Archive for May, 2014

Library Lust

credit: unknown

credit: unknown

For something a little more modern and masculine, I love this room.

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Excellent Advice

via cocorosetextiles.blogspot.com

via cocorosetextiles.blogspot.com

I came across such a sensible piece of advice in a book last weekend that it had to be shared.  I’m not in need of this cure right now but goodness knows there will be days when I’ll need it:

“Hot chocolate”, I declared to the room, standing up.

“Huh?” Caroline dragged her head up to look at me.

“And a hot water bottle,” I finished dramatically.

“But it’s not cold.”

“No matter.  It’s just what you need.  And a Maeve Binchy book.”

“A Maeve Binchy book?”  She looked blankly at me.

“Yes, yes, yes.  It’s the best cure there is for contrariness and angst.”

Saving Grace by Ciara Geraghty

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This has been my year for discovering Jane Gardam and I have done so with a vengeance.  I started with A Long Way from Verona and The Summer After the Funeral and after that there was no stopping me.  But there was also no sitting me down to write proper reviews, which is why we’ve ended up here with thoughts in brief about four more of her books that I read this year.

God on the RocksGod on the Rocks, published in 1978, was shortlisted for the Booker prize.  It lost (to Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea – or, as Simon would put it, The Sea, The Sea, THE BLINKING SEA) but still having it there gives you faith in the whole book prize decision-making process.  This is vintage Gardam, with the complicated world of adults fully observed but only half understood by eight-year old Margaret.  Margaret’s world, as the novel begins, consists of a common but uncommonly religious father, her loving mother (a “still-young woman much given to God and sympathy and immensely loving to babies”), a baby brother who requires far too much attention as far as Margaret is concerned, and the family’s young and wildly inappropriate maid, Lydia.  Into this world come Charles and Binkie, friends’ of Margaret’s mother from childhood, and over the course of the summer Margaret’s world is tilted and forever changed.  Tragic, comic, and with the typical Gardam touch of the grotesque, God on the Rocks is marvellous.

Faith FoxSome books get odder the more you think on them.  Faith Fox is one of those books.  What I haven’t quite figured out yet is whether that is a good or a bad thing.  Published in 1996 and, unlike many of Gardam’s other novels, also set during the 1990s, it is the story of the chain reaction that occurs when Holly Fox (“…a hockey-playing extrovert who never stopped laughing.  A gymnastic outdoor Betjeman girl.  A woman of no subtlety, a bossy, tiny-minded bourgeois.”) dies while giving birth to a daughter, Faith.  Everyone – her friends, her extended family, and certainly her doctor husband – assume that Holly’s devoted mother, Thomasina, will step in to take care of the baby.  But instead Thomasina, who had so looked forward to becoming a grandmother, disappears.  She runs first to a spa and then, having picked up a gentleman friend, to Egypt, and on and on from there.  Meanwhile, Faith is deposited with her uncle in Yorkshire, an idealistic man who is taken advantage of by almost everyone he comes into contact with – his brother, his wife, and certainly the expatriate Tibetans who he has opened his home to.  This isn’t Gardam’s best work but, strangely, it is her most quotable one.  Thomasina is a marvellous character and this is one of those books that grows better the more distance you have from it.

070116963X.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_The Flight of the Maidens is as close as I’ve come– and as close as I ever hope to come – to finding a conventional novel written by Gardam.  In fact, it barely feels Gardam-like at all.  Published in 2000 but set in 1946, it explores the lives of three school mates, Hetty, Una and Liseolette, in the summer before they begin university.  Hetty spends the summer trying to break away from her mother, bicycle-mad Una spends it trying to sleep with her boyfriend, and Liseolette, who came to England as a child via the Kindertransport, finds herself shipped off to California and her only remaining family.  It is good and well-written and not quite as conventional as I’ve made it sound, but still not memorable.

The Sidmouth LettersWith The Sidmouth Letters (1980), Gardam presented me with a book of short stories that I actually liked.  Do you know how rare that is?  Do you know how averse I am to the format?  But this volume is nice and slim and, most importantly, it is written by Gardam.  The title story is about Jane Austen, which is always a good sign.  Other memorable entries include a gothic little piece about a ghost sighting and, the story that stands out the most in my mind, the tale of a woman who, while on vacation with her two small children, runs into a former lover and contemplates what her life might have been like.  Abacus has collected Gardam’s stories and recently printed them in a massive collection.  Based on these few (which are in the new book), it is a collection well worth checking out.

