Friday, 30 March 2012

Cookery and Crime - Venetian Style

The return of the Bucentaur to the Molo on Ascension Day,
by Canaletto shows an 18th century view of Venice.
I’m a vegetarian, and whilst I do cook meat for people, it takes a lot to make me feel that I’d like to eat it – but that’s exactl what Donna Leon’s Wilful Behaviour did. Now I know it may seem strange to write about food when reviewing a detective novel, but eating and drinking looms large in the life of Venetian policeman Commissario Guido Brunetti, and the food sounds so wonderful it cannot be ignored.

For example, early on in the novel Leon tells us:

In keeping with the change in season, Paola had made rissotto di zucca and into it at the last minute had tossed slivers of grated ginger, its sharp bite softened to amiability by the chunk of butter and the grated parmigiano that had chased it into the pot. The mingled tastes drove all dread of Raffi’s music from Brunetti’s mind, and the chicken breast grilled with sage and white wine that followed replaced that music with what Brunetti thought must be the sound of angels’ singing.

The Brdge of Sighs.
I just love the description of the ginger ‘softened to amiability’, and I can taste the flavours of the pumpkin risotto, and smell the chicken as it cooks. Then there’s the Braeburn, slice of Montasio, and glass of Calvados which Brunetti has to follow. It’s the exactitude of the menu that I enjoy: this is not any old apple, cheese or brandy - they are specific varieties, and excellent varieties at that. And the theme of special food continues when Brunetti tells his wife Paola ‘I will cover you in diamonds the size of walnuts, place pearls as white as truffles at your feet, pluck emeralds as large as kiwi fruit’.

Another day when Brunetti goes home for lunch he finds Paola has

... bought an entire sea bass and baked it with fresh artichokes, lemon juice and rosemary. With it she served a platter the size of an inner tube filed with tiny roast potatoes, also lightly sprinkled with rosemary. Then, to clear the palate, a salad of rucola and radicchio. They finished with baked apples. 

Life is obviously different and more leisurely in Venice. Can you imagine a British policeman (or anyone else for that matter) having the time to go home for a mid-day feast like that, cooked from fresh ingredients, and followed by a glass of Grappa?

And evening meals are just as wonderful. On one occasion, after a starter of spinach and ricotta crepes, Brunetti watches

... an enormous frying pan filled with stewed rabbit with what looked to him, as she set it down in the centre of the table, like olives. “And walnuts?’ he asked, pointing to some small tan chunks that lay on the top..

In it is some celery ‘for the taste’ and the ‘usual spices’, and as he eats Brunetti tries to decide if Paola has added bay leaf as well as rosemary. In addition there is a ‘platter of small roasted potatoes and zucchini cooked with thin slices of almonds’ and a sip of plum liquor after the meal.

A Venetian vaporetto, or water bus.
Food and drink are just as important to other characters. A doctor recommends linden tea and honey to help a murder victim’s flatmate recover from shock, and while talking to the police the girl remembers how the dead student sometimes brought home cookies, or cake with almonds in it.

This almost obsessive detail about food and drink is present in all the Brunetti books I’ve read, and is very much part of the Commissario’s character. I adore Brunetti because he’s so reassuringly normal and human. Unlike many fictional detectives he’s not a flawed human being battling his own deep-set psychological problems: he’s well read, intelligent, sensitive, loves his wife and children, is loyal to his friends, and enjoys the good things of life, not just fine food and drink, but flowers, beautiful paintings, and a sunny day. His son and daughter bicker about silly things, while he and Paola disagree on many issues, but obviously love each other. He is, above all, an honourable man, who sticks to his principles and is not afraid to stand up for what he believes is right – not always easy in a Venice where corruption seems to be commonplace.

Views of the city are part of the charm of the books. Brunetti travels the canals by vaporetto and walks through streets and squares, giving us glimpses of churches, bridges, the Arsenale, a stone relief of a turbaned merchant leading his camel.

Where, you may ask, is the crime in all this? Well, the crime is there, as much a part of Brunetti’s life as his family and the city itself. This particular novel begins when a student of Brunetti’s wife asks if a person who has died can be pardoned for something they were put on trial for. Brunetti has little to go on, but things take a sinister turn when the girl is stabbed to death, and his investigations reveal a web of deceit and lies stretching back to Italy’s Fascist past, looted works of art, and an old love affair.

Along the way he ponders the nature of truth, beauty and honour, reflects on human nature, and considers the reasons for crime and killing. Now I realise I’ve said very little about his methods, or his relationships with his colleagues and contacts, but that provides me with plenty of scope to write about the wonderful Commissario Guido Brunetti on another occasion. And in the meantime, if you’ve never read one of these books please, please, give them a try – they really are worth it. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

This Book is Bonkers but Brilliant

A book featuring Sherlock Holmes living in retirement in rural Sussex, keeping bees, and taking as his apprentice a stroppy, super-intelligent, American girl of 15, sounds bonkers, especially when you realise is set firmly in the 20th century. It won’t work, I thought. It can’t work. But, amazingly, it does work, and The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R King is very good indeed.

King is a very intelligent writer, who has researched her period (the action mostly takes place during the First World War) and knows her Holmes – the plot is the equal of anything written by Conan Doyle, and is a real nail-biting affair, but I’ll try not to give too much away. The story is recounted by orphaned Mary Russell, who is 15 when she first meets Holmes. Feisty, and independent, her quick wit and intelligence are a match for Holmes’ own mental powers. The pair form an unlikely friendship, and gradually he teaches her about his methods of deduction, and explains the art of disguise (she spends a lot of time dressed as a young lad). Together they solve a case where four hams and the day’s takings are stolen from a local pub, find the cause of a landowner’s mysterious illness, rescue the kidnapped daughter of an American senator.

