12 October 2016

Birthday Books

 Having my birthday fall during the Thanksgiving long weekend has all sorts of advantages.  The humidity of summer is gone which means the sweaters you couldn't wait to cast aside last May are fabulous again.  There is no limit to the amount of pumpkin pie you can eat, fall fairs reeking with the aroma of candy floss and woodsmoke, and the trees are literally making a show of themselves.

Kip is quickly learning that a ride in the car can lead to goodness knows where.  On Monday we went for a hike along the trails of Burlington's botanical gardens.  Throngs of other people had the same idea.  Being able to feed a chickadee while it's perched on your hand is the popular thing to do, but it is a bit funny to see so many people standing along the paths with their eyes and palms to the sky...waiting.  It's a bit like a spontaneous art installation project and a lovely one at that.

Despite the fact my actual birthday was not on Friday, it was close enough to finagle a couple of new books under the pretence.  Last month I had one of those dreaded experiences in which you realize a fabulous bookshop is around the corner, but when you walk up to the door it's closed.  Venturing back with one hundred percent certainty that Archetype Books was open, we spent an hour browsing and talking books with the owner Natalie, whose reading tastes are a lot like mine.  I wanted to choose a stand-out book to mark the occasion so the minute I spied Weatherland by Alexandra Harris my browsing stopped there.

'The weather is vast and yet we experience it intimately, which is why Alexandra Harris builds her remarkable story from small evocative details.  There is the drawing of a twelfth-century man in February warming his toes by the fire.  There is the tiny glass left behind from the Frost Fair of 1684, and the Sunspan house in Angmering that embodies the bright ambitions of the 1930s.  Harris catches the distinct voices of compelling individuals.  "Bloody cold" says Jonathan Swift in the "slobbery' January of 1713.  Percy Shelley wants to become a cloud and John Ruskin wants to bottle one.'

 If a snippet like that doesn't make you want to cuddle up with the book and a pot of tea for the evening then what will?  As for Tea & Cake London by Zena Alkayat. it's going to help me plan my next trip across the pond.  And after the amount of indulging I managed last weekend, looking at cake is what I'm disciplining myself to for the next little bit if I want to fit into my fall wardrobe.

Oh, and I almost forgot...the fluorite bookmark was made by The Bookmark Lady (Celia Pursley) and purchased at the fair in Vineland.  The colour reminds me of stormy water - perfect in its current location.

6 October 2016

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff

My plans to see out September with a perfectly-timed title crumbled a bit when I needed emergency laser surgery on my eye.  Two weeks ago, first thing in the morning, three quick rounds of flashing appeared in the peripheral vision of my right eye.  This is never a good sign.  I had two choices:  go to the hospital, or go to work and call my optometrist's office once it opened.  The second option would be quicker, and sure enough, within a couple of hours I was assessed and had an appointment with a vitreoretinal surgeon in a neighbouring city for later the same day.  My retina was torn and needed to be fixed right away.

I'm not the sort of person who takes things for granted but I can't tell you how thankful I am for modern medicine.  It didn't take long to consider the people this has happened to who simply went blind for lack of treatment whether it be a hundred years ago, or yesterday, due to lack of available resources.  My follow-up appointment on Monday went well but I have to go once again in three months just to make sure everything is stable.  Fingers crossed!  But enough about me, on with my thoughts about the book.

The Fortnight in September is a seaside holiday sandwiched in cheery endpapers.  The first page paints a picture of the Stevens family, living in Dulwich with a Railway Embankment at the bottom of their garden.  Mary is nearly twenty (which makes her a honeymoon baby) and works at a tailor's shop, Dick is seventeen and has recently started working for a wholesale stationers off Ludgate Hill,  Ernie is ten years old.  Everyone is excited about their impending annual trip to the seaside, except for Mrs Stevens who harbours a secret fear of the water.

With hilarious military precision, the Stevens family consult a list of duties before closing up their modest home on Corunna Road for two weeks.  Things to be dealt with include stopping all tradesmen, locking up the silver, and having the neighbour pour puss a bowl of milk every other day and to leave out a bloater on Mondays and Thursdays.  Even something as mundane as packing Ernie's kite is considered, it's always packed in the large case first so as not to be crumpled.  And the beach shoes need to be pipeclayed, which is something I needed to look up on Google.

