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Here I am on the 2nd of October trying to work out why I failed to blog much again during September – the month when I was going to try and get back to something close to normal. I don’t know – fatigue is a big factor but it’s frustrating, nonetheless. I am missing that interaction I get from blogging, so I need to try harder. I only managed to write three blog posts during September, and I am again horribly behind reading everyone else’s. Anyway, I read or re-read eight really good books during September and was a good way into my ninth as the month ended. That final one can go into October’s pile though.  

One thing I managed in September after weeks of almost exclusively reading on my kindle was to read some physical books – I had rather missed that. Two books read on kindle at the beginning of the month but then I managed to get some physical books off my tbr.  

Oddly enough, the beginning of September now feels like a long way away, when I was reading Marking Time (1991) by Elizabeth Jane Howard on my kindle. The second book in the Cazalet series which has whetted my appetite for more soon. Set toward the beginning of WW2 – we see the changes war brings to the family.  

My next read, Mr. Bowling Buys a Newspaper (1943) by Donald Henderson – a friend had mentioned it to me after she had finished reading it, and I knew I wanted to read it too. Apparently, Raymond Chandler’s favourite novel, it is something of an inverted crime novel. The mystery here is not who the killer is, but whether he will be caught. For Mr Bowling buys a newspaper following each of his murders to see if there is any news on his crimes. The trouble is no one takes much notice of his victims, there is a war going on after all, which is a pity because Mr Bowling really wants to be caught – or thinks he does.  

Of Love and Hunger (1947) by Julian Maclaren-Ross was one of the books that appeared in Jacqui’s blog post about boarding house novels. I admit I hadn’t heard of it but was intrigued enough to buy a copy. These penguin modern classics are such satisfyingly smart editions. We follow the fortunes of Richard Fansawe, a vacuum cleaner salesman in a down at heel seaside town. He lives in a dingy boarding house, never has much money and hangs around town with the other dubious characters who pursue the same, depressing occupation. War is approaching, several of the characters refer to the certainty of it – and whether it will give them another purpose. Against this background Richard meets Sukie, who he finds very desirable – she is also married to his friend. What Maclaren-Ross does so brilliantly here is to reproduce the atmosphere of this town, these disappointed men pursing a hopeless profession.  

A View of the Harbour (1947) by Elizabeth Taylor was a reread. My love of Elizabeth Taylor is well known, I think. I have read more than half her novels twice and have been meaning to re-read the rest for ages, this felt like such a treat. Newby, a coastal village long past its best, everyone looks out on everyone else. Nothing much goes unseen for very long. Bertram, a painter comes to this place, just before the season gets going. Tory, still smarting from her failed marriage has become involved with her neighbour Robert, whose wife Beth is Tory’s friend but is far more involved with the fictional worlds she creates in the books she writes. Mrs Bracey – an invalid, never leaves her house, is a sore trial to her daughters who she pesters for gossip. Her world has narrowed to what she can see from the window or hear about from others. Lily Wilson lives above the town waxworks; she is lonely and a little afraid of the exhibits when she comes back alone at night. She starts frequenting the pub a little more often – for the company. Taylor is as brilliant as ever here – the atmosphere of a sad, grey seaside town and its inhabitants is perfect, her observations as ever spot on.  

Odesa at Dawn (2022) by Sally McGrane was kindly sent to me by V&Q books and I fully intend to review it soon. I am determined to get the three review books I read in September reviewed this month, even if I manage nothing else. Totally outside what I usually read, yet I really enjoyed it. Odesa at Dawn is described as a surreal contemporary spin on the classic spy novel. Fast paced and witty, we really get to see the gritty, dark underbelly of Odesa. I shall save the rest of my thoughts for a full review.  

War Among Ladies (1928) by Eleanor Scott very kindly provided by the British Library, the latest in their women writers series. This was easily my favourite book of the month. Again, I intend to review this one more fully in time. Set in a girls’ High school in the fictional town of Besley – which we quickly realise is a narrow-minded provincial entity, of which it would be disaster to fall foul. The staffroom at Belsley High School is a haven of bitter resentments and spiteful gossip. The staff are all single women living in shabby lodgings, if they lose their job, they lose their pension and all the years they have paid into it. In a school where the failure of one means the failure of all, everyone is under threat. A new teacher arrives, full of optimism but soon gets drawn into the scheming, internal politics.  

The Seat of the Scornful (1941) by John Dickson Carr again sent to me by the British Library, I have quite a number of these BLCC books tbr, I chose to read this one over the others because it is set in Devon. I have a great love of Devon, though Devon itself doesn’t really play much of a part here. Still, it is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery, a small cast of characters, yet still keeps the reader guessing and I thought the twist at the end was quite brilliant.  

I do plan to review some of those books, though certainly not all of them. Fingers crossed I can do a bit better this month. 

The Pachinko Parlour (2018) by Elsa Shua Dusapin translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. I was sent to be by Jacqui after she had finished with it. A beautifully understated little novella. Claire travels from her home in Switzerland to visit her grandparents in Tokyo. She and her grandparents are Korean, they had fled Korea at the time of the war, Claire had grown up on another continent, visiting her grandparents in Japan from time to time. It is summer, the heat rises daily, Claire divides her time between tutoring twelve-year old Mieko in a strange apartment in an abandoned hotel (Mieko sleeps in what was once the swimming pool) and lying on the floor in her grandparents apartment, daydreaming. Her grandparents own Shiny, a Pachinko Parlour that draws people in day and night with its promises of good luck. The relationship which develops between Claire and Mieko is wonderfully drawn, as is the awkwardness of the relationship between Claire and her grandparents as she attempts to plan the long-promised trip for the three of them to Korea.  

In the meantime, tell me what you’ve been reading and what your plans for October might be.  

