Archive for the ‘A.P. Herbert’ Category

Another year done and another list of excellent books to share.  2022 was a wonderful year for me: I returned to Europe after a three year break, my work situation stabilized, and our family grew in as my brother and his wife welcomed another daughter in November.  (For those keeping track, yes, that is four kids in just under five years – almost as regular as these annual lists!)  And I have had so much fun planning what I’m going to do in 2023, which I’ll talk about more in the coming weeks.

My reading continues its shift towards newer books (mainly due to Covid-related delays/closures that impact the inter-library loan system), though other trends remain similar to past years: an average showing for male authors and a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction.  Delightfully, I have my best ever performance by Canadian authors: four of this year’s books are by Canadians.  Here are my ten favourites for the year, ruthlessly ranked as usual:

10. Are We Having Fun Yet? (2021) by Lucy Mangan
I have enjoyed Mangan’s writing for years but this Provincial Lady-inspired diary of modern middle-class middle age had me weeping with laughter so intense it was almost silent.  Anxious Liz’s attempts to corral her two wildly different children, avoid smothering her affectionate but oblivious barrister husband, and manage her work life are exactly the legacy that E.M. Delafield deserves.

9. The Trials of Topsy (1928) by A.P. Herbert
Being introduced to the enthusiastic (if rather illiterate) Lady Topsy Trout was a clear highlight of 2022.  Originally published in Punch, the adventures of the young socialite are recounted faithfully in letters to her friend Trix as Topsy embraces Bohemia, the poor, journalism, and politics, with various adventures and lovestruck swain to enliven daily life amidst these serious pursuits.  An absolute joy to read.

8. Moon Over the Alps (1960) by Essie Summers
Thankfully, there is no requirement for this list to consist of great literature.  I enjoyed discovering Summer’s New Zealand-set romances in 2021 (the closest I could get to travelling there at the time) and read them even more avidly this year.  Moon Over the Alps is one of her earlier titles and, from my reading so far, one of the best.  It has all the usual elements – a hero and heroine who are clearly kindred spirits and are forced to spend lots of time together in a domestic setting while a misunderstanding keeps them from admitting their feelings, lots of outdoor adventures, and epic amounts of home cooking – and I love it all.

7. Desire (1908) by Una L. Silberrad
I loved this Edwardian novel about a young woman who refuses to depend upon others when she is left without an inheritance after her father’s death and instead reinvents herself as a bookkeeper.  The equality in the romance, where a friendship evolves into both a business partnership and love, was especially satisfying.

6. Memory Speaks (2022) by Julie Sedivy
I have always found language fascinating and this look at how the memory processes multiple language gave me lots to think about.  But what made it so very special is how Sedivy blends memoir with science, considering her own experiences as someone who lost her mother tongue (Czech) and then sought to relearn it in adulthood and, with the language, a greater connection to her heritage.

5. All My Rage (2022) by Sabaa Tahir
This YA novel about two Pakistani-American teens in a dead-end Californian town blew me away when I read it last spring.  Both a tragedy and a love story, Tahir tells the story of two bright best friends eager to move beyond the town where neither feel they belong but constrained by family ties and too little money.

4. The Republic of Love (1992) by Carol Shields
A book that came into my life at exactly the right moment.  I started 2022 with this love story about a radio host and a folklorist whose overlapping friends and colleagues make their eventual meeting inevitable in close-knit Winnipeg.  The joy they find, and the ripples it causes among those close to them, felt so true and plausible.  Most importantly, Shields captures the thoughts of her mid-thirties heroine perfectly.

3. Ducks (2022) by Kate Beaton
This graphic memoir has made many “Best of 2022” lists and with good reason. Beaton’s chronicle of her time working in the oil sands of Northern Alberta is clearly told and quietly devastating. The strange unreality of camp life, where people are far from home, women are rare, and everyone is earning huge salaries with few places to spend them, creates a bizarre culture and Beaton captures this with extraordinary clarity and sympathy, even though these are the conditions that resulted in her own sexual assault.

2. The Naked Don’t Fear the Water (2022) by Matthieu Aikins
After spending years reporting from Afghanistan, journalist Aikins set off in 2016 to travel along the refugee route to Europe with an Afghan friend.  The result is an absorbing and detailed look at the mechanics, economics, and emotions of leaving, as well as a consideration of what it means to be able to pass as Afghan (Aikins is half-Asian) while being able to pull out his Canadian passport if things got too dangerous.

1. We Don’t Know Ourselves (2021) by Fintan O’Toole
I love history books but when history is combined with memoir, it’s an unbeatable combination.  Born in 1958, O’Toole looks at how Ireland has changed over his lifetime and the result is a brilliant and personal look at period of extraordinary political and cultural upheaval.

