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Archive for the ‘Penelope Lively’ Category

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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