24 December 2016

Merry Christmas!

A Virginia Woolf Christmas 
Amanda White

My husband and I had Kip in tow as we strolled along the snowy sidewalks in Oakville late in the afternoon yesterday.  The festive decorations on the historic homes down by the lake are beautiful in their simplicity...holly, green boughs, and red ribbon.  Then, as daylight crept away, the lights started to shine from inside cosy homes.  Bless those people who left their curtains thrown back so we could thrill at their starry trees.  Everyone we passed smiled as we exchanged wishes for a merry Christmas and Kip was lost in his own glory with so many cuddles.  We bought a gingerbread man, a mince pie (the best ever!) and a brownie from the bakery and tried not to eat them on the drive home.  We almost made it, but what's wrong with dessert before dinner every now and then?

We're spending this evening with friends just around the corner.  I hope their dog doesn't mind that we're bringing two large boxes of Christmas crackers...the ones with the loud 'SNAP!'.

Wherever you are, and however you celebrate, I wish you a very merry Christmas!  

21 December 2016

Beyond the Vicarage by Noel Streatfeild

While standing on the fourth rung of a library ladder at Ten Editions, a bookshop in Toronto, I was thrilled to find a book by Noel Streatfeild.  Pulling the hardcover from its spot, the cover featured an illustration of a young girl in Women's Volunteer Service garb including a tin hat.  This all happened over a year ago but I remember it well because the twenty dollars I paid for two books were tucked into the blouse of the woman behind the counter.  Well, perhaps her cash register was out of order, but I digress.

Published in 1971 Beyond the Vicarage is the third book in a trilogy and autobiographical.  There is a slightly odd component though - Streatfeild refers to herself as Victoria and uses a third person narrative.  She describes her reasoning in an author's note...

'I made, and make, no pretence that I am not the Victoria in the three books, but the thin shield of anonymity has helped me to feel unselfconscious when writing the story of my life.'

A swift reprise at the beginning brought me up to speed.  'Victoria' had three sisters: Isobel, Louise,  Theodora (who was seventeen years younger than the author) and a brother, Dick.  Isobel and Louise were married, and Dick was working in Bangkok.  Her father, a Bishop, dies while riding the train to see a dentist.  This tragic event happens on page four so apologies to anyone who considers that episode to be a bit of a spoiler.

'Victoria' feels an intense need to move on from the world of acting to try her hand at writing.  Her mother must have had plenty of patience and confidence as she secured a line of credit for one year so the aspiring author could live in a hostel on Cromwell Road.  Fortunately 'Victoria' finishes her first project called The Witcharts and signs a book deal in 1931 for £50.  Imagine her surprise when the plan is to move on to something else only to have the fine print pointed out - she is under contract to write two more books.

Being incredibly naive about the whole business, 'Victoria' makes the gaffe of her life.  While at a cocktail party she's introduced to a woman....

'The small woman looked at Victoria as if, Victoria told friends later, she was an earwig and asked: "Do you write?"  It happened, as it does at parties, that this question and Victoria's answer fell into a lull in the general conversation, so all around heard what Victoria replied.  "Yes.  Do you?".  The small woman moved gently on her way while an acquaintance hissed at Victoria:  "That, my poor ignoramus, was Rose Macaulay."'

By the time Streatfeild wrote Ballet Shoes she believed she was expected to live a certain lifestyle which didn't include living in a hostel so she moved to Mayfair.  Mind you, it was in 'the seedier parts of Mayfair'.  Being the first to admit her shortcomings in the world of domesticity, 'Victoria' goes through a series of women trying to find good help.  I laughed when she employed an Austrian refugee who complained that she needed space for her fur coats and ballgowns.  Also, Mrs Schmidt refused to do any work that required being on her hands and knees.  Once the bombs began to fall in earnest Mrs Schmidt acquired a doctor's note saying she needed 'many weeks of lying down' and left.

What follows is the recounting of various events during 'Victoria's' years of war service.  Organizing canteen trucks, meals, endless pots of tea, but also retrieving and identifying body parts after air raids. To bring a bit of levity to a horrible time, there was an occasion when a monkey was found among the rubble.  One of the air raid wardens, diagnosing a case of shock, gave the monkey a cup of hot milk and wrapped it in a rug.  The poor thing was eventually sent to a zoo to recuperate.

Once the war was over 'Victoria' takes a flat in Belgravia but it's worn and bare.  An Irish maid working for the woman who owned the house mentioned the name of a horse likely to win the Grand National; a tip from the maid's brother.  The odds were 66 - 1.  'Victoria' placed a bet and won.  With her winnings she created a lovely garden with the help of students from a nearby boys' school.

'She then raked the earth into beds which she marked out with stones from the ruins next door.  Then - and a great moment that was - she planted flowers starting with a border of pansies.'

Despite the somewhat precious tone of the writing and the fact that Streatfeild refers to herself in the third person, with a different name, I did enjoy the storytelling.  It would be interesting to read a biography about Noel Streatfeild as I'm sure there's more than meets the eye here.  She definitely was a woman of her time and found the seventies rolling towards an era she wasn't going to be comfortable in.  And yet she was feisty.  In her later sixties 'Victoria' was determined to go out on a lobster boat while visiting New England despite rolling seas and a bucket for nature's call.

The last few pages wrap up quite quickly, speeding through the time when 'Victoria' was in her later years.  She loved staying with friends but clearly learned very little along the way when it came to lending a hand around the house...

'Of course, you made your bed but what else?  Victoria made helpful noises to show willingness, but as a rule she was told "no". the hostess found strange help more trouble than it was worth.  But occasionally Victoria's noises were taken at their face value and she was told: "You really would be an angel if you would clean the bathroom."  Victoria all her life had been hopelessly incompetent in a house, so her idea of help had not gone beyond dead-heading the roses or picking the peas.'

Endearing and entertaining to the end.

Noel Streatfeild

19 December 2016

Winter Kip

The aspect of weather we came to dread last year is back....polar vortex.  It's -16 today once you factor in the wind chill.

After running a few errands yesterday we nipped over to the park with Kip for a bit of fresh air and exercise.  He's not quite eight months old so still on a bit of a learning curve when it comes to the nuances of wintery weather.  The snow in the field has a crusty layer of ice on the surface which severely hampers any attempts to run.  Kip quickly figured out he could make fox-like hops into the holes made by my husband's footsteps.  Then that became altogether too slow so he sat down and refused to budge.  Or did he cleverly figure out a way to bypass the trudging bit while enjoying the view?  Border Collies learn fast....let's hope he doesn't expect this sort of service later today.

15 December 2016

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

The number of times this book has been recommended or referred to in one way or another became too many to ignore.  Last October, Natalie from Archetype Books pulled it from the shelves with good things to say.  It appeared as a book for discussion on a Backlisted podcast feed (terrific show, by the way!).  Since I couldn't listen to the discussion until I read the book it was time to end the languishing and just do it.  It's every bit as wonderful and unforgettable as its reputation states.

It's the summer of 1920 when Tom Birkin steps off the train in the north riding of Oxgodby, Yorkshire.  Walking through the rain wearing a sturdy pre-War tweed coat and carrying a rucksack, the young man heads for the village's church.  As an art restorer he has been commissioned to clean a wall of lime-wash to reveal a medieval painting underneath.  Reverend J. G. Keach is about as keen to have Tom around as he would be about plague and pestilence.

Shortly after Tom settles in he meets Charles Moon who is surveying the ground around the churchyard for signs of a burial plot.  Adelaide Hebron bequeathed a lump sum to find out where her ancestor's remains lie as he wasn't allowed to be buried on hallowed ground.  The peaceful surroundings are a welcome balm to both Charles and Tom as they deal with the effects of their time spent in service during the Great War.  Both bear physical and emotional scars.  Tom has an added strain; his wife has left him for another man.  Charles has his own secret ordeal to work through.  Time spent in tasks that allow their minds to heal while keeping them busy will hopefully bring resolution.

