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The eighties are turning out to be a favourite period in Muriel Spark’s writing for me. A Far Cry from Kensington (1988) that I read last year was one of my books of the year, and Loitering with Intent (1981) that I read last month was fabulously entertaining. My second read for phase 5 of #readingMuriel2018 was The Only Problem, it’s so brilliantly quirky that it could easily become one of my favourites overall.

An academic writing a book on the Book of Job while his estranged wife runs around with French terrorists and a policewoman masquerades as a housekeeper – could any of this come from anyone other than Muriel Spark?

“Harvey was a rich man; he was in his mid-thirties. He had started writing a monograph about the Book of Job and the problem it deals with. For he could not face that a benevolent Creator, one whose charming and delicious light descended and spread over the world, and being powerful everywhere, could condone the unspeakable sufferings of the world; that God did permit all suffering and was therefore, by logic of his omnipotence the actual author of it, he was at a loss how to square with the existence of God, given the premise that God is good.”

 

This religious theme is certainly a familiar one for Muriel Spark, but don’t worry you don’t need to be religious or have a theology degree to get on board with this one.

Canadian scholar Harvey Gotham is living in a small remote cottage in France, in the grounds of an empty château. He spends most of his time thinking, writing and talking about the Book of Job. Harvey is obsessed with the question of suffering, and why God would allow it. Two years earlier, Harvey had separated from his wife Effie when they had been travelling with friends in Italy and Effie stole some chocolate as a protest against capitalism. Harvey walked away from the car that day in disgust and hasn’t seen Effie since.

Now, Harvey’s friend and brother-in-law Edward arrives at Harvey’s cottage – at the request of his wife; Ruth – Effie’s sister – to talk to Harvey about Effie and to persuade him to give her a divorce. Edward is puzzled at the sight of baby clothes hanging on the washing line outside the cottage, and Harvey explains he uses them to deter the local women from calling on him with offers of help, which they will if they know he is a man alone. Little does Harvey know what trouble this habit with the washing line will bring him. Things in Effie’s life have certainly moved on, she has a new man in her life and is expecting his baby.

Months later and Ruth has moved in with Harvey bringing Effie’s baby with her. She seems she has left Edward and Effie is not all that interested in the baby Clara. I found this interesting considering Spark’s difficult relationship with her son, though perhaps I was reading too much into it. Harvey doesn’t get much say in any of this, and he has bought the Château at Ruth’s suggestion, although he sometimes still works in the cottage. Harvey is more concerned with Job than his own domestic arrangements.

“It is the only problem. The problem of suffering is the only problem. It all boils down to that.”

So, Harvey is more than a little surprised, to see a photo-fit of a woman looking remarkably like Effie in a French newspaper report about a terrorist group. The FLE have been carrying out armed robbery and planting bombs in supermarkets. Effie is said to be associated with them, and she has previously been arrested for shoplifting in Trieste. Unable to lay their hands on Effie herself, the French police turn their attentions to her estranged husband. Part of Harvey really still loves Effie – and he refuses to believe that she is the woman in the paper.

The Only Problem is a wonderfully thought provoking, entertaining novel I found it compulsively readable, darkly humorous and surprising. Really excellent stuff.

1944 club

Karen and Simon’s 1944 club starts today – a week in which lots of you no doubt, will be reading books first published in 1944. I am afraid I have already failed this time around – I usually love to join in with these club events – but I haven’t quite got my act together this time. Unfortunately, I have already ticked off 1944 in my A Century of Books – and as I seem to be reading so slowly I was already wondering if I could squeeze in another duplicate. I had three to choose from Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp on my kindle, Liana by Martha Gelhorn a green VMC but the book which was calling to me loudest was Berlin Hotel by Vicki Baum. When I finally located my tiny little hardback in my tbr stacks, thinking it might not take long to read, I saw that the print was very tiny, and I was completely put off reading it (I may have to source another copy one day). So, I am bowing out this time, but looking forward to seeing what everyone else is reading.

