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Archive for September, 2013

Library Lust

credit: skeppsholmen.se

credit: skeppsholmen.se

I absolutely love the cottage-y feel of this room.

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Lbadge-4ibrary 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.

Library Loot

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse by Diana Athill – a collection of Athill’s short stories, originally published from the 1950s to the 1970s.  I read this on the weekend and really don’t have anything nice to say about it.

The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge – Mary Lindsay is a born and bred Londoner who has enjoyed her city life – a prestigious job, and friends with whom she takes in the city pleasures of theatre, art and music. But fleeting memories of a childhood visit to her father’s elderly cousin out in the country are revived with the news that the woman has willed her home, the Laurels, to Mary. She makes an uncharacteristically sudden and life-changing decision to leave London for the country. The gradual unfolding of her understanding of herself, of the now-deceased woman who has bequeathed her home to Mary, and of the people of Appleshaw, all weave together in a most memorable story of love’s redemptive power.

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren Willig – the newest “Pink Carnation” novel.

What did you pick up this week?

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Airs Above the GroundIt is the last day of Mary Stewart Reading Week and I am coming in just under the wire with my review.  Given how busy I’ve been this week, this seems a triumph of magnificent proportions.  Adjusting to a new job is always a little difficult but I’ve been dealing with exams and visitors on top of that this month, leaving no time for blogging. It is wonderful to have an excuse to write a review again.

As soon as Anboyln announced her plans for this reading week, I knew I wanted to read Airs Above the Ground. While I read the Merlin books years ago and recently tried my first of her romantic suspense novels, this is the Mary Stewart book that has been calling out to me.  Not particularly loudly, since I’ve always had the idea that I wouldn’t particularly enjoy Stewart’s books, but enough that it has been on my radar, coming up every time I search for books set in Austria.  You know my passion for books set in Central Europe so you can imagine how often I look for books set there.

When Vanessa March sees her husband on a newsreel item about a circus fire in Austria, she is shocked, having believed him to be in Sweden on business.  When the opportunity comes up to escort Timothy Lacey – who, in his late teens, really has no need of a twenty-something guardian – to Vienna, Vanessa takes it, determined to find her husband and discover what is going on.  What follows is a rather chaotic whirl among spies, criminals, and circus performers.

I honestly can’t say that I missed all that much by having passed this by all these years.  Stewart’s style of writing is engaging and I love the characters she creates – the Lipizanner-mad Timothy and the forthright veterinarian Vanessa make an excellent platonic duo – but I get so frustrated by all the other hallmarks of Stewart’s books.  The absurdly long descriptive passages had me longing to grab an editor’s blue pencil and cross whole pages out.  What came to mind most often was Angela Thirkell’s Mrs Rivers, a novelist known to her publishers as the “Baedeker Bitch” for her overblown descriptions of exotic settings.  Mary Stewart spends so much time describing the Austrian countryside that I feel she and Mrs Rivers could have had a good time exchanging guide books.  And the descriptions are so meaningless most of the time that there really is no good reason to tolerate them.  Why would we possible care how much sunshine a village gets in the winter when our characters are visiting in the summer?

But my real issue with Mary Stewart is that I simply do not enjoy suspense novels.  The hair-raising chases and dramatic climaxes do nothing for me, particularly when one dramatic event follows another and then another, as is the case here.  By stringing such theatrical episodes together, they lose what little power they might have held over me if presented individually as the suiting climax to a suspenseful build-up.

Still, I am glad I finally read this.  It has helped me put my interest in Mary Stewart to rest, though I can easily see why readers with different preferences might enjoy her.

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Rainy Day by George Ellis Carpenter

Rainy Day by George Ellis Carpenter

Few publishers provide as many excellent comfort reads – perfect for any season but especially the dark, cool days of autumn and winter – as the Edinburgh-based publishers Greyladies.  I own a handful of their books and have reviewed some here already (Eliza for Common, Summer Term, A Young Man’s Fancy) and have many more I can’t wait to read.  These are comfort books extraordinaire, the sort of reading that you long for when ill or upset, or simply too exhausted to focus on anything remotely challenging or clever.  Their two newest releases – The Glenvarroch Gathering by Susan Pleydell and Under the Rainbow by Susan Scarlett – arrived on my doorstep recently, though at the time I was too busy between work and studying for an exam to read them.  This week, having passed the exam and having somewhat settled into work, I read them both with delight.

Under the RainbowSusan Scarlett was the penname used by Noel Streatfeild for her light and formulaic but still enjoyable romances.  In Under the Rainbow, she writes about a young vicar, Martin Richards, who feels that it is his calling to work among the poor.  Spiritually, it is work he is well-suited for.  Physically, the harsh conditions in the London slums where he begins his career destroy his health.  Sent by his Bishop to an idyllic corner of Sussex, Martin is aghast when he sees his new home:

He nearly had a fit when he first saw the vicarage.  It was one of those enormous vicarages built in the early days of the last century, when the vicar always had a large family, when the cost of living was far lower, and when the vicar was usually a younger son with just sufficient allowed him by his father to enable him to keep a horse, officially for riding around his parish, but actually for hunting two days a week. 

