29 September 2015

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Our wrap-up discussion doesn't take place until Friday but if early comments from my colleagues are anything to go by...Fingersmith has been a massive success.  One day last week I was on my way home when another member of the group passed me in the doorway...'Oh my god!' she said as she grabbed my arm.  She had read the book in three days and was stopping by to pick up anything she could get her hands on by Waters.  Introducing someone to an author that had such an impact is so satisfying but I have to say, I'm not surprised.

From the very beginning of Fingersmith, the reader is placed in the midst of beggars and thieves in Victorian London's Borough area.  The house Susan Trinder has grown up in carries more than a whiff of damp and Charley Wag, the resident dog.  The matron of those four walls is Mrs. Sucksby who earns a small income by taking in abandoned babies and then selling them on.  To make her job easy, the babies are dosed with an opiate, which isn't always an exact science, with sometimes devastating results.  Then again, infant mortality is far from rare.

Susan has always been treated by Mrs. Sucksby as something of a cut above.  Her hands are fairly unchafed, her hair is brushed to a sheen, and her clothes are decent.  With the introduction of a villainous character called 'Gentleman' we learn there's a reason behind the effort.  Over forty miles away, in a depressing manor called Briar, another young lady lives with her uncle.  Her name is Maud.  These two seventeen year-old girls with completely different lives will be drawn together in a scheme so depraved, and yet so brilliantly orchestrated, that readers are never quite sure who they can trust.    

One of the many aspects of Waters' writing that I find so appealing is her ability to educate without making me feel as though her research is being exhibited.  A quick mention of arsenic being used in the dyeing process, and its dire effect, was something I learned about this summer in an exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum called Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present.

"'Hi!  Hi!' says Mrs Sucksby.  'Miss Lilly is a lady!  I want her spoke to like one.  You put that lip in.'  Dainty has begun to put.  'That's better.  Miss Lilly, how about we take the gown off and try the green and silver?  Only a touch of arsenic in that green - won't harm you at all, so long as you keep from sweating too hard in the bodice.'"

I also came across something called 'bloaters' that sent me straight to Google...it's a lightly-smoked herring.  Maud's uncle gifts her with a book called The Curtain Drawn Up which turns out to be a bit of Victorian porn, published in 1919.  It also tells you something about what drives Maud's uncle and the atmosphere at his country pile.  I also discovered that Mrs. Sucksby's house on Lant Street - is a street once occupied by Charles Dickens and another literary landmark to add to my next trip to London.

Because this is a book of twists and turns, it's impossible to mention anything more about the plot without spoiling the suspense for future readers.  Friday night with my book group is going to be full of rousing discussion and so liberating for finally being able to talk openly about characters' motives, wrong-doings, and perseverance.  There's a section of the book that is set in an asylum so I'm counting on an emotional discussion about the ease with which men could dispatch women to such vile institutions.

Fingersmith is highly recommended!

25 September 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1932 - 63

'I should sugar and preserve my days like fruit!'

'Last Words'

Sylvia Plath (self-portrait)

21 September 2015

Gissing, Anyone?

We're having a new garage door installed today.  The gentlemen are expected between now and then, which doesn't make for focused reading.  So I browsed the bookcase closest to the front window while keeping half an eye out for their van.

George Gissing rates quite highly when it comes to Victorian authors so I was thrilled when Penguin reissued The Whirlpool last February.  Another reason to cheer was the fact that I no longer had to mull over a desperate move to purchase a water-stained copy at a second-hand shop for 75 cents.

'Harvey Rolfe is a confirmed bachelor until he meets the fascinating musician Alma; restless, ambitious, dissatisfied.  Through the story of their doomed marriage - one of jealousy, faithlessness and financial disaster - The Whirlpool creates an unforgettable picture of the maelstrom of late-Victorian London, as its cast of characters cling desperately to their respectable world of gentleman's clubs and private incomes, terrified it will be swept away.  Written in the shadow of George Gissing's own unhappy domestic life, his astonishing 1897 novel encapsulates the glamour and darkness of the end of a century.'

The theme and palette of the cover art is strikingly similar to my current read, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

The plan is to read The Whirlpool in either October or November, so if you own a copy and would like a bit of reading company, let me know!

