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Thursday, 27 November 2014

Thanksgiving Special: Getting to be the Grown-Ups

the book: The Other Side of Winter by Benjamin Markovits

published 2005


Amy’s father called, some Saturday afternoon in October, to say that why didn’t the whole family come to hers for Thanksgiving, if she didn’t mind. From that moment she stopped at least two or three times a day in the middle of whatever she was doing to look forward to it…

She spent the afternoon of their arrival, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, growing increasingly anxious. Charles had slept over the night before, since her holidays began that morning… Amy kicked him out of bed at last, and out of her door, claiming the hundreds of things she had to do to prepare for Thanksgiving…

When the turkey had been got, and everything else in the fridge left on the counter to make space for it, and the cans of candied yams stacked neatly on top of the shelf. When the bags of stuffing, two kinds, had been stuck behind the cereal boxes, and the sack of potatoes, despaired of, pushed to a corner of the floor. When she had bought not only a blend of fresh coffee for her dad from the toniest deli in her neighbourhood but a coffee-maker to brew it in… and hauled two six-packs of beer up the walk-up... When she had stripped her bed and laid on fresh sheets and a duvet for her parents… When she had begun to be overwhelmed by a sense of consumption outstripping the heartiest appetite, of the leftovers to linger week-long in her fridge, kept under saran-wrap on a fatty platter as token and evidence of her family visit, then discarded at last, with a heart as cold as the turkey.

Then she sat down and waited for them to come.


Outside the USA, we think we know a lot about Thanksgiving – from films and TV series mostly – but really we don’t. I lay claim to knowing a bit more, from having lived in Seattle for six years, and have very fond memories of the feast – of its friendliness, its inclusiveness, its happy feeling, its co-operative nature, and just the idea that you would celebrate being grateful.

In the nature of things I didn’t do a family feast – our friends were our family – but I think everyone can empathize with Amy above: she has become the hostess, she is no longer the young woman flying home for Thanksgiving. She wants everything to go well, and at first it will… but this is a serious literary novel, so don’t expect too much happiness.

The book is a set of four interlinked short stories, one for each season of the year: each one takes up a minor character from a previous one. It seems to have also been published under the name Fathers and Daughters. Markovits looks at their lives and their thoughts and their dreams in detail. More New York intellectuals doing some over-thinking, you could say. Similar to Brian Morton’s A Window Across the River, on the blog recently but I think the Morton was better. Also, not sure about the ‘that’ in the first line above.

I did like this:
There are two kinds of things that happen in the world, the things you can’t do anything about and the things you can. The first writers call description; the second, plot.
A neat aphorism.

Have a great Thanksgiving, even if you’re not in America.

The picture is from the NYPL.


Wednesday, 26 November 2014

How Not to be American by Todd McEwen

collection of pieces from various dates, published 2013

extract from Thoughts on the New American Uniform

I was sitting in the parking lot of Walmart, wondering how I was going to feed myself, when I suddenly realized that everyone in the parking lot was wearing the same thing (except for me, of course, still ludicrously togged out in plus-fours and Inverness cape). What they were wearing was this: a baseball cap, a T-shirt, shorts, and what I was brought up to call tennis shoes but are now called running shoes, or in Europe, trainers. This is what the poorest people on earth are wearing right now, I thought. Reaganomics has foisted the third world upon us…

You can spot my countrymen in Europe by this
uniform of T-shirt, shorts and cap. The American used to be spottable by a crisp new Burberry acquired in London and… a very silly hat. And for my older fellow Americans this is still true - but if you get underneath the Burberry (yeccch!) this is what they’re wearing. So I think of this now as a uniform – the New American Uniform.

observations: Todd McEwen has given us two very memorable clothes moments on the blog – the hilarious Killer Barbie from his collection of stories, Five Simple Machines, and the curious case of Cary Grant’s suit, a way of looking at the Hitchcock film North by North-West. Just thinking about either of these two McEwen pieces makes me smile a lot. (The Cary Grant is included in this book too.) When he is on form and on target he is unbeatable: unique, hilarious, clever, thought-provoking, provocative, rude, and with a great use of language (and, evidence above, italics).

These pieces vary enormously, but the book is well worth it for the good ones. You can get an idea of this piece from the title, and the extract above. There’s another one, called Curse of the Sand People which also deals with clothes and appearances:
Everywhere you looked, people and their possessions were getting paler and paler. It must surely be counted a signally black day in the history of wester domestic ecology when people started to buy clothing that was already half washed away, half DESTROYED, by big machines, in the name of fashion, or to put it more bluntly, in the name of making themselves disappear.
He certainly has his own way of looking at the world, and he simply doesn’t resemble any other writer. He writes here about his childhood, about Thoreau, about bluegrass music. And he has a nice piece called When I Become King! – we could all write our own diktats, but I did enjoy his.

