Saturday, July 31, 2010

After lunch

Just to reassure anyone who may have been concerned about Abby's wellbeing, this is what she's doing now, after lunch. There's a lovely concert on the radio - Vivaldi & Handel - the sun is out after a grey, rainy morning, all's right with the world.

The Inimitable Jeeves - P G Wodehouse

I have a confession to make. I've reached an advanced age without reading anything by P G Wodehouse. I was challenged by Simon in my online bookgroup to do something about this appalling hole in my literary knowledge so my lunchtime reading this week has been The Inimitable Jeeves. It was the perfect choice & I know I'm going to read more Wodehouse after this first dip.

Everyone knows about Jeeves & Wooster, either through the books or, more recently, through the TV series with Hugh Laurie & Stephen Fry. I haven't seen the series but as I read, I could imagine both actors in the roles. I was a great fan of Blackadder & Hugh Laurie's Prince Regent & the Honourable George would have been perfect preparation for playing Bertie Wooster, rich, vacuous, the original silly young ass-about-town. I don't know whether Dorothy L Sayers had read any Wodehouse when she created Lord Peter Wimsey, but I was reminded very much of Wimsey in his most piffling moments as I read this book.

Jeeves is the perfect servant, although he's really Bertie's keeper. Bertie would have lost all his money at the races, been swindled by every crook in London & wear the most unsuitable clothes imaginable (purple socks, really!) if not for Jeeves. Jeeves also reads improving books, has a network of informers the length & breadth of the country & anticipates all Bertie's follies, stepping in at the crucial moment to save the day.

Every story in this volume is linked but they're seperate stories rather than a continuous narrative. I've had a quick look at the P G Wodehouse website & it seems that a lot of stories were first published in the Strand magazine. Bertie finds himself involved in the tangled love affairs of his friend, Bingo Little. In the process he finds he's proposed to the object of Bingo's affections. Fortunately, Bingo has fallen in love with someone else in the meantime. Bertie's terrifying Aunt Agatha summons him to France to meet a young woman who is destined (by Aunt Agatha) to be his bride. Jeeves saves Bertie from a very sticky situation involving fraud & blackmail & Bertie is still unattached at the end of the story. Undaunted, Agatha sends him down to the country to meet Honoria Glossop, the perfect wife for scatterbrained Bertie, but Bertie himself is less enthusiastic.

Bertie flees to New York to escape the wrath of Aunt Agatha after his engagement to Honoria ends & becomes involved with the theatrical ambitions of Cyril Bassington-Bassington. On his return to England, he becomes involved in a handicap race for parsons organised by his cousins, Claude & Eustace, & needs Jeeves's help when the favourite goes lame & it looks as though Bertie will lose his money yet again.

The charm of the stories is in the voice of Bertie & the imperturbability of Jeeves. The 1920s slang is very funny & the recreation of that period of excess is just gorgeous. Bertie is stupid but he means well. He usually gets into trouble trying to help a friend or because he's too polite to snub someone who imposes on his good nature. Aunt Agatha is a wonderful creation. Rude, overbearing, a grande dame, an Edwardian relic, maybe even a Victorian relic. I think she's wonderful. I have the first novel in the series, Thank You Jeeves, on the tbr shelves & I think it will be coming down sooner rather than later. We also have a lot of the books on audio at work so I look forward to reading & listening to more Wodehouse very soon.

No sight so sad... a starving cat. This is Abby looking truly pathetic as she tries to shame me into feeding her instead of posting about The Inimitable Jeeves, which was my plan for the next little while. She doesn't look as though she's on her last legs, which isn't surprising as she ate breakfast not all that long ago. I was taking a photo of the cover of Jeeves to illustrate my review when Abby decided she was being neglected. I'm a soft touch though, so we're both going to have an early lunch & I'll be back to post about my first encounter with Jeeves, Bertie Wooster & Aunt Agatha later.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The tapestry of love - Rosy Thornton

I was very pleased & surprised to read a comment on my post about Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey a few weeks ago. The comment was from Rosy Thornton, an author whose books I’ve enjoyed very much in the past. Rosy kindly offered to send me a copy of her new book, The Tapestry of Love, which is set in the Cevennes region of France where Stevenson & his donkey, Modestine, travelled over a century ago.

Catherine Parkstone is in her late 40s, divorced, her children grown up. She decides to sell her home in England & move to La Grelaudiere in the mountainous Cevennes region. Her family had spent holidays there when she was a child & she wants a complete change & the opportunity to start up in business as a seamstress & upholsterer. The novel follows a year in Catherine’s new life. She arrives as the farmers are bringing their sheep down from the mountains for the winter. Gradually she meets her neighbours, adjusts to the power cuts, the torrential rain, the lack of mobile phone reception & the rhythms of village life. On a walk exploring the countryside, she discovers a property owned by the enigmatic Patrick Castagnol, a businessman who rents out holiday cottages. A man who speaks excellent English, whose accent is subtly different to the other inhabitants, a man has lived all his life in the area except for “university, city life. I came back.” Catherine becomes part of the community, begins taking orders for her soft furnishings, makes friends with the locals & adjusts her life to the rhythms of a vanishing way of life.

The modern world does intrude, even in this remote place. The area is now a National Park & only rural businesses are permitted, which causes problems when Catherine wants to register her business. There are few jobs for the young apart from agriculture & tourism so the farmers watch their children move away. But, as much as Catherine becomes absorbed in this new life in the mountains, she can’t ignore the life she left behind. She worries about her children, self-contained Tom & enthusiastic Lexie. Her mother is in a nursing home with dementia. When her younger sister, Bryony, an overworked lawyer, comes to stay for a few days, Catherine’s old & new lives collide. Bryony makes an immediate connection with Patrick that threatens his growing friendship with Catherine & when Bryony decides to come back to La Grelaudiere for a three month sabbatical, Catherine is disturbed by Bryony’s intrusion into her life.

