Archive for November, 2010

To say that the last week has been rather stressful would be a most impressive understatement.  Usually, my remedy for any kind of stress is to curl up with a Georgette Heyer or an Alexander McCall Smith.  But, for perhaps the first time ever, they failed me.  After I recovered from the shock, I looked to my bookshelves for further inspiration and saw Eva Ibbotson.  How could I have forgotten about her for so long?  I loved her comforting, light, romantic books when I was a teenager but because I only own one of them (A Countess Below Stairs) seldom reread the others.  For me, comfort reads are usually the ones I can grab off my shelf at three in the morning as the mood takes me.  Obviously, this signals a gap in my personal library that will have to be remedied through visits to used bookstores in the future.

Happily, my library had a copy of A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson that arrived at just the right time.  How could I not love a book that sends characters off to all my favourite places: England, Austria, Bohemia, and British Columbia?  And place does play a very important role in this novel: all of the characters are concerned with going home, making a home, or finding a home.  Most of the book is set in Austria in 1937, when young Englishwoman Ellen Carr arrives to take over as housekeeper at an experimental school containing eccentric adults and unchecked youths.  As usual when Ibbotson writes about her homeland, the Austrian countryside is beautifully described and the village of Hallendorf is idyllic.  Romantic in the extreme, I am ready to move there now.  Reading it at lunch on Friday, I actually forgot about my snowy surroundings and felt like I was at Hallendorf:

They had rounded the point and suddenly Schloss Hallendorf lay before her, its windows bathed in afternoon light, and it seemed to her that she had never seen a place so beautiful.  The sun caressed the rose wall, the faded shutters…greening willows trailed their tendrils at the water’s edge; a magnificent cypress sheltered the lower terrace.

But oh so neglected, so shabby!  A tangle of creepers seemed to be all that held up the boathouse; a shutter flapped on its hinges on an upstairs window; the yew hedges were fuzzy and overgrown.  And this of course only made it lovelier, for who could help thinking of Sleeping Beauty and a castle in a fairy tale? (p.14)

Like all of Ibbotson’s heroines, Ellen is good and pretty and brings joy wherever she goes, complete with children and animals frolicking about her.  She’s intelligent but wants to be a housekeeper rather than a scholar or professional, to the disappointment of her suffragette mother and aunts. (Aside: Ibbotson excels at writing aunts.  I remember reading somewhere that if she was ever stuck with a story she just introduced aunts).  Ellen prefers kitchens to labs, children to professional colleagues.  She’s a very unfashionable heroine by modern standards but I couldn’t care less.  I want to believe that people like her exist and, what’s more, I want to be like her.  Considering that my favourite Louisa May Alcott book growing up was An Old Fashioned Girl with the virtuous Polly rather than Little Women with the spunky Jo, my preference for this kind of heroine is hardly a new development.  Ellen’s scarcely a pushover but it seems that any heroine who isn’t overtly ambitious and aggressive is deemed a wet blanket and a poor role model these days.  Pfui.  I find all those spunky heroines obnoxious and tiring.  The restful, maternal Ellen is a charming alternative.    

Marek, on the other hand, is a tiresome hero.  I am predisposed to forgive him many of his sins as he is a) Czech and b) possessed of one of my favourite names.  Unfortunately, he is meant to be too many things to too many people and as a result comes out as a strange amalgamation of talents with little individuality.  Sensitive musical genius, selfless resistance fighter, landed gentry, gardener, pilot, fencing instructor…he pretty much does everything except emote.  I wanted desperately feel some real attachment to him but was never able to, not with him coming across as temperamental and immature just when he needs to be practical and constant.  It wasn’t all bad though: the musical storyline, centered on Marek, did give me a desperate urge to listen to Der Rosenkavalier again.  I do love Strauss and such a romantic musician is well suited to this romantic book.    

