Sunday 28 April 2024

Let's Get Physical

 All right ladies. Are you ready? Let's go!

I enjoyed Danielle Friedman's account of the rise of women's exercise classes Let's Get Physical. It's organised into chapters with titles like Stretch, Bounce and Burn, etc each denoting a different exercise. The book covers women's ballet barre, Jazzercise, yoga, aerobics, running and weightlifting and I found some chapters more interesting than others.

My favourite was Burn which of course was Jane Fonda's 'go for the burn' phrase during the 1980s dance aerobics craze.  Incidentally this phrase was gradually dropped from the workout as doctors questioned the safety of it.  I used to think that the Jane Fonda workout was very glamorous but now it is available on YouTube it seems utterly insane!

Of course it's easy to laugh now at the leg warmers and hyper extended leg stretches but Friedman raises deeper questions. What was it that women found - and still do find - when they can get away from home, work and family for a couple of hours to exercise together?  The form of exercise may change but the joy, peace, well- being and strength to be found in communal exercise remains.

I didn't know that the Jane Fonda Workout Video was the first of its kind and sold 17 million copies.  Or that all the money went to fund her then husband's political campaign.  But she comes across as likeable and self-aware in this book.

As Friedman explains, the rise of women's exercise classes in the 1950s pioneered by Bonnie Prudden and Lottie Berk were routed in ballet.  Jane Fonda, too, was ballet trained but the popularity of the dance- based exercise class began to decline in the late 1980s.  Women were nursing injuries from overdoing it and were looking for a gentler and more spiritual form of exercise.

'Like a lotus flower rising from the mud' yoga began to peak in popularity in the 1990s.  Of course this ancient practice had always been around but was popularised in America by Indra Devi and the charismatic Lilias Folan who had a yoga television show Yoga and You in the 1970s beginning each episode with a reassuring voice.  Friedman describes feeling stressed with deadlines, work and family when interviewing Lilias Folan who is now 87 for the book and becomes tearful when Lilian reminds her to exhale. Suddenly I got it. So this is why women like yoga.  

 If I have any criticism of this book I would say that it is very US based.  As someone who has spent many years taking classes - aerobics, zumba, yoga - in chilly village halls and overcrowded dance studios a corresponding UK history of the women's exercise class would be interesting.

Friday 1 March 2024

Breakfast at Tiffany's

I enjoyed Jenny Jackson's PIneapple Street and its 'old money' Brooklyn setting.  I was also intrigued by its epitaph - a quote from Truman Capote.  'I live in Brooklyn. By choice.'

I'd never actually read his famous novella Breakfast at Tiffany's and it's difficult to read without an image of Audrey Hepburn shimmering before you.  The Holly Golightly of the book is a rather less progressive young lady and at times is almost unlikeable.  I suppose when you consider her background, orphaned as a child and married at 14 before running away to become, let's say, an escort, her choices were limited.  The unnamed narrator is a much kinder character who brings out Holly's better self.

Of course, it's the quality of Truman Capote's beautifully descriptive prose that makes this book so good.  From the opening lines reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby you know that you are in the hands of a great writer.

She was still on the stairs, now she reached the landing and the ragbag colours of her boy's hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino blonde and yellow, caught the hall light.  It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker.  For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks.

A lot of the famous lines and images in the  1961 film come directly from the book; Holly sitting on the fire escape drying her hair in the sun and playing her guitar, her love of Tiffany's 'Nothing very bad could happen there'.  And of course her famous line about it being tacky to wear diamonds before you're 40!

Although written in 1958 it is actually set in 1943 during the war.  When Holly receives a telegram to say that her beloved brother has been killed the 'mean reds' (her words for depression) threaten to overwhelm her.

Certainly there are phrases and sentiments in the book which are unacceptable now but the story of a young writer's first Brooklyn apartment and his infatuation with a young women who lives in the apartment below and owns a ginger cat with a 'pirate's cut-throat face'  is utterly charming.

Outside, the rain had stopped, there was only a mist of it in the air, so I turned the corner and walked along the street where the brownstone stands.  It is a street with trees that in the summer make cool patterns on the pavement; but now the leaves were yellowed and mostly down.

Wednesday 9 August 2023

Penguin Orange Classics - The Joy Luck Club

And I am sitting at my mother's place at the mah jong table, on the East where things begin.

Can't believe it is almost 35 years since The Joy Luck Club was published.  I was a young woman working in a library when this book came out (pre-internet and iphone) and I loved it then and have reread it many times over the years.  I had to treat myself to the Penguin Orange Classic paperback. Very classy cream and orange cover and I love the Chinese dragon entwined around the penguin!

