stories edited by Jerry White

My colleagues and I will be celebrating Christmas next week with a potluck lunch and gift exchange.  The theme dictates we bring a gift that represents something we could not live without on a desert island.  I could probably learn to live without tea after a very ugly period of withdrawal but living without something to read is unthinkable.  Thinking of mass appeal, and the fact that not many of my colleagues stop me for conversation about feminine middlebrow novels, I chose London Stories.

The list of authors will make any anglophile melt as their eye scrolls down the Contents page.  Short story collections are also an excellent way to experience the writing of an author you wouldn't normally have considered.  I've never read anything by Irma Kurtz but enjoyed her story called Islington and her commentary about the differences between Londoners and ex-pats.

The stories are laid out in chronological order beginning with Thomas Dekker's London, Lying Sicke of the Plague (1603) and ending with Hanif Kureishi's The Umbrella (1999).  From the Muckle-pit to divorce.  Two of my favourite short stories are included...Elizabeth Bowen's Mysterious Kôr and Mollie Panter-Downes Good Evening, Mrs Craven, both set during The Blitz.  Both are exquisite evocations of that era.

A couple of nights ago I read Frederick Treves The Elephant Man (1923).  The heart-wrenching story of John Merrick brings forth the image of a shuffling man cloaked by a large cape with a hood hiding his disfigured face.  Treves goes behind the ugly sideshow aspect sharing first-hand knowledge of a man who cried with joy when Queen Alexandra shook his hand and panted with excitement while seeing his first play.  Covertly escorted into the theatre with nurses sitting in the front row of a box to create a screen, John was able to realize a desire.  He also fancied himself a bit of dandy, enjoyed romance novels including Jane Austen's Emma.

Another touching story is Henry Mayhew's Watercress Girl (1851) about an eight year-old girl living in poverty in Clerkenwell.  She buys cress at Farringdon market to sell on for a small profit.  Her meals are usually slices of bread with a cup of tea but on Sundays her family enjoys meat with gravy and even a puddin'.  A child braving the winter clothed in a threadbare dress and light shawl reads like something from Dickens but in this collection that doyen of Victorian literature shares a short story featuring the Thames in Down With the Tide (1853).

Hopefully the colleague who ends up with this book enjoys it as much as I do.  What would your desert island item be with a budget of $15?

2 December 2016

The Beaver Hall Group: 1920s Modernism in Montreal

My last week of vacation time is done and dusted.  I ran some errands, brought the central vacuum unit in for maintenance, had my car looked at, decorated for Christmas, and spent an immense amount of time wiping Kip's paws.  Unless the ground freezes soon our back garden is threatening to rival an impressively muddy farmyard.

Did I mention there's a bookshop beside the vacuum retailer?  Gorgeous books are piled high to tempt Christmas shoppers but this purchase was a gift to myself in lieu of a trip abroad or a cottage rental in Muskoka.  Stop laughing.... 

The library owns an earlier publication on the Beaver Hall Group.  I can't tell you how many times it has caught my eye while I'm supposed to be working.  Down go my pen and holds list as I slide the book from the shelf.  This new collection of art,  published last year, features many of my favourites plus many I've never seen before.

Sisters of Rural Quebec by Prudence Howard

Girl and Cat by Emily Coonan

Saint Denis Street by Adrien Hébert

Looking along Belmont Street by Ethel Seath
about 1925

Miss Mary Macintosh by Randolph S. Hewton
1924 or earlier

Initially I thought this group of painters were entirely female, and that's a popular misconception.  Being contemporaries of the Group of Seven, placing a feminist slant on a few exhibitions and catalogues drove that lasting impression.  This collection focuses on art by all of the members of the Beaver Hall Group, but I enjoyed this paragraph...

'Within the Beaver Hall Group, the social markers that distinguished the early twentieth-century feminist ideal of the 'New Woman' were readily apparent.  The group's female members variously bobbed their hair, drove automobiles and smoked.  Most of them remained unmarried, and some explored options for companionship outside of matrimony.  Some members joined women's rights organizations.  Most importantly, the vast majority of the women carved out careers for themselves, as artists, art educators and illustrators.'

This beautiful collection of art, biography, and social commentary would make an excellent gift for the art lover in your life, or just pick up a copy for yourself, like I did.

26 November 2016

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Recently, Artemis Cooper was a guest on one of the books podcasts I subscribe to.  It was the middle of the night when podcasts are supposed to lull me back to sleep, but not this time.  At one point Cooper said that if you only ever read one of Elizabeth Jane Howard's novels it should be The Long View as it's her masterpiece.  It just so happened that I had bought the very book only a week before.  Oh the thrill of coincidence.

First published in 1956, the story begins with a gathering at the home of Conrad and Antonia Fleming, in Campden Hill Square.  The occasion is in honor of their son's engagement.  The atmosphere of women arriving in wakes of perfume as they pop upstairs to check their hair and make-up reads like any given evening in Howard's sphere.  There's also the aspect of ritual as the women eye June, barely out of her teens, as she's about to navigate the world of 'married women'.  There's a myriad of choices to be made if you're to run the perfect home.  But the story soon veers from middle-class life in 1950s London.

The story is divided into five sections, each jumping back in time throughout Antonia's life to her late teens.  It goes a long way in explaining why she married a man as ruthlessly vile as Conrad.  He's the sort of person who likes to offer choices in a manner veiled to look like options when really the outcome is win-win for him.  His attempts to achieve manhood frequently involve treating women like children, and he's not beyond leaving change on the bedside table of women he's slept with.

Howard's exquisite prose and powers of observation blend in such a way that a gift from Antonia's father-in-law is very much a portend of the gloom ahead...

'It was a snowstorm.  She suddenly remembered having one as a child, and wondered where it had gone, even when it had vanished.  Hers had been a small thatched cottage with two pine trees; this was a lighthouse on a rocky point surrounded by a raging sea.'

I loved this book.  The frustration I initially felt due to Antonia's passive nature melted into sympathy by the last few chapters.  I wished it were possible to time shift her away from the path her life would take.  Aside from that, the glimpses into various social groups throughout three decades are beautifully detailed.  There's tennis, horses, and dinner parties on Monday evenings because working for money is either unnecessary or invisible.

The Long View was my introduction to Elizabeth Jane Howard.  If this is her masterpiece it sounds as though nothing else will compare, but somehow I doubt that.  Writing this beautiful, storytelling so masterfully laid out, can't be a one-off.  And speaking of introductions, Hilary Mantel's offering in my Picador edition is one of the loveliest I've ever read.

The reissues of Howard's books are gorgeous, and I know readers on these blogs will buy up books and store them away until they're not the thing to talk about anymore.  But if you do have a copy of The Long View squirreled away...don't!

Portrait of a Young Woman by Edwin Holgate

9 November 2016

Art and Books as a Balm

Like so many others I went to bed last night thinking today would be filled with the excitement of seeing a woman as the next President of the United States.  Turning over at three in the morning I reached for my iPod to check the headlines.  I couldn't fall back to sleep so I've been taking in the opinions and analysis of those more in the know.  This will go on for days, and probably much longer than that.  In the meantime I need a distraction from all of the breathless reporting.

Art and books are a balm at moments like this so I'll share a few details about the wonderful day I had last Sunday.  The AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) is running a wonderful exhibit called Mystical Landscapes featuring works by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Emily Carr, Paul Nash, Félix Vallotton, and more.  There is no question that turning into a darkened room to see...

Starry Night Over the Rhône by Vincent van Gogh

...is the moment that took my breath away and kept me in one place the longest.  This is a painting that feels alive and is quite simply, stunning.  November is a somber month but well-timed to exhibit paintings by World War One artists.  My favourite from the exhibit is by an artist I wasn't aware of but will definitely learn more about....

Void by Paul Nash

I spent hours visiting some of my favourite paintings from the gallery's regular collection but one caught my eye that I hadn't noticed before.  And who wouldn't be taken with these cherubs...

Portrait of the Artist's Children, the twins John and Sylvia by Edmund Wyly Grier
around 1909

The AGO was also hosting The Antiquarian Book Show making the day feel a bit like my idea of heaven.  Although, it was a bit worrying that the show seems to have shrunk a bit from the year before.  You will see the a few people running up their credit card but most people, I think, are like me - enjoying the books as something to be admired...and then put down very carefully.

A vendor from Montreal displayed a few books that caught my eye.  They belonged to a University of Toronto professor who specialized in the Bloomsbury Group.  The professor had died and his wife sold his collection of books - something we dread to think about.  So for the affordable price of twenty dollars I brought home a hardcover copy of...

My afternoon at the AGO ended with a very happy hour spent indulging a whim or three in the gift shop followed by a relaxing trip home on the train.  Now back to the news of the day...*sigh*.