26 December 2018

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

While shelving a cart of holds at the library a couple of weeks ago, I found one waiting for me.  I looked at the cover (beautiful, by the way!) but had no recollection of placing the hold.  Turning to the first page I read the opening paragraph and instantly wished I could have pulled up a chair and forgot all about work.  Don't you love it when the first page does that?

`There was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a long day`s walk from the source.  There were a great many inns along the upper reaches of the Thames at the time of this story and you could get drunk in all of them, but beyond the usual ale and cider, each one had some particular pleasure to offer.  The Red Lion at Kelmscott was musical: bargemen played their fiddles in the evening and cheesemakers sang plaintively of  love.  Inglesham had the Green Dragon, a tobacco-scented haven of contemplation.  If you were a gambling man, the Stag at Eaton Hastings was the place for you, and if you preferred brawling, there was nowhere better than the Plough just outside Buscot.  The Swan at Radcot had its own specialism.  It was where you went for storytelling.`

The story is set in the late 1800s with a mysterious incident occurring on the evening of the winter solstice.  A man, battered within an inch of his life, walks into The Swan carrying a small child.  Both are soaked through; the little girl has no pulse.  Rita, the village nursemaid, stitches the man`s gaping wound and then goes to examine the corpse of the child.  Her skin is pale, her pupils dilated, she`s not breathing.....and then Rita feels a pulse the throb of a shallow pulse.  It doesn`t make sense.

So begins a fascinating thread of storytelling that kept me turning pages when I should have been doing other things.  I absolutely loved the way Setterfield created her characters, from the strong and wise Rita, a vulnerable Lily who desperately clings to the hope that things will come right one day.  Robert Anderson with his large pockets filled with treats to delight the children and animals he meets along the way.  The best sort of man.  And then there are characters best steered clear of; the sort who take advantage.

This is a book to get lost in; a fusion of Dickens and the Brothers Grimm.  Setterfield`s ability to create a village so clear in my mind  that I could feel the dampness of the ever present river and see the low light of a candlelit pub in the evening makes this such an atmospheric read.  And then there`s her creation of an eerie legend about a man named Quietly who retrieves bodies from the river`s current while weaving his punt back and forth in the night`s mist.  If someone is very lucky, Quietly will see an unfortunate villager back to the safety of the shore before meeting their end in the water.   

The less revealed in this post, the better.  There are so many layers and delightful turns to this story, they`re best waded through in blissful ignorance.  I absolutely loved this book and can`t recommend it highly enough for perfect `cuddle up` reading this winter.  While we were at Ben McNally Books in Toronto the other day, my husband heard a woman ask for a good book to read over Christmas.  The salesperson pointed to Once Upon a River and said `This is the one`.  I couldn`t agree more.

I have no idea who to thank for their review, glowing enough to make me place the hold, but thank you wherever you are!  Now it`s back to Miss Buncle`s Book, rudely set aside because of the looming library due date for this book.

3 December 2018

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

My healthy respect for Virginia Woolf's writing began a few years ago, but her books were at the deep end of the pool, so to speak, and I wasn't sure about the testing the water.  After spending an afternoon at Monk's House in East Sussex while visiting London in 2016, Woolf's writing seemed a little less insurmountable for realizing that she was, after all, human.  A few postcards and a copy of To the Lighthouse were chosen from the souvenir shop and I was delighted when the woman ringing up my purchase asked if I would like the book stamped.  Yes, please!  Being ridiculously precious about the whole thing, the book was popped on the shelf to wait for the right time.  A year and a half later......

Set just prior to the Great War, Mr and Mrs Ramsey have gathered their eight children at their summer home on the Isle of Skye.  Also staying with them are a few friends of various ages and backgrounds.  Charles Tansley, one of Mr Ramsey's philosophy students, is something of a bore, a misogynist, and rather pedantic....

   'She could not help laughing herself sometimes.  She said, the other day, something about 'waves mountains high'.  Yes, said Charles Tansley, it was a little rough.  'Aren't you drenched to the skin?' she had said.  'Damp, not wet through.' said Mr Tansley, pinching his sleeve, feeling his socks.'

Charles Tansley is also quick to share his opinion when it comes to the skill sets of women; he doesn't think they can paint or write.  Which is very interesting as another guest, Lily Brascoe, has made a goal of painting Mrs Ramsay's portrait while on a break from keeping house for her father in Old Brompton Road.  Despite contemplating the downward turns of her own marriage, Mrs Ramsay seeks to play matchmaker between Lily and Mr Bankes, a childless widower just past middle-age.  Another match orchestrated by Mrs Ramsay is between a young couple, Paul and Minta, who seemingly trust the instincts of their hostess enough to go along with the idea.

While many of the characters in To the Lighthouse feel some level of affection for Mrs Ramsay, her husband is cold and distant.

'I am by way of being devoted to her.  Yet now, at this moment her presence meant absolutely nothing to him: her beauty meant nothing to him; her sitting with her little boy at the window - nothing, nothing.  He only wished to be alone and to take up that book.  He felt uncomfortable; he felt treacherous, that he could sit by her side and feel nothing for her.  The truth was that he did not enjoy family life.'

And then, with a skill that sets writers apart, Virginia Woolf begins a pin-point sharp examination and concise volley from Mrs Ramsey....

'I'm so sorry,' said Mrs Ramsay, turning to him at last.  He felt rigid and barren, like a pair of boots that has been soaked and done dry so that you can hardly force your feet into them.  Yet he must force his feet into them.  He must make himself talk.  Unless he were very careful, she would find out this treachery of his; that he did not care a straw for her, and that would not be at all pleasant, he thought.  So he bent his head courteously in her direction.'

Tragedy and sadness crumbles the traditions of the Ramsey family and their holiday home is left to ruin.  After sitting empty for many years, the housekeeper arrives to give it an airing.  I absolutely loved the description of the beam of light from the Lighthouse casting its eye over the debris left behind and the rat, swallow and thistle that have taken up residence. 

To the Lighthouse is a book to be read very, very slowly.  There were times when I read paragraphs, and sometimes pages, twice because they was so beautiful or thought-provoking.  At other times it was because I had forgotten who was speaking because of Woolf's long sentences where 'She' can suddenly morph into a different person if you're not paying attention.   

So what did I take away from this book?  To the Lighthouse reminded me of Mrs Dalloway for its atmosphere of perception, perspective and Woolf's well-honed art of observation.  There's a myriad of thought and emotion flowing through every character, how much they choose to conceal or convey could change the course of events for better or worse.  It's something we all play at many times throughout our day which makes Virginia Woolf feel both modern, and of her era.  Another interesting aspect is the way in which Woolf portrays married versus single women; there is joy and pitfalls in both camps.  Pressed to choose which book I preferred, Mrs Dalloway edges ahead of this novel but it might have something to do with the smatterings of London porn.  Another possibility is that I found myself paying quite a lot of attention to the writing in To the Lighthouse, so much so that the characters probably suffered for it. 

My next read in Woolf's oeuvre will be Night and Day, but I'll end this post with one last quote from To the Lighthouse simply because it's too lovely not to.....

'For in the rough and tumble of daily life, a sense of repetition - of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations.'

Portree, Isle of Skye by Jonathan Wheeler

11 November 2018

The London Nobody Knows by Geoffrey Fletcher

I had no idea who Geoffrey Fletcher was when I found this book at a thrift store last Spring.  The charming ink sketches were a clue that he was both artist and writer.  As it turns out, Fletcher wrote and illustrated a column for the Daily Telegraph from 1962 until 1990.  Wikipedia points out that he focused on such mundane sights as gas lamps, Edwardian tea rooms, and cast-iron lavatories and crumbling terraces.  Mr Fletcher and I would have got on quite well because they are the sorts of things that I linger over too.  If you like social history (and I do!) there`s nary a wall of brick that fails to make me wonder about the person who trowelled the mortar into place those many years ago.

In his introduction, Fletcher writes...

`I should be glad to see London explorers boarding buses (and quite positively the best way to see London is from the top of a bus - the pity is that the old open-topped ones were withdrawn) simply because they like the look of the name on the indicator, and to give the well-known sights, which we all know about, a well-earned rest.`

A selection of Fletcher`s favourite places or observations...

....in Edgeware Road, the old houses have almost gone, but there is a rich supply of delights, architectural and otherwise, as, for instance, Smiths the Butchers, where they take the meat away after the close of the day`s business and sell hot salt beef sandwiches and lemon tea until midnight.