All the motifs from the novel feauture on the front and back covers; Waverly's chess pieces, Jing-Mei's piano and the mah jong tiles where the 'aunties' play in each other's houses and invite Jing-Mei (June) to be the fourth corner after her own mother dies.

I think Best Quality is my favourite story in The Joy Luck Club where the rivalry between June and Waverly which began when they were children comes to a head. (Waverly was a child chess prodigy and June's mother forced her to play the piano).  At a crab dinner to celebrate Chinese New Year,  Waverly who was taught by her mother to always have the best selects the nicest crabs for herself, her husband and daughter while June picks the crab with a missing leg and her mother doesn't have one at all.  Waverly humiliates June during the dinner and June is close to tears. Her mother afterwards tells her not to worry about Waverly and gives her a jade necklace which is light green and tells her it will become darker with wear - proof of her self-worth and value.

June's distress at the crab dinner is of course tempered by the unintentional humour in the Chinese-English of the mothers:

"Suyuan! called Auntie Lindo to my mother. "Why you wear that colour?" Auntie Lindo gestured with a crab leg to my mother's red sweater.

"How can you wear this colour anymore? Too young!" She scolded.

My mother acted as though this were a compliment.  "Emporium Capwell." She said. "Nineteen dollar. Cheaper than knit it myself."

Auntie Lindo nodded her head, as if the color were worth the price.

The Joy Luck Club still reads as fresh as when it was first published. That is the liberating power of imaginative fiction.

Friday 31 March 2023

Real Tigers (Slough House #3)

I raced through the Slough House series by Mick Herron after reading an interview with one of my favourite writers, Mary Lawson, who recommended them.  These well-written, fast-moving spy thrillers with a nice line in humour and a central London setting are just what I need right now.  

Slough House just went live. The four of you are up.

London is sweltering in a heatwave and tempers are fraying in Slough House the building for washed up spies on the wrong side of the river.  Leaving work Catherine Standish runs into an old acquaintance from her Regent's Park days.  Catherine knows that chance encounters don't happen to spooks and tries to go to ground on London's streets but can't shake off her tail.  Bundled into a van and asked by her kidnappers which one of her colleagues she trusts the most she names River Cartwright. Which could be a mistake.

Catherine's disappearance raises alarm bells back at Slough House led by the hard-drinking, smoking, flatulent Jackson Lamb, a former spook from the Berlin days.

'This is the Secret Service. Not frigging Woman's Hour.'  

Young River Cartwright is an interesting character.  Exiled to Slough House since he crashed King's Cross in a training exercise (even though he was set up) he is impulsive to say the least and can't stand the tedium of admin work. Swinging into action he embroils his colleagues (known as the slow horses - a pun on Slough House) into a violent situation where, as always, they are largely unarmed, ill-informed and unprepared.  But at least it gets them out of the office.

Real Tigers is one of my favourites in the series because the weather reflects the action.  As the heatwave finally breaks the violet hour gives way to darkness and a soft rain falls over London.  

This is the noise the rain always makes; the soft sighing of the pavements.

Saturday 14 January 2023

Lucy by the Sea

Easily the best novel I read last year was Elizabeth Strout's Lucy by the Sea.  I love Lucy's gorgeous narrative voice.  I think this novel is as good as the first in the quartet My Name is Lucy Barton but instead of a younger Lucy in her hospital bed overlooked by New York's Chrysler building we have a newly widowed Lucy transported by ex-husband William from pre-pandemic New York to ride out the lockdown in a house overlooking the sea in Maine.

Lucy's mother is a powerful presence even though she is no longer alive.  Appalling though she could be, sometimes remembering her words 'People need to feel important' helps Lucy to get some of William's excesses in perspective.

You get the sense that this may be the last Lucy novel, not least because characters from other novels resurface.  Bob Burgess from The Burgess Boys takes regular coastal walks with Lucy, Katherine from Abide with Me appears as an adult and Lucy's gentle, troubled brother 'socially distancing for 66 years' succumbs to Covid.  

This is not a sad novel, though.  There are beautiful descriptions of the changing sea and sky throughout the pandemic year.  Bob Burgess and William arrange a studio for Lucy so that she can continue to write.  There is humour in William's insistence on doing all the cooking yet needs praise for every meal he makes while Lucy washes up.  Although still haunted by her childhood experiences she finds joy in small things - a faded table-cloth edged with pink pompoms she finds in the Maine house. 

As a trauma survivor and perhaps naturally reticent Lucy takes care not to overstep around the adult daughters she loves but when her eldest daughter is about to repeat a mistake Lucy herself once made when younger, she steps up:

I turned so that I was facing Chrissy. "You listen to me," I said. "You listen to every single word I have to tell you.  And take your sunglasses off I need to see your face,"

I'm now rereading the wonderful My Name is Lucy Barton.