My only complaint about the book is that it doesn’t tell you where the pieces originally appeared, nor does it give any dates of writing – I’m guessing this one, featuring Reaganomics, is quite old.

I really must read one of his novels next.

Although I’m quite happy to read Todd McEwen on the subject, It seemed unfair to find a picture of some casually-dressed US citizen just to mock him. So the big picture is a very unobjectionable advertising image. However it is true that men in the t-shirt/shorts combination do look like boys, so Charlie Brown seemed an appropriate image too, and so would Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes - but I explained in yesterday's entry why there can be no picture of him...

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Tuesday List: Books that Make Me Laugh

My blogfriend Christine Poulson suggested that she and I should make lists of books that make us laugh: that seemed an excellent idea, especially as we had such good interactive fun when we did our favourite Agatha Christies a few months ago. And given a cold dark November – we can all do with ideas to cheer ourselves up…

So we’re posting our lists on the same day, and will link here's the link to Christine's list.

These are my choices, in alphabetical order by author:

Lucky Jim's girlfriend, a right go-er in a paisley frock

1) Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis I have very mixed feelings about Amis and his works and his political views and his attitudes to women. But Lucky Jim is one of the finest and funniest books of the 20th century, and it never fails to make me laugh. Jim’s faces – the madrigal singing – the burnt sheets on the bed – ‘not the paisley frock’: all splendid. And a link with one my favourite poets, Philip Larkin. (I guess I appreciated him at opposite ends of his career: the other very funny book was his 1986 Old Devils, or History Boyos as I like to think of it.)

2) The Mapp and Lucia books by EF Benson are going to be televised again in the UK this Christmas – fans will be hoping and fearing: can TV really do justice to the social battles of Tilling? It’s a matter of life and death because the stakes are so low. Au Reservoir, darlings, time for some Moonlight Sonata (uno duo tre), a chota peg, and some homard a la Riseholme.

3) Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings and Darbishire books are like PG Wodehouse crossed with the sublime Molesworth (both of whom I’m sneaking onto the list here). The charm of the two little boys, the fact that Buckeridge never makes them clever, and the plotting which is beyond description – all key factors. My favourite moment in all the books comes when Jennings, on the roof, shouts down a chimney pot ‘I’m looking for a ray of light in the darkness’, which portentous sentence goes straight down the flue, ‘amplified like a megaphone’ and is sent booming out of the fireplace, causing Matron to jump a mile and spill her tea.

4) Christopher Buckley’s father was a very right-wing American political and grammar commentator: his own take on life is different. His books are very American, which perhaps is why they are not better-known in the UK, but they are so funny they would appeal to anyone. Thank You For Smoking is a hilarious take on the tobacco industry (I mean, just the title...), and The White House Mess is splendidly funny not only on politics, but also on office life everywhere.

5) Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon is another blog favourite – the setpiece scenes in the book – literary gatherings and Passover – are among the great, funny party scenes of literature. Just click for more than you could need. 

Bridget Jones in her teddy

6) Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding. I get pointlessly exercised when people describe the books as romcom or chicklit. The first one is House of Mirth for modern times, and I think all three books are wonderful observational satires that can tell you a lot about British life in the past 20 years. And make you laugh and snort and spill your coffee.

7) Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Anyone who looks at this blog much must know I am obsessed with her, and these books still make me laugh no matter how often I read them. So I won’t say any more this time – just click here to see endless blog entries.

8) My search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket This is my most obscure choice, a book I have banged on about on the blog several times. It is a modern version of the Aspern Letters, as a young academic weasels his way into the household of a woman he thinks may have valuable documents. It is compelling and intriguing, and asks questions about the mistresses of presidents, and our rights to privacy. But it is also hysterically funny, laugh-out-loud funny, don’t-read-on-public-transport funny.

Cousin Teresa takes out Caesar, Bonzo Jock and the big borzoi (I didn't even have to look that up)

9) The short stories of Saki - favourites are Cousin Teresa, The Un-Rest Cure, Sredni Vashtar, The Way to the Dairy, The Open Window and – oh joy – The Story-Teller, a tale that any sensible child will love to bits.

