29 August 2015

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

I. Love. This. Book.

It wasn't until I removed the hold slip at the library that I took a good look at the cover.  Then there was a swift recollection of the author's name (when you work at a library you place holds on all sorts of things...really fast...between customers).  Several years ago I thoroughly enjoyed Their Finest Hour and a Half so when I twigged that my new book was by the same author I couldn't wait to get stuck in.

The story begins in Hampstead during the early days of World War II.  Noel Bostock is nearly ten years old and living with his godmother, Mattie, in a 'spacious brick box, with a fancy ironwork verandah and a garden full of azaleas'.  Mattie is a fascinating character with a fiercely dedicated belief in independence and education, although she is highly suspicious of government, rules, and regulations.  She was also an active participant in the fight for women's right to vote.  Noel has seen her pins, bars, sashes, rossettes, and a medal that states she was force-fed while imprisoned.  But these days Mattie struggles to recall names and places...

'Or 'that church', she'd say, standing at the top of Hampstead Heath, gazing down at the scribble of blue and grey that was London.  'The one with the dome - remind me of what it's called.'
  'St Paul's Cathedral.'
  'Of course it is.  The architect has a bird's name.  Owl...Ostrich...'
  'Right again, young Noel, though I can't help thinking "Sir Christopher Ostrich" has a tremendous ring to it...'

You can already sense the perfect combination of delightful characters, setting, and humour.  But it's not all tea and roses.  The bombs begin to fall and Noel is evacuated...

'The day after that, all the children disappeared, as if London had shrugged and the small people had fallen off the edge.'

Vee Sedge is a down-at-heel woman living in grim circumstances with her adult son, Donald, above the offices of a scrap metal business in St Albans.  They can't afford to miss an opportunity and this time it comes in the form of a little boy.  Noel.

There is another wonderful character in Vee's mother.  Flora considers Mr Churchill, as in 'the Prime Minister', to be a personal pen friend.  She writes letters to inform the elected official of her thoughts about everything from ration rip-offs to people whom she suspects to be spies...

'I don't know if you know this, but when Alvar Liddell on the wireless says Nazi on the news broadcast he says it in a different way to the way you say Nazi, you say it Narzee and he says it Nartsi.  People have noticed this, and when I met my cousin Harold at the Abbey Tea Rooms last week he told me that he's even heard jokes about it.  I thought you out to know.  Alvar sounds a foreign name to me.'

Lighthearted bits like that provide gaps of pleasure because, as I mentioned earlier, it's not all urns of tea and chatting over the wall.  There are other characters looking to thwart the system and have no bones about using violent means to accomplish their will.  Black-outs and bombings provide the opportunity for thievery and it's not always the perceived image of a criminal that is the mastermind.

Crooked Heart is a wonderful story about relationships between the young and old and that family is sometimes where you find it.  It also portrays the fact that despite severe hardship you can still have principles; stand up for what is right.  By the time I was on page sixteen I knew this was a book that must have a place on my bookshelf so I will be buying a copy to enjoy again and again.  It's an absolute delight!

*Just read that Lionsgate has bought the rights to Their Finest Hour and a Half with Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy in starring roles!

28 August 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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


'In the 17th century the general opinion of herbalists and botanists and connoisseurs of simples was that the banana was the strongest candidate for the original tree of the knowledge of good and evil.'

No Go the Bogeyman

21 August 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1663 - 88

My Lady Widderington ressett for a Looseness

Take hogs dung newly dunged and boyle it in a pint of milke prity well the Straine and drink it off - to make the hog dung you may turne hime round severall times and falloe him till he does it - 

Receipt Book

Pigs in a Farmyard by George Morland

18 August 2015

Sisters By a River by Barbara Comyns

Well, I finished this book a few minutes ago and have the 'beastly 'dancing class' feeling in my stomach' that Barbara feels whenever she is uncertain about something about to happen.  What an extraordinary piece of writing.  Apparently this book was written as a memoir to share with her children.  While knowing that Barbara Comyns' background was an extremely sad and difficult one, I resisted the urge to do a bit of digging at the halfway point to find out if things were as horrific as written in this book.  I'm not sure how her children felt about this bold reveal of their lineage full of violence and madness but Sisters By a River would make a perfect bedtime read to horrify twelve year-olds at summer camp.

