Thursday, May 31, 2012

Leave it to Psmith - P G Wodehouse

Leave it to Psmith has one of the most convoluted plots of any Wodehouse novel I've read so far. I lost count of the number of impostors, jewel thieves, amazing coincidences & overturned flower pots at Blandings Castle but it was a lot of fun trying to work out who was trying to do what to whom.

Psmith (the P is silent) is a young man who wants to get out of the fish business. His uncle got him in to it & now Psmith is tired of standing up to his knees in cold, wet fish all day. So, he puts an advertisement in the papers, offering his services for any task, crime not excepted (Providing It has Nothing To Do With Fish). The Hon Freddie Threepwood, second son of the Earl of Emsworth sees the ad & decides that Psmith is the man for him. Freddie  has just had to be bailed out again because of his gambling debts & his father won;t give him any more money. He needs £1000 to get a share in a bookies business & he concoct a scheme with his uncle, millionaire Joe Keeble, to steal his aunt, Lady Constance Keeble's, diamond necklace.

Joe wants to steal his wife's necklace because the formidable Lady Constance won't agree to Joe's pleas to help his stepdaughter, Phyllis, with £3000 to help her & her husband buy a farm. Lady Constance has disowned Phyllis because she refused to marry the man of Lady Constance's choice. Joe plans to steal the necklace, sell it so he has money to help Phyllis & then buy his wife another necklace. He's a little dubious about Freddie as he's not very intelligent but Freddie decides to employ Psmith to help him. Psmith, it turns out, is a great friend of Phyllis's husband, Mike Jackson, & he agrees to help with the heist. Getting Psmith into Blandings Castle looks like being the only problem.

Lord Emsworth is sent to London by his sister, Constance, to collect Ralston McTodd, a Canadian poet who has been invited to stay. While lunching at his Club, Lord Emsworth offends McTodd by wittering on about his flower garden & the bad tempered poet storms out. When Lord Emsworth returns from a nearby florist's to find Psmith at his table, he assumes this is McTodd & Psmith finds himself on a train to Market Blandings that same afternoon. Luckily for him, the girl he's just fallen in love with, Eve Halliday, is also going to Blandings to catalogue the library. Unluckily for Psmith, she thinks he's McTodd, the cad who has just married & abandoned Cynthia, her best friend from school. Eve is also a friend of Phyllis Jackson & when she tackles Joe Keeble about his refusal to help her firend, he tells her the whole story & she agrees to help Freddie (who's in love with her & keeps proposing at every opportunity) steal the necklace.

By this time, there are at least two other impostors in the Castle, both of them after the necklace. Psmith has attempted to help Beach, the butler, with his upset stomach & Lord Emsworth's secretary, the Efficient Baxter, has been locked out of the Castle in the middle of the night wearing lemon-coloured pyjamas & overturning flower pots. On the night of Psmith's (as McTodd) poetry reading, the necklace is stolen & goes through the hands of nearly every jewel thief at the Castle before the story ends happily for nearly everyone except Baxter who loses his job & Freddie who loses the girl he loves.

Leave it to Psmith is a hoot. It's the first of the Psmith books I've read & I hadn't realised that Psmith is involved with the Blandings crowd. I need to find a list of all the series & how they are connected. Lord Emsworth was obsessed with his flower garden rather than his magnificent pig, the Empress of Blandings. She must come along later. He was just as vague though & Lady Constance was as bossy as ever. It was the perfect way to spend a cold afternoon.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Miss Mackenzie - Anthony Trollope

I've been reading a lot of new fiction lately so I was eager to read something from my favourite literary period, the 19th century. Miss Mackenzie had been mentioned a couple of years ago on a BBC radio program on neglected classics as a book that should be reprinted. It was championed by Joanna Trollope, a distant relation of the great Anthony & you can hear what she had to say about Miss Mackenzie here. This is what inspired me to buy this copy from Norilana Books. However, it's quite heavy & I have the complete works of Trollope on my e-reader so I actually read the book that way. I do like the cover of the Norilana edition though.

Margaret Mackenzie is a spinster in her mid 30s. She has spent the best years of her life caring for her parents &, more recently, her invalid brother, Walter. Margaret's two brothers, Walter & Thomas, had inherited money from another relative who hadn't thought it worthwhile to leave anything to a girl. When Walter dies, he leaves everything to Margaret & she suddenly finds herself an heiress. She's not very rich but she has enough to live on & to spread her wings a little. Thomas had used his inheritance to go into trade & is now a partner in a business selling oilcloth. The business isn't very prosperous & Thomas resents the fact that Walter left all his money to Margaret.

Margaret is immediately approached by her first suitor, Harry Handcock. She had been in love with Harry years before & they had planned to marry but Walter feared losing his nurse & Harry faded away. His reappearance now that Margaret has money doesn't recommend him to her & she refuses him. She decides to leave London & move to Littlebath (Trollope's name for Bath), taking Thomas's daughter, Susanna, with her as a companion. Margaret will send Susanna to school & plans to leave her money in her will as a way of helping Thomas's family.

Littlebath society is full of traps for the unwary & a single woman who has lived a retired life must tread carefully. Margaret becomes involved with the circle of an Evangelical preacher, Mr Stumfold, a pompous man with a terrifying wife & an admiring group of ladies to follow him wherever he goes. She becomes friends with Miss Baker &, although she would also like to be friends with Miss Todd, who lives in the same street, she discovers that this isn't possible. Miss Todd is bold & outspoken & therefore not approved of by Mr Stumfold. Mr Stumfold also has a curate, Jeremiah Maguire, a handsome man with the terrible handicap of a squint which is very offputting. Mr Maguire has ambitions that can only be realised if he marries well & he pursues Margaret.

Thomas's business partner, Samuel Rubb, arrives in Littlebath to ask Margaret if she would give the business a loan. Mr Rubb is pleasant, amusing but not a gentleman. He seems to admire Margaret but is she the attraction or is it her money? Then, Margaret is invited to stay at The Cedars, the country house of her relations the Balls. Her cousin, John Ball, is a widower with a large family & his mother plans to make a match between John & Margaret. The Balls & the Mackenzies have been estranged for many years because it was John Ball's uncle who left his money to the Mackenzie brothers rather than to the Balls. John's father, Sir John, has little money & John lives at the Cedars with his parents & his children. Lady Ball despises Margaret but is graciously willing to overlook her dislike if it means getting the Ball money back into her own family.