10) Calvin and Hobbes The comic strip by Bill Watterson was part of our family life: adults and children could all be felled with a quote: “Ya like that Susie?” and “I just like the word smock” and “IF you get A present…” and “Mom was up too late packing.” Our collection books fell apart with re-reading, so we had to shell out for the complete C&H in 3 massive hardbacks…  Bill Watterson always refused to license the image for any purpose whatsoever – so ANY Calvin and Hobbes t-shirt or mug or sticker you may ever see is pirated. He must have missed out on, literally, millions of dollars because of this, but obviously doesn’t care, and you can only respect him for his decision. Still - I had hoped to be able to reproduce a strip here, but this is apparently complete impossible: you cannot (legally) use C& H online. So please go to this website and see some sample strips. 

That’s 10 – but I would have liked to have fitted in Adrian Mole; Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell (very amusing but also serious and clever murder story); The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (young Americans in Paris in the 1950s); Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera – a very recent read, hilarious on the joys of growing up in the West Midlands in the 1970s; Penelope by Rebecca Harrington and Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell – two brilliant campus novels, 50 years apart; and Doctor in the House by Richard Gordon – it’s really just a collection of anecdotes, no doubt many of them traditional and mythical, but overall the book is delightful and knockout funny. And what about the Provincial Lady? And...? Stop me before I blog forever. 

Now I’m hoping for more laughs from Christine’s selections - and some more suggestions from readers and commentators below.

Monday, 24 November 2014

The Gates of Bannerdale by Geoffrey Trease

published 1956

[At a girls’ grammar school in the Lake District in the 1950s]

Penny whispered to Sue:

“I’ve decided!”


“I’m going to have them.”

“The tangerine ones?”



Penny was referring to a particularly daring pair of slacks which had been brightening a shop window in Castle Gate for the past week. Most of Penny’s closest school-friends had been taken to inspect them. The general verdict had been that they were very gay and dashing. But… well… Penny was one of the very few girls who could possibly wear them. By that, they didn’t just mean that she had the right measurements...

On Monday she returned from the lunch-hour clutching a big parcel… she undid the string and the slacks dangled floorwards in all their lengthy glory. As Penny had foretold, “glory” was the word.

“I got this too,” she said, holding up a floppy black sweater in her other hand. “I just couldn’t resist it.”

[her schoolfriends persuade her to try them on in the 6th form common room]

The verdict was favourable. With Penny’s black hair and creamy-white skin, the slacks and sweater made her look like something on a magazine cover. After another minute or two of heated discussion on appropriate lipstick shades, her friends began reluctantly to open books and begin their studies. At that moment [headmistress] Miss Florey, having knocked twice without reply, opened the door and walked in.

“Oh dear!” laughed Mum when Sue reached this point of the story. “And was Penny still in her tangerine slacks?

“Well,” said Sue, smiling at the memory, “yes – and no.”

observations: Found it! I explained last week how the writer Lydia Syson told me of the awesome tangerine slacks in this series: I tremendously enjoyed reading through 3 of the series in order to find the reference, and would happily re-read the remaining two if they weren’t so difficult/expensive to get hold of.

This is a splendid final entry in the series: and what I love is that Miss Florey has come to find Penny to discuss the possibility of her making ambitious plans for university. For those younger than me: such a nice juxtaposition of scenes - Penny allowed to have a big interest in clothes as well as her studies and career - would be vanishingly rare in any YA fiction of the 1950s or 60s, let alone a book by a man.

And as I said last time – Trease just seems to be such a nice man, as well has having very proper views.

The narrator Bill has already applied to and (hardly a spoiler) got into Oxford. The process is described in some detail. Nice historical point – he goes off to do his National Service for the next 18 months, meaning he and Penny go up to University at the same time. The book then describes their first year: an adventure about lost treasure, as well as the usual May morning, student plays, studies and activities. It’s a joy to read, as well as being full of contemporary references, and a great picture of Oxford life. Lydia remembered the slacks: the detail that stuck with me for 30 years was that Penny used a hatbox as a kind of extra suitcase:
She said, in that curious voice girls use when trying to talk and to apply lipstick at the same time: “You don’t have to use hat-boxes for hats! What an old-fashioned idea!”
Penny becomes Pen, the two of them wonder whether they should be finding different friends, and there is a discussion about the integrity of historical research exactly paralleling the key plot point in Dorothy L Sayers Gaudy Night, 20 years before.

Great books, well worth reviving. I loved them as a teenager, and I love them now – they deserve to be read by a younger generation, even as historical fiction...

As Lydia Syson Tweeted to me: “Glory!”