Previous lists can be found here.

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It is indeed December but, operating as usual on the concept of better late than never, I wanted to share thoughts on some of the books I read in October.  October was dominated by my trip to Europe and my two weeks there hiking in the mountains, wandering through galleries, and eating absolutely delicious food left little time for reading, but I made up for it once I was home.  It was a great reading month and there are a few contenders here for my year-end top ten list:

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson (2004) – a comforting reread of one of Ibbotson’s best children’s books.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell (2022) – there is always excitement around a new release from O’Farrell and this is solid storytelling, but not to the excellent level O’Farrell is capable of.  It is the story of Lucrezia de’ Medici, who became the duchess of Ferrara and died at sixteen – of illness, or was it poison at the hands of her husband?  Lucrezia is a distant personality but the only fully-formed character in the book, which proved challenging for me to engage with the story.  The ending was very frustrating and felt cheap, making for an unsatisfying experience all round.

The Winners by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith (2022) – Powerfully concluding the trilogy which began with Beartown (one of my favourite a few years ago), I fell deep into this book, even dreaming about it, in part because the characters are so well known to me now but mostly because this hockey-mad northern community has always felt so real.  Backman told us in the first book the fates of several characters and it was immensely satisfying, if heartbreaking, to follow them on that journey.

Horizon by Helen MacInnes (1945) – MacInnes’ thriller focuses on a British PoW who, after escaping from his camp, finds himself living in the Dolomites and helping Tyrolean resistance fighters who, despite a common language, feel only hatred for the Germans.  It’s a flimsy plot with shallow characters and usually I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it but MacInnes does a good job of evoking the stunning setting and the fierce sense of a regional identify separate from either Austria or Italy.  Reading it while in the South Tyrol, only a short distance from the plateau where much of the story is set, also added to my enjoyment.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler (1982) – a typically excellent Tyler novel about a Baltimore family, told from the perspectives of various members and tracking them from the children’s youths to middle age.  And, as usual, bleak.  I feel like Tyler has relented a little as she’s aged but I’m not sure that she believed happy families existed when she was younger.

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson (2022) – a new book from Atkinson is always a cause for rejoicing but this exceeded even my expectations.  Set in the 1920s, Atkinson focuses on missing girls, London nightclubs, and the people caught up on both sides of the law.  She turns phrases so easily and artfully that you can’t help but be delighted and knows how to manage a large cast amidst tangled plot threads better than any other modern writer I can think of.  I loved every word of this.

The Trials of Topsy by A.P. Herbert (1928) – a comic joy.  Full review here.

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson (1985) – what better to turn to while jetting home than an old familiar favourite?  For someone who hates airplanes, this was the perfect distraction and comfort.  Here’s a proper review from ten years ago.

The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik (2022) – I was so excited to see how Novik would conclude her “Scholomance” trilogy after loving the first two books, but had to force myself through this.  With graduation now behind her, our heroine El finds herself travelling the globe and Novik loses the world and constraints she built up so well in earlier books set within the school.  Without that tight focus, the story sprawls in every sense of the word, with new characters introduced every few pages as El journeys from one magical community to another.  There are altogether too many dramatic “twists” and, in a series that has always felt mislabelled as adult rather than YA, the entire approach felt geared towards juvenile readers with its neat and bloodless tidying up.  Disappointing.

The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews (2022)Matthews has been a relatively recent discovery for me (thanks to other book bloggers) and I’m loving her gentle historical romances.  This is the second in her “Belles of London” series, which started enjoyably earlier this year with The Siren of Sussex.  I liked that book but I loved this one about a marriage of convenience.  Our heroine Julia, the quiet daughter of demanding invalid parents, and hero Captain Blunt, a veteran of the Crimea who is scandalously raising his bastard children, were introduced in the earlier book and immediately intrigued me but this still managed to exceed my expectations.  The secrets are obvious from the start, so there’s no real Gothic tension (just as I like it), and the story is full of the tenderness Matthews does so well.  If you haven’t tried Matthews yet, her North and South-inspired novella, A Holiday by Gaslight, is perfect seasonal reading.