....the gas lamp in Carting Lane, by the side of the Savoy...it`s iron column is hollow to allow for the passage of sewer vapours.

Camden Passage, Islington

....Of all the London cemeteries, Kensal Green, in Paddington, is, I think, the most melancholy.  ....opened in 1833, a product of the movement in favour of something less grotesque and more hygienic than the old churchyards.

....Undertakers` parlours of such Victorian quality must be enjoyed before it is too late.  People stare through the windows of undertakers - at what?  Unless they are connoisseurs of Victoriana there seems to me little beyond the elaboration of terror and a frowsy dread that has no name.


....It is no wonder that Sickert found so much material in Camden Town - those delorous bed-sitters, the damp basement flats where life, seen through lace curtains, is a succession of human feet wearing out the pavement tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.  

,,,,Probably the greatest aesthetic pleasure is obtained from the cast-iron urinal at the far end of Cheyne Walk.  This also is lit by a ghostly gas lamp, and behind are the curious assemblage of boats, converted wartime craft, ancient Thames barges, and the like, that house the floating Bohemian population of Chelsea.  This lavatory is also best seen at night and in the autumn, outlined against the plane trees and shining oily river.

....But Gothic architecture, being little understood, produced some weird churches in London and their provinces; `Commissioners` Gothic` the style came to be called.  Nearly all were so utilitarian as to be eminently unromantic, but I have in general a liking for them, especially when, furred with soot in the north of England, they tower over manufacturing town, over the chip and tripe shops and pigeon-haunted backyards.

Star Yard, Holburn

....Off the High Street is one of the most remarkable streets in the East End of London, Albury Street, with its extensive collection of doorways.  Both sides of the street have a succession of early eighteenth-century houses of two or three storeys.

....One of the finest and least-known London pubs is the Crown, Cunningham Place, on the edge of St John`s Wood and the mistressy Maida Vale.  The Crown is magnificently late Victorian, full of old wallpaper and marble, and possessing a billiard room complete in every detail, down to the horsehair seats.  Go there in a straw boater in summertime; smoke a Woodbine, and think about Kitchener.

If the reader was in any doubt about Geoffrey Fletcher`s stance on the future of the landscape of London, he drives it home in his closing paragraph....

`The old London was essentially a domestic city - never a grandiose or bombastic one.  Its architecture was therefore scaled to human proportions.  Of the new London, the London of take-over bids and soul-destroying office blocks, the less said, the better.`

Areas such as Spitalfields, which Fletcher considered long collapsed, are bustling and thriving with independent ventures by hardworking entrepreneurs.  I hope he would be pleased about the transition some neighbourhoods have made from dark and derelict to ones filled with neighbourhood pride.  In any case, I loved reading his thoughts on the parts of London he was passionate about and I`m curious to see if I can spot a few of them during my next trip. I`m no more a fan of glass `beehive` tower blocks than Fletcher was, but there`s usually something close by that is beautiful enough to steal my gaze.  As for eel-pie saloons....some things are best left in the past.

A wonderful read for fans of London, architecture or social history!

2 November 2018

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Our sleepy garden

The remnants of Halloween candy, leftover from Wednesday night's trick or treaters, sit on the counter, it's getting colder by the day, and an almost relentless mist/rain spits from grey skies.  And ten days ago, my sweet two year-old Border Collie bit me on the chin for nine stitches.  Never kiss a sleeping dog!  When I showed up at work a couple of hours later, colleagues asked if a plastic surgeon was called in because the wound was on my face, which made me laugh.  The image of a diva, bleeding through her gauze, rebuffing the help of the attending resident comes to mind and I'm much too practical for that.  As it turns out, I'm healing fantastically well and like to tease that Vogue just might reconsider cancelling my contract.  So yes, the atmosphere has felt distinctly Gothic around here lately.  But on to Melmoth....

Helen Franklin, an English ex-pat living in Prague, works as a translator.  She lives in austere surroundings with a meddling woman in her ninetieth year, whose clothes are nearly always dotted with previous meals.  Helen's most meaningful friendship is with Karel Pražan, whom she met while studying at the cafe in the National Library of the Czech Republic.  She seems slightly out of place in the city`s landscape, despite being a resident of it for twenty years.  The same amount of time Helen has been denying herself the pleasure of eating until satisfied; the first clue that something haunts her from the past.

Karel befriends a curmudgeonly old man, who sits every day in the same carrel at the library for long stretches of time.  Josef Hoffman writes obsessively, filling page after page, but no one knows what it is he works away at so diligently.  Then one day, Josef's heavy leather file is delivered into Karel's possession with a note....

'How deeply I regret that I must put this document in your hands, and so make you the witness to what I have done!'

Josef has felt the stare of cold black eyes following him, but when he turns around, there is no one there.  Having made a study of collecting stories in which a female spectre has haunted people throughout the ages, Josef feels the black eyes of Melmoth now boring into him.  He has been compelled to face his actions while still a child in the face of Nazi occupation.

Through a series of vignettes from the past, we realize the stories that make you cringe with horror are no more horrific than what unfolds on the news each day.  Melmoth bears 'witness to what must not be forgotten'.  So is Melmoth a symbol associated with our conscience?  It certainly feels that way to me, but I`m unfamiliar with Charles Maturin`s book Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), the inspiration for Perry`s novel. Something to rectify at a later date....

Regardless of how you choose to interpret this character, Perry has been extremely clever about it.  Midway through the book there was a moment when I felt that the story wasn't what I had bought into....but it quickly passed.  The sections of bizarre imagery such as a broken seed pearl necklace, continuing to spill in streams onto the people below while watching an opera, and sinister jackdaws perching on windowsills reminded me of reading dusty fairy tales.  The parts of the book that made me pull my knees up a little higher on the sofa are the tragedies from the past, but they are examples of tragedies that continue to happen on a daily basis.  A sobering thought we are all aware of, but how deeply do we contemplate it?

I doubt the characters of this book will stay with me for very long, but the message certainly will.  And I applaud Sarah Perry for delivering three different reading experiences from each of the three books she has written.  I have no idea what to expect next, but I`m looking forward to it!  In the meantime, I`ll distract myself with a nice book about London until my nerves have settled.

21 October 2018

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

A couple of weeks ago I stopped by our local bookshop for a copy of Town & Country, the Autumn edition.  It hadn't arrived from overseas yet, but a wander around lead me to the Mystery section.  It's not a part of the store that I venture into all that often, and even then it's usually to root out something for my husband.  But then I noticed Dorothy L. Sayers' books; they've been reissued with eye-catching covers and Gaudy Night had the highest page count of the bunch....oh, go on then.

'Harriet Vane sat at her writing table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square.  The late tulips made a brave show in the Square garden, and a quartet of early tennis-players were energetically call the score of a rather erratic and unpractised game.  But Harriet saw neither tulips nor tennis-players.  A letter lay open on the blotting-pad before her, but its image had faded from her mind to make way for another picture.  She saw a stone quadrangle, built by a modern architect in a style neither new nor old, but stretching out reconciling hands to past and present.'

Bloomsbury and Oxford - two of my favourites in a long list of favourite places in England.  Gaudy Night should have gone over a treat, but alas....it did not.  I love nothing more than to sink into the prose of Elizabeth Bowen or Virginia Woolf, so I found myself ever more frustrated at the seemingly clinical way in which Sayers doled out late night episodes of vandalism in the colleges of Oxford.  Epithets spray-painted on the wall of the library were apparently too shocking to share, but I wanted to know the topic of the vandal's ire.  I'll admit that I judged the poison pen letters sent to Harriet and other members of staff with a does of twenty-first century cynicism, because the waves of negativity on social media has hardened me.  When Peter Wimsey arrives on the scene to help Harriet wade through a few clues, I laughed out loud.  Would someone employed by the Foreign Office have the time of day to deal with a disgruntled busybody?

I emailed Mary (Mrs Miniver's Daughter) the other day to complain about the lack of description when it came to food in Gaudy Night.  Where were the gas-rings?  The mouthwatering descriptions of cake?  Harriet had been back and forth to her flat in Bloomsbury but I was still none the wiser about the pattern on her curtains or her bedclothes.  Does Harriet wear perfume?  Elizabeth Jane Howard gave her readers all sorts of detail when setting a scene, painting a portrait with words.  Mary was quick in her defense of the author which led me to point out a tea basket pulled out from under the seat of a punt while touring the river.  Not one mention of what was inside said basket until a page and a half later when Wimsey feeds crumbs to the ducks.  Crumbs from what, I ask you?

