Thursday, January 3, 2013

So close and yet so far....

How long has it been since I pulled my copy of Villette from the shelf?  Surely it has been longer than a month but sadly it feels even longer than that.  Rachel and I have been reading along together with what is the loosest of contracts, just the way we prefer it.  An email here and there to check in with each other is as rigid as things get.  A few years ago we synced our reading with Wilkie Collins's No Name and if memory serves me correctly we summed up our thoughts in two weeks, thoroughly enjoying the book.  This time around I have struggled.

The first sign that this work of Charlotte's was not going to be smooth sailing was when I found myself longing for Jane Eyre after only a couple of chapters.  How can this be?  So many reviews of Villette said this book was far superior to Jane Eyre.  While Jane was collapsing with exhaustion on the moors, her basket containing meagre supplies left behind on the carriage, I needed a box of tissue.  There is no such sympathy for Villette's Lucy Snowe.  Knowing how tragic Charlotte Bronte's life had been leading up to the writing of this novel I found myself only mildly sympathetic for its author.  The coincidence of characters turning up in other countries at convenient moments bothered me.  Perhaps one chance meeting in a story where the lead up would make the whole event a climatic event would have been warranted but this was not the case in Villette.  It gets worse - a convenient swooning episode that lands Lucy at the doorstep of recognizable surroundings left me scowling.   And one character is referred to at the beginning of the book as Graham, then the reader discovers he is the one and only, Dr John...or Dr Bretton depending on which chapter you're reading.  An unreliable narrator is one thing but the reader is asked to believe in far too much subterfuge here.

Do make sure your copy of Villette has a glossary before diving in as there is a good amount of French to decipher.  My basic French lessons in school meant I only had to peek during the longer passages but the Greek references and Bible quotes were a total mystery to me despite referring to the the glossary for those as well.

'Speak of it! you might almost as well stand up in an European market-place, and propound dark sayings in that language and mood wherein Nebuchadnezzar, the imperial hypochondriac, communed with his baffled Chaldeans.'

What?!  While I enjoy challenging myself every now and then passages such as the above felt too much like work.  Give me a piece of prose by Elizabeth Bowen to mull over any day.

There were some really wonderful chapters in the book and I wrote to Rachel that at times it seemed as though two people were at the writing desk.  The dialogue was engaging, the lines witty, the characterization vivid.  Just when my enthusiasm for Villette began to rise there would be pages of what amounted to rambling for this ignorant reader.  Which leads me to acknowledge that the problem must be mine.  While I tried and tried to challenge myself with this endeavour I found myself avoiding reading time and daydreaming mid-page.  Desperate to keep company with a book that makes me want to rush home from work or sneak upstairs to bed early I found myself beginning to skim pages and that is simply letting the book, and myself, down.  So at page 356 I removed the bookmark and closed Villette, perhaps not for good but for right now.  The thought crossed my mind that left stranded on a desert island with this book I would relish the challenge.  Then another thought came to me...Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd, now that would be more like it!  So that is exactly what I am reading now and quite happy about it.

The other thing that I am leaving behind is this blog.  What began as something to do with a day off over four years ago has taught me so much and the wonderful posts by stellar bloggers and friends make my day....each and every day.  Now, I am closing up shop here but do have plans to begin again with more of a book journal to record what I read and simply feel the need for a fresh start.  Once I am ready to open the door to my new place, so to speak, I will be sure to let you know my new address.  In the meantime expect me to keep dropping by your place!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

'...the drift darkened the lower panes....'

'Indeed, egress seemed next to impossible; the drift darkened the lower panes of the casement, and, on looking out, one saw the sky and air vexed and dim, the wind and snow in angry conflict.  There was no fall now, but what had already descended was torn up from the earth, whirled round by brief shrieking gusts, and cast into a hundred fantastic forms.'

Villette - page 314

We had approximately 20 centimetres of snow grace our neighbourhood last night so I laughed when reading about the darkened lower panes in my book this morning.  Living on the corner of our street means extra sidewalk to shovel but the thought of burning off the calories from too much trifle got me through.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Christmas Illustration by Joseph Jacenko

Wishing all of you a wonderful holiday season full of friends, family and good cheer!  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Big Books, Short Books, Old Books and New

The sales figures for eReaders continue to rise but bookshops are overflowing with customers at the moment.  A sight which makes my heart sing!  Four employees were steadily ringing up sales at my local Indigo shop yesterday as the line-up was constantly added to.  My family likes to arrive at the threshold and then wave each other off as we head to the area we each like best.  Our latest trip was to pick up a stash of magazines for indulgent slothing about during the Christmas break.  You know the days - pajamas until noon and the coffee table is littered with clementine peels and Quality Street wrappers. 

A few new books have arrived on my shelves either through the mail, bookshop or found at a second-hand shop so let's see if you can be tempted...

