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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Today marks the start of a Mini Persephone Readathon, hosted by the ever-enthusiastic Jessie, and I’m delighted to be taking part.  It’s just until Sunday – hence its “mini” status – so I thought I’d get started right away.

First published in 1946, To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski was published while the war was still fresh in everyone’s minds.  And that memory is important because already routines were beginning to be re-established and conventions once again adhered to, things that had briefly loosened during the topsy-turvy war years and provided undreamt-of freedom for so many.  Sometimes that freedom was productive – as for the men and women whose wartime experiences gave them careers their education or gender never prepared them for – and sometimes it was merely license to misbehave.  And wartime misbehaviour is Laski’s focus.

We meet Deborah Robertson just as her husband, Graham, is about to depart for Cairo.  Married for several years and parents to a young son, they are both upset at the idea of parting, trying to reassure one another of the strength of their passion.  Passion, rather than affection, is certainly the correct word and the shallowness of their relationship is made clear as Graham reassures his wife that he will “be missing you every hour of every day, thinking how bloody attractive you are.”  This is not a marriage of two minds, safe to say.

Before he leaves, Graham idiotically explains to his wife that the affairs he will have out East will only be with women he does not respect and so won’t mean anything and asks her to promise the same for her own affairs.  Deborah, claiming the moral high ground, asserts that she will be comforted by her love for him, will spend her time caring for their son, and will remain completely unchanged by their separation.

Subtlety is not Laski’s strong point (to be fair, she never attempts it) so, unsurprisingly, the rest of the book is about how unfaithful Deborah is and how much she changes.

Bored with her son and country life, Deborah soon seizes the chance to move to London on her own (leaving her son in the loving and much more capable hands of the housekeeper).  And even before she completes her move, she has her first affair.  It is a meaningless thing, done more out of a sense of inevitability than anything, but it sets her on a path that she soon finds impossible to give up.  Her attempts to abstain make her sour and petulant so, she decides, why not have fun.  To be twenty-four, beautiful and free in wartime London is a heady thing indeed.

One man leads to another, then another, and so on.  At first she can pretend love is involved but she soon realises that is not it.  Her relationships have nothing to do with her feelings about the men, except perhaps for what they can give her – beginning with nice meals out, stockings, perfume, small things.  But as she learns her new craft, her ambitions grow.  She looks at her friend Madeleine, far more used to this lifestyle than Deborah and able to attract what Deborah thinks of as “grown-ups”, and “longed to graduate into a class genuinely competitive with her, and yet had no notion of what qualities she lacked that consistently prevented her from doing so.”

Deborah figures out those qualities – with the not altogether willing assistance of a Frenchman whom she has poached from Madeleine – and from there her career as a tart is assured.  The men she sleeps with are barely people to her, only stepping stones on her path of self-improvement.  Her moral qualms disappear alarmingly quickly; it is much nicer to have a new bag or hat or piece of jewellery than anxieties.  And why shouldn’t she be happy rather than anxious or ashamed?  As she says:

“I know it’s better to be happy than unhappy, and not only for me but for my baby as well.  I like this sort of life, in fact, I love it, and seeing as how I’m hurting no one and doing myself quite a lot of good, I rather think I’ll carry on with it.  I’ve come to the conclusion that conventional morals were invented by a lot of unattractive bitches to make themselves feel good.”

Laski is extremely popular with Persephone readers and one of their best represented authors – they have reprinted five of her books now: Little Boy Lost, The Village, The Victorian Chaise-Longue, To Bed with Grand Music, and Tory Heaven.  And I can completely understand why.  She epitomizes the middle brow, writing about seemingly-serious topics in a titillating way with basic, extremely readable prose (Little Boy Lost is particularly difficult to put down).  Would I consider this a significant psychological portrait of a woman experiencing a moral crisis amidst a chaotic, collapsing social structure?  Hardly.  But, despite lacking nuance or depth, it is great fun.  Laski knew what people wanted: a bit of excitement and a touch of the taboo to keep them glued to the pages, confidently smug that they could never be as morally inept as Deborah.  It’s true but that is a very, very low bar to clear.