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Death Wears a White Gardenia by Zelda Popkin

published 1938


Singularly, Mr. Swayzey's promenade came to an end in the silk underwear department, in, to be specific, that section of the department devoted to handmade lingerie designed in France, and executed by the sight-destroying labor of underpaid Chinese and Porto Ricans. The tables in the center of the section drew his discerning eye. One was heaped with nightgowns, pink, peach, orchid and white, looking like old fashioned valentines with blobs of lace and fine spun cobwebs of embroidery; another with panties; a third slips. He looked at a price tag, speculatively, saw "$19.75" in red ink, below the crossed-out typed figure of "$24.50."…

A dim night light burned in that corner of the main floor. Blue denim had been stretched over the tables. Mr. Swayzey lifted the shrouds. With lightning rapidity he picked out nightgowns, slips, chemises, and crammed them into his bag. Selection was easy. During his brief pause less than a half hour earlier, he had decided what he would take. A careless amateur might have grabbed at random and scattered, but not Joe Swayzey. He left the tables as neat as he had found them, piles of merchandise smaller, but otherwise not visibly disturbed. Swayzey had technique.

observations: Zelda Popkin – isn’t that a great name? I’m surprised she picked the mundane ‘Mary Carner’ for her detective. My attention was drawn to this book by Les Blatt, who reviewed it at his Classic Mysteries blog here. He didn’t like it all that much – and I tend to agree with his criticisms – but nothing was going to stop me reading a murder story set in the lingerie department of a large NY department store.

Popkin wrote several books featuring her store detective – if I’d got there sooner I could have added her to this week's list of young female detectives: Mary’s a great heroine, smart and appealing. A body is found in the store: management fear bad publicity; the police allow themselves to be pushed around (this is, Les and I agree, unconvincing); and Mary keeps her ears and eyes open and solves the crime. I read the book on Kindle, and regret very much I didn’t have the Mapback edition with a plan of the store – it looks exceptionally pleasing in a photograph, as well as helping with the mystery. (I must say that I didn’t quite get the layout of the area where the body was found.) 

There’s an excellent description of a big sale at the store:

A mob of women fought for sheer silk stockings at fifty-two cents a pair; they pounded one another's ribs, lacerated each other's skin, knocked off hats to get to house dresses at sixty-seven cents, to gloves at two pairs for a dollar.
- that could have gone into my recent stockings piece for the Guardian, and matches up with the guest blogger’s piece on Elizabeth Smart earlier this year: “I see her often, battling for bargain stockings in Macy’s basement…. Sheers, O you mad frivolous sisters, sheers.”

There’s a nice contemporary reference to a character – a kept woman or professional mistress – having ‘more negligees right now than Wallis Simpson.’

Irene, another single woman working at the store, is shown to be having a male friend stay over, even though she has no intention of marrying him. The police inspector says: “You’re a pretty unmoral person, aren’t you?” but isn’t allowed to get away with that – Irene defends her position very thoroughly. And Popkin adds in a tiny scene in which a penniless unemployed man shoplifts clothes for his new baby: he is treated with sympathy and understanding. And, isn’t that interesting above about the underpaid sweatshop workers making all those lovely clothes? – not just a modern phenomenon.

This is not a cozy mystery, despite the setting, and Popkin tries quite hard to be hard-boiled about it. It’s a bit of a strange mixture, but I enjoyed it, and am grateful to Les for the tipoff. As I say, I agree totally with his criticisms of the mystery, but I liked the setting and period details so much that I didn't mind.

The pictures are of the lingerie department at Burdine’s store in Miami, and are from the Library of Congress.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Henrietta Sees It Through by Joyce Dennys

published 1986, written 1942-45

Lady B and I entered for the Bowling Tournament. She drew the Admiral as her partner, and I drew Colonel Simpkins. Neither Colonel Simpkins nor the Admiral was pleased, but they generously decided to make the best of it. Lady B and I were, of course, delighted when we found we had drawn each other in the first round as opponents.

[The women play, then leave the men to get on with it]

‘Now they’ve got the whole rink to themselves,’ said Lady B, settling herself comfortably on a seat. ‘I like your shirt, Henrietta. Where did you get it?’

‘I made it out of some of Charles’s old pyjamas. I used the legs for the sleeves.’

‘My dear, how brilliant of you! I often wonder why men wear out the seats of their pyjamas the way they do. The collar’s good.’

‘I lined it.’

‘Just pull up your jersey and let me see the back. Yes, it’s definitely a success. And the colour is delightful. Charles must have looked sweet in it.’

‘He did rather.’

