18 May 2020

Rocks and Roses....


Only three hundred more pages until I finish The Mirror and the Light.  Jumping in at book three of this trilogy hasn't been a problem at all.  Come to think of it, I missed the first sixty years of The Archers and was able to sort out everyone in no time at all.  In any case, Mantel's book is both compelling and cosy; perfect reading for a frustratingly chilly and very wet Spring.

Painting rocks has been a popular way to pass the time during lockdown so I made one that was appropriately themed.  It works fabulously well as a paperweight while reading during a breezy afternoon on the patio.  When it isn't raining, of course.

2 May 2020

Brief Lives by Anita Brookner

There are a few folded up notes tucked into a pocket in my purse.  One note lists general titles to be on the lookout for, the second note lists my collection of works by Virginia Woolf, and the third (just a scrap of paper really) has a few titles by Anita Brookner that come highly recommended.  Just before stores started to close during this pandemic I found a $2 copy of this book in a thrift shop.  It was at the top of my list....result!  

While reading the obituaries in The Times Fay Langdon discovers that someone from her past has died.  To use the term 'friend' would be overstating things; complicated would be nearer the mark.  To paint a picture of Julia, a former actress......

'That element of condescension in her performances commanded respect, but not in every quarter:  when she tried to entertain women in factories in the war years her manner was found to be too snobbish for popular taste.  She looked anachronistic in her long dresses, with the chiffon handkerchief tied to the little finger of her left hand:  this was an affectation of hers, but it did not go down well when the fashion was for sausage curls shoved under a turban and overalls that tied round the waist.'

Fay and Julia are worlds apart in personality but meet socially because their husbands are connected by their workplace, a law firm.  Fay has always felt as though she was on the outside looking in.  She  can't quite believe that Owen, rich and popular, would find her attractive much less a partner for life.  Julia, on the other hand, has always thought highly of herself and anyone who comes near is fair game for servant duty.  Her demands are usually proposed in a non-offensive manner and begin with 'you might'....as in 'you might make me a cup of tea'. 

At the beginning of the story, Fay is worried about her aging mother.  She notes the neglected state of the modest home she grew up in and her mother's dwindling appetite.  Fay avoids showing her husband the modest surroundings she grew up in but rather than expressing a level of embarrassment, she portrays it as shielding Owen from a displeasure.  Neither situation is very endearing.  

Told in a first person narrative I was slightly suspicious of Fay's version of things....could Julia be THAT demanding, were Julia's stable of caregivers as sycophantic as they seemed, why was Fay so frustratingly complacent about her life?  At first I felt somewhat sorry for Fay.  But then my patience wore thin....

'What I loved and prized was the steadiness of a man's affection, his indulgence, his company.  I had known this in childhood, and even during my brief career, when the boys in the band had looked after me as if I were their little sister.  In adult life, unfortunately, this affection had been fitful, limited, doled out in unpredictable instalments.  Even so it struck me as the greater prize, greater by far than the intimacy of women.'

Oh Fay, we could not be friends.  Once widowed, Fay slowly begins to distance herself from Julia, and I can understand why....Julia is selfish and demanding with a sprinkling of manipulation.  After selling the marital home, Fay buys a beautiful flat in South Kensington, has it refurbished and buys all new furnishings.  Financially independent with a whole world to discover I thought Fay would finally strike out on an adventure, but what does she do?  She watches children play from her window....the children she never had, she imagines husbands coming home from work to enjoy dinner with their wives.  Fay enters into an affair but it's with a married man.  When she realizes that she'll never be the most important woman in his life, Fay sees him as an 'opportunist' rather than a lover.  

Towards the end of the story, Fay tells herself that she never looks back.  There are far too many pages of retrospection for that to be true, and she's done very little to forge a new path.  At only sixty, our narrator has labelled herself as elderly and taking quite a bath in self-pity.

Anita Brookner wrote with an extremely comprehensive talent for examining the human psyche.  There's sentence after sentence of absolutely brilliant insight into the world of an aging woman, but the moments of cutting wit that I love most about Brookner's writing were barely to be found.  At the end of the day, Brief Lives is incredibly well-crafted but the characters drove me batty.  They say you should never judge someone unless you've walked a mile in their shoes, but I can say with confidence that if I reread this book in my sixties I'll still want to give Fay a shake and suggest a zumba class.

Girl by a Window - Henri Matisse (1921)

20 April 2020

One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens

Margaret E. from Sauchie, Alloa in Scotland, your copy of this book has ended up at my house.  Isn't it interesting when a book from a second-hand shop reveals a clue about its previous owner?  Margaret also included her street address so within a minute I was looking at her one-time home at the end of a row, across the pond.  Originally published in 1942, my copy is a charming Mermaid edition issued in 1953; WWII was safely in the past.

During this time of a global pandemic, the attention on frontline health workers and the heavy responsibility they bear will be one of the most important stories of my lifetime.  With medical staff being the heroes of today, it made perfect sense to blow the dust off of One Pair of Feet, Dickens' memoir of her time working as a nurse during WWII.  I have no idea how long this book has been languishing on my shelves but it certainly made for a perfect read last week.

   'The Suffragettes could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had seen this coming.  Men's jobs were open to women and trousers were selling like hot cakes in Kensington High Street.' 

