Thursday, March 31, 2016

Everything old is new again - in the digital world, at least

I had an email the other day from Corazon Books, offering me a review copy of Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom. Corazon are planning to reprint Ursula Bloom's backlist, in co-operation with her estate. Now, I don't think I've ever read an Ursula Bloom but I do remember her books in my library, especially in large print. Wonder Cruise was published in 1934 & is the story of a young woman who wins some money & decides to go on a Mediterranean cruise. It sounds like a good, romantic read & I'm looking forward to it. Bloom also wrote as Lozania Prole & Sheila Burns.
More details about Ursula Bloom & Corazon's plans are here.
Corazon are also reprinting Catherine Gaskin's backlist. I do remember reading & enjoying Catherine Gaskin so I've bought a couple of these over the last year & I'm looking forward to rereading them.

Delphi Classics have announced their next series of eBooks & the title I'm most excited about is the collected works of E M Delafield. Delphi do a great job of bringing together an author's work in a beautifully formatted digital edition at a very reasonable price. Other tempting authors in Series Seven are Frances Trollope & Mary Wollstonecraft.

I'd love to know if there are any Ursula Bloom fans out there. The LP books I remember were very pink & in my younger days, I didn't think they were for me. The reprints look as though they'll be aimed at a different audience &, of course, I'm older now than I was when I was shelving the LP Blooms. I doubt I'd be reading Georgette Heyer or D E Stevenson if they were still being published in those cheesy 1970s covers, not to mention some of the dire cover art I remember for Mary Stewart & Daphne Du Maurier! Times & tastes change though & we may be in for an Ursula Bloom revival.

All these reprints are very exciting. Recently there's been news of Bello reprinting Mary Hocking & Open Road reprinting Margery Sharp. Who will be next?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Betrayal - Helen Dunmore

The Betrayal is the sequel to Helen Dunmore's 2001 novel, The Siege, set during the siege of Leningrad during WWII. The war has been over for seven years. Anna Levina is married to Andrei Aleksayev. Anna works in a nursery school & Andrei is a paediatrician at the local hospital. Anna's younger brother, Kolya, lives with them in Anna's family apartment, the place where they struggled & suffered through the cold, the starvation & the threat of bombing during the siege. Life for Anna & Andrei means being careful, careful not to stand out, careful not to antagonise the neighbours lest they tell the authorities that there are only three people living in a family apartment, never revealing your true thoughts to a colleague or a friend, keeping your voice low even when they are alone in case someone is listening. Every action is scrutinized & there is always someone willing to put a black mark against your personnel record if your commitment isn't considered patriotic enough. The memories of the siege are never far from the surface. Everyone who was in Leningrad during that time cannot forget, either the small acts of kindness or luck that kept you alive another day or the acts of cruelty & selfishness.

She can still feel little Kolya in her arms, in the freezing darkness of the midnight apartment. He is so thin than she can touch each separate bone of his ribcage. His lips move against her neck, sucking in his sleep. She holds him all night, for fear that without her warmth Kolya will die.

 Anna's father was a writer, an intellectual who was persecuted during the purges of the 1930s. He was lucky to survive then but, like hundreds of thousands of others, he died of cold & starvation during the siege. Anna still has some of her father's writings carefully hidden in the piano stool. She hasn't even told Andrei about the papers, afraid that he would want her to destroy them. Anna & Andrei are conscientious workers, doing the best for the children in their care even when silence may be the more sensible course to take. The Levin family's dacha outside Leningrad miraculously survived the German advance at the end of the war & Anna, Andrei & Kolya spend weekends there, repairing the house & cultivating the garden. It's the only place where they can breathe & relax, forgetting the restrictions of their everyday lives.

It's beautiful here. Lots of people wouldn't think it was. But when you've hunted mushrooms in the woods year after year, and you know all the best places; when you've fished every pool and stream and know where the trout hide on the stony bed while water ripples over their backs; when you're covered with scratches from foraging for berries; when you come home dusty, sweaty and triumphant with a load of firewood; when the marshes have sucked at your boots as you've jumped from tuft to tuft; then you love it with all your heart. You want it to live forever. Your own death doesn't seem to matter as much.

Andrei is maneuvered by a colleague into seeing a child with a possible tumour in his leg. Cancer isn't Andrei's area of expertise, he looks after children with arthritis, but he knows why his colleague is reluctant to get involved. Gorya Volkov's father is an important man in State Security, a man who has the power to make you disappear. Even being noticed by such a man carries danger. Andrei is well aware of the danger but agrees to see Gorya. It soon becomes apparent that the tumour is cancerous & Gorya's leg must be amputated. Andrei is aware that there's a chance that the cancer will spread & he's the one that has to tell Volkov the prognosis.

But how has it come about that I'm in this room, with this man? Andrei asks himself, as his clinical eye notes the pallor of Volkov's face, his heavy breathing and the dilation of his pupils. Anna and I were always careful. We believed we'd thought of everything that could happen to us, but we never allowed for this. Is it just chance or is it fate? If it's fate, then this was coming towards me all my life, even when I was happy and completely unaware that there was any such child in the world as Gorya Volkov. I was here in this hospital, and Volkov was wherever such men have their offices.
Anna has always said that the important thing is never to come to their attention.

When the cancer does spread & it's certain that Gorya will die, Andrei receives a phone call in the middle of the night, suspending him from his work at the hospital. He is abandoned by nearly all his friends & colleagues although he does hear that the surgeon, Brodskaya, who operated on Gorya, has also been investigated, even though she had left Leningrad & taken an inferior job as far away as she could go. The inevitability of what follows is still suspenseful as Andrei waits at home for the next phone call or the sound of a car stopping outside the apartment building in the middle of the night. Anna is pregnant & they try to make plans that will keep Anna, Kolya & the baby safe.