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Scenes from an unpredictable childhood 

This memoir had only been out for a short time when I bought a copy for kindle. It was my last read for August – and one of the books I read recently that I was determined to write something about, even as I struggle to find my blogging mojo. I had previously read two of Kit De Waal’s novels and attended an excellent author event where Kit was on a platform with Jackie Kay. Knowing that she comes from a part of Birmingham very close to where I live and near to where I have worked for over thirty years, I was very keen to read this childhood memoir.  

This is a memoir written with great warmth and honesty, aspects of Kit’s childhood were tough – but the enduring nature of sibling love particularly shines through. They became a resilient little band who together endured poverty, hunger and their mother’s religion until such time as they could get away.  

This is a memoir of a woman who as a child in the 1960s and 70s was caught between three competing worlds, British, Irish and Caribbean. Her family was a mixture of clashing personalities with a hard-working Irish mother who often juggled two or three jobs, but who rarely ever cooked at home and a Caribbean father who spent money on flash clothes and shoes and occasionally cooked up large elaborate meals. Born Mandy Theresa O’ Loughlin, Kit was a nickname that she gained later. The second of five siblings, Kit grew up in a house where birthdays and Christmas celebrations were forbidden, the bible was the only book in the entire house and her mother believed that the world would end in 1975.  

I will die for my grinding embarrassment when the teacher halts the school assembly before the worship bit starts so that me and my sister can walk out. And I will die for the shame I feel when I walk back in again past superior girls and sniggering boys in time for the announcement of detentions and who won the Art Prize, who won the English Prize. My sister, usually. I will die because while I sit outside assembly and they sing ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away’, I sing along but only in my heart. Worst of all, in my heart.

When Kit was around five, her mother found the Jehovah Witnesses – or rather they found her, as I think that’s sort of how it works. She dragged the children with her to the Kingdom Hall, where long meetings twice weekly had to be endured. At school Kit and her siblings were singled out – they had to sit outside the assembly hall – it sets her apart in a heartbreaking way. She longs for a birthday party, to pull a cracker, she is seventeen before she learns about the jokes inside crackers. Kit also loves to sing the songs she isn’t allowed to sing, and when she and her sister get put in a school Christmas concert, she sings out with gusto.

I learn my part, practise my part, guard it in my heart. Kim, a soprano, has had the same talk from Mr Martin, that we are singing Handel’s statement of fact that God shall reign forever and ever, accompanied by a little orchestral support, and we sing in harmony at the bus stop, on our walks home, in bed when the others are asleep. We sing until we are perfect, until Mr Martin has Kim in the front row, soprano, and me right behind her, and the concert is set for a Tuesday night. A Tuesday night. Meeting night. A Christmas concert.  

In an old, terraced house on Springfield Road in Birmingham about a mile from where I live now, Kit and her siblings grew up knowing both poverty and hunger – she knows love too – though it seems to be of an unpredictable kind. Long hours are spent watching TV with dad in absolute silence, she enjoyed a fierce solidarity with her siblings who were subject to the same experiences as her. Racism was a daily part of her life too – growing up in a family with Irish/Caribbean heritage she and her siblings didn’t fit in easily anywhere – and even her own maternal grandmother viewed Kit and her siblings as being second to her other grandchildren.  

Kit is clearly shaped by her early life – I suppose we all are. Despite growing up in a house with just one book, she does much later discover a great love for books – what a solace and escape they are, as all book lovers know – it is a relationship that continues today.  

This is such an engaging memoir that I found it quite a quick read. For me personally though, the landscape of young Kit’s world is one I know so well that it was fascinating seeing it at an earlier date through her eyes.  

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There is something wonderfully satisfying about reaching the end of the first book in a series having absolutely loved it, knowing there are more books to come. In the case of The Light Years the first book in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s famous Cazalet series, it was particularly pleasing, the first book I had read by her, so many more to anticipate as she wrote many standalone novels too.  

I have come to Elizabeth Jane Howard pretty late in my reading life – I don’t think I thought ‘she was for me’ – well I was clearly wrong. I remember my mum reading a few of her books thirty odd years ago, so I knew her name. In 2012 I went to a celebration of the life of the novelist Elizabeth Tayor at Reading library accompanied by a few bookish friends. In Elizabeth Taylor’s later life, she had become good friends with Elizabeth Jane Howard, and to our amazement – as she was clearly quite elderly and unwell, Elizabeth Jane Howard attended the event and spoke about her friendship with that other novelist. Yet still I didn’t read her. I do think perhaps the way her novels have often been marketed is part of the problem. I read these books on kindle – and I’m not sure the editions in the image above would ever tempt me to pick them up. This is an enduring problem with some women writers, and I should have really learned that lesson by now.  

It is thanks in part to Jacqui from Jacquiwine’s Journal that I decided to read EJH finally, she has read and reviewed a few of EJH’s standalone novels, her enthusiasm convinced me.  

I don’t want to go into too much detail of the plots of these two novels because I think reviewing books that are part of a series can be difficult for both writer and reader. Yet I enjoyed these two so much – they were just what I needed at the time too – that I want to give just a little flavour of them  

The Light Years (1990)  

The first novel in the Cazalet Chronicles – if you like a family saga these are for you. There is a helpful list of characters and their relationships in the front – but as I was reading on kindle it was too irritating to keep going back to that – and I found I managed perfectly well without it. There is a large cast of characters, but I found EJH introduces them all in such a way that the reader can keep track quite happily.  

The Light Years starts in 1937 and progresses through 1938 – a time of political uncertainty and upheaval and dark times in Europe. War was constantly expected but held at bay – though for how long. Set over two summers before the war, as the family gather for their annual summer pilgrimmage to the family estate in Sussex.  