After reasoning why other areas of service wouldn't be quite right (how one would look in the assigned uniform was mentioned) Dickens saw Madeleine Carroll in Vigil in the Night and was sold on nursing.  After sending out letters to several hospitals it was decided that she would start training at Queen Adelaide Hospital in Redwood, fifty miles north of London.  Monica Dickens was in her mid-twenties.

It would have been easy to launch into sterile observations about the clinical nature of Dickens' surroundings; the reader can be thankful she didn't.  But first things first....after arrival she describes the crockery and breakfast....strong tea, a brittle bit of bacon with the rind on, and as much bread and margarine as you could eat'.  There's enough mention of blancmange and Bovril to satisfy anyone's culinary curiousity but as the weeks go by, dire situations replace any notion of a nursery setting.  There are frighteningly serious doctors barking orders during surgery, a woman brought back to life who was all but left for dead, men seriously burned in a workplace accident and a ward maid with an addiction to pharmaceuticals.  On the other hand, I was astounded that beds were spared for an aristocratic hypochondriac, a group of homeless men who unpacked their bric-a-brac to decorate their shelves, and pregnant women admitted to hospital two days before their due date. 

As German bombs rained down on London, overloading the more central hospitals, the relatively healthy patients at Queen Adelaide were moved on.  Just as a note, if you're looking for a memoir full of the Blitz you won't find it here.  Yes there's a friendly Wing Commander, the anticipation of meeting soldiers at dances, a nurse pressured into accepting a marriage proposal before her boyfriend is posted elsewhere, and inner-turmoil over treating two German prisoners.    But this is primarily a memoir about Dickens' year as a nurse trainee.  And while she was more than capable, it's apparent the task at hand was an occupation rather than a calling.  Reading her biography, this is a woman who thrived on experiences....

   'When the sun was shining I always had a passing desire to throw up nursing and be a Land Girl and had to deliberately remind myself of pigswill and dirty chicken houses and sleeping in a loft with nine other girls in bottle green jumpers and shapeless breeches.'

One Pair of Feet is highly recommended for anyone looking for a cosy read with some very interesting social history, cutting wit, and insight into nursing from another era.  Gone are the days when nurses would give a patient a massage or brush their hair, much less whip up a package of blancmange before lights out.  Perhaps as a trainee, Dickens was spared much of the grittier aspects of nursing that went on during wartime, but her time was also well spent in collecting material for a very entertaining memoir.  Highly recommended!

8 April 2020

Reading During a Pandemic

Well this isn't going as well as I imagined it would.  Days and weeks without routine, doing as I pleased without watching the clock, reading sessions that would last for hours and hours.

A much slower pace and more time at home resulted in noticing the fridge had developed a bit of a  groan.  But shopping for a new appliance during a pandemic wasn't the slightest bit fun, nor should it be.  Line up, state your business, wait for your escort to the appropriate section of the store, and don't hang about.  Everything was wiped down as soon as we moved along, and for good reason, but it's behaviour so far removed from what we're used to.  We had three trips like that before choosing and each time we arrived back home was such a relief.  Then delivery day loomed ahead.   We had the choice of free delivery which meant deliverymen leaving said fridge on the curb, or pay a fee and it would be settled into the kitchen.  We chose the latter followed by an intense session of washing down everything and a small amount of finger-crossing, glad it was over.  I only managed to read a handful of pages that week.

During all of last week my plans to sail through the day in dog clothes and sans make-up were scuppered by daily staff meetings via zoom.  People less needy of human contact kept their video off but it was so uplifting to see my work family that the fuss was worth it.  And hasn't the bookshelf porn during interviews and news reports been fun?  A friend of ours has organized a weekly pub quiz through another site but it's missing the charm of passing fingers foods around the table, wet glass rings on our answer sheet and microphone feedback.  Again, nervous energy kept me from enjoying much reading time. 

After a circuit of news on local channels, then the international ones, it's best to take the dog for a walk so we can try to forget the numbers.  When the house feels too small, then the neighbourhood feels too small, we put Kip in the car and go for a drive.  That sort of thing is frowned upon but it's been the best day-brightener there is.  I sewed a mask and hodge-podged a pretty painting of a rugosa rose onto a beach rock.  A friend asked if I had any mystery novels she could borrow so we scoured the shelves and dropped off a bag on her porch along with the rock.  She swiftly followed up with a phone call, thrilled with the books but extra pleased about the rock!

When coronavirus sent us home from work I chose a very cosy E H Young novel as my comfort read.  But it couldn't keep my thoughts from going to the 'what ifs' or 'what next'.  I daydreamed through chapter after chapter, eventually there was no point in bothering.  A few days ago I picked up The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff and found it a better fit - and it was short.  The author's enthusiasm for each new day of her first trip to London reminded me of my first trip there....and every return visit, for that matter.  She writes excitedly about Russell Square, Lincoln's Inn, the National Gallery, Charlotte Street restaurants, Chelsea and Regent's Park.  In her bold American manner, the comparisons of how things are done differently in England made me laugh more than a few times.  And when I read that receiving a cheque from Reader's Digest for £50 allowed her to buy a designer purse from Harrod's and a dress from Harvey Nichols, I sighed.  Oh to visit London now with pricing from the 70s.

My estimated return date at the library isn't until the beginning of July.  At some point, strangely, more and more of this current state of drifting will become normal.  Until that happens I don't think I'll be sinking into a book in quite the same way but hopefully it's not far off. 

Melissa Scott Miller 'Bloomsbury Square'