At this stage, I was genuinely unsure which of her suitors Margaret would favour. She is a quiet, kind, sensible woman but she's no pushover. Her brother's contempt & her sister-in-law's open dislike & resentment don't intimidate her. Her formidable aunt, Lady Ball, can't bully her into marrying John. She's no snob & doesn't see being Lady Ball as a reason to marry a man she isn't sure she can love. She pities his situation & would like to help his children but is that enough? Margaret has a hard time disentangling the motives of her suitors & working out her true feelings. Matters come to a head when her lawyers discover that the money she inherited may not belong to her at all. It may really belong to her cousin, John Ball.

Margaret had refused John's marriage proposal when he was poor & she was rich. Now that she may have no money at all, he realises that he truly loves her & proposes again. This time she accepts him as she does love him. This infuriates Lady Ball who was only prepared to tolerate the marriage if Margaret had money. Then, Mr Maguire, the curate with the squint, arrives to claim Margaret as his bride (he doesn't yet know that she may lose her money). He falsely represents their relationship to Lady Ball who is only too happy to believe him. Mr Maguire's interference threatens to ruin Margaret's happiness, & there are many anxious hours before the truth is told & Margaret can see her way clear to happiness.

Miss Mackenzie is a lovely book with an absorbing plot & wonderful characters. Trollope is always good at clergymen & Mr Stumfold & the truly awful Mr Maguire are among his best clergymen. It's also interesting & unusual, in a book published in the 1860s, to have a heroine who is in her 30s. As Joanna Trollope said in her radio piece, at 36, Margaret is so far back on the shelf as to be completely invisible. But, she's no fool & the three men who come fortune hunting will all find that she's not an easy target. Lady Ball is a tyrannical matriarch & another of Margaret's relatives, Clara Mackenzie, who comes to Margaret's rescue when her money is gone, is kind & loving. Clara is determined that Margaret's highmindedness won't prevent her from achieving the happy ending that she so desires.

I feel quite inspired to read more Trollope now that I'm back in the 19th century. Catherine Pope, on her lovely blog, Victorian Geek, has completed her own Trollope Challenge. She's read all 47 novels & come up with her lists of the ten best & ten terrible Trollopes. Miss Mackenzie doesn't make either list. Of the best, I've read Can You Forgive Her? Barchester Towers & The Way We Live Now. I fancy setting myself the challenge of reading my way through the other seven. Harry Heathcote of Gangoil has an Australian setting & I'm very tempted to start there.

I mentioned above that I have Trollope's complete works on my e-reader. I know I could have got them for free from ManyBooks or Gutenburg but I paid the princely sum of $5AU for them from Delphi Classics. It was much easier to do one download rather than 47 & they're well-formatted & it's easy to get to the book I want. The Delphi editions also often include contemporary biographies of the author as well as all the novels, short stories, poetry (Hardy), non-fiction & plays. I also have the Delphi complete editions of Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy & Elizabeth Gaskell.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Abby

I've abandoned my usual anthology of love poetry for today because I wanted to share a couple of poems about cats in memory of Abby who died one year ago yesterday. I still think of her a lot & often find myself calling Phoebe Abby as I think they look alike.

The first poem is by William Cowper.

A poet's cat, sedate and grave,
as poet would wish to have,
was much addicted to enquire,
for nooks to which she might retire,
and where, secure as mouse in chink,
she might repose, or sit and think.
I know not where she caught her trick,
nature perhaps herself had cast her,
in such a mold philosophique,
or else she learn'd it of her master.
Sometimes ascending, debonair,
an apple tree or lofty pear,
lodg'd with convenience in the fork,
she watched the gard'ner at his work;
sometimes her ease and solace sought,
in an old empty wat'ring pot,
there wanting nothing, save a fan,
to seem some nymph in her sedan,
apparell'd in exactest sort,
and ready to be borne in court.

This is Puss by Walter de la Mare. Just change the pronouns from he to her & June to January & it describes many winter afternoons Abby & I spent together.

Puss loves man's winter fire
Now that the sun so soon
Leaves the hours cold it warmed
In burning June.
She purrs full length before
The heaped-up hissing blaze,
Drowsy in slumber down
Her head she lays.
While he with whom she dwells
Sits snug in his inglenook,
Stretches his legs to the flame

And reads his book.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Ninepins - Rosy Thornton

Rosy Thornton's new book is a departure in tone from her earlier books. Ninepins reads like a sophisticated thriller but a thriller that's firmly based in the everyday lives of Laura & her daughter, Beth.

Laura & Beth live in a remote tollhouse in the fens. Laura rents out the former pumphouse to students to help make ends meet but her new tenant isn't a student. Willow has been in care for the last few years & now, at 17, she's ready to try independent living. She has had a troubled past with a neglectful mother & a history of attempted arson (which Laura only gradually discovers). Willow had seen the photo of the pumphouse & wanted to live there rather than in a bedsit in Cambridge. So, she arrives to have a look at the place with her social worker, Vince.

Laura is cautious about renting the pumphouse to Willow but is convinced by Vince & the fact that it's too late in the year to find another student tenant. Willow seems a little remote but Beth takes to her & Laura tries to forget her reservations. Laura is also preoccupied by Beth, who's at an awkward age between childhood & the teenage years. Beth seems to be unhappy at school & Laura doesn't like some of the new friends she's made. Beth suffers from asthma & Laura tries not to be overprotective. She also has an awkward relationship with Beth's father, now remarried & with a new young family. The atmosphere at Ninepins becomes tense as winter approaches & the beautiful landscape of the fens becomes more threatening. And then the reappearance of Willow's mother brings the tension to a new level.

Ninepins is an absorbing book. I love books set in remote, wintry landscapes & the atmosphere of the fens & the river is beautifully evoked. The house itself is a character in the plot, a brooding presence in the landscape. The heart of the book, though, is the relationship between Laura & Beth. Mother-daughter relationships can be strained, especially at the beginning of the teenage years when everything a mother says can be misunderstood as interference. For Laura, her feelings of inadequacy are increased by her broken marriage & her worries about Beth's health & friendships. Her own growing relationship with Vince also puts some stress on her relationship with Beth. We also see events from Willow's point of view which only adds to the sense of dread. The events at the end of the book will either clear the atmosphere or destroy Laura's world forever.

