Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Girl at the Lion d'Or by Sebastian Faulks

'In those days the station in Janvilliers had an arched glass roof over the southbound platform as if in imitation of the big domes at St Lazare.'

Anne, a slightly-built girl, stands on the platform and tells herself to be brave while guarding her two suitcases and peers through the rain.

With an opening like that how do you flick back the cover and toss the book back onto your tbr pile?

It is 1936, the young and beautiful Anne Louvet is on her way to a new position as waitress at a hotel called the Lion d'Or.  Orphaned and then eventually abandoned by her uncle who decides to make a new life in America, this poor waif is struggling to eke out an existence.  She has taken her uncle's last name after an event involving her father during The Great War is talked about throughout Paris; harassment from the locals eventually leads to her mother's suicide.

Heaving her two suitcases into the back of an old van driven by Roland, an employee from the hotel, she is put in the picture about her new boss.

'Is the boss very mean then?'
'No, it's Madame.  He couldn't care less.'
'Madame his wife?'
'No,  Madame Bouin, the manageress.  The Cow.  

And so through the rain and then up the stairs of the hotel, Anne is led to her room under the eaves with a plain iron bed, small desk, and a small filmy window to look through.  So far, it's beginning to look a bit like going from the frying pan into the fire.

Male presence abounds in this book with men lazily drinking at the pub while male employees hover around the new employee.  Nineteen year-old Roland even finds a peephole in a cupboard with a view of Anne's bath ritual twice a week.  All of which initially make Anne's character look a bit like a lamb amongst a pack of wolves.  Perhaps out of need to feel protected by someone she quickly begins an affair with Charles Hartmann, a successful lawyer.  If you are familiar with Faulks's work then you probably recognize him from Birdsong and/or Charlotte Gray.   Together, these three books form Faulks's France trilogy which I just became aware of today.

Well-practiced at white lies to cover her tracks, Anne is proficient at keeping the gossip of the village at bay while she spends time with her lover and even earns a bit of extra money doing some cleaning once a week at Charles's house.  But rather than feel sorry for Mrs Hartmann because her husband's bit on the side is right under her nose, her bitterness made me feel sympathetic for the lovers.  Not only is Mrs Hartmann bitter about her barren womb but she is very suspicious which means putting Anne in the witness box, so to speak, at one point.  It's quite riveting!

A storyline about 'The Patron', who owns the hotel, is both heartbreaking endearing.  I wish it had been expanded upon (picture a slightly shabby cousin of Hercule Poirot).  Anne goes to his room in the hotel to ask about a few days off...

'Yes, thank you.  It's enough.'
'Do you know what I'm frightened of?'
'No, monsieur.'
'Nor do I.  That's the funny thing.  It's the trees and the sky and the roads, mainly.  It's odd, because I used to love them.  The doctor said there was a name for it - agora-something.  He says it should get better.  But it hasn't yet.  Not in eighteen years.  It happened at the end of the war.  Have you seen the war memorial in the town?  Most of my friends are on that slab of stone.'

If only Anne would have spent her spare time forming a close friendship with The Patron instead of in assignations with Charles....but I mustn't give anything away.

For fans of the interwar period or francophiles wanting to soak up a bit of claustrophobic French village life this read will definitely tick some boxes for you.  Up until this book, Sebastian Faulks's stories were something I had watched on television but from now on I won't hesitate to try more of his work hot off the press.


La Belle Epoque - a hotel in France

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

LADY WINIFRED FORTESCUE
1888 - 1951

In the 1930s Winifred Fortescue and her husband left England to live amidst the olive groves in Provence.  During and after the Second World War, Lady Fortescue's habit of distributing provisions to the poor in her neighbourhood led to her being dubbed 'Maman Noël'.

When the harvest of orange-blossom is plucked and the wild oranges turn golden, everyone picks them for confiture d'oranges, a delicious bitter marmalade.
  Neighbours this year vied with each other in showering these wild oranges upon us until Emilia, grown desperate, announced her intention of making marmalade at once.  From that moment everything in the house became sticky.  Emilia and Lucienne were up to the eyes in marmalade.  The kitchen table and all that was laid thereon became coated with it.  Forks, spoons, and knives stuck to our hands; plates clung to the tablecloth.  The smell of cooking oranges pervaded the whole house; every casserole and kitchen vessel was filled with soaking oranges; the stove completely covered with preserving pans, some of them borrowed from an obliging American neighbour.  Even our lingerie was stiffened with marmalade after the sticky hands of Lucienne had ironed and folded it; for in Provence the maids do all the household ironing as part of their job.
  When a mass of pots were filled and I had soaked papers in brandy to preserve the marmalade, and we had tied on the covers and labelled the jars, Emilia proudly invited Monsieur to enter her 'jam-shop'.  When he made his enthusiastic exit, his feet stuck to the parquet in his study.  He had been paddling in marmalade.
  The cherry season is even funnier; for when the stones are all taken out of the fruit preparatory to making jam, our two maidens are stained crimson all over.  Emilia dramatically informs me that she and Lucienne are murderers, and that their victim is stewing in the preserving pan.

