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Archive for December, 2015

I am happy to see 2015 go.  I had a productive year but it was a tiring and sombre one.  With friends and family falling ill and passing away with alarming frequency, this was not a year for intensive reading.  Or, some months, any reading at all (I only managed to finish two books in September).  That said, hidden among the comfort reads and mindless fluff that typified my reading this year were some truly excellent books.  Most of which I unfortunately never got around to writing about.  It took fierce concentration to get the list down to ten but here they are:

Top Ten - 310. The Song Collector (2015) – Natasha Solomons
A lovely, gently-paced novel about love, aging, and music.

9. Knight Crusader (1954) – Ronald Welch
I read this historical children’s novel (the first in Welch’s Carey series, currently being reissued by Slightly Foxed) back in January and was so impressed I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.  Welch’s thoughtful character development and rich historical details compliment a rip roaring plot to delight readers of any age.

8. My History (2015) – Antonia Fraser
A breezy, charming memoir about Fraser’s early years.

Top Ten - 27. Iris Origo (2000) – Caroline Moorehead
I adored this biography of Origo, famous for her wartime diary (War in Val d’Orcia – which I’ve yet to read) and her garden at La Foce (which I’ve yet to see).  Moorehead does an incredible job of describing the richly complicated Florentine expat community Origio grew up in and her extraordinarily varied circle of acquaintances, as well as her personal achievements.  There was nothing simple or straightforward about Origio and Moorehead does full justice to her subject’s complex life.  When I visited the Val d’Orcia region of Tuscany in September, I was delighted to see for myself the landscapes Moorehead had described and which Origio knew so well.

6. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged (2015) – Ayisha Malik
An entirely unique comedy about the romantic and spiritual plights (often entwined) of a young British Muslim feminist.  It remains the only book that kept me up reading long past my bedtime this year and had me giggling even more often than Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling.

5. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (1992) – Marcella Hazan
An unusual choice for this list but this is easily the book I’ve spent the most time with this year.  And what a book it is.  Hazan’s precise recipes are a joy to read and a delight to recreate.  Since buying this in Portland last February, I don’t think more than a week or two has gone by without me trying a new recipe from it.  I am devoted to the soup chapter, in thrall to the pasta sauces, and had a revelation over brisket when I made the beef roast with braised onions.  It has quickly become my most cherished cookbook.

Top Ten - 14. A Desperate Fortune (2015) – Susanna Kearsley
A thrilling historical novel with two equally thoughtful, appealing heroines.

3. Anthony Trollope (1992) – Victoria Glendinning
Glendinning’s thorough, affectionate, and very readable biography of Trollope gave me a new appreciation for the books of his I’ve already read and more impetus to read the others.  I was especially fascinated by her interest in his relationships with the women in his lives and how they influenced his female characters.

2. The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) by Anthony Trollope
A funny, poignant, generous novel to end Trollope’s extraordinary Barsetshire series.

STW Letters1. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters (1982) edited by William Maxwell
An enchanting collection of letters spanning almost fifty years.  STW was a wonderful correspondent, filling her letters with richly-detailed annecdotes, self-deprecating humour, and the most delightful flights of whimsy.  I’ve yet to read a single one of her novels but, after reading this and the wonderful collection of her letters to William Maxwell (my favourite book of 2012), I can’t help but think of her as a close, dear friend.

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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.

Library Loot 1

Pillar to Post by Osbert Lancaster – after reading about a recent reissue of Lancaster’s works, I was keen to check this out.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal – I’ve seen this on a few “Best of 2015” lists (including NPR’s) lately and am looking forward to it.

Farthest Field by Raghu Kamad – So, so looking forward to this history of one Indian family’s experiences during the Second World War.

Library Loot 2

Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans – I loved Evans’ most recent novel, Crooked Heart, but this earlier novel about the production of a wartime propaganda film was very underwhelming.  Still intrigued by the upcoming film version, though.

The Shelf by Phyllis Rose – Simon named this as his number one book of 2015.  That, obviously, is reason enough for me to want to read it.

Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie – I check this out annually during the holidays…and then never manage to read it.  Maybe this year!

Library Loot 3

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu – Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings — cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.

Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings’ laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha’ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings’ mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings’ power…if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don’t find her first.

