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Archive for November, 2013

LIbrary Lust

Gone with the Wind library

Ah, the library at Twelve Oaks.  A place for relaxation, passionate fights, and, just maybe, reading.

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The Fair Miss FortuneHow many books are there in the world which feature both twins and the opening of a tearoom?  I mean, the number of books about the opening of tearooms has to be pretty minute and to then throw twins in as well?  And yet, after reading The Fair Miss Fortune by D.E. Stevenson, I have now read two such books (see Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim) so who is to say that there aren’t more out there?  (I rather hope there are.)

Published by Greyladies in 2011, The Fair Miss Fortune was written in the 1930s but was considered ‘“too old-fashioned” to appeal to the “modern” market’.  It is certainly old fashioned, though hardly more so than Stevenson’s other books, and while far from her best work, it is a fun little story.

When Captain Charles Weatherby returns home to the small English village of Dingleford to visit his mother, he has no idea how his life is about to change.  He is happy to be back with his beloved mother but less happy when she, an invalid, encourages him to go out and socialise with their neighbours.  They are all eager to see him after his years in India and the housebound Mrs. Weatherby is eager for Charles to report back on all the latest gossip.  Though a grown up man in his late twenties, Charles is rather scared of the party his mother is urging him to attend, telling him how nice it will be:

Charles was quite sure that it would not be nice, for he was shy with the shyness which besets the exile when he returns to his native place.  He had been abroad for three years – no more – but he was convinced that these people would not want him; that they would have forgotten him; that they would find him awkward and gauche, his clothes old-fashioned and shabby, his manners strange.  He felt that it would have been easier to meet these people one by one, casually, in the village, or on the golf course; he felt that to plunge right into the whole crowd jabbering together in an over-heated room was going to take the kind of courage he did not possess. 

And the party is rather ghastly for Charles, save for two things: he is reunited with his childhood friend Harold Prestcott and he learns about Dingleford’s newest resident: Miss Jane Fortune.  Miss Fortune, a pretty young lady of nineteen, has arrived with her nanny in tow to open up a tearoom in the village.  Before too long, Charles – a man of action – has made friends with Miss Fortune and is well on the way to being in love with her.  And the lady seems to be feeling much the same, until she is suddenly cutting him in the street, acting coldly towards him when they do meet, and generally not behaving at all like the adorable Jane.

Of course, she is not behaving as herself because she is not herself.  Jane’s identical twin sister Joan arrives in Dingleford fleeing the attentions of a sinister Frenchman.  Hoping to avoid discovery by said Frenchman, she decides not to announce her presence and so, with Jane’s half-hearted approval, Joan masquerades as her sister.  The two girls make certain that they are never out and about at the same time but their very different characters and very different romantic inclinations make rather a mess for both Charles and Harold, who have both fallen in love with Miss Fortune – thankfully, each with a different Miss, though they have no idea.  Of course, all ends well, though I have serious doubts that the tea room will ever be opened.

It is a short, undemanding little book and, to be honest, I can understand why it was not published earlier.  It is far from Stevenson at her best.  But, that I said, I am happy Greyladies printed it and that I had the chance to read it.  I sped through it before bed on Sunday night and it was the perfect thing to end my weekend with.

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The Harold Nicolson DiariesWe all have our childhood heroes.  Some people spend their adolescence admiring athletes or film stars.  Some dream of growing up to be the next Austen or Hemingway.  In my case, I spent my teen years slightly obsessed with 20th Century diplomats and politicians.  At some point, my intentions to purse a diplomatic career waned (probably when I realised I lacked both the tact necessary to succeed in that field and the bilingualism that is a prerequisite for any kind of government post) but my fascination with the diaries of those whose lives were devoted to civil service has never faltered.  I suspect Charles Ritchie will always be my favourite diary-keeping diplomat but after reading The Harold Nicolson Diaries edited by Nigel Nicolson earlier this year, I must say that Ritchie finally has a rival for my affections.

For years, I have been reading history books about wartime Britain where Nicolson’s diaries were heavily quoted.  His career during that period I was familiar with: a diplomat turned writer turned politician, Nicolson was among a small number of MPs who spent the years preceding WWII believing and arguing that fascism needed to be confronted and defeated rather than ignored or appeased in an effort to ensure peace.  He was never a brilliant politician but he was intimate with those in power and his diaries offer a fascinating glimpse of the government in wartime.

