Monday, 29 December 2008

Wild Garlic, Gooseberries and Me by Denis Cotter

A Christmas present (thank you darling!) of a lovely book full of gorgeous vegetable recipes. Denis Cotter is the chef at Cafe Paradiso, where I was once lucky enough to eat; the food and the ambience are both delicious. In this book he writes thoughtfully about the types of vegetables he likes to cook, and about the relationship between grower and chef; there is a comfortable blend of personal reminiscence and hard facts, rather like Nigel Slater crossed with Elizabeth David. The recipes are very tempting; I've already tried the swede and leek curry, and was astonished that swede could be made to taste so very good. As a regular receiver of a vegetable box, I think this book will be immensely useful when it is beetroot again for the ninth week in succession. The beautiful photos of West Cork are also very tempting, especially as a trip would have to include a meal at Denis's restaurant. Perhaps when the Euro isn't quite so strong against the pound.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves

This Persephone reprint of a 1912 Fabian Society tract was a Christmas present; like A Christmas Carol it served as a salutary contrast to the feasts and presents. Reeves reports on the outcome of an experiment in Edwardian Lambeth, in which the Fabian Women's Group recorded in meticulous detail the income and expenditure of poor families. Reeves emphasises firmly that these are the hardworking poor; the men do not drink, some hardly smoke, the women do not spend their few shillings at the pictures or on a new hat. Instead, the family's income is usually spent on rent for unhealthy, often vermin-ridden rooms, which work out dearer per cubic foot than a house in a middle-class area; burial insurance to avoid the shame of a pauper's funeral at the almost inevitable death of a child; and the bread, margarine and tea which forms the greater part of the family's diet - a diet less nutritious than that provided in contemporary workhouses. When rent, or the price of coal, or the breadwinner's travelling expenses, go up, the amount remaining for food goes down: the women and children will always eat less if that means paying the rent. Unhealthy accommodation and poor diet make for sickly and undersized children, although they are not without spirit: my favourite was Joey, who, when asked to explain the meaning of Christmas, replied "You get a bigger bit of meat on your plate than ever you seen before ... and when 'E dies, you get a bun". Reeves' tone is generally mild and neutral; the simple reporting of the Women's Group discoveries is shocking enough without emphasis, and the point is clearly made: you cannot raise a healthy family on round about a pound a week. In her final chapter Reeves calls for the introduction of a minimum wage, and for the State - which has already taken some responsibility for children by prohibiting child labour - needs to meet the other half of this bargain by ensuring they are properly housed and nourished, through grants to parents. The book gives great insight into women's lives at this time, of both the Lambeth mothers and the rather ghostly "visitors" who helped them track their budgets and expenditures, and who are often kind, sometimes patronising, but usually generous in their view of what makes a good parent and a good housekeeper. I wish it had not reminded me so forcibly of David Widgery's Some Lives, published in 1992 and showing families struggling with the same problems: little money, poor food and poor housing, and consequent illness and death.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Smoke in the Valley by David Kynaston

Everything I said about A World to Build holds true for Kynaston's next chapter, which takes us from 1948 to 1951 through a lucid and fascinating account drawing on diaries, contemporary histories and subsequent analysis. He often finds contemporary writing about the issues he covers that challenge the accepted historical view; I was particularly taken with his analysis of Godfrey Winn's account of suburban life as a happy and satisfied one, greatly contrary to contemporary and subsequent commentary. I look forward to the next volume of the Tales of the New Jerusalem - if they all turn out as marvellous as the first two, they will be a huge joy.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

A Mind of its Own by Cornelia Fine

An guide to the brain, its habits and its doings. Fine has an elegant and amusing style and peppers her work with references to entertainingly sadistic psychology experiments - at one point she suggests that if readers learn anything from her book, it should be to keep away from social psychology researchers, or they will invite you to plunge your arm into icy water or something equally unattractive. Having set out for us the general uselessnesses of the brain - it is vain, weak-willed, bigoted and so on - she reassures us that, with effort, we can overcome these tendencies and train our brains to behave better. However, I for one will be clinging to the notion that the brain's will-power is weak and easily undermined by stress or distraction, in order to explain my inability to resist temptation where food is involved.

