Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Blondes by Emily Schultz



published 2015


Blondes 2



Kovacs wasn’t looking at me. She was blinking in the [shop] window… She flicked her fingers and frowned at the mannequins. She was dressed more casually than the last time we had met, but still expensively, a dark sweater and jeans, a cashmere scarf that might have been Hermes draped loosely about her neck.. I wondered if there was a designer collection out there inspired by “What to Wear to a Young Woman’s Abortion.” It occurred to me that she had probably spent as much on her day-off sweater as I was about to throw down at the clinic.

I marvelled that people in my age group were Blondessupposed to be the demographic for the store in front of us. I gestured to a figure in a chambray jumpsuit - a strapless top and a cinched elastic waist. It would flatter someone only if they were five-eight and 110 pounds.

“Can you see me in that?”

“No, I do not think so, dear. Leave it to the undergrads. They still need some regret in their lives.”





observations: Plague novels – not for me. But for a plague novel with passages like the above, I can make an exception. The Blondes is hilarious and satirical, and while telling a scarey and unsettling dystopian-future story, also gives a great commentary on modern life, gender relations, and both the way we look, and the way we look at one another.

A very nasty virus is hitting women, and mostly blonde women. It causes them to act strangely and then to attack, and often kill, people. It is something like rabies. Our narrator Hazel is telling her story to her unborn child, so we know from the beginning that her serious and extended attempts at getting an abortion are going to fail. She is trapped in New York by the crisis, but we know she will make it back to her home country of Canada – the book follows her journey, as the outbreak gets worse and worse.

There’s great writing in the book – I loved the NY cityscape with


Blondes 3
the black corsetry of fire escapes a symphony of car honks, and the way all the florists and corner stores arrange their carnations and lilies on pedestals with bows, as if any given weekday is as important as prom night….
– and the passage goes on to create a perfect picture of visiting a strange city.

Hazel, a graduate student, has had an affair with one of her teachers, a man who – it is obvious to the reader – is no good at all. Familiar stuff, and the everyday related issues alternate in the book with the horrors of the virus. There is an idea that if you have blonde hair you should dye it brown, though whether this is to avoid suspicion or because it’s actually thought to give protection isn’t clear. Hazel looks at the different brown shades, named after trees, available in hair dyes:
I went with the Ash Brown. Is an ash tree darker than a cedar or a walnut tree? Hair-colour names had ill-prepared us for questions of scientific classification.
Hazel is a great heroine because it becomes obvious that she isn’t a great beauty or a great student, she’s not full of snappy comebacks, she has to work things out in a painstaking way – she reminded me somewhat of the weird heroine of Lottie Moggach’s recent book crossed with Rebecca Harrington’s Penelope (compliment – loved both these books). But she is brave and resourceful as well as very funny.

The list of symptoms of the virus include:
Women with raised voice, acting violently… grimacing, displaying a downturned expression. 

A young woman says ‘We’re not allowed to have downturned expressions?... What if we’re worried? In a bad mood?
But then this isn’t just a way of doing down women – the accounts of the attacks are absolutely terrifying and linger in the mind.

The book is quite marvellous – an extraordinary combination of adventures, commentary on modern life, a satire on the way we look at women, terrific characters, and a horribly-well-imagined dystopia. Loved it.

Another affair with an academic in The Professor of Poetry here. Margaret Atwood’s post-plague novel After the Flood is here. And the wonderful Station 11 by Emily St John Mandel – more dystopia, superbly done – is here.

The black and white photo is by James Jowers, from the George Eastman House collection.














Friday, 3 July 2015

The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann 2



published 1953



Echoing Grove



Out of the corner of an eye he took in her appearance, thinking she looked a bit garish: petunia pink evening frock, a colour he disliked, white fur wrap, diamond clips and earrings, make-up overdone, blue-shadowed eyelids between frowning forehead and hard anxious stare. She was beginning to plaster it on, he thought, like all the rest of them. All but one…

‘Very pretty, very nice. Not quite sure about the colour. Nice, I think, Yes. New?’ Tumbler in hand, he slightly jerked his head towards her.

This thing! Heavens no. Really Rickie, you’ve seen it half a dozen times.’