There’s so much to enjoy in this book. Catherine is a sympathetic character & I loved all the detail of her life in La Grelaudiere. I’m not crafty at all, I can barely sew on a button, but I enjoyed learning a little about upholstery in the way Catherine gradually showed the locals that they needed new curtains or chair covers. Catherine takes on the restoration of a processional banner of St Julien for Pere Amyot, the priest of the local church which leads her to visit a local silk museum with Patrick & learn more about the techniques of medieval tapestry work. She is given a swarm of bees & learns how to keep them & extract their honey. The scene where Catherine tells the bees in time-honoured tradition of a death is very moving.

Catherine’s friendships with her neighbours are so realistic. The farmers & shopkeepers are welcoming but not effusive. This is not a novel in the posh-Londoner-goes-native-in-France-or-Italy-with-comical-villagers style. Catherine’s tact & her obvious talent with the needle are crucial in making a success of her new life. The steps by which Madame Bouschet & Madame Parkstone become Marie-Josephe & Catherine, true friends, are portrayed with almost Victorian restraint & delicacy. Catherine’s relationship with Patrick is similarly restrained. They’re mature people with past lives that they’re not altogether ready to share. I enjoyed this chapter where they have dinner & she realises what a strain it can be to live your whole life in a new language,

There was something liberating about talking her own language for an evening. It was funny how, for all her competence, she never felt entirely her real self when conversing in French... It wasn’t the search for words – or not always or only that. It was more a feeling of everything being filtered, somehow, like communicating through gauze. She almost felt she was speaking a part. But here, in English, it was all so much more direct. What of Patrick, though – was he quite himself, in this language which was not his own?

This scene sums up their relationship for most of the book, warm but wary. It’s like a slow medieval dance, coming together then moving apart. The Tapestry of Love is a really satisfying book. I was excited to be offered my very first review copy & I’m pleased to be able to recommend it so highly.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Blush & other stories - Elizabeth Taylor

Desperate Reader’s enthusiastic review of The Blush by Elizabeth Taylor a few weeks ago sent me to the tbr shelves to grab my own copy. I’m sorry to say it had been languishing there since 1994. I’ve certainly proved the worth of my tbr shelves this year. This year of buying fewer books has been studded with the discovery of books I bought so long ago with every intention of reading immediately but, only now, after reading a review or suddenly being seized with an enthusiasm for the author or period, getting around to reading them. Elizabeth Taylor is an author I’ve read with great enjoyment over the years. I’ve read several of her novels, At Mrs Lippincote’s is an especial favourite, but although I have a couple of volumes of her short stories on the shelves, until this year I haven’t read many short stories. I always thought I wasn’t a fan although I seem to have collected quite a few volumes. Like many fellow bloggers, I find it almost impossible to leave a Virago in a second-hand bookshop & The Blush was one of these. I often choose short stories as my lunchtime reading at work & last week, I read The Blush.

Desperate Reader highlighted Perhaps A Family Failing as her favourite story & I certainly agree that the picture of a disastrous wedding night was funny & tragic. I found the picture of the bride, reading women’s magazines to find out how to be a wife so sad. Her pathetic insistence on all the proprieties during their courtship, keeping him at arms length, conducting the whole relationship as instructed by Women’s Own was heartbreaking. The wedding was everything, the reason for the relationship. She hadn’t given a thought to what came after, apart from buying a chiffon nightie to tempt her husband on the honeymoon. She thought that would guarantee the success of the marriage. Did these two people know each other at all?

My favourite story was The Letter Writers. Emily, a spinster living in an English village, has been writing to Edmund, a writer living in Rome, for years. They’ve never met until now, when he’s visiting England & proposes a visit. They’ve built up an image of each other & of their lives & Emily is apprehensive about meeting him. She lives her life in anticipation of writing to him. Incidents of village life become amusing stories for her letters. Even when she visited Rome, she had avoided seeing him, unwilling to break the spell. As she prepares for his visit, Emily remembers their wonderful correspondence. She becomes almost frightened of the meeting, they know each other so well yet not at all,

‘He knows too much about me, so where can we begin?’ she wondered. She had confided such intimacies in him. At that distance, he was as safe as the confessional, with the added freedom from hearing any words said aloud. She had written to his mind only. He seemed to have no face, & certainly no voice... She had been so safe with him. They could not have wounded one another, but now they might.

This story was based on a relationship Taylor had with a young writer, Robert Liddell, who lived in Greece. They were both apprehensive about meeting after a long, intimate correspondence. Luckily, they liked each other in person as well as on the page. Emily & Edmund’s meeting isn’t as successful as Emily descends into small talk & confusion, not helped by her cat eating the lobster that was destined for lunch. There are several cats in these stories. Elizabeth Taylor was obviously a cat lover & knew the havoc they can wreak.

I enjoyed reading these stories & if you’re a lover of the middlebrow short story, I’d recommend The Blush. If you would like to explore Taylor's short stories in more depth, I can also recommend Nicola Beauman's biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor. As well as a fascinating biography of a very private woman, Beauman concentrates on the short stories as they have been very little written about in the critical works on Taylor. There's a copy of Blush and Other Stories, and other books by Elizabeth Taylor, available at Anglophile Books.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Macbeth: a true story - Fiona Watson

Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play. I’ve read it dozens of times. I’ve seen several productions on DVD. My favourite is the 1970s RSC production with Ian McKellen & Judi Dench. I plan to watch it again this weekend. The most expensive book I own is a Folio Society Letterpress edition of Macbeth. I bought it a few years ago & it’s a beautiful object as well as being a book I really treasure because of the contents. I’ve never worried about first editions, mainly because I can’t afford to collect them & also because I buy books to read not as investments. I know some collectors do both, keep their first editions pristine & also have reading copies but I’m not a collector, just a reader.

The Folio Society edition is gorgeous, hand-bound with creamy, mould-made paper & handmade marbled paper on the cover so no two copies are the same. You can see the famous opening lines of the play above. It lives in a presentation box along with another volume by Nicholas Brooke, discussing the origins of the play, Shakespeare’s sources & influences & some of the real history behind the fiction. This has always fascinated me. I’ve known for a long time that Shakespeare’s history plays aren’t to be taken seriously as historical documents. Look at what he did to Richard III! He used the chronicles & histories available to him & sometimes cannibalised other plays to create his own works.