I loved Old Filth but will save that for a proper review, perhaps once I’ve read the whole trilogy.  I also listened to Bilgewater as an audiobook and, though I won’t review it here, it might just be my favourite Gardam to date.  It is as odd and dream-like as you could possibly wish, with all the heart and humour that you could want.  I adored it.

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Arcadian Adventures with the Idle RichI’ve been struggling for weeks now how to review Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich by Stephen Leacock.  Like most of Leacock’s works, it is a collection of stories linked by a shared settting: in this case, Plutoria Avenue, a tony street in a wealthy North American metropolis.  And, like all Leacock works, it is funny.  The trials and tribulations of the outrageously wealthy provide no end of giggle-inducing commentary from Leacock – commentary that seems just as fresh and appropriate in 2014 as it did on publication in 1914.

But, again, where to start with a review?  Perhaps at the beginning, with the introduction of one of the Mausoleum Club’s august members taking his modest mid-day meal:

Mr. Fyshe was seated at lunch, consuming a cutlet and a pint of Moselle in the plain downright fashion of a man so democratic that he is practically a revolutionary socialist, and doesn’t mind saying so…

Mr. Fyshe and his fellow millionaires flit between their offices and the Mausoleum Club, congratulating themselves for their good luck at having become millionaires and, in turn, being vociferously congratulated by those who live in hope of charitable handouts – namely, clergymen and university administrators.

Leacock was a professor at McGill University, which is no doubt why the details of the university’s delicately subtle and wildly successful courtships for the rich ring so true.  And why the book is littered with instances of internal university politics devoted to matters of such insignificance that of course they have become matters of life and death to their supporters:

 The meeting of the faculty that day bid fair to lose all vestige of decorum in the excitement of the moment.  For, as Dead Elderberry Foible, the head of the faculty, said, the motion that they had before them amounted practically to a revolution.  The proposal was nothing less that the permission of the use of lead-pencils instead of pen and ink in the sessional examinations of the university.  Anyone conversant with the inner life of a college will realize that to many of the professoriate this was nothing less than a last wild onslaught of socialistic democracy against the solid bulwarks of society.  They must fight it back or die on the walls.  To others it was one more step in the splendid progress of democratic education, comparable only to such epoch-making things as the abandonment of the cap and gown, and the omission of the word “sir” in speaking to a professor.

But the millionaires of Plutoria Avenue are a practical bunch so while the academics quibble over minutiae, the millionaires set their sights on more important matters, like the corruption of the press:

“There is no doubt that the corruption of the press is one of the worst factors that we have to oppose.  But whether we can best fight it by buying the paper itself or buying the staff is hard to say.”

If you do not giggle over that, then I am afraid there is no hope for you.

While the men congregate at the Mausoleum Club, their wives roam about town in search of intrigue and excitement.  If they are in town, that is:

It was indeed a singularly trying time of the year.  It was too early to go to Europe and too late to go to Bermuda.  It was too warm to go south, and yet still too cold to go north.  In fact, one was almost compelled to stay at home – which was dreadful.

To detract from the dreadfulness of home, the ladies seek to educate themselves.  They host salons in their homes where ”people of education and taste are at liberty to talk about things they don’t know, and to utter freely ideas that they haven’t got.”   These salons are delightful, though occasionally a little awkward, as when an actual educated person from the university chooses to attend.  The women also content themselves by seeking spiritual enlightenment, flirting both with the church (though their allegiances are easily shifted, depending on the fashion) and the occult (though the mystic seer one hostess hires proves a bit more worldly – and sticky-fingered – than suspected).

Though this is only a small book with a handful of stories, it is great fun.  I still don’t know how to review it, but hopefully I’ve given you a little bit of an idea of why you should try it.