Throughout the hot summer, the men become good friends through their shared experience of war and their work.  Tom finds himself looking forward to visits from Alice Keach, the Reverend's wife.  He is irresistibly drawn to her despite knowing she's 'forbidden fruit'.  He's also aware that a dalliance threatens to undo any headway he's made in striving to restore a quiet mind.  At the other end of the spectrum is fourteen year-old Kathy Ellerbeck, delightfully curious about Tom's work.  She quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) turns up to sit in a pew while watching the painting reveal itself.  Kathy is full of questions.  As young as she is, Kathy is often the voice of reason, persuading Tom to engage with others and join her family for meals and outings.  She is a delight...

'Well, Kathy Ellerbeck was one of that rare breed and, to boot, she had the sense to know a kindred spirit wasn't going to be on hand for ever and that she must catch the fleeting moment e'er it fled.  We understood each other perfectly from the moment she flung open the door'.

I'm so glad to finally know what all the fuss is about; to join the ranks of readers persuading others that this is a story that can't be missed.  The message that we all leave a mark, whether large or small, is beautifully expressed in a book barely over one hundred pages.  Small enough to stuff into someone's Christmas stocking perhaps?

Part of a mural - Pickering Church

12 December 2016

Farewell to a Bookshop

My husband and I had been looking forward to visiting Archetype Books as a Christmas present to ourselves.  Bookshops are always a treasure trove but Natalie made each visit to her shop feel like you were dropping by to see a friend.  She reaches the same level of exuberance that I do when the topic turns to British authors, television and film (actually, we don't talk about anything else) and her carefully curated stock reflects that.  While browsing the shelves there's a constant stream of 'have you read...have you seen...and oh, this is such a wonderful story!

During a quiet moment in the shop Natalie told us that she had some news; her husband isn't well.  She needs to free up time to support him and their daughter.  The bookshop will be closing in a few weeks.  Faced with a moment like that my thoughts were about the well-being of a family and not about books.  Natalie could have quietly locked the doors and slipped away but she truly cares about her customers.  She even baked mince pies for those stopping by when many mere mortals wouldn't have bothered.  The other thing that struck me was Natalie's positive outlook and ability to accept what needs to be done and just get on with it.

My husband has already squirreled away his new Linwood Barclay book (signed, no less) but you can have a peek at my acquisitions.

Natalie asked for my email address so she can keep in touch with her regulars.  We're all rooting for good news so fingers crossed, this episode in her family's life will have a happy ending.

8 December 2016

London Stories edited by Jerry White

My colleagues and I will be celebrating Christmas next week with a potluck lunch and gift exchange.  The theme dictates we bring a gift that represents something we could not live without on a desert island.  I could probably learn to live without tea after a very ugly period of withdrawal but living without something to read is unthinkable.  Thinking of mass appeal, and the fact that not many of my colleagues stop me for conversation about feminine middlebrow novels, I chose London Stories.

The list of authors will make any anglophile melt as their eye scrolls down the Contents page.  Short story collections are also an excellent way to experience the writing of an author you wouldn't normally have considered.  I've never read anything by Irma Kurtz but enjoyed her story called Islington and her commentary about the differences between Londoners and ex-pats.

The stories are laid out in chronological order beginning with Thomas Dekker's London, Lying Sicke of the Plague (1603) and ending with Hanif Kureishi's The Umbrella (1999).  From the Muckle-pit to divorce.  Two of my favourite short stories are included...Elizabeth Bowen's Mysterious Kôr and Mollie Panter-Downes Good Evening, Mrs Craven, both set during The Blitz.  Both are exquisite evocations of that era.

A couple of nights ago I read Frederick Treves The Elephant Man (1923).  The heart-wrenching story of John Merrick brings forth the image of a shuffling man cloaked by a large cape with a hood hiding his disfigured face.  Treves goes behind the ugly sideshow aspect sharing first-hand knowledge of a man who cried with joy when Queen Alexandra shook his hand and panted with excitement while seeing his first play.  Covertly escorted into the theatre with nurses sitting in the front row of a box to create a screen, John was able to realize a desire.  He also fancied himself a bit of dandy, enjoyed romance novels including Jane Austen's Emma.

Another touching story is Henry Mayhew's Watercress Girl (1851) about an eight year-old girl living in poverty in Clerkenwell.  She buys cress at Farringdon market to sell on for a small profit.  Her meals are usually slices of bread with a cup of tea but on Sundays her family enjoys meat with gravy and even a puddin'.  A child braving the winter clothed in a threadbare dress and light shawl reads like something from Dickens but in this collection that doyen of Victorian literature shares a short story featuring the Thames in Down With the Tide (1853).

Hopefully the colleague who ends up with this book enjoys it as much as I do.  What would your desert island item be with a budget of $15?

2 December 2016

The Beaver Hall Group: 1920s Modernism in Montreal

My last week of vacation time is done and dusted.  I ran some errands, brought the central vacuum unit in for maintenance, had my car looked at, decorated for Christmas, and spent an immense amount of time wiping Kip's paws.  Unless the ground freezes soon our back garden is threatening to rival an impressively muddy farmyard.

Did I mention there's a bookshop beside the vacuum retailer?  Gorgeous books are piled high to tempt Christmas shoppers but this purchase was a gift to myself in lieu of a trip abroad or a cottage rental in Muskoka.  Stop laughing.... 

The library owns an earlier publication on the Beaver Hall Group.  I can't tell you how many times it has caught my eye while I'm supposed to be working.  Down go my pen and holds list as I slide the book from the shelf.  This new collection of art,  published last year, features many of my favourites plus many I've never seen before.

Sisters of Rural Quebec by Prudence Howard

Girl and Cat by Emily Coonan

Saint Denis Street by Adrien Hébert

Looking along Belmont Street by Ethel Seath
about 1925

Miss Mary Macintosh by Randolph S. Hewton
1924 or earlier

Initially I thought this group of painters were entirely female, and that's a popular misconception.  Being contemporaries of the Group of Seven, placing a feminist slant on a few exhibitions and catalogues drove that lasting impression.  This collection focuses on art by all of the members of the Beaver Hall Group, but I enjoyed this paragraph...

'Within the Beaver Hall Group, the social markers that distinguished the early twentieth-century feminist ideal of the 'New Woman' were readily apparent.  The group's female members variously bobbed their hair, drove automobiles and smoked.  Most of them remained unmarried, and some explored options for companionship outside of matrimony.  Some members joined women's rights organizations.  Most importantly, the vast majority of the women carved out careers for themselves, as artists, art educators and illustrators.'

This beautiful collection of art, biography, and social commentary would make an excellent gift for the art lover in your life, or just pick up a copy for yourself, like I did.

26 November 2016

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Recently, Artemis Cooper was a guest on one of the books podcasts I subscribe to.  It was the middle of the night when podcasts are supposed to lull me back to sleep, but not this time.  At one point Cooper said that if you only ever read one of Elizabeth Jane Howard's novels it should be The Long View as it's her masterpiece.  It just so happened that I had bought the very book only a week before.  Oh the thrill of coincidence.

First published in 1956, the story begins with a gathering at the home of Conrad and Antonia Fleming, in Campden Hill Square.  The occasion is in honor of their son's engagement.  The atmosphere of women arriving in wakes of perfume as they pop upstairs to check their hair and make-up reads like any given evening in Howard's sphere.  There's also the aspect of ritual as the women eye June, barely out of her teens, as she's about to navigate the world of 'married women'.  There's a myriad of choices to be made if you're to run the perfect home.  But the story soon veers from middle-class life in 1950s London.