He should have let Anna stay home with him. They should be together. Or perhaps that is completely wrong. Perhaps the only way to save her is for them to be quite separate. He should go off somewhere, far away. She should say that she threw him out because she was so ashamed of having  a husband who had to be investigated. Yes, the example of Pavlik Morozov was the one for Anna to follow. Let her denounce him.

Inevitably Andrei is arrested, interrogated & moved from Leningrad to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. The State has decided that doctors are part of a conspiracy to eliminate important Party members, just as in the 1930s scientists were targeted & in the late 1940s, artists & musicians were denounced. He is kept in solitary confinement, apart from one short period when he's put in a communal cell by mistake. The knowledge that he is not alone sustains him through the punishments & the degrading conditions where his only mental resource is to go through his medical training to stay sane & stop him thinking of what might be happening to Anna on the outside. Anna & Kolya leave Leningrad & go to the dacha, not knowing Andrei's fate &, with the help of Golya, a family friend, wait for Anna's baby to be born.

The Betrayal is a beautifully-written, incredibly tense & suspenseful novel. Helen Dunmore is a poet as well as a novelist & her writing is full of striking images, especially in the lyrical scenes at the dacha, where life seems almost normal, as if the war & the terror of State control was far away. I was reminded of a movie I saw many years ago, Burnt by the Sun, the story of a Red Army officer during the purges of the 1930s. The opening scenes at the officer's dacha in the height of summer, before his fall, have the same quality of innocence before unimaginable darkness moves in. Inevitably I also thought of Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzberg, the remarkable memoir I read a few months ago. Dunmore shows how easily innocent people can become guilty, because of a change of policy or just by being conspicuous. Putting your head above the parapet is always dangerous even if, like Andrei, your conscience & sense of duty gives you no choice. Once you're part of the so-called justice system, then the steps are preordained & there is rarely any escape.

I don't think it's necessary to have read The Siege before reading The Betrayal, especially if, like me, you read The Siege back in 2001 when it was published. I had no trouble getting my bearings even though I could remember very little of the plot of the first novel apart from the powerful effect the book had on me. Andrei & Anna remember past events & put their present lives in the context of their past. Their memories sustain them & also act as a warning of the arbitrary nature of life in a totalitarian regime.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Sunday Poetry - William Allingham

I was reminded of William Allingham the other day because he was the ODNB life of the day. The Fairies was one of my favourite poems when I was a child. As you can see, it was in my school reader (I must have been bored at some stage because I've coloured in the mountain) & I can still remember phrases & images from it all these years later. The crispy pancakes of yellow tide-foam fascinated me & the fate of little Bridget, stolen away for seven years & dying of sorrow, was a frightening thought at the age of about nine. The third verse below isn't in my school reader version, probably because it wouldn't fit neatly onto two pages.

I've also had Allingham's diaries on the tbr shelves for a few years in this lovely Folio Society edition. He was born in Ireland but lived in London for some years with his wife, Helen, who was a popular watercolour artist. He knew Tennyson, Rossetti & Burne-Jones so I really must get to the Diaries one of these days.

Up the airy mountain,   
  Down the rushy glen,   
We daren't go a-hunting   
  For fear of little men;   
Wee folk, good folk,            
  Trooping all together;   
Green jacket, red cap,   
  And white owl's feather!   

Down along the rocky shore   
  Some make their home,     
They live on crispy pancakes   
  Of yellow tide-foam;   
Some in the reeds   
  Of the black mountain lake,   
With frogs for their watch-dogs,     
  All night awake.   

High on the hill-top   
  The old King sits;   
He is now so old and gray   
  He 's nigh lost his wits.     
With a bridge of white mist   
  Columbkill he crosses,   
On his stately journeys   
  From Slieveleague to Rosses;   
Or going up with music     
  On cold starry nights   
To sup with the Queen   
  Of the gay Northern Lights.   

They stole little Bridget   
  For seven years long;     
When she came down again   
  Her friends were all gone.   
They took her lightly back,   
  Between the night and morrow,   
They thought that she was fast asleep,     
  But she was dead with sorrow.   
They have kept her ever since   
  Deep within the lake,   
On a bed of flag-leaves,   
  Watching till she wake.     

By the craggy hill-side,   
  Through the mosses bare,   
They have planted thorn-trees   
  For pleasure here and there.   
If any man so daring     
  As dig them up in spite,   
He shall find their sharpest thorns   
  In his bed at night.   

Up the airy mountain,   
  Down the rushy glen,     
We daren't go a-hunting   
  For fear of little men;   
Wee folk, good folk,   
  Trooping all together;   
Green jacket, red cap,     
  And white owl's feather!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

An autumnal Easter miscellany

Isn't it odd how the seasons sometimes seem to change as if a switch had been flicked? A week ago, the weather was humid, hot & we'd had no rain for weeks. Overnight, a cool change came through, pushed out the humidity & we had over 30mm of rain in two days. Autumn had arrived. Since then, the mornings have been cool & crisp, the nights are drawing in & suddenly it's Easter. Time to make hot cross buns (the ones with a V on top are for a vegan colleague so no egg glaze), pull out the tomato plants in the veggie garden & plant daffodils ready for next Spring, which always reminds me of the Provincial Lady & Lady B..

Lucky & Phoebe love the autumn. The sun is warming, not burning, the hot north winds are gone & a little sleep in on a cold morning is very agreeable.

I'm going to spend the long Easter weekend doing some gardening, catch up on some podcasts, decide on my next audio book &, of course, reading. One of the podcasts I have listened to is this interesting discussion about the definition of literary & commercial fiction on Books on the Nightstand. I agree with Ann & Michael that bookish people know literary fiction when they see it but actually defining it to someone who's not in the book or library trade is difficult.

