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Archive for the ‘Penelope Lively’ Category

It is no great hardship to spend a summer in Vancouver but by the start of this month I was desperate for a change of scene.  Usually, I’d be heading off to hike in the Alps at this time of year but (with only minimal sobbing over the lack of European escapes in my future) instead I went to the beautiful Okanagan region of BC.  It’s famous for sunshine, hot summers, beautiful lakes, and wineries.  My brother moved there a few years ago with his family so it also has the added draw of an adorable niece and nephew to visit.

I was there for ten days, which was a welcome break from work after an intense summer.  My days were wonderfully undemanding, fitting in a hike each morning, a swim in the lake each afternoon, plenty of socially-distanced family visits in my brother’s backyard, home-cooked dinners with the amazing local produce, and LOTS of reading.  The smoke from the horrible American forest fires only drifted up during our last couple of days so for the most part I was able to sit on the deck of the house we were staying at and alternately read and gaze out at the beautiful lake view.

Here’s what kept me distracted in between swims:

Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes – It’s been years since I reread any of the Walsh family books from Keyes but this one is just as good as I remembered it.  Keyes is always funny but that doesn’t stop her from addressing dark topics, in this case drug addiction.  Rachel knows she doesn’t have a drug problem but her family is insistent about checking her into a treatment centre, dragging her back to Ireland from New York city after she ends up in hospital there.  There’s not much left for her in New York anyways, just a job she’s lost interest in, a best friend who does nothing anymore but criticize her, and a boyfriend who has just broken up with her.  In treatment she has the voyeuristic pleasure of hearing the stories of other patients, knowing that she’s an outsider in this world.  But of course she isn’t and her journey to realising what has happened to her life and how she’s impacted the people around her is so cleverly done.

Cutting Back by Leslie Buck – In the late 90s, Buck was running a successful pruning company in California when she decided to take a sabbatical and spend several months training with pruners in Kyoto.  It was clearly an interesting experience but Buck’s writing doesn’t particularly do it justice.

The Wish List by Sophia Money-Coutts – Absolute fluff, as is mandated for all heavy reading holidays.

Where the Hornbeam Grows by Beth Lynch – This was such a disappointment to me.  I’d heard about it on the Slightly Foxed podcast last year and was certain that the story of a woman moving to Switzerland and making a garden to help her feel at home would be just right for me.  Now, I can’t think of a single expat memoir where someone has had a positive experience moving to Switzerland but usually the main criticism is that it’s a boring place to live.  Lynch finds SO many more things to criticize and seems to find the entry country rather sinister in its determination to make her feel excluded.  Her combined naivety (as far as I can tell she didn’t bother to learn anything about the country before moving there) and sense of victimhood drove me absolutely mad.  I kept hoping this would get better, but it didn’t.  Even her enthusiastic plant descriptions (of which there are not enough) weren’t enough to redeem this for me.

Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O’Farrell – Unsurprisingly, this was truly excellent and is deserving of all the praise that is being heaped upon it.  I was initially resistant, thinking myself uninterested in anything about Shakespeare but O’Farrell handles him very cleverly.  He is such a minor character that he is never even named.  It is his wife’s story and it is her grief over their only son Hamnet’s death that dominates.  We see little of Shakespeare’s own reaction – but, knowing his plays, we already know how he dealt with it.  Darlene did a much better and thorough job of articulating her thoughts so I’d recommend reading her review.

A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore – Back to the fluffy reading.  This is the second in Dunmore’s “A League of Extraordinary Women” series of historical romance novels focused on a group of suffragists and I thought it a great improvement over the first book.

Cleopatra’s Sister by Penelope Lively – I read this for the first time back in 2016 and remembered it fondly but not, as it turned out, accurately (which is very suitable for a Lively book).  I remembered it as the story of Howard and Lucy, who meet when their plane is diverted to an African country where a coup has just occurred.  Held hostage by the new government, they find themselves – quickly, quietly, amazingly – falling in love.  And it is that story, but that only begins halfway through the book.

The first half is the story of their lives and all the quirks of fate that happened to them and others for them to eventually find themselves together in such extraordinary circumstances.  I loved it all the better for not having remembered it in detail.  Lively is always wont to muse on time and history, mischance and happenstance, and I love to watch her do it.

