11 May 2017

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

'A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.'

I remember the day this book arrived in the mail and can't believe it was 2009.  Not long after I found a group of people in this blogsphere who had years of experience with authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark, Penelope Lively, Marghanita Laski, and Dorothy Whipple.  These were the authors hiding in plain sight.  While looking for something to read set in the English countryside there is any number of classics, at the other end of the spectrum, plenty of chic lit.  Once introduced to this Aladdin's cave of literature I ordered title upon title and bought more bookcases.  Now the books sit and wait.

Susan Hill imposed a challenge upon herself to read from her shelves for a year.  As she meanders through her home, browsing titles and pulling out books for a closer look, she recounts the memories associated with her acquisitions.  Being a well-known author, the people Hill comes into contact with take Howards End is on the Landing to a level higher than just a snoop around her shelves.  While on a sleeper train from London to Manchester in 1961....

'But this time is was only Manchester after all, in the company of Katherine Whitehorn, Elizabeth David and Elizabeth Jane Howard, grand-seeming ladies all, and terribly grown-up beside a student in a Marks & Spencer V-necked sweater.  Elizabeth Jane was very kind about my book, and then I talked about student-cooking-on-gas-ring, with Katherine, who had written a book about just that, and Elizabeth David, who had not.'

Like Susan Hill, I rarely read books featuring Australia or Canada, and laughed when just yesterday a customer at the library expressed the same view.  The fact that we were standing in a Canadian library meant we assumed the body language of people sharing a sordid secret, but...you like what you like.  At one point though, I took exception to Hill's broad statement about short stories...'Nobody reads them but people go on buying them'.  I love short stories and stock plenty on my shelves.  Hill mentions that she reads certain stories over and over again from her many volumes so perhaps she meant to imply they're not a popular item.  In any case, she had me reaching for the smelling salts.

Howards End is on the Landing is a book you will want to read with a notebook and pen nearby to jot down interesting titles.  Although, the author would simply underline anything she found interesting but this is something I would never do.  Marking a book, folding down a page, or leaving the book open while face down are activities that separate readers into opposite camps...I digress.   Hill considers The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen to be her masterpiece (which I've read) and The Last September as a favourite (which I haven't).  This also brings to mind one of the intricacies of stocking books - the act of saving books you desperately want to read, but don't, because you can't bear the thought of having an undiscovered piece of writing by an author.  Although, thinking back to a 'find' from Harper Lee's estate, as well as Stella Gibbons' Pure Juliet, perhaps I shouldn't be so precious.

Another behaviour we book lovers seem to have in common is the shelf of books that seemed like a good idea at the time, but don't get much attention after a week.  

'Small hardbacked books bought in the run-up to Christmas or Valentines's or Mother's Day are non-books.  They are about Everything Being Rubbish or how to microwave a budgerigar or where to go before you die, or why Slough is the armpit of the universe, they are little anthologies of love poems or things read at funerals or cartoons about politicians.'

This made me laugh and think of the books I bought on the art of tea, when what I probably wanted at the time was a nice hot cuppa.  There's also a small chapter called Things that Fall out of Books, as a case in point, hiding in my book was a ticket stub from a local theatre for See How They Run.  A reminder of a lovely day out on September 30, 2012.  I know my books will one day end up in someone else's home so I'm passing on the small thrill that comes from a bit of ephemera from the past.  Ticket stubs are tucked into random books on my shelves, read or not, and sometimes the person finding a surprise is me.

If you own a copy of Howards End is on the Landing consider taking it along with you while on holiday this summer.  It's a book lover's delight, particularly if you're a fan of twentieth-century literature.


1 May 2017

Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim

During a thorough weeding exercise a couple of years ago, one of the few green spine Virago Modern Classics the library owned was chosen to be pulled.  It's such a shame when a book is discarded due to lack of circulation when the binding is still tight.  This was not the case with Christopher and Columbus.  I can barely make out the title along the spine for white lines running end to end as the book has been wrenched during readings.  And the pages are yellow, but still more than good enough for another read, or two.

Twins, Anna-Rose (older by twenty minutes) and Anna-Felicitas are seventeen and sailing across the ocean on the St. Luke to America without the benefit of an escort.  Orphaned, and then relinquished by relatives in England, they're on their way to New York and yet another family.  The Great War is underway so the journey is a treacherous one with German submarines lurking beneath the water.  The girls sit wide-eyed, with blankets pulled up to their chins, as they watch the ships population move within their respective class sections.

