Archive for February, 2012

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader 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

All my fears from the past few months that I may have learnt restraint as far as my library habits go have now been laid to rest.  I came home from the library with a glut of books and it was (and is) marvellous.  Inconvenient when trying to carry two very heavy bags of books on a very full bus, but marvellous nonetheless.  I went down to the main branch of the library on Saturday with a very modest list of eight titles.  Then I got a bit distracted.  I came out with only two of the books that had been on my list, having had to make hard decisions along the way when it became apparent that I simply couldn’t carry everything I wanted.  Things really went off the rails when I got to the gardening section.  But I regret nothing!  How could I, considering all the wonderful things I picked up?

Garden People: The Photographs of Valerie Finnis by Ursula Buchan – I saw this on the shelf while browsing, instantly recognizing the title and cover image without remember where I’d seen it.  A bit of quick Googling once I got home and I found my source: Jane Brocket wrote briefly about it last summer, calling it “one of her favourite gardening books.”

Dear Friend and Gardener: Letters on Life and Gardening by Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd – This has been on my to-read list since well before I developed an interest in gardening books, ever since I read Simon T’s review of it.  Loving both correspondence and gardening, this seems like the perfect book!

A Gentle Plea for Chaos: Reflections from an English Garden by Mirable Osler – In this book the author describes the way her garden evolved and how, without meaning to do so, she let it take over her life. She suggests moving away from planning, regimentation and gardening with the mentality of a stamp-collector. Frequently funny and always stimulating, she writes of the alchemy of gardens, of the 19th-century plant-collectors and plant illustrators and of the gardening philosophers, all fertilizing great thoughts along with their hollyhocks.

My Natural History: The Evolution of a Gardener by Liz Primeau most of my garden-related reading has been focused on England.  This memoir from Primeau, a Canadian, should make a nice change:

Liz Primeau has been gardening for nearly fifty years. In her twenties, as a mother of four small children, she would often escape to her tomato patch for horticultural therapy. Gardening became a satisfying hobby that grew and eventually became a career when she became the founding editor of Canadian Gardening magazine in 1990.

In league with Michael Pollan’s Second Nature, My Natural History describes how gardening has been Primeau’s therapy, obsession, and reward. Primeau first caught the gardening bug growing up in Winnipeg, when she and her mother used to steal green onions from her father’s vegetable patch for a late-night snack. Later, her Uncle Ren, famous for his prize-winning flowers, became her gardening mentor. Since then, Primeau’s own gardens have protected and sustained her. Full of fascinating gardening lore and practical insight (including what to do when your son grows funny tomatoes among your seedlings), this wonderful memoir will be savored by readers who share Primeau’s passion for the earth and all the good things that stem from it.

Laughter on the Stairs by Beverley Nichols – It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally picked up this sequel to Merry Hall, which I read and enjoyed last summer.

A Force to Be Reckoned With: A History of the Women’s Institute by Jane Robinson – Yay!  I am so excited that this finally arrived.  I’ve been on the hold list for months and, until late last week, the book was still showing on order.  Then, suddenly, miraculously, wonderfully, it arrived at my local branch!  This was perfect timing, since Hayley’s review last week has made me even more anxious to read it.


A Castle in the Backyard: The Dream of a House in France by Betsy Draine & Michael Hinden – a Nancy Pearl recommendation from Book Lust to Go(also known as That Book That Made My To-Read List Explode).

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear – I always enjoy a well-written biography and this one is supposed to be excellent.  I remember seeing it everywhere when I was touring the Lake District a couple of years ago.  In the hardcover edition, it’s dauntingly large but I’m really looking forward to it.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal – I added this to my TBR list after Eva mentioned it last summer in one of her Library Loot posts.  A fantasy novel set during the Regency era, I knew I had to try it.  The wait list was long but well worth it.  The book came in over the weekend and I had a lot of fun reading it Saturday night.

I read and enjoyed both Miss Bunting and Peace Breaks Out by Angela Thirkell last year and really felt like rereading them now, having recently encountered Miss Bunting in an earlier book, Marling Hall.

Mrs Milburn’s Diaries: An Englishwoman’s Day to Day Reflections, 1939-1945 edited Peter Donnelly – I checked this out once before, many moons ago, but never got around to trying it.  I’ve heard it mentioned as one of the best volumes of wartime diaries, so of course I want to read it! 

