22 December 2013

Beautiful and Scary

We are in the midst of an ice storm here in Burlington, as is much of the surrounding Greater Toronto Area spreading right out towards the eastern provinces.  Pictured above is my cherished Korean Lilac which has me steadily wearing a path to the front door for checking on it.  I should probably be more concerned about the English Oak that stands taller than the house and is close enough to do some damage should it fall.

Male pride and testosterone made sure my husband left the house for work this morning despite warnings from the constabulary to stay off of the roads.  Heaven forbid another colleague snort that his commute was twice as far but he still made it in.  I like to tease that as long as my husband's insurance policy is paid up he can do what he likes but wouldn't that be an awful set of parting words should the worse happen?

Putting the kettle on and settling onto the sofa with my electric blanket I thought about the atmospheric day ahead.  There was something reassuring about being housebound during a time of year when rushing about is the order of the day.  Then a few beeps and flickers happened all at once and The Heiress and I stood staring at each other with only the sound of freezing rain and birds chirping at the feeder in the background.  I'm not sure whether it was more ridiculous or frightening that my first thought was to grab the laptop and settle in.  No electricity...no wifi....no laptop; ugh.  My next truly frightening thought was that my electric blanket (so lovely for melting into while blissfully reading in a lazy stupor) was to remain stone cold.  I will adapt, I will adapt, I will, I will....

Thank heavens I've gone to bed over the past four nights watching episodes of Tudor Monastery Farm on my iPod.  Creating a roaring blaze in the fireplace is usually a task my husband claims as his own but thanks to Ruth Goodman and her flint I was more than educated.  Ever resourceful, I poured some tea into my second-best teapot and placed it inside the mouth of the fireplace, cuddled up to the grill full of fiery logs.  Then a phone call was placed to my elderly neighbours inviting them over should they feel the chill but their son was on his way to collect them.

With the ottoman pulled up close to the heat of the fire I read the last few pages of Jambusters by Julie Summers about the Women's Institute and began an Elizabeth Bowen book.  The thought that Armageddon couldn't be far behind a day without a hot pot of tea, hot buttered toast, and a useless electric blanket made me realize how ridiculous it is to eke out my favourite author's books.  Funnily enough, the thought of my laundry day turning into a big dud didn't worry me in the slightest!

Just when I was feeling like a comrade-in-arms with those ladies from the WI during World War II, ready to haul water and prepare dinner in a haybox, the stove beeped, the lamp came on and my electric blanket's red light shone like a beacon.  The Heiress called while out on a walk.  A woman down the street is on the verge of tears as a tree from her front lawn is blocking the road and all around is the sound of sirens, most likely rushing to car accidents.  Today is both beautiful and scary.

1 December 2013

The Boat by L. P. Hartley

'...the party at the Rectory would initiate Timothy into exactly the kind of social life he liked - the society of rather staid, elderly people of set manners and habits, who kept engagements and to whom he would appear almost young...'

The outbreak of World War II has brought forty-nine year old Timothy Casson back to England from his beloved Venice.  Thankfully his livelihood as a journalist writing stories about Britain for The Broadside can only be enhanced by his change of address.  Upton-On-Swirrel, within viewing distance of the Welsh hills, offers the attraction of a river running through the village; just the thing for a keen oarsman with a boat.  Locking into a five-year lease at the Old Rectory, Timothy's next challenge is dealing with the hired help, Beatrice and Effie, who seem to regularly grumble and complain and when not doing that they weep into their aprons.  Frankly, it would seem that the servants just about forget that they are the employees and not the other way around.  Their antics are far from frustrating though and had me smiling almost every time a situation wasn't to their liking.  Mr Wimbush is the perpetually filthy gardener but also the closest thing to a sounding board, or friend, Timothy has at the moment.

As you would expect from a book over four hundred and fifty pages there are plenty of sub-stories to enjoy.  Except for the fleeting appearance of two young evacuees and the occasional visit from the local air raid patrol about a crack in the black-out curtains you would barely know a war was being waged.  The attraction with this book has little to do with plot but everything to do with characterization and relationships, something Hartley pulls off with stellar success.  I'm not sure how much of Timothy Casson is Hartley himself (issues with servants certainly plagued him) but there is barely a sentiment left unexplored.   From his feelings of vulnerability as a new arrival in the village or lonely bachelor seeking the attention of the beautiful Miss Cross...or more apt 'Miss Double-Cross' I felt sympathy for Timothy's plight.  And he had it bad for that minxstress...

'The lilt of her voice traced a pattern on the air; it stopped like a painter's pencil in midstroke, leaving her innocent, almost babyish face softened by a sweetness strangely at variance with her words.  The power of her beauty stole over Timothy bringing a delicious quickening of every sense; and at the same time the intimate moral comfort of having found an ally warmed those places in his heart in which love grows and courage springs...'

I loved the way the writing brimmed with richness.  It felt as though Hartley had all the time in the world to write this book and I took my time reading it.  Unlike some other chunky novels that have you itching to move on after three hundred pages, The Boat is like sinking into a nice hot bath.  I even went back and read over again the first fifty pages which initially failed to grab hold.  Perhaps it was the swift appearance of letters from Timothy's somewhat eccentric and politcally-minded friends, Tyrone and Magda, that threw me before I had a grasp on just who everyone was.

This paragraph is just me being a bit self-indulgent but the Rector's wife, Mrs Purbright, and her relationship with Timothy was such an intriguing one.  A favourite passage in the book has the Rector commenting on his wife's appearance and I simply want to have it handy to enjoy once again...

'He saw the pearls, the rings, the bracelets, and the brooches, the lavender silk dress with its lilac fringes - all the concrete reminders, which she so seldom wore, that the money had been Mrs. Purbright's.  She wore them so seldom that they did not seem to belong to her, yet they made their effect, in the dim light she glimmered like a stained-glass window.'

So where does the boat come into it all?  Senior members of the village who were willing to sacrifice life and limb during World War I steadfastly hang on to the belief that their river is solely for the occupation of fishing.  The risk that a pleasure craft may scare off a food source or source of entertainment is not to be trifled with.  Raising the ire of those you seek to become friendly with would hardly be a wise move.  But should the belief system of one section of a community override another?  On a much larger scale isn't that how Hitler came to have such a frightening grasp over a nation?  There were many, many times when I felt L. P. Hartley was exercising metaphor in certain situations and wished that Harriett Gilbert from her BBC 4 Open Book podcast could stop by and chat it all out with me.  Anyway, Timothy Casson comes to a conclusion about the whole situation towards the end of the book but with disastrous result.

The Boat is an excellent novel for those who enjoy village settings and interesting characters.  The added attraction of a bit of 'upstairs/downstairs' will surely be the icing on the cake.  This is the third novel I've read by this author and each one has left its mark.  The Hireling is my favourite but The Boat is certainly hot on its heels.

12 November 2013

Launching 'The Boat'

This book is a perfect case for disregarding the fifty page rule.  I tend to be a very visual reader so if early on there is no concrete image of a setting or characters and all that is before me is paper and ink, my mind will drift.  Thank goodness I hung in there for at page fifty-eight my love affair with L. P. Hartley's The Boat began.

The interaction between the ladies downstairs, Beatrice and Effie, and their employer is hilarious.  Offering up their resignation at every turn of a situation that fails to suit them speaks to the affable nature of Timothy Casson.  A newcomer to the village, the servants really are his only companions for the time being but the beautiful Miss Cross, staying at The Nook, could change all that.  Their first meeting led to instant fireworks but no sooner did they share a kiss then she was off to parts unknown.  I can't wait for her to get back!  World War II is in its early stages and so far seems a thousand miles away but the arrival of evacuees brings the war effort to the Old Rectory.  Will two little boys running around the place throw the house and staff into chaos...