William Cazalet (aka the Brig) and his wife Kitty (known as the Duchy) are at the head of a large family. They have four adult children, Rachel who is unmarried and lives at home – and three sons, Edward, Hugh and Rupert. Edward is married to Villy – they have three children, Hugh is married to Sybil they have two children as the novel opens but a third is born later, Rupert is married to Zoe, his second wife, having lost his first wife in childbirth, his two children are from his first marriage. There is also Jessica Castle – Villy’s sister, her husband Raymond and their four children. Assorted servants at the various houses that the family spend time in complete the cast. For this is primarily a story about a family set against a background of extraordinary times.  

EJH does well at depicting these families – for though part of one large family, each nuclear family is individual with its own highs and lows. One of the marriages here seems much stronger than the others, one husband is shown to be adulterous, another infatuated by his child bride, while his brother is haunted by his experiences in WW1.

This duel of consideration for one another that they had conducted for the last sixteen years involved shifting the truth about between them or withholding it altogether and was called good manners or affection, supposed to smooth the humdrum or prickly path of everyday married life. Its tyranny was apparent to neither. 

The children are generally well drawn spanning the whole of childhood from babyhood through to mid-teens. Their concerns are typical – fear of school, keeping secrets from grown-ups, friendships and squabbles. Some of the older children are already beginning to resent being lumped together with the children but are still several years away from being treated like anything else. Louise desires above all things to be an actress, and learns huge amounts of Shakespeare by heart, Polly is terrified at the thought of war, Clary hates her stepmother and at twelve is a rather sad and lonely figure.  

By the time this novel ended I was obsessed with the characters, and it was only a matter of time before I began the second book.  

 

Marking Time (1991)  

The second Cazalet novel opens in September 1939 – as Britain is plunged into war. The family are together in Sussex – Edward, Hugh and Rupert returning at weekends after spending the week in London. The families are divided across two properties owned by the Brig – a short distance apart, where it is considered sensible for most of them to remain throughout the war.  

A fourth child has been born to Edward and Villy, though this has not made Edward any more faithful than he was before. Louise now sixteen moves from cooking school to London parties where she meets a famous painter, is still intent on becoming an actress and absolutely dreads getting an awful war job. Edward and Rupert join up, but while Edward remains in England, Rupert who is younger joins the navy and is soon facing danger. It is up to Hugh to keep the family business together – especially now the Brig appears to be losing his sight. Rachel continues with her charity work, a hard-working woman who continually puts others before herself, even her forbidden love for Sid comes second to her family and her duties. Sybil, meanwhile, seems unwell, and is forced to consult a doctor in London, so terrified of worrying her husband, she allows a great deal to go unsaid between them.  

The children are again in fine form here – Polly often anxious, Clary desperate for news of her father – Louise rather selfish, but also a little lost and lonely.

She felt she was a bottomless pit of memories, and she was only fifteen. What on earth must it be like when you reached the Duchy’s age? You’d hardly be able to think at all for them; it would be like having so much furniture in a room that there was nowhere left to move.

Neville is an absolute terror – always up to something, generally trying to get Lydia to join him, they are a similar age, while Teddy is getting rather too big for his boots and poor Christopher Castle lives still in absolute terror of his father who bullies and undermines him constantly.  

I shall say no more but book two ends on something of a cliff hanger, regarding the fate of one particular character, and so it probably won’t be long before I embark on book three.  

Each one of these books contain so many story threads that are woven brilliantly together – a real old fashioned, addictive saga – well written and thoroughly engaging.  

(oops well this post ended up far longer than I had intended.)  

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August in review

 

No one is more surprised than me to find myself sitting here doing this – not yet sure if I’ll make it to the end of the post. Though if you’re reading this, I suppose I must have done.  

August was really quite difficult; September is shaping up to be similar – although some improvements have been made. I certainly haven’t been able to go back to work. I simply haven’t been able to make myself write blog posts and I really don’t know why. I have been more absent on social media and massively behind reading other bloggers’ blog posts. I can’t say I will definitely catch up, I’m sorry.  

One of my big stumbling blocks to reviewing has been that rule I set myself years ago to review everything I read. Now, despite not having read that much during August I feel the task of reviewing things I read a month ago, utterly overwhelming. So, of course I am now going to be breaking my own rule. I won’t be writing full reviews of most of what I read in August. Not sure when/if I will get a full review written at all. I will have to continue to play it by ear.  

I started the month reading The Boarding House (1965) by William Trevor – a brilliant novel of boarding house life. William Bird dies as the book opens; he is the proprietor of a boarding house taking those sad souls on the fringes of society. The lonely, those who don’t quite fit it, a petty conman an immigrant. When Bird realises he is dying he decides to leave the boarding house to two of his boarders, the two he considers likely to cause the greatest amount of conflict and upset. The reader can almost hear William Bird chortling as the chaos and discontent unfurls. Trevor’s characters are just brilliant, some rather creepy, several just desperately sad. If you like a boarding house novel, this is a must.  

One of the books I talked about in my last post of mini reviews was Elena Knows (2007) by Claudia Piñeiro translated by Frances Riddle. Absolutely loved this Argentinian novel about a woman searching for the truth about her daughter’s death. It’s poignant and so well observed. 

An Elderly Lady Must not be Crossed (2020) by Helen Tursten translated by Marlaine Delargy. I also talked about this volume in my last post. A fun, quirky second volume of elderly lady stories. Great fun.   

Next, I re-read O Pioneers! (1913) by Willa Cather as my book group chose it for September – we meet next week. It had been a long time since I first read it and it was an absolute pleasure to settle down with it again. I actually bought a second copy of this to read on my kindle rather than pull my old VMC off the shelf – all but one book read in August were read on my kindle. Here Cather captures the drama of the frontier landscape. Alexandra Bergson is at the centre of the novel, having arrived as a girl from Europe, she grows up on the Nebraskan prairie taking over her father’s farm. Her determination and hard work sees her make more of a success of it than anyone expected. She begins to tame the wild, difficult landscape and falls in love with it. Coupled with the story of Alexandra’s struggle to make her farm a success is the story of her relationship with Carl who she’s known since childhood and her younger brother, who is destined to cause great scandal and bring tragedy upon himself. Alexandra’s passion for the land comes at some cost to herself.  