Elaine was talking about Katie Fforde last week, reminding me how much I love her books.  I had no intention of picking any up when I went to the library but found myself coming home with Wild Designs, Thyme Out and Restoring Grace.

Every time I feel the urge to complain about my library (why do you catalogue some paperbacks without author or title fields?  Why!?!  ‘Adult Paperback’ is not sufficient information!), I try to remember all of the things they do amazingly well.  For instance, they never fail to delight me with the variety of their materials – who would have thought that they’d have a subscription to the absolutely amazing Slightly Foxed?  I picked up four back issues (no 21, 27, 28 and 29) and am having a marvellous time reading through them.

What did you pick up this week?

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The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher is a stunning book, almost literally.  It left me reeling for days after I finished reading it, playing over scenes in my head, wondering about the consequences of certain actions, still caring so much for the Knapp family whose lives the book chronicles.  It took such a short time to read – I picked it up at lunch one day and was done well before dinner – but it has stayed with me.  It’s been more than a month since I read it but, sitting down to write this review, it has been so present in my mind that it seems like I put it down only a few days ago.

Published in 1924, the book opens by introducing us to the five quietly miserable members of the Knapp family.  Father Lester works unhappily in the accounts department at the local department store, daughter Helen timidly fades into the background, eldest son Henry suffers through frequent and painful bouts of illness, and youngest son Stephen lashes out angrily at everyone around him.  And bright, determined mother Eva, considered the perfect wife and mother by all her acquaintances for the efficiency and style with which she performs her domestic tasks, finds her roles as mother and housekeeper anything but fulfilling.  She sets extremely high standards for herself, which none of her family can live up to:

What was her life?  A hateful round of housework, which, hurry as she might, was never done.  How she loathed housework!  The sight of a dishpan full of dishes made her feel like screaming out.  And what else did she have?  Loneliness; never-ending monotony; blank, grey days, one after another, full of drudgery.  No rest from the constant friction over the children’s carelessness and forgetfulness and childishness!  How she hated childishness!  And she must try to endure it patiently or at least with the appearance of patience.  Sometimes, in black moments like this, it seemed to her that she had such strange children, not like other people’s, easy to understand and manage, strong, normal children.

When Lester loses his job and, after an accident, finds himself disabled and house-bound, the traditional gender roles are reversed: Eva must go out and find a way to support the family while Lester takes control of the house and the children.  It turns out to be the most wonderful change of circumstances for all involved.

Eva finds work at the store where Lester had been employed, arriving to answer the prayers of the energetic new owner.  Eva is just the kind of capable, determined, intelligent, sympathetic, and mature woman he’d been looking for, someone who will set the right tone in the store and be both trusted and respected by customers.  And Eva, stifled for years by hated housework, blossoms in her new work, so excited and energized by everything she is learning and doing.  She finally has something to feel passionate about and the change in her is extraordinary.  Eva blossoms at works, turning into an excited, happy, and generous woman, who brings that enthusiasm and joy home with her each night.  Lester is pleased to see the change in her but can’t help but feeling responsible for her earlier unhappiness when confined at home with the children:

His heart ached with remorse as he thought of the life to which he had condemned her.  Why, like Stephen, she had been buried alive in a shaft deep under the earth, and she had not even had Stephen’s poor passionate outlet of misdirected fury.  What she thought was her duty had held her bound fast in a death-like silence and passivity.  He remembered the sombre, taciturn, self-contained woman who had sat opposite him, year after year, at the supper-table.  Could that be the same Eva who now, evening after evening, made them all gay with her accounts of the humours of her profession; who could take off a fussy customer so to the life that even Stephen laughed; who could talk with such inspired animation of the variations of fashion that even he listened, deadly ad was his hatred for fashion and all that it stood for!  He had never even suspected that Eva had this jolly sense of humour!  Could it be the same Eva who so briskly dealt the cards around every evening and took up her hand with such interest?