Rosy Thornton kindly sent me a copy of Ninepins for review. You can read more about Rosy & her other books at her website here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Greatcoat - Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore's new novel is an atmospheric ghost story. Set in Yorkshire in 1952, it's the story of Isabel Carey & her growing obsession with the ghost of a young airman killed during WWII. Isabel & her husband Philip haven't been married long. Philip is a GP & they've moved to Yorkshire so he can join a local practice. He's out on call all the time & Isabel is slow to make friends. Their landlady, Mrs Atkinson, paces the floor in her flat upstairs night after night. The weather is freezing so when Isabel finds an old RAF greatcoat in a cupboard, she's grateful for its warmth. That's when Alec first appears.

Alec was a pilot, shot down on one of his last missions before he went on leave. On the first night that Isabel wears the greatcoat, there's a tapping on the window & a man, a pilot is there when Isabel opens the curtains. She's frightened & draws the curtains but the next time it happens, she convinces herself that the man is lost & needs help. Gradually, Alec appears whenever Isabel wears the coat. He obviously thinks she's someone else as he assumes that she knows about his life. When Isabel is with him, she seems to be able to visit the past, Alec's past. They visit the abandoned airfield near the village & it's full of life, just as it would have been during the war. He sits on her bed, smoking one cigarette after another, jittery about another mission or trying to come down from the high of a mission completed.

The whole weight of the house seemed to press down on her. She was afraid again. Alec's words echoed in her head, but now they were more than a promise: I'll knock on your window. Swear you won't go to sleep. She saw his eyes on her. Her heart clenched at the remembered expression on his face. He was outside in the dark and the wind, staring in at the warm, lit world. Whatever happened, she knew that Alec would come for her, and she would slip into that other life again, her mind clouded with memories that weren't hers, her body moving to rhythms it had learned elsewhere. Nothing on earth could stop him from coming, or her from becoming that other woman, once he was there. There was no one strong enough to hold her back.

Isabel becomes obsessed with Alec as he visits her just before or just after a mission. Her loneliness & sense of isolation have made her vulnerable. She realises that if she stopped wearing the greatcoat, Alec would stop coming but she doesn't want him to stop. Isabel gradually begins to discover why Alec is visiting her house & what part her mysterious landlady played in Alec's story & the tragedy at its heart.
The Greatcoat is an absorbing story that beautifully evokes that grey period of austerity after WWII. The biting cold, Isabel's growing estrangement from Philip & her isolation in the village are very real. Isabel's life has been one of loss & loneliness from her childhood. She lacks confidence when shopping or making conversation & she's intimidated by Mrs Atkinson. Philip is so absorbed in his new job, trying to save enough money for a home of their own, trying to prove himself as the new, young doctor, that he doesn't have time to realize how desperately unhappy Isabel is. Isabel takes long walks in the country, visits the spookily abandoned airfield & feels an almost instant connection to Alec. The reader is with Isabel on her journey & I found it easy to believe what she believed. Alec hovers in that space between reality & the afterlife. Isabel has to find out what happened on the night Alec died so that she can set him free.

The Greatcoat reminded me of Susan Hill's ghost stories. I loved the simplicity of the storytelling, the effortless way that Dunmore created that atmosphere of unhappiness that left Isabel open to Alec's presence. The final chapters resolve some of the story but set up other troubles to come, after the end of the story, far into the future.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Lord Byron

This is Byron (picture from here) in true Byronic mode. Tombs, graves, noxious nightshade, fond breast heaving a parting sigh & death. Written in 1818 & published after the poet's death, it's Romantic & romantic if a bit over the top.

If I forsake thee, early be my tomb,
My bed untended, and unwept my doom;
Around my grave let no fresh verdure spring,
No plaintive bird within its precincts sing;
Let no fair flower adorn my turfy bed,
No violets spring, no roses life their head;
But there let weeds, and noxious nightshade thrive;
There only what to life is fatal, live:
So shall mankind avoid the hated place,
Shunned and detested by the brutal race;
All bu the shrieking owl, and bat obscene,
Shall fly the relics of a thing so mean.

But if, as Heaven is witness, such shall be,
Death only can divorce my heart from thee;
If this fond breast shall heave its parting sigh,
Loth only, as 'tis leaving thee, to die;
The let affliction drop the pious tear,
The tribute sacred to the heart sincere:
Let no the gaudy pomps of seeming woe,
The paltry debt that pride to pride may owe - 
Let, while surviving summers still are thine,
Let all thy thoughts, thy tenderest thoughts, be mine;
And when thy peaceful course fulfilled in this,
The fate shall call thee to the world of bliss,
In one sepulchral mansion let us rest,
By the same simple grassy tomb compressed;
Let mingling urns our mutual loves requite,
And death which parted once, once more unite.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

I've stopped buying books - really!

It may not look like it but I've stopped buying books for a while. The shock of putting my tbr shelves on Library Thing & realizing how many books I owned that I hadn't read was enough to encourage me to retire the credit card for a little while. However, these are all pre-orders so they don't count!

An Academic Question by Barbara Pym. I have read this but it was years ago & I don't own a copy so I had to snap up this lovely new Virago edition.
Arcturus has a new imprint specializing in classic crime. Margery Allingham is one of my favourite Golden Age writers & these are her short stories, My Friend Mr Campion & Other Mysteries. They've also reprinted the first book in Martin Edwards's Harry Devlin series, All the Lonely People. I enjoyed Waterloo Sunset when I read it some time ago & I love the Lake District mysteries so I look forward to Harry's first case.

Chocolate Shoes and Wedding Blues is the new romance by Trisha Ashley. I always enjoy her books which always include a lot of cooking as well as English village life & a fine romance to wallow in.
Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge is probably the book I'm most excited about. I've been reading enthusiastic reviews of this book on blogs for ages & Daunt Books have just reprinted it. It's bound to be a great success as copies of the out of print Virago edition are expensive. Dani at A Work in Progress has also rushed out to buy a copy. I've been enjoying the Julia Probyn series since Bloomsbury Reader released the e-book editions & I enjoyed Peking Picnic as well.

