Thursday, 26 November 2015

Thanksgiving: American Families & Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

published 2015

spool of blue thread 2

But the surprise was, on Thanksgiving morning – and Denny most often avoided Thanksgiving with its larger-than-ever component of orphans – he phoned to say he and Susan were boarding at train to Baltimore and could somebody come meet him. He arrived with Susan strapped to his front in a canvas sling arrangements. A three-week-old baby! Or not even that, actually….

[Asked how he will manage without the baby’s mother:] “Oh Susan’s a bottle baby,” Denny said.

Abby had been reading books on how to be a good grandmother. The main thing was, don’t interfere. Don’t criticize, don’t offer advice. So all she said was, “Oh.”

“What do you expect? Carla has a full-time job,” Denny said. Not everyone can afford to stay home and loll around breast-feeding.”

“I didn’t say a word,” Abby said.

There had been times in the past when Denny’s visits had lasted just about this long. One little question too many and he was out the door. Perhaps remembering that Abby tightened her hold on the baby. “Anyhow,” she said, “it’s good to have you here.”

“Good to be here,” Denny said, and everyone relaxed.

It was possible he had made some sort of resolution on the train trip down, because he was so easygoing on that visit, so uncritical even with the orphans. When BJ Autry gave one of her magpie laughs and startled the baby awake, all he said was “Okay, folks, you can check out Susan’s eyes now.”

spool of blue thread 3


Thanksgiving is a great American celebration, and one of the things I am thankful for is the writing of Anne Tyler, so she makes for the ideal seasonal entry.

The ‘orphans’ mentioned above are not children – they are people that the matriarch Abby fears will have nowhere to go on Thanksgiving, so she invites them over, rather to the disgust of her children. But that is part of the great tradition of the day – no-one should be alone, and you just do invite people whom you barely know.

The book follows three generations of the Whitshank family, and the house they live in – in Baltimore, of course, where all Tyler’s books are set. It has a complicated structure, going backwards and forwards in time, explaining people’s histories, with occasional shocks exploding in front of you.

I wasn’t easy with the way it moved around, and often had no idea even roughly what year it was, and the plot meanders along with nothing much happening then suddenly bursts into life. But on the other hand, no-one writes about families the way Tyler does, and her dialogue is both exact and hilarious. So in the end I decided to just enjoy it.

Denny as the unsatisfactory brother was both affecting and annoying, exactly as he would be in real life, and I loved his sister’s long diatribe that ended:
“…But most of all, Denny, most of all: I will never forgive you for consuming every last little drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.”
Specially for today, there is the son-in-law Hugh who ‘owned a restaurant called Thanksgiving that served only turkey dinners.’ Later he is going to sell the business and has to keep explaining patiently that whoever buys it could serve other things. His new business is called Do Not Pass Go and is a service for anxious travellers - ‘nothing to do with jail’. Taking us back to the days of both Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist, earlier books from Tyler.

As ever she manages to get your sympathy for everyone – horrible Merrick telling uncomfortable truths; Junior behaving appallingly but stuck: ‘caught in strands of taffy: pull her off the the fingers of one hand and then she was sticking to the other’; even the teenage daughter inappropriately dressed for a funeral.

Tyler says that reports that this will be her last novel are not quite correct. She should go on forever to delight her fans, but at least we have a solid list of her books to re-read.

More about Thanksgiving in last year’s special entry.

Tyler’s Digging to America is on the blog here.

The family and pies are from the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Tuesday Night Club: Ellery Queen & a late entry

The Tuesday Club Queen

Our group of crime story fans, the Tuesday Night Bloggers, is doing Ellery Queen in November – check out Noah’s Archives for this month’s roundups, and click on the Ellery Queen tab below for more entries.

My final entry is on a book I came to via blogging friends -  so that seemed appropriate – explanation below. It’s one of the late EQ books.

Next month, December, we are going on to Ngaio Marsh, so keep checking back here on Tuesdays… I’ll be collecting the links from the other bloggers too.

The Last Woman in His Life by Ellery Queen

published 1970

last Woman 5

Last Woman 3[A very rich man has invited his 3 ex-wives to visit]
Two of the ex-wives seemed dressed for a race, in evening getups that evoked the yachtsman’s starting gun.

Audrey Weston’s blond beauty was offset by black evening pajamas and a black crepe tunic, and needle-heeled shoes that added inches to her mainmast height; she wore a bracelet of gold links that looked heavy enough to secure an anchor, and gold coil earrings.