18 September 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1929 - 45

Monday, 8 May 1944

Dear Kitty,
Miep told us this morning about a party she went to, to celebrate an engagement.  Both the future bride and bridegroom came from rich families and everything was very grand.  Miep made our mouths water telling us about the food they had:  vegetable soup with minced meat balls in it, cheese, rolls, hors d'oeuvre with eggs and roast beef, fancy cakes, wine and cigarettes, as much as you wanted of everything (black market).  Miep had ten drinks - can that be the woman who calls herself a teetotaler?  If Miep had all those, I wonder however many her spouse managed to knock back?  Naturally, everyone at the party was a bit tipsy.  There were two policemen from the fighting squad, who took photos of the engaged couple.  It seems as if we are never far from Miep's thoughts, because she took down the addresses of these men at once, in case anything should happen at some time or other, and good Dutchmen might come in useful.
  She made our mouths water.  We, who get nothing but two spoonfuls of porridge for our breakfast and whose tummies were so empty that they were positively rattling, we, who get nothing but half-cooked spinach (to preserve the vitamins) and rotten potatoes day after day, we, who get nothing but lettuce, cooked or raw, spinach and yet again spinach in our hollow stomachs.  Perhaps we may yet grow to be as strong as Popeye, although I don't see much sign of it at present!
  If Miep had taken us to the party we shouldn't have left any rolls for the other guests.  I can tell you, we positively drew the words from Miep's lips, we gathered round her, as if we'd never heard about delicious food or smart people in our lives before!

Yours, Anne

The Diary of a Young Girl
trans. by B.M. Mooyaart-Doubleday

13 September 2015

Hoarding, History, and Horror...or, Bookish This & That

My wonderful friends at work have once again yielded to my pleas of banding together for another read-along.  It's also a slight distraction from the fact that our days of wearing sandals are numbered.  I'm not quite sure if they allow me to choose the title because they trust my taste in reading material or want a simple life but I've chosen Sarah Waters' Fingersmith from the book club kits and everyone seems quite keen.  A cosy nook in a pub has been booked for our wrap-up discussion.  Live music starts at nine o'clock so we'll try our best to stay on track before losing members to Top 40.

In other bookish news, there's a new bookshop in town.  Froogal sells remainders so my husband and I grabbed the opportunity to stock the bookcase with a few contemporary titles.  Their 'Buy Two, Get One Free' deal as an opening special made supporting the new shop very easy.

Raise your hand if you've obsessed about a book that you already know will be tucked on a shelf and read...oh, in a year, or three...but bought anyway.

A London Year is that book.  The tiny *cough*  bit of book hoarder in me is very happy now that it's mine.  There are so many ways to enjoy this book, such as dipping in and out, but my preference is to binge on it as a whole.  The kettle is on...I could easily be swayed to dig in right now!

A cover that screams R.I.P. X, don't you think?  It wouldn't be October without a spooky Gothic read and judging by the number of people pondering their own choices for this read-along, many readers feel the same way.  The Asylum is by John Harwood.

Books like this simply don't cross your path that often.  Keep Smiling Through covers aspects of the Home Front through photographs, advertisements, comics, posters, and art.  It's also full of anecdotal tidbits and names I'm familiar with...

"...and it was not until 26 March 1945 that the last V2 fell (as apocalyptically as any) on the Whitfield Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road.  'No bombs, ain't it lovely?'  Vere Hodgson wrote in her diary a few days later."

Vere Hodgson's wartime diary Few Eggs and No Oranges is a favourite and highly recommended if you're interested in that era.

So a mixed-bag of offerings but that's what's new on the shelf.  Have you chosen your R.I.P. X title yet?

11 September 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1893 - 1978

Here she describes an anniversary meal enjoyed with her lover, Valentine Ackland.

12 January 1933

'Our second anniversary.  A most brilliant day, with frost and sun bargaining.  In the morning (the proper morning, for already in early light my darling had got up, seen the moon setting behind Granny, and sat reading Pocahontas by candlelight, while I drowsed and burrowed beside her) she gave me my aquamarine pendant  An aquamarine, very deep through, cut to a point behind, and ice-burning blue, dangling from a diamond the colour of a drop of champagne; and a sleek compact silver cigarette-case, with the falcon; and Mrs Gaskell's Letters to Ch. Eliot Norton, who must have been the father of my Mr Norton in New York; and I gave her a new-faced watch, with a scientific expression, and an inscription in a wedding-ring on the back.
  We drove to Dorchester to fetch the oysters.  After lunch we walked to see the lambs in Child's meadow, and then took William as far as the thorn.  Elder, and spindle-berry tree already showing their leaves.  Our ceremonial dinner was oysters, champagne, truffles cooked gently in cream, and coffee.'