I'll also be making a decision about what I'll be reading for the 1938 Club. I've listened to Nevil Shute's Ruined City, which I loved, but I'd like to read at least one more book, if not two.

Whether you'll be observing Easter or just enjoying a long weekend; whether it's autumn or spring in your part of the world, I hope you have time to relax & do whatever makes you happy. I can't resist a poem by John Donne, suitable for the occasion. Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward.

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is't, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I'almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once peirc'd with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag'd, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish'd thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom'd us?
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They'are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look'st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang'st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may'st know mee, and I'll turne my face.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Lost Tudor Princess - Alison Weir

I love reading about marginal characters. In her lifetime, Lady Margaret Douglas was anything but marginal. However, in the last 400 years, her story has been overshadowed by the stories of those other Tudors & Stuarts - Mary I, Elizabeth I, the wives of Henry VIII & Mary, Queen of Scots - & although she was related to them all, her own story has been lost. I was very pleased to discover that one of my favourite biographers, Alison Weir, was writing about Margaret & the result is a new & fascinating angle on Tudor politics.

Lady Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Henry VIII's sister, Margaret, Queen of Scots, & her second husband, the Earl of Angus. Queen Margaret's marriage to a Scottish nobleman after the death of James IV at Flodden, may have been necessary for her own protection, but it meant she lost support among the fractious Scots nobility. She was deprived of the custody of her sons, James (now James V at the age of only 1) & baby Alexander, & forced to flee to England to seek the protection of her brother. This meant that her daughter, Margaret, was born in England. This had important consequences as the succession to the English throne became increasingly tangled in the later years of Henry VIII's reign.Queen Margaret's marriage to Angus was not happy & they separated when Lady Margaret was a child. She spent most of her childhood with her father in England at the court of her uncle. She grew up with Princess Mary, shared her education & her devotion to the Catholic religion, & was a favourite of the King. She served in the households of Henry's Queens & her marriage prospects were important as she became a factor in Henry's political machinations.

Margaret fell disastrously in love with Lord Thomas Howard in 1535 when she was around 20 years old. As I described in this Sunday Poetry post, the lovers were thrown into the Tower & Margaret was lucky to escape with her life. The result was that Henry passed an Act of Parliament making it a treasonous offense to aspire to marry anyone in the line of succession without the King's permission. This had momentous consequences in Margaret's later life but, even so, she fell in love again, three years later, to another member of the Howard family (Charles Howard, brother of Queen Katherine Howard) & was lucky to be pardoned again. Margaret must have felt frustrated, bored & unsure about her future prospects as she was by now in her late twenties, practically an old maid by 16th century standards. Eventually, Henry agreed to her marriage to Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox, a Scots nobleman with his own claim to the Scottish throne.

Lennox had spent much of his early life in France (where he adopted the French spelling of his surname) but returned to Scotland on the death of James V in 1542. James's death had left another child to inherit the throne, & a daughter at that, six day old Mary. Lennox's family had a long-standing feud with the Hamiltons, the Protestant Earls of Arran, & a power struggle was in progress as factions fought over the Regency. Lennox hoped to strengthen his own claim to the English throne by marriage to Margaret but, surprisingly, their marriage became a love match & they were devoted to each other. As the Protestant faction in Scotland gained the ascendancy, the Lennoxs spent most of their time in England, at their estates in the North. Margaret spent time at Court, serving Henry's last queen, Katherine Parr, but, as a Catholic, avoided London during the reign of her cousin, Edward VI. She was overjoyed when her friend & cousin, Catholic Mary I, ascended the throne, but disappointed when Mary died only five years later & the Protestant Elizabeth became queen. Margaret was also furious that she had been denied the earldom of Angus when her father died. Accusations of illegitimacy were leveled against her as well as her sex & her English birth. She fought futilely for years to succeed to the earldom.

It is now, with her rival in power, that the real Margaret emerges, a strong, 'masterful, ambitious woman'  of forty-three 'with more than a dash of Tudor spirit', whose ambitions and prejudices had hitherto been fed, or kept in check, by circumstances, and who had been denied her rights to a great earldom and a crown. It would not be surprising if she felt angry and wronged, especially now that she found herself in opposition to a powerful enemy (Elizabeth) who represented everything she despised. Margaret had already demonstrated that she had an audacious, passionate nature and a talent for dangerous scheming, and it was at this time that her relentless ambition and determination came into evidence. Sher did not shrink from what Elizabeth would certainly have seen as treasonable activities, although Margaret would not have regarded them as such. Two forces now drove her: her fierce ambition for her sons, and a burning desire to see England and Scotland united under Catholic rule.

Margaret had eight children, of whom only two sons, Henry, Lord Darnley & Charles survived childhood. Margaret's ambitions soon centred on the possibility of marrying her son, Darnley, to Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary had been sent to France as a child & had married the Dauphin, who briefly reigned as Francis II. After Francis's death, Mary returned to Scotland & her second marriage was an important political decision. It was assumed that a Queen Regnant must marry & the political & religious differences in Scotland made her choice fraught with difficulty. Various Catholic foreign princes were proposed; Elizabeth I even offered her own favourite, Robert Dudley, & Margaret was keen to unite her own claim to the English throne to the claim of the Queen of Scots. Darnley had been born in England which was seen as a distinct advantage. However, Margaret had learned nothing from her own romantic history & pursued her intrigues even though she knew Elizabeth would disapprove of two potential successors combining their claims.