But there are more serious matters afoot: Holmes is injured when a bomb explodes in a beehive, and Mary, who is now studying at Oxford, also find her life is threatened. As the two sleuths embark on a chase to find who is responsible, their adversary always seems to be one step ahead, but when they finally discover the identity of their attacker a shocking secret is uncovered, revealing hidden links with an old enemy. The story is fast paced with plenty of action, moving from the Sussex Downs to Oxford, London, the isolated Welsh countryside, and Palestine. However, there’s enough mental puzzling to keep you guessing about the outcome, as well as a plethora of quotes and allusions on a range of topics, including religion, mathematics and philosophy.
One of Sydney Paget's illutsrations for Arthur Conan Doyle's
Sherlock |Holmes stories , showing Holmes (right) and
Dr Watson.
Mrs Hudson is there, housekeeping for Holmes as she did at 221b Baker Street, and Dr Watson puts in an appearance, older and stouter than he was, but still given to drawing the wrong conclusion. Holmes’ brother Mycroft, his high-level political connections as mysterious ever, also has a key role to play, but Inspector Lestrange, from Scotland Yard, has been replaced by his son, who works alongside Holmes.

Oddly enough, Holmes’ retirement to the country, is not as ridulous as it initially sounds. As far as the bees go, studying their behaviour patterns and social structure would, I think, provide a perfect interest for Holmes with his obsessive eye for detail and accuracy. It is, somehow, in keeping with his character. And the move to a cottage in the country is just as plausible if you believe the aging detective has become disillusioned with humanity. But as the book progresses it becomes obvious that he is still called on to solve crimes and that he also undertakes some kind of covert intelligence work.. His mental faculties are as strong as they were, he is still a master of disguise, his network of spies and informants is as reliable as ever, and his ‘bolt holes’ provide a safe hideaway at a moment’s notice – which made me wonder if his ‘retirement’ is just a ruse enabling him keep a low profile. King makes him more humane than he appears in Conan Doyle’s stories, but manages to preserve the original characterisation, whilst altering it in a credible way – after all, people do change over the years.  

I don’t always like prequels or sequels written by authors themselves, let alone those penned by other writers, but I make an exception for this. I really enjoyed it, and it left me wanting to read the rest of the series.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Haunting Horrors of WWI

So much has been written – and continues to be written – about the First World War that sometimes it’s difficult knowing what to say about a book, especially when the volume in question has become a classic, but Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth remains one of the most definitive accounts of the war that decimated the lives of a generation.

In the immediate aftermath Bright Young Things partied as I there were no tomorrow, for nothing seemed to matter any longer. They drank and danced and took drugs to forget what they’d seen and heard, to dull the grief for those who had gone and, perhaps, to kill the fear that death and destruction lay just around the corner, and there were no longer any certainties in life. Many artists and writers seem to have viewed life in a similar way, living for the moment, doing what they wanted, and pushing the boundaries in their artistic and private lives and using their wartime experiences as the basis for their work.

But Vera Brittain was one of the people who hoped a better world would evolve from the slaughter and desolation, and she poured her energies into campaigning for peace, in a bid to ensure there would never again be such a terrible conflict. And, while authors like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Graves wrote unforgettable fiction about the war, she wrote an autobiography which contains some of the most haunting – and moving – descriptions about the horrors of WWI that you are ever likely to read.

Her book covers the period from 1900 to 1925, and there are tremendous contrasts between the war years, and what happened before and after. She had a sheltered and privileged upbringing, and overcame family opposition to gain a place at Oxford at a time when women were still struggling to be considered as serious scholars. However, a year later, in 1915, she joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and spent the rest of the war nursing in military hospitals in London, Malta, and close to the front line in France.

Her fiancé, brother, and two other close male friends were all killed, and her description of conditions in the hospitals, and the terrible injuries suffered by the men, and the grief and anguish of those who survived, is still shocking.  Almost a century has elapsed since the outbreak of the First World War, but the passing of time has done nothing to lessen the impact, and Brittain’s words moved me to tears, as well as evoking rage and pity.

As the war progresses notions of idealism, patriotism and glory are blown to shreds, just like the men who died on the battlefields of France. In March 1918, ‘standing in a newly created circle of hell’ she gazes:

... half-hypnotized, at the disheveled beds, the stretchers on the floor, the scattered boots and piles of muddy khaki, the brown blankets turned back from smashed limbs bound to splints by filthy blood-stained bandages. Beneath each stinking wad of sodden wool and gauze an obscene horror waited for me – and all the equipment I had for attacking it in this ex-medical ward was one pair of forceps standing in a potted-meat glass half full of methylated spirit. 
Part of the  military camp and hospital
 at Etaples, where
Vera Brittain was based
for a time during WWI.
She manages to get some medical supplies from the stores, a sister arrives to help and they cope, sending newly bandaged men to be shipped back to England and laying out the dead ‘too hurried to be reverent’. For nearly a month, she says, the camp resembled a Gustave Doré illustration to Dantes’ Inferno:

By day, a thudding crescendo in the distance, by night sharp flashes of fire in the sky, told us that the war was already close upon their heels. Nearer at hand, a ceaseless and deafening road roar filled the air. Motor lorries and ammunition wagons cashed endlessly along the road; trains with reinforcements thundered all day up the line, or lumbered down more slowly with their heavy freight of wounded. Even the stretcher cases came to us in their trench-stained khaki, with only the clothing round the wound roughly torn away; often their congealed blood fastened them firmly to the canvas, and we had to cut it before we could get them free.

There is no time to tidy the wards, for the work is never finished, as one convoy replaces another, and she is glad not to be nursing German prisoners any longer, for she feels ‘social tact’ would be too difficult on both sides.  Elsewhere she tells of the effects of mustard gas in its early stages, when she could see:

...  the poor things burnt and blistered all over, with great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes – sometimes temporally (sic}, sometimes permanently – all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke. The only thing one can say is that such severe cases don’t last long; either they die soon or else improve- usually the former... 
Part of the Etapes cemetery and monument..
Overall, it’s a harrowing read, but it’s not all as dark and grim as you might think. There’s a touching moment when Brittain picks a pink geranium from the grave of a young soldier, and sends it, carefully wrapped, to his mother. And, despite the horror, and the grief and pity, there are comic moments, jokes are shared, friendships formed and there is occasional time for enjoyment - in Malta she admires the profusion of wild flowers and attends the opera.

