Saturday 21 December 2019

Big Stone Gap

The Wise County Bookmobile is one of the most beautiful sights in the world to me. When I see it lumbering down the mountain road like a tank, then turning wide and easing into Shawnee Avenue, I flag it down like an old friend.

I’m re-reading old favourite the Big Stone Gap trilogy by Adriana Trigiani. Chicklit? Well maybe, but I love this portrayal of the inhabitants of an Appalachian coal-mining town set in the 1970‘s. Ava Maria Mulligan is the only person of 'Eye-talian’ origin living in Big Stone Gap and since the loss of her mother she feels an outsider in the town she was born in. At 37 she works as a pharmacist and feels she is headed towards spinsterhood until she meets very attractive miner Jack 'Mac’ MacChesney who lives with his mother in Cracker’s Neck Holler.

Like Anne Tyler, Adriana Trigiani has a gift for creating quirky characters. Iva Lou Wade, flirty librarian, driver of the mobile book van and local good-time gal known by her signature scent Coty’s Emeuraude is a brilliant creation. And then there is Fleeta the tough-talking pro-wrestling pharmacy assistant who likes to help herself to the Estee Lauder hand cream on display in the shop.

The beauty of the Appalachian mountains and the changing seasons provide a backdrop to the story and there is a fictional representation of Elizabeth Taylor’s visit to Big Stone Gap in 1978 with her then husband Republican John Warner who was on a campaign trail. Famously, Elizabeth Taylor sampled the buffet and choked on a chicken bone and had to be rushed to hospital.

A lovely read for a cold winter.

Sunday 24 November 2019

Literary Detectives

My first favourite literary detective is Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey that blue-blooded aristocrat and amateur sleuth created by Dorothy L Sayers in the 1930's. Discovered to be a brilliant all-round natural cricketer at Eton. Accomplished musician who read History at Balliol. Son of the Dowager Duchess Honoria Lucasta Delgardie. A man of sensitivity who was mentally scarred by the Great War he manages to get all the female dons at Oxford University in a flutter in Gaudy Night and it is believed that Sayers fell in love with her own creation.

My second favourite is that tough shamus Philip Marlowe who fights corruption for 25 dollars a day amidst a California setting of dusty eucalyptus trees, manzanitas, pink sunsets and airless heat. The plots are sometimes utterly baffling but I don’t think Chandler is read for sophisticated plots. He is read for the attractiveness of his laconic private investigator Philip Marlowe and his mastery of the American vernacular.
Martin Beck is a different kind of detective.  Created by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo in the 1960's, he is not physically attractive, he doesn't have the intellect of Wimsey or the amusing one-liners of Marlowe.  He often feels unwell - nauseous or a stomach ache - and has no appetite, he can't fight and although he carries a gun he’s not a good shot.  Unhappily married with a daughter he adores and a son he can't get on with.  Yet when he questions a suspect he is devastating and he never gives up.
I've just re-read Roseanna which has a fancy new cover.  Published in 1965 it was the police procedural that spawned the Scandi-crime genre and is still a gripping page-turner.  I would also recommend The Laughing Policeman and The Abominable Man
Who is your favourite literary detective?

Sunday 22 September 2019

These Wonderful Rumours!

I do like Home Front diaries.  May Smith was a 25 year old school teacher living with her parents in 1939.  She kept a journal which is fresh and uplifting to read despite the devastating impact of WW2.  When the air raid sirens started - often in the early hours of the morning - she had to get out of bed along with her parents, grab her gas mask and go to her grandparents' house next door and sit in their cold cellar for two or three hours.  Only when the all-clear was given could she go back to bed and still have to get up early the next day to teach classes of 48-60 children including evacuees. 

May was a voracious reader and meticulously records her reading lists in her diary.  She loved Jane Eyre, Rebecca, The Code of the Woosters and avidly read The Provincial Lady which was then serialised in Time and Tide magazine.  She mimics E M Delafield's style rather well:
Wednesday May 22nd 1940 Mrs W has finished my voile frock, in which I duly paraded.  It's very sweet, I think.  It's trimmed with blue velvet ribbons and little mauve pearl buttons.  Mother took one look and remarked without enthusiasm that That Sort of Dress Looks Nothing without A Lot of Sun.  Very dampened by this remark, but still like it very much.
Fond of tennis, she played regularly and rode her bike around the village. She had two admirers and also pined a little for another who rejected her.  There is a constant ongoing battle with the local dressmaker who never completes her tennis dresses, coats and day dresses on time and her love of clothes is severely curtailed when ration books come in.  Proud of working and earning money she nevertheless lives from one pay packet to another and her father regularly subsidises her.  I loved her father who teases her about her choice of hats referring to one hat as a 'pigeon trap' and can't control his mirth when he first sees May and her mother in their gas marks.