I’ve always been interested in the real story behind Macbeth. I knew it had been written to please the new English King James I who was also King James VI of Scotland. It reflected James’s well-known interest in witchcraft & painted his legendary ancestor, Banquo, in a flattering light. So, I was looking forward to reading Fiona Watson’s new book on Macbeth to find out more about the reality behind Shakespeare’s great tragic figure.

The real Macbeth lived in the 11th century. He was a contemporary of the English kings Cnut & Edward the Confessor. He was the first King of Scotland known to have visited Rome. Far from a brief & bloody reign, he was King for 17 years, a time of some peace & prosperity for his kingdom. He did murder the previous king, Duncan, but he wasn’t the venerable old man of Shakespeare. Most kings of Scotland at this time were murdered by their successors, it was a brutal fact. Scottish history of this period is still quite obscure. There are very few sources, unlike in England, where there is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle among others. Fiona Watson sets the scene with an in-depth look at Scotland in the 11th century & its place in Europe. Gradually the focus narrows to Scotland & the influence of England, the Romans, Ireland & Scandinavia on her politics & economy.

The Scottish succession had passed from Kenneth mac Alpin, the legendary 9th century King of Scotland to his sons, Constantine & Aed. For the next 200 years, the succession alternated between the descendants of these two kings, the choice always falling on an adult male who had proven himself a warrior & leader of men. This didn’t prevent kings being murdered by those too impatient to wait or unsure if the choice would fall on them but it did prevent the perils of child heirs & the problems associated with powerful men vying for influence over them. The rise of the House of Moray under Macbeth’s father, Finlay, interrupted this tradition. Moray was within Scotland but considered itself outside it. Finlay ruled his fiefdom & didn’t see himself as subject to the King of the Scots as other mormaers or earls of parts of Scotland did. A marriage between a daughter of the line of Kenneth mac Alpin & a ruler of Moray led to Finlay asserting his maternal heritage when the line of Constantine died out at the end of the 10th century. Finlay’s supporters decided to push his claim as the next King of Scots as he was descended through the female line from Aed, the line of the alternate kings. This is all very complicated but I hope I’ve got it right. This was Macbeth’s claim to the throne, & as Watson claims, it was really a continuation of the existing arrangement of rulers from alternate lines of descent from Kenneth mac Alpin.

Macbeth, however, after killing Duncan to take the throne, was unable to perpetuate his dynasty. He had married Gruoch, the widow of Macbeth’s own cousin whom he had killed in battle. Gruoch had a son, Lulach, brought up as Macbeth’s heir as they failed to have any children of their own. Gruoch, made infamous as Lady Macbeth by Shakespeare, was herself descended from the royal line & would have enhanced Macbeth’s position as King. Macbeth’s reign was relatively peaceful & as he made a pilgrimage to Rome, he must have been confident that the realm would be safe without him, perhaps leaving Lulach as Regent.

Macbeth seems to have retired, or been persuaded to retire by Lulach or his nobles after a reign of 17 years. Lulach succeeded to the throne but Duncan’s son, Malcolm, had been growing up in the Orkneys & chose this moment to invade from the north. Lulach was killed & it is speculated that Macbeth then came out of retirement for the final confrontation with Malcolm, where he was killed. As is always the case, history is written by the victors & the short-lived Moray dynasty were soon vilified in the chronicles as wicked Macbeth & his inept stepson, Lulach. Malcolm’s descendants consolidated their position & ruled Scotland until the 13th century & their version of history is the one that prevailed.

There is much more in Fiona Watson’s book than I’ve mentioned here. I’ve hardly touched on the influence of the Celtic & Roman Churches in the way Scottish history was told, or mentioned the achievements of Macbeth’s reign. My only quibble with the book is the insertion of fictional reconstructions which are quite clunky & add little to the story. Apart from that, Macbeth: a true story is fascinating & entertainingly told. If you’re at all interested in this murky period of Scotland’s history then I would recommend Fiona Watson’s book.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Importance of Being Seven - Alexander McCall Smith

What a joy it is to visit 44 Scotland Street again. The Importance of Being Seven is the sixth collection of episodes from the daily novel that Alexander McCall Smith writes for The Scotsman newspaper. The short chapters are about 3pp long & it can be disconcerting when you’ve been following a story for several episodes & suddenly the scene changes. Still, it’s comforting to know that you’ll meet the characters again a few pages on & resolve that cliffhanger ending that McCall Smith is so good at. I’ve always wondered how the 19th century readers of Dickens coped with the weekly or monthly wait for the next instalment of Little Dorrit or Bleak House. I’m an impatient reader, rushing to read just one more chapter to find out what happens so I can’t think of anything worse than having to wait a month for the next instalment. A day is probably as long as I could bear to wait but having the whole year’s instalments in one volume means I can read the lot in a couple of days & sigh with satisfaction at the end.

All the characters from the previous books are here & it only takes a couple of pages to remember their stories. There’s newly married Matthew, the art gallery owner who famously wore a distressed oatmeal jumper & crushed strawberry trousers. Luckily, they’re nowhere to be seen in this book. His kind, competent wife, former teacher, Elspeth Harmony, has probably consigned them to the back of the wardrobe. How long will it be, though, before Matthew’s over-protective solicitousness drives her crazy? Especially as she’s now pregnant & they’re looking for a bigger flat. Elspeth won my heart in a previous book when she taught at the Steiner School & pinched the ear of a particularly awful little girl. Of course, she had to resign but I was cheering her on.