The Marble Staircase (2022) by Elizabeth Fair a new publication from Dean Street Press that caused some excitement as it’s a ‘lost novel’ by Elizabeth Fair whose previous six novels were originally published between 1952 and 1960. No fear that this might be inferior to those other novels, I had previously read four of those earlier novels and I think The Marble Staircase is even better. It’s a more reflective novel I think, a novel of an older woman, who is beginning again in a small seaside village after being left a house by an old friend. Here she must sort out the house, make new friends, and settle the dispute with her grown up daughter who disapproves of this sudden move. There is some flash back to an earlier time when she was a young widow holidaying each year in Italy with her friend. An absolute joy of a read, with some fabulous characters.  

The Light Years (1990) by Elizabeth Jane Howard – I have felt for some time that I should give Elizabeth Jane Howard a try, perhaps having misjudged the kind of writer she was. This was the first of her Cazalet novels – a five volume family saga which opens in 1937. It has a huge cast of characters, but EJH introduces them in such a way that I didn’t find myself getting confused. This novel follows the family in the last couple of years before war – the European situation a constant backdrop and concern. The family prepare for their annual pilgrimage to the family estate in Sussex leaving their various London home for the summer. Children arrive home from school – or prepare to go to school next term, but the girls are generally taught by a governess. It is very much a different time, with its own rules and rhythms, and I got utterly swept up by it right away and started September reading the second book.  

Without Warning & Only Sometimes (2022) by Kit de Waal a fabulous childhood memoir from the author of My Name is Leon. I loved this; Kit grew up just a few streets away from where I am living. It’s an area of Birmingham I know very well indeed. She grew up with her siblings in the 1960s and 70s, and it was certainly an unpredictable childhood. A childhood in which she knew hunger and poverty. Her mother became a Jehovah Witness and dragged the children with her to meetings, from then on there were no birthday or Christmas celebrations and the only book in the house was the bible. I shall say no more in case I decide to review this one more fully later.  

No promises about when I will pop up again with something, but I do aim to do better.  

Let me know what you have been reading recently and what plans you have for the rest of September.  

Happy reading.  

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Things have continued to be pretty difficult here – and that’s an understatement. I am not expecting things to improve hugely in the next couple of weeks, so all I can do is battle on. All this has affected my blogging, not just because my hands are often too painful for typing, but because I have just completely lost my mojo. Today I wanted to get something pulled together in a bid to say hello to you all – so I thought a post about some of the books I have read might be in order. I have at least been able to read, though perhaps not as much as I would have liked. Only now I feel quite overwhelmed at the number of books I still have to write about (eight) so although several of these books I had really wanted to review in full, I think I shall have to compromise with mini reviews instead. 

Whatever reading I have been doing I have really enjoyed because I have stuck to going with my mood and not putting myself under pressure to read more than I have been able to cope with. It’s helped me appreciate just being able to sit and read even if it is just for a short time.  

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen me talking about the joy of kindle – my Rheumatoid Arthritis affects my hands and shoulders as well as my knees. So often holding a book is really difficult, kindles are easier (though not entirely without issue). It has allowed me to read when I have been in a lot of pain, and that is a comfort.  

Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi (2020) – the author’s second novel though the first of them I have read. I thought it was absolutely outstanding, I shall definitely read more by Yaa Gyasi.  

It’s the story of an American-Ghanaian family and their life in Alabama. Gifty is doing a PhD in neuroscience, studying reward seeking behaviour in mice, determined to find an answer to the suffering she sees in people around her. Gifty’s mother is hugely depressed, suicidal and living in the bed in Gifty’s apartment. Gifty’s father had left the family when she was young, returning to Ghana, while her brother Nana had become a high school sports star but following an injury became addicted to painkillers and later heroin. The heroin finally killed him, and his death killed something in their mother. 

Despite having a life rooted in science, Gifty finds herself drawn to the memory of the faith she had had as a child. She wrestles with the evangelical church in which she was raised.  

This is a stunning, intelligent novel about family life, grief, addiction, science and faith. I hadn’t known to expect the vivisection stuff – it took me aback a bit and made me wince – but it’s not too gratuitous.  

An Elderly Lady is Up to no Good (2018) & An Elderly Lady Must Not be Crossed (2020) – Helen Tursten translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. Read for #Witmonth two collections of quirky short stories about an elderly lady who has an interesting way of sorting out people who cause her difficulties. I didn’t read these back-to-back, but the second book was definitely calling to me after finishing the first, so they were read close together.  

Maud is 88 years old, though certainly not feeble (but she can act it when necessary). She lives alone in the large Gothenburg apartment, where she had grown up with her parents and older, disabled sister. She lives a contented life, now that she is retired from teaching, travelling widely – there aren’t many places in the world she hasn’t visited.  

Every now and then though, someone comes along intent on causing problems, or taking advantage. They are no match for Maud, as she is not averse to a little murder, where it’s necessary.  

These stories are laugh out loud at times, the second volume telling a couple of tales from Maud’s past.  

Things do get a little sticky for Maud when the police call to investigate a death in her apartment building, but Maud is sure she can evade suspicion, she is just a little old lady after all.  

Green For Danger – Christianna Brand (1944) – It was Jacqui’s recent enthusiasm for this that made me pull this from the shelf, a rare non kindle read. I wasn’t disappointed an absolutely enthralling wartime mystery, and it really kept me guessing.  