However, I have read a few books published in 1944 before – and so here is a little taster of some of them.

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The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons was the book I ticked off 1944 with in my A Century of Books earlier this year. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Set during the war, the Bachelor of the title – Kenneth Fielding, and his sister Constance own Sunglades; a large seven-bedroom house not far from London, though far enough to protect them from the worst of the bombing. An elderly cousin lives with them, and in the coming months they are obliged to take in various other house guests. One of these is Vartouhi Annamatta, a refugee from the fictional country of Bairamia, who comes to Sunglades as a kind of ‘mother’s help’. After her arrival, nothing is quite the same again.

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham re-issued by Persephone books is a wonderfully poignant love story. Gwethalyn Graham explores the divisions and deeply entrenched prejudices which existed in Canadian society, through the story of Erica Drake and Marc Reiser who meet and fall in love. Set in Montreal during World War Two – Graham shows us its very divided society.

Love on the Supertax by Marghanita Laski. This is a novel that Persephone books have (so far at least) decided not to publish, and while I enjoyed it, I can understand why they haven’t. Described as a comic novel, I saw it more as a satire. I thought there was a lot in the novel that is in fact quite clever, savagely witty. There were moments when it felt a little Mitfordesque. Characters and the society in which they live, examined with Laski’s critically observing eye. I can’t help but wonder whether some modern readers would entirely ‘get it.’ Although, since reading this I have read Tory Heaven (1948) and really this could be a kind of companion piece to it. Laski’s use of language is brilliant. In this novel the impoverished, struggling aristocracy are to be pitied and the valiant working classes are intelligent and worldly with plenty of opportunities.

Our Hearts were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner. I have two more books by Cornelia Otis Skinner tbr and I really must get around to them, because this little volume was an absolute joy. Cornelia Otis Skinner, an American actress, writer and screenwriter co-wrote Our Hearts were Young and Gay with her good friend Emily Kimbrough, a memoir about their travels in Europe in the 1920’s. It is difficult to see where Kimbrough’s collaboration is exactly as the book is written in Skinner’s first-person narrative. None of that seems important however as the book is full of charm and humour, and both women come across quite hilariously full of adorably lovable quirks and eccentricities.

The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann – A complex novel, but one that is beautifully written. I read it quite a long time ago, and my review is so short as to be practically non-existent. The story of Sibyl Jardine is told mainly in three long conversations, between Rebecca – who is ten at the start of the novel, and Tilly a sewing maid, Sibyl herself and later Maisie, Sibyl’s granddaughter. Sibyl; both saint and sinner is a fascinating figure, and one Lehmann was to revisit in her novel The Sea Grape Tree.

If you’re are still looking for inspiration for what to read this week – then here are a few more titles I have read before.

No More than Human by Maura Laverty
Yeoman’s Hospital by Helen Ashton
The Headmistress by Angela Thirkell
Death Comes toward the End and Towards Zero by Agatha Christie (two I read pre-blog and have no memory of at all).

So, are you joining in with the 1944 club? Tell me what will you be reading?

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Having so very much enjoyed Crewe Train and Told by an Idiot by Rose Macaulay this year, both great choices for my A Century of Books, I couldn’t help but acquire a couple more. Staying with Relations is one I hadn’t heard of, and with me not having yet done 1930 I decided to read it straight away. It isn’t quite up to the standard of Told by an Idiot, or The World my Wilderness which I read last year, but it is still an enjoyable read.

This is one of the Rose Macaulay novels that is not currently in print, and my edition, bought quite cheaply from ebay, is an American paperback from the 1980s, carrying a quote from Elizabeth Hardwick on the back.

“It is a pleasure to have Staying with Relations back in print. It reminds us once more of the fitness of Rose Macaulay’s talent, her astuteness about characters and her gift for displaying, just right, the dramatic elements of the story.”
(Elizabeth Hardwick)

English novelist Catherine Grey has been spending some time in America, when she receives an invitation from her Aunt Belle to come and stay with her and her family. Catherine is interested in character, and character types – she tries to categorise everyone she meets. A visit to her relations should prove entertaining.

