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Archive for October, 2018

Fifty Years Ago Today…

Happy Czechs in 1963

Yesterday was an important anniversary but today is an even more important one for me personally.  Fifty years ago today, my mother began her journey to Canada.

It began with a small journey, but my grandmother was distracted and terrified.  Her country, which had been so wonderful in her youth, had been occupied for the second time in her life.  Instead of Germans, Russians had now rolled into the streets of Prague.  Everything she had hoped and planned for her life had come to nothing.  But she had two daughters and she wanted better for them – and for herself.

She was a forty-seven-year old widow who had spent a few months taking English lessons, trying to recall a language she’d learned thirty years before and never had need to use.  She and her twenty-year old daughter were breaking the law – not just by leaving but by “kidnapping” a minor (my mother).  She had the visas for Canada, and a letter for the Czechoslovak border guards about going there to attend her brother’s wedding, and a lot of nerve.  With one suitcase a piece (after all, who would flee the country with so few belongings?), they set out.

They were lucky.  The border guards were – even months after the Soviet occupation began – miraculously still Czech and no one asked too many questions.  They made it through to Austria.

Which is when my mother, who had been stewing silently, reminded my grandmother of the one thing she had forgotten that day.

Her youngest daughter’s 14th birthday.

Eventually, she was forgiven.  My mother acknowledged that her birthday probably wasn’t the highest priority of the day – but, mind you, I think this took a while.  Possibly years.  Young teenage girls aren’t known for their emotional generosity, particularly ones who are already distraught about leaving their beloved homeland.

My grandmother felt guilty all her life for that slip, but she shouldn’t have.  She gave my mother a wonderful present that day: a future where she was able to live freely, conquer first school and then the business world based on her own (considerable) merit, travel widely, and dream of a big, bright future.  For all three women, it was a journey with a very happy ending.

But it’s been a good reminder to us all never to forget my mother’s birthday.

Happy Canadians in 1981

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia.  It was the day the Czech and Slovak people gained their independence after hundreds of years of Hapsburg rule, ushering in a new era of democracy, liberalism, and tolerance.  It was a brief era (twenty years later the Nazis invaded) but a glorious one.  And no one epitomised the spirit of the new nation like its first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

Masaryk was 68 years old when he became president.  Born to estate workers in Moravia, he’d followed a long path to the presidency and had been tireless in his quest for reform and freedom.  And he was loved for it.  He served as president for 17 years, until 1935, and in the early years conducted a series of extraordinary interviews with the much-loved author, Karel Čapek.  The result of these interviews – although interview is hardly the right word for it, really it is musings that Čapek was around to capture – were several books that in 1995 were condensed into a single translated volume for English-speakers called simply Talks with T.G. Masaryk by Karel Čapek.  The book is in Masaryk’s voice, which is a wonderful way of getting a sense of the man himself.

The collection has been laid out to follow the chronology of Masaryk’s life, beginning with his childhood in Moravia.  His father was Slovak and his mother a German-speaking Moravian and those were the languages Masaryk grew up speaking.  German was spoken all through school (as was typical throughout Austria-Hungary), making it easy to progress to university in Vienna, but when Masaryk moved to Prague years later to take up a teaching post he was uncomfortably conscious of his poor Czech.

He had fond memories of his parents and somewhat rural upbringing but also acknowledged the limitations of such a life:

A boy in an out-of-the-way village has few living examples of anything beyond his circle of farmers and artisans: the teacher, the chaplain and dean, the owners of the estate and their servants, and a merchant perhaps.  What a boy becomes is determined not so much by his gifts as by the opportunities closest at hand.

A passion for helping young people runs throughout the interviews.  Masaryk had founded a social democracy that firmly believed in helping people make the most of themselves.  He thought about education and infrastructure and, constantly, health.  He believed deeply that the nation’s systems and institutions had to be crafted in a way that benefited the people.  They are ideas that sound very familiar to political discussions going on in certain supposedly developed countries even today:

…take health.  I can’t understand why we’ve thought so little about playgrounds, swimming pools, and parks for children.  The poorer the district, the more such facilities are needed: poor districts have more children.  With the proper watering we can have the same grassy playgrounds as England.  Here again it’s a question of money, yet putting money into children is the best investment there is.