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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After reading 37 books by a single author, there comes the point when you think, “Surely to God I have read everything she wrote that was actually worth reading – and then some.”  At least, that was how I felt about D.E. Stevenson.  I read the good, I read the middling, and I read the bad (and I managed to review 20-odd of them).  And, after 37 books, I was pretty much done.  Until I wasn’t.  Knowing absolutely nothing about it, I decided on a whim to read Green Money and discovered that DES had basically decided to write a contemporary (for 1939) Georgette Heyer novel.  I was, understandably, delighted.

We meet our protagonist, George Ferrier, celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday with a little shopping on Bond Street.  After ten days of living it up in London and having his head turned by one pretty girl after another, he is heading home to the country but not before he has a fitting for a new pair of riding boots – hence Bond Street.  And it is in this Bond Street establishment that the fateful encounter occurs: George meets Mr. John Green, an old army friend of his father’s and now a very wealthy man.  The Ferriers live in rural obscurity – his scholarly father caught up in his studies, his horsey-mother caught up in the stables – so the families had not been in touch but it makes no matter.  A son of Ferrier senior must be a good sort.

Mr. Green quickly identified George – young, honest, good with people, and not overburdened with brains – as just the man he wants.  Mr. Green, though expecting to live for many years, wants to name a youthful trustee for his daughter in case anything should happen to him, his wife having died many years before.  There are three trustees already, middle-aged men like himself, but Green doesn’t think they’ll be of much use by the time he plans to die, many, many years from now.  So, he reasons, George is just the right man.  And the role of trustee is vital, he explains to George, since his beloved daughter is, like all women, “delicate, virginal, easily shocked and frightened.”  George, after a lifetime with his straight-talking Irish mother and decidedly capable female friends, tries to remain open minded but can’t quite square his new friend’s statement with the world as he knows it:

George had not thought of women in this light before, but he was always willing to consider a fresh point of view.  He thought of the various girls he knew: were they like flowers?  Not noticeably.  Were they delicate, virginal, easily shocked and frightened?  No, no, no.  He thought of his mother and smiled involuntarily.  “Oh, well!” he said.  “I dare say some girls may be like that.  I’ve always found them fairly hard boiled.”

George, as the story will bear out, has excellent people sense.  Mr. Green does not.

Unsurprisingly for the purposes of our story, Mr. Green soon dies and George comes into his duties several decades before he had expected to.  And this is where our Heyer-esque plot takes over.  George assumes partial guardianship of the teenaged Elma Green, who turns out to be breathtakingly beautiful but woefully ignorant of the real world.  Her governess, Miss Wilson (an exquisite creation), has raised her on 19th Century romantic novels and Elma has quite naturally turned into an outwardly docile creature, who meanwhile is longing for some sort of excitement.  Delightfully, her main ambition is to visit London and to see Vauxhall Gardens and the vulgar excesses she has read so much about (little knowing that Vauxhall closed 80 years before).  George is repelled rather than attracted by these antiquated manners and introduces his ward to the idea that men and women can be friends and that it’s not shame for a girl to have a bit of life in her.  It takes Elma a while to catch on but when she does…well, she’s a fast learner and, unfortunately for George, he isn’t her only instructor.

The complications are fast and furious.  George, confused by his sense of responsibility, wonders if he can possibly be in love with Elma when he spends most of his time wanting to escape her attentions.  George’s best friend, Peter Seeley, having fallen in love with Elma at first sight, is silently feuding with George, though George remains oblivious to this (as is common when you choose to feud silently).  George, his brain moving slowly but surely, begins to have his doubts about how Mr. Green’s estate is being handled.  Another trustee, concerned on a number of fronts, invites Elma and her governess to stay with his family at a seaside hotel frequented by some rather fast people where Elma, predictably, finds lots of trouble to get into.  And there is, as is only suitable in such a Heyer-esque novel, a updated 20th Century sort of elopement (headed for a hotel rather than Gretna Green).