Told in a series of episodic pieces, each lasting just a few pages, Barbara writes about her family from childhood until she leaves home at seventeen.  The babies began to arrive when her mother was only eighteen with the last one rendering Mammy infertile and deaf.  Similar to descriptions of the Mitford household, there seems to be a knowledge of many things far beyond their years but the babies are thought to be hatched.  While the house seems to be on the scale of a country manor it's in a rundown state and animals raised in front of a warm stove are eventually doomed for the dinnertable.  Doling out cruelties to animals wasn't solely performed by the adults as the girls once tried to ride their rabbits - the results were pretty grim.  Caterpillars were hung on string, ants were burned, and fish were trapped in drainpipes.  There were no heights to which the level of violence would not reach and in describing her father's behaviour....

'Occaisonally he unsuccessfully tried shooting Mammy and as she was quite deaf she didn't even notice.'

The spelling error is intended and an example of how the writing is treated throughout the book although I didn't find it at all distracting.

Written before mass vaccinations there is a consuming fear of rheumatic fever, diphtheria, and pneumonia, which all end up visiting family members at some point,  I did find a laugh out loud moment at one particular incident though...

'Kathleen had a beautiful croupy cough that was always coming, when I had a cough I used to pretend it was much worse than it was and strain myself to make an awful horse croak, but one of the maids called Florrie told me she used to work in an infermany, and an old man there kept coughing away, an up came his lung and she slipped on it in the dark, so I didn't try to cough any more after that.'

To the modern reader there are obvious signs of mental illness but it's also interesting to see signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder before it was widely acknowledged.  Routine tasks are repeated a certain number of times to keep away evil happenings, throwing away items that had been touched, and excessive cleaning and disinfecting.

While some of the details in Sisters By a River go a long way to shining a light on Barbara Comyn's personality and writing style I am glad this wasn't my first experience with her work.  I came to this book after the fantastic Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, The Vet's Daughter, and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead and prepared for something off-kilter and slightly macabre.  Still, I've been left feeling a bit wobbly after reading this book and can understand why publishers were hesitant to release it prior to 1947.  It's going to take some time for the queasy feeling to go away but I can already see the brilliance and bravery in the writing.

Girls at a Rabbit Hutch at Ravelston by George Cruikshank

14 August 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1882 - 1941

'One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.'

A Room of One's Own

Virginia Woolf

9 August 2015

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

First published in 1942, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is one of the most delightful accounts of a trip overseas you will ever read.  It's also a sigh-inducing peek at the cost of travel in the 1920s.  Add in the slide show of charming pen and ink drawings sprinkled throughout the pages and you have a trilogy of reasons to run out and find a copy.

'We had been planning the trip for over a year.  Pinching, scraping and going without sodas, we had salvaged from our allowances and the small-time jobs we each had found the preceding vacation the sum of $80.00, which was the cost of a minimum passage on a Canadian Pacific liner of the cabin class.'

Judging by the description of the girls' luggage there doesn't seem to have been a great deal of importance placed on weight allowances.  Cornelia and Emily would have been perfectly turned out for every season with their coats, woolies, dresses, shawls, and of course...the obligatory selection of hats which require boxes.  Though the girls are horrified by the handmade pouches they're forced to wear by their mothers.  Worn under their dresses, these pouches contained vast amounts of cash, a passport, and the very important 'letter of credit'.

Cornelia and Kimberly may have been recent graduates of Bryn Mawr but they were also wide-eyed innocents.  Crème de menthe was something you drank a spoonful of after your castor oil and men of thirty were middle-aged.  There is also a whiff of snobbery here and there.  When the girls finally arrive in London they're less than appreciative of their room in Bloomsbury - a freebie, I might add, from a former Bryn Mawr student studying at the University of London.  The landlady is referred to as a 'slavey' and at times when sleep is more important than breakfast they ignore Mrs Higgins efforts, grab the blankets and roll over.  Their austere surroundings will be remembered more fondly later on.

Arriving in Paris, there is a hilarious incident (for me, not Cornelia) when an infestation of bedbugs results in a near faint for a pharmacist.

'Miss Orr,'she said. 'we are in terrible trouble.'
'Why, you poor children.'  She was still indulgent and kind.  'What's the matter?'
  'Well,' - Emily wanted to be explicit, without saying the word - 'it's really Cornelia.  She's the one in trouble physically, but I'm in it, too, of course, because we're together.'
  'What do you mean?'  Miss Orr asked sharply.  'Cornelia's in trouble physically?'
  'Well, she was - attacked last night.'
  Miss Orr grabbed Emily's arm.  'Where?' she asked hoarsely.
  'In bed.  We just moved in to the pension yesterday and we didn't know about it.'  She meant the bed.
  Miss Orr groaned.  'Oh, these French!'  She had turned very white.