The story is divided into five sections, each jumping back in time throughout Antonia's life to her late teens.  It goes a long way in explaining why she married a man as ruthlessly vile as Conrad.  He's the sort of person who likes to offer choices in a manner veiled to look like options when really the outcome is win-win for him.  His attempts to achieve manhood frequently involve treating women like children, and he's not beyond leaving change on the bedside table of women he's slept with.

Howard's exquisite prose and powers of observation blend in such a way that a gift from Antonia's father-in-law is very much a portend of the gloom ahead...

'It was a snowstorm.  She suddenly remembered having one as a child, and wondered where it had gone, even when it had vanished.  Hers had been a small thatched cottage with two pine trees; this was a lighthouse on a rocky point surrounded by a raging sea.'

I loved this book.  The frustration I initially felt due to Antonia's passive nature melted into sympathy by the last few chapters.  I wished it were possible to time shift her away from the path her life would take.  Aside from that, the glimpses into various social groups throughout three decades are beautifully detailed.  There's tennis, horses, and dinner parties on Monday evenings because working for money is either unnecessary or invisible.

The Long View was my introduction to Elizabeth Jane Howard.  If this is her masterpiece it sounds as though nothing else will compare, but somehow I doubt that.  Writing this beautiful, storytelling so masterfully laid out, can't be a one-off.  And speaking of introductions, Hilary Mantel's offering in my Picador edition is one of the loveliest I've ever read.

The reissues of Howard's books are gorgeous, and I know readers on these blogs will buy up books and store them away until they're not the thing to talk about anymore.  But if you do have a copy of The Long View squirreled away...don't!

Portrait of a Young Woman by Edwin Holgate

9 November 2016

Art and Books as a Balm

Like so many others I went to bed last night thinking today would be filled with the excitement of seeing a woman as the next President of the United States.  Turning over at three in the morning I reached for my iPod to check the headlines.  I couldn't fall back to sleep so I've been taking in the opinions and analysis of those more in the know.  This will go on for days, and probably much longer than that.  In the meantime I need a distraction from all of the breathless reporting.

Art and books are a balm at moments like this so I'll share a few details about the wonderful day I had last Sunday.  The AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) is running a wonderful exhibit called Mystical Landscapes featuring works by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Emily Carr, Paul Nash, Félix Vallotton, and more.  There is no question that turning into a darkened room to see...

Starry Night Over the Rhône by Vincent van Gogh

...is the moment that took my breath away and kept me in one place the longest.  This is a painting that feels alive and is quite simply, stunning.  November is a somber month but well-timed to exhibit paintings by World War One artists.  My favourite from the exhibit is by an artist I wasn't aware of but will definitely learn more about....

Void by Paul Nash

I spent hours visiting some of my favourite paintings from the gallery's regular collection but one caught my eye that I hadn't noticed before.  And who wouldn't be taken with these cherubs...

Portrait of the Artist's Children, the twins John and Sylvia by Edmund Wyly Grier
around 1909

The AGO was also hosting The Antiquarian Book Show making the day feel a bit like my idea of heaven.  Although, it was a bit worrying that the show seems to have shrunk a bit from the year before.  You will see the a few people running up their credit card but most people, I think, are like me - enjoying the books as something to be admired...and then put down very carefully.

A vendor from Montreal displayed a few books that caught my eye.  They belonged to a University of Toronto professor who specialized in the Bloomsbury Group.  The professor had died and his wife sold his collection of books - something we dread to think about.  So for the affordable price of twenty dollars I brought home a hardcover copy of...

My afternoon at the AGO ended with a very happy hour spent indulging a whim or three in the gift shop followed by a relaxing trip home on the train.  Now back to the news of the day...*sigh*. 

30 October 2016

Lady into Fox by David Garnett

My last read (After Me Comes the Flood) failed somewhat in its bid to make me believe a man could happily cross the threshold of a strange house and settle in with its questionable inhabitants.  So what do I do?  Jump straight into a book about a woman who suddenly morphs into a fox.  The difference is that Lady into Fox completely reeled me in with a tale that could not be more perfect for a late October read.

'Wonderful or supernatural events are not so uncommon, rather they are irregular in their incidence'.

Published in 1922, the story is set in Oxfordshire during 1880, Richard and Silvia Tebrick are newlyweds out for a walk in the copse when suddenly, hearing a slight cry, Richard turns to his wife only to see a small vixen.  The way the fox looks pleadingly at Richard leaves no doubt that it is, in fact, Silvia.  His 'wife' begins to weep.  Bereft, Richard sits in the copse beside her until dark trying to think what to do next.  The only thing that can be done is to hide the fox under his jacket and bring her home.  Adding to the mystical circumstance...Silvia's maiden name is Fox.

Returning to their home Richard quickly sets about paying the servants to leave so he can be alone with 'his vixen'.  A quickly put-together excuse is doled out while Richard moves about the house in a state of semi-madness.  In a tender moment he realizes Silvia would never wander about naked so he finds a suitable bed-jacket with shortish sleeves and dresses the fox.

As a fox, Silvia is happy to walk on her back legs, play cards, and eat dainty sandwiches.  But as each day progresses the civilized creature sinks deeper into the characteristics of a wild animal.  Richard is in agony when he hears 'his vixen' crunching chicken bones under the dining table.  The realization that his beloved wife will need to be free of the confines of a Victorian household terrify Richard.  The local guns conduct fox hunts just outside the confines of their property.  While this story reads very much like a fairy tale, the elements of emotional conflict within a relationship ring incredibly true.  Add in the aspect of a vulnerable creature pitted against a hunting group with dogs, not to mention nature's elements, and I found myself completely invested in Richard's actions.

This was my first experience reading the work of David Garnett.  For people who enjoy anything involving the Bloomsbury Group, this novella is dedicated to Duncan Grant, also the author chose to name a very sweet 'character' Angelica, after Vanessa Bell's daughter.

This novella is a mere 73 pages long, and while you can download it through Project Gutenberg I highly suggest reading a copy that includes the charming woodcut illustrations.

My friend Simon has had this listed on his sidebar as a book 'You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About' for several years.  He is so right.  Lady into Fox is a bit of perfection.  Read it!

   Woodcut illustration by R. A. Garnett

25 October 2016

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry

After thoroughly enjoying The Essex Serpent I wasted little time in ordering After Me Comes the Flood, Perry's first novel.  With a slightly spooky synopsis it would make a well-timed October read leading up to Halloween.  My hopes were high....

'I'm writing this in a stranger's room on a broken chair at an old school desk.  The chair creaks if I move, and so I must keep very still.  The lid of the desk is scored with symbols that might have been made by children or men, and at the bottom of the inkwell a beetle is lying on its back.  Just now I thought I saw it move, but it's dry as a husk and must've died long before I came.'

So how did John Cole come to be in a stranger's room?  A heatwave hangs over London that eventually drives away anyone who can pack up and leave.  Feeling isolated, not to mention a bit ill, John decides to close his bookshop until further notice and visit his brother in Norfolk.  When his car begins to overheat with London an hour behind him, John pulls over in a shady patch.  In a trance-like state, along with periodic bouts of vomiting, John walks toward a large house that has been neglected and 'bears stains where ivy had been pulled down from the walls'.  As he approaches, a young woman, not much more than a girl, opens the door and addresses John by name.

Now at this point most people would get the heebie jeebies and think of a quick reason to retreat, but I'm well on my way to suspending disbelief and am willing to just go with it.  Crossing the threshold of the house, into the unknown, ramps up my anticipation that something very bad is about to happen.  And after all, being driven into spasms of gut-wrenching fear is exactly what you want in a Halloween read.  But the story changed gears which left me a bit wanting.  I wanted John to hone every psychological trick in the book to get out of the house in one piece but in no time at all he's at the dinner table and tucking in for the night.  And just who are John's new hosts?  They're former residents of a psychiatric convalescent home.