I do love an exasperated hero running around trying to rescue an idiotic girl who has cheerfully dashed off to be ruined but I love it most when a) I am confident there is no possibility of romance between said hero and said idiotic girl, b) where there is a wonderfully capable heroine waiting patiently for our hero to realise he’s in love with her, and c) when I can be entertained along the way by entertaining supporting characters.  Green Money has it all.  Also, magic tricks.  But let us focus for a moment on the supporting characters.

Paddy, George’s mother, is Irish.  That’s basically it.  You can tell because she is obsessed with horses and speaks like Maureen O’Hara’s character from The Quiet Man every single time she opens her mouth.  She is wonderful though, a winning combination of loving and blunt, and is adored by her husband, son, and friends.  The Seeley family, the Ferriers’ neighbours and close friends, are a large family with lazy, rarely involved parents.  Of the children, adolescent daughter Dan is a particular favourite of George’s, eldest son Peter, a newly qualified doctor, is his best friend, and eldest daughter Cathy is…something.  Something very calming and certain and sensible and…well, you see where that is going.  And then, freshly introduced into George’s life, thanks to Elma, there is the magnificent Miss Wilson.  A governess at least one hundred years out of date, she is Elma’s prim and exasperated companion, who becomes utterly overwhelmed by her charge’s behaviour once they reach the resort.  She writes out her tale of woe to George and it causes confusion to him (and his parents, trying gamely to follow along as this farce progresses) and delight to the reader.  Miss Wilson, clearly, learned capitalization from Jane Austen (and D.E. Stevenson picked up a thing or two herself about comic old maids):

In the midst of my Anxiety and Trouble, I remembered Your Cryptic Words to which I was so misguided as to take exception.  You remarked that I should be well advised to keep my eye upon Elma!  I ask myself now, in the light of all that has happened, whether this remark was made with a Fuller Knowledge of the Pitfalls before me than I myself possessed.  At the time, of course, I was Confident of my Ability to watch my charge and to Guard and Guide her, no matter what Dangers or Difficulties should lie before us…

All ends well, naturally.  Those who are in love declare their love.  Those who want a quiet life return to the quiet life.  Those who want a horse, get a horse (that would be George’s mother, Paddy – remember, she is Irish.  As though you would ever be allowed to forget).  And I, happily, discovered that there was at least one D.E. Stevenson book left worth reading.

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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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I have a new book on my list of favourites and, much to my surprise, it’s by an author whose writing I had previously described as “a long-winded mess” and “a chore to work through to the finish”.  What is this delightful, joyful, life-changing (at least in my attitude towards its author) book you may ask?  The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp.

Published in 1933 (but recently reissued), the book begins several years earlier as twenty-nine-year old Lesley comes to a startling realisation after a dude of a date: she is not a woman that men fall in love with.  Yes, they flirt with her and try to get her into bed but when she meets a man she’d actually like to fall in love with – nothing.  No sparks whatsoever.  And if that is the case, she begins to wonder, what is the point of the whirlwind social life among artists and other bright young things, and the obsession with powdering, plucking, and painting herself into a modern beauty?

And so, in search of a purpose, she decides to adopt an orphaned four-year old boy (Pat) whom her aunt has unexpectedly been left in charge with.  In doing so, she realises she will have to leave her beloved London flat (no children allowed) and, at least for the next four years until he can be sent to boarding school, completely upend her well-ordered life.  It begins with a move to the country after having discovered she can’t afford anything suitable in town.  The suburbs, when suggested to her by estate agents, are completely out of the question:

Lesley listened incredulously: it was as though they advised her to try Australia.  There were the suburbs, of course, through which one occasionally passed in a car, and where people out of Punch borrowed each other’s mowers; but as for living there –

In the country, not surprisingly, everyone immediately assumes Pat is Lesley’s child.  She after all has all the markings of a frivolous, moral-less young thing likely to get herself into such a situation and then brazen it out.  It’s important to clarify the truth to a few people – the vicar and his wife, for instance, not because Lesley has taken up religion in any way but because they have four young children for Pat to play with which nicely occupies the bulk of his day – but after that Lesley couldn’t care less.  She is a practical young woman: what does it matter what the villagers think as she is only going to be there for four years?