“How did the human eye so arrange for itself the lines and colours of the human creature (surely a comparatively ugly animal?) that they wavered and re-formed into this shape we have conceived to be beauty? Strange illusion!”

Aunt Belle is living on an old Spanish plantation in the rain forest of Guatemala. Now married to her second husband an English judge, Sir Richmond (known as Dickie), Belle has a houseful staying already and she thinks Catherine will enjoy the company that she will meet in Guatemala. Catherine has a long, exhausting journey to reach her aunt’s eccentric old home which she finds is an odd mixture of architectural styles. Here, staying with Catherine’s aunt and step uncle are her aunt’s four step-children; Claudia, Benet and Julia all fairly grown up and Meg – the child, and Belle’s own daughter Isie Rickaby and her husband Adrian who has been designing the recent additions made to the house. Isie is spoilt, very beautiful – and she knows it – rather silly and given to stomping off. The final member of the household is taciturn Devonshire man Mr Piper – some kind of estate manager.

The old Spanish house, the Hacienda del Capitan, or the Craddock house as it is variously called, is surrounded by dense jungle, beautifully described by Macaulay. Their nearest neighbours are Mr Phipps who has made his money from straw hats, and a Spanish clergyman with three wives. Catherine settles comfortably in to her pink and silver room – unaware of the drama she is about to be swept up in.

Following a row with Adrian, Isie stalks off into the jungle in a mood – and after paying a visit to Mr Phipps first, is apparently abducted by Lacandon men and taken deep into the Guatemalan jungle. The family are frantic and begin talking about ransoms, Belle recklessly promising the men can have everything they want – much to her husband’s alarm. Meanwhile, Isie actually escaped her captors quite quickly, but is now horribly lost and terrified in the dense jungle. Back at the ranch – with no one knowing where Isie is, there is a lot of fuss. Meg is sent to bed as she has been ill, and Belle doesn’t want her upset when she hears about Isie. Meg demands she be allowed her baby armadillo to sleep with.

“‘Darling, I don’t think one has armadillos in bed. They’d be so uncomfortable.’
‘Tray’s not uncomfortable in my bed. He likes it.’
‘Uncomfortable for you, I mean,’
‘Oh, no. He’s not. He’s a very cuddly armadillo. Please may I have Tray?’”

Questions about who exactly Mr Phipps is, are soon raised, with the funny little man beginning to look decidedly dodgy. Whispers abound of a hidden treasure somewhere around the house – and while everyone tells everyone else that had it ever existed it must surely have been found long ago, they all set about looking for it. Poor Isie must be rescued, and if her captors want treasure it must be found. Catherine wonders what it was that had Isie running off like that – and asks Julia. She discovers that all is not quite as it should be in the Rickaby marriage – and Claudia could well be the reason. Catherine is starting to get to know this peculiar family, their character types, and bit by bit the scales fall from her eyes.

“They were set on their prey. They had mean, small, hard minds, thought Catherine; obstinate, selfish, materialistic and vengeful. She did not know why she had found them charming. They were even stupid, to be so oblivious of the amenities of travel, so set on their small private ends; so fatuously unaware, too…”

Staying with Relations is entertaining and readable, there are many beautifully written descriptive passages and some good characterisation, however it is a weaker novel than the three Macaulay novels I have previously read. It is a bit baggy – a little formless, I liked it – but wondered where it was going really. Overall, worth reading for Macaulay fans, but just not her best.

 

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Translated by Tina Nunnally

I have to admit to not having heard of Tove Ditlevsen until this book came into my life, which happened quite by chance. I was putting together a prize for the bookcrossing event I have just attended. It was a prize of translated works, and a friend passed on a copy of this book which had already been registered on bookcrossing. I decided I wanted to read it myself, and as I wasn’t sure I would finish it in time, I went in search of another copy. I was fortunate to find one, so my original edition went into the prize bundle as intended.