'The evacuees duly arrived, two little boys ages five and seven, and were warmly welcomed not only by Timothy but by Beatrice and Effie.  They were shy and tongue-tied and almost paralysed in Timothy's presence, but as soon as his back was turned they broke into violent movement, kicking up their heels like colts and shouting at each other in strong Midland accents that caused some amusement to Beatrice and Effie.  Questions arose about where they were to go and what parts of the house should be out of bounds to them; Timothy took them for a sight-seeing tour from room to room; they gazed wide-eyed but without seeming to take in what they saw, or kept each other's spirits up with nudges and whispered confidences when he was looking the other way.  At the beginning he determined to see them every day after tea...'

The boat may have more to do with symbolism than anything else because at page one hundred and sixty it hasn't been out of the boathouse.  A group of ex-servicemen from The Great War cherish their fishing rights and won't have the river disturbed while there are other pro-boat members egging Casson on to just go for it and stand up to the old set.  At only one-third of the way through this charming story about village society and fitting in I expect anything to happen but wanted to share my thoughts thus far.

6 November 2013

A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge

The number of times I have stood before a bookcase, eyeing up the shelves, pull a book only to change my mind...oh, such fuss.  So when I recently decided to give Beryl Bainbridge a try and the bookshop was closing in less than fifteen minutes it came down to 'grab or miss out'.  If I'm being honest it was the egg and chips on the cover that drew me in.  Well, the immediate correlation would be a cosy domestic scene but in the case of this story, I am surprised the egg and chips are not exhibited sliding down a kitchen wall instead of on a plate.

The book begins a few years after World War II at the Lyceum café.  Alan orders a pot of tea and waits for his sister, Madge, to arrive.  In his pocket is their mother's engagement ring which tradition usually dictates goes to a daughter upon death.  It has been fifteen years since the siblings have been in each others company and in that time very little has changed.  Madge arrives late and dishevelled; more interested in the cakes and scones than discussing jewellry or sentiments.

'...she had sent that distasteful letter written on this toilet paper, from some town in France, suggesting that if they were going to put Mother in the same grave as Father it might be a waste of time to carve 'Rest in Peace' on the tombstone.'

The story then drifts back in time to when Alan is seventeen, standing in the middle of the whirlwind that is his home life.  And if that's not bad enough, yet another irritating boil has arisen on his neck, right at his shirt collar.  There was a time when his father provided extremely well but lately Alan is not quite sure what his father does for a living but it has involved everything from '...paint, cloth and timber' and involves many phone calls followed by greedy smiles and hand-rubbing.  Alan's mother dresses beautifully and cares very much about appearances.  She never once misses the opportunity to correct her husband when he refers to the garden as a 'yard' or the lounge as a 'back room'.  Husband and wife choreograph their movements through the house to avoid each other as much as possible which means Alan is very much an intermediary for their conversation.  Madge is a bit of a street rat, roaming the woods and dunes in her bare feet, hair blowing in the wind.  Much of that time in the great outdoors is spent in the arms of a German POW.

The family dynamics in this book very much mirror what life was like for Bainbridge at home surrounded by dysfunction and yes, she also had a lengthy affair with a German POW.  A Quiet Life is delightfully full of the chaos and melodrama which makes for entertaining stories years down the road, such as when Alan's father has had enough of the excess of old chairs in the house.  Grabbing some newsprint and a package of matches he heads for the garden...

'Father spat with anger.  His cheeks wobbled as he tried to find words.  Something fell from him and landed in the fire.  Sparks eddied upwards into the trees.  He clutched his mouth and Mother turned away in disgust.  Alan knelt and groped in the warm ashes for the dentures.  As Mother ran back up the garden she began to laugh.'

In the early stages of this book I felt more than a bit sorry for Alan.  Ever hype-alert to any foreseeable conflict within the house the poor thing turns up the volume on the radio when his father approaches the front walk to drown out any arguing which may ensue.  Further into the story though it becomes apparent that the traits he so disliked in his father have come home to roost in his own critical nature and penny-pinching ways.  It is also interesting to note that while this book is quite autobiographical, the main character is Alan and not his wayward sister, Madge.  Being able to poke fun at the neuroses of certain family members from a distance and come out looking like the one who had it right (or at least almost) all along was rather clever, if you ask me.  A delightful tragi/comedy and excellent introduction to the world of Beryl Bainbridge.

28 October 2013

Two Books and One Stingray

 I began a period of mourning (and moaning) last April when my favourite bookshop closed.  Nicholas Hoare was a bit of bookish nirvana with its cosy interior and shelves full of books hot off the press from all over Britain (the sort I love best!).  No trip to Toronto since that sad day has felt quite the same.  Until recently.

My husband and I had booked a week off from work to get some things done around the house.  With most of our domestic duties checked off of the list we decided to visit the new aquarium in town.  The admission is rather pricey but compared to a round-trip transatlantic excursion...well, that sort of thinking can justify all sorts of trouble, can't it.  The aquarium is located near the base of the CN Tower and near the train station so we left the car at home and felt righteous as we whizzed past everyone stuck in commuter hell.

Straight away our senses were hit with fantastic colour, mesmerizing music, and thousands of small fish reflecting the light streaming into their massive tank.  Once further along, the dim lighting assures your gaze will head straight for the next tank full of exotic marine life and man-made coral.  At one point we were in a tunnel with fish swimming all around us; a slow moving conveyor makes it easy to simply stand there in amazement and gawk.  It took us over three hours to soak in the sights of everything from jellyfish to sharks to stingrays...

...and getting the chance to pet one was too good to pass up (oh yes, that's me!).  Their skin starts off a bit rough and bumpy and then toward the end they get sort of velvety.  The one above took great pleasure in flicking its pectoral fin as a fine 'how do you do', spraying me with water as it glided towards deeper water.  If you are ever heading to Toronto I can highly recommend putting this place on your itinerary and we will definitely be going back!

After a late lunch at a pub we browsed for a bit at Chapters, a chain bookshop.  Always lovely but so frustrating with endless shelves full of mainstream contemporary fiction.  The October edition of the BBC History magazine looked excellent with less than usual articles on medieval warfare and politics so I bought a copy for the train ride home.  The thirty percent chance of rain turned out to be one hundred and the skies darkened to black as we made our way back to Union Station.  Without an umbrella we were resigned to a soaking but then we passed a shop full of warm lighting, gorgeous shelves...and books!  Books hot off of the press from Britain!  The rain no longer mattered, my damp sweater barely registered.

With fifteen minutes until closing time all that I could manage was a quick whip around but it was enough to know that this is my new 'happy place'.  I made a vow to the bookstore gods that from this day forward I would not leave Ben McNally Books without having purchased at least two books to do my bit to help it stay in business (see top photo - putting my money where my mouth is).

And another thing.  I am thoroughly enjoying The Readers podcast featuring Simon Savidge and as of late, our friend, Thomas, from My Porch.  My iPod comes to bed with me for those times when I wake up in the middle of the night and can't fall back to sleep for all of the useless wondering that goes on in my head.  It's so much more entertaining to listen to Thomas, or Gavin, and Simon talk about books.  Simon's enthusiasm for Kate Atkinson's Life After Life intrigued me enough to sign it out from the library and I loved it!  The only trouble is that I gave up taking notes with the plentiful vignettes that are Ursula's life and have no idea where to begin sharing my thoughts on the story.  The only thing I can offer is to sit back and enjoy the sheer brilliance of a book in which you will have absolutely no idea what happens next!

So there it is.  Apologies for copping out on a review but I must now get straight on to another library book before my due date lapses and then it's on to my Beryl Bainbridge book.  Another new author for me thanks to a mention from Simon S!  Has anyone read it...or her?

21 October 2013

A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair

It was a sunny day in May of 2009 when I first crossed the threshold of Persephone Books on Lamb's Conduit Street in London.  I held a list of eight titles, perhaps more, and A House in the Country was one of them.  That list had been well thought out, reviews were scoured; four stars at least before my hard-earned money would be plunked down on the counter.  For the life of me though I simply can not remember any knowledge of this book being set in a country house during World War II because surely if I had it would not have sat on a shelf for four years.  There is a 'but' coming...