Perfume from Provence


Artist - Nancy Bartmess

Monday, 18 August 2014

Books, Brydon, Beer, and a Bee

With the turmoil of the flood behind us, and a slight demand that he take a day off from work, my husband and I took the train into Toronto this past Saturday.  The weather has been ridiculously cool for August and the skies more grey than sunny lately - much more like an English summer than the 'fry an egg on the sidewalk' heat we're used to.  Suits me just fine.


First stop was BMV Books, of course.  During my last visit I picked up a copy of Laura Talbot's The Gentlewoman and then had a discussion with myself about whether or not I really needed another Virago about a woman, a country house, servant issues...etc, and then put the book back.  Such an idiot!  Walking straight over to the 'T' section the book was no longer there but it did inspire me to have stronger convictions about my next book finds.  These Shire Library books (above) are perfect for my fifteen minute breaks at work with their abundance of period detail and London porn; the slightly hidden book is called Debutantes and The London Season.  No shortage of material for daydreams and during slow times at the library I can practice my curtsey.


Fleur Fisher wrote recently about a Margaret Kennedy Reading Week in October.  The post caught my eye but I confess that not having the slightest knowledge about Kennedy's writing style, or anything else, it quickly slipped my mind.  Then I spied these two books!  The Constant Nymph is supposed to be her masterpiece but the synopsis of Together and Apart sounds incredibly appealing...

'It is 1936, and in British society the decision to divorce still constitutes a major disgrace - an alternative to be considered only in cases of scandalous adultery.  But Betsy Canning decides almost unconsciously to leave her husband.
  Thirty-seven-year-old Betsy is married to Alec, a famous West End lyricist.  They have all the comforts of British middle-class life between the wars.  But Betsy is tired: the three children, their servants, their homes in Hampstead and Wales, the circle of Alec's theatrical friends - all make eternal demands upon her.'

I would be willing to put up with an eternal demand or two for that sort of life!  So that's me joining in for the reading week and learning a bit about Margaret Kennedy.  And then last but not least is...


The poor thing on the cover looks so miserable I was tempted to fetch her a tissue but grabbed a Black-Eyed Susan instead.  As I wrote earlier, our 'English' summer is swiftly coming to an end and with temperatures hovering around a chilly 13C in the evening it's time to sort out some autumnal reading.  East Lynne has had some fairly stellar reviews so hopefully it fits the bill nicely.  Once again with the theme of divorce and scandal, but in this case during the Victorian era, October is shaping up to be filled with all sorts of anguish and despair.

Tucking my new books into my long-suffering husband's backpack we walked to Yorkville in search of a pub we found on the internet called The Oxley.


The interior was cosy and the food - so delicious.  I couldn't resist trying the kedgeree while sipping a mimosa.  Go ahead and laugh but the dish is mentioned every now and then on Downton Abbey and it's just not something you see very often - or ever - on menus in Toronto; so needs must!  From the warm welcome when we walked in, to the offer of some ice for the bee sting on my cheek (honestly, I did nothing to deserve such an offence) to the friendly and knowledgeable servers, it was such a delightful place to lunch that we can't wait to go back!

Black clouds were forming overhead and rain had started to fall.  Luckily for us we had a quick five-minute walk to the cinema to see The Trip to Italy starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan.  The first show had sold out, our showing was packed and there were throngs of people waiting to get into the next show.  I can only imagine the miserable weather had everyone thinking the Amalfi coast on screen would lift their spirits...and it did.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

ELISABETH VIGÉE-LE BRUN
1755 - 1842

During my pregnancy I had painted the Duchess de Mazarin, who was no longer young, but still beautiful.  My daughter had the same kind of eyes and resembled her amazingly.  This Duchess de Mazarin was said to have been endowed at her birth by three fairies: Riches, Beauty, and Ill-Luck.  It is perfectly true that the poor woman could never undertake anything, not even giving a party, without some misfortune or other turning up.  Many misfortunes of her life have been related, but here is one less known: One evening while entertaining sixty persons to supper, she contrived to have on the table an enormous pie, in which a hundred small birds were shut up alive.  At a sign from the Duchess the pie was opened and all the frantic little creatures flew out, dashing into faces and clinging to the hair of the women, who were all carefully attired and hair-dressed.  You can imagine the tempers, the shouts!  The unfortunate birds could not be got rid of, and were such a nuisance that the guests were obliged to leave the table, cursing such a foolish flight of fancy.

