Thursday, July 31, 2014

A book lovers idea of Heaven

First, some very exciting news. I mentioned in this post on Pushkin the other week that one of my favourite books when I was young was Mara Kay's The Youngest Lady In Waiting (cover photo from here). It was the book that began my lifelong interest in Russian history. It's the sequel to Masha, the story of a young orphan's life in early 19th century Russia. Both books were published around 1970 & are incredibly hard to get hold of. I read the copies in my school library & have always wanted to reread them. Well, Karoline, who commented on the post, asked if I knew that Margin Notes Books were reprinting both books later this year? Well, I didn't but I'm so excited! There's nothing on the website just yet but I'm so looking forward to ordering these. Hooray for another small publisher bringing back beautiful books. I have the Margin Notes Books edition of Five Farthings by Monica Redlich on the tbr shelves & I'm looking forward to reading it while I wait for the Mara Kays. Also, have a look at the publisher's blog, there's a link on the website. I'll be monitoring both blog & website very closely for the next few months.

I'm not sure if I should be mentioning this next fact as it could be evidence of serious derangement when it comes to book buying. I'm closing in on 1000 books on the tbr shelves (maybe I should have written 1000 books, does that make it seem less obvious?). Should I be whispering with shame or shouting with glee? I'll never be short of a book to read, that's for sure. I'm up to 968 (according to Library Thing) with several more books on the way even now. The trouble is, I'm seeing the magic 1000 books as a challenge that I must complete by the end of the year so there's definitely more glee than shame in my unrepentant attitude! I'll just mention quietly that this is only the number of physical books. The ebooks are also out of control but they're also invisible.

One book I bought recently was Summer's Day by Mary Bell. I'd been reading admiring references about it on Scott's blog, Furrowed Middlebrow, for some time now. From the original review to his search for the real identity of the author, to the most recent mention, when my resistance broke & I searched for a second hand copy (the Greyladies edition is out of print). Searching Abebooks sent me to Anglophile Books, where there were several copies of the Greyladies edition. I've been an occasional customer of Anglophile Books for some years now (unfortunately the postage costs from the US to Australia are quite high but I wasn't going to let that stop me on my quest for this book & may I say, it hasn't stopped me in the past).

Anglophile Books has the most wonderful selection of books for lovers of the middlebrow novel. Lots of my favourite authors - D E Stevenson, Dorothy L Sayers, Barbara Pym, Josephine Tey, Vera Brittain, E M Delafield - & many more. The owner, Laura, is also the convener of the D E Stevenson Yahoo group I've recently joined & she has very kindly linked to my blog on the website. If you have a look here, there are links to any books by my favourite authors that Laura has in stock. I'm not making any money out of the link, I'm just happy to point potential customers in the direction of a great secondhand bookshop.

Two themed reading weeks are coming up in the next few months that I'm very excited about. Anbolyn at Gudrun's Tights is hosting a Mary Stewart reading week from September 14th to 21st in honour of the novelist who died earlier this year. I've been planning to reread Mary Stewart ever since the last lot of reprints were published but I haven't gotten very far. However, I have lots of her novels on my shelves (no excuse there for buying more books), & I plan to read at least one for that week.

Margaret Kennedy is an author who has been on the periphery of my reading world for quite some time. I've only read The Constant Nymph but I have a couple of others on the tbr shelves & I've ordered a few of the Vintage reprints that are to be published soon. Fleur Fisher is hosting the reading week from October 6th to 12th. You'll find a comprehensive reading list on her blog. I'm leaning towards Lucy Carmichael, which seems to be a universal favourite but there are several others that look interesting. Kennedy was one of the group of novelists who went to Somerville College, Oxford in the 1920s. Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby & Dorothy L Sayers are the most famous names but maybe Margaret Kennedy is about to join them? It won't be for want of trying if Fleur has anything to do with it.

I'm a big fan of Delphi Classics who produce complete collections of the work of out of copyright authors as very reasonably priced ebooks. They're beautifully formatted & always include some rare gems or additional material about the author. Series Five has just been announced. These titles will be published in coming months & I'm especially excited about Margaret Oliphant & Frances Hodgson Burnett. As I said above, at least they're invisible...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Stonehenge - Rosemary Hill

Reading this article by Will Self in the Guardian the other week made me want to read more about Stonehenge. I've always been interested in it but I also have a pretty hazy idea about the chronology of prehistory & Stonehenge is one of the most fascinating yet frustrating elements of Britain's prehistory. Rosemary Hill's book isn't really about who built Stonehenge & why (does anyone really know?), it's about how Stonehenge has been interpreted through history & it's a very interesting journey.