I absolutely loved the image of a family anticipating a holiday to relieve them of their daily routines and looking forward to a change of scenery, only to fix their gaze on their humble home through the window of the train as it passes the end of their garden.  And who wouldn't recognize the thoughts of Mrs Stevens....

'Her only anxiety was to see that no smoke issued from the chimneys or windows - for she dreaded the possibility of having left a dishcloth near the hot stove or a few smouldering cinders in the kitchen range.'

RC Sherriff writes an account of the Stevens' train journey so intricately the reader feels as though they're right beside them in the compartment.  The obligatory flask of tea, the wrapped sandwiches, anticipated landmarks inching nearer all mark the traditional ride and their nearness to Bognor Station.

Mrs. Huggett runs 'Seaview', a small B&B, and has watched the family grow over the twenty years she's had their custom. The house is starting to look a bit tired but the lumps in the mattress and dreary corners are overlooked because the Stevens are loyal to tradition.  Husband and wife need to place a bolster down the middle of the bed each night to stop them from rolling into one another.  The following paragraph is absolutely brilliant...

'For many years it had been Mrs. Huggett's ambition and pride to renew something every spring, and this year the old yellow patterned linoleum on the stairs had been replaced by a brightly coloured carpet that glared with cheap insolence at the old, faded banister.  Dick and Mary dared not think of the scraping and saving that must have gone to the purchase of this carpet, yet its cheap gaudy colours seemed to jeer and scoff at Mrs. Huggett, and turn the nobility of her striving into something paltry and almost comic.'

Over the next two blissful weeks everyone in the family will take some time to assess the past year and look ahead to the future.  And such are the joys of reading a novel from the 1930s that Mary is anxious about asking her parents if it's alright to venture our for a stroll with a new friend, but thinks nothing of lighting up a cigarette while out with her family.  Though I felt a bit sad for Mrs, Stevens as she secretly revels in one hour of peace in the evening with a glass of port - strictly for the purpose of enriching her 'thin' blood.  The author did make me laugh as he knows something of being a young boy when I read...

'But Ernie could scarcely be counted as a human being after twelve hectic hours of ceaseless activity on the sands, and after he had drowsed away ten minutes on the sofa Mrs, Stevens took him up to bed'.

Everything about The Fortnight in September harkens back to another era and yet is so identifiable today.  Mr Stevens walks a little taller during his holiday as he's no longer just another member of the lower middle-classes, he is addressed as 'Sir' by porters and drivers.  No one is who they are the other fifty weeks of the year.  But while tradition has held strong for the past twenty years, change is inevitable.

This edition was one of the first books I bought at Persephone Books because the reviews were glowing.  Not being able to get away this summer because we chose to bring a new puppy into the house made this the perfect time to at least read about a holiday.  The Fortnight in September ticked all sorts of boxes for me and I will definitely be on the lookout for more books by RC Sherriff.

18 September 2016

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

This sublime collection of short stories arrived at the most perfect of moments.  The house is a whirlwind of activity with the constant surveillance it takes to spare furniture from teeth marks, carpets from stains, and the almost daily public service announcements to neighbourhood children that young pups are not for winding up.  I put my hand up in solemn confession that the email connected with my blog has probably been checked a mere few times in the three months we've had Kip.  I couldn't be more pleased, and quite thankful, that Rosy Thornton's email was caught in time before disappearing amidst Goodreads announcements, comment notifications and the odd bit of spam.

There are so many things to say about this book.  Each time I sat down with my cup of tea and began another story was like stepping onto a country lane.  Fields and forest feature prominently as a backdrop to tales that range from mythical to biblical and downright spooky.  And at one delightful point I realized that these stories are joined by a thread of community.  On a few occasions characters are mentioned in more than one story, and regardless of the story, if villagers are popping over to the pub they'll be at The Ship Inn.  As you read you form an image of what the Suffolk landscape is like, learn how different generations view its past, and discover that sometimes no matter how modern a village has become, legend and superstition still hold a firm grip.