If Jocelyn Playfair had wanted to write a cosy kitchen drama I don't think she would have opened the story with an enemy attack on a ship.  Within a page and a half all that remains on the horizon is a lifeboat containing two bodies.  Charles Valery has been badly burned but is alive while his fellow soldier, Harcourt, hasn't fared as well.  For the next two weeks, Charles contemplates an incident from his past, the war, why the human race goes to battle in the first place, and last but not least...love.

'Men would fight for all kinds of reasons, good and bad.  They would fight with magnificent courage and selfless heroism.  But it would be interesting to know how many men, in any given battle, were there because the others were there, because it was easier to move with a mass than to think for oneself, because it was better to do what everyone else did, rather than make oneself noticeable'

Let's leave Charles to drift on the open seas; he'll be there awhile.  Brede Manor is a lovely country house and Cressida Chance has been given the responsibility of seeing to the running of things.  Highly independent and practical, she takes in lodgers as a means of income but also to satisfy her socialist side.  Everyone is welcome whether they be European, English, single, married, with family or without...and despite Aunt Jessie's snobbery for etiquette...everyone is to eat in the kitchen.  Cressida has worked it out and the relaxed dining saves eight hundred and thirty-five hours of work a year.  Much to her Aunt's dismay, Cressida even does the cooking but she is steadfast in her loyalty.

'Has she always let rooms?' the young woman, as Miss Ambleside had begun angrily to classify her, went on undaunted.  
'My niece,'she said sternly, 'does not let rooms.  She is kind enough to allow people to stay in her house because the war has filled the country with people who have nowhere to live.'

Felicity Brent has recently become engaged and is inspecting the rooms her future husband has chosen to be their first home.  Can you say 'uppity glamour-puss'?  I could have read a whole novel featuring verbal spars and telling glances between Felicity and the other residents.  In fact, if you ask me there was a missed opportunity to shed more light on the camaraderie, or lack of it, between all of the guests but oh well.

Another interesting resident is Tori, a European refugee who spends hours in his room writing a book.  When he's not writing he favours rooting around the kitchen for any sign of something about to come out of the oven.  Cressida and Tori enjoy philosophical banter but quite a lot of the time he is concurrently admiring her modern ways, independence, and the way the light catches on her hair.  Well, she makes a nice change from the likes of Felicity with her constant pampering and catty comments!  There is another 'but' coming...

I feel awful about reacting a bit negatively about the philosophical bits.  Charles is armed with loads of it; on the one hand he has nothing to do but think while he's drifting in a dinghy, waiting to be found.  On the other hand, the reader learns next to nothing about how he managed to survive for fourteen days with almost nothing in the way of nourishment.  I wanted a bit of a tale about catching fish with his bare hands or raw skin from the salty air.  Then there is Cressida, one gaze at her rows of cabbage and she would start in...one bit in particular left me gobsmacked...

'Beyond a kind of mass-produced anger with the enemy, the average person in England was probably almost without a vindictive thought.  The famous British character was, in fact, strangely lacking in the capacity for hatred.'  ....'If a census of emotion could be taken in the two countries it would certainly be found that the Germans hated the British far more fiercely than the other way about.'

These sorts of philosophical passages stripped away the characters for me and became more about a delivery straight from the pages of Jocelyn Playfair's memoirs.  I know, I know, authors do that sort of thing all the time but in this case, while important, the lengthy duration did detract a bit from the story here and there.  Don't let that nugget of negativity put you off of an excellent read though.  A House in the Country is one of those finite stories written during the war when its outcome was uncertain; the insight into daily life and thoughts of those far from home are so valuable.  Yet another gem from Persephone Books.

        Runway Perspective by Eric Ravilious

4 October 2013

Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron

Browsing in one of my favourite second-hand bookshops a few weeks ago I had a sense of 'seen it all before'.  Nothing was popping out at me and as all bibliophiles know - it is a sad day indeed to go home empty-handed.  Clearing any preconceived notions of what reels me in I began to look at books published later than 1960.  An immaculate little hardcover with a retro-looking bit of cover art caught my eye...this could work.  Did it ever.

Straight off the top, if your bookshelves feature loads of Persephone and Virago titles then you will thoroughly enjoy sinking into this story.  It came as no surprise then that once I had finished reading the book and researched the author I discovered that he enjoys Elizabeth Taylor's work as well as some of her contemporaries.  Set during the 1950s, the atmosphere is cosy with a dollop of mystery and every now and then I thought 'What the hell is going on in her head?!' - in that good sort of way that makes you eager to finding out what could possibly happen next.

'Coral Glynn was the third nurse to arrive in as many months; it was unclear what, exactly, had driven her predecessors away, although there was much conjecture on the subject in the town.  First it was supposed that the Major was perhaps a Lothario, and had made disreputable advances, although he had never acted that way before--in fact, he had always seemed to hold himself above romance of any kind.'

So picture a large home situated near a forest in Leicestershire with an elderly woman lying in bed and on a rapid decline.  As a nurse delivering palliative care, Coral will be on to next assignment once her patient dies.  Major Hart, who has been disfigured during the war, finds intimacy difficult so what could be easier than to offer marriage to a woman he barely knows but is already familiar with the house and his ways?  For Coral, who travels from one home to the next without the constant of her own address, this is a proposal to mull over.  But there is something in Coral's past (well, perhaps two things) which could massively impact the situation.  I did tell you there was some mystery here!

Major Hart has a close friendship with Robin and Dolly Lofting.  The gentlemen meet every Thursday evening for a drink at The Black Swan as they live only a few streets away, the Loftings in a rented seaside cottage.  The location may be a pub but the discussion between the men makes it feel more like a gentlemen's club in Mayfair.  I can only imagine Mrs Lofting would be desperate to bring another female into the mix to even things up and feel a little less as though she is on the outside looking in.

'Nonsense.  The two of us will go on meeting here, and I'll drag you up to London on occasion.  You may become quite a gay roué, in fact.  And Dolly and I will have you over, and Dolly will invite all her buck-toothed, pigeon-toed unmarried friends, and see to it that you marry one of them.  She wants you to be married even more than I.'

Now sometimes I take loads of notes because a book is chock full of wonderful description and superb prose.  Sometimes I barely take any notes because a book is THAT fantastic and putting it down to pick up my pen would be too irritating.  Coral Glynn is the latter.  The succinct manner and clean structure of the writing here is brilliant; don't let the slimline appearance of this book fool you - there are twists and turns enough to have you gasping out loud.  Hence, you are not going to get another word from me on the synopsis because that would simply ruin things for you.  I have already pulled a copy of this wonderful book from the shelves at my library and deposited it on the desk of a colleague.  Subtle aren't I.

26 September 2013

The Nether World by George Gissing

This novel, while not the best place to begin your foray into Gissing, has to be one of the most deliciously bleak reading experiences of Victorian England I have experienced.  The surroundings near Clerkenwell Green were as familiar to the author as its bone-weary factory workers and women worn haggard by serial pregnancies and round-the-clock domestic chores.  In 1896, George Gissing was brought to a dilapidated room in Lambeth to view his wife's body.  He barely recognized Nell after several years of separation, the effects of poverty, and possibly syphilis, reducing her to mere skin and bones.  Within three weeks Gissing was constructing this novel with every sentiment of despair, muddy road, or illegal act to afford food for a family, taking place on his street within eyeshot.

The atmosphere is set early on with a description of the weather and I experienced it myself in Canterbury last year...'This way and that the lights were blurred into a misty radiance'.  Not only is Gissing socially aware but my goodness he has a way with description.  I digress.

Jane Snowden is eleven years-old when her mother dies, her father is off in parts unknown leaving her as good as orphaned.  The vile Peckworths keep her from the workhouse but abuse her no end and run her ragged.  The poor thing sleeps under the kitchen table; tormented at every turn by Clem, the Peckworths'  daughter.