Memoirs
trans. by Gerard Shelley


Monday, 11 August 2014

Blow Up the Castle by Margaret Moffatt

'Constable Constable embraced great difficulty in keeping a straight face, when revealing the news to Marie of Reverend Peabody's disastrous event.  She brewed a cup of tea, and as the two sat in the parlour sipping the British remedy for sudden surprises, and digesting the facts, Reverend Peacock poured out what had happened to a sympathizing crowd at the Hound and Fox Inn.'

In case you are wondering...no, the double 'Constable' at the beginning of that quote is most definitely not a hiccup in my typing.  Blow Up the Castle is simply a very whimsical sort of book.  The candle maker is Mr Wick, the taxi driver is Mr Fast, the surgeon is Mr Lance and the sheep farmer is Mr Lamb.  It's all good fun if you are in the mood for something light, silly, and completely charming.

Right off the bat this story ticked off several of my favourite literary boxes...1930s England, country village, quirky (well sometimes I like quirky), housekeepers, and eccentric reverends.  There's something very 'Barbara Pym' about this story but wait for it...the author is Canadian!  This tidbit is only significant to those who know me as someone who almost never reads anything outside of an anglophile nature whether it be setting or author.  Margaret Moffatt's bio at the end of the book states that she was a war bride so if she is still alive she is a grand age and apparently living in British Columbia.

The hijinks of Reverends Peacock, Peabody, and Peasly made me laugh from the very beginning.  Thinking he could increase the income of his church Reverend Peabody decides to hold seances, of all things.  Needing one of the ceilings repaired before his guests arrive, his caretaker shows up armed with tools and dressed in a lovely kilt.  Angus also appears to be bearing a hip flask, for when he is checked on later it appears he has passed out in a wheelbarrow full of plaster.  The reverend, needing to clear the room before his guests arrive, parks the repairman off behind some voluminous green velvet curtains.  While channeling spirits there is a hint of a  moan and...you guessed it, a figure covered in white stumbles out from its hiding place.  Very good, or very bad, timing depending on how you look at it.

The Reverend Peacock is asked to mind a parrot named Joey.  Raised by pirates he's known to shout out 'Blow up the castle!' which is where the title comes from.  Mistaking the fact that the local vet is allergic to feathers instead of ferrets, the reverend has an outfit made for the bird.  Although Marigold isn't happy about designing any more parrot couture...

'Her refusal meant the reverend had to purchase outfits for Joey's gratification, in order to enjoy a peaceful household, as he had tried everything to appease the feathered pest.  With Joey on his shoulder, he boarded a bus to Bushyheath, where shops sold clothes of all sizes.  It was a short ride and a very long walk, for Joey, feeling uneasy in his damp dress, swore continually.  The bus driver shouted to the reverend a few of his own wicked words, stopped the bus, and told him to leave.'

The housekeeper Marie finds a beautiful solitaire engagement ring in one of the reverend's drawers and is beside herself with joy thinking that she will soon be asked for her hand.  Nothing could be further from the truth but the misunderstanding is all part of the fun.  It's all very Noel Coward and would be hilarious as a stage play.

While I was chuckling my way through this book I thought it would make excellent bedtime reading.  Better still, the sort you can pay hotel staff to lull you to sleep with.  It's all very silly but lovely too.


'The Three Vicars' Red Umbrella Paintings
Liz Hess Gallery 

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Keep Calm and Carry On - A Handy Slogan

I live in a lovely city where people go to work, take their kids to soccer, and buy far too much at Costco on the weekend.  Nothing all that out of the ordinary happens.  Our community paper usually features a cute as anything toddler eating ice cream, picking strawberries or tobogganing after a snowfall.  But last Monday all hell broke lose...rain clouds held above our lovely city for over three hours and dropped a deluge of water, 125 - 200 cms in just a few hours.  The storm sewers couldn't keep up and Burlington experienced massive flooding.


This photo is from Google Images; not sure which street in Burlington.

