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Archive for August, 2012

If you are ever in need of a smile, pick up Miss Marlow at Play by A.A. Milne.  What that man could do with a simple one-act play!  From start to finish (which wasn’t very long at all), I was perfectly delighted by this frothy farce.

From 1927, Miss Marlow at Play recounts the mischievous encounter the famous actress Clarissa Marlow has with a gentleman who believes she is entangled with his son.  It is all a case of mistaken identity – Ambrose Wallington came across a letter from his son to an unnamed actress, praising her as the most beautiful and talented woman in the show, and naturally assumed he meant Clarissa – but Clarissa, who has been happily married for almost twenty years, is not above having a bit of fun at Mr Wallington’s expense.

Milne is in top form here.  The exchanges between Clarissa and Ambrose allow him to indulge in the flippant back-and-forths he is so very good at:

AMBROSE. […] I do not propose to let my son marry an actress.  Any actress.
CLARISSA. Why not?
AMBROSE. An actress!  A woman who comes from God knows where –
CLARISSA (indignantly). I don’t come from God knows where.  I mean, other people know where, too.
AMBROSE. Whose photograph may jump out at you at breakfast any morning of the week from an advertisement of skin-foods or suspenders –
CLARISSA (indignantly). They’re very good suspenders.
AMBROSE. Whose love-affairs are thrust upon the public as blatantly as those of the more amorous pigeons –
CLARISSA.  If we are thinking of the same pigeons, you are now merely being disgusting.

He also uses his introductions to give a truly wonderful level of detail.  This is one of the first things I fell in love with when I started reading Milne’s plays earlier this year.  He tells us so much about the characters, things that are entirely inconsequential to the story, in these notes but if you were seeing rather than reading the play you would have no idea.  I find it absolutely delightful, especially here where he is introducing Miss Marlow:

As soon as we have had an opportunity of observing the plain and unemotional ETHEL at work, and wondering what her surname is, which is a thing that MISS MARLOW can never remember, the main door opens, and the popular and beautiful actress comes in.  Some of the stories you have read about her are true, but her father was not a clergyman.  He kept a public-house.  It just needed this to make it perfect.  She is now entirely natural and at home in any society, and can be vulgar, if it amuses her, “without being in the least vulgar.”

There is nothing particularly insightful or ‘worthy’ about the play, it is just good fun and I had a wonderful time reading and giggling over it.

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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.

I’m still travelling (I should be in Dresden today, provided everything has gone to plan) so no loot for me this week!

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Library Lust

I love the juxtaposition of the white walls and bed with the dark ceiling and books but…I have to say I’m not sure I’d find anything on those shelves I’d want to read. They have the look of books bought for appearances sake only. To my way of thinking, there are few sins greater than wasting shelf space displaying books you don’t intend to read.

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With The Lucky One by A.A. Milne, I think I may have finally found a Milne play that I dislike.  Well, that might be putting it a bit strong.  It was still an interesting read but altogether it fell a bit flat and was nowhere near as engaging as many of his other works.

Written in 1922, The Lucky One is the story of the Farringdon brothers.  Younger brother Gerald is the idol of the family – intelligent, handsome, and gifted at all that he attempts.  Elder brother Bob is in every way less impressive, something he is bitterly conscious of.  In any other family his accomplished would be impressive, but not when compared with Gerald’s.  As one character cheerfully remarks, “whatever the elder one does, the younger one does a jolly sight better.”  When the play begins, we discover that Gerald is engaged to Miss Pamela Carey, who had been Bob’s girl but transferred her affections after meeting Gerald.   “Gerald,” the narrator usefully tells us, “carried her off her feet a month ago, but it is a question if he really touched her heart – a heart moved more readily by pity than by love.”  Well, my friends, there is only one brother likely to stir pity in the heart of onlookers and it is not the oft-worshipped Gerald.