Stonehenge has been appropriated by antiquarians, historians, archaeologists, Druids & New Age enthusiasts at different times during its history. It's been a symbol of barbarity & of ancient civilization to writers, poets & painters. Architects such as Inigo Jones in the 17th century believed that the Romans had built it. Rome was the greatest civilization known to Man, therefore, only the Romans could have constructed such a monument. There were no written records about Stonehenge & no conception that the people who lived in Britain before the Roman invasion could have had the skill or knowledge to construct it.

William Stukeley published his book on Stonehenge in 1740 & he was the first person to really investigate the monument, taking measurements & trying to analyse the data. His book, with his meticulous drawings & measurements, has been indispensable for the historians & archaeologists who came after him. Archaeology as a discipline was an invention of the 19th century & Stukeley & his fellow antiquarians often did more harm than good as they dug up historical sites. Stukeley's scientific work was much appreciated but, where later archaeologists tend to take a step back is in his theories about who built Stonehenge. Stukeley believed it was the Druids, those strangely half-real, half-mythical teachers & wizards. This is when the Druids became inextricably connected to Stonehenge & nothing that science has done since has been able to disentangle the two.

Stukeley's book also made Stonehenge into a tourist attraction & the pressure of tourism is at the heart of Will Self's article. It is still a major factor in the standoff between archaeologists, English Heritage & modern-day Druids that has just reached a new crossroads with the recent opening of the new visitor centre at the site. The influence of Stonehenge on architecture can be seen in the layout of Bath & the development of the modern traffic roundabout.

The Romantic movement of the early 19th century was also influenced by Stukeley. Stonehenge appears in many paintings & poems of the period. William Blake used the image in his poem, Jerusalem & it was central to the final chapters of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. This is also the period when the study of prehistory became possible as archaeologists began to push the timeline of history further & further back & excavations revealed aspects of the site that had been hidden for centuries, including burials & artefacts. Theories of why the monument was built began to centre on astronomy & the importance to ancient people of the midwinter & midsummer solstice. This also led to clashed in the twentieth century between archaeologists & New Age groups who each have their own ideas about how the site should be used & preserved.

Rosemary Hill's book is a useful overview of Stonehenge & how it has been perceived over the last 500 years. It's a measure of its fascination that there is still no definitive theory about who built it & why. Every investigation seems to push the origins back even further & I think that's why Stonehenge can be so many things to so many different groups.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Evgeny Abramovitch Baratynsky

Evgeny Abramovitch Baratynsky was the son of an Army General who was dismissed from the Army at the age of 16 on a charge of theft. He had to begin Army life again as a private & only regained his status as an officer & a noble after six years service. His marriage left him financially secure & he seems to have led the easy life of a Russian nobleman of the period, living on his country estate with visits to St Petersburg & Moscow. He was part of Pushkin's circle & his "psychological miniatures", as his poems have been called, were widely admired.
I like this poem, which reaches out to future readers in a very modest way.

My gift is scant, my voice lacks force behind it,
and yet I live and my existence here
to somebody perhaps is counted dear:
some far descendant possibly may find it
within my verse: who knows? Our souls far-flung
will thus turn out to have some close relation,
and as I found a friend this generation,
a reader shall I find in time to come.

And this one, poking gentle fun at the salon society he knew in Moscow.

All things have their own pace and mode of motion.
'Twixt cradle and the grave Moscow's asleep,
but even she, half deaf, hears rumors creep
that whist's old hat and a much jollier notion
is salon groups where minds have scope to soar,
where conversation reigns, and whist's a bore.
So she pursues the craze she's set her heart on -
imagine the occurrence untoward!
Salons there are, some like a kindergarten,
and some, alas, a geriatric ward.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Wilfred and Eileen - Jonathan Smith

In 1913, Wilfred Willett is about to graduate from Cambridge & pursue his medical studies at the London Hospital. At a ball just before leaving Cambridge, he meets Eileen Stenhouse, & immediately feels an attraction for her. Eileen is beautiful, well-off but bored with her undemanding life & soon, Wilfred & Eileen are meeting to go for walks & attend galleries & exhibitions. Wilfred's medical studies are absorbing but sometimes bewildering as he learns about hospital hierarchies & is shocked to realise that the patients' welfare isn't always the top priority.