Once Upon an Eid edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed – a wonderfully varied collection of children’s stories about celebrating Eid.  I especially loved the stories about a refugee camp in Greece, a boy in Toronto learning to live up to his name, and a girl who, having always been defined by her identity as the only Muslim at her school, adjusts to not being an “only” when a new student arrives.

September by Rosamunde Pilcher – every vacation should feature a good family saga.  It was so satisfying to sink into Pilcher’s comfortable, genteel world and her idyllic rural Scottish setting.  She can be a very skilled writer and is especially good at slowly revealing characters’ stories, avoiding the temptation to overshare when they are introduced.  But…in the end, the female characters were so ornamental and inconsequential that it set my teeth on edge.  The only exceptions were those who were made sexless either by age or by their husband’s impotence.  They managed to be the most interesting characters, which shows what Pilcher was capable of.  But the younger women are constantly being described through the eyes of men and appraised based primarily on their appearances.  Which makes a kind of sense since they have nothing else to offer – none of them are educated or employed, even the girls in their late teens and early twenties.  The huge age gaps between couples are barely mentioned, only contributing to the feeling of separation between the genders.  For a book set in 1988, this all seems bizarre and part of a world that was already lost.  Despite the material attractions, it’s not a world I’d want to live in.

Indians on Vacation by Thomas King –  If I can’t travel abroad this year, at least I can read about those who can.  Bird and Mimi are visiting Europe to trace the postcards sent more than a hundred years before by Mimi’s uncle.  Bird and Mimi have their own identities to juggle – American-born Bird is half Cherokee and half Greek while Mimi is Canadian but introduces herself as Blackfoot, a distinction Bird reminds her that no one in Europe understands – but the most important distinction is Bird’s pessimism versus Mimi’s eternal optimism.  Bird, burnt out after years as a journalist, has fallen into a lethargy and is plagued by endless physical ailments.  He is not happy to be in Europe and reminds Mimi of this constantly:

I’m not sure why we travel.

The default response is that we travel in order to see new places, to meet new peoples, to broaden our understanding of the world.

Whereas I tend to see travel as punishment for those of us who can afford such mistakes.

I loved this far more than I expected to, finding it funny (Bird’s snarky asides and one liners are excellent) and poignant.  And the fact that the bulk of the book is set in Prague, my favourite and most familiar European city, didn’t hurt.

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A Woman Reading by Ivan Olinsky

The decade is almost over and I shall end it as I started: seeking to emulate Simon.  His favourite books of the decade post made me want to look over my own from the last ten years.

In those ten years, I have read 1,613 books.  Some of those are rereads and I didn’t record the many scintillating textbooks I read over the same period for (during which I completed a dozen courses leading to two professional designations and two different licenses – it’s been a busy decade).  But most importantly, the decade is not over yet.  I have a couple of good reading weeks left and I intend to make use of them!

I always enjoy looking back at past years on the blog and was so happy when I put this list together to see what excellent judgement I exercised.  These all remain favourites that I would be happy to pick up right now and start rereading.  And the nicest thing to note is that my 2010 and 2011 favourites, which I struggled to track down at the time, are both back in print and easy to get.  A sure sign of progress over the last ten years!

2010: Mrs Tim Flies Home by D.E. Stevenson

What I wrote: “I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.”

2011: Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

What I wrote: “Anyone who has been following my blog this year could have probably predicted that Thirkell would take the top spot.  Since my first encounter with Thirkell last January, I have fallen completely in love with her Barsetshire novels and, of the twelve I’ve now read, I think Summer Half is the most perfectly formed.  It centers on the masters and students of Southbridge School and their interactions with some of the local families.  As with all good Thirkell novels, romance is in the air and the narrator’s sharp wit is there to comment on both the comically disastrous pairings and the ideal but bumbled ones.  Most importantly, Summer Half introduces my favourite Thirkell character, the astounding Lydia Keith.  Of all the books I read this year, not only is this the one that I am most eager to return to, it is the one I most wish I owned countless copies of so I could pass it on to everyone I meet.”

2012: The Element of Lavishness edited by Michael Steinman

What I wrote: “I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.”

2013: Speaking of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern

What I wrote: “All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amount of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).”

