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Archive for March, 2014

PastoralI do love a good old fashioned novel, full of straightforward but excellent storytelling and a nice mixture of action and romance. The kind of stories, in short, that Nevil Shute made a career of writing and of writing well. It had been ages since I last read anything by him but when I picked up Pastoral earlier this year I was reminded of just how entertaining his books are.

Published in 1944, Pastoral is set at an air force base in Oxfordshire during the Second World War. Though centered around the romance between Flight Lieutenant Peter Marshall and WAAF Section Officer Gervase Robertson, what the book does particularly well is give a sense of how bomber crews and those supporting them at command experienced the war.

After only a few encounters, Peter is certain that he wants to marry Gervase. She is lovely, good at her work, and, most importantly, knows about fishing. I think that is an excellent recommendation for any man or woman. But, rather than biding his time until he knows Gervase feels the same way about him, Peter impulsively proposes. Not surprisingly, Gervase refuses him. She is only nineteen and, though Peter is not much older, doesn’t feel the same sense of certainty or urgency that he does.

Peter, who has been flying bombers for 15 months and has been on 51 raids, has seen too many of his friends shot down or not return home after raids. He, with his 15 months of experience, is considered one of the old timers and certainly one of the very lucky few. But it isn’t the fear of being shot down that throws him off his game: it is the rejection he receives from Gervase. As the Wing Commander says, “The great adventure on this station isn’t bombing Germany…They don’t think anything of that. Falling in love is the big business here.” The usually calm and steady Peter becomes brusque with his crew and careless with his work. When grounded, this is not a major problem. In the air, it has disastrous results.

I adored the tense scenes both in Peter’s bomber and in the operations room back in Oxfordshire but, most of all, I loved the scenes with the senior officers gossiping about and despairing over their underlings’ behaviour:

The wing commander sat up suddenly. “If she’s going to marry him, I wish to hell she’d get on with it,” he said irritably. “I’m fed up with her. If young women would just stop and think before they shoot the boyfriend down, we’d have a lot more pilots.”

The old squadron leader nodded. “Girls have to be very wise these days,” he said.

“So do commanding officers,” said Dobbie. “I’m going to get a job as Aunt Ethel in Betty’s Weekly when the war’s over.”

You know things won’t end horrifically after reading exchanges like that. Of course they don’t and it is all quite excellent.

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Drawn From MemoryPublished in 1957 but focused on events that took place in 1887, Drawn From Memory by E.H. Shepard is an utterly charming memoir about Shepard’s life as a seven-year old boy growing up in a close-knit middle class family in Victorian London. It is also, as Shepard’s advises in his introduction, a memoir of the last entirely happy year the family had, which adds a special poignancy to the entire book; shortly afterwards, Shepard’s adored mother became ill and then died, leaving her devoted family devastated. But while she lived, what a happy family they were!

The youngest of three children born to a London architect and his wife, Shepard grew up in a home where the arts were encouraged. His parents moved in artistic circles (Frank Dicksee was a family friend and Shepard’s maternal grandfather was a member of the Royal Academy) and from an early age they encouraged Shepard to become an artist. Though the child did not have any intention of doing so (he “considered an artist’s life to be a dull one and looked for something more adventurous”), his early drawings, some of which are included in the book, were certainly impressive and I can understand why his father showed them off with such pride to his artist friends. Even if they are “mostly concerned with battle scenes.”

E.H. Shepard - Battle Scene

But, for the most part, this is not a book about a budding artist. It is a book about childhood memories. Shepard recalls the figures of his home life (his nurse, the cook, his elder sister Ethel and brother Cyril), devotes a marvellous chapter to his four easily shocked maiden aunts, and recounts events that impressed themselves on his young mind. Some of these events were of general significance – such as Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, an event which Shepard celebrated with the purchase of a Belgian flag (“As Cyril and Ethel had each bought a Union Jack, I thought a change was called for.”) – but most of them are episodes significant only to the Shepard family. He remembers Christmas celebrations, a visit to the pantomime, an expedition to a tennis party in Highgate, and family holidays to Eastbourne and, best of all, a farmhouse in Kent. The chapter devoted to “Pollard’s Farm” is as perfect description of childhood bliss as I have ever read. They are spoiled there with food, freedom, and proximity to animals. Of all the happy moments in the book, this is by far the happiest.E.H. Shepard - JubileeE.H. Shepard - Pollard's Farm, BreakfastE.H. Shepard - Pollard's Farm, Hay Loft

