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This reminds me eerily of my friend’s rec room growing up (and of how much I hate sectional sofas).

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland – Memoirs by American expats who move to Paris are always popular – you just don’t expect them to also be written by famous movie stars.  Originally published in the early 1960s, this was reissued in 2016 in celebration of de Havilland’s 100th birthday so is readily available.

The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman – I adored Rachman’s first book, The Imperfectionists, about the staff of an English-language newspaper in Rome, and also loved his second, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.  Now he’s back with a new novel focused on a man trying to make peace with his famous father’s legacy.

The Times Great Letters – the internet is good for many things but it is bad for those of us who like nothing better than over-educated people writing letters to newspaper editors.  Or, best of all, people who carry on complicated feuds via the newspaper’s letters to the editor section.  To see us through this new, dark age there is this new-ish collection of notable letters from the last 100 years.  And, thank god, the always reliable letters to the editor section of The Economist.

A garden-themed trio!

Natural Selection by Dan Pearson – a selection of gardening articles Pearson wrote over ten years for The Observer.  Also, inexplicably, the heaviest book I have held in quite some time.

Rhapsody in Green by Charlotte Mendelson – this is the gazillionth time I’ve borrowed this BUT I am actually reading it for the first time (go me!!!!).  And it’s wonderful.  Mendelson’s pieces on life as a passionate, vegetable-obsessed, urban gardener are just right for me this week (as I struggle with my own small city garden and vegetable seeds).

Orchard House by Tara Austen Weaver – a memoir of a mother and daughter rebuilding their relationship while reviving an abandoned garden in Seattle.

Life without a Recipe by Diana Abu-Jaber – I loved Abu-Jaber’s food-focused memoir of her childhood, The Language of Baklava, last year (it almost made my best books of 2017 list) and am looking forward to this sequel, which continues her story into adulthood.

End of the Rope by Jan Redford – a memoir from a local author earning comparisons to Wild, about climbing mountains and finding herself.

Hiddensee by Gregory Maguire – It’s been a long time since I read any of Maguire’s books but, feeling in the mood for something fairy tale-inspired (and still months away from the release of the last book in Katherine Arden’s Russian fairy tale-inspired trilogy) I’ve picked up this tale based on the Nutcracker.

What did you pick up this week?

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).  

credit: Bruce Wilkin Design

A simple, symmetrical room is always a good look.

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.

I seem to make a habit of reading memoirs by famous authors before I ever read any of the books that made them famous.  And you know what?  I like it.  It’s an interesting way to approach a new author, learning first about them and then their works.  And it can make you so, so much more eager to read their other books than you would otherwise have been.  At least, that was the case for me when I read When I Was a Little Boy by Erich Kästner.  Kästner won fame for his many successful children’s novels (most notably, Emil and the Detectives and Lottie and Lisa, the inspiration for The Parent Trap) and it is for children that he wrote this beautiful memoir of his own childhood in Dresden.  Recently reissued as a beautiful Slightly Foxed edition, it is now readily available in English for the first time since the 1950s.

Kästner was born in 1899 into a humble family.  His father, Emil, was trained as a saddlemaker but worked for a luggage maker in Dresden while his mother, Ida, had worked as a maid but retrained as a hairdresser when Erich was small so she could work independently.  It was not an affectionate marriage but nor was it a hostile one; it was simply a mismatch.  Ida had never been in love with her husband but had agreed to the match on the urging of her sisters, whose logic seemed pretty solid:

What did a young girl know about love, anyway?  Moreover, love came with marriage.  And even if it did not come, it didn’t matter all that much; for married life really consisted in working, saving, cooking and bearing children.  Love was no more important than a Sunday hat.

In this case, love didn’t come but, as the sisters had advised, it didn’t really matter.  Because there was Erich, her one child, and Ida loved him totally and completely.  Amid the darkness of her internal life (Erich came home to suicide notes several times, which would send him frantic out into the streets to search for her, terrified he might be too late this time), she had a son who lit up her world.  Emil is fondly mentioned but it was Ida who dominated young Erich’s childhood.  He was her life and it was a responsibility he took seriously, trying to live up to all her hopes and dreams for him:

Ida Kästner wanted to be a perfect mother to her boy.  And because she so much wanted to be that, she had no consideration for anyone, not even for herself, and she became the perfect mother.  All her love and imagination, all her industry, every moment of her time, her every thought – in fact her whole existence she staked, like a frenzied gambler, on one single card – on me!  Her stake was her whole life to its last breath.

I was the card, so I simply had to win.  I dared not disappoint her.  That was why I became the best pupil in the school and the best-behaved son possible at home.  I could not have borne it if she had lost her great game.  Since she wanted to be and was the perfect mother, for me, her trump card, there seemed no choice but to become the perfect son.  Did I become this?  I certainly tried to.  I had inherited her talents – her energy, her ambition and her intelligence.  That was at least something to begin with.  And when I, her sole capital and stake, sometimes felt really tired of always winning and of only winning, one thing and one things only kept me going: I truly loved that perfect mother.  I loved her very much indeed.

Ida wasn’t as overwhelming as that may make her sound.  She and Erich were also the best of friends, taking hiking holidays together throughout the country, and Erich had his freedom, indeed a shocking amount of freedom compared to children these days.  At seven, he was extraordinarily proud to be allowed to walk to school all alone.  Except he wasn’t entirely alone.  Years later, Ida admitted that she would see Erich off from home and then surreptitiously trail him all the way to school, ducking behind other pedestrians if it looked at all like Erich might turn around and spot her.  He had his freedom and she had her reassurance.  Everyone was happy.

