26 July 2014

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

One night, while immersed in my copy of Suite Francaise, my husband was surfing book titles on the internet.  Interrupting for a minute he asked whether or not I had heard of Doerr's book and started reading out reviews.  After a few absolutely glowing reports I was off the couch and placing an order.  How this captivating story escaped my notice, while working in a library for goodness sake, is beyond me.  In my defense, a copy came back yesterday and when checked in had nary a single hold so perhaps this is a word-of-mouth read creating what seems to be an ever-increasing fan base.  So it's my turn to share...

Set during World War II, Marie-Laure is a young freckle-faced girl in Paris who begins to lose her sight due to a degenerative disease and is blind by the age of six.  She sits under the table while her father works as a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History surrounded by fascinating artifacts, everything from feathers to whale skeletons.  Completely devoted to his child, her father has created a replica of their neighbourhood so Marie-Laure can learn to navigate her way to the shops by feel before making the journey in person.

Meanwhile, in an orphanage in Germany, young Werner fiddles with a broken radio.  He has a natural gift and curiosity when it comes to electronics and is excited when he can bring music and voices into his gloomy surroundings.  Late into the night, Werner and his younger sister, Jutta, listen to stories and music until the Nazis declare a ban on radios to reduce spy activity.  Brought to Herr Siedler's house to fix a broken radio so his wife can listen to her programs, Werner's abilities astound the Nazi official and he is quickly recommended to the National Political Institute of Education. To Werner, this represents an opportunity to escape the inevitable requirement to work in the mines once he turns fifteen; the same mine that took his father's life.

When the Germans and their bombs encroach ever closer to Paris, Marie-Laure's father is handed a package containing a massive diamond to take on his exodus to Saint-Malo.  He is told that four gems exist but only one is real and none of the bearers know whether they carry the fake or authentic 133-carat diamond called The Sea of Flames.  A curse associated with the gem claims that the person who holds it will never die but others around them will perish within a month - or so.  This lends a whimsical element to the book.  An ailing Nazi by the name of von Rumpel also knows of the curse and a frightening game of hide-and-seek ensues that will have the reader on the edge of their seat.

One of my favourite tension-relieving threads within the book is the Old Ladies' Resistance Club.  These women from the village may not be in uniform but they use their wiles to sabotage the Germans at every opportunity.  They write 'Free France' on paper money and paint stray dogs so they bear the French flag.  They bake secret codes into loaves of bread and employ other clever tactics...

'The women funnel a shipment of rayon to the wrong destination.  They intentionally misprint a train timetable.  Madame Hébrard, the postmistress, slides an important-looking letter from Berlin into her underpants, takes it home, and starts her evening fire with it.'

These brave ladies are the best-kept secret of the French Resistance and I cheered them on but back to more sobering thoughts...

Through terrifying episodes which push Marie-Laure and Werner to the absolute limit of their will to survive they finally cross paths in the latter part of the book.  They are both quite literally brought into the light that day from their different sets of circumstance.  But don't for one moment think that this is where things get sentimental.

There are many fascinating layers to explore within this novel and the storytelling is brilliant with a slight nod to Life is Beautiful and a wink to The Book Thief.  There is something here to please every reader from those interested in World War II fiction, intrigue, family sagas, and epic tales.  And I've only shared a snippet!

25 July 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1779 - 1863

Fanny Trollope was the mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope.  Her candid observations about American life and society, published as Domestic Manners of the Americans, launched her career as a writer in England.

Where the mansion is of sufficient dignity to have two drawing-rooms, the piano, the little ladies, and the slender gentlemen are left to themselves, and on such occasions the sound of laughter is often heard to issue from among them.  But the fate of the more dignified personages, who are left in the other room, is extremely dismal.  The gentlemen spit, talk of elections and the price of produce, and spit again.  The ladies look at each other's dresses till they know every pin by heart; talk of Parson Somebody's last sermon on the day of judgment, on Dr. Totherbody's new pills for dyspepsia, till the 'tea' is announced, when they all console themselves together for whatever they may have suffered in keeping awake, by taking more tea, coffee, hot cake and custard, hoe cake, johny cake, waffle cake, and dodger cake, pickled peaches, and preserved cucumbers, ham, turkey, hung beef, apple sauce, and pickled oysters than ever were prepared in any other country of the known world.  After this massive meal is over they return to the drawing-room, and it always appeared to me that they remained together as long as they could bear it, and then they rise en masse, cloak, bonnet, shawl, and exit.