Friday, 7 November 2008

The Diary of a Provincial Lesbian by V G Lee

A kind friend, on hearing of my interest in E M Delafield, lent me this. Unfortunately, I thought it was pretty awful, and now need to compose a diplomatic thank you that doesn't betray my opinions. V G Lee's attempt at the apparently effortless, spontaneous diary prose that EMD achieves results in sloppy, casual sentences that witter without achieving either point or humour. Easy writing is indeed damned hard reading - and where are the jokes? The diary form is also bent, rather awkwardly, around a very obvious plot, losing the arbitrary, contingent humour and drama of the Provincial Lady. Occasional clunky references to the original text - an updated Our Vicar's Wife and mention of South of the Border - only serve to remind the reader of how far this book falls short of its model. It goes without saying that the editing of the book is shockingly bad - typographical errors, misspelt homophones and random apostrophes litter the text. Not recommended - but having read thirty excellent books this year I suppose I was due to read a poor one.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Bruce Chatwin by Nicholas Shakespeare

A detailed, unflinching record of Chatwin's life and works. Shakespeare makes good use of original material and the memories of those who knew Chatwin, both admirers and detractors. There is a constant tension between the elusive qualities of the subject and the biographer's intention to pin down and explain; how do you write the life of someone who was constantly rewriting his own life as he lived it, and improved on his stories at each repetition? But this tension imparts to the book some of these myth-making characteristics.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Modernism: the lure of heresy by Peter Gay

A fascinating and authoritative overview of modernism across the artistic disciplines. Gay stretches the lifespan of modernism in comparison with other historians, finding its beginnings in the works of Théophile Gautier and placing its birth firmly with the publication of Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal; he extends the modernist project well into the 1960s with Liechtenstein and Warhol identified as continuing to produce work modernist in flavour. Gay is exceptionally good at identifying, whether in architecture, dance or poetry, the essential qualities of the work that make it modernist; this skill is particularly apparent in the chapter on anti-modern modernists such as Hamsun and Eliot, who applied the innovations of modernism to support deeply conservative opinions. One of Gay's key defining characteristics of modernism is elitism, the need for modernism to define itself as high culture by establishing an oppositional low culture. In my view this point is stretched a little, especially when considering Liechtenstein as an artist who has combined high and low culture in his work and also as a modernist. However, this does not undermine the narrative of the origins, development and decline of modernism, though all its byways and aberrations, which is beautifully constructed and a pleasure to read.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

What Am I Doing Here? by Bruce Chatwin

Another collection of travel writing, including "stories" whose possibly fictional status Chatwin signposts in his forward. Chatwin the traveller is open and receptive, smiling and chatting with nuns sweeping the convent yard; recognising the conversational value of a fairly unrepentant old Nazi; peering in peoples' windows and waving at them when spotted. This approach bring him many stories - and probably also "stories" - to weave into his tales of places, usually exotic, often dangerous. He's a bit of a name-dropper, although shrewd enough to keep anecdotes of famous friends in check, and a master of the art of telling the reader just enough to whet the appetite for more. A real loss; but at least I have the majority of his work ahead of me.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

This mixture of Stalin-era Moscow, Pontius Pilate and Satan's black arts ought to be disastrous but is enchanting, keeping the reader engaged and entertained for every page. Margarita is a marvellous heroine, her courage redeeming the cowardice shown elsewhere, and the fables spun around her and around Yeshua are resonant but not heavy in their satirical effect, The ambiguity of the end of the lovers' story is undercut by the sense of continuity given by Ivan's memories through the epilogue. Other writers who have used Satan as a character have struggled to balance him against the "good" characters, but Bulgakov's characterisation is never less than fascinating, so no one character dominates the narrative.

Nomad's Hotel by Cees Noteboom

A collection of travel writing spanning several decades and the exotic and familiar. Noteboom is fascinated by the effect of travel on the experience of time; the evocation of the past, the slowing or quickening of the present depending on the pace of the location. He also reflects on the function of memory, of travel as both maker and destroyer of memories. The idea of a museum as a collection of memories is an enchanting one. He also imbues material objects - statues, buildings, a wastepaper basket - with personality and emotional resonance, but does so with self-awareness, knowing that "we ourselves are the only source of meaning, at least on this little beach of the universe. These inscriptions that we insist on finding on every stone, every sand-grain, are in our own hand". This quote is from Tim Robinson's Stones of Aran, now on my list of books to read. Nomad's Hotel was a wonderful companion during a journey, a prompt for reflection on how my journey was changing me.

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Shifting narrative perspectives and timescales work to great effect in this story of an illicit love affair in 1920s England and France. We meet, through Henrietta - a young girl travelling through Paris - the outcome of this affair: Leopold. The children, and their combative, cruel encounter, are well-drawn and convincing. Bowen's long, central section of the book, "The Past", addresses to Leopold the account of the affair between English Karen and French-Jewish Max; Leopold has been protected from the truth of his origins by his adoptive family. Occasionally Bowen reminds us that the narrative is for Leopold, addressing the reader as "you, Leopold"; this gives the impression of reading a private letter, as Leopold does in the first chapter. Returning to the present, the effect of Leopold's birth and existence on his mother's marriage is shown through a couple of pages of stage dialogue, attributed to He and She; the pronouns depersonalise the difficulties and effects of a very personal and complex story.

