Archive for February, 2014

Blue Remembered HillsAfter dragging it out as long as I could, I have finally finished reading Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff.  Sutcliff’s memoir of her childhood and early adulthood is delightfully-written but cruelly slim.  I rationed myself, reading only little bits at a time, trying to savour the treat as long as possible.

I should admit now that I’ve never read any of Sutcliff’s historical novels, which is bizarre.  I am not sure how we never crossed paths during my historical fiction-crazed childhood but we did not and so this was my first introduction to her.  I can’t imagine a better one.

[2019 Edit: Lies.  As soon as I started reading The Eagle of the Night, I remembered it.  I knew the story but hadn’t, in the way children don’t, realised it was by Sutcliff]

The danger of childhood memoirs is always that they might descend into that treacly swamp of sentimentality that can only leave the reader feeling queasy and the author, one hopes, embarrassed.  This is decidedly not one of those memoirs.  Sutcliff is affectionate in her remembrances but never boringly nostalgic for days gone by or pitying for the circumstances she faced.  She has a marvellous sense of humour and wonderful eye for detailing, making the reader feel part of the episodes she shares with us.

Born in 1920, Sutcliff was the daughter of a naval lieutenant and, with the exception of long hospital visits, spent much of her childhood surrounded by other naval families, both in Malta and the UK.  She developed Still’s Disease (a crippling and painful form of juvenile arthritis) as a toddler, and though her disability and the pain made her life different from most children’s, she does not dwell on these differences.  As a child, she was determined to live as normally as possible, when not in hospitals or nursing homes.

While young Rosemary casually dismissed her disabilities, the situation was more difficult for her parents, especially her mother who had to care for an extremely sick daughter alone while her husband was at sea.  Sutcliff generally speaks of her mother with fondness and admiration, but there are mentions of tensions between them that escalated as Sutcliff aged.  The only thing that marred this book for me was my feeling that Sutcliff wasn’t quite as fair to her mother as she might have been.  Especially since, from all she shares of herself, Sutcliff can’t have been an easy child to parent!  Aside from the unimaginable stress her illness must have had on her parents, she seems to have been frustratingly willful when healthy.  She remained determined not to learn how to read for an extraordinarily long time, more than content to listen to the stories her mother told her.  This gap in her education bothered her not at all but was deeply alarming to her parents:

…I still had my inability to read.  My father now joined the battle, and had small serious talks with me.

‘When you can read to yourself, old girl, you will find a whole new world opening up to you.’

‘Yes, Daddy,’ said I.  Polite but unconvinced.

He resorted to bribery.  I longed to model things.  He bought me a box of ‘Barbola’ modelling clay with all its accompanying paraphernalia, and promised me I should have it when I could read.

‘You can’t go on like this for ever!’ he said.

‘No, Daddy,’ I agreed.  I had every intention of going on like it for ever.

‘Don’t say “No, Daddy”.’

‘No, Daddy.’

Obviously, she eventually learned to read.  She did so while attending Miss Beck’s Academy, where she had gone despite having “no real desire to learn to read, but the dignity of schoolgirlhood appealed to me strongly.”  Miss Beck and her old-fashioned academy was one of my favourite parts of the book and a wonderful glimpse into the peculiar middle-class engine of the empire, since all her students were children of naval or military officers and often remained in that world themselves:

Christmas cards from old boys in big ships of the China Station and dusty cantonments on the plains of India; from fishery protection gunboats tossing in the North Sea; from Camberley and Greenwich and the Persian Gulf.  Christmas cards from old girls in married quarters and rooms and small rented houses up and down the world, usually enclosing letters and snapshots and messages of love from small sons and daughters whom Miss Beck had never seen.  Miss Beck’s old pupils seldom forgot her, and woe betide any of them who did.  ‘I have not heard from Elaine this year.  Of course her mother was always unsatisfactory, and they allowed her to use face powder much too young.  I shall write to her in the New Year.’  Or, ‘I must say, I did not think Peter would have forgotten me so soon.  He was a very affectionate little boy.  I suppose getting his regiment so young has gone to his head.’ 

(Simon, wise man that he is, seems to have been equally taken with Miss Beck and her school when he read this.)

