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Archive for the ‘2018’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Searching for a suitable book for Easter weekend?  Let me recommend Bewildering Cares by Winifred Peck, which suits the occasion admirably being both cosy and heavy with aspects of church life.   It wasn’t quite to my tastes but I suspect I am an aberration and many of you would enjoy it greatly.

Published in 1940, this short book covers a week in the life of Camilla Lacely, a vicar’s wife in a mid-sized northern town near Manchester.  A lover of E.M. Delafield, Camilla attempts to write about church committees, war work, local squabbles, and concerns about her overworked husband and enlisted son with the same verve as the Provincial Lady.  Inevitably, she fails to capture the humour and quick-wittedness of those books but the result is still pleasant.  The book does drag somewhat through Camilla’s church-related duties and these take up a tedious amount of time.  In Delafield’s light-hearted hands I have no doubt this could have been made entertaining but it becomes ponderous in Peck’s far more earnest ones.

The best thing about Camilla is her taste in books and my favourite passages were reading-related ones.  For instance, I loved her musings on her fictional predecessors:

…I am rereading with infinite pleasure of the clergy ladies of fiction, Mrs Elton and Mrs Proudie, Nancy Woodforde and Mrs John Wesley […] I let my mind sink into sleep, fancying what sort of address Mrs Elton gave to the Mothers’ Meeting (if any), and how Bishop Proudie ever found the courage to propose to Mrs Proudie.

And who could resist her prescription after a long and exhausting day?

Arthur came in looking so exhausted that I went to the book shelf and took out Mr Mulliner Speaks.  I propped this against the water-jug for him, and Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell, which I have read thirty times already and will probably read thirty more, against the loaf for myself.  There is nothing so good for worried people as to read at their meals, and funny books if possible…

Others have written far more fondly and at length about this book so do read the reviews by Audrey, Julie, and Lyn if you are interested in learning more.  I am happy to have read this but will equally happily consign my copy to the give-away pile.  For me, this book is a poor example of Peck’s talents.  Her gifts are more introspective than observational, more earnest than comic, and it feels like here she tries – with middling results – to be something she isn’t.  Much better to read the excellent House-Bound (published two years later) and be swept up into a thoughtful, moving story about the war’s impact on domestic life and social conventions.

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Many authors regret their first book.  They wish for it to disappear completely, never to be seen or heard of again, completely disassociated from any future career they might make for themselves.

Sometimes that wish is well founded.

In 1905, Lovers in London by A.A. Milne was published and it is exactly the kind of book he would rather everyone forgot about.  He certainly tried to himself; he considered The Day’s Play, published in 1910, his first book.  And as it is miles better than this I don’t wonder at that.  But these days it is all too easy to revive even the deeply forgettable and Lovers in London is now readily available from Bello as both an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback.

So what is this relic from Milne’s youth?  It’s a collection of linked short stories (sometimes it is referred to as a novel but clearly those people haven’t read it) about, you’ll be shocked to hear this, two young lovers in London.  The eager young Teddy is delighted when his American godfather comes to London with his family, including his lovely daughter Amelia.  Teddy, already half in love with Amelia based on her photograph, falls totally when he meets her and dedicates himself to her amusement (and wooing) with trips throughout London.

Teddy is a classic Milne young man: eager, romantic, inclined to whimsy, attempting to make a living as a writer, and terribly fond of cricket.  He is someone his twenty-three-year old author was clearly comfortable writing, since he basically was Milne at this stage in his life.  And Amelia is the prototypical Milne young woman, happy to go along with her suitor’s flights of whimsy and give as good as she gets, though Milne’s skills at writing women would improve greatly.

Crucially, his skills at writing would improve greatly in the years to come.

Milne had spent years writing and editing at Cambridge but when this was published hadn’t yet started his prolific career at Punch.  Punch, clearly, was where he refined his skill and these stories are sloppy compared to the clever economy of the excellent pieces he would write for the magazine over the coming years.  Some of the stories in this collection ramble terribly – Milne was a master of witty rambling but hadn’t yet managed the witty part at this stage – and Teddy indulges in far too frequent (and occasionally incoherent) fantasies about how he could impress Amelia.  In such a short book, so much repetition grates.  Teddy, as our narrator, express his own (and his author’s) opinion on how the book is going at one point:

Most of my stories have a way of avoiding anything that approximates to a plot.  They do this of their own intention, not regarding the wishes of the author.  Often have I longed, regretfully, in the retrospect for a plot.

