Archive for October, 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.

Marg has the Mr Linky this week.

The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society by Barbara J. Zitwer – I loved Jane’s review of this back in the spring and immediately put it on my TBR list.  Isn’t the cover gorgeous?

The Gentle Art of Quilt-Making by Jane Brocket – an inspirational rather than practical book about quilting is exactly what I need.  Jane’s quilts are so beautiful and I am looking forward to reading the stories behind the 15 quilts featured here.

Music in the Hills and Shoulder the Sky by D.E. Stevenson – the two remaining books in the trilogy that began with Vittoria Cottage.

What did you pick up this week?

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I have been promising a review of Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim since I read it in June.  Worse, I have been callously and constantly mentioning it since then, enraging those of you who wanted to know more and were waiting on an actual review.  Well, rejoice!, for here it is.

From the opening line, there is no doubt that you are reading von Arnim and what a perfect line it is:

Mr Pinner was a God-fearing man, who was afraid of everything except respectability.

Mr Pinner is an Islington shopkeeper and for years he and his wife have longed for a child.  Finally, they have a daughter and, recognizing that she is the answer to their prayers, they name her Salvatia (Sally for short).  Unfortunately, Sally turns out to be unusually difficult to raise.  She herself is docile and obedient, all that a daughter should be, but she is far, far too beautiful.  Her parents have to keep her under lock and key after the age of twelve, once love-struck (or at least lust-struck) men and boys start following her around.  All the Pinners’ energy goes into protecting the exquisite Sally, whose unthinking innocence makes her welcome the smiles that come her way even though her strict morals mean she would be horrified if she knew what it was those men wanted from her.

It is more than enough work for two people, guarding Sally, but unfortunately Mrs Pinner dies while Sally is still in her teens.  Mr Pinner discovers that he can’t run the store on his own, can’t afford to hire help, and absolutely cannot handle the volume of admirers who appear when Sally works there.  Seeking a simpler life, he buys a shop in a small village near Cambridge whose chief attraction is an almost entirely female population.  Foolishly though, Mr Pinner failed to anticipate the mobility of young undergraduates in possession of motor cars.  When Mr Jocelyn Luke enters the shop and falls instantly and desperately in love with Sally, Mr Pinner is horrified.  Horrified, that is, until Mr Luke reveals that he wants to marry Sally.  Thrilled at the prospect of handing the responsibility for Sally over to someone else, Mr Pinner does all he can to encourage the match and the two are quickly married, the persuadable Sally having been as eager as ever to heed her father’s advice.   Now it is Mr Luke’s burden to hide Sally away and he finds the task just as exhausting as Mr Pinner did.

The widowed Mrs Luke, a doting mother with grand schemes for her son’s brilliant future, is dismayed to hear that he is married and to the daughter of a shopkeeper no less.  Once she sees Sally though, she too falls victim to the girl’s beauty and launches a determined mission to mould the young girl into the kind of presentable, middle class bride Jocelyn Luke needs by his side in order to succeed.  Sally, whose only ambition is for a small home to keep and fill with lots of babies, does not make a good student.  Meanwhile, Mrs Luke is being courted by her neighbour Mr Thorpe, who had no chance as long as Jocelyn was unmarried but now that the tight mother-son bond has been broken redoubles his efforts, making up in determination what he lacks in precision:

‘Marriage never harmed a man yet,’ said Mr Thorpe still more firmly, aware that he was being inaccurate, but also aware that no one can afford to be accurate and court simultaneously.  Accuracy, Mr Thorpe knew, comes after marriage, not before.

The story is a farce mixed with a fairy tale.  The adventures of simple Sally in ever elevating circles of society (she ends up the protégé of a duke) are delightful and I took a callous amount of pleasure in poor Mr Luke’s hopeless attempts to protect his stunning bride from any male gaze but his.

Introduction to Sally is good.  Very, very good in fact and very, very unexpected.  Von Arnim always manages to surprise me but never more so than here.  She has a uniquely sharp eye for the absurdities of humour behaviour and an extraordinary talent for capturing that in dry, humourous prose.  Here she is entirely without sentiment or sympathy and each character is more ridiculous than the last.  It is pure farce – far purer than I had ever expected from von Arnim who usually balances humourous writing with darker themes – and entirely, wonderfully, hilariously entertaining.