Longing for a dirty tenement or a simple cottage, the vicarage is not at all the home he wants.  But it is the home he gets and, before long, it begins to fill up.  First, he acquires a housekeeper, the invaluable Bertha.  Then, an elderly and mean-spirited aunt arrives.  Shortly after that, his niece and nephew are orphaned and so they too come to live at the vicarage.  Finally, to take care of them and mediate the power struggles between Bertha and Aunt Connie, Judy Griffiths, a nice and extraordinarily capable young woman with a mysterious past, also moves into the vicarage.

It is a simple story and utterly predictable but I loved it.  I stumbled a bit over the more religious passages – something I don’t remember from the two or three other Streatfeild books I’ve read.  They are logically incorporated but still a bit surprisingly.

The Glenvarroch GatheringA little (but only a little) less cosy and altogether more energetic was The Glenvarroch Gathering by Susan Pleydell.  In order to make a little more money one summer, the McKechnie family (or, more specifically, the University-aged McKechnie children) decide to take in paying guests.  They have a large home by the sea in the West Highlands and, to the family’s surprise, they manage to find a group of people eager to come and stay: a good-natured American couple, a schoolboy who is classmates with the youngest McKechnie boy, a young University lecturer working on a grim novel, a schoolmistress longing for something more adventurous than her life in the Midlands, and a glamourous brother and sister from London.  The younger visitors are quickly taken up by the McKechnies and a busy summer begins, full of picnics, hikes, and flirtations.  But some of the visitors are not what they seem and the uncovering of sinister secrets leads to a dramatic (but relatively quickly and harmlessly resolved) sequence of events.  Everyone ends up with the person they should and it is all quite excellent.  Reels are danced, kilts are worn, bad guys are caught…what more could I ask for?

Though I enjoyed all of the characters in this book, I had a few particular favourites.  Pat McKechnie and Jo, both schoolboys of eighteen, were each a wonderful combination of childish enthusiasm and adult clear sightedness.  They admire the older girls they are surrounded by and Jo is rather taken with Fiona McKechnie but, unlike the older set, they do not get caught up in any messy flirtations, leaving them free for much more enjoyable activities.  But they are useful and Jo is particularly observant.  As a Trollope fan, I loved the moment when he realised who it was that one of the McKechnie’s friends reminded him of:

He searched his mind for what it was that made Maisie seem faintly familiar, and got it with some intellectual triumph.  He had lately discovered the works of Anthony Trollope, and Maisie was like some of those girls, very, very pretty and neat and you noticed how good her manners were, and yet she was comfortable and full of fun. 

My other favourite was Mrs McKechnie, the universally-beloved lady of the house.  Though her husband, the Professor, is rather distant and spends much of the book hidden in his study, Mrs McKechnie sees all without even interfering too much.  An ideal mother, really.  I also loved that she was an early riser; her early morning routine, possible thanks to a husband who is a very sound sleeper, sounds most appealing:

Mrs McKechnie very rarely did anything outside herself, so to speak, during her morning solitude.  She had developed a highly efficient routine, and the position of the pillows, easy accessibility of tea-tray and cigarettes, the ancient woolly, so familiar that it almost wrapped itself around her shoulders, and the replenished hot-water bottle if the morning were chilly made together a perfect, luxurious comfort in which she half sat, half lay blissfully alone and gave herself up to thought.  She enjoyed thinking, and she did it well, not after the fashion of her husband’s scholarly mind, concentrating on one subject to unfathomable depths, but with a wide range and a livelier imagination than his, though a similar capacity for immersing herself in the thought of the moment enabled her to understand his detachment. 

I had never heard of Pleydell before Greyladies started reprinting her books but, having now read three of them, I cannot wait to read the rest.  Please, please, please let her other books be in their sights for future publication!

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Library Lust

credit: Elle Decor

credit: Elle Decor

Perfection.

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badge-4Library 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.

Lots of easy reading this week, which is exactly what I need.  I am into my second week at my new job and I am really enjoying it, but learning so many new things every day is tiring.  I know once I’m through training and have settled in I’ll have more attention left at the end of the work day (maybe even enough to blog), but for now, easy books are best.

Library Loot 1There is such thing as too much D.E. Stevenson (especially since I just read two other D.E.S. novels over the weekend) but the Inter-Library Loan system does not take that into account.  And so I have three D.E.S. books waiting for me:

Five Windows by D.E. Stevenson

Gerald and Elizabeth by D.E. Stevenson

The House of the Deer by D.E. Stevenson

Library Loot 2Mary Stewart Reading Week, hosted by Anbolyn, starts this Sunday and I am ready for it!