'What's gone with that sixpence I left on the dresser?'
Jane looked up in terror.  She was worn almost to the last point of endurance by her day and night of labour and agitation.  Her face was bloodless, her eyelids were swollen with the need of sleep.
'Sixpence!  she faltered, 'I'm sure I haven't seen no sixpence, miss.'
'You haven't?  Now, I've caught you at last.  There's been nobody but you.  Little thief!  We'll see about this in the mornin', as' to-night you shall sleep int eh back-kitchen!'
The child gasped for breath.  The terror of sudden death could not have exceeded that which rushed upon her heart when she was told that she must pass her night in the room where lay the coffin.
'An' you shan't have no candle, neither,' proceeded Clem, delighted with the effect she was producing.

One day an elderly man appears in town asking about a young girl by the last name of Snowden.  It turns out to be Jane's grandfather, Michael, and she is liberated from her dire situation.  The old man is loving but keeps a secret close to his vest.  Taking the loyal and kind-hearted, Sidney Kirkwood, to his confidence he eventually confesses his hope of doing some good for the downtrodden in society with an inheritance but the reappearance of Jane's father may throw a spanner into his future plans.

Within yelling distance there are a few central families whose stories intertwine, a sort of Victorian Albert Square, if you will.  One young lady's name made me smile over and over again - Penelope Candy, which was bastardized early on in life to be uttered as 'Pennyloaf'.  Forget any hope of gaiety here though, the poor thing lies next to her new husband on their wedding night in the knowledge that her wedding ring will be pawned the next day.  Another character, Clara Hewitt, struggles for a leading role on stage at the local theatre only to be purposely disfigured by a jealous actress.  Living in the shadows while veiling her face, Clara's future is now even more uncertain.  I learned something about the toll of poverty and the absence of social reform that shocked me a bit from a scene concerning Clara's younger sister.

'Come here, Amy,' she said after a moment's scrutiny.  
'So you will keep doin' tht foolish thing!  Very well, then, I shall have to speak to your father about it; I'm not goin' to see you make yourself ill and do nothing to prevent you.'
Amy, now a girl of eleven, affected much indignation.
'Why, I haven't touched a drop, Mrs Eagles!'
'Now, now, now, now, now!  Why, your lips are shrivelled up like a bit of o' dried orange-peel!  You're a silly girl, that's what you are!'
Of late Amy Hewitt had become the victim of a singular propensity; whenever she could obtain vinegar, she drank it as a toper does spirits.  Inadequate nourishment, and especially an unsatisfied palate, frequently have this result in female children of the poor; it is an anticipation of what will befall then as soon as they find their way to the public-house.'

And that passage shows more clearly than anything what the purpose of this novel was to the author.  He tells it exactly like it is and why it is unacceptable.  There is absolutely no window dressing within these pages and if you're put off by that then fine, but I found this novel to be a stunning piece of work.  It is a Victorian docu/drama that isn't about characters rising from rags to riches but rather that some of them just might achieve a place near the top of their own social status.  It is about the dream within a family that a son should find employment which requires a white paper collar - the ideal symbol of success within this sphere.  Sadly, more often than not the reality is so much less and the author finds it frustrating.

In one of the final pages a character delivers a passionate speech that clearly states Gissing's thoughts on the state of people living within the 'nether world' and those in the upper classes...

'Mustn't all of us who are poor stand together and help one another?  We have to fight against the rich world that's always crushing us down, down -- whether it means to or not.  Those people enjoy their lives.  Well, I shall find my enjoyment in defying them to make me despair!'

This was the third novel I have read by George Gissing, The Odd Women and New Grub Street being the other two, and have immensely enjoyed each one.  Highly recommended!

14 September 2013

A Book Dispenser in Toronto

It was a whopping 6C this morning when I set out to walk Deacon so my scarf and jacket have been dug out from the back of the closet.  The nights have begun to draw in so the atmosphere is perfect for my George Gissing novel The Nether World, which is fabulous by the way!  The teensy, squishy font is a bit of a pain but well worth the eye strain.

The plan for tomorrow is that my husband would like to take in a baseball game in Toronto before the season winds up and would I like to be dropped off to scrounge around some bookshops?  There is one shop in particular that I have been really interested to visit called The Monkey's Paw.  For the small sum of two dollars you can gamble on the unknown and most likely find a dud pop out of the tray but doesn't it look like fun?  Click on the link below to see it in action...

28 August 2013

Love's Civil War edited by Victoria Glendinning

Oh but I feel like a thoroughly wrung-out voyeur!  After weeks of immersing myself in The Love-charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel which then cascaded into this heart-wrenching compilation I have come up for air.  And it is misery.  The drama, the sensuousness, the soul-bearing, the covert liaisons, the repeated use of the endearment 'darling'...a woman could weep, and I did.

How rude of me to assume that everyone knows what I am going on about...Love's Civil War begins in 1941 with diary entries by Charles Ritchie.  The Canadian diplomat neglected to keep letters written to him by Elizabeth Bowen for the first few years of their relationship but a mountain of later correspondence did survive.  When they first met, Charles was unmarried and Elizabeth perfectly satisfied with her companionate marriage to Alan Cameron.

'10 February (London) - Weekend at Oxford.  Motored down with Alistair Buchan and went first to Elsfield to the christening of Bill B's child...Met Elizabeth Bowen, well-dressed middle-aged with the air of being the somewhat worldly wife of a don, narrow intelligent face, watching eyes and a cruel, witty mouth.  I had expected something more Irish, more silent and brooding, and at the same time more irresponsible.  I was slightly put off by her being so much 'on the spot'.  She told me that the early part of 'The House in Paris' , that part about the two children, had 'come to her' without her being conscious on inventing or thinking it out.' 

I have to say that it was difficult to warm up to Charles considering that at times his private thoughts revealed an indifference to Elizabeth while she poured out reams of passion in her letters to him.  He used the term 'witch' to describe her on several occasions, perhaps down to the fact that despite writing out letters of good-bye he was frustrated by his lack of seeing things through.  While in her company he wished to be alone but when an ocean separated them he frequently rang her up and sent gifts.  Packages of hot chocolate and soap were a particular favourite during the time of austerity.

'Alan came back from London on Wednesday, bringing with him the contents of 2 of your beloved parcels, and the soap is; those large curved mauve-pink cakes are completely voluptuous.  And of all the things out of the parcels, the packets of to-drink chocolate most brought a lump to my throat.  From their being the same as the packets you used to have in Grosvenor St.  I thought of the Sunday mornings and times late at night when we used to make cups of chocolate with the electric kettle.'

Which causes me to consider two things.  How very okay Alan was with being a go-between for his wife and her lover and the image of the author I adore above all others swooning over a bar of soap and packet of hot chocolate!  And if that vignette wasn't enough, Elizabeth would place a cake of her much-loved soap into the guestroom for friends but race up the stairs to retrieve it as soon as their car made it out to the road.  Getting back to Alan, he was the inspiration for Thomas Quayne in The Death of the Heart which now makes complete sense if you've read the book.

Elizabeth rarely seemed to stay in one place for very long and her seemingly exhaustive travels were logged beside the date in her letters.  Meetings with publishers, agents and speaking engagements brought her to many of London's hotels, research for A Time in Rome meant frequent trips to Italy.  The family pile in Ireland, Bowen's Court, was a source of concern and a constant drain on her finances so she was extremely glad for the large cheques forwarded by Ritchie.  Elizabeth was called upon several times to speak to alumni or give lectures to fresh-faced students at universities in the United States such as Princeton and Bryn Mawr.  If her trip abroad coincided with Charles being in Washington or Ottawa she would arrange to meet with him or his family.  It's no wonder that many of the scenes in her books originated on the backs of envelopes pulled from her purse while in cabs or lounges as she travelled to and fro.

Fans of writings by Elizabeth's contemporaries will enjoy the name-dropping dotted throughout.  One line in particular made me beam with delight...'Oh my darling...I felt so near you, talking to you from Elizabeth's (Jenkins) little Gothic Hampstead cottage drawing -room on Friday evening.  I have stood at the gate in front of that 'cottage' so you can imagine the fantasy that went through my head...here once stood one of the world's most sublime authors....and me!  Fifty years apart but details, details.