One of the most admirable aspects of a short story (in the hands of a good writer) is the ability to stir emotion in so short a time frame.  The first story The White Doe is eleven pages long but by the last page my t-shirt was pulled up to my chin and I was filled with dread.  By the fourth story The Watcher of Souls I had resorted to a horrible habit of using my t-shirt to wipe away tears.  Well who wants to put down a book to fetch a tissue at a moment like that?  Another story The Level Crossing is about a young woman who is pregnant and quite sure she's going to have to go it alone.  While out jogging she recalls the story of an ancestor who was killed by a train and wonders what the little girl might have seen or felt.  As the signal lights announce an approaching train, Isobel contemplates an immediate resolve to the stream of doubt regarding her ability to move forward as a single parent.  By the end of the story I was holding my breath in terror, afraid of what would happen next.

I read the stories in Sandlands in the order they fell and loved not knowing which era I would find myself in next.  Whether writing about brothers flying missions during World War II, contemporary bell ringers, or witches from the 1500s, Rosy Thornton's meticulous research delivers authenticity to her stories without weighing them down in detail.

The final story is called Mackerel.  I admit to thinking 'you're going to finish this fabulous book with a story about fish?'.  But as is so often the case, where you start out is rarely where you end up, and such was the case here.  I finished this story, and the book, welling up with tears...yes, again.  I don't want to give anything away but will share a sample of a paragraph from Mackerel so beautiful, and so typical of Rosy's way with words, that I read it several times...

    'This is a land of sand.  The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it's a wonder anything grows in it at all.  On the common it's a pale powder grey, soft as ash and lifted by the slightest breeze, but on the roads it's as golden yellow as any treasure island beach.  Every May or June it starts its creeping invasion, sending fingers across the tarmac from right and left.  Baked to dust by the sun, it shakes out from around the feet of the bracken and cow parsley, the campion and cuckooflowers which swell the verges.  You could almost fancy it the work of strange, secret tides which rise in the night to cover the fields and lanes, then slip away before daylight to leave new spits and sandbars like a signature on the landscape.  A land with the imprint of the sea.' 

Thank you, Rosy, for sending me a copy of Sandlands.  You are a talented writer, and while you really didn't need my humble opinion in promoting this wonderful collection, I am so very glad your book found its way to me.  Sneaking an hour to read, here and there, while Kip slept off his horseplay, was like escaping to a tranquil place - even if you did bring me to tears several times.

Blaxhall Church by David Gillingwater

11 September 2016

Recent Arrivals

Something old and something new.  Kip is spark out after a full morning at an antique market so I'll share a few titles while it's quiet.

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard - My husband and I went to the cinema recently to see Anthropoid about a mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking member of Germany's Nazi Party.  Next to the parking area is A Different Drummer, a charming bookshop in a quaint older home in Burlington's downtown core.  With twenty minutes to spare we went in to choose two books to support this independent shop.  I honed in pretty quickly on my choice.  My friend, Rachel (Book Snob) is confident this author will appeal and there's really no doubt that she's right.

'In 1950s London, Antonia Fleming faces the prospect of a life lived alone.  Her children are now adults; her husband Conrad, a domineering and emotionally complex man, is a stranger.  As Antonia looks towards her future, the novel steadily moves backwards in time, tracing Antonia's relationship with Conrad to its beginning in the 1920s, through years of mistake and motherhood, dreams and war.'

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton - Rosy asked if I would like to receive a review copy of her latest book.  It's a collection of short stories and absolutely stunning so far.  But more on that later in the week...

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry - After reading The Essex Serpent I placed an order for this title, Sarah's first book.  It's been earmarked as an October read...

'One hot summer's day, John Cole decides to leave his life behind.
He shuts up the bookshop no one ever comes to and drives out of London.  When his car breaks down on an isolated road, he goes looking for help and stumbles into the grounds of a grand but dilapidated house.
Its residents welcome him with open arms - but there's more to this strange community than meets the eye.  They all know John by name, they've prepared a room for him and claim to have been waiting for him all along.
Who are these people?  And what do they intend for John?'

Victorian Bloomsbury by Rosemary Ashton - This book was published in 2012 and on display at Hatchards Piccadilly while I was on holiday in London.  It was too large, not to mention expensive when factoring in exchange, to buy then and there but it's a book I've yearned for ever since.  The puppy meant I didn't get to Bloomsbury this summer so historic Bloomsbury came to me (any excuse, really).