Marcia Kemp, the expatriate from Las Vegas, had trimmed down to the bare poles; her turquoise evening sheath was so painted to her body that Ellery wondered how she was able to sit down without cracking her hull…

By contrast, Alice Tierney’s coloring showed Last woman 4darker against the whiteness of her gown and accessories; she looked pure and chaste in it, and very nearly striking.

commentary: This book starts literally seconds after a previous one (Face to Face) finishes – EQ is seeing someone off at the airport, and his father joins him there. They meet an old acquaintance, who invites them to spend some time at his guest cottage in a small town – Wrightsville, a place that the Queens, father and son, know well. They go up for a break. Their very rich friend Johnny is in the main house with guests – his former wives primarily. Over the weekend SOMEONE is murdered, but manages to gasp out a dying message by phone before he goes – this is, apparently, a classic Queen trope. (Nobody mentions it in this book till the very end, when the explanation is forthcoming – it is never really seen as a clue.)

My choice of this book is something of a perfect storm: no-one seems to think it was the very best one, but 2 sets of my expert friends talked about it – for completely different reasons.

Curtis Evans and Noah Stewart both mentioned the clothes in it – there is a very specific and very important outfit. This cover does its best to sum it up.

Last Woman in his life 1

Meanwhile, my good friend Margot mentioned it on her blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, and then discussed it with Sergio (of Tipping My Fedora) – here’s the post in question. Now, they were NOT actually recommending it that strongly – Margot is always polite and kind, but even she said it ‘has not done as well over time as some of Queen’s other work.’ But she went on: ‘Still, it’s such a great example of the dying verbal clue.’

What really intrigued me was this: Sergio explained that he first read the book in Italian, and so the dying-last-word had to be not just directly translated, but changed to reflect the reality of the murder plot. He very carefully explained this in a non-spoiler way! But I was hooked with this idea, and between that and the bizarre clothes (wig, evening gown and long gloves) had to read it.

It’s not bad, entertaining enough, but the final solution is tied up in the reason Sergio and Margot agree that ‘time has not been kind’ to it – and I can’t say more than that. It was most interesting to come back to Sergio’s comment after I’d finished it.

The book has its moments: I liked the nurse who – when someone else tries to blame her – says
“I’ll remember that, Audrey” … in a hypodermic voice.
And someone else has a ‘dark, intimate voice suitable for a sex movie.’ Perhaps the Queens have seen a lot of them - I’d always assumed that voices were the last thing anyone worried about in such productions. A hatcheck girl is mentioned with the excellent name of Vincentine Astor – as if she had chosen it via one of those stripper name generators.

So although this isn’t finest Ellery Queen book – and I have been making a list of the recommendations from my fellow bloggers, so will pursue them in future – it was a suitable final one for the month. I feel I know EQ, writer and hero, somewhat better than I did, and I am full of admiration for his clothes descriptions.


And now we move on to Ngaio Marsh – look out for Tuesday Night Club entries throughout December.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Dead in the Morning by Margaret Yorke

published 1970

Dead in the Morning 2
He went into the chemist’s shop and stood patiently waiting to be served among a cluster of mothers and two middle-aged women.

“Mrs Ludow’s tablets, please,” said one of these older women briskly when her turn came. The name caught Patrick’s attention… He looked at her more sharply while she made some other purchases. She was a tall, striking woman wearing a green jersey suit; her ash-coloured hair was swept up round her head in a becoming manner; she wore glasses and had plain pearl studs in her ears.

Dead in the Morning

[Later that day] “Who was that?” asked Patrick Grant, coming out of the door of Reynard’s to speak to his sister. Jane, in faded jeans and a tartan shirt, stood in the vegetable patch waving at a young girl on a cycle who had just passed the cottage.

“It’s Cathy Ludlow. A nice child, refreshingly old-fashioned,” said Jane, stooping to pick some chives. “The big house at the end of the lane belongs to her grandmother.”  

commentary: Yet again, Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery is to blame. She reviewed this book recently, and I found it on my shelves and polished it off in a day. This was the first of Yorke’s Patrick Grant novels, and is light-hearted and agreeable. Grant is an Oxford don: visiting his sister, he gets tied up in the world of the Ludlow family – those are his first encounters above. It is a very classic crime novel of a certain kind: the family are rich, with a great sense of entitlement, and some of them are nice and some of them are not-so-nice. A new wife is about to be introduced. There will be a death – and it’s not certain who was meant to die. Absolutely everyone in the family is slowly revealed as having had motive and opportunity. I had to draw a family-tree to work out the relationships, which seemed unnecessarily complex.