My favourite character in Gaudy Night is Lord Peter Wimsey's unabashedly entitled young nephew, Lord Saint-George.  Charm and handsomeness aside, his posh ignorance as to the cost of anything was more entertaining than it should have been.

Then a message kept creeping in - equality for women and the desire to choose education and profession over marriage.  It was what drove me to keep turning pages, because I couldn't have cared less who was sending poison pen letters to women at the college.  Although, I did gasp when Harriet left a women, while drunk and unconscious, flat on her back as she went for help.  Didn't they know about the recovery position in the 30s?  I digress.

It wasn't until the last handful of pages that I warmed up to Harriet Vane, or rather Dorothy L. Sayers' writing.  A heartwarming scene at the end of the story won me over...it probably had something to do with the fact it was absent of a single clue or red herring!  I wanted more of that style of writing, but it wouldn't be the sort of writing that made Sayers so popular.  The problem is all mine.

We drove to the lovely university city of Guelph yesterday, to scan the tables at their annual Friends of the Guelph Library book sale (a must if you live within travelling range!).  My husband came looking for me with a book in a pretty shade of blue in his hand....a Folio Society, no less.

I'm willing to give Dorothy L. Sayers another chance....

11 October 2018

Autumn is....

....my favourite season.  After a very hot summer I am more than pleased about the fresher air, atmospheric grey skies, more rain for the garden, and pumpkin pie.

Due to busy work schedules, my husband and I only had one day to celebrate the Thanksgiving weekend together.  We didn't have the luxury of choosing a 'best weather day' for our annual trip to the Niagara region for a fall fair - it had to be last Sunday.  The forecast was calling for part sun, part cloud, part rain so I thought wellies would be a safe bet....but what if the sun came out and left me broiling?  At the last minute, I left home wearing white running shoes with cropped trousers...and it rained.  Well, of course it did!  Nevermind, our umbrellas were open for less than an hour and the 'mucky farm' state of our footwear was a bond between me and other visitors as we made our way through the rows of tents.  Actually, it made a nice change from the heat of the past several years.  Drinking hot apple cider is much nicer when there's a chill in the air.

 After contemplating a few things that, in the end, we decided we didn't need more of, we brought home a clay tile featuring a jay made by Diane Sullivan from Arabesque Pottery.  The back of the tile is lined with cork so it can be used as a trivet but it's much too nice for that.  This fierce-looking fellow will keep watch over one of my bookcases once I've bought a stand.  And we look forward to seeing Diane again as she was out of a specific botanical tile that also caught my eye.

 Forget what I wrote about not buying things I have enough of.  My collection of bookmarks probably hovers somewhere around 30, BUT...I don't own one featuring an English robin.  The gentleman who made the bookmark mentioned that he had sketched the robin while visiting the Isle of Man this past summer.  I like the idea of my robin fluttering around a garden thousands of miles away, while marking my page here in Ontario.  Anyway, Mr Thomson burns his sketches onto very thin, flexible wood veneer followed by the addition of colour, if he so chooses.  You can see more of Mr Thomson's work here.

After snacking on roasted yams, fries, and the must-eat apple fritters fresh from the largest cauldron of oil you'll ever see, we drove to Bench Brewing.  My husband was taken with their product after a bit of sampling in the wine and beer tent.  A drive in this area, at the base of a wall of trees along the Escarpment, is something of a gift in itself.  The reds, yellows, and oranges of the leaves against the cloudy sky were beautiful and several historic homes had their porches dressed with pumpkins and stalks of corn.  We were very impressed with Andres, who gave us a passionate tutorial about Bench's brewing techniques and some of their ingredients.  My husband was thrilled to discover a couple of new favourites when it comes to beer.  I wanted to double back for more hot apple fritters!

Another special moment from last week was having a very pretty fox calmly trot up to us while we walked our border collie, Kip, along the trails not far from home.  He/She stopped just a few feet away and looked at Kip as more of a potential playmate than anything else.  We didn't move a muscle, Kip didn't bat an eye, and after a couple of minutes the fox gracefully jumped through the rails in the fence and moved on.

In bookish news....I set aside Kate Atkinson's Transcription at page 206.  Right book, wrong mood?  I'll try again, but in the meantime I'm enjoying Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night and have ordered a copy of Sarah Perry's Melmoth as my 'spooky' read for the end of October.  I'm just a tad (over the top) excited for the day it lands in the mailbox!

21 September 2018

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

When the Man Booker longlist was announced recently, it was Warlight that piqued my interest with its setting in post-war England.  A few days later, a customer at the library returned her copy and was promptly asked (ever the inquisitive circulation clerk) what she thought of it, to which she replied 'I think it's a masterpiece'.  A label like that sets the bar pretty high so when my hold came in soon afterwards, other reading plans would simply have to wait.  So, with a riveting first sentence, I dove it.

'In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.'

Nathaniel and Rachel are young teens, living with their parents in Ruvigny Gardens, London.  Within a few pages, their parents announce they'll be leaving for Singapore on an extended business trip for Unilever.  Their father flies on ahead with remarkably little fanfare as Rose's carefully considered wardrobe is packed into a large travelling trunk.  The teens have been enrolled in separate boarding schools and a guardian, whom Rachel and Nathaniel refer to as The Moth, has been left in charge of their home.  As Nathaniel later learns, his mother has known The Moth for several years as both were fire watchers on the roof of the Grosvenor House Hotel during the war.  Or, at least that's what the siblings have been told, because once their mother's trunk has been discovered, hidden in the house after her departure, their bubble of security has been burst.

Within a couple of weeks, Nathaniel decides that living at home with a stranger is preferable to life at boarding school.  The trajectory of his life will be forever altered.  The Moth makes an unsettling decision to invite a former boxer known as The Pimlico Darter to join the household.  His particular talent is smuggling greyhounds into England using the night skies as cover while gliding along the Thames on river boats.  Nathaniel is pulled by the sense of adventure and becomes The Darter's steadfast companion, honing skills that will come in handy for better or worse. 

As the years progress, Nathaniel and Rachel form attachments to the various people who come and go from their home in Ruvigny Gardens.  Some are suspect from the beginning but others have layers that are revealed over time, the point being that the people living among us conceal things from the simple to the implausible.  Trading the pavement of London for the paths of Suffolk doesn't necessarily mean guaranteed immunity from the covert actions of people with connections, or unfinished business. 

Ondaatje weaves the story of some of Warlight's characters through time, backwards and forwards.  Were all of the connections made as characters' paths crossed plausible?  I did have a couple of moments of cynicism, but at the end of the day, this is a ripping good read.  Warlight is clever, entertaining, and at times the tension made me forget all about watching the clock when it was almost time to leave for work.  Going back through my notes I found it interesting there wasn't a single bold scrawl that says 'QUOTE' as I often do while reading, but there are seven pages of clues and suspicious behaviour.  Apparently I was as much 'on the case' as Nathaniel.  Warlight is the sort of book that would be fun to read over again with the gift of hindsight.

I was disappointed yesterday when the Man Booker Shortlist was announced and Warlight wasn't on it.  At the end of the day, there are many winners of various prizes for all kinds of books, but if they don't appeal to me then it's a moot point.  Warlight suited me down to the ground.

Cornish Children by Harold Harvey

8 September 2018

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

Next month is the ninetieth anniversary of Orlando (1928), Woolf's sixth novel.  What began as a diversion shortly after publishing To the Lighthouse has resulted in being a strong favourite with readers of Woolf's novels.  I wonder what she would think of her 'folly' being so relevant in 2018.  While parts of the world have made great strides when it comes to accepting people as they are, we are still a society that likes to create policy, define, and label.  That Woolf, many decades ago, could transition her main character from a man to a woman without so much as a sigh feels refreshingly uncomplicated.  As for the novel as a whole, Orlando reminded me of Saturday mornings as a nine year old, reading fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm.  There's a lot going on that doesn't make sense, but you're willing to believe anything is possible.

The story begins in Tudor England with Elizabeth I on the throne and the young noble has caught her eye.  Orlando spends time wandering through town as Woolf paints a picture of his day to day life....past the stables, around hawthorn bushes, through the park with its herds of roaming deer.  In the distance lies St Paul's.  After a few pages filled with observations, time jumps ahead to a new monarch on the throne.  Britain is blanketed by The Big Frost and the Thames has frozen solid.   Orlando sees the Russian Princess Marousha skating on the ice and falls head over heels in love.  But there's hitch, he is already betrothed to another.