2014: The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

What I wrote: “The penultimate Barsetshire book, I fell in love with The Small House at Allington as soon as I started reading it. This is Trollope at his most masterful, deftly juggling multiple storylines and a handful of equally-compelling central characters. I am fascinated by Lily Dale, anxious for Johnny Eames, and wildly conflicted over the fate of Aldolphus Crosbie, who I liked far more than any reader is supposed to like the man who jilts the heroine.  Brilliant and perfectly executed, this was the uncontested highlight of my reading year.”

2015: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters edited by William Maxwell

What I wrote: “An enchanting collection of letters spanning almost fifty years.  STW was a wonderful correspondent, filling her letters with richly-detailed annecdotesself-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.”

2016: I Was a Stranger by John Hackett

What I wrote: “In a year when the world was doing its best to show how cruel and petty man can be, this memoir of the courage and friendship showed by a Dutch family in occupied Holland to the British officer they hid reminded me that, even in the worst of times, kindness, trust, and love can still flourish.  A real gem that I am entirely indebted to Slightly Foxed for reissuing.”

2017: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

What I wrote: “I finally read Lively’s Booker prize winner and it is a masterpiece.  Technically dazzling, Lively plays with her favourite themes of love, history, and, above all, memory as septuagenarian Claudia lies on her deathbed and looks back on her life.  If I could write, this would be how I’d want to do it.  As I can’t, this is exactly what I want to read – again and again and again.”

2018: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

What I wrote: “Without question, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of Soviet women’s experiences of the Second World War was my book of the year.  More than one million Soviet women served in the military during the war (half of them in active combat roles) and Alexievich captures the full and fascinating range of their experiences in their own words.  It is a powerful and upsetting book and one I will not soon forget.”

2019: To be determined!  Check back on December 31st. (edit: check out my Top Ten Books of 2019 to see my final favourite of the decade)

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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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Well, we’ve reached the end of a year I would rather not repeat.  But, despite its challenges, it did hold some amazing moments.  I had the chance to travel widely and experience things I’d been dreaming of for years, and, best of all, I became an aunt.  There is nothing so hopeful as welcoming a new life into a family and it was a very cheering way to see out the year.

It wasn’t a spectacular reading year for me (too many comfort reads and too little quality during the first half of the year, certainly) but there were still plenty of stellar titles to choose from.  Here are the ten that really stood out:

10. For the Glory (2016) – Duncan Hamilton
This excellent biography of Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner and Christian missionary who was immortalised in Chariots of Fire, was the first book I read in 2017 and remained one of my favourites.  Hamilton, a sports journalist, is a clear and thorough biographer, and does full justice to a fascinating and inspiring life.

9. Browsings (2015) – Michael Dirda
An enthusiastic and eclectic collection of pieces Dirda wrote about the books he loves, his immense love of used book stores (and hours spent therein), and other things sure to delight passionate readers.

8. The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) – Katherine Arden
Sweltering in a Tuscan summer, I read this beautiful fantasy novel and escaped to the cool world of medieval Russia, a place where magic and fairy tales all come to life in the most suspenseful way.  I adored it, quickly read the sequel which came out this month, and am already eager for the final book in the trilogy (which is being released in August).

7. Felicity – Stands By (1928) – Richmal Crompton
About as far from great literature as you can get, these humorous stories about the adventures of sixteen-year old Felicity brightened up a relatively difficult point in my life.  They are bubbly and fun and a welcome reminder that Crompton could be both those things (and not just the author of needlessly repetitive and melodramatic family tales).

6. The Way of Wanderlust (2015) – Don George
In a year full of both travel and travel reading, this collection of Don George’s writing was a wonderful inspiration.

5. The Snow Child (2012) – Eowyn Ivey
Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, was one of my favourite books of 2016.  This year, I finally picked up her first novel and found it just as wonderful and captivating.  Inspired the story of the Snow Maiden, Ivey weaves a magical story of a struggling, childless couple living in the Alaskan wilderness and their love for the girl who appears from nowhere one wintery day.  It is beautifully told and shockingly perfect for a first novel.

4. The Coast of Bohemia (1950) – Edith Pargeter
A travelogue about a 1948 trip to Czechoslovakia by a woman best known for writing mystery novels (under her pen name of Ellis Peters) might not appeal to everyone but for me this book was wonderful.  Pargeter’s love of all things Czech makes her a passionate observer of the customs and places she sees.  I loved seeing the country and its people through her eyes and getting to experience a time long past through her excellent record of it.