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer – The Way Things Were opens with the death of Toby, the Maharaja of Kalasuryaketu, a Sanskritist who has not set foot in India for two decades. It falls to his son, Skanda, to return Toby’s body to his birthplace, “a tin-pot kingdom” not worth “one air-gun salute.” This journey takes him halfway around the world and returns him to his family, the drawing-room elite of Delhi, whose narcissism and infighting he has worked hard to escape. It also forces him to reckon with his parents’ marriage, a turbulent love affair that began in passion but ended in pain and futility.

Hild by Nicola Griffith – a much-praised historical novel about St. Hilda.

Library Loot 4

High Minds by Simon Heffer – Britain in the 1840s was a country wracked by poverty, unrest and uncertainty, where there were attempts to assassinate the Queen and her prime minister, and the ruling class lived in fear of riot and revolution. By the 1880s it was a confident nation of progress and prosperity, transformed not just by industrialisation but by new attitudes to politics, education, women and the working class. That it should have changed so radically was very largely the work of an astonishingly dynamic and high-minded group of people – politicians and philanthropists, writers and thinkers – who in a matter of decades fundamentally remade the country, its institutions and its mindset, and laid the foundations for modern society.

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand – Shortlisted for the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize this year

The House of Twenty Thousand Books by Sasha Abramsky – The House of Twenty Thousand Books is journalist Sasha Abramsky’s elegy to the vanished intellectual world of his grandparents, Chimen and Miriam, and their vast library of socialist literature and Jewish history.

What did you pick up this week?

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The Last ChronicleSaying goodbye is difficult. When I finished The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope (four years after picking up The Warden, the first in Trollope’s delightful series), it was with tears streaming down my face and the sense that I was parting from dear old friends. But the beautiful thing about books is that I can always revisit these friends, as long as they remain on my shelves (which they will do – forever).

Much has changed since we were first introduced to the cathedral town of Barchester in The Warden. Children have grown to adulthood (or been wordlessly killed off, in the case of two of the Grantly offspring), ecumenical battles have been waged, marriages both good and bad have been made, and, as is only natural with the passing of time, our beloved central characters have aged. Mr Harding, surely the sweetest and most beloved of all Trollope’s creations, is slowly begininning to drift out of this life. The Grantlys are rejoicing in the worldly success of their children, though youngest son Henry, now a widower, is less certain of his path than his siblings. In Allington, Lily Dale, still in her early twenties, is settling down to a life of pleasant spinsterhood while in London Johnny Eames is progressing steadily at work and, when he’s not too busy, still pining after Lily. And, at the bishop’s palace, a quiet revolution is being to take shape.

At the heart of the story is the very Trollope-esque mystery of Mr Crawley and the stolen cheque. Mr Crawley, the morally uptight and perpetually cheerless perpetual curate of Hogglestock, stands accussed of stealing a cheque. Never a particularly attentive man, he can’t adequately explain how the cheque came to be in his possession. He thought it came from Dean Arabin, but Arabin thought not. Already poor and relatively friendless, Crawley settles in to enjoy his martyrdom and alienate those friends who do try to assist him in his time of need.

And those friends are legion, though they are in truth really the friends of his long-suffering wife and eldest daughter, Grace. The Luftons and the Robarts at Framley try to help, as do Lily and Mrs Dale, and various Grantlys – particularly Henry, who is in love with Grace Crawley. But Crawley is a stubborn man and is determined to suffer until his innocence is proved. Meanwhile, he goes a little mad.

With such a father, I can forgive a great deal in Grace Crawley. She is perhaps the dullest Trollope heroines I’ve yet to come across – certainly the dullest in this series. She is so sweet and good and morally upright that she refuses to marry the man she loves, Henry Grantly, as long as her father stands accused. Her reasoning is peculiarly Victorian: she will not taint her love and his illustrious family with her father’s shame. And, of course, she is beautiful and graceful and a true lady, etc, etc. When the archdeacon finally meets Grace, he quite falls in love with her and is moved to tears by her plight (a situation easily foreseen by Mrs Grantly, who knows her husband’s sentimental heart). A fine pair.

I can’t bring myself to like Grace. Trollope’s other heroines are equally good and moral but they have a bit more fun and fight in them. Grace is a sad creature with no discernable sense of humour. She’ll make Henry Grantly a lovely wife but a dull one – which is fine as he seems quite dull too, as do his two surviving siblings. None of the archdeacon’s passion or Mrs Grantly’s well-concealed cunning seem to have been passed down to the next generation. As they are two of my favourite characters – indeed, the archdeacon is probably my favourite of all Barsetshire residents – this is a sad thing indeed.