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My Persephone Biannually arrived on Friday.  Now, I know I’m not the only one who rejoices when they spot that envelope amidst the rest of the mail but there is something particularly cheering about it arriving on a Friday when you know you have the entire weekend to savour it.

Persephone Books has been much on my mind these past few weeks, as one friend after the other has posted his or her tribute in honour of the release of their 100th book.  I only discovered Persephone a few years ago, in late 2009 when I discovered book blogs.  My quest to learn more about Persephone lead me from one book blog to another, inspiring in me a desire not just to track down certain titles but also to start The Captive Reader.  It is only suiting that I picked my first two Persephone books up from the library the week I started blogging in January 2010.  Since then, I’ve read about two dozen Persephone titles (and accumulated many more) and, while I may greet some with more enthusiasm than others, there is always something about each book that sticks with me.  So far, my favourites are:

Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey

Mariana by Monica Dickens

I didn’t cosy up with my biannually until Saturday night but it was far from the only Persephone reading I did this weekend.  I had quite a little Persephone celebration on my own.  I read The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf on Friday and also dipped in and out of It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst before bed that night, consumed The Priory by Dorothy Whipple on Saturday evening and rounded off the weekend with Operation Heartbreak by Duff Cooper on Sunday.  Leonard Woolf and I have a few issues we need to work out between ourselves, but Operation Heartbreak was predictably heart-wringing and I adored The Priory.

Now all I want to do is read through the rest of my Persephone collection and, of course, expand it.  My Christmas list is already half-filled with Persephone titles and I am incredibly excited about the two titles they will be printing in the spring: Heat Lightning by Helen Hull and The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal.

Do you remember how and when you discovered Persephone Books?  What are your favourite titles? 


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Our second full day in Wengen was the day that cemented my love of the region.  Our first day there had been pretty spectacular but it was nothing on the second.

Starting out in the morning, the weather wasn’t great but we decided to press on.  But one train ride and one cable car ride later, when we had reached Grütschalp on the other side of the valley, the weather had cleared and the views were spectacular.  It is only about 4km from there to Mürren and, though you can take a train, it is an easy and absolutely beautiful walk.  The further along you go, the more impressive the mountain views become.

We didn’t spend much time in Mürren, just walked straight through to the cable car station and descended down to Stechelberg on the valley floor.  I hate heights and I particularly hate cable cars (which made skiing lessons a truly awful experience as a child).  I can’t say I was particularly easy whenever I had to take one in Switzerland but they are fast and a few minutes of terror is well-worth getting to those wonderful destinations.

From Stechelberg we walked to Lauterbrunnen, passing waterfalls, a sparkling river, and many, many grazing cows.  It’s only 6.5km and the entire route is dead flat so we had plenty of time to enjoy our surroundings, particularly the sight of the amazing cliffs towering above us.  It was hard to imagine that there were villages up there, completely out of sight.  There were BASE jumpers leaping off those cliffs though, giving me a few seconds panic in the moments as they plummeted towards the earth before opening their chutes.  No, that does not look fun at all.

We stopped for a late and well-deserved lunch in Lauterbrunnen and then hopped a train back up the mountain to Wengen.  The rest of the afternoon was spent congratulating ourselves on an unforgettable day and writing smug emails to family and friends back home, with many, many photos attached.  How could we resist?

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Library Lust

via skeppsholmen.se

This house on the Øresund Strait has me ready to move to Sweden.

via skeppsholmen.se

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Oh dear.  If there is one book I recommend you not read it is Tommy and Grizel by J.M. Barrie.  Barrie is hit and miss at the best of times so I did not have had high expectations going in but I still didn’t expect something this dull and repetitious.  If I hadn’t been reading it for my Century of Books (I was really eager to check 1900 off), I would have abandoned it after the first hundred pages.