Ibbotson never makes things too easy for her characters.  There are frustrating twists and turns that probably add some much needed angst to the plot.  Ibbotson’s wit and energy, as always, save this from becoming sappy or trite.  I am romantic enough that I like things to be simple but in wartime, and particularly with a hero as pointlessly noble as Marek, things are never simple.  It does make for an interesting book though and a very enjoyable read; absolutely the right thing for this moment in my life.

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Library Lust

credit: sköna hem

So white.  So clean.  So very, very lovely in its simplicity.  I love the firewood stacked under the window seat.

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Friday Potpourri

Three Books to Help Grown-Ups Believe Again – When we re-engage with our stories, folklore and legends, we reconnect with something we didn’t even know we’ve left behind: the magic of belief. 

Bad memory for faces?  Blame your reading skills – yes!  Finally, I know why I fail at cocktail parties!  Of course it also gives credence to my mother’s theory that reading so much is bad for me. 

2010’s Best Cookbooks – it’s the most wonderful time of the year: all the ‘year’s best’ lists are starting to be published.  I love all lists but this one is particularly excellent; I think I want all of the cookbooks mentioned! 

A Book, A Bolster, and a Bite – Lisa at A Bloomsbury Life composed a delightful post last week, matching pillows and snacks with books.  As she says: For me – and you too, don’t deny it – the very act of reading, while divine, is not enough. To achieve perfect harmony, your physical comfort and your appetite need to be indulged as well.


Have a lovely weekend!

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg and myself that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!



It’s awful but I’ve barely read anything since my library loot post last week.  First I was sick, then I was angst-ridden, and now I’m just too excited about my imminent move back to Vancouver (three weeks tomorrow!).  Because I’m moving it also meant that I had to cancel most of my holds at the library.  That was actually a bit sad.  I will miss my unlimited free holds very, very much.  My posts over the next few weeks will definitely be a bit sparse as I work to read all the books I have out before I leave!

Here’s the loot for this week:


A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson
I never get tired of Ibbotson.  Whenever I’m in the mood to reread youthful favourites, I go straight to her (well, perhaps making a detour to pick up something by L.M. Montgomery – Anne of the Island will always and forever be my ultimate comfort read).  This tale of a young English woman who comes to work as housekeeper at a school in Austria in the late 1930s isn’t Ibbotson’s best but it’s still enjoyable.

Frost in May by Antonia White
In general, the last thing I want to read is a novel set in a convent; indeed, anything with religion as a major theme is usually just what I shy away from.  However, I’m making an exception for this popular Virago Modern Classic.  It seems everyone but me has read it and I hate being the odd man out!

Dancing with Mr. Darcy: Stories Inspired by Jane Austen and Chawton House Library, edited by Sarah Waters
Laurel Ann gave this four out of five stars when she reviewed it last month and I couldn’t resist ordering it when I saw my library had a copy.  Short stories are just the thing to read right before bed, especially Austen-esque ones! 


The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder by Erin M. Blakemore
This may be my favourite cover of the year.  It’s even more gorgeous in person.  Unfortunately, I flipped through the book once it arrived and wasn’t overly excited by the entries I did read.

A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir by Elena Gorokhova
I can’t remember if I first saw this on a blog or in a shop but I’ve been eagerly looking forward to reading it for a while now.  A memoir of growing up in Soviet Russia?  How could I resist?    When I saw Marie’s enthusiastic review at The Boston Bibliophile I knew it was time to pick it up.

Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography by Hermione Lee
I’m not quite ready to tackle any of Lee’s much-praised but massive biographies (of Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf) so this much shorter collection of essays on the art of biography seems a kinder introduction to her.

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Archive Raid

What could be a more appropriate response to the excellent advice and support so many of you offered me over the weekend than to quote a brilliant bit of advice from one of my favourite novels?  It is an impassioned speech from a fictional monarch-in-waiting to the people of America that I may or may not have used as my own personal motto at various times in my life.