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart – Vanessa March, two years married and very much in love, is propelled to Vienna by a shocking discovery. In her charge is young Timothy Lacy, who also has urgent problems to solve.  But what promises to be no more than a delicate personal mission turns out to involve the security forces of three countries, two dead men, a circus and its colourful personnel and the famous white stallions of Vienna.

Rose Cottage by Mary Stewart – When Kate Herrick’s grandmother asks her to travel down from Scotland to her childhood home in Todhall to retrieve some papers and family mementoes before Rose Cottage is sold, Kate is happy enough to go, but curious as to the changes she may find there. Widowed in the recent war – this is the summer of 1947 – and comfortably settled now in London, she is in some doubt as to how the village will receive her.  Rose Cottage – a tiny thatched dwelling with fragrant roses in the garden – is unchanged, and the villagers seem friendly. But there is evidence of a break-in at the cottage, and then her nearest neighbours, three elderly ladies from what the villagers call ‘Witches’ Corner’, come with tales of night-time prowlers in the cottage garden, and even ghosts. In the process of solving the mystery, Kate finds romance.

What are you reading this week?

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Vita Sackville-West

In November 1909, when Harold Nicolson was twenty-three years old, he wrote his parents the following letter, detailing his vision of idyllic Edwardian domesticity. It does sound rather appealing (I can’t imagine how irritating a life without hot shaving water would be) but not enough for Nicolson to actually pursue such a future for himself. His marriage to Vita was famously unconventional and (aside from a bumpy first few years) very happy, a far cry from what the young man thought he wanted:

I dined with the Alstons last night.  They were simply delightful.  I do like matrimony.  A nice cheap little house in Draycott Avenue with white walls and an old French overmantel with a Romney, some coloured china and large chintz chairs.  On the table good silver and a simple but excellent dinner.  I am sure it is the sort of life in which one’s shaving water would always be hot, and one’s breakfast adequate.  And then what a joy in the evenings as one leaves the Office to fly back to a big chair, a book and a little cuddly wife who wouldn’t talk.  And then about 7 p.m. the children would come down and the mother would read them stories and I would go to sleep.  In the evening at dinner she would tell me how wonderful I was, and I would accept her admiration, and go to sleep after dinner with no one to laugh at me.

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vsw and hn

Though the 1930s and early 1940s were arguably the most exciting years of Harold Nicolson’s life, and certainly the most significant of his political career, he seems never to have lost focus on what was most important to him: his relationships with his sons and with his extraordinary wife.  The Harold Nicolson Diaries are full of effusive praise for Vita and I think this passage from September 1942, pondering with pride the family they have created, is one of the loveliest in the book:

I do not think that, except for Winston [Churchill], I admire anyone as much as I admire you.

I remember your saying (years ago) that you had never established a complete relationship with anyone.  I don’t think you ever could – since yours is a vertical and not horizontal nature, and two-thirds of you will always be submerged.  But you have established, with your sons and me, a relationship of absolute trust and complete love.  I don’t think that these things would be so fundamental to the four of us were it not that each one of the four is a private person underneath.

I have often wondered what makes the perfect family.  I think it is just our compound of intimacy and aloofness.  Each of us has a room of his own.  Each of us knows that there is a common-room where we meet on the basis of perfect understanding.

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Credit: NY Times

Sissinghurst (credit: NY Times)

We’ve had a letter to a granddaughter, a letter to a son, and now we have a letter to a daughter-in-law. Harold Nicolson wrote this welcoming note to Philippa Tennyson-d’Eyncourt, his son Nigel’s then-fiancée, on April 1, 1953:

I am glad you are coming to Sissinghurst on Saturday, as it will give us time to get to know you and to break through the awful embarrassment inseparable from such introductions.  You will find us shy, eccentric, untidy, but most benevolent.  You will find Sissinghurst the strangest conglomeration of shapeless buildings that you ever saw, but it is an affectionate house and very mellow and English.

Viti says that she asked you to call her “Vita”, and you must call me “Harold”.  That is far simpler.  I always called my own beloved father-in-law “Lionel”, and it seemed quite natural after the first ten years or so.

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decades/0419/37

“Mummy” (Vita Sackville-West)

Another excerpt from The Harold Nicolson Diaries, this time a little piece of fatherly advice, written in July 1926 to Nigel Nicolson (age nine):

I do hope you won’t make Mummy nervous by being too wild.  Of course men must work and women must weep, but all the same I do hope that you will remember that Mummy is a frightful coward and does fuss dreadfully about you.  It is a good rule always to ask before you do anything awfully dangerous.  Thus if you say, “Mummy, may I try and walk on the roof of the green-house on my stilts?”, she will probably say, “Of course, darling”, since she is not in any way a narrow-minded woman.  And if you say, “Mummy, may I light a little fire in my bed?”, she will again say, “Certainly, Niggs”.  It is only that she likes being asked about these things beforehand.

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