Anthropologist Domenica Macdonald continues her friendly feud with her neighbour Antonia Collie as they plan a trip to an Italian villa. When Antonia invites artist Angus Lordie & his dog Cyril (he of the golden tooth) along as well, Domenica is immediately suspicious of her motives. Does Antonia have designs on Angus? Bruce, the narcissistic surveyor, has a new fiancée, Lizzie, but is he just after her money? Lizzie’s friend, Diane, lays a trap to discover Bruce’s true feelings. One of the funniest chapters in the book involves Bruce as the surveyor of Matthew & Elspeth’s expensive new flat. Matthew had met Bruce before as they’re both former boyfriends of Pat Macgregor, & they disliked each other on sight. Bruce's snide comments about the price Matthew paid & the unstable structure of the house have Matthew in emotional meltdown until Elspeth takes control & creates order out of chaos.

In the Introduction to this volume, McCall Smith says that he’s amazed by the many people he meets who are concerned about the characters of Scotland Street, but especially about Bertie Pollock, the put-upon six year old son of the dreadful Irene, the worst mother in modern fiction. Bertie is at the heart of this book & of the whole series. The other characters are adults & however much we feel for Big Lou or Elspeth or Pat, they can look after themselves. Bertie is at the mercy of a mother who doesn’t understand him. She’s devoted to the theories of Freud, Jung & Melanie Klein but her worst sin is that she never listens to Bertie. She is the classic over-achiever who refuses to let Bertie be a child. She wants him to grow up too soon & in her own image. Bertie goes to a Steiner School & the other children are horrible. Olive is the bossy, vindictive little girl whose ear was pinched; Tofu is a liar; Hiawatha has smelly socks. Bertie’s life is filled with saxophone lessons, Italian conversazione with his mother & visits to his psychotherapist. His one spot of joy is his weekly Scout meeting although the other children are also members of the pack so he can’t escape them entirely. Bertie’s little brother, Ulysses, has an unfortunate resemblance to his previous psycho-analyst, Dr Fairbairn, & a habit of throwing up whenever he looks at his mother. Bertie’s father, Stuart, is pretty ineffectual, as much a victim of Irene as Bertie is. The high spot of their lives is a fishing trip they take that leads to them meeting a young boy who represents everything Bertie wants for his own his life. Andy plays rugby, has a collection of penknives & has never heard of yoga or psychotherapy. There’s definitely some hope at the end of the book that Bertie & his father might make a stand against Irene - & not just by moving to Glasgow when they’re older, a dream they both share.

Scotland Street is an absorbing place to visit. I love the fact that McCall Smith has become famous for writing such gentle, moral tales. All his books have similar themes of right & wrong. His good characters are striving to do the right thing & his bad characters get their comeuppance sooner or later. The books are full of humour too. McCall Smith pokes fun at his pretentious characters with such enthusiasm. I think it’s heartening to think that this gentle humour is what readers want. Not everyone wants to read misery memoirs or violent thrillers. Bertie is longing for his seventh birthday, thinking his life will change, that people will respect him more when he reaches this great milestone. He doesn’t get there in this book, but that only gives us something to look forward to in the next.

I’m continuing the Scottish theme in my reading with The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott. I’m reading this with my 19th century bookgroup. I’ve also just started reading Fiona Watson’s new book about the real Macbeth, stripping away the myths to reveal a more complex picture of Dark Age Scotland. I’m looking forward to both of them.

Abby's Sunday morning

Abby has spent another Sunday morning in her favourite spot, engaged in her favourite activity - sleeping on the couch. It's a sunny morning but the wind is bitterly cold & rain is predicted for this afternoon. We're both enjoying Melbourne's first proper winter for some years. Chilly mornings, even a few frosty mornings; sunny, cold days & rain at decent intervals. My water tanks are full & the garden is looking lovely. The spring bulbs are pushing through & the Earlicheer daffs are blooming already. The single camellias are over for another year but the pretty pink one above still has lots of buds. I planted a couple of daphne, one pink & one white, & they both have buds & the geraniums are unstoppable. While Abby slept, I made some lentil & veggie soup which smells delicious. Enough for lunch & plenty for the freezer. I love this time of year. After lunch I'll settle in for an afternoon's reading & Abby will move from the couch to my lap & settle in for another snooze. I hope you're enjoying your Sunday, whatever you're doing.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Don't Look Now & other stories - Daphne Du Maurier

Reviewing short story collections is difficult. It’s hard to talk about the stories without giving too much away. I’ve enjoyed reading this collection of Daphne Du Maurier’s stories very much but I’m just going to concentrate on one of the stories. Two of the stories in this collection, the title story & The Birds were made into movies. Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg & starring Julie Christie & Donald Sutherland, is generally considered a successful adaptation. The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock may be a successful horror movie (I haven’t seen it) but from what I’ve read, it’s only loosely based on the original story. Du Maurier hated it & couldn’t understand why the setting had been changed from Cornwall to California.

The Birds is the story of an ecological disaster. Nat Hocken is a farm worker, a solitary man despite being married with children. He enjoys his work, hedging & thatching, lonely work that leaves him free to enjoy his own company & observe nature. He especially enjoys watching the birds in all weathers along the coast. One day, at the beginning of winter, he notices that the birds seem to be restless, hovering over the sea, massing together. He thinks it’s just the early onset of winter & gets on with his work. That night, he’s woken by the sound of a bird tapping on the window, trying to get in,

He listened & the tapping continued until, irritated by the sound, Nat got out of bed & went to the window. He opened it &, as he did so something brushed his hand, jabbing at his knuckles, grazing the skin. Then he saw the flutter of the wings & it was gone, over the roof, behind the cottage... He shut the window & went back to bed, but feeling his knuckles wet put his mouth to the scratch. The bird had drawn blood.

Soon, the children’s bedroom is full of birds & Nat is fighting against them in the darkness, desperate to get them out of the house. Next morning he tries to tell his neighbours of the birds’ strange behaviour but they laugh at his fears. Later, on the radio news, he hears of similar incidents all over the country. The birds have banded together & are attacking humans & other animals. Nat sees hundreds of gulls sitting on the waves, just waiting. Waiting for what? Nat’s wife thinks the Government should “do something”, get the Army out to shoot the birds, drive them away. Nat isn’t confident that the authorities can do anything & begins barricading his family into their house, blocking all the windows & stopping up the chimneys. He plans to get in supplies as if to withstand a siege. He looks out to sea,

The gulls had risen. They were circling, hundreds of them, thousands of them, lifting their wings against the wind. It was the gulls that made the darkening of the sky. And they were silent. They made not a sound. They just went on soaring & circling, rising, falling, trying their strength against the wind.