Marguerite - Guy Rose

All you need to do is refrain from smoking, drinking, and the use of drugs.  Eat only wholesome, low-fat foods with the emphasis on vegetables, grains and fish.  Seek work.  Work hard.  Show up on time.  Do more than is expected.  Think of ways to make the job efficient.  Don’t complain.  Shave, bathe, and wear clean clothes.  Be cheerful.  Don’t gamble.  Live within your means.  Save.  And then, when you have all this in balance, study things of substance.  Read to satisfy your curiousity.  Don’t father children out of wedlock or bear them as a single mother.  Exercise.  You will find that you will be promoted – perhaps not knighted, but promoted.  If that doesn’t happen, look quietly for a better position.  Find a husband or wife whom you love and who has the same good habits.  Invest.  Assume a mortgage if you must.  Teach your children the virtues.  And then, having become the means of production, you will own your share of the means of production, and if you do these things, all of which are entirely within your power, you will own your lives. 

 – Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin (p. 266-267) 

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It’s rather trendy these days to be deeply interested in your food and its origins, to want to know where and how it was grown, even by whom, or, better yet, to do the growing yourself.  I am absolutely a fan of this new agro-consciousness.  Bring on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, The 100 Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, almost anything by the prolific but obnoxious Mr. Pollan, and dozens of new titles seemingly every month.  In the 20th Century, we learned how to feed the world’s growing population with the advancements of the Green Revolution.  In the 21st, our challenge is to continue to feed all 6.7 billion of us (or whatever the number is these days) but to do so in a sustainable manner, conserving resources.  In Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields to Rooftop Gardens – How Canadians Are Changing the Way We Eat by Sarah Elton, Elton explains the issue in her introduction:

The way we eat today is not sustainable.  In the years since the Second World War, we have industrialized the practice of farming around the world and created a polluting food system that is dependent on fossil fuels.  On the farm, we use machines powered by oil and gas, instead of human muscle and horses, to work the land and to irrigate it too.  The good news is that technology has allowed farmers to reap high returns per hour of labour they spend in the fields, which has meant a huge improvement in standard of living of all of us.  We’ve been freed as a society from the drudgery and poverty of subsistence farming that was the reality of life for so many Canadians over the centuries.  A farmer today is able to produce, per hour of labour, 350 times more than a First Nations farmer would have on the same North American soils.  To live free from subsistence farming is undeniably a good thing.  However, to support this way of farming, we use natural gas to make fertilizer to treat the soil so we can plant the vast monocultures – only one crop planted over acres and acres – that epitomizes large-scale agriculture.  These monocrops are more susceptible to pests, so we then make pesticides from oil to kill the insects.  Then we continue to use our precious resources to irrigate, transport, and process the crops. (P. 11-12)

Elton has written as fascinating survey of agriculture in Canada at the start of the Twenty First Century that is refreshingly reasonable and well-balanced.  Divided into two equally fascinating sections, the first dealing with the rural farmers, the second with consumers in the city, Elton managers to remain optimistic as she considers the struggles both groups face in the name of sustainable agriculture.  The farming section is, as was to be expected, the most depressing.  Most farmers in Canada are nearing or past retirement age with no children to succeed them on family farms often mired in debt.  Profit, if there is any, is usually minute, a lesson I learned well at University: my housemate started an agro-tourism business on his family farm while in high school and within two years it was generating more revenue than the cattle business they’d been running for generations.  It’s sad that farmers, so vital to our survival, can’t make a decent wage but then it’s a global market and the reality is you’re competing for supermarket contracts with overseas producers who pay their labour pennies a day.  What I loved was that Elton’s answer to this question – not so much hers as the farmers she interviews – wasn’t to subsidize farmers; it was to find new ways of distributing the yield and cutting out the middlemen who push the wholesale costs down so low.  Farmers’ markets, local co-op stands or shops, CSA boxes, agreements between farmers and city restaurants…there are so many creative and productive options available that have been successful all across the country, in some cases for decades.   