Domestic Manners of the American

Victorian Interior (with an old couple and young couple in conversation)  Artist unknown

22 July 2014

A Street Festival...and Books

Every summer we look forward to Midnight Madness in Oakville.  Lakeshore Road is closed off downtown and the shops bring their sale items out onto the sidewalk.  The restaurants set up dining areas on the road and the wafting aromas from BBQs and cotton candy machines is everything one of the memories of summer should be.  Surrounding area clubs and their members exhibit their skills and every year I watch men and women dance their informal version of Strictly Come Dancing.  One dancer held out his arms to invite me for a whirl but I did his toes a favour by declining.

The photo (above) gives you an idea of what the night is like and it goes on, block after block.  The cherry on top for this book lover, who thinks no trip out is complete without a bookish souvenir, was that the Oakville Public Library had a booth.  Hardcovers were $1 and paperbacks half that much, so I bought...

The Girl at the Lion d'Or - by Sebastian Faulks

(A nice compliment to the stories set in France I've been reading lately)  A beautifully controlled and powerful story of love and conscience, will and desire which begins when a mysterious young girl arrives to take up a post at the seedy Hotel du Lion d'Or in a small French town in the mid-1930s.

Excellent Women - by Barbara Pym

One of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies, Excellent Women has at its centre Mildred Lathbury, a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England.  She is one of those 'excellent women', the smart supportive, repressed women whom men take for granted.  As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbours, the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.

I read several Pym novels a few years ago and can't for the life of me remember if this was one of them.  Worth reading twice, in any case!

Blow Up the Castle - by Margaret Moffatt

Set in the quirky country village of Wickerton in 1930s England, this hilarious novel follows the stories of three friends, the eccentric Reverends Peacock, Peabody, and Peasly, as they bounce from adventure to misadventure.

The hapless reverends often find themselves fraught with misunderstanding as they encounter the colourful characters populating Wickerton and its surrounds.  Amorous and overbearing housekeepers, suspicious and inept officials, not to mention Joey, the pernickety and vociferous parrot, all contribute to the calamitous events.

Reminiscent in its wit and style of a Noel Coward play, this engaging novel is a delightful excursion to a more elegant era.

There are so many favourite key words and phrases in that description - how can it be bad?

It would be a safe bet to say that most of my friends stopping by here have read Excellent Women but what about the other two?

18 July 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating


Do you ever think of your childhood?
  I think of it when I smell porridge.  Sometimes after I've been by the docks I walk into town and use my nose tracking fresh bread and bacon.  Always, passing a particular house, that sits like the others in a sort of row, and is the same as them, I smell the slow smell of oats.  Sweet but with an edge of salt.  Thick like a blanket.  I don't know who lives in the house, who is responsible, but I imagine the yellow fire and the black pot.  At home we used a copper pot that I polished, loving to polish anything that would keep a shine.  My mother made porridge, leaving the oats overnight by the old fire.  Then in the morning when her bellows work had sent the sparks shooting up the chimney, she burned the oats brown at the sides, so that the sides were like brown paper lining the pot and the inside slopped white over the edge. 
  We trod on a flag floor but in the winter she put down hay and the hay and the oats made us smell like a manger.
  Most of my friends ate hot bread in the mornings.

The Passion

Breakfast Piece by Herbert Badham (1936)

13 July 2014

The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann

Finally taking the bait as I felt a bit 'meh' about Rosamond Lehmann, I paid my $2 at the reuse centre and brought home this 1953 hardcover (dust jacket intact, no less).  It was reading her short stories in The Gipsy's Baby with its World War II content that won me around.  The stories in that book are charming, they made me smile, a bit warm and fuzzy even.  The Echoing Grove is nothing like that.  It is brutal, unsettling, abrasive, raw, exhausting, claustrophobic - and absolutely brilliant.  Written in the period after her nine year affair with Cecil Day-Lewis had come to an end there is no stone left unturned when it comes to relationships.

The book begins at the end with a middle-aged Dinah visiting her sister Madeleine.  A fifteen year estrangement has been brought to an end by the death of their mother.  The women are both widows; Madeleine's husband due to a perforated ulcer, Dinah's husband killed during the Spanish Civil War.  One of the first situations the women find themselves in takes place during a walk in a nearby cemetery.  Dinah's dog sets upon a rat but when it is only partially maimed it is the usually reserved Madeleine who delivers the coup de grace. The reader knows that Lehmann is saying so much more.  

