Thursday, October 30, 2014

Books & roses

First, the roses. These are the first roses of the summer, picked on Sunday morning. The pink ones are Eglantine & the red, The Squire. My roses are looking beautiful this year, covered in buds so I'm hoping to be able to pick lots of them for the house & to take to work so I have something lovely to look at & to smell when it all gets too much. Of course, ten minutes after I put the flowers on the kitchen bench, Lucky was nibbling away at them. Why does she do this? I often wake up to find that she's very delicately flipped a rose out of the vase or jug & has nibbled all around the edges.

The books are a few new books & preorders I wanted to mention. I thought of Monica Baldwin the other day when a friend said that she once lent a copy of The Letters of Rachel Henning & it was never returned. This reminded me that I once lent a copy of Monica Baldwin's memoir, I Leap Over The Wall, & never saw it again. So, I was pleased to discover that it's being reprinted in January. I'm not sure I like the cover though... Anyway, Monica was the daughter of Stanley Baldwin, & entered a convent when she was 21 in 1914. Twenty-eight years later, she leaves, & this is the story of her life in the convent & what she experiences when she leaves.

Charlotte Riddell is an author I've read about rather than read. I've been reading her Weird Stories this week, reprinted by Victorian Secrets, & another of her novels, A Struggle for Fame, is being reprinted this month by Tramp Press, a new Irish publisher. This is the first in their Recovered Voices series & I can't wait to read it.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir is one of my favourite movies - I watched it again last weekend - & Vintage have reprinted the novel by R A Dick as part of their Movie Classics series which also includes Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington & Show Boat by Edna Ferber.

Persephone in the UK & Sourcebooks in the US have both been reprinting D E Stevenson in recent years. It's a shame that they began by reprinting the same titles (the Miss Buncle series) but Sourcebooks have kept their reprint list going with The Four Graces, The Young Clementina &, in January, The Listening Valley. I listened to this on audio a couple of years ago but will probably need a copy for rereading in the future. I also feel compelled to buy copies of authors like Stevenson & Angela Thirkell when they're reprinted in case they go out of print again, which they probably will.

The British Library Crime Classics series has been very successful in alerting fans of Christie, Sayers & Allingham to other Golden Age mystery writers we'd never heard of. It doesn't hurt that the covers are just gorgeous, often based on railway posters of the period. Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon (brother of Eleanor) (great review by Desperate Reader here) & A Scream in Soho by John G Brandon have just been published & The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude & Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston will be published in January. I enjoyed The Santa Klaus Murder & Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay & I'm looking forward to reading more in the series.

I've also preordered Mark Bostridge's new book, Vera Brittain and the First World War : the story of Testament of Youth. Published to coincide with the new film, I'm hoping it's not just a rehash of his 1995 biography of Vera. I know I'll feel compelled to see this new movie version of Testament of Youth but I don't imagine it will be as affecting as the TV series with Cheryl Campbell.

You can watch the trailer here but it looks too pretty, too clean. I feel a reread of the book & rewatch of the series coming on.

Finally, two books by favourite authors on favourite subjects published next year. The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards published in May & The Lives of Richard III by Chris Skidmore published in August. A history of mystery fiction by one of my favourite contemporary crime writers (who has written Introductions for many of the British Library series) is unmissable & a new biography of Richard III incorporating all the new information since the discovery of his remains in Leicester is a very exciting prospect. I really enjoyed Skidmore's book on Bosworth so I'm looking forward to this one. Two books that will definitely not find their way to the ever-increasing tbr shelves. I will read them as soon as they hit the doormat. Absolutely, I promise.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Reckoning - May Sarton