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace is the new book by Kate Summerscale, about a Victorian woman whose passion for a younger man leads to scandal & the divorce courts. I loved The Suspicions of Mr Whicher so I'm really looking forward to this.
A Nurse at the Front is the WWI diaries of Sister Edith Appleton. I love WWI letters & diaries & Edith nursed in France & Belgium throughout the war. This is part of a series of diaries published in association with the Imperial War Museum.

I'm not sure what I'll read first. I've just finished Helen Dunmore's The Greatcoat & I'm part way through Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope & Queen Anne by Anne Somerset. Maybe one of these will be next?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - Paul Torday

If you would just like to read my review, feel free to skip this paragraph of technological explanation.

As I'm reviewing this book, which I was halfway through when my e-reader had a glitch, you can assume that the problem is fixed. Well, you'd be half right. One of the problems is fixed & I have no idea how we fixed it. I find that's often the way with me & technology. It's a fluke if something electrical starts working again & I can never work out how I fixed it. My friend P came over to hold my hand & we updated the firmware (which was already up to date ) & attempted to update the Reader software but the updates wouldn't work. However, I accidentally tapped on a purchased e-book that I hadn't been able to access & I was able to get in to it. By that stage I wasn't looking for reasons I was just pleased to be able to read a book I'd paid for. I still can't sync with the Reader software though. We uninstalled & reinstalled the software & I tried a couple of other clever ideas of P's but no luck. Trying to contact Sony Support by phone or email is a nightmare so I may just have to take it back to the Sony Centre as I've only had the reader 4 months...

Anyway, enough of my technological woes. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a book about a project that, on the face of it, seems to be impossible. A very rich Yemeni landowner, Sheikh Muhammad, wants to introduce salmon fishing into his country. He instructs his estate managers to investigate the possibilities & Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, the project manager, contacts Dr Fred Jones of the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence. Fred's initial reaction is that the idea is ridiculous but he is pressured by the head of his department to meet with Harriet.

Harriet & Fred meet Sheikh Muhammad at his estate in the Scottish Highlands & Fred begins to see that the Sheikh is not just a rich dilettante but a serious fisherman & a man with a real vision for the future of his country. Unfortunately not everyone in the Yemen feels the same way & the Sheikh is in danger from religious & political extremists who see the project as yet another imposition of the West & the Sheikh as a traitor. Fred's scepticism diminishes as he becomes interested in the project from a scientific & logistical point of view. He also becomes more involved with Harriet although she is engaged to a soldier serving in the Middle East. Fred's marriage to Mary, a financial advisor, is tepid to say the least & his experiences with the Sheikh & Harriet expand his horizons & lead him to reassess his life.

The project is hijacked by political considerations in the UK as well. The PM's communications advisor, Peter Maxwell, sees it as the perfect good news story from the Middle East in contrast to the usual stories of death & destruction. As the problems of transporting fish to the Yemen, creating a suitable environment for them & eventually creating a new industry to being prosperity to the Yemen are being overcome, Maxwell's main priority is the chance for a photo opportunity for the PM at the opening.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is in the form of emails, diary entries, extracts from Peter Maxwell's memoirs & the interviews at the enquiry that takes place after the events at the opening ceremony. The reader isn't aware of what has happened until the end of the book & the ending is quite different from that of the recent movie. I enjoyed the movie, it's what prompted me to read the book, but it didn't have the satirical edge of the novel. The ending of the book is quite sombre as Fred reflects on the project & the way it changed his life.

Peter Maxwell is the typical political manipulator, ready to dump the project when the fishermen of Britain object to the salmon being taken from their rivers to stock the Sheikh's wadi but happy to jump back on the bandwagon when he realises that all those fishermen vote & would love to see the PM in waders with a salmon caught in the Yemen.

The Sheikh is an interesting character. A man so rich he doesn't have to count the cost of anything. He drinks whisky in Scotland but only water at home in deference to his Islamic heritage. He's a man of faith who inspires practical, unemotional Fred to embrace a seemingly laughable idea & eventually believe in his vision. There's a lot of detail about salmon breeding, salmon fishing & salmon culture. I probably know more than I needed to know but I enjoyed reading about it. It certainly didn't feel as though the author crammed in every bit of his research because Fred was obsessed with his work & his single-mindedness was an important part of the story.

I enjoyed reading Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It's drily funny, romantic & full of obscure information about salmon that I probably won't be able to forget.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Letters of a Woman Homesteader - Elinore Pruitt Stewart

This book is another excellent choice made by the conveners of my 19th century bookgroup. Letters of a Woman Homesteader (photo from here) is the story of Elinore Pruitt told in letters to her former employer, Mrs Coney. Elinore was a widow with a two year old daughter, Jerrine, when she decided to leave Denver where she had worked as a laundress, & go out to Burnt Fork, Wyoming as housekeeper to homesteader Clyde Stewart. Elinore longed for the great outdoors & felt stifled in town. Another incentive for the move was the fact that she could file a claim on land to build herself a home when she could afford it.

The overwhelming flavour of these letters is good humour. One of the bookgroup commented that Elinore was the kind of person who never met a stranger. I can't put it any better than that. Elinore was a kind, helpful, practical woman who saw the good in everyone she met. She had replied to an ad placed by Mr Stewart &, when you think about it, that was taking a leap in the dark. To set out on a long journey into unknown territory with a stranger & a young child was quite a leap of faith. Elinore was very practical. She doesn't confess this to Mrs Coney for some time but she & Mr Stewart were married only six weeks after arriving in Wyoming & she had been prepared to take this step from the beginning. The marriage may have begun as a practical proposition but it seems to have been happy. Elinore was a hard worker & not above bamboozling her husband to get her own way but she is genuinely fond of him & Jerrine (who also writes a letter to Mrs Coney) calls him "Our Clyde".

Elinore's appreciation of nature & the landscape of her new home is one of the beauties of the letters. On a trip to Green River, "I had more fun to the square inch than Mark Twain or Samantha Allen ever provoked." They camped out on the week-long trip & only saw one house.