Because Orlando magically travels through the centuries, aging at a snail's pace, let's just say he breaks some hearts and has his broken in turn.  As Orlando rises in favour to the subsequent King Charles, word spreads about his allure and, of all things, his beautiful calves.  Then, during a festive evening, in a swirl of ringing bells, clocks striking the hour, Turkish guards from the Imperial Body Guard along with British Admirality, Orlando goes to bed, in something of a trance, for seven days.  Upon waking, Orlando is now a woman.

'Orlando looked himself up and down in a long looking-glass, without showing any signs of discomposure, and went, presumably, to his bath.'

Woolf then goes on to state that although Orlando had changed in appearance, everything else about her character is exactly as it was before.  Leaving Constantinople with a gipsy, Orlando embarks on a journey over hills and through valleys, while writing an epic poem called The Oak Tree.  When the atmosphere among her fellow travellers begins to feel ominous, Orlando jumps onto a ship bound for London.  She's also realizing a few things....

'She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled.  'Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,' she reflected' 'for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature.  They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline.  There's the hairdressing,' she thought, 'that alone will take an hour of my morning; there's looking in the looking glass, another hour, there's stays and lacing; there's washing and powdering; there's changing from silk to lace and from lace to paduasoy; there's being chaste year in year out...'

Orlando meets other characters who appear to be one sex but are simply masquerading as the other for one purpose or another.  As time passes, Orlando begins to take on more of the traits one would associate with being stereotypically female, as in being afraid of fast carriages or modesty.  The underlying message is that men and women assume roles.

As Orlando moves through the centuries, I thoroughly enjoyed the many historical and geographical references, such as London's Great Fire and the plague.  She is also amazed by her first sight of a bookshop, trains and cars.  I love stories centred around time travel and that moment of wonder (or fright) when a character first encounters something we take for granted.

Vita Sackville-West's son, Nigel Nicholson, has been quoted as saying Orlando is 'the longest and most charming love letter in literature.  Reading this novel on the heels of a book of letters between the two women, I would most humbly agree.  But it's also a tribute to Knole, Sackville-West's ancestral home in Sevenoaks, Kent.  From the gardens to the number of rooms, and even the names of the servants and housemaids (I smiled at every mention of Basket and Bartholomew) all from the country house's records.

Orlando ends at the twelfth stroke of midnight on Thursday the eleventh of October, 1928, the date it was published.  I've just checked the calendar....that date falls on a Thursday this year, as well.  I digress.  This story amazed me on so many levels, from Woolf's incredible imagination, her keen observations, her foresight concerning gender issues, not to mention her general knowledge of so many historical details.  The copy I read was borrowed from the library but I will be buying a lovely edition to keep. 

Vita Sackville-West, Lady Nicholson by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos

10 August 2018

The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell Leaska

Over the past few weeks we've been busy moving everything from two floors down to the basement in preparation of new flooring.  It's a project we've dreaded but it had to be done.  So now the worst of the upheaval is over, the new floors are in and they look gorgeous; baseboard delivery is Monday for round two.  While the installers were hard at it, my job was to make sure Kip didn't escape through an open door.  The two of us stayed outside during a scorcher of a summer while my husband escaped to work each day.  Kip nestled under the dogwoods, racing unsuspecting joggers along the fence while I read (it wasn't as blissful as it sounds!). A book of letters is absolutely perfect for times when your level of distraction is high.  Despite all the busyness, these letters swept me away to London, the gardens of Sissinghurst, and visions of Monk's House where I spent some time while on holiday last year.

Vita and Virginia could have simply picked up the telephone to call one another (and, at times, they did) but I'm so thankful for their trail of correspondence.  Their letters start off as friendly but formal, then they become dotted with humour, inside jokes, pet names, intimacy and then pleas for reassurances of affection,  reflecting the hallmarks of so may of our relationships.  But most people are not two of the most iconic figures from the twentieth century.  This collection of letters provides a rich portrayal of the everyday life of these two women, the inception of some of their most famed writings, the anxieties surrounding the publishing of their work, and fascinating name dropping of an assortment of socialites and celebrities of the day.

The two women first met in December of 1922, at a dinner hosted by Clive Bell.  At first their letters were sporadic, becoming regular by 1924.  When Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925, Vita wrote....

'One thing she has done for me for ever: made it unnecessary ever to go to London again, for the whole of London in June is in your first score of pages.  (Couldn't you do a winter London now?  with fogs and flares at the street corners, blue twilights, lamps, and polished streets?) 

Having only read four of Virginia's books I'm wondering if she ever did write about a wintery London?

I loved the gossipy moments such as Vita using the term 'misty Gloomsbury' while comparing her fondness for warmer climates such as in Greece and Persia with Virginia's love of London's squares.  And thinking everyone within the Bloomsbury sphere were accepting of fluid relationships, but not taking into account their elder relatives.  Vanessa's elder relations were shocked to discover she was living in sin (and does she ever sell a picture?).  The image of Virginia Woolf with any other hairstyle than the casual look I've seen in photos is difficult to reconcile.  At one point, Virginia tries out a new look...

   'She cut my hair off.  I'm shingled.  That being so - and it'll look all right in a month or two, the hairdresser says - bound to be a little patchy at first - lets get on to other things.  Its (sic) off; its in the kitchen bucket; my hairpins have been offered up like crutches in St Andrews, Holborn, at the high altar.'

Vita is much more effusive when it comes to sharing her feelings, bluntly asking Virginia to use a term of endearment in her letters.  When Virginia then starts her next letter by referring to Vita as 'Honey' it made me feel sorry for her.  This is a woman with so many thoughts in her head but seemingly, incredibly repressed in her ability (or confidence) to share emotion with an intimate.  In 1927, Vita writes...

'And why have you such an art of keeping so much of yourself up your sleeve: as to make me suspect that after twenty years there would still be something to be unfolded, - some last layer not uncoiled.'

But on a lighter note, in 1928 Vita writes to ask if Virginia's ears are still sore after being pierced and if she enjoys the sensation of twirling them once they've become stuck.  Apparently Vita did!

Part of the pleasure of reading these letters is discovering the extent of Vita's travels and her somewhat bohemian lifestyle.  Her exploits were very much a window through which Virginia experienced life beyond the country lanes of Rodmell, or even London.  I never knew where Vita was off to next, but my favourite snippet from one of her letters to Virginia is this one....

  'I went to tea with a lady lying on a divan playing with a parakeet.  I went to tea with another lady, - an old one this time, - who lives with a nephew who is expected to commit a crime at any moment.  She consoles herself with 3 Aberdeen terriers.  A real Balzac household - plus a sister-in-law with a broken leg.  When not in Berlin they all live in a XIIth century castle near Hanover, all at sixes and sevens, and no money so that the roof is falling in.  Another sister in law law just died of a broken heard, and a son-in-law of appendicitis.'

I laughed at the epic scale of a rant by Vita's mother when she sent ...twenty-four pages of abuse.  There is no mention of what set her mother, Baroness Sackville, but it didn't seem to bother Vita very much.  And in 1933, when Vita and Harold travel to the States for four months on a lecture tour, she writes about seeing the plains and cowboys.  A far cry from the green and pleasant land of Knole in Sevenoaks.  Vita also expresses an interest in bringing back a tin of salamanders for the greenhouse after being to the Sahara.  I wonder if she did?

Vita's gardens at Sissinghurst provided Virginia and Leonard with plenty of extras to supplement their rations at the beginning of WWII.  Baskets of fruits and vegetables would appear on the doorstep of Monk's House when Vita's petrol supply would allow it.  When a glorious packet of butter arrives in Virginia's envelope box, she eats a chunk from the block right then and there.

The last letter in this collection is Virginia's last letter to Vita, six days before her suicide.  It is short, without a sign of anything remotely like a good-bye, in fact, Virginia refers to a possible visit to Sissinghurst.  The creamy blankness on the last three-quarters of the page in my book -  heartbreaking.  Having such an intimate glimpse into the lives of these two women and their relationship is a gift.  I can't help wondering how many collections of its kind there will be in the future with everyone whipping off short texts.

Delightfully, this collection of letters has cascaded into another facet of the relationship between Vita and Virginia....Orlando!