In a way the final part of the book, charting Brittain’s life after the war, is almost unnecessary – or, perhaps, it should have been another book altogether.  For when the war ends she cannot celebrate or feel joy. It is too late for her, she says, as those she loved have gone, and her past life has vanished with them and she adds: “The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.”
This was posted for the War Through the Generations WWI Challenge - click on the picture to find out more.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Nine Tailors

The opening of The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L Sayers, has to be one of the most atmospheric of any novel. Here we are in the wintry, bleak, isolated East Anglian fens with Lord Peter Wimsey:

Coming a trifle too fast across the bridge, blinded by the bitter easterly snowstorm, he had overshot the road and plunged down the side of the dyke into the deep ditch beyond, where the black spikes of a thorn hedge stood bleak and unwelcoming in the glare of the headlights. Right and left, before and behind, the fen lay shrouded. It was past four o’clock and New Year’s Eve; the snow that had fallen all day gave back a glimmering greyness to a sky like lead.

He and his man Bunter set off to seek help.

They wrapped their coats about them and turned their faces to the wind and snow. To left of them, the drain ran straight as a rule could make it, black and sullen, with steep bank shelving down to its slow, unforgiving waters. To their right was the broken line of the sunken hedge, with, here and there, a group of poplars or willows. They tramped on in silence, the snow beating on their eyelids. At the end of a solitary mile the gaunt shape of a windmill loomed up upon the farther bank of the drain, but no bridge led to it, and no light showed.

They are rescued by the Rector of  Fenchurch St. Paul, who puts them up while the car is repaired, and Lord Peter sees in the New Year by replacing a sick campanologist so a marathon bell ringing session can go ahead. Before continuing on his journey he hears the story of 20-year-old crime involving a missing emerald necklace, a jail-break and a murder…

Months later the body of a man with his hands cut off is unearthed while a grave is being dug. The corpse is recent, but no-one knows who the man is, or how he died – so the Rector writes to Lord Peter appealing for help. The plot is complex and there are dead ends and red herrings aplenty as Lord Peter tries to unravel the truth. Finally a coded message is cracked, an old mystery solved, and the identity of the dead man is revealed, but the cause of his death and the name of his murderer remain unknown. However, when Lord Peter makes a third visit to the village the stage is set for the final, shocking explanation during an apocalyptic flood.

Dorothy L Sayers
Wimsey himself is a wonderful creation, with his slightly foppish and diffident manner masking a keen intellect, but it is the bells which dominate: Sabaoth, Gaude, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas, and Tailor Paul. From the outset they are faintly sinister and disturbing as they sound the death-knell of the old year. Then we learn that according to local legend, Tailor Paul has been responsible for two deaths. And there’s a premonition of danger when Hezekiah, the oldest bell ringer, warns: “They bells du know well who’s a-haulin’ of ’un. Wunnerful understandin’ they is. They can’t abide a wicked man. They lays in wait to overthrow ’un.”

Wimsey feels ‘the patient watchfulness of the bells’ and stands beneath them.

There he stood for a moment, gazing up into their black mouths while his eyes grew accustomed to the semi-darkness. Presently their hooded silence oppressed him. A vague vertigo seized him. He felt as though they were slowly collapsing together and coming down upon him. Spell-bound, he spoke their names: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul. A soft and whispering echo seemed to start from the walls and die stealthily among the beams. Suddenly he shouted in a great voice: “Tailor Paul!” and he must somehow have hit upon a harmonic of the scale, for a faint brazen note answered him, remote and menacing, from overhead.

Apparently, Sayers kept meticulous notes on her research into change ringing, and the novel has many details about the history and customs of bell ringing, while the terminology and lists of instructions have a mesmerising, magical quality – like the strange far-off places of the shipping forecast, or the peculiarly named teams you only know from the football results. In addition, Sayers includes quotations about the tradition, and her chapter headings reference the techniques involved in this ancient art, as well as reflecting the action.

Like all her plots, The Nine Tailors is as well constructed as a good cryptic crossword – and as fiendishly difficult to solve. I’d read it before, and the ending still took me by surprise. But it’s a ‘slow burn’, for Sayers takes her time setting the scene and, like the pattern of the bells, the story cannot be hurried along, but must move through various permutations before the final note is sounded.
Posted for Cornflower Book Group - just click on the picture above to see what other people thought of this book.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Love and Secrets of a King and his Mistress

Sex, love, murder, revenge, betrayal, ambition and hidden secrets are key components of all good sagas about feuding families – and England’s Plantagenet Kings provide enough drama for an entire library of such books. So here’s a round-up of three, which I haven’t got round to writing about before now.  All are set in the turbulent 14th century, with much of the action taking place during the reign of Edward III.

King Edward II
First up is The Wheel of Fortune, by Susan Howatch, in which she uses her trademark technique of taking historic characters and re-interpreting their story in a different time and place. In this case she recreates Edward III as Robert, the head of an upper-class family living on the Gower in Wales. She follows their fortunes as they scheme and quarrel, seeking control of Moonacre, the beautiful old family home (a representation of the English throne), until Hal (aka Bolingbroke) finally restores order. Howatch sets her story in the period between the end of the 19th century and the 1960s, with various sections written from the viewpoint of different people (another of her regular devices). The great figures of the day are all there, though it has to be said some are not easy to spot, because they are very different to the way I imagined them, and to their historical context.

Writers have always taken old stories and given them a new twist, but personally I didn’t find this particular tale very convincing, and while it is interesting to see the action from different perspectives, you are never with any one character for long enough to feel you know them, and they don’t develop to the point where you begin to understand the reasons for their actions. On several occasions I had to flick back through the pages to check who people were, and refresh my memory about their relationship with others. And I was puzzled as to why some historical characters kept their own, or very similar, names while others were renamed. I thought it was unnecessarily confusing. 

Geoffrey Chaucer pictured as a pilgrim
in  the Ellesmere Manuscript, an
early edition of 
Canterbury Tales. 
(Huntington Library, California). 
Emma Campion’s The King’s Mistress and Vanora Bennett’s The People’s Queen both focus on Alice Perrers, who was the mistress of Edward III towards the end of his life, and was blamed for many of the country’s ills. Traditionally, she is portrayed as a woman who was not particularly good-looking, but had an attractive voice and magnetic personality, and used her sexual powers to manipulate the aging king – she was even accused of using witchcraft to enslave him.