3. Last Hope Island (2017) – Lynne Olson
An extraordinarily entertaining and enlightening look at the contributions made to the Allied war effort by the occupied countries whose governments and monarchs were living in exile in London.  It is packed full of facts, interesting characters, and devastatingly caustic quotes about de Gaulle (naturellement, everyone hates de Gaulle).  After Felicity – Stands By, this was the most enjoyable reading experience I had all year.

2. The Marches (2016) – Rory Stewart
I started reading this because I knew it was about Stewart’s journeys on foot around the English-Scottish border as he attempted to make sense of the centuries old divide between the two countries ahead of the Scottish independence vote – a fascinating project I was keen to learn more about.  But Stewart takes that journey and weaves into it the story of his own extraordinary (Scottish) father.  The result is a very wonderful and affectionate love letter that left me deeply moved.

1. Moon Tiger (1987) – Penelope Lively
I finally read Lively’s Booker prize winner and it is a masterpiece.  Technically dazzling, Lively plays with her favourite themes of love, history, and, above all, memory as septuagenarian Claudia lies on her deathbed and looks back on her life.  If I could write, this would be how I’d want to do it.  As I can’t, this is exactly what I want to read – again and again and again.

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Oleander, JacarandaPenelope Lively is, among other things, a memoirist who does not like to write memoirs.  She considers her most recent book, the delightfully named Dancing Fish and Ammonites, “the view from old age”.  In 1994, when Oleander, Jacaranda was published, she was equally coy about calling it a memoir, choosing instead the typically cautious and thoughtful “A Childhood Perceived”.

Born in 1933 in Cairo, Lively spent the first twelve years of her life in Egypt.  So much of Lively’s fiction revolves around history and memory but in this case it is Lively’s own history and her own memories that she examining.  And examine them she does, contrasting the vivid memories of childhood with what her now adult mind realises must have been the reality.  She can be a harsh and unsympathetic judge at times but is never anything less than an extraordinary gifted and articulate writer.

Lively may have been born in Egypt but there was nothing in her upbringing to tie her to that country:

… I was growing up in accordance with the teachings of one culture but surrounded by all the signals of another.  Egypt was my home, and all that I knew, but I realized that in some perverse way I was not truly a part of it.

With her parents on the perimeter of her daily life (her father was bank manager while her mother enjoyed a rather active social life), Lively was largely raised by her staunchly British nanny-cum-governess, Lucy.  Lucy sounds like the prototypical middle-class nanny, full of patriotic zeal, a distaste for foreigners, and pithy aphorisms.  Between Lucy and school, Lively grew up with the knowledge of the supremacy of a country she belonged to but where she had never lived:

England was pink.  I knew that from Bartholomew’s atlas.  Pink was good.  And there was plenty of it, too, a global rash; lots of the rest of Africa, and India slung there like a pear, and New Zealand and Australia and Canada and much else.  I learned history from a book called Our Island Story, much approved by Lucy.  It had glossy romantic pictures of national heroes, with potted accounts of the finer moments of the nation’s rise to pink glory.  Boadicea and King Arthur and Sir Walter Raleigh and Kitchener and Queen Victoria all somehow rolled into one to produce essence of Englishness.  The atlas reinforced this triumphant digest of the Whig interpretation of history.  Up there at the top is brave little England.  Britannia rules the waves.  Goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester Square.  This sceptred isle.  John Bull.  The white cliffs of Dover.  I imbibed it all with a whisper of unease: did I truly have a claim to all this?

I look back in dismay.  There has been a lot of unlearning to do.  And can it all be unlearned?  Is there perhaps deep within me some unreconstructed layer which believes pink is best and that it has been uphill all the way from brave Boadicea to good Lord Kitchener?

That last paragraph leaves me unsettled, or at least perturbed.  It is a very politically correct reaction, especially for 1994, but it feels perhaps too much of its time.  I look forward to reading Dancing Fish and Ammonites to see if she still feels this way now, twenty years later.  To me, this seems an exhaustingly guilt-ridden overreaction, one that allows only for absolute truths (which rarely exist).

