7 June 2018

Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce

We're in the middle of a minor war zone of our own at the moment.  Removing all of the carpet to make way for new flooring sounded easy peasy...at the time.  And moving every piece of furniture shouldn't be a big deal for two able-bodied adults.  Five bookcases neatly lined with books looks lovely...those same books scattered in piles and boxes is a bit of a mess.  But a nice mess.  What choice do we have but to just get on with things!  A sentiment perfectly timed with the Blitz Spirit of this wonderful new book set during World War II.

My good friend Mary, at Mrs Miniver's Daughter, sent me the link to Dear Mrs Bird last winter.  Soon after that, the book was mentioned on a podcast.  Learning there had been a seven-way bidding war between publishing companies was all I needed to know before promptly placing a book order.  Congratulations to Picador for coming out on top. 

Just about everyone in the blogsphere knows the synopsis of this book, but just in case someone has been on a long break without social media....

'When I first saw the advertisement in the newspaper I thought I might actually burst.  I'd had rather a cheerful day so far despite the Luftwaffe annoying everyone by making us all late for work, and then I'd managed to get hold of an onion, which was very good news for a stew.'

Twenty-two year old Emmeline Lake lives with her best friend, Bunty, in an attic flat in London.  Since childhood, Emmeline has dreamed of a career in journalism.  With the war on, her dream now centres around becoming a War Correspondent.  An advertisement for a Junior connected with The London Evening Chronicle sets Emmeline's heart racing....but she's failed to read the ad carefully.  After landing the position and packing in a perfectly respectable job, Emmeline is left embarrassed when she realizes her new job will be sorting through the incoming mail for Mrs Henrietta Bird, an Agony Aunt.  A more delightful caricature of the uptight tweed persona would be hard to find....

'The desk was almost entirely bare, apart from an untouched ink blotter edged with green leather, a telephone, and a large framed photograph of Mrs Bird in front of an ornamental lake.  Dressed informally in a thick woollen getup and leather gloves, she was surrounded by a large group of gun dogs, all of whom were gazing up at her with quite fanatical devotion.' 

Soon realizing that Mrs Bird's stubborn refusal to entertain any Unpleasantness from letter writers seeking advice, Emmeline grabs an opportunity.  Secreting letters from young ladies who have fallen in love with European soldiers, women tempted to have an affair, or the lonely, Emmeline writes back under the guise of Mrs Bird.  It's not all that difficult as Mrs Bird finds all sorts of excuses to leave the office early, my favourite being the Cat Evaculation Meeting.

The first person narrative is key in making the reader identify with Emmeline's struggle with the morals and ethics of impersonating her senior at work.  But with each passing night of the Blitz and the thought that each day might be her last, Emmeline feels she has nothing to lose. 

Dear Mrs Bird is not a book to be pigeon-holed.  There was a moment when, after a few pages of jolly hockey sticks-type linguistics I wondered if I had bought something perhaps too sickly sweet.  But then the story deals with heartbreak, the horrors involving London's Fire Service, smashed windows, craters in the road, and the 'crump' of German bombs exploding in the distance.  Pearce's  description of ghost-like citizens, covered in the dust from the bombed out ruins of their own homes paints a devastatingly real picture.  And then, in stiff-upper lip fashion,  she would make me laugh...

   'Bunty, who I knew had been practising looking casual, was in the living room, standing with one hand on the mantelpiece while staring into mid-distance.  she looked as if she was modelling a pattern for Vogue.'
I loved my time spent reading Dear Mrs Bird, coincidentally while listening to 1940s swing which is my background music of choice while at home.  Sprinkled with nuggets of social history I enjoyed the mention of knitting patterns, herring pie, paste sandwiches, and wartime rations, and the peripheral characters are fantastically well-drawn.  Also, the author's message of the importance of women being confident and in control of their circumstance was hit home in one of my favourite lines....

'Granny didn't spend half her life chaining herself to railings for today's woman to moon around waiting for some chap to look after her.'

The rights to this story have been sold, so stay tuned for the television program....I can't wait!

27 May 2018

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Oh the joy of a second-hand bookshop, in close proximity to a university, once a term is complete.  And so there we were, a couple of weeks ago, browsing the shelves of BMV Books on Bloor, stuffed with required reading that had been swiftly sold off.  There were at least sixteen copies of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in three different editions creating a visual banner screaming 'Read Me!'.