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TheSmallHouseatAllingtonAlmost before I knew who Anthony Trollope was, I was being warned by other readers of how disappointing I would find The Small House at Allington.  Lily Dale was a drip, I was told, and the entire book a drag to read.  Old visitors to Barsetshire happily skip it when rereading the series.  Forewarned, I put off reading the novel for months after finishing Framley Parsonage.  But then I went into Trollope withdrawal and, rather than turning to one of the standalone novels, decided to soldier on in Barsetshire.  I picked up The Small House at Allington with no great expectations.  I put it down a few days later convinced that it was the best Trollope I’ve read yet.

Even people who have never read Trollope themselves are familiar with Lily Dale, the jilted heroine of The Small House at Allington, whose constancy to her former fiancé so appealed to Victorian readers and so enrages modern ones.  Lily lives with her mother and elder sister at the Small House at Allington (as opposed to the Large House, inhabited by her uncle, Squire Dale).  In the novel’s early chapters, she meets and falls in love with Aldolphus Crosbie, a winsome and ambitious young man.  Unfortunately, shortly after their engagement Crosbie abandons Lily to make a socially advantageous marriage to Lady Alexandrina de Courcy, the eldest daughter of a well known and unpleasant family familiar from earlier Barsetshire books.  Meanwhile, young Johnny Eames, a friend of Lily’s since childhood, longs to avenge the wrong that was done to her by Crosbie and to win her for himself…if only he could get his rather messy London life sorted out first.

I can see why modern readers find Lily enraging and also why Victorian readers adored her.  She is affectionate and resilient but, when it matters, introverted to the extent that neither the reader nor her own family can really know what is going on in her mind or heart.  Trollope later referred to her as a “prig” but the Lily he presents here, obstinate as she is, seems too bold to be branded with such a milksop label.  She teases that she is a domestic tyrant and throughout the book goes along, doing just as she likes, happily ignoring the well-meant and generally sensible advice of those who love her.  When she is abandoned by Crosbie, Lily does not go immediately into a decline; she has no delicate feminine constitution that collapses under the emotional strain of her broken engagement.  She soldiers on, laughing and teasing, taking joy in others’ happiness.  But you never quite know what is going on in her head.  Her lighthearted flirtation and sharp banter seem at odds with the devotion she shows to Crosbie.  I think I like her and yet I am not quite sure.  I am certainly fascinated by her.

Poor Aldolphus Crosbie is perhaps the most interesting and, in many ways, the most sympathetic character.  The reader – and Lily – knows from the start that he is young, full of more flash than substance, more ambition than moral certainty.  But it is his half-formed character that makes him so sympathetic.  He is a man with no cruelty in him, no badness, just weakness.  And he is more than punished for his youthful foolishness by his marriage to Lady Alexandrina – and into the heartless de Courcy family.  He tasted enough true intimacy and affection with Lily to know what he is missing.  His about-face so shortly after becoming engaged to Lily is upsetting but wonderfully written.  He is being true to himself, if not to Lily; one of the first things Trollope shared about Crosbie was his acknowledgement that “he could not marry without money; and he would not marry for money.”  Foolishly, it is only after becoming engaged to Lily that he sets out to discover if her uncle, the squire, intends to settle any money on her.  He, a childless bachelor who one would expect to do better (and who does indeed reconsider his position over the course of the novel), refuses to give Crosbie the assurance that she will receive any money on her marriage.  With the prospect of trying to support a wife on only his meager salary, Crosbie sets out on the fateful trip to Courcy castle where, with the thirty-something – but dowered and well-connected – Lady Alexandrina on display, ambition wins out over affection.

This is a thick novel and over the rest of it Crosbie has much time to repent of his decision.  His arrogance and confidence, his dreams of a bright professional future, are slowly ground down as the frightful and demanding de Courcys invade every corner of his life.  Meanwhile, his timid would-have-been-rival for Lily’s affections, Johnny Eames, finds himself rising in the world.  Johnny works moderately hard at his job but, more importantly, finds himself with a well-connected patron, Lord de Guest, whom he saved from a charging bull in a delightfully comic scene.  Lord de Guest helps champion Johnny’s bid for Lily’s hand but it is of no use: Lily has no interest in any other man than Crosbie, feeling herself bound to him despite the abrupt end to their relationship.