Meanwhile, at home Eva’s rigid standard of housekeeping has been considerably relaxed and everyone is happier for it.  Lester, getting around in a wheelchair, is able to give his children the attention and affection that Eva, with all her practical concern for their physical needs, never managed to provide.  He responds to Stephen’s wildness with patience and respect, discovers how much Henry needs a companion (and provides him with one in the welcome form of a puppy), and forms a very close bond with his daughter Helen, an intelligent, sensitive child so like her father.  The children, in their turn, develop wonderfully: Stephen learns to trust and love, losing his terrifying anger, Henry throws off his nervous ailments and become a healthy, normal boy, and Helen gains much needed confidence in herself and her intelligence.  Lester loves his new role as home-maker just as much as he despised his clerical duties at the store, enjoying all the time he has now to think and to read and, most importantly, to help and watch his children develop.  For the first time, the entire family is happy.

But then everyone starts to think about what will happen if Lester gets better.  When it was necessary, friend and neighbours could understand why Eva had to work and Lester stay home.  But what would they think if Eva and Lester chose those roles once he was recovered?  The whole family, without ever openly talking about it, is horrified by the idea of things going back to the miserable way they were, with everyone ill and stressed all of the time.   But what other options are there?  Lester knows his family would become a public joke if he was known to prefer home-making to supporting his family with a miserably-earned salary.  He could bear the gossip and ridicule but knows how difficult it would be for Eva and the children.  For Lester, the realization of how little ‘women’s work’ is valued, when to him the raising of children seems like the most important work that can be done, is a shocking revelation:

Why the fanatic feminists were right, after all.  Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, society is really based on a contempt for women’s work in the home.  The only women who were paid, either in human respect or in money, were women who gave up their traditional job of creating harmony out of human relationships and did something really useful, bought or sold or created material objects.  As for any man’s giving his personality to the woman’s work of trying to draw out of children the best there might be in them…fiddling foolishness!  Leave it to the squaws!  He was sure that he was the only man who had ever conceived even the possibility of such a lapse from virile self-respect as to do what all women are supposed to do.  He knew well enough that other men would feel for such a conception on his part a stupefaction only equalled by their red-blooded scorn.

The ending, after much anxiety and very interesting discussions on gender roles, personal fulfilment and the concept of face, is very satisfying (if morally dubious).

As soon as I finished The Home-Maker, I immediately wanted to pass it on to both my mother and father.  Eva reminds me so much of my mother.  At times it was eerie, especially as I finished the last page and my mother burst into the house, bubbling over with excitement and new ideas after having spent the day in meetings.  No imagination is necessary to picture Eva’s enthusiastic dinner-time descriptions of her busy day as they’ve been a constant feature at home all my life.

Equally, my father has a lot of Lester in him.  He has always been the parent I’m most likely to confide in and is certainly the only one ever to be found willingly cooking.  I found the relationship between Helen and Lester particularly touching because, right down to testing new recipes alongside one another in the kitchen, it reminded me so much of how I was with my father at that age:

She came to feel that talking to Father, when they were alone together, was almost like thinking aloud, only better, because there was somebody to help you figure things out when you got yourself all balled up.  Before this Helen had spent a great deal of time trying to figure things out by herself, and getting to tangled that she didn’t know where she had begun nor how to stop the wild whirl racing around in her head.  But now, with Father to hang on to, she could unravel those twisted skeins of thought and wind them into balls where she could get at them.

The genius of The Home-Maker, aside from being so well and simply told, is how sympathetically all the characters are portrayed.  I cared as much for Lester’s happiness as I did for Eva’s, able to sympathize both with his love of domestic duties and her enthusiasm for the variety and challenges presented at the store.  This balanced approach makes it an amazingly powerful and thoughtful book.  I finally now understand why Nicola was so eager to get it back in print and why so many readers name it as their favourite Persephone title; it is certainly in my top five.

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Signs of Spring

Snowdrops and crocuses are popping up everywhere, the first cheerful daffodils have come out and a few brave rhododendrons are bursting open.   How I love February in Vancouver!  (Apologies to the rest of Canada, which still has a few cold, grey months of winter to look forward to.)

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Library Lust

This is for all the “Library Lust” readers whose taste for colourful shelves rarely matches with my passion for white ones.  Here, my friends, I can completely see your point.  I think this room is cosy and welcoming and I can’t imagine it working half so well with shelves in any other colour.  I’m a bit suspicious of all those matching sets on the shelves – this is not a room that immdiately announces itself as the home of a reader – but I think the room itself is lovely.  In terms of features, it has everything on my dream library list: a good number of large windows, a fireplace, a large desk to read and work at, and a long, comfy sofa (in a particularly attractive fabric) on which to stretch out.  The only thing missing is a black lab asleep on the rug.