But recent research has uncovered new information, which both these authors have used to throw fresh light on her character, presenting a strong, intelligent, independent woman who secured a good life for herself at time when few options were available to women. According to them she amassed – and managed – a huge portfolio of property, some of which she kept after her fall from grace, and she did return to court eventually, and was on friendly terms with Edward’s successor, Richard II.

Central to Campion’s story is the theory that Edward II was not killed, but lived in exile. Sadly, however, it was one of those books where the idea is more intriguing than the end product. She is an experienced writer (having published other medieval novels as Candace Robb), and has written some fascinating pieces about her inspiration and research for this novel, but it remains stilted and never quite comes to life.

Bennett’s book was by far and away the best, and was very enjoyable. Her Alice seizes life with both hands and emerges as selfish, feisty, intelligent, brave, kindly, humorous – and surprisingly likable. The booked is packed with detail about medieval food, clothes, medicine and home décor: you can almost smell the wet wool and the sour wine. Bennett touches on the role of medieval women, corruption at court, financial scandal in the city and the political unrest of the day. I’m not sure I bought the friendship between Alice and Wat Tyler, but it was in keeping with character Bennett has created, and she was the only author who successfully placed her characters in a credible context for their time.

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster
Campion and Bennett both have Geoffrey Chaucer as a friend of Alice – plausible, since they moved in the same circles. Many other characters appear in both these books (and some in all three) but the treatment varies from author to author. Curiously, however, the dominant figure in each novel, although he is never the central character, is John of Gaunt, a younger son of Edward III. In all three books he is charismatic, devious and shrewd, with a complicated personal life – two wives died before he eventually married his long-time mistress Katherine Swynford. He remains an enigma: the motives for his actions are never clear. But with each book it was he who remained in my memory long after I’d read the final page.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Mother's Day with Milly-Molly-Mandy

Well, it’s Mother’s Day, and I’ve had a bouquet of roses, some rose petal handcream, a beautiful bar of soap – and The Daughters also left messages on Facebook about two of their favourite childhood books, Joyce Lankester Brisley’s Milly-Molly-Mandy, and My Naughty Little Sister, by Dorothy Edwards, reminding me how I used to read to them and ‘do all the voices’.

Simon, at Savidge Reads, must have been thinking along similar lines, because he wrote a wonderful post, thanking his mum for making him read, and it set me thinking about my mother, who says she held me in her arms when I was a baby and wouldn’t sleep, and read aloud from whatever she happened to be reading at the time – novels, plays, poems.

And, of course, she read me children’s stories (doing all the voices), including those delightful tales about Milly-Molly-Mandy, which were among my favourites (and which she also loved when she was small) , so I rushed off to find More of Milly-Molly-Mandy, which seems to have been in the family’s possession for ever and a day. I have no idea where it came from – I think my mother may have bought it in a second-hand shop. It was published by George G Harrap & Company Ltd in 1944, ‘in conformity with the authorised economy standards’. I keep meaning to look this up, as I’d love to know more about wartime publishing. There’s even a little logo of a lion sitting on open book, on which is printed: BOOK PRODUCTION WAR ECONOMY STANDARD. Has anyone else ever come across this? And if so, can you tell me anything about it?
 I love this book just as much as when I did when I was a child. There are fabulous black and white drawing, by the author, and a map of the village showing where everyone lives,and a colour plate at the front, with Milly-Molly-Mandy making her bed with its green-painted ends, and the matching curtains and colourful rug on the floor. In fact Milly-Molly-Mandy Has a Surprise, where she sees her very own bedroom for the very first time is my favourite of all the stories. Her family turn the little storeroom up under the thatched roof into a room for her, so she no longer has to sleep in the corner of Father’s and Mother’s room. They decorate it with left-over paint, and Mother dyes old curtains and a bedspread to make them look like new, and they manage to keep the whole thing secret, even though Milly-Molly-Mandy helps with make-over. 
It’s such a wonderful surprise for the little girl, and you just know it must have been planned and organised by her mother, who must love her very much.

When she opened the door – she saw –
Her own little cot-bed with the green coverlet on, just inside. And the little square window with the green curtains blowing in the wind. And a yellow pot of nasturtiums on the sill. And the little green chest of drawers with the robin cloth on it. And the little green mirror hanging on the primrose wall, with Milly-Molly-Mandy’s face reflected in it. 
The room had ‘a little square window very near to the floor, and the ceiling sloped away on each side so that Father or Mother or Grandpa or Grandma or Uncle or Aunty could stand upright only in the middle of the room. (But Milly-Molly-Mandy could stand upright anywhere in it.)’  As a child I felt a sense of kinship with Milly-Molly-Mandy, for my own bedroom (decorated in blue and white) was up in the eaves of the house, with sloping ceilings and a tiny dormer window which opened on to the roof.

So there you are, a reflection on Mother’s Day – and a huge thank you to my mother and my daughters for their love, friendship, and our shared enjoyment of books and reading.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Molly Fox's Birthday

Today is St Patrick’s Day, so it seems a good time to write about ‘Molly Fox’s Birthday’, by Irish writer Deirdre Madden. It’s a novel about friendship and family, memory and identity: it’s about who and what we are, how the past shapes our present, and how it affects the nature of creation, enabling writers and actors to say something about life that people will relate to because they acknowledge it  as a truth.

Like Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, any action takes place in the past, and the story is spread over a single day. It is the longest day of the year: Molly Fox’s birthday. And while Molly, the most acclaimed actor of her generation, is in New York, a playwright friend staying in her Dublin home reflects on the past, ponders on the way we perceive others, and wonders if we ever really know anyone. The unnamed writer (the novel’s narrator) thinks about the new play she is supposed to writing, looks back on her life, her career, and her friendship with Molly, and with Andrew, a successful TV art historian and critic.

Their lives cross and intersect like mathematical sets, but never quite connect. Yet, despite their disparate backgrounds, there are similarities. On the face of it they are well adjusted, but all three have left a life behind .and created a new persona, becoming something other than they were, so must learn to balance past and present. All three are in the public eye and need to reconcile their public image with their private self. And all three have broken relationships behind them, and brothers who are key figures in their lives. As they search for their true identities they transform their lives and use that knowledge and experience to transform life in art – but while it may reflect life, their art can also shield them from life’s emotions.