Hester owns the house and is quite the imposing figure, Alex and Clare are red-haired twins who seem relatively innocent, Eve is mysterious, aloof, and having an affair with Walker. Elijah is a retired preacher...and there are plenty of biblical references within the story.  A day of reckoning is swiftly approaching as Alex becomes obsessed with the idea that the nearby reservoir has a crack which could lead to a catastrophe.

The weather holds its own as a character in this story as does a wonderful sense of timelessness.  Even the sundial is broken so you can never be sure of the hour.

There is a thread of illness that plagues John which made me wonder if he was being drugged into some sort of compliance.  I silently yelled at him to refuse cups of tea and glasses of wine but he is an equal partner in what amounts to a case of mistaken identity.  In any case, the story never went where I thought it would and I'm left wondering if that's a good thing or not.  Did Sarah Perry write a superbly clever novel or did she have a terrific idea that didn't quite come together?  There were several convenient aspects that I couldn't let go, but perhaps I like my stories to be a bit more cut and dried.  In any case, I do look forward to seeing what Perry turns out next.


12 October 2016

Birthday Books

 Having my birthday fall during the Thanksgiving long weekend has all sorts of advantages.  The humidity of summer is gone which means the sweaters you couldn't wait to cast aside last May are fabulous again.  There is no limit to the amount of pumpkin pie you can eat, fall fairs reeking with the aroma of candy floss and woodsmoke, and the trees are literally making a show of themselves.

Kip is quickly learning that a ride in the car can lead to goodness knows where.  On Monday we went for a hike along the trails of Burlington's botanical gardens.  Throngs of other people had the same idea.  Being able to feed a chickadee while it's perched on your hand is the popular thing to do, but it is a bit funny to see so many people standing along the paths with their eyes and palms to the sky...waiting.  It's a bit like a spontaneous art installation project and a lovely one at that.

Despite the fact my actual birthday was not on Friday, it was close enough to finagle a couple of new books under the pretence.  Last month I had one of those dreaded experiences in which you realize a fabulous bookshop is around the corner, but when you walk up to the door it's closed.  Venturing back with one hundred percent certainty that Archetype Books was open, we spent an hour browsing and talking books with the owner Natalie, whose reading tastes are a lot like mine.  I wanted to choose a stand-out book to mark the occasion so the minute I spied Weatherland by Alexandra Harris my browsing stopped there.

'The weather is vast and yet we experience it intimately, which is why Alexandra Harris builds her remarkable story from small evocative details.  There is the drawing of a twelfth-century man in February warming his toes by the fire.  There is the tiny glass left behind from the Frost Fair of 1684, and the Sunspan house in Angmering that embodies the bright ambitions of the 1930s.  Harris catches the distinct voices of compelling individuals.  "Bloody cold" says Jonathan Swift in the "slobbery' January of 1713.  Percy Shelley wants to become a cloud and John Ruskin wants to bottle one.'

 If a snippet like that doesn't make you want to cuddle up with the book and a pot of tea for the evening then what will?  As for Tea & Cake London by Zena Alkayat. it's going to help me plan my next trip across the pond.  And after the amount of indulging I managed last weekend, looking at cake is what I'm disciplining myself to for the next little bit if I want to fit into my fall wardrobe.

Oh, and I almost forgot...the fluorite bookmark was made by The Bookmark Lady (Celia Pursley) and purchased at the fair in Vineland.  The colour reminds me of stormy water - perfect in its current location.

6 October 2016

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff

My plans to see out September with a perfectly-timed title crumbled a bit when I needed emergency laser surgery on my eye.  Two weeks ago, first thing in the morning, three quick rounds of flashing appeared in the peripheral vision of my right eye.  This is never a good sign.  I had two choices:  go to the hospital, or go to work and call my optometrist's office once it opened.  The second option would be quicker, and sure enough, within a couple of hours I was assessed and had an appointment with a vitreoretinal surgeon in a neighbouring city for later the same day.  My retina was torn and needed to be fixed right away.

I'm not the sort of person who takes things for granted but I can't tell you how thankful I am for modern medicine.  It didn't take long to consider the people this has happened to who simply went blind for lack of treatment whether it be a hundred years ago, or yesterday, due to lack of available resources.  My follow-up appointment on Monday went well but I have to go once again in three months just to make sure everything is stable.  Fingers crossed!  But enough about me, on with my thoughts about the book.

The Fortnight in September is a seaside holiday sandwiched in cheery endpapers.  The first page paints a picture of the Stevens family, living in Dulwich with a Railway Embankment at the bottom of their garden.  Mary is nearly twenty (which makes her a honeymoon baby) and works at a tailor's shop, Dick is seventeen and has recently started working for a wholesale stationers off Ludgate Hill,  Ernie is ten years old.  Everyone is excited about their impending annual trip to the seaside, except for Mrs Stevens who harbours a secret fear of the water.

With hilarious military precision, the Stevens family consult a list of duties before closing up their modest home on Corunna Road for two weeks.  Things to be dealt with include stopping all tradesmen, locking up the silver, and having the neighbour pour puss a bowl of milk every other day and to leave out a bloater on Mondays and Thursdays.  Even something as mundane as packing Ernie's kite is considered, it's always packed in the large case first so as not to be crumpled.  And the beach shoes need to be pipeclayed, which is something I needed to look up on Google.

I absolutely loved the image of a family anticipating a holiday to relieve them of their daily routines and looking forward to a change of scenery, only to fix their gaze on their humble home through the window of the train as it passes the end of their garden.  And who wouldn't recognize the thoughts of Mrs Stevens....

'Her only anxiety was to see that no smoke issued from the chimneys or windows - for she dreaded the possibility of having left a dishcloth near the hot stove or a few smouldering cinders in the kitchen range.'

RC Sherriff writes an account of the Stevens' train journey so intricately the reader feels as though they're right beside them in the compartment.  The obligatory flask of tea, the wrapped sandwiches, anticipated landmarks inching nearer all mark the traditional ride and their nearness to Bognor Station.

Mrs. Huggett runs 'Seaview', a small B&B, and has watched the family grow over the twenty years she's had their custom. The house is starting to look a bit tired but the lumps in the mattress and dreary corners are overlooked because the Stevens are loyal to tradition.  Husband and wife need to place a bolster down the middle of the bed each night to stop them from rolling into one another.  The following paragraph is absolutely brilliant...

'For many years it had been Mrs. Huggett's ambition and pride to renew something every spring, and this year the old yellow patterned linoleum on the stairs had been replaced by a brightly coloured carpet that glared with cheap insolence at the old, faded banister.  Dick and Mary dared not think of the scraping and saving that must have gone to the purchase of this carpet, yet its cheap gaudy colours seemed to jeer and scoff at Mrs. Huggett, and turn the nobility of her striving into something paltry and almost comic.'

Over the next two blissful weeks everyone in the family will take some time to assess the past year and look ahead to the future.  And such are the joys of reading a novel from the 1930s that Mary is anxious about asking her parents if it's alright to venture our for a stroll with a new friend, but thinks nothing of lighting up a cigarette while out with her family.  Though I felt a bit sad for Mrs, Stevens as she secretly revels in one hour of peace in the evening with a glass of port - strictly for the purpose of enriching her 'thin' blood.  The author did make me laugh as he knows something of being a young boy when I read...

'But Ernie could scarcely be counted as a human being after twelve hectic hours of ceaseless activity on the sands, and after he had drowsed away ten minutes on the sofa Mrs, Stevens took him up to bed'.