It wasn't all lambs to the slaughter as Cornelia's parents were enjoying a parallel voyage and European tour.  This was the perfect opportunity for the young ladies to pursue exploits to their hearts' content secure in the knowledge that a family member was a mere phone call away.

I spent several afternoons on the patio with this thoroughly charming book and laughed out loud more than a few times.  It's being passed on to a twenty-year old who works with me at the library.  Megan dreams of visiting London and Paris but her parents refuse to spend their holiday rushing about so they choose lounge chairs in sunny climates.  I think Megan is going to love this book, perhaps she'll be inspired to plan her own adventure with a friend.

Thank you, Simon, for blogging about Our Hearts Were Young and Gay and sharing your discovery of Cornelia's entertaining books.  I was thrilled to find this book stocked at the library and will be keeping my out for more at second-hand shops.

7 August 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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


Grafton's detective heroine Kinsey Millhone is no cook, and famously fond of junk food, but here she realises how seductive a good meal can be.

We drove down to the Ranch House in Ojai, one of those elegant restaurants where the waiter stands at your table and recites the menu like a narrative poem.
  'Shall I order for us or would that offend your feminine sensibilities?'
  'Go ahead,' I said, feeling oddly relieved, 'I'd like that'...
  The meal that followed was one of the most sensual I ever experienced: fresh, tender bread with a crust of flaky layers, spread with a buttery pâté, Boston lettuce with a delicate vinaigrette, sand dabs sautéed in butter and served with succulent green grapes.  There were fresh raspberries for dessert with a dollop of tart cream, and all the time.  Charlie's face across the table from me, shadowed by that suggestion of caution, that hint of something stark and fearful held back, pulling me forward even while I felt myself kept in check.

A Is for Alibi

1 August 2015

Altered States by Anita Brookner

'The woman on the station platform had her back to me.  If she had turned round I would have been able to satisfy myself that she was not someone I had once known.'

Train station platforms are right up there with gas-rings, the sound of a brass bell announcing a visitor, slices of seed cake, and the word 'teapot' to draw me to a story.  While those items certainly have definite 'cosy' appeal, Altered States is anything but.

'I am not even sure that my memory of her is exact, for I frequently winced at her cruelty until I learned to laugh at it.'

So begins the telling of Alan's past obsession with Sarah Miller, a distant relation through a marriage.  In her early twenties, Sarah is described as vain, feckless, and a stubborn brat.  Arguably, she is a young woman who marches to her own tune and refuses to be pinned down by a man.  Once Alan has set his sites on this young woman with her fabulous Pre-Raphaelite red hair and a wake filled with Guerlain all sense of rationale disappears.  He rings her phone but there's never an answer, he even resorts to walking past her flat and looking through the letterbox late in the evening.  

Fruitless attempts to have anything more than a lone sexual encounter with Sarah result in Alan offering marriage to another woman.  Angela is every bit as needy as Sarah is elusive.  Alan has now jumped from the frying pan into the fire.  While Brookner is incredibly detail-oriented in her examination of the human psyche there are two incidents that take place with such a swift set change it made me gasp.

Alan's mother, Alice, lives in a well-appointed flat and enjoys the company of Aubrey Fairweather, a gentleman from the same building.  Alan describes him as delicate 'but probably made of teak'.  Alice Sherwood, a genteel Englishwoman, presented Alan with his current home, a flat on Wigmore Street, as a twenty-first birthday present.  He suspects the gift is something of a bribe; payment for his company as his mother becomes more dependent in her advancing years.  Being attentive is a character trait that seems inherent in Alan but it also ventures into something less admirable...

'Even at my young age I liked women to be cherished.  I liked to think of them as needing a modicum of protection, encouragement.  I liked them to be modest, grateful for flattery, expert at soliciting kindness.'

There are other subplots equally as fascinating and in true Brookner form, equally depressing.  For example, Jenny, a Polish woman saved from penury by an elderly miser, Humphrey.  Loneliness, or the threat of it, is a common theme and very prevalent here.  But if .you're a fan of Brookner's writing it's exactly what you're looking for when you reach for one of her books.  You won't be disappointed by Altered States.  I thoroughly enjoyed this class-conscious novel and am looking forward to reading my way through Anita Brookner's oeuvre.

Title Unknown
Michael Garmash