Deirdre Madden
The narrator, from a large loving family in the Republic of Ireland, is expected to stay at home, get married and have a family, as her sisters have done before her. But her brother Tom, a Catholic priest who is almost 20 years older, sees she needs something more out of life and fosters her love of books and theatre, so she goes to university and breaks free of her conventional upbringing. But her family and their love still underpin her world.
Andrew has escaped the narrow confines of his Protestant Belfast home to become ‘the person he was destined to be’. He rarely talks about his troubled relationship with his parents and his brother Billy, whose involvement with a paramilitary group leads to his death. Years later, his own brush with death gives Andrew a clearer understanding of his past as he explores remembrance and its potent symbols.

Then there is Molly herself, with her beautiful voice, a chameleon who has the ability to become anyone she chooses on stage – but remains shy, inconspicuous, and almost dowdy in her private life. We never actually meet Molly, although we hear her voice on the phone towards the end of the book, and she remains something of a mystery. Cool, calm and collected, she is unable to form long-lasting, close relationships and never celebrates her birthday. Then we learn that when Molly and her brother Fergus were children their mother left them – on Molly’s birthday.

Since Molly has always looked after her mentally fragile brother, you would be forgiven for thinking that Fergus has been irreparably damaged, but it is Molly who is unable to come to terms with the past and forgive her mother. Fergus, who most people would see as a failure, has made his choices, and is happy, accepting himself the way he is, despite his problems. He offers insights into issues of memory and identity, talking about the day his mother left, and how he cried as he and Molly ate ice creams. Then he questions whether this is a true memory of what happened, or a memory of someone else’s account. He also insists his mother was no worse than spending a lifetime living a lie. People must be true to themselves, he says. And that dilemma seems to be at the heart of the novel. I’m not at all sure that the central characters succeed in being true to themselves – but read it, and see what you think.

It’s an understated and beautifully written novel, and I particularly like the descriptions of Molly’s house and garden, which are so detailed I felt I could draw a picture of them. And I liked the way Madden drew you into a world in which, just as in real life, there are no easy answers and problems are not always resolved.

Posted as part of the Ireland Reading Challenge 2012. See what everyone else has been reading.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Twee Tale Failed to Charm

Still in Bloomsbury mode (I took out every book of their’s I could find in the library) I read Paul Gallico’s ‘Mrs Harris Goes to Paris’ and, quite frankly, as far as I’m concerned, she can stay there. Better still, she should never have gone in the first place. I did say I had a feeling I’d read it before in the dim and distant past, but had no recollection of it, and I was quite right, As I turned the pages I remembered my mother borrowed a copy from her library years and years ago – when I was still at school I think – so I read it then, and promptly forgot about it.

I can’t say it made a better impression this time around. In theory the story of the London char who scrimps and saves so she can buy a Dior dress ought to tick all the right boxes. It’s a fairy story, in which widowed Ada Harris becomes obsessed by the exotic evening gowns in a client’s home and determines that she will have a beautiful dress of her own. Hitherto the only beauty in her life is provided by the geraniums she raises in two window boxes and an assortment of pots. She overcomes all obstacles in her pursuit of the dress of her dreams, and spends a magical week in Paris, where she is befriended by a wealthy marquis, a top fashion model, the manageress of the fashion house, and the firm’s accountant. In return she turns their lives around, and makes them think about what is really important in life – and at the same she herself finds ‘understanding, friendship and humanity’.

I know there are people who love this book, but it failed to charm me and Ada herself never seemed a real person (and the same could be said of the other characters). She remained a kind of cut-out, a cardboard figure created from Gallico’s idea of what a London char (recognisable the world over, as he keeps telling us), should be like: hard-working, comical, chirpy, with down-at-heel shoes, shabby clothes and the kind of Cockney accent rarely heard outside Hollywood films, and speech comprising largely of clichés.

Personally I found Gallico’s portrayal of Mrs Harris patronising in the extreme. His view of her, and of the other women in the book, is unsympathetic and really rather demeaning, but that could be due to the change in attitudes since the original publication more than 50 years ago. I can see Mrs Harris setting to and cleaning the house belonging to M Fauvel (the accountant), because that is what a good-hearted London char must do. And I can understand that model Natasha wants to be treated like a person, not an object, but does she have to yearn for bourgeois domesticity and see herself as being a proper woman if she is doing housework? “Oh, it is good to be inside a home again, where one can be a woman and not just a silly little doll,” she says. Pshaw say I. Piffle. Balderdash. Stuff and nonsense.

And that really sums up the way I feel about this tale. The characters were stereotypes, the storyline was twee, and I found Gallico’s writing style annoying – far too much tell and not enough show. I regret to say that having struggled through ‘Mrs Harris Goes to Paris’, I couldn’t face the thought of reading ‘Mrs Harris Goes to New York’ and the book (it's a double edition) will go back to the library tomorrow. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Curing the Blues with Henrietta and Homemade Cake

Right, I know it’s only March, but ‘Henrietta’s War, News From The Home Front 1939-1942’, by Joyce Dennys will definitely be on my Books of the Year List. Like The Traveling Parnassus, or Miss Hargreaves, it is charming, delightful, and very, very funny. I read this while I was feeling really sorry for myself, suffering from a cold and sore throat, and it was the perfect antidote for a bout of the blues. I chuckled, and chuckled, and chuckled as I curled up on the sofa with Henrietta, her friends and family, and some ‘two-slice cake’ ( so-called by The Man of the House, who cannot resist a classic Victoria sponge, with buttercream and jam in the middle, and glace icing and hundreds and thousands on the top). I enjoyed it so much that when I got to the end I wanted to go back to the beginning and start reading all over again.

The book is written in the form of a series of letters from Henrietta, a middle-aged doctor’s wife, to Robert, a colonel serving on the Western Front in France during the Second World War. She aims to raise his spirits and allay her own fears by writing about inconsequential day-to-day events in the seaside Devonshire village where she lives – and she does so with warmth and humour, always signing off as ‘your affectionate Childhood’s Friend’, which is somehow something more than a childhood friend, I think, conjuring up a shared past. That unassuming apostrophe makes a very subtle difference.
 To some extent Dennys covers the same ground as Mollie Panter-Downes as people strive to maintain a degree of normality while struggling to cope with changes brought by the Second World War. But her characters are not as isolated, and action is not as internalised, revolving instead around village events, for Dennys has a keen eye for the absurd, highlighting strange situations and focusing on the villagers’ foibles and idiosyncrasies. She may poke gentle fun at the village, its residents, and the powers that be, but she is never unkind and laughs with them, not at them.