But, inevitably as the years pass, Lesley finds herself being absorbed by country life.  She is on friendly terms with the neighbours but, most importantly, she makes a dear friend of Sir Philip, her landlord and an old school friend of her uncle’s.  Despite an awkward beginning (at their first meeting Sir Philip, a racy late Victorian at heart, was encouraged by her backless dress and painted beauty into a rather unwelcome advance) they become good friends able to speak very frankly to one another:

‘You are enjoying yourself,’ said Lesley.

Sir Philip grunted.

‘The modern woman,’ he said.  ‘Your grandmother, my dear, or even your mother, would at once have flown to my pillows.  Take some sherry.’

‘But your pillows are beautiful,’ protested Lesley, doing as she was told.  ‘Why should I come and disarrange them?’

‘Because I should like you to.  Because every man, when feeling a trifle uneasy, likes to believe that his women are feeling even more so.  It panders to our sense of superiority.’

Socially, that’s all Lesley requires.  Part of the joy of the book is that young Pat is relegated firmly to the background.  Lesley grows to care about him but, as other characters wonderingly remark, she doesn’t really love him or try to mother him.  She is simply there providing a modicum of adult supervision and, increasingly, fondness.  Lesley is much more interested in spending time with Sir Philip or making improvements to her awkward little cottage.  It is a life completely removed from the social whirlwind in which she used to exist and she blossoms.

But her London life does intrude every so often. Old friends descend on her cottage for a weekend, bringing with them noise, rudeness, and plenty of alcohol and cigarettes.  Her greatest London friend, Elissa, who “when given time to arrange her thighs, looked as thin as a toothpick”, soon forgets all about Lesley mouldering in the country and it is up to Lesley to keep up the friendship.  But encounters with her old crowd only serve to remind her how far she has drifted from them – and how happy she is to have done so.  She retains her love for London – for theatres and galleries and intellectual discussion – but is done with all the artifice of her former life.  She has figured out what matters to her and, as the book ends with Pat going off to school and Lesley regaining much of her freedom, she knows exactly how she plans to live.  And it seems her new life has room for that thing she had given up on only a few years before – love.

I adored this book.  Yes, the central message tends a little towards “reject modern womanhood and you will be healthier, happier, and more loveable” but it is so funny and so extraordinarily well written.  The completely lack of sentimentality is what really did it for me.  The premise – beautiful spinster adopts small boy – could be terrifyingly twee in another author’s hands but Sharp, who lives up to her name, wisely doesn’t try to turn Lesley into anything maternal.  In fact, Lesley almost immediately after taking charge of Pat wants to give him back.  They do not bond or say winsome things to one another, they merely get on in a spirit of peaceable companionship, each concerned with their own interests.  How wise!  I finished it completely delighted by its wit and heart and determined to read much, much more by Sharp.  Many thanks to Jane for organizing Margery Sharp Day (as part of her Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors), which gave me the impetus to read this.

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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“Daffodils” by Arthur Baker-Clark

The sun is out here this afternoon and everyone is wandering around, staring with confusion at blue skies, shadows, and other consequences of sunlight that have become foreign to us over the last few months of near-constant rain.  Most importantly, it feels, if only for a few hours, like spring is really coming and that the snow drops aren’t just here to lure us into a false sense of optimism.  Here’s hoping.

I’ve spent an entertaining weekend acting as moral support for my mother, who, at age 63, has decided she wants to sew again after abstaining for more than thirty years.  My grandmother was extraordinarily talented and my mother once upon a time was very good herself – they may have been poor when they immigrated to Canada but they were extraordinarily well-dressed.  My mother’s powder blue jumpsuit circa 1970 is still remembered fondly by every boy/man who ever saw her in it.  However, a busy corporate career, two time-consuming children, and a healthy disposable income had my mom cheerfully turning away from her sewing machine for the last several decades.  Now semi-retired and looking for hobbies, she’s decided this is the way to go.  I remember absolutely nothing about sewing so am in no way useful but I am a cheerful and positive presence (I am told) and am enjoying the entire process immensely.