Bob, having been manoeuvred by the family into a city position that he is ill-suited for, is now in trouble due to the illegal activities of his partner while Gerald is a rising star in the Foreign Office.  The differences between the two could not be more stark.  When you read this brief sketch – one brother petted and adored, the other largely ignored – it feels like your sympathies should be with Bob but, in reality, he is so sour and pathetic that it is difficult to feel anything but contempt for him (unless you’re Pamela, apparently).  Gerald is appealing.  He is polite and witty, thoughtful and intelligent.  It is not his fault that his family and friends foolishly idolise him.  Rather than being obnoxiously arrogant in the face of their adoration, he is in fact quite reserved.  But none of that matters to Bob, who has lived almost his entire life in Gerald’s shadow:

BOB (bitterly). What’s the family creed?  “I believe in Gerald.  I believe in Gerald the Brother.  I believe in Gerald the Son.  I believe in Gerald the Nephew.  I believe in Gerald the Friend, the Lover, Gerald the Holy Marvel.”  There may be brothers who don’t mind that sort of thing, but not when you’re born jealous as I was.

Yes, there are a few issues there.

This is the stuff fine dramas are made of but somehow this fell short for me.  Plays can be difficult that way.  Perhaps seeing it performed, with a good cast, I’d leave thinking it was the most brilliant thing I’d ever seen.  But I doubt it.  There was nothing really original about it.  Even the dialogue, where Milne usually excels, felt like it could have been written by anyone.  The only exceptions were some of the exchanges between golf-mad characters in the opening scene and then later on between Gerald and his aunt, Miss Farringdon, the only person who makes a practice of criticising Gerald’s mannerisms and questioning his sincerity.

The Lucky One is an interesting look at a challenging sibling relationship and its fallout but, on the whole, it is nothing special.

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And I’m Off!

Today’s the day!  My flight takes off mid-afternoon and, though I’m not looking forward to the fourteen hours of continuous travel it takes to get to my first destination in the Czech Republic, I cannot wait to be there!  Here’s my itinerary, if you missed it the first time or need a refresher.  There are a handful of posts scheduled for while I’m gone so enjoy yourselves and I’ll be back with lots of photos on September 10th!

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Oh, my goodness.  I thought Thirkell had been playing around with too many characters in Love Among the Ruins but I knew nothing.  Nothing, I tell you!  Honestly, I think that after the war she must have made a bet with someone about how many romantic pairings she could accomplish in a single volume, since she seems to be trying to best herself with each subsequent book.  From 1949, The Old Bank House by Angela Thirkell offers a surprising lack of memorable quotes but it makes up for that with a flurry of engagements.

The Old Bank House is the home purchased by wealthy and gregarious industrialist Sam Adams, the refurbishment of which provides the neighbourhood with some good entertainment and gossip over the course of the novel.  Only a few years before, Sam Adams was a rank outsider but now he is at the very heart of Barsetshire society, accepted by all the best county families – though that’s not to say they are entirely comfortable with him.  A long-time widower, Sam might not have taken Miss Sowerby’s warning that the house likes a mistress very seriously when he bought it from her but by the end of the novel even he is among the ranks of the newly engaged.

For me, one of the delights of The Old Bank House is the full introduction to Mr Adams’ new neighbours, the Grantlys (descendents of Trollope’s Grantlys).  Eleanor Grantly, the eldest daughter of the family, was glimpsed briefly in Love Among the Ruins working with Susan Dean at the Red Cross Depot Library, but without giving any real idea of her character.  There are four Grantly children but it is only the eldest two who matter here: Eleanor and Tom, who is miserably failing Classics at Oxford and is struggling to decide what to do with his life since most of his twenties were spent in the army.  Eleanor is rather bland but she turns out to be the woman perpetual bachelor Colin Keith has been waiting for, though he takes a while to admit that despite some rather suggestive romantic flights of fancy that you would think he’d be intelligent enough to interpret:

…she was quite different from anyone else and he was the only person who really understood how perfect she was.  Not that he was in love.  Oh no, not at all.  But he felt a strong desire to shelter her from he didn’t quite know what, to rescue her from the Red Cross, where she was happily doing very good work, to have very long talks with her in comfortable rooms with soft lights and leaping fires, or in summer lanes under green trees with birds singing, all by himself.