Elton also takes on the myth of food miles, the belief that eating something that was grown close to where you bought it is more efficient than eating something that was produced further away and shipped in because of the energy consumed in the transportation.  I absolutely agree that it’s more intelligent to eat a carrot or a potato grown near you than one shipped in from California or Idaho.  But are we going to give up eating bananas, or any number of delicious fruits, vegetables, and spices that have become a normal part of our diet over the last decades because we can’t grow them in our harsh climate?   Elton takes a wonderfully level-headed approach to the question: 

We don’t have to abandon coffee, chocolate and spices to support a new food system.  Rather, the ideal of a strong local food economy is to eat good, healthy food that is produced with the least environmental impact.  This usually means food that is produced nearby, but includes imports that are produced and transported sustainably. (P. 15)

Growing bananas in South America and shipping them north makes infinitely more sense than trying to replicate the South American climate in greenhouses across Canada.  The focus, really, should be not on eating what is produced locally but what is produced and transported efficiently.  In some cases that will mean eating what is local, in others what is imported:

Despite the prevalent belief that food grown closer to where it is eaten is better for the environment, food miles are not the best way to measure sustainability.  In fact, it can often take fewer kilocalories to grow food and ship it great distances to where it is eaten than it takes for a local farmer to truck food to a nearby market.  Because local doesn’t trump sustainable, the way we grow our food in Canada therefore must change too. (P. 14)

I thoroughly enjoyed Locavore. While I found the first section of the book the most fascinating, the second half dealing with city dwellers was equally well done, though I haven’t discussed it much here.  Given that this is a topic I’ve been interested in for years (mostly because it was one that interested my family – both of my father’s sets of grandparents were farmers and at university he was a rural land use major) it’s not a surprise that I was so engaged throughout the book.  However, it’s also a book that I would not hesitate to pass on to my only vaguely interested friends – both Canadian and foreign, since the issues facing Canada are the same ones facing most Western nations.  Elton’s journalist approach to her topic, her graceful and engaging weaving of interviews and statistics, both educates and entertains.  Indeed, I am certain that at least one person I know will probably receive this for Christmas!  

And, for anyone wondering how we can move forward towards a more sustainable model, here’s Elton’s conclusion:

On the farm, we need to move towards a holistic understanding of agriculture that takes its cues from nature, supports biodiversity and relies less and less on fossil fuels.  Farmers must make a living wage and be respected for their work, something achieved by rehumanizing the food chain and connecting farmers with consumers through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture while at the same time developing new supply chains for institutions such as universities and hospitals.  When devising our new food system, we need not dwell on the past and replicate subsistence agriculture.  Instead, we can push forward to fashion something new and innovative, using our technology and our imagination to design energy-efficient greenhouses and other novel ways of producing food.

In the city, we need to grow some of what we eat and figure out how to incorporate food production into the metropolis.  By connecting with the food chain, and eating well, we will be more likely to experience a cultural shift and watch a gastronomy of place take hold. (P. 209)

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Library Lust

credit - unknown

Another week, another library that perfectly suits my tastes.  I’m a sucker for plaid (probably dating back to years of childhood Christmas dresses, not just the school uniform I wore from ages twelve to eighteen), wood panelling, and window seats.  This library has them all!

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I’ve been down since Tuesday night with Norwalk virus and, after a trip to the hospital very early Wednesday morning, I’ve been at home resting up.  I’m starting to feel better and, more importantly, I should no longer be contagious.  Coming on top of October’s pneumonia this really has not been a good fall for me.  Actually, it’s been a pretty bad couple of years.

Since moving to Calgary two years ago I’ve been almost constantly unhappy.  Being on my own, away from my family, in a city I don’t like and where I don’t have any particularly close friends has been difficult.  I like my job and I love my apartment but those are the only real positives and, let me tell you, they’re not enough.  I live for the long weekends when I get to go home to Vancouver or the vacations where I’m reunited with my family.  We’re very close and when I’m with them I feel so much more like myself.  When I first moved to Calgary I tried so hard to make friends and I do have a good group of work friends but, aside from the occasional brunch or dinner on weekends, we rarely meet up outside of the office.  Everyone else has their own family and group of university friends to fall back on.  Not me. 