What I am expert at is reading.  I’ve been reading steadily and am entertaining myself right now by flipping back and forth between The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh and The Blue Zones of Happiness by Dan Buettner.  The Blue Zones book looks at happiness research from around the world and identifies habits, attitudes, and structures from these places that people around the world can imitate to improve their own happiness.  Evelyn Waugh could have used some of these.  In his thirties he appears to have been merely rude and intent on making several enemies per year.  As he aged, he became exceeding ornery and determined to make enemies of everyone he met.  His much more charming correspondent, however, remains sunny and optimistic even when going through her own personal struggles.  And Mitford got to live in dynamic Paris rather than dreary England so that surely helped (echoing an important lesson of Buettner’s book: it’s hard to be happy in depressing surroundings, especially when all the people you see are also miserable).

These are probably the two most interesting books I’ve read all month.  Here’s a taste of a few other things I’ve been reading that weren’t quite worthy of getting their own dedicated posts:

Yeoman’s Hospital by Helen Ashton (1944) – this story of a day in the life of a country hospital was a bit too slow moving and detailed for me.  I like the idea and the doctor characters were nicely done but the story dragged terribly every time the focus shifted to the nursing staff.  While there is no obvious war-related storyline, it’s interesting to see how social changes wrought by the war are integrated into the story.  For example, when the senior doctors are considering filling positions they remark on how the most capable young doctors available are generally women since the best men are enlisted.  This is certainly reflected in their hospital staff: one of the central characters is a very accomplished female doctor whose skills are never in doubt.  She does have a needlessly overwrought romantic life, though, which makes for one of the tiring plotlines in an already tired novel.  Definitely not Ashton’s best and easily skippable.

The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill (1982) – I found a book where Hill isn’t immensely annoying in every second paragraph!  This chronicle of a year of country life is beautifully observed and elegantly written.  It isn’t quite up to the standard of books like A Country Life by Roy Strong or Adrian Bell’s trilogy (starting with Corduroy) but it was a very pleasant read.  She is particularly good in writing about winter and autumn (her favourite season) and conjuring up cosy indoor scenes and spartan outdoor ones.

Miss Billy by Eleanor H. Porter (1911) – this sounded charming: the story of an eighteen-year old girl who, when her last surviving relative dies, seeks out her father’s closest friend (William) after whom she (Billy) was named.  William generously invites her to come make her home with him and his two younger brothers only realising her gender when he goes to meet her at the train station.  Cute, yes?  In execution, it’s awfully bad.  Billy is annoying from her first appearance, not a single character is fleshed out enough to ever become interesting, and the plot is both flimsy and absurd.  Billy is paired up with each of the brothers at one point or another and it’s all very unconvincing.  The main point in the book’s favour is how short it is and I finished it with relief.  What is truly horrifying is that there are two sequels!

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Åkeson McGurk (2017) – McGurk, Swedish by birth, was living and raising her children in Indiana with her American husband when her father became ill.  Wanting to be closer to him while he went through treatment, she moved to Sweden for six months with her two daughters while her husband remained in America.  Having been frustrated by how difficult it was to get her girls in America to enjoy the outdoorsy lifestyle she grew up with (concerned neighbours often stopped their cars to offer her a life when they saw her – well dressed for the elements – out walking in rain, snow or cold weather) she is excited to see how they will react to life in Sweden, where active lifestyles are the norm and schools prioritize outdoor playtime.

The verdict?  The secret to Swedish parenting is to make your children go outside in all weather and to teach them from childhood to enjoy nature as part of their daily life.  I grew up and live in a very outdoorsy place so there was lots familiar from the Swedish approach but the institutional issues McGurk saw in the US education system (particularly reduced time for outdoor play during recess and lunchtimes) are definitely things we’re seeing – with concern – here in Canada as well.  Overall, very entertaining and sensible.

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