“In the morning there was hope. It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports of Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles.”

Tove Ditlevsen was a prolific Danish poet and author, writing poetry, novels, short stories and works of memoir. Born in 1917, she grew up in a working-class neighbourhood of Copenhagen and her childhood became very important throughout her work. Early Spring is a memoir of her childhood, and in it we can see the touch of a poet. This volume contains the first two of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs, Childhood and Youth, both published in 1967, the third volume Gift (not included here) came out in 1971.

“Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own. It’s there all the time and everyone can see it just as clearly as you can see Pretty Ludvig’s harelip.”

Written in a straight forward, no nonsense style, shot through with beautiful descriptive passages and humour – Early Spring faithfully recreates the sights and sounds of Tove Ditlevsen’s 1930s childhood environment. Her community is a tough, conventional working class one where childhood ends with the confirmation ceremony. After which the adult world beckons, with many girls engaged or married in their late teens. The subject of childhood is a recurring one, Tove thinks about that thing that is her childhood constantly, speaking as if she were still in the midst of those turbulent years – it is easy to forget that she was writing from a distance of some years. Young Tove is confounded by her childhood years but she also treasures her childhood, knowing it to be a privilege and fearing the end of it, and the world which may lay beyond. Tove makes friends with the girl from downstairs, two years younger and with a nicer family, she is a little bit of relief in Tove’s loneliness. Life and death surround her – she witnesses the death of her aunt, begins to see the differences between her family and those of the other children at school. As we all do, Tove begins to understand the world around her.

“I always think that when I’m grown up my mother will finally like me the way she likes Edvin now. Because my childhood irritates her just as much as it irritates me, and we are only happy together whenever she suddenly forgets about its existence.”

Tove grew up in a home where she was a lonely, clumsy child. She had an elder brother – who was the more favoured of the two siblings. The family were poor, and there was little in the way of joy or excitement in Tove’s life. Yet, she had the soul of a poet, a rich imagination, and an unflagging determination to be who she knew she could be and achieve the things she wanted to. In the privacy of her room, young Tove began to write her poetry, scribbling them down in her private poetry album and hiding it away. For Tove, the idea of writing was her one chance to escape the narrow confines of her family and community.

Few of the people in Tove’s life appreciate or understand what she is trying to do, they dismiss or ridicule her poetry writing, but Tove is never swayed. In time, boyfriends begin to rear their heads, and Tove must face the traditional end of childhood. Her mother arranges for her to start work as a mother’s help straight away – but she only lasts a day. All the time she writes, showing her poems to just a trusted few, and hanging on to every word of their praise – clinging to each last bit of hope of future publication.

We watch Tove grow and develop into a young woman who never loses the hope that has slowly built up in her over her first eighteen years of life.

“Istedgade is my childhood street – it’s rhythm will always pound in my blood and its voice will always reach me and be the same as in those distant times when we swore to be true to each other. It’s always warm and light, festive and exciting, and it envelops me completely, as if it were created to satisfy my personal need for self-expression.”

Early Spring is a delightful little memoir full of hope and courage it is poignant and compelling at the same time. We know of course, that Tove Ditlevsen survived the poverty and isolation of her childhood and became the writer she dreamed of. To see where and how it began is quite lovely.

 

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A little something for the weekend.

You might have seen me mentioning the Second Shelf on my September in review post the other day. So now my copy of their first ever quarterly has arrived and I thought I would share a few little tit-bits with you.

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It’s a lovely, quality publication, bringing together women’s writing and rare, collectable books. Featured in this quarterly are publishing houses I had never heard of – and writers completely new to me – names like Dawn Powell, Mary Butts and Miriam Tlali, (they sound wonderful) alongside names I am very familiar with, Sylvia Plath, Barbara Comyns, Katherine Mansfield and Jeanette Winterson among them. I am always excited to find out about writers I might want to read, even if their books really are as rare as hens’ teeth. It makes second hand book shopping more and more of a treasure hunt.