After driving all day over what seemed a level desert of sand, we came about sundown to a beautiful cañon, down which we had to drive for a couple of miles before we could cross. In the cañon the shadows had already fallen, but when we looked up we could see the last shafts of sunlight on the tops of the great bare buttes. ... The violet shadows were creeping up between the hills, while away back of us the snow-capped peaks were catching the sun's last rays. On every side of us stretched the poor, hopeless desert, the sage, grim and determined to live in spite of starvation, and the great, bare, desolate buttes... Then we stopped to camp, and such a scurrying around to gather brush for the fire and to get supper!... It was too beautiful a night to sleep, so I put my head out to look and to think. I saw the moon come up and hang for a while over the mountain as if it were discouraged with the prospect, and the big white stars flirted shamelessly with the hills.

On her journeys, Elinore makes friends. On a camping trip she took with her daughter Jerrine, they are at risk of being lost when she comes across the lonely homestead of Zebulon Pike, a southerner who had lived alone with his animals for many years. He takes them in & next day helps them find their way. Elinore is troubled to think that Zeb has had no contact with his family for years (he'd left home after an unhappy love affair), so she writes to his sisters & tells him about his life. The result is that he makes a trip home to see his family & Elinore & her husband even arrange for someone to stay at Zeb's farm & care for his animals. This is the pattern of Elinore's life. She soon meets all her neighbours & becomes involved in the life of the community.

Elinore's voice is comfortable & chatty. She begins one of her letters,

Dear Mrs Coney,
I feel just like visiting to-night, so I am going to "play like" you have come. It is so good to have you to chat with. Please be seated in this low rocker; it is a present to me from the Pattersons and I am very proud of it. I am just back from the Patterson ranch, and they have a dear little boy who came the 20th of November and they call him Robert Lane.

Elinore's life is not without its sadnesses & challenges. Her first baby with Mr Stewart dies & she writes movingly of Jamie's death & the fact that she read the service herself as there was no minister,

For a long time my heart was crushed. He was such a sweet, beautiful boy. I wanted him so much. He died of erysipelas. I held him in my arms until the last agony was over. Then I dressed the beautiful little body for the grave. Clyde is a carpenter; so I wanted him to make the little coffin. He did it every bit, and I lined and padded it, trimmed and covered it... it was a sad pleasure to do everything for our little first born ourselves. As there had been no physician to help, so there was no minister to comfort, and I could not bear to let our baby leave the world without leaving any message to a community that sadly needed it. His little message to us had been love, so I selected a chapter from John and we had a funeral service, at which all our neighbours for thirty miles around were present. So you see, our union is sealed by love and welded by a great sorrow.

Elinore had no formal education as she spent her childhood looking after younger siblings after the death of her parents when she was 14. She was a great reader & her letters are full of allusions to her favourite books. The letters span the years from 1909-1914. Elinore's homestead still exists & her family are raising money for its restoration. There are photos of it here. I loved reading about Elinore's hard but happy life. I downloaded my copy of Letters of a Woman Homesteader for free from ManyBooks. It's also available from Girlebooks.

Monday, May 14, 2012

How many beds does one cat need?

I've finally decided that Lucky & Phoebe have enough places to sleep. They probably had enough places to sleep before I started buying beds, futons & igloos.

Lucky is happy with her blanket, my lap, the futon on the back porch in warmer weather & my bed at night. Of course, I thought I knew better.

I saw a tartan cat igloo with lambswool interior in the Snooza catalogue & thought Lucky would love it. She's always loved burrowing under her blanket & I put some of her blanket inside the igloo to give it her scent. You might notice though that that's not Lucky in the igloo! Even with Lucky's smell all over it, Phoebe has decided that the igloo is her newest sleeping place. She usually moves in there after she warmed herself in front of the heater by sitting along the top of my armchair.

Lucky never showed the slightest interest in the igloo so, don't worry, I'm not contemplating another trip to the Snooza website. I took this photo of Lucky yesterday morning. It was a very cold, wet morning & the rain had just stopped so I put the girls' day beds out on the porch. Phoebe settled straight down (that's the photo at the top of the post) on her bed & went back to sleep & Lucky sat down on the top step, ignoring her futon entirely. Typical, really.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Thomas Hardy

I love Thomas Hardy's poetry. He wrote some of his most passionate yet melancholy love poetry after the death of his first wife, Emma. The regret for the wasted years full of misunderstandings is very moving. If you haven't already read it, I can recommend Claire Tomalin's wonderful biography of Hardy, The Time-Torn Man, which begins with the outpouring of poetry & memory that was prompted by Emma's death. I don't know if this poem, The End of the Episode, is about Emma. It's from a collection published in 1909 & it's full of Hardy's favourite notes of missed opportunities & longing for the past.

Indulge no more may we
In this sweet-bitter pastime:
The love-light shines the last time
Between you, Dear, and me.

There shall remain no trace
Of what so closely tied us,
And blank as ere love eyed us
Will be our meeting-place.

The flowers and thymy air,
Will they now miss our coming?
The dumbles thin their humming
To find we haunt not there?

Though fervent was our vow,
Though ruddily ran our pleasure,
Bliss has fulfilled its measure,
And sees its sentence now.

Ache deep; but make no moans:
Smile out; but stilly suffer:
The paths of love are rougher
Than thoroughfares of stones.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Hesperus Press - choose their next classic

Hesperus Press is one of my favourite small publishers. They've created a niche in a very crowded classics market by reprinting shorter, often barely known, works by famous authors including Jane Austen, Christina Rossetti, Charlotte Brontё & Wilkie Collins. I've been particularly impressed by their reprints of the Christmas stories written by Charles Dickens & other Victorian novelists & published in his magazine, Household Words.

Hesperus have asked me to mention their new competition to celebrate their 10th anniversary. They would like readers to nominate an out of print classic that they would like to see back on the bookshop shelves. You need to write 500 words on why you think this book should be back in print &, if you win, your Introduction will be included when the book is published in September.

The closing date is June 1st so there's not much time to contemplate that long list of books that you think should be made available to all discerning readers. Although Hesperus books are generally about 100pp long, there's no restriction on the length of the book although it must be in English (or available in translation) & must be out of print. All the details & conditions are available at the Hesperus Press website, just click the link above.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Beginner's Goodbye - Anne Tyler

I haven't read anything by Anne Tyler for some years. I loved The Accidental Tourist & I went on to read a couple more of her books but I read very little contemporary fiction these days & her books have passed me by. I wanted to read The Beginner's Goodbye because it sounded similar in theme to The Accidental Tourist, & it is. Grief & how we cope with the loss of a loved one is a major theme of both books. In The Accidental Tourist Macon & Sarah have lost their son. In The Beginner's Goodbye Aaron's wife Dorothy has died, killed by a tree falling on to the sun porch.