With a mother like Ida, it is no surprise that Erich had a carefully planned life: he studied hard and was to become a teacher, inspired by the teachers who had boarded with the Kästner family.  But when he actually stood in front of a class for the first time in his mid-teens, he (and they) realised he had no aptitude for it.  And so a new and rather extraordinary plan was hatched: he, the son of a saddlemaker and a maid, would go to the university.  And, after serving in the First World War, he did.  To his mother’s extreme pride, naturally.

But a memoir of childhood is not really about planning and career plotting.  It is snapshots of nostalgia-tinged moments: of walks through the beautiful city with his father, of visits to his rich but mean maternal uncle, of hiking holidays with his mother, of the sad demise of his zuckertüten (sugar cone – a traditional gift for students on their first day of school), in short, of all the really important but insignificant moments that make up a childhood, the memory of which never seems to dull:

‘More than fifty years have passed since then,’ declares the calendar, that horny old bookkepper in the office of history, who controls chronology and with ink and ruler marks the leap years in blue and draws a red line at the beginning of each century. ‘No!’ cries memory, shaking her curly locks. ‘It was only yesterday.  Or at most the day before,’ she adds softly with a little laugh.  Which of them is wrong?

They are both right, for there are two kinds of time.  The one kind can be measured with instruments and calculations, just like streets or plots of ground.  But the other chronology, our memory, has nothing to do with metres and months, decades or acres.  What we have forgotten is old.  The unforgettable was yesterday.  The measure here is not the time but the value.  And the most precious of all things, whether happy or sad, is our childhood.  Do not forget the unforgettable.  I believe that this advice cannot be given early enough.

Isn’t that nicely put?  I loved the writing in this book.  I loved Kästner’s optimistic view of the world, despite the difficult elements of life (which he does not shy away from discussing), and his frequent asides to his readers, his earnest desire to pass on what he knows.  He is writing for you, whoever you are.  This story is meant to be shared with you.

By the time Kästner was writing in 1957, he was living in Munich.  He’d gone to university in Leipzig, spent almost twenty years in Berlin, and had settled in Munich after his Berlin home was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid.  And yet the city that retained all his love and affection was the Dresden of his childhood, a city of beauty and history and one he knew intimately from years of wanderings – a city whose death he was still mourning:

Dresden was a wonderful city, full of art and history, yet with none of the atmosphere of a museum which happened to house, along with its treasures, six hundred and fifty thousand Dresdeners.  Past and present lived in perfect unity, or rather duality, and blended and harmonized with the landscape – the Elbe, the bridges, the slopes of the surrounding hills, the woods, the mountains which fringed the horizon – to form a perfect trinity.  From Meissen Cathedral to the Castle Park of Groszsedlitz, history, art and nature intermingled in town and valley in an incomparable accord which seemed as though bewitched by its own perfect harmony.

[…]

Yes, Dresden was a wonderful city.  You may take my word for it.  And you have to take my word for it, because none of you, however rich your father may be, can go there to see if I am right.  For the city of Dresden is no more.  It has vanished, except for a few fragments.  In one single night and with a single movement of its hand the Second World War wiped it off the map.  It had taken centuries to create its incomparable beauty.  A few hours sufficed to spirit it off the face of the earth.

The Frauenkirche today, rebuilt and much brighter than the pollution-stained black church Kästner was used to from his childhood

I wonder what Kästner would make of Dresden today, with the Old Town skyline now restored to its pre-war image.  Would he find the Frauenkirche, with its painted “marble” columns, unbearably tacky or reassuringly familiar?  What would he make of the modern additions?  I suspect he would find it disconcerting – elements of the familiar in juxtaposed with the new.  And even if it looks the same, you can’t get rid of the memory that it wasn’t just buildings that were destroyed in those few days but also 25,000 people.  In all the ways that mattered, the city of his childhood was gone.

I loved this book.  I loved reading about Dresden, a city I dearly love, as it was more than a hundred years ago; I loved reading about how young Erich spent his days, learning about the norms of boyhood in a time and place long gone; I loved the simple sketches throughout, illustrating Erich’s various adventures; and I truly loved old Erich’s fondness for it all.  Another really wonderful choice from Slightly Foxed.

 

credit: Ikea

The always iconic, always practical Billy shelf. I also just really love half-height bookshelves.

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

It turns out I was a little precipitous in my last Loot post when I optimistically declared that my non-reading days were over.  They were not.  I have managed to read a grand total of 0 of those books.  All I can say in my defense is that sunshine is very distracting.  Also, I have discovered The West Wing Weekly podcast, which is allowing me to obsess over the my-all-time-favourite TV show while enjoying walks in the sunshine.  It’s the definition of a win-win.  Unless you are a neglected book.

Undaunted, I have brought home more books to keep the neglected ones company.

The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson – Groundbreaking.  Radical.  Contemporary.  These are the kind of words being used to describe Wilson’s recent translation.  Shockingly, this is the first (published) English-language translation of The Odyssey by a woman.  And isn’t that a bleak thought.

The Ivory Door by A.A. Milne – more Milne for A Century of Books.

North by Brontë Aurell – continuing the publishing obsession with all things Scandinavian, this is much, much funnier than I expected from it’s hipster-aesthetic design while also managing to provide lots of fascinating info.

Honey for Tea by Elizabeth Cadell – a little something soft and undemanding.  This sounds like classic Cadell.

Green Money by D.E. Stevenson – okay, this is the one book I have managed to read lately – and one of the few D.E. Stevenson titles I had not read before.

The Tourist Guide by Jaroslav Hašek – Short stories from the author of The Good Soldier Švejk.

What did you pick up this week?

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).