[Later, they are dancing:] She saw their reflections in the wall of mirrors at one end of the room – an ungratifying spectacle: a not-so-young woman dressed rather showily, like a rather respectable tart, her hair set unbecomingly, trying to adapt herself to the slack grasp and shuffle of a bored and exhausted-looking man.
 
 
observations: Should be read in conjunction with Tuesday’s entry on the book, which explains the plot.

Before coming home to his wife, Rickie has seen the other sister, Dinah who ‘wears her hair shoulder-length, rolled under, she wears a mackintosh and carries a shabby suitcase.’ Meanwhile, Rickie himself ‘has a virile sensuous distinction, a prosperous suit of clothes. Upper-class philanderer caught in a fatal net…’


Echoing Grove 4Lehmann doesn’t always describe the clothes, but when she does they are dead on.
Two days later he stopped his car at her door , and she emerged, pale in a lime green linen suit, and took her place beside him.
Later on the mysterious Georgie (a woman) will be wearing dark-red slacks with a striped blouse. She has one of the best lines in the book – when she first meets Rickie (he is sliding in late to a dinner party next to her) she says ‘What have you lost?’ and then ‘[You’ve] a look on your face as if you were wondering where you could possibly have left something or other.’ This makes Rickie see her as tremendously perspicacious, and it has always struck me as the most perfect chatup line.

It is a very intelligent and very romantic book. One of CiB’s favourite poems is (slightly mis-)quoted – Heart of the Heartless World. And there are a couple of lines from a William Blake poem that resonate through the pages, and are of huge importance to Dinah:
Throughout all eternity I forgive you and you forgive me.
-- there is a reference to a grove in the same poem, though not in a way that explains the title to me.

There is a film of the book, called The Heart of Me, again, for no clear reason that I can see - if you are going to change the title, why not change it to something resonant? But that is my only criticism of the film, which is completely beautiful and perfect. Helena Bonham Carter and Olivia Williams play the sisters, with Paul Bettany as Rickie, and the whole thing is a masterpiece – though one that almost no-one has seen. Anyone in need of a great film of relationships, a period drama with wonderful 1930s clothes and settings, perfect casting and acting, should get hold of it at once.

One of the IMDB comments on the film gives this excellent summing up of Dinah’s morally ambiguous behaviour:
She is wracked with regret and despair over the consequences of her affair. But in the thick of it, she is absolutely shameless.
The writing in the book is all rather wonderful. There is a lovely description of a street in wartime London, where life goes on despite the bombing:
These children leaping with infinite tomorrows, that woman putting her baby out to sleep, that other growing flowers…
There is a discussion of another woman – a rival:
‘Steel-true wanton, I rather thought. Well-developed figure, trinkets, head scarves, cheek-bones, on the grubby side. New Statesman girl. Not nasty.’
‘She sounds appalling.’
‘N-no.’ Dinah shrugged. ‘Just not our sort.’

As if a New Statesman girl could be like that.

This book will not be to everyone’s taste, but if you think you like the sound of it at all, you should try it, and watch the film too. I am so hoping that Open Road Media succeed in getting the word out about Rosamond Lehmann, and that there might be a renewal of interest in her.

The black and white photo is from The Vintage tumblr. The green linen suit is from the NYPL.

















Thursday, 2 July 2015

Sarah Ward’s Launch Party for In Bitter Chill




Sarah book  2

Last night I was lucky enough to attend the launch party for Sarah Ward’s new crime novel, In Bitter Chill. The event was held at the offices of publishers Faber & Faber in Bloomsbury in London – it was a pleasure to visit such a historic spot, I kept expecting TS Eliot to appear round the corner. In the photos you can just see corners of the beautiful room where the party took place – not a corporate uniform office, but a lovely panelled room with pillars and cornicing.

Sarah was one of the first friends I made online via this blog – she was one of the group of crime bloggers (including Maxine and Margot) who were so welcoming and generous to me when I first started – so it was a delight to finally meet her after several years of online contact.

And then also at the party were Rich Westwood of Past Offences – another person who helped to welcome me into the community – crime fiction experts Karen Meek and Mike Linane, and writer Anya Lipska

It was a great evening – we were all so proud of Sarah, and so pleased for her at the start of what we can be sure will be a long writing career. It was one of the hottest days ever in London, giving her current title a certain dramatic irony.