The good news is that Milne would, eventually, find out how to write both with and without a plot and do it delightfully.  He just wouldn’t figure it out for a few more years.

As a Milne completist, I’m glad I read this.  It’s a fascinating step in his evolution as a writer.  However, on its own, it simply doesn’t have much merit.  (I will note that Simon read it back in 2012 and had kinder things to say.)

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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There are books that are important and books that are an education in and of themselves and books you never want to end.  And, best of all, there are books that are all those things.  The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich is such a book.

Between 1978 and 1983 Alexievich, the Belarusian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, travelled thousands of miles across the USSR and met with countless women to hear and record their experiences of the Second World War.  And for many people, Soviets included, these were stories they had no idea existed – stories of women who served in active combat, who knew what life was like on the battlefield, who had been shot at alongside their male comrades, and whose contributions had been largely swept aside as the official history of the Great Patriotic War took shape.  Published in 1985, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of their experiences changed that and now, thanks to a new English-language translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (whose previous work made me fall in love with War and Peace), it can change the perspectives of Western readers too.

When Russia went to war against Germany in 1941, women flocked to sign up.  Time and again Alexievich records women who remember leaving their schools to go to the recruiting office or fighting against military bureaucrats who thought they were too young to be put on active duty.  They enlisted as pilots, as snipers, as members of tank squadrons, and, overwhelmingly, as surgeons, doctors, and other medical professionals.  The Soviet Union may never have become the utopia dreamed of but it had trained women to think of themselves as capable, contributing and equal members of society.  They were doctors and lawyers and engineers without the novelty factor still common in the West.  As Vera Danilovsteva, a sniper, recalled “Girls felt equal to boys; we weren’t treated differently.  On the contrary, we had heard since childhood and at school: “Girls – at the wheel of the tractors!,” “Girls – at the controls of a plane!””

But a large focus of the book is on how elusive that equality was.  By the time Alexievich came to speak to them, many had given up hope of ever getting to tell their stories.  They had been swept aside for so long and the relief at finally having someone who cares to listen was immense:

I want to speak…to speak!  To speak it all out!  Finally somebody wants to hear us.  For so many years we said nothing, even at home we said nothing.  For decades.  The first year, when I came back from the war, I talked and talked.  Nobody listened.  So I shut up…It’s good that you’ve come along.  I’ve been waiting all the while for somebody, I knew somebody would come.  Had to come.  (Natalya Ivanovna Sergeeva – Private, Nurse-aide)

Alexievich recounts their stories of life during the war: how they joined up, how they fought, what they missed, how they fell in love (or didn’t), how they longed for their families.  They all had different experiences – understandable enough given their huge numbers (more than one million women joined the military and at least half of those served in active combat roles) – but the universal memory is of how their country and their brothers-in-arms failed them when the war ended:

How did the Motherland meet us?  I can’t speak without sobbing…It was forty years ago, but my cheeks still burn.  The men said nothing, but the women…They shouted to us, “We know what you did there!  You lured our men with your young c—-!  Army whores…Military bitches…”  They insulted us in all possible ways…The Russian vocabulary is rich… (Klavdia S—va – Sniper)

They had come home wanting to be proud of their achievements, to stand next to their male comrades and be recognized for what they had done, but they also wanted to get on with their lives.  And being a soldier, it was made clear to them, was not possible if you were a proper woman:

When I put on a dress for the first time, I flooded myself with tears.  I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror.  We had spent four years in trousers.  There was no one I could tell that I had been wounded, that I had a concussion.  Try telling it, and who will give you a job then, who will marry you?  We were silent as fish.  We never acknowledged to anybody that we had been at the front.  (Valentina Pavlovna Chudaeva – Sergeant, Commander of Anti-Aircraft Artillery)

Their silence was extreme.  Some women did their best to make their past disappear, hiding their ribbons and medals away, not daring to wear them on parade days even though all the men did.  In extreme cases, women tore up their papers, making it impossible to claim the pension and benefits due to them as veterans, while others, wounded in the war and ashamed of what had happened, moved far away from anyone who knew them and did their best to hide.