6 July 2018

Tell It to a Stranger by Elizabeth Berridge

One of the display units at the library is all mine for the month of July and I've chosen to work with 'Shorts for Summer' as a theme.  Short stories can be a hard sell but I do my best to convince customers they can be swept away by just a few pages of clever writing.  I checked on my display a couple of days ago and was thrilled to see lots of gaps where books had been the day before. 

I've dipped in and out of Tell It to a Stranger several times over the past few years, revisiting a few of my favourite stories several times.  Last week I read this collection (Persephone Books) from cover to cover and feel it's a shame that Elizabeth Berridge's writing isn't more widely known.  It's time to do my bit to change that!  The stories in Tell It to a Stranger are every bit as good as Rosamond Lehmann's The Gipsy's Baby, published the year before in 1946.  The difference in popularity may be down to Berridge's shying away from publicity whereas Lehmann's personal life and activism created plenty.  I digress.

There are eleven stories in this collection, and whether it's intentional or not, the middle story has left the greatest impression for being so chilling.  Lullaby begins with the wife of an RAF pilot dealing with the pull of her responsibilities at home and being available to her husband while he's on leave.  The draw of an evening out, just the two of them, would be so much fun - but there's the baby to consider.  The opportunity to record her voice on a wax disc gives the couple an idea...record the soothing words used to put their son to sleep and then slip away to enjoy a drink out.  Then the couple push their time limit.  It's impossible to read this story without feeling the creeping niggle of dread.  It still happened to me despite this being my third reading.

Another favourite is Chance Callers, set in the English countryside.  Frank struggles to find his way back to the man he was before the war and the devastating result of being a POW in Siam.  His wife, Beryl craves home ownership but money and opportunities are limited.  When Frank asks her about returning to the town where they previously lived, Beryl relects...

'She could not explain to him the real reason why to go back to the town where they had lived so briefly together would be dreadful to her, a sort of death.  She did not quite know herself.  The peeling, exhortatory posters, the queues, the prefabricated houses planted like sugar boxes amongst the cleared debris had something to do with it - but not all.  In an effort to pin down a fraction of this feeling, she said, her face like a stone, 'I couldn't bear to live in our old street again.  I'd be remembering the Verneys under all those bricks.'

Captain Banks lives on the outskirts of the village in a country manor with a parcel of land.  His invalid brother is under his care, bedridden with what they think to be infantile paralysis.  Desperation and the sentiment of nothing ventured, nothing gained, Frank and Beryl call on Captain Banks to inquire about the possibility of purchasing just enough land to build a small house on.  After a short conversation that leaves Beryl and Frank feeling under the thumb of yet another establishment larger than themselves, they leave with their dignity intact but deflated.  Captain Banks climbs the stairs to his brother's room and finds him lying in an odd position.  He quickly realizes that his brother has died while he's been engaged in pointless conversation with strangers.  Contemplating his family's history, his own past and what lies ahead, the Captain contemplates the point of going on.  This is domestic fiction written with a pen in one hand and a hammer in the other.

My top pick from this collection is The Prisoner.  Miss Everton, nearing fifty years old, sees lorries approach her cottage....

   'It was a frosty morning when the German prisoners first came to dig drainage ditches in the fields that lay beyond Miss Everton's garden walls.  She was out with her dog in the chill air by the beech trees when two large lorries roared up past her across the grass and she had a glimpse of alien faces, of packed cardboard figures, cold and raw-looking.'

A man looking too young to be in charge of prisoners approaches and asks if there's a water tap they could have access to.  Restlessly, Miss Everton goes about her day while listening for the click of the garden gate as the men come and go.  Having the Germans in close proximity reminds her of  time spent with her brother and his studies in Bonn, when Germany brought more pleasant thoughts to mind..

Eventually, a young prisoner named Erich, asks Miss Everton if she would like to trade some of her coffee ration for their tea.  It's the beginning of a friendship, the inevitable that so often follows when two people from different backgrounds come together through kindness and caring.  This is the type of short story you wish could go on for another hundred pages.

I've shared three snippets from this poignant collection of stories from the 1940s, hopefully enough to tempt more readers towards Elizabeth Berridge's work.  Tell It to a Stranger is a must-read for anyone interested in World War II fiction, as well as fans of Mollie Panter-Downes' Good Evening, Mrs Craven.

Contemplation by Francis Edwin Hodge 

24 June 2018

The Rare and the Beautiful by Cressida Connolly

A few weeks ago, an adventure in sofa shopping coincided with a book sale at the Oakville Public Library.  A better way to prime the mind for looking at fabric swatches I can't imagine.  The books at the sale are sold for $1.50 per pound, which keeps you guessing as to how much the total will be once your stack hits the scale bit it's usually less than expected.  On this visit, I came away with only five books, but one that will be a favourite of the year.

Raised in a passionately religious family near Birminham, the Garmans had an unusually laid-back approach towards discipline for the turn of the nineteenth century.  Walter Garman was the local doctor as well as being involved in the church.  Their mother, Marjorie, loved Beethoven, reading and the natural world.  All of the Garman's nine children were strikingly exotic looking, with a few of the girls being compared to Cleopatra, down to their prominent cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes.

Kathleen Garman

While young, the siblings grew up in idyllic circumstances with picnics, holidays at the shore, education and servants.   Their parents were lenient when it came to matters of childhood tomfoolery, but morality was a different matter.  When Mr Garman caught Mary and Kathleen reading Madame Bovary, he swiftly summoned the rest of the children to the nursery so they could watch as the book was thrown into the fire.

The outbreak of the First World War drew many of the young men away from the village.  When Walter Garman expressed his hope that the older girls would eventually marry into the clergy, Mary and Kathleen were having none of it.  Without very much thought as to how they would cope, the young women packed up what they could carry and ran away to London.

Without means, Kathleen worked as an artist's model and helped with the horses that pulled the Harrod's carriage.  Mary drove a delivery van for Lyons' Corner Houses.  A small allowance was soon granted by their father but the young women were admirably resourceful when it came to  getting by.  Once introduced into the society of Bohemian London,  and as regulars at Café Royal it wasn't long before they were in the company of Roger Fry, Wyndham Lewis, E M Forster and Lytton Strachey.  The sisters were eventually able to afford a small flat in Regent Square on the edge of Bloomsbury.  

The trajectory of the young women's lives makes for incredibly riveting reading.  At a time when women were considered to be prostitutes for being outside without a hat, the Garman sisters wore their hair long and flowing.  Their clothing was bohemian and full of colour; they favoured the look of dark kohl accentuating their eyes.  Shortly after becoming the muse of sculptor Jacob Epstein, Kathleen became his lover.  His wife seemed to accept his various affairs, even raising his daughter by another woman as her own, but she was intensely jealous of his latest muse.  Summoning Kathleen to her home on Guildford Street, Epstein's wife drew a pistol and shot her rival.  In an attempt to quash any scandal, Mrs Epstein then proceeded to invite Kathleen (once she had recovered) to join her in an open taxi through Hyde Park...which Kathleen accepted.

The biographies of Kathleen's siblings are equally fascinating and have gone a long way to pique my interest in this Bohemian circle of family and their counterparts.  I was also fascinated by the Garman's determination to live their lives as they pleased despite what anyone thought.  Which is not to say there weren't recriminations.  Lorna had her first child at seventeen, then, while still married, had a long-term relationship with Laurie Lee (he lived in a trailer near Lorna's home).  In fact, the lovers had a daughter, Yasmin, who was graciously raised by Lorna's husband as his own.  Lorna's much-revered blue-eyed gaze was eventually turned by the artist Lucien Freud, leading Laurie Lee to the brink of suicide.

Lorna Garman with Lucien Freud

There were times when I wondered where the money to survive was coming from, but perhaps such details were politely overlooked in letters and other communications.  Writing articles or producing art on lazy days in sunny gardens would scarcely pay the bills that came about through moving house, feeding and clothing children or setting off to join the Civil War in Spain.  But through their many adventures, the Garmans always seemed to scrape by.  Financial matters and household responsibilities lagged far behind artistic pursuits, reading, letter writing, or political conversation.  Mary, Kathleen and Lorna didn't seem to be weighed down by the portrayal of an ideal wife or mother during the 1920s or 30s. 

