Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Odd Women by George Gissing

It can be a bit frustrating to be surrounded by a community of mainstream fiction lovers when you want to stand on a chair and shout out how much you adored a late-Victorian novel.  So I'll do it here...I loved this book!

The Odd Women, published in 1893, is a spectacular novel about the choices and obstacles faced by women in their struggle for independance.  Whether that be as single women or within a marriage.  Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn are steadfast in their belief that to marry reduces a woman to being a cook and cradle rocker and to retard her thinking.  Together they operate a business that teachs young women to use a typewriter so they can escape the drudgery and abuses of service or other menial occupations.  They also make themselves available one night a week in their Chelsea home to meet with women who share their views.

Alice and Virginia Madden have reached the stage of spinsterhood but their younger sister, Monica, has beauty enough to secure a better future for all three.  Her chance meeting with the modestly wealthy Edmund Widdowson creates debate amongst all of the above-mentioned ladies.  Let it be said that Mr Widdowson is a stuck in the mud loner and once he reels in his young prey becomes nothing short of her jailer.  His opinions are to be Monica's opinions and his jealous eye questions her every movement.  The security of marriage has come at a price to both and Gissing writes of that toll from his own dismal experiences.  There are other riveting storylines but to hint at them would ruin the fun of discovery.

The Odd Women is a page-turner full of secret alliances, betrayal, vice, misunderstanding and deceit.  And I have a new author crush in George Gissing, which is saying a lot for someone who tends to prefer the writings of women.  His portrayals of a Victorian London where pea soup fog from charcoal fires causes its citizens to hug walls in order to read an address is irresistible.  Also, his ability to convincingly construct characters from different classes and both genders while creating arguments for and against marriage is nothing short of remarkable.  Even before I had finished The Odd Women I placed an order for two more books by Gissing, The Nether World and New Grub Street.

If this book is languishing on your shelf then you are housing a gem.  Go and get it!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Deacon's Morning

This morning was a chilly one and I smiled as Deacon waited so patiently while I piled on my coat, scarf, boots and gloves.  His winter coat will be showing itself soon making his ruff look like a lion's mane.  His pants, the long fur that hangs down from his backside, had to chopped off due to a run-in with a huge burr patch while I was away in September.  An event which seems to happen pretty regularly the minute it all fills back in.

The white bit at the end of his tail, and he's lucky to still have one, is referred to as a 'shepherd's lantern'.  A little furry beacon to guide shepherds along the fields at night, or make me laugh as it swishes back and forth so daintily.  Because this boy is anything but, despite this accommodating moment.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Window Shopping on Sunday

We've been having unseasonably warm temperatures in the Greater Toronto Area for over a week now.  The curtains were billowing in the breeze as we slept last night and the flannels simply have to go back in the cupboard.  Despite what the thermometer says Christmas is just a flip of the calendar away and the shops are full of festive swag.  And it's my favourite time of year for window shopping.  Everything pops with colour and the scent of cinnamon is everywhere from gift shops to coffee houses.

And the display tables at bookshops are being stacked with gorgeous coffee table books.  Stunning enough to make me an enthusiast on every subject.  Charles Dickens is everywhere at Christmas but even more so this year with his bicentenary just around the corner.  I had my first peek at Claire Tomalin's biography on the man himself, very nice.

The festive season's sparkle and shine came after a good scrounge around a second-hand bookshop though.  No doe-eyed dreamy browsing there, I was all business.  Since a certain cruel youth has decided not to return my library's lone copy of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, I bought my own.  The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton and Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner are NYRB editions and titles I've been coveting for some time so they went into my bag.  And last, but not least, R picked up a copy of Juliet Gardiner's The Blitz for me because he knew I liked it. 

Book shopping Sundays mean book guilt on Monday but somehow I think I'll get over it.  It was a lovely day.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Westwood by Stella Gibbons

The adorable cover art on this edition of Stella Gibbons's Westwood is what initially drew me in and I was then thrilled to discover the book is set in both Highgate and Hampstead.  Two wonderful destinations on my list of many while I was in London.  I had to buy it.

Margaret Streggles finds a ration book during a walk on Hampstead Heath and being the helpful sort she is, she seeks out its rightful owner.  This lands her on the doorstep of Hebe Niland, a moment which is fortuitous for both of them.  Hebe needs someone that very instant to watch her brood of children.  And Hebe's father is Gerard Challis, the famous writer whom Margaret just so happens to adore.

Plain Margaret and her glamourous friend, Hilda, are veering towards different paths as they mature.  Margaret is constantly reminded by her mother to try and make the most of her rather dowdy appearance while Hilda's social calendar is booked solid.  So while Hilda is working her way through servicemen, Margaret becomes more immersed in the eccentric Challis family and their German maid, Zita.  Now I know it is very un-PC to mock accents but the way Gibbons writes her dialogue had me laughing out loud a few times.

Questioning what she wants out of life, Margaret keenly observes the lives and relationships of those around her.  Why do women dedicate their lives to men who simply continue to do as they please?  Is it enough to sit for hours on end every evening darning socks?  An outing to Bedfordshire to spend a weekend with the ancient matriarch of the Challis family proves to be an eye-opening experience.

Stella Gibbons writes scenes beautifully.  Her descriptions of the rhododendron bushes around Kenwood, darkly lit tube stations, walks up and down Highgate Hill and kitchens filled with cooking smells put you right there in the moment.  My only complaint is that in some cases this makes the story more drawn out that it need be.  Which is great if Westwood is the only book you've packed for a two week holiday but if you have other books calling then you just want to get on with things.

A lovely read which I wouldn't hesitate to read again and well worth the purchase price.  You just may feel the need to follow it up with something a bit more succinct.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Anyone for Gissing?

The swish of silk is calling so I've pulled The Odd Women from my shelves.  Gosh, that sentence would fit one of StuckInABook's memes perfectly!  I digress.  Despite my sidebar showing that I am currently reading George Gissing's book it will actually be a couple of days before I crack the cover.  So if anyone is in the mood for Victorian London and has been dying for an excuse to give this title a go, please feel free to join along.  It has four five-star reviews on Amazon....

Monday, November 7, 2011

Muses for Monday

The arrival of the latest issue of the Persephone Biannually is always cause for great joy.  Knowing that it's on its way is to check the mailbox with childlike enthusiasm.  The current issue is particularly wonderful with short stories by two of my favourites, Dorothy Whipple and Mollie Panter-Downes.  There is always a piece of artwork that catches my eye and whose heart doesn't leap for a favourite blogger when their quote appears? 

The magazine section of the bookstore has lost some its appeal for me.  I can't bear to read about mascara application as if it were a science, I'm cynical about ads for wrinkle cream featuring twenty year-olds and articles about the rapist living next thanks.  And yet people pay lots of money every month for these glossy pages and my past experience is that quite a lot of it is simply flipped through.  Don't get me wrong, there are times when that's all you want, for instance at the dentist's office.  But I am one of those people who apparently can't carry around enough guilt and feel a bit as though I'm stealing from Persephone.  There is so much to sink your teeth into with the Biannually and it's free.  It must cost quite a bit to produce and mail out so I for one would not be opposed to a subscription rate to help fund it. 

And....listening to a podcast featuring James May this morning, he mentioned that he has been debating with his father for forty years about milk versus tea in the cup first.  James puts the milk in first and so do I.  And even though I feel righteous when buying loose leaf tea, I get lazy and end up plopping a bag into the pot...without warming it first.  Tsk, tsk.  What's your tea ritual?