Set in a military hospital during wartime, this is an intriguingly plotted mystery with a smallish circle of suspects. A patient dies under anaesthetic and then later a nurse who was present on that occasion is murdered. Inspector Cockrill (a detective Brand wrote several novels about) is brought in to investigate – sure initially that the first death is nothing more than an unexplained tragedy. With the murder of the nurse and an attempt being made on another, Inspector Cockrill has quite a puzzle on his hands, and all his suspects are the nurses and doctors who were attendant when the patient died so unexpectedly.  

A thoroughly enjoyable Golden Age type mystery – with the kind of setting I find particularly pleasing.  

Elena Knows – Claudia Piñeiro (2007) translated by Frances Riddle – another excellent read for #WITmonth. Published by Charco Press who produce a range of literature from contemporary Latin American authors. Beautifully written, heartfelt and poignant I really loved this.  

Elena’s daughter Rita had been found dead in the bell tower of the church. The official investigation ruled it suicide and was quickly closed. Elena doesn’t believe that can possibly be true – but she is the only person who believes this. Elena is battling Parkinson’s she relies on medication to be able to leave the house.  

Elena sets out on a difficult journey across the city, to call in an old debt. Going in search of a woman she met only once many years earlier. Someone who will help her get at the truth.  

Slowly this enthralling narrative reveals hidden truths about the characters and shows painfully the reality of being at the mercy of an illness, needing care and contemplating greater deterioration.  

So that’s all for now, more soon, I hope.  

I have just downloaded the first Cazelet chronicle by Elizabeth Jane Howard to my kindle, only about 80 pages in, but I am wondering why it took me so long.  

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Well, I am horribly behind in my reviewing (and blog reading too, I’m afraid) still clawing my way back to feeling more like normal. I simply wasn’t up to blogging last week at all. With seven books still to write about I am kicking off the catch up with a combination post.  

Both of these were read during July; I had no plan to get ready for #WITmonth it just happened to be what I read.  

Vivian – Christina Hesselholdt (2016) (translated by Paul Russell Garrett)  

A lovely Fitzcarraldo edition that Jacqui kindly sent me for Christmas. Danish writer Christina Hesselholdt examines the life of enigmatic photographer Vivian Maier. This is a wholly fictionalised examination, an imagined life of a woman about who little seems to be known. The real Vivian Maier died in 2009 – after which her work became widely appreciated and left many wondering about the woman herself.  

It’s always challenging to write a fictional account of the life of someone who lived – yet I suppose as so little was known about Vivian it gave Hesselholdt the space to fill in the gaps about this woman who during her lifetime took more than 150,000 photographs, mainly with a Rollieflex camera. Her photographs were extraordinary street scenes of New York and Chicago from across four decades. She hoarded her photographs, negatives and newspapers and it was only shortly before her death that the photographs were discovered in an auction.  

“Viv – Today I photographed a pigeon resting on a cornice, blinking down at the streets. In my version it became heroic. Because it took in the streets with its small gaze.” 

Vivian Maier lived a quiet life – working for many years as a nanny for wealthy families in New York and Chicago. She had been born in New York in the 1920s, the daughter of French and Austrian immigrants, it was a very dysfunctional family, with alcoholism, abuse and mental health issues just part of the landscape Vivian grew up in.  

Hesselholdt’s narrative is told in a chorus of voices – including the questioning, non-objective narrator. We hear from Vivian herself of course, a child she cared for, the parents who employed her, Jeanne Bertrand another photographer who had lived with the Maier family when Vivian was a young girl, and various members of Vivian’s family.  

We see Vivian at different points in her life – the narrative of this very modern novel is not chronological, which I rather liked. Slowly an indistinct picture begins to emerge – a little like a photograph in a tray of chemicals in an old-fashioned dark room. Hesselholdt allows Vivian to remain enigmatic, and we will never know how close to the truth this fictional life might be. It is however a fascinating portrait and a beautifully written novel.  

After Midnight – Irmgard Keun (1937) (translated by Anthea Bell) 

After Midnight is the third novel I have read by Irmgard Keun. Written while Keun was living in exile, having left Nazi Germany, this deceptively straight forward novel is a brilliantly subtle critique of life in Nazi Germany.  

The plot takes place over a couple of days in 1936, at a time when Hitler was paying a visit to Frankfurt. The novel is narrated by Sanna a nineteen-year-old girl who like anyone her age wants a little fun – but Sanna and her friends must do their socialising to a new and frightening back drop – a world full of rules, where saying the wrong thing at the wrong time could be life threatening. Sanna spends her time with her friend Gerti, her stepbrother Algin and his beautiful wife Liska the group often joined by journalist Heini. A group of young people for who the world is not as carefree as it once was. Sanna is naïve, though sharply observant of what is going on around her, she is not at all political, happy to drink and flirt with anyone. The changes that have come to Germany are evident though, journalist Heini has fallen foul of the authorities and Sanna’s writer brother is already on the blacklist.  

Sanna recalls how she left her home to travel to Cologne to stay with her aunt and cousin. The aunt is a suspicious, difficult woman and denounced Sanna to the authorities – after which she hurriedly left for Frankfurt. She had fallen in love with her cousin Franz though, and now as the narrative moves toward its climax, Sanna is determined to find a way for them to escape Germany together.  

“And more and more people keep coming in. This Gestapo room seems to be a positive place of pilgrimage. Mothers are informing on their daughters-in-law, daughters on their fathers-in-law, brothers on their sisters, sisters on their brothers, friends on their friends, drinking companions on their drinking companions, neighbours on their neighbours. And the typewriters go clatter, clatter, clatter, all the statements are taken down, all the informers are treated well and kindly.” 

Keun recreates this world brilliantly, a world where people happily denounce one another, a world in which Sanna despairs that her friend should chose a ‘mixed race’ (a person with a Jewish father) as her lover when there are so many other men around. It is a stark reminder of what ordinary Germans lived with in the years before the war, and how much was known at the time by the populace. Three years before the war would break out and yet everything is here – Sanna’s straight forward narrative highlights the horror that existed alongside ordinary life. 