Everything about The Fortnight in September harkens back to another era and yet is so identifiable today.  Mr Stevens walks a little taller during his holiday as he's no longer just another member of the lower middle-classes, he is addressed as 'Sir' by porters and drivers.  No one is who they are the other fifty weeks of the year.  But while tradition has held strong for the past twenty years, change is inevitable.

This edition was one of the first books I bought at Persephone Books because the reviews were glowing.  Not being able to get away this summer because we chose to bring a new puppy into the house made this the perfect time to at least read about a holiday.  The Fortnight in September ticked all sorts of boxes for me and I will definitely be on the lookout for more books by RC Sherriff.

18 September 2016

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

This sublime collection of short stories arrived at the most perfect of moments.  The house is a whirlwind of activity with the constant surveillance it takes to spare furniture from teeth marks, carpets from stains, and the almost daily public service announcements to neighbourhood children that young pups are not for winding up.  I put my hand up in solemn confession that the email connected with my blog has probably been checked a mere few times in the three months we've had Kip.  I couldn't be more pleased, and quite thankful, that Rosy Thornton's email was caught in time before disappearing amidst Goodreads announcements, comment notifications and the odd bit of spam.

There are so many things to say about this book.  Each time I sat down with my cup of tea and began another story was like stepping onto a country lane.  Fields and forest feature prominently as a backdrop to tales that range from mythical to biblical and downright spooky.  And at one delightful point I realized that these stories are joined by a thread of community.  On a few occasions characters are mentioned in more than one story, and regardless of the story, if villagers are popping over to the pub they'll be at The Ship Inn.  As you read you form an image of what the Suffolk landscape is like, learn how different generations view its past, and discover that sometimes no matter how modern a village has become, legend and superstition still hold a firm grip.

One of the most admirable aspects of a short story (in the hands of a good writer) is the ability to stir emotion in so short a time frame.  The first story The White Doe is eleven pages long but by the last page my t-shirt was pulled up to my chin and I was filled with dread.  By the fourth story The Watcher of Souls I had resorted to a horrible habit of using my t-shirt to wipe away tears.  Well who wants to put down a book to fetch a tissue at a moment like that?  Another story The Level Crossing is about a young woman who is pregnant and quite sure she's going to have to go it alone.  While out jogging she recalls the story of an ancestor who was killed by a train and wonders what the little girl might have seen or felt.  As the signal lights announce an approaching train, Isobel contemplates an immediate resolve to the stream of doubt regarding her ability to move forward as a single parent.  By the end of the story I was holding my breath in terror, afraid of what would happen next.

I read the stories in Sandlands in the order they fell and loved not knowing which era I would find myself in next.  Whether writing about brothers flying missions during World War II, contemporary bell ringers, or witches from the 1500s, Rosy Thornton's meticulous research delivers authenticity to her stories without weighing them down in detail.

The final story is called Mackerel.  I admit to thinking 'you're going to finish this fabulous book with a story about fish?'.  But as is so often the case, where you start out is rarely where you end up, and such was the case here.  I finished this story, and the book, welling up with tears...yes, again.  I don't want to give anything away but will share a sample of a paragraph from Mackerel so beautiful, and so typical of Rosy's way with words, that I read it several times...

    'This is a land of sand.  The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it's a wonder anything grows in it at all.  On the common it's a pale powder grey, soft as ash and lifted by the slightest breeze, but on the roads it's as golden yellow as any treasure island beach.  Every May or June it starts its creeping invasion, sending fingers across the tarmac from right and left.  Baked to dust by the sun, it shakes out from around the feet of the bracken and cow parsley, the campion and cuckooflowers which swell the verges.  You could almost fancy it the work of strange, secret tides which rise in the night to cover the fields and lanes, then slip away before daylight to leave new spits and sandbars like a signature on the landscape.  A land with the imprint of the sea.' 

Thank you, Rosy, for sending me a copy of Sandlands.  You are a talented writer, and while you really didn't need my humble opinion in promoting this wonderful collection, I am so very glad your book found its way to me.  Sneaking an hour to read, here and there, while Kip slept off his horseplay, was like escaping to a tranquil place - even if you did bring me to tears several times.

Blaxhall Church by David Gillingwater

11 September 2016

Recent Arrivals

Something old and something new.  Kip is spark out after a full morning at an antique market so I'll share a few titles while it's quiet.

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard - My husband and I went to the cinema recently to see Anthropoid about a mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking member of Germany's Nazi Party.  Next to the parking area is A Different Drummer, a charming bookshop in a quaint older home in Burlington's downtown core.  With twenty minutes to spare we went in to choose two books to support this independent shop.  I honed in pretty quickly on my choice.  My friend, Rachel (Book Snob) is confident this author will appeal and there's really no doubt that she's right.

'In 1950s London, Antonia Fleming faces the prospect of a life lived alone.  Her children are now adults; her husband Conrad, a domineering and emotionally complex man, is a stranger.  As Antonia looks towards her future, the novel steadily moves backwards in time, tracing Antonia's relationship with Conrad to its beginning in the 1920s, through years of mistake and motherhood, dreams and war.'

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton - Rosy asked if I would like to receive a review copy of her latest book.  It's a collection of short stories and absolutely stunning so far.  But more on that later in the week...

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry - After reading The Essex Serpent I placed an order for this title, Sarah's first book.  It's been earmarked as an October read...

'One hot summer's day, John Cole decides to leave his life behind.
He shuts up the bookshop no one ever comes to and drives out of London.  When his car breaks down on an isolated road, he goes looking for help and stumbles into the grounds of a grand but dilapidated house.
Its residents welcome him with open arms - but there's more to this strange community than meets the eye.  They all know John by name, they've prepared a room for him and claim to have been waiting for him all along.
Who are these people?  And what do they intend for John?'

Victorian Bloomsbury by Rosemary Ashton - This book was published in 2012 and on display at Hatchards Piccadilly while I was on holiday in London.  It was too large, not to mention expensive when factoring in exchange, to buy then and there but it's a book I've yearned for ever since.  The puppy meant I didn't get to Bloomsbury this summer so historic Bloomsbury came to me (any excuse, really).

'Drawing on a wealth of untapped archival resources, Rosemary Ashton brings to life the education, medical and social reformists who lived and worked in Victorian Bloomsbury and who led crusades for education, emancipation and health for all.
Ashton explores the secular impetus behind these reforms and the humanitarian and egalitarian character of nineteenth-century Bloomsbury.  Thackeray and Dickens jostle with less famous individuals like Henry Brougham and Mary Ward.  Embracing the high lift of the squares, the nonconformity of churches, the parades of shops, schools, hospitals and poor homes. this is a major contribution to the history of nineteenth-century London.'

Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf - After being thoroughly enamoured with Carlyle's House and Other Sketches there was nothing to think about when I found another book of essays at a second-hand shop.  With delightful contributions such as...22 Hyde Park Gate, Old Bloomsbury, and Am I a Snob? this is a collection for a quiet day without time constraints and at least two pots of tea.

Coronation St. at War by Daran Little - Watching Coronation Street after dinner from Monday to Friday is a must at our house.  When my husband and I were first married he could barely decipher what the actors were saying but he's every bit a fan now.  Digging through a box of books at a garage sale near in our neighbourhood I was so surprised to find a book that blends two interests of mine.  This book is something of a guilty pleasure but I couldn't resist.

'It is September 1939 and as war is declared the sixteen-year-old Elsie Tanner walks into Coronation Street.  Newly married, pregnant, optimistic about the future in her more affluent surroundings, she has little idea of the difficult times that lie ahead.'