My impression of this story was formed by the images usually associated with it...a teacher surrounded by her pupils.  I was expecting childhood hijinks admonished by stern words from a Scottish authoritarian who would shape the young ladies into stellar examples of womanhood.  This feeble theory of alchemy couldn't have been more wrong.

   'By the time they were sixteen, and had reached the fourth forn, and loitered beyond the gates after school, and had adapted themselves to the orthodox regime, they remained unmistakably Brodie, and were all famous in the school, which is to say they were held in suspicion and not much liking.'

The Marcia Blaine School for Girls employs Miss Brodie to educate young girls of an impressionable age.  The world is full of mystery to eleven year old children during the 1930s, so they are in thrall to their teacher.  Miss Brodie's tales of romance with a soldier who died in Flanders Fields during the Great War, religion, art and politics (particularly Fascism) are conducted in court-like sessions.  Books are placed at the ready in preparation of a surprise visit by the school's headmistress, Miss MacKay, who would like Miss Brodie to resign in favour of a 'progressive' school.

At the beginning, I felt Miss Brodie's adoration by her pupils was understandable, but as the girls grew into their teen years the situation became more sinister.  Miss Brodie covets the adoration of those who are easily manipulated.  When she slyly plants the idea that one student, being the sort who is 'full of sex', is capable of an affair, my image of Miss Brodie was turned upside down.  In an arrangement that would be something of an affair by proxy, as Miss Brodie considers Mr Lloyd to be the love of her life, Jean Brodie also sets up another young pupil to report back any news surrounding any trysts.

The term 'prime' is applied many times by Miss Brodie and, through imitation, by her pupils.  I can only imagine the meaning intended is that you are at the top of your game, and a dangerous game is being played by Miss Brodie.  But then there comes a fall when Miss Brodie is betrayed.

I have to admit that early in the book I wondered what all the fuss was about.  Why was this seemingly benign story so highly esteemed?  Then the realization that Miss Jean Brodie could be economical with the truth and capable of manipulating those under her care sank in.  I was gripped.  And steering girls in their middle teen years toward sex and collusion is only part of the horror, another student eager to please Miss Brodie joins the conflict of the Spanish Civil War with devastating consequences.   

Muriel Spark has accomplished much in what is barely more than a novella, and left me just a tiny bit unsettled.  Read it!

Poise by John Duncan Fergusson (1874 - 1961)

20 May 2018

The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes

Does anyone else prefer to read about cooking over being an active participant?  I could live on the simple things like scrambled eggs or avocado on toast.  No matter how many times I chide myself for browning the onions before the garlic has been peeled, or even worse, the butternut squash is still in its original form - I never learn.  It's just a job that must be performed while I daydream about something else.  And then there's the cleaning up afterwards.  But I do find that a novel is all the better for a run to the shops, measuring out tea or an aromatic kitchen as the scones bake.  My husband is not allowed to delete the episodes of Nigel Slater's cooking show that I've already watched and when friends visit England I ask for the Waitrose newspaper.

I've never read anything by Julian Barnes before but it's been nice being introduced via his kitchen.  Knowing that his 'junk drawer', as it's called in our house, has contained a couple of spider corpses and a blanched almond makes him seem less intimidating.  And Barnes made me laugh with his frustration over recipes that failed to turn out as promised, reminding me of a cookbook I bought by Tamsin Day-Lewis.  The photo of a chickpea and spinach soup looked just like one I absolutely loved at a cafe in Hampstead.  Following the recipe, it called for a tin of diced tomatoes which turned the whole thing...well, not like the photo!  The soup was delicious but not what I was hoping for.  And then there's laissez-faire measurements....

'...For recipe writers, onion come in only three sizes, 'small'. 'medium', and 'large', whereas onions in your shopping bag vary from the size of a shallot to that of a curling stone.  So an instruction such as 'Take two medium onions' sets off a lot of pedantic scrabbling in the onion basket for bulbs that fit the description (obviously, since medium is a comparative term, you have to compare across the while spectrum of onions you possess).'

Thus explaining why Barnes refers to himself as The Pedant in the Kitchen.  Some of his actions may seem slightly pedantic, but in many instances he makes a very valid point.  Does anyone really need Vichy water when cooking carrots?  I laughed at the image conjured up while reading that he yells out 'someone is lying!' when a completed recipe is achingly disappointing and suggesting a Depression Probability rating should be included.

I laughed out loud several times while reading this book, and enjoyed anecdotes about the writing of other chefs and cooks. 