Next day, he visits his boss’s farm & finds the family still defiant, planning to shoot the birds & have pigeon pie for supper. Later, he returns to the farm & finds everyone dead, killed by the birds. He takes what supplies he can & retreats to his house with his family. A National Emergency has been declared but there’s no sense that anyone in authority is coming to help. The sense of menace in this story is incredible. Du Maurier builds up the suspense from Nat’s first sighting of the birds massing on the cliffs to the final, indeterminate ending, with the family waiting for something to happen & the sound of the birds tapping on the windows & the larger birds attacking the door.

The ordinariness of the setting & the threat makes it more frightening. I don’t like horror stories full of serial killers, zombies & vampires. The stories I find scary are those, like The Birds, that are rooted in the everyday. It’s never spelled out what turns the birds from benign creatures to killers. Has humanity’s carelessness of the environment led to a lack of food for the birds? Are they revenging themselves on the people who have ruined their habitats? There seems no reason, no explanation for their aberrant behaviour. Nat is Everyman, fighting for survival. The story is all the more powerful for the uncertain conclusion & the lack of explanation. Like a good ghost story, the ambiguity is what makes it frightening. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale & John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, The Birds is frightening because it’s possible. The world it depicts is recognizable. It wouldn’t take much to see it come true.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Journal of the Terror - Jean-Baptiste Clery

I love reading eyewitness accounts of historical events. Helene Hanff in 84 Charing Cross Rd puts it beautifully when she says (after reading, & being underwhelmed by, the Canterbury Tales), “Now if Geoffrey had kept a diary & told me what it was like to be a clerk in the palace of Richard II – THAT I’d learn Olde English for...I’m a great lover of I-was-there books.”

Jean-Baptiste Clery was valet-de-chambre to Louis XVI & was the only servant permitted to accompany Louis & his family to the Temple where they were imprisoned in 1792. Louis & his family – Marie Antoinette, their children, the Dauphin & Madame Royale & his sister, Madame Elizabeth – were kept in very strict imprisonment. Their guards delighted in enforcing every petty rule & being rude & disrespectful. It was decided that the family should not have access to anything that could be used as a weapon so as well as knives & scissors, the guards removed pins, needles & bodkins from the women so they could no longer sew to occupy themselves. The guards took pleasure in taunting the King & being deliberately rude to provoke him but they were rarely successful. He remained calm & polite to his captors to the end.

Clery was able to see his wife occasionally & he devised many ingenious ways to pass on any news he learned to the King who was almost never alone. The family were eager to know what was happening in Paris & they were not allowed to have visitors or see newspapers. The guards did manage to leave lying around any newspaper articles attacking the royal family & Clery often tried to hide these to avoid distressing Louis.

Whatever one thinks of the causes of the French Revolution, the abuses perpetrated by the ruling class & the dreadful poverty of the working people, the punishment of the aristocrats was truly horrible. The royal family were quite fatalistic, having seen the fate of many of their friends & courtiers at the hands of the revolutionaries. Louis was eventually tried for treason & executed in January 1793. Marie Antoinette & Madame Elizabeth suffered the same fate. The little Dauphin died in prison, after suffering physical & psychological deprivation. Only Madame Royale left the Temple alive.

Clery’s account is brief, only 130pp. He revered Louis & the whole family & was obviously overcome by the honour of serving them so intimately. Clery reports every instance of kindness or condescension he receives from them. Louis is presented as an almost Christ-like figure, nobly suffering & always turning the other cheek, accepting his fate & going to his death with dignity. But, this is not just a hagiography. Clery also shows Louis as a loving husband & father, teaching the Dauphin, playing with him & acting as an example of strength to the whole family. It is these anecdotes of a loving family that are so very moving.

Louis is a much more dignified figure than the lumpish dolt so often presented in biographies & movies, more interested in taking clocks apart than making love to his wife & so removed from events in his kingdom that he wrote “Rien” in his diary on the day the mob stormed the Bastille. I’ve always thought Louis & Marie Antoinette were the unfortunate inheritors of their class prejudices & the social conditions created by the policies of former kings. The regime was unable or unwilling to change & when social conditions deteriorated, & the people’s suffering became unbearable, revolution was inevitable. This is a very moving account of dignity & loyalty under great stress.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Library stack

I’m afraid I’ve given up on Bill Bryson’s At Home. His scattergun approach, piling detail on detail, & moving from one continent & historical period to another, exhausted me. I wanted more depth & I know that’s not the object of the exercise here. He’s roaming far & wide yet staying close to home. So, what’s next, I ask myself? Well, I’m still reading a collection of Daphne Du Maurier’s short stories & I’m about to start reading Peter Pan by J M Barrie, the novel that was the basis for the incredibly popular stage play & many subsequent adaptations. I also have a terrific stack of library books to choose from which you can see above.

The mills of God – Deryn Lake. This author is best known for her series of historical mysteries starring John Rawlings. I haven’t read those but this new book intrigued me. Vicar Nick Lawrence has just moved to the Sussex village of Lakehurst & becomes involved in the investigation of a series of serial killings by someone calling themselves The Acting Light of the World. I only hope it’s not too gruesome as I’m a wimp when it comes to explicit violence in books - & real life too, I should say.

The importance of being seven – Alexander McCall Smith. The latest in his wonderful 44 Scotland Street series. I can’t wait to see what Bertie, dreadful Irene, Big Lou & co are up to.

The betrayal – Helen Dunmore. The sequel to The Siege, which was set during the siege of Leningrad in WWII. This book is set during the 50s & revisits the characters from the earlier book, which I loved.