I feel like I ought to have liked Johnny Eames more than I did.  He is appealingly green and insecure, the sort of young man who Trollope excelled at writing about sympathetically.  But, in his way, he is crueller to the women in his life than Crosbie was to Lily.  The scenes in Johnny’s squalid London boarding house make it that much easier to understand the appeal of gently-bred Lily but that does not make his treatment of Amelia Roper, the landlady’s daughter to whom he declared his half-hearted love, acceptable.

What I did love about Johnny Eames – and Crosbie – were the details of their working lives in London.  I adore Trollope for many reasons and one of them is the insight he gives into the professional careers of middle-class Victorians.  I delight in learning about the sort of hours clerks worked, or the amounts they were paid, or what they did on their weekends, or how they furnished their houses and how they managed to afford to marry and support children.  And I adore reading about office politics and the hierarchies within the departments where Trollope’s characters work.  The Three Clerks was a perfect book for this but The Small House at Allington, which spends a significant portion focused on Crosbie and Eames, is almost as good.

Another joy of reading Trollope is being privy to his authorial asides, be they about society or his characters.  He has a habit of defending his characters before anyone can criticize them which feels adorably parental.  But, best of all, he likes to insert reminders every now and then for his readers:

Young men, very young men – men so young that it may be almost a question whether or no they have as yet reached their manhood – are more inclined to be earnest and thoughtful when alone than they ever are when with others, even though those others be their elders.  I fancy that, as we grow old ourselves, we are apt to forget that it was so with us; and, forgetting it, we do not believe that it is so with our children.

I feel like every Trollope book has at least one of these timeless reminders that is wildly appropriate for my life at that moment.  I often find myself copying them out and forwarding them on to friends or family members.

The genius of The Small House at Allington, where it rises about the rest of the equally entertaining Barsetshire books, is that it is perfectly put together.  The plotting is tight, the characters compelling (if not always comprehensible), and there are none of the extraneous scenes or storylines that distract from the action in his other novels.  That’s not to say that there aren’t secondary storylines: there are several.  While Lily is pledging herself to eternal maidenhood, her sister Bell is confusedly falling in love with the village doctor.  And in a more exalted strata of society, the awkward and shy Plantagenet Palliser is falling inappropriately in love with the exquisite Lady Dumbello, to the horror of both their families.  This sets up the Palliser books nicely and makes me eager to start them, but not before I finished with Barsetshire.  The Last Chronicle of Barset awaits.

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New(ish) Books

Newish BooksI have not set out to accumulate new books this year and yet, miraculously, some have found their way into my home.  Here’ s what I’ve picked up over the last few months:

Selma at the Abbey by E.J. Oxenham – cheesy-looking schoolgirl book that I picked up for 50 cents at a school book fair.  Honestly, even if I can’t stomach the book, the 50 cents were well-spent just for blurbs at the back advertising Exciting Mystery Stories, Jennings (of the BBC) Stories, and Thrilling Western Stories.

Rilla of Ingleside and Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery – a lovely gift from Virago.

Summer Half, August Folly, and The Brandons by Angela Thirkell – an even lovelier gift from Virago.

Kilvert’s Diary edited by William Plomer – the public library was having a sale this weekend and I was delighted to find this there.  It has been on my TBR list for ages.  I do have a weakness for books by or about the clergy.

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West – another find at the library sale.

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther – Can you believe I’ve never read this?

Chestnut Street by Maeve Binchy – I went shopping for Mother’s Day and instead came away with a book for myself.  I read it immediately and loved every page, though it was bittersweet, knowing that Binchy is not around to write these wonderful stories any more.

Also, Little G by E.M. Channon is slowly working its way around the globe to me.  It left Scotland the first week of March and I have high hopes it will arrive here eventually.

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Library Lust

credit: House Beautiful

credit: House Beautiful

Something bright and cheerful for spring.

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischiefthat 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 1Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers – for the life of me, I can’t remember where my copy of this is.  Hopefully in storage.  Until I locate it, the library has come to my rescue.

Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner – Bach!  I’ve been looking forward to this universally-praised biography since it came out and can’t wait to get started on it.

Sissinghurst by Adam Nicolson – I’ve checked this out several times without ever actually reading it.  Nicolson writes beautifully and I am looking forward to reading this eventually.  Hopefully soon!