But perhaps his most modern-seeming views were on the equality of the sexes.  Masaryk was an unapologetic feminist.  He was devoted to his American wife, Charlotte, and took her maiden name (Garrigue) as part of his.  Guided by logic and reason as always, he could see no reason to treat women differently than men:

How can people ask, I wonder, whether woman is man’s equal?  How can the mother who bears a child not be equal to the father?  And if a man truly loves, how can he love someone beneath him?  I see no difference between the endowments of men and women…

He believed firmly in marriage but was progressive as well, recognizing that divorce had its place in the society he envisioned:

The greatest argument for monogamy is love.  True love – love without reservation, the love of one whole being for another – does not pass with the passing years or even death.  One man and one woman for life, fidelity till death – that is how I see it.  Happy is the man or woman who has lived a rigorously monogamous life.  Yes, I am for divorce; I am for divorce because I want marriage to be love and not commerce or convention, not a senseless or thoughtless union.

Always a modest man, Masaryk believed in simple living.  His dictates in aid of this occur throughout the book and make clear that he probably wasn’t a huge amount of fun on a Friday night.  He gave up even modest drinking at 50, did not smoke, ate simply and sparingly (his details his menu at one point), and was devoted to his daily exercise regime (Sokol exercises and horseback riding).  When living in exile in London, he lived cheaply and would travel by bus to meetings with government officials and world leaders and then dine at a Lyons café, where he appreciated that you could “get a decent meal for ten or fifteen pence.”

In the end, his prescription for a long life was simple:

It shouldn’t be a feat to live to a hundred, but no tricks or gimmicks will get us there, that’s for sure.  Fresh air and sunshine; moderate food and drink; a moral life and a job involving muscles, heart, and brain; people to care for and a goal to strive for – that’s the macrobiotic recipe of success.  Oh, and a keen interest in life, because an interest in life is tantamount to life itself, and without it and without love, life ceases to exist.

Reading these passages felt eerie, in a way.  It was like hearing my great-grandfather speak, a man whose edicts for how to live were passed down from his children to their children to their children and now they are being passed again to the newest generation.  It is no surprise that he was a huge fan of Masaryk.

But, helpful as such guidance is, health tips are not what made Masaryk so beloved.  As staunch as he was in his personal habits, he was stauncher still in his beliefs.  His devotion to democracy was absolute and he was that rare man who did not change with power, whose beliefs held strong and fast for decades and guided first him and then an entire nation forward.  It was something he was rightly very proud of:

Should I be asked what I consider the high point of my life I would not say it was being elected president…It comes from having relinquished nothing as head of state that I believed in and loved as a penniless student, a teacher of youth, a nagging critic, and a political reformer, from having found no need in my position of power for any moral law or relationship to my fellow man, my nation, and the world but those which guided me before…I have not had to change one item of my faith in humanity and democracy, in my search for truth, or in my reliance on the supreme moral and religious commandment to “love they neighbour.”

My great-grandmother’s proudest story was of how Masaryk, whose estate shared a wall with her garden, used to ride past on his morning constitutional and admire her roses.  The roses were already the pride of her life (her four children were modestly appreciated, too) but to have the great man stop and tell her of their beauty made both them and him even more precious to her.  He was that sort of man – he appreciated small things and was thoughtful enough to show that appreciation.

Masaryk served as president until 1935 and died two years later at the age of 87.  He left behind a robust democracy with a thriving economy.  Thank god he did not live to see what came next.  Would things have been different if “the Grand Old Man of Europe” had survived a few years more?  Would Czechoslovakia’s allies have been so quick to desert them in 1938 if he had been there?  Who knows.

Masaryk believed in human progress and that “The future is with us now.  If we choose the best of what we have now, we’ll be on the right road; we’ll have extended our lives with a piece of the future.”  He was an extraordinary politician and statesman then and, sadly, is no less extraordinary today.  He is a reminder of what we all can and should be.  And, thankfully, he has not yet been forgotten.  In fact, a film has just been released dramatizing these conversations between Masaryk and Čapek.  It seems unlikely to make its way into the English-speaking world but one can hope.

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

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For anyone already thinking about their Christmas shopping (or their own Christmas wishlist), may I direct you to Slightly Foxed?  On December 1st they are issuing two very wonderful childhood memoirs from the illustrator E.H. Shepard: Drawn from Memory and Drawn from Life.

Shepard, best known for his classic illustrations for A.A. Milne’s children’s books and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, grew up in a close-knit middle class family in Victorian London.  Drawn from Memory looks fondly back at the year he was seven while Drawn from Life covers a much longer period, picking up later on in Shepard’s youth and following him through the end of childhood, into art school, and right up until his marriage.  Both books are lovingly told, beautifully illustrated, and unexpectedly moving.  I love them dearly.