A shadow fell across our knees, and we looked up to see the Admiral standing before us. ‘Would it be too much to ask you ladies to pay a little attention to the game?’ he said in a shaking voice.

observations: This entry explains how I first came across Henrietta, via my friend Chrissie Poulson, and Henrietta is also one of my Older Women Winning Through, list here

When I finished Henrietta’s War, I instantly downloaded this one, the second volume, and read it straightaway. It is just as good as the first one, and takes us right through to victory. Again, there are fascinating contemporary issues as well as the excellent jokes: A burning question of the day seems to have been how much compensation was paid to those who lost relations in air raids, with the insult that women are valued less than men. This leads to one of the group speculating on potential widowhood for her husband’s benefit:
‘Well, if I were left a widow I know what I’d do,’ said little Mrs Simpkins, clearly and unexpectedly. ‘I’d move into a much smaller house, and I’d sell your roll-top desk.’ After that there was an awkward silence.

In the section above, the two women were looking forward to the game as a chance to chat, but Lady B suddenly & disappointingly gets good at bowls – ‘Halfway through the game she had a brandy and soda brought out to her from the bar’. Luckily, eventually ‘inspiration left her and she began playing in her old and, to me, more attractive style’ – as Lady B says ‘Being good at games takes all the fun out of them.'

The two women stare at a beautiful new hat in a shop window, but they can’t justify buying it.
‘If you were to wire the brim of the hat you wore at the Thomson wedding, you could make it very like that one.’

‘But I’d never get a quill that colour. I like the quill.’

‘There are seagulls on the beach,’ I said, ‘and I have some coloured inks.’
- the result, apparently, is splendid.

Henrietta’s daughter is called Linnet: the only other instance of this name I have come across is in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile – Linnet Doyle, the richest girl in the world.

The picture from the Imperial War Museum shows a young woman making her own blouse – probably a lot smarter than Henrietta’s, and not made from old pyjamas, but illustrating the make-do-and-mend attitude of the war.

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

published 2005, set in the mid-1950s

[Penelope is attending a ball in a large private house in London]

She was dressed in an unflattering off-white crinoline, a heat rash creeping over her plump shoulders… ‘Penelope! What are you doing here?’ she yelled, speaking aloud what I had been wondering about her. ‘You look different . It’s your hair, isn’t it?’ I nodded, my heart sinking with shame. Why should the only person I knew at this gathering be Hope Allen? She glanced around and her eyes lit upon Charlotte, deep in chatter with the Wentworth twins.

‘Heavens! Don’t look now , but that’s Charlotte Ferris and the Wentworth girls over there,’ she hissed, swinging her back to them, ‘I read something about Charlotte in the Standard last month. They said she was the only girl in London who can wear Dior, identify a great claret and talk to the Teds,’ she added in one of those whispers that comes out louder than a normal voice. I wanted the polished floors of the saloon to swallow me whole. And I had my doubts about the Standard. The only thing I had ever heard Charlotte say when consuming wine was ‘Yum’.

observations: I recently did a list of ‘Books like I Capture the Castle’ – I defined them as books about ‘Young women growing up in amusing circumstances, and how they achieve what they want in life’ – ICTC being the very best of these. The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets was recommended by Sam Eades, publicist at Pan Macmillan and the person who triggered my list, so of course I had to read it.

It’s a fun read, and very much falls within my category (it mentions Constant Nymph, one of my list): Penelope lives in a crumbling mansion with her family, she makes friends with the Charlotte mentioned above, they have adventures together while looking for love and a purpose in life. The 1950s setting is nicely done: there are Teddy boys, and the girls are big fans of pop singer Johnny Ray, and are slowly becoming aware of Elvis Presley.

I liked the simplicity of the book: there is no real jeopardy, it’s obvious there’s going to be a happy ending, and it’s obvious who with, and almost everyone in it is good-hearted. The first meeting between Charlotte and Penelope is unconvincingly contrived, but in that regard prepares you for the completely hopeless secret connection between their families which is (un-tensely) kept till near the end.

There was a problem with the derelict mansion where Penelope and her family live: it had been in her family for hundreds of years, and her father had died leaving behind her mother, herself and her brother. It would seem obvious (given the time and situation) that her brother would inherit the estate, not her mother, but this is never mentioned, never arises: that whole section of the plot didn’t really make sense, and didn’t seem realistic.

Also, After Eights did not exist at the time, so Penelope could not have been eating them. And a couple of times Ms Rice seems to have changed something in the plot and not followed through – times and clothes aren’t always right.

But that’s just me being picky. This is a nice book, a good Sunday afternoon comfort read if that is what you are after, and certainly should be on my list of books like ICTC.

The big picture shows a debutante ball in 1959.

The two young debs in the other picture are – wait for it – Vanessa Redgrave and Lady Antonia Fraser. Those were the days. [Antonia Fraser's creation, Jemima Shore, was one of our top female detectives in yesterday's list, and her book Oxford Blood is on the blog here.]