Thursday, June 30, 2011

Incidents in the Rue Laugier by Anita Brookner

"Maud was quite aware of her mother's needs and desires.  She knew that her marriage would put an end to an overpreparedness which they both found intolerable.  How often had she winced to feel her mother's hand in the small of her back, propelling her forward to greet some man, any man, even the ancient family doctor, even Xavier..., and to hear her mother's voice voice exaggerating her slender accomplishments."

How could I ever have doubted Thomas' affection for Anita Brookner?  Her writing is beautiful, her characters keenly observed and she masterfully tells a story in a way that is both succinct and sweeping.

Appearance is everything to Maud's mother, Nadine, which means the small pension left by her deceased husband must be eked out very carefully.  Meat is bought every day but only small cutlets, trips to the dressmaker are spaced out and services to the concierge of the building are kept up twice a week to uphold her status in the building.  If she is careful, the money will last until Maud marries.  While marriage to a rich man would suit Nadine's pride, the truth is that any marriage will relieve her of her commitments as a mother.

Unspoken shame accompanies Nadine and Maud when the only annual trip they can afford is to accept a begrudgingly made invitation by Maud's aunt.  During this year's visit the house is buzzing with her cousin Xavier's friends while Maud stands apart with her careful grooming and starched blouses.  The other young guests with their pedigree backgrounds laugh, drink and sneak away in couples to the summer house.   One of them, David Tyler, is perfect in every way with his ability to make any outfit look better for his wearing it, his handsome face and charming ways that heighten the colour of even mature women.  His reputation for bedding young ladies and leaving them heartbroken in the span of an afternoon does nothing to lessen his appeal.  His friend, Edward Harrison is well on his way to building a secure future and has a conscience.  Guess which one Maud falls for?

Left in a troubled state, Maud is rescued by the offer of marriage from Edward.  He is from an English family and their differences result in a riveting exploration of cultures clashing and the expectations of marriage.  Brookner writes stunningly from both sides of the marital bed and I sympathized equally with both partners.  With Maud for having no option other than to marry someone she didn't love and knowing her mother was fine with that.  And with Edward, conflicted over desperately wanting his wife to belong to him heart and soul while feeling he is sacrificing his freedom to take on another man's responsibility.  Though I must say that I quite enjoyed the way Brookner dealt with Tyler.

Incidents in the Rue Laugier completely changed my mind about Brookner making it a good choice as a first book if you're considering this author.  Thanks to Thomas at My Porch for being passionate about this author and surreptitiously reminding to give her another try.

Co-hosted by Thomas at My Porch and Simon at Savidge Reads

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Playing Hooky from Housework

Every few weeks it's important to forget about the lawn mower, the laundry and the grocery shopping so you can just take off and have fun.  Last winter, R and I discovered West Bloor Village in Toronto and since strolling is much nicer in the warm weather that's where we set off for yesterday.  Imagine walking into what looked like an average Chapters bookstore to discover it used to be a vaudeville theatre!  To visit the ladies room you have to exit stage left but naturally I couldn't resist turning to look out over a sea of books and imagine faces.  What a ham!
As someone who has a designated 'chocolate cupboard' my eye was drawn to a display of Dolfin chocolate bars in a shop full of the most fresh and colourful take-out food you can imagine.  These are for the gourmand with delectable flavours such as lemon and ginger, pear and grilled almond and dark chocolate with violets.  But who am I kidding?  Cadbury Fruit and Nut Dark takes me to a happy place every bit as well.
With Mexican music playing in the background we could have closed our eyes and pretended to be on a hot, sunny beach.  And we would have had to pretend as the weather was quite cool and grey yesterday in Toronto, not at all typical for June.  While these bottles were a feast for the eyes with their summery picnic packaging we found some chardonnay from a local winery on offer at a great price.  You can probably guess which one we brought home.

And last not but least we found the proverbial 'doggy in the window'.  With sleepy eyes this little sweetheart watched a steady stream of people go past the shop from the comfort of a sofa on display.  Hopefully whoever ends up buying it isn't allergic to dogs!

I suppose that my book find should also have a mention.  At BMV Books, a second-hand shop, I found a great deal on a very nearly pristine copy of this.  But first I have some housework to catch up on before I get stuck in!