Why do we stop reading an author? Sometimes we grow out of them, sometimes we stop reading what they write eg science fiction or Regency romances. In my case, I stopped reading May Sarton because I read a biography of her by Margot Peters & didn't like what I found out about her. This is not logical or reasonable, I know. But I can remember being so annoyed by the fact that the wonderful journals Sarton wrote about her solitary life in New Hampshire & Maine with her house, her garden, her pets, were not what they seemed to be, that I stopped reading her altogether. In the journals - Plant Dreaming Deep, Journal of a Solitude, House by the Sea - she presents herself as a solitary woman, working in isolation & exploring the joys of solitude. Discovering through the biography that she was hardly ever alone during this period was a real shock. I know that journals written for publication are often shaped just as much as a novel, but I was still annoyed. I couldn't quite bring myself to get rid of my Sartons but they've sat on the shelf, unread, ever since.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was listening to The Readers podcast & Thomas mentioned that he'd had an email from a woman in Melbourne about May Sarton & how they were going to revive her reputation between them. I immediately wondered if this could be my friend L, & it was! I'm also interested in why a writer's reputation often suffers a dip after they die. This has certainly happened to Sarton since her death in 1995. Maybe it's because she was one of the first writers to write about lesbian relationships as though they were just like any other relationship. In Journal of a Solitude, Sarton wrote "The fear of homosexuality is so great that it took courage to write Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing... to write a novel about a woman homosexual who is not a sex maniac, a drunkard, a drug-taker, or in any way repulsive, to portray a homosexual who is neither pitiable nor disgusting, without sentimentality .." Once a subject becomes more mainstream, the pioneers who first wrote about it are often marginalised.

So, I decided to reread one of my favourite May Sarton novels, A Reckoning, which was published in 1978. This is the story of Laura Spelman, a 60 year old woman who has terminal lung cancer. Laura decides that she wants her death to be on her own terms. The cancer is inoperable but she refuses treatment that might prolong her life in favour of making the most of whatever time she has left. Laura wants to remember the real connections in her life & to try to understand some of the more contentious relationships, particularly her relationship with her mother, Sybille, & her daughter, Daisy.

In some ways, Laura's life is quite ordinary. She had a long, happy marriage to Charles, who died a few years earlier. She has three children - Brooks, married to Ann with two children, Ben, an artist & Daisy - lives alone in a comfortable house in Boston with her dog, Grindle & cat, Sasha. Laura has worked as an editor with Houghton Mifflin & is keen to keep working as long as possible, especially as she's just started work on a novel by a young lesbian writer, Harriet Moors. Harriet's novel is based on her own life & her partner is terrified that she will lose her job if it's published. Harriet's parents disapprove of her lifestyle so she's torn between upsetting her parents, maybe breaking up her relationship & publishing a book that she believes should be published.

Laura's plans to go on this final journey alone are soon stymied by her family & her own body. Brooks & Ann feel shut out when she reluctantly tells them of her illness but refuses any help. Her sympathetic doctor, Jim Goodwin, arranges for a nurse to live in, & though at first, Laura is opposed to this, she soon realises that she can't cope alone. Mary O'Brien becomes, in fact, one of the most important people in Laura's final weeks, with her sympathetic, detached presence. Laura's family are divided into those who are shocked & upset & thinking more about themselves than Laura like Brooks & her sister, Jo & then there are others like Aunt Minna, who comes to read to her, & her sister Daphne, who takes Laura on a journey to their childhood summer house on the coast.

This is a very quiet book. Much of it takes place within Laura's consciousness as she remembers the past & analyses her relationships, looking for those real connections that are so important to her. She visits her mother, Sybille, now suffering from dementia, & remembers a childhood dominated by this beautiful woman who wanted to be an actress but never really connected with any of her children. All she was able to do was dominate them & try to control their lives, often with disastrous effects. The most important relationship in Laura's life was her friendship with Ella, a young woman she met at the Sorbonne when she studied in Europe as a young woman. Their friendship was passionate, not explicitly sexual, but the most profound relationship of Laura's life. Sybille did her best to separate them when Laura spent two years in Switzerland, recovering from tuberculosis. Laura realises that her closest connections have been with women. As she grows physically weaker, she has to let go of all these memories & prepare for her death in her own way.

I enjoyed reading A Reckoning again after so many years. It's the kind of novel I enjoy - quiet, domestic & grounded in the everyday. Laura concentrates on beauty, flowers, Mozart concertos, the desire to see the spring one more time & gradually retreats within herself. The novel is a long reflection on one woman's life & the final journey towards death.