Macbeth – Fiona Watson. Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play & I’m fascinated by the difference between the myth & the reality. Rather like my fascination with Richard III. Dark Age Scotland is a murky place & Watson aims to put Macbeth into his true context as a ruler & dispel the myth of the haunted murderer of the Scottish play.

Contested Will – James Shapiro. Speaking of Shakespeare, this is an examination of the authorship controversy. James Shapiro wrote 1599, one of the best books I’ve ever read about Shakespeare. It took one year in Shakespeare’s life & used the events of that year to tell his story. In this new book, Shapiro looks at the reasons for the controversy about the authorship of the plays, the candidates & his own theory about Shakespeare & the plays.

Courtiers – Lucy Worsley. I’ve become more interested in the 18th century in recent years & this book is a look at the lives of the servants & courtiers at the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace. Lots of scandal, a dysfunctional royal family & some great stories, I’m sure. Reading Fanny Burney’s diary of her time as lady in waiting to Queen Charlotte gave me some idea of the politics, backbiting & sheer boredom of Court life. I’m looking forward to discovering more.

Not sure what I’ll read first. I may just work my way down from the top!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Kissing Mr Wrong - Sarah Duncan

I’ve been contemplating the stack of library books on my desk & thinking that I really need to either make a start on some of them or return them. Last night I started Bill Bryson’s new book At Home as I know there are reservations on it & I really have to either read it now or take it back. I was seduced immediately by Bryson’s friendly, wry style & I can’t wait to get back to it this afternoon. I’ll post about some of the other books in my library stack tomorrow, complete with pictures. After the cynicism of Zola’s Pot Luck which I read last weekend, I felt the need for a gentle, funny romance. I wanted to like the characters, become absorbed in their story & sigh contentedly at the happy ending.

Sarah Duncan’s Kissing Mr Wrong was the perfect book for my mood. Lu Edwards is approaching 30. Her romantic history with a series of Mr Wrongs has left her with a list of characteristics she requires before she will contemplate falling in love again. Lu is a freelance illustrator, currently illustrating a series of children’s books featuring talking vegetables. She’s in a bit of a rut, working to pay the bills rather than fulfilling the artistic dreams of her younger days when she wrote & illustrated a couple of children’s books. Lu’s best friend, Briony, runs an art gallery & at an opening there, Lu meets Marcus who ticks all the boxes on her wishlist. They flirt a little, meet up for a drink but, before anything can develop, Marcus is off to work in the States.

Lu’s grandmother, Delia, asks Lu to help her track down a WWI soldier who she believes was her father. Delia was adopted as a young child by friends of her parents but she’s never really known their story. All she has is a photograph & a name, Jack Havergal. At the gallery opening, Lu also met Nick, who is a fundraiser for a project to commemorate the centenary of WWI by planting poppies along the line of the Western Front. In the process he’s learnt a lot about WWI & Lu asks him to help her with the research into Jack’s background. There’s a spark of attraction there from the beginning but Lu is hesitant as Nick is so obviously Mr Wrong. He’s recently separated, doesn’t have a lucrative career, isn’t really her physical type & he has two sons. Children are definitely not on Lu’s wishlist.

Nevertheless as the research & their relationship continues, Lu & Nick fall in love. They go on a trip to northern France, visiting WWI museums & cemetaries & Lu finds Jack’s name on the Thiepval memorial as he was killed on the first day of the Somme but his body was never recovered. Lu & Nick’s relationship is blissful until she becomes more involved in his life & meets his children. After a spectacularly unsuccessful evening at home with the boys, Lu decides she’s not willing to come second in Nick’s life after the boys & she breaks off the relationship. Not long after, Marcus returns from the US & wants to take up where they left off. Will Marcus be the one or will Lu have to rewrite her wishlist?

This is a lovely read. I enjoyed the details of Lu’s working life & her research into WWI & the discoveries she makes about Delia’s parents. Lu also discovers more about her own childhood & what really happened when her parents' marriage broke up. Her relationship with Delia is lovely & I enjoyed Delia’s dog, Scottie, who plays a crucial role in Lu & Marcus’s relationship when he accompanies them on a romantic weekend. This is the perfect book to read in the middle of a chilly Melbourne winter.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Pot luck - Emile Zola

When I read The Ladies Paradise a couple of months ago, the word that kept coming into my mind as I read was luscious. The word that kept coming into my mind as I read Pot Luck was cynicism, closely followed by hypocrisy. Pot Luck tells the story of Octave Mouret in the years before he transforms the Ladies Paradise into the most extravagant department store in Paris. It’s the story of the families who live in the new apartment building on the Rue de Choiseul where Octave lives when he first arrives in Paris. He works at the Ladies Paradise in a very junior role but he already has his eye on the main chance as he plans his campaign to make Mme Hedouin, his employer’s wife, his mistress. He knows this will need to be a long, subtle campaign as Madame is a very virtuous woman. In the meantime, he looks for a compliant mistress among the other tenants of his building & soon begins an affair with Marie Pichon, a young woman who lives with her husband & daughter on the next floor. Their affair is convenient for Octave as Marie costs him nothing & she’s so listless that she makes no demands.

The friend who found him the room is M Campardon. He lives with his invalid wife, Rose, & hypocritically tells Octave about the very strict moral standards expected of the tenants while having an affair himself with Gasparine, Octave’s cousin who also works at the Ladies Paradise. Rose’s illness is unspecified but it allows her to escape her husband’s attentions & spend hours every day making herself beautiful.

Mme Josserand lives with her henpecked husband & her two daughters, Berthe & Hortense, who she is determined to marry off. The girls have trailed around their limited social circle for several years without success but their mother is brutal in her efforts to marry them well. Berthe & Hortense spend their time cynically refurbishing their dresses & following their mother’s script in an effort to catch a husband. Berthe eventually manages to get herself in a compromising position with Auguste Vabre in a window seat at a party & he is forced to marry her. Hortense continues to hope that the man she has loved for years will finally leave his mistress & marry her. Their uncle Bachelard, a disgusting old roue with terrible manners, is expected to come up with dowries for them both but he hasn’t been pinned down yet so their mother lies about their prospects to any eligible young men.