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

"The woman's coat and hat had gone, and her hair was loose about her face; the evening-gloves were smooth and unmarked, still, on her dangling arms.  Her silk dress, silvered by the moonlight, was pooled about her on the pavement as though she were curtseying, but the flesh of her bare back bulges where the iron pressed at it from within.
'The last set of railings in the street,' said the warden, as he took Kay and Mickey down the area steps.  'What luck was that, eh?"

Through Kay and Mickey we experience the devastation of the blitz while buildings still burn, bodies lie in the street, bricks are falling from buildings left with gaping holes and the percussion of bombs in the distance reminds us that the moment still holds danger.  These women are part of a team whose job it is to deliver first-aid or retrieve body parts in the aftermath of an air raid.  Kay is often mistaken for a young man with her slicked hair, dungarees and cuff links but it's clothing she feels comfortable in as a butch lesbian.

Waters has written The Night Watch in three parts, working her way back in time through 1940s London.  Beginning with 1947, we meet the central characters and are teased with secrets from their past.  Viv and Duncan are brother and sister, she is having an affair with a married serviceman and Duncan has been left shell-shocked but not by an enemy bomb.  Involved in a terrifying incident he serves time in prison and has to endure the disappointment in his father's eyes during visits.  Other men's boys spent the war fighting for their country while his spends his days as the topic of whispers amongst neighbours.  Helen is Julia's lover but their past is linked with Kay's and while on the surface all seems well there is an undercurrent of doubt, suspicion and jealousy.

Nothing too small escapes Waters' eye for detail such as describing the bite marks on a cup that define it absolutely as belonging to a child.  There are also plenty of pots of tea, sips from whisky flasks, gas rings and blackout curtains to evoke the atmosphere.  And humourous moments such as a soldier mentioning to another how his girlfriend would somehow manages to turn her ankle whenever they passed a jeweller's window are welcome to lighten the mood.  The paragraph I quoted and two other scenes were absolutely gripping and had my own house been crumbling around me I don't think I could have put this book down.

The Night Watch is clever and once I finished it I immediately wanted to turn back to the first page as the beginning of the book is actually its summation.  Things you read early on now make sense, we know what makes the characters tick and their secrets have been revealed. 

If you want to experience the Blitz in literature I hold books such as Vere Hodgson's Few Eggs and No Oranges, Marghanita Laski's To Bed with Grand Music or Mollie Panter-Downes Good Evening, Mrs Craven in the highest favour.  But Waters didn't embarrass herself with this one, in fact, it was quite entertaining and well worth the time spent reading it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Deacon Ponders Brookner...

'One summer at La Gaillarderie, 18-year-old Maud - handsome but not flirtatious - meets two Englishmen, and they all move eventually to an apartment in Paris. Maud is seduced by the assured and ruthless David who leaves her pregnant, whereupon the quiet dreamy Edward offers to marry her.'

"Oh, Maud...the things I could have told you about men, you silly girl" thought Deacon as he ponders Incidents in the Rue Laugier.

My first attempt at reading Brookner fell a bit flat with Fraud but Thomas' enthusiasm and the antics of a cross-dressing border collie have encouraged me to try again.  Speaking of which, by the looks of my vintage dress now that playtime is over he needs to be reminded where we keep the lint brush!

Thomas is kindly hosting International Brookner Day.  For more information click here!

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Little of What You Fancy...

I have spent far too much money buying oatcakes to fend off low blood sugar but thanks to Cornflower and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall there will be no more of that!  Sorry, Cairns.

Who knew they were so easy to make?...ridiculously so.  Surely there must be some ingredients missing?  Not only did these most satisfying crunchy snacks turn out better than I expected, they impressed a taste testing panel of colleagues yesterday.

R loves to tease me about my fondness for treats he would define as horse feed.  And don't get me wrong, a lovely slice of cake would win in a contest but if you're hypoglycemic oatcakes are just the thing when you begin to fade.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple

 "Mr Knight smiled to himself.  Five hundred a year!  And they sat down with it, these men.  They put up with it.  And the world was full of money.  They never even put out a hand towards it.  Poor chaps, they'd no guts or no wits, he didn't know which it was.  Mr Knight pulled down his waistcoat and settled himself more comfortably in his comfortable seat." 