As Liska throws a lavish all-night party, the mood darkens – and there is a real sense of what is to come, though Keun could not possibly have known just what was ahead.   

Two fantastic novels got my #WITmonth reading off to a great start this year. 

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July in review

 

 

A quickish round up of my July reading as I am rather late sitting down to do it. July has been slightly better in terms of number of books read, compared to some months this year, but it should have been even better considering I have had just over a week on holiday from work, plus a couple of sick days before that. Working in a school on a term time only contract means I get six weeks’ holiday – and do I need it. Still recovering from being ill, I can at least not worry about getting back to work for a while.  

I am very much continuing to read according to mood, and my reading mood is ever fickle. It means I may not always be reading in line with particular reading events or challenges. In July I read three books I later realised qualified for Women in Translation month – and as I haven’t had chance to review much of my July reading yet, they can be reviewed in August. A happy accident – I didn’t plan it at all. I also read three books on kindle (and finished one of my others on kindle by buying a second edition – a must when my arthritic hands are really playing up.)  

I began the month reading Women Against Men by Storm Jameson (1982) three novellas published together by Virago originally written in the 1930s. Each story is about a woman and their relationships with men, and other women. Storm Jameson is an excellent writer deserving of more recognition today and these three novellas were brilliantly observed.  

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns (1950) was of course a re-read for me. Imagine my joy when my book group chose to read it, and everyone loved it. A book which needs little introduction to many, it tells the story of a young couple, who marry despite having few resources, Comyns doesn’t waste our time or intelligence with any romantic notions of being poor and in love, this is the grinding reality, told in the only way Comyns could tell it. A simply wonderful novel.  

Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt (2016) translated by Paul Russell Garrett was given to me by Jacqui for Christmas. A lovely stylish Fitzcarraldo volume – they do make very attractive editions. A novel about the (fictional) life of the enigmatic American photographer Vivian Maier. A novel about art, madness and identity.  

Enbury Heath by Stella Gibbons (1935) a recent-ish book voucher purchase was a pleasure to spend time with. This is a rather bittersweet novel; apparently semi-autobiographical, it was inspired by the time the author spent living on Hamstead Heath in a little cottage with her two brothers. I enjoyed very much the relationships between the siblings and the fact there was a little more sharpness to this narrative than some of Gibbons other novels. Halfway through this one, I had to buy a second copy on kindle to finish it.  

Sticking to my kindle, I next read Transcendent Kingdon by Yaa Gyasi (2020) the first of her two novels I have read. I thought it was outstanding – although no one warned me about the vivisection stuff. A deeply layered novel about an American-Ghanaian family in Alabama it is about depression, science, faith, addiction and loss – one I shall find hard to do justice to in review.  

After Midnight by Irmgard Keun (1937) translated by Anthea Bell was the third novel by this author I have read. A brilliantly atmospheric novel which captures the mood of 1930s Nazi Germany, as we follow Sanna, Gerti and their friends who are trying to be young and have fun, but to what a backdrop.  

An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helen Tursten (2018) translated by Marlaine Delargy. This was a slight, fun read. Five stories about Maud – who is 88 years old, lives alone, has no friends or family, travels widely, and has absolutely no problem with a little bit of murder – when its necessary. I have the second book containing seven more stories about Maud past and present to look forward to.  

Green for Danger by Christianna Brand (1944) was my last full read in July, a new Golden age author to me – and a thoroughly enjoyable mystery. Set in a military hospital during WW2 a small circle of potential suspects doesn’t stop this one from being a really compulsive whodunnit.  

So now we are into August – Women in Translation month – and I have those three books still to review – not sure each warrants a post to themselves; I shall have to see. I am hoping to read more books by women in translation as well, but I just need to see where my mood takes me – I do have quite a few to choose from. So, no more reading plans than that, as my book group are reading a book I have already read.  

I have started August reading The Boarding House by William Trevor (1965) less than a hundred pages in and it’s excellent, superb characterisation and observation. I wait to see what else August brings me.  

Please tell me what brilliant things did you read in July? and what are your plans for August? (What WIT books should I be considering?)  

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Finally, a book review! Sorry for the slight hiatus – it has been about ten days since I last posted, and I don’t think I have ever had a gap that big before. I haven’t been well at all – and I’m still not great but improving slightly at least. A massive RA flare and a chest infection has pretty much laid me flat – and I have been sleeping like it’s going out of fashion. I have been reading, a bit, not as much as I would like, but that has been the story all this year – my reading rate has dipped horrendously, so all I can do is try to enjoy what I do read.  

Reviewing ever so slightly out of order now, as I have read three books this month that I want to review for Women in Translation month in August, if I can get my blogging mojo back.  

Enbury Heath was one of the books I bought during one of my book voucher spending splurges. Stella Gibbons was certainly prolific, I feel as if there will always be more of her books, I haven’t read than I have.  

This is a rather bittersweet novel; apparently semi-autobiographical, it was inspired by the time the author spent living on Hamstead Heath in a little cottage with her two brothers. The siblings here though are called Sophia, Harry and Francis Garden. They have just lost their father and are not even a little bit sorry about it. Hartley Garden we are told right at the beginning had been a good doctor but a bad man. He drank, made their mother (also now dead) very unhappy and had affairs with the governesses. Despite being young and unmarried Sophie has already been living away from home in a rented room and working for a news agency. Harry has gone into the theatre and happily leads a somewhat rackety life at only twenty, while Francis at sixteen is still at school, though planning to leave at any minute.  

As the novel opens the siblings must get on with all the business of a death in the family, there is a funeral to be endured. Spending time with suffocating relatives who they can hardly stand to be around, and speculation about the will before the will reading a week later brings all the relatives back together again.  