The book follows Sutcliff from her childhood into her twenties, when she worked as an artist before becoming a writer.  This period includes a detailed account of her first painful love affair with a dashing young officer who, though delighted with Rosemary as a platonic soul mate, had no idea of marrying her.  Not an easy experience for her to live through but an interesting and valuable one that helped her to grow up and helped her along her way to becoming a writer.

I’m not quite sure what I expected going into this but this exceeded my expectations in every way.  Sutcliff writes so warmly and affectionately of the people that formed her that you can’t help but feel you have missed out by not having known them yourself and her enthusiasm for life and new experiences is wonderful to behold.  A charming book and one that, delightfully, is readily available from Slightly Foxed, who have an unerring talent for picking perfect books.

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief 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.

Bit of an odd week here, I must say.  I finished work last Friday so am odds again, trying to figure out what comes next.  I have one job offer under consideration but just want to take some time to make sure it’s the right fit for me.  Lots of big questions to consider over the next few weeks, certainly, but I’m also looking forward to having some time to catch up with my reviews and just relax a little.  The last couple of months were very stressful and already I can feel myself calming down, which is wonderful.  It is so nice to feel like my cheerful, energetic self again!

Library Loot 1

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillies – As someone who watched The Bridge on the River Kwai far, far too many times as a child (it is still one of my favourite films), I’ve always been interested in learning more about what POWs did in captivity.  And when have I ever turned down any sort of World War Two social history book?  Here, Gillies examines the experiences of Allied servicemen as prisoners in both the European and Asian theatres of war.

The Junior Officers’ Reading Club by Patrick Hennessey – a few years ago, stranded at the airport during a snowstorm, I read the first half of this memoir in the airport bookstore.  I remember enjoying it but was too cheap to buy it.  Now, a bit belated, I’ll have a chance to finish it.

Society’s Queen by Anne de Courcy – I own most of de Courcy’s other books but haven’t yet read this one, a biography of the Marchioness of Londonderry.

Library Loot 2The Sidmouth Letters by Jane Gardam –Jane Austen’s love life- long the subject of speculation- is finally, delightfully dealt with in the title story of this collection. Many of the other stories, like ‘The Sidmouth Letters,’ bring together past and present- with sometimes hilarious, sometimes disturbing, often intensely moving results.  With quiet elegance and devastating accuracy, Jane Gardam probes many and varied lives. We meet a trio of Kensington widows, mean-spirited and middle-aged, paying improbable tribute to a long exploited nanny; we await- with dread- a stranger to tea in an English home; we witness the mercurial changes that take place in young love, and we watch as a bohemian, passionate past returns to tempt domestic bliss.

God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam –During one glorious summer between the wars, the realities of life and the sexual ritual dance of the adult world creep into the life of young Margaret Marsh. Her father, preaching the doctrine of the unsavoury Primal Saints; her mother, bitterly nostalgic for what might have been; Charles and Binkie, anchored in the past and a game of words; dying Mrs Frayling and Lydia the maid, given to the vulgar enjoyment of life; all contribute to Margaret’s shattering moment of truth. And when the storm breaks, it is not only God who is on the rocks as the summer hurtles towards drama, tragedy, and a touch of farce.

The Sun in the Morning by M.M. Kaye – have I ever read any of M.M. Kaye’s novels?  No.  But that doesn’t mean I’m not excited to read this first volume of her memoirs!

What did you pick up this week?

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A Long Way From VeronaWith the first line of A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam, published in 1971 but set during the Second World War, Jessica Vye introduces herself to the reader bluntly but honestly:  “I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine.”  This is not some mysterious Ada Doom-esque experience but it is one that has nonetheless changed her view of the world.  At the age of nine, Jessica, already of a literary bent, was told by an established author that she was a writer “BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT!”  Now, at twelve, she still has her calling in mind but she is also struggling with the usual angst of an adolescent girl.  And twelve, as I can certainly remember, is not a fun age to be:

“How old are you about?”


“Oh, you poor thing!  Are you indeed?  I really hated twelve – and thirteen.  And then somebody told me that it was all to do with growing.  It was all to do with my inside.  With my stomach I believe in some way.  I was so relieved.  I had thought I was growing unpleasant and starting to hate everyone, and I didn’t want to be that sort of person at all.”