Like many girls and women, I feel the pressure to be the “good girl”.  I’ve always been outspoken, quick to challenge opinions I didn’t agree with, considered a leader and role model, and absolutely convinced I could do whatever I wanted.  But I still had those people in my life that I needed to please and I need to feel that I’m making safe, responsible decisions.  Most of my biggest risks to date involve major moves: to university in Ontario and then England and, of course, to Calgary after graduation.  Actually, the only thing that was at risk here were my emotions: I knew my career path was on solid ground with each of these steps and, frankly, that’s been my main concern since I was fifteen or so.  But how do you admit that you’ve failed and start over?  I burst into tears every time I have to return to Calgary after having been home.  Usually I try to save such hysterics for the airport washrooms but last January it happened at home in the living room in front of my father.  Now everyone is on board with me coming home but, again, it’s very much about doing the responsible thing, lining up a job before hand, coming home without any embarrassing gaps on my resume.  And yes, I’m the one who first came up with this plan but I keep getting sick and I keep feeling so alone and so miserable and I don’t know if I can do it.  I just want to go home.  I’ve been saving like a miser for two years so I can certainly financially afford to take some time off but whenever I suggest this plan I’m reminded of how tough the job market is and how irresponsible it would be.  And I can’t decide if I care or not.  My opinion seems to change not just day to day but hour to hour.

When I started blogging in January I did it in part because I though it might be a way to ease my sense of isolation, a way to make friends with similar interests, to finally have other people to talk to about books, and to help me feel a bit more like my normal self rather than my dull, passionless Calgary-self.  And it absolutely has.  The warmth and kindness of the book blogging community never fails to amaze me and to provide a much-needed pick-me-up on difficult days.  Getting to know so many of you online (and getting to meet Carolyn in person) has been wonderful and has helped to reinvigorate a side of me that I’d been ignoring for too long.  I’ve spent the last two years pouring all my energies into work, which has been rather fun and certainly productive, but I’d forgotten how important it is to be engaged in things outside of the office as well.  By not just reading books but also writing about and discussing them I get more out of both the books and myself. 

When I started writing the first few lines of this, it was just a precursor to a normal Friday Potpourri post, a quick update to say I’d been sick, was now better, and please enjoy these bookish links.  That went off track pretty quickly.  But I needed to share this with someone because my natural inclination to hold everything in is not helping and who better to tell than all of you, who have always been so supportive and encouraging?

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg and myself that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

Marg has the Mr Linky this week.

Last week’s library loot was not exactly productive.  The Crusie failed to engage me when I started it and while I remain interested in the Lively I simply wasn’t in the right mood.  Instead, I went back to the library, grabbed a few Georgette Heyers, and spent a happy few days laughing my way through them.  Indeed, this whim proved positively providential as, upon my return home, there was a Heyer-related volume waiting for me at the library! 

We’ve had our first real snow of the season here, so I’m certainly feeling the need to curl up under a blanket with lots of tea and piles of book.  Work somewhat interferes with this plan, as it will.  Still, I have my evenings at least and I’m steadily working through a backlog of excellent library books.  But what a difference from the sun and the warmth of California only a few days ago!


Georgette Heyer’s Regency World by Jennifer Kloester
I’ve heard very mixed reviews of this, some saying it’s an incomparable reference guide for the Regency world and others arguing that it contains only information extracted from Heyer’s works and nothing new.  I shall soon see for myself. 

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
It seems that every publication – both online and in print – has reviewed this book in the last few weeks and praised it.  I wouldn’t say I have a particular interest in ancient Egypt but Cleopatra is such a fascinating figure that I couldn’t resist this.  Growing up, my best friend was an aspiring Egyptologist and was always outraged by how Cleopatra was dismissed as a seductress rather than a cunning politician in her own right.  If this proves to be as excellent as the reviews have indicated, it might be the perfect Christmas gift for my friend! 

Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré
I adore le Carré.  I love his classic Cold War-era work and I love his more recent publications dealing with contemporary tensions.  But here le Carré returns to Russians and spies and I absolutely can’t wait to read it!