Tom, though he gets more attention in the next book, is special because he is the first character Thirkell really uses to explore the struggles of young men readjusting to civilian life after years spent in the military.  She had hinted at shadows in other male characters – Charles Belton especially – but it is Tom who is used to illustrate how at sea these men are who spent their early twenties fighting, missing out on the years they would have otherwise spent in school, learning and contemplating their future careers.  In his late twenties, Tom feels foolish at the university, surrounded by students almost a decade younger than himself.  He can’t reconcile his idea of where a man should be by his time in life with his own situation.  He feels he should be established by this age but instead he feels pathetically dependent on his parents.  The parent-child relationship in the Grantly family is one of my favourites.  They are a close, affectionate group but his parents don’t know how to handle Tom.  They want so desperately to help him and are willing to do all they can for him but they just cannot figure out how to communicate with him, this son who is so much more reserved than the boy they knew before the war.

This book also marks the last we see of Lady Emily Leslie, who passes away one afternoon, happy at the prospect of being reunited with her long-dead son, her husband, her dear papa…all her loved ones who have been so often in her rather confused thoughts these last few years.  Thirkell does a marvellous job handling the awkwardness, fear, and pain Lady Emily’s frequent bouts of confusion caused the family in her final months.  Their guilt over not knowing how to deal with her, their shame at feeling so heartbroken over her frail state when they feel they should be strong for her…it is all very well done, as is the range of reactions to her death.  The older members of the family, who remember their mama and grandmother as she used to be, view it as a relief for her but the younger grandchildren, especially Clarissa who thought of Lady Emily as her closest friend, have a much more difficult time.

Clarissa, with all her airs and graces, is undoubtedly my favourite post-war young person.  In fact, I almost like her more than my beloved Lydia, something I never thought I would say.  Clarissa is fascinating.  She is beautiful and elegant, coolly composed, affectionately attached to her unseen father, pleasantly domestic (she is frequently found mending her brothers’ ripped clothes), and intelligent and ambitious enough to be pursuing her studies at university, where she is taking a mathematical scholarship with an eye to engineering.  She is also, for her age, unusually observant of other people.  But she is not mature enough yet to have the unaffected adult manners to match her brains, leading to some awkward and embarrassing moments.  Thankfully, Charles Belton is generally there to knock her down to size when her more imperious moods strike her.  The evolving relationship between those two is very interesting, mostly for what it reveals about Clarissa’s character, and very drawn out (it spans five novels).  As with all things Clarissa-related, I only wish Thirkell had given it more attention instead of pushing them always into the background.

I struggle to evaluate my reactions to some of these post-war novels, particularly the string of Love Among the Ruins, The Old Bank House, The Duke’s Daughter and County Chronicle, which were published one after the other from 1948 to 1951.  On the one hand, I love getting to encounter so many favourite old characters and I greet the introduction of new ones with enthusiasm.  Nothing makes me happier than a fresh engagement and Thirkell certainly supplies enough of those.  But I miss the stronger narratives of her other books, particularly the pre-war ones, where stories centered around a somewhat limited cast.  Even though Thirkell’s skill is as keen as ever in these books, her commentary on the issues of the day far sharper than anything in her earlier novels, they are weaker on the whole.  They lack focus and the episodic nature of the stories can make them frustrating to read, as you bounce from one set of characters to another then another then another…  I love these books – and what’s more I think they are important and should be read more widely because of how well Thirkell articulates the struggles faced by both civilians and demobbed soldiers in the years after the war – but I think she would have benefited from a stricter editor who could have refined the focus of the books and limited her central cast to a modest two or three dozen.

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Alberta Adventures

Well, I’m back from Alberta.  It was a great trip.  Everything at work in Calgary went well and I got to see my friends again, which was delightful.  More importantly, my cousin’s wedding last night was wonderful – very relaxed, very friendly, and very fun.  I am so glad my parents and I were able to be there for it.

Driving around the countryside, I was also reminded of how stunningly beautiful Alberta can be.  I may have hated it during the frozen, snow-covered winters, during the blizzard-stricken springs, and through many hail-pounding summer storms, but when the sun is out and the temperature up, it’s fabulous.  My cousin lives in a largely argicultural area and the drive up there from the city through the surrounding farmland was beautiful.  It wasn’t enough to make me want to move back but I might have to consider visiting more often.

Now to ready myself for Wednesday’s departure for Europe!  I’ll be around for the next few days (madly attempting to write reviews so you’ll have something to read while I’m travelling and catching up on old comments) but they are going to be busy ones, between work, packing, blogging and visiting with family who arrive in town on Monday.  I’ll have definitely earned this vacation!