There was a quite splendid and very delicious chocolate cake:


Sarah cake

Sarah cuts cake 1
Sarah cuts cake 2

-- and we just all had a great time. It was really good fun to put faces to some of the names I’ve been reading, following and talking to over several years.

I’m very much looking forward to reading Sarah’s book – watch out for a future blogpost on it. You can find out more about In Bitter Chill and Sarah on her excellent blog, Crimepieces, which also features her regular reviews of other peoples’ crime fiction.

Thanks and congratulations to Sarah….

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann 1



published 1953




Echoing Grove 2



[mid-1940s. Sisters Dinah and Madeleine have met up for the first time in many years]


After the meal, after a rapid tour of the house, they prepared themselves to take a walk.

‘Your shape is exactly as it always was,’ said Madeleine.

‘The same to you.’ Dinah looked with appreciation at her sister, tall and trim in old but well-cut tweeds.

‘No, not really. My legs…. Not that it matters tuppence. But I hate myself in slacks now. Mother couldn’t bear me wearing them, she said I looked like a female impersonator. You know how she had a muddled idea that women must dress to preserve the mystery of sex. However, you look all right in them. Fine.’

‘Thanks.’ Dinah’s voice was dry; she smiled. ‘But the mystery of sex was never my strong suit…. Mother turned in her hand about my clothes when I was 17.’

‘Nonsense.’

‘Yes. You’ve forgotten. It was only yours she fussed about. After my coming-out frock, God help me, I was scratched from the arena.’…

‘Poor darling, she had such awful taste,’ said Madeleine, staring out of the window. ‘It was based on a principle: what the jeune fille should look like.’


 
Echoing Grove 3
 


observations: An epublisher called Open Road Media is republishing all of Rosamond Lehmann’s works as ebooks in the US and Canada. They asked me if I’d be interested in looking at this one: in fact I have a 1st edition hard-back, and have read it several times, but I accepted their offer of an ebook, read it again, and fell in love with it all over again. And began to wonder – why isn’t Lehmann better remembered? Many of the women writers of the 1920s through to the 1950s have been revived, or perhaps never gone away. I – like many books bloggers – am an enthusiastic fan of many of them, and feature them frequently, and revere the publishers Bloomsbury, Persephone, Virago and Vintage (who have published Lehmann in the UK) for keeping them in print.

If I say she’s a much more serious writer than others who might on the surface seem similar (Nancy Mitford, Stella Gibbons, Dodie Smith, EM Delafield), that is not either to underplay the status of the others, or to imply that Lehmann is dull or humourless – she is never that. But she does not have the kind of self-deprecating, self-mocking jokes that turn up in other books: she gives herself, her heroines and their lives the importance they deserve. Characters have long discussions about their thoughts and feelings and – above all – their love affairs, and Lehmann is quite unapologetic. And rightly so: she makes these sections surprisingly riveting.

The Echoing Grove concerns the two sisters above, Dinah and Madeleine. Madeleine is married to Rickie, Dinah is living a rackety Bohemian life in London – of one of her later homes she says:
Only one bathroom in the building but the other tenants refrain from baths till Saturday, so it’s not too bad.
While Dinah is staying with her married sister, she gets engaged to Charles. That night, Rickie (up till now merely the perfect brother-in-law) goes to her room, where she is in bed, and tells her she can’t go through with it:
‘I’ve got to.’
‘You can’t. You know why.’
‘Yes.’
‘Break it off.’
‘Yes.’
 --and he immediately leaves the room. One of the hardest and most memorable seduction scenes in any book: ‘And so it had all begun.’

The affair between sister and brother-in-law causes great unhappiness all round (as well as some moments of great joy) and stops, re-starts and has its rather squalid moments. It is, to be truthful, not always easy to follow in the book – the above description is a lot more linear than the way Lehmann tells it. I think the affair starts in the early 1930s, stumbles along for a couple of years, then ends more or less decisively. The book starts in around 1944, when it is clear that Rickie is dead, and the two sisters have been estranged for a long time. The agonizing narrative of the relations among the three of them is then slowly reeled out, but jumping all over the place to different stages of the affair.

