14 January 2018

Waiting for Spring...and three new books!

The sun is showing itself a little more lately but Spring is still too far away for my liking.  I'm putting off this morning's walk with Kip in the hope it will warm up a few degrees.  It's -17C, which stings a bit, so the length of time to layer up is usually longer than the walk itself.  So while we wait....a few new books.

The Illustrated Letters of Virginia Woolf - Selected and introduced by Frances Spalding, bought while in Toronto recently to visit two exhibits at the Royal Ontario Museum.  The Vikings and Dior exhibits are fascinating and couldn't be more stimulating in asking you to switch gears in such opposing interests.  If you can, do visit!  I digress....this illustrated book of letters is beautifully put together, featuring letters to family and friends.  Some of which I'm familiar with, and some I am not.  A very enticing way to learn more about key figures in Virginia Woolf's life and twentieth-century literary circles.

London Garden by Roger Fry

And nearly every page includes a sketch, photograph, or painting.  Duncan Grant's mother learned to cross stitch so she could transfer some of his designs into textiles.  One scene, a view from a window, must have taken ages so it's fair to say that his mother was a firm supporter of his craft.

Lytton Strachey by Vanella Bell (1912)

Naturally, works by Vanessa Bell feature as well, including some of her cover designs for Virginia's novels.

This book would thrill anyone interested in Virginia Woolf, the Bloomsbury Group or literary London, so a perfect gift for someone special or a nice addition to your own collection.

Two other additions I'm very happy about are Stella Gibbons' final novel The Yellow Houses and Henry Green's Concluding.  My plan is to head straight into the latter book once I've finished the Cazalet series, it sounds irresistible and Green considered it his finest work.

'...set in a single summer day - has at its heart old Mr. Rock, a famous retired scientist: he lives in a cottage on the grounds of a girls boarding school.  Living with him are Elizabeth, his somewhat unstrung granddaughter; his white cat, Alice; his white goose, Ted; and his white pig, Daisy.  Miss Edge and Miss Baker - the harpies who run the school - scheme to dislodge him from the cottage.  It is the day of the school's annual Founder's Ball, but when two schoolgirls vanish, chaos and confusion ensue: no one is able to agree on what to do.  The day unfolds in flashes and jumps - searches, a love affair, worries, small joys, that magnificent pig, deep longings, the dance, old dreams, and low ambitions all crowd together...'

When a synopsis brings a smile to your face by the end of the first sentence, there's nothing else to do but reach for your wallet.

Now it's time for that walk......

5 January 2018

Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard

*No spoilers

My affection for the world of the Cazalet family continues.  In book three, the weariness of WWII has reached the Sussex countryside.  Rich joints of meat aren't as plentiful as they once were, now often replaced by tinned meat, and bread appears to have taken on something of a grey hue.  Trips to Hermione's dress shop are rare, while the mention of pins, needles, and the 'making over' of clothes has increased.  Material for dresses is rationed but good quality bed sheets are a clever substitute.  Servants are abandoning domestic service for war work while Polly and Clary Cazalet are as much a team as ever.  Their discussions about the war and relationships have less mystery attached to them, and I wondered if the author took pleasure in speaking through them at times.

    'I don't think women are allowed to do any really interesting jobs.  They're allowed to get killed in a war, but not to do any of the killing back.  Another injustice for you.    'You know perfectly well, Clary, that you would absolutely loathe to kill anyone.'    'That's not the point.  The point is that if women had an equal responsibility about wars, we probably wouldn't have them.  That's my view.'

A familiar topic in novels set during wartime is extramarital affairs.  I found myself cheering one character on, felt dread about another, and wanted (quite desperately) to slap a a third character.  In one scene, Howard brilliantly captured the horror of a dignified woman, full of anticipation for an assignation with a like-minded man, only to find herself in a rubbish-strewn borrowed flat for a quickie.  The rose-coloured haze through which many people from the middle-class experienced life, now has a somewhat tarnished hue.

It's also been interesting to compare, then and now, the subtle interest in Americans suddenly popping up in relationships with English citizens.  And the other way around...

'I was just wondering how many parents are sitting over coffee in America reading letters from their twenty-year-old sons saying that they've fallen in love with Grizelda Wickham-Painswich-Wickham or Queenie Bloggs and how much they are looking forward to introducing them to the family.  I'm sure we're not alone, if that's any comfort.'