Darnley went to Scotland where Mary fell in love with him. He was a stupid, weak, vicious young man, handsome, but fatally spoilt by his doting mother. The marriage was famously disastrous & soon broke down. Darnley's murder in 1567 devastated Margaret, who blamed Mary for Darnley's death, which led to a feud between the two women that wasn't healed for many years. The only bright spot for Margaret was the birth of James, her first grandchild, undisputed heir to the Scottish throne & an obvious successor to Elizabeth, who seemed increasingly unlikely to marry & have children of her own.

Although Margaret spent more time imprisoned in the Tower after Darnley's marriage to Mary, she was undeterred in her ambitions. She was fortunate in her two great supporters & friends at Court, William Cecil & Robert Dudley, who did not abandon her &used their influence with Elizabeth in her favour. .After Mary was forced from the Scottish throne & fled to England where she spent the next eighteen years in genteel imprisonment, Margaret was relentless in pushing for her to be tried for the murder of Darnley. Eventually, she accepted that Mary was innocent of the foreknowledge of the plot & the two women were reconciled. Lennox was recalled to Scotland to act as Regent for his grandson, King James, a dangerous job that was virtually a death sentence. The Lennoxs were unhappy to be parted but Margaret played a crucial role in his Regency, as a source of contact with Elizabeth's Court & an advisor through their constant correspondence. Lennox was assassinated in 1571, leaving Margaret bereft & focusing all her thoughts on her only surviving son, Charles.

Margaret's final intrigue was her scheme to marry her son, Charles, to Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of the formidable Bess of Hardwick. Bess was married to the Earl of Shrewsbury, jailer of Mary, Queen of Scots, no stranger to intrigue herself. Although Bess & Queen Mary had a strained relationship, Mary was keen to help her brother-in-law Charles to a good marriage or maybe she was just bored & eager to help along a budding romance. Margaret was perennially hard up & Bess was keen to see her daughter married to a potential heir to the throne. The two matrons contrived a meeting between the young couple, they duly fell in love & were secretly married. Queen Elizabeth was furious & even more so when a baby girl, Arbella, was born, another potential heir to her throne born on English soil. Elizabeth instituted an inquiry into what she saw as a treasonable conspiracy & Margaret was once again imprisoned in the Tower. Eventually she was released & lived with Charles, Elizabeth & baby Arbella in Hackney, deeply in debt & worried about Charles, who was soon to die of tuberculosis. Margaret then spent her final years trying to have Arbella recognised as her father's heir to the Lennox estates. She died at the age of 62 in 1578.

As Weir writes at the conclusion of the book, it's amazing that Margaret Douglas lived as long as she did. Not many Tudor women left the Tower alive & Margaret was imprisoned more than once & suspected of treason several more times. She was ambitious & a determined intriguer who schemed for her family's advancement until the end of her life. During the reign of Henry VIII, at a time when almost all the potential heirs to the English throne were female, she played an important role in the political machinations of the Court although she had little power herself. Her marriage was arranged yet she & Matthew were very happy together. She was the dominant partner, the driving force in their relationship, & he wrote to her constantly when they were parted, addressing her as My Dear Meg & Dearest Madge. She outlived everyone who was of any importance to her, except little Arbella, & struggled with debt throughout her life. Her ambition was driven by a burning sense of injustice that her rights to inheritance had been trampled on, mostly because of her sex. I can imagine her as a suffragette; prison & hunger strikes would have held no fears for this indomitable woman. Alison Weir, as always, has written a meticulously researched account that is as gripping as a novel. If you love Tudor history as I do, this book will illuminate the life of a woman usually seen in her role as Darnley's mother or Mary, Queen of Scots' aunt. Weir puts Margaret Douglas back in her rightful place as an important player in Tudor politics.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Lord Thomas Howard

This is the companion to last week's Sunday Poem by Lady Margaret Douglas. Written by Lord Thomas Howard during his imprisonment in the Tower for the crime of entering into a pre-contract to marry the King's niece & possible heiress to the throne, it describes the commitment they had made to each other & their desire to be married in the eyes of the Church. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

With sorrowful sighs and wounds smart
My heart is pierced suddenly.
To mourn of right it is my part,
To weep, to fail full grievously.

The bitter tears doth me constrain,
Although that I would it eschew,
To wite of them that doth disdain
Faithful lovers that be so true.

The one of us from the other they do absent,
Which unto us is a deadly wound,
Seeing we love in this intent:
In God's laws for to be bound.

With sighs deep my heart is pressed,
Enduring of great pains among,
To see her daily whom I love best
In great and intolerable sorrows strong.

There doth not live no loving heart
But will lament our grievous woe
And pray to God to ease our smart
And shortly together that we may go.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

My Kitchen Year - Ruth Reichl

I'm not a foodie & I don't read foodie books. I enjoy cooking, especially baking, but I don't long to live in a Tuscan farmhouse, growing my own kale & keeping heritage chickens. I'd heard of Ruth Reichl & read admiring reviews of her earlier books but hadn't been tempted to pick them up. This book is a little different. The subtitle is 136 recipes that saved my life, & My Kitchen Year is a beautiful blend of memoir, recovery story & cookbook.

Ruth Reichl was the editor of Gourmet magazine, probably the most prestigious magazine about food & cooking. In 2009, Reichl had been editor for 10 years when the owners, Condé Nast, abruptly decided to close the magazine down. It was October, the December issue of the magazine was at the printers, Reichl was completing work on a TV series & promoting the latest in a line of Gourmet cookbooks when the axe fell. At first, she just kept working, there was nothing else she could do. She had a book tour organised & although the last thing she wanted to do was go out & talk about Gourmet magazine, she couldn't let down the bookstores & the readers who wanted to meet her. In between commitments, Reichl retreated to her kitchens, in New York & the country house in upstate New York where she & her husband spent weekends & holidays. After clearing her desk & completing the book tour, the reality of losing her job hits.