Library Loot 2Young Money by Kevin Roose – I loved Roose’s first book, The Unlikely Disciple, so was thrilled when I heard he had a new one coming out, this one focusing on the experiences of a group of young people who started working on Wall Street after the 2008 crash.  I read it over the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton – there was a piece about de Botton in the Financial Times this weekend so when I saw this at the library Sunday afternoon, I thought I’d try it.

Bitter Almonds by Laurence Cossé – a “delightful story about friendship across racial and economic barriers set in contemporary Paris.”

What did you pick up this week?

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The Virago Book of Women GardenersIt is a long weekend here and I’ve spent the past two days trying to convince myself to sit down and write this post.  That proved an impossible task on Saturday and Sunday, both beautiful days, but today it is raining, offering me the perfect opportunity to come inside and write.  And The Virago Book of Women Gardeners edited by Deborah Kellaway is the perfect book to write about this weekend, since everywhere I’ve looked the past few days I’ve seen people energetically doing battle in their gardens, getting them ready for summer.

The Virago Book of Women Gardeners is a compendium of garden writing by women from the 17th Century to the end of the 20th.  Some of the women were gardeners first and foremost (Rosemary Verey, Gertrude Jekyll, Margery Fish), others were writers who dabbled in their gardens (Sylvia Plath, Edith Wharton, Colette), and a number were people who I had never heard of before.  Together, their writings form a delightful, fun, and inspiring book.  It made me dream desperately of gardens I will never have and encouraged me to do the best for the meager garden I do enjoy.

Kellaway divides the book into thematic sections, a technique that works very well given how broad the book’s focus is.  I enjoyed all the sections (except, perhaps, for the section on “Flower Arrangers”, who do not belong among gardeners, in my opinion) but I had my favourites.  These were: “Visitors and Travellers”, “Advisers and Designers”, “Colourists”, and “Townswomen”.   And I had my favourite writers, too.  While some of the authors only had one excerpt in the book, others appeared time and again.  These were generally exactly who you would expect them to be: Ursula Buchan, Anna Pavord, Vita Sackville-West, Rosemary Verey, Elizabeth von Arnim and, of course, Gertrude Jekyll.  Jekyll’s writing feels so fresh and engaging, so modern and relaxed, that it is almost jarring to realise how long ago she was writing.  One of the other delights of this book was being introduces to one of Jekyll’s neighbours and contemporaries, Mrs. C.W. Earle.  Mrs. Earle wrote a number of bestselling books, starting in 1897 with Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden, that were largely about gardening but appear to have wandered on to whatever topic struck their author’s fancy.  I came away from this book with a long list of other books to read – Mrs Earle’s books are at the very top.

Utrecht, 2012

Utrecht, 2012

On first going into a garden one knows by instinct, as a hound scents the fox, if it is going to be interesting or not. 

– Mrs. C.W. Earle, 1897

Freiburg im Breisgau, 2012

Freiburg im Breisgau, 2012

Weeds have a particular fascination for us.  They are endlessly interesting, like an enemy who occupies our thoughts and schemes so much more than any friend and who (though we would never admit it) we should miss if he suddenly moved away.  I know the weeds in my garden better than most of my flowers and, without them, my victories would be insipid affairs.  Weeds provide the challenge that most gardeners require.  They may sometimes appear to us as ineradicable as Original Sin, but we would be sorry to have to admit that, like sin, we were not conscious of a strong urge to overcome them.

-Ursula Buchan, 1987

Victoria, 2011

Victoria, 2011

…the Dahlia’s first duty in life is to flaunt and to swagger and to carry gorgeous blooms well above its leaves, and on no account to hang its head. 
– Gertrude Jekyll, 1899

Vancouver, 2012

Vancouver, 2012

Why should fast growth automatically be an advantage, I wonder?  Instant gardening is no more satisfying to the soul than thirty-second snatches of Mozart, condensed novels, or fast food. 
– Anna Pavord, 1992

Vancouver, 2013

Vancouver, 2013

Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination.  You are always living three, or indeed six, months hence.  I believe that people entirely devoid of imagination never can be really good gardeners.  To be content with the present, and not striving about the future, is fatal. 
– Mrs. C.W. Earle, 1897

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Library Lust

via Skeppsholmen.se

via Skeppsholmen.se

I love this bright, airy dining room.  But then when don’t I love a room that has white bookshelves?

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