Tommy and Grizel is the sequel to Sentimental Tommy, which I’ve never read but the title alone gives you a pretty firm idea of Tommy’s character.  His biographer, who is relating Tommy’s life to us, is not overly fond of his subject, which leads to some delightfully critical remarks.  The book actually began well; the narrator’s constant jabs at Tommy and determination to not say anything that would make the reader think well of him are rather amusing.  For example, when Tommy launches himself on London and his idea of himself begins to inflate, he wants to leave behind the name of his childhood.  Our narrator will have none of it: “…to be called Tommy by anyone was now detestable to him (which is why I always call him Tommy in these pages).”

When first arrived in London, Tommy works for Pym, a hack writer of sensational stories.  He dictates these to Tommy and, slowly, Tommy begins adding his own polishes, awed by his own talent.  What he actually creates is incredibly poorly written sentimental drivel that no one wants to read.  Pym is horrified when he finally finds out about Tommy’s modifications:

The plot was lost for chapters.  The characters no longer did anything, and then went and did something else: you were told instead how they did it.  You were not allowed to make up your own mind about them: you had to listen to the mind of T. Sandys; he described and he analysed; the road he had tried to clear through the thicket was impassable for chips. 

T. Sandys finally makes his mark as the author of the extremely priggish and extremely popular Letters to a Young Man About to be Married, in which he waxes poetic on the nobility of women and the responsibility of man.  So far, so good.  The narrator was still making enough fun of Tommy to keep me interested.

But then Tommy returns to his home town in Scotland and is reunited with Grizel, his childhood love with as tragic a background as a sentimentalist could wish, and the rest of the book is a tedious and wandering exercise in descriptive writing.  I could not bear it.  The narrator doesn’t want us to like Tommy and, trust me, I was at no time tempted to like him.  Or Grizel.  Or, really, anyone in the entire book (except maybe the narrator and even he earned my wrath by going on and on and on).

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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.

Oh yes, my consumption of D.E. Stevenson’s novels continues.  Only three came in this weekend (of which I have, miraculously, only read one so far – such restraint!) but there are more on the way.  What would I do without interlibrary loans?

Sarah Morris Remembers and Sarah’s Cottage are companion books about, you might have guessed, Sarah Morris.  I have already read and loved Sarah Morris Remembers, which follows Sarah through her childhood during the 1920s and 1930s and into young adulthood during the war – I think it is probably my favourite D.E. Stevenson book to date – so am eager to start on Sarah’s Cottage!

I don’t know much about Young Mrs Savage but I am looking forward to reading it nonetheless!

Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie – it has been a fiction-heavy year for me and I am definitely feeling the lack of non-fiction in my reading diet now.  Two or three memoirs or biographies a month is not enough – I need more!  Hopefully, Massie’s massive biography of Catherine the Great will go some way to feeding my need.  I know Audrey enjoyed it when she read it last spring and I’ve been looking forward to trying it for myself since then.

I am always on the lookout for good chicklit – the kind that isn’t obsessed with the heroine’s weight or fixated entirely on unobtainable males – and Hester Browne impressed me with both The Finishing Touches (about a woman attempting to revitalise her family’s London finishing school in the 21st Century) and Swept Off Her Feet (in which an antiques appraiser visits a Scottish castle, uncovers a secret, befriends the forward-thinking heir and struggles to learn to dance reels).  I picked these up over the weekend and have already read both.  In many ways, they reminded me of Katie Fforde’s books, with their competent heroines and focus on work and non-romantic relationships, though suitable love interests are definitely also there (and, what’s more, they are actually reasonably appealing human beings as opposed to the standard flat and overly-idealised chicklit heroes).

What did you pick up this week?

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In 1940, Behind the Lines by A.A. Milne was published as a diary of the first nine months of the war, written in light verse.  That makes for about as strange a book as you would expect, war and light verse not always being the most obvious companions.  But like any wartime diary, there is something terribly fascinating about it, particularly since Milne is not afraid to express strong opinions and attaches to each poem explanatory notes that give further insight into his feelings at the time.