I also read Darling India Knight's re-imagining of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love.  I think it just about works.  Certainly, the updated characters are clever and amusing and I kept turning the pages but without the wartime background you lose the poignancy of the original.

Monday 5 December 2022

Love and Saffron

Mother loves her magazine subscriptions, and every month, as soon as they arrive, she folds back the pages to her favourite columns. The first two she reads are yours and Gladys Taber's "Butternut Wisdom" in Family Circle. I prefer yours.  It makes me feel like I am having a conversation with a good friend, and your enthusiasm for life has taught to be more aware of my own world around me, and especially the outdoors. Oct 1st 1962.
Kim Fay's warm-hearted Love and Saffron is a novel of female friendship relayed in a series of letters exchanged in the early 1960's.  It  has echoes of Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road.

Imogen Fortier writes a column called Letter from the Island in the Northwest Home & Life magazine detailing weekends spent in her cabin on Camano island, Washington.  Her accounts of island living - picking wild native blackberries, clam digging, watching cormorants and sandpipers - prompt a fan letter from Joan Bersgstrom, a 27 year old Stanford graduate who lives with her mother in California.  Joan encloses a gift of saffron and a recipe for using it in a dish of steamed mussels. 

A correspondence develops between the older and younger woman who share recipes, book recommendations and increasingly their hopes and fears.  This is set against a background of events of the 1960s.  Both women are devastated when Kennedy is assassinated.  Joan is not keen on the new fashion for stirrup pants and a little uptight about Helen Gurley Brown's newly published Sex and the Single Girl.  Imogen, being almost 60, is much more laid back but she can't quite get used to the four boys from Liverpool with funny haircuts although does learn the words to Twist and Shout.

The friendship culminates with Imogen paying a surprise visit to Joan in California.  Then the correspondence goes quiet and you will have to read it to find out why!

I loved all the sixties references and concerns - Joan Didion, Jane Jacobs, Jax fashions, the Cuban missile crisis - and Kim Fay's skill as a writer makes you feel that you are reading actual letters rather than fictional representations.  This book would make a lovely Christmas gift for female friends.

Sunday 25 September 2022

Agatha Christie by Lucy Worsley

I do like a literary biography and Lucy Worsley's Agatha Christie - A Very Elusive Woman is a great autumnal read.  It's a traditional 'womb to tomb' format which can sometimes be tricky but Worsley keeps this fresh by interjecting her own thoughts.  For example, when she was researching Agatha's first husband, handsome pilot Archie Christie and saw his picture she thought he was 'totally hot!'

I expected the most intriguing part of the book to be Agatha's famous eleven day disappearance in 1926 which caused so many repercussions and gave her an unfair reputation for being difficult.  Actually though I became absorbed in the voluntary nursing that Agatha did during the Great War before switching to pharmacy dispensing which she did as a volunteer in both world wars.  Of course, it was the pharmaceutical  knowledge of drugs and dosage which inspired some of her famous plots.

The popular image of Agatha Christie is that of a formidable older women but Worsley brings into clear view the young Agatha described by a contemporary as 'tall, very pretty, Scandinavian coloring and a lovely complexion' who falls in love with the dashing aviator Archibald Christie.  Sadly the marriage didn't last and Archie's affair prompted Agatha's disappearance where she drove aimlessly around the Surrey Hills at night contemplating suicide before heading towards a quarry. The car wheels became jammed in a hedge and hitting her head on the steering wheel may have shocked her back into an appreciation of life.  Worsley attributes this to a mental breakdown and fear that she was losing her mind and incapable of looking after her young daughter which seems entirely plausible.

Less easy to explain is the subsequent trip to a department store and booking into the Spa Hotel in Harrogate under a pseudonym where she seems to have rather enjoyed herself.  While friends and family grew frantic with worry and rival police forces were searching for her Agatha was socialising with other guests, dancing the Charleston and having parcels of clothes, books, magazines and flowers delivered to her room.

What an extraordinary life she had! A hugely successful writing career. Author of The Mousetrap the longest running West End play.  A passion for buying and restoring houses. A subsequent marriage to Max Mallowan which launched a new interest in archeology, excavation and travel.  I can't say I warmed to Max or her chilly daughter Rosalind in this biography but Agatha comes across as a joy who adored and financially supported her family and friends and when the taxman finally came calling said 'I shall go on enjoying myself and have a slap up bankruptcy!'

This will join Valerie Grove's Dear Dodie (biography of Dodie Smith, author of I Capture the Castle) as one of my favourite writer biographies.  What are yours?