Friends & Relations by Elizabeth Bowen - If you haven't discovered this magnificent author yet then you are missing out, I am telling you!  From the back...

During a soft summer in the 1920s, the Studdart sisters marry and set up house, one in London and one on a country estate.  However, things are not as they seem.  Using careful, elliptical prose interspersed with comic quips and populated by memorable characters, Elizabeth Bowen reveals how these seemingly placid lives are anchored in lies.'  And...'For admirers of the Bloomsbury circle and watchers of Downton Abbey, Friends and Relations offers an unforgettable comedy of manners tinged with romance and regret.'

Treasure Hunt by Molly Keane - I bought this one because Danielle from A Work in Progress piqued my interest about this author in one of her posts and secondly because while flipping through the pages I spotted the words 'tea tray'.  Call me shallow but there you have it - one ever so slight mention of the partaking of tea and I instantly become fond of a story.  First published in 1952 this Virago reissue has been languishing on the shelves at BMV Books in Toronto for ages, I've passed it over numerous times, so it was time to just give it a home.

'To the outrage of their elders and the servants, Phillip and Veronica decide to do the unspeakable and take in paying guests.  A battle of wills commences, with Consuelo and Hercules doing their utmost to thwart the new regime.  In the midst of it all is old and dotty Aunt Anna Rose, who insists that she has some rubies.  If only she could remember where she hid them...'

The Brickfield by L. P. Hartley - By the look of things John Murray Publishers is in the midst of reissuing several of Hartley's novels.  The timing couldn't be better for me as I absolutely loved The Hireling and The Go-Between earlier this year.  Head off to The Book Depository for details...

'A lonely boy living on his uncle's farm in the Lincolnshire Fens, Richard Mardick's solitary existence is interrupted by a chance meeting, and the idyllic love affair, with Lucy.  A disused brickfield is the scene of their clandestine meetings, and it is there that Richard finds her drowned in a muddy pool' 
A sequel called The Betrayal will be printed later in 2013 and the wait will be unbearable!

Upstairs & Downstairs by Sarah Warwick - This is one of those coffee table books you find on the clearance table at your local bookshop and makes for entertaining browsing.  Full of gorgeous photos and illustrations it covers every aspect of domestic life in country houses as well as articles on the suffragette movement, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, other Bloomsbury Group members...and P G Wodehouse! 

Last week I succumbed to a terrible virus making the rounds and was in bed for two days.  This book was on the pillow next to me for most of the time and was just the thing when I could muster the strength for something light. 

A copy of Loving, Living and Party Going by Henry Green is on its way from The Book Depository because Book Snob makes it so ridiculously hard to refuse.  Three titles for the price of one and I'm really looking forward to discovering this author.

So who is clearing space on their bookshelves in anticipation of bookish gifts from others or yourself? 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Book of Christmas by Jane Struthers

This charming little book was purchased from the V&A gift shop with mere minutes to spare before closing time.  Fear of a case of 'shopper's regret' forced me to be uncharacteristically decisive and forego the usual mental debate about the difference between 'want' and 'need'. 

At a quick glance I thought this book was a reissue by Jan Struther, the author of one of the cosiest books you will ever find, Mrs Miniver.  Turns out that it wasn't, and a couple of letters make a huge difference, but serendipity is a wonderful thing.  Quickly flipping through the pages I spied a piece about Sinterklaas, Belgium's version of Santa Claus.  It was during our train ride from Canterbury that one of The Heiress's friends educated me about the December 6 feast day and how naughty children in Belgium are threatened with being tied up in sacks.  Or perhaps it was just Sarah's family doing the threatening...but anyway, her story was extremely entertaining.

Filled with 280 pages of all sorts of tidbits about the traditions, superstitions, folklore and fact surrounding the Christmas season it makes for perfect light reading at this busy time of year.  Whether your advent season is about the Nativity, a Saint, a large man in a red suit or the winter solstice, there are loads of fun and interesting facts to educate and entertain.  You might want to give a recipe or two such as the Christmas Cake or Truffles or who knows, perhaps a Scottish Clootie dumpling is more to your liking?

There are also a few explanations as to why robins are so popular on Christmas cards.  One version is that the little bird was asked by Mary to fan the embers of a small fire in the manger.  'A spark jumped out of the fire and caught the bird on its chest, turning it red.'  Another interesting section is about games played during the festive season, one in the Regency era - in fact Jane Austen's niece, Fanny, described it in a letter...

You must have a large pewter dish filled with flour which you must pile up into a sort of pudding with a peek (peak) at top.  You must then lay a bullet (yes, a real bullet) at top and everybody cuts a slice of it (the pudding), and the person that is cutting it when it (the bullet) falls must poke about with their noses and chins till they find it and then take it out with their mouths which makes them strange figures all covered with flour but the worst is that you must not laugh for fear of the flour getting up your nose and mouth and choke you: You must not use your hands in taking the Bullet out.'