But there are moments scattered through that remind us that this perfect happiness cannot last. Knowing that Shepard’s mother would soon become ill is difficult enough – that poor young woman, about to be separated from her lovely family – but towards the end Shepard reduced me to tears by mentioning coming across his brother’s grave in France during the First World War. Cyril died in July 1916 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

E.H. Shepard’s illustrations of A.A. Milne’s books and particularly of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows were such an important part of my childhood that it feels particularly appropriate to now know more about his childhood.  This book is begging to be reissued and Slightly Foxed, who after all first alerted me to it in their Winter 2010 issue, would seem a natural publisher.

UPDATE: As of December 2018, this is back in print – from Slightly Foxed no less!

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Library Lust

Cairness House, Lonmay, Aberdeenshire via The Telegraph

Cairness House, Lonmay, Aberdeenshire via The Telegraph

A bit cluttered for my tastes (those stacks of magazines make me twitchy) but still an enticing room.

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Leadon HillI’m not entirely sure what I expected when I picked up Leadon Hill by Richmal Crompton but it certainly wasn’t what I got. I have this idea of Greyladies books as cosy and entertaining, an entirely rational conclusion based on my very enjoyable experiences with their books by O. Douglas, Susan Scarlett, and especially Susan Pleydell. Well, Leadon Hill is entertaining but in a most unsettling way.

Published in 1927, Leadon Hill is a small English village where Marcia Faversham has recently moved with her husband and three children. As the novel begins, John Faversham sets off (with his wife’s blessing) on a four-month fishing holiday with his friends. If Marcia were left truly alone it might not be so bad – she is an intelligent enough woman to be able to amuse herself – but she is left at the mercy of her inquisitive neighbours who illustrate the more poisonous aspects of village life. And yet Marcia gets off relatively easily (with the gossip only that her husband is leading a double life with a woman or family hidden somewhere else) compared to Miss West, who becomes Marcia’s neighbour when she rents the house next door.

Born and raised in Italy by her English father, Helen West grew up hearing about the beauty of the English countryside. And, now living in it, she does find it beautiful. What she was not prepared for was the stifling small-mindedness of the village gossips, who are never happier than when spreading vile rumours about one another and gasping whenever someone does anything outside their narrow view of what is proper. As an artist and as a beautiful young woman living alone, Helen is a target for gossip immediately. But it is her open-mindedness and thoughtfulness towards others that truly challenges the village’s most firmly-held prejudices.

It is a rather horrific but all too realistic portrait of what it is like to live in a small community. There are those who are intelligent and broadminded – Marcia, for one, and a lovely couple called Elliott – but they are outnumbered by neighbours who are confident in their view of the world and unforgiving of any transgressions. The worst of these neighbours is Miss Mitcham, a woman whose capacity for cruelty is thinly veiled by the seemingly innocuous way in which she delivers her devastating character assassinations:

‘It’s a beautiful little place, isn’t it? And in the heart of it sits Miss Mitcham like a maggot at the heart of an apple, poisoning it. I think that woman will be rather surprised when she finds out, as please God she will one day, how wicked she is. She’s one of the wickedest women in the world. …There’s more humanity, less meanness in any drab woman of the streets than in that woman.’

Helen’s gentle philanthropy is twisted until it appears as an insult to those who received it whereas the outright cruelty of the local landowner is cheerfully overlooked when he marries the girl whom he bullied and impregnated. Used to an environment where curiosity is encouraged and kindness taken for granted, Helen wilts in her new surroundings until a visit from an old friend helps her find her way again – and provokes a new round of devastating rumours.

It is a chilling little book and a very well done one.  It has reminded me of how much I appreciate the anonymity that comes with living in a major city and the freedom of choosing who knows the details of my life.

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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.

Well, I’m back from my holiday and after all the light books I read while basking in the sun, I am definitely ready for some weightier material.  I’m looking forward to starting on the books I picked up earlier this month but wasn’t able to bring with me on my travels (The Past is Myself, Cairo in the War, etc) and also these new books which were waiting for me at the library when I returned.  I start my new job next Tuesday so hope to get lots of reading in before then.