Trips into London to attend secretarial classes, check on a pied-a-terre, or meet with a lover, are not overly associated with descriptions of cavernous holes in the street or rubble-strewn neighbourhoods.  So if you're looking for vivid scenes of the Blitz and damp air-raid shelters, you won't find much of that here, but the social history lessons continue.  For example, I had no idea that the tops of some pillar boxes were painted with a gas-detecting paint that was lime green in colour.  And that a perfume from Hattie Carnegie could be so desirable....with a name like 'Beige'.  Has anyone played a card game called Bezique?  It was said to be a favourite of Winston Churchill and he was something of an expert at it.

Buying all five books in this series was the right thing to do.  Book three closes with the end of the war, leaving the reader to wonder who will be returning to Home Place and how much damage has been left in its wake.

31 December 2017

Best of 2017

This is my favourite time of year in the blogsphere.  I love discovering the hits and misses with other readers and how they've measured up against their bookish goals.

Over the years I've discovered that I'm completely useless when it comes to any sort of restrictions on book buying.  A previous pledge to join a guilt-ridden group of people promising to read from their own shelves for one year lasted a mere four days.  My envy of readers who manage to complete a novel every three days...well, it's defeatist, isn't it.  And I've learned to quell my excitement for group read-alongs as they often begin just as I'm thoroughly engrossed in something else.  But at the heart of it all is our shared love of books and the joy of reading, regardless of output or goals. 

So without further ado, the following are my top five reads of 2017 (in no particular order).  Can I cheat and count the whole Cazalet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard as outstanding?  Also, a special mention goes to Pure Juliet by Stella Gibbons.

Happy New Year to everyone visiting here!  It was - 24C in my part of Ontario this morning so there will be no celebrating in a little black dress but a bit of port should do quite nicely.

Edit - The Persephone title isn't legible, my apologies....it's Long Live Great Bardfield: the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood.

11 December 2017

Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard

And so life with the Cazalets continues at Home Place and in various boroughs of London in this second book of the Cazalet Chronicles.  The list of characters has expanded to include a few more extended family members, mercifully introduced in slow drips making it easy to keep everyone connected to the correct family tree.  Marking Time begins during the phoney war, when the build up to the declaration of war seemingly amounts to nothing at all, making citizens question the need for gas masks, evacuation, and sandbagging.  Infrequent sightings of planes flying high over the countryside barely register a thought and so the Cazalets go about their business as usual.

The title perfectly describes the sentiment expressed by some of the characters as common sense dictates that no large scale plans should be made, travel is limited, spending should be kept to a minimum, and making-do is simply matter-of-fact.  Although, as the young girls are sprouting into adolescence they'll require a few new articles of clothing from London.  As the days and weeks roll into months, the boys wonder (and worry) about the possibility of being called upon to enlist.  When bombing raids begin in earnest, the Cazalet men sign up for assignments while Hugh, disabled in the last war, struggles to run the family's lumber business.

My affection for Miss Milliment continues to grow as she plants the seed of higher education with the younger girls.

'I had been meaning to suggest this little plan to Clary's father and your parents but circumstances have made that difficult or impossible in dear Clary's case.  But a university education could do so much to widen the possibilities of a useful and interesting career'.  She peered at Polly through her tiny, thick steel-rimmed spectacles.  'I do not sense very much enthusiasm,' she said, 'but I should so much like you to think about it'.

Having lived a fairly meagre existence, it would be easy for Miss Milliment to view the young girls' privilege with resentment.  But her subtle suggestions regarding further education show the depth of caring she has for her charges.  I absolutely adore her and, in my mind, she's become a bit like Nurse Phyllis Crane from Call the Midwife with her words of comfort and advice.   Although, frustration may lie ahead for Miss Milliment as at least one parent is not at all interested in having a Bluestocking for a daughter.

Without giving away too much, one of the characters is diagnosed with a serious illness.  Elizabeth Jane Howard's skill at writing dialogue for inquisitive children as they question what they observe, but don't understand, is touching and very well done.  Whether intentional or not, I was struck by just how much the children spoke about the mysteries of life, while the adults remained silent and secretive about certain situations. 

Being very much a novel of time and place, my education surrounding life in 1940s England has delightfully increased.  The mention of such things as senna pods sent me straight to google (for regularity) as did Marie biscuits (very like a Rich Tea biscuit) and Volpar Gel (a spermicide).  Tangee lipstick in cyclamen was extremely popular, and you were very lucky if your jumper survived more than a few years due to moths in the cupboard.  It's details such as these, dotted throughout, that make such novels so much more than kitchen dramas; this is social history at its most entertaining.

Under the category of First World Problems I've wondered about turning to Christmas reading for the rest of December, but I just can't tear myself away from the Cazalets.  So it's on to book three....

Woman Knitting by Mavis Blackburn (1923 - 2005)