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Before reading Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege, 1941-1944 by Anna Reid, I knew nothing about the siege.  I had a vague memory from history class that it had in fact happened and, like seemingly most things involving Russia during the war, the fatalities were absurdly high.  It is a shocking and at times difficult book to read, given the epic scale of the tragedy, but it is an amazing record of what happened in the lead up to and during the almost 900 days of the siege.

The siege of Leningrad was the longest of the war and the deadliest in recorded history (approximately 750,000 civilians died).  As she begins, Reid tries to put the tragedy in context for the reader:

Other modern sieges – those of Madrid and Sarajevo – lasted longer, but none killed even a tenth as  many people.  Around thirty-five times more civilians died in Leningrad than in London’s Blitz; four times more than in the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima put together.

This is destruction on a scale I can’t even begin to process, especially given the very short time period in which most of it happen (estimates put the civilian deaths during the first winter of the siege at half a million).  Using diaries written during the siege and the memoirs of those who lived through it, Reid gives a vivid and chilling portrait of everyday life within the city as the trappings of civilization evaporated:

Over the course of three months, the city changed from something quite familiar – in outward appearance not unlike London during the Blitz – to the Goya-esque charnel house, with buildings burning unattended for days and emaciated corpses littering the streets.  For individuals the accelerating downward spiral was from relatively ‘normal’ wartime life – disruption, shortages, air raids – to helpless witness of the death by starvation of husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and children – and for many, of course, to death itself.

Due to inept Soviet bureaucracy, the city was particularly ill-prepared to withstand a siege.  Extra food stores that could have been sent were diverted away, leaving Leningrad with only a month’s worth of rations once the siege ring closed.  But the worst blunder, as Reid sees it, was the Soviet regime’s failure to evacuate Leningrad’s civilian population when they had the chance.  636,283 civilians (including Baltic refugees) were evacuated during the two months leading up to 29 August 1941, when the last train left.  Pointedly, Reid reminds us that “this compares with 660,000 civilians evacuated from London in only a few days on Britain’s declaration of war two years earlier.”  This left almost three million civilians within the siege circle, including 400,000 children and “over 700,000 other non-working dependents.”

The winter of 1941-1942 was unusually harsh and, by the time that weather set in, most of Leningrad’s buildings no longer had running water or electricity.  The city was under heavy German shelling but starvation was the real danger.  With so little food in the city when the siege began and with poorly judged rations that saw what stores there were being handed out too quickly, the food situation became dire almost immediately.  People who worked in food processing or distribution, unsurprisingly, had the best chance of surviving: “All 713 employees of the Krupskaya sweet factory survived; so did all those at the no. 4 bakery and at a margarine manufacturer.  At the Baltika bakery, only twenty-seven out of what grew from 276 to 334 workers died, all the victims being men.”  Anywhere else, those kind of survival rates were unheard of.  Leningraders tried to extract calories from clothing, household items, anything they could find really when the rations proved insufficient but, in many cases, that was not enough to keep them alive.  The ration system was modeled on the one used in the Gulags:

Though articulated as giving to each according to his needs, in practice it tended to preserve (just) the lives of those vital to the city’s defence – soldiers and industrial workers – and condemn office workers, old people, the unemployed and children to death.

Thanks to this design, it became possible to predict the order in which the members of a family would die of starvation:

…mortality followed a clear demographic.  In January 73 per cent of fatalities were male, and 74 per cent children under five or adults aged forty or over.  By May the majority – 65 per cent – were female, and a slightly smaller majority – 59 per cent – children under five or adults aged forty or over.  Children aged ten to nineteen made up only 3 per cent of the total in the first ten days of December, but 11 per cent in May.  Within a single family, therefore, the order in which its members typically died was grandfather and infants first, grandmother and father (if not at the front) second, mother and oldest children last.

The bulk of the book focuses on what happened from June 1941, when the Germans launched their attack on Russia, to the spring of 1942, after the first devastating winter of the siege.  The diary entries from this period are terrifying, offering a glimpse into the minds of those driven mad by hunger and by their horrific surroundings.  Honestly, all the details from this period are disturbing and I am not finding it easy to think back and to recall all of the things that I found so upsetting.  It is important that they are recorded and I feel thankful for having read this book, if only because I’d otherwise have had no idea of the scale of the siege’s destruction, but it is not a comfortable book to revisit.  It is unrelentingly horrifying.