The Tenth Man by Graham Greene - The ReUse Centre was a fascinating (but filthy) warehouse where treasures were usually waiting under a thick layer of dust, but sadly, it closed this month.  Their clearing out sale was five dollars for a crate of books, and you were even allowed to keep the crate.  I bought a stack of books for my elderly neighbour who doesn't venture very far these days, gave a copy of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith to a friend at work, and chose a few for myself.  

'Graham Greene's The Tenth Man is one of his most startling and unexpected major novels.  Set in wartime occupied France, it is about a man who buys his life in a moment of fear.  It begins in the depths of a Gestapo prison, where thirty men have been taken hostage by the Germans.  Three of them must die, but it makes no difference to the Germans which three - the thirty must choose among themselves by ballot.'

Markham Thorpe by Giles Waterfield -  Finding out the author was Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery for sixteen years made my decision to bring this book home an easy one.  And really, anything remotely clever and having to do with a green baize door is bound to be entertaining.

'When Ellen Braithwaite , a young housemaid, enters service at the declining Markham Thorpe, she soon realises that the relationship between masters and servants is not quite as it should be - and that it is her cousin, the housekeeper Mrs Rundell, who is responsible.
A formidable woman with grand designs, Mrs Rundell is taking control of far more than just the running of the house.  Her masters appear powerless to stop her, her enemies are increasing and, most confusingly, she has plans for her young cousin too.
But can there really be any harm in trying to beat the disadvantages of birth and better yourself?  As Ellen and the inhabitants of Markham Thorpe will discover, that all depends on just how far you are willing to go.'

The Best of James Herriot - This oversize edition is chock full of stories, photos and sketches of James's life as a country vet.  Perfect for dipping in and out of this book will be pulled from its place on the shelf on wintery days when I need taking out of myself. The chapter called Memories of a Wartime Vet will be my first stop.

Diana Mosley by Jan Dalley - I own the letters and other writings of first-hand accounts by Diana's sisters but biographies usually fill in a few blanks here and there.  This book was published in 1999 so while the jacket notes that Diana is living in France, she died in 2003.

'Jan Dalley's careful and dedicated research - which included many interviews and conversations with the subject herself, now nearly ninety and living in France - enables her to tell Diana Mosley's story in fascinating, and sometimes grim, detail.  Growing enthusiasm for the Nazis spurred frequent visits to Germany and meetings with Hitler and other leaders (the Mosleys were actually married in Goebbels's house in 1936); there were struggles to raise money for Mosley's organization and, finally, after war was declared, years of internment in Holloway prison.  Yet at the same times there were friendships with people like Winston Churchill (whose affectionate nickname for her was 'Dinamite') and, after the war, a comfortable, if controversial, return to respectability.'

Finished in good time...Kip is awake and out for a walk.  Off to get these books back on the shelf before the quick pat, pat, pat of puppy paws comes marching down the hall!

5 September 2016

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

Virago reissued several of Elizabeth Taylor's novels in 2012 to mark the centenary of her birth.  I bought most of them.  The Sleeping Beauty, with an introduction by David Baddiel, was the novel I chose to save for last.  Partly because there's something delectable about a story waiting to be discovered...and, less poetically, it was the story that appealed least.  The first strike against it - the main character is named Vinny.  To have named this character Vincent would have been a redemption but Elizabeth Taylor knew exactly what she was doing.

Published in 1953, the story begins with Vinny arriving at Isabella's house in the seaside town of Seething.  Their friendship began while waiting in a queue to donate blood during the war.  Being the sort of man who thrives on being a saviour to women in their moment of need, Isabella was instantly enamoured by Vinny's attentive tucking in of her cot blanket.  Isabella's husband, a Member of Parliament, realized he was at school with his wife's recent acquaintance but the friendship was kept at a distance through Christmas cards.

Now recently bereaved, Isabella welcomes Vinny and his consoling manner.  Her son Laurence watches with disdain which doesn't go unnoticed.

'Laurence continued to be exclusive for the rest of the evening, so that his act of drawing the curtains became symbolic to Vinny, who seldom in his life had been up against just such an unrelaxed dislike in a person.  Other people, thinking: 'We cannot all take to one another.' would turn from or return the antagonism; but Vinny did not: he grieved.  It was his business to be loved - a mission created afresh with everyone he met - and he was always conscious of another's coldness.  Uneasily, he would be aware.  He could not work his magic.'

Elizabeth Taylor brilliantly constructs a relationship triangle with Isabella imagining that Vinny is there to sweep her off her feet while Vinny becomes entranced by a woman he sees walking along the beach in the evening.  The icing on the cake, so to speak, is that years ago, Vinny married a woman who told him she was carrying his child.  The marriage was kept a secret, even from Vinny's mother who is yet another brilliant example of character development.  Demanding the respect she feels due as matriarch of the family she once demanded her husband stand upon her arrival in a tent.  The image is a comic one in spite of the fact that Mrs Tumulty's way of gaining respect is tyrannical.  She's also a bit gauche.

'Isabella was quite aware of the curious glances people gave Mrs Tumulty, whose rusty black skirt trailed unevenly above lavender wool stockings.  Dust lay in the folds of her felt hat, which every year she remodelled for the Spring, adding a cockade, or cutting away pieces of the brim.  This year, she had stitched on a piece of glacé black ribbon and a bunch of rag violets.'

Rippling out from the story's basic outline are characters drawn with Elizabeth Taylor's expert skills of detailed observation.  Isabella thrived on being married to a man of distinction but pulls at her foundation garments when no one is looking, plays the horses with her friend, beats cake batter while fag ash falls into the bowl, and mulls over the slimming aspect of stoles while eating meringues.  The daily, Mrs Dickens, polishes the silver while 'Her sad and colourless face was reflected in the spoons, first wide, then long...'.

The mysterious woman that Vinnie falls in love with is named Emily.  Emily lives with her sister Rose who is a martyr to just about everything.  Under somewhat hazy circumstances, Emily was in a car accident with her brother-in-law who was killed.  Emily's face is horribly disfigured despite plastic surgery.  Together, Rose and Emily eke out a living by taking in paying guests during the summer despite a stratospheric level of passive-aggression.

'Even as a girl she had had her splitting heads, allergies, indispositions and the perennial travel-sickness.  To retaliate, Emily herself had assumed an exaggerated robustness.  Because Rose finicked with her food, Emily ate everything - once, standing at a stall in the street, ate jellied eels, the skin as well - and had for a while kept as a pet a grass-snake, overcoming her revulsion as Rose could not.'

While there's much to amuse as this relationship roundabout plays out, I couldn't help feeling sorry for Isabella.  She has lost her husband in a tragedy, her son falls in love with someone she perceives to be unsuitable, she's humiliated by Vinnie, and her home is eventually put up for auction.  The ending isn't neatly tied up in a bow but there's little to signal a 'happily ever after' as evidenced by rotting fruit, discarded items, and knitting cast aside.

The Sleeping Beauty isn't my favourite novel by Elizabeth Taylor but there is much to enjoy in the writing.  I didn't especially care what happened to most of the characters in this story but the honesty in the situations was sincere.  I was left feeling as though the author had bared a bit of her soul in the telling and that's not a bad consolation prize.

The Young Menage by Harold Harvey (1932)

22 August 2016

Kip at Sixteen Weeks

 Kip's round milk belly has been replaced by a nipped waist and gangly legs.  His tail seems to be growing at a rate that makes us tease he's part kangaroo.  A few red dots mark where his razor-sharp puppy teeth were and a glint of white promises new teeth are coming in.  Thankfully the biting has slowed down a bit...as I glance at the ripped t-shirt I've earmarked for the rag bag once this phase has passed.

