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.