Reassured in this way by one of teachers at her school (an eminently wise and useful sort of woman, obviously), Jessica can focus her worries instead on the other things that are wrong with her:


The point is this – in three parts.  Tripartite.  Viz:

1. I am not quite normal

2. I am not very popular

3. I am able to tell what people are thinking.

And I might add

4. I am terribly bad at keeping quiet when I have something on my mind because


All of these faults are, unsurprisingly, the things that make her such an attractive protagonist.  Jessica is observant and forthright and impolitely interested in many of the people she comes across, especially the inappropriate ones (who she has a talent for stumbling across).  She is not remotely as odd as she seems to think herself but she is a memorable individual, a winning mix of earnestness and enthusiasm.  She can be a little bit over dramatic (Anne Shirley, for one, would have enjoyed some of Jessica’s theatrical gestures) but mostly she is just eager for activity and experience – neither of which seems within her grasp, either at her stodgy school or at home, where her socialist schoolmaster-turned-clergyman father, lovely but exhausted mother, and younger brother interest her very little.

A sort of wildly inappropriate love interest in introduced for Jessica and he is perfect, though not for her, as Jessica quickly realises.  If I hadn’t already been adoring this book, the appearance of Christian, a surly fourteen-year old communist who Jessica meets while staying with his family (his father is a Dean), would have converted me.  He is beautiful  – Jessica thinks him as attractive as Rupert Brooke, who, having recently seen a photograph of him in a book, had previously been her male ideal – but awful.  Having asked Jessica’s parents’ permission to take her out, they embark on their memorable first outing – a trip to the local slums to educate Jessica on the plight of the poor.  This trips goes disastrously awry and it is PERFECTION.

It is such a delightfully-written book and I adored how very free and breezy Gardam’s writing was and how wonderfully direct Jessica was.  The entire time I was reading, I had that feeling of almost nervous excitement that comes over me whenever I find a new favourite author.  There is something so confident and intriguing about the way Gardam writes that I am always terribly excited to turn the page and see what else she has in store for the reader.

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Bricks and MortarAfter reading Simon’s celebration of Persephone Books over at Vulpes Libris a couple of weeks ago, I realised a) how long it had been since I read one of those lovely dove-grey books and b) how much longer it had been since I actually reviewed one.  Determined to remedy both these lapses, I picked up Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton.

On the Persephone website, there is a sidebar with all the different categories that their books can be classed under.  Looking for a book about Career Women?  About Country Life?  About London, or Mothers, or Suffragettes?  They have you covered.  But out of the more than one hundred books they have published, only nine of the titles fall under the category of Books about Men.  Bricks and Mortar is one of these and follows the career and family life of a London architect over the course of forty years.

We meet aspiring architect Martin Lovell in Rome in 1892.  Young and awkward, he is no match for Lady Stapleford, an impoverished widow on the lookout for a respectable husband for her beautiful daughter, Letty.  It is a tiresome courtship for young Letty, being dragged around Rome to marvel at ruins when she would much rather escape the heat or enjoy a picnic, but soon enough matters are brought to a satisfactory conclusion: Martin, amazed at his good luck, finds himself married to the most beautiful girl in the world and Lady Stapleford finds herself rid of the expense of bringing her daughter out in society.  Letty, perhaps, is not so happy as the others but she is at least free of the mother who bullied and abused her.

The young Lovells head back to England and begin building their life together: Martin throws himself into his work, which he loves, and the small family grows to include first a daughter, Stacy, and then a son, Aubrey.  It does not take long for Martin to realise that his wife is not the kind of partner he would have hoped for – she shares none of his interests, is petty and fickle, and spoils her son while berating her daughter – but he makes the best of his life, delighting in his work and, eventually, in the company of his daughter.

Though Martin is doubtlessly our hero, he is a solid, steady man and the drama of the book comes from Stacy’s struggles to claim some independence and then happiness for herself.  A lively, intelligent girl, Stacy spends her childhood and young adulthood at war with her mother; much as her father may love her, he is too timid to be any sort of buffer between them.  She has dreams and passions that it takes her father years to recognize and at times it seems that her life may be destined to be an unhappy one.