But others remained happy and proud.  For those who had fought alongside their husbands it was easier to retain that part of their life with pride – if he knew and was proud, she could be too.  But it was these same husbands who could be found coaching their wives ahead of their interviews with Alexievich, reminding them of the facts of each battle – the dates, the outcomes, the soldiers lost.  This was their vision of how war should be discussed, particularly in an era when talking about your feelings and opinions about your country could get you into serious trouble, but it was not Alexievich’s – or, thankfully, the women’s.

It’s been a while since I finished the book and what has stuck with me the most were the feelings of the women as they swept through into Germany.  Western Allies remember finding a broken country, with millions of people displaced, millions homeless, and seeing some of the most gracious and elegant cities of Europe in ruins.  For the Russians it was a completely different experience.  They had marched from their own broken and ravaged country with no doubt, after Leningrad and Stalingrad, after passing the Polish death camps on their way to Berlin, of how their enemies should be treated.  But what seemed to bewilder and enrage them in equal measure was what they found in Germany.  For the Russians, after years of starvation, of living on almost nothing, sleeping “on straw, on sticks”, the level of civilization still intact in Germany floored them:

Finally, we were on their land…The first thing that struck us was the good roads.  The big farmhouses…Flowerpots, pretty curtains in the windows, even in the barns.  White tablecloths in the houses.  Expensive tableware.  Porcelain.  There I saw a washing machine for the first time…We didn’t understand why they had to fight if they lived so well.  Our people huddled in dugouts, while they had white tablecloths.  (Aglaia Borisovna Nesteruk – Sergeant, Liaison)

It is particularly feminine observation and a telling one, showing so clearly the disparity between the two enemies but also between the allies.

This was Alexievich’s first book and if she had ended there her contribution to history would have been considerable.  As it is, she has written about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, the survivors of Chernobyl, and the disintegration of the USSR.  She picks timely, important subjects and creates books that matter both in the present and to posterity.  She has left me better informed, much moved, and feeling like I need to read all of her other words immediately.  It is the best possible feeling I can have when I finish a 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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Back when I was still relatively new to blogging, I used to sign up for reading challenges, partly for the fun of reading in a group setting but mostly for the joy of making ambitious reading lists.  My favourite among those challenges was the Eastern European Reading Challenge and each year that I did it I put together obscenely detailed reading lists (in 2011 and 2012).  One book that made it on to the list both years was How I Came to Know Fish by Ota Pavel – which is really just a rambling way of telling you that I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a long, long time.

Pavel was a Czech sports journalist who was diagnosed as bipolar in his mid-thirties (after he set an Austrian barn on fire while in Innsbruck covering the Olympics).  He spent much of the rest of his short life (he died of at heart attack at age 42) going in and out of hospitals but also writing.  And the best of what he wrote was this gentle, meditative, and comforting memoir of his childhood, first published in 1974.

Pavel grew up just outside of Prague in the town of Buštěhrad, the third son of a Gentile mother and a Jewish father.  His mother is a steady presence in his life but it is his father whom Pavel focuses on here – most specifically his love of fishing which he passed down to his youngest son:

Business and fishing were his two great passions.  He excelled unbelievably at both, preferred fishing, and considered it a disaster if he could not combine a sales trip for the Swedish firm of Elektrolux – for which he sold refrigerators and vacuum cleaners – with a fishing adventure.

Pavel was only eight years old when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and still a little boy when, a few years later, his two elder brother and his father were sent away to concentration camps.  Before he leaves, his father tries to teach his young son all the secrets to catching his beloved carp.  They are lessons Pavel needs to remember as the war continues on, as his mother returns home exhausted each day from forced labour, as food supplies run out:

At that time we needed delicious fat carp meat.  We had so little to eat and nothing much to barter.  We could trade carp for flour, bread and Mama’s cigarettes.  Mama and I lived alone at that time, for the rest of the family was in a concentration camp.  It was up to me to catch the carp, but it took me some time getting to know them.  I had to learn to tell the difference between their good and bad moods; I had to learn how to tell when they were hungry, when they were full, and when they felt like playing.  I had to recognize where they were likely to swim, and where I would look for them in vain.