   'Like her mother, Kathleen serenely avoided housework.  She never took to blacking grates and Liquid Gumption, and is remembered as doing the washing-up with her coat on, as if to escape it as soon as she could.  'I never saw my mother in an apron,' says Kitty.  'She didn't even know what over gloves were for.'  

The Rare and the Beautiful
is a must read for anyone interested in the social history of women during the interwar period and beyond.  As much as I find the nuances in domestic fiction to be endearing and educational, I was enthralled with these young women who grabbed life with both hands.  The Garman sisters ventured forth despite risk, indulged their curious minds, toyed with convention, and apologies were rare.  Fabulous right to the very end....

'Lorna was a guest at the wedding, and all eyes followed her instead of the bride, as she had doubtless intended.  To the few who didn't come under her spell, she seemed cold, manipulative.  Her gift for intuition could be perceived as witch-like.'

As Cressida Connolly describes the end of each Garman's life, I couldn't help but think of all they had seen and done.  Weaving through the lives of well-known members of London's cultural, artistic and political landscape, I find it hard to believe their story is not more widely known. 

As I wrote earlier, this book will rate as one of my favourites of the year!

Kathleen Garman

7 June 2018

Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce

We're in the middle of a minor war zone of our own at the moment.  Removing all of the carpet to make way for new flooring sounded easy peasy...at the time.  And moving every piece of furniture shouldn't be a big deal for two able-bodied adults.  Five bookcases neatly lined with books looks lovely...those same books scattered in piles and boxes is a bit of a mess.  But a nice mess.  What choice do we have but to just get on with things!  A sentiment perfectly timed with the Blitz Spirit of this wonderful new book set during World War II.

My good friend Mary, at Mrs Miniver's Daughter, sent me the link to Dear Mrs Bird last winter.  Soon after that, the book was mentioned on a podcast.  Learning there had been a seven-way bidding war between publishing companies was all I needed to know before promptly placing a book order.  Congratulations to Picador for coming out on top. 

Just about everyone in the blogsphere knows the synopsis of this book, but just in case someone has been on a long break without social media....

'When I first saw the advertisement in the newspaper I thought I might actually burst.  I'd had rather a cheerful day so far despite the Luftwaffe annoying everyone by making us all late for work, and then I'd managed to get hold of an onion, which was very good news for a stew.'

Twenty-two year old Emmeline Lake lives with her best friend, Bunty, in an attic flat in London.  Since childhood, Emmeline has dreamed of a career in journalism.  With the war on, her dream now centres around becoming a War Correspondent.  An advertisement for a Junior connected with The London Evening Chronicle sets Emmeline's heart racing....but she's failed to read the ad carefully.  After landing the position and packing in a perfectly respectable job, Emmeline is left embarrassed when she realizes her new job will be sorting through the incoming mail for Mrs Henrietta Bird, an Agony Aunt.  A more delightful caricature of the uptight tweed persona would be hard to find....

'The desk was almost entirely bare, apart from an untouched ink blotter edged with green leather, a telephone, and a large framed photograph of Mrs Bird in front of an ornamental lake.  Dressed informally in a thick woollen getup and leather gloves, she was surrounded by a large group of gun dogs, all of whom were gazing up at her with quite fanatical devotion.' 

Soon realizing that Mrs Bird's stubborn refusal to entertain any Unpleasantness from letter writers seeking advice, Emmeline grabs an opportunity.  Secreting letters from young ladies who have fallen in love with European soldiers, women tempted to have an affair, or the lonely, Emmeline writes back under the guise of Mrs Bird.  It's not all that difficult as Mrs Bird finds all sorts of excuses to leave the office early, my favourite being the Cat Evaculation Meeting.

The first person narrative is key in making the reader identify with Emmeline's struggle with the morals and ethics of impersonating her senior at work.  But with each passing night of the Blitz and the thought that each day might be her last, Emmeline feels she has nothing to lose. 

Dear Mrs Bird is not a book to be pigeon-holed.  There was a moment when, after a few pages of jolly hockey sticks-type linguistics I wondered if I had bought something perhaps too sickly sweet.  But then the story deals with heartbreak, the horrors involving London's Fire Service, smashed windows, craters in the road, and the 'crump' of German bombs exploding in the distance.  Pearce's  description of ghost-like citizens, covered in the dust from the bombed out ruins of their own homes paints a devastatingly real picture.  And then, in stiff-upper lip fashion,  she would make me laugh...

   'Bunty, who I knew had been practising looking casual, was in the living room, standing with one hand on the mantelpiece while staring into mid-distance.  she looked as if she was modelling a pattern for Vogue.'
I loved my time spent reading Dear Mrs Bird, coincidentally while listening to 1940s swing which is my background music of choice while at home.  Sprinkled with nuggets of social history I enjoyed the mention of knitting patterns, herring pie, paste sandwiches, and wartime rations, and the peripheral characters are fantastically well-drawn.  Also, the author's message of the importance of women being confident and in control of their circumstance was hit home in one of my favourite lines....

'Granny didn't spend half her life chaining herself to railings for today's woman to moon around waiting for some chap to look after her.'

The rights to this story have been sold, so stay tuned for the television program....I can't wait!

27 May 2018

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Oh the joy of a second-hand bookshop, in close proximity to a university, once a term is complete.  And so there we were, a couple of weeks ago, browsing the shelves of BMV Books on Bloor, stuffed with required reading that had been swiftly sold off.  There were at least sixteen copies of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in three different editions creating a visual banner screaming 'Read Me!'.

My impression of this story was formed by the images usually associated with it...a teacher surrounded by her pupils.  I was expecting childhood hijinks admonished by stern words from a Scottish authoritarian who would shape the young ladies into stellar examples of womanhood.  This feeble theory of alchemy couldn't have been more wrong.

   'By the time they were sixteen, and had reached the fourth forn, and loitered beyond the gates after school, and had adapted themselves to the orthodox regime, they remained unmistakably Brodie, and were all famous in the school, which is to say they were held in suspicion and not much liking.'

The Marcia Blaine School for Girls employs Miss Brodie to educate young girls of an impressionable age.  The world is full of mystery to eleven year old children during the 1930s, so they are in thrall to their teacher.  Miss Brodie's tales of romance with a soldier who died in Flanders Fields during the Great War, religion, art and politics (particularly Fascism) are conducted in court-like sessions.  Books are placed at the ready in preparation of a surprise visit by the school's headmistress, Miss MacKay, who would like Miss Brodie to resign in favour of a 'progressive' school.

At the beginning, I felt Miss Brodie's adoration by her pupils was understandable, but as the girls grew into their teen years the situation became more sinister.  Miss Brodie covets the adoration of those who are easily manipulated.  When she slyly plants the idea that one student, being the sort who is 'full of sex', is capable of an affair, my image of Miss Brodie was turned upside down.  In an arrangement that would be something of an affair by proxy, as Miss Brodie considers Mr Lloyd to be the love of her life, Jean Brodie also sets up another young pupil to report back any news surrounding any trysts.

The term 'prime' is applied many times by Miss Brodie and, through imitation, by her pupils.  I can only imagine the meaning intended is that you are at the top of your game, and a dangerous game is being played by Miss Brodie.  But then there comes a fall when Miss Brodie is betrayed.

I have to admit that early in the book I wondered what all the fuss was about.  Why was this seemingly benign story so highly esteemed?  Then the realization that Miss Jean Brodie could be economical with the truth and capable of manipulating those under her care sank in.  I was gripped.  And steering girls in their middle teen years toward sex and collusion is only part of the horror, another student eager to please Miss Brodie joins the conflict of the Spanish Civil War with devastating consequences.   

Muriel Spark has accomplished much in what is barely more than a novella, and left me just a tiny bit unsettled.  Read it!

Poise by John Duncan Fergusson (1874 - 1961)

20 May 2018

The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes

Does anyone else prefer to read about cooking over being an active participant?  I could live on the simple things like scrambled eggs or avocado on toast.  No matter how many times I chide myself for browning the onions before the garlic has been peeled, or even worse, the butternut squash is still in its original form - I never learn.  It's just a job that must be performed while I daydream about something else.  And then there's the cleaning up afterwards.  But I do find that a novel is all the better for a run to the shops, measuring out tea or an aromatic kitchen as the scones bake.  My husband is not allowed to delete the episodes of Nigel Slater's cooking show that I've already watched and when friends visit England I ask for the Waitrose newspaper.