Library Loot 1Letters from London by Julian Barnes – Following in the footsteps of Mollie Panter-Downes, Barnes spent five years during the 1990s writing the “Letter from London” for the New Yorker. I’ve read this collection of his columns before but, since reading Panter-Downes’ London War Notes, I’ve wanted to try this again.

The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan – Love MacMillan.

Across the Pond by Terry Eagleton – I can never resist any book by an outsider experiencing a foreign culture, especially when the nations being contrasted are America and England.

Library Loot 2Come to the Edge by Joanna Kavenna – Cassandra White is a woman on a mission. Her Lakeland farm may be falling apart, but at least she’s escaped the madness of modern life. But when her valley is invaded by bankers buying up second homes, she’s determined to put up a fight. What begins as a hare-brained scheme with a few unruly locals soon has the whole community taking up arms—and, before she knows it, Cassandra’s leading a revolution.

The Forever Girl by Alexander McCall Smith – this was an eBook hold that came available while I was on holiday. Forgettable but with enough of AMS’ characteristic musings to make it worthwhile.

The Tao of Martha by Jen Lancaster – Loved this. Another eBook hold that I read on holiday, this is Lancaster’s self-improvement memoir of spending one year doing her best to live according to the dictates of Martha Stewart.

What did you pick up this week?

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Library Lust

via the pink pagoda

via the pink pagoda

Pale blue bookshelves and pink chairs? Perfect.

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Palms to Pines

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View down to Coachella Valley

My holiday is almost at an end but it has been an excellent one. It has been pretty quiet, with lots of time spent reading and enjoying the warm weather, but yesterday we went on a fun family road trip up into the San Jacinto mountains.  After almost two weeks surrounded by palm trees, it was wonderful to trade them (at least for the day) for pine trees and slightly cooler weather.  We spent several hours hiking near the mountain town of Idyllwild, enjoyed a delicious lunch in town, and then took in the amazing views on the twisting road back to the desert.  It had been years since I travelled along this road and I’d forgotten how absolutely stunning the scenery is.  It was a great way to spend the day!

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Near Idyllwild

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Hiking near Idyllwild

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Looking down on Hemet and Diamond Valley Lake

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Coming down into San Gorgonio Pass

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P1080094You know what?  Vacations are lovely.  I wake up every morning to sunshine and warmth – definitely not something on offer in Vancouver in March – and then get to spend the day doing (largely) as I please.  Delightful.  Unsurprisingly, I have been using much of this free time to catch up on my reading.

To ease into holiday-mode, I started with lots of light reads: The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam, Just One of the Guys by Kristan Higgins (probably my favourite of her books), Last Night’s Scandal by Loretta Chase, Past Secrets by Cathy Kelly, and Just Imagine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.  All nice fluffy books that are perfect poolside reading.

I have also been steadily working my way through The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope and I am loving it.  I am about two-thirds done.  I was anxious when I started, having been warned by many Trollope fans that it was their least favourite of the Barsetshire books, but, so far, I think it might actually be my favourite.  I don’t yet have a favourite character, the way I usually do with Trollope’s books, but I am really enjoying how well balanced the story is among the entire cast of characters.

I am starting to feel the lack of non-fiction in my reading though, but I’m well-prepared.  I brought along These Wonderful Rumours! by May Smith and can’t wait to start it once I’m done with Trollope.

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Library Lust

credit: themodernhouse.net

credit: themodernhouse.net

Not exactly my style but there is something very attractive about the sheer volume of books packed into this room.

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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.

I left my old job at the end of last month and start my new job at the beginning of April so, lucky me, I have all of March off – I am putting it to good use!  I’m on vacation right now, enjoying the warmth and sunshine of southern California.  Sadly, not all of these library books were able to come on holiday with me (my suitcase is only so large and my hiking boots won out over more books) but I know I have them to look forward to when I get home!

Library Loot 1The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg

Cairo in the War by Artemis Cooper

Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively

Library Loot 2Oleander, Jacaranda by Penelope Lively

The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam

The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone

What did you pick up this week?

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