Pavel doesn’t dwell on the tragedies of war and his family was luckier than most.  When he is caught stealing fish from local German-controlled ponds it is by a sympathetic gamekeeper.  His father and brothers all return home from their concentration camps.  And he and his mother survive the lean times.  But the horror of war is certainly there: Buštěhrad is only a few kilometers away from Lidice, the town the German’s chose to massacre in reprisal for the assassination of Himmler in 1942, and Pavel knew people there.

Mostly though, this is a memoir of wonder and childhood.  Of learning how to fish, of admiring the great fishermen in young Pavel’s life, and of finding one good thing to hold on to when everything else is turned upside down.  When the war ends, the family has earned its peace and his father chooses to spend it as he has always spent his leisure time – fishing:

Down at the river he slept most of the time, just as many fishermen do.  The water hums, the small waves roll as the clouds float by, and the wife is miles away.  The rods are set so that the fish can almost catch themselves.  Of all the sleep a man can have, the fisherman’s sleep is the sweetest.  It is the greatest of luxuries – sleep and fishing.

I really enjoyed this short, touching book but the one thing that drove me a little crazy about this edition was the complete absence of accents on the Czech words (for example, Pavel’s home of Buštěhrad becomes Bustehrad).  I know this is the lazy way of anglicizing place names but it is distracting and a little odd since the introduction to the book does retain the correct accents.  And since the book is part of Penguin’s Central European Classics series it seems even odder to be so dismissive of the accents.  However, it is a good translation and readily available so, in the grand scheme of things, I can overlook a few missing accents.

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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A long, long time ago, Danielle wrote about Heidi’s Alp by Christina Hardyment and instantly convinced me that I had to read it.  That was five years ago today.  I may not be fast when it comes to reading books off my to-read list but I am tenacious – I get there in the end!

Heidi’s Alp (also published as The Canary-Coloured Cart) is a memoir of a trip Hardyment took with her four young daughters around Europe in a camper van in the early 1980s with an itinerary gently guided by classic children’s stories.  Hardyment isn’t rigid in her itinerary (sensible when travelling with so many children) so they take in scenic spots and child-friendly sites as well as places with literary ties.

Rather than a straightforward account of her travels, Hardyment’s book is part travel memoir but also part literary history.  She looks at the facts behind the stories and explores at some length the life of Hans Christian Anderson, which I found unexpectedly fascinating.  I was also captivated by the chapter on Hamelin and various theories behind the tale of the Pied Piper and the children he led away.  Were they young people who went as colonists to Moravia?  Confused with those killed at the battle of Sedemunde in 1259?  A fiction created to drive 16th century tourism?  Victims of a plague (like St Vitus’ Dance) or hopeful young people who set out on the Children’s Crusade of 1211?  There’s no way of knowing the truth but it’s interesting to contemplate so many possible explanations.

Hardyment also goes into some detail about the logistics of living in their cramped van (christened Bertha) with so many children.  At the start of the trip she is accompanied by a friend with a baby, making for five children and two adults.  It sounds messy and cramped and exhausting.  When her husband joins them (and the friend and baby return home) a little more order is restored but it’s still not a way I’d plan to travel.

But the places they travel to, those I would happily visit – and in some cases I already have.  I loved hearing about Denmark, a country still on my to-visit list, and their experiences in and impressions of East Germany during a brief visit there.  But, predictably, I mostly loved hearing about the places I know: they visit the picturesque Bavarian town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, relax at a campground within easy boating distance of Venice, find themselves charmed by laid-back Lucca in Tuscany, and are awed by the unbelievably scenic Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland.  Having spent two weeks in Lucca last summer studying Italian and living within the city’s walls, I loved hearing their impressions of it:

We hadn’t meant to come to Lucca at all, let alone stay there for a night and a day, but we did.  We ate a leisurely breakfast in another little square, climbed the bizarre treetopped Guinigi tower, admired the old Roman amphitheatre, and walked halfway round the shady city walls back to Bertha.  Inside the cathedral Tilly found an early Renaissance effigy of silky marble, the young wife of Paolo Guinigi lying in state…We all loved Lucca, both for its beauty and for its down-to-earth quality.  It was a good solid reminder of everyday reality.