Bombs fell close to home, and just when May was getting blasé about the air raid sirens preferring to stay in bed than go down into the cold cellar there were huge explosions close by.  May's family also had a lodger who was a Conchie (Conscientious Objector) who suffered abuse from the villagers.  One diary entry tells of a 'woman just over 30 who lost her boy at Dunkirk and is only just recovering, and it has sent her quite grey. She has to rest in the afternoons.'

But life goes on and there are wartime romances and wedding cakes with cardboard icing because of the rations.  May decides between her two admirers and chooses Freddie (although I rather liked the other one, Doug).  May's diary is a delight to read and her youth and humour and exuberance speaks to us across the years.

Thursday 1 August 2019

The Provincial Lady in Wartime

For those of us who feel it is necessary to have The Provincial Lady with us At All Times  the Macmillan Collector's Library edition is small enough to fit into a handbag or pocket and also has the wonderful Arthur Watts illustrations. 
The Provincial Lady in Wartime (not in this edition) is one of the most vivid and humorous accounts of life in England during the beautiful September of 1939 - the time of the Phoney War. A huge wave of patriotism sweeps the country and everyone agrees that ‘we’ve got to show 'Itler he can’t go on like that, haven’t we?’ In her Devon home, the garden is full of Michaelmas daisies, dahlias and nasturtiums and the weather is lovely. It is difficult to believe that war has been delclared. The Prov Lady receives two little evacuees Margery and Marigold. Husband Robert is an ARP Officer and takes his duties extremely seriously, and daughter Vicky and son Robin are still at boarding school. 

Determined to help the war effort the Prov Lady takes a flat in Buckingham Street in London hoping to find work using her literary skills. This proves impossible as there are many more volunteers than available work and she finds a job taking shifts in the all-night canteen operating in the ARP station under the Adelphi hotel. Here she meets some wonderful characters including lovely friend Serena, awful Mrs Pussy Winter-Gammon, a Society Deb whose mother eventually takes away and the female Commandant who dashes around raging that she is the only one who realises that England is at War to which everyone replies It Hasn’t Started Yet.
Never impervious to clothes, the Prov Lady buys herself a navy siren suit and throws a sherry party at which everybody discusses the war and friend Rose declares it will be Over by February. 
The Provincial Lady in Wartime is the last of four volumes.  Tragic events in E M Delafield's own life meant that she could no longer continue to write in the same humorous and semi-autobiographical style and there is a tinge of sadness to this final volume.  

Sunday 19 May 2019

The Female Persuasion

I loved Meg Wolitzer's last novel The Interestings.  Particularly the summer camp for gifted teenagers Spirit-in-the-woods and her evocation of the 1970s.  Her latest novel The Female Persuasion has just been published in paperback.  The reviews described it as a feminist or #MeToo novel and I wasn't sure if it was for me as I'm not keen on novels which are heavily based on issues. It's probably why I like Anne Tyler so much as her focus is usually on families who are out of step with each other and the passing of time.

I needn't have worried though, because The Female Persuasion is a big sweeping story with love, tragedy, ambition and compromise.  It starts off as a bit of a campus novel - I love a campus novel!  The central character Greer is bright and likeable but lacks confidence.  An introspective teen who was saved by books as a child.  After an unpleasant incident at a fresher party and a visit to her campus by a renowned and charismatic feminist Greer finds her focus and a heroine.

The feminist Faith Frank is an interesting character.  Active during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s she is now slightly out of step with social media and herself the target of snide internet comments.  Still glamorous and active in the movement she has had to learn to compromise.  I kept thinking she must be based on Gloria Steinem but it is never stated.

Everyone grows and changes in this novel - Greer's adorable boyfriend Cory and her best friend Zee and Greer herself learns that sometimes your heroines have feet of clay.

An immersive and enjoyable read.

Sunday 24 March 2019

In This House of Brede

Almost all of the nuns were acutely observant of clothes and, perhaps because of their own perpetual black and white, they revelled in colours .... the new sister Cecily’s dress and matching coat were delightful. ‘That love-in-the mist blue, said Dame Beatrice.'

Mention Rumer Godden and women of a certain age will smile fondly and remember beloved children’s books such as The Diddakoi or Miss Happiness and Miss Flower or coming-of-age novels such as The Greengage Summer, always charming and never sentimental. Then there are the semi-autobiographical trilogy of ‘Indian’ novels for which she is perhaps best known. My own favourite is her 1969 novel set in an enclosed order of nuns at Brede Abbey in Sussex. Godden had written about nuns before in the darkly melodramatic Black Narcissus but In the House of Brede is her great mature novel.
Philippa Talbot joins the order in her early forties, having been married and giving up a highly successful career for the contemplative life. Philippa makes mistakes, accidentally breaking the wing of a stone angel and failing to be impressed with a know-it-all missionary. She also inadvertently stokes the jealousy of Sister Agnes who sees Philippa as a threat.