To some of my readers, I suspect Nicolson is better known as the husband of the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West.  The two had a famously unconventional partnership, with both Nicolson and Sackville-West conducting homosexual affairs outside of their marriage, but if there is one thing that is clear from this book (and from their son Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage) it is how devoted they were to one another over the almost fifty years they spent together.  Though the book is titled The Harold Nicolson Diaries, it is actually a collection of both diaries and letters and most of the letters were written to Vita.  For a man who had, when very young, dreamed of “a little cuddly wife who wouldn’t talk”, Vita was an extraordinary choice for a partner but not one Nicolson ever seemed to regret.  His adoration of her is clear in his diaries, his letters to his sons and his parents, and very much in his letters to her:

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.

Though edited by his son, these diaries are not presented to entirely flatter Nicolson.  The less appealing parts of his character are there: he can be snobbish and unrepentantly racist. He sulks like a child after defeats and hungers for at times undeserved admiration.  He sometimes makes bad decisions, he allies himself with the wrong people, and he flip-flops on major issues.  He is easily flattered and easily insulted.  He is, in short, very, very human and more aware of his failings than most.  At the end of each year, he takes stock of his life and those entries show a man fully aware of what the world thinks of him and resolved, always, to do better:

I am thought trashy and a little mad.  I have been reckless and arrogant.  I have been silly.  I must recapture my reputation.  I must be cautious and more serious.  I must not try to do so much, and must endeavour to what I do with greater depth and application.  I must avoid the superficial.

Yet in spite of all this – what fun life is! (31 December 1931)

Yet despite the off-putting moods of self pity, Nicolson is for the most part charmingly aware of limitations and contradictory ways.  He knows his strength, however much he may like to dream of being dashing and a man of action, lies in solid, conservative competence:

We have a meeting of the sub-committee of the London Library to consider who is to be President.  We decide to separate the posts of President and Chairman and to choose for the latter, not a man of eminence, but a man who will attend meetings.  They therefore choose me. (25 October 1951)

And he is able to observe, delightfully, the workings of his own easily-flattered mind:

The Spectator this week suggests that I should be sent as Ambassador to Washington.  It amuses me to observe my own reactions to such a suggestion.  My first fear is that it will expose me to ridicule, since all we Nicolsons are morbidly sensitive to being placed in a false position.  My second impulse is to realise how much Vita would hate it.  My third is to feel how much I should loathe the pomp and publicity of an Embassy.  My fourth is to agree with the Spectator that I might do the job rather well.  But it will not occur. (21 April 1939)

But it is the family-minded side of him that is the most appealing.  Whether he is writing to welcome a new daughter-in-law into the family (“You will find us shy, eccentric, untidy, but most benevolent”) or advising his young son on how best to get his mother’s approval for the kind of dangerous adventures that are the stuff of every mother’s nightmares (“she is not in any way a narrow-minded woman”), he is perfection.   The book covers his life from 1907 (when he was just twenty) to 1964 and so we get to see not just the relationship he had with his wife but the ones he had with both his parents (his chatty letters to them show what a close, friendly relationship they had), his two sons, and, eventually, his grandchildren.  For all the other things he was in his life and for all the varying level of success he had, he was a wonderful family man.  I defy anyone to read this letter Nicolson wrote in 1954 to his freshly christened granddaughter and not think what  delightful grandfather he would have made (his granddaughter certainly thought so):

Now that you have been admitted into the Church and had a paragraph all to yourself in the Daily Telegraph, you should be able, if not to read, then at least take in, private letters.

I thought it noble of you to remain quiescent while your godfather and godmother promised such glum things on your behalf.  But I did not think it noble of you to sneak when I gave you a silver spoon and you went and bashed your own eye and forehead with it.  It is foolish, in any case, to bash oneself with spoons.  But it is evil for a girl about to be blessed by a bishop to sneak about her grandfather.  You did not see the look your mother gave me.  You did not realise the deep suspicion with which your nurse thereafter regarded me.  (What an ass that woman was, flattering you like that; and how weak of you to respond with a grin to her blandishments.)

And will you tell your mother that I really believe that you will have large eyes as lovely as she has and a character as sweet as hers, and that I really will not spoil you when you reach the age of 2, since I detest spoiled children.  And even if I do spoil you, I shall do so surreptitiously in order to avoid a look from her like the spoon-look.