Aaron is in his mid 30s. He wears a brace on his leg, the result of a childhood illness & he has a stammer. He works in the family publishing business with his sister, Nandina. Aaron's marriage to Dorothy surprised his family & friends. Dorothy was a doctor & Aaron had met her when he was looking for a radiology specialist to contribute to a book his firm was publishing. Dorothy was a few years older than Aaron, stocky, unemotional, estranged from her family & completely uninterested in non-essentials like food or her appearance. They married just a few months later &, although they had no children, were very happy together. Dorothy's death stuns Aaron. Initially he goes on living in the ruined house, unable to bear the thought of repairing it & unwilling to move back to the family home where Nandina lives. He's forced to do this though when a rainstorm leads to the roof collapsing. Living & working with Nandina pushes Aaron into hiring a contractor, Gil Bryan, to start repairing the house.

Aaron is not altogether surprised when, one day, Dorothy appears. Her appearances are completely random. Suddenly he becomes aware of her walking beside him or standing on the footpath outside his office. Once she appears at a farmer's market, looking at vegetables on the next stall. Aaron is comforted by this although they don't talk about anything very profound. He's not even sure that they do talk, maybe they're just reading each other's thoughts. Dorothy looks just as she always did in life although no one but Aaron can see her, or can they? When Aaron & Dorothy are out walking, friends suddenly move to the other side of the street or deliberately look only at Aaron when they stop & say hello. But, are they ignoring Dorothy or is she not really there? As time passes & the house is ready for Aaron to return, he begins to examine his marriage in a new way. He has to recognize the truth about the past.

The Beginner's Goodbye is full of the humour & ridiculousness of everyday life. The Beginner's Guides that Aaron's company publish hold out the promise of a quick manual to any life situation from the cradle to the grave. From The Beginner's Colicky Baby (their bestseller) to guides for budgeting, dog training & birdwatching, they aim to cover every emergency. They even produce boxsets of the guides for special occasions like a child leaving home. Woolcott Publishing is like a family, the staff have been there forever & Aaron chafes at their concern as they tiptoe around him.

Tyler is so good at exploring grief & our attitudes to it. Aaron is overwhelmed by casseroles on his doorstep & irritated by all the ways his friends & family try to help him. The uncomfortable silences when anyone mentions their wife (in case Aaron is upset); the way he feels that people have to plan their conversations with him so they don't remind him of what's happened. As if he can forget. The subtle or not so subtle attempts at matchmaking. It's funny & poignant at the same time. I hate the word quirky but Tyler's characters are quirky. Not so quirky that the reader doesn't recognize them as real but they are identifiably Tyler characters. It's hard to say what it is but it's in the tone of voice, the dialogue, the descriptions. There's a timelessness about Tyler's Baltimore, where her books are set. It always feels like the 1950s in Tyler's books to me. Or at least, the suburban America that I remember from watching TV when I was a child. I don't mean that it's artificial but it's unmistakable. I loved The Beginner's Goodbye. It's a thoughtful, honest book about grief, love, families & how to survive it all.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854-1909) : a portrait with husbands - Sally E Svenson

Anyone who has read Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers or Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Shuttle or even watched Downton Abbey, is familiar with the concept of the dollar princesses. Rich young American women were much sought-after as brides by impoverished English aristocrats. The most famous of these young women were Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill & was the mother of Winston Churchill, & Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the ninth Duke of Marlborough. Another woman who also married into the Churchill family is much less well-known. Lily Price Hamersley married George Charles Spencer-Churchill, eighth Duke of Marlborough. The Duke, known as Blandford, was Lily's second husband & Lily's life is the subject of this new biography by Sally E Svenson.

Lily Price grew up in Troy, New York & Washington, the daughter of a distinguished naval officer. Her family was connected with the social elite of both cities & Lily lived the life of a well-brought up young lady of the time. She attended balls & other social functions & accompanied her great-aunt Phebe on a European tour. Her first husband, Louis Carré Hamersley, was part of this same world. Louis was a member of a very wealthy New York family. He was 14 years older than Lily, who was 25 when they married in 1879. Louis was a quiet man, devoted to his father, who was deaf & suffered from vertigo. The newly married couple shared the family home in New York so that Gordon Hamersley could be cared for & he seems to have been fond of his new daughter-in-law.

After only four years of marriage, Louis died of what was suspected to be typhoid fever. His father had predeceased him &, in his will, Louis left everything to Lily & any children they might have (they were childless). Louis's will incensed other members of the Hamersley family who had expected that the family money would stay with the Hamersleys rather than be inherited by a young woman who could quite possibly marry again. The resulting legal case is fascinating as it shows the lengths that Louis's family were prepared to go to in the effort to overturn his will. They cast doubt on his mental state, implied that Lily had dominated her husband & forced him to make the will & picked up on small technicalities that they said invalidated it altogether. The judge decided in Lily's favour but the resulting appeals meant that the case wasn't finally settled for some years. Lily was forced to request income from the estate from the Court for some years until the case was settled.

Lily was now a young, rich widow. Her life over the next few years was quiet but eventually she decided to emerge from her mourning & the unwanted notoriety of the court case & she began to appear in society again. This was the time when the eighth Duke of Marlborough entered her life. Blandford arrived in the United States with a reputation for scandal. He had divorced his first wife, been caught up in various other marital scandals & upset the Prince of Wales so badly that he was a virtual social outcast in England. He had succeeded to the dukedom but found he didn't have the money to run his family home, Blenheim Palace. His decision to sell off 300 paintings to help him defray the costs of Blenheim's upkeep was met with scandalised tut-tuttings in the Press as Blenheim was considered almost a national treasure rather than a private estate. It had been built for John Churchill, the first Duke, by a grateful nation after his military victories in Europe. Blandford, however, felt he had no choice. He also realized that he couldn't go on selling off his inheritance, he needed to find a permanent solution. This was his situation when he arrived in New York & met Lily.