Wilfred's relationship with Eileen is frowned on by both families. Wilfred's parents have never had much sympathy for their son. The descriptions of Wilfred's meals with his parents are excruciating. They feel that Wilfred should concentrate on his studies &, as he relies on an allowance from his father, Wilfred is reluctant to jeopardise his career. Eileen's family are snobbish about Wilfred's prospects. The couple eventually marry in secret in December 1913 & meet for blissful afternoons in a hotel when they can. When war is declared in September 1914, Wilfred is determined to enlist & they're forced to tell their families that they are married.

Forced into a rushed church wedding, Wilfred enlists in the London Rifles Brigade &, after training at Crowborough, is posted to the Front. His regiment is in Belgium, at Ploegsteert, & Wilfred throws himself into his duties as an officer just as he threw himself into his studies at the Hospital. In December 1914, as he helps to bring a wounded man back into the trenches, Wilfred is shot in the head by a sniper. Through a communication mixup, Eileen isn't notified for some time &, when she is told of his condition, she decides to go out to France to bring him home.

Wilfred and Eileen is remarkable because it's based on a true story. In an Afterword, the author tells how he first learnt of the story from a pupil of his at Tonbridge School in the 1970s. The pupil was Wilfred & Eileen's grandson & this conversation led to Smith being entrusted by the family with Wilfred's diaries & papers. He was encouraged to turn the story into a novel, which was published in 1976 & later adapted as a TV series with Christopher Guard & Judi Bowker.

The story is simply told, with a great economy of style. It's a short novel, less than 200pp, & spans only a couple of years but there's so much experience contained within this short time frame. I was especially drawn to Eileen as she seems to draw on reserves of strength that she doesn't even realise she possesses. Defying her family in marrying Wilfred is one thing but when she has to go to the War Office to find out what has happened to Wilfred & then get a passport to go out to bring him home, she is transformed,

Something curious was happening to Eileen. She noticed it that night in her face. She was not by nature self-analytical and no one's habits and instincts could have been further from narcissism; sometimes she dressed if anything rather too casually, people thought, without sufficient attention to detail and straightness of hemline - even safety pins had been seen in her dress. But as she looked into the mirror she was caught and held by something dignified, tenacious, almost wilful in the eyes. Her mouth was set. This most adaptable and sensitive girl was revealing the firmness which perhaps had attracted Wilfred that night in Cambridge.

It's a measure of Smith's skill that Eileen is such a fully-formed character when the book is based on Wilfred's writings, especially as the early sections are more concerned with Wilfred's medical training. There are some horrible scenes in the Hospital of the self-absorption of the godlike surgeons & the contempt of the students for the poor patients who go to them for help. Wilfred's idealism about his work foreshadows the way he will react to the outbreak of war. He feels he must enlist, it's a reversion to his training & class, even though Eileen doesn't want him to. It does provide the catalyst for telling their families about their marriage which would have had to happen anyway but it still leaves them in limbo because they can't really begin their lives together while Wilfred is in the Army. I don't want to spoil the story by writing any more about the ending but it's very satisfying. It was definitely a good idea to print Jonathan Smith's essay as an Afterword rather than an Introduction (even though I never read the Introduction first). I knew from reviews that the novel was based on a true story but I only skimmed the reviews I did read because I didn't want to know too much.

In this year of the centenary of the beginning of WWI, there will be many books published & reprinted. Wilfred and Eileen is a lovely novel with the added interest of being based on truth.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Crooked Adam - D E Stevenson

Adam Southey is a schoolmaster at Rockingham School in England. It's 1942, the middle of WWII, but Adam isn't in the Army or Navy because he's lame. His disability means he can't join up & so, he finds himself teaching French & German to schoolboys who will, all too soon, be off to fight. Adam's old Headmaster, Dr Cooke, had offered him the job, & although he was glad to accept the position, he is resentful of the inactive role he's forced to play. The holidays have just begun & Adam is planning to spend six weeks in Wales. However, that's all about to change.

