28 June 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Where to begin?!  For those who may be unfamiliar, A God in Ruins is a companion piece rather than a sequel to the stunningly good Life After Life.  I plowed through that book two years ago and finished in just a few nights; there was something very moreish about each episode of Ursula's life that kept me turning pages until late into the night.  Initially I thought this next book couldn't possibly be as unique or as brilliant as its predecessor but Kate Atkinson has done it again.

A God in Ruins explores, Ursula's youngest brother, Teddy's journey through many of his life's events; some are extraordinary, such as serving as a bomber pilot with the RAF during WWII and some are rather ordinary, as in being a husband, father, and grandfather.  At least on the surface those moments are easily compartmentalized but when Teddy was in the pilot's seat his actions sprang from rigorous training and the results were ultimately good or bad.  You could say that, for Teddy, navigating through relationships with his immediate family required the same intestinal fortitude as navigating a warplane under attack and both left scars.

Kate Atkinson's research on the WWII era is thorough, detailed, and need I say frightening?  I can't imagine what it must have been like to know that the chances of ever seeing your friends or loved ones again after a few missions were slim to none.

  'They were fifth in line to take off and they swung on to the runway, engines to full boost, waiting, a greyhound in a trap, ready to go where the controller's Aldis light showed green.  Teddy was still expecting the red light from the control tower, cancelling the op.  It never came.  Sometimes they were even recalled once they were in the air.  Not this time.
   The usual flare-path farewell party had gathered at the controllers caravan.  Assorted WAAFs, cookhouse and ground crew.  The CO was there, the air vice-marshal too, saluting every aircraft as it passed.  Those who are about to die to not salute you back, Teddy thought.'

The chapters in this book are composed of periods of time and are not linear, jogging back and forth from the twenties to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.  While Teddy doesn't emerge through time the way Ursula did the fascinating aspect of jumping around eras is still there.

Regarding Teddy's personal life, I quite liked his wife, Nancy, for her love of the arts, maths, and lying about being married so she could continue to teach.  The eventual birth of their daughter, Viola, when the couple had nearly given up hope is a thrilling event but new limbs on the family tree are thorny ones.  The conflict between generations when one has fought and sacrificed versus post-austerity entitlement could splinter any weakened relationship but Teddy has the patience of someone who is simply thankful to be alive.  As for Viola, she is frustratingly irresponsible at times and her own worst enemy.  Just when my contempt for her was running at its highest there is a heartbreaking scene from her childhood that goes a long way towards explaining some aspects of Viola's character.

At a point somewhere near the three-quarter mark I stopped for a minute and looked at the bigger picture, and something occurred to me...but it wouldn't be right to share.  And yet, despite that
knowledge I was still left reeling by the poignancy of what the whole thing meant by the end.  There are two podcasts on my iPod featuring Kate talk about this book so I'm happy to finally be able to listen to what she has to say about her journey with this story!

If you haven't read Life After Life and this post has made you desperate to read A God in Ruins I say 'go for it!'.  This book will work as a stand-alone piece and is absolutely brilliant.

The Last Flight
Artist Unknown

26 June 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1890 - 1976

The following recipe comes from a cookery book published by the Ministry of Food to help women cope with wartime rationing.  The other contributors included Joyce Grenfell, Stella Gibbons, Marie Stopes and Rebecca West.


(Enough for 5 or 6 people)

½ lb mushrooms                                  6 eggs
A little margarine                                 Pepper and salt
Jar of shrimps                                      Dessertspoonful of olive oil 
¼ lb cooked ham or tongue                          

Method:  Peel mushrooms and cook in a closed casserole with a little margarine, either in moderate oven or on a very low gas.  When tender, add a jar of shrimps and ham, or tongue, cut up in small pieces.  Keep warm and make omelet by breaking eggs into bowl and beating up lightly with fork (not whisk).  Add pepper and salt, put olive oil or butter or margarine in large frying-pan.  When steaming hot pour in eggs, stir round once or twice and let set.  Take off flame, put filling mixture on one-half of omelet and fold other half over.  Slip off on to dish.  Serve at once.
  If liked, small tin of cream of mushroom soup can be thickened with a little cornflour and poured over as sauce.

A Kitchen Goes to War

With warm thoughts of the doyenne of British cookery and former member of the Ministry of Food, Marguerite Patten, who passed away on June 4, just shy of her 100th birthday.

19 June 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1887 - 1964

To Rée Gorer...

                                                                                                            Renshaw Hall

24 December 1942

Darling Rée,

...My beloved parent has succeeded in getting out of Italy, and making his way to Switzerland, accompanied by a nurse.  There, he is teaching an unfortunate pair who scarcely knew him, before the war, what life can be.  The wife is the daughter of that world-scourge, Inez Chandoes-Pole, the husband is a charming, practical, quiet Swiss.  The old gentleman simply descended on them like a blight.  He inhabits their house, he has changed all their modes of existence.  He won't let them go to bed at night, because he wishes them to sit up with him; he insists on having a hot meal of roast chicken at 4 o'clock in the morning, so that the cook has to sit up too; and when he wants anything expensive and they say that they have no money, he makes a clucking sound, puts his head on one side, tossing it irritably, and says, 'I'm afraid I can't help that!'