Towards the end of the book the first hints of a cough begin.  Considering that Elizabeth revered smoking and drinking before food it is rather amazing that she lived to experience her seventh decade...but only just.  At this stage I became aware of slowing down my reading to put off the inevitable.  In her obituary, Audrey Fiennes wrote 'Widow of Alan Charles Cameron' under the heading 'Occupation'.  I bristled at the neglect of her life's work and 1973 doesn't seem long enough ago for the excuse that it was a different time.

If I were not completely under the spell of 'that witch', Elizabeth Bowen, before reading this book I am now.  Yes, there were times when I wanted to shout at the ghost that she was ridiculous to be so head-over-heels in love with a man who was a serial womaniser.  She deserved better.  But when the end came and Charles Ritchie was by his own admission 'left rudderless' my opinion of him softened.  The book ends with a diary entry ten months after his lover's death, the last line almost too heartbreaking to bear.  And don't bother segregating that line from the tale of a love affair.  Take the journey.

Elizabeth Bowen

9 August 2013

The Love-charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel

Lara Feigel, wherever you are...thank you one million times over for writing this book!

The past five years of my reading life have pretty much been centered around World War II and twentieth-century authors.  So you can imagine the excitement when I discovered that there was a book, hot off the press at the beginning of the year, blending two of my favourite topics of interest.  The introduction begins with mention of Elizabeth Bowen, The High Priestess of Prose (in my humble opinion), and from there until the last page I was completely swept away by the events.

Feigel drops the reader straight into London with first-hand accounts of endless nights where the sound of bomb blasts, crashing buildings and alarm bells are so vibrant you feel as though you should be wearing a tin helmet just reading about it.  Drawing from the books, writings and letters of Rose Macaulay, Graham Greene, Henry Yorke, Elizabeth Bowen and Hilde Spiel we are given an astoundingly candid peek into their personal lives during a time when people thought they might not live to see morning.

One aspect of war that never fails to astound me is that some people found the Blitz to be a thrilling time and they welcomed the excitement.  Graham Greene and Henry Yorke both carried this sentiment.  Part of the appeal was that their wives were sent out of harms way and seemingly they packed up their sense of commitment and loyalty as well.  Being involved in an affair is a thread which runs through the lives all of the authors featured in this book.  Whether a case of opportunity, companionship or what was de rigueur at the time I can't say but I couldn't help but wonder about the spouses playing third wheel.

The book left me with two heartbreaking images.  Rose Macaulay's building was bombed on 10 May, 1941, she lost her collection of rare books, manuscripts and other necessary possessions.  Her most devastating loss though was the stacks of letters written by her lover, Gerald O'Donovan.  He was terminally ill and would die just over one year later.  Rose scrambled through the ruins searching for remnants, a quest that became something of an obsession for the rest of her life.  Digging through ruins for objects from a life once lived even found its way into her writing, something I recall from my reading of The World My Wilderness.  I also went back and read Macaulay's Miss Anstruther's Letters knowing what had happened and the short story became much more poignant and brought tears to my eyes.  The other heartbreaking image is of Elizabeth Bowen wandering the cavernous Bowen's Court in Ireland after the war, crying out 'Charles, Charles, Charles...'.  Elizabeth and Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat, carried on an affair for over thirty years but their time spent together had long lapses in between and he did marry another woman while in the midst of his relationship with Elizabeth.

Judging by the pages of interesting events I scribbled while reading The Love-charm of Bombs I could go on for days but this is a book you simply must experience for yourself.  It is intelligent, well-written and one of the most fascinating history/ biography/English lessons you will ever pull from a bookshelf, all rolled into one.  Also, be prepared for the list of books you will be inspired to read, written by the authors portrayed here, such as Graham Greene's Ministry of Fear, Henry Green's Caught, Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day and Love's Civil War edited by Victoria Glendinning as well as Rose Macaulay's The World My Wilderness.

Special thanks to Bloomsbury Press for sending along a review copy.  The months and months of waiting for the North American release date were worth it but the anticipation almost killed me!           

4 August 2013

Just Checking In

Well this doorhanger thingy says it all.  They were free for the taking at a bookshop in Fergus and I have been using it!  There are extra shifts to cover at the library while staff take vacation and frankly - the gorgeous weather means we really don't sit in all that much if we can help it.  This means that my reading pace has slowed to an hour at the end of the day if I can keep my eyes open.  I'm within the last forty pages or so of The Love-charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel and will be in deep mourning once it's finished.  It is absolutely the most perfect blending of interests for me and in this case dragging it out has been a good thing.
My long-suffering husband is off doing the grocery shopping while I'm supposed to be getting ready to head out to Toronto.  We're packing up Deacon, our busy border collie, and spending the day wandering the trails of Hyde Park.  Hopefully my two travelling companions can occupy themselves under the shade of a tree long enough for me to pop in for a quick tour of Colborne Lodge.

So a quick wave 'hello' to you - hope you are having a super summer so far and I will be back in a few days with some thoughts on my favourite read of the year thus far.

23 July 2013

The Queen's Book of the Red Cross

 With the temperatures last week in the low 40C region once the humidex was factored in a bunch of us here could have used first-aid to help with our lethargy.  But this Red Cross book isn't a manual - it features writings by a list of authors, some of which appear in your Persephone catalogue.  I found it in a lovely second-hand shop during a visit to the sleepy town of Fergus last weekend.

It was Dorothy Whipple's name in the list of authors that made me sit up and take notice.  As my finger trailed down the page along the list of authors my excitement grew.  Knowing that the Queen Mum counted Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary as one of her favourite stories I had a feeling a chapter would be included, at the very least, and so it was.

This illustration by Dame Laura Knight called 'Hop Pickers' was the cherry on top.  The National Portrait Gallery in London is exhibiting some of her work until mid-October for those lucky enough to be close by.  As I've been completely absorbed this past week in The Love-charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel (which is fantastic!) this compilation in aid of the war effort during World War II is making me very happy indeed.                                  

11 July 2013

London Holiday 0 - Books 4

Here we go with the non-fiction!  It hasn't been a conscious thing but just lately the books coming into the house have been of the packed-with-information sort.  I was so excited to find Juliet Gardiner's The Thirties: An Intimate History at a great price last weekend but bowed to reality once I scanned a few pages.  No doubt the devil that sits on my shoulder sometimes will talk me into it but just not at the moment.  Another lame excuse for my purchases is that if I can't be in London then it will simply come to me, in one form or another.

The Love-charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel - I first spied this on Fleur's blog and knew immediately it was the perfect book for me.  Documenting the experiences of a handful of sublime twentieth-century authors during World War II is to combine two areas of great interest for me.  'When the first bombs fell on London in August 1940, the city was transformed overnight into a battlefront.  For most Londoners, the sirens, guns, planes, and bombs heralded grueling nights of sleeplessness, fear, and loss.  But for Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen, and some of their contemporaries, this was a bizarrely euphoric time when London became the setting for passionate love affairs and surreal beauty.  As the sky whistled and the ground shook, nerves were tested, loyalties were examined, and infidelities begun'.  They had me at Elizabeth Bowen.

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson - Does anyone else have to think twice about who has written what when it comes to Juliet Gardiner, Juliet Nicolson and Virginia Nicholson?  Well I do!  They have all written fabulous non-fiction but do rattle my memory at times.  Anyway, this book has been around for ages but when it showed up on a clearance table for $2 it was apparent that it was a last kick at the can before disappearing.  My husband picked it up proving it's the thought that counts and not the cost as I was thrilled to have it.  'A new King was on the throne and the aristocracy were at play.  Yet as temperatures soared, cracks appeared under the surface with strikes, class divisions and the seeds of war to come.  Through the eyes of a series of exceptional individuals - among them a debutante, a choirboy, a politician, a trade unionist, a butler and the Queen - Juliet Nicolson illuminates a turning point in history'

The Spirit of London by Paul Cohen-Portheim - My husband and I were in Stratford last Sunday for his fiftieth birthday but I came home with the loot bag.  The Book Vault is such a fantastic shop with its combination of new books and inexpensive remainders.  It was the stunning artwork by Brian Cook that first caught my eye but just like The Love-charm of Bombs it is one of those quintessential books for an anglophile such as myself.  ' A fascinating glimpse at pre-war London, the book was written by an Austrian, who lived in London, 'to convey the atmosphere and spirit of London; it is a book about what London stands for and what it means.'  The author ranges from London street life, its parks, its traditions to the city's night life, restaurants and Londoners themselves.'  Apparently there can never be too many books on the history of London on my bookshelf and I stole peeks at this one for most of the car ride home.