In the background are several sinister, ailing women: Mme Fisher, the witch-like, omniscient queen of the eponymous house; she is echoed in the more benign character of Aunt Violet, whose death triggers the events and emotional upheavals that bring us Leopold. Mrs Arbuthnot, Henrietta's grandmother, completes a trio of powerful and sometimes manipulative old ladies, puppet-masters moving the main players around the continent. This sets up a tension between Bowen's presentation of Max and Karen as self-possessed, dynamic lovers in "The Past" and the narrative's emphasis on them as characters, foregrounding their artificiality and continually reminding us that they are stereotypes of romantic fiction. This tension is repeated in other aspects of the book: bonds of affection are stretched and undermined, then reformed with apparently greater strength; and ultimately gives the novel a resonance and a complexity that are deeply rewarding.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Only on Sundays by Katharine Whitehorn

A collection of Whitehorn's columns from the Observer, put together in the late sixties. I picked this up from the Sunday market at Brighton railway station, having recently read her memoirs Selective Memory. This has been an entertaining bedtime read; Whitehorn is witty, with a good hand for a literary pun, and a compassionate and tolerant observer of others. What struck me is that lots of these columns could be published now and still tap into current anxieties; about parenting, about gender roles or about social interaction. Either Whitehorn was able to identify enduring, persistent areas for debate, or we have moved on remarkably little in forty years.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

A World to Build by David Kynaston

A fascinating history of 1945-48, drawing on published accounts, diaries and letters, and the Mass Observation archive. The use of unpublished material gives the text a fresh, vivid appeal and conveys very effectively the miseries of living during this period. The writing is peppered with Kynaston's own wry humour and some very good jokes: my favourite was the story of the Minister for Housing, a Mr Silkin, getting barracked by the people of Stevenage at a meeting intended to convince them that the new town development was a good thing, and finding, when he came to take his leave, that the local youth had let down his tyres. The book is intensely evocative of the tiredness everyone suffered, having struggled through the war; the cold and the squalor; but also the strengths of the dreams of social improvement and the sense of opportunity amongst those with the energy and power to undertake that improvement. I can hardly wait for the next volume.

Dorset Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner

A collection of STW short stories set in Chaldon and Maiden Newton. The Chaldon stories consider the cruelties of rural life in the 1930s, especially for the poor and the sick; the lonely death of Mr Kidd stands out among these. The Maiden Newton stories are centred around World War II's domestic front; the work of the WVS is mocked and celebrated. Two stories emphasise the rarity and value of domestic servants during this time; in Tabbish, a family treasure gains the upper hand of her mistress who relies on her not only for care and housekeeping, but uses the clothing coupons Tabbish never spends to curry social favour. The stories often expose the twists of power in apparently imbalanced relationships, the minor rebellions which perhaps make a general opression easier to bear. The pleasure of this book was rather marred by several printing errors, including one which changed a Miss to a Mrs halfway through a story, and had me leafing back to try and work out who she was.

Girl meets boy by Ali Smith

The reviews quoted on the paperback of this retelling of the Iphis myth stress its enjoyability, and indeed I did find this deeply enjoyable. Smith's prose seems ideally suited to this shorter form; its archness does not pall here as I found it did in The Accident. The alternating interior monologues that tell the story are well-sustained and support the definition of the characters of the two sisters. The story of Imogen's transformation from corporate drone to rebel, running alongside Anthea's metamorphosis through love, is moving, although I wondered if she had changed her mind rather quickly about her sister's lesbianism. The blossoming of surpressed selves gives the novel its joyful quality, supported by the breathless use of language, the long sentences piling experience on experience with only a comma to divide them.

Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light

In her introduction, Alison Light makes plain that an overarching History of Domestic Service would be impossible to achieve, as service was such a pervasive form of work and servants' lives were so little documented. This book focuses on domestic service between the wars, when the status of women, the types of work they could access, and relations between the classes all underwent significant change. In particular, Light has made use of Virginia Woolf's writings about her own domestic servants, and traced their history outside of those writings; this gives them solidity and status, and relieves of them the role of irritants in Woolf's life. Woolf's own efforts to understand her feelings about her servants, and the master-servant relationship, are acknowledged and explored; she is not simply the oppressive mistress of the house. The rescue of Sophia Farrell and Nelly Boxall for posterity, the exploration of the reliance of modernist cultural experiementation on conservative ways of life, and the subtle exploration of the nature of service, from both perspectives, makes this a deeply satisfying and provocative book.