I can't imagine that the housekeeper or laundress would find these hijinks much fun at all considering the clean up afterwards and frankly, a mouth full of flour wouldn't appeal to me either!

A superstition regarding mince pies certainly does though.  Apparently, if you refuse a mince pie over Christmas you will be declining good fortune.  Not worth risking is it?

For the literary fans there are quotes from Samuel Pepys' diary all the way to Adrian Mole, remember Pandora's necklace from Woolworths and the rash it gave her?.  And Grossmith's Mr Pooter...December 24 I am a poor man but I would gladly give ten shillings to find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card I received this morning.'  

A lovely book to buy for yourself or a friend.   

Monday, December 3, 2012

Anna Karenina at the Cinema

Since this adaptation seems to have a 'love it or hate it' air surrounding it I wanted to share my view.  I LOVED everything about it!  The way it was filmed with many scenes performed on stage at a theatre - intriguing, the cast - fabulous, the costumes - gorgeous.  Although I've learned since the V&A exhibit that designers really don't want you to notice the clothes, they are simply an extension of the character.  Well, I'm sorry but how can you possibly resist the urge to swan about in a long silk gown and now I also want a lace veil.  At least for five minutes.

The Heiress and I learned that some of the scenes were filmed at Ham House in Richmond when we were visiting there in October.  Also, one of Anna's (Keira Knightley) voluminous merlot-coloured gowns is on display at the wonderful Hollywood Costume exhibit at the V&A (see it if you can).  Naturally there was some elbowing going on in the dark whenever we spied anything recognizable.

This movie will deliver more than your money's worth in epic drama, I promise you, and you don't often leave the cinema feeling like that.  And see it on the big screen...oh, I want need to go again!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford

It was during a trip to London last February that my husband very kindly chose a copy of Nancy Mitford's Christmas Pudding for me from Hatchards.  There has been enough mention of that last name in our house over the past few years for him to know it was probably a safe bet.  It was tucked away on my shelves to enjoy during the next holiday season and what with decorations being pulled out and carols being played in the midst of November, I decided to get stuck in.

It turns out that Christmas Pudding really isn't all that Christmass-y and would be perfectly well-suited to read during any time of year.  The story centres around Amabelle Fortescu's short-term rental, Mulberrie Farm in the Cotswolds, and an extended group friends who drop by for one reason or another.  One couple, Sally and Walter, have recently become parents to a baby girl and in stereotypical upper-crust fashion, reserve the right to not become too attached lest it all go pear-shaped.  In contemplating the cost of engraving a sterling silver cup with the baby's name...
'I say, I do hope she lives all right, Sally.'
'So do I, you know.  After all the trouble I've had, one way and another, it would be extraordinarily souring if she didn't.  However, nanny and the charlady between them are battling for her life, as they say in the papers, like mad, so I expect she will.  The charlady knows all about it, too, she has lost six herself.'

Paul Fotheringay desperately wants to be recognized as a serious author but his latest book Crazy Caper has the masses in fits of laughter, not at all the response he was hoping for considering its tragic tone.  After some advice to try his hand at a biography he decides to research volumes of work by the Victorian poetess, Lady Maria Bobbin.  How convenient that the volumes now reside at Compton Bobbin, a country estate close to Mulberrie Farm, occupied by the formidable Lady Bobbin and her two young adult children, Roderick 'Bobby' and Philidelphia.

If you have never had any exposure to what life was like for the Mitford girls whilst growing up in their own country pile you might find the characters in this book completely mad.  But if you've read The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters there are many instances when you can easily imagine certain incidents may very well have happened....
"'...Where's Mabel, then?'
'She's just looking for still-borns in The Times,' said Christopher Robin.  'I'll fetch her - oh, here she comes through.'" 

Funny stuff indeed but I realized something part way through the book.  While I adore a farcical play or television show for the two hours it takes to feature on stage or screen I can't take it for days on end during the time it takes me to get through a book.  It's probably why I just could not get on with Benson's Mapp & Lucia either.  The baby talk in that book was simply too irksome and there was a form of secret language in Christmas Pudding that made me groan when it would pop up.  All the over the top twittering, hand-wringing and arm-flapping belied the cool or smoldering glances I have come to expect in my aristocratic reading adventures.  I wanted to smack the simpering Philadelphia for her waffling back and forth about which man to marry every other minute.  Why does a woman barely past the training bra stage have to marry anyone?! 

Christmas Pudding was Mitford's second book and written when she was only 28.  Supposedly she would laugh herself silly while writing it, masking real-life events and friends in her fictional tales.  I, on the other hand, felt like someone on the outside looking in and didn't quite feel in on the joke.  Given just the right mood combined with the time to read such a book in one or two sittings all would be fine but otherwise I'm afraid not.  But all is not lost because The Pursuit of Love written years later was definitely worth waiting for.