On the first day of my new life I woke, alone, to frosted windows in New York City. Michael was out of town, and for a moment I thought gratefully that I had no responsibilities, nowhere to go. Then the empty day rose before me, and I realised that that was literally true. I had nowhere to go. What would I do with myself? I went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door.

Reichl's husband suggests that they might try living year round in the country. If Reichl doesn't get another job, they'll have to sell one of their homes. She realises how much she has missed cooking meals that aren't just thrown together after a long day in the office. She rediscovers New York through walking, visiting different districts & trying out new ingredients. She visits the farmers markets near their country home & finds herself creating a meal in her head as she looks at what's on offer.

This book almost convinced me that Twitter could be a worthwhile activity. Reichl discovers a whole new community of friends on Twitter (some of her tweets are reproduced in the book). The power is cut off at Reichl's country house for several days during the winter, just as she had made some bread dough.

The storm raged but I didn't mind; I was feeling more optimistic. What I did mind was that the electricity had deserted us while my dough was rising, and I didn't know what to do. It might be days until I had a working oven. Should I throw the dough out?
I tossed the question into the Twitterverse and the responses came back. 'Don't throw it out!' at least a dozen people tweeted. 'Just keep punching the dough down'.
Convinced that it was a lost cause, I did it anyway. What did I have to lose? The electricity was out for three days, and by day two I was noticing a change. The dough was capturing wild yeasts with great abandon, and before long it began to smell like fine champagne. I could hardly wait for the power to be restored.

One of her former colleagues on Gourmet had suggested she write a cookbook & the idea appeals to her new self. She realises she would rather be at home in her kitchen than eating out at fancy restaurants on an expense account.

For the past six months, cooking had been my lifeline, and I was grateful for everything I had learned in the kitchen. Most cookbooks, I thought as I reached for an orange and began to squeeze it for juice, are in search of perfection, an attempt to constantly re-create the same good dishes. But you're not a chef in your own kitchen, trying to please paying guests. You're a traveller, following your own path, seeking adventure. I wanted to write about the fun of cooking, encourage people to take risks. Alone in the kitchen you are simply a cook, free to do anything you want. If it doesn't work out - well, there's always another meal.

When Reichl breaks her foot after stumbling in a restaurant in LA, she has a lot of time to think.
She consoles herself for not being able to cook for weeks by thinking about recipes & encouraging her husband to cook. I also love that she has two cats who take advantage of her immobility to make themselves comfortable. I think all cat owners have experience of this! She is writing an Introduction to a new edition of Elizabeth David's recipes & compares David's influence on English food to American writers like Julia Child & James Beard. As the year turns to autumn once more, Reichl considers a new project.

Summer over, cookbook done, I was back in a state of anxiety. I lay fretfully in bed at night. knowing what I should be doing and yet reluctant to commit.
I have always wanted to write a novel. I'm an avid reader, and fiction is my first love; the ability to inhabit someone else's space, even for a little while, makes life so much richer. I've dreamt of writing a novel since I was very small, but I'd always put it off, finding all the reasons why I couldn't do it. I had a job, a child, no time. Now my child was grown, my job was over and my days belonged to me. The time had finally come. Surely it couldn't be that difficult?
But the middle of the night is no time to look for answers. I got out of bed and went into the kitchen. I wanted some hot dark fudge poured over cold white ice-cream, and I knew that just stirring up the sauce would improve my mood.

Apart from anything, the book itself is beautiful. The book follows Reichl through the year after Gourmet closed down. The photography by Mikkel Vang is just gorgeous. The evocation of the seasons through food & scenery is luscious. Following the seasons from the first misery of unemployment in autumn to a place of acceptance & recovery at the end of the following summer is a very effective way of structuring the story. As expected from a writer as renowned as Reichl, the text is intimate & honest, at times it's very moving. This is a memoir about what it's like to lose a much-loved job, a job that defined who you are. It's about the fear of not finding another job at all (Reichl is in her 60s), & what that would mean financially as well as personally. We don't all have the high profile career of Reichl or her privileges but we can all imagine what it would be like to be suddenly unemployed & trying to work out what comes next. It's also a book about food, our relationship to food & the joy of slowing down & really looking at what we eat, where it comes from & the way we cook. The recipes are classics, new variations on old favourites & ideas prompted by new discoveries. My Kitchen Year is a book about food & cooking for non-foodies, a memoir of the grief of unemployment & a gorgeously produced coffee table book of photographs & recipes. I enjoyed it very much.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

John le Carré : the biography - Adam Sisman

Hearing Adam Sisman talking about his biography of John le Carré on the Open Book podcast a few months ago was so fascinating that I was keen to read the book. I decided to listen to the audio book because it's read by Michael Jayston who has narrated so many of le Carré's novels over the years. I especially remember listening to The Constant Gardener, one of my favourite le Carré novels. I always see Jayston as Nicholas II (after his performance in the movie version of Robert K Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra) but his voice is perfect for this book.

I found the interview with Adam Sisman so interesting because he talked about the process of writing the biography. Other biographers, including Robert Harris & Graham Lord, had proposed biographies of David Cornwell (le Carré's real name) in the past but his reluctance to reveal himself was a barrier. Sisman was able to interview Cornwell at great length during his research & always maintained that his book would be as objective as possible. Cornwell obviously trusted Sisman with more of his story than he had allowed anyone else although there were areas he refused to discuss. Most importantly, he refused to talk about his time as an agent & then agent runner for MI5 & MI6 in the 1960s. Sisman researched this part of the book through interviews with David's colleagues & archival research.Their relationship certainly never became cosy & only last week, I read this article in The Independent, about the sale of the film rights to the biography where Sisman reveals the ambivalence Cornwell felt about the book. It also reveals the essential canniness & business sense of Cornwell. The film rights in the biography have been sold to The Ink Factory, a company owned by two of Cornwell's sons (with seemingly a fair amount of input from the author) although Sisman had to pitch the project to them like any other writer. They also produced the recent adaptation of The Night Manager.