Oh the delight of a Dorothy Whipple novel!  As cosy as a rainy Saturday afternoon spent watching a nostalgic film cuddled up in your favourite comfy sweater.

The Blakes are a typical family with the usual concerns about making ends meet.  Their three children are on the verge of adulthood and have their own ideas about the future.  Freda is a snob, Douglas lives to create science experiments and Ruth is a bit of a mess but does has an affection for writing.  There is also Uncle Edward who embarrasses the family with his inability to hold down a job due to problems with alcohol and laziness.

Poor Thomas Blake works day in and day out to earn enough money to provide for everyone, even his mother who hates to say thank you.  Things could have been so different if his father had been a better businessman but now Thomas is 'a servant where he should have been master'.

A chance encounter with Mr Knight, a wealthy financier, presents an opportunity for Thomas to step up in the world and he grabs it eagerly.  His daughter, Freda, is thrilled to be able to socialize with the richer set and can finally allow her snobbery to reach its full potential.  The oh-so sophisticated Mrs Knight kindly offers to show Freda around the best shops and even takes her to get a permanent wave against her mother's wishes.  The resulting scene is unforgettable and why I chose a related image for this post.

As the Blakes wealth increases, those left behind can't resist making comments about the high and mighty.  None more so than Mrs Greene, the quintessential net-flicker with a penchant for the negative.  And as Thomas spends more time with Mr Knight, Celia wonders if she has been a poor replacement for the men's club all these years.  Right on schedule, Uncle Edward turns up demanding an opportunity now that the Blake name is back over the factory door.  I couldn't help but enjoy the mortification of the family when Edward resorts to a form of blackmail in order to secure a position.  If he is refused a job at the factory then he will have to apply to a vacancy in staffing at the Knight's residence.  Can you imagine the shame!?

As any fan of Whipple knows, her characterization is excellent.  In my humble opinion, in They Knew Mr Knight it is sublime.  Pin down an opinion of a character and then ask yourself a few chapters further along if you feel the same way.  How she does it without being even remotely unsettling is quite fascinating when you think about it.  Waiting to discover whether Mr Knight is either scoundrel or saviour certainly kept me riveted throughout.

During the climax of the story I was pouring tea with one hand whilst not taking my eyes off of the page, trusting my ear to tell me when the cup was full.  The sign of a good book I'd say.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Snippets of England in Oakville

The Heiress and I took ourselves off to Downtown Oakville this afternoon to window shop.  First we browsed the main street shops, then we ooohed and ahhhed the historic homes.

Quite a few are sporting Union Jack flags.  As I was tucking my camera back into my purse I said to The Heiress "Snippets of England", just then the lady strolling by on the sidewalk let herself into this doorway with a smile...oops.

Wouldn't it be lovely to walk through these gates every day, fling open the door and say "I'm home!"? Well, only if I had some help washing doggy prints off of the miles of floor space.

This charming courtyard belongs to a church.  It's deceivingly tranquil...just to the right there was an event taking place with clowns, kids and balloons all over the place.  One little imp almost clipped me with her Frisbee minutes earlier!

And of course we brought Deacon along for the ride.  A dip in the lake and sharing a sausage in a bun from the butcher's bbq stand is the best part of this boy's day out in Oakville.  "Get your stick!"

Friday, June 10, 2011

Coal House and Convocation

Oh I do love the internet!  This past week we have been rationing out episodes of Coal House at War each night.  The BBC produces some fabulous series and documentaries and though it may take awhile, in this case two years, to view them over here I say better late than never.

Three families were deposited in Stacked Square, situated in South Wales, to live as authentically as possible to 1944.  Ration books, power outages, air raids and very little in the way of hygiene products seem at first to be overwhelming.  But it's remarkable how after just one month the families involved not only adapt but embrace their new way of life chock full of hard work, elbow grease and inconvenience.  The arrival of four Bevin Boys to work in the mines alongside the other men add a bit of romance for teenager Annie Starr and speculation for everyone else.  The men toil away in the cramped, wet coal mines while the women work at a munitions factory to support the war effort.  Those washerwomen headscarves and a bit of red lipstick make women look gorgeous, I don't care what anyone says.  Scant rations and scratchy toilet paper lead to pilfering from the factory stocks thanks to the aid of oversize ladies knickers to hide things in.  And the children were such sweethearts, bravely taking their malt extract and cod liver oil by the gulpful everyday...resulting in an interesting change of bathroom habits much to the horror of their mums!