“So many things bewildered Uncle Preston, who suffered from a permanent sense of grievance because events and persons would not fit into the frame through which he looked at life.” 

Hartley Garden’s doctor’s practice will have to be sold, that will bring in some money, though not much as patients are dwindling – whoever gets the money they won’t be rich.  

With the help of her friend Celia, Sophia comes up with a plan for the three Garden siblings to rent a tiny cottage on her beloved Enbury Heath. Sophia loves being close to nature and considers this to be the most perfect place to live. The suffocating relatives are not entirely supportive but grudgingly allow that they may as well make the best of it. The cottage is tiny, with a small sitting room, two bedrooms, a kitchen and downstairs bathroom, no garden. It has however, we are told great charm, and the three siblings happily settle in, looking forward to a period of happiness and peace.  

“In spite of her many responsibilities at this time, Sophia was happy. 
Her situation did not include many of the things which make most human beings happy, for she was poor, she was not in love and had no one in love with her, she was not pretty nor admired, she was usually exhausted from overwork and felt vaguely ill from the pressure of her own nervous energies, lingering grief for her mother, and from the deeply rooted misery which had struck into her nature during her childhood.” 

Peace and happiness are not destined to last forever unfortunately. Things start well, the three siblings love their little home are terribly proud of it, happy to show it off to friends. There are even a couple of lovely doggie visitors.  Francis has now left school and got himself a job, and Harry’s latest play seems to be doing alright too. Sophia is happy bustling around trying to make a lovely little home for the three of them. There are plenty of domestic difficulties, including getting coal delivered when there is someone home. A daily woman is employed – who reports back to Sophia any little slight, and a poor old woman comes each week to clean the step for a few coins and a cup of tea, but who always manages to make the step dirtier than it was before. Friends drop in, Harry brings back people from the theatre, and soon life in the cottage is rather different to the cosy home life that Sophia had envisaged.  

Small divisions open up, Harry and Francis don’t want to be managed by their older sister, they are enjoying this new life they have found. A life of girls, beer and parties. Harry is spending too much money, Sophia thinks. They accuse Sophia of being like the suffocating relatives (all of whom are superbly drawn by Gibbons). Life for the wealthy Argentinean friends who have taken up the Gardens seems to be one long party, and while Sophia wants her brothers to be happy, she begins to see they aren’t really that compatible as house mates.  

This is a novel about the loss of a dream, of that cold reality coming in. However, it is also a novel about the bonds of family and that period when you are just starting out full of ideas and optimism. Gibbons also acknowledges that shared pain of these siblings, the pain of loss and an unhappy childhood. Each of them has come out of that experience rather differently and now they need to find a way to live with that – even if that isn’t in the same house.  

A thoroughly enjoyable Stella Gibbons novel, with a few ‘of its time moments’ – but nonetheless a great read.  

 

   

 

 

 

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When my book group chose to read Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – at my suggestion, I was both delighted and nervous. To have an excuse to re-read the novel that first introduced me to Barbara Comyns was wonderful, but of course I worried that everyone would hate one of my favourite writers. I have read everything by Barbara Comyns and couldn’t love her more – her unique voice, that slightly altered way of looking at the world. I had various conversations on Twitter lately about reading Comyns and re-reading …Spoons, and someone said that reading Comyns is an absolute joy – until it isn’t, and that is true, because there are moments when she plunges her readers into very real darkness, but her tone, her wit and her eye for the absurd lift us back out too. 

Of course, Comyns writes in a very matter of fact style, the voice of her narrators naïve and rather childlike at times. However, there is so much going on beneath the surface. In her novels, Comyns tells a truth about poverty, about relationships and about chaotic childhoods that she herself knew from the inside. In Our Spoons Came from Woolworths she tells the story of a young couple, who marry despite having few resources, she doesn’t waste our time or intelligence with any romantic notions of being poor and in love, this is the grinding reality, told in the only way Comyns could tell it. Here though Comyns lets us know right away that here at least there will be a happy ending. 

“I told Helen my story and she went home and cried. In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. I hardly dare admit it, even touching wood, but I’m so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true. I seldom think of the time when I was called Sophia Fairclough; I try and keep it pushed right at the back of my mind.” 

When Sophia hastily decides to marry artist Charles, she is just twenty-one and he is just a little older. Sophia is a typical Comyns heroine; she carries a newt around in her pocket and is terrifyingly ill-equipped for life. Both Sophia and Charles are optimistic about the future, determined to act against any and all advice of the older generation, who are fairly united in their disapproval of their plans. This is 1930s bohemian London, where there was little help for those who were struggling and quickly it seems as if everything is set to conspire against Sophia who really can’t cope with the realities of poverty and running a home, however humble it is. Charles locked into his own artistic world, barely ever brings home any money, so it’s Sophia’s scant earnings first in an artists’ studio and later as a live model that keep them going. Few people around them realise just how bad things are for the couple, but neither Sophia nor Charles welcome the advice of the older generation – no matter how well meant that advice might be.  

“She cleared her throat once or twice, and said something about poor people should eat a lot of herrings, as they were most nutritious, also she had heard poor people eat heaps of sheeps’ heads and she went on to ask if I ever cooked them. I said I would rather be dead than cook or eat a sheep’s head; I’d seen them in butchers’ shops with awful eyes and bits of wool sticking to their skulls. After that helpful hints for the poor were forgotten.” 

Sophia and Charles seem rather shocked when the inevitable happens, and Sophia finds herself pregnant. In many ways this is a disaster and Charles is furious and wants nothing to do with the pregnancy or the baby when it eventually arrives. Poor Sophia suffers horrible indignities at the hands of the midwives, an experience she was totally unprepared for, she seems to be punished for having had a baby – and her experiences are told by Comyns in a such a way that the reader both laughs and almost cries at the horrors.  