... Laura felt joy rising, filling her to the brim, yet not overflowing. what had become almost uncontrollable grief at the door seemed now a blessed state. It was not a state she could easily define in words. But it felt like some extraordinary dance, the dance of life itself, of atoms and molecules, that had never been as beautiful or as poignant as at this instant, a dance that must be danced more carefully and with greater fervor to the very end.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Emily Dickinson

A few weeks of one of my favourite poets, Emily Dickinson. As you can see in the picture, I have two collections of her work, The Complete Poems & a selection chosen by Ted Hughes. This is one of my favourite poems. I have a video of a 1980s documentary on Dickinson & Jane Alexander reads the poetry so beautifully, including this poem. I love that documentary, it was part of a series on American writers. I also have the episode on Sylvia Plath (which you can watch on YouTube here). I've watched both programs so many times. Critics & writers talk about Dickinson, including Richard Sewell, Joyce Carol Oates & Adrienne Rich. The music is also lovely, it was where I first heard the Bach cello suites. So, that's one of the reasons why this poem has stayed in my memory. I also love the image of a person being constructed like a house & somehow attaining the "perfected Life".

The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Time of Hope - C P Snow

Time of Hope is the first book chronologically in C P Snow's Strangers and Brothers series. It was the third book to be published but should really be read first as it fills in the background of Lewis Eliot, the narrator of the series. I read George Passant first & all the questions I had about Lewis & where he fitted in were answered in Time of Hope.

Lewis is a clever boy growing up in a provincial city. His parents are ill-matched - his father, Bertie, is easy going & cheerful; his mother, Lena, is conscious of having married beneath her. She is ambitious for Lewis & devastated when her husband's business fails & he is bankrupt. His sister, Lewis's Aunt Milly, condescends to help out but always makes her disapproval known. Bertie eventually finds a job again & Lena saves any money she can to send Lewis to the best school possible so he can make the most of what chances he can get. Her disappointment drives her on, especially as her own family disowned her when she married.

Her hopes had been brilliant. She had a romantic, surging passionate imagination, even then, when a middle-aged woman beaten down by misfortune. As a girl she had expected - expected as of right -  a husband who would give her love and luxury and state. She thought of herself in her girlhood, and as she spoke to me she magnified the past, enhanced all that she could glory in, cherished her life with her own family now that she looked back with an experienced and a disappointed heart.

Lewis works hard at school & believes he will accomplish great things. It's a disappointment to find himself, several years after leaving school, working as a clerk in the local Council education office, a job with no future. He decides to take some law classes at the local Technical College where he meets George Passant &, with George's encouragement, Lewis decides to stake everything on becoming a barrister. Aunt Milly agrees to loan him the money he'll need as he will have to leave his job & devote himself to study full time to pass the exams.

After several very lean years, Lewis passes his exams & is called to the Bar. He has very little influence in a profession that demands patronage in order to get ahead but George's employer, Mr Eden, recommends Lewis to Herbert Getliffe, & Lewis joins his chambers as a pupil, a very junior member of staff. Lewis gradually begins to make money & have some success with the opinions & notes he writes for Getliffe & the cases the clerk of Getliffe's chambers finds for him. A serious bout of illness threatens his progress but his love for Sheila Knight & his determination to marry her is the real obstacle to any progress in his professional life.

Sheila is a beautiful young woman but emotionally unstable. Lewis meets her in his home town, as part of the group that gathers around George Passant & is immediately attracted to her.

 I did not make dreams of her, as I had done of many other girls. That first state of love was delectable beyond my expectation; in its delight I did not stop to wonder that I had often imagined love, and imagined it quite wrong. I breathed in the delight with every breath, those first mornings. I did not stop to wonder why my thoughts of her were vague, why I was content to let her image - unlike those of everyone else I knew - lie vague within my heart.

Sheila's father is a self-absorbed clergyman & her mother is suspicious of Lewis, thinking him a fortune hunter. Sheila herself seems to tolerate Lewis but without much enthusiasm. She often hurts him by mentioning other men that she's seeing & seems to find more enjoyment talking to Lewis's landlady or the waitress in a cafe than to his friends. She often tells him that she can't love him but he blindly pursues her & eventually she agrees to marry him. Their marriage is a disaster, almost from the beginning. Sheila needs constant reassurance from Lewis & his work suffers. She can't take part in the social life that is so important to Lewis's career & he finds himself stagnating at work & miserable at home. He begins to wonder if all his sacrifices & work have been wasted & contemplates leaving Sheila & ending the marriage.