'Drawing on a wealth of untapped archival resources, Rosemary Ashton brings to life the education, medical and social reformists who lived and worked in Victorian Bloomsbury and who led crusades for education, emancipation and health for all.
Ashton explores the secular impetus behind these reforms and the humanitarian and egalitarian character of nineteenth-century Bloomsbury.  Thackeray and Dickens jostle with less famous individuals like Henry Brougham and Mary Ward.  Embracing the high lift of the squares, the nonconformity of churches, the parades of shops, schools, hospitals and poor homes. this is a major contribution to the history of nineteenth-century London.'

Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf - After being thoroughly enamoured with Carlyle's House and Other Sketches there was nothing to think about when I found another book of essays at a second-hand shop.  With delightful contributions such as...22 Hyde Park Gate, Old Bloomsbury, and Am I a Snob? this is a collection for a quiet day without time constraints and at least two pots of tea.

Coronation St. at War by Daran Little - Watching Coronation Street after dinner from Monday to Friday is a must at our house.  When my husband and I were first married he could barely decipher what the actors were saying but he's every bit a fan now.  Digging through a box of books at a garage sale near in our neighbourhood I was so surprised to find a book that blends two interests of mine.  This book is something of a guilty pleasure but I couldn't resist.

'It is September 1939 and as war is declared the sixteen-year-old Elsie Tanner walks into Coronation Street.  Newly married, pregnant, optimistic about the future in her more affluent surroundings, she has little idea of the difficult times that lie ahead.'

The Tenth Man by Graham Greene - The ReUse Centre was a fascinating (but filthy) warehouse where treasures were usually waiting under a thick layer of dust, but sadly, it closed this month.  Their clearing out sale was five dollars for a crate of books, and you were even allowed to keep the crate.  I bought a stack of books for my elderly neighbour who doesn't venture very far these days, gave a copy of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith to a friend at work, and chose a few for myself.  

'Graham Greene's The Tenth Man is one of his most startling and unexpected major novels.  Set in wartime occupied France, it is about a man who buys his life in a moment of fear.  It begins in the depths of a Gestapo prison, where thirty men have been taken hostage by the Germans.  Three of them must die, but it makes no difference to the Germans which three - the thirty must choose among themselves by ballot.'

Markham Thorpe by Giles Waterfield -  Finding out the author was Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery for sixteen years made my decision to bring this book home an easy one.  And really, anything remotely clever and having to do with a green baize door is bound to be entertaining.

'When Ellen Braithwaite , a young housemaid, enters service at the declining Markham Thorpe, she soon realises that the relationship between masters and servants is not quite as it should be - and that it is her cousin, the housekeeper Mrs Rundell, who is responsible.
A formidable woman with grand designs, Mrs Rundell is taking control of far more than just the running of the house.  Her masters appear powerless to stop her, her enemies are increasing and, most confusingly, she has plans for her young cousin too.
But can there really be any harm in trying to beat the disadvantages of birth and better yourself?  As Ellen and the inhabitants of Markham Thorpe will discover, that all depends on just how far you are willing to go.'

The Best of James Herriot - This oversize edition is chock full of stories, photos and sketches of James's life as a country vet.  Perfect for dipping in and out of this book will be pulled from its place on the shelf on wintery days when I need taking out of myself. The chapter called Memories of a Wartime Vet will be my first stop.

Diana Mosley by Jan Dalley - I own the letters and other writings of first-hand accounts by Diana's sisters but biographies usually fill in a few blanks here and there.  This book was published in 1999 so while the jacket notes that Diana is living in France, she died in 2003.

'Jan Dalley's careful and dedicated research - which included many interviews and conversations with the subject herself, now nearly ninety and living in France - enables her to tell Diana Mosley's story in fascinating, and sometimes grim, detail.  Growing enthusiasm for the Nazis spurred frequent visits to Germany and meetings with Hitler and other leaders (the Mosleys were actually married in Goebbels's house in 1936); there were struggles to raise money for Mosley's organization and, finally, after war was declared, years of internment in Holloway prison.  Yet at the same times there were friendships with people like Winston Churchill (whose affectionate nickname for her was 'Dinamite') and, after the war, a comfortable, if controversial, return to respectability.'

Finished in good time...Kip is awake and out for a walk.  Off to get these books back on the shelf before the quick pat, pat, pat of puppy paws comes marching down the hall!