Some focus on domestic affairs – the chore of drawing the blackout curtains (and mislaying the pins), the confusion of travelling by rail when conductors no longer call out the name of the next station, or the horrid scarcity of salted butter (a favourite topic for Milne through the years – he loathed unsalted butter, likening it to Vaseline) – while others turn a sharp eye on the government and its foes.  He is particularly good with poems about Hitler’s Germany, his passionate hatred of Hitler serving as his muse.  “Unity”, about a meeting of Hitler and his associates, was my favourite poem in the book and the one that most perfectly matches form with subject as he imagines the inner thoughts of and petty rivalries between Goering, Goebbels, Ribbentrop, et al.  His commentary is particularly pointed in these poems; in “The Supermen”, he ridicules Hitler’s fantasy of Aryan dominance and the superiority of the German mind when the Führer has so restricted their freedoms that these “supermen” have no chance to think for themselves:

A race of supermen indeed!
Who may not talk or think or read,
Or hear what all the world has heard,
Till Teacher kindly gives the world.
Their wonder-brains!  so ill-designed
To use the functions of the mind
That any thought remotely free
Unsettles the machinery.
One doubtful rumour from the Dutch
(It seems) would disengage the clutch;
One broadcast message from the Turks
Would absolutely crash the works;
One leaflet from a British plane
Would pulverise the wonder-brain!

Of the poems focusing on England, the more personal ones are the best, perhaps because they come closest to being a true diary (as opposed those that give more general commentary on society).  Part of what I like about Milne is that in all of his books you get to glimpse him.  And how better to get to know a person than to hear them voice their frustrations, as Milne does in “Weather Report”, lamenting that the local weather is no longer printed in the paper thus stealing the pleasure he used to get from knowing how the temperatures at his home compared to those in nearby villages and towns:

For in the happy days of old
One scanned the news to see
If Littlehampton were as cold,
Or Looe as hot, as we.
But now comparison is gone –
Not least of Hitler’s crimes
Is that he put the kybosh on
The weather in The Times.

I crack the still unrationed egg,
I carve the rationed ham,
I know it’s cold in Winnipeg
And cold in Amsterdam;
I munch the sparsely-buttered toast,
I stir the tasteless tea,
But know not (what intrigues me most)
The min. at Brightlingsea.

What is most interesting, to me at least, is Milne’s commentary on the moral implications of the war.  A lifelong pacifist, he had written Peace with Honour in 1934 detailing his beliefs and explaining why he was averse to war, or at least war as the world had known it up to that point.  But war with Hitler was another thing entirely, as he makes clear in “To America”:

Well, are you coming in?
It’s a fight between Good and Evil,
It’s a fight between God and the Devil.
Where do you stand today?
Which are you for?  You have chosen, yes,
But is it enough for men to bless
The men who fight, and to turn away?
Is it enough for women to cry,
And to say “Poor things” when the innocent die?
Is it enough to give your prayers,
And then – go back to your own affairs?
It’s a fight for all that you counted dear,
It’s a fight for all that you fought to win:
The fight is on, and the issue clear:
Good or Evil,
God or the Devil…
Well, are you coming in?

This idea of Good versus Evil comes up repeatedly and, knowing that other pacifists or conscientious objectors would have something to say about his apparent change of heart, he addresses them directly in one of his notes:

…I think that there is a difference between refusing to “use the sword” to defend oneself, and refusing to use it to defend the innocent and helpless.  I cannot believe that, if Christ in His journeys had come across a sadist torturing a child, He would have been content to preach a parable.  The Conscientious Objector does believe this.

Frankly, the majority of the poems are forgettable and a number feel laboured and are quite awkward to read.  Yet, every so often, there is one that pops out at you and it is those ones that make this book special, along with Milne’s reflections about the circumstances under which they were written.

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By this point in my life, reading Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw is more an exercise in memory than in comprehension.  I think I first read the play when I was fourteen but even by that time I had seen the excellent Leslie Howard/Wendy Hiller film countless times, watched the film of My Fair Lady so often I had memorized every song and knew the details of every Cecil Beaton costume, and attended stage productions of both the play and the musical.  Since then, my familiarity with the play has only grown and so actually reading it seems slightly superfluous – what is the point when you have almost every line memorized?