I am so happy to have made the acquaintance of Nicolson the family man after having known for so many years only Nicolson the political observer.  He is wonderful in both roles but so much more interesting to me now that I have a clearer, more complete idea of his character.  Each page of this book was a delight; it is, without a doubt, one of the best books I have read this year and one of the best diaries I have ever read.  Nicolson has certainly earned his place alongside Ritchie on my bookshelf.

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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.

Library Loot 1

Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn – the first of the Daisy Dalrymple books.

The Camelot Caper by Elizabeth Peters – I am really having fun discovering Peters’ early books.

Maeve Binchy by Piers Dudgeon – the first biography of the beloved author.

Library Loot 2A trio of books recently reviewed by some of my favourite bloggers:

Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum – check out Maphead’s review.

Kate’s Progress by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles – check out Lyn’s review.

A Ram in the Well by June Knox-Mawer – check out Geranium Cat’s review.
Library Loot 3

And a couple of big, glossy books with pretty pictures:

Perfect English by Ros Byam Shaw

The Library by James W.P. Campbell

What did you pick up this week?

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Reading Barsetshire

Reading Barsetshire

After two full years of having this on my to-do list, I have finally created a page to track my reading (or, more specifically, my reviewing) of Anthony Trollope and Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books.  I’m not sure of how much interest this will be to most of you but I feel lovely and well-organized now that it is done and surprisingly accomplished, seeing how many of the books I have managed to read already.

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Library Lust

credit: Canal House HG

credit: Powerhouse Company

I know we’ve had our disagreements in the past about what was safe and what was not, but surely we can all look at this staircase and marvel over the absurdly permissive building codes that would allow such a thing.  That said, I do love a two-storey bookshelf.

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A Woman Reading by Ivan Olinsky

A Woman Reading by Ivan Olinsky

Now, when I said that I’ve had no time to read recently, I assume we all understood that was an exaggeration.  Yes?  Because not reading would be like not eating or not sleeping; it would be impossible and very dangerous to my general well-being.  But it has been an unsatisfying sort of reading, where pages are gobbled up over breakfast at 5:30 in the morning and chapters sped through during my bus ride to and from work (my e-reader has been my best friend lately).

The best sort of reading under these conditions, I have found, is the kind that does not require your entire brain.   For instance, this would not have been an ideal time to pick up Proust or decide I wanted to refresh my foreign language skills by reading something in German or French.  No.  With few exceptions, my reading over the last two months has been simple and comforting and just the right sort of escape from the business topics I’ve spent most of my time dealing with.

I read a few books that were new to me – I loved Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, enjoyed but, rather to my surprise, did not adore Elinor Lipman’s The Inn at Lake Devine, and was disappointed by Kristan Higgins’ new release (The Perfect Match) – but for the most part I chose to reread old favourites.  I slipped happily into the pages of Magic Flutes, Madensky Square and The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson, giggled my way through Laughing Gas by P.G. Wodehouse for the umpteenth time, delighted in the epistolary exchanges of More Than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton, and returned to my beloved Barsetshire in Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell.

little ladyBut the surprising highlight of the last few weeks has been my reading of Hester Browne’s “Little Lady Agency” trilogy, which consists of The Little Lady Agency, Little Lady, Big Apple, and The Little Lady Agency and the Prince.

I already knew I liked Hester Browne’s books.  I’d read The Runaway Princess, Swept Off Her Feet (which I reread again this month), and The Finishing Touches (which I adore, and not only because it has so many helpful housekeeping tips) but never the trilogy which Browne is probably best known for.  It is chick-lit, which is a difficult genre for me, but Browne is more than capable of handling it in a way that entertains rather than infuriates.

It is rare to find a chick-lit heroine you can actually like.  Most of the time, they seem cursed with an inability to communicate and just an altogether twisted set of values.  I do not give a damn what brand of shoes you are wearing, ladies.  I could not care less how glossy your hair is, and your inability to master basic human life skills like managing a chequebook or cooking a meal makes me want to hit you over the head.  Given all that, Browne’s lovely young ladies are quite refreshing.  They have normal foibles and generally a distinct lack of confidence but they are basically stable and practical and always have many helpful etiquette/general lifestyle tips that this reader appreciates.

Little Lady, Big AppleTaken individually, I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed at least the first two books in the trilogy.  They are funny and I love Melissa Romney-Jones, the book’s heroine, but they are frustrating.  They are very much the first two acts of a three act play and I finished both books concerned for Melissa.  Taken as a whole, however, they are delightful and immensely satisfying.