The grounds of Paletta Mansion are perfect for outings with a new puppy.  It's a short drive away with a few paths that we can lap until Kip tires out so we're never very far from the car.  The lake sits at the end of a lawn dotted with waddling geese.  Ducks float on the stream and we've even seen a loon.  The mansion is a popular choice for weddings and as a backdrop for engagement photos.  While we were there last week a photographer asked a bride and groom to hold their pose while he walked over to pet Kip.  They didn't seem to mind having a few minutes to themselves.

Oh Kip...you handsome boy!

12 August 2016

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

On June 14, Robert Rinder and Stella Duffy were guests on A Good Read, hosted by Harriet Gilbert.  I follow this program as a podcast and am always excited when a book is going to be discussed that's on my tbr list or, as in this case, has been languishing on my shelves.

Robert Rinder chose Hons and Rebels to share with the panel.  It's a book he uses in a very Mitford-esque way to split people into two groups: friends and non-friends.  The slice of Mitford life that's always piqued my interest involved Deborah and Nancy due to their writings.  A copy of Jessica's Hons and Rebels has been sitting on my shelves for years but, to be honest, its contents were a complete mystery.  Finally all has been revealed and the book is everything Mr. Rinder said it would be.

Jessica was the penultimate child of seven born to Lord and Lady Redesdale.  The family moved to Swinbrook, a mere three miles from the Cotswolds, in 1926 when Jessica was nine years-old.

'Swinbrook had many aspects of a fortress or citadel of medieval times.  From the point of view of the inmates it was self-contained in the sense that it was neither necessary nor, generally possible, to leave the premises for any of the normal human pursuits.'

The isolation suited Lord and Lady Redesdale quite well.  Jessica's father was very free with his opinions about relatives, friends, suitors, and most kinds of merry-making.  Her mother was suspicious of modern health care, refusing to allow the children to be vaccinated, wear glasses, and insisted on a Mosaic diet as, according to her, Jewish people didn't get cancer.  So strong were her beliefs that Jessica, very ill and in pain, had to call the doctor herself to ask if he could come to the house to perform an appendectomy.

Such isolation and eccentricity was probably, in part, responsible for creating the wonderful theatrics and imaginations of the Mitford children.    They created their own language called Boudledidge, shouted political slogans at opposing party members in the village, dressed in costume to frighten each other, and were willing participants when a governess, Miss Bunting, taught them to shoplift.  A previous governess was on the receiving end of a devilish prank by Unity...

'Boud found out she had a deadly fear of snakes, and left Enid, her pet grass snake, neatly wrapped around the w.c. chain one morning.  We breathlessly awaited the result, which was not long in coming.  Miss Whitey locked herself in, there was shortly an ear-splitting shriek followed by a thud.  The unconscious woman was ultimately released with the aid of crowbars, and Boud was duly scolded and told to keep Enid in her box thereafter.'

The polarizing images of a madhouse, albeit a loving one, with lavish affairs at ancestral homes, townhouses in Knightsbridge, and Buckingham Palace are fascinating.  As the fifth girl to be presented at court Jessica viewed the event with complacency.

'Clambering finally out of the car, we stumbled through the rainy dark into a brightly lit, crowded corridor, filled with bare shoulders and the musty smell of rented ostrich feathers.  More hours of inching, this time through seeming miles of slightly overfed human flesh.'

This book is a gem for so many reasons.  The writing is so natural and while many of the stories are gobsmackingly ridiculous, the carefree way they're related goes a long way to leading the reader to feel as though they've only lived half a life by not having politicians and the Royal Navy at their beck and call,  I felt a bit inadequate that my 'tween' years were spent poring over teen magazines instead of manifestos.  The treasure trove of social customs to be gleaned are also fascinating...who knew you could rent ostrich feathers?

The first third of Hons and Rebels is brilliantly riveting and made me laugh out loud many times.  As Jessica grows, it's a political atmosphere that's brought to the fore.  Unity is firmly united with the British Union of Fascists and sets out on a successful mission to be noticed by Adolf Hitler.  She wasn't the only member of the family to sympathize with the Nazis...

'My parents maintained that the book* was Communist-inspired, and that anyway the Jews had brought all this trouble on themselves, apparently by the mere fact of their existence.'

(*The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror by Otto Katz)

As a supporter of the Communist Party, Jessica was often at odds with her family.  But I did find myself asking the question...can you be a Communist while drinking brandy, eating steak, and wearing expensive clothes?  There were times when Jessica's thought processes boggled the mind...

'Cooking presented few problems, as we seldom ate at home.  Someone had given me a book of recipes by Boulestin, but as most of the recipes called for a pound of butter, a quart of cream, a wineglassful of brandy, breast of chicken, lobster and similar items, we could only afford to eat at home on rare occasions, and generally ended up with fish and chips at the nearest Lyons teashop.'

This clearly paints a picture of youthful naiveté as Jessica and Esmond were married while barely out of their teens.  It also speaks to a privileged upbringing where the idea of scrambled eggs on toast for dinner wasn't conceivable.

Despite the fact that Jessica wrote lovingly about her husband, I couldn't warm up to Esmond Romilly, who was also Winston Churchill's nephew by marriage.  His endless schemes to make money, or gamble what little they had, were foolhardy.  He was quick to suggest that Jessica charge an expensive camera to her father's account when they decided to run away together.  Esmond was slick when it came to a sales job - so slick that if I were Jessica I would have to wonder if I were another convenient acquisition for Esmond's gain.  In the end, this young couple may have led an exciting life full of chance and luck, but it couldn't have been easy.  Tragically, their four month-old daughter (who is never mentioned by name) died during a measles outbreak.  Jessica wondered if it was possible that because she had never been vaccinated, she failed to pass on any maternal immunity to her baby.

Trenches are being dug in Hyde Park as the prospect of another World War looms.  Jessica and Esmond are astounded at having to pay such a thing as an electric bill and have no money.  The solution is to book passage to America where anything is possible,  Somehow, time after time, bleak circumstance turned into opportunity but Esmond would keep rolling the dice...literally.  I wanted to throttle him but had to remind myself he was barely twenty years-old.  If Jessica wavered in her support, it's not evident in this book.

Hons and Rebels is an entertaining and poignant look into the lives of arguably one of the most fascinating families of the twentieth century.  Apparently Jessica wrote this memoir for the daughter she went on to have with Esmond, who went missing in action during WWII in 1941.  The book does end abruptly as I suppose it had served its purpose, but Jessica went on to lead a life that could hardly have been imagined while plotting her next caper at Swinbrook.

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford is excellent, and Robert Rinder, wherever you are....we could be friends.

 Esmond Romilly and Jessica 'Decca' Mitford

1 August 2016

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

During one of those serendipitous moments in which something happens that doesn't amount to anything earth-crashing, but you're very happy about, I happened upon a book review in the Daily Telegraph.  The reviewer wrote that The Essex Serpent was the best new book she had read in years.  That's a hefty claim to make.  After looking up a few more reviews I whipped of an email to a colleague who orders books for the library, ordered a copy for myself, and then waited for the mail van.

Set in Victorian London, Sarah Perry makes quick work of getting the hairs on the back of your neck to tingle as a man full of drink after celebrating New Year's Eve stands at the bank of the Blackwater.  The very name already conjuring up a fearful image.  From the synopsis the reader knows that a rumour is circulating about a beast in the water.  Bodies wash up on shore with horrible injuries, children are snatched from boats.  Despite starting The Essex Serpent in the middle of the day it wasn't long before my knees were drawn up, a crease formed between my brows and if the phone rang it was going unanswered.

Cora Seaborne is recently widowed but when alone risks a slight smile as her husband was a cruel man.  During Michael Seaborne's illness Cora met Luke Garret, a doctor with advanced ideas and incredible skill.  The two form a strong friendship through their curiousity of things both scientific and natural, and stimulating conversation.  Cora eschews finery in favour of a man's tweed coat and boots made to wade through mud.  A large diamond on her hand belies the initial impression of someone in need.  Cora harbours no desire to be gazed at and treated like fine china.  Her son, Francis, who appears to have symptoms of autism, is kind but distant.  His nanny, Martha, is a strong socialist and there's little doubt that she's in love with, and very protective of, Cora.