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I love what Second Shelf are doing, inspiring readers to start their own precious collections of wonderful books by women. Now what could be better? Of course, I do own lots and lots of books by women, but a few more can’t hurt – can it?

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Now, not everyone can afford to collect these rare books, many of them are well outside my price range – but it is nice to dream. The images are gorgeous, and there are several more affordable volumes too I have been seriously tempted by. There is something about an old book with a bit of history that is special I think. I am not even that bothered about owning true first editions, a few of my Agatha Christie ‘firsts’ are actually book club editions, but I still love them.

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I was excited to discover that the very author I was reading (and have now finished – review to come) Tove Ditlevsen was also featured. Early Spring, a memoir that I was reading the day my Second Shelf quarterly arrived seems to be a rather hard to find book even in paperback.

I can see my Second Shelf quarterly becoming a must have – such a fabulous resource to return to time and again, and the pictures – I will never tire of looking at them.

I hope I have whetted your appetites – those of you are able to support Second Shelf by subscribing I’m sure you won’t regret it. The website will be up and running soon, in the meantime if there were things you wanted to buy you can email them.

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I had to take a short break from A Century of Books to read this, just what I needed – as ever I reach for vintage mysteries when I am over tired. These British Library Crime Classics always tick the box. John Bude is a familiar name to readers of British Library Crime Classics, they have published (I think I am right in saying) six of his mysteries, though I had only read two prior to this one. John Bude was the pseudonym for theatre producer and director Ernest Elmore and he was a very prolific writer.

The Cheltenham Square Murder comes with one of those handy little street plans so beloved of mystery writers from the Golden Age. How necessary this simple little drawing is I’m wasn’t sure – but I admit I did find myself referring to it to several times.

cofThe novel opens in a small, tranquil regency square in Cheltenham Spa, ten houses in a u shape around a communal grassy area of shrubs and trees. The inhabitants are generally middle aged – and quiet living. It is certainly not the kind of place, one would expect to encounter sudden and violent death.

However, all is not quite as it seems. Several residents have been locked in a dispute over the fate of an old elm tree, and bank manager Mr Fitzgerald appears to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. Captain Cotton has been seen often in the company of Mr West’s wife, and set tongues wagging. Meanwhile the Misses Watt, are concerned with a secret they accidentally happened upon, while they nursed their neighbour Edward Buller in his delirium.

“There had come to his ears a strange, insidious sound – a faint zip, a long click, and a long drawn out sigh from Cotton. He swung round, puzzled, opened his mouth to speak and swayed there with his lips held slackly apart, staring. The glass dropped from his hand and was shattered on the parquet. He put down the decanter, shakily, took a couple of steps forward and again stopped dead.”

The square’s fraught rivalries are disrupted by the sudden, shocking death of one resident, shot in the head with an arrow through an open window. One of the other resident’s is a doctor and he is soon on the scene, but it appears that death was instantaneous. Suspects there are a plenty, especially as six of the square’s residents are members of the nearby Wellington Archery Club.

Fortunately for perhaps everyone but the murderer, celebrated crime writer Aldous Barnet has been staying with his sister at number 8, and Mr Barnet has invited his old friend Superintendent Meredith to stay while his sister is away. Meredith soon finds himself embroiled in the investigation alongside local policeman Inspector Long (whose ‘working class’ accent is just a bit overdone). They focus their attentions on the recently vacated house on the square – the skylights and a small landing window in a neighbouring house. The residents of the square are questioned thoroughly, with poor Inspector Long living in dread of his conversations with Miss Boon, a rather strident woman with a house full of dogs.

Secrets are there to be unearthed – and even a spot of blackmail to be revealed. Meredith and Long have their work cut out trying to figure out who did what and why. Just as they are starting to cast their collective suspicious eye on one particular person, there is another equally gruesome death on the square.

“One hand gripped the lapel of his velvet smoking-jacket. The other was closed over an unlighted cigar. His mouth was slightly agape. In three strides Meredith was across the room with the doctor close at his heels. Simultaneously their eyes met.”