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Library Lust

via skeppsholmen.se

I might not naturally be drawn to colourful rooms myself but I rather admire people who can make such bright, bold decorating decisions. Could I live with a yellow sofa and hot pink chairs? Or a powder blue chaise next to a pink sofa and wing chair? Probably not. But I think the rooms in this Swedish home look incredibly inviting nonetheless.

via skeppsholmen.se

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I was delighted by Miss Elizabeth Bennet, enchanted by Belinda, and charmed by Mr Pim Passes By but I have a new favourite play: The Dover Road by A.A. Milne, from 1921.  None of the others even come close to matching it.

Anne and Leonard are eloping together, heading for the coast along the Dover Road.  When they encounter car troubles, they find themselves seeking refuge at a house along the road where the inhabitants are strangely prepared for their arrival.  It sounds like the beginning of a horror story but nothing could be farther from the truth.  They have found themselves at the home of Mr Latimer, a gentleman whose hobby is detaining and entertaining runaway couples for several days in his large house, giving them the chance to experience the informality of domestic life together – the dual tests of the breakfast table and the sick room are favourite challenges – and to reconsider their decision.

Mr Latimer is a wealthy man who has decided to use his wealth to make other people happy.  The way of doing that, he thinks, is by helping to make sure they don’t make foolish marriages:

…mostly it is my hobby to concentrate on those second marriages into which people plunge – with no parents now to restrain them – so much more hastily even than they plunge into their first adventure.  Yet how much more carefully they should be considered, seeing that one at least of the parties has proved his utter ignorance of the art of marriage.

Anne and Leonard are just such a couple.  She is young and hopeful but as excited about the idea of leaving her invalid father as she is at spending her life with Leonard.  Leonard is fleeing his wife Eustasia, confident that she will divorce him after this elopement.  And then what, Mr Latimer asks?

ANNE. He will marry me.

LATIMER. I see.  And then, as the fairy-books tell us, you will live happy ever after?  (ANNE is silent)

LEONARD.  I need hardly say that I shall do my best to –

LATIMER (to ANNE). And then, as the fairy-books tell us, you will live happy every after?  (ANNE is silent)  I live within my high walls which keep the world out; I am old–fashioned, Anne.  You are modern, you know the world.  You don’t believe the fairy-books, and yet – you are going to live happy ever after?

LEONARD.  I don’t see what you’re driving at.

LATIMER.  Anne does.

ANNE (raising her eyes to him). I take the risk, Mr Latimer.

LATIMER. But a big risk…Oh, believe me, I am not so much out of the world as you think.  Should I have known all about you, should I have brought you here, if I were?  I know the world; I know the risks of marriage.  Marriage is an act – well, it’s a profession in itself.  (Sharply) And what are you doing?  Marrying a man whose only qualification for the profession is that he has tried it once, and made a damned hash of it.

The seeds of doubt are planted in their minds.  Well, Anne’s mind at least.  Leonard is really too stupid to be capable of analytical thought.

But Anne and Leonard are not the only guests Mr Latimer has staying.  Another couple arrived a few days before: Leonard’s wife Eustasia and her lover Nicholas.  Nicholas was laid low by a cold immediately after arriving (a conveniently common plight for Mr Latimer’s male guests), forced to suffer through Eustasia’s oppressive nursing, but he is now recovered and they are almost ready to leave.  Mr Latimer’s cure has done its work: Nicholas is terrified by the prospect of spending the rest of his life with the charmless, tender-hearted but suffocating Eustasia, but doesn’t quite have the courage to break it off.  That is when the paths of the two couples cross.

This play is perfect.  That is all there is to it.  Anne is wonderful and you can’t help but be thankful that someone intervened to save her from a miserable life with incredibly dull Leonard.  Eustasia is gloriously terrifying, in the way that only a dull, well-intentioned, overly-affectionate woman can be.  Nicholas is clearly in over his head and Leonard…Leonard should seem a bit of a cad but he is really rather pathetic, grasping Anne as his means of escaping Eustasia.  But it is Mr Latimer who is the real wonder of the story.  He is magnificent.  So charming and quick-witted, you know he always has a twinkle in his eye and a smile lurking at the corners of his mouth.  He is particularly delighted by Anne, falling half in love with her himself, and their exchanges, both playful and serious, highlight the best qualities in both of them.