Auguste’s brother, Theophile, has married Valerie, a hysterical young woman who seemed placid & sweet before their marriage & changed completely once the wedding was over. At his brother’s wedding to Berthe, Theophile accuses Valerie of having an affair with Octave after finding a compromising letter. It’s not true but the scene in the church as everyone’s attention, even the bride’s & the priests’s is drawn to the drama in the back of the church is very funny,

Berthe, having caught sight of the letter, was eagerly awaiting an exchange of blows, & paid no attention, as she kept glancing at the two men from under her veil. There was an embarrassing silence. At last, becoming aware that they were waiting for her, she hastily replied, ‘I do! I do!’ in an indifferent tone of voice. The priest, surprised, looked in the same direction, & guessed that something unusual was taking place in one of the side aisles; he, in his turn, became quite distracted. The story by this time had spread throughout the congregation; everybody knew about it. The ladies, pale & grave, never took their eyes off Octave. The men smiled in a discreetly rakish way. And as Mme Josserand, by slight shoulder-shrugs, sought to reassure Mme Duveyrier, Valerie alone seemed to take any interest in the ceremony, for which she was all eyes, as if overwhelmed by emotion.

You can imagine that a marriage begun in this way is not destined to be happy. Auguste & Theophile’s sister, Clothilde, is married to a judge, M Duvreyier. They all live in their parents’ apartment building, waiting for their father to die so they can inherit his fortune. When old M Vabre is dying, his children wait like vultures, accusing each other of influencing the old man or of altering his will.

There was a deep silence, broken only by the death rattle. Berthe & Auguste stood at the foot of the bed; Valerie & Theophile, having come in last, had been obliged to remain at a distance, near the table; Clothilde sat at the head of the bed, with her husband behind her, while close up to the edge of the mattresses she had pushed her son Gustave, whom the old man adored. They now all looked at each other without uttering a word. But their shining eyes & tight lips spoke of hidden thoughts, & of all the anxiety & rancour which filled the minds of these would-be inheritors as they sat there, pale-faced & heavy-eyed. The two young couples were particularly furious at the sight of the schoolboy close to the bed for, obviously, the Duveyriers were counting on Gustave’s presence to influence his grandfather in their favour if he regained consciousness.

Until they discover that there is no will, & the recriminations begin. Deception & adultery consume all the tenants & the servants keep up a trenchant commentary on their employers & their affairs. The servants are exploited by their masters for sex & their mistresses keep them overworked & underfed. The scenes of the servants discussing their employer’s affairs in the filthy courtyard behind the glittering facade of the building are brutally vulgar. One of the servants, Adele, finds herself pregnant & gives birth alone, in the middle of the night, in one of the most harrowing yet naturalistic scenes of childbirth I’ve ever read.

Zola mercilessly exposes the lies & hypocrisies of his characters. If I felt sympathy for anyone in the book, it was for the miserable M Josserand, an honourable man deeply ashamed of his wife’s machinations, & his daughters, pushed by their obnoxious mother into selling themselves into marriage. The rest of the characters have few redeeming features. Our “hero” Octave is a cold seducer & it’s easy to see how he becomes the impresario of the Ladies Paradise. Always out for the main chance, he’s only stopped short momentarily when he falls in love with one of his mistresses. Even then, his love soon turns to irritation & disgust.

This is a cynical satire on middle-class mores in 19th century Paris. There are no happy marriages here because they are all based on lies & deception from the beginning. There is no love or respect between parents & children. Pot Luck is a page turning read & I can only admire Zola’s genius but I’m glad I don’t know any of these people in real life.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Richard III: the maligned king - Annette Carson

Richard III is one of the most controversial figures in English history. For centuries he was seen as a monster, largely thanks to Shakespeare’s villainous portrayal. Only a few authors, George Buck in the 17th century & Horace Walpole in the 18th century, saw past the distortions of the hunchbacked monster of Shakespeare’s play & went back to the original documents to rewrite the story of Richard’s life. In the 20th century, a whitewashed version of Richard appeared. The most famous & in some ways most influential of these pro-Ricardian books was not history at all but a novel, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. This is a detective novel with a difference. Inspector Alan Grant, in hospital after an accident, relieves his boredom by researching the mystery of Richard’s reputation & especially the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. With the help of a young American researcher, Grant discovers a noble prince, maligned by his enemies in life & vilified after death by the man who defeated him at Bosworth & usurped the throne, Henry Tudor.

The formation of the Richard III Society in the 1950s was instrumental in fostering research into Richard’s life & times but the controversy still remains. Pro & Anti Ricardians still fight it out with every book published. I’m a member of the Richard III Society. The Daughter of Time was the book that started me on a fascinating journey of discovery about Richard & the mystery of the fate of the young king, Edward V & his brother, Richard, Duke of York, known to history as the Princes in the Tower. I was very pro-Ricardian when I was young, influenced by Josephine Tey & all the historical novels I read that portrayed Richard as more sinned against than sinning.

My view of Richard has become greyer as time has passed. I don’t see him as England’s Black Legend (the subtitle of Desmond Seward’s 1983 biography) but I also can’t quite see him as the paragon of Annette Carson’s book, Richard III: the maligned king. In the matter of the Princes, the sticking point for me is that they were never seen again after Richard ascended the throne & Richard never addressed the rumours about their fate. If they were alive, why not produce them? If they had been sent overseas or to Richard’s Northern estates, there would surely be some record. If they died a natural death, produce the bodies & bury them. If they were truly illegitimate, they were no threat to Richard’s position & no one would rebel in their favour. But if the precontract was a fabrication... You see, I’ve tied myself up in knots again! This is why Richard’s story has fascinated me for so long. There’s no definitive answer & I’m always interested in reading another opinion on all these contentious issues.

