21 October 2018

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

A couple of weeks ago I stopped by our local bookshop for a copy of Town & Country, the Autumn edition.  It hadn't arrived from overseas yet, but a wander around lead me to the Mystery section.  It's not a part of the store that I venture into all that often, and even then it's usually to root out something for my husband.  But then I noticed Dorothy L. Sayers' books; they've been reissued with eye-catching covers and Gaudy Night had the highest page count of the bunch....oh, go on then.

'Harriet Vane sat at her writing table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square.  The late tulips made a brave show in the Square garden, and a quartet of early tennis-players were energetically call the score of a rather erratic and unpractised game.  But Harriet saw neither tulips nor tennis-players.  A letter lay open on the blotting-pad before her, but its image had faded from her mind to make way for another picture.  She saw a stone quadrangle, built by a modern architect in a style neither new nor old, but stretching out reconciling hands to past and present.'

Bloomsbury and Oxford - two of my favourites in a long list of favourite places in England.  Gaudy Night should have gone over a treat, but alas....it did not.  I love nothing more than to sink into the prose of Elizabeth Bowen or Virginia Woolf, so I found myself ever more frustrated at the seemingly clinical way in which Sayers doled out late night episodes of vandalism in the colleges of Oxford.  Epithets spray-painted on the wall of the library were apparently too shocking to share, but I wanted to know the topic of the vandal's ire.  I'll admit that I judged the poison pen letters sent to Harriet and other members of staff with a does of twenty-first century cynicism, because the waves of negativity on social media has hardened me.  When Peter Wimsey arrives on the scene to help Harriet wade through a few clues, I laughed out loud.  Would someone employed by the Foreign Office have the time of day to deal with a disgruntled busybody?

I emailed Mary (Mrs Miniver's Daughter) the other day to complain about the lack of description when it came to food in Gaudy Night.  Where were the gas-rings?  The mouthwatering descriptions of cake?  Harriet had been back and forth to her flat in Bloomsbury but I was still none the wiser about the pattern on her curtains or her bedclothes.  Does Harriet wear perfume?  Elizabeth Jane Howard gave her readers all sorts of detail when setting a scene, painting a portrait with words.  Mary was quick in her defense of the author which led me to point out a tea basket pulled out from under the seat of a punt while touring the river.  Not one mention of what was inside said basket until a page and a half later when Wimsey feeds crumbs to the ducks.  Crumbs from what, I ask you?

My favourite character in Gaudy Night is Lord Peter Wimsey's unabashedly entitled young nephew, Lord Saint-George.  Charm and handsomeness aside, his posh ignorance as to the cost of anything was more entertaining than it should have been.

Then a message kept creeping in - equality for women and the desire to choose education and profession over marriage.  It was what drove me to keep turning pages, because I couldn't have cared less who was sending poison pen letters to women at the college.  Although, I did gasp when Harriet left a women, while drunk and unconscious, flat on her back as she went for help.  Didn't they know about the recovery position in the 30s?  I digress.

It wasn't until the last handful of pages that I warmed up to Harriet Vane, or rather Dorothy L. Sayers' writing.  A heartwarming scene at the end of the story won me over...it probably had something to do with the fact it was absent of a single clue or red herring!  I wanted more of that style of writing, but it wouldn't be the sort of writing that made Sayers so popular.  The problem is all mine.

We drove to the lovely university city of Guelph yesterday, to scan the tables at their annual Friends of the Guelph Library book sale (a must if you live within travelling range!).  My husband came looking for me with a book in a pretty shade of blue in his hand....a Folio Society, no less.

I'm willing to give Dorothy L. Sayers another chance....

11 October 2018

Autumn is....

....my favourite season.  After a very hot summer I am more than pleased about the fresher air, atmospheric grey skies, more rain for the garden, and pumpkin pie.

Due to busy work schedules, my husband and I only had one day to celebrate the Thanksgiving weekend together.  We didn't have the luxury of choosing a 'best weather day' for our annual trip to the Niagara region for a fall fair - it had to be last Sunday.  The forecast was calling for part sun, part cloud, part rain so I thought wellies would be a safe bet....but what if the sun came out and left me broiling?  At the last minute, I left home wearing white running shoes with cropped trousers...and it rained.  Well, of course it did!  Nevermind, our umbrellas were open for less than an hour and the 'mucky farm' state of our footwear was a bond between me and other visitors as we made our way through the rows of tents.  Actually, it made a nice change from the heat of the past several years.  Drinking hot apple cider is much nicer when there's a chill in the air.