It is the women who stand out: doughty and courageous, I am sure they would have seen Hitler off with no problems whatsoever. Kind-hearted and well-meaning, they are wonderful organisers (in fact, I would go so far as to say some of them are awfully bossy) and can be pretty scary when the occasion demands.
 Henrietta herself, who once attended art college, doesn’t quite seem to fit the mould of a well-heeled middle class woman, and is an unlikely candidate for a country doctor’s wife. She seems to be regarded by everyone (including husband Charles and their two grown-up children) as rather vague, thoroughly impractical, and capable only of looking after her husband, who is a ‘key man’. She is terrified of loud bangs and being blown up, gardens with a hot water bottle strapped to her back (Digging for Victory gives her lumbago) and gets taken to court for ‘showing a Chink’ during the blackout. And talking of the blackout, in the earliest days of the war, when people pasted strips of material over their window panes, she aims for a colour co-ordinated effect, and uses her husband’s nicest pyjamas because they match the décor in one room.  

 Her friends and neighbours are equally idiosyncratic. There is glamorous Faith, who likes to be ‘in the mode’ and has an eye for the men, especially the Conductor (of singing, not trams).  Then there is fierce Mrs Savernake, whose enthusiasm for gun strikes terror into all who meet her, and Lady B, who writes to Hitler every night, telling him what she thinks of him, but is always cheerful and serene, with a unique method of dealing with crises.

“I don’t always feel calm,” said Lady B. “But When I begin to want to scream I do this.” She took me by the arm and led me though the little alley-way which runs beside the ironmonger’s to the sea. “I stand here,” said Lady B, “and look at the sea, and then I take six deep breaths and say, ‘Thank goodness there’s enough of something’. Then I go back and finish my shopping.”

Beneath the laughter, however, are serious issues.  Rationing is introduced ; food, clothes and make-up are in short supply; aluminium kitchen utensils are hidden so they cannot be taken for the war effort; women stitch nightshirts and bandages; a bomb falls in a garden, and there are gaps in the street scene when Henrietta visits a friend in London.
 Like her heroine, Dennys lived in Devon, attended art school, married a doctor, and admitted to being frustrated by her domestic and social duties. She created Henrietta for an article in ‘Sketch’ magazine, and was asked to continue writing throughout the war. Later she said: “When I stopped doing the piece after the war, I felt quite lost. Henrietta was part of me. I never quite knew where I ended and she began.”

‘Henrietta’s War’ is beautifully produced by Bloomsbury, with the trademark ‘Ex Libris’ illustration by Penelope Beech perfectly matching the style of the author’s own illustrations,  which are an integral part of the book., and have not reproduced as well as I hoped because I forgot to alter the settings on the camera after I tried to take photographs of the planets... but I do feel it's the kind of mishap that might have happened to Henrietta herself, so I've left it.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Library Loot and Date Stamps

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!  I've been to the library,  where the machine chine was not dispensing receipts with the date of return (which I always lose and consequently forget when books are due back), so a real  librarian date stamped my books, as in the olden days. Oh joy! 

Saturday is Library Day so, despite my intention not to bring more books into the house until I’ve whittled the TBR pile down a little, I have now borrowed eight books, including a couple of renewals – but as I returned some books, I’m not actually adding to the number of books, I’m just maintaining the overall number at a fairly even keel.

Anyway, since I posted a list of charity shop finds, it’s only fair that I should write about my library loot.

The Company She Keeps, by Mary McCarthy: I think this one was muddled up in the pile for charity shop finds, which may be why I haven’t read it yet and it had to be renewed. ‘The Group’ is one of my all-time favourite novels, about friendship and women’s lives, and ‘A Catholic Girlhood’ is a wonderful account of the author’s upbringing and her incredibly eccentric family, so I have high hopes of enjoying this.  Her first novel, it’s loosely based on McCarthy’s own life and, according to the blurb on the back, ‘follows Margaret Sargent, a young bohemian intellectual, through her experiences and lost loves in a time of coming war’.

The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon is ‘a vernacular comedy of pathos’, whatever that may mean (Penguin should know better than to indulge in language like this, but blurb writers speak a different language to the rest of us). It seems to be written in a kind of patois, and takes place in 1950s London, as a newly arrived West Indian meets homesick Moses Aloetta and tries to carve out a new life in a new land. I’ve never come across this author, or read much which covers the period and setting (with the exception of Andrea Levy’s Small Island), and I thought this sounded interesting.

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, by Diana Athill is a collection of short stories, which I picked up because it’s a literary form I’ve been exploring recently – and I wanted to sample some of Athill’s work, so this particular book fitted the bill on both counts.  Plus it’s Persephone, with beautiful endpapers, and it’s printed on such nice quality paper, making it a pleasure to read, and it’s a lovely weight to hold. This one more than makes up for the horrid edition of Rebecca West's 'The Fountain Overflows'.

Mrs Tim of the Regiment, by DE Stevenson: Somewhere I came across a reference to the author and today, lo and behold, there was one of her books, on a shelf, in the very small classics section, so I snapped it up, but have absolutely no idea what to expect. The blurb on the back (which, since this is Bloomsbury, I am inclined to take more seriously than usual) says Hester Christie, wife of Army officer Tim Christie (hence Mrs Tim), is left alone for long periods of time, so keeps a diary of family events, including a move to Scotland, and pursuit by a dashing admirer.

The Fallen Kings, by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is part of The Morland Dynasty, recommended by Elaine at Random Scribblings (and various other bloggers), and I should probably start with one of the first books in the series, from a much earlier period, rather than jumping straight into the First World War. However, this was the only one I could find, and I have to make a start somewhere, so I’ll just have to work backwards, like Merlin! So many people have told me how good Harrod-Eagles is, so I hope I won't be disappointed.