David Cornwell's life was profoundly influenced by his unhappy childhood. His father, Ronnie, was a con man, a deceiver, womaniser & thief who was declared bankrupt several times & spent time in prison. David's mother, Olive, left her husband & her two sons, David & his older brother, Tony, when the boys were quite small. They had no contact with her for years & the grief of her departure had a devastating impact on the boys. Ronnie's career consisted of mad schemes, charming money out of just about everyone he ever met, setting up businesses that always paid him a generous salary but somehow never returned anything to his investors. He lived his life one step ahead of the law & sometimes tripped & ended up in court. He was a constant source of unwilling pride & of embarrassment to David who became adept at an early age at hiding his true feelings.

He was sent to boarding school at Sherborne at a young age &, when he was just sixteen, decided to go to Berne alone to study German language & literature. He studied at Oxford, became a teacher, working at Eton, married his first wife, Ann, & began writing fiction. He was also recruited by MI5 & worked as a diplomat in Germany & Switzerland for several years. However, the publication of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold in 1963 was a turning point. He left the intelligence services & became a full-time writer. His name is indelibly associated with the great espionage novels of the Smiley series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy & Smiley's People but his later novels have been just as successful, many of them being adapted for television & movies.

I loved reading about the process of writing the novels, the research undertaken all over the world. Almost as interesting is the extent to which David (I feel as though I'm on first-name terms after these last weeks of wanting to get back into the car to listen to a bit more of what happened to David next) has mined elements of his own life & especially his relationship with his father in so many of the books. Ronnie appears most recognisably in A Perfect Spy, the most obviously autobiographical of the novels but relationships between fathers & sons are integral to several other novels & aspects of Ronnie, & of David himself, creep into many characters. I also enjoyed reading about the process of adapting the books to other media. Cornwell was involved in the scripts for several of the adaptations & there are wonderful stories about his time on the set of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold with Richard Burton (who hated the director & wanted Elizabeth Taylor to play the love interest), & the friendship that developed between David & Alec Guinness during the production of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It's also fascinating to see how his anger at corruption & injustice has grown over the years & is channelled into his fiction - American imperialism in The Tailor of Panama, the plight of the Palestinians in The Little Drummer Girl or the iniquities of big pharmaceutical companies in The Constant Gardener. Far from running out of topics to write about after the end of the Cold War (a suggestion that infuriates him), he has continued to find new villains to write about.

If I have a criticism of the biography, it's that Sisman goes into almost exhaustive detail about everyone David has ever known or worked with. The book is very long (over 26 hours on audio so about 600pp) & it feels as though Sisman wanted us to appreciate the depth of his research. He also quotes far too many reviews of the books. I know he wasn't writing a literary appreciation of the work but fewer quotations would have made his point just as well. He does quote the stinkers as well as the raves. Essentially though, all Sisman's research can't really get to the depths of David Cornwell's character. For all his apparent openness in the interviews Sisman conducted, he has told so many versions of himself & his life to so many interviewers over the years that the truth is hard to discover. There seems to be more of Ronnie the obfuscator & conman in David than has ever been acknowledged. His years in MI5 & MI6 added extra layers to his character that have hardened over the years. We don't really see much of the family man (he has three sons with his first wife & another son with his second wife, Jane) but maybe that was a conscious decision by Sisman not to intrude on their lives. The Cornwells have lived in Cornwall for over 40 years & there are some lovely stories about his meticulous working habits, walking along the cliff paths, talking to himself as he plans his books. He rarely gets involved in the London literary scene, he almost seems to despise it, & doesn't seem interested in using his celebrity although he has been generous to various philanthropic causes.

I was intrigued to read recently that, after many years of refusing to write a memoir or autobiography, Cornwell has written a memoir called The Pigeon Tunnel which will be published in the UK in September. Coming so soon after Sisman's biography, I wonder if it was prompted by the wish to put his own side of the story or if the process of remembering & telling Sisman his stories led to the desire to write about his life himself? Interestingly, The Pigeon Tunnel was the working title for several of his novels over the years so I wonder if he's planning to play another joke on his readers by promising to reveal more than he will actually deliver? The subtitle is A Writing Life so it may be more about the professional than the personal life. After reading this absorbing biography, I'm looking forward to finding out.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Lady Margaret Douglas

I'm reading Alison Weir's latest book, The Lost Tudor Princess, a biography of Lady Margaret Douglas. Margaret was the daughter of Henry VIII's sister, Margaret, Queen of Scots, by her second husband, the Earl of Angus. Lady Margaret's parents separated when she was a child &, due to complicated political reasons, she grew up at the English Court. At one time in the 1530s, all three of Henry VIII's children were considered illegitimate so Margaret, born in England & a favourite of her capricious uncle, had a good claim to the English throne.

However, in 1535, when Margaret was 20 years old, she fell in love with Lord Thomas Howard, half-brother of the Duke of Norfolk & uncle of Anne Boleyn. The couple went through a form of pre-contract, at that time almost as binding as marriage, without the King's knowledge or consent. When Henry discovered this, he was furious & imprisoned them in the Tower. Although Thomas was an ambitious man who could see the advantages of marrying the King's niece who was so near to the throne, they do seem to have been genuinely in love. The evidence is in the form of a manuscript book of poems, known as the Devonshire Manuscript, many of them considered to have been written by the couple during their imprisonment. It seems that they were able to communicate because the poems often echo each other as if they were exchanges of letters && most of the poems were transcribed by Thomas.