When dear friends, Charles and Katherine Ambrose, learn that Cora means to satisfy her own thoughts and pursuits in her quest to discover more about fossils and a mysterious serpent, they suggest meeting the Ransomes.  William is a vicar who is as comfortable tramping around the wilderness as standing behind the pulpit.  His wife Stella seemingly grows more beautiful every day despite the tuberculosis that festers in her lungs.  I loved her obsession with all things blue.

'Light picked out channels cut in crystal glasses and glossed the wood of the polished table, and Stella's forget-me-nots bloomed on their napkins.' 

So who can resist scenes of Victorian London, experimental surgery in an age of discovery, tales of a terrifying beast slithering under the water, and several relationships fueled by letters with veiled references to romantic longing?  The forests of Essex and a murky estuary contribute to a vivid landscape that feels as though Perry has placed you in their midst.

One of the things that struck me about this story is that despite being set in the 1890s there's a modern feel about the writing.  It's far from being mired in the heavy fabrics, swirling fogs, and gaslight of a pastiche.  Some of the characters Perry has brought to life are forward thinkers and therefore modern for the age they're living in.

I loved this book.  It's the kind of reading experience you hope for every time you start a book but only comes along a few times a year....if you're lucky.  To sink into a story with the abandon you had as a child without deadlines, clock-watching, a job, or domestic responsibilities.  The Essex Serpent is a new favourite for its stellar writing and being a sheer delight.

30 July 2016

Kip at Thirteen Weeks

Kip had a wonderful time exploring the grounds of Paletta Mansion this afternoon.  A wedding party was out on the veranda, waves from the lake lapped at the shore, and Canadian geese patrolled the lawn.  The bride and groom passed us on a path as they made their way to a spot for a photo.  Kip was out for a photo session too and went through a pocketful of treats as bribes to sit still.

I finished The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry yesterday.  It took me ages as I could only pick it up when Kip was napping but it's easily the sort of book to keep a reader from just about anything.  More on that soon....

(a sleepy pup!)

14 July 2016

Kip - Blueberries vs Carrot

The days are long and exhausting but also highly productive as every minute counts when Kip is taking a nap.  With the gracious support of my colleagues I've been able to switch some shifts so I can train and play during the day and then go off to work in the evening when my husband is home.

Our sweet boy now takes a massive amount of joy in digging in the garden.  While watering the hanging baskets the other day, I lost sight of Kip for the briefest of moments.  Then I spied the twitching of a few large leaves on a giant hosta.  Sneaking up and lifting the leaves I came face to face with Kip's sweet eyes and four of the blackest paws covered in topsoil.  He was so excited to see me, or perhaps it was a plea for leniency, he jumped up onto my legs.  The legs clad in ballerina pink pajama bottoms.  But what's another bit of clothing in the sink for a soak in stain remover?

I'm also watching the cats across the street.  Note to self: it is not a good idea to bring a new puppy into a home with two cats who have never seen a dog before.  And never try to serve up cat food while keeping an eye on a hissing cat...as the puppy tries to eat the cat food you're now emptying onto the counter instead of the dish because you're watching said cat at the same time.

My neighbours asked if there was anything they could bring back for me.  I asked for chocolate...I should have also said 'A lot!.  This is definitely shaping up to be a summer to remember, and while not as exotic as a trip abroad it is every bit as adventurous.

7 July 2016

The Ladies of Lyndon by Margaret Kennedy

While various members connected to Lyndon gather at the country manor, the tail of an airship slips past a window resulting in a mad dash through the house to catch another look....

'A short discussion was held as to the best vantage point from which to see it again.  Lois suggested James's studio, which had a window looking that way.  She ran indoors again, up the main staircase, down a long gallery, through a baize door into the kitchen wing, up more stairs, noisy and uncarpeted, through a corridor and up a narrow garret ladder into a spacious loft running the whole length of the wing.  The company panted at her heels.'

This first novel by Margaret Kennedy ticks so many boxes.  If you're like me and never tire of a family saga set in an English country home where manners and appearances matter, have I found a book for you.  While this novel paints a picture of the strict moral code and importance of those parameters within the upper classes, Kennedy is wonderful at highlighting the ridiculousness of it all in certain cases.

The Ladies of Lyndon begins, as so many of these stories do, with Mrs. Varden Cocks having reached the pinnacle of motherhood in seeing her daughter, Agatha, engaged to John Clewer... 'an entirely suitable young man'.  The minute we find out that she's only eighteen years old, there's an assumption (at least on my part) that stormy seas lie ahead once Agatha achieves a bit of independence.  Well, as much independence as a wife can achieve within an Edwardian marriage.

The Clewer famly have a London home in Eaton Square while Lyndon sits in the picturesque setting of Oxfordshire; the grounds established by none other than Capability Brown.  The early introduction of various family members might have you jotting down a bit of a family tree.  The first Mrs. Clewer died giving birth to her third child, James, so there's a second Mrs. Clewer which means step-children and half-siblings.  Each is a character worthy of a stage role and considering The Ladies of Lyndon is Margaret Kennedy's first published (1923) work of fiction, I would say this is quite an accomplishment.

So at the heart of it all we have a marriage between ill-suited people. a man born into an upper-class family with a streak of artistic brilliance who sees no reason to conform (he marries the housemaid), alliances to keep secrets away from those who need to know most, and enough arm-flapping over the 'proper' thing to do to be a bit of a farce at times.

Some favourite passages....

'In her print frock, with her flaming hair tucked away under her cap, she looked out of place in the exotic richness of Agatha's bedroom.  She suggested a marigold in an orchid house.'

'With a thrill of inward repulsion she beheld Cynthia and Sir Thomas descending the shallow stairs side by side.  They evoked in her mind a medley of exotic images: a magnolia and a peony...a satyr and a naiad...a silver moon and a rubicund sun.  She could never see them together without an invasion of contrasting ideas'.

'It's broadminded of you, Dolly, to take John Bull and the Daily Herald.  We only take The Times.'

'He would do for his son what no one had done for him; he would see to it that the lad never met any young woman encumbered with surviving relations'.

'I took Mrs. Downsmith there the other day to call, and really that girl has absolutely no idea how to do things.  Tea!  You should have seen it!  Shrimp paste in a pot, and we were offered eggs.  And after tea they played us tunes upon that awful gramophone.  I really didn't know which way to look...'.

'She hunted in the tray of her box and produced a small spirit lamp, a cup, a saucepan, and a tin of Oxo cubes,  She rather enjoyed making Oxo, for it was a new accomplishment.'

'Mrs Cocks had always been a little inconsistent in her ethical conventions.  The line she drew, where the social irregularities of her friends was concerned, had strange curves in it.'

'Why don't you occupy your mind with some solid reading?  When your father died, I remember, I read all through Prescott's Conquests of Mexico during the first few weeks of mourning.'

I so enjoyed The Ladies of Lyndon for being a blend of Downton Abbey and Keeping Up Appearances.  While quite a lot of the book made me laugh down to the near-constant deciphering of the hierarchy of sins, if you will, I found the ending of the book quite poignant.  There's more than initially meets the eye with this book so I look forward to reading it again.

Thanks to Audrey for tempting me to read this book with her review, and Jane for hosting Margaret Kennedy Day.

And I'm quite proud of myself for finishing this book and constructing some sort of blog post while working around a glorious new puppy.  The nip marks and scratches are healing nicely and I have yet to cry one single tear in frustration!