Mrs Harris Goes To Paris, by Paul Gallico is published by Bloomsbury and comes in a very cheerful, very pink cover which made it stand out from the surrounding volumes so, since I am going to Paris with my mother in a couple of months, it seemed a particularly apt choice. The book also includes Mrs Harris Goes to New York, and I have a feeling that I may have read either or both these tales in the dim and distant past. If I have, the fact that I can’t remember may not augur well for my appreciation...  

Red Strangers, by Elspeth Huxley, shows the effect of European colonialism on Kikuyu tribesmen Matu and Muthengi as their traditional way of life and their Kenyan homeland are changed for ever. It covers four generations and, unusually for a European author perhaps, looks at events from the African perspective.   I couldn’t resist this, because ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’ is one of the books I’ve known and loved since childhood. covering similar ground to 'Out of of Africa'. Huxley spent much of her younger days in Africa, travelled widely as an adult, and cared deeply about the continent and its people. Whether this book is as good as Flame Trees remains to be seen.

Henrietta’s War, News From The Home Front 1939-1942, by Joyce Dennys is another unknown. I’ve never heard of the title or the author, but it has a fabulous cover (The Bloomsbury Group again) and is illustrated with the most gorgeous black and white line drawings, neither of which are necessarily good reasons for selecting a book, but it looks such fun. I have sneaked a peek at the pages, and it looks as if it will be very humorous, and I need something to cheer me up, since I have been suffering from a cold and sore throat for the last few days, and feel very sorry for myself. As far as I can gather, the book is written as a series of letters from Henrietta to Robert, her Childhood’s Friend, and was originally published in the Sketch magazine during the war. At any rate, even though this appears last on my list, I intend to read it first, and to try and find out a bit more about the author.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Agitate for 12 Days, and Rest for a Week...

 The Virago edition feature a cover
 with the painting 
La Table de Fruits
a l’atelier 1946 by Henri Manguin

Mary Norton is most famed for her children’s stories about the Borrowers – the tiny race of people who ‘borrow’ things that we lose or discard. You know, all those little objects that inexplicably go missing: teaspoons, nail scissors, safety pins, oddments of wool, stamps...

But throughout the 1940s and 50s she wrote what she called ‘The Bread and Butter Stories’ for women’s magazines, mainly in America: short tales which brought in the cash she needed to feed her family. Many have been lost, but more than a dozen have been gathered together in a book of the same name, with an introduction by her daughter Ann Brunsden. The stories are a mix of fact and fiction, drawing heavily on Norton’s own life – and what a life it was. Born in 1903, she was brought up in a Georgian manor house in Leighton Buzzard (renamed Firbank Hall, it featured as the big house in ‘The Borrowers’), spent a year in France, and became a student at the Old Vic.

She married Robert Charles Norton, and moved to his family estate in Portugal where her four children enjoyed a magical period, until the family was hit by the financial meltdown of the late 1920s and early 30s. Their shipping company failed, and they lost everything, but stayed on in Portugal, living in a small cottage. Norton’s friends included great names from the world of the theatre, like Lilian Baylis and Margaret Rutherford, as well as poets Stephen Spender and WH Auden, and writer Christopher Isherwood, who had all fled to Portugal from Nazi Germany.

In 1939 Norton travelled to London with three of her children (she needed an operation), while her husband and elder son remained in Portugal, but the outbreak of war meant she was unable to return home. However, the following year she took her children to America, where she remained until 1943, and it was there that she began to write, to eke out the money she earned working for the war office. She continued writing after moving to London, and also acted, on stage and on radio – and she was caught in a bomb blast, suffered a detached retina and underwent what was then risky surgery to save her sight.

During the last years of the war, and in the period which followed, the family seem to have lived from hand to mouth. Even when Walt Disney bought the rights to Norton’s first book, ‘The Magic Bedknob’, and its follow-up, ‘Bonfires and Broomsticks’ things didn’t improve, for there was little money involved in the deal. They lived in Cornwall for a time, and the success of ‘The Borrowers’ seems to have made life easier – in her introduction Ann gives a fascinating account of the way it was written, including the creation of a model of Clocks’ home beneath the floorboards. Eventually, at the age of 60, Norton got divorced, remarried and moved to Cork. In her 80s she discovered some of her old ‘Bread and Butter’ stories in a box, and was keen to have them republished. She died in 1992.

Her experiences are woven into many of her short stories, and the tone of her work is very different to the short stores of Dorothy Whipple or Mollie Panter-Downes, both of whom I have reviewed on this blog. Norton doesn’t keep life – and love – at a distance, and she’s never a detached, disinterested observer. She feels for her characters, which is, perhaps, to be expected since she put so much of herself and her life into some of these stories. Her people look to be leading normal lives, but they act in unexpected ways, or reveal shocking secrets.

In ‘The Girl in the Corner’, a simple train journey becomes more complex as a mother and daughter offer a kitten to a fellow passenger who turns out to be blind, and it seems Norton used the trauma of recovery from her own eye operation (when she could only peer at the world through pinholes in dark glasses) to craft a touching tale about love and independence.

And I loved the poor down-trodden mum in ‘Beauty Bar’ face made over for free at a beauty demonstration, then blows some of the housekeeping money on a hat – a reckless act that’s somehow rekindles her love for her husband, and his for her, and even makes it possible for her to feel compassion for her to feel compassion for his shrewish sister.

In Pauline and Bertha a married woman reveals how she met a man, held his hand, fell in love – and continued with her life. ‘A House in Portugal’ and ‘Mr Sequeria’ both draw on Norton’s time in Portungal, while in ‘Talking of Television’ she gives  humorous account of the way a TV drama is put together based, presumably, on her days in the theatre.

I really enjoyed the stories, but my  favourite, is ‘Take of Wormwood Seven Scruples’, a light-hearted look at the advice on offer in ‘A Shilling’s Worth of Practical Receipts’, published at the end of the 19th century. If this wonderful really exists, it must be very similar to my 1903 edition of  ‘Enquire Within’. Norton writes:

Thanks to this modestly priced volume, I have suddenly become the possessor of many new and startling accomplishments: I can dye kid gloves purple, manufacture Daffys Elixirand Sympathetic Ink, manufcure the French method of embalming, prevent cold feet bedtime, cure cholera, and ventilate a ship.