Lily's income apparently proved sufficient to mark her out as an appropriate marital partner as far as Marlborough was concerned. The duke's quarry also had good looks, dignity, a graceful manner, and an easy way in conversation. Her family background was impeccable... Her reputation was without taint and she lived quietly. Marriage to Lily would strengthen Marlborough's ambivalent social position if he wished to redeem his reputation in the eyes of the British public.

Lily would gain a magnificent social position & this was important to her. She had been disappointed with the lack of success she'd had in re-entering New York society after her period of mourning. She knew that her money would be required to prop up Blenheim but she was prepared for this. Marlborough's position in London society may have been dubious but she would be the chatelaine of a grand country house &, in fact, this is where she made her mark. The marriage which began as a merger of money & social status was remarkably successful. Blandford was an intelligent man who had wonderful ideas for the improvement of the estate & Lily's money made them happen. Lily was a gracious hostess, interested in all her husband's pursuits. She became great friends with her sister-in-law, Jennie, & the rest of the Churchill family & made an effort to smooth the prickly relationship between her husband & his son & heir, known as Sunny.

Sadly, Lily's time at Blenheim was brief. Her husband died suddenly of heart failure in 1892. They had no children & the new Duke was Sunny, who was only 20. He moved into Blenheim with his mother & sisters & Lily had to find a new home. The impact Lily had made on the estate in the short time she lived there is evident in the words of a resident of the nearby town of Woodstock, "We were all so sorry when Lily Duchess went away, because we loved her." Lily made her home in Brighton & had little to do with society although she remained on good terms with Sunny & was instrumental in introducing him to the Vanderbilts. Lily favoured Gertrude Vanderbilt as the next Duchess but it was Gertrude's cousin, Consuelo, who Sunny would eventually marry.

Lily married again just over three years after the Duke's death. Her new husband, Lord William Beresford, was a bachelor who had spent his career mostly in India as military secretary to successive Viceroys, although he had seen active service & was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry during the Zulu Wars. He was athletic, charming, sociable & handsome. His return to England after almost 20 years in India led to his meeting Lily & they were married in 1895. The wedding, at St George's, Hanover Square, was the social triumph Lily had always wanted & the marriage was a very happy one. Lily took a great interest in Bill's activities & he was a great favourite with Lily's nephew-by-marriage, Winston Churchill, with whom she had an affectionate relationship. Young Winston looked up to his Uncle Bill,

He was a man of the world acquainted with every aspect of clubland and society... There was nothing in sport or in gambling about sport which he had not tasted...His opinions about public affairs, though tinged with an official hue, were deeply practical, and on matters of conduct and etiquette they were held by many to be decisive.

Lily & Bill devoted themselves to their home at Deepdene & their son, William, who was born in 1897. Again, Lily was bankrolling their lifestyle but she seems to have enjoyed it, especially her husband's interest in racing. After Bill's death in 1901, Lily spent the remaining years of her life living in Hove, caring for her son, whose health was delicate, & managing her considerable income. She died in 1909.

Sally E Svenson has done an excellent job of restoring Lily to her place in the history of the Churchill family. For all her wealth & desire for social success, Lily seems to have been quite a shy woman. She made a success of her marriages & sincerely mourned her husbands. I wish there had been more of Lily's own voice in the book but there seems to be few letters & we mostly see her through the eyes of her family or newspaper reporters. This may be one reason why she has been forgotten when those other dollar princesses have not. Anyone who has read the novels of Edith Wharton would be interested in in this retelling of Lily's story.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sunday Poetry - William Tunstall

I haven't been able to find out much about William Tunstall. He was an 18th century poet or maybe he was just a collector of poetry as the references I've found mention that the poems are "attributed" to him so maybe his name is just a convenient one to attach to them. I really just wanted an excuse to use this lovely picture of a young lady at her spinet (from here) even though it's the wrong period. The poem is called Eliza Playing upon the Spinet & shows the importance of a young lady having accomplishments to show off in society. Eliza seems quite able to hold her own with her beauty & strength of personality no matter how bad her playing!

Though fair Eliza, to conceal
The charming beauties of her eyes,
Turns to her spinet, yet we feel
The fair Eliza can surprise.

She can her laws on us impose,
And triumph, when she does retreat,
As Parthians seem to fly their foes,
The surer conquest to complete.

If in her blooming looks she appears,
She through the eyes attacks the heart;
But when she plays she wounds the ears,
And every finger turns a dart.

The listening captives round her stand,
And, whilst each tuneful touch th' admire,
They own the conquest of her hand,
And yield themselves to chains of wire.

But, if some hardy rebel's choice
Bids a defiance to the strings,
Let but Eliza raise her voice;
She gives no quarter when she sings.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Recipe for Love - Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde is one of my favourite authors when I'm in the mood for a romantic wallow. Last Sunday was one of those days because of my upset over my e-reader. I wanted to read a book that was guaranteed to cheer me up & Katie Fforde is a sure bet.

Zoe Harper has entered a MasterChef-style cooking competition. She hopes to win the prize money that will allow her to open her own deli. Smart, pretty, kind & helpful, Zoe is a delight. On her early arrival at the contest venue her helpfulness leads her to assist a grumpy motorist who has landed his car in a ditch. Gideon Irving is attractive in a non-obvious way, blunt, ungracious & one of the judges of the contest. Zoe & Gideon agree not to mention their accidental meeting but soon their mutual attraction means that their growing relationship becomes hard to disguise.

Zoe is sharing a room with another contestant, Cher, a really nasty young woman. Cher is a beautiful but brittle blonde, determined to win the contest by fair means or foul because she wants to be famous. She's not above flirting with the judges & sabotaging Zoe at every opportunity. Cher locks Zoe out of their room, hides her computer lead so she can't access her recipes & opens the window on a rainy day so Zoe's bed is soaked - all completely accidentally, of course.