This is a fascinating study of a man who, on the one hand, is determined to make a success of his life & on the other hand, almost blindly follows a course that will destroy him. When he first meets Sheila, Lewis is dazzled by her & is blind to the fact that Marion, another member of the group, is in love with him. Sheila is always completely honest with Lewis & repeatedly tells him that she doesn't love him & doesn't think she can ever really be in love with anyone. In the end, he wears her down & she just gives in. Lewis has seen enough of Sheila's problems to know that she will never be able to help him in his career so I thought it was unfair that he begins to resent her. Before their marriage, he has several opportunities to break away but he is never quite able to do so. He even drives away another young man who Sheila believes she could be happy with. Lewis's obsession with Sheila is irrational & he realizes this but is powerless to forget her or to leave her alone.

I especially enjoyed the early chapters of Lewis growing up with his ambitious mother & ineffectual father. Father & son spend a day at the cricket - it's the first game Mr Eliot has ever seen - & it's here that Mr Eliot finally tells Lewis about his bankruptcy. The picture of small town life, the gossip, the shame & the irritation of everyone knowing your business & having an opinion about it, is intensely claustrophobic. I felt less sympathy for Lewis as he grew older but I was always interested in his struggles in his career, his fear that his health would break down & his unrelenting efforts to succeed. I pitied Sheila, living with her uncomprehending parents & pursued by Lewis. She always seemed so much more clear-eyed about herself & what she was capable of than anyone else. I'd like to have been able to see Lewis through her eyes.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

More collages - books and cats

More collages, mostly books but one of Lucky & Phoebe. The photo of Phoebe on the bonnet of my car was taken a few months ago but the other two were taken just last weekend.

I've bought a few books in the last month. A few were bargains but most of them weren't. I bought some Greyladies & Girls Gone By books from Gill Bilski, a bookseller in the UK who specializes in children's books. The books were on sale but the postage wasn't. Still, by the time I'd chosen the books I wanted, a minor detail like postage wasn't going to stop me. I've also borrowed a lovely stack of books from my library, including the new biography of Queen Victoria by A N Wilson & a biography of Mary Gaunt, whose novel Kirkham's Find I read & loved earlier this year.

If these books were on a shelf rather than piled on my desk, I'd call them my Shelf of Shame. Of course, there isn't a spare shelf in the house so they're sitting on my desk reproaching me every time I look at them. These are the books I took from the tbr shelves to read next because I read a review on a blog or someone in my online bookgroup mentioned one of them. Some of them have been sitting there a very long time but their spot on the tbr shelves has long since been filled by another book so there's no going back. Extra brownie points for anyone who can work out all the titles (except for the Wodehouse on the bottom right, that's too hard. It's The Adventures of Sally).

Speaking of the tbr shelves, I still need to find room for all the books in the recently bought photo. I've already had to resort to stacking books horizontally & I think I need to do some more shuffling.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Poetry - A E Housman

I've spent a lot of time in the garden this weekend - digging over a garden bed full of roots, digging in compost in the front garden & planting tomatoes, pumpkin, lettuce, basil & zucchini in the veggie patch. This poem seemed appropriate although I wasn't thinking about lying beneath the ground as I worked, I was looking forward to a cup of tea & a rest.

Next week, I think I'll move on from Housman's melancholy to something more cheerful.

I hoed and trenched and weeded,   
  And took the flowers to fair:   
I brought them home unheeded;   
  The hue was not the wear.   

So up and down I sow them           
  For lads like me to find,   
When I shall lie below them,   
  A dead man out of mind.   