Watching news stories on television and seeing cars stuck in waist-deep water, I've always wondered 'what were they thinking when they ventured into that?'.  Now I realize just how fast water and sewage can start backing up out of storm drains and drainage reservoirs.

Thankfully our home does not have a finished basement, as in carpeting and sofas; being a small family we've never needed the extra space to escape one another.  One thing most people do need though is a place to store those skates you use a couple of times a year (or never), extra kitchen chairs because they came with the table, and tote boxes full of every crayon scratching your children have ever created.  And the beer fridges and chest freezers.  Apparently, North Americans worry about running out of food...I digress.

Now, our basement has three areas that display a wet mark on the concrete should we have a prolonged rain.  On Monday, I checked the basement every half hour while my dear husband took a nap.  After ninety minutes or so there was a distinct drip, drip, drip sound coming from behind our electrical box.  The downspout at one corner of the house could not handle the flow which then caused it to stream over and pool down below.  Then the water seeped through the foundation wall and into the basement.

Grabbing dog towels, buckets, pots, and eventually flannel sheets, we sopped up the small puddles that formed and dumped the water outside on the driveway.  At one point my husband said 'stop shoving the water over here!'...but I wasn't shoving water anywhere and I told him just that.  'Well, where is it coming from then?'...when I stopped and had a good look I could see it coming from the hairline cracks in the floor that form due to settling.  Then the water started bubbling up through the bolt holes in the floor that anchor the load-bearing joists.  The drain to the sewer main was gurgling and we could see water mere inches from the grating.  This is when my husband's voice took on a slight falsetto tone.  This was the point that I just upped my pace with the mop and towels.

Grabbing our wellies and sloshing through roughly 5 cms of water we started dragging our stored belongings and the dusty exercise bike up onto our daughter's dance stage.  It was for hard shoe practice during her Lord of the Dance faze and thank goodness we had it!  That feeling of prioritizing in seconds what to save first while your adrenaline is pumping is actually quite exhilarating.  Well, perhaps that is a statement which is comfortably made after the fact.

After a crazy hour and a half, shall we say, we noticed we were making headway and the drain below the floor had stopped gurgling.  My husband and I stopped for a minute to take stock, cross our fingers that the worst was over and exhaled.  Then he said 'I'm surprised by how calm you were'.  I told him it was down to all of the WWII literature and blitz diaries I read.  As long as you are not hurt, the walls can crumble around you and what choice do people have but to just keep going?

At just after 9 pm, my husband and I ventured out to see how our neighbours had fared and to witness the fury of the stream breaching its bank.  The roar was deafening and if you had the misfortune of falling in you would stand absolutely no chance against the raging water.  Quite the juxtaposition from the gentle trickle we usually see.

We were extremely lucky.  People who live in the houses one block away had sewage seep into their homes and restoration vans dot the driveways along the street.  Someone in this family (photo below) managed to hold on to a smidge of humour because yesterday they had placed a child-sized stuffed ET doll right on top of their pile of damaged belongings.  You couldn't help but laugh when you saw it.  Looks as though someone has made off with it in the night though, go figure.


The only article we lost to the water was a flat-pack storage armoire that sipped water up its length and will only swell and go on to mildew.  This whole episode gave us the incentive to weed through and contemplate the stuff we held on to so there are several tote bins of odds and ends that I really don't feel all that sentimental about anymore.  Our new dehumidifier gives us a ridiculous amount of pleasure when we traipse downstairs to empty yet another full container of water pulled from the air.  Over two hundred pints by our estimation!

Lots of families in my community have a ton of work and a load of headaches to come in the days ahead.  I wish them well and count myself very lucky.


The stream across the street.  You can see just how high it rose - it cascaded over the bridge!


Thursday, 7 August 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

MARIA CORELLI

In the summer of 1944, Maria Corelli began a letter from Rome to her parents in Sussex.  In it, she explained her long silence and out-lined what had happened to her since the beginning of the Second World War.  With the approach of the Germans, she and her husband, both singers, had fled Rome with their friend, the celebrated Jewish opera singer Sigbert, and made their way to southern Italy.

We shall never forget one tea party with Giuseppe and Jean (who have a large Café in Edinburgh) when Jean made biscuits, scones and homemade doughnuts that were all squidgy and melted in your mouth.  The memory of this helped us later in many unfortunate moments.  One of the most beautiful things in our life in Picinisco were the evenings when Sigbert sang, accompanied by Mrs Berent...He sang wonderfully - night after night - going through piece after piece in his extensive repertoire...Afterwards we would go up on the balcony and eat grapes in the dark...

In Love and War

Picinisco