The whole book asks the same question over and over: can you follow your heart at others’ expense? Do you have the right to pursue your own happiness if you know you will badly hurt someone else? And there are no answers. The book often teeters towards showing Madeleine as a tradition-bound, stiff person, while Dinah is the attractive free-spirit. But Lehmann (who in her own life would be more of a Dinah than a Madeleine) also shows that Madeleine really does love Rickie, it is not mere convention that makes her want to preserve her marriage. And Dinah’s absurdities and the squalor of her life are shown, as well as the ways in which she would be extremely tiresome.

All the characters are superbly well-drawn, you feel you know them by the end of the book.

The book was made into a film called The Heart of Me in 2002: a terrific film that I highly recommend. There will be another entry on the book, and the clothes in it, and the film, later this week.

The advertising image is one I first used for Agatha Christie’s Moving Finger.

The second picture is from the wonderful Powerhouse Museum collection.






















Monday, 29 June 2015

The Fat of Fed Beasts by Guy Ware



published 2015



Fat of fed beasts 2


[Narrator Rada has got caught up in an armed bank robbery]

One of the men shouted again and pointed his semi-automatic pistol at roughly the point where my head had been before I knelt, and then lay down, and I thought the old man was going to get shot. I recall thinking it would be a shame and something of a waste and a tragedy for a person to get shot just because he was deaf and maybe didn’t have the best peripheral vision. I reached out my right hand. From where I was lying, face down on the linoleum, I could just touch the old man’s foot. He was wearing brogues in thick, tan leather with the depth of shine that I knew, from having watched my father clean his shoes, and mine and, later, D’s, every Sunday evening until I was fourteen years old, came only as a result of repeated polishing over many years. I pinched the turn-up of his right trouser leg between my first and second fingers – I could not quite reach it with my thumb to get a better grip – and tugged, as best I could, to attract his attention and alert him to the danger he was in. He lifted his foot without turning, and shook it, as if shooing away a fly. When he put it down again, the heel – which I noticed was rubber, although the shoe had a leather half sole which was nearly new, or at least not worn – landed heavily on the first two joints of my index and middle fingers, and I could not help shouting out, even though I was trying not to, on account of not wanting to attract the attention of the men with guns, and possibly get shot.



fat of  fed beasts 1




observations: This very strange book is one I heard of over at Col’s Criminal Library. He made it sound unmissable, and anyway it was short(ish) and cheap. And he thinks I’m going to explain it to him. Ha.

I don’t know how you’d describe it – existential noir? We are introduced to a group of people who work in an office together: one of them is a witness to the armed bank robbery above. Nothing is what it seems. The office workers are described as ‘loss adjusters’ but in fact their job is far more unlikely and unusual than that. Some of them are related, some of them live together.

Then there is the bank robbery, which we quickly find out seems to have been staged by some disenchanted police officers. Worst case, two people were shot and possibly killed. But the bank officials claim no-one was hurt at all.

And then, the old man above. He refuses to obey the gunmen, and in the end walks away. But who is he? A name pops up, but it’s the name of someone known to have died a month ago - ‘I had seen the man’s body’ in its coffin. (Col’s review explains the plot better than I have, and in more detail.)

Very confusingly, the chapters are all first person, but are narrated by different characters, and you have to work out for yourself who is talking, with no hints at the beginning of the chapters. It is not that difficult, tbh – though two men have very similar voices - but it is annoying and a bit cheeky.

Throughout the text, there are endless references to literature – James Joyce, Philip Larkin, Dostoievsky, Ian McEwan, Melville - and no doubt many more that I didn’t pick up *. The title is a phrase from the book of Isaiah in the Bible – the sentence has God saying, roughly, ‘why do you make all these sacrifices, why do you think I want all these offerings, I have enough of the fat of fed beasts’. I don’t know why this is relevant.

The book is certainly well-written and very compelling, I really wanted to know what was going on, and the characters were memorable. I found it a little bit too tricksy for my tastes, and am not at all sure that I understood what had happened. I finished the book quite satisfied, but now keep thinking of questions. Sorry Col.

