29 March 2019

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger has been languishing on my shelves since 2011 when I brought it home from a vacation in London.  It won the Man Booker prize in 1987, and was mentioned with glowing accolades on a books podcasts I listened to a few weeks ago.  It was time to blow the dust off, so to speak.

The story begins with Claudia Hampton being propped up in her hospital bed by a nurse.  As an elderly woman, she is talked to in those terms meant to be endearing such as 'good girl' and 'dear' but Claudia is far from feeble in mind or spirit.  She is writing the history of her life while dying of cancer.

'Was she someone?' enquires the nurse.  Her shoes squeak on the shiny floor; the doctor's shoes crunch.  'I mean, the things she comes out with...'  And the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone, evidently she's written books and newspaper articles and...um...been in the Middle East at one time....typhoid,malaria....unmarried (one miscarriage, one child he sees but does not say)....yes, the records do suggest she was someone, probably. 

From childhood, Claudia has been in competition with her brother, Gordon.  Their relationship will always be one of fire and ice.  With only one year separating them in age, Gordon relishes his superiority over his little sister.  And as time moves on it appears it's a trait he encourages with almost everyone close to him.  Claudia's family life is much like that of other children in her sphere who were born in 1910.  Her mother left a career opportunity in History to be a housewife, her father died on the Somme...picked off by history.

Claudia writes about the child she had with Jaspar.  A good-looking man who was a blend of Russian aristocracy and English gentry.  She laments that poor Lisa is a pasty child that resembles neither of her parents and leaves her upbringing to both grandmothers.  The disconnect between mother and child is so great that Lisa instinctively knows her mother would prefer to be called by her name rather than 'Mummy'.  Claudia and Jasper spend the ten years of their relationship in an on/off situation that satisfies neither party. 

For most of WWII, Claudia is a press correspondent for a weekly paper.  Tagging along with a tank battalion, she meets Tom Southern who becomes the man she will finally drop her guard for.  The desert scenes are vividly described....the flies, sand everywhere, and maggot-riddled bodies of those unfortunates who came upon landmines.  Through assignments and assignations the couple begin to make plans for a life together after the war.  A letter puts an end to all of it.

I was full of admiration for Claudia's drive and ambition while earning her living in a war zone.  I enjoyed reading the sections in which Claudia typed out stories for the paper while the desert sands blew.  I learned that you can make a campfire by pouring petrol in a can filled with sand.  The problem for me was that the vignettes back and forth through time and events didn't allow me to sink into anything for very long.   By the halfway point of the book it was a case of being happy while reading the story, but not missing it while off doing something else.  Perhaps a portend because I felt slightly let down to discover the intriguing title of the book comes from a brand of mosquito coil!  High expectations that didn't quite hit the mark.

Hundreds of readers do not agree with my overall feelings about Moon Tiger, but there are a few who were left as I was, a bit cold.  Yes, this is a well-written, clever book that is mature and artful, but does any of that matter if you're mulling dinner plans while reading about the last moments of a woman's life?  Perhaps I'll read this book again in the future and feel differently but for the time being I will recommend Consequences as my favourite Penelope Lively novel.

Blue Egyptian Water Lily by Peter Charles Henderson 
(1804)

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