The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken (2022) – Nancy Pearl put me on to McCracken and I’ve read three of her books this year, impressed each time with her style and readability.  This is autofiction, which is strange to me at the best of times, but if anyone can convert me it is McCracken with her excellent and entertaining writing.  I especially loved this description of her grandmother:

My grandmother was a nonpracticing lawyer, not the first woman to graduate from Benjamin Harrison Law School in Indianapolis but the only one in the class of 1927.  She was president of her sisterhood, traveled as a public speaker, needlepointed, knit, took photographs and developed them, was a small-business consultant, silk-screened tablecloths, once built a table, and still had time to worry too much.  Somewhere there’s a picture of me in a sweater set of such burlappy awfulness, steel wool to the eye as well as the skin, so cunningly unflattering to every proportion of the short, plump 1980s teenager I was, you would have thought it had been designed as a specific punishment, not knit out of love, though she did love me, which is why the photo exists: She wanted me to pose engulfed in proof.

Ducks by Kate Beaton (2022) – a superb graphic memoir about Beaton’s time working in the oilsands of Northern Alberta.  She does a wonderful job of evoking the strangeness of the camps – where everyone is from somewhere else and no one particularly wants to be there – and how it alters people, rarely for the better.  It is a hard place to be a woman and this may be the best account of sexual assault I’ve read.

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry (2022) – such an interesting book to read following Ducks – an unintentional pairing but a very appropriate one.  Perry, who has spent time working in rape crisis centers in the UK, lays out the ways in which women have been disadvantaged by the sexual revolution.  Well-researched, well-argued, and full of common sense, she’s not delivering a particularly new message but one that we clearly need to be reminded of over and over again.  There is an excellent review of it in the Guardian if you want further enticement.

Miss Bishop by Bess Streeter Aldrich (1933) – I don’t think Aldrich can be called neglected but would under-appreciated be the right word?  Her books aren’t very hard to find, A Lantern in Her Hand remains a standard in school libraries, and Miss Bishop was adapted fairly loyally into the film “Cheers for Miss Bishop”, and yet I don’t think she’s as popular as her excellent stories of Midwestern pioneers warrant.  Here, she gives readers a wonderful account of the life of Ella Bishop, from her entry into a brand new midwestern college at the age of sixteen until her retirement from that same school fifty years later.  Aldrich handles all the joy and sadness beautifully, as Ella’s life evolves very differently from what she had envisioned.  As always with Aldrich, the sense of community is excellent.

The Forbidden Valley by Essie Summers (1973) – what a very dramatic title for a quintessential Summers romance.  Our heroine Charlotte is shocked to hear her cousin Phyl has disappeared, leaving her two children without explanation as well as her new husband, who, unbeknownst to her, was injured the day she left and is lying unconscious in hospital.  Charlotte takes up the post of housekeeper to keep an eye on the children and figure out what is actually going on, though she hadn’t accounted for the immediate rapport with Edmund, Phyl’s brother-in-law who rushed home after his brother’s accident and is ill disposed towards the feckless Phyl, whom he has never met.   There are far, far too many secrets – when in doubt of how to create conflict, always add another secret! – but it was still a fun story to pass an afternoon with.

I’ve Got the One-More-Washload Blues by Lynn Johnston (1981) – I came back from vacation to discover the paper has entirely changed the comics section but one happy result is that they have brought back “For Better or For Worse”, which ran for almost thirty years from 1979 to 2008 and chronicled the lives of Elly, Anthony and their children.  This collection took me back to the comic’s early years when the children were young and their parents were losing their minds.

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When one thinks of the literature of the 1920s (as we’ve had cause to do recently thanks to the 1929 Club last week), we think of a world still coming to grips with the devastation of the First World War and the societal upheaval it caused.  We think of escapist mysteries with war-damaged detectives, and bleak memoirs of the Western Front, and women – loudly, angrily – asserting their place in the world.  We do not always think of ditzy debutantes but, joyously, that is what we get in The Trials of Topsy by A.P. Herbert, a collection of satirical pieces from Punch which was first released in 1928.

The dispatches, written with breathless illiteracy by Lady Topsy Trout to her dear friend Trix, record her navigation of London society – and, loathsomely, the country – while her parents eagerly await her selection of a spouse.  Topsy certainly has an active social life but, as we can tell from the opening, her ambitions may not be exactly aligned with her parents’ yet:

Well Trix darling this blistering Season is nearly over and I’m still unblighted in matrimony, isn’t it too merciful, but you ought to see poor Mum’s face, my dear, she’s saturated with the very sight of me poor darling, not that I don’t try…

Young Topsy is sage enough to recognize that an endless whirl of parties and over-the-top extravaganzas, while providing material for her letters to Trix, is no way to live, especially after meeting Mr Haddock (“only I do wish his name wasn’t Albert”) who has no shortage of down-to-earth interests.  He admits to writing a little and soon Topsy too finds herself writing for a paper.  When he takes up campaigning for a seat in Parliament, Topsy becomes a devoted campaigner – and an incredible hit with the proletariat in Mr Haddock’s humble riding.  He even engages her in good works, to her amazement:

Well, Trix, my partridge, I’ve just had the most drastic adventure, well when I tell you that Mr Haddock used to do good works at some settlement oasis or something in the East End and every now and then a sort of nostalgia  for Whitechapel comes over him or else it’s a craving for goodness or something, so he goes down to some morbid club and plays Halma with the poor, which I think is so confiding of them because I’m sure he can’t play Halma well one day he asked me if I’d care to go with him, but my dear the very thought of Halma merely decimates me, and my dear you know I dote on the poor but I never can think of a thing to say, well then he said would I help send some poor children off to the country, and that sounded more adequate because if you can’t think of anything to say to children you can always tell them to stop doing what they’re doing, and anything that means sending children somewhere else must be doing a good action to somebody, because I do think that children are a bit superfluous, don’t you darling, and besides I wanted to show Mr Haddock that I have a good heart really though I will not play Halma if it means a Revolution.

All these un-deb-like activities clearly have an impact on her many admirers.  Though Topsy claims to repel the most attractive of her suitors – “my dear the rows of men who’ve departed to India and everywhere just as I was beginning to think they were rather tolerable, really darling in my humble way I’m quite populating the Empire, because my dear I do seem to have a gift for dissipating the flower of our youth to the four corners” – some are determined enough to follow her changing interests and adapt themselves to her.  Just not always successfully:

Well my dear it seems poor Terence has decided I’m a high-brow and my dear since we last met he’s been reading a book, my dear too unnatural, my dear one of those cathartic female novelists who adulate Sussex and sin and everything, and my dear they’re always bathing in no-piece costumes, and of course my poor Terence was utterly baffled because it seems there isn’t a white man from cover to cover and no horses and scarcely a hound, well I must say I thought it was rather a lily-white gesture for a subaltern in the Guards to read a book for my sake…

While Topsy’s sense of grammar (if someone ever taught her how to use a period, she has long forgotten the lesson.  Thank goodness she seems not to have been introduced to exclamation points) is in doubt, her charm and energy never are.  She dashes through life with good intentions but her youth and ignorance generally lead her into trouble – all the better from the reader’s perspective.  This is classic Punch, making gentle yet still affectionate fun of an oblivious character and her class while still making her loveable.  And despite her ditzy moments, Topsy’s judgement is clearly excellent as evidenced by her review of a play – she arrived late so didn’t catch the title – she was sent to review:

…it was the most old-fashioned mellodrama and rather poor taste I thought, my dear all about a black man who marries a white girl, my dear too American, and what was so perfectly pusillanimous so as to make the thing a little less incompatible the man who acted the black man was only brown, the merest beige darling, pale sheik-colour, but the whole time they were talking about how black he was, my dear too English.  Well of course the plot was quite defective and really my dear if they put it on in the West End not a soul would go to it except the police possibly because my dear there were the rudest remarks, well this inane black man gets inanely jealous about his anaemic wife the moment they’re married and my dear she’s a complete cow of a woman, my dear too clinging, only there’s an obstruse villain called Yahgo or something who never stops lying and my dear for no reason at all that I could discover, my dear it was so unreasonable that every now and then he had to have the hugest solilliquies, is that right, to explain what he’s going to do next, well he keeps telling the old black man that the white girl has a fancy-friend, well my dear they’ve only been married about ten days but the black man merely laps it up, one moment’s he’s Nature’s honeymooner and the next he’s knocking her down, and what I thought was so perfectly heterodox he was supposed to be the world’s  successful general but my dear I’ve always understood the sole point of a real he-soldier is that they’re the most elaborate judges of character and always know when you’re lying, and if this black man couldn’t see through Yahgo it’s too unsatisfying to think of him winning a single battle against the Turks.

As the book ends, Topsy is contemplating a more active role in politics after assisting Mr Haddock’s campaign alongside the redoubtable private secretary Taffeta (“there’s simply nothing she doesn’t know except the love of a clean-limbed Britisher, my dear it’s rather poignant, but if you will wear pince-nez and brown boots and the badge of the Guild of the Godly Girls it does make it difficult for Destiny doesn’t it darling?”) and we can only quake with delight at the prospect of what she could get up to.  Thankfully, that is chronicled in Topsy, MP and I’m eagerly awaiting my library copy now.  Even better news is that Handheld Press is releasing a collection of the Topsy stories next year called The Voluble Topsy to bring joy to the masses – though no doubt headaches to Kate and co who have to proof all of Topsy’s characterful typos.

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