Women in England 1760 - 1914: A Social History by Susie Steinbach - Opening up to the Contents page the sections were broken down in sections titled - Working-Class Women, Middle-Class Women, Elite Women, Sexuality, Religion, Education.  I knew it was coming home with me before turning to the next page to discover Imperialism, Domestic Politics and Suffrage.  'In 1760 few women could read.  By 1914 almost all could, most were educated and a few even attended university.  Votes for women were not achieved until after the First World War but the hard work was done before, and from the 1850s the advent of organized feminism had begun to improve women's lives.  Susie Steinbach examines the way things changed - and the ways they did not - in this history of the lives of women in England.'   For some reason it is always the moments when I am heaving the vacuum around, up and down the stairs, that I am reminded of how things have not changed!

There has been lots going on at our house - summer has a way of doing that - and by the end of the day I am lucky to manage three or four pages before the book falls on my face.  I've chosen a light read to plod through due to all of the distraction but once things calm down I will be digging into The Love-charm of Bombs!  Have you read it?

9 July 2013

All Aboard the Train to Ottawa

My husband and I boarded a VIA train last week for a four hour excursion to our nation's capital.  For those who know me well a trip across the pond to another nation's capital would have been my first choice but if you squint a teensy bit...

After a relaxing journey through more forests and fields than one could think possible we arrived at our lovely hotel, The Lord Elgin, smack dab in the middle of downtown Ottawa.  After unpacking the few things that we brought we made our way through the bustling pedestrian walkway to scout out a few shops and restaurants before making our way to Byward Market.  It's all about the food!  

There was something familiar about a bakery called Le Moulin De Provence and we clued in pretty quickly - it was the bakery that President Obama visited while in Ottawa in 2009.  He chose a few 'Canada' cookies for his daughters and hopefully a little something for the First Lady, Michelle.  Despite not being the slightest bit hungry after a late lunch I couldn't resist tucking a blueberry and fig scone into my bag for later on.

A highlight for both of us was exploring the Canadian War Museum and speaking with a ninety year-old veteran for at least half an hour.  The museum is every bit as fascinating as the Imperial War Museum in London and I instantly fell in love with this portrait of Sergeant M. E. Boreham who joined the RCAF in 1941.  She served in Canada before joining the RCAF office in London, England from 1942 until 1945.  Her grandson wrote a touching article about her for Maclean's magazine which you can read here.

Laurier House is another place to visit that comes highly recommended.  Previously home to two of Canada's Prime Ministers, Sir Wilfred Laurier and William Lyon MacKenzie King, its proportions are just short of grand so it feels cosy and oh, the library!  One of the young ladies working as a guide showed us the elevator hidden behind a wood panel.  During a visit by Winston Churchill the guest raced up the stairs while King took the elevator to see whose route was quickest but I can't remember who won.  If you visit the house ask for someone to install a paper roll of music into Lady Laurier's player piano.  It's ever so slightly eerie to see the keys move unaided but fun just the same.

On our third day and with an approaching departure time looming my husband and I parted ways - he to the Royal Canadian Mint and I walked to the National Gallery to have a peek at an exhibit featuring Canadian bookplates.  A guide asked me if there was anything she could help me find and as I whizzed past her on my way to the second floor I said 'Thank you but no, and one of these days I WILL be able to visit a gallery without watching the time!'.  Heading straight for the European wing I drank in the beauty of works by Renoir, Monet and Constable to name a few and if pressed to choose a favourite it would be Tissot's 'The Letter'.  The scene apparently depicts Lady Holland vigorously tearing up a letter from her adopted daughter, Maria Liechtenstein.  Having been up close and personal I can safely say that she doesn't look best pleased.

Close-up of a window at Notre-Dame Cathedral

A thoroughly enjoyable time was had and we look forward to making the journey during autumn at some point with the trees in full colour.  

My favourite bookplate from the exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada

29 June 2013

1939: The Last Season by Anne De Courcy

The Debutante Ball and Court Presentation.  At its most basic principle, the idea of dressing young ladies in virginal white and announcing they are officially on the market makes me wince a bit.  That is simply how things were done in certain circles in certain countries and I suppose most girls found the whole event something to look forward to.  The sumptuous yards of gorgeous silks, the snowy pearls, those above-the-elbow-gloves, well the portraits are simply stunning.  Refreshingly though, not every young lady swirled around the ballroom seeking a future husband.  Sometimes they sought an opportunity to escape the glare of their chaperone and exit through a garden door with friends.  The more brazen young ladies would make off with their boyfriend into a waiting cab to dance the night away at another party.  Those girls would not receive an invitation to the next ball as both your character and reputation had to be impeccable.

While many families in 1939 were digging holes in their back garden for the Anderson shelter the very wealthy were strolling Bond Street for seamstresses to create a masterpiece.  What did it all cost you may wonder?...

'...feathers 30s, gloves 21s, shoes 30s, evening bag 10s 6d, train (she bought her own material and had it made up) £5, dress 15gns, car with footman from 7:00 p.m. until midnight 3 gns, tips 1gn, flowers 25s, hair styled for feathers 7s 6d...'

It was class all the way for the debutante's special night but there were times when women needed their silk stockings repaired.  Due to the ridiculously high cost of these items there were specialists who would set up booths in shops or street corners to manually pick up the dropped stitches should you have a ladder.  I can not begin to fathom anything so tedious not to mention headache-inducing but needs must.

Anne De Courcy covers a range of topics associated with life during 1930s Britain such as Royal Ascot, Rituals, Entertaining, Oxford and Cambridge, and Servants etc. but the reading felt a bit dry at times.  I love a good non-fiction read and the topics should have had me reading late into the night but they just didn't.  Certain chapters were interesting such as Health and Panaceas but learning about polio wasn't something I bargained for with this title.  I was looking forward to learning about the hopes of a few young ladies from aristocratic backgrounds, their big night and then what happened once the bombs began to fall.  Just when mention was made of young women who could barely boil an egg struggling to cope with a black-out the chapter ended and it was on to the King and Queen's transatlantic visit *sigh*.

If you have 1939: The Last Season sitting on your shelf you are going to enjoy it and will certainly learn something.  I just wish it had a bit more heart.

Kathleen, Rose and Rosemary Kennedy attend first March Court

18 June 2013

I'm Not Complaining by Ruth Adam

Oh the excitement of pulling a book from your shelf with no expectation at all and it ends up being a page-turner!  I wasn't familiar with the author and the synopsis looked a bit grim so it must have simply been a case of spying two of my favourite subjects in the description - 'spinsters' and '1930s' - that had me bringing it home.

After reading this excellent work, I now realize Ruth Adam is the author of A Woman's Place: 1910 - 1975 reprinted by Persephone Books.  In I'm Not Complaining Adam was writing about she knew in this, her first novel.  Born in 1907, Ruth Adam, as in the story, eventually became an elementary teacher in some of the more depressed areas of Nottinghamshire.  She married in her mid-twenties and had four children but remained committed through various means to encouraging young women to achieve the skills necessary to strive towards a career.