I've never read anything by Julian Barnes before but it's been nice being introduced via his kitchen.  Knowing that his 'junk drawer', as it's called in our house, has contained a couple of spider corpses and a blanched almond makes him seem less intimidating.  And Barnes made me laugh with his frustration over recipes that failed to turn out as promised, reminding me of a cookbook I bought by Tamsin Day-Lewis.  The photo of a chickpea and spinach soup looked just like one I absolutely loved at a cafe in Hampstead.  Following the recipe, it called for a tin of diced tomatoes which turned the whole thing...well, not like the photo!  The soup was delicious but not what I was hoping for.  And then there's laissez-faire measurements....

'...For recipe writers, onion come in only three sizes, 'small'. 'medium', and 'large', whereas onions in your shopping bag vary from the size of a shallot to that of a curling stone.  So an instruction such as 'Take two medium onions' sets off a lot of pedantic scrabbling in the onion basket for bulbs that fit the description (obviously, since medium is a comparative term, you have to compare across the while spectrum of onions you possess).'

Thus explaining why Barnes refers to himself as The Pedant in the Kitchen.  Some of his actions may seem slightly pedantic, but in many instances he makes a very valid point.  Does anyone really need Vichy water when cooking carrots?  I laughed at the image conjured up while reading that he yells out 'someone is lying!' when a completed recipe is achingly disappointing and suggesting a Depression Probability rating should be included.

I laughed out loud several times while reading this book, and enjoyed anecdotes about the writing of other chefs and cooks. 

'Not that Jane Grigson was a food luvvie - her views were always very clar, never soggy.  She knew what she didn't like and what didn't work.  Wild cabbage is 'very nasty indeed'; most Englsih turnips are only 'suitable for the over-wintering of herds, school-children, prisoners, and lodgers'.

You'll thank me for leaving out the details for skinning eels, or what Barnes imagines Heston Blumenthal would do with a human brain, should one ever be offered up, but the addition of licorice is mentioned.

So if I ever have the chance to meet Barnes in person, the ice breaker will be discussing the state of our junk drawers, and just who is the Canadian who tried to make pesto from dried basil?

Full of witty observations and refreshing honesty when it comes to cooking in the age of Instagram, this is a wonderful book for other 'pedants in the kitchen' or for those of us who just love reading about it.

Grill Mates by Kim Roberti

9 May 2018

Tory Heaven or Thunder on the Right by Marghanita Laski

We in Ontario are having a General Election of our own next month.  At the moment, we're wading through a stream of campaign promises, negative ads, and debate.  The 'promises' and statements usually serve to raise my blood pressure because I've heard it all before...elect us and your life will be easier.  One of my first experiences with voting resulted in a feeling of betrayal when auto insurance rates failed to plummet.  I was so naive.  Politically, the cost of auto insurance is the least of our worries these days.  So is this a good time to delve into a book called Tory Heaven?  With Marghanita Laski behind the message, the answer is an emphatic 'YES!'.

It's 1945 and five British citizens have been living meagerly on an island near New Guinea after escaping from Singapore.  Spending several years away from the luxuries of their former lives is a great leveller and everyone gets along.  After hilarious speculation regarding the radio, transmissions become possible and the group hear the news that Britain is now under Conservative rule.

   'Janice said,  "They wouldn't nationalize Claridges, would they?"   No one answered.  Ughtred said, as if to comfort himself, "After all, they may be Socialists, but they're Britishers.  That's what we must cling to - they're Britishers."   "You're pleased, Martin darling, aren't you?"  Penelope asked timidly.   Martin said vehemently, "I'm so delighted I can't begin to express it.  Do any of you realize what this means?  Government of the intellectuals, by the intellectuals, for the intellectuals!  That this should have come in my lifetime!  God, I'd like to be there to see it."'

Finally, salvation arrives when a naval ship rescues the stranded islanders.  Sailing for home, the five friends contemplate life in a Socialist Britain.  Ughtred expresses his revulsion for hand-woven fabrics and communal meals.  But when the ship docks and its passengers are processed, there is confusion when the group is separated and sent to different areas.

   'One of the shore officials came hustling along the third-class deck.  "Any Grade A's here?"  he was shouting.  "Any Grade A's?'   He stopped and looked at James.  "You're a Grade A, aren't you?" he asked briskly.  "Got your disc?"   James said, "I don't understand.  Is this all something new?"   "Ah," said the official.  "Easy to see you've not been home lately.  Never mind  I'll get you fixed up.  Public-school man?"'

And so it begins.  Everyone is graded by family lineage, wealth, education and other factors.  The government even dictates the accepted form of socialization within the grades, as in A restaurants, B pubs, and D housekeepers for A families.  For James, being bestowed with a Grade A status means being presented with a bag of gold coins, access to the best tailors and five-star hotels; there's even a woman in his bed to increase his level of comfort.  Everything is possible and accessible.

Following James as he lives the sort of life he believes he was born for was very entertaining and made me laugh out loud several times.  When asked about his choice of occupation there is no hesitation in James's reply...'Man-About-Town'.  As ridiculously snobby as that sounds, he is the Tory's dream man.  According to the people in charge, achieving the ultimate status of doing as you please is an example for everyone - it sets you apart.  But, in a classic example of 'careful what you wish for' James begins to realize that there is a price to pay for an easy life and when choice is removed,  he is left feeling desperate.  For one female character, her D status has left her desperate from the beginning.

Anyone who reads Tory Heaven will be in awe of the astuteness with which Laski writes of the perils of what is, at its root, a dictatorship.  What makes this story even more astounding is that Laski was of the Jewish faith and would have had knowledge of the atrocities in Germany.  To pen this story shortly after WWII, with a sentiment of charm and humour, while at the same time sending a very forceful message that no one is better than anyone else is to Laski's credit.

Tory Heaven is an excellent read.  Extraordinarily, both sombre and fun, this is a story that will stay with you and provoke no small amount of thought reflection about the many ways people are still being 'graded' today.

Reissued by Persephone Books (2018). 

2 May 2018

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Beautiful cover art will draw me in like a moth to a flame.  I now realize a title can do the same thing.  Browsing the internet for new books, the very name 'Evelyn Hardcastle' conjured up the image of an intriguing woman, while the Art Deco-style motif on the cover suggested a fabulous era.  Taking a quick peek at reviews, someone wrote that the less you know about this story before digging in, the better.  A request to purchase was promptly placed with the order department at the library while I sat back and waited.  Now that I've finished the book, I agree with the reviewer's suggestion...the less you know going in, the better.  My first gasp came within the first few pages.

The story begins with a man running through a forest in the dark of night as he screams the name of a woman he is sure has just been murdered.  Seemingly out of nowhere, a man appears and drops a compass into Aiden's pocket and murmurs the word 'East' before disappearing.  In the distance is a 'sprawling Georgian manor house, its redbrick façade entombed in ivy'.  

Aiden finally makes his way to the nearby country manor called Blackheath, but people are referring to him as 'Sebastian'.  Judging by the formal attire it's apparent there is a celebration of some sort, but no one seems to react when 'Sebastian', in a state of panic, makes a desperate plea for help.  Once directed to his room, 'Sebastian' searches it for clues and finds an invitation in his suit jacket.

Lord and Lady Hardcastle request the pleasure of your company at a masquerade ball celebrating the return of their daughter, Evelyn, from Paris.  Celebrations will take place at Blackheath House over the second weekend in September.  Owing to Blackheath's isolation, transport to the house will be arranged for all of our guests from the nearby village of Abberly.

Later on, seeing his reflection in a mirror, Aiden is horrified to see someone else's features staring back.  And it's not long before he has a visitor...

'...a man dressed as a medieval plague doctor, his feathers a black greatcoat, the beak belonging to a porcelain mask, glinting in the light of a nearby lamp.  Presumably this is his costume for the ball tonight, though that doesn't explain why he's wearing such sinister garb in the middle of the day.'

The Plague Doctor reveals the extent of the twisted ordeal about to unfold.  Within the span of eight days, Aiden must reveal who murdered Evelyn Hardcastle, recently back from exile in Paris, while he occupies different host bodies.  These host bodies are all people known to the Hardcastles and Aiden will be exposed to each individual's behaviours, perspective and peccadilloes.  If he fails to solve the mystery, he won't leave Blackheath alive. 

This story grabbed me from the very beginning and did not let go for the next 500 pages.  The pace is fast with constant character and scene changes.  Every detail, and there are many, could be relevant or mean nothing.  In any case, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is far and away the most clever story I have ever read.  Having said that, there were times when I wondered how much more the author was expecting me to absorb - or believe.  But you'll reach a point when what you believe has very little to do with things and all that matters is the truth behind a family's tragedy.