 After contemplating a few things that, in the end, we decided we didn't need more of, we brought home a clay tile featuring a jay made by Diane Sullivan from Arabesque Pottery.  The back of the tile is lined with cork so it can be used as a trivet but it's much too nice for that.  This fierce-looking fellow will keep watch over one of my bookcases once I've bought a stand.  And we look forward to seeing Diane again as she was out of a specific botanical tile that also caught my eye.

 Forget what I wrote about not buying things I have enough of.  My collection of bookmarks probably hovers somewhere around 30, BUT...I don't own one featuring an English robin.  The gentleman who made the bookmark mentioned that he had sketched the robin while visiting the Isle of Man this past summer.  I like the idea of my robin fluttering around a garden thousands of miles away, while marking my page here in Ontario.  Anyway, Mr Thomson burns his sketches onto very thin, flexible wood veneer followed by the addition of colour, if he so chooses.  You can see more of Mr Thomson's work here.

After snacking on roasted yams, fries, and the must-eat apple fritters fresh from the largest cauldron of oil you'll ever see, we drove to Bench Brewing.  My husband was taken with their product after a bit of sampling in the wine and beer tent.  A drive in this area, at the base of a wall of trees along the Escarpment, is something of a gift in itself.  The reds, yellows, and oranges of the leaves against the cloudy sky were beautiful and several historic homes had their porches dressed with pumpkins and stalks of corn.  We were very impressed with Andres, who gave us a passionate tutorial about Bench's brewing techniques and some of their ingredients.  My husband was thrilled to discover a couple of new favourites when it comes to beer.  I wanted to double back for more hot apple fritters!

Another special moment from last week was having a very pretty fox calmly trot up to us while we walked our border collie, Kip, along the trails not far from home.  He/She stopped just a few feet away and looked at Kip as more of a potential playmate than anything else.  We didn't move a muscle, Kip didn't bat an eye, and after a couple of minutes the fox gracefully jumped through the rails in the fence and moved on.

In bookish news....I set aside Kate Atkinson's Transcription at page 206.  Right book, wrong mood?  I'll try again, but in the meantime I'm enjoying Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night and have ordered a copy of Sarah Perry's Melmoth as my 'spooky' read for the end of October.  I'm just a tad (over the top) excited for the day it lands in the mailbox!

21 September 2018

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

When the Man Booker longlist was announced recently, it was Warlight that piqued my interest with its setting in post-war England.  A few days later, a customer at the library returned her copy and was promptly asked (ever the inquisitive circulation clerk) what she thought of it, to which she replied 'I think it's a masterpiece'.  A label like that sets the bar pretty high so when my hold came in soon afterwards, other reading plans would simply have to wait.  So, with a riveting first sentence, I dove it.

'In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.'

Nathaniel and Rachel are young teens, living with their parents in Ruvigny Gardens, London.  Within a few pages, their parents announce they'll be leaving for Singapore on an extended business trip for Unilever.  Their father flies on ahead with remarkably little fanfare as Rose's carefully considered wardrobe is packed into a large travelling trunk.  The teens have been enrolled in separate boarding schools and a guardian, whom Rachel and Nathaniel refer to as The Moth, has been left in charge of their home.  As Nathaniel later learns, his mother has known The Moth for several years as both were fire watchers on the roof of the Grosvenor House Hotel during the war.  Or, at least that's what the siblings have been told, because once their mother's trunk has been discovered, hidden in the house after her departure, their bubble of security has been burst.

Within a couple of weeks, Nathaniel decides that living at home with a stranger is preferable to life at boarding school.  The trajectory of his life will be forever altered.  The Moth makes an unsettling decision to invite a former boxer known as The Pimlico Darter to join the household.  His particular talent is smuggling greyhounds into England using the night skies as cover while gliding along the Thames on river boats.  Nathaniel is pulled by the sense of adventure and becomes The Darter's steadfast companion, honing skills that will come in handy for better or worse. 

As the years progress, Nathaniel and Rachel form attachments to the various people who come and go from their home in Ruvigny Gardens.  Some are suspect from the beginning but others have layers that are revealed over time, the point being that the people living among us conceal things from the simple to the implausible.  Trading the pavement of London for the paths of Suffolk doesn't necessarily mean guaranteed immunity from the covert actions of people with connections, or unfinished business. 

Ondaatje weaves the story of some of Warlight's characters through time, backwards and forwards.  Were all of the connections made as characters' paths crossed plausible?  I did have a couple of moments of cynicism, but at the end of the day, this is a ripping good read.  Warlight is clever, entertaining, and at times the tension made me forget all about watching the clock when it was almost time to leave for work.  Going back through my notes I found it interesting there wasn't a single bold scrawl that says 'QUOTE' as I often do while reading, but there are seven pages of clues and suspicious behaviour.  Apparently I was as much 'on the case' as Nathaniel.  Warlight is the sort of book that would be fun to read over again with the gift of hindsight.