Despite her thorough schooling in Britain’s past glories, Lively’s childhood identity was that of the outsider.  In Egypt, she grew up in the ex-pat community, a community bound together by the shared “home” that Lively barely knew.  Sent to England at the age of twelve (following her parents’ divorce), she experienced an upsetting disconnect from the England she had imagined and found herself once again the outsider:

This was England, then.  But it bore no resemblance whatsoever to the hazy, glowing nirvana conjured up in the nostalgic chatter to which I had half listened back in Egypt.  Back in the real world.  Nobody had mentioned the cold.  Or the rain.  Or the London dirt which was not the aromatic organic dirt of Egypt but a sullen pervasive grime which left your hands forever grey and every surface smeared with soot.  In my mind I had created a place which seems like those now out-dated advertisements for environmentally destructive products like petrol or cigarettes – all soft-focus landscape, immutable good weather, gambolling animals and happy laughing folk.  I had never seen such advertisements and I suspect the image was based on Mabel Lucie Attwell illustrations spiced with Arthur Rackham and Beatrix Potter.  Certainly I would not have been surprised to find toadstool houses and the odd gnome, or people wearing poke bonnets and pinnies.  I might well have felt on home ground then – I had grown up with that kind of thing, in a sense.

In Egypt, European society was strangely flat: like most ex-pat communities or outposts of empire, it was homogenously middle-class.  It wasn’t until British soldiers began arriving in Cairo during the war that Lively had her first introduction to the British class system – a system she had not quite mastered by the time she had to move to England:

I was in something of the same position as the average Egyptian.  I too had known only one kind of British person.  Now I too discovered that English is spoken in many different ways, and that there were apparently mysterious gradations of Englishness which appeared in some perverse way to mirror Lucy’s definition of degrees of non-Englishness.  It was bewildering.  My previous indoctrination had been that English was an exclusive club.  If you spoke English you were a member of the club, and that was the end of it.  Now I discovered – slowly and incompetently – that things were quite like that after all.  It was more complicated, and bafflingly so.  I was quite devoid of the innate social perceptions of any home-bred British child.  I had not acquired them by the time I came to England in early adolescence, and was to continue to commit what were seen by my relatives as solecisms and gross errors of judgement.

I finished the book desperate to continue on with Lively, to know what happened when she went to university (where she discover that, despite what her teachers told her at school, other young people did like to read and had in fact been doing quite a lot of it) and how the rest of her life went on from there.  It is fortuitous timing that I waited until now to read Oleander, Jacaranda since I now have Dancing Fish and Ammonites to move on to – with great joy and anticipation!

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I find Penelope Lively‘s books next-to-impossible to review. I recently read How It All Began, her most recent novel dealing with the consequences of a mugging, and while I enjoyed the book I really don’t have much to say about it. Lively always writes beautifully, creates realistic, fascinating characters and offers up striking commentary on all manner of subjects, from relationships to aging, but her very dependability is what causes the difficulty for me as a reviewer. With Lively, I know exactly what I am going to get. Sometimes she reaches levels of brilliance that are certainly deserving of further comment but she doesn’t quite reach those heights here. I know that a few months from now I will remember some of the more striking insights but not the names of the characters or the details of the plot.  That is an entirely agreeable way to experience a book; I don’t need every reading experience to be extraordinary.

What I do want to remember particularly, and what I wanted to share, is this quote, talking about retired English-teacher Charlotte’s passion for reading. It is detailed, relatable passages like this that make me value Lively and her creations so highly:

Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system.  Her life has been informed by reading.  She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction, even.  She has read to find out how sex works, how babies are born, she has read to discover what it is to be good, or bad; she has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her – then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing.

Specifically, she read bits of the Old Testament when she was ten because of all that stuff about issues of blood, and the things thou shalt not do with thy neighbour’s wife.  All of this was confusing rather than enlightening.

She got hold of a copy of Fanny Hill when she was eighteen, and was aghast, but also intrigued.

She read Rosamond Lehmann when she was nineteen, because her heart had been broken.  She saw that such suffering is perhaps routine, and, while not consoled, became more stoical.

She read Saul Bellow, in her thirties, because she wanted to know how it is to be American.  After reading, she wondered if she was any wiser, and read Updike, Roth, Mary McCarthy and Alison Lurie in further pursuit of the matter.  She read to find out what it was like to be French or Russian in the nineteenth century, to be a rich New Yorker then, or a Midwestern pioneer.  She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience.

Thus has reading wound in with living, each a complement to the other.  Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks.  She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.

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