Lovely Lucca

What I also loved – because I have thought it every single time I’ve crossed the border myself – is their observations of the changes you see coming down into inexplicably slovenly Italy from neat, orderly Austria:

Well, it looked like Italy.  The countryside was picturesque enough.  Sad cypresses flanked robber strongholds in the Dolomite gorges.  The immaculate wooden chalets of the Austrian Alps had changed to dilapidated farmhouses with crumbing terracotta roofs and peeling plaster walls.  Olive groves and vineyards replaced the flowery alpine pastures.

‘It’s funny,’ said Tilly.  ‘The houses here are shabby again, like they were in East Germany, but it doesn’t look as if the Italians mind, somehow.  It looked as if the East Germans couldn’t afford to do anything up.  But it looks as if the Italians can’t be bothered.’

Northern Italy

But Hardyment is more comfortable with the more lax Italian (and French) approach to life.  After a stay in Switzerland, she finds herself frustrated by national obsession with order and longs for a bit of chaos:

Switzerland had delighted us in many ways…And yet we felt strangely displaced there.  The premium the Swiss lay on good behaviour and orderly living is something of a strain to those of the casual gipsy persuasion…The minute we crossed the border and met the casual insouciance of French manners, I felt a load tumble off my shoulders.  We stopped in an untidy lay-by around seven in the evening to change drivers.  I sat at a bitumen-covered trestle table, glass in hand, and considered the unlovely public conveniences, the overfull wastebins, the lorry-drivers drawing on their Gauloises, with perverse satisfaction.

Lauterbrunnen Valley

I can’t say I’ve ever felt that way myself but I’ve certainly felt the reverse!  I was so delighted to leave Italy after an extended stay there this summer and head back to the Germanic and Slavic worlds where things are clean, people are cheerful, and everything runs on time.  (It should also be noted that I come from Canada, a country based on “Peace, Order, and Good Government”, which primed me from birth to like such things.)

All in all, a very interesting concept for a family trip and a wonderfully compiled account of it.  I hope Hardyment’s daughters (ages five to twelve when the trip was taken) retained their love of both stories and travel as they grew up.

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While reading The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, I decided I wanted to get a little more insight into Rupert Hart-Davis so I borrowed A Beggar in Purple from the library.  Published in 1983, it is a selection of pieces from his commonplace book.  A commonplace book, which I suspect many of us keep – or else use our blogs for as a substitute – is a place for readers to copy out passages and quotes that they like for one reason or another.  Every reader takes something different from what they read so looking through commonplace books is a fascinating way to get to know their compiler.

What I learned from Hart-Davis’ reinforced what I’d taken from his letters: he was sentimentally-inclined, enjoyed middlebrow fiction, and read far too much middling poetry (particularly in French).  But the good thing about commonplace books is that they are short and even when your tastes don’t entirely align with the compiler’s there is always something interesting to be found in them.  Here are a few of my favourite quotes:

Harold Nicolson’s advice to duty-bound readers:

It is better to read trash with enjoyment than masterpieces with yawning groans.

Goethe marvelling at the ways of the English:

It is surprising to remark how large a portion of the life of a rich Englishman of rank is passed in duels and elopements.  Lord  Byron himself says that his father carried off three ladies.  And let any man be a steady son after that.

And a poem by V. de Sola Pinto that I (being as sentimental as Hart-Davis) immediately fell in love with:

As I sat at my old desk, writing
in golden evening sunshine,
my wife came in suddenly
and, standing beside me,
said ‘I love you’
(this year she will be sixty-three and I shall be sixty-eight).
Then I looked at her and saw
not the grey-haired woman but the girl I married in 1922:
poetry shining through the faithful prose,
a fresh flower in bloom.
I said ‘You are a rose’
(thinking how awful it would have been if I had missed her)
and I kissed her.

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