Each episode showing a 'simpler time' has been a welcome relief after days full of talk about visas, timetables and financial statements for The Heiress' time overseas and shopping for just the right outfit for convocation.  Honestly, forget tears at the prospect of parting for what could be years, I can't wait to get back to being an empty nester!

The sea of gowns, bouquets of roses, smiling faces, proud parents and the height of some of the young ladies shoes made for a day full of wonder.  This graduating class also marks the university's centenary which added to the excitement.  Craig Kielburger and his brother, Marc, were granted honorary Doctor of Law degrees with Craig delivering an impressive speech - without notes - about children and poverty in developing nations.  Seeing your child stroll the red carpet behind a robed Marshal, carrying the Sceptre, while fanfare is being played can cause your eyes to sting just a bit.  A beaming smile as she looked back over her shoulder at us a few times made all the sacrifice worthwhile.  Though I couldn't help but wonder how many of these emerging adults still need reminding to put their dishes in the dishwasher or tidy their bathroom? 

It has been a busy week full of the past, the present and talk about the future.  There was also the matter of helping some friends split and stack countless cords of wood, during a heatwave, from a tree they had to cut down in their yard.  My Wonder Woman breastplate has been coming in awfully handy lately I tell you.  Anyway, my hope of getting a nice photo of The Heiress receiving her hood were dashed by things moving along too swiftly and a stream of the recently hooded walking in front of my view.  But a wee glimpse of one end of the stage gives you a slight impression of what things were like.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The New House by Lettice Cooper

"To-day, she thought, is like a crack in my life.  Things are coming up through the crack, and, if I don't look at them, perhaps I shall never see them again.  Ordinary life in the new house will begin to-morrow and grow over the crack and seal it up."

A story about a family on moving day sounds so appealing doesn't it?  I could just picture the china being packed up, smiling faces navigating through hallways full of boxes and everyone dishing up stories about the past.  The New House is sort of like that but there is also a few black clouds and unfortunately most of the characters just didn't appeal to me.
This book was shelved not once but twice because it just wasn't the story I was hoping for but retrieved fairly quickly both times.  That Persephone-grey cover is my assurance that something wonderful lies between the endpapers so I was determined to see things through.  Wondering how others had got on with The New House I searched for some reviews and found a kindred spirit in Simon from Savidge Reads.  His review is eerily bang-on to my sentiments so pardon me for taking the easy route and click here.

Interestingly, the ending of The New House was lovely so all is not lost and perhaps another read down the road may be more encouraging.

Endpaper design - "Rope and Dandelion" by Margaret Culkin, 1936

Friday, June 3, 2011

Bouchons au Thon

The date has been set for one of several friendly competitions between friends this summer. 

AppetizerFest will be an afternoon of consuming delicious tidbits and assigning marks based on various criteria.  It's really just another excuse to have a laugh with friends and partake in some culinary jousting.  One of our friends thought this would be the perfect time to introduce a woman he had recently began seeing romantically.  Can you imagine what ran through her mind with fifteen other people pulling out score sheets and mulling over every detail of an appetizer?  It's one thing to know you're amongst friends who are completely full of it but poor Ms M must have been wondering what she had got herself into.  While everyone was chewing and mulling, pens poised to assign a mark, I leaned over and said quietly "We are so full of it it's not even funny" which made her laugh.  The very lovely Ms M is still around and will be in on the fun for this year's competition.

Mrs Miniver's Daughter recently wrote about discovering a copy of A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg and a craving for Bouchon au Thon was heartily underway.  I made a batch on Wednesday in regular muffin tins as called for but I'm thinking that baked in those miniature tins they would make a lovely bite-sized appetizer.  Would they be boring without some sort of dipping sauce?  These are basically tuna, egg and Gruyere cheese so if you have any suggestions for something zingy to accompany them please feel free to share!