The story has a sad ending but not the usual ending for royal women imprisoned in the Tower & the men who aspired to marry them. Margaret was freed in 1537 & restored to Henry's favour. Thomas, however, died of a fever during his imprisonment.

This is one of Margaret's poems from the Manuscript.

Now may I mourn as one of late
Driven by force from my delight,
And cannot see my lonely mate
To whom forever my heart is plight.

Alas! That ever prison strong
Should such two lovers separate,
Yet though our bodies suffereth wrong,
Our hearts should be of one estate.

I will not swerve, I you assure,
For gold nor yet for worldly fear,
But like as iron I will endure,
Such faithful love to you I bear.

Thus fare thee well, to me most dear
Of all the world, both most and least,
I pray you be of right good cheer
And think on me who loves you best.

And I will promise you again,
To think of you I will not let,
For nothing could release my pain
But to think on you my lover sweet.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The 1938 Club

I'm so glad that Simon from Stuck In A Book & Karen from Kaggsy's Bookish Rambles enjoyed organising the 1924 Club because they've now decided to host another week focussing on another year - 1938.
I've read quite a lot of books published that year, mostly pre-blog. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf, The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, Appointment with Death & Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie, Artists in Crime & Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh, The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham, Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons, The Sword in the Stone by T H White, Miss Bun, the Baker's Daughter by D E Stevenson, The Citadel by A J Cronin. I enjoyed them all & maybe, if you'd like to join the Club, you might find some ideas from that list on what to read.

I do have a few reviews on the blog for 1938 books & I'll re-post those reviews during the week of the Club, which is from April 11th-17th.

I also have this little pile from the tbr shelves which all look very tempting. Will I finally read another Angela Thirkell? If the new reprint of Howard Spring's My Son, My Son, is released early (it's due to be published on April 7th), I may be able to read that as I've preordered it. I'll keep trawling the shelves & see if anything else jumps out at me. I should also check my eBooks. I know I have National Provincial by Lettice Cooper, Four-part Setting by Ann Bridge & Knock, Murderer, Knock! by Harriet Rutland & there may be others.

It sounds like a lot of fun. I enjoyed reading the reviews from the 1924 Club & I'm sure I'll find books I want to read this time around as well. I have a month to get organized & make a decision - I can't possible dither for too much longer, can I?

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Shetland - Ann Cleeves

I'm a big fan of Ann Cleeves' Shetland novels. If you click on the link for Ann Cleeves in my labels list on the right >>>, you'll see all my reviews. I also enjoyed the TV series even though Douglas Henshall wasn't initially my idea of Jimmy Perez.  He's grown on me though! The second series is on UK TV at the moment so I hope we see it here in Australia at some stage. Martin Edwards has reviewed it here & he includes a link to an interesting article by Cleeves in The Guardian about violence on TV.

With an interest in the books & a fascination with the Shetlands, this gorgeous coffee table book was irresistible. As well as the most beautiful photography (by a number of photographers), Ann Cleeves writes about her own connection to the Shetlands, her first visit years ago when she took a job as cook at the bird observatory on Fair Isle, meeting her husband & the many trips since then. She also describes the landscape, flora & fauna & the different characteristics of the many small islands that make up the Shetland group of islands. The varied bird life in particular attracts a lot of tourists & the bird observatory was the scene of the murder in Blue Lightning, the first Shetland novel I read (even though it was the last book in the first Quartet).

I love reading about writers' inspiration, how they come up with their ideas & Cleeves describes the moments when the plots of some of her novels were born. She also talks about the filming of the TV series & how she takes the production crew on trips to look at locations & give them a feel for the landscape. Certainly, Shetland itself is one of the stars of the TV series, so she has definitely managed to inspire the producers of the series with her own love of the islands.

Some coffee table books are beautiful to look at but the text is pretty bland. This book is an exception as Ann Cleeves manages to combine the kind of information tourists want to know (she describes the Up Helly Aa fire festival & the midsummer music festivals) with descriptions of wildlife & landscape as well as the history of the islands. She also describes the ways that the locals are looking to the future with tourism taking over from the oil rigs as a source of income with the fishing industry as a constant throughout Shetland's history. Unlike many coffee table books, I read every word of this one. If you're a fan of the books or the TV series, you'll enjoy Shetland.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Leo Marks

Serendipity led me to today's poem. Helene Hanff popped into my head the other day while I was brushing my teeth (I have no idea why). I often think of Mildred Lathbury when I'm cleaning the bath but that's not surprising. However, thinking about Helene Hanff led to thinking about Marks & Co, then to Leo Marks, who was the son of one of the owners. During WWII, Marks worked in the codes section of the SOE & assigned coded poems to agents going on a mission that they would use to send messages back to London. He assigned this poem to Violette Szabo, a young woman who joined SOE after her husband was killed. Her story became the book, Carve Her Name With Pride, by R J Minney & a very popular film starring Virginia McKenna. Marks also wrote a memoir, Between Silk and Cyanide, that I remember reading & enjoying in pre-blogging days.

The poem, The Life That I Have, has become very popular & is often used as a reading at funerals & memorial services. It wasn't even mentioned in the book & here is a fascinating article about the provenance of the poem. I don't think it matters who wrote it or how it came to be used in the film. It's simple yet very moving, especially in the context of a young woman parachuting into Occupied France, risking her life for her country.

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Natural History of Selborne - Gilbert White

Gilbert White was an 18th century clergyman with an inquiring mind & an obsessive interest in natural history. He lived almost all his life in the parish of Selborne, Hampshire, near the borders of Sussex & Surrey, in his family home, The Wakes. After studying at Oxford, he had hoped for an academic career but, when they didn't happen, he moved back to Selborne after inheriting the family home & spent the rest of his life there, ministering to the parish & observing nature. The Natural History consists of two series of letters, written to the naturalists Thomas Pennant & the Hon Daines Barrington. These gentlemen valued the minute observation & experience of White as he had been observing his local area for years, recording his observations in a series of notebooks called The Naturalist's Journal. Thomas Pennant, who White knew through his brother, the London bookseller Benjamin White, gave Gilbert White his first Journal, which was designed by his other correspondent, Daines Barrington.