The remaining two years of the siege (it ended in February 1944) are quickly summarized in a few chapters, which felt like a bit of a relief after having survived the gruesome details of the first winter but does seem strangely unbalanced.  The following winters were much warmer, ration levels were higher, electricity and water had been restored to many buildings, and Leningrad was down to a fifth of its pre-war population (after the deaths of the first winter and successful evacuations begun in early 1942).  Such relatively comfortable conditions are no match for the drama of that first, ill-prepared winter when 500,000 civilians died.

Though Reid’s focus is on the plight of civilians within Leningrad, she provides a good balance by reminding us every so often what the armies were doing.  Intriguingly, she uses the diaries of a German officer for this, allowing us to see the Red Army through his eyes.  It is not an inspiring sight.  Armed with rifles from the 19th Century, and poorly led and chaotically disorganized after Stalin’s military purges during the 1930s, those who had volunteered to fight in the summer of 1941 were ill-prepared to meet the German tank divisions.  Being treated as cannon-fodder, it did not take long for many soldiers to become disheartened and seek a way out:

Between 16 and 22 August 1941 more than four thousand servicemen were seized as suspected deserters while trying to get to Leningrad from the front, and in some medical units, a worried political report noted, up to 50 per cent of the wounded were suspected of self-mutilation.  At Evacuation Hospital no 61, for example, out of a thousand wounded 460 had been shot in the left forearm or left hand.

Though Reid does provide these glimpses into the lives of soldiers and their activities at the front, the focus of Leningrad is firmly on the civilians trapped in the city.  It is a social history, describing the thoughts and day-to-day activities of Leningraders, but the world in which they live is almost bizarrely unrecognizable.  Death is a constant and people become numbed by the sheer number of bodies in the streets, the number of friends and family lost.  As a reader though, I was anything but numbed.  Reid has crafted an absorbing chronicle of a horrific event, filling it with amazing detail and offering a good critical analysis of the siege myths presented in Soviet-era publications.  It is a wonderful book (not to be confused with an enjoyable one) and I’m very glad to have read it.

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My love for Charles Ritchie’s An Appetite for Life and The Siren Years is well documented.  I adore those books.  I wish everyone would read them, particularly The Siren Years, as examples of what really well-written, well-edited diaries can be like and if you, dear reader, take only one recommendation from me, let it be this: try Ritchie.  Just don’t start with Diplomatic Passport: More Undiplomatic Diaries, 1946-1962.

It is not that it is a bad book – far from it – but it is not a good introduction to Ritchie.  In his younger years, both as a student in Halifax and at Oxford (An Appetite for Life) and as an energetic and sociable staff member at the Canadian High Commission in London (The Siren Years), Ritchie had plenty of time for introspection and an active personal life, making for a number of both thoughtful and highly entertaining diary entries.  But Diplomatic Passport covers the first years of Ritchie’s very successful career as a diplomatic representative, when he was working all hours and barely had the time to have a personal life never mind write about it.  It’s a wonderful book if you already know Ritchie and are happy for him to talk very little about himself but I think it might prove frustrating for unfamiliar readers who would probably want to have some idea about the author.

The diaries begin in 1946 in an uneasy post-war world.  The changes wrought by the Second World War only put more pressure on the men and women trying to rebuild and to create a lasting international peace. The strain is intense and the worst of it, Ritchie thinks, is borne by the young men who not only have the anxiety of tending to their young careers but also of searching out or attending to their wives:

International affairs have become a battlefield where the rules of war are relevant, and the strains on the combatants are as gruelling as on the battlefield.  You need physical, mental and nervous strength.  But, hardest of all, you cannot afford too many distractions.  That is not so bad for the old men who live only for ambition.  It is hard on the young; they tire more easily and are more vulnerable to their own mistakes.  The Old Boys have made so many that one more or less does not matter to them.  Then the young ones have the other battles of love to contend with.  They are fighting on two fronts.  They must have time to sleep with their wives or someone else will do it for them.  (21 August 1946)