With a baby in tow things are harder than ever, and Charles is little if any help. Sophia goes away to stay with her brother for a while, but very much out stays her welcome as she hasn’t the fare to return to London and can’t bear to admit it. Working as an artists’ model she meets Peregrine a much older art critic and begins an affair. Charles seems less and less important to Sophia and is in fact we can see a big part of the problem. Another pregnancy follows, and this time Charles bullies Sophia into a backstreet abortion, though Comyns spares us any details as poor Sophia can’t bear to talk about it. When things get really bad, Sophia’s baby son, now a toddler is sent away to Charles’ relatives, and it is months before Sophia can get him back – Charles is totally unconcerned by his son’s disappearance, his cold indifference quite upsetting. Soon enough Sophia has cause to regret both her marriage to Charles and her affair with Peregrine.  

Sophia makes a decision and leaves it all behind, taking her son, she finds a new life in the countryside. Life isn’t perfect, she must work hard, but she is on the road to that new greater happiness that is hinted at in those first few sentences.  

Of course, I loved my re-read and I am anxious to know what my fellow book group members thought. At the time of writing, I am just a couple of hours away from finding out.  

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Storm Jameson is probably not an author who is as well-known these days as she once was. This was the third book by her that I have read, I say book, because this isn’t a novel, it is three novellas. The themes throughout are broadly similar, each story is about a woman and their relationships with men, and other women. As the title suggests Women Against Men. Curiously though there are no obvious battles between the sexes here, but Jameson explores the love women have for men, and how that love can be used as a weapon as often against themselves as against anyone else. All three stories were published in the 1930s, two stories in 1932 and 1933, but the first story in this collection, not published until 1937 didn’t appear alongside the other two until this VMC edition came out in 1982.  

The first novella is Delicate Monster at around 85 pages it is the shortest of the three too (the subsequent two novellas each around a hundred pages). Through the eyes of her childhood friend Fanny, we are introduced to the beautiful Victoria Form. The two become friends as children despite an inequality in their mothers’ backgrounds. Fanny is a quieter, more awkward child, Victoria is more extravagant in her emotions, she is one never to suffer from awkwardness. She becomes a beautiful, promiscuous woman, who believes women should throw off the Victorian conventions of their parents, and love where they want to. Her promiscuity is totally selfish, she attracts men without trying and enjoys it, her favourite thing is to ensnare men and betray women. Both Fanny and Victoria become writers, though of very different types; Fanny writing more seriously, literary novels that sell in small numbers, Victoria churning out popular bodice rippers. She is of course hugely successful. Victoria thinks nothing of betraying her old friend Fanny with her husband, causing a rift between the two for several years. 

“Laughter of this kind is as strong an acid as thought itself. It dissolves everything – even, finally, its impulse. Once begun, the process cannot be stopped. I would look at Charles lying asleep, his face buried in the pillow, with untidy hair and softened features, and feel a stab of anguish at the thought that Victoria had seen him in the same attitude.” 

However, it seems these two women are more friends than enemies after all and soon back in one another’s orbits, with Victoria’s daughter seeking out the company of Fanny rather than her mother of whom she desperately disapproves.  

The Single Heart concerns Emily Lambton the daughter of Sir John owner of a shipping line. We first meet her when she is just a girl of about twelve, when she accompanies her parents on a trial trip of one of her father’s new ships. On board Emily meets the captain’s son, Evan is two years older than her and at first distant and unfriendly. Emily becomes smitten by the older boy – who is of course not of the same class, and after leaving the ship never forgets him. A few years later they meet again, Evan is now a junior clerk in the shipping company, and Emily is embarrassed when her snobbish brother snubs him very obviously and very rudely. Emily makes a brilliant society marriage to her brother’s friend the young Lord Holt, but fate throws Evan in her way, an angry young man, a socialist clerk with some ambition, who she becomes determined to help get on. Of course, things don’t end there, Emily begins an affair with Evan, and it’s a love that is destined to consume her entire life.  

A Day off was my favourite of the three novellas – all of which are excellent. In this one Storm Jameson gives us an incredible portrait of an unnamed middle-aged woman. She is one of the women who have lived off men all their lives – the man of the moment providing the money she needs to live, in return for a very unequal, unsatisfying relationship. She associates with other women of a similar type – fearful of the day when the man in question stops coming to see her, and very aware of age creeping up on her. Now she lives in a shabby bedsitter, waiting for a letter from George, from whom she hasn’t heard in a couple of weeks, afraid that perhaps this is it – and wondering what she will do.  

“She slumped against the end of the bed, trying to think. Thursday. If George came on Saturday as usual, or sent the usual – if he failed – A curious blankness succeeded this thought. She groped with her hands in the sheet, feeling the bed end cold and slippery against her knees. No use thinking. She let herself down carefully and drew a stocking over her foot. Grit, from the carpet, stuck to it. Fastening her corset she drew the suspenders tight and stood to see the effect. She felt better now that she was held up, Safer.”  

She takes a day off – goes out, rather than sit waiting for the letter that she is certain won’t come. She takes the train to Richmond, goes to the park, has lunch by herself. Throughout the day she looks back on her life, one that started in the north of England, where as a teenager she had gone out in the cold, pitch dark mornings to work at the mill. She went to London with a man, a decision which seemed to set the course of the rest of her life. As the day progresses, we see the mean, embittered side to this woman, who life has certainly never been kind to – but who in her turn shows no sympathy or kindness to others. By the time she leaves Richmond to return home, much of the sympathy the reader may have had for her has dispersed. It’s a simply brilliant character study.  

All in all, this is an excellent collection of three novellas – showing yet again, that Storm Jameson is a writer who deserves to be better known – though I suspect (prove me wrong world) will never be one of those writers from the past to enjoy the kind of renaissance that writers like Rose Macaulay have deservedly had.  

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