Mind you, I did find the clothes description he was looking for:
He is wearing the pale grey Prince of Wales check, and a hand-made shirt the colour of pus. His tie is lime green.
-- but I didn’t in the end go for that, nor for the carefully-described garb of the bank robbers – Kevlar vests and black balaclavas (instructions given on how to use one as a tourniquet). Nicholas Lezard reviewed the book very enthusiastically in the Guardian, and his final lines were ‘The result of all this is the best debut novel I have read in years. I am now going to polish my shoes.’ ( * Lezard also tells us that the book is stylistically indebted to Samuel Beckett, and I would like credit for the fact that I did not quickly slide Beckett’s name in amongst the references I noted myself above.) I’m not sure how important shoe-shining really is, but apparently the cover (I read it on Kindle) says the book is:
about money, work, love, redundancy, crime, the afterlife AND the importance of well-polished shoes.
The Fat of Fed Beasts was entertaining and very amusing. I liked this line:
You involve yourself with a very low grade of person when you become a thief.
The plot would not challenge this proposition. Ware tells us he borrowed it from real-life bank robber Willie Sutton, who is quoted throughout the book.

On balance, I would read something else by Guy Ware.

The pictures above are from fashion adverts. An unlikely sidelight on the history of trouser turnups comes from Royalty here on the blog













Sunday, 28 June 2015

Dress Down Sunday: The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge


published 1960 – book set in the 1880s



Deans Watch 2



[The Dean is visiting the home of his solicitor in the town]


A small girl was planted sturdily before him. She wore a starched muslin frock with short puffed sleeves and a frill round the neck. A blue sash encircled that part of her anatomy where in later years a waist would possibly develop….. He could not guess her age, but as her chest was about on a level with his knee he thought it to be tender….

She leaped into the big chair beside the canary’s cage and swarmed up its padded back, revealing as she did so that she wore the most enchanting lace-trimmed undergarments….

[Later] Climbing on another chair, showing a good deal of petticoat as she did so, she smiled adorably.
 


observations: When Christine Poulson and I did our lists of books set in Cathedrals and churches, revered blogfriend and favoured writer Hilary McKay had her own suggestion: The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge. And this is it.

Goudge (1900-84) is a lost middlebrow author: her children’s book The Little White Horse has cult status, and the recommendation of JK Rowling. Her adult novels have  titles such as The Herb of Grace, or The Heart of the Family – both part of the Eliots of Damerosehay series. Somehow those titles tell you exactly what kind of books they are. As a teenager (alas, there wasn’t much in the way of YA in those days) I raced through them all, borrowing them from the local library. But it’s been a long time since I’ve read any.

The start of this one brought it all back – endless scene-setting in an imaginary Cathedral town (though you would guess based on Ely), and a lot of history and great characters from the past, and descriptions of bells and clocks.

On about page 40 the actual story gets going, by which time I was losing patience. Finally (this is late Victorian times) we reach a craftsman clockmaker, Isaac, and a long-standing and fierce Dean. Both men have imperfect lives, and the book is about their growing friendship. There is an array of minor characters surrounding them – very well-drawn – and it is obvious that both men’s lives are going to be improved by their unlikely camaraderie. The Dean – a good but stiff man – thinks he is unable to provoke love or affection in others. He will find he is wrong, and the little girl above will help with this.

All this is as predictable as the chiming of the Cathedral bells and the clocks of the town – it is sentimental, formulaic, slightly twee, and full of big doses of spirituality. And yet – my initial impatience wore off, and I became spellbound by the story, anxious to know how exactly things were going to turn out right, concerned about poor Job and Polly. And, amid the sentimentality, there are touches of real depth and a glimpse of the harshness that love can bring – the picture of the Dean’s wife and their relationship is heart-breaking.

I am not for a moment saying that Goudge was a 20th century Charles Dickens, but the experience was similar to reading Dickens: you know you are being manipulated, and also forced to read a lot of unnecessary guff alongside the good bits, but you become completely pulled in and delighted by it. And the picture of the city and the cathedral is astonishing and beautiful, it becomes totally real as the Dean walks round it. And in the end the goodness of people, their heart and charm, win you over, and you wish life really was like that.

A great addition to the list of Cathedral books – thank you Hilary McKay.