She envied the clarity of the younger woman’s mind and Philippa was so much quicker than Dame Agnes who felt herself beginning to be slow; she even envied Sister Philippa’s slim height, her carriage and the grey eyes that were so beautifully set; they would be more noticeable still when they were framed by the wimple and fillet.

Philippa learns that nuns can be envious and occasionally mean-spirited but they always, always try to support one another, to do what is right and to harness the power of prayer. There are secrets in the order, too. What is Dame Hester trying to say on her deathbed? Why is Dame Veronica acting so strangely and what is Philippa herself not revealing.
I didn’t think that the election of a new Abbess at Brede or Dame Hester’s deathbed message or the unsuitable crush that Dame Maura develops for novice Cecily would be so nail-bitingly readable but Rumer Godden’s gift for storytelling will keep you turning the pages. 

Do you have a favourite Rumer Godden?

Saturday 23 February 2019

Raymond Chandler kinda mood

‘Mostly I just kill time,’ he said. ‘and it dies hard.’
The Long Goodbye is, I think, Raymond Chandler’s best novel. I like the nods to Scott Fitzgerald, particularly in the portrayal of the tragic Gatsby-like Terry Lennox. I also liked the California setting of dusty eucalyptus trees and airless heat. The plot is sometimes utterly baffling but I don’t think Chandler is read for sophisticated plots. He is read for the attractiveness of his laconic private investigator Philip Marlowe and his mastery of the American vernacular.

The novel has a brilliant opening with Marlowe giving a drunken Terry Lennox a lift home when his wife drives off and abandons him outside a country club. This leads to a friendship - drinking gimlets (gin and lime juice) in Victor’s bar. When Lennox’s wealthy and adulterous wife is found murdered, Marlowe risks his private investigator’s licence by helping him escape to Mexico. After a few nights in jail having been framed by the corrupt police officers who pervade Chandler’s novels he is asked to locate a missing writer prone to go on alcoholic binges by his anxious wife which sends Marlowe off again on a search for a man who doesn’t particularly want to be found.
Terry Lennox drinks to forget the horrors of the war. The missing novelist is aware that his skills as a writer are declining and drinks to forget. Philip Marlowe’s advice to Terry Lennox for giving up drinking is an example of Chandler’s beautiful writing.
‘Usually it does. It’s a different world. You have to get used to a paler set of colours, a quieter lots of sounds. You have to allow for relapses. All the people you used to know will get to be just a little strange. You won’t even like most of them, and they won’t like you too well.’ 

Saturday 12 January 2019

Guard Your Daughters

I’d kind of dropped out of the loop a bit with Persephone books but Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters was prominently displayed in the Cambridge Heffers just before Christmas so I bought a copy and raced through it in a couple of days.

This post-war novel features one of those bohemian, female-centred households consisting of five sisters and narrated by nineteen year old Morgan who has something of the charisma of Cassandra from I Capture the Castle. I loved the rambling old house and the episode where the sisters are initially reluctant to play French cricket in the damp garden with a soggy ball but get completely involved and finish the game in high spirits.  

I liked the daughter Cressida who cares how things look and the elder married sister Pandora who is unafraid to challenge her parents. When her father objects to a young man visiting because it upsets their mother (who is clearly not well) she calmly asks ‘Are we a convent father?’
 A review I read somewhere complains that the sisters call each other ‘Darling’ too much but those of us who have read a lot of Nancy Mitford and all five volumes of The Cazalets are well used to that! Just when you think the novel is getting a little twee towards the end the dark undercurrent resurfaces and although the attitudes towards mental health would now be questionable it is sympathetically written. Highly recommended.
I’m also ploughing through Violet Powell’s leaden biography of E M Delafield. Waaaaay too much recounting of every plot of every novel and Delafield was very prolific.  The only time the biography really comes to life is the chapter in Elizabeth’s own words which describes  her life as a postulant in a convent at the age of 21 and the touching reason she decided not to become a nun.

Occasionally when Violet Powell describes Elizabeth packing empty Christmas cracker boxes with earthy primroses to give to friends or the moment a robin from her Devon garden flies into her bedroom after her death at only 53 you get glimpses of what this book could have been.  We are well overdue for a definitive biography of E M Delafield.  Happy New Year!