Still, it is too enjoyable not to revisit every now and then.  The story of Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl transformed under the guidance of the eccentric Professor Henry Higgins into a well-spoken young woman who is able to infiltrate the highest level of society without betraying her origins, is Shaw’s masterpiece.  The dialogue is as sharp and the characters as memorable now as when the play premiered a hundred years ago.  Eliza herself is, as Higgins eventually admits, magnificent, full of intelligence and passion.  Her father Alfred Doolittle (always a favourite in any production) is hilarious right from his first scene, when he attempts to get money off of Higgins and Colonel Pickering after hearing that they have abducted his daughter for no doubt nefarious purposes.  Poor Doolittle meets a suitably comic fate, reduced to a lifetime of respectability after an unwelcome inheritance traps him into the dreaded world of middle-class morality.  Henry’s mother Mrs Higgins is as formidable and quick-witted as you would need to be to raise a son like Henry but it is Higgins himself who is always my favourite.  Full of boundless energy and arrogance, easily distracted and even more easily irritated, he is an irresistible but intensely frustrating character, which is the genius of Shaw.  You can understand why Eliza is attracted to him but, at the same time, you can understand why she leaves him.  Higgins has made a profession out of changing other people but he himself will never change.

Pygmalion deals with some fascinating themes, not the least of which is female emancipation.  Higgins himself admires independence but, in turning Eliza into a model lady, he creates a creature unable to stand on her own.  As a flower girl, Eliza had independence and a job, lowly as it was; as a lady, her options are considerably narrower.  Even Higgins cannot think of much for her beyond marriage:

HIGGINS. I daresay my mother could find some chap or other who would do very well –

LIZA. We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court Road.

HIGGINS. What do you mean?

LIZA. I sold flowers.  I didn’t sell myself.  Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.

But that is just the sort of woman he hates most, the docile, doting wife without any agency of her own.  He professes to hate Eliza’s attempts at domesticating him, berating her for thinking that such small acts in service of his own comfort would make him like her better:

LIZA. Don’t sneer at me.  It’s mean to sneer at me.

HIGGINS. I have never sneered in my life.  Sneering doesn’t become either the human face or the human soul.  I am expressing my righteous contempt from Commercialism.  I don’t and won’t trade in affection.  You call me a brute because you couldn’t buy a claim on me by fetching my slippers and finding my spectacles.  You were a fool: I think a woman fetching a man’s slippers in a disgusting sight: did I ever fetch YOUR slippers?  I think a good deal more of you for throwing them in my face.  No use slaving for me and then saying you want to be cared for: who cares for a slave?

It is only once Eliza rejects him thoroughly and unapologetically that he truly comes to like her and to see her as a person in her own right rather than just the result of his brilliant tutelage.

When the play was published in 1916 (it was first performed in 1912), Shaw included an epilogue “What Happens Afterwards” in the form of an essay, trying to put an end to producers’ attempts to give Eliza and Higgins the romantic happy ending that so jarred with their relationship as Shaw wrote it.  While I adore Acts Four and Five of the play (which see Eliza and Higgins’ most intense and emotional confrontations), this is the most interesting part of the book to me.  Eliza marries the foolish fop Freddy and they struggle to make a living running a flower shop, eventually taking business classes so they have at least some idea of what they should be doing.  It is not a luxurious life but it is the one Eliza chose and Freddy, though he may be a bit dim, worships her.  And though Eliza never regrets her marriage, neither does she give Higgins up:

She is immensely interested in him.  She has even secret mischievous moments in which she wishes she could get him alone, on a desert island, away from all ties and with nobody else in the world to consider, and just drag him off his pedestal and see him making love like any common man.  But when it comes to business, to the life that she really leads as distinguished from the life of dreams and fancies, she likes Freddy and she likes the Colonel; and she does not like Higgins[…]Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.

As always, this was fun to reread and now I am feeling the need to revisit the 1938 film.  No one could be quite so perfect a Higgins as Leslie Howard.

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Library Lust

via Zillow

Audrey, knowing that I am always on the lookout for libraries, sent this photo to me a few weeks ago of a home library in Nashville, TN. Isn’t that a gorgeous room? For me, the only problem with a two-storey library is the ladder: I do not have a good head for heights and would never be able to force myself to climb up to the top shelves!

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