My recommendation is this....if you're not about to spend a lot of money going on holiday this summer, spend whatever it takes to buy this book.  The value and experience will be well worth it, and how Stuart Turton brought it all together, I'll never know.

Berlin by Catherine Abel

22 April 2018

The Yellow Houses by Stella Gibbons

It's safe to say the winter that didn't want to let go, has finally gone.  And it's a good thing as we have tickets for a Blue Jays baseball game next week and no one wants to attend a game in their winter coat!  These longer days and warmer temperatures scream for the sort of lighthearted fun you'll have with Stella Gibbons, and The Yellow Houses was way more fun than I was expecting.

The town of Torford, seventy miles from London 'on the side that goes east...' has rebuilt the damage resulting from the Blitz.  Wilfred Davis, recently widowed, sits on a park bench watching people go about their day before a flood of tears blurs his vision.  Suddenly, a man appears before him wearing something that resembles a white raincoat, offering a linen handkerchief that smells of fern.  It's not the loss of his wife causing Wilfred's wracking sobs, it's the note from his sixteen year-old daughter saying she feels it's time to leave school and find a job in London.  Mary also hopes to find a young man to marry and father the three children she's already chosen names for.  Mrs Davis would be spinning in her grave to know the time spent she's spent promoting education has been lost on her daughter. 

So far, so good.  As a reader I've been roped in.  I was prepared for the man in the white raincoat to be some sort of mystical guiding light, but that's only the beginning.  Enter comedy....Mr Davis has a lodger by the name of Mrs Wheeby who delighted me no end.

   'Round the rhododendrons, accompanied by the sound of panting, came Mrs Wheeby, who lodged in Wilfred's house, and suffered with her chest.  She was bundled in layers of elderly wool, and wore a hat of felt; hard in outline and fawn in colour, cocked above an unmemorable face.'

Mrs Wheeby is besotted with her canary and whale music, both of which push Wildred's level of comfort and acceptance to the limit.  Poor Wilfred is contemplating a move but he's worried about how to tell Mrs Wheeby it's time to move along.   At the same time, Mrs Wheeby begins to assure Wilfred she will never abandon him to loneliness.  In the meantime, poor Wilfred seeks the counsel of the head at his daughter's school.  Opening the door, he's greeted by 'Slutty' Singer, the feckless mother of five children by different men.  What would Wildred's dear wife think of the slipping standards at Torford's lovely school for girls?

  'Wildred had never accepted the mentally deficient theory, believing, for his part, that Slutty was what Pat had called careless, and the twentieth century would have called fruitful.'

'Slutty' lives down the street from Wilfred's father, who acts as something of a part-time caregiver to two of her very young daughters.  I was touched by the way he would leave his front door open so they could watch television from his front step as he handed out biscuits and other light refreshments.

Meanwhile in London, Wilfred's daughter has quickly found work in a clothing shop near the Liverpool Street station.  Owned by Mrs Levy, a native of Germany, Mary has a difficult task in convincing the owner that not all young women are interested in being lazy, young men, and shirking responsibility.  And then Yasuhiro Tasu, of noble birth, appears in the neighbourhood wearing a fabulously well-tailored coat, catching Mary's attention.  Coincidentally (or is it?), Yasu rents a room at her B&B to improve his English, share his thoughts on samurai warriors and spend an exorbitant amounts of money on flowers.

Can you imagine presenting these plot devices, in one treatment, to a team at a publishing company?  It sounds completely bonkers, which might be part of the reason this novel was tucked away for decades in a desk at Stella Gibbons's grandson's home.  Brought to the light of day after her death and eventually published by Vintage in 2016, The Yellow Houses is absolutely delightful! 

My husband bought this book for me last Christmas simply because it was by Stella Gibbons.  She's one of my favourite authors, admired to the point in which a synopsis doesn't even warrant a consideration; her name on the cover is my assurance of a good read.  If someone in a book shop tried to sell me a book about an adventurous drop-out who falls in love with a Japanese fellow of questionable political views, while mystical characters spread cheer around 1970s England I would usually run a mile.  But in the hands of Stella Gibbons, you feel as though you're reading something of a grown-up fairy tale with each voice written so convincingly. 

A thoroughly enjoyable read and highly recommended for fans of Stella Gibbons!

Highgate Village High Street by Lynn Bindman

5 April 2018

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

If you're considering a good book to read while on your summer get-away, let your quest end here.  Oh sure, the latest bestseller might keep you occupied, but if you want to be swept away...look no further.

Published in 1915, the first pages of Virginia Woolf's first novel set the scene of a London filled to bursting with people.  The pavement is so busy you can forget walking side by side with your partner.  Mrs Helen Ambrose is on the verge of tears...

'...she only felt at this moment how little London had done to make her love it, although thirty of her forty years had been spent in a street.  She knew how to read the people who were passing her, there were the rich who were running to and from each others' houses at this hour; there were the bigoted workers driving in a straight line to their offices; there were the poor who were unhappy and rightly malignant.  Already, though there was sunlight in the haze, tattered old men and women were nodding off to sleep upon the seats.  When one gave up seeing the beauty that clothed things, this was the skeleton beneath.'

Helen and Ridley Ambrose are making their way to a steamship owned by Helen's brother-in-law, Willoughby Vinrace.  Their destination is South America, a voyage which will take several weeks.  Mr Vinrace asks Helen to take his twenty-four year old daughter Rachel under her care.  Since her mother's death when she was eleven, Rachel has been raised by aunts in Richmond.  With her environment and reading material censored by her caregivers, Rachel remains ignorant about the emotions that bring two people together in a loving relationship.  And then the Dalloways board the ship when it stops in Lisbon.  There is a moment of frisson between Richard and Rachel that reveals much to the young woman.

If you have read Mrs Dalloway, and loved it as much as I did, you must The Voyage Out.  The way Woolf describes the couple in toe-curling delightful detail....their clothes, the snobbery...it is absolutely brilliant.

    'Ridley engaged her to come to-morrow.    "If only your ship is going to treat us kindly!" she exclaimed, drawing Willoughby into play.  for the sake of guests, and these were distinguished, Willoughby was ready with a bow of his head to vouch for the good behaviour even of the waves.'

Turning to a personal moment, I raised an eyebrow while reading a paragraph that mentions Portuguese fathers marrying Indian mothers and intermingling with the Spanish.  My results from one of those ancestry DNA kits revealed my background as 21% Iberian Peninsula with a smidge of South Asian.  The rest is Western Europe, but who knows...perhaps Virginia Woolf has provided a clue!  I digress....

As is so often the case when thrown together in a claustrophobic setting, friendships occur.  Two young men, Hewet and Hirst, are on a voyage of discovery, Miss Allan plays the part of the spinster, Hughling Elliot, Miss Warrington, Mr Venning (loves tea!), Mr Perrott - a barrister who secretly wishes to be a pilot instead, and Evelyn Murgatroyd seems to fall in love at the drop of a hat but what she really craves is someone to care for, and the Flushings.  At the young end of middle-age, Mr Flushing is a collector with a very interesting character as his wife.

'They had moved out into the garden, where the tea was laid under a tree, and Mrs Flushing was helping herself to cherry jam.  She had a peculiar jerking movement of the body when she spoke, which caused the canary-coloured plume on her hat to jerk too.  Her small but finely cut and vigorous features, together with the deep red of lips and cheeks, pointed to many generations of well-trained and well-nourished ancestors behind her.'

I've read that Woolf was a terrific observer of people, as I suspect most exceptional writers are, which leads me to think she has seen this very woman somewhere about London.  It's also why I savoured every page in this book - it's so rich with detail, spoiling the chances of anything else on the shelves today.  The heat, the villas, the countryside, the picnics, not to mention the sheer loveliness of a holiday that goes on for weeks and weeks of leisure time.  

I could go on and on about the many reasons why I love this book, from Woolf's statements about the unfair treatment of women in education, marriage and society, to the moments of humour that made me laugh out loud such as when Miss Allan has Rachel taste fresh ginger for the first time.  And then there was the sadness when I wasn't expecting it.  

The copy I read caught my eye while emptying the return bin at the library, but I'm going to buy one to call my own.  

The Pilgrim's Rest in Burma, circa 1900