All the youthful female spirit and wit (I say youthful since the elder generation – such as Mrs Proudie and Mrs Grantly – has never for a moment been lacking) was saved for that determined spinster, Lily Dale. I love Lily. I was enchanted and beguiled by her when I read The Small House at Allington but Trollope gives us even more to love about her here. Further encounters with both Crosbie and Johnny Eames leave her determined to remain an old maid – a choice I would probably also make if my only choice were between those two. Crosbie is now a poor widower, losing his hair, with none of the brilliancy that attracted Lily before. Johnny continues to grow into a promising man and there are times when Lily does seem tempted. And Trollope certainly thinks she should be:

My old friend John was certainly no hero – was very unheroic in many phases of his life; but then, if all the girls are to wait for heroes, I fear that the difficulties in way of matrimonial arrangmenets, great as they are at present, will be very seriously enhanced. Johnny was not ecstatic, nor heroic, nor transcendental, nor very beautiful in his manliness; he was not a man to break his heart for love or to have his story written in an epic; but he was an affectionate, kindly, honest young man; and I think most girls might have done worse than take him.

Much as I love Johnny, I can’t think he would make Lily a good – or constant – husband. He is always falling prey to some artful female, always too happy to neglect his duties, always, in short, thinking of himself and the present moment. No, as a husband for Lily he will not do and so the author sentences them both to eternal singledom. Something I suspect they will both excel at. They are friendly, selfish creatures, much loved by others. They shall never lack for friends and never need to think of anyone else.

Johnny remains a touching figure and clearly one Trollope identified with. He is, Trollope points out to us early on, much improved from his earlier days:

With his own mother and sister, John Eames was in these days quite a hero. He was a hero with them now, because in his early boyish days there had been so little about him that was heroic.

He has worked his way up in the world, inherited a little money, and made a few more influential friends. He has a gift for making friends and, by instantly and carelessly sharing his heart and innermost thoughts with them, turning them into his devoted supporters. Those who know him a little better would wish him to work harder and with less complaints – both in matters of commerce and the heart. He shares his feelings and his dreams with everyone he meets – endearing, no doubt, but concerning if you are Lily Dale and constantly being petitioned on his behalf by near strangers. He still keeps less respectable company in town, with no true friends to reign him in and steer him in less dangerous directions (though Conway Dalrymple tries). Trollope, better than almost any writer I’ve found, understands how lonely and scary it is to be in your twenties and starting a career, hating the dull, grinding work, wanting to move up but not really wanting to expend the necessary effort. Any distraction is welcome and any chance to be heroic should be seized. God bless Johnny Eames for seizing what adventures come his way.

There are two major deaths in The Last Chronicle of Barset: the entirely expected passing of Mr Harding, after a long and satisfying life, and the unexpected death of Mrs Proudie, the bishop’s reviled wife. Mrs Proudie’s death comes as a shocking blow to her husband, who had only just begin tto assert himself after decades under the rule of that virago. Dr Proudie has always been a pitiable character but never moreso than here.

It was the peaceful departure of good, sweet Mr Harding that left me wiping away tears as I finished the novel. The archdeacon’s tribute to his father-in-law was what did it:

“I seem to have known him all my life,” said the archdeacon. “I have known him ever since I left college; and I have known him as one man seldom knows another. There is nothing he has done – as I believe nothing that he has thought – with which I have not been cognisant. I feel sure that he never had an impure fancy in his mind, or a faulty wish in his heart. His tenderness has surpassed the tenderness of woman; and yet, when occassion came for showing it, he had all the spirit of a hero…The fact is, he was never wrong. He couldn’t go wrong. He lacked guile, and he feared God – and a man who does both will never go far astray. I don’t think he coveted aught in his life – except a new case for his violincello and somebody to listen to him when he played it.”

I cried less for Mr Harding – so certain that he is going to his reward – than for the archdeacon. They never truly understood one another but they were family, friends and allies for so many years. My dear archdeacon will miss him.

In the end, this was not my favourite Barsetshire book; The Small House at Allington retains that honour. A dull romance and over-long plot about the stolen cheque detracted from the really excellent elements: the return of Lily Dale and Johnny Eames, the archdeacon’s emotional outbursts over any number of things, and the beautifully touching depiction of Mr Harding’s final days. Yes, not the best book in the series but still a wonderful conclusion to an absolutely absorbing saga.

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Happy Boxing Day

P1100625 (600x800)Happy Boxing Day everyone!  I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and are enjoying a suitably lazy aftermath.  We do our celebrating on Christmas Eve, which was lovely, and had a very low key Christmas Day.  We ate Christmas cookies for breakfast, went on a beautiful long walk, and then made Indian food for dinner.  I finally finished reading Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans (nowhere near as good as her recent novel, Crooked Heart) and, with no work until Tuesday, am looking forward to lots more reading between now and then.  And maybe, just maybe, even finding the time to write a book review or two.

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The Song CollectorThere is something so satisfying about following an author as they mature.  Reading their early, promising but not-quite-sufficiently-polished efforts can be both exciting and frustrating – exciting when you think the author is going to carry it all off beautifully, frustrating when she doesn’t.  Until finally, after two books or twelve, the author finally does it.  She comes forth with a book that is everything you knew she was capable of.  Reading it brings not just the joy of a wonderful book but the delight of seeing a promising author mature.

That was how I felt about Natasha Solomons‘ newest novel, The Song Collector.  It is her fourth novel (I read the first two – Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English and The Novel in the Viola – with some enthusiasm but could not make it through her third) and it is everything I had hoped she might be capable of.

Following the death of his wife, the English composer Harry Fox-Talbot has no interest in working – or in anything else.  He floats through his days, unable to listen to music or compose.  Music, the force that had sustained him for so many years, the mutual passion which had bound him and his wife, a renowned singer, together, is something he cannot yet face.  Instead, he waits.  For the return of the wife who he rationally knows is gone.  Or perhaps for his own death, even though the doctors assure him he is in perfect health:

‘You’re not ill, Mr Fox-Talbot.  You’re sad.’

I’d inhaled sharply, affronted.  Sad was the wrong word.  Sad was watching an old weepie when it was raining outside or taking down the Christmas tree on the first day of January or listening to the last concert of the season knowing that afterwards all the musicians would depart and the house would be much too quiet.  I’d wanted to rise to my feet and inform the young doctor that I took offence at his most inappropriate use of language but for some reason my legs wouldn’t move, and my tongue was dry and fat, and it stuck to the roof of my mouth.

All I’d managed was, ‘This wasn’t the plan.  Women live longer than men.  Everyone knows that.  This wasn’t the plan at all.’

Then there is a revelation: his grandson, a troublesome four year old, is a musical prodigy.  As he carefully nurtures his grandson’s talents, Fox slowly reignites his own musical passion and reengages with his life-long friends in the musical world, also facing the daily griefs – large and small – that come with aging.

Juxtaposed to this is the story of Fox’s early adulthood, starting in 1946 as he returns to his family home (requisitioned during the war) with his father and two elder brothers.  At both ages, we see him discovering and growing his love of music and dealing with his love for the beautiful, reserved singer Edie Rose, first as an admirer and later as her widower.  It’s a beautiful structure that Solomons handles with delicacy and thoughtfulness.

At any age, Harry Fox-Talbot is an intensely appealing character.  All of his insecurities, his dreams, and his fears are exposed to us.  Perhaps because of that, he seems almost fragile.  The other characters are merely background, but that is perfectly alright.  Who would want to leave Fox, even for a second?  Not I.

I was deeply touched by this book.  With its quiet steady pace and lyrical writing it had the power to sweep me out of my daily life and into Fox’s world.  His friends, his family, and his music were are the forefront of my mind whenever I had to put the book down (work just keeps getting in the way of reading) and it felt like returning to a friend each time I picked the book up to read a few more chapters.  That feeling is so rare and I cherish it.

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A Reader’s Weekend

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A winter morning on the Fraser

Christmas at my house is and has always been a low-key affair. Even more so now that there are no children involved. So with shopping done, decorations up, and baking largely complete (more may or may not be done) I was free to enjoy a completely relaxing weekend – which, given the harried masses I’ve seen rushing around town this weekend, does not seem to be the norm.

I had a vacation day remaining for the year so, since my colleagues with children will be taking time off over the next couple of weeks, I took Friday off and made a long weekend of it. Nothing is nicer than a random long weekend when other people are working. On Friday, I ran errands (thrilling stuff), went for a walk in the woods, and saw the new Star Wars movie (meh).  But the best part of a long weekend is that when Saturday comes around you realise you have an entire weekend remaining.  Joy!

I made the most of my weekend by reading most of Saturday afternoon and evening.  It has been so long since I’ve been able to read uninterrupted for any stretch of time.  I finished Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans (marvellous), read all of History’s People by Margaret MacMillan (wonderful – the perfect holiday gift for any history fiend on your list), and started Their Finest Hour and a Half, also by Lissa Evans.  I also read the newest edition of Slightly Foxed cover-to-cover; the wonderfully eclectic essays always leave me with a warm, cosy feeling that all is right in the bookish world (and always add countless titles to my library list).

20151220_113935Slightly Foxed has been much on my mind recently: I renewed my subscription for another two years and, as a reward for finishing my recent exam, placed a (for me) large book order.  I bought:

Corduroy by Adrian Bell

Country Boy by Richard Hillyer

Portrait of Elmbury by John Moore

The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg (already a favourite)

Marrying Out by Harold Carlton

Silver Ley by Adrian Bell

They’ve just arrived and are so beautiful.  My only worry now is which to read first.

Off to a baroque Christmas concert now but have every intention of returning to my books this evening.  A very social week lies ahead of me – not to mention three and a half days of work – so best to get as much reading in today as I can!

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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.

Library Loot 1

Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virginia Nicholson – subtitled “the story of women in the 1950s”, I’m intrigued to see what Nicholson makes of this bizarrely regressive decade.

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson – a collection of essays that offers “an impassioned critique of our contemporary society while arguing that reverence must be given to who we are and what we are.”

Confessions of a Tinderella by Rosy Edwards – self-explanatory, surely.

Library Loot 2

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming – I’ve checked this out once or twice before but not had the chance to read it.  It seems to be universally praised and I was happy to see it won the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography prize recently.

Man in Profile by Thomas Kunkel – this biography of Joseph Mitchell sounds so good.  Sometimes it’s the biographies of people you know the least about that are the most interesting to read.

The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat – a 1951 novel following the experiences of a group of British sailors through the Second World War.

What did you pick up this week?

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Library Lust

credit: Paul Massey

credit: Paul Massey

A secret door concealed in a bookshelf! All of my childhood dreams come true.

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Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary

Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary

Maria Theresa by Edward Crankshaw is proving delightful in so many ways, not the least of which is reinforcing all of my deeply cherished stereotypes of Hungarians. If there is one thing Czech people love, it is maligning Hungarians.  Hungarians, my Czech family assured me growing up, are deeply self-absorbed, extravagantly romantic, and prone to depression.  They are beautiful and almost morbidly fascinating but not to be encouraged (or married).  Edward Crankshaw and Maria Theresa agreed, which is why I’ve been chortling away (there is no more graceful way to describe it, I’m afraid) as I read about young Maria Theresa’s canny exploitation of these national traits to turn the Hungarians to her cause:

In this moment of fearful crisis Maria Theresa did not lose her nerve.  With no help from anyone at all she conceived a new idea.  She was determined to keep Hungary, but keeping Hungary would be worse than useless unless she could harness the Hungarians to her cause.  She decided that if the stubborn Magyars could not be coerced they must be wooed.  She would present herself to them as a woman in distress, appealing directly to the chivalry which was still a real element in their make up…

A beautiful woman in distress? A chance to win glory for themselves?  What Hungarian could resist?

Later, in reviewing the impressive history of the Esterházy family, Crankshaw finds a man who epitomizes all the national traits I’ve been warned about since birth:

The last Esterházy to achieve international renown was imperial minister for Foreign Affairs under Francis Joseph at the time of Austro-Prussian war, a gentle, elegant, sceptical, questioning man with a keen intellect and far too much sensibility.  He could charm anybody into accepting his lead, argue anybody into accepting his view; but he was so conscious of the deep complexities of life that he did not want to lead and could never for long sustain a view: he was enchanted by all views.  In the end he went melancholy-mad and died in an asylum.

Oh Hungarians…

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Library Lust

Source: Laura Ashley

Source: Laura Ashley

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