In the years documented in Diplomatic Passport, Ritchie covers a lot of ground.  It is a short book, with some years barely mentioned and others only captured with a handful of entries, but it tracks Ritchie from Ottawa to Paris to Bonn (West Germany) to New York and finally to Washington.  Exhausting.  He also picks up a wife, Sylvia, along the way and, though she is barely mentioned in these diaries, there is a noticeable lack of female conquests (which took up a considerable amount of his youthful energy).  I am sure these years were a whirlwind to live through, as each move brought with it a more impressive job title: counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Paris; Ambassador to West Germany; Permanent Representative to the United Nations; Ambassador to the United States.  Because Ritchie preferred to focus on his personal life when he published these diaries, there are very few details about his work and achievements, just impressions of those who he worked with, general thoughts on the issues of the day, and humorous anecdotes from various events, like this one from his time in West Germany:

I went over today to Dortmund to open an exhibition of Eskimo art.  I have already opened three exhibitions of Eskimo art and am becoming sick of the sight of it.  This exhibition was in the museum at Dortmund and the museum officials had told me that they had very few funds to provide refreshments, so I sent over several cases of rye whisky.  The people at the museum had never seen rye before and the Director asked me if it was ‘a kind of liqueur or a sort of wine.’  After the speeches were over, tall glasses filled with undiluted rye whisky were handed round on trays and drunk recklessly, so that before the reception was over everyone was more or less drunk.  It was by far the most successful exhibition of Eskimo art I have ever attended… (21 February 1957)

The most enjoyable, light-hearted entries are from Ritchie’s time in post-war Paris.  The country may have been devastated but the company of fellow diplomats was excellent and always entertaining.  Ritchie’s observations of the social and political changes taking place (and the telling quotes he took down from others) made for some fascinating reading.  I particularly loved this account of a dinner party for the Dominion delegations at the British Embassy in Paris, with the uneasy melding of classes after Labour had come into power:

The prevailing social tone of the evening was British lower middle class.  Since Labour came in in England they are the rulers – the politicians.  Their servants of the upper class – the professional diplomats and officials – joined benevolently in the fun, taking the attitude ‘they are really rather dears and it is nice to see them enjoy themselves in their simple fashion and we must not seem patronizing,’ except for one who remarked to me, ‘This is where experience at Servants’ Balls and Sergeant’s Messes comes in so useful.’ (13 October 1946)

I already mentioned the greatest, most bizarrely fantastic Parisian escapade here a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating.  Ritchie had counted Lady Diana Cooper, wife of Duff Cooper, Britain’s then ambassador to France, and Nancy Mitford as friends during his days in London (both show up several times in The Siren Years) and they all found themselves together again in Paris.  I can only wish I had friends this glamourous or extravagant:

Not long ago I was sitting next to Diana at a lively luncheon party where the cross-five of conversation was sizzling away. Twice – three times – I attempted to join the fray without success. Turning to Diana I said: ‘I cannot understand it. Am I invisible, or inaudible? I have so much to say and no one pays attention to me.’ She fixed me with her azure eyes. ‘Something,’ she said, ‘must be done about that.’ Something was – with Nancy Mitford acting as her lieutenant, Diana organized Ritchie Week, a week of non-stop parties, dinners, even a ball in Ritchie honour. She roped in half Paris – surprised French hostesses found it was the smart thing to join in this charade. Old and new friends showered us with invitations. Whenever we appeared, a special anthem was played to signal our entrance. Verses were addressed to us – on the walls of the houses in our street someone had by night chalked up in giant letters the slogan ‘Remember Ritchie’. Nancy I think it was who had an even more daring inspiration – a clutch of coloured balloons inscribed ‘Ritchie Week’ were let loose over Paris. (The newspapers reported that one of these had floated as far as Boulogne, where it was picked up by the mystified inhabitants, who asked themselves what it might portend.) It was an apotheosis of a kind, and who but Diana could have devised such a fantasy? (21 June 1948)

Isn’t that extraordinary?  Part of what makes Ritchie’s diaries such a delight are these unexpectedly sensational moments, which happen with greater frequency than you would believe.  The people he collects around him or just encounters are extraordinary.  It’s thrilling enough to come across the truly famous names but he is also wonderful at introducing me to people I’d never heard of before (generally diplomats or journalists) and making them seem completely marvellous, convincing me that I must track down all the information I can about them.