Some seed the birds devour,   
  And some the season mars,           
But here and there will flower   
  The solitary stars,   

And fields will yearly bear them   
  As light-leaved spring comes on,   
And luckless lads will wear them           
  When I am dead and gone.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Thin Air - Ann Cleeves

Three women who have been friends since university travel to Unst in Shetland when one of them, Caroline, marries Lowrie Malcolmson, a Shetlander. The wedding has already taken place but the traditional Shetland welcome for the married couple, the hamefarin', is a chance for the locals to have a party. Polly Gilmour has invited her new partner, Marcus Wentworth, & Eleanor Longstaff & her husband Ian, make up the group. Eleanor has been depressed after suffering two miscarriages & is resentful that Ian seems to be lacking in sympathy. She's a television producer with a small company & is currently researching ghost stories for a program about the phenomenon of practical people believing they've seen something supernatural. Polly is the quiet one of the three friends, always following where the others lead. She's a librarian, working at a special library dedicated to folklore. Caroline is a decisive woman who set her sights on Lowrie from their university days & now has what she's always wanted. She's even considering moving to Unst permanently.

The hamefarin' is a big success with nearly everyone on the island there. Eleanor surprises her friends late that night by saying that she's seen the ghost of a little girl, Peerie Lizzie, who had drowned 80 years before. The Peerie Lizzie story is one of those she's researching for her program & the legend is that if a woman sees the child she will become pregnant. Polly has also seen the girl but says nothing out of fear of ridicule. Next morning, Eleanor has disappeared. The police are called in & then Polly receives a text message from Eleanor saying that there's no point looking for her as she won't be found. Has Eleanor's fragile mental health been shaken by the sight of a ghost? Has she committed suicide or just run away? When her body is found on the shore, laid out very carefully, it's clear that she's been murdered.

Detectives Jimmy Perez & Sandy Wilson arrive from Lerwick to investigate Eleanor's disappearance which soon becomes a murder inquiry. They're joined by Willow Reeves, another islander whose style of working, abrupt & very focused, contrasts with Perez's calm watchfulness. The two have a cordial working relationship but Jimmy is still recovering from the murder of his partner, Fran, & believes that Willow is on the lookout for any sign that he's not up to the job. Willow is only too aware of Jimmy but her attraction to him annoys her & makes her seem unsympathetic.

The detectives stay at an upmarket B&B run by Charles Hillier & David Gordon. Charles had been a  well-known magician but his career had dried up & his partner, David, suggested they move to Shetland. The renovation of the B&B had been expensive & there are tensions & secrets between the couple that become obvious as the investigation continues. The relationship between Eleanor, Polly & Caroline also proves to be more complex than it first seemed. Eleanor had been the leader of the group, dominating the more introverted Polly, who becomes more & more frightened as the atmosphere on the island becomes claustrophobic & her own sightings of a little girl dancing on the beach who seems to vanish into thin air.

The Shetland series is one of my favourites. I'm not reading as many police procedurals as I used to, but this is one series that I always look forward to. The atmosphere of the island is beautifully evoked. The ghost story of Peerie Lizzie adds to the feeling of otherworldliness that is intensified by the midsummer simmer dim, the time when night never really seems to fall. The arrival of the visitors recalls memories & events long past & Eleanor's research into the story of Peerie Lizzie may have stirred up more than she expected. I love the way Ann Cleeves brings in so many possibilities & creates characters with whole lives behind them. Every twist & turn of the investigation brought some new perspective to the lives of one of the suspects. She's also very good at involving the reader in the lives of her detectives. I thought I knew the identity of the murderer several times but was wrong almost to the end when I did get an inkling.

Jimmy Perez is one of the most interesting, sympathetic detectives in crime fiction. Still grieving over the loss of Fran, he's also caring for Fran's daughter, Cassie, while trying to get on with his life & his work. He's an instinctive investigator, who sometimes goes off on a tangent of his own but his knowledge of the people & the islands is invaluable. I've just watched the TV series Shetland that was based on the books. I enjoyed it, loved the scenery & the music. It didn't bother me that Douglas Henshall, who plays Jimmy, is a pale skinned redhead rather than a dark descendant of the Spanish Armada as Jimmy is described in the books. Some changes have been made to the plots of the books they used but a TV series has to be different & I thought they did a good job. I believe a third series is planned. I'm sure it's done wonders for tourism in the islands.