I had barely recovered from the shock of some rather horrifically descriptive writing when the sisters meander through the past fifteen years of their separation.  Winding along oh so gently it's only a matter of time before we get to the meat of the matter.  Madeleine's husband had been having a lengthy affair with Dinah and the time was nigh for a forensic on the matter.  Lehmann keeps the reader on their toes as the next act goes back in time and opens the curtain on Dinah calling Rickie to help her clear out the last of her things from their love nest.

Much to my frustration, Madeleine allows her husband room to think things through and to mourn the end of his affair.  She is so accommodating that they conceive their daughter, Clarissa, while Rickie is being coddled.  Now usually this sort of behaviour would have me groaning and wanting to throw the book over my shoulder...but the writing is so riveting.  I am completely invested in what will happen to this trinity of characters.  The feelings wrapped up in the parallel situation of a man unwilling to leave his wife for his mistress, as it was in Lehmann's case with Day-Lewis, was irresistible to explore.  The fact the two women are sisters makes the reading tense and claustrophobic.

This novel largely takes place during World War II but I wouldn't say it is overly present.  There is nary a scurry to the Anderson shelter or much talk of rationing although one of Madeleine's sons is killed in North Africa.  The atmosphere is most definitely one that is heavily influenced by the era it was written in and Lehmann's relationship with the Bloomsbury set.  Dinah's character in her artist's overalls is bohemian in attitude with an aura of sexual freedom; Madeleine is all reserve with the restraint of nipped in waists, etiquette and a half-veil...

'...taking courage from the flawless mask that gleamed back at her from behind a finely-spotted black veil.  Very becoming, these veils; a disguise she had come to rely on for self-confidence.'

The Echoing Grove is a challenging and complex story and most definitely one to read twice to savour the nuances.  Rachel mentioned that it had a Bowen-esque feel to it and she is spot on.  High praise indeed.  If you're interested in the story but want to skip the novel you can always try the film.  It's under a different title, goodness knows why, but it looks quite good.  I'll be giving it a try!

11 July 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1862 - 1937

She had expected to view the company through a bower of orchids and eat pretty-coloured entrées in ruffled papers.  Instead, there was only a low centre-dish of ferns, and plain roasted and broiled meat that one could recognize - as if they'd been dyspeptics on a diet!  With all the hints in the Sunday papers, she thought it dull of Mrs. Fairford not to have picked up something newer; and as the evening progressed she began to suspect that it wasn't a real 'dinner party', and that they had just asked her in to share what they had when they were alone.

The Custom of the Country

Thoresby Dining Room by Marie-Louise Roosevelt Pierrepont 

4 July 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1835 - 1915

During the course of her fifty-five-year career, Mary Elizabeth Braddon adopted a variety of literary styles.  This extract is from The Doctor's Wife, an English version of Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

It was nearly three o'clock now, and high time for the opening of the hampers, Mr Raymond declared, when he rejoined the rest of the party, much to the delight of the orphans, who were always hungry, and who are so much, and yet remained so pale and skeleton-like of aspect, that they presented a pair of perpetual phenomena to the eye of the physiologist.  The baskets had been carried to a little ivy-sheltered arbour, perched high above the waterfall; and here Mr Raymond unpacked them, bringing out his treasures one after another; first a tongue, then a pair of fowls, a packet of anchovy sandwiches, a great poundcake (at sight of which the eyes of the orphans glistened), delicate caprices in the way of pastry, semi-transparent biscuits, and a little block of stilton cheese, to say nothing of sundry bottles of Madeira and sparkling Burgundy.
   Perhaps there never was a merrier party.  To eat cold chicken and drink sparkling Burgundy in the open air on a bright Mary afternoon is always an exhilarating kind of thing, though the scene of your picnic may be the bleakest of the Sussex Downs, or the dreariest of the Yorkshire Wolds; but to drink the sparkling wine in that little arbour at Hurstonleigh, with the brawling of the waterfall keeping time to your laughter, the shadows of patriarchal oaks sheltering you from all the outer world, is the very ultima Thule of bliss in the way of a picnic.

The Doctor's Wife

Holiday by James Tissot (c. 1876)