Zoe's friendship with Fenella & Rupert, the owners of the country house where the contest is held, is another delightful subplot to the story. The fact that Gideon is staying with Fen & Rupert & every time Zoe can't sleep in her own bed, she ends up in Gideon's, softens the upset over Cher's vindictiveness. As the contest continues & one contestant is eliminated after every challenge, Zoe is kept on her toes . Several times she just scrapes through to the next round because of Cher's machinations or her own helpfulness - creating a stunning wedding cake at short notice for a friend of Fenella's & welcoming Rupert's vile parents to the house when Fenella goes into labour - which leaves her with little time to prepare for the next round of the contest. The final straw comes when Cher attempts to blackmail Zoe with photos of her & Gideon which would ruin his career & cause a scandal that would wreck the contest for everyone.

Recipe for Love is just as wonderful as all Katie's previous books. Funny, warm, romantic & with enough tension in the plotting that you wonder how Zoe will get through her latest entanglement. Gideon is a gorgeous hero, especially when he lulls Zoe to sleep by reading her Elizabeth David. The cooking aspect is also terrific. I love reading about food, especially the hearty good cooking that Zoe does so well. Fenella & Rupert are a lovely couple. I enjoyed their struggles with their half-renovated home & I think Rupert's bossy, domineering, tactless mother was my favourite character. I finished Recipe for Love with a contented sigh late on Sunday night, my e-reader problems forgotten. It was just what I needed.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Light that Failed - Rudyard Kipling

I haven't read much Kipling. I've never been very interested in his themes & the subjects of his books. I suppose I've been influenced by his reputation as the poet of the Empire & associated him with the jingoistic poem by Newbolt, Vitai Lampada, with the famous line, "Play up! play up! & play the game!" comparing war with a game of cricket. So, when my 19th century book group chose The Light that Failed as our next book, I wasn't very enthusiastic.On the other hand, I've discovered some real gems through this group & there was a lovely new edition of the book by Victorian Secrets, so I put aside my prejudices & started reading.

The Light that Failed is Kipling's first novel & is based on incidents from his own life. I knew a little about Kipling's miserable childhood as I'd read a biography of his mother, Alice MacDonald, & her sisters who all married famous Victorians (A Circle of Sisters by Judith Flanders). Kipling & his sister, Trix, were sent home to England from India by their parents as so many children were at that period. They were sent to board with a woman who exploited them & mistreated them. All Kipling's experience as a miserable little boy is evident in the first chapter of The Light that Failed. Dick & Maisie, two children boarded with uncaring Mrs Jennett, find happiness in escaping together to play with a revolver on the beach near their home. It sounds dangerous but the nearest thing to tragedy is that Maisie's pet goat eats a few cartridges. Both children have parents or guardians far away but can only rely on each other as allies. Eventually Dick goes to school, only returning in the holidays & Maisie is sent to France by her guardians for further education. Dick & Maisie plan for their futures & Dick, already in love with Maisie, decides that they will always be together.

Some years later, Dick is an artist, working for a newspaper as a war correspondent with his closest friend, the writer, Torpenhow. He's knocked around the world a bit but his talents as an artist are finally being recognized &, on his return from the Sudan, he becomes quite famous. He meets Maisie again, quite by accident, & discovers that she is also learning to paint. Dick has never forgotten Maisie & expects that they will pick up their relationship where they left off as children. Maisie, however, is quite cool & uncommitted. She is sharing a flat with a red-haired girl (we never know her name) & studying art. Dick pursues her, visiting on Sundays to criticise her work but his love is not returned.

Dick's success goes to his head for a while & he starts producing potboilers instead of the work that Torpenhow & his other friends believe he is capable of. Dick takes Maisie back to their childhood home, to the beach where they'd played & escaped from Mrs Jennett, hoping to spark some response in her but this also fails. While they're on the beach, Dick watches a ship sailing off to Australia & starts to get itchy feet. Maisie is completely uninterested in his plans, although she is sympathetic & pities him while being unable to return his feelings. She certainly has no intention of accompanying him on his travels & sets off for France with her flatmate to study.

While Maisie is away, Dick starts to experience trouble with his eyes & learns that he's going blind, the result of an injury he suffered in the Sudan during the war. He refuses to tell Maisie & begins work on what he believes will be a great picture. Just as he finishes it, he loses his sight. Torpenhow cares for him when he falls into a fever & discovers the story of Dick's love for Maisie from his ravings, which Dick had kept secret from his friends. Dick descends into misery & self-pity, desperate at the loss of his vocation & determined that Maisie shouldn't feel obliged to marry him now that he's helpless. Torpenhow puts his career on hold but, eventually, he has to set off for another war zone. Before he leaves, he goes to France to find Maisie & tell her what has happened.

The Light that Failed was a qualified success when it was published in Lippincott's Magazine in 1891 with a happy ending which was not what Kipling had originally written. It was published as a book soon after with the ending we have here. Over the next few years it was reprinted several times with either the sad or happy ending but the 1892 standard edition which has been reprinted by Victorian Secrets is the book as Kipling intended.

The reviews were mixed. It was praised for the "good touches of character, excellent bits of description, deep knowledge of a certain kind of life." But other reviewers were repulsed by "the pretentious brutality, the obtrusive and cynical coarseness, and the calculated sourness of its tone." I thought it was a fascinating book, influenced not only by Kipling's childhood but also by an unhappy ten year love affair he had with Florence Garrard, who was the inspiration for Maisie. The scenes in the war zone are beautifully done & also the scenes of Dick's wandering in Egypt after he parts company with Torpenhow & his newspaper work before he returns to London to begin work as an artist.

The relationship of Dick and Maisie is also painfully believable. Paul Fox, in his Introduction to this edition, says that Maisie & the red-haired girl were lovers (as a reflection of Florence Garrard's lesbian relationships) but I didn't see that. There's even some evidence that the red-haired girl falls in love with Dick. I thought that Maisie had been so damaged by her loveless childhood that she was almost incapable of returning Dick's feelings or of sustaining any kind of relationship. Dick has held on to the idea of Maisie through all the lonely years they've spent apart & when they meet again, he assumes they will pick up their relationship from where they left off as children. Even back then, it was Dick telling Maisie that he loved her. Maisie allowed herself to be loved & she hasn't changed when they meet again as adults.

The Light that Failed is a fascinating insight into the way that a writer uses his personal experiences as the basis for fiction. An author's first novel is often based on their own life, especially when they begin writing at a young age. The Introduction, biography & reviews in this edition were useful in bringing out the connections in Kipling's life & made it a very rewarding reading experience.