The perpetrator and the motive were both easily guessable AND ludicrous, which was quite an achievement – but I still enjoyed the book enormously. The tense family conversations were well done, and Grant is always teetering on the edge of being annoying without falling in. It is very much of its time – the clothes, the food, the attitudes. And also the charity ‘flagday’ (never called that now) which enables Patrick Grant to gatecrash a family party to ask for money. This collection is relevant to the murder, but I found it even more interesting that the ‘new wife’ character is gently teased for not realizing that she doesn’t have to give money to charity – her husband will take care of that now. 

When I looked up Yorke after reading this, I found she had written a huge number of books – novels and crime stories. Martin Edwards has written about her several times on his blog – he knew her well. She died in 2012.

Green suit lady from the Vivat Vintage archive. Tartan-shirted gardener from the State Library of Queensland – used previously for this entry.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

published 2009


Brooklyn 1a

[Eilis, a recent immigrant to the US, is working in a department store in Brooklyn]

She was surprised by some of the items of clothing for sale. The cups of some of the brassieres seemed much more pointed than anything she had seen before, and an item called a two-way stretch, which looked as though it had plastic bones in the middle, was new to her. The first thing she sold was called a brasalette, and she decided that, when she knew the other boarders at Mrs Kehoe’s well enough, she would ask one of them to take her through these items of American women’s underwear.

The work was easy. Miss Fortini was interested only in timekeeping and tidiness and making sure that the slightest complaint or query was immediately conveyed to her.

She was not hard to locate, Eilis discovered, as she was always watching, and if you seemed to be having the smallest difficulty with a customer and if you were not seen to be smiling, Miss Fortini would notice and begin to move towards you, signalling to you, stopping only if she saw that you looked both busy and pleasant.

Brooklyn 1

commentary: I read this book when it first came out, and was underwhelmed by it. The recent film – written by blog favourite Nick Hornby, starring Saoirse Ronan – is highly enjoyable, and made me think I should re-read the book. I liked it better this time, though still find it very flat and passive. When writing about Ford Madox Ford a while back, I contrasted Ford with Toibin and Jane Austen:
Colm Toibin, talking about his plan for his book Brooklyn, said he’d noticed that Jane Austen’s novels were very linear – no going back, just descriptions of what happened, one event after another. A few hours spent in Ford’s company and you are longing for that simplicity.
--- but in the long run I’d rather read Ford, and prefer his style.

The book tells the story of Eilis, a young woman in Ireland in the early 1950s. There is not much future for her in her small hometown in Wexford (Enniscorthy, a place I know well). So off she goes to America, leaving behind her much-loved sister Rose and her mother. At first she is miserable and homesick, but gradually life improves. A family tragedy brings her back to Ireland for a visit, and now it looks as though there could be a future for her in her old home. How can she decide what to do?

There is a lot about clothes and Toibin is careful and convincing on the subject – from the fellow-lodger who looks ‘like a horse-dealer’s wife in Enniscorthy on a fair day’, to the acquired trick of putting your swimsuit on under your clothes before going to the beach – an American habit.

There are very funny scenes, particularly in the boarding-house with Mrs Kehoe the landlady and the other young women lodgers. There are no extremes in the book: on the whole people have good motives and behave well, they are nice.

Toibin’s high-quality writing, and the clever structure, stood out more on a second reading, though I still don’t quite know why people are so enthusiastic about it. The ending of the book is much less definite than the film – screenwriter Hornby explained that very clearly in an interview, and although the book does leave you uncertain, I gather that to some extent this is resolved in Toibin’s more recent book, Nora Webster. (NW is a fleeting minor character in this one.) I like an equivocal ending myself.

I am always particularly interested in books about the immigrant experience – like the somewhat similar Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds.  This one dealt with the topic well, and was a good read. And I can really recommend the film.

Top picture is a fashion advert of 1951, the lower one is a picture of Burdine’s department store’s lingerie section in 1953, from the Library of Congress

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Death on the Agenda by Patricia Moyes

published 1962

Death on the Agenda 1

[Henry and Emmy Tibbett have been invited to a very fancy party during a trip to Geneva]

The Villa Trounex was en fete. Every downstairs window of the great, beautiful house glowed and glittered with the dancing light of crystal chandeliers.