Having led a sheltered life, the girls are unsure about everything, but emanate a sense of joie de vivre that is utterly irresistible.  Another passenger on the ship, Mr Twist, takes it upon himself to act as a guardian of sorts to the girls.  The two extremely naive sisters have won the lottery when it comes to serendipitous friendships.  Mr Twist has made a fortune from his design of a non-dribble teapot and is the best of men.  His fortune has also enabled Mr Twist's mother and sister to move up through the classes...

'His mother passed from her straitened circumstances to what she still would only call a modest competence, but what in England would have been regarded as wallowing in money.  She left off being middle-class, and was received into the lower upper-class, the upper part of this upper-class being reserved for great names like Astor, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt.  With these Mrs Twist could not compete.  She would no doubt some day, for Edward was only thirty and there were still coffee-pots....'

I laughed out loud several times while making my way through this book.  The only drawback is that after awhile, at five hundred pages long, it all gets to be a bit too syrupy.  Mr Twist goes to all sorts of lengths for the sake of the girls and it becomes obvious they'll never be happy to part ways.  Published in 1919, this sort of situation garners all sorts of gossip amongst guests in the hotels the trio visit along the way.  It's apparent to the reader, long before the characters, what the eventual outcome must be. 

Christopher and Columbus is a fitting title for a story about adventurous sisters, and it's thoroughly charming.  Perfect as a summer read or when you're in the mood for something light.

Two Sisters by Pierre-August Renoir
1889

19 April 2017

Love Has No Resurrection by E. M. Delafield

At long last...snow is a thing of the past and the ground is drying up.  The back garden was off limits to Kip this past month as he was churning up enough mud to create the look of a cattle paddock.  Each call of nature meant grabbing the leash and eventually we stopped caring who saw us in our pajamas.

Spring is also a time to take stock of things that need attention around the house.  The curtains covering a palladian window didn't survive this year's annual wash so my sewing machine saw the light of day for the first time in a few years.  A new front door is arriving any day, and I decided to say goodbye to my twelve year old car before it said goodbye to me...on the side of the road, late at night.  I'm quite certain the first space ship to the moon had fewer computerized capabilities and a slimmer owner's manual.

A busy month was the perfect time to grab a short story collection from my shelves.  When I found this book at an antique show in Elora a couple of years ago, I knew nothing about it other than it was by E. M. Delafield and cost three dollars.  Once back at home, a quick search on a book site made my eyes widen as Love Has No Resurrection is not easy to come by and prices range anywhere from sixty to eighty-five dollars.

Published in 1939, a few years before Delafield's death in 1943, this anthology is a wonderful pick and mix of styles and themes.  Some of the stories had previously appeared in Time and Tide, Good Housekeeping and The Radio Times.

One of my favourites is called The Reason.  In the blush of an affair, Oliver and Catherine are vacationing in Brittany.  Oliver's wife has been told he's staying with his family in Wales for the month of September.  For awhile, the situation is idyllic...romantic dinners, strolls on the beach, and  the sharing of inside jokes about the other vacationers.  Two spinsters are cruelly given the nicknames of Miss Lump and Miss Dump; pitied for their blandness.  But then Oliver announces he's been called away.  Catherine spends her days writing to Oliver while waiting for a reply...

'To be frantic over a delay, over the non-arrival of a letter, the breaking of an appointment, is the privilege of the secure, for whom the unutterable bliss of reassurance is waiting on the morrow.But to be frantic with no underlying expectation of relief is to court madness.'

Not all of the writing in these stories is as brilliant as the above, but with those two sentences there can be no doubt of Delafield's brilliance as a writer.

Dipping into a bit of crime writing in They Don't Wear Labels, Delafield portrays the danger of assuming that all is as it appears to be.  The Peverelli's seek lodging at a boarding house.  Mrs Peverelli seems to be the weak sort who languishes in bed, her pallor is ghostly, and she weeps.  Her husband, a commercial traveller, can't seem to do enough for her.  The landlady, Mrs Fuller, has definite opinions about the sort of woman who relies on being catered to.  One night, Mrs Peverelli goes too far...while her husband is out she sends another resident, a little girl, to the kitchen for a cup of hot cocoa.  Mrs Fuller is in just the mood to have her say, so with cocoa in hand, she heads up the stairs.  But instead, Mrs Peverelli unburdens herself with a horrifying story  - she's being poisoned by her husband.  Mrs Fuller is shaken and left to decide which Peverelli is to be believed.