One night, Adam sees Dr Cooke making his way to the Science block, as he does every night to work on his experiments. A shadowy figure is following Cooke & Adam decides to investigate. The intruder is frightened off & Dr Cooke takes Adam into his confidence about his secret work. He has developed a laser ray that can hit aircraft at a great height & set them on fire. The military applications are obvious & the military chiefs are eager to see a full-scale working model. The ray is in the final testing stages & Dr Cooke is about to take the equipment & the plans to Scotland where a colleague, Mr Brownlee, will produce the full-size model at his engineering works. Adam agrees to go along but it's not long before he realises that there are other people interested in the ray & they will stop at nothing to get hold of the plans.

Adam & Dr Cooke arrive at Mr Brownlee's works but there are suspicions that some of the workmen have been bribed for information. They decide to take the full-scale model to Brownlee's country estate, Lurg, as soon as it's ready. The demonstration for the military chiefs will take place there. The journey to Lurg is eventful, as Adam & Ford, the overseer, become increasingly suspicious of the other two men, the driver Berwick & Dow, another workman. However, even kidnapping, a bump on the head & a tree across the road can't stop Adam & Ford for long & they arrive safely at Lurg.

At Lurg, Adam meets Mr Brownlee's daughter, Evelyn, & he's dazzled by her beauty & her friendly charm. He soon becomes a useful addition to the staff working on the ray, even though he can only do unskilled work. Adam also meets one of the neighbours, Mr Taylor, an Englishman who lives in a castle on the Tinal River. Mr Taylor is hospitable & invites Adam to dinner, where he meets Mr Taylor's niece, Brenda, a quiet girl who, according to her uncle, is mentally fragile & had to leave London because she was afraid of the bombing. However, there's more to Mr Taylor than Adam realises &, as he gets to know Brenda, he discovers that his new friend may have more sinister motives for his actions.

This is where the espionage thread becomes crucial to the plot so I can't really say much more. Adam & Brenda fall in love & they are both in danger as they try to foil the enemy's plans to steal the blueprints of the ray. Adam ends up living in a cave on the moors, assisted by Mr Ford's brother, Ebby. Adam's disability is no barrier as he leads two villains on a chase over the moors & captures one of them. He scales the cliffs outside Tinal Castle &, although the effort exhausts him, he succeeds. I couldn't help feeling that D E Stevenson had needed Adam to be disabled as a reason why he wasn't in the Forces but then, forgot about it when she needed him to be an action hero! Not that it matters as the story is exciting & full of real tension as the moment approaches when the enemy will try to steal the ray & Adam has to stop them.

As always in D E Stevenson's novels, the scenery is beautifully described. Scotland plays a central role, as it so often does. I loved the descriptions of the moors & the details of the walks Adam takes & his fishing & the domestic arrangements of his cave. If there could be such a thing as a domestic spy story, then I can't think of a better author than D E Stevenson to write it. The minor characters are also wonderful, from the Ford brothers to Dick Brownlee, Mr Brownlee's nephew, a crack pilot, who works for his uncle as a test pilot for his inventions. Adam himself is a very appealing character. More thoughtful than the usual action hero, he's rather like John Buchan's Richard Hannay but without the stiff upper lip & with a very real vulnerability. Crooked Adam is an involving novel that isn't as far removed from D E Stevenson's usual subject matter as you might suppose. There's even a little home renovation as Adam & Ebby make the cave habitable & cook some delicious meals. I enjoyed it very much.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Midwinter cats

If it's midwinter, it must be time to stay as warm as possible & get some sleep. My lap is the favoured place for both Lucky,

and Phoebe.

There have been a few standoffs when my lap is occupied & the unlucky cat thought a snooze there was going to be just the thing. Usually the rejected one simply moves off to another favourite spot with a little encouragement & a few hurt looks. The chair I bought a few months ago has found favour with both Lucky & Phoebe. Sometimes they both occupy it at the same time - it's big enough. Although, I hope you've noticed that there's no room for me...

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin

I'm not quite ready to leave Pushkin yet. Here's an elegy he wrote in 1834.

Extinguished are my years of carefree laughter;
They weigh me down, a heavy morning after.
But, just like wine, the grief I must assuage
Within my soul grown stronger now with age.
My road is grim. My future sea is stormy
And promises but grief and toil before me.

But, O my friends, I have no wish to sink;
I burn to live, to suffer and to think;
I know there will be joy and delectation
Among the griefs, the cares and agitation,
The ecstasy of harmony be mine,
My fancy draw sweet tears from me like wine,
And it may be - upon my sad declining
True love will smile, a valediction shining.