This is a meticulously researched book. Carson has gone back to the available sources & provides a very useful Appendix assessing these principal sources. There are very few contemporary sources for the period of Richard’s reign. Only Dominic Mancini’s Usurpation of Richard III (written by an Italian envoy for the Archbishop of Vienne) & the Second Continuation of the Crowland Chronicle (written by an unknown cleric at Crowland Abbey) are contemporary & they have problems. Mancini didn’t speak English so got his information from the small Italian community in London. He left London before Richard’s coronation. The writer of the Crowland Chronicle seems very well-informed up to the period of Richard’s assumption of the throne but less so afterwards. After Bosworth of course, the Tudors were only interested in validating their position & blackening Richard's reputation. Titulus Regius, the Act of Parliament setting out Richard's claim to the throne was repealed unread & all copies destroyed. Luckily one copy escaped destruction & was discovered in the 17th century. The official Tudor version of Richard's reign was written by historians such as Polydore Vergil & Bernard Andre & of course, Thomas More's History of Richard III which formed the basis for later versions of the story, including Shakespeare's play.

Everything about Richard is contentious. Did he ascend, assume or usurp the throne? It depends on what you think of the precontract which may or may not have existed between Richard’s brother Edward IV & Lady Eleanor Talbot. If Edward & Eleanor were married, his subsequent marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (mother of the Princes) was invalid, the children were illegitimate & therefore Richard was legally heir to the throne. If you don’t believe in the precontract, Richard deposed his nephew & illegally usurped the throne. John Ashdown-Hill’s recent book on Lady Eleanor Talbot is a fascinating contribution to that discussion. I reviewed it here. Carson concentrates on Richard’s actions in the last few years of his life. I enjoyed this book very much. It’s refreshing to read such a passionately argued defence by an author who has a firm command of the sources. Carson also has a very interesting theory about the fate of the Princes. I think anyone interested in the Ricardian controversy would enjoy this contribution to the debate.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Kipps - H G Wells

I’ve had a wonderful week of reading. I read Annette Carson’s Richard III: the Maligned King. You can tell instantly by the subtitle that the author is pro rather than anti-Ricardian. I’ll review it tomorrow. I’ve started reading another volume of Daphne Du Maurier’s short stories. This is the lovely New York Review edition, Don’t look now & other stories. I read the title story just last year so I began with The Birds, a truly horrifying vision of an ecological catastrophe. It’s all the more frightening because it happens in a rural part of Cornwall as ordinary life goes on & gradually the sense of unease begins to dominate. Dani from A Work in Progress reviewed the whole collection enthusiastically on her blog last year. Here’s one of her reviews.

My lunchtime book at the moment is Emile Zola’s Pot Luck, which is a prequel of sorts to The Ladies Paradise which I loved earlier this year. You’ll find my review here. My copies of two of the new Bloomsbury Group books arrived yesterday, Mrs Harris goes to Paris & Henrietta sees it through. I loved the first Henrietta book last year & I can’t wait to read the sequel. I also finished reading Kipps by H G Wells for my 19th century book group which is reading 19th century books which became the basis for operas or musicals.

Kipps is the basis for the Tommy Steele musical, Half a Sixpence. Artie Kipps is a draper’s apprentice who feels vague longings for a better life. His education at a boarding school was a farce, his working life is drudgery & his aspirations to higher education lead him to a woodworking class where he encounters Helen Walshingham, a middle-class young woman who inspires his most romantic fantasies. Then Kipps inherits a house & a fortune from the grandfather he never knew. He was brought up by an aunt & uncle who were always very mysterious about his parents. His parents were disowned by his grandfather who then repented at the end of his life & left everything to his unknown grandson.

Kipps leaves the drapery Emporium in a wonderful scene of tipsy excess as his fellow workers toast his good fortune with a lavish afternoon tea. He now has a position to keep up & enters society with some dubious help from his friend, Mr Coote & a couple of outdated etiquette manuals. He meets Helen again in her sphere & they become engaged. But is this right for Kipps? Kipps is such a sympathetic character. Naive, innocent, loyal to his friends, trying to do what’s expected of him. He’s taken advantage of by unscrupulous people but he’s no fool. Wells based the character of Kipps partly on himself.

The details of Kipps’ early life, his education & work as a draper are very close to the reality of Wells’ life. Wells educated himself & gradually turned to journalism & then fiction to advance himself. He always looked on society to some extent as an outsider & Kipps is a wonderful satire on the pretensions of society. Seen from Kipps’ bewildered viewpoint, the rituals of afternoon tea are absurd. Kipps experiences the terror of being invited to an Anagram Tea where everyone is given an anagram to decipher, or being invited to dinner when you don’t understand the conversation or what fork to use for the fish course.

Some of the funniest scenes take place in London where Kipps finds himself walking around hungry, with his pockets full of money, but he can’t decide where to eat because he’s overdressed for the places he used to frequent & he feels the waiters are sneering at him in the posh restaurants. He goes to stay in a hotel for a few days & does everything wrong, from overtipping to making a mess of a vol-au-vent while the other diners laugh at him.

Nice lot of people these were to laugh at anyone! Women half undressed – It was that made him so beastly uncomfortable. How could one eat one’s dinner with people about him like that? Nice lot they were. He was glad he wasn’t one of them anyhow. Yes, they might look. He resolved, if they looked at him again, he would ask one of the men who he was staring at. His perturbed & angry face would have disturbed anyone... The mental change Kipps underwent was, in its way, what psychologists call a conversion. In a few moments, all Kipps’ ideals were changed. He who had been ‘practically a gentleman’, the sedulous pupil of Coote, the punctilious raiser of hats, was instantly a rebel, an outcast, the hater of everything ‘stuck up,’ the foe of Society & the social order of today.

Kipps meets up with Sid Pornick, a childhood friend & Sid’s sister Ann, his first love. Can he find a way to enjoy his wealth while finding a way to be happy? This is a wonderful book. I enjoyed it very much. There are some great characters like Chitterlow the optimistic but unsuccessful playwright & scenes like the one I quoted above that made me laugh out loud. Highly recommended.