The little girl in the extract teeters on the edge of Shirley Temple and Lewis Carroll territory, but you have to allow Goudge the time she lived and wrote in. The picture is by John Hoppner, and came from the Wikigallery

Dickens himself wrote about a Cathedral City in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.














Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Fearless Treasure by Noel Streatfeild



published 1953


Fearless Treasure


[The time-travelling children are in 18th century London]

There were smartly-dressed ladies, with great hooped skirts and very low-cut bodices, with their hair hidden by little lace or linen caps. With them were what by their aprons seemed to be their maids, who, though more plainly dressed, looked as much like their mistresses as possible…. Although they had been to the market and done their shopping they seemed in no hurry to get home, but walked up the road looking around in an eager way to see if any friends were about…

The gentlemen were, the children thought, very dressy. They had what they took for long hair, but Mr Fosse said were wigs. He said, if they could look through the walls of the houses, they would see gentlemen without a hair on their heads, sitting in very expensive dressing-gowns waiting for the wig man to finish curling their hair before they could go out. They wore lovely brocade coats with masses of button-holes, fine handsome turned-back cuffs, white lace at their wrists and necks, long waistcoats, with again rows of button-holes, breeches to the knee and, of all gorgeous things to wear, many of them had red heels on their shoes. On their heads they mostly had huge turned-up black hats, bound with gold braid.


 
observations: So this was interesting: at the end of last year when I did a post on E Nesbit’s House of Arden (time-travelling children, costumes), two fellow-Nesbit fans and blog-friends both mentioned this book for comparison purposes.

Daniel Milford-Cottam said:
There's a Noel Streatfeild book that is very similar in general concept to House of Arden called "The Fearless Treasure." which is... very hard to describe otherwise. Six children, three girls, three boys, from six very different schools and six very different backgrounds - from working class, to super-posh - are sent to visit a strange old man who takes them back through time to six different periods - where each of them discovers a different connection/link to the past. It's a pretty good book and an interesting story, but it is very odd - I wasn't expecting it from Streatfeild although it has a LOT of her trademark touches.
Lissa Evans then said:
I remember finding The Fearless Treasure extremely hard going - it had very peculiar illustrations and ends with two children 'winning' and having to come up with a good way of using a large old house. The solution is a sort of school where poor but distinguished children can learn to rise above their background. I agree with Daniel - very odd.
I was convinced I had never heard of it, let alone read it, despite being such an all-round Streatfeild fan, and ordered a copy for myself.

And when I started reading it, I got to the end of page 1, and it all came flooding back: I most certainly had read it, and remembered with absolute certainty various details that were going to pop up in the next few pages.

What most clearly came back to me was that I had borrowed it from the school library, and had been very disappointed that it didn’t resemble the wondrous Ballet Shoes of blessed memory. Where were the auditions, the frock panics, the lining material at one and six-three a yard? The opening chapter describes six children being plucked from everyday life to go on a great adventure: each has home, background, family and school sketched out. My great wish was to hear more about the children there, at home, not to follow them on a historical jaunt through the ages. (I particularly liked the headmistress who had designed the school uniform in her favourite colours of blue and mauve, and sent notes to the girls with the signature well spaced out ‘so that the girl could, if she wished, cut out the signature for her autograph album.’ It sounds nearly as good a school as the one in The Clue in the Castle)

I took more joy in the book this time around: there is a very complex magic by which the children can at first hear historical details, then see them, then live them. There are six sections, each from a different era – one for each child, fitting in with their long-term ancestry – Norman, Viking, rich, poor. It is very carefully done, there is nothing slapdash about it, and it seems it was well-researched and I’m guessing accurate. The big difference to modern eyes is that it is very English – although Romans, Vikings and Normans are seen as immigrants, there is no space to look at any other nationalities coming into the country: and everyone is very white. But Streatfeild is anxious to explore issues of human rights, the rule of law, democracy and equality; and some of the thinking is very modern. It is certainly not as simplistic or as jingoistic as you might expect.

It was a very interesting book, and I’m glad to have read it again. Still, I bet it was given out as a school prize to many a poor child who hoped for something more theatrical from the author’s name…

The picture is from one of my all-time favourite resources: the album of photos from the Builth Wells Historical Pageant of 1909.