I was disappointed yesterday when the Man Booker Shortlist was announced and Warlight wasn't on it.  At the end of the day, there are many winners of various prizes for all kinds of books, but if they don't appeal to me then it's a moot point.  Warlight suited me down to the ground.

Cornish Children by Harold Harvey

8 September 2018

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

Next month is the ninetieth anniversary of Orlando (1928), Woolf's sixth novel.  What began as a diversion shortly after publishing To the Lighthouse has resulted in being a strong favourite with readers of Woolf's novels.  I wonder what she would think of her 'folly' being so relevant in 2018.  While parts of the world have made great strides when it comes to accepting people as they are, we are still a society that likes to create policy, define, and label.  That Woolf, many decades ago, could transition her main character from a man to a woman without so much as a sigh feels refreshingly uncomplicated.  As for the novel as a whole, Orlando reminded me of Saturday mornings as a nine year old, reading fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm.  There's a lot going on that doesn't make sense, but you're willing to believe anything is possible.

The story begins in Tudor England with Elizabeth I on the throne and the young noble has caught her eye.  Orlando spends time wandering through town as Woolf paints a picture of his day to day life....past the stables, around hawthorn bushes, through the park with its herds of roaming deer.  In the distance lies St Paul's.  After a few pages filled with observations, time jumps ahead to a new monarch on the throne.  Britain is blanketed by The Big Frost and the Thames has frozen solid.   Orlando sees the Russian Princess Marousha skating on the ice and falls head over heels in love.  But there's hitch, he is already betrothed to another.

Because Orlando magically travels through the centuries, aging at a snail's pace, let's just say he breaks some hearts and has his broken in turn.  As Orlando rises in favour to the subsequent King Charles, word spreads about his allure and, of all things, his beautiful calves.  Then, during a festive evening, in a swirl of ringing bells, clocks striking the hour, Turkish guards from the Imperial Body Guard along with British Admirality, Orlando goes to bed, in something of a trance, for seven days.  Upon waking, Orlando is now a woman.

'Orlando looked himself up and down in a long looking-glass, without showing any signs of discomposure, and went, presumably, to his bath.'

Woolf then goes on to state that although Orlando had changed in appearance, everything else about her character is exactly as it was before.  Leaving Constantinople with a gipsy, Orlando embarks on a journey over hills and through valleys, while writing an epic poem called The Oak Tree.  When the atmosphere among her fellow travellers begins to feel ominous, Orlando jumps onto a ship bound for London.  She's also realizing a few things....

'She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled.  'Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,' she reflected' 'for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature.  They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline.  There's the hairdressing,' she thought, 'that alone will take an hour of my morning; there's looking in the looking glass, another hour, there's stays and lacing; there's washing and powdering; there's changing from silk to lace and from lace to paduasoy; there's being chaste year in year out...'

Orlando meets other characters who appear to be one sex but are simply masquerading as the other for one purpose or another.  As time passes, Orlando begins to take on more of the traits one would associate with being stereotypically female, as in being afraid of fast carriages or modesty.  The underlying message is that men and women assume roles.

As Orlando moves through the centuries, I thoroughly enjoyed the many historical and geographical references, such as London's Great Fire and the plague.  She is also amazed by her first sight of a bookshop, trains and cars.  I love stories centred around time travel and that moment of wonder (or fright) when a character first encounters something we take for granted.

Vita Sackville-West's son, Nigel Nicholson, has been quoted as saying Orlando is 'the longest and most charming love letter in literature.  Reading this novel on the heels of a book of letters between the two women, I would most humbly agree.  But it's also a tribute to Knole, Sackville-West's ancestral home in Sevenoaks, Kent.  From the gardens to the number of rooms, and even the names of the servants and housemaids (I smiled at every mention of Basket and Bartholomew) all from the country house's records.

Orlando ends at the twelfth stroke of midnight on Thursday the eleventh of October, 1928, the date it was published.  I've just checked the calendar....that date falls on a Thursday this year, as well.  I digress.  This story amazed me on so many levels, from Woolf's incredible imagination, her keen observations, her foresight concerning gender issues, not to mention her general knowledge of so many historical details.  The copy I read was borrowed from the library but I will be buying a lovely edition to keep. 

Vita Sackville-West, Lady Nicholson by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos