22 January 2018

Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This fourth novel of five in the Cazalet Chronicles begins as World War II is now in the history books.  Austerity is very much the order of the day and battle scars dot the landscape of England with London bearing a large brunt of the bombing.

     They had been eating a fairly horrible lunch in a cafĂ© off Leicester Square.  Archie had to go back to his desk but said he'd be through by five; Rupert had the afternoon to himself.  He walked, aimlessly, for about two hours.  The state of London appalled him.  Sandbags, boarded-up windows, dirty buildings, blistering paint - there was a general feeling of dinginess and exhaustion.  People in the streets looked grey and shabby, tired as they stood patiently at bus stops in straggling queues.

War is never funny, but there was one exchange of dialogue when Spam and eggs featured prominently enough to remind me of a scene from a Monty Python skit. 

The childhood antics and charming banter of the younger Cazalets have been replaced by love affairs, insecurity about the way ahead, and seeing their parents' situations through adult eyes.  There are engagements, unplanned pregnancies, more affairs, women navigating their way through the maze of menopause, and some young adults are coming to terms with the realization that life will never be as rosy as when viewed through the lens of their youth.  A few characters have learned to accept their change in economic status, while other characters are dangerously turning a blind eye.

A few scenes from this book were particular charming and have stayed with me.  A character living in a barely functional caravan tucked near woodland and a farm, receives a visitor bringing warmth and cheer.  The sense of calm and relief from the queuing, ration cards, illness and worry.  Another scene involved a young man with more to his story than meets the eye, and then there was a particularly bad fog in London during a car ride home....

      They had almost reached the bottom of the lane and without warning, were surrounded by dense fog.  Rupert slowed down at once as he narrowly missed hitting a parked car.     'It's like the fogs before the war!'     'Can you watch out for the left-hand kerb - and any more parked cars.  Wind your window down.'     'She did, and the acrid smell filled the car.  'I can only see about three or four feet ahead,' she said, 'so do slow down.'     'The occasional street-lights had become dull yellow blurs against which the fog writhed and swirled as though it was being blown upon them, although there seemed to be no wind.  after a few minutes, he pulled up against the kerb.  'I want a fag,' he said.  'And also, I've got to think what would be the best route.  It's going to take us hours to get home.

It would be reasonable to expect the shine to dull ever so slightly by book four of a series, especially when said book is over six hundred pages.  But no...the storytelling and seemingly effortless pacing are a testament to Elizabeth Jane Howard's skill and it's apparent to me now why these books are not easily found in second-hand bookshops. 

And what of my continued lessons in social history?  I had no idea there was such a thing as Phillips' Dental Magnesia - a toothpaste made with Milk of Magnesia to reduce the acids in your mouth.  A wonderful concept but I'm not sure it would have tasted very pleasant.  Also, my image of middle-class women enjoying their breakfast in 1947 involves a pot of tea, toast (with or without jam) and perhaps some sort of egg....but no, apparently Grape-Nuts cereal was a popular choice during this era.  And when one character sets off across the ocean to visit New York in 1947, one British pound equaled five American dollars!  And lastly, there's one aspect of the times that has passed the point of amusement for me - women over fifty are not ineffectual, invisible, or incapable.  When I found out a certain widow was the topic of concern surrounding her ability to care for herself - and not yet sixty...well, incredulous is one word I could use.

On to book five.....

Spring, Regent's Park London by Anne Estelle Rice

14 January 2018

Waiting for Spring...and three new books!


The sun is showing itself a little more lately but Spring is still too far away for my liking.  I'm putting off this morning's walk with Kip in the hope it will warm up a few degrees.  It's -17C, which stings a bit, so the length of time to layer up is usually longer than the walk itself.  So while we wait....a few new books.

The Illustrated Letters of Virginia Woolf - Selected and introduced by Frances Spalding, bought while in Toronto recently to visit two exhibits at the Royal Ontario Museum.  The Vikings and Dior exhibits are fascinating and couldn't be more stimulating in asking you to switch gears in such opposing interests.  If you can, do visit!  I digress....this illustrated book of letters is beautifully put together, featuring letters to family and friends.  Some of which I'm familiar with, and some I am not.  A very enticing way to learn more about key figures in Virginia Woolf's life and twentieth-century literary circles.

London Garden by Roger Fry

And nearly every page includes a sketch, photograph, or painting.  Duncan Grant's mother learned to cross stitch so she could transfer some of his designs into textiles.  One scene, a view from a window, must have taken ages so it's fair to say that his mother was a firm supporter of his craft.

Lytton Strachey by Vanella Bell (1912)

Naturally, works by Vanessa Bell feature as well, including some of her cover designs for Virginia's novels.

This book would thrill anyone interested in Virginia Woolf, the Bloomsbury Group or literary London, so a perfect gift for someone special or a nice addition to your own collection.

Two other additions I'm very happy about are Stella Gibbons' final novel The Yellow Houses and Henry Green's Concluding.  My plan is to head straight into the latter book once I've finished the Cazalet series, it sounds irresistible and Green considered it his finest work.

'...set in a single summer day - has at its heart old Mr. Rock, a famous retired scientist: he lives in a cottage on the grounds of a girls boarding school.  Living with him are Elizabeth, his somewhat unstrung granddaughter; his white cat, Alice; his white goose, Ted; and his white pig, Daisy.  Miss Edge and Miss Baker - the harpies who run the school - scheme to dislodge him from the cottage.  It is the day of the school's annual Founder's Ball, but when two schoolgirls vanish, chaos and confusion ensue: no one is able to agree on what to do.  The day unfolds in flashes and jumps - searches, a love affair, worries, small joys, that magnificent pig, deep longings, the dance, old dreams, and low ambitions all crowd together...'

When a synopsis brings a smile to your face by the end of the first sentence, there's nothing else to do but reach for your wallet.

Now it's time for that walk......

5 January 2018

Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard

*No spoilers

My affection for the world of the Cazalet family continues.  In book three, the weariness of WWII has reached the Sussex countryside.  Rich joints of meat aren't as plentiful as they once were, now often replaced by tinned meat, and bread appears to have taken on something of a grey hue.  Trips to Hermione's dress shop are rare, while the mention of pins, needles, and the 'making over' of clothes has increased.  Material for dresses is rationed but good quality bed sheets are a clever substitute.  Servants are abandoning domestic service for war work while Polly and Clary Cazalet are as much a team as ever.  Their discussions about the war and relationships have less mystery attached to them, and I wondered if the author took pleasure in speaking through them at times.

    'I don't think women are allowed to do any really interesting jobs.  They're allowed to get killed in a war, but not to do any of the killing back.  Another injustice for you.    'You know perfectly well, Clary, that you would absolutely loathe to kill anyone.'    'That's not the point.  The point is that if women had an equal responsibility about wars, we probably wouldn't have them.  That's my view.'

A familiar topic in novels set during wartime is extramarital affairs.  I found myself cheering one character on, felt dread about another, and wanted (quite desperately) to slap a a third character.  In one scene, Howard brilliantly captured the horror of a dignified woman, full of anticipation for an assignation with a like-minded man, only to find herself in a rubbish-strewn borrowed flat for a quickie.  The rose-coloured haze through which many people from the middle-class experienced life, now has a somewhat tarnished hue.

It's also been interesting to compare, then and now, the subtle interest in Americans suddenly popping up in relationships with English citizens.  And the other way around...

'I was just wondering how many parents are sitting over coffee in America reading letters from their twenty-year-old sons saying that they've fallen in love with Grizelda Wickham-Painswich-Wickham or Queenie Bloggs and how much they are looking forward to introducing them to the family.  I'm sure we're not alone, if that's any comfort.'

Trips into London to attend secretarial classes, check on a pied-a-terre, or meet with a lover, are not overly associated with descriptions of cavernous holes in the street or rubble-strewn neighbourhoods.  So if you're looking for vivid scenes of the Blitz and damp air-raid shelters, you won't find much of that here, but the social history lessons continue.  For example, I had no idea that the tops of some pillar boxes were painted with a gas-detecting paint that was lime green in colour.  And that a perfume from Hattie Carnegie could be so desirable....with a name like 'Beige'.  Has anyone played a card game called Bezique?  It was said to be a favourite of Winston Churchill and he was something of an expert at it.

Buying all five books in this series was the right thing to do.  Book three closes with the end of the war, leaving the reader to wonder who will be returning to Home Place and how much damage has been left in its wake.


31 December 2017

Best of 2017

This is my favourite time of year in the blogsphere.  I love discovering the hits and misses with other readers and how they've measured up against their bookish goals.

Over the years I've discovered that I'm completely useless when it comes to any sort of restrictions on book buying.  A previous pledge to join a guilt-ridden group of people promising to read from their own shelves for one year lasted a mere four days.  My envy of readers who manage to complete a novel every three days...well, it's defeatist, isn't it.  And I've learned to quell my excitement for group read-alongs as they often begin just as I'm thoroughly engrossed in something else.  But at the heart of it all is our shared love of books and the joy of reading, regardless of output or goals. 

So without further ado, the following are my top five reads of 2017 (in no particular order).  Can I cheat and count the whole Cazalet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard as outstanding?  Also, a special mention goes to Pure Juliet by Stella Gibbons.



Happy New Year to everyone visiting here!  It was - 24C in my part of Ontario this morning so there will be no celebrating in a little black dress but a bit of port should do quite nicely.

Edit - The Persephone title isn't legible, my apologies....it's Long Live Great Bardfield: the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood.