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Archive for April, 2018

Washing on the Line by Percy Harland Fisher

It’s a drizzly spring day here, making it perfect for getting all the indoors tasks that I’ve been avoiding while the weather has been fine off my checklist.  I’ve baked, done laundry, tidied up, and now with the house ready to tick along for another week I’ve turned to online things.  I managed to update my travel blog (with a piece about a Czech spa town I visited last autumn, if you’re interested) and, finally, I sat down and caught up with my reviews for A Century of Books.

Part of what I love about A Century of Books is the variety of things you get to read for it.  The actual writing of 100 reviews I love less, which is how we end up with short little notes instead.  Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Literary Lapses by Stephen Leacock (1910) – Leacock is so dependably funny and never more so than in this polished collection of sketches.  They were all so good it was impossible to pick a favourite, though I might lean towards the first two stories: “My Financial Career”, about feeling uncomfortable in banks, and “Lord Oxhead’s Secret”, a melodramatic spoof about a bankrupt earl.  Simon liked it so much it made his list of “50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.”

Mackerel Sky by Helen Ashton (1930) – Definitely one to skip.  This badly done portrait of a very bad marriage between two equally self-absorbed young people was a chore to get through and worth reading only for the insights it gives into women’s working lives (hours, pay, etc) during the 1920s.  Wife Elizabeth spends her days working hard in a dress shop so her husband Gilbert can focus on his writing and so she can feel martyr-like.  As her doctor points out:

“You’ve been bullying that young husband of yours till he can’t call his soul his own, and rubbing it into him all the time how much more efficient you are than he is.  You’ve been trying to do his job as well as your own, and encouraging him to be lazy, and spoiling your own health and nerves and temper in the process.”

The impact of this behaviour on their relationship is predictably awful.  And Gilbert is no better, going off and having an affair right under her nose and expecting to receive no criticism whatsoever about it.  The most hopeful moments are when it seems like their marriage will break up.  Which it doesn’t, frustratingly.

Four Gardens by Margery Sharp (1935) – After a wonderful encounter with Sharp earlier this year (when I read The Flowering Thorn), I was keen to read more by her and Barb, my favourite Sharp expert, recommended this (one of her own favourites).  And it was absolutely lovely, telling the story of Caroline Smith from young adulthood to widowhood traced through the gardens she has made.  It is much quieter and gentler than I’ve come to expect from Sharp but no less excellent for that.  If only it were in print and readily available!

Pistols for Two by Georgette Heyer (1960) – a mildly enjoyable but extraordinarily repetitive collection of short stories from Heyer, featuring far too many people wanting to run off to Gretna Green (it’s mentioned 25 times in less than 200 pages).  It is also sadly short on Heyer’s trademark humour – and Heyer without humour is frankly pointless.  The title story, about two life-long best friends preparing to duel each other over a pointless jealousy, was my favourite in the collection while the rest have quickly faded from memory.  There was a surplus of nineteen-year old heroines with big eyes and bouncing curls so the few exceptions – a debutante’s mother oblivious to her own suitor and a thirty-something spinster chasing after a runaway niece (bound for Gretna, naturally) in the company of her one-time fiancé – stand out.  I’ll keep my copy as part of my larger Heyer collection but it’s clear the short story was not her form.  (FYI, this collection was reissued recently as Snowdrift with three additional stories added to the original collection.)

Something Wholesale by Eric Newby (1962) – after returning from a German POW camp at the end of WWII, Eric Newby was at loose ends when his parents decided he should join the family wholesale clothing business:

“It’s only a temporary measure,” they said, “until you find your feet.”  They had a touching and totally unfounded belief that I was destined for better things.  It was a temporary measure that was to last ten years.

Newby would eventually go on to become a great travel writer – perhaps not quite the “better things” his parents had planned – but learned much during his decade dealing with buyers, models, and others up, down and around the British Isles.  With a great sense of humour and obvious affection he recounts those days in this wonderful and highly enjoyable memoir.

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser (1969) – Such joy!  Such fun!  Such political incorrectness!  I knew from the very first lines that I was going to enjoy this:

Hughes got it wrong, in one important detail.  You will have read, in Tom Brown, how I was expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness, which is true enough, but when Hughes alleges that this was the result of my deliberately pouring beer on top of gin-punch, he is in error.  I knew better than to mix my drinks, even at seventeen.

Taking the villain of Tom Brown’s School Days for his (anti-)hero, Fraser sets about to show “how the Flashman of Tom Brown became the glorious Flashman with four inches in Who’s Who and grew markedly worse in the process…” and does it with great style and an even greater sense of humour.  We follow Flashman from school to the army, which tosses him from Scotland to India to the dangerous Afghan frontier.  His unapologetic selfishness and cowardice bother him not at all and, more often than not, are taken for the reverse by his obtuse comrades.  With quick wits and flexible morals, he not only survives his early adventures in Afghanistan but comes away a hero.  And so the legend and fame of Flashman begins.  His further adventures are chronicled in great detail in 11 further books and I can’t wait to read them.

Judgement Day by Penelope Lively (1980) – A difficult book to review.  On the one hand, this story of people in a small village is beautifully written and full of the clear-sighted observations I love about Lively’s work.  On the other hand, I felt remote from everyone and everything in it.  But I’m not convinced that was a bad thing.  Indeed, it echoed the way the main character views everything, including herself:

She observes herself with a certain cynicism: a woman of thirty-five, handsome in her way, charged with undirected energy, a fatalist and insufficiently charitable.  In another age, she thinks, there would have been a vocation for a woman like me; I could have been a saint, or a prostitute.

Even months after finishing it, I’m still working out my reaction to this one.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Library Lust

credit: Stribling & Associates

I could happily settle into this New York City apartment – though I suspect I might bring along a bucket of paint and a brush.  That pink-ish colour is not for me.

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You know what book you probably didn’t realise you needed in your life?  An ungossipy, undramatic collection of musings from an octogenarian movie star, that’s what.  And, more specifically, one with excellent tastes in books.  Does such a thing even exist?  Thankfully, it does in the form of A Positively Final Appearance by Alec Guinness.

Published in 1999 and covering the period from 1996 to 1998, this was Guinness’ third collection of his diaries but the first I’ve read.  And how happy I am that I did!  Guinness is never an actor I’ve been particularly interested in, despite him being the star of my very favourite film, The Bridge on the River Kwai.  I’ve seen much of his work – he stared in David Lean’s most iconic films, before, of course, taking on the two roles he is best remembered for: Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars and George Smiley in the television adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – without ever feeling much interest in him personally.  Which, I get the impression reading this, is very much as he would have liked it.  But then Michael Dirda mentioned this in Browsings (which is the book that keeps on giving thanks to all the wonderful recommendations I got from it) and I had to give it a try.

The book is focused on Guinness’ observations as he moves through the years.  It is not a celebrity memoir where the focus is anecdotes about the famous and infamous (go to David Niven if that’s what you’re looking for); instead, we hear mostly about Guinness’ family (wife, son, grandchildren, and great-grandchild), his thoughts on current events (the 1997 election and Princess Diana’s death are both remarked on), and, best of all, his reading.  Because it turns out that Guinness was a reader and a proper one who formed attachments to authors, read widely and eclectically, and, if he had still be around by the time it was published, would almost certainly have loved Slightly Foxed and probably wanted to write for it.

And what does he read?  He loves Shakespeare, suitable enough for an actor who got his start on the stage, and has a particular fondness for Trollope, calling him “the most English of great Englishmen” and admiring his ability to capture men and women as they are and always will be in his books:

The pleasure lies in recognizing, today, habits which were to be found among us a hundred and twenty years ago however much the mores and manners have changed; and a hundred years before that, and before that as well.  The sense of continuity, going both backwards and forwards, I find entirely rewarding.

From there his reading wanders.  He mentions James Lee-Milne’s diaries, Dickens, Patrick O’Brien, Iris Origo, Henry James, and, much to my delight, From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple – the book I’d bought just before I started reading this.  I always take it as a good sign when my reading aligns like that.

Unlike the average aged celebrity diary, Guinness focuses on his life at the time, not on past glories.  He relishes visits from his family and close friends, and enjoys spending time with his wife, Merula.  I particularly loved hearing how he commemorated their 60th wedding anniversary: rather than buying jewellery, he bought his wife a painting and masses of gardenias, the flower he used to bring her every Friday evening when they were engaged.

I also, it must be said, loved hearing his views on the 1997 election, which feel especially poignant these days:

If only one party had a bold, enthusiastic pro-European line I would be genuinely behind it.  Without Europe I have a gut feeling we are lost.

But every life involves reminiscing too and Guinness chooses anecdotes from his career wisely.  I enjoyed this one from an ill-fated run as Romeo in 1939:

The first night was memorable.  I lept the garden wall for the balcony scene – ‘He jests at scars that never felt a wound’ – whereupon the wall fell flat.  With professional sang-froid I ignored the whole thing and struck a romantic pose of extreme yearning.

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east and Juliet is the sun.

At which moment the balcony fell off, to reveal, gasping with astonishment, Miss Stanley in her nightie.  Another foot forward and she would have tumbled to her eternal rest.  The curtain was lowered.  After ten minutes of hammering we started again, to tumultuous applause.  The audience was thoroughly enjoying the mishaps, as they always do, but they also wanted, I think, to show their admiration for Miss Stanley not succumbing to the vapours.

But the most horrifyingly memorable story comes not from the world of stage or film but from a society party where he was seated with Cyril Connolly, Frederick Ashton, Hugh Trevor-Roper, a young Princess Margaret, and an intoxicated and uninhibited Lady Diana Cooper:

‘Can’t go out unless I take a little fortification,’ [Lady Diana] said to me.  ‘Too nervous.  Stage fright.  Tonight I fortified myself twice, which was foolish.’

She eyed her fellow diners.  ‘Who’s that little man?’ she asked me in a loud whisper.

‘Cyril Connolly.’

‘I can’t bear him,’ she said, full voice, and picked up a roll and flung it at him.  It was a good shot and struck him on the forehead.  Connolly flushed but otherwise didn’t react.

Not quite the polished society matron that evening!  I can’t imagine what that would have been like to witness.  It does remind me that I want to read Lady Diana’s memoirs though (all three volumes of which – The Rainbow Comes and Goes, The Light of Common Day, and Trumpets from the Steep – are being reissued next month by Vintage).

In the end, I was left with the impression of Guinness as a kind, thoughtful person, a loving friend and husband, and an interested reader.  And that is the kind of epitaph we should all aim for.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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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.

People!  How are you?  I went a full week without reading even a single page of a book and it was very, very weird.  This is what happens when a) you are learning a new job, b) you are sick, c) the weather finally turns nice after months of rain, and d) you combine a+b+c.  But my cold is gone, I’m settled at work, and we have so much sunshine in the forecast that I shall quickly learn to take it for granted.  Bring on the books!

The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer – one of the highlights of my new job is its proximity to a huge bookstore.  On rainy days (of which there have been many this year) I can duck in there and read during my lunch break.  It was on one of those rainy days that I came across this novel about a time-travelling neurosurgeon.  The start was promising and my love of Siena was enough to convince me that I wanted to keep reading (just not enough to buy it – thank you library!).

Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich – Alexievich’s extraordinary oral history of Soviet women’s experiences during WWII (The Unwomanly Face of War) will undoubtedly make it onto my Best of 2018 list.  But it’s also inspired me to try more of her work, like this oral history of the war in Afghanistan.

The English Wife by Lauren Willig – I’ve enjoyed some of Willig’s books in the past so automatically placed a hold on this when I heard it was coming out.  But now that it’s here I’m a bit worried it’s too gothic for me (to be fair, my tolerance for all things gothic is extraordinarily low).  We shall see!

Summer Hours at the Robbers Library by Sue Halpern – did I know anything about this book when I placed a hold on it?  Nope.  Marketing departments take note: all I require in order to be intrigued by a book is the mention of a library.  That’s how easy it is.  Now that I’ve actually learned what the book is about, I’m even more intrigued.

Dancing Bears by Witold Szabłowski – NPR had an interesting interview with Szabłowski that got me interested in this account of people struggling to adjust to life after communism.

Emma Ever After by Brigid Coady – ever the optimist, I will always try anything Austen-related.  Particularly, as in this case, when it’s a modern retelling of Emma.  My favourite Austen book is the hardest to retell so my expectations are low.

Istanbul & Beyond by Robyn Eckhardt – a beautifully photographed collection of recipes from across Turkey.

Curries and Bugles by Jennifer Brennan – I read about this in More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin back in 2016 and, with my love of all things Raj-related, have been trying to find a copy ever since. Thanks to the inter-library loan system, I’ve finally got my hands on it.

Queen Bees by Siân Evans – to meet my never-sated appetite for inter-war gossip, I picked up this profile of six London society hostesses.

What did you pick up this week?

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Library Lust

credit: Studio Padron

Wanting to escape to a cabin in the woods but still have plenty to read? Look no further.

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Library Lust

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Prefer something forbiddingly dark and traditional?  (I don’t)

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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.

Predictably, I am not getting a lot of reading done right now.  Starting a new job is tiring (but wonderful in every other way, I’m happy to say) plus I’m on day 10 of the head cold that will not die.  However, the shock of the new at work is slowly wearing off, my cold will presumably end at some point, and when it does I have some really wonderful books to dive into.  And even in my current pathetic state some of these are very good invalid reads: poetry and short comic essays in particular are just right for the evenings when my attention span is non-existent.

Where the Wild Winds Are by Nick Hunt – I love books about walking and I loved Hunt’s first book (about retracing Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps across Europe) so am absolutely delighted to finally have my hands on his newest book.  Here he chooses to follow very unique routes, following four winds across Europe.

Women & Power by Mary Beard – who better to write a manifesto about the historical relationship between women and power than Beard, noted classicist, public intellectual, and victim of absolutely absurd amounts of misogyny?

Turning by Jessica J. Lee – A memoir of the year Lee spent swimming in lakes in and around Berlin after a difficult time in her life, I spotted this in the bookstore just before I left for Europe last summer and have been longing to read it ever since.  Germany?  Swimming?  Written by a Canadian(/British/Chinese) author?  There are too many irresistible elements for me to ignore.  Coincidentally, Virago just released a beautiful paperback edition last week.

A Treasury of Stephen Leacock – You know what’s even more fun than one Stephen Leacock book?  Three books all in one collection.  My interest is in the first (Literary Lapses) and third (Winnowed Wisdom) since, as a good Canadian, I am more than familiar with the middle book (Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town – Leacock’s most famous work by far).

Educated by Tara Westover – I am fascinated to read this much-talked-about new memoir about Westover’s quest for education (and multiple degrees from world-renowned universities) after an isolated childhood with her survivalist family kept her out of the classroom until she was seventeen.

The Five Nations by Rudyard Kipling – One of my favourite things about A Century of Books is that it pushes me to pick up things I wouldn’t usually, like this poetry collection.  To be fair though, I don’t need ACOB to encourage me to read Kipling – just poetry.

What did you pick up this week?

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Library Lust

credit: Architectural Digest

A calm oasis with Penguin Classics galore.

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Young Boy Reading by Henri Lebasque

Reading through Packing My Library by Alberto Manguel, there were almost endless quotes I wanted to write down and share with you.  Some I’m saving for my review but others, like this, demanded to be shared immediately.  I love Manguel’s description of his school library as a place without order, rich for exploration and exciting discoveries.  That is what every school library should feel like to a child.

My earliest public library was that of Saint Andrews Scots School, one of the several elementary schools I attended in Buenos Aires before the age of twelve.  It had been founded as a bilingual school in 1838 and was the oldest school of British origin in South America.  The library, though small, was for me a rich, adventurous place.  I felt like a Rider Haggard explorer in the dark forest of stacks that had a earthy smell in summer and reeked of damp wood in winter.  I would go to the library mainly to put my name on the list for the new Hardy Boys installment or a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories.  That school library, as far as I was aware, didn’t have a rigorous order: I would find books on dinosaurs next to several copies of Black Beauty, and war adventures coupled with biographies of English poets.  This flock of books, gathered with no other purpose (it seemed) than to offer the students a generous variety, suited my temperament: I didn’t want a strict guided tour, I wanted the freedom of the city, like that honor (we learned in history class) that mayors bestowed in the Middle Ages on foreign visitors.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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I finished reading The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam yesterday and it was perfect, as I have come to expect from her.  It was fluently, imaginatively written, full of haunting images and details I will not soon forget.  But there is one thing it is not: a children’s book.  And yet that is how it is marketed.

At its heart, there are two children (but child characters alone do not make a children’s book).  Bell Teesdale is eight when the book begins, a sensible country boy who, like the rest of his family, is pitching in with the haymaking on their Cumbrian farm.  Rain is expected so the family works through the day and into the moonlit night, to the despair of the London family renting the farmhouse next to the field.  A tractor circling outside their windows at midnight is not their idea of a relaxing summer holiday.  Tempers flare, words are exchanged, and both fathers are fuming by the time they go to bed.  But Harry, the London family’s very young son, and Bell subtly intervene and peace is made the next morning.

So begins the story of twenty years of friendship between the Teesdales and the Batemans, and most especially between Bell and Harry.  The entire Bateman family comes to love their country getaway, where Harry’s writer father comes to work during the school holidays, but Harry feels a particular bond with the place and is never happier than when exploring the fields, dales, and fells or communing with locals, like the egg-witch (whose story is one of my favourites) or the local chimney sweep.

Gardam is a master of the short story and while I always enjoy reading her stories, I sometimes feel frustrated by their brevity.  I want more!  Here, we have the perfect compromise: a collection of exquisitely composed stories all focused on the same people.  It’s not quite a novel – the stories jump about through the years and Gardam has no interest in explaining things the way she would do in a novel – but the satisfaction of getting to see lives progress and learn how things turn out for everyone as they age is absolutely here.

So why is it considered a children’s book?  A number of her early books are (this was published in 1981, relatively early in her career), but then again that classification seems to vary by publisher.  Some consider Bilgewater, A Long Way From Verona, and The Summer After the Funeral to be for younger readers, which I can somewhat understand.  Europa, who have been reissuing Gardam’s books over the past few years, consider those novels to be for adults and yet this collection they consider among her works for children.  I think that is stretching it.  It’s not inappropriate in anyway for a younger reader, it’s just written in a way I would think appeals to more mature readers.  A twelve-year old would be absolutely fine with it, but then twelve-year olds should be reading adult books and not children’s ones anyway.  The language, the sedate pacing, the frequent focus on adult concerns and thoughts, all seem to me to gear more towards an adult reader.  And Bell and Harry’s boyish activities seem perfectly tailored to the nostalgic adult reader who would like nothing more than to spend a summer day exploring abandoned mines or a winter’s one admiring extraordinarily icicles formed by a fierce, fast frost.

Regardless of your age, it’s a wonderful collection and, like Harry, I didn’t want my time there to end.

NOTE: Europa, despite their interesting classification of adult/children’s novels, having been doing great work reissuing Gardam’s older titles over the past few years.  The Hollow Land, Bilgewater, A Long Way From Verona, and a number of her other books are all currently available in excellent editions and all are well-worth reading.  She is a truly extraordinary writer.  And if you need more encouragement to get excited about Gardam, the Backlisted podcast did a wonderful episode on A Long Way From Verona that is well-worth a listen.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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