Paul and Natasha Hampton were famous for their parties, so their heavily embossed invitation cards were prized trophies on the mantelpieces of Geneva. The lucky recipient of such a card could look forward confidently to an evening of unostentatious luxury, of impeccable service, of elegance without stiffness, and of stimulating company…

Natasha Hampton was the sort of woman who turns heads wherever she goes – tiny and blonde, with a face whose exquisite bone structure takes the breath. This evening she was wearing a short, slim dress of pale grey sating, utterly simple and quite faultless. The diamonds at her wrist and the pearls at her neck seemed to have grown there naturally…

Emmy let her attention wander over the general scene. It was, she reflected, exactly like an episode from a film: an early Orson Welles or a middle-period Fellini, where, in a setting of great opulence, the camera moves leisurely but with deadly observation, picking up a gesture here, a snatch of conversation there, a smile, a moment of anger. Pleased with this conceit, Emmy set her own eye to roving at random, like a searchlight beam. It was rewarding.

commentary: Patricia Moyes started her series about Henry Tibbett in 1958, and continued for another 35 years: this is an early entry – and comes just before Murder a La Mode, a mystery set in the fashion world which we greatly enjoyed on the blog last year.

Death on the Agenda has an intriguing and authentic setting: policeman Henry has been sent to Geneva for an international conference on the drugs trade, and takes his wife Emmy with him. Moyes herself was married to someone deeply involved in the world of European international organizations, and obviously knew Geneva well. The plot concerns a leak at the conference – vital info is being passed to the drug smugglers – and when a murder happens, the number of possible suspects is tiny, and the time constraints important. I kept hoping the answer to the time problem wasn’t going to be quite as simple as it seemed to be.

Henry is viewed as a suspect for a time (though the reader is never in any doubt of his innocence) and behaves in a very unexpected way in another area as well, and I was quite taken aback.

But I enjoyed the book anyway – such a great description of a certain way of life and milieu.

I liked the backstory of Natasha (above) – after WW2, living in aching poverty, she gets herself to a smart party:
A girl friend of mine worked for a couturier, and she sneaked a dress and a mink stole out of the collection for me to wear. I spent the whole evening in a state of panic in case somebody spilled wine on the dress or burned a cigarette hole in the mink. When Paul asked me to lunch with him the next day, I nearly cried… I couldn’t tell him that I couldn’t accept because I had nothing to wear.
And there’s a wonderfully-1962-moment where Henry says to a young woman out and about ‘put your gloves on and put this back’ and she says ‘I haven’t got any. I never wear them in the summer.’ We are on the cusp between a world where a respectable young woman can be assumed to have gloves, and one where she no longer needs to…

Crime writer and expert Martin Edwards, a big fan of Patricia Moyes, reviewed this one on his Do You Write Under Your Own Name blog here.

The picture is of a Ball in 1961, from Kristine’s photostream.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell

published 1938

Pomfret Towers 2

[Young Alice is very nervous about her first country-house weekend: a new friend, Phoebe, is helping her]

‘And what will you wear tonight?’ [the maid] asked Alice, as Phoebe came back in a ravishing apricot-coloured Shetland dressing-gown.

‘Hi, Wheeler, let’s look,’ said Phoebe. ‘What’s she got? Red, white, black. Red’s your colour, so we’ll have that tomorrow. White tonight, and black on Sunday.’…

Alice got into her bath…. On the whole much happier than she head ever hoped to be. Miss Rivers had approved her evening dresses and perhaps she would have Roddy, or someone kind, next to her [at dinner]. The white frock and gold shoes would make her feel safe. She had remembered her gold belt and her gold bag….

[Alice’s mother has sent a package with her] Alice fell upon the parcel. What was in it but a charming rabbit-skin cape, lined with very soft apricot velvet.

commentary: Another Thirkell book, the second this month, with some very specific areas of interest.

First of all, that apricot-coloured Shetland dressing-gown – yes, it does sound ravishing.

Secondly, about two-thirds of the book covers the Friday to Monday visit of a group of young people to Lord Pomfret’s very grand house. We see it mostly through nervous Alice’s eyes (she is worried about nightgowns, housemaids and tips) but also via some other guests, staff and hosts and permanent residents – and it gives the fullest picture I have ever read of exactly what such a weekend would be like. I can see this might be a specialist interest, but I have read any number of books covering such events – novels, and also olde-worlde etiquette books - but never one that gave such detail: the billiard room fire, why Sundays are the difficult bit, how to decide whether to have breakfast in bed. If there is dancing after dinner, a young man is supposed to first of all ask the young women who sat near him at dinner. I ate up every detail: anyone writing a novel or script about such a 1930s weekend would find a treasure trove in this book.