Melissa, a self-effacing twenty-seven year old as the books begin, finds confidence when she creates the alter ego “Honey”, a (bewigged) blonde bombshell who helps the privileged but hopeless single men of London deal with the many perplexities of life that married men usually rely on their wives to sort out.  The Little Lady Agency offers everything but sex and laundry.  In her work as Honey, Melissa meets an intense American real estate agent, Jonathan Riley, and eventually they begin a relationship that spans all three books.

the-little-lady-agency-and-the-princeAll three books are written in the first-person, from Melissa’s point of view.  Melissa, bless her, is sensible but not self-aware.  From the beginning, the reader has a better idea of Melissa than she does herself.   And we certainly have a better idea about Jonathan and about who Melissa would really be happy with.  But Browne doesn’t rush it and I loved that.  I hate rushed endings and I hate too-good-to-be-true men as the solution and/or reward to a heroine’s struggles.  Instead, Browne lets Melissa’s confidence grow over several years until she finally begins to see herself as she really is and to have confidence in that woman.  Confidence enough to demand to be treated as she should be treated and to go after what she truly wants.  Melissa’s life ebbs and flows in, allowing for some absurdities provided by her exhausting, eccentric, and ethically dubious family members, a relatively matter of fact way.  The grandest gestures are not necessarily the most meaningful ones.  I really enjoyed this series and look forward to rereading it.

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After a Game of Tennis by Fairlie Harmar

After a Game of Tennis by Fairlie Harmar

This morning I wrote (hopefully) my last big exam of the year.  Since I started work at the beginning of September, I feel like every day has followed the same pattern: get up, work, get home, study, sleep, repeat.  The weekends have been used for even more studying.  I’ve been taking courses I need for my work but it has been a punishing schedule.  Now, finally, I have a bit of break.  A long break from the studying (my next big exam isn’t until February) and a short break from work, thanks to the Remembrance Day long weekend.  I am embracing both and declaring this my weekend of gracious living.

There shall be:

credit: Jo Malone.co.uk

credit: Jo Malone.co.uk

Long baths with my brand new Jo Malone French Lime Blossom bath oil (my treat to myself for finishing two courses in two months)

credit: unknown

credit: unknown

The buying of as many flowers as I can find vessels for

Cafe et Cigarette Paris 1925 credit: Roger Viollet

Cafe et Cigarette Paris 1925 credit: Roger Viollet

A chatty lunch with my favourite aunt

credit: bbc.co.uk

credit: bbc.co.uk

The baking of the Christmas cake (using Nigel Slater’s recipe from The Kitchen Diaries)

vilma-reading-a-book

And, of course, the reading of many, many things: books, magazines, newspapers…I plan to drown myself in print for the next two days

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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.

The last couple of months have been messy blog-wise.  I hate to have abandoned you all so completely but hopefully things will calm down in the next few weeks.  I only have one big exam left this year and I should be done with that after this weekend.  Happily, the exam is followed by a long-weekend, so after I put my coursework away I’ll have plenty of time to spend with these wonderful books I’ve recently picked up from the library:

 Library Loot 1

Jambusters by Julie Summers – The story of the Women’s Institute in the Second World War.

Letters From England by Karel Čapek – First published in the nineteen twenties in Lidovc Noviny, the Czechoslovak national newspaper, Capek’s Letters from England quickly established themselves as masterpieces of observation, and classics of modern Czech prose. The letters described Europe’s oldest democracy for the benefit of the citizens of Europe’s newest, and Capek was acutely aware of the deep-down affinity between his countrymen and the English. The same understated humour, the same unflappability, the same quiet search for peace, home and comfort, the same love of nature and animals, served to unite the two people, both then and now.

Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson – In a tiny flat in West London, sixteen-year-old Marina lives with her emotionally-delicate mother, Laura, and three ancient Hungarian relatives. Imprisoned by her family’s crushing expectations and their fierce unEnglish pride, by their strange traditions and stranger foods, she knows she must escape. But the place she runs to makes her feel even more of an outsider.

Library Loot 2

The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack – This lively story has never been told before: the complete history of women’s reading and the ceaseless controversies it has inspired. Belinda Jack’s groundbreaking volume travels from the Cro-Magnon cave to the digital bookstores of our time, exploring what and how women of widely differing cultures have read through the ages.

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons

My Education by Susan Choi

What did you pick up this week?

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