'Not that Jane Grigson was a food luvvie - her views were always very clar, never soggy.  She knew what she didn't like and what didn't work.  Wild cabbage is 'very nasty indeed'; most Englsih turnips are only 'suitable for the over-wintering of herds, school-children, prisoners, and lodgers'.

You'll thank me for leaving out the details for skinning eels, or what Barnes imagines Heston Blumenthal would do with a human brain, should one ever be offered up, but the addition of licorice is mentioned.

So if I ever have the chance to meet Barnes in person, the ice breaker will be discussing the state of our junk drawers, and just who is the Canadian who tried to make pesto from dried basil?

Full of witty observations and refreshing honesty when it comes to cooking in the age of Instagram, this is a wonderful book for other 'pedants in the kitchen' or for those of us who just love reading about it.

Grill Mates by Kim Roberti

9 May 2018

Tory Heaven or Thunder on the Right by Marghanita Laski

We in Ontario are having a General Election of our own next month.  At the moment, we're wading through a stream of campaign promises, negative ads, and debate.  The 'promises' and statements usually serve to raise my blood pressure because I've heard it all before...elect us and your life will be easier.  One of my first experiences with voting resulted in a feeling of betrayal when auto insurance rates failed to plummet.  I was so naive.  Politically, the cost of auto insurance is the least of our worries these days.  So is this a good time to delve into a book called Tory Heaven?  With Marghanita Laski behind the message, the answer is an emphatic 'YES!'.

It's 1945 and five British citizens have been living meagerly on an island near New Guinea after escaping from Singapore.  Spending several years away from the luxuries of their former lives is a great leveller and everyone gets along.  After hilarious speculation regarding the radio, transmissions become possible and the group hear the news that Britain is now under Conservative rule.

   'Janice said,  "They wouldn't nationalize Claridges, would they?"   No one answered.  Ughtred said, as if to comfort himself, "After all, they may be Socialists, but they're Britishers.  That's what we must cling to - they're Britishers."   "You're pleased, Martin darling, aren't you?"  Penelope asked timidly.   Martin said vehemently, "I'm so delighted I can't begin to express it.  Do any of you realize what this means?  Government of the intellectuals, by the intellectuals, for the intellectuals!  That this should have come in my lifetime!  God, I'd like to be there to see it."'

Finally, salvation arrives when a naval ship rescues the stranded islanders.  Sailing for home, the five friends contemplate life in a Socialist Britain.  Ughtred expresses his revulsion for hand-woven fabrics and communal meals.  But when the ship docks and its passengers are processed, there is confusion when the group is separated and sent to different areas.

   'One of the shore officials came hustling along the third-class deck.  "Any Grade A's here?"  he was shouting.  "Any Grade A's?'   He stopped and looked at James.  "You're a Grade A, aren't you?" he asked briskly.  "Got your disc?"   James said, "I don't understand.  Is this all something new?"   "Ah," said the official.  "Easy to see you've not been home lately.  Never mind  I'll get you fixed up.  Public-school man?"'

And so it begins.  Everyone is graded by family lineage, wealth, education and other factors.  The government even dictates the accepted form of socialization within the grades, as in A restaurants, B pubs, and D housekeepers for A families.  For James, being bestowed with a Grade A status means being presented with a bag of gold coins, access to the best tailors and five-star hotels; there's even a woman in his bed to increase his level of comfort.  Everything is possible and accessible.

Following James as he lives the sort of life he believes he was born for was very entertaining and made me laugh out loud several times.  When asked about his choice of occupation there is no hesitation in James's reply...'Man-About-Town'.  As ridiculously snobby as that sounds, he is the Tory's dream man.  According to the people in charge, achieving the ultimate status of doing as you please is an example for everyone - it sets you apart.  But, in a classic example of 'careful what you wish for' James begins to realize that there is a price to pay for an easy life and when choice is removed,  he is left feeling desperate.  For one female character, her D status has left her desperate from the beginning.

Anyone who reads Tory Heaven will be in awe of the astuteness with which Laski writes of the perils of what is, at its root, a dictatorship.  What makes this story even more astounding is that Laski was of the Jewish faith and would have had knowledge of the atrocities in Germany.  To pen this story shortly after WWII, with a sentiment of charm and humour, while at the same time sending a very forceful message that no one is better than anyone else is to Laski's credit.

Tory Heaven is an excellent read.  Extraordinarily, both sombre and fun, this is a story that will stay with you and provoke no small amount of thought reflection about the many ways people are still being 'graded' today.

Reissued by Persephone Books (2018).