Then Meredith hears about a bizarre incident on a farm, when a labourer found a ewe with an arrow buried in its head. Meredith can’t help but think that this must have something to do with his case.

No spoilers – I’m keeping this short. The Cheltenham Square Murder is an entertaining mystery with just enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. I eventually happen upon the culprit – but not very early on and only after changing my mind a couple of times.

September in Review

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September has been a bit of a strain in one way and another – so much so that my reading and blogging has taken a bit of hit. The other day I was having a moan on Twitter (like we all seem to do these days) convinced that I had hardly written any blog posts this month – well things haven’t been that bad. I think the month felt so long – endlessly long and exhausting – that it made me feel as if I had read and blogged even less than I have. A perusal over the weekend showed me I really hadn’t done too badly. I’m hoping to do better in October – but we’ll see.

I read eight books in September – I’ve started another but that can go into next month’s pile. A nice collection of books in the end – most of which have gone toward taking me to seventy-seven years done in my A Century of Books.

Summer’s Day by Mary Bell – really got the month off to a great start, a much better novel than I had expected, Summer’s Day is a school story for adults. Bell’s characters are so well drawn, and the stories she weaves around the staff and pupils, compelling.

Loitering with intent by Muriel Spark is now firmly placed in my list of top five Spark novels. Published at a time when Muriel Spark’s writing career was already well established, Loitering with Intent is a novel about writing. It is a wonderful novel, reminding me somehow of Momento Mori maybe as it’s packed with eccentric characters.

Told by an Idiot by Rose Macaulay is the second novel by Rose Macaulay I have read this year, and the third overall. It prompted me to buy two more from ebay (quite good for second hand books). The novel charts the ever changing social, political and religious fortunes of England from the 1870s to the 1920s through the eyes of one family.

Dear Austen by Nina Bawden is a poignant work of memoir. A letter to her beloved late husband, Austen Kark, who was killed in the Potter’s Bar rail crash in 2002.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif – is an entertaining dark satire of Pakistani militarism and religious piety, it is a reimagining of the events surrounding the plane crash which killed dictator General Zia in 1988.

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer was a stunning novel I thought. Only the second Mortimer novel I’ve read, The Pumpkin Eater is novel about the pitfalls of marriage and motherhood, Mortimer’s simple prose is wonderfully immersive, dreamy and intimate.

Pirates at Play by Violet Trefusis – the only Trefusis I have read aside from her letters to Vita. While I didn’t fully engage with the author’s voice in this one, it is a well written, entertaining romantic comedy with a good sense of place.

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude was my last full read of September chosen simply because I needed a vintage mystery fix – my go to genre when I over tired and struggling. I enjoyed the mystery – not too demanding but just puzzling enough to keep the reader guessing – having changed my mind once or twice I did settle on the correct culprit in the end.

So now it’s October, and I am looking forward to reading more titles for my A Century of Books, but apart from that I have no specific reading plans. My book group will be reading Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – but I read it last year, so I might move straight on to our November read soon instead, Vox by Christina Dalcher, which certainly sounds interesting.

Those of you who love old books and books by women might be interested in The Second Shelf – they are launching soon, and I have pre-ordered their first quarterly. Follow them on Twitter if you’re not already.

This weekend is the annual UK bookcrossing convention in sunny Ipswich, never actually been there before. I shall have the temptation of lots of books I can take away for free. Not to mention catching up with bookish friends, and two nights (with brekkie) in a Premier Inn, that’s a good weekend. Knowing what my tbr is like – I have every intention of being good when it comes to picking up books. 😊 I have seen a few people on Twitter talking about a book called The Lingering – not sure if it’s a me book or not – but the author S J I Holliday is one of the speakers at the event, so I shall make sure I catch her talk.

So, there we are – October is proper autumn isn’t it? – time to light candles and get the slippers out. Happy reading to you all. Tell me, what brilliant things did you read in September?