The Journal was a means of encouraging amateur naturalists to record their observations so that the cyclical & seasonal differences could be observed in the life cycles of all species of animals. White believed that the observation of a small area over a long period of time was crucial in the accumulation of knowledge that allowed theories of natural history to be developed. Although he was interested in the wider world, referring in his letters to books of traveller's tales of everywhere from India to China, he recognised that his own observations of his parish were just as important. His decision to publish his observations in the form of his letters to Pennant & Barrington is in an eighteenth century tradition of histories of the antiquities of English counties. White took this to a new level with his concentration on the parish of Selborne. His intimate descriptions of the natural phenomena of the local area struck the original readers & reviewers of the book as something new & attractive & the book has never been out of print.

I would also suggest that the personality of White himself is no small part of the attraction. He is an endearing character, endlessly curious, obsessed with nature & expecting everyone to provide him with observations as well. He had family living in Spain & Gibraltar as well as other parts of England. His letters to them must have been full of inquiries about the habits of the birds & animals they observed as he often includes this evidence in the published letters. I imagine him on his daily travels, making notes & being acutely aware of everything around him, then filling in the day's observations in the Journal each night. He was a true enthusiast, who finds it strange that others are not as alert to the habits of their fellow creatures as he is himself.

As a clergyman with a recognized place in local society, he was able to prevail upon his parishioners for information & their own experiences. The locals obviously knew that he would be grateful for any specimens they could procure for him as he's often dissecting a decomposing mouse or bird brought to him as an object of interest. He was able to spend long periods observing the habits of birds especially; the minuteness of his reports on the different habits of flight, the way nests are built or the way birds feed their young reflect the time he spent on this. His love of the classics is also evident as he often quotes classical authors & it's evident that he sees everything through the lens of the natural world.

I've marked so many passages that I want to quote as I think hearing White's own voice will inspire readers much more than any description of the book that I can give. Here he is on cats (of course, I had to quote this),

There is a propensity belonging to common house-cats that is very remarkable; I mean their violent fondness for fish, which appears to be their most favourite food: and yet nature in this instance seems to have planted in them an appetite that, unassisted, they know not how to gratify: for of all quadrupeds cats are the least disposed towards water; and will not, when they can avoid it, deign to wet a foot, much less to plunge into that element.

Even on visits (the Duke of Richmond's moose was more of an attraction on a visit to Goodwood than the house or the Duke), it seems it was the animals he was interested in as much as his friends & family,

Happening to make a visit to my neighbour's peacocks, I could not help observing that the trains of these magnificent birds appear by no means to be  their tails; those long feathers growing not from their uropygium (rump), but all up their backs.

This same letter ends with,

I should tell you that I have got an uncommon calculus aegogropila (hairball), taken out of the stomach of a fat ox; it is perfectly round, and about the size of a large Seville orange; such are, I think, usually flat.

Obviously everyone should be willing to observe the habits of nature at any time of day or night,

Hedge-sparrows frequent sinks (open drains) and gutters in hard weather, where they pick up crumbs and other sweepings: and in mild weather they procure worms, which are stirring every month in the year, as any one may see that will only be at the trouble of taking a candle to a grass-plot on any mild winter's night.

The detail of White's (& his friends') observations is truly amazing,

A neighbour of mine, who is said to have a nice ear, remarks that the owls about this village hoot in three different keys, in G flat, or F sharp, in B flat and A flat. He heard two hooting to each other, the one in A flat, and the other in B flat. Query: Do these different notes proceed from different species, or only from various individuals?

The most famous character in the letters is Timothy, the tortoise belonging to White's Aunt Rebecca. After her death in March 1780, White brought Timothy back to Selborne, "The rattle and hurry of the journey (eighty miles in a post-chaise) so perfectly roused it that, when I turned it out on a border, it walked twice down to the bottom of my garden" before burying itself in the earth to resume its hibernation. White ponders the longevity of the tortoise,

When one reflects on the state of this strange being, it is a matter of wonder to find that Providence should bestow such a profusion of days, such a seeming waste of longevity, on a reptile that appears to relish it so little as to squander more than two thirds of its existence in a joyless stupor, and to be lost to all sensation for months together in the profoundest of slumbers.

and admires his instinct to make himself comfortable,

But as he avoids heat in the summer, so, in the decline of the year, he improves the faint autumnal beams, by getting within the reflection of a fruit-wall: and, though he never has read that planes inclining to the horizon receive a greater share of warmth,he inclines his shell, by tilting it against the wall, to collect and admit every feeble ray.

One more quote about Timothy, I can't resist,

No part of its behaviour ever struck me more than the extreme timidity it always expresses with regard to rain; for though it has a shell that would secure it against the wheel of a loaded cart, yet does it discover as much solicitude about rain as a lady dressed in all her best attire, shuffling away on the first sprinklings, and running its head up in a corner.

This new edition from Oxford University Press, is edited by Anne Secord. I don't usually read the Introduction before the book when I read fiction but, in this case, I would definitely recommend it as Secord's Introduction puts White & The Natural History into context. I knew very little about White & I would have been confused if I'd just plunged straight in. The notes are also very necessary to translate the Latin & Greek as well as the more obscure words that weren't obvious from the context. I now know the meaning of autopsia, faunists, nidification & cantoned.

Oxford University Press kindly sent me a review copy of The Natural History of Selborne.