Monday, 16 June 2008

The House by the Thames by Gillian Tindall

This meticulous piece of historical research tells the story of Bankside by focusing on one house, Number 49, and the people who lived and worked there. The book explores the industrial history of Bankside alongside the social history of its inhabitants. Tindall is more neutral about the transformation of Bankside from industrial to cultural activity than she is about the social changes effected by the removal of Bankside's working classes to suburban council developments, perhaps because Bankside, in its early history, was a place for relaxation and entertainment; it has now, mostly, reverted to that role. It's unlikely that the socially diverse Bankside population of the nineteenth century can be recreated with any great ease, given the costs and availability of housing around the area. It was fascinating to learn how many buildings, now acclaimed as monuments, were very close to demolition at various points of history - not least Southwark Cathedral, once facing the axe because its unheated interior was too cold to be healthy. Similarly, the survival of buildings like 49 Bankside was happenstance, influenced by spurious historical assocations that came to be taken as fact. Tindall makes an excellent case for the value of such buildings, not themselves architecturally distinguished, as a focus for our understanding of the development of our towns and cities.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

This year's reading so far

Today's posts update this blog with all the books I've read this year. You can also find my reviews at LibraryThing.

Loving Without Tears by M J Farrell (Molly Keane)

I read this fairly soon after Devoted Ladies, which it echoes closely in theme if not in plot. Camp handsome serving men; thwarted powerful women; ignored and ridiculed weaker women with silly nicknames and physical disadvantages; beautiful American vamps. Probably they need to be read further apart. But it runs along well, amusing and cruel, and Angel, the controlling mother, is finally vanquished in a satisfying set piece. A great sense of place is invoked without much physical description; you can almost smell the salt. Very satisfying too is Keane's use of inexplicable terminology (what is a carnation rabbit?) which the reader quickly accepts as part of the language of the book and the characters.

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

I was reading a lot about suburbia when this came out, and was drawn to the theme. But I found this very hard to enjoy. The characters so negative, the place so null, and the writing so doggedly writerly. It went straight onto BookMooch and is now making somebody else's life a misery for 300 pages.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

I enjoyed this until just before the very end; the revelation of how Duncan came to be imprisoned rang a bit hollow to me, and disappointed. The reverse structure was well-handled and the interconnectedness of the characters seemed lifelike and did not strain.

The Closed Door by Dorothy Whipple

Short stories exploring the themes of parents and children, especially the way parents exploit and control children for their own ease or pleasure. Slightly too keen on a happy ending, but the constraints of family life, especially for adult daughters reared to be used as cheap servants for their parents, were well-expressed. An interesting read with Singled Out in mind, showing how difficult it was for unmarried young women to make their own way in the world without their parents' support and consent, and with echoes of E M Delafield's Consequences, in which a mother's iron grip on her daughter is only broken by escape into a convent.

Every Eye by Isobel English

This was a tiny masterpiece. Not unlike Diana Athill's novel Don't Look at Me Like That, this novel shifts between the youth and middle age of a young woman growing up, and middle-aged, in the mid-century, tracking the sometimes benign, sometimes malign influence of her aunt by marriage. The writing is exquisite, the miniature plot well handled and compelling. Isobel English was a friend and contemporary of Muriel Spark and Olivia Manning, and there are points of comparison with both here.

Fattypuffs and Thinifers by Andre Maurois

I re-read this to make sure it wasn't too shocking to be given to a friend's eight-year-old. It wasn't, but was highly amusing and entertaining. The eight-year-old loves it.

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale has developed his characteristic style of shifting narrative voices and timescales to a very high degree here. The characterisation is consistent throughout the novel's timeshifts and the flashbacks bring out Rachel's attractive qualities as well as her difficult nature. Her paintings were beautifully described so that they sang in my imagination's eye. I particularly liked the way that the ownership of paintings given in the Notes starting each chapter hinted at different and emerging relationships between the characters than were apparent at the relevant point in the text. The only slight failure, for me, was the character of Hedley who seemed a bit under-drawn and too good to be true - lacking the subtle qualities of characterisation and narrative elsewhere in the novel. I look forward to reading this again.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Highly enjoyable and finely crafted, this historical novel evokes strongly the impressions of Renaissance Florence, its beauties and horrors. The device of naive Allesandra learning the city's secrets supports the reader's own discovery of another time well, without resorting to clunky exposition. I felt that a couple of the twists and surprises towards the end were a little too much - although probably irresistible.