The mindset and circumstance of the aging woman is a thread carried through several of the stories in this collection.  I had forgotten that Delafield died in her early fifties, surely not old enough to have felt invisible, but clearly she felt she had some insight.  In The Young Are In Earnest, Oliver Innes lives alone in a flat in Jermyn Street.  His constant companion is the beautiful Mrs Bannister, widowed and living in Chelsea.  Yes, this is a story filled with descriptions of how the other half live...the sort of people who wonder what a weekend is and announce luncheon with a gong.  Mrs Bannister has an invitation to join the Russels at their seaside property and wonders if Oliver would like to come along.  Ever so secure in the knowledge that she's an independent woman with a handsome companion, the countryside whizzes past during the drive and life couldn't be any better.  Then the Russels stunning daughter, Sylvie, shows up in a dazzling bathing suit with a sun-kissed face.  Suddenly I hear the age-old directive...'Mirror, mirror on the wall....'.  Delafield keenly paints a picture of jealousy, insecurity, and the fear of loneliness.

As I mentioned earlier, not all of the stories will remain with me for a lifetime but this collection is perfect as a description of 1930s nuance and surprisingly bold at times in terms of sexuality.  If you spot a copy going for a song in a dusty bookstall - buy it!

Kip...he's one year old next week!  And no, this isn't our home...but it is a pretty background.

 The side-view of a home in Roseland this past Easter weekend.  A fun-filled afternoon of gathering eggs, no doubt!

27 March 2017

Pure Juliet by Stella Gibbons

When Pure Juliet was published in 2016, it was surrounded by the faint whiff of a consolation prize for fans.  Apparently found amidst Gibbons' belongings after her death, there is also a train of thought that perhaps the novel wasn't quite up to scratch, or desperately needed revising.  Whatever the case, it's a good thing I don't pay much attention to critics.

'The person described as giving Miss Roberts the creeps proceeded at a swift pace ahead of the two teachers.  She was noticeable for this unusual quickness of movement; for her hair, which was so fair as to look silver in certain lights; and for the expression in her eyes, small and so full of light that their colour was hard to name.'

Juliet Slater has finished school with five A levels in science and maths, but has almost no concept of social graces and no time for relationships.  She is wholly consumed by the reading of textbooks and unravelling the mystery of coincidence.  Juliet's mother, Rose, spends her day making pots of tea, preparing meals and cleaning the house.  George Slater's day is spent driving a train between St Pancras and Standish, picking up a copy of the Evening News on his way to grab a couple of pints before dinner.  The concept of Juliet attending university is seen as a complete waste of time when she could easily start earning money as a secretary.

While there is no obvious label of Juliet being on the autism spectrum, there are all sorts of clues.  The lack of a label also allows the reader to sink into the notion that Juliet simply marches to the beat of her own drum and chooses to sidestep social convention.  I found her fascinating.

A chance encounter (or as Juliet would favour, a coincidence) involving the elderly Miss Adelaide Pennecuick results in an invitation to spend a year at her manor house called Hightower in the countryside.  Echoing an era from the past, Juliet arrives with her suitcase....

  'A long face, irresistibly suggesting that of a sheep, below silver hair, smiled at her from a wheelchair drawn up to an electric fire.  The room was stiflingly hot, in spite of the summer heat outside; the occupant of the chair's skeletal arms were bared to the elbow by a long dress of blue silk.
Juliet went up to her, sank to her knees beside the chair and, putting her arms round the thin old body, lifted her face passively to receive kiss after lingering kiss, while she shut senses against the odour of verbena toilet water and eighty-year-old flesh.'

The image is positively Gothic, isn't it.  But standing in the background are five entertaining Spanish servants from the same family that form a perfect juxtaposition to the dated manor house.  And then there's Addy's nephew, Frank, with a fondness for fays and water-sprites and devoted to the movement called the Association for the Investigation of Edible Grasses.  While a vegan lifestyle is nothing new, I delighted in Stella Gibbons being ahead of her time, because in Frank she has written a vegan warrior equal to any like-minded blogger you could find today.  And I adored Frank for his ability to accept Juliet's differences and support her genius.  He encourages Juliet to consider a place at Cambridge University, and considering her lack of social skills, passing the interview could be one of many roadblocks.

Pure Juliet is pure magic and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it; in fact, the ending made my eyes well up.  It wasn't because of any particular event, but that Juliet's character had grabbed my heart.  Pure Juliet is a story that conjures up images of working class England in the seventies, with a sprinkle of the Edwardian era, and a dash of the whimsical Durrells in Corfu.  I highly recommend this as a book to enjoy on the patio this summer or take along on a holiday.  Well done, Stella Gibbons!

Reading at a Table by Pablo Picasso
1934