Though I would recommend new readers start with one of the earlier volumes of Ritchie’s diaries, this is nonetheless an excellent book.  As usual, Ritchie provides a captivating, intelligently observed perspective on the events of the day.  As Ritchie’s jobs change and he becomes more important, the focus does shift more towards his work, his thoughts on political and diplomatic matters becoming the most common topics while friends and family are largely unmentioned – a change in priorities for both Ritchie and the reader!  But, more importantly, the diaries never become dull.  Where he once wrote about drunken nights at university (excellent training for a career as a diplomat) or affairs with ballerinas, he now writes with equal animation about Suez and the Congo.  Though his topics may have changed, his diaries remain just as entertaining as ever, chronicling a truly fascinating life.

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader 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!

Not too much of excitement to report this week, though I did almost get run over by a priest on a bicycle while walking to the library yesterday.  That was a bit unusual but added some welcome variety to the day.  I was down with the flu for much of last week and busy with birthday celebrations on the weekend, so there has not been a lot of reading since I finished War and Peace.  Hopefully, I’ll get back into the swing of things soon because goodness knows I have enough books waiting for me!


At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor – We meet again, Mrs Taylor.  I tried several of Taylor’s novels last year during Virago Reading Week and did not get on with them at all.  But enough time has passed that I’m willing to write those failures off on account of a bad mood and try again.  Both Harriet and Darlene reviewed At Mrs Lippincote’s last month and then there it was on the shelf when I went browsing yesterday – clearly a sign!  Taylor was born in 1912 and a year-long Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Celebration is being held in honour of what would have been her 100th birthday, complete with readalongs.  Knowing that many of my favourite bloggers are Taylor fans (Rachel, Simon T, Jane, Verity and Harriet are all hosting readalongs), I figured I better give her another shot early in 2012 so, if I do end up completely adoring her work this time, I’ll be able to enjoy the rest of the reading events this year!

The Gentry: Stories of the English by Adam Nicolson – I love Nicolson’s writing and I’ve been looking forward to this since the first, glowing reviews started coming out last autumn.

Prize-winning author Adam Nicolson tells the story he was born to write — the real story of England. It is the gentry that has made England what it was and, to a degree, still is. In this vivid, lively book, history has never been more readable. We may well be ‘a nation of shopkeepers’, but for generations England was a country dominated by its middling families, rooted on their land, in their locality, with a healthy interest in turning a profit from their property and a deep distrust of the centralised state. The virtues we may all believe to be part of the English culture — honesty, affability, courtesy, liberality — each of these has their source in gentry life cultivated over five hundred years. These folk were the backbone of England. Adam Nicolson’s riveting new book concentrates on fourteen families with a time-span from 1400 to the present day. From the medieval gung-ho of the Plumpton family to the high-seas adventures of the Lascelles in the 18th-century, to more modern examples, the book provides a chronological picture of the English, seen through these intimate, passionate, powerful stories of family saga.

The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values by Nancy Folbre – while I was reading Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s The Home-Maker last month (which I loved and will hopefully review soon), I was suddenly struck by the urge to reread this book which examines the economics of caregiving.  We read excerpts of it for one of my university classes and I ended up reading most of the book after that.  I remember feeling frustrated by it, particularly when it was compared to the academic articles on the same topic that I was reading at that time.  I do remember it being very readable though and I’m interested to find what I think of it this time around.

What did you pick up this week?

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I have to admit that my main reaction to The Unbearable Bassington by Saki was puzzlement.  When I finished, I sat there wondering ‘what just happened?’  It is, assuredly, an odd book but also a rather amazing one.

The story opens with the introduction of Francesca Bassington, an unemotional, materialistic widow who “if pressed in an unguarded moment to describe her soul, would probably have described her drawing-room.”  The only person Francesca is truly attached to is her self-absorbed son Comus, an odious youth intent on his own amusements and happy to ignore and rebuff attempts to set him on the boring path to solid citizenship.  The episodic novel jumps about, giving us glimpses into both Francesca and Comus’ vapid lives, tracking them until a crisis is reached and, having finally gained the contempt of everyone he knows in London, Comus is packed off to obscure employment in West Africa.