I know I have been recommending Milne’s plays zealously all year but, honestly, all gushing superlatives aside, this is the finest example of his skill as a playwright that I have come across yet.  It is a comedy but, unlike some of his delightful lighter works, it is a very thoughtful one, intelligently balancing serious issues with witty dialogue and intriguing characters.  I adored every line.

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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.

Only one week left before I leave for Europe but it is a busy week!  This morning I’m flying off to Calgary where I’ll be for the next five days.  I come home on Sunday, when I’ll basically have enough time to unpack and then repack before flying out again on Wednesday.  I’ve been rushing to read all my non-renewable books before I leave and trying my hardest to write reviews that I can schedule to go up while I’m gone.  It is all a bit chaotic.  Still, the Calgary trip, though it could not have been scheduled at a worse time, does give me a chance to test out travelling with technology – it will be my first trip with my e-reader! 

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay – this is a book where I can definitely appreciate having the electronic edition rather than the physical copy while travelling: an ereader is a lot lighter than the 700 page paperback!

One by one, the divided provinces of The Peninsula of the Palm had fallen, conquered by the armies and the sorcery of the two Tyrants. Now, Alberico of Barbadior holds the provinces of the Eastern Palm while Brandin of Ygrath rules the West, and normality of a sort has returned to the peninsula. But for one province there can be no peace. For there is one land that dared to spill the blood of Brandin’s beloved son. A land that has been broken and burned, its towers razed and its people crushed, and through the dark magics of the Tyrant of Ygrath, had its very name erased from the world. It falls to a small band of exiles from this shattered land to attempt to achieve what nine provinces could not, and bring down not one, but two, tyrants. Driven by fierce pride, love and the memory of what was, this brave handful of men and women will risk all that they have to return freedom to the Palm, and to hear once more the music of a forgotten name: Tigana.

I have also recently begun a love affair with audiobooks.  Using the digital library to download ebooks, I noticed that most of the recent titles were also available as audiobooks.  I listened to a few on my computer and fell so completely in love with them that I rushed out and finally bought an ipod (shuffle) and have been getting my money’s worth from it.  As far as I’m concerned, audiobooks have nothing in common with reading but they have entirely replaced television as my preferred “I’m too tired to read” form of entertainment.  What I’ve also discovered is that romance novels make the perfect audiobooks.  I have listened to almost all of Susan Elizabeth Phillip’s novels already and it is somehow even more fun than reading them.  It is far easier to revel in the fluffiness when you’re listening rather than reading; I don’t know why this is, but it is.

First Lady by Susan Elizabeth Phillips – How does the most famous woman in the world hide in plain sight? The beautiful young widow of the President of the United States thought she was free of the White House, but circumstances have forced her back into the role of First Lady. Not for long, however, because she’s made up her mind to escape—if only for a few days—so she can live the life of an ordinary person. All she needs is the perfect disguise . . . and she’s just found it. While an entire nation searches for her, the First Lady is in the last place anybody would think to look—in the company of a seductive stranger with secrets of his own.

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper – I read and loved this in the spring but never reviewed it.  The finally book in the trilogy is coming out in North America this fall so I thought it might be good to refresh my memory of the earlier books by listening to them before I read that.

Sophie FitzOsborne lives in a crumbling castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray, along with her tomboy younger sister Henry, her beautiful, intellectual cousin Veronica, and Veronica’s father, the completely mad King John.

When Sophie receives a leather-bound journal for her sixteenth birthday, she decides to write about her day-to-day life on the island. But it is 1936 and the world is in turmoil. Does the arrival of two strangers threaten everything that Sophie holds dear?

Crazy for You by Jennifer Crusie – Quinn McKenzie has always lived what she calls a “beige” life. She’s dating the world’s nicest guy, she had a good job as a high school art teacher, she’s surrounded by family and friends who rely on her, and she’s bored to the point of insanity. But when Quinn decides to changes her life by adopting a stray dog over everyone’s objections, everything begins to spiral out of control. Now she’s coping with dog-napping, breaking and entering, seduction, sabotage, stalking, more secrets than she really wants to know, and two men who are suddenly crazy…for her.

What did you pick up this week?

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