I loved seeing Stacy through Martin’s eyes.  She is as close as he comes to having a soul mate, someone who understands him, loves him, and shares his interests, and yet, despite his affection for her and their closeness, he is still that rather simple man who Lady Stapleford seized on in Rome all those years ago, oblivious to people’s private struggles and motivations.  There is no one in the world he loves so well as Stacy and yet her actions come as a shock to him, though not perhaps to the reader.

The most steadfast relationship in Martin’s life is with his work and this passion is the source of most of the book’s best passages.  From his twenties until his sixties, his interest in architecture never fades.  He is always able to take pleasure in a well-designed structure, in taking over and fixing up homes of his own, and in travelling and seeing foreign styles of buildings.  He knows he will never be famous, never design anything that will be remembered, but that does not lessen his enthusiasm.  He has left his mark on the world and, what’s more, enjoyed every minute of it.

I found Bricks and Mortar both slyly funny and rather touching.  The male perspective is a refreshing change from Persephone’s usual female-centred offerings and an enjoyable addition to their catalogue of middlebrow domestic fiction.  After years of having it sit neglected on my shelf, I’m so glad that I finally read it.

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Home Sweet Home


Lucky thing that I am, I did not have to work on my birthday yesterday.  I managed to have a busy and rather stressful day (good stress, but still stress) nonetheless but one of the least stressful and most delightful parts of it was an afternoon walk along the beach.  It was a perfect reminder of why Vancouver is my favourite city in the world and why I would not want to live anywhere else.  Especially in February.

Vancouver2 Vancouver3 Vancouver4


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As has become my tradition, I’m celebrating my (28th) birthday today by sharing with you my 5 favourite libraries from the past year.  If you’re interested, you can also check out the birthday editions of “Library Lust” from 2013, 2012, and 2011.

credit: Country Living

credit: Country Living

from the english room by chippy irvine via bohemiaheart

credit: The English Room by Chippy Irvine (2001)

credit: skeppsholmen.se

credit: skeppsholmen.se

credit: Griffin Enright Architects

credit: Griffin Enright Architects

credit: Elle Decor

credit: Elle Decor

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Library Lust


Books and ocean views? Tough combination to beat!

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief 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.

This is one of those entirely delightful Library Loot posts where everything I have to present to you seems equally alluring to me.  I’ve already started in on this batch of books but  can’t wait to work my way through all of them!

Library Loot 1Drawn From Memory by Ernest H. Shepard – I do love a happy childhood memoir!  Here, Shepard looks back on his life as a seven-year old in Victorian London.  It looks quite marvellous.

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman – I read a lot of Lipman last year, though I don’t think I reviewed a single one of those books.  Whoops.   Everything she writes is entertaining and this book was no different (which I know because, having no self control, I read it immediately after picking it up from the library).

Educating Alice by Alice Steinbach – I read Steinbach’s Without Reservations last year and rather enjoyed it, though I did find Steinbach embarrassingly earnest.  Still, she was an interesting writer and I look forward to this follow-up volume about her further travels. Library Loot 2

Bring on the Empty Horses by David Niven – growing up, I read Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon about a gazillion times (that’s a conservative estimate), never realising that he had written further memoirs.

Pastoral by Nevil Shute – Shute, like Lipman, is one of those dependably entertaining authors.  I’ve never this but have been looking forward to it since reading Lyn’s review a few years ago.

Farewell to Priorsford and to O. Douglas – Barb wrote a good synopsis of this a few years ago. 

What did you pick up this week?

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Tales from Greenery StreetFor more than three years, I have been looking forward to Tales from Greenery Street by Denis Mackail.  Mackail’s Greenery Street, which I first read back in 2010 and which remains one of my favourite Persephone titles, is a delightful chronicle of Ian and Felicity Foster’s first year as a married couple and their adventures in housekeeping in Greenery Street.  In this sequel, Mackail returns to Greenery Street and turns his attention to the other residents, though Ian and Felicity do appear in the final story.

No one is nicer or more adorable than the youthful occupants of Greenery Street.  This idyllic London street is not so much a physical place as it is a stage of life, as the author explains in his introduction:

It is a phase through which the lucky ones pass – so real at the time that you can actually count the lampposts and paving-stones; actually live and laugh and weep there, and pay genuine rent to three-dimensional landlords for which they return tangible and objective receipts. 