The instructions for English sherry urge her to ‘macerate, rack and rummage’, while the recipe for cyder says she must ‘make it work kindly’. Best of all is the recipe for Eau de Cologne (70 gallons of the stuff), which includes the direction to ‘agitate for twelve days’ and then one must allow it to rest for a week...  it could be a recipe for life!

Monday, 5 March 2012

A Book Like a Large, Smelly, Red Brick!

 Since I am in ‘tidying’ mode, not only do I have a list of Books To Be Read (with sub-lists for categories), I also have a list of Books I’ve Read And Not Written About, as well as a list of Bookish Things To Blog about (including a trip to the Chained Library at Hereford, and a visit to the Johnson Birthplace at Lichfield). And yes, I do know there are probably far too many unnecessary capitals there, but somehow lists, with titles, in capitals, make me feel as if I am taking positive action and organising my life. However, these moods where I try to sort things out rarely last long, and I expect I’ll be back to my usual muddle by the end of the week.

Rebecca West, pictured by Madam Yevonde
Meanwhile, here’s a review of The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West, which I read for the Cornflower Book Group. This was my first encounter with West, and it took me a while to get into the book, which was written in 1957 but set half a century or so earlier. To be honest, it’s difficult to know how to view this fictionalised account of West’s own childhood: I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I would re-read it, and it certainly wouldn’t make my list of Favourite Novels.

Some other group members felt it was similar to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (which is on my ‘favourites’ list), but I think it has more in common with Sisters by a River and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns (another much-loved author – if you’ve never read her please do so as soon as possible). West lacks Comyns’ dark, surreal edge, and she’s certainly not as macabre, despite ghostly horses, mind reading, fortune telling and a poltergeist. All three books lack a strong central plot: they are more a series of loosely connected incidents, which fit together to give an overview of the characters and their lives, without leading anywhere. And each novel features a dysfunctional family, with cultured, well educated parents who have come down in the world, and are living in genteel poverty – but still see themselves as a cut above everyone else, and can be very cruel about those who don’t meet their exacting tastes and standards.

Rebecca West pictured as a young woman.
In The Fountain Overflows, the Aubrey family (with the exception of Cordelia, view Miss Beevor as a figure of fun.

We instinctively knew that we hated her and hoped we would never see her again. She was not at all as Mamma had imagined her, being a tall and sallow woman, with a battered pre-Raphaelite look to her, wearing a sage-green coat and dress and a wide felt belt of darker green, and a long string of amber beads. In those days, when skirts reached the ground, a big woman in badly cut clothes sad in colour had a massively depressing effect hard to imagine today. She was carrying a white hide handbag stamped with the word ‘Bayreuth’ in pokerwork.

Mamma herself has a somewhat eccentric style of dress, with shabby, old clothes (what about that sealskin jacket where the fur has worn away to the leather below?), so it seems a little unfair to criticise the appearance of others but, presumably, her garments are tasteful, while Miss Beevor’s are not. And there’s a wonderful moment when Mamma realises their visitor does not, as she thought, teach French, but merely stands in for a sick colleague, falling back on ‘Dick Tay’ to fill the lessons. Mamma, who speaks French, is much too polite to correct her guest’s pronunciation, and feigns deafness to cover an awkward misunderstanding.

“Who is Dick Tay?” asked Mamma, stupidly.
“Dictée,” whispered Cordelia savagely.
My mother grew red with shame. “You must excuse me,” she said. “The children will tell you how very deaf I am.”

A beautiful edition of the book...
But they can be kind. When Papa (impossible to think of him as Piers Aubrey), a journalist, espouses the cause of a woman who has killed her husband, they  take in the murderer’s daughter Nancy, and her sister, Aunt Lily, who speaks in clichés and rhyming slang. The Aubreys despise her speech, and her fussy clothes, but provide support during the ordeal.

Cruellest of all is the relationship between Cordelia, the eldest daughter, and her siblings and mother. For Cordelia, we are told, is the unmusical member of a musical family. Mamma, on the verge of a brilliant career as a concert pianist when she married Papa, now devotes her energies to training the children. Rose (who narrates the story), Mary and Richard Quinn are all gifted musicians, but violinist Cordelia is not although, oddly, she is the only one to possesses perfect pitch, and is regarded by many as an infant prodigy, so she cannot be that bad. She seems to be someone for whom music is not important, who plays the violin without feeling. Music has great significance for Mamma, but was she an outstanding pianist? Did marriage provide escape from what would have been a second-rate career? Or is music an escape from an unsatisfactory marriage, a means of clinging to the remnants of her identity and the person she once was? And what about the children - is she pushing them into the success she never had, or nurturing their talent? Then there’s her attitude towards poor Cordelia, who longs to be ‘normal’, like other people.

Another beautiful edition...
Indeed, Mamma is a curious character, mentally fragile, totally in thrall to her husband, yet tough enough to  cope with the various crises that occur – and astute enough to convince him three Gainsborough paintings are worthless copies,  so (like Miss Beevor with her Dick Tay) she has something to fall back on when the inevitable happens and he leaves. 

For charming, charismatic, self-absorbed Papa is a rotter, and the family know it. But when he walks out on them they would give everything they have to see him again. He is central to their well-being, although he takes little interest in them. Regarded as a genius, he is an unreliable, feckless, womanising gambler, who alienates friends, family and work colleagues and is unable to hold down a job for any length of time, continually downsizing to smaller papers.

 Somehow the children – and especially their cousin Rosamund – seem older and wiser than their parents, and better able to cope with life, a fact that Rose herself comments on as she tries to make sense of life in the large, decaying house where Papa spent much of his childhood.

My unbeautifil library edition.
I have to mention the copy I read, which was ordered especially for me by my local library from ‘reserve stock’, and I am very grateful. But, alas, it was a singularly unattractive edition, published by Macmillan with a front in a particularly repulsive shade of red, and a nasty protective plastic cover which was sticky and greasy to the touch. And it had that strange, musty smell which used to distinguish all old library hardbacks. And it was enormous. It was like reading a large, heavy, smelly red brick. In fact, had it been a garment, I would have stuck it in the washing machine on a hot wash, but you can’t do that with a book, so I used cleansing wipes to try and improve the smell and feel!