And about that breakfast in bed: Alice is asked if she would like a fire in her room in the morning, and in a most un-Thirkell-like outburst of consideration she thinks:
Wasn’t it rather awful to be snug under soft blankets and silk eiderdowns while Wheeler, who was quite old enough to be her mother, and even her mother and a half, was down on her knees in the cold, sweeping up ashes, laying paper and sticks, putting on logs, kindling the warm fire from which she would get no benefit? And Wheeler was wearing a cotton dress.
Indeed, a perfectly good question, but practically Socialism, if not Bolshevism, from Thirkell.

The other great piece of interest is this: Angela Thirkell was a very popular writer of lightweight social romance and comedy books in the 1930s. Another very popular middlebrow author was Ann Bridge – and in fact blogfriend Lucy Fisher mentioned Ann Bridge after reading one of my entries on Thirkell.

So. In this book there is a character called Mrs Rivers (Bridge/River, you see?) who writes very popular romance books – which are described in some detail, repeatedly throughout the book, and are instantly recognizable as Bridge-style plots. Mrs Rivers is absolutely vile. She has virtually no redeeming features: she is a pushy, snobbish, ambitious woman. Her books are horrible and tasteless, and her readers are ‘middle-aged women of no particular charm or interest’. Her children dislike her because she is so embarrassing. Her publishers hate her, even though she is a best-seller. I don’t expect to be shocked by an Angela Thirkell (except by her snobbery) but there was a definite frisson round here when she referred to Mrs Rivers, several times, as “the Baedeker Bitch”. (Baedeker were the popular travel guides of the time: the novels of both Rivers and Bridge were always set in exotic locations.)

My goodness Angela Thirkell seems to have hated her fellow-author…

Apart from that, the book is the usual confection of romance and some very very funny scenes and perceptions – highly enjoyable.

For more from Thirkell click on the label below.

The picture – from 1930s Vogue – comes from the Clover Vintage Tumblr.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Relics of the Dead by Ariana Franklin

published 2009

Adelia’s first thought was of how unmercifully the sun shone on a blackened and Relics of the Dead Abbotwithered thing that shrank from the glare because it had once been beautiful.

It was still possible to see the former grace of an arch where only a half of it now stood; to mentally rebuild from those stumps of charred stone a long, elegant nave, a transept, a pillared cloister; to recognize the artistry of a master mason’s carving under the soot of a tumbled, broken capital…

A monk strode energetically towards them from somewhere on their right…To Mansur, he said: ‘ I give thanks to the King and to Almighty God for your coming. All the world knows of Arab skill in the sciences. I am Abbot Sigward.’ He bent his head to each of the women as Adelia introduced herself, then Gyltha… ‘Ladies, gentleman, God’s blessings on you.’

commentary: I am annoyed with myself for racing through these books, because I know there is only one more – the author sadly died a few years ago with only four Adelia books completed. But I enjoy them so much that I can’t slow down.

This one involves bodies discovered buried in the burnt-down Glastonbury Abbey: King Henry II employs Adelia to go and look at them. Are they Arthur and Guinevere? It would suit some people if they were, but others not so much. She – as ever – merely wants to find the truth. And also wants to sort out her relationship with the Bishop of St Albans, and look after her child and the rest of her entourage. She is also worried about Emma, Lady Wolvercote, left over from the previous book.

The crime plot wouldn’t slow you down much – it’s not a huge surprise how the principals are going to range themselves in the ranks of good and evil, and there’s plenty of hints as to what is going on. But I love Franklin’s free and easy style of writing – she points out that if she did authentic conversation you wouldn’t be able to understand a word of it, so she might as well give them a breezy modern idiom which is entertaining and enjoyable. There are some great characters here: the Welsh bard Rhys is hilarious, as are the men of the frankenpledge, who are beautifully drawn and delineated. At the same time, the book makes details of quite a number of legal procedures fascinatingly clear – the history is very well-done.

Relics of the Dead Henry 2

Henry II appears briefly at the beginning and at the end of the book: the author is plainly fascinated by him and his character and his actions and what he wanted to achieve, and she passes that fascination on. I can’t be the only reader who went and found out more about him as a result of reading these books…

Previous entries on Franklin books here and here.

Picture of ruins of Glastonbury Abbey by George Arnald via The Athenaeum. Representing the Abbot above is a picture of St Anthony Abbot by Fra Angelico from the same source.