This was my first encounter with Saki but it is not difficult to tell that he was someone more comfortable with the short story format.  As a novel, the construction leaves something to be desired.  The story has no real flow or grace to it and comes across as muddled and episodic.  Saki’s writing is wonderful and each little episode is perfectly formed but characters who are wonderfully introduced never appear again and certain scenes, however beautifully executed, leave one wondering why they were included since they don’t seem to add much to the story or our understanding of the central characters.

The final chapters, the most emotionally devastating ones, were what made the novel for me.  Without them, I would have gone away thinking how much I enjoyed Saki’s humorous writing but I would have completely forgotten the details of the book almost immediately.  The concluding chapters reveal so much more of both Francesca and Comus’s inner lives that, for most of the book, we had been completely ignorant of, seeing how they behaved and reacted to certain people and situations but never really understanding their emotions.  Seeing the depth of their love for one another, something which their tense relationship had made it difficult for them to express but which when separated leaves them both with an intense sense of longing and regret, upset me far more than I thought this book had the power to do.  It makes everything that came before all the more poignant and powerful.

Saki’s writing is filled with brilliance and humour.  His observations and details were so precise, so perfect – what he manages to fit into this slim volume is truly amazing.  My favourite description is of one of the minor female characters.  In only a few words, he tells you all you need to know about that woman’s vanity and shrewdness:  “Most men liked her, and the percentage of women who disliked her was not inconveniently high.”  And then there is this magnificent description of Francesca Bassington, revealing so much about her personality, her approach to mothering, and Comus himself:

Francesca prided herself on being able to see things from other people’s points of view, which meant, as it usually does, that she could see her own point of view from various aspects.  As regards Comus, whose doing and non-doings bulked largely in her thoughts at the present moment, she had mapped out in her mind so clearly what his outlook in life ought to be, that she was peculiarly unfitted to understand the drift of his feelings or the impulses that governed them.  Fate had endowed her with a son; in limiting the endowment to a solitary offspring Fate had certainly shown a moderation which Francesca was perfectly willing to acknowledge and be thankful for; but then, as she pointed out to a certain complacent friend of hers who cheerfully sustained an endowment of half-a-dozen male off springs and a girl or two, her one child was Comus.  Moderation in numbers was more than counterbalanced in his case by extravagance in characteristics.

I’m still stunned by the power exerted over me by the unexpected ending.  While reading, I had been amused by and appreciative of Saki’s writing style and humour but, as I was nearing the end, it was starting to wear thin; too much polish for not enough plot.  The ending, providing all of the emotion and honesty missing from the carefree, artificial world inhabited by Francesca and Comus, shocked me into a level of emotional engagement that I had not anticipated, even though I’d read enough reviews to know that something dramatic was coming.  It was brilliantly done on Saki’s part, making this a novel I will not soon forget.

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Birthday Books

Thank you everyone for the lovely birthday wishes yesterday.  I had an absolutely wonderful day, including a delicious lunch out with family to celebrate both my birthday and my brother’s (he turned 24 on the 14th).  The day got off to a wonderful start with bookish presents over breakfast – and not just any books!  My parents presented me with three books that I have been lusting after for ages and I’m now almost giddy to be able to claim as my own.  They are: Jennifer Kloester’s Georgette Heyer and Angela Thirkell’s Before Lunch and Cheerfulness Breaks In.  You know how happy I always am to grow my Thirkell collection and I’m especially thrilled to have Before Lunch, since neither the public nor university libraries have copies and so I haven’t yet read it.  I read Cheerfulness Breaks In twice last year and am very grateful that I’ll no longer have to track down the library copy next time I feel the need to reread it!  But most of all, I’m excited about the Heyer biography.  It was on my Christmas wishlist but, since it hasn’t been released in North America, proved difficult to obtain, especially since the Book Depository was out of stock for several months.  The wait has made me that much more appreciative of it and I can’t wait to start reading!

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Library Lust

It’s my (26th) birthday today and how better to begin the day than with a special edition of Library Lust!  Just as I did last year, I’m celebrating by posting my five favourite libraries from the last year (in no particular order):

credit: House and Home (July 2010)

credit: Bella Pollen's Oxfordshire home (Vogue, June 2011)

The Library by Frederick Frieseke

credit: US Vogue (Apartment of Minnie Mortimer)

credit: unknown

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