I read both books back in 2014 and lamented at the time that they were out of print, saying of Drawn from Memory that “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.”  I’m delighted they thought so, too!  I can’t wait to add these to my beloved collection of Slightly Foxed editions.

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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.

Lots of inter-library loans for me this week, including:

Bond Street Story by Norman Collins – I’ve known for years that I would enjoy Collins’ work and the reality is just as good as promised.  I am in the middle of this story of a London department store and its staff and enjoying every page.

Come Be My Guest by Elizabeth Cadell – Cadell is embarrassingly undemanding on her readers but I enjoy her light tales with their sun-soaked settings.

The Sun in Scorpio by Margery Sharp – I’ve read a few Margery Sharp books this year and loved them all (The Flowering Thorn, Four Gardens, and Something Light, which I’ve not yet reviewed).  This sounds like it will be just as good, based on Sharp expert Barb’s review.  

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively – One of the last books off my 2017 “The Ones That Got Away” list, I am so excited to read this part memoir-part exploration of literary gardens by one of my favourite authors.

Three Plays by A.A. Milne –  What three you may ask?  The Dover Road, The Truth About Blayds, and The Great Broxopp.  I’ve read (and loved) one and am looking forward to the other two to fill years for A Century of Books.

Bella Figura by Kamin Mohammadi – A typical – and very enjoyable – memoir about swapping a stress-filled life in London for good living in Italy.

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

via desire to inspire

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The 1944 Club

Simon and Karen are hosting the 1944 club this week and, while I’m not actively reading anything for it, I still wanted to participate.  So, as my small contribution, I thought I’d share some of my past reviews of books from that year.  This includes some of my all-time favourite novels – 1944 was certainly a wonderful year for books!

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham – if my immense enthusiasm for this novel about love and anti-semitism in 1940s Montreal hasn’t already set you reading it, start now.  It’s extraordinarily thoughtful and readily available since Persephone recently reissued it.

The Headmistress by Angela Thirkell – my favourite of Thirkell’s many Barsetshire novels, I love this book for many things but especially its portrait of Mrs Belton.  All her hopes and dreams for her children have been upset by the war and her life is a whirl of anxiety, love, and exhaustion.  Happily, this book has also come back into print since I first wrote about it thanks to Virago.

Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson – aside from a needless and rather bizarre sub-plot involving a spy, this is a lovely novel of a shy young woman growing in confidence after being widowed and moving to a small Scottish town.

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp – my first encounter with Margery Sharp had slightly mixed results but I certainly loved her straightforward and exceedingly funny style of writing.

Pastoral by Nevil Shute – a novel of Bomber Command and urgent romance, this is one of Shute’s best.

Yeoman’s Hospital by Helen Ashton – my least favourite of the bunch, this hospital-set novel is slow moving but interesting for how it reflects some of the social changes brought about by the war.

Happy Friday everyone!  What are you reading for the 1944 club?

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Five years ago in the late and lamented Slightly Foxed bookshop in Gloucester Road, I picked up Rosabelle Shaw by D.E. Stevenson (alongside a handful of other books).  I’d discovered D.E.S. a few years before but had never heard of this title.  I assumed it was obscure for good reason (already recognizing the varied quality of D.E.S.’s output) but for a meager £4 wanted to find out for myself.  So home it came with me only to languish for five years unread until I picked it up this August when I was home sick with a cold.

Unusually for D.E.S., this is a historical piece.  Opening in Edinburgh in the 1890s, we meet vivacious young Fanny who has caught the eye of the steady, determined farmer John Shaw.  The two are soon wed and Fanny finds herself living on John’s well-managed farm in East Lothian, unsure how to handle both rural life and marriage.  So far familiar stuff for fans of D.E.S.  Fanny is sweet and charming and finds a friend in the old local doctor and amusing – but useful – guidance in an old book.  The marriage is off to happy start and a daughter, Rosabelle, arrives followed a few years later by a son.

But the Shaw’s calm family life is disrupted by the arrival of a young boy, the only survivor of a mysterious shipwreck.  Saved by John Shaw, Fanny takes the orphaned child into her home and it is not long before the two are closely bonded.  Jay, the boy, grows into a jealous, calculating child and Fanny’s championing of him causes an understandable rift with John.  Her own children try to accept Jay as a sibling and playmate but his moody, brooding ways make it difficult.

The book then jumps forward to the eve of WWI.  Jay, uncharacteristically affable and forging a strong bond with his adopted father, is as dangerous as ever – especially to Rosabelle, who finds herself deeply attracted to him despite knowing how untrustworthy he is.  Meanwhile, her neighbour Tom watches with concern…

D.E.S. is hardly a known for her consistency but this is an unusually uneven novel, with abrupt mood changes and an embarrassingly loose plot with far too many cardboard characters.  And yet, that said, it was the perfect undemanding read for my sick day.  I loved the end of the book, with Rosabelle forging a friendly and loving partnership with Tom, having married him to provide a barrier from the alluring Jay but truly coming to love him.  It is the exact opposite of the highly dramatic scenes with Jay and far more in keeping with D.E.S.’s usual style, which she was still developing in 1937 when this was first published.  She’d only written a handful of books then and hadn’t yet settled into the light romances she would do so capably for the next three decades.  She still had a bit of melodrama left to get out of her system – Rochester’s Wife was published in 1940 – but it’s clear her lighter side was trying to break through while writing this.  The result is messy but a very interesting read for any D.E.S. fan.

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I try to be a broadminded reader.  I like to try new authors, read topics I know nothing about, and sample different genres.  But the one genre I’ve never been able to take much interest in is crime. This could be because a) I have no idea what distinguishes crime novels from mysteries so am happy to lump them both together under the heading of “Things I Do Not Much Like” and b) I have absolutely no appetite for anything violent.   I don’t find it difficult to read, I just don’t see the point.  My desire for cliffhangers and uncertainty is nil.  So, while I’ve admired the stylish British Library Crime Classics that have been released over the last few years, I’ve never felt tempted to pick one up.  Never, that is, until I heard about Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville.

So what made this one different?  The premise sounded mildly interesting – a young man, our hero Jim Henderson, is invited to a house party hosted by Mr. Carson, a mysterious and decidedly shady jewel expert.  But Jim doesn’t know the host and he and the other guests have nothing in common.  Why are they there and what is in store for them?  When I do dabble in the genre, I enjoy a good country house mystery so the omens seemed good.  But what was even more promising was the book’s introduction, which stresses Melville’s admiration of A.A. Milne’s work, particularly The Red House Mystery, and the strong influence of Milne’s style on this work.  After that, I had to read it. (And I also had to muse about Melville’s chosen penname.  Did he chose Alan in homage to Alan Milne?)

The story was published in 1934, when Melville was in his mid-twenties.  His hero, Jim Henderson, feels about that age but is actually a decade older and, after having served in the war, has spent several years struggling to find work.  When we meet him, he is unemployed but optimistic despite his lack of marketable skills, as noted in his frank self-assessment:

Pleasant and extremely good-looking young man, aged thirty-four, possessing no talents or accomplishments beyond being able to give an imitation of Gracie Fields giving an imitation of Galli-Curci, with no relations and practically no money, seeks job

Though lacking in resources, Jim possesses that which is most important for the hero of any sort of mystery/thriller: an entertaining side-kick, in this case his old school friend, Freddie Usher.  Freddie is a well-heeled chap, in possession of a sporty car, family heirlooms, and a great deal of leisure time.  But his main value to us is as someone for Jim to exchange Milne-esque dialogue with, as when Jim asks for the loan of Freddie’s evening clothes:

“Sorry, old man.  It’s impossible.”

“But, Freddie…”

“Impossible.  Quite imposs.”

“Remember we were at school together.”

“Which merely shows a lack of discretion on the part of my parents, and has nothing whatever to do with the present question.”

Freddie, like all of Carson’s guests except the penniless and decidedly jewel-less Jim, is encouraged to bring his jewels along with him – in this case, the Usher diamonds.  Not fishy at all.  Alongside the two young men, the party is made up of a varied and mostly forgettable mix of people – the only exceptions being Lady Stone, a redoubtable doyen of charitable causes, and Carson’s lovely daughter Mary.  And lurking in the background are Carson’s household staff, bruisers all of them.  The weekend promises to be interesting.

And it is, mildly.  I had fun reading this – the effortless pacing and snappy dialogue made it a quick read.  But the plot itself is rather silly and a bit all over the place and the ending is marred by an overly dramatic reveal that serves no value at all.  All in all, a pleasant but unmemorable foray into the unknown.  It hasn’t made me one jot more interested in crime or mystery books but that would have been too much to expect from such a slight book.

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 CMP

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