Greenery Street represents those first difficult years of married life when young couples are struggling to live on too little money and with too little experience of running their own homes.  But they are enjoyable struggles and though each couple might experience the odd moment of frustration with their spouse, their relationships are never truly at risk.  Husbands might lose their jobs, wives might be driven to distraction by unmanageable staff, and all of them might feel slightly resentful of the children who, when they arrive, force their parents to leave their beloved Greenery Street in search of more generously-sized lodgings, but Greenery Street is an optimistic place and any shadows that may fall are quickly swept away.

Mackail, a contemporary and friend of some of my favourite comic writers (A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse, among others), has such a warm sense of humour.  While his sister, my beloved Angela Thirkell, could be rather caustic, Mackail clearly feels affection for his characters; he may laugh at them but he never does so in a disparaging way.  For example, one of the young wives sings “…with a freedom from self-consciousness and an entire refusal to be balked by ignorance of the words, which might have irritated us if we had lived next door to her, but can only charm and please us when we read about it in print.”  What a nice way to put that!

He is also excellent at balancing the relationship between spouses.  They all have their irrational moments, though the wives perhaps have a tendency to be right a little more often than their husbands.  When one husband loses his job, his wife attempts to console him with the reminder that the still have her allowance – scant comfort for him, as she quickly learns:

‘Do you think,’ demanded the head of the family, ‘that I can possibly – that I could ever dream of living on your allowance?  Do you think I could sit here and take money from your father and mother?’

Mrs. Hunter reminded herself that all men were imbecile children, and by this means just stopped herself asking the very reasonable question: ‘Why not?’  Nor did she point out that her husband had for several years owed many of his comforts to money derived from this precise source.  Nor – which was even cleverer of her – did she show by so much as the briefest pause that she had ever thought of either of these answers.

He shows real affection and understanding between husbands and wives and that is rare enough that you can’t help but be happy to have an entire book full of such relationships.

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Opera and Olympics

rusalka_thumbIt’s a long weekend here in BC and I am determined to make the most of it.  To start it off, I went to my first ever “The Met: Live in HD” performance on Saturday morning.  For those not aware, these performances are broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to movie theatres around the world (1,900 theatres in 64 countries, according to their website).  It’s been a clever (and successful) initiative (I highly recommend Ann Patchett’s essay on her love of these performances, included in her essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage) and it was wonderful to see how packed the theatre was yesterday morning for the Met’s production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” with Renée Fleming.

Now, seeing an opera on a screen is nothing like seeing one in person but it was still a great experience (and, not living in New York, the closest I’m likely to get to seeing this sort of production).  Fleming is not my ideal Rusalka but she still has a beautiful voice and this is one of her signature roles.  I brought my mother with me to the show and, as a native Czech-speaker, she of course had great fun critiquing everyone’s pronunciation.  I loved the Prince, I loved the Water Gnome, and I particularly loved the three nymphs who get to frolic saucily about while everyone else’s lives get progressively darker.  But most of all, I loved the sets.  The shimmering pond in the woods where Rusalka lives before being turned into a human was beautiful in every detail.  The operas I’ve seen recently in Prague and Vienna have all had budget-conscious staging so it was wonderful to see such richness on stage.  The whole experience was enjoyable and I’m definitely looking at the rest of this season’s offerings, wondering what else I should go see.

I’ve also been enjoying all the Olympic sports on television – and, because I’m hugely sentimental, all the tear-inducing interviews with athletes.  Really, all I do is cry during the Olympics: any interview, any glimpse of a grandparent cheering from back home, any particularly well-executed commercial is enough to have me reaching for the tissues.  Canada has had a great start with a gold, two silvers, and a bronze in the first two days and I am loving being able to watch the primetime events live early in the morning.  This twelve-hour time difference is working out quite well!  Plus it leaves my days free to spend outside (where it is usually cold and I am getting good use from my patriotic Team Canada mittens) or inside, with a good book (Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy is off to a great start).

Justine Dufour-Lapointe via @CBColympics

Justine Dufour-Lapointe via @CBColympics

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