Mitfords: Letters between six sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley

I meant to keep this as a bedside treat and read a few letters each evening, but inevitably gobbled it down indiscriminately. I was sorry that Nancy's funnier letters, already printed in other collections, didn't make it into this volume as well, as the full extent of her wit is not apparent; the same could be said of Jessica. Diana's famous charm did not come across from the printed page for me - she seemed querulous and tiresome by the end, as if she used up all her bravery during her period of imprisonment and in subsequent defence of Mosley. Debo is the funniest in this volume; Unity can be amusing but it is something of a relief when her letters, with their repetitive refrain of "poor dear Hitler", come to an end. The selection tells the story of the sisters very effectively, letting their own words narrate and expose the complexities of their lives and relationships with each other.

Don't Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill

This is beautifully written, like all Diana Athill's books. The development of Meg's rebellions, from her disregard for school rules through to the ultimate rejection of her society's mores when she decides to keep her child, is well crafted and convincing. The blend of contemporary Meg, commenting on her past actions, and Meg as a youth is skillfully achieved; I never felt that youthful Meg had too much self-awareness, because I was always subtly made aware of the narrative's shift to her older, more reflective voice.

The Fortnight in September by R C Sherriff

I found this hard to read initially, because the family's anxieties over their journey were so acutely realised. But once they had reached Bognor, their pleasures were equally convincing. The family is on the cusp of a change in the way they take their holidays, partly because the two older children are now adults starting to seek their own pleasures, and partly because holidaymaking itself is changing - Mrs Huggett's shabby B&B will no longer do. This change, and the family's dawning perceptions of it, give the novel its tension and interest.

Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson

As in her book Among the Bohemians, Nicholson extracts an informative and humourous work from published and unpublished sources, interviews, letters and memoirs. The material is spun deftly into a compelling narrative of women's lives. While celebrating the successes of spinster existence, she never underestimates the difficulties of managing alone in a society that was often hostile to single women. I would have liked a chapter on the later evolution of the spinster, and society's shifting attitudes to the single woman, but generally this was fascinating and extremely moving. I had five spinster great-aunts of the generation she covers, and this was an insight and a reconnection to the nature of their lives, already greatly influential in mine.

A few months after I read the book, I heard Virginia Nicholson speak about it at the Charleston festival. She's an entertaining reader and speaker; worth seeking out. She asked the audience to raise their hands if they had been related to, or taught by, the generation of women she described. Almost everybody did. I hope some of those who raised their hands will tell the stories of the spinsters who shaped their lives and memories.

Late and Soon by E M Delafield

On the surface a fairly simple tale of young love rediscovered in middle age, but cluttered with sensational references to premarital sex and homosexuality - which undermine the more genuine shock of a mother and daughter both being involved with the same man. Valentine, Lonergan and the General are sensitively drawn, although Prudence, Hughie and Jess all veer towards caricature. The broad theme of Valentine's wavering efforts to live her own life is well handled, however, and touching, as is the hopeful ending.

No one now will know by E M Delafield

Told in three separate sections, running in reverse chronological order, this novel traces a family saga across three generations. Each layer of the family has its mousy girl, its charismatic, dominating woman, and its charismatic young man. The first section, contemporary with the novel's writing, introduces us to the family through the eyes of Sue in a brief vignette of a family group travelling through the south of France. The second section, from the perspective of Callie, Sue's mother, as a small child transplanted from her grandmother's home in the West Indies to live with her aunt and cousins in Devonshire, sets up the tangle of misunderstandings about Callie's origins that are exposed in the third section. This last section switches narrative focus between Kate, her friend Rosalie, and Kate's two brothers who are both in love with Rosalie, and could both be Callie's father. The middle section tells us that Rosalie will die in a carriage accident; the final section drags rather in reaching this signposted climax, particularly when compared with the pithier early sections of the novel. Delafield stretches the suspense of this final section to its extremes. However, the characterisation of another of her monstrous mothers, and of Kate, are both good. For the other characters, a little less telling, and a little more showing, would have been an improvement.

The Museum of Cheats by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Typically lyrical, tricky stories from STW. The title story is a long history of the eponymous museum spanning several centuries, much in the style of The Corner That Held Them; the story of an institution rather than the characters that populate it. Many of the stories focus on the immediate aftermath of the second world war, with separated couples reunited but unreconciled. It will make a good companion piece to Austerity Britain.