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If I could choose a novel to live in, Greenery Street by Denis Mackail would be as perfect a choice as any.  Do other readers do this?  Flip through novel after novel, auditioning characters, settings, and plotlines in search of that combination which suits them best, a sort of literary Goldilocks?  But how could you not want to live in a world with such sweet young residents as Ian and Felicity Foster of Number Twenty-three, Greenery Street?

Like most well-loved comfort reads (which this certainly is), Greenery Street isn’t about anything in particular.  It is a simple and delightful chronicle of the first year of a marriage, full of humour and affection.  How often do we see happy marriages in fiction?  Happy courtships most certainly, but so many novels dealing with married life seem to revolve around infidelities, abuse, or depression.  Cheerful stuff.  So to see a novel that celebrates the married state, revealing in its benefits to both partners, is most encouraging. 

I found Ian, the husband, to be a particularly touching character for his close resemblance to so many young males of my acquaintance.  His appalled reaction to Felicity’s revelation that she does in fact want to have children, despite her having insisted otherwise during their courtship, was identical to that of some of my newly married friends (and, I am assured, of my doting father who, when he married my mother at the age of twenty-two, was certain he did not want children).  And even if Ian hadn’t endeared himself to me after his marriage (which he did, time and again), I think I would have remained fond of him for his enthusiasm and awkwardness on first dining with Felicity’s parents.   

I must admit that I initially harboured some contempt towards Felicity for her inability to balance her chequebook but she really is a loveable creature and, like Ian, I couldn’t find it in me to stay mad at her for long.  Instead, I choose to blame her mother for this omission in Felicity’s education – a much more satisfactory conclusion.  Felicity’s cataloging of Ian-related knowledge over the first months of the marriage felt so very true to the behaviour of a new wife coming to terms with her husband and cohabitant, a very different and more complex creature than the young man who courted her.  Felicity is also the source of some rather comical maxims, stemming from her deep maturity and knowledge as a married woman and remarked on with amusement by the narrator:

‘…if I had a daughter and she got married, I should say: “now, then, my dear; I’ll tell you anything that you really want to know, but otherwise I’m not going to ask you any questions or give you any advice at all.”’

Would you really, Felicity?  What an extremely remarkable mother you would be. (p.92)

I am intensely jealous of her though.  I would dearly love to believe that after I marry my days will consist of lunching with my mother, giving directions to the servants, and visiting the library but, tragically, modern realities intrude.  Married or not, my life is most likely to resemble Ian’s daily grind in the City.  In fact, Mackail’s description of Ian’s work life sounds remarkably familiar:

In the course of three years he had learnt enough to be able to do nearly all the work of the man immediately above him, and to make the man immediately below him do almost all the work that he was supposed to do himself.  This system is known as ‘efficient co-ordination’, and carried to its logical conclusion implies that the head of the firm does no work at all, and that the junior office boy is ultimately responsible for everything.  Roughly speaking, this sums up the position in any smooth-running organization. (p.19)

From beginning to end, I was charmed by the Fosters and their dear house on Greenery Street.  All the delights of finding and setting up their first home together (and the less delightful task of paying off the related bills), of learning one another’s quirks and habits, and of dealing or, as the case may be, not dealing with disciplining the servants could not have been read with more amusement or interest.  Knowing, as the narrator forewarns us, that any couple’s time in Greenery Street is limited – those charming homes so well-suited for couples proving not quite equal to the housing of hopeful families – made the novel more precious, for even as I anticipated the announcement of a young Foster I couldn’t help but lament what his or her arrival would mean for Ian and Felicity and their beloved first home.    

The Persephone foreword assures me that there are not one but two sequels to Greenery Street: Tales from Greenery Street and Ian and Felicity.  Has anyone managed to track copies of these down?  I’ve fallen rather in love with Denis Mackail based both on this book and on Rebecca Cohen’s description of him as a shy but loyal man, bullied by his elder sister (Angela Thirkell), devoted to his wife, and considered by P.G. Wodehouse to be a ‘genius’, and feel I must read more of his works.

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