Portrait of Edith Sitwell by Roger Fry

12 June 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1908 - 92


Lone meals, which can be happy too, are perhaps the hardest to put on paper, with a drip of cyanide on their noses and a pin through their guts.  They are the fleetingest of the gastronomical butterflies.  I have known some.  We all have.  They are compounded in almost equal parts of peace, nostalgia, and good digestion, with sometimes an amenable touch of alcohol thrown in.  

An Alphabet for Gourmets

The Café by Mary Jane Ansell

8 June 2015

Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay

If I had to state for the record just how many of the books on my shelves are set in London the answer would be 'most of them'.  So, in theory, I could land in Toronto, unpack, and then reach out with my eyes closed to choose a book that takes me back to London's neighbourhoods from one end of the city to the other.  But choosing a 'souvenir read' to bring home gives my leisure book browsing a bit of purpose.  Well,,,any excuse, really.

Published in 1934, Mavis Doriel Hay wrote a thoroughly charming murder mystery.  Reading it today is, no doubt, every bit as entertaining but it also shines a light on the social history of boarding houses from an era when landladies guarded the front door like sentry guards, dinner was served at a specific time in meagre kitchens, and a maid would bring a cup of tea to your room if you needed one.  

Poor Miss Pongleton, with the delightful first name of Euphemia.  Within the book's first pages the spinster is discovered lying on the stairs of Belsize Park tube station.  She has been strangled with a dog leash belonging to her well-fed terrier, Tuppy (short for Tuppence).  Since Miss Pongleton was on her way to a dentist appointment the process of elimination begins as to who spied the leash in its usual spot last?  There is also no small degree of sympathy for someone who has not only had the misfortune to be murdered but that their final destination was the dentist's chair.  Interestingly (or perhaps worryingly), the dentist isn't referred to as Dr. but simply as Mr Crampit.

The residents at the Frampton Private Hotel have affectionately labeled themselves 'The Frumps' and could easily be the younger version of Barbara Pym's characters in Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.  There is Mrs. Bliss, the proprietress, a pompous Mr. Slocomb, Cissie Fain and Betty Watson who work together in the City, an extremely bohemian Mrs. Daymer who likes her fibres practically straight from the sheep's back, and Mr. Granger, a newcomer.  

Nellie is a maid-of-all-work and we know this instantly because of her lower-class accent.  The poor thing is beside herself when her boyfriend becomes a suspect.  There is another character, Basil, who brings a delightful level of comedy and almost instantly had me picturing this story being performed as a play in a West End theatre.  Basil is Miss Pongleton's nephew and while she was frugal, accumulating a small fortune, it is a constant effort for Basil to keep the wolf from the door.  As a male, he is generally assumed to be the heir to Miss Pongleton's fortune but when his moments of selfishness, or stupidity, raise his aunt's ire her Will is changed in favour of Basil's cousin Beryl...for the time being.

This is the third book I've read in this series of classic crime stories reissued by the British Library and easily my favourite.  Having spent two afternoons in Hampstead during my recent holiday in London, Murder Underground highlights some of the areas I spent time in.  The strolls past Downshire Hill or the heath were brought back to life and apologies to poor Miss Pongleton but her final resting place at Highgate Cemetery ticked another box when it comes to fascinating London landmarks.

Mavis Doriel Hay has written a thoroughly entertaining and completely charming murder mystery.  Hardcore fans of a more serious vein of this genre will blanch at the very notion there is such a thing but I highly doubt they stop here looking for inspiration when it comes to reading material.  And thank you to Rachel for suggesting this book - it was exactly what I was looking for!

Picture credit here

5 June 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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


It was midnight by the time our boat train arrived in Paris.  We found the Hôtel de l'Avenir - my French professor had recommended it - and fell into bed.  But I couldn't sleep.  At dawn, I began to dress, my heart pounding.  I shook my friend and asked if she didn't want to get up and come with me to see Paris.  Pharumph.  By six I could stand it no longer and called the concièrge - my professor had said that as soon as I woke up, petit déjeuner would be brought to my room.  When the tray arrived, my knees grew weak as I took it from the plump pink bonne who smiled and gave a flick of a curtsey at the door.
  On my tray, service for one:  a ceramic pitcher of hot milk, a thick brown pitcher of dark-roasted coffee (I had come to love its bitter flavor on the ship), a flute of bread faintly warm from the oven, a saucer with pats of sweet butter, another saucer with bright red cherry preserves, and another saucer with cubes of brown sugar.  Nothing, not the sumptuous breakfasts on the Liberté, not French books I had read nor the French movies I had seen, nothing prepared me for that tray.  In its Gallic simplicity (what the French regard as essentials for starting the day), tearing hunks from the slim shiny loaf, spreading every crevice with butter and spooning over tart cherries, pouring milk with one hand and coffee with the other into the enormous white bowl of a cup (a lesson learned on the ship), plopping in cubes of brown sugar, stirring until I could feel the sugar dissolve, then sipping and chewing as I looked down from my perch and saw the early morning bustle of the Left Bank - Paris, imagine! - it was one of the dearest meals of my life.  \\
  The three sisters were sleeping soundly, so I closed the door and climbed down the creaking old stairs to the street.

Feasts and Friends

Photo credit here