I'm Not Complaining is set in Lower Bronton, Nottinghamshire during the 1930s.  The school and its surrounding area are inhabited by underprivileged families with most living in squalour.  The teachers may work at the school but they choose to live in homes with more desirable addresses outside the area.  Madge Brigson is thirty years-old and shares a house with two other women.  At the end of a long day dinner usually consists of a boiled egg or beans heated on a gas-ring.  In morals and principle she is the antithesis of her colleague, Jenny, who wears bright lipstick and tight dresses but the two women get on quite well.

A snide remark made one day by Mrs Hunt, the matriarch of one of the more down-at-heel families, about Jenny causes Madge and fellow teacher, Miss Thornby, some upset.  Apparently Jenny was seen having a quiet word with the chemist who then produced a small brown packet which will 'return your body to its natural state' as they say.  In plain English it will induce an abortion.  Jenny is most definitely pregnant and her lover is married to someone else.  A rather bohemian couple, his wife knows all about the situation and even offers to host Jenny while she recuperates from her termination.  For a book published in 1938 I thought the situation was delivered in a brilliantly forthright manner and any number of young girls were probably told to steer clear of this book by their mothers.  We all know this is as beguiling as a red flag to a bull.

Ruth Adam tells it like it is for women who strive to educate themselves and have rewarding careers during a time when reproducing for their country is apparently their greatest accomplishment.  That to be a bachelor is exciting and carefree while spinsterhood for women translates to being goods nobody else wants.  This way of thinking was not acceptable to Ruth Adam and I found myself cheering for Madge throughout the book.  Her desperate attempts to make the older girls submit to some form of work during class before running off with their boyfriends usually end in frustration but Madge is tenacious.  When she becomes aware that five year-old Moira is terrified of the janitor a sinking feeling comes over Madge and she turns into a detective in order to discover the reason.  Despite the many incidents, jibes, and regulations threatening her path Madge's belief in a better way of life for the poor or 'weaker sex' remains constant.  And fear not...Madge is hardly devoid of male companionship so it's not all hot water bottles and whimpering for her!

I'm Not Complaining is an absolutely brilliant piece of fiction intertwined with the history of women's fight to have equal footing in a man's world just before World War II.  It's poignant, thrilling, educational, and heartstoppingly gripping at times.  Also, for anyone in the teaching profession it will hold an extra appeal.  If you have this book on your shelf then pull it down today and if you don't own it then buy a copy and soon!

Jules Pascin (1885 - 1930)
Artist's Wife Hermine David in a Blue Hat

12 June 2013

Over At Emily's...

My favourite circle of bloggers has grown by one recently with the discovery of EmilyBooks.  I found her blog while searching for reviews on novels by Elizabeth Bowen.  Emily has in her possession one of the most 'swoon-worthy' editions you could ever imagine.  It's a copy of Bowen's Court signed by the author herself as a gift to E. M. Forster!  Can you imagine opening the first page or two and casting your eyes on that?

Emily has kindly invited me to appear on her interesting, not to mention very well-written, blog as a guest.  I have offered up a snippet about a few of my favourite second-hand bookshops and a glimpse at some of the books I was excited to find while browsing in them.  Don't bother knocking - just let yourself in and if you simply want a peek at THE book and how Emily came to find it click here.....

6 June 2013

Barbara Pym and a Bit of Name Dropping...

My plans to read Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym were scuppered by the arrival of a package from Book Snob.  Inside was an irresistible copy of Dorothy Whipple's Every Good Deed featuring wicked 1950s dramatic cover art, you know the sort - bad girl with a devilish sideways glance and a car wreck.  It was such a fun read but today is not about Whipple! 

I found a collection of Pym's letters and diary entries in a bin of used books while in Stratford, Ontario, a few years ago.  The owner of the small bookshop there was pleased it was going to an appreciative reader.  He said his mother described Pym's work like a 'warm, brown sweater'.  I can only suppose that she found them to be 'cosy'.  Some of my favourite snippets are the ones with mention of other authors I admire, to my delight Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen seem to pop up a fair bit.

From A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Letter and Diaries...

5 June 1946

'My dear Henry,

I have so much news that I had better just fling it at you in Compton-Burnett style.  Hilary and her husband have separated and my father has married again and given us a very nice stepmother of suitable age and a dear brother and sister, whom I have not met.'

To Philip Larkin...May 27, 1969

'Dear Philip,

I did go to the Roy. Soc. Lit. (how do Librarians abbreviate it, when they have to?) and was most interested to set foot in there and here Elizabeth Bowen give a very good and interesting talk, and see L. P. Hartley very much occupying the chair against a background of dusty dark blue velvet curtains.  And who were all those ladies in beautiful hats, not all Fellowes.  I'm sure, though many of them looked as if they ought to have been.  I was put in the second row (having arrived only just before it was due to start) so had little opportunity to look around me, but I was sitting just in front of Elizabeth Taylor, who I know, who had come with her husband.  Eliz. Bowen said that people never recognize themselves in novels (even if they have been 'put in') but I think one sometimes makes up a character and then he or she appears in the flesh, like a man now working in our Library, who is so like 'Mervyn' in my unpublished one, and even speak of 'Mother'.'

11 August, 1969

'Visit to Jane Austen's house with Bob.  I put my hand down on Jane's desk and bring it up covered with dust.  Oh that some of her genius might rub off on me!

5 May, 1977

'Dear Philip

...I've been reading the diaries of Evelyn Waugh - what a lot he drank, though he often felt ill after it or was even sick.  The book is too big to read in bed which is a pity;  As for fiction (usually of a size to read in bed) I haven't found anything very good lately.  Seeing all the reviews of these sexy American female novelists it makes me wonder if anyone will review mine!'

23 November, 1977

'Booker Prize.  James and Alan drove me to Claridge's.  Very spacious inside, white and gold and a roaring coal fire in a sort of hall.  In the ballroom a group had already assembled.  I had a gin and tonic and was introduced to Lettice Cooper, Penelope Lively and her husband....'

4 June 2013

31 May 2013

The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins

In my humble opinion there are certain genres that fit certain seasons superbly and usually a highly dramatic sensation novel would be well-suited to a first frost.  In this instance though the soaring temperatures of late May and the whir of a fan have been every bit as suitable for one heck of a fun read through cobbled London and an abandoned manor house in chilly Edinburgh.

Published in 1875 The Law and the Lady was written a few years after the death of Charles Dickens, a close friend of Wilkie Collins.  With his own failing health came a reliance on opium to relieve his symptoms and who knows - perhaps there was a certain pleasure to be had in its recreational value.  In any case, a note of the bizarre proved to be an asset with this book and once settled into the landscape I was stealing every moment possible to get stuck in.

The first chapter is titled The Bride's Mistake.  There is no pussyfooting around, the reader is presented straight away with the crux of the matter.  Written in the first person, Valeria describes her new husband's physical appearance which sounds suspiciously like Collins himself but nevermind.  Next comes the anxiety when she discovers quite early on that the name she has taken on, Woodville, is not the family name her husband grew up with.  A chance meeting with her mother-in-law while visiting the beach in Ramsgate only results in more confusion when Mrs Macallan declares pity for her family's newest member.  On a quest for answers, Valeria, sets off for London and becomes entwined with Major Fitz-David.  He would willingly accept the description of himself as an aging Lothario and yes, all the hand-kissing is a bit cringeworthy but he is also incredibly helpful so I quite liked the fellow.  In the meantime, unable to discuss his past, Eustace flees to Spain leaving his wife to get to the bottom of things.

Valeria's character has been described as one of the first female detectives and while there were times when I would have given the lily-livered Eustace a good slap instead of a kiss I did admire her tenacity.  And let's face it, after spending six days as a married woman it was in her best interests to prove she hasn't been a fool.