Sylvia and Valentine

6 September 2015

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

William Maxwell's sublime writing will stand out as a highlight when I look back over my reading year.  I was completely swept away by They Came Like Swallows recently and bought two extra copies that have been passed on to friends.  A couple of weekends ago I bought a copy of So Long, See You Tomorrow and worried that it would pale by comparison and my admiration would be short-lived.  No chance.

Within a few pages I was thinking that Maxwell was repeating certain themes until I realized this book is somewhat of a continuation of They Came Like Swallows.  The story is Bunny's, but he is now a grown man so his childhood nickname is no longer referred to.  It isn't the end of the world if these two books are read out of sequence but I consider myself lucky that it worked out well.

Two boys, at the very beginning of their teenage years, meet and play on the framework of a house under construction.  Metaphorically teetering on the edge of potential danger without a care.  Then one day Cletus Smith fails to show up, the boys never to play together again.  The other boy, now a grown man, examines the events that scarred his childhood memories and sent a wave of suspicion and terror through Lincoln, Illinois in the early 1920s.

A pistol shot breaks the silence on a frosty morning.  Lloyd Wilson, a tenant farmer, is found dead in the barn by his six year-old son.

'Who believes children.  Brushing him and his story aside she ran to the barn.  Wilson was sitting on a milking stool in the middle stall, his body sunk over against the partition.  She caught him by the hand and cried, "Lloyd, what on earth is the matter with you?" - thinking he had been stricken with heart failure or possibly apoplexy.  As the child had said, he was sitting there with his eyes open but he was dead.'

A situation has been brewing between two families resulting in a tragic conclusion.  The ripple effect continues through extended family and the townspeople.

As in They Came Like Swallows this novella is succinct in words but epic in atmosphere.  The images of rustic farmhouses, dusty fields, and work clothes damp with sweat are juxtaposed with the wealthy farm owners who stop by to inspect their tenant farmer's capabilities.  The most powerful, and heartbreaking, observations are those of young Cletus.  His hyper-alert behaviour with far too few of life's experiences to piece them together are confusing and keep him awake at night.  The conversations that end abruptly when he enters a room or the appearance of aunts with faces full of sadness fill him with dread.  Cletus also wonders why his father is no longer the best of friends with Lloyd Wilson.

Weaving old newspaper clippings with childhood memories, Morison comes to fully understand the nature of what exactly happened over the span of several months when he was just a boy.  This resolution of events is followed by guilt.  Should he have said more to his boyhood friend, lent support, made more of an effort to find Cletus when he suddenly disappeared?

Once again, this author has surpassed my expectations.  His storytelling is perfectly paced and the moments of tension will have you holding your breath without realizing it.  William Maxwell also seems to excel at making me cry.  I'm about to order a copy of Time Will Darken It with the confidence it will be the third leg of a hat trick.

Photo credit here

4 September 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1917 - 99

The Four Seasons (1970) encouraged seasonal and unpretentious cooking.  Its author, Costa, was the cookery writer for the Sunday Times magazine; she also contributed the column 'London at Table'  to Gourmet.  With her third husband, she ran a restaurant, Lacy's; when it failed, the couple lost their money and were thought at one point to have been living in their car.

The age of French colonialism is over, but French food, the gentle omelette above all, still conquers the world.  There is no civilized country where one cannot find an omelette, the simplest and best of all French dishes.
  More than any other uncomplicated and economical dish, the omelette has a prestige all its own.  Remember Hélène, Gertrude Stein's cook, who disliked Matisse?  When Miss Stein told her that he was staying for dinner she would reply: 'In that case I will not make an omelette but fry the eggs.  It takes the same number of eggs and the same amount of butter, but it shows less respect and he will understand.'
  There are many legends about the origins of the omelette and many myths about how it should be made.  Strange secrets are ascribed to La Mère Poulard of Mont St Michel.  But all she said herself was 'Je casse de bons oeufs dans une terrine, je les bats bien, je mets un bon morceau de beurre dans la poële, j'y jette les oeufs et je remue constamment.'

Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book

Still Life Bouquet of Dahlias and White Book by Henri Matisse