Saturday 28 February 2009

Invitation to the Waltz

She must put on a new frock - her new raspberry-ice-pink cotton frock with short sleeves and round neck, just back from the dressmaker. The rough crepe stuff clung, she smelt the faint pungency of fresh unwashed cotton.
What a pleasure it was to read Invitation to the Waltz over the weekend. Lehmann described this short novel as 'very cheerful' and that's exactly what it is.

Olivia and her elder sister Kate are preparing for their coming-out dance in a country house. While everything comes easily to Kate, Olivia goes through agonies about her dress and her blank dance card. Consequently she is cornered at the dance by a hostile poet, an arrogant bore and a lecherous old man until rescued by her friend and hostess, the charming Marigold.

This book reminded me a little of a brilliant Katherine Mansfield short story I read many years ago called Her First Ball. Lehmann is very good on coming-of-age. The Mansfield story probably has darker resonances.

When I read The Weather in the Streets I didn't realise that Invitation to the Waltz came first chronologically. I would have had a greater understanding of the characters in The Weather in the Streets if I'd read the novels in the right order.

I really want to read Dusty Answer now.

Monday 23 February 2009

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

This week I've been re-reading Louise Erdrich who is part native American Indian and writes of native American Indian life in contemporary society. I now want to read Dee Brown's 1970 classic Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. I know it's not going to be the cosy kind of book you read with a latte. It's going to be a brutal and harrowing account of a violent period in American history.

I rarely read non-fiction, but I need to read this book.

Saturday 21 February 2009

The Country of the Pointed Firs

'... an' I couldn't help thinkin' if she was as far out o' town as she was out o' tune, she wouldn't get back in a day.'
At just 88 pages this book can be read over a weekend or even in one sitting. It's not really a plot-driven novel, more a series of portraits of New Englanders living on the Maine coast. Our unnamed narrator visits her friend, Mrs Todd, the local herbalist, and stays for the summer meeting neighbours, acquaintances and relatives.

My favourite chapter is Poor Joanna. Joanna, a resident of the town of Dunnet, is jilted one month before her wedding. Unable to bear the humiliation she asks her brother to row her and her belongings over to the deserted Shell-heap Island, eight miles from the coast, where she makes her home never setting foot on the mainland again. During cold winters, the kind-hearted New Englanders row over with parcels of food and clothing.

This is a beautifully written portrait of a lost way of life which curiously, at times, reminded me of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Louise Erdrich

I'm waaaaay behind with Louise Erdrich's novels.

I've read Love Medicine several times. I've read The Beet Queen and The Blue Jay's Dance and The Bingo Palace and The Master Butcher's Singing Club and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No-Horse.

I really ought to check out some of the later novels but I want to re-read an old favourite, The Beet Queen.

Ms Lehmann is on hold.

Sunday 15 February 2009

The Song of the Lark

Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is. Willa Sibert Cather
The Song of the Lark follows the life of Thea Kronborg from an eleven-year old living with her large Swedish immigrant family in a small Colorado town in the early 1900's, to a thirty-year old highly successful international opera singer.

Novels about the lives of artists, musicians and writers are always of particular interest to me and Cather provides a highly original insight into Thea's inner life and struggles against poverty and small-town prejudice. Thea Kronborg is a memorable character, strikingly blonde, kind-hearted yet determined to refine and perfect her art.

The Song of the Lark is generally regarded to be a flawed novel - Cather herself says as much in a preface written after publication. All I can say is that a flawed Cather novel is still infinitely better than the best output of hundreds of lesser writers. I loved it.

Saturday 14 February 2009

Sarah Orne Jewett

It's arrived. According to my local independent bookseller I have the only copy currently available in the UK. Don't know if he was kidding or not. Can't wait to start this but I'm hugely enjoying the Willa Cather, too.

No I didn't make the flapjack myself ... gotta book to read!

Wednesday 11 February 2009


I don't have a tbr pile. Too many unread books are a source of stress to me! I prefer to have just one book waiting. Right now I'm reading The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather (another big pbk with 500+ pages). I have Rosamond Lehmann waiting and the Sarah Orne Jewett on order.

I noticed in the Daily Mail book review pages last Friday a section called Retro Fiction with a review of a Barbara Pym novel. Pym is not a favourite of mine but it's nice to see that the mainstream media are reclaiming women writers of the twentieth century.

Sunday 8 February 2009

Winter reading

I've been wanting to read Sarah Orne Jewett's 1896 novel The Country of the Pointed Firs for quite a while so I was very interested in this post which appeared on this excellent site.

Willa Cather admired the work of Sarah Orne Jewett and that is a high recommendation for me. I've started a new Willa Cather novel The Song of the Lark and I plan to follow it with The Country of the Pointed Firs.

I'd love to hear from anyone who has read Sarah Orne Jewett.

Friday 6 February 2009

The Balkan Trilogy

Harriet and Guy Pringle are a newly-married young couple living in Rumania in the late 1930's. Guy is an English lecturer at the local university. Left-wing, idealistic and tolerant, he exasperates Harriet who begins to realise she comes quite low on his list of priorities. There is also the added irritation of Sophie, a young Rumanian girl who had hoped to marry Guy and can't abide Harriet.

Based on Manning's own experiences in Rumania this novel contains a lot of political, historical and geographical detail about the events leading up to the second world war and Hitler's advance across Europe, but the story of Harriet and Guy is always foregrounded. Memorable episodes in the trilogy include Guy's university production of Troilus and Cressida, the exploits of the debt-ridden bon viveur Yakimov and the English friends sitting around a table in an outdoor cafe listening to Churchill's 'never surrender' speech on the radio.

At just over 1,030 pages, reading this book is quite an undertaking but I very much enjoyed it. Of course, I now want to read a biography of Olivia Manning.