The story takes on a mild Gothic tone with the introduction of Miserrimus Dexter.  Born without legs he speeds along the passageways of his crumbling pile in a wheelchair, his oiled locks flowing behind him.  More than a tad eccentric he has a penchant for his pink jacket in quilted silk and other such showy adornments.  He also plays a harp when he needs a delay tactic and picks up his embroidery to help him think.  When impatient, Miserrimus 'leapfrogs' about using his hands to propel himself from place to place, he's also quite skilled at peeking in keyholes.  He keeps Valeria on her toes trying to anticipate his next move...or motive.  Major Fitz-David describes him...
'He is a mixture of the tiger and the monkey.  At one moment, he would frighten you; and at the next, he would set you screaming with laughter.  I don't deny that he is clever in some respects - brilliantly clever, I admit.  And I don't say that he has ever committed any acts of violence, or ever willingly injured anybody.  But, for all that, he is mad, if ever a man was mad yet.'
 Ariel is Miserrimus's faithful companion, she runs his errands using a pony and cart and favours men's clothing.  Her jealousy of anyone in contact with her master is so acute that she sniffs at Valeria's gloves to find out whether she has touched or groomed him.  Described in Victorian terms as an 'idiot' the reader can safely assume that as a cousin of Miserrimus, madness runs in the family.

The plot of The Law and the Lady is the unravelling of secrets surrounding an incident so traumatic as to lead a man to conceal not only his association with it but his identity.  So well-paced are the tidbits that as a serialized story in the Graphic I can easily conjure up images of customers champing at the bit while waiting for the next installment to hit the shops, or the docks. 

Having really enjoyed Collins's No Name I promptly bought up a few of his other more popular works.  I must confess that The Woman in White didn't do a thing for me so it came as a relief that The Law and the Lady has me back on track as a fan of Wilkie Collins' highly entertaining writing style.  Were it not for a Barbara Pym Reading Week soon underway I would promptly head back to my shelves for Armadale or The Moonstone!
  Victorian mourning brooch

14 May 2013

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

'But after all, death runs in that family.  What is she, after all?  The child of an aberration, the child of a panic, the child of an old chap's pitiful sexuality.  Conceived among lost hairpins and snapshots of doggies in a Notting Hill Gate flatlet.'

Poor Portia Quayne.  With the naiveté of youth all she has ever known is the safe environment provided by her parents.  Moving from one hotel to another on the Continent is a way of life and to ask her she would tell you it's because her parents like living that way.  The truth is far from it.  Her father is living in a sort of exile since being caught in an affair with a women from lesser means.  Cast adrift to lie in the bed he made, so to speak.  The speed with which the first Mrs Quayne sorts out the details leave me to wonder whether she was happy for the excuse to be out of things or had the stiffest upper lip known to a Brit...

'Mrs Quayne was quite as splendid as ever, she stopped Mr Quayne crying, then went straight down to the kitchen and made tea.  Thomas, who slept on the same landing, woke to feel something abnormal - he opened his door, found the landing lights on, then saw his mother go past with a tray of tea, in her dressing gown, looking, he says, just like a hospital nurse.  She gave Thomas a smile and did not say anything: it occurred to him that his father might be sick, but not that he had been committing adultery.'

When Portia is orphaned at sixteen she is sent to live at 2 Windsor Terrace with her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna.  Eight years of marriage has failed to produce children but that really comes as no surprise as the atmosphere could not be more staid.  Anna passes many evenings sipping drinks and sharing conversation with male friends while Thomas works in his study.  Let's just say you could cut the apathy with a knife.  Portia bonds with the housemaid, Matchett, who sits on the edge of her bed in the night sharing stories about the senior Mr Quayne during happier times. 

Anna is a sort of 'Queen Bee' so the idea of another young woman simply glowing with the look of innocence landing in her sphere chafes a bit.  Awareness blooms when Portia develops a relationship with Eddie, a narcissistic cad, who plays up to Portia's blush of first love only to report back to Anna.  Unbeknownst to Portia, Anna has rooted out her diary to both live vicariously through her experiences and laugh at her ignorance.  My copy of The Reader's Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel states that Eddie's character was 'based upon Goronwy Rees, with whom Bowen had fallen in love only to lose him to her fellow novelist, Rosamond Lehmann.'  It must have been an accurate portrayal as were it not for E M Forster stepping in the situation very nearly became a lawsuit.

As ever, Elizabeth Bowen's writing is absolutely beyond sublime.  I must admit there are times when the story becomes secondary to the writing...

'But London, these nights, has a provincial meanness bright lights only expose.  After dark, she is like a governess gone to the bad, in a Woolworth tiara, tarted up all wrong.  But a glamour she may have had lives on in exiles' imagination.'

I'm not one to quote passages for entertainment but lines such as that beg to be remembered and why I simply refuse to rush through one of her novels.  A heartbreaking story of love, betrayal, disappointment, and leaving youthful innocence behind...but told in the most beautiful of ways.

Harold Harvey
'A Study in Green'

11 May 2013

Companion Reading

My goodness but I have been a selfish reader lately but Simon's post has given me the push I needed to log on and do some reciprocating.

As far as books and reading go the past couple of weeks have been quite wonderful as my enthusiasm for Elizabeth Bowen has roped in a convert.  Our most recent employee at the library and I were chatting about authors and once I had finished delivering a dramatic presentation about the beauty of Bowen's prose she disappeared into the stacks.  Having someone make their excuses is the risk you take whenever you enthusiastically persuade someone to see things the way you do.  But Ashley wasn't discouraged at all, in fact, she reappeared holding a copy of The Death of the Heart and Eva Trout.  The opportunity was too important to miss so I suggested a read-along right then and there and she agreed!

Stealing moments before shift change or when the circulation desk is devoid of customers, Ashley and I blissfully chat away about characters, plot, London scenery and Bowen.  Let the return bins overflow I say!  Perhaps it's a good thing that Ashley and I are not constant work companions.  We're working together later on this afternoon and I'm quite near the end so perhaps we can squeeze in the shortest of book club meetings at break-time between bites of banana bread.

Other bookish excitement is another installment of 'Rescued from the Bin' (previous find).  Most of what ends up in the discard bin at the library is ratty paperbacks or the donation of various bodice-rippers and old magazines but every now and then there is a massive gem.  Spying the bright white, barely-been-looked-at leaves of a whopping huge hardcover I pulled it from the box - oh happy day!  Once the hallelujah chorus stopped playing and my happy dance was over I felt faint at the thought of what could have happened if I hadn't stopped for a peek; The Reader's Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel may have been thrown in a recycling bin or gone to someone else (extreme selfishness but oh well).  There was an industrious hour spent meticulously picking away at the residue from two sticky labels but time well spent if you ask anyone with mild OCD.  At over 700 pages there is enough mouth-watering reading material here about novels from the twentieth-century to satisfy the most avid of fans and I love dipping in and out at bedtime.  Check with your local library for a copy, if it's not a reference item you can drool over it at home.  The gorgeous painting on my edition is: Girl Reading, 1930 by Adrian Allinson (1890 - 1959).

My thoughts on The Death of the Heart will be posted next week and apologies for the long absences between posts, I savour books in a ridiculous way.   

29 April 2013

Flea Market Book Finds

 Hmmm...spend time in the garden tidying up or jump in the car for a drive in the countryside that will take us to the opening day of an outdoor flea market?  Well, there were also a few outbuildings absolutely crammed with all sorts of junk and treasure.  One vendor had tables and tables full of books - they were $2 for 1 or $5 for 3.  I found...

...an E. M. Delafield, a Folio Society edition of The Diary of a Nobody, and a lovely orange Penguin by Ann Bridge.

I don't know how such a lovely book came to be shoved into the bottom of a box full of discarded coffee table books on flower arranging, cooking and paperbacks from the 70s but there it was.  And an American first edition at that.

Another irresistible item that I brought home is a pamphlet from the 30s or 40s advertising vegetable compound tablets.  Chock full of anecdotal evidence of its efficacy from women laid up by everything from menstrual discomfort, ovarian pain, and lack of energy after the birth of a ninth child.  Also included were some cringe-worthy recipes such as...


3 cups shredded cabbage                 1 cup crushed pineapple
pinch of salt

Moisten with salad dressing to taste and mix lightly with two forks